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sklandor

The Gryphon's Game: Chapter Four (final version, srsly)

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Dec. 6th, 2005 | 11:47 am
music: Deck the Claws
posted by: sanitysloss in sklandor

Final version, I promise. Essani has been taken out, character description of Nokane has been added, and other details.

Warning: Mature Content:


Chapter Four

To the north of Trantrioch, was the vast Sirria Plains where most peasants and farmers worked, tending to the fields and crops, but also a frequent traveling point. The plain was fairly flat making it an easy place to travel across, and the Orani River ran through it, providing a steady source of water. There was also a small traveler's inn at one end, providing shelter and food for the night, though travelers preferred to camp out under the stars.

But the Sirria Plains had its problems. There were still wolves and other predators to watch out for along with bands of thieves. Even the most careful group of travelers something found themselves set upon by the bandits that roamed the plains.

A group of bandits grinned to themselves as they watched a lone carriage move across the plain. They wondered what kind of cargo a lone, unprotected carriage could be carrying. They decided it couldn't be something very important or worth a lot of money.

They were wrong on both aspects. The carriage bore something that not even money could buy and had the best protection anyone could ask for.

Riding inside the carriage, surrounded by plush pillows and chests containing treasure from all the tribes, was the youngest daughter of Mela Gareth and Commander Renkruia, and the future ruler of the Hirykui tribe, Teriana Criash. Driving the carriage was Commander Nokane Asrulda of the Sandari tribe, arguably one of the best commanders. Sitting next to her was Aidia Criash, eldest daughter of Gareth and Aerin and a soldier in training.

As Nokane drove the carriage along, she slowly scanned the horizon. Standing only five feet, two inches, she was quite short compared to the other commanders, but just as fearsome. She was a burly woman and dark-skinned from countless years in the harsh Sandari desert sun. Her green eyes were narrowed as she looked around, blinking as she noticed the group of robbers ahead. She clicked at the horses and flicked the reins, nudging the horses along. At her side, Aidia leaned back, watching the clouds. "How much longer until we reach Trantrioch?"

"Less than an hour, more if we have a conflict," Nokane replied, still surveying the land and keeping an eye on the bandits.

"Is there a problem?" Aidia asked, suddenly alert and looking around. After a few seconds, she noticed the robbers ahead and gave a small grin. "Ahh, bandits, we'll-"

"There'll be no we," Nokane said as Aidia looked at her in surprise. "Don't argue with me either. Yer stayin' in the carriage with yer sister. Ah promised Mela Gareth an' Commander Renkruia ah'd bring the two of y' back in good condition, an' ah'll keep that promise, thank y' very much."

"As y' wish, but let me know if y' need any help."

Nokane said nothing. It wasn't she was confident in her abilities to be able to handle the robbers- and she was confident she could do it alone- but the girl was inexperienced. Fighting scorpions or other desert creatures, or even fellow soldiers who meant no real harm was one thing. To fight against another person, one intending to cause harm or worse, kill, was something else.

Her eyes flickered back to the plain and she scanned the area again. The robbers had moved from their position. A quick scan to the side showed they were coming in on horseback from the side. "Aidia, get in the carriage, now."

Aidia hesitated and reached for her staff as Nokane barked out, "Aidia, as yer commander, ah order y' to get in the carriage an' protect yer sister!"

"Yes ma'am," Aidia replied, gripping the side of the carriage and swinging through the curtain, landing in a pile of pillows, scaring her younger sister in the process.

"Goodness, Aidia, don't do that," Teriana said, straightening out her skirts and giving her older sister a disapproving look.

"Sorry 'bout that, sis. Though I'd drop in an' see how y' were doin'," Aidia gave a roguish smile and winked at her younger sister. “Noka- ah, I mean, Commander Asrulda- is out there fendin' off some bandits.”

Even though they were related, the two were as different as could be. Teriana was fair-skinned with a fragile frame, brown eyes, and light brown hair. She was soft-spoken and polite, never raising her voice or arguing with anyone. Aidia, on the other hand, was deeply tanned from the desert sun, had blue-grey eyes, dark brown hair, and a husky frame. Like her mother, she was stubborn and short-tempered. To many people, it was no surprise Teriana, who resembled her father in so many ways, planned on becoming ruler, while Aidia, who resembled her mother, planned on becoming commander.

"Oh dear, will she be okay?" Teriana asked, glancing outside.

"Course everythin’ will be okay. Once they realize they’re facin’ off ‘gainst Commander Asrulda, they’ll just scamper off t' their mothers. Y'll see."

Teriana suppressed a small giggle. "You speak as if Commander Asrulda is a fearsome monster."

