Heck ya Ch8! Endless thanks to my ever vigilant beta. This story would be complete gobbledygook without you.
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Ch 8: Steel and Silk: Part 2
The dressing room's bright lamps lit the noble woman in all her fine attire to full advantage. The finest fabrics cut to perfection framed the creamy skin reviled by her upswept hair. Warm chestnut highlighted at her brow by twining golden highlights. No one tonight would guess at what had caused her hair to grow in blond. The lady she appeared to be would faint at the thought of facing down Immerez. The Green Rider she was still had bad moments late at night when dreams of a bloody hook chased her dreams. Perhaps if they looked into her eyes, Karigan mused. The stranger who looked back at her from the mirror was difficult to reconcile with the young 'brat' she had been once upon a time on the road from Selium. There was a focused reserved and something a bit severe in this woman for all her outward elegance.
Karigan was alone now, a final moment 'to compose herself'. She lifted the lid of the carved wooden case her father had sent along with the gown and forgot how to breathe. She had been expecting something beautiful but not this. The stones were midnight black shot with bright silver points. Like stars in the night sky, she thought in awe. The triple strand of gems and matching ear-bobs were held together by a web of fine silver culminating in a single crescent moon resting just above the swell of her breasts. A new supplier indeed, the stone must be newly discovered. Karigan knew she had never see its like before.
Mara entered with a soft knock, Karigan's wrap in hand. "Well you certainly look the part."
"Yes, now if I can just not fall on my face and ruin the illusion," Karigan scoffed. "Thank you again for all you help Mara," Karigan told her friend with sincere gratitude.
"Of course, now off you go; Alton is waiting. I am expecting a full report afterwards. Here is your wrap if you insist on taking the rout through the garden. It is snowing out again."
"I need the cool air to settle my nerves and besides the hood and cape will protect everything," Karigan replied as Mara carefully helped her raise the hood.
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Sweeping black and white banners arced between marble columns while candle-lit chandeliers tossed yellow-gold illumination on the swirling dancers. Taking a final breath to appease the butterflies in her stomach, Karigan shed her wrap to a waiting attendant and stepped up to the announcer.
"Rider Sir Karigan G'ladheon Sub Chief of Clan G'ladheon!" rang above the din of polite chatter and orchestral music.
Heads swiveled and eyes widened causing Karigan to suppress a blush.
"Heck of a title, my lady, " teased Yates under his breath, playing the role of her attendant along with Tegan for the evening.
"Escorted by Lord Alton D'Yer!" finished the Announcer as Alton stepped up to Karigan's side.
"One well deserved..." trailed off Alton as he looked back from the room to the woman at his side. "Karigan?" he breathed, hardly able to recognize the woman reviled beneath the cape and cowl.
Time crawled as Alton stared, the soft glow of feminine pride tugging at the corners of Karigan's lips.
"We need to move along," she suggested taking his arm.
Alton nodded and attempted to focus on descending the stairs successfully. Once they reached the floor, he steered them both to a nearby pillar and turned to her. "Gods Karigan, you're gorgeous." Catching himself he quickly added, "Sorry, that is not the most refined way to say it, but you look… breathtaking."
"Thank you Alton. You look quite dashing as well." she said, assessing again the lean man in front of her. He had changed so much in his time away, grown from a carefree young man into someone more grounded in his responsibilities with his own burdens to carry. Karigan understood the change and saw it reflected in herself as well. However, in some ways, she was still sorry for the loss.
"Rohaven white wine, my lord and lady?" grinned Tegan, having appeared with two long stem glasses.
"Please," they both said in unison. Glancing back to each other, Karigan felt the knot in her stomach dissolve as they both broke into quiet laughter. It is just Alton, relax, Karigan scolded herself. With the crisp taste of cool wine on her tongue, she scanned the crowd. Unconscious habit had her taking stock of those who moved with a warriors barring and noting those who noted her. Looking to the throne Karigan sought the King but did not see him or Estora.
"His Highness is not yet present," came the reply to her unasked question from one of the stealthy Weapons who materialized from around the pillar.
"Fastion, Donnel," smiled Karigan in greeting.
"Truly Rider, I believe the King may have been remiss, black suits you far better than green," Donnel offered in a rare show of charm and familiarity that had Alton's eyes narrowing and posture straitening.
"Thank you kind sir, you both look very dashing as well," Karigan offered taking in the Weapon's formal dress uniforms. The black on black raw silk and satin was intricately embroidered with arcane symbols and marks of rank. Their rigidly tailored doublets coupled with a swordsman's wide shoulders, and trim waists had the Weapons drawing more than one appreciative glance from the circling ladies. As the waltz drew to a close, a few of the boldest even attempted to catch Donnel or Fastion's eye.
Fastion, exuding the self-contained focus distinctive of his order, moved in front of Karigan loosely closed left hand extended palm down. In response, Karigan held out her own open palm, query evident in her eyes. "Regardless of what color you wear, you will need this." So saying, the Weapon she had once dubbed granite face, solemnly bent down to place the softest of caresses upon her cheek. "Well done my friend. Welcome."
As Fastion had descended toward her, Karigan had frozen unsure, but his whispered words at her ear had hot tears building behind her eyes. "…Fast," Karigan whispered, glancing down at the innocent looking black ribbon curled in her palm then back to the Weapons. Heartbeats raced in her ears until-
"Karigan, I believe the first dance is mine. Your pardon, gentlemen," Alton said, surprising Karigan. What in the world is he about, she thought, startled out of her riotous thoughts by the abrupt change. Fastion's fleeting knowing look made her suspect that the guiding hand Alton placed on the small of her back held more than just 'helpful' intention as he guided her onto the dance floor. Karigan slipped the curl of ribbon around her finger for safe keeping and swore she could hear a faint murmur amongst the din- 'Welcome Swordmaster'.
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Xandis Amberhill defied a lifetime of courtly training and years of ingrained rakish charisma to collapse into the nearest chair. His eyes pleaded with the deceptively delicate noble woman before him to 'please speak sense' but no sound managed to battle its way past his rebellious lips.
"Would you like a moment to consider?" asked a maddeningly composed Lady Estora politely. Not capable of speech he could only nod in assent.
"Very well, I must go in and be announced with the King, but I will return shortly for your decision." Lifting her pure white taffeta skirt to resettle it, Lady Estora moved toward the door.
"Why me?" Xandis asked her retreating back. He was astonished to hear his own voice, but even more amazed at his choice of question. Of everything, this is what I question? he wondered to himself.
Estora stopped for a moment, consideration clearly communicated in the line of her shoulder and neck. Slowly she turned her elegantly coffered head to look back into Amberhill's questioning eyes. A slow smile bloomed in her perfect face bringing Xandis to his feet in time to meet her soft hand on his cheek and urgent lips with his own. Blood rushed to his ears as the sweet feminine smell of her wrapped its self around him. His passion was redoubled in her until she pulled away, like a quick dunk in an icy stream with only her gaze locked on his to keep him afloat.
"Because this is the path I choose for myself," she answered his questions both spoken and unasked.
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"His Highness, King Zachary Hillander, High