Garia's semi-holiday at Castle Dekarran continues with dancing lessons and a close look at a local musical instrument. She learns something about the nature of touch and a possible reason why the local music sounds so bad. Then, unexpectedly, everything changes...
by Penny Lane
55 - Change of Plans
Disclaimer: The original characters and plot of this story are the property of the author. No infringement of pre-existing copyright is intended. This story is copyright (c) 2011-2012 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.
After breakfast the following morning, everybody assembled in the large courtyard where Garia had first arrived in the castle. In fact, almost everybody who could find some reason to be there was present, along with a number of others who probably had no reason to be there at all.
All the various guardsmen and men-at-arms of the different visitors were present, dressed in their best uniforms and making an impressive multicolored spectacle for all the bystanders. All the Dukes naturally had come with their own escorts, and together with the Palace Guard contingent, Garia's eight men plus the Castle Guard they lined the courtyard with suitable martial splendor.
In front of the entrance were grouped the assembled nobles, but the place of honor was reserved for a man who was not a noble, with his wife beside him. This was Bleskin's day, as Gilbanar wanted to give the newly-retired Captain of the Palace Guard a present to help him with his journey north.
"Your Majesty," Gilbanar began, "We are gathered this morning to honor a man who has given his life in the service of his King. He travels north to the region where his family raised him before he began service with your own father, to begin a well-earned rest from his labors on your behalf. Today, we have units present from each of the provinces of the kingdom, and they felt it proper that they should offer their own tribute for the services he has rendered all Palarand in the past. Thus, you see them all assembled before us here."
Robanar nodded once to show that he agreed to what was about to happen. Gilbanar turned to a man beside him wearing his own livery with a diagonal sash.
"Captain Jokar, please bring the parade to order."
"Your Grace!" Jokar turned to face the open area. "Parade, attend!"
The assembled men came from parade rest to attention, their spears thumping on the stone of the courtyard. The onlookers fell silent. Jokar turned back to Gilbanar.
"Your Grace. Parade ready for your inspection."
Gilbanar shook his head. "Not mine, captain. This parade is for Captain Bleskin. Shall you lead the way?"
Jokar lead Bleskin to the men, and the pair walked slowly round the courtyard. They stopped from time to time for Bleskin to speak to some of the men he had either known, commanded or worked with over the years. When the pair returned to the group of nobles Bleskin's eyes were wet, but he made no attempt to wipe away the tears or disguise his feelings. He stopped and bowed before Robanar.
"Sire, I thank you for this kindness. I shall remember it always."
"Captain," Robanar replied, softly, "It was the least that we might do." His mouth twitched. "We are not done yet, though."
"Wait and see. Gilbanar?"
"Sire. Jokar, rest the men."
The men changed to parade rest stance and sloped their weapons. Gilbanar turned to face the crowd, but he addressed Bleskin and his voice was loud enough that all could hear his words.
"Captain Bleskin, when you planned your retirement, I asked if there was any gift I might make you, and you answered that for your travels onward and during your retirement you would require a carriage. I offered to find you one here, and you accepted, since that meant you did not need to bring it across the Sirrel with you. Having considered your likely needs, we commissioned a suitable conveyance for you."
"Your Grace, you should not have done that!" Bleskin protested. "I thought only that you might find one for me over here."
"Nonsense, captain! This is our gift to you, that you might remember us every time you travel. And we expect you to travel often, captain. The hospitality of Dekarran will always be yours, and we expect you to make regular use of it. It is time for us to present this conveyance to you, so if you would give the signal, Captain Jokar..."
Jokar made a sign to a bugler and a single clear tone rang out through the courtyard. From the left, round the rock which supported one of the stone pillars, a dranakh appeared pulling a wheeled vehicle unlike any Garia had seen before.
At least not on Anmar. This reminds me of... Amish wagons, I think. Something like that. It's a weird mixture of carriage and wagon, with an enclosed seating area at the front for driver and passengers and a flat-bed section at the back for luggage or goods.
I do believe someone has invented the Alaesian version of a pick-up truck!
"This is yours, Captain Bleskin," Robanar said, "to carry you and your good lady wherever you desire. Take it with our blessing." He shrugged dismissively. "Do not concern yourself with the cost. I doubt not that we may find the odd copper in a dark corner to pay for its construction."
It looked to Garia's eyes a thing of coach-building quality. She could just about recognize the difference between the construction of an unsprung wagon bed and a sprung carriage, this had sturdy springs which would ease the occupants' passage on the rougher roads. The paint job was well up to the same standard as the royal carriages. Garia had no doubt that Gilbanar's men had lavished much time and energy building it.
"Why, thank you, Sire," Bleskin stammered. "We shall treasure this as long as either of us remain alive."
"It may be pulled by a dranakh or by two frayen," Gilbanar added. "That will be your choice, of course, and we will also gift you whichever beast or beasts you choose. A carriage is no use without beasts to pull it, is it?"
"Thank you again, Your Grace, but how can we ever -"
Robanar fixed an eye on Bleskin. "Let's not have any words about repayment, shall we? You have already paid for this, we are greatly in your debt. Shall you and your lady not inspect it?"
As Bleskin and Taranna walked forward to inspect the vehicle Keren leaned forward to speak softly in Garia's ear.
"What do you think? A wonderful gift for someone who has served us well."
