It seems that the King's public statement was not quite what he had in mind, and Garia is suddenly thrust into a world of strategems, plots and plans. Terys and Vivenne come up with a surprise and Gilbanar has an even greater secret to reveal to Garia. Could her original journey still be possible?
by Penny Lane
56 - Milsy
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.
It was quite a procession that escorted Garia into the dining room the next morning for breakfast. There were four of her own guards, Feteran, and six of the more senior members of the castle guard, all of whom had personally been vouched for by Gilbanar. As the guards distributed themselves around the walls of the room Terys hurried over to Garia.
"My dear Garia! You look terrible!"
Garia gave a wan smile. "Thank you, ma'am."
Terys tutted. "You have a very strange sense of humor, dear. I would have thought that you would be happy because you were successful yesterday. You have not been killed or taken away by strange men, you are safe and sound and without even a scratch!" Terys looked concerned. "What ails you, dear?"
Garia filled up and clutched Terys. "Ma'am, I killed a man!"
Terys wrapped her arms around the girl. "It was well that you did, dear, since he may very well have done the same to you."
Feteran coughed. "Ma'am, it was the first time she has killed another. As most men find, the first time is always the worst. Some never grow accustomed to the work, every death strikes them hard. It must be worse for such a young person as Lady Garia."
"Oh, yes, Feteran, how foolish of me. I should have realized. A woman's part is to create life, not destroy it. I know that within Garia there is the spark of man as well as the spark of woman, she has managed something few women would voluntarily do but suffers more on that account."
"As you say, ma'am."
Breakfast was a rather subdued affair. The girls wanted to console Garia, but she didn't want to remind herself too much of the incident with so many present. The boys didn't know what to do. Apart from Keren, they kept their distance. Following breakfast, Terys asked Garia to accompany herself and some others to a special meeting to be held in Gilbanar's parlor.
It was a very select group who settled into comfortable seats. Robanar and his brother Gilbanar were there, of course, as were the Dukes Visselen and Norvelen. Terys and Vivenne were also present but Sindenna and Shenna were not. Captains Merek and Jokar along with Feteran provided a military presence. Of her own age, only Keren joined them. Garia noticed immediately that of their servants, only Jenet was permitted to remain in the room.
Robanar turned first to Garia. "Milady, are you sufficiently recovered to describe what happened to you in detail? You spoke yesterday, but you have had time overnight to settle the facts."
"I am, Sire."
Garia described what happened when the knock had come to her door.
"What made you suspicious, Garia?"
"I don't really know, Sire. Something was off. Perhaps it was just their manner, or the way Dorrin spoke to me. Uh, he was properly respectful, and all that, but there was just something. It was about a bell before dinner, I was just changing. It seemed odd that you would summon me, when I knew I would be seeing you shortly anyway."
"As you say. What about your guards outside? Did you notice that they were not there?"
"No, Sire, I didn't." A sheepish smile. "I am not really accustomed yet to being followed round by armed men." She shrugged. "Even if they had still been there, I would probably have gone with Dorrin and the other guy. They seemed plausible enough."
"You went with them despite the fact that you were suspicious?"
Garia shrugged again. "Sire, it wasn't as if they looked dangerous. It was just odd. I wanted to see if I could find out any more before I did anything about it."
Robanar looked at Garia for a long moment before nodding.
"And then what happened?"
Garia described the trek through the corridors and how she tried to keep track of where they were.
"And then you said you were attacked from behind. Given your expertize in such matters, I am surprised that you did not immediately fight them off."
"Sire, they came out of doorways we walked past. I could not stop and examine every door and cross-passage as we walked, it would have taken forever and made them suspicious. It's not practical to do that anyway. The man who grabbed me knew what I could do, so he must have been told what I was capable of. He held me in such a way I was off balance. It was only Jenet's actions that distracted him and gave me my opening."
Robanar grunted and turned to Garia's maid. "Jenet, once again you have proven your loyalty and your resourcefulness. We are all greatly in your debt." Jenet blushed and curtseyed to the King.
Garia then gave a brief summary of the fight.
Robanar held up a hand and asked, "I remember you telling us, Garia, that when faced with a sword you said that you would take to your heels. Why did you not do so this time?"
"Sire, the circumstances were not appropriate. Quite likely, my legs would have been shorter than theirs and I would soon have been caught. In any case I would not run and leave Jenet behind. Those men would have killed her to prevent her describing them, if nothing else." A shamefaced grin. "Besides, I had gotten mad. I was absolutely furious that some lowlifes like that would threaten my staff. It was not what I had been trained to do in such situations, but lucky for us it worked."
Gilbanar stirred. "And those men were cowards enough to run away when faced by an unarmed girl?"
Feteran spoke. "If you please, Your Grace, the man Dorrin at least had been present at some of milady's practice sessions. He may not have known just what she might have been capable of. Certainly he would have seen her disarming an opponent armed with a knife, why should he not think she could do the same with a sword?"
Gilbanar looked skeptical. "Two of them though?"
