Our return trip across northern Kaldan proved far less eventful than the initial journey towards Shadowmine. I was less hesitant to empower Val with our full suite of combat enhancements after allowing her to officially join our traveling party, and her greatly increased speed allowed us to make good time along the empty roads. We took a momentary detour an hour before sunset when the fog of a Serathid’s aura appeared at the edge of my Detection; it was overkill for the three of us to pursue the lone beast together, but we welcomed the excitement after a dull day of travel, and it fell without incident to our coordinated assault.
It wasn’t until after the brief combat was finished that I realized my consciousness hadn’t merged with Lia’s. I could still feel her presence comfortably at the back of my mind, but the boundary between the two of us remained distinctly intact. It was difficult for me to decide how I felt about the curious situation: on one hand, the empty half of my mind continued to long for the connection it had lost, but simultaneously, I was relieved to avoid the entanglement we still didn’t fully comprehend. My introspection was interrupted when Lia’s concern became clear through our commingled auras, and I looped my arm through hers and held her close as the three of us traveled back to the road.
We arrived in Yenn just after sundown. I led our party through the center of town, keeping well away from the ruined homes we had investigated on our first pass through the settlement. After a quick scan of the surrounding buildings, I picked out one of the more hurriedly packed homes and made my way to the front door. The latch opened without resistance, and I let out a small sigh of relief as we entered our free lodging for the night. It was a modestly sized one-story house left mostly empty after its owner’s evacuation, but it held two important features: a bed, and a fireplace.
I retrieved an armful of chopped firewood from a covered porch at the back of the house and quickly set to building a fire in the living room. Crimson flames leapt from the logs as I imparted my mana into them and invoked the rune within my ring, but the color quickly changed to a more natural orange as my energy faded and allowed nature to take its course. While I tended to the fire, Lia found a pair of old iron oil lamps and hung them on opposite walls of the cozy living room, repelling whatever shadows the hearth failed to find. Val searched through the cabinets in the kitchen for a slightly more appetizing meal than the trail rations Lia and I had packed for the journey; though she was unsuccessful in finding food, she returned a minute later with a dusty bottle of dark liquid and a trio of small stone mugs.
“What treasure did you find out there?” I asked as I sat down on a plush couch across from the fireplace and fished through my pouch of preserved foods.
“It is the only thing that was neither spoiled nor frozen,” she replied, setting the set of mugs on a low table. Pulling the stopper from the bottle, she held the open end to her nose and sniffed. “I believe it is some form of spiced rum.” She poured a small amount into each of the mugs before she retired to an ancient rocking chair at the fireside, carefully leaning her shield against the hearth beside her. The wooden frame squealed in protest beneath the combined weight of her imposing form and heavy armor, but it managed to stay together as she began to gently rock back and forth.
“Oh, rum!” Lia clapped excitedly as she scooped up the remaining pair of mugs and sat down beside me on the couch. “I’ve never had rum before.” She sniffed the mug enthusiastically, and her eyes widened as the scent burned through her nose. “Woah, that’s...something.”
I laughed as I portioned out an extra set of rations for Val. “You’ll want to be careful with that stuff.” For a moment I considered saying more, but the memory of Lia’s overindulgence at the Council Chambers was enough to make me hold my tongue. I handed Val our dinner for the night: a piece of hard bread, a few strips of jerky, and a handful of dried fruits. “It’s not quite the quality of our trail rations for our mission to Attetsia, but it’s what we’ve got until we make it home.” I returned to the couch and took a sip from my own mug. “This ought to help make it more palatable, though.”
Lia looked between her small meal and her cup, then took a cautious taste of the spirit. Her nose wrinkled as she shook her head and stuck out her tongue. “Blech. No thanks,” she said with disgust, pouring the remaining contents of her cup into mine. “I’ll stick with water.” I snickered as I took another sip of the rum, which provoked a playful poke to the back of my head as Lia left the room, returning a moment later with her waterskin.
