Somewhere Else Entirely -117-

Garia's day descends into chaos as personnel problems appear from every direction. Matters are not helped when one of her problems turns out not to be what anyone expected.

Somewhere Else Entirely

by Penny Lane

117 - The Stowaway


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) 2011-2015 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.



Garia had not even climbed out of bed before there was a knock on the bedroom door. Jenet walked over and opened it to reveal Lanilla, already dressed.

"Lanilla! What are you doing here? How's the arm?"

Lanilla curtseyed and entered the bedroom.

"My Lady, my arm is nearly mended, such that Mistress Margra desires I should leave her Chamber of the Sick and obtain some exercise for my body. Oh! I do not think she means the kind of exercise that you do, Milady. I am permitted to lift light things only, but if you would permit me to attend you, I desire to return to my appointed duties."

Garia regarded the tall, thin girl thoughtfully. At the battle, Lanilla had been injured and her friend, the other new maid Jasinet, killed when the wagon they had been riding had overturned. Since then, she had managed with Jenet alone again until... She groaned. Life had just become complicated again.

"Of course, Lanilla. I think the word you are looking for is rehabilitation. You can come back, although the situation has changed since the day your arm was broken. You've been mostly sitting around learning to read and write, I take it?"

"As you say, Milady."

"Then you need to do some moving about to get your muscles back into shape, that's what Margra means, I guess. Some walking about the palace and some fresh air will do you a world of good. Now, just recently I have acquired two new maids."

"So I heard, Milady. Are those the maids of the Princess? She only came to the Chambers of the Sick once, I know nothing of her or her maids except by rumor."

"That's right. Unfortunately, they don't speak much of the Valley tongue, yet, so I'm the only person who can give them orders. Princess Eriana has gone off with her men to do a job for the King so I'm left with them."

"You mean attacking the Yodans, Milady? I think she is very brave."

"What? Who told you that?"

"Tis common knowledge, Milady, in the palace."

Garia looked at Jenet. "Can nothing be kept secret in this place?"

"It seems not, Milady," Jenet replied.

The door opened behind Lanilla and Geska and Odgarda entered the room, both wearing fluffy robes. They looked at Lanilla with interest.

"These are they," Garia told Lanilla. "This is Geska and that is Odgarda. You've already bathed, I take it?"

"Aye, Milady."

"Then I suggest you amuse yourself while we have our morning dip. If you go in the dressing room, you'll find we have a whole load of winter clothing since we arrived back."

"Milady," Jenet said, "Lanilla will of course require her own winter attire, not being present when we collected ours."

"Ouch."

Garia scowled. Problems piling up and she hadn't even climbed out of bed yet! Oh, and there was Gullbrand to be interviewed, not to mention Merry still sick in bed...

"Okay..." She turned to the two Norse girls. «This is Lanilla, who is another of my maids. Go in the bathroom and pull the rope for water, please. Get the tub ready, Jenet and I will join you shortly.»

The two curtseyed and made their way into the bathing chamber. Garia focused on Jenet.

"Jenet, you're promoted. Call yourself Mistress of the Household or something like that, if you so fancy. You already have three staff to oversee but I can't see it ending there, can you? You heard what Kendar said last night."

"As you command, Milady."

"Let's get in the tub and dressed. I want to go visit Merry before we get breakfast since we'll be with the men afterwards. I'll take those two to the Large Training Hall while you get Lanilla fixed up with her winter gear and we'll meet back here a bell before lunch, okay?"

"As you wish, Milady."

Once dressed and appropriately attired for the morning's activities, all five women trooped into Merizel's chamber to find her sitting in a chair in her fluffy robe.

"My Lady."

"Merry! Don't get up. How are you feeling?"

"Much better, thank you. Tandra and I have managed the Tai Chi this morning and it didn't upset me very much at all. I think it's just one of those things that goes around every winter. Lanilla! Margra let you out, then."

Lanilla curtseyed. "As you say, My Lady. I am permitted light work and not to lift anything heavy for some few days."

"That's good. Are you relieved to be out of that room and back where you should be?"

"I am, Milady, except I will not be able to read and write as I did then." The maid hesitated, her cheeks coloring. "I have... made friends with some of those who were there with me."

Garia interpreted the look and asked, "Would those be the men of Yod you're speaking about?"

