Fescu stood alone in the house, grinning like a fool. His life had just begun, and oh, the wonderful possibilities it had in store for him!
His stomach grumbled, interrupting his euphoria. He’d been so excited to have the man-to-man talk with his father that he’d hardly eaten any breakfast. Considering how perfect he wanted his first day as an adult to be, the young Virii decided to reward his taste buds with the tastiest food in the Lyonii empire. It was time to visit Darnda.
Fescu rushed out into the refreshing mountain air, choosing his path downhill over the white cobblestone road, which was lined with tall, elegant houses made of beautiful marble and metal, all surrounded by shady gardens. The summer sun climbed toward noon and warmed the back of Fescu’s neck. His mind wandered as he walked, thinking of how he should spend his day. He’d ask Philodendra to court him, and afterwards he could lure Darnda out of the bakery and relax with her until his father finished work. But how was he going to ask Philodendra? She was a difficult girl who never laughed, which troubled Fescu. But Philodendra was lovely, for her chocolate-colored hair was uncommon among the black-haired Lyonii Virii. He was willing to court her just to get a closer look at her hair. Perhaps Darnda could give him some ideas to help him win Philodendra’s affections, for although Darnda did not like Philodendra, Darnda was his best friend and would help him anyway.
Fescu’s thoughts of girls ended when he reached the bottom of the hill. All of the houses in Solas Lunias had picturesque gardens, but none so large as Persicariam’s garden. This part of the mountain kingdom was level, allowing the rich Persicariam to grow a small orchard. Fescu grinned mischievously, for this orchard had been the target of his very last great prank. He trotted over to Persicariam’s property, which was surrounded by an ornate steel fence, and ran alongside the fence with a stick so that it rattled noisily against the bars. He wanted to see the results of his prank, for he’d heard they’d been more awful than he’d intended.
Indeed, the racket brought the middle-aged Persicariam himself out of his large house. His arm was in a sling and there were bandages around his head. He shook his free fist at Fescu as he furiously shouted, “You ruined my orchard, you insolent brat!”
Fescu turned his head to examine his work in the orchard. Some of the trees still had ladders poking out of their top branches. It was easy to see through the trees, for all of the branches eight feet and lower had been sawed off. “It doesn’t have to stay ruined,” Fescu grinned knowingly. “You are a grower of orchards, are you not? A little magic from you and your trees will be back to normal.”
Persicariam inhaled angrily. What Fescu said was true, but Persicariam did not think to do this until now, for he was an extremely reactive character—which was why he was Fescu’s favorite victim for pranks.
“I’m impressed,” Fescu chirped brightly, looking a lot more innocent than he truly was. “How did you manage to fall out of the tree? Surely someone agile enough to climb a limbless tree would have no trouble staying in it. You were supposed to ask your neighbors for a ladder. That would’ve been a lot less dangerous than trying to get your ladders out of your trees by attempting to climb them—although I sincerely wish I could’ve seen your apple tree acrobatics in person!”
While Fescu said all of this, Persicariam glared and sputtered out failed attempts to say something crushing. At last a coherent threat came to his head, and a manic smile crossed his face. “You’ve mutilated my property for the last time, Fescu Astrall. You’re going to get what’s been coming to you for three hundred years. Solas Lunias is finally through with you.”
Fescu waited for Persicariam to continue. When he did not, Fescu gave him an unimpressed smile and announced with a patronizing voice, “Your threats are needless, Prissycariam, for I won’t be touching your property any longer. I’m a new man with a clean slate, now. And if I ever did decide to dirty my slate again, it would not be worth it to dirty it for rubbish like yourself.” Fescu bowed so deeply his long braid flipped over the top of his head. Melodramatically, he waved as he pressed on down the road. “Good day to you, dear Prissycariam! Enjoy your broken arm.”
Persicariam grinned maliciously after Fescu. “Good riddance. Forever.”
Fescu resumed thinking about Philodendra as he entered the business streets. He walked past his father’s smith and glanced in the window, but his father wasn’t in the shop yet. Fescu absently wondered why not as he turned up a street toward the bakery. Despite the fact that Fescu was too busy daydreaming to pay attention to where he was going, he still reached his destination, for his feet had the path memorized. Up the marble steps they led him to a yellow door with “Sweet Nothings” painted on the glass window.
Fescu stepped inside, inhaling the bake shop’s irresistibly delectable smell deeply. There was a small dining area with ten fancy metal round tables surrounded by matching chairs, all decorated with lacy tablecloths and cushions. Fescu had helped his father make these chairs for the baker. Around the tables was enough room for shoppers to examine the jars and trays full of attractive baked goods on the shelved walls.
Near the back of the shop was a long counter with metal bar stools. This is where Fescu’s feet took him. “Darnda! I need your help!”
The petite woman behind the counter looked up and watched Fescu cross the room. She was just as sweet and pretty as all of the fancy goodies surrounding her in the frilly bake shop. Her velvety, curly black hair was tied up in a pony tail, which meant she was working. She smiled brightly as she asked, “What do you need?”
