Let the Games Begin
The morning began in a rush. Vance was brought out of a dead sleep by a knock at his door, and the sweet smell of cooked meat and freshly brewed coffee. Although he was tired, he thanked the maid for waking him. Most of his servants knew he did not like to sleep late in the day. Three messages had been delivered and he threw them all on his bedside table after seeing they were not from anyone he really cared for. Another servant knocked just as he was buttoning his vest to announce that the council would meet that afternoon, and that his brother had scheduled a welcoming ball for that evening.
“Just like Ferin, to want to parade everyone around rather than actually deal with a problem,” Vance mumbled.
He was surprised when he got a short smile out of the servant, the man’s usually dull eyes sparkling a bit with amusement.
“Are you in need of anything, Lord Vance?” the servant asked at a length.
Vance was in the middle of forming the word ‘no’, when he stopped himself. He turned and lifted his brows, as if slightly surprised at his own thought.
“I would like to see my father,” he said.
The servant nodded and backed out the doorway carrying Vance’s breakfast dishes.
“Of course, sir. I will send a page along for you once your father is available.”
As the door closed, Vance sat down at his desk and allowed the thought of his father’s imminent death to weigh heavily upon his mind. The past few days had been all about learning Tarragon’s secrets and meeting its leader. Even becoming closer to Rowena and her kin, and more especially Lora and her brothers. Then, Ferin had intervened and Vance had received a taste of just how vindictive his brother could be when one of his feathers was pulled. The idea that his father might pass on and leave the entire kingdom of White Phoenix to his brother scared him. Ferin was not fit to be a king. Of course, neither was he, but he was not about to allow his brother to hold the lives of the people in his hands. He was especially adamant about putting a stop to home burning, one way or another, and he knew his brother would eagerly continue the task. The more he thought about it, the more it worried him. There were so many issues that a king needed to keep resolved, and even with an entire legion of advisors and council members, he imagined that Ferin could not do it alone. Not without causing more havoc than his father had caused. But what was he to do?
Vance put his head in his hands and sighed heavily, staring down at the three envelopes below him. He knew nothing of the kingdom’s politics, its funds, or its trade market. Even if he did, there was no possible way of keeping his brother from the throne. Ferin was first born, first to follow in his father’s footsteps. Unless the king himself decreed it, there would be no going against tradition. The scrawled words on the envelopes became clearer to him as his mind detached itself from his whirling thoughts. One in particular caught his eye. It was a flowing signature that spelled out what he only now recognized as Lora’s full name. He opened the message and read the note twice.
It is imperative that you attend a meeting this very night. It will be held in a familiar place, and will be attended by familiar faces. We hope that your schedule can be cleared upon such short notice, and apologize humbly for the lateness of this invitation.
Post script - I have included a formal complaint against the criminal attack on the royal party.
Vance glanced over the complaint, seeing that it was written in the same clear and concise words that she had used in the more personal letter. Only the complaint was much more specific. It detailed the bandits’ attack, and listed everything from the number of them to what they were wearing, and what direction they had attacked from. Vance had a distinct feeling that Dale and Cameron had played a part in compiling the complaint.
“A familiar place with familiar faces,” Vance whispered to himself, staring out the window at the gray sky.
It looked like it would snow again. The thought of snow helped him to realize what place Lora had written of. It was the tavern. She wanted him to meet them in the tavern that night. Vance stood and began dressing in one of his best outfits. He even went so far as to attach his decorative cloak, and pin it at his neck with a brooch emblazoned with the kingdom’s symbol. He wanted to look his best, not only for his father, but for the council meeting that afternoon. If he was to get anywhere in the kingdom, he would need to impress some very important people.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
“It’s only customary to invite a guest to break their fast with the host,” Zane said in his usual drawling speech. “I would think they would enjoy some time away from that barbaric brother of yours.”
Ferin said nothing in return, but followed the black haired servant as she led him and Zane to the guest’s suite. He had made sure to keep the three of them in the best rooms they had; rooms which usually housed visiting royalty from other kingdoms. Even though he still did not believe that Rowena and her companions were the least bit royal, he was taking no chances this time. Not when he knew that one of the guests was the one called Silna. The very same female who had spoken as a representative of Tarragon. Though, he did think she made a much better example than Rowena herself.
