The time has come for all those gathered at Castle Dekarran to make their various ways home, and for Garia that means other partings... which hit her harder than she expects. With the departure of the royal party it is also time to put her own plans into effect, but a face from the past causes an unexpected surprise.
by Penny Lane
59 - Parting of the ways
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 had rained during the afternoon, so the paths and the mountainside were still damp. Not enough to be dangerous underfoot but enough to make everything smell of the first hint that Fall was to come. The procession wound out of the Upper Guard Room and along a path on the north side of the mountain to a leveled shelf where the funerals were customarily held. On the slabs of rock behind the mourners a few names were chiseled as memorials, though that was no longer customary.
The pyre of wood, laboriously hauled up and constructed earlier that day, had been protected from the shower by a tarpaulin of waxed canvas. Now it stood exposed, the wrapped body waiting on the top. Not everyone wore the customary gray, since many of the mourners were visitors, and one could not provide for every contingency that might happen during a journey. The King, Queen and Prince all wore gray, of course, as did his brother and his brother's family. Everyone else made do with gray sashes instead of their normal rank sashes.
The local priest and his attendants spoke the funeral rites and those of the mourners who had known the deceased added their own words. A stone-faced Bleskin, assisted by his eldest son, accepted a burning brand from a servant and thrust it into the wood stack. As the sun began to slide behind the mountain to the west everyone stood and watched Taranna's remains return to the world which had given birth to her. Finally, Bleskin turned away and the mourners made their way back into the castle.
"Is that like what happens on Earth?" Terinar asked Garia as they walked back to their suites.
"Yes and no," she replied. "On Earth there are a number of different ways of dealing with bodies, and it all depends on what the person believed, or what their families believed. Mostly what I'm used to is burials, although we do cremate people as well." She shrugged. "Of course, it might depend on how and where the person died. If it happens at sea, you might get buried at sea. That is, wrapped in canvas with a weight to keep the body down. During wars it used to be the custom to bury soldiers near where they fell, if only to keep disease down. Nowadays we tend to make efforts to bring the bodies home for burial. There's a big -"
She stopped. Telling Terinar about Arlington wasn't going to be particularly useful at the moment and would involve a bigger explanation than she decided they had time for this evening. Robanar had meant it when he said that their plans would be discussed following the funeral. Those attending would barely have time to change before meeting in one of the rooms on their corridor.
"Another time, Terry. It's a big subject and I ought to explain it once, in front of people who can write it all down as I speak." She gave him a smile. "I hope you don't mind. I have to get ready for this meeting."
Terinar grinned back at her. "I forget sometimes that you have a whole world inside that head of yours which does things different than the way we do. The subject isn't that important and I know I'll find out what I need eventually. See you later?"
The group that finally met was small. Only those intimately involved were present, including Robanar, Terys, Keren, Garia, Merizel and Milsy, together with Gilbanar, Merek, Jokar and Tanon. It was the last who held the key to the plan they would discuss.
"It was fortunate that Master Tanon stayed in Dekarran," Keren began. "When I found out he was still here, I asked him to come up to the castle and talk about our re-arranged schedule. He had one or two ideas," he smiled, "based on earlier activities of a similar nature we shouldn't talk about here." Gilbanar raised an eyebrow. "Oh, come on, Uncle Gil! You know exactly what Master Tanon does for the Crown that isn't spoken about. This will be no different to any of those."
"Except the person involved is considerably more important," Gilbanar growled. He was unhappy since, although the scheme was his brother's idea, it relied on those at and around Castle Dekarran for its successful execution.
"No more so than any other I may have carried, Your Grace," Tanon said mildly. "By all accounts Milady Garia is capable of looking after herself better than most we have smuggled in the past." He paused, then added, "Of course, there is her double to consider."
All eyes turned to Milsy, who looked uncomfortable in such august company. "Master, I shall do whatever is required of me," she said simply. "Living for a time with Milady Garia has made me aware that I may have talents and abilities unknown to me, though I am as yet untutored. Once I am trained, I wish that I may give as good an account of myself as milady might. " She shrugged and smiled. "That time is not yet come, however. I shall of course use my wits if the situation permits it."
Robanar put a hand to his head, running his fingers through his hair. "Maker! Is this what it is to be in the years to come? What have we done?"
Terys turned to him with a faint smile on her lips. "What did you expect, husband? That only Garia would ever be as she is now? She inspires women wherever she goes, and Palarand will be the better for it. Keren, you said that you had decided a plan with Tanon."
