The Flames That Bind Us

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33. A Party for The Princess

The dress that lay on my bed was the most gorgeous thing I had ever seen.

Lysa had it delivered to my room when I got back from training. She said she was done with it for the princess` birthday celebration tomorrow. These past weeks, every servant in place had been running around in a frenzy for the planning, with Lysa hot on their tails helping and giving instructions.

I didn`t even know how she had the time to make this dress, but according to my knowledge she had made one for Lis, Ayana, and Queen Adria and her wife.

The gown was made of tulle, soft and almost transparent when reaching the lower half. The skirt had a long split at the side, and the neckline was plunging to nearly the midriff. But what made it truly mesmerizing was the color.

Just like flames, it drifted from the deepest shades to the faintest from top to bottom. And it had tiny red and gold stones sewn to the bodice, sparkling and catching light. They almost resembled tiny sparks, and although the dress looked sleeveless, there was a very thin layer of skin-colored fabric which only had those glittering stones.

“She certainly outdone herself,” Luxus commented, tracing his paw over the matching small jacket made especially for him.

I smiled to myself, warmth filling my chest. She didn`t have to make one for me and Luxus, but she did anyway. I have to remember to thank her when I see her.

I hung the dress over the mirror, careful not to mess or tear off any of the stones, then headed to the bathroom for a bath.

When I woke up the next day, still groggy from sleep, I realized I had slept in, and it was way past twelve in the afternoon. But before I could so much as get up, the doors to my bedroom sprung open.

I expected the maid that usually brought breakfast, but since the half-eaten tray was already on the table, it wasn`t her that barged in.

Lysa and her two assistants stormed into the room as if they had a mission set in mind.

“Rise and shine,” she clapped her hands, “we have much to do!”

“It`s still early, Lysa.” I groaned, covering my head with the pillow.

I should have known she was likely to come.

She marched towards me and snatched the pillow right off. “We barely have time. Now, up you go!”

“Why don`t you go help the princess?” I complained, finding the softness of the mattress underneath me much too irresistible.

She squinted at me, those bright pink eyebrows furrowed. “Lis can handle herself just fine. It`s you that I need to work on.”

She was probably right. I knew next to nothing on how to apply make-up. But I was too comfortable to get up.

“Just five minutes more, please,” I mumbled, closing my eyes.

Lysa was apparently having none of it, and pulled the blankets off, kicking them to the ground. I grumbled, suddenly aware of every joint that ached from work and training –and from my time with the king.

Though I certainly was happy that he wasn`t sleeping beside me for Lysa to come and witness.

“Get moving.”

I didn`t need to be told twice, and she wasn`t going to, so I forced my body to rise, huffing at having being forced to this.

I practically limped to the bathroom, but was glad she didn`t follow.

Lysa had prepared some type of skin liniment that she claimed would purify my skin and make it so clean it would almost glow. She also handed me a hair wash that she insisted would soften my hair and even add volume to the color.

She had placed them all on the rim of the tub, allowing me the privacy to bathe myself.

I had to admit, the skin cream had a pleasant scent that I haven`t smelled before, as well as the hair wash. And when I scrubbed it against my body, I could immediately feel the new softness. It even seemed to smooth the areas around my scars, for they didn`t feel as calloused as before.

When I was done, I grabbed a tiny purple bottle that Lysa explained was meant for a more intimate part. I blushed a little, but continued putting on the sweet smelling lotion, rubbing it down there.

Finally, I emerged out looking squeaky clean. And Lysa was right, after all. My skin did appear glossier than usual.

“Perfect,” she grinned, grabbing a chair and placing it in front of the mirror. “Let`s start with your hair.”

“Lysa,” I said, taking a seat, “thank you for doing this. And thank you for the dress. It`s beautiful.”

She patted my arm kindly. “You don`t need to thank me. I`m doing this because I love it.”

I didn`t say anything, only smiled.

She started brushing my hair with her fingers, loosening the messy tangles, and her two companions each grabbed a comb and straightened my knotted locks.

Lysa`s face sparked with concentration, like she was considering how to best style my hair.

“You always wear it down. How about you wear it up this time?” she suggested.

