The Flames That Bind Us

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21. Royal Banter

Lysa skipped cheerfully through the corridor, her shimmering gold skirt bouncing, and I trailed timidly behind her. I don’t know why I felt nervous. My heart was drumming for some reasons and I could feel the heat and sweat forming at my hands. I tried to loosen my limbs and fingers in attempt of shaking my nerves off a bit. The thought of being around so many important people kept screaming at me, especially considering that the King would be there.

At this point, I honestly don’t know why I still kept my distance with him. And honestly, he seemed to be doing just that too. Either way, I had to convince myself to come to terms with the possibility of running into him at every turn, since I literally lived under his roof. And he’s going to have to get used to me if he wants me out of here as soon as possible.

I let Lysa lead the way, since I had no clue where the dining room could be. Once we arrived, two guards standing in front of the ornamented silver doors smiled at us, one of them blushing when Lysa winked at him, and opened them to let us in.

The first thing I found clearly noticeable was the long black wooden table which had gleaming elegant silverware neatly placed at each cushioned chair. Three crystal vases with different types of flowers sat inches away from each other. Above it, a huge iron chandelier with burning white candles hung from the painted ceiling. I took a few seconds to admire the detailed sceneries, ranging from silver phoenixes guarding kings and queens to ones that spread their wings majestically.

There was a fire crackling at the right corner, adding warmth and cosiness to the room. Not to mention, it was, along with the candles hung here and there, the only source of light which created a calm and pleasant atmosphere. Besides the grand table, there were also many comfortable plump chairs, sofas, and couches surrounding the fireplace.

But sitting at the head of the table was the King, which ripped my attention from admiring the rest of the room. He didn’t wear his usual kingly attire, but a black buttoned tunic that fitted him perfectly and dark grey pants. When we entered, his shoulders stiffened, and I caught his grey eyes quickly travelling over my appearance, something flashing within them before he looked away.

I lowered my head, not wanting to think over on what that look meant, but found my hands tugging down at my short skirt. I heard a chair being pulled back, and Lis’s bright smile greeted me. “Lydia! So great of you to join us. You look lovely.” Her heels clicked on the floor as she walked towards me and kissed my cheek.

I blushed, not used to the affection. “Thank you for inviting me,” I said. She grinned before linking her arm with mine then leading me to where she sat.

I took a few moments to acknowledge how pretty she looked, with her hair brushing her neck and the dark red wool dress she wore. “Here,” she pulled out a chair for me, “You’ll sit beside me.”

I didn’t miss the King’s eye roll at that, but I nurtured my threatening glare and took her offer. Lysa sat beside me, her purple eyes roaming over the empty chairs before us. “Where is everybody?” she asked the King, raising a thin pink eyebrow.

“Late,” he replied with a grunt.

Lysa pouted. “But I’m starving!”

The King tapped his index finger on the wooden surface, throwing the girl beside me an irritated glance. “I told them to come early. Morrison is never on time. Adria probably slept till noon. And I’m not even sure if Aero is coming.”

“He still doesn’t speak with you?” Lysa poured herself a tall glass of water. I did the same, sipping on the cold refreshing liquid and watching the King’s hard jaw twitch.

“Doesn’t matter. He can go ahead and not say a word to me for a thousand years for all I care.”

Lis nudged her brother’s arm at that. “Don’t say that. You two are inseparable.”

“Apparently, that’s not the case,” he said.

Lis crossed her arms, lifting an eyebrow. “Well, maybe if you considered apologizing to him then-”

“What!?” The King’s head whirled at her, his teeth grinding. I could hear Lysa taking a longer, slower sip of her water. “Are you serious, Sister? Why on earth would I do that!?”

Lis huffed a sigh. “I’m just saying-”

“You can’t pin this one on me, Lis. He’s the one who accused me of...” he glanced at me, his eyes hardening before he turned his face away and grumbled, “Never mind.”

I didn’t say anything. Though, I could probably piece together what they were talking about. From what I heard, Aero didn’t take lightly to my state when he found me that day the King and I first consummated our deal. I don’t know the details, but judging from the conversation just now Aero accused the King of taking me against my will.

