Chapter 5 – Noble Responsibilities
Sixth of Chaos 1142 — One Month Earlier
Chari stared at her reflection in the full body mirror, first facing forward, then turning to see her profile. Almost a woman. Almost.
Her short blonde hair framed a round face that contained light blue eyes, a small nose, lips that could have been fuller, and one dimple on the left, which always annoyed her. She knew boys found her pretty, but she never saw it when she looked in the mirror. She looked plain. You wouldn’t look at her and know she was a princess. She could be a barmaid or a merchant’s daughter. She would never walk into a room and have every head turn in her direction. She wondered if that was a blessing or a curse.
Her breasts had started filling out over the last year or so, but not fast enough for her liking. Her hips were not the hips of a woman who could bear children. She had not yet transitioned, but that day was rapidly closing in. She had hoped to look the part by the time it arrived.
Chari sighed. She was waiting for a summons from her father. Not really waiting, just on edge until it was done with. She knew what to expect, because her mother had already given her the news. She was, however, under strict instructions to pretend she knew nothing. Her mother had often told her that women were far more endearing when they allowed men to think every idea was theirs. Women were all too often responsible for the best decisions, but men didn’t need to know that.
After the conversation with her mother, and the inevitable argument that followed, Chari was on edge, counting the hours until her father’s summons. It didn’t come that day. Instead she spent an antsy two days waiting, during which she accomplished little. When the summons came, she leapt to her feet, more than ready to get this over with.
The walk from her quarters to the throne room through lavishly adorned palace corridors seemed interminable. Nothing had changed from the last time she’d walked this way, but it had seemed faster then. The lace-covered tables with flower vases, the pictures and tapestries and wall sconces were all the same, but they passed slowly. She wanted to get this over with.
Her father, for once, was alone in the throne room. Well alone except for a page, a servant and a couple of guards. That was about as alone as a king could get. He wasn’t sitting on his throne but instead stood staring at a particularly garish tapestry depicting a boar hunt. She had never told anyone that she couldn’t stand the tapestry. No one cared what she liked or didn’t like. She approached her father and curtsied, though with no one else there, and him not on his throne, it felt odd.
“Gods he looks old,” she thought.
King Leonid was a thin man, who at fifty years old looked closer to sixty. His thin gray hair, what was left of it, hung limply, as if it had long ago surrendered to the inevitability of aging. Vanity compelled him to wear his crown to hide his baldness wherever he went, in spite of the fact that it fooled no one. His eyes were a striking green, and he was always clean-shaven. The severity of his jaw and the tendency to frown did much to detract from his appeal. If he smiled more, he wouldn’t seem quite so unapproachable. But smiling didn’t come naturally to the king, while frowning was pretty close to his default expression.
“Chari,” he favored her with one of his rare smiles. “Thank you for coming.”
She wanted to ask if she’d actually had a choice, but as she already knew the answer, she bit back the question.
“In two days time, we set out for the city of Rish. It’s a long trip, but at the end of it, you will have to pick a god or goddess to pledge yourself to. Your mother and I have discussed it, but ultimately, the choice will be yours. Our hopes in this matter are known to you.”
They were indeed known. Her mother had wanted her to choose Mitra the goddess of lore, and her father had wanted her to choose Iorana the goddess of magic. Worthy options both, but not for Chari. Chari respected those that studied lore and learning and teaching, but she was more of a confront the problem head on sort of girl. Given the choice of spending time with a book or spending time with a sword, there wasn’t much contest. And while Iorana was a valid option, there was still too much studying involved. Also, mages tended to be in the back lines, but Chari wanted to be in the thick of things. If there was another conflict, Chari wouldn’t stay behind like her father had in the Undead War. She wanted to be up front, leading her troops to victory. Her father started speaking again when he realized she wouldn’t be responding.
“We’re not just going for your transition however. Once you are an adult, we will be choosing your future husband. I’ve been in contact with King Terrence, and we have agreed to start negotiations on a treaty between us. Your marriage to Prince Eric will be a part of that negotiation.”
It sounded so romantic the way he said it. “Why am I transitioning in Rish and not here?”
“Because if all goes well, you’ll be marrying Prince Eric. This is a show of our sincere desire to be more closely tied to the Kingdom of Twyl.”
“So it’s political.”
“Everything is political, Chari. You’d best wrap your head around that now.”
