PART III

7: The Lovers

Wanda threw the sheaf of papers down on her desk with an impatient sigh. The desk itself… little more than an old table, with a ledger under one leg keeping it stable… wobbled slightly at the motion. The first thing she'd done upon arriving was set up this small office room in the ramshackle town building her father had bought for the business. She'd expected to use it mostly for signing pay slips and doing accounts; she had reckoned without the local government.

"Damn and double damn it!" she cursed, rubbing the creases on her forehead with one brown hand. Who would have thought that a city so often overrun would have so much bureaucracy? In the last two days, she had met more officials and paper-pushers than she had her whole life in her home city of Ronarii. Right then, she felt like just getting on the first ship out of there and telling her father to deal with the whole mess himself.

"Problems?"

The young woman looked up to see Koyn's head poking around the door, and she smiled.

"Nothing much," she sighed. "Just… all this paperwork, I suppose. I was expecting things to be easier once we got here."

The young seaman grinned at her. "Well, maybe all you need is to take a break." He wandered over to the table, and dropped a small money-pouch on the surface. "Here… my first payment."

Wanda frowned. "I thought I told you to save your pay…"

"And I am," the dark-haired youth insisted. "This is only a third of it."

Wanda's eyes widened, and she got to her feet. "You're giving me a third of your pay?" she exclaimed. "But surely that's too much!"

"Relax," Koyn told her reassuringly. "Things are cheaper here. I've been thinking about renting a place for the next few weeks, until the business is up and running, and we can set sail again."

Wanda paused thoughtfully. "Really? Anywhere nice?"

"Why don't you come and see?" her friend suggested. "After all, you do look like you need a break."

"Not a bad idea," Wanda smiled, relaxing at the very thought of leaving the tedious paperwork behind with the rickety desk and crumbling plaster of the building. Taking Koyn's arm with a flourish, she set out to explore the city of Taron.

"My dear, I need to speak with you."

Chalisse looked up from the pool, and then scrambled to her feet as her father approached.

"Daddy!" she squeaked delightedly, throwing herself at the old king in unrestrained delight. The king noticed how his daughter seemed almost to be glowing, alight with the same cultivated energy as the bright gardens around her.

"Come, Lisse," he beamed, holding her back with practised hands. His little girl had ever been overenthusiastic in greeting. "I need to speak with you about your upcoming marriage."

"Of course, Daddy," his child replied, her blue eyes glowing with happiness as she followed him over to one of the ornate stone benches that were scattered across the palace grounds. He sat and looked out at the flowers blowing in the breeze; some of the leaves were starting to peel from the trees, red and orange blowing in the winds. Autumn was in the air, the seasons turning again.

"I have concerns," he said, after a few moments. A puzzled frown crossed the princess' face.

"Whatever do you mean?" she laughed, her voice bubbling even in confusement. Her father paused, considering how best to word his concerns.

"I am not certain…" he began slowly. "That is, I am unsure as to whether your fiancée is… I mean… maybe this marriage is not a good idea."

There was a long silence, and then Chalisse shook her head.

"I don't understand," she frowned. "I thought you wanted me to marry Dirc."

"General Windguard is a suitable match politically," the King agreed. "My doubts are more on a personal level."

"What do you mean?" his daughter asked, eyes wide. Concern written over his features, the ruler of Tarinier turned to look at her.

"Lisse, his actions concern me," the man explained. "I have seen men act this way before. Some recover. Some do not. You are a beautiful person, both inside and out, but that can make you fragile. I am afraid that he may break your heart without even meaning to, and I would not see that happen to my child."

The Crown Princess smiled radiantly, and kissed her father on the cheek.

"I'm not afraid, Daddy," she told him gently. "I love Dirc, and he loves me. We will get married, and everything will be fine. You'll see."

A small puff of wind sent a dry leaf fluttering past her feet, and lifted her hair a little. For a moment, the King remembered the small girl who had run barefoot around the garden, rushing in with dirty feet to show captured caterpillars or new flowers to anyone who cared to look. She had grown up, it seemed, and become an adult before he even saw it happen.

"I wish I could have your certainty," he sighed, embracing his daughter.

"I've made my decision, Daddy," she replied. "Everything will be fine. You'll see."

The King rose to his feet and inclined his head to her. "Then I shall continue with the preparations for my little girl's wedding!"

Chalisse watched her father go, and sat a while longer in silence, smiling at the world in all its glowing beauty.

The city of Taron, so beautiful from the sea, was a mess from within. The great stone buildings of the skyline stood in elegant squares with mosaic tiles, but it soon became apparent to Wanda that these places were the exceptions. Elsewhere, buildings were tattered husks, repaired with wood, windows boarded up and shutters nailed closed. The streets were narrow and winding, unpaved and dusty. Signs of poverty were everywhere, beggars in rags on every corner. Constant war had taken its toll on Arcana, and Taron had been hit hard.

Koyn watched as his companion took in all the sights of the city with a sorrowful expression. He could understand her feelings; she had come expecting a simple business setup, hoping to do some good, and only now was seeing the true magnitude of her task.

He didn't share the feeling; looking at the city, he could see opportunity, chances for a fresh start and a new life. The first stage of his job had been completed in getting here, but now it was time to work out what he was doing with his future. There was some time between now and setting sail back to Ronarii, and he intended to make good use of it.