The three reached the doorway, and Ferin rolled his eyes as he saw Zane fiddling with his hair out of the corner of his eye.
“Have you though that maybe the male and female are a couple?” he asked, and smirked for the first time that morning as he saw Zane’s posture slump a bit.
The servant knocked on the door, and it opened a moment later. Ferin and Zane had less than a second to stumble back out of the way as what looked like a stable boy and another maid hurried out, followed by Rowena and her two companions. They were all dressed for cold weather and looking quite disturbed. What disturbed him was that none of them paid him any mind. Not even the two servants, who were bound by law to show him respect.
Ferin cleared his throat as Zane regained his balance.
“Is there some sort of emergency that I’ve not been made aware of?” he asked, beginning to walk after the trotting group.
To his consternation, Rowena was the one to reply, and only by speaking over her shoulder at him.
“My horse is not well,” she said in a rush.
Ferin looked at Zane and found him lifting his brows, as if asking if he wished to follow. The group was out of sight by then, and Ferin sighed before lifting a hand.
“Yes, fine. We’ll take a much smoother way, though.”
The two exited out a side entrance of the castle that was similar to where the stable boy had led Rowena and her companions. They strolled carelessly, smirking as people bowed, and waving off questions of their needs. As Ferin found his way to the stable, he heard the commotion before he saw it. One great gray stallion was rearing, being hit back by two grown men with whips, while Rowena argued with another. The girl looked on the verge of tears as she yelled for them to stop. The stable boy hung from one of the men’s arms, but it did not hinder his work. Ferin found himself meeting the deadpan gaze of the white haired male, who now held a large white owl on his arm. The color of his eyes unnerved him.
“Gentlemen!” Ferin finally called.
He smiled softly as all of the attention turned to him. Only Rowena broke past the circle and jerked a rope from one of the stable workers’ hands. The two men bowed toward Ferin, and Rowena took that chance to lead the dancing stallion away.
“What is going on here?”
“Ah, Master Ferin. The Lady’s horse is wild! He kicked ’is door down and made to escape!”
“He does not like it here!” Rowena yelled from the other end of the stable.
“You must be careful with the types of beasts you bring to our stables, Lady Rowena. He is beautiful, but we cannot house dangerous animals,” Ferin said carefully, eyeing up the broken stall door.
He looked up to see Rowena leading a perfectly calm stallion back down to the large walkway. She looked angry, and there was no sign of courtly deference in her eyes.
“He would not be so dangerous if your men did not truss him up in ropes and whip him.”
It was Silna who replied. Ferin looked up to meet her fierce gaze and wondered at the contrast to the serene look that she usually carried. Was this a hidden facet of the Tarragon native’s true nature?
“I’ve told him that he will not be here forever, Lord Ferin,” Rowena said softly, leading the stallion into another box. “He should not be a problem, so long as your men leave him be.”
“The white one, as well,” Silna put in. “All of ours, in fact,” she said, glancing back to her male companion.
Ferin pursed his lips as he realized that both the male and his owl were still staring at him with ghostly blank looks. He was about to reply, when Zane let out a short laugh.
"Told him? Are you serious?”
Rowena was red in the face as she came out of the stall, and Ferin did not miss the exchanged glance with her white-haired sister. He narrowed his eyes and took in a long breath before tilting his head in acquiescence.
“Of course! You are our esteemed guests. I will see to it that your mounts are not bothered,” he looked pointedly at Zane until the blonde flinched a bit and pulled a pad of paper from his pocket.
He figured Zane would probably write nonsense down, but it did the trick. Ferin grinned.
“Also, we have a grand ball planned in your honor this evening. I believe your servants can provide proper attire for you.”
Rowena turned on her heel and put a hand on either hip, looking every bit the woman his mother had been when angry. It almost set him aback.
“And what news of the council meeting?”
“This afternoon, Lady. I thought messages had been sent to each of you?” Ferin replied without missing a beat.
“They may have been, but this morning has been nothing but a disaster,” she said, giving the stalls a meaningful look.
Once again, Ferin found himself unsettled by the two equine heads that stared at him evenly over their stall doors. One white, the other gray.
