Somewhere Else Entirely -137-

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In Dekarran, Garia struggles with her feelings concerning her forthcoming journey. Despite this, she still finds time to discuss the castle's drains, attend Merizel's wedding, visit the King's Tower again and find Eriana a new job. The deliberations of the rulers reaches a successful conclusion and finally, Garia has an entirely unexpected encounter.

Somewhere Else Entirely

by Penny Lane

137 - The Empty Road

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) 2010-2016 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.



Garia examined the bed critically.

"I still think it's far too large." She snickered. "But then, I'm not complaining, not this time."

"You are a wicked woman, wife of mine," Keren said as they walked over to the bed. "You shall wear me out before I ever become King."

Lanilla entered the bedroom behind them, leading castle servants bearing two chests.

"Highness," she said, addressing Garia, "which dressing room will you choose? I have a chest for you and a chest for His Highness. The others are to follow shortly."

"Um," Garia thought. She pointed. "I'll take that one, that's the side I used before. That way I won't get confused in the morning." She thought. "I shared with Merizel before, didn't I? Do you know what she'll be doing this time?"

Lanilla blushed again as she gesticulated instructions to the four men. "Highness, I do not. I deem she will only require a suite for three days until she marries Lord Terinar."

"Of course," Keren muttered. "In the middle of everything else that is about to happen, we have another wedding!"

"Be fair," Garia scolded him. "It has been as hard to keep Merizel and Terinar apart as it has been to keep us apart. Don't they deserve some happiness as well?"

"Aye, of course they do, my love. I am not suggesting they do not. It's just that..." He paused, uncertain how to continue.

"...With everything else going on it is hard to concentrate," Garia finished for him. "I know, I'm struggling myself." She turned to Lanilla. "I think, perhaps, when those men have left, I will need your help in the toilet."

"As you desire, Highness."

The men, having deposited the chests one to a dressing room, bowed and departed. Garia and Lanilla walked over to the door both knew concealed the toilet closet, opened it - and gasped.

"Keren! You have to come look at this!"

Puzzled, Keren joined them and his eyes opened wide as he saw what had caused their excitement. In place of the customary tiled hole in the floor stood a gleaming hammered copper toilet bowl, complete with S-bend trap. The bowl was surmounted by a carved hardwood seat and connected to a copper header tank by more gleaming pipework.

Keren took a step forward to investigate and then remembered that his wife actually wanted to use the facility. He gestured.

"You must needs tell me what you think, my love. I shall await your report with interest."

Garia and Lanilla shut themselves in the closet and inspected the new apparatus.

"Is this what you use on Earth, Highness?"

"On the part of Earth where I live, certainly," Garia replied. "We have something similar to this on large parts of our world, though I think the designs vary from place to place." She shrugged apologetically. "I haven't traveled very far, you know. I only know about what I've seen."

"What about those moving stories you tell us about, Highness? Do they not show these devices?"

"We try not to show that part of any story, mostly. It isn't usually important to the story so everyone assumes that people use them just as those who watch do."

"Oh. So, how exactly do we use these, then? I cannot imagine we must needs stand on top."

"No, we sit down. Here, help me pull my skirts up so I can get to my underwear."

Garia felt no embarrassment in sitting on the toilet in front of somebody else, not after all she had experienced since coming to Anmar. The act of bathing together had ended any anxiety she might once have felt. If Lanilla had wanted to use the toilet Garia was just as prepared to help her maid as when the situation was reversed. Both women wore similar layers of clothing and would have encountered similar problems.

Once finished and her attire restored, Garia turned to Lanilla.

"Now, if you pull that rope, you'll see another wonder."

Lanilla watched in amazement as the toilet flushed, and then peered into the bowl.

"It has not worked properly, Highness! Some water remains."

"No, that's what is supposed to happen. There's a small amount of water trapped at the bottom which prevents smells coming back up the pipe."

Lanilla considered this. "Oh, how clever, Highness! I see what you mean. At home, there was always a bad smell in the toilet chamber."

"This will help get rid of most of that and it also makes sure that most of... what we do... gets flushed right down the pipe. Better all round, although it does use more water than doing it the old way."

The two opened the door and rejoined Keren. He smiled.

"Was it what you expected?"

"It was. It looks like the guilds have tried a few different things to get the flushing right but it seems to work okay as far as I can tell. You know it will use more water?"

Keren nodded. "Aye, we discussed that when you first told us of these toilet seats. I do not think we have cause to worry, not for a few years."

"No, but when your cities are full of people you'll have to think more carefully how it all fits together. You'll need to consider both water supply and sewage disposal and you shouldn't rely on the rains happening every year the way they have done so far."

He frowned. "What do you mean, my love? The rains have always come, for as long as we have records of such events. What reason could there be for the rains to fail?"

Garia sighed. "That's a story," her eyes briefly flickered to Lanilla, "for another time. Let's just say that the climate doesn't stay the same way all the time, it gradually changes over centuries, and mankind - us - can affect how that changes, by doing things like cutting down trees or damming rivers."

"Warning noted," he replied thoughtfully, then added, "it seems I must now encounter this new marvel of yours. What must I do?"

"Um. Okay, if you're just going to take a piss, lift the seat and point. If you're going to do more, pull down your tights and sit on the seat. Once you've finished, pull the rope and let go, and the bowl will be flushed."

"Oh." Keren looked at the gleaming metal. "It is mostly obvious, isn't it?"

"Almost. You'd be surprised how many men don't lift the seat before pissing and get it all over the seat. And you'd be surprised at the number of men who raise the seat and don't lower it after they've finished."

There was apprehension in his voice as he asked, "By the way you speak of such matters, can I assume that they cause conflict on Earth?"

"They do, Keren." She smiled at him. "So it is best if we get the right attitude from the beginning from the man who is going to lead his country. Now, perhaps you'd better go in before you stain your tights like Trosanar did."

"As you say, Highness."

Garia poked her tongue out at Keren as he retreated into the toilet closet.

When he emerged she was in her dressing room with Lanilla, unpacking the gowns she would use while they were staying in the castle. Most of her chests had been left in the wagons, since they wouldn't be required - theoretically at least - until they began their journey north. With the exception of her boot knife and her Personal Pistol, her weapons had been left packed away as well. If anything should happen while she was staying in Dekarran, it was unlikely that her swords or armor would be of significant use.

