FIRSTWildCard: Becoming the Chateran

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today’s Wild Card author is:
and the book:
Life Sentence Publishing (February 1. 2014)
***Special thanks to Michael Allanson of Life Sentence Publishing for sending me a review copy.***
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

S.J. AislingStacia Joy has always loved to tell stories and invent fictional lands and characters. But she never considered becoming a writer herself until age thirteen, when, inspired by a pretend play she invented with a friend, she wrote the first draft of Becoming the Chateran. The story has since expanded into what will become The Chateran Series. Stacia Joy also writes in several other genres, including steampunk and paranormal/science fiction, and occasionally writes poems about buffalo.
Wanting to be able to show others what her imagined universe looks like, Stacia Joy taught herself to draw by studying the work of illustrators like Alphonse Mucha, Arthur Rackham, Kate Seredy, and Jan Brett. She also received training in illustration and graphic design at Madison Area Technical College, and plans to become a full-fledged freelance illustrator before long.
When not immersed in writing or art, Stacia Joy spends her time playing the piano and folk harp, composing music, Irish dancing, singing at the top of her lungs, and learning new things. She also enjoys helping with children’s ministry at her church, and currently resides in the Madison, Wisconsin area with a kitten named Lord Peter Whimsey. Visit the author’s website.

SHORT BOOK DESCRIPTION:
When Princess Rhea’s actions inadvertently condemnBecoming the Chateran two innocent knights to death, she wakes to the hard reality that not even nobility is above the law. All her attempts to remedy the situation only complicate it, however, until she finds herself a fugitive in her own kingdom, having dragged her best friend into the trouble, as well. Their only hope for pardon? To accompany Sir Paladin and Sir Zephen in their sentence:
Slay, or be slain by, the Dragons of Sama-Ael-Fen.
Travelling incognito, they meet with more malicious Phoenixes than could be coincidental, discover the mysterious disappearance of numerous citizens, and come face to face with a reawakened evil power. With the kingdom oblivious to the connection of these dangers, it’s up to Rhea and her outlaw companions to stop the rising threat and redeem their names – if they can survive their quest.

Product Details:

List Price: $13.99

Series: Becoming The Chateran

Paperback: 560

Publisher: Life Sentence Publishing (February 1, 2014)

Language: English

ISBN-10:1-62245-096-1

ISBN-13: 978-1-62245-096-1

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:

