27. Blazing Bibelots (Part 2)

While wandering through the rows of artifacts like an archaeologist in a dig sight of ruins lost from time, the crown prince's eye caught sight of a peculiar figurine. Standing proudly and garbed in an ivory silk suit with matching top-hat and sleek black cane, the figure exemplified every aspect of a proper aristocrat, except that its head was not the head of a man, but of a cat with yellow fur and vibrant copper eyes that gleamed in the dull light of the shop. Intrigued, Tarin retrieved the anthropomorphic man from his home on the shelf and laughed aloud.

“Hey, Elden look! I've finally found you a husband!”

“Pardon?” Her viridescent eyes bulged.

“For as long as I've known you, I've never once seen you fall in love, and I worry that you might end up a dour, old spinster. As your dearest friend, I can’t let that happen. What do you think, Mr. Barron von Kitty, will this cat lady do?”

“I told you already, I'm not a cat!” Elden sputtered through loose lips, snatching the statue from his hands. She spun on her heels to walk away, but before she could stop herself, she spat over her shoulder, “And, for your information, I have fallen in love before.”

“Really?” Tarin watched her take three irritated steps before he chased after her. Leaning down to meet her gaze, his sincerely curious eyes inches from her own. “With whom?” For the first time in a long time, he noticed that her scrutiny wasn't filled with its usual poisonous daggers. On the contrary, she appeared more like the young lady he had befriended so many years before, like she did when the academy superiors had caught them practicing in the aviation simulators together after hours, perfecting their skills and building their trust in each other. She was in shock; the blood flushing through her cheeks gave tell that she was slightly embarrassed, but there was no sign of regret in her visage, merely the downcast light of a desperate plea to be left alone.

As intrigued as he was, Tarin was well aware of the cracked glass on which he now tread. Elden Stirling always wore a mask of stern strength, never giving a single soul a chance to look down upon her, but beneath her thorny shell, he knew to be a delicate, vulnerable woman. Seldom did the captain let this damsel out unprotected, but when she did, he knew to move with caution ─ pushing one wrong button could make her explode, pulling one wrong thread could unravel her completely. And of course, one of those awry strings was to let her know that he knew her sensitive side existed at all. It was best to pretend he saw nothing and give her time to readjust her red herring veil.

“Well, it doesn't really matter anymore. We… we just aren’t suited for each other.” Her shields crashed together like air-tight sealed doors. “But, you tell me, my prince, which is worse ─ still searching for a spouse at the ripe age of twenty-one, or lacking the ability to locate a simple knife at nineteen?”

“Touché!” he chuckled jauntily.

The End

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