“That’s Azalea?” Wylie whispered, his voice trailing off. His eyes glazed over. A goofy smile dancing on his lips. His gaze kept following her as she went from the balcony back into her home.
I softly chuckled and smiled. For the several years I had lived with Wylie and Lyle before going off to reveal the initials on my mate scar and find Caleb, I had never seen Wylie pursue any woman. I imagine he had found some he was interested in but chose to focus on caring for us instead. As we met up in passing over the years, I had seen several women intrigue him, yet none like Azalea. He was captivated by her and understandable so, she was a natural beauty. Maybe at least one good thing could come out of all this.
“I’m sorry that I cannot join you for afternoon tea and properly meet your friend,” Remi politely smiled and gestured at Wylie. “But I am afraid someone must tend to the store. Hopefully, next time I will be able to. Please just be a bit more patient on my daughter and wife, they will be down soon,” He gave a bow, before exiting the terrace through the heavy oak door.
Attached to the back of the shop and house was a large, white stone terrace that led into a modest garden. A small weeping willow swayed in the far left corner, while various berry bushes and colorful azaleas and lilies lined the rest of the edges of the garden, their fragrances wafting in the area. The rusty wrought iron chairs we sat in, circled a table of the same material in the middle of the garden. They had simple leaf and vine designs engraved into the metal.
Something clacking against the stone caught my attention. Glancing over, a lithe, older woman slowly walked down the terrace to the flat, triangular stone path that led to our table. Her greying curls hung freely over her scaly shoulders. I briefly glanced at Fletcher. The same symptom we both had, I wondered what other ones she had.
With quick strides, Azalea fell into step with her mother, a stained porcelain tea set on a copper tray in her hands. As I suspected she was nearly identical to her. Though her mother’s infection made a few stark differences in the eyes. The shape and color were the same, but her mother’s irises were milky with a pink hue to the whites of her eyes.
Azalea set down the tray on the table and attempted to guide her mother into the nearest seat, but her hands got lightly smacked away. She sighed and slightly shook her head as she began to pass out the tea.
“So, Caleb over here is obvious,” her mother said, placing a hand on Caleb’s right forearm. “And I believe the lady next to him is Evelyn, but the other two I cannot tell who is Fletcher and the other,”
“I’d like to know who the one furthest from you is myself,” Azalea’s sharp eyes fixed on Wylie as she cocked a brow.
“My apologies for not sending a message ahead. This is Wylie, Evelyn’s older brother. You had requested to receive additional information on the Purowick from the tamers in Carntwin and given Wylie was the one to venture there it seemed best to bring him along,” He gave Azalea a bigger smile. “Also, mam, the one next to me is my former apprentice Evelyn and between her and Wylie is her soul mate Fletcher,” His face drifted over to her mother as he patted her hand on his arm.
“Ah, thank you. Please forgive my daughter Wylie, she is still much too leery of people who only mean to help,” She looked over at Wylie, a warm smile on her full lips.
“It’s quite alright mam, from what I’ve been told it seems she has every reason to be so,” Wylie slid out of his chair into a kneeling position beside Azalea. Taking her right hand between his, he bowed his head and raised her hand to his forehead and lowered it back down.
I lifted my cup of tea to my lips to conceal my smirk. He had just performed the bow nobles gave one another to apologize for a grave offense. Wylie was already trying to attain Azalea’s favor.
“This is my mother Fiora, I ask that you please be considerate of how loudly you raise your voices. One of her symptoms is heightened hearing, so as you can imagine she’s become quite sensitive to sound,” Azalea said, picking up her cup of tea now that she and Wylie were in their seats.
Fiora shook her head, her copper earrings clattering with the motion. “You worry far too much. It will be another ten years before we find a man who can handle your intensity in this spineless town,”
“I very much admire her for it,” Wylie said, resting his chin in his hand while grinning widely at both of them.
Azalea’s eyes shoot out to the size of saucers, her posture going straight and rigid in her seat. However, Fiora returned the grin, her eyelids drooping slightly causing the wrinkles around them to appear more prominent. She went to say something, but Azalea quickly spoke over her, “Let’s get to the matter of this meeting. Were you able to find all the ingredients?”