"Aye, Milady. We have helped each other with reading and writing. Braskath of Chidrell -" She flushed.

Garia raised an eyebrow. "Something more than a friendship, I take it? Is this going to cause a problem?"

"Milady, the men of Yod have given His Majesty their parole, that they may move about the palace. I do not think Braskath intends to return to Yod whatever happens."

"Okaaay, something else for me to think about. Right. As for you, I think you can come and join Merry after lunch. She can find out what you've learned and see if that means you might be able to do something else for us."

"Thank you, Milady." Lanilla bowed. "You are very gracious, Milady."

Garia smiled. "There's not much point teaching you to read and write if you don't make use of what you learned, is there?"

"As you say, Milady."

Merizel said, "Lanilla, I have letters from some in Blackstone. You may try your reading on them, find out what has been going on in your home town."

"Oh, thank you, Lady Merizel!"

"Then it is time for us to go to breakfast," Garia decided. "Jenet, I think Geska will serve me this morning while you take Odgarda and Lanilla to the servants' hall."

Jenet considered, then nodded. "As you wish, Milady."

* * *

"And how is Merizel this morning, dear? Have you visited her yet?"

"I have, Ma'am. It doesn't seem to be anything serious. I'm sure she'll be out of her chamber by tomorrow."

"I am delighted to hear it, dear. Have you spoken to Kendar?"

"Yesterday evening, Ma'am. He suggested I talk to Gullbrand, which I'm aiming to do after I come back from the Large Training Hall."

"Gullbrand? Why, of course!" Terys paused. "But he has only administered for Eriana, has he not? Your own needs may be somewhat different, I deem."

"That's more or less what I thought, Ma'am. But he's basically surplus until she returns so we have time to find out if he can adapt to my strange foreign ways."

Terys gave Garia a glance. "You are a stranger no longer, dear, but I agree your needs are not as those of others of Palarand's nobility. Can you manage this task by yourself, without even Merizel by your side?"

Garia's shoulders dropped. "Aye, Ma'am, though it is getting a bit hard. And I have Lanilla back today too. I decided to promote Jenet to look after them all."

"Quite right too. When you arrived in the palace dear Jenet could never have guessed what her future might be."

"I could say that myself, Ma'am. It's been a weird year so far."

Terys looked around. "Where is Jenet this morning? Does she ail too?"

Garia reddened with embarrassment. "Ma'am, I have gotten too many maids and I didn't want to appear to outdo Your Majesty at table. Jenet has taken Lanilla and Odgarda to the servant's hall."

"Do not concern yourself, dear. We know the circumstances which attended the arrival of your girls. Look, here are Robanar and Keren."

Garia curtseyed to Robanar and received a hug from Keren. He raised an eyebrow at Geska.

"It's complicated, Keren. Don't ask."

"As you wish, Garia. You are exercising today?"

"I'm going for part of the morning, then there are meetings all day. You?"

Keren pulled a face. "Since we have now begun a new year father wants me to join him in speaking with the tax people. It will be difficult for us to decide a budget this coming year, for reasons you know well."

A war and me, I guess. Easy enough to figure out.

"As you say. Are you going to be occupied all day?"

Keren looked a glance at his father and received a nod in reply.

"Regrettably so, and we have a War Council meeting this evening."

Terys broke in. "Children, our breakfast awaits. Let us sit down. Garia, which one is this who serves you today? Eriana kept her maids to herself and I did not even know their names until recently."

"I know what you mean, Ma'am. This is Geska. She does know a little of our tongue but was too frightened of Eriana to attempt to use any of it. Odgarda, the other one, is finding it harder to learn another language though Geska helps her."

"As you say. Each of us has a different strength, is it not so? Kenila, some pel for me if you please."

Robanar conversed with Garia and she brought him up to date with the news.

"Ah? Your establishment is growing, Garia. Should perhaps Terevor allocate you a corridor, that your people might be together?"

Garia frowned. That idea hadn't occurred to her. She considered it briefly but shook her head.

"Sire, there are too many to do that and eventually we'd have to move out anyway. Uh, except myself and my escort of armsmen, of course. I had the idea of looking for somewhere in the city to call the home of House Blackstone, uh, that is, outside of Blackstone itself."