“You have the rest of the morning to relax then. In fact, Zane and I were on our way to invite you to breakfast, if you would prefer?” Ferin inquired sweetly.
“We wish to bathe and prepare for the council meeting, Lord Ferin. Thank you, but no., Rowena responded without even pondering the idea.
She moved to the stall and ran a hand over her stallion’s head before turning and saying something in a completely separate language to her companions. The male lifted his arm and let the owl take flight, and the female nodded.
“Well, good day, then,” Zane said, breaking Ferin’s reverie.
He pulled slightly on his arm and the two turned to leave. Only when they were out of earshot did Zane lean forward and whisper.
“A bit rude to the future king of White Phoenix, don’t you think?” he said in an annoyed tone.
“Indeed. I think they have spent too much time with my brother,” Ferin pursed his lips and ran a hand over his slicked back hair, an old nervous habit that he had yet to shake. “Do you think she spoke to her horse?” he asked, a twinge of familiarity coming back to him.
It was as if he had heard of such a thing in a tale, or maybe such a person, but he could not quite recall which. Zane snorted and shook his head.
“You speak of witch tales, Ferin. Have you had your wine this morning? I’d like to think we’ll need it for such a harrowing day.”
Ferin let his friend talk on, his own mind suddenly wandering with a new idea.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Silna blinked at the woman standing before her. Unlike the majority of the humans in the kingdom, this one was not staring at either she, Dolen, nor Rowena with any kind of fascination. Her clothing was what she had ascertained to be their lower ranking people’s garb, and she had reddish hair pulled back into a messy arrangement. She was observing their clothes with a look of marked disdain on her face. What seemed even more strange to her, was that the human stood with an armful of heaping fabrics and what looked like clothes-making supplies, and had no less than three needles pressed between her lips.
“Oh, come in, please,” Rowena said, moving around her to show the woman into Rowena’s room. It was the largest of the three, and also served as a sitting room. “I’m afraid you may not be able to accomplish much with us, ma’am,” Rowena said, taking an armful of her burden and laying it carefully on the chair.
Silna watched as the woman laid down her supplies and pulled the needles from her lips before speaking to Rowena in a courteous but harsh tone.
“Oh come off it, dearling. I’m here for measurements! You’ll have an army at your door in a few hours, for the prince wants ye all dressed proper for the ball this eve,” she said, her accent throwing Silna off only slightly. “And I’m no ma’am, just call me Kenzy.”
“What of the council meeting?” Silna asked.
Kenzy looked directly at her and waved her hand.
“Oh pish, there’s plenty of time to fit a dress to ye. They’ll send a messenger when it comes time for the meetin’,” When Silna’s face betrayed her emotions, the woman shook her head. “Don’t fret. Something as serious as that, they won’t forget ye. Come now, we’ll get to work.”
“What are you making, Kenzy?” Rowena asked, eyeing the glittering fabric.
“Mmm...” Kenzy rifled through her things and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper.
On it were sketches of dresses and suits that Silna thought looked more like painful costumes. She remembered Rowena’s dress when they had come to visit her during the snowstorm, and wondered if this woman thought to make her and Dolen dress like that as well. Silna chanced a look at him, and found him staring out the window, seemingly ignoring them. She wondered how much of the conversation he was actually aware of and figured it was likely more than he let on.
“I will wear no such thing,” she said after giving the paper another once over.
When Kenzy looked at her with wide brown eyes, Rowena cut in.
“I don’t think... I mean-” Rowena sighed. “The dresses look lovely, Kenzy, but we are not used to wearing such things.” She met Silna’s gaze and looked down at Dolen before shaking her head. “Are you ordered to make exactly that, or can you possibly bring something more...” once again she looked Silna over and smiled softly, “...flowing?”
Kenzy gave Rowena the same look she had given Silna in the doorway. After a moment she took in a short breath and lifted a finger.
“I think I can do such a thing for ye. After all, ye’re not from this place! I cannot expect ye to lace up into those horrid corsets.”
At Rowena’s smile and Silna’s nod, she sat on the couch, scribbling something on the sheet of paper.
“Now that pretty young man over there. I’m not sure how to make him look anymore fetching than ’e already is.”
Silna smirked as she noticed the slight pink flush to Rowena’s cheeks. She turned and lifted her chin.
