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Survival of Me
One-Away From There
I pulled on a dark gray shirt and black breeches. Over the shirt went the black jerkin and cloak. I shoved my feet into a pair of sturdy leather boots and sling my quiver over my shoulder. Stringing my bow easily, I slung the yew bow over my pack. I opened the shutters on the window of my third story room and climbed onto the windowsill.
I dropped carefully onto the roof below me, grabbing the sill with my hands to stop my fall. I lowered myself onto the slanting roof and slid down to the edge. Grabbing the roof with my hands, I lowered myself to the railing of the balcony of my sisters' rooms. There, I ghosted across the railing to the edge where I could drop to the wall of the inner courtyard gardens.
I stepped down from the wall, slipped into the shadows of the house and padded along the walkways to the wall that would let me into the forest.
Here, I jumped into a tree from the ground and climbed through the branches until I could drop to the other side. I let go of the branch and landed in a neat crouch. With a sigh I straightened and headed into the forest, ignoring the small voice saying how angered Father would be with me.
It was his fault for trying to marry me off to some lord's son. The lording was an arrogant airhead, spoiled and bossy. Yes he was handsome but that was all. I refused to marry him three times before he went to Father and the Duchess.
When the first Duchess, my mother, had died, Father took a new wife, one who enjoyed being nobility far too much. She looked down on our people and I wasn't going to live that way any longer than I had too.
I'd go to the palace and become a hostler or huntsman. The king and queen were fair and kind, serious rulers beloved by all their people. Their oldest son and second son were both kind hearted knights as well. Their two daughters were beautiful and kind and made good wives to the princes of several friendly kingdoms.
All of the royal family was beautiful or handsome, kind and fair, loyal and proud. Everyone was loved for their steady way of ruling. They were patient and good leaders, willing to listen and knowing when to speak.
In their kingdom, men and women were equal. Women could try for shields and knighthood, join the army or the navy and even start her own business. Women were more common in the Rangers; men and women trained with short sword, all kinds of bows, staff, and spear, mounted on sturdy ponies that could run forever. The Rangers acted as the police of the kingdom; each of the fiefs had a patrol of six to ten riders. Women didn’t often go for the King’s Riders; men, or women, mounted on battle horses, trained with all sorts of weapons to act as a group. They acted as the protectors of the kingdom; if there was a problem the locals couldn’t handle even with their lord’s help, the Riders went in. The Riders were the step between knights and the army.
Women could inherit lands as well as titles, but being the youngest of five meant I had very little of my father's land or money. My eldest brother, Taylor, was a knight, a good one. He inherited first. He would receive the title Duke of Silverwood, as Father's fief was in fact Silverwood. My eldest sister, Liliandell, would not inherit land, as she was married to a good knight with a wealthy fief, but her dowry was Mother’s inheritance, Lakeside.
Christiananna, Chrissie, my second sister, was to inherit the small fief from my mother's dowry, called Lakeview, as her dowry. My second brother, Ian, was to inherit Father's townhouse in the Royal City. The townhouse was lovely, it was once a royal guest house given to my grandfather from the King's father, the king before him.
I however, would not inherit. My stepsister would inherit my stepmother's dowry, another small fief called Seacliff. The only land I'd yet was from marriage and I disliked every one of the suitors Stepmother picked.
Stepmother was not a bad woman, but she disliked my enjoyment of the outdoors and animals and archery. She insisted I learn embroidery and stitching, the way a proper lady did, so I did, to please my father. I wore the stiff petticoats and heavy skirts, the tight corsets and pinching shoes. I wore the face paint and eardrops and rings and thick necklaces. I hated every minute of it.
Night was my escape. I slipped out after Father's curfew and returned before the servants rose at dawn. I met Jon and Kurt and Jace. Jason was three years my senior but nobody cared. In the dark hours of freedom we went about the village around the castle, dressed as merchants' children.
In the day hours, Prince Jason would visit the Lady Isabella with Lord Raul's son, Jonathan, and Lord Philip's son, Curtis. Nobody knew we met outside the formal meetings. We often went riding or visited the city. In the winter we went skating. Things were better when we were young, we could get dirty and muddy and swim and sled and race and wrestle and have fun. Things were different now that I was turning sixteen soon. I knew the whispers now; knew everyone hoped their youngest prince would
marry the second daughter of Emperor Jakun of the Pioni Islands. The princess was sweet, but I knew the real Jason; she'd make a terrible wife for the prince.
"Izzy?" that was Jason’s deep whisper, I'd know it anywhere. I unfurled myself from my perch in the oak and dropped beside the prince. Kurt and Jon, standing nearby, whirled, hands on their swords. All three were young knights, assigned to the castle for now.
"Relax, it's me," I hissed at them.
"Izzy, you've to come with me. Please, unless you want to be forced into marriage tomorrow," Jason whispered.
"Jace, do you have to ask?" I asked softly, taking his outstretched hand in the moonlight. He shook his head and pulled me after him. Kurt ran in front of us, Jon behind us.
When we reached the walls of the castle, I stopped and made the boys face me. "How'd you get out here?" I breathed into Jason’s ear.
"We climbed," he replied.
"Liar," I hissed. I slipped into the shadows and watched Kurt climb up to a guard and whisper to him. Jason grinned at me and started climbing. Jon waved me forward and I jumped halfway up the wall before I caught the edge and pulled myself up easily. Jon climbed after me as the guard starred at me.
"Izzy," Jason whispered. I followed him and Kurt off the wall as Jon handed a coin to the guard. Again, I took his hand and followed quietly. He led me to his suite of rooms.
The first was a simple sitting room. It opened to a bedchamber on one side and a study on the other. A dressing room and privy was off the bedchamber if memory severed correctly. On the other side of the study was a squire's bedchamber. "You don't have a squire, do you?" I asked softly.
"No. For now that can be your room, if you want it," he said. I raised my eyebrows and he shrugged. "You're not happy at home and you are with me, so I figured you'd like it here."
"Thank you, Your Highness," I replied.
"Don’t even think about it," he groaned. He hated it when I referred to his royalty.
"Am I to be a boy?" I asked.
"I don't see why we can't tell the truth," he told me.
"Because then Father will know exactly where I am," I replied.
"And if the Duke knows, so does that lording," Kurt mused. I nodded and the boys grinned.
"And if I court you?" Jason asked. I raised my brows again and his grin widened. "We always said someday we would. Why not now?" he added.
"Do I have to wear a fancy dress all the time? You know how much I hate petticoats." I said opening the door to the spare bedchamber.
"No, but once we announce that you're here, Mother will insist on giving you proper rooms," he reminded me. I nodded and closed the door behind me.
I unstrung my bow and set it against the wall. I hung the full quiver of swan feather arrows on a peg above it. My pack contained a night dress, three shirts, a tunic, a pair of breeches and a pair of leggings. They went in the chest of drawers against the far wall with the shirt, breeches, and jerkin I wore now. The cloak I draped over the back of the chair in front of the desk. I set my boots beside the foot of the bed, pulled on the night dress and slipped into the clean bed.
TWO-Wild Horses and Ball Gowns
"Izzy! Wake up!" Jason’s voice sounded close to my ear and I jerked awake.
"What?" I gasped, sitting up.
"Easy. It’s ok, you just need to get up. You need to see the tailor before I can tell my parents you're here," he replied.
“Why? I brought clothes,” I told him.
“Don’t you remember anything from the galas and feasts and parties I dragged you to? You are not going to wear breeches at these parties. You don’t have to wear petticoats or those crazy heeled shoes but could you at least wear a dress tonight?” he told me.
“Tonight? Oh no, it’s tonight?” I cried. He just nodded, amused. On the full moon of Harvest Moon, the kingdoms celebrated the Harvest Festival. At the palace, this meant a royal feast and ball. This was also the first big event of the Royal Court’s social season, which ran from the month of Harvest Moon to Snowmelt Moon. Knights chose squires during this season, and it was a way to learn the news from around the kingdom that hadn’t yet reached the Royal City. It was also when young men and women who had come of age were presented to the Court for the first time. I was one.
“Will you let me escort you?” he asked softly.
“Well, if we are courting then yes, I think I shall,” I teased, smiling.
“Iz, be serious, please,” he pleaded.
“Alright. Yes, you may escort me,” I said.
He grinned and kissed my fingers. Then he leaned over and kissed my cheek before standing and walking out.
I sighed and walked into the dressing room. Using a damp cloth from the wash basin, I scrubbed my face clean, and then washed my teeth with a smaller cloth and a mint flavored soap paste. I brushed out my long hair until the unruly honey colored locks hung down my back. A young maid carried in a large basin of steaming water to pour in the tub against the wall. She nodded to me as she left and I looked in. The basin was nearly full; she had been filling it while Jason woke me. I pulled off my night dress and loincloth, and then stepped into the tub.
