Chapter Two: Friends and Enemies (Part II)
Hesitantly, Ellen took the charm bracelet from Feles, putting it around her wrist and looking at it curiously as she thanked her and went out to join the others again, who seemed ready to leave.
"Hey Ellen!" Chay said excitedly. "Guess what Alyx said!"
"You repeat that out loud, and I'll change my mind," Alyx warned. "Remember, we're not out of the city yet."
The sprite stuck his tongue out and pouted. Ellen smiled a little at Chay. Whatever Alyx had said, it must have been a good thing for him to be so excited. She figured that she'd find out soon, anyway. So they made their way towards cliffs again. All of them seemed to be rather cheerful in each others' company now.
"Let's see them, Clarice," Alyx said as soon as they were there. He let his wings show, keeping them folded behind him while he waited.
Clarice nodded. She was going to try and figure out how she would be able to make them show again, but with mild surprise she found that they seemed to appear with her want for them to. Her wings were a faded natural shade of blue, some areas closer in a little darker than the rest. She spread them out for Alyx, to let him get a better view of them.
"She looks like a blue jay," Chay remarked as he admired Clarice's wings. "They're really pretty."
"How does it feel to be able to let them show?" Alyx asked.
Clarice smiled down at Chay, a laughed bottled up in her throat.
"Thanks, it's nice to hear someone say that," she said, before looking over at Alyx to answer his question. "It's nice... very nice. I feel... I don't know, more natural. Like I'm not keeping some secret, and just being myself. I'm not... hiding anything at all."
She took a deep breath in and let it out slowly, as if refreshing herself. She'd never been able to be free like this before. Something about this statement seemed to make Alyx uneasy.
"Have you ever... flown before?"
"Well..." she started, trying to explain this correctly. "Sort of. I mean, whenever I did, they were very short flights that I basically did just to make sure I could learn how to fly correctly... and it's been a long time since any of those."
Alyx frowned a little.
"Maybe you should start out slow then. I wouldn't want you to fall..."
Clarice's face flushed with embarrassment. She hesitated before asking, "Could you... maybe help me out a little? I mean, you're much more used to it than I am, and maybe if you help..."
He shifted his weight from foot to foot, and ruffled his feathers slightly.
"I... I can try... I've never... taught anyone else before..."
"Oh, stop worrying so much!" Chay teased. "Just show her the way Feles showed you. She doesn't even have wings, and somehow she managed to get you in the air!"
"Please, Alyx?" she asked again, peering at him with her mismatched eyes. It really would make her happy if he helped. If he didn't want to, it was alright, of course, but it would probably be harder for her. Though still a little worried, he smiled.
"Alright," he agreed. "Let's start..."
Meanwhile, at the palace...
At the palace, suitors from all over were waiting to try for Princess Ruby's hand. It was a very diverse crowd, that was for sure. Among them was the prince that Alyx and Clarice had run into in the streets earlier. Though most of the prince's seemed tense, nervous, irritated, confident, or anything of the like, there was one prince that somewhat stood out. Not by his looks or his clothing, his height or anything of the sort, but by the way he seemed to be more relaxed than anyone there. In fact, he was humming to himself.
"Well, now. Let's see what we have here."
Feles was walking the line of suitors, inspecting each carefully. She had explained to the queen and king that she had no prophetic powers that would promise Ruby a perfect partner, but she did have her experience and intuition. And right now, her intuition was sending her negative signals from virtually all of them.
"You," she said, stopping in front of the first prince that wasn't exuding arrogance. "What's your name?"
He blinked, almost as if he was surprised that she had stopped in front of him, but then grinned, the small amount of freckles on his cheeks moving upward as he did so.
"Guy," he answered. "Guy Aylmer."
His skin was in between close to tan, but not so much that it was a distinct brown. His hair was a dark and sandy blonde almost a dark orange color. Finally, his eyes were an unusually light shade of brown. He was quite handsome, yes. A majority of the princes in the room were... but he wasn't so striking that he necessarily stood out in the crowd.
"Hmm..." Feles mumbled, still examining him with her deep violet eyes. "Do you travel often, or spend much time outdoors?"
"What sort of question is that?" one of the nearby princes asked. "What does that have to do with courting the princess?"
