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When the smoke faded, and Sumina’s senses returned to her, she apologized. Royland said nothing. He shook his head and could only offer a reassuring smile. There was not much to say. The stress of those few moments was gone, the weight on his chest seemingly lifted. Castien rose a brow, impressed at the symbiotic nature of Royland and Sumina’s emotions. Curious, he thought.
Walter brewed everyone a cup of gold’s root to have with their dinner that night. Decidedly, it had been primarily for Sumina, but upon seeing the weary, deadened look in Royland’s eyes, he thought against singling her out. There had been only two other people to have exhausted him so thoroughly. To make him question if the softness in his heart was ever necessary at all. Harrenhal’s words were probably swimming in his head.
That night, he felt the warmth of Sumina’s hand leave his. It might have gone unnoticed, had he been fully asleep. No, Royland had not been sleeping as well as he was meant to. Hearing Sumina cry out to him in that anguished voice, feeling his chest for the presence of an arrow that was not there – that was never there. That image of her eyes, aimless, darting around tracking something that he couldn’t see, had scorched itself into his mind. When she rose, so did he, inhaling sharply, having been on the edge of consciousness.
There she stood, on unsteady legs, as defiant as ever. Royland frowned, shook his head, and whispered quietly. No one else need be disturbed at this hour. “What are you doing? …You seem…troubled.” He glanced to her feet, pointed in the direction of the cart. A walk. Of course. Their eyes met, and he relented, immediately. The last thing they needed was for her to collapse somewhere, out of sight, while Meriel was recalled. Had they been several hundred feet closer to the sea, the night might have been somewhat bearable. But elevated in the mountains of Madej, the night air was more bitter, unforgiving. Royland placed a cloak over her shoulders, and allowing her to use him as her aid, they walked. “Only for a bit. You really should rest.”
Royland thought this the best of times to return the favor of their previous conversation. He asked her all of the lessons she learned while growing up, from her parents, her brothers. What it was like to grow up an ordinary soul, or, as ordinary as it may be for the Elves. What made up the structure of their communities, and how, at least to him, had they managed to stay so peacefully organized while marginalized? Well, peaceful until recently…
But that was neither here nor there. There were other things he wanted to know. To hear about. What music did she prefer? Could she play any instruments? “Or, perhaps… Can you sing?” He recounted his days of learning choral hymns to aid in his harpsichord lessons. He sang tenor. As a man, he could recall his frequent mistakes growing up with a chuckle, though most of them ended with the receipt of a strike. “The classics are a trifle boring… I only added modulation to liven it up… My efforts were wholly unappreciated.” He winked.
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] Sumina spent most of that day asleep or seemingly unaware of where she was. Or which language she mumbled things in. Things Meriel saw. Things from her dreams. She did not dream as often anymore of those she hadn’t been able to save, lives that slipped through her fingers, but all that day they plagued her. When she wasn’t talking of animals, trees, and water that was not there, she cried and pleaded for people to not die. Half in Elvish, half not.
In the lucid moments where she saw the others she was the most calm. She would try to seem alright, or only be half aware of where she was and ask when they were leaving. But at least she knew who she spoke to then. All of them men were concerned, but what could they do but wait and keep moving? Castien had said there was nothing they could do.
Meriel came late into the afternoon, but well before dark. It was during one of the more lucid moments, where Sumina had insisted on sitting up, though she had to lean against Royland to stay up. “How much farther? I can keep going. Just a little longer.”
Meriel still held her form, but there were faint whisps of black smoke trailing off her. The snow leopard huffed audibly, her ears flat back,[+darkgreen [i I knew something was wrong. You are strong, girl, but unskilled.]]
Sumina looked at Meriel, and seemed confused. “[+darkgreen What? No, I’m fine. Really.]”
With an irritated growl Meriel came closer. She pushed past Royland and put her paws up on Sumina’s shoulders, knocking her back down. “Meriel?”
Castien held Royland back, to keep him from interfering,”Let them argue. Meriel won’t hurt her. [i This] is what she needs. [+darkgreen My water lily] is too stubborn for anything less, isn’t she?”
Meriel bared her teeth,[+darkgreen [i We both know better. You should have called me. I like this stubborn streak in you, girl, but I will not tolerate stupidity.]]
“[+darkgreen It’s not… stupid…]” Sumina was feeling dizzy looking up at Meriel. It was like she was looking at Meriel and herself at the same time, somehow. An unpleasant feeling.
[+darkgreen [i You are blinded by love and fear, then. Call me back, girl. You will learn to handle this, handle me, but not by simply pig-headedly pushing yourself to exhaustion. I can feel other familiars near. Soon, very soon, they will thwart your brother for us. Call. Me. Back.]] Meriel was growling, her tail slowly moving back and forth. It looked like she might attack, and the men aside from Castien seemed scared that might be a possibility, but none of them moved forward.
“Meriel… I feel… so…”
[+darkgreen [i You tap into a power you do not know how to control. Call me back. Your everything there is worrying himself ill over you.]]
Royland was? Sumina finally managed to look away from Meriel, though she was feeling sort of nauseous,”Meriel, return.”
The snow leopard vanished in black smoke, and Sumina just laid there, a little dazed. But that sensation of seeing two things at once that had left her so disoriented was gone. “I’m sorry. If I worried you.” It might have been directed at everyone, but her gaze had fallen to Royland. She could still remember that dream. An arrow in his chest. Blinded by love and fear. Meriel’s assessment there was accurate enough. Sumina covered her face with her hands,”I feel so tired.”
Sumina was tired, but that evening she was already improving. She knew where she was the whole time after calling Meriel back. She ate, and laid down to sleep early. The only problem was, her mind was still restless from her troubled dreams earlier, and another nightmare came.
The bad dream made her wake sometime deep in the night. She was breathing heavily, her hand still in Roylands, like it had been when she had fallen asleep. The fire was down to coals. She had barely been able to move for days and felt the need for a walk, even a short one. Perhaps only to the cart and back to clear her head. Sumina tried to carefully slip away, but her legs felt so weak under her. It took her more effort, but she did get to her feet.
Royland was almost worried on the third day. She hadn’t spoken – only slept. The kiss was his only reassurance. Unfortunately, Sumina must not have noticed Sirius, who was watching closely, for any opportunity to help. Royland shot him a look, held his fingers to his lips. The knight said nothing, and no one else saw… they’d hoped. That night, Meriel’s presence did not go unnoticed by the group. Castien rolled his eyes, watching the large cat nudge against Royland, undoubtedly giving her blessing for him to watch over Sumina. Unfair. A Vondien did not deserve such privilege. No, Castien was sure. Sure that Royland was merely days away from giving in to the selfish call of the blood in his veins. They would all see, soon enough. All have to come to terms with it.
That fourth day, not long after Walter had reassured him, Royland responded with haste to Sumina’s pleas, attempting to rouse her from her confused state while she touched his chest. Searching for something. An arrow? But, not him?