Voices from the bedroom made her look out through the dressing room door.

"Uncle Gil! This is unexpected."

She went out into the bedroom to join Gilbanar, Vivenne and Keren.

"I just thought I would come and make sure you are both settled, my dear," he beamed. "This is the suite you had before, is it not?"

"That's right, Uncle Gil. You didn't tell us about the upgrade your people made in the toilet, though."

"Upgrade?" Gilbanar was puzzled at first by the strange word, then he burst out in a smile. "Ah! I think you mean the new toilet bowls, is that so? I had planned for them to be fitted while we were all away, I was not sure all of the work had yet been completed."

He walked rapidly over to the toilet closet, followed closely by Vivenne.

"There, my dear!" he said to her. "Isn't it magnificent? A boon to any woman, I deem."

Garia put in, "Yes and no, Uncle Gil. It is more comfortable but we women will always find toilets more difficult to use than men do. We're just built that way."

Gilbanar turned and colored. "As you say, my dear." He frowned. "It does work, then? I have not yet tried the contraption myself."

"Both Keren and I have used it, Uncle Gil, and it does exactly what it is supposed to."

"Good, good! Now then, Keren and Garia, I just came along to see that you were all settled and to tell you there is nothing arranged for this evening. Doubtless, once the King and Queen arrive, there shall be nothing but ceremonies, presentations and feasting, and once the other rulers have joined us, well," he rolled his eyes, "let me say I am not looking forward to it! For the remainder of today, though, you may take your ease. I believe Terinar and Merizel will shortly join you and he shall be your guide if you decide to wander the corridors or balconies today." He beamed at them again. "Just enjoy yourselves as any newly-married couple may."

"Thank you, Uncle Gil," Keren replied for them both. "And this evening's meal?"

"A family affair, I think, even though there will be a number of extra guests tonight. Terinar will bring you when it is time."

"Thank you, Uncle Gil," Keren said again.

Gilbanar and Vivenne took their leave. Garia wrapped her arms around Keren's waist and leaned her head on his chest.

"It's nearly over, isn't it?" she murmured.

"What is? Oh. Aye, as it must be, I deem." He glanced down at her. "Are you having second thoughts?"

"Yes. Always. I've just managed to get everything right and then it has to be put on hold for... a year."

"Hold? What mean you?"

"Oh, it's an Earth expression. If you phone somebody and they..." she paused. "Look, this is going to get complicated. Let's just say it's like putting something to one side and coming back to it later."

"Aye, I see." He hugged her close. "I shall do my best, love. I gave you my oath and I shall be faithful to it."

"I know you will, I took that same oath myself, didn't I? But it is a long time to have to wait with no guarantee what you'll find at the other end."

"But that is only like the birth of a child, my love. The length of time is comparable and the result may be entirely unexpected, but if it is your child you will love it anyway. I'm sure your own... adventure... will have a like result. I deem that your part will be the harder, as with any mother who expects her child."

Garia thought about what was to come.

"I'd like to talk about it a little but I can't, not right now." She lifted an arm and indicated the direction of the dressing room, where Lanilla completed her duties. "Later, Keren."

"As you desire, Garia."

Terinar and Merizel appeared then, followed closely by Jenet and Feteran. Merizel was excited.

"Have you seen the new thing they have put in the toilet, Garia?"

"Of course, Merry! We've even used ours."

"I approve," Terinar said, "even though it increases demand for copper, which is already very high."

"That's why we make them out of porcelain on Earth," Garia explained. "They might be harder to make but they will be cheaper and more resistant to corrosion as well. The ones they've installed here are all right, though. I can't see large numbers of copper toilet bowls being installed all over Palarand."

"As you say. Look, we have a parlor at the end of the corridor, shall we all go there and make ourselves comfortable? Father said we wouldn't be doing much until the others arrive so to take the opportunity to relax."

Keren agreed, "At your suggestion, Terry. Lead the way."

* * *

"Mistress Milsy!" Gilbanar's eyes narrowed. "Or do you possess another title these days? Guildswoman, perhaps?"

Milsy curtseyed. At her side, Tarvan bowed. "Your Grace, either will do," she replied. "I am just passing through the castle as your guest this time so maybe Mistress would be more appropriate. Oh, and this of course is my husband Tarvan."

"Delighted to meet you again, young man." Gilbanar shook Tarvan's hand. "Of course we formally met in the palace but we were all so busy then. Have you visited the castle before?"

"I have not, Your Grace," Tarvan replied. "I have heard so much about it from Milsy, of course, but this is the first time I have set foot inside."

"It is as well you have her as a guide, then. I would not wish for Palarand's foremost electrical engineer to become lost in this great pile."

"Your Grace," Milsy said, "I don't know very much of the castle at all, I would be no good as a guide. My former station was in the kitchens and the servants' quarters below. I have never been to this part of the castle at all."

Tarvan added, "Your Grace, it is not I who is Palarand's foremost electrical engineer but Milsy. If she had been born into a different household I doubt not she would have become Palarand's first female Questor, such is the ability she shows us."

"Indeed! Before she ever left the castle she showed how clever she was, and the palace was the right place to send her, I deem. With Princess Garia's help she has shown us what jewels we may all hide in our establishments and know no better. I trust we shall not make the same mistake again."

"I don't know about that, Your Grace, but I am very thankful that Milsy was brought to my attention." Tarvan smiled. "Since that fateful day we have accomplished much together, even if I have to marshal my wits to keep up with her."

Gilbanar leaned conspiratorially towards Tarvan. "Young man, it was ever thus, but don't let our women find out!"

Tarvan grinned. "As you command, Your Grace."

Gilbanar waved an arm at the diners who had already assembled.

"We are almost all here now, so if you would care to make your way over there, " he pointed, "you will be near the center table at which you shall sit this evening."

Tarvan bowed. "Thank you, Your Grace, we deem it a great privilege. Although we have done so at the palace, neither of us is yet comfortable with dining in so high a company."

