The Flames That Bind Us

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30. Mended Bonds

♛♛♛ Gabriel James Imarnia♛♛♛

“I better not see Lydia chasing after any gremlin. That girl is almost as stubborn as you are,” Lis said as we walked through the grand hall, on our way down to the garden.

“If she knows any better, she won`t defy you,” I told her, though I wasn`t sure how far Lydia`s stubbornness went. She was relentless, that`s for sure.

A bit like me, if I can begrudgingly admit.

“She better not,” Lis linked her arm in mine, smiling gently at the passing servants as they bowed deeply. I inclined my head towards them. “Or else…”

Despite myself, my lips curled upward. “I hate to be the one to taste your wrath, Sister.”

Her smile turned into a grin, almost as if she was proud of what she can do.

“Although,” I said, “I do believe that Lydia thrives when it comes to challenging herself.”

Lis raised an eyebrow at that. “What do you mean?”

I wasn`t sure why I was even speaking about her, but I clarified, “I mean, her and that girl Elsie seem to have that in common, to want to raise above themselves. But I do think their reason for that differs. Elsie wants power for glory, Lydia wants it for herself.”

I had called her a whore when I thought she wanted to be powerful only for eagerness, when her angry and hateful expression reminded me of one that held all those feeling buried deep within. But thinking about it now, and to my shame, I realized I was wrong.

Lis seemed to think over it. “Hmm, she did say that she was doing all of this because she wanted to protect her loved ones, to be what the gods created her for.”

My sister`s conformation further added to my bitter guilt, but I brushed it away and said, “Then, if I`m not mistaken, part of her probably delighted in taking the challenge Elsie offered.”

Lis furrowed her eyebrows, her face twisted in dislike. “But who would delight in that? I mean, she earned herself scars for the gods` sake.”

I gently patted the hand she had rested over the crook of my arm. “You`re not a warrior, Lis, so you probably won`t fully understand the thrill of a fight. Lydia wants to be a warrior, so every scar she earns will be a remainder. Something to live by, or even be proud of.”

Aero would know, as would my fellow rulers, just as much as I did. We all had scars we gained during the war. And even now, when I look at the faint one across my thigh, or the one down my lower back, I remember the bloodshed I had fought through to earn them.

Lis didn`t say anything, but instead walked down the stairs faster than usual.

Which reminded me of the reason why I was with her. “What did you say Calix wanted?”

I could have sworn her shoulders stiffened, and she looked up at me with what might be considered a bored expression. “He said it was something about those wizard hunters in the dungeons.”

I chose to ignore the obvious lie in her tone. My sister was not a good liar, but what the hell was she up to?

≼ ≼≼ Lydia Voltaire ≽≽≽

“What about this one?” I pointed at the illustration of a charcoal-colored mountain, its peaks hidden away by thick clouds of grey. Luxus stuck his neck to read the description below, and almost immediately his ears twitched.

“I don`t like the sound of it,” he commented, tucking his tail between his legs.

I rolled my eyes. “That`s what you said about all the places.”

“Yeah, but I mean ‘Peak of Madness’? Sorry, but that`s a hard no.”

I pinched his cheek, and he shrieked away.

When I closed the giant book with a loud thud, King Calix chuckled softly, though his eyes remained on whatever he was so carefully painting.

I had found myself sitting on his usual small table by the garden when boredom threatened to make me bang my own head against the wall for a shred of entertainment. I had kept my promise to the princess and did not proceed to work, though the temptation still lingered whenever I spotted a gremlin here or there.

I wasn`t planning on essentially going to the garden, and instead headed to the library –searching for some books to keep me amused –and found one on exotic places in Ignolia. My body still felt immensely heavy due to the weight of my wound, but I did not wince every time I moved, so that was an improvement.

I did not see Elsie –thankfully. But King Calix did tell me that she wouldn`t go out of her bedroom because of her ruined nose, to my eternal joy. Looks like the princess didn`t bother to fix her but instead left her to the palace` healers.

“As the name suggests,” he said, gesturing to the book with his brush, “it is a place of madness.”

“Have you been there?” I asked, aware that my eyes probably sparkled.