“Sumina? Sumina, can you hear me?” Royland placed a hand on her cheek, trying to catch her gaze. No such luck. Walter asked Castien what to do, but the answer received was not one that any of them wanted to hear.
"Then [i you] do something!" The panic amongst the group had agitated Alain. His eyes almost seemed to bulge out of his skull, sick of hearing Castien's vague niceties as a means to absolve himself. To stand idly by. "What was that fowl's name? Avida? Call him forth! Send him for Lady Sumina's familiar!"
"A-VI-RA." Castien's face fell into a frown as he stressed every syllable. Sirius stood in between the two bickering men, closer to Alain, in case one of them thought to strike. He looked at Royland for some modicum of support, but his hands were tied with Lady Sumina in his arms. The expression on his face was one of painful concern, those helpless eyes, of a man who could do nothing for a woman who had never wronged him. Walter was equally deep in thought. No, it was up to him.
"Come now, Alain, don't be so--"
"Will you aid her? Or will you remain ambivalent to her suffering?"
Castien shook his head. "[#005500 I would never...]" He muttered, quietly. "There is nothing we can do for her." Alain lashed out over Sirius' shoulder, grabbing and clawing at the merchant. He began to yell. Insults of all kinds. Castien took a step back, as Sirius was doing all of the necessary work of keeping the king's rabid dog out of his personal space.
Upon hearing the commotion, Walter rushed to Sirius' aid. Royland, having laid Sumina down, stood and ordered his men to stand down. Meaning Alain.
"[i [b Silence!]]" Castien was stunned. His voice seemed to unsteady the trees, on this windless day. There was a light but noticeable echo throughout the hills. Surely, the Sirens themselves even took notice. So this was the charisma of kings... Unrivaled.
"You had best teach your [i dog] its place, King Vondien."
The glare received as a result of that statement sent a chill down Castien's spine, if only for a moment. There was no reason to fear Royland. But those eyes. That gaze. Not long ago, it had been directed at a threat to he and his men's lives, their mission. He would have to make sure he would never be on the receiving end of it, ever again. Even if it was merely a courtesy to ensure he could stay close to his water lily. Alain, no longer needing to be restrained, roughly pulled himself out of Walter and Sirius' grip, straightening out his cloak and the clothes underneath.
"So, then," He growled, "How in the Siren's names do we keep her 'lucid,' as you say?"
"Castien." Royland's voice was soft, genuine. That ice-cold glare had gone. His eyes were on Sumina, whose hand he had taken into his own as he knelt beside her. "She needs us."
If he could never refuse Sumina, then it could be said, that he could never refuse anyone who only had her interests at heart, at least for the moment. “We keep moving. Stay by her side. Meriel [i should] return on her own.” It wouldn’t be long now. The gates were but a half day’s travel away. “[#005500 Hold on, my water lily].”
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] That third day Sumina was less up for even conversation. She dozed uneasily from time to time, always jerking awake at some bump. She would wait until Royland helped her from the cart to steal a quick kiss she thought no one would see.
That night Meriel returned, but Sumina was already half asleep, holding onto Royland. Meriel said nothing, could say nothing to Royland, but looked at them both for a little, then nudged at Royland, as if to say to look after her, before wandering off.
The fourth morning Sumina did not wake so easily, nor was her sleep so peaceful. Flashes of things came. Meriel pacing the forest. Sumina saw through her eyes. Smelled the forest in a way she never had before. Watched for Tanyl, or any other familiar Vaeril would send. Vaeril, who would kill Royland if given the chance. Her sleeping vision of Meriel’s surroundings turned to an actual nightmare. Memory blended with fears.
Royland with an arrow in the chest. The blood. He couldn’t breathe, he struggled to take any air, then he wasn’t breathing at all. And the eyes, no longer seeing. That was when she woke on the cart. But she had no idea where she was.
“[+darkgreen No no no no no. Royland.]” Sumina pushed herself up. Her voice broke with grief, clear no matter the language. “[+darkgreen Vaeril, you can’t. I’ll never… Where…]”
Her distress didn’t go unnoticed. Right away the others were watching. The only one that she seemed to really see was Royland when he came to her. Confusion, worry, and finally relief. She had to feel for herself, with her own hands, his chest,”The arrow. I thought…”
It hadn’t been him though. No, she remembered that injury. That death. An elvish boy, a hunting accident. She couldn’t save him. But that wasn’t Royland. “Not you. It wasn’t you.”
Sumina sagged against him. Meriel again. “[+darkgreen No, just a bird.] I’ll see better from the tree. [+darkgreen Nothing will slip past. He will not find the trail. So many little birds. Catch one, just for fun? No, Meriel.]”
“[+darkgreen Water lily, look at me.]” Castien had come up. He looked serious. “Look at me. There is no bird.”
Her eyes were unfocused. She wasn’t seeing any of them, at least not at the moment. Castien was frowning and made a little click with his tongue,”Not good. Our lovely [+darkgreen water lily] is beginning to wilt under the stress.”
“What do we do?” Walter was hoping for some solution. An herb or root he could find to help her.
Castien shook his head. “We? We do nothing. Save perhaps try to keep her more or less lucid.”
While Sumina rested, Royland recounted to her all the answers to her numerous questions. How he was never allowed into contact with books of Elvish origin, or with Elvish authors. But that he had always been interested. Harrenhal, to ensure his son had the best odds of securing an advantageous political union, made it of the utmost importance for Royland to study literature, poetry, history, music, and geography [i extensively].
He could prattle off the greatest composers from each of the major continents in the known world, and their most popular works. Quite often, to clear his mind, he would take to the castle’s harpsichord, one of the only activities from childhood that he tended to enjoy. If only for the memories of his unforgiving, but encouraging, teacher, who had long since passed. He also sheepishly admitted that he was quite fond of trying new foods, encouraging the madame that oversaw his kitchen to ‘surprise him’ more often than not. Generally, she always delivered, expanding upon his favorite foods from childhood. Hearty stews, colorful vegetables, meats tenderized with honey and garnished with fresh thyme. The daily duties of a king were fairly mundane, save for the rare entertaining of other nobles that he took part in, and mainly out of necessity, then. Listening to the pleas of the people, now including Elves, his work had doubled in the four years since his father’s death. Voting for and passing edicts concerning trade routes had also increased. Recently, there had been calls to expand the boneyard to accommodate only the Elvish residents. It had been the edict on his desk when he received the information about the plans concocted against him. His staff was still in the preliminary stages of determining whether it was a genuine request, or an act of discrimination.
The way her hand lingered on his cheek, falling limp only when she fell asleep, warmed him. He glanced towards the trees. But, eventually, he too, would fall asleep. Inadvertently with Sumina in his arms. When the sun rose the next morning, Walter had been the one to wake him, all with a smile on his lips, quietly ribbing his friend while he tried to gently lie Sumina down without waking her. Just as he’d stepped off the cart, Meriel approached. And a conversation, which none except the Elvish could follow, ensued. A heated one, at that.