Part One: Princess’s Honor

Chapter One

Commotion in the Castle

“Griffin guard! Double the patrol, search the area!”
“Send archers to the outer gates at once!”
The great castle of Cabochon was not normally this alert so early in the morning. Boots scuffed and clicked along hallways, sheaths and chain mail rattled, orders were barked out, and “aye, sir” clipped back in chorus. Doors slammed, and the whoosh and whir of Griffins’ wings disturbed the air. All too intent on the problem at hand to take much notice of anything else, those awake in the castle were oblivious to the beauty of the morning.
From over the Bay of Dirías, the sea breezes stirred the thick curtains and mingled the scent of salt and dew-dampened earth with the perfume of climbing honeysuckle. Inside the castle, the morning sunlight fell in slanting rays across the marble floor and pushed back the shadows that clung behind pillars and staircases and around corners. One shadow, however, did not move as the other shadows did, curving away from the sunbeams, but in its own direct course. As the sun rose higher and the air grew warmer, it passed soundlessly up from the lower levels of the keep towards the inner castle’s larger towers. Whenever Royal Centrinels or guards rushed past, it slipped out of sight behind pillars or heavy damask window curtains. But the castle was awakening. Soon more than silently intent soldiers would be afoot.
Careful now! The shadowy, grey-cloaked figure licked its lips and leaped down from a windowsill to hasten on. You mustn’t be caught! Only a few flights of stairs and a hallway left to go.
Outside, the sky was flushed with pink and faint gold over the white-flecked sea far below the castle, and a ray of sunlight foraged through the window into the darkness of the staircases and halls. A glimpse of steel caught the light under the figure’s cloak but was swept out of sight again as the figure adjusted the hood to hide its face more effectively. All around, the sounds of disturbance in the castle grew louder, shouted commands echoed down the hallways themselves, and the castle bell in the northern tower rang out the hour of five in ripples of silver music. At the sound, the shadow jumped, heart leaping, and ran up the staircase, only to stop short. Footsteps were coming. Footsteps and the merry sound of a few bars of whistled music. Across the eager face, half-hidden by the dark hood, a smile flashed for a moment, before the cloaked one leapt forward to disappear into the shadow of another flight of stairs just ahead.
He is coming!
The footsteps drew closer.
In the dark of the stairwell, the cloak rippled and shifted, and there came a soft hissing, metallic sound. A bright, metallic gleam shone for a minute, straight and silver, before slipping behind the cloak again.
Now the sound of swishing cloth could be heard accompanying the footsteps.
Wait for it.
The shadow crouched down and took a silent step forward, the fingers of one hand just reaching the end of the stairwell where it met the hallway. The breathing of the approaching walker could be discerned. Under the cloak, the shadow’s heartbeat throbbed like a drum. A moment later, a young man appeared before the stairwell.
The grey-cloaked figure leapt out into the corridor, and the silver gleam flashed and hissed through the air. With a gasp, the man flung himself backwards out of the way, crashing over a carved chair and thudding against the wall behind him. Just as swiftly, the cloaked shadow jumped forward and whipped the sword point up to his chest. For a moment the young man, his green eyes wide, stared wildly, holding his breath. Then all at once his face broke into a grin, and he relaxed, laughing.
“Rheúlea! If Leiarah sees you with that, you’ll be locked in a tower for sure!”
The hood of the grey cloak slipped back, revealing a graceful girl in an embroidered nightgown and, judging by the state of the buckles, hastily pulled-on boots. The sunlight turned the girl’s golden-red hair to fire as she smiled at the man. She lowered the sword from his chest to weigh it in her hand and let the sunbeams dance along the blade.
“It’s a lovely birthday present, Valrient!”
“I’m glad, but I’d rather it not be confiscated from you the moment you get it.” Valrient flicked her snub, freckled nose. “Ambushing people and swinging it under their very noses! You’re going to get me in a lot of trouble if you don’t take better care of hiding what I’ve had the nerve to give you. This morning most of all. I’m surprised you weren’t found on your way back from the armory.”
“I knew it would be something like this. You waking me up so dreadfully early and telling me to go down to the armory gave it away. It’s beautiful! The perfect weight for me to use and everything.” Rhea held the sword closer to her face to inspect the elegant, scrolled hilt, where her initials were inlaid with gold. “And I know more about the castle than a few recruits do. Any idea as to why they’re in such a flurry so early? And why are there so many of them?”
“I’ve no idea, I’m afraid. It could be training that I wasn’t notified about.” Valrient shrugged as he straightened from righting the chair knocked over in his surprise of earlier, but the way he cleared his throat and pulled at his collar did not let this answer satisfy Rhea.
No matter. Rhea smiled to herself. It’s my birthday, after all. There are bound to be surprises I’m not supposed to know about.
Pretending not to have noticed anything curious, she shrugged and took her brother’s hand. But when she began walking back in the direction he had come, towards the Royal Apartments, he didn’t move. Instead, he pulled back. “Let’s not go up to your room quite yet.”
“Why not?”
“Er,” Valrient hesitated. “I-I think Leiarah is … preparing something for you. Don’t ask,” he added. “It’s your birthday, you remember.”
“Ah, yes. Then I’ll not plague you. I’m incredibly placid on my birthday, you know.”
Valrient laughed as they began strolling in the opposite way down the hallway, swinging their clasped hands between them.
“Then you’ll forgive me for waking you up so early on your birthday, hmm?”
“Of course. Waking early for such a lovely present is nothing!”
“You’ll have to keep waking early if you wish to use it. Leiarah did banish you from fencing, didn’t she?”
“Aye,” Rhea sighed, sheathing the sword. “She says ladies taking part in fencing is looked down upon in other countries. Which shouldn’t bother her, I think, as a princess being given a sword is strictly a Gemworthian tradition. ‘Every princess in the royal family of Gemworthy, since the very first king and queen, Kierfk the Swordhanded and his wife Aéna the White-Robed, sat on the throne, had been given a rapier and taught how to hold it. In the first few generations following King Kierfk, this action was necessary for protection. But soon the dangers wore off, the kingdom of Gemworthy became secure and peaceful, and the princesses wore their inlaid swords like curious jewelry instead of weapons.’” Rhea rattled off, quoting history lessons that had been pounded into her head since a young age. “Even princesses who married into our family were ceremonially given their own swords like I was four years ago, so I don’t understand why Leiarah dislikes my having one.”
