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Untitled Novel

Feedback is welcome. Please be nice, but not too nice. This is my first shot at long format fantasy. Just trying to get ideas from my head to paper… or screen.

***

Man may have discovered fire, but women learned how to play with it.

***

The Hara royal procession travelled back to the Heramedes from the south. For two weeks they celebrated the festival of light with an allied kingdom. Spring had sprouted and spirits were high. Spirits were drunk and, surrounding them, spirits of the forest danced in the flickering light beneath the midday canopy. 

A stream trickled nearby. They stopped for the soldiers to refill canteens. It was still a full day’s ride back to Hara. Ire excused herself to use the privy. Aberly the nursemaid followed her everywhere like a shadow. 

“Aberly, don’t you think I’m a bit old to need accompaniment?” Ire called over her shoulder.

“Not in the slightest, dear. I’ll just help you lift these and hold them here.”

“If not now, when?” Aberly looked away. Ire frowned. 

It was unpleasant going in the woods, with layers upon layers to lift. Even at the age of ten, her Uncle Angus insisted that the household dress her in the latest fashions. At that age she couldn’t care less. It was more of a nuisance than anything else. 

“Hurry up now miss, we mustn’t keep our entourage waiting.” 

“Most certainly,” Ire mocked. “But some things can’t be… rushed.” 

She looked away from Aberly’s feet. It was easier if she could imagine she was alone. Her gaze was fixed on a tree to her right when a peculiar ray of light caught her eye. No, it wasn’t a ray, it was a reflection. 

“There’s something over there, Mum.” 

“Where?” She flipped her gowns back and straightened the ruffle. Ire pointed. 

“Between those two oaks.” It glinted again. “I’m going to look.” 

“No, Princess Ire, we must return to the coach. Now, girl! Come here! What a nuisance.” 

Ire was already gone. Leaping over mounds of moss and bounding under overgrown roots with dangling vines. It wasn’t long before her little shoes were filled with dirt and pine needles. 

It wasn’t far from her squat spot. He wasn’t far. A boy, around her age. With hair golden as fresh honey and skin as pale as the clouds. He was sprawled as if thrown, but from what? The road was a few minutes-walk away. Could he have fallen out of a tree? 

She looked up, walked around to the boy’s other side, only to realise they were in a clearing. What happened to you? He was breathing peacefully, as if asleep. 

Ire noticed a golden band around his brow. That must have been what she saw! She gently pulled it off his forehead and inspected it. 

“What a peculiar adornment,” she mumbled. “Are you a prince?” 

Aberly panted as she left the shade. 

“Oh my God, Ire. Girl slow down. What’s this? Who’s that? Is he alive? We need help!  We can’t lift him, Ire. Don’t even try. Stop that girl. If I’m not strong enough neither are you.” She knelt across from her, visibly heaving, and put a hand on his forehead. Ire covered the gold ring in the folds behind her dress. 

“He’s breathing. Ire, dear. Go back to the wagon and bring Lord Aengus.” Her voice lowered to a firm order. “Go quickly!” 

As she spoke, the crown shrank in Ire’s hands. It was an odd sensation, as if soap was disappearing from her grip. She slipped it over her finger to avoid dropping it. 

It wasn’t long before her Uncle Aengus brought the boy back to the road. His eyelids still shut and breathing soft. 

“What will you do with him Uncle? What’s wrong with him?” Ire might have spoken out of turn, though she looked him in the eye. She clenched her jaw and wiped sweaty palms on her dress.

“Bring him back to our physician, certainly. We have yet to decide where he will stay.” He paused. “Come, my dear. The boy will be alright. He is in perfect health, just a case of drowsiness I think. Let’s be on our way. Just a half day’s ride from here to the castle.” 

Ire climbed back into the carriage to sit beside Aberly. The nursemaid didn’t hesitate to begin dusting off the princess and pick needles out of her hair. 

“Look at you, girl. Can’t you stay clean for even a day?” Ire rolled her eyes and was about to retort when she heard the stable master. 

“My lord. Me and my wife… We…” 

“Yes, of course Donaleigh. What a sensible solution. It is done then. Congratulations!” 

The men shook hands, grasping the other’s elbow. Donaleigh released his comrade and dashed away dust from his eye. 

“Thank you my Lord. I will breed you the finest stallion. As a gift. Please, no. I insist. Thank you.” 

