As she dismounted by the stable, a young boy moved toward her to take the reins. Nodding her thanks to the stable boy, she moved toward the castle.
Two guards were by the door to greet her, as always. They smiled at her as the one on the right opened the door for her. “Welcome back, Lakita. Here for a meeting?”
“No, just here as a friend,” she replied, returning his smile and heading through the open door.
Teasel sat at his desk, his eyes weary and his head tired of thinking. He looked at the papers lining the desk before him, but could barely make out what they were saying. Everything written on them just wanted to blur together. He knew he should stop and get some rest, or at least take a break, but still he pressed on, unwilling to leave the work unfinished.
A knock sounded at the door, and he couldn’t hold back a tired sigh. “Enter!” He shouted, all the while thinking to himself, Great, another something that needs done…
He was feeling quite overwhelmed, but would never admit it, not even to himself. He had a job to do, and refused to fail at doing it. He didn’t have to look up to know that Phillip, his seventeen-year-old aid, had entered, and would usher in whoever had need of his attention.
Not having looked up, however, he didn’t see who had entered, and found it strange that Phillip hadn’t announced them. He heard the door shut gently, and assumed Phillip had left. He felt the other presence in the room, and soon heard them move toward him, but they weren’t speaking. Maybe they were waiting for him to address them, but he was too focused on the papers before him to do so.
Whoever it was was soon standing directly before his desk. A familiar smell tickled his nostrils, and at the same time, Lakita’s voice filled his ears. “Grievances of the people? Hmmmm…” She seemed to be thinking on the idea.
“They all need help with something…” Teasel explained.
“And it’s up to you to do it?”
He finally looked up from his work, meeting her concerned eyes as she sat down in a comfortable arm chair across from him. “I am the king.”
She frowned as she studied him. “Have you been doing this all day?”
He nodded, yawning, remembering his tiredness. “It’s normal,” he said, as he turned toward the fire glowing in the hearth behind him. It was dying out. He pushed a log further into it to get the flames roaring again.
“Can’t Arvense help you? He is your secretary.”
Teasel nodded, stifling another yawn before replying. “Oh, he does. As do Calamus, Androwsii, and others on my council.” He grinned as he turned back to her. “You will, too, soon enough.” He sighed, remembering all the work he had yet to do that night. “But it’s up to me to sort through all this and tell them what to do.”
He shuffled the papers on his desk, still seeing only blurred lines. Sighing, he laid them back down, rubbing his tired eyes.
“Then I guess you wouldn’t be free tonight to go for a ride through the countryside with me,” Lakita said, and he heard the hopeful joy in her voice.
He hated to squash it, but he knew he had to. “Lakita, I can’t. I really do have to get through all this. It’s my duty as a king.”
“But even a king needs a break!” Lakita persisted. She stood, abruptly, shaking her head, annoyed. “You don’t even get weekends off!”
Leaning forward on his desk, she watched him, and he felt sure if she didn’t have her hands on the desk, she might have thrown something in her exasperation. The thought almost brought a smile to his face.
Then, just like that, her frustration was gone, replaced by an eager grin on her face. “Come on, come riding with me. Relax a bit. Take a break from all this paperwork.” She lifted one of the papers on his desk and let it fall slowly back down.
He watched it, his heart wanting to give in and go with her, but his head reminding him of his duty. He smiled, shaking his head. “I can’t.”
Lakita frowned, stepping back. “Why not?”
“I can’t let the people down. They expect me to get through all this quickly.”
“But surely they understand that you’re only human, just like the rest of them…”
He shook his head again, determined in his decision. He still smiled at her, lowering his voice to a whisper. “No.”
Lakita let out a sigh in frustration.
“I’m sorry,” he replied, sincerely, hating to hurt her.
“That’s what you said a week ago,” She said with a sad sigh. She turned away, starting for the door, then stopped. “Tell me, Teasel. What changed between now and when you first started as king? Did people suddenly start getting more problems, or did you start putting their problems before your friends?”
With that, she left. Teasel was shocked into speechlessness. How could she even think such a thing? Sure, he’d spent more time with his friends earlier on in his reign, but that was because he was just getting the hang of it, and was honestly looking for an excuse to get away from it. But now, he’d accepted his duties fully as a king, embracing the role he’d been forced into. How could she possibly think he didn’t care about his friends? Besides Biden, they were the most important thing to him. They were certainly the closest thing he had to a family.
The papers on his desk caught his eye, and he was torn. His people needed him. Yet, he couldn’t let Lakita go on thinking he didn’t care. Nor any of his friends. If they needed him, he would be there for them. They were just as important as his subjects. With a sigh, he made up his mind, standing. “Lakita, wait!”
