Weekly court is crowded despite attempts to keep the construction out of the gossip pool. It was so totally a waste of effort. We are to the side, out of sight, silently waiting for the chamber to fill before gracing them with our presence; our audience isn’t equally silent, muttering to each other about the additional seat (similar to Jes’—Alan had won that argument), and probably making up imaginative stories about the sword stand.
Lord Ekal, as senior Lord Advisor, calls the masses to order and silence. Father is good with timing, letting the silence grow, but waving Jes and Mynar forward before it extends long enough to be broken. I watch them move slowly to stand before their seats, Mynar reluctantly wearing his crown and Jes in an arresting blend of styles from the steppes and from Abalem. Once they are in place Alan and I enter, accompanied by gasps and muttering. I am wearing my crown, of course, and Alan is looking about as if he is taking notes; probably is taking mental notes, although how he can find court interesting is beyond me. My ladies are unhappy because I am carrying my Sword, in both hands not over my shoulder as normal, instead of showing off my overly full skirts. There are more mummers as I place the unsheathed Sword on its stand. I don’t have to hear them to know they are saying, “So that’s what it’s for.” We stare at them until silence resumes. Finally, mother and father appear, her hand resting lightly on his, and they take their thrones, King and Queen without question. Once they are seated on their thrones the four of us take our seats, and I am impressed by how coordinated we are without having practiced.
There had been a lot of discussion, declare the betrothal first or last? I had voted for not announcing it at all and just letting people guess; mother’s silence overruled me.
Lord Ekal calls for those who have business with the court to come forward, but no one moves. Everyone just waits expectantly, staring at me, at Alan, at the Sword. So father makes his announcement, doing a good job of looking pleased while mother clearly is pleased.
And then everyone starts cheering. I have to work to keep my smile in place. Cheering? I had so not expected this. Gossip, concern, even complaining, but they are happy. Even Gemans, attending in his proper Clairvoyant persona at my parents’ invitation, is smiling.
“Did you expect this?” Alan leans over and whispers in my ear.
I smile up at him as if he is the most wonderful being in the whole world, not really hard to do, he is simply gorgeous, “Not in a million years.”
Then Daver leads out most of the staff carrying trays of wine goblets, and we start getting toasted by one and all, and by some of them several times.
Daver, with great ceremony presents gem-encrusted gold goblets to the family, and we all just drink our wine and smile and smile and smile while wondering what the hell.
I pull a pillow over my head to better ignore the light tapping at my bedroom door. My head hurts, my feet hurt, and I just want the whole world to go away; I want to go away to somewhere sane, quiet, and not here. The whole city went mad with cheering in the streets and bonfires once night fell, and we still don’t know why the hell.
I hold on tighter to the pillow, expecting someone to try an take it away, then remember I wedged the door shut last night. I snuggle deeper in my bed in contentment—they can’t get to me, can’t make me wake up and face the day. Not yet anyway.
“Adava?” Alan’s voice comes through the door.
“That’s cheating,” I tell the world, but not loud enough for anyone to hear.
“Simply good strategy,” whispers in my ear, and I amend my thought to ‘anyone but my Sword to hear’ before I roll over and turn my back to the door.
“Adava?” This time the tone is worried. What could possibly have happened to me in my own bedroom.
“Assassins, demons, sorcerers…” this time the voice in my head is my conscience, not my Sword.
“Alright.” I stumble out of bed and unblock the door, opening it just wide enough to give Alan a glimpse of one eye and tousled hair. “Go away for an hour.”
Surprisingly, Alan actually comes back in an hour instead of running for the border after a glimpse of what I look like in the morning; or at least a morning after way too much celebration—most of the day and well into the night of celebration.
Bathed, brushed and finally dressed after a minor skirmish with my Ladies who seem to think I am going to wear another elaborate dress. I give them a minor taste of victory by wearing red vest and red divided skirt with black blouse and shinny black boots. My training master won’t be happy.
Alan is waiting in my outer room, and scandalizes my Ladies and guards by kissing me good morning. I scandalize them again by kissing him back.
“Messengers have come from Blythe, and your father is waiting for you to hear their report.”