"As you say, Keren. Practical, too."
"I don't imagine you have carriages like this on Earth any more, do you?"
"Actually, we do, sort of. Most people drive cars now, but you still find horse-drawn vehicles of all kinds here and there in regular use."
They stood watching the activity in the center of the courtyard for a while. Eventually Bleskin helped Taranna into the carriage before climbing in himself. The driver who had brought the vehicle into the courtyard carefully turned it and drove back out, Bleskin and his wife waving at the bystanders. Jokar dismissed the armed men and everybody began to disperse. Garia shaded her eyes and looked up at the tower.
"Keren, why is the top of the tower so exposed? Why isn't there at least an awning like on the high tower in the palace?"
Keren shaded his eyes and looked up. "I have an idea, but perhaps Terinar would be the proper person to ask. Ah! Terry!"
Terinar was walking off with his parents and turned when Keren called.
"Highness? What may I do for you?"
Keren repeated Garia's question but added, "...but I have an idea myself. Is it because of lightning strikes?"
"As you say, Highness. That's part of the answer. Because it's stuck all the way out there -"
"Don't remind me," Garia put in with a shiver.
"- it seems to attract lightning during storms." Terinar shook his head. "We seek for some solution but answers have yet to be found." He looked at Keren. "Do you not have the same problem with the towers of the palace?"
Keren grinned. "Aye, Terry, we do, at much cost in repairs. With Garia's help we may have an answer, though," he said. Terinar's eyes widened. "She has made an explanation - simple enough for folk like us to understand - of how lightning works and what one might do to protect tall buildings. It won't stop the strikes but it will save much of the damage which now occurs."
"Maker! Yet more remarkable knowledge of a kind I never expected," Terinar breathed. "Yes, if you would pass that on, milady, then we would be extremely grateful."
"No problem," Garia said. She sighed. "Inevitably, the list of things I have to pass on becomes longer by the day. I'm just glad I have Merizel to keep me organized."
"Yes," Terinar agreed. "She's interesting, isn't she? When I first met her I admit I wasn't very impressed but she has talents and a personality that seems to blossom each time our ways meet." He paused at the expression on Garia's face. "Garia? What did I say?"
Garia smirked. "She's standing behind you."
A furiously blushing Terinar turned to find an equally blushing Merizel behind him.
"Ah, milady, I -"
"You need say no more, my lord," she said with a demure curtsey. "As the Queen herself has noted on occasion, 'all compliments gratefully received'."
"As you say, milady." Terinar bowed. "Ah, shall we go? The others -"
Keren said, "Before we do, you just said that lightning was only part of the reason the tower was bare."
"Oh, yes, Highness. You have seen the other reason on a previous visit, I believe. Grakh."
Keren nodded as the group began to walk back into the castle. "Aye, Terry, I remember it well. Does that happen often, then? I thought it was an unusual occurrence."
"We're near one of their migration routes. At certain times of year, not often, one or two groups decide to investigate Dekarran and see if there are any casual pickings to be had. The watch men have to scramble down through the trapdoor into the tower. It's too far to run back to the guard room. Men have been picked off the walkway in the past."
"You'll have to get the telescopes down the hatch as well when it rains," Garia said thoughtfully as they entered the 'foyer'. "All that metal will attract lightning."
Terinar looked at her with surprise. "Do you tell me? I must find Captain Jokar immediately. I doubt any will have considered that. With your leave, Highness?"
"Aye, Terry. I should have thought of that myself when we were up there." As Terinar moved off Keren added, "See you this afternoon? For the dancing lessons?"
Terinar grinned. "Wild dranakh wouldn't keep me away. Join you later."
Garia turned to her remaining companions. "Well! I think it's time we went down to the stables and visited our beasts, don't you?" She turned to include Jenet. "All of us."
The room was not that large, but there was ample space for the practice which was to take place, with room at the sides for the others attending but not taking part. Four young men, five young women and five maids.
Also present were four mothers with five more maids. Each had found a reason to be present when the youngsters taught Garia how to dance. The boys looked uneasy and even Garia was unimpressed.
"Is this really necessary, ma'am?" she asked. "I think I would prefer to do what I did with the unarmed combat at first, make all my mistakes in private."
"But dear, I thought that we would be able to offer you additional support and advice. Isn't that right, Shenna?"
"As you say, ma'am," the Duchess replied. "But, now that I see the looks on those boys faces, perhaps we are too many, perhaps they feel outnumbered."
"But they will have to dance in company, surely? Why should we not watch and help?"
"Ma'am?" Garia said. "I think that at first we'll likely be making complete fools of ourselves. I know I will. It might make more sense if you were to come another time once I've learned a few steps, then we can all have the benefit of your experience."
The four mothers stared suspiciously at Garia, who set her lips.
"Ma'am, we are quite safe in here with five maids to look after us. You trust Jenet, don't you?" She thought of something and her expression changed. "Wasn't Mistress Rosilda going to show you all that riding outfit Merizel wore, this afternoon? Including the breeches she wore under the skirt?"
Terys slowly nodded. "Perhaps we are being over-protective, dear. Yes, you are right, I had forgotten we were to visit Rosilda." She stood. "Come, ladies, let us leave our young people to their practice session."
Everyone bowed and curtseyed as the mothers sailed out of the room before breathing a sigh of relief. Terinar summed up their feelings.