He gave me a closed smile, as if he was recalling a fond memory. “Yes, many years ago, with my first husband.”

“Really?”

I did not know that King Calix was married before.

“He died in the war, defending Trinivan`s boarders. He would have made a wonderful king.” From the way he spoke of him, I could tell he loved him greatly.

“I`m sorry,” I said, not knowing what else to do.

He shrugged off my words, but his eyes remind kind. “Him and I loved adventures, so we used to roam around Ignolia, searching for an undiscovered place. The Peak of Madness was one of them; it is surrounded by a cruel and unforgiving forest, in which many beasts lurk about. And that`s nothing when you step into the mountain itself, for the fog there shows you impossible things that might drive the sanest man to a mad despair.”

I swallowed, and Luxus shivered beside me.

“Lovely…”

He regarded my expression and laughed. “Perhaps you should try somewhere close? The Kaleidoscope Sea is very enchanting.”

“Oh I heard about that,” Luxus pitched in, his tail sticking up in excitement, “I heard the water changes into different glittering colors.”

“I bet Ayana will like that,” I told him.

She did say that she wanted to explore Ignolia. Perhaps we could do it together…someday. Whenever all of this is over.

King Calix went back to his painting, and I found myself paying attention. He seems to paint differently every day, but I had no idea what exactly. I once glimpsed how he painted the sun setting over the high towers of the palace, and had found it breath taking.

But this picture…it wasn`t of the sunset. It was of someone.

He had used multiple shades of grey, white, black, and blue. And although I don`t exactly understand how he did it, but he blended them all to capture the image of the wind. Or specifically, a shell made of wind.

And inside that shell, someone was being born.

Well –not exactly born, but emerged out. She had her bare back –painted in the color of deep rich brown –displayed, with her face turned slightly over her shoulders. But her eyes and the top part of her face were covered with tresses of silver white hair, exposing only the lush red of her lips, carved into a faint wicked leer.

A shawl of silver was draped around her shoulders and hung low from her hips, revealing only the skin of her back. I marveled at how he managed to make the shawl thick in some places and completely transparent in others.

It didn`t take me a second to guess it was most definitely a portrait of Elsie.

Despite my obvious awe, I couldn`t help but grimace a little. “You should have made her rise from whatever dark hole she crawled out of, but other than that it`s beautiful.”

I was a tad worried he would take offense at that, but considering he spent about five minutes apologizing to me about last night when I came down here, I took him for a man who wasn`t offended easily.

And true to my opinion, he let out a hearty laugh. “I don`t blame you for that. She is not an easy woman; I guess that`s what makes her interesting.”

I snorted, and was inclined to say ‘more like moronic’, but I held my tongue and instead asked, “Why did you paint her?”

When you could have painted far more pleasant things, was what I didn’t say.

“And why not?” he replied, electric blue eyes shimmering, “shouldn`t we paint beautiful things? Ever since I laid eyes on her, my canvas has never been empty.”

His honesty surprised me a bit, and the heat of his tone made me blush. I wonder if Elsie knew what she was doing to the king of Trinivan.

“Have you ever shown her?”

At that, the light in those eyes faded a little. “Yes, but she does not care for them.”

And yet he continues to paint, knowing she will never regard his artwork, knowing she will always cast it aside.

“You must really love her,” I whispered, unaware if I had crossed a line or gone too far. He didn`t seem like a man with his heart tucked away in darkness, but more like he presented it to the world.

He was so different from the dark king who seemed to hide his heart away forever.

Kindness shone on that aged handsome face, and he put down the brush and palette, edging to rest beside me. “You don`t choose who you love, and I myself have chosen many times before. My friends and family think I rush into the matters of the heart way too quickly, and I agree.”

Deciding since he was telling me all of this himself, I asked, “Why didn`t you ever remarry, Your Majesty?”

“I was about to, once after the war. But the woman I was engaged to loved another, so I let her go.”

And now he loves someone who considered him as a tool for power. I wonder if he knew that too.

“Have you ever loved?” This time it was his turn to ask.

I shook my head, my cheeks heating a little. “No, I wouldn`t say I knew how it feels.”

