Unlike the eternal twilights of the main cavern and the pleasure dome, night followed day in Taihimel’s world. As we showed up not long before dark, Amelia and Chiara picked up their fishing gear, including a bucket filled with water and a small catch of perch and brought us to the stone cottage beside the garden. They were both dressed like the typical women of the Tabad, in knee-length dirndls that looked like they had been through a lot. Chiara’s had a huge rip in the skirt, too.
The conversation on the way to the cottage was mostly about how they were managing to live here. A strange creature that, by its description, had to be Diurhimath’s proxy, had led them here, but could only bring them as far as the portal and negotiate their entry. Since then, they had been relying on help from the similar creatures I had seen. They called them ‘gardeners’ and had been communicating with them mostly by ad hoc sign language, since they apparently spoke only Ancient Fairy.
Amelia did her best as a princess to preserve her dignity in front of Chiara and Brigitte, but as soon as Chiara disappeared into the little outdoor kitchen beside the house to prepare dinner, with Brigitte following to help clean the fish, she began breaking down. The one line that she managed before losing control of her tears was, “It’s been awful, Tiana! Until we arrived here, I was never sure what would happen to us!”
It took a while to get her to stop crying on my shoulder. I patted her back and made reassuring noises until she found her composure.
The contents of the cottage were quite simple. It was just one room, with a stone column in the center, bracing the roof, and a small fireplace on the end opposite the kitchen. A low table and a couple boxes or chests sat on the side next to the outdoor kitchen and sleeping mats and cushions were piled against the wall next to the fireplace.
I managed to settle Amelia on a sitting cushion at the table. She leaned onto my shoulder as soon as I sat next to her, so I put my arm around her and waited for her.
“You’re amazing, Tiana,” she finally said. “You managed to find us in this crazy place. How?”
I gave a tired laugh. “That’s a really long story. But we took the last few steps with the help of the same person that brought you here.”
“That strange see-thru being?”
I frowned. “So he never showed himself?”
Amelia grew puzzled, so I explained, “The man behind the ‘see-thru being’ is a normal living, breathing person, Amelia. From what you two have said so far, I’m gathering he only showed you his proxy. It’s a weird magic that he uses.”
“So that was a ‘proxy’, but you met the actual person himself?”
With a nod, I said, “He’s… someone I’ve met before.”
I didn’t know if she had ever been briefed on the enemy I had tangled with in Carael, but I was realizing now that he had avoided showing himself to these two because they might recognize him from the descriptions. Especially if he showed his wings.
“So you seem to have settled in pretty nicely here,” I observed, looking around the cottage. It was crude, but not primitive. When we arrived, light was still coming down through frosted glass panels in the gable ends, but they had lit magic lanterns of an ancient style that hung from hooks protruding from the walls.
She explained, “The gardeners bring us vegetables and fruit every day. They built this cottage for us, too. But Chiara can get a few ideas across. She knows a few words of Ancient Fairy from studying ancient magic. That’s how she managed to obtain fishing line and hooks.”
“She knew the words for fishing line and hooks?” I retorted in surprise.
“It has something to do with sea magic,” Amelia explained.
The door to the outdoor kitchen had been standing open all this time, so it wasn’t surprising when Chiara replied as she came in, carrying a tray with roasted veggies and fish, all on skewers.
“All merrow incantations are in Ancient Fairy. You don’t have to be fluent in the language, but you have to memorize the meaning of the spell, word by word.”
Comprehension is part of the mechanism in spell casting. The spell does not work if the spellcaster doesn’t understand what they’re saying. Although, I was really curious about what sort of merrow magic would involve the words for fishing line and hooks. Pranking fishermen?
“And you learned sea magic because…” I prompted.
“My mom taught me, of course,” she answered as she set the tray in the middle of the table.
Looking at it, I wondered, “Are there plates and utensils?”
She pointed to a lacquered chest against the wall near the table. Inside, I found neatly stacked plates, bowls, cups, spoons and chopsticks.
“Your mother is a mermaid?” I asked as I removed items from the chest.
I had guessed Chiara had merrow blood almost from the beginning, so it was an opportunity to confirm it.
“My mother is Baroness Gandon, a human,” she stated. “My biological mom is the mermaid.”
I colored slightly, as I realized I had broached a scandal. “Sorry.”
If said mermaid were a legal concubine, she would be Chiara’s official mother, so what Chiara meant was that her father and his wife had adopted his illegitimate child. Since she knew that I was nobility, she had to ensure that I was aware of the circumstances so I didn’t accidentally step on a social landmine some day.
“It’s fine,” she said with a slight smile. “The one who taught me magic and raised me for the first ten years of my life was the mermaid.”
