The Path Ahead – 3.03

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Alice POV

I felt woozy as woke up. Like that time I had drank some of the stuff Pa did when I was younger. Ma got mad and let me have it while I was puking up my guts. Never again would I touch that stuff. I sat up and the sheets slid off of my nightgown… wait, when did I put this on?

Knock. Knock. Knock. There was a few knocks on the door. Kowl’s voice followed. “Alice, are you awake?”

“Yeah.” I got out of bed and stretched to loosen up. It felt like I was in knots. “Mmm… How long was I out for?”

“It’s been a little over a day.” He slipped in the room, dressed in a light beige tunic and a pair of trousers, and handed me some funny smelling stuff in a ceramic cup. “Drink that.”

I shrugged my shoulders, pinched my nose, and then drank it. It made me feel tingly as it went down, spreading through my body. All the knots melted and the wooziness vanished. “That’s the stuff. Thanks.”

“I figured you’d need that,” he said. “Anything else that feels off I need to know about?”

“I don’t think so, but …” I gestured to what I was wearing. His cheeks went red and he didn’t look me in the eyes. I couldn’t keep a smile from forming on my face at watching him squirm. It was cute.

After a moment, he gathered himself together and took a deep breath. “You were covered in sweat. I closed my eyes when I toweled you off and changed you with Aeria’s help. Nothing more, I swear.”

My smile softened. I knew he wouldn’t. Then I noticed there was a bandage wrapped around his forearm that went to just under his elbow. My smile turned to a frown. “So, what happened after I went out?”

He was silent for a moment, eyes deep in thought like he did when he was pondering something. “After you passed out, I cut myself on a shelf while I was rushing out to find a physician. Magister Atra happened to come into the shop and helped. If you hadn’t recovered, I would have taken you to a physician this morning.”

The magister must’ve been coming to try to talk to me again. I liked her and all, as far as teachers went, but she was treading on my personal life now. That wasn’t very appreciated on my part. But that was for another time.

Instead, I told him, “Sorry I was off and pushy yesterday. It just felt like there was some reason I needed to be there, but now…”

Kowl just hugged me rather than say anything. His grip was tight. Tight enough that I could feel his body against mine, his breath against my skin. But he was also trembling. “It’s fine. You’re better now and that’s all that matters.”

I could hear the hurt in his voice. It made me worried. “What’s gotten into ya?”

“We can talk about it later,” he said. “Let’s… let’s just get ready for tomorrow.”

He must’ve been so worried. Wrapping my arms around him, I laid my head on his shoulder and hugged him back until he stopped shaking. There was a nice feeling in my chest as we just stayed like that for a minute. No words or anything, but it made me feel better.

“We leave out in the morning for your parents.” He let his hands fall. When I grunted—spoiled of me, I knew, but I was still enjoying the moment—he got the hint and put them back into place. “Make sure you’re packed if you can manage, and call me if you need any help. I’ve already packed for the trip, so I can start on yours now.”

“I’m not helpless,” I said. “Honestly, I’ll pack my bags myself…”

I looked over his shoulder towards the Entwined Lotus blossoms he had gotten working. The glow from them rose and fell with the beating of our hearts. They were almost perfectly timed so he was relaxed now. “Wanna take the flowers to show Ma and Pa?”

He flinched. At the same time, his blossom sped up. “That depends, how would your parents react?”

“Ma would love it,” I said. “In fact, she’d probably be delighted.”

He pulled his head back. “And your father?”

I tensed a bit and bit my bottom lip when I thought about that. He’d probably be a little wound up. Pa liked Kowl well enough when they met in person the first time. But he was more than a little overprotective when it came to me, on account of when I got injured a long time ago. “Maybe a little less than Ma would.”

He huffed. “I have a healthy amount of respect and fear for your father. Therefore, it’s reasonable that I really would prefer not to invoke his parental wrath. In fact, the only way it could be worse was if he found out about our sleeping arrangements.”

The only thing we did when sleeping in the same bed was hold one another. It made cold nights warmer, and it was a nice feeling in general to sleep to. But he was right that, as innocent as it was between us, Pa would probably not be so forgiving if he thought we went too far without being wedded.

“Um, Alice,” he started after another minute. “I need to get back to my workshop. Can I let go now?”

I didn’t want to let him go, but work was work. Keeping business and personal relations separate was one of the reasons my parents let us stay in the same place. Once he was gone, I gave the flowers a side-glance.

