Season 1, Episode 8
Written by Tof Eklund
Read by Tawn Krakowski
Spring came and, once again, the songbirds nested in my windowsill. Before long, a single, blue-shelled egg decorated the nest with new life. I found myself smiling at this good omen every morning. We’d had a shortage of good omens, so I held this one close.
The egg did put me in mind of Brinna, whom I had neither seen nor heard from since that frantic midnight visit. With a little trepidation, I stopped a maid and asked after her. The maid curtseyed, politely replied that she was no longer in service, and retreated before I could ask any more questions.
Later that day, while I was still mulling over how to pursue the matter, a chambermaid I hadn’t seen before walked straight up to me in an empty hallway. Her complexion reminded me of Brinna but she was lankier, and her face more narrow. I would have walked around her if she hadn’t stopped me by simultaneously curtsying and clearing her throat. She looked straight at me, then down, and began fidgeting. Finally, she spoke.
“My name is Lily, milady. I heard you were asking after Brinna.”
I sighed. That probably meant that my query had already been shared among all of the maids, and most likely the rest of the servants as well.
Lily continued. “After the ice melted…Brinna, she went home.”
Lily paused and looked at me again, as if waiting for a signal. I wondered what she was expecting me to say. I gave an encouraging nod, which apparently was good enough.
“She and I, we’re from the same village. Brinna, she tells me everything.”
Another pause, then Lily smiled and leapt at me. I found myself enveloped in a surprisingly strong embrace. Lily’s head dropped onto my chest, and she began weeping.
“Thank you, milady. Thank you for what you done for her. Thank you.”
As abruptly as it began, the hug ended. Lily backed up a step and wiped her eyes and running nose on her cotton-gloved forearm. She blinked out one more tear, then smiled again, turned, and left the way she had come.
I stood there for a while, bemused. My thoughts and feelings were in conflict, as they had so often been of late. I thought that I should be horrified to see my dangerous secret bandied about by the servants, but all I felt was a sense of smug satisfaction.
The eighteenth year is not of any particular significance in Thrycae, but the King and Queen decided to make a big event out of Kaye’s birthday anyway, proclaiming a grand tournament and a week of feasting in his honor.
In the lead up to the festivities, the palace was abuzz with rumors that the festivities were the prelude to an engagement announcement, with speculation as to who the bride might be running the entire gamut of unmarried daughters of minor nobility, and fixing mainly on women who were “flawed” enough in the eyes of Thrycaen society to marry a cripple.
My status as a social leper was insufficient to shield me from this deluge of rumors, and I couldn’t help noticing that, throughout the festivities, he was introduced to a steady stream of single women: unmarried older daughters, widows, wall-eyed hemophiliacs and, scandalously, a commoner, the daughter of one of the Kingdom’s most successful merchants. I couldn’t help but look upon these women with irritation. They were victims of Thrycaen society in their own way, but they all treated Kaye like an object or an invalid, and wasted his time with half-witted small talk.
Kaye participated in the falconry competition and, while I skipped the jousting and feats of strength, I attended every round of that competition. His rapport with his falcon Orestes was impressive, seemingly instinctual, and I felt he deserved the grand prize in falconry, but that went to a minor noble with a well-maintained gray beard who everyone, including Kaye, seemed to revere. The gray-bearded noble, a man named Actaeon, commended Kaye, and my prince nearly glowed with pride.
After the competition, I walked with him as he crutched along, stopping regularly to pet and praise Orestes.
“I’d like to do something for Orestes, but he’s as pampered as I am. Maybe I’ll get a new glove, as he’s nearly shredded this one, but that’s more of a gift to myself, to spare me scratches.” He paused. “What about you, Yelen? Would you like a new pair of gloves?”
I looked at my hands, checking for signs of wear. The silk was still strong, but somewhat faded, and a few of the small garnet-grapes had come loose, but with a little care, the Queen’s gift still had years of use left in them. “I thought you liked these gloves,” I replied.
Kaye managed to look sharp and sheepish at the same time. “You’ve worn nothing else for over a year, Yelen. Do you even have a spare pair?”
I shook my head.
“Well, then,” Kaye replied, “new gloves for the both of us. Besides, while that pair is very nice, the style is… a little old-fashioned, you know?”
