A/N: I have rewritten this story up to this point. I also renamed the fire prince from Roido to Reiden since it will tie better into the second book, plus it doesn't sound as silly to say it out loud.
"Where were you today?"
"Um… the place with lots of grass and trees and people."
Reiden whipped his head around to pout and glare, "The Fields? That peasant lied to me!"
I quirked a brow, "The playboy? Yeah, I figured."
His face fell to concern, almost pausing long enough for me to catch up with him, "… You met him?"
"Yep, he came after me to ask me out on a date."
"A date?" he hollered, at first seeming enraged, then calming, eyes widening like a little boy at an object of curiosity, then those shining eyes narrowed in suspicion. "… You didn't say yes, did you?"
"Of course not!"
"Of course you didn't or of course you did?"
I swiped at him, growing further annoyed when he dodged, "I didn't! God, not like I could've said yes anyway. My friend got all up in his face over it."
"Friend? What friend?" All at once the curiosity was back. "Come! Come! I've got questions!"
"I am coming! Slow the hell down and maybe I can talk with you and not at your head!"
He just laughed, and despite how his manners and pushiness bothered me at times, I could tell he had returned to normal, which only served to relieve my worry. After the short talk about the Lion's Den, he'd fallen silent again, though this time kept his stare boring into mine, triggering the locked-in-place sensation. I hated being forced to see how badly the mere memory of the room affected him, but when I accepted I wasn't going to be able to look away, I solved the dilemma by cheering him up, at first just petting at his hair, which he reacted to like both Enick and Syris. His head ducked down and forward to allow it, though in his case he frowned and resisted some tears.
He broke the eye contact this time, but only so he could rest his forehead on my shoulder. With some internal resistance and pep-talking, I managed to give a sincere hug.
The cheering up process had been interrupted by Enick, who had walked in unannounced to inform us that Kinnder wanted to see us both. Reiden tossed a few annoyed insults at him, getting a few back, but I diverted another fistfight by asking Enick to get something from the library—namely, the book I originally took out to read, then ended up flinging at the fleabag's head in rage. Enick had gotten a sour look at hearing how I had treated the book but agreed and left.
At that point, we met with Kinnder, he informed us that the assistant had been fired and sent home, and started some playful teasing to get Reiden worked up. It worked all too well, and I figured out quickly that this was the king's way of cheering him up. Lo and behold, here we were, walking back to the room for some "surprise" Reiden wasn't going to reveal yet, and the fire prince entirely back to normal.
I smiled when seeing his exaggerated strut, finding that now that I was adjusting a little bit, he was kind of funny in an unintentional way. Perhaps the best way I could describe it would be an inexperienced youth trying too hard to be an adult.
Upon finding his room, he held a hand out to stop me when I reached the open door and told me to close my eyes, to which I let him know I was highly suspicious of this "surprise" and wouldn't do as he said unless he promised he wasn't planning anything weird. He promised—a little sourly—and I closed my eyes. For a minute there was silence, and then I could hear him moving things around, presumably things under his bed. At that thought, I wondered if he was like some teen boys back home who stored porno magazines under their beds.
"Open your eyes!"
I did. In an instant, my eyes widened and I lunged at him, getting a yelp when I tackled him back onto the bed as hard as I could. Why? He was holding my backpack! He oomph'd at the hard hit, but laughed a little when I ripped my backpack from his grip to hug and snuggle it.
"My stuff!" I exclaimed with undeniable relief. "I've missed you! Ahh! The smell of technology!"
He tilted his head, noticing I was using him as a seat again, "You're strange."
"Food fight!" Reiden exclaimed in a battle cry, only seconds before he shamelessly grabbed two handfuls of glop and flung it around.
In the midst of his throwing, a piece of steak hit my face, but I didn't react. It was possible that I'd grown too tired to get upset over every single one of his antics, and in any case, I just continued eating. Knowing I wouldn't respond, he instead took aim at Enick, who near instantly sprung up and tried to strangle him.
And so, while he laughed hysterically at the fact he'd smeared food on Enick's "rug," the cloaked guest resorted to Reiden's own tactics once chasing him around the table proved fruitless. Jumping onto the table with a plate full of food, he chased the fire prince down the lengths of the dining table and hurled the plate at his head. Though Reiden twirled to the side, the plate got his shoulder, and food sprayed both on his clothes and the floor.
Reiden stared down at his ruined shirt, holding it out to eye the collateral damage, but at that point he laughed out loud and pegged Enick in the head with another piece of steak. Around then Enick flung his arms up in exasperation and gave up the fight. This surprised me since he usually put more effort into defying the prince, but right now he so easily retreated. Maybe this was a hopeless fight?
