Somewhere Else Entirely -105-

The winter weather sets in and Garia, Merizel and Eriana spend the morning updating their wardrobes. After lunch the King summons Keren, Garia and Eriana to a critical meeting where the future of the Kingdom must be decided. When the nature of The Test is finally revealed, will Robanar or Keren win the day? And what will be the fate of Garia and Eriana?

Somewhere Else Entirely

by Penny Lane

105 - Decision of a King


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 felt a bit strange when she struggled out of sleep the next morning. The bedclothes seemed heavy. Investigation showed that somebody had covered her with a quilt during the night, which was why she felt so cozy and warm. There were strange crackling noises in the air and a smell that bounced her right back to old camping trips, but it was the kind of smell you just don't need in a large, ancient wooden palace.

The smell of burning wood.

She shot up to sitting in the bed, sure that her room was ablaze, to see Jenet bending over and tending a flickering fire in the grate facing the foot of the bed. She groaned and Jenet immediately straightened.

"My Lady! Good morning. You look shocked, was it a bad dream?"

"What? Uh, no, Jenet... it's nothing, I'm just a little confused after waking suddenly, that's all." Garia yawned. "Did you put this quilt on me last night?"

"Why yes, milady! One of the corridor servants came and told me that the weather was becoming colder so I thought to make sure you did not wake in the night through cold. Is it not to your liking? Too much, or too little, perhaps?"

"No, no, Jenet, it's fine."

Garia sniffed the air, noticing for the first time that perhaps the room wasn't as warm as it might be.

"Look you through the window, milady, and you will see the reason."

"Uh, okay."

She reluctantly slipped out of bed and padded to the window, pulling the drapes just enough to peep out. Outside in the courtyard the sky was gray but mostly invisible beneath the fall of sleet onto the flagstones below. Above the windbreak of the palace roofs the sleet was driven by a strong wind from the north-east. Garia turned, yawning again.

"How early is it? Too early to get up yet?"

"A quarter bell before your normal time, milady. I had hoped to warm the room before you rose. As you have risen, I may as well find out if there is hot water available."

Jenet went to the bathroom and pulled the rope for water, then returned to the bedroom.

"Milady, I have been remiss, but perhaps it is not so surprising as we have both been so busy since we returned. We must needs go to the Palace wardrobe immediately after breakfast, to obtain our winter apparel."

Garia shrugged. "We've gotten away with it so far, Jenet, it hasn't really been that cold, has it? If the weather has now turned, I guess you're right. Wardrobe it is, then. What are we getting this time?"

"Milady, it will be woolen underwear, gowns which permit less of our bodies to become cold and extra outer garments of various kinds. Hats, gloves, scarves, boots and other accessories as well."

"You won't have to carry all that back, surely?"

"Of course not, milady. We will merely select, as we have done before, and the servants of the Wardrobe will deliver."

"Oh, yes, I remember. Oh! Merry will need clothes like that too!"

"As you say, milady. And she has a new maid, I do not know if Tandra will have reminded her of the need."

"We'll ask her at breakfast. Now, let's go see if that water's ready - after I have been to the toilet, of course."

* * *

Garia and Jenet exited her suite to find the corridor full of guardsmen. Two of those had to be her escorts, and the reason for the others became immediately apparent as Eriana, who was in a foul mood, emerged from her own quarters. On seeing Garia the Princess made an effort to be civil.

"Good morrow, Garia. Are you going to break your fast? Perhaps we may walk together."

"Good morning, Eriana. Yes, we're going down to breakfast. I notice that it is almost snowing outside."

"Almost snowing?"

"Sleet."

"Ah, yes. At this time of year we would already have had snow at home. It is the beginning of the time of hardship for our lands, when all must measure the food, drink and fuel against the winter months. The men still go fishing, it is true, but in these darkened and storm-tossed days it is a dangerous business."

"I'm sure it is. Even on Earth fishing in the winter is no easy matter."

The two walked through the corridors, trailed by their maids and surrounded by armed men. Garia saw an opening and tried a gentle enquiry.

"I have noticed that you have a poor temper at times, Eriana. I have a bad temper as well sometimes, though it may not be as bad as your own appears to be. Mine gets worse around the time when Kalikan calls, of course."

Eriana scowled, but Garia's tone was mild and conversational.

"It is true," she replied. "It seems I am surrounded by fools and dolts - your pardon, My Lady, I do not include yourself or the King and Queen, but my servants are so slow. I must shout to make myself understood."

"So I have heard," Garia said. Eriana looked at her suspiciously. Garia went on, "I'm not sure you can get the best out of servants by shouting at them, though, and if my temper explodes I've been known to say or do things that are a little... unwise, shall we say."

"It is true," Eriana repeated. "But what may we do? We are made this way, do you not agree?"

