Somewhere Else Entirely -102-

Garia is completely devastated by the new visitor to the palace. Keren isn't exactly happy either. Unfortunately, she seems to be better qualified for the job of Consort to a King. Garia must swallow her pride and carry on dealing with the consequences of the conflict with Yod, but the new girl's story raises her curiosity.

Somewhere Else Entirely

by Penny Lane

102 - The candidate


Disclaimer: The original characters and plot of this story are the property of the author. No infringement of pre-existing copyright is intended. This story is copyright (c) 2011-2014 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.



Garia was inconsolable. She was clutched in Merizel's arms, her head upon the taller girl's chest, and she sobbed uncontrollably. From time to time Jenet mopped with a succession of cloths from her pouch.

"Milady," Jenet pleaded. "We must bathe, else we will be late for the banquet."

"Don't want no banquet," Garia sobbed. "Leave me alone!"

"We can't do that, can we?" Merizel said, holding her friend close. "But it would be nice to get these smelly clothes off - and that armor of yours is digging in my middle."

"Oh!" Garia softened her grip without pulling away completely. "Sorry." She sniffed. "We do smell a bit ripe, don't we?"

"That's better," Merizel said. "I prefer it when you're being practical. Come on, I'll help get your things off while Jenet gets the water going. A nice hot bath with lots of bubbles will help calm you down."

Garia looked up at her friend's face. "I suppose I am being a little dramatic, aren't I? After all, all that's happened is -" She looked as if she was about to start bawling again.

"Oh, no you don't. Look, all we have is one sentence we heard outside your door from someone we've never seen before. Even if she thinks she's right, do you imagine that Keren is going to just tamely agree? I heard what he said to you yesterday and that's good enough for me."

"As you say."

Garia reluctantly released Merizel and stood in her sitting room, her shoulders drooping and looking somewhat bedraggled. With a glance between them, Merizel and Jenet led her through into the bed chamber, where Jenet continued to the bathroom and Merizel began removing Garia's clothes.

"Lift your leg. Right, that's gotten that side off, now the other one." Merizel pulled a face as she held up Garia's breeches at arm's length. "Are you sure these are supposed to be a good idea? Look at the state of this -"

Garia gave her friend a wan smile. "I don't think you'd want to be riding Topik without them, would you?"

Merizel chuckled as she lowered the offending garment to the floor. "No, I guess you're right. Come on, your bra is next."

Jenet and Merizel lowered Garia into the hot water before undressing each other and then joining their liege lady. The water soon began improving Garia's spirits and the three set about the serious business of cleaning each other up. Once finished they dried themselves off, wrapped themselves in the palace's wonderfully soft and warm fluffy robes and headed for the dressing room.

"Thank you both," Garia said with feeling. "That bath has made all the difference. I guess - I mean, the suddenness of it all, just meeting that..."

"We understand, milady," Jenet responded. "To meet a stranger like that, to hear unpleasant news, who among us would not be upset? Here we are, milady."

"What should I wear?"

"If you're thinking about that girl, then I would suggest you change your mind," Merizel advised. "We haven't been formally introduced and nobody has yet told us officially that she exists. Tonight's banquet, if I may remind you, is to welcome the Prince and yourself back from your visit to Blackstone. Choose a gown with that in mind, I would suggest."

Garia scowled. "If I must." Her expression brightened as she examined the rails of gowns but then a frown appeared. "Did I really choose all these? I must have been crazy."

"Milady?"

Garia moved several gowns on the rails and examined them critically before sighing and letting her arms fall to her sides.

"When I first came to the palace, I knew nothing about any of this business - as you both know. I just got handed a bunch of gowns from the Palace Wardrobe, courtesy of that old dragon, uh, ptuvil. Then I began to figure out what I liked and what suited me and we changed a few things and that was that. Don't you remember, Merry? That was after you came, I recall." Garia put her hands on her hips and humphed. "Now I look at what's here and I wonder what I could have been thinking of, and do you know why? It's because we've been the length of Palarand and seen what other folks are wearing. I mean, look at these. Some are way too young and some are styles that probably go back to the Chivans." She turned to her maid. "Jenet, I think we'll need to review all of these, don't you agree? Now we have someone sensible in the Palace Wardrobe we can maybe look for some more suitable styles, or perhaps even get Rosilda to make me some new gowns."

Jenet eyed her mistress cautiously. "I believe there is substance in what you say, milady, but I doubt you will find anything new in the Palace Wardrobe. I fear that even with someone new in charge they are too bound by tradition." She added, "I noticed, milady, as we rode through the streets of the city, that many of the women onlookers wore gowns inspired by your own ideas."

"I saw them too," Merizel confirmed. "There were several women, I noticed, wearing some really interesting designs. I wonder which designer or seamstress made them? Perhaps we could find out, Garia."

"That's so," Garia agreed. "But we'll be too busy to go round the city."

"I don't think you need worry about that! Once everybody finds out you're back in the palace they'll be forming a line to see you! Before that happens, though, we have a banquet to attend. There must be one here that you find acceptable. What about this one? You once said it was your favorite."

