Ravens hand, p.4
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       Raven's Hand, p.4
 

          
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  Evelyn swallowed her last dollop of pudding and then placed her spoon down upon her plate, dabbing at her lips with her linen napkin. When she stood, we all stood together in respect. She smiled at us; a wicked smile that let us know she could do anything she wanted. There was nothing we could do.

  Turning to her maidservant, she said, “You may draw my bath.” Then, addressing our group, she offered, “Until tomorrow, ladies.”

  We remained standing until Mistress Evelyn exited the room. Stunned silence was all any of us could come up with. It was Hannah who finally spoke.

  “You must be ready to depart by morning, Celia,” she said. Then Hannah turned and left the table for her quarters without another word.

  To her credit, Celia kept her composure until we both returned to my bedchamber. Once the door closed behind us, Celia fell apart, sobbing uncontrollably upon my breast as we sat upon the bed. I stroked her hair and made my best effort to console her. Yet, tears streamed down my face the entire time.

  There was no consolation I could truly offer her. Tomorrow, Celia would be taken away in my place to face a life she was unprepared to cope with. I did not explain the obvious: that this whole situation was my fault. Still, I couldn’t stop whispering in her ear how sorry I was for what had happened.

  Overnight Sensations

  Killian and Esmeralda drew near to the great wall that surrounded Rainier on all sides. It had towered nearly one hundred feet for centuries and was almost another city in of itself. Legions of the king’s soldiers lived within the barrack complexes ranged throughout the wall, which was broader at the bottom than the top. Still, two chariots could easily drive side by side along the avenue atop the wall.

  The Eastern Gate loomed ahead, but night had come and the gate was already closed. Killian had anticipated this. He knew of an inn where his mark of patronage would be accepted without question. He had planned already for an overnight stay and an early departure by the Eastern Road. Once he traveled beyond the Mud Districts and the farm lands further out, he and Esmeralda would depart the road for a trail leading into the Brine Wood and Eliam’s Temple there.

  A sign blew in the light breeze above the door to the nearby inn. The city was so vast that the wind still swept over the wall, but the dangerous seasonal storm winds had been tempered greatly, protecting those who dwelt inside. The sign caught Killian’s attention as the gas lamp out front illuminated the image of a snarling canine baring blood-stained fangs.

  “It doesn’t get much more wholesome than the Mangy Cur, eh, Esmeralda?”

  The mare stared at the inn and snorted. Killian sensed her concern. Esmeralda was nervous.

  “There’s nothing dangerous that I can tell,” Killian replied, patting her neck reassuringly.

  They moved along the side of the building toward the stable in the rear. Despite the hour, several boys were on hand to tend to Esmeralda’s needs. They worked a shift through the night and would be replaced by others in the morning.

  Killian left her in their care. He didn’t recognize any of these particular boys. Those he remembered meeting on an earlier visit with his father have either changed jobs or grown too old to still be working the stables.

  Still, Yeager, the proprietor, was known as a cautious man. He would never have some pack of street urchins working for him. Killian removed his package from Esmeralda’s saddle, placing the wrapped sword under his cloak. He patted her again before leaving and bid her goodnight. Esmeralda nuzzled at him gently, blowing as a sign of affection.

  He left her in the care of the boys who began grooming and feeding her at once, preparing a stall with fresh oats, hay and water. Killian walked back toward the front of the inn and the main door where several people were just leaving, singing a merry tune as they stumbled along toward their homes. He treaded carefully, surveying the street in every direction to be sure no one suspicious was about. Feeling secure, he walked to the heavy oak door beneath the swaying signage and entered.

  Once inside, the aroma of incense came to his attention, caressing him with mint and cinnamon. The incense burned in censer bowls fastened to thick support beams holding the second floor in place above. Sitting upon small pedestals above each censer sat the fashioned image of a Malkind spirit. It was not an overestimation to say that Rainier’s citizens were extremely superstitious, and none of them wished to offend the gods. The incense burned day and night, making it the most noticeable odor in the inn.