Aidia gave her sister a grave look, though a smile pulled at her lips. "Oh, Teriana, but she is."

On the top of the carriage, Nokane allowed a small smile, able to hear the conversation the two girls were having. She gave a sharp rap on the top of the carriage, the two girls quickly growing silent. She ran a hand through her short red hair and exhaled as the robbers formed a half-circle around the carriage.

Leaning forward, she rest her elbows on her knees as she looked at the person she assumed was the leader. "Helali masa, sirs. What have ah done t' deserve such a visit?"

Erik Tyral, leader of the Crimson Claw gang, moved his horse forward and gave a small bow. He was a scrawny man who had obviously seen better days. While his hair was mussed and streaked with dirt, his attire was neat. He wore a red vest over a plain white shirt and bright red breeches, most likely stolen from a merchant or member of the upper class. Even though he was a common thief, or rogue as he would preferred to be called, he was an intelligent and calculating man and might have been handsome to his list of good qualities if it wasn't for the jagged scar trailing from his left ear down to his neck. But then, some found the scar attractive too.

He ran a hand through his brown hair and gave her a friendly smile. Anyone else would have let down their guard by Erik's friendliness, but Nokane only tightened her guard, watching and waiting. "We just want t' inspect yer cargo, if that's okay with y'. Makin' sure y' aren't carryin' anythin' dangerous. Routine check-up, y' understand."

"Ah understand," Nokane replied, still leaning on her knees. "But see, ah'm in a hurry, tryin' to reach Trantrioch 'fore noon. So if y'll excuse me an' let me go on my way, that'd be fine an' dandy."

Erik grinned to himself. The lady had spirit. He liked that. But like all woman, they could be easily charmed. Or at least he liked to believe that. "Of course, we understand yer in a hurry, but it won't take long," he oozed at her, pouring on the charm as he moved his horse closer. "Ah assure y' it won't take much time."

She merely blinked at him as a hint of a smile pulled at her lips. It amused her to know he thought she was woman who could be swayed by a few charming words and a dazzling smile. "As ah said again, ah'm in a hurry. Have an important shipment ah have t' get t' Trantrioch castle 'fore noon."

"An important shipment she says, t' Trantrioch castle," one of the bandits guffawed.

He peered again at the Sandari commander, trying to remember why she looked familiar. Something in his mind told him to back off and forget about the carriage, but he shook the feeling away. Deciding if he couldn't charm her, then perhaps a show of force would persuade her. Drawing his sword, he waved it at her as she said, "Listen t' me, lassie, ah'm Erik Tyral, leader of the Crimson Claw. Soldiers fear me an' children cry in fright when they hear our names. This is yer last chance to back down, if y' know what's good fer y'."

Nokane threw her head back and laughed. A dangerous grin spread across her face and her eyes narrowed as she slowly stood up. "An' listen t' me, laddie, ah'm Commander Nokane Asrulda of the Sandari army. Ah was born in a sandstorm an' blessed by dragon breath an' phoenix fire. Ah sleep in a bed of flames an' eat hot coals fer breakfast."

From inside the carriage, Teriana looked up at Aidia, her eyes wide with surprise. "Does she really do all that?"

Aidia held back a laugh as she shook her head. "Nah, she's just boasting, tryin' to scare the guys off. Maybe it'll work, maybe it won't, but hush now, we don't want to attract attention to ourselves."

Erik stepped back, cursing himself for his mistake. While robbing merchants and travelers was one thing, robbing a seasoned warrior was another thing. While the commander's presence confirmed the carriage was carrying valuable items, it wasn't worth fighting for. All cockiness fading from his face, he sheathed his sword and gave a respectful bow, much to everyone's surprise. "Commander Asrulda, eh? Very well, y've made yer point. Go t' Trantrioch in peace."

"Eh, Erik, what d' y' think yer doin'?" one of the bandits demanded, drawing his horse up alongside their leader.

Erik looked over at the man. Deneb had always been a bit of a loose cannon. The man had no control, squandering all of his money away on booze and women when they went into town and causing fights everywhere he went. "Savin' yer miserable lives, that's what ah'm doin'."

"Best listen t' yer leader," Nokane replied as she looked at Erik, surprised he had backed down quickly, but also relieved by his actions. She gave him a small bow, showing she respected his actions as she sat back down and picked up the reins. "May Alashina guide y' t' a better path.”

Erik watched her snap the reins, the two horses trotting forward before slowly breaking into a gallop. He could tell several of his men, Deneb especially, wanted to chase after the carriage.

Deneb turned on him, his teeth gnashing together. "Why'd y' let the carriage go? We coulda taken 'er! Just one woman, what's the problem?"