I sighed happily as the warm water loosened several tight muscles in my shoulders and back. Using gel like hair soap, I scrubbed the forests grime from my hair. I used a bar of scented soap to scrub my body and rinsed away the soap bubbles. Climbing from the tub, I tied my hair up and wrapped it in a towel. I wrapped another around my body and took up the loincloth and breast band the maid had laid for me on a rack in the corner. A white shift and under skirt followed, with a simple blue dress on top. Soft leather boots went over stockings.
I hung the towels on a second rack and reentered my temporary bedchamber. Running a brush through my hair again, I heard a soft knock on the door. Opening the door, I found the young maid. “His Highness, Prince Jason, sent me to care for you, my lady,” she said, curtsying.
I stepped back from the door and smiled. “Please, come in,” I replied.
“I’m Tara, my lady,” the girl added as she banked the small hearth fire. She opened the shutters on the large windows, revealing the Moon Garden. As I was on the fifth floor of the keep, I could see the whole thing perfectly. The Moon Garden was the Queen’s garden, she and her guests and friends often sat on one of the benches or in one of the flower covered gazebos. The gardens centered around a small pond and willow trees, with beautiful arrangements of white pebble pathways through beds of roses and lilies, tulips and violets, peonies and cherry blossom trees. Most visiting ladies preferred room with a view of the Moon Garden, as did I.
Royalty and nobles had rooms on the fifth and sixth floors, and many had balconies. The fourth floor was the rooms for knights. The third was free squires, pages, and servant quarters. The second floor was palace craftspeople, such as tailors, scribes, or clerks. The first floor was ballrooms, the Great Hall, dining chambers, parlors, and such. The palace not only contained the main keep, but also several courtyards, practice yards, guest houses, several stables, and barracks. The whole thing was surrounded by a curtain wall of stone. The Royal City spread around the palace, about a hundred paces from any point on the wall.
I was recalled to the real world as the door to Jason’s study opened. From the corner of my eye I saw Tara curtsey deeply; it was royalty. Jason’s hands touched my shoulders, light and gentle. “Ready?” he asked. I nodded and let him guide me from the room. I walked not on his arm, as was proper, but independently beside him.
Jason led me through the quiet castle; most nobles were taking the opportunity to sleep before a very long night. When we reached the tailors’ chambers, we found the seamstresses and assistants all hard at work. “Your Highness, my lady, welcome and good morning,” one woman said, coming from one of the several adjoining rooms.
“Good morning, Mistress Farna,” Jason replied. “This is Lady Isabella of Silverwood,” he introduced me loudly, earning himself a quick glare.
Farna curtsied and took my hand with strong fingers. She pulled me gently into a fitting room and closed the door on Jason. Grinning, I looked around. Stands lined two of the four walls, each holding a dress or gown. “His Highness told me you’re not one for petticoats, my lady,” she said, taking my measurements. “Ah, good, the same. His Highness got us measurements from your Midsummer’s gown,” she added.
“He did? Hmm. He must have been planning to sneak me away for a while,” I mused softly.
“From what I hear of palace gossip, he’s been planning this since Lord Finnegan proposed to his Grace that you marry his son,” she told me.
“I don’t understand how such a great man can have such an airhead of a son,” I replied as she helped me out of the blue dress. A forest green gown trimmed with gold and silver settled in its place. The gown needed no petticoats or full skirts; I liked the simple, elegant style that fit so nicely. I twirled and Farna clapped delightedly.
“I think this shall be the only one you need try on. The others were made with the same measurements and adjustments. Which do you think you will wear tonight?” she said as she helped me from the dress.
I turned and examined each dress. There were eleven in all; the green with gold and silver, silver with pale blue, lilac with dark gold, sapphire blue with white, maroon with pale gold and white, light gold with pink, light pink with cream, light blue with dark blue, silver-blue with dark purple, ivory with pale green, and blue-violet with silver. “I think I’ll wear the silver-blue one,” I told her.
She nodded and tied the back of the simple blue dress for me. “My lady, just for fair-warning, the Queen knows you’re here, and has already had several rooms prepared for you. All the matching jewelry and shoes are waiting for you in there,” she whispered.
“Oh, lovely. Who else knew Jason was planning this?” I asked.
“Very few knew, but everyone heard the rumors,” she replied, her eyes twinkling.
I sighed and said, “How much do I owe you for the dresses?”
“Nothing, my lady, they have been paid for. Two by Lord Tomas and Lady Liliandell, two by Lord Taylor and Lady Susanna, one by Lady Christiananna, one by Lord Ian, one by Lady Rosanna, two by Lord Finnegan and Lady Celia, one by Prince Jason and the last by their Majesties. It seems they all know you would not bring any gowns with you,” she replied.
“Perhaps it is that they all know I have no dowry,” I murmured.
“My lady has no dowry?!” Farna gasped.
I nodded and explained the dowries and inheritances of my brothers and sisters. Most noble dowries were land and money while the lady brought her belongings to her husband’s home. The dowries for the common folk were a bit different. A common dowry consisted of small amounts of money as well as things her husband needed, such as servants if they could be afforded, food, animals, or tools of his trade. If the woman was the owner of a shop before she married, she brought the business with her when she married. For a woman to have no dowry was rare, even more so for a noblewoman. It meant her father didn’t have the money to spend on his daughter, which was far from true. Before my mother had died, I was going to share Silverwood with Taylor; the castle was plenty large enough for several families. But when Father remarried, the Duchess decided it wouldn’t do, and I was left with no dowry. I was considering buying my own townhouse for a dowry, but Father wouldn’t let me spend the money when I had a perfectly good home. I shook myself back to the present as Farna led me from the fitting room.
There, I took Jason’s hand again as Farna called servants to bring the gowns to my new rooms. “Thank you for paying for the gown,” I whispered as Jason and I strolled towards the Throne Hall. Now that the palace was waking up, the King and Queen would be greeting the most important guests. People bowed and curtsied as we moved through the Hall, heading from the raised dais where the thrones sat.
We waited until the King and Queen greeted the heir to the Pioni Islands’ throne, Prince Jacana, and his wife, Princess Guinevere, their daughter. Jason greeted his eldest sister, and then spoke softly to his mother. The Queen stood and came down to stand before me. “Your Majesty,” I murmured, curtsying.
“Izzy, please,” she smiled and I straightened. “I know of your troubles at home, dear one, and wish to welcome you properly, but I’m afraid that will have to wait. I had a feeling you would not wish to be near your family or Duke Finnegan’s family, so your rooms are in the east wing instead of the west wing,” she said.
“Thank you, and thank you for the gown,” I replied softly.
“Consider it a gift from an aunt, my dear,” she advised me. I curtsied again, smiling, and she returned to her throne.
“Come on,” Jason urged, taking my hand again. “People are watching,” he added. I smiled as he led me up to the fifth floor of the east wing.
There, Tara met us and led me to my new rooms. “Here’s the key, my lady,” she said, handing me a silver key. I opened the door and stepped into a lilac and cream sitting room. Couches and armchairs encircled a marble fireplace. A beautiful chandelier lit the room from overhead. Purple lilacs, roses, lilies, calla lilies, orchids, hibiscuses, hydrangeas, and lavender decorated the windowsills and tables, as well as the mantle and in pots in the corners.
To the left was polished redwood door that opened into a bedchamber of blue. Blue Calla Lilies, blue orchids, blue hibiscuses, and white lilies adorned windowsills and tables in here as well. The four poster canopy bed was made up in pale blue sheets with a darker blue comforter on top. The curtains on the frame matched the comforter’s dark blue color. A redwood chest of drawers held three large drawers and two smaller ones on the top level. The small one on the left held shifts and breast bands, while the other held loincloths, underskirts, and under breeches. The top large drawer held shirts, tunics, jerkins, and night shirts. The middle was empty; I assumed I would put dresses in it. The bottom one held breeches, leggings, and skirts. A jewelry chest, several brushes, and jars of makeup covered a vanity table. A large wardrobe held cloaks, coats, and over robes. A large chest on the bottom held far too many shoes.
I turned from the bedroom and reentered the sitting room. Directly across from the doorway was another door, this one made of heavy oak. Inside was a study; a large oak desk with a drawer containing parchment, another containing quills, pens, ink, and jars of wax for seals. A third contained sheaves for filing. A large bookcase contained five shelves; each shelf held different kinds of books. The top was filled by several thick reference books, the second held copies of history books from each of the six kingdoms; the third was copies of tales and legends, the fourth held copies of poetry and play scripts, while the bottom held books of purely leisure reading.
The walls of the study were covered in maps from the six kingdoms. A vase full of peach roses and black calla lilies sat on the desk, while vases of yellow, orange, and brown roses, mixed with vases of orange and tiger lilies, lined the sills of two large windows. “My lady,” Tara called. I walked back into the sitting room and found her holding shut a double door. When I moved to stand at her side, she pushed open the doors, revealing the most amazing view of the Moon Garden. Standing on his balcony across the garden was Prince Jason.