The wise woman turned abruptly to glare at him, eyes narrowed and bright yellow.
"When I have questions for you, I will address them to you. Right now, I am addressing Prince Guy, so your question will have to wait."
Feles turned back to Guy, eyes shifting back to violet.
"Well, your highness, which is it?"
Guy thought about it for a second. It was a slightly silly question, but he didn't really care. Nor did he comment on it. If she wanted to know, what did it really matter if he answered?
"I don't travel terribly often although I have nothing against it but I do spend a good amount of time outdoors."
At the last part, his slightly thinking face looked open and cheerful again.
"Being outside is better than sitting inside a stuffy palace all the time, I'd say."
Someone scoffed, but Feles only smiled.
"What sort of activities do you do outside? Sports?"
Guy ignored the scoffing. BAH! They were no fun. He kept his attention on Feles.
"Sometimes," he answered. The reason why he didn't play sports too often was because he wasn't supposed to associate with the lower class, and he only had a sister, who was married to someone in another kingdom. Thus, he got lonely often. So, he tried to talk to others, but unfortunately he was kept a rather close eye on when at home, and so was restricted to the outdoors in a certain radius of his palace.
Unless he snuck out, of course.
"I learned how to swordfight pretty decently, and I take walks a lot," he answered, not wanting to sound too dull with a simple "sometimes." Really, how boring!
"Oh! And I ride horses sometimes, too," he added as that thought popped into his head. Feles nodded as he replied.
"Yes, I believe you should stay."
She moved her way down the line, asking each prince a different set of questions: some more, some less. Every now and then, she'd pull a prince out of the line with a frown and send him out. Eventually, however, she got to a stubborn one.
"What's your name?" she asked the prince that had nearly trampled Alyx and Clarice.
"Prince Kyne Carnifex," he answered, his chin high so that he had to look down even more than usual to sneer at the wise woman. Feles, nevertheless, remained calm and unaffected.
"How do you feel about the aligeri?"
Heads turned when she asked this. It was the first time she'd asked anyone about the creature many of them feared, some of the loathed, and few of them had any liking for at all. All were waiting to see how Prince Kyne would answer.
Guy beamed when it was said that he could stay, but his head turned curiously when he heard the question that Feles had asked. Oooo, what an interesting situation! I have a feeling I know what his reply will be though... he looked stuffier than half the people here. Creepier, too. I wouldn't like to be stuck in a room with him... and his thoughts went on as everyone waited for his reply. Prince Kyne seemed to be thinking very carefully about how he would answer. He even lowered his chin so that he wasn't staring down so much.
"Misunderstood, at worst," he eventually replied. "I can't say what at best. I haven't met enough."
"Interesting," Feles said softly, eyes narrowing in skepticism. Unfortunately, his answer was too neutral for her to justify pulling him from the line, and this irritation was reflected when she said, "You can stay. For now, at least."
Guy looked confused. The guy just didn't look like someone who would say something bordering on kindness. Slightly bordering. He was just too creepy. But... the prince couldn't tell if the creepy prince was lying or not. He could understand why Feles was irritated.
Suddenly, a random yet not-so-random thought popped into his head. I wonder when we actually get to talk to the princess.
"Those of you who have passed this initial inspection," Feles said to them all. "Will be obligated to attend the banquet tonight, held in honor of Princess Ruby's eighteenth birthday. It will be in the open air, out in the arena where Celest's annual sports competition is held. It is open to everyone, not just you suitors, although each of you will have a seat at the main table. It will be held promptly at four o'clock, and will officially end at sunset. I don't recommend coming late. This will be your first opportunity to see the princess. After that, each of you will be given a specific date during which you will be allowed to court the princess. You may not court the princess on a day not assigned to you, nor may you trade courting dates with another prince. There are only seven of you left, so it will only take a week. After you have each had a chance to court Princess Ruby, it will then be her decision whether or not she chooses any of you to be her husband. If you are not chosen, you must respect her decision and move on. Do I make myself clear?"
Guy nodded. It didn't seem confusing at all. He'd try to get the princess to like him, but if she didn't, no hard feelings! Okay, four oclock... I'll have to remember that; I don't want to be late. Looking around at the other six that were there, he wondered what day it would be his turn. This is so exciting!