Keren and Garia skidded through the door in a great hurry, stopping only to acknowledge their host.

"Our apologies, Uncle Gil! Garia got herself involved in a discussion concerning the castle drainage."

"Oh? Is there some problem?"

Garia replied, "I don't think so, Uncle Gil. The Guildsmen who look after that side of things didn't really know. I think they were unsure what effect these new toilet bowls would have."

"Ah, I see." Gilbanar nodded. "And have you satisfied them?"

"I believe so, Uncle Gil. For now, there's no problem at all. Maybe in twenty years time... it all depends on what changes happen here over the years."

"Of course. We are always changing things, knocking holes in walls, closing up doors, that sort of thing. Is it not the same in the palace?"

"As you say, Uncle Gil."

"Then," Gilbanar beamed, "let us leave the smelly subject of drains for another day and choose one presently more close to my heart - food! Come, it is beyond time we went to table."

Among those who had traveled with the advance party were Count Saram and Countess Bartra of Ferenis; Count Fard, Countess Windra and Captain Brevin of Forguland; Earl Morgis of Shald and Duke Wallesan and Tenant Maralin of Joth. Despite this, there were few enough that all could be accommodated at the center table for the evening meal. None of the visitors had ever been in such a large stone building of any kind and the castle astonished them.

"My friends," Gilbanar explained, "this was once the home of the Kings of Palarand, before the land was divided by the Sirrel. We have also given succor to the people of Dekarran in past centuries, when the coasts were beset by pirates and raiders from the sea. These days we can provide shelter to our folk from storms and the rare floods of the Palar but only a small portion of this great bulk is regularly lived in. Still," he smiled, "we struggle on with what we have. The outer fabric is sound enough, and keeps us safe from the worst weather, but much of the inside would be considered old-fashioned now."

"Old fashioned or not, Your Grace," Wallesan remarked, "I deem there are few along the Great Valley who can offer such rich accommodation as this."

"You may be right, Your Grace," Gilbanar replied, "but then who amongst us has the coin to maintain all this?" He gestured at the vaulted ceiling.

"Aye, you are right," Wallesan said. "I would not care to do it, I admit."

"Perhaps the changes Garia brings with her will provide sufficient income," Gilbanar mused. "It is our only hope, I deem."

Later during the meal Gilbanar asked Milsy, "Do you travel north with Keren and Garia, my dear?"

"We do not, Your Grace, though I desire at some future time to make a journey to Blackstone to see what Her Highness has wrought there. Instead Tarvan and I are traveling only as far as Teldor, to visit the new wire works. We have had a request to visit to see if any improvements can be made. It is likely we will consult with guildsmen in other workshops while we are there."

"You are obviously busy, then. If I may ask, shall you call at the castle on your way back south? I am taken by the notion of repeater clocks about the place, although I am not so sure about the wires this would involve.""

"As you say, Your Grace. We have already thought how much more difficult it will be to drill holes through rock than the system we used in the palace... and there is the steam engine to consider, Your Grace."

"Steam engine? To run a clock?"

"All the clocks run on electricity, Your Grace, which in the palace means a room full of batteries. The steam engine is required to recharge the batteries every few days."

Gibanar looked grumpy. "I have already spoken to my guildsmen who tell me that steam engines will be of great use to their labors. However, you have seen Dekarran, there are few places to put such a machine that must needs belch steam and smoke and drink water and eat coal. Is there no other way?"

Tarvan looked taken aback since it had never occurred to him just where any steam engine might be situated in a pile of stone like this. He looked at Garia for help.

She suggested, "It looks like this is going to be the time you think of making a proper power plant, Tarvan, with high-voltage lines bringing the power into the castle."

"You mean... put it down by the river, so that the coal can be directly unloaded there, and use transformers each end of the lines?"

"More or less, yes. There's a lot of detail involved, of course, and I doubt we'll have time to design it before we leave here. I think it can wait until I return from Blackstone."

Keren looked at Garia sharply, a fact that was noted by Milsy. He decided it would be better if he kept quiet.

Tarvan merely nodded. "As you wish, Guildmistress, but I can begin the search for a suitable site for the power plant on our return from Teldor."

Captain Jokar coughed. "Your Grace, such a location might prove a weak spot should the castle need defending. Perhaps one of the lower vaults may be more suitable for the engine. Many have access for delivering coal and water, and there are shafts for ventilation."

Tarvan looked surprised. "Captain, I did not know such places existed. I will be happy to consult with you on our return from Teldor."

After the meal Milsy accosted Keren. "There is something going on, isn't there, Your Highness?"

Keren sighed. "Aye, Milsy, there is, and I can tell you nothing of it this time. Do not think that we consider you untrustworthy, you have proved more than that in the past. It is just that we have given oaths not to tell of... what is intended. Doubtless you will find out... what is intended... in time and I may tell you some of it then, but remember, we are still bound by oaths." He added, "Oh, and please do not speak of this to any other. We desire that neither truth nor rumor shall spread, it will make... what is intended... more difficult to accomplish."

Milsy straightened. "I am trustworthy, Highness. I will do as you command."

* * *

"Just hold me close tonight, Keren."

"As you wish, my love."

They lay together in the huge bed, closely entwined, her head on his broad chest.

Even a year ago, she would never have believed that she could behave this way. The boy that once had been was still there in her memories, but the memories had been wedged into an entirely female brain and she had - reluctantly at first - accepted her destiny.

That was what now caused her concern, since those same memories, plus all those gathered in the months she had been on Anmar, would soon be wedged into yet another brain, this time a male version of herself. Would she adapt again to the demands of the new body, as she had done to this one? If so, how would she regard Keren, the life mate she loved today with all her being?

And if that were to happen, would she have to undertake the same process when she returned here yet again? The thought nagged her. Would she be the same person Keren had fallen in love with? Would the experiences of her visit to Earth make her a different person? She wanted some reassurance but the future was clouded and Senusret refused to provide even the slightest clue.

"Do you fear what is to happen, my love? I would in your place, I deem."

"Fear is too strong a word, Keren. I'm not frightened, as such. I think I trust the Beings to make sure everything works as expected, and they did say they have backup plans in case anything goes wrong. I just don't know what I'll be like when I get there and I am concerned what I might be like when I get back."