  However, it wasn’t the only smell Killian took in. There was the savor of fresh bread baking in the kitchen, as well as the tang of peppered meats. Beneath these active scents was the air of sweat and horseflesh. He was thankful for Yeager’s superstition, if only for all of the incense to mask the assemblage of body odor.

  The Mangy Cur was not quite filled to capacity this evening. But, being near the end of the week, this was no surprise. Still, despite the crowd, Killian knew that most of Yeager’s patrons would only be here for a while before heading home a few hours after darkness fell. Only weary travelers tended to remain overnight, and there were usually more than enough rooms upstairs to accommodate Yeager’s share of them. He was not the only inn near the Eastern Gate and certainly not the fanciest. However, Yeager was an old friend of his father’s and trusted.

  The Mangy Cur was quite the opposite sort of inn one might expect, having such a name. However, it had been all the rage several decades ago for the proprietors of inns to name their establishments the oddest, most indecorous sort of things they could come up with. On the inside, however, these same inns would be positively charming.

  Needless to say, it had become all the rage for royals and First Order Commoners to seek out these places and frequent them for fun. The Mangy Cur was one such inn of the day. However, in recent years, the fascination with these establishments had waned. The First Order Commoners still came as a matter of habit and for want of reputable inns, despite the odd names, but the royals no longer bothered.

  The Mangy Cur, in Killian’s opinion, was top shelf for an inn. It had almost all matching furniture, plenty of space, a halfway decent clientele, and easily accepted marks of patronage from royals. Yeager, now a burly man with hair already white upon his head, spotted Killian from behind his mahogany bar top and gave a wave.

  Killian returned the gesture with a nod. Wendy, one of Yeager’s daughters and his chief barmaid, observed the wave from her father and followed his line of sight to Killian. She brightened immediately, when she recognized him. Despite her father being ever present, Wendy had never curbed her flirtatious advances toward Killian.

  She waved, and Killian responded in kind, hiding a slight wince. He enjoyed Wendy’s company, but he had never given a serious relationship with the girl the first thought. Given her occupation, she probably flirted with most of the regular clientele under the age of forty. Because her father was the proprietor, Wendy might have still retained her virtue, but there was almost as great a chance that she had not.

  When Killian found a table, the girl hurried over, bypassing raised hands desiring her attention in order to come to him. “Been a while since you’ve come this way, Killian Radden-son. I’ve hardly known what to do with myself.”

  Killian only smiled. “Well, I hope Yeager still has a room available. Quite a crowd tonight.”

  Wendy sidled a little closer to him, brushing his shoulder with her waist. “I could put in a word for you,” she said, grinning. “Of course, I might expect something in return.”

  Killian sighed, unsure what to say. He didn’t want to give Wendy any real hope of a relationship between them, neither did he want to offend her. Still, she was so persistent.

  Finally, he offered, “A dance, perhaps?”

  Wendy brightened at the prospect, nodding once. “A dance it is,” she replied. “When I say?”

  Killian nodded, smiling, “Of course, milady.”

  She smiled and wandered away toward the bar and her father. “Shall I bring you your usual, then?”

/>   “Thank you,” he called after her.

  Once again, she ignored hands raised in her direction. Another girl, not one of Yeager’s daughters, made her way over to wait upon those Wendy had bypassed. She shook her head wearily, apparently knowing there was no use complaining.

  Killian took an opportunity to survey the room more carefully. He made his observation as casual as possible. Near as he could tell, no one seemed to be watching him. Still, thieves were always about, and he had no intention of losing the king’s newly forged blade before it could be blessed by Shalindra and delivered to His Majesty for his bonding ceremony.

  With King Stephen’s failing health, a need had arisen for the heir to stand forth and take the reins of the kingdom before a conflict among the great houses developed. Yet, Nathan Rainier was barely nineteen-years-old and unmarried. He had no bond at the moment either, though it was expected by all who dwelt in Rainier that this matter would shortly be remedied.

