The Songstress of Avalon
We had been walking along the verdant greenswards of the Delfino Gardens for the past twenty minutes. As a regular patron, I had admittedly become a bit numb as to the gardens' splendours but I was still able to derive some pleasure from seeing my companion experience it for the first time.
“Look at those shrubs over there! They’re gigantic,” Arisa was pointing at some evergreens which had been manicured into hedges. As she noted, the hedges were of a substantial height and were strategically placed so as to resemble the mouth of a cavern.
I always wondered whether, to the birds above, the meticulous hedges might have formed a geometric shape of some sort. To us here on the ground though, it was merely the entrance to one of the gardens’ attractions, the Maze of Giallo, and please do not ask me who Giallo is. I have no clue.
Arisa looked up at me.
“Can we go inside?”
"We might get lost, you know."
"I never get lost," she shot back, almost haughtily. "Not even at the haunted house in Misney World."
I couldn't be sure if she was seriously bragging about not getting lost in a theme park attraction aimed at children. She grinned from ear to ear as she eyed the entrance and, whilst simultaneously looking expectantly in my direction, had begun to nudge ever so slightly towards the maze.
Arisa had begun to lengthen her strides even before the words left my mouth. Half a minute later, we found ourselves at the mouth of the Giallo Maze. The sparkle in her eye suggested excitement, and I had to admit that my own curiosity had been piqued as well. After all, I’ve only ever walked past the maze.
There was no deep breath or countdown from three. One moment she had been standing next to me and the next she was gone, obscured from view by shrubbery which stood over two meters in height. I hastened into the maze as well, spotted Arisa, and made sure to stay close.
"A fork in the road... left or right?" she asked, when the straight path we were on diverged into two. Although the question seemed to be addressed to me, she had taken the right path without waiting for my reply.
The way she bounded forward inconsiderately reminded me of a particularly disobedient dog.
I was ignored. Either that or she didn't hear me. Either way, it was exactly like walking with a dog. It wasn't until I had overtaken her that she became aware of my presence, and that was only because I had stopped right in front of her.
"I said wait up."
"Why? What's wrong?"
Wordlessly, I began to walk again. She followed my lead, eyeing me suspiciously all the while. There was a lot for us to talk about, I imagined, but it was difficult for me to broach even the simplest of topics. I had been about to ask about my beloved Tigers, and whether or not they managed to win the pennant in the last five years, when Arisa called out suddenly:
“Hey, it's a dead end!”
“We must’ve gone the wrong way,” I said. “Let’s turn back and take the other path.”
“Let me check something…”
The dead end was another evergreen cut in the exact same way as the shrubs which surrounded us. However, it had been placed directly in the middle of the path instead of running parallel along it. In other words, it closed us off and we couldn’t proceed any further - a veritable cul-de-sac.
This was the conclusion that any reasonable person would come to, but it seemed like Arisa wasn't satisfied with just leaving it at that. She stood in front of the wall of greenery, feeling around it at certain points and sniffing it at others.
Once again, her actions evoked the image of a dog.
“Arisa!” I called out again, my body already half-turned to go back the way we had came. “We obviously aren’t meant to go this way…”
“You might be right,” she conceded, her eyes darted in my direction. “But there’s something behind this shrub. It’s a nice smell too…”
“What are you talking about?” I raised an eyebrow.
For the third time that day, Arisa did not deign to answer my question. Instead she threw the entire weight of her body into the evergreen. I had expected her to come out immediately, spluttering leaves from her mouth and with branches clinging to her hair; strangely, however, she didn’t get caught in the shrub’s viscera. It was as though it had accepted her wholeheartedly.
Arisa disappeared from view… again.
“That’s a portal if I’ve ever seen one,” I sighed. “Although something feels off…”
Portal magic wasn’t particularly uncommon. You were likely to find an enchanted door in almost any noble’s castle which, when you walked through it, would teleport you to the outside. In other words, it functioned as an escape route. Additionally, there were some warriors who could easily conjure up small portals which led directly to their armoury, much to the chagrin of unemployed squires.
But, to be able to turn a living organism into a portal could only be the work of a master magus.
“Definitely not plastic,” I pulled one of the leaves from the shrub and held it between my fingertips. “Well, this should be interesting.”
I took a step forward.
When I emerged on the other side, my first thought was that I really was on the other side. I’m referring to Heaven, of course, the big game center in the sky which is often portrayed as being a paradisal garden. Exaggerations aside, I knew I was certainly still in the Delfino Gardens although there seemed to be something in the air which made my surroundings all that much brighter.
Like a filter placed on the frame during a movie's post-production, or in a social media post.
In the distance, I could make out two figures - one was clearly Arisa, but the other was a person whom I didn’t recognise, nor could I get any hint as to their identity from what they were wearing.
I moved closer to the scene, and saw that the two of them were engaged in a lively conversation - Arisa’s back was towards me, but I was in the stranger’s line of sight.
Our eyes met.
I took in her features - she was tall for a woman, almost a half foot taller than Arisa, and only slightly shorter than myself. She was also exceedingly beautiful, and in all other circumstances I probably would have mentioned that first.
However, the absurdity of seeing her peer over the top of Arisa’s head highlighted the height difference to such an extent that I couldn’t possibly ignore it. Her eyes were a striking green which matched the foliage that surrounded us, and her hair was a deep carmine; the latter curled at the tips and fell just beneath her shoulders.
“Oh, another visitor? I’m quite popular today,” she lifted her sleeve so that it covered her mouth, but not before I got a glimpse of a smile that seemed to me inscrutable.
Arisa latched onto my arm, sniffling.
Her teary face looked more comical than sympathetic and I could only wonder how she had gotten like this in such a short span of time. I mean, I entered the portal almost immediately after she did.
"It's s-so terrible! Really, I feel s-sorry for h-her..." Arisa began to babble, spluttering intermittently.
"What? What's terrible?" I asked.
She pointed a singular finger at the beautiful woman.
"Poor Mab says she can't leave the maze," she looked at me earnestly, brown eyes glistening, and asked, "Ayato, can't we do something for her?"
Puzzled, I turned to face the beautiful stranger.
"Well, there's no need to get upset," she spoke softly, gesturing towards a gazebo in the distance, and then added, "can I interest you two in a cup of tea?"
The cryptic smile never left her face.