“You’re the first in a long time to actually use your sword, Rhea.” Valrient smiled and then changed the subject when Rhea pouted her lip in her all-too-familiar way. “How have you been of recent? We couldn’t talk much last night when I arrived, as it was so late, and the last letter I received from you was two months ago. You’ve been well?”
“Well enough, I suppose.” The pout grew more pronounced on Rhea’s face.
“Found that being the little princess has some disadvantages mayhap?”
“If by disadvantages you mean a score of tutors, then aye, indeed.”
“Ah, so you’re becoming a scholar as well, then?”
“Not anywhere near as agreeably as you did though. You fenced and rode and had such a jolly time in the Erudithall, and now you’re off playing ambassador to all the Open World. I must sit still and embroider flowers onto a tapestry and learn pages and pages of the most dull books. Everything I get from them seems as helpful and interesting as the dust that comes off them when they are opened.”
Silence for a moment, then Valrient lifted Rhea’s chin with his finger and whispered, “I know you though, little princess. You look as serious as a Centauride chieftainess, but I know under that grave face, you’re laughing, for you’ve been riding and hawking and aiming at the archery butts, now haven’t you?”
Rhea’s face dimpled. “Don’t tell anybody.”
“You little shieldmaiden! How Lady Leiarah would flutter and cry aloud to see us now. And now you’ve got a sword.”
He chuckled, and Rhea looked up into his face. It was flushed, and yet he grinned broadly.
“I’ll just blame you if she scolds me for having it,” she laughed. “I know you’re glad you’ve given it to me.”
“I confess I am. I see nothing wrong with a lady fencing, for it’s a good thing for one to know how to protect herself,” Valrient said, frowning slightly.
“Lady Leiarah won’t take that as an excuse. I’ve nothing to protect myself from!”
“Hmm,” Valrient grunted.
He’d stopped as they reached the end of the wide hallway, carpeted in sun-bathed red and blue, leading up to the rooms of the royal family. Directly opposite stood a large window, one of many along the hall, and through it they could see down into the innermost of the three courtyards of the castle. Though the hour was early, already a large number of people moved through the paved area, some on horseback, some in carriages, and many with entourages dressed in armor that glittered in the morning light. There were many more guards on the walls and towers than normal, though, and they were moving about the courtyard. Overhead flew Griffins of various kinds – broad-winged Hirrietas, mottle-coated Aequires, and wiry Lawtirrin – who swept through arched doorways and over rooftops. They too wore armor that caught the sunlight, but many also bore leather packs like saddlebags, bearing important messages and items from all over Gemworthy.
As Rhea watched, four burly Griffins carried between them a large bundle over the northwestern wall and deposited it among a knot of soldiers and officers on the embattlement. She wondered if this fact was connected to the disturbance earlier, then put it from her mind with another knowing smile, a shiver of excitement tingling through her. Lately, she had seen little else but people, who arrived in the courtyard and moved slowly but steadily towards the great arched doorway leading into the castle itself, and many mysterious packages arrived with them. Avoiding the temptation to spy on what she assumed were her birthday presents, she turned to her brother. To her surprise, he was frowning at the courtyard like a testy thundercloud.
“Whatever’s the matter, Valrient?”
He started as if from deep thought and ran a hand through his hair, which was the same color as Rhea’s, but darker. “What? No, nothing’s wrong.”
“I am not convinced.” Rhea put her hands on her hips and tossed her curls. “You could never trick even the simplest kitchen maid that you hadn’t taken a tart when we were little, Valrient. Tell me what’s wrong!”
Valrient shoved his hands into his pockets and sighed. “No, I’d rather not tell. It would spoil your pleasure in your birthday.”
“You’re spoiling my pleasure anyway.” Rhea frowned up at her brother. “Tell me.”
“No.”
She tugged at his sleeve. “I’m the princess, and I’m ordering you to tell me!”
Valrient shook his head. “And I’m the prince who is both older than you and the second in line to the crown, and I’m ordering you to stop asking me. You don’t want to have a tiff on the morning of your birthday, do you?”
“We won’t if you tell me.”
“I’m not going to, and that’s final.”
“Very final?” Rhea tilted her head to one side and smiled so sweetly that honey was vinegar in comparison.
“Absolutely. And don’t you start seething!” he added, throwing up one hand.
“I won’t,” Rhea sighed, smoothing her cloak over her nightgown. “After all, it probably is just something about that last present that arrived, and I don’t want to ruin any more surprises you might have for me,” she added on a whim.
But her hope of rattling her brother’s defenses struck a deeper blow than she’d expected. At mention of “the present,” he stiffened so suddenly it startled her, but she pounced upon the action with vigor.
“Hah! So it is about the present! What is it? Is it another thindring? I’ve wanted a white one for a while,” she pressed, thinking wistfully of a new addition to her small pet herd of the delicately built, single-horned, deer-like creatures from which the legends of unicorns had sprung.
“Ah, no.”
“It needed four Griffins to carry it. So it’s something either heavy or fragile. And it’s precious enough to need to be guarded.” Rhea pushed her hands into her curls, blue eyes bright with the challenge of guessing, then frowned thinking of all the officers gathered to receive the mysterious package. “It’s what this fuss among the centrinels and guards is about, isn’t it?”
Valrient didn’t look at her.
“It is!” she crowed, bouncing so that one unbuckled boot flew off her foot.
Her brother bent to pick it up, but she knelt with him, slipped her arm through his and nuzzled him affectionately. “Come on, Rie, tell me!” she begged, using the pet name she’d given him for extra persuasion. “Please! I’ll pretend to be surprised when I get it later, I promise!”
Valrient put his free hand over his eyes and moaned. “I told them I wasn’t the best person to guard you!”
“Guard me? What in the Open World are you talking about?” Rhea straightened.
Valrient dropped to sit on the carpet and toyed with her boot. She sat with him, her nightdress forming a lacy circle around her. “If you don’t tell me, I shall plague you for the rest of the day.”
