A Valentine's Tradition
Juliet was pleased.
Daybreak had come, and the sun shone cheerily overhead. Tall, frilly Blue Columbines brushed against her dress, perfuming the warm air, as Juliet slipped into the greenery that bordered her Neohome. What a perfect start to Valentine's Day, the chocolate Usul thought. She knew that her younger sister, who shared her birthday with the holiday, would also be delighted with the morning.
It was cooler in the woods and, beneath the trees' extended limbs, the skies fell away, retreating into the distance. Shafts of sunshine filtered through the canopy, and dappled her surroundings in a kaleidoscope of light. The forest trail was blanketed in a layer of moss, toadstools and dry leaves that crunched as Juliet walked.
A minute along, she reached a fallen log that blocked her path. Um. Well, this is kind of inconvenient. She'd meant to give her sister, Valentina, some flowers from their favourite part of the Haunted Woods. Just how am I going to get there? I'd planned to return home with the present before breakfast.
Spying a gap in the trees, Juliet parted the foliage to reveal a track that branched off from the main walkway. It appeared ill-trodden, lacking all markers of recent use. The forest floor was uneven with a tangle of gnarled roots jutting out from the earth.
"Huh." Tapping her chin, Juliet hesitated for two short heartbeats. If she was careful, she decided, she might be able to cut her way back to her original path.
The Usul's impulse carried her further into the trees. As she moved, Juliet could sense the woods teeming with all manner of living things. Leaves rustled whenever the breeze whispered through the plant life, and various creatures danced in their wake.
Strange shapes moved in the shadows. Each time, Juliet squinted to obtain a better look. She saw nothing. A trick of the light, perhaps. An hour passed, and the sun had climbed higher in the sky when she concluded that she'd lost her way. Without her really noticing, the scenery had shifted. The trees soared higher, and their smooth, light-coloured bark became far coarser to the touch. She'd wandered deeper into the woods than she'd ever been before.
However, the foliage soon receded. Juliet's mind cleared of thought when she saw a house tucked away beneath a thick growth of berries and vine. Built from stone, it was two storeys high. Steel filigrees adorned its many windows, and statues guarded its oaken main entrance.
As she looked around, her attention was caught by the garden beds that wrapped around the unusual residence. They had been fenced in by rock although the barrier did little to keep the wildness of the space from spilling into the rest of the grounds. The roses growing there had ruffled petals that blushed pink, and deepening apricot hues towards their centres. They were exquisite, and exuded a sweet fragrance that brought a smile to Juliet's lips. I think that Valentina would adore these.
Juliet was reminded that roses were a traditional Valentine's gift, and reached out to touch one silken blossom. In the language of flowers, pink roses symbolised affection and appreciation.
The back of her neck prickled. Juliet couldn't be entirely sure but she sensed that she was being observed. It wasn't evident at first because the watcher almost seemed to blend into the trees. However, when she scanned them more closely, she was positive that she saw something vivid glittering in the shadows. Eyes. A large pair of green eyes.
Embarrassed, Juliet stiffened. Her cheeks grew heated. "I'm so sorry! You must live here." She explained that she had been captivated by the beauty of the rose garden, and apologised again for trespassing.
"Beautiful?" a female voice echoed. The speaker's accents had the silvery, bell-like quality of wind chimes but there was an amusement in her tone that made Juliet shiver.
"Um, yes. Wouldn't you agree?" she asked.
There was no response. Juliet gulped when she realised the stranger's proximity. Opposite Juliet, a woman was reclining against a tall hawthorn tree. The woman's long-limbed figure was willowy, and she wore a hooded cloak that concealed her other features.
A low, throaty chuckle escaped the faerie when Juliet stared. In one sinuous motion, she pushed back her hood to reveal a wealth of dark tresses. Some sections of her hair had been braided while the rest tumbled, loose, to her waist in a lush cascade of waves. The faerie's skin was a golden brown, and her lips had been painted the same eerie shade of emerald as her hair.
While she appeared young, there was a composure to the faerie that suggested she was much older. Juliet knew exactly who she was, and unease feathered down her spine.
"You're Ilere, aren't you?"
Without blinking, the faerie inclined her head. "I am."