Honestly, it made me uncomfortable that I was the source of their conflict. Especially because it was a misunderstanding. Yes, the King was the biggest ass I’ve ever encountered, but to his credit he didn’t do anything that I hadn’t agreed to first.

Even yesterday, he made sure that I come to him. It alarmed me at first, but despite myself my body wasn’t as rigid to when he first touched me. The thought of last night had made my body become dangerously heated, so I gulped down another glass of water to wash the heat away.

Just as I was putting the crystal glass down, the doors opened and the man named Aero stepped in. I remember him carrying me that day at the woods, but I’ve only caught a glimpse of him. He was much heavily built than the King. Although the King was pretty large and muscular himself, his friend was a towering figure.

His hair was dark brown and long, and he had it in a side braid. His skin was bronze, and he wore a deep blue jacket with black pants. From the corner of my eyes, I could see the King’s lips turning into a thin line as the hulking man strutted towards the chair opposite mine.

Aero patted his stomach, then rubbed his large hands together “I’m so hungry I could eat a whole boar.”

“That makes two of us.” Lysa lifted her third glass of water.

“I thought you weren’t coming,” said the King, his tone cold and nonchalant.

Aero turned to him, smiling sweetly, though behind it there was the same coldness. “I can’t see why not,” he then looked at me, this time with a true smile. “Hello, Lydia. How are you today?”

I inclined my head. “I’m fine. Thank you.”

“That’s good to know.”

There was so much tension growing I could cut it with the knife laid before me. No one said a thing for the next few seconds, just the sounds of sipping water and clearing throats were heard. I was more than thankful when the doors opened again, revealing Redmond accompanied by two women. He smiled when he saw me and I returned it, my eyes focusing on the women beside him.

Obviously they were the Queen and her wife. Queen Adria strolled in wearing a long white fur coat, beaded with silver stones that caught light. She was so stunning I could feel myself staring. Her wavy light brown hair fell to her small waist, and her eyes were the brightest blue. She had porcelain skin that looked as if it was shining. In fact, she herself radiated. There was a certain glow to her, very faint that you almost could not tell. But there was no mistaking the whiff of power rippling out of her.

She held hands with her wife, who looked like the complete contrast to her. General Malla was taller, bulkier, and broader than the small woman next to her. Her skin was ebony black, her hair a sheet of fiery red that fell to her wide hips, and her eyes like golden honey. She wore a long-sleeved beige dress that hugged her figure and had two slits at the side.

Queen Adria beamed at us as she tucked her hands under her companion’s arms. “Good morning, everyone!”

The King rolled his eyes at her. “It’s two in the afternoon, Adria.”

She ignored him as Redmond pulled out a chair for her and her wife before sitting down himself. I noticed he wore a green sweater that complimented his eyes perfectly. The Queen looked at the foodless table, then pouted. “I’m guessing Mori is late as usual.”

“You’re not exactly on time yourself,” the King commented over the rim of his glass.

“Can you blame me?” she lifted a spoon, scanning her reflection. “You had one hell of a ball last night that going to bed early was simply out of the question.”

Her wife looked at her, amusement tugging at her lips. “Darling, the ball ended at twelve. You were drunk till three.”

The woman next to her blushed, and waved her comment away. “You can’t blame me for having a good time. It’s hard being a queen.”

A small laugh came out of me, and that earned the attention of General Malla. She looked at me with interest, and I held myself from squirming in my seat. “You’re Lydia, right? The Fire Slifer? Redmond told us so much about you.”

I nodded, and she rested her chin on top of her intertwined fingers. “Hmm, three Slifers, and I have a hunch that the fourth one is with King Calix. What could it all mean?”

A short moment of silence fell upon us, before Queen Adria interrupted it. “We can wonder about that later, sweetheart,” she placed a hand on her wife’s shoulder, then leaned on her elbows to look at Aero. “What I want to know now is if Aero has found himself a lady love to settle with?”

Aero choked on his water. Lysa shifted beside me. The King gave another eye roll, and said, “Adria, when are you going to let that go?”