Garia sighed. "Yes, you're right again. Jenet, I'll wear that one. Perhaps I'm just too sensitive at the moment."

"Just try and remember that downstairs, would you?" Merizel warned. "The wrong word could start a diplomatic incident and we're already at war with one country. We don't need any more complications."

They were nearly ready when a knock came at the door. Jenet went to answer it and came back with a familiar face.

"Tord!"

The armsman braced to attention and banged a fist against his chest.

"Welcome back, milady. I am relieved to see you are unharmed by your recent adventures."

"In body, at least, Tord." He nodded understanding. "You have been keeping yourself busy while we were away?"

Tord grinned. "Aye, milady, and busy is the word. We still serve Mistress Milsy and she has us doing all manner of work." He remembered why he was there and added, "Milady, we are here to escort you down to the Receiving Room. I can explain what has happened as we walk, if you so wish."

"Please. Just give us a moment to finish ourselves off and we'll be ready."

Waiting in the corridor were four guardsmen who formed up as pairs in front of and behind the women. Tord walked beside Garia as they made their way through the palace.

"I notice all these men wear my colors, Tord. How did that happen?"

"It's... kind of complicated, milady." He grinned. "But then, since you came to us much has been complicated, hasn't it? Well, when we arrived back at the palace Mistress Milsy still kept up the act as your double so we were needed to provide an escort for her. Straight away she fell in with Master Tarvan and it was apparent that she would be another like yourself, milady."

Garia looked at Tord with interest, but he waved a hand.

"Oh, I don't mean that she has all this knowledge from somewhere else entirely but she is certainly as smart as you and seems not to think as other girls her age might. To make my story short, milady, she began attending guild meetings and traveling to factories and we were forced to increase the number of men assigned to protect her. In fact, milady, I am now accounted File Leader and I have twelve men at my disposal. Half are recruits from this year's intake and I believe Captain Merek intended gifting all to you on your return here. Uh, don't tell him I said that, milady."

"As you wish! That's interesting. Look, we'll have to talk this out tomorrow, we have no more time tonight. Have you spoken to Feteran yet?"

"Briefly, milady." Tord looked frustrated. "I should have been at your side, milady. I understand the reasons why I was not, but..."

"Then you might have ended up among the dead, File Leader. Think of that. It sounds like you have done an excellent job here instead, for which I can only thank you."

"As you say, milady. Here we are."

The party reached the double doors which led into the Receiving Room. Garia stopped.

"One final thing, Tord. Where is Milsy, and what happened to Bursila, do you know?"

"Bursila still serves Mistress Milsy as maid, milady. Both are attending the inaugural firing of the new coke works in the city tonight and are not expected to return until late. Six of my men - your men, I mean - attend Mistress Milsy and her party, milady." Tord frowned. "I think I must needs find out exactly whose men we are now, milady."

"Carry on as before," Garia instructed as they passed through the doorway, "until you find out different."

"As you command, My Lady."

The Receiving Room had been set out in the usual fashion with three long tables with chairs both sides. A number of people stood around the walls, most deep in conversation. All heads looked up as Kendar banged his staff and announced Garia and Merizel. Terys immediately headed for Garia, towing the tall blonde girl.

"There you are, my dear! You look refreshed, is it not so? Garia, may I introduce Princess Eriana, daughter of King Embrikt of Einnland. She has come to stay in the palace for a while. Eriana, this is Garia, Baroness Blackstone, about whom you have heard much since you arrived. Her friend is Lady Merizel, daughter of Baron Kamodar of South Reach who serves Garia as her secretary."

"We've met," Garia said, in such a flat tone that Terys blinked and then changed what she had been about to say.

"Garia, dear, it seems to me you are still affected by your long journey and by yesterday's battle. Shall you come and sit down?"

"Battle?" Eriana said, startled. Her accent was very pronounced. "You were with the Prince, then?"

"I was," Garia admitted. "We were returning from my lands in the north."

"I thought those little swords on your back mere ornaments. They cannot have been of much use, can they?"

"Lady," a voice said, and they all turned. Keren had arrived without anyone noticing. He continued, "Garia stood in the line of battle beside myself and I witnessed her kill at least four of the enemy. Those swords are no toys, I can assure you."

Eriana looked surprised. "I had not thought one so small - forgive me, Baroness - could fight as a warrior does. It is not so in my homeland. Even I could barely lift the swords our faithful retainers wield."

"She does not even need the swords," Keren continued. "In the same battle, having been disarmed, she killed a man with a single kick. Do not make the mistake of confusing size and ability."

"Keren," Terys took control. "If you would. May I present to you Princess Eriana, daughter of King Embrikt of Einnland, who is presently visiting us. Eriana, this is my son and Palarand's heir Prince Keren."

Keren frowned. "Einnland? I do not know where that is. I have heard father speak of it, but I do not think we have any map describing your country." Then his eyes widened as her title sunk in. "Princess Eriana?" His eyes flicked to those of Garia but his expression was carefully smooth. He gave Eriana a blatantly false smile. "I hope you enjoy your stay here, Your Highness."

Robanar appeared at that moment with a beaming face.