More like, why was Eldren and Kinnder allowing this? Funnily enough, my question was answered as I looked up, since at the very same moment Reiden released another glob of what used to resemble food, which whizzed right by his father's head. At first I blanched, watching in tension as Kinnder went stone still, a spoon just at his lips.
"Was that…" he began, voice low, almost intimidating. I felt my head reflexively ducking down in preparation for yelling, but instead witnessed the king slamming a foot onto the table with competitive smirk. "A challenge?"
At that, I simply continued my meal, deciding whether or not this dented my image of him. In any case, Reiden hooted and hollered now that his father had been dragged in, and the two engaged in a fierce battle, one that the other father and son clearly wanted no part in, seeing as they both took their plates and backed their chairs away from the table to eat from their laps. I didn't bother moving myself, seeing as I was almost done.
Reiden fell back from a few hard pitches from his father, but spotting that he had wandered close to me, he twirled behind me and pulled me up close, one arm around my throat while his free hand threatened to smush goop into my face. I didn't have much of a reaction other than a short glare up at him to silently ask what the hell he was doing. The fact that he still had his red eyes aimed at his father with a devious look on his face answered that though, so I just huffed in exasperation and returned to eating.
"I have a hostage!" Reiden declared. "Surrender your weapons and I'll let her leave unscathed!"
Kinnder feigned surprise, his voice bold, "Taking a captive? I call your bluff! You wouldn't involve innocents!"
"Wouldn't I?" the prince replied, cackling.
I caught the devious tone, and upon looking up at him in suspicion, confirmed an equally devious glint to his playful gaze. He wouldn't dare…
But he would. I saw him move his hand to smear the gook on my face, so I took preemptive measures and nailed him in the gut with an elbow, getting a gag in response. He hunched over from the blow, taking a reflexive step away, but in the next instant, Kinnder pegged him with several handfuls of whatever ammunition he had. Seeing the prince shaking food from his hair, I threw a fist in the air.
"Woo! Teamwork!" I called out.
Kinnder grinned at me and threw his fist in the air as well, though at that display, Reiden pouted. That was as far as my involvement went, and they resumed their war. Less than a minute later, it was Kinnder involving an innocent bystander, though by tossing a large mass of gook at his friend, Eldren. With dead-on aim, the food got the visitor right on the forehead, and at the drop of a hat, resulted in Eldren screaming "You son of a—!" before getting another glob to the face.
"Don't swear in front of the kids!" Kinnder teased.
El joined the war at that point and didn't leave it quickly. When I finished my meal, I backed off from the table too, to watch them all go at it. Eldren started out as attempting to get vengeance, then lightened up to having fun and playing along to the imaginary battle scene. Kinnder grinned like a criminal the entire time, a familiar dangerous yet playful look in his eye, and acting out the part of the righteous king fighting off sworn enemies. It seemed even Eldren got teased by the man, since the entire time he made jabs at his friend as well as at Reiden, though Eldren didn't react half as dramatically. After watching the king, I saw traces of Reiden's personality showing through. The look in his eye and the confident yet sneaky smirk matched the prince… or rather, it was traits of his that I saw in Reiden.
My head tilted at the prospect of Reiden growing to be like Kinnder. Patient but playful, caring but serious… I had to watch the way Reiden spun and weaved with such energy to determine if they really were alike.
Tapping started up, an annoying repetitive sound that snapped me out of my contemplation rather quickly. Likewise, I turned my head around to snap at the noise maker but spotted Enick with his arms crossed as he leaned against the wall, a slight snarl showcasing his displeasure as well as the tip of his canine.
As I went to ask his issue, he hastily growled out, "I hate it when they do this. I just want to eat and go to bed."
Oh, how I understood his dilemma. Somehow. Still, in hopes of smoothing things down, I scanned the three while they laughed and threw their dinners, finding the scene strangely nostalgic rather than annoying, but I didn't see it stopping anytime soon. Seeing as the "it'll end soon" plan had seemingly failed, I instead tried to distract him.
"Thank you, by the way," I told him. When his foot paused its incessant tapping, I turned a casual grin his way. "For backing me up earlier."
He looked my way, hidden as his face was, and seemed to contemplate what to reply. However, I spotted suspicious movement from the table and threw my hand out to catch a slice of steak that had been accurately aimed for Enick's face. All at once, the contemplation fell away, his posture stiffening, and all he said was, "Did he just…?" before whipping his head around to snarl at Reiden, the fire prince revealing that it was him due to his glaringly obvious giggle fit.
While Enick left the wall to engage Reiden in brief and fruitless struggle for "revenge," I looked at the steak in my hand for a moment. Then I ate it.
