His guest quarters were exquisite. The room was as large as his chamber back home in Darkelm Hall and certainly more lavish. An exquisite painting hung opposite the bed, depicting a serene landscape with a phoenix flying over it.
Lucien cared for little else than the bed, though. After weeks of sleeping in a tent on the ground, it was a relief to sink into a mattress. After a deep and restive sleep, he woke ready to explore Bornesher Castle.
The princess had declared a final bit of rest for the last arrivals before the competition for her hand in marriage began. Lucien intended to spend some of the time learning the halls of his temporary home. As he prepared for the day, he wondered if Kadir would feel similarly, and if perhaps they could convince Delu to join their party as well.
He did not have to search long for Kadir. The high knight was at the barrack training grounds, practicing with a long spear. His sword lay discarded to the side in favor of his other weapon. Lucien settled in to watch.
Kadir fought with an elegance that could have been mistaken for dancing. He sprung on light feet, twirled his long spear in impossible blurs, leapt and ducked and spun. He dealt an armored dummy a flurry of strikes, ending with the spear tip sunk in a mortal gap in the fake man’s armor. Kadir paused to wipe sweat from his brow before jerking the weapon free.
“Fancy footwork as always,” Lucien remarked.
“Always,” Kadir agreed. The knight made his way back to his discarded sword belt. He wore a simple linen shirt and pants, and likely would stay in those clothes all day. The high knight preferred his armor to fine court clothing. “If you came to spar, I’m afraid you’re too late.”
“Not today. I thought it would be wise to look around, see the castle more. Perhaps you and Delu want to join me?”
Kadir grinned, buckling his belt back on. “I’d hoped you would ask. I’ve a guess where she might be. Come on.” Kadir took off at a brisk walk, Lucien matching him stride for stride.
Kadir’s guess proved to be true. They found Delu in the stables, grooming a small, light horse. Delu sang to it in a rich but quiet voice. The horse stood, one back hoof cocked, eyelids drooping in languor.
Delu halted her singing. “Let me guess,” she said by way of greeting. “You want to explore the castle and are inviting me along. Did you stop to consider I might have already?”
“All the more reason to have you along,” Lucien pointed out. “You can show us all the best places.”
The woman considered, then packed up her brushes and gave the horse a kiss on the muzzle. “My red can wait. Men are far less patient than horses.” She slithered out of the stall, pausing only to deposit her grooming tools with her other things before leading the way out of the barn and back into the castle.
They passed once more through the grand entry hall. Delu gestured to the left side of the room. “The dining hall, as you know, and next to it is of course the kitchens, food storage, and nearby are the servant quarters. And straight ahead of course is the throne room. This door,” she said, motioning to the right, “is the chapel to their goddess. Or, perhaps your goddess as well, Lucien?”
He nodded. The Mother Goddess, the creator of all the world and its splendors, was the primary deity in Vlidious. Whether it was within a blink of her eye or a million years that she crafted the world one could not say for sure, but it was her hand that shaped them all. Her chapel back in his home remained warm year-round and always smelled of freshly tilled earth and growing plants. It never failed to give him a sense of safety and comfort.
The guards opened the door to them, and the trio stepped inside. Lucien stopped just inside to fold his hands and whisper a brief prayer: “Mother Goddess, guide my steps to cherish your gifts, and guide my heart to love all around me.” Kadir and Delu did not pray. He knew Kadir practiced the religion of his own country, and he imagined Delu had her own as well that she may or may not follow. It did not stop them from all admiring the chapel.
As with most chapels, all was colored in earthen tones. A long rug embroidered to look like a field of wildflowers ran down the aisle to the altar. Pews of dark brown wood filled much of the space. A copper statue of the Mother Goddess stood behind the altar, depicting a woman with long hair and dressed in a flowing gown. One hand pressed to her breast and the other lifted towards her head, two fingers curled down to her palm.
The altar below her was dressed plainly. A green cloth covered its surface. Upon it stood a copper tree, each branch decorated with emeralds cut into the shapes of leaves. On the trunk was a spiral, marking it as the Tree of Life.
“Beautiful and serene,” Delu said. “But I like what I found through the next door better.” So saying, she walked down the aisle, turning to the left at the altar. She opened a small door and the sound of birdsong flitted into the quiet of the chapel.
The trio stepped through the doorway, finding themselves in another courtyard. Unlike the main courtyard, this one burst full of life. Everyone Lucien looked, something grew. Ivy crawled up the stone walls, grass covered the ground, flowers bobbed their heads in greeting. Small trees stood sentinel with birds skipping across the branches.
“A perfect little refuge,” the Bemmedian princess declared. “Not secret, but I doubt the other competitors know of it.”
“Doubtful,” a voice agreed from deeper in the garden courtyard. A figure rose from behind a rose bush, revealing Princess Esmeralda. She greeted them with a brilliant grin, as bright as the sun overhead. “They might not think to look. I’m surprised you found it.”
“I was always drawn to open places,” Delu replied. “Walls are confining. My mother had the hardest time keeping me in her castle.”
Esmeralda came around the bush, brushing her fingertips over a bud she passed. At her touch it unfurled into a beautiful rose, as pink of a blushing girl. “My parents do not have quite such a struggle with me. I’m happy with my garden, and the times I’m permitted to ride in the forest.”
