Blackbird Flies: Chapter Seven

Delegation

Senara wasn’t sure how treaty discussions could be tedious and fascinating at the same time, but somehow, they were. From the looks she and Enyon shared during the council meetings that filled the next week, he felt much the same. She loved learning all of the details behind the production of Sunpeak’s various trade goods and how they were weighed against what Astra had to offer. Trying to find the best exchange to offer in order to please both parties was its own sort of puzzle and Senara was happy to tackle the challenge. Dealing with the lords and merchants in charge of the actual goods and trades, however, was another matter altogether. She almost wondered if her father had decided to test the limits of her patience.

“I wish Father would have brought you in on these sessions years ago,” Enyon told her as they took lunch together after a grueling session. “You’ve got a real head for it. You might have saved us a lot of back and forth on that Sea Silk from the Dusk Isles last winter.”

She beamed under the compliment, ducking her head to hide her pleased reaction. “Hopefully I can help contribute to a solid treaty with Astra, at least.”

“I’m sure you will,” Enyon answered. A strange note in his voice caused her to look up, catching an expression on his face that she couldn’t decipher. He cleared his throat and smiled. “At any rate, the Astrians will be here tomorrow. I’m ready for all of our hard work to pay off!” He raised his glass in her direction and she returned the gesture.

The conversation stuck with her for the rest of the day. Her mind kept circling back to Enyon’s comment that she could have been sitting in on council sessions already. Should have been, really. Enyon started when he was sixteen. Why had her father waited three years longer with her? As second child she was the heir’s second-in-command. She was meant to shadow him on all of his duties so that she could properly fill her role, or, goddess-forbid, step in as heir should anything happen to Enyon before he was crowned.

“I just don’t understand why Father is bringing me in on all of this now,” she told Eryl that night as they rested on either side of the egg, soaking up some of its warmth, despite the now balmy air of the solarium.

Sensing she needed a reply, he offered, “Better late than never?”

“Maybe.” Senara twisted the hem of her tunic. “But if I’m being honest? From a practical standpoint, it doesn’t make sense for him to bring a novice in for such crucial negotiations. He should be starting me off with small things, like settling disputes between citizens or reviewing existing trade agreements for potential changes. But he’s making a point of making sure I know as much about the Astrians and how to deal with them as possible. Then there’s the fact that I know he and Enyon aren’t including me on everything yet. They’re still having their own meet–moon and stars! Eryl, did you see this?”

“See what, your Highness?”

“This! Here, look.” She leaned around in front of the egg, tracing her finger along a small fissure in the shell. Eryl leaned over as well, their heads almost colliding as he tried to see what she was pointing at.

“Is that…?”

“It is!” She said, unable to contain her excitement. “It’s starting! We did it!”

“I guess we did,” he said, offering her a brief smile as he reached up to trace the fissure himself. “How long do you think it takes from here? Will it hatch during the delegation’s visit?”

Senara’s face fell. “Oh, goddess, I hope not!” There were so many reasons that would be a terrible thing. She rested her forehead on the shell. “I really cannot wait to meet you, little one, but perhaps just a bit longer?” Meeting Eryl’s eyes she tried to regain her enthusiasm. “I think at least another two or three weeks though, this is only one fissure. We should be all right. Right?”

Something shifted in his expression and he gave her shoulder a quick squeeze. “Whatever happens, your Highness, we’ll make it work.”

“Thank you, Eryl.” She patted the shell again, not looking at him. “I hope you know how much I appreciate all of your assistance these past few weeks. How much I appreciate you.” She really could not have done this without him, and something told her she would need far more of his help in the days to come.

Eryl cleared his throat. “Thank you, your Highness.”

