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Thais

By Charlotte Harris All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy

1

Light from the fading sun bounced off the frosty plain, scattering orange and pink rays across the darkening hilltop. The gentle hills to the south of the great city had long been a favoured haunt of weather-beaten shepherds and stern-faced farmers yet few others ventured across the windy rolling hills. Even the farmers though, saw little point in toiling the fields in the middle of winter, when the land was frozen beyond the ability of a plough to separate and the seedlings were left starved of sustenance.

However, despite the winter’s chill and the frosted ground, a steamy haze was rising up in the cloudless evening sky like a flume. Its cause was two children atop steeds circling one another while a third youngster hopped about them in turn. From a distance their angry shouts seemed to imply they had been caught up in an angry confrontation. Upon closer inspection though, the blades so formidably held aloft would transpire to be carved clumsily from icy branches and the antagonistic chants seemed more akin to friendly jeers.

“Kaio! Thayos did not defeat Pritonius in the siege at Jal Rein,” a girl’s cry, loud and fierce, sounded out over the thud of the horses’ hooves on the frozen ground.

“Well I’m getting tired of being your whipping boy princess, perhaps Thayos should have defeated Pritonius. If he had then I wouldn’t have been at the mercy of your sabre all day,” a young man’s jaded retort replied, though from his tone a smile could be heard pulling at his mouth. Aghast, the girl rider stopped and stared at her companion.

“You’re speaking of my ancestor Kaio, you’d better watch your tongue unless you want it ripped from your insolent mouth.”

“I would like to watch you try and claim that prize my lady.”

“Enough!” the third child finally spoke up tiredly, striding forward to step between the two unmoving horses. Her eyes lifted to meet the boy’s first and cast him a look of reprove before she looked to the girl, silently asking the fiery youngster to see reason. “Thais he’s bating you, of course he doesn’t wish Thayos had defeated your ancestor. Can’t you see?”

Petulant eyes met with smug ones across the arbiter who had bravely stepped between the sparring friends. It was fondness that had so fuelled the heated words and with ease it was fondness that repaired them. As a sign of her forgiving him a lopsided smile pulled onto the charming face of the girl rider.

“You fight like a true Forojian Kaio, dirty and underhand. Just as well you’re playing the part of their Emperor.”

“And you cry at the slightest prod princess, so it’s also just as well that you’re playing the Lord of the Green Throne.”

As one the two sparring parties lunged towards one another while the arbiter in their midst quickly darted out of the way. Kaio and Thais had long needed Rachel to settle their turbulent altercations. Indeed, the girl wondered whether her cousin and the Heiress to the Green Throne could be friends at all without her guiding them away from mishap.

Wood met wood, resonating across the quiet plains, while child fought child in a battle for honour and more importantly, the last laugh. They had re-enacted the history of their ancestors all afternoon and though Rachel had been on occasion granted a steed and a hand in the battle, for the most part she had been relegated to the task of hapless observer. The girl hadn’t minded terribly, she had grown accustomed to this role during their six-year friendship. Rachel’s temperament had become patient and pacifistic in the face of her companions’ more turbulent dispositions. Without her, undoubtedly Kaio and Thais would have driven one another into a vastly premature grave.

Standing now on the frosty wind-swept plain Rachel began to shiver and pulled her furs closer about her shoulders. Before long the first of the winter’s chill would bedeck the great city of Titua in a blanket of snow. An exodus of the wealthy and the travellers would soon follow, seeing them flee to the warmer southern reaches of Denari while the cold engulfed the heart of the kingdom.

And so Rachel’s favoured part of the year would begin. Without the travellers crowding the inns and the streets the trio of scallywags would soon be left alone to go about their mischievous business. When Titua emptied their fun could truly begin.

“I say,” the girl called out after a particularly violent shudder had shaken her bony form. The duellers did not heed her. “It’s getting late. Sundown is nearing. Granny Winny will wring our necks if we’re late for supper again Kaio!”

“The old boot will hardly notice if we’re not there cousin,” a cheerful retort came on the winds eliciting a wrinkled frown on Rachel’s stiff face.

“No, but Thais’ father certainly will,” she countered evenly.

“I daresay he won’t notice your absence Rachel,” Thais now spoke up, exertion straining her voice. “You don’t often join us for dinner.”

