Truth Be Told
I woke in my bed to the light of false dawn. A smooth white pad, wrapped in bandages, covered the stitches I could now feel in my arm. I sat up and found myself in one of my nightdresses. Jason lay beside me, sleeping peacefully in only a pair of breeches.
I gazed at his face for a moment, and brushed his straight black hair away from his eyes. I touched his lip and then slid out of the bed. In the dressing room, I shed the nightdress and loincloth and climbed into the bath Tara
had prepared. Tara had to help my wash and comb my hair, and to my dismay, had to help me dress. I struggled into the loincloth and breast band, but Tara wouldn’t hear of me struggling into the light blue shirt, brown breeches, and calf high boots. She combed my hair into a single long braid and then tied it with a leather thong. I let her drape my cloak over my shoulders, but refused to let her put my knives in place. I strapped the same knives in my sleeve and boots, slung my quiver into place over my right shoulder and tucked my finger tab in a small pocket inside my cloak.
I went into my study, pulled out a piece of fresh parchment, and took out a pen. Dipping it in ink, I wrote a note to Jason.
“I’m going out for a few hours. I’m taking Midnight and Shooter. I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me unless I’m not back by the fourth morning bell. Love you, Izzy.”
Midnight was my black mare. Too small to be a battle horse, she was perfect for me. Though she was steady and solid, she had been trained to protect her mistress. Shooter was a stray dog that had adopted me. He was a black and white collie favored by shepherds and farmers. He had not been trained to protect me, but he did anyway. He liked to sleep in Midnight’s stall.
I set the note on my pillow and grabbed my belt purse from in the wardrobe. I looked in and counted. Three colies, ten coifs, and twenty coppers. Most of my money was in an account in the bank, but I did like to keep an allowance. My real allowance from Father was a coli a month. I put the purse on my belt and grabbed my bow. Pulling up my hood, I opened the door and walked swiftly towards the stairs that would lead me to the stables.
Once there, I headed for Midnight’s stall, an apple from the feed room in my hand. I also had a small bone for Shooter. Opening Midnight’s stall, I flipped back my hood and slipped in. Shooter jumped up, licked my face, and took the bone. I handed the apple to Midnight, who was lipping my cloak. Finished with her treat, the mare rubbed her head against my chest. Shooter demanded a belly rub, forcing me to crouch and comply. Midnight snuffled into my hair and I smiled. I stood carefully as she backed up, and then started to groom her with the brushes in the box on the wall.
Wincing against the pain in my arm, I oiled her hooves, and then ran a brush through Shooter’s fur. Once done, I opened the stall door and called Midnight to follow with hand signals. In public, I rode with tack, but I didn’t want it now. Midnight didn’t even need it. I had taught her hand signals, voice commands, and bareback commands for when I rode her. Outside the stable, I flipped up my hood again and vaulted onto Midnight’s back. Shooter trotted along next to us as we rode out of the palace, heading for the city. No guards stopped us; they knew it was me without looking. Midnight had been trained to throw anyone who didn’t give her a password before mounting.
As we reached the city, I watched the people. I loved learning new things and came to the city often. A man sitting on the rim of the fountain in Market Square raised his flute to me. I raised my good hand to the man; I often danced just for the fun of it. Raising my hand told him I’d be back later to dance. I headed through the Market District and the Housing District until I reached the Temple District. I visited the temple of Dea, her brother, Doma; god of the seas and waters, Tati; goddess of the snows and winter winds, the Dark God; god of death, Mikran; god of battle, weapons, and the sun, Hakka; god of blacksmiths, forges, and fire, Rikani; goddess of the moon, maidens, and youth, and countless others.
I had bought a bouquet on my way, and laid a flower in each temple. All the temples were similar in several ways; each had a large statue of the god or goddess across from the doors. The walls were painted with the god’s sacred things, such as animals, and the floors were set with tiles of the god’s color. Some were circular, while others were rectangular. All had a priest or priestess, depending on whose temple it was. Each wore a robe of the color of their god. Rikani’s temple had a squad of female guards to punish a man who forced himself on a woman, as did Dea’s temple. While Dea was the goddess of fertility, she was also the goddess of women.