"Oh, yes, I agree all right! When I was younger I was much worse than I am now. There was a man, a teacher, who showed me a way of making myself calm at need." Garia gave Eriana a sidelong glance. "I could maybe teach you the same method, if you thought it might help."

Eriana was quiet for so long that Garia thought she had insulted her somehow and was being ignored. Just before they reached the door to the dining room Eriana turned to Garia.

"Your suggestion has merit, Garia. If I am to remain in Palarand, whether I marry Keren or no, I cannot permit my temper to master me as it has done these past days. I have already earned the displeasure of the King, I must learn how to mellow my words and deeds." The Princess regarded Garia thoughtfully. "Why do you offer this to me? Are we not rivals for the Prince's hand?"

Garia had considered her responses to possible questions with great care. She didn't want to say anything that was untruthful but she also didn't want to make worse an already awkward situation.

"I have never tried for Keren's hand," she said. Because we just fell together by accident, that's why. "Anyway, I'm not a Princess, so the Rule doesn't apply to me. We're not in competition, if that's what you mean." Because Keren is as likely to marry you as I am to marry Marlin. The issue was decided long before we returned to the palace, only nobody knows that yet except the Queen.

Eriana was suspicious as they entered the big room. "But you two are close."

"Of course we are. We practically live next door to each other and we've been doing very similar things together. The Prince is very interested in knowledge from Earth, as is his father."

Terys greeted the pair. "Eriana! Garia! I hope neither of you was cold last night."

"Your Majesty," Eriana curtseyed, "In Einnland we are used to much colder winters, but our sleeping chambers are much smaller to save heat. The blankets your servants provided kept me sufficiently warm last night."

"Your Majesty," Garia curtseyed, "I was warm enough, thank you. Jenet reminds me that we have to visit the Wardrobe to choose our winter clothing as soon as possible."

"Of course, my dear. You have been away, have you not, and have been busy ever since you returned. Go to the Wardrobe after breakfast and enjoy a morning among the silks and furs as any woman might desire to do. Eriana, have you winter clothing? I doubt the palace will become as cold as your father's house but we do wear thicker attire in colder days."

"I have some, ma'am, but perhaps I might go with Garia and see what the Wardrobe has to offer. With your permission?"

"You have it, my dear. It seems you will reside with us until the spring whatever happens so you must be suitably attired."

"You are gracious, Your Majesty."

"Ma'am," Garia said, "I think Lady Merizel might need some winter gear as well."

"Then you three shall go together. You will not be too many for the Wardrobe servants to manage." Terys hesitated, then added, "My dears, the King has asked a private audience of you both after lunch today. Now that our son and our adopted daughter have returned there are matters of state which require clarity. I trust you will make sure your other commitments are suitably adjusted."

Garia curtseyed. "I'll let Merizel know, ma'am."

It's happening. This is the day when all gets decided. I just hope we can make this come out the way we wanted... or do I mean the way the Beings intended? No, this union was never in their plans, was it? This is just an unexpected bonus for them.

Whatever, I'm going to need my wits about me this afternoon, and I have to spend all morning with Eriana...

Milsy and Senidet appeared, talking together in low voices. Garia saw that the pair had apparently hit it off together and, knowing some of what Milsy had already achieved, Senidet was probably in the best place to find her feet in the capital. Milsy was most likely a one-off like herself but there would be many more Senidets and the Kingdom would need their brains and expertise to function into the future. Since Garia had been away from recent developments Milsy would be a better person to evaluate her potential.

Merizel entered, followed by her new maid Tandra. She walked across and said a few words to Bursila before joining Garia and Eriana.

"Highness, Milady. A cold night, don't you think?"

"As you say, Merry. Jenet was forewarned during the night and put a quilt over me. After breakfast we're going to the Wardrobe to pick out some winter clothes. By the Queen's command, both Eriana and yourself will be joining me, I'm afraid."

"Afraid? Oh," Merizel grinned, "you think I'm going to spend the whole time roaming the rails, don't you?"

"Seeing as how you've done just that every other time we've been near the place, yes."

"Mayhap you are right, Garia. I'll try and restrain myself this time." Merizel frowned. "I think I'm going to need a bigger dressing room..."

Eriana smiled. "Twas ever thus, Lady Merizel. It seems that however much room a woman has for her clothes, she always desires more. We must each keep a check on our fancies this morning."

Finally Keren appeared alongside his father and everybody headed for the tables. He greeted both Garia and Eriana with a smile as they chose seats.

"A good night, girls? What plans have you for this morning? Garia, I note that you are not wearing your exercise attire."

"Good morning, Keren. Unfortunately I can't exercise today since all my things are still in the palace laundry somewhere. Besides, Jenet reminded me that I have no winter gowns and accessories yet, which means we'll be spending most of the morning deep in the Palace Wardrobe. The Queen has permitted Eriana to get some cold weather clothing as well so we'll go there together. Merizel is coming as well."

