Chapter Thirty-six

--

Another morning brought another day of travel. Sandstorm half-slept in her saddle, having spent a portion of her night awake. I felt sorry for her as she kept nodding off, and made a mental note to take a night shift next time. "Did you sleep well?" Eadel asked me as we rode side by side. I saw a mischievous glint in her eyes.

"I always sleep well with you at my side," I automatically replied. She blushed and I smiled at her reaction.

Soon enough, we were out of the accursed sand, and were stopping at a stable to trade the camels out for horses. I wanted to give a little dance of happiness with the disappearance of the desert, but Stinger and her company looked a little uneasy. It was understandable; they hardly left the comfort of the desert.

"Ah, familiar territory at last," Lyden sighed as our horses trotted further and further into the beginnings of the forest. "Maybe we can even run into a forest nymph or two and get an update on what has become of my kingdom in absence."

"Or you could just ask a talking tree," I said, feeling a little confused at the mentioning of a forest nymph.

Lyden threw his head back and laughed while everyone gave him a strange look.

"Trees talk?" asked one of the twin boys who hung by stinger.

"Some," I said.

"Of course not!" interjected Lyden at almost the same time.

"What do you mean?" asked Fea, who rode beside him.

"I mean that there is no such thing as a real, living, talking tree. It's all merely an illusion. You see, forest nymphs are creatures unseen to regular human eyes, but they can talk and interact with mortals through possessing trees, which is something they're quite fond of doing. I can see them and talk to them, being of the West Kingdom's bloodline," Lyden stated with pride. "But, I don't feel like explaining this to everyone and ruining the fun of all those forest nymphs, so I let everyone assume I'm a little crazy and that I talk to all trees, not just the possessed ones."

"Whatever gets you your kicks," I replied. Eadel was giving him an odd look.

"I think he really is a little crazy," she whispered to me, leaning in her horse's saddle.

I chuckled softly. "Humor him," I whispered back. As we rode through the forests, Lyden continued to explain things about the trees and his people inhabiting his kingdom. He even began filling us all in on his country's history. It may have been a little dull, but it held the attention of the group, though I think Stinger and her people were more interested in gazing intently at the lush forest life around them.

Some time late in the afternoon we stopped to water the horses by a stream. As we all stepped down onto the mossy forest floor I heard one of the twins, War or Peace, exclaim, "Wow, the ground is so springy!"

I guess they had never been this deep into a forest. The ground was a very soft earth, almost mud, and half of it was covered with layer upon layer of vibrant moss. Green was the primary color, but as the sun broke through the trees, a myriad of yellows and oranges could be seen shining off the hues. "Everything here is so alive," muttered Tattoo. As he looked around with his face struck with wonder, I almost forgot he was such a big jerk.

Thunder walked over to him and took his hand. "There's so much water too," she said, looking at the stream the horses were clustered around. Besides that, water hung in the air, humid and moist. It collected as dewdrops on plant leaves and tree trunks and rolled lazily across their green planes, dripping to the already saturated ground below. "It holds such a stark contrast to home," she sighed.

Eadel was also struck by the sight of a true forest, having hailed from a frozen wasteland where life was never in such abundance. She had not spent as much time in one as I had. I remembered my fort nestled deep in the overgrown woods and felt a twinge of homesickness.

After the horses had their fill though, Lyden insisted that we continue on. "The kingdom is so close," he assured us. "It would be silly to stop now." So we mounted our steeds once again and began riding as the sun dipped lower and lower in the sky.

In the semi-darkness of twilight, we still had not reached the kingdom. "Hey Lyden," I called up to him. He and Fea had been talking in low voices as they rode close together. He snapped his head back to look at me. "Are you sure we shouldn't stop? It's going to be dark soon."

"It's only a few more hours," Lyden assured. "And besides, there's nothing in this forest scarier than you."

The quip made me growl. "You had better sleep with an eye open, Lyden," I cautioned. "I'm going to get you for all your smug remarks one day, and it will be a lot worse than you walking in on Eadel and I."

Lyden laughed. "I doubt anything could be worse than watching you and your spindly frame awkwardly trying to kiss someone so much shorter than you," he retorted. And with a flick of his reigns, Lyden thundered off.

It was wise of him to do, because I had roared in rage and urged my horse to chase after him. Everyone laughed as I chased after the young ruler. When I looked back I saw Eadel smiling and laughing with them. The sight pierced my rage and I calmed down, pulling my horse back alongside my lover. Eadel leaned in close to me once I had returned and whispered, "Stealth is a much better option, love. We'll get him later."

I grinned and leaned over to kiss her. "You're a genius," I told her.

Lyden interrupted us. "If you two lovebirds are done scheming, we have a kingdom to get to before tomorrow."

"Of course, of course," I said. "Lead on, your majesty."

"I will," replied Lyden indignantly. The rest of the trip was not so bad. We arrived in the kingdom late at night, and it was with fumbling hands that we tied our mounts up in stables. Everyone was bleary eyed and yawning, and Lyden tiredly gestured to one of his nearby stable hands. "Get someone to show them all to rooms," he told the boy. The page nodded and walked off, returning soon after with a few castle servants.

