26. Shadow and Ice
♛♛♛ Gabriel James Imarnia♛♛♛
She was covered with dirt and sweat.
I shouldn’t be standing here, watching her every moment as she chased and tumbled after the garden gremlins, setting them ablaze with the fire that burned as brightly as her determination for not letting any one of those little creatures slip pass her grasp. She had indeed seemed to grow with her powers, the flames between her fingers no longer faint but strong and vibrant. Even when we were in Aramis’s cottage, I could sense the hint of the ancient magic that dwelled in her, slowly rising and simmering beneath. I did not recognize it before, when she had thrown those fire balls at me. But now...
I knew she could feel me observing her, for in less than fleeting seconds her shoulders would tense and those burning eyes would glance upward my direction as fast as she caught those gremlins.
Perhaps I shouldn’t even be standing in my study, half of me hidden behind the draped thick curtains and looking over the portion of the garden that the carved glass window offered. I’m not even sure why I bothered hiding myself anyway. She knew I was a looming shadow watching her, and I did nothing to indicate diverting my attention elsewhere.
Not that my legs would allow it. It was strange, that tug I felt in wanting to stay and survey her form flashing and sprinting as she ran after the screeching insects that looked like moving dots from my advantage, as those eyebrows creased with both frustration and utter resolution, as she wiped the gleaming sweat and caking earth off her face and every exposed inch of her skin, her hair wild and matted.
It impressed and irked me at the same time.
I had called her by her name when we were leaving Aramis’s house yesterday. Not Slifer, but Lydia. It just rolled out of my tongue without thinking. And I had done it a second time, finding no ire feeling when I said it. Acknowledging her name was like acknowledging her, that’s what I always thought before, when seeing just the sight of her made my body tense and recoil with anger.
But now...I realized there was no point in that. For she was here, and I would see her everyday no matter how much I would tell myself to ignore her and look the other way. She was here, and she would stay here until all of this is over. Until I’ve had my peace, and she had her full magic, and our ways parted.
So the best thing I could do right now was to make sure that happens as quickly as possible.
Though she had refused me last night, and I had backed away and gave her the space needed. I was eager to get this done and over with, but like I had said to her the first time I took her, I wouldn’t sully myself by forcing it upon her. No. Even I had some shred of respect.
But last night...something like normalcy clicked between us. We had walked side by side on the way to and out of Aramis’s cottage, and no pile of tension was gathered in my shoulders at the thought of her being so near me like when we were at the fair. In fact, with a bit of alertness, I had remembered actually leaning into the warm aura around her as she walked, silently thankful for the heat that melted away the bite of coldness in the wind.
And to my surprise, she didn’t seem all that tense too.
A yell mixed with a groan that managed to somehow reach my ears emanated from the direction I was looking at. My lips twitched upward, fighting back the amusement when I saw three little gremlins climbing her shoulders, seeming to bite and scratch whatever they could get their sharp small teeth around.
She wrestled with the aggressive creatures as that lovely face of hers contorted into a wince and a scowl. She yanked one that dangled from the sleeve of her arm and burned it, the second one jumping down from her shoulder to her back. She twisted her hands behind her, arching her back as she tried to claw off the gremlin that was sliding down her spine.
After a few more attempts, she finally caught the little bastard, a wolfish grin cracking on her lips as the gremlin squirmed in her fist, probably terrified at the wicked victory dancing on her face. I think she cursed him off, but in a second it was reduced to a ball of smoke.
The third and last one was able to climb all the way up her head, bouncing and biting as it pulled out strands of black hair. Another wince painted her face, and she slapped her palms over the top of her head, the creature jolting pass them and scurrying to climb down the back of her neck.
But she had it in her grip, and it didn’t even shrike once before she set it aflame.
By the time she was done, I noticed the sleeves of her shirt were turned into a burnt crisp all the way to her elbows. Taking Adria’s words into consideration, I decided to pay her handsomely. If only so Lysa wouldn’t have a heart attack at the state of Lydia’s ruined clothes.
A knock resounded at the door, pulling me out of my thoughts, and I shifted away from the window as if the person behind the door could see my observing state.