"Are y daft, Deneb? She's the commander of the Sandari army. Y' think we'd have a chance against a battle-hardened warrior such as her?" Erik replied exasperatedly.

"Maybe she was just bluffin'. Didn't have any proof she was the commander of the Sandari army," Deneb snarled, spitting on the grass as his hand reached for his sword. "Whatever she was deliverin' 'ad t' have been valuable. We could be rich! Wouldn't have t' rob an' steal anymore!"

In truth, none of them had to be thieves. Many of them were good swordsmen and with some training, could have become great warriors or soldiers. They all knew this, but most were too well-known as thieves to become or anything else, or simply too lazy.

"Nothin's stoppin' yer from chasin' after 'er," Erik shot back. The man was beginning to agitate him, but he kept his temper under control. "If she was a commander, we could all be lyin' here bleedin' t' death. Ah say we forget about it, target another carriage. Still pretty early, should have more travelers comin' 'round soon."

Erik turned his horse around and prepared to walk away. A few of the men followed him, but Deneb stood where he was, a wolfish grin on his face. “What's the matter? Scared of a single woman?”

The leader turned around and his eyes narrowed in anger. It was a known fact neither men liked each other. Deneb didn't believe in giving up a target there was the chance of a fight breaking out. For him, getting the valuables first came before the safety of the men.

"Watch what y' say, Deneb, ah'm still yer leader."

"Then maybe that should be changed," Deneb growled as he drew his sword and pointed it at Erik. “What about it? A battle, winner becomes the new leader, loser leaves the gang?”

“Very well, but we'll fight on foot. No sense in riskin' injury t' the horses,” Erik said, dismounting. Deneb hesitated, but dismounted too. Everyone drew back, giving the two space to fight. The fight had been a long time coming, and everyone was looking forward to it.

Erik left his sword in his sheath and sized up the man. At one point, Deneb had been a great warrior, supposedly a great warrior in the Hirykui army. But his bad temper, his lust for women, and alcohol quickly ruined him and resulted in his expulsion from the army. With no one wanting to hire him for his services, he became a highwayman to support himself, intimidating people with his great size and his skills. But after months of scaring people or fighting against merchants and simple peasants, his swordsmanship had become sloppy and he was no longer the great warrior he once was. This showed as Deneb rushed Erik and gave a clumsy swing of his sword.

Erik calmly stepped to the side, as Deneb's sword cleaved through open air. Drawing his sword, he struck Deneb on the back with the flat of his blade. "If yer goin' t' try an' take over, y'll have t' work harder. Weren't y' once a great warrior, one of the best in the land? Supposed t' be better than Commander Renkruia?"

"Commander Renkruia is a whore who bedded her way t' the top," Deneb growled out as he swung around and slashed at Erik.

The bandit leader knew the Hirykui commander had not bed her way to the top, but he said nothing. He parried away Deneb's sword, grinning as the former warrior gave another clumsy slash.

Everyone watched the two fight. Some wanted Erik to win while others wanted Deneb to win. Deneb could have went off his own way, taking his followers with him and forming his own gang, but there was strength in numbers, and with so many gangs out there already, competition was rough. Despite the tension between Deneb and Erik, it was better to remain as one group.

Deneb gasped for air as he fought against Erik. He was no longer young and his constant drinking was taking its toll on his body and his armor and sword were also in bad condition. Instead of spending his money on repairing his armor and weapons, or even taking the time to clean them off, he squandered his money away on alcohol and whores. Erik blocked with his sword, leaving a notch in the other man's blade.

"Face it, Deneb, yer not fit t' be leader," Erik said, nodding at the notch he had left. "Yer armor is in bad condition, yer blade is in bad condition, yer in bad condition. Think y' can lead the gang when yer such a mess?”

"Not as much a mess as y'll be when ah'm finished with y'," Deneb snarled, slashing out at Erik. It infuriated Deneb knowing he was losing when all Erik had been doing was dodging and blocking. “Why don't y' fight me like a man instead of runnin' around like a coward.”

Something changed in the Crimson Claw leader. A dark look flashed across his face as he abandoned his defensive stance. "Y' know nothin' 'bout cowardice," he said as he began an onslaught of attacks against Deneb. The former soldier struggled to block all of Erik's blows, but Erik was simply too fast for him to keep up. Raising his sword up as Erik swung down, everyone gasped in surprise as Erik's blade cut through Deneb's sword.

Deneb fell to his knees as Erik rest his sword tip against the man's throat. The two fighters stared at each other for a few tense seconds before Erik lowered his sword and turned away. Seizing the moment, Deneb leapt up, his broken sword clutched in his hand as he leapt at Erik's unprotected back. Someone shouted out a warning and Erik quickly swung around, his sword cleaving in a great arc.