"Where shall they reside on this stay, my lord?" asked one of men.

"I don't care," Lyden groaned. "Put them all in the north wing, and don't argue with them if someone wants to share a room with another."

The servant nodded and all three made for us to follow them. Eadel and I took our travel bags along, but right before we left the stables, I saw Lyden put an arm around Fea and lead her off in another direction. I could hear her giggling, and turned about to hunt her down and fetch her, but Eadel took a firm hold of my arm. I looked back to her. "What?"

"Let them go," she instructed, ignoring the mock-innocent look in my eyes.

"I just wanted to tell them goodnight," I replied, letting the two head off to wherever Lyden's room was I assumed.

"Sure you did." Eadel rolled her eyes. "They're too tired to try anything. We all are." As if on cue, I felt myself yawn.

Stifling down the need for sleep, I asked her hopefully, "We are?"

"Yes," Eadel assured me, "We are. But we are not too tired for goodnight kisses." And she gave me a full kiss on the lips.

"How many?" I asked. Eadel just laughed and led me down a hall where one of the castle servants had turned down. He opened a large, polished oak door and beckoned us inside the candlelit room.

"Does the lady require another room?" he asked us as Eadel pulled me inside.

"No, we'll be fine," I quickly replied. The man nodded and shut the door. Now that we were in a well-lit area of the castle, I wanted to gasp. The walls were high, and sculpted from marble with pluming patterns of precious metals beset into the surface. I walked to a wall and let my hand trace over a trail of diamonds. They were small, and spaced far apart. I quickly saw that the diamonds formed a constellation. The whole room was faceted with jewels in the shapes of stars, some rather large rubies and topaz acted as suns and planets. On the ceiling, I could see an ancient fresco depicting gods, goddesses, and strange creatures alike gathered in the great cosmos. Large green pillars of solid jade held the roof up, and furniture made from the finest of wood spotted the room.

"Extravagant, isn't it?" asked Eadel. I looked to her to see she had made herself comfy on the bed, clad in not but her undergarments.

"Uh-hu," I replied weakly. Eadel had probably seen many a beautiful palace already. I could not get over this place's grandeur though. It seemed so unlike Lyden, but then I remembered that there had been countless generations before him that ruled over the west.

"Come to bed, Jasmine," she instructed. "You can look at the palace in the morning."

I shook my head, feeling the tiredness coming back to me all of a sudden. I pulled off my shirt and traveling shoes, glad to be rid of them. I began blowing out the candles and dousing the room's torches. Right before I got into bed with my love, I wriggled out of my pants and blew out the last candle that rested on the bedside table.

Eadel welcomed me with a kiss, and as we got under the covers she pulled me close and muttered a sleepy, "Goodnight, my love."

"Goodnight lover," I replied back, my eyes already halfway closed. It did not take long for sleep to completely overcome me.

--

We woke late in the morning, almost close to noon. I could tell because the entire room was flooded with midday light. Eadel had gotten up before me. I rose from the blankets to see her sitting in an armchair holding a delicate looking cup of tea. A breakfast was laid out on the table next to her, and it looked half eaten.

"Good morning, sleepy," Eadel said, grinning. She let a little laugh escape.

"What?" I asked.

"Your hair is sticking up on one side," she said.

"Perfect," I growled, patting down the white strands with my fingers. "How long have you been up?

"Perhaps an hour," Eadel mused. She took a sip from her tea. "I went down to the baths to freshen up and then had breakfast delivered. You woke up a little bit after."

I pulled on pants and a shirt and sat in an armchair next to Eadel. "It looks delicious, thanks," I said. I immediately grabbed a slice of bread and laid a sliver of pink salmon on it. The expensive food was amazing, much better than I had eaten in a long time. "So," I asked between bites, "any word on what the others are up to?"

Eadel shrugged her shoulders. "I know that Lyden is meeting with his war council, but that is all I know. He won't be done with them until this evening though. He gave instruction for us to enjoy the castle to it's fullest potential."

I smiled. "Well, I'm going to make use of the baths. Would you like to help me make use of it to it's fullest potential?" I asked with a smirk.

Eadel burst out laughing and put down her tea. "Is that all you ever think of?" she asked.

I tried to brush our minds together in a taunt, but as I extended my consciousness out, I remembered that our mind connection had been severed. Now all I heard were the shadow presences of servants beyond the walls and our other traveling companions resting in close by rooms. "I can't help it, you're amazing," I said, feeling slightly sorrowful with the reminder of our disrupted link.

"Well, I would be glad to give you a tour of the castle's more… interesting rooms, then," Eadel said, blushing lightly. I looked down at my food, still lost in my thoughts. "What's the matter?" Eadel asked, noticing my sudden mood shift.

"I was just thinking about how much a shame it is that we cannot see into each other's minds anymore," I sighed. "Just… think of the connection that could have been."

"My love, the connection between us could not be stronger," she affirmed, laying her hand atop my own. She then gripped it and made me stand from my seat with her. "Now let me go show you how strong it really is."