ARTHUR LEYWIN’S POV:
As we made our trip to Rinia’s cottage, I couldn’t help but sigh in awe at how perfect a spring morning it was—simply one of those scenes that you couldn’t help but appreciate. As it was just past dawn, the morning air was still cool and crisp. On both sides of the road, bright morning dew on the moss-covered rocks sparkled from the sun’s rays peeking through the old trees that towered over us.
The carriage we were riding in hardly shook from the even, marble-like paths smoothed from centuries of use. Sylvie was a ball of excitement as I had to grab her by the tail a couple of times to keep her from jumping out of the carriage to catch the passing butterflies and birds.
“Arthur, I have to say that your bond continues to intrigue me.” Alduin Eralith raised an amused brow as Sylvie promptly shot out and grabbed a passing bird with her jaw.
“Now now, leave the boy and his pet alone. In such a vast and mysterious land as ours, you can’t be so surprised at things like this,” Virion chided at his son with a wagging finger.
“I’d normally agree with you as well, Grandfather, but Arthur’s bond really is unique compared to all of the other mana beasts I’ve seen. Even though it’s an infant, its gaze twinkles with intelligence.” Merial leaned in closer to Sylvie, who was still chewing on the bird she took down.
“Don’t forget that Sylvie is super cute too!” Just as Sylvie let out a satisfied belch, Tess picked her up and hugged her.
“Bahaha! I can’t help but worry that my granddaughter will one day choose her precious bond, not by its strength but by its appearance!” Virion howled in laughter, making everyone but the princess snicker in agreement.
The trip was fairly long, even with a mana beast pulling the carriage. Tess soon fell asleep with her head against her mother’s shoulder, as Merial slept alongside her daughter with her head leaning against Tess’.
“Arthur, I told my son already but where we’re headed, it’s not a normal cottage. Rinia chose to isolate herself near the edge of the kingdom. As for why, she wouldn’t tell me, but last time I chose to make an unannounced visit, I almost died from the traps and defenses she had put up,” Virion spoke in a hushed voice.
I raised a brow at Virion’s serious tone. “For what reason does Elder Rinia need to protect herself to this extent?”
“My guess is as good as yours. I told her that we were visiting this time, so it should be safe, but I want you to watch out for any signs of intrusion. The fact that she needed to set up all of these precautions means that there are people out there to be cautious of.”
My mind immediately went to her unique abilities as a deviant, however, no one but a handful of trusted people should’ve known about it.
“Okay.” I nodded solemnly.
Soon after the conversation, Gramps had also fallen asleep with his arms crossed and head bobbing, leaving only my bond, the driver, Tess’ father and myself, awake.
Sylvie had her front paws against the window of the carriage in hopes to catch more unlucky birds, her tail wagging rhythmically.
Alduin had a relaxed look on his aged face as he gazed vacantly at the moving scene outside the carriage. I knew that each of those wrinkles and creases came from the burden of being a king and now a leading figure of the continent.
“I feel like I’ve never had the chance to properly thank you,” he said as his eyes still stayed focused outside the carriage.
“For what, sir?” I replied.
“For taking such good care of my daughter. From what she and my father tells me, Tessia made it out of some dangerous situations thanks to you.” Alduin turned his head and looked at me for a brief moment before revealing a weary smile.
“It’s nothing, sir. Tessia has helped me a lot of times as well.”
“Oh? Like how?” He tilted his head.
I had to think to for a second before responding. “In keeping me sane at times.”
“Not exactly what I expected a thirteen-year-old boy to say, but when it comes to you, I can’t help but see you as an adult.” The former king smirked before shifting his gaze back outside.
“Your words are kind.”
“I somehow feel utterly confident that you will be able to protect my daughter in my and my father’s stead.”
My eyes narrowed in thought at the meaning of his statement, but before I could say anything, Alduin just chuckled and waved his hand dismissively.
“Just an overprotective father’s thoughts running wild. Don’t mind me, Arthur… but say, have you ever thought of one day marrying Tess?”
“Sir?” I said, taken aback by the sudden shift in course of this conversation.
“I mean, sure, she’s a bit rough around the edges and Merial and I may have spoiled her a bit, but she’s a good girl! I bet she’ll be quite the looker given a few years.”
“I thought that traditionally, elves dated and married a lot later—”
“Ha! Tradition? At how fast Dicathen is changing, there’s no room for tradition,” Alduin scoffed. He then bent forward, leaning his arms on his knees. “Arthur, do you like my daughter?”
There was a lingering silence as I thought about my words carefully. Despite his amiable attitude and the casual atmosphere inside the carriage, Alduin was still the acting king of Elenoir. There was no denying that my attitude and care toward the elf princess was different from anyone else’s, but it was still impossible for me to ever assuredly act on those feelings at this stage. There were times when I was surprised at my own reflection because of how young I was; to be able to overcome the mental boundary of age that I subconsciously put up myself would mean I would have to stop seeing Tessia as a girl and see her as a woman.