"Maker! I wonder if they thought we were going to have an orgy in here or something!"
Keren quirked his lips. "That's an idea, Terry. Why didn't I think of that?" He turned to his companions. "Seriously, friends, we must behave with the decorum expected of our station." He grinned. "But we were going to do that anyway, weren't we?"
Korizet looked thoughtful. "Highness, what's an orgy? I've led a sheltered life, I know not of such matters."
Terinar grinned at her. "If you believe that, you'll believe almost anything!"
Garia clapped her hands. "Right! Let's get started, or we'll spend the whole time just fooling around. There are other occasions we can do that."
"You're right, Garia," Stebenar said. "We're all here to teach you how to dance like us, is that right? How shall we begin?"
Everybody turned to Merizel, who seemed surprised at the attention. Considering she was holding a large bag made from tapestry she ought to have realized they would be interested.
"What's in that?" inquired Dalenna.
"If I'm right," Korizet said, "It's a dajan that belongs to our mother."
"It is, Korizet," Merizel replied. "When she found out what we were doing, she offered to lend me this instrument. I had told her I had learned to play one when I was younger." She looked doubtful. "That was some years ago. I may remember the fingering, but I doubt I can keep a tune."
"Pull it out and try," Terinar suggested.
Keren intervened. "Garia's dancing comes first," he said. "If we become distracted by Merizel trying to play an instrument, we'll only waste more time. Come, let us teach her a dance or two, then while we take a break we can find out how much Merry can remember."
"What's first, then?" Dalenna asked. "I suggest four-steps, it's one of the easiest."
"As you say, Dalenna. Come on, let's get started."
The dance was a simple one, with the participants arranged as two files of eight. Each group of four clasped left hands, then, in time to the clapped beat, skipped left two places. Hands grips were changed, directions reversed, feet swapped. Naturally, the whole process confused Garia at first since she had no experience of this kind of formal dancing at all. She managed to turn left instead of right, led off with the wrong foot and led off with the right foot but at the wrong beat. She eventually worked out that the tempo was four beats with the emphasis on the second beat, but foot movements occurred on the first and third beats. With quiet encouragement from her friends she soon began to flow more smoothly into the rhythm of the dance.
"That's good!" Keren said as they twirled. "You seem to have a natural grace when you dance."
"Before I arrived on Anmar," Garia said, "I could never have been described as having a natural grace. I was just your usual awkward teenager."
"Looking at you," he added, "I wonder if the Tai Chi is making a difference. I think it is making a difference to my own dancing, certainly. My own movements feel much smoother than I remember."
"It is said," Korizet added from the other group of four, "that a girl's body is more flexible than that of a boy. Perhaps that is also part of the difference."
"As you say," Garia said - and promptly collided with Stebenar as she had swiveled the wrong way to everyone else.
"Sorry! Sorry, everyone," she apologized as the others fell about laughing. "I'll have to learn to concentrate while I'm dancing. You people have been doing this a long time, you can keep up the small talk while you dance. That's going to take some time for me."
"Let's try that again from the beginning," Keren said. "This time, we'll shuffle so that the groups are different. Ready?"
They went through the steps and motions four more times until they felt that Garia had committed the sequence to memory. Once finished, they began another more complicated arrangement where the dancers, alternately boys and girls, stood in a circle. The girls skipped in, joining right hands, turned a quarter circle, then skipped out again. The boys followed, turning the other way.
"That's good," Terinar said when they decided to take a break. "Garia, I think you're improving quite quickly. Shall you be ready for our next evening event?"
"I'm not sure," she said. "It all seems easy enough right now. Let's try some other dances, then go back and see if I remember the steps to these two." She grimaced. "Of course, the dancing is only part of the problem. There's also the music."
The activity had made Garia pleasantly warm, but no more so than she would have been during her morning exercising. She was surprised by how much concentration and energy was needed to perform what seemed like simple steps to an observer. The difference between this and her regular exercise was the fact that she was wearing a day gown, one not particularly suitable for this kind of effort.
If I were to be practicing this at home, as a girl, I would probably be wearing a leotard. Not much chance of that here. If we arrange another practice session I'll have to consult with Jenet, and maybe Rosilda, find out if there's anything more suitable I can wear.
The dances take place in the evening, don't they? With those long evening gowns. God, how hot am I going to be if I'm dressed like that?
While the maids served out cold drinks to the teens Merizel pulled the dajan out of its bag. Garia was interested to see this instrument, but was surprised to discover that it appeared familiar to her. It was like a kind of mandolin, with a flat back, five strings and a round body with a round sound hole. Merizel then laid it on her lap, put her right hand on the neck and began plucking the metal strings with her left. Garia winced.
"I must tune it, Garia. Perhaps the sound will suit you better once I have finished."
"If you insist," Garia said doubtfully. She stood in front of Merizel watching the process as she carefully plucked and adjusted. The other crowded round.
"We were taught the dajan," Dalenna said, "but neither of us can manage the fingering. Our tutor says that our arms are not long enough, our hands are not big enough, we may improve when we are a little older."
"Assuming you grow any more," Terinar pointed out. The twins glared at him. "I'm just pointing out that most girls are shorter than most boys." He smiled to soften his argument. "You're both still quite young, you probably have some growing to do yet. You'll probably be taller than Garia once you are fully grown."