I shrugged, not really minding either way. “It`s fine with me.”

She looked gleeful by my answer, and proceeded to work.

When they were done, which took about an hour, I smiled at the finished product. My hair was braided into a simple crown, some of the curled strands framing my face. It looked simple, but they had twisted the braids together that it felt almost heavy. Lysa had woven a gold circlet between it, the cool ornament resting on my forehead.

And for the final touch, she had splashed what seemed to be tiny flame-colored speckles, enchanted to look as if they were glowing. It made my hair appear like simmering coal, the fire burning from within.

“Lysa, this is amazing,” I breathed out, not quite believing my hair could be managed like that. “But don`t you think it`s too much? After all, it`s only a small gathering.”

She smacked my shoulder. “Oh, hush. Everyone will be looking dazzling. I see no reason why you also shouldn`t be.”

I chuckled, and did not argue with her any further.

Vircha, the green-haired fairy, reached for a mortal-made bag that I guessed contained the make-up I needed.

Lysa`s grin was almost wolfish, and I didn`t mistake the glint in her violet eyes. “Now for my favorite part!”

Make-up took longer than I expected, only because Lysa insisted on perfecting every single detail. And even when lunch time came, and my stomach gurgled due to not having breakfast, she ordered the servants to bring the food in my room.

We feasted on the smoked fish and glazed ribs as we chatted, all the while making sure my pinned-back hair didn`t mix with the food. Lysa even spoke about her relationship with Aero, and how it had been going on for a while but they still did not make it official to anyone yet.

I assured her that her secret was safe with me –even though probably most of the palace already knew.

I got to know Vircha and Nisa as well, and how they were half-siblings and very old friends of Lysa.

When we were done eating, they resumed back to focusing on my face.

Lysa used mortal tools, and often mentioned how old-fashioned ours were, praising the mortals for their invention of eyeliners and highlighters. She even said that she had visited the mortal-world before with a couple of merchants –since travelling there is only allowed with the company of officials or licensed traders.

But that was fifty years ago, and she stated that the make-up tools they brought now were far more advanced than the ones she saw before.

The subject didn`t interest me much, mostly because I didn`t understand what was the difference between something called matte and a normal lipstick. For me, they were all pretty colors that were nice on my face.

But it was enjoyable to hear her talk about something she was so passionate about.

When she was done, she let me have a close look in the mirror, and I almost didn`t recognize myself.

I couldn`t begin to understand how she blended the colors on my eyes, but they looked stunning. My eyelids were painted with deep reddish gold, and around them were the same sparkling specks I had on my hair. She brushed my eyelashes with a black gel that made them thicker and darker than they already were, and the foundation she used on my face was the same rich olive color of my skin, accentuating my cheekbones.

For my lips, she painted them a deep dark red, a shade away from being black.

“I look like a live flame,” I told her in awe.

She squealed at my compliment. “It took a while, but I did it. You look beautiful—every inch of the Slifer you`re meant to be.”

“Thank you. I cannot even begin to express –“

“Oh, never mind,” she interrupted, “I`m happy to do it.”

Since there was still time before the party, Lysa and her friends left me to lodge around in my room, to put on the dress myself.

Luxus praised the way I looked, and admitted he never saw me look so radiant. It was odd getting a compliment from a cat, but I took it nonetheless. I helped him fit into his jacket, and he paraded around the room, admiring himself in the mirror.

For someone who hates wearing any type of clothing, he sure can`t take his eyes off himself.

My eyes darted to the clock on the wall, and it struck six in the evening. It was almost time; the party was in an hour. I could already see servants doing last-minute checks in the garden.

That`s where the party will be held. The princess`s favorite place.

I got up and attempted to put on the gown. Luckily, it wasn`t tricky and did not give me a hard time. I was able to slip it on me easily.

And if my face and hair made me grin with pure delight for my beauty, the way the gown fitted me perfectly managed to earn a squeal out of my wine-red lips.

I allowed myself to be slightly arrogant, but I looked like a goddess, like how a Slifer should be.

