The Path Ahead – 3.06

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Kowler POV

When I woke, I found the guest bed to be devoid of Alice. Since I was not being throttled by her father, I assumed she must’ve gone to her room. Good. As nice as it was when she was next to me, it was for the best we slept separate here.

I rose to my feet, stretching to prepare for the new day, when I felt the beating of wings stirring the air over my head. Aeria was up and about, her nose twitching. “Alice’s scent is on you. Did you sleep—

I pressed a finger to her lips to cut her off. There was a chance that one of her parents was still here, so the less said the better. “She just came by to talk. Let us never speak of this again, lest someone overhears.”

She nodded, and then took her usual place atop my head after I got dressed. “So what are we going to do today until the festival?

Alice had given me the general idea about when and where the festival would take place. While I wasn’t the most social person, I was looking forward to it. “I’m not certain yet. Perhaps we should go ask Alice if there’s anything to do for the time being.”

We closed the door to the guest room behind us, only to find Alice’s mother in the kitchen. She was wearing a mint-green dress that fell to her ankles and covered her arms to her wrists. She smiled when she noticed the two of us. “Good morning.”

Morning!” Aeria said over my own subdued greeting. “What’s for breakfast?

I sighed and placed my palm against my head. “Aeria, manners…”

“It’s fine,” she told us. “I’m planning on making more food now that those two have left out for the store. It’ll just be a moment.”

We sat at the table while she moved over to the stove and began cooking. She took the time to ask us, “Are you eager for the festival?”

“I don’t know much about it, but Alice seemed to think we would like it. Is there anything in particular we need to know about, or a certain manner of attire?”

She shook her head. “It’s basically a festival centered on the harvest of flowers native to this area, since they can be used for medicine, syrup, snacks, tea, and a number of other things. There’s a feast, a dance, just a casual and fun time for everyone who wants to go. In fact, if you’re feeling up to it, would you and Aeria like to help me pick flowers to get ready for the festival? Alice left to go to work in the store with her father, and meet with her friends, so I could use the company.”

Yay!” Aeria cheered. Her wings came to life and sent her skyward. “I’m good at gathering things, and I don’t want to be cooped up while everyone else is busy!

I grounded her back into the small seat she had on the table before she could start flying around again, or rushing out. But it was something that we could do while Alice wasn’t here. “That’s fine. We’d be happy to attend.”

Breakfast continued on after that, meat and eggs filling our stomachs. Once it was done, I put away the dishes and brought up a topic that I had nearly forgotten while we were alone. “Miss Pyralis?”

“Please, call me Grace,” she said.

“Then Miss Grace…” That felt awkward to say for some reason. “There’s something I’ve wanted to ask you since yesterday. About that saying you used at the store. Do you know where it stems from, by any chance?”

“I heard it from your grandparents when I was at a more formal event almost twenty years ago.” At a guess, she would have been Alice’s age around then. It would have been rude to ask though. She laced her fingers together and sat straight in her chair. “There’s something I need to ask you as well.”

“Ask away.” I took a seat at the table. Aeria decided to take her rightful place on my hair and listen in as well. “If it’s within my ability to answer, then I will.”

“While nothing will immediately come of it, I need to know how deeply you feel for my daughter,” Alice mother said. “Are you planning on marrying her?”

It took a moment to register the question. True, I cared for Alice deeply enough that I believed that I would marry her, but complications were abound. More so with the events that transpired in the last week. “There’s a very high possibility sometime in the future, but not at the present….”

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Then it’s best that you know this ahead of time. My maiden name was Brensfelt before I married Roy. Grace Brensfelt. Is that familiar to you?”

I couldn’t help but cringe at that. “You wouldn’t happen to mean the Brensfelts who handles a fair amount of trading in the Yalona region, would you?”

Alice’s mother nodded, confirming my fears. “Yes. My father is Chester Brensfelt.”

After the last few days of revelations, I couldn’t help but feel that the universe was conspiring to make things difficult between us. “Well, this complicates things a tad.”

Why?” Aeria asked.

Alice’s mother answered her. “His family and the Brensfelts are both heavily involved in certain profitable fields. Both of them have a past of undermining one another.”