Not to mention, where will I go when I go back to Blackstone in the spring? I bet there won't be any room in the Claw for Keren and me.

"Then speak to Kendar, my dear. He will name you those in the city who can find you such a property."

"Uh, Sire, actually I was thinking of at least two properties. A mansion for my staff and visitors and possibly somewhere for Milsy to do experiments. Then maybe some offices for the accountants and other paper-pushers. You remember, we talked about that recently."

Robanar grunted. "I do remember, Garia. This is perhaps to do with that zoning you spoke of?"

"Aye, Sire."

"Then your offices, as you name them, are part of a larger plan and we must consider all. I'll ask Kendar to arrange something with Lady Merizel. Ah, I forget."

"She should be back in action by tomorrow, Sire. I won't be able to manage anything before then anyway."

"As you say. For a quiet winter, much seems to be happening these days."

"You have my full agreement there, Sire."

* * *

In the Self Defense Training Room Tord and Bessel were teaching unarmed combat to a new batch of guardsmen, with Garia acting as overseer and occasional joiner-in. There was a whole file of ten, which together with the tutors and Garia's maids filled the available space in the cluttered room. A bell of mat practice had her comfortably warm in the unheated chamber and so she stopped for a drink.

As she upended her goblet the door opened and Gullbrand entered, followed by two Einnlanders, a bearded warrior and a slight youth who looked about ten Anmar years old. Gullbrand watched the action for a few moments, nodding with approval, before spotting Garia and leading the way over to her.

"My Lady." The three bowed. Gullbrand continued, "Here is Vidrik, who as you remember desired service with you as man-at-arms. I have also brought Alrik who acts as my manservant for the while. Do we interrupt your practice, Milady?"

"No, that's fine, My Lord. Everybody else seems to be interrupting it at the moment. You wanted to bring Vidrik to me to formally hand him over, I take it."

"Aye, Milady, but Kendar has also mentioned that you desired to speak to me today."

Garia gave her goblet back to Geska and put the fingers of her other hand to her temples. She had forgotten Vidrik, although he was a problem that could easily be handed over to Feteran to deal with. She hadn't realized that Gullbrand might also have servants of his own, who would therefore become hers, if temporarily.

Gullbrand looked concerned. "Some problem, Milady? You are unwell? I heard that Lady Merizel was ill."

"No, it's nothing like that! And Merizel will be back in action tomorrow, so they tell me. It's just that... I'm suddenly surrounded with people and I'm trying to organize everything, which is why I wanted to speak to you, actually."

"Me, Milady? Ah, I believe I understand! Kendar was not very clear. You desire me to do for you that which I did for the Princess?"

"That's right, My Lord. The Queen thinks I'm doing too much myself and if someone goes ill, like Lady Merizel, then there's no-one to take her place. She's right, of course, which is why I now have a headache."

"It is somewhat noisy in here," Gullbrand observed. "Might we find somewhere a little quieter to continue this discussion, Milady?"

Garia thought. "You're right, but if I go now I'll have to bathe and change, because if I sit around in these sweaty things I might get a chill as well. It's warm in here but that can't be said of a lot of the palace meeting rooms."

"Indeed, Milady. Should I return later, perhaps?"

"No, I'll come out now, I think. Let's go and find Feteran, I believe he's in the Armory this morning, making sure our weapons are sharp and true. He can take charge of Vidrik here and that will be one less person trailing around with us. How much of the Valley tongue does he speak?"

Vidrik himself replied. "Enough to understand, My Lady. Not enough to talk."

Garia smiled at him. "That's a good start. You know Feteran?"

"Yah, My Lady. I have seen him at the... place where we stayed."

"Good. He'll look after you, introduce you to the others and get your bunk and equipment sorted out."

Vidrik bowed. "Thank you, My Lady."

Garia said a few words to Tord and Bessel and then led the procession out of the training area. Since it was not possible to cut across the field because of the weather she took them the long way round to get to the Armory, which was in its usual condition of heat, sweat and noise. This time Haflin was in the gallery which normally held finished items, talking with Feteran.

"My Lady," Haflin said, bowing. His eyes widened. "I trust you do not bring me more who I must equip with swords today." He eyed Alrik. "I doubt yonder lad could lift anything in this room, he is too young."