"That is natural, my love, to fear the unknown." She made a movement and he added, "I know you said you didn't fear but the unknown is the unknown for a reason. Only when you arrive there will you be able to impress yourself upon it, for then it will no longer be unknown."

Garia considered for a while, then said, "I'm not sure you're helping, Keren. What I'm concerned about is becoming male again and then becoming female yet again. I won't be the same person you comforted in that courtyard, you know. I'll have seen too much of life for that."

"But you will still be my wife and I shall comfort and cherish you as I do today. If you trust the Beings, then you should trust that I will help you adjust to the rest of your life on Anmar - as my Queen. I swore an oath and I shall try with all my being to fulfil that oath."

"But..."

Garia stopped, as she realized that Keren couldn't understand the process she was about to undergo. There was only one person - that she knew of - who could possibly understand, and that was Maralin, but he was safely dead on Earth and would never have to undergo the double shift she would shortly make.

Perhaps I should stop all this worrying. What will be will be, as the song has it. Tonight and for the next few days I have Keren and I should just live in the moment. I'm not sure how much of this I'll remember on the other side so I should stop worrying and just get on with life. It isn't as if there's little to do, after all!

~o~O~o~

The next day the King and Queen arrived and suddenly the castle began to feel more crowded. Much of the day was lost in the confusion of waiting for the new arrivals and keeping out of the way of all the servants, retainers and functionaries who seemed bent of turning the whole castle into chaos. More of Garia's friends arrived and her attention was distracted from impending events.

"Dalenna! Terissa!"

The twins curtseyed low to Keren and Garia.

"Well met, Your Highness, Your Highness."

Keren grinned at the two girls. "I deem that is sufficient Highnessing for a while, Ladies. We shall do as before and call each other by our names only."

One said, "You are gracious... Keren. We were uncomfortable in the palace with so many of such high rank about us, we had to be careful how we addressed everyone."

"As was I, Terissa!" He narrowed his eyes. "You are Terissa, are you not?"

"Ah, Keren, today I am Dalenna." She grinned impishly at him. "But you may call me Terissa if you desire."

Keren threw up his hands. "You two are impossible!"

The other twin laughed. "Aye, we know. Isn't it fun?"

Garia said, "Well, when Keren is King I'll ask him to have your initials tattooed on your foreheads. That should sort out the problem."

The twins stared at Garia, horrified.

"You wouldn't!"

"That would be horrible, Garia! Everyone would laugh at us!"

Keren replied with a smile, "I wouldn't do that to you, Ladies. I'm sure Garia was only joking, but sometimes it is important that we know who is who. Do you not agree?"

"Of course, Keren. Mother and father always know who is who. Though we sometimes play tricks on other people, and we often wear similar gowns to confuse, actually we are as different as, say, Garia and Milsy. Most people do not understand this and assume we are identical, but we are not."

"Really?" Keren eyed the pair critically. "I may require an expert advisor to tell me the difference, I deem. You look very similar to me, but then I have not seen you often enough to tell you apart as your parents may do."

"Well, we might be telling you the truth -" one of them began with a smile.

"- Or we might be making it all up!" concluded the other.

Keren turned to Garia with a straight face. "Wife? I command you never to bear me twins! The aggravation is too great!"

Both twins pouted. Garia returned a smile of her own.

"My mother always said, 'You'll get what you are given, and like it!'. Keren, there is no history of twins in my family."

"I am relieved to hear it! Now, girls, I doubt we can do much today but we may have a chance tomorrow, while we are waiting for the Kendevens to arrive with the final few honored guests. We shall not be staying in Dekarran long, but I deem we may have an opportunity for a get-together as we did last year."

"As you say, Keren..." Terissa said, all serious now.

"...But at least we won't have to teach Garia how to dance!" added Dalenna.

"That's true," Terissa agreed. "Has Merizel brought her dajan this time? Is she going to Blackstone with you?"

Garia replied, "Yes and yes, Terissa... if that is who you are. But first, of course, she is to be married to Terinar. Do you know the timetable, Keren?"

"We are waiting for the Kendevens," he replied, "so I believe that it will probably happen later tomorrow afternoon. Regrettably they will not have the use of a large field as we did, but there is a chamber of sufficient size within the castle which is customarily used for such purposes." He hesitated, then added, "If there is any problem then the wedding can be delayed until the next morning, I believe, but with the weather and tides as they are, I do not think that likely."

"So we have some bells to kill before much happens," Garia judged. "Girls, how about joining us on a visit to the stables? Are you riding yet?"

"We are, but it is harder than we thought," Dalenna replied.

"Perhaps we need to wait a few years until we are fully grown," Terissa explained. "At least, that's what Momma says."

"Do you have any trouble with the animals? Aren't there any around which are your size?"

"We like caring for our frayen," Dalenna said. "They just seem so... big."

"Most of Daddy's frayen are the same size. I did not know that they came in different sizes," Terissa added. "Keren, does the palace have frayen of different sizes?"

He nodded. "They do, though some are larger than normal instead of smaller." He smiled. "Why do we not go to the stables and inspect those that are there? We have many guests and doubtless their mounts will be of various sizes."

"Aye, let's go."

~o~O~o~

The chamber was one of the largest in the castle. A wide crack in the rock of the mountain led from side to side of the promontary and chambers and vaults had been built on many levels inside it until the whole fissure had disappeared inside the stonework. This particular chamber had wide aisles, with balconies above to seat spectators as well as at the north end. Above the north end balcony were wide glassless openings which let in the light of the afternoon sun. At the southern end was a row of thrones upon which sat the massed rulers of most of the states of the Great Valley. The floor of the chambers and the balconies were packed with guests, retainers, onlookers and many of the staff who ran Dekarran.

In front of the thrones stood the priest. He bowed to Robanar.

"Sire, is it your wish that we may proceed?"

Robanar gestured. "Aye, it is. You may continue."

The priest turned and made his own signal to Kendar, who was standing by the double doors. Kendar banged his staff.

"Would Lady Merizel stand forth before the King!"