Chari frowned. “Why is it always the woman who has to make the sacrifice? It’s not like Prince Eric traveled here to transition, did he?”
“Prince Eric hasn’t yet transitioned. That should be happening during our trip.”
That surprised Chari. “You’re not wasting much time.”
“And why should I? Do you know how powerful King Terrence is? How strong his kingdom? He’d be a staunch ally in the years ahead. Do you think others will wait while we sit around and give him time? Prince Eric is a rare commodity. He’s intelligent, well-mannered, kind…oh and I’ve heard he’s handsome, so you should be happy.”
She knew she should have remained silent. She knew she should have thanked him and left, but her father’s arrogance was too much for her to bear.
“Yes, I suppose you see me as a shallow, silly young thing who bases her feelings for others strictly on their appearance. It may surprise you to know that I am not attracted to men by their looks alone.”
“Before your transition you should not speak of such things. When you’re older, you’ll understand.”
She almost choked on her rage. “When I’m older? You’re older. When are you going to understand?”
“That’s quite enough young lady. I think you should go now, before my good mood vanishes. You will come with us. You will meet Prince Eric, and you will be polite and demure and accommodating. Do I make myself clear?”
A single word, uttered with all the coldness she could crowd into it.
“Then you may go.”
Without another word, she left the throne room, making certain that not a single iota of emotion could be detected by her passage. Inside she raged, but on the outside, she was the picture of composure. She refused to let her father see just how easily he could hurt her.
Chari didn’t return to her chambers. She had spent most of the last two days more or less sequestered, and she couldn’t bear the idea of spending more time there. Instead she made her way to the training room. No one was there, but that didn’t matter. She picked up a practice sword, approached one of the target dummies, saluted it as if it were a real person, and proceeded to maul it. Normally, there was some style or form to her attacks, but today was all about spending her rage on something that wouldn’t hurt when she was done. Of course, the way she felt, she wouldn’t have minded a real opponent either. She couldn’t make the dummy bleed, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
She kept going until she felt the fury start to diminish. It was still there, but at least now she wasn’t going to unfairly berate the first person she ran into. She was angry at her father, not some unsuspecting servant. She knew she didn’t always control her temper well and was working on it. She had to do it herself, because no one else would correct her behavior, and she’d seen firsthand the damage she could cause when she wasn’t controlled. She had seen fear in the eyes of the servants, and didn’t want to be responsible for that again, at least not without sufficient reason. So she continued her assault on the dummy, until she was breathing hard and sweating profusely.
“I’m surprised it’s still standing.”
She spun, brandishing her practice sword as if she thought she might have to defend herself, but it was only Jerish, one of her father’s servants. Apparently, he’d been watching her.
Jerish was about twenty years old, with wild red hair and freckles. He was tall, thin and always had a smile for her. She’d always liked him growing up.
“How long have you been there?” she asked.
“For a while. I hadn’t planned on staying, but I wondered how long you could keep going.”
“I’ve been working on my endurance.”
“So I see. I take it the meeting with your father didn’t go well.”
“If things go to plan, I’ll be married off to some foreign prince who I’ve never met and know almost nothing about.”
“Oh? Which one?”
“King Terrence’s boy? You could do a lot worse.”
“Maybe. How will I ever know what I could have done? It’s not like I get to choose.”
Jerish leaned against the wall and crossed his arms. “I feel bad for you, princess. I do. You noble types sure have it tough, what with all the chamber pots you have to empty each day.”
Chari laughed. “Okay, okay. I know I don’t have a servant’s life, but marriage is a huge deal, and it’s for life. If my father makes the wrong match, that’s the end of it.”
“You think maybe in twenty years or so, I might get promoted to princess? Because I would take an arranged marriage if it came with all the other benefits. I’m not trying to make fun of you…”
“Yes you are.”
“Maybe a little,” he laughed. “But your problems aren’t worse than anyone else’s. You’re not starving. You’re not ill. You’re not poor. You don’t have to work day and night to pay off an indenture that you know you’ll never be able to pay off because of the exorbitant amount they charge you for food and rent.”
Chari looked embarrassed. “I know you’re right. What do you know about Prince Eric?”
“Only what people say.”
“What do they say?”
“What’s the difference? People are idiots.”
Chari laughed. “That’s not nice.”
“True doesn’t have to be nice. I suspect he’s all right, if that’s what you’re worried about. I don’t think he’ll beat you or your children. I suspect he won’t be coming home drunk every night. And apparently he’s quite good looking.”