“Alice never mentioned she was related to someone like that,” I noted. While I never had to pay out of pocket for my education, she worked at the boutique to alleviate the costs on her parents. That wouldn’t be necessary if they were extensively wealthy, short of a lesson in humility. “In fact, she doesn’t act like someone familiar with wealth.”

She shook her head once and exhaled silently. “Alice is a Pyralis, not a Brensfelt. I’ve been disowned in all but name when I chose my husband over the life I lived back then, the forgotten daughter of a mogul. The relationship between the Freslights and Brensfelts are irrelevant in regards to us, and she doesn’t even know of them.”

“That’s a relief, I suppose.” It meant fewer complications that way in the long run. “But if that’s the case, why bring it up now?”

“It helps you understand my reasoning for what I’m about to tell you.” Her tone softened again. “In all honesty, when my daughter sent a message home about the first friend she made, a boy with the Freslight name, I admit I was distrustful and worried. I told her not to talk to you, and to be careful.”

Ouch. And here I thought Alice always said she was fond of me. “She never mentioned that to me either.”

“Alice is quite headstrong, and won’t listen if she thinks someone is intruding on her freedom,” she offered as an explanation. “It was those very same traits that led to me living out here and ending up married to her father, so I couldn’t begrudge her without become a hypocrite. But I grew more and more paranoid that somehow you would drag her into the life people like our parents live, where greed could worm its way into even the noblest of hearts, and tear apart the closest of friends and family. My mind raced as I tried to look at every angle that you could use to manipulate her somehow, like with a Love Potion or—”

Aeria saw the need to defend me. “Kowl doesn’t d—

“Shush,” I told the spirit. “I appreciate the effort, but she’s saying that this is an apology, so let her finish first.”

The wind spirit huffed and pouted. “Fine.

Alice’s mother took that as a cue to continue. “There were too many ways I could see something happening, and I even considered withdrawing her to be safe. She would have hated me for it, and I would have hated myself unless I felt it was the only alternative. So I told myself that I would only go through with it if one of her messages mentioned anything about the Brensfelts.”

That never happened. As a rule, matters at home stayed there, and matters of family were to be kept silent if at all possible. There was little reason for me to even think about anything outside of school during my time at the academy back then.

“Instead, all she sent home were messages about the things you two did, and how smart you were, and how much fun she had with your companion. She sees her as a younger sister,” she followed up with. “She told me so much that I could tell she was falling in love with you before she even realized it, and I realized nothing I did would put a stop to it. Then I met you in person when Alice surprised us with your visit.”

She closed her eyes and shook her head slightly. “I played the perfect host to appease Alice, but I still had my doubts even then. Despite everything, I couldn’t shake my concerns completely until my husband told me to think about everything without tacking your last name onto it. When I did, I could only come to the conclusion that you were just a boy who was enamored with my daughter.

“I was ashamed of myself after that,” she admitted. “In trying to prevent my daughter from being a pawn, I almost denied her the freedoms that I ran away from home to attain. I wanted her to be whatever she wanted when she grew up, and choose whoever she wanted to marry, like I chose Roy when I passed through here during the festival all those years ago.”

A smile returned to her face, one gentle and sincere. “When she showed me those flowers you got her, I thought that you deserved to hear the truth from me if things were that serious, and an apology for having such reservations because of who you were related to.”

I told her to keep them a secret,” I mumbled. Her mother was spot-on when she mentioned her being headstrong. “Well, even though it hurts a bit, I understand where you were coming from. After all, I’ve tried my hardest to distance myself from my family without severing ties to the extent that my uncle and cousin have. I am not ignorant of some of the things said about what my family has done in the pursuit of power and wealth, especially that of my mother.”

Mother was someone who you did not want to cross. Father may have been of the blood, and she married into the family, but she was the one to watch out for. There was a reason I was cautious about not informing her when bullying was a problem at the academy. Either she would’ve told me to overcome them in a manner befitting my name, which I believe I had done in my own way, or she would somehow used them as an example.