Sumina spoke somewhat desperately to Meriel, spat fire at Castien, who returned with a calm, but exasperated demeanor. The human men in tow became increasingly invested in the back and forth, even though they could scarcely grasp what was going on. Eyes began to fall on Walter, who held his hands up, insisting he didn’t understand one word being spoken. What was understood, was the look Castien gave to Royland before turning his back, loading the cart. Sirius stepped forward to assist.
What was passed on, greatly disturbed Royland, but he thought it best not to let it show. Instead, he put his thumbs to his lives, a passive stare cast out towards Meriel, Avira, and the trees. “The day after tomorrow…” With her brothers on the trail, though they hadn’t been found yet. How had they recovered so quickly? The world around him began to fade away into nothing, worry was beginning to overrun his heart. Only Alain’s hand on his should knocked him out of his own thoughts, and he offered a reassuring glance to quell any fears. Mostly his own. Once the cart was loaded, it was only the sound of their boots hitting the ground comforting them for the remainder of their travels. The night came swiftly – almost too swiftly – and Royland considered requesting that they simply keep moving. The unpreparedness to face Sumina’s brothers again, of having to rely on Castien, was concerning. Ultimately, seeing how gravely Sumina’s condition deteriorated, he kept his mouth shut. Tending to her all the same in the night. When the morning came, their last intended full day of travel, he made it a point not to wake her. The bumps along the dirt path all but assured him she would be awake, soon, however. Worriedly, he watched her face as he trailed behind the cart, eyes on her the entire time.
“You worry too much.” Walter offered a smile, and Royland chuckled in response. “She isn’t used to all this exertion, but she should last until we get where we’re going…” She [i did] insist she could make it that far. But Royland wasn’t so sure. He wasn’t well-versed in the ways of the Elves’ magic, rituals, and what it required of them to sustain. Perhaps, Castien, might have some books on the subject. So, he’d asked. Castien seemed utterly surprised by such a question. But it was a sense of pleasantness.
“In your language?” He thought for a moment. “I may. I’ll see what I can find. Translations are rare.”
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] While Royland stayed by her, held her hand, she didn’t fuss about resting. She was so tired. “I’ll be fine. Just a little tired.”
Her magic, her energy, sustained Meriel’s form. And Meriel didn’t need to sleep. Or eat. She only needed a constant supply of magic to remain physical. Sumina was not used to the constant drain. Nor the strain the ritual itself put on the summoner. She was sure she could manage though. Whatever it would take. Vaeril would not get another shot at Royland.
Castien’s familiar was stunning. The brightly colored bird seemed to suit him, and the bird was so proud. Not without reason, with such lovely feathers. Avira was his name? Before she could ask anything about the familiar she stared at with some wonder, Castien had taken her hand. Sumina half smiled,”I’m sure everything is fine. But if it makes you feel better. [+darkgreen Thank you, Avira.]” She directed her thanks to the beautiful bird. With pride like that, she doubted Avira would appreciate being ignored. Even if she couldn’t understand him, she knew he could understand her perfectly.
At all the concern, Sumina just smiled, withdrawing her hand from Castien to wave almost dismissivly,”I really am alright. I should just rest a little. Tea would be lovely, and then we should continue. You don’t need to slow down on my account.”
In fact, she suspected it was better that they didn’t. The longer this went on, the less certain she was that she could sustain it. The tea helped, mildly. She spent the rest of that afternoon sitting in the cart, leaned back, but keeping Royland near. Holding his hand, and questioning him about small things. Did he read much? She’d heard the castle had quite the collection of books. And she admitted that while she could read and write in Elvish perfectly well, her ability to read and in particular write in his language was a little more shaky. She wondered about what he did in his free time, and what duties a king really had day-to-day. His favorite foods. And when she thought no one was really looking, she would brush his hair back or caress his face momentarily, just enjoying his company.
That second day there was worry, but it passed pleasantly enough for her. She felt a peace and happiness with his hand in her hair, and a kiss shared in the quiet evening. She wanted more, a little, but felt more content than she had before,”Mmm, more often than others would like.”
Her hand against his cheek, lingering longer this time since the others were sleeping and not watching. Her smile was warm, and holding back a small laugh. Her eyes were soft, but quickly clouding with sleep. She couldn’t keep herself awake much longer,”You speak as if you wouldn’t do the same. You are often too hard on yourself, Royland.”
[center [b ~*~*~]]
Meriel was prowling some distance behind and away, seeing that no one followed. The first day had been uneventful. The second day there was something. A bird familiar overhead. A hawk. Meriel had rather fiercely demanded answers from.
After a brief exchange, there was a fight. Meriel emerged victorious, as she knew she would, while the hawk faded to smoke and dispersed, back to their summoner. Then the second bird that day appeared some hours later.
“[i [+darkgreen Another? No. The direction you came. Who is your summoner? Answer quickly. I have no patience for threats to my girl.]]”
“[i [+darkgreen I am Avira. The boy that summons me is Castien.]]” Avira had his feathers on display, but was eyeing Meriel cautiously. She was a beautiful cat, and not one he wanted to fight. “[i [+darkgreen You are Meriel?]]”
Meriel came closer and sat opposite to Avira,“[i [+darkgreen Yes. What, does he think I need help? I’m quite capable.]]”
Before Meriel could stand to continue her watch, Avira interrupted with a huff,“[i [+darkgreen Of course not. But the girl weakens. Castien sent for you. She’s unable, unskilled.]]”
Meriel paused, her tail swishing back and forth,“[i [+darkgreen I suspected. She is strong, but unskilled. But she sent me for good reason. They are being followed. Come, help me obscure the path, create false trails, and then I will return.]]”
The two did not return until into the night, and remained quiet, watching the camp until the morning.
That third morning, while the others woke, Sumina remained asleep. Meriel approached, and nudged her awake. She explained to Sumina what had happened yesterday, and Sumina listened with a serious expression. Vaeril’s hawk, Tanyl, had been there. So her brothers had recovered and were looking for the trail again.
“[+darkgreen Meriel, please keep watch a little longer. Keep them away. I can’t… I can’t let them.]” She was petting Meriel’s head and neck. She had only sat up, and it took effort to do that. She hadn’t tried to stand yet. She suspected she might not be able to without help.
“[+darkgreen Water lily, are you quite sure that’s wise? We’ll be to safety soon.]” Castien approached and knelt down.
Sumina met his gaze with the fiercest look she could manage,”[+darkgreen How soon, Castien? Before, or after my brothers catch up and slaughter my friends? Is this place even safe? What does your employer want with us?]”