I put my arm around her shoulders and sank further into the couch, taking a long pause to appreciate the scene around me. The comfortable silence as we all ate our meager supper reminded me of the brief few days where I had counted Val as a real friend. My memories of our mission beneath Shadowmine were warped by the time-altering effects of adrenaline and my own combat enhancements, which left me feeling as if we had all been together again for weeks as opposed to days. Our battle in the throne room was a fight from years before, distant and forgotten.
Just as a smile began to form on my lips, a flash of betrayal burned through my stomach. I looked away from the King’s Shield and stared down into my mug as I struggled to push the feeling away. My knuckles turned white as I squeezed the cup, and I let out a long sigh before taking another sip. I just need more time.
“Lux? Are you well?” Val asked.
I realized my sigh was more audible than I had intended, and I looked up from my rum with a pleasant smile. “I was thinking about the dinner waiting for us back in Lybesa. It’s easy to take hot meals for granted when you’re eating them every day,” I chuckled, popping a handful of dried berries into my mouth. A small ping of concern echoed in the back of my mind as Lia pushed me further, clearly not believing my pleasantries. I am fine, really. I’m just...wishing things were normal. She placed her hand on my knee and gave it a light squeeze, and a genuine smile slowly replaced my false one.
“I see,” Val responded. “It has been weeks since I ate a proper meal as well. Even this is a vast improvement over my usual fare.”
“Oh, wait until we make it home, Val!” Lia said excitedly. “My mother will make us all dinner! It’ll be so good.” She took a bite of her jerky, then suddenly perked up and clapped excitedly. “Or, we could go out to eat with Aunt Ellie! Those crispy little mushrooms Bella always brings us are amazing!”
My stomach growled at the thought of hot, fresh food. “Please, Lia, my stomach can’t take it,” I chuckled. “We still have to get home first, and there’s a rather large wall between here and there.”
She huffed and waved me off. “That’ll be fine! Allen will be happy to see us; he let us come through to stop the Serathids, remember?”
“There’s a good chance he won’t be the one to greet us this time around. Don’t forget: we are two of the most wanted fugitives in Kaldan.”
“As am I,” Val added. “I do not imagine the Mountain Gate holds the forces necessary to stop us from leaving Kaldan, but I do not relish the idea of bringing harm to those soldiers simply because they are following their orders.”
I was momentarily taken aback by her statement; my mind refused to see her as anything other than the pure embodiment of Virram’s power and control, and I had forgotten that she was considered to be an enemy of the state on par with Lia and me. “Val, I’m curious: how did you go from Commander of the Trinity Guard to wanted criminal? I know bits and pieces of the story, but I don’t see how it fits together.” I didn’t realize the emotional weight my question carried until I heard it in my own ears, and I immediately hurried to correct myself. “If you don’t mind talking about it, that is. Sorry.”
“Of course not,” she replied. She took another sip from her mug and straightened her relaxed posture. “After our return from Attetsia, I was ordered to intercept you at the Mountain Gate. I failed to do so: I arrived a day after your exit from the country to find our fortifications thoroughly destroyed. In the face of my failure, I received new orders via messenger: By Virram’s decree, I was to oversee the repair efforts and hold the wall until you returned.'' She tipped her head from side to side. “He was confident you would return. I am unsure as to why.”
My jaw clenched as I remembered my conversation with the late king in the throne room. “I guess he was right, in the end.”
“I suppose,” Val nodded. “I carried out my orders dutifully for five days. On the morning of the sixth day, the first Serathid arrived at the wall. It killed two dozen of my men before we were able to bring it down.” Her eyes took on a far away quality as she no doubt watched the event unfold again in her mind. “I left for the capital to report my findings and request additional support for my men. When I arrived, I found Yoria heavily fortified and prepared for a siege; Virram had known of the threat and its origins in Shadowmine, and had ordered the entirety of his forces in eastern Kaldan back to defend the capital, completely abandoning our most vulnerable citizens.”