But what to do until the banquet?
Almost as if she had intended to answer his thought, the wise woman added one last thing to her speech.
"In the meantime, I suggest that you get better acquainted with Celest's populace. Enjoy the festivities. I'm sure you will all learn something interesting today. You're all dismissed."
The princes left slowly, and Kyne in particular seemed to drag his heels. Feles could sense something was very wrong about him, but there was nothing she could do.
Free time! Sweet! As they all left, Guy started humming again as he did so. He wouldn't have taken so long to leave, but all the other princes were, and he waited for all the others (except for Kyne) to leave before he did so himself. But then, on the way out, he stopped, thinking of something.
Still cheerfully, he backtracked, passing Kyne and back to Feles.
"Hey, I just wanted to thank you for doing this I'm not trying to play favorites or anything, but this can't exactly be the greatest-job-of-all-time to do, so-o-o-o-o I just figured it would be nice to hear something like that, you know?"
Feles looked at him, eyes briefly lightening to magenta.
"As Celest's wise woman, it's my job to look after the princess's wellbeing. I must say, I am not particularly happy with the available selection of suitors."
"Well I'm sorry about that," Guy apologized, giving a half smile. "I mean, it would be wonderful if the perfect partner for someone was simple to find, and in this case, the perfect match that's a prince, but unfortunately..."
He stopped suddenly, a huge smiled spreading on his face.
"Did your eyes just change color?! That's amazing!"
Feles smiled slightly, her eyes shifting again, this time to emerald.
"You're very observant. Few people notice that my eyes shift."
She paused and folded her hands before her.
"Care to escort an old woman back to her shop?" she asked.
"It would be an honor," Guy replied, then laughed a little. "Old woman? That's very hard to believe, but I won't question you nor ask your age, because that would be terribly rude I'll just take your word for it."
Smiling as they started to walk out, he commented, "I'm afraid I'm not going to be a very good escort considering I don't know where your shop is."
"Only one of us needs to know the way," Feles said as they left the palace. "I only ask for company."
Just outside the palace gates, the wise woman turned to Guy with a sly smile.
"How old do you think I am?"
Guy's brow furrowed.
"You only look around twenty-two or twenty-three..."
Chuckling, he shook his head and said, "I honestly can't think that you could possibly be a day over twenty-five."
Feles laughed a deep, chest chuckle.
"I'm afraid you're far off, but everyone is. The highest guess I've gotten was seventy-five, but even that is far too young. Forgive me for my mild amusement; so few things make me laugh so much as hearing what age people believe I am."
And she continued to laugh, even as she explained this to him. Guy's face went a deep red, but he laughed as well.
"Even if it's embarrassing me a little, I'm happy I was able to amuse you, no matter how mild."
"It's nice to hear someone laugh. Laughter is one of my favorite things to hear."
"A simple pleasure," Feles agreed. "Humans don't do it enough."
By now, they had arrived at her shop.
"Would you like to come inside and have some tea?"
The prince grinned widely.
"Sure! Tea sounds great, right now!"
Once inside, Guy looked around and commented, "It seems nice and comfortable in here."
That was something that most princes would most likely disagree with him on, and not like it just because it was small.
"Thank you," Feles said politely, before walking over to the fireplace. "Incendete."
And the fire lit.
"What kind of tea would you like, your highness?"
"That was so neat!" the prince exclaimed as he saw her light the fire, his eyes a light with excitement. Then, when he heard her other question, he said, "Oh, it doesn't matter, how about your favorite kind of tea?"
Pausing, he added, rubbing the back of his neck, "And you don't have to call me 'your highness.' That's way too formal!"
Putting on a large smile, he said, "Just call me Guy!"
"And you can call me Feles," she told him, eyes turning green again. "I see you have no trouble with magi. Are you aware of the magic laws in Celest?"
The wise woman went to her counter and began mixing the herbs for her favorite tea. Guy shrugged.
"Yeah, I was explained all the laws of Celest before I came here... and they're very similar to those of my kingdom."
"I'm just the kind of person who doesn't really mind magic or aligeri or anything that basically everyone else seems to hate or fear or whatever. It's kind of a bold thing to say... but it's just how I am."