Upon spotting Enick get pegged with glop from three directions, I laughed before I could catch myself, which resulted in Enick glaring my way and smacking me with a glob of something, but as soon as he did, they all started throwing food at me. Much like how Enick had been lured in, my temper flared and swears flew out of my mouth, and before I had realized, I'd been dragged into the war once more. It lasted for a good hour before the food finally ceased to fly, and the remaining image was of disgruntled servants wiping up the mess while the king, his son, his guests, and me sat around a smaller, rounder table set up to the side to stay out of the servant's way. The two adults indulged themselves on some alcohol, Kinnder allowing Reiden free access to the lighter wines.
Enick and I had also been offered some, and while I refused, he accepted a glass, though I could see he had as much interest in it as a two year old in quantum physics. Reiden guzzled his wine down, whereas Enick slumped in his chair and swished the liquid in the glass out of boredom. Kinnder teased the two to rile them up, but Reiden was the only one to even react, throwing his free hand up dramatically at the accusation of becoming an alcoholic and making half-coherent retorts.
Sometime within it all, I withdrew from the light laughs and quiet sighs to the quietude of my thoughts, meanwhile my eyes still took in their faces, expressions, and jovial gestures. It was a warm atmosphere between Eldren, Kinnder, and Reiden, familiarly warm. Moreover, I still hadn't woken from this place.
I'd gone through nearly two whole days in this place, yet things were only now being accepted as reality. This place was real, they were real, and I was trapped here. All in all, I couldn't decide how I felt on this, somehow glad they weren't just figments of my imagination but simultaneously horrified at the prospect of being physically alienated from my home.
My stomach churned. I was alone in this unknown world, with very little knowledge of anything, never mind how to get back home. I was stuck, marooned, vanished from existence in the society I grew up in, and my friends? My school? Everyone? They were none the wiser.
Rendered too queasy to stand such a jovial environment, I tried to quietly sneak away from the table, but being in such close quarters, all four of them noticed it when I stood to leave.
"Where are you going?" Kinnder asked, polite but confused.
I shrugged and spoke softly so I wouldn't needlessly stir my upset stomach, "Sleep."
I didn't wait, though as I continued towards the door, I heard Eldren order Enick to stay with me in case I felt faint during my walk. Of course it was needless concern, but Enick did as he was told and followed me out the door. Oddly, as I moved out of sight, I thought I felt Reiden's worried stare on my back, yet by the time I thought to check, Enick had closed the door.
"Are you feeling well?"
I tore my eyes away from the dining room door to him, not answering immediately but noticing he had his head lifted unusually high at the moment. If I ducked my head down a few inches, I could perhaps glimpse his face. As the temptation rose, his head turned away from me, pretty much eliminating the chance.
"If you aren't," he continued. "The infirmary is closer than Reiden's chambers."
I sighed, looking up at the high ceiling, "I'm fine."
I frowned, just wanting to be left alone. I felt tired, emotionally and mentally, and knowing I'd likely never see my home again left me feeling sick; sick to my core.
No, I wasn't fine, but you, Enick, would not understand why.
The following morning went much like the previous one, where I woke up in a heavenly mood in a heavenly way, and near instantly found there an ulterior and less than pleasing reason for my overflowing warmth. It even went so similarly that I had the greatest urge to throttle the prince until he woke up from it and passed out all over again. However, this time around, I decided to try and play nice since he had graciously defended me in front of his father without being given much reason. Plus, this was his bed, so I was still at "guest" status.
Once one hundred percent calm, I gently nudged Reiden as he slept, his head resting on my neck so his lips were to my shoulder, and his arms wrapped loosely around me. Hairs rose at the close contact, particularly when I registered him breathing on me, but still, I tried to be patient and nudged him once more when he didn't wake.
"Reiden, time to get up," I said.
When he once again didn't stir, I nudged a little harder.
"Get up, Reiden," I said, harsher.
He tightened his hold on me, so I practically elbowed him this time.
"Get up now," I growled without a shred of gentleness now.
He held me even closer and snuggled against my shoulder, a kiddy smile plastered on as he simply replied with, "Mnnmm…" Every muscle in me tensed at attempting restraint, though when I discovered his grip strong enough to prevent me from slipping out of his grasp, I grew unbearably frustrated. Pushing him away and pulling myself through his arms both proved impossible.
At that point I lost my self-control and did the only thing I could do. With a great heave, I threw both him and myself into a roll and went crashing to the floor.
Déjà vu, but a little different. After spending breakfast the first time listening to Reiden complain, I had run off to these fields to escape inevitable friction between the two of us. Now, after spending breakfast listening to Reiden mope, I had run off here to escape the awkward situation. Apparently I had fallen asleep without covering myself with the blanket, and drunken Reiden had come in a while later to witness me shivering in my sleep. Being drunk but still filled with good intentions, this time around the cuddling had been a (semi) conscious effort to keep me from catching a cold. He had meant no harm, and now sober, felt embarrassed enough, so I didn't mention that you catch colds from bacteria, not temperature changes.