"Not this time, Armsmaster," she replied. "Gullbrand has brought Vidrik over to formally hand him to my commander. If I can leave him here with Feteran we'll get out of your way. I know you'll want to test him sometime in any case."

"I have seen him train at the Kallend estate," Haflin said. "I recall nothing wrong with his sword work. Feteran? What say you?"

"Master, Milady, as you know I have spoken with Vidrik at the estate, with Master Gullbrand interpreting. His sword work is fine, it is just his stamina that is lacking, for reasons that we know. For the duties we require around the palace and the city, he will make a suitable armsman for you."

"You'll take him, then? He needs a billet, uniform and so on."

"As you command, Milady."

Garia turned to Vidrik with a smile. "Welcome to House Blackstone."

Vidrik bowed, then turned to Feteran and made a creditable salute. "To serve, My Lord, I am ready."

"I'm not -" Feteran turned to Garia with a wry smile. "Milady, I shall handle this. It seems we must help our new man learn our speech as well as our ways."

"Thank you, Feteran. We'd better be going, then."

Garia led her procession out of the Armory and all the way back to her suite. In her sitting room she found Jenet and Lanilla, speaking together about all that had happened recently. The two curtseyed as Garia's party entered.

"Milady?"

"It's complicated. Jenet, I need to have a quick dip and change. Go and find me something to wear while Odgarda helps out in the bathroom." Garia turned to Gullbrand. "I'll be as quick as I can, My Lord. I hope I won't keep you waiting long, this is a problem I must get sorted out."

Gullbrand bowed. "I understand, Milady."

In a fresh winter-weight day gown and with slightly damp edges Garia reappeared with a smile.

"Right! I hope I haven't kept you waiting too long, My Lord."

"Not at all, Milady. I have been speaking with Geska about her service with you and she is overwhelmed by the difference. She tells me that, unlike our previous employer, you have a real function for the Crown and you have many meetings and other activities to attend. She wonders that you manage with so few people."

"Yes, well, that's what this is all about, My Lord."

Gullbrand smiled. "Milady, while I appreciate the courtesy of a title, it is not necessary. My name should be sufficient, particularly if I am to be of service to you."

"Very well, uh, Gullbrand. You'll excuse me, I'm still finding it difficult to know when to use titles and when to use names."

Gullbrand smiled. "I am in like condition, My Lady."

"It's like this. I'm living in the palace and likely to remain so except for two vacations of about six weeks each. That's when I'll be going to Blackstone to visit my people and find out what they are all doing. It means I currently don't have or need any domestic staff except the maids you see here today. I have Lady Merizel as a secretary, but in my world she'd probably be what is called a Personal Assistant these days rather than just someone who writes my letters.

"Next, there's my men-at-arms, who number about twenty or so led by Feteran. I'm not sure of the exact number these days. Then there's Milsy and Tarvan, who are both guildsmen who have given me their oath. Milsy has a maid who used to belong to Lady Merizel. Oh! And Senidet, of course, who is my apprentice, she's currently working with Milsy... with her own maid Molleena." Garia's eyes narrowed with thought. "I think that's about all the people who currently have given me their oaths... excepting those in Blackstone, that is. I have a Steward there looking after the lands and there may be one or two others up there."

Gullbrand nodded. "A modest establishment, Milady."

"Yeah, but it gets worse. There's also about forty frayen in the palace stables and I've somehow acquired a carriage. There are five men in a room at the front of the palace who handle my accounts and Merry - Lady Merizel, that is - also has someone who looks after any mail to or from the palace for House Blackstone. Now my problem is that I'm really two persons, Gullbrand. I'm the Lady Garia who lives in the palace who's about to marry the Prince and I'm also head of House Blackstone, who most of these people have sworn to. In addition I'm Guildmistress Garia and I expect I'll probably end up with some title from the Questors as well. It's getting very confusing having all these different hats to wear and I really need some help managing it all."

"You have my sympathy, Milady. For one so young, you have done creditably, I deem, yet, as you say, your situation can only become worse with time, can it not? I have some small skill in management which I can make available to you and to House Blackstone, if you would try me." Gullbrand looked apologetic. "I regret I am not properly accustomed to the ways of Palarand, I cannot promise you that all your problems will be solved, but I may at least relieve you of some of your burden - and that of Lady Merizel."