For a few seconds, there was silence. Then an almost inhuman scream tore through the air. Deneb knelt on the ground, screaming in pain. Lying on the ground was a severed hand, still clutching a broken sword.

"Damn y', Erik, damn y'!” Deneb moaned out, pain and anger twisting his face as someone wrapped his bleeding stump with a tunic. It had been a clean slice, cutting through flesh and bone with one solid swing. Stumbling to his feet, he glared across at Erik, pure hatred on his face. Erik only wiped off his blade on the grass and mounted his horse, motioning for those who were still loyal to him to follow.

Deneb spit on the ground as Erik passed by. The leader of the Crimson Claw had just made a dangerous enemy.

****


Aerin and Gareth sat in their bedchamber, enjoying a simple breakfast. It had been two days after Gareth's sudden return home and he had spent those two days in a partial coma. Healers and servants were constantly at his side, tending to him while Aerin ran the affairs of the castle. She had been left the task of seeing Maila Tonari farewell, and bid the Aquila ruler farewell with great pleasure, pleased the Aquila ruler was finally out of the castle, even though they'd be seeing each other again in only a few days.

The morning of their children's return, Gareth had finally woken up and felt well enough to move once more, though the healers advised him to take it easy. Over breakfast, he told Aerin about the meeting with his father. It saddened her to hear Nouma's comments about her husband. She knew Mela Nouma had never approved of the marriage between them, but accepted it because when one's son was offered to chance to become the ruler of the Hirykui tribe, one did not turn it down. But she still respected him, because he was the ruler of the Tenbnea tribe and he was Gareth's father and her father-in-law.

"It is a shame he will not listen," Aerin said, biting into an apple. "But he is an old man an' has little time left. Please forgive him."

"I plan on forgiving him, there is no doubt of that, but I must think," Gareth said. "What he said... am I such a weak ruler?"

Aerin reached across the table and took his hand, gently kissing it on the back. "You are a ruler who strives for the betterment of his people an' believes in peace among the tribes. If bein' a fool means to be a good person, then I pray I never become wise," she gave him a small smile and winked at him. "'Sides, if you were a bad ruler, do you think I'd let you stay on the throne?"

Gareth returned the smile and the kiss. "Of course. Thank you for your words of confidence. We are in a changing world and if he does not wish to change, then so be it. I shall talk to him again about having Flarka as the next ruler," he looked at her almost shyly. "You do think she would be a good ruler, right?"

"Of course. She is such a wonderful, lovin' person. If she became ruler- an' I hope she does- she would bring greatness to the Tenbnea tribe."

There was a knock on the door. Aerin stood up and went to answer it, revealing the white-haired servant they were just talking about. "Oh, helali masa, Flarka, thank you for breakfast."

Flarka gave a small smile as she entered the room. Her anger had faded and she was once more talking to Aerin and Gareth. "My pleasure. Gareth, how are you feeling today?”

“Much better, thank you for asking.”

“You are welcome. Commander Asrulda, Teriana, and Aidia will be arriving within the hour.”

"Thank you for the news, Flarka," Gareth replied, setting down his plate. "Kalrasha knows we need more good news in this world."

"Of course... forgive me for asking, but how is Mela Nouma faring?"

Gareth lowered his eyes slightly and sighed. "He is... very different than how he used to be. Forgive me for not saying more, but I'd rather not think about it, especially on such a joyous occasion."

"My most sincere apologies for bringing it up," Flarka replied, giving a respectful bow. "If the both of you are finished, I'll clear the plates and let you prepare for your children's arrival."

“Do not worry about it, Flarka. I will tell you about him some other time. Oh, yes, will you be joining us at dinner later?"

"I was under the impression it was for family and close friends only," Flarka slowly said as she began picking up plates. She'd sensed she'd be attending the dinner- after all, she had taken care of Teriana and Aidia and both children affectionately called her 'Auntie Flarka'- but she wanted to hear it from either the commander or ruler.

Aerin placed a hand on Flarka's arm and looked at the servant. "You are family too. You raised Teriana an' Aidia when I was away an' have you not taken care of Gareth an' me? Tell Lissa she is also invited. She an' Aidia are such good friends an' I'm sure the two of them have plenty of catchin' up to do. The two spent so much time around each other she's practically another daughter to us."

"Lissa will be overjoyed to hear she is invited, but what shall we wear?"

"It is only a casual occasion, a dinner among friends and family. Do not worry too much," Gareth reassured as he helped Flarka stack the plates and silverware. "But if you really need something, I'm sure Aerin has some unused skirts and dresses she can spare."

"Very well, then I suppose I shall see you tonight. Helali masa," Flarka picked up the plates and left the room.

