“Milady, I was so worried,” Moona whispered, falling in next to Verra, as she and her escort approached the Outer Gate. “When I saw that you’d left…”
“Later!” Verra hissed. Quiet, you stupid goat, quiet! “We shall talk later,” she whispered back, “not here.”
Moona Fern was a hearty, light-haired girl of sixteen winters. She was Verra’s personal maid for four years to date. She was also a Twinlink in training. Her sister Leena, who served as a chambermaid and cup bearer to His Highness Sir Normann, Lord of Stormhold, Regent of Norlay, was now accompanying Verra’s father on his march. Moona and Leena’s Gift was confirmed two years ago, when the girls reached their womanhood, as it often happened with female Links. Ever since then, they were supervised by Master Henlock—the most prominent Twinlink in town, who was appointed their mentor. The twins were not very strong at the beginning, but they were diligent and dutiful, and were making steady progress. This was their first real separation, intended to test how strong their connection was, and the girls were doing reasonably well up until two days ago, when the contingent entered the Norlay Mountain Ridge Gap. Moona suddenly started to struggle to maintain a clear link for longer than a moment or two, and yesterday morning, as the distance increased a little more, she lost it completely.
Verra was secretly very happy about this. Knowing that her father now had no way of supervising her was very liberating.
Moona was also Verra’s long-time fellow conspirator in her monthly Market adventures. Once pressured into “helping” her young lady—who could be very persuasive—the simpleton country girl had no other choice but to continue doing so, discreetly, fearing severe punishment from His Highness Lord Stormhold himself, if discovered. Verra, who skillfully planted the seed of this terrible fear in her maid’s mind, knew all too well that her father would never be too harsh on the prospective Twinlink, who could be of use to him. It was much more likely that Verra herself would suffer the full extent of her father’s wrath. But, as long as Moona believed her, all was well.
Their arrangement was simple, yet effective. Verra would sneak out of the castle wearing Moona’s spare livery, apron and cloak, and a pair of very thick-soled and high-heeled shoes, that her maid procured for her in town. They were heavy and made walking difficult, but they also made her just as tall as Moona. The thick shawl, folded into a bundle, and wrapped around her narrow hips under the skirt—to make them look fuller—would complete the illusion. Her loyal maid would linger for a couple of hours, then pick up a basket, go to the market and wait for Verra to arrive to the Outer Gate. Then they would approach the guard post, arm in arm, Moona, with her hood off, greeting them, Verra, with her hood on, absorbed in looking for something in the basket. Everybody in the castle knew Moona and Leena, and would naturally assumed that the twins are returning from the market together, and nobody really cared what any of the maids were up to.
The arrangement worked flawlessly.
Up until today. But that was all just a combination of circumstances, decided Verra. Circomstances. She smiled at the thought of the strange and kind black man.
“Thank you, Captain Northhill.” She uttered, when they passed the Outer Gate, followed by the four long strokes of the Bridge Bell—a member of High Family arriving—and entered the empty length of the Bridge. “You may now return to your duties. Take the guard as well, I am sure they are needed elsewhere. I shall be fine now.”
“Your Highness.” Northhill bowed briskly and retreated to the Outer Gate, gesturing to the guards to follow him and making it abundantly clear that Verra was to have no way of returning to the Market, and that no one was to enter the Bridge while she was on it unguarded.
“Milady!” Moona whispered dramatically, her brown—with speckles of honey—eyes wide open. “What were you thinking!? Everybody knows, Leena is not here! How were we going to return to the Castle?”
Ha. Verra stopped. Good point. Who is the stupid goat now? She felt another blush coming on.
“I had a different plan for today,” she declared stubbornly. “But it doesn’t matter now. We…”
“I was looking for you all over the market,” the girl was almost crying, “when everybody was running and shouting, and there was that horrible dog! What if it would’ve bitten you! You would’ve died!” Her eyes were completely round now, and flooded with tears. “We had a man in our village bitten by a mad dog. He was fine for a whole fortnight, and then he went mad, too, and turned on everybody, and they had to kill him, and burn his body…”
“…and they burned his house, too, and all his things…”
“…and what if His Highness finds out? Oh… he will… they all saw you at the Market…” The poor girl was trembling. She made a choking noise, and tears poured from her eyes.
“Moona. Stop talking.” If Verra knew something nose to heels, it was how to deal with her maid. “Listen to me.”
Moona’s lips were still moving silently, but the sound paused.
“Nobody knows about you. I shall not tell anyone. I promise you.”
Her words slowly sunk in, she could tell. Moona stopped shaking and was now looking into Verra’s eyes, even as two thick brooklets of tears still ran freely down her cheeks.
“I shall deal with my father myself. He will never know about you. I shall not tell. You shall not tell. Anyone. And neither will Leena. Just like it was before. Stop crying.”
Moona’s eyes blinked, cutting off the rivulets—.
“Good girl. Now stop huffing like a mare in labor, and go to the kitchens. I expect guests tonight.”
Moona’s eyes dried and widened again, this time in excitement.
“Two guests are to join me for dinner. Let Master Coldraine know. Then go to my quarters and fill me a bath.”
“Yes, milady. May I ask, who are your guests? Is Sir Veneammen returning?”
“No. Different guests. Run along, now.”
Moona curtsied and rushed to the castle.
Verra turned to look at the Bridge Plaza. The Market was closing. Merchants were striking down tents and packing their goods. Stable boys brought horses and mules back to their owners. She looked for the orange dome of Ngale’s tent, but couldn’t see it from where she stood on the bridge.
She turned and slowly walked toward the Inner Gate, slightly tottering in her high-heeled and thick-soled shoes. The Norlay lake was perfectly still, like a giant mirror reflecting the bridge, the Castle, the rocky island on which it was built, the City of Stormhold on its Eastern shore, and the massive forest of fir trees, which surrounded the lake on the other three sides. The sky was absolutely clear of clouds; the perfect intense blue of every man and woman’s eyes in the Stormhold bloodline.