"Any specific thoughts on the aligeri?" Feles asked as she gathered the ingredients into a metal tea-ball. "Hopefully more specific than misunderstood, at worst."
"What I think about the aligeri?" Guy repeated, taking a few seconds to think about how he wanted to express himself. "Well, it seems to me like they should be treated better. I mean, they're not human, but there's nothing really to be afraid of, as I've seen before. I've run across a few, and seen some go... well, all berserk, and the only reason people are afraid of them is because they do that, and the only reason that they might to that is because people treat them with such hate and cruelty! If the aligeri can get along well with humans when they're hiding their identity, then it's shocking that learning that they have a pair of wings can really make so much of a difference that people would forget about how caring that person could be, and suddenly want to kill him or her."
He stopped to sigh before continuing with, "Really, I don't see anything wrong with the aligeri, and that it would be wonderful if people could just look past the fact that they're another race and learn to accept them for who they are."
Feles nodded as he spoke, continuing to set up the tea. Her eyes had shifted back violet.
"Do you know why aligeri turn into monsters? It's a little more complicated than that humans simply fear them."
"Not really, but I figured that that must be part of it..." the prince responded, then hesitated slightly before asking, "Why exactly is it?"
"Aligeri are rarely born to their own species, simply because few of them survive long enough the reproduce," the wise woman started, pouring the tea into cups. "Not to mention, the ones who usually do have unfortunately already lost themselves to their bestial sides. Anyway, the reason aligeri who are born to humans become monstrous is because the humans are afraid they will turn into monsters on their own, and therefore take action in attempt to prevent it."
Feles sat down in her armchair, her cup in her hand.
"They try to make the aligeri human by cutting off their wings, but it is this act that causes them to transform into the beasts the humans fear. An aligeri's wings are mystically connected to him, something that's difficult for most humans to understand; they only see them as extra limbs. It's hard to say how long it will take for the change to occur, but when it eventually does, the wings grow back. That's when the aligeri become monsters."
She took a sip of her tea.
"There are other ways to induce the bestial form, but that is the most common."
Guy frowned sadly.
"Cutting off their wings? That's horrible..."
Finding a chair to sit down in, he said, "I really feel sorry for the aligeri... I wish that they could just live peacefully."
Shaking his head, he added, "Things are so hard for them..."
"Indeed, they are," Feles agreed. "But until humans as a whole realize that they're the ones turning them into monsters, I'm afraid things won't change much. They haven't in centuries."
Guy nodded thoughtfully, and ran a hand through his hair.
"Well, on a lighter note..." he started, then smiled. "Do you know if the princess likes flowers?"
"Apple blossoms," Feles told him. "Not the easiest things to bouquet, hm?"
Guy made a funny face.
"No, not really... I just thought it might be a nice thing to give her, because, well... women like flowers on any occasion, or so I've heard before..."
He sighed sadly.
"I just want to make a good impression, and although I can see I'm a lot different from the other princes, I still am kind of nervous..."
His face flushed with embarrassment.
"I'm probably not nervous about not being chosen, more as I don't want her to really dislike me..."
"The princess is a lot different from other princesses," Feles told him, smiling slightly. "And I'm sure you'll make a good impression."
She finished her tea and set the cup on the counter.
"So, tell me Guy, what do you know of sprites?"
"Sprites?" he repeated, thinking for a moment. "Hmmmm... Well, they're smaller than humans tend to grow, they have those cute looking pointy ears, they can turn into animals, and usually know a little magic. Yeah, that's what I know about sprites. I've never met one before, though."
His grin grew.
"I'd like to meet one though! That would be great!"
Suddenly, the shop's bell rang, and as if on cue, a sprite scuttled in and scurried under the counter. Feles watched, and stared for a moment before rising and looking under the counter.
"What are you doing under there?" she asked.
"Hiding," the sprite answered. "Don't tell anyone I'm here."
"Huh?" Guy barely had time to see the small sprite before it was hidden under the counter. From his seat, he slowly moved his head to try and get a better view.
I wonder what happened to the poor thing...
"Kit," Feles said to the sprite. "What are you hiding from?"