“Why does everyone assume I care what he looks like?”
Jerish shrugged. “It matters more to some people than others, so I thought I’d bring it up.”
Chari nodded. Between the vigorous exercise and the conversation she was feeling a bit better. Until an idea came to her.
“Did my father send you?”
He looked surprised. “Chari…do you really think your father is so concerned that you’re angry that he sent his best servant to check up on you?”
“You’re his best servant?”
“Me, just now.”
She laughed. “You’re awful.”
“Are you feeling better?”
She nodded. “A bit. At least for the time being.”
“Mission accomplished then. I guess I’ll go report my success.”
Chari’s eyes widened. “My father did send you!”
She started to get angry all over again.
Chari sighed. “Mother.”
“She cares about you a great deal, Chari.”
“If she really cared about me, she’d get me out of this marriage.”
“You know you’re going to have to marry someone sooner or later. It may be that Eric is the best of a bad lot. Don’t be so fast to try to get out of it. At least wait until you meet him before you decide.”
“Pretty much all the time. If I had a crown, I’d rule the world.”
Chari grew serious. “Don’t let my father hear you say stuff like that. You know how he gets.”
“Princess! You’re worried about me. That’s sweet. Maybe we should ask for permission for you to marry me instead of that prince.”
Chari looked thoughtful. “You know, that would really piss my father off. Would you do that for me?”
Jerish looked surprised. “No, Chari. It was a joke. Honestly, if I were you, I’d much rather marry Prince Eric than me.”
“Because you’re a servant?”
“No. Because I’m me.”
Chari stared long and hard at him but didn’t think he was joking.
Eighth of Chaos 1142
Two days later, Chari, her mother and father, and a large retinue of guards, priests, servants and nobles departed the city of Trilsk, heading for the port of Glanx, where three ships waited. The distance over land to Twyl would have been shorter, but Melar wasn’t on good terms with the tribes that roamed Andara, which made traveling by ship safer and probably faster as well. Ships could travel all day and night, while horses were forced to rest.
A chirkir portal would have been a faster way to travel, but since the assassination of King Duran of Lethe, no royal dared use one. There were many stories surrounding that fabled murder, but very little was known for sure. King Duran had stepped onto the chirkir and traveled to another, where a Sarithan assassin waited, having already killed the party that had been sent to greet him. Traveling by Chirkir was not secure enough to bet your life on, or your kingdom.
Traditional portals, another option, were inherently dangerous, what with the possibility of getting stuck inside an inanimate object or even another living being, not to mention various natural phenomena that could interfere with the spell. Chari would have loved to have taken either type of portal, being a more adventurous soul than her parents, but instead she would be stuck on a ship for the entire journey. The very thought ruined that first day, which would have been lovely otherwise.
The trip to the port through gentle grassy hills, past the occasional farming settlement and finally over flat plains, was uneventful. It was too early in the fall for the weather to be a problem, though it was getting chilly at night. They camped the first night and reached Glanx just before dusk on the second.
The city was crowded, run down, and loud, at least the part they passed through to get to the ships. The port was much as Chari remembered – dirty, bustling, stinking of fish and unbathed sailors, mixed in with the much better smell that emanated from vendors selling meat and vegetable skewers, fresh baked bread, and all sorts of other snacks. Dock workers were plentiful and often didn’t have time to travel further into the city to have a sit down meal, so these vendors, most of whom sold their offerings from carts, did well.
Chari remembered getting a meat skewer when she was young, and absolutely loving it. They didn’t stop for food though this time, and Chari wasn’t about to ask her parents for anything as she was busy maintaining a general chilliness toward them. She knew that they were doing what was expected of them by custom but didn’t care. You could perform your duties and still be sympathetic and supportive. She felt unappreciated. She was a commodity to be bargained away, to marry and bear children for a prince she’d never met, who probably would use her to produce an heir before finding himself a much prettier mistress, leaving Chari to raise the child on her own.
Or she could do what her mother had done with her, and have palace staff raise him, only showing up to maintain the illusion of caring. Chari should have been satisfied with her relationship with her mother. Her father hadn’t even done that much.
