Daughter of Tarragon

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Possible Complications

Vance watched the fire shift and dance in front of him, kept more for warmth than light now that the sun had risen. He heard the first sounds of what were servants beginning to take on the huge task of clearing the snow from inside the castle walls. With the amount of snow they had received in the night’s storm, he knew they had their work cut out for them.

The second prince himself had been up well before the sun had thrown its first rays over the horizon. Sitting as he was then, medium length hair spilling to frame his face as he stared into the fire. Though outwardly he seemed entranced, inwardly his thoughts had been running wild. The previous night’s happenings were enough to leave him baffled. From his kiss with Lora, to the discovery that fairies were, in fact, quite real, Vance had almost too much on his mind. Only the notion that Rowena had successfully intercepted her kin kept him the least bit calm. She had confirmed that all was well, and that they had understood her lengthy stay. Yet another wild thought of how the inside of Tarragon forest must look crossed his mind. He was still having trouble focusing, which was why he jumped clear out of his chair when a knock came at his door.

“Master Vance?”

Vance caught his breath and frowned within a moment.

“What is it?” he asked in a tired voice, realizing then exactly how long he had been awake. The sun’s rays lit his room in a dazzling fashion, splaying his shadow across the door he watched.

“Your Lord Father bids you to report to a council meeting this afternoon. The Lady Rowena is to attend as well, sir,” the servant announced, not even trying to open the door.

Vance sighed and made his way to the door, opening it enough for the servant to get a look at him. Surely the young man would need to report his findings to his father. Vance figured he looked just disheveled enough to be suffering from the expected hangover.

“Please inform him that I will attend and I will see to it that our lady guest joins me,” he tightened his voice a bit, but it did not need much.

Vance was tired and drained, so looking the part of one who had had too much to drink the night before easy. He watched through half-parted eyelids as the servant gave a curt bow and trotted off down the hall.

Another half hour found Vance dressed in his winter best, strolling within the castle’s border walls. If it could be called strolling. The servants were still shoveling and clearing pathways in the thick snow. As he passed, he noticed one hooking a draft horse up to what looked like a plow. With a short smirk, he realized it was a plow, and it would work quite well in clearing paths in the snow.

He made his was further away from the castle itself, moving along the already plowed road in between the various taverns, stores, and inns that were scattered about before the castle walls. One old woman was making a feeble attempt at removing snow from the walkway leading to her music store. Vance stopped, lifting his hand to shade his eyes as he watched. She obviously was not fit for the task.

“Have you no one to do that for you?” he asked in earnest.

“Of course not. This lot’s too busy recovering from their cups last night to do a th-” she had slowly turned to see who addressed her and stopped mid-rant, doubling over into a bow. “F-forgive me Lord Vance.”

“I’ll forgive you long before I forgive the lazy fools you have for neighbors. Here-” he made his way toward her along the skinny path she had managed and held out a hand.

“Oh, no Lord Vance, this isn’t work for-”

“It’s work enough for the young, and too much for the old,” he interrupted her argument, taking the shovel and starting right away on clearing a path through the snow. “I’ll have it done in no time and be out of your way,” he added, shoveling heaps of the heavy white substance as if it weighed next to nothing. His path was much wider and more clean cut.

“You are too kind, my lord,” the elderly woman spoke in a voice that very much contrasted the one she had used moments earlier.

Vance offered her a short smile over his shoulder. “I don’t believe there should be such a thing.” he said, his voice strained only slightly as he worked.

True to his word, he was done in a handful of minutes, though the fact that the second prince was shoveling snow had drawn more than a few glances and stares. He turned and offered the shovel back, only to see the woman standing with a cup of steaming liquid.

“Thank you,” she answered, offering the cup. “Take this, please. It’ll at least keep you warm.”

Vance took it with a grateful smile, nodding to her as he turned on his heel and continued his morning walk. He decided, as he sipped at some of the best hot cider he ever had, that he may just make morning walks a part of his routine.

The sun was beginning to shine directly off of the snow, making it seem as if the entire countryside was made of light. The short buildings he passed already left streams of smoke to drift into the air above them, no doubt warming rooms and stoves to prepare for the day’s patrons. Most recognized him and hailed him with a grin and a wave. A few even bowed and some simply passed him by. The latter were admittedly his favorite.