I was super curious how that had worked. Half-merrow can often live underwater, but rarely do, since they’re at a disadvantage in the open sea. Perhaps her mom had raised her while living in a port town’s waterfront district. The Bray accent certainly suggested it.
“My Lady!” Brigitte called from outside. “I’m taking the rest of the fish off. How do I douse the fire?”
“Excuse me,” she said to use with a smile and headed back outside.
Dinner was a simple affair, just grilled veggies and perch, with Chiara and Brigitte having to give up on the chopsticks and eat everything with a spoon and the single cooking knife Chiara had brought in from the kitchen. Amelia could handle chopsticks fairly well, since she’d been taught Dorian dining customs in the Palace. Naturally, I had been drilled in them by Mother’s staff.
“We tried to ask for forks and table knives, but we couldn’t get the gardeners to understand what we were asking,” Chiara explained.
We spent the meal catching each other up. Amelia had become very upset upon learning about Parna and that one soldier striking me with weapons, and then far more upset upon learning about his plans and Uncle Cullen’s rebellion. She demanded to know details that, frankly, neither I nor Brigitte would know, and I had to work hard to calm her down before I could finish the story.
Amelia’s story was somewhat more straightforward.
“When the Provincial Guards came to take you to prison and Lady Niaela blocked them, the faculty divided over whether to help them or side with Niaela. None of the professors on Niaela’s side had the ability to do long distance communication to alert Father, so Rod rode to him on a hippogryph. We didn’t have anyone else with riding skills whom we could trust. But we needed to file your betrothal documents as soon as possible to protect you, so I volunteered to do it. Lady Chiara, Sir Denian and I immediately rode to Atius.”
I noticed that Chiara was looking down at her plate. She hadn’t met my eyes since we turned to this subject.
Amelia assured me, with her chin lifted, “Your betrothal is official. The Grand Master of the Royal Knights, the Royal Chancellor and the Lord Chamberlain of the Exchequer all have received and sealed your papers. If even one of them is loyal and reports it properly to the High Temple, then the other two must also do it, or be excommunicated for blasphemy.”
It was a long-standing rule regarding aristocratic marriages, instituted to prevent interference with a sacred rite for political purposes, and the Temple was quite serious in enforcing it.
She looked very proud, and I couldn’t tell her that I wished she’d failed the mission, so I thanked her instead.
“But when we were preparing to head back to school…” she began, and then shuddered.
Chiara looked over at her, putting her hand on Amelia’s shoulder as she began weeping again.
“I guess I can finish this story,” the lady knight said. “We were beset by Provincial Guards on our way out of the Office of the Exchequer. They killed Sir Denian and had a blade to Her Highness’s throat, so I had to surrender my weapon and wand. It didn’t take long before we were on our way to the Tabad in chains.”
I frowned. “But this was a spur of the moment trip to Atius, right? How did they organize such a thing?”
She turned her head away. “We can talk about that, but shall I describe the rest of our journey first?”
That looked very much like a dodge, but I didn’t say it. “Alright.”
“It was a rough journey, because they were in a hurry to get us out of the Kingdom. They kept changing horses, switching to flying mounts, switching back. As many stops as there was, there had to be a large organization involved to manage it.”
“Which just underscores my question,” I noted.
She ignored me and forged ahead. “The journey ended in the Berado chieftain’s palace, where they stuck us in his harem quarters and told us we would become his next brides.”
“But there is no chance that a chieftain of some Tabad tribe organized an effort on that scale,” I noted.
“Yes,” she agreed. “Of course not. It could only have been organized by my father’s associates.”
“The southern lords who are rebelling under Parna and Cullen,” I supplied.
“Yes.” She nodded with an unhappy look, again not meeting my eyes.
I prompted, “And you know this because…”
Her head hung down again. “I’m sure you already know.”
“But it doesn’t weigh as much as a confession if I say it,” I countered, staring at her. “I would prefer not to lead the witness.”
Amelia was looking back and forth between us, not saying anything. She was supposed to be trained in critical thinking, but my fear was that, because nobody had lined the facts up in front of her, she hadn’t put it together. To my mind, it was pretty obvious, but I knew more about what had been happening in our Kingdom.
I told Chiara, “Provincial Guards of Atianus surprised two Royal Knights on the Palace grounds so thoroughly that one knight was killed and the princess was taken hostage before the other knight could react. Shall I believe that?”
“No,” she whispered, with a shake of the head. “And I wasn’t planning on hiding it. I just wanted to get Amelia into safe hands before I turned myself in.”
“She’s the one you were sworn to guard, so I would like you to confess directly to Her Highness.”
Chiara looked over at Amelia, then moved away and turned to face her so she could prostrate herself.
“What they did with you was different from what I was promised. I was told we were going to Parna’s duchy to marry you to Cullen’s son. But I’m equally guilty either way, Your Highness. I helped your father’s enemies kidnap you.”