Among the Glimmering Flowers(Âlj-irnié #1)
Release Date: 2018
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Felicity feels stifled by her parents' protective nature. She's the crown princess, yet she's not even allowed to care for her own pony. Her life consists of nothing but rules and permissions. All she wants is a little more freedom.
Horse-friend is happy to have a roof over his head, a job that he likes and food in his stomach every day. He never expected to run into the crown princess as she tries to sneak out of the castle. Or to get caught up in her clumsy attempts at having an adventure.
It isn't long before trouble, rather than adventure, finds both of them, setting them on a course that will change their lives -- and the fate of the kingdom -- forever.
Among the Glimmering Flowers is the story of how two lovers first became friends and the first book in a series exploring a demisexual/allosexual romantic relationship. Readers looking for a low-conflict, cosy story should enjoy this novel.
It is not possible to fall off a pony gracefully. I had not particularly set out to prove this either way, but I had fallen off the recalcitrant beast regardless. In my youthful wisdom, I had decided to take advantage of the promise of fair weather while it yet lasted and to sneak out of the castle. I was certain that it would be sunny, one of those days right on that tail-end of summer and the beginning of autumn, when all the food is just turning ripe and one starts to expect the lashing of boughs against the window and fat raindrops pelting you like a child’s idea of fun and games. It is no wonder that the god of rain is a child. Or, perhaps, the god being a child, it is no wonder that rain, true rain, hurts like droppings tossed at unsuspecting heads.
But I digress. This particular day had promised to be cloud-clear and warm. I had intended to go out looking for blackberries, as they would normally be a great treat. It is not that they are expensive, of course they are not, but that my father would only allow them on the royal plates at the solstice. It was common food, he always said, and thus to be treasured. At the time, I felt it was grossly unfair that I should thus be denied a treat I enjoyed. I knew that commoners ate of them freely and was I not a princess? More, was I not his first-born child, heir, and only daughter? I recognise the value in my father’s reasoning now, of course. Such actions keep us from taking things, even such small and simple things as blackberries, for granted. It is, perhaps, the single-most lesson I have ever learnt: to value all things, for what is common and worthless to one is precious to another. Back then, however, I was a mere child and had not yet learnt this lesson.
Thus, when I had awoken on this fine summer morning, I had decided to sneak out and escape my royal duties for the day. I had not counted on the whims of an evil pony unravelling my plan before I had even left the castle grounds. Nor had I counted on the presence of someone else. A stable boy had grabbed my pony by the reins and was talking to it. His voice was a soft burr that reminded me of my cat’s purring and I could not make out the words. I did not wish to either. I was young and, being young, filled with all the self-importance that princesses are always accused of having. It is possible I have not bettered as much as I would have hoped.
I picked myself off the ground and dusted off my borrowed sea-grey dress as best I could in the dimly lit gloom. My hip smarted and my hands burned. I’d chafed the palms in my attempt to twist into some form of safety when I’d fallen. Father would be furious. And that stupid stable boy was making soothing noises at the pony. He had no care for me, after that first, startled laugh and after he’d taken the reins. He was older than I and I was already old enough to know not to laugh at a person whose pony had decided that today is a perfect day to be evil!
Nothing was going how I’d envisioned it that morning, and so I was in more of a hurry than I’d wanted to be. Perhaps it is little wonder that I had found myself on the dirty ground, getting ignored by a mere stable boy. It did not help my mood in the least.
“I could have you hanged for that,” I said to him, haughty as only a princess can be haughty. He continued to ignore me. I made quite a show of the dirt on my borrowed clothes and I may have exaggerated how much pain I was in with groans and moans just to try and get him to pay attention to me.
It had been so long, you cannot possibly expect me to recall the exact severity of my injuries. In any case, it did not matter. The stable boy remained focused on that stupid pony. He’d rubbed its nose and had taken off its saddle.
By now he was leading the pony back to its stall and he was murmuring in its ear and I’d had more than enough. I was a princess and he was going to be paying attention to me. So I spoke and poured as much of my mother’s tone into my voice as I could. She has this particular way of speaking where, if she wants you to know she thinks badly of you, she’ll fill her voice with so much disdain and arrogance that it would drown you entirely. It is very effective; I have seen grown men weep at it.