How long has it been, since it rained? Weeks? Verra pondered. Months? I don’t remember. I wish it would rain. I like rain. It makes me sad, but… pleasantly sad. Is there even such a thing as ‘pleasantly sad’? Everything would smell better after the rain, too.
She looked at the sky again, and imagined that it was not a sky, but a lake, and she was looking into it from above. Falling into it from above. She felt a bit dizzy, and put her hand on the sturdy handrail. I should get back to my quarters and prepare for dinner. Suddenly she could not bear the clunky shoes anymore, doffed them, picked them up, and strolled to the Inner Gate, feeling the inviting warmth of the old wooden planks under her bare feet.
Ngale stood, holding the back of his chair in his long palms and looking at the three small vials lying in the middle of its seat.
“Well… that was… unforeseen,” The young noble said. Ngale could feel his excitement, mixed with curiosity. “Looks like we have our evening entertainment all arranged for us, Master Ngale.”
“Entertainment.” Onnoquo uttered thoughtfully, tasting the word as one would sample a rare vintage.
“Looks like we do, my lord.” Ngale collected the bottles and moved to the case to shelve them.
“You do not sound enthusiastic in the slightest. Is something bothering you?” Genuine concern. Kind boy.
“Bothering?” the bird echoed.
“Forgive me, my lord. It is a great honor for a humble pharmacist to be invited to dine with an Heir of the Region, and I cannot say I am accustomed to anything of the sort. I am also quite overwhelmed by the events that transpired today.”
“Is that why you neglected to resume pummeling my wits into liking you immediately after that dog was taken care of?” The boy asked casually.
Ngale froze, still bent over the trunk. Something very unusual was happening. The resonating aura of emotions, which would normally surround a person standing this close, suddenly disappeared, as if it was cut off. He could not even feel the boy’s presence, as though a lead wall had dropped between them. Ngale slowly straightened his back and turned.
Lord Dae Sandstream was sitting on his chair in the center of the tent. His face was calm, but tense; lips stretched in a straight line, squinted eyes peering at Ngale without blinking.
“I am not sure I follow my…” started Ngale. “…lord…” he trailed off.
Dae smirked, relaxing. The invisible wall disappeared as abruptly as it went up, and the familiar flow of emotions returned. Only this time Ngale clearly felt a mix of suspicion and contempt. Coming from a noble with a very sharp sword at his side, it was a bit unsettling. Thank spirits, we are in a public place, albeit inside a tent, but…
Onnoquo produced a tiny screeching sound. Keep quiet, bird.
“One would expect to find a Healer in a tent like this,” Dae said snidely, adding a clear note of disgust to the mix. “But a Whisperer? Your trade must be thriving.”
Ngale lowered his eyes. He knows. I must have been careless. Shame, this was such a novice mistake.
Dae stopped him, briskly raising his palm. “I do not enjoy being manipulated,” continued he, “so let us make a thing or two clear. We are going to spend this evening together. If I ever notice, that all of a sudden I feel something I know I should not be feeling, I shall hold you accountable. And I am not talking about a sudden surge of overwhelming desire to hug you and kiss you on the lips. I know, now, how good you are. I saw you working that dog from thirty paces away—you have quite a command of your Gift, Master Ngale—and I am certain that you can also be subtle. Just remember, that I shall be watching you.”
Ngale stood, silent and obedient. This is an entirely unnecessary complication. I need to remedy this somehow.
“Having said that,” Dae continued, in a lighter manner, his mood brightening, “I must admit that what you did for us was rather brave. Most people would just run. Blood, they did run. So, thank you.” He smiled, kindly, like before. A wave of sincere appreciation washed over Ngale, and he allowed himself an apologetic smile.
“Please, forgive me, my lord,” he said, carefully selecting the words. “I have been traveling far away from home for a very long time. People sometimes treat me unfairly—my… looks may be the cause of that—so I have tried to prevent it the only way I know how, and it, I fear, has become sort of second nature. I regret it deeply.” He lowered his eyes again, waiting for a reaction.
“I would start with losing the eyelid paint,” Dae offered, ironically. His mood was undeniably improving. “It looks rather creepy.” He was now grinning ear to ear. “Relax, Master Ngale. I am not going to report you to the local Guild of Traders. I am not even going to tell anyone else. For as long as you keep yourself out of my attic.” He grew serious. “Do I have your word, Master Ngale?” He extended his hand.
“Of course, my lord.” Ngale sighed with relief. The boy felt true. Ngale knew that his Gift was nearly impossible to detect; unless he ran into another Whisperer or a strong enough Listener, or was careless or distracted, like today. But, he also knew that in these lands, the word of a nobleman went far beyond that of a simple peddler, and for many officials the young lord’s testimony would be more than enough cause to punish him by banning his trade in this town, or worse, by flogging him, or throwing him in jail.
The boy is neither a Whisperer, nor a Listener, and yet he discovered me. Am I getting old?
They shook hands.
“Now, since we have that out of our way,” Dae said, “pray, tell me, why wouldn’t you want to go to the castle? No. Wait. First, do you have any alcohol left, or have you wasted it all trying to drown me in it?”
Ngale smiled. Things were looking up.
“I do have something, and of much better stock than I use for cleaning hands, my lord.” He lifted the top tray from the trunk next to him, reached in, and produced a fat, dark, glass bottle, sealed with gold-dusted wax, and two small glass goblets. “This is soojock—the best Igoneqe sunberry brandy. I was saving this for months, waiting for the proper occasion. Now, I believe, we have one.”
He poured and offered a goblet to Dae, who took it and lifted it to his face, examining the bouquet of aromas.