Oh. Juliet swayed as she met Ilere's bright gaze. Ilere's legend was well known among the residents of the Haunted Woods. It was the kind of story that was whispered around campfires, and told to frighten children like Juliet's sister. Ilere had affinities with both earth and dark magic. Rumour told that the plants she tended were somehow evil. Twisted. Of course, rumour was Juliet's only source of information concerning the faerie. No one saw Ilere. She lived in seclusion, and was as mysterious a Neopian as any that had ever lived.
"Um." Disturbed, Juliet forced herself to look away from the faerie while she thought of something to say. Her gaze moved to study her surroundings more carefully. Ilere's garden was thriving with all kinds of curious plants.
Before she could stop herself, Juliet blurted, "Do you use those for your potions? Your poisons?" The elusive faerie was thought to be skilled in the concoction of both. It was one of her many rumoured talents.
Ilere laced her hands together. "I have a better question," she said sleekly. "Which do you desire? Potion or poison?"
Seeing Juliet's unsettled look, she breathed, "You're not the only Neopet who's arrived at my doorstep this month." Ilere lifted a shoulder, shrugging. "I receive several visitors around Valentine's Day, and all of them self-interested."
"Huh?' Juliet tugged at her ear while she processed Ilere's words.
"A love potion, perchance?" There was a flash of white teeth as Ilere spoke. It was a beguiling smile, and Juliet didn't know how to respond. Uncannily, Ilere hadn't blinked once since they'd begun their conversation.
Silence followed. Then, "A warning, however. I don't accept Neopoints as payment."
Juliet knew that she should correct Ilere's misunderstanding. It wouldn't be right to allow it to continue when she hadn't meant to come here. But she felt induced to ask, "What, then?"
In response, Ilere picked up her hem. Her bare feet moved across the twig-strewn ground between them with no evident discomfort. Leaning close, Ilere's braids tickled Juliet's ear. "I expect to be paid with favours," she whispered softly. Despite her quiet words, however, Ilere's face resembled marble, cold and hard.
I shouldn't have asked. Flinching, Juliet backed away as her mind began to spin. Ilere is so strange, she thought with some apprehension. The Usul didn't want to contemplate what unusual favours Ilere might demand for her services.
It was time to confess. "Actually... I didn't come here to see you." Nervousness made Juliet's pulse speed up, and she balled her fists to keep them from shaking.
"What?" To Juliet's own shock, the faerie blinked in surprise. "Why have you come, then?" Her features creased in a frown and, for the first time, she seemed relatable to Juliet.
"Um! I came to gather some flowers for my sister, and wandered here by mistake." Juliet knew that her expression was rueful, and something softened in Ilere's.
"Her name is Valentina. Today's her fifth birthday." Juliet's heartbeat steadied when she thought of the biscuit Usul, and a warmth seeped into her chest, chasing away the ice that had clutched her heart. On impulse, she said, "Could I take her some of your roses?"
Ilere tilted her head, studying Juliet as though she were seeing her through new eyes. She stilled. "My roses? As a gift?"
"Well, yes. Valentina loves flowers, and these are gorgeous." Juliet was still standing next to Ilere's rose garden, and glanced down at the lacy blooms. She knew that Ilere wanted favours for the concoctions she mixed but the faerie had said nothing about the roses. They might be able to agree on something else.
Before Ilere could say anything, Juliet hurried on. "When my sister turned two," the Usul told Ilere, "she saw our neighbours giving each other bouquets on her birthday. Valentine's Day. Our mother told her that it was a tradition where Neopians showed that they cared for each other. Valentina insisted that it become our tradition too."
Memories swirled in Juliet's thoughts. Half-chuckling to herself, she recalled how tiny her sister had been when she'd made that demand. Valentina had been as tall as Juliet's knees and, yet, she'd had liquid brown eyes that were big and beseeching. Juliet hadn't been able to turn the girl down.
Ilere still seemed pensive, and stepped closer. "The roses will wilt." There was no nuance in the words, only deliberation, and Juliet was unsure if they were a question or a statement.
"Cut flowers wilt, in time," she ventured.
Lips pursed, Ilere toyed with a braid as she glanced at the roses' thorny stems. Her tone took on some huskiness, and her brilliant eyes flashed as she turned to stare into Juliet's. "I've never understood this holiday. Most Neopians are selfish creatures, and are more concerned with themselves than others. Their affections never last when they're put to the test."