Caleb let out a laugh before speaking, “Yes, we sent some of the members of Fletcher’s mercenary company ahead this morning with them under the guise of being merchants delivering more inventory to you. Your father checked all of it and confirmed everything was good and there,”
Azalea bowed her head, allowing her face to be hidden by her thick curls. “Yes, he told me of that this morning, I’m afraid I forgot. Did you encounter any issues on your journeys?”
“Not any of the kind you’re asking about, but something unfortunate did occur,”
All the eyes of the men around me shifted toward me as I took a sip of my lukewarm, tangy tea. Placing the cup down, I tugged off my long, leather glove. Leaning forward, I reached my left inner wrist across the table. “We had to go to the Circle Water Veil to find one of the ingredients. I ended up falling into the magical pool there and the growth of my scale rapidly progressed. Before that, I had yet to show one symptom and now, I have three,”
Fiora frowned as Azalea gently took my wrist to examine my mate scar. Her lips were pressed into a thin, firm line with her forehead creasing. Closing her eyes, she clasped my hand in both of hers and repeated the gesture Wylie had done earlier.
I raised an eyebrow as I continued to study her face. What was the meaning behind her gesture? Did she feel responsible due it being her request for us to gather the ingredients? Did she simply hold great sympathy for my plight? Or was it something else?
Finally, she opened her eyes and met my gaze. “I gravely apologize. This incident is all my fault. I had thought you’d be able to find the hibiscus drop flowers in one of the smaller markets in Natandre, so I figured I didn’t need to warn you of that pool. Please forgive my oversight, I am terribly sorry,”
She went to repeat the gesture, but I firmly squeezed her hand on top of mine. She stopped and fixed her eyes on my face again. “I would have expected the same thing if I was in your place. If anything, it’s my fault for not knowing Voyia enough to have known the danger of that pool. It appears I left Caleb’s tutelage too soon,” I said, smiling slightly at her.
Her features relaxed and she squeezed my hands back. “Thank you for your kindness,” She let go of my hand and I pulled my arm back into my side.
“Why is the Circle Water Veil so dangerous?” Caleb asked while giving my right leg a small pat.
“Ah, yes, I should explain. The Purowick in the Southern Half of Voyia migrate there in the spring to feed off the hibiscus drop flowers. It’s one of their favorite foods and that is the only location in the Southern Half where they can be found. Merchants over the years have gone there in the summer after they left and took what was left to harvest seeds from them, so they can grow their own. I actually have a supplier who had a few to spare, so I was able to get a few on hand while you were gone, which will probably be a very fortunate thing. I believe the magical properties in the water have transferred into the vegetation in that region and gradually over time to the Purowick as well. Given that your mate scar reacted to it further confirms my suspicion. I will now be able to study the flowers from each region to truly be able to verify this,”
“Fascinating, so you think magic can transfer into different life forms?” Caleb scooted closer to the table, a toothed smile gracing his face.
“I wouldn’t say transfer. I more believe that over many years magic can alter life forms,”
“So, it’s more like it a mutation verses a fusion?”
“Correct. Fletcher what about your mate scar? Has it changed at all?”
“It’s been growing steadily, I now have scales along my neck and back,” Fletcher rubbed at the biggest one on the back of his neck.
“Not the worst symptom to get given you’re a mercenary, I find they are like a bit of armor,” Fiora said with soft eyes and a strained smile.
“Hm, let me go get my journal and instruments so I can inspect everything,” Azalea mumbled as she rose to her feet. She began walking back towards the house.
“You know Wylie, she’s got many journals I’m sure she’d like to cross-reference everything with, so she could probably use a hand,” Fiora said with narrow eyes and a mischievous smile.
Wylie instantly got to his feet and took long steps after Azalea while calling after her to proclaim his aid. Fiora snickered as Azalea jumped upon finding Wylie right behind her. “What sort of man is your brother Evelyn?”
“I honestly couldn’t ask for a better brother. Though we aren’t related by blood he took me in like I was his sister from the first moment we met. He cared for me as an older child and even still does after all these years. He’s goofy, resourceful, and a meditator. I don’t know Azalea, but I think he would compliment her well,”
“Yes, I believe he would,”