“You are both so very funny. Do I have to stand here and freeze to death while the pair of you lamely attempt to finish each other off?” The riders continued their endless parrying eliciting a furious groan from their outcast friend. Rachel stamped her foot. “Truly! You’re both as bad as the other. Kaio you love nothing better than to torment Thais into attacking you and Thais you allow him to. Please, can’t we go in?”

Quite suddenly the girl rider brought her horse to a halt and dropped her branch to the floor. Thais may have been an impetuous fiery sort of child, but she would sooner offer herself up to a long and arduous diplomatic occasion than bring her friends grief.

“Fine, I concede defeat,” she grumbled, casting her smug male counterpart a scowl. Before the expression of victory could make itself comfortable on his face however, she added in an undertone, “For now.”

Kaio merely nodded, accepting Thais’ stalling of their battle for a more suitable occasion, before he looked to his cousin amusedly.

“Climb on then you spoilsport.”

With all three children seated the riders led their horses towards the towering gates of the greatest city in the known world. Ever since its founding by the Kudai a thousand years before, Titua had stood out like a jewel in the noble race’s crown and long had it attracted artists and architects from the far reaches of the Agea who had made the city not only great, but beautiful as well.

Billows of steam accompanied the children and their tired steeds as they approached the powerful city walls. Never had they been breached, despite the kingdom’s turbulent warlike nature. Even though Thais and those of her generation had only ever known peace, Denari’s past was littered with wars and battles both lost and won. The walls, though now a perfunctory token of the city’s strength had once held out armies determined to remove the freedoms of the Denarien people.

The guards manning the Southern Gate saw the children approaching and moved aside allowing the trio passage into the city. Thais may have been dressed akin to her merchant friends, but all who saw her knew her royal face. The Heiress to the Green Throne had never been denied passage into the city of her father, though as the children passed through the gates the girl cast the guards a wave of gratitude. Proud and haughty she may have been to her friends, but humble was the girl underneath the effrontery and she knew how to treat her father’s subjects well.

Titua was certainly a truly enormous city. Swollen to the seams it had become and everywhere buildings fought for space. It seemed that the perpetual race had taken to the skies in recent years. The skyline was changing as unsteady looking inns and residences reached for the clouds with suspect building arrangements. The Great Southern Highway which joined the heart of the city to Denari’s second sprawling city away in the south – Jal Rein – was a road well trodden by patrons and visitors alike. Those inclined to watching the habits of their fellows loved to spend their days wiling away in the inns that lined the road, watching the colourful folk walk past.

Even with the cold season approaching the road was a hub of activity through which the children had to slowly pick their way. Merchants, labourers, patricians, travellers and peasants crowded the engorged road jostling for space where there was little to find. At the height of the late afternoon bustle it took the children twice as long to reach the Old Bridge where their paths diverged.

Kaio and Rachel’s route led them out to Acrabar the merchant’s quarter while Thais followed the Green Road into the heart of the city, the Green Palace. Their goodbyes were always subdued, as neither party saw much point in theatrics. They would no doubt see one another in the new day and few words passed between them as they went their separate ways.

The Green Road differed so starkly from the sprawling highway that one might be forgiven for believing themselves to be in a different city altogether. Stately homes and parliamentary offices lined the impeccably kept street. Patrolling members of the city guard held a very obvious presence and though an occasional traveller strolled along the marble flagstones, the street was mostly deserted in the setting sunlight. Thais detested the solitude in the heart of the city. Why her ancestors had wrapped themselves up in silence she could only guess.

The Green Palace had been aptly named, as it lay within the largest park of the city. This estate was surrounded by towering trees, shielding it from prying eyes. Though there was a sweeping driveway that led to the palace doors, Thais and those trusted in the confidence of the royal family traversed a far less conspicuous route into the home of the royal family. Down an alley barely wide enough to draw attention away from one’s business there lay an ordinary wooden door. After passing through this ordinary wooden door and at least three like it one came across a flight of stairs descending into a cold stone corridor beneath the buildings above. From hidden stations discerning eyes guarded the path. Anyone who had not been given permission to make their way through the passageway would soon be questioned or escorted far away.

Thais suffered no such recrimination however, and after making very sure she had not been followed made her way through the passageway. Its length bored the youngster and by the time she had reached the rather grander, more secure door at its end the girl had worked up a ravenous appetite. As she approached the door swung open revealing a carpeted stairway, which Thais ascended two at a time to reach the ground floor of the most impressive abode in the kingdom.