Orestes leapt off of Kaye’s wrist and fluttered to the ground about twenty feet away. Exchanging curious looks, Kaye and I followed. When we caught up with him, he was nudging the body of a smaller bird with his beak.
“Orestes!” Kaye barked, slapping his bare left hand against the leather padding on his right wrist. The falcon returned to his accustomed perch, but his eyes were still fixed on the smaller bird. “What were you up to, eh, featherhead?” he scolded.
“I don’t think he was going to eat it,” I replied, looking at the fallen robin. “Oh, it’s like the songbirds that nest in my windowsill.”
Kaye gave me a quizzical look. “It’s a Thrycaen lovebird, female. They’re normally very shy. It’s said that if one nests in your eaves, it means you’ll have healthy babies.”
“Oh,” I repeated, covering my ignorance by kneeling near the lovebird. “Well, this one isn’t going to have any more babies.” The bird’s breast was scored with nasty-looking claw wounds. The tiny chest didn’t rise or fall.
“Orestes didn’t do that,” Kaye stated the obvious, peering over my shoulder. “But those wounds were made by falcon claws. Probably someone let their bird free to hunt and called it back before it could make off with its kill. Come on, Yelen, let’s go. It’s almost time for the banquet.”
At the feast, the last and largest of the Holiday, the King stood and made a short speech praising Kaye’s accomplishments. For once, King Lycius seemed pleased with his son, though his attention soon turned back to Kaye’s younger brother. Prince Nestor, now a hyperactive eight-year-old who broke all his toys, was very excited about birding. Lycius promised to start teaching him when he turned ten, and I prayed silently that the Goddess would give the boy a measure of patience before then.
Kaye was then seated near the head at the table, between the merchant’s daughter and a single noblewoman with a lazy eye in a dress that was a sickly shade of green. I gritted my teeth as I took my seat much further down the long table.
I remember almost nothing of the food, as I found myself staring at the merchant’s daughter, who was clearly showing off her over-decorated gloves: they were white, but you could barely tell, for all of the gold braid, diamonds, and pearls. She also kept touching him, her glittering glove alighting for a moment on his arm or shoulder.
During the fish course, I saw her hand drop beneath the table. Those gloves caught and reflected so much light, it was like watching the sun set. A moment later, Kaye jumped, then pushed his chair back from the table with his hands, almost tumbling over backwards in the process. Conversation lurched to a stop as Kaye, his face suddenly red, turned and glared at that woman.
Her face fell, then soured. She stood straight up, and I thought she was going to say something, but she must have thought better of it as she turned and flounced out of the room, taking her hideous gloves with her. I saw Queen Theobel bury her head in her hands.
Things had barely settled down by the dessert course. Great glass bowels of trifle were brought out and served to everyone but Kaye. Then the King stood and spoke again, bragging about a rare delicacy from the neighboring kingdom of Saponia, some glazed custard made with almonds and crocus pollen. The latter was the prize ingredient, as it has supposedly been a favorite of the High King and was usually reserved for the consumption of Saponia’s own nobility.
A door opened and a manservant entered with a small, finely decorated porcelain bowl on a golden tray. The servant’s graceful stride was interrupted when a guard came tumbling through the doorway and fell into the server, sending the bowl and tray flying. The tray clattered to the floor noisily and, a moment later, the bowl struck the stone pavers and shattered.
The king rose and bellowed, “Imbecile! Fool! I’ll have you flogged!”
I saw the guard’s face as he winced at those words. With shock, I realized it was Geoff.
Geoff rose to one knee, a position of obeisance, and helped the manservant into the same pose. The King’s tirade ended suddenly, as Kaye placed a placating hand upon his father’s forearm.
Kaye, unable to stand, spoke in a resonant voice that carried across the hall and made up for his lack of physical presence. “Please, Father, let no-one suffer for their clumsiness this day. I know, better than most, how much of a burden the body can be.” He reached for the nearest bowl of trifle and, after a considerate Lord nudged it a bit closer, he served himself. Raising a spoonful of the confection, he continued, “I wish no special consideration. Let us all be merry today.”
He then began to eat, and all around the table courtiers took that as sign to dig in. Lycius’ face was bent down into a frown, but he waved Geoff and the clearly terrified servant away, then sat down to his own desert.
No further announcements of any sort were made that evening.
© 2012 Copyright Tof Eklund
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