Ron guzzled at his second pint. He was going to need the fortification for this. Luckily, neither Mollie nor Hasley knew it was his second pint, for a number of workmen were celebrating at the tables of The Brew House and Tavern.
He thumped down a belch and saluted the Captain as he strolled out of the kitchen, his tail high with indifference.
Ron had grown to love this pub, with its warm pine floors, its polished bar, the many iron torches and candelabras all about lighting the floor.
Ron sat on this one barstool, for it faced the only part of the bar that had not burned down during the Twenty Years War, when the Northern soldiers marched through and put the torch to the bar. It stood as a vestige of the past, stands for today, and will be the future, Luvian liked to say when people asked about the different color of the wood.
Ron glanced around at all the men sitting at the tables. For half past noon, the pub was oddly full. Ron threw back all the rest of his pint and wiped his face with his sleeve.
Tank and Luvian escorted another common-dressed soldier out of the bar, though he offered no complaint. As Luvian was striding toward the bar with Tank, Ron laid two silvers on the glossy oaken bar and stepped through the door onto the street.
Ron rolled up his tunic sleeves as he walked along the dusty street. With a precursory glance at the first few vendors’ wares, Ron half-smiled to the people behind the wagons.
He stuffed his hands in his pockets and stepped out of the way as a dog ran past. Up ahead, Ron saw a wooden wagon, near the end of the Market. His eyes widened and he thought of the rich folks who had thrown him into the wagon. And, Ron thought with irritation, clobbered him on the back of the head. He still had a bruise there.
Ron studied the wagon. Red curtains were drawn and four sturdy coach horses stood before it. The wagon looked fairly sturdy, though its luggage rack was near empty. Two men leaned against the back of it casually.
The door opened just then, though it obstructed his view of the person. Whoever it was climbed up into the coach seat.
Ron sighed. He glanced down at the clothier’s cart next to him. A white length of silk hung haphazardly at the end of it.
Coughing, Ron skimmed it off the cart as he passed and slipped it up into the inside of his sleeve.
South Fair Market Place. Small children ran freely, screaming and unattended. The body odor of unwashed workmen in old, patched, roughspun clothing. Ramshackle buildings that bore the scorch marks of the Twenty Years War. Old men with tanned and wizened faces tossed dice with each other, laughing and pointing back and forth at each other’s luck. Young women holding babes in their arms as they filled their baskets. A Healer’s tent, with pungent odors drifting out. The hopeful expressions on the vendors’ faces, a fishmonger, a chandler, a glazier….
Finally, Ron had reached the fruits and vegetables. Several customers stood about the carts. And there… there was a familiar face, just near the wagon. Perfect timing, he thought, though this was going to be the only good thing that came of this….
Ron snuck the silken hood down his arm. The second he was behind her, Ron threw the hood over Ellia’s head, picked her up, and pushed her into the open wagon.
Who knew she could scream so loudly? Thank the gods the driver had a way out of South Fairview. Definitely not Ron’s favorite assignment.
While she was screaming, shrieking, and kicking, the coachmen were gesturing to people outside in such a manner as to indicate that actions of a very – intimate – nature were occurring inside. So Ron heard laughter and chuckles as they creaked past. Ron grimaced at the very idea.
Ellia got one solid kick on his shin. That one would leave a mark, he knew. Ron swung himself up sideways on the cushions and propped himself up against the side of the wagon.
One of the coachmen had gagged and bound Ellia before they’d left the Market Place, and she had fought like a spitting wildcat. Ron sat there against the wall of the wagon, miserable with guilt. He hated looking at her like that.
For several miles, she had thrown every ounce of energy against the bonds, doing all she could to break free of them. Ron expected nothing less – he would have done the same. The bonds, however, were anchor knots and tightened the more one pulled on them.
Finally, two bangs came upon the ceiling from the coachman. They were outside of Fairview. Ron took in a deep breath of relief and let it out slowly, letting his head fall back against the side wall.
The ride became bumpier as the wagon was no longer upon a road but following a dirt track.
“All right, Ellia, we’re not in the city anymore, so if you scream, no one can hear you but us… so –” Ron reached inside Ellia’s hood and pulled the silken tie down that held her gag in place. “I’m getting rid of your gag.”
Ellia was silent for a few moments. Finally, she said in a deadly low voice, “Wait until my pappy hears what you’ve done. He owns a brewery. When he finds you, he will crush your skull in his bare hands.”