In any case, every time we met eyes, he frowned and quickly looked away with a faint blush, so I did the two of us a favor and snuck out the moment an argument popped up and distracted the two older men. The incessant questions also helped to prompt my escape. Still, that innocent yet guilt-provoking puppy pout haunted me, having burned itself into my retinas so that I couldn't escape it. Fuck you, Reiden! Just, fuck you!
I ran my fingers through my hair and stared ahead at nothing with such intensity that my brows must've been furrowed for a good ten minutes before I figured out why it bothered me so much. That only resulted in a second wave of "feel stupid" at realizing I was as embarrassed as he was, but because I felt flattered. My self-image was crumbling, and it was crumbling fast.
"My little tiger looks like she's got a conundrum."
I snapped out of my embarrassed blush at the familiar voice and looked up, only to spot Syris standing beside me with most of his weight on one foot and smiling in great amusement at my obvious frustration.
"Did you play with your prey too much and end up friends?" he purred.
I narrowed my eyes, releasing my hair to hug my knees close, "No. Big cats like that are mostly loners, aren't they?"
He tilted his head but retained the smile, "Are you saying you don't need friends?"
"No, because I'm not a tiger," I grumbled. He shrugged and sat beside me, but at that point I noticed he hadn't brought his book today, so I poked his shoulder. "Where's your book?"
"With the rest of my books," he answered simply.
His gaze was elsewhere, looking rather serious given the sunny day and pleasantly cool wind, but when he showed no signs of continuing the conversation, I debated asking for more specifics, like a reason for coming unprepared for boredom. Instead, I felt it was okay to be quiet and let the natural ambience take over the conversation, and so, resting my head against the tree's trunk, I watched as a slow breeze brushed through the leaves to create a relaxing rustle. I could feel that, despite being a different world, it was early summer still, with rays of sunlight warming exposed skin and both the shade and breezes carrying he last of spring's coolness. Sometime in my admiring the weather, my eyes had closed.
"You're way too vulnerable," Syris's voice whispered in my ear.
I jumped a good inch from the ground and pulled away quickly with a hand over my ear as I turned wide-eyes to him. He had an amused grin back on his face, though I noticed his cheeks held a trace of red. While this should have weirded me out, I instead found my heart fluttering.
"What t-the hell was that about?" I scolded. I hoped my glare and tone covered up that stutter.
The cool-cat grin faltered a little awkwardly, but he shrugged and pulled a knee up to his chest, "What do you think it's about?"
Joking or serious? I couldn't tell, and as long as I couldn't tell, I couldn't form an answer without running the risk of bruising feelings. If it was joking, the response would be obvious—more or less a punch to his arm—but if it was serious… My heart jumped in my throat, either in horror or hope, and if it were the latter, I would run away. Was I thinking too deeply on this? When I examined his casual body language and relaxed expression, I found it all the more confusing since he seemed relaxed enough but appeared just a tad too serious to be definitely joking around. Plus, he kept his eyes unwaveringly to me…
Yeah, I was definitely thinking too hard on it.
I went to reply, but his attention suddenly flitted to the side with a menacing gaze. Following his stare, I spotted a handful of armored guards—from the extra embroideries around the edges of their armor, palace guards—walking along the path and scanning the area as if searching for something. Many of the guys and gals paused what they were doing to stare in bewilderment but made no other reaction to their presence. I pondered what they were looking for myself… until one spotted me, perked up, then grabbed the other guards' attention. I slapped a hand over my face. Reiden must've sent them.
The handful of armored men—and some women, I noticed—approached having donned a stern visage, and stopped a foot from me. Syris had taken to ducking his head down subtly, eyes averted to the ground and not looking comfortable or happy by their presence. Though I wanted to ensure he wasn't intimidated, there wasn't much I could do for him.
"The king is calling for you," the leader said.
This, however, caught both of our attention. I had not been the only one to believe Reiden had sent them for me, but to discover it was Kinnder? Why?
Apparently, that's all it took to get Syris on their side; "You should go." I immediately turned to him, but he only turned his head away, like the confusion I displayed made him uncomfortable. "It's a shame we can't socialize longer, but… all good things end, and you cannot leave the king to wait."
I frowned. I definitely needed more time away from the palace since I—again—hadn't left things in the best of conditions between the prince and me. Regardless, one of the armored guards was offering a hand to me in a polite manner and patiently awaiting me to comply. First, however, I had to have a little closure here. Be it Syris's wording or a gut instinct, it felt as if this would be the last time we'd interact for a very long time, if we ever did meet like this again, so before I gave in, I turned fully to Syris and extended a hand.
"You know already, but I'm Emma. You're probably the first person I met here who I didn't immediately butt heads with."