The carts rolled away slowly with the strange boy wrapped in multi-coloured blankets on the cart behind Donaleigh and his grey stallion. His face was the only skin borne to the air. Ire folded her arms out the little wooden window and rested her head on her elbow, watching the horseman’s cart bob up and down over the dirt path.

The boy opened his eyes momentarily. His eyes were like a clear sky.

“I’m Ire. Nice to meet you. What’s your name?” she whispered over the rumble of the cart.

“Liam.” He managed to say. 

“I’m here to look after you, Liam. Don’t worry.” A corner of his mouth twitched up, and his eyes shut in a deep slumber.

*****

Ire sat on her windowsill, once all the lights off in the castle had gone out, flicking her nightstand candle on and off. It was amusing, the way the flame danced to the movement of her fingers. She didn’t need it to see. A full moon illuminated the ground far below her. She could see guards at their posts, half asleep beside their torches, and hear dogs howling. Otherwise it was entirely peaceful.

She set the candlestick down on the ledge, bringing her feet up beside it. The grey stone relieved her feet. Her white nightgown billowed, yet stuck to her dewy skin. She closed her eyes and opened the paned cast iron window a little farther lifting her chin, allowing the air to curl around to the back of her neck where her black strands of hair clung closest. The hinges objected with a moan. 

Early autumn days were hot and the nights were frigid. If only there was a nice in between. The stark difference pushed the clouds around in peculiar ways. They hung low on the ground, beginning just beyond the city walls and shrouded the forest beyond in a thick mist. 

Hara nestled between the peaks of the tallest two mountains in the Heramides, which ran down the edge of Ire’s kingdom to the east. Well, her father’s kingdom, but one day it would be hers. She was the only daughter of the crowned king of the Heramedes, the heir to the throne. 

One day when her father was too old, or went mad, Ire would take over the responsibility. She would become the first sole ruling Queen of the county. She would direct the military commanders and be wooed by knights in shining armour. She wanted to put the men up to a challenge. How could her future husband prove that he deserved her? She sighed at the thought, smirking with the corner of her mouth and squinting her eyes menacingly. The thought of marriage made her sick. She promised herself a long time ago that she would rule alone.

Ire pondered the battles waged on the fields between the Heramedes mountains and the forest. How many other maidens had watched their lovers perish from this very window? How many maidens had jumped to their death? She had never been outside the castle walls. The forest was at least the distance from the castle to the east gate and back again, maybe more? She could only guess. As she attempted to calculate the distance, her eyes drooped in a dizzying fatigue.

Looking over the land one last time, Ire gazed from the east gate to the north. A flicker of white heading to the north caught her eye. It disappeared between the buildings of the lower tier and reappeared just beyond the north gate, bolting for the forest. Despite the brightness of the night, the rider and his steed glowed silver. They were as bright as the moon and cast no shadow. 

Her stomach dropped and goosebumps ran down her arms. A ghost in Hara?  The tales she’d read with the librarian and the stories she’d heard by the midnight fireside flooded back into memory. She widened her eyes, hoping to take in every second, and leaned out the window clinging to the latch. Her knees slipped on the windowsill and she squealed, balancing her weight on the latch. Her heart jumped into her throat and she threw her weight back into the window. Slamming it behind her. Oh Thoros! Someone must have heard that. Her trembling froze her more than the stone. It was late, surely the city was asleep by now?

Still curious, she slowly opened the stubborn window and looked harder, lowering herself so only her head was above the sill. Why on earth would anybody be leaving at this hour? The rider pressed on into the misted forest and vanished. Had anybody else seen him? Nobody is likely to survive a night in the forest unarmed. How odd. She watched for a minute longer, hoping for the rider to reappear. Her eyelids grew heavy, so she drew the curtains, leaving the window open to free the heat from her chamber, and climbed into her uncomfortable bed. Despite the heat, she was fast asleep before her head hit the pillow.
She never enjoyed waking up. Revelling in her dreams for an extra hour is all she wanted. Most nights were so pleasant; filled with magic and fantasies about a handsome knight on a white horse. She hadn’t heard Leanna, her handmaiden, come into her sleeping quarters. It wasn’t until the curtains were thrown open that Ire was shaken awake.

Leanna hardly whispered, beaconing her out of bed. Ire closed her eyes again and groaned. The morning sun shone through her eyelids. Sighing and grunting, she shifted her hips under the white silken sheets and began to roll away from the streaming light. She was so comfortable and her dream was so vivid. Maybe she could fall back asleep and dream about him again. Maybe this time she would see his face, touch him even.

