Thais rubbed her eyes with the backs of her scabbing fingers while she ambled to the dining room. The girl always woke with the rising sun, which left her crawling from her luxurious sheets far later in mid-winter than she would normally rise. Were it not for the month of freedom Thais enjoyed from her studies at Eden College during the mid-winter festival season then the girl would have trouble finding herself at school on time. Too late would the sun wake her from her happy dreams and too many mornings would the girl need to slip unnoticed in to the dusty archaic chambers, the voices of the droning professors and mages bouncing off the high vaulted ceilings.
A grimace pulled onto Thais’ face while she ambled across the worn floorboards of the corridor towards the double doors that hid Mai’s dining room. The girl despised school; or rather, the girl despised the months she ailed indoors, unable to spend her time as she desired, gallivanting about the kingdom with her dearest friends. Kaio and Rachel did not attend the highly prestigious renowned institution Thais and all save a few of her ancestors had attended. It served the offspring of the nobility and those rich enough to secure a place for their pampered children. There were also places reserved for those youngsters of supreme intelligence and ability, who earned sought-after scholarships and worked harder than most of the aforementioned youths combined. However, Kaio and Rachel had both attempted, after months of the princess’ haranguing them, and both had failed to find themselves alongside their ally during their schooling hours.
The princess herself was a prime example of an entitled yet entirely ungrateful young pupil of the college. The girl cared little for her lessons; why ought she read archaic elfish languages? Why did she need to know arithmetic, politics, alchemy and geography? Why was it important that she learn how to write in perfect prose? None of it truly mattered when out there the wilds awaited. What use was learning when adventures were to be had?
“I never want to go back to school,” the girl mused to herself while she shuffled along the corridor. No sounds came from the dining room suggesting the other members of the family had eaten and were already going about their business. Nana Darling often waited for the heiress to rise so that the child might not eat alone, but Thais had listened intently when her foremother had explained the previous evening that she would be spending the day with her friend, a certain Lady Emeline Alvera; a name synonymous with bad-tempered cats and bitter lemon sponge cake in the child’s eyes. Every time she had accompanied her great grandmother on a visit to the bizarre Lady’s mansion the princess had left many arduous hours later with a sore stomach and scratches up her arms.
When first the notorious woman’s name had cropped up in conversation around the dinner table Thais had momentarily frozen on the spot, her eyes watching her foremother while her fate lay undecided. Was she going to be expected to join Nana Darling on this occasion? Feia, the Goddess of Luck, had been smiling on Thais however, and as though sensing the child’s unease Nana Darling had assured her almost instantly that she would be visiting alone. Lady Emeline was distraught after the latest of her suitors had abandoned her for a less feline-inclined prospect and needed only a shoulder to weep upon.
The silence was oppressive to the wild spirit trapped within the winter walls and with a feeling of deep unease Thais pushed into the doors of the dining room. The room was not as empty as she had anticipated.
“Oh,” the girl uttered before she had quite arranged her face into an expression that did not give away her immense displeasure at finding Selmain Al’Amain in the dining room, his head bowed over an immensely boring looking tome. The stringy man seemed deeply interested in the passages he had torn his eyes from and for a moment he too seemed unable to hide his true feelings on being interrupted. He however, was better at hiding them.
“Good morning Thais,” the tall man offered, his mouth arranged neither in a grimace or a smile. The child wondered for a moment how she might arrange for herself a suitable excuse to leave her father’s friend to his breakfast and his book, but it was as though all the lies in the Agea were evading the princess on this morning.
Curse you Gayna; you always lend me your silken tongue. Why leave me to flounder so on this day? the girl secretly thought, her grumblings directed toward the Goddess of Lies, whom till this day had always seemed a firm ally.
The girl paused for too long easing a fond smile onto the face of her father’s lead mage. Thais knew not whether Selmain was reading her thoughts or her face, but in any case she would not allow the irksome man to make her feel uneasy in her mama’s dining room.
“Good morning,” the youngster finally offered before she strode forward and took a seat quite far from the mage. Despite the manners that had been forced upon the girl at school, Thais could not help herself and took a peak at the dusty rotting book Selmain was reading. It was written in Old Elfish; a language the half-elven girl had no knowledge of and consequently lost all interest in when she was confronted with it.
Selmain’s hazel eyes watched the child with a peculiar intense expression while she sized up his tome and seemed instantly to relax the moment Thais turned her eyes from it. A small smile lit up his face quite briefly, before it was gone once more. The girl noticed, though felt little desire to know why her actions pleased the southern man.
“I was under the impression they taught you the Khal’En dialect at the College.”
