Blackbird Flies: Chapter Six

Juggling

After a week, the weather cleared enough to allow the court guests to return home. Senara’s day-to-day slipped back into the usual routine of meetings with the chamberlain and her mother in the morning, followed by carrying out the tasks she was assigned as a result of these meetings. Every few days there was a salon for any nobles in the city. When those weren’t occurring, the rest of her mornings were spent either in meetings with her brother to be updated on current events or in the archives reading everything she could find on dragons and on gardening. Wes seemed amused by her pouring over all of the former, most of which she’d already read numerous times. He offered to send for more texts, but she declined, fearful the information would get back to her father somehow.

Afternoons were for lessons. There was archery, which Senara enjoyed but found somewhat lacking as she mastered the basics and her mother refused to let her progress to anything more advanced. Dancing, on the other hand, seemed a never-ending challenge of new steps and styles and trying to keep up with the latest craze among the court. She also had riding lessons, when the weather was fair, which was beginning to happen less often as winter crept closer. After all that, she must bathe and dress for dinner, unless by the goddess’ grace her father had other matters to attend to. Sometimes there was a play or gathering to attend after dinner, but for the most part, Senara’s evenings were her own, and she looked forward to them more and more with each passing day.

Despite its months of abandonment, the solarium only required a few nights of real work to be suitable for the egg. The result was a very pleasant refuge, and Senara reveled in it, spending a few hours there most evenings either reading or playing her flute while Eryl puttered about. They were in unspoken agreement that the egg should not be left unattended for too long. They had occasional conversations about the plants or the egg, but did not say much beyond that. Eryl seemed reluctant to stray too far beyond the bounds of his position and Senara enjoyed the break from all of the tedious discussions she had to endure throughout the day. The one exception to this was the subject of dragons. Sometimes Eryl would sit with her beside the egg and ask her to tell him what she knew about the creatures. While she suspected his motivation was to arm himself with knowledge for when the egg hatched, she appreciated his interest and respect for the subject matter. It did not escape her notice that the guard was coming by the solarium most days when he was off duty. He made sure to leave a little bit of work for Senara to do in the evenings, but it was clear he relished the project of restoring and then maintaining the solarium’s plant life.

Truth be told, those first two weeks were some of the happiest in Senara’s recent memory. The first time she leaned against the egg and realized it was radiating its own small amount of warmth, she felt a rush of regret greater than anything she could have explained. Eryl did not look thrilled about the development either. Still, it would be a relief to end the sneaking around. She didn’t like living in constant fear that her father would discover what she was doing. It had dawned on her too late that Eryl was taking an even greater risk, venturing to the solarium in the daytime despite it being forbidden to servants. If he was caught, the penalty would be severe, despite that he was acting under the princess’ command. She tried to bring the subject up with him once, but he dismissed her fears, promising that he was taking care not to be seen and that he would not reveal the egg if it came to it.

So when her father joined her morning session with Enyon, looking her over with close scrutiny, she feared the worst had occurred. Instead of raging about her duplicity, or even just berating her for claiming the solarium without asking, he informed her that all of her archery and riding lessons had been canceled for the foreseeable future, as had her meetings with the chamberlain.

“May I ask why?” She only just managed to keep her bafflement from showing.

“The Sovereign Prince of Astra is coming to Sunpeak in two weeks’ time to discuss a formal treaty of trade between our lands. He will be bringing his heir and several ranking members of his court. We must all therefore make every effort to prepare for their arrival and to ensure that nothing goes awry with their visit.”

“I see,” Senara answered. She bit the inside of her cheek, thinking that the dragon egg was likely to hatch right around then. As timing went, it was damned inconvenient. “What are my duties to be in preparation of their arrival?”

Her father inclined his head at her question. It was the closest thing to approval she might expect from him. “I want you to begin sitting in on our council sessions. I expect you to be up to date with all of the issues of the kingdom and our relationship with Astra so that there are no missteps when you are speaking with any of the delegation. This will also familiarize you with the terms of our proposed treaty. In addition, Archivist Kernow will be reviewing the history and customs of Astra with you for the same reason. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Father,” she said, bowing her head in acceptance. Her eyes flicked to her brother, and she wondered how much additional history he had to learn for this coming visit. Then again, he’d been privy to the council meetings for years. He was more than likely already caught up on anything relevant. At least this time he’s including me in the negotiations, she conceded, and not just tasking me to help Mother plan the welcome feast. She raised her head and met her father’s eyes. “Shall we begin today?”