Leaving the Temple District, I heard the third morning bell ring. I sighed and guided Midnight around two squabbling rat-dogs. Different breeds of dogs were trained to do different things in the cities and castles and palace. Terriers were trained as rat-dogs, while hounds were trained as boar-hounds, scent-hounds, and deer-hounds based on size. Collies like Shooter were trained to act as herders, while retrievers were trained as bird-dogs. Harrier shepherds were trained as provost dogs, as well as guard dogs. Ladies preferred small lap dogs as pets while most knights and lords had either a hound or retriever. Cats were even put to work as mousers in store rooms, kitchens, and servant halls. I rode back to the fountain where the flutist sat, playing.
I dismounted and told Midnight to stand. Shooter sat at her side, watching as I shed my cloak and weapons. I put them in the back of the fruit-seller’s cart, as usual, and made my way to the area before the fountain. Two men and a woman had joined my flutist. The woman played a violin, while the two men played a horn and mandolin. I stood before them and they nodded. I turned my back as their music stopped. I crouched, waiting. The violin started the song the Court had never heard, the one I called, “Joy.”
I straightened slowly, swaying, my hands above my head. The merchants who knew this routine began to clap, drawing the attention of others. The mandolin and horn added on and I began to twirl, my hands out, my braid swinging around me. Several girls my age joined me, forming a circle as we twirled and leaped, skipping and kicking out our feet. We joined hands and circled, unaware of the crowd that grew larger and larger around us. A circle of boys formed around us going the opposite way. Soon, the lines were switching places by looping arms and twirling. The circles broke, forming a circular group of dancing couples as I danced alone. Flowers began to fall on us as I wove through the dancers, twirling around people and flicking my braid around. The boys lifted the girls as I leaped and twirled. The circle reformed around me as we danced. The boys leaped as the girls twirled and then they all crouched. The violin went on as I twirled, leaped, and landed as the song ended on a climax.
Cheers sounded around us as we bowed and curtsied, laughing and grinning at each other. “Well? Don’t stop!” I cried, turning to the musicians. Laughing, they moved to the side of the square to give us room.
“Midnight’s song alright?” they called. I nodded and called Midnight into place. Midnight and Shooter loved the music just as much as I did. The music began with Midnight trotting around me, rearing and skipping. I moved with her as she pranced. She paused and I ran, leaping to land on her back. She began to trot again as I straddled her withers. The music’s speed increased and she began to canter around the square. Balancing neatly, I raised myself into a crouch on her back and stood slowly. The music stopped suddenly and Midnight stopped as well, giving me the momentum I needed to soar over her so I could land on the flagstones. But, the music didn’t start again like it should’ve. I looked at the crowd and saw them facing Palace Way. I followed their stares and gulped. My father, Lord Finnegan, my brothers, and Seamus all stared at me.
“Isabella, what do you think you’re doing? Performing in the streets is not a lady’s place!” my father snapped.
I raised my chin and glared at him. “Father, this is not the time or the place,” I replied coldly. “Do everyone a favor and be on your way,” I added.
“Liam, relax. She’s not doing any harm and she’s having fun. When was the last time you saw her dance for fun?” Lord Finnegan asked.
Taylor and Ian rode forward until they were in front of me as the two older men argued. “That was good. Who taught you how to land like that?” Taylor asked.
“You jump from enough places and you learn how to fall,” I replied. He grinned and nodded.
“Is that how you were able to sneak out without anyone noticing?” Ian asked. I nodded and turned back to Midnight. I vaulted on, still favoring my bandaged arm. “By the way, you looked nice last night. And you did well against the Seiko,” he added.
“Nice? She looked amazing!” Taylor told him. “And that was some very pretty shooting,” he added to me.
“Thanks guys. Oh, and thank you for the dresses you paid for. Thank the girls for me will you?” I asked. They nodded and rode back to Father. Father and Seamus turned and rode back to the castle as Lord Finnegan winked at me. I bowed to him, smiling, and turned back to the fruit-seller.