The way his gray eyes fell almost dully to my outstretched hand made my fingers falter, and finally his unmoving arms coaxed me to give up on a formal handshake. Instead, I sighed, reaching into my pocket where I had stored one of my more precious personal items.
"I have an idea," I stated, pulling out my mp3 player at the same time he was raising a brow. I simply held it out for him to take. "Collateral. I love this thing to death but I'm entrusting you to take care of it until we can hang out again. Okay?"
Finally he let the mask drop, his uncertainty with the conditions clear as day, yet he still reached over, hesitating for a brief moment, and took it in his hand. Normally I would wait before skipping off, let the person bask in the present a bit and see how they reacted, but I had no time to spare and ended up ruffling his hair as soon as my own hand was empty. He blinked at the weird treatment and touched his head when my fingers left, though I was already standing up and following the guards, regardless of his bewildered gaze, which followed me until I had left his sight.
Hardly any time passed after that, yet I still was antsy to walk on past the guards to reach the throne room since I felt like I'd kept him. By no means was I a people-pleaser, but this was a king who had, up until this point, been nothing but reasonable towards me.
And then the throne doors opened. The king stayed seated in his chair, regal posture and stern visage subtle in displaying his status, though once he laid eyes on me and the troupe he'd sent, his face softened. Standing beside him in an equally proper posture waited Eldren.
"Perfect. Now the only ones missing are our sons," Eldren commented.
Kinnder frowned, "If Reiden comes first, I'll begin the discussion. However, if Enick arrives first, you and him should take your leave."
"But Kinnder, this is—"
"Enough, El." The fire king turned a stern stare to his friend. "You know how our sons are. They get so cattish around each other, we wouldn't be able to start talking, never mind finish in a timely manner, and this is a matter of timeliness." The sternness fell away again. "Try to understand, friend."
Eldren, not happy with this in the least, was stuck somewhere between understanding and resisting, lips curled back enough to show his desire to snarl but narrowed eyes showing he had nothing to counter with. Only when his eyes closed and expression cleared did he give a nod to show his compliance, but even then, I think we all knew what Eldren was hoping; that Reiden would arrive first. For whatever reason, this mysterious topic was not something he wanted to miss.
And yet, the first person to arrive was not the fire prince. While I stood at the bottom of the steps that led up to Kinnder's chair, the reopening of the doors behind me drew my attention with the other two. Enick was there, shirking off the hands of a few guards who had escorted him here as well, and looking none too pleased with it.
"What am I being rushed here for exactly?" he demanded to know.
Kinnder just looked at Eldren who had clenched his jaw and fists upon spotting his son. At that, the dark haired visitor strode swiftly down the steps, smoky armor glinting as he brushed by me. The hairs on my body rose as he passed, and like I had been issued some sort of warning, I reacted on reflex, narrowing my eyes and turning my head to follow his movements. It was only Kinnder's voice that broke me out of this odd defensive instinct.
"I called you here because you will be returning home now with your father, and I wished to bid farewell." He smiled somewhat awkwardly when Enick's straightened body language hinted his confusion—and perhaps indignation—but moved his stare towards Eldren's back. "Do keep your promise, old friend."
Without stopping or turning his head, he answered, "I shall. Your worry and words are wasted."
And just like that, the last indicator of his fading presence was the clack of his boots muffling as he exited onto the hallway's carpets, though Enick had yet to follow. In fact, he had watched his father leave but almost immediately turned back to the fire king.
"What's going on?" he asked, calm now, maybe even concerned.
Kinnder shook his head in response, rose irises turning to the hallway where his son had emerged at last, his ruby ones unmistakably curious about the sudden call.
"Do not fret over it yet, Enick. You'll be told once you need to be," was his final answer.
While his words were directed to the cloaked visitor, his gentle gaze remained on Reiden, who shot a spiteful glance towards Enick but otherwise kept his attention on his father as he walked forward with exaggerated movement. I noticed he also paused his "I'm a prince" strut to meet my eyes, but since that caused his confidence to waver in awkwardness, he quickly returned to his staring contest with Kinnder.
Reiden asked why he'd been called out, and I stole a peek at Enick, whose first response seemed to be confusion, since he merely stood there as if to wait for a deeper or better explanation. Eventually when taking notice of me, he stared, then took a polite bow as he excused himself… I doubt Reiden or Kinnder heard it though. His voice was hardly audible to me and I was closer than they were.
But I might've been wrong. The moment Enick left, Kinnder's attention returned to me, his weight shifting so that he rested most of it on an elbow, "Emma, do you know about Reiden's mark?"
Instantly my mind jumped to the flower tattoo, and quicker than I could think, Reiden had huffed, looking off somewhere with little enthusiasm, "Eh, she knows about it. And the gist of its background."
Kinnder's brows lifted in surprise, "Oh? This I unexpected. How much does she know? Does she know of the prophecy?"
