The Bird and the Beast: V
Nornish nobility was odd, in Celia’s mind. Unrefined, uncivilised.
Lord Arlington had arrived just as the first snow had fallen, but he was not at all as she remembered him. The blackness of his hair, indeed; the rosy cheeks, certainly; his eyes, most definitely—but he was no longer the boy he was when she last met him. There was tragedy in his eyes, a sorrow most profound, and she found it strangely alluring.
But Sebastian Arlington was uncultured, almost a simpleton, and his presence in the White Citadel was rather irksome. She was, however, very well aware of her own shortcomings—Lord Arlington had seemed rather uninterested in her at first, and it had made her furious.
The day he had arrived, he had been quite timid. He was thankful to be brought to safety, but he had looked rather mortified seeing the chest of gold that was delivered to the captain of the ship as a reward for him. He had asked, quite bluntly, why the Emperor would pay so much for him and Celia’s brother had—as charmingly as ever—explained to the boy how important he was in their campaign against the terrible Grey Ones.
That Cereo had no plans on attacking or in any way lifting a finger to prevent what was happening in Nornest, and that he even awaited representatives of the beasts, was unbeknownst to Lord Arlington. The poor boy thought he had found an ally in the war when he, in truth, was nothing more than a show thing for Cereo’s court—they boy who escaped the beast, the survivor of the Night of the Demons, and the last male heir of House Arlington, the Blood of the First, rightful Duke of Noxborough.
Celia felt bad for him. She wished to at least tell him that one of the Grey Ones would arrive shortly after Winter Solstice, but Cereo forbade her. He wanted to see how the two parties would react upon their reunion, like a cruel experiment.
Since she could not go against the Emperor, she tried to make the boy think of something else instead. He seemed so morose, so blue, and she wanted to cheer him up. She also wanted him to see how accomplished she was, how great a dancer she was, and how madly in love with her he should be. She wasn’t infatuated with him, but she would not let Cereo have all the fun.
Little by little, Lord Arlington seemed to open up. He smiled more, spoke more often, and seemed less nervous as time went by. He often spoke of his sister, how he missed her and how he wished that she would be safe, but he never spoke of his father unless he was asked to. Neither did he speak of the atrocities he had experienced during the past few months since the Grey Ones’ arrival.
He proved to be an adequate dancer, but he was rather awkward in casual conversations. He seemed quite shocked about certain things within the Illyrian court, such as the feasts, the gambling, and the promiscuity; his Edredian puritan traditionalism was rather entertaining, but for a large court like the one Cereo held, such values were far too old-fashioned.
Celia was intrigued by this, as well. Lord Arlington was by no means an unattractive or disagreeable young man—quite the opposite. The ladies of the court all swooned after the stern, northern stranger, entranced by his pale eyes and complexion, but he made no advances, no devious suggestions. He, in truth, seemed rather awkward in the company of ladies.
With Celia, however, he seemed more and more comfortable. They often walked through the Cherry Gardens together, where she taught him the customs of Illyria, and he taught her of his home. He told her of his time in the dungeons deep beneath his ancestral home, and about the daring escape at sea that nearly cost him his life.
It was during one of those walks, a little more than a fortnight after Winter Solstice, the ship with the crimson sails entered into Valar’s Bay at last.
Sebastian, in a fit of panic, rushed to the gates of the White Citadel, but guards managed to stop him and calm him down. When Celia caught up with him, he was quite shaken.
“Don’t let them take me!” he hissed, over and over again.
Celia took him in her arms and hushed him gently. “No. I won’t. They’re not here for you. You’re safe here.”
She could not tell him how strangely excited she was to see the grey warriors that she had heard so many things about, but the boy seemed absolutely terrified.
The two of them then made their way to the Imperial Chamber where Cereo would receive his guests from his golden throne. Celia and Sebastian took their place behind the Emperor, and she held on tightly to the boy’s arm, squeezing it comfortingly as to show him that she was there for him, he needn’t be afraid.
Empress Dowager Danaia stood proudly next to her son, and beside her stood her personal guard, Sir Pierce, an old and humourless sort of man. The Empress Dowager appeared to be rather sour—or, more sour than usual. The woman had made it quite clear she detested the Grey Ones. Dressed in her ceremonial armour, and even wielding a sword, she was rather impressive as she stood tall by the golden chair.
