Somewhere Else Entirely -129-

Garia and Eriana move out of the palace to make room for all the expected distinguished guests. On their return for lunch there are dispatches from the war to read before the first visitors arrive, which include an unexpected guest who has news of a different kind.

Somewhere Else Entirely

by Penny Lane

129 - Rulers with Strange Names

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.



"I think that's the last one, Milady."

Garia glanced around her dressing room at the bare rails and shelves. She sighed.

"It has to be, the room is bare." She asked the servant, "You've boxed up everything else?"

"Aye, Milady. Most have gone to His Highness's suite but Mistress Jenet has determined which chests shall go to Blackstone House with you."

Garia turned to Jenet, who nodded.

"It is mostly the winter attire which has been left behind, Milady," Jenet explained. "Since we do not know how long you may be at Blackstone House, I thought to take a fair selection of day gowns for you to wear, and of course you will need evening gowns for the many receptions His Majesty must needs hold."

Garia protested, "Not know how long I'll be at -" She paused. "I guess you're right, at that. We all know what is supposed to happen, but..."

"As you say, Milady." Jenet turned to the servants who stood waiting. "You may remove the chests."

They watched as the men carried the chests out of the dressing room and out of the suite before Garia spoke again.

"Well. I suppose that's another part of my life ended, isn't it? I rather liked living in here, I'd just about gotten used to it. Now it will be seven days or so camping at Blackstone House and then I'll be coming back to live with Keren in his suite." Her nose wrinkled. "I wonder what that'll be like? He's over the other side, isn't he? Does that mean he gets the sun in his windows?"

"He does not, Milady. I believe that because of the direction his suite may be slightly cooler than those on this side of the corridor, which may be a factor in the hotter months of summer."

"Right." Garia remembered back to when she had arrived at the palace and the whole Valley was baking hot. "But he still comes over this side for his afternoon nap."

"Aye, Milady, but that is because he would wish to nap beside his parents." Jenet paused. "Would it be your wish to take your naps on the other balcony once you are wed, Milady?"

That's not going to happen, is it? I'll be gone soon enough and by the time I come back it will either be Fall or Winter. No naps for me this summer!

"And disappoint the Queen?" Garia smiled. "Besides, I like it over this side. We'll carry on as before, Jenet."

"As you wish, Milady. I'm sure the Queen will be pleased."

"You mentioned how hot it was last summer. That was a bit strange, wasn't it? I mean, when I first came to Palarand. Now at home in Kansas we'd normally take off as much as possible to cope with the heat so I wasn't happy to begin with having to wear all those flouncy layers but I've realized how cooling they can be. The summer gowns I have are very practical but I'm sure some shorter styles will come in eventually."

Jenet looked apprehensive. "Shorter styles, Milady?"

Garia grinned. "You'll see. But I wouldn't worry, I don't anticipate outraging Palarandi society any time soon."

Jenet's response was dry. "Any more than you already have done, Milady?"

"Ouch! You hit the mark there, I guess. But after I'm wed, I'll have to behave myself a little, I think. I really don't want to frighten people off, it could turn them against Keren and that would never do."

"As you say, Milady."

There was a small commotion and Eriana appeared at the doorway.

"I see that your chambers are as bare as mine," she remarked.

"Yes, we'd better get going and let the servants clean these rooms up for our distinguished guests," Garia replied. "Ready?"

"Aye," Eriana said. "There will be more rulers gathered here this springtide than I ever knew existed."

"Me too! I just hope I don't make a mistake and say the wrong thing to the wrong ruler and get myself into trouble."

"But we will be out of the way, will we not? Blackstone House will be a haven of peace amid all the bustle, I deem."

"Ha! You forget, we'll be crammed with everyone who normally lived in the palace, not to mention we'll be required to return here to receive all visitors and attend all receptions."

"Such is the lot of a daughter of Kings, Garia. Soon enough it will be your lot as well."

A guildsman carrying a toolbag entered the bedroom. "Milady?"

"Yes, yes, we're going! I think you'll find we haven't left anything behind. If you do find anything, take it to His Highness's suite, will you?"

The man bowed. "As you command, Milady. Thank you, Milady." He turned and bowed again. "Highness."

The two exited Garia's former suite to meet Keren, coming from his own suite and looking harassed. Seeing them he smiled and bowed.

"I had forgotten just how much clothing a woman requires," he said with a smile. "All those gowns!"

"You do know some have gone to Blackstone House?" Garia enquired with a straight face. "Besides, you'd only complain if I wore the same thing every day."

Keren winced. "I used to stare at all the gowns my sisters had but didn't really appreciate what you all have to put up with." He looked unhappy. "How many chests?"

Garia smirked. "Only six or eight, I forget the number."

Eriana said, "In my father's house I did not have so many clothes as are worn here, Keren, even though 'tis warmer. Since I have been here I can understand the need for variety since Palarand's society is so large. Besides, your betrothed has attire for exercise, for riding and for fighting, clothing that most women would not need."

"Aye." Keren nodded, a smile returning. "I do not object, Eriana, merely marvel. So, what are you two doing now? Off to Blackstone House, I suppose?"

"Yes, Keren," Garia confirmed. "We'll get ourselves settled in and then come back here for lunch. I believe there are some people arriving this afternoon? The message was very brief."