I retrieved my things and tossed a coif to each of the musicians. They bowed as I turned Midnight towards the palace. They didn’t protest such a short performance; all the people knew my relationships with my family. I stopped twice on my ride back to the palace. The first was to give an orphaned teenage girl I knew a coif. The girl, whose name was Mara, thanked me and kissed my finger tips. The second was to watch a group of street kids dancing as one of them played a poorly made lute. When they spotted me, they waved, smiles on their dirty faces. I waved back and continued on my way. I reached the palace stables only a few minutes before the fourth morning bell and dismounted quickly.
The head hostler, the only other person who knew Midnight’s hand signals, waited with the mare as Shooter and I ran up the sloping path to the castle. I took the shortcut through the servants’ stairs and opened my door just as the bell rang. Tara looked up from the chair where she sat, sewing new shirt. She leaped up and followed me into the dressing room, where the small hand basin was filled with steaming water. I scrubbed the street dust from my face and neck, then stripped off the dusty breeches and shirt. Tara helped me into a pair of clean tan breeches and a white shirt. I replaced my boots and took the lighter, summery cloak of smoky gray. Though it was only ten, it had begun to get hot out.
“Izzy, are you ready?” Jason called from the hall.
“Almost!” I called back as Tara undid my braid. She slid a tie onto my wrist so I could put my hair up when I wanted and I ran to the door. Jason touched a strand of my hair and then we hurried towards the stables where the others waited. Midnight had been bridled in a simple leather bridle, but no saddle. Kurt lifted Princess Jacqueline into the side-saddle of her gorgeous golden mare as Jon helped Lady Rica into the high backed Seiko saddle on her gray gelding. Jason gently lifted Lady Tonya into the side-saddle on her sorrel mare as I vaulted onto Midnight’s back. All three boys rode their battle horses; knights always did. Jason’s black stallion, Darkness, was Midnight’s brother, and they acted like it. Kurt’s large bay mare was called Tap; she had tapped Kurt’s back with her nose until he’d turned around to see her. Jon’s gray mare was called Storm.
Shooter trotted along beside me as a squad of Royal Guards closed around us. All the roads were plenty large enough for ten horses to walk abreast of each other, so it was easy for Jason to ride beside Kurt, Jacqueline, and Tonya. Rica and Jon rode behind them as Shooter and I brought up the rear. Once we had left the curtain wall, my guard, Eddie, nodded to me and turned from his place. Eddie was the only Royal Guard who could ride with me; not only did his riding skill allow it, but I found him a good riding companion.
I turned Midnight out towards the fields and the party stopped to watch on Jason’s word. Eddie and I urged our horses into beautiful gallops down the stretch of grassy land between the wall and farming fields. Midnight let Eddie’s horse get ahead, but when Eddie had to swing his horse around to turn back, Midnight could stop on a dime, spin on her haunches and launch herself back the way she had come at a full gallop. We beat Eddie back by a full three horse lengths. Laughing, I let Midnight slow gradually to a walk and then we rejoined the group.
“How did you teach her that?” the Princess asked.
“I didn’t. The first time Eddie and I raced, I was intending to swing her around, but she stopped and spun so fast that she left me sitting in the dirt behind her. She just taught me to hold on,” I replied.
“She likes to win,” the princess smiled and pulled at the gauze like shawl she wore over her hair and shoulders. Tonya, too, wore one, with much less embroidery than the princess’s. Both wore kimonos again; Tonya’s was lavender with white lilies, the princess’s sky blue with white clouds. Today, I noticed the splits that ran up to their knees, revealing white underskirts. Both also carried their kiokos again, in matching colors to their kimonos. They also had parasols made of oiled paper over wooden frames. Lady Rica wore the head scarf the Seiko made their women wear, but otherwise she looked like any other Areni in a tan skirt and cream colored blouse.
Looking up from watching the ladies, I noticed a figure perched on a roof. When I saw him raise a bow, I cried, “Archer! Everyone down!” Shooter streaked away from the group, heading for the city, and I knew he’d get a scent, maybe even get close enough to get a piece of clothing. The Guards had closed around the group, half with drawn swords, the others with crossbows aimed at the archer.