“Thais,” a softly spoken voice trilled the moment the youngster appeared in the narrow corridor. Turning sharply Thais smiled when she caught sight of the origin of the voice.

“Nana Darling,” the girl exclaimed before she lunged forward and wrapped her arms around the waist of her father’s grandmother. It had been several weeks since the eldest member of the sparse royal family had decided to visit a friend in far away Delanova. Indeed Thais had been wondering whether her cherished foremother would ever return. “You’re back! When did you get here? Does papa know? How was your journey? Did you bring me a present?”

Questions fell from the child’s mouth as soon as they entered into her mind eliciting joyous laughter from her great grandmother.

“My dear little one,” Nana Darling uttered, fondness making her blue eyes crinkle. “Allow me time and I shall answer all your questions.” Thais wrinkled her nose slightly.

“Nana I turned twelve while you were away. I’m not so little anymore you know.”

“No certainly,” the old woman laughed sweetly. “You are becoming a young lady that much is certain. Oh Thais, have you been out in the cold dressed like that?”

Retaining her slightly disgruntled expression Thais glanced down at her torn britches, loose shirt and tattered cardigan. It was a mystery to the girl why every adult she came across seemed enormously concerned with what she was wearing. Indeed, her father employed two members of the palace staff whose sole duties were to concern themselves with what the princess was wearing, much to the girl‘s annoyance when the two formidable women caught her and forced her into an obscenely decadent gown for a no-doubt dull esteemed occasion.

“Yes,” the girl answered eventually. “Is there something the matter?” Heeding the girl’s expression the matron of the house smiled and said not a word of the girl’s choice of clothes in the bitter cold of Denarien winter and instead wrapped her arm around Thais’ shoulders.

“Come along my darling, I have much to tell you of my adventures in the east. Your father has been eagerly awaiting your return. He is starving I believe, but he did not wish to eat his supper without you at the table.”

Thais grimaced slightly, hiding her face well from her foremother as they walked towards a modest stairwell that led towards the private quarters of the royal family. She rarely kept her father waiting if she could help it, for he was not the sort of man anyone kept waiting.

King Gallus of Denari was a relatively young monarch at six and thirty years of age, yet he had ruled his throne for over two decades. The great man’s past was a tragic one filled with war and suffering. He had ascended the throne at such a young age due to the ambush and murder of both his parents, leaving him with a war-ravaged nation and an impossibly challenging task to fulfil. The suffering that he had endured at so young an age and the gravity of the life that followed had led Gallus to become brusque and spartan. Emotions he certainly felt, though always kept hidden below an exterior of hardness. He was an awesome man to behold and one Thais respected with the utmost sincerity.

Nana Darling saw her great granddaughter’s expression and quickly squeezed the girl’s shoulders to her side.

“You need not fear young Thais, he has not been waiting long nor do I believe he has found it too great an inconvenience.”

“I wasn’t afraid Nana, don’t be silly,” the princess quickly scoffed wringing a fond smile out of her foremother.

“I have missed you my darling,” the elderly woman told the girl softly, pausing for a moment to face the child and wipe a stray curl from her muddied face. Caught up in a whirlwind of emotion Thais lunged forward wrapping her arms about her great grandmother.

“I’ve missed you more Nana, promise me you won’t go away again.” The wise old woman laughed.

“I shall promise you no such thing you silly girl. Now come, we ought to hurry before your father sends out the King’s Guard to find us.”

The private quarters of the royal family at the Green Palace had always been surprisingly unassuming. Despite the grandeur of the palace itself, the family that lived within its mighty walls were modest and frugal. Thais much preferred it this way. Had her home been of the sort where she could not run about and cause havoc without the fear of destroying a precious national heirloom then she wouldn’t have found it any sort of home at all.

Ancient wooden floorboards that had once gleamed under a well-maintained layer of varnish now lay exposed, trodden raw by generations of royal feet. Thais herself had done the old wood more damage than any of her ancestors. How she loved to run down the long sun-lit corridor and slide along the satisfying boards on her knees.

Along one side of the private corridor stood full-length windows, allowing the descendents of Apollo a view over the grounds. A stone balcony ran the length of these windows and during the warmer months they were thrown open bringing the summer into the palace itself.