“First, I need some muffins. I’m famished!” Fescu hopped onto a stool next to the young man Darnda had been speaking to when Fescu walked in. The very handsome lad was named Toren Tithonia. Fescu reached over and roughly tousled Toren’s hair. “Good morning, pretty boy. Your hair is looking gorgeous today.”
Toren batted Fescu’s hand away, looking extremely indignant at this invasion of his space and especially at the interruption of his conversation with Darnda. He patted down his dark mahogany-colored hair, which he prized himself for, and checked to make sure his ponytail was still perfectly tied at the nape of his neck.
Fescu laughed and leaned against the ornate wire back of the stool. Suddenly, Fescu looked shocked, looking wide-eyed at Toren as he gasped loudly, which made both Toren and Darnda jump. He pointed at Toren’s vest and exclaimed, “There’s a huge spider on your shoulder! Right there!”
Toren yelped and swiped at his shoulder reflexively.
“It’s still there! Right by your neck! It’s trying to run into your collar!”
“Get it off!” Toren cried as he jumped off the stool, craning to see the spider and flailing his hands in the general area of his shoulder.
Fescu got off his stool, looking horrified. “It’s one of those poisonous ones! You’re not getting it!”
Toren danced on the spot, making frantic noises. “You get it, Fescu! I can’t get it off!”
Fescu made a quick swipe at Toren’s neck. Then he jumped forward and stomped on the ground.
“It’s gone!” Fescu smiled at Toren. Toren looked up at Fescu, shaking with the jittery feeling of imagined creepy-crawlies. There was something about Fescu’s expression that looked amused, and Toren could hear Darnda giggling behind him. He looked down to where Fescu had supposedly killed the spider. There wasn’t the slightest smudge on the floor.
Toren looked back up at Fescu, then down at Darnda. “There wasn’t really a spider, was there?”
Fescu said “yes” and Darnda “no” at the same time.
Toren knew to trust Darnda’s word over Fescu’s. His face fell. He had done a spastic spider dance and completely embarrassed himself in front of Darnda. His face went red.
Fescu patted him on the shoulder. “I was just testing your reflexes,” he laughed. “They’re very good. Don’t worry, you’re all right. See?” Fescu reached into Toren’s vest pocket and pulled out a small mirror. He held it up in front of Toren.
Toren gasped at the sight of his reflection. He had messed up his perfect hair while he’d been trying to get the imaginary spider off his collar. Toren turned redder still, for he could not stand to be in public if he looked less than flawless. He snatched his mirror from Fescu and shielded his face from Darnda. He told her, “I have to go now! I—I’ll see you later this evening.” He promptly rushed out of the bakery to repair his imperfection.
Fescu sat in Toren’s seat and leaned over to speak with Darnda, who was very short for a Virii. “Now that Pretty Boy is gone, you can help me.”
“What do you need help with?”
“Philodendra. She’s upset again and I don’t know why.”
“Philodendra’s upset?” Darnda’s smile turned into a sneer. “And how is that not normal for her?”
Fescu’s thick eyebrows knitted together. “I’ve tried to please her with my flattering words, but she will not be flattered. I need something else that might help her to keep from being so grumpy.”
Darnda’s tone made it clear that she didn’t approve of Fescu’s superficial girlfriend. “Philodendra is grumpy that she doesn’t have a reason to be grumpy.”
“That’s silly. Why would she choose to be grumpy?”
“So you’ll waste your time trying to make her happy and she can act displeased by your efforts. That’s how some girls like her entertain themselves, by torturing their suitors. You need to find a new girlfriend—one that likes to laugh.”
“You’re just saying that because you don’t like Philodendra. Will you please help me please her? I need to win her heart. Today is the day I can start courting.”
“Fescu, I really don’t want to help her prolong your suffering. Just as you said, Philodendra will not be pleased. She’s the last girl you should want to court.”
“But she’s pretty.”
“Having girl troubles?” Daiis, Darnda’s father, walked in with a large pan full of extravagant cupcakes. He put them on the counter and smiled at Fescu. “Are you looking for a wife, now that you’re old enough?”
Fescu laughed. “No, I don’t plan on finding a wife just yet. First I’m trying to figure out how to make girls happy.”
Daiis smirked knowingly. “Darnda is right. You need to forget Philodendra and find a nice, pleasant, pretty, happy, talented girl with a good sense of humor.” He looked meaningfully at Darnda and then back at Fescu before returning to the kitchen.
Fescu stared in the direction Daiis had gone, looking confused. He leaned over the counter and said to Darnda, “Lately your father has been looking at me like he expects me to do something, and I haven’t figured out what it is he wants me to do.”
“You still need to replace his guitar that you broke.” Darnda stated as she started putting the goodies her father had brought under gaudy glass containers.
“No, I don’t think that’s it.”
Daiis marched back into the room with another pan of cupcakes. An unimpressed expression was now on his face. “Fescu, if you can’t figure it out on your own, then you’re not nearly as clever as I believed you to be.” He dropped the pan on the counter and whirled back into the kitchen.
Fescu thoughtfully gazed after him. He muttered to Darnda, “He’s been overcharging me in order to replace that guitar, hasn’t he?”