Castien said nothing for several tense seconds. She was pale, tired, and if it weren’t for holding Meriel she might have fallen over. Yet that fire in her eyes. Her determination and will. She was captivating. Impossible to refuse. Castien finally sighed, running a hand through his hair,”[+darkgreen I ask again. How could any man refuse you? I would walk to my doom for you. The day after tomorrow we should arrive. Barring any delays. The place is well protected, even from familiars. And I will let my employer explain herself. But if I thought she would harm you, I would hide you away and never let her lay eyes on you.]”
He reached for her cheek, but she turned her head away and Castien had to withdraw his hand. He shot a brief, frustrated look at Royland, but then stood to help load the cart. Sumina sighed,”Day after tomorrow. I can last until then. And then Castien seems to think we’ll be safe.” She looked at Royland. Now even she was worried,”Meriel saw one of my brothers familiars. They’re looking for the trail again. They haven’t found it yet, thanks to her.”
[i Vondien or not, I want you.]
Those words bounced around in Royland’s head all night, and into the next morning. The monk had been correct. The Sirens had allowed the stars to align. Often, he would agonize over Lenoir’s actions at night, having thrown himself into his training or responsibilities as prince, then King, as a distraction from the heartache she had caused him. Frequently he would receive her messengers from her father, asking when their kingdoms were to be joined in union. More frequently, he would send them away, citing that when the issues with the Elves had been resolved, he would see to it that they would marry. A political marriage, with no love, conceiving children out of mere necessity, dooming them to the life that he was forced to live.
Those cynical thoughts of the past had melted away. What was once dark was now bathed in sunlight – Royland awoke the morning after, bleary eyed, and with his hand still in Sumina’s. As he watched her that day, whimsically moving about, wistfully placing flower crowns on their heads, his smile never left him. The way her hips, feet, her gentle touch, sang to him. It soothed his frigid waters and turned it to a tepid pond. Peace. He had never known such happiness. He had never felt such love.
Alain and Sirius fell in line with Royland, eyeing him with smiles on their faces. What happened, to put such a shine in your eyes? To make Sumina prance around as though she were walking on air? They wanted details, but Royland’s silence was golden. There was nothing that they could make him say, that would risk the memory of their first kiss, keep it from remaining just theirs. It didn’t change the fact that they were happy, to see, for the moment, that their friends were in good spirits. Any such development was advantageous to them.
The lightheartedness began to fade on the second day, when Sumina so obviously became exhausted. Royland had stayed close under Walter’s urging, and much to Castien’s chagrin. He was glad that he did. No sooner than the berries had fallen, did Royland allow her to use him to stand on her own two feet. Cradling her waist, a hand on her forehead to assess if she had any fever. Nothing. Perhaps it was Meriel? This must have been what Walter had warned her about that night.
“You should rest.” It wasn’t a question, nor was it a matter of choice. Taking the weary elf off of her feet, Royland carried her some paces to Castien’s cart, hopping in alongside her, holding her hand. The canvas they used as bedding served as a proper headrest, for now. How far was Castien going to take them? Would it be any place they could get help? Reluctantly, Castien and Royland made eye contact. The former eyed him with disdain, before Royland had to ask, “What shall we do for her?” That look in the King’s eyes, Castien thought; such strength of will, such belief – the optimistic glance of a man who could not truly understand what it meant to take part in the ritual for familiars.
Castien smiled slyly. “With sunlight, and love, the flower shall not wither.”
“Enough dancing around with prose!” Alain strained his voice, so as not to yell. Better not to make too much fuss, otherwise Sumina might insist she were fine, or worse, lightly scold him for doubting her. But it was plainly obvious. She was weak, unable to stand on her two feet for longer than a moment. Castien was not blind. All eyes were on him, as they paused, waiting for him to decide what their next move was. And it was… hard. [i [b She]] never took kindly to him arriving behind schedule.
“Let us rest, [#005500 water lily].” Just what was Meriel trying to do? “…Avira, come forth.” Sirius seemed to jump back, startled by the black smoke surrounding Castien’s body. From the of smoke rose a beautifully colored peafowl. Upon the sight of onlookers, its tail fully spread, unabashedly, its chest proudly pushed out, as it strut to the side of its master. There seemed to be a light emitting from the brilliant greens and blues. Avira allowed the sun to magnify his greatness, basking in the awestruck stares he was receiving.
[#005500 [i Calling me to do your bidding? You must think me your servant.]] Castien shook his head, chuckling lightly.
[#005500 “Come now, Avira, do not show your onlookers such an unbecoming disposition.”] Casually, Castien walked to Sumina’s unoccupied hand, grasping it lightly and laying a kiss on top. Royland frowned. Did this man have no shame? [#005500 “Fear not, water lily. I will send for Meriel.”]
Royland looked to Walter for some measure of comfort, seeing as how Castien was occupied by his own hubris. "Has she, maybe, taught you anything about lessening fatigue?" Walter's eyes lit up, and he dashed between the trees, shouting that he would return shortly. "Sumina, are you alright?"
"Have you been getting proper rest?" Alain leaned over the edge of the cart, curiously examining Royland's accosting of her hand. He said nothing, turning his head as Walter returned with several bushels of a flowering plant, yellow in color. "What is that, now?"
"Gold's root. Perfect for exhaustion. I'll make some tea, Lady Sumina." A small fire was lit. Sirius fetched the water, Alain helped Walter to grind the gold’s root to a fine powder, using a pestle and mortar that Castien, luckily, had on hand. Avira had still not yet returned, even after all was said and done. Hours passed. And all the while, Royland stayed close to Sumina, especially when the other men had seemingly laid down for the night. He stroked her hair, almost absentmindedly, frowning slightly.
“You take on much too much at once. Are you often like this?” Confidant no eyes were on them, he stole a kiss. Just one. Best not to get carried away. If this was, indeed, the price of the ritual, it did not seem worth it to risk one's health and well-being. "We won't be in any sort of shape at all if you overwork yourself..."
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] “[i [+darkgreen You want him to claim you. You love him.]]” Meriel had waited until they were back at the site of the ritual to start, her tone teasing and knowing. It was clear to both of them who she meant. Royland.
“I never said that.” Embarrassment burned her cheeks. She tried to focus on the task at hand. Gather things, wash them in the river. The water was cold, but she didn’t want to return a bloody bowl and knife to Castien.
Meriel was pacing around Sumina’s legs,”[i [+darkgreen You didn’t need to. It’s obvious. Remember, girl, I can see. I can feel you. Even now, you yearn for him. That warmth you feel in his arms.]]”
“[+darkgreen Maybe.]” There wasn’t any denying things with Meriel. She articulated things Sumina hadn’t completely put together herself. The snow leopard familiar made an amused sound and rubbed her head up against Sumina’s legs. Sumina smiled down at her,”You’re very pushy, you know.”
Meriel purred,”[i [+darkgreen I know. I’m impatient. You two will make beautiful children. I love children.]]”
