10. A Simple Task
The night of the ritual, and the following nights after, Alanis dreamt of home. The memories Alexander had unlocked poured into each of them just as wildly as the torrent was that took her under. Each night, beneath the dark icy waters of Larska River, she fought, struggled, then died, time and time again.
The first few nights it happened, she woke up gasping for air and covered in sweat. Her heart would pound and she would shake in fear, oftentimes forgetting where she was until reality kicked in.
Though she was slowly getting used to her nightly torture, she mustered the courage to speak to Alexander’s eldest council, Simon, regarding her nightmares. He explained that she was experiencing vision echoes, a sort of residual effect from the ritual.
Given time, the old man assured her that they would fade.
Though that time couldn’t come soon enough.
After the announcement of the ritual’s outcome most of the false rumors regarding Alanis’ intentions were put to rest. It had been nearly two weeks since her name was cleared. And with each passing day, the people of Berthold began to welcome her, just as James had.
The young knight continued to watch over her, helping her integrate into their culture. This included, educating her on common etiquette regarding the highborns and lords, and other important customs his people followed.
During her down time, she worked on setting up one of the empty rooms at James’ place. After the ritual, he offered to house her since she had no way of supporting herself on her own.
Again, Alanis found herself in his debt. Though, it wasn’t as if her staying with him would place financial strain on him as James came from a very wealthy house.
She had learned his father, Lord Brandon Allard, was grandmaster of thread in Berthold and one of the most highly revered tailors in all of Terra. Lord Allard’s suits and gowns were sought after by many of the royals and highborn.
And being that his son was the talk of the kingdom, by taking in a settlement escapee, it was only a matter of time before Lord Allard grew curious of his son’s new houseguest.
It was afternoon, when Alanis answered a knock at the door. One of Lord Allard’s servants greeted her with a decorated box and a note that was addressed to herself.
Inside was a beautiful hunter green gown with skirts made of silk that fell to the floor delicately. The bodice was meticulously adorned with gold stitched roses and accent buttons.
Alanis read the note after admiring her gift and informed James that they were invited to dine at his father’s that evening.
Though Alanis was excited to meet James’ father, she found herself growing nervous as she dressed in the gown he had no doubt sewn.
Would she remember to greet him properly, would she remember the dining etiquette lesson James had taught her? There were so many things that could go wrong that she feared she’d be embarrassing herself in front of yet another important man.
Though, as luck would have it, his father was just as kindhearted and understanding as his son. He came to his door, greeting the pair, before his servants could announce them.
“Come in, come in,” Lord Allard said then led them through a grand foyer.
The walls surrounding them were decorated with some of the most beautiful paintings Alanis had ever seen. There was one in particular that caught her eye, that being of a very large family portrait. In it, was a child that she recognized as James. He was seated on his father’s lap and at their side was a beautiful woman wearing a striking red gown.
The woman in the painting was James’ mother, Alanis realized while they walked past it. James had mentioned that his mother, Lady Sarah, had passed from some sort of illness when he was a child.
“So, you must be, Alanis.” James’ father stopped their walk and turned his blue eyes to meet with hers. He smiled a warm inviting smile that brought comfort to her heart. James was definitely his son, she could see the similarities, not only by their looks, but by their mannerisms as well.
Remembering their customs, Alanis curtsied, lifting the silken fabric of her gown from the floor. “Yes, it is a pleasure to meet you, Lord Allard.”
“You can call me Bran, my dear,” he said offering his arm to her.
Alanis linked arms with him, allowing him to guide her to the great room. He saw her seated in a plush armchair near the hearth then took seat across the way from her while James stood idly by the fireplace.
“I must thank you two for joining me. Truth is, it’s been awhile since I last had guests,” he coughed purposely. “including my son.”
“Ah, there it is, the ole guilt trip,” James said with a smile.
His father’s sudden laugh earned a chuckle from his son.
“Jests aside, I’m glad you came by, my boy. Truly.” Brandon sat back in his chair, motioning for his son to join them. “So, James tells me you’re going to accompany him on a task. Hopefully it’s nothing too dangerous.”
“Yes—” Alanis stopped as James interrupted while walking towards her.
“Just a simple delivery, you know the king wouldn’t allow her to come otherwise,” James assured while leaning against the chair Alanis was seated in, “besides, traveling will do her good. She’s yet to see the countryside. Hell, she’s yet to see anything, really.”
Alanis stared off into the fire while he spoke for her. He was always doing that—talking for her. At first it had bothered her, but now she hadn’t the will to stop him, or at least attempt to any longer.
Now she used his ramblings as a break from reality.
After the ritual, her lost memories plagued most of her waking thoughts. Even with closure, she still felt lost, as if she were torn from her old life and forced to live outside of it. And worse still, a small part of her wanted to go back, despite knowing the truth.
“You’ll have to excuse James’ manners, my lady, he sometimes forgets them,” Brandon said, earning her attention and a smile. “Though, I know he means well.”
She chuckled politely. “He does,” she agreed touching James hand playfully.
“I don’t know whether I should be flattered or offended,” James said with a smirk.
"Oh,” she chirped, remembering her manners, “I wish to thank you for your gift, it’s beautiful. I’ve never worn something as lovely as this.”
“You’re quite welcome, Alanis. I was lucky one of the maid’s at the castle remembered your measurements. Unfortunately, I had to improvise with the flowers since I don’t know your preferences.”
