A Rock And A Hard Place Chapter 6
So began my waiting game. I don’t believe there is anything quite so dull as waiting on something that you just wish would be over already.
It wasn’t so bad when Lolani was the one with me, or even when it was all three of us, but when it was just Aaron and myself, I ignored him and read. On the second day of my confinement, or “healing” as Aaron said I was, he turned to me rather suddenly.
“Would you like to play a game?’
I looked at him suspiciously over the top of my book.
I blinked. That was a bit unexpected.
“Chess?” I repeated. “You know how to play chess?”
“Of course. Why else would I have suggested it?”
I raised an eyebrow at him, but the MAGI seemed serious.
“Alright. Anything to break up the monotony. But I’ll warn you, I’ve never been very good.”
He smiled and for once there wasn’t anything smirkish about it.
“I am warned.”
Aaron retrieved a chess set from the other room. Where he had procured it I would never know since it was a game they usually only played in the human world, but I didn’t see the need to ask.
And true to my prediction, I lost three straight games, but it was oddly fun.
“You really aren’t very good, are you?” he said after the third time.
I pulled a face at him.
“Told you.” Then I waved a hand dismissively. “I’ve never been a strategist anyway. I’m a planner.”
“What’s the difference?”
“A strategist can see what’s going to happen or what’s most likely to happen and makes a strategy in accordance. They can also keep multiple plans in their head for when things don’t go like they thought and they can predict their enemy’s next move on the fly. A planner, like myself, makes a plan to achieve the goal they have in mind, but then as they reach a step that’s different than what they wanted to do, they modify the plan on the fly. It’s a much easier way to do things.”
“Sounds a bit nerve wracking to me.”
He paused, a thoughtful look coming over his face before he looked at me again, this time a little worried.
“Hold on. Are you trying to tell me that everything you had us doing to stop the Clock-tower Guardian was like that?”
A slightly horrified look mixed with disbelief on his face as he went over the life endangering incident in his mind. I gave him a moment to run though it all before nodding with a smile.
“Yes. That’s precisely it.”
“What would you have done if one of us failed?”
“I would have winged it. Nothing else for it really.”
He starred at me, like he was seeing me for the first time.
“To think we all put our lives in your hands...”
He trailed off, looking off into space with that disbelieving expression on his face. I sighed and rolled my eyes as I picked up my book again.
“Right. Be as horrified as you want, but if you think about it, I gave you all fair warning about what you were getting yourselves into. It’s not my fault you didn’t understand. Besides, I dare you to think up another way we could have solved that.”
Then, back to my usual state of being completely annoyed with his presence, I went back to reading my book. Later that evening, I demanded to go down and eat in the banquet hall with the other guests, since I was absolutely sick of being cooped up in my room, but Aaron adamantly refused and I was left to fume.
When Lolani brought the food up, she gave me a sympathetic smile.
“This might interest you, Mistress. There are a lot of rumors going around about you.”
I perked up.
“Well, the other guests are speculating as to why you haven’t been seen since your arrival and who you are exactly. The general knowledge is that you’re a liaison from NORTH but that’s about it. I keep getting mobbed by other servants wanting some juicy tidbit or other. Some people think you believe yourself above the rest and that’s why you haven’t come down to eat with anyone or even come out of your room. That, I’m sure you can imagine, isn’t sitting well with the elves. Others are intrigued by the mysterious liaison and there are all sorts of wild rumors coming out of that!”
I laughed as she told me about some of them and we spent a few pleasant hours chatting until I knew I should go to bed.
That night I found I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned into the wee hours, finally getting up and out of bed for the first time in three days. I didn’t care what Mother Hen MAGI might say. I needed some space to myself and to be somewhere other than that room.
Lolani was sleeping on a cot at the food of the bed so I tiptoed quietly out the door and into the parlor. I saw Aaron had bunked down on one of the couches and held in a sigh as I slipped past him and out the door into the hallway.
My feet were healing well and the cool stone felt wonderful on them. I still limped a bit but it felt good to be walking again. I had been cooped up for far too long.
I wandered quietly through the guest wing and out into the gardens. The nigh was warm and I took a deep breath, letting it out slowly as I smiled. Much better. I walked past flowers and bushes and trees and fountains. The place was a lovely as I remembered.
The Aether Spirit appeared by my side.
“Miss me?” she asked, teasingly.
“Yes,” I replied sincerely, with a fond smile.
It always felt so lonely when Itzel went invisible. She wasn’t truly gone, but she was on a different plain and I couldn’t talk with her until I called her back. It made no difference to her when I did so either because, being a spirit, time was all relevant to her.