More than once she had sworn to herself she would never treat her children as she had been treated. Obviously being a queen would take much time and energy, but she would find a way to make time for her children. They would grow up knowing they were loved and cared for, not by palace staff, but by their mother. It was too much to hope for that their father would do the same. She hated Prince Eric already, the uncaring, philandering bastard. She might be stuck in a marriage with him, but she’d never be demure. If he thought he’d get away with stuff just because he was king, he had another thing coming.
It had previously been decided who would take which ship and, because there were few cabins, only Chari and her parents had their own. Everyone else had to share, which didn’t sit well with the nobles, who looked unhappy with the arrangements but didn’t dare complain. Her father was not a man who took criticism well.
The ships would follow the shore for the entire voyage, so Chari could watch the land pass by as they sailed southwest along the coastline of Melar. The voyage would take them past Andara, until they rounded the southern tip of the continent. Twyl would only be another day or so, continuing up the coast which ran north and slightly west. If all went well, they would eventually come to one of the three great port cities of Twyl, though which they were landing at she had no idea. From there it would be a short trip overland and they would be at Rish, the capital. If she were lucky, she would get to see the mountain range everyone called the horn, for it looked like the horn of the great gorsks which roamed the plains of Andara. And then she’d be in Rish meeting her future husband. She’d be traveling through the kingdom that would one day be hers. The very thought of it, in spite of her fear and anger, made her head spin.
She had never really been sure of what to make of Twyl. Everyone said King Terrence was a great ruler, but she was pretty sure people said that about her father as well. And the king’s son was supposed to be this fantastic find. Others in court, having heard rumors of the arranged marriage (she was never sure how those got out) were thrilled for her. She could see the envy in the eyes of the other girls at court and wondered if they had half a brain between them. A reputation wasn’t a person, and what did they really know about the prince? He was probably good looking enough because that’s a lot harder to get lost in translation, but other qualities are just a matter of interpretation. Maybe the other nobles complimented him to earn favor with the king, and that was what people in Melar had been hearing. It’s entirely likely peasants and servants would have a completely different opinion of him.
Her father had told her that he was going through his transition during this trip. He could be transitioning even at this moment. She wondered which god or goddess he was pledged too. She didn’t think she’d be impressed. Boys his age were all idiots anyway. So were most girls, for that matter. Even her own behavior was often questionable, though as a princess, she got away with more than most. Sometimes she felt bad about that, but not often.
Twenty-fourth of Chaos 1142
Chari had managed to avoid talking with her parents for two weeks, answering questions with a single syllable when she couldn’t get away with a nod or shrug. She was sure they were aware of her annoyance by now, but neither seemed to care. This left her feeling alone. She chatted amiably with some of the crew or servants during that time, but everyone knew she was a princess, and treated her with respect that she didn’t want and wasn’t sure she’d earned. Still, she had to talk to someone, so servants it was.
The days crawled past, and she spent a lot of time on deck watching the shoreline in the distance, ticking away the hours until her freedom was taken from her entirely. She had no idea what came next but was fairly certain she wouldn’t like it. Rainy days were the worst as she ended up staying below deck, emerging from her cabin only for meals. She knew she was being stubborn, but she would be damned if she was going to let her parents win, no matter how bored or lonely she got.
She did whatever she could to pass the time, but the days she couldn’t go out on deck remained the worst.
One morning, after a storm had kept her cooped up in her too small cabin for the entirety of the previous day, she stood on deck enjoying the sun and watching birds circling distant sea cliffs. The longer she watched, the more they seemed to move in patterns. Occasionally, one would dive into the ocean attempting to snare a fish, often coming up empty. At first she had envied them their freedom, but the more she watched, the more she realized they were slave to their competitive environment and their hunger. They either competed for food, or they didn’t eat. Perhaps freedom was an illusion altogether. Thus were her thoughts when her mother joined her on deck and leaned against the railing beside her.
Queen Rhea was forty but looked much younger and could have passed for Chari’s older sister. She was aware that her mother had taken lovers out of wedlock just to get back at her father, who made little effort to hide his indiscretions. Her mother’s hair was the same honey blonde as hers, but it came halfway down her back. Her blue eyes were striking and by far her best feature. She had a body that drew men’s eyes, from an impressive bust, down past a narrow waist to her full hips. She might have put on a bit of weight lately, but she’d always been too thin anyway. At the moment she was dressed casually. Her mother was many things, but she wasn’t vain. She wore a simple blue-green dress that would have looked at home on a merchant’s wife. She would never wear something that simple or plain to court, but Chari thought it suited her.