"If you could, Gullbrand. I don't want you to swear to me if you don't want to, because I imagine that you'll want to go back to Eriana when she returns?"

Gullbrand shook his head. "I do not think so, Milady. I deem Her Highness might have other ideas... if and when she may return. I will not leave you when she does return, Milady, unless we both agree to it."

"Then you'll do it? I hardly know where to begin, it's such a mess."

"Naturally I must consult Lady Merizel about your people and your holdings, Milady, then I can make a plan of action for you. I must, of course, inform Kendar of the change in my employment. You wish me to start immediately?"

"I think it can wait until after lunch, My Lord." Garia grimaced. "There's something else, as well. There's just too many of us here in the palace and one or two people are beginning to say things. What I want to do is look for a place in the city, perhaps a mansion, to call the proper home of my house and somewhere else I can move all the clerks and officials out to, an office. The King is thinking of moving some of his accountants, lawyers and other officials out as well and claiming some of the palace back. For the mansion, apparently Kendar can put us in touch with people in the city who deal with property. The clerks and such will have to wait until we sort out the city zoning... you know about zoning?"

"Zoning? I do not know that word, Milady."

Garia described the idea of city zoning, so that different blocks were set aside for differing purposes.

Gullbrand nodded. "Ah, I understand. Of course, Palarand is so large a city that such measures are necessary, Milady. An idea of yours?"

"Not exactly mine, no, but from the lands where I came from, on Earth."

"As you say." Gullbrand considered. "If you acquire a mansion... I assume that funds are available? Good. I will try and ensure that a fair price is bargained, Milady. This mansion will of course require the usual domestic staff... And who will reside there, if you are to remain in the palace?"

Garia smiled. "Perhaps yourself, My Lord. Milsy, Tarvan and Senidet will go there along with about half my armsmen. That means we can take out about thirty frayen and possibly the carriage, along with some of the stable staff. Maybe we can put the clerks there until we can sort out some office space."

Gullbrand nodded. "Leave everything to me, Milady. I must needs speak with Kendar and Lady Merizel and all can be discussed then. I will return when I have news." He rose and turned. «Alrik?»

The boy, who could not understand much of what was being said, had become bored and was looking out of the window at the courtyard below. He turned and in that moment Garia saw what everybody else must have missed.

"A moment, Gullbrand. How is it you ended up with Alrik?"

Gullbrand shrugged. "He is too small and young, Milady, to be of much use to anyone else. On the voyage he was the only one light enough to climb the mast so was often sent up there as look-out. He is deft enough with rope-work, like many of us, but the masons decided he would be at risk when their building works began again. He comes with me because he is but a boy, Milady. I would use him for running errands, that is all."

Garia tried to keep her expression impassive but it was difficult. This situation had to be handled very delicately.

"Do you actually need him for your purposes? There's no reason you can't make use of the palace footman as I do, is there? After all, they know where everything and everyone is, whereas presumably Alrik can't even speak the language much."

"This is true, Milady." Gullbrand looked at Garia with interest. "You have some idea for the boy, perhaps?"

Carefully, now. "I think I might have. I have seen him out at the estate, of course, but it never occurred to me what he would do afterwards. Would you consent to leave him with me? I'll give you an oath that we'll look after him well."

Gullbrand smiled. "From you, Milady, I do not need any oath. If the boy consents, you may have him with my full approval."

He turned and held a short conversation with Alrik. The boy looked at Garia with some reserve, but agreed to the move. He bowed awkwardly to Garia.

«Welcome to my retinue, Alrik. Will you mind being among so many women?»

Alrik hesitated, then said, «I do not think so, My Lady. What is it you intend for me?»

«We'll see. Gullbrand, thank you for your time, and for your offer.»

Gullbrand took the hint, bowed, and left the sitting room. Garia regarded Alrik thoughtfully.

Another headache! One that is going to cause waves however I do it. What are Eriana's maids - no, my Norse maids now - going to think about it? If they didn't figure it out all the way through the voyage then Alrik must have been really determined not to be found out.

She sighed. Best to break it down into manageable problems and deal with them one at a time.

"Jenet? How much longer before lunch, do you think?"

"I have just heard the three-quarter bell, Milady."