I stepped out onto the balcony and raised my eyes to the sky as a shadow fell over me. A winged horse swooped over the courtyard and landed on my balcony. The magnificent blood-bay stallion tossed his head and trumpeted a neigh to the clouds. I moved forward, my hand out stretched. The stallion pushed his nose under my fingers and I smiled. “Hello again, Amberfire,” I said.
“My lady, are you alright?” Tara asked. I looked over and nodded, smiling.
Amberfire tossed his head and nickered. “Yes, yes, alright, hold on,” I laughed, running inside. I pulled on a pair of breeches under the dress and slung my newly delivered quiver and bow over my shoulder. I ran back out to the balcony and jumped onto Amberfire’s back. The stallion leaped into the air and glided over to Jason’s balcony.
Jason backed up as Amberfire landed on his balcony. “I’ll be back in an hour or two,” I told him.
“If you’re not, I’ll send out searchers,” he promised. I rolled my eyes and Amberfire took off again. Within a few wing-beats, we were soaring over the forests that stretched forever to the north of the Royal City. They went all the way to the northern border of Corson, on the edge of the continent. Five of the six kingdoms were on the continent of Safi; my own kingdom: Areni; Corson to the north, Twyla to the northeast, Baren to the west and west of Twyla, as well as Jak to the north of Baren and Twyla and east of Corson. The Pioni Islands were to the southwest of Areni, but were considered part of Safi.
Safi was one of three continents in the world. Freest was to the far north; so far that it was just frozen tundra. No one could live there. Coeur was on the other side of the world; all we knew of it was that tribes of dark skinned natives ruled the land. The Sapphire Ocean stretched between Safi and Coeur to Safi’s west while to the Safi’s east was the Winged Sea.
Living in Areni was far better than it was to live in Jak. My father had once been the ambassador there, requiring us to live there for five years. Jak was a savage country. Their king, Rumani, had tried to enslave the Seiko. The Seiko were nomad tribes of the Gods’ Reach Mountains. The Gods’ Reach stretched along the northern and eastern borders of Safi, forming an upside-down and backwards L. In Corson, the Seiko became the Seino, while they were called the Seibel in Baren.
My mother had been killed in an attack on the King’s City in Jak, as had my younger twin brothers, Esmond and Edmund, and my baby sister, Annabelle. Annabelle was two, the twins only five, when they were killed. I didn’t celebrate my seventh birthday that year; it was four days after the attack. That was nine years ago. The war wasn’t over yet, but the Seiko were winning.
If they won, they would probably pick one of their own to be king. That would be alright, since the Seiko, Seino, and the Seibel all had peaceful trading treaties with Areni, Corson, Twyla, and Baren. The Seibel and Seino were currently negotiating treaties with the Islands; the Seiko were too busy with war to bother with treaties at the moment. The Seino and Seibel were peaceful people who recognized the kings of their native kingdoms as the “King of Seismes.” A Seism was a chief, the leader of a particular tribe. Each Seism was considered a lord by their King.
Amberfire nickered, startling me out of my thoughts. Answering knickers told me we had reached his herd. When he landed, I slid off in a mass of horse flesh and wings. Three long eared, wobbly legged foals nuzzled me as the mares backed up to give me room. I sat down on the grass and the herd lay down around me. “Have you given them names yet?” I asked.
“No, Moonbright, you know we wait for you,” Amberfire replied. The winged horses had a secret; they could speak in the human language. They could speak all the languages used on Safi; Common- taught to everyone, Si-used by the Seino, Seiko, and Seibel, Sawn-used in Areni, Corson, Twyla, Baren, and the Islands, Jocko-used in Jak and Abba-used by the Kappa nomads of the White Desert in southern Baren. I preferred to speak Sawn, I was best at it.
I ran my eyes over the three foals. Two were bay fillies, one lighter than the other, the last a gray colt. The boldest of the foals was the colt, the tallest the dark bay filly and the calmest the other filly. “Their mothers?” I asked. A black mare I had named Nightstar claimed the colt as hers. The dark filly was claimed by a red roan mare called Sweetberry. The light filly’s mother was Snowfoot, a sorrel mare with a white sock. Foals couldn’t speak human until they were yearlings, so I quizzed the mares of the herd on the foals.
I ended up naming the gray colt Stormwatcher; he enjoyed watching lightning storms. The dark filly I named Bravewings; she was a bold flyer. The other filly I named Snowblossom; she had a blossom like patch of white on her forehead. By the time the herd agreed to the names, it was time to leave. I climbed onto Amberfire again and returned to the castle with a new wristlet of dark bay, light bay, and gray horsehair to add to my collection. I had wristlets from every winged horse I had ever met. I made them simply by combing my fingers through their manes and tails for loose hair until I had enough for three braids to make a wristlet.
Winged horse hair had special properties; secret properties. Someone in contact with it was able to see in the dark and run as fast as a horse. Other rare creatures also had special properties, all hidden. Large dragon scales made unbreakable shields, while the smaller, softer ones made a person undetectable by sight, sound, smell, or feel. The tears of a unicorn had healing powers, while a horn did as well, horns made unbreakable swords. Unicorns shed horns, just as dragons shed scales or birds shed feathers. They went through one every two years, taking about a month to re-grow them completely. Phoenix feathers made one immune to fire, while sunbird feathers caught light during the day and glowed in the dark, making great lamps. Griffins couldn’t be lied to, and the trait carried in the feathers. I had a griffin feather, a sunbird feather, a phoenix feather, a vial of unicorn tears, and a small blue dragon scale, plus the wristlets.
It was a crime that was punished by death in all the kingdoms to kill such a creature. None hunted humans, and many had silent treaties with humans. Krakens and sea dragons were legendary as well, but I had yet to find proof of their existences. I would someday, I knew it.
By the time I had put the wristlets in a chest locked by six different keys, it was time for me to get ready. I pulled off the breeches and dress and undergarments and climbed into another steaming bath. After scrubbing again, I shaved and let Tara brush out my hair. She then put in several large curlers and a gel and spray she said would hold the curls in place once she took out the curlers. While they were in, she helped me into a clean loincloth, breast band, shift, underskirt, and soft leather boots. I slid the silver-blue gown over my head and raised arms and sighed happily at the sound it made as the skirts settled. Tara tied up the back of the gown and turned me towards the mirror as she fastened a simple sapphire necklace around my neck. Sapphire eardrops followed.
When I reached for the curlers, she pushed my hands away, warning me that to do it myself now was to be dissatisfied. She carefully let out each curler, adding more spray as she did. When the last curl fell into place, I gasped in amazement. The Duchess had always done a mass of tight pin curls, so the light, loose curls floating around my shoulders were astonishing. Although it was considered proper for a lady to wear her hair pinned up, I hated it, and made do with a simple ribbon most of the time. Tonight I decided not to wear it. I liked the way my hair looked, and knew Jason would, too.
Tara reached for the jars of makeup and I sighed. I let her trace my dark gold eyes in dark blue pencil and color my eyelids with silver powder. She added a faint rosy color to my cheeks with a pale pink powder she called blush over a cream she used to even the color of my skin. I was a lucky teenager; I didn’t get acne the way most people did, and Father said once that Mother never had either.
The end result was stunning. I saw the girl I’d always thought Jason would like in the gentle curves, full lips, and wide eyes, but I saw her other side in the cat-like grace, strong shoulders, watchful eyes, and quick words. I loved her.
I just hoped Jason did, too.
Three-Dancing and Dueling
When Tara left quickly, I slid the sheath of a small dagger inside my sleeve, strapped neatly to the inside of my forearm. I strapped another inside each boot and hid one in my sash. I looked at the time candle and saw that I had several minutes before Jason would come to my door. I opened the doors to my balcony and breathed in the gentle breeze. Jason’s doors were closed, the lights dark. I took another breath and fought down the nerves that suddenly began to bubble.
I lost the fight when Jason’s hands touched my shoulders. “Izzy? Are you alright?” he asked softly, his arms sliding around my waist. I leaned against his muscled chest and closed my eyes. “Iz?” he whispered.
“I’m alright. I think,” I murmured.
“What’s wrong? Are you nervous?” he asked. I nodded and felt his arms tighten around me. “I won’t let the Lord Airhead near you, I promise,” he whispered.
“It’s not just that. Jace, what business does a girl with no dowry have at a festival where men look for someone to court?” I asked.
Jason took a deep breath and said, “The girl I love.”
My breath stopped and my heart hummed joyfully. Unable to think of a response, I turned in Jason’s arms and looked at him. Seeing the hope, worry, and what I now realized was love, on his face, I put my arms around his neck and kissed him. I felt all my nerves evaporate as Jace and I held each other there, our own bubble of peace. “I love you, Jace,” I said when I got the chance.