I have never been particularly good at mimicking that tone and the stable boy’s answer was not one I had been expecting. “I could get your hand chopped off for taking the princess’s pony,” was his response. There was a careless merriment to his voice that made me gnash my teeth. It was like he didn’t even mean what he said! That he knew it would never happen, that what I’d said would never happen. No one had ever spoken to me in such a way before, not even Sionen or my parents. It was… vexing, because I did not understand how anyone could.
“I am the princess!” And I stomped on the urge to throw a tantrum like I was still a small child. I was not used to being so dismissed and ignored. In favour of a pony! I was used to being recognised, being obeyed. Yet here this boy was, busying himself with the damnable pony and paying me only the slightest of attention.
“No, you’re not.” He did not even look at me as he spoke. “If you were the princess, you’d have learnt how to ready a pony properly.” In the gloom, I could see him patting the beast’s shoulder. He dug something out of a pocket. I could not see what it was from where I was standing, but he held his hand out to the pony. I presume that he was holding a treat, which the insufferable beast surely had not in the least done anything to earn.
I said nothing. In a moment, the stable boy turned around and leaned against the door to the pony’s stall.
Disliking the silent challenge in his stance, I grumped, “I know how to ready a pony.” It was not entirely truth. I knew how to ride without falling off, but that was all. My aunt had died because of a horse. Riding lessons were all that my mother and uncle had managed to persuade my father to grant. Anything more, others were expected to do for me, couching in language already familiar to me. A princess does not saddle her own horse. A princess does not care for her own horse. A princess does not play with commoners. A princess does not jump into puddles. A princess does not climb trees. A princess does not play with wooden swords. A princess does not. A princess does not.
It had taken me years to convince someone to teach me how to bridle and saddle my own pony despite my father’s edict. I did not wish to explain to this… lout that I did not, in fact, know what I was doing well enough to accomplish it without aid. I did not even know what I’d done wrong! I thought I’d saddled the beast correctly!
I bit on my lip, pride wrestling with sense. Much though I wanted to storm off or to cling to what remained of my dignity, the stable boy had seen me. While I could not, would not, ask for his secrecy, I could ask for his help. I needed it and if this boy was willing to accuse his princess of stealing her own horse… I could not bear the thought. “I know how to ready a pony.”
“See, now,” the boy said. “If that were true, you’d not have fallen off.” He stuffed his hands in his pockets, the nonchalance of his pose a stark contrast to the disapproval in his voice. The pony in the stall behind him stuck its nose out and nibbled at his hair. The stable boy laughed, like it tickled. I was certainly not the least bit scared that the beast would bite open his head. Do not let Fhilînj tell you differently. I might have a vivid enough imagination that I hate storm-night stories, but I am not lacking in sense. Horses do not eat people.
The stable boy did not explain what I’d done wrong, nor did he offer to. I did not know what to say. My pride had been too stung by his behaviour and I was certain that soon other people would be coming into the stables. Other stable boys to help him feed the horses or do whatever it is that they do in the morning. Sionen, somehow divining what my plan had been. Perhaps my uncle, coming to check on the stable boys’ work.
Outside the stables, the birdsong in the courtyard had been joined by the sound of hammers striking against wood and workers singing merrily to the rhythm. The storage room needed a new roof before the rains started in earnest, so they were working hard. At least the scent of baking no longer filled my nostrils with a heaven that made my stomach rumble. I had not dared stop at the kitchens to ask the staff for something to eat. Breakfast would probably have ruined all my chances to slip away unnoticed.
The horses in the stables moved as restlessly as I was feeling. I would not be able to slip out unseen at all now. There was no point asking the stable boy for his help. All it would accomplish would be getting us both into trouble. The stable boy only paid attention to the horses. He moved to another one that had poked its head out of its stall and stroked the beast’s nose. Glancing back at me, there was a quirk to his lips. I raised my chin and stood straighter, just in case it meant something bad. “I’m still the princess.”