The Prince frowned. "Aye. I know as much as you. I think I'll see you off and then go to the Messenger Office to see if I can learn more."

The group, surrounded by the inevitable escort, walked through a palace seething with staff making ready for many high-status guests. In the stables Garia found Snep waiting for her, along with Eriana's mount and frayen for those members of her entourage and escort. This section of the stables looked empty, since all the frayen for Garia's staff and armsmen, barring some for those remaining there on duty, had been taken to Blackstone House to free up space for arrivals.

Keren clasped Garia closely and kissed her soundly, to the amusement of their watchers.

"This is silly, isn't it?" he grinned down at her. "You're only going to be away for two bells or so."

"Oh, I don't know," she replied, her own expression innocent, "I could get used to doing this any time, even if I'm just going to the next corridor."

"Hah!" He released her. "Just you wait until we're married... you'll have to behave yourself then."

Garia pouted. "You started it. Your Highness."

"Why, so I did! Go on, climb on before Snep makes a snack from your new jacket."

"Well, he has to get my attention somehow, doesn't he?"

With a further peck on the cheek Garia mounted Snep and led the way out of the stables, heading for the front gate. Two of her armsmen pulled in front and Eriana rode up alongside her. They headed into the city along a route now well-known to all. Behind them, a wagon carrying Garia's chests followed with Lanilla beside the wagoneer.

The weather had brightened considerably but it was still not quite warm enough for short sleeves and tabards, so Garia wore a new riding jacket that was cut to fit her upper body snugly but flared below the waist. The significant difference to this style was the gleaming zipper which closed the front of the jacket. Eriana, by contrast, wore a long-sleeved woolen top under a sleeveless jerkin with fur on the outside, one of her favorite items that had survived the journey from Einnland all the way to Forguland and back. All the women were wearing bowler-style riding hats and none were overtly armed.

"Forgive me, Garia," Eriana said after a street or two, "you seem somewhat... tense, perhaps, these past few days. Is there something I should know?"

Well, yes, there is actually. But I can't tell you.

"Uh, you do know we have a festival and a number of weddings coming up? Including mine? Not to mention all those special guests? It isn't surprising I'm tense, what with everything to think about."

"I understand that, Garia." Eriana flicked a dismissive hand. "In Einnland I let my underlings worry about such things for me. I just appeared when I was told to. I recognize that matters are different in Palarand but it seems to me there are other matters on your mind."

Garia made a non-committal noise. "There's just so much. It's not just the festival or the weddings, I have a trip to Blackstone to organize, there's Guild meetings, the new colleges to inspect, Blackstone House and the hotel to supervise not to mention any number of special projects connected to the war."

Eriana nodded. "As you say. I had forgotten how much hard work you already do, forgive me for not thinking."

"No problem." She grimaced. "I suspect it's only going to get worse after my marriage."

"That's why you have staff, Garia. You should not be managing everything you just named by yourself."

"I know, that's why I had Gullbrand off you. We'll see." Garia thought. "Have you made any decision what you're going to do yourself afterwards?"

"Not really. I may have a commission from the Duke of Joth, if His Majesty permits. The Visund will soon be seaworthy again and Maralin has suggested that I might wish to convey His Grace back to Joth by the river and use the opportunity to see some more of the Great Valley before I settle in Palarand."

"That's a great idea! You're really a water person, aren't you?"

"As you say, Garia."

"I come from a state so far inland a river is just something you have to get across, that's all. I can appreciate that for you it might be different. Yes, that's a great idea." Garia looked wistful. "I wish I could join you but I imagine I'm going to be busy afterwards."

Eriana's smile was warm. "Busy, you say? Perhaps I do not understand the Valley tongue as well as I thought I did."

Garia reddened. "Ah, you know what I mean. I won't be flat on my back the whole time."

"As you say. Such is also the lot of a daughter of a King... or the wife of a Prince."

* * *

At Blackstone House their mounts were taken away to join those already in the crowded stables and Garia led the way indoors. Gullbrand was waiting, bowing before both women.

"Highness, Milady, welcome. All is ready for you. I will have your remaining chests taken to your sleeping chambers and unpacked."

"Thank you, Gullbrand. Any problems?"

"Nothing serious, Milady. I have had to seek extra supplies of food and fodder for the festival period since our numbers are swelled. It seems that fodder in particular commands a premium price, perhaps the presence of so many visitors to the capital has made a difference."

Garia winced. "Pay what you have to, Gullbrand. Our frayen are important and we can't let them go short."

Gullbrand bowed. "As you command, Milady."

Merizel emerged from one of the front offices. "Hey, Garia, Eriana, good morning." She bobbed a curtsey before coming and hugging Garia. "You've moved out, then?"

"Yes, both of us."

Merizel grinned. "Welcome to the mad-house. I hadn't realized just how many people you had managed to pick up along the way, myself first, of course. It's probably just as well you'll still be eating most of your meals at the palace because the system here isn't exactly working at the moment."

"Oh?"

"Aye. With so many people to feed we have had over-baked bread, cold porridge, that kind of thing. Makes me wish we had Sookie running the place, but they mean well. Nothing to concern yourself about."

"If you say so. Anything else I should know?"

"There's the usual pile of letters for you to read."

"What a surprise. The party from Blackstone?"