Garia joined the twins in glaring at Terinar again. He just grinned at them.
"You have instruments like this on Earth, Garia?" Keren distracted her.
"Of course. There are many kinds, about which I know almost nothing. Some of the other boys at school can play various instruments but although I tried I could never get the hang of it. It's something to do with my co-ordination."
"You seemed coordinated enough this morning at mat practice," Keren observed.
"That's not the same. I can't read music either. Well, I can read it, barely, but I wouldn't be able to read it while I played an instrument, that's what I mean."
"What do you mean, read music?" asked Willan. "I didn't even know music could be written down."
"Yes, Garia," Merizel said. "How is that possible?"
"Um, well, there's a kind of musical script we've developed to record the notes of our music, so that when a big group plays or when someone who's never heard the music played before has a go, they can read it off the sheet and get it right straight away. It's very complex, I'm afraid."
"Will you show us, some time?" Keren asked. "It might be useful in the future."
Garia rolled her eyes and gave Merizel a wry look. "Add it to the list, would you, Merizel?"
"As you wish, milady. Now, do you want to hear me play, or are you all going to stand there gossiping?"
They all quietened down and Merizel began. At first she was hesitant, until she got the feel of the instrument and her fingers remembered the lessons she had received so many years previously. The tune she played was one of the many simple student practice pieces but all listened attentively. To Garia it sounded eerie, slightly discordant, but the tune hidden within the strange note selection stood out quite clearly.
"That's impressive," Terinar said when she finished. "I wish I could play as well as that."
"I didn't think I would be any good," Merizel protested. "After all, I haven't played for years and I've never played this particular instrument before."
"Perhaps it's as the twins said," Keren suggested. "When you learned, your hands were smaller and your arms shorter. Perhaps you fit the size of your instrument better now you are older."
"It may be as you say, Highness," she said. "Perhaps I should resume my practice sessions in future."
She looked a question at Garia who nodded back her permission. "If you can play an instrument like that, and you want to continue doing so," Garia said, "then I'm all for it. Talents aren't there to be wasted."
"As you say, Garia," Keren agreed. "Now, perhaps we should resume our own practice? What dance shall we try next?"
"What about 'Duban's Bounce'?" Stebenar suggested. "The steps aren't that hard."
"No," Keren agreed, "but there's quite a lot of other movement in that one beside foot positions." He thought, then nodded. "It may be a good choice, Steb. It will introduce Garia to a different kind of dance that we often do at these big events. First, though, I think we'll need to explain to her what happens."
"Duban's Bounce?" queried Terissa. "Ooh goody! I wondered if you would try that one today."
The dance involved some significant handling of the woman by her male partner. She stood sideways to him and he put one hand on her stomach with the other in the small of her back. Thus gripped, she was lifted slightly, then bobbed downwards. She then twisted a quarter turn in his relaxed grip and the action was repeated. Another twist, another lift and bob. Once this was done the men moved round in time to the music to the next woman, and so on.
"I think I can manage a simple plucked beat for you," Merizel said. "Like this."
She played a double note, then a single longer lower note. The others took positions and began. There was a certain amount of squirming, squeals and minor horseplay but eventually they settled down to performing the dance in a reasonably sober fashion. For Garia, this meant a host of new sensations, as prior to this session she had never touched most of those present in any way. Keren of course she had touched in the most physical manner possible short of actual sexual activity, but of the rest she had barely any contact at all. Women in this society didn't shake hands with anybody. The sensations she was receiving were quite different than she had become accustomed to and triggered off new feelings she had trouble identifying.
This... is different. I'm just not used to so much bodily contact. Jenet doesn't count, and Keren doesn't count either. He's been touching me for one reason or another ever since I got to the palace. Even at home - on Earth - there wasn't much body contact, unless you played games you kept your hands to yourself for fear of being thought gay or a groper.
Except with a girl, of course, but that's different.
Does touch affect girls differently? How would I know? I suspect I'm about to find out, though.
So while dancing, a small part of her mind kept a note of how each person she touched made her feel. When they broke for another drink - the dance was quite energetic - she sat on a chair and thought about what had just happened.
I have to take everyone into account, I suppose. Let's start with the girls, then. Dalenna and Terissa, feel much the same, as one might expect with twins. Strangely, though, I reckon I could tell them apart by touch alone, now that I have some experience holding hands today. A feminine touch, certainly. But the main impression I get is youth, vibrancy, power. Korizet, not so much. She has a more gentle kind of touch. Perhaps she'll be a good wife and mother to someone but I don't sense a lot of drive there. A supporter but not a prime mover.
Now the boys. Willan is the strangest, I get almost nothing from him, although it is definitely the feel of a male hand. How do I know that? Texture, I guess. The boys hands are much firmer than the girls were. Than mine must be, come to that. Stebenar has a more responsive feel. I... wonder... what it would be like... to have his hands run over my body.
"Are you feeling all right, Garia?" Terinar asked. "You look a little red."
"Ah... the dancing is a little energetic for somebody who hasn't done any since she arrived on Anmar." She smiled. "I'll be okay, thank you. Just need to get my breath back."
Now Terinar... that would be an interesting session. He definitely has an touch I want to sample more of. And just why am I thinking of having a boy's hands running over my body?
Because I have discovered that... I WANT THEM TO.