"Yes, mother. It seemed to me that the key point was that Garia had to be seen, publicly, to depart from the castle with great ceremony. Of course, she'll have to do so in a carriage surrounded by as many tough men as we can find. That being the case, it would be impossible to make the switch this side of the Sirrel. Therefore, Master Tanon suggested the following..."
The following morning Garia did her usual exercises, surrounded by almost every man-at-arms who could find a reason to be present in the large vault used for the purpose. She made sure to spend some time with each of her instructors, to check that they were all familiar with her ideas and all that she had taught them. At the end of the session she called her special file into a smaller chamber and made them sit.
"This is the last time we shall probably ever meet again like this," she told them. "In some ways I'm sad at that, because we've all become friends - comrades - since we started sparring together. Indeed," she added with a smile, "considering how much contact we all have with each other's bodies we couldn't be anything else but friends! And I must add that I'm impressed by the way that you've respected my body. As a young girl, any of you could have taken advantage of me but none of you have. I hope that you show any female recruits that you train the same consideration."
"Of course, Teacher," Feteran replied, acting as spokesman. "We respect you and we respect your teachings, especially once we saw you use them in action! We would treat others in exactly the same way." He grinned. "Of course, once we saw what you did to Duke Jarwin, you can be sure we treated you with the utmost caution! But we were not frightened of you, just ready to learn this new way of fighting."
"Thank you, Feteran. So, on to the reason we're gathered here. You know that the original plan was to split you up and send you off to train the forces of the different parts of Palarand. Today is when that happens. Circumstances have meant that I have ended up with three of you as part of my personal bodyguard so of course Feteran, Tord and D'Kenik remain with me. Of the rest, you'll go in pairs to each of the dukes, the final man returning to the palace to carry on training the Palace Guard. This has been previously agreed by Captain Merek. Do any of you have particular preference where you'd like to be sent? Do any of you have other ideas how we might do this?"
"Teacher," asked Bessel, "I have no objection training the men of any of the dukes but my oath is to the King. Would I have to change my allegiance as your own men did?"
The question stumped Garia and she turned to Feteran for support.
"If it is acceptable to you, Bessel, then I don't see that any would object if you changed your allegiance. If you wished to remain the King's man, I don't see why that would not be possible either." Feteran frowned. "An interesting problem, milady. Perhaps we might consult Kendar concerning the matter."
"Of course. That aspect hadn't occurred to me at all. Now, has anyone any preferences?"
The group talked over the possibilities and who got on with who, who knew anything about the castles they would soon be calling home and those they would end up training.
"I did have a request," Garia said into a pause in the conversation, "and that was that Benith be sent to Brikant. Would you go there, Benith?"
Benith grimaced. "Those two girls... excuse me, Teacher, the two Countesses. They have taken an interest in me, is that the reason?"
"It is. I would point out that they are both anxious to receive real training in martial arts, whatever their other motives might be. I might add," Garia said thoughtfully, "that you ought to consider the alternative, of not going."
"Not going, Teacher? Then what?" Benith's eyes widened. "Oh! I see... You suggest they may pursue me about the Kingdom?"
"Oh, yes. Once those two get an idea in their heads dranakhs couldn't keep them from carrying it out. If you do choose to go there, however, you can set the rules under which you meet and you'll be able to appeal to their family if there are any... improprieties."
Benith nodded. "It seems I have little choice, then." He turned to the others. "Which of you will come with me and protect me from these two obsessed females?"
The division was agreed. Kerrak and Yasoon would remain at Dekarran, training Gilbanar's troops. Benith and Joran would go to Brikant with Duke Visselen while Sardan and Maxilar would travel with Duke Norvelen to their castle in Kendeven leaving just Bessel to return to the palace. This last wasn't quite the hardship it appeared to be because once Garia returned to the palace both she and her own trained men would also be available to instruct the Palace Guard.
"I have a final present for you," she said with a smile. "Since I don't know if you'll remain the King's men or if you'll join the household wherever you end up, I don't know what colors you'll be wearing. But I can give you these, to wear when you're training."
She turned and Bursila uncovered a basket she had brought to the meeting. Garia pulled out a pink sash and presented it to each man.
"By these sashes shall your fellows in arms know that you are instructors in unarmed combat," she said, reciting a formula Keren had suggested. "Wear them with respect and pride."
The men tied their own sashes, standing a little straighter and taller once they had done so. They turned to her and, in a body, gave her a low bow.
"Thank you, men," she said. "Then, for the final time, class... dismissed."
As the men filed out Garia stopped Feteran.
"We have another meeting after the nap this afternoon."
"I'll need all of our men as well, please. It's about time they all learned what is about to happen."
