Ambassador Khattmali from Hirhel was not the man who had been ambassador to Galhara. For starters, she was a woman. She was perhaps in her thirties, raven haired and breathtakingly beautiful in her evening gown of gold silk. Her long fingers flashed and glittered with rings in the candlelight. She moved like honey, smooth and without waste. Her eyes, which raked over me sharply when we were introduced, were dark and cunning. I didn’t like when she looked at me, as if she were peeling back each layer of my skin to learn everything about me. She was seated on the king’s left and often touched him possessively. Her presence motivated me to keep quiet unless spoken to.
King Tarr Kegan of Dalyn, however, lounged in his gilded chair and threw smiles around like rose petals at a wedding. His hair was light brown, and looked reddish in this light. He was handsome, of slighter build than Quill, or even my brothers, and left the throat of his very fine shirt unbuttoned for a rakish look. After we’d been presented—and he’d gushed about the bravery of his men who’d happened upon our trouble—Tarr didn’t say much to us. He also didn’t seem to mind the petting from Khattmali—even once picking up her hand and kissing it. But he kept catching my eye and winking, and I had no difficulty at all blushing like a merchant’s daughter. Which I hated.
The general and chief advisor were there, also. The advisor was a gray-haired man, but the general was baby faced and looked about the same age as the king. Neither man was eager to talk with Namal and I present. It was a mercy when the king called for musicians, and their music filled the many voids in conversation. The food was excellent, but it was difficult to enjoy it in this strained company. It was also so much more food than I was accustomed to, especially of late, that I was dangerously full and feeling awful far before we reached the end.
I wished I dared examine the royal guards who were tucked unobtrusively in the shadows. I would dearly love to see a friendly face, and wondered if I knew any of the men present.
Finally, dinner ended, the king and his courtiers left, then Namal and I were guided back to our chambers by a servant dressed in gray. I walked into my rooms, glad of the fire, and glad of the open door leading to a welcoming canopy bed. I didn’t bother undressing, just kicked off my shoes and crawled under the covers. Wrapping my arms around my poor stomach I wished I felt well enough to truly appreciate my first night back in a good bed.
When I woke up, Amantha was tending the fireplace at the end of the bed and sun was streaming through a window that had been covered yesterday. I was hungry.
“Good morning, Miss Meredithe.” Amantha walked to the bed. “May I help you out of that gown?”
I pushed back the covers and sat up slowly. The dress would recover, I supposed, looking at the horrible wrinkles. I’d slept quite well and had no regrets. “Good morning.” I slid my feet to the floor and stood blearily.
“I came to help you change last night, but you were already asleep.” Amantha began unbuttoning the dress. “I did not wish to disturb you.”
“I was very tired,” I replied, stepping out of the dress and into the robe she had ready.
She draped the dress over her arm, and I caught curiosity in her eyes before she said, “The bath is ready for you.”
“I bathe alone,” I announced. Then, wondering if I’d been to assertive, added, “If that’s alright,” and dropped my eyes shyly.
“As you wish,” Amantha turned away. “I will get your clothes ready.”
We parted ways in the sitting room; she to the dressing room and I to the steam filled washroom and closed the door. Someday, I promised myself, I would have a slow bath. Today, however, I rushed through the washing and got to the drying quickly enough that my stripes barely had a chance to bloom before fading. Then I presented myself to Amantha who quietly slipped a chemise over my head and then helped me into a sumptuous dark green overdress. This one had gold embroidery about the cuffs and throat instead of black, and was as flattering as it was comfortable. I had missed clothes like this. Amantha fussed with the frothy cuffs and part of me wanted to tell her about the wildly uncomfortable dinner the night before. Part of her obviously wanted to know. Instead, I asked, “What is happening today?”
Amantha shrugged and walked me to the stool so she could start fixing my hair. “Breakfast is ready for you in the sitting room. After that you are welcome to explore the palace and gardens as much as you like.”
“That’s all?” I asked.
“You are here at the king’s disposal,” replied Amantha, “You are free to entertain yourself until he sends for you or releases you.”
I squelched the offense rising inside me. I am a merchant’s daughter. Not a girl who, under different circumstances, would have been presented with pomp and ceremony and courted as a potential queen. It’s an honor to be here at all. That thought reminded me of the real cover for any meetings I had with Tarr. “I didn’t know the king was so handsome.”
Amantha smiled faintly. “That he is, Miss Meredithe.”