“They will only report to the Wielder.”
“Is father angry?” He might be, or he might just admire their adherence to orders.
“He mostly seems to be sleepy.”
We walk down the hall holding hands. Everyone we pass smiles indulgently at us, and it feels really weird after all of the ‘keep the sorcerer away from our princess’ games that littered our courtship.
Alan has said messengers, but I had still expected couriers, not a cluster of five men who by their dress are hunters.
“Princess,” their leader starts as soon as I walk in the room. “We were set to follow the prisoner Anaslov. He did not go west to Isal with the merchant group. He left them the first day out of Blythe, pretending to be sick and staying at the inn. Once the merchants were out of sight, he went south-east to the coast.”
No surprise there; I would have been more surprised if he had gone to Isal.
“We followed, and watched. He hid in a small grove of trees just above the beachline, and each night for five nights he lit two small fires near the beach, between dunes so they would only be visible from the sea.”
“On the sixth day, a wolf ate him.”
OK, that is a surprise.
“It wasn’t a wolf, it was a big cat.” One of the other hunters interrupts as if continuing an old argument.
“It was black, wolves are black, big cats are yellow-tawny.” The resulting argument has the tone of old positions being restated, with three of them declaring ‘wolf’ and two ‘big cat’. But all agree on the ‘ate’ part.
“We came running when we heard his screams, but we were too late. We buried what was left, buried the remnants of the fires and decided to come straight to Misthold to report to you since we were closer to here than to Blythe.” He stops, but clearly has more to say. I just wait, using my silence to drive him back to speech.
“We are hunters.” He pauses again after stating the obvious. “We wouldn’t leave a man-killer.” Another long pause. “We all saw the animal running away from the body, into the woods, but we couldn’t see clearly. We tried to follow, but the ground was hard and we lost the trail.”
“Could it have been a demon?” Father finally wakes up enough to ask a question. These days he pretty much assumes demon; hopefully there will be no new visiting Sorcerers for a while.
“It ran on four feet.” One of the ‘cat’ proponents offers.
“There are large black cats in the swamps of Caeel. I have never seen one myself, but I have talked to a Grandfather who hunted and killed one and still wore it’s tooth on a necklace around his neck.” Jes speaks ‘grandfather’ as if it were a title. I make a mental note to ask him about it, fully expecting he won’t answer. The two hunters who said ‘cat’ smile at the others, a ‘we won’ type of smile.
Father ignores them and looks at Alan.
“Not a demon. It wouldn’t have run, it would have stayed and fought.”
“And won,” my Sword adds, unnecessarily.
At least now Alan knows one of the duties of the Royal Mage, be an expert on demons. Father accepts his analysis and sinks back into his semi-doze.
Anaslov was an outland spy, and something ate him. I try to decide if I should care. It is mildly interesting to be sure what he was, and even more interesting that he didn’t get to take a report home, but on the whole it doesn’t seem to matter much.
In the temporary silence the debate starts again. “I don’t care if there are big black cats two thousand leagues away, there aren’t any here, what we have here are wolves.”
“It’s only on thousand leagues, and cats wander.”
“More like fifteen hundred leagues,” my hyper-accurate little brother decides to participate for the first time. Having corrected a mis-stated fact he goes back to thinking about whatever he has been thinking about instead of the meeting he is actually sitting in.
Even while the hunters are arguing with each other, they keep looking toward me as if expecting something.
“They are waiting to see if you are going to tell them to hunt.” This time it is Alan whispering in my ear, not my Sword. I smile, because there is no reason for him to whisper. No reason except as an excuse to get close to me. And my guards aren’t even twitching.
“I like being betrothed,” I whisper back.
“Whatever it is,” I interrupt the hunters, “doesn’t really matter. If you couldn’t track it immediately after the kill, you are unlikely to find it now.”
They nod in agreement; they just needed me to free them from what they saw as an impossibility but also as a duty. They are more than happy to receive orders to rest for a week before they return to Blythe.
They huddle in the door for a moment instead of leaving, then turn back to me. Their leader bows slightly to Alan and more deeply to me. “Congratulations.” They all nod in agreement, then push out in a group without waiting for my response.