Even if the gown showed a little too much of my breasts, I didn`t mind it at all. In fact, they looked good. And the curve of my leg slipping only added to the appeal.

If the king saw me right now, he might not let me out of this room until probably tomorrow.

Wait –the hell am I thinking about him for?

I couldn`t care less if he thought I looked attractive. He would see me in only a robe and his eyes would fill with desire.

I shook my head out of those deranged thoughts, smiling at Luxus` low whistle as he looked me up and down.

Grabbing the gold heels Lysa gave me, I strapped them on, and they were pleasantly comfortable. Then I rampaged my drawer looking for a perfume to spray it on. I`m pretty sure I had bought one when I went shopping the first time here, but where did I put it?

My hand somehow caught the bracelet Grandpa gave me on my birthday, the one with the silver girl, the old wizard, and the cat dangling from the chain. I haven’t worn it. Not once.

And in a way I wanted to forget I had it, because every time I looked at it, pain would fill my chest.

But now…there was only a void.

I fingered the little figurines, deciding if I should wear it tonight or not.

It wasn`t gold, so it wouldn`t go with my dress.

But did I really care?

Oh, to hell with it. It`s not like it would do anything.

I clasped it on, the piece of jewelry on my wrist feeling strange and ordinary compared to the finery Lysa showered me with. But it wasn`t completely bad. Actually, it seemed oddly warm.

I waited for a few minutes, watching guests arriving, before I decided to finally descend down and join the party.

***

A small gathering, my ass!

Lysa had either lied about the number of guests or failed to mention she had probably invited half the kingdom.

I haven`t seen such many people since the grand ball. They kept swarming in, every few minutes or so someone would announce the arrival of noblemen and noblewomen of great houses and territories.

Needless to say, the garden was packed.

And speaking of which, Lysa had again outdone herself with the decorations. I had no idea how she did it, but there must have been some kind of charm or spell that made the trees and plants around us illuminate with different colors. It ranged from the brightest to the darkest shades, changing every few minutes or so.

She must have used pixie stones and temporarily infused them with the roots, and from the looks of it, people were impressed.

I certainly was. It looked like we were inside a huge kaleidoscope.

Ornamental white chair and tables were placed at every square inch, draped with laced cloths that appeared delicate to the touch. Silver vases with various types of flowers each were put on the tables, including self-reflecting silverware and silver-coated candelabras that provided the much needed warmth in this chilly evening.

To the princess`s fortune, and everyone else`, the weather was clear of any signs of upcoming snowfall or possible rain. Though the air was chilled, and guests had remembered to bring warm coats and jackets to throw on their spectacular outfits whenever they were needed.

And since I was immune to the cold, I didn`t have a problem parading around with half my skin showing.

“Well,” Luxus sniffed the air, and I guessed he was intrigued with the delicious smell of food on the long stall. “you know where I`ll be.” And with that he stalked between people`s legs, leaving me standing alone.

A part of me wanted to follow him and enjoy stuffing my face, but the other part wanted to mingle.

And it was a tad difficult to do that when everyone around me literally stared at every little inch of myself.

I heard a short gasp, and turned to see the princess marveling at my dress.

“Lydia,” she went to touch the small glimmering jewels sewed on the bodice, “you look absolutely gorgeous!”

I smiled at her, at the way she brilliantly glowed. “I could say the same to you. Happy birthday.”

The dress Lysa made for her was of silver velvet, framed with turquoise jeweled flowers that trailed from her side to her neck, as well as the hem of her sleeves. She wore a similar silver tiara with an eye-blinding blue stone in the middle. And her short hair was styled to the side, showing the multiple earrings she had on one ear.

Her smile slipped from her rose-pink lips. “It`s a little too much than I expected,” she looked around, at the swarm of guests making conversations with crystal wine glasses in their hands. “I told Lysa to make it private.”

“I think your idea of private differs from hers,” I told her, and she sighed in defeat.

“Well, I should have expected it. I don’t even know how am I going to open all these presents.”

Her eyes were trained at a lone squared table by the stairway, piled with stacks of gifts arranged neatly.

