The Flames That Bind Us

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36. Aftermath

≼ ≼≼ Lydia Voltaire ≽≽≽

I had no idea how long I’ve been cramped up in this room.

It might have been a week, or more. Or perhaps it’s been only a few hours, although my healing injuries suggest that it’s been longer. Either way, I didn’t really have a mind for it. All I knew was that I was sitting on my bed, staring at the wall before me, and refusing to acknowledge the empty presence glued to my back.

I would only rise to go to the bathroom, then eat what my stomach could suffice when the servants would come in with trays and trays of food I left mainly untouched.

Then I would sleep and sleep, until I had no sense of time and place, until that horrible void in my gut faded bit by bit –although its existence remained lingering.

And day by day I would repeat that cycle.

However, there came moments when I would gaze too long at the vacant space of the pillow Luxus usually slept on, and that void would fill up temporarily with a raging fire that exploded out of my chest and swept half the bed.

Not willingly. I hated it. Hated the sheer force of it.

I had lost count of the number of times the servants had brought in a completely new bed.

And when Gabriel offered to put me in another room, I almost threatened to scorch the entire thing.

So I sat here every day, the softness of new mattress underneath me, in a room with blackened walls and the smell of burnt sheets not quite gone no matter how many times the maids aired it out.

Sometimes I would come up the balcony, but only the wreckage of what remained of the garden greeted me. Guards and servants have worked day and night to try to get it back to its original state, and the royals and the rest of the Slifers gave their assistance as well.

But no matter what, even with Redmond replanting almost half of it, the garden didn’t live up to the brilliance it once had. Almost like the spirits of those who died there casted an eerie hollowness.

Imarnia had a memorial service for those whose lives were taken in the attack, and to my knowledge from the servants’ whispers it was held in the Cemetery of the Nobly Remembered.

I didn’t attend it, not even when I learned that Luxus was buried there.

It was strange—knowing that a cat earned a place in the burial grounds of those who fought for Imarnia.

This room had been my self-made prison and sanctuary, and I wasn’t going anywhere. Not yet, at least.

A soft knock sounded at the door, and when it jarred open, Gabriel let himself in.

He’s been visiting me every day during whatever free time he could manage between his sister and the damage control.

Oddly, he was the only one I really talked to. Lucius had tried, but he had the door slammed in his face. Ayana, Redmond, and Lysa had come the very first day I woke back from unconsciousness due to my wounds.

“You’re not eating,” he stated, glancing at the still steaming plate of porridge on the dresser. Then those grey eyes narrowed at me.

“That’s not true,” I said, avoiding those grey eyes that surveyed every inch of my sunken face. It’s clear he saw the dark circles underneath my eyes, the way my cheeks appeared gaunt, and the obvious weight drop. “I did eat –a little.”

I wasn’t sure if two spoonful of porridge were considered as eating.

He shook his head at me, and moved to pick up the tray. I felt bad watching him fuss over my health when he had so much on his hands. I could notice that he wasn’t getting as much sleep, letting his stubble grow while he seemed to wear whatever clothes he could grab.

And that invisible weight on his shoulders only seemed to deepen.

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I would feel him slipping into my bed. And he would do and say nothing, only sleep, exhaustion sinking heavily. And by the time I would wake up, he would rise before me, his side of the bed cold.

He sat on the edge of the bed, placing the tray on my lap. The warmth of it soaked through my legs. “Eat.”

I knew there was no arguing with him, so I picked up the spoon and scooped a little bit. He looked to be satisfied, even with the small amount I practically shoved in my mouth.

It’s not that it was bad, but I couldn’t really focus on the taste.

“How are you?” he brought a hand to brush away the hair from my face. And when I looked at it, I flinched.

Not because of the causal touch, but because of the terrible burn scars I had left.

With Lis’ magic gone, everyone had to go for the palace’ healers for whatever wounds and injuries they received in the attack. And due to the healers using traditional practices, only so much could be done.

“You ask me that every day,” I told him, snatching my eyes away from his hands, “and every day I have no answer for you.”

“Then I’ll keep asking until you do.”

“How’s Lis?” I asked, attempting to change the subject.

He sighed wearily, wiping his face and scratching at his growing beard. “Better than before. And she’s eating well, thank gods. I left her with Ayana before I came here.”

I swallowed the sweet oatmeal a bit too roughly, my throat dry and not used to this much. “Ayana?” that’s surprising. I didn’t know she was so close to the princess.

He nodded. “Yes. The girl requested to see Lis herself, something about comforting her.”

I tried to piece the information together. Ayana apparently had a run in with wizard hunters before, and since the princess’ magic was stolen by them, she might know someone with the same situation.

That would make sense, at least.

“I also saw Lucius on my way here,” he added. “He asked me where I was going, and when I told him I was to see you, he’d insisted on coming. I ordered him to stand back.”

If my appetite was regaining a little, then that managed to sweep it off completely.