Merizel rolled her eyes. "Aye, Garia! Well on their journey. Because of their importance we have had semaphore signals from every station they have passed."

"And Master Yarling?"

"With them of course." She added, "You worry too much, Garia, though I do not blame you. Everything is in hand, as it should be."

"Thank you, Merry." Garia looked around. "Eriana, do you want to go and find your fellow countrymen? It looks as if I'll be stuck in the office until it is time for us to change and go back to the palace."

"Of course, Garia. I'll see you later."

* * *

Garia regarded the carriage with annoyance. She had ridden in carriages before but she really preferred riding the back of a frayen, as everyone knew. However, today's reception demanded a formal gown and she couldn't ride while laced into a formal gown. This time, she'd have to sit inside and let someone else enjoy the ride.

It didn't help that Eriana, similarly attired in a formal gown, accepted the carriage ride as her birthright.

It also didn't help that the sun had become sufficiently brighter that Jenet had insisted that Garia wore a bonnet and formal gloves and she felt really, really silly.

"Let's do this." She led the way to the carriage. "The sooner we get to the palace the sooner I can take this silly hat off."

Eriana cocked her head. "I do not understand, Garia. You look very pretty dressed like that. What girl would not want to look her best as we progress through the city streets to the palace?"

"It's just -" Garia closed her mouth and gestured at the carriage. Eriana's viewpoint was literally worlds apart from her own experience and explaining would get her nowhere. She accepted Vidrik's hand to help her into the vehicle and then arranged herself on the seat, her full skirts flouncing around her. Eriana followed, to seat herself beside Garia. Jenet and Marisa, Eriana's current maid, seated themselves facing their mistresses. Those staff who were in the yard bowed and curtseyed. Their escort, eight this time, formed up around the carriage and led the way out onto the city streets.

Since it had become sunny the roof of the carriage had been folded down and the two girls were plainly visible as they drove through the streets. Garia felt very self-conscious at first but the shouts of recognition and the waves and cheers soon settled her down. In the city she had become... perhaps notorious was not the right word, but certainly well-known, especially after the brawl at the Assembly reception, and she was surprised by how many of those now thronging the sidewalks knew who she was.

A street market, with stalls which had spilled out into the roadway on either side, caused their procession to slow right down and Feteran had an anxious look on his face as the crowd closed in to catch a glimpse of their Princess-to-be. Garia was tense at first but relaxed when she realized there was no malice in the people pressed against the carriage. She heard snatches of their conversations.

"- I thought she would be taller! She defeated two men with but a spear -"

"- so cute, though! The Prince is a lucky boy and she will make us -"

"- That's her, there, the shorter one! Ma, can we go -"

"- says she is a worthy Guildswoman. Why, Maris said that -"

"- so beautiful! I want to look like that when I -"

"Who is that taller one? She must be foreign, hair that color doesn't -"

Eriana leaned towards Garia to be heard over the hubbub of the crowd.

"See? You are among your people, Garia. Just smile and wave and they will remember this brief passage the rest of their lives."

Garia was surprised to realize the truth of that remark, so did as she was advised. By the time they reached the palace yard she was in much better spirits. Waiting on the steps to greet them were Keren, Lars and Maralin. The Prince had a big smile on his face as he helped them from the carriage.

"Maker! You look so regal sitting in that carriage! Your pardon, Eriana, but you are born to it. This is a new experience for Garia."

"Aye, Keren, I had to encourage her along the way. I deem she is already well-loved within the city."

The Prince turned an appreciative smile on his betrothed.

"You do look nice in that hat."

Garia scowled at him.

"What?"

Eriana explained, "I deem Milady would prefer to be wearing a riding helmet instead of a hat-maker's fancy, Keren. She is not accustomed to playing the part as you or I do."

"No, I am not!" Garia agreed forcefully, adding, "I'll just have to learn to be more patient, that's all. I can't go around embarrassing my husband, can I?"

Keren took her hand. "I don't want you to change, my love, I want you just the way you are. Come, let us go inside and then Jenet can relieve you of this annoyance."

Inside the entrance Jenet untied the wide ribbon under Garia's chin and then removed the two hatpins which secured the creation on her head. Garia smoothed her hair into place with relief.

"I'm sorry, Jenet. I'm going to have to pay more attention to hats, aren't I? I need to figure out what kinds I like and those I don't." She turned to Keren. "Any news?"

"Oh, yes, lots!" Keren indicated Maralin. "We can tell you the main points as we walk to the Receiving Room."

"Sounds like good news, then."

"Aye," Maralin confirmed. "Our forces - the allied forces, that is - have invaded Yod." He smiled. "Crossing the river was not as bad as we had feared."

"Indeed not," Keren took up the narrative. "In those regions the Sirrel is still around a mark wide and there were Yod galleys defending most of the bank facing that where our levies had gathered. So four of our galleys were sent out into the river and anchored in a line about two hundred strides offshore and a hundred strides apart. Hidden in the bow of each was a rifleman with one of your new toys, Garia. Whenever a Yod galley approached, with our galleys seeming an easy target, the sniper in that galley or the next one aimed for the steersman."

"It was a brilliant idea, Garia, and one only possible with the new rifles," Maralin explained. "Each of our galleys covered the blind spots of the other, so approaching steersmen were always vulnerable. Whenever one was hit, another took his place as you might expect. But he was targeted as well."