As Thais and Nana Darling wandered along the corridor the youngster peered out into the grounds and sighed inwardly. Though winter brought with it free reign over the city, she did so hate the cold. Thais was a child of the outdoors, a half elven spirit that waned and wilted indoors. The summer allowed the girl the freedom of travelling far a field under her father’s trust. Long had Gallus allowed his daughter to travel out into the wilds around Titua with her friends unescorted. He had taught the girl well in the art of defending herself and though the child was half elven, a race well known for their pacifism, the girl was also half Denarien and a warrior in body and spirit. Being but a wiry little thing she may not have looked it, but Thais was more than capable of seeing off would be enemies.

In winter though, Thais chose to remain close to the city. She may have been a keen warrior, but braving the colds of the Denarien winter was not a preferable option over her comfortable bed in the Green Palace.

“What troubles you so dear one?” Nana Darling asked quietly. Thais shrugged her small shoulders in a resigned fashion.

“I want it to be summer Nana, I’m bored of this winter.” A delighted chuckle emanated from within the frail old woman.

“Thais the winter is yet to begin, there will be many more chilly months to come. We ought to ship you off to Faro, there you will find enough sun even to satisfy your desires.”

“Yes, but I would also find hoards of barbarians who would love nothing more than to turn me into Thayos’s slave,” the girl retorted amusedly. “Either that or he would feed me to his man-eating elephants.”

“Man-eating elephants?”

“Oh yes Nana, didn’t you know? The Emperor has been breeding them in preparation for the next time he tries to invade us.” Thais’ earnest eyes seemed so sincere that her foremother had to force away an amused smile.

“No doubt another fact Kaio Greenwood has graciously informed you of.” Thais remained quiet, though her eyes did crease in doubt. She had grown wary of the tall tales her scallywag friend told her, but it would seem she had once more failed to spot a lie.

“Well…”

“Come, let us not debate the pets Emperor Thayos keeps. Rather, go fetch your father dear. He is still in his study I believe.”

Without another word Thais took off down the corridor till she had reached the very last door. It was a door she had stood before many a time, often in a state of disgrace. As such she had grown to fear the darkness of the grain and the peculiar knot in the wood in which she always saw a face watching her with disdain.

“Oh go away door,” the girl grumbled after staring intently at the discerning knot, before she knocked firmly on the wood. A moment of silence followed before quite suddenly the door gave way and swung open revealing a brightly lit study of enormous proportions.

Ancient bookshelves lined the walls, heaving under the weight of a small library’s worth of books and scrolls. Artefacts from around the Agea hung from the walls and high ceiling. And spanning the width of one wall was an enormous window before which sat the largest desk Thais had ever seen. The solid wooden frame always strained under an army of paper and yet more artefacts. She had offered to tidy it for her father many a time, though he had always refused. Gallus was a man of order and principle, yet in his study he preferred to live in a state of perpetual chaos. It was the only place he allowed himself to.

Beside the mighty desk stood the king himself, his back turned to the door. Gallus was of such stature that he towered over everyone he encountered. There was such a presence in his broad frame that none were in doubt over his strength and prowess in battle. Gallus was a warrior king and feared no confrontation that he could lead his armies into.

The man had always been blessed in his looks and for many a decade this had disturbed him. There was nothing so attractive to eligible ladies – and not quite so eligible ladies – than a dangerously handsome unwed king. Since the death of his precious wife Gallus had found himself on the receiving end of countless offers and proposals. In order to stave off the interest of every available maiden and her father in the continent Gallus had tried to sabotage his appearance. His long golden hair he had shorn off to a thick ashen stubble, which matched his unshaven face. This he kept in a careful balance between smooth skin and committed beard.

Just as slovenly as his child Gallus had failed greatly in his attempts to remove himself from the attractions of the females in the world. It seemed in fact, that in the eyes of many he had only proceeded to make himself more desirable. Unfortunately for Gallus, it was a burden he would have to bare.

You are late,” a deep brusque voice came the moment Thais walked into the study. A sliver of complaint snaked onto Thais’ tongue, before quite suddenly she sealed her mouth tightly shut. Her father was not alone. Three other men stood with him around the grand desk, the tallest of which was hastily pushing a map into the folds of his riding cloak. The princess knew their faces almost as well as she knew her father’s and were it not for the presence of the tall spindly fellow then she might have darted forward to leap onto the backs of the shorter two. Avery and Thalius were two of Thais’ favoured playmates and could often be counted on to offer the young tearaway a frenzied foray which left them all in stitches of laughter. The two men had been Gallus’ closest friends since their boyhood days spent marauding round the city and Thais had known them from her very first night upon Aius’ green Earth when her father had wet his baby’s head in the presence of his dearest friends.

