Cloudy nights like this one made Lest truly appreciate the invention of street lighting. It can be hard to find your way home in the dark, when the moon isn't visible. Almost as if it had been kidnapped by a bunch of miscreant clouds.
The Prince gave a deep yawn, as he crossed the drawbridge to the castle courtyard. It had been a long night of mining and the fatigue was starting to catch up with him. He had actually meant to get to bed earlier, but once he'd got into a pattern of mining and found a rich deposit of ore, it was too hard to stop. It happens easily enough; you plan on going to bed soon, but one thing leads to another, sooner becomes later and before you know it, it's the early hours of the following morning. Let they who have never put off bed time in favour of one more round of FPS games cast the first stone.
What? FPS means "Foraging for Profitable Substances". What did you think it stood for?
When he entered the courtyard, he stopped. Then he stared, blinking to make sure his eyes weren't playing tricks.
But no, the haunting image didn't fade. There, in the middle of the night with the street lights shining off her beautiful purple hair, was Clorica, eyes wide open and sweeping the floor.
What was going on? It was well after midnight and Selphia's premier sleepy head was wide awake.
"Good evening." she said, upon making eye contact, "I didn't think you'd be up this late."
"I was going to say the same to you, Clorica. Did your bed catch fire or something?"
"No." Clorica said with mild indignity, "I just thought I'd get a head start on sweeping the courtyard."
"It doesn't look too bad at the moment. Can't it wait until tomorrow?"
"It can." the girl sighed "But the fact is, I just can't get to sleep for some reason."
That confirmed it- the world was coming to an end. Fire and Brimstone raining from the sky, the dead rising from their graves, Palm Cats and Silverwolves living together- mass hysteria.
But joking and exaggerating aside, it made Lest wonder if Clorica perhaps had something on her mind.
"Since you've been working late," she said in her sweet, breathy voice "Would you like me to make you something to eat? Maybe some hot chocolate?"
"Hot chocolate sounds like a good idea." said Lest.
"Great. If you'd like to go to your chamber, I'll bring it up for you."
"Actually, Clorica, I'd like to go down to the pantry with you, if its all the same."
"Are you sure? It's no trouble for me to bring it up."
"I insist. Come on, you can make one for yourself and we can chat for a while."
In the pantry, Clorica brought two steaming mugs of hot chocolate to the table and sat down opposite to Lest.
"Thanks, Clorica. It smells yummy. So, how is everything with you? Is anything troubling you at work?"
"No. Everything's fine and dandy with work. Why do you ask?"
"Sometimes people can't sleep when something's wrong. So if the world champion snoozer has insomnia, I figure it must be something serious."
Clorica's cheeks had this funny tendency to inflate when she was annoyed. Lest always found it really cute when she pouted like that. Her cheeks looked so soft and chubby, he was almost tempted to pinch them.
"Come on, don't be mad." he said with a chortle. "If something's bothering you, I'll listen. Tonight we can just talk as friends."
"I see. Thank you, Lest." she said with an adorable smile.
"So, how's work?" he continued "You've not had any disagreements with Vishnal or Mr Volkanon?"
"No more than usual. The other day Mr Volkanon asked me to count how many Woolies were in the field outside the town. Vishnal said She looks like she's already counted them a few times today! What a cheek! I got back at him though."
Lest had been holding in a snigger since he heard Vishnal's wisecrack but only decided it safe to laugh when it didn't seem like it was at Clorica.
"What did you do?" he asked.
"I wiped my finger in some dust that I was about to clean up and poked him in the collar. You should have seen his face!"
"Poor Vishnal. He must have had the biggest freak out ever!"
"Not quite. It wasn't as big at that time he thought Dolce had put a curse on him."
"I remember. He was helping me deliver some medical herbs to the clinic and Doctor Jones invited us to join him for a cup of tea. Vishnal accidentally sat down on Dolce's knitting. And if looks could kill, we'd have needed more than just a doctor. Vishnal went white. The colour of a bleached snowman if I remember correctly!"
Clorica started giggling "For three days afterwards he thought everything weird that happened to him was a curse. A hole appears in his sock- it's the curse..."
"His order at the restaurant mysteriously disappears, (spoiler alert- because Porcoline ate it), it's the curse..."
