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Thais looked up at the towering crooked dwelling that housed four generations of the Greenwood family. It lay on the bank of the river Denai opposite the docks where the merchants berthed their vessels to load and unload them with goods from across the Agea. Fine wines in enormous bottles from Delanova, brightly coloured spices from Faro, live salmon in great casks from Andurin, caged orange monkeys from far away Karthor, sparkling jewels and hewed gold from Lisborem the Golden Isle and exotic looking fruit in a rainbow of colours just arrived from Egorand. The dockyard enjoyed a plethora of colour and excitement.

Noon had struck and with it the sound of men shouting orders to one another over the creaking grinding sound of the cranes filled the street with an unmistakable aura of hard work. Thais adored sitting on the cracked stone bank, staring out at the swarming docks, so full of muddled energy. The mass of unwashed burly men and the exotic goods they traded in were a far cry from the organised quiet hub of the city. How unfair the girl thought, that heirs to the throne were bound to spend their days living in the Green Palace. How she would have loved to transfer the seat of power of the nation to a townhouse on the banks of the river facing the heaving teeming life of the docks.

Thais had arrived on horseback, as was her usual mode of transport in and about the city. Her horse she had tied to his customary post and now she stood, ready to burst into the nucleus of activity within. Never had she arrived at the Greenwood family home to find it anything less than a writhing loud jumble of hustle and bustle. With over thirty individuals living under one roof, disorder and chaos reigned supreme.

Smiling resolutely Thais stepped forward and pushed into the heavy wooden door, which led straight into the large and lively kitchen. She had never found the door locked.

“Watch it!”

Startled the youngster pulled pack and peered round the door to see she had nearly toppled the stack of bowls out of the hands of one of the older Greenwood girls. She knew this one to be Stella; a foul-mouthed wretched young woman who had spent her teenaged years entangled in a series of complicated romances and now was seeking to disentangle herself from her reputation in order to find herself a good husband. Kaio and Rachel were praying every night to Reeva, the Goddess of Marriage, that no such good fortune befall their tempestuous cousin.

“My apologies,” the princess called after the lanky young lady before she slunk around the door and shut it behind herself. Her half-hearted gesture received only a sneer in return and after suppressing a smile Thais looked about to see if her friends were around.

“Young Thais!” The girl’s dark eyes spun around to see that Kosa, Kaio’s older brother was sat at the table, trying yet failing miserably, to mend a hole in a much beloved pair of britches.

“Kosa,” the girl greeted fondly, before she ambled over to the sixteen-year-old youth, who had spent the better part of the morning pricking his finger on a darning needle.

“How does this fine day find you?” the youth asked cheerily, abandoning his work for a moment.

“Unwell. I have spent the morning locked away underground training!” The tall boy smiled and cast his handiwork a withering look; how he would love to trade in his monotonous tasks for a chance to train with king Gallus in the famed training grounds.

“‘Tis a hard life is it not?” Thais smirked and cocked her head to the side.

“You’re making fun of me when you’re the one trying to use a needle this size to repair a pair of britches?” The girl reached out lightning quick to whisk away the brutish thing from under Kosa’s fingers with a gleeful smile.

“Indeed I am,” the boy countered, stealing the needle back with ease after Thais resolved not to fight him for it. “What of it? I’m doing a fine job am I not?”

Kosa held up the britches sending a cascade of light beams onto the wall opposite where the sunlight streamed through the holes his needlework had created. Thais suppressed her laughter and nodded.

“Aye,” she managed happily. “A mighty fine job. Tell me, where is that brother of yours?”

“He has been sent upon an errand I believe.”

“Oh yes, where?”

“To Coscona Market with Rachel. The pair of them managed to destroy tonight’s supper somehow and have been given a half silver piece to make amends. They will be there till sundown I fear when all the sellers shift their goods for pittance.”

Thais sniggered and nodded.

“I’m glad I’m not eating here tonight. I don’t envy you the meal they’ll be able to supply with Acrabar’s leftovers, I tell you that much.”

“Your compassion warms my heart princess.”

“Yes I know,” the girl sang as she ambled back towards the door. “They will sing songs of my kindness when I am old. Just you wait.”

Kosa laughed heartily and nodded to the youngster before she disappeared into the sunshine the way she had come. Coscona market lay several streets away from the docks, but on such a fine day Thais decided to leave her horse behind and take the journey on foot. Noon brought with it an exciting time in Titua’s daily routines, as this was when all the interesting people emerged from their towering buildings to find themselves a good meal in one of the city’s many eateries.