"Hmm. Lanilla, do you think you'll be able to serve me at lunch today?"

Lanilla looked surprised but pleased. "Aye, Milady. A cup, a plate, a goblet, they are not so heavy that I cannot manage."

"Then you'll come to lunch with me today. Jenet, take Geska and Odgarda down to the servants' hall, please."

Jenet looked oddly at Garia, so the latter explained, "I'm going to have a little chat with Alrik before we go down, okay? It might be better if there's less people around, so to speak."

Realizing what language that conversation had to be in and who would be listening, Jenet nodded. "As you desire, Milady. Geska, Odgarda, come."

As Jenet ushered the two out Garia gestured for Alrik to sit in a chair. She studied the slight figure. Blond, with green eyes, he looked too young to have begun building muscles the way that most teenage boys did. The boy had realized that something had happened and was apprehensive.

«Alrik, how old are you? I'm guessing about ten years or so.»

«My Lady, I have seen twelve winters pass.»

So, my guess was right, then.

«How is it you were on that boat with the Princess? Do boys your age customarily go to sea? Did you know what was happening?»

«My Lady, young boys do go with the fishing boats, sometimes we must, for our families to have enough food.»

«But Eriana wasn't going fishing, was she? She was running away, secretly, from her father the King.»

«One of the ship's crew, Goran, is a distant cousin and I found out by chance what Her Highness intended.» The expression on his face was one of resignation. «You are right, My Lady. I was also running away. But does it matter any more? I am on a distant shore, I can never be returned.»

«Hmm. Eriana is considered to be an adult in Palarand so she could not be returned without her consent. However, that's not the case with you, is it? I'm not sure what the King will do when he finds out. Besides, that's not the whole problem, is it?» Garia rose and held out her hand. «Come with me.»

She led Alrik, with Lanilla following, through her bedroom and into her dressing room. The boy's eyes were round as he saw what hung in there.

«There,» Garia said gently. «Wouldn't you rather be wearing fine gowns like these, instead of rough old boy's clothes?»

The tears streamed down Alrik's face. Garia pulled him into a soft hug and held him until the sobs had subsided.

«How did you know, My Lady?»

«You weren't going to be able to keep up the pretense much longer, Alrik. Your body is developing as any young girl's is going to do. When you turned at the window I could see... where your breasts will be. Tell me, what is really your name?»

«Ellika, My Lady. Oh!» She looked upset to have been discovered so easily. «What will happen to me now? What will the King do to me?»

«Nothing bad, I think. He's not that sort of a King. Besides, he might not even have to know.»

Garia turned to Lanilla, who of course could understand nothing of what had been said.

"Lanilla, go quickly to the kitchens and order lunch in my chambers for us three, please. Don't run and don't try and bring anything back yourself."

"Milady, what has happened?"

"I'll explain when you get back. Go, now, or all the food will be gone!"

"Aye, Milady!"

Lanilla made her way out of Garia's suite and headed for the kitchens. It was late to order room service but there was always a way...

«Come back into my sitting room,» Garia instructed. «You had better tell me what's going on so that we can figure out the best way to handle this. Do Geska or Odgarda know?»

The two walked back through and sat together on Garia's settee.

«I am not sure, My Lady. They may have guessed.»

«Does anybody else know?»

«No, My Lady. I wanted to tell but I was afraid what they would do when they found out. The Princess has such a temper...»

«Well you're safe here, and so is your secret. I'll figure out somewhere for you to go so that you can be looked after properly.»

Ellika seemed a little calmer. «Thank you, My Lady.»

«I think you'd better tell me the story.»

\\===!===//

It was dark behind the house, and the two figures nearly collided before they saw each other.

«Ellika! What are you doing here?»

«It's Holgar. I can't stay there any longer, I can't. He is too brazen now, he cares not what the others think.»

«You're running away?»

«I have no choice, Sigge. I would would rather kill myself than go back to that.»

«You can't come in here, Ellika! Father would just return you right away... or maybe not. I have an idea. You know father's cousin Goran? He rows for Balrik?»

«Of course! What about him?»

«I have heard that, on the morrow, Balrik is going to sail away and never come back. Goran goes with him. I didn't hear why but I can guess. Nobody is supposed to know, but I overheard them speaking late two nights past. Why don't you go with them?»