Ron looked up at the ceiling of the wagon when he heard that and nodded uncomfortably. He did not doubt that Luvian was capable of just that. Ron rubbed his hand across the stubble on his chin and cleared his throat. He had a job to do, all the same.
“Ellia, there’s something that you need to know. And it’s not –”
“Stop. I know your voice. Do I know you?”
“It doesn’t matter. Now this isn’t –”
“No, it does. Have you been in my pappy’s brewery? I recognize your voice.”
“Ah, girl, stop interruptin,’ will you!” Ron insisted.
Ellia was silent.
Bloody hell. Why him. Now he really felt like an asshole. Yelling at girl who was bound, hooded, kidnapped…. Quite the gentleman, Ron, he thought.
“All right, then.” And he pulled off Ellia’s hood.
Her blue eyes grew round when she saw him.
“Ronnie! Ronnie, you asshole!” She immediately started kicking out at him.
Well, there it was and no denying it. He’d never heard her use such a word before, though.
“Ronnie! Why would you do such a thing! You pig – you, you –”
“Enough! Now let me explain like I was trying to do to start with!”
Her blue eyes shot sparks at him but she quieted enough to listen.
“Let me just… try to explain…” and he trailed off. He still had no idea how to explain this. How, he thought, are you supposed to explain this? Of all the most important things in the instructions, Ron fumed, they left this out.
Those blue eyes kept staring at him and whatever he was planning to say just disappeared. Ron hoped it hadn’t been especially worthy….
“Well?” she snapped.
Ron had practiced all sorts of approaches and some of them had seemed worth trying, yet in the end, he knew it would be whatever came barreling out of his mouth.
“Right. Ahh. Once, long time ago, these two mates were real close friends, back in the Twenty Years War –”
“Honestly? You’re going to sit there after you’ve bound and kidnapped me and then tell me a war story? Do you really know how many war stories I’ve listened to? Only most every man who ever walks into that brewery talks something of it.” Ellia’s lips were a thin, red line and her blue eyes were dangerous.
Ron blinked. Not only had she just insulted veterans of the Twenty Years War, but she was seriously getting on his nerves. “Honestly? You’re going to sit there and be a spoiled little Pappy’s girl, who won’t sit still and listen while someone’s trying to explain why you’ve actually been put in the position you’re in? I mean, really, you just sit there and sulk and I’ll keep it to myself.” Ron swung his legs back up on the cushions and then studied his fingernails, pretending to ignore Ellia.
“All right. Tell me.” Ellia’s concession was a forced one, a sullen expression on her face.
“Okay then. Long time ago, these two veterans, they were real close mates of each other, they saved each other’s lives back in the Twenty Years War. They stayed in touch, like mates do.”
Ellia said nothing, but her eyes said everything. Those blue eyes were furious. So Ron attempted to draw the story out as long as he could, just to piss her off. The had a long enough trip ahead of them, after all.
“… and one day, one mate comes to the other. They trusted no one else in all the world but each other, you see. And that mate, he visits his friend and tells him that he’s hidden a child away. He told his friend that he wants no one else in all the land but his friend to raise his child. He’d been getting death threats, you see, other children had died, wives had died, neighbors had died…. And it was the best thing he thought, for this new babe if he hid it away and had his best mate in all the world raise it, cause that man, he was a strong, cautious type and he’d never tell anyone, not ever. And he’d raise the babe right. Until it was time for his friend to take the child back.”
Ron knew he was making a complete disaster of the story, but he had at least piqued her interest. She had not drawn any conclusions yet, however….
Ellia shrugged at him. “And….”
Ron shook his head. Well, shit. There was no going back now.
“That babe – is you, Ellia. He hid you away because daughters carry the bloodline truest. And he asked his best mate, your Pappy, to raise and protect you. Until you came of age….”
Ellia stared at Ron for a few seconds. Then he watched a genuine smile tug at her lips. It turned into a laugh. She laughed and laughed, leaning forward as she chortled.
“I have to hand it to you, Ronnie. You are a gifted story teller. You even pulled me in with the two veteran mates…. A sweet story.”
Annoyed, Ron glared at her. He’d just spent the last ten minutes telling the girl about her life and she sat there laughing. She really was annoying. He would be so glad to be rid of her. Her and her Romeny blue eyes….
Finally, Ellia stopped laughing. She watched him.
Then she said, “I have two sisters, and my mum and my pappy are Ruthie and Luvian and we have a brewery.”
Ron still said nothing. What was there to say? He’d told her everything there was to know. Almost.