Her face darkened as she continued. “When word of my arrival reached Virram, I was immediately arrested and brought before him in chains. He charged me with treason, both for abandoning my post and for intentionally aiding in your escape. When I begged him to allow me to lead an army to Shadowmine, he accused me of plotting to weaken his defenses and make an attempt on his life. I was stripped of my title of Commander of the Trinity Guard, branded a traitor to Kaldan, and sentenced to await execution in the dungeon.” A sudden, unexpected smile crossed her face. “After I escaped the throne room, I made my way—”
“Wait, hold on,” Lia cut in. “How did you escape? Weren’t you chained up without your shield?”
“That is correct,” Val answered with the slightest hint of smug satisfaction.
I let out a loud laugh. “Oh man, I can see the look on Virram’s stupid face so perfectly in my head. That guy really loved his public humiliations—you’d think he would’ve learned they didn’t work out for him so well.”
Val basked in the unspoken compliment for a moment before continuing. “After I escaped the throne room, I made my way north. I knew it was my duty to end the threat from Shadowmine, and it seemed an efficient way to kill two birds with one stone—I could evacuate citizens from danger while simultaneously recruiting volunteers for the militia. Many brave men and women joined with me as I traveled across Kaldan, and we saved countless lives in our efforts. I led the refugees to Atsal, leaving them in the care of my militia as I embarked on a final journey before our inevitable march back towards Shadowmine.”
As the missing pieces of her timeline slotted into place, I realized where her final journey had led her. “Val, I’m...sorry, about what I said that day in the forest.” I paused, unable to find anything else to say. I resorted to taking another deep gulp of my spiced rum for inspiration. “It was cruel. You didn’t deserve that.”
“I did,” she answered. “I knew how my arrival would look to you. Without information to indicate otherwise, I was an invader at Virram’s command. I knew my life would be in danger, and it was a risk I gladly took.” She looked between Lia and I quietly for a moment. “I knew that if I explained the situation, you would return to end the invasion. Whether I survived the conversation was irrelevant.”
Lia gracefully took over for me as I was overwhelmed by regret and shame. “How did you know where we were, Val? There were so few people who knew who we were, or where we were. Did someone tell you?”
“No, I had no information of your whereabouts. I had allowed myself five days to search for you, and was fortunate that Lux found me on the second day,” she answered. “From what I had learned of the two of you on our travels, I predicted you would search for a safe place to live, well out of the way of any traffic or prying eyes. The emberwood forest in northern Lybesa seemed a natural place to start.” She gave a small shrug as she finished the rest of her rations. “It was not a good plan, but it produced results.”
“Wow,” Lia remarked. “That was some...surprisingly good luck.”
“Fate,” I murmured.
“Perhaps. How it happened is irrelevant—I found you, and I believe it saved Kaldan. That is what matters.” She leaned back in the rocking chair and sipped on her rum. “I believe you know the rest of the story. After our encounter, I returned to Atsal and rallied my northern militia. We journeyed across central Kaldan to find any remaining civilians in need of assistance, escorted them to Yoria, and moved north to Shadowmine where you found us.”
“I’m just glad we made it in time,” Lia said with a relieved sigh. “That timing was too close for comfort.”
“Fate,” I cursed again. “It shouldn’t have been that close, Val. I should have listened when you warned me. A lot of people died that didn’t have to because of that. Innocent people...friends of ours.”
“I am sorry to hear that,” she said solemnly. “What the two of you have done has undoubtedly saved the entire world. The deaths of innocent people are not on your head, but Virram’s, and his Shadebinders. He killed them, but you are the ones who saved the rest.”
“You did too, Val!” Lia chimed in. “We wouldn’t have known where to go if you hadn’t found us, and we wouldn’t have made it through Shadowmine without you, either.”
