It had been almost thirty years since Princess Nediva of Raanan had seen her homeland. Her daughter, Viridis, the Duchess of Raanan, had never set foot on the soil before that hot day. The young lady knew she should have felt something, some piece of her missing puzzle was to fit into place when she found the land of her ancestors. Instead, she felt hot, miserable, seasick, and she wanted nothing more than a cool soak in the ever flowing bathhouses in Keilantra.
Viridis wanted nothing to do with Raanan.
It looked the same as all the other places they’d been. Sure, the people dressed a little differently, the women’s full skirts were dull colors, and even the ones that wore trousers didn’t seem to take joy in their bold choice of clothing. Too long in Paxton and Keilantra had spoiled Viridis greatly. She missed the bright colors and what she could only describe as the absolute joy people took in their garb.
The Duchess had another thought, more miserable than the last: if they dressed so blandly, how would their food taste? If she wasn’t so sick of being on the sea, the young woman would have demanded that her mother find a ship to take them promptly away. Nothing could compare to the feasts of Adalgisa, and the Empire was calling to Viridis’ stomach making it growl loud enough to make the sailor lugging her bags look at her with pity.
Pity because the lout knew what food she would encounter? Gods forbid a sailor pity her. She stuck her nose right up and pranced down the ramp, catching up with her mother.
“I thought you never wanted to come back here, Mother,” Viridis said; doing her best not to sneer at the commoners crawling all over the dock and the market that was doing its best to tempt weary travelers out of precious coin.
Nediva smiled and arched an eyebrow at her prim little lady. “I got news my brother passed away. We came to pay respects to that son of a bitch. Once we have done that, we can be off as fast as your little heart desires.”
“And as soon as you’re done sampling the taste of the men,” was added dryly.
With a deep belly laugh, Nediva slapped her daughter on the back, making the younger woman stagger. “Now now, you won’t stop me from my fun, will you? I hear there is a beautiful library in the castle you can hide away in. Once we have presented ourselves to the new King, your cousin, we can mess about to our hearts’ desires.”
“Then let’s go. The faster we leave here the better.”
“Give the old girl a chance, Viry. You may like her more than you expect.”
“Then why did you leave?”
Nediva sobered staring out at the bustle without really seeing it. “Because I was not fit to be a princess and because I wanted to have an adventure that no crown would ever allow me,” she said.
“Do you think my cousin likes being King?”
“I guess you can ask him that when we present. Our luggage is being sent to the castle as it is, so we should catch them up before our bags can present before we do.”
Viridis glowered at her mother before hailing a fellow at a horse stall.
The castle was big, no where near as big as the Paxton or Adalgisa palaces, but it was well maintained, and gave Viridis hope of finding a decent library like her mother had promised. With a chuckle, Nediva pointed out the windows where she’d snuck out from the fateful night she ran away. There were bars lining the little row and it only made Nediva laugh a little harder, commenting that they weren’t the only windows she’d made an escape from. Nothing could keep her trapped if she set her mind to it. It was one of the many things that Viridis admired about her brazen mother.
A palace guard met them at the main gate. “Good day, my ladies. What can I do for you?”
Nediva studied the somber man a moment before shrugging and producing her old crown. At the sight of the trinket the man paled. “I came home to return this to my nephew King Nealan,” she said before the guard could panic. “Would you be so kind to ring for an escort? I fear we are a little late in the day for the proper audience…”
The guard blinked, then pulled a cord hidden in an alcove. “Your Highness, I didn’t recognize you… my grave apologies.” The guard was bowing as the servant called by the bell arrived. She took one look at the bowing guard then assessed the two women astride their borrowed horses, and such clever pale eyes that didn’t match the gaze expected from a servant.
The woman, close to Viridis’ own age, dropped into a quick curtsy before patting the guard on the shoulder companionably. “There now, Godfrey, I’ll sort these ladies out. You can get back to thinking about your little lady and just remember to send a love note when you’ve gotten yourself all sorted out or the pretty thing will never know how you feel. Aye?”
If at all possible the guard bowed lower for the servant, his ears burning crimson from the woman’s attention. “Aye, ma’am.”
With an indulgent smile the woman shook her head at the guard. Then she caught up the reins of both horses and led them onto the castle grounds. She paused at a grand door, and handed the reins over to a waiting handler before cheerfully helping Nediva from her saddle. When it was Viridis’ turn, she caught the pale blue eyes lingering on her hair.
Even caught under the hat she’d carefully selected, it was hard to manage her mane of red curls. The red easily came from her mother. The curls… came from the nameless fool her mother had seduced one night and never saw again. Nediva was at least was seventy percent sure the man was from Oki. Or Virote.
Feet on the ground again, Viridis stood as tall as she could, not to be intimidated by the piercing look the strange woman was giving her.
Nediva was the one to break the silence before it could grow awkward. “I’ve had our luggage sent to the castle.”
The woman nodded, ushering them towards the front door. “I’m aware. It’s been a very long time since you’ve been home, your Highness. I expect this is your daughter? Do you have a husband on his way from the docks?”
“Oh goddess, no. I never married. Though, this is indeed my daughter, Viridis.”
The servant nodded, not at all surprised by anything Nediva said. “You may call me Cath. If you need anything you make sure you ask me.” She caught Nediva’s eye and winked. “Anything. I even know which Inns you may find the best choice of unattached men. I hear you have an appetite for them.”