Gareth walked behind Aerin and wrapped his arms around her waist, placing a kiss on the side of her head. "After a year, our children are finally returning home. Isn't it wonderful?

"It is. Shall we go wait for them now?"

Gareth nodded as he took her hand and opened the door for her, leading her in front. They were both dressed casually and had large smiles on their face, as was proper for parents eagerly waiting the return of their children. They walked to the entrance of the castle side by side. Mela Juran was already standing there, waiting for his own daughter to arrive. There, they talked with each other, smiling and laughing as their waited for their children.

Traveling through the city, Teriana peeked out from behind the curtains as they passed by stores and buildings she remembered from her childhood. A year had changed the city, and while it delighted the young girl, it also made her realize how long she had been away. Some buildings had grown and become more beautiful while others were still the same. The familiarity comforted her. Moving away from the window, Teriana patiently sat on the cushioned bench and listened to the clatter of wheels and horse hooves against the background of the noise of the city.

Aidia on the other hand, was ecstatic. She sat next to Nokane, staring at the buildings as they passed by. There were grand towers and buildings, the tops seeming to pierce the sky. They passed by a large tower and Aidia gasped as she saw a small dragon launch itself from a platform, its wings pumping as it soared into the sky. A small patrol of soldiers passed by, stopping to salute Commander Asrulda. Nokane returned the salute as she drove the carriage on. Aidia stared in wonder at the soldiers, admiring the way the sun reflected off of their polished armor and the way they wore the Hirykui coat of arms with pride. She swore someday she would proudly bear the colors of the Hirykui army as she bravely marched into combat.

The carriage rolled over the bridge and through the great gateway, the guards standing on the wall above saluting down to the Sandari commander and her charges as they passed through. Nokane and Aidia hopped off the carriage, Nokane moving to help Teriana out of the carriage as Aidia stood there, dumbfounded. Standing in the entrance of the magnificent castle were her parents, people she had not seen in almost a year. Moving automatically, she took a step forward followed by another, and finally another step before the spell was finally broken.

A loud scream broke through the air, and later everyone would wonder who had actually screamed first. Aidia launched herself down the path and up the stairs, practically leaping up the steps in her excitement as Aerin stepped forward, arms out. As Aidia ran into her mother's arm, the commander swung her daughter around before falling onto the ground, laughing as tears of joy streamed down her cheeks. Teriana also landed into the pile, almost leaping onto her mother as the three hugged. Amidst the hugging, squealing, and laughter, the three managed to untangle as the two daughters quickly rushed to their father, almost knocking him over. As everything repeated again with Gareth, Aerin looked over at her former commander and mentor, who had already greeted her father, a bit more calmly, but with just as much enthusiasm.

Nokane stuck out her hand and gave a small smile as she looked over at Aidia and Teriana. “Don’t tell me ah have t’ go through that process with y'.”

"Not unless you want to, Noka. It's a pleasure to see you again," Aerin said, taking Nokane's hand and giving it a firm shake as she pulled the commander into a hug as the two laughed and patted backs. As everyone pulled away and caught their breath, Aerin stared at her two daughters, both mature and grown up. Pulling both of them back into a hug, she gave both of them a kiss on the forehead. “Welcome back home, my beautiful daughters.”

*****


In Asruli, Tonari lay on her bed, wrapped in a silk robe loosely sashed around the waist. Her room was filled with fresh flowers and beautiful furniture made out of carved wood. Tonari was a collector of beautiful things and would have nothing but the best surrounding her. There were other such fineries in her room: paintings on the walls, the expensive jewelry sitting on the table, the gorgeous silk dresses and robes in the closet, the young woman lying naked on a pile of pillows next to the bed.

There were thin cuts on the unfortunate woman's arms, back, and legs. Some cuts recent and still bleeding while others were pale scars. There were metal shackles around her wrists and legs along with a collar connected to a leash around her neck. Her legs were pulled up to her chest while her hands covered her face. Tears ran down her cheek as she whimpered.

Tonari turned onto her back as she smiled down at the woman. Her current prize was the wife, though she was most likely just the mistress, of an Aquila nobleman. The man-- he saw himself as Kalrasha's gift to all women, but most saw him as a pompous fool-- willingly gave her up, believing it would put him in higher favor with the Aquila ruler. It wouldn't, but Tonari saw nothing wrong in making him believe so.

"Lady Delia, you're losing your appeal," Tonari said as she twined the leash through her fingers. Lady Delia had begun spirited, spitting and cursing at the ruler as she was handed over, but had broken quickly, unable to take the 'training' she had to undergo. It had been nothing like Lady Yana, who had cried out and begged for mercy, but still remained angry and retained her spirit.

