M. K. CASPERSON
I swear there’s a hundred more!
Safira Morren gazed at the throng of players pouring in from the road. In all her life, she had never seen such an attendance to Alemira’s birthday. Since the start of the tradition, her ladyship’s party had been a happy but predictable affair, with feasting, dancing, games, shows, and merchant booths, following the same comfortable pattern each year.
What could have caused this? Safira marveled, pushing the loose wisps of brown hair from her face and tucking them back into the high coil.
“There are so many!” Acinath murmured beside her, blue eyes wide. “I had no idea there would be this many!”
“Well, there never is,” Safira pointed out, returning her attention to the backdrop they were setting up for some visiting performers. Gripping the rope, she hiked the fabric up on one side, securing it in place whilst Acinath hiked up the other side.
“I heard that there would be,” Acinath said, dusting off her hands. The rope was appallingly dirty. “I heard Haughten talking about the inn filling up. Almost all his rooms are taken! Mathias is to thank, I hear.”
Frowning, Safira handed her sister the end of a second cloth, walking backward with the other. As one, they shook it out, the painted pattern becoming substantially brighter as the dust flew away. Coughing, Safira grimaced. This group of actors clearly didn’t use their things very often. “Mathias?”
Sneezing, Acinath laughed, waiting until the dust cleared before bringing her end to meet Safira’s. “That’s right.”
Perturbed, Safira studied her sister for a moment. Three years her junior, Acinath had always been the beauty of the family. Well-figured, she was genuinely lovely, with calm blue eyes, rich brown hair, and the purest heart to be found. Kind to everyone, she was nevertheless wise; the ideal character, in Safira’s mind. That hadn’t saved her from a bad love story, however.
“He’s coming back, you know,” Safira commented.
“Today!” Acinath nodded, unruffled as she smiled knowingly at her elder sister. “You need not worry for me, Safira; it was four years ago! Much too long for me to remember such things. Trust me, he’ll be just as eager to ignore me as I am to ignore him.”
Safira didn’t argue, turning away to tidy up the stray boxes and bags, hiding them behind the stage.
“So do you think Atia will be sorry?” Acinath asked, changing the subject.
Safira shrugged, annoyed again by the thought. “Not sorry enough that she’ll change. This isn’t the first time, after all. Why would it be the last? I only hope she’s made up for it at home.”
Nodding, Acinath scanned the Green. Aside from the players’ stalls, almost everything had been done. Her eyes paused briefly on the platform where the Grimnors would sit. Four chairs this year instead of three. Mathias was indeed coming home.
Perhaps he’s already arrived, Acinath thought. Maybe earlier this morning.
“Atia’s here!” Mara cried, running up suddenly. At seven years, she was the youngest sister, with a happy face and brown hair. “And Elise. And Mavaya.”
“Are they indeed?” Safira mused, face darkening, arms folding, eyes turning to where Mara pointed.
There, coming along one of the many forest trails and emerging from the trees, was their small wagon and pony, led by Elise and Mavaya and followed by Atia.
“Patience,” Acinath whispered to her elder sister, fighting back a grin.
The wagon stopped on the edge of the Green, still under the dappled shade of the leafy branches. Unloading the twins and setting them on their feet, Elise and Mavaya approached with a flower basket on either arm. Atia trailed behind with the last, face a bit red.
“Glad you could make it, Atia,” Safira said, words sarcastic but tone deadly.
Wincing, Atia deliberated. “I…can explain.”
“No need! I can already guess. I’ve heard it a thousand times.”
“I’m sorry!” Atia exclaimed. “I am!”
Safira gazed at her sternly for a moment, then sighed and shook her head, reaching for one of Elise’s baskets. “Ready to start, then?”
“Ready!” Elise smiled. “Mavaya, do you have the ribbon?”
The fifteen-year-old produced a spool from her apron pocket.
“Let’s do it over here.” Safira lead her family to the shade of a maple tree. Settling down, the sisters worked quietly for a while, sharing the many blooms as they crafted the ordered bouquets, Mara keeping watch over the twins nearby, their bubbly voices echoing across the Green and mingling with the chirps of birds overhead.
Safira chuckled. “Nius looks more like Arthen every day.”
“Acts like him, too,” Elise replied, smiling. “Beastly.”
Mavaya and Acinath laughed. Atia laughed too, but less heartily, mind already wandering as she matched blossoms together. The players and merchants were still busy and would likely remain so until late afternoon, setting up their stages and wares for tomorrow’s affair. Though there seemed to be more than usual, many were still the same, and as Atia watched in bored fascination, she wondered silently if these and the folk from the nearby villages were the only people from beyond the Basin that she’d ever see. It seemed wrong that they would be. After all, the time would come when she’d strike out on her own. They couldn’t all stay on the farm forever, and Atia highly doubted there was anyone in Chesstel who could hold her fancy long enough to persuade her to stay. In three years, she’d be twenty, which was certainly old enough to live on her own.
“All done, then?” Safira asked, interrupting Atia’s scheming.
With a start, the young woman glanced around, realizing the others had already finished. Hastily, she finished her bunch, adding the remaining flowers and tying the stems with ribbon.
“This is the sweetest tradition of them all,” Acinath giggled, setting her final bouquet down with the rest. “I wish I could ever see Alemira’s face when Sir Grimnor gives her these. We should probably send them right away. Didn’t he want them before noon?”
“Yes, he did.” Safira got to her feet, thrusting a loose hairpin back into her bun. “I’ll take them. You brought the water canisters, right, Elise?”