I certainly knew how lust felt, to want someone purely for pleasure –despite my bitter shame. But love…

That`s something that was a puzzle to me.

Perhaps someday I`ll figure it out.

“It`s acceptance,” he said, “it`s knowing someone for who they are, for everything, and still wanting them. It`s safety, and respect, and compassion, and desire. It`s all or none. And most of all, it`s kindness.”

“Is that what you had with your husband?” Something tightened in my chest when he recited those words, and I realized I wanted that too; to be known and loved, and to love back.

Maybe King Calix was searching for that as well, after he had it taken away.

He didn`t need to say anything to confirm my question, his eyes said enough. After a minute, he patted my shoulder, then Luxus`s head, and went back to his work. Meanwhile, my mind was absent for a time, imagining the love King Calix described.

I had a long life ahead of me, and I always pictured that after I was done travelling and seeing the world, after I had gained everything I ever wanted, I would find the person to spend the rest of my life with.

If such person even existed…

“Lis, what is the meaning of this!?” a very seemingly- irritated King Gabriel was literally being pulled from his arm by his younger sister. She hauled him along, struggling to drag his weight as he tried to pin his feet to the ground.

On the opposite side, an angry howl sounded as a very tiny Lysa was doing the same thing to a very huge Aero, who looked like he was about to crush every plant in sight underneath his boots.

“Let me go, Lysa!” he growled at her when he spotted his king being pulled from the other side.

She punched him in the ribs, and although her fist was small compared to his massive hand, he still winced a little, which shut him up as she continued to drag him.

“Come on, now. This has reached its limits!” Lis huffed, pulling her brother from the collar of his tunic. She was obviously shorter than him, so she was pulling him down as he stumbled after her with a hunched back.

The sight was definitely unkingly, and I bit my lip in order to not burst into laughter. King Calix seemed to do the same, his face way too close to the canvas.

“I`ve had it up to here!” Lis continued when she reached Lysa, and the latter nodded in agreement. “You two will set things right, or so help me we`re not speaking with either of you ever again.”

Lysa glared at the two men, indicating that she was on board as well.

“I thought you said that Calix needed to see me!” King Gabriel hissed in his sister`s ear.

“And you told me Lis needed to talk to me about security!” Aero was gripping down on Lysa`s sleeve.

The two women rolled their eyes, but Lysa was the one who said, “Well, it was the only way to get you down here. And we`re not leaving until you kiss and make up.”

Both the king and his captain turned red at that –whether it was anger or embarrassment or both, I didn`t know.

“This is ridiculous!” King Gabriel bellowed, and was about to turn and leave when Lis yet again grabbed him by his collar.

The king of Imarnia jerked backwards like a fish caught in a hook.

I couldn`t help it and used Luxus` fur to stifle my laughter. Luckily, he didn`t seem to have heard it.

“Like I said,” Lysa eyed Aero as if daring him to do the same, “no one is leaving until you settle this. Apologize to each other.”

“No!” Both men yelled.

Lis seemed inclined to rip her own hair out. “Oh, you two are being children! You should be ashamed of yourselves. This is petty.”

“Lis is right,” King Calix joined in, “you have a beautiful friendship. Whatever it is, you can overcome it.”

From my point, they both looked like they would much prefer to wrestle one another. But then again, I didn`t know them as long as these people did.

“Calix is right. This has gone too long. You need to forgive each other and move on,” Lis said.

“I mean,” Lysa folded her arms over her chest, looking at her two life-long friends. “you two are inseparable, you always were. I even remember when you got drunk once and declared that if either of you liked men you would have married each other.”

That did it, and I chocked on my own laughter. Luxus was less subtle and literally howled. King Calix on the other hand grinned widely, not bothering to even hide his expression.

King Gabriel appeared like he would have greatly enjoyed burying his face in the dirt, and Aero was prone to join him.

“Well?” Lis mimicked her friend`s gesture.

They didn`t say anything, but looked at each other through lowered eyes. Part of me felt guilty that they were probably having this feud because of me. I didn’t need to be told to know. I guess I understood what Lis and Lysa must have felt, to have the closest people to them not even speaking to each other.