Keren regarded them with mock horror. "I know what you girls get up to in there, so I think I'll just find somewhere else to be this morning! As it happens, father wants to talk to me about the political situation so that will suit everyone, will it not? We will next meet at lunchtime, then."

Eriana looked interested. "Exercise attire?" She looked at Terys. "Ma'am, I was not aware that ladies of your court took exercise, at least not the way I understand that word to mean."

There were smiles all around as Terys replied, "My dear, Garia has brought the idea of exercising with her from Earth. She has opened the eyes of all Palarandi women to abilities we never knew were possible. However," she added, "Garia's ideas of exercise are not suitable for most women. Perhaps you may tell us what you do in Einnland, then, if the word exercise is known to you."

"Ma'am, very few women in Einnland take exercise but for those who do, it consists mostly of running and rowing. There are races for runners and for teams of rowers, held annually during the Festival of Midsummer. The contests will be men against men and women against women, of course."

"The Festival of Midsummer? Is that akin to our Harvest Festival, do you think, dear? That is perhaps a month later, just before the rains begin."

"Ma'am, we don't have the rains in Einnland. I learned about those when we resided in Plif. We have a feast day when the harvest is brought in, it is true, but that is much later in the year."

"Ah, I see. Regarding exercise, do you practice with weapons, Eriana? Is it a custom that your women fight?"

"Ma'am, we are not permitted to fight, but some of us may practice with the short bow and the short spear for sport. I am accounted expert with both, probably because of my size and build. May I ask the reason for your question, ma'am?"

"Simply that Garia is a warrior, dear, and much of her exercise is with the men of the Palace Guard. She trains them in ways of fighting unknown in the rest of the Great Valley."

Eriana peered suspiciously at Garia. "I have seen her with swords, it is true, but I did not really believe until now that she was in truth a warrior. Garia, you do not look like a Valkyrie."

Garia smiled. "No, regrettably not. I make do with what I have been given and let the men handle the heavy lifting. You, however, could have been a Valkyrie."

"It is possible, Garia, though no-one has ever considered that I could be trained as a warrior." The obvious thought came, and she turned to Terys. "Ma'am, would you consider letting me..."

Terys turned to the King. "Dear? Would this complicate matters any more?"

Robanar regarded Eriana for a long moment before saying to her, "You may accompany Garia when she attends the guard practice sessions, Your Highness, but before I consider letting you handle any weapons in my palace I think I shall require oaths of you. Is that understood?"

Eriana bowed her head. "As you command, Your Majesty. And thank you."

Breakfast ended and everybody dispersed to their morning tasks. For Garia this meant leading a growing procession of noblewomen, maids and guards in the direction of the Palace Wardrobe. The party reached the offices just ahead of Dyenna, the new Mistress of the Wardrobe, who had to push her way through the mob to reach her desk.

"Your Highness, Milady... Garia, isn't it, and Lady..?"

"Lady Merizel," Merizel replied. "I'm Baroness Garia's secretary."

"Ah, yes, forgive me. You and the Baroness have been traveling, have you not? I apologise, I did not recognize you, you have been some months away from the palace. Let me see..." Dyenna rummaged on her desk until she found the note from the Queen. She looked up. "You both require winter clothing, of course. That will not be difficult for us to provide. And for your maids?"

"Yes, please. Though you should note that I presently have a different maid, the other remains with Mistress Milsy for the while."

Dyenna gave a rueful smile. "Ah, Milsy. Her requests for attire have been as strange as those of... forgive me, Lady Garia! I intended no insult."

"None taken," Garia said with a smile. "I would be surprised if Milsy hadn't wanted unusual clothing, she was supposed to be my double, after all."

"Would you be requiring any further... strange attire today, milady? I must needs alert Rosilda if you do."

"Not today, thank you. I will probably need some winter-weight riding gear soon, though, as will Merizel and our maids. As for any other unusual garments, I think I'll get back to you. There's far too much going on at the moment."

Dyenna rolled her eyes at Garia. "As you say, Milady! I'll find some staff to take care of you and all your party." She turned her attention to Eriana. "Highness, I am surprised to find you at the wardrobe again so soon. Is there something I can provide for you or do you accompany Milady Garia?"

Eriana explained, "The Queen, learning of Garia's visit here this morning, bade me accompany her to see if there is any winter clothing that may be suitable for myself. Though I come from a colder climate, much of my attire did not survive the voyage as you already know. The Queen thinks I may discover some extra garments to warm me as the winter continues."

"Ah, as you say, Highness. Then, if you will all follow me, I'm sure that we can provide you with everything you may need. Take care, the weather has made the ground slippery."

They hurried through the courtyard where Garia noticed that two of the huts had disappeared, leaving an open space marked with their outlines on the flagstones. Dyenna led the way into one of those remaining and found several female servants sorting garments.

"The Princess and the two Ladies require winter attire, having arrived at the palace recently. Their maids may also require such clothes. Please attend them."

