"It pains me to say that there is little more I can do to help your family. But ration what I have given you and it should last all the way through the winter." The man before Avram stooped as if he were well past his prime years, but his face looked like that of a middle-aged man. Gerid was the name he gave them. He claimed to be in dire need of money due to his family's inability to care for all of the sheep in their herd. There were many shepherds in the villages surrounding the capital, so it was unlikely that Gerid's loss would affect the overall supply of wool. But there was also the matter of this man's family. How would they have any income if not for his sheep? It was Avram's responsibility to see to the needs of the entire kingdom, not just one family. It was all so frustrating. And now he had to consider what would happen after he was married. He wasn't sure why that prospect disturbed him so
Gerid bowed before the throne and quickly scurried off with the meager amount of money he was given. That was the twenty-seventh citizen he had seen today, and judging by Oliver's list, there would be quite a few more. The Steward himself sat in his usual spot, off to the side of the room making notes about each man, woman, and child that came through the court to see their king.
Unfortunately none of them would see the king. None of them had for years now. King Feldon rarely spoke to anyone now, except for the few who were allowed to visit his chambers. Avram himself had not been up there in over three months. That was partly because of the massive number of responsibilities he had sitting on his shoulders as the heir to the throne. The other reason, which he was less willing to admit, was that he could not stand to see his father in such a tragic state. He was once a strong and brilliant leader. People revered him until the day he ended the Prime Order and removed his closest friend from power. Even now Avram was still confused about what happened then, though he had only been seven years of age at the time.
The guards brought in the next man, and this one looked more furious than desperate. He was dragging a young woman with him, though she kept her head down for whatever reason.
"Your grace, this woman is responsible for injuring my horse. She ran into the middle of the road like a lunatic and caused him to buckle back and break his leg. I must have payment to purchase a new horse that can pull my cart."
Avram only half heard the man's complaints. His eyes were focused on the woman he was accusing of being a lunatic. There was an oddness to her that he could not place. She appeared to be of the northern blood, and though that was hardly uncommon in the past, most northerners nowadays were refugees from the endless war occurring within their borders.
"Is what this man says true? Did you injure his horse?" Avram inquired, though he removed the forceful tone from his voice.
[BCOLOR=transparent]The woman hauled before the prince was not happy. In fact, she was downright upset. Despite wearing a plain green dress, and a scarf that covered her hair, something about the set to her shoulders and her curled fist said that she wasn’t quite so common as she looked. [/BCOLOR]
[BCOLOR=transparent]“The horse has been injured. That part is true.” Her head was still down, and she was staring at the tiles of the receiving hall. She recognized those tiles, somewhere in the back of her mind. Her mouth was moving, almost completely independent of the majority of her thoughts. “What isn’t true is that I did it on purpose. What’s been omitted is that he was riding at full gallop through the market. Yes, I was running after a customer that had overpaid me, to catch them and give them back the overage. He and his poor overworked horse nearly trampled me.” So many memories. Parts of it, coming in, had even smelled the same, and drawn up old memories of this hall as if it had been yesterday instead of nearly 13 years. “If he had been going through at a less dangerous speed, his horse would have not reared so dramatically. If it was not me that caused the situation, it would have been something else within the market.” [/BCOLOR]
[BCOLOR=transparent]While she was lost in memory, her mouth was going, giving an arbiter’s perfectly-styled reasoning. It had been daily teaching, even after they’d been thrown out and left with nearly nothing. Her father still had his pride, and was determined that his family act noble, if nothing else. “His horse’s leg is broken, but the fault lies with the rider. After all, would you blame the blacksmith for a sword that murdered your brother, or the man who wielded it?” Unfortunately, the style of speaking and argument she’d just displayed, quite without thinking about it, wasn’t something a common girl would know. Even if no one recognized her face, they’d know that she was, at least, a lot more educated than her work.[/BCOLOR]
[BCOLOR=transparent]All this occurred to her about five seconds after the end of her rhetoric. “I will work off the payment for the horse, if needed.” She’d sold all her jewelry and trinkets just to make it back to the kingdom. Why, she still didn’t know. Perhaps since this was all that was left, all that was familiar.[/BCOLOR]
The woman presented before the court did not dare look up at the prince as she spoke. That was fairly common, especially among the poorer individuals who found themselves in the presence of royalty. What Avram was not expecting was for her to speak as eloquently as she did. She certainly looked like a northern lass, but her accent was much closer to that of a woman raised in the south. Perhaps her family migrated to the capital years ago. Though how would they have possessed the means? Surely traveling such a distance would have required some expenses, and what family with nice sum of money would be content to see their daughter become a lowly maid. Or was she a washerwoman? Regardless, she did not appear to be of very high rank.