And that made me realize that the king has people who love him dearly, despite how much of a menace he appeared to be. He was known, and he was loved. He even loved them, no matter how stone-faced he was.

Though, perhaps most frightening of all, he was kind to them. Behind the harsh tones and the stoic attitude, he cared about them perhaps more than he did himself. I don`t always see it, but it was there, the little slip of kindness that he tries to tuck away. He was even kind to me yesterday.

And that thought alarmed me more than anything.

I wonder if he ever loved someone the same as King Calix loved his husband once.

After a couple of minutes, the king requested that he speaks with Aero privately, though Lis insisted that she wouldn`t let them out of eye sight. They argued at first, but settled with Lysa and Lis joining King Calix and I for tea while King Gabriel and Aero sat underneath a tree, far enough so we wouldn`t hear them but close enough to make sure they wouldn`t strangle one another.

Both women kept an eagle eye on the men, while I silently munched on my biscuits and drank my fruit-flavored tea.

♛♛♛ Gabriel James Imarnia♛♛♛

“We`re both too stubborn to apologize, but I don`t want to cause Lysa any further dismay,” Aero began as he forcefully ripped off the roots of the grass he was sitting beneath.

I nodded at him tightly, irritated that I was forced into this situation. “I agree. I don`t want to trouble Lis either.”

He snorted, and I chose to ignore the mocking tone behind it.

Lis and Lysa watched us as if we were unattended toddlers about to throw a temper tantrum, but I was glad they eventually decided to leave us some privacy. I didn`t even know how to start, or what to start with in the first place.

Aero beat me to it. “You know it`s your own damn fault I even suspected you, Gabriel.”

I didn`t say anything, an odd calm overtaking my body.

He resumed, “You`re a changed man, and I don`t know the length you`re willing to take for that.”

My chest constricted, feeling every jab of pain within his words.

“I mean, how do you honestly expect not to think of such a vile thing when I saw her there, naked and nearly dead?”

My eyes drifted to Lydia, quietly sipping her tea as she flipped the pages of a book, her cat lazily perched on her shoulder. She listened to Lis and did not proceed to work, that`s good. I was worried she would be stubborn again and exhaust herself.

Something in me jolted at the thought of being worried, and I wasn`t sure if I entirely scorned it.

Aero kept talking, each word like a lash being whipped to my back. “If you were in my place, you would think that too. I don`t even know you anymore, I don`t think I ever did.”

Enough…

I had enough.

“I don`t blame you,” I quietly said, shutting him up from whatever venom he was about to throw at me next.

From the corner of my eye, I could see him blinking. “What?”

“I said I don`t blame you. I`m not entirely sure I know myself either. I`ve given you little reasons to believe whatever comes out of my mouth.”

Saying this, I felt somehow much lighter. Deep down, I knew my anger at Aero was only anger at my own self. I`ve been distant from my family, a complete stranger at times, a complete stranger to myself.

I honestly don`t blame them if they think I`m the biggest scum in Ignolia, I`ve never given them a reason to believe otherwise.

“I`m not mad at you, Aero. My wrath is towards myself, towards what I`ve become,” I said, noting the hitch of breath coming from him.

When I looked at him, he seemed as if he was seeing me for the first time.

“Are you actually saying this?” his gruff tone did not mask the shock.

I guess I don`t quite believe myself either.

But I had enough of this, enough of the darkness.

“I don`t think I`ll ever be the same man ever again,” I turned to look at the gray sky, oddly clear despite having a week of constant rain. “but I don`t want to stay in that void, that darkness that clings to me. I don`t know how, or when, but someday I will pull myself out. I will walk into the fire and the light will burn all those empty shadows away.”

Aero did not say anything for a while, and just stared at me, searching for something.

He took his time in weighing my words, and I took mine. I have felt hollow for centuries, nothing warmed me, nothing made me truly joyous. Instead, I had transformed into this vessel of anger, of bitterness, and hate, and pain.

I know I could never go back to the man I was before, but I could start letting some light in.