“We were hoping you wouldn’t notice,” Darnda giggled as she put more of the goodies on display. “It’s almost paid for.”
“I had a feeling that the goodies were getting more and more expensive.”
“They are, actually. But for you, they’re even more expensive.”
“So, Darnda,” Fescu changed the subject, “have you thought of any ideas to help me out?”
Darnda sighed as she closed one more glass case full of cupcakes. “You mean ideas for Philodendra? No, I don’t, but I’m sure my uncle can give you some suggestions.”
“Yes.” Darnda reached underneath the counter and pulled out a large, round glass jar full of wrapped candies. She placed it on the countertop in front of Fescu. “My uncle.”
Fescu gazed at the jar, unsure of how it was supposed win Philodendra’s heart. “Your uncle is out of town. I know. I stopped by his candy shop yesterday and there was a sign on the door.”
“Oh, my uncle is good at giving suggestions even when he’s not around,” Darnda laughed in a way that suggested this was a characteristic of her uncle which annoyed her. To demonstrate what she meant, she removed the lid of the candy jar and pulled out one of the colorfully wrapped treats. She unwrapped it and smoothed the wrapper out after she popped the candy into her mouth. She handed the wrapper to Fescu. “Read it.”
Fescu saw swirly handwriting inside the wrapper, and read aloud, “Staying true to yourself is the surest way to enchant your special someone. Your uncle wrote this?”
“He and his wife. They both run the candy business. All of these candies have romantic suggestions in them.”
Fescu snickered. “Romantic love candy? Your uncle is so weird.”
Darnda shrugged. “People buy this stuff, so he sells it. Everyone seems to like his silly ideas.”
“And may I ask why you possess a giant jar of your uncle’s love candy?”
A frown crossed Darnda’s rosebud lips as she rolled her eyes. “My father gave me a huge basket full of them for my birthday. He’s been urging me to get married ever since I came of age last year. I think the candies are dumb, but they’re certainly nice to snack on while I’m at work.”
“You’re lucky you get free expensive candy from your relatives,” Fescu said absently. While she’d been talking, he’d seized a fistful of candies. He was unwrapping them and chuckling at the suggestions. “Love reigns without rules. That contradicts Discard the rules and heed only your heart. Your uncle is inconsistent about his perspective on love. Are there rules for love? If there are, that is one rule book I would actually read!”
Darnda laughed as she joined him, her hand diving into the jar and tearing the wrappers off, hoping to find some suggestions worthy of her and Fescu’s mockery. “Don’t settle for giving merely a spark of love…light a fire! That might not be so good if you were to take it literally—although it would be funny to see Philodendra on fire…she might actually react! Although this one is good for you. Keep your sweetheart’s hands warm in your own while you catch snowflakes on your tongue. By the time we get snow hopefully you’ll have changed your mind about Philodendra and sought out someone who fits your personality better.”
“You don’t understand! Philodendra is beautiful, no matter that she doesn’t know how to smile!” Fescu tried not to choke on the delightful candies as he laughed. He and Darnda made a mess of wrappers on the counter as they dug through the candy jar, stuffing their faces and laughing merrily.
A few costumers walked in, and Daiis took care of them. He didn’t mind at all that Fescu was entertaining Darnda. In fact he hoped Fescu might get it in his mind to take his daughter and put some of those romantic suggestions to good use.
After a while Darnda put her hand over her stomach and announced with a giggle, “I’ve had too much! I can’t take anymore candy and romance!”
Smiling, Fescu placed a handful of candy in front of her. “Oh Darnda, you know you want more!”
“All right, I’ll have one more. But only one…or two.”
Fescu was reading a newly opened wrapper with hopes of another laugh. Instead, he exclaimed, “I can do this one! Philodendra is certain to like it!”
Looking a little sick from sugar overdose, Darnda took the wrapper from Fescu’s outstretched hand and read, “To gain favor from your fair lady, wrap birch bark around a display of flowers, and present it to her as an elegant gift. Birch bark? Really? I think my uncle was starting to run out of ideas when he wrote this one. Don’t use it, Fescu. Philodendra doesn’t even like flowers.”
“But it’s something I can do,” he said excitedly. “Girls like flowers! So Philodendra has to like my gift!”
Darnda sighed. “Where are you going to get birch bark? Neither of us have birch trees in our gardens.”
“I know where there are some birch trees.” Fescu hopped off the stool.
“You’re leaving to win the cold, tiny heart of your Philodendra now?”
“Yes.” Fescu started gathering the muffins he hadn’t finished eating.
Darnda scribbled on a piece of paper and handed it to Fescu. “Your bill, O Master of Romance.”
Fescu looked at the paper as though in pain. “Let me guess, I’m still being overcharged?”
“Yes. Keep in mind that you did break Father’s guitar when you were using it without his permission.”
“That’s fair enough. I’ll be back in a few hours. I want to go exploring outside the city walls with you, now that I’ll no longer get in trouble for doing so. I want to savor my new freedom.”
“That sounds wonderful! I’ll be done by then. Good luck with your boring girlfriend who doesn’t like flowers.”