«Me? They won't want a girl on their ship!»

«No, of course not! But you could go as a boy. I can lend you some of my old clothes and you can cut your hair. Just get on board and hide somewhere until they are too far from shore to bring you back.»

«What if they don't want to keep me? Suppose they throw me in the sea?»

Sigge shrugged. «You said you would kill yourself rather than go back to face Holgar.»

Ellika's face set. «When you say it like that, Sigge... I'll take my chance on Balrik's boat, then. The Gods grant me luck to see the farther shore.»

\\===!===//

Lanilla returned, accompanied by a footman.

"Oh, Milady, I don't know my way around the palace! I had to ask Soomit to show me the way."

"Of course, you went straight to the Sick Bay when we arrived back here, didn't you? I'm sorry, it never occurred to me. Did you get an order in all right?"

"Aye, Milady, it follows shortly."

Indeed, almost immediately afterward a servant appeared bearing two trays with the first course of lunch. Others followed until the table was spread with enough to feed five people. Once the servants had left Garia pulled three chairs to the table and told Lanilla and Ellika to sit. Both looked at her as if she was crazy.

"This is what we do, Lanilla. If I have to eat up here Jenet always sits down beside me. There's absolutely no need for servants to be kept waiting while the rest of us eat, not in private, anyway. Even the Queen approves."

"Th- Thank you, Milady."

The two sat and began on the food. For a while they all ate steadily until their hunger was damped down. Garia noticed that Ellika ate as much as Lanilla did and wondered whether an improved diet would trigger off a growth spurt - and other interesting developments.

Once they were finished, with only mugs of pel to empty, Garia sat back.

"I said I'd tell you what was going on, Lanilla, but you must keep this to yourself until we can work out what to do."

"Milady? Of course! I am sworn to you! Something unexpected has obviously happened."

"As you say. This person," she gestured at Ellika, "is not a boy called Alrik but a girl called Ellika."

Lanilla did a double take and then looked more closely.

"Milady, now that you have pointed it out, it is apparent to me." She looked concerned. "What will happen to her now, Milady? Does Master Gullbrand know?"

"As far as I know, only the three of us here right now know, but I'm expecting that to change shortly. I don't think there will be a problem finding someone to look after her but I'm concerned that her existence might cause trouble."

"Trouble? How... I don't understand, Milady."

"Geska and Odgarda. Maybe Gullbrand as well. If they spent all that time at sea with her and didn't work it out they might be a little annoyed."

"Annoyed? Oh, I see, Milady. Aye, if it happened to me I would not wish to be thought a fool. But, you are their liege, can you not do something? I remember, when we were in Blackstone and I was fighting with Jasinet."

"That's true, and it might come to that. I'm also not sure what will happen when the news gets out. People roaming the palace pretending to be -" She stopped and reddened. Remember those cleaning dresses? "- ah, something they're not. Ellika doesn't deserve any of that, she should just go to a palace family who can quietly look after her."

"Oh, as you say, Milady! I do know what rumor is like in the palace. That would be too cruel."

The door opened and Terys bustled in, followed by Kenila and Varna. She seemed surprised to find Garia sitting at the table. Garia and Lanilla stood and curtseyed while Alrik stood and, after a moment's hesitation, bowed.

"You are not well, dear? I came as soon as I could, when I discovered you were not at table."

Garia felt a big sigh of relief. If anyone could sort this out, it would be the Queen. However, there was a more immediate problem...

"Ma'am, I am well, thank you, but if you would excuse me a moment."

She strode to the door and gave instructions to the two armsmen waiting outside. When Jenet appeared with the Norse maids, she would get a surprise refusal and instructions to go elsewhere. Returning inside, she found that Terys had chosen to sit on the settee. The Queen looked puzzled at Garia's antics.

"If I may, Ma'am?"

"Of course, dear, but whatever is going on?"

"I, we, have a problem, Ma'am. Master Gullbrand has brought the ship's boy with him as he is too young to go with Eriana and it wouldn't be safe for him to stay around the masons at the Kallend estate. This is he, but unfortunately he isn't a boy called Alrik but a girl called Ellika, in disguise."

"I don't understand, dear. This is the ship's boy? No, this plainly cannot be, she is a girl. Tell me."