Wow. I didn't realize that touch could be so... addictive. I want more!
Keren? Wrong competition. He's on a whole other level to those guys. Just the merest touch makes me think of all kinds of stuff I want him to do over and over to me.
He's mine for now, sort of. I just wish I could have him for keeps.
"Garia? You look funny. Are you sure that you are all right?"
"I am, Keren. Like I said -"
"I think we'd better stop here, if you're looking like that." Keren turned to the others. "She's spent most of the morning either working out on the mat or riding her beast. The last few days have been fairly busy, I think it's time she stopped running and had that rest she keeps promising to everyone."
"You're right," Terinar agreed. "I can't count all the demonstrations and meetings I've attended since you arrived here. Perhaps we'd better go back to our chambers, relax for a while and change for the evening meal. We can always arrange another dance practice, can't we?"
"Certainly," Stebenar said. "I've enjoyed our afternoon together, haven't you all?" There were nods from the others. "I don't think we're supposed to be leaving for another two weeks or so, there will be plenty of time to help Garia perfect her dancing."
"As you say, Stebenar. Jenet, pack your things up, time to escort your mistress to her chambers."
"Can you do a scale on that for me, Merizel?"
"What's a scale?"
A week had passed, and Garia had finally found time to relax. Here in the castle there was no balcony outside the bedroom window, only a maze of corridors and endless rooms. There were, however, terraces, particularly on the lower levels, and Garia had spent some time leaning over the retaining walls just idly watching the goings-on in the lower courtyards or examining the countryside below the castle walls.
Today there had been a light shower so Garia had asked Merizel to bring the dajan and show it to her in her chamber. To Garia's eyes Merizel's way of playing looked extremely peculiar.
"A scale is when you play each note in turn followed by the next note up, and so on."
"Oh, you mean a ladder. Yes, I can do that. Let me see -"
The notes Merizel played sounded scale-like, but the tuning meant that many sounded off. What took Garia's attention was the complex fingering Merizel used to make successive notes.
"That looks like a lot of hard work," she said. "Why don't you just run down one string, using the frets? That's the reason the frets are there, after all."
"Well, yes," Merizel said, looking at the neck of the instrument, "but I have to move from one string to the next to make the next note. Don't you see?"
Garia shook her head. "No, what I mean is, each fret is half a note. I don't know much about musical instruments, but I do know that much. Why don't you try it and see? Just pluck a note, then move your finger down the string one fret, pluck the next note."
Merizel looked at Garia, then down at her dajan. Thinking hard about what she was doing, she plucked a note on the highest string then moved her finger down, plucking the next note. She carried on down the neck playing higher notes.
"I see what you mean," she said at the end, "but it sounds strange. Some of the notes are too close together."
"That's because they're half notes," Garia explained. "For a scale like they would use on Earth, you'd have to skip some of the frets."
"Some of the frets?" Merizel was doubtful. "Why not every other fret?"
Garia shrugged. "I don't know the scale they use here on Anmar. Perhaps you would need to skip every other fret here. On Earth, a scale is made of a sequence of whole and half notes. I don't know why that is, but it just sounds right to us." She pointed a finger at the instrument. "Why are the frets on that thing set the way they are anyhow? Who decided they should be put where they are?"
"I have no idea, Garia. I think it's kind of traditional, even though it makes the fingering difficult."
Garia stood and began pacing the chamber. "I'm making a guess here, but I think that instrument came from Earth. No, I don't mean that exact one you're holding, of course, but one like it that has been used as a pattern. The instrument makers have just copied everything, right down to the fret positions. But, sometime over the years everybody who knew how to tune it died, and it's been re-tuned to fit in with the other instruments you use. That's why the notes are all over the place. Does that sound possible?"
"If you say so, Garia. I'm not really an expert on such matters. But you're right, other things seem to have come from Earth to Anmar, so it is possible that this instrument has also done so. How would we ever find out, though?"
"I doubt we can, Merry. To me, it looks just like similar instruments we use on Earth, although I am no expert either. Perhaps we should find an instrument maker and ask him about the history of those." Garia raised an eyebrow.
Merizel chuckled. "Yes, I'll add it to the list!" The list, while mostly real, had become a source of amusement between the pair. Almost every day one or other of their party discovered something else that ought to be explored in more detail.
"So," Merizel continued, "how does this music 'scale' of yours work, then? Can you remember enough to describe it? If it's anything like some of the other things you've introduced it could become quite popular."
Garia looked at her friend with a new respect. While Merizel had had a sheltered upbringing, that didn't mean that she was stupid, just that her experience of life had been limited. Since arriving at the palace, after the initial shock of meeting Garia, she had begun to show that behind that plain face was a competent brain. To say that Garia had come to rely completely on her secretary would understate the situation.
"A certain amount," Garia admitted. "I think I'll need to review what I can remember and make some notes before I talk to you, though. I liked listening to music, like most people at home, but I was never particularly interested in making it. Do we have enough paper left for me to waste some making notes, do you know?"
"We've used most of what the King brought with us, Garia. But of course there are blackboards and slates about the castle, even if we stay away from parchment and ink." Merizel thought, smiled, then added diffidently, "I remember an evening when you amazed us all by singing. You've somehow managed to avoid singing any more, now I think of it."