“Not so fast,” Leanna said in a rusty whisper as she grabbed Ire’s shoulder. 

Her red hair was already braided and she wore her best dress, even though it was dreadful. The colour did nothing for her hair and brown eyes. She wore black soft leather shoes that just barely stuck out the front of her dress, which was about two inches too long. Despite her miraculous sewing skill, Leanna did not see fit to spend time fixing her own clothing but paid utmost attention to every detail of Ire’s. She was disappointed that Leanna did not have good taste when it came to her own garments, but she didn’t dare comment. 

Ire squinted as she tried to make eye-contact. “You have a big day today.” Leanna pulled at her arm.

“I know, I know.” Ire scowled, limply throwing back the corner of the sheets. She swung her feet out of bed one at a time, still laying with her head on the tasseled down pillow in a half twist.

“Come on.” Leanna implored. She bustled around the room shaking things, banging things together, and moving furniture. Ire stared blankly at the red velvet curtains overhanging her wooden four-poster bed.

Oh the morning. How daunting, yet refreshing. The smell of her breakfast is what really drew her up. Fresh sausage, eggs, and a bit of toast with butter. Lifting her head with her nose, Ire perched on the edge of her mattress and rubbed her eyes, her nightgown twisted from the unorthodox way she rolled out of bed, her hair standing on end in matted knots. She wiped her mouth with the corner of her blankets and pretended she hadn’t been drooling during the night. Leanna made a sour face at the wet spot on Ire’s pillow as the princess made her way to the small table on the other side of the room.

She shovelled her breakfast, still clutching the fluffy gold pillow, and stood beside the dining chair in her bedroom.

“Have you no manners?” Leanna chided with a disgusted look. Despite her status in the castle, she was the only one who managed to keep Ire in line. Ire glared at her as she filled her mouth with yet a third forkful of sausage, threw the pillow back to the head of the bed, then took a bite of bread before she began chewing.

“Wuff mm uh fpoffed ta wea fow tha faiw” Some bread crumbs spewed from her lips. Ire didn’t care; it was too early. She had no one to impress yet. Leanna just finished straightening the sheets on the bed. She glared at Ire who promptly strolled back over and sat on the edge of the bed, still struggling to chew. Leanna rolled her eyes as she opened the great oak wardrobe.

“You are impossible. How many times have I told you not to talk with your mouth full? How on earth do you even manage to fit half the plate in there at once? It’s not ladylike at all.” With a “humph,” Leanna pulled out a delicate green dress with gold inlay and a black hooded cloak. Ire couldn’t tell if it was a satisfactory sigh or a disgusted one. Perhaps both at once.

“Iff too hot fow dat!” Ire protested. Leanna grasped the dress tighter than necessary, slamming it into her knees.

“That’s what I was told to present you in.” 

Ire finally swallowed, loudly of course, and held out a hand to be passed the dress. No sense in arguing with Uncle Aengus. Leanna sighed and fetched a brush. 

“I don’t suppose you will need the cloak until this evening though. You won’t get away with wearing a summer dress today. Although I could make a few last minute alterations to the sleeves.” She trailed off, gently pulling at Ire’s tangled mane as she eyed up the seams.

“But I need to be presentable.” Ire gestured with two fingers on each hand to emphasize her sarcasm. “Not that I’m not on any other day.” She smiled to herself, running the end of her wavy, knotted black hair through her fingertips. It was about as long as her arm, reaching down to her hips. 

“You know as well as me, Ire, that’s not true,” Leanna looked her in the eye. “Besides, it won’t upset them if you show a little more skin today. I heard Lord Ardent is coming.” 

“Oh shit, him again? I hate that guy. Such a pigheaded asshole. He’s got that pigs nose of his right in his own mud. That means up his… “

“I get it, thank you.” Leanna tugged at a tangle. Ire laughed and gave her a smack on the knee. 

“You’re too good for your own good, you know. One day you’re just going to crack and curse the world.”

“Is that what you think?”

“That’s what I know.”

“You should focus more on what you don’t know than speak of what you think you know.”

She brushed and braided her hair with gold ribbon then helped her into the dress. Leanna went to her worn leather satchel by the double door entry and withdrew a pair of scissors and some gold thread. 