“I know, and that’s what I told them.”
“Told who?”
“Father and the guards. ‘She’ll listen to you,’ Father said. Aye, you listened when I told you to go down to the armory to get your present, and I’ve managed to keep you safe down here so far, but you’ve got precious little respect for your older brother aside from that, don’t you?” Valrient grinned ruefully, putting his arm around Rhea, who shook her head and laughed, scooting closer to him as if he were a storyteller getting to the most gripping part of a tale.
“Why did Father send you to protect me?”
Valrient kicked at the carpeting with the heel of his boot and cleared his throat. “There was a Phoenix outside the castle.”
“A Phoenix? A Phoenix?” Rhea sat bolt upright. “But, that hasn’t even happened since … since I don’t even remember!”
“Exactly.” Valrient nodded, picking up her foot and stuffing her boot back on it. “And for good reason too. The last time they were in Gemworthy was during the Great War, and they’ve been outlawed from here since by peace treaties. Nobody knows what a Phoenix appearing so close to Cabochon now could mean.”
“What happened? When was it seen?”
“Our Griffin guard sensed it earlier this morning, about an hour ago, and tracked it down. I saw it myself from the ramparts on the eastern wall. The Griffins tried to get it to surrender, but it fought back and tried to flee. So they killed it. It had forfeited its life by coming here against the treaty’s conditions.”
“And … and you were sent to get me from my room to go downstairs?” Rhea asked after a startled pause. “To keep me from seeing any of this happening?”
“And to keep you safe – Phoenixes are dangerous. Some can burn down entire houses, and we didn’t want to chance you getting hurt. Your bedroom is one of the highest points of the castle, you remember.”
Rhea nodded, surprise and disappointment mingling inside her. I could have seen a Phoenix.
Outside the window, the tolling of the castle bell announced the half hour. Valrient tugged at his collar, cleared his throat, and slapped his knees with his hands.
“Come on. Your ladies-in-waiting will probably be going into your room to wake you soon, and it’d work better if you were actually in bed. And it’d be good if we could keep this Phoenix business quiet for a while, if possible. So let’s get you back to your room.” He stood, then held out his hands to help Rhea up.
“I’ve got to hide my sword too.” She nodded, then clutching his hands, whispered, “What did it look like, the Phoenix?”
“Red.”
“Oh, come on. What else?”
“Something like an a big, angry hawk, but I can’t tell you much more. It was too far away for me to see clearly.”
“Pity you aren’t an Elf, then,” Rhea pouted.
Wrinkling his nose, Valrient was about to reply to the quip when he suddenly stiffened, laying a hand on her arm. “Hush!”
“What is it?”
Valrient put up his hand and looked over his shoulder, and Rhea, holding her breath, made out the sound of footsteps and voices approaching from farther down the hallway. She recognized several of the voices and clutched her grey cloak.
“Oh dear. They’re some of my birthday guests, I think. If they see me dressed like this, Lady Leiarah will weep with disappointment for a fortnight about my impropriety!”
“And they’d be sure to find out your sword in the meantime.” Valrient bit his lip and glanced all around as the footsteps grew louder. “Well, Rhea, don’t stand about, run! If I can, I’ll stall whoever it is. Remember though, don’t tell your ladies-in-waiting about the Phoenix, if you can help it!”
Rhea stood on her tiptoes and kissed her brother’s cheek. “I won’t! The sword is lovely too and worth running about in a nightgown for.”
Then she gathered up her cloak and nightdress skirts and sprinted down the hallway, the carpeting muffling the sound of her boots. She clutched the sword in its sheath close to her, the cool weight of it pressing against her beating heart. Down one turn and then another she hurried, darting into an adjacent corridor with the confidence of familiarity, pausing only a moment at each opening of the ways to check if all was clear.
At length, she reached the last hallway leading to the Royal Chambers – she could see the bright sunshine through wide windows at the end of it. Hitching up her nightgown, she sped on towards the light. When she reached the opening of the hallway, however, she stopped again, trying to keep her labored breathing quiet, and peeped out. This was a crucial spot.
The hallway led out into one of the upper balconied floors of a large room with a painted, arched roof, and the eastern wall comprised of sweeping windows. Through these, the scene of the city of Cabochon lay, gold, brown, and white amid the tender green of spring and framed alongside the deep glittering waters of the bay, reflecting back the clear sky and the risen sun. The view, high on the hillside, was spectacular, but Rhea didn’t bother to admire it. Since this room was so large and opened to the other floors, she might be seen by anyone on the balcony above or strolling around the fountain and potted ferns below. There were several large jars of these ferns near the doorway where Rhea stood, and she crouched behind them on the carpeting and listened.
I don’t hear anything. Nobody must be coming.
She took a deep breath, jumped up, and turned sharply around the potted ferns, only to run straight into a brown-haired girl in a red dressing gown. The girl gave a little scream, as Rhea tried to thrust the sword out of sight behind her. Both of them crashed against the marble wall behind, clutching to each other to keep from falling over.
“Rhea!” The girl swung her long braids behind her back and smoothed her skirts. “Where have you been? I came with your stepmother to make sure you weren’t disturbed by all the commotion among the guard, and we found nothing but your bed left in a positive uproar!”
“Oh, Hiylienea, I’m dreadfully sorry about that! I didn’t hear you, this thick carpet, you know, and I-I was just …” Rhea slumped her shoulders, and her cloak fell down to cover her front, but not quickly enough.
“You’re wearing your fencing boots?” Two bright spots of red flushed Hiylienea’s cheeks, and she put a hand to her mouth. “What do you have behind your back?” She said it seriously, but her brown eyes were sparkling.
“Very well, I’ll tell you, since you seem to find out everything I do anyway.” Rhea pulled back the cloak to display the sword. “Valrient gave it to me!”
At the sight of the sword, Hiylienea burst into laughter, shaking her head. “It seems to me you were never meant to be a princess, Rhea!”
“I think it suits me exactly,” Rhea grinned, “because I can order you to learn to fence with me now.”
“Oh, mercy no, Rhea.” Hiylienea sobered. “Archery is enough for me, and if you tried to teach me anything more unladylike, I’m sure Lady Leiarah would put an end to it.”