She shrugged a shoulder, placing her palm on her rosy cheek. “What? Lis is already engaged, so is Mori. Calix is still pondering over that singer man who left him. I already asked Lysa and she said she had no one. And the day you wed would be the day the Gods themselves descend upon us.”

“I’m afraid even if that did happen it wouldn’t be of use,” Lis sighed as she gave her brother a side glance.

The King shook his head, but said nothing. Queen Adria grinned at Aero, who honestly looked like he wanted to be anywhere else but here. “Well?” She wiggled her perfectly shaped eyebrows, causing Aero’s face to flush. I had a feeling that if she ever met Aramis they would get along.

“I...” he cleared his throat, “I really don’t have anyone. I’m...busy.”

She narrowed her eyes at that, seeming like she didn’t believe a word. “Really?”

He nodded. “Yes.”

“Hmm...”

“Adria, leave the poor man alone,” Malla told her wife, stroking a slender hand down the Queen’s arm.

The Queen laughed, dropping the subject. “Oh, I’m just teasing!”

I saw Aero’s shoulders fall, sighing almost in relief. And beside me, Lysa coughed. Though, it appeared that I wasn’t the only one who noticed. The King looked at his two friends, lingering at their faces.

But before any of us could say anything, the guards opened the door to announce the arrival of the final guests. King Morrison emerged with his hands in his pockets, a broad smile across his face. His clothes were very mortal-like, faded brown jeans with a dark grey wool shirt and large black boots. I heard the sound of skirts shuffling before Ayana followed the King, her hands cradling Luxus’s black form.

The hell?

How did that happen?

“I see everyone is already seated. Did you wait long?” he said, sitting to the right side of King Gabriel. Ayana was stroking Luxus’s fur, the two of them seeming to be in the middle of a conversation.

“Not at all, Mori. I’ve just arrived myself,” said Queen Adria, folding the cream-coloured napkin in her lap. Everyone was starting to do the same, so I took mine and laid it across my lap.

“Great,” Lis clapped her hands, “now that everyone’s here, let’s bring out the food.” She signalled to the awaiting guards and they bowed before leaving the room.

“Lydia,” Ayana was sitting beside Redmond, “I hope you don’t mind. We ran into each other last night.” She caressed between Luxus’s ears, and he nuzzled into her touch. That was the first time I’ve ever seen Luxus so friendly with someone else.

She smiled at him. “Quiet the cat you’ve got here.”

“I guess now I know where he was all night. I hope he didn’t give you any trouble,” I said.

She shook her head. “Not at all.”

Luxus gave her chin a nudge before leaping across the table and sprinting towards me. I picked him up and cradled him in my arms. “I hope it’s ok for Luxus to join us?” I whispered to the Princess, and she waved me off with a smile.

“Don’t you worry yourself, Lydia. Of course he is,” she smiled sweetly at him and pinched his cheek.

“I’m so hungry,” he mewled, placing his paw on my chin. He then looked me over. “Hey, you look nice.”

“Thanks,” I raised my eyebrow at the tone of surprise. “Mind telling me how is it that you’ve became such friends with Ayana?”

His whiskers twitched. “I ran into her in the kitchen, and we bonded over our love for shrimp.”

I couldn’t help the bark of laughter. “Really?”

“Yup!”

“Is that a talking cat?” General Malla pointed at Luxus with her spoon, her eyes blinking. Redmond and Queen Adria shared the same expression.

“What does it look like?” Luxus replied

I poked his belly. “Be nice!”

She blinked again. “In all my years of living I’ve never seen a cat that could speak. How did he come to have that?”

“A potion did that to him,” I answered.

Queen Adria’s eyes rounded. “Did you make it?”

“No, he was owned by a potion master. I found him like that when I was little.”

The two women leaned back in their chairs, the Queen turning to her wife. “I want one.”

A few seconds later, servants emerged pushing a trolley filled with steaming plates, glasses, and wine bottles. My stomach grumbled as the smell of whatever was in those plates filled my nostrils. One of the servants filled the King’s goblet with wine, serving him first then proceeding to cater to the rest. A ceramic bowl of soup was placed before me, and I resisted the urge to dunk my face in it. Luxus sniffed at it, and I had to hold him back as his neck extended for a tasteful.

