"I'm afraid we overstayed our welcome," Alston said, placing a tight smile on his face that looked to Kelly to be more of a grimace. "Julia, it was nice to see you again. Please tell Kendrick I will be in touch. Let's go, Lieutenant."
Following Alston's lead, Kelly stood and trailed in his stead. As she pursued Alston, she remained silent and wondered what all everything that had just happened meant for her troop. Obviously the plan did not go the worst possible way that it could have, but it sure did not end very well, either. Other than Kelly and Alston still being alive, not much else had gone the way that she had been hoping. And judging by the grim look on Alston's face, the meeting with his brother did not go very well in his opinion either.
"I am sorry that my brother refused your request," Alston finally said, turning to give Kelly a pitying smile. "I mean, I was pretty sure that he was going to refuse you in the end, but I hadn't expected him to do it so quickly."
"It was a long shot," Kelly shrugged as she looked around to try and see if there were any distinguishing features to help her narrow down the region of the mountains that Kendrick lived in. Truthfully, she didn't think she was going to find anything; if she had been able to narrow it down easily, Alston would not have brought her to his brother. "My troop will find another way to get to him."
It looked like he was bothered by the comment, but Alston did not respond verbally. Peering over his shoulder to look at her, he shook his head and slipped behind what looked to be a crack in the wall but ended up being large enough for him to walk right through it. Kelly followed him and a second later was standing in the room that they had left an hour ago.
"Is something wrong?" Kelly asked him after a minute passed and he said nothing. "You seem . . . more agitated than you usually do."
"I'm trying to decide if Kendrick believed any of our story, but he was harder to read today than I expected."
"Our story?" Kelly asked, arching an eyebrow. "What story is that?"
"That we are married," Alston said easily. "I know that he didn't believe us when he first welcomed us in, but after spending five minutes with him, I think he actually started to buy it. If he didn't believe us, why didn't he call me out after he learned your true identity?"
"So, what, do we continue to be 'married' or something?" she asked with a shocked snort. Then, seeing that Alston was being serious, her tone got much more somber and she asked, "Seriously? You want to still be married to me?"
Narrowing his eyes, Alston said derisively, "Do you have any better ideas? The most powerful Flair in Viger thinks you know where he lives yet he let you walk out of his home. Why would he do that, unless he believed you to be his sister-in-law?"
"What do you mean he thinks I know where he lives?" Kelly asked, trying to keep her voice low but not quite succeeding. "Pike brought us here!"
"He doesn't know that I am bound to Pike," Alston said in a forced whisper. His voice was hoarse and tight. "Since he thinks that I have no way of getting here except to walk, that would suggest that I walked with you and you now know where his home is."
Hearing those words made Kelly pale. "The most powerful Flair in Viger thinks that I know where he lives?"
"You see the problem with taking off the wedding bands now?" he asked curtly. Turning away from her, he placed his finger on the insignia on his hand and said, "Pike."
Seconds later, a cornflower blue fire spread on the ground and the fairy was before them. To Kelly's surprise, the fairy seemed more comfortable than she had ever seen him. When he greeted Alston with a short, "Hello," she thought that the fairy must surely be an incredibly close copy of the real Pike, because she had never seen him act so natural before.
"So, how did it go?" the fairy asked lightly, giving Alston an inquiring look.
"Not as well as I hoped it would, but we are still breathing, so that is something," Alston said as he began to undress.
It took Kelly a moment to realize that she was staring at Alston in wonder as he pulled the shirt off his body. Tight muscles stretched across his arms and back and all Kelly could think was damn. Then, upon realizing that she was staring, Kelly felt a blush race to her cheeks and she turned away and started to undress, herself. Apparently her eye-candy hadn't noticed her fascination with his body, because he and Pike continued on with no problem.
"What happened?" she heard Pike ask.
"When we first arrived, I could tell that he didn't believe that we were married. But by the time he figured out who the Lieutenant really is, I think he actually started to believe us. Unfortunately, he did learn her true identity, but he let us live."
"He learned that you brought the Xamalian Flair to his home and he let you walk out anyway?" Pike asked, astonishment clear in his voice.
"I know," Alston said, sounding puzzled. "It doesn't make sense. The only thing that I can think of is that he actually believed that we are married. I told him that we had only lied about her name because I was fearful that he would kill us if he learned her true identity. If he bought the lie, then we have to continue to pretend that we are married, right? Or am I just thinking crazy?"
