Food arrived, and Leonos and Eirle became engrossed in the business of planning the journey.
Nessa talked to her sister while they ate. Both had read of Allanor, but of course, neither had visited it. While their own kingdom was marked with mountains, lush valleys, and winding rivers, then finally the rocky coast at the sea, low, wide, long plains of wheat made up the bulk of Allanor. It had no defensible position—no mountain passes or impassable rivers—so the kingdom relied on diplomacy and trade, creating allegiances with every neighbor it could to avoid war with any. If one threatened, the others would step up to ensure their storehouses remained full.
Allanor, therefore, found itself to be a huntsman’s stew of cultures from all corners of the continent. Nessa admired that about the kingdom, and she relished the idea of visiting it. What better for a wedding tour? she realized. Although unexpected, she did not find the idea of travel distasteful, and taking Sara with her would make it even more of an adventure.
“I’ve read they have some strange customs,” Sara said.
Nessa nodded and wondered how outdated the books they’d both read were now. Nessa would have to be particularly careful. Evidently—at least one hundred years ago, when the books were penned—women were not permitted to tell
a man to do anything. They could only make a request, in the form of a question. Nessa, who was accustomed to ordering men around—including her liege lord and little brother, Alosius—daily might find herself in an untenable situation. Despite the melting pot of cultures—mostly there to kowtow to the king—the traditions of Allanor ruled all.
“Let’s not get comfortable there too quickly,” she told Sara. “We may need to—”
Before she could finish, the door to the privy chamber crashed open and a gangly girl, all limbs and flying hair rushed in. Before Nessa could stand, the girl threw herself onto Nessa’s lap and hugged her fiercely.
“Why didn’t you send a message you were coming?” she demanded between hugs.
The girl had grown quick like ivy through the winter and early spring months. She’d be tall, taking after her father and uncle, but not nearly as tall as Nessa. Thank the gods for that.
“Princess,” Nessa said, “don’t forget your uncle.”
The princess stood, straightened her hair and dress, and curtsied prettily for Eirle. “Thank you for honoring us with your presence, Lord of Gray Oak.”
“And this is my sister, Sara. Sara, this is Princess C’wen, Leonos’s daughter.”
“Ah!” Sara said, standing herself to offer a curtsy to the princess. “I’ve heard of your adventures and your stout heart.” In fact, Sara had attempted to write down the story, as Nessa told it, but she never seemed happy with the results. “Perhaps you’d like to share with me sometime, about the kidnapping and—”
“I’m not sure if we’ll have time for that,” Nessa said quietly.
“But I’ve got to show you what I’ve learned,” C’wen said. “You’ll have time for that, won’t you?”
Nessa glanced at Eirle, who shook his head slightly. Nessa pursed her lips and returned her focus to C’wen. “We’ll see. It’s too late tonight, but maybe first thing the morning.”
“Oh, but I’m not sleepy—”
“They very well may be,” Leonos interrupted. “Eirle and Nessa are not here to entertain you, daughter, but I promise you when they return, we’ll find the time.”
C’wen pouted but accepted the concession.
“Why don’t we show Sara the library, Highness,” Nessa suggested. “We have time at least for that.”
C’wen’s face lit up at the idea. “Yes, let’s.” She offered Sara her hand and the three left the privy chamber without another word. Nessa did not know how long she’d have at the castle before heading out again, and she did want to spend some time with the princess.
* * * *
Much later in the evening, servants showed a very tired Nessa to an empty bedchamber. Sara had been led off to another.
The room had been, in fact, Sir Eirle’s before he’d left for Cold Spring Keep, and—aside from clean linens on the giant bed—nothing appeared to have been touched in the intervening months.
Servants had left a large, steaming basin of water near the fire, and Nessa’s baggage had also been unloaded in the room, though not unpacked, an indication that the king expected them to leave right away. Nessa stripped, the fire having effectively warmed the room, and washed. She used the garderobe, its door secreted by a tapestry, and then crawled in Eirle’s bed.
She sighed as she stared at the heavy wooden beams above the bed as she waited for sleep to come. Eirle, no doubt, still worked with the king to hash out the details of their trip, which would have to include…
Nessa gasped as her realization chased any thought of sleep away.
A ship. They would need to cross the channel that separated their part of the continent from Allanor. Either that or travel for weeks around the large inland sea. The king’s rush would mean sailing.
Nessa had rowed a dingy about the tiny pond near Cold Spring Keep, but she’d never been on a sailing boat. She’d read tales of giant beasts, storms, castaways, but she’d never experienced those herself, let alone laid eyes on the sea.
Of course, neither had Sara. She wondered how her sister would hold up.
Nessa turned on her side, uncomfortable in the unfamiliar bed. She thought about the illustrations of sea serpents that dotted the maps in her father’s library. Alosius’s library, she reminded herself.
A door banged open, startling Nessa. I must have dozed off.
A mumbled apology came from across the room. “I forgot how light this door is,” Eirle explained as he closed it softly behind him. “I’ve been wrestling with that blasted slab of wood your lady mother calls a door for too long.”
Among the many things that had vexed Eirle while staying in the small chamber Nessa’s mother had given him was the giant door and its old, rusty hinges. His inability to adjust to the giant, heavy door had been a source of amusement for her, though she’d never admit it to him.
She heard him dropping clothes along the floor, and then the sound of the water dipper against the metal kettle near the fire.
Nessa pushed up on her elbows. Eirle crouched naked in front of the fire, ladling water on his head and letting it drip to the hearth, where it popped and sizzled against the hot rocks. Fire illuminated him from behind, casting alternating light and shadow across the hard plains of his body.
Nessa sucked in a breath, and a stirring started in her loins. Eirle was so handsome. She could hardly believe he loved her. But he’d frozen through the winter at Cold Spring to be with her, and when the weather turned, he wasted no time in making her his wife. She was sister-in-law to the king now. Her. A girl who never fit in and never felt right in her own skin. Now she had a man who loved her, who worshipped her.