The servants dropped what they were doing and curtseyed to Dyenna. The three recipients and their maids were separated and led by the servants to another of the huts where Garia was shown winter clothing and accessories. There were gowns of thicker materials, most of which had higher necklines, lower hemlines and full sleeves. There were also what Jenet called "house coats" which were over-gowns, fastening in front, longer than the normal daywear and with stiff, upright collars that made her think of Cruella de Vil. Each selected one before moving to the shoemaker's hut for footwear.

Here they obtained short, fleece-lined slipper-boots for wear inside the palace and ordered pairs of similar outdoor boots for traveling in the city. Garia also found it necessary to request special winter-weight boots she could use while exercising. She felt that the footwear normally used indoors would not be appropriate in the dojo or while she was involved in other training.

Merizel appeared during her conversation with the bootmaker.

"Garia, I may have a small problem. It never occurred to me when I chose to have a new maid but we all ride, don't we? That means that Tandra will have to learn as well, if she is to accompany me."

This point hadn't occurred to Garia and she had to think for a moment.

"If she is willing," she replied slowly, "then yes, she will, won't she? Hmm. First, I think we'd better clear it with Her Majesty, don't you agree? If that's okay then we can start training her, but of course she'll also need kitting out with a set of riding clothes and accessories." Garia turned to the maid. "What do you think, Tandra? Merizel rides, and is extremely fond of her frayen, so would you be prepared to ride also?"

Tandra looked surprised to be given any choice in the matter. "My Lady, I don't know what to say. If it will permit me to serve Lady Merizel then of course I must needs ride."

"But what of your own desires?" Merizel asked. "Have you not seen us ride, do you know the attire we wear? We would not force you to do something that you would find difficult or distasteful, that is not our way."

Tandra bobbed a curtsey. "Milady, thank you for your consideration. I have seen you and Lady Garia and your other maids at mealtimes in your riding attire and wondered if I might like it. If you would permit, I wish to try the art of riding a frayen."

Garia warned, "We'll have to get it past the Queen first, you understand?"

"As you say, Milady."

The two parties merged and moved back into the palace proper, where a room full of shelving supplied various kinds of hats, gloves and scarves. All these were of varying thicknesses and materials to cover wear both inside the palace and outside. As they trooped back to the office for the documents to be updated they met Milsy and Senidet.

"Have you been collecting cold weather clothing as well?" Garia asked.

"We have, Milady," Milsy answered. "I see you have been doing the same."

"Yes, we missed out through being away. Judging by today's weather, I guess we're going to need it all soon. Senidet, how are you getting on?"

"Milady, I have seen some amazing things! I had no idea there was so much more than I had seen in Blackstone."

"Ah, well, some of that will be Milsy's doing, I expect. Some of it I don't even know myself." Senidet looked surprised. "From her letters she has been very busy since she arrived here, haven't you, Milsy?"

Milsy grinned. "As you say, Garia. I'll have to give you a conducted tour when you have the time. I am interested to learn how much of what I have thought of resembles what exists on Earth."

"As you say, but not this afternoon, I think. The King has summoned us to an important meeting and I'm not sure I need distractions right now."

"Of course. We can arrange something, no doubt."

Eriana appeared then, as Dyenna filed their acquisitions.

"Garia," she began without preamble, "I wish to accept your offer to calm my mind. Although the palace servants are... well-meaning, there have been difficulties this morning, mostly of my own making. Every day I reside here I discover how different Palarand is than my own homeland." She looked at Garia earnestly. "Will you teach me?"

"If you're sure about this, Eriana. What I do may look silly to start with so you'll have to learn to persevere. Do you think that you can manage that?"

"It seems I have little choice, should I remain in this land." She gave a single, sharp nod. "I am a Princess of the house of Yarold. This I will do."

Milsy looked enquiringly at Garia.

"Oh, Eriana has a foul temper, much like my own," Garia explained with a little fudging. "I offered to teach her the techniques I was taught to control my own mind. It goes along with the Tai Chi and the martial arts, of course."

"Bursila taught me the Tai Chi before we left Dekarran," Milsy said. "Would there be any benefit in me learning this mind technique?"

Garia smiled. "Of course, assuming both you and I can ever find enough time to do the sessions! Merry?"

"I will note it, Garia. But I cannot schedule any time for anything until after this afternoon."

Garia's face fell. "Oh, yes. Let's get the awkward business over and done with first."

Another enquiring look from Milsy.

"Oh," Garia waved a hand, "There's a meeting with the King this afternoon. Very important." Milsy frowned, but Garia added, "You'll all find out about it, whatever happens."

~o~O~o~

When Garia entered the dining room for lunch Eriana approached her with a frown.

"You said something strange when we first went to the Mistress of the Wardrobe, Garia. You said that Milsy was your double. I am confused, I thought she was your sister or your cousin, perhaps, the two of you are so similar."

