We all fall down... or at least I'd like to, after such a busy day as this has been! Happy Fiction Friday, a bit belatedly, O readers! Every so often I have a day so very busy that I don't have so much as a moment to concentrate on storytelling, and today, when I'm getting ready for a whole ten days of vacation, happened to be one of them.
Still, you get your usual Fiction Friday fare right now, and I'm thinking this one might well get expanded. The characters are already settling into my head. I'd love to know what you think, and what questions you have, from just this little flash fiction preview. Please enjoy it, and I shall see you very soon indeed, since I'm finally going to have the time and the ability to sit down and really, truly write for some nice long periods!
"The Princess is coming!"
The word spread through the palace on the wings of the warm summer breeze, whisking through beautifully appointed bedchambers and cramped servants' cubicles, murmuring in the ear of the twin princes, Harold and Julian, the one practicing his archery on the range and the other squinting at his canvas in the studio. Princess Kemi of the Eastern Isles, with her entourage, had crossed the border of their land of Valmark that very morning, and was riding towards the palace even now, to be welcomed with great rejoicing and a festival, during which the Princess would decide which twin pleased her more as a prospective husband.
The one place to which the word of the Princess's coming did not penetrate was the north tower, which was hardly surprising to those who knew what that tower contained. Some three years earlier, the King of Valmark and his eldest son, Crown Prince Farran, had both fallen seriously ill, and while the King had recovered from this illness, Farran had not. Indeed, the rumors whispered, more than just the Prince's body had been affected by the fever and convulsions, and certain it was that no one outside the palace walls had seen Prince Farran for those same three years. Certain it was, too, that the north tower had become strictly forbidden at just that same time, to all but a handful of the oldest and most trusted retainers in the King's service.
Harold and Julian's mother, Queen Deryn, resolutely maintained that her stepson lived, that he had gone on a long sea voyage to recover his health, and that he would return to his native land as soon as he was well enough to do so. Still, the noble lady had been heard to say more recently, it was always possible that dear Farran would not return, and plans had to be made for that eventuality. Thus, the visit of Princess Kemi, for the King was growing no younger, and the succession must be secured. Whichever prince pleased her, the rumors ran, would be married to her forthwith, and named his father's heir shortly thereafter.
"And won't that just put the other one's nose out of joint, whichever it is?" said plump and comfortable Amari, cook in the palace kitchens, as she supervised the preparation of vegetables for the day's dishes. "Gray, fetch another bucket here, we need somewhere to put the peelings."
The boy-of-all-work about the kitchen bobbed his head and disappeared into the passage which led out to the courtyard, and Amari returned to her talk with her friends. "Myself, I hope it's Julian she likes. Harold's a bit too likely to embroil us in some foolish little war for the sake of his silly dreams about glory!"
"But Julian has dreams of his own, and those in plenty," objected Candace, one of the undercooks, as she topped and tailed a small mountain of carrots. "What if one of our neighbors decides Valmark would make a tasty plum to gobble up, and our dreaming prince has his head too firmly in the clouds to notice?"
"Well, now, a great deal depends on what becomes of the prince she doesn't choose—yes, thank you, dear, put it there," Amari added to Gray, who had returned with the bucket in his arms. "At the end of the table, that's right. And now go and make sure all the cisterns are full, and check the fires under them, we'll need plenty of hot water today, for surely there'll be a mighty cleaning of rooms if we're to entertain a Princess and all who come with her!"
Gray bobbed his head again and departed, and Amari watched him go, sparing a moment from her gossip to consider the puzzle he represented. He'd arrived on her doorstep two and a half years earlier, divining by some mysterious means that her former kitchen boy, a simple-minded young man named Firmin, had disappeared the week before, and had taken up Firmin's duties as though he'd been born to do nothing more than hew wood and draw water. Even his name was an enigma, for unlike the foolishly smiling and endlessly babbling Firmin, he had never spoken a word, and the maids had dubbed him 'Gray' from the fact that his work of cleaning fireplaces meant his face was almost invariably mottled with ashes.
"What was that?" she said to Candace, shaking off her thoughts in favor of the conversation. "Oh, Prince Farran? Well, far be it from me to speak ill of the Queen, but I'd take my Bible oath that something's not as we've been told in the state of Valmark. But that's quite enough of that, for such things aren't for us to think on. If the King's satisfied with what his Queen tells him, it ought to satisfy us as well, and we've more important things to discuss. Like this festival they want for the Princess, with three full nights of dancing, for dancing means little foods which folk can eat on their feet, rather than a banquet to which they sit down. And a masquerade, too, which means we'd do well to make things that won't dribble juices and stain the fine costumes..."
Outside, in the courtyard, the young man known only as Gray paused between buckets of water to listen. His posture, in this moment when he was unobserved, was far straighter than the hunch he usually affected indoors, and his eyes, the same gray as the name he'd been given, lit with a surprisingly warm and intelligent smile.
Humming to himself the air of a waltz, he got back to work, after first checking his reflection in the surface of the cistern to be sure his features were sufficiently obscured by the ash which had been such a useful friend to him so far.
It would never do for him to be recognized by the Queen or the other Princes before the three nights of the masquerade came around.