"Ah! My dear," he said to Terys, "I see you have introduced our recent guest to Keren and Garia." He turned to Keren. "Her journey here was long and arduous and it is lucky she survived at all." He realized what he had just said. "Ahem! What I meant was that the journey was long and difficult, not that she had faced enemies along the way. I realize that you two have suffered a different burden on your journey home."

Garia's mood was peculiar at the moment. She had taken the Queen's warning to heart but still feared for the future. This girl was real, she was here, and although nobody had mentioned marriage - officially - there could be no other reason for her presence in the palace. Still, if she thought she would just saunter in and take over she was going to get a shock, she thought. What she needed was more information, and she wasn't going to get it by being adversarial. At least not right away. This was one battle that could not be won with swords or fancy throws on a mat.

"We have a few moments to wait before we may sit down," Robanar was saying. "There are one or two more who have yet to arrive."

"Your Highness," Keren said to Eriana, "I have heard of Einnland but know nothing of it. As I said, I do not think there are any maps in the palace that describe it."

Terys intervened. "Keren, it would be better to leave such matters until later, I think. Since Eriana has a story to tell, she may as well do so when we have retired from the banquet and made ourselves comfortable in the parlor."

"As you wish, mother."

Kendar banged his staff. "Captain Merek of the Guard, Commander Feteran of Blackstone, Master Jaxen and Mistress Senidet!"

Merek and Feteran headed straight for the Royal couple while Garia could see Jaxen taking an awestruck Senidet to the far side of the tables. Merek reached the small group, saluted and came straight to the point.

"Sire, we have a minor crisis. As you are aware, the whole of His Highness and Milady's entourage entered the palace gates and proceeded to the rear for disposition as normal. These included Master Tanon's wagons and men, which was reasonable, since all the baggage carried by the wagons belongs to His Highness, the Baroness or that of their men. Some of the men belonging to Master Tanon are also injured and, all the city's healers being called to the palace, we felt it would be the better place to tend them all."

Robanar waved a hand. "I see no problem there, Merek." He raised an eyebrow.

Merek took a deep breath. "Sire, one of Tanon's men who was with the Baroness's escort from start to finish is the former palace guardsman D'Janik. If you recall, he was forbidden entrance to the palace or its grounds on pain of death."

Robanar's other eyebrow crept up. "I see. What action have you taken, Captain?"

Merek looked embarrassed. "None at present, Sire. Officially, no-one has recognized that wagon guard as anyone of note."

Keren said, "Father, he has served Garia and myself faithfully through all our travels. In fact, he helped to defeat the ambush when we arrived at Blackstone. I would account him an honorable man despite the original incident."

The King considered. "Then we shall consider him not officially present, Captain." He rolled his eyes. "I thought wars were difficult enough to manage. Let the matter be until we have had time to consider the entire circumstances." He turned to Keren and Garia. "Which shall include you two recounting your experiences traveling in our Kingdom. Though I have trusted both of you to behave as your status requires, I am interested in what you have seen and found. Come, we are all here now. Let us be seated and begin the meal."

Garia had the seat facing Robanar, with Keren to her right for this meal. It seemed strange facing the royal couple. The reason for this was, of course, that with Princess Eriana being the honored guest, she had the seat to Robanar's right. Merek sat to Garia's left while Merizel was to Keren's right and beyond her, Feteran.

The meal was not as complex as some she had attended but that was to be expected. This was not a state occasion but there were too many for the family dining room. There were fish, avian and meat dishes followed by fruit and cheese. Garia noted that Eriana seemed to prefer drinking beer, which caused a few raised eyebrows among those who had not seen her eat before. The Princess was noticeably clumsy using her fork as well, preferring to cut her meat using two knives instead.

"In answer to your question," Terys said as they ate, "Einnland is a coastal country many marks beyond the Palumaks to the south. The region is difficult to travel to and I understand there is only local trade. The King has exchanged the usual greetings between rulers with King Embrikt but we know little more of them." Her gaze fixed that of Garia and Keren. "Leave your other questions until later, if you would. You have returned from battle, I know how that can affect the mind. Relax yourselves and enjoy your first meal at home for some months."

"Thank you, ma'am," Garia responded. "It is good to be back in the palace."

"You will already have noticed some changes, I expect, as you walked through the corridors."

"Yes, ma'am, I have. Is this all Milsys's doing, then?"

"As you say. Maker, that girl is sharp! Look at the end wall, over the entrance doors."

Garia craned her neck past the other diners and saw not one but two clock faces set in a wooden enclosure over the doorway. The right-hand clock had two hands arranged as Earth ones were, the dial having twelve divisions marked with the Garian numbers. The left hand dial, though...

"Two dials, ma'am?"

"You'll have to ask Parrel or Gerdas, my dear, but it seems that twenty-four is a better number to divide a day into than twenty is, for reasons I don't really understand. The left dial, as Parrel calls it, tells us the normal bells of the day but the right one shows hours and minutes since noon or midnight."