“Oh Leanna. You’re so smart and wise,” Ire mocked. “Why don’t you solve an age old problem for me?”

“And what’s that?”

“How do I get rid of Andre.”

She snipped and sewed hems, revealing a circular cutout around the shoulder; just enough to intrigue the eyes from one shoulder, down the neckline, to the other. 

“Do you mean for good? Or just until the next festival?”

“Clearly forever.”

“What did he even say?”

“It’s not what he said but what he did. The man I’d ruthless. He wouldn’t leave me alone. Speaking of alone. Have you gotten back at Dany for telling Earl your little secret?” Leanna grimaced and slapped Ire’s shoulder. “Ow, cut it out!”

“I already did. You’ll thank me later.”

“I think not. I don’t care for them. I never have. Not since the day I met her, or that grubby son of hers.” She paused. “Want to know what I said to Earl?” 

“Earl didn’t need to know where I was. I told him I was busy.”

“Busy? Hah!”

“You wouldn’t dare make that assumption. I’m a lady and have much higher standards than that.”

“So you’re saying Earl is too ugly for your standards?”

“A bit fat and smelly, yes. He will find someone who appreciates him.”

“I doubt it!” Ire laughed. “Poor Earl. He really is a good cook. And his food is delicious!” She stuffed the last piece of bread and butter in her mouth.

Leanna held out the gown for her to step into. With a gulp and a huff, Ire exhaled what air she had left for Leanna to fasten the dress. 

“Why do they make these so damn tight? Weaken a woman with your fashion because you can’t with your words. Show her how weak her body is to make her feel small and fragile. Women like to feel like that. Don’t they?” Ire wiggled around in the corset without making a difference to its fitting. “Ugh! The things I do for fashion.”

Ire struck a goofy pose. Leanna put her hands on her hips and nodded smiling then wiped her brow. She knocked on the side door, calling her helpers in to clean up the breakfast table. Two young girls, perhaps eight, sped into the chamber and cleaned up the area quietly.

“Here, put these on.” She reached into a walnut chest, inlaid delicately with brass which sat on the floor beside the tall armoire. The lock’s hinge squealed defiantly as it swung open. The chest croaked like a dying frog.

“Everything in this castle so old and broken. Please get the hinges on this and the window quieted somehow. I can’t stand it.” 

Leanna glanced sideways and dug shoulder-deep into the chest. She pulled out a worn pair of golden slippers with a pointed toe. Scowling at them, with their Earl-like smell, Ire stuffed her feet into the stinky old shoes.

“They’re made of actual gold?”

“Not gold, glider’s silk. They were your mother’s.”

“Leanna, I can’t.”

“You will. My work here is done.” Leanna slammed the chest shut, locked it, and opened the double-wide chamber doors before Ire could object further. She stood aside for the princess to waltz through, careful not to trip on the edge of her dress. Leanna followed closely behind carrying the heavy cloak. 

“Leanna!” Ire stopped at the top of the stairs. “How long have you had these for? Where did you find her old shoes?”

“Never mind that. What matters is that you have them today. They are in your care now, and they should bring you good luck!” Ire knew the tales of the yellow silk sliders well. Their fabric was rumored to bring the wearer luck, like a charm. A rare gift from her long departed mother. The sliders deadly bite would render any human dead in a matter of seconds, making it difficult to harvest their webs for fabric.

A trumpet sounded outside. “They’re here.” Leanna dusted lint off her dress.

“How do I look? Do you think he will like me?” Ire batted her eyes.  

“Who couldn’t like you?” Leanna smirked, turning Ire’s shoulders, and gave her a shove towards the stairs.

Lord Aengus was waiting for her at the bottom of the tower stairs.

“Princess Ire, you are a sight.”

“Thank you Uncle Aengus!” She spun around with a girly look.

“You be careful who you talk to today, looking like that. Wouldn’t want you to up and disappear, with all the business that’s sure to ensue this afternoon.” He held out his elbow, and she took it graciously, happy to relieve the effort it took to walk. 

After a while, Ire couldn’t help herself. “Uncle, what’s she like? Is she anything like…”

“Nothing like her.” He replied shortly. “The Queen of Hara was a gentle, caring soul. She wasn’t afraid to fight for what she believed was right. She was the definition of grace and nobility in Hara. We all miss her, Ire. I know you never got a chance to meet her, and I’m sorry for that. It’s cruel that I got to spend so much time with her and you so little.”