Guy could barely see him from the angle he was at; he looked more or less like a ball of fluffy, wild hair with arms and legs sticking out. At least, until he looked up. Peering over the tops of his knees, Kit looked up at the wise woman like a cornered animal.
"Those foreigners," he answered. "They're worse than the village boys when they decide to play at hunting."
Listening, he voiced, "Foreigners? Like the other suitors?"
If he had been tormented by some of the other princes, Guy wouldn't stand for it. What sorry excuse for a prince hurt others for no particular reason?
Kit's glance shifted over to the prince and he cowered slightly, but said nothing. Feles reached down and patted his head.
"Don't worry, Kit. He won't hurt you."
The sprite didn't seem very convinced and curled back up into a quivering ball. Guy looked a little sad.
"I'm sorry if I frighten you, but I really don't mean to harm you in any way," he called to the sprite, trying to sound as believable as he possibly could. Kit looked up again and peered around to stare at the prince.
"I was perfectly content eating my lunch when a couple of those suitors decided to..."
Before he finished, someone came into the shop. The sprite ducked under the counter again as two men entered.
"We were told to come here for healing," one of them said to Feles as she moved to cover Kit's hiding place.
"My brother was bitten by one of those sprite creatures," the other said. He sounded almost exactly the same.
So those were the suitors who had caused Kit to run and hide. He turned about half way to turn and look at them. He looked a little more serious and more mature as they had entered and spoke. Sprite creatures. Guy frowned slightly. They had called him a sprite creature. That definitely showed some kind of disrespect towards sprites.
"Let me see," Feles said to them calmly. The one prince extended his hand to show that some wound had been wrapped in a handkerchief. The wise woman took it and undid the bandaging, beneath which was a rather severe bite. She frowned.
"I think I have some ointment for that. What precisely did you do to get bitten?"
"We told you!" they answered in unison. "It was a sprite!"
"She asked you what you did to get bitten. Not what it was that bit you," Guy clarified as they gave their rather idiotic answer. "I doubt a sprite would just randomly bite you for no reason at all."
Both brothers looked at him with identical glares.
"We weren't speaking to you."
"Here," Feles said before any more words could be exchanged. "Take this salve; rub the ointment on your hand twice a day until it heals. I suggest keeping a glove on it too."
She handed the materials to the wounded prince.
"I don't charge for healing services, if you're wondering. Now, unless you have any more business here, please leave my shop. I have other things to attend to."
The suitors left without even saying "thank you."
Guy watched them leave, and not until after they were gone did he realize that he had been holding his breath angrily to prevent from saying anything snappy. Letting out his breath slowly, Guy shook his head.
"How rude..." he grumbled.
"Two more I had to let stay that I would have preferred that I hadn't," Feles sighed. "So, why did you bite him, Kit?"
"He picked me up by my hair," the sprite replied with a low growl. "After I tried to squeeze passed them and go about my business."
"And they tried to make it sound like they were completely innocent," Guy remarked, sounding disgusted. He just could not believe some people. Looking over at Kit, he commented, "Well... at least they left without any further trouble..."
Kit nodded and uncurled himself, finally standing up.
"So, who are you anyway?" the sprite asked, looking at Guy curiously. "You're foreign too, aren't you?"
"My name is Guy Aylmer," he answered, putting on a smile. "And yep, I'm foreign too. Another one of those suitors although I can't exactly say I'm like those two..."
Kit stuck his tongue out and crossed his eyes.
"Wish there was only one of them."
Feles sniggered a bit as the sprite got up the courage to approach Guy. He held up one hand while putting the other on his hip.
"I'm Kit Vulpes."
Guy Reached down a hand to shake the sprite's it was a little awkward with the different sizes, but in the end, they managed.
"Pleasure to meet you, Kit!" he said cheerily. Kit grinned up at him, showing the sharp teeth that had left such a nasty wound on the other prince's hand.
"So, are you here to try for the princess's hand too?"
"Yep! Here to try for the best and hope for the best!" Guy answered, then added. "Of course, I'd like to just have some fun here as well. I don't get to travel around too much."
Kit's ears perked up.
"You should come to the midsummer festival," he said. "It's three days from now, and it's always really fun!"