Mages ambled through the crowds in a state of complete calm in their sweeping cloaks, their affiliations defined by the colour of their decadent attire. Gold meant they were instated at the Lumia Institute, the most prestigious such institution of its kind anywhere in the Agea. Lumia lay far away to the west, yet so easily could these powerful men and women move themselves where they wished, they were never a rare sight in Titua. A scarlet cloak signified a connection with Eden College. Though whenever Thais saw these individuals she ducked into hiding for fear of being collared by one of them and forced to discuss her lack of progress in their lessons. Emerald cloaks were perhaps the most prestigious of all and were worn with the most pride, as these were the mark of those in the service of the royal family and the guard. Battle mages, Thais and her friends liked to call them and indeed it was not a misplaced title by any means. The mages of the guard went into battle along with the soldiers and were perhaps the most revered of all sensitives in the land.

As well as the mages Thais loved catching sight of the healers and the surgeons, who often strode out together to find themselves something tasty to keep up their strength and to debate the merits of their chosen career paths. The Healers, born sensitives, would rage on about the clumsy nature of modern surgery and speak only of the powers the ether held in the healing of ailments and injuries. Surgeons on the other hand, who generally had not a jot of ether sensitivity, would claim that the ether, powerful as it may be, had no power within the body and that only modern surgery might cure a sick organ or put right a severed limb. That these two practices were entirely dependent upon one another seemed rarely to crop up in conversation. Why trouble the rational when there was a good debate to be had?

Usually found scurrying about the market stalls and small businesses were figures both hated and sought after. Most people considered it a token of good luck when they caught the rare sight of a taxman sitting down to enjoy a dove rice bowl from one of the stalls along the busy road. Thais loved seeing these often small and hunched over denizens of the great city of Titua, as she had heard so many horror stories of their wheeling’s and dealings. Personally, the girl saw little to fear in the pale pointy-faced creatures, but nevertheless she sat and watched them, waiting for them to strike. They invariably never did.

The alchemists, identified by their soot-stained faces and burnt sleeves, often sat beside the highways drinking sweet sherry and doing battle with the chemists over a game of Go. Neither ever seemed to win and though it perplexed Thais, they seemed not to mind and always ended their lunchly ritual with a polite smile and a nod of the head before going their separate ways.

Much could be learnt by strolling past the steps of the temple where the professors heckled the philosophers and the priestesses harangued the professors in turn. Thais knew little of the grand themes behind their heated arguments, though she loved to see the usually reserved and peaceful priestesses giving the bearded capped professors a piece of their minds.

Noon portrayed Titua at its best and Thais adored strolling through the colourful streets meeting all its eccentric inhabitants. None seemed quite so eccentric as the traders at Coscona Market and the princess was always quite happy to arrive at the heaving centre of Acrabbian life. Bright colours and powerful smells overpowered most travellers and they often took the market one aisle at a time for fear of becoming desensitised to its madness. It was well-famed throughout the continent and had found itself into the pages of many a guidebook written for breeds of more adventurous travellers.

A stream of carts brought the products and produce from the docks, while an even busier stream of horses and carriages brought with them from the main highways produce from the bountiful southern farmlands. Everywhere one looked there was something new and exciting to stop and stare at and so Thais had a rule. If ever she were on business at the market she would keep her eyes to the ground. However, if she had time to spare she would keep her eyes fixed upwards, constantly swivelling from one wondrous sight to the next.

Seeing as she had come to find Kaio and Rachel, aid them in their quest and then whisk them off to the countryside, Thais chose the former of her strategies and looked not at the distractions all around her. The market was an enormous sprawling entity and were she anyone other than the Heiress to the Green Throne, then her task might have been impossible. Yet Thais was said royal and she knew that within moments of her arriving at the market her friends would come to her. News of her arrival would spread quicker than the gold coins passing from hand to hand and would undoubtedly reach Kaio and Rachel’s ears before too long, Thais was sure of it.

“Oy, shorty, out the way.”

Correct, as usual.

“And if I refuse?” Smiling Thais turned around to meet the happy faces of her dearest friends.

“Then I’ll run you down with this,” Kaio retorted joyously, indicating the heavily laden wheelbarrow of fruit and vegetables. Feeding a family the size of the Greenwood clan was no easy feat.

“Very well, but before you flatten me you need to answer two questions. How in the Graces did you destroy a wheelbarrow’s worth of food? And secondly, how did you buy all that with only a half piece?”