“Yes, I suppose you are right,” she answered. She upended her mug as she finished the liquor inside and set it on the low table between us. I followed suit, having finished my double portion far too quickly. A yawn knocked me back into the padded couch, and I rubbed my face with my now empty hand.
“This stuff doesn’t work like it used to,” I remarked, eyeing the bottle of rum suspiciously. “I was hoping to feel something other than sleepy.” In truth, I could feel the warm, dulling fuzz of the alcohol’s effects in my extremities, but the sensation was greatly diminished by a subconscious level of mana circulating throughout my body. “Guess it’s time for bed.”
“I will keep watch tonight,” Val offered immediately. “I am more than willing to repay you for allowing me to sleep without disturbance last night.”
I waved her off with a mild sense of annoyance. “We all need sleep tonight, Val. Tomorrow will probably be an...eventful day.” While I believed the statement was true, it was a convenient mask for my true intention: the idea of her keeping watch over us alone while we slept set off alarm bells in my head, and despite how stupid I knew the feeling was, I couldn’t shake it from my mind. “If you really insist, we can take shifts.”
Lia’s presence buzzed in the back of my mind, and she quickly read my intentions from my anxiety. “In that case, I’m sleeping first—I’m beat!” she laughed, jumping up from the couch and rushing towards the bedroom. She paused at the door and turned back to us. “Val, come and wake me at midnight. You can have the bed—Lux gets the couch.”
Based on the vibrant glow of her amber aura, I could tell she was nowhere near tired. Thank you, I said silently.
You’re welcome, she replied in turn. I know this has been hard for you—you’re doing a great job. She smiled back at us as she opened the door. “Goodnight!”
“Goodnight, Lia,” Val called back.
I gave Lia an appreciative nod before she entered the bedroom and closed the door behind her. The living room quickly fell silent apart from the soft crackle from the fireplace and the rhythmic squeak of Val’s chair as she rocked back and forth. I scooped up Lia’s waterskin from the table and drained it with a single gulp in anticipation of the hangover I would wake up with in the morning. The oppressive quiet began to weigh on me as I fiddled idly with the waterskin’s cork, and I consciously reduced the mana maintaining my sobriety. A soothing rush of warmth quickly filled my body, and a comfortable fuzz disrupted the intrusive anxiety plaguing my mind and allowed my thoughts to wander. “Hey, Val. Can I ask you something?”
“Of course, Lux.”
I smacked my lips, suddenly realizing how dry my mouth was. “Do you think Marin will forgive you for what happened?” I let the question sit as I stood and teetered my way to the kitchen where I had left my waterskin. I took a deep draught of the cool liquid and let out a refreshed sigh. “She seems like she might be the type that holds a grudge,” I remarked as I fell back onto the couch, brooding on my own relationship with the younger Sesaude.
“I believe she will. She is a very passionate woman—it has led her to love quickly and hurt deeply many times in the past. Our reunion will be...similarly intense, I imagine,” she mused. “It may take time to regain her trust, but I am willing to wait.”
“I hope you’re right,” I sighed, stretching out across the couch. “I’m doing some waiting of my own.”
The squeaking of Val’s chair stopped as she leaned her elbows on her knees. “Why is that?”
“There was an…” I trailed off, circling my hand in the air as I searched for the right word. “An incident. She lost her faith in me.”
“Is she safe?” Her voice was a thin, wavering sound beneath her obvious concern.
“What? Yeah, of course she’s safe. Sorry, I didn’t mean to worry you.'' I let out an annoyed groan as I rubbed my face. “Some of those monsters showed up outside of town. The Serathids, I mean. It was...two weeks ago? Three? I don’t know—time’s been hard for me lately. Whenever it was, a group of them showed up just outside of Mayaan. They killed some traders, and we went out to take care of them. We’d only ever seen one of them before and didn’t really know the extent of what they could do. Marin was so excited about getting to fight them. I hated the idea, but I didn’t have time to argue, so I let her come along after she promised to stay out of the fight.”