He was in the midst of kneeling on a cleaned patch of stone to pet one of the local’s dogs, when he heard his name being called without the use of some sort of title.

“Vance!” called Dale (or Cameron’s) voice.

Even as he stood, lifting a hand to shade his eyes and squinting, he could not tell the twins apart. Not until the one trotting ahead was jerked back by the collar.

“Master Vance,” said a lower voice. That was Cameron.

“You’ve got to see this!” Dale continued in an excited voice.

“It isn’t anything grand,” he heard Rowena’s voice trail after them, a slight accent slipping into her words.

He wondered what her native language sounded like. As his eyes focused more, he could see that all three of them were dressed for the weather. All wore layers of clothing and heavy boots and Dale and Cameron sported their guard capes. Rowena looked more serene, wearing the white outfit she had come to the kingdom in, along with a borrowed cloak.

Dale scoffed and Cameron shook his head, a bit of disbelief even gracing his face.

“It is a sight to behold,” he said in a truthful tone.

“I’m not sure anything could be as surprising as what I just saw!” came Lora’s voice from Vance’s back.

He spun, and his eyes immediately focused on her. She was wearing a long skirt, slightly wet at the bottom from the snow, and an old fur-lined jacket to keep warm. Her hand was shading her eyes now as they all looked at her.

“A prince of the kingdom shoveling snow for an old woman,” she finished, coming to a stop before them all and smiling in a matter of fact manner.

Vance opened his mouth to speak before feeling a hearty slap to his back.

“Aw, Lor. You know Vance is as good a man as Dad says he is. Nothin’ like prissy Ferin,” Dale’s voice boomed as it always had.

“He’ll likely be holed up by a fire all day,” Vance heard himself speak out loud, turning to give Dale a thankful smile and stare up at the castle. He was suddenly anxious to change the conversation subject.

“All the better for us,” Dale said, pulling at Vance’s sleeve as a child might. “C’mon, this is amazing! Lor, you too!”

The small group followed Dale as he trotted into the snow covered streets, hopping over drifts and running ahead of the rest of them.

“Not sure why he’s going so fast. Rowena’s the only one who can do it,” Cameron said with a lifted brow, watching his twin amusedly. The four of them strolled, admiring the buildings and the people around them as the entire kingdom began to bustle around.

Dale had been leading them to the stables, which looked serene, even against the stone-walled backdrop. When Vance entered, he watched Rowena approach her white mare (who had apparently been left to stand outside of her stall). What surprised him was the fact that beside the shining white mare stood a slightly taller, but just as gallant looking black stallion. Dancer was not only untacked, but had no restraint holding him to any part of the stable. While Vance trusted him not to run, he looked a bit set aback to see that someone else had let the arena stallion out of his stall.

“Wait, Dancer isn’t-”

“He isn’t supposed to be out, yes. However, seems he and Spirit have a companionship now,” Rowena stated, and despite her accent the sarcasm was clear as she gave the mare a baleful look. “Dancer is well aware of his boundaries, according to Spirit,” she finished, hands lifting to her hips in a manner that made her seem a bit more... human.

Still, the fact that she and her horse had a mind-to-mind relationship was strange to him. He could not quite wrap his imagination around it.

“You can speak to Dancer as well?” he asked as he leaned as casually as he could on one of the stall doors. The casual act was broken when the stall’s tenant nipped at his sleeve, causing him to jump and back off again.

“No,” Rowena went on, “He does not have the same mental link as Spirit and I do. She explains it to be a part one of the gifts our home lays upon its creatures. She was born and raised in Tarragon, while your stallion was not,” she shrugged. “He is quite-”

“That’s not it though! Show ’im Lady!” Dale blatantly cut in, growling and turning on his brother as he cuffed him in the back of the head. They both ignored their sister’s exasperated sigh.

Rowena shook her head and smiled. “Of course!” she seemed to have been reminded by Dale’s urging, and turned to look at Spirit.

“Why don’t you start with the high steps?” she asked aloud, but toward Spirit.

