The Secret Life of A Girl
Chapter I: Girl Sees Boy


The girl threaded her way through the bustling halls of the palace, weaving between the throngs of servants and nobles while doing her best to go unnoticed. For a girl of her station, she was startlingly adept at it. The people naturally flowed around the silver-haired girl, neither denying her presence nor wishing to engage it. Not possessed (at least in her own admittedly insecure mind) of the demure beauty of her elder sister, Marlene, or the frenetic energy of her younger sister, Millerna, the fourteen year old princess simply didn't attract the same attention of her siblings.

She wouldn't have wanted it. Polite small-talk with strangers about the affairs of her family and the kingdom at large was considered a burden, a distraction from what she would rather do. She was much more content losing herself within the rows of books in the palace library, attending the theater or listening to the philosophical debates of the scholars that served her father. Her disinterest in socializing had earned her the reputation as "The Quiet One." Or as Eries cynically translated it, "The Weird One."

Today, however, it was impossible for her to ignore the people around her. The snippets of conversation she picked up carried the news of a visit to Palas by the legendary swordsman Balgus. Presumably, he was here to pay respect to her father, King Grava Aston, though Eries didn't know why. The swordsman was mostly associated with the country of Fanelia and served its rulers as a warrior, not a diplomat. More gossip said that he had spent the last few years traveling Gaea in order to hone his already formidable skills; perhaps he only stopping by the capital city of Asturia to get some needed food and rest before resuming his journey home.

Eries knew she would be required to meet the man. One of the more annoying duties of a princess was to put on a vacuous smile and greet important dignitaries and the like as if they were dear friends or long lost, and presumably loved, relatives. Her sisters were skilled at it. Marlene could delicately blush at a compliment at will and Millerna was just so open and friendly, she won over everyone she met. Stuck between the radiant blonds, the more introverted Eries could do a decent job if she exerted herself. Remembering to smile, curtseying *just so* and above all, not fidgeting in the extravagant contraptions Asturian high fashion called ball gowns. The one thing she had yet to get the hang was the natural sincerity of Millerna or the deceptive imitation of that same quality that Marlene employed.

A few steps more would have brought her out of the main palace and into the courtyard where she would have been even more able to blend in and be forgotten. As the breaking rays of sunlight caused her blue eyes to squint, she heard an ominous voice behind her that caused them to roll up in annoyance.

"Princess Eries? Princess… "

It was her attendant, Mina, no doubt come to fetch her and make her presentable for the king's audience with Balgus. There was no point in pretending she hadn't heard her. Mina was trained to follow her to the swamplands on the outskirts of Asturia if necessary. Eries believed it was well within the large woman's capabilities to do it too. At least if she cooperated now, Mina was more likely to let her pick out what she had to wear. The woman had a fetish for ribbons and the color pink that Eries found abhorrent. Eries Aria Aston was not a "pink" girl.

It's best just to get this over with. "Yes, Mina?"

The frazzled attendant caught up to her and told Eries what she already knew. Balgus had indeed arrived in the morning and would be officially greeted at a banquet to be held this evening. The entire court would be present and the Aston sisters were to be on their most charming behavior. It was the sort of thing usually reserved for other kings. Eries supposed her father was being so extravagant to someone who wasn't even of noble birth in an attempt to acquire Balgus' services for his own. Asturia was a peaceful country that had come to be known more for trade than warfare, but having a man who was known throughout the entire world of Gaea as one of the three Legendary Swordsman on its side certainly wouldn't hurt when it came to negotiating trade treaties.

She didn't think one banquet would be enough to sway him to pledge fealty to her father. Balgus' loyalty to Fanelia was as famous as his skill with a sword. Whether or not King Aston's middle child was there and bubbling with good cheer wouldn't have any bearing on the outcome. Nevertheless, she was a princess and with the luxury of her birth came responsibilities.

"All right, Mina," she groaned. "Let's go to my room and start getting ready."

"Yes, Princess. I already have the most lovely of dresses in mind…"

***

Eries shifted uncomfortably in her dress. She had managed to convince Mina that a nice dark blue color would be perfect for the occasion, but had to compromise on the amount of ruffles and lace. She felt buried under the extraneous decorations on some parts of her body. On others, she wished for more. Silently, she cursed the idiots that deemed low cuts to be the look of the season. Some females simply were not meant to wear them.