Viridis’ face went hot. She was about to give the uppity servant a proper tongue lashing when her mother’s bellyful of laughter cut her off before she could start.
“I do indeed. You are well informed my dear, Cath. I’ll keep you in mind. My sweet proper lady here, though would love to see the library. Would you be so kind?”
That got a genuine smile to grace the woman’s face, making her at last look as young as she had first seemed. “It would be my pleasure. In fact, Princess Lavena spends most of her time in the castle there, when she comes to Raanan to visit. Though… they are not due back in a few months. Such a pity. I know she would have liked to meet her cousin. My, my, and you’re going to meet the twins. They are a handful, those two. Tamasine is especially brave. Princess, I expect you’ll find her as wonderful as I do.”
Nediva paused as they passed a portrait hung in the entryway. “The twins?”
Cath stepped up beside Nediva, letting Viridis look over the other paintings. The servant nodded. “The ones you see before you are their parents, King Nealan and his wife Queen Skyler. This was done right after they wedded. The twins weren’t far behind, mind you, but we don’t have portraits for them yet. They don’t sit still long enough, you see.”
“My nephew is a very regal man. What a severe fellow.” Nediva gazed pityingly at the frowning man in the painting.
Cath shrugged, not bothered at all by the woman’s less than flattering comment. “He has his better days. His Majesty was still recovering from the rebellion, you see, so he was none too happy that day.”
“Oh, yes, the rebellion. I’d forgotten. How many years has it been now?”
“Six, Highness. Only six.”
The wry tone the servant adopted made Nediva take a closer look at the woman. “You’ve been through a lot, I take it?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you, Highness.”
“I’ve heard many odd things over the years. Try me.”
“Have you ever been to Oki?”
“Have you heard of their ship Hitori?”
That made Nediva hesitate. “Their… merchant ship. Yes.”
Cath snorted. “They are proud to be pirates, lady. At least they were when I sailed with them.”
“You, a woman working in this castle, was a pirate?” demanded Viridis, drawn into their conversation.
Cath opened her mouth to respond when a flurry of steps signaled that a small parade was nearly upon them. She shut her mouth again before their hall was filled with tittering women and two tumbling five year olds. With a patience long ago acquired, Cath faced down the mob with a cool calm. She curtsied quickly, and the other two followed suit not wanting to chance offense.
“Catherine! There you are. I thought you said you’d bring them right in, and here you are prattling the day away! My goddesses above and below, don’t go scaring our guests off before we can even settle them into their rooms, sister!”
“I was only catching them up on recent events, Skye,” Cath said before stooping down to wrangle a child. “Behave, Tama! This is your Great Aunt Princess Nediva. Say hello.”
The youngster pouted, drooping in Cath’s capable arms before uttering a quiet: “How do you do.”
Cath eyed the other kid. “Odie?”
This lad had the decency to bow. “Ladies, hello.” Then he was off with his sister tearing down the hall after him. The procession of ladies held a silent contest before an unlucky woman cursed and went chasing after the tykes.
Nodding in satisfaction Cath was then greeting each woman by dipping her lips to their hands. Viridis couldn’t help but stare as the ladies blushed and giggled. At last she came to the most beautiful of the women, and kissed the rouged cheek. “Sister, may I have the honor of introducing you?”
“Please do, then we can all be off and you can find Neal in the salle. He’s in one of those moods,” she added conspiratorially.
Cath snorted, by far the least lady-like of the women present, yet she seemed to have complete control of the situation. “Queen Skyler, I present to you your husband the King’s Aunt, Princess Nediva Emphis. The young woman is her daughter, the Duchess Viridis. They have come to return the royal crown as well as pay their respects to the royal family who they expect to be grieving the loss of the Crazed King Raymond.”
The Queen laughed like small bells chiming, and shook her head. She met the astounded gazes of her guests and took pity on their confusion. “No one in this castle misses that old King. He went insane and his Majesty was the one to bring an end to the horror. Now, we are very happy to have you stay with us for as long as you like. Don’t be fooled by my sister, however, she is not a servant, she just likes to play one. If you ever need something, simply ask it of her. Catherine is happy to help. Aren’t you my dear?”
“As I’ve already told them, yes.”
“Good,” said the Queen. “As for the crown…? Who needs such a thing? Go sell it if you like. We melted down Raymond’s crown the second the smithy opened the day the rebellion was done. Now, let us be off, my dears. I heard news of a new seamstress in the east wing.”
With another flurry of dresses and tittering ladies, Viridis was left standing in the main hall with her mother and the Queen’s very own sister. With that realization Viridis dropped into a curtsy as soon as her legs would respond. Nediva wasn’t far behind.
“Now, now. If I wanted to be bowed to, I’d go home. Up with you two. I’m not a noble in this family. I’m simply a girl lucky enough to call the royal family my own. Now, as you may have guessed, everyone here is quite insane. Except for Neal, but his Majesty married my Skye, so there’s no hope for him either.”
Feeling clumsy for the first time in her life Viridis stood, studying the young woman again. The plain dress she wore and the short messy hair didn’t speak of someone of import. There was no way she could have known this was the Queen’s sister. In fact, she would have called it a joke had the woman introduced herself as such. However, when the Queen herself was the one to claim Cath, there was no denying truth. Bizarre irrefutable truth.