“Sure you are. And I’m the Prince Over the Mountains. You’ve got straw in your hair.” He laughed then. Briefly. “Isn’t a princess in the world would get straw in her hand or dirt on her clothes. It just washes off like water on an oil skin coat.”
“I’m hiding!” My voice sounded shrill to my ears and I would have yelled even more had my second-worst nightmare not become truth in that moment. I could hear my uncle’s voice approaching the stables. My uncle had one of those voices that booms even when simply speaking and, at that moment, he was singing along with the workers. As he had not yet entered the dim stables I scrambled to find myself a place to hide. If I could not sneak out of the castle, I could at least sneak back in and avoid being scolded for improper behaviour.
One of the nearby stalls stood open, for what reason I did not know. I glowered at the stable boy as I dove for the safety of the shadows, silently daring him to tell my uncle I was there. There was a… change to his face, and he looked like he was just about to say something, but there was no time.
I would like to think that the stable boy had intended to warn me and tell me to hide somewhere else because what I wound up with in that dark stall stank. I had not truly noticed the smell before, not underneath that of hay, tack, and horse. Presumably, it was standing in the stuff that drove my nose to acknowledge it. But it was slick and thick and still warm around my foot and it stank. I stank.
If not for the growing volume of my uncle’s voice and the sure knowledge that both my mother and Sionen were going to kill me later that day, I would have squeaked and cried. As it was, I turned the sound into a deep breath and puffed out my cheeks to try and keep more air in. The less I had to breathe, the better. I was certain that the stable boy would give me away to my uncle. I was certain that, at any moment, my uncle would step further into the gloom and discover me anyway, that he would take me to my mother and I would be forced into a bath.
Not that I have anything against bathing, you must understand, and part of me desperately wanted to be caught and wash the stink of manure away as soon as possible, but I do not appreciate being forced into things.
There is only so long that a person can hold their breath safely. After a while what happens when one does not breathe is that the person turns red. I certainly felt red. I had already had to resort to pinching my nose shut with my fingers, which was starting to hurt, and I could feel my head wanting to burst like a too-stuffed bladder. My chest ached with the attempt to hold my breath, but I must hold it. I must not breathe. Not until my uncle was gone and it was safe to. My heart hammered a rapid counterpoint to the rhythm of the workmen outside and to the fall of footsteps.
I was doomed.
When I could not hold my breath any longer, I puffed everything out through my nose. It sounded loud to my ears, despite my best efforts to be quiet. My ears also felt like someone had stuffed them full of cotton and I had no time or chance to unstuff them because the sudden onslaught of manure made me want to gag. I’d just managed a deep enough breath to hold it again when someone said “You can come out now” and I did.
It had not been my uncle’s voice.
The stable boy continued speaking to me like nothing had happened. “If you were really the princess, you’d not have hidden.” Smiling, he held out his hand and pulled me from the manure. This time, he did not laugh at me. This time, he looked grave and thoughtful. I admit, it threw me. I did not know what to make of the change.
“I’m hiding.” I dusted at the waist of Sionen’s dress as I spoke. It did not do anything against the way I’d dirtied the hem, obviously, but it kept my hands busy and it made me feel cleaner.
“Here.” The stable boy led me to another empty stall and knelt down. He scooped up some straw from the ground and started to swipe at the hem with it, which helped somewhat, and I admit that I was a little awed at his willingness to handle both the straw and the stinky, smelly substance so readily. I let him, for a while, though I stepped out of reach and knelt to do it myself when I realised he was going to clean the entire hem and not just the bit at the front.
He had undoubtedly helped me, but that was no reason to let him stray from his actual work. He’d get in trouble too, I was certain, and I would not be able to help him without getting into trouble along with him. No, it was much better that he returned to his duties, whatever they were, and left me to figure out how to hide this mess from my companion. Sionen was going to be horrified. Perhaps it would not be such a good idea to sneak back in after all.
“I can manage,” I said, though I scrunched up my nose and closed my eyes. I squeaked when I felt my hand touch the wet fabric and brushed some of the manure off. It didn’t dry anything and my stomach roiled with disgust at the thought of having that stuff on my hands. Being caught by my mother might be worth it, if it meant I did not have to do this.