There was a commotion and then Merizel entered, resplendent in her gown. This was the garment made for her to attend Garia's wedding and Merizel had already worn it on that day. Her gown was of rich purple, of a similar design to that which Garia had worn but a single color and unadorned. On her head was the customary silk cap wound round with a garland of spring flowers and she had five attendants, Merizel's older sisters Verella and Jalizel together with Tandra, Bursila and Lanilla, who all carried posies of similar flowers. She walked between the onlookers to the center of the room and then stopped.

The priest asked, "Who speaks for this woman?"

From one side two people in noble attire stood. The man answered, "We do, father. I am Baron Kamodar of South Reach, her father, and this is Baroness Batina, my wife and Merizel's mother."

The priest bowed to Kamodar and then said to Merizel, "Advance, if you would."

When Merizel reached the priest he asked her, "Do you enter this marriage of your own free will?"

Merizel's voice was unsteady and she licked her lips before replying, "Father, I do."

"Does your liege lord or lady consent to this marriage?"

"Father, my liege lady, Baroness Garia, has consented to this marriage."

The priest turned to locate Garia, seated beside Keren. "My Lady, do you confirm the marriage of your vassal Merizel?"

"Father, I do."

The priest bowed and then faced the audience again. "Who seeks to marry this woman?"

From where he had been sitting, at the opposite side to Kamodar, Terinar stood, wearing his best Dekarran colors. "Father, I am Terinar. It is my desire to marry Merizel."

"Then advance and stand beside your bride."

Terinar walked forward and stood at Merizel's right side. The priest asked him, "Do you enter this marriage of your own free will?"

"Father, I do."

"Does your liege lord or lady consent to this marriage?"

"Father, my father Duke Gilbanar has consented to this marriage."

The priest turned to Gilbanar and bowed. "Your Grace, do you confirm the marriage of your son Terinar?"

"Father, I do."

The priest nodded to Gilbanar and turned to face Robanar.

"Your Majesty, a union such as this has implications for the line of succession."

Robanar waved a hand. "Indeed. We are content that these two people are of sound families. This marriage has our approval."

The priest bowed, turned, and then addressed the whole room.

"In order to follow what we believe to be the Maker's plan, it is desirable that men and women should be legally joined for the raising of the next generation. These two who stand before me now desire such a union. Shall any here object?"

There was a short silence in the room.

"Then let us begin. Terinar, do you confirm your desire to be joined to Merizel?"

"Father, I do."

"Merizel, do you confirm your desire to be joined to Terinar?"

"Father, I do."

"I must ask if you both understand that your joining may be dissolved at any time by mutual consent, unless you bring forth or are otherwise possessed of children. Once you are possessed of children, then you must needs remain together until the youngest of them becomes an adult. Do you understand?"

"Aye, Father, I do."

Merizel blushed at the mention of children. "Father, I do."

"Terinar, shall you look after Merizel always, provide her with a home, keep her whether you are rich or poor, attend her if she be well or ill, cherish her all her days?"

"Father, I shall."

Behind the priest, Gilbanar said formally, "Heard and witnessed."

"Merizel, shall you look after Terinar always, keep his home, serve him truly whether you are rich or poor, attend him if he be ill or well, cherish him all your days?"

"Father, I shall."

This time it was Garia who said, "Heard and witnessed."

"Do you have tokens to exchange to seal your joining?"

"Father, we do."

Terinar dug in his belt pouch, pulled out a small silk purse and shook from it two gold rings into the priest's hand. The priest looked at the rings and handed one each to Terinar and Merizel.

"Repeat after me, if you would: 'With this ring I pledge myself to you.'"

Each repeated the pledge and then placed the rings on each other's ring finger. The priest took Terinar and Merizel by the shoulder and turned them to face each other.

"Then by the Maker's Grace and the laws of Palarand, from this moment you shall be accounted husband and wife."

There was applause which grew as Terinar kissed Merizel in public for the first time. The noise in the chamber peaked and then quietened rapidly as Robanar stood.

"As is customary at such joinings, the lesser is always raised to the rank of the greater, and so I give you this decree with pleasure: From this moment forth, Merizel wife of Terinar shall be known by the title and style of Countess, to bear all the responsibilities and enjoy all the perquisites that accompany that title."

Robanar paused and his eyes roamed over the crowd in the chamber.

"As most of you are aware, Terinar is the son of my brother Gilbanar and thus bears the courtesy title Count by virtue of that relationship. He holds no lands nor title in his own right, nor do I intend to provide him such at this time. He is yet young and has not yet proved himself in industry or the field. Presently he assists the Barony of Blackstone in discovering the wealth which we have discovered lies beneath those remote mountains, and he will shortly become concerned with the empty lands to the east between the Palar and Vardenale. If he is successful then we may consider granting him lands in those regions."

There was a stir when Robanar announced this, and even Garia was surprised.

I've been distracted. Of course, Jarith and Haldren have doubtless been talking to people... it's not often someone gets to carve up a chunk of unclaimed land!

Robanar held up a hand. "This news is new to most of you since it has been so recently decided, but a wedding is no place to speak of land allocations. Terinar, shall you conduct your wife forth in the traditional manner?"

Terinar and Merizel turned to face the King, bowed and curtseyed, and then turned again to face the crowd. This time the applause was loud and sustained. The couple first headed for Merizel's parents and retainers before walking slowly between the rows of onlookers.

Keren leaned towards Garia. "Think they'll stop making eyes at each other now?"

"Don't be silly, Keren!" Garia whispered back. "Do you think our behavior was any better?"

"Children," Terys said from beside Keren. "Let them enjoy their day, if you would."

Keren reddened. "As you desire, mother."

* * *

Keren and Garia bumped into Wallesan and Maralin on their way to the wedding feast. Maralin waved a hand at the rich paneling lining the corridor.

"Impressive, and not even the home of the King. This place is more like a five-star hotel than a castle." He grinned. "Not that I have ever set foot inside a five-star hotel, you understand."

Garia replied, "I've never even seen a five-star hotel, except on TV, but I agree. I have to admit, I was wondering what might become of a great pile like this in years to come. With the coming of guns, fortifications have to change in structure and layout. Perhaps this place could be turned into a swanky hotel."