Teasel hurried toward the stable, where he found Lakita tightening Pearl’s saddle, unhappily. He stopped, watching her, a deep sadness weighing on him. Had he really hurt her so deeply?
Slowly, he moved toward her. “Lakita, you know I’d never put my job before my friends,” he said, shaking his head, desperate for her to believe him.
Lakita turned toward him with a deep frown. “Prove it.”
He spread his arms wide. “Alright…” He’d do whatever it took to prove how much she meant to him; to keep her from being hurt.
“Come riding with me.”
He nodded. “Alright, I will!”
Suddenly she burst into a wide smile, her anger gone in a flash, as though it were never there. “Good!” She grabbed a halter draped over Pearl’s saddle and tossed it to him. “Saddle up!”
Teasel stood in utter shock. Her anger really never had been there. It had all been an act, an attempt to get him out of his study and to take a break from his work. He couldn’t believe it, and yet he shouldn’t be surprised. It was just like Lakita.
He couldn’t keep the grin off his face. “You tricked me! You knew I’d come after you if I thought you were really mad at me! You miserable little liar!” He laughed, shaking his head in disbelief. “I can’t believe you did that!”
Lakita merely watched him with a smile, then nodded to Pearl. “Come on…”
He shook his head again as he moved past her into the stable to prepare his own horse.
The cool air of the evening was refreshing as it slapped Lakita in the face. Pearl moved effortlessly beneath her, even as they galloped quickly over the darkened landscape. There was something invigorating about riding at a fast pace, especially in the coolness of the evening. It awakened her senses and relaxed her mind. There was nothing to think about except enjoying the ride. It was rejuvenating; relaxing.
She glanced to Teasel, riding his beautiful brown stallion beside her. She hoped he was feeling refreshed, as well. That was the very reason she’d tricked him into coming with her in the first place. That, and she enjoyed his company, even if it was just the two of them galloping along in silence. Teasel’s stallion’s white stockings shone brightly in the growing darkness as she watched, speeding across the landscape in a blur. It reminded her that they would need to stop soon, so that the horses could rest, and so that they’d be able to see to get back.
She and Teasel allowed the horses to run freely for a bit longer, then came upon a pond and reined them to a stop. Enjoying every minute of their evening together, Lakita sighed, turning to her friend. “Tell me that wasn’t fun?”
Beside her, Teasel nodded, a wide smile spreading on his face. “That it was!”
He laughed, and in that moment, Lakita knew that she’d made the right decision, and that Teasel was feeling as relaxed and lighthearted as she was.
She grinned. “You see, now you’ll be all refreshed and ready to go back to work on those grievances.”
Teasel shook his head, dismounting. “No, now I’ll be much too tired to go back to work.”
He glanced back to her, grinning. Smiling again at his humor, Lakita dismounted as well. Teasel took a seat on a large rock facing the pond, and she sat on a similar one beside it. As she did so, Teasel sighed next to her, taking in the beauty all around them.
“I’d almost forgotten what it was like outside…” He said.
Lakita glanced to him as he spoke, seeing a bit of sad regret creep into his eyes. Before she could grow saddened herself at seeing him that way, she looked away, taking in the beauty along with him. The water rippled lightly in the gentle breeze, the starry sky above reflecting in its surface along with their own images. Her long, dark hair blew about gently in the same breeze that blew the water.
“It’s beautiful…” Teasel went on, seeming to speak her thoughts.
As she watched the reflections play in the water, she saw Teasel look to her, studying her. He swallowed, seemingly unable to speak, then quickly looked away, into the same pond she did. His brown eyes were as beautiful to her in the reflection as they were in real life, and as she watched his brown hair play about his tanned face, gently caressing his shoulders, she couldn’t seem to take her eyes off of him.
He cleared his throat, moving to pick up a flat stone at his feet. The movement pulled her from her thoughts, and she was relieved. She had no idea where they had come from. He had always been handsome, but she’d never noticed it as deeply as she had this night. The beauty of the evening seemed to hold her in a trance, where all she saw was beauty.
As Teasel threw the stone into the pond, it went skipping across the surface, causing the scene there to ripple and fade. The trance was broken.
“My father used to love to take me riding,” Teasel said, clearly changing the subject, as well as the mood of the evening. “I would have gotten my own horse when I was fifteen, a right of passage into kingship.” Sighing sadly, his regret returning, he picked up another stone and threw it into the pond. “But I left before that.”
Instead of skipping across the pond, the stone he had thrown sank to the bottom with a splash. As she watched, Lakita felt sure the sinking feeling reflected the way Teasel was suddenly feeling. She looked to him, growing concerned, and this time, she didn’t look away.