"Thank you, Eriana. As it happens Milsy and I are not related but she was chosen to pretend to be me some weeks back, in order to distract those who wanted to kidnap me."

Eriana's eyes were wide. "I thought that tale a fantasy, Garia! It is all true, then?"

Garia grinned. "There are many, many tales told about me and I bet not a tenth of them are anywhere near the truth. If we ever get any leisure time," she rolled her eyes, "I'll tell you what really happened to us."

"There are many tales of elder days told in Einnland," Eriana mused. "Most assume they are fable, I wonder now if they are not."

"Don't assume everything you hear is true, Eriana. In fact, I would assume none of it is true, until you can prove the opposite! Still, sometimes the truth can get pretty weird."

"I agree, Garia. Here is the King! Shall we be seated?"

Keren had been talking with his father while the women were at the palace wardrobe, ostensibly discussing the war situation but Garia thought the afternoon's meeting had probably been mentioned. He seemed thoughtful but not anxious during the meal, deflecting conversation into pleasant, safer channels. His father said little except to Terys, mainly giving Garia and Eriana considered glances when he thought they weren't looking. Terys looked... serene, as though she already knew what was to come and what the result would be.

She knows everything, Garia thought. I wonder if Keren has confided in her the way I did? Women can talk to each other but men find that much harder to do. I don't think he'd speak to his father in these circumstances.

"My dear," Robanar said to Terys as the plates were cleared, "Shall you join me in our parlor? There are matters which concern Keren, Eriana and Garia that must needs be determined today. We will also require the presence of Merek and Kendar but, Milady Merizel, I regret there is no place for you today. I beg you not to consider this a slight on your person or your abilities. I have no doubt that Milady Garia will inform you all you must know once we have concluded our meeting."

Merizel replied, "As you desire, Sire. I serve, as always, at the King's command."

Eriana followed the group as they made their way through the corridors, surrounded, as usual, by a contingent of the Palace Guard. It had dawned on her that she had made some poor assumptions when she had arrived in Palarand, thinking it similar to her own country if somewhat larger. Now she knew that was not true. Although on the surface much appeared similar the differences were beginning to show and it had partly contributed to her poor temper since her arrival. The lives of these people were much more complex than in Einnland and they spoke of matters incomprehensible to herself.

For example, it had taken her some days to understand the Valley Messenger Service and how it functioned. The Great Clock in the palace was something unknown to her, despite Milsy attempting to explain how it worked. The annual rains and the subsequent flooding of the river were mysteries, too. By proposing herself as Queen to these people, had she chosen a task too large? True, the present Queen had had to adapt but her own country of birth was at least a Valley state. Eriana was beginning to understand the gulf between Einnland and the Valley and she wondered, whether she became Queen or no, what use she might be in such a land.

A footman opened the parlor door and those taking part filed inside. Besides those actively taking part there were the Queen's two maids, her own two servants and Garia's maid. The King had a manservant but Eriana knew that he wouldn't be present for the meeting, merely supplying refreshments as required.

The King and Queen took their usual armchairs and the others found seats. This happened to leave Merek and Kendar together on the settee, which suited everybody. Robanar grunted, a signal that the inquiry was about to begin.

"My son Keren has traveled to the furthest ends of our Kingdom to discover our lands and people. Now that he has returned, it is time for some important decisions to be made. Normally we would not press these decisions but we are, by another's desire, at war with a country who has spilled blood on our soil." The King let his gaze roam over everybody who was present. "I seek to insure the line of succession and an opportunity has presented itself. Keren, you have met and walked with Princess Eriana these past few days. Think you that she would make you a good Queen?"

Garia steeled herself for the coming conflict, for she had no doubt that it would be a conflict. She trusted Keren absolutely and would respect whatever decision he came to, but his father was a different matter. Though she did indeed trust the King the nature of today's meeting was still obscure. The Beings hadn't said that she would marry Keren, just that it was a possible outcome. The King wanted something from his son, but what exactly was it? This conundrum made the result too difficult to call.

Keren stood and faced his father. "Father, I do not. Though I deem she is attractive enough to become a Queen her temper is too fierce. As you well know a Queen must make decisions no less important than her husband the King does and such a temper may cloud her judgement."

Eriana was outraged and then realized that her reaction was exactly what Keren was speaking about. She hurriedly calmed her features, wishing that Garia had made her offer some days ago.

"Further," Keren continued, "the customs of her people are stranger than ours and I wonder if she can adapt as my mother had to do. During our walks I learned more of her lands and how her father conducts his Kingdom, it is nothing like any that the Valley countries practice."

Robanar waved a hand. "Do you not think she would learn our customs in time? Why should this be a difficulty?"

"Father, I don't think you fully appreciate the differences. For example, these two maids who attend her, they are no maids at all but slaves. That practice, while not exactly forbidden, has been discouraged in Palarand for many years. In her father's land it is common."