I set the spoon down, deciding my stomach couldn’t handle much more. I never spoke to Lucius after his grand entrance in the attack, nor did I want to. He tried to speak with me, but the guards outside the room parried him out.

“You did the right thing,” I said. “I don’t even want to look at him.”

“He’s mourning too, you know,” Gabriel spoke calmly, as if he was carful I would get caught in flames again. “He loved Luxus as well, and I believe he wants nothing more than to grieve with you.”

“Oh, so now he wants to be a part of my life?” I snapped, getting irritated. “What happened to his big speech about wanting to protect me? I call bullshit. He just wants to make himself feel better by making me forgive him.”

“I don’t think that’s what he wants,” he tried to persuade me, but that only agitated the sleeping fire within me. “I mean, Lucius lost so much in the last war. He had a family, and I don’t think he wants to lose you too. Hasn’t he ever told you—”

“No, he hasn’t!” I contained my shout, contained the heat rippling in my body. “He didn’t tell me anything! Didn’t tell me anything of that supposed ‘family’ he lost, and left me in the dark feeling like an idiot. So no, I don’t care what he wants. He can go ahead and die again for all I care!”

I winced at the lie, but focused on not letting my anger get the best of me.

I didn’t want another burned bed.

Gabriel let out a breath, seeming to give up –for now. I knew he would bring it up again when I wasn’t inclined to set everything before me in flames.

I know I was being unreasonable, too stubborn to think properly. But this worked for me. I don’t know what I would do if I saw him now, if I could control my frustrated rage.

I didn’t wish to speak about Lucius any longer. “Did Aramis show up yet?”

Ever since the ruined party, Aramis had disappeared for some reason. He didn’t come here to see me, nor was he anywhere in the palace. I figured he might have gone back to his house to tend his wound, but why would he do that when he could be better taken care of here.

“No, and I even sent guards to his house to check up on him. He wasn’t there.”

My eyebrows rose. “That’s odd.”

Where could he have gone to?

Gabriel nodded, leaning his elbows to rest on his knees. “It’s not even that. When my guards searched his place, they said it’s as if no one had lived there for a while.”

I didn’t have anything to say. Aside from Gabriel, Aramis was the only one I found myself wanting his company.

I still couldn’t forget that warm sensation I felt when he held my hand during my deranged state. All I saw before me back then were furious flames, pulsing through me like veins and bursting from every pore.

But when Gabriel was before me, those flames froze.

And when Aramis slipped a hand in mine, they pacified, flowing back in me.

The feeling was both familiar and not.

My eyes fell on Gabriel rubbing a thump over the back of his hand, and my chest tightened like it did every time. That feeling of guilt never left, but was eating away at me.

He never once complained or held me accountable, but every time I looked at the calloused scars as if they were painted, I hated myself, hated what I was capable of.

Till now, I’ve never willingly conjured my flames. Seeing them only reminded me of the cost made to achieve them, so not once did I summon a flicker.

“Stop,” he said, noticing the expression on my face. “Don’t do this to yourself. It wasn’t your fault.”

He keeps saying that, and I’m both grateful and not.

My fingers touched the rough skin of his hand, and I cradled it in mine, gently tracing each and every scar. It could be worse; his skin could have completely melted from his bones. I keep telling myself that, but it did nothing to reassure me.

“I’m sorry.”

I don’t know how many times I’ve said that, but it always felt like it wasn’t enough.

His other hand went to smooth my hair, sweeping it from my shoulders, then lightly went over the back of my neck.

This little comforting gesture was everything to me, and I wasn’t sure if I deserved it. These kind of touches...they had become somewhat normal to us.

Another knock rang at the door, and this one was barely audible. Gabriel rose to get it, and I warned him, “If it’s Lucius, you know what to do.”

But it was the princess’ lovely face that greeted us. It was the first time I’ve seen her in a week and a half, and although she looked composed, the terrible shadow of loss and pain was reflected on her face.

She smiled thinly, no light in her rich brown eyes. “I’m sorry I didn’t come to see you sooner, Lydia.”

“No, not at all,” I waved her off, and she tottered inside the room, her steps slow and feeble. Yet her head held high. “I should be the one saying that. How are you?”

Her smile turned kind as she sat where her brother was, taking her hand in mine and squeezing it. “I’ll be better hopefully. With my brother and David and everyone I love around me, I’m sure I can withstand anything.”

Her positivity didn’t surprise me, but it was clear despite her words she had a hard time just holding herself together and coming to visit me.

She was strong in that sense –much stronger than I’ll ever be.

“Lydia,” she began, her tone heavy and her eyes wet, though no tears lined them. “I cannot express how sorry I am to hear about Luxus passing. I was there when they buried him, and he had a proper send off. Imarnia doesn’t forget the lives of those who fought for it, even the tiniest ones.”

I wish I could cry too, to wail and scream and shout. But I had done that the moment that blind fire turned off, and after that everything in me felt closed off, as if it was sealed into nothing but numbness.