That reminded me. “Oh, I forget to give you your present,” I said, searching through the tiny gold purse Lysa shoved into my drawer. I had put the fire-flower in a hand-sized plain container, forgetting to buy a fancier one when I bought the gift.

Nonetheless, Lis didn`t seem to mind the simple packaging.

“I hope you like it.” I presented it to her, aware I refused to meet her eyes in case she showed dislike or disappointment.

“Lydia, you didn`t have to,” she begun, hearing her open the lid.

Her awed gasp was all I needed to know she loved it. She took the crystal flower, the flames still alive inside, and twirled it between her fingers. The pure joy enveloping her face was perhaps brighter than my fire.

Even the people around us took curious glances at what made the Princess of Imarnia almost squeak in delight.

“Lydia, that`s…that`s perhaps the most beautiful thing I`ve ever seen.” She went to embrace me, and I returned it with warmth in my chest.

When she pulled back, there was tears lining her silver-painted eyes. And I noticed even her eyelashes were dibbed in silver.

But that had nothing to do with the slight panic I was beginning to form.

Why was she crying!?

Her fiancé beat me for the question, worry contouring his handsome dark-skinned face. “Lis, what the hell are you crying for now?” He gripped her shoulders, leaning forward, and I also realized how short she was compared to him.

He too was dressed in silver, both looking like a matching pair.

She sniffed, thankfully laughing. “Look,” she brought the flower close to his face, “Lydia gave it to me. Isn`t it wonderful?”

Relief seemed to wash through him, but he still held her as he raised an impressed eyebrow at the gift. “It`s beautiful, but that`s no reason to cry, darling. You almost wailed when Gabriel gave you that book.”

She was still beaming. “I know. But I`m happy.”

Something softened in the way he was looking at her, and his lips curled upwards in total admiration for the woman before him. “I`m glad you are, Lis.”

He swept a thumb to dry her unshed tears, and I shifted in my place for I felt like I was intruding on an intimate moment.

“You still haven`t seen my gift,” he told her, grazing a finger against her reddened cheek.

That made her grin, nuzzling into him. “Can you give it to me now?”

Her fiancé` eyes shined with a mischievousness that I think I was familiar with –I had seen it with the king. “Later, my love. When it`s just the two of us.”

I don`t think those two realized I was still standing here. Definitely not from the way they heatedly gazed at each other. My own face heated, and I found myself slithering pass them to give them whatever privacy they can obtain in this crowd.

I searched around for someone familiar, and almost tripped when my leg caught in something. For a moment, I thought I had stepped on my dress, but the way the thing I had tripped on moved claimed otherwise.

I didn`t even need to look down to know it was Aramis.

“Sorry about that,” I told him, earning a spiteful glare from those jade eyes. “It`s hard to see when everyone is nearly pressed against each other.”

“Oddly,” he said irritatingly, as he held a flask of what I knew was pumpkin tea in his hand, “you`re not the first one to bump, trip, or fall over me tonight.”

I bit back the inside of my cheek to prevent from laughing –only because I didn`t want to get a scolding or an unmerciful training lesson.

“I hope you`re enjoying yourself.”

He snorted, taking a drag from his drink. I could almost feel the bitter and sour taste of it. “I don`t even know what`s the fuss is about. The princess clearly didn`t want a big party.”

I raised an eyebrow. “And here I thought that you liked parties.”

“I do, when people are watching their steps and not knocking me on the floor every five minutes.”

I couldn`t help the curl of my mouth. “You look nice otherwise,” I commented, noting the red and gold threaded tunic he wore, along with the many golden rings. In a way, his clothing kind of resembled mine.

“I know,” he waved a dismissive hand, but stopped to give me a once-over. With a low whistle, he said, “You don`t look so bad yourself. You look the very spitting image of the Fire Mistress you were made to be.”

“I know.” I rolled my eyes, mimicking his gesture.

“In fact,” he observed the dazzlingly-dressed guests and the mesmerizing decoration. “I think Lysa really put every effort into this party. I wonder what Imarnia`s financial situation would be when The Honoring Day is only in less than two weeks,” he joked.

I laughed and wondered the same. But at the mention of The Honoring Day my laughter died.