“In the wagon.”
“May I come?” Mavaya sat up eagerly.
Atia covertly rolled her eyes. Mavaya took whatever chance she could to see Loma. Now that was a friendship Atia would never understand.
Safira shrugged, gathering up two baskets. “Why not? Let’s get these bouquets into water.”
At dusk, people sprang from thin air and strolled the once-deserted streets. The inn became more populated. Sitting at his table, Dethar eyed the bursting room with perplexity.
So, Chesstel was not a ghost town after all.
The innkeeper had appeared, putting to rest Dethar’s fears of the inn being a female-run establishment, though the woman’s husband didn’t seem altogether bright, anyway. Dethar had learned their names by now. Haughten was the innkeeper and his wife was Temilda. Their daughter, Leanne, was waiting tables. She seemed a bit of a weakling, panting heavily as she rushed back and forth.
Refreshed from his languid afternoon, Dethar stayed at his table long after finishing his meal, enjoying the flickering candlelight while he waited for the bits and pieces of gossip to form a cohesive narrative. Several of the customers were not locals; he picked that out quickly. He found no real explanation for Chesstel’s behavior, however, until almost everyone had either gone home or gone upstairs to their rooms.
A man entered the tavern, sporting two metal pauldrons and a blue tunic appliqued with a brown falcon.
“Fabin!” Haughten cried. “Come in, man! Take a seat!”
“Evening, Haughten.” The soldier smiled. He looked middle-aged, with brittle, brown hair and large arms. He took a seat at the table the innkeeper was scrubbing. “How go the preparations?”
“Fine, just fine. Everything’s ready. Temilda and Leanne have been here all day, working on our addition to our lady’s birthday lunch. Temilda’s fixed those cherry pies of hers. Lady Alemira took the time to compliment her again last year. We wouldn’t dare show our faces tomorrow without them!” There was no hiding the pride in Haughten’s voice.
Fabin grinned. “I just hope you told her to fix more than usual. Her ladyship isn’t the only one who enjoys them.”
“You were not at the Green,” Haughten observed. “Busy at the barracks, I suppose. Shame.”
Temilda gravitated from the bar and handed their guest a mug. “Tell me, husband, how do the floral arrangements around the platform look? I heard the Morrens would be helping again this year, and they have the prettiest flower garden, not to mention one of the largest!”
Dethar waved his finger back and forth through his candle flame and wondered briefly if setting the tavern on fire would be amusing enough to attempt.
“Ah, yes, the flowers look better than ever!” Haughten exclaimed. “I say, those Morren girls have really pulled through it all. How many years has it been since their parents died? Five years? Six? In addition to Arthen Brightscar, of course. How long since his death?”
Dethar’s finger froze mid-flame.
“Three years,” Temilda said sadly. “Poor man—and at such a young age, too! He was hardly three and twenty!”
Fabin nodded, rubbing his bristly chin. “Hard to expect much else of a wanderer, though.”
Had he heard right? Dethar took his finger away, unharmed.
“Well, his sons will carry on his good name,” Haughten said. “Brightscar; an interesting name to own. Those boys will be soldiers, just you wait.”
“Soldiers?” Temilda cried.
Fabin laughed. “Aye, with a name like that, they should, Haughten. I wonder how Arthen came by it. Guess he was a wanderer, though. Probably not a proper family name, at any rate.”
Dethar’s mind was racing. Arthen Brightscar. What a strange twist of fate that he should stumble upon the hometown of his most hated enemy. That man had done more to hinder his work than anyone. Dethar wasn’t sure how, but Arthen had seemed to know everything about him, from what he was to where he was to what he meant to do. Dethar had tried to catch him, and Arthen had tried to catch Dethar, but somehow they always missed each other, and never managed to defeat one another in battle. Arthen had disappeared suddenly, however, and until now Dethar hadn’t known what had become of him.
Dead, hmm? So that’s how you managed to escape my grasp. You’ll rue the day when peace came to you, leaving your family open to my whims. A bitter glee filled his heart as he listened eagerly for more.
“Will the sisters be there tomorrow?” Fabin asked.
“After all the work they put in? Of course!” Haughten cried. “I expect they’ll be there for the whole affair! Dancing, eating, speeches, everything!”
“This year will prove more exciting than the rest, I expect,” Fabin said, “what with the extra players from the Radamor. We’ll see what their take on the Song is like. I’ve heard the Hekvets have a unique interpretation.”
“Such a shame Mathias had to turn out bad.” Haughten lowered his voice discreetly. “He was the one who arranged it, you know. Wanted to make his mother’s birthday extra special. The general assumption is it’s because he’s been away for so long. A real shame, indeed. He was such a fine lad, to begin with.”
“Or so we thought,” Temilda said boldly. “Who knows how many girls the shameless boy enjoyed? Imagine, having a child out of wedlock! And where is the mother now? Sent off in humiliation to support their child alone, no doubt! Drops her like the spoiled noble he is, and then turns around and expects Acinath to marry him? Of all the pigheaded—”
“Temilda, please!” Haughten interrupted, cringing apologetically at Fabin.
The soldier shrugged and grimaced. “I won’t speak ill of the noble family, but his being there tomorrow was why I wondered if the Morrens would come. We can only hope the young man has learned better.”
Satisfied that there was nothing of worth left to hear, Dethar dropped a few coins on the table—payment for his dinner—and then headed to his room, already planning his vindictive scheme.