Immediately, the white mare turned so that she faced the open end of the long stable, and Dancer followed suit. Both horses began to lift their legs in one of the more difficult steps that Dancer had learned years ago. It did not surprise him to see Dancer performing the steps. What made his jaw drop in the slightest bit was to watch the muscular stallion performing without a rider to instruct him. It was amazing to see him performing seemingly on a vocal command that came from either Rowena, or Spirit. He figured it was the latter.

“How do you- does she-” Lora tried to form the words, echoing Vance’s thoughts as his eyes moved to focus on her. For a reason he refused to dredge up, he could not seem to meet her gaze.

“I am able to communicate with Spirit, and Spirit has a way of telling Dancer,” The foreign girl answered, still facing the horses.

“They do the best thing out in the arena!” Dale yelled and trotted after the two militant horses.

They did look like a pair of strictly trained war-horses going to battle. Once the group had made the walk out to the arena, both horses again turned to face Rowena, as if waiting for her next command. The girl waited politely until her audience had stopped behind her and shrugged a bit, still keeping the humble attitude.

“It honestly is not anything special.”

“It may not be to you, but it is quite rare to see things like that around here,” Lora replied, and Vance nodded in agreement.

“She’s right. In fact, I think Dale is going to run a circle into the snow if you don’t show us soon,” he said, eyeing the wide-eyed twin with amusement. Cameron’s eyes were still on the horses, though he seemed to be in a more restrained phase of awe.

“Alright. Can you show them what you did before? ” Rowena asked her mare this time, who responded with small nodding motion.

Again, both horses turned in unison and began a series of maneuvers that would have taken years to train. Dancer performed motions and crossing steps that neither Dale or Cameron, both seasoned stable boys, had ever seen him do. In the end, both equines raised themselves up onto their hind legs and stepped forward cautiously before landing again, nodding their heads in a sort of bow.

The group clapped, and both horses ears perked forward, short bursts of mist coming from their noses. They seemed to enjoy the reaction.

“That was amazing!” Lora exclaimed.

“I’m sure Dancer did not learn those things here,” Vance added.

“He likely didn’t. Spirit explained to me that she and Dancer had a sort of conversation,” Rowena made a slightly confused face. “He must have shown her what sort of things the horses here do, and she found it fascinating that such things were put on display for humans. In Tarragon, things like that are-” but she was cut off by a faint clapping sound.

All five of them turned their heads to see what Vance had almost expected, his brother making his way into the arena. With him this time was only his usual bay mare, allowing him to lead her by a studded halter.

“I’m not sure whether to be pleasantly surprised or worried for you all!” Ferin bellowed, a haughty grin on his face. “While that was a performance like I’ve never seen, I’m quite positive that father will not like to hear that Dancer is being worked out so often.”

“Last time he was worked was yesterday! He’s due for it,” Dale blurted out, adding a light ‘my lord’ after his words.

“Oh, yes, of course. Yesterday. However, I’m sure I saw him out with the lady’s mare very late last evening,” Ferin went on, seeming to take Rowena’s worried look in a different way. “Oh, they were fine. The riders obviously returned them to their proper places, but I do wonder who those riders could have been,” he spoke with venom in his voice now, his light eyes giving the entire group a once over.

Vance smirked, somehow feeling better that his brother’s idea of what had happened was still muddled. This would make it much easier to form a lie.

“The lady professed that her mare needed a run. I offered to show her the outskirts of our territory.”

“In the middle of the night? During a blizzard, no less?” Ferin was showing exasperation now.

Spirit lifted her head slightly, ears flickering back and forward again. Vance was thankful that his brother was not paying much attention. Anyone else might have been uneasy with the way the horse seemed to be following the conversation.

“What can I say, Ferin? I was a bit into my cups last night,” Vance replied easily, his eyes moving to the castle. “Now, if you’ll excuse us, Lady Rowena and I need to prepare for the council meeting, and I believe you three have duties to attend to,” he spoke in a harder tone.

Immediately, the three siblings nodded. Lora offered a short curtsy before hurrying off behind her brothers, obviously avoiding Ferin’s eye lest she be recognized. Rowena moved on ahead, Spirit following after obediently, and the younger prince moved as well, glancing back to be sure Dancer followed.