It made me think that I was supposed to leave by then, to go on those adventures I dreamt of. It`s already been almost three months, and nothing like the trigger Aramis mentioned had happened. I was getting better at my magic, but the force of it remained the same –no matter how many lessons I had or how many nights I had with the king.

My magic was slowly progressing, and that`s it.

It hadn`t erupted yet. I`m not sure if it will ever.

That made me feel hollow for some reason, like all the merriness before was emptied out.

“Well,” Aramis snapped me back from my thoughts, “I think I`ll go find out what kind of cake they have.”

He skipped pass me, but I didn`t really pay attention to what he was saying.

Now wasn`t the time to think about these things, Lydia.

You`re here to have fun, remember.

But it was a lot harder to focus on the fun when this heavy void was pressing on me.

I decided to banish these thoughts—for now. And put my attention elsewhere.

Almost as if in answer, my stomach demanded that I seek some food, and I was more than happy for the distraction. The table that had all the desserts was on the opposite side of the garden, and since I wasn`t in the mood for something sweet, I headed to the other one.

I found Luxus in his usual place under the table, slouching and feasting on grilled eels.

“What is it?” he noticed the different look I had on my face.

I blew out a breath, reaching for a plate. He leapt on the table, next to the ceramic bowl of boiled herb-and lemon potatoes.

“The Honoring Day is coming,” I said, scoping a large portion onto my plate.

“And?”

“And,” I sighed, grabbing a fork that seemed to be decked with real diamonds, “I`m still not strong enough, Lux. I mean, we were supposed to be gone by then.”

“It just needs a little more time,” he placed a black paw on the back of my hand, “and we have about two weeks to go. A lot can happen in two weeks.”

“Yeah, I guess.” I shrugged, cutting a small piece and eating it.

It was delicious. The mixture of the strong herbs and the sourness of the lemon perfectly balanced. But I didn`t really care enough to appreciate it.

I turned to gaze at the crowd, hopeful that it might divert my thoughts further. The music that was starting to play was more upbeat, the band of elves under the stairway crafting their instruments to create a fast, cheerful melody.

I vaguely recognized it, and I knew it was a song for the common folk, and not royalty. But still, the noble people had each grabbed their loved ones and started dancing. Gone was the elegant refrainment and only excitement entered the atmosphere.

I spotted Lis dancing with her fiancé as he twirled her around, looking like they were having the time of their lives. Aero and Lysa danced near them, and I marveled at Lysa`s dark violet gown. It had a train that was the shape of rose-petals, and it was backless, so her gold wings were spread, fluttering and stretching whenever.

It was the first time I had seen them, and they had a golden hue that outmatched the natural radiance of her hair.

Even Aero, who I mostly see always dressed in mortal-made clothes, had worn a deep green tunic with sleeves that resembled autumn leaves. His hair was pulled back into a long pony-tail. The pair was laughing, whispering things into each other`s ears, and trying not to seem too open to the rest.

Though they were terribly failing.

King Morrison didn`t dance, but was entertaining guests with stories and tales, on his way to being drunk with each eager sip of wine he took. Queen Adria and her wife, both dressed in pale lavender, were listening to him, clearly amused at his blabbering state.

My eyes searched for Ayana –since she`s so shy she barely leaves her king`s side. And found her enjoying a dance with Redmond. Though Redmond obviously looked like he had no idea what he was doing, she patiently guided him into the right steps.

She looked stunning, her azure gown adorned with what seemed like real colorful sea-shells. And each time she swayed, the bottom of her dress would look like waves crashing shore.

Redmond oddly wore a modern suit, mortal-made but was of a green so dark it appeared almost black.

As for king Calix and Elsie –she was begrudgingly invited –the two were dancing slowly despite the fast rhythm. Elsie did not wear an extravagant dress, but chose a simple short black one, and she looked like she couldn`t care less about being here –nor about dancing with the man who was so hopelessly in love with her.

But those two aside, everyone looked alive with enjoyment, like they had no care in the world.

And that wasn`t me. No matter how hard I tried to sidetrack myself from the discouraging thoughts.