"As you say, milady. And the... others?"
"Captain Merek will be bring those he has selected. There may be one or two other people present, but you don't need to worry about those, they are all of the household."
"Of course, milady. And now, do you wish to visit your frayen?"
Garia turned to address those men wearing the green-on-green of House Blackstone.
"Men. The King has made some decisions which will result in changes to what will happen when we leave Dekarran. Since much of what will happen will be military in nature, Captain Merek has been placed in charge of this part of the operation. For reasons which will shortly become apparent, I'll ask you all to listen to what the captain says and to take any instructions from him as you would from me or from Feteran. Does anybody have any questions so far? Good. Captain?"
"Thank you, milady. Men," Merek's eyes covered the fourteen men in the room, "You all know that Milady Garia has been recently beset by an enemy who seeks to abduct or injure her, even to kill her. The King grows annoyed by this interference in the affairs of the kingdom and seeks a way to divert the attention of our enemy away from milady. Therefore, when the royal party departs this castle to return to the palace they will not be accompanied by Baroness Blackstone but by a double."
Everyone's gaze turned to an embarrassed Milsy, standing beside Garia wearing one of her day dresses.
"Yes, this is the girl," Merek confirmed. "Before we start out, she will have her hair cut to resemble the Baroness and will wear her wardrobe during the journey. She will travel entirely by carriage and the task of those who accompany her will be to ensure she gets to the palace safely and undetected. The Baroness, meanwhile, will be traveling north with the Prince, concealed under another disguise. Now, you all know that the King instructed that the guard traveling with the Prince be increased, those additional men will be those of you here who are armsmen of the Baroness. This makes sense as she will be with the Prince's party. The rest of you present today are detailed to guard milady's double closely."
Merek looked at the expressions on the faces of those surrounding him and half-smiled.
"I see some of you have understood the plan. Obviously, those men who go south with the double must appear Milady's men, and therefore must wear her colors, until at least the overnight stop in South Slip. The real Baroness will be journeying with us that far, since her departure from the castle must be seen by everyone. For the same reason those who will go with the Prince must wear palace colors, but that is not a problem since you all wore them for most of the journey here. The only change you need make is to switch sashes with those who will go with Milady's double."
"Captain," Feteran asked, "the journey to South Slip will require those men to wear our uniforms, is this correct?"
"As you say, commander. If your men would let these fine men borrow Milady's colors for that brief journey, it will seem that she is surrounded by her own men for the return to the palace. Once the King's party departs South Slip the use of sashes in Milady's colors should be sufficient and the uniforms can be returned north to catch up with their owners once again."
Feteran considered the matter then nodded. "Aye, captain."
"There is another slight problem," Garia said. "Originally, Feteran had to return to the palace since he is too well known to be absent during the journey. Since his mother's death I have made it clear that he should remain with his father and so another should go instead. I think it's a good idea that one of my men goes south because he will know the routine I'm supposed to be following. Therefore, I've chosen Tord to go with those who will be pretending to be my men. With Captain Merek's permission he will be in charge of the squad."
"Milady," one of the palace men asked, "what of your maid, and of your secretary? Will they be returning south?"
"Lady Merizel's maid Bursila has volunteered to accompany my double south. Since my maid Jenet is injured and will have to stay behind in the castle, we should get away with that. Um," she grinned, "don't expect to meet anyone else of my retinue along the way, although of course Lady Merizel and I will be traveling as far as South Slip as Captain Merek told you. As for Jenet, you can expect her to make an unexpected recovery shortly after the King departs."
All the men were grinning now. When all was said and done, guard work was usually routine and mostly boring, although less so since Garia had appeared in their midst. Now, to be part of a scheme, with doubles and substitutions, subterfuges and misdirections, fired them all with enthusiasm.
"I want to give you all a warning," Merek said sternly. "Those traveling south, including Milady's double, face a real risk of attack, even if they are with the King's party. You must all take your duties seriously and you must not breathe a word of what is happening to any other. If you should be questioned by others, including guardsmen, refer them to me. I will add that Milady's double obviously does not have her martial abilities so must be guarded as you would any other lady of the court. While she is acting as a double, she shall be treated with the rank she appears to have. Understood?"
A chorus of "Aye, captain."
A lone voice. "Captain, has the girl a name? You have not called her anything but 'double'".
"If I gave you a name, you might say it by mistake and reveal the plan," Merek told them. "You'll call her 'Baroness' or 'milady' just as you normally would."
One of her own men asked, "Milady? What about us? When shall we meet you again?"