The jars they were in were enchanted if I remembered right. I could sneak them into my bag if I put them inside just before we left and they wouldn’t break. Ma could keep it a secret from Pa. With a quick slap to my cheeks to wake me up, I started packing for our trip tomorrow.

~~~~~

I woke to the windy gal jumping up and down on my forehead the next morning, telling me to get up. Thankfully, she weighed next to nothing so it didn’t hurt. But the mist rolling down her back left my face wet. “Alright already… I’m up…”

She hovered in the air in front of me. “Kowl said that we’re leaving within an hour. He’s got the shrinking stuff for the bag, and said to make sure everything you need is in the carry-on.

“Got it,” I grumbled as I tossed aside the sheets and made for the bathroom to freshen up a bit.  Pulling back the curtain of hair that blocked my hidden eye while in front of the mirror, I noticed that the color seemed a bit duller than before. But it wasn’t hurting so it was probably fine. Once I was all dolled up, I snuck the flowers into my bag and carried it down the stairs.

Kowl was talking with Johan there. Since he was coming with me on my trip home someone had to run the Sylphide. We couldn’t close up most of those days since his parents wouldn’t like that, bad for business he said. He doesn’t talk about them much, but he did mention they keep track of how he does here, since they had put down a part of the loan for him to get the shop.

“Yes sir,” Johan said with his voice meek.

Kowl gave him the key to the place. “We’ll see you in a few days. Remember to come in at least two hours early, and if we don’t have something in stock, tell them that they can place an order for a later date.”

I waited until Johan was out the door before I sat my bag down. “Is he gonna be okay here alone while we’re gone?”

Kowl reached for one of the three small spray bottles he had on the shop counter, the blue one. He kneeled and started spraying over the surface of my bag. “Aside from a few blunders, I trust Magister Chelde’s judgment on him. He’s competent and knows the materials to the same extent I do, so he won’t make a mistake there.”

Putting aside the first bottle, he picked up the red one. When he sprayed it over the bag, it made the liquid from the other bottle coating it turn violet. Then the bag began to shrink. “If there’s a problem it’s that he’s too inexperienced, but I have measures in place to keep track of how he does while we’re gone.”

Once the bag had shrunk down to the size of his palm, he set down the red bottle and grabbed the green one. A stabilizer for it, I think. So that it doesn’t rub off, or come undone without another potion. “I’m also locking up my workshop and the upstairs rooms, so that he doesn’t mess with something he shouldn’t out of idle curiosity.”

When he was done, he took my bag and put it in a little wooden case the size of a small book. Next to it was his bag, roughly the same size. He put the three bottles inside as well and closed it.

“Ya didn’t bring along any of those critters that ya muck around with, did ya?”  I asked, to be sure. Didn’t want to scare the folks or have them get near-eaten.

“No,” he said, looking at the clock on the wall. It was a quarter after eight in the morning, about forty-five minutes until we needed to get to the Eastern Uarien Station. “That needs to remain under wraps for legal reasons… although, I may stop experimenting altogether, depending on how busy I’ll be in the foreseeable future.”

That was strange. He was normally so gung-ho about playing around with things he shouldn’t be. But, on the other hand, that meant it would probably be safer and I wouldn’t come home from the academy one day to find him in the belly of one of them.

As the windy gal came down the stairs, carrying a small pouch that she gave to Kowl, I grabbed my broom. It looked a bit more worn than I recalled, and some of the twigs were out of place, wrenched crooked. She probably played with it while I was sleeping, but it wasn’t anything too serious. I’d let it slide.

We closed up the shop and then got moving to the station. Trikryss was in the center region of the Etrova continent, Quarent, with airship docks and Uarien stations at the outskirts of the town.

To the west was Venterris, where the desert was. East-wise there was Kareus, a land of hills and broad-leaf forests. The snowy region up north was Mytorcaia, where that frosty gal, Invidia, came from. Yalona was the southern one, where the jungles gave way to the warm ocean and beaches.

My home was a little ways south of the east border. It wasn’t a big place, so there wasn’t a direct path from the town to there. Instead, we would have to take a carriage to the east and get off at the closest station to the village, before going the rest of the way on broom.

We got the Eastern Uarien Station with more than enough time, but the critters were already awake and raring to go. They were big, with earthen-colored fur that was long and hid their bodies. One of them alone could trample those trolls from a few months ago, but they were tamed and friendly.

Attached to the pair in front were several carts that had different compartments, dragged along as they moved on steel wheels. Each compartment could sit four to six people if needed. Since there were only three of us, there was plenty of space. But, in the event that it was overcrowded, we would have to share since the tickets we bought weren’t exclusive.

I stowed my broom on the overhead shelf as we got to the next-to-last compartment. The small gal followed, buzzing around the compartment as Kowl followed. He shut the door and sighed when the windy gal complained about being cooped up.

“Be patient until we start moving,” he told her. “Once we’re a good way along the path, I’ll let you fly alongside the carriage… so long as you don’t bother uarien again. We don’t need a repeat of the last time.”

I remembered that. The gal decided to play keep away with the feed for them and caused a bit of a stir. If the driver wasn’t as understanding as he was, things would have gotten complicated.

Fine…” She huffed and puffed, before fluttering in front of me as I sat next to Kowl. She leaned forward and her face scrunched up. “You smell like you a lot more now.

My eyebrows went up. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Kowl shot her a glance as he pulled out a book. There was some meaning behind it, a warning of some kind. She pouted and then settled down in my hair.

I gave myself a quick sniff but didn’t find anything out of ordinary as the carriages began to move.