“To Lord Sandstream,” Ngale said, feeling genuine relief, and sending a very, very thin stream of it toward Dae. I am relieved. It is true, I am. Instead of pushing a desire to trust, he was just surrendering his own true feeling. It was a much subtler approach, and the young man did not emanate any awareness of detecting it. Good. Ease off now. If he drinks first, I am back in his good graces. If he waits for me to drink first…
“To you as well, Master Ngale.” Dae wet his lips. “What a delightful spirit,” he said. “I have not had anything as fine as this for months. Thank you, Master Ngale!” He drank more.
“You are most welcome, my lord.” Ngale tasted his drink. The brandy was very good indeed.
“So, Master Ngale,” Dae continued, sipping more brandy, “the castle, and why are you so reluctant to go.”
Ngale sighed and, surprising himself, honestly said, “Let us say I had made an entirely inappropriate assumption concerning the Young Lady Heir earlier this day. And, although she did not seem to be offended by my remark at the moment, I fear that this may not be the case when she thinks it over.”
“Oh, pray, do tell, Master Ngale,” Dae’s eyes lit up in eager anticipation. The swirl of delight washing over Ngale, attested to the fact that his interest was quite authentic.
“Well… when the Young Lady Heir graced my humble tent with her presence, she was rather agitated, nervous, and even a little scared, and I thought she might be in trouble… the kind of trouble a young woman might find herself in…”
The young noble was enjoying the moment entirely too much. He was still perched on Ngale’s tall chair in the center of the tent, visibly relaxed, slowly sipping his drink, and looking at Ngale expectantly. The pause became uncomfortably long. Ngale sighed, and continued. “Well… I practically offered her to interrupt her unwanted pregnancy, if she was inclined to do so.” All of a sudden he felt much better, as if he let go of something heavy, he didn’t realize he was carrying.
The young man snorted half of his drink and collapsed in a convulsive cough.
“Oh, no…” Dae managed to whisper incredulously after he stopped coughing and wiped his tears. “You thought she was, indeed, just a little knocked-up castle maid? Did you not see her nails? Oh, my dear Master Ngale…”
Is that a tint of true sympathy, coloring his aura? Or have I just been alone for too long, and forgotten what it is like to talk to another person? Not trying to press someone to buy something, or wiggle myself out of a difficult situation, but just… talk?
He suddenly found himself smiling.
“In hind sight, I must admit, there was that, and some other little signs, but at the time… I just missed it. When did you figure her out, my lord?”
“As soon as I saw her hands. In truth, it was her hands I first noticed. She was toying with a dagger at the arms trader cart. Then I saw the apron. What maid would ever be interested in a dagger? I played along, for she obviously did not want to be discovered. I did not expect her to be the Heir of Norlay, though…” he trailed off, musingly.
“I have been trying to approach the situation with as much levity as I possibly could, and I have to admit, that I cannot. More brandy, my lord?”
“Please. Thank you. If there is any consolation… well, let us just hope, that our little royalty does not bruise easily. However…” he paused, as if he just thought of something, exuding mischief and grinning impishly, “it would be quite a story to tell my children—if I ever sire any. ‘Have I ever made known to you, son,’” he continued solemnly in a mock baritone, raising his left hand in front of him, “’that the one who is now the Reigning Regent of Norlay once had this very palm cupped around her bony ass?’”.
Ngale found himself laughing heartily for the first time in months; Onnoquo echoing him with high barking sounds that the avian thought appropriate for the occasion. Dae joined them, happy and careless.
It might turn out to be an entertaining dinner after all, Ngale thought. We shall see.
Verra let her maid’s dress and the simple silk shift she wore under it, drop from her shoulders to the floor of her sleeping nook, and stepped out of the heap of hot and dusty fabric, which still smelled like the insides of the orange tent.
She stopped in front of the full-height steel mirror and critically examined her reflection, then cupped her breasts with her palms and pushed them up.
The results were far from satisfactory.
How come Moona has hips, and a full bosom, and nicely rounded ass and all I have is hair? A lot of hair. I could certainly do with less in some places… and my nipples are tiny. And pale.
Moona entered the space with the last bucket of hot water, which she brought from the kitchen elevators. Ever since the rains stopped, the simple matter of taking a bath had become a painfully slow ordeal, for the rainwater cistern on the roof of the Keep was always empty, and all the water—not only a heated bucket or two, but all of it—had to be lifted up from the kitchens. The maid poured the bucket into the tub and stirred with her hand.
As Verra turned to get in, something in the mirror caught her attention. Why do I have a bruise on my right thigh? I did not fall, did I? Did not bump into anything, either. Strange. She dipped her fingers into the water.
“All Lord, Moona, are you trying to cook me for dinner?”
“No, milady… I am sorry, milady…”
“Go get some cold water, now.”
Moona hurried away with an empty bucket. It’s the heat, Verra thought. The water doesn’t cool down in this heat. It shouldn’t be so hot. It’s late autumn—nearly winter—and yet it feels like the middle of summer. It’s just wrong.
Autumn was Verra’s favorite season, and she felt it was absolutely unfair to be deprived of it.
She aimlessly drifted back to the gleaming steel surface of the mirror. The reflection was slightly distorted; probably because the thin sheet of polished metal was warped from the past-halfday heat. She turned her side to it, trying to find a position that would make her chest look fuller. Definitely a bruise, she thought, turning her attention back to her thigh. It kept slowly revealing itself with every passing minute, and her skin was beginning to get pink and felt a little tender to the touch. Where did I get it? And it’s not just a bruise… It looks like… She repositioned herself in front of the mirror, this time looking for a clearer angle. It looks like… a handprint?
I cannot let Moona see it. She will be back any moment.
Verra dashed to the narrow tub and stepped in, biting her lip. The water was still too hot, but she didn’t care.
Good. Safe for now.
She rested her back against the scorchingly hot polished copper and let her legs float.
