Princess Celia eyed the castle gate warily. Nervousness stole over her and she tightened her grip on Beatrice’s hand. Before her stood her home: Castle Dragonfell. Ancient, beautiful, and imposing, with its white towers and tall battlements, it stood proudly against the cold of the morning winter light.
She missed this place, she realized. When she was younger, she knew no other world outside the castle walls. The gardens smelled sweet of birch and roses and firs that would bloom brightly in the spring, while the warm fires of the giant firepits of the grand dining halls would keep her warm while she overheard the cooking maids gossip. When she dressed in disguise three months ago and followed her father’s van under Beatrice’s care, it was her first view of the world. The streets of Dragonfell, what little she saw, were teamed with people cheering the train of Dragonfell as they gallantly galloped forth from the gates of the castle, her father leading the way with his sword outstretched and his banner held high.
Her return home was quite different. The people were on the verge of riots—starving, poor, and filled with trepidation over the constant skirmishes amongst the minor houses, it felt as if the staring eyes of the populace could cut into her heart and blame her for all the misfortunes that had befallen them.
She grew with the belief that her father would change things. She grew up believing in the purity of the heart of Westra and her people. She grew up with the image of brave knights, generous nobility, and honest folk. Reality had twisted this image to the point of numbness in her head, and as she looked upon the gates of Dragonfell, she realized all too well that she had not, in fact, returned home.
The gates opened wide with a groan and creak. Two Dragonguard stood at attention on either side, their splendid regalia and armor still pristine in the light of the sun. The portcullis of the outer wall was open and the stone bridge of Kalab, spanning the cliff that separated the city of Dragonfell from the castle, greeted her view before a jolt pushed her back to her seat in the cabin. As Beatrice’s carriage crossed the bridge, Celia craned her neck to see the once-familiar sight of the valley below through the window of the cab. Guardian’s Valley, they called it, for it served as a natural barrier for any would-be attackers against the might of Dragonfell. Trees, she saw, dotted the brown carpet of grass, moist and weakened from new fallen snow. The castle itself, perched on a shelf that was hewn smartly from the mountainside, stood proudly at attention. Somewhere far off, Celia heard some herald yell a garbled command before the inner gates opened outward for the carriage. More Dragonguard, Ser Ester and the legendary Ser Simon, stood protectively at the entrance, eyeing the Conrath wagon. Ser Simon’s stare seemed to linger on Celia for a moment.
“Shae, get away from the window,” Beatrice quietly commanded.
Celia obediently returned to her cushion and looked down with her accustomed blank expression. A great weight that once was not set upon her shoulders seemed to return as soon as they entered the gates. Beatrice noticed this change over Celia but, before she could say something, the carriage door had opened and a young porter had set the step stool down for his lady.
“Greetings, m’lady,” a strong baritone voice intoned.
“Good morning, Lord Valnor,” she took the hand Valnor extended to her then politely curtsied. “I am honored that my lord has greeted me personally.”
“Bah! I have not grown accustomed to that awful title. It’d do better, I think there, if you just addressed me as ‘Ser’, even as you always had.”
The slightest tug of a smile wrested at Beatrice’s lips. “Yes, of course Ser Valnor.”
Celia quietly stepped out of the carriage and took her usual place behind Beatrice, meekly hiding in the folds of her dress for protection.
Valnor didn’t seem to take notice of Celia. “Come, then. There is much drinking to be had and much discussion to be made!”
“To be sure, good Ser.” The thought of Valnor, some ale, and her in the same room definitely did not hold any appeal for Beatrice. More urgently, however, she had to hide Princess Celia before anyone could possibly recognize her. “But the trip has tired me and my company greatly. Perhaps we could retire to our quarters first and recuperate.”
“Fine, fine, then. But don’t take too long with yer’ nappin’, Maid Tellman. There’s more going on here than I’d care to shake a sword at (mind ye’, that’s saying a lot). I’ll need you before sundown. And Jaden too, when he gets here.”
“I’ll send him when he arrives,” Beatrice assured him.
“See that you do, then. See that you do.” Valnor’s usually humored face possessed itself of a slight change just then, and the first signs of worry seem to overshadow his eyes. It was the first time that Beatrice had ever seen Valnor as such. Drunk, flirty, and always boisterous, Valnor certainly had a way of making a show of himself. However, since Lord Dante’s tragic death one month ago, Valnor (and the whole Conrath family for that matter) had been, understandably, very out of sorts. It wouldn’t surprise Beatrice if Lord Valnor’s eager suggestion of drink and talk was just a great show to hide the pain that he must bearing.
They exchanged a few more token words of courtesy and small talk before Valnor excused himself. Some advisors and guardsmen followed after him.
Beatrice was lost in thought for several minutes while walking to the Conrath Quarter of the castle before she felt a tugging at her dress.
“M’lady?” Celia asked quietly.
“Yes, my dear?”
“Where is Master Jaden?”
“He’s—treating with Lady Algoth.”
“Yes, dear. And be careful when you talk of her. Remember: she’s not supposed to be here,” Beatrice said softly.
The two of them, followed by servants carrying their bags, walked onward in silence.