Thais looked up with dark eyes to find her father’s good friend watching her interestedly. Uneasily she shrugged her shoulders, unsure if her rude gesture would be accepted or reprimanded. She knew what Thalius and Avery would do were she to shrug at one of their questions. The former would clip her ear fondly while the latter would smile cheerily at her cheek. Gallus himself seemed to choose his battles wisely with his daughter. He cared not for her shoulder shrugging ways when there were more serious attributes of her behaviour to reform. Such as screaming through the castle in mock battles with her friends while various envoys from important countries were visiting or using the priceless ancient brass stallions in the Long Foyer, which harked back to the Median high kings of Gaia, as hobby-horses.
Selmain raised an eyebrow, yet did not say anything of it.
“Perhaps they have changed the curriculum since your father and I were at school.”
“Perhaps,” the girl mused quietly while she served herself a morsel of fine food.
“Pray tell me, does Professor Thaden still look after the Underyears?” Thais wrinkled her brow before she nodded.
“I think so.”
“You mean you are not sure?” the mage asked with slight incredulity. The girl once more shrugged her shoulders.
“I’m not an Underyear yet. I’m still in the Seconds. Our Head Professor is Lord Regina.”
“Do forgive me,” Selmain chuckled, the tension in his stature easing. Gallus’ daughter seemed to put him in a similar mental state that she did him, save he was better at overcoming his unease where she still remained alert. “Of course you are. You recently turned twelve did you not?”
A mere nod from the princess was the only answer he received before she turned her eyes toward her plate and started to eat timidly. If only she might have found Thalius or Avery in the dining room, then she might have enjoyed a fun-filled breakfast. Why was Selmain Al’Amain still at the palace to begin with? He lived only a few yards away from the gates at the magery. So he really ought not have stayed the night in one of the palace’s many guest quarters.
“I have an early appointment with your father,” the tall mage stated causing Thais to raise what little defensive power she held over the ether in her halo. It wasn’t fair! How dare Selmain read her thoughts over the breakfast table. Selmain felt the turbulent ripple course through the ether around the princess and he forced his smile away. So young and so much to learn. He could still remember Gallus at the same age. How similar they were.
“Don’t let me keep you,” the girl finally managed when she was sure she could keep the contempt from her tone. The smile on the mage’s face grew and he nodded.
“No indeed. A good day to you Thais.”
With this Selmain rose to his feet, closed the dusty ancient book and crossed over to the doors Thais had left wide open in her wake. There was a sadness in him that Thais could never understand though somehow she perceived it centred on herself. Today it seemed more pronounced than usual and privately the girl wondered what that elfish book was about. Was it about her mother? Had it once belonged to Mai Avani? There was no doubting that Thais’ ancient mother held mastery over the language of her ancestors. Perhaps she had written it.
With Selmain gone the princess visibly relaxed and quite ungraciously she slouched down in her chair and lifted her plate to her chest so as to avoid spilling crumbs down her tatty clothes. While she ate she stared out the window into the uncharacteristic winter sunshine. Life stirred deep in her limbs and for the first time in weeks she felt a desire to run out into the southern hills far from the city. Perhaps Gallus would let her if she could assure him she would be back before supper.
As though she had not eaten a good meal in a solid month Thais wolfed down her breakfast before she threw herself onto her feet and breezed down the corridor to Gallus’ study door. That she would once more come face to face with her father’s mage friend paused Thais’ hesitant hand before she pushed the thought from her mind and knocked firmly; there were adventures to be had on such a fine morning.
After a few moments the door eased open to the chorus of a creak that had started many centuries ago in the time of the Hundred Years War and had never been put right. Gallus seemed as fond of the palace’s imperfections as he was its wonders. With a confidence she mustered from deep within, Thais bowled into the room, but suddenly stopped short when she noticed the stringy man was nowhere to be seen. The king was in fact, alone and sat upon the side of his desk, his eyes gazing out into the gardens. Something was bothering him, Thais could feel this much. A powerful being such as Gallus could never hide his emotions from sensitives, especially those who knew the nature of the changing tides and currents he formed in the ether.
“Where is he?” Thais spoke up confusedly, her eyes seeking every dusty corner the room held for clues as to the mage’s whereabouts.
“Where is whom?” the girl’s father countered evenly, his voice not betraying the feelings deep within. The great man turned slightly to catch the girl’s gaze.
“Selmain. I met him just now in the dining room. He said he had an early appointment with you.”
“He has come and gone.” Gallus’ tone of voice suggested Thais could do better than to pursue her train of thought, but heeding him little the youngster carried on.
“He wasn’t here very long.”
“No indeed he was not.”
The king climbed to his feet staving the next question on Thais’ lips. Father and daughter held one another’s eye and finally the child saw sense. Whatever Selmain’s business had been with the king, it was no business of hers and so graciously Thais changed tack.