Feteran spread his hands wide. "Your Grace, you know the strange things that run through men's minds during battle. Faced with an opponent of unknown quality, one who had just killed with a single kick, well..."
Gilbanar eventually nodded. "Aye, Feteran. I take your point. Rob?"
"We have heard enough, Garia. We have heard Jokar's reports of actions taken concerning the search and so on. Jokar, is there anything further to report?"
"I regret not, Sire. But you know the task we face."
Robanar nodded. "Aye, I do. You will continue?"
"Sire, until My Lord Gilbanar bids me cease."
"Very well. So, we come to the main reason for this meeting. It seems that those who would wish to abduct Baroness Garia persist in their efforts. We are more convinced that Yod is behind this, but we still have no actual proof. Whoever is behind it has now revealed that they know Garia bears knowledge beyond that we have discovered for ourselves and is willing to kill her to prevent her from telling us more. It would seem that we must endeavor to make her safety our prime consideration, which is why I stated last night that she would be returning to Palarand with us when we go."
Gilbanar nodded. "It would seem prudent, Rob. Do you wish to borrow extra men as escort for your return home? I would happily send a quadrant south, if that would help."
Robanar grinned and leaned forward. "It certainly seems prudent, Gil, which is why I made certain that my intentions were made known in public. In fact I think I do not want her anywhere near the palace. We must devise some stratagem which makes it appear that Garia is returning to the palace, which is where any further attempts will be directed. The baroness, on the other hand, is probably safer if she was headed in the other direction. I have said so myself on a previous occasion. Once she is out of the way, interest in her will slowly fade and we may be able to find out more of her enemies' plans."
Garia was surprised and confused. "So, Sire, you do not want me to return home? Do you have a plan?"
Terys smiled at Garia's use of the word home.
Robanar sighed. "I do not, Garia. Everything has happened very quickly, we were too complacent. I must apologize for placing you in danger. That is why we meet this morning, I ask for ideas."
"Sire," Jokar objected, "if the baroness is elsewhere, will she not still be in danger?"
"Captain, given her prowess yesterday I can think of few people who might be in less danger. Haflin, possibly, and Garia even bested him." He shook his head. "No, captain. With a few good men around her, she would be the equal of all but a full field army, I judge."
"Sire!" Garia protested. "You make me out to be some kind of super-woman."
Robanar smiled. "To some of us, Garia, you do seem that way. I know you say you are but a normal young woman, but you do and know things no other man or woman does, anywhere within Alaesia."
"Perhaps," Gilbanar said slowly, "she might stay here in Dekarran. With the resources of the castle -" He stopped, a foolish look on his face. "Your pardon, brother. I am not thinking, am I? One of those abductors was in one of my uniforms. She would be no safer here than at the palace."
"I agree, Gil. Also, if Garia were to remain here, she would have to be kept hidden away, which is no better than locking her up in a cell. I am not a tyrant, I could not allow her to be treated so."
"It gets worse, Sire," Garia said. "With Dorrin on the inside, no doubt details of the palace roster and guard assignments have already been passed to the enemy. The situation here would be the same."
Merek started and Jokar looked shocked.
"That is bad," Merek said in a low voice. "The consequences of such knowledge are clear. Any enemy would know when a sympathizer was on duty... we must review all when we return, Sire."
Gilbanar looked Jokar in the eye. "We'll do the same here, just as soon as we can arrange it. Maker!" He ran a hand through his hair in a gesture that was so like his brother's that Garia had to hide a smile. "Our defenses are no stronger than stale bread."
Terys joined in. "So, you wish to send Garia off in secret, do you? How do you intend to manage this conjurer's trick, husband?"
"I hadn't thought that far, dear," Robanar admitted. He shrugged. "Something like... we all set off back to the palace, in a procession just as we came, with Garia closely surrounded by our troops. No-one will see anything unusual in that, not after yesterday. Then somewhere along our route she slips away and returns north in disguise. As I said, I know what I would wish to happen, it is for those here to suggest the details."
"You'll need a substitute, Sire," Vivenne suggested, "or should we rather say, bait?"
Robanar sighed heavily. "No doubt, Vivenne. It seems that to keep one woman safe, I must place another in danger in her place. Is there anyone we may use?"
Terys exchanged meaningful glances with Vivenne, who then said, "Sire, if you will leave that portion of the enterprise to us, we may know a way."
"Very well, Vivenne. Feteran?"
"I regret that I must ask you and milady's men to make a great sacrifice, if this is to work. If Garia is to be seen to return to the palace with us, then you understand that her men must be seen to return with her."
"I understand, Sire. But who will protect her, if we are returned to the palace?"
"I was coming to that. I think, in view of what has just happened, that Keren shall have a larger escort when he sets off for the north. Some of those men can be Garia's men in Palace uniforms, while some of the guardsmen who return with us may wear those uniforms which clearly identify Garia's men. Regrettably you yourself are well enough known throughout Palarand, so you will have to return to the palace with us, leaving a deputy in your stead."
Feteran chewed this over, then said, "Your logic is undeniable, Sire. I just wish that we had time to build milady's body of men to the numbers we really need."