It was a game Tonari played, one of taking and breaking. She enjoyed taking spirited people and watching them resist her advances as she slowly broke them, physically and mentally. By the end of the torture, they were reduced to submissive servants, eager to please their master. That was when Tonari abandoned them and looked for her next target.

In the recent months, many of her targets had been quite unappealing. Only Lady Yana had given her some interest, but it had been short lived. But Flarka...

Tonari licked her lips as she thought about the servant. How beautiful her white hair and pale skin would have looked against the dark sheets on the bed, her cries filling the room. A wicked thought flashed across Tonari's mind- would bedding Flarka be like bedding a goddess? After all, she did look like Alashina. And if she was ever to tire of the woman, there were surely others who would want her.

But Flarka was in Trantrioch and under the protection of the Hirykui ruler and commander. It would make things challenging, but then, Tonari didn't like it when things were easy.

Tonari yanked on the leash, jarring Delia out of her wimping. Reaching out, she stroked the woman's face as she decided what to do next to pass the time. Before any of her plans could be carried out, a knock on the door interrupted them.

“Come in,” Tonari growled, wondering who would dare disturb her.

Commander Jeyer Torlye entered the room and stopped at the base of the bed, giving the ruler a polite bow. Unlike the other commanders, who came from the tribe they served, Jeyer was from the Kanjadu tribe. He was a talented fighter and had once been the captain of the Kanjadu army, but had left to become the commander of the Aquila army. Many believed his talents were wasted leading the Aquila army, an army composed mainly of magic users, which Jeyer was not, but he had done a fair job leading the army and there were no complaints.

"Helali alda, Maila Tonari. I assume your trip to Trantrioch went well?" Jeyer asked, removing his cloak and gently placing it around Lady Delia.

"Yes, it was. I assume you've done your part?" Tonari asked, sitting up as the front of her robe fell open, revealing her full breasts. She gave the commander a sly smile. Would he look or wouldn't he? Most men-- even most women-- looked.

Jeyer's eyes never left Tonari's face. It was a well known fact Jeyer liked women-- there had been many occasions where servants or other people had entered his room to find women lying in bed with him. But it was different with Tonari. He never showed any interest in the Aquila ruler or her body and she never knew why.

And that annoyed her. And she didn't like being annoyed.

"Yes, I've done my part. I've been in contact with Lord Lieries. A foolish lad, but reliable I suppose. Nouma will be seein' a quick recovery within the next few days, in time for the Festival of Blades of course. Oh, yes, it appears Mela Gareth an' Mela Nouma have had a small fight.”

"Oh? Please, do tell," Tonari lay back on the bed, one arm hanging over the edge of the back, her fingers trailing circles on Lady Delia's back.

"It appears Mela Gareth would be interested in havin' Miss Flarka Montrisu become the next Tenbnea ruler, much to Mela Nouma's displeasure."

"What would Mela Gareth accomplish by putting her in power? Surely he knows most people would not be receptive to having a common servant become a ruler."

He gave a small shrug. "Perhaps there is more to the Tenbnea woman than we know. I'm sure Mela Gareth has his reasons."

"I see. Tell me, Jeyer, what are you thinking?"

"You want Flarka. Lieries wants control of the Tenbnea tribe. It's likely she will accompany Mela Gareth an' Commander Renkruia to the Festival of Blades, most likely to take care of Miss Aidia an' Teriana Criash, though if Mela Gareth discovers his father is at the festival also, he will try an' have Flarka talk to him. You know Mela Nouma loves his son an' while he is a stubborn man, Gareth could convince him to let her become the heir to the Tenbnea throne," Jeyer leaned forward and placed his hands on the edge of the bed frame. "If Miss Flarka becomes Maila Flarka, you can be very sure all of your plans will fail."

Tonari gave an amused laugh as she sat up and gave Jeyer a patronizing pat on the cheek. "The thought you have put into this is impressive though there are several flaws in your thinking. I sense you are suggesting I take Flarka while she stays here. A good idea, but Mela Gareth is no fool. He will be keeping a very close eye on her. Also what if she does not come to the festival? Our focus should be elsewhere.
"As you said, Mela Nouma loves his son and the man will likely agree with his son just to patch any ill-feeling between them, but the man is also quite affectionate toward our friend Lieries. Whatever silly ideas Mela Gareth puts inside the Tenbnea ruler's head can always be changed later."

She trailed a finger down Jeyer's broad chest. "But enough talk. Why don't you stay with me? You must be tired after working so hard.”

Jeyer politely stepped away. "No thank you, Maila Tonari. I am merely here to report my news. I have other business I must attend to."

"You deny a request from your ruler?"

"It would not be appropriate for me to lie with you, Maila Tonari."