They sat there a while longer, leaning against the egg. Maybe it was just her imagination, but Senara could have sworn she felt the dragon shift within to lean back.

~~~

“His royal Highness, Sovereign Prince Gram Ek of Astra.” Prince Gram was an imposing figure as he strode into the great hall. He stopped before her parents and gave them a polite bow of his head, made a nod of respect to Enyon, and ran an assessing gaze over Senara before stepping aside and gesturing behind him.

“My son.”

The herald called out again, “His royal Highness, Prince Hakon Ek of Astra.”

Hakon was ten centimeters shorter than his father, and slimmer of build, but no less imposing. His ice-blue eyes went straight to Senara as he joined his father. Something about the smile he gave her set her nerves on edge. It was there and gone in a flash, and Hakon bowed to her parents and brother. “We thank you for welcoming us into your court, your Majesties.” His voice was smooth and confident and…smug. Senara fought a frown.

“The pleasure is ours, your Highnesses,” the queen greeted them with, Senara was surprised to see, true warmth. “Your arrival signals the beginning of a great friendship between both our nations, I am sure of it.”

“Yes,” her father joined in. “We welcome you, and thank you for coming. Although Prince Enyon and I are eager to begin discussions of our treaty, I am sure you are both weary from your travels. The chamberlain will show you to your rooms so that you may rest until dinner.”

“Thank you,” Gram said with another bow of his head. He looked relieved at the suggestion.

“We’ve prepared a grand feast for this evening,” her mother chimed in, beaming at them. “I hope it will make you feel well at ease here. Princess Senara was instrumental in planning it.” Senara resisted the urge to shoot her mother a questioning look. She’d helped plan the feast, yes, but she would never had said she was instrumental. Her confusion deepened when her mother added, to Hakon, “She will be happy to answer any questions you might have about the cuisine while we dine, your Highness.”

Hakon’s eyes shot to Senara, again with that off-putting smile. “I shall look forward to it.” He bowed to her parents again. “Until dinner.”

The princes made their exit and Senara had to fight to keep her expression pleasantly neutral. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she was missing something.

Whatever it was, something told her she wasn’t going to like it.

She wasn’t given time to dwell on the oddity. As soon as the rest of the delegation was introduced and shown to their rooms, her mother swept Senara off to her own rooms to dress for dinner. This wasn’t something that should take an hour, but the queen seemed convinced that it would. She even caught a wince of sympathy from her daytime guard as she was ushered into a mass of maids armed with brushes, combs, pins, layers of garments, and makeup.

Even for the most important of events, Senara had never been subjected to such intense preparations. Getting into the gown was bad–it required three maids to do up all of the laces and buttons–but by far the worst was her hair. It was brushed until it gleamed and was pronounced tangle-free. Then a maid worked some kind of cream into its length, promising that would keep it in place for once in her life. Senara was skeptical, but the maids pressed on, using heated rods to curl her tresses. Half of it was left to fall down her back, pearl-strung ribbons woven through the strands. The other half was piled on top of her head in elaborate curls, each one held in place with a jewel-tipped pin. She was afraid if she got too close to the lanterns, she’d dazzle everyone so much they wouldn’t be able to see their meals. While her hair was assembled, another maid hovered around her face, touching it up with powders and pastes. The makeup, at least, was minimal, just enough to highlight her eyes and cheekbones, and a dash of color on her lips. Still, when she was finally allowed near the mirror, she couldn’t recognize herself in the elegant, extravagant girl that stood before her.

“You look beautiful, your Highness,” one of the maids gasped as she took in the final picture.

“Thank you,” she answered out of sheer habit. As she looked at her reflection, she had to work very hard to put a pleasant smile on her face. She hated what she saw with a burning passion she couldn’t even begin to explain. Every last bit of it felt wrong somehow, right down to the fact that the cream seemed to be doing its job. Every strand of her hair lay exactly where it had been artfully placed.

Senara thought maybe she hated that part most of all.

~~~

“Princess Senara, you are a vision!” Hakon greeted her as she arrived outside of the dining hall. Again, with that grating smile, he offered her an arm. “I believe we are to be seated beside each other this evening. Shall we go in together?”

“That would be lovely,” Senara agreed, taking his arm and letting herself be led. She sent a silent prayer of thanks to the goddess for a lifetime of training in keeping up a pleasant appearance in public, no matter how she truly felt inside.

When they reached their seats, she was annoyed to find they had been placed on the far end of the table from her family and Hakon’s father. She felt alone in a sea of Astrians as Hakon assisted her into her seat amid the other members of Gram’s party. Gram was engaged in deep conversation with her father and Enyon and she felt a flash of frustration at being cut out of the discussion. Her lessons leading up to the delegation’s arrival allowed her to make small talk with her fellow dining companions, and Hakon seemed particularly eager to get to know her. “I understand you play the flute, your Highness?”

“I do. I have played since I was a young girl.”

“Perhaps you would be so kind as to play for me?”

Senara blinked. She took a sip of wine to buy a moment for recovery, then smiled at Hakon. “Of course, your Highness. I would be delighted to, assuming we find the time in between negotiations.”

“Oh, I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that.” He flicked his eyes to the head of the table and turned back to her with a smile, this one smug. “They’ll handle all the details without us, Senara.” The way he said her name made her skin crawl, as if he was testing the taste of it on his tongue. “That leaves us with nothing to do but get to know one another better.” He leaned in closer, lowering his voice as if he was letting her in on a secret. “I confess I was apprehensive about the match when Father told me about it, but you’ve allayed my worries.”

Through the layers of her gown, she felt something warm and heavy settle on her knee and realized it was Hakon’s hand. She wanted nothing more in the world than to recoil from his touch and his expectant gaze, but at that moment her mother glanced down to her end of the table and their eyes met. Her mother smiled and gave her a friendly nod, but her eyes were hard and cold. Senara had no trouble discerning the message. She was expected to play nice, and anything else was unacceptable.

“I’m pleased to hear that, your Highness,” Senara managed, the lie sounding more natural than she feared it would when forming the words. Frantic to redirect the conversation and buy herself time to collect her thoughts, she asked, “Perhaps you might be willing to tell me about some of your favorite places in Astra?”

“No need for that,” Hakon laughed and took a long sip of his wine. “I will show them all to you once we head home next month.” He smiled again, that same smile she’d been unable to place before. This time she had no difficulty recognizing it for what it was–the smile of someone looking at a prized possession.

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