"We end up using up all the toilet paper in one day- it's the curse. Though, I think that was more to do with his kitchen duties that day. It seems the real curse was placed by whoever taught him to cook."
They shared a good laugh. It seemed that Clorica could be pretty smart and funny when she wanted to be.
Of course, they agreed that for all of Vishnal's faults, they wouldn't change him for the world. Their conversation about him hadn't been a mean spirited critique, but simply a friendly joke about a valued workmate and a popular member of the community.
"So, if everything's okay with work, is anything else troubling you?" Lest asked "Are you worried about the Sechs Empire?" Saying the name of the empire out loud always made him feel dirty for some reason. "I know it's worrying when Sechs is all anybody talks about."
"I am a little worried about the Sechs soldiers invading. The town may someday be filled with unstoppable, guiltless Sechs."
"I know what you mean. But our home guard has been training hard lately. They should be ready for Sechs." he said with a smile.
I know Forte can probably handle the Sechs, but I'm not much of a fighter..."
"You've accompanied me through caves before, fighting off monsters."
"Yes, but whenever I did, you protected me." She then starred into her mug, embarrassment warding her off making eye contact, "Even though...as a footman, it was my duty to protect you...I guess not everyone's cut out to be a hero, like you, Lest."
Taken aback, Lest sat silently. He wasn't used to people calling him a hero. He was used to being called "The Criminal!" by Illuinata, "Annoying Prat" by Dylas and worst of all "Sweetie" by Porcoline. He hadn't really thought of himself as a hero. He actually felt flattered to be described in that light by a girl as beautiful as Clorica. But his main concern at the moment was to give the girl some peace of mind and help her get to sleep.
"Hey, don't worry." he said with a smile "The empire will never get this town as long as the home guard is here to defend it." he gave a devious laugh "Maybe I'll just invade Sechs to put your mind at ease."
"Then I'd be even more worried about you!"
Lest was in the middle of raising his mug to his mouth, but paused upon hearing those words.
"You're...worried about me?" He looked into the girl's golden brown eyes and Clorica had the decency to blush. A thought occurred to Lest as his heart began to beat faster. "Is that why you can't sleep? Because...you're so worried about me?"
The thoughts he entertained were shattered into a million pieces. It wasn't that she said no, so much as the casual, straight faced way she said it. She could have at least stuttered a bit, leaving him with a just a little possibility that she had feelings for him.
But then Clorica placed a hand on top of Lest's and continued, " I've always worried about you. Every time you leave town to fight monsters, I worry that you won't be coming back. But for some reason, it's never stopped me from getting to sleep before. Maybe it's because part of me believes in you. That no matter what happens, you'll always beat the odds and come home safely. So, I don't think that's what's keeping me awake. "
Wow. Caring andlogical. He felt better knowing that she had such trust in him. Then again, she trusted him enough to help fix her bed hair. It was a deeply felt honour that the owner of such a lovely, long, lavender mane felt that it was save in Lest's hands.
"Thanks for telling me this, Clorica. I'm sorry the conversation got a little heavy for a minute, there."
"You don't have to apologise, Lest. It feels good to get this off my chest. Especially with everything being so tense lately. I know everyone's putting on a brave face, since Lady Ventuswill got sick, but sometimes, you can just tell they're on edge. Even the relax tea seems to be off lately."
"Yes." said Clorica "I bought a box of instant tea powder this afternoon, but when I made a pot, it was just so dark, thick and bitter."
"Thick? Wait, can you show me the box?"
"Um, okay." she said, bewildered. "It's that red one just at the end of the shelf."
Lest stood up and went to examine the box. He opened it and examined the contents. He leaned in close to smell it. As the aroma entered his nose, he turned back to Clorica.
"This isn't relax tea, it's instant coffee!"
Clorica's eyes sprang wide open "Coffee?! No! It can't be!"
"It is! There must have been a mix up at the store!" either that or it was another one of Leon's pranks.
Clorica started trembling.
"No, no, no, no, no...I've never touched a drop of caffeine in my life! People warned me about how it makes your heart beat too fast!"
Sensing a panic attack, Lest quickly put his hands on Clorica's shoulders.
"Clorica, calm down. A little bit of caffeine every now and then won't do you any harm. Just calm down. Take a few deep breaths."