“Not if you’re a princess,” the boy squatting opposite me said. There was a grin to his lips that made me laugh. I was certain now; he’d been playing with me earlier. He’d known I truly was the princess all along. Other than Sionen, I am not sure whether anyone had treated me as if I were a person in a long time. It was delightful to find someone who did not seem to care that I was a princess or that I could have him hauled off to the dungeons for displeasing me quick as a blink. (Not that I would, but I could have. The aristocracy should not have so much power.)
“Well, I’m a practical princess,” I said and did my best to sound as unprincess-like as a person could. All that happened was that I sounded prim and proper and about four years old. We both had to laugh at that. It helped settle my stomach and it helped me decide that I could trust Fhilînj. “I was going to sneak out,” I confided. “This might be the last warm day of the year and I wanted to enjoy it. I don’t want to be stuck inside embroidering all day.”
That was not, strictly, true. I enjoy embroidering. I find it soothing and it helps me to order my thoughts when they are bouncing around my head like goats up a mountain. But I know that if I were to succeed in hiding from Sionen and mother all day - or, better, escape into the wilds after all - I would need help. The time for sneaking anywhere unseen had already passed. Women’s voices had joined the men’s in song now. It sounded like the workers and the washers had struck up a contest to determine which group could sing the loudest.
Father would be thrilled. He was a late riser and he loved nothing more than to have his sleep interrupted. If my uncle’s singing had not already woken him, this undoubtedly would. Oh, yes. I would need all the help I could get and this boy before me… He did not strike me as the kind to understand me if he knew that I enjoyed myself indoors as much as out. So I… did not exactly lie.
I just did not tell him the whole truth either. I wanted to win him to my side and gain his help.
The stable boy just grinned at me. We were still squatting on the ground and I was waiting for him to say anything at all, with only the horses’ whickering and my own heartbeat for company. Finally he told me to wait here. Nothing else. Only “Wait here”.
As I had no better plan to follow, nothing better to do than try to clean Sionen’s dress as best I could with some straw of my own, I nodded. I watched him rise and leave me in the stall. I heard him or someone else making noises in the stables. I assumed it was the stable boy. Anyone else would surely have checked to see why this stall door was open and I’m sure he would have tried to distract anyone wanting to check it loud enough for me to hear. After a while, in which I was confused and frightened and slowly getting hungry, the stable boy returned and beckoned me to follow.
He led me to my own pony, all the way into the stall, and closed the half-door behind him with no explanation. My pony pawed at the ground. The stable boy pressed a brush in my hands and I blinked up at him. “You want my help, princess, I want yours.” As simple as that.
It is a good thing that he’d framed it as a trade. Had he simply told me it was something I should learn as the owner of a horse… However true the statement, I would have balked. Had he told me that a princess should understand how to care for her own steed… However much I agreed, I would have protested. But no. No, he offered me a fair trade. Learn how to care for this pony that I called mine and he would help me.
Or, I might face my mother’s wrath once she found me and saw what I’d done to Sionen’s dress. Truly, the hay would undoubtedly come out easily enough and the dust might be washed off, but oh that manure at the hem. I did not know how I was going to clean it so no one would know that I had taken it. This was not one of Sionen’s favourite dresses, but she had always liked clothing far more than I did and been far more careful.
No, I would not be going outside today. I would call on the stable boy’s aid to save my companion’s dress as best I could. I should never have worn it in the first place. Reasoned like that it was an easy choice. I knew that I would have to face my mother (and Sionen) sooner or later, but it seems to be children’s nature to put off such encounters for as long as possible. So I let the stable boy teach me about what brushes there were and what they were used for.
I had just gained the confidence to comb the pony’s mane by myself when my uncle burst into the stables. His booming voice startled me and the pony both. I tried to duck into the shadows at the back of the stall, to hide behind the bulk of the pony, but the stable boy grabbed my arm roughly. Beside me, the pony’s ears twitched and it swished its tail like it was as agitated as I felt.
And then my mother stood before the stall and exclaimed “Really, Chrysanthemum!” and there were to be no more treats for me until the lack had bought Sionen a new gown.