Robanar turned to Eriana. "Is this true, Your Highness?"

Eriana was defensive. "Your Majesty, it is. I did not know that the Valley lands disapproved of such practices. And they are known as bondswomen in Einnland, not slaves. It is the practice for poorer folk to sell their children when they cannot raise them in their own houses."

"What of your men? Are they... bondsmen?"

"Gullbrand is a freeman, Sire, but Lars is a bondsman. He was actually the bondsman of one of those who drowned during the voyage, not of my retinue."

Robanar waved a dismissive hand. "This is a side matter, we will determine it at another time. Today we discuss your suitability as a prospective consort for my son. Keren, proceed."

"Father, there is another matter, and that is Eriana's deceit when she came to your court. She claimed that she had been sent by her father as part of an official embassy when in fact she had run away from him and from a proposed marriage she did not like. The foundation of any marriage must be truth and duty and Eriana has demonstrated neither."

"As you say, but perhaps the circumstances are exceptional. We do not know if the man her father chose for her marriage was suitable or not, by Einnland's standards. Perhaps Eriana was justified in refusing the marriage her father insisted upon. It is not her conduct in Einnland that we must consider, however."

Eriana decided that silence would be the better course of action and said nothing.

Robanar continued, "I deem Princess Eriana to be a suitable candidate as Consort to Palarand's next King. How say you?"

Eriana was ecstatic. It was going to work!

Garia's mouth was dry. This is the sixty-four billion dollar question. Oh, God, why did it have to happen like this?

Keren stood straight and tall, looking his father directly in the eye.

"Father, I will not marry Eriana. There is only one who I would marry and she is in this room."

Garia felt a warm glow at this outright declaration. Robanar's next words brought her down to earth.

"She is not eligible, and you both know it. Shall you marry Eriana?"

Now Keren's mouth was dry. "Father, I will not."

"I am both your father and your liege. If I should command you to do so?"

Eriana could hardly believe her ears. Would Keren really defy his father this way?

There was a long pause before Keren answered.

"Aye, you are my father and my liege, I do acknowledge that. If I am so commanded, then I will obey..."

Eriana felt a fierce exultation while Garia was surprised by Keren's answer, but his next words sent both their expectations spinning.

"...but, once we are wed, I shall give her no heirs. That is one thing you cannot command of me. She will have the appearance of consort to the heir, but on the day you are laid on your pyre, she shall be conducted with all due respect and ceremony to the borders of Palarand, never to return again. Then shall I marry the woman who will be my Queen."

Robanar glared at his son so fiercely that Garia thought he would explode. Keren's return gaze was defiant, and she knew that he would choose her over the Kingdom, should push come to shove.

"And if I should insure that your... Queen is not around for you to wed? How say you then?"

Garia stared at Robanar. He couldn't be so cold-blooded, could he? He couldn't possibly contemplate... no, there are other options. He could lock me away somewhere, exile me or something like that.

That's not going to work. The moment Robanar dies Keren would just fetch me back. Death it is, then.

Keren stood there mute, his expression still of defiance. Robanar turned to Merek.

"Captain! If I should command you to cast Lady Garia into the cells, shall you obey?"

Merek jumped to his feet and faced Robanar stiffly, his face pale. There was a distinct pause before he replied.

"Sire, I have sworn you an oath. If you should so command me, then I must needs obey."

Robanar glared at Merek. "And what of your men?" he growled. "Would they obey such an order from you?"

Merek flushed and looked at his feet, not daring to answer.

The King grunted. "We will discuss the potential mutiny of the Palace Guard at another date, Merek. You may resume your seat."

Eriana had had enough. She jumped to her feet.

"Sire! If you should command the Prince to marry me I shall refuse. You would be no better than my own father, though the proposed match would be considerably more to my liking. You may not command me, I am a guest in your house but I am not yet your subject." She lowered her gaze. "I am not fit to be Palarand's Queen. Keren has the right of it. This land is too large, too strange for me to understand. In time, should you grant me leave to remain, I may find some way to be useful to my new country but that time is not yet come."

Robanar looked at Eriana. "Your Highness, I must agree. Do you withdraw your petition?"

"Sire, I do."

"Then be seated, please, while this matter is settled."

As Eriana sat down again, Keren stretched out a hand towards Garia. Feeling very vulnerable she stood at Keren's side, her hand tightly clasped in his. His touch reassured her a little, but it still felt as if they were both standing on top of a trapdoor.

Robanar's attention returned to Keren. "It is your certain decision to take this woman to be your wife and your Queen, knowing that you defy your King and all custom of the countries hereabouts?"

Garia could hear the strain in Keren's voice as he replied. She squeezed his hand lightly to show that he had her full support.

"Sire, I do, even if it means that I must needs give up the throne to another. There is no other for me, nor will there ever be."