“Traditional prawn soup from Freyr?” said King Morrison.

King Gabriel lifted his wine cup and took a sip, twirling the glass between his elegant fingers. “The meals for today are all traditional home recipes in honour of the four kingdoms.”

Morrison clapped his hands together in glee, picking up a round spoon then scooping soup into his mouth. I looked at the set of silverware laid before me, so many spoons and forks that I didn’t know which one to use. I decide to imitate what the others were doing, so I picked the round spoon everyone was eating with.

The colour of the soup was pale pink, and it looked so thick and creamy with bits of prawn, potato, and carrots. I scooped a prawn in my spoon and gave it to Luxus, who licked the dripping creaminess before devouring it whole. I knew he didn’t like soup much, so I just fed him the other ingredients, but mostly the grilled shrimps. With every bite he hummed in delight, and my stomach gurgled louder.

I could feel a pair of eyes on me. Everyone else was busy with their food and small chatter, but I couldn’t mistake the silvery gaze pinned on me. It made me squirm a bit in my chair, and I gave it all my might to not turn my head to look at him. What is he looking at? Go back to your soup!

After Luxus told me he was done, I started eating myself. I almost moaned at the first sip, the rich creamy taste exploding in my mouth. There was a hint of coconut, and the meat and vegetables were so tender. I tried the wine, which was traditional elven wine with honey. I’ve only tried it once, back in Vera with Grandpa. But it wasn’t as good as this one. Given that the one Grandpa had was cheaper, the taste wasn’t vintage. But this one, it had a mixture of sweetness and a light bitterness at the end that blended well with the soup.

I took a glance at the people around me. Malla and Queen Adria were chatting and laughing with Morrison as they ate. Redmond took small mouthfuls of his soup, and Ayana seemed only focused on her own. Lysa finished hers quicker than anyone I had ever seen, and was refilling her wine. Aero ate fast while he gulped his drink. And the Princess and her brother ate slowly, looking as graceful as ever.

I noticed that only Redmond and I had our backs hunched as we ate, even making slurping noises. The rest were in their appropriate courtly posture, the same goes for Ayana. Maybe she came from a rich and noble family before she was handed to King Morrison? I shrugged a shoulder and continued eating. I don’t particularly care for etiquette, and it honestly seemed tiring to have to maintain a certain posture.

“Lydia,” General Malla began, placing her spoon down, her plate half empty. I straightened my back as she peered those golden eyes at me. “I never got the chance to say how incredibly sorry I am to hear about Lucius’s death. I never thought that this man would leave us.”

There was genuine sadness in her voice, as everyone else heard her words and now had their attention on us...well, on my face to be exact. There was a tightness in my chest but I dismissed it. “Thank you. You knew him?”

Queen Adria’s lips curved upward. “Everyone knew him. Didn’t he ever tell you about us?”

“No...” I wanted to lower my head in shame at the fact that I didn’t seem to actually know anything about the man who raised me.

“We fought together,” Malla explained, tapping her nail on the base of her glass, “Him and I bickered a lot, but at the end of it we fought side by side during the war. All kingdoms were brought together at that time to fight Uzier’s forces.”

“I was too young to remember,” Lis said, “but he was Father’s friend, and I remember he would often bring me flower seeds whenever he travelled somewhere far.”

“He...he did?” There was a lump in my throat that wouldn’t disappear, and my heart felt as if someone’s hand tightened around it.

“He was a man of few words,” King Morrison implored, wiping the corner of his mouth with a napkin. “But he and I had quite some adventures. That’s of course before all of you were born.”

Queen Adria rolled her eyes, sighing “Oh, here we go again!”

He grinned at her, flashing his pearly white teeth. “What? I’m just saying that in my time people were more adventurous than now.”

She stuck out her tongue at him, and his grin only widened.

I was a bit surprised that King Morrison was in truth older than King Gabriel and Queen Adria, especially when he looked to be the youngest. But really, I wasn’t thinking about that. Grandpa knew all of these people. He didn’t just know them, he was a part of their lives. And I didn’t know that. He didn’t tell me a thing about his old life, which made me both angry and sad.