Ferin pulled at the halter on his mare so that he could stand closer to his brother.

“Father will hear of this, Vance,” he whispered harshly, his breath a mist around Vance’s face.

He and Dancer simply moved on, following Rowena into the stable as his thoughts ran wild. Was his brother actually falling for Rowena, or was it just another grab for power? In either case, he was very dangerous. It was not often that Ferin did not get what he wanted.

Vance picked up his pace as he remembered his father’s words the night before.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -- - - - - -

“I tried to get his mare to rear on him, but I believe she is as fog-headed as he.”

Rowena offered a short smile and shook her head, speaking back to Spirit only through her thoughts. There was no room for mistakes, especially since she was now aware that she was being watched.

“I still can’t understand how he saw us! I didn’t see anyone outdoors last night.”

“A man of his status would have trained professionals to do such jobs. You’re lucky whoever saw you didn’t notice that both riders wore dresses.”

Rowena nodded and sighed heavily, watching as Spirit reluctantly entered the guest stall in the stable. She knew the horse was uncomfortable in the wooden box. Spirit was used to roaming where she liked, and having to play dumb was probably a tiring job.

“We won’t be here much longer, Spirit. I promised Silna that I’d return for the winter ceremony, and with the meeting being today...” her eyes widened as she remembered what Vance had mentioned. “It’s today!” she said out loud as well as mentally.

Spirit nodded once, sending her white mane flying.

“Do not worry. Follow Vance’s lead and keep your mind on your task. That young man has his mind in the right place. How strange it is that his family does not,” Spirits thoughts went from words to a muddled humming sound that Rowena recognized as deep thought.

She heard Vance coming in with Dancer behind him and turned, though she still heard Spirit’s voice.

“And do not fret over me. They feed us well here, and the walls keep the wind out.”

Rowena nodded and offered the white mare a soft smile before moving to meet up with Vance.

“The meeting will be today, then?” she asked, wanting a solid confirmation.

The younger prince nodded, opening the stall door and watching in slight amusement as Dancer simply went in and turned about. As he closed and locked it, Vance let out a heavy sigh, looking back to check for Ferin.

“Yes. My father has asked that you and I attend,” he said as they began to walk out of the stable.

Rowena’s eyes focused on the light and shadows that played over the opening a few meters ahead, wondering how long they had spent in the arena. It had not felt like long at all, but it looked as if midday was peaking. Come to think of it, she was getting hungry.

“Rowena,” Vance started, and she focused back on him, wondering why he seemed to be having trouble forming words.

“I’ll stay quiet unless directly spoken to,” she assured him, thinking that was his concern.

Vance nodded and mumbled something about that being best, but then lifted his gaze to meet hers, still looking concerned.

“Are you married?” he asked.

Rowena had to think for a split second about what ‘married’ meant. A blink later and she remembered how the word married, or ‘to marry’ translated. He was asking if she had a life partner.

“No,” she said at a length, her brows drawing down in confusion.

It was obvious that Vance was attracted to Lora, and not her, so why ask such a question?

“My father is the type to...” Vance was again having trouble with words, but she let him continue, since he seemed to be answering a question she had not yet. “He sees a free lady of rank and means to join her with another free lord of rank,” the prince explained, meeting her gaze to see if she followed.

Slowly, but surely, she did. If she understood correctly, she did not like where this conversation was going.

“At dinner last night, he mentioned that Ferin may be interested in courting you,” Vance practically choked out. “He seemed quite thrilled with the idea, since Ferin is due to settle on one lady soon,” he pursed his lips after that statement, as if the idea seemed ridiculous.

“I just want to warn you. He may assume that you are interested in the role,” Vance finally finished, straightening his posture as they left the stable.

Rowena found herself looking around at the snow covered kingdom grounds. Though the sun was behind a thick layer of clouds, shadows played on the landscape. After days of being too nervous to see straight, she was finally able to see the kingdom she had dreamed of as a child.

“Would it be alright to tell him that my heart lies elsewhere?” she asked slowly, not even properly thinking her words through.