“You still wish you hadn’t of left?” She asked.
“No, just that I’d have had a few more years with my father.” He sighed, heavily. “I’ve no family left any more. Sometimes it’s lonely.”
Not knowing what to say to comfort him, Lakita nodded, then looked back to the pond, thinking along with her friend. While she was sure his thoughts were of the past, hers went to the present.
“Why are you so determined to work so hard?” She glanced to him, her concern for him deepening. “Why do you push yourself to the breaking point?”
She watched him as he kept his eyes on the pond, and it was clear that he was hesitant to answer. Finally, he sighed. “The people depend on me. I don’t want to let them down. They deserve my best. My fullest attention.”
Sadness threatened to overwhelm Lakita. She hated seeing her friend so worn and gloomy, yet she knew there was more he wasn’t saying. After a few minutes of silence slipped by without him saying more, she pressed him. “And?”
He looked to her, frowning with a furrowed brow. “And what? There’s nothing more.”
“Yes there is. And you can tell me.”
“Lakita, I don’t want to talk about this,” he said, shaking his head and turning away.
Lakita lowered her voice to a gentle whisper, not wanting to hurt her friend, but knowing he needed to talk about whatever it was he was avoiding. “Teasel, what are you ashamed of?”
He hesitated again, finally sighing as he turned to her. Deep pain was written in his brown eyes.
“You can tell me,” she assured him, still keeping her voice low. “You’ve confided in me much over the years.” Smiling, she took his hand in hers. “And I in you.”
Looking up, he met her eyes. They held each others’ gaze, speaking to one another without speaking. Teasel turned away, then, finally able to talk to her. She listened as he spoke, relieved.
“I just…” He sighed. “I still find it hard to trust myself sometimes.”
“A wise man once told me that we all learn to trust in our own time,” she said, smiling at the memory. “It’s an ongoing process. Trusting Biden, and trusting ourselves.”
Teasel turned back to her, sincerity in his voice. “I know what it is to let people down.” He shook his head, fighting back the pain. “I don’t want to do that again!”
She met his eyes again, willing him to believe her. After a minute, he returned her smile, and joy took her. It was a beautiful thing to see him smile. When he did, there seemed to be a brighter spark in his charming brown eyes. Her earlier thoughts at how handsome he was returned to her as silence engulfed them. Something new was stirring in her, and she couldn’t shake it away. Nor did she want to. She wondered if he was as lost in her eyes as she was in his, but in that moment, it didn’t matter. She leaned nearer him, seeing him do the same. Excitement buzzed through her as their lips were about to touch.
Suddenly a neigh broke the stillness. Instinctively, Lakita knew someone was approaching. Alarm broke the beautiful trance. Quickly, she stood to her feet, looking to the distance, reaching a hand toward the hilt of her sword. Beside her, Teasel had his sword drawn, ready for anything. Together they studied their surroundings, waiting.
A small, dark form soon came flying straight toward them. As it neared, it circled upward and landed on a low branch before them. Lakita let out the breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding as she took in the small, blue scaled form. “Galax!”
Allowing the relief to course through her, she turned to the young dragon before her. “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve information about this Winter Celebration Entertainment you’ve been going on about…”
“Really?! That’s great! I…”
She was interrupted by Teasel, who was studying the dragon before them in wonder. “You haven’t aged a bit in five years! Incredible!”
Galax frowned at the king. “And you haven’t gotten any wiser!”
Lakita turned to him, abruptly, shocked by his rude behavior. “Galax! Be kind!”
Galax merely shrugged, turning away.
“What did he say?” Teasel asked, unable to understand the dragon.
Lakita grinned, knowing what would annoy Galax. “Only that you’re much wiser than you were five years ago.”
She got the reaction she wanted as Galax gave a ‘humph,’ and she laughed.
“If you want the information I have, come home soon!” Galax said, unhappily, flying off.
Lakita tried to hold back another laugh as she waved after him. “Good-bye, Galax!”
Shaking her head, enjoying how easy it was to annoy her friend, Lakita turned to Teasel. “They age slower than we do. Five years to us is only one to them.”
Teasel nodded, taking it in, then his eyes caught on the sword still in his hand. A grin spread across his face as he swung it about. “I better get back. I’m not really supposed to be away from the castle without an armed escort.”
Lakita smiled. “You’re not really supposed to be taking a break from your paperwork, either.”
They both laughed as Teasel sheathed his sword. “See you later, Lakita,” he said, moving to his horse. He mounted it, then turned back to her. “And thanks.” He smiled. “It was nice to get away for awhile.”