“Papa can I take Kaio and Rachel to the southern hills? ‘Tis such a fine day outside and it deserves an adventure!” At last Gallus’ expression softened slightly as a wry smile crept onto his face.
“Do you mean to say it deserves an adventure or rather that you deserve an adventure daughter?”
“It papa,” the girl insisted. “And Pollux of course. He wouldn’t have given us such a brilliant day if He didn’t expect us to enjoy it. Can we go? Please?”
The tall man looked from the pleading expression upon his daughter’s face and turned instead to gaze out the window once more, sitting down upon the ancient desk starting a small avalanche of papers to cascade onto the floor. The blanket of ether, seeming unusually thick to those who perceived it, was shifting, curling, pulling in around Gallus’ form. Thais could feel it do so and without thinking she allowed her thoughts to fall from her mouth.
“Papa has something happened to Uncle Eunus?”
Sharply, the king looked up.
“Pardon?” The short girl shrunk away from her father’s gaze, yet her eyes did not waver from his.
“Yesterday over supper, you seemed so sad when I mentioned my uncle. I…” Thais trailed off, feeling both relieved and concerned that she had not guessed the source of her father’s worry.
“Your uncle is well.” Just how Gallus knew this Thais did not pursue and she merely nodded her response. The king’s eyes were narrowed. “Thais you must not let your fantasies carry you away with them. Is that understood?”
“Yes, fantasies. It is a difficult lesson to learn when you find out that you do not know every secret the world has to offer. However, you must not attach reason to events or conversations that in truth have but chance in common. Is that understood?”
It was a warning and a thinly veiled one at that. Thais knew she was being warned off reading too much into her father’s actions and those of his friends, which gave the girl more cause for concern than she wanted to admit. Never before had she been so explicitly instructed to remove her curiosity from a factor of Gallus’ life. Whatever had set the king’s ether in motion was to remain a closely guarded secret.
“Yes papa, ‘tis understood.” Understood and determinedly ignored.
Thais dropped her eyes to the ground staring at the old worn leather of her father’s boots. She knew not a time when he had favoured another pair and merely seeing the familiar sight eased the malcontent raging deep within.
Quite suddenly the boot-clad feet thumped to the floor as Gallus stood up drawing his daughter’s gaze anew.
“Come, I have much to teach you,” the tall man commanded, striding away from the youngster towards the door.
“But Papa, what about my trip to the hills?”
“Submit to me one hour of your time daughter and you may go.”
Knowing there was little to gain by arguing Thais merely sighed quietly and followed her father from the room. She was in little doubt of where he was leading her, as Gallus rarely attempted to instruct his daughter in the joys of academic study. The great man entrusted the Agea’s finest educational institution for such things. No, Gallus had taken over but one part of Thais’ learning and that was her combat training. Had she been born a son she would have spent her childhood travelling between her training at the Camp high up in the Middle Mountains and the great city for her studies. But Thais had not been born a boy and as such had no place in the training facilities of the guard leaving her father to teach her instead.
Gallus himself had spent many years split between the hardship of the mountains and the decadency of the palace. His mother Theano had found the separation from her sons a burden almost too difficult to bear, for Eunus too had been entrenched at the Camp, but she had recognised her sacrifice as a duty all the queens of Denari must give so that the nation might follow the sword of a warrior in battle.
Thais followed her father with her head held low, her eyes never leaving the tattered boots that predated her birth. Over the worn floorboards they treaded and then onto the marbled tiles of the grand balcony, which overlooked the majestic central foyer down below. They did not stay long atop the marble however, as soon they found worn flagstones of a winding stairwell that would lead deep underground into the cellars where many years ago a large chamber had been converted into a training room. It had always been known as the training grounds to those who had found themselves barricaded within for often hours of intense exercise. The bright morning sunshine filtering through the windows soon fell away leaving only torches lighting the way down under the palace. Thais shivered and pulled her tatty shirt closer about her shoulders. She hated coming down here in the winter months.
After they had followed the stairwell on its endless spiral downwards Thais gladly welcomed the flatness of the slate slabs at the bottom of it. The corridor ahead stretched into darkness, but that did not matter. The princess and king knew every nook and cranny their home sought to hide having spent their respective early childhoods tumbling from one end of the grand palace to the next. Both knew to walk as far as the statue of the High King Aurus and then turn right. Twenty or so more paces brought them directly to the door of the training grounds, which had been hewed from a mighty Kaba tree some hundreds of years previous.
Behind the ancient door lay a square room with colonnades lining the sides and a sunken sand filled pit where the exercises were routinely carried out. A stream of light poured down into the depths of the earth from a window high above. During the summer months the room glowed with sunshine, but now, in the depth of winter the room was gloomy and cold. Upon entering, the torches lining the columns flickered into life, commanded to do so silently by the king himself.