I should have kept my hair out of the water, it will take hours to dry, the thought emerged lazily… too late now.
She felt her bruised thigh under the water again.
He was saving me. He grabbed me and whisked me away, leaving a handprint on my barely existing bottom. Well, nobody has to know about it, she decided.
Her body finally adjusted to the temperature. She felt a drop of sweat rolling down her forehead, and closed her eyes.
Moona entered the room again, panting. The maid put something on the floor with a muffled thud—another bucket of water.
“Moona, I am going to soak a little,” Verra said sleepily.
“Of course, milady,” Moona came to the tub and sprinkled aromatic salts over the water. Vera watched her through half-closed eyes.
“You are pretty,” she said reflectively.
“Thank you, milady,” Moona smiled. “I am but a simple girl, though. You are the one who is truly beautiful…”
“Oh, stop it.” Verra sat up in the tub. Her wet hair was floating around her like a huge clump of black seaweed. “I have nothing on you, save my Old Blood skin and hair, and—trust me—I would gladly take a couple of birthmarks, of they were to come with breasts. You—and Leena—look like all those gorgeous women on the old tapestries, only without the extra fat. And you have dimples. I simply cannot compete with dimples. I need to find another maid, old and ugly. That would make me feel better about myself. Decided.”
Moona’s eyes rounded with horror.
“Milady… if I did something… Oh, the water? I am so sorry…” The poor girl stood next to the tub, clutching the salts bottle.
Dimples. And no brain. Priceless combination. Verra chuckled.
“Stop it. You know I am just joking, you did nothing wrong. Now, look in one of the pockets of your livery that I wore to the market, find the small green bottle, and fetch it to me.”
Moona rushed to the dress, found the bottle, and brought it to Verra.
The faint image of the tall, thin black-skinned man in the center of a big orange tent. Was that today? She twisted out the stopper with her wet wrinkled fingers.
The bouquet was just as complex as the previous ones were, and, once again, completely different. It was sweet and, at the same time, bitter. Gentle and strong, calming and teasing. It was as dangerous as it was inviting and desirable.
Her sleepiness dissolved in a swirl of sensations. All the colors around her grew brighter, as if the world was instantly cleansed and purified.
It was astonishing. It was inspiring.
She was suddenly and excitedly aware of all the parts of her body. Her nipples hardened. The warm past-halfday air licking her wet skin, now felt almost cold. Her flat abdomen stiffened. Her fingers clenched into fists, nails digging into her palms, her toes curled. All the muscles of her body tensed. She realized she was smiling. Happy.
She felt powerful. Decisive. Confident.
“Are you ready for me to wash you, milady?” Moona asked.
Verra realized, that she was standing in the tub, her wet hair streaming down to her knees. She carefully closed the tiny vial and handed it to her maid. “Put it on my dressing table. I want to wear it tonight. And then wash me, I am ready now.” She lowered herself back into the bath.
Moona stepped away to the dressing table to put the vial on it, then returned, picking up a jar of soft lily of the valley soap and a washcloth. She carefully moved Verra’s wet mane out of the way and started to lather her shoulders and neck.
“Everyone in the kitchens is talking about that dog at the market.” Moona said. “How huge it was. Did you see it, milady?”
“Yes. It was dead already.” I need to hammer my version of events into her brain, Verra thought. “I was inside a merchant’s tent, safe.” Who knows when she will be able to Link again, she better be prepared.
“Oh good, milady. I was so worried… Somebody said you were right there, when it happened…”
“No. I wasn’t. Wash my hair, too. It’s wet already anyway.”
“Yes, milady. People must’ve got it wrong, for they say it came straight at you!…”
“No. It didn’t. Inside a tent, remember?” Verra concocted a thoughtful mien. “And now that I think about it, there was somebody screaming outside the tent. Some woman. The dog must have attacked her, and people are just confused. Or making things up for a better story.”
“I see. It’s easy to get confused when something like this happens. Even at the Gate where I was waiting for you, it was scary to see people running and screaming. And I didn’t even see anything. Not the dog, not the young lord who killed it. Did you see the young lord, milady?”
“Yes. I did.” Verra said casually. “And you will have plenty of time to gawk at him as well, for he is going to dine with me tonight.”
Moona’s eyes became round as coins.
“Who is he, milady?” She was so excited that she stopped washing Verra’s hair and circled around the tub to look at her face. “Is he really as handsome as people say?”
“I have not the slightest idea who he is, frankly.” Verra couldn’t contain a smile. “He calls himself Lord Dae Sandstream and this is all I know. What do they say at the kitchens? Does anybody know anything about him?”
“No, milady. Only that he has just arrived. He’s staying at The Oaken Chest, somebody saw him there. And he is traveling alone.”
“Good.” Verra said.
I didn’t think to ask him if he had a companion, she realized. It would be awkward not to invite him as well. Or… her. Anyway, alone is better.
“My hair, Moona?”
“Yes, milady.” Moona returned to her task. “Who is your second guest, if I may ask, milady?”
“The perfume merchant, who hid me in his tent. His name is Ngale.”
“What a strange name, milady.”
“He is not from these lands. And he is a very interesting man indeed… You will like him, I am sure. It’s impossible not to like him…”
The flap of the tent opened. One of the Castle Guards ducked in.
“Milord, Master,” he said, blinking in the yellow smoky dusk. “They are about to start the fire. It’d be safer to move this tent. I can have people help you strike it down, if you want.”
“That would be appreciated,” Ngale answered and turned to Dae. “Forgive me, my lord, I need to see to it.”