"Do you think the other sprites will be alright with that?" Feles asked him, sitting back in her armchair. He only laughed.
"Oh, they won't mind! Most of them will be more curious than anything. Besides, I invited him, so they'll know it's alright."
"Midsummer festival?" Guy repeated curiously. He looked at Feles when she asked Kit if the other sprites would be alright with it, and he looked back at the sprite as he asked, "So it's a holiday that sprites celebrate, then?"
Kit nodded enthusiastically.
"It's one of the eight that we celebrate yearly. All the local sprites gather and have a huge banquet with lots of singing and dancing and games."
Guy laughed a little and smiled.
"Well, that does sound like great fun!" he commented. "I'll see if I can make it when the time comes."
The prince looked around.
"So the banquet is today at four... what time is it now?"
He had absolutely no idea. It would probably be a good thing to know, though. Just in case. He didn't want to loose track of time.
"It should be around quarter after three," Feles answered. "You'll have to check the town clock if you'd like a more accurate time."
"Oh! I should probably get going then! I'd rather be safe than sorry."
Standing, Guy smiled and said, "Thank you for the tea, Feles. I hope to see you again soon, and you too, Kit!"
And so, with that, Guy left to head over towards the arena to be in time for the banquet.
Back at the cliffs...
"You're doing well," Alyx told Clarice after a long training session. "I think you're ready to try an actual flight."
While the baker had been giving flying lessons to the other aligeri, Chay had set about seeing how long he could stand on his head. It had taken him a few moments to get balanced, but he'd been holding the position for a while now. Clarice smiled.
"Really? You think I'm doing it right?"
She seemed excited. They had been training for a while, and she thought that she was getting the hang of it, but she wasn't quite sure. Ellen was staring at Chay, afraid that he was going to hurt himself, yet also kind of amazed that he had been doing that for so long. She wanted to ask him if he was alright, but she was afraid she's disrupt his concentration.
"Let's try a flight," Alyx suggested. "If you start to fall, I'll catch you."
He moved towards the edge of the cliffs and gestured for Clarice to follow. Clarice nodded.
"Okay..." she prepared herself. She made sure to keep herself perfectly calm as she followed him over to the edge. She knew that if she got at all nervous, she wouldn't be able to do it. That's just how she was. So she concentrated on keeping calm. Clarice just needed to focus on doing what she had to do, and remembering that Alyx would catch her if she couldn't.
"On the count of three, just spread your wings and jump," Alyx said. "One... two... three."
He jumped first, ready for her to follow. And as soon as he said three and jumped, Clarice spread her wings and followed suit. At first all she felt like she was doing was falling but then, suddenly, she wasn't falling anymore, but gliding on the air like she was supposed to.
Successfully, Clarice had learned to properly fly.
"I... I did it?" she asked herself, almost shocked as she looked about her (having found that she had closed her eyes at first). Alyx was laughing happily as they both soared. For the first time, he wasn't flying alone, and it was a joy he'd never experienced before. Hearing that the aligeri had taken flight, Chay righted himself, shaking out the slight dizziness from going too fast.
"Maybe when they get back, they'll take us with them," he said to Ellen.
Clarice was soaring happily alongside Alyx. She was just as happy as him, maybe more, considering that this was the first time she had actually flown before in an open space. It felt too natural...she wanted to smack herself for never flying before.
Ellen's already wide eyes widened.
"U-us? Flying with them, over the cliffs?"
When she had said this, her voice had come out even smaller and squeakier than usual. Obviously, she'd need to be heavily assured that it was safe before she went out there.
"If you don't want to, you don't have to go," Chay said. "It was just a thought..."
After a brief but exhilarating flight, Alyx returned to the cliff. He waited for Clarice to land. Ellen looked at the ground.
"I think I'll just stay here..."
Clarice landed after Alyx, although it was a little clumsy looking. That was something she'd need to work on.
"I think that's enough for one day," The baker said, folding his wings and making them vanish. "Besides, the public banquet is soon, and I'm not about to miss out on a good, free meal. Maybe tomorrow I'll take you for a flight, Chay. I didn't expect to be a teacher today."
The sprite shrugged, a little disappointed, but he understood.
"I'm getting a little hungry too. How about you, Ellen?"