"That's another part of the plan it's best you know nothing about," Garia said. "Um, all I might say is that you'll go north with Prince Keren and after a couple of days you'll develop wagon trouble. We'll catch you up there. We'll be bringing your uniforms back with us."
Merek's eyes narrowed. "Milady, I understood the intention was for you to appear as part of the Prince's party during your journey north, so why might you require your colors?"
"Ah, well, we're going to inspect the lands the King gave me. It might be necessary for me to appear as Baroness during that time. We don't know what we'll find up there, so we're keeping our options open. We just hope we'll be far enough away that word of my presence takes time to trickle back south."
"As you say, milady. Now, if you would excuse us, I think your men should remove their tunics so that we might discover if any alterations are required."
"Oh? Oh, yes!" A room full of half-dressed men. I'm not sure what I think about that idea, although by the look on Milsy's face I know what she's thinking. "Come on, er, double. Let's leave these men to strip off in peace."
Vivenne had persuaded Robanar to let the young nobles have a final evening together before they went their separate ways. There was a hidden agenda there, since it became clear that the assembled mothers wanted to watch them all dance. Reluctantly they all gathered in one of the wood-floored rooms and Merizel tuned up her dajan. Garia discovered that she remembered the moves quite easily and a reasonably entertaining time was held by all.
During a break in the action Garia spoke to the twins. "I've given you both your dearest wish, although he wasn't that happy about it."
"What? Oh! You mean Benith? He's really coming to Brikant?"
"He is, but I must caution you to treat him with respect. He's there - with Joran - to teach unarmed combat to your father's men. He'll also teach you if you ask, but if you go all gooey-eyed over him it could get awkward." Garia regarded the pair. "Let him settle in and get established in your home first, and you might find out more about him and what he likes and dislikes. If you press yourselves on him you might make him run away."
They both looked at Garia, expressions downcast.
"It's because you're older than us, is that it?"
"Partly. Remember my background as well. I've been on the receiving end of the kind of treatment I know you two are capable of and it can be pretty scary. Just give him time, that's all I ask."
Terissa looked at her. "We'll do as you ask, Garia. We trust you, even though inside we both want to..." she blushed. "I never knew growing up could be so hard."
Garia gave them an encouraging smile. She'd had her own experiences with rampaging female hormones. "Everybody tells me that the teenage years are the best time of your life. The good parts will definitely outweigh the bad parts, from what I've experienced so far."
Dalenna considered. "But you've ended up on another planet in a different body. That's hardly likely to happen to the rest of us, is it?"
"Actually, it's probably not too far from the truth. By the time you hit twenty the world you live in will look completely different and," she looked at their budding torsos, "you will certainly have different bodies by then. You'll be grown-up women, won't you?"
"That's so," they agreed, and then Vivenne called them back to the dance floor.
The next morning Tanon's factor in Dekarran had three traveling chests delivered to the castle. These were taken up to Keren's quarters, ostensibly to be filled with extra clothing and belongings of those additional men attached to his party. This was just about true, but the bulk of the space was reserved for the effects of Garia, Merizel and Jenet which needed to be taken north with them. Since taking the chests to Garia's suite would have caused questions to be asked, the chests went into Keren's suite and then a procession carried the women's possessions through the 'secret' level from their own suite into his. About half of Garia's clothing went, since Milsy would require some to wear, but all her exercise clothes went, along with both womens' riding gear, her helmet and her swords.
Traveling through the hidden level in the other direction came clothing suitable for a woman accompanying a caravan. These few garments, sufficient to get Jenet out of the castle and into the town, were left behind the secret panel for later. Just before lunch Keren had servants pack the remainder of his belongings and all the chests were taken down to be loaded into the wagons.
After lunch everyone came out into the main courtyard to see Keren off. His three wagons, each pulled by a dranakh, were lined up and surrounded by men of the Palace Guard - men, coincidentally, who had all been present on Garia's trip to the Miner's Guildhall. The four extra men that Gilbanar had provided, one now driving the third wagon, also accompanied the caravan wearing palace colors. At the front was Bleskin's 'truck', now occupied by himself and Feteran, with their frayen on leading reins. Keren stood with those watching his departure.
"Fare you well, son," Robanar rumbled. "This is your first journey into the Kingdom as a man and by yourself. I feel sure that with the stout men that surround you, you shall not encounter any difficulty you are not capable of handling. Send word of your progress, since your mother will become difficult if you do not write often."
Terys tapped her foot. "Don't listen to him, Keren. He's the one likely to fret if we don't hear word. Now, you've no schedule to keep so there's no need to hurry and cause problems. Come here and let me give you a hug."