After a minute of starring into his eyes, she did so.
"Okay. Okay." In through the nose, out through the mouth. In through the nose, out through the mouth. In through the nose, out through the mouth, "I'm okay...I'm fine now..."
"No wonder you can't sleep." Lest sighed, still with his palms on Clorica's shoulders "If your body isn't used to caffeine, you body won't have built up a tolerance for it. But don't worry, I think I know what to do."
Lest released Clorica and went to look in the fridge. His violet eyes lit up when he found what he was looking for.
"Some cider should do the trick." He pulled out a glass and filled it from the flagon.
"Will it work?"
"Trust me. Whenever I drink wine, I'm out like a light. But since you like apples, I thought cider would be more your thing."
"Oh, you remember what I like! Thank you!" she smiled, flattered that Lest had remembered this detail. She started sipping.
"Of course, I'm not saying it's guaranteed to work," said Lest as he turned to put the empty cocoa mugs in the sink, "but it's possible. Alcohol affects people differently, so you have to be careful..."Lest suddenly realised that his lecture was falling on deaf ears. Clorica sat at the table, fast asleep. Lest really hoped that it was the cider and she hadn't just got bored of his pompous droning.
All the same, he decided that he'd better get her to bed. She was bound to catch a chill if she stayed in the pantry, in just her night gown. Lest picked her up in his arms as gently as he could and quietly left the pantry. Since he made a regular habit of carrying several tons of ore and a full arsenal of weapons in his rucksack, carrying a young lady with such a slim figure was a piece of cake.
As he carried her along the hall back to her room, he looked down at the serene sight of Clorica's pretty, sleeping face. Feeling her warmth against him, Lest felt a blush flowing into his cheeks. He wondered; was this what it was like to carry a bride across the threshold?
When he arrived in her room, he placed her in the bed and pulled the covers over her. Clorica looked so peaceful and beautiful. As he was tucking her in, and the sweet lavender smell of her perfume engulfed him he wanted nothing more than to kiss her.
Maybe... just once...just on the cheek...
He was close. So close he could just about feel her breath.
No. I can't do it. It's not the decent thing to do.
He stood up, with his morals in tact. If he did something like that it would risk ruining his relationship with Clorica past the point of forgiveness. He was too fond of her to do that. As he was leaving he whispered goodnight to her before closing the door behind him. He went back down to the pantry, cleaned the cider glass and cocoa mugs and went to bed, knowing that on this night, he had developed a crush on this sleeping beauty.
The next morning he stretched out, ready for another day's work when he heard a knock on the door.
"Come in." he said.
Clorica entered with a tray of tea.
"Good mooorning." she said in her musical yawn. She looked as dozy as usual, but thankfully didn't seem to be hungover. Luckily it was just the right amount of alcohol to counteract the caffeine and not so much that she woke up in the afternoon with a tie wrapped around her head.
"Good morning, Clorica. Did you sleep well?"
She didn't answer right away. She looked at him, as if trying to find the right words.
"Um...I slept well...Did you...um...put me to bed last night?"
"Well, yeah. I didn't want you to leave you in the cellar."
"I thought I'd dreamed it." she said, as she started to blush, "I dreamed that...you carried me like a princess..."
Lest's own face began to redden, as he remembered the previous night. Clorica's beautiful sleeping visage and all the feelings that swelled within him. And how he dreamed of waking up to that wonderful sight in the mornings.
"W-would it be okay" Clorica broke the silence, "if I broke protocol... just for a second?"
"Well..sure, I guess." he said as something began to flutter around inside his stomach.
"Thank you." she smiled.
Then she surprised him by leaning down and kissing him on the cheek "You're such a sweet guy."
Lest was completely lovestruck.
Her face glowing a faint pink, Clorica crossed her hands in front of her and gave a servant's bow.
"By your leave..."
Before she could turn away, Lest reached out and took hold of her hand.
"Say, Clorica? Would you...would you like to get together for hot chocolate again sometime?"
At first Clorica looked at her hand, being held in his. Then she looked right into his eyes. Then back to their hands before going back to his eyes. Then she tenderly squeezed his hand. Her blushing face was taken over by a smile anyone would love to wake up to.