Kelly did not like the sound of that. Pretending to be married seemed wrong to her, though she didn't have any other ideas of how to keep them safe, so maybe they should just try it. Apparently, Pike felt the same, because when she turned around, she saw that he was nodding.
"If it were me," the fairy said carefully, "I would continue doing whatever you did that let you walk out of his home. Kendrick is a dangerous enemy to have, and though I think that he does love you, my guess is that he is not happy about you marrying Lieutenant Deluvia."
"So, continue to be married?" Alston asked again for confirmation.
"Yes. I would be as married as newlyweds, if it were me. Put knots in the bracelets, let other people see them, and be affectionate towards each other. I think I would even sleep together at least once, for good measure."
Kelly had to cough back her reaction to that. Thankfully, Alston jumped in, "I don't think we need to go that far, Pike. The bracelets should suffice."
"It is your call, Alston," the fairy said, lightening his tone a little. The quieter voice made him sound weaker to Kelly. "Are the two of you ready to return to Xamalie?"
"Yes," Alston nodded.
In a flash of cornflower blue flames, the trio appeared in what seemed to Kelly to be a walk-in closet. The closet door was open, which allowed light from the adjoining room to illuminate some of the dresses that were hanging on the rack above Kelly's left shoulder.
"Thanks, Pike," Kelly heard Alston say. "You can go now. I will leave on my own today."
The fairy gave a curt nod and once again, cornflower blue flames leapt up and consumed Pike. Once the fairy was gone, Alston led the way out of the closet and Kelly followed. The adjoining room was spacious and open. There was a large bed with several plush pillows arranged neatly at the head, but there were also two large chairs and a two-seat couch.
"Where are we?" Kelly asked, once she saw that they were alone.
"The princess's quarters. No one will be down here; Zara doesn't keep maids or hand servants in her quarter of the castle. I'll take you to the entrance to the main hall, and then you should be able to find your troop on your own from there."
Picking up on Alston's somber tone, Kelly asked, "What's troubling you, Alston? If it's your brother, don't worry about it. I will do whatever is necessary to convince him that we are married."
"Really?" Alston asked, sounding stunned. "You would do that? Pretend that you married a known double-agent, whose brothers are the most powerful Healer in all of Viger and the man accused of murdering your mom?"
Narrowing her eyes, Kelly said, "You know, the first bit of advice that your 'wife' is going to give you is that you should really learn when to keep your mouth shut about your relatives."
But Kelly put her finger to his lips and said, "Just listen, right now. I didn't know that I would be able to get over the fact that Edan was accused of murdering my mom, but I did. I didn't think that I could hide in your dad's home, but I managed. I do not know how I am going to be able to convince your brother that we are married, but I will find a way. As for you, I know that I shouldn't like you, but we both know I do. We also know that you shouldn't like me, but you do. So, let's just focus on that for right now. Forget about all of the things standing against us, and let's just give in to the small part of us that wants this to be true. Can you do that?"
Halfway through her rant, Alston started grinning. By the time she was finished, he looked more than ready to pretend that they were married. Pressing his lips to her forehead, he told her, "Ok."
Reaching down to her wrist, Alston tied a knot and said, "For surviving round one with my brother."
Granting him a weak smile in reply, Kelly tied a knot in his band as well.
"I know that we are not truly married, Lieutenant," Alston said quietly, taking her hands in his own. "But until you take this bracelet off, I will honor you as though we are."
Hearing him say that caught Kelly by surprise. As she looked into his light brown eyes, she had to catch her breath and try to convince herself that it was nothing more than the danger of his brother finding out that he had asked her to pretend to be married to him, because as she looked at him, it was very hard to tell if he was lying. Though she knew he was an exceptional liar, she couldn't convince herself that the only reason he looked so sincere was because he was afraid of Kendrick.
Suddenly, the room they were standing in felt entirely too small for them. Though they were the only two in the space that had seemed so large just moments before, it now felt entirely too intimate. Clearing her throat, Kelly said lightly, "I need to get back to my troop."
"Right," Alston agreed, seeming to catch on that the room felt much smaller than it actually was. Leading the way out of Zara's quarter, the two of them walked in silence and were soon standing in the main dining hall. Turning to look at Kelly, Alston said, "Here we are. Think you can find your troop on your own?"
"Yes," she affirmed. "I've got it from here."
With a nod in parting, Alston turned and went back the way they had come. Heaving a sigh, Kelly turned from him and began the walk back to her quarters.