“I’m not sad about it, really. How could I miss someone I never met?” He sniffed and lifted his chin a little higher.

“Yes, I suppose you’re right.” The three proceeded along the upper halls, glancing out the slotted windows for signs of movement in the courtyard. The city’s lower tier was already filled with blue and black clad soldiers, at the front of the parade was a black carriage drawn by grey stallions. The silver and blue pennants snapped in the wind just behind.

“Uncle Aengus. What’s to happen? I mean, where do I stand when it’s all said and done?”

“I’m not sure what he has planned, to be honest, love. I know they’re to wed in a week, and I know she has a son. He was once betrothed to little Annie from the south, but she passed away prematurely, poor thing. Cute girl. Met her once.”

“How old was she?”

“She was only fourteen. He was twenty and one.”

That would make him at least thirty now. Ire had heard magnificent stories about the Commander of Long River. They defended the kingdom beyond the forest from barbarians. The invaders would sail down river and set villages ablaze, raping and pillaging as they went. But Sir Andre of Long River, of the River Ardent, he’d raised an army to protect his mother’s kingdom after his father fell in battle. And he trained them well. They somehow managed to get upstream unseen and thwart the enemy’s main camp in the night. Though none of the stories changed her mind about him.

“You know, I did meet him once. When I was younger. He and father, who I guess is dead now, were hunting in the Hara woods beyond the gorge. They’d decided to stop by for the evening. I remember they brought a deer for the table. I didn’t much like the taste either. Anyways, he was a brat of a gentleman back then. I don’t suppose much has changed.”

“My dear princess, that’s no way to talk. Please, censor yourself for at least the day.”

“I’ll try uncle.”

As they walked along, Ire couldn’t help but wonder what stories and secrets lay within the walls of Hara. There hadn’t been a war in so long. That was a good thing, she supposed. The stories she knew were more legend than history. A tale to tell children as they fall asleep in a warm bed. They crossed a corridor filled with suits of armour, dusty swords and shields, faded tapestries, and weathered doors. She wondered what hid behind the locked doors of the castle. Some doors were locked though they had no keyhole. How were they locked without a key? Ire pursed her lips as she walked past one and decided it was just locked from the inside. 

“No matter what happens today, Ire. Know that you’re still important. You’re the heart of this kingdom. And the people love you. We need to stick together, as a family.”

“A family. The old one, not the new one.” She thought for a moment. “Uncle, what have I really done? In the sixteen years that I’ve been in Hara, I don’t think I’ve accomplished anything. What do I have to show for myself?”

“You’ve…”

“Women aren’t in politics or economics in Hara. You know that.”

“Without your advice, we never would have gotten Reiley. Now look where we are? This is the most bountiful harvest we’ve had in a decade.”

“You made that decision fully on your own! Well, my father did, at your suggestion.”

“No, Ire, don’t you remember? We were training that day. And you’d said it would make sense for one person to make all the records, rather than one from each vocation. It’s pure genius.”

“Oh yes, I remember now. You slapped me a little too hard on the back that afternoon.” 

He snickered. “Sometimes I forget you’re not a boy. You’re trained like a prince, you know, though you may lack the strength. You’re sensible and practical. Perhaps you could become part of the King’s Guard?”

“I don’t think so.” Ire gave him a sideways smirk. “I’d probably end up stitching up stab wounds, and I don’t much care for red.”

They passed the Great Hall along a third-floor corridor, lined with green and gold banners showing the Hara coat of arms, and strode towards the throne room’s upper gallery. They descended a flight of curved stairs to the east of the throne room and appeared just above the kitchen, eyeing the evening’s wild turkey and potato dinner from a balcony as they scampered along a second floor corridor towards the greater east wing of the castle. Finally, they reached a triple-wide stone-pillared staircase in the Grand Entry. 

Ire regally descended the autumn-adorned staircase gracefully, careful not to step on the end of her dress or to catch herself on the leaves, dried vines, or giant seeds that spiralled around the columns and opposite railing. It helped having Aengus there. Hara courtiers nodded their heads and some removed their hats as Ire entered. Soft music flowed into the throne room from the Great Hall to the right. 