Reiden fell into thought, trying to recall the whole conversation we'd had back when I first saw the tattoo, but I was asking without pause, "What prophecy?"
This drew both of their stares to me, though the only thing I did was stare back until someone answered me. Honestly, even if it wasn't too apparent to them, I could just… feel where this conversation was going. With all the context clues about "timeliness," talking of it like the end of the world was nigh, and now with the added hint about a prophecy… What was this, some cliché action/adventure novel?
Still, silence hung around for longer than necessary, me waiting for answers, the king once more staring meaningfully at his child, and Reiden's countenance losing its usual vitality as he slowly understood what his father was trying to say without words. Maybe it was the saddened edge to Kinnder's smile or the oddly gentle way he stroked Reiden's cheek, but by the time he had opened his mouth to answer me, Reiden's head had lowered to the point I could barely glimpse his disheartened eyes.
"Here in these lands, a prophecy was told," the king spoke, his words firm and sure, though his voice darkened in distress. The tone changed as he continued, still bearing the worry from before but sounding off as if he were reciting a poem rather than explaining a mission. "Among the seven clans will be seven heirs. Each will bear the mark and gift of their godly parent. Unto the clans will arrive a swift and sudden threat, which will annihilate all should the heirs stand apart.
In unison, victory is sure, but brick and stone shan't be bound into a shield by stacking. To fuse into an invulnerable force, a final part is needed: the eighth element. It is godless, unbridled, and fierce, yet will serve as the binding force for the final defense. When the clans' time runs short, the unknown but eighth element will be brought forth with fire, forging the seven elements into a blade to cut them free from a tragic fate."
I didn't notice how closely I had been listening, envisioning his words as he told the story that would supposedly come to pass, and even Reiden had listened with keen ears, hardly batting an eye since he first managed to raise his head again. A long pause followed the end of the tale however, Kinnder's eyelids closed with a hand placed thoughtfully over his lips.
"… Dad?" Reiden asked.
No response came to his voice, though the king did let his eyes open when feeling Reiden's hand on his arm. This did not comfort the prince though, seeing as his jaw tightened and brows furrowed at the traces of unhappiness lacing the king's expression.
"Son, you should gather your things," he said at last. With the way his hand shifted to rub his forehead, it was obvious he was having trouble saying it. "It's… time. The heirs need to gather."
I expected the usual attitude of "you can't boss me around, pops!" from the normally boisterous fire prince. Instead, he stared at his toes, resistance reflected in every inch of him, from his shirt-wringing fists to his defiant—though torn—grimace. All the while, his father merely waited.
"Reiden," Kinnder said, voice gentle.
The prince's furrowed brows deepened, "… The eighth element?"
The question remained incomplete but implied enough for his father to understand, "I do not know. I have a theory, but my interpretation of the prophecy is but one interpretation."
Reiden did not answer now, and when his shoulders began to quiver, Kinnder stood from his seat to pull his son into his arms, the prince doing little to resist and the king stroking his hair to comfort him. It brought me back to the night where I had walked in on Reiden mid-dressing and how he had so easily let me pet his hair like that.
My gaze left Reiden's loosened but depressed expression to greet Kinnder's kind one, "What?"
"You will be accompanying him."
All awe and sympathy evaporated. "Eh?"
Even Reiden pulled his head up rather quick at the order, but Kinnder showed no sign of changing his mind, even in light of my growing horror, "I am not about to send my son out alone, but he cannot be traveling around with a whole troupe of guards either." He met Reiden's eyes again despite he still spoke to me, regaining a smile. "Besides, I said I had a theory, didn't I? Emma, what if you are the eighth element?"
By this point the prince was too stumped to talk, whereas I was too stumped not to.
"You think I'm just gunna swallow that and go, 'okay!' then trollop away?" I snapped. The incredulous tone seemed to throw them off, both now wearing matching masks of bewilderment, so I folded my arms and set my jaw stubbornly. "I don't think so! I've seen this scenario too many times! The two go off on a long trip for a seemingly straight-forward goal, but it won't be like a week out camping." I began pacing. "No! Each day with be fraught with peril that will threaten the protagonists' lives and make things needlessly difficult. Sure, it might be like an old bedtime story where there's a happy ending, mission accomplished, everyone saved… but with modern plots? With reality? It's not just a skip, hop, and a jump away from Happily Ever After!" I paused my pacing to throw my arms up dramatically. "Protagonists die regularly! And pushing past that to, yanno, real life, getting a happy ending is twice as hard and three times as unlikely!"
I made my point so I stopped. They stared. I stared.
"What?" I asked at last.
Reiden just cocked his head like a puppy, ruby earrings swinging, but Kinnder smiled at me, "It's good to know you've realized you're not dreaming." That's what he got out of that whole rant? I would have clawed my face off out of aggravation if he didn't immediately continue. "But as likely as it may be that you two will run into danger, that changes nothing. You two will look for the heirs of the gods together."