Finally, he cleared his throat. Quietly, he asked, “Anyone ever ask you about your eyes?”
Ellia’s eyes grew round as she recalled dozens of remarks about how she looked nothing like her sisters or her parents…. She shrank back against the wagon cushion.
Suddenly she looked to the side, out the window. Tears streamed down her face.
“Did – did they ever – love me?” Ellia choked on the words.
Defeated, Ron leaned forward on his knees. “More than you will ever know.”
A long silence went by. Ron had no idea what to say. Nothing he could say would make it better, and he couldn’t fathom the pain the girl was feeling. Tears rolled down her face silently. He had never felt so useless.
Ellia sniffed and turned toward Ron. She rubbed her face on her shoulder, for she was still bound. “So….” She trailed off and looked down at the wagon floor. Then she took in a long, shaky breath and tried again. “So, so who are my actual parents, then?”
Ron stared at her for a moment. Well, this was going to be a moment she’d remember for the rest of her life. Make it good, he thought.
“You, Ellia, are actually the last child and only daughter of Rhutgard Firthing, the First of His Name. You are, therefore, Her Royal Highness, Mirelle Ginnessa Rochilda Firthing of Romeny.
“And I,” Ron sat back against the cushions, “am Prince Ronan Martel of Ghiverny.”
He sat back against the wagon cushions. “Now, remember what I told you, right?”
Ellia – Mirelle – nodded a few times, the anxiety in her eyes clear. She looked like a frightened child.
Ronan had finally cut the tight rope surrounding her. The girl rubbed her arms and hugged herself. The first thing she did then was look out the window. Unfortunately, thought Ronan, there was very little worth looking at, just wide-open meadowland.
Mirelle hadn’t said a thing since he’d told her who she was.
Tears had rolled down her face now and again, but other than that, there was no other expression. She was in shock, of course, and who wouldn’t be? A person just finding out the parents they knew and loved all their lives weren’t really your parents? That your siblings weren’t really your siblings? That your actual parents had sent you to live with someone else until… well, until it was convenient?
Ronan couldn’t imagine what the girl must feel like just on those ideas alone, but she had also found out she was the daughter of the King of Romeny. A girl who, all her life had grown up in a brew house, working behind a bar, serving pints, just finds out that she’s a princess…. Ronan could not imagine what the King had been thinking, other than that Luvian would be her fiercest protector…. And in these recent times, when nobles and royals were finding mysterious ends… perhaps King Rhutgard hadn’t been too far off the mark. But a brew house? The people would never believe she was his daughter, even if she did look like her brothers.
Which made, Ronan realized suddenly, Mirelle a cousin… twice removed, now that he puzzled it through. Ghiverny and Romeny blood was so intermixed it was impossible to separate.
“All right. Just allow me to talk with them, and we’ll be brought up to rooms right away. You were horrified from the attack, and need to rest and regain your strength.”
Mirelle nodded again.
Outside, on the back of the carriage, Ronan hastily changed into a suit of lavender and plum in the luggage case. Rather rumpled, he thought, but finally, no more roughspun trousers, no more smelly soot…. Ahh. With a knife and a razor, Ronan shed the long, commoner, workman hair he’d been sporting for nearly two years and designed the best he could a nobleman’s style. Then he slicked it back with water. He was starting to feel like himself again.
Ronan swung around the wagon and up front to sit with the coachman. The coachman looked at him, eyed his change in appearance without a word, and told him squarely, “Your Highness, we’ll be arriving in just a few minutes.” He nodded at the estate gatehouse looming in the distance.
Finally, the horses hit the bricks of the avenue leading up to the gateway. The coachman slowed the horses and several men from the estate ran up to the wagon.
“My – my lord?” asked one, unsure of their guest’s identity.
The coachman called, “You have the pleasure of guesting His Royal Highness, Prince Ronan of Ghiverny and his lady from Fairview. Please note that we were set upon by bandits while on the road. All things of value were taken, as you can see, even our wagon. The lady must be treated gently, as she has suffered a terrible fright.”
As the men of the estate listened to the coachman, their faces grew more and more alarmed. Ronan was mildly amused – however, the ruse was necessary, after all.
The gate swung closed behind them and the guardsmen ran to inform different household staff of their new guests and new requirements.
Ronan jumped down onto the brick. He found Ellia – Mirelle, he corrected himself, knowing immediately that it would take a long time to get used to – peeping out at the estate from behind the curtains.