“Certainly, Master Ngale.” Dae stood up. “I need to get to town, and change my shirt… I shall have the pleasure of your company later tonight. By the way, it is common in these lands to arrive to dinner early to have time for meaningless smalltalk with other guests. Let us meet at the Gate at, say, seven?” He issued a short nod, and stepped outside. Ngale heard the crowd cheer. He smiled, and proceeded to extinguish the incense burners. He took them apart, and packed them on the bottom of one of the chests. Before he put the tray in, he reached into one of the pockets of his robe and took out a medium-sized vial with thick, dark red liquid in it. He thoroughly wiped it with an alcohol-soaked rag, wrapped it in a piece of cloth, and deposited it into a round, leather container with a wooden cap. The whole package went into the chest.
Ngale quickly replaced all the trays, and closed and locked the four trunks. He perfected this routine over the years of his travels. He could do it with his eyes closed. Maybe the young lord is right, I should not paint my eyelids, thought he. I thought it would look exotic, but if people find it unsettling…
He stepped outside and started pulling out the tent’s stakes, joined by two young men of the City Watch, assigned to help him. Soon the tent was folded, tied up and placed on top of the trunks, which were moved to a safe distance away from the fire, along with his high chair and Onnoquo’s perch.
Ngale stood, waiting for his cart to be brought from the stables, and watching the fire.
Dae still lingered there as well, probably waiting for his horse. He was nonchalantly flirting with a plump young girl; to the obvious and helpless displeasure of a fat man, packing his goods onto a cart, who looked like her father. The young man wasn’t truly invested. Ngale could easily feel his insouciance even from this distance, but the girl felt avidly interested, though highly uncomfortable. Eventually, the father managed to interrupt their conversation, which mainly consisted of Dae, murmuring something into the girl’s ear, and her giggling and blushing, and sent her away on a very important errand with apologies to the young lord. Dae made a mock sour face, and turned to the pyre to watch the cremation, along with several other spectators.
And just in time. A sudden and powerful gust of wind hit the plaza, dispersing the thick column of black smoke and turning the calm burial flames into a blazing tongue of fire, aimed directly in his face. Somebody screamed, people rushed away from the heat. Dae calmly removed himself from danger in what seemed like one long stride to the side, only it wasn’t a stride, and neither did it take long. To Ngale, it almost seemed that the boy just disappeared from one place, and appeared in another.
And the connection to him was gone, only to be back the very next instant.
And then, Ngale remembered with definite clarity, that this had already happened to him earlier today, when the dog attacked them. He, then, also lost awareness of the boy, but in the heat of the moment he didn’t pay enough attention to that; trying to get the girl out of harm’s way. And now, just like then, nobody around noticed anything strange, because everyone was trying to get away from the outburst of flames. Now, everything finally made sense.
Now, I know what you are, son, thought Ngale. We are even.
A good hour later, Verra emerged from the tub, scrubbed to an even pink glow, and smelling like a tiny spring garden. She managed to keep her bruised thigh away from her maid’s eyes throughout the whole procedure, and was deservingly proud of herself.
“All Lord, Moona,” she said. “I swear, any more of you working me—I’d be reflecting light. You certainly outdid yourself.”
“Thank you, milady!” Moona blossomed in a dimply smile.
“It wasn’t a compliment.” Verra stated, looking at the mirror. “It was a complaint. I look like a boiled crayfish, and I have exactly three hours to return myself to a presentable state before my guests arrive.”
“Oh… I am so sorry… I…”
“Moona. Stop. Wet a towel, cool it in the air.”
“Of course, milady…”
Verra embraced the chill of the wet cotton, dropping the towel she had wrapped around her hips.
Something is happening, she thought, as the gentle movement of the air enveloped the calming cloth around her body. I have never felt this… whole. Complete. Confident. Purposeful.
I like it.
“Have you decided on a dress, milady?” Moona loved dressing Verra up as if she were her personal doll.
“Let me see what I have.” Wrapped in a towel, Verra padded to her dressing nook, leaving narrow wet footprints on the blackwood floor.
“No. No. No.” she said, briefly looking at each outfit, as Moona slid them out of the wardrobes. “No, too hot for this one. No. It is a dinner, not a wedding. Nor a funeral. No. I do not have shoes to wear with this one…”
She finally decided on a simple, but very expensive blue—to match her eyes—dress, that she ordered from Lorraine City in the beginning of summer, and never had a chance to wear. The fabric was embroidered with a shade darker blue silk thread in a sophisticated pattern of tiny vines, leaves and grapes which were almost invisible at some angles, and then would magically reflect light at others. It was still formal, floor-length and with sleeves, but left her neck and top of her shoulders open. Her chest was modestly covered, yet enhanced by the skillful padding of the bodice to a rather impressive outcome. That was the main reason why Vera liked that dress.
The pair of blue silk heeled slippers, adorned in the same style as the dress itself, and the unavoidable ceremonial cloak, she had to have on as the acting Head of House at least for the first course of the dinner, completed the ensemble.
She let Moona tie up the laces of her tiny silk underclothes and drape her in a translucent silk shift. No stockings, she decided. Too hot for stockings.
“Now let’s go paint me a face.”
Moona giggled, as if Verra said something very funny, and followed her to the dressing table with a much smaller, but real glass mirror, which cost as much as the rest of the furniture in the room. The maid carefully applied a thin layer of white powder to her face, neck and shoulders, and proceeded to shade her eyelids with a touch of blue chalk. “Perfect, Moona. That’s enough. No. No blush. I hate blush. Easy on the lip paint, too. I want the lightest shade.”
“Yes, milady. What do you want me to do with your hair, milady?”
“Do we have time for a flat braid?”
“Yes, milady.” Moona exclaimed enthusiastically. “You are going to look so beautiful! I’ll go get help.” She darted out from the room—braiding a flat braid required four hands—and soon returned with another maid, Nonnalen. Verra leaned back on the chair and stared out the window.
The Sun was almost down. The orange orb was nearly touching the jagged edge of the forest treetops, and Verra knew that once it did, it would sink down within moments. The heat of the day was subsiding, and the light breeze coming from the windows, was very pleasant. It smelled a little like smoke, and she wondered lazily if they were burning that dog on the Bridge Plaza, but couldn’t turn her head to take a glance at the East wall windows without disrupting the girls working on her hair.