“If this space is yours, we won’t intrude,” Kadir said, already shifting back towards the door.
“Oh no, not at all,” the princess rushed out. “It is for everyone here, a place to sit and enjoy the sun on your face or admire the flowers. It’s simply that I spend much free time here. I’ve always loved flowers.” She turned to glance back at the lush garden. “I insist on tending to it myself, silly as that may be.”
Lucien frowned at that remark. “How could it be silly when it’s something you enjoy? One of my brothers enjoys painting. I would never call it silly when it brings him so much joy.”
“Most would consider gardening far beneath a princess.” Esmeralda held out her hands. Dirt smudged along her fingers and palms. “Why would a girl such as me dirty her perfect hands with such trivial work? Other princesses do needlework and play music. I muck about in the dirt.” She ended with a light, airy laugh. “They would think me so strange.”
“Not me,” Delu purred, taking the princess’s hands in her own. “I admire it in you. I’m not above getting a bit dirty.”
Esmeralda laughed again. “Of course not. A warrior princess would certainly not mind a bit of dirt under her nails. If you aren’t too busy exploring, you’re welcome to stay here. I have a few more things to tend to, but I have some tea and biscuits. You’re welcome to enjoy some if you like.”
“I would,” Lucien said. “It’s perfect out here. It would be a shame to leave so soon.”
Esmeralda smiled at him. “Perfect. Come, this way.” She led them down a twisting path around the flowers, finally reaching a small fountain by a willow tree. On one of the benches around the fountain sat a tray set for tea, even with extra cups.
Before any of them could offer, Esmeralda poured them each a cup and handed them out. Lucien took his with a quiet word of thanks and sat down on one of the benches. He took a sip, immediately struck by its sweetness. A hint of raspberry danced over his tongue.
“It’s my favorite tea,” Esmeralda said as she finished. “I hope you all like it. You don’t mind if I go back to my work?”
All of them agreed, and the princess went back to her work. She’d dug a hole partway already for some asters. She picked her spade back up and resumed. Lucien studied her as he enjoyed the tea. She cut an entirely different figure than the woman at dinner. Her elegant gown had been replaced by a simple linen dress. The green fabric carried streaks of dirt at her hips and grass stains at her knees. She wore her hair in a thick braid and without her crown. Lucien felt certain that this was closer to her true self, a girl who could lose herself in nature.
Esmeralda finished preparing the spot. She carefully removed the asters from their pot and eased it into the spot, then replaced the dirt she had disturbed. She poured some water from a basin onto the plant, and then pressed her hands against the soil. Lucien watched her lips move, though he could not figure out what she said. But as he watched, the flowers shivered and then burst into even more brilliant bloom.
Esmeralda smiled, leaning closer to sniff their perfume. Then she stood, brushing her hands on her dress. When she glanced over, she caught Lucien’s eye. “Would you like to help me with the next one?”
He agreed. Esmeralda went to another part of the garden. A rainbow of tulips greeted them. “One of my favorite parts,” the princess confessed. “Tulips have some of the brightest colors I think. I found light blue ones finally.” She knelt by the break in her rainbow and made quick work of digging holes for the new row of tulips.
“You wonder how I do it, don’t you?” she asked. “How the rosebud blossomed, how the asters multiplied.”
“It would imply a rumor I heard is true,” he replied. “I was told your family has magic in their blood.”
“We do. It is not common knowledge, and I worry about it some with this contest. Would all of them want to marry me still if they knew I’m a witch? That I would want to raise any children I might have to embrace the magic in their veins? I love the abilities I have, this chance to coax beauty along in the world, to be able to soothe a fever with just a touch and word. Magic is not evil, and I wish I could tell that to the world.”
“I know it isn’t,” Lucien replied softly. “Half of the Theorian court involves the fae. Witches, fairies, elves, even a vampire.”
“But would you marry a witch? If your father presented you with the lady he wanted you to wed and she performed a spell right before your eyes, would you want to wed her still?”
“I don’t see what difference it makes, for her or you. It matters more what you use that magic for, just how it matters what I use my sword for. To use either for harm is terrible. To use either for good is the right choice.”
“But there are those who argue a sword can never be used for good. And they would say the same of magic.”
Lucien smiled a little. “You and I both know we disagree with that statement.”
Esmeralda finally smiled again. “We do. Thank you for humoring my dark turn. I dwell too much on the darker aspects of the world.” She stroked the petals of her new tulips as she sighed. “I love my garden, perhaps most of all because the troubles of the world do not touch it. The flowers don’t know anything about war or violence. They only know of the joy and wonder they bring me.”
Esmeralda pressed her hands once more to the dirt and whispered to her plants. “The sun does shine, and the rain does fall, flowers I ask a bloom from you all.” As she finished, the tulips seemed to grow even more vibrant, blending seamlessly with the rest of the rainbow. Lucien stood, helping Esmeralda to her feet as well, so they could both admire it.
“I’m glad you have this place,” Lucien said. “Somewhere quiet and beautiful where you can perform magic without any worry. Somewhere you’ll always be safe.”
Esmeralda took his hand in hers, squeezing it tight. “Thank you, Lucien. I’m afraid I have to go now that I’ve finished my flowers, but I’ll see you again soon.” Her hands released him, but one rose to brush a stubborn lock of hair back from his brow. Then she was gone, slipping away among the flowers and vanishing through another door.