Since their boyhood Gallus had rarely gone without the company of Thalius Shortbeard and Avery Roe. One the son of a blacksmith, growing hardened and blunt in the alleyways of Varanasi, Titua’s poorest slum; the other wheeling and dealing his way through a merchant’s apprenticeship with only his wits to keep him afloat in a merciless world. Thalius and Avery had thought they would follow in their fathers’ footsteps when a young Prince Gallus happened to bring them together barely eight years into their narrowed existences. Never would their paths have crossed had it not been for the prodigal young heir to the throne and from that day forth their paths had not once diverged. With the sovereign’s development from entitled reckless young heir to responsible lord of the land Thalius and Avery had made the progression alongside him and had remained loyally unmoving at his side. They had since taken up esteemed positions of their own high up in the king’s house and they served closely with their king and friend in the Royal Confidence.

Avery served the king as a master of spies. He could disappear in a crowded room and spend weeks quietly stalking people without them growing suspicious. He spent his life in the shadows and was a man known only to a few. This contrasted so to his best friend Thalius, who was the commander of the King’s Guard. He was well known throughout the nation as one of the most fearsome warriors in all the land.

Thais adored the two men, but that third one, that stringy tall man, she did not like him. Selmain Al’Amain was an enigma. The olive hue of his skin, the soft brown curls on his head and his green eyes told the story his family’s lineage, though his northern accent and Tituan upbringing sought to bury it. Selmain was a Farojian and though he and Gallus had been dear friends since their days together at Eden College, Thais had never trusted the tall mage. Selmain was too clever and too gifted in the ways of the ether. sensitives of extraordinary strength were well known to harness a power over those sensitives not so endowed with the ether and were well known to read the minds of those who kept their innermost thoughts unguarded from prying minds. Thais, being but a young sensitive, knew not yet how to shield her mind from unscrupulous prying minds and as such she couldn’t let her guard down whenever Selmain Al’Amain came to visit.

All four men watched the young girl as she stood in the doorway, her expression tumultuous while her urge to lunge forward and commence play-battle fought her urge to run and hide beneath a metal hat she had crafted to keep the mage from reading her thoughts.

“Are you injured?” Gallus finally asked when the air between the two parties grew heavy with awkwardness. Quickly Thais shook her head.

“Not badly.”

“Hands.” With a slight roll of her eyes the heiress to the throne stepped forward, her eyes darting between the grinning faces of Thalius and Avery, and the analysing gaze of the mage. When she reached her father the youth held out muddied bleeding hands for inspection. The sabre battle she and Kaio had enjoyed had left its mark on the youngster’s slender fingers. Upon seeing the bleeding mess Gallus emitted a partially amused, partially despairing utterance under his breath.

“You and I,” the king muttered with a small smile, while he reached out and turned his daughter’s right hand over in his own much larger hand. “Differ greatly on our estimations of grievous harm daughter.”

Thais merely shrugged her response, very aware that all four men were watching her. Where normally she might have craftily battled her father over their conflicting judgements over what exactly construed a grievous injury – indeed Thais would argue that only a set of severed fingers might deserve the title – the presence of her father’s friends silenced the normally outspoken child. Gallus noticed as much.

“Go find Proctor, he will see to this mess,” the king offered quietly. He squeezed his daughter’s grubby fingers tightly for a moment before releasing them. “And then wash and join us in the dining room. I am sufficiently famished to overlook your attire.”

Thais nodded and darted from her father’s side to the door of his study, pausing to look over her shoulder to find all four men still watching her, their faces wearing matching expressions of concern.

“I am not so late papa,” the girl finally found her tongue. “The sun is yet to set.” With this she was gone, flying down the corridors to find old Proctor, the family physician. Her father’s soft chuckles followed her as she went.

The Green Palace had a surplus of dining rooms, chambers and halls. Suffice to say; when the house of Apollo met for their private meals they did not do so in the Grand Dining Hall. Rather, they chose to dine in a small and humble dining room that lay beside Nana Darling’s chambers and had once been under her control to furnish and decorate. It was one of Thais’ favourite rooms in the palace, as it was in this room that she had the most memories of her mother.