"They sent out six against us," Keren added. "Four took fright and returned to their own wharves, one became mired on a sandbank attempting to avoid us and the sixth -"

"- approached the end galley of the line and attempted to board," Maralin finished. "As it came close enough, a grenade was thrown into it which exploded killing seven and started the boat sinking. The rest of the crew promptly surrendered. It was towed into the shallows and the men rescued."

The party turned into the Receiving Room and found themselves a corner to wait until the King and Queen arrived.

"The next step was to move the anchored galleys further across the river so that the rifles could reach the wharves," Keren continued. "It wasn't long before no-one would risk walking there, even with shields, which meant the way was clear for our own men to land and secure the wharves for our own use. It seems that there has been little resistance to their landing so far, though we know those of Yod must offer battle soon enough."

Garia was impressed. "Fantastic! That's really good news, Keren, and I'm pleased to hear that somebody at the sharp end is using their brains." She considered. This wasn't like a war back home. The news had to have arrived by letter, which meant that what had been described was already old news. "How long ago did that happen?"

"Let me see," Keren thought. "Today is the nineteenth day of Marash, is it not? And the letter was dated the thirteenth, I deem. So they will be well established by now, if all should go as desired."

"Five days? That's impressive for that distance, Keren."

He shrugged. "It is war news, Garia, which takes priority over all else these days. Of course, once we construct the semaphore system through the Great Valley then messages may take two days from end to end, would you agree?"

Garia was open-mouthed. "You think -"

Her question was interrupted by the arrival of Wallesan, followed almost immediately by the King and Queen. Once they had all been seated and the meal begun, Eriana had a question.

"Sire, who are we expecting to arrive today? As you may expect, I am not familiar with the political arrangements in the Great Valley, except for those countries we have passed through."

"My dear," Robanar replied, "you have passed through this one, I deem, on your return from Joth. We expect the Andrate of Smordan this afternoon."

"The... Andrate? I remember Smordan, it is true, but we saw little of it except the roadhouses we slept in. Sire, of what manner of man is this Andrate? I do not know that word."

"He is... the equal of a Duke or a Grand Duke, Eriana. Wouldn't you agree, Wallesan? I deem you have more to do with him than ourselves."

"Aye, brother. Highness," Wallesan addressed Eriana, "the title is an old one which relates to an empire that once governed the Great Valley, the same one which gave us the language we all speak. If you have need to address him, he prefers 'Your Eminence', though 'Your Grace' or even 'My Lord' would not cause offence. He is an old man now, though still hale, and I expect that he will bring one or more of his sons to support him."

"That's what the semaphore message says," confirmed Robanar. "His eldest son remains to guide his domain while his second son accompanies him this day."

"Thank you, Sire, Your Grace. There is much that I must needs learn about your neighbors and I will attend my studies with care."

The afternoon was another one of those hurry-up-and-wait occasions but Garia spent her time discussing the latest news from Yod while they awaited their visitor. As it happened, they were standing on the porch in a group, enjoying the fine afternoon weather, when the lookout boy ran from the gate with a surprising announcement.

"Sire! Two processions approach the gates!"

Robanar looked at Wallesan but there had been no indication of another arrival so soon. All they need do was wait and the mystery would resolve itself. Soon enough a small procession entered the gates, the lancers leading the two coaches dipping their pennants to acknowledge the Palace Guardsmen. The leading coach pulled up in front of the steps and flunkeys hurried to open the doors.

Out stepped a tall, pale man of great age, bareheaded, bald except for a close-cropped fuzz around the back and sides. In this society he would be considered slender but Garia didn't consider him to be underweight, he just looked thin because he was so tall. He waited until a man of middle age joined him from the other side of the coach and then mounted the steps.

"Robanar. Well met."

The two clasped each other in a formal hug before standing back to inspect the other.

"Chorvath," Robanar acknowledged. "Welcome to my home. Treat my house as you would your own."

Chorvath gave a faint smile. "This pile? I will be lost within a bell, just like the last time. Thank you, cousin. I know you will be busy this Spring Dawning, I'll try and keep out of the way." He turned. "Your Majesty, you are still as magnificent as ever."

Terys blushed as she made a brief curtsey. "As I told you before, Your Eminence, all compliments gratefully received. Welcome to our humble home."

Chorvath snorted. "As you say, Your Majesty. If I may present my second son Chorsond. He has visited you before but when he was a young lad, I believe."

Terys looked at the sandy-haired man who bowed before her. "Aye, I remember you, young scamp. I trust you are better behaved these days?"

"Your Majesty, those days are long ago now. If it were not for the Prince's marriage, I would be leading Smordan's men in Yod this day."

Terys was startled. "I apologize, My Lord! My, how the years pass! Aye, you have grown into a worthy young man. Welcome to Palarand, then. I hope we will find enough to keep you entertained while you are here."

Chorsond bowed. "As you say, Your Majesty. I look forward to seeing the wonders I have heard so much about."

His father echoed his sentiments. "Aye, I will agree with that! Robanar, I deem there is much we have to discuss while I am here. I noticed the busy construction works along the road into the city."

"That and much else, Your Eminence." Robanar gestured. "You recently met Keren, of course. And this is the young lady he will be marrying, Baroness Garia of Blackstone."