She nodded, glad she’d done what she had. As he rode off, his smiling face stayed with her, and it would for several days.
The sound was deafening. Lakita had never heard anything quite like it. The best she could compare it to was a dying animal. No, several dying animals. She held her hands as tightly over her ears as she could, but still the sound penetrated. It was coming from the instruments of the four men standing before her. This was the entertainment Galax had claimed to have found, a band from Dentaria. Lakita regretted having ever listened to the young dragon, but at least he was there suffering with her.
He and the other young dragons with him were doing their best to bock out the sound, too. Clearly, they hadn’t listened to the band before telling Lakita that it was worth looking into. Fortunately, the sound soon stopped, or at least, the band members before her put down their various instruments. The sound in Lakita’s head, however, though it had faded, still throbbed there dully.
Looking to the men, she tried not to sound annoyed. “Thank you, gentlemen. I’ll keep your talents in mind for King Teasel’s celebration.”
Nodding happily, the men left the courtyard with their instruments. Lakita waited until they were gone before turning angrily on Galax.
“You call that talent?! I thought you had someone good lined up.” Sighing, she shook her head, her anger leaving her.
“Don’t look at me,” Galax said, shaking his head. “It was the best talent we could find. The only talent here in Dentaria, apparently. We’re more warriors than artists.”
Lakita turned to the other dragons, six in all besides Galax, all small, and all different colors. She was very grateful for their friendship. “What about you?” She asked them. “Don’t any of you dance? Or sing?”
She didn’t notice Marianna, her bluish scales shining in the light of the room, quickly duck her head. Instead, the flash of Pyxie’s pink scales as she grinned caught her eye.
“No, but I’ve heard you do,” Pyxie said.
“Oh, no!” Lakita said, quickly shaking her head. “Only to myself.”
“Well go on, let’s hear it!” A voice shouted merrily from behind her.
Lakita turned quickly to see who it belonged to, but she didn’t recognize the young man now standing before her, a broom in his hand. His darkly tanned skin was covered by the garb of a castle servant, his dirty-blonde hair tied back behind his neck, and his blue eyes held the same kindness his voice did.
He smiled, chuckling lightly to himself, when she didn’t say anything. “Don’t mind me. I’m only here to clean up the courtyard. Did I hear you say you’re looking for a singer?”
He went quickly about his work as he talked. Lakita watched him as she answered.
“Singer, musician, anything entertaining, really!”
The young man laughed. “Why not have your dragons do a flying ballet?”
“I don’t think they’re that coordinated.” It was Lakita’s turn to laugh. She ignored Galax’s cry of protest.
“Anyway, if it’s a good singer you want, you should try Durior. They’ve got all the artistic talents.”
“Well thank you, ah…”
Lakita nodded, pleased to have a name to put to the handsome face. “Mikanu. I appreciate your help.”
He responded by bowing to her. “Not a problem, my Lady.”
She offered him a slight bow of her head, and for a moment, she was unable to take her eyes off the kind smile that lifted the corners of his lips. Pulling herself away, she left the courtyard, her young dragons following. Thanks to Mikanu, she now knew where she’d seek out entertainment next.
Teasel had just begun to eat when the door of the dinning hall burst open behind him. Linaria and Ursa, who had been serving him food and drink, looked up quickly, shocked. Teasel didn’t share their shock, nor did he have to guess who was intruding upon him. Besides Calamus, there was only one so bold as to interrupt him whenever they saw fit.
“Hello Teasel. Busy?” Lakita’s voice said from behind him. She seemed awfully chipper.
“Just sitting down to lunch,” he replied, not looking to her.
“Good. I knew it would be a good time to meet with you.”
She grabbed a chair near him and turned it about to sit on it, backwards, able to do so easily since she wasn’t wearing a dress like most women did. Instead, she wore the tunic, blouse, and trousers that men wore, claiming she felt more comfortable and free in them.
Teasel glanced up in time to see seven small dragons fly to different perches around the room. They’d obviously followed Lakita into the room. Ever since she’d found them five years ago, they’d been like her shadows.
“I have good news.”
Lakita’s words drew his attention to her, and for the first time since she entered, he looked to her, grinning.
“Remember what you said about taking a break from royal duties? I’m trying to do that now.”
“Alright, then, our business is the same.”
As he watched the happy grin playing on her face, he almost wanted to grin back. She was good at what she did. No matter what way he found to spin it, she always found a way to make an excuse for it being alright that she was interrupting.
“Why don’t you come riding with me to Durior, and we can talk about it?” She continued.