Those people –my family and friends, my kingdom as well—they deserved someone better. My sister deserved a better brother, Aero and Lysa deserved a better friend. My pain will probably never go away; I will probably never be whole again. But for them, for myself, I might as well damn try.

Aero clapped a hand on my shoulder, those rough but handsome features softening. “I will take your word for it, Gabriel. I was wrong too, I should have never assumed…I will be there, at your back, when light guides you.”

For what felt like a lifetime, I truly smiled.

≼ ≼≼ Lydia Voltaire ≽≽≽

“Will you tell me now what on Ignolia happened to you?” Gerard questioned me as soon as we were out of ear shot.

I was a little surprised when he suddenly appeared in the garden, claiming he came to visit me to see how I was faring. He chatted a little with the princess and regarded the two kings, but those blue eyes were hard set on the pink scar across my cheekbone. When he finally excused himself and asked me for a walk around the garden, all his formal composure melted.

“It`s a long story really, involving a Wind Slifer,” I told him.

Those eyes rounded and something in his jaw tightened, but he was able to grit out, “Tell me.”

I had to admit I wasn`t a fan of the slight authority in his tone, but nonetheless I explained what happened. During that, his expression was stone cold, and he looked like he would happily tear off nearby trees and throw them across the garden.

“What measures are to be taken regarding her punishment?” he almost yelled.

“I don`t know,” I shrugged, “and I don`t care. She won`t heed any punishment, but both the princess and King Calix promised me she would answer to her actions.”

“And what is King Gabriel doing?”

“He promised the same, I think. Though I have no clue what they`re planning to do.”

Gerard obviously didn`t appreciate that, his lips turning into a thin line. I felt somehow guilty that I made him this concerned. I didn`t realize he cared that much.

“You don`t have to worry,” I tried to assure him, “the princess and her brother helped me greatly, so I`m all better now.”

As much as I hated to admit it, if the king hadn`t found me last night I probably would have bled to death. Come to think of it, I remember thanking him as I fell asleep, and oddly enough I didn`t feel any resentment in doing that. He had helped me when he could have just left me there, so I was a bit relieved that he didn`t dislike me to the point of letting me die.

Gerard scoffed. “Yes, but look at what it did to you.”

His eyes went to the scar stained on my cheek, to the rest of my body where he knew other scars marked, especially the large one along my back.

I fidgeted a little in discomfort, mumbling, “I don`t mind them much.”

His gaze softened as he lifted a hand and ran his thumb gently along the cut on my face, sweeping away some strands of black-flamed hair. I felt a blush rising, but my shoulders stiffened at the pity in his eyes.

“What a shame,” he said, tracing the still-healing flesh, “scars do not suit you.”

I couldn`t help but cringe away, not because it hurt to touch the tender skin, but because of the way he looked at me; like I was ruined.

“I think I better go,” I said, stepping towards him so he wouldn`t think I was uncomfortable with him. “Lunch is being served soon. Will you be joining us?”

A part of me hoped not, and I scolded myself for it. What`s the matter with you, Lydia? After he came all the way here to check up on you…

He sighed, going back to his formal posture. “I`m afraid not. I have some work to do, so I only came here to make sure you were alright.”

I nodded, trying to hide the relief by smiling politely.

***

By lunch, I learned that Elsie will be held in her room, not allowed to dwell anywhere unless it`s with King Calix or his guards, and definitely not allowed to attend any of the royal meals or be anywhere near any of us Slifers. A reasonable punishment, since that`s all what the princess can do without offending King Calix any further.

I was a tad disappointed that I wouldn`t get to see her broken nose. But oh well, better to stay the hell away from me.

Aramis didn`t give me any lessons today, to my fortunate, and due to the princess giving him a glaring warning the moment he stepped into the palace grounds. Instead, he had forced a pot of pumpkin tea down my throat, insisting that it would help me heal better. The warm drink was both too sweet and sour.

I had gone to my room earlier because I wasn`t training overnight, but was quickly bored out of my wits when I found nothing to do. Luxus was trotting about somewhere in the palace, likely with Ayana. So I was left with lodging around in my room, with nothing or no one to keep me company.