‘I love you, too, Izzy,” he replied, leaning his forehead to mine. That moment I found another reason I enjoyed being five feet eight inches; I didn’t have to stretch to kiss Jason’s six foot two inch form.
“My lady?” Tara called from in my rooms.
I sighed and Jason let me slip out of his arms. “Out here, Tara,” I called.
“Ah, my lady, there you are. Good afternoon, you’re Highness. A word, if you would, my lady,” Tara said. I nodded and followed my maid back into my sitting room. She sat me in front of the mirror and slid a drawer out. She took out lip paint and carefully rubbed the rosy pink on my lips. I smiled into the mirror as she sprayed perfume under my hair, on the insides of my wrists, and then a cloud of it over my head and shoulders.
“Thank you, “I said softly as I stood. Jason came in from the balcony, a flower from the trellis in his hands. He came to stand in front of me and slipped the flower into my hair. He turned me to face the mirror and I saw the truth. Jason and I were meant from each other; we always had been. We had gone from play-mates to best friends to lovers.
Jason stood behind me, slid his arms around my waist again, and whispered, “Do you see it now?”
I turned to him and reached up to slip my arms around his shoulders. Tara ducked into the study, failing to hide a grin, as Jason held me. I pulled the Prince close and kissed him gently. He smoothed my hair back as we stared at each other.
The moment was shattered by a loud bell ringing. The bell called all pages and squires to the kitchen, signaling that the feast was about to begin. This was the unofficial signal for nobles and royalty to make their way to the Announcement Hall to wait for their turn to be presented. “You know I’ll have to dance with other ladies and princesses, right?” he asked softly.
“You dragged me to enough of these things, Jace,” I replied gently.
“Who will you dance with when I’m gone?” he asked, unashamed to voice the question.
“If they are free, I’ll probably dance with Jon or Kurt. If someone asks, I won’t say no. Although, most of the men know I’ve no dowry; how they know, I don’t know. But I will refuse Lord Airhead, that I promise,” I told him, meeting his eyes.
He nodded and Tara came forward from the doorway. She nodded towards the vanity table again and Jason went to the main door. With practiced fingers, Tara braided two small sections two the back of my head, where she braided them together to make a single braid fall with the rest of my hair. She took the flower from above my ear and slid it into the ties on the braid. I turned away, moved over to my wardrobe and pulled a gold coli from my purse. I handed it to Tara and said, “Treat yourself tonight, Tara.” A gold coli, equivalent to fifteen silver coifs, would pay for a lavish meal at the finest eating house in the city for at least three people. A maid’s pay was a silver coif a week and Tara couldn’t afford to spend it on celebrating.
Tara’s eyes grew large, and to my shock, a tear spilled over onto her cheek. “Thank you, my lady, thank you!” she gasped. “Dea bless you!” she said, curtsying. Dea was the goddess of the harvest and fertility.
“And you,” I replied, joining Jason at the door.
Bowing, he said, “Lady Isabella, it would be my honor to escort you to the Royal Harvest Festival Feast.”
I curtsied and replied, “Prince Jason, it would be my honor to be escorted by you to the Royal Harvest Festival Feast.” As much as I disliked formal events, being at them with Jason wasn’t so bad. I slipped my hand into the curve of his offered arm, and let him lead me down to the third floor. The Queen’s Grand Staircase was the beautiful white marble staircase every girl dreamed of walking down, holding the arm of the knight of her dreams. The dark red carpet covered the center of the stairs and extended all the way to the dais where the King and Queen’s thrones sat. A table sat on the dais, with chairs for the most important royalty. There were chairs for Areni’s heir, Prince Byron, and his wife, Princess Luciana, the first daughter of King Comas of Corson. Beside them were the places for Jason and his companion; me. Beside those chairs were places for Prince Jacana and Princess Guinevere. Next were chairs for Princess Natalia and her husband, Prince Alexander, the heir to the Baren throne. The last two chairs were for Byron’s two sons, Bryan and Brandon. On the other side were chairs for the Twyla Prince Leon and his wife, Princess Aelwen, a Seino seism and his wife, a Seibel seism and his wife, a Seiko seism and his daughter, plus the young sister of Prince Jacana and her companion.
Nobles that had no need to be presented out of familiarity had all taken their seats at the long dining tables. Jason and I stepped back to let some of the more nervous nobles go first. Before I realized it, we were the last waiting.
The herald looked at us and smiled. “Finally,” he muttered. Jason and I grinned at each other, and then turned to the stairs as the herald lifted his voice over the crowd. “His Royal Highness, Prince Jason the Third, and Lady Isabella of Silverwood,” he announced. Jason and I started down the stairs and I heard the mutters. My smile faltered and Jason squeezed my hand. We took our seats and the pages began to bring out the water and finger washing dishes. I took small amount of all the different courses, watching the pages absently. I remembered these pages well and noticed far more accidents than normal. I knew Jason noticed I was watching them, but I tried to keep myself focused on the conversations at my table. When the young page serving me dropped my wine glass, I turned and stood. “Excuse for a moment, your Highnesses,” I said. Jason looked at me, concerned, but I shook my head.
I followed the young page back to the kitchens and waited outside the door. The Etiquette Master, who planned events such as this, hustled out to meet me, concerned. “My lady is there a problem?” he asked, bowing.
“Not with me, no. But you’ll have noticed the odd amount of accidents among the pages, yes?” I replied. When he nodded, I continued, “I have noticed it as well and I am going to guess that you’ve seen no problems with hazing lately. Well, I’m guessing the younger pages ganged up to demand no more hazing. The hazing stopped for a while, and now the older pages are getting back at the younger ones in the most public way possible. I recommend moving the older pages away from the young ones.”
“Thank you, my lady. I shall do that,” he bowed and returned to the kitchens. Behind the door, I noticed several pages with spill marks on their uniforms. I nodded to them and returned to the tables. The last few courses were brought out and then the guests moved to the Moon Ball Room. This one was silver in theme, with huge windows to give guests a view of the Moon Garden.
As tradition required, the King and Queen danced first, followed by their children and foreign royalty. Jason and I had danced with each other so many times that it was easy now. He was a very good dancer, and I wasn’t bad myself. After several dances, we joined Kurt, Jon, and several of their friends. The boys gathered around the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. The girl hid her face behind a delicate fan and I pushed my way through the boys. “Is that any way to treat a lady? Crowding around her until she can’t breathe for the reek of desperation?” I asked them, planting myself in front of the poor girl.
The boys, shame faced, backed off with hasty apologies. All had dealt with my temper, and were not eager to do so again. I turned to the girl and curtsied. I now recognized her as Princess Jacqueline, Prince Jacana’s sister. “Princess, may I offer you my company?” I asked her softly.
“Please, join me,” she replied, snapping the fan shut. I sat on the pillows beside the low bench and looked up at the Princess. “My companion, Tonyella, is dancing with a nobleman named Seamus, I think,” she said.
“I know Seamus. He has asked for my hand in marriage several times,” I told her.
“Well, you are a lucky woman; he is quite handsome,” she replied.
“If you’ll excuse the expression, Princess, Seamus is an arrogant airhead,” I said simply.
“Oh, I’m glad to hear someone say it,” the Princess told me, giggling. I smiled and looked up as a girl; the one I knew to now be Tonyella, stormed over and dropped to the pillows on the Princess’s other side. “Tonya? What happened?” the Princess asked.
“That Seamus is an arrogant airhead,” she huffed angrily. The Princess and I laughed, and Tonya looked at us. “What is so funny?” she demanded.
“We were just saying that he was,” I told her. This got a small smile from Tonya.
“Now that Tonya is back, would you tell us your name?” the Princess asked.
“Of course, you’re Highness. I’m Lady Isabella of Silverwood,” I told them.
“Oh, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Lady Isabella,” they said together. We smiled as Jon, Jason, and Kurt came forward from the group of boys sitting around us.
“Princess, would you care to dance?” Jason asked.
“Thank, Prince Jason, but I can tell when someone asks me out of respect. I suspect that I am not the girl you really wish to dance with,” the Princess replied.
Smiling, Jason agreed, “You do not know me, yet you know a man so well.”
“Lady Isabella, are you the girl so lucky to be loved by our prince here?” Tonya asked me.
“I am, indeed,” I told her.
“Well then don’t let him stand there! Some other pretty girl might claim him!” The Princess exclaimed.
“Ah, Princess, no other beauty can compare to you,” I told her, taking Jason’s hand. He pulled me up into his arms as I smiled into his eyes.
“You are kind, Isabella,” she told me.
“My dear Princess, no other girl would be as foolish as to get between our two love-birds here,” Kurt said.
“Oh and why is that?” the Princess asked.
“Because I believe all of them, save you, have seen Izzy in a fight at least once,” Jon replied. I scowled at Jon and Kurt as they offered their hands to the two Pioni women. Tonya and Jon looked perfectly happy as they danced beside the prince and me, forming a small bubble of six happy friends.