The threatening grin faded immediately from Teasel’s mind. “Lakita… Are we really going to go through all this again? After lunch I need to get back to work.”
“But this is your work. It’s about the Winter Celebration.”
Now Teasel did grin, feeling he’d finally beaten her. “Then it can wait until our next council meeting.”
She stared at him, and he stared back, both wondering what she’d say next. Finally, she frowned, getting quickly to her feet.
“Fine.” She pointed a long finger at him, still frowning. “But I still say you need a break once in awhile. And I intend to give it to you!”
She turned on her heel and left, the young dragons leaping from their perches and following. Teasel laughed to himself as he watched them. It wasn’t often he beat Lakita at her game, and he had to admit, it felt good.
“She’s never going to quit, you know,” Ursa said, setting a glass of water on the table before him.
He met her eyes, sighing. “I know.”
They weren’t wrong. For the next several weeks, Lakita had tried numerous times, and numerous ways, to get Teasel to take a break from his work. Every time, she failed, but she didn’t give up. Teasel had to admire her persistence, as annoying and frustrating as it got for him. She certainly didn’t let something go once she’d set her mind on it.
Thoughts of how and when Lakita would try to whisk him away today kept Teasel’s mind distracted as he sat at his desk, trying to write out a list of things that needed done within the kingdom.
He had finally managed to focus on what he was doing, when Phillip entered from the hall. “My Lord, a letter from a grieving subject. She waits outside to meet with you.”
“Her name, Phillip?”
Teasel finished what he was in the middle of writing and looked up at Phillip.
“Kita, my Lord.”
Teasel thought on the name. It didn’t sound familiar, and yet, it did. Like a memory trying to resurface. “Kita…?”
Suddenly it registered. He stood quickly, moved around the desk, and walked quickly out of the room, past Phillip, taking the letter from him as he went.
“Thank you, Phillip,” he said as he passed by, inclining his head to him. Phillip responded with a bow, quickly closing the door after him.
Teasel slowed his quick pace as he reached the royal gardens. Walking through them always took his breath away. He loved taking in the beauty of the many different flowers blooming in the sunlight, accenting the greens of the hedges and bushes.
He rounded a curve in the stone walkway and stopped, seeing exactly who he’d expected sitting upon a bench before him. Lakita, the grieving subject who’d wanted to meet with him. She looked like she belonged there, only adding to the beauty of the garden about her.
As he moved toward her, she looked up at him with a sheepish grin. He held up the letter before her as he stopped, looking down at her.
“You really thought I’d forget what I called you that day five years ago?” He asked.
She studied him for a minute or two, then looked away, frowning. “You should want to.”
“But I don’t.” He smiled, glad of the memory she seemed to want to forget. “You may have caused my pain, but I didn’t care!”
He shook his, vigorously, remembering the moment like it was yesterday. His life was fading from him as poison coursed through his veins thanks to a stab wound he’d received from Lakita, and in that moment, seconds away from death, there was one thought that pierced the threatening blackness.
“There was no one else I wanted by my side at that time,” he explained to her.
Kneeling down before the bench, he tried to see her eyes. Slowly, she looked to him. He continued.
“No one else I wanted to heal me, but you.”
Her brows furrowed as he hesitantly reached out to put his hand over hers, which rested in her lap.
“But I couldn’t heal then.”
Teasel smiled up at her, nodding. “Yes you could. You just didn’t know it then.”
“But you did?”
He nodded again. “I had a feeling. I remembered how you helped Achillea nurse me back to health when I first arrived in Altissima.”
Lakita shrugged. “She did more than I did.”
“I remember you.”
She turned toward him, curiously, and their eyes meet. For a moment, Teasel didn’t want to look away. He never wanted to look away again. Years of memories flooded his mind. He and Lakita had been through so much together, and he only wanted that to continue.
He leaned closer to her, and she did the same, but just as their lips were about to touch, he pulled away, clearing his throat. Shaking his head, he stood.
“Well, I, ah, I better get back to my duties.”
He turned to go, ready to leave behind the confusing thoughts now stirring within his mind. Before he started away, he turned back, fixing Lakita with a stern look.
“No more distractions, Lakita.”
Seeing her unhappy expression, he grinned, wanting her to know he’d only been joking. Lakita didn’t seem to catch on, the serious look on her face remaining. She nodded.
“Fine,” she said, standing. “I’ve got my own job to do.”
She left quickly, seeming lost in deep thought. Teasel frowned, confused by her sudden change in mood. Was it his determination to get her to stop distracting him? Was it the talk they were having about the past? Was it that they’d almost… He shook his head, quickly, chasing the thoughts away, not wanting to think about them, then hurried back into the castle, and to his work.