Their talk had taken an unexpected turn. Juliet needed to tread with care, and fight down her tendency to speak without thinking. Slowly, she'd gotten the impression that a question was being asked of her bond with her sister. Although Juliet didn't know what Ilere's experiences had been, the chocolate Neopet could tell that the faerie believed in what she was saying. Juliet couldn't speak for others but she could defend herself.
"Uh. It's true that siblings have conflicts. Right now, though, our relationship is strong, and I want to do my best to make today special for Valentina." Sure, flowers might waste away, as time went by, because they weren't supposed to last forever. Nevertheless that didn't mean that the same was true of Juliet's tie with her sister.
"Tell me more about her."
"Valentina? She's a sweet-natured kid, and seldom misbehaved. We often go for walks in the woods together, exploring the trails, as we both love it here." Juliet was gushing, and she knew it. Her sister was adorable.
Ilere ran a green-tipped hand through her hair. It was almost like Juliet had made her uncomfortable. With a swish of her cloak, the faerie moved to kneel by her rose garden in one fluid movement. "Here." She held out a small bunch of roses.
"Huh? Oh! Thank you," Juliet faltered, counting four pink flowers. She hadn't been sure that Ilere would agree to her request, and, while happy, she felt a little taken aback. It had been an odd thing to ask for, she knew.
"Yes." Ilere nodded but was otherwise motionless.
"Er, what should I pay you?"
The faerie gave a shake of her head, her face shadowed. "Nothing."
"What? Really? Why?" Juliet piped up. She buried her nose in the flowers, drawing in their heady scent. Contentment bubbled through her body, and Juliet felt herself smiling in anticipation of her return home.
"You've intrigued me." Ilere stood. The action was sudden, and Juliet blinked at her.
"I have? Wait. So, I don't owe you any favours?"
"None that you haven't already paid," Ilere told her.
"Oh." Before she could clarify what the faerie meant, Ilere told Juliet to treasure her bond with her sister. She recalled the last time she'd seen the other Usul. Valentina had woken up early that morning to see her off with a hug before she departed.
"I will," Juliet promised. It was one of the most important things in the world to the Usul, and would remain so in the years to come. To Juliet, Valentine's Day was a time for her to express that to her sister. It was a time for her to remind Valentina how much she was loved.
"Your sister's lucky. Not everybody has someone willing to do things for them." Ilere's emerald lips quirked, and Juliet saw a wistfulness there. It disappeared when she noticed Juliet staring, and some detachment returned to Ilere's features. She gave Juliet a dismissive nod.
"Thank you," Juliet said once more. With a smile, she watched Ilere turn away. The faerie's gait was incredibly graceful, and Juliet's eyes followed her until she vanished from sight.
Earlier, Ilere had told Juliet that she'd been sought out by Neopians who were "self-interested". There had been a quiet kind of contempt threaded through her voice when she'd asked Juliet if she wanted a potion or a poison. The Usul gasped when she pieced together why Ilere had given her the roses so freely. She felt convinced that it would've been different had they been meant for herself, not another, and that she'd somehow touched Ilere.
Her step light, Juliet headed back through the woods. It wasn't difficult to find the trail she'd followed, and even less difficult to retrace her steps. Having taken an ill-used track, Juliet had found that vegetation had grown over her path at various points. She'd been obliged to push her way through, and proof of her passage littered the forest floor.
Juliet hadn't spent that long with Ilere. The damp scent of morning dew still clung to the air, both crisp and sweet, and Juliet inhaled it gratefully. There was a burn in her muscles but, instead of slowing, Juliet increased her pace, hurrying home.
More than once, she caught a glimpse of unexpected movement among the greenery. Draphlies wove through the treetops, their filmy wings gleaming, and she admired their exotic, jewel-bright colours. Ilere, of course, wasn't there. A glance confirmed that the faerie's house had long disappeared behind her.
Juliet's smile, however, didn't fade. When she arrived at their Neohome, she saw her sister perched on the front steps. Valentina's answering grin was thrilled, and her eyes sparkled as they assessed her gift.
It had been a perfect morning.