“You know,” Lux mused, and I tore my eyes from the festive crowd to see his red eyes gaze longingly at the palace walls behind them. “I`m going to miss this place.”

That surprised me a little. “You are?”

He didn`t look at me. “Yeah. I mean, I`ve grown used to it, to them,” his eyes focused on the people before us. “Haven`t you?”

Luxus` question disturbed me. Not because I didn`t, but because I knew deep down it would be difficult to bid them farewell.

Without meaning to, without even realizing it, I had grown attached to the people that lived in this palace. Their presence was comforting in away, like I wasn`t feeling alone all the time like I did before.

It was strange. When I first came here, I couldn`t picture a place more isolated than these walls, than the room I stayed in.

But now…

It somehow became home.

Something startled in my heart at that—at the revelation.

“Lux,” I told him, setting my purse and plate down, “I`ll be right back.”

He didn`t call out after me, not when I wedged my way through the crowd, in need of a clear space. My heart was beating quickly for some reason, and my skin was getting hotter –whether from the jam of people or the way I felt, I didn`t know.

I didn’t care.

I just wanted to get out of here for a moment.

Almost the entire garden was occupied with guests and decorations, but I found a place behind the tall glowing bushes, where only a single fountain resided. It was small, and made of stone. A statue of a phoenix with its head bowed stood erect in the middle, the water rippling out of its eyes, as if shedding tears.

The music was still ringing in my ear, but it was dulled down, allowing me to hear my own heart drum loudly in my chest.

This isn`t fair!

I sat on the grass, wincing a bit at knowing I probably dirtied my dress. But that was the least of my worries.

It wasn`t fair that everyone out there was having fun, dancing and eating. And here I was, feeling depressed of whether or not I would become a full Slifer by the time The Honoring Day came.

I should be with them, dancing the night away. I wanted to so badly, but there was a weight inside me that liked having to sit on my ass and wail in self-despair.

“Lysa would kill you if she saw what you made of her dress.” His voice sounded in my ear, spotting a shadow trail towards me from the corner of my eyes.

Him creeping up on me as usual didn`t even startle me. I had grown used to it…to him.

Instead, I lifted my head to give him an annoyed look. “Can I please wallow in self-pity on my own. I –“

The next words went back in my throat when I spotted how handsome he looked. He wore all black, with silver coiling at the sleeves and shoulders, and a black cloak with the same pattern trailing down in the middle. His hair was left looking messy, but a winged black crown rested on his forehead, intertwined between his dark locks.

I just groaned and buried my head in my hands, refusing to look at him any longer.

“I was about to say she did a fantastic job,” I felt him sit beside me, surprisingly causal. “But that doesn’t seem to be what you want to hear.”

“Why are you here?” the tone I said it in wasn`t rude, just plain curious.

He shrugged a shoulder, grey eyes lowering to take in my appearance. When his stare lingered longer at the way the gown hugged my body perfectly –especially the curve of my breasts, he sucked in a breath, but said, “It`s crowded in there. I should have known Lysa wouldn`t heed Lis` request for a small gathering.”

I gathered my knees and hugged them to my chest, the slit of the gown slipping to reveal my leg. He didn`t miss that, but instead of being shy and blushing about it, I simply didn`t bother covering.

“I…” my mouth opened, at lost for words. Why I was even talking to him about it, I didn`t know. I just wanted to share it with someone. “I don`t know what to do.”

Somehow saying it, a weight in my body seemed to diminish.

“About what?”

“About this,” I raised my hand, igniting flames between my fingertips. “I can`t seem to grow pass where I am. All of my fellow Slifers, they`re getting there, getting powerful by the day. And I`m…”

A shaky breath came out of me, and I enclosed my hand, the fire disappearing.

“I thought our coupling would make you stronger,” the king said, “but you say your powers are slow.”

“Aramis,” I mentioned, “he told me that my magic would become at its fullest when that one final push happens. A trigger of some sort.”

“Trigger?”

I nodded. “A great burst of emotions, to become fire incarnate. Our union is for only steadying the process, so when my magic erupts it won`t swallow me and everything else whole.”

“And you`re like that because it hadn`t happened yet?” it wasn`t a question, but a statement. And he was right.