I continued walking, Itzel hovering close by my side.
“What’s wrong?” she asked after a few steps. “Why are you limping?”
So I explained what had happened with the assassin.
“What?! An assassin?!” she shrieked, going in frenzied circles around my head. “Are you hurt? Has he tried again? Why hasn’t Aaron been protecting you?!”
“Itzel, stop shouting,” I hissed. “And stop circling me like that. I’m going to be sick.”
She stopped immediately and starred down at me.
“I’m fine. I swear. Aaron’s been babying me ever since.”
“Good. He better have been. I can’t have you dying on me before the contract’s up.”
I chuckled and moved on. There was no real dividing line between the guest gardens and the royal gardens, but it was easy to tell where one stopped and the other started. Quite abruptly everything became grander. The fountains were larger, the flowers more numerous, the trees taller, and the bushes fuller.
I paused when I reached this point, looking around for a moment. Then I shrugged and continued on. There was no one around to see and even if they did, who would care? I wasn’t disturbing anyone, much less the royals, if I took a stroll through their gardens at this time of night.
My pace began to slow as I took in sights that I had never thought to lay eyes on again. I saw scenes flash before my eyes of memories nearly forgotten.
Sefron and I had hidden from cook’s wrath one day behind that line of rose bushes and come out the worse for wear. We hadn’t avoided cook’s lecture either in the end. She had caught us later when we went the infirmary to get the thorns removed and made us scrub pots for hours while she gave us a verbal thrashing about what happens to children who steal pies.
That willow tree in the far corner of the garden had been our favorite place to talk. We used to sit for hours under the drooping branches and tell each other our biggest secrets and dreams and desires. Those branches were keepers of things that no one else knew but us.
As we got older and Sefron got much taller, it became a of his habits to pluck one of the silvery blossoms from the towering Sellanor trees when they were in bloom and put it in my hair as we walked to our willow tree.
Pausing under the tree he always picked from, I bit my lip and fought back the memory of the last time he had done it. It had been late summer and those blossoms had been the last of the year. He had actually stopped under the tree for a moment, as though debating which blossom to pluck, trying to find the perfect one. I had been rather confused by this. He had never taken such care in choosing before. When he finally found the one he wanted, he put it behind my ear and looked down at me with such a sad expression that I had frowned and asked him what was wrong. He hadn’t responded until we were seated under the willow. That was when he had told me about his father’s decision to send him to the border.
The next day, he was gone and that was the last I saw of him.
I reached up, stretching for the lowest hanging blossom I saw, but I was still far too short to reach it. I let my hand drop with a sigh and moved on.
“You shouldn’t think so much,” Itzel said quietly.
“Hard not to, I’m afraid.”
I heard footsteps on the stone walkway and shooed Itzel away as I turned toward the sound. It took a moment for the steps to catch up with me, but when they did I found myself face to face with an official who looked to be one of the merpeople. He wore a purple and gold tunic that left his calves showing and had a gold circulate holding his short but wavy black hair back. His eyes were a bit larger than a human’s and were a bright green while his skin was a light blue-green color. On his feet was a pair of gold sandals.
“Ah, Madame! A good evening to you!” he greeted, throwing his arms up in an exaggerated motion before swooping in and claiming my hand to plant a kiss on it.
I pulled back as quickly as he allowed, wiping my hand on my robe, and I gave him a look that clearly said I didn’t appreciate the attention. It was a look that he completely ignored.
“I am Sanjar of King Bronbane’s people, here as ambassador between the merfolk and the elves. Who might you be, my beautiful sea star?” I have not seen you about the palace.”
I starred at him for a long moment, giving him a look that would have made anyone else feel extremely uncomfortable and make them try and excuse themselves from my presence as quickly as possible, but it seemed to have no effect on this merman. He stepped a bit closer and I darkened my look.
“Ah, tis a shy little fish I’ve found wandering the gardens tonight.”
He gave me a charming smile and suddenly got closer, taking my hand again and placing it on his arm as he began walking once more.
“Come now, tell me your name, sweet flower.”
I pulled my hand away forcefully and scowled.
“It’s none of your business and I didn’t invite you along on my walk so leave me alone.”
Sanjar gave me another charming smile.
“Ah, the little fish speaks!”
“Yes, and she’s telling you to get lost, since apparently you can’t take a hint,” I snapped.
“What a feisty little flower I’ve found!” he said with a smile.
I was just wondering what would happen if I hit him when I heard a single foot fall.
I turned to see a familiar hulking form coming up the path towards us and inwardly cringed.
And he didn’t look happy.