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The Dragon's Kiss

Chapter 14 - FOURTEEN: The Yellow Flower

The walk back to the west building was much more light-hearted than Kel's encounter with the emperor, thanks to Thane's chatter. The knight had appeared conveniently in time to prevent Kel from asking any further questions about the book, and he had kindly offered to escort her back.

"How long have you known His Majesty?" Kel blurted out during one of the rare lulls in Thane's conversation.

"Hmm," Thane stopped and rubbed his chin, "you could say we grew up together, I guess."

"So you're childhood friends?" Kel inquired. It was too odd to even picture the Dragon Emperor as a child.

"That's right," Thane nodded. "All three of us, Ira too."

"The secr- I mean the man in the office before?"

Thane smiled as Kel corrected herself.. "He's really not all that bad, just a little stiff sometimes."

Perhaps Thane had a different view of Ira since they'd known each other for so long, but Kel couldn't possibly describe the man's erratic outbursts as 'a little stiff.'

Quickly moving on before Thane went off any more about the grumpy not-a-secretary, Kel asked the question that'd been on her mind since earlier.

"Do you know who the emperor's teacher is then?"

Thane stopped again. This time he wasn't pondering the question; he was glancing around apprehensively.

"Please don't bring this matter up again," he said rigidly.

"I-I won't then.." Kel faltered.

Immediately, Thane returned to his usual bubbly chatter, though Kel noticed for the first time that none of it involved anything about the emperor or his kingdom.

As they neared the familiar secluded building, Kel caught a glimpse of long black hair between the garden shrubs. When the figure turned her direction, they met each other's eyes, and a surge of happiness rushed through Kel.

"Barclay!" she called, waving ecstatically.

Instead of returning her excitement, the burly man simply nodded and turned his back to her once again.

Kel slowly lowered her hand back down to her side. Of course, in order to prevent the hostages conspiring together, they were restricted in their interactions with each other. The maids had informed her of this earlier when she asked to go visit her comrade.

Noticing Kel's disappointment, Thane piped up. "Sir Barclay is recovering from his injuries quite well."

"Thank you for letting me know," Kel responded absently, watching as Barclay followed his own escort knight back into the building. It should have been more than enough to know he was safe and healthy, but she selfishly wished to be able to confide in her commander.

She could almost imagine the gentle hand patting her head as she told Barclay of Dash, Adriell, and everyone's betrayal. He would have already known of course, but he would listen anyway, comforting her silently.

Kel shook off the greedy desire almost as soon as it crossed her mind. Barclay had at least as many troubles as she did.

I need to be strong, Kel told herself, I only have myself now. Breathing out resolutely, she turned away from where Barclay had disappeared and continued after Thane.

When the two reached the entrance on the opposite side of the building, a maid with short choppy hair and freckled cheeks stood waiting.

"I'll take the princess from here," she remarked, curtseying somewhat awkwardly. Kel smiled a little at the girl's clumsiness. She looked like she was still in her early teens and had a shy but bright demeanor.

"I'll leave her to you then," Thane grinned. He bowed elegantly toward Kel, adding his usual, "Princess," before striding away.

"Please follow me, ma'am," the girl squeaked.

When they reached Kel's room, the young maid held the door for Kel to go through. Unlike the other maids, however, she followed Kel into the room and closed the door tightly behind them.

Before Kel could open her mouth, the girl was down on one knee with her fist crossing her chest. It was the same gesture Thane had greeted the emperor with earlier.

"Princess," the girl said softly, holding out a simple flower with a large golden center surrounded by several long pale-yellow petals.

"What's this?" Kel asked, gingerly taking the bloom from the girl.

"An invitation," the maid answered. Her earlier aura of an innocent and warm youngster had disappeared. The person kneeling before Kel now resembled a well-trained soldier.

"What invitation?" Kel questioned, inspecting the flower. There was no sort of message attached that she could discern.

"The Seven Lions Inn in three days' time at sundown," the girl recited before swiftly retreating out of the room.

"Wait!" Kel ran after her, but the hallway was completely desolate.

For the next several minutes, Kel paced across her floor, trying to make sense of the strange encounter. Where was the Seven Lions Inn? And why had she been invited there? How would she be able to get out of the palace to accept the invitation in the first place?

As she pondered, there was a knock at the door, and Lucy entered the room.

"The head maid will be here soon to- My Lady!" Lucy gasped as she caught sight of Kel's hands.

"What's wrong?" Kel cocked her head to the side, puzzled by her maid's shocked reaction.

"W-where did you get that?" she whispered through trembling lips, hesitantly pointing to the flower Kel was holding.

"Oh this?" Kel twirled the dainty yellow flower a few times. "Some maid gave it to me just now along with a strange message."

The color drained from Lucy's face as Kel spoke. Still shaking as if she'd seen a ghost, the woman slowly closed the distance between them.

"Give that to me," she hissed, holding out a hand.

Reluctantly, Kel handed over the flower, beginning to feel unnerved at Lucy's strange behavior.

Lucy curved her fingers over the flower like a cage and hurried over to the lamp next to Kel's bed. She carefully lifted the top off, and dipped the yellow petals into the pool of oil in the base. When the bloom had been thoroughly doused, she threw it into the small firebox in the corner of the room.

Kel watched in uneasiness as Lucy lit a thin wooden switch and set fire to the flower. They both observed the small orange flames in silence until the maid was satisfied that every last petal had been reduced to ashes.

"Why…" Kel trailed off. She wanted to understand what had just happened, but had no idea what to ask.

"Never speak of this again," Lucy said quietly. Then, turning to Kel she added, "If you ever see this sort of flower in the future, don't go near it."

"What do you mean?" The usually light-hearted woman's ominous warning made Kel shudder as if a cold breeze was rushing through her body.

"Just this much is enough to make both of us lose our heads."

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