I called in for whoever it was to enter, and a servant boy appeared and bowed low. “Your Highness, His Majesty King Calix has arrived and wishes to have an audience with you.”
“Send him in,” I said with a nod, the servant bowing again before leaving.
Few seconds later, a tall figure emerged out instead. And with it, a cool breeze seemed to slither along despite the warmth of the fireplace crackling at the far end of the room. Calix hadn’t changed since the last time I saw him, which was on The Honouring Day ten years ago. Unlike Morrison and Adria, Calix was similar to myself in only obliging to social events when absolutely necessary.
But that’s where the similarities ended. Unlike my usual dark attire, Calix always wore mortal-made clothes, suits of all bright colours that complemented the onyx of his skin. Today he chose one of ivory, with a pale blue undershirt that matched his eyes.
With an easy calm smile, he strode towards me and said, “Gabriel, it’s been too long.”
I gave him a nod, gesturing for one of the chairs facing my desk. “Indeed. When did you get here?”
He sat on the one to the left – Lysa’s usual favourite spot – and helped himself to a glass of brandy from the small table beside him. “About half an hour ago,” he said, picking ice cubes with the tong and placing them in his glass, “Thought I would come to see you.”
“Don’t you want to rest?”
“It wasn’t a tiresome journey, though certainly long.”
He offered me a drink, but I declined with a soft shake of my head. Seating myself on the large chair opposite him, I asked, “I believe you had time to inquire about your friend’s current whereabouts. Does she really concern you?”
From the glimmer in his pale blue eyes, he knew who I was referring to. “Yes,” he said, and released a breath, “and I wasn’t really surprised to know where she resides at the moment.”
I raised an eyebrow. “I’m guessing your friend is prone to these kind of situations.”
A hearty laugh –almost weary –escaped his lips, and he rubbed on his short cropped beard. “Elsie is...” he sighed, seeming to find the right word to say, “unrelenting. She doesn’t really listen to anyone, and is in constant need to prove herself.”
“Yes, she made that quite clear when she tarnished my sister’s garden and attacked three guests under my roof,” I said, remembering the torn and shredded state of the flowers my sister loved and worked day and night for.
Perhaps my tone came our icier than I had intended, but Calix’s face twisted in discomfort. “I’ve been informed of that. Is there any way I could make up to it, Gabriel? Perhaps I can apologize to Lis.”
I waved him off. “She doesn’t need an apology from you, Cal.”
“What Elsie did was unforgivable, I understand that,” he said, placing his brandy glass on the table without having drunk from it. “But are you planning on setting her free? I will take full responsibility for her actions.”
I leaned back in my chair, observing the softness and plea that glowed in those azure eyes. Not a look a king or a queen should ever direct towards another. But Calix was always the gentlest, always the one with his heart extended to the world.
“You’ll do no such thing,” I told him. “She will answer for her own behaviour, and I will leave her punishment for my sister to decide. Until then, she remains in the dungeon.”
Despite my words, his broad shoulders relaxed. Probably due to the fact I wasn’t the one to decide how she would face the consequences. Calix knew if I had it my way the girl would be thrown in Imarnia’s prison, bare of the touch of light or wind.
No. He knew Lis was a tad more reasonable than I was.
“Is that why you decided to see me first?” I asked, “To bargain for her freedom?”
Whatever shred of softness that illuminated his face vanished and only solid ice was there. His expression alarmed me for a bit, only because Calix never showed it unless the matter was dangerously serious.
“No, not only for that,” he admitted, “but I also came here to ask you if there was any incidents regarding wizard hunters in Imarnia?”
“Wizard hunters? What about them?”
“There has been many attacks in Trinivan. People losing their magic, kidnapped only to return the next day without a single drop of magic within them,” he informed.
“That’s not possible,” I shook my head. “Your city is impenetrable, the forest boarder doesn’t let hostile outsiders in.”
“That’s what we thought,” he said, leaning forward with his forearms rested over his thighs. “But somehow it got infiltrated, I couldn’t detect the magic used to break the barrier, but it was only for multiple lapses, not permanent.”