“Meriel!” Sumina’s embarrassment just amused the familiar, who decided to let the subject drop for now, and let her summoner finish the cleaning. While Sumina calmed down and cleaned, Meriel prowled near Sumina, keeping watch for anyone that might come close.
The person to approach pleased her. Sumina was just stacking everything together when Meriel alerted her, just before she would have noticed anyway,”[i [+darkgreen Your everything is here. He’s alone.]]”
She shot a quick look at Meriel, who just passed by Royland to continue to prowl. Then she smiled at Royland, a little bashful. After all of Meriel’s teasing… But Meriel was right. His hand was so deliciously warm to her freezing fingers. Her eyes half closed as she leaned her cheek against his hand.
His worry about their fates being bound. She wanted to comfort him, to erase that concern. But he was so close, it was hard to think, let along articulate, that she didn’t mind. It didn’t bother her. That in fact, she wanted this. Soft, gentle, and shy at first. Their lips met two, three, four times. She lost count. Only parting enough to breathe, before one or both of them pressed for more. Each kiss different, but no less sweet than the last. The hand not entwined with his found his chest, then his shoulder. If the others had come stomping through the trees she didn’t think she’d have noticed right away. She was lost in a sea of a thousand kisses.
But they couldn’t stay all night. Sumina felt almost dizzy. She let her nose brush against his, but refrained from another kiss, barely. “[+darkgreen I want you. Vondien or not.]” It took her a moment to realize what language she’d even whispered in, and on realizing she repeated herself,”I don’t care if you’re a Vondien or not. I want you.”
With one last kiss, this time on the inside of his wrist, it was time to gather things and head back. When they returned the others all seemed to be asleep. Even Castien seemed to be laying down, though really he wasn’t quite asleep yet. He’d been waiting.
Sumina tried to stay awake longer, after sending Meriel off, asking her to see that they weren’t being followed, and to warn if they were. She wanted to sit up and wait, but agreed to lay down. Only by him, and she kept hold of his hand until exhaustion pulled her to sleep.
Even in the morning Sumina was in good spirits. She spent the day cheerful, and on and off the cart, at least for the morning, though as time went on she got more tired and less likely to pick something she saw. She would spot things she wanted to pick and collect. Small wild flowers that were beginning to bloom. Castien would sometimes comment on the flowers she picked, or add to her collection with ones he picked himself, reciting scraps of poetry related to the type of flower. Sometimes in Elvish, sometimes not. It was a happy way to pass the time, and she worked the flowers into rings. Flower crowns, not as full as she’d like or could get when spring flowers really bloomed, but she was happy to have any flowers. The first for her, while the second she rather tentatively placed on Royland’s head, worried he may reject it, or think it silly. When he didn’t, she had beamed, let her fingers linger over his cheeks affectionately, and continued to make ones for the others. Walter. Sirius. Alain. And finally even Castien was wearing a wreath of flowers on his head by the time they stopped for the evening.
That night, Sumina had sat at the fire after eating, her knees tucked against her chest, and soon after fallen asleep like that. Too tired to keep her eyes open, despite her attempt to, and she had to be laid to bed. Castien and Walter suspected then she may have bitten off more than she could chew with Meriel, but the next morning she seemed back to normal, collecting flowers, herbs, and food while they traveled. Neither had raised the issue yet.
It was when the sun was high that second day that it became impossible to ignore that something was wrong with her. She was getting more tired, but hadn’t wanted to let that slow her down or worry the others. Sumina hopped off the cart again, a little more unsteady that usual. Just off the road a few early berries on a thorny bush. Picking them, she had started to feel tired again. When she started back for the cart, she had to stop, leaning against a tree. The berries fell. She looked a little pale, and had to take slow, deep breaths. Meriel was doing [i something], but Sumina couldn’t quite tell what. It was more intensive than simply prowling and watching. Was it Vaeril?
Now alone with the men of the camp, Royland stifled a yawn, just as Sumina disappeared with Meriel beyond the trees, leaving Castien in her wake. He couldn’t understand, generally, what was being said, but attempted to pay it no mind. Sumina had looked at him before she left. He wondered, what did Castien ask her?
Walter took his place in-between Sirius – already snoring lightly – and Royland, who sat a little way back, against a tree. Davin was the one that had taught him, never to leave his back exposed. Especially while on the move, in unfamiliar territory. Sleep, walk, speak lightly. Carry your head high and always have your wits about you. [i You’re a Vondien, boy.] That lesson had always stuck with Royland. He gripped at his sleeve, fingertips brushing gently against the marks that lie underneath. A battered, war torn body, with many reminders of a life that mere strangers had deemed he was no longer worthy to live. His eyes drifted off towards the trees. Perhaps not strangers, anymore.
The camp was quiet, save for the crackling of the fire, and the chirping of the crickets. Finally, Alain had returned, and sitting opposite from Walter began to snap branches and throw them into the waning fire.
“It almost bring back memories…” Walter and Royland perked their heads upwards. “Back when we were but lads. Out traipsing in the woods when we grew tired of Davin’s tyrannical reign.”
Walter couldn’t help but chuckle, “It was always [i your] idea, Alain. We just went along with it.”
Royland rolled his eyes, nudging Walter’s side. “You mean you had to go along with it. You’re the eldest. Couldn’t very well stick around with the prince and his two squires off gallivanting, now could you?”
Quiet, but hardy laughter left their mouths, so as not to wake Sirius. For the moment they paused, but when they heard him still sound asleep, they started again. There was some apprehension when all became quiet once more, listening to their surroundings for any sign of trouble, lured by their brief moment of joy in a bleak journey.
“I do wonder what came over him… to have it all end like [i that].” Alain muttered quietly. Silence, yet again. Castien finally seemed to look over, his interest thoroughly piqued. For their expressions to have fallen so far from the jovial ones held just before, there must be a painful memory embedded in that statement. For all of them. And just as expected, Royland rose to his feet. Casually meandering off in Sumina’s direction.
“You all should sleep. I’ll take first watch tonight.” Then, he was gone. Castien frowned, but decided he would, for now, let sleeping dogs lie, and would tend to his horse. Best not to cause any more trouble for Sumina, tonight. Emotions were high, in this group. Advantage or disaster? He had yet to find out.
Royland was struck by what he saw when he stepped from behind the trees. A breath hitched in his throat, hard, and painful. His pulse quickened. There she was, bathed in moonlight, with Meriel close by. The light from the full moon shone off of her white hair, and Meriel’s white fur. Is this what it was like for all men that saw her, for the first time? The men in Pimli, Ulrich, Castien – Royland had always seen her, but never had the chance to regard her without frequent interruptions. The gentle way walked, a calm, demure, and neutral expression when she didn’t know she was being watched. How she seemed only to move with purpose, at all times. She was perfect. Unequivocally beautiful.