  Still, if anything prevented his bonding, or his wedding, then he would remain unqualified to assume the crown, giving the other houses an opportunity they would no doubt delight to have. Killian had heard his father speaking with other notable businessmen in Rainier about the problem. Some feared the other houses would carry out some plot or another, attempting to disrupt Nathan Rainier’s ascension to his father’s throne.

  Fortunately for the royal family and the capital city, House Rainier boasted the most powerful army of all the houses. Only Auturn could compare. Legions of troops served King Stephen and were ready at a moment’s notice to defend the crown. Not only Killian’s father, but many other bladesmiths provided the weapons that kept House Rainier safe. Stephen’s subjects were loyal to a fault and desired no other ruler; even if Nathan was young and untried as a leader. Surely the young prince’s heritage had to count for something.

  Killian was the same age as Nathan and already he knew the arts of war as though by second nature. It would have been ridiculous to suppose that Prince Nathan had not received similar training; probably the finest tutors and instructors privilege could buy. The people stood behind his assuming the throne. After all, what other choice was there?

  Wendy returned with a tankard and a pitcher besides. “Let’s see it,” she said.

  “Don’t you trust me?”

  “Of course, I do, but you know how my father is about money,” Wendy explained. “He’d be nervous as a cat charging the palace without anyone having seen your mark on the same visit.”

  Killian rolled up the sleeve of his left arm, exposing a tattooed image of the Rainier family crest in miniature—an eagle in flight over a blazing sun.

  Wendy nodded. “Besides, at least I know you’re still a prize catch.”

  Killian grinned, but otherwise did not reply to the comment.

  “Are you sure you don’t want something a bit stronger?” Wendy asked.

  Killian held the tankard as she tipped the pitcher and filled it with cool water.

  He laughed, saying, “I wouldn’t want to start stumbling about during our dance. You might not think so well of me, if I mashed your toes.”

  Wendy grinned. “Cheeky boy.”

  She left the pitcher of water and walked back to the kitchen, glancing back several times before passing Yeager at the bar.

  Killian sighed and muttered to himself, “I wonder if Mother knows any tricks for dissuading a young woman without offending her.”

  While it was true that propriety demanded one to marry from among the stock of one’s own station, he also realized his mother and father would never begrudge him a breach of etiquette. At least, not if he was infatuated. However, he was not. Mostly, this was because no other girl had dazzled him like the young raven-haired girl from his dreams.

  A peppered steak eventually found its way to Killian’s table along with fresh bread and a healthy dollop of seasoned butter. He enjoyed the meal and the obligatory dance afterward. In fact, he remained for a total of three dances. Wendy was still good company.

  A few hours later, Killian was settled into one of the Mangy Cur’s reasonably furnished, comfortable rooms, nestled beneath a heavy blanket. From adjacent rooms, the sound of love play filtered through the walls to him, but Killian paid this no mind. He wondered if the raven-haired girl would return to his dreams tonight. Extinguishing the oil lamp on the bedside table, Killian wasted no time finding out.

  Farewell to Thee

  Celia spent her last night at the abbey in my bedchamber. We wept for her departure, talked about times we had enjoyed together, and I attempted to prepare her for what she might face when she finally reached the palace at Rainier and Prince Nathan. One subject we avoided was the matter of her bond coming to her for carnal relations.

  Celia was only fifteen. She was not prepared for the world she would enter beyond these walls. I knew something of what would be expected of her, but I was no world traveler. I barely had any more experience in these matters than Celia.

  If only I had kept my tongue silent and obeyed all that was told me. I could have prevented this tragedy, but now Celia would be made to suffer for my mistakes. She never said the words, never blamed me for what had happened. Still, I couldn’t help but blame myself because I knew the truth.

  We finally settled in for a much needed rest during the wee hours of the morning, only to be woke by Hannah before dawn. We hurried to dress Celia, so that Mistress Evelyn was not made to wait even one second. Tears ran down Celia’s cheeks almost the entire time, making her makeup impossible to apply properly. In the end, Hannah said to skip it. Celia was young and her skin was appropriately pale with enough red in her cheeks to make it seem as though she already had makeup on. It would have to do.