“Kais?” Kaio merely asked, ignoring the questions. Thais grinned and shook her head. “Kuro?” the boy tried again.

“Kaio she spoke with Kosa,” Rachel interjected before her cousin could run through his entire list of nine brothers. Why he had started with the youngest was beyond her; as she severely doubted that seven-month-old Kais could explain to the princess their whereabouts. “And for your information Thais, we did not destroy the vegetables alone. It was a joint effort.”

“Yours and who else’s?”

“It was a family of pygmy hedgehogs if you must know and as for our bartering skills…” Rachel paused for a moment to allow Thais’ drain-like laughter to subside. “As I was saying, as to our bartering skills, you, of all people Thais, should know that Kaio doesn’t know the meaning of the word no. He’s too thick-headed.”

“Oy,” the boy grumbled fondly. “I can give you your own half-piece cousin and you can go and find your own supper if you wish.”

The tall girl gave Kaio an angelic smile and shook her head quickly.

“Not now the princess has come so far to find us. What’s on your mind Thais? Where are we going?”

“You know me too well,” the shortest of the trio crowed happily, before she moved out of Kaio’s path at last when he seemed intent on rolling the heavy wheelbarrow straight up her shin. “Might I just ask, pygmy hedgehogs?”

“No you might not,” Rachel countered firmly and she rolled her eyes. “Now out with it.”

“Fine,” the fair girl chuckled happily, her good temper fully restored after her earlier upset. “I thought we might take the horses down to the southern hills. We haven’t been down those parts in a while and as it’s such a fine day…” The girl trailed off to glance at her friends’ expressions. Kaio seemed to contemplate the idea, though Rachel seemed dubious. “What is it?”

“Well isn’t it awfully late to be contemplating so far a ride? We won’t be home till long after sundown and that’s if we’re lucky.”

“Well perhaps I don’t want to be back by sundown. Why don’t we camp out for a few days?”

“But Thais, ‘tis midwinter,” Kaio grumbled with a furrowed brow, knowing full well that the princess rarely felt inclined to travel even as far as the outskirts of the city during the cold months, let alone camp out in the wooded hills far to the south of the city.

“Yes and what of it? Does winter need to halt an adventure in its tracks? Look at the weather friends, we might not enjoy such an opportunity for a full season.”

Kaio and Rachel exchanged raised eyebrows. Both could sense an untold reason for Thais wanting to take her leave suddenly from the city, though understand what this reason might be they did not. Who would be the one to ask the awkward questions? Unblinking eyes met unblinking eyes, until finally a speck of dust flew directly into Rachel’s pupil causing her to shut her eyes abruptly. Kaio’s smug smile forced Rachel into submission and she sighed heavily before looking to Thais, who was distractedly staring ahead at a bright yellow cloaked mage; no doubt a visitor from the city of Jal-Rein’s leading college.

“So are you going to tell us what you are running away from?” the flame-haired girl asked grimly, expecting a backlash from Thais’ forked tongue. The princess may have seemed angelic in her fair countenance, but underneath her innocent exterior lay the temper of a hurricane. Rachel knew this better than most.

“My father,” the shorter girl grumbled, surprising both cousins in her readiness to open up about her troubles. Indeed, Rachel had not needed to pester the princess at all, which flew in the face of Thais’ usual reaction to having one of the Greenwoods push their way into affairs where their nosiness was not wanted. “He embarrassed and insulted me today in my training. He’s so smug I tell you! He thinks he knows everything about me…”

“He might have a point…” Kaio pondered aloud, earning himself an elbow to his ribs and a bruise to his toes when he consequently dropped the wheelbarrow on them in surprise. “Thais you maniac, just because I don’t agree with everything you say does not mean you need to brutishly wound me.”

“Well you should know where your allegiances lie Kaio!”

“Oh I am in no doubt about that princess,” the tall boy replied with a rogue-like smile of his own. “With your father of course.”

“Kaio,” Rachel chuckled, shaking her head now she could see this interlude was edging around disaster rather than confronting it head-on.

“What?” the boy laughed. “He is my king after all.”

“And I your best friend. Who do you value more you mindless oaf?”

“The one who is yet to insult me today.”

“Enough, the pair of you,” Rachel cut in happily. “Thais you wouldn’t normally let your father wind you up into such a state. Why was today any different?”

The princess sighed and shook her head. Now she had started she could not very well remove herself from her confessions and so she looked from one cousin to the next with as much gravity as she could muster before she spoke, “Something is amiss friends.”

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