When she did get around to it, her eyes lost focus on the surrounding landscape as she tried to rein in her suddenly swirling thoughts. Oblivious to her sudden and almost surprised look, the prince shrugged. The two walked in silence for a moment before he turned and looked at her, eyes wide.

“Simple! Tell him you’re betrothed. It will stop him in his tracks altogether to know that you are already spoken for within the bounds of your own kingdom,” he put a hand out in front of him as if something was there, and then smirked as he turned to walk more comfortably forward.

Rowena bit her lower lip and continued along with him, keeping pace and listening to his advice as they entered the castle. While she took it all in, the back of her mind was unable to focus on anything but memories of glowing green eyes and a rare but vivid smile.

Everything blurred together from then on. Lora met her in her room again to help her dress for the council meeting. It was a simple garment compared to the previous evening’s gown, but it took some time to get into the various layers of skirts and tie up yet another corset. Her hair had to be tamed and fashioned in a way that made her look demure and stately at the same time. Luckily, Lora could do such things as easily as she could breathe, although Rowena wondered how the girl could breathe as she released her worries about the intimate moment she had shared with Vance.

Rowena had admittedly drifted off while Lora was speaking, apologizing sincerely a few times over before Lora simply turned her around and looked her in the eye, crossing her arms over her chest in a stern fashion.

“Tell me about him,” was all she said.

Rowena blinked in reply, and Lora dropped her arms and shook off her stern facade.

“Really now. Ever since last night you’ve been preoccupied with something, or I’m guessing someone, and I’m due to be the listener now. You’ve been patient enough with my babbling on about my... predicament with Vance.”

Rowena smiled and shook her head, mainly at the fact that Lora had dropped the title from Vance’s name. It was a sign that she was seeing him less as a prince and more as a person. Such a transformation was possible, and it seemed that she was going through something very similar herself.

“I’m only just thinking about it recently. I had not realized how much I miss him when he isn’t around. Being here has made me miss all of Tarragon, really,” Rowena finally admitted, absently lifting a hand to the basic style Lora had pulled her dark hair into.

“Vance mentioned that his father was interested in seeing me courted by Ferin, and I replied without thinking that my heart lies elsewhere. I suppose I was not prepared to hear myself saying it,” she smiled and shook her head again, looking out the small dusty window in the room.

“What is he like?” Lora asked again, sitting in one of the chairs nearby. “What are they all like? The elves, I mean.”

“Oh, they’re all beautiful. There is no lie in the tale. All tall, with shining hair of many colors. It turns white in the winter, you know,” she said with a smile, her eyes bright with something that might have been nostalgia. “I’m a complete eyesore in these months where everything is white,” she fingered her hair again as her eyes focused on Lora.

The castle servant smile and nodded, urging her on. When Rowena stuttered, remembering her promise to herself not to reveal too much about Tarragon, she realized that she was as comfortable with Lora as she would with Silna. The girl had a trustworthy aura about her, and it was something that Rowena had come to rely on in her few day stay in White Phoenix.

“Go on, then. What is his name?” Lora asked, seeing Rowena’s hesitation.

Again the focus was brought back to him. To -

“Dolen. His name is Dolen. He is years older than I am, but still considered young. My sister and those her age are all considered barely adult in elven years as I am in human,” Rowena explained, and smiled softly when she found herself again trying to divert the subject. “Dolen has been my closest friend for most of my life, second only to Silna. His eyes-” she pursed her lips and turned to pace the room, the light skirt she wore shifting in the air as she did so.

“They almost glow, but then... so does everything in Tarragon. The forest itself gifts its inhabitants with magic, which is why they hold ceremonies for the seasons, like the one coming up in a few days,” her voice broke and she turned again to approach the chair Lora sat in, her eyes becoming more serious. “I shouldn’t say much more. Its... almost sacred.”

Lora nodded solemnly, her eyes half-closing as she lifted a hand in surrender. “I understand. It just seems so different from here. Almost like a dreamland.”