I had no time to protest because Kinnder was pushing the befuddled Reiden towards the halls, urging him to pack up for the trip, though at that point I just stopped bothering. However, as I watched the puzzled prince turn one final time to meet my stare, I pondered why something about this scenario felt familiar.
The most startling event I'd witnessed all this time—only bested by the wall of flames Reiden shot out from nowhere—was walking into the prince's room to cheer him up and finding him bolting around his bedroom like an athlete running an obstacle course while he grabbed random things from random places and threw it all onto his bed. Though on the verge of tears when first hearing he was being forced to leave on this unwanted adventure, now his eyes glistened with childish enthusiasm as he dashed back and forth, jumping pillows, and using the post of his bed to swerve to a halt.
In the middle of shoving several unneeded objects into what resembled a messenger bag, he giggled to himself like a little girl too giddy to sit still. Then noticing me, he turned his cheery smile my way.
"Emma!" he greeted, then walked up to me to grab my wrist and pull me towards the bed. "Perfect timing. Help me pack. I need to make sure I'm prepared for this trip!"
I grunted at the needless tug but nevertheless obliged the request, sorting through his lazily packed luggage while he dashed around with the speed of a hyperactive cheetah for more useless baggage. However, less than halfway through picking through it, my jaw dropped. How the hell did he cram all this useless garbage in here? How many outfits did this guy need? Why were there pillows? Why so many blankets?
He swung around to my side using the bedpost again, but before I had a chance to react by violently flinching away at almost colliding skulls, he'd grabbed me in both arms, lifted me up off the ground, and spun. If I had been the type to scream on rollercoasters, this might've forced a yelp from me, but no; I simply held my breath until my feet were back on the ground.
"We're going on an adventure!" he half-sang before spinning by himself and throwing himself onto his bed.
Irritation rising at his sudden switch in gear, I opened my mouth to yell at him and ask why he was suddenly so perked when half a minute ago, he'd been moping, but I stopped, thought about the fruitless battle that would ensue, then growled out my remaining frustration while I shoveled out all his packed belongings. Seeing this, he crawled over with his elbows and a pillow mushed into his lips and nose, red eyes watching curiously as I began repacking his things. Very quickly that turned into a pout, realizing I left out more than 90% of what he'd gathered.
"Aw, I can't bring my good luck pillow?" he whined, rolling onto his side.
I stole a glance at him. Oh ho, what was this? Did that sound like asking permission? Was I an authority figure in his mind? Taking full advantage of the situation, I flicked his forehead, then tidied up what I'd picked. Thank god I'd been forced to go camping so much. Otherwise, that would've taking a lot longer.
"No, because you don't need it. Now put the rest of this away."
"No buts! Just do it!"
He grumbled, frowning like an unhappy child, but rolled off the bed to do as he was told.
Because we made fast work of that, we ended up waiting up on the king, standing out by the palace gates with our backpacks—er, travel packs?—and attempting to avoid a bad atmosphere. Either I wanted to yell at the idiot to pick up his pack with his own two hands or shuffle anxiously when he abruptly went quiet. Which was worse? Watching that otherwise lively face go solemn and caught up in thought or witnessing the arrogance that came with princehood?
The sound of hooves drew our focus behind us where the king now approached with a servant, the latter holding the reins to a few horses. Suddenly I got cold feet. I mean, certainly this situation was forced on me so I hadn't been too keen on going anyway, but horses? I hadn't ridden a horse in my life.
Then again, who's to say the other clans were in walking distance? And even if they were, this was a "timely" matter. Surprisingly, I watched as the servant released the reigns to one of the horses, which then trotted over to Reiden without guidance. The prince greeted it with a smile and rub on the head. In the middle of eyeing its rather red fur, the servant stopped by me and held the reins to the other horse to me… at which point I stared blankly at the cow-spotted horse they'd picked for me.
Cow. Cow. Cow
Why couldn't I think about anything but the fact it reminded me of a cow?
Why did this seem to demean my weight management skills?
Now that I was imagining myself riding a cow, I broke out of my thoughts long enough to take the reins, though I ended up staring more at the—I took a peek under the hood—mare. Maybe I could walk it out of the clan and then would avoid the embarrassment of having to mount without knowing how. Maybe. Might take some convincing lies and an eerily bright smile.
"What wonderful weather! Why not walk for a while?" I could say.
I went to eye the other two and decide how likely it was that I could dupe them that easily but just as soon grew distracted. Kinnder and Reiden were staring each other down, like they wanted to hug each other but couldn't in public view, until the king broke the stillness by petting the prince again. He forced a smile, as did Reiden, and finally the prince stopped ignoring the nibbles of affection from his horse so he could mount. Crap.