There was a very long pause while Robanar glared at the pair, apparently studying them both carefully. By his side, Terys sat with a carefully neutral face, though Garia detected faint signs of concern.

The next word came like a thunderclap to all in the room.

"Good."

Garia dimly heard the unexpected word through ringing ears.

Wait, what? What did he just say? What does he ..?

"I have known of your attachment these many months," Robanar explained. "I have heard from those in my guard what transpired in my training halls, despite such word not reaching me officially," he cast an eye at Merek, "and I have received private word from several during your time away. The appearance of Garia last summer signaled a change for Palarand, and it seemed to me that the King who would oversee this change must needs be an able man, one who could use custom or discard it as the world changed. The attraction between you and Garia was obvious from the first and, given her importance, it was essential that she be placed high in the ranks of government. What better place than Palarand's next Queen?

"There was a different question asked then, that of Kingship. For every man who rules, a day must come when he must needs defy advice, custom and, occasionally, law and make a stand on some matter of principle. Sometimes it will be a matter of which your people will disapprove, yet you must hold firm. Sometimes it will be a matter of which your people approve, yet you must still defy custom and practice. This is one of those times, though you are not yet King. The choice of a woman who will sit by you, stand beside you, must be yours and yours alone. After all, she will still be there when we are long gone."

Garia saw then that the King and Queen were holding hands as tightly as she held Keren's.

"Thus I sought to test you. Against pressure, though it meant defying your father, against even a competitor, against all tradition and custom you must needs stand firm in your choice and your belief. If you had broken in the gale you would still have made a fine King but you would have been a lesser King. My son, I do not find you wanting. You may have your chosen bride with our blessing."

Garia's knees turned to water with relief at Robanar's pronouncement. She sagged, and Keren let go her hand, putting his arm around her shoulders to support her instead. She leaned against his body, taking deep breaths as she tried to come to terms with what had just happened.

"Kenila, dear," Terys spoke, "I think we shall take some pel now, if you would."

Kenila and Varna bobbed and headed out the door to prepare the refreshments.

Robanar said, "You had better conduct Garia to her chair before she collapses completely, Keren."

Gentle hands helped Garia into her seat. She could barely see, the release of tension and emotions was so strong. Her thoughts were scattered.

Wow. I never expected...

We were right, but we just never figured it out, and if we had figured it out it would have made no difference at all.

The King approves!

Keren...

Oh, gosh! I'm going to become a real Princess!

Oh, shit... I'm going to be a QUEEN.

* * *

She became aware that Jenet was dabbing a wetted cloth across her forehead.

"She recovers, ma'am. I do not think it is anything serious."

"Can she take some pel, dear?"

"In a moment, ma'am. My Lady, can you hear me? Can you sit up?"

Garia recovered her senses and looked around her. Everyone still sat in the same places, concern written all over their faces. Keren hovered at Jenet's shoulder. She adjusted her position in the chair.

"I'm sorry, ma'am, I didn't mean to..."

"That's all right, my dear. We discuss the most important matter in any Kingdom and that is the choosing of a Queen. The center of that discussion is you, it is no surprise that you are overwhelmed."

"Overwhelmed, yes, that's just the word I would use, ma'am. Perhaps I could have that pel now?"

As Jenet handed Garia a steaming cup the meeting turned to more practical matters.

Robanar was speaking. "Kendar, your advice?"

"Sire, I wish to be the first to congratulate Your Majesties on finding a suitable consort for your son. As to the future, I do not think there is any great need for haste. As you know, marriages are not customarily," Kendar quirked his mouth, "conducted between Midwinter's Night and Spring Dawn in most of the Valley states. I can think of no precedent for such a ceremony in Palarand." The Chancellor thought. "Sire, you may need to consider the approaching war and relationships between Palarand and your neighbors whom you would doubtless wish to become your allies. A hasty wedding may give the impression you acted despite their concerns, delaying the wedding may make them think you weak or distracted."

Kendar turned to Keren and Garia with an apologetic look. "Highness, Milady, forgive my blunt words. A union such as yours is a matter of state and great care must be taken in its preparation. You have my oath that we will attempt to find a solution which all parties will find agreeable."

Keren and Garia both made non-committal noises. Keren regained his seat, though it was obvious he wanted to be at Garia's side.

Robanar considered Kendar's words and nodded thoughtfully. "As you say, Kendar. Organizing the ceremony will consume time in any event, and I do not think our people will thank us for parading through the streets while the weather is so foul. Keren, Garia, with all respect to your desires for union, there are more important matters which must needs be attended before any ceremony may take place."

Garia said, "I understand, Sire."

Keren said, "As you say, father," but his expression showed disappointment.

Terys tutted. "Keren, you must needs be patient. For yourself, such a ceremony is a simple matter of an oath but for Garia it will be the most important day of her life. Such days will need more preparation than a man will require."

Oh, no! I'd forgotten that! All that business with the Big White Dress. I have to go through all that...

