Originally written 03/05/2015. Revised on 03/25/2015.
14th of Ocdeork, 750AP
“Your home is… immense.” Lyla struggled to find the right word. But ‘immense’ wasn’t it. Baleria, sitting opposite her, simply nodded, and Lyla closed the blinds. The carriage continued its slow stroll, bouncing up and down the cobbled alleys.
Henrit leaned over Lyla to get a better look at Baleria’s home, pulling the blinds back once more. It was a bright, blue day, with gulls squawking and children playing – a sign that Sol’Enasé shone even on those bleakest of occasions. Through the brilliance, two towers hugged and held Baleria’s impressive manor in place. Atop each tower, a pyre blazed hot, something Lyla had never witnessed prior from her visits to the manor. Perhaps it was lit in respect to the fallen. The house sat against the sheer cliff, actually built into the earth; like much of Eastings, but more pronounced in its elegance. Brite Aqueduct soared just 40 meters to its left, using the flow of River Atlúm to bring water into Velundane. This hadn’t stopped the late Lord Brite from diverting a section of the river to fall over the face of his home – a magnificent waterfall contained within the grooves of the cleverly worked stone, splitting in half just above the entrance, running into a small, decorative moat. It might have been considered gaudy if it weren’t so uniquely beautiful. Instead, it only appeared magical.
Henrit said nothing, but sat back in his seat. The carriage hit a bump in the road, and the three rocked with the motion of it. Henrit hadn’t uttered a word since his father was assassinated before his eyes the previous day. He barely registered emotion. He hadn’t cried. He hadn’t even slept. And now he sat there, a boy not yet ten borndays, blankly staring at the empty seat in front of him. Every now and again he would take a quick glance at the Rowalli woman, Baleria.
Considering the circumstances, Baleria held herself well, no doubt a residual of the many years she’d spent training to keep calm under any condition. She had spent the night at Lyla’s house after being ushered into it following the assassination of their husbands. The guards were quick enough to keep them from harm, but far too late to do anything about the massive arrows embedded in Jary and Ashayr, who had died shortly after. Some 15 guards had been stationed around the perimeter of the Miggon home just in case the murderers returned. Lyla somehow knew they wouldn’t.
It was strange being sequestered inside her own home. The experience had been almost dreamlike. She remembered how, just an hour beforehand, she sat in the same chair by the door, watching her husband robe himself in the ceremonial brown with blue fringes. “Showing the people of Velundane that every life is worth as much as the next, that it doesn’t pay to fear those who attempt us harm – that’s a duty I can’t shy away from,” he had told her, just before he exited his home for the last time. She agreed, and with a kiss she told him “you’re my favorite.” It was the last thing she said to him, a shared joke between them going back as long as their relationship had. After losing her husband in front of hundreds, and being shut away in the very same room, in the same house…
Lyla shook herself from thinking further on it. The carriage pulled up the gravel drive. ‘Why do the rich always have gravel driveways?’ With a tug on the reins, the horses snorted and slowed to a stop.
The driver, an elderly man with thick spectacles, opened the door to the carriage on Henrit’s side. The three filed out accordingly. It wasn’t a particularly windy day, but the spray of the waterfall being split in two just above the portal to Brite Manor misted over them after a strong gust kicked the particles about. It was only a light spritz, and it felt oddly nice. It was a warm day and yesterday’s snow had nearly all melted. It seemed it would be a forgiving winter for the people of Velundane. But to Lyla, Henrit, and Baleria, no winter will ever seem so harsh as this again. No snow will ever fall and not remind them of their losses.
The door of the great manor swung open, and a procession of servants and staff shuffled out forming two lines. They stretched themselves out across the sides of the bridge, all the way up to the threshold, and bowed deeply. Eyes closed, faces wet, hair undone in some cases; this was a somber occasion.
Stone-faced Baleria, who’s veneer had yet to crack beyond a few stray tears, stopped in her tracks. She looked at the welcoming procession with dead, unreadable, yet beautiful blue eyes, and as one of the men moved forward to greet them, she pushed past him in haste.
“My lady, we are so grieved for your…” The man was balding, fat, and held his cap under his hands. Baleria didn’t give him a chance to finish before she reached the doorframe. She turned briefly, tears clouding her eyes, her lips plump and pouting, and then ran up the staircase. The man finished his sentence staring at the ground at his feet, fumbling with his hat, eyes newly awash with tears. “…loss.”
The carriage driver seemed at a loss for what to do. He had halfway climbed up back to his perch, but stopped to see the commotion at the entrance. In truth, everyone was unsure of what steps to take next. The servants either gawked at the woman climbing the stairs in fitful sobs, or wept openly in each other’s arms or on their knees. Henrit was still in a state of unperplexed shock. Lyla took him by the hand and walked forward, into Brite Manor.