"As you say, Feteran. Perhaps my brother," Robanar jabbed a thumb in Gilbanar's direction, "can lend you some trusted men. Now, how might we progress Garia beyond Dekarran?"
"I have an idea," Garia said hesitantly. "We have another meeting of the Council of the Two Worlds before we all return home, don't we?"
"Aye, Garia, we do. Tomorrow evening. Why do you ask? If you are thinking of slipping away in the entourage of one of my Dukes, then of course they will be crossing the Sirrel also. You will still have to find a way to cross back again."
"No, Sire, I had a different thought. Will Master Tanon be present tomorrow? Perhaps I can hide out in one of his caravans. Don't they pass through Dekarran all the time?"
Gilbanar answered. "They do, Garia, but all the time is perhaps too strong a phrase. They travel a long way and there is no regular schedule. If he comes tomorrow, we shall ask him." He nodded, then grinned at her. "A clever idea! It was Tanon who found you, wasn't it, before you came to Palarand. So you are familiar with the ways of his caravans."
Garia smiled back. "Familiar is too strong a word, Your Grace. My journey to Palarand took place before my memory returned. I do remember it, but it is like some kind of dream to me."
"What about me, father?" Keren asked. "Do you wish me to stay here until Garia comes back or shall I set off as planned?"
Robanar shook his head. "You must follow your own schedule, Keren. If you stayed, some might wonder why. Once we have arranged a means for her to slip away, we can set up a meeting point for you, up-river somewhere. It will be easy to arrange a cracked spoke, or a leaky water barrel, or something like that which will cause your party to wait for her."
Keren nodded. "I understand, father. Yes, that sounds workable."
"We're forgetting others," Garia said. "What about Jenet? She is as recognizable as Feteran. Then there's Merizel and her own maid Bursila. Logically they would return to the palace with me, if I am supposed to do that. But I'm not sure I can manage without any of them, at least not to begin with."
"We could give you another maid," Terys mused, "but, you're right, questions would be asked."
"I might have an answer," Garia said, grinning, "at least where Jenet is concerned. It would seem, ma'am, that during the fight bruising was caused to Jenet's throat which has not appeared until today. I'm sure that Margra will insist on complete rest, which will allow a temporary maid to be allocated. If you don't mind, Jenet, we'll ask Margra to bandage your throat and ask His Grace to allow you to remain here resting until after the King leaves. After that, no-one will be too interested in a castle servant who disappears after a few days."
"You have a devious mind, milady, to think of such ideas," Gilbanar observed with a grin of his own.
"You didn't see her talk that oaf Jarwin into a fight," Robanar said. "She has a quick mind."
Terys and Vivenne looked at each other again. Terys said, "Depending on what we discover, husband, Garia's idea would fit in well with our own plan."
"Good," Robanar said. "I think that will do for now. Let us resume our daily appointments as normal and we shall come back here this evening to discuss our thoughts further."
The door to the parlor opened and a short, fat man entered. His face was flushed as if from constant presence in hot rooms near large fires. He bowed awkwardly.
"Your Grace, you wished to see me?"
He straightened up and noticed that in the room with Vivenne was Terys.
"Ah, forgive me, Your Majesty! I did not expect you here." He bowed again in her direction. His expression changed to one of worry. "Has there been something wrong with the food, Your Majesty? Were the plates not clean? Is it the new forks? We are not used to them, as you are in your palace."
"Nothing like that, Master Samind," Vivenne replied. "It's about something entirely different, as it happens, where you may be able to help us." She smiled at her head cook. "As you will probably have heard, there was a serious incident yesterday afternoon before dinner."
"I did, Your Grace. The kitchens are buzzing with the news." He frowned. "I don't see..."
"Following that," Vivenne resumed, "Her Majesty is in need of an additional female servant, to assist her household. You mentioned to me, I remember, before the rains came, that there was a girl in your kitchens you considered would do better in personal service."
"Your Grace, I did!" Samind's face brightened. "Milsy is the girl's name. She does well as a kitchen servant but I deem she is too bright to be wasted down below. Shall I ask her to be brought up for Her Majesty's inspection?"
"That is the girl, I remember now. Yes, we wish to interview her."
Samind bobbed. "As you command, Your Grace. If I may ask, would this be a permanent appointment? Or, say, just until the royal party returns south?"
Terys spoke for the first time. "Master Samind, if we were to choose this young woman, it is unlikely that she would return to your service again. Would this be a problem? I would not wish to leave you short of staff."
"It would be no problem, Your Majesty. It is true we are presently hard-worked with all the extra guests, but we may spare one girl. I shall ask for her to be brought up."
"You may go and tell her yourself, Samind," Vivenne said. "A footman may show her the way. We would wish to interview her privately, of course."
"Of course, Your Grace."
Samind bowed and left the room. Terys and Vivenne drank pel in companionable silence until a light knock came at the door and a very nervous servant girl entered.
"Your Grace." The girl curtseyed low, and then when she straightened her eyes widened. "I'm sorry, Your Majesty." She looked terrified as she curtseyed again. "You sent for me."