Garia flushed, then answered, "I had drunk too much wine that night. It was something I ought not to have done." She looked curiously at Merizel. "Why bring that up now?"
"It occurred to me, Garia, that if you sang it would give me some idea how your ladder of notes sounded compared to our own." She saw the look of alarm in Garia's eyes and waved a hand. "No, no, no! I wouldn't want you to subject yourself to singing in public, if you don't feel you ought to, but certainly it would help me understand this writing down of music you propose. Just us, here in this room, was what I had in mind. What do you think?"
Garia tried to resist but the logic was undeniable. She sighed. "Very well, Merry. If we can find some slates or something to write notes on I'll try and sing some songs for you." She held up a finger. "But, this stays in this room, understand. If anyone else finds out, you're dead, do you hear?"
Merizel tried very hard not to smirk. "As you command, milady," she said demurely. Garia wasn't fooled at all.
Jenet led the way into their chamber and Garia relaxed. Although she had managed to get in some relaxation time it was still necessary for her to give demonstrations on occasion. This afternoon she had, together with all the other instructors, spent an intense session teaching Tai Chi and unarmed combat to most of the castle guardsmen who could be spared from their duties. Now she just wanted to change, bathe, and prepare herself for the evening meal.
"I'm glad that's over," she said. "Some of those local guardsmen were enormous, weren't they? Took some shifting compared to our own."
"As you say, milady," Jenet agreed, setting the bag on the bed and starting to remove her mistress's clothing. "Lord Gilbanar likes his food, perhaps his men follow his example."
"Well maybe. Even though they weighed more than I'm used to, I didn't see a lot of fat this afternoon. Those men are certainly fit enough to do their jobs."
"One might have thought that all these stairs and ramps would help keep the weight of the men down," Jenet suggested. "It seems that is not the case."
A knock came at the door. Garia looked at Jenet.
"Are we expecting anyone?"
"I don't think so, milady." She surveyed her half-dressed mistress. "Let me find you a robe, before I go to the door."
It was two guardsmen, properly respectful in her presence. One of them, she saw, was one of the new intake of Palace Guards, with the white edging to his sash. The other was in castle uniform, but not anyone she recognized.
"Can I do something for you, gentlemen?"
"Ah, milady, the King requests your presence at a private meeting."
"What, now? We're just in the process of changing for the evening meal." She recognized the Palace guardsman. "Dorrin, isn't it?"
His eyes flickered. "Yes, milady. I believe he wished to speak with you before the meal."
Something's not quite right here. Don't know what, but the King would never specially send for me just before dinner. He'll be seeing me in a bell or so, anyway. Unless there's some kind of problem, of course.
"Do you know what it was about?"
"Milady, I am not privy to the King's business."
"No, of course not. Stupid of me to ask, really." She gave him a smile and indicated her robe. "Look, I can hardly come like this, I'm half-dressed. Let me find something to put on and I'll be right out, okay? Can't keep the King waiting."
Dorrin bowed. "As you say, milady."
Garia turned. "Come on, Jenet. Let's get me some fresh clothes, quickly."
The pair went into the dressing room and Garia pulled the door almost shut.
Jenet's eyes showed alarm. "Milady -"
Garia quickly put a finger to her lips to cut Jenet off. Whatever they said would be heard, even if the door was closed. Garia had deliberately left it slightly open to avoid warning the men that she had been alerted.
"I know!" she said aloud, in a chatty voice. "It's a nuisance, isn't it? Find me something, quick." She pointed to her tabards. "I can't wear the one I had on this morning, it's all sweaty. Give me the other one." A meaningful glance. "And the pleated skirt to go with it."
"Since we don't know what the King wishes, milady," Jenet said as she helped Garia into the tabard with the hidden steel plates, "Should I bring my bag as well?"
"Of course, Jenet! It's always best to be prepared."
Garia was still wearing her riding boots and she quickly checked that the knife was in position and secured. She had been wearing the boots when she had come back from the demonstration and she hoped the men wouldn't see anything unusual in her retaining them. Other than those and the protection afforded by the tabard, she was unarmed. She briefly debated wearing her swords but quickly decided that they would probably be more hindrance than help if action were required, not to mention tipping the men off that she was suspicious. With a final check at each other's wear, Garia and Jenet rejoined the men in her chamber.
"So sorry to have kept you," she said with a smile. "Now, shall we be going? I've probably kept the King waiting long enough as it is."
"As you say, milady," Dorrin said with a half-bow. "If you would follow us?"
He led the way out of the chamber and immediately turned right. I don't know what's to the right apart from the bathrooms. All the places I've been, including the King's and Queen's quarters, are the other way. Something is definitely going on here. Jenet closed the chamber door and then followed her mistress, who in turn followed the two men as they went deeper into the castle. Very quickly they were on territory Garia had never been before.
They followed the men up a ramp, along several corridors and through intersections. Garia thought they were heading west, in the direction of the mountain, but she couldn't be sure. The walls and floor here were bare stone, with occasional lanterns set at intervals to provide minimum light. Finally they came to an intersection where daylight came in through a long embrasure up and to the right, confirming that they were still on the north side of the castle. The men turned left, however, leading them down a long, dark, sloping passage that seemed to lead directly into the mountain.
Garia halted. "You want us to go down there? It's dark! Where are we supposed to be going, anyhow?"