Garia patiently explained, "There was trouble at home, Ma'am. She pretended to be a boy to sneak onto Eriana's ship and run away. Unfortunately there was no opportunity to own up after they left, but I think nature is about to take its course. She won't be able to keep up the pretense much longer. She was planning to run away again but I don't think that will be so easy in Palarand."

"No, indeed, dear! And at such a tender age. Does she speak our tongue?"

"A very little, Ma'am, like most of them. I think I want Alrik to disappear into the palace system and Ellika to be adopted by one of the palace families. That way we won't have to explain things to too many people."

Terys's eyebrows rose. "An admirable plan, dear."

"Well, I've had all lunchtime to stew over it, Ma'am. I don't want Geska or Odgarda to find out what Alrik really is in case they make trouble. I'm not sure about Gullbrand either."

"I agree, dear." Terys came to a decision. "Leave her... him with me. I shall take him... her... with me and make some discreet inquiries, probably of Merek. Perhaps one of the guardsmen has a family who would take her in." She tutted. "This is most confusing!"

"Oh, thank you, Ma'am! I know it's short notice but I have a lot else happening today and it's not really my problem. I just didn't want Ellika to be exposed to everyone and I wasn't sure what to do."

"Quite right, dear. She is at an age where she needs safety and reassurance." Terys rose, so everybody else did. Alrik bowed and everyone else curtseyed. Terys held her hand out to him with a smile. "Come, my dear. Let us go and find you a new home."

Ellika looked at Garia, a question in her eyes.

«Go with the Queen, Ellika. She is very good. She will look after you.»

«Thank you, My Lady. But I do not speak your tongue very well.»

Garia smiled. «I'm sure it won't take you long to pick enough up to make yourself understood. Besides, I'll always be around if you need me. Just ask for Lady Garia anywhere in the palace.»

«Thank you, My Lady.»

Terys gently took Ellika's hand and they walked out of the sitting room, leaving Garia to blow a sigh of relief. She grinned at Lanilla.

"See? I told you life in the palace would be exciting."

"As you say, Milady. The Queen is very nice, isn't she? That was the first time I have seen her close except when she came to the Chamber of the Sick."

"Oh, yes! She is brilliant, Lanilla. A word of warning, though. The Queen knows everything. It is next to impossible to keep secrets around her, but on the other hand, she knows ways to get things done. Ellika will be safe in her hands."

"As you say, Milady. What should I do now? The lunch plates must be cleared, I deem."

"That's right. Now, when I have had lunch in here before, Jenet used to pull the green rope. Will you do that?"

The rope summoned the corridor servants who made short work of the lunch leftovers, cutlery and crockery. Once they had cleared the table Garia remembered how their afternoon had been organized.

"Right. It's time for us to go along to Merizel's chamber. I said you could go and sit with her this afternoon, didn't I?"

"That's right, Milady. If I may ask you to explain the corridors as we go, Milady? I find the palace most confusing."

"Well, I'm not so sure myself about much of it, Lanilla. This place is huge! I know enough to get myself down to the Training Rooms and to find the lunch halls but mostly I let Jenet guide me. You must find this place amazing after growing up in Blackstone."

"Milady, I think the palace could swallow up the whole of Blackstone and nobody would notice." Lanilla said quietly. She was reserved as they set out along the corridors. "I thought Blackstone was a large town, I was mistaken. I thought Tranidor was very large, when we came to it, but then we kept arriving at larger and larger places. The world is very large, Milady, and I knew but a tiny part of it."

"It's difficult for the human brain to cope with very large distances and numbers, Lanilla. In time you'll find that you get used to it, though. Why-"

There's no point telling her about long distance travel, is there? She was a poor girl from a frontier town until I took her away. Maybe one day...

Garia changed the subject. "Oh, look, along that way are some rooms, one of which we use to do the Tai Chi every morning. Are you allowed to do that yet?"

"Milady, my arm cannot make all the movements because the muscle is not yet strong enough. And my legs are not yet quite right, but I would like to try."

Garia had noticed that Lanilla walked with a barely perceptible limp.

"If Margra says you can try, you can join us in the mornings, I think. The exercises will help stretch those muscles and help get them back into action. Now, we'll go the other way instead and then turn left at the end -"



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