The left-hand dial looked like something out of the fifties, an early attempt at a modern clock display. At the top was a small window showing the Garian number '9' and below it, the same number in the local numbering system. Under that window was another which showed a yellow disc on a blue background that presumably indicated daytime. Below, on the lower half of the dial, was set a smaller dial with a single hand. This dial was marked in quarters and she thought this might show parts of a bell.

Robanar grunted. "Garia, when you told us about the times on your world you said you thought it was because it was easier to make the instruments that count time. Parrel has determined that you are right, and we have decided that the twenty-four system may be more suitable for our future. Until that time comes, we provide both measures of time until people become familiar with the new system."

Merek turned to her and added, "The clocks are all fed by copper wires from the Great Clock, milady. I do not know how they work, but it means that all in the palace can know the time by a mere glance, and be certain that it is correct."

Eriana remarked, "In my land we also divide the day into twenty-four, though I do not think anyone knows the reason why."

Garia looked at Terys, who shook her head.

So. There must have been someone in Einnland from Earth, then. That kinda makes sense. But the Queen doesn't want me discussing that in public, and I can understand why.

Merek said, "Milady, tell me of Captain Bleskin. How is it he came to Blackstone and how does he now fare?"

Garia replied, "He came because he heard of the problems we had when we first went there, Captain. He knows or knew several in the town which helped make his decision for him. Once he'd been there awhile he sort of became so useful we had to make use of his long experience and when we left he was the obvious person to become my Steward." She smiled. "Of course, since we left he's been up to his eyeballs in the new developments there. I expect when we go back next spring the town will look completely different."

Robanar asked, "How so, Garia? I thought you merely intended opening some coal mines."

Garia chuckled. "That's what I thought too, Sire, but then there's all those unintended consequences. When we arrived Blackstone was a single street that went at an angle up the side of a hill. Once we started sending coal wagons up and down Main Street it overwhelmed the town so we had to plan side roads to manage the traffic. Then there's all the extra accommodation required for all the miners and their supporting trades. Then they'll need feeding, stables for frayen, shoemakers, seamstresses, taverns and inns and so on. Those people will need more accommodation and so it all mounts up. What was once a small town of at most two thousand or so is probably already more than three, though some of those may go once the construction eases."

"I see. And this will happen to all our towns?"

"We've already discussed this, Sire. You know what is going to happen. It is already happening to Teldor."

Eriana regarded Garia with some confusion. Since her arrival there had been nothing but talk of Garia's exploits and she had imagined the Baroness to be much older. Now she faced a girl younger than herself who was calmly discussing opening mines and building roads in towns, a girl who was also familiar with the peculiar timepieces these people used.

A thought came. Perhaps Garia and Milsy were sisters? There was a resemblance, if not a close one, and Milsy was so strange she barely understood half the words the girl said. What has she gotten herself into? Had she made a big mistake in seeking to become the next Queen of Palarand?

After some nervous small talk the meal ended and everybody stood at the sides as the tables were cleared away. Before they could take their rearranged seats Robanar held up a hand for silence.

"Friends! We will not hold the usual after-dinner gathering since I know those of you who have just returned from the north are tired, and I see that some of you are injured. It was only yesterday that my son and daughter fought alongside our loyal men-at-arms to defend themselves against a foreign invader. Not all who fought have returned to us, but I am pleased to see that some of those who have are with us in this hall tonight.

"Because this was an invasion, I must needs consult those who were present of the danger to Palarand. I apologize for leaving the gathering so soon, but those of you who remain may enjoy the evening as usual."

There was a murmuring among the crowd as Robanar turned and pointed a finger.

"Garia, Keren. Merek, Feteran. The Queen, of course. Eriana, you may join us if you so desire."

Eriana considered the King's offer. This could be just a boring account of a battle, but it would give her a chance to observe the Prince in a less formal atmosphere. She could also observe the Baroness, who still caused her much concern...

"If you have no objection, Sire, I will."

Garia said, "Sire, we'll need Jaxen as well."

"Quite so, Garia. Who is that young girl he is with?"

"I have not had the chance to introduce her, Sire. She is Senidet, daughter of Brydas, Blackstone's smith."

"Ah. Another one of your amazing women, I take it?"

Garia smiled. "Sire, if you would let us, we could all be amazing. Yes, she intends to seek admittance to the Guild as my apprentice." Garia considered. "I don't think she would be of help tonight, Sire, but I don't want her left down here on her own. If you would excuse me a moment?"

Robanar nodded and Garia turned to Merizel.

"Merry, go and keep an eye on Senidet this evening, would you? She has no clue about the palace or those who live in it and she'll need a friendly face for a while."

"Of course, Garia."

Then, as Merizel walked across to join Senidet, Garia headed to the entrance doors.

"Tord, could you make sure Mistress Senidet," Garia pointed, "gets back to her chamber, please? Lady Merizel's going to stay with her this evening but we don't know which chamber she's been given. I'm taking Jaxen with me to the King's parlor."

"As you command, milady."

Garia smiled. "Another thing. There is a young man-at-arms from Blackstone called Tedenis who came back with us. He and Senidet have come to an arrangement."