“Ah, just as well.” Rhea sheathed the sword again after a last loving inspection of its glassy blade. “You’re better than I am at archery, so it’s only fair for me to be the master hand of fencing alone.”
“I’m glad you think so; it will save me a deal of trouble. Speaking of which, I think it would be best if you got to your room.”
“The wisest thing you’ve said this morning, which is saying a great deal.” Rhea nodded, and bending her head close to her friend’s ear, she whispered, “And I know what all the fuss is with the guards! It’s a Phoenix!”
Valrient might have told her not to tell her ladies-in-waiting, but he’d said nothing about not telling her companion. Arm in arm, they hurried along the balcony, Rhea whispering the news as fast as she could, the high ceilings echoing softly back the two girls’ excited gasps and giggles. Rhea had hardly finished the tale, however, when the sound of other voices interrupted Hiylienea’s surprised response.
In the short time Rhea and Hiylienea met and spoke, several people, to judge by the sound of the footsteps, had approached the open room on the floor below, and they were now almost directly underneath the two girls. With a little squeak, Rhea flattened herself against the wall away from the balcony edge and pulled Hiylienea with her.
“They can’t see my sword!”
So, squished between a pillar and a resplendent suit of armor on display, the two held their breath and listened.
“I wouldn’t worry about her, dearest,” a gruff masculine voice said, and Rhea’s eyes widened.
Papa? She peeped around the large shield of the suit of armor, half of her wanting to hurry down the stairs and run to him. He is here, not in the Great Hall, like he usually is? Ah, yes, for my birthday, of course. Dear Papa!
Then Lady Leiarah, Rhea’s stepmother, answered, “But I did so wish to start her birthday out as happily as could be managed. This rumor of a Fallen isn’t helping anything. It is always a trial, turning seventeen, and I think it would be easier for everyone if we made her as comfortable and pleased as we could. When one is happy, one is easier to be with, you know.”
“I do not think the rumor is threatening. And she knows little of these tidings, so why do you fear?”
“You never told her?” Leiarah’s voice grew higher, and Rhea felt a strange shrinking feeling deep inside, while at the same time her heart seemed to swell.
What are they talking about?
She exchanged a quick glance with Hiylienea, whose wide eyes mirrored her own surprise.
“Ah, how could I, Leiarah? When … when Alexandrite died, my daughter was the closest thing to her I had.” King Gromweill’s voice grew gruffer, and he cleared his throat. “I could not bear the thought that I would someday be required to give her away. Such a thing does not grow easier with time either. And there hasn’t been a princess born into our family in such a long time.”
“Very true. I do not blame you,” Leiarah murmured. “Rhea is a gem, a little in need of polishing, it is true – though we are all like that in some way – but there is beauty in her.”
“Then why do you worry about how she will take to the proceedings?”
“She is, as I said, in need of polishing.”
“But you told me only a fortnight ago she was coming along well.”
“She is, to be sure, but not quite as forward as I could wish. Her companion, Hiylienea, has helped. She will be with Rhea throughout the week; I have made sure of it.”
Rhea turned to Hiylienea again and nudged her, whispering, “What’s this?”
Hiylienea shook her head. “I was told by Queen Leiarah to be ever near you during the feast, but since that is what I do every day, I thought little of it.”
Down on the floor below, Gromweill appeared, pacing along with his hands behind his back and studying the floor. He was not a particularly imposing man or even an attention-demanding one, but sturdy and square, with mild blue eyes and the same stubborn nose as Rhea’s. His light brown beard, however, was streaked with grey. Beside him glided Lady Leiarah, satiny and ruffled with lace, her black hair a great coil at the back of her head, one hand resting on Gromweill’s arm. They went up to the fountain, and Leiarah sat on its wide stone edge and rested her hands on her lap, as the king stood and absently ran his hand along one of the huge ferns.
“You are worried as to how she might react then, dear?” he asked.
“Yes, I am. Of course, it will be affected by who it is, but I think even you must admit she is strong willed.” Leiarah smiled, her oval face dimpling. “I remember being like that.”
“Who it is, you say? And who do you think it will most likely be?”
Leiarah opened the embroidered purse she carried with her at all times and procured from it a small book. Opening to a place marked with a ribbon, she studied the page. As she did so, Gromweill sat down beside her and looked over her shoulder. After a moment, Leiarah touched the page with her finger.
“Him. I believe he will be the one.”
“Crown Prince Ohnferead Randerrin Leovarne of the Avrinn Isles,” Gromweill read aloud after fishing his spectacles from his pocket and putting them on.
At her elbow, Rhea heard Hiylienea whisper, “Prince Ohnferead? Who is he?”
“The Crown Prince of the Avrinn Isles, apparently,” Rhea muttered. “And I wonder what they want with him.”
“What? Why?”
“I met him once … when I was four.”
“What was he like?”
“Stiff as a spear and a rival of one’s friendliness.” Rhea wrinkled her nose as she remembered the tall, lanky boy with fair hair and blue eyes that had looked down at her with nothing more than extreme boredom.
“Oh come, Rhea, he is bound to have changed in thirteen years.”
Rhea shrugged and held up one finger for silence when her father spoke again, as if coming out of a muse. “I suppose there is something in that. The Avrinn Isles are a lovely place, and the Royal Court quite lively enough in a genteel way. Ohnferead may do, yes.”
“That may be, but Rhea’s conduct will, without doubt, affect the turnout,” Leiarah sighed, packing away her book in her purse again.
“Surely she knows how to present herself at a feast!” Gromweill chuckled. “She has been to so many I’ve lost count.”
“Yes, no doubt of that. But this is not an ordinary feast, and if anybody finds out about all the things she used to do, it could be rather disastrous. Like my brother used to say, her actions up to a few years ago really were quite irregular.”
Rhea remembered a conversation between several of the courtiers outside the Great Hall after her sword-receiving ceremony years ago and pursed her lips. A heavy sensation of dread was beginning to grow in her, but why she could not exactly tell.
“I don’t see how those things will affect the turnout of this feast.” Gromweill stroked his beard.