Locking gazes with Tessia’s father, I answered with confidence. “I do, but I also find myself lacking to confidently say I know what ‘like’ and ‘love’ actually mean. I hope the answer will come with time, but until then I’d like to improve myself before thinking of asking for your daughter’s hand in marriage.”
“Good answer.” The king nodded thoughtfully. “You have your head in the right place despite the lack of years under your belt.”
“More so than you when you were his age,” a soft voice chimed from beside Alduin.
“You were awake, dear?” the king asked with an expression as if he’d been caught sneaking into the desserts cabinet.
“Just for the last bit of your little ‘man talk’,” she smiled.
‘Hehe, I knew Papa liked Mama.’ Sylvie’s voice rang in my head, surprising me.
I turned to the queen, afraid that Tess might’ve heard as well, but fortunately it seemed that unlike her mother, Tessia was a rather heavy sleeper.
TESSIA ERALITH’S POV:
He admitted it! I almost shouted out loud in excitement.
Arthur finally said it! He said he likes me. Well… he said ‘I do’ after he was asked, but that’s good enough!
Way to go, Dad!
Oh no, keep your eyes shut, Tess… keep your eyes shut.
Slow down your breathing.
Shoot, I wonder if he can hear how fast my heart is beating. His hearing can’t be that good, right?
I was so happy that I woke up when I did. I wasn’t going to pretend to be asleep at first, but I got scared when I heard Father talking about me.
He’s so cruel… how can he say that I’m rough around the edges…
…and that I’m spoiled! I’m not spoiled!
It would be embarrassing to wake up just then, so I kept my eyes closed, but who would’ve thought that my father would ask if Arthur liked me… and that Arthur would actually admit it!
He’d only said that once, and that was after I got angry at him. At that time, he surprised me when he kissed me all of a sudden.
Oh no, don’t smile, Tess.
“We’re here, Tess. Come on, now, wake up.” My father’s voice saved me as he gently shook my shoulder.
“Mmm… We’re here already?” I made my voice more wispy, trying to sound like I had just woken up.
I couldn’t look at Arthur in the eye when he turned his gaze to me so I quickly got out of the carriage and stretched.
“Ahhh! That was a good nap!” I said a little more loudly than I needed to.
Sylvie hopped out of the carriage after me and stretched as well, opening her mouth in an audible yawn before darting her head, taking in her new surroundings.
I looked around too, but I was confused when I didn’t see a cottage, or any sort of sign that a person lived here. All that surrounded us were trees and grass, with thick bushes that blocked any sort of path there might’ve been.
“Umm, Grandpa, are you sure we’re in the right place?” I asked as I continued searching for anything remotely close to a house.
“We have to walk a bit further, but it’s near here. Let’s go.” Grandpa took the lead with my father and Arthur following close behind, while Mother ushered me forward as well.
Sylvie scampered alongside me, her head darting back and forth in different directions, as if it sensed something, making me a bit nervous.
As we made our way deeper into the forest, the number of branches we had to maneuver around and curtains of vines we had to push aside increased. I wanted to ask if we were really going in the right direction but the determined and serious look on everyone’s faces made me swallow my complaints.
“Honey? Is something wrong? The atmosphere is a bit chilly…” Mother’s voice trailed off as she hesitantly followed behind Father and Grandpa next to me.
“Mm? Ah, yes. Everything is fine! Just being cautious is all.” My father seemed to have snapped out of his thoughts at the sound of Mother’s words.
“Stop.” Arthur suddenly put up his hand up abruptly, his other hand gripping the hilt of his sword that I didn’t even notice he had until now. Grandpa, who was beside him, froze, lowering himself as Father carefully inched his way towards us.
I could hear it now in the dead silence.
The faint rustle of leaves that seemed to be getting closer to us.
Grandpa whipped his body toward the direction of the sound.
I noticed myself scooting towards Mother for protection. With my mana core unstable because of my beast will, I felt defenseless for the first time in a long while.
My mother was also wary at this point. Both she and Father had their weapons out and at the ready. My mother’s thin wand glimmered in a rose gold hue as my father’s favorite saber was already unsheathed.
The sound was a lot closer this time and it seemed to be coming from our right. Unknowingly, I glanced at Arthur to find his eyes on me, probably making sure I was alright. Sylvie was right next to him with her white fur on its ends, making her look bigger.
And then we all saw it. The curtain of vines to our right began rustling and a hunched figure covered in shade stepped out from the dense forest.
I could tell everyone was on their toes, ready to retaliate at whatever came out, but before anyone had the chance to, a clear voice rang from the shadowed figure.
“What are you lot doing out here looking like fools? Come on, you guys are late!”
The shadowed figure finally stepped into a ray of light that peeked through the trees, revealing an all too familiar figure.
“Grandma Rinia!” I couldn’t help but exclaim in relief.