Next came Gilbanar. "Young pup, look after yourself. Keep your eyes open. If there's anything amiss in my lands I want to know about it. I don't think you'll find much, though. Just go and enjoy your ride."
Garia hadn't realized until this minute how the shock of Keren's departure would affect her. He'd already become the center of her world without her realizing it, and now he was going. Both knew that the separation was not going to be for very long, but Garia approached the parting as if she was really going back to the palace. Tears trickled down both cheeks.
"Garia, hush. I'm not going away for ever. We'll soon be back together again, won't we?"
"As you say, Highness," she mumbled.
Embarrassed, he turned to his father. "I'd better go, before the castle gets flooded. Fare you well, father."
Keren bowed to Robanar and then turned, walked over to his frayen and mounted. A raised hand, and then the party moved off round the rock pillar towards the north gate. Garia found Terys's arms round her.
"There, child." More softly, she added, "He still has a place in your heart, doesn't he?"
"As do you all, ma'am," Garia said.
"Well said, dear, but that wasn't what I meant and you know it. Now, let us go inside and I'll get the girls to make us a nice pot of pel."
By the time Terys, Vivenne and Garia were ensconced in one of Gilbanar's parlors Garia had been able to analyze her response to Keren's departure.
"It's not quite what you think, ma'am," she explained. "It's just that, well, everyone is splitting up, going off in various directions. Just yesterday I said farewell to the men I've been training in unarmed combat, for example. They're all going off to train others all over the Kingdom and I don't know if we'll ever be together again. When we trained together... you understand, we were physically close, because that's what the style of fighting is all about, we all became close friends. Now my friends are going to be sent all over Palarand.
"Then there's those of my own age like Stebenar and Willan and the twins and Terinar and Korizet... Okay, Terinar and Korizet aren't going anywhere, but I am, and so soon I won't be able to have a chat and a laugh again for a while... Keren leaving was just the final thing that drove it all home." She stared unhappily at her cup of pel. "I know I won't be alone, but... I've gotten accustomed to having my friends around me."
Terys sipped and thought for a while, then put down her cup and spoke. "Dear, it is a part of life that those we are fond of, those who are our friends, others we come to know and love, eventually we must accept that they, too may move out of our lives. It may be a sudden death, like that of poor Taranna, or a posting, like that of your instructors, or perhaps something else. Only the Maker may know how and when those we become close to will part from us.
"Do you not know we understand this? I found it hard to bear when I became Robanar's Queen, since it meant that I left all my friends and family and moved to a distant, unknown land. I found it hard to bear when my daughters married and moved away from the palace to be with their new husbands. The chances of life mean that events like these happen and we must make the best of them. Your friends may depart, and you may never see some of them again, but you still hold the memories of your time with them and you will treasure those. That is how it will be, and that is how it should be."
Garia was silent for a long time before she sighed and spoke.
"As you say, ma'am. One of the twins said to me when we were dancing that growing up was hard. This is different than what she meant, but it is still hard to bear."
The next morning everyone went down into the town to see the departure of Duke Norvelen and his party. These would leave as they came, by ship, so a procession of carriages transported everyone to the quayside to watch them board and cast off. Stebenar and Willan proved to be quite knowledgeable about matters nautical so they kept Garia entertained until it was time to depart. A peremptory shout from their father made them run across the quay and jump the gap to the deck of their craft. Sailor types did nautical things and the current of the Palar swiftly carried the ship out into the center of the river and towards the confluence with the Sirrel. Garia turned to Terinar, who was standing beside her describing something to Merizel.
"Terry, I assume that their departure time had something to do with the tides?"
"That's right, Garia. The Palar generally runs out most of the time but if they went down into the Sirrel as the tide came in they would be taken up-river, which is the wrong direction for them to get home. The tide's turning now so they won't be hit by the strong current as they enter the Sirrel."
"Yes, of course. I suppose you're quite knowledgeable about matters to do with ships and such, given you live where you do?"
"Enough, I think. I'm not going to become a sea-captain or anything like that so I don't know about hoisting sails or pointing a ship in the right direction though. I know more about cargoes and trade routes than I do about ship-handling, seeing how much trade comes through Dekarran. I was just explaining to Merry, in fact -"
Garia listened to his explanation with only part of her mind. The other part had come to a realization.
Terinar and Merizel? Really? Have I been walking round with my eyes shut all this time? No, surely not. We've only been here, what, three weeks? Four? Has it really been that long?