We didn’t notice the dance floor had cleared around us until the music changed. Jason, Jon, Kurt, and I grinned at each other as the young nobles began to clap in time with the music. “You know this?” I asked the Princess in surprise when I saw her and Tonya smile. They nodded and the three of us formed a line, facing the boys. We began to step in, then back out, following the music’s soaring rhythm. It was a traditional dance, but it felt new to us as we danced round and round, twirling and spinning. It ended with the boys dipping us low. Jason pulled me upright as Jon and Kurt straightened the Princess and Tonya. We walked back to the pillows and the others sat.
I stopped when I heard the next song begin. A minstrel caught my eye and nodded back to the dance floor, which was still empty. A disc of bells and chimes began to tap a rhythm, followed by a flute, violin, horn, and lute.
The Court looked rather confused. I realized they didn’t know the song, though I knew it by heart. I walked back onto the dance floor and raised my arms. The lute and violin lifted into a skipping, swaying song. I twirled, skipping, my hands clapping above my head. Jason, Jon, Kurt, the Princess, and Tonya moved to the edge of the floor, clapping. Other nobles took up the beat as I pulled the youngest guests into dance with me. Soon, all the teenagers had joined us.
I twirled around and around, lifting my feet as I did. We looped an arm through another’s, male or female, twirled, and went to another. The rhythm steadied until people were dancing in couples, spinning and twirling as a group. They formed a circle as I danced around it inside it. I noticed Jon and Kurt pull Jason in and push him around the circle so that he was opposite me. I leaped as the others did, kicking up one foot under the other. I followed the circle, feeling my heart race with the sound of the flute and trumpet. I didn’t notice the others moving closer together so that Jason and I were closer.
What I did notice was the end of the song approaching. I leaped one more time with the others and continued to twirl as Jason neared. He caught me, twirling with me. The song ended with the others back in the crowd, giving the whole Court, including my family, a view of Jason dipping me in his arms. As the Court clapped and our friends cheered, Jason leaned down and kissed me. He smiled down at me and straightened. I took his hand and stepped to the side so he could bow. He flicked his wrist and I spun into his arms, kissed him quickly on the cheek and spun back out again to curtsy to the Court.
Jon and Kurt came out to us and slung their arms around us. They led us back to the Princess and Tonya, who both smiled at us. “So, you two finally admit you’re in love,” Kurt mused, mock punching Jason’s shoulders.
“Yeah, yeah, now it’s your turn, my friend,” Jason replied. While the boys argued good naturedly, I settled myself to the Princess’s left. I finally looked over the Princess’s dress, out of habit for my sisters. The Princess wore her own native Island style; a pink silk kimono embroidered with gold roses, a gold sash, a delicate pink hand fan hanging from the sash, and a braided silk cord twined around her hair. Tonya wore the same, only she wore a pale green kimono with white cranes. Their fans fascinated me. When snapped open, the tips of the steel frame looked like blades. “Princess, I have never seen anything quite like your fan. May I see it?” I asked.
“Of course. Just don’t touch this end,” she replied, pointing at the sharp end. With a careful flick of my wrist, I snapped the fan open and examined it. The steel pieces really were blades. I held it by the dull base, just as she did.
“Why are the frames made of blades?” I asked.
“In the Islands, it is rude for a noblewoman to carry a weapon. So we carry a kioko instead. I’ll show you what they can do sometime,” she offered. I snapped the fan shut and offered it back. She slid it back into her sash and took a crystal goblet of juice from a squire’s serving plate. Tonya and I also took one.
“Prince Jason, you boast of things far beyond your comprehension!” a nasal voice shouted. I looked up and saw Jason facing Seiko Seism Rishav. His daughter, Rica, hung on his arm, trying to quiet him. He threw her off, causing her to fall into Jon. The large, blond knight caught her and sat her on the pillows beside me, blushing.
“Here, my lady,” I murmured, handing her my un-drunk juice. I stood and moved to stand between Jon and Kurt, who stood at Jason’s shoulders. “Jason?” I asked softly.
“And there! You see? You let your women address you by first names! Women do not have the honor to do such!” Rishav sneered.
“My lord Rishav, perhaps it is that way with your people, the Seiko. But here, in Areni, women are just as equal as men in honor and value. I take offense that you would suggest I call my Prince by his name out of disrespect, not companionship,” I replied evenly, feeling my eyes grow cold. I hated the Seiko tradition. In the Seibel and Seino, women could fight and hold positions of honor. In the Seiko, women were good for nothing more than housework. But everyone understood a trial of skills. “And since I take offense, I challenge you to a trial of skill of archery. Put forth your best, and if he should win, then you are right when you say women have no honor. Should I win, however, you will admit that women have just as much honor as men, sometimes more. You will admit that a woman is equal to a man in every way. You will also apologize to Prince Jason and me” I said, my voice frozen.
Rishav paled, then sneered, “You will shoot? Then, I accept this challenge! And as the challenged, I set forth the time. I would have the trial now, if your Majesties will find a place for it.”
I nodded and turned to the King and Queen, who had come over quietly. “We will hold the trial on the first practice range,” the King announced. I curtsied to them and allowed Jason and Kurt to lead me away. Jon turned to his squire and said something. The squire set down his tray and ran in the direction of the east wing.
“Izzy, are you crazy?” Jason asked as he led me towards the practice ranges.
“Perhaps. But it was time somebody shut Rishav up. What did you say anyway?” I asked.
“I told him women could be just of good as warriors as men,” he replied.
“So I’m shooting for both of us,” I told him. He nodded and took my bow, quiver, arm guard and finger tab from Jon’s squire. He slid the quiver into place, fit the arm guard to my left arm, put the finger tab on my right hand, and strung the bow.
“You can beat him, I know you can. You’re the best archer in the kingdom,” he told me, handing me the bow. I tested it quickly and turned to Kurt and Jon. To my surprise, Lady Rica, Lady Tonya, and Princess Jacqueline had followed. Jon and Kurt clasped my shoulders as Tonya gave me a quick hug. The Princess kissed my forehead; a blessing for good luck. Jason kissed my cheek and whispered, “Good luck, love.” I nodded as they left to join the other nobles in the stands.
“Archers to the field!” the king boomed. I stepped out onto the field, my dress glinting in the sunset. “Each archer will shoot ten arrows from the thirty marks, in their own time. At the end, her Majesty herself will check the targets,” the king continued. I nodded and faced my opponent. A small wiry man faced me. His blond hair was streaked with gray, as was his short beard. Beady brown eyes stared at me from above a twice broken nose. A scar went down over his left jaw. “Archers to your line!”
I stepped up to the shooting line and smiled. Thirty feet was not a very long range; it was also not very hard. Servants lit the torches around the range as I rolled my shoulders. The man beside me held a double-curve bow; while it was lighter, the lighter weight meant a smaller range. I smiled as the King said for us to begin. I drew an arrow from my quiver and set it on the string. Setting my feet, I raised the bow and drew the string until my fingers touched the corner of my mouth. I sighted easily and fired. The arrow thudded into the black X in the center of the yellow painted middle of the target. The target was a large circle, with three yellow rings in the center. The exact center was marked with an X. Two red rings went around the yellow, then two blue, followed by two black and two white. The inner most yellow was worth ten points, called the X ring. The second yellow was also worth ten, then nine, then eight, until you got all the way to the outer most ring, worth one.
The Seiko’s arrow hit the outer most yellow ring and a groan went up from a small part of the crowd. I fired six more arrows; all of them hit so closely to the first that I saw feathers fall. I drew back on my eighth arrow and fired. The arrow hit one of the others so perfectly that it split the shaft of the first and embedded itself in the wood. I fired again, spearing the previous arrow just as it had speared the first. As I drew back my last arrow, Seism Rishav shouted, “Cheating bitch!” Startled, my arrow hit the line between the inner and second yellow rings. I turned to the Seism, feeling my eyes blazing. The man cowered and a whoop went up from my friends among the young knights. Manners forced me to wait until the Seiko finished shooting, then I stormed over to a bench.
I sat down angrily as the Queen strode down the field to the targets. She checked the Seiko’ target first. The herald with the queen called, “Two X’s, five tens, and three nines!” the man had scored a ninety-seven. The Queen moved to my target and the herald called, “Ten X’s!” I grinned savagely; I had scored a perfect one hundred. I felt hands on my shoulders and looked up at Jason.
He grinned at me as Seism Rishav made his way down to the field to kneel a few feet away. “Prince Jason, my lady, I apologize for any disrespect or offense I implied. My lady, you have proven that women are equal to men in every way, including honor,” Rishav said, his head bowed.