He went on, “Perhaps it`s for the best.”

“What?”

How is any of this good for me? I`m stuck in this state of powerlessness, of feeling only as a half, and not ever complete.

There was a strange look on the king`s face, something wise and intelligent registering there. For a moment he didn`t say anything, not even when he brought a hand and secured a loose strand behind my ear.

That made blood rise to my face, because I wasn`t familiar with the sudden closeness.

“You say it needs a great surge of emotions,” he clarified. “Sometimes, the ugliest emotions are the ones that surface. And they leave scars that may never go.”

I let his words drown in my head. Behind us, the music changed, and it became slow and soft. Almost like a whisper.

I watched him get up, brushing the tiny cut grass and dirt from his pants.

He extended a hand towards me, and I blinked at it.

“Dance with me?”

“Here?” I asked, looking behind me at where the party actually was, the multi-shaded lights casting a faraway hue.

“We can still hear the music,” he answered, lips turned into half a smile.

It was so unusual to see him like that, like he seemed lighter –more open.

But I didn`t mind it. Not in the way I thought I did.

I took his hand, and he helped me get up, steadying me on my feet. When our skin touched, electricity rushed through my veins, sparking it alive. And when he slid a hand down my waist and brought me to his chest, securing me against him, I wasn`t sure if I was thinking properly.

My head was certainly dizzy, and my feet were almost off balance, but that didn`t stop him from swaying me gently.

We went slow, following the soft melody, circling around the same spot.

My breath didn`t come out as even, and I found my heart to be way too loud that it overwhelmed the tunes.

“I just don`t want to be in the same place forever,” I confessed, trying to say anything to ease the tension. “I don`t want to be a girl who keeps throwing fireballs for the rest of her life.”

Something in the way he held me tensed, and his lips thinned. “I said that to you, once.”

“Yes,” I spoke softly.

He twirled me, my dress looking like live embers, whirling into the moon-lit night, then pulled me to him, my chest flat against his.

“And if you get the power you desire, what then?” he asked.

I smiled, and he was taken back at how genuine and sure it was. “I`ve always wanted to travel Ignolia. I`ll go with Lux, and I`ll see every inch this world has to offer.”

His throat vibrated in a low chuckle. “That sounds like a plan.”

“Are you mocking me?” I knew he wasn`t, but I couldn`t help but tease him.

“No,” he smirked, “but you remind me of my youth. Every young wizard dreamed of travelling our world.”

“So, you`re admitting you`re old.”

Both of his eyebrows raised at that, and a dark glint crossed his face. “We could go back to your room,” he leaned to whisper in my ear, his warm breath making me shudder, “and we`ll see of that you`re accusing me of.”

I shifted my head away, embarrassed and definitely more than willing to accept his offer.

But I trailed my hand from his shoulder to his chest, pressing against it firmly. I allowed some of my natural heat to soak through him, and he released a tremble.

“Later, Your Majesty,” I said to him, my voice heavy. “For now, let us dance.”

He drew me to him, as if to drink my warmth, and I didn`t know how much closer we`ll get. It should make me uncomfortable, that we were this intimate –in a way that we never were before.

But it didn`t.

On the contrary, it felt right. Safe.

“Do you still insist on calling me that?”

He had mentioned it before many times, that it was alright to call him by his name. And a few times, I was tempted. Not only that, but it seemed to demand that out of me, to recite nothing but his name over and over again.

But I had always stopped myself at the last minute.

“You`re a king. It`s only proper,” I pointed out, like I always did.

“I think we`ve left proper the moment I was inside you, Lydia,” he gave me a lopsided smile, and I almost burst right here and there. “And I quite like having my name screamed when you moan.”

Without thinking, I slapped him on the shoulder, and that earned me a surprising laugh from him. It was deep and throaty, the corners of his mouth wrinkling, and I blinked at how younger he appeared to be.

Seeing him like that, it made something in me unspring. And I`m not sure if I liked it or not.

But his laugh quickly died –no, stopped abruptly.