Val nodded for me to continue, fully engrossed in my rambling. “There were more of them than we thought—seven or eight, if I remember right. They’re hardly a threat out in the open, or in a tight space like a mineshaft, but in the forest...they’re something else, Val. We were lucky to get out alive. But after the fighting was over, I, uhm...I lost control.” I stared up into the shadows of the low wooden ceiling above us, avoiding Val’s steeled gaze. “Marin saw what I really was. The fire, and the darkness. She saw it and immediately knew that I was dangerous. Beyond all the monsters we had killed, I was dangerous. Now she can’t even be in the same room as me.” Her look of terror appeared in my head for the thousandth time, tormenting me all over again. “You saw it too, you know. Under Shadowmine.”
I finally turned to look her in the eye, but instead of finding the judgement I expected, she held a strangely soft look of compassion. “Yes,” she answered, “I did.” She rested her chin on her clasped hands and tilted her head slightly to one side. “You do not need to talk about it. I understand that it is difficult for you.”
“No, I do,” I countered. “I promised you I’d talk about it, so I’ll talk about it.” I gave her a halfhearted wave. “Go on, ask. I know you want to.”
“If you are sure,” she said, pausing graciously to allow me a chance to change my mind. When I remained silent, she gave me a resolved nod. “You truly do not know the nature of that power, do you?”
Having expected her to ask for specific details about the dark flames, the odd variation on the question caught me off guard and left me speechless, allowing Val time to continue. “When I inquired previously about your connection with the Shadebinders, I did not intend to upset you. It was my belief that you simply wished to hide the true nature of your abilities from me, as you did not trust me. However, it was clear to me at that moment you had told the truth—you had no prior knowledge of the Shadebinders, or of how that power could relate to them. Your anger towards me had not been fueled by hatred, but by fear.”
I stared at her in utter shock. “Yeah,” I whispered, nodding my head almost imperceptibly up and down, “yeah, that’s right. There’s just...so much I don’t know. The only thing I know for sure is that it makes me too dangerous to ever use it again.”
Val left her place by the fire and walked towards me, kneeling down to my eye level at the head of the couch. “Marin is still a young woman. She has not yet been forced to learn the true hardships of battle, and, Primes willing, she never will. But I understand.” She placed her hand lightly on my shoulder. “I understand the willingness to do whatever is necessary to protect the ones you love, no matter the cost.”
Her physical proximity unsettled me; my sword had been pressed against our throats the last time we had been so close, and the rage from that day spilled over into my head and filled me with regret. “I don’t know if Marin will ever see it that way. She felt it for herself—she knows that I have that evil in me.”
“I do not believe any power is inherently evil, Lux,” she replied.
I shrugged off her hand as I pulled myself up into a sitting position. “You don’t have to lie for my sake, Val. I remember what you said about the Shadebinders, and whatever my power is, I know it’s related to them.”
“Yes. The Shadebinders were a group of truly evil men who wished to rule the world through darkness and death, but that does not mean that the power they studied must be used only for that goal.” She folded her hands neatly in her lap and continued to watch me intently. “The blessings of the Primes are dispassionate—they may be used for good or ill, but the power itself has no allegiance. It is the intention behind the power that matters, and your intentions are clear. I believe Marin will come to understand this in time.”
A tense knot of muscle in my shoulders released all at once as she absolved me of the worry I had failed to put into words since our discovery of the Shadebinder’s chambers. “I, uhm...I hope you’re right.” I gave her an awkward pat on the arm. “Thanks, Val.”
She gave me a small smile in response, but remained kneeling on the floor beside me, staring unflinchingly into my eyes just a few feet away from hers. “I would like to ask you another question,” she said after a long silence.
My brow furrowed as I heard an unsure waver in her voice. “Sure.”
“It is a...personal question,” she continued. “You need not answer should you feel uncomfortable.”