Marlene was not one of them. Eries waited for her and Millerna in a small chamber to the side of the main hall. Once they joined her, all of them would stay there until all the lesser officials in the kingdom had been seated and proper announcements had been made for the royalty. Her sisters were later than usual. They normally took more time to ready themselves than Eries, but then, their attendants didn't harass them as much as Eries' did. Mercifully, Mina had left Eries alone to help with some sort glassware crisis. For some reason, the staff was under the impression that Balgus would be offended and storm out of the palace if his stemware wasn't right. Eries didn't bother pointing out how ridiculous that was. Mina might not have gone away then.

Eries kept to the alcove for the most part. Dinner was still a good bit off and the only ones in the massive dining hall were servants and guardsmen discussing security. Everyone performed their duties according to a well rehearsed schedule. Another thing Asturia was known for was its balls, galas, banquets and other various festivities.

The sound of a deep voice echoing through the hall distracted the staff and Eries. Drawn out of her spot, she saw Balgus standing at the front entrance of the hall. At his height, his head barely cleared the Aston family tapestry hanging high above that spot. Balgus wasn't just tall, he was huge. He towered over the guardsmen as they gathered around him. Even his scars were enormous. The sheer volume of them attested to the fact that he had gained his prowess the hard way. The guardsmen were quick with questions; Balgus was keen to answer. From his hand gestures, Eries guessed that he was discussing sword techniques. The men followed every move he made, reacting to every fake thrust and parry as if the gods themselves were providing the instruction. Of course, to them, Balgus was a sort of god.

She watched for a few minutes, not out of interest necessarily but a lack of anything else to do. Balgus suddenly surged forward in demonstration of an advanced move and the crowd of men migrated after him.

That was when she first saw the boy. He was leaning against the ornate arch at the entrance to the hall. He had his arms folded across his chest and was staring intently at the floor in a manner that suggested that he wanted to be here even less than Eries did. He wasn't dressed like he was about to attend a formal dinner. Heavy boots and loose, not entirely clean, raiment would ordinarily result in the wearer being quietly escorted out.

Shouts from the Balgus congregation got his attention. The swordsman was giving a full show now; moving with a grace belied by his size in a series of strikes and dodges, he danced across the large hall. Eries watched the boy as he watched Balgus. Every movement of the giant man brought an equal motion of a long, blond ponytail.

Eries wouldn't have been aware of Balgus if he had started to use her as a sparring partner.

Then, abruptly, it was over. The arch-chancellor entered the room and berated the men for bothering Asturia's honored guest. Despite Balgus' own protests, the chancellor sent the men on their way. Balgus resumed his position by the entrance. Eries caught one last glimpse of the boy before her view was obscured once more by the massive swordsman.

Without even being aware of it, she started venturing further into the hall. She was brought back by the sound of Mina's voice. Eries was dimly aware that she was being lectured in the high art of court etiquette. Turning to the attendant, she saw that Marlene and Millerna had just arrived. She looked one more time to the entrance and not seeing what she wanted, joined her sisters.

***

The banquet went exactly how Eries had thought it would. Aston wasted no time and made his proposition to Balgus before the first course had been cleared from the tables. The swordsman gave a gracious "thanks, but no thanks" to the offer. His excuse was that he was only in Palas for a brief time before heading back to Fanelia. He had indulged in his own training long enough and needed to return to Fanelia's prince to begin the boy's instruction. Balgus spoke referentially of the prince, the allegiance he had pledged to King Goau had transferred to his son. He admitted feeling guilty for leaving the orphaned royal for as long as he had.

Eries' father interrupted the review of the status of Fanelia's court with disingenuous sympathies for the young Fanel. He made a joke about raising his trio of daughters on his own, then dug a fork into his main course and ignored his guest for the rest of the meal.

As for his middle daughter, she was disappointed to see the boy had not been invited. She had assumed that he had some kind of association with Balgus, but the swordsman had come alone. Eries had sneaked looks out towards the hallway at the start of dinner to see if he was still around, but there was no boy anywhere around. So while the nobles chatted aimlessly amongst themselves, Eries spent the dinner contemplating who he could have been. Out of her natural sense of curiosity, of course.