Wallesan asked, "Highness, is it all like this? I cannot believe the entire mountain is dressed in this fashion."

"It's what you might expect, Your Grace," she replied. "Where the family lives and works, and where most visitors come, is done up like this. Once you get to the quieter parts you're back to stone - though the masonry is still well-dressed." She momentarily shuddered as she remembered an impromptu side journey that ended in a fight. "I haven't seen a lot of the castle myself. I'm told there are many chambers out of use if you know where to look."

"In past centuries, Your Grace," Keren added, "the castle lords have taken in the people of the town and protected them against storm, pirates and raiders. That is one reason why the castle has grown so great."

"Ah." Wallesan smiled. "I doubt, on my island in the Sirrel, that I could build anything so large, even if I desired to. It would simply sink into the valley mud."

"And cost you more coin than you could ever provide, Your Grace," Maralin added.

"Here we are," Keren said as the doors opened. "Looks like most have arrived before us. Your Grace, if you would go first, I would not like to shadow your entrance."

"That is gracious of you, Your Highness." Wallesan nodded his thanks and preceded Keren and Garia into the chamber. Waiting to greet them were Terinar and Merizel, with whom each of the new arrivals exchanged hugs and handshakes. As Wallesan and Maralin moved off to find their places, Merizel pulled a face at Garia.

"What's up, Merry? I would have thought you'd be the happiest person alive right now."

"It's my father, of course. It would have been better if the King hadn't mentioned the new lands today, because father has some idea that he can get himself involved and make some coin out of us." Her face wrinkled. "He is a good Daddy but really he's just like those other barons, always grasping."

"Maybe you're right," Garia replied. "Consider this, though. You now outrank him and you can tell him to mind his own business if you so desire, Countess."

Merizel was struck by that thought and giggled. "You are right, of course. I forgot that, but of course I can't treat my own father the same way I can treat any other baron."

Terinar commented, "But I can, Merry. I know it will not be easy but he must respect any decision I make, must he not? Besides, it will be years before Ptuvilend will be offered as a barony - or even as a county."

Keren's eyebrows rose. "Ptuvilend? Is that what they are going to call it?"

"Aye, Keren, probably after your own encounter with such a beast." Terinar waved a hand. "I'll tell you later, if I may. As your own father said earlier, this is not the day to discuss land allocations, I deem."

Terinar had noticed the Queen bearing down on them.

"Come, children! Take your places, we have a wedding feast to enjoy!" Terys rolled her eyes. "If nothing else, we must needs stop Gilbanar complaining that he is dying of hunger."

The four grinned and followed Terys to the tables.

* * *

"I don't want to do it, Keren!"

Garia was wrapped in Keren's arms, in their bed, and the evening was well advanced.

"It's all happening at the wrong time!" she continued unhappily. "I need to be here, where I can help the Guildsmen and the Questors with all the questions they have for me. I want to go with Milsy and Tarvan to see the factories in Teldor, I have to go to Blackstone to see what's been happening there. I need to be here as the Congress writes out a constitution for the new Federation and there's enough work back in Palarand to keep me busy for months! A trip back to Earth seemed like a good idea but not right now."

Keren held her close and tried to sooth her. "Life happens as it will, my love, and there is nothing we can do to change it. You know that well, do you not? Consider: if a hungry ptuvil had not seen us, we would not be here now, and we could not arrange the invasion by Yod to suit our own appointments. We do not order our own destinies, even the Beings cannot do that directly. There is a narrow chance you can return to Earth and bring us aids to help us as we develop and we must take it. You know that as well as I."

"I know. It's just..."

Keren felt his nightgown dampen with Garia's tears and he kissed her gently on the forehead.

"You are a remarkable person, my love, and I am fortunate to be able to offer you a life beside me. You deserve no less, I deem. Just using what little there is in your memory you have already changed Anmar utterly, and you have not been here a year yet. All Palarand is in a furious ferment with the ideas and materials you have brought and you must allow the others to make their own decisions, you cannot manage all yourself. Your task, as will mine be when I am King, is to direct others as we strive to find our own future. I will always be here, my love, to support you and ensure you do not overwork."

She clutched him tightly. "I know, but..."

"Hush, my love. Did I not tell you that I loved you? Even when we are King and Queen, sometimes we must let events take their own course. I am confident that you will do what is needful and return to Anmar refreshed and eager to continue our life together. Worry not about a future you cannot alter."

"Keren? You're a good man."

She reached up for his lips, and their bodies came together as man and wife.

~o~O~o~

"Another ramp? How many more?" Torulf plaintively asked. "Does this place reach the sky itself?"

Terinar turned and grinned at the young Prince. "It sometimes seems like that, I grant you. Fear not, Highness, we have but one more to climb and then we will have reached the Upper Guard House, we need climb no further."

Maralin asked, "How many floors does the castle hold, My Lord? We did not start at ground level."

Terinar thought. "I'm not sure, Tenant. The problem is, the castle has been built over so many centuries, and part demolished and rebuilt so many times, that it is only in recent months that we have made a proper map of all the levels and chambers. You're right, the courtyard where you arrived is about halfway up the castle levels and we have climbed seven ramps, though there are more than seven floors between here and there. The problem is that some floors are on half levels, so to speak, and some parts slope so that it is difficult to marry one part with another when considering a route."

Maralin nodded. "I understand, My Lord."

Terinar continued, "Below the courtyard level there are at least seven more floors, and I know of some chambers below even the lowest level. Indeed, there once used to be a hidden jetty which gave directly onto the Sirrel, though that is long closed up now. Most of the lower levels are larger than those above, since they are used as stables, kitchens, storage and the like."

Eriana said, "I find this place to be overwhelming, Terinar. I thought the fortress of Boldan's Rock to be the largest, most impenetrable structure that could possibly exist but this castle makes Boldan's Rock akin to a timber hut."

Terinar replied, "I have heard Boldan's Rock described, Highness, by another who has served there. It is indeed a formidable structure, but it is only for defense where Dekarran must needs be defense, a home and an administrative center also. This was once the home of Kings - ah! Here we are."

Through an arch at the top was the Upper Guard House and those within sprang to their feet as the young nobles approached. The Quadrant in charge banged his fist and bowed.