“Dolen, come here and let this seamstress have a look at you,” Silna said, speaking Elven, but repeating the final word in Common for him to learn.
Her lips twitched at the look he gave her. Still, he stood and approached them, testing the word seamstress on his tongue in Common.
“Oooh, such an accent. Ye’ll have the girls swooning, ye will,” Kenzy blushed even as she looked him over.
Dolen stared back without expression.
“Do ye have any symbol in yer kingdom?” she asked.
Silna looked to Rowena with a lifted brow, and her sister thought for a moment before stepping forward and touching the bracer on Dolen’s arm. He lifted it for them to see, and Silna noticed the slightly scratched, but otherwise hard surface had been etched with a tree-like design.
“That, there,” Rowena said, lifting Dolen’s arm oddly for the seamstress to see.
Kenzy squinted, and finally smiled.
“Oh, simple but lovely,” she said, and at once seemed suddenly happy.
She grinned as she sat on the couch again, sketching and humming, making strange little noises as she worked while Rowena, Silna and Dolen merely stared. Only a knock at the door broke the silence. Lora entered with yet another handful of clothes-making supplies, looking tired, but certainly more flushed than she had the day before. Silna had worried at her pallor after the fight, but it seemed as though she were recovering well.
“I’m sorry, I slept over, and then I had to run an errand early on. I’m to attend you all for the remainder of the day, though. Let’s see what you have then, Kenzy!” Lora said in such a quick way that Silna nearly had trouble understanding her. “Oh,” Lora said, eyeing the paper. “Oh!” she brightened visibly. “That will be perfect!”
Silna’s brows drew down as her curiosity got the better of her. She looked to Rowena in question, but the girl only shrugged. Finally, Kenzy flipped the thin paper around to reveal new sketches.
These, Silna could appreciate. The dresses for her and Rowena were long and flowing, lacking a corset, and using only some sort of sash at the waist. Dolen’s sketch was a more dapper version of his current outfit, though tighter at the arms. It looked as though it would be darker, with the tree design on the right breast.
“I like these,” Silna admitted, and Kenzy beamed.
She took measurements from each of the three, and that turned into an entertaining hour for Lora. She went from smiling, to being red in the face, and finally outright giggling as Kenzy ran her measuring rope up Dolen’s legs and made slightly lewd comments about his muscle structure. Dolen himself stood still and brooded through the entire thing, while Rowena looked mortified, and Silna simply grinned.
Only a questioning thought of what Tey’ven might do in such a situation made Silna’s smile drop. A wistful feeling seeped into her as she thought his face might have been similar to Dolen’s. Maybe more demanding, since one of his status had every right to be. He likely would have attacked the men who whipped at Windwalker that morning. Then again, he likely would have attacked Ferin outright, and that would not have made matters any better. She had had trouble keeping her cool around the pitiless prince herself.
“Silna,” Rowena’s voice brought her out of her daydreams.
She saw her sister point toward Lora, who held up two different fabrics. Silna chose the lighter. It was a cream color, with white designs curving in a pretty way throughout. As Kenzy and Lora packed up, Silna wondered aloud.
“How will you make such things in a matter of hours?
“Oh, we’ve got talent, us ladies. ’Tis what we’re paid for, you know,” the red haired woman winked and lifted her bundle before moving out of the room.
Lora turned as if to go, but stopped and checked the door to make sure Kenzy had gone. She turned quickly and whispered to them all.
“Keep to Vance’s side at the ball this evening. We have a meeting with my father,” she said, then louder to Kenzy’s questioning. “Coming, Kenzy!”
“Aren’t you assigned to us?” Rowena asked.
Lora nodded. “I make sure you are well housed, fed, and clothed as royals should be,” she answered with a real smile.
Rowena suddenly looked quite sad, but Lora waved it off.
“I have lived all my life as a servant, Rowena. I enjoy this job more than most,” she admitted, giving Rowena a sure look before leaving.
Silna saw the look on her sister’s face, and knew that she was not happy. Truth be told, it unsettled Silna too to see Lora in such a position. She understood now why Lora had seemed so sad upon leaving Tarragon.
“I do not like the games they play, Rowena,” Dolen said at a length, having returned to the window.
“I think Ferin is the only one who does,” she replied.