"Just down here," he said, stepping off into a slightly narrower thoroughfare. Wanda followed him nervously, glancing from left to right as if she expected to be mugged. Well, perhaps she was right, Koyn realised. He had learned that crime was rife in Taron, and caution was always advised.

Several doors down on the right was the house he had brought her to see; at first glance, it didn't look like much. A narrow building, crammed right against those on either side, two storeys high and with all its small windows covered in boards. The stonework, once elegant, was blackened and cracked by fire. This building had seen troubled times.

Waiting outside was a man dressed in the same loose shirt and rough trousers as the other sailors on the Luitha Mae, his hair a mass of tight black curls. Koyn greeted him with a smile and a wave.

"Riye, meet Wanda," he called, indicating the young woman next to him. The other man jumped to his feet and inclined his head in a small bow.

"Ma'am," he acknowledged. "Didn't know you were coming!"

"I'm just taking a break," the merchant's daughter explained. "Please, there's no need to stand on ceremony with me."

"Of course, ma'am," Riye nodded. "Um… has Koyn told you about the plan?"

"Not yet," the other youth replied, stepping up to the door and pushing it open. "I'm still not sure I want to do it."

"Do what?" Wanda asked, following him inside. Indoors turned out to be pleasantly cool after the heat outside; Arcana was further south than she was used to, hot and dry, and Taron's air had been stifling her all day. She took in the plain yellow walls and the warm stone floor with pleasant surprise; the place was not as bad as it looked from the outside.

"Well, ma'am, we figured that there was a few of us looking for someplace to stay, so we thought that four or five of us could pool our money to rent a place like this."

The copper-haired woman nodded as they stepped into the next room. An unlit oven and a table showed it to be the kitchen. "Sounds like a good plan," she said, examining the stove. It was yellow stone, like the house, and smelt a little like animals. The remains of a bird's nest in one corner told her why.

"Only Koyn won't give us a straight yes or no," Riye added. "Says he's still thinking about it."

"I just don't want to commit to something without thinking about it first," his friend protested. "It's a big decision."

"So was my choice to come to Taron," Wanda smiled. "I made that in a matter of days."

Koyn shook his head and leaned against the table. "I just… I prefer caution."

"So what? You'd rather spend all your time sleeping on board ship, or at inns?" Riye demanded. "Don't sound so smart to me."

"Go on," Wanda smiled. "It seems like a fair plan, and you'll be the happier for it."

Koyn looked around, and from his face it was clear he was thinking hard. There was a long pause as he scanned the dimly-lit room, and then he slowly nodded.

"Yes… okay," he agreed, a slow smile crossing his features. "I'll do it." He turned to grin at Riye, who gave him a nod. As Wanda watched them, she found her own heart growing a little lighter.

What do I have to complain of? She wondered wryly. Koyn has managed to turn his whole life around; all I have is a little paperwork. Put like that, it seemed such a silly thing to worry about. So what if she had trouble adjusting? That was no reason to go running back to her father. She wouldn't give up; she would do him proud.

Taron was her project, and she would succeed.

Dirc watched from his window as a series of gazebos and long tables were erected on the palace lawn. It was an engagement party, he knew that much; a celebration of his upcoming nuptials. He should head down there soon. He was already dressed for the occasion, in full military dress uniform, and it was possibly the most uncomfortable clothing he'd worn in his life. He should be there to smile at the right people and be happy about marrying a beautiful, charming woman who happened to be a princess.

So why was he still sitting here?

Maybe it was the doubt that still whispered in his heart, the little voice that called him a fraud, the guilty conscience that said Chalisse ought to hate him. That he should just leave; get on his horse and run, run as far as he could, without stopping or looking back.

If he went to that party, there was no turning back. And he wanted to turn back… wanted to turn back to before he'd even met her, to that one stupid mistake which wasn't even his fault, so why was he blaming himself for it…

Because it was your fault. Your command, your responsibility, your fault. And nobody else around here will blame you.

You're not supposed to feel for the enemy. You're a soldier. The enemy are the enemy. No empathy, no sympathy.

No mercy.

"Stop haunting me," he whispered to the ghosts that crowded over his shoulder. None of them moved.

His eyes flicked back out to the party. People were arriving. Some of them he recognised, nobles he had played with as a boy, dignitaries he had faced across the battlefield.

There was a knock at the door of his room, and a moment later it opened to reveal a footman.

"Sir, your presence is requested at the party," the man said politely. Slowly, Dirc nodded.

"I'll be there," he replied. The servant left; a moment later, Dirc rose, and stepped out into the corridor. There was no sign of his summons. The man had, like all good functionaries, managed to vanish into thin air.

Slowly, Dirc set out down the hallways, their high ceilings moulded, painted and gilded richly. Such hallways he had seen before, in buildings that burned, soldiers smashing down the heavy doors and looting the valuables within. In those buildings, the people ran, the corridors full of panic as he and his men approached. Sometimes they were the cause of the fear, sometimes the salvation from it.

But now, in the halls that reminded him of war, he could hear music and laughter, and ahead of him was a door, one that lead out into light and the happiness, and for a moment he hesitated.

Are you sure this is what you want?

Yes. This was what he wanted… what he needed. To wear a mask of smiles and happiness, until he forgot it was a mask, and it became his face.

And, taking a deep breath, Dirc stepped out to join his engagement party.