"My Lord," he addressed Terinar, "do you venture without today?"

"Aye, we do," Terinar replied. "I am taking some of our visitors to the King's Tower while our betters meet in session below. Is there ought to be aware of?"

"My Lord, grakh have been seen the last few days, heading north-east. I know it is late in the season but you must needs take care upon the walkway."

"So late in spring? Aye, we will keep a close watch." Terinar nodded. "Have you a bugle?"

"My Lord, we have, as is required here. We have two men stationed on the roof to provide warning."

"Good. We'll get out of your way, then."

Terinar led the small group out of the Guard Room onto the balcony in front of it. Ahead, a walled walkway led to the lookout post on top of the King's Tower. From either side, through two gates, paths led out along the mountainside.

"What do you think, Merry?"

"The view is already wonderful," she replied, linking her arm with that of Terinar. "I didn't come up here when you brought Garia the last time." She eyed the walkway cautiously. "You want me to walk out there?"

"That's the idea, aye. Garia will tell you that it is perfectly safe."

"It's true," Garia confirmed, "although I wasn't that keen the first time I went out. I don't remember that being there, though."

She pointed at a dark structure like a witch's hat that covered the whole top of the King's Tower and the lookout post on top of it.

"Ah," Terinar smiled, "that was your idea, was it not? To protect the top of the tower from lightning strikes."

"All of that? Terry, I was just thinking of a few spikes sticking up to attract the lightning. I didn't expect you to build an entire metal roof over the top of it."

"Well, we considered, and then thought, if we are to raise some structure on the tower, we might as well attempt to protect our men from passing grakh. And the weather, of course, since the top is so exposed. I am told the roof was very comforting during the worst part of winter."

"And it works?"

"So I am told. Remember, I have spent most of the last six months away from the castle."

"As you say."

Torulf asked, "We are to venture out there? What keeps it in the air, Lord Terinar?"

"That is the top of the King's Tower, Highness. You remember, the big tower to your right as you came into the castle courtyard? That's where we are going. Coming up this way is much easier than climbing the hundred and sixty or so steps up to the top."

Torulf looked at Eriana for support but she merely smiled back and began walking out along the walkway. Garia reached out and touched the arm of Marisa, Eriana's maid, who had begun to follow her mistress.

"Highness?"

"It will be crowded out there, Marisa. If you would care to stay here with Jenet and Tandra, I will join Eriana and Merizel to preserve modesty requirements."

Marisa curtseyed. "Thank you, Highness. I would follow my mistress but... I would not feel comfortable doing it."

Garia smiled at the maid and then turned to Torulf. "Coming, Highness?"

Garia, Torulf, Terinar, Merizel and Maralin followed Eriana across the walkway and into the lookout post. The men there straightened and their officer saluted.

"Carry on, men," Terinar told them. "I've brought some of our visitors," he smiled, "oh, and my new wife, up to have a look while our elders and betters do business below. We'll try and keep out of your way."

The officer saluted again. "That shouldn't be a problem, My Lord. If I may offer you the congratulations of myself and our men, and of course congratulations to Her Highness as well. Both marriages are well deserved."

"Thank you, all of you."

Terinar ushered Torulf to the south side and Merizel followed, so Garia decided to avoid crowding by taking Eriana and Maralin to the northern side of the tower.

"So, this is the Palar valley," Eriana mused. "We are as high up here as I was on the walls of Boldan's Rock, I deem, but of course the rock was higher to begin with. The view is impressive, is it not?"

The air was crystal clear this fine morning and the various attributes of the valley stood out plainly, even without the aid of a telescope. Maralin peered into the distance, shading his eyes from the spring sun.

"Is that the next town? I can't see Blackstone from here, can I?"

Garia snorted. "Not a chance! Right there at the bend in the valley is Teldor, which is a day's ride away. It's around three more days to Tranidor and then another two days or so from Tranidor to Blackstone. The Palar goes a long way north from here."

"Oh. I hadn't realized. I've become accustomed to the dimensions of the Great Valley and this is the first side valley I've ever seen."

Eriana had been leaning over the parapet looking at the river and the wharves below the castle.

"Look! I can see the Visund down there."

The other two leaned over. Garia saw a typical longship tied to one of the wharves but it was apparent that work was being done on it. Both ends were having decking added, only leaving the center portion clear. The new wood was lighter in color and there were men working on it, but it was too far to make out exact details.

"What are they doing, Eriana?"

"It was not my decision, Garia, but we were advised to add these enclosed portions before we sailed upriver," the Princess explained. "We will likely be still on our way back here when the rains fall, and, though I can scarce believe it, we are told the ship would be filled with water in the space of but two bells, too much for us to bail out." She turned to Garia. "Do they really tell us truth, Garia? The rains sound impossible."

Garia grinned. "Oh, yes, you'd better believe it, Eriana. Last year it rained for two months solid. That's why there are these big ditches everywhere, but even so most parts still get flooded out. They are well adapted to the seasonal floods around here but it will be a shock for anyone not used to that much water."

Maralin gestured. "How do those decks help, then? You still have the middle exposed."

Eriana wrinkled her nose. "The covered parts have strange names, I am told. That at the front is called foaksul and that at the back is the poop deck."

"Oh, I can help you with that," Maralin said. "The front name is a corruption of forecastle. In olden times ships were built with a forecastle and a sterncastle, which was where the archers and men-at-arms stood when fighting other ships. I'm not sure where poop deck comes from, but it probably isn't what you are thinking. I'm sorry, you were saying."

"Forecastle? Aye, that makes sense. So, when it begins to rain, we take down the mast and lay it along from one deck to the other. Over that we stretch a sail or tarpaulin to provide cover for the rowers in the middle. That way everyone stays mostly dry and the water runs off."

Garia fixed upon something Maralin had said and it gave her an idea.

"You know, once we get this Federation, or whatever they decide to call it, under way, they are going to need a Navy."

Garia looked at Maralin and he nodded recognition.

Eriana turned to Garia. "I do not know this word."

"Just as every country has an army, a country with a coastline has the equivalent armed forces at sea to protect them. I'm wondering... perhaps I have a job for you when you get back from upriver."