Gerid looked dumbstruck for a few moments, staring at the young woman he dragged into court with his mouth agape like a blasted fool. But he quickly returned to his senses and scoffed at her claim. "Your excellency, surely you cannot believe what this wench claims. Perhaps I may have been riding a little fast, but that was because I had to return to my home to retrieve some cabbages I left behind. What use is there being a vegetable trader if I leave one of my most popular items at home? Surely it's simple logic."
The proud merchant glared at his captive, daring her to rebuttal. Avram rubbed his forehead with exhaustion. He wished he could claim that this was the most ridiculous accusation he heard all day, but it did not even come close. Why did it seem that so many people were just looking for excuses to take money from each other?
He glanced to the side to where Oliver was sitting, wondering what he made of this. Instead of jotting down notes like he usually did, however, he was conversing rather quickly with Ser Gerald Vancen, the crown's Captain of the Guard and one of the most famous knights to walk this world. He usually stood off to the side during court sessions as his primary job during these daily events was to protect the king; or in this case, the prince. Seeing him in such an intense conversation with the Steward was peculiar, and the fact that both of them continuously glanced at the two people in the middle of the floor roused Avram's interest in their conversation.
"Oliver, Ser Gerald," the prince called, "you have some information you would like to share?" Both men looked up at that, and the Steward shuffled to his feet, mumbling something inaudible to himself. Gerid did not look pleased with the interruption, though he was noticeably attempting to hide his frustration. The woman he had in tow still refused to look up from the floor.
Kassandra tensed at hearing 'Ser Gerald'. She wasn't surprised the old legend was still kicking. She was surprised to be recognized. For the man to recognize her, even now... What were the odds? She'd been a chubby, shy child when they'd been exiled. Now she was older, wiser, quiet perhaps, but life had taken away the ability to be meek. She stared at the toes of her work boots and tried not to look suspicious. If this man got upset and took her hood off...
Well, it would be a day to remember.
Kassandra exhaled slow from her nose. "That does make sense, ser. But the fact is that you've dragged me here, red-faced and swearing, when I obviously could work ten years and never buy your steed back. If money was your concern, you would at least find a way to get your wares sold today. I am not a fool or a criminal, ser, nor am I someone easily intimidated by..." She flicked her face up, but briefly, staring the merchant dead in the face. "People who pretend to be more than they are." Her gaze was back down again. "If you had asked, I would be glad to help. I know a man who deals well with horses. I helped him maintain his home when his wife had twins. I would have introduced you, negotiated a deal. But now you've wasted time that we both could have been spending earning a living. You're not here about your horse, you're here to make a fool of me." She leaned forward and hissed, in a whisper that would carry only to his ears.
"It's not working, ser."
Later she would wonder what idiocy had crept into her mind. She should have kept her mouth shut, but... there was no taking back words.
Once again, Avram was more than a little taken aback by this woman's confident words. She certainly looked like a lower class woman with her hood up and her gaze rarely leaving the floor. But she spoke like a highborn lady. Some of the words and phrases she used were never spoken by anyone of low birth. It was mysterious indeed. As prince Avram had far more to worry about than her odd mannerisms, but even as a child he loved mysteries and pursuing unanswered questions. They were far more exciting than sitting in court or on council meetings hoping an assassin might force him to spring into action.
Gerald and Oliver were both staring open-mouthed at the woman, and Oliver actually looked offended. It was not offensive for this woman to say such things to Gerid of course, but to say them in front of royalty was extremely frowned upon.
Gerid's hand dropped to his side. He looked even more dumbfounded than he had after the first outburst. "I... wi...," he began then snarled with frustration. "Stop trying to confuse me with your lies! I'll see you punished for ruining my horse. You think yo-"
His words were cut off as Oliver cleared his throat to silence the outraged merchant. "Master Gerid," he stated calmly, though he was noticeably confused as well, "we can replace your horse for you if that is your primary concern. If that is all then you may leave and we will see that you are given a proper steed. As for this young woman..." his eyes focused on the accused as he hesitated for a brief moment, "... Ser Gerold would like to speak with her privately." He turned to Avram and bowed his head slightly. "With your permission of course, your grace. Merely a security matter."
