"Today, again, I recall nothing here and there. I remember crying, but I do not remember why. There are gaps. Gaps in my memory. This morning, I woke up in a panic, screaming. I know I was scared by a face, a face I cannot recall. A man's face. Whether he's real or not, I know I must get stronger. I must train harder, mind and body. I must be able to protect myself in the future."
-- Entry from Leena Newmane's Diary,
just over six years ago.
The Royal Palace of Gyer spent that afternoon, as usual, clinging to the high ground between two mountains, from which the most of its bricks had been quarried as it clung to the foundations of ancient ruins that had once spanned the peaks of central Gyersheld.
And Hyii still shone brightly, and whitely, though bearing the illusion of luminescent greenery.
Why does she turn green up in our skies, and yet still sheds golden white? an idle thought met a noble maiden's mind. It was a brief distraction from the political marriage on her mind.
Under the overhanging second floor of the northern section, supported by a series of arches, the northern courtyard of Gyer's royal palace was offered a shady patio. And as the northern courtyard was often full of action, this served as an observation deck sheltered from the sun.
Leaning against the four foot high barrier that ran between the stone arches, a woman watched with a finger playing loosely with a curl of bright amber hair. Her eyes were on the knights at the courtyard's centre, who sparred with dull blades of iron.
They were rippled flamberges, traced with blossoming vines of metal and wielded with two firm hands. The artisan had spared no beauty in the craftsmanship of their model.
And the rival knights who dueled, once teacher and student, spared no mercy in the use of their dull edges. Every bruise they left was a triumph.
I long to meet the man beneath that helmet, and I hope for the chance to run my fingers through those rich brown curls escaping at the edges, she pined. She was watching one knight in particular with great curiosity. And though it had been the economic debates of greedy noblemen that had led her to this moment, she did not close her heart.
Along the ridge above the arches on the opposite side of the courtyard, a pair of beady eyes watched from a small, canine body that faded from visibility in a camouflaged and arcane state.
Swords met. And as every metal petal shook, each flower rang out like a bell. The blades clashed and parried with effort and willpower. They shook and trembled like the courtyard's blossoms in the wind.
The nearly invisible creature rose onto its four paws and ran along the ridge with the colour of every hair on its back adjusting fluidly to camouflage with its surroundings. It passed painted wooden panels of wall, and colourful banners that hung down from the window ledges. It remained unseen as a myriad of colours flowed over its running body from snout to tail.
For a moment, the noblewoman looked down to examine the foxglove blossoms that grew on the other side of the barrier upon which she leaned. Each bell hung in silence, never to ring. Each bell hung in peace and wind, forever marked by speckles as if a fox had stamped a dirty paw within.
A bee passed with an ambient buzzing.
This brought a smile to the maiden's lips. And eyes returned to the man she knew she'd one day call 'fiancé'. Bethrothed, beloved and one day... 'husband'.
And I am not to know...
* * *
It was five and a half years ago, when I was just thirteen. I was still attaining my womanhood, and even more bound by the study of magic. Still today, I wield magic that does no harm. My flesh will never forget the burning...
Baron Gestian Bannoth the Third, my father, who no longer holds that title in his senile state, was working in his office with the door open. And I made the mistake of entering unannounced.
There it was, on the wall in large parchment...
A spiderweb of names. An inter-connectivity through time. Down to the resettlers and beyond, the Bannoth name was traced. I saw it, and in that instant I knew exactly what it was.
I knew exactly where I was in time, though the future was unforetold except for one thing. It was a thing I had longed to know and to learn from an early age: who I'd call my own, who I'd spend my adult life with, and with whom I'd forge a family of my own.
I pretended to have seen nothing, as he began an angry fulmination that left me running from the room in tears.
My fixation with love had begun years earlier, though, when I had witnessed the marrying off of my older half-sister, Prislene, to House Gyera as their new queen. And then her bedroom became mine. And her ambition became mine, not that I could hope to marry a Crown Prince. However, I trusted that my father had plans for me.
The moment I read his name on the chart, Nolfavrael d'Inestheign, I recalled its meaning and its inheritance. That was when I knew without a doubt that my father did indeed love me, even if I provoked his anger then. I was naive. I was young. And perhaps I still am, yet not so much.
Responsibility has since become my own. And now, I am reminded of this, as...
* * *
A gentle hand touched the dark green sleeve of the woman's laced dress.
"Lady Kwyne Bannoth," the handmaiden spoke to her lady, now at her side and no longer sniffing the flowers at the arena's edge. "I apologize for interrupting your tranquility, m'lady. However, Mistress Oprythe Gyera approaches. If I have not been remiss in my duties, I believe you have a confidential appointment together now. And we are in no place to discuss private matters."
"Oh, dear me, we should be waiting for her in my chambers with tea brewing," of the finest Leignmark import. "How did she know to head here so promptly?"
"I know not, my lady, though the other palace servants whisper that she is a woman of great magic, and her faculties are not to be underestimated. Needless to say, the gossip is rich outside Bannoth Bastion."
Lady Kwyne turned to look down the patio. Her ornately laced green dress, worn to match the hue of the sun, spun around in a long cascading of sewn shapes; vines, leaves and grapes in varying shades of green. Self-consciously, she tucked her curly amber bangs behind her ears, and scratched at the rest which hung loosely in a large bun on the back of her head.