When the braid, interwoven with blue silk ribbons, was finished and laced with a thin silver chain, Verra let the maids wrestle her into the dress.
“Don’t lace me up just yet.” she said, letting the heavy, dark-blue mantle with a silver embroidered crest of House Stormhold collapse to the floor. “I would like to be able to breathe for a little while longer.”
She chose a set of heavy silver earrings with blue diamonds, a matching necklace and rings. No coronet; too official for a simple dinner.
Verra looked at herself in the mirror. My nose is a joke. I have a tiny button in the middle of my face. Well, at least the rest of the look came together.
Only one thing missing.
She picked up the green vial and applied three drops of the perfume; one behind each ear, one between her collarbones, welcoming the pleasant chill.
The City Council’s clock rang seven.
Verra stood up and slid her feet into her slippers.
“Tighten up the laces, girls,” she said, “I need to take care of something else before dinner.”
The City Council’s clock rang seven.
The Bridge Plaza was almost empty, save for the two guards on duty, and some workers, who were waiting for the embers of the fire to extinguish themselves, so they could clean the ashes. Ngale stood leaning on the stone parapet, which extended on both sides of the Outer Gate, watching the Sun approach the horizon, and waiting for Dae. Although he now felt a little better about his imminent encounter with the Young Lady Heir, he would still prefer to have the young noble present to deflect some attention from him.
The young man, freshly groomed and wearing a new shirt, sword behind his back, arrived to the Gate at seven and a quarter, riding his gray stallion in a lazy canter. He emanated such a powerful flow of smug satisfaction, that there could be no doubts as to the reason of his tardiness.
He gracefully dismounted, and walked up to Ngale.
“I know I am a bit late, Master Ngale,” he said, measuring a light bow, “but I simply couldn’t get away earlier. My innkeeper, Mistress Oakleaf, insisted on getting me into a castle-worthy state herself, as she kindly put it. The bath took a lot longer than expected.”
“I see, my lord.”
“Is that a mien of disapproval I detect, Master Ngale?” Dae was clearly in a very good mood. “She is a very attractive woman. And recently single, mind you. And I simply cannot say ‘no’ to a rusty-head. And I now may have a much clearer idea of why the late Master Oakleaf had untimely proceeded to his Rebirth, too. She can be very… taxing.”
“It is my place to neither approve, nor disapprove, my lord.”
“You are judging me. I can tell.” Dae’s mood now, grew even better. He was definitely enjoying himself.
“No. I am not. I was once young, too.” Ngale said dryly. “I can only envy you. Respectfully, my lord.”
“Is there no romance in your life?”
“I travel all the time.”
“That only makes it easier.”
“Not for me. I think it is time, my lord.”
Dae paused, examining Ngale’s expression, then nodded. “Of course.”
They approached the guards. Dae led his horse behind him.
“Lord Sandstream and Master Ngale,” he said. “By invitation of the High Lady Heir.”
“Milord, master,” one of the guards issued two clanking half-bows, “you are expected. Please, proceed to the Inner Gate. Captain Northhill is awaiting your arrival.”
They stepped onto the bridge. The lights started to appear in the windows and on the streets of Stormhold City, as the Sun was sinking behind the black wall of the forest. The massive bastions of the castle remained mostly unlit, save for a couple of lanterns, illuminating the gates. The air was warm and still. Their steps, and the muffled thuds of Dae’s horse’s hooves, resonated freely over the perfectly smooth surface of the lake. Ngale followed the young man, falling a few steps behind, as appropriate for his lesser station. Dae was earnestly full of delighted anticipation, and didn’t even try to hide it.
I still don’t know how he figured me out, remembered Ngale. But what I really need to make sure of, is that you are here at the same time as I am, for the same reason as I am. Is it possible, that it is a coincidence? Not likely. Ngale carefully scanned the young man’s aura for any twinkle of another emotion, but all he saw was this giddy expectancy; undoubtedly about dinner with the High Lady Heir.
He mechanically examined the young man’s reflected vitals. A little tired and …proudly sore? Ngale smiled to himself.
“We have an agreement,” Dae said without turning his head, “have we not?”
“Of course, my lord. Why?” Ngale said nonchalantly, but quietly. Sound travels far over the still water. He is bluffing. I did not press on his emotions. And his ambience changed. Expectancy of a different shade? Yes. He is sure of himself. He wants me to confirm his bluff. That is not going to happen.
Dae turned to him, cold and collected.
“Then why are you constantly nibbling at my heels, Master Ngale? I thought I made it clear.”
He has to be bluffing.
“I honor our agreement. I am not affecting your judgment in any way. You have my word. But if you want me to become unaware of your being, I simply cannot. It is not how it works. I see people. And animals. I cannot make myself unsee you.” Ngale stopped.
Dae was calmly looking at him without any expression on his tanned face. He projected neither anger, nor animosity. He had the casual air of a woodworker, looking at a piece of timber. Or a butcher, spreading a slab of meat on a chopping block before making a cut. The pause was slowly becoming disquieting.
“I might have to amend the initial terms of our agreement,” he said finally, smoothly returning to his previous merry state. He smiled. “I do not know how yet, though, I need time to think about it. We shall talk later, Master Ngale.”
He turned and started toward the Inner Gate, which was already opening.
The dark silhouette of Captain Konratt Northhill, in full armor, emerged from the shadow of the tower. He had a rather grim aura around him, oozing annoyance and dissatisfaction.
“Milord, master. Welcome to Castle Stormhold. Please, follow me.”
They entered an enormous inner ward. It was quickly getting dark. Only the top floors of the central tower were still touched by the setting Sun. A very young stable boy ran up to Dae and took the reins of his horse.