"We did," Terys said. "We require a girl servant to perform a special service for the crown. You would leave the household of Duke Gilbanar and join my own." Milsy's eyes widened again. "You would travel with us to Palarand and reside with us there. This is not a command. If you feel that you would not wish to leave Dekarran, part from your friends, then we would understand." Terys smiled to try and put the girl at ease. "Before you think of accepting, I must tell you that you may be asked to do unusual things, and that you must not on any account tell anyone what you are doing. This task involves significant danger and it is entirely possible that you might die doing it."
Milsy immediately dropped to one knee and bowed her head.
"Your Majesty, I am yours to command." She looked up, then. "But, ma'am, what can a young girl like me do? I am only a kitchen servant, after all. I know nothing of the business of Queens and Duchesses."
"Your loyalty does you credit, child," Vivenne said. "Stand up, and let us look at you."
Milsy stood and the two women examined her. One of the reasons Vivenne had remembered her was that she was about the same height as Garia and about the same age, with hair of a similar color. Her face was the same shape although the features were completely different.
"Would you turn to the side, dear?" Terys asked. Hmm. Not quite so wide in the hips, but that's not a bad thing. She might do.
"Not bad," Vivenne said. "With a bit of cleaning up she would definitely do."
Milsy flushed. "Your Grace, I was cleaning pots when Master Samind asked me to come up to you. I have not had the opportunity to make myself clean, nor change from my work clothes."
"That's fine, dear," Terys said. "That's not quite what the Duchess meant but we understand your position. Come here, hold out your hands."
This was familiar territory since everyone who worked in the kitchen was inspected before each shift began. Terys gave Milsy a close check-over before nodding.
"You are sure that you understand what we are asking of you? You will leave this castle, come away with us, possibly never to return. You will leave all your friends, anyone you know. Your journey may involve danger and possibly your death. If you complete your service, a place appropriate to your abilities will be found for you in the palace establishment. You are still decided?"
"Your Majesty," said Milsy seriously, "I am. If it is possible for me to do, then I shall do as you command."
Terys sighed. "Then so be it. Vivenne, you'll arrange the transfer? And we must have... Milsy's belongings brought up to our quarters. Now, girl, be seated and we shall tell you what we wish of you."
Milsy looked panic-stricken. "Ma'am, no! I dare not sit in this dirty dress, I'll ruin the fabric of the chair!"
"Very well. You know what happened yesterday evening? Here in the castle?"
"Yes, ma'am! The kitchens talk of nothing else. To have someone abducted -" She stopped short and her eyes widened again. "You want me to be a decoy for the young lady!"
Vivenne said, "Samind told us you were smart, he didn't tell us you were this smart."
Terys agreed. "Indeed. If you are as smart as you seem, Milsy, you may go far in Palarand. But we must first get you back to the palace, and that is where the danger lies. We wish you to play the part of Baroness Garia during our procession back to the city. And, quite possibly, for some time after that."
Milsy's face was pale. "When you said danger, ma'am, I didn't realize..." Her expression became resolute. "I said I would do it, Your Majesty, and I will. Any service I can do for you or for the King, you have only to ask."
"You should not be in very much danger, dear. You will be surrounded by a great many men who will defend you to the death should the need arise." Terys smiled. "And there will be compensations. You will ride in a carriage, possibly with myself and the King, and wear many beautiful gowns."
Milsy's face lit up, and then it cleared again, and then lit up once more before she became serious.
"Ma'am, now I know what you meant by getting me cleaned up. I'm afraid I don't know how to behave in your court, I have no knowledge how things are done."
"Neither did Garia, dear, before she came to us," Terys said, surprising Milsy. "She comes from a place a very long way away, somewhere else entirely, and in her world they do not have a King or Queen to look after them. They have a different method, and each man is said to be the same as the next."
Milsy's brow furrowed. "That sounds... impossible, ma'am."
"Yes, dear, it does, but she tells us it seems to work. But my point is that she herself is not a born noble and has had to learn the ways of the palace. There you have an advantage over her since you are already familiar with most of our customs."
"As you say, ma'am. Well, some of them." Her eyes sparkled as she considered the adventure to come. "I'll try my hardest, ma'am. I can do no more."
"Indeed, dear. And we'll try and make it as easy for you as we may. Now, perhaps you had better begin your new employment in the proper manner. Kenila, would you conduct Milsy to the bathroom and get her completely clean? Dress her in a robe when you've finished and bring her back here. Varna, send for Rosilda. She will have much extra work to do before we depart for Palarand."
"Yes, Uncle Gil?"
"We've decided to make it obvious that we're taking your safety more seriously. I want you to move to different chambers this afternoon. I've asked the twins if they will swap and they, and their parents, have agreed. You'll be moving to the next level down, which is the corridor the King, Queen and Prince are on. There's one slight complication, though."
"What's that, Uncle Gil?"
"You'll have to share your chambers and your bed with Lady Merizel. Currently the twins share a bed, which is just as well since we have had to find rooms for so many this time. That's why you were put on that level originally, because we ran out of space lower down. If you swap, they'll have the rooms you and Merizel are using."