Tord grinned. "I'll keep that in mind, milady. Uhm, who leads the Blackstone armsmen after Feteran, milady? Should there be any dispute, I mean."

"That would be Brazan, Tord." Garia considered. "You're right, it is confusing, isn't it? We'll have to have a muster of Blackstone men and sort all this out."

"As you say, milady."

Robanar led the way to the parlor and everybody found comfortable chairs. Eriana settled herself and studied the newcomers. Prince Keren was everything she wished for in a prospective husband. Just a little taller than herself, he had a build which showed that he spent some time in active pursuits. When he had smiled at table, that had really triggered something inside her... unfortunately, his smile had been for Garia. She had been told that he was just sixteen years old, so he was three years younger than herself, but that didn't particularly concern her.

Now Garia was an unknown quantity. The King had called her "daughter" but she was not a Princess, only a Baroness. Why? Rumor had it she came from a distant country the same as she did herself, so what exactly was the relationship? She had watched the Prince and the Baroness interact and there was an obvious familiarity, but two people who had fought side-by-side - and presumably trained together - would doubtless be more aware of each other's thoughts and actions. Was there more than that? Only time would tell.

The girl was small - she could look right over Garia's head without trying. Yet she had fought in battle? And from the frustrating conversations she had held with Milsy - who might be Garia's sister, now she thought about it - it seemed that Garia was responsible in some way for the many building projects now taking place throughout the city. How did she have so much power? Did she pose a threat to her own plans?

"Feteran. Report."

Garia was surprised but then realized that the King had called on the senior military man present at the battle. She and Keren could add their own experiences but Feteran would give an overview of the fight which would not leave much out.

"Sire. We left South Slip yesterday morning -"

Feteran went through the attack, as seen from his own viewpoint, and briefly described much of what had happened before Robanar interrupted.

"A moment, Commander. What numbers were you and the enemy?"

"Sire, we numbered forty-nine. Of that number six were our women, thirteen were Master Tanon's men including Jaxen here, nineteen were ourselves, the Prince's men and Milady's men and eleven were a file of Dekarran men and their leader. Of the enemy we have difficulty making the numbers but we estimate that between one hundred five and one hundred ten were in their party."

Robanar frowned. "Did some then escape?"

Feteran shrugged. "That may be so, Sire, but there were a number of... mangled bodies, such that we could not figure the whole person. There were two circumstances, Sire, during the battle. Firstly, through the excellent archery of Stott and his apprentice Briswin one of the enemy gun teams was killed before the weapon was fired and the Prince suggested turning it on their own men. We did so and the blast killed four of the enemy and two frayen, injuring two others so badly they had to be released from their agony. Those men who were killed were torn apart by the shot, Sire, and it was impossible to match body parts together afterward.

"Much later in the battle, a further wave approached and we thought our cause was ended but one of the enemy gun teams thought to shoot a dranakh who stood in their way. Sire, I have never witnessed such violence! The dranakh all went mad, trampling all the enemy who approached, chasing them into ditches and over the fields to catch them. There was no thought of quarter. Those of the enemy who remained at battle with ourselves immediately surrendered to save themselves from the raging beasts."

Eriana blurted out, "They shot a dranakh? How is this possible? I thought their hides too tough for arrows."

Feteran gave her a look of pity. "Highness, this was no arrow. The weapon I speak of is much more deadly than that, though not as accurate. It does not have to be."

Robanar asked, "How came the dranakh to be involved? Surely they were harnessed to the wagons?"

Keren replied, "Father, we thought it necessary to release them to prevent them being used as cover. It was as well we did, since they took both ditches and prevented the enemy advancing along the slopes." He glanced at Garia, then continued, "They are loyal beasts, father, and Jaxen will tell you that they will defend a caravan at need."

"It is true, Sire," Jaxen confirmed, "and you know well that any dranakh will defend its owner to the death."

Eriana said, "We know of dranakh, of course, but there are none in Einnland. I did not see any until I came to the shores of Plif. I am not surprised to learn that such a large beast can become violent."

Keren said, "Eriana, any animal including man can become violent when those it loves and respects are threatened. Dranakh are normally placid though intelligent beasts who often know their owner's intent before he does himself. Most people know their nature and will avoid any reason to give them offense, but when there is need they can prove a mighty shield. Why, when we journeyed to Blackstone Vale four of our dranakh followed us and drove away a ptuvil that sought to devour us."

"A ptuvil? I do not know this word."

"Hmm. How to explain? You know that avians may come in all sizes?" Eriana nodded. "Imagine a huge, scaled avian that measures ten strides from jaw to tail tip and you have some idea of what I describe."

The Princess frowned. The conversation had begun to take on a surreal note, and she did not know how to respond.

"Highness -" Eriana smiled. "Keren, such creatures are only known in myth, surely? What you describe is similar to a creature from a time before we came to this world that the singers called a drakan. I cannot believe an avian so large really exists."

Robanar demurred. "Eriana, believe it. Last summer, during the Harvest Festival celebrations a ptuvil flew over the city, pursuing some grakh. All who attended saw it and were fearful of it."

Garia put in, "You called it a drakan? Where I came from the creatures are also just a myth but we called them dragons."