So that’s why it fits so perfectly, she thought, realizing he had made the dress especially for her.
“It’s perfect, really.” She beamed. “I will cherish it always.”
They went on the have a fine dinner, filled with lively conversations. After getting to know James’ father a little better, Alanis explained James’ and her meeting, and told him about her old life back in Larska.
Brandon listened to her talk for what seemed hours. He was intrigued by their journey, especially her life back in Larska. She talked about that most, describing her apartment and the many gadgets there that she took for granted.
She also spoke of her friends, briefly, feeling guilty knowing they were suffering while she had escaped their fate. Instead, she mentioned some of the activities they enjoyed in the compound. How they would sunbathe and wade in the river on hot days and sneak out and stargaze at night.
Before leaving, Brandon lavished her with several fine gowns and riding garments for her upcoming journey the next morning. He also offered his aid should she find herself in need of it in the future.
Alanis watched the two knights, that would accompany her and James on their task, from her window. Beyond the yard, on the old cobblestone roadway, they readied their horses while waiting for James’ arrival from the castle. When he returned, he came bounding down the road atop Ellah with a new horse in tow.
She was a beautiful little painted filly, the perfect size for someone as petite as herself. It was then, she realized, that was the case. As excitement built, Alanis couldn’t help but rush to the door to greet him and the mare.
The morning sun cut through Berthold while James explained how to properly saddle her new horse. After teaching her Trista’s riding commands, the group made their way to Berthold’s gate to start their journey.
While they rode to the entrance, James briefed his party, informing the knights that they were to travel to Centre Yew to deliver a sealed letter to their king. By horseback, the trip would take a day, so they were expected to return in two days with receipt the king’s message was received.
When Alanis asked what the letter was regarding she was given yet another long-winded lecture on etiquette. This time, James explained how it was improper to question a task that was given by the king, that is was simply done with no questions asked.
The journey to Centre Yew was quiet for the most part, though, it was welcomed as Alanis admired the tall trees that populated Yew’s territory. The redwoods they passed, towered over them like sleeping giants as they weaved around them silently.
As they neared Yew, the pair of knights traveling with them broke away, to announce the arrival of Sir Allard. While alone, James slowed and matched his pace with Alanis’.
“So, how are you fairing? I hope the ride wasn’t too rough on you.”
Alanis shook her head, though her buttocks and thighs ached something fierce. James laughed and turned his head to the trail ahead. It was clear he knew she was suffering by the quick glances he gave her from time to time.
“Anyway, anything’s better than our last adventure.” Alanis smiled and ran her fingers across Trista’s slick fur.
“Ha-ha,” he agreed with a chuckle. “One things for sure, we’re in better company this time round.”
Alanis dropped her stare and sighed keeping her thoughts to herself. She knew he was excited to be on task and given another chance to prove himself to his king. Though, had he been observing their traveling companions as thoroughly as she had, he would have noticed the looks they had been giving her.
While most of the people she met were friendly towards her, there were still a few that didn’t trust her, the men accompany them were part of the latter.
Alanis lifted her stare back to James before he could question the silence weighing between them. “So,” she said, “What do you suppose I should do, after this?”
“Well, as much as I appreciate your hospitality I know I can’t live with you forever. It can’t be good for your reputation, having a single woman living under your roof.”
He laughed. “That’s a first, someone worrying about MY honor.”
“Anyway, I think it’s time I started to think about what’s next, you know?”
“You’re serious?” His brow cocked and he gave her an offended look.
“Yes.” Alanis watched as he pulled on his reins, keeping his pace with hers. “I can’t keep relying on you forever. At some point I’m going to need a job and a place of my own.”
“Okay, okay, one thing at a time,” James said. It was clear, by his tone, he wasn’t too thrilled by her confession. “So lets start with work, what are you good at?”
“Well that’s the thing,” Alanis said with a shrug, “I have no useful talents and I’m not a warrior. Back in Larska, I was trained in basic first aid, if that even amounts to anything.”
"Hmmm, you could work in the castle infirmary as a cleric. Or perhaps—” he stopped, sounding as if he had a better idea, “perhaps, we could open up a shop for you. Yes, you could specialize in selling rare and unique items collected from faraway kingdoms.”
Alanis lifted a brow, intrigued by his plan.
“But how would I acquire such things? I barely know my way around Berthold and I’m not ready to travel Terra on my own.”
“That’s easy. I could get them for you. I’ll be out on tasks for the king from time to time—it’s perfect. You’d always have a fresh supply of goods.”
"Hmm,” Alanis said with a hum, “that actually sounds like a good plan.” It did sound good, too good, like he had been holding on to that idea for some time.
“Don’t sound too surprised... I’ve got plenty more where that came from.”
Just like him, she thought back to her old life for a moment, remembering some of the old conversations she had with Justin. How he’d smile and offer advice, how he made her feel safe just as James did.
God, I was stupid.
Alanis turned her head and blinked her eyes, feeling the sting of tears as they broke free. How was he able to smile, knowing what was going to happen to her, to Anna, to everyone? Despite trying to save them, he KNEW all along. He knew her friends, their friends, were being murdered.
What was his role, did he help murder the others?
“Alanis,” James said snapping her back into reality with his concerned tone. “You can tell me anything, remember that.”
“It’s nothing I want to talk about, not yet at least.” She brushed her tears away before turning her eyes to the path ahead.
“I understand,” he replied with a nod and nothing else was said.
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