The Flames That Bind Us

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27. First Lesson

≼ ≼≼ Lydia Voltaire ≽≽≽

Queen Adria did not let go of King Calix until after the first course.

She kept probing for questions to ask him about his latest lover; a singer man by the name of Nor. Apparently, they were first introduced during the king’s birthday celebration and the charming singer had construct a song for him, only for King Calix’s heart to be swept away...again.

The affair did not last long from what I gathered, and instead Nor left the broken-hearted king to pursue his dream of joining a performing band. Queen Adria had snorted at that, her wife giving her consolation along with the princess and Lysa. I only caught King Gabriel’s disapproved shake of head to know that King Calix often got involved with such men and women.

King Morrison only clapped him on the back, saying that he will find true love eventually and the other man gave him a soft smile at that.

I did nothing. Not that there’s anything to offer a stranger I had only just met half an hour ago, and certainly not in my current state with my dirt-coated clothes and wild tied up hair. To his credit, he didn’t cringe at my worn appearance but rather took my hand and kissed it. Which is the opposite upon Lysa’s horrified scowl at my half-burnt sleeves.

I did take the time during their conversation to assess the new royal before me, and thought how on earth did that man tolerate the bitch currently rotting in the dungeon.

King Calix wasn’t how I imagined he would be. I had imagined an ice king, with an icy demeanor and hard edges. But he was warm, or as warm as a king who had the magic of ice could be. And handsome. Again, unlike King Gabriel’s dark beauty or even King Morrison’s charming one.

He looked older than all three of the rulers, with a slight greying to his dark cropped hair. His ebony skin highlighted the electric blue of his eyes, and his face seemed to harvest years and years of wisdom. Though tall and broad shouldered, his manner was humble, quiet. And his clothes were surprisingly modern-looking. Not casual like King Morrison’s, or old-fashioned as the king’s, but classy and elegant like the mortal men I see in magazines.

“Lis,” said King Calix, bringing her attention from the honey-glazed rabbit meat and aromatic rice that was the second course. I let Luxus have all the meat, rabbit being my least favorite. “I wanted to apologize to you for what my guest has caused to your garden,” he then looked at Ayana and Redmond, “And to you as well.”

The two looked both surprised and uncomfortable that a king was apologizing to them. Lis dabbed the corner of her mouth with the cream-colored napkin splayed on her lap, resting her palms on either side of her plate. “There’s nothing you need to apologize for, Calix. You’re not the one who ruined my garden or attacked my guests. But your friend will answer to her actions.”

That was the first time I’ve ever heard the princess speak with such a stern tone. Soft, yet determined. King Calix nodded once, understanding –and some small relief –dawning on his face.

“From what my brother told me,” she said, picking up the spoon she had set down, “I’m to be the one who decides her punishment.”

“You can choose whatever you want, Sister,” spoke King Gabriel. And from the hardness in his eyes, he didn’t need to add that he preferred a severe punishment. I was inclined to agree.

King Calix seemed to be holding his breath, but the princess announced to the table, “I have thought about it, and I believe that humility is the best punishment.”

Her brother blinked at her, looking as if he wanted to say that life in imprisonment or even flaying was a far better option. Lis lifted her eyes towards her brother, as if to indicate not to interfere.

The king respectively held back his tongue, and listened to his sister as she said to King Calix with an unshaken finality, “Your friend seems to like boasting, deciding everyone who isn’t on her level is beneath her. So she will spend an entire month helping Redmond, Ayana, and I with fixing the garden. She will also assist the servants with their tasks, help in the kitchen, and do whatever it is the head servants tell her to do. And she will do all that without a drop of magic.”

I bit into the inside of my cheek, not wanting to sprint down to the dungeons and hurl into laughter at the Wind Slifer’s face.

But the princess wasn’t done. “If she does not corporate, she will spend the rest of her stay here in the dungeons with nothing but lovely rats as her company. She’s also not allowed to dine with us, and will eat her meals in the servants’ quarters. However, because she is here with you and you need her company for the same reason as my brother, Morrison, and Adria, I will arrange a room for her near yours. Perhaps one of the unused supply closets?”

As sweet as her smile was, the tone of her words were anything but. King Calix cringed during every sentence she spoke, probably due to the fact that he knew the Wind Slifer would not like one bit of what the princess had ordered.

I could swear I saw a hint of a smirk on King Gabriel’s lips, and what seemed like pride flashing through those grey eyes for a second.

I wasn’t going to lie, that smirk made its way on my own lips. Just imagining that bitch’s livid face hearing her punishments made my day. Though a part of me was a bit irritated that I would get to see her in the garden while working, but other than that I couldn’t picture a more perfect punishment. That girl enjoys humiliating others, let’s see how she fares when the same thing is done to her.