Alarm klaxons blared to life in my head as I considered what her question could be. My comfortable buzz was instantly flushed away by a powerful surge of mana, replacing the alcoholic fog in my mind with an accelerated jolt of clear thought. Don’t assume things. It’s just Val. “Uh, alright. What’s the question?”
She stared down at her folded hands and took a breath. “Are you planning to make Lia a Unity offering?” I let out a relieved laugh as my immediate concerns vanished, which brought a confused wrinkle to her forehead. “I do not understand why this is funny.”
“Sorry, it’s not,” I chuckled, shaking my head. “To answer your question, yes, I do plan on making a Union offering to Lia, but seeing as we’re already married, it’s not the most pressing concern.”
The answer physically knocked her back. “You are already married? Truly?”
“Yeah. For just over a week now.” A giddy smile appeared on my face as I thought back to the ceremony. “It was a pretty quick process from start to finish. We only had to wait about—”
My recollection was interrupted when Val lurched forward and wrapped me in a tight hug, forcing the air from my lungs as she crushed me against her armored chest. “This is amazing news. Congratulations, Lux,” she said, resting her chin on my shoulder. “May the Primes bless your union for many years to come.”
After a long moment of shock, I cautiously raised my arms and returned the embrace. “Thank you,” I answered, still unsure what had caused the sudden burst of emotion.
She pulled back far enough to look into my eyes, leaving her hands on my shoulders. “If you do not mind my asking, what ceremony did you choose?” Her eyes sparkled with an excitement I had never seen from her before as she waited for an answer.
“I think it was called the Binding Rites? The one with the ribbons.”
“Oh, lovely,” she smiled. “I have always been fond of the Binding Rites. While it is a simple ceremony, I believe it is also the most beautiful. The symbolism of the spoken words paired with the physical joining of the hands is a touching moment.”
A grin began to curl the corner of my mouth as my embarrassment shifted to amusement. “You seem to have a thing for weddings, Val.”
“I was blessed with the ability to attend a variety of ceremonies in my time as the King’s Shield, and I took every possible opportunity to do so. They are beautiful moments that are otherwise hard to come by,” she explained.
“So...what about you? After seeing all of the ceremonies in the capital, you must have your own dream wedding planned, right?” I knew it was a potentially sensitive topic, but my interest far outweighed my discretion in the moment.
“No. I have no interest in such things,” she answered casually. “However, if I had to choose, I would select the Binding Rites. The Blessing Rites does not pay proper homage to all eight Primevals, and the Offering Rites is far too long of a ceremony. I prefer the simple elegance of the Binding Rites.” Her eyes took on a faraway quality as she stared through me. “I am sorry I could not attend your ceremony.”
While she had made the initial statement without any hint of bitterness or regret, I couldn’t help but feel sad that she had so entirely abandoned the idea of marriage. My better sense took hold of me before I could push her for further answers on the topic. “It was a beautiful night. It would have been...nice to have you there.” Despite the hesitancy with which I had said it, the words rang true in my head. It would have been nice.
As silence grew between us, our closeness seemed to finally register with Val, and she stood up abruptly and returned to her seat by the fire. “Thank you for answering my questions. I continue to appreciate your honesty.”
“I think we’re well past the point of lying to each other by now,” I replied, settling back into my sprawled out position on the couch.
“Indeed. Please know this goes both ways—I am willing to answer any questions you may have for me.”
“Maybe I’ll take you up on that sometime,” I said as I stifled a yawn. “For now, I’m just going to focus on staying awake.”
“I can hold watch on my own if you would prefer to sleep,” she offered.
“Nah, it’s alright. I’ll do my part,” I said, closing my eyes. The mana that fueled my mental enhancements trickled back into my reserves as I prepared to extend my Detection, and I immediately felt the full effects of my double serving of rum return. I burrowed deeper into the recesses of my voluminous cloak and firmly planted myself against the back of the couch to combat the sudden mental spins. After an extended moment of focusing, I sent my mana out in a pulse that ended a few hundred yards away in every direction.