Her mother didn’t turn to look at her when she spoke. “Did you have any questions before we arrive?”
It annoyed Chari that her mother didn’t even acknowledge her attempt at giving her the cold shoulder. She sighed. “Have you met Prince Eric before?”
“When he was much younger, maybe about eight or nine years old. He made quite an impression on your father though. He was smart for his age. Courteous too. I believe it was that meeting that led your father down today’s path.”
“Seriously? Father met an eight year old and decided he was good enough for his daughter?”
“Don’t be silly, Chari. Prince Eric wasn’t chosen because he would be an amazing match for you. He was chosen because his father would be an amazing ally. Being impressed with the boy was an added benefit, not the reason for your father’s decision.”
“How am I supposed to feel about that?”
Her mother looked surprised. “You never want to listen to anything anyone tells you to do, and now you want me to tell you how to feel? If I told you to feel miserable and resentful, would you rebel and be happy?”
Chari gave her mother a flat look.
“I didn’t think so. It was worth a try I suppose.”
“Wait a second,” said Chari. “Is this why you had me study Twylish when I was young? Because father was impressed by Prince Eric?”
“It was a consideration.”
“It was a waste of time. It’s not like you both didn’t know that when you transition you understand all the more common tongues.”
“Of course we knew that. We also knew that it might be that you’d have the opportunity to meet Prince Eric before you transitioned and that any advantage we might get in the future was worth pursuing. And learning a language isn’t a bad thing.”
“In a short time, I’d have been able to understand it anyway.”
“But you’re fluent in it now. Anyway, having it translated by your skills isn’t the same as knowing it. Languages reveal things about a culture. Languages can tell you a lot about a people.”
“Like what?” asked Chari.
“In Andaran there is no word for war, because for them war doesn’t exist. There are just battles. War is between two political entities. For a nomadic people, grudges aren’t held, cultural identity isn’t strong and no one owns anything. They don’t really go to war in Andara.”
“Try telling that to the people of Lethe.”
Queen Rhea smiled. “Yes, well, to Lethe they lost a war. But to Andara they simply won a battle. Lethe wanted to start claiming land they didn’t have any right to claim, so Andara stopped them. Not a war, just a dispute that was solved by a battle. War is much more than that.”
Neither spoke for a long time, both watching the circling birds. Chari thought about war. About Andara. About the people of Twyl, not just as another kingdom, but as descendants of the Andarans. About Prince Eric and how that upbringing might have affected him and how different he might be from nobles she’d grown up with. About her future. Finally, Chari spoke.
“You’d be foolish not to be. I was scared when I married your father. It’s normal to be scared. But I do believe that Prince Eric is one of the good ones.”
“Chari. If I thought, really thought, that the prince was not a suitable mate for my daughter, I’d have put an end to this arrangement before it began.”
Chari looked at her skeptically.
“Chari, I want you to be happy. So does your father. He also wants his kingdom to be secure. Can you blame him for that?”
She wanted to say that his kingdom would be more secure if he were nicer to his neighbors, but she didn’t. Finally, she replied. “No. I guess not.”
“At least give the prince a chance. He may surprise you. At the very least, you’re certainly going to surprise him.”
They both chuckled at that, and her mother took her hand. “It’s always hard. It’s hard for me too. The palace won’t feel the same when you move away.”
“That won’t be for a while though, right?”
“Probably. We’ll know more when your father sits down with King Terrence.”
“Will you be there?”
“Me? No. I’ll be spending time getting to know Queen Treya. I’ve met her before, but she was quiet, and I couldn’t get a good read on her. But your father will expect a full report from me.
“Wait. You’re trying to marry me off to their son, and you’ll be spying on her?”
“Politics is not spying, dear. It’s important to know your enemies, but don’t you think it’s just as important to know your allies?”
“I guess so,” said Chari, uncertainly.
“Don’t worry. I won’t ask for a full report on the prince,” her mother laughed.
“No worries on that count, mother. I’m sure I’ll be happy to let you know exactly how I feel about him.”
Second of Learning 1142
Chari lay in her hard, narrow bed, the only bed she’d had access to for almost a month. At first she had trouble sleeping in it, but over the days, then weeks, she’d grown used to it. It wasn’t comfortable. It would never be comfortable, but she had adjusted. Adjusting to the bed got her to thinking about how she was moving into an unknown situation in her life that she might find uncomfortable. She might not like Prince Eric. She might not want to marry him, but you could get used to almost anything. You just had to give it a chance.