“When did the attacks started to happen?” I asked.
“About three months ago, that’s when Elsie delivered herself on my castle doors. After that, the attacks started happening more frequently, almost daily. We took out many of them, but none refused to say a word, not even when Elsie would drain the air out of their lungs.”
“The people they kidnapped,” I said, getting up to pace behind my desk, “were they powerful?”
Calix’s lips thinned, and I knew my answer. “Members from my court, or their families. All possessed considerable magic.”
People with high level of power, almost as if the hunters knew whom to target. And the thought must have also crossed Calix’s mind, that they weren’t stealing magic just for profit, but for something bigger.
“Do you think the hunters are building an army?” I asked him.
“Perhaps,” he considered, inhaling a breath. “But hunters always worked alone, each too greedy to fight under one force. But the ones we caught, they all seemed to share the same purpose, the same intention.”
“There could be a chance that someone was rallying them together, some wizard hunter keen on getting power and control?”
He gave a firm nod. “That’s actually true. We managed to find out that they have a leader from one we caught about a week ago, but he refused to say anything else.”
A thought flashed through my mind, about a leader who once led an army to seize absolute power. A leader who was never caught by the law. “Do you think it’s...”
“No,” Calix cut me off, already reading my expression. “It’s not Uzier. The hunter we caught also let it slip that it was a woman, and that nothing will stop her from reshaping this wretched world.”
I lifted an eyebrow at that. “Sounds like quiet the ambitious villain. Any idea who she could be?”
Calix shrugged a casual shoulder. “She could be anyone for all it matters. And after that encounter, the attacks stopped altogether.”
“Just like that?”
He nodded. “It’s as if they never were. It’s why I delayed my journey, my guards and I searching every street of Trinivan for any sign of them. But nothing showed. I thought they might have moved to somewhere else, to another kingdom maybe.”
I thought about the ones we –or Lydia –ran into at the fair, resulting in the kidnapping of my sister. “About two weeks ago, at the market fair, Lis was taken by a group of wizard hunters.”
Calix’s eyes widened at that, but I quickly added. “She’s fine, nothing happened to her. They mistook her for Lydia, the fire Slifer your guest attacked along with the other two.”
It still felt strange saying her name so casually, irritated at the way it left an echo in my mind as if begging to be said over and over again.
“What happened to the hunters?” Calix asked, gaining back my attention for the split second it diverted to a set of bright flamed-eyes.
“Half of them are in the darkest, coldest pits of the prison, and the other half are in the bottom of the White Woman’s bridge.”
“We could question the ones in captivity, ask them who they worked for, though I doubt they would answer,” he said.
A wicked smirk curved on my lips. “Then my shadows would have their much needed fun. They’re growing a bit bored.”
“I have no doubt for that,” he gave a half-smile. “Did any other encounters happen?”
“No,” I said, moving to stand before him.
“What about Adria and Morrison? Did they tell you anything similar to that?”
I shook my head. “Not at all. All four of us seem to share are the legendary Slifers glued to our backs.”
Calix simpered, getting up. “Elsie might be a handful, but her company is quiet refreshing.”
I rolled my eyes, and he plastered a full grin. “I don’t think my sister shares the same opinion as you.”
He chuckled, clamping an elegant hand on my shoulder. “Well, then, I’m dying to meet that Fire Slifer of yours. Lydia, was it?”
I tried not to flinch at the word ‘yours’. She wasn’t mine, nor will she ever be. I dismissed the tightness around my chest, and looked at the clock hung on the wall that stroke two. “You’re about to. It’s lunch time, and the cooks have prepared a special dish from Trinivan in your honour.”
His hard-edged face lit up, and that grin almost reached his ears. For a moment, he looked as thrilled as a child despite appearing older than all three of us as he asked, “Pomegranate ice-treat?”
I resisted the urge to actually smile at his expression, and settled for another eye roll. “Yes. But you better be ready for Adria’s questions, she’s dying to know what exactly went between you and that singer man.”
That erased the glee right off his face.