Mai Avani Indurin had been an elf of unimaginable beauty and kindness. Her decision to wed a mortal man, a son of the Kudai no less had estranged her from her people and though her father had been Sil’Vein, the Elf Lord, she had been cast away from their kind. At first it seemed as though the elven woman was in danger of not finding a suitable place in any society, for the people of Denari had been quite apposed to the match of their young and heroic sovereign to an immortal elf, whom had lived longer than many wished to suppose. Mai Avani had won their hearts however, and had been a much-loved queen during the short time she held her post.

She died when Thais was very young and the princess remembered little of her mother. Tales she had heard aplenty and throughout her life she had grown up in the knowledge that her mother had been a wondrous being. The girl wished she could have known her and often plagued her foremother for details of her mother and father before her birth. Nana Darling tried to appease the child as best she could, but her stories were never enough. Asking her father was out of the question. Thais often suspected that her father’s brusque and stoical facade was a scar from his heartbreak at losing her mother and though she could not have known that throughout most of his life this had been his way, she was right in assuming his mannerisms had become far more stark and spartan since losing the only woman he had ever loved.

Gallus was a broken man and never could Mai’s place be taken.

The dining room that Nana Darling had so lovingly equipped and made her own had been Mai Avani’s favourite room in the palace. Her divan still lay by the window, where she had loved to sit and look beyond the trees towards the mountains. Beyond those mountains lay Inmuin, the land of her people. Though Thais had only been very young, she could still remember sitting at her mother’s side and hearing her stories of the ancient elven city of Khaled-Dîn. The journey to the hidden city of the elves was a dangerous one for a mortal human to make, but to Thais this had only served as an incentive for her to take the challenge. Since first hearing of the mountain that had been carved into the silver city Thais had taken the decision to one day go there and give Sil’Vein a piece of her mind.

Mighty Elf Lord that he was and yet he had cast Thais’ mother aside as though she mattered not. For that Thais would find her grandfather. For that she would go to the city of the elves, no matter the danger or the risk.

Raucous laughter lured Thais from her thoughts. Thalius seemed red-faced about something that seemed to have his dearest friends in stitches of laughter. Across the table Nana Darling was smiling bashfully, suggesting Thais had missed something hilarious to say the least.

“What are you laughing at?” the girl quickly asked, her keen eyes alive with the prospect of mischief. Sat beside her was Gallus, who turned to look at his daughter with a quietly perplexed expression.

“Had you not been stuck in your private fantasy child then you might have joined us. Your silence unnerves me, for it usually precludes mischief of terrifying proportions. What has caught your tongue?”

Thais held her father’s dark gaze, his eyes replicas of her own and for a moment she couldn’t explain the snaking doubt winding over her skin. Be it through her limited understanding of the ether or the fact that the girl knew Gallus the Great better than any living being upon the earth, Thais knew that something was amiss. She had sensed the unease in her father’s very aura from the moment she had caught sight of him, his mighty back turned to her, his accomplices shuffling the evidence away before the child caught sight of it fully.

“Come friend, the girl is not always up to something,” Avery complained good-naturedly, shooting a wink across the table at the youngster. Thais caught his eye and fought the smirk that crept onto her face while at her side her father looked up to his friend sharply.

“You were not offering such kind words in her defence three nights ago when she vanished your horse from under your nose.”

“I did not vanish it!” Thais spoke up boldly, mischief pulling at the corners of her mouth. “I just… borrowed it.”

“Borrowed it,” Gallus chuckled to himself.

“Yes, borrowed it,” the girl insisted. “And I’ll have you know we brought her back in one piece. Cellius didn’t have a scratch on her.”

“No,” Avery mused, his fingertips finding one another while his hands wrapped about the tankard of ale in front of him. “She has however, been looking startled ever since.”

“Well I needed a horse,” Thais grumbled. “And yours was the nearest one to me. I would have picked Thalius’, as she is far quicker, but Runa was just out of my reach.”

“See Avery, my horse is quicker,” a child-like taunt wafted from across the table. Avery rolled his eyes and ignored his close friend.

“What did you need a horse for anyway?” the spy asked the smirking child. At his question the king laughed deeply and shook his head.

“Let us see if she remembers,” he uttered softly, earning himself a foul glare from his daughter. Thais did not deem his slur worthy of a retort however, and turned instead to look back at the one who’d posed the question.