Angry because I felt like a clueless airhead as they sat there talking about him. And sad because I knew he would never be able to tell me about his life himself.

“You really did not know any of this? Lucius did not tell you?” it was King Gabriel who spoke, his eyes calmly studying my face intently.

I looked away from his gaze, my cheeks heating. “N-no, I didn’t.”

The first meal was finished, and the servants came and cleared away all the plates before serving the next course. I heard Queen Adria squeal in delight, and I knew this dish was a traditional one in Vallas. It was okra, peppers, mushrooms, crushed pines, and fried duck meat all mixed with brown gravy sauce. A side dish of toasted loaf bread accompanied the meal, and I didn’t waste no time in digging in. Luxus hated all of the vegetables included, so I only gave him some duck to nibble at. Each time I took a bite, an explosion of spices accorded in my mouth. It wasn’t too spicy that a drink of elven wine couldn’t wash down.

Being busy with my meal helped take off all the stuff about Grandpa from my mind. It just upset me that people whom I’ve only met now knew more about him than me, who lived with him for eighteen years. Maybe I could ask Gerard to tell me what kind of person Grandpa was before he quit magic.

“So...” King Morrison started, dipping his bread in the gravy before plopping it in his mouth. “Is anyone going to mention the three Slifers in the room?”

Me, Redmond, and Ayana exchanged glances. General Malla raised her glass. “That’s exactly what I was thinking, Your Majesty.”

“Do we have to talk about this?” groaned Queen Adria.

King Gabriel gave her a nod. “I agree.”

“We certainly do,” Lis shot a glare at her brother, “We all think it’s curious.”

“And I think it’s safe to assume that the fourth one is with our dear Calix,” King Morrison acknowledged, turning his attention on me. “Lydia, did your guardian ever tell you the reason why you were created?”

I shook my head, feeling utterly useless.

“I didn’t think so. It’s the same with Ayana.”

“Redmond too,” Adria added.

“But what does it all mean? Four Slifers for four rulers?” Lysa chirped in, already finished with her food. How fast does she eat!?

A moment of thoughtful silence fell around us, before King Gabriel spoke, “A war.”

All heads turned to him, and he shifted in his chair, gulping down the rest of his wine. “It’s just something Agatha Alastair said to me, about a war, a prophecy. That when all four of them exist together that means there’s a war coming. It’s all absurd if you ask me. Just ancient tales.”

Lis didn’t take kindly to that, and her brows furrowed. “I don’t think it is, Brother.”

Something cold and challenging went between the siblings, but Redmond shyly cut in. “My guardian...um...used to tell me all those legends about Slifers. Some of them were made up, some happened a long time ago. But all of them shared one thing; that Slifers existed to fulfil a purpose.”

“Yes,” Ayana joined in, her tone quiet and soft. “My guardian once told me that Slifers were emissaries sent by the Gods to achieve a goal. Kind of like being soldiers. She said this is why I, along with the other Slifers, were created, to accomplish this great purpose.”

She then inclined her head towards me, and so did the others. They were waiting for me to say the things Grandpa informed me of. I licked some of the sauce on my fingertips, and without thinking I said, “My guardian only told me to stay a virgin.”

I felt my face reddening when some of them blinked then simpered, and I would rather shove my face in my half-empty plate than look at the King, whom I could hear coughing ever so slightly. I don’t know what came over me when I said it, but part of me felt bitter that all the other Slifer’s guardians seemed to tell them useful things while Grandpa only nagged at me to keep my legs shut and my hormones in check.

No one said a word until the third course was served. Luxus’s tail flapped right and left in anticipation, like a predator stalking its prey. The third meal was a traditional one from Imarnia, though I’ve only heard about it. Before me was a mouth-watering large chunk of roasted boar meat, glazed with lemon, honey, and thyme. Melted cheese was dribbled over it, and a bowl of creamed spinach marinated with lemon and crispy bacon bits was placed at the side.