She only found out that her instinct on that matter had been right too at the close of the meal. Balgus himself brought the subject up. "Your majesty, though I am unable to provide any service to you, I must confess that I do have a favor to ask of you."

He paused, gauging the king's reaction before continuing. Balgus' rejection of the offer of employment was fresh in everyone's memories. At the eventual nod of Aston's head, he spoke again, "I've been training a young man for about a year now. I'm afraid that my duties in Fanelia preclude me from instructing him further and I do not wish to see his talent go to waste. It is my hope that I, by your grace, could leave him here at your court so that he may resume his training. He's a native Asturian and I personally vouch for his skill. I assure you he would be a great asset to Asturia's army."

The nobles, some of which had already gotten up from the table, commenced to titter amongst themselves. Millerna tugged on her skirt impatiently, knowing that this appeal would extend an already overlong dinner. Marlene swirled the last drops of vino in her glass and commented to Eries that this Balgus must be brave if he's begging favors after turning their father down. She didn't think he would accept. King Aston, though, appeared to be considering the request. He wasn't dismissing it outright. Eries knew, or hoped, he would say yes. If Balgus wouldn't serve Asturia, his apprentice should make an acceptable substitute.

King Aston toyed with Balgus for a bit before giving his acquiescence. "A native Asturian, you say?" he asked, yawning to hide his interest. "Might I have heard of his family?"

Balgus grew slightly uncomfortable at this question. "Yes, he comes from an old family." He cleared his throat before giving the surname. "The Schezars."

That brought the nobles back to the table. Aston gave an amused "hmm" as his response. Eries winced.

Everyone in Asturia had heard of the Schezars. Balgus was correct; they were an old family, one of Asturia's oldest. And unfortunately, one of the most notorious. Years ago, the father, who had earned a reputation as a wanderer, had undertaken some lunatic quest that resulted in the abandonment of his family and the loss of a substantial amount of his fortune. Later, the daughter had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The mother, deprived of husband and child, had died of grief. It was shortly thereafter that the son, evidently the boy in question, had run away from the Schezar estate and vanished from the Asturian society his family had once dominated.

Eries found herself even more intrigued than before by the revelation.

With all the gossip swirling around the room, Balgus felt obligated to speak up for the boy. He got out a "your majesty", before King Aston silenced him with a wave of his hand. "Very well, Balgus. If he's good enough to earn praise from a master such as yourself, I don't see how I can turn him away."

Balgus repeatedly gave the king his gratitude. Right along with him, Eries silently expressed her own grateful sentiments.

***

Balgus left for Fanelia the following morning. Eries knew the exact moment of his departure because she was awakened by an argument taking place directly under her window. Peering out the window, she saw Balgus with the boy from last night.

She had a better look at his face now. His eyes were deep blue, though not as dark as her own. Sapphires came to mind. Like the gems, they reflected the light of the morning sun. Also like the gems, there was a hardness in them. That hardness might have come from anger, but Eries wondered if something else was the source.

The argument cycled through explanations from Balgus as to why he couldn't take him with him and the boy's insistence that there was no reason why he couldn't go to Fanelia too. The apprentice was plainly against leaving the tutelage of his master. Or maybe he doesn't want to stay in Asturia, Eries thought.

Finally Balgus asked the boy to repeat what he had been taught about becoming a true swordsman. The boy mumbled something about control and honing oneself and that seemed to be that. Balgus placed his broad hands on the boy's shoulders, told him he was proud of how far he come and left without another word. The boy stood under the window the entire time it took for the figure of Balgus to fade into the distance.

Eries imagined that the boy must be feeling very alone. He had moved against the wall so that Eries could only see the tips of his boots. As quietly as possible, she shifted her position so she could lean out a little further. Knees were visible now. She needed a extra few inches…

She forgot about the small plant that sat on her windowsill. She heard the scrapping of the pot against stone and reached out to grab it before it fell. All she got was air. The pot landed at the boy's feet with a disquieting crash, just missing his head by an inch.

"What the hell?" The boy looked up, but he was too late. Eries had already collapsed on the floor and was holding her head in her hands, convinced she was going to die of embarrassment.