Meriel seemed to notice immediately. Royland nodded, acknowledging her, before stepping any closer to Sumina. The hitch in his throat had gone now, giving way to those familiar hems and haws that she must have grown tired of, by now.
“I simply… wanted to make sure you were alright. In the cold… and in the dark.” His hand reached forwards for hers, and he ran his thumb across her knuckles, as she had done for him, earlier. Slowly, gently. Testing the waters. What else was he to say? That he could not stand to be separated, for fear that something or someone might endanger her? Surely not. Not with Meriel close at hand. But what was this desire he felt creeping up inside of him? As he remembered their embrace just earlier, his free hand crept up to her cheek. Again, his pulse quickened. Any more, he thought, and his heart might give out.
“What do you… think about having your fate crossed with a Vondien…?” His gaze was apprehensive, although the question had already left his mouth. “At times, I remember the monk’s words… and I feel at ease. And at others, I feel much like today. I… feel as though I put you in plenty of undue danger…” He closed his eyes, for just a moment. Breathed. Relaxed, but just a bit.
It was a valid question. And he did have a valid concern. This, he knew. She may try to reassure him, but it would only quash those worries on the surface. The burning – he could feel it all over, now. In his hands, his feet, his chest, his face… he asked, again, what he had asked at the encampment, leaning forward.
“…Do you trust me?” It was unfair to never give her the chance to answer, but he was already too close. Softly, at first, their lips met briefly. But it wasn’t enough. Back he went, for more, bringing their hands together, intertwining their fingers together. Still, he made sure to cradle her face gently, always allowing her the option to pull back, reject him fiercely, if she wished. He had hoped, she wouldn’t. Prayed she wouldn’t.
[i [b I am thou, thou art I]]
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] Meriel was clearly pleased with the attention she was receiving. Her head high, and a low, rumbling purr. That much was clear to anyone, but Sumina could feel her pride. Once she was satisfied enough greeting Royland, and enjoying the petting, she turned her attention more to the others. Less familiar, smelling from a distance. She regarded Castien a little longer. Sumina caught just a bit of what Meriel was thinking, some wondering about him. Then she laid down by Sumina, at her back. Looking out lazily for anything in the forest, but clearly unconcerned. That curious thought was gone. Meriel was better at concealing her thoughts from Sumina than Sumina was at keeping them from Meriel. “[i [+darkgreen The boys are not blind. You have more strength than you know. And he’s right, you should cultivate it. Have your thorns.]]”
Sumina reached back to scratch Meriel behind the ear, returning Royland’s smile. It was such a nice smile, warm and happy. “She does. She says I should.”
At Walter’s concern, she became a little more evasive, looking back at Meriel behind her. Meriel [i was] larger than Sumina had anticipated. “Ah, yes, they do. I’m sure it will be fine. Healing can take quite a bit out of someone too.” She was sure things would be fine. They had to be. A sort of reassurance came from Meriel, wordless but soothing. Almost motherly.
Sumina smiled at the men arguing about first watch. Just like brothers. “I think I’ll go clean up from the ritual while you all figure that out.”
When she stood, so did Meriel. Castien came closer, and had to stop when Meriel stepped in front of him. She did it almost lazily like she was just wandering, but the look she gave made it clear it was intentional,”[+darkgreen Water lily], you don’t need to bother. You should rest.”
“I’d like the walk anyway. It’s no trouble, and I shouldn’t leave it.” Sumina was already starting toward the trees. Truthfully, she was tired, still a little cold, and would like to rest. But she didn’t want to leave a mess. Leave any trace that her brothers might find, and use to figure out what she’d done. They might figure it out anyway, but she didn’t want to make it easier for them.
Meriel followed close, and with a little sigh Castien started to,”Then allow me to help, [+darkgreen my stubborn water lily].”
“[+darkgreen I’d be careful so casually claiming me as yours.]” Sumina warned with a little smile as she stopped,”I’m sure I can manage.”
“[+darkgreen Then are you claimed by another, sweet flower?]” Sumina didn’t answer him, she just glanced at Royland for a moment, then turned and went to clean. With or without help, she and Meriel would clear any trace of the ritual. At least any trace that could point to her.
Royland didn’t dare move as Meriel came close to sniff him, then pushed her head against his chest. He smiled, tentatively reaching his hand up to place it on her head, petting gently. “I’m… glad to meet her as well. Meriel, was it? She’s… beautiful. So this is what the ritual brings you.” It was befitting, in a way, Royland thought. For Sumina to draw a familiar this fierce, must be a testament to what she was truly capable of. The white fur and pale blue eyes. Sleek, but powerful, captivating, and undoubtedly dangerous when she wanted to be. Sumina and the snow leopard, Meriel.
The others seemed to be in awe of Meriel’s familiarity with him, but none dared to stray too close. Except Castien, who strolled over, to get a better look. “You must possess great strength, [#005500 my water lily], nearly as great as your beauty.”
Royland sighed, “Strength can be cultivated. And I think Meriel knows that, as well.” He glanced to Sumina and smiled – a boyish, crooked, half lifted smile. “Hopefully that’s not presumptuous of me.” But it seemed the most logical conclusion. Besides, Castien hadn’t been there to see what she made of Ulrich. How he scampered away from her like a fleeing doe, and then refused to come near her for the rest of their time in that village. It was more than obvious to the men that had been in her company that she was more than capable.
“Do try not to wear yourself out, Lady Sumina.” Walter seemed worried. And he thought that he should be, regarding Meriel’s size with some measure of uncertainty. “Larger familiars tend to take more out of you, yes?” Royland’s brush with illness was still fresh in their minds. It was what caused them to be caught. Should her brothers arrive to any circumstance where their precious sister was in any weakened state, they may pay with more than just their lives. It could endanger those close to them. He would have to speak with Royland about that privately. It was as clear as the morning sun, to everyone, how they regarded each other.
The sun had just dipped below the trees, painting the sky in a brilliant pastel pink, pale purple, and washed out orange. The fire seemed to grow a little dimmer in Alain’s eyes, and he quickly excused himself to collect a bit more wood from the surrounding area, and then attempt to lie down. Sirius echoed the sentiment and had already chosen his place beside the fire.
Walter looked incredulous, “Then who’s first on watch?”
Sirius yawned, “Alain.”
“Wrong!” Alain shouted from somewhere not too far off.
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] Royland clearly didn’t like Castien touching her. Even so, his question caught her off guard a little. Why [i did] she allow him? She hadn’t really thought about it consciously. Sumina slipped her hand out from the folds of the blanket and cloak to find his. Her fingers were still cold, and she found the warmth of his skin something she wanted more of. But the others were there. Not staring, but certainly seeing.
“I suppose… because [i he] doesn’t seem to mean anything by it.” She looked to the men at the cart, Castien delighted to share what were clearly interests of his. Her thumb traced over the back of Royland’s hand, his knuckle. Royland, however, seemed to mean something when he touched her face, held her hand. That was the difference. “He does it like… he’s used to being this way with everyone.”