Keren bowed and Garia curtseyed as the tall man turned to study them carefully.

"Your Highness," he acknowledged Keren with a nod. "My Lady. His Highness' description of you was inexact, though I do not blame him for it. You are beautiful, my dear, and you will make Palarand a wonderful Queen in time." He frowned, adding, "...though you are shorter than I was led to believe."

"Your Eminence, I hear that a lot, I'm afraid." Garia smiled. "Don't let that fool you, though. I can manage perfectly well among these great oafs."

The Andrate returned the smile. "I'm sure you and I are going to get along splendidly, my dear."

Robanar had just completed the introductions when a bugle blew and the second convoy entered the yard. Chorvath's men hurriedly moved their coaches and frayen out of the way to allow a single carriage, escorted by nine men, to pull up at the steps.

"Who are they?" Keren muttered as a middle-aged man got out. "I don't recognize those colors."

Two other men, both in uniform, followed the stranger out. To Garia their clothes had a slightly odd look.

"Not Yod, surely?" asked Eriana. "I do not know the various colors of the Valley states. I have only seen those of Yod in their war garb."

Robanar muttered. "Not Yod, no. I believe I know, Eriana, but we shall find out soon enough."

The senior of the two uniformed men climbed the steps and saluted by banging his open palm on his chest.

"Your Majesty. If you may forgive us for our unannounced arrival. We have had a long and difficult voyage from Faralmark. If I may present my liege, His Grace Simbran the Younger, Margrave of Faral, who attends your festival with messages from Her Majesty's homelands."

"Your liege is welcome here this day. Your own name?"

The man flushed. "Your Majesty, I apologize. This is an unusual situation and I forgot myself. I am Captain of the Field Woltass of His Grace's Forces of Defense and my companion is Senior Captain Hannar."

He stopped as the Margrave reached the welcoming party.

"Your Majesty," the man said in a deep voice, "I regret that we could not warn you in advance that we desired to attend your celebrations. Our journey here has been long and difficult. If you have no room for us I can find some other residence within your fine city."

Robanar clasped the Margrave.

"Simbran. Be welcome here. If this is all your party, we shall find room for you in the palace. The Maker knows it is big enough."

"Robanar. I attended here many years ago, I believe, at some celebration or other, probably when your father was King. I do not recognize the building, it has grown once again."

"Aye, tis the curse of Palarand, I deem. If I may introduce you to our recently arrived guests." Robanar gestured. "The Andrate of Smordan. Chorvath's coach arrived just before yours did. He brings his son Chorsond with him."

The men all exchanged hugs and handshakes.

"And this is Duke Wallesan of Joth, who has been staying with us for some small while. You will have passed by his lands, I deem. I am certain that while the main reason for our gathering is the marriage of my son, we shall all have a great deal to speak about concerning other matters."

"Yod, you mean?" asked Simbran.

"Aye, that and several other matters of equal importance."

Chorvath and Simbran looked at Robanar sharply. What else could be as important as a war that affected the whole Valley?

"I am intrigued, cousin," Simbran said. "This promises to be an interesting festival, I deem."

"Aye, you have my word on that. Have you met Keren? No? This is my son, the occasion for our gathering, and beside him is Garia, Baroness Blackstone, who will become his bride."

Simbran bowed to Keren and then to Garia. "I regret I know little about you, My Lady, but I hope that will be rectifed by the time I must return upriver. My lands are beyond Yod and so we have heard little of what has recently happened in the lower reaches of the Sirrel."

Robanar rubbed his hands together. "Simbran, you have no idea. Well, come you all in and let us get you settled. You have both traveled far, let me offer you the hospitality of Palarand to rest and clean yourselves up before our formal reception this evening."

* * *

The reception meal was everything Garia had expected. The table glittered with the best silver, the best china and the servants were all immaculately dressed. Mindful that four heads of countries were seated in the same room at the same table, Merek had lined the walls with guardsmen, all gleaming in their half-armor and their presence more than just ceremonial ornamentation. Further patrols roamed the nearer corridors.

Despite this, the meal was conducted in a friendly, relaxed manner. The newcomers had traveled long and hard to reach the city and Robanar insisted that formality was not expected. None of them had ever heard of Einnland and so they found Eriana's tale very interesting. A discreet word ensured that Garia's story would be left to a quieter, more private moment.

"Naturally, I have never heard of Faralmark," Eriana told the Margrave. "I have traveled as far as Forguland to fight the enemy, I doubt not that your realm must lie beyond Yod. Your Grace, how is it then you managed to pass through those who are our enemy?"

"Ah," Simbran replied, "Highness, Faralmark is not at war with Yod, not... legally. As a ruler I thus have the right to unobstructed passage through those lands, by road or by water. However, my right was disputed on no less than eight occasions, although some were by those opposing Yod. To have to continue to justify one's self to an under-officer and a patrol of soldiers is wearisome, I deem."

Robanar was astonished. "They sought to delay you?"

"Cousin, they did not believe who I was. I brought only a small escort and so they thought me some kind of spy or informant." His voice was dry. "The first patrol of Yod that stopped us fared badly once the truth was discovered. The Tributant of the nearby town personally slew the under-officer in front of us and placed his men in chains for it. From then until we left Yod we had an additional escort of their own men, though it did not prevent other stops and searches."