Then the Baroness of Blackstone kicked in. Oh my God! What do I do if Merry and Terry... Am I going to have to find another secretary? Should I be preventing... No! That's not fair on Merry. Oh, God, what do I do?
"Hey, what's wrong, Garia? Sad to see your friends sail away?"
I'll be on my own again... just as I was when I arrived here.
"Yes, I guess. We're all going off in different directions, aren't we? Oh, you aren't, but I am, so that amounts to the same thing, doesn't it?"
"I'll be coming with you, Garia," Merizel protested. "We all know you don't function well without someone to organize you!"
"That's true, Merry." Garia sighed. "Look, the others are getting back into the carriages. Come on."
Late that afternoon, a gaggle of palace servant women went out the north gate and down the ramp, as they often did. Most of them turned onto a steep path that led eastward into the town but four, each carrying covered baskets, carried on down the ramp to the warehouse district. These four were accompanied by castle guardsmen, because although the town itself was relatively benign it would not be safe for unaccompanied women to walk through the warehouse district and wharf areas.
Much later the women and their protectors climbed back up the north ramp and were readmitted to the castle. Nobody took much notice of them since this was a fairly common occurrence. Nobody counted the women, since the gate guards were looking for particular men, not women. Nobody searched the baskets, since they were obviously not big enough to smuggle a man in or out of the castle.
Much later, Merizel succumbed to nerves.
"Are you sure we're doing the right thing, Garia? This whole scheme appears to me to be crazier every time I think it through."
"It's too late for that, Merry. We've started the ball rolling and we have to see it through now. All we have to do is be ourselves and make it look like we're going home to the palace tomorrow. Just act naturally and we should be fine."
"I just can't help thinking that there are so many things that might go wrong. Far too many people are part of the scheme and it only takes one of them to let something slip -"
"That's okay! Most of them only know a small part of the whole scheme anyway so I don't think a lot of damage can be done."
"But all it takes is for someone to notice something wrong and then wonder why. Wasn't there any other way of doing this?"
"There might have been but the King had to work with the circumstances we had. We'll manage, just you see."
The ferries across the Sirrel could operate at most states of the tide so it had been decided that the King's procession would set off from the castle after lunch had been taken. Terys hadn't approved of this because it would make having a nap difficult but Robanar had over-ruled her saying she could sleep on the ferry if she was really that tired.
So, with great fanfare, King, Queen and adopted daughter were loaded into their respective carriages and the whole procession of carriages, wagons, dranakhs, frayen, guardsmen and servants descended carefully from the south gate to the tiny harbor from which the ferries operated. There was the usual crowd clustered around the lower square waiting to bid farewell to their King and Queen but Garia and Merizel could barely see out of their carriage windows because of the number of guardsmen which surrounded it.
Since there were only two slips this side of the river it took longer to load the ferries and Garia's carriage was detained until there were sufficient guardsmen across the river to protect her when she arrived. It was well into the afternoon before her second crossing of the great river was complete and she looked forward to reaching the inn set aside for the female members of the party - and some food. To her surprise the carriage took her all the way to the door to ensure that she did not have to walk through the town.
Garia discovered over the evening meal that their situation had become complicated by the presence of the twins. Visselen's party had crossed the Sirrel at the same time as the royals and would depart along a separate road for Brikant in the morning. The girls cornered her after the meal.
"There's something going on, isn't there, Garia?"
"Shall you tell us? Or will we find out on our own?"
Garia's heart sank. If anyone could work out what was happening, it was those two. Worse, they would immediately spot the substitution in the morning, when...
"Come with me. We have to find the Queen."
They managed to find a small room where they could speak privately but it meant they all had to stand. Terissa outlined the discrepancies they had noticed and the odd words they had heard in passing. Terys sighed as she realized that she would have to tell the twins at least part of the plan.
"Girls, this is a decree of the King," she told them. The two immediately became silent and attentive. Once Terys had told them what was to happen they relaxed and became constructive.
"Ma'am, we would never knowingly do anything that might put Garia in danger," Dalenna said.
"Ah!" said Terissa brightly. "That's why that new maid... what was her name? That's who is going to take her place, isn't it?"
Garia and Terys looked at each other.
"I think you'll get on just fine with Milsy," Garia said. "All you have to do is act natural and don't whatever you do, call her anything else but Garia! Just treat her the exact same as you would treat me and everything should be fine."
"As you say, Garia."
"You two are supposed to be much smarter than your brother," Terys told them sternly. "Just make sure you are smart tomorrow morning."
The twins curtseyed. "Your Majesty," Terissa said, "we understand the plan and we wish Garia to be safe. We shall do all that we are able to, you may trust us."