The plates were cleared and the third course was brought in, some traditional dish from Imarnia I guess. It was roasted dear meat, marinated with lemon and garlic with a side of baked buttered potatoes. Luxus almost pounced on the whole thing, and I had to restrain him and cut little chunks for him to devour.

The meat tasted divine, tender and richly-seasoned, and I happily and silently ate my meal while the others chatted.

It wasn’t until King Calix spoke again that the chatter died down, “I also came here bearing news about wizard hunters.”

I sensed, more than saw, Ayana’s body tense beside Redmond, her fork half-way to her gaped mouth. She hated –feared –wizard hunters. But King Calix continued, “There have been attacks in Trinivan, a group of them stealing magic from members among my court. The attacks recently stopped, which is why I came here to ask if any of the other kingdoms had witnessed the same thing.”

General Malla was first to ask among silent and confused faces, “Your Majesty, how is it that they were able to breech the barren woods?”

The impregnable fortress that surrounded Trinivan, created by—no, from—the body of the Earth Slifer, the live fortress that is able to tell friend from foe.

King Calix shook his head. “We don’t know. There were no traces of magic left, but they were only able to make temporarily gaps.”

“That’s impossible,” King Morrison’s golden brown eyebrows rose. “No magic can penetrate that forest.”

“Apparently there is,” said Queen Adria.

“Your Majesty,” asked Aero, crumbling the napkin in his fist before placing it on the table, “those hunters, were you able to capture any of them?”

A soft nod. “Yes, though with difficulty. Only one of the men we captured bothered to confess anything that’s important. He said that there was a leader rallying them; a woman.”

“Perhaps it’s only a rouge group,” mused Queen Adria, twirling the knife in her hand between her fingers.

A shrug from King Calix. “We can’t be sure. But after that, they disappeared. The attacks stopped, which is why I thought they had gone to other kingdoms.”

“I already told Calix about the wizard hunters mistaking my sister for Lydia. Other than that, there had been no incidents,” King Gabriel informed, folding his arms over his chest and leaning back into his chair.

Both Aero and Lis’ heads snapped at him, not at the news, but at the fact that he bothered to speak my name. The king didn’t indicate that he noticed their stare.

Ayana leaned in to whisper, her face twisted in worry, “Is that true, Lydia? Did you really run into wizard hunters?”

“And beat the shit out of them,” I whispered back with a grin.

But that expression of hers didn’t falter, and she only shuddered at my words as her face paled. Her fear of them seemed to be more than just common sense, but I decided not probe into something she probably didn’t want to talk about.

“There were no attacks in Vallas. Not any that I’ve heard of,” said Queen Adria.

King Morrison joined her. “Freyr as well.”

“Then perhaps it was only a singular incident, and had nothing to do with what happened in Trinivan?” Lis proposed, taking her attention away from her brother.

The king nodded once at her. “We’ll know better once we interrogate the hunters locked in Imarnia’s prison. For now,” he turned to Aero at his left, “we’ll increase security in the town as well as the palace.”

A silent command went between them, and that was all what was said before the room filled with other conversations.

***

“First things first, you need to imagine what you want your flames to look like,” Aramis instructed as he had the Book of Decimus displayed across his thighs. We sat cross-legged facing each other, Redmond and Ayana silently observing our first lesson.

They had snapped out of their wide-eyed stare when seeing Aramis minutes ago.

He had come to the palace instead of me coming over to his house. I was just about to head there when his small form slithered pass the trees and greeted me with a bright grin. I was grateful for that, not having to walk all the way to his cottage and possibly get lost again. Not to mention, I wouldn’t have to stomach the smell of that damn tea of his.

Although, he didn’t fail in bringing a leather flask filled with chilled pumpkin tea and making all three of us have a drink before practice. The cold drink tasted just as foul as its hot counterpart.

“Show me your flames again,” he asked, and red-orange fire engulfed my hand, twirling and swaying.

He examined it, nodded once, and with a wave from my hand they were gone again. “They’re good,” he began, “but notice anything wrong about them?”

Um...

“They’re unorderly,” he said, “they have no clear shape. At this point, they’re just lumps of fire,” those green eyes snapped to Ayana, “Water Mistress, may I please ask you to show us a water ball?”

Ayana looked at me for a moment, before nodding and extending her palm to form a floating orb of water, perfectly rounded.

“Notice any difference between your fire balls and her water ones?” Aramis commented.

“They’re perfect,” I said, admiring how the water seemed to sparkle thanks to the light of the setting sun, “flawless, really.”