“Mayhap they won’t at first, but given time they will. It will be helpful for her own good, for her to learn to outgrow those childish, flighty pastimes and become the young woman she now is. Sometimes I shudder to think of what you allowed her to do, Gromweill, even if they were kindly meant: fencing and riding astride …” Leiarah made a noise as if the mere thought of what Rhea used to do (and still secretly did) was as overwhelming as lifting a hundred stone weight.
“It wasn’t laudable, I realize that now.” Gromweill shook his head, but he was smiling slightly.
“Well, marriage always helps people settle down.” Leiarah patted his arm. “And if everything goes well at this feast, I’m sure Rhea will be on the way to becoming a real credit to you.”
Rhea blinked hard, shock tingling through her, and she dimly heard Hiylienea beside her gasp, “Oh my goodness!”
Marriage?
She didn’t wait to hear another word. She didn’t want to hear another word. Grabbing Hiylienea’s hand, she sprang from behind the suit of armor’s shield and made a run for it. A surprised cry from Leiarah made her heart try to leap out of her body, but she ran the faster, clattering up the stairs and down the hallway beyond, pulling Hiylienea with her. The sword banged against her legs, and Hiylienea tripped on the train of her nightdress, but she didn’t stop. The words spoken by her father and stepmother rang in her mind so much like those she had heard before in that same wide room years ago. She didn’t like to remember that discussion, and what she had heard.
~~~
Rhea had finished her fencing lesson and was trotting back to her bedroom to change when she heard angry voices in the room below and stopped short, staring out the wide window at the city spread on the hillside, and listened hard. Her brothers always collapsed with laughter when she mimicked any of the courtiers, and this heated conversation held the promise of many good applause-catching lines.
“This won’t do!” The broad, nasal voice was none other than the chamberlain’s, the big man who could as much fill a room with words as his body could a doorway.
Rhea dropped to her knees, crawled across the carpet, and stopped behind a pot of ferns to peep through the carved railing at the cluster of noblemen below.
“Look at the princesses in the Avrinn Isles or of Marrien, and remember the ones who married our princes!” the minister for foreign affairs moaned. “None of them ever used a sword … this conduct is most irregular.”
Rhea stuck her tongue out at the minister.
“Swordmaidens have long been a large part of our history.” The royal recorder gathered his fur-lined robes about himself and sat down to stroke his short, grey beard. Rhea smiled at him from behind the ferns.
“Of our history, aye, indeed they have, but not of the present. Things are no longer the way they were long ago.” The blustering chamberlain strode up to him. “Great evil was present in the time of Kierfk and Aéna.”
“Great evil is always present, my lord,” the royal recorder sighed. “One always lives in danger of it.”
“Aye, aye. But you understand my meaning. In the time of the First Order of Knights, the evil Fallens outnumbered our kinsfolk, the Fey, by great numbers. It was a time of war. Now there is peace in Gemworthy. There is no need of swordmaidens!”
“That is true.” The recorder shrugged. “But if the king sees no harm in our Princess Rhea’s actions, why should we? We must all agree that he found having his daughter involved in the same activities as his sons and even himself to be a bonding feature.”
Rhea began to feel that this conversation wasn’t quite as amusing as she’d hoped it would be.
“Because, as mentioned before, it is most irregular!” The chamberlain now looked very red in the face and sat down, breathing heavily. “The princess is fast approaching the age where she shall become eligible for matrimony. A royal engagement is hard enough to happily arrange without adding the complications of a very untraditional princess to it.”
“Uncommonly close to the truth, you are.” The minister for foreign affairs blanched at the mention of royal engagements.
“What are we to do, then?” The lord chancellor rubbed his forehead.
“We must stop the princess’s irregularity.” The chamberlain threw up his hands adding, “Though, good Iridiris, twill be hard work.”
“How would you propose we do that?” The recorder folded his hands. “The king does not appreciate our meddling in his private family affairs.”
“He is the king, not a private person. To bring his daughter up properly is his duty to his country. I know he’s tried his best, but the queen’s death, Empyrean bless her, so soon after our princess was born did complicate things. Not having a mother, a queen, to raise a princess is a great loss.” The chamberlain shook his head, then stopped and lifted it to look at the minister for foreign affairs with a smile spreading across his ruddy face. “And if the king will not listen to us in this matter, we must find someone to whom he will pay heed.”
Rhea never did mimic that conversation for her brothers’ amusement. She never told anybody about it. And a year later, the marriage of King Gromweill to Lady Leiarah, sister of the minister for foreign affairs, took place at last. For quite a while, Rhea and her brothers had suspected the wedding would occur. Leiarah was the soft-faced woman with dark hair who laughed heartily, delighted in feasts, dressed more richly than any other lady in the court, and several years after the death of Queen Alexandrite, had begun to catch the eye of the lonely king. Rhea didn’t mind having Leiarah about.
“I’m not going to try to be your mother,” Leiarah had said to her just before the wedding. “But I do want to be your friend.”
And that was fine with Rhea – she’d never had a mother she could remember, and life had been enjoyable anyway. But the courtiers had other ideas.
“There,” Rhea heard the chamberlain whisper pointedly to the royal recorder, as they left the Great Hall after the wedding. “Now our Princess Rhea shall be properly brought up.”
But they forgot one thing as they rubbed their hands with contentment when Lady Leiarah ended the princess’s lessons in fencing, archery and riding, and replaced them with dancing, deportment, and sewing. They forgot the tapestries in their princess’s bedroom, where she saw them every morning when she woke and every evening as she fell asleep. They forgot the single great tapestry over the fireplace opposite her bed, where a woman with flaming hair tumbling about her shoulders stood tall and graceful with a gleaming sword, a real sword, a tool, a weapon, at her side.
They had named the little princess Rheúlea, gallant one like the ones of old, and they had forgotten it.
~~~
And now, Rhea shoved open the door and staggered into the middle of her tower bedroom. Panting, she stared up at the tapestry over her fireplace.
“Oh no …” she moaned, flinging off her cloak and sinking down onto her featherbed, which was still a tangle of counterpane from when she left it earlier that morning to search the armory for her present.