Eriana's eyes lit up. "It is true, then? You really are from another world, perhaps that which my ancestors came from."

Robanar grunted. "We discuss the battle, ladies. I see there is much for you two to talk about but perhaps later. Feteran, continue."

Feteran finished his report, which was followed by Keren, Garia and Jaxen briefly telling their own stories. Robanar perked up when he heard Garia's personal duel with Fikt.

"So! You have someone with whom we may connect this whole miserable business back to Yod, then? I presume you brought his body back?"

"We did, Sire," Garia confirmed. "We knew you'd want to see if anyone recognized him." She paused, thinking about letting information out in front of Eriana, but decided to continue. "Sire, we have also, regrettably, brought back the body of the Earth boy who Yod had under their control. His death was an accident, I have to inform you. He appeared to be just another enemy running away at the end of the battle."

Robanar leaned forward, intent on Garia's words. "Did he say anything?"

"Very little, Sire. Just his name and the country he came from. I would like to give him an honorable funeral, Sire. Although he worked for those of Yod, it is apparent that he did so under duress and our survival is in part due to his efforts."

"How so?"

"The guns, Sire. He made sure that the information he gave Yod was incomplete and the guns would eventually fail. There may be more but we can't know that until we sort out Yod."

Robanar nodded. "As you say. If you are all agreed, he shall have a pyre alongside those of our men who did not survive. Jaxen, I hear you have some losses also."

"Aye, Sire, I lost two good men, and may lose another if the healers are too late."

"Your men may join our own on the pyre tomorrow. They have died in the service of Palarand and it is right that their sacrifice should be recognized."

"You are gracious, Sire. I will make sure that their families, if they have any, are told."

Merek asked, "Milady, I do not understand why this other Earth person was brought to the battle. What did Yod hope to gain by it?"

"They wanted me," Garia said shortly. "They were prepared to do anything to get me, and if that meant bringing Yves Perriard along to a battle they would. I think they wanted to use him as a kind of hostage, to force me to go with them quietly or else they'd do something to him."

"And would you have done so?" Robanar asked softly.

"Probably, Sire, if the situation had arisen," she replied candidly. "Yod knew I wouldn't pass up the chance to speak to another known Earth... person. I would have had to give it serious thought."

She had been about to say transferee but decided to keep that information to her inner circle.

Robanar grunted. "As you say. I could not fault you, had you been faced with such a choice. So, Yod's helper is no more, then? Does this mean they will crawl back in their mud hole and let us be?"

"I don't think so, father," Keren said. "Yod has firearms now, remember, and they'll think they can conquer the rest of the Valley with that advantage. They have moved by winter, too, which is unusual for Valley disputes. Perhaps they think to find us all unprepared."

"You have brought back the weapons with you?"

That brought a smile from four people.

"Aye, father. We have the original two from the Blackstone Vale battle and ten from yesterday. Three are bent from the weight of a dranakh's foot and two were soaked in the ditches but we have enough to experiment with. We captured a lot of ammunition as well."

"Sire," Eriana asked, "what are these guns?"

Robanar eyed Eriana, thinking before explaining, "A terrible weapon, my dear, which is far worse than anything we in the Valley states could imagine. Garia tells us that wars in her own world use these weapons exclusively, since they are so much more effective than those we know here. We do not presently use such weapons here in Palarand, since we deem them too dangerous to all. However, I suspect that policy is about to change, since another state has chosen to reveal them to Anmar."

"Oh. Sire, is this something which should concern my own people?"

"In time, my dear, it will be necessary to inform all in Alaesia of the existence of such weapons. For now, our concerns are more immediate, to prevent Yod taking advantage."

"Thank you, Sire."

As Jaxen told his version of events Garia studied Eriana. She saw a tall girl, perhaps just shorter than Keren, with long blonde hair presently tied in a thick single plait which came over her left shoulder. There was a distinctly Scandinavian cast to her features. Her build looked athletic, as she had thought earlier, but Garia could now see how broad the girl's shoulders were. That kind of development usually meant participation in one of two sports, tennis or swimming. Tennis was out for obvious reasons so she thought the Princess had some familiarity with water sports.

Garia herself couldn't swim, of course. In the middle of the North American continent there seemed little reason to bother with something that had such limited practical use. There were always people who got into difficulties in rivers and lakes, but that could happen to anyone, anywhere. Riding had seemed a more useful pastime to Gary.

Eriana wore an evening gown that had obviously come from the Palace Wardrobe since Garia recognized it. She wondered at that, since the Princess must have come with her own baggage train on such an expedition. Perhaps there were reasons why Eriana couldn't wear her own clothes? There were customs in Palarand, after all, which frowned on the exposure of knees and shoulders. Whatever, Garia decided she needed to find out more.

I need more information! I'm as much in the dark about what's going on as I was when I first arrived here. I'm tired but I think I could last out the evening if I can persuade Eriana to tell us her story.

"We'll release you and your men," Robanar was saying to Jaxen, "those who are fit, that is, tomorrow morning. You well know that we shall repay Master Tanon for any damage or loss to men, wagons, frayen and dranakh. We shall gift you a dranakh from those in the Royal Stables to replace the one killed in the battle."