"Ooh. I don't know. I've never slept in a bed with anyone else, ever."
"I'm told that it is more common for girls and women to do it than amongst the menfolk. It would be for the rest of your stay, that is to say about a week." Gilbanar grinned. "There are benefits. It's a much bigger chamber, with a separate sitting room and its own bathroom and toilet. Plenty of space for both of you and your maids. It also has connecting doors to the chambers either side, should there be any more trouble. Plus other interesting features we'll tell you about once you have moved."
"Oh. Okay, Uncle Gil. I guess there's a first time for everything. You want us to move now, before dinner?"
"If you would, Garia. I believe the twins are already packing up."
"Packing up... of course Jenet can't help pack, can she? I don't have much out of the chests but I'm not sure I could get it all back in."
"Don't worry about packing up. The Queen is lending one of her maids and I'm sure Merizel's maid will assist as well once she has finished her own task. I've asked your own men to help move the chests, to make sure everything is transferred securely."
"Why move me now, Uncle Gil? Why there?"
"We can seal off the whole corridor once you've moved down, Garia. That's not so easy on this level. As I said, there are other reasons you'll find out when you get there."
"Okay, Uncle Gil. Let's get started."
Garia stared at the enormous bed. The bed in her suite at the palace - which used to belong to Princess Elizet - had been about what she would call a King double. This bed was much bigger than that. If she climbed in one side and Merizel climbed in the other, they would have to shout to talk to each other.
"Impressive, isn't it?"
"I think it's designed for visiting royalty," Merizel said doubtfully. "I imagine they would expect something this size."
"Visiting royalty are already here," Garia pointed out. "This is a bed for Grand Dukes or Rulers with Strange Titles."
Merizel giggled. She could hear the capital letters in Garia's voice. She turned to Garia. "Are you sure that you are all right with this? I've slept with cousins a few times. The beds were nothing like this, of course, but it wasn't so bad."
"I'll manage," was the reply. "Besides, the size of that thing, we could both thrash about all night and never get to touch each other. It'll be fine."
Garia turned to inspect the rest of the huge room. The room could be huge because there were two large pillars holding up the ceiling, which was ornately plastered and flat. Her previous chamber had a plastered ceiling, it was true, but that had been vaulted stone. She guessed the pillars were whole tree trunks, but the painted decorations hid whatever was underneath.
The bed was against the back wall, facing three tall, narrow windows. Closer inspection showed that the middle window was in fact double doors which opened onto a tiny balcony just visible through the leaded glass. Both sides of the room had four doors and she made her way over to one side to investigate, followed by Merizel and the two maids. She pulled the first one open to reveal a large dressing room.
Merizel gave an appreciative murmur. "I like this. There's plenty of room to hang what we'll need for the rest of our stay here and plenty of light to get ourselves prepared."
"Yes. It's bigger than my dressing room at the palace, but then every room here is bigger. Let's see what's next."
The door behind the dressing room was the way they had come. It led through a passage to the suite's sitting room. The third door opened to show a servants' closet, with two generously-sized single beds, night stands and hanging rails at the far end.
"Will this suit you two?" Garia asked Jenet and Bursila.
"It will, milady," Jenet replied. "I have stayed here before in similar rooms. Lord Gilbanar does not scrimp where servants are concerned."
The door at the back opened to show a toilet. Garia was relieved to see the shining copper plumbing. She had wondered if they were going to be periodically invaded by men dragging barrels of water. Walking round the bed she opened the matching door on the other side to find a large bathroom. This was less of a large sunken tub, more like a small swimming pool. Again she noted the plumbing and the rope to call for water.
I think we just got upgraded to five star treatment. Pity it had to be because someone was after me.
The next door was a complete surprise, since it was another servants' closet identical to the one they had already inspected. Garia and Merizel looked at one another.
"Do they really have that many servants, Merry?"
"Maybe it's his and hers," was the reply. "His lordship's man or men take one side, her ladyship's maids take the other. I don't really know but that would be my guess."
"Makes sense. It would mean that a visiting couple would be completely self contained."
The third door was locked. Garia rattled the handle for a while without result.
"Oh, yes, of course. Uncle Gil did say these were connected to the suites either side. This must lead to whoever's next door."
The last door, next to the tall window, opened to a dressing room that matched the other in every particular.
"That's it, Garia," Merizel said. "His and hers. They would need separate rooms to hang their clothes, wouldn't they?"
"Makes sense," Garia said again. "So, if you wanted, we could have one each. If we were staying longer, there might have been good reason but since it's only a week I don't think it really matters."
"As you say. So, perhaps we'd better open our chests and find something to wear to dinner?"
The four set to work opening the chests and hanging some of their clothing on the rails in one of the dressing rooms. By unspoken agreement Jenet and Bursila chose to share one of the servants' closets and moved their own belongings in. Although Jenet now had a prominent bandage around her neck there was in fact nothing wrong with her and the pretense need not be kept up in private. Besides, she insisted on helping.
