She awoke with a start.
Yolas was watching her and she raised her hands up as if to cover herself, but she was not naked.
“Must have been quite a nightmare, you were tossing all night, milady.”
“I'm alright.” Winter said.
He poured her more juice and she drank deep, sighing to herself.
“I get a lot of nightmares, too.” Yolas admitted.
“How do you deal with them?”
“I don't sleep.” He said with a grin and she wasn't sure if he was trying to be funny. He did said he had a penance of being silly, so she just ignored it assuming he was mocking her. She shivered, but remembered her conversation the night before with Agren. She liked Agren, he was familiar, gentle and strong. Remembering what he said about the Willowwoods, she felt the warmth of the sunshine and the glimmer of light emerging from the gaps in the curtains, so she pulled them aside to look out, her eyes opening in amazement as she saw the woodlands, thick lush and alive, the leaves were red, brown and green. Spotted does looked on as their carriage passed through and she felt alive, drinking in the smell of the fresh environment.
Maybe it wasn't so bad? She thought to herself.
Winter relaxed and kept watching. The road winded down to what seemed to be around a valley and she was surprised to see it was tiered, brilliant green and wet. In those terraced fields worked a number of folk, with broad straw hats and pants pulled up as they waded in the water. They looked yellow and wrinkled by the weather. “Who are they?”
“Zephran folk, farmers.” Yolas said.
Winter imagined her husband was a wrinked little boy waiting for her and she chuckled at the absurdity of the idea. “Yolas, you know so much, how old are you?”
Sadly and utterly seriously, he murmured, “You wouldn't believe me if I told you.”
“Seventeen? No, sixteen.”
Yolas laughed. “Sure, let's go with that.” He said and with a glint in his eyes, he smiled and said nothing more.
Winter was about to ask more questions when far off, the road passed a crest and the ocean in the distance, came into the view, met the horizon, both the sky and water were so blue she could not tell where one began and the other ended. Never had she seen the shore, only read about it in books and she just grinned forgot all her sorrows in an instant.
“Is that the sea?”
“Yes, and below that is Tarith.” He pointed at the sprawling city by the coast. Unbelievably large and dense compared to what she was used to in the countryside of Riel. “Nothing like the big cities of Tarn, but come night, you'll see why they call it the City of Lanterns.”
Tarith was smaller than the cities of Tarn? She recalled she knew nothing of the big cities in her own home country, but Tarith was impressive, nestled against the coast, with many terracotta roofs and building pressed against each other. Just in one of those small blocks were probably more people than were in all of Riel. She wondered what they would be like, what they would sell and do; the magnitude of it all sent her mind spinning.
The excitement began to wore off when Winter realised that the journey was not yet over and it was many hours later when the sun finally began to set and she had fell asleep once more for a few hours, before waking up fatigued and unrested. “I need to relieve myself.” She said tired, no longer feeling so dressed or pretty as when she left.
“In a moment, milady.” Yolas said, we're about to enter the gates now, you'll be home in a moment.”
Home? Was she really home? The idea was so strange that it seemed impossible, yet at the same time, she was far, far away from her stepfather's reach. Maybe she would not see her mother again, but their relationship was sour at best, no maybe it was for the best. Agren was pleasant and Yolas was tolerable. If she met more people like that, it might be bearable, even if her husband was not the greatest. Hopefully, he was not terrible. She remembered those words, cruel but fair. She shivered and did not like the idea of cruel; Winter was worried and would do her best to do no wrong, lest she ever taste anything else but his fairness.
She wanted to look outside, but Yolas spoke firmly, “Don't look outside, it's not appropriate. It is not far from the palace.”
“The palace?” She felt a greater urge to look outside, but held her peace. The carriage was not moving, stopped at the gate. Puzzled, she looked at Yolas who listened to Agren talking. Something was going on and a knock on the door came. Winter read Yolas's emotions and it made her felt uneasy. He checked the window and noticed a soldier waiting for him with a letter. The envelop was long and he opened the door ajar enough to take the letter, before closing. Then they were on their way.
Yolas opened it and read quickly. Winter couldn't help but to glance, even though it was not her business, but the paper was thin and written in a script she did not recognise. As Yolas finished, he folded it and put it back, taking a moment to consider what was said.
He looked at Winter and she waited expectantly on his word. His look seemed to be a frown.
“What's wrong?” She ended up asking.
“My master sends his apologies. His father, is very ill and likely on his death bed, so he was called home all of a sudden. He won't be back until the matter is resolved. There are arrangements to have you cared for, so don't worry about it.”
Winter took a breath. It was unexpected, she had been building up with anticipation all for nothing it seemed. The news was welcome, more time to get ready, but also more time to wonder and worry. Of course, her mind was alert and keen at this point, even though she felt somewhat tired by the journey.
“What matter is to be resolved?”
“I suppose it is unfair to withhold answers at this point, but my master's father, is in fact, the Emperor of Zephris and the letter suggests that his passing is a very likely matter. This will leave the throne empty and a slight possibility that you might be married to the next Emperor of Zephris.”
Winter was speechless and a wave of scrambled thoughts came over her and she could make sense of it all in that short moment, so she held her peace as the carriage continued into the Palace of Willowwood, where she would reside, for as far as she knew, the rest of her days.