After a rather uncomfortable conversation with Queen Neera, Kaya decides to keep her distance from Rian. The following morning, the trio of Kaya, Rian and Taraksh pay Guru Rishi a visit at the library. There Kaya meets Myra, who turns out to be Rian’s fiancée.
‘What?’ Kaya stopped dead in her tracks. Rian hit Taraksh’s retreating figure with a scroll that went flying down the stairs to bounce off his head.
‘Ouch,’ cried Taraksh as he massaged his head while Rian looked daggers at him.
Rian was gloating over Kaya’s jealous reaction, but he could not dare to say it to her. He held back a smile, forcing himself to mutter a coherent sentence, ‘Well… it’s complicated.’
Kaya spun on her heels and nearly stabbed him with her short blade, stopping inches away from his chest.
Despite his best efforts to the contrary, Rian could not help retorting, ‘So now you want to speak to me? After cold-shouldering me all me morning?’
Kaya lowered her blade, forcing herself to stay calm. She had noticed a smile form at the edges of Rian’s lips, which made her want to punch him in the face. Instead, she turned around and began descending the stairs.
Rian had expected her to say something, but her deafening silence left him cursing himself. He followed Kaya down the stairs and accidentally collided with her, sending both of them tumbling down. They bumped into Taraksh as the trio fell over the last step.
‘Wow, it didn’t take the two of you long to come together to plot my downfall,’ muttered Taraksh. His pun had apparently not had the desired effect, as Kaya and Rian looked at him rather irritably, asking him to keep his mouth shut. He shrugged, putting their foul mood down to their poor sense of humor.
‘Look what I found!’ exclaimed Taraksh as he spotted an odd-looking object and bent forward to examine it. It was a small metal clip shaped like a rosebud.
Rian extended his hand to Kaya, but she slapped his arm and got up on her own. Rian inspected her, only to find that she had received minor scratches on her hands and feet. He plucked some moss from the steps and grabbed Kaya’s hand. She tried to wriggle out of his grip, but Rian held her firmly, pulling her closer to him. His head was leaning over, and Kaya could not help but notice how his hair gleamed in the sunlight. His cheekbones seemed sharper, too. Kaya’s breath hitched as Rian concentrated on applying the moss to her cuts. The bruises disappeared miraculously as his fingers moved over them. Satisfied, he let go of her hand.
‘Guys,’ Taraksh spoke again, with some urgency this time. The unmistakable haste in his voice snapped Rian to attention as he noticed the pin in Taraksh’s hand.
‘Not again,’ groaned Rian as Taraksh turned into a wolf. He, or rather it, zoomed off, leaving Rian and Kaya staring awkwardly at each other.
‘Well, it looks like you’re getting the tour to the Greenwoods earlier than we had planned,’ added Rian as he began swaying his fingers, pointing them at the water.
‘I don’t get it. What are you talking about?’ asked Kaya.
‘Don’t kill me when I say this, but Myra needs our help. She’s been helping me restore peace between the two kingdoms. She had vowed to find out who was poisoning the minds of the forest folks. She got the occasional lead, but they were just false alarms. Taraksh and I had promised to accompany her whenever she found a new lead.’
‘This,’ he said after a pause, pointing to the pin, ‘would be our cue to follow her. The pin will take us to her.’
Several questions popped in Kaya’s mind, and she bombarded him with all of them, ‘You mean that the peacekeeper issue isn’t over yet? Is she in danger? Should we go get help?’
‘Not yet,’ grumbled Rian as she answered all her questions in a single breath.
‘But Taraksh went alone. How’d he know the way?’
Rian chuckled, ‘He’s a werewolf, and he has her scent. One sniff from the pin is all it’d take him to get to her before anyone else. That said, I’ve observed that he seems to be enjoying helping her of late.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘You ask a lot of questions, you know. Which reminds me – we’re losing time as we speak! I’ll tell you everything on the way. Come, our ride’s here.’
A huge and familiar-looking water demon had risen to the surface.
Kaya found herself staring open-mouthed at the water demon. It was the same one that had attacked her earlier. The demon peered at with its aloof and distant eyes. Rian mounted the demon and urged her to follow.