He opened the door and, with an extended hand, helped Mirelle step down from the wagon. She was all a-gawk at the estate, her blue eyes wide.
“Ronnie – is this a castle?” she breathed.
The poor girl. If growing used to her new name would be hard for him, growing hard to her new identity would far harder for her. He tried to squash some of the amusement, for this was merely an old estate – an excellent estate, and its family highly esteemed by all, to be sure – but still, just an estate.
“No, Mirelle,” Ronan told her kindly, “this is an estate that we’ll be visiting.”
Color stained her cheeks. “Oh….”
The coachman drove the wagon and horses toward the stable. Ronan offered Mirelle his arm and she accepted it, but as she stared about her, she squeezed his arm inside her own.
As they walked into the courtyard, the Seneschal hurried out.
“Your Royal Highness, we at House Emberly welcome you graciously. I was just alerted to your travel troubles. Please be sure we will take every measure to see that you and your lady….?” Here the Seneschal trailed off, waiting for an introduction.
“Lady Ellia, of Fairview,” Ronan told him.
“Ah, yes. We will take every measure to ensure that you will be comfortable and made to feel safe –” here, he looked at Mirelle and bowed very low.
“Thank you,” Ronan told him in a rolling tone. “Those bandits took everything from us, our wagon, our luggage, even – as you can see –” And Ronan gestured up and down at Mirelle’s cotton dress. “She’s extremely traumatized, as you can imagine. She’s hardly said a word for miles.”
Guilt struck at Ronan for this last, though it was true. He hated to use Mirelle’s misery as part of their ruse, but it added to their overall credibility.
“Of course, of course, we’re having rooms prepared for each of you as we speak,” the Seneschal hastened to reassure them as they walked toward the main hall entrance.
Inside the receiving hall, Mirelle stared all about her. Even Ronan was impressed. The Emberly family kept a middling estate, but their reputation was stainless, and their rumored affluence was considered remarkable in the social circles who still spoke of them. The Emberly family had withdrawn from court life long ago, though they remained prominent in some political realms.
The creamy marble floor was polished to a high gloss, and a crystal candelabra hung overhead.
Two maids curtsied before them and held out their hands toward Mirelle.
She immediately looked up at him, her blue eyes scared, her faced troubled. “Ronnie?” she whispered.
“Lady Ellia, they’ll take you to your chamber. You’ll be able to rest there, like we spoke about just a little while ago. And then I’ll see you this evening at dinner.” Ronan hated to let her go – she looked as terrified as a cornered rabbit.
Ronan felt like a new man. A real bath, new clothing, his beard shaved off, sleep in a real bed….
The staff had offered immense apologies for the small chamber, that it was only a guest room, but that the state chamber would be ready for his repose by the evening. Ronan didn’t mind at all, for they had been given no notice that they would be guesting a prince and a lady until they had actually stridden into the receiving hall.
And Ronan’s chamber was twice as large as the entire forge he’d been living in for the last two years. Ronan was not at all troubled, nor would he mind if he stayed in this chamber for all the rest of his visit, which shouldn’t be but a few days at most.
Cheese, pastries, and an assortment of fruit sat on his sideboard, all of which he’d been nibbling at, along with some bread and a rich red wine. Ah, he had missed wine as well, thought Ronan as he took another swallow. But it would not do for him to appear drunk the night he met his host.
Ronan had held up a slice of thick, white bread, pre-sliced and begun to butter it, but with a pang, he suddenly longed for Luvian’s instead. Ronan stared at the slice in his hand for a moment and then laid it down, both with guilt and the knowledge that it would never quite measure up to Luvian’s recipe.
A knock sounded upon his door.
“If you please, Your Highness, Lord Emberly’s dinner is about to be served, should you like to attend.” The steward bowed low.
Ronan smiled. “I should, thank you.”
The steward led him around the corridor and down an elaborate marble stairway. Not many private estates boasted this sort of wealth, he mused as they stepped downward, or at least they did not spend it upon the inner décor. But he knew the Emberly family had been of extraordinary means…. He glanced up, his thoughts jarred.
A maid was walking with someone down the steps just behind them.
Was that – Ellia?
Ronan held a hand up to pause the steward. He knew his mouth was open, but the change in her was striking. From brewhouse girl to…
Her golden hair had been brushed until its waves gleamed, kept from falling into her eyes by a small royal blue circlet that matched her eyes.
She wore a simple royal blue velvet gown, trimmed in gold and cream embroidery. It trailed slightly behind her as she stepped down the stairway.