Late that night three women approached the women's quarters with two men as bodyguards. Each of the women bore a covered basket from which fragrant fresh bread smells emanated. It seemed that some of the women within had not had time, because of the organization of the river crossing, to eat properly and desired an extra snack to compensate. The bodyguards stayed outside, talking to the palace guardsmen who surrounded the inn, while the women entered.
A short while later, the women came out of the inn, rejoined their bodyguards, and with a wave and some back-chat from the guardsmen, made their way into the town. Since only women had gone into the inn and emerged again, no-one thought anything of the episode.
Garia and Merizel followed their guide through the town to another inn. This one was further from the water's edge and built on to a large warehouse. They entered a side door and were led through dimly-lit corridors to an upstairs room.
"Let me get a look at you," their guide said, turning to face them. "Great Maker! You're both barely children! What's so important that Tanon has gone out of his way to get involved with you two, then?"
Their host was a woman in her thirties, with sandy hair and tanned skin indicating time spent on the road. She was dressed as Garia and Merizel now were, in woolen gowns of the kind often worn by those who worked the wagon routes.
"That's for the King to say," Garia said, and the woman became still."Do you know who I am?"
"No," the woman said - and then Garia pulled the wig from her head.
The woman's eyes widened. "Are you that... what those rumors were about... we was told you had a funny hair cut." Her expression shifted and she held up a hand. "No, I don't know your name - either of your names - and I'm not sure I want to. You might as well know mine, though. I'm Sukhana, and I'm... oh, here he is."
Garia turned as the door opened behind her. In came Jaxen, a smile on his face. He executed a bow towards the newcomers.
"'Ullo, princess. I see you got here safely."
Sukhana's eyes widened again, and she pointed at Garia. "She isn't -"
"No, she's not, although since she was adopted by the King any reasonable person might call her a princess." Jaxen grinned. "No, it's a private thing between me and her, from when we first met."
He turned to Garia. "This disreputable person, if you hadn't guessed, is my kid sister Sukhana. Everyone calls her Sookie, though. Since apparently I'm not trusted to look after someone who can certainly take care of herself, she'll be coming north with us as chaperone."
"What do you mean," Sukhana asked suspiciously, " 'someone who can take care of herself'?"
Jaxen just grinned again. "All in time, Sookie. Now, you two have eaten? Good. Let's find you somewhere to sleep and I suggest you get your heads down. In the transport business we start our days early. Oh, you'd better put that wig back on again until we find your beds."
"What did you mean," Sukhana repeated as they left the room, "when you said you'd met her before?"
"Ah," Jaxen smiled, "That's an interesting tale, indeed. Let's get these two settled and then I'll tell you all I know."
Garia was woken by the sound of booted feet walking the bare floorboards in the corridor outside their room. She lifted her head to find that it was just daylight, so far as the dim light coming in the dirty window could prove. On a narrow bed similar to her own across the room, Merizel snored freely.
The bed had been acceptable. Tanon was smart enough to ensure that whenever they could, his crews were able to at least get a decent night's sleep whenever they reached one of the depots he owned scattered about Palarand. It was a single bed, smaller than her bed at the palace, way smaller than the landing pad she and Merizel had shared in the castle. The mattress appeared to be stuffed with some kind of soft wool. Despite the strangeness of their arrival Garia had slept soundly.
There was a knock at the door, which halted Merizel's snores. A second knock and Garia replied, causing the door to open and Sukhana to appear carrying a jug of water.
"Here you are," she said quietly. "This will help you both to wake up properly. When you've dressed, come down the stairs and to your right, you'll find the kitchen where breakfast is waiting."
The water was hot and by the time Garia had poured some into the basin on the wash-stand and cleaned herself up, Merizel had sat up, rubbing her eyes. Very soon the pair had changed out of the simple nightdresses they had been given and back into the gowns they had worn the previous night. In the kitchen, a table was set for three.
"Is it just us here?" asked Garia. "Where does everyone else eat?"
"Huh. You do remember you're not supposed to be here at all, right? I'm to keep you out of sight of the men until we are ready to get you onto the wagon. That way nobody can ask stupid questions. Now, sit down and eat up."
Garia frowned at Sukhana's attitude but said nothing. The meal was simple but filling - and had to be eaten without the aid of a fork. There was fresh bread and fresh pel and Garia ended the meal feeling ready for the adventure to come. Once they had finished Sukhana gathered the plates and cleared the table before checking the hallway was clear.
"It's best if you go back to that room for now, so that you're out of the way until you're needed. I'll come and collect you once I've dealt with the men. Be about a bell."