“There was a rumour,” she explained in the diplomatic tone of voice she had started using as of late. It was a tone of voice she had unwittingly emulated on her father’s manner of speaking at long and arduous formal events and every time the young king heard her speaking so it brought a smile to his face. Perhaps there was hope for the girl yet. “The dockyarders had heard from the factory boys that the shepherd sons had danced with a pair milkmaids at the Rainwell annual Winter Ball. Now they had said that their cousins away in Ephias had met with a trader from Reesa who had seen a cloud of dust in the desert. So he had asked a peddler on the Southern Coastal Road what it could be. And do you know what he said?” Silence ensued while Thais paused in her stream of never ending syllables. “Well I shall tell anyway. He said that he had heard from a member of the guard in Caias Point that Uncle Eunus was returning with his envoy from the south and so I needed to go and check this for myself and that’s why I needed your horse.”

The girl stopped speaking, though her eyes still told of the rumour she had so ardently believed. A snigger escaped Thalius moments before Avery cleared his throat, his smile so broad his eyes seemed in hysterics. Selmain lifted his tankard to his mouth to hide his less obvious smirk leaving only Gallus staring at his daughter with fond eyes and Nana Darling quietly observing the scene before her with an adoring expression.

“What?” the girl finally demanded when no one spoke. As one the occupants of the table dissolved into the reams of laughter they could no longer hold back leaving Thais to grow red-cheeked and embarrassed.

“Daughter,” Gallus finally managed through his laughter. “When my brother returns to the city I will not leave you to find out from a pair of milkmaids in Rainwell I can assure you.”

“Do you know when Eunus is set to return Gallus?” Selmain asked next, averting the table’s attention from the red-faced youngster. The king looked up to meet the mage’s gaze and for a moment a message passed between the men conveyed on a current of ether. Thais had no inkling of the words spoken, but the breeze of the ether tingled the skin on her face and deep within her concern deepened. Her dear uncle had been away many months and she missed him as though it were Gallus himself away beyond the borders. Eunus was a second father to the child, a man far less austere and more prone to the gimmickry that filled Thais’ days. There were times Gallus seemed a father to both of them and for this Thais loved her uncle. He was a playmate and a fiercely loyal ally.

“Last I heard from him he was unsure,” the king replied carefully, deliberately choosing words that told a different story to those in his Confidence than to the ones Thais heard. She did not know her Uncle’s exact location, but she had heard from a trail of reliable sources that the king’s brother had travelled south at least as far as Rostkrof. The girl was sure he had crossed into Faro, but dared not suggest such a thing in any self-respecting adult’s company. To speak of the Southern Powers was to dredge up the scars of war to anyone of her father’s generation and those older still. The warriors of Faro may have shrunk back within their borders, but left behind were the fractured lives of those they had sought to destroy. Kaio and Rachel were well versed in Thais’ war mongering inklings, but never would the girl ask her father or his friends about them. Never did she want to see their faces crumple as they remembered all they had lost.

“Well I want him to come back now,” Thais spoke softly, breaking a grave silence that had overcome the diners at the table. Gallus looked to his daughter with a thoughtful expression, but it was Nana Darling who spoke.

“As do we all my love,” the elderly woman uttered gently. “Eunus will be back soon enough. You need not worry. Nothing has ever kept that one away from home for very long.”

“Too right,” Thalius cheered lifting his tankard high above the table. “’Tis where he belongs after all. To Eunus and may the Mighty Cilia lend him her wings to bring him back all the sooner.”

Avery and Selmain quickly raised their own tankards high and chanted, “To Eunus,” in turn, while Nana darling took a sip from her sweet sherry. Her eyes closed tightly while she sent her own message to her grandson wishing him home. Gallus still looked upon his daughter, who finally lifted her eyes to meet his.

“Come Thais,” he spoke softly, lifting his daughter’s modest thimble of wine into her fingers. “We will toast your uncle; perhaps he will hear your pleas and return to us.”

“You miss him too papa,” the girl whispered softly, her sentiments intended only for her father’s ears. For a moment the king’s face remained stoical, before a smile crept onto his lips.

“You know me too well little one. Of course I wish my brother home. He is sorely missed.” Thais nodded slowly before taking hold of her wine glass with more certainty allowing Gallus to raise his tankard gently to his daughter’s glass.

“To Uncle Eunus.”

“To Eunus.”

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