~~~~~

Finally,” I huffed, before covering my mouth to yawn. It had been about a day or so before we arrived at the closest station in Kareus, and we spent the majority of that time cooped up inside of our compartment, except to get something to eat or use the bathroom. It didn’t help that it had been a mostly quiet trip.

Either Kowl was deep in thought or he was reading that book of his, combing it over. When I took a gander at what was so interesting about it, all it did was cover the various parts of the continent. He said he might be going on some business trips in the future, but not much else.

The windy gal was the first out of the compartment, leaving through the window. Kowl went ahead to arrange the return tickets for once the festival was over. That left little old me alone while I grabbed my broom and waited outside, behind the wooden fence that followed the path we traveled.

A breeze rolled through the grass, tossing my hair behind me and ruffling my skirt. It had been months since I felt this breeze. I let it wash over me as I looked to the south and took in the scenery that was already familiar.

Despite being just past the border, between the Quarent and Kareus, the grass was richer. It was longer than around the academy and Trikyrss, letting the blades catch the wind and roll in waves towards the hills. The slopes gently rose and fell in no particular order, and the scattering of small trees were spaced wildly. Home was past there, on the other side of them.

A soft grip on my shoulder made me turn from the scenery to my left. Kowl’s eyes were set in a gentle and understanding expression. He was telling me that it would only be a little longer until I could see Ma and Pa again.

I let go of my broom and it floated up so we could mount it. “Hop on.”

He stood still for a second and opened his mouth. Probably to tell me not to go too fast, knowing how eager I must have been to get there. Then he sighed and climbed on without a word, pressing his chest against my back and wrapping his arms around my waist.

We took off with the windy gal flying next to us, happy to spread her wings into the blue sky. Rising higher and higher as we sailed southwards, we passed over the tallest hill to see beyond it and into the distance. There were more green slopes that rose and fell, with a stream breaking through in a slithering line that the animals around it drank from. It expanded the further we sailed through the air.

Higher and higher, until the birds were next to us in the sky, I felt free flying like this. My view of the world changed when I was high up. The land beneath me was big, but the sky around and above me was endless.

Kowl’s grip on me tightened as the flight continued in silence. Odd how someone who had a contract with a wind spirit liked to stay firmly on the ground. But it was cute in its own way. I slowed down and drifted lower to the ground once we reached the village.

Kararn itself was set within a river valley, between two of the taller hills. It was smaller than Trikryss in terms of the number of people by quite a bit. So it was a quiet place to live.

On the left side of the river was where most of the farming was done. There was even an orchid further back, near the slope of the taller hill. It was carefully tended to by the farmers around there for generations. There was a field where the flowers for the festival grew where it ended, and I could already make out some people picking them in the distance.

I banked to the right side of the river, where most of the people lived. My parents’ store was there and it was the first place I wanted to go, since they would both be there at this time of day. I came to a stop just a few feet off the ground and hopped off my broom.

“Alice~!” cheered a little gal I recognized coming out of the store, Lily. She was a short one, barely up to my hips in size. The tunic she wore stopped just at her knees, and there were little sandals on her feet as she ran towards me, her light-brown short pigtails bobbing.

Just behind her was her father, Tobias. He was an older guy around Pa’s age, a carpenter who was kind of plump. He stood on the porch of the store with a big grin on his face.

Next to him was his second-oldest daughter, Trish. She was a wiry gal with black hair and grey-eyes, and was about my age. They were all neighbors who I grew up alongside, with Tobias babysitting me when Ma and Pa were out working, while me and Trish played together when we little gals ourselves.

I caught Lily when she jumped up to hug me. I reckoned she’d gotten a bit heavier since the last time we met a couple of months ago. “Lily, yer so much bigger than before! Ya been eatin’ well?”

She laughed until the windy gal circled around her a bit while she was in my arms, before tagging her to chase after her. Lily dropped down and did her best. Since they were about the same age, mind-wise, it was cute to watch them in their own little world.

Kowl grunted as he managed to get off the broom and nearly collapsed. His legs must’ve been like jelly. That tended to happen after a long ride, if you weren’t used to it.

I grabbed his arm with my left hand, my broom with my right, and then walked towards that porch while waving as best I could to my old playmate and babysitter. “I’m back for the festival!”

