Fescu traipsed out of the palace with a smile, his eyes full of a vision of his victorious return home from his deadly quest, and all the beautiful girls who’d rush to his side competing for his attention. He imagined himself in the detailed illustrations of his books of legends. Amid the throng of ladies Darnda pushed to the front, smelling wonderfully of pastries, looking at Fescu as much more than just a friend up through her thick black eyelashes with her beautiful silvery green eyes.
Darnda grabbed his arm and cried, “Is it true? Have you really been banished?”
Darnda’s touch brought Fescu back to the non-illustrated reality. He had started walking down the steps of the palace entrance, up which Darnda had been rushing. She still wore her work apron, although she’d let her curly hair down from its ponytail, which she only wore when she had to. She carried a basket full of prettily frosted cupcakes.
Fescu had a hard time transitioning from his fantasy of Darnda looking romantically up at him to the reality of her concerned expression, and the fact that she was his best friend and nothing more. He blushed and stuttered awkwardly as he offered Darnda the bouquet he’d carried with him all this time.
Darnda raised an eyebrow at him, confused. “Are you trying change the subject?”
“These are for you!” Fescu blurted out.
Darnda’s confused expression deepened. “Those are Philodendra’s. Please don’t avoid my question.”
“Of course they’re not for Philodendra! They’re for you.”
She looked at Fescu with a pitiable expression, as though suddenly understanding what his behavior meant. “Fescu, you told me you were getting flowers for Philodendra, and there’s birch bark and everything like my uncle’s candy wrapper suggested. Philodendra said no, didn’t she?”
“Philodendra hasn’t even seen the bouquet,” he announced nervously. “I decided you were worthier of my attention than she is. It’s for you. Please take it.”
Confused again, Darnda took the bouquet originally intended for someone else in her free hand, looking at Fescu like something was very wrong with him. She felt complimented at his words, although she wasn’t sure exactly what he meant by them, and therefore concluded that he was avoiding her original question. Her bell-like voice sounded down-trodden as she asked, “So you are banished, aren’t you?”
Fescu, disappointed at Darnda’s less-than-enthusiastic acceptance of his bouquet, decided he was not meant to woo his dear friend after all. Also unhappy with the sudden realization that he would no longer get to be with his friend as of tomorrow, Fescu confirmed in an equally depressed voice, “Yes. I’m banished.”
A pained looked crossed Darnda’s pretty face. “I was hoping I’d misheard,” she uttered as she looked away from Fescu. “I was on my way here to deliver the king’s afternoon cupcakes when I saw your father chasing after your mother who was crying down the road. I asked your father what was wrong and he said you’d been banished, but he was still running as he said it so he didn’t tell me any more than that. Oh Fescu! What did you do to receive such a harsh punishment?”
“I did absolutely nothing! Galaflor has always hated me, and now that I’m old enough to banish he’s decided to get rid of me. That’s all there is to it. Galaflor even had a list of all the complaints he ever received about me during the years of my youth.”
“Was it very long?”
“I suppose it was long enough. Half of them, I’m sure, were from Sir Prissycariam.” Fescu hurled a rock across the sunny courtyard and dinged a marble statue on the nose. He slumped onto the palace steps, his long, skinny limbs sprawling out like spider legs.
Darnda’s expression softened as she considered her friend. She removed her apron and spread it out on the steps next to Fescu. Putting down the basket and the bouquet, she sat next to him on the apron. She pulled her untamed, black-satin curls away from her face as she leaned forward and tried to meet Fescu’s eyes. “If King Galaflor is going to rule Solas Lunias like a complete troll, he’s certainly not going to get his afternoon cupcakes from me! Help me eat these.”
Fescu turned his head to view the deliciously aromatic cupcake Darnda was offering him. She had already taken a large bite out of the gaudily decorated cupcake in her other hand. Fescu suddenly perked up like a daisy after a refreshing rain, graciously took the cupcake, and scooted over to sit on the apron with Darnda. “You’re the best friend anyone could ever ask for, Darnda! Who else gets to eat the king’s cupcakes? Won’t you get in trouble?”
Darnda chewed the royal pastry fiercely. “The king loves his muffins and cupcakes too much. He knows he can’t punish me because if he does I’ll no longer be able to make desserts for him. Today I want him to know how I feel when he unjustly abuses my friend, so eat up!”
Fescu had to resist giving her a hug, which would’ve been hard to do with cupcakes in both hands. “Darnda, you’re wonderful! You really are! I can’t thank you enough!”
After a moment of chewing, Darnda’s defiant countenance dimmed slightly when she asked, “You can never return? Are you really banished forever, or is it conditional?”
Fescu’s face lit up to its usual display of delight. “Ah, Darnda, you know full well that ‘never’ is not a word that suites my vocabulary. As I am ever the devious optimist, I managed to distort my banishment into an opportunity.”
Darnda wondered if he was playing a prank on her. “How?”
“I offered to accomplish an impossible task to prove myself worthy to remain a citizen of Solas Lunias. So worthy, in fact, that I’ll be worthier than Galaflor is. He agreed to pardon my banishment when I’m done.”
“What task could you do to station you above King Galaflor?”
“You’re familiar with the unconquered quest of the Perilous Realms, are you not?”
Darnda’s eyebrows nearly leveled with her hairline. “That’s what you’re going to do?”
“Yes. I got the idea from a book I read last night.”
“Not one of your Princess Monaleot adventures? You get too many ideas from those books.”
“No, no! This book was a collection of factually true adventures—and I won’t lie, Princess Monaleot was, indeed, in a few of them. But there were several stories about the quest to reach all five Realms, and I believe I can succeed where the other adventurers failed. When I visit each Realm I’ll be deemed infinitely famous and respected—perhaps even more than the Empress of the Lyonii herself!”
Darnda still looked surprised, and she was quiet for a minute as she studied Fescu’s face with wide eyes. He didn’t like it when she got like this, the way she processed his ideas through something in her mind he’d secretly named “the logical colander”. She had a knack for making his more genius ideas sound less appealing when they finally fell through the colander and out her mouth. Her expression remained unchanged when she spoke. “That sounds dangerously ambitious—even for you, Fescu.”
“You don’t like my idea?”
“Yes and no. I think you could do it, but I also think you shouldn’t.”
“Too bad. I have no choice if I want to return home.”
A small smile crept onto Darnda’s lips. She crossed her arms and looked as though she knew she should be ashamed of what she was about to say, but truly wasn’t. “Well, it does sound thrilling. When are we going to leave?”
We? King Galaflor did not say the quest had to be done alone, and bringing Darnda with him on the adventure sounded wonderful to Fescu. He opened his mouth to exclaim that she was more than welcome to come on his dangerous quest…but he paused with his mouth open as an unpleasant realization came to him.