They were in the dressing room choosing gowns to wear down to the evening meal when they heard voices and emerged to find a procession of people entering from the passage to the lounge. Gilbanar came first, followed by Robanar, then Terys, Vivenne, Keren, Terinar and Varna. Garia noticed that Varna was the only maid present and guessed something was up. The four women curtseyed to their visitors.
"Garia!" Gilbanar greeted her. "Milady Merizel. I hope you didn't mind us intruding at this time."
"It's your home, Your Grace," Garia replied diplomatically.
"So it is!" the Duke said with mock surprise. "So, how are you settling in? Is the room to your liking?"
"Well, Your Grace," Garia said with a straight face, "It's a bit rough and ready, but as we're only here for a week, we'll manage somehow."
Gilbanar stared at Garia with a look of total disbelief until he realized that she was joking and then burst into a fit of laughter. When he managed to calm down he said, "Rob, you have a bright one here. I might just steal her for myself."
Robanar smiled at Garia. "A fine jest, Garia." To his brother he said, "Gil, she's in this room because somebody did try to steal her."
Gilbanar sobered. "Aye, Rob, I have not forgotten. Down to business. Milady, you are satisfied with the room?"
The formal question required a formal answer. "My lord, I am. Uh, we are."
Gilbanar swept a hand around the room. "Have you noticed anything particular about the arrangement of the facilities?"
Garia's eyes narrowed. "Uh, no, Your - I mean, Uncle Gil." She looked around. "There's a lot of doors. There are two dressing rooms and two rooms for servants, if that's what you mean. The same number of doors each side. That one," she pointed, "we couldn't open. I assume it connects with the next suite?"
"It does, Garia. So the two sides of your bedroom are laid out the same. What about the other rooms, the bathroom and the toilet?"
Huh? What about them? Why is he emphasizing those two rooms?
"I don't know, Uncle Gil." Garia thought furiously, noticing that Terinar had a big grin on his face. He knew the answer, knew that there was an answer, and he was waiting for her to come up with it.
The two sides of the room are the same. The dressing rooms are the same, the servants' rooms are the same, what else is there? Oh, wait! The toilet chamber is smaller than the bathroom, of course. So what could possibly..?
They have to be kidding!
"Uncle Gil, all the smaller rooms are the same size except for the toilet. That must mean there's a space between the toilet and the sitting room. You don't have secret passages here, surely?"
Terinar couldn't contain his glee. "Garia, this is a castle! Of course there are secret passages!"
Gilbanar grinned. "As my impetuous son says, there are hidden passages here, at least in this part of the castle. Some of them may even be secret. But we don't mention them to anyone and most of them are either blocked off or disused. There's one in this suite, and we'll all have to go through to your sitting room to get at it."
The procession trooped back into the sitting room, which was almost as large as the bedroom, except that it had only a single pillar supporting the ceiling. Garia and the others watched as Terinar moved a settee aside and then rolled back the thick carpet. From his sash he pulled a tool like a utility key which he poked into a small hole in the floorboards.
"What we are about to show you exists in most of the rooms on this level," Gilbanar explained. "We normally keep each door locked off so as to avoid any unpleasant incidents. The passages have come in useful on occasion when visiting rulers needed to have secret talks and other meetings of that kind. For today, we are using the route for another purpose entirely."
"That's done, father," Terinar said as he rolled the carpet back and reset the furniture. "Do you want me to open it?"
"If you would, Terry."
Garia could see from the expressions on the faces of the King, Queen and Prince that they already knew about the passages. She watched as Terinar went to the paneled wall and felt about for a while.
"This one's stiff, father. Hasn't been used in a while, perhaps we need to - ah! That's got it."
A section of the paneling swung into the room. Terinar grinned at his audience and then disappeared into the opening.
"Come, Garia," Gilbanar instructed. "Have a look."
She walked to the entrance and looked in. There was a short passage and then a spiral staircase which went up and down. A dim light could be seen coming from below.
"Below this level and above the next one," Gilbanar explained, "there used to be another level intended to enable the servants to get to the rooms without being seen. Although it seemed like a good idea at the time it was not practical and after some years was taken out of use. The stairways and doors still connect all the suites, though." He grinned at her. "Comes in useful, sometimes. Like now, for instance. Ah! Here they come."
Terinar reappeared, carrying a lantern. Behind him came two women, one wearing a robe, the second Garia recognized as Kenila, Terys's older maid. The three came into the sitting room and the two women curtseyed to Robanar.
Terys stepped forward. "Allow me to introduce Milsy, who has volunteered to become a substitute for Garia when we leave Dekarran to return home. Milsy, this is Garia, her maid Jenet, her secretary Merizel and Merizel's maid Bursila."
The poor girl looked petrified to be standing in front of such an august assembly. Her eyes flickered in all directions, looking at each of them, her face becoming paler as time went by.
"Garia, perhaps you would stand beside Milsy," Terys suggested. "That will let us compare you directly."
Garia walked over to Milsy and stood facing the assembled royalty. Robanar and Gilbanar examined the pair thoughtfully and then turned to each other.