Dorrin turned. "Milady, this route takes us through the mountain to the other side of the castle. It is not so dark. See?" He stood aside and pointed. In the distance, at what appeared to be the other end of the passage, a lantern could dimly be seen. "These passages are not used often, which is why there are so few lamps. It will not take us long to walk through."
Garia gestured. "Lead on, then."
Another intersection at the other end, and their guides turned left again. Garia now thought they were heading east along the south side of the castle, back towards the point where the two sides joined. This made sense if they were to meet Robanar somewhere quiet since the rooms on the south side received less light than those on the north and were less well used.
There was a squeak from Jenet but Garia was unable to even look, since at the same moment a roughly clothed arm snaked around her from the left and held her neck in a tight grip. Her assailant had obviously been warned about her abilities since he - she assumed it was a he - twisted his body, pressing his left hip into her back and making it impossible for her to use her weight against him. His right hand appeared bearing a very sharp-looking knife. Sounds from her right implied that Jenet had also been manhandled.
The two guards turned at the noise and drew their swords. However, they didn't attack Garia's assailant but merely stood pointing their swords at the two women in a menacing way. The castle guard, who up till this point hadn't said a word, now spoke.
"If you struggle, or attempt any of your fancy tricks, we will kill your maid." Garia relaxed. Very slightly. "If you come with us without resistance, neither of you will be harmed. However, it is you we need, not your maid, so it is up to you to keep her alive."
Garia's throat was in the crook of the man's left elbow and she could barely breathe, let alone say or do anything. A slight movement of her captor let her see, from the corner of her eye, that another man held Jenet in a similar fashion.
Play along, we're bound to get an opening sooner or later.
But the chance was not to come. The castle guard, who was obviously no castle guard at all, flexed his sword and added, "My instructions, milady, are to take you with me, out of the castle. But I have other instructions. Should you resist, you shall be killed rather than be allowed to return to your King. You have told him too much already."
Aah! Finally, these people have shown their hand!
The man who had grabbed Jenet had his left arm around her neck and his right held a knife just like his companion. But Jenet's right arm was free, and she lifted it up, groping, until she found his head. Irritated, he tried to move it away but she persisted until she found his nose and then his right eye. She stuck a finger in it, firmly. He howled with pain and released her, both hands going up towards his face. The disturbance made Garia's captor turn to look, and the knife hand lowered... the left arm involuntarily relaxed as the man tried to figure out what was happening.
That was all the opening Garia needed. Clutching her right fist in her left hand, she jabbed her right elbow hard into her captor's body. Because he was tall and she was short, this happened to coincide with his groin. With a gasp, he released Garia and sagged. Garia ducked beneath his arm, pivoted on her left heel and swung all the way left, bringing her right boot heel up to catch the man on the jaw. Everybody heard the man's spine snap before he collapsed onto the floor. She completed her turn and stood facing the two swordsmen, her stance ready for combat.
The single universal signal that had brought men running to assist since time began. Help! Woman in trouble! If they were anywhere near an inhabited portion of the castle someone was sure to come and investigate. They couldn't take Garia, Jenet and the man who she presumed was dead, leaving no trace. Somebody or something would remain to tell that an attack happened here.
Jenet turned and opened her lungs. The men knew instantly that any thought of taking Garia by stealth had gone and their only chance was to take her by force. They edged forward - to halt immediately at the look on her face. Garia was furious.
"You may threaten me, but you dare threaten my maid? I'll do to you what I did to him." A hand gestured roughly in the direction of the fallen man.
She took a step forward and the men took a step back. They had heard what she was capable of, Dorrin had even watched her practice. He was not so sure that even though they held swords and she did not, that she would not win. Moments later they had turned and taken to their heels, vanishing along the corridor. Garia turned to find Jenet staring at the other man, who was blundering about in the corridor behind them, his hands covering his face. Garia walked over to the man and kicked him gently in the shin to get his attention.
"You! If you want to live, sit down on the floor! Now!"
The man slumped to the ground, his back against a wall. Garia kicked the two knives away from him and the body. Jenet screamed again, shouting for help. Very soon a commotion could be heard in the distance, and then a servant came running along the corridor, skidding to a stop when he saw the tableau.
"Rouse out the guard! Seal the castle! There are two loose, in uniforms!"
The servant boggled at Garia then said, "Aye, milady!" and ran back the way he had come. Another interval occurred before Terinar, sword drawn, appeared with the servant and ten guardsmen in tow.
"Garia! What happened?"
"First things first. There are two more men than these. One is dressed as a palace guard, one as a castle guard. Both have swords. They went off that way." She pointed. "The palace guardsman is a new recruit called Dorrin. Never seen the other man before."
Terinar issued crisp instructions. Two men he set to guard their prisoner, who showed no signs of wanting to get away, four he sent back with specific warnings for the gates and the other four he sent along the corridor in pursuit, their spears at the ready. Now that the immediate danger was over, Garia came down from her 'fighting high' and wrapped herself around Jenet, who was looking equally worn.
"Oh, Jenet! Did you get hurt?"
"No, milady. But, I never thought I could... I've blinded that man!"
"Who would have stuck that knife in you," Garia said roughly. "You did right, Jenet. It was just enough distraction to allow me to get to work. Bravely done."
"Garia," Terinar said, crouching beside the body, "this man is dead. Did you..?"