As Clarice folded her wings behind her and made them vanish as well, Ellen looked down at herself, as if to check to see if her stomach was hungry or not.
"Yes, a little bit..." she answered.
"Let's head back to town then," Alyx suggested, starting on his way. "It's almost four o'clock."
Clarice followed behind Alyx pleasantly and Ellen trailed alongside Chay. Suddenly, Clarice asked, "Oh! Today's your birthday... How old are you turning?"
Alyx made a face that was either a half-hearted smile or a concealed frown.
"Eighteen, same as the princess."
It was hard for the baker to say whether he was saddened by this or not. If anything, it was awkward for him, since there had never been a time when his birthday was his alone. Clarice gave a half frown. His answer wasn't exactly enthusiastic. Obviously, he couldn't get his mind off the fact that he had to share his birthday. She sighed, looking a little more serious and concerned than usual.
"Alyx..." she started, unsure how to say what she was going to say in a way where it would actually sound somewhat encouraging. "Just because your birthday is on the same day as the princess's doesn't mean that it's not yours. Even though you can't ignore the fact that it's her birthday, you should still try and think more along the lines of 'It's my birthday too, so I have twice the reason to celebrate' instead of 'Hers is more important, and mine doesn't matter at all.'"
She gave a somewhat encouraging smile as she added, "You should be happy today, even if it is frustrating..."
"Easy for you to say," Alyx answered rather pessimistically. "How many times have your friends and neighbors forgotten you're another year older? The only other person living in the city that even knows my age is Feles; everyone else either assumes I'm still a boy or much older than I really am. Not a single one of my friends or neighbors has ever remembered."
Clarice frowned a little more and looked away.
"I'm sorry. I was just trying to cheer you up, but I shouldn't have said anything."
After that, she walked next to him in silence. Alyx would have voiced his agreement with her, but he was too caught up in his own melancholy. By the time they finally drew close to the arena where the banquet was, he was already tired of his birthday. Just like every year.
"I'm not so hungry anymore," he mumbled softly. "I think I'm just going to head back to my shop..."
Clarice honestly had no idea what to say. Obviously, her asking how old he was had ruined his day, and she felt guilty about it.
"Well... if you're not going to stay, then I'm not going to either. I don't really know anyone else in town all that well, after all. Would you like me to go with you?"
But Alyx didn't answer. He turned without saying anything to either her or the sprites and headed back towards his home. Before Clarice could leave too, Chay tugged on the edge of her skirts.
"Don't leave too," he said, almost begging. "Alyx does this every year. It's because he has to sit through the entire city wishing the princess well and a happy birthday while he is entirely ignored, or (even worse) teased for being in such a bad mood. Please, if Ellen and I try to enter without a city citizen, they won't let us. Sprites aren't welcome unless invited."
Clarice watched Alyx leave, sadly. She wanted to apologize...or something, but then she looked down at Chay as he spoke. It seemed like he really wanted to go, so she smiled.
"Well... if you really want to, then I'll go so you both can enter."
Before she went to continue walking towards the arena, however, she stole a glance back towards where Alyx had left, hesitating. She just couldn't get it off her mind. She really felt like it was her fault that he was sulking. But in the end, she decided that she just had to focus on other things.
"Don't think I don't feel sorry for him too," Chay said with a slight smile. "I just know that there's nothing I can do or say to cheer him up, and besides, I'm hungry."
They got to the entrance of the open air feast and were let in without question (although the guards did give both sprites some unusual looks). It was the one time of the year when everyone was treated to a noble's banquet, and every delicacy that was being served at the main table was available for the commoners to try. The palace staff had gotten serving the masses down to an art, and in no time, Clarice, Chay, and Ellen all had their plates filled with the foods they wanted. All that was left was to find an empty patch of hill to sit on and dine.
The arena had seating, but these filled up quickly. Besides, the best seats (at least in Chay's opinion) were on the hill that made up one side of the arena. The grass was much more comfortable than stone anyway, which was probably why so many people had already taken up seats there. In the middle of the arena's dirt stage was a large table where the queen and king sat, along with the seven suitors and Feles, who only sat there as a matter of custom. The princess had yet to arrive, and that was the current buzz in the air: what would she be wearing?