“Your apology is accepted, Lord Seism Rishav,” Jason replied. The man nodded and suddenly leaped forward, a huge knife in his hand. Reacting faster than Jason, I dropped my bow and drew Jason’s sword from the sheath on his belt.
I blocked Rishav’s first wild lunge and exchanged a flurry of quick strikes with the Seism. I let him back up and tossed Jason’s sword back to Jason. I pulled the knives from my sleeve and the back of my sash. Holding the smaller one inverted, I struck out at Rishav. He blocked my strike desperately and lashed out in a wild, straight swing. I ducked under his arm and scored the small knife across his side. I kicked his legs out from underneath him as he tried to turn, and felt his knife bite into my arm.
I knocked his knife out of his hand and stood over him until guards seized him. I knelt and wiped my bloodied blade on the grass, then returned both to their sheaths. That’s when I noticed the blood dripping from my fingers. I moved closer to a torch and examined my arm. A long gash, running from my shoulder to the middle of my forearm, met my eyes. My knees gave and Jason lunged forward to catch me. He held me as a healer ran forward.
The woman pulled a small knife out and used it to cut away my sleeve. She set a white cotton pad over the gash and used bandages to hold it in place. The woman said, “She needs to come to the infirmary so I can clean and stitch that.” Jason nodded and swept me into his arms.
“I can walk, Jace,” I told him, resting my head on his shoulder.
“Sure, Izzy,” he said sourly. He carried me as the woman in white led him to the infirmary on the second floor. One there, he set me on a table and walked out. Smiling, I took the cup the healer offered. It smelled of Sleepflower.
“It’s only a small dose so I can stitch that without you flinching and moving,” the healer assured me. I nodded and drank the sweet nectar. Within seconds, I found myself falling asleep. The healer laid me down and my eyes closed.
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.
Five-Tides and Knives
When I’d cried myself out, I became aware of the furry body against one side and the human one on the other. I opened my eyes to the green canopy above and the grass beneath me. I lay against Jason, my head on his chest, his arm around my shoulders. Shooter was curled on my other side. As I stirred, Jason’s eyes opened.
“What happened, my love?” he asked softly. I told him everything, from the revelation of our mothers to my dowry. When I finished, I couldn’t look at him. “Iz, look at me. Please, love,” he whispered. I raised my head to face him, but I couldn’t meet those brilliant blue eyes. “Izzy, I can’t stand this! What can I do to make it better?” he asked softly.
I sat up and turned to fully face him. I glanced at him and found I couldn’t look away. A tear ran down his cheek, and I saw it follow the track of the ones before it. “Jace…” I half choked, half sobbed. I felt like I was being torn apart. I was so delighted to finally have a proper dowry, but I didn’t know who my mother was. I was still Isabella of Silverwood, but I was not the girl I thought I was. My mother was most likely some tramp my father had found to be attractive. I turned away, gazing into the dappled beams of sunlight. I began to fight myself, forcing the tide of emotions into check. I pushed the anger at the lies and scandal of my life back into the undercurrent and let the high tide carry the joy. I wiped away the tears and brushed my dress off. I looked back and saw Jace smiling. He knew the line of my shoulders when I fought my tides and he knew I was trying to control myself. I stood and reached out.
When Jace grasped my hand, I pulled him up, kissed him quickly and ran. I hiked up my skirt in one hand as Jace followed, laughing. We remembered childhood games of tag and hide-seek. I ran between several ancient sycamore trees and stopped.
Jace caught me, and then looked over my shoulders. I felt him stiffen in shock as I stared, horrified. Below us, the ground dipped away in a slope, forested as usual.
The unusual thing was the bodies. A group of three men in black lay dead before us. I hardly noticed them as I ran to the body of Celesta, a beautiful unicorn mare. Her body was marked by bloody slashes and wounds, and her horn was a dull gray color. I knelt beside her and leaned over, looking and feeling for any sign of breathing. A faint breath tickled my cheek and I scrambled to get the vial of unicorn tears out of my sleeve. I let a drop fall on each of the bloodiest wounds and waited. The wounds I didn’t heal began to heal themselves; another gift of unicorns.
Celesta’s breathing deepened and eased as her horn began to regain its pearly sheen. I replaced my vial and waited for Celesta to wake. When her eyes finally opened, she clambered to her feet. She lowered her head and nuzzled my hair as I reached up and touched her nose. I felt her breath swirl around my hand, weaving between my fingers. “You healed me with my own tears,” her voice sounded in my head. I nodded and showed her the vial. “Where are the ones who hunted me?” she asked.
“There,” I replied, lifting my hand as I sent the thought. Jason leaned over the three bodies, examining them.
“Tell your prince to step back,” she ordered.
“Jace, get away from them,” I called quietly. He looked up, saw Celesta, and backed away. Celesta walked forward, stopping beside a brown lump hidden in the ferns. She trumpeted angrily, causing me to scramble to my feet and hurry over. I knelt beside her with a gasp and lifted the brown lump. It was a pack, fastened tightly on the top, with a rip in the bottom. Pearly horns spilled onto the ground from the rip, glinting in the dappled sunlight.
But four of the horns were wrong. They lay among the pearls like pebbles, gray and dull. The spirals were deeper; more defined, and the tips were fatally sharp. “Those were taken from the body of a dead unicorn, one they killed,” Celesta told me, touching her nose to my back. We had to touch to speak.
“This is why the hunted you? For your horn? Didn’t they see killing you makes them useless?” I asked.
“Not useless. To take a unicorn’s life is a terrible thing. As you know, unicorns are the purest creatures that exist. When one dies, their horn dies with them, and usually disintegrates. To kill one darkens the soul completely. Taking the horn of a dead unicorn turns the horn into the opposite it was in life. A wound caused by one becomes poisoned. A horn must be given freely, or it turns; death is not freely,” Celesta replies.
“They wanted to use them as killing tools,” I realized.
“Most likely. Gather the good ones, Moonbright. Destroy the dark ones,” she ordered.
“How?” I asked, gathering the pearly horns. I picked up the pack again and checked the other pockets. Nothing. Flipping it, I loaded the good horns through the rip and slung it on my back.
“A tear of mine on each,” she replied. I drew the vial again and lined up the four gray horns. I dropped a tear on each and watched. They cracked like stone until they were only dust in my hands. I scattered the dust around the forest floor. “You will give those horns as swords or healing tools to those you think deserve them. Your king, princes, and brothers for certain. Do you remember how to switch them?” she said.
I nodded as Jason approached. Celesta moved a few steps behind me; she was a wild creature after all. “Would she like to come to the palace? She would be safe, as would any others,” Jason offered.
Celesta touched her nose to my back and said, “Tell your prince I will come, but no others will. They have retreated too deep in the forests.”
I repeated this and he nodded. He whistled and Midnight and Shooter appeared on the crest of the hill. “How did you get out here? I don’t see Darkness,” I asked.
“Midnight came back and got me. She refused to let me wait for Darkness to be saddled,” he told me.
As I pictured it, grinning, Celesta offered for me to ride her back to the palace. Turning to her, I curtsied. It was a great honor to ride any kind of rare creature. I swung carefully onto her back as Jason gave Midnight her code-word. He was the only other person who knew it. “You’re carrying a foal!” I exclaimed, feeling the wideness of Celesta’s body. She nodded and followed Midnight and Shooter through the lengthening shadows.
When we reached the palace, people stared at Celesta, open mouthed in awe. While people knew of the unicorns, not many had actually seen one. I guided Celesta to the paddocks, where I could release her with Midnight. Midnight preferred to go in her stall only during poor weather, and I had to remember to tell the hostler to let Celesta in the stall next to Midnight. Both stalls were mine, and remained empty much of the time. As I explained the stall to Celesta, Jason released Midnight and climbed onto the fence. Finally, Celesta trotted after Midnight and I joined Jason. We sat there for a while, just watching. When I finally returned to the castle, I noticed the time.
“Oh, no!” I gasped. I had only five minutes to get ready. On the evening after the Harvest Festival, I joined Lord Finnegan and his wife, Lady Celia, for dinner at the Sweet Blossom eating house in the city. “Tara! Help!” I yelped. She helped me out of the silver and green dress and replaced it with a tunic of silver silk and dark green embroidery. Brown leggings went under it with a pair of soft leather boots to match. Since it was warm, I decided to forgo the cloak. Lord Finnegan and Lady Celia had never minded that I dressed like a boy, so I let Tara tie my hair with a simple green ribbon. I put on the silver necklace inlaid with emerald that was Jason’s Midwinter gift from last year. I slid several blades into place and ran down the hallway to the stairs. The main stairs were in the central parts of the castle; servant stairs were at the corners of the main keep. When I reached the second floor, I found my way blocked by a crowd of chained prisoners being escorted down the stairs. I ran towards the stairs and slid down the stone railing to the floor.