Gerid bowed to the prince, an awkward sort of movement for a man of his stature. "Thank you for your graciousness, my lord." As he turned to leave he gave his captive a knowing grin but said nothing as he exited the court.
Watching with interest as Ser Gerold and two of his guards led the young woman away, Avram was certain the captain had more that security matters in mind when questioning her. "Bring in the next one," he said with an audible sigh.
Kassandra had to work to keep from wincing. She'd done it now, hadn't she? While the guards were not touching her, they were keeping her boxed in between them. Their pikes looked freshly sharpened, and only a death-seeking fool would dare try them. She was no fool, and she'd worked way too hard to live to throw it away.
Whatever happened, would just have to happen.
She was led into a small room, with nothing more than a wooden table, a single lamp, and two chairs. The guards sat her in one, then took up post by the door. Kassandra kept her back straight in the chair, and smoothed her simple dress. The hood she kept up, though she didn't know why. The moment she took it down, everything would be painfully obvious. Delaying the inevitable was a small comfort, but it was a comfort.
"Pardon me, gentlemen. Would one of you mind terribly getting me a drink of water? I'm rather parched..."
The guards hauled the young woman into a small chamber, though neither of them knew why Ser Gerald had requested such a thing. It was not often that someone of such low stature and virtually no threatening mannerisms would be brought further into the palace for questioning. They both looked at each other, startled by the odd request. This woman was speaking all too eloquently for a lowborn lass.
"Keep quiet, you," one of them said as he smacked a heavy gauntlet against the wall. "You are in no position to be making a request. This is an inquisitorial room. That means you only answer questions, not-"
He was cut off abruptly as the captain himself entered the small chamber. "Enough of that, Betis. She's not a prisoner. You two may stand outside. This is a private matter; a conversation that I would prefer no one to hear." Both guards were taken aback, but they nodded in understanding, quickly scurrying out through the door and slamming it shut behind them. "I'm afraid your drink will have to wait a moment, lass. I have some important questions that need answering."
Though there were two chairs, Gerald elected to remain standing. He hated sitting down. For some reason it always gave him the impression that he was being less productive with his time than he ought to be. He made no effort to hide the fact that he was studying the woman from head to toe, though being dressed in commoner's clothes made her virtually indistinguishable from any other lowborn on the street. Could she really be who he thought she was? Her eyes looked all too familiar. But they were eyes he had not seen in many years. But the thought that she might still be alive...
"What is your name?" He did not expect her to give the name he wanted to hear. Even if she was Kassandra, she would undoubtedly give him a false name to hide her identity. But it was a good opening question. And the way she spoke her name, with or without hesitating, would give him at least minimal knowledge.
"My name is Achieng." She'd learned in the months since she'd lost her family, that to give her real name was to invite trouble. The second time it happened, she'd had to fight her way out of said trouble, and that wasn't an experience she wanted to repeat. "I would like to go home. I have already missed a half-day of work and I will be working through the evening to catch up. Please, ser, if those are the only questions..." Unconsciously she shifted the hood to cover her face further. "I'm sure a man of your rank has more important things to do than to interrogate peasant girls." Maybe if she displayed humility now, perhaps he would let her leave. "I didn't mean to cause trouble. I truly apologize."
Gerald chuckled lightly at her excuse to get away. Her sudden meekness in the face of obvious suspicion made her previous tone of demanding respect all the more intriguing. Sure she was eager to get back to her work, or so she claimed. Most people brought in for questioning were usually just as eager to get away, though they were often being accused of city violations, unlike this woman.
"Achieng..." he repeated, rolling the name around in his head. "A common name for the common folk of eastern Taolor. If I may say so, you don't share the resemblance of a Taolorian lass. Your hair and eye color alone would place you somewhere from the north."
He let his words hang in the air for a moment. A slight moment of guilt entered his head. Usually such interrogation methods were reserved for actual criminals, but if she was indeed the daughter of his old friend then he could not afford to take any chances.
"Let me be clear," he said in a calm, friendly manner as he took the seat opposite her side of the table. "You are not being accused of anything. Whatever happened to that foolish man's horse is being paid for. But that is not why you are here." He stared at her for a long moment before continuing, wondering if she would trust a name like his far enough. He regretted not making a greater impression on Kassandra when she still lived here. "I'm sure you are familiar with the sad tale of Lord Valan Donagale."