Decorations had already been strung along the banisters of the corridor looking out into the castle’s entry. Leaves coloured red, orange, and gold coiled around crops from the vineyards and the castle garden, looping around the rail of the corridor above. The adornments hung three feet below the ceiling, encircled with the green and gold ribbons of Hara. Ire sighed deeply at the bottom of the stairs, closing her eyes to inhale the smell of the autumn leaves and the fall spices. 

The harvest festival was one of her favourites. The décor, the aroma of cinnamon, nutmeg and chocolate, the rustling of leaves in the wind, the colours of freshly picked crops, and the parties. Oh the parties! Ire lived for them. She thrived when guests arrived at the castle learning from them, exploring life beyond. 

Every year the castle would open its doors to the kingdom of Hara for a grand masquerade party at the end of the harvest season. At dinnertime they feasted on the bountiful crops of the season and celebrated their triumphs and successes together. It was good for the kingdom, it brought the people together and instated a sense of patriotism and pride. After the party was over, everybody in the city was closer to one another; the community became more like a family. This time was different.

Ire was to sing for the crowd before the evening feast began. Her father enjoyed traditions like that. His sister sang the Autumn Hymn every year before Ire knew how, as did his mother and grandmother. The family’s lineage went back thousands of years to when the Kingdom of Hara was first built. 

Maybe this year she’d get it right. Last year didn’t go so well. She had slipped on her dress, tripped over a pumpkin, fell off the stage, and landed face-first in the pudding dessert. The humiliation had worn off a little, but she still felt ants crawl up her back when she saw the stage through the door to the Great Hall, pumpkins and all. 

“Ire! There you are. Please, highness, follow me to the courtyard. Your presence is required.” If it weren’t for Lord Reiley, the entire county’s economy would fall apart. He carried a parchment notepad and quill everywhere to track the harvests, trades, visitors, births, deaths, and disagreements among citizens. He knew who was where, what they were doing, who they were with, and what they should be doing, all at once. He had an extra spring in his step this morning. Not unusual, given that the harvest this year was exceedingly bountiful and the feast he’d planned was guaranteed to go over well.

“Go!” Leanna encouraged and trailed behind with the cloak. 

“Here” Lord Reiley helped Ire down the curved steps that spread to the platform on which her father would stand to receive his new bride. 

Ire knew that it wasn’t unordinary for kings to wed again if the queen had an untimely death. She’d read about it. But she didn’t think he’d actually do it. Didn’t he love her mother? Nobody could replace her. Of course they couldn’t. Why did he need to 

re-marry then? Ire seemed a little bitter and strained to wipe a sour look off her face as she arrived at the centre of the dais. A crowd of courtiers flowed out of the castle and encircled the courtyard below. 

He still wasn’t there yet. What was taking him so long? Any minute, the bone cart would pull up to the top tier and she’d step out. What would Ire say to her if the bride-groom wasn’t there in time?

King Art O’Hara, overlord of the Heramides kingdom, sidled onto the platform from the Great Hall. Crumbs from his breakfast stuck to his beard as he munched on the last bit of sausage. His crown was off centre and tilted to one side. His cloak hung off one shoulder, his boots unlaced, and one pant leg was inside his boot while the other was scrunched above the cuff. His belt was a notch too loose which caused him to hoist his trousers from behind as he walked, tucking his cloak into his belt without noticing. Ire felt Leanna wince.

There was a lot that father didn’t notice. He never commented on her hair, her dress, the way she’d learned to wield a sword, her unlikely skill in archery, her ability to strategize and predict her opponent’s next move, her knowledge of the Book of History, or anything else that remotely involved her. He never gave her gifts or read her bedtime stories. He never said happy birthday or goodnight. Not since mother… tears welled and Ire passed the thought. It wasn’t that King O’Hara couldn’t stand her. Ire didn’t exist to him. Ire didn’t matter. She could recall a few fond memories of father from early childhood, but they were tarnished by the years thereafter.

His eyes didn’t meet hers as he tripped down the stairs, refused Reiley’s assistance, and came to rest three steps ahead. From the faces of the crowd, Ire gathered that they were as unimpressed with their king as she was. He swayed as he stood, his feet spread a little too wide. 

“Still as a statue,” she muttered to herself. “Smile.”

“Ah, welcome, welcome!” the King gurgled. The carriage pulled through the gates on time. The footmen unlatched the white, curtained doors. Ire clenched her jaw and stuck out her nose.

 “Lady Thea of Long River. I have long awaited your arrival.” As he spoke, the soldiers assembled an aisle for their noble lady. The crowd fell silent.