“Like hell,” she said aloud. “He’d better adapt to me, because I have no intention of adapting to him. Who does he think he is anyway?”
She laughed, and wondered if talking to yourself was a sign of something seriously wrong with you. But she had grown lonely on the ship with no one her age to talk to. She’d had a few conversations with Jerish, but not too many. She thought he might be avoiding her but had no idea why. She realized she was sulking, and was probably not the easiest person to get along with right now, but that was no reason for him to abandon her. Or maybe it was. Honestly, she didn’t know anything anymore.
Such were her thoughts when the cry went up, a muffled shout she couldn’t quite make out because she was in her cabin. She got up, looked around the tiny room that she’d spent so much time in, and left it behind. Part of her was ready to get the hell off this ship, while another part wished the voyage would never end, because of what was waiting for her on the other side.
She left the cabin, walked up the stairs and out onto the main deck. A moment later, the cry was repeated.
“I see Kryst!”
She had expected land ho, like you hear in stories, but of course, that was silly. They hadn’t left sight of land during the entire journey.
In spite of her fears and doubts, the shout sent a thrill through her. She reviewed everything she knew about the city, which was that it was the largest port in the Kingdom of Twyl. That’s it. All she knew. Her mother, who had given herself to Mitra, the goddess of lore, would have far more information about the city, but Chari hadn’t asked. She was too busy with thoughts of her impending doom.
Like everyone else, she watched the port grow closer. There was almost a party atmosphere aboard, as passengers realized their days locked in tiny cabins with more people than was natural was about to end. There would be space to move about without getting underfoot. There would be different foods to try, different sights to see, different sounds to hear, difference scents to smell. The nobility and guards stood on deck, but the servants were below, arranging supplies and packs that would be taken on the trip to Rish.
Docking was a complicated affair, which involved several crew members lowering a launch, rowing into harbor, talking to the dock master to get assigned a berth, and finally returning to the ship with that information. This was likely happening on all three ships, and after the crewmen had returned, there was much ado about getting the ships to where they needed to be. The captain complained that all three ships couldn’t be near each other, but there was nothing he could do about it.
The captain cleared the deck of passengers except for the royal family, who he wasn’t willing to order about, so Chari remained but tried to keep out of the way. She watched the ship maneuver into position, and finally, slowly slide into its assigned berth. She watched several crewmen feed the gangway to the deck, where others fastened it down. Only when the ship had come to a full stop, and everything was tied down and ready, were the other passengers allowed on deck again. The guards preceded everyone off the ship, followed by the nobility and priests. The servants, carrying boxes and bundles were the last to disembark.
Kryst was a large port, much larger than Glanx, but that was far from the only difference. Chari had expected the port to smell like the sea, and it really didn’t, which surprised her. Then she realized that she’d been at sea for a month and the smell had more or less faded into the background. It was there if she focused on it, but other smells were far more interesting. Sounds and sights too, of course.
One of the first things she noticed was a row of cages containing various animals, most of which she’d never seen. She’d seen traveling menageries, and this place smelled like those. The musk of different animals all near each other made her think of other times she’d been close to strange animals. That and the various growls, snuffles, clicks and barks that filled the air as she drew near to get a closer look. Then shouting took her attention from the closer cages to the merchant stalls set up a bit further back. It was chaos.
Longshoremen were unloading ships nearby. Merchants were hawking their wares. A troupe of dancers and musicians played to a small audience of people who stopped to watch. Everywhere she looked there was motion and noise and color. Especially color.
Glanx had been mostly drab. People dressed in browns and grays, in clothes that in some cases were little more than rags. Here people dressed better, even the people unloading the ships. There were some people in older faded clothing, but even those were in shades of green, blue, red, purple, pink, yellow, every color she could name. And the people around her were seemingly from everywhere. Was that a serpent lord passing by? Were those manamals talking to each other near one of the merchant stalls. And why was everything so loud?
Glanx had been loud too, but nothing like this. People called to each other. There was laughter. She didn’t remember laughter in cities in Melar. The atmosphere here was more casual, more fun. In Melar everything was somber. She wondered why that was.
Her mother had stopped beside her, also taking in the sights.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” said Queen Rhea.