"My look and my name might not come from the same place. Maybe my parents liked the way the name sounded. Maybe I'm sensitive about having a foreign name." She flickered her gaze up, sharp for a moment, but then away. He wasn't being at all swayed by her mannerisms. No, he'd probably met more dangerous liars than she was.
When she heard the name of her father, she had no outward reaction. That is, to most eyes. But to someone as well trained as Ser Gerald, whose job it was to ferret out lies and dig up the truth, there were hints. Her jaw tensed, as if she had to bite back words. Her hands in her lap twitched- a reaction of surprise, anger, fear, who knew?
She didn't speak for a long moment. When she did, her voice was very calm, almost clinical. "What I'm familiar with and what you're familiar with may be two different versions of the same story. Tell me yours first and perhaps we can compare them." Again, the same quick gaze. Direct, bold eye contact, then gone again to examine the hem of her dress. This look was curious, though.
Kassandra wanted to know what the story had become. She'd been far too young to understand the implications of their exile, and her parents had revealed nothing to her. Not even her father had given her the truth during her training, when he explained what she was capable of through his bloodline. Had their family's shame become some kind of legend? Something whispered about in the corners of court? Did people remember the man anymore, or was he just a story?
Her reactions to his question were subtle, but Gerald was not made Captain of the Royal Guard simply for his prowess with a blade. He was always observant of people's words and their reactions. Therefore, it was fairly easy for him to notice the inner turmoil when he mentioned the late lord's name. Curious, or perhaps not.
What truly gave her away was the return question. What lowborn maiden from the north would care to ask a question such as that? Either she was indeed Lord Valan's daughter, or she was a spy for some other northern Lord. And while the later was a legitimate possibility, her reaction to hearing the name Donagale covered up, or at least tried to cover up, far more pain than she was willing to admit. But Gerald could only smile at this for some reason, and elected to continue playing her game. After all, who was to say she could not be here to exact revenge on the royal family?
"You certainly ask a lot of questions for one who is being questioned." A thin smile creased his lips. "Very well. The story that has been whispered here for years now began after the King and his friend Lord Valan had a bit of a... disagreement. I can't say what it was, for I don't even know. Suffice it to say, it was enough to make the King strip Valan of his titles and send him and his family off into exile. Shortly after that the remaining lord of the north began warring over dominion to take the place the Donagales once held. It was made worse by the fact that the Prime Order was completely disbanded, for how could such a large legion of knights continue to exist without Lord Valan at its head? From there the story gets fuzzy for me. My sources tell me that Valan and his family were killed in the bloodshed plaguing their homeland..." His eyes then met her's and expression did not waver an inch, "... or so we thought."
Gerald leaned in towards the table, placing a mailed fist on the polished wooden surface. "If ever there were a survivor of House Donagale, this would be an appropriate time to reveal herself. The crown is weaker than it once was. The King has been ill and demented for years now. Prince Avram is overwhelmed. Few allies remain. If ever there were a time for an old ally to reemerge, one with a name still respected by many, it would be now."
Kassandra was silent through the entire story, up until the end. When Ser Gerald stared her in the eyes and spoke of the loss of her family, she flinched. She couldn't help it. The pain and horror in her eyes was stark. Tugging her hood closer to her face, she looked down. It hurt, it still hurt so much. The nightmares were much less frequent, but she still felt lightheaded when she smelled blood. She hadn't been able to eat any meat since. This game of false identities was tiring, and she had been losing besides. She didn't want to hide anymore. There was nothing left, after all.
"Still respected? Even now, after all that has passed?" A weary smile flickered across her face. "Do you think the Prince would even... even recognize the child he played with ages ago, within the woman?"
Kassandra finally pulled off her hood, revealing her face in full for the first time. There were clear traces of her lineage in her face. The full mouth and broad nose belonged to her mother. However, her eyes were bright and sharp, brown with shards of topaz like hidden gems. Her hair, however, was the most striking. Where it had been black in her childhood, now it was stark white, like frost. Lord Donogale had white hair as well, but he'd been old enough to come by it naturally. Kassandra's was early, by far, because her face was still soft and young.
"...D... do you really think I could be of some help, even now? I assure you, revenge is the last thing on my mind, ser. There is no one left to revenge. I... I am all there is." Her eyes started to sting, but she didn't let the tears fall.