Trish pulled my head into her chest and started rubbing at my hair as her way of saying hello. “All that flyin’ mussed yer hair a bit.”

“Cut it out, will ya?” I brushed her hand aside and looked to see Kowl with a little smirk on his face. “Tell Ma and Pa I’m here. I’ll be inside in just one sec.”

“Take your time,” he said, looking towards where the kiddies were playing. Then he gave Trish and Tobias a nod before going inside. The door gently closed behind him.

“So that there’s that friend yer parents mentioned?” Tobias asked, stroking his chin as he looked to the door.

I nodded. “Yeah. Kowl. Ya weren’t around the last time we came by.”

“Yer Ma said y’all were close to bein’ together, but ah can’t see the appeal,” Trish said. “Figured ya’d get someone like yer Pa, strong and big. Ah remember when ya were Lily’s age and were gonna take him from yer Ma.”

“Kowl’s strong in a different way,” I told her, trying to keep the heat in my cheeks in check. It was natural for little girls to want someone like their Pa growing up. “He’s brighter than a lot of folks, got his own shop, and he’s braver than ya’d think—”

I heard a bit of a scream through the door then. Kowl’s in fact. “My ribs, sir! I can’t breathe!”

Pa’s voice followed. “C’mon Lad, ya need ta put more meat on ya!”

Tobias chuckled. “Yer Pa’s got him. Better get in there quick.”

“Yeah….” I sighed. “I’d better.”

I gave them both a hug and then opened the door. The cool air rushed out to greet me, making my hair move about as I entered. I closed the door behind me, set my broom down, and took in the nostalgic sight of my parents’ shop.

The store was wooden on the inside, from the floor to the ceiling, with a large column holding it up. Shelves ran throughout it, stocked with all sorts of goodies and sundries that folks out here needed for day-to-day living. And, at the register, was Ma with a hand on her cheek and small smile on her face while she shook her head. She was staring at Kowl, who was in a bear hug of sorts from Pa as a welcome, chuckling a bit.

Pa was a big man, twice Kowl’s size and height easy. His hair was a fiery-color like my own, only short, and his jaw was square as he grinned. The sleeveless shirt he had on showed his big arms off as he held Kowl, muscles bulging as he tightened his hold.

“Ya been treatin’ mah daughter right?” Pa asked. “Ya have, haven’t ya?”

“Y-Yes!” Kowl grunted. “As delicate as a flower…agh…”

I decided to stop him before Pa broke Kowl. “Pa, don’t crush him. He ain’t done nuthin’ wrong.”

“There’s mah lil’ fire bug!” He let Kowl go and came to sweep me up in his broad arms and off my feet. I felt safe as he held me tight. “Yer lookin’ more and more like yer Ma every time I see ya.”

Glancing over his shoulder, I looked towards Ma smiling at me. She was pretty today in her white tunic and purple dress I could spy. The deep green shade of her eyes matched my good eye, and her hair was the same color as chocolate. It came around her shoulder in a braided ponytail.

Kowl leaned on the counter as he rubbed his back and groaned. Pa must’ve been squeezing him harder than he was me, or he was right that Kowl needed more meat on him. He then remembered Ma on the other side of it and corrected himself, standing straight and greeting her. “Miss Pyralis, a pleasure to see you again. You look as radiant as I remember, and I can see where Alice gets it from.”

“Nice to see you too,” she told him. “I trust she’s been helping at your apothecary?”

“She’s been a great help,” Kowl said, adjusting his glasses. “Without her, I don’t think I would have survived for very long as a storeowner. My parents would have no doubt been displeased should that have happened.”

“‘The wings of wealth only fly where the winds of profit blow,’ after all,” she mused.

Kowl went stiff at that and raised an eyebrow at her. That saying meant something to him and she knew it.

She turned to us and said, “Dear, they’ve both had a long trip, I imagine. Could you watch the store while I head back to start on dinner, and get these two settled in?”

“Sure thing, Love.” Pa set me down and rustled my hair. He gave Ma a quick peck on the cheek as she passed him. And Kowl got a pat on the back that nearly knocked his glasses off. “Be seein’ ya after closin’ then!”

“Come along you two,” she told us as she opened the door. The windy gal slipped in and circled Ma, before landing on her shoulder and saying hello. “And it’s nice to see you too. I trust you’ll be eating with us as well? I’m making Alice’s favorite.”

She jumped up and down at that, just as excited as I was to eat Ma’s cooking, and took off towards the house in a blur that made the wind whip around. Kowl chased after her, trying to get her to slow down and apologize. Ma laughed softly as she watched them go and gestured with her hand for me to follow.

I grabbed my broom and made for home after them.

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