Chorvath was outraged. "They searched your belongings, Simbran?"

The Margrave nodded. "Aye, though they did not open any sealed packets we were carrying. It seems the rule of the Valley Messenger Service still holds in Yod, though just barely."

Merek asked, "If I may, Your Grace. I know we will have the detail another time, but how did you travel? What was the temper of those towns you passed through?"

Simbran shook his head. "We came by the river, Captain. Our colors were enough to let us pass the Yodan stretch of the Sirrel, but we must needs land every night to find food and lodging. It was then we were accosted." His expression changed. "Once we came to the region where the Yodans warred against those from the lower Sirrel, we were warned against proceeding. We did, of course, but were stopped on four occasions by galleys who thought we were of Yod, come to make mischief among them. I will own they treated us better once they discovered who we were."

Wallesan commented, "It is unusual, these days, for such as we to travel the Valley by river. I deem you will make hard work of the return journey, Simbran, even if the war is finished by then."

Simbran nodded. "Aye, I can but agree. The Sirrel has more twists than a serpent! I had forgotten just how it winds through the lower reaches of the Valley. Perhaps I will obtain a coach in Palarand, we are not so large a party." He turned back to Merek. "As for the temper of the Yodan lands, Captain, I can only report what I saw whenever we landed. Confusion. Bewilderment. Resignation. Friends, for that is what I deem you all to be, those of Yod know the end is near, they but await the stroke. For myself, as representative of lands beyond Yod, I cannot wait for that day to come. They have been a blight on our lands for far too long."

Robanar exchanged a glance with Wallesan. "Aye, we can but agree," he said to Simbran. "Let us leave such matters until later, I'm sure the ladies along the table desire to hear more pleasant words with their meal."

"Indeed, cousin. Your Majesty," he addressed Terys, "I have letters from your mother and brothers in my pouch. I will pass them to you when we retire from table."

"Oh, thank you, Simbran. Have you seen my family lately? Can you tell me of their health?"

"Regrettably not, Your Majesty. Your younger brother Ennan recently came to me in Faralmark with the letters, since he had business nearby. In fact, it was the presence of those letters, together with the announcement of Prince Keren's betrothal, which decided me to attempt to attend their marriage. However, we spoke of your family when he came to my court and I will describe as well as I can what he told me then."

Terys was delighted. "Oh, you are a good man, Simbran! We will have time to speak of Ennan's visit while you are here, I doubt not."

"As you say, Your Majesty."

Later in the meal Chorvath asked, "Robanar, what is that strange thing on the wall over your doors? I swear parts of it have moved since we sat to table."

Everybody turned to inspect the clock, mounted above the entrance doorway.

"Aye, parts of it move all the time, Chorvath. It they did not, I would ask a guildsman to mend it since it is intended to inform us which bell of the day or night it might be. Did you not hear the bell make a noise as we sat down? No, perhaps not, we were too busy speaking."

"It is something to do with your palace clock, then? How is this possible? I assumed your clock to be as large as my own, which fills an entire room."

"Indeed, our Great Clock fills most of a large tower in the palace, Chorvath, as do those in most cities and towns in the Great Valley. This is something called a slave clock, which means that it repeats the setting of the Great Clock wherever we need it but without requiring so much room."

Chorvath looked puzzled. "So how does one..? Oh, there are strange symbols on it, I can see, and there is a number I can recognize, but much of the rest appears strange to my eye. That number," he frowned, "that would be which bell it is, then? So much I can understand."

"As you say, Chorvath. The number you can see in the little window at the top are the Garian numbers which correspond to eleven. The other symbols you can see... have you heard yet of the Garian numbers? No? I'm sure they must have reach Smordan by now... they are a better way of counting and we are changing our methods to use them, everywhere we can. The pointer at the bottom counts parts of a bell and the little yellow circle on a blue background shows us it is the bells of day that we presently reckon."

Chorvath nodded. "Now it is explained, I can understand what I see. My thanks to you, Robanar. But what is that circle to the right, then? More strange numbers, I deem."

"Aye, Chorvath. Our Astronomers and our Guildsmen have determined that it is of benefit to us to divide our day into twenty-four rather than twenty, and so the hands on that dial move round twice each day. At noon and midnight they point upwards together and need no adjustment whatever day of the year it is."

"Twenty-four? So those divisions are not those of bells, then."

"Indeed not. The larger divisions are called hours and each hour is made from sixty minutes. I will ensure that you and Simbran shall take away all the information you desire about these new devices and related matters such as the Garian numbers."

Wallesan waved a finger. "Chorvath, you'll need the Garian numbers, take my word for it! The difference it has made to the accounting of taxes and expenditure is astonishing. If you take only two things home from Palarand, they must be forks and the Garian numbers, but I know from personal experience you will desire more, much more."

Simbran raised an eyebrow. "Robanar, you give this knowledge freely?"

Robanar grimaced. "The situation is... complicated, my friends. Aye, there is some that I will offer freely but for the rest I will describe how matters are dealt with in Palarand and we shall discuss how the Great Valley may take advantage."

"You speak of Guild rights, then. Aye, I can understand the need for talks."

"My friends," Robanar said with a smile, "you have no idea."