Tonari laughed as she lay back down. She knew men lusted after her, wanted her, and she picked those who resisted her advances the most - such as Jeyer- or picked those who would further her own goals while taunting and teasing the rest. "If you say so. Helali alda, commander."

"Helali alda, Maila Tonari."

She watched him leave the room. While he was not as handsome as other men, the self-control he maintained around her would be a delight to shatter, and what would be more humiliating than for the charmer to be charmed? Smiling to herself, she picked up the leash, jerking Lady Delia awake as she turned her attention back toward the unfortunate lady.

*****


Rarely had there been a day filled with such gaiety and excitement. With the return of the two daughters, the castle seemed to be more happy, more alive. Many of the servants remembered the children with much fondness, sharing stories of the adventures and trouble they got into, especially the pranks Aidia had pulled with some of the servants.

The afternoon was spent walking around the castle and castle grounds, showing the daughters and Commander Nokane the changes. Not surprisingly, Aidia was most interested in the training grounds and the armor of past commanders, while Teriana showed an interest in the history of some of the rooms and the paintings of past rulers. After the tour, the three were released to their rooms and given a chance to relax and clean up before dinner.

During that time, the servants scrambled to cook last minute dishes and set up the dining room. The dinner would be held in one of the smaller dining halls with guards posted at the entrances to make sure no one disrupted them. Fresh flowers from the gardens were brought in and placed around the room as the windows and floor were washed.

Through all of this, Lady Yana was absent, the job of overseeing the cleaning and cooking left to some of the older servants. No one had seen Lady Yana seen Maila Tonari had taken her, and some whispered the head servant was dead or had been taken back to Asruli. These rumors were quickly quelled as it was revealed Lady Yana was merely resting in her bed chamber, nursing the injuries she had sustained to her body and her pride.

At night, everyone assembled in the dining hall. Gareth sat at one end of the table while Aerin sat at the other, with Aidia, Nokane, and Juran at one side and Teriana, Flarka, and Lissa on the other. They patiently waited for the servants to finish setting the table and pour wine and water for everyone.

Aerin leaned back in her chair, a happy smile on her face. She was dressed in the same tunic she wore at the meeting, but her swords were back in her bedchamber. There was no point in bringing weapons to such a peaceful occasion. Once the table was fully set and everyone had been poured their drinks, she raised her glass as she began the blessing and exchanging of thanks. "I praise Kalrasha for his protection an' wisdom, may it guide us for years to come."

"I praise Fenkura for this beautiful weather, and may there be more of it to come."

"I praise Simarlu for the water that nourishes us all and allows things to grow."

"Ah praise Alashina for the kindness an' compassion she has shown us all."

"I praise Ekoti for the wonderful food he has provided us with."

"I praise Commander Nokane for her abilities and protection."

Nokane looked at Aidia with surprise, but returned the smile. "Blessed are the children, may they stay safe an' happy."

"Blessed are the protectors, may they continue to protect those in need."

"May the gods bless Mela Gareth an' Commander Renkruia, an' may they be with us for many years t' come."

"May all the rulers rule with wisdom and may there be peace for years to come."

Aerin grinned at Teriana. "That's a blessin' I can drink to. To peace, an' a bright future. Alashayo!"

"Alashayo!" everyone chorused as glasses were clinked against each other and the contents downed. Then food was passed around as everyone began to serve themselves.

"Gareth, I must thank you for the opportunity to teach Teriana," Juran said as he smiled at the young girl, who blushed slightly. "She is a very bright girl and will make a fine ruler in the future."

"Juran, it is an honor to hear that from you," Gareth reached over, beaming with pride as any father would when his child was praised. "Teriana, did you enjoy learning from Mela Juran?"

"Yes, Papa," Teriana politely replied. "Mela Juran, thank you for the opportunity to learn from you. It was a very informative experience and I appreciate it greatly."

"Yer eldest is also a very good person, obeys orders quite well, works hard," Nokane poured herself another glass of wine. She had greatly enjoyed working with Aidia, and was fond of the child, but if her mother expected Aidia to become a great warrior, even commander, then she would be sorely disappointed. But that was something that could be discussed later in private. There was no sense in embarrassing Aidia, especially at such a joyous occasion.

"Nokane, that is a great compliment, especially from you. If you do not mind, I would like to discuss Aidia's trainin' with you," Nokane nodded in agreement as Aerin refilled her glass. "But enough talk about business. Aidia, Teriana, I'm sure the two of you have some wonderful stories to tell."