Though he did not need to see her face in order to discern her identity, Gerald still felt relieved when she removed the hood shading her face. Now her prominent cheekbones and sharp, distinguished eyes, both of which were marked features throughout her lineage, were truly visible. She was indeed the daughter of Valan Donagale.
"I must say, it brings me great joy to see you alive and well... my lady." He bowed his head slightly as he would while conversing with any other high lady of the court. "And I meant what I said. There are many who still revere your father's name." There were also just as many who despised it, but it was not worth mentioning. Kassandra probably had enough knowledge in that area anyway. He sighed audibly at the mention of the Prince. "Avram has been under a lot of pressure. Fixing the numerous messes his father has left is taking its tole on him. The lad's been forced to do far more than he ever should have, especially for one so young." He smiled suddenly and glanced at her. "I think a familiar face from the past will help him to remember better days."
Gerald reached a hand over and grasped her shoulder gently, seeing that she was still suffering from immense grief. "I know you have been through a lot. You have seen things that a young lady should never have to see. You may not remember it, being so young at the time, but your father and I were good friends. I served as his Chief Commander in the Prime Order until I was made Captain of the Guard here in Sarvayl." He looked upon her in an almost fatherly way. "I know he is gone, but you can trust that I will protect you with every ounce of my being. I would never let that man's legacy die while I can help it."
He stood up and offered her a hand. "I leave the decision up to you. If you wish to remain hidden and live in secrecy, then I shall take that secret to the grave. If you wish to reclaim your family's lost honor, I will do everything in my power to help you."
Kassandra paused to wipe a hand across her eyes. It had been forever, it seemed, since she had an ally, someone who she felt could be trusted. While she didn't have clear memories of her father's friendship with this man, she did recall dinners in fine dress, and was vaguely familiar with his face. Though, there were more lines in it than there had been.
"Thank you, ser. For just being happy to see me. That alone hasn't happened in too long." She took his hand after a moment. "I have nothing left, you understand. I had to sell what little I had just to make it back here. There's nothing but my name that marks my status, so... where exactly would I begin?" She laughed weakly. "I don't even have my own place to live. I've been renting a room from an innkeeper and doing laundry in exchange for meals." Shaking her head, she pushed back a loosened lock of frost white hair back into her bun.
"Any ideas, ser Gerald? I don't think the prince would believe me on sight." That would be foolish. People expected a lady to look like a lady. Kassandra had lost a lot of her softness on the road. Her hands were rough now, her arms and legs more muscled than they'd ever been in her life. Who would take this ruffian as a woman of status? "Even if he did, it could weaken his status among the kingdom. Make him seem weak or gullible. The last thing I want to do is hurt his position."
Helping Kassandra to her feet, Gerald smiled warmly at her words. "I think you underestimate the power a name holds, my lady. True, you have not titles or lands to your claim. But there are many smallfolk who were once devoutly loyal to your father. Regardless of where they are now, I would bet that more than a few of them would be thrilled to learn of your survival. And I'm certain there will be one or two lords who would be willing to marry their sons off to such a legendary name." Gerald hastily opened the door to the small chamber and stuck his head out. The two guards that flanked him earlier still stood just outside. "Fetch Yaria for me," he muttered to them before shutting the door behind him.
"You're correct, you certainly don't look like a lady of the court, not in those tattered clothes anyway. Yaria is our head maid here. She will see that you are taken care of properly, so no need to fret about that."
Gerald frowned momentarily, thinking about what the return of a Donagale could mean for the kingdom. "The crown is already seen as weak. It's been viewed in this terrible light ever since the war in the north broke out. It was made even worse when his majesty was no longer capable of ruling. Some claim that he first began his downward spiral only weeks after he dismissed Lord Valan. I thought it might be a coincidence..." he glanced up to meet her eyes, "... but now I'm not so certain."
He stepped closer to her, though made sure he was not in an intimidating stance. "No one has been able to ignore the closeness of those two events, even those who believe it folly. Seeing you stand up before everyone could signify a return to the days of prosperity, at least in the minds of the common folk. It would not weaken Avram's rule, but strengthen it. And there is an even greater reason..." He took another step forward and subconsciously lowered his voice. "You could be the key we need to resolving the conflicts in the north."