Rowena shrugged a bit and looked out the window again. “This place, this castle and the stables and the land here. To me this is a dream-land. Tarragon gets cold in the winter and hot in the summer, too. My neighbors might be elves, but they are not as apt to smile and be as friendly as we can be. I think I tend to scare them, sometimes,” she smiled again and turned so that her back faced the window pane. “To me its just home. As the castle is to you.”

Lora nodded and sighed heavily. “If the day comes that they allow more humans in, I’d love to see your home.”

“If the day comes, you will be the first I tell of it.”

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The council meeting was held in a cavernous room that lacked windows. It was lit by fire, but ornately covered glass lamps covered each small flame, so Rowena was not as nervous as she had been by her room’s fireplace. A rectangular table was placed in the middle of the room, with raised chairs at one end similar to the table at which they dined. It was obvious that the king’s status had to be promoted constantly through traditions and habits, such as his sitting higher than the rest of his council. The rest of the room was filled with extra chairs and bookshelves, packed solid with books and what looked to be maps in various stages of age.

She and Vance arrived earlier than most and took seats that Vance knew were designated for the two of them. Elder gentlemen of all sizes and ranks slowly filtered in after them, followed by Ferin, and finally the King of White Phoenix (who moved a bit more slowly, likely because of his perpetual illness of late). The resemblance to his sons was clear, although Vance was less so. Ferin was the split image of his father, while Vance only carried a similar brow line and nose.

All were quiet through the beginning of the meeting, while prayers and announcements were held on bland subjects that seemed to be a usual occurrence. Rowena was introduced formally, and she stood to curtsy as Vance had advised would be best. She kept her eyes averted until she was spoken to, which was not until much later in the council meeting, when the king himself addressed her.

“Lady Rowena, I assume you have attended council meetings in your own homeland?” he asked in a gruff tone, shuffling through the papers a small page boy had placed before him. The boy was currently doing his best to blend in with his surroundings, while watching for another order.

“Yes, your lordship. We convene on a regular basis,” she answered.

“Hmm, good to hear,” the king mumbled, finally finding what he must have been looking for and laying it out in front of him.

Upon looking closer, Rowena realized it to be a map. The king lifted a hand and laid it over what looked to be Tarragon, a glittering ring sitting where her home might be.

“This is your homeland?” he asked, his eyes looking yellow around the edges as he finally met her gaze.

Nodding, Rowena lifted her own hand lightly to trace the air. “Tarragon ranges through that forest, out into the clearing and into the forests to the east,” she explained, her eyes fixed on the map. Might as well be honest, she figured.

“Would you kindly explain to the rest of the council what you explained to me upon your coming to this kingdom?” he asked at a length.

Nodding, Rowena plodded on. “My people sent me as an emissary when Lord Vance and his guards were seen on the outskirts of our territory. We live a private life within the bounds of Tarragon, so we had an idea that you would be unaware of our very existence. I was sent to spread the knowledge to your people that we do exist, and Tarragon is our homeland,” she explained as carefully as she could. How else could one say ‘stay out of our home’ in a courteous manner?

The council hummed with mumbles and whispers from the men around the table. Some of them stared openly, while others simply nodded, either to themselves or in response to a neighbor’s whispered comment.

“I see,” the king replied in another mumbled tone.

His concentration was on the map for a few moments before he directed his view at one of the elder men on the council.

“Captain Varshale, you have spent many-a-night in adjacent territories. Tell me, have you noticed any sign of life amongst the trees of Tarragon?”

Rowena’s stomach dropped. The king had taken her word and seemingly brushed it off, going to another elder comrade for ‘proof’ as if she were a child prone to lying. Her eyes drifted to Vance, and his set jaw and narrowing eyes were a sign that she was not being paranoid.

Captain Varshale shook his head solemnly. “No, your highness.”

“Did the lady not just explain that her people are secretive? Tarragon’s lands span far and wide, nearly into Van Reston territory. You cannot expect a few of our esteemed guard to notice a people that may very well be buried in its midst,” Vance protested, obviously choosing his words carefully, making sure to compliment the guard.

The King turned his eyes to his son and seemed to contemplate, his lips twisting into what Rowena figured was a thoughtful purse.