Jaxen inclined his head. "You are most gracious, Sire."

Garia saw her chance. "Jaxen, you've obviously traveled a great deal. Do you know anything about Einnland?"

"Aye, milady, I do, though I have never been there. It is on the east coast at the furthest extremity of the Palumaks, and it is very difficult to get to, from what I have been told. To the north there are stupendous mountains, to the east the open sea, to the south desolation, to the west a band of marshland. Her Highness can doubtless tell you what her people do, but from a trader's point of view there is little reason for any one else to go there. Highness, I'm sorry," Jaxen nodded a apology to Eriana, "that is the truth. There is little in your lands that any deem worthy of trading and trade is what makes connections with other countries, other lands."

Robanar said, "I have exchanged letters with Embrikt, as I mentioned earlier, but I know little of his lands. Eriana, perhaps you could tell us a little of yourself and your people."

Terys objected. "Dear, our children are tired, they have traveled all day and fought a battle but yesterday. Should they not retire, and hear this story another time?"

Keren came to Garia's rescue. "Father, mother, I would like to hear this tale now and I think Garia would as well. We are not so tired. Eriana?"

"If His Majesty consents." Robanar gestured assent. Eriana smiled thanks and began. "My people are small in number and, as Jaxen has told, isolated from the rest of Alaesia by natural obstacles. There is some small trade, actually, but only for things my people need, like metal and some of the finer fabrics. We gain most of what we require from the sea, though there is enough good land to plant a few crops."

Eriana paused, considering her words, then continued. "My father learned that there was a land to the north where the heir to the throne required a consort, those candidates who had already presented themselves not being considered satisfactory. He sent a letter to His Majesty but there was no reply. This is not unusual," she explained, "since we are so remote. It is very difficult for any mail to reach us or be sent by us to other parts of Alaesia.

"In any event he decided to send an embassy with myself, presenting me as a candidate for Prince Keren. I must be truthful to Your Majesties, I am considered old in Einnland to be without a husband, but my status makes it difficult for me to be matched in our own lands. That is why my father determined to send me north to try my chances here in Palarand."

Garia detected an odd inflection when Eriana mentioned her father, but with the strong accent it was not possible to decide what it meant. The Valley tongue could hardly have been the poor girl's first language, after all.

"Four ships set out," Eriana continued, "and we traveled north in company round the great mass that is the Palumaks. These waters are feared by our mariners since there can be fierce storms, particularly at this time of year."

"Aye," Keren agreed, nodding. "The storms move north at this season and will soon beset us here in the Valley. Your Pardon, Eriana. Please continue."

"Thank you, Highness. A particularly bad storm separated our ships, two and two. The other two were left behind and I do not know what became of them. That coast is treacherous, Sire, since it is a lee shore, yet our ships are reluctant to steer too far away from land else they be entirely lost at sea. So two continued north, with our brave crews fighting to repair damage to our ships, through several more storms, before one came that was worst of all."

Eriana's voice dropped. "We watched as our companion ship was wrecked and sunk in that storm. We could do nothing to help those unfortunates, indeed, our own ship was like to meet the same fate. We lost our mast, and canvas, and boards were sprung before we could make our way into calmer waters. Then we must needs row for our lives into the mouth of the great river that flows through the Valley. I myself must needs take an oar, the urgency was so great. We came to a small fishing port in eastern Plif, beaching the ship before it could sink. The kind people took us in and, when we were revived, sent us on to Simbek, from where the ruler provided carriages to bring us to Palarand."

Rowing! Garia thought. I never considered that she might row. If you live by the sea, rowing seems reasonable. And yet...

"Where is your ship now?" Keren asked.

"Still in that same port," Eriana answered. "My men must needs make repairs before the ship can sail again. It may not be ready for sea again until Spring returns. Only enough have accompanied me here to serve me and to provide an escort."

So you're here, and it's definitely to snag Keren.

Unfortunately for me, my first impressions are that she would probably make a good match. She doesn't appear to be an airhead although only time will tell if she has enough brains to be Queen during an Industrial Revolution. She's tall, athletic and not afraid of manning the oars when absolutely necessary. Damn!

I'm still curious, though...

"An arduous journey, Eriana," Robanar agreed. "We are grateful that you have not perished along the way, our court would be the poorer for it." He looked at the other listeners. "We have learned much tonight but I think it is time you young folk retired, you have had a long day. Perhaps a good rest will bring forth more questions you may wish to ask Eriana."

"As you command, Sire."

Everybody stood and paid their respects to King and Queen before beginning to disperse throughout the palace. Terys had a word for Garia.

"My dear, stay a moment."

Once the room was clear, so that only Robanar, Terys and Garia remained, Terys said, "My dear, this may have come as a surprise to you, to find her here at the palace. We have entertained many who sought to be Keren's consort and doubtless there will be others should Eriana be found unsuitable. You should understand that Keren must needs give his attention to this girl while she visits us which means that he will be found less often in the training halls. Do you understand?"

