It wasn’t long before Beatrice had redid Celia’s hair, covering her blond hair with the blackberry dye. At first, the dye always made her hair sticky and uncomfortable but Jaden made some sort of concoction that made the tangles more manageable. Her travel clothes were replaced with more appropriate servant clothes and she was given some herb soap to wash the grime and salt from her face.
She should have been tired. A month of travel on hard winter roads from Ironheld, followed by a rough voyage along the river, had certainly taken a toll on her body. If it wasn’t for Beatrice’s constant attention and help, Celia felt as if her six year old body would have succumbed to exhaustion. However, being back at Dragonfell gave her some new sense of energy that she couldn’t quite place, and she felt that she had to explore Castle Dragonfell once more. Things have changed, she realized, and a part of her mind wanted to see what had become of the place she once called home.
Beatrice wasn’t exactly happy with her decision, but she knew that she wouldn’t be able to keep her in her quarters forever, and the servants might be suspicious of a maid who did not go about the castle doing her “errands”. So with some reluctance Beatrice allowed her to walk the halls and the gardens once more, but under no circumstances was she to go to the Main Court, talk to any of the Dragonguard, or talk to anyone she knew. If people became curious of her, she would immediately walk away.
And so Celia began to explore. It had been almost… six months, she thought. Six months since she last saw these halls. She saw several servants, even some young daughters of visiting nobles, but she doubted that anyone would recognize her; she was always shy and spent most of her times reading books and her status as princess had made all of the other girls somewhat intimidated by her and her unusually cool demeanor. Nevertheless, Celia kept to the shadows and tried to remain inconspicuous, as Beatrice had taught her, and managed to overhear some of the gossip.
“That Ser Brandon is a handsome one now, isn’t he?” a young servant, Milly Tyler, exclaimed. “It’s a shame that with all that Stonewall fightin’ that he bagged himself an ousting, he did.”
“Aye now?” responded another. “I keep hearin’ it like ‘twas all Lord Illian and all that. His father was just all ‘a smokin’, he was. I bet he be forgiven’ him by sundown, now.”
“Then you ain’t know Lord Grey like I do! He’s a vengeful one, that he is. A cold, and hard one—like his name Stonewall, I reckon it. This one’s goin’ ta stick. And poor Brandon will be shallowing up for a new name.”
“Oooh, I hear it good, now,” young Erin said. “That Maid Candice be eyein’ him!”
At this, all the rest had a sharp intake of breath, for this was worthy gossip, indeed! Maid Candice Brightmail, arguably the most beautiful lady in Westra, had been courting King Daniel (at the advice of her family, of course) for over a year. It was whispered that though she was frightened at the prospect of courting the royal house, but eventually the people saw a mutual love and respect grow between the two. It was a love that was always kept below the surface for both King Daniel and Maid Candice, for neither of them quite knew how to handle the emotion (King Daniel having loved his Queen Celia was devastated by her death and Candice having never known the love of anyone but flatterers and charlatans). Some months have passed since King Daniel’s death, and Candice had been in mourning ever since. However, Ser Brandon had come none too long afterwards to Dragonfell to continue King Daniel’s will and she had found some sense of solace in him.
And so, immediately, Ser Brandon and Maid Candice Brightmail had become the chief topic of conversation and young Erin was all too happy for the attention. “Well, ol’ Sally tells me that she was hearin’ them talkin’ and a walkin’ in the gardens at nights. Ol’ Candice, bless her soul, was so lost without Daniel and all since she’s the only one of her house here (her family from way far south and all!) so it be the kind and gentlemanly Brandon, best friend of Daniel if I hear it right, who be taking her in and giving her comfort.”
“Oh, this is just so right!” exclaimed Miss Tilly. “It’s a smart one, that it is. I mean, Brandon’s lookin’ for a family now, and there won’t be too long ‘till love fancies their match!”
“Oh, don’t be rushin’ it now,” interjected Erin. “Daniel’s not even buried yet, with all this bustlin’ here and the Dragonguard not rightly assembled. His ghost now, I reckon’, would be none too pleased if we didn’t see to him yet! It’s unnatural, now, to be a beddin’ with his lady until the time’s proper!”