* * *

Garia was not invited to the evening meeting between Kings, Dukes and Rulers with Strange Names. This was partly because she no longer lived at the palace and it was necessary to return to Blackstone House before it became too dark. The days had lengthened as the year progressed but not yet sufficiently that she could stay much beyond the reception meal.

She was in two minds about missing the meeting. On one hand she was sure to be one of the hot topics of conversation but on the other it would all have to be gone over again once the other wedding guests arrived. She had already told her story so many times that putting it off for a day or two was a relief. Besides, there was enough to do wherever she happened to be.

"So," Eriana commented as their carriage made its way through darkening streets, "the first guests have arrived. Do you yet know how many are expected, Garia?"

"Not at all, Eriana. Remember, we didn't expect anyone from beyond Yod so Simbran was a surprise. I think the road to Moxgo isn't open yet so nobody would come from that direction but who else might turn up I really don't know." Garia turned to Eriana. "What's up? Think you'll find it all boring?"

Eriana shrugged. "Mayhap. A lot of old men talking, mostly. I don't mind the receptions but there are other matters I should attend to that must needs be delayed."

"I know what you mean," Garia said thoughtfully. "We'll be missing our exercises for one thing. And riding! However, some of the closer rulers might bring wives and such so it might get more interesting for the likes of us. Of course, there's one thing that might be of particular interest to you."

"Oh? What is that?"

"There might be some young guests, sons perhaps, coming with their fathers. If you're on the lookout for a husband this might be a good opportunity to meet some new faces."

"There is much in what you say, Garia. I had not thought of that. However," Eriana cautioned, "if I should marry any such they must agree to reside with me in Palarand. I have given Robanar my oath and I know the folk of the Valley take such matters seriously. He is a good King, such as my father ought to have been, and I consider myself to be a Palarandi now. I would not leave Palarand even to follow a husband, thus he must needs abide here with me."

Garia grinned. "I have no problem with that. In your situation I think I'd feel the same way."

~o~O~o~

Another day, another ruler. Garia missed the arrival of the party from Virgulend as she was in the Palace wardrobe having her final fitting, along with those women who would accompany her. Grand Duke Mariswin was accompanied by his wife Dianel and some retainers but his brother Duke Jarwin was noticeably absent. Robanar made the introductions when Garia arrived in the Receiving Room for lunch.

"Mariswin, Dianel, this is the young woman who has turned Palarand on its head and so inflamed those of Yod. Garia, presently Baroness Blackstone, soon to be Keren's bride."

Mariswin's surprised attention fixed on Garia.

"This is the girl? You have some amusement at my expense, surely, Robanar! I cannot believe one so small could bring my brother to heel."

"Believe, Your Grace," Merek said gravely. "Even those of us who had seen her practise within the palace did not realize what she could do, were it necessary. Since that unfortunate meeting she has killed at least two men using only her hands and feet."

Mariswin's eyebrows rose and fell. "Well, Captain, if you say it must be so, then I must needs yield." He turned a respectful gaze on Garia. "My Lady, I must thank you for your services to Virgulend, it seems. I am not proud of my brother's conduct before you met him but now he resides more or less quietly on his own estates. I thought him bested by some dranakh of a woman, now that I know the truth I understand what you all had faced." He gave a nod to Keren, standing anxiously beside his father. "I understand also why this fine young man desires your companionship. When he visited us on the way to Joth I was not happy that he was to marry the means of Jarwin's downfall but the truth makes much clear."

Keren bowed. "Thank you, Your Grace."

Mariswin continued, "Robanar, I want to see what this maid can do! I assume you have demonstrations planned?"

"Aye, Mariswin," Robanar nodded. "We will wait until we are all assembled, I deem. This wedding will signal changes for all our countries, there is much for us to discuss before any demonstrations are made."

"Oh?"

"Aye. As I said, there is much to discuss and it would be a waste of breath to repeat all that we must say. If you desire to consult Wallesan, Bardanar, Chorvath or Simbran while we await other arrivals, say but a word and I will find you private spaces to have your meetings. For now," he smiled, "it is time we sat for lunch. Mariswin, do you yet use forks in Virgulend?"

"Forks? These are these new devices for eating, are they not? Why, I have heard of them, of course, but..."

Garia trailed after the rulers as they headed for the tables. Keren came alongside and his hand found hers.

"It has begun," he said. "Though we are the final act in this season of celebration our betters are already considering other matters. Perhaps it will be a relief not to be the center of attention for a while."

Garia snorted. "You do realize we are going to be King and Queen one day, don't you? We couldn't possibly be more the center of attention then!"

"Aye, of course. Till then, we will take such chances as we may."

Late in the afternoon, while Garia was having a quiet talk with Maralin, more visitors arrived, this time from Brikant. In fact, the whole ruling family appeared with the exception of Marlin, who was leading troops in Ferenis or, perhaps by this time, in Yod itself. Everybody hastily went to the front entrance to greet them.

"Friends, may I present Duke Visselen, the man in whom I have complete trust to run Brikant," Robanar said. "Here is also most of his family, I deem. Duchess Sindenna and their beautiful daughters Dalenna and Terissa." Robanar grinned at the twins. "Which of you is which, by the way?"

"Your Majesty -" one began.

The other one continued impudently, "- it might cost you a kiss to find out!"