Many hours passed. Much tea was had. Lyla heard the muffled sounds of Baleria’s wailing from the room upstairs. For all the girl’s bottled emotions, it was bound to pop eventually. And like sparkling wine, her sobs bubbled forth even stronger than Lyla’s had. Baleria had made arrangements for Lyla, Henrit, and herself to be escorted to her manor earlier that morning. Lyla had only agreed because there was sense in finding the safest lodging they could get, despite having not wanted to. Henrit wandered the halls in silence, occasionally looking out the windows to the guards strategically stationed.
Lyla tried her best not to wallow in the loss of her husband, but it seemed the only thing she was capable of doing. What would she do with the business? Her husband had headed a bimonthly periodical, a position handed down by his father before him. She knew little about journalism. Would she sell it? Would she have to work? What was to become of her home. Her son? ‘What will I do without my Jary?’
In the distance, a slow rumbling noise could be heard and Lyla craned her ears to listen. The rumbling eventually grew louder, more distinct. ‘Hoofbeats. Many hoofbeats, headed this way.’ Getting up to look out the window that her son had been staring out of, she saw a cavalcade of riders, many dressed in fine leathers and silks. The horses were stout animals, fierce and majestic.
“Make way for the Prince!” The man at the front of the procession blew his horn and yelled again. “Make way for the Prince!”
Through the window, Lyla saw the Prince astride a gorgeous white mare; tall, well-fed, and certainly galant. The Prince himself was a good looking young man, perhaps not yet in his middle years. Trimmed dark hair. He wore a mix of plate and blue cloth. He jumped off his mare with some haste and made for the door. Lyla pulled Henrit into the next room. She had never met the Prince, or anyone from the Royal Family for that matter. And she had not known he was coming. She didn’t even think Baleria knew of his arrival.
She could hear men speaking to each other just outside the door, but she couldn’t make out what was being said. Until someone yelled out in an inflection that could only have come from a man used to getting everything he wanted, saying “I assure you sir, I know. That is why I have come. Do you deny me entrance?”
Silence. And then the door pushed open, a cool draft filling the room. Along with several boots, both leather and plated from the sound of it. The majority of the party stayed outside.
“Your Royal Highness!” a young serving girl said with a squeaky voice. No doubt she was fumbling with cleaning instruments while trying to bow, or something. Lyla couldn’t tell from her vantage point in the next room.
“Where is the Lady of the house? She is here, no?” His accent was thick with generational wealth.
“Yes ma’Lord – ah.. Highness!” The girl seemed near to wetting herself with fear. “Mrs. Baleria is uhh.. is in her chamber. Mournin’.”
The Prince seemed either to have not noticed or not cared for the girl’s inability to speak correctly. Instead he pressed on. “Please announce my presence to her. Ask her if she will meet me.” The girl skittered up the steps faster than even Baleria had in her haste. “And the wife of the journalist? Is she here also?”
Another man took up the question this time. Perhaps the staff member who let him in through the door. “Yes, yer Highness. Eh, Royal Highness, excuse me.” He cleared his throat. “Yes, Mrs. Miggon is ’round here some’ere.”
“Locate her for me as well.”
“There’s no need. I am here.” Lyla entered with her son from the next room. She didn’t know the purpose of the Prince’s visit, but there was no reason to hide she was present. She bowed low. It was then she realized she still wore the same brown and blue cloak from the previous day’s festivities. She hadn’t changed or removed it since.
“My Lady,” the Prince said, his voice dropping from commanding to pitying. ‘Or is it empathy?’ “You must be,” he paused to rack his brain just a moment. “Lyla. Lyla Miggon?”
Lyla nodded. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, my Prince.”
“No, no. Call me Yantur, please. And no, although it is heartwarming to hear you speak with such stolidity, no visit from myself on such an occasion could possibly be deemed pleasant.”
Taken aback at his forwardness, Lyla was momentarily at a loss for what to say next. “I, I’m sorry, forgive me.”
“No Lyla, forgive me for being so direct. I merely mean to say that I pay your husband the greatest of respects. I am so deeply distressed at the news. When I heard what happened, I ran my horse half to death from Westriff. My father the King sends his regards. As do I.” Prince Yantur dropped to one knee, took her by the hand, and kissed it. “If there is anything that you need, Lady Lyla, consider it done. I was an avid reader of the Velundane Periodical. This is a great loss to the community. To the arts.”
Lyla was definitely not used to being called ‘Lady’, but since yesterday everything seemed to blur together. This whole experience was surreal. The loneliness. The overwhelming defeat. This house. The Prince! She had nothing to say. Words seemed to get caught in her throat and she choked back a sob, her eyes welling up once more. Thankfully he didn’t require her to answer.
“And what is your name, big man?” Prince Yantur was addressing Henrit.
When nothing was forthcoming from the boy, Lyla opened her mouth to answer for him, but to her surprise the boy gave a weak “Henrit.”
“Ah, what a wonderful name. A proper Royal name too. Do you need anything Henrit?”