The carriage opened without a sound. In the ghastly silence, wind whipped at the standards like thunder under the increasingly hot sun. A baby cried beyond the castle wall and was hushed quickly. Finally, Reiley broke the silence.

“Lady Thea, Baroness of the Ardent River, Lady of the Blue Lakes, mother of the Bubbling Brook, and betrothed bride to Lord Art O’Hara of the Heramedes. My lady.” He held out his black gloved hand and bowed his head. 

From the shadows of the coach, she emerged, limb by limb. Her blue pointed shoes adorned with white freshwater shells, her pale hands. Ire gasped, heat rising to her ears. Mother’s ring was on Thea’s left hand. The Heramedian court also gathered a breath. Lady Thea was a sight. Her fair hair, grey eyes, and elaborate sapphire gown took their breath away. She walked with stealth, swaying her hips in a way that tilted even Ire’s head in awe. She knelt low at the foot of the dais, to the princess’ delight. 

“My Lady, rise. You should never need to look at the ground. Your arrival lightens my heart.” He reached out both arms, plodded down the dais and kissed her on the forehead. He brought her up with a single finger under her chin. Ire resisted the urge to hurl.

“Thank you my Lord. I am happy that I can please you thus.”

“Did you have a pleasant journey?”

“It was quite far from Ardent, but we arrived with no damaged goods.” She gestured to a pair of blue and silver clad men carrying a silver chest, embedded with sapphires and smooth black stones. “The river provides.”

The soldiers opened the chest just enough for King Art to peer at its contents. They didn’t need to open it far, for the gold within glowed and reflected on the polished silver of the chest’s inner lid. It must have been a trick of the sunlight, catching the metal at just the right angle. The chest reflected the sun right into her eyes as they ascended the steps.

Ire squinted, remembering that just five minutes ago she’d rolled out of bed. Ire closed her eyes, lifted her head, and took in a deep breath. God Thoros let this go well. Please let him be at least normal. She was next. Ire squared her shoulders, keeping her chin up and locked her eyes on the carriage.

“Lord Andre Ardent of Long River, son of Lady Thea, Commander of the Imperial Dasian Army, and leader of men.” Reiley really knew his titles. Andre was much like his mother in both beauty and grace, but the hard look on his face distinguished him. His jaw was square set, clenched, as were his fists. He looked unhappy, or maybe uncomfortable. Her new step-brother wanted to be here just as little as she did. 

“At least we seem to have that in common,’’ Ire muttered. He had a scar from the corner of his eyebrow to the dimple of his smile. If he ever smiled, Ire bet it would be frightening. 

“Lady Ire.” He took her hand. Andre moved so quickly, she couldn’t avoid it. She smiled with her cheeks and nodded her head. “Commander. It’s a pleasure.”

“What would seem like a pleasure is really the disguise of a blessing.” He winked, kissed the back of her hand and smiled with one cheek, the non-scarred one. Andre spun his deep blue cloak to follow his mother inside. 

“Well that could have been worse.” Ire recounted to Leanna. “He wasn’t completely terrible.”

“Wasn’t? Or isn’t?” 

“Wasn’t. He could still be.”

“Ah. Want to know what I think?”

“No. I really don’t care for it at the moment.”

The courtiers flowed into the throne room from the grand entrance, Ire and Leanna stood aside the grand entry beside an armoured Heramedian knight. They watched two tall, slender gentleman dressed in red and white enter the hall. They spoke with a distinct accent, and added to the rainbow of nearby clans invited to witness the wedding.

“I quite enjoyed the trip up the mountain.” The moustached man said to the one with the beard. 

“The air is thinner up here isn’t it?”

“Indeed. It’s a wonder it doesn’t get to their heads.” 

“Perhaps they’ve just always been like that.” 

The moustached man chuckled and slapped his companion gently on the shoulder. “You have a point, Edward. The oddities of these people likely do come from their environment. It’s absurd to live so far away from the other cities.”

“Come Henry, we want a front row seat for the show.” They veered to the left as Ire entered the throne room. 

The men’s names were foreign too. Ire pursed her lips trying to remember from which clan they came. She saw Andre out of the corner of her eye and her shoulders suddenly felt very exposed. Ire excused herself through a gossiping cluster of women in orange and purple with Leanna and the heavy cloak close behind. 

(To be continued….) 

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