They crossed the paved yard—Dae’s spurs jingling softly on the cobblestones—and walked up to the wide, stone staircase leading to the row of three iron-braced double doors. The central pair opened, revealing a guard and a dimly lit great hall behind him.
“Milord, master,” said Northhill, turning to the young noble and Ngale. “I must collect your weapons, before you can enter the Keep. They will, of course, be returned to you before your departure.”
In one smooth flick of his wrist, Dae removed his scabbard and offered it to the Captain. There was no shift in his mood, as if he expected something such as this.
“I am unarmed,” Ngale spread his arms, yellow palms forward. Trust me.
“Thank you, milord,” Northhill took the sword and passed it to the guard, who deposited it in one of the flat, wooden armory chests built into the wall, and closed it. “Please, follow me.” He continued through the hall, toward the dais at the end of it.
“Spectacular,” Dae whispered to Ngale, falling a step or two behind. “I bet, you could march in with a battle axe clenched in your teeth, and nobody would even think twice about it…”
“I am unarmed, my lord.” Ngale hissed. “It is true.”
Dae snorted. “Oh, please, have mercy. That was a joke. I am just trying to lighten up your mood. You seem to be a little tense.”
“Thank you, my lord. I am fine.” Ngale replied, looking around as they moved deeper into the hall. It was a little cooler within the thick stone walls. The floor was made of stone as well, simple square plates, expertly fitted against one another. The hall was empty; no benches, no chairs—not even on the dais. The giant chimney behind it looked like it hadn’t seen fire in months, which was most likely true, considering the weather. The place looked deserted. Their footsteps echoed in dead silence, and Ngale couldn’t help but wonder, how many people were actually left in the castle, after the garrison departed. How many people does it take to run a place like this?
The captain turned to the right and started up the steps of one of the two wide staircases, built into the opposing walls in the middle of the hall. They followed him into near darkness. Every other landing they passed had a skillfully carved wooden double door, all of which were closed.
“What is behind the doors, Captain?” Dae inquired lightly. “This is a spectacular castle. I would love a tour.”
“We are going up the North Staircase of the Lower Keep. The second story holds the offices of the court clerks and scribes.” Northhill answered in a grim monotone without stopping. Ngale could clearly see that the Captain’s mood was not improving, but it seemed that his evident dislike of Lord Sandstream was a smaller part of whatever was bothering him. “The third story is a Library, fourth—where we are headed—is the Dining Hall. It is the top floor of the Lower Keep, and the only one with windows. The North and South Staircases only go up to the roof of the Dining Hall. The quarters of the High Family are above, in the Upper Keep. There is another staircase, Central, that goes from The Audience Hall level all the way to the roof. Its use is reserved for the High Family, their guests and their immediate staff.” He shut his mouth, as if there was nothing else left to say.
“When we just entered, I could not help but notice, that the stairs only lead up…” the lordling was not going to give up, his aura sparkling with golden dust of excited curiosity, “are there stairs which lead down?”
“Yes.” Northhill answered rather reluctantly. “Central Staircase goes down as well.”
“What is down there? Dungeons, I presume? Or the Burial Chamber of the House?”
“Both.” The captain said tersely, and stopped talking.
“Are there any other guests arriving? It is so quiet here…” Dae tried to change the subject after a pause. “I know that the sandstone absorbs sounds, but…”
“None I know of, milord.” The captain came to a halt on the fourth story landing. The doors here were wide open, revealing a passage to the slightly brighter lit room, furnished with tables and benches. The passage opened to the side of a large, half-circular dais with a table, festively illuminated by candles.
“Please, wait there. Her Highness will make her appearance soon.” He solemnly motioned for them to proceed inside the hall, bowed, and assumed a guard stand at the door.
“They are here, milady!” Moona announced in an excited whisper, momentarily leaving her post behind the tapestry. The room next to the Dining Hall was equipped with two small chambers squeezed into a double wall on either side of the entrance doors. The chambers had small windows into the hall, hidden from the eyes of the guests by two tapestries, which hung over them. Verra often entertained herself by peeking at the mingling crowd before a formal dinner would start. It was much more insightful than talking to the guests in person, where all she could hope to gather from the conversation was an awkward jumble of forced compliments diluted by honorifics.
She turned to the hidden entrance of the second chamber to take a look herself, when Moona scrambled from her hiding place again, in a rustle of skirts. Her eyes were now as round as teacups, and rivaling those in size.
“Milady,” the girl croaked, in evident terror. Her full lips were trembling. “He is… he is… black!”
“Moona. Calm down, please.” All Lord, what a heifer. “Yes, Moona. He is from Kuomoqo, at least I think he is. He has very dark skin. As they all do there. His name is Ngale, and he is my guest tonight.”
“But, milady… don’t you know what people say about those black men?…” Moona was not a thumb closer to calming down. “They live in tribes, and they are nomads, and they war with each other all the time. And when one tribe defeats the other one, they… they eat them!”
“Moona. I have had enough of this nonsense. You will now go in and offer them drinks, and you will behave as you are supposed to. If you want to pee yourself, you will have time for that later. Go.”
Verra silently slipped into the second chamber, as Moona, on the verge of tears, arranged—with her hands shaking noticeably—two goblets on a small silver tray.
Dae drifted toward the table on the dais. Ngale followed, looking around the space. The Dining Hall was enormous as well, occupying most of the floor. The passage to the second staircase, identical to the one they used, was located symmetrically across the room, on the other side of the rounded dais. It was guarded, too, and—Ngale was reasonably certain about it—by the same guard, who earlier carried away Dae’s sword. Ngale couldn’t see his face, covered by the helm, but his ambiance felt very familiar.
Two great chimneys were built into opposite walls halfway into the depths of the hall.
The table, at which they eventually arrived, had three sets of ornate silver plates, goblets and utensils, neatly arranged on a dark blue tablecloth; one at the head of the table, two at the sides opposite to each other.