Ronan recognized then that Ellia’s “listening to customers’ boring stories” look was frozen upon her face, which had always helped her appear interested even when she was thinking about other things. Ronan reminded himself then that she was playacting as Lady Ellia when in fact, she had been a brewery girl her entire life.
He extended his arm then, and she accepted it calmly. He had never seen her outside of her ordinary barmaid dress and apron – it was if that Ellia and this girl here before him were two different people.
“If you will, Your Highness,” and the steward gestured forward.
“Of course,” Ronan said, blinking.
Ellia – Mirelle, he corrected himself – was stiff and silent as they appeared in the dining hall.
Lord and Lady Emberly stood before them at the far end of a linen-covered mahogany table. For all that Ronan and Ellia had arrived with no warning, they had still prepared quite a feast. A beautifully decorated mallard duck was the centerpiece of the table, with an orange in its mouth and small pastries arranged along its back in such a way as to indicate feathers.
White and orange cheese wheels stood in the center of bunches of grapes. Soup bowls stood awaiting use, and several steaming platters of silver hid their servings. Servants stood with bowls of water and goblets of wine, ready to wait upon them.
“Your Royal Highness, it is our great honor to welcome you to Emberly. I do wish we could have provided better fare, I’m afraid this is all we have for you tonight. More is on its way as we speak.
“This is my lady wife, Polenna.”
As Lord Chazland of Emberly, the third of his name, hastened to make apologies for the fare of their food, he bowed low to Ronan.
“Well met, Lord Chazland. I appreciate your hosting us at such short notice. Please let me introduce Lady Ellia of Fairview.”
Lady Polenna said, “Fairview? I thought I knew all the Fairview girls….”
Ronan heard Ellia at his side take a deep breath. He realized that between table etiquette and a social vixen such as Lady Polenna, Ellia was going to be far out her depth, and he would not be able to answer for her, nor explain everything all evening.
“Lady Ellia is still feeling poorly from our encounter, but she did want to make an appearance, for of course, she wanted to make your acquaintance, Lady Polenna, and yours, Lord Chazland, naturally,” Ronan immediately improvised.
“Oh! You poor dear,” Lady Polenna immediately responded. To a nearby servant, she said, “See that Lady Ellia is served in her chambers, please –”
A sudden commanding voice interrupted them.
“That will not be necessary.”
An older woman, a grandmother at least, thought Ronan, but still handsome, had stridden into the room. Her proud carriage dwarfed everyone in the room and her sharp, blue eyes took in the entire scene in a matter of seconds.
“I am surprised, Grandson, that I was not made aware that a Prince of Ghiverny was attending us.”
Ronan saw power radiating off of this woman as she stared across the table at Lord Emberly.
Lord Emberly cleared his throat to save face and then responded, “Grandmother, I was not aware –”
“Yes, Chaz, I know, you were not aware.” The Duchess of Emberly herself looked rather nauseated and then told the servants that Lady Polenna had just directed to serve Ellia, “You needn’t serve her in her chambers. I actually was made aware of their presence myself shortly after their arrival, you see, and their difficulties upon the road. Lady Ellia has had chambers made up for her at my estate, where she may be sequestered as long as she needs to be. After all, what she’s just gone through is a singularly terrible event. I shall see to her needs at my estate personally.
“Come, Lady Ellia. It is a pleasure to see you here safe at last. Why, I knew your mother and father, and my – I knew their parents when they were just children. You will have a chance to tell me everything, child, but first, you need rest.”
Ellia had gratefully ducked beneath the Duchess of Emberly’s outstretched arm like a baby bird.
“Lady Emberly…” Ronan called out with some alarm. Obviously, she knew of Ellia’s true identity, for she had just provided the highest pedigree to satisfy Lady Polenna’s inquisitive and gossiping nature. The Duchess of Emberly knew everything about everyone in most of the land, and if you were in her good graces, then you were truly a gem to behold in all social circles.
But why had Ronan not been told of the Duchess’s involvement? It was Ronan’s understanding that Ellia – Mirelle – was his charge….
Just as she and Ellia were leaving, he called out, “Lady Emberly –”
She stopped and tuned half way around. After looking him up and down from head to toe, the Duchess told him, “Ronan, is it? Well, young man, you seem to have done well for yourself. I knew your father when he was a prince half your age. You look like him, you know. The Martel men always do. And what a fireball your father was. Hm. Well, you’ve a good meal here, don’t let us keep you waiting.” And she smiled slyly.
And then she walked away with Mirelle.