"Gil, I think this will work. I'm sorry to steal a servant off you, but -"
"My pleasure, Rob. From what Vivenne tells me, she is brighter than she looks. Being in the palace is possibly the best thing that can happen to her."
Robanar nodded. "Very well. I suggest we depart now and leave our new conspirator to our ladies. She looks a little overwhelmed with all of us standing here."
"As you say, Rob. Boys, you'd better leave as well. Terry, first you must show Garia how that door works."
While Terinar showed Garia how to operate the secret panel Terys and Vivenne took the others into the bedroom. When Garia joined them she found them seated on comfortable chairs under the windows.
"Garia," Terys began, "Milsy was a kitchen servant until this afternoon. She knows very little of what we propose, but she knows that she will pretend to be you for the journey back to the palace. That means that she must do so wearing some of your clothing, preferably that which would most identify you to an onlooker."
Garia nodded. "I understand, ma'am. I'd almost worked that out, anyway. The problem is, I don't have that much clothing here." She considered. "Actually, it's not as bad as I think, is it? She won't be doing Tai Chi or combat training, and I can't imagine she'll be riding a frayen, so she won't need a lot of my special clothing."
"No, dear. I think she will probably ride in the carriage with Robanar and myself. But she might wear some of your green-on-green outfits, dear."
Garia nodded again. "I'd more or less thought that I couldn't wear my colors because that will identify me too easily." She paused. "I might need a set for when we reach... our destination, though. I'll need to identify myself then, won't I?"
"As you say, dear. As will..." Terys paused, and then waved her hand. "I'm not being rude, dear, but perhaps we had better speak of that part of the plan another time." She turned to Milsy and smiled. "Dear, we should not discuss other parts of the plan in front of you." Especially as we haven't worked them out yet. "If you are by chance caught, then what you have not been told cannot be forced out of you."
Milsy looked pale and licked her lips. "I understand, ma'am." She turned to Garia. "Milady, combat training? Riding frayen? You really do those things? I have heard stories in the kitchens, but I thought them scarcely credible."
Garia gave the girl a warm smile. "Yes, Milsy, I do those things and many more. They're not things that women do much around here. Yet. But you'll be welcome to receive training when I get back." Terys gave Garia a measured look but she carried on. "On the other hand, I do suggest you start to learn Tai Chi as soon as you can, because it will help you keep calm. You've met Feteran? No? He's the commander of my armsmen and he'll be returning to the palace with you. He'll get you started and he'll look after you all the way. You may rely on him completely for help and advice. As for myself, as long as we're here together you can ask me anything, understand? And you must call me Garia. If you are to play my part you'll have to quickly get used to being around the King and Queen, so you're going to have to learn to be a little more familiar with everyone that you might have been before."
Milsy's eyes flicked to the Queen but she nodded. "As you say, milady. Oh! As you say, Garia."
"There's something else, Milsy," Terys said, "that you must needs sacrifice. Garia has a very distinctive hair style."
"I noticed that, ma'am." She reached a hand up and touched her long locks. "I understand that it will be necessary to cut it, ma'am. I don't think I'll mind that, though it will be strange to begin with." She frowned. "My hair is not as dark as... Garia's, though. Will any notice?"
"That shouldn't be a problem once we put karzal-nut oil on it," Garia said. She looked at Jenet who nodded. "The oil will make it darker and make it shine like mine does."
It was Garia's turn to frown. "That's another point, actually. My hairstyle is distinctive. How will I be able to disguise my own?"
"That won't be difficult, Garia," Vivenne said. "I'm sure we can find you a suitable wig from somewhere. Perhaps something in a different color."
Garia's eyebrows rose. "You have wigs here?"
"Of course. Sometimes one wishes to change one's look for a ball, or for a children's amusement at festival time, perhaps. On occasion there has been an older relative who has lost her hair and would prefer the world not to know. There are some few wigs, stored carefully away. Many are quite old, or of outdated style. You must accompany me one day and we shall find out if any are suitable."
"As you wish, Aunt Vivenne. What should we be doing now, ma'am? Merizel and I were just about to find something to wear to dinner."
"I would suggest that you both eat here in the suite this evening, dear. That way, you may make your portions serve five people and Milsy can get to know you." Terys smiled. "I can tell the others that you did not wish to leave your maid, which is true enough."
"What will happen to Milsy tonight, then? Can she stay in the suite with us?"
"Do you think that you can manage with an extra guest, dear? What will happen if somebody comes to your door? One of the servants, perhaps?"
Garia grinned. "We have many rooms where Milsy can hide while visitors do what they need to. Besides, you said that the main corridor was sealed off and only palace guards and palace servants would be allowed here."
"As you say, dear. But I would not attempt to rely on the discretion of the palace servants if I were you. Excepting our personal maids, of course." Terys looked at the huge bed. "Where shall Milsy sleep, if she stays here?"
"Jenet and Bursila are sharing one of the servants' rooms so Milsy can have the other." Garia turned to Milsy. "No offense, but I'm not sure I'd be comfortable with three in a bed, even one that big. I've never slept in a bed with anyone else before."