That would be the price for marrying any man, here or on Earth. I think I'm willing to pay it, even if I'm not particularly looking forward to all the fuss.

I wonder, do they actually have Big White Dresses here?

Garia suddenly realized she had lots of questions but now probably wasn't the best time to ask them. She would learn all the gory details as the days unfolded, after all. It sounded, from what Kendar was saying, that they had plenty of time before the official ceremony would take place.

Wait, what? Parading through the streets? Oh, no...

"Milady," Robanar said again. Garia tried to collect her thoughts and pay attention. "Garia, I know you have as many matters pressing you since your return as I do. We do not propose burdening you with more concerns presently, so you may resume whatever activities Lady Merizel has arranged for you. Kendar may seek your advice on occasion as the days progress but your service to Palarand must, regrettably, come first."

"I understand, Your Majesty."

"We do not seek to dampen your attachment to our son, however. You have our permission to walk with him at your leisure, should time and circumstances permit."

At least we won't be sneaking around behind everybody's backs in the future.

"Thank you, Sire. Um, presumably there will be an official announcement?"

"Tomorrow, following breakfast, I am holding one of my regular public audiences in the Receiving Room. We shall announce your betrothal then, unless you have some concern?"

"Sire, I can't see any difficulty. From the point of view of rumors spreading, the sooner the better."

"As you say. Now," Robanar gave her a gentle smile, "perhaps you had better take your future husband and do some of those things I see you are both anxious to do. 'The sooner the better', indeed. Jenet, you may attend your mistress."

Garia stood and curtseyed to Robanar and Terys before turning to face Keren. The look on his face was indescribable and she suspected her expression was much the same. He reached out his hand and she took it, suddenly feeling an immense feeling of satisfaction coupled with anticipation. They turned and walked out of the room, Jenet following and closing the door behind them. Keren looked lost, glancing each way along the corridor.

"My sitting room," she said.

Once inside Keren took her in his arms and crushed her against his body. Her face tilted up and his down. Their kiss was long and meaningful. Everybody approves. When they broke he stared into her eyes, his expression now one of relief.

"I wasn't sure... It had to be, Garia. You are more important to me than even the throne."

"To my complete surprise, I find you are the most important person in my life. The King was right, though. He wanted to make sure you would be your own man when you came to the throne."

"That won't be for many years yet, I am sure." There was a question in his eyes. "Are you sure about this? I deem you never desired to be Queen. Eriana realized she could not bear the load. Will you bear it, with all your other responsibilities?"

Garia sighed, then gave him a smile. "I never asked to be female, let alone a Queen. But with a good man beside me, I'm sure I'll do what I have to do." She gestured. "Let's sit. I'm sure, as your father says, that we have a lot to talk about."

"Aye. We have at least a bell before we must change for the evening meal. Jenet, find yourself a chair. There's no reason you have to stand watching us all afternoon."

~o~O~o~

"We are agreed?" Robanar asked, as those left prepared to go their separate ways. There were nods from everyone. "One final matter, Highness."

"Sire?" Eriana sat up.

"You no doubt realize I used you as a foil to test my son. I intended no disrespect to your person. You arrived here proposing a betrothal, we took your petition seriously. However, it must be apparent to you that your chances were always slim."

"Sire, I have not really been in Palarand long enough to grasp its ways and customs. I do not think I would have made you a good Queen. I saw how Keren and Garia looked at each other but I was desperate. If there is some other way I may be of service, then I offer myself to Palarand."

Terys asked, "You do not think you could return to Einnland, then?"

Eriana shook her head violently. "Never, ma'am! If you will not give me sanctuary, I would rather run away to another land than return to my father."

Robanar said, "I will give you sanctuary until the Festival of Spring Dawn, Eriana. You will be safe in my house until then. When spring comes perhaps you will have a better idea of your place in our world."

Eriana stood and curtseyed. "Sire, you are very gracious."

~o~O~o~

Jenet settled the nightgown tidily on Garia, looking critically at the result.

"Tired, milady?"

"Exhausted! As if I didn't already have enough whizzing around in my head, I now have all this to think about!"

"I am so pleased for you, milady. It has been apparent to all along our journey what must eventually happen. When we fought at the Ptuvil's Circle the men already named you Queen."

"I know, Jenet, and it frightened me. All this expectation everybody has, and I'm just somebody ordinary, really. What does somebody like me know about being a Queen?"

"What did you know about being a Guildmistress, milady? Yet you were made so, and you have made good decisions in that office, or so it seems to me. It is ever difficult to value one's self and I am sure you will sit the throne as easily as you sit your favorite beast."

"Oh, I hope you're right, Jenet, but it doesn't feel that way right now." Garia plumped herself down on the edge of the bed. "Why me?"

"Why indeed, milady. We are told that we are not to believe in ideas such as chance and destiny, but I begin to wonder."

"Jenet, you have no idea!"



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