I found the source of the laughter on two curved stone benches poised around it.
Rhys lay on his back on one bench, laughing and looking up at the sky, and Finn stood next to him, admiring the sparkling pond. A girl looking a little bit older than me sat on the other bench, a Mountain Dew bottle in her hand. Her hair was shiny red, her eyes sparkled green, and she had a nervous smile. When she saw me, she stood up and paled a little.
“You got here just in time, Wendy.” Rhys smirked, sitting up. “We were having a show. Rhiannon was just about to burp the alphabet!”
“Oh, my gosh, Rhys, I was not!” the girl protested, her cheeks flushing with embarrassment. “I just drank the Mountain Dew too fast and I said excuse me!” Rhys laughed again, and she looked apologetically at me. “I’m sorry. Rhys can be such an idiot sometimes. I wanted to make a better first impression than this.”
“You’re doing okay so far.” I wasn’t used to the idea of anybody trying to impress me . . . ever, and I couldn’t imagine that this girl would have to try too hard. She already had a certain likable quality to her.
“Anyway, Wendy, this is Rhiannon, the girl next door.” Rhys gestured from one to the other of us. “Rhiannon, this is Wendy, future ruler of everything around you.”
“Hi, nice to meet you.” She set down her pop and came over to me so she could shake my hand. “I’ve heard so much about you.”
“Oh, yeah? Like what?” I asked.
Rhiannon floundered helplessly for a minute, looking to Rhys for help, but he just laughed.
“It’s okay. I was just kidding,” I told her.
“Oh. Sorry.” She flashed an embarrassed smile.
“Why don’t you come have a seat, Rhiannon, and relax for a bit?” Rhys patted the seat next to him, trying to ease her discomfort. She felt awkward because of me, and I still couldn’t wrap my head around the concept.
“Is this new?” Finn asked Rhys and pointed to the pond.
“Uh, yeah.” Rhys nodded. “I think Elora had it put in while you were gone. She’s getting everything all fancied up, ’cause of everything that’s coming.”
“Mmm,” Finn said noncommittally.
I went over to inspect the pond and waterfall myself. The waterfall should’ve drained the pond, since the pond had no other water flowing into it. I admired the way it sparkled brightly under the sun, and thought it shouldn’t even be possible. But then again, none of this should be possible.
Rhys continued to tease Rhiannon about everything, and she kept blushing and making apologies for him. Their relationship resembled a normal healthy sibling relationship, and I had to push the thought away before I had a chance to think of Matt.
I sat down on the bench across from them, and Finn took a seat next to me. Rhys tended to dominate the conversation, with Rhiannon interjecting when he said things that were categorically untrue or apologizing when she thought he was being rude. He never was, though. He was funny and lively and kept things from ever feeling awkward.
Occasionally Finn would look over at me and make quiet comments when Rhys and Rhiannon were otherwise engaged in some kind of debate. Every time he did, I felt his knee brush against mine.
At first I assumed it was a simple accident because of our close proximity, but he had actually tilted himself toward me, leaning in closer. It was a subtle move, one that Rhys and Rhiannon probably wouldn’t catch, but I definitely had.
“You are such a pest!” Rhiannon grumbled playfully after Rhys had flicked an unwanted flower at her. She twirled it in her hands, admiring the beauty of it. “You know you’re not even supposed to pick these flowers. Elora will kill you if she finds out.”
“So what do you think?” Finn asked me, his voice low. I leaned toward him so I could hear him better, and his dark eyes met mine.
“It’s really lovely.” I smiled, gesturing to the garden around us, but I couldn’t look away from him.
“I wanted to show you that it’s not all cold and intimidating,” Finn explained. “I wanted you to see something warm and beautiful.” A small smile played on his lips. “Although, when you’re not around, it’s not quite as nice here.”
“You think so?” I asked, trying to make my voice sound sexier somehow, but I completely failed. Finn smiled wider, and my heart nearly hammered out of my chest.
“Sorry for interrupting your playtime,” Elora spoke from behind us. Her voice wasn’t that loud, but somehow it seemed to echo through everything.
Rhys and Rhiannon immediately stopped their fighting, both of them sitting up rigidly and staring down at the pond. Finn moved away from me, at the same time turning around to face Elora, making it look like that had been his intention. The way she looked at me made me feel guilty, even though I was pretty sure I hadn’t done anything wrong.
“You weren’t interrupting anything,” Finn assured her, but I sensed nervousness below his calm words. “Were you planning to join us?”
“No, that’ll be quite all right.” Elora surveyed the garden with distaste. “I needed to speak with you.”
“Would you like us to be excused?” Rhys offered, and Rhiannon promptly stood up.
“That won’t be necessary.” Elora held up her hand, and Rhiannon blushed as she sat back down. “We will be having guests for dinner.” Her eyes went back to Rhys and Rhiannon, and Rhiannon seemed to cower under Elora’s gaze. “I trust that you two will find a way to make yourselves useful.”
“When they come over here, I’ll go over to Rhiannon’s,” Rhys suggested cheerily. Elora nodded at him, indicating that his response was sufficient.
“As for you, you will be joining us.” Elora smiled at me, but couldn’t mask the unease behind it. “The guests are very good friends of our family, and I expect you to make a good impression on them.” She gave Finn that intense look, staring at him so long I felt uncomfortable, and he nodded in understanding. “Finn will be in charge of preparing you for the dinner.”
I nodded, figuring that I had better say something. “Okay.”
“That is all. Carry on.” Elora turned and walked away, her skirt flowing behind her, but nobody said anything until she was long gone.
Finn sighed, and Rhiannon practically shivered with relief. She was clearly even more terrified of the Queen than I was, and I wondered what Elora had done to make the girl so afraid. Only Rhys seemed to shake it off as soon as she had left.