Some were frightened, others were taken aback, but there was general agreement that, perhaps, it wasn’t the time yet. With the times as they are, a Curse from the mighty King Daniel was certainly something to consider!
Celia walked away from the halls, satisfied with the gossip she had heard. She liked Brandon. And it was strange to hear talk of him in such a manner. She knew that one of King Daniel’s wishes was for Ser Brandon to marry her when she came of age. Brandon, Daniel told her once, was a loyal friend—a true servant of Westra, a man of the Crown, and a worthy soul. She knew that both he and Brandon trained together at the temples of Delano far to the south where both of them were brought up under the teachings of the Paladin and the knights of old. Brandon was called up north only recently, and Daniel had told her that he was “uncorrupted by the politics at court”. She wasn’t sure she knew what that meant, but she felt that she was beginning to understand. And so, to see that no one would doubt his last wishes at court, Daniel had put forth in his will, with his dying breath, that Ser Brandon was to marry her when she came of age; that time was a little under seven years from now. It was Daniel’s belief that Brandon was the last hope they had of preserving Westra and keeping the peace, for she was the last of the Dragonfells—if none of the other major houses had a legitimate banner to unite under, others would try to take the throne by force, and she would be the target of many assassination attempts. At least that’s what her father told her.
Well, all Celia knew was that she liked Brandon. Maybe not to marry, but perhaps that would change in time. She simply could not understand how so much, like countries and nations and knights and money, could be dependent on whom she marries.
And, she thought gloomily, on her survival—the last true Dragonfell.
Before long, her path brought her to the gardens of the castle. There, she saw a familiar sight: a stone bench on which she spent many hours reading. Her face broke into the first smile she had in weeks and she immediately ran to the bench and placed herself upon its cold surface. She sat cross-legged upon the stone, as was her fashion, and she pretended that she still wore her favorite blue dress that she smoothed over the bench like a blanket. She imagined the weight of her thin silver and gold crown that haloed around her pinned up hair and almost felt the weight of a heavy leather bound book on her lap. The memories filled her with a remarkable amount of joy and, for a moment, she had forgotten the trials of the past year.
“It’s getting’ late now, little one. You should be headin’ off to the quarters,” said an old, halted voice.
Celia snapped out of her reverie and looked at the person who spoke. He was cutting at the hedges, but he was extraordinarily bad at it. He had a cracked and wrinkled face, bald as a stone globe, and had the look of heavy years upon his slumping shoulders. Celia felt that she knew the gardener but could not recognize him at first. Then she remembered that he only recently came into service of the castle (at least when she still lived here), and that he had only seen her perhaps once or twice.
“I’m… sorry,” Celia said quietly. She slipped off the bench and started walking toward the gate when the old man’s voice stopped her.
“Hey, now, missy… you’ve got a look now that I remember.”
“I’m… sorry,” Celia said quietly again, growing more uncomfortable.
“Now, now, no sorry’s this and sorry’s that. There ain’t no harm in it. Now turn around and let me have a looks at you.”
Celia felt caught then. She knew that she wasn’t supposed to let anybody see her, but it would look suspicious if she suddenly bolted out of the garden. Celia breathed in deeply, and decided to count on the fact that the old man would not recognize his princess.
Celia slowly turned around and let a great deal of her black-dyed hair fall over her eyes. The old man seemed thoughtful.
“Heh, well you gots the Conrath colors about you. What be yer name, then?”
“Shae, m’lord,” Celia responded obediently.
“Heh,” the old man cackled a bit. “Well, Shae, I take it you’re Maid Beatrice’s girl. She ain’t one who takes a likin’ to anyone takin’ a break when they shouldn’t, so you’d be smart to get yerself to your work.”
“Aye, m’lord,” Celia said carefully.
“Well, then, off with ya’!” the gardener barked. Celia was only too happy to oblige. She quickly slipped into the dark, torch-lit halls of the castle, leaving the smiling old man to himself, whistling an old folk tune as he continued to butcher a rose bush.