“The council meeting begins on the fourteenth hour. Do not be late. You’ll meet with the archivist after lunch to begin your lessons about Astra.” She started to thank him but he wasn’t finished. “For the rest of the morning, you will assist your mother with her plans. I believe she mentioned a feast,” his lips twisted, “and a ball. You may go now, she’s expecting you in the great hall.”

“Thank you, Father,” Senara said, bowing her head again before rising. “Brother.” She bowed to Enyon and made her departure, doing her best to keep her irritation from her face.

Joining the council or planning the festivities for the visit, either one would eat up a large amount of her time. But both? Checking that she was alone in the corridor–her dour guard notwithstanding–Senara allowed herself an audible sigh. She wasn’t about to stop visiting the egg just because she had work to do. I suppose I shall just have to give up any hope of sleep until it hatches.

~~~

Astra sounded dreadful. Senara could handle the cold months in Sunpeak because she knew that they always came to an end, with spring and summer and months of sun. They had forests and rivers and lakes in addition to the plains that yielded abundant farm and pasture land. The smaller principality of Astra was located to the north and east of Sunpeak, situated on a plateau a good way up the mountains that bordered both countries. It might not be far in distance, but the change in altitude meant a wholly different climate. It was much colder all year round, for a start, and from the sound of things rained or snowed endlessly. She shivered just thinking about it. Glancing out a window as she exited a meeting with Enyon, she caught sight of stormclouds on the horizon and shivered again. Imagine this weather all of the time. I don’t know how anyone can live like that.

It wasn’t just the climate that Senara had trouble wrapping her mind around, though. Astrian customs were near to unfathomable. It was a much more rigid society than that of Sunpeak. The government was martial and citizens’ roles were determined by tradition and practicality rather than passion or talent. While she herself could relate to that, she felt there was a world of difference between imposing those expectations on rulers who must be trained for their role at an early age and expecting everyone else to know what they should do before they could walk or write their name. She winced. If they are allowed to learn to read and write, that is. She hurried to her next meeting and admitted to herself that maybe she was more inclined to feel uncharitable to the Astrians because they did not seem to see literacy as a necessary skill for all, but rather only offered it to those whose trade required it.

“There you are!” As soon as she stepped into her mother’s parlor, Senara’s arm was seized and she found herself dragged to stand in front of a set of mirrors.

“Mother?” Senara glanced at the queen in confusion as a young woman with a measuring tape approached. “What’s this? I thought we were going over the menu for the feast this afternoon.”

“We will, but Mistress Cavale was only available for your fitting this afternoon. She is the finest seamstress in the city and in much demand right now, what with everything. I knew you wouldn’t mind if she took your measurements while we work.”

Mistress Cavale did not say anything, just got on with her own work. She took Senara’s wrist and lifted her arm, gesturing for her to do the same with the other, her tape flashing in the corner of Senara’s eyes as she tried to catch her mother’s gaze. “May I ask what the fitting is for, Mother?”

The queen laughed, a tinkling sound of pure amusement. Even Mistress Cavale paused and glanced up at Senara, one eyebrow arched. “Why dear,” her mother said, shaking her head with a fondness that Senara was certain was only adopted for Mistress Cavale’s benefit, “surely you recall that there is a ball next week? You’re going to need a new gown if you’re to look your best when greeting our guests!”

“Forgive me, Mother,” Senara managed while the measuring tape went around her forehead. “I suppose with everything going on, my wardrobe hadn’t occurred to me.”

“Lucky for you, it occurred to me!” Jenifry laughed again. “Oh, make sure you measure her feet for the cobbler as well, please. She’ll need new boots.” To Senara, “Not for the ball, of course! Mistress Cavale is also going to make you some other things. Your winter wardrobe is frightfully out of fashion.”

“Of course. Thank you.” Senara plastered a pleasant expression on her face, burying her frustration as deep down as it would go. “Shall we discuss the menu, then?”

~~~

“Three hours for a fitting! I’ve never had to endure the like!” Senara gave a hard yank on a resisting weed and almost fell over backwards. Eryl caught her and set her back upright. “If I didn’t know any better,” she told him, pushing a lock of hair out of her face and smacking herself with the weed in the process, “I’d think she was planning a whole new wardrobe.”

“Would that be a bad thing?” Eryl asked, his voice cautious. “A new wardrobe might be nice, right?” He picked at his guard tunic and shrugged. “I don’t really get much say in mine.”