The woman that strode forward was wearing a creamy blue cloak of velvet texture, and her dark brown hair was tied ostentatiously in and around a wicker headdress that looked to be a fox crouched upon her forehead. Two rubies gleamed where its eyes were. And at her bossom, in the opening of the cloak, she wore a tight crimson robe that fell gracefully to her knees to expose shaven and unblemished legs in translucent white stockings. An expensive pair of blanched leather boots rose halfway up her shins, with a crescent moon motif.
Their eyes met with firm purpose.
Kwyne's blue eyes were caught in the seriousness portrayed by Oprythe's gaze. Their opalescent shimmer was moody, and would have looked grim if the cheeks of her white-powdered face hadn't been dimpled from smiling for most of her life.
She isn't just a woman who knows power. She knows happiness, love and prosperity. And she shares it with others as best she can.
"Ah, the Seamstress of Bannoth, we meet for a second time!"
Lady Kwyne courtsied, ducking her head low and finding herself unable to avoid pursing her lips. "I have failed you, Mistress Oprythe. I do not deserve such a greeting."
"On the contrary. I quite like this cloak. How did you ever get it to shimmer like water?"
Kwyne was put at ease, "Trade secrets, such as how you managed to find me here."
"My magic only confirmed my suspicion. I knew you'd spend much of this day of rest watching your knighted beloved."
Kwyne gasped, as her handmaiden struggled to keep a straight face.
"Where is your usual guardmaiden?" Mistress Oprythe queried, making sincere small talk.
"Mordeina Richten? She has been transferred to the Queen's guard. Also, I fear Mordeina overheard too much during our first discussion. And now, I am left without protection, which bothers me not in this peaceful place. None have reason to assassinate me."
"I can name a few maidens that would assassinate you for the chance to wed the heir of Inestheign."
Lady Kwyne nodded with a giggle, "Such is the nature of the lives we lead, hee hee. Secrecy protects me from deception. I take kindly to watching Yobell de Souraigh to keep them guessing, hah."
Mistress Oprythe became pensive, "One of my more talented students, and quite the looker, yes. Surely you remember his part in summoning at the Winter Solstice. However, my teaching has come to an end for now."
"The business between us must eclipse it for now. This investigation will require both of us to do more than deploy others. Baltus and I shall investigate the assassin. I expect that you can take care of the affairs concerning your sister-in-law?"
"Yes, I am able. Where is Baltus Newmane now?" Lady Kwyne Bannoth asked. "I was under the impression he seldom left your side, Mistress."
"Baltus is running a few errands in town, as we speak. Our part of this investigation demands that we be well-equipped."
Kwyne frowned. "You have no need for new armaments, not with your established power and wealth."
"Please, allow me to explain things in private," she said as she extended one hand to Kwyne and the other towards her handmaiden. "I shall teleport us to my chambers. Please, relax your minds..."
"Very well," said Lady Kwyne as she allowed an energy to pass into her from Oprythe's hand and then connect her to her servant.
The three women stood together, holding hands, as all drew long breaths. And a camouflaged blur ran across the patio and sat upon Lady Oprythe's stylized leather boot as if it belonged there. She nodded at its presence and then all four of them disappeared, causing an implosion of air to stir the breeze chaotically.
It was then that, in the middle of the courtyard below where those ladies had been, Sir Nolfavrael d'Inestheign knocked a blade from the gauntleted hands of Sir Reubalt Richten.
"Lost your concentration?" Nolfavrael asked his opponent as he knocked him to the ground.
Reubalt rolled onto his feet and then lunged towards his fallen blade with a grunt.
A metal boot kicked it away, and then a dull edge fell to stillness at Sir Richten's neck. Nolfavrael's grim face didn't smile. He spoke in the archaic tongue of Old Gyersheld, of the runes few could read, a variation of the modern tongue, "Thou hath been slain, Reubalt of House Richten, were this battle genuine."
Sir Reubalt rose to his feet, "She distracts me but not you. And I'm the one with a wife. Sometimes, I think that virgin beauty watches you train partly to watch me fall."
"Speak not of virgin beauties, for I am to be betrothed by another's will."
"You say one reason and you think another!" spat Reubalt. "Regardless, you've won our final duel. Thus, your disgusting secret is safe with me, man-sown."
"As is yours," answered Nolfavrael as he walked away. "Next time, tell me what the wager is before we fight."
Sir Richten frowned, uncomprehending.
Nolfavrael turned around, "What your memory forgets, of all those years ago... is that you made the first move." And then he turned back again to walk away.
"Liar!" yelled Reubalt, as he flung the sword towards Nolfavrael. It cartwheeled through the air and hit Nolfavrael in the back, knocking him down onto soft grass.
He stood over Nolfavrael, overshadowing him.
Lip bleeding, Nolfavrael turned to face his old master, without raising himself from the ground, "How old was I, Reubalt?"
Sir Reubalt of House Richten grimaced.
"I was a first year at the academy... no older than the stableboy, or those girls that sought to be guardmaidens. There was a preference, too. Leena was her name, was it not? I bet she didn't make the first move either. Only eleven."
A metal boot kicked into the grass, sending soil and greenery flying into Nolfavrael's face as he lay on the courtyard floor. The heir of Inestheign let the dirt stay there until the other man had walked away before he spat it out of his mouth.
That was when a smile spread across his dirt-covered lips.
Upright, breathing deeply, Sir Nolfavrael of the House of Inestheign stood in the centre of the empty courtyard. Minutes passed. And then it came with certainty...
"I'm free of you now, Reubalt!" he crowed.