I chuckled to myself as the energy revealed Lia in the bedroom splayed out spread-eagle across the bed with her face buried in the pillows, sound asleep. Val’s form glowed a soft purple at the fireside, overshadowed by the electric blue light of my own energy stored within her shield at the mantle beside her. Though her face was a blank slate, her emotions were clear through the weak aura emanating from the mana reserves in her core: satisfaction, relief, and contentment. Outside the house, the small world within my Detection was still and lifeless.
This is...nice, I thought sleepily. This is nice.
“Can I open my eyes yet?” Amaya asked again.
“Not yet!” I answered, as I had each time she asked. “We’re almost there, just be patient!” I steered her through the grass by the shoulders as she held her hands over her eyes.
“I know exactly where we are, Elden,” she giggled.
“That’s not the point!” I laughed. Even with her eyes covered, she seemed to be the one leading me up the hill to the base of the giant tree behind her father’s forge. When our climb began to flatten out, I led her to the side of the tree where I had laid out a large blanket in the shade. “Alright, sit down here. But don’t open your eyes!”
She flexed her bare feet against the blanket below us and smiled, then sat down in her designated spot, keeping her eyes scrunched shut as she fixed her purple sundress. “Something smells good,” she said as her nose wiggled.
I scratched at the base of one of her golden rabbit-like ears until she let out a satisfied hum, then moved to my spot across from her on the blanket. “Just a few more seconds,” I murmured, rearranging the decorations I had set out for the hundredth time. When I was finally pleased with the setup, I took a deep breath and pulled the small felt-lined box out of my pocket and set it on the ground behind me. “Okay. You can open your eyes.”
Two vibrant pools of violet sparkled in the early afternoon sunlight as Amaya’s eyes opened and scanned the ground between us. “Oh, a picnic!” she said, clapping her hands. “I would never have guessed!”
“Oh, you must think you’re so clever,” I laughed, rolling my eyes.
“From time to time,” she said with a grin. “It looks fantastic, love. Thank you.” She let out a soft sigh as she scooped up a bundle of flowers from the blanket between us. “You even found me some lilies.”
“Ethel had them growing just for me, as a special order,” I said with pride. “I’m glad you haven’t been in her shop lately, or else you might have tried to buy them for yourself.”
“I would have, for sure,” she giggled. Her nose began to twitch again, and she closed her eyes as she sniffed the air. A moment later, her eyes snapped open, and she tapped excitedly on the covered basket at the center of the blanket. “Is this what I think it is?”
I pulled the towel cover off of the basket, revealing a pile of glazed pastries and two amber glass bottles. “Orange cream scones, made fresh this morning,” I proclaimed, “and sour apple cider.” Amaya had already grabbed one of the bottles by the time I finished speaking, and I shook my head and laughed as she removed the stopper and took a deep gulp. “I still can’t believe you like that stuff so much.”
She let out a satisfied sigh as she wiped her chin, then helped herself to one of the pastries. “This is perfect,” she remarked as she nibbled on the cream filled dessert. I helped myself to my own bottle and pastry, and we spent the next minute quietly enjoying the meal. The cold cider was overpoweringly sour, but it was a flavor I had come to enjoy after sharing my first bottle with Amaya soon after I had arrived in Alderea. “So,” she started as she grabbed another pastry, “what’s the occasion for all of this?”
My cheeks immediately flushed with heat at the question. “Does there have to be a reason?”
“Well, no, I guess not,” she said, tipping her head to the side. The slender ears atop her head flopped sideways as she examined me through narrowed eyes. “You do have a reason, though. I can tell.”
“Oh, is that so?” I asked defiantly. “What reason would that be, then?”
She watched me silently for a few seconds, then smiled as she took another bite of her dessert. “You’re going to ask me to marry you.”