  Celia’s few belongings were stowed in a trunk and fastened. Evelyn’s footmen delivered it to one of the armored carriages outside. Her servants had been housed in quarters separate to the abbey proper along with her carriages and their horse teams. Her caravan was comprised of one dozen of these metal-plated carriages, bearing a dozen soldiers and their arms in each. That was except for Evelyn’s carriage which was twice as long as those carrying soldiers. And there was also a single carriage, no less armored, that carried all of her luggage and, now, Celia’s meager chest full of undergarments and a few dresses and other accouterments.

  Celia and I, along with Hannah, were waiting upon the stone steps to the abbey when Mistress Evelyn made her way out of the building. She was dressed for traveling, which is to say that she was wearing a plainer, less colorful dress and long leather boots, should the need arise to disembark at one of the towns or villages along the way. Celia did not possess any traveling attire, so she made due with a practical beige print that was comfortable for wearing throughout the day.

  Our eyes were bloodshot with tears, but we withheld when she appeared. Still, Evelyn must have noticed. She sighed heavily, pulling on a pair of dark gloves.

  “We have a long trip ahead, child,” Evelyn said to Celia. “Let’s not waste time with long goodbyes.”

  “Yes, ma’am,” Celia replied.

  She shouldn’t have done it, but Celia turned to me and hugged me tightly. “I will miss you, my sister,” she said into my ear.

  Tears flowed afresh, hot upon my cheeks. I couldn’t help it. My only dear friend was being taken away from me forever.

  She released me, falling obediently in line behind Evelyn. I kept my place, despite a desperate desire to cling to Celia. The urge to use my power and escape this place with her passed through my mind more than once. However, I did not act upon the impulse. It would have been foolishness.

  Evelyn’s footmen assisted her into her compartment on one end of the carriage. Then Celia was assisted into the compartment on the other end. I sighed with relief. Because Evelyn was unwilling to ride in the same space with Celia, my friend would have her privacy. She could be alone with her thoughts and her tears.

  Within minutes, the caravan got underway, rolling steadily along the dusty, winding road
like a centipede. I watched it go with a heavy heart, wishing again that I had not allowed my foolish pride to do this to her. I couldn’t help a gasp as the final carriage finally disappeared beyond the last hill.

  Over the River and Through the Woods

  The following day, Killian and Esmeralda set on their way early. The sword remained wrapped and out of sight beneath his cloak as he went to the stables to fetch the black mare. Esmeralda was eager to see him and excited to be on their way. While still inside the inn, Killian had requested one small favor from Wendy before departing.

  “It’ll cost you,” she had said.

  “It’s for a lady,” he said innocently.

  “Another girl?” Wendy asked, suddenly offended by the thought. “What do you want?”

  Killian laughed. “I want a blue sea apple for Esmeralda, please. They’re her favorite.”

  “Your horse?” Wendy stuttered. She grinned. “A lady, indeed.”

  She went into the kitchen and soon returned, holding the bright blue apple out of reach. “My turn,” she said.

  “And what is your price, milady?”

  She walked out from behind the bar, handing him the apple. “For this,” she said. Then she moved in, planting a kiss upon his lips. Killian did not pull away, though he was a bit startled. Wendy pulled away smiling. “Safe travels.”

  Killian had nodded with a grin and then turned to go.

  Out in the barn Killian tossed Esmeralda the apple. She snatched it from the air like a bullfrog catching flies. The boys saddling her for the journey looked on in amazement, commenting about how clever an animal she was.

  Esmeralda was such a close companion to him and his family that he rarely thought of her as an animal anymore. Instead, he fancied her as simply a different sort of person—someone with different appetites and anatomy, even an odd language, but no less a person in his estimation. She was wise in her way and a true friend. He valued her company above many normal people.

  When the boys were done with her, Killian thanked the trio and tossed them each a copper. Each of them snatched the copper square from the air as deftly as Esmeralda did her apple. “Thank you, sir!” they added in unison.

 
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