A knock came at the door. Gerald never quite understood how Yaria was capable of moving about the palace so quickly. "One day I will find proof that there is more than one of her," he muttered to himself. The middle-aged woman did not wait for room's inhabitants to open the door, for she bustled in and took a long, wordless look at Kassandra before clicking her tongue and eyeing Gerald. "She's a mess. Nothing I can't fix but this will take a great amount of time from my schedule."
Gerald smiled graciously to the woman. "I would not have asked for you personally if this was a trivial matter." The plump woman clicked her tongue again and turned her head back to the young woman in front of her. "What's your name, miss?"
Kassandra listened in silence. While she knew Ser Gerald's idea of her being married off was practical, she didn't think she was quite ready for that. Not that she was unwilling to marry. It was an expectation she was prepared to fufill, but... not now. She'd just lost her family; she had no desire to be inserted into a new one. Honestly, she'd be too afraid of losing them too. Caring for anyone in any sort of way seemed a terrifying concept.
She couldn't think about it.
When the maid entered and gave her plain dress a calculated, and then unimpressed look, Kassandra blushed faintly. She inclined her head when the woman said she'd take out of her personal time to help. "I thank you, miss Yaria." She smiled a bit, unsure of how much truth to tell. In the end, she told half.
"I am Lady Kassandra. I've been away from home far too long. To be honest, I don't know what they're wearing in the kingdom these days." She gestured to her dress. "I appreciate all help and advice you can give me."
The answer Kassandra gave caused Yaria to pause. She lifted her eyebrows at the name and looked to Gerald as if asking for confirmation. The knight nodded but said nothing. Turning back to Kassandra, the maid clicked her tongue as if this was just more news that would add to her work. "Come along then. It's well past midday and Lady Estel is likely to arrive with her new son just after dusk."
Gerald remembered Estel fondly. She was Avram's elder sister by a year and married Lord Belron Wyat almost two years ago. The court seemed less lively and far less witty without her around. Upon hearing the news that Avram would be married soon she immediately sent a message to Sarvayl informing them that she would arrive as soon as she could in order to assist with the preparations. It would be a pleasure to have her brightness around the palace once more. Dullness seemed all too common a theme these days.
After Yaria led Kassandra away, Gerald returned to court to resume his place. His second in command, Ser Baron Harwit, had taken over for the time being and nodded to him when he saw his captain reenter the proceedings.
"These intrusive caravans are ruining my business, your grace. How can I make any profits when so much competition has infiltrated the city in a matter of weeks?"
This was the fifth merchant Avram had heard this complaint from today. He had lost count of how many had come to him in the past week with the same argument. More and more men and women looking to make extensive profits seemed to bustling in like packs of wolves ever since his engagement was announced. Truth be told he was not certain what he thought of this marriage himself. Lyanna Eburhart was said to be among the most beautiful women in the kingdom. It was also whispered that she could not utter two words to a stranger without going pale and suddenly silent. That would take some getting used to.
Avram's mind snapped back to the complaint before him. He had already set a standard for the number of merchant caravans that would be let in and out of the city every day. Apparently that would not be enough to appease Sarvayl's businessmen. "I can hardly stop people from entering and leaving the city, outside of a major crisis of course. I can lift the taxes placed on domestic goods for the time being, as I have told every merchant to come in before you today."
The middle-aged merchant pondered that for a moment then finally bowed respectfully. "Thank you, my lord. I expect that will work well for us." Avram nodded and dismissed him with a wave of his hand. He noted Ser Gerald return to his spot near Olyver, the Steward mumbling to himself as he scratched down more notes.
News travelled quickly in the uneventful palace. A passing maid saw Kassandra being led down the hall by Yaria. She told the laundry matron, who in turn mentioned it to the head cook in the kitchen. By the time lunch was ready, half the castle knew that a new woman had shown up. Young, probably unmarried, and to some older servants, familiar. The news trickled from mouth to ear, until even the pages doing their drills knew it.
“Did you hear? There's some new noble lady in the castle.” A young page, dark skinned and with a mop of black hair, was swinging at his partner in a long-practiced rhythm. The training blade was made of the right materials, but dull and inelegant.
“Yeah, everyone's talking about it.” The taller, paler, copper-haired page was shielding the blows with a round, well-worn targe made for novices. He too, didn't seem to have to concentrate hard. The two had been through this ecercise so many times that it didn't require actual thought anymore; they were free to talk. “They say she's a Donogale, that she's the only one left.”