Sumina looked at Royland with a smile,”I doubt he means us harm… for the moment. But I’ll be more cautious, if you like.”
With Alain’s approach she reluctantly pulled her hand back into the folds of fabric. The fire did help warm her, but she found herself again wanting the warmth and comfort of Royland’s arms. Something she didn’t feel like she could do at the moment. The details of the ritual.
“Ah…” Sumina pulled the blanket and cloak a little tighter around herself. “I’m fine. The ritual calls for… well, a fair amount of blood, and to bare oneself, body and soul.”
All attention was on her, and she could feel Meriel stir again. Impatient for a physical form, finally. The desire to meet Royland herself. Sumina looked a little nervous, and admitted a little sheepishly,”I’m not sure.”
Castien clarified,”No one is, until they call what is bound. The summoner enters the pact blind.”
Sumina nodded, and then decided it was best not to stall more. Her familiar’s eagerness was starting to make her feel a little unwell. “Meriel, come.” At the soft words from Sumina a black smoke appeared by her. She was just as curious as the others to see it grow, gain shape and solidify. Meriel was bigger than Sumina expected. Almost as big as she was, and with four legs. When she finished materializing, color and all, Sumina was clearly surprised.
“[i [+darkgreen Not what you expected?]]” Meriel sounded amused. The voice resonated in Sumina’s head, the others wouldn’t hear. Sumina had expected a bird of some kind, like her brother had. Instead Meriel was a large cat, snow white with spots and a long, fluffy tail. A snow leopard.
“Ah, not really. I thought… a bird? But you’re...” Meriel’s tail swished, and her attention turned from her summoner to the one beside her. The leopard made a little sound in her throat, sort of a trill, in greeting and without regard for personal space started to sniff at Royland.
“[i [+darkgreen Oh, you were right, he does smell nice. I like him.]]” Meriel was purring, and nuzzled her head against his chest.
Sumina covered her face with one hand,”I never said that.”
“[i [+darkgreen But you thought it. You [b did] say he was your everything, didn’t you?]]” Sumina could hear the grin in the familiar’s thoughts. Sumina’s face felt warm at the teasing of her familiar.
Sumina looked to Royland, a little embarrassed,”She’s… very glad to meet you.”
It didn’t take long for Royland or Sirius to quickly come to an understanding as to what Walter and Castien had meant by “personal” when referring to the ritual. In fact, Walter had trailed behind, just in front of the merchant, shaking his head in disbelief at what Alain might have seen.
Upon hearing Sumina’s voice, Royland relaxed. She was clearly chilled to the bone, but otherwise, she was alive and speaking in full sentences. After she was dressed, and they locked eyes, he smiled sheepishly. “I don’t think anyone saw anything.” Alain eyed Royland from the side, but the King hadn’t noticed it. That was when he’d decided he’d never tell a soul.
The short walk back to camp was done in relative silence. And Sumina might have been able to properly warm herself in peace, if Castien hadn’t kept putting his hands on her, speaking in a language Royland could not understand. He did not need to second guess himself and seeing Castien cradling Sumina’s chin prompted Royland to bring his palm down on the merchant’s forearm, separating them. They said nothing, but Royland did exchange a glare. Castien’s eyes narrowed, but his smile never disappeared from his face.
“Hmph. [#005500 I see.]” And just like that, his attention had turned to the other men in the group. “Well, then, men! I shall serenade you!” Alain groaned audibly. Castien hopped in his cart, holding up several different books and a lute, asking which they’d all like to hear.
Once they were alone, Royland removed his cloak, draping it over Sumina’s shoulders, in case she were still cold. It was all that he could offer her, with so many eyes glancing back at them wondering what they were going to say or do. Truthfully, it took a moment for the King to get his bearings. He couldn’t quite look her in the eyes properly, when he uttered his inquiry after several seconds.
“Why… do you allow him to touch you like that…?” He said it quietly. Sumina was not a coy woman; she had an honest demeanor. A friendly one. Perhaps a little too friendly. She was patient, yet firm. When she first locked eyes with Royland, when he bent his knee to her, she seemed much more reserved than she was with Castien. And she still allowed him to touch her so intimately. “I’m sorry, it’s… rude of me to ask…” But so important for him to know.
Their connection, he thought, far surpassed that of hers and Castien’s. Was that to say she felt as comfortable with Royland’s touch as she did with the other? Then, when it came down to it, who would she choose? Royland sighed, somewhat louder than he was intending to, pinching the bridge of his nose between his fingers. The thoughts made his head ache, but it did not deter his mind from wandering to them.
“There’s simply… something I don’t like about him. His way with women.” He eyed the enthusiastic traveler with his cart, his books, his instrument – excitedly showing an uncharacteristically enthusiastic Sirius all the different types of prose and poetry he carried with him. Spontaneously adding melodies to lyrics, with little respect for singing in tune, Royland noted… The King’s irritation grew, but still, he owed him a great debt, saving their hides in the marketplace. Even it was for the benefit of an unnamed employer, and their fate in his hands remained unknown. “Do be careful around him… At least until we know more about where we’re going.”
Alain, unable to tolerate Castien’s performances without any ale available, quickly approached Royland and Sumina, taking a seat directly across from them at the fire. He and Royland exchanged glances, then weary smiles. Both men glad they could live to see this night, despite the unforeseen challenges that awaited them. Glancing to Sumina, Alain cocked his brow, “So, Lady Sumina… What exactly does this… ritual entail?”
While waiting for a response, Royland had a sudden realization. “Castien did mention something about blood, didn’t he…? Are you feeling alright?”
“And,” Alain mused, “Your brother had a hawk as his familiar, correct? What did you happen to summon?” Walter, Sirius, and Castien instantly became undistracted, and rejoined the group. All eyes on Sumina. All ears eager to hear her response.
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] As soon as she heard Alain, Sumina ducked farther under the water, up to her neck. It was cold, but provided at least [i some] cover. Along with her arms, crossed over what they could conceal,”Y-yes! J-just an-nother m-moment.”
She couldn’t stop her teeth chattering. It was getting dark and cold, and she made a little groan. The pain was finally starting to recede, but the mark still ached, like hot pins and needles, but thankfully a little more dull. When she emerged from the water after looking to see none of them men had come [i too] close, she felt chilled to the bone, but the mark felt hot. It felt hot, but when she touched it, the skin was no warmer. Most of her painting was still there, stretching up along her side, and creeping a little along her stomach, and just a little toward the back, until she couldn’t reach. She had only lost a little of the design at the extreme edges. What was Meriel, to take up so much of Sumina’s skin? None of Vaeril’s were this large.
She didn’t spend overly long pondering it while she dried and dressed. She was glad Castien had included the towel [i and] the blanket, so she had something dry to drape over herself. And now that she was decent, she started toward the men, shivering from head to toe despite the blanket.