“But, regardless of my last name, I do care for Alice. Perhaps even more than she will ever realize.” I stated. “The only reason I haven’t asked for her hand is because of her schooling, and that I have nothing to offer her at the moment. You can imagine what things will be like if I do, should my parents disapprove of her because she comes from humble beginnings as a Pyralis. Or if Mother learns of her connection to the Brensfelts—no matter how feeble.”

In the former case, I could be disowned much like she mentioned. Considering that Mother and Father were responsible for the Sylphide’s loan, it would leave me without the shop that I opened along with a home. In the latter case, I could be pushed into forcing the relationship faster that it was meant to go, or try and have her reconnect with her extended family so that she would be welcomed back. Both of us would be pawns in a larger scheme.

Either way, the relationship would be tainted. “While I don’t see the necessity of your apology, I do accept it wholeheartedly, Miss Pyralis.”

“Grace,” she insisted.

“Uh, Miss Grace….” It was still awkward. In fact, it was even more so than the conversation prior.

Are families really that complicated?” Aeria asked. “I remember your Mom being a bit scary, but she never really spoke to me.

That was because Mother’s opinion of Aeria wasn’t as flattering as mine. Quite the opposite really. She saw Aeria as more of a stray pet that I picked up in the woods more than anything. “Families are among the most complicated things on Trimagus.”

“That’s all too true.” Alice’s mother agreed with a sigh. Then she changed the topic to something lighter. “So, still coming with me to gather flowers?”