The act of mounting came fluidly for him, so I assumed he'd been taught early on. However, he pulled the reins to turn the horse, then looked squarely at me.
Since I only stood there, he quirked a brow, "What are you waiting for? Hurry up and mount. We gotta get going."
Heat rose in my face, expression tightening as I took another glance at the mare. This time the king seemed puzzled by my inaction, especially when my cheeks turned a shade of pink. Though I always credited Kinnder with more intelligence points, Reiden put the pieces together first. He must have rolled a six.
His eyebrows rose, "Wait a minute. Have you ridden a horse before?"
Like the question hadn't occurred to him, Kinnder's puzzlement deepened, though the prince let out a hearty laugh at my grumbling as he dismounted, presumably to help me up. His horse remained behind as he moved around my cow to get beside me, hands going to my waist, and while I narrowed my eyes in warning should he get any funny ideas, he merely smiled away and coaxed me along. I huffed but nevertheless attempted to mount, following the directions he gave: hands to the saddle, foot in the stirrup, hoist up and put leg over.
Simple enough, but harder in practice. As I was throwing my other leg over the giant cow, my foot hit her ass, and she retaliated by rearing up on her hinds. One ungraceful crash landing later, Reiden finished his laughing fit long enough to help me up again.
At that point I grumbled and seethed as I sat in the saddle, gripping the reins with white knuckles and waiting for the brat prince to finish speaking with his father. I missed much of the beginning conversation due to plotting revenge, but eventually I grew impatient, particularly since I was being forced into this yet I was the one waiting to get going. I glared their way, but they were too occupied with their emo staring contest to notice.
Reiden stared down at his father solemnly, "Farewell, father."
Kinnder smiled, "Farewell. I shall await your return, but until then…" He walked closer to the beast his son sat upon and placed his aged hand over his son's, whose grip on the reins were perhaps tighter than mine. "Take care, and protect Emma. She is the most vulnerable of us all right now. Ride with speed for the nearest clan, and be cautious with whom you trust. Not all who know of the prophecy will aid you… which brings me to the last word of advice." The smile fell away, rose irises clear yet stern. "Take none with you besides heirs."
"I'll do my best," Reiden answered.
As a final but wordless goodbye, he bowed to the king, hand to his chest, then turned his horse to the gates, posture upright and expression glittering with suppressed excitement. A light kick to his horse's side coaxed it to a gentle walk, and though I stole a nervous glance at my cow to mimic the "go" kick, Kinnder's hand rested over my clenched fist.
When I turned, he was smiling, both amused in that wide devious grin but sympathetic—worried even—with those pinched brows, "Before you leave, I have a message just for your ears." Seeing my interest had been perked, the amusement fell away to his worry. "Take care of him as well. He's… easily discouraged."
The plea hidden in his words swayed me more than I would ever admit, but to retain my image of a moron, I patted the king on his head, getting stunned stares from the servants and a quirked brow from him.
"Don't worry. He cheers up at any given opportunity to fight with me," I… um… reassured. Kind of.
The statement of comfort—that was shaky at best—still made the man smile again, and he gave a nod of approval, stepping away from my cow to suggest it time to go. Best I could, I gave a similar bow as Reiden had and gave a kick to the horse's side. It took off in a jog, startling me to the point I was rigid in the saddle and pulling hard on the reins, at which it halted to a complete stop… so cheeks burning at my clumsy handling, I did my best to ignore the feel of stares burning into my back and gave a lighter kick. This time the cow decided to walk like she should've.
As I caught up to Reiden's horse, I looked about the villagers, surprised to see the way they all paused their daily jobs to watch as we passed, many even lining either side of us like some sort of funeral procession. The eerie similarity caused a light shiver, but more prominent were their faces, straight-laced and lacking any sign of distraught seeing their prince leaving. I pondered if he annoyed them as much as he annoyed me.
Somehow I caught up to him before he had to stop at the gate, and just like the first time I passed through, they opened without a word spoken. Behind it, the entrance to the world lay before us, luscious forests growing tall and its healthy appendages welcoming us into their wilderness.
I let Reiden lead us out onto the path that disappeared into the unmarked forest, and once entering the trees, the gates closed on us. I had looked back, and for some reason, the sight of that decorated gate dimmed the original excitement the open forest had roused. It felt like the Hellico clan had left us; turned their back to us… and their doors would remain closed until the quest was complete.
A knot developed in my throat, breath held, anxious to return to the protection of those walls suddenly. Yet it was Reiden who snapped me out of this anxiety, a firm pat to my cow's neck drawing my eyes up front again. He was smiling at the beast with such light in his ruby irises, I had to wonder how such an innocent smile could ever light the face of that princess.
"Got a name for her?" he asked.
I quirked a brow, "Cow."
He quirked a brow too.