“What am I learning today?” the girl asked warily when she finally noticed Gallus kicking off the boots she had followed from high above in the warm sun.
“When have I ever told you in advance?”
“You did once.”
“I certainly did not.” Gallus was smiling as he climbed to his bare feet and rolled his britches up. There was a straight tear in the right thigh, which Thais herself had caused with a slightly mistimed attack with a double-edged sword.
“Yes you did. It was three years ago and you told me you would be teaching me how to defend against three enemies.”
“I think you will find that the mere presence of Eunus and Thalius gave that one away little one. I make a point of letting you find out what I am attempting to teach you on your own. Now stop lingering by the door and prepare. Your hour does not start until you are ready on the sand.”
“Well I think you should tell me once in a while what I am to be learning. It might speed things up,” the girl grumbled, though her face seemed not to reflect the moodiness of her voice. Heeding her father’s warning she stepped forward and kicked off her own boots. In time the pair rolled their sleeves back freeing their hands for combat.
“And where would be the fun in that?”
Thais rolled her eyes with fondness before descending the steps to stand upon the sand a few meters from her father. In the time it took the girl to blink at the cold spotlight shining down from high above Gallus had struck and Thais found herself lying flat on her back staring up at the dazzling sun,
“Papa!” the girl cried out in outrage and easily she found herself back on her feet. “I wasn’t ready.”
“That,” Gallus countered while he moved once more to upend the youngster, though this time Thais was quick on her feet and she manage to stay upright. “Is a lesson I taught you many a year ago Thais. You must always be prepared.”
“But the sun dazzled me,” the girl complained, pulling back from any more attacks. She was feeling decidedly put out, though why that might be she could not explain.
“There will always be a time you are taken unawares,” her father instructed, circling round the girl, who turned in time to meet his eye. “And when that happens you ought to ready yourself immediately instead of arguing with your attacker.”
“I’m not arguing,” the girl grumbled and in anger she lurched forward in an attempt to throw her father to the ground. He easily blocked her attack and instead the girl found herself on her knees in the fine sand while Gallus skipped backwards untroubled. Several meters back the king dropped to his own knees and relaxed. He could not teach a troubled student.
“Might I ask what is the matter?” he asked gently. Meekly the girl shrugged her shoulders.
“I might ask you the same, but you wouldn’t answer me. So why should I tell you?” she uttered in a gravelly voice. Gallus raised his head back and nodded once.
“So that is what troubles you.”
A silence filled the training grounds while Thais fumbled with the sand and felt both embarrassed and hardened by her emotions.
“To your feet,” Gallus’ soft voice came and begrudgingly the girl obeyed. The king himself remained kneeling in the sand. Slowly, he lifted his arms out to the side. “Attack.”
Without hesitating, as rarely did the youngster get such an opportunity to best her mentor, Thais lunged forward. Every move she had been taught she threw at the kneeling man and yet every time he blocked her attempts. While the sun moved across the sand toward the centre of the pit Thais fought hard and fast, never pausing for a moment to regain her breath or calm her racing heart, but still Gallus remained unbroken. Every counterattack the king made was pre-empted and turned around once more. An endless cycle seemed to be unfolding where the girl’s many years of training were replaying while the morning passed by. Finally though, when both man and girl were waning from exhaustion did Gallus seek to tip the scales in his favour.
In a motion Thais had never seen before Gallus used but a single arm stroke to push the girl onto her back and pin her down with a bare foot freed from the sand. Thais stared with wide eyes at her father. Such an effective show of combat and agility and yet she had never seen it before.
“I know your every move girl,” the king spoke brusquely, his chest rising and falling rapidly with exertion. “And you may think you know mine, but that is simply not the case. I am far older than you Thais and I have gathered about myself more secrets than you could know.”
Panting Thais closed her eyes in anger. Her father’s message was simple: he knew her every thought while she did not know his. The truth in his arrogance evaded the youngster who felt humiliated by this latest of lessons.
“You don’t know everything,” Thais whispered before turning onto her side and attempting to use a technique she and Kaio had once stumbled across during one of their sparring sessions to wriggle free from capture. Gallus it would seem knew of this technique and within moments the girl was trapped once more.
“I never claimed to know everything,” the king’s calm reply came, though his face seemed trouble by Thais’ anger. Slowly he let the girl go, who scrambled to her feet and stared into her father’s eyes turbulently.
“May I be excused?” she asked darkly. The sight of such anger in those usually adoring eyes made the king falter. Though wisely he knew no good could come of keeping the girl back against her wishes. Thais was a fiery sort of person, who once scorned needed time apart to analyse and forgive the actions of those who had wronged her.
“You will be back by supper?”
Seconds later the girl had collected her boots and disappeared from sight leaving Gallus the Great kneeling in the sand, his head hanging.