“Crown Prince Ohnferead!” was all Hiylienea could gasp out, and she repeated it several times, fanning at herself with one hand.
Rhea lay back on the bed and covered her face with her hands, the image of the young prince rising in her memory again. What would he be like now, thirteen years later?
“Oh, Lienea, I do hope people can change in thirteen years, like you said!”
“I’m sure he has.” Hiylienea wrung her hands. “How old was he when you met him?”
Rhea buried her hands among her red curls and screwed her eyes shut, thinking hard.
“Fourteen, I believe, or fifteen.”
“Well,” Hiylienea began feebly, “boys always seem very intolerable at that age.” Rhea glared at her, and Hiylienea stopped.
“Lienea, he’s twenty-seven now. That is ten years older than I am. He’s quite a man, and I’m… I’m just a girl!” Tears started up in Rhea’s eyes.
“Rhea, you’re seventeen today. Seventeen is a woman.”
“I don’t want to be!” Rhea scrubbed at her tears with her sleeve. “I don’t want to be a woman, if being a woman means being packed off to a prince like a piece of high-importance correspondence! It’s not right. In all the stories, the men go off and do marvelous things like saving people and getting knighted. They become heroes, and the ladies do nothing but sit about and get married, as if that was all we were fit for.”
“Rhea! Did your father and Leiarah sound as if they were doing anything of the sort? Didn’t you hear your father? He doesn’t want to give you away to anyone!”
“Then why doesn’t he stick to that, instead of breaking both our hearts? I want to stay here, at home, and be with you and all my things. I mean, I’ll get married someday, of course, but why now? And why him?”
As she said this, Rhea looked about her round tower room, rich and bright with the sunlight shining through the eastern window. Carved chairs stood before the fireplace and the marble bath with its embroidered curtains around on one side. The polished reading desk sat by the western window, groaning under its load of manuscripts, baskets of sewing, and trinkets. The tapestry representing one of her favorite stories, Aéna the warrior-princess of old, hung opposite her bed above the fire that now lay reduced to dead coals in the grate. For a moment, Rhea admired the tapestry. She relished how the tall, graceful woman depicted on it did not have, like most lovely ladies in tales, a faultless complexion or yellow streams of hair cascading down to her feet. Tied back from her face, pale red-gold hair fell over the shoulders of the woman in the tapestry, and her noble face bore, with a regal air, freckles. Rhea rubbed her nose, equally blessed, and smiled before sighing once more and sniffing.
What good is it? What good is it to be the first princess born to Gemworthy’s royal house in centuries, if all you do is leave and be wedded to a prince of a far-off country?
“Oh, Rhea, don’t fret about it, please.” Hiylienea sat down beside her on the rumpled bed. “It won’t help anything, and as you saw, your parents are already in a great deal of worry about it.”
“Hiylienea, I’m going to be engaged.”
Hiylienea twisted her hands together. “Well, it isn’t certain yet. There’s scores of people invited to this feast. There’s no guarantee that out of all of them Ohnferead is going to be the one you’re going to marry. If you even marry any of them,” she added quickly, when Rhea started up at her words.
“How would you like it, if your parents decided to pledge you to a man you know nothing about?”
“Well, I’m sure I wouldn’t like it. It is a frightening thought. But Rhea, your father loves you dearly, and when has he ever done something unwise or rash? If he does choose someone for you to marry, I’m quite sure it will be a good, honest man, for he’d never give you to anyone who would neglect you.”
“And your meaning is …” Rhea frowned.
“It’s been thirteen years since you met Prince Ohnferead. Just give him a chance. It doesn’t do any good at all to decide what you think of someone before you even meet him.”
“I have met him.” Rhea crossed her arms over her chest. “And that one time gave me enough to think of him for the rest of my life, thank you.”
“Oh come, Rhea.”
The princess did not say a word, but gave Hiylienea a hard look through her tumbled hair.
“Er, well, then you can distract yourself with your other suitors.” Hiylienea shrugged.
“Other suitors?” Rhea threw up her hands. “Hiylienea, it should be you getting courted, for with your romantic head and heart, they’d find a willing recipient of all the roses, ballads, and serenades they could supply!”
Hiylienea’s face flushed. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault. You’re simply what a lady is supposed to be – sweet, gentle, and quiet. Which I’m not.” Kicking off her boots, Rhea unbuckled her sword belt and laid it across her lap, gazing at it ruefully. “You know, I have a bad feeling this feast will not go well.”
“Well, at least you can try and make it start well.” Hiylienea rose and moved across the room to where Rhea’s clothes were laid out and ready. “Why don’t you put your sword away, and I’ll help you dress. It will probably ease the shock of seeing you in your nightgown outside of your bedroom for Lady Leiarah, if she finds you dressed and decent.”
“She already saw me in my cloak and nightgown.” Rhea crossed her arms over her chest and glared jealously at the garb of Aéna the White-Robed in the tapestry; her attirewas elegant, yet entirely functional for a much-moving and sword-wielding young woman.
“Oh, come, Rhea.” Hiylienea tilted her head to one side and gave the sweet smile that dimpled her face. “If you don’t get dressed, you shan’t see the present I’ve got for you.”
Rhea leapt from the bed, almost dropping her new sword. “What is it?”
“Hide the sword, then you’ll see,” Hiylienea said as she poured rose water into the washbasin and set out towels and lavender soap.
Crouching down on the thick carpet, Rhea pulled from under her large white bed a battered wooden trunk enforced with gold-detailed metal bands and unlocked it with the key from the bedside table drawer. Inside, neatly folded, lay a variety of boy’s garments, from wide-sleeved shirts and tailored breeches to leather jerkins and a fur-trimmed cloak. Rhea tucked her pair of buckled boots into one corner of the chest, then laid the sword with its sheath and belt on top of the cloak. Giving it one last caress, she locked the trunk up and returned it to its hiding place.
“Nobody’s found your cache yet, I see.” Hiylienea looked up as Rhea finished this.
“No.” Rhea shook her head and smiled. “You’re still the only one – besides Valrient – who knows about it. I can’t fence in dresses, and I would be in a tight place if Leiarah found my uniforms of action.”
“Speaking of Lady Leiarah and dressing …” Hiylienea cleared her throat.