Senara sighed, sitting back on her knees. “I don’t either, actually, although I suppose I have more of a range to choose from at least. It’s not bad, just strange. They must really be trying to impress the Astrians.” She leaned in to tug at another weed. “How do these keep getting in here, anyway?”

“I think they’re leftover from having the windows open for so long.” Eryl pounced on the change of subject. “It will take us at least a season to eradicate them.”

Senara hid a smile at his use of “us.” The boundaries between them were in a strange state because of their shared secret, but he tried to remain professional most of the time. When they were working with the plants or discussing the egg, though, he tended to forget what she was and treated her like anyone else. She loved those moments, especially now, when she was so wrapped up in her royal duties. He listened to her complaints, it was true, but he never commented on them unless she asked for his thoughts. As nice as it was to have someone with whom she could voice her frustrations, she much preferred when he actually engaged in the discussion. Wanting to keep the conversation going, and to distract herself from her increasing frustration with the palace preparations, she searched her mind for something else to ask him. “Aren’t there things we can use to kill the weeds and prevent more from taking root? I could swear the palace gardeners have something like that.”

Eryl nodded. “Yes, but the Alchemist makes it specially for them. I haven’t been able to find anything similar in the markets.”

“That’s too bad. Maybe after the egg hatches, I can ask the Alchemist to make some for the solarium.” They both glanced at egg in question. It had grown steadily warmer in the past week but showed no other signs of imminent hatching.

“It’s all right,” Eryl said, glancing back at her. “I don’t mind the work.” He leaned down, trying to reach a weed hiding in the back of the bed, and the end of his plait slipped over his shoulder.

Senara was overcome with a strong urge to brush it back into place. She cleared her throat, clenching her fingers to fight the impulse, and rose to go sit beside the egg. What was that about? Surely it was just habit. She was so used to trying to keep her own unruly hair in place that she now found herself tempted to do the same for Eryl. Not that his hair was unruly in any way. She’d never once seen a single hair out of place on his head–the smooth red strands stayed in place no matter how much of a sweat he worked up gardening. She envied him his obedient locks, and its reasonable length. Maybe if hers was only to her shoulder blades, too, it would be easier to maintain. Her mother insisted she keep her own hair down to her waist, which was “only appropriate for a lady of her station.” But if she wore it down, it never failed to be an utter disaster of tangles and knots, so she was ordered to keep it braided and pinned so tightly that it made her head ache. Even so, it never stayed in place. She was forever repinning loose strands, tucking errant locks behind her ear, or brushing it out of her face. Her mother despaired of Senara ever looking properly put together, and was not shy about voicing it.

“I think that about does it for tonight,” Eryl said, moving to join her beside the egg. “Did you want to stay for a while longer or head back to your rooms, your Highness?”

It was the closest he could bring himself to telling her she looked like she needed rest. She offered him a wry smile and rolled her shoulders. “I suppose I should try to get some sleep tonight.” She hugged the egg and stood, patting the shell. “I won’t see you tomorrow,” she told it, “but I’ll be back the next night. Stay warm, little one.”

Eryl was surprised enough by the change in her schedule to ask, “What’s tomorrow, your Highness?”

“A special council dinner,” Senara answered without much enthusiasm. They cleaned up at the water pump and left the solarium, Eryl putting out the lanterns. “I forgot you weren’t in the room when Father told me,” she apologized.

His face went blank as they stepped into the corridor, and he fell a step behind her, answering in a low tone, “Thank you for updating me, your Highness.”

She found herself irritated by this for some reason. “Eryl. Don’t do that.” Senara frowned and stopped, turning to face him. His eyebrows rose, but it was the only hint of his surprise.

“Your Highness?”

“Don’t act like I shouldn’t have already told you. At the very least, you needed to know so you can check on the egg before tomorrow evening. You deserve the courtesy of me considering your schedule.”

He looked at a loss for words. After a few minutes, he answered, picking out his words with clear care. “I check on the egg every afternoon, your Highness. You do not need to worry for its safety. I understand the gravity of our secret.” His use of “our” mollified her, even if he was ignoring her actual point. She pursed her lips and stared at him for several long moments but he made no other reply.

“Thank you,” she said at last, giving up on trying to get him to resume his friendliness outside of the solarium. She turned and led the way back to her rooms, feeling very tired all of a sudden.

It’s probably for the best anyway, she reminded herself. You can’t actually be friends with each other. Once the dragon hatches, everything will have to go back to the way it was. He knows that, and he’s just trying to make it easier.

But why did admitting that to herself feel so much like giving up?

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