I cut some of it for Luxus to demolish, then finished the spinach before starting with the meat. It was so juicy, tender, and the taste of warm cheese and lemon tickled my taste buds. I’ve never had this kind of food before. The meals brought to me in my room were nothing special, although delicious. They consisted of eggs, bacon, and jam for breakfast. Rice, chicken, and salad for lunch. And meat stew for dinner. So, I made sure to savour every bite right now because I didn’t know if I’ll ever eat like this again.

Thankfully, no one brought the subject of Slifers again, but instead were talking about The Honouring Day. King Morrison was eating a mouthful of spinach when he asked the King, “When do you think Calix would finally grace us with his presence?”

The King, unlike Morrison, chewed and swallowed his bite before answering, “He sent a letter yesterday. He’ll probably be here in two or three days. He also said he didn’t want any kind of welcoming party.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” King Morrison playfully jabbed the fork in his hand in the King’s tailored sleeve.

“Speaking of which, Brother,” Lis placed down her knife and fork. “I can’t have the royal members in my palace with the garden looking like that.”

Her brother let out a low groan. “Still? What happened to the team you hired?”

“They quit,” she huffed. “They said that the garden gremlins this year are simply impossible to catch.”

“So hire ones who are fast and know how to handle their coal better.”

Her eyes narrowed as she crossed her arms firmly. “They were the best. And now I don’t know what to do. Those little devils are ruining my garden.”

“If I may,” Redmond raised a timid hand, and Lis looked at him. “I can help you with growing flowers and plants.”

She smiled sweetly at him. “Thank you, that’s very kind of you. But I’m afraid it would be no use if they just kept destroying it.”

“You have a problem with garden gremlins?” I asked.

The Princess’s shoulders slumped, and she pouted. “They keep eating and demolishing the flowers. At this rate, my garden would be gone by the end of winter.”

The gears in my head started turning, and suddenly an idea struck me. “I can help you with that.”

“You can?”

The King cut a glance at us, the rim of his glass halfway to his lips. I didn’t pay him no mind and said, “Gremlins hate fire, or anything that is hot really. I can help with sorting them out.”

The Princess grazed my arm. “I just can’t have you doing that. I don’t want to burden you.”

“It’s okay,” I insisted, “I’m actually looking for work. I don’t want to keep living off my grandpa’s money. And also, I used to catch gremlins in the garden we had in Vera, so this is perfect for me.” True, our little garden-if you can even call it that-didn’t hold a candle to the one in the royal palace. But I was very good at catching gremlins, it even increased my allowance on some occasion.

It was clear evident that my eyes were sparkling with hopefulness. “If you’re not satisfied with my work, you can just hire someone else.” I didn’t like the fact that I somehow sounded as if I was begging her. But truth be told, I needed this job.

Her face was contoured with consideration, then she turned to her brother. “What do you think?”

Oh, no...

He’ll probably refuse.

The King looked at his sister for a moment, then those grey eyes shifted towards me. I didn’t want to look directly at him, so I focused on his tunic, which wasn’t really a good idea since it moulded into his wide chest perfectly.

I wasn’t sure if I heard wrong when he said, “Do as you please.”

My mouth threatened to part, and I blinked several times at him before the Princess grinned at me. “Great! You can start tomorrow if you like.”

I returned her gleeful expression, somewhere between not believing I actually found a job in the palace and the fact that the King actually agreed to it. The main meal was done, and the servant brought out the final course which was the dessert. The last one was from Trinivan. It was mint lemon and pomegranates ice cream drizzled with hot chocolate sauce and crushed nuts, and topped with buttercream.

I ate the cold sweetness cheerfully, my stomach churning in excitement at the thought of work. Garden gremlins were nasty, but I enjoyed hunting them. I remember how tiring and messy it got sometimes, but at least I won’t be lodging around and waiting for the next time the King would touch me. I had to tell Aramis, so we can arrange a training schedule that won’t interfere with my job. If I did this right, I can finally buy all those things I wanted. It made me a bit uncomfortable that I would be taking money from the Princess and her brother, but freeloading was a lot worse.

As the room died down with mindless chatter, my thoughts were only of the days ahead.

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