We stopped dancing as well, and I could feel him stiffen underneath my touch. Those grey eyes of his hardened, blackness taking over. He didn`t let me go, but rather his grip on me tightened, as his head snapped to our surroundings, surveying.

“What`s wrong?”

I could feel magic suffocating the air, and it was his. From his feet, strips of shadows emerged and spread out around him, like spikes made of pure darkness. They moved when he did, sensing something and slowly gliding towards it.

“There`s something wrong,” the king spoke, his voice dark.

Whatever he was feeling, I wasn`t getting anything. My magic did not detect anything off, but then again I didn`t have experience like him.

“Come.” He took my hand, and strode towards where his shadows led him.

When we reached the party again, nothing was amiss. The fast music was back on, and everyone either danced, chatted, or were drunk. I caught sight of Aramis half-dozing by the wine table, one spilled drink in hand and cake frosting on his chin.

The princess and her fiancé were still dancing, trading kisses between every step.

“Gabriel,” it was king Calix who stormed our way, Adria and Morrison behind him. All three shared the same graveness. “Did you feel it too?”

“Yes,” the king nodded, looking around. His shadows were sent for a search, startling some of the people as they slithered between them. “We need to escort the guests out immediately.”

Alarm dawned on me. “What`s going on –“

My words were dulled out by a rumble that shook the ground, followed by streaks of bright red tendrils shooting in the air. It looked like small crimson lightening, and they burst high, painting the starless skies and freezing there for a couple of seconds.

I looked around, searching for the source of that light and where it came from. But the bodies of the people crammed together made it almost impossible.

Everyone had their heads turned upwards, confusion mirroring their faces. Loud whispers and gasps filled my hearing, as if nearly everybody all held their breath together.

The beams above us halted, convulsing as if vibrating from within, then all at once they exploded.

Screams echoed through as people started backing away at the shards of red descending over us. They were like falling stars, only when they collided with the bodies, they left them doormat on the ground.

“Shit,” king Morrison cursed, and hurried towards the masses.

My head couldn`t process what was happening. Within seconds, people dropped to the ground whenever one of those sparks hit them. And what once was charged with music and laughter moments before, had now become screams and shouts of horror.

The king` back was towards me, with one hand steady on my hip as he formed a shield of swarming shadows that absorbed the attacks.

From the corner of my eyes, I could see cloaked figures emerging from the trees, long staffs with crimson jewels in their hands.

My heart dropped to my stomach.

Wizard hunters!

They ran for the people, attacking them with their magic, either extracting their powers or killing them.

“How the hell did they manage to get in!?” I shouted to the king through the screams, but his eyes were concentrated on fending off the assaults.

The attack above us seemed to stop, thankfully, but the hunters kept going. And from the far end of the garden, a group of them marched forward. They circled the place, blocking every entrance and swarmed the stairways that led to the inside of the palace.

“We have to go find Lis and the rest,” king Gabriel grabbed my hand and pulled me behind him.

But before we could move a step, I saw movement coming from behind us –precisely at the king`s back. Something in me snapped, and I crushed myself against him. “Watch out!”

It streaked at him, that red bolt of terrible magic –whether to kill him or take his power, I didn`t know.

I recalled all of my training in those fatal second, and conjured up a shield of flames that burst out of my chest. I willed it to hold, to not break. And I almost sighed in relief when it kept undone, dissolving the attack.

When the shield was done, a wizard hunter with their staff pointed at us stood. The cloak he or she wore was white, threaded with black and gold. Unlike the rest, this one had their hood on, so their face was unseen.

Only their mouth –which was feminine. It curved into a wicked leer, horrid and beautiful at the same time.

The female wizard hunter brought a hand up and swept the hood off, her long dark hair tumbling down. I didn`t recognize her, but she was lovely-faced. And something about her resembled me. Her skin was similar to mine, only lighter.

But what brought my attention was the strange scar around her throat, like she had carved her skin off and it never healed.

The king shifted behind me, a sound coming out of him like a startled gasp.

When I angled my head to look at him, disbelief was written in his eyes –disbelief and utter shock.

His lips quivered, a hitch in his breath. Then his mouth opened, and the sound was that of a broken whisper, “Evine?”

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