Ayana smiled dimly at my compliment, the water disappearing as she dropped her hand to the side. I steered my attention to Aramis again. “So I need to learn how to create a perfect fire ball.”

“Not just that,” he presented the book before me, pointing a thick short finger at the title written on the top of the page. “Here, look, ‘the arts of crafting fire’. Meaning, you’re going to learn how to shape your flames according to your will, to structure them. No more clumsy, half-assed lumps.”

I wasn’t sure if I should be offended at that, but he was right.

“That was the first thing I learned. How to bend the water to how I wanted,” said Ayana.

Redmond smiled, as if remembering how fun that was. “Me too.”

That made a glint appear on my eyes, finding myself suddenly thrilled at the lesson. It wasn’t what I first imagined it would be, but it was a start. Learning how to organize my magic and bend it to my will might just be the first step to becoming a full Slifer, and I was eager to master it.

***

Of course, it was not as easy as I thought. Nothing was, really. I had spent two hours with Aramis in the garden –being that it was possibly the only place that was fire-proofed in the palace –learning how to make a perfect circle of fire. I thought that if I just imagine it, it will come to life. But no, shaping fire required absolute concentration.

And even while sitting in the bath-tub, with the water starting to get cold, and my fingers and toes wrinkled, I still focused all my attention on the spinning ring of fire nestled between my hands.

The edges were messy, sometimes swaying the opposite way or breaking apart from the center, but I had willed my magic to hold, to still.

Every sound or small move I made threatened to dissolve that stillness, and I was ignoring that tiny voice at the back of my head that was screaming at me to get some rest, to sooth my aching joints from hunting gremlins and provide my mind with much needed sleep.

But this—this circle of flame right here, small and probably insignificant for what yet awaited me in my magic, is one step further into gaining all my powers, into finally leaving this place.

So I held focus, kept my magic centered around that fire circle, shaping and reshaping, breaking it apart then building it again.

A knock on my bedroom door cut through my attention, the flames jolting then vanishing. I cursed, getting up as the water splashed around me and grabbing a white robe I had dawned and tied firmly.

Whoever it was better have a good reason.

Luxus was lodging on the bed, belly full from the fish stew that was cleared out before I arrived. I went pass him as another knock sounded—timid and soft.

When I opened the door, multi-shaded blue eyes greeted me. Ayana had worn her sleeping gown, long-sleeved and modest, but those eyes were wary and nervous as she played with the end of her braid.

“Hello, Lydia,” she said, roaming over my bath robe. “I’m sorry, did I catch you at an inappropriate time?”

“No, not at all,” I shook my head, my wet hair sticking to my cheeks. “I just got out of the bath. Are you alright? What is it?”

It’s weird having her show up out of the blue, and she seemed like she was unsure whether she should be here. She stayed lingering by the door, even though I had stepped aside to invite her in.

“I’m fine, it’s just...” she trailed off, sucking a breath. Whatever the reason she was here for, she didn’t appear as if she wanted it in the first place.

“You can say, Ayana, but you don’t have to if you’re not comfortable.” I tried to assure her.

She bit her lip, and said, “I just wanted to ask you about those hunters you ran into.”

“Yes?”

So I was right after all, she did fear the hunters for some other reason. Was she going to tell me?

“I...I wanted to know if you remember what they looked like? If...one of them had a scar on his left eye,” she said.

A scar?

“I don’t think there was anyone like that. They all had colored lines on their faces, but that’s typical of wizard hunters. No one with a scar on his eye.”

“Are you sure?” she insisted, tugging on the hair band that kept her braid intact. “He also has pale blond hair, and the eye that’s not scarred is black.”

I tried to dig my memory for anyone who resembled what she described. But all those hunters had dark hair, no visible scars either.

“Yeah, I’m sure, Ayana. But why are you asking?”

That was the wrong thing to say, for her shoulders tensed, and she heaved another breath. “N-no reason! I’m sorry to have bothered you—goodnight!”

She quickly went scurrying away before I could blink or tell her to wait. I closed the door, leaning my back on it. Luxus was cleaning his paw when his head perked up.

“What did she want?”

I shrugged. “No idea.”

Well, that was strange. Who was the hunter Ayana was asking about? And more importantly, why? She didn’t seem like the kind of person to tangle with wizard hunters. Then again, she must be afraid of them for a reason.

But it wasn’t my concern—not really. So I headed to my closet, put on my sleeping gown then slithered in bed.

Though Luxus was quickly sound asleep, I didn’t get one wink of that sleep he seemed to bathe in. Even if my eyes were burning by now, threatening to close and sweep me away in drowsiness. But I kept them open, kept my mind open, as I sat on my bed and practiced, and practiced, and practiced.

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