“Yes, of course.” It was better than sitting around alone and thinking to myself in silence about this, on top of everything else. The distraction would be welcomed until the festival later that night.

~~~~~

When the sun fell and stars dotted the sky, the festival began in earnest. People gathered around to join in the revelry, mirth filling the air. Wooden platforms were erected along with stands and banners for games and food. Paper lanterns swayed lazily in the minor breeze that passed in the night, all strung up in lines stemming from a rising pole at the center of the festival grounds.

As I strolled amongst the crowd in search of Alice, who hadn’t returned before sunset, my eyes skimmed across the various festive booths that had been put up, until someone tapped my shoulder from behind. I turned to see it was that young woman who teased Alice yesterday, a slender yet tall build with black hair and charcoal-grey eyes.

“Hello, Miss…” Blast, what was her name again? “Umm, forgive me but I can’t recall your name.”

“Ah’m Trish,” she said, her hand raised for me to shake in greeting.

I noticed she had a fairly firm grip when I shook her hand. “Nice to meet you, Miss Trish. Have you seen Alice?”

She nodded. “She’s puttin’ on a show. Her Pa’s idea. Ah’ll show ya where.”

I followed her towards the center of the festive grounds, where people had gathered to form a tight ring. The smell of flames was unmistakable, only to be made apparent it was magic when they molded into the shape of birds and sailed above. Alice was in front of the tender for the bonfire with her wand in her hand, continuously conjuring the flaming birds.

They were moving in a set number of patterns rather than being actively controlled, circling around in an outstretching spiral. The embers that marked their flight trail fell like snow, flickering out before they could be grasped by anyone who reached for them.

“She’s really sumthin’, isn’t she?” Trish said from next to me, garnering my attention once more. “Not many magic-folks come down here, so havin’ her around for tonight is gunna be something worth rememberin’.”

Once the last of the birds was conjured, Alice summoned a whip of flames that outstretched from her wand. With flicks of her wrist it was similar to a ribbon, smoothly flowing around her body as she twirled. Unreserved in her joy as she entertained those she called friends and neighbors and family, there was a smile on her face that ranked amongst the most radiant I’d ever seen. She was in her element here.

The finale came when, with a skyward crack, the whip of flames turned into a rising, fiery gout held aloft above her head. The plume of flaring orange flames attracted all of the stray flaming birds she had set loose and then drew them in. They were then reshaped into the form of a phoenix that landed on the bonfire tender and set it alight.

Alice curtsied for the audience when she was done, which I never thought I’d see under normal circumstances. The dark gown she was wearing looked a shade of deep violet with the majestic flame in the backdrop. With the firelight illuminating her frame, there was almost a divine air about her, sublime in appearance and comfort.

“You’re right,” I belatedly told Miss Trish. “It’s definitely something worth remembering.”

Applause rang out and music started playing, marking the beginning of the festivities. The crowd dispersed slowly, with some of the couples having their first dance amongst the flames, while others took off to the booths to eat or play the games that had been set up. The younger children, however, herded themselves towards Alice and urged her to show them more magic.

She indulged them. Her wand conjured multicolored sparks that bobbed in the air, so they could try to catch them. Amongst them was the small girl from before that played with Aeria, Trish’s younger sister. She was wearing a garland of white and pink flowers around her neck as she tried to catch the harmless wisps.

Aeria was there as well, loitering on her head. She was assisting them in their efforts by shifting the winds, to make it easier for them.

“Ah’ll go an’ watch the rugrats,” Trish stated. “Make sure they don’t go too far.”

As she left for the children, Alice’s parents approached her. They showered her with praise and affection as only they could. It was a tender moment that was a rarity to be treasured for certain.

I didn’t want to break it up. It seemed almost criminal to do so. I was content to wait until her mother spotted me, and then whispered something into Alice’s ear. Then she took her husband’s arm into hers and directed him into the shadow of the flames.

Alice brushed her hair behind her ears, leaving her wand behind the left one as she approached me. Her eyes glittered in two tones from the glow of the firelight. “Did ya like the show?”

“It was as fantastic as you are,” I told her. “I was really glad I got the chance to see it.”

She looked away, a faint blush on her cheeks. “Well, Pa thought it would be somethin’ special, since I come home so little on account of school… I spent a few hours tryin’ to get it right before they wanted me to go on.”

“You worked hard at it on such short notice, and it paid off.” I scratched the back of my head and felt clueless on how to proceed from the compliment. Looking around at how some of the other couples were dancing, I extended my hand. “Do… do you want to dance?”

Her smile widened as she set her hand in mine with all the fragility of handling glass. “I’d like that.”

The routine that they danced to was somewhat harder to match than I expected, despite being a slow and calm tune. I was never much a good dancer, even at the formal events that I had to attend for family matters. At one point, to my dismay, I nearly tripped over my own foot while trying to watch where I stepped.

Mercifully, Alice tried not to laugh at the blunder and offered to take the lead. With a practiced grace, she took over and led me through the steps. I eventually grasped it and began to keep up. “I didn’t know you were this good at dancing.”

“That’s ‘cause I danced with Pa when I was a small gal at the festival,” she said. “He’d let me stand on his toes and walk me through it. Said that it was how he met Ma too, and swept her off her feet.”

“It must be a family tradition then, since you’re doing the same for me.” She chuckled. Well, flirting was never really my strong point. “That sounded more romantic in my head.”

With the fire dancing behind her, Alice went still. Her arms around the back of my neck pulled me in close, until our foreheads touched. She looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Just being here with ya makes this the best festival I’ve been to. I’m really glad ya came.”

The music was drowned out by my heart hammering away inside my ribcage, and the world seemed to fade out as her lips pressed together in a universal gesture of affection. The scent of her skin, the honeyed emotion reflected in her eyes before they closed, and the warmth of her body as she nestled against me, all of them had me under her spell. It was magic that she didn’t need a wand to perform.

Once the softness of her lips met mine, irrelevant thoughts were simply melted into a sea of bliss that cascaded from the top of my head to the tip of my toes. Drawn into it, my hands came around her waist and I pulled her in as tightly as I could….

Ewwww!” Aeria piped up all of a sudden, now loitering in the air above us with her wings beating too quickly to see in the darkness. “You guys are kissing!

With the moment ruined, Alice broke the kiss while looking as red in the face as I felt in my cheeks. She let me go and then tried to pull herself together. “Uhh… How about we go explore the rest of the festival?”

Aeria landed on her shoulder and pointed towards the stands, further away. “I want try some of that sweet stuff they make from the flowers!

“Alright, alright….” Alice clasped her hands behind her back and then strode forward.

Looking at her walk off, I could still feel the softness of her kiss on my lips, and remember the smile on her face as she performed for those she treasured. I wanted to protect those things, and save her from those coming after her for housing the spirit of fire.

No matter what the cost was in the end.

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