Celia was nervous, excited, and terrified. The grey beasts had teased her mind for so long, and finally, she would meet them. When the Grey Ones finally entered, she nearly lost her breath.
They were enormous; skin like pale ash, eyes like glittering gold, and hair like black manes. The representative was lithe but impressively built nonetheless, dressed in black leather armour with a dark red cloak over his shoulders.
Behind him walked two massive soldiers, also armoured in black. They were taller, meaner-looking for sure, and quite possibly the most well-sculpted men she had ever laid eyes on—indeed, as terrifying as they were, she also wanted to touch them, feel their form underneath her fingertips.
Their golden eyes, all three pair of them, settled her way and she felt her cheeks redden. She readied herself to curtsy when she realised they weren’t staring at her, but at Lord Arlington.
The warriors seemed to tense up, but the leaner one seemed almost bewildered, happy. Tearing her eyes from them, she glanced up at Sebastian; the boy was paler than usual, his eyes widened.
“My friends!” called Cereo from his seat, and the Grey Ones directed their gazes at the Emperor. “Welcome to the Golden City of Valaris.”
The lither one bowed. “Vahanan, Your Imperial Majesty. We are thankful to have been invited to your magnificent city.”
Cereo chuckled. “Your accent is impeccable! I’ve never heard your language before. ‘Vahanan’. It sounds rather exotic, but your accent in the common tongue is excellent!”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
“And what is your name, sir?” As the Emperor leaned forwards, Celia could see a twinkle in his eyes—he was just as intrigued by them as she was.
“I am Kasethen,” said the lither one. “Advisor to the great Vasaath, General of Kasarath.”
“And your… magnificent companions?”
The leaner one, Kasethen, glanced in confusion at the warriors who, in turn, seemed equally confused. “These are kasaath, Your Majesty. Warriors.”
“I know they are warriors,” cooned Cereo. “I have eyes. I meant, what are their names?”
Kasethen turned to his men and nodded. The two men uttered words that might have resembled names, but Celia only caught their low rumblings.
Cereo nodded politely. “May I introduce my mother, Her Imperial Highness Empress Dowager Danaia.”
The woman curtsied gracefully, but Celia could see the disdain in her eyes.
Cereo, however, seemed none the wiser. “My sister, Her Imperial Highness Princess Celia Aurora.”
She curtsied as deeply and as beautifully as she possibly could. As soon as she had straightened, Cereo pressed on.
“And I believe you already know Lord Arlington, heir to the Noxboroughian throne.”
Kasethen blinked slowly. “I do. He is, of course, the former heir to Noxborough, but that is just a formal detail.”
“Of course,” nodded the Emperor. “I sense there is some tension between you. Perhaps you have some things to discuss?”
“A few, yes.”
“How wonderful it is, to bring friends together,” smiled Cereo coyly. Then he frowned. “Of course, I needn’t remind you that Lord Arlington is a guest of mine and under my protection. In fact, I paid a smaller fortune for him—so he will remain here. Any attempt at stealing him away would be a direct declaration of war.”
“I heard there were quite a lot of you on that ship,” continued Cereo. “Fifty soldiers, if I’m not mistaken. Are they expecting lodging?”
“No, Your Majesty,” said Kasethen. “They will remain on the ship. Ten of them will accompany me. These two men will be with me always.”
Cereo nodded. “Very well. I shall make the arrangements and send down some food to the docks as well. You all must be very weary after the travel. I’ve arranged a feast, and I’ve invited the best dancers in the entire Edredian world.”
The guests were led out of the Imperial Hall, and Celia accompanied Sebastian for a stroll through the palace halls. Surprisingly enough, he didn’t seem shaken. In fact, he seemed rather relieved.
“See,” Celia said, “I told you that you’d be safe here.”
“That man,” Sebastian said, “Kasethen. He saved me.”
Celia frowned. “What do you mean?”
“He helped me escape,” said Sebastian. “He distracted the other guards so that—” He huffed and shook his head. “I have to speak to him. I have to thank him. He risked his life for me.”