“Water you say? I could use a cup myself! Waiter!” The servant in the next room who’d been watching the Royal visit intently from the shadows realized the Prince was directing his attention to her, and she jumped out of her stupor. “Bring water for my friend Henrit and I. Oh and tell one of your kitchen staff to bring some pitchers outside for the men. Ice, if you have it. The horses will be fine drinking from the moat.” The portly woman jumped away toward the kitchen.
He got off his knee and stood upright. Just then, Baleria began descending the stairs. She had changed into a revealing white gown, which fluttered over her deep olive skin. It accented her white hair, which she had rolled into a bun. Everyone in the room was transfixed by her. Being Rowalli, this was a given.
Before yesterday, Lyla had only met Baleria once or twice, and yet every time she saw the woman it was clear that each outfit she wore was tailor fit for her form. If Lyla tried on any of her garments she’d look foolish. Far too much fabric would be wasted on the top and bottom and far too little in the middle. And yet that’s how Rowalli women are bred.
She reached the bottom step and addressed the two men. “Prince Yantur Kaley. Lord Raez Sarnichor.” She bowed. It was the same bow she gave to the crowds yesterday. Only this time her outfit produced far more cleavage. Raez clearly blushed.
Lyla knew the girl had assets, but wow. And likely the late Lord Brite made every effort in outfitting her as his personal trophy piece, ‘the pervert.’ No doubt all her outfits fit her contours as this one did. Lyla was sickened by the idea of Rowalli women bred for their shape and sold off for extreme prices in “marriage”. In so many words, it was a form of slavery, a practice all but abolished in the western nations. She had argued with her husband Jary about the ethical nature of their treatment often, about eugenics, even before she had met Baleria.
“My Lady Baleria. My deepest condolences. As you know, your husband was a dear friend of mine for many years. I felt the need to pay my respects in person as soon as I heard.” The Prince bent on his knee again, and kissed the back of her hand as he had done to Lyla moments earlier. “Come, tell me all about it.”
And so they went into the entertainment room, and they recounted the past days misfortunes, with sporadic moments of great detail and great misery. By the end of the tale the Prince was fuming with anger, but he had stayed quiet throughout. He looked up to Lyla, asking “and what of the Periodical? Will you keep it? Run it yourself?”
“I don’t know just yet. Jary and I hadn’t ever spoken of what we’d do if he…” She had a hard time finishing her statement. “..If he passed away. I don’t think I could carry on with it without him.”
“You need not worry then. If it please you I could take the reins. I could find someone to buy it off you. Set you and Henrit up for life with a portion of the accrued profit. I am sure I know a few willing to make such an arrangement happen. If it is please you of course.”
Lyla didn’t know what to say. ‘Can I part with the business my husband spent his entire life pursuing? Can I really abandon all his work like it were just another project?’
“I’ll really have to think it over,” Lyla said at last. Yantur nodded. “Thank you so much, your Highness.”
“Yantur, please.” He turned to address Baleria. “And you’re sure it was A Journey of Storms? Again?” The group of murderers had been mostly wiped out almost a decade ago.
“Absolutely, Yantur! Who else would do such a thing on the anniversary of a girl’s death! It had to be them! Do you not think so?” Baleria’s voice was raised in defense of her story.
“I believe you.” Yantur waited a moment before continuing, his pensive, angry eyes mulling over his next words. “Then I must ask you: do you give me permission to settle the debt?”
“Wait, you’re going after those madmen?” Lyla chimed in, but the Prince merely held up a finger to her.
“You have my blessing.” Prince Yantur rose and gave a nod to Lord Raez Sarnichor, who had been quiet throughout the entire encounter. The man turned and headed to the door. “But,” Baleria said. “You must take me with you.”
Even Raez stopped in his tracks at this. Lyla gawked at the woman. The Prince gave her a placating look and said, “my dear, it really is not a quest for the likes of a woman. There will likely be many days of hard riding, and these are dangerous people.”
“I do not care!” She was yelling before he had finished speaking. “You think we know nothing of war where I come from? Many of your palace guards are Rowalli warriors, are they not? The men are trained for battle while the women are trained for wifely duties. This is true. But do not think I could be raised around warriors and not know how to defend myself. I will come along or you will not have my permission as my husband’s blood avenger.”
The Prince didn’t know how to take a scolding from a woman, clearly, and for a bit he seemed flabbergasted. “Fine,” he conceded. “But you will have to pack well, and dress appropriately. You’ll be the only woman in the company. Dress warm, and modestly, for your own safety. For my part I promise to keep you from harm as best I can.”
“Thank you.” Baleria looked determined to settle the score all by herself. She stood, fists clenched, shoulders lifted – ready for a fight. Lyla had never seen this side of her. She found it unsettling. “When do we leave,” Baleria asked.
“It grows dark now. We’ll leave before dawn.” The Prince nodded and he left the two widows in the room. Henrit had wandered off already. Lyla and Baleria looked at each other for a long while, speaking what had been left unspoken: all the emotions, the pain, the guilt, the loss – and yet they did so without saying a single word.