Midnight quivered, her ears flicking back, and I turned. Another archer stood in the road, unnoticed by the Guard. “Eddie, pass me your extra,” I said softly. Eddie handed over his spare crossbow and a quiver of bolts. It was loaded, so I turned and fired, taking the second archer in the calf as he tried to turn away. I reloaded the bow in one swift movement and looked around. The roof archer had vanished for a moment and now returned. Shooter came back, a large chunk of hand-woven cotton in his jaws. He dropped it in a bag I held for him, then darted after the wounded archer.
He returned with a piece of bloody wool. This went in a second small bag and then the Guard spilt. Three headed for the rooftop archer. Three more went after the wounded one. From the city came shouting, almost drowned out by the sounds of a fight behind us. After fifteen minutes, we had two bound and gagged prisoners slung over the backs of two horses. I gave Eddie back his crossbow and sighed as a cool breeze from the bay caught my hair. The others, too, sighed and I tilted my head back to let the breeze under my hair.
Jason rode up beside me and reached over. He took my hand and grinned at me. The breeze increased to a wind and Jacqueline lost hold of her shawl. She reached out for it and grabbed empty air. Kurt snagged it and handed it back, smiling. He blushed when their fingers touched and looked away, sheepish. Jason and I grinned at each other, but let Kurt enjoy the moment without more embarrassment. I noticed that Tonya looked rather sullen, and decided to introduce her to my brother Ian. We had to ride back to the palace after the assassination attempt, and we were soon hurried through the gates by the Guard. Jason, Kurt, and Jon dismounted from their horses as I lifted myself to stand on Midnight’s back. The Palace seemed to be in an uproar. Guards and servants hurried by, shouting to each other.
I remained on Midnight’s back until Jason reached up to me. I looked down into his worried face and launched myself over his head, performing a neat front flip to land beside the princess. Jason turned to me, shaking his head, a small smile lifting the corners of his mouth. “What’s going on?” Eddie asked the captain of the Guard.
“There was an assassination attempt on all the royalty in the palace,” the captain replied. The others paled and took off, their guards following. “No one was killed, but Prince Byron took a knife to the shoulder protecting his mother. They were disguised as servants,” Captain told me. I nodded and ran after Jason. I found him with the other royalty and nobles, gathered in the Great Hall.
“Jace, are you crazy?” I asked. When he looked at me, confused, I said, “If there are more, they know exactly where everyone is! If they use a massive attack, they’ll kill us all!” King Charles overheard and began to send people to their rooms. Most had already been searched, and been deemed safe. I left with Lady Rica and made my way to my room. I grabbed the set of keys I needed for the trunk locks and unlocked it easily. I pulled out my griffin feather necklace, my phoenix feather hair band, and the vial of unicorn tears. I ran back to the Great Hall, where a bandaged Prince Byron sat with his wife, parents, and brother.
“Prince Byron, I have something to heal that. With your permission, I’ll use it,” I said, bowing.
“Please do, Izzy,” he replied. Princess Luciana helped him unwrap his shoulder as I took out the vial.
“These are unicorn tears,” I told him. When no heat came from the griffin feather, I knew they really were. I opened the vial and held it over the cut. A drop fell onto the wound and a sigh escaped Byron. The wound healed within minutes and Luciana clasped my hand in hers. Byron began to stretch the arm and a grin spread.
“It healed the old sword wound from the war,” he told me. I smiled and backed away. Jason caught my hand and kissed my fingers as I passed. I squeezed my thumb over his; our old childhood signal of friendship. He smiled and watched me leave.
Outside the doors, a messenger caught me. “My lady, his Grace wishes for you to meet him in his study in ten minutes time. He says he has words you need to hear,” the boy told me.
“Please, tell him I’ll be there. And take this for your break,” I said, handing over three coppers. Three coppers was the normal tip for a palace worker. The boy bowed and ran back the way he’d come. I sighed and trotted up to my rooms. I could not present myself to my father in breeches. I changed into a simple, yet fine, dress of dark green on silver; the colors of Silverwood. I braided and pinned my hair in a maidenly coil. I even put on a matching face veil. The veil was pinned in front of the coil and stopped just above my lips. I hated the things, but I knew better than to not wear one in the Duke’s, or the Duchess’s, presence.