"A job for me? Doing what, exactly?"

"You told me you would prefer to do something connected with the sea, and I can understand why. This new Federation is going to expand and the coastline will get bigger and bigger over time. Perhaps you can be the one who organizes protection and exploration services for them."

Eriana looked thoughtful. "An interesting idea, Garia. Tell me more. Would I use ships like the Visund?"

Garia grimaced. "I don't really know that much about the Navy. Maralin, can you help?"

"Of course, Garia." He turned to Eriana, thinking hard. "Highness, Navy ships are usually dedicated to fighting and protection, so they are constructed differently than merchant ships. Think of the galleys the Yodans used. From what I know of the Visund, it will probably serve for a few years, but by then Palarand will be making steam-powered steel ships so you'll have to adapt your ideas as things change. The people on those ships are divided into two sorts, the sailors who actually run the ships and use the on-board weapons -"

"- Like big, deck-mounted guns," Garia broke in.

"Aye," Maralin agreed. "Guns, and other things later on. The sailors also run the steam engines and look after the ships so some will be engineers. As well as those, a lot of ships carry Marines, which are specialized soldiers who use the ship as a base but go and fight on shore - or other ships, of course."

Garia added, "I'm thinking that your Einnlanders would make excellent marines, Eriana. They would be doing things exactly like the Boldan's Rock attack."

Eriana looked at Garia with respect. "I am again indebted to you, Garia. I had long wondered what use I would be in this new land of mine and you have given me a purpose, it seems. You have also solved the problem of my men, who are also adrift since leaving Einnland." Her glance became mischievous. "Perhaps we may entice some of Torulf's men also."

"I think you're pushing at an open door, there. Your big problem will be to get the Prince to return home, I guess."

"As you say. That is a problem for another time, Garia. Tell me more about this Navy of yours. How shall it be organized?"

"Well, it seems to me that you could divide it into two parts to begin with. Let's call them River Command and Ocean Command. They would need different ship types and have different responsibilities. First -"

The other three came and joined in the discussion and the morning passed by. Eventually a guardsman came from the Upper Guard Room and saluted Garia.

"Highness, your maid begs me to inform you that you must needs return below to prepare yourselves for lunch."

"What? Oh! Thank you. Yes, we'd better be getting back." She smiled at the others. "We have a lot to tell them, don't we?"

"Aye, Garia," Eriana replied. "I suspect they will have much to tell us as well."

* * *

Keren grinned as he welcomed them into the dining hall.

"We have a Federation, people!"

"That was quick work."

"Much had been decided before we ever left the palace, Garia. This morning's work has been to decide the wording of the treaty which will bind us as one nation. This afternoon, once the scribes have produced a suitable work of art for us, we shall all sign it. What have you been doing?"

"We've just invented a whole new armed service for the Federation," Garia replied. "Eriana will become its first Admiral and be in charge of all the Federation's military ships. With the permission of the rulers, of course."

"Do you tell me? Come, let us find our seats with the others. This will make a suitable change of topic for our lunchtime conversation."

* * *

"I know what I must do, Keren, thought I don't want to be parted from you. Not ever." She sighed. "I have to do my duty, and that includes my duty to the whole galaxy. It's just rotten that it has to happen right now."

"Aye, but we have traveled this path before, my love. Remember, we shall wait patiently for you to return and I will love you no less because you have been away. Even if your face is different, I will know you are the same person inside."

"Will I be?" she said in a low voice. "That's what I'm concerned with, Keren. Being back on Earth is bound to affect me."

"As battle affected both of us, my love. Every experience must needs change us. Worry no longer, my love. I have confidence in you and you should have confidence in yourself. Remember your determination, when first you started on the mat? Apply that to your time on Earth and I will have no fears for the future."

"I don't deserve you." She buried her face in his chest. "Hold me, make love to me one last time."

"I will be gentle, my love."

~o~O~o~

The morning was bright and warm as the Blackstone party took their leave of Dekarran. The wagons rolled cautiously down the northern ramp and joined the heavy traffic headed north-west. There had been many tearful farewells, but Garia didn't want to dwell on them right now. The future was a blank sheet with a concealed pit somewhere along the road, waiting for her.

She rode near the front of the procession, wearing her riding clothes but no weapons. It had occurred to her that they would disappear into... somewhere else entirely... when she left and she might not be able to recover the specially tempered blades. Keren rode beside her and behind her rode Terinar and Merizel followed by Torulf, Feteran and Jenet.

Soon they were back into open country and she began to remember her first trip north along this highway, hidden in the top of a wagonload of beans. The fresh air and the chirp of avians brightened her mood and she started to relax. There was a mid-morning comfort break and then they were back on the road, with Teldor beginning to become apparent in the distance.

The attack came as a complete surprise. The first that Garia knew of it was a thump followed by a frayen galloping past her, riderless. A split-second later came a belated warning, "Grakh!" Snep picked up the panic of the first frayen as those in front began to scatter, launching into a near-gallop as he tried to outrun the aerial predators. There was a frantic whirl of movement as the whole mass of beasts took off, scattering across the roadway.

Garia sensed more than saw a shadow stoop down from behind and Snep suddenly took a sharp left, plunging down the bank of the roadside ditch. Garia was jerked from the saddle but Snep twitched his back, making sure she stayed on. Her left foot had come free of the stirrup, however.

At the bottom the frayen was forced to make an awkward jump over the oily liquid in the ditch onto an adverse slope on the other side. Garia hung on to the saddle handle with both hands as they sailed over. Snep stumbled as he landed and Garia flew over his head towards the grass.

She had time for one last inconsequential thought as she headed for the turf.

Oh, no! Not the left shoulder again!

Then everything went black.

When Keren reached the ditch, after the attack had been beaten off, he found Snep disconsolately sniffing the grass, trying to find his mistress. There was no sign that Garia had ever been there. He sank to the ground, bereft. Feteran found him still there a little later.

"Her Highness," he said. It was not a question. "She has gone."

"Aye, Fet. Those who brought my love to me have taken her away for a time." Keren looked up at Feteran, his cheeks wet, and then stood. "Come, we have a procession to take to Blackstone. We can do no less until she returns."



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