“Looks like we are the only ones invited… This is an honor indeed…” Dae said musingly.
Ngale didn’t answer, looking at the two tapestries with hunting scenes, hanging on the wall adjacent to the dais, on either side of the closed doors. The left one depicted, in masterful detail, several hounds surrounding a boar, while the one on the right—a great deer, being brought down by a pack of wolves. Although the embroidery was quite skillful, it was not the artwork, which attracted his attention, but a prominent stream of pure horror nearly gushing from behind the scene with the boar. Somebody was hiding there, and that somebody was clearly terrified. Ngale slowly stepped away from the fount of the disturbing feelings, and joined Dae, feeling the wave of emotion subside as he put some distance between himself and the tapestry. Somebody who is afraid of me? So much for taking off the eyelid paint… Would not be the first time this happened, though. Well, in all fairness, I did see a small child in my own village cry hysterically at the sight of a white man once.
Dae stopped in front of the second tapestry.
“Beautiful work. I always admired the craft and patience, which goes into making one of these. Very nice set. The artist managed to capture the movement of the deer quite believably. And the wolves…” He trailed off, then turned to Ngale. His eyes were squinted, lips stretching in a playful smirk. “Takha’an Zurb’ah, Ngale’maah?”
“Takha’an d’okh…” Ngale smoothly switched to Zurbahnian. “Why, if I may ask?”
“I believe we are being observed…”
“Undoubtedly, my lord.” He clearly felt somebody behind the second wall of fabric as well, only the prevailing note of this ambiance was curiosity. He recognized the spectrum at once. The Young Lady Heir herself. “From behind both…” he trailed off, searching for the Zurbahnian word for ‘tapestry’, but Dae nodded agreeably.
“Yes. Can you… recognize a person by their… er…” it was now the young man’s turn to look for the word.
“Yes, if I have met that person.”
“It is her. The Young Lady of the house. And I feel that she is getting irritated, because she does not understand us. Maybe we should consider returning to common tongue…”
“Why, Master Ngale? I do not like being spied on. Did I not mention this before?”
The doors between the hunting scenes opened slowly and silently. A second later, a servant girl entered, holding a silver tray with two goblets. The girl was unmistakably the same one who was, just moments ago, standing behind the first tapestry. She was still mortally afraid. The tray in her hands was visibly shaking, and Ngale became very concerned for the safety of the drinks she was carrying. The maid approached them, and proffered the tray with a cumbersome curtsy, nearly losing her balance.
In one elegant flowing motion, Dae swept both goblets from the tray, saving them from tumbling over, and presented one to Ngale.
“Just in time.” He said, switching back to Western. “I do not know about you, Master Ngale, but I am parched. Are you all right, child?” He asked the poor girl with genuine concern, simultaneously studying her ample cleavage.
Ngale smirked, looking into his glass. The boy just cannot help it. He assumes a Pointer’s stance with any female in sight.
“Yes, sir.” The maid exhaled. “I am sorry, sir.”
“What is wrong, dear?” Dae gently took the maid by the wrist with his empty hand to steady her. “Please, rise.”
“Nothing, milord.” The maid straightened, matching his reassuring grin with a one of her own. She seemed less afraid, being distracted by the obvious attention of the young noble, and Ngale used the moment to gently press on her, dissolving her fear. Everything is fine. You are not afraid of the black man. He is harmless. There is nothing to be afraid of. The girl lit up in a beautiful smile, as Verra’s mood, seeping in from behind the fabric, slowly turned into a perturbed swirl of annoyance, mixed with anger.
“What is your name, child?” He heard Dae ask.
“Moona, milord.” The girl was feeling much better now. She was young and attractive, with a round, pleasant face, large hazel eyes, and light hair; streaming from her white mutch down to her shoulders. She wore a dark blue ankle-length dress and a narrow white apron, just like the outfit he saw on the High Lady Heir during her visit to his tent. “I just tripped. Please, forgive me my clumsiness, milord. I should go.” She gingerly tried to wrestle her hand out of Dae’s grip, smiling timidly. He reluctantly let go, but not before he made her blush. Ngale smiled. What are you doing, flirting with a maid in front of her lady? Why are you so firmly set on annoying our little hostess? At least, the servant girl’s fear was now completely replaced by embarrassment—that was a success of sorts.
He felt Verra retreating from the hidden chamber. She was angry and worried. Ngale let go of her.
One cannot control everything, can one?
Verra was growing anxious. First, stepping into the observation chamber, just to observe both of them to explode in a sparkling cascade of “r”s, “k”s, and “h”s—she could recognize Zurbahnian, even though she could not understand it—then, witnessing the lordling trifle with her own maid.
Moona, you stupid goat. Where are the kitchen wenches? I hate to be late. My wet hair is as heavy as a bucket of water.
Moona returned with the empty tray, still blushing, and closed the doors behind her.
“See, Moona? You were wrong.” Verra hissed quietly, emerging from her hiding place. “The black man is not going to eat you.”
“Of course, milady. He seems very nice…”
“Exactly, child. I do not know how you figured that out, without hearing a word from him, but he is very nice. It is the other one you should beware, evidently. Where is the rest of the help?”
Moona dashed to the other end of the room and opened the doors to the service loft.
“They are here, milady. Everything is ready.”
Two more maids entered and curtsied.
Verra sighed, adjusted her bodice for the last time, and assumed her position in the center of the room. Moona draped the mantle over her shoulders.
Verra reached into a small pocket, worked into the skirt of her dress near the waistline, and took out the green vial. She applied the last drop of perfume to her neck and put the vial away.
The City Clock started to ring eight.
Moona pushed the doors open and announced, proudly and solemnly:
“The Heir to the Throne of the Regency of Norlay, Acting Head of the House, Her Highness Lady Verra Corriolain Stormhold.”