"You have servants' rooms right in the bedroom? What an amazing thing." Milsy's eyes grew round again. She asked hesitantly, "May I have a look, please?"
"Of course. That one there." Garia pointed.
Milsy walked over and pulled the door open, went inside and came out moments later. "Mil- I mean, Garia, it's wonderful! It's much better than the dormitory I sleep in now, with five other kitchen women. You wouldn't believe the snoring -" she stopped, guiltily. "You don't snore, do you?"
Garia and Merizel looked at each other. "We're still discussing that," Garia said finally. "I don't think you'll be disturbed, though." Garia turned to Terys. "Ma'am, I guess if we want our meals brought up here we'd better order. And we still have to change."
Terys took the hint and stood. "As you say, Garia. We'll leave you all to become acquainted while we go and prepare ourselves. Vivenne?"
"As you command, ma'am."
After Terys, Vivenne and their maids departed Garia turned to Milsy.
"Right. There's no need for you to stay in that robe for the next week, is there? Let's see how you fit into some of my gowns. And then we can sit down and have a good talk until the food arrives."
"Sorry we're late," Garia said as she and Merizel entered Gilbanar's parlor.
"We've only just come ourselves," Vivenne said. "Find yourselves seats."
"So," Gilbanar said. "Have we any better idea of how we might carry out my brother's desire?"
Garia looked at Terys who said, "We have found someone who is willing to be a substitute for Garia on the journey home. Some of us have met her, it would be best if the rest of you were spared further details. Garia has met her."
"Ma'am. She's almost exactly my size and about a finger's width taller." Garia reddened. "Ah, she's a little plumper than I am but not enough to need any of the clothes altering." She turned to Terys. "Ma'am, her feet are larger than mine so she'll need all new shoes and boots, I'm afraid."
Terys turned to Vivenne who said, "That's fine, Garia. We'll find her suitable footwear."
"So you have another who can take your place," Robanar stated. "How then shall it be done, Garia? Have you some thought?"
"The best place I can think of doing it, Sire, would be at South Slip, if you planned to stay overnight like on the way up." Robanar looked at Terys, who nodded. "I'm going to be too visible when we leave, and anyone who anticipates a substitution would expect it to be done at the castle, not later." She hesitated. "I'd like to ride Snep down to the ferry the way I rode up. People might think it odd if I don't."
"It would be better if you sat in the carriage, Garia," Robanar said. "We are trying to give the impression that you need to be protected, after all."
Garia's face dropped. "As you say, Sire."
"But it is not all bad news. Keren pointed out to me that you will need Snep for your journey, and that he will take him and Merizel's beast with him when he goes, as remounts. If you were to ride him down to the ferry, he would be on the wrong side of the Sirrel."
Garia nodded reluctantly. That had only just occurred to her.
"And then, Garia? Once you have reached South Slip?"
"Why, if we split up the way we did before, all the women will end up in the same house - including a servant Aunt Vivenne brought along with her. We can swap clothes overnight, including a suitable hair disguise, and I can come back as the servant with Aunt Vivenne when she returns to the castle." She grinned. "Now I know all about the extra accommodation the castle provides, I can stay down there for as long as necessary until one of Tanon's wagon trains arrives. I assume there's a quiet way I can get out of the castle?"
Gilbanar grinned. "Of course. And your maid can go with you at the same time."
Keren asked, "What about Merizel and her own maid?"
"Bursila has volunteered to take Jenet's place on the way home," Garia said. "That won't appear unusual because everybody knows Jenet is injured and has been ordered to stay behind. For the journey north, Jenet has offered to be maid to both of us. It shouldn't be a problem, neither Merry nor I mind doing some of the work ourselves. Merry can sneak out of the castle the same time Jenet and I do."
"But Merry is supposed to return to the palace with you," Keren objected. "Who will take her place?"
"One of the two seamstresses who came with Rosilda is about Merizel's build," Terys said. "I'll quietly inquire if she would be of service to the crown. I think Merizel is not so large a problem, it is Garia who will draw all the attention."
Jokar had a question. "Your transport north relies on a caravan, milady. Suppose none will come for, say, two weeks. How shall you travel? You may not ride, everyone would recognize you."
"That's not a problem, Jokar," Robanar said. "There's sufficient traffic on the north road that Tanon has a caravan through here often enough that there should be little delay." He grinned. "He's acting as a postal service to the north, remember. It pays him to run those caravans, even when he's not bringing output from the mines to Dekarran."
"I stand corrected, Sire."
Robanar nodded. "I think we have a scheme here which will work. We can do little more until we speak to Master Tanon, but I would ask you all to think about every detail since it needs but one small mischance, one forgotten action, to spill our plan to those who must not know."
He sighed. "I'm getting too old for this excitement. When I was Keren's age - Gil will tell you - I liked adventures like this. But," he ran his hand through his hair, "this is a serious business with lives at stake. Let us not forget that." He stood. "And now, perhaps the Queen and I will retire. It has been a busy day."
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