‘It won’t hurt you now. It was only trying to retrieve the necklace from you the other day.’
Kaya shot back, ‘It tried to hurt me, and it attacked Taraksh too.’
Rian beamed an amused smile at her, ‘Well, I was sent to hurt you too. Yet you chose to believe me, didn’t you? Now you have to believe my subjects as well.’
When Kaya did not budge, he added, ‘Myra and I were engaged even before our births. This was done pursuant to the peace treaty signed between our great grandfathers. However, the couple in question have the choice to opt out of that arrangement. Also, the current Greenwoods’ King Aranyak isn’t particularly fond of me. So if you’re done with your investigation, can we please go and help Myra?’
Kaya reluctantly edged toward the demon as Rian gently lifted and placed her on the monster’s mammoth back. The demon glided on the water and then zoomed off toward the forest. The crystal-blue water roared in Kaya’s ears, making her feel like she was flying high in the air. The cool air rocked her senses, and she felt a sudden burst of energy that was as powerful as the beast itself. However, before she could process the information, the energy slipped away as the water that flowed out of her grip when she tried to hold on to it.
It did not take them long to reach the forest. The demon vanished into the depths of the water as the two lovebirds stepped on the land.
As they walked into the woods, Rian added, ‘It cannot walk on land. That’s where his boundary is. We have to go on our own from here. But don’t worry. The forest folks aren’t unkind. Just stick close and we’ll be fine.’
Kaya watched the trees and the surrounding greenery, mesmerized by the beauty of nature. She had thought that the marine world was beautiful with its magnificent structures and colorful fauna. Greenwoods, however, seemed to be an endless canvas of greenery splashed with colors all over. The sunlight trickled down the maze of branches and dense shrubbery, bouncing off the leaves. The canopy of trees stretched far beyond her eyes could see. She felt oddly at peace, a lively energy thrumming through the forest, and it seemed to reverberate inside her as well. She closed her eyes to feel the drowning sensation, though it evaded her. The place felt strangely familiar, though she could not quite tell why and how.
She was pulled out of her reverie when she saw the tiny butterflies gamboling on the colorful flowers whose names she was not aware of. However, on close inspection, she noticed a tiny creature humming over a flower that she had mistaken for a butterfly. The black-headed creature had feathers that stuck out of its head like a crown. The rest of its body was golden brown, and its eyes were black. It let out a screech and flew away as Kaya tried to get closer. She could not help feeling that the creature looked similar to the flutter of wings she had earlier seen hovering near Myra’s head at the library.
Rian burst into laughter, ‘Easy there, the forest folks are a proud lot. They aren’t particularly fond of intruders. We’re here on the request of Myra, so they won’t hurt you. But believe me, you don’t want to test their patience.’
He picked up some soil and put it inside the petals of the pins. Immediately, the petals began to swirl, and the metal started coming off the flower. The droopy and oddly bent petals began to blossom, and a real rose soon stood there in all its splendor. It exuded a sweet scent, which the air carried far and wide.
Several small creatures popped out of unexpected places, from under the leaves, from behind the thick branches. The creature that had previously gotten away from Kaya reappeared with many others. It gestured the duo to follow it as it flew awat at a breakneck speed.
It took Kaya and Rian some effort to keep up with the flying creature, which was only a blur of gold and black. Kaya had already learned it the hard way that she was no match for the speed and agility of the people or creatures around her. She made a mental note to train harder and not let her mortal limits bog her down.
They soon reached a patch of trees overlooking a clearing. The two of them hid behind the trees and glanced through the leaves, the creature hovering above their heads.
A group of forest folks was busy preparing an odd assortment of things made from the trunks of the fallen trees. As Kaya focused, she could see that they were making weapons. Swords, staves, shields, bows and arrows, and many other fancy-looking weapons littered the forest floor.
‘What’s going on?’ asked Kaya in a hushed whisper.
‘It seems like Myra’s finally found something interesting.’
‘Can you stop speaking in riddles?’
‘Can you stop asking questions?’
It took Rian a moment to realize that the commotion in front of them had suddenly gone quiet. He looked at the clearing, but there was no one there. Just then, someone let out a shrill wail. The duo automatically followed the voice.
To be continued…
…now that you’re here
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