The smaller page's face screwed up in confusion. “Donogale? Am I supposed to know that name?”
“Nah, I forget your family isn't palace folk. Um. The Donogales are nobles, the head of the family was the king's right hand man. But one day the king exiled him and his whole family. No one really knows why. But they got sent to the north, and... well, the war hit there recently, and...” He shrugged openly- and brought his shield back just in time. “She's all there is now.”
“Oh. Her whole family.” The small boy's hand started to tremble faintly, and his next strike went wide. “...she must hurt.”
“Yeah. You alright, James?” Setting his shield down, the taller male approached his fellow trainee and friend. He knew his friend had lost his own family, and while he was good at not letting it show, some days were better than others. “I didn't mean to mess you up.”
“S'ok.” James had his gaze on the ground, fighting off a wave of memory. The worst part of it was that it had happened so long ago, but some things still felt too new, too real. “I'll deal.” He forced a smile, and darted two quick rabbit punches at the older boy's stomach. His red-haired friend made a show of being punched, falling back with pure theatrics. “Haha! Hey, if you flunk out of training, you could always be a player, Kalen!”
Kalen picked up his sword, watching James take his own shield. “If I flunk out of training, my father will beat my ass bald with the flat of his sword. He wants a second Sir Keegan, or nothing else.”
The exercise began again.
Kassy would never take a hot bath for granted ever again. The first order of business had been a steaming scrub, with oils and perfumes. It was bliss. It felt good to be clean, and soon, pretty again. She knew, in the back of her mind, that these things were petty and not necessary, but she wouldn't lie to herself and say that she'd eagerly choose the threadbare existance from the last few months over being a lady. While it was good to know she could survive without luxury, she wasn't so humble as to be able to turn it down. She scrubbed twice over, humming melodically all the while. The tune was on the edges of her memory, probably recalled by being in a place from her childhood. She'd always loved to sing, even as a girl. Her voice had matured with the rest of her, and when she opened her mouth, the wordless harmony rang out rich and clear.
"If it's not too much to ask, your grace, what exactly do you plan to do about this?" It was a difficult questions to answer, especially when it was being asked by two of his own advisors. Both Captain Gerald and Stewards Oliver stared at Avram from across the table in the council chamber. He was grateful that Gerald waited until after court had ended to tell him the news. It was unlikely he could have stood listening to another merchant complain about trade caravans entering the city while he knew in the back of his mind that Kassandra Donogale was still alive... and inside the palace at that. What would his father say, assuming he still had his wits about him?
None of the other members of the council were not present yet, though they would have to be told as soon as they arrived. Council members were notorious for being late to meetings, especially unplanned ones. After that it would only be a matter of time before the entire capital was aware of Kassy's return. It would take little time after that for the rest of the kingdom to become aware of the fact that the crown was harboring the daughter of a man who was removed from his position by the king himself. Avram saw little point in attempting to stop the word from spreading so he came up with the only plan he could on a moment's notice.
"Send a rider to every major lord in the kingdom," he stated slowly, then added with emphasis, "including the ones still fighting in the north. Tell them that a Donogale lives, and she is an honored guest in Sarvayl."
Their reactions were about what he expected. Gerald remained seated but expressed a look of confusion mixed with shock. Oliver was out of his chair in a heartbeat and stumbling over his words faster than he could run, which was not very fast if Avram was being honest. "Have you lost your wits?" the Steward all but shouted. "Begging your pardon, my lord, but you would make the crown look a fool for taking in a former exile. Not only that but you would anger the northern lords even more! They might think you are attempting to put her on her father's throne."
"That's exactly what I am going to do," Avram said as calmly as he could, though not as much as he would have liked. "There has been absolutely no stability in that region since Lord Donogale was removed from power. The crown itself already looks a fool thanks to the mishaps of my father." He felt his stomach lurch saying such ill of his own blood, but it was true enough that he did not let it hinder his thoughts. "She may be our only chance at stabilizing the absolute hell her home has turned into."
Finally Ser Gerald spoke up, much more composed than either of them. "And what if she came to this city to end the royal family? It is quite possible she is seeking revenge on the family that made her lose her own." It was certainly a thought that had come to Avram already, but he had chosen to ignore until now. Surely Kassy would not hurt him. They were the closest of friends as children. But years of fleeing in the north and narrowly avoiding death could cause anyone to change. Did he dare trust her?