“Personally, I find it rude that they would send a single one of their residents to meet the king of such a great kingdom,” Ferin cut in, his voice as snide and nasal as ever. Though, a moment later he did send a soft look in Rowena’s direction. “Not that I find you unfit, my lady. It is just not customary.”

“Not customary to us, maybe. You need to remember that we are dealing with a foreign people, Ferin,” Vance replied in a low tone, doing his best not to sound too condescending.

Apparently his best was not enough, if the scathing look his older brother gave him was any hint.

“Vance makes a true point,” The king cut in, drawing all eyes back to him in an easy sweep. “However, I do feel the need to solidify some sort of treaty with such a close neighbor, secretive or not,” his voice was once again leaning toward a father’s tone as his eyes settled on Rowena.

She did her best not to show any emotion. Vance had explained that even a slight lift of her brow could be used against her.

“What sort of things will be proposed in the treaty, your highness?” Nicholas piped in, and both Vance and Rowena’s eyes lifted to his. As before, the king’s attendant was having trouble hiding his skepticism.

“I will have it drawn up within the next few days,” the king said in a tired tone, signaling that the meeting would soon be over.

Rowena felt herself panic.

“Sire I must confess, my people hold an annual ceremony that will take place the day after tomorrow. I wish to attend,” she had to attend.

She had given her word to Silna. Rowena’s pleading gaze must have made an impression, for the rest of the room went silent.

“She has been here nearly a week, father. That is long for a single emissary to go without reports to her own people,” Vance put in, not betraying the uneasy feeling that coursed through him.

The king eyed them both and lowered his eyebrows in thought. Finally, he sighed.

“I do hope this ceremony does not involve witchcraft,” he mumbled as he stood. “White Phoenix will not treaty with witch-kind,” now standing, he nodded once and handed the page boy a stack of papers. “Fine. I will have the treaty drawn up by the sun’s rising, and you will be on your way to your homeland this time tomorrow,” he consented, and Rowena couldn’t hold back a wide smile.

It seemed to soften his demeanor. As he moved to leave, the other lords stood as well, gathering up their own paperwork and mumbling among each other.

“Father, will she not need an emissary of White Phoenix to attend to the treaty?” Ferin’s voice stopped them all, even the king, who was just nearing the door.

“Of course, Ferin,” this time the fatherly tone was dripping from his words. “We will decide that before the lady departs.”

The king was out of the room before the final syllable was spoken, leaving Ferin behind to shoot his brother a slit-eyed smirk. When Rowena and Vance were the only two in the council room, she stood, looking to the second prince hopefully.

“It went decently, I think? On the positive side, marriage wasn’t mentioned,” her accent slipped into her speech only slightly.

Vance ground his teeth again, lifting a hand to slide over his hair, though not mussing the ponytail this time. "That’s yet to be seen,” he stood as he spoke, moving to leave the room.

Rowena followed only a step behind, listening.

It was obvious that he was still worried, and it only struck her then what Ferin had mentioned. An emissary from White Phoenix would need to follow her home.

“They do not allow hum-” she cut herself off, eyeing the corridors they walked through. “They do not allow outsiders into Tarragon,” this time it was a whisper.

“I guessed as much.” he answered. “Not only do we need to worry on whom they will choose as your escort, but the treaty itself. My father is not known for fruitless alliances.”

They rounded a corner into a deserted hall, both moving quickly toward what looked to be one of the castle’s exits. Rowena noticed through the windows that the sun was setting already. Her stomach reminded her that she had not eaten since her talk with Lora.

“It is witchcraft, you know,” Vance whispered in a harsh tone, turning to look at her. “The magic you explained Tarragon has. Magic is known as witchcraft to those who think like my father.”

Rowena looked worried as she kept walking, her eyes no longer focused on where they went. “Maybe... I can ask to choose my escort?” she asked.

Vance shook his head slowly and quickened his pace. “Let’s grab something from the kitchen and see if we can’t catch the rest of them in the stables. We’ll think of something, even if it means knocking Ferin out for a day,” he said, obviously referring to Lora, Dale and Cameron.

Rowena nodded, glad he had mentioned the kitchen as her stomach growled again. Somehow, she trusted that Vance and would find a way around this problem.

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