I landed neatly on my feet and looked around. Lord Finnegan and Lady Celia were approaching, smiling. I greeted my god-parents with a peck on the cheek for Lord Finnegan and a hug for Lady Celia. My god-mother was a pretty woman; she was a head smaller than Lord Finnegan’s six feet three inches form, with long red hair and bright green eyes. She was smart and kind, as well as funny and playful. Lord Finnegan was also red haired, but his now had streaks of gray in it, as did his neat beard. He had dancing hazel eyes and a booming laugh. He was also kind and smart, as well as quick witted and funny. They were the kind of people that others liked easily. I loved Lord Finnegan’s smile. It lit up his whole face and made one feel good. I loved them more than I loved my own father.
Lord Finnegan had three children. He had a son named Cathal, who I loved as I did my brothers. He was Taylor’s age; twenty three, red haired and green eyed like his mother. Except for his eyes, he was exactly like his father. He had yet to marry, though I hoped he found someone he deserved. Lord Finnegan also had a daughter, who was Seamus’s twin sister. Shanna was even prettier than her mother, though she was a younger version of her. Shanna had her father’s eyes and gorgeous smile. I considered Shanna a sister.
That was why I did not understand how Seamus was so different. When we were children, Seamus had been the popular one; the one everybody followed. Seamus was red-haired like his parents, but the similarity ended there. While his family was likable and pleasant, he was hard to get along with. He was oblivious, as well as ignorant of how people really felt, and arrogant. He was rude and snippy. When Lord Finnegan proposed I marry him, I laughed. He gave me an understanding smile and told me I didn’t have to if I didn’t want to. I flat out told him I would not marry Seamus right then.
Lady Celia decided it would be good for us to walk, so we did. A group of five guards followed. When we reached the Sweet Blossom, the host led us upstairs to the second floor, where most nobles preferred private rooms. A serving girl brought us roles and water, and then set a tankard of ale in front of Lord Finnegan. Lady Celia took her goblet of spiced wine as I waited for my spiced cider. I didn’t enjoy drinks stronger than coffee, which I didn’t drink often.
I took a roll as Lord Finnegan told me the story of his hunting trip three days previous. I listened happily, thinking ruefully how my father never treated me this way. When the roasted duck came, I was telling Lady Celia of the gowns I had received. The light gold one and the light pink one were from her and Lord Finnegan. I had not eaten at the Sweet Blossom in some time; I had forgotten how good the head cook was. I loved duck, and Lord Finnegan knew it. “Did you eat at all today?” Lady Celia asked as I finished my second helping. I shook my head and took another roll. She shook her head, smiling. I shrugged and stopped. I turned towards the door and stood.
I listened silently; it had gone dangerously quiet downstairs. Lord Finnegan came to stand behind me and opened the door carefully. As a knight, he always had his sword on him, and he drew it now. The guards came in. Two positioned themselves inside the room as the other three lead the way down the stairs. I had a knife in each hand and followed Lord Finnegan silently. The ground floor of the restaurant was made up of booths and tables, and I saw the problem immediately.
Three men had come in with drawn weapons and had forced the host and serving girls away from the door. When Lord Finnegan appeared, the men moved swiftly. The smallest, a lean and wiry man, raised a crossbow and fired. In the small isle, it was difficult for anyone to move quickly, and I knew Lord Finnegan would not dodge this arrow. I leaped from the floor behind him, onto a bench, off the back of a booth and knocked the arrow from the air with the longer of my two blades. I landed in a half-crouch and faced the three men.
They turned and ran. “Oh, no, you don’t,” I snarled, leaping onto an empty table. I leaped across the restaurant, using the backs of the booths as steps. I chased the three men down the street and used my first knife to hobble the slowest. No one could run with a knife in the middle of their calf muscle. I took the second the same way. The last man turned a corner, but I knew this city. I turned down another street and used a pile of wood as my launching block. I ran up it and leaped, drawing the knives from the tops of my forearms. I landed neatly in front of the man, cutting him off. He skidded to a halt and raised the short sword he carried. He brought it down in a wild over handed swing, which I caught on the hilt of my longer knife. I grinned savagely as he strained to lower the sword to my chest, but couldn’t. I brought the other knife up and his eyes widened.
“We got him, Izzy,” a City Guard told me. I flicked my knife and his sword went skittering across the flagstones. I walked back to the Sweet Blossom, where I met Lady Celia and Lord Finnegan. Lady Celia reached out and tucked her hand in my elbow, forcing me to stay close. A City Guard returned my knives and I replaced them silently. We headed back to the palace, walking noticeably faster than we had on the way to the Sweet Blossom.
Jason met us inside the gates. Lady Celia handed me over and smiled at me as Jace propelled me to my room. “What happened?” he demanded, gesturing at the dirt smeared on my clothes.
“Jace, relax. It was an attempted robbery on the Sweet Blossom. I stopped an arrow from hitting Lord Finnegan, put a knife in the calves of two men, and stopped the third from getting away,” I told him calmly, sitting on the couch.
“Why must you always get involved?” he asked, taking my hands.
“Well seeing as they tried to shoot Lord Finnegan and I was right there, I wasn’t going to let them get away,” I replied.
“You say that every time,” he sighed, shaking his head.
“So?” I demanded, indignant.
“I don’t want you to get hurt, Iz,” he murmured, sitting beside me. I shook my head and leaned against him, feeling one arm come around my shoulders. “I introduced Ian to Lady Tonya while you were gone,” he told me. It sounded to me as though he were trying not to laugh.
“What happened?” I asked, turning to face him.
“I think your brother is in love, poor man,” he told me, grinning. I couldn’t help but giggle at his expression and he chuckled. Jace had this infectious laugh, it made everyone else around him laugh, too, and it included his chuckle. Hearing it, I let out a peal of laughter. Jace began to laugh and started tickling me.
“Ah! No, tickling!” I gasped through my laughter.
“Too bad,” Jace teased.
I squirmed away from his fingers and managed to fall off the couch, landing with an, “oomph,” on the floor. Apparently, my expression was quite comical, because Jace started laughing so hard that he held his side. I stuck my tongue out at him, feeling like a little child again. Once I had recovered my breath, I looked up him, trying not to laugh with him. “I’m leaving for Cagney in the morning,” I told him.
“Are you sure you want to?” he asked as he caught his breath.
“I have to. Partly out of a duty to my people and partly out of curiosity. I intend to live there, not at Silverwood,” I replied, pushing myself to my feet. “I even have a new dress in my new colors,” I added.
“Cagney is that light purple color with dark gold, right?” he said, watching me pace in front of the fireplace.
“It’s called lilac, Jace. But yes, those are the colors,” I responded. “I wonder who knew,” I mused.
“Probably only your father. When I paid for the dress I got you, I told them to make it out of any colors they wanted, just not dark pink, since you don’t like pink. I’m guessing that’s what most of the others did,” he told me.
“Oh. Well okay then,” I murmured, heading into my bedchamber to start packing for the trip.
We had been riding for twelve uneventful days when the guards finally told me we were only a day away from Castle Cagney. I sighed in relief; for nine days we had been riding through rain and mud and fog. The guards smiled sympathetically at me, they too were not enjoying this trip.
Just as we were about to crest a hill, I heard a startled shout and a thud. I turned in my saddle to see one of my rear guards motionless on the ground, a crossbow bolt embedded in his chest. I was yanked from my saddle as the other guards pulled their shields around and drew weapons. Brown clad figures emerged from the forest to swarm my guards as I was held down away from the fighting. I watched, horrified, as my guards were either killed or knocked out by blows to the head.
Whoever held me pulled my hands behind my back and bound me quickly. I was gagged and thrown back over Midnight’s saddle. “Don’t worry about your worthless mutt, he’s only drugged so he wouldn’t kill us,” a harsh voice hissed in my ear. I turned my head to look at him and was rewarded with a sharp cuff over my ear. I fought my binds, and then went limp. Midnight was forced forward by a combination of dragging on her reins, whips on her rump, and finally being tied to a pair of huge workhorses. They dragged her forward and kept her moving as my captors spoke above me in harsh Jocko.
They must have thought I was uneducated in Jocko, for I understood them perfectly, as if they spoke Common. “Now that we have her, what are we supposed to do with her?” one asked. He had the highest voice of all of them, and later I would learn was the result of a throat injury.
“The Overlord said to bring her back to him,” the voice of the leader answered. His voice was rough and sounded almost smoke damaged.
“Overlord?” I asked myself. The only overlord I knew of was that of Jak. They were taking me to Jak! “Why?”
“Why does he need her anyway?” a new voice asked.
“For the Matches. Overlord Rumani wants to punish King Charles and his son Jason for turning down his proposal of marriage between the little prince and our Princess Rulessa,” the leader replied.
“Who could blame the King? Or the Prince? After what Rumani has done, I wouldn’t want my son to marry his daughter,” a fourth spoke up. I liked this voice the most. Though I was inclined to hate my captors, this man sounded almost kind.