"Aye, Mother," Aidia replied with a wide grin on her face. She began telling a story about a training session in the desert that had gone awry when one of the recruits stumbled into a giant scorpion nest. Nokane hid a smile behind her glass as she listened to Aidia's story. The soldier had added many embellishments to the story- the scorpions had only been young adults instead of full grown giant scorpions, and she most certainly did not "slice the stinger off one scorpion an' used it t' slash away another while carryin' an unconscious soldier on her shoulder"- but she saw no harm in them. After all, Aerin had asked for stories, but she never said they had to be true, and there was no harm seeing as Aidia was telling the story to entertain. And aside from Teriana, who in her young age and innocence tended to believe everything she heard, everyone knew Aidia was adding details to the story.

When Aidia was finished, everyone applauded for her as she stood up and gave a few mock bows. Aerin turned to her youngest. "Teriana, do you have any stories to share?"

"No, Mama, though I am content with just listening."

"Of course, dear. Does anyone else have a story to share? Stories do not always have to be about battles."

"If y' don't mind, I'd like t' share a story," Lissa politely asked as Aerin motioned for her to go ahead. "I haven't fought in great battles or traveled the world like the rest of y', but I've had my share of adventures right here in Trantrioch. Adventure can be found no matter where y' look, an' sometimes the best adventures are found right at home.
"Several summers ago, when I was far too young t' know any better an' old enough t' know exactly what I was doin', some of the servants an' I decided the castle needed some remodelin'."

Lissa went on to describe a detailed story of how she and many of the other servants managed to switch around the armor sets and weapons of the former commanders, enchant the rooms so a person walkin' into one room would suddenly discover themselves in another room, an' move some of the tapestries on the wall around. By the end, everyone was howling with laughter as the servant finished the story about her elaborate prank.

"That would explain why the armor set of Commander Yisiro was carryin' a long spear an' wearin' full plate an' why banners for the Tenbnea tribe were all over the walls," Aerin replied, wiping away tears from her eyes. She had always suspected the young servant had something to do with it, though it was not confirmed until now. While some people had been furious, she found it immensely entertaining, especially when all signs of the joke had been removed almost instantly.

"And why every time I tried to enter my study, I was teleported into the garden. I always thought it was Aerin's way of telling me I need to work less and spend more time outside," Gareth replied, a smile on his face as he winked at his wife. While it had confused him and frustrated him in the beginning, he also found it quite humorous when he had realized it was only a joke. "The castle is never dull with you around, Lissa, and I thank you for that.
"Though while we're on the topic of adventures in Trantrioch, I seem to remember an instance where you and Aidia decided the grand staircase would be the perfect location to hold sliding contests."

"I bear no relection' of that memory," Aidia replied, a large grin on her face. "Please, Papa, why don't you refresh my memory?"

For the next hour, stories of Aidia and Lissa's antics were shared, which eventually led to the topic of pranks the adults had played in their youth. Mela Juran recalled a time from his childhood where he enchanted his books to spontaneously combust so he could avoid studying, much to everyone's amusement.

The stories and laughter continued on through the night. On occasion, the servants clearing off the tables offered their own stories, or backed up some of the stories told by Lissa and Flarka.

Aerin gasped for air as she gripped her sides, sore from laughter. She had never laughed so much and it felt good. Catching her breath, she looked toward the outside window, finally realizing how late it was. While it was late into the night, the city was alight with torches as people went to the taverns and bars, and other places of entertainment. "Kalrasha above, I swear I'm going to die from laughter," she gasped out as Nokane wrapped up her story. "Goodness, it's late now. Teriana, Aidia, I'm sure the two of you need sleep."

Aidia stifled a yawn as she beamed at her mother. While she was full of energy and felt as if she could continue on through the night, it had been a long time since she had slept, and she could tell others were beginning to feel tired. "Yes, Mama. I haven't had so much fun since... well, I have, an' that reminds me of another-"

Aerin quickly silenced her daughter as she grinned at everyone. "This has been a wonderful night, I thank all of you for the good memories."

"Aye, thanks fer invitin' us," Lissa said as she gave a small hiccup.

"I think someone had a little too much to drink," Flarka said as she helped her friend up. "But thank you for inviting us, it was a great honor."

"Of course, Flarka," Gareth said as he picked up Teriana, the girl almost asleep. "Nokane, Juran, helali eraka to the both of you and sleep well, whenever that will be."

Nokane grinned at Gareth as she ruffled Aidia's hair. "Aye, an' helali eraka t' all of y'."

"Yes, helali eraka, an' may Kalrasha watch over all of you," Juran said as he gave Teriana a pat on the back before bowing to Gareth and Aerin.

Their goodbyes said, they left the room, Aerin, Aidia, Gareth, and the already asleep Teriana one way as Juran and Nokane went the other, all of them still thinking about the stories and good times shared that night and chuckling to themselves as they retired to their rooms.
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