So ended our conversation for the time being. She finished with my hair—a loose but complex braid—and left me to eat alone.
A knock sounded at the door, and Namal entered. He had also been dressed in green, with black pants and boots. He pulled up a chair across from my little table. “Good morning,”
“Good morning,” I replied, “Did you sleep well.”
My brother grunted. “May I have a biscuit?”
I nodded and he began to spread butter on a still-warm biscuit. Despite my hunger, I hadn’t gotten far in the breakfast Amantha had left. “So…”
Namal looked at me, arched brow.
“So…now we wait?” I asked.
“We are permitted to explore, it would behoove us to do so.” He bit into the biscuit and rolled his eyes up in pleasure. “I think your handmaid likes you more than mine likes me.”
“You have a handmaid?” I was surprised. In Galhara, the men had manservants, the women had maidservants—at least in the palace and among most of the nobility. An older tradition aimed at keeping the peace.
He nodded. “I do. It’s very awkward.” Namal leaned back and looked out the window. His hair was darker than mine, almost black, and he had our mother’s blue eyes. Like our father, he had a natural presence and authority to go with his extensive education and skills. “What did you think of the ambassador?”
I wrinkled my nose. “She’s stunning, smart, and dangerous. And she didn’t like me.”
Namal nodded. “I would wager that she was chosen as ambassador to Dalyn because she is beautiful, and Tarr Kegan is known to like women.”
“Do you think she is angling to be queen?”
“Probably. Though if it is her own ambition or her queen’s, I can’t say.”
“A merchant’s daughter is hardly a threat to that ambition.”
“Zare, what woman wants to share?”
I inclined my head. “Point.”
“Be careful, is all,” said my brother.
“You’d better get used to calling me Analie. Who were you again?”
Namal smirked. “Alban.”
“Alban,” I repeated. Then I leaned forward and grabbed his hand excitedly. “Alban, dearest, I should dearly love to see every inch of this palace. It’s so exciting to be here!”
He huffed, “It’s disgusting how good you are at this.”
“Civilization is all playacting,” I retorted.
“To you, maybe,” Namal rolled his eyes and offered me a hand up.
We spent the entire morning exploring the palace. No one spoke to us, though we saw many courtiers and many more servants. The servants paid us no mind, though some of the courtiers looked at us with varying degrees of interest and archness. It didn’t take long to find the limits of our movement indoors, the parts of the palace where the real governing happened were barred by grim looking royal guards with spears. After lunching in our rooms, we took winter cloaks and spent the afternoon exploring the gardens behind the palace. Since it was winter, there weren’t many people in the gardens, and we both breathed easier. We saw some servants running errands, and met a few of the king’s young hounds and their keeper—a boy of about seven with reddish brown hair.
The day’s exploring was perhaps the most time I had ever spent with Namal. He told me little things about the spice industry while we wandered around learning the layout of the grounds, and I was sort of surprised how pleasant his company was. Namal was eight years my senior, the crown prince—always away or busy with work or study. I was the baby—my world had been entirely different from his. Nadine was almost as old, but we shared the bond of sisters—and all the unique travails of both women and princesses. Ayglos and I were alike enough in temper and age that we were natural conspirators. I blamed Ayglos. None of this had really changed during the siege, or at the circus.
Namal and I shared a quiet dinner in my rooms, served by the silent Amantha. I was not the least bit surprised or disappointed that we hadn’t received an invitation from the king. Namal didn’t linger after dinner, he looked exhausted, but his blue eyes were softer than I had ever seen them when he bid me goodnight. Impulsively, I hugged him before he left. I stared at the door for a minute, then went to my dressing room and hunted for a nightgown. There were several, I picked the softest—a long white gown that skimmed my body and pooled at my feet deliciously. I grabbed a book off the shelf next to the fireplace and curled up in a wing backed chair to read and watch the flames. I would bask in this luxury as much as I could before it ended.
I wasn’t four stanzas in—some epic poem about something—when a knock sounded. I was on my feet and armed with the dancer statuette the second I realized the knock had been on the dressing room door.
The door opened slowly, and Quill stepped cautiously in to the room. He saw me, didn’t bat an eye at the statuette poised for defense, and bowed, “Your highness.”
“Captain,” I lowered the statuette, relieved and happy to see a friend. “Do come in.”
He stood aside from the door, “Princess Zare Caspian, may I present Tarr Kegan, King of Dalyn.”