Clarice was looking around. It definitely was crowded (thus making Ellen a little nervous, although shockingly not as much as usual, thanks to that bracelet), and she couldn't help but want to take in as much as she could.
Guy, meanwhile, was sitting with the other suitors, waiting anxiously for the princess to come out. Although, he was a little weirded out. Why? Because next to him sat Sir Creeps-a-lot, and across from him were none other than tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum. He was kind of mashed into the center of the table. Perhaps the one boon to this seating arrangement was Feles sitting on the other side of Kyne, so at least she'd be able to keep him in check if he decided to do anything. There was a brilliant fanfare and everyone turned towards the arched pathway that led from the palace to the arena. The princess was making her entrance.
"Isn't she pretty?" Chay asked as the young woman walked into view. He couldn't have been more right! Princess Ruby, like her namesake, had gorgeous red hair that was styled elegantly and cascaded down her shoulders. She was wearing a lovely pale blue and lilac gown that somehow reminded one of both spring and winter. All of the princes rose as she made her way to the table. Her father pulled out her chair for her, and she gave him a tender kiss on the cheek before sitting down to her meal. She smiled politely at all of the princes, nodding for them to retake their seats before beginning to eat.
"She really is..." both Clarice and Ellen said in union as Ruby made her way down to the table.
Guy stood along with the other princes when Ruby made her way to take her seat, and sat along with the others once she nodded towards them. She's gorgeous! he thought, amazed. I mean, he expected her to be pretty, but she had definitely passed his mental image of her.
The only downside to sitting at the noble table was that absolute silence was expected during the meal. By contrast, the commoners had started a whole new uproar of chatter and gossip about which princes they thought had the best chance, who was more handsome, who would get rejected immediately, and other rumors waiting to blossom. As this talking began, Chay had already finished off his plate.
"I love rutabagas," he said with a broad smile. "Never had any prepared so well."
The only problem was that the nobles had to be quiet. Guy knew this much, it was always quiet when there were royal guests at a table. And he hated it! Why eat so unnervingly quietly?! It always made him fidget. A lot. The prince knew that this would be a bad thing, though. It definitely wouldn't look all too sophisticated to fidget at a noble table. So he ate as well mannered as he could while keeping his cheerful demeanor, the only thing moving (and he focused on making sure it was the only thing he was moving) was his right foot, slightly bouncing.
"Oh my, the townsfolk seem to be very excited about all this..." Clarice thought aloud. It definitely was an occasion; she just hadn't been there long enough to share it so enthusiastically.
"I think I'll be full for a while now," Chay said contently, rubbing his belly. "Almost as good as the midsummer feast..."
He'd barely finished his sentence when something tackled him from behind, sending him and the other figure tumbling a little ways down the hill. When the rolling ball stopped, Chay's heart was racing faster than it ever had, but the person who tackled him was laughing.
"Gotcha," Kit laughed as he righted himself. "I thought for sure you'd hear me..."
"How in all the realms of Mother Earth did you get in?" Chay shouted at him. The other sprite continued to laugh.
"I was invited, just like you. You'll never guess by whom."
When Kit tackled Chay, Ellen wasn't sure if her friend had been assaulted, and had started, ducking close to Clarice and latching onto her. The blonde, however, had only started curiously down at the two male sprites.
"Oh, is this another one of your friends, Chay?" she asked.
Kit turned to Clarice before Chay could answer and bowed.
"Kit Vulpes," he introduced himself, grinning from ear to ear. "You could say Chay and I are well acquainted."
"Yeah, you keep threatening to eat me," Chay countered with a frown. The other sprite blew a raspberry at him.
"You know I'm joking. Sheesh! Lighten up a little!"
Clarice laughed at their antics, smiling at Kit in return.
"It's a pleasure, Kit. My name is Clarice."
As the tension seemed to rapidly diminish, Ellen came out from hiding, looking a bit more relieved that it was only Kit, who (she thought and hoped) wouldn't cause any trouble. Amidst the smiling and good times, there was suddenly a loud, horrible shrieking sound that echoed through the whole area. It was like the screeching of a terrible beast, and everyone was looking around to find the source.
That's when they looked up.