"I kicked him," she said shortly. "He was holding a knife at my throat. Those others," she nodded the way the search party had gone, "they had orders..." She paused. "Later, Terry." Another pause. "Hold us, Terry."
Terinar stood, looked briefly at his two guards, and then came and put his arms around the two women. Garia and Jenet promptly both burst into tears.
Margra let herself into the large chamber and approached the King.
"Sire. The man will lose an eye, but beyond that he seems not to have any injuries. Do you wish me to provide him herbs and bandages?"
The unspoken alternative was in the minds of most gathered in that room. Or is there much point, seeing as he will shortly be executed.
Robanar grunted and waved a hand. "Tend him, Margra. We will need to question him before... any punishment is decided. His life is not measured in bells but in days, maybe weeks."
Margra bowed. "As you command, Sire." She withdrew, the doors closing behind her.
In the room, the men all harbored murderous thoughts. Most wanted to take their swords and chop up anyone and everyone who got in their way. The attempt to abduct a woman from their midst spoke to their deepest fears, their most innate urges.
Gilbanar was furious. That such a deed should be attempted in his domain, in the castle which he though was safe enough to protect the King and his company, that there were people in his home he could not only not trust but who worked for a foreign power! People who had broken the traditional Palarandi hospitality to attempt to abduct a guest from under his nose!
Robanar was furious. Partly with himself, for letting his guard down. It had been months since the last attempt to snatch Garia, and they had all become complacent. Partly with his men and their organization which assumed that any threat would come from outside, when they had actually brought the danger with them.
Keren was furious. He wanted to stand by Garia's side, naked steel in hand, until the men responsible for this business had been caught and brought to justice. That such a thing could even happen to someone he cared deeply about, that was unthinkable.
Feteran was furious. That somebody had tried - almost managed, even, except for her own efforts - to kidnap the woman whose security he was ultimately responsible for, cast a stain upon his competence. He would do anything, anything, to redeem himself in the eyes of his lady and those in turn she was responsible to.
The assembled women were furious, too. But in their case the fury was tinged with fear. If their men could not keep them safe inside their own castle where would they be safe?
Garia was not furious. She had long gone past that and into the shock that nearly always followed such events. She sat between Robanar and Gilbanar, one arm around Jenet and the other around Merizel.
Captain Jokar entered the chamber and approached the row of thrones, saluting.
"Sire, Your Grace, we have had no reports of any person or persons attempting to leave the castle. All the small gates remain closed. The lookout on the King's Tower has been doubled, as ordered, but they report no unusual sightings." He paused. "Your Grace, it will soon become too dark for the men to see anything."
Gilbanar sighed. "Very well, Jokar. Once it is too dark to make out a man standing in the main courtyard, you may order the men in. What of the search?"
Jokar spread his hands. "As expected, Your Grace. You know this castle as well, probably better than I do. What we attempt is the impossible."
Gilbanar nodded. "As you say, Jokar. Nevertheless, keep at it according to our plan. We may yet provoke them to break cover. Carry on."
Jokar banged his fist on his breast, turned and marched smartly out.
Robanar turned to the commander of Garia's men-at-arms. "What have you learned, Feteran?"
Feteran fell to his knees. "Sire, I -"
"Get up, man! We need your experience now. Nobody blames you for what happened."
Feteran stood. "Sire, the two men came to the corridor before My Lady's chamber where two of our armsmen were stationed. The man Dorrin told them that I had requested their presence, and that he and the man with him would stand guard in their stead. Since they both knew Dorrin, my men thought little of it and went. It took them some time to find me, Sire, since I was still in the stables with Milady Merizel. By that time, of course, the alarm had already been raised."
"Do you think there is any way this might have been prevented, commander?"
Feteran thought briefly. "No, Sire. With units from the guards of so many retinues present in the castle there will always be a chance for friction. Should my men have refused an instruction from a man of your guard, and another of your own brother's? It would not be a good idea to provoke pitched battles between our armsmen, Sire."
Gilbanar looked shocked. "Great Maker, no! This was supposed to be a comfortable family home, that's all. Whoever conceived this evil plan seeks to sow distrust among us and our retinues. I will not have it!"
"Well said," Norvelen added from the end of the row. "Sire, what are your directions?"
Robanar considered. "We may not take action until we learn more, I think. We had proposed staying here a further week, I see no reason to change our timetable. Would that be enough time to learn what we may from this person, do you think?" He turned to Gilbanar as he spoke.
"Probably, Sire." Gilbanar nodded. "By that time we shall have searched every chamber in this pile of rock as well. What then?"
"Then, Gil," Robanar said, "we shall return to our palace and consider our next move." He turned to Keren. "Son, you may return to the palace with us if you so wish. However, I am minded that you should continue your journey north. You are safe enough, no-one seeks to capture you, and it is essential that now you are fully an adult your education about the realm you will one day inherit should continue. Shall you journey north? You may accompany Captain Bleskin on his way home if you so wish."
Keren met his father's eyes. "Sire, if that is what you wish, then I am at your command, as always." His gaze turned to Garia. "But, what of Garia? I was supposed to accompany her on her visit to her lands."
"She will not be joining you," Robanar said with an air of finality. "It is too dangerous for her to go so far without a stronger escort than we may provide. No, Garia will be returning to the palace with us."
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