A noblewoman from the age of fifteen to the age of her marriage wore one. It marked her as an unmarried maiden. Noblewomen remained maidens until they were married. It was an old tradition; something to do with a woman’s virtue and vulnerability. While at one time all women wore them, the tradition had died when the common women couldn’t afford to have them made. I let out a string of curses as I pricked myself with pins, trying to put the cursed thing on. When it was finally in place, I hurried from my rooms towards the west wing.
When the Duchess’s personal maid let me in, I groaned inwardly. Gathered in the sitting room were Taylor, Lily, Chrissie, Ian, and Rose. Ian jumped to his feet and said, “My lady, please sit.”
“It’s me, dolt,” I snapped at him. I lifted the face veil to glare at him and he fell onto the couch, stunned.
“You’re wearing a face veil!” he gasped.
“It’s just as well,” Rose said from behind her veil. Rose was a very proper maiden; needless to say she drove me crazy.
I perched on the edge on Taylor’s armchair and waited for Father to arrive. When he finally arrived, he said, “My lady, you’ll have to,”
“It’s me, Father,” I said, cutting him off as he looked at me.
“I’m glad you finally realize trumping around in breeches is unlady-like,” the Duchess replied, following him in. I glared daggers at her at the idea that I was a tramp.
“Alright, come,” Father said, opening the door to his study. He took the chair behind the desk as the rest of us took the chairs before him. “Now that Isabella is turning sixteen, I can trust you all with these things I’ve kept from you since your mother’s death. First, you must know that Helaina was not the mother of any of you. She was the mother of Esmond, Edmund, and Annabelle, but you are not her children. You are all mine, though. Taylor, your mother was my first wife, Lady Tamantha of Lakeside. Liliandell, she was your mother as well, and Lakeside was her dowry, being an only child as though she was. Tamantha died in childbirth. The baby died as well.
Christiananna and Ian, your mother was my second wife, Lady Cynthia of Lakeview. Cynthia was also an only child, and Lakeside was her dowry. She died when you were just an infant, Christiananna, of the Quick Fever.
Rosanna, your father did not die in the war. I am your father. Your mother and I saw each other whilst I was searching for a new wife. Your dowry is truly Elaine’s Seacliff,” Father said. The others looked around at each other in shock. We were not all full siblings. Nor had Father said who my mother was.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” Taylor demanded.
“Because I decided I would wait until you were all sixteen,” he replied diplomatically.
“Who is my mother?” I asked softly. I feared I did not want to know.
“I do not know,” he stated. I felt my eyes widen behind my veil.
“When I had a new baby, people assumed her mother had been Carissa, who died the night the baby was born. In truth, you were that baby, Isabella,” he replied.
“What happened to Helaina and Carissa’s dowries?” Rose asked.
“When the twins and Annabelle were born, I decided that the twins would take Aideen while Isabella and Annabelle would take Cagney. Cagney was Helaina’s and Aideen was Carissa’s. We have both still. Isabella, if you’d like Cagney as your dowry, you may have it. Ian, if you would prefer to take Aideen for yourself, Elaine and I would take the townhouse,” Father told us.
I nodded mutely and stood. I opened my mouth and nothing came out. “Yes, you may go,” Father told me. I nodded, curtsied, and walked out of my father’s rooms. In the hall, I pulled the veil from my hair and ran, tears streaming down my face. Thankfully, I was stopped by no one, but I did not notice the maid who ran to find Jason. I reached the stables and ran to Midnight’s stall. I opened the door, fumbling the latch and leaped onto her back. I wrapped my hands in her mane and leaned over her neck as she took off, galloping out of the stables and away from the palace. Shooter followed easily. Midnight knew where I liked to go to be alone and she went without my guidance.
When she finally stopped, I slid off and collapsed to my knees where I landed. Pressing my hands over my face, I sobbed. I didn’t notice the arms that pulled me in and held me as I cried.