So I only tightened my hold on her hand. “Thank you. And I’m sorry too, for everything.”

“Shh,” like her brother, she was quick to push back my hair and pat my shoulders. “you didn’t do anything. I’m only glad you’re still here among us, and that we have not lost you to that fire.”

I wanted to tell her she was wrong, that the fire had indeed killed and devoured me whole along with everything in its path.

But I didn’t.

“You can’t lock yourself in this room, Lydia,” she said, noting the ash and cinders sprayed along the walls.

“I’m comfortable here.”

I squirmed under Gabriel’s disapproving glare. He’s been trying to get me to go out of the room every day, but all his attempts went out of the window.

She shook her head softly, crossing her arms over her chest. “It won’t do you any good to punish yourself,” I ignored the truth in her words. “At least, come join us for the celebration of The Honoring Day. The kingdom is looking forward to it, and gods know how much they need it.”

It would normally seem inappropriate to have a celebration just weeks after a massacre had occurred, but The Honoring Day was a sacred religious ritual, and performing it is our world’s way of thanking the gods.

It was compulsory to execute it, though no one knows what would happen if people failed to. So they never dared to find out.

“I can’t, I would be gone by then.”

“What?”

I had planned this decision for the entire week and a half I had spent here staring at the darkness.

“I’m not staying for the celebration, I’ll honor my promise to myself and Luxus and travel Ignolia,” I explained. Though, a part of me had no idea how would I be able to do that when I refused to summon a small spark. But I’ll figure that out later.

“Are you sure I can’t convince you to attend it?”

“No, I’ve made my mind.”

Luckily, she respected that. And for a few minutes we sat talking about which region or city I planned on visiting first. The truth is I didn’t really think that far ahead, but only focused on getting out of here as fast as possible.

Once I regain my health properly, I could leave.

So I should possibly start with eating right, build my metabolism back. The Honoring Day was in four days. By then, I could pack whatever I needed and make sure my well-being is set for travel.

Lis had planted a kiss on my head before leaving, though her brother did not follow.

“If Lis couldn’t convince you to stay, can I?” he said, something like hope flashing across his face. But when I blinked, it was gone.

“We had a deal, remember,” I reminded him. “Once I’m a full Slifer, I leave. And there seems to be no real danger against your life. Isn’t that what you wanted?”

He gave me a stiff nod. “Yes. It is what we’ve agreed on.”

That seemed to be so long ago, when he and I were two different people.

“But still,” he went on, “you don’t have to leave so soon.”

I blushed at the urge in his tone, and when he realized it he cleared his throat.

“Why do you want me to stay?” Honestly, it was so unlike him. Then again, these past two months he had said and done things I wouldn’t dream of the man I first met.

The sheer redness on his cheeks was visible, and he tried to shrug casually. “I’ve grown used to you. Everyone has.”

And I couldn’t lie to him and say that I didn’t feel the same way, so I said nothing.

“Travelling Ignolia is what I’ve always wanted, what I’ve always craved. I’m sick of being surrounded by four walls. I want to be out in the open. Perhaps it might heal me,” I confessed.

“How are you going to do that when you refuse to use your magic?” he asked, and I cringed. Damn, he realized it. “You think I didn’t notice that? Wasn’t it not having your full magic that stopped you from going on these adventures.”

“Look, I don’t know yet,” I sighed in frustration, huffing out a breath. “All I know, is that I don’t want to be here any longer.”

My eyes widened at the hurt that clouded his features, at the way a muscle in his jaw twitched. “You once said to me that you hated this place. I didn’t realize you hated it still, not when I saw how happy you were here.”

I gnawed at my bottom lip, struggling to find the right words. “I don’t hate it,” I told him, deciding to be honest. “In fact, this place is like home for me. And yes, for a while I was happy. But now...”

I looked around me, at the free space where Luxus and I used to chase each other when we were bored out of our wits. Then at the bed where he would doze off on my tummy while I was reading a book, where we chatted about nonsense for hours as we ate whatever delights I bought from the market.

My throat closed up, feeling a suffocating rush within me. “But now everywhere I go reminds me of Luxus, and I can’t breathe, I can’t sleep, I can’t do anything but tell myself over and over again that I would be leaving.”

I was heaving greatly, my chest rising and falling quickly.

I looked around for a glass of water, and found a jug sitting on the bedside table. Gabriel was quick to pour me one. And as I drank it all, one eager gulp after another, he drew circles on my back to help me calm down.

“Easy now,” he took the empty glass from my shaking fingers and set it back on the table. Then he leaned over me, and I felt his lips on my cheek, hovering there for a couple of seconds before he pulled back. “You will always be welcomed in Imarnia, whenever you decide to return.”

★★★ End★★★

Sorry that this chapter was shorter than usual. It’s more of an intermission chapter. The next chapter will be really long, so I might have to split it. Anyway, don’t forget to comment and vote. Love ya all!

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