Celia bit her lips and wrung her hands together. Even if Cereo had declared that there would be war if Sebastian was taken, she still felt quite unsure of whether or not they could trust the giants. “Are you sure?”
“He won’t hurt me,” said Sebastian. “He’s not like the others.”
“What about the warriors, then? Do they know he helped you?”
“I doubt it.”
Celia pondered for a moment before she said, “You’d need a distraction. I could keep them occupied while you speak with Kasethen.”
Sebastian scowled. “And leave you alone those two beasts? Never!”
Flattered, Celia chuckled. “Do you think they would dare lay hands on me inside this palace? I am the Imperial Princess!”
The boy was flustered, his jaw tightened. “They are demonic in nature, Celia. Don’t underestimate them.”
“Don’t underestimate me,” she smiled coyly and turned. “A woman has her ways. Come now, before the feast begins. I don’t suspect my brother to share his new fascination. I’m afraid you’ll be upstaged.”
She led the way through the halls, up the many staircases, and to the guest wing. She stopped behind the last corner and peeked out. The two massive warriors stood stationed outside the door to the advisor’s room. Celia expected the other soldiers to be housed in the servants’ quarters a few floors down.
Turning to Sebastian, she whispered, “I’ll lead them into another room, and you hurry to Kasethen.”
“What about when I’m done speaking?”
“I can give you ten minutes.”
Sebastian nodded, clearly uncomfortable. “What if they just— grab me and drag me back up there?”
Celia squared her jaw and grabbed his face in both her hands. “Listen to me, Sebastian Arlington. The only reason you want to sneak past the guards is to make sure your friend’s secret isn’t discovered, correct?” When Sebastian nodded, she added, “And if they would happen to catch you as you leave, we’ll take it from there. Whatever happens, you won’t have to go back.”
Again, Sebastian nodded, and Celia turned back to peek behind the corner. The two guards stood stoically by the door, like statues. She straightened, fixed her dress, and strode out into the corridor.
Her belly fluttered at the sight of them—she was terrified and intrigued, all at the same time. She let her eyes graze them carefully, and she was almost disappointed that their armour and woollen shirts covered their builds. Surely, they were magnificent.
As she walked up to them, they bowed to her, but did not address her. They didn’t even look at her.
She smiled nonetheless. “I see you gentlemen have had no rest.”
Even though they both seemed quite bothered by her presence, one of them muttered, “It is our duty, my lady.” His voice was low, sensational, and befitting for such a large male.
“It’s ‘Your Highness’,” she chuckled. “I am the Princess, after all.”
“Your Highness.” They kept their eyes away from her, their posture not moving an inch.
She brought her hands together and sifted through her thoughts for something clever to say. “As the Imperial Princess, it is custom for me to make sure that our guests are well accommodated.”
“We are, thank you.”
She bit her tongue. “Yes, you might think you’re satisfied right now, but there might be things you haven’t thought about. Why don’t we sit down and—”
“Your Highness, we cannot leave our posts,” muttered the warrior. Finally, he looked at her.
His golden gaze made her quite breathless, but there was a slight change in him the moment he looked at her, a slight growth of his pupil, and she knew that gaze. Admiration. Good, she though. At least, they weren’t actually made of stone.
Being a Princess of Illyria—the only Princess of Illyria—she was used to admirers. She was a beauty, she knew as much, and she knew how to use it to her advantage. Men were all the same, quite predictable. These men did not seem much different, despite their exotic appearance.
She tipped her head to the side, played some with her auburn locks, puffed her chest out, and looked as seductively innocent as she could possibly muster. “My brother will be rather cross with me if I don’t do my duty.”
Heavy black brows furrowed above the honey eyes and the grey man muttered something in his foreign tongue to the warrior beside him. Then he said darkly, “Very well. What is your inquiry, Your Highness?”
“You don’t expect an Imperial Princess to stand during such a conversation, I hope?” She promptly turned to a door to the next room. “This will do well.”
“We cannot leave—”
“Your master is safe inside this palace, sir,” said she. “There isn’t a soul here who would dare to challenge such a pair of—” She eyed them in curiosity, feeling a slight tingle in her belly; indeed, they were quite remarkably built. “Well, rugged gentlemen like yourselves. Come now, I don’t have all day.”