Chari nodded without looking away from the chaos around her. She was soaking it all up. Looking at everything at the same time. Her first time in another country, a country she might one day help rule. The very thought of it filled her with trepidation.
What qualified her to make decisions for other people? How could she possibly be a queen? I mean her mother did it and made it look easy, most of the time. But Chari didn’t feel like she could ever do what her mother did. There was so much to know, and Chari didn’t feel like she knew any of it.
“Just take it one step at a time,” said her mother, as if she could read Chari’s mind.
“How long before we get to Rish?” asked Chari.
“About three days. We have to get around a mountain range, but we’re close to one end of it here. Then it’s just east following the mountains to the city.”
“I wish we were there already. I just want this over with.”
“Chari, it’s not going to be over with for a long time. Maybe for the rest of your life.”
“I meant meeting the prince for the first time. I understand my life is going to change. But without meeting him, I can’t see or understand how it’s going to change.”
“You might like him.”
Chari looked at her. “Father liked him, so what are the odds?”
“He may have changed since he was nine. You used to be well-behaved.”
“I heard that rumor too, but I don’t remember. Is it true?”
“It is. You were a sweet, gentle little girl.”
“You became a teenager.”
Chari was going to reply when she noticed her father walking toward them. Her mother followed her gaze and both waited. He started talking before he reached them, obviously not caring who overheard.
“We made good time. We’re a couple of days early. Might throw King Terrence a bit off balance. We can hope anyway.”
Chari shook her head, but there was too much going on for her to worry about her father being an idiot. Movement caught her eye, and she shifted her attention again.
A few beggars had approached the nobility, and guards were busy chasing them off. Chari felt for them, but they also made her uncomfortable. She’d always known she was lucky to be born to wealth and power, even if she didn’t always act that way. Her father and mother, she thought, took it for granted. She hoped she’d never be like that.
Chari could have remained on those docks, looking around, taking it all in for hours, but it seemed like only a short while before she was being ushered toward the end of the docks, where a long line of carriages and carts were being lined up. There, a man dressed like a merchant was talking to one of the nobles, who seemed to be waiting for the rest of the entourage to join him. Chari realized the transport must have been arranged before they had left Melar, probably by message spell. It was very well organized and before long they were on their way, west then north, around the mountains, which she could see once they cleared the city. From this distance, she couldn’t tell if they were really tall or really far, but the range was huge, traveling east as far as she could see.
The carriage she was in was the only one with glass windows, which was ridiculous, but cool nonetheless. She spent a good portion of the trip with her face pressed against the glass, watching trees, some familiar and some strange looking. Occasionally she saw animals fleeing as the carriage approached, but she never got a good enough look at one to identify it. She saw traffic on the road moving in the other direction and noticed that everyone stop to stare at her procession as it traveled along the road, which was smoother than she had thought it would be. No wonder they could have glass windows. There was barely a bump.
Eventually, the scenery was insufficient to stop her from thinking about her future, and her inability to escape it, or even exert any control over it at all. And still she had to wait, drawing inexorably closer to her fate, whatever that was. She didn’t dare hope that everything would be fine. Too much could go wrong. In spite of what she’d heard, he could be abusive. She knew there were men who beat their wives, even though they acted normal and friendly to everyone else. How would anyone know? He might be a gambler, or a drunkard, or a philanderer. He might just be stupid or dull. And worst of all, he could be condescending. She’d hate that.
There was no part of her that thought he might be honorable and brave and strong. Nobles, in her experience, weren’t daring. They made safe, profitable choices, while exploiting everyone around them, because they had the money. And while some treated their wives well, most saw their wives as appendages, not partners. She wasn’t going to be given some pretty dress and some jewelry and sit around while Eric had all the fun. She was going to pledge herself to Sheba. She was going to be a warrior, not some fragile doll for a husband to dress up and display on his arm at fancy balls. The very thought of being that kind of woman made her stomach turn.
She had only a tiny bit of hope, because her mother wasn’t like that. Of course, she could put on a dress when she had to fulfill her role in a social setting, but her mother was smart. Maybe the smartest person Chari had ever met. She knew so much. And she was confident and strong. But yet, her father, she knew, had the final say in everything. The queen’s power was in her ability to work around the king. She never actually confronted him. That too would drive Chari crazy.
Three days until Rish. Three days until she met Prince Eric. Three days until she had at least some idea of what her future might be like.
These would be the longest three days of her life.