“We should let the girl ride. She’ll black out if we leave her this way for long,” someone said in the deepest voice so far.
“You go ahead and untie her then,” the first offered.
“She’ll kill you before you could blink,” the leader told him.
“Her? She looks harmless,” one scoffed.
“She caught Vander, Cape, and Toro by herself. And she was the one to see Caen and Fontana. She put an arrow through Fontana’s leg, and put knives in Vander and Cape’s,” a seventh told them.
“What if she tries to escape?” the kind voice asked.
“I’ll drug her at night so she can’t do anything. We’ll leave her tied for now. If she tries to escape, put an arrow through her horse. That’ll stop her and prevent any other attempts,” the leader responded gruffly. I swallowed with difficulty, as I was upside down.
“We should at least sit her up. We don’t have to untie her,” the deepest voice protested. I heard no argument, and Midnight was forced to a stop. I was pulled from the saddle again, and then multiple hands grabbed me and threw me back up. Instinctively, I threw my leg over her back and sat straight. I heard murmurs and mutters as I did this and looked around.
My captors were a ragged group of Jakan sea wolves. Jakans were big and rough to begin with, but their warriors were renowned for a wild, brutish strength, fierce some tempers, massive battle axes and broadswords, and a likeness to wolves. They were sea raiders, the menaces of the kingdoms. They were called sea wolves not only because they were sea raiders and looked like wolves, but because they called their ships wolfships. I had never fought sea wolves and looking at them now, doubted I could ever win against one. I met the eyes of every one of them, looking them over as I did.
Most had dark brown or black hair worn in either two matted pig tails or one ponytail. Only one had light hair, and it was simply light brown. They all had cold dark eyes that had seen the darkness of war. They were all over six feet tall, most closer to seven, with massive builds. Their hands were like hams, their fingers sausages. They wore black or brown breeches with dark shirts in brown, black, gray, or green. Some wore vests of sheepskin wool or seal skin leather. All wore sealskin leather boots.
But it was their weapons I noticed the most. Nine carried enormous double bladed battle axes. Two had massive broadswords. The last, the one that stood by my foot, had an unusually large crossbow on his shoulder. As I glared daggers at the men, the one standing between Midnight and the workhorse to my right grabbed my braid and yanked. Hard.
I screamed through the gag as my head went back. The sea wolf pulled my hair until I lay flat on Midnight’s back. I stared up at the leader of the men, pain making my eyes water. He let go and I started to sit up, slowly, fearful of another assault on my hair. He flipped my hood up as it began to rain again and I turned to look at him. He cuffed me, hard, and I faced the front again, my ears ringing.
“She’s not fighting back?” the light haired one asked.
“She can see our weapons, you dunderhead,” the one beside me sneered. He drew a dagger and held it up in front of me, touching the flat of the blade to my nose. I stared ahead, my eyes blank. He couldn’t kill me; his Overlord wanted me alive. He sliced through the gag and it fell to my lap. As it fell, I spat on him, hitting his cheek. “Stinking bitch,” he snarled at me in Common, slapping me. I took it and my head snapped sideways.
“There! The Shortblades have her!” a furious voice screamed in Jocko.
“Get down,” the leader ordered me in Common as another group of sea wolves swarmed my captors. My captors, now protectors, lined up in front of me in a wall of flesh and metal. The other group charged forward, slamming into them. One man, a skinny weasel like thing, slipped around them and ran towards me. He had a crossbow aimed at me as he lunged, trying to pull me from the saddle.
I ducked and rolled backwards off Midnight, landing neatly on my feet. I cocked my head and glared at him defiantly. When he reached out to grab me, I danced away, light on my feet. Midnight kicked him when he got in range, and he turned to her furiously. She reared, breaking the weak tie I had done on her girth. The saddle slid off, and with it went the ties to the workhorses. She lunged backwards and would have slammed into the weasel had he not thrown himself sideways.
She spun to face me and I did one of my rare no handed leaping mounts. I stared at my stunned assailant in pure defiance, and then wriggled my wrist until my dagger slid free. I sliced through my bonds and raised my hands in front of me. I threw the dagger at the crossbow and hit the main trigger cables. The cords snapped and the bow was useless. I grinned in savage satisfaction and pulled two more daggers from sheaths on my back. Midnight reared, lashing out with her forelegs as the man threw the bow aside and pulled out a long knife.
He inched closer, darting in, coming at me from the side. I yanked my feet up under me, and then flung myself over him. Midnight rammed her shoulder into him, sending him sprawling. “Kill him!” the leader of my group yelled to me in Common. I nodded and circled the man as he turned to follow me. I felt like the wolf that circles its prey as I pinned my eyes on weasel-man. He lunged forwards, knife out. Side-stepping, I spun and drove my elbow into his bicep and danced away. His knife clattered to the dirt road as his arm went limp and useless.
He drew another knife, this one balanced for throwing. I dodged it as he flung it at me, ducking and leaping in from the side to slash him across the thigh with one knife. Driving the other up under his ribs, I felt both blades cut deep into muscle and important stuff. I propelled myself away, rolling to my feet as he fell. I stood over him as he bled out and died before my eyes.
I turned to the battle raging behind me and looked for a weak link. I noticed that the attacking group wore red and black, the colors of the Royal Jak seal. Sheathing my knives, I grabbed my bow from Midnight’s saddle and strung it. I launched myself onto her back and knocked an arrow. Blanking my mind, I shot the leader of the attacking group. The other Jakans turned to watch, some stunned, some horrified, some jubilant with victory. He fell, almost in slow motion, my arrow protruding from his chest. In the pause, I took out six more, dropping them like stones. Instantly, the others turned and scrambled for the trees. The leader of the so called Shortblades motioned for me to hold my fire as I picked off three more.
I lowered my bow and watched the four remaining men flee into the woods. The bow was taken from my hand and the Jakans gathered around me. “You didn’t shoot any of us, yet we kidnapped you,” the leader said in Common.
“You’d just shoot my horse,” I replied, smirking.
“You speak Jocko,” he realized, seeming to deflate.
“Almost perfectly,” I replied, switching to Jocko.
“Where did you learn?” he asked, also switching to Jocko.
“My father was the ambassador to Jak. I lived there until I was almost eight,” I told him.
“And you know exactly what we said,” he sighed, nodding.
“What we gonna do now, boss?” someone asked.
“Stick to the plan. We’ll take her to the Overlord like we were told,” he replied. I huffed and slid off Midnight. Stalking over to the dead men, I searched them with no success.
Chapter 7-To Jason
“What’s wrong, little brother?” Byron asked after finding me pacing my study.
“I feel as though I’ve swallowed a stone and it’s sitting in my stomach,” I replied.
“Why?” he asked.
“I just feel like something bad has happened to Izzy,” I admitted.
“You don’t need to worry about Izzy. She’s got her guards, not to mention that dog and horse of hers. Besides, she’s not at all incapable of taking care of herself. This is Izzy we’re talking about,” he reminds me.
“I know. But do you remember that feeling you described to me when Lucinda and Izzy when to the Summer Palace a few days before us? How you felt like you had someone twisting a knife into your stomach?” I asked.
“Of course. You got this same rock in the stomach feeling then, didn’t you?” he replied.
“Yes. And it’s worse this time,” I told him.
“Well then, we’d best get you packed. I’ll come with you to tell Father you’re going after her,” he informs me.
“Thank you, Byron,” I said as he delved into one of my trunks for my metal studded leather armor. He helped me pack two saddlebags, and then helped me into my travel clothes, armor, and cloak. I strapped on my functional sword instead of my pretty and expensive dress sword, as well as a hunting knife and a few hidden daggers. Having Izzy around my whole life had taught me a few things.
“You’re not going on some delusional mission of fantasized romance,” my father growled when I told him of my departure.
“This is not delusional, nor is it fantasized. I am doing my duty as Prince saving Lady Isabella from whatever trouble she has gotten into,” I replied evenly. I would not allow him to goad me into a temper.
“You are being juvenile, Jason,” he boomed, standing.
“I do not believe so, Father. I am doing what is right. I am going on this mission. Curtis and Jonathan have both agreed to accompany me, so I will not bring a guard. But I am going. You cannot stop me,” I declared, meeting his eyes evenly.
“No one is to know of this, understood?” he demanded, sitting back down.
“Yes, sir,” I replied.
“Go, then. Do not expect me to send someone after you until you send word that you need it,” he snapped.
“Yes, sir,” I repeated, bowing. He dismissed me away with one hand and I strode out of the Throne Room. I continued out into the courtyard, where a hostler held the reins of two inconspicuous brown geldings. I mounted the tacked one and took the lead reins of the other. Jon and Kurt sat, waiting, on bays, with a brown and a dun spare behind them. “Let’s go,” I ordered, urging my horse into a canter out of the gates. We headed for the Coast Road and Izzy.