Reluctantly, the two warriors followed her into the room, and she was quite pleased with herself. Normally, she didn’t even have to order the men. An invitation would be enough to have them follow her like dogs. It seemed as these two did not want to recognise her authority nor her allure.
They refused to sit, and Celia made sure to place herself so that the men wouldn’t keep looking out into the corridor. As she opened her mouth to speak, she saw Sebastian’s black hair sweep past the opening, just before one of the guards peeked over his shoulder.
Her plan had never been very precise—her first thought had been to simply speak with them. Most men liked to make conversation with a beautiful woman, but these men seemed rather uninterested. Indeed, she had piqued their interest enough to leave their posts, but the question was how long she would be able to detain them.
She asked for their names again—Kavas and Ra—and asked them a bit about their journey, their role, and their interests. Ra seemed wholly uninterested and didn’t say a word as he kept glancing over his shoulder, but Kavas entertained her with short, harsh answers.
There was no warmth in his voice, no smile on his lips, and no kindness in his demeanour. It was making her quite uncomfortable. His gaze was piercing, powerful, and she wondered for a moment if he could see straight through her.
The directness of both his gaze and his answers even made her blush, something that was quite unusual for her. He stood before her, tense, with eyes like a predator, while dutifully and impatiently answering her questions without any amusement whatsoever.
His voice crept lower with each answer as his eyes seemed to penetrate hers in a strangely intimate manner, and it sent peculiar shivers down her spine. She felt trapped, cornered. All that kept spinning in her head was the Empress Dowager’s tale about the women they took as slaves, and she shuddered.
The man before her was terrifying in every sense of the word and even though she might have been intrigued before, she felt her courage quickly failing her.
“If there isn’t anything else you need from us, Your Highness,” muttered Kavas, “we must return to our posts.”
Celia quickly stood and smiled nervously. She knew not how much time had passed, and she hadn’t seen Sebastian return, but she prayed to the Builder she wouldn’t have to detain them for much longer.
“Of course,” she mumbled and curtsied.
She hurried to see them out, but the two warriors anticipated her. Entering into the hall, Celia held her breath. If Sebastian was rushing through it, they would see him—but the hall was empty.
Her heart dropped. As the two guards resumed their positions, Celia wrung her hands together in panic. What if he was still inside the room? What if he would come out, only to walk straight into the guards? She had to think about something, and quickly. Should she pretend to faint? Surely, they wouldn’t ignore a lady in peril! But such a ruse would seem suspicious.
Instead, she quickly walked towards the door with a sweet, apologetic smile.
“Of course,” she trilled, “I must speak with your master as well.”
She reached for the handle but before she could touch it, Kavas grabbed hold of her wrist; his hand was large around it, and his fingers extended into claw-like nails. She gasped and gazed up at him.
“With all due respect, Your Highness,” he said in the exact same tone as before, “but the kasethen has a very important task to focus on. If there is anything he’ll need, you will know.”
His gaze seared into hers, and she quickly pried her wrist out of his grip before she took a step back and nodded.
“Of course. Excuse me.”
With a quick curtsy, she returned through the halls, cradling her wrist as if burnt. Tears stung in her eyes, her heart thudded loudly in her throat, and she cursed her own, stupid curiosity. When rounding the corner, she found Sebastian pacing back and forth. Glaring at him, bewildered, she only huffed at him when he asked what took her such time.
“My sister is safe,” Sebastian said as they hurried back from the guest wing. “She’s an advisor to the general! Have you heard anything more ridiculous than—”
She angrily turned to him and hissed, “Don’t ever let me do such a stupid thing again!”
He seemed rather shocked. “I don’t understand—what happened?”
She scoffed and moved ahead. “Nothing.”
It was true. Nothing happened. In fact, Kavas had answered every question without as much as an objection. He hadn’t touched her until he stopped her from entering the room, and even that had been quite harmless—even if it did frighten her.
No, there had been something in their countenance, in their rigid manner, that intimidated her beyond reason. To imagine a whole army of warriors like that was truly terrifying.