Robanar turned and rolled his eyes at the other rulers. "See what I have to put up with? These two are fearsome, my friends. Do not, under any pretense, let them outwit you. You shall regret it."

The twins pouted.

Robanar continued, "And these must be Torzon and Larilla." He crouched down to the younger children. "Be welcome here, my young ones. Do not let these big folk upset you. In this palace there is room enough for big and small together."

They both looked steadfastly at the King before their mother nudged them and they bowed and curtseyed to him, again without speaking.

"It's been a while, Your Majesty," Sindenna said with a smile. "All these new faces on the step aren't helping either."

"I understand, Sindenna. I'm sure Terys has some distractions arranged for our younger guests."

"I do, Sindenna," Terys confirmed. "Now, perhaps we'd better all come inside and I'll see you all settled into your rooms."

"Sire," one of the twins asked as the crowd turned to enter the palace. "Will we be permitted to attend the Tai Chi while we are here? We have brought suitable attire with us."

"What's that? Oh, aye, I do not see why not." Robanar frowned. "The numbers grow... I deem we will be too many for the school-room if all take part. I must needs consult Kendar and Merek before I may give answer, girls. Be patient, if you would."

"Of course, Sire," the other one said. "There is lots we have to talk about with Garia, in any event!"

"Girls," Terys tried to sound a note of caution and then gave up. "Garia will be delighted to speak to you but remember, she will be very busy this springtide. Do you not recall what she will be doing two days after the festival?"

"Of course, Ma'am. We'll try not to pester her."

It had occurred to Garia that of course her friends would turn up for the festivities but somehow it wouldn't be the same, not with everybody else crowding out the palace. With her now living outside the old building they couldn't even arrange a get-together as they had done before. She felt sad, because in some ways this was another part of her life changing forever.

The twins were now staring with awe at Eriana.

Dalenna asked, "Your pardon... Highness, is it? Are you the one who went and killed hundreds of those bad Yodans? Is it really true?"

This time Terys rolled her eyes but Sindenna was alarmed. "Whatever do these two mean?" she asked.

"It is true," Robanar explained. "Princess Eriana led her men on an expedition to Boldan's Rock, capturing it and killing many of those who sought to keep it from its rightful owners. She did not kill those men all by herself, though I am told it is true she was in the thick of the fighting. As were two of my own guardswomen, Danisa and Heldra. Girls, there will be enough time for you to hear the tale, let us proceed within and allow others to use the doorway."

"Uh, Sire, forgive us," Terissa said.

"Do not concern yourself, Sire," Eriana said with a smile. She turned to the twins. "I shall gather those who wish to hear the tale and you shall all hear what happened, the real story. For now, let us proceed as the King commands."

"Guardswomen?" Simbran asked, astonished. "This tale I must hear."

"Aye," Robanar told him with a smile, "There is much you must all hear, and most of it is because of our dearest treasure."

He cast a fond glance at Garia before striding off along the corridor, a cloud of rulers in his wake.

* * *

The sky was a deep magenta as the last of the setting sun's rays cleared the western mountains. Soon, evenings would become abruptly much longer as the sunset reached the alignment of the Great Valley, but that time had not yet come. On the porch, Garia was wrapped in Keren's embrace.

"I have to go, my love. I am needed at council. And you must depart before the streets get too dark."

"I know. It's just that... moving out of the palace means we have even less time together."

Keren raised an unseen eyebrow. "You imagine that, with the guests we already have, that we would have more time together had you stayed? I deem we would both be too busy. As it is, I envy that you may avoid most of the meetings that are sure to happen these next few weeks."

"Except when I'm trotted out like some prize performing animal," she muttered. "Throw a few guardsmen, wave some swords about, look pretty while I'm doing it."

"Aye, I forget what it must be like for you. Once we are married, though, and away from this mad-house, we will have time to relax, discover more of each other as any man and wife should. Once on the road to Blackstone -"

Keren stopped abruptly. He continued softly, "I forget, my love. That will be the hardest part of all this crazy year we have had together. The summer will be hard for both of us."

"Shh! Don't say anything more. Somebody might get the right idea."

Eriana appeared through the doorway with two of Garia's Norsemen who were providing part of their escort.

"Keren, Garia. I am ready to depart. I desire to have some peace and quiet for a bell or two."

Keren's grip on Garia slackened. "Aye, you must go," he told Garia, "but remember, it will only become worse in the days ahead."

"I know it, Keren."

Keren kissed Garia a final time and then the two girls headed for their carriage.

"Not many days to go now," Eriana said as they settled themselves. "Like yourself, I find it hard to deal with so many new faces. Perhaps I was naive to think I could ever rule such a place as Palarand."

"I think you would have adapted a bit," Garia replied. "It took me some time to get used to living in the palace but now it is my home. Almost all these new faces are only here for the wedding, remember. You probably saw more on your way back from Forguland."

"I'm not so sure, Garia. I am a girl of the sea, of wild coasts and rugged cliffs. I have enjoyed living in the palace but would prefer less attention, I deem. I have given Robanar my oath but I still wonder what purpose I may have in life."

"Don't worry, Eriana. Look at me! I can scarcely believe what has happened to me over the last year. Nobody can tell what the future holds for any of us."

Garia turned to her maid. "Pull the cord, Jenet. Let's go home. Today was hectic, the next few are going to be even worse, I imagine."



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