As soon as she looked to Royland, met his eyes, she could feel Meriel’s desire to be called. For a physical form. It was strong enough to make her gasp and clutch the blanket tightly, her knuckles white. Meriel wanted to meet Royland. Her own words echoed in her head. Her everything. Her cheeks flushed a little. Had he seen? Had any of them seen?
That got a curious look from Castien, who noticed the odd reaction, but instead of asking he decided to congratulate her,“Success on the first try. [+darkgreen Congratulations.] Not all are so successful. You look half frozen, [+darkgreen water lily].” Castien didn’t ignore a pretty lady. And he would vie for this one's attention, wager or not. “[+darkgreen Come], we’ll get you warm by the fire.”
Sumina looked at him, then back toward where she’d performed the ritual,”B-but the m-materials…”
Before she could start walking back, Castien pushed forward past the others and put a hand on her shoulder,”We shall fetch them later. And if they are lost, then they remain lost.” Castien put his hand to her cheek briefly, which succeeded in getting her to look at him, but didn’t let it linger long enough to make her uncomfortable. He had a charming smile, and captivating eyes, Sumina could see them this close even in the fading light,”Nothing back there is worth your health, [+darkgreen most beautiful blossom].”
With it decided they could come clean things up later, once Sumina was safely warmed up, they all returned to the camp to let her recover. Despite Castien’s attempt to stay close to her, she wandered closer to Royland. The blanket was beginning to help a little, but she still felt so cold. “I… should have warned you better. Success meant pain. I was… unprepared for what that meant. But I’m fine. And now Vaeril will have a harder time finding us.”
Once they were back at the camp, Castien was as concerned for her well being as the others. It was clear the ritual had taken a lot out of her. When he offered her more food, Castien gently touched her chin, prompting her to look him in the eyes. She could see the bits of gold scattered in the green. “How much blood did you give, [+darkgreen sweet flower]?”
When she looked away without answering, that was answer enough. Castien sighed,”Too much, then. I might have looked harder for a smaller bowl. Eat. And then perhaps we may see what your sacrifice brought to you.”
Royland’s expression turned gravely serious when she spoke his name. It was that look a suitor gave when a woman had captured his full attention. This feeling – unmistakable magnetism, drawing him into her, again. A siren herself, singing a melody as lovely as she. He felt her fingers in his hair, and quickly reached up. To keep it there. She was so close now. Smelling as sweet as the chamomile tea she’d served when he was ill. It took everything in his power not to grab hold of her, tighter, when she whispered, gently, her support in his ear. Royland felt a chill down his spine. He was reaching his limit just as Sirius appeared, forcing both he and Sumina to step back. Though his cheeks burned, when Sumina turned from him to return behind Sirius, he took a moment create some distance.
If she kept doing this to him… If they continued to grow closer, test the boundaries of intimacy, Royland was unsure what would become of him. The reclamation of the throne at the end of this journey, his goal, was fading from view. As the monk had said what seemed like ages ago, their fates were bound together. But what of the fate of Volaire?
It couldn’t be helped. He had to gather his bearings and return to camp – return to the utter annoyance that was Castien. Attempt to curb the bad blood brewing between said merchant and Alain. What little there was left to do after Walter had attempted damage control, was interrupted by the sound of his surname leaving Castien’s lips, accompanied alongside a language he couldn’t understand. Royland eyed Walter for an explanation, but only received a shrug in response. Walter mouthed the word, ‘Elvish.’
As Castien gathered the items Sumina had asked for, all the others watched in silent curiosity. Only Walter seemed to know about much of what was going on. “Oh, I see…” He’d mused as Sumina disappeared beyond the trees to the river nearby. Sirius raised a brow, turning to Castien, and then to Walter.
“You two have an idea of what’s going on?”
Walter crossed his arms, “Castien would be the better man to ask, but this is what they call a… Master of Spirits ceremony, isn’t it?” His broken Elvish seemed to amuse the merchant, who let out a short laugh, but ultimately nodded his head. Walter quickly explained what he knew of said ritual, what little he’d gleaned from conversations with his father. While Walter’s grandmother had a familiar of her own, his father never had the aptitude for it. And Walter’s diluted lineage prevented him from learning, and so, he had always had an interest, but never received the means to attempt it. None of that information was pertinent to Castien, but it didn’t matter, as he inquired as to how Walter knew so much anyhow. “Oh, er… My grandmother was an Elf… I, myself, am only a quarter.”
Castien’s eyes widened, and he seemed to let his eyes linger on Walter longer than normal. “It is quite difficult to tell.” There was nothing particularly Elvish about the man at all, which explained his status as a knight. And Royland, Castien thought, had to have known. The look on his face, and the others, indicated to Castien that this was not new information. Yet, here they were, treating him no different than they might a blood brother. The group grew silent for a while.
Then, suddenly, Royland caught Castien’s gaze.
“I do wonder where the lovely lady will place her mark. In the open for all to see? Or will her lover be the only one to enjoy it?”
He bristled, visibly annoyed. The longer he seemed to go without giving Castien an answer, the more the other mused aloud. The suggestions were getting more risqué, more suggestive. Places only her lover might see…
Then, they heard it. A sharp, pained scream, coming from Sumina. It hadn’t seemed to register with anyone else as Royland sprang to his feet, eyes wide, body tense from panic. She had asked for privacy, for space – Walter and Castien had said it was a very personal and private ritual. But she needed him. He looked to Castien, who was still calmly leaning against the tree, showing no signs of budging.
“Worry not.” Castien smiled in earnest, “The ritual is painful, but it is not pain she cannot handle. Besides… I’d like to place a wager with you.”
“Is this really the time for that?” Royland shouted, nearly pushing past, but stopped when Castien extended his hand. Seems he was serious. “…What is it?” He sighed, exasperated. Perhaps the sooner he’d heard him out, the sooner he could check on Sumina to make sure she was alright.
“This is my challenge to you, King Vondien. To see who is worthy of [i the water lily’s] hand. Who should see where the familiar’s mark is placed, and what is placed there.” Alain, growing irritated yet again, stood to Royland’s defense, but he was met with a stern gaze from his King, an outstretched hand asking him not to come any closer. “I would implore you to [i sit down], as the wager should not begin until she’s fully—”
“I’m not interested in using her affection as your amusement.” With that, he started in the direction of the river. Alain followed closely behind him. Once Walter and Sirius had made it out of view, Castien sighed, and followed suit.
Royland could only see the banks of the river from his position, but Alain, who had come up just farther to the right, could see [i much] more through a break in the brush. Before Royland could call out to her, Alain, dove in front of him with his arms outstretched, eyes wide and cheeks red. “Alain, what are you—"
“Lady Sumina…!” Alain yelled, to alert her that they were in the immediate area. “A-Are you alright!?”
[i [b Oh.]]
“I tried to warn you…” Castien sighed.
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