Garia's heart sank. It seemed that whatever affection she and Keren shared - which most certainly would have come through in their letters home - had left the royal couple unmoved. She nodded unhappily.

"I understand, ma'am. I will try not to be difficult."

Terys's sharp glance showed that the message had been passed. She gestured at the door.

"Now, my dear, you should be off to your suite. You should know that Eriana has been given the chambers next to yours, those which Malann used to have."

Garia curtseyed. "I understand. Thank you, ma'am. Good night."

Garia led Jenet through the corridors back to their rooms, two of her armsmen following at a discreet distance. This late in the evening the lighting had been reduced and the route was gloomy, which fitted in with her mood. She hadn't gotten far before she bumped into another party, escorted by more armsmen bearing her colors.

"Milsy!"

"My Lady."

Milsy made an elaborate curtsey and the two girls examined each other. Milsy saw a young woman, one who had been seasoned by experience since their paths had last crossed. Garia saw a young woman, confident, comfortable in her surroundings, someone who was wearing -

"I want an outfit like that," Garia breathed.

Milsy grinned. "Rosilda owes me two soos," she said. "I bet her you would say that when you saw me wearing it. Don't worry!" She waved a hand. "The patterns are ready, Rosilda didn't want to make the garments up until you returned, in case any of your measurements had changed since you left the palace."

Milsy was wearing... an interesting outfit, one that smelled of smoke, and Garia recalled that Milsy had been out doing something with a coke plant. For that function the outfit she was wearing was perfect. It consisted of a soft long-sleeved leather jacket that went all the way up to the throat with a mandarin-style collar above. In the mandarin style again the right flap went diagonally from the throat across the left breast and then down the left side, being secured by buckles and straps at the side. Below the belt the jacket flared out in a peplum over Milsy's broad hips - which were of course similar to Garia's own. Above the front left breast was a gold Guild badge.

The belt drew Garia's attention. It was two thumbs broad and secured by a gleaming brass buckle in the front. Hanging from the belt were a number of pouches, leather cylinders and tool holders, most full of implements. Under the jacket was a flared leather skirt, probably not a full circle but enough to allow freedom of movement. On her feet Milsy wore calf-length leather boots, laced at the back in the customary style. The outfit was completed by a visorless cap in soft leather over which a pair of aviator-style goggles were placed.

Garia nodded appreciatively. "I do like that. I don't know why I didn't think of something similar."

"Probably because you were too busy inventing saddles, riding frayen or learning to fight with swords, milady," Milsy suggested.

"You don't have to milady me, I told you that before."

"As you wish... Garia, although our circumstances are now somewhat different than before. But I hope we may still call each other friend."

"Why don't you walk with us," Garia suggested. "We're off to our chambers, yours can't be far away. We can catch up as we go."

Milsy shook her head. "Not so... Garia. I'm heading for the Royal Questor's rooms, where I currently reside. The Queen felt it best to move me out of your suite after a while, she said too many people were disturbing the royal corridor and my experiments were making holes in the carpets."

"Oh!" Garia giggled and Milsy joined in. "I hadn't noticed, honestly! Oh, I'll see you at breakfast, then?"

"Surely, Garia."

"Ah! Before you go, are you going to be busy tomorrow morning? We're debriefing the men after yesterday's battle and there's a new toy you might be interested in."

Milsy nodded. "I'll make sure to be there, then!"

Jenet, who had kept quiet until then, asked, "Bursila?"

Bursila, who had been out of the immediate light, stepped forward and Garia could see that she was also attired for a trip to the coke plant. In her case, the jacket was not so close fitting and longer, the skirt was longer, and the badge on the maid's breast was silver. In place of Milsy's utility belt Bursila wore a sash in the palace version of the Blackstone colors. She curtseyed.

"My Lady. I am pleased to see you have returned to us, and without injury. The tales of battle which have circulated the servant's quarters have been so bad I feared for you all. And... Lady Merizel?"

"She is whole and well," Garia replied, "and very much looking forward to meeting you again. I see you have found a new career helping Milsy."

"I have learned more about steam engines and the making of coke than I ever wished to know, milady," Bursila said. "But I must say that it has all been very interesting." She frowned. "Is it your intention to take me back into your service, milady, or that of Milady Merizel?"

Garia looked at Milsy, who gave a slight shrug. "Let's leave that one for now, shall we? You're obviously a successful team and I'd hate to split that up. There's all these armsmen to figure out, as well." She waved a hand at the ten men who surrounded them. "Let's get a good night's sleep and we can grab a moment or two to talk tomorrow, perhaps. There is much to be done, and little time to do most of it in. After all, since yesterday we have been at war with Yod."

"Agreed," Milsy said. "Until breakfast, then."

~o~O~o~

Garia was in bed but she was not asleep. The revelations of the evening had driven the tiredness away and now she sat, in her familiar posture with her knees drawn up, staring into space. In deference to the season she had a blanket wrapped round her.

War.

Milsy.

Armsmen!

Eriana.

Blackstone.

What the heck am I going to do about all this?

And the most difficult question of all:

If Keren does have to marry Eriana, what happens to me?



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