My jaw dropped as she perfectly named my true intention for the picnic. “I...how did...but I…” I sputtered, unable to fully form any of the thoughts buzzing through my mind into words. Eventually, I hung my head in defeat. “How did you know?”
“Dad told me a week ago,” she laughed.
“He WHAT?” I yelled. “He promised he wouldn’t!”
“I guess he lied,” she shrugged, grinning. “He was so confused when you asked him for permission to marry me, he just wanted to make sure everything was okay between us.”
“That’s a, uhm, tradition, where I’m from,” I explained. “I didn’t think to ask how any of that works here.” My jaw clenched in frustration with the forgemaster, but Amaya’s smile was enough to keep me upbeat. “So, you’ve known for a whole week? And you didn’t say anything?”
“Well, I thought about telling you, but it was so fun to watch you work on all your secret plans,” she admitted. “I didn’t want to ruin your enthusiasm by telling you I knew.” She carefully crawled her way across the blanket and sat down beside me, wrapping her arm around my waist. “This really was a lovely surprise.” She leaned her head onto my shoulder, purposely pushing her ears into my face.
“Thanks,” I chuckled, gently brushing her ears away so I could plant a kiss on the top of her head. “I was pretty proud of all of this.”
“As you should be.” We sat quietly side by side, enjoying the gentle afternoon breeze. “So,” she said eventually, “are you going to ask me?”
I laughed. “I guess I should, shouldn’t I?” I grabbed the box behind me and spun to face her directly. “There’s another tradition where I’m from. On the day of your wedding, you give each other golden rings, and you wear them every day for as long as you’re together. They’re a symbol that says we’re together.” I opened the small box to reveal a pair of unadorned gold bands, one larger than the other. “I don’t know what your customs are here, but I’ll do whatever it takes. I just wanted to prove to you that I’m yours, forever.”
She delicately plucked the rings from the box and held them up to the sunlight. “These are beautiful,” she whispered. “Did you make them?”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “It took me a lot of practice to get them right, but it was worth it.” I watched her marvel over the bands for a few seconds, then took the smaller of the two. “So...what do you say?” I shifted into a kneeling position and offered the ring out to her. “Amaya Ashedown, will you marry me?”
Her eyes flicked back and forth between my face and the gold band. “Of course I’ll marry you.” My heart soared in my chest as I slipped the ring onto her finger. She quickly followed suit with the remaining ring, and we soon sat hand in hand with matching adornments on our fingers. “I love you, Elden.”
“I love you, Amaya,” I replied, leaning in for a kiss. Her lips tasted like citrus and sour apple, which quickly brought a smile to my face. “We’ll have to plan a wedding now, I suppose. I might have to rely on you for most of that, seeing as I have no idea what I’m doing.”
“I suppose,” she echoed. “But we can do that later.” Her hand darted out for her mostly empty bottle of cider, and she leaned back against me as she took another drink. I smiled ear to ear as I wrapped my arms around her and perched my chin on her shoulder. My hands rested in her lap, slowly spinning the golden band around my finger. She let out a contented sign and put her free hand in mine. “Right now, I just want to enjoy the day with you. We have the rest of our lives together for everything else.”
Hi there. I'm Adam, the author of the "Restart Again" series. I started this writing project in the spring of 2019 as a fun creative outlet, and much to my surprise, I actually stuck with it! Fast forward to a year later, and here I am with the first book completely finished, and the second well under way. It's been a great experience, and I'm glad I have a chance to share it now!
I'd never heard of this site until recently, when one of the Amazon reviews for this book suggested I share it here as well. I'm not entirely familiar with how the site works, and whether or not it's frowned upon to just come here to share fully finished products that exist on other sites. With that in mind, I plan to drop a chapter on here every Sunday and Wednesday until the entire book is posted. If you enjoy it, hop over to my website to find the latest news on the project, and a link to the Amazon page where you can buy the eBook/paperback. I hope you enjoy it!