Garia and Merizel sat on their beds wondering how the King's party was getting on. Including the usual hangers-on the whole procession was in excess of two hundred people and it would take some effort to get that many people, wagons and animals on the move again. Garia now understood why their departure from the castle had been timed as it had.
A knock on their door and Sukhana reappeared. "It's time," she said, and the two followed her down stairs and through corridors until they reached a covered space with two wagons being made ready in the middle. One had the standard frame and canvas roof that Garia was familiar with, the other was essentially a flatbed loaded with drums. Jaxen came and greeted them.
"Princess. Sleep well?"
"Thank you, Jaxen, yes."
Whatever Jaxen was about to say was lost as a man came round the end of the second wagon. He and Garia saw each other at the same time.
"Milady!" he blurted, shocked.
"D'Janik!" Garia said, and realized immediately that here was a situation that had to be handled swiftly... and carefully.
She strode purposefully across the floor of the loading bay, her face set. When she got to D'Janik she reached up and grabbed his tunic, twisting a fistful in her hand. She kept walking and the ex-guardsman was forced to stagger backwards in front of her until his progress was arrested by the wall.
She leaned up and said in a loud voice, "I know what you did to my sister! If you do that again I'll rip your balls out and stuff them down your neck!"
Behind her, everybody else stopped to watch the action. Jaxen took one step forward and then stopped, letting Garia decide how to handle the confrontation. D'Janik was a new member of the company, Jaxen knew that he had been discharged from the palace guard but it was over a matter of honor and in those cases the details were often not forthcoming.
Much more quietly, Garia spoke rapidly to D'Janik in the tongue of the Six Cities. "If you have any honor left in there at all, you'll do what you are supposed to and no more. This is the King's business and involves my safety. I want your oath that you'll say nothing of this to anyone."
"My Lady," D'Janik protested. Garia cut him off.
"There is no lady here," she said loudly enough for the others to hear. "You'll not get around me or my sister that way." Her brain whirled in a frenzy as she tried to think of a suitable alias to use. "My name is Buffy and no more than that. As you well know, my sister's name is... Karizma. Keep away from her or I'll do what I just promised."
"You have my oath... Buffy," the shaken ex-guardsman replied. "I pledge to keep you and your... sister safe, and I'll keep away from both of you when I can."
Jaxen chose that moment to saunter across to join them. The other men returned to their tasks.
"So, you two have had dealings before, then?"
"You could say that, sir," D'Janik replied shakily.
"Is this going to cause any difficulty for our journey? D'Janik, might you wish to join another crew?"
"No, sir," he said stiffly, standing straight. "I have given mi-, Buffy my oath. You may depend on me, sir."
"The oaths of K'Kjand are legendary. All right." Jaxen grinned. "She has some fire, hasn't she?"
"Sir, you have no idea."
"Back to work, then. Buffy, you and your... sister had better come with me and we'll get you settled."
Jaxen led Garia to the flatbed wagon where they were joined by Sukhana and Merizel. Garia looked at the drums doubtfully.
"You don't expect me to climb into one of those, surely?"
Jaxen briefly considered. "It's an idea, but not the way we usually do things. No, what we do is to stack the drums with some missing in the middle. That's where you'll be. Can you climb up, or do you need a hand?"
The drums were placed vertically in three columns, staggered so as to save space width-wise. There were usually three on each side and four along the middle. To lock them in place, planks with curved grooves cut in them located onto the tops of the drums and held them in place. Further grooves on the tops of the planks located two further columns of three drums. Garia clambered up and helped pull Merizel up and into the space where the center two drums would go. There were blankets to sit on and others to cover them if need be. At the far end was a flat bowl with a tightly-fitting lid and Garia hoped neither of them would have to make use of it.
Before the final drum was loaded, Garia called out, "Jaxen. Can you find us some forks, please?"
He grinned at them. "I'll do that, girl. Probably when we get to Dekarran. I know some people, there are favors I can pull in. Comfortable, now?"
"As we'll ever be."
The rearmost drum was hoisted into place and shut off their escape route. Once in position men climbed either side and placed planks, covering almost all of the space above them, then they heard more drums being loaded over the planks. Finally other sounds could be heard which puzzled Garia until she realized that a tarpaulin was being lashed down, protecting the whole cargo from river spray. Only tiny slots between the drums admitted light and air.
"This is going to be pleasant," muttered Merizel.
"Stop moaning! We're finally on our way north. Now, let's keep quiet in case someone hears our voices."
The wagon jolted into motion, and they were on their way back to the ferry.
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