Rhea sighed and submitted herself to being laced into her silk gown, though she brightened when Hiylienea gave her the promised gift – a string of small pearls with a sparkling white gem set in gold in the middle. And despite her dark predictions, the day moved on to become better.
King Gromweill let the kingdom take care of itself for a few hours and ate breakfast in the royal sitting room with the rest of the family in honor of the day. And the entire family was there for once: Vair on holiday from his studies at the Erudithall in northeastern Gemworthy, the twins Saltire and Martlet home from their adventuring as errant-knights throughout the country, Valrient returned from an embassy to Marrien, and Crown Prince Reglann setting matters of state aside for a while, as their father did. Rhea was seated at her Papa’s side, and they all laughed and talked of everything that occurred while the two travelers were away, and Leiarah took the head of the breakfast table and served out the mulled wine.
Rhea began to feel turning seventeen wasn’t quite so trying when her father, stepmother, and brothers lavished her with presents. Gifts came pouring in from the guests of the upcoming feast as well: blue and red parrots and gold-threaded silk scarves from Marrien, delicate ivory carvings and silver jewelry from Theltain, jeweled trinkets from all the regions of Gemworthy, and even a pearl, almost as large as Rhea’s fist, from the Thalassic ambassadors who gathered in the waters of the bay below.
But then Leiarah noticed the castle bell ringing the time, and her hands flew to her face. “Just listen to how late it’s grown! My goodness, and there’s so much to prepare for tonight. Hurry now, Rhea, back up to your room. You’ll not be fit to be seen in the Great Hall if you don’t get started now!”
Rhea had never dreaded feasts before; dressing in her finest silk and brocade and jewels, dancing, and meeting new people had been a joy. But now, on the way back to her room for the long process of preparation, she stopped at the same window where Valrient had glared down upon the unwelcome arrival of the Phoenix and stuck her tongue out at the crowds below like a wild goose girl.
“Suitors! Suits me if they’d all go back where they came from! And without a bride!”
All afternoon Rhea was surrounded by ladies-in-waiting, who prepared her bath, dressed her hair with perfumed oils, and at last, as the sun began to redden in the western sky, began to dress her. They laced her into a sea-blue gown embroidered with jewels like stars and adorned her curls with an intricate electrum caul and crown – reserved for the very highest occasions – which glittered with opals and diamonds. Hiylienea, having undergone similar treatments in her chamber across the corridor, appeared in a red and ivory dress and accompanied Rhea down to the Great Hall.
“Please don’t be worrisome.”
“What makes you think I will be?” Rhea could hear music coming up from the lower levels of the castle, and excitement began to tingle through her.
“You know why … this feast …”
“Well, worrying doesn’t help anything.” Rhea shrugged. “And since this feast is all about my birthday, it’s bound to be good, and I don’t want to spoil it by worrying.”
Hiylienea sighed and straightened. “Good. I wonder who’s there already!”
The two girls bustled up their skirts and hurried to one of the balconies overlooking the Great Hall. The ponderous tasseled curtains provided a perfect hiding place for them to crouch behind and whisper their opinions on everything as the hall below began to fill with guests.
The hall was fascinatingly decorated, with the crystal chandeliers and wall candelabras all sparkling and shining, the light gleaming on the tapestries, the royal arms on display, and the gold and silver and cut glass on the tables. Dressed in rich brocade of every imaginable hue, lords, ladies, knights, and Fey sat or stood at the long tables, their laughing voices rising to the high, painted ceiling. To the left of the dais, where Rhea, her family, and a few select guests would dine, a group of minstrels garbed in the royal colors created a pleasing backdrop to the hubbub of conversation. Piquing her curiosity, there were also more of the Royal Centrinels than normal present, standing in their rigid military way about the hall. She accredited this to it being her birthday feast, but then remembered the commotion that morning among the guards and the Phoenix. This worried her only a moment, however, for the flow of arriving guests was much more amusing to observe. Every now and then the herald at the doors opposite the dais would bellow out the arrival of some preeminence.
There were the dukes of the eight regions of Gemworthy and their families, lords of the major cities, and knights of the high-ranking Gemstar order. Chieftains and chieftainesses of the Centaur tribes of the Gemworthian plains, tall and giant-like, and their smaller cousins from the Varshan hills entered next. Following were the Griffin captains from the National Guard and from the great Griffin colony-outpost in the mountains of the far northern border, Ternum Cataract. They strode along silently, big as horses but as graceful and silken-coated as giant cats with their great wings arched over their backs. Next came the Elf-regents from the tree-covered hills of the Korrwood and the southern shores, fair-haired and dressed in blue and silver and green. Guests were not limited to those from Gemworthy, however. Hailing from the north, across the Thuork sea, were Fían Headman and his wife. They took their seats beside the dusky-skinned Epari and Eparina of Marrien, who had travelled long from their far southern homeland to attend the occasion. Last of all came the guests from the Avrinn Isles. But before Rhea and Hiylienea could catch a glimpse of the people belonging to the names the herald shouted, they heard a cry behind them and turned to see a herald hurrying towards them.
“Ah, Your Highness!” He bowed, turning his plumed hat in his hands. “We have been looking for you everywhere … your royal father requests you to come to the doors of the Great Hall to enter with His Majesty and the rest of Your Highness’s family.”
As Rhea departed down the hallway, she caught the words of the herald’s announcement of the next guest.
“His Royal Highness, Crown Prince Ohnferead Randerrin Iltumír Leovarne of the Avrinn Isles.”
She felt Hiylienea reach out and give her hand a quick grasp. She glanced over to see her brown eyes fixed on her.
“Regal and sedate!” Hiylienea whispered as they reached the wide, arched doorway leading into the Great Hall, where King Gromweill, Queen Leiarah, and Rhea’s five brothers stood waiting. “It’s been thirteen years since you last saw him. Give him a chance!”

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Posted on April 10, 2014, in Fantasy, Fiction, FIRSTWildCard, General and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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