Well, that`s not exactly true, for Gerard`s words still haunted me. I knew it was silly, but I got up from my bed and headed to the full-sized mirror. Lifting my shirt and tossing it on the chair, then unhooking my bra, I couldn`t help but examine the wounds that marked my body.

I looked over my shoulder at the long, curved gash along my back, the skin still pink around it, clearly visible from the natural olive tone. There was a similar one on my thigh, and the other on my arm.

Scars do not suit you…

But I didn`t think they made me any less. In fact, a part of me was pleased that they were the results of me fighting back, of standing my ground. I could have died last night, and these scars were the proof that I didn`t.

“They`re not something to be shameful of.” I gasped and jolted in my place when the king`s voice sounded from behind me. When I turned around, he was at my door, carrying a small tray of what looked like a small container.

His eyes were trained on the scars I was studying seconds before, but they fell on my exposed breasts as I quickly tucked my arms around them. He cleared his throat, meeting my startled face.

“How..” I began to say, but he moved slightly away from the door.

“I knocked, you didn`t answer. I knew you were here because I asked your cat of your whereabouts. I let myself in,” he simply stated, as if that explains why he scared the hell out of me.

“That`s not what…never mind, what are you doing here?”

If he thinks he`s getting in my bed tonight, he has another thing coming. I can barely sleep on my back as it is.

He seemed to realize what I was thinking, and said, “I`m not here for that. Lis wanted to send you a mending balm, but she was busy, so she happened to catch me and shoved the tray in my hands.”

I looked at the round silver container, blinked, then asked, “What does it do?”

He shrugged a broad shoulder, moving a couple of steps towards me. “She said that it will help reduce the redness around the wounds.”

I nodded once, biting the inside of my cheek as I walked to him and freed one arm to take it. He didn`t even bother to hide the dark lust in his eyes when one breast slipped out, and I rushed to cover it with one arm.

This is stupid. Why am I even bothering to cover it up?

He raised an eyebrow at me as if he was about to say the same, but instead said, “No matter how long you stare at the mirror, it won`t do you good to wish they were gone.”

“I don`t wish that,” I told him, a bit embarrassed that he caught the uncertainty.

I don`t know whether he believed that, but he only gave me one final look before turning around to leave.

I should let him go, I should not delay his presence here, but my mouth opened before my brain could comprehend what I was doing. “Wait!” I held out a hand, and immediately wanted to use it to slap myself.

He was at the door, but his body stiffened before he turned to me. I bit my lip, not exactly sure how to word it.

I should let him leave.

But again, my stupid mouth refused. “Will you help me apply it?”

I hated that I was asking that of him, but I really did want help in putting the balm on my back. Luxus lacked the fingers and thumbs, so he was my only option at the moment.

Those grey eyes drifted to the container in my hand, before he visibly swallowed and nodded, a little too quickly.

Not wanting to look at his face any longer in fear I might damn it all and let him inside me, I walked to the bed and faced the other side, with my back bare to him.

Perhaps it was a very idiotic idea to let him touch me, because as soon as he started gently rubbing the ointment on the sensitive skin, my mind went a little hazy. There was a very stiff feeling in the way his fingers massaged the calloused spot, almost as if he too was holding himself from having me moaning under him.

And when those sinful finger went a little lower, I couldn`t help the small arch of my back, nor the tiny gasp.

Stupid, stupid, stupid…

What the hell was I thinking!?

You were thinking of down there, a voice responded.

Mercifully, he was done shortly, and I had quickly informed him that I could manage the other areas myself. When he left, after I had thanked him, I proceeded to put the rest of the balm, trying to focus on its herbal scent instead of the demanding heat between my legs.

When I crawled into bed, Luxus hadn`t come yet. So I tucked myself under the covers, and felt like I was about to explode because the heat wouldn`t go away.

I kept thinking of him, of everything he did to me, of everything I wanted him to do. And I couldn`t help it when my own fingers trailed down to my innermost part, desperately trying to sate myself.

The release was short, though nothing like I`ve had with him, and when I tried again, it came quicker. But I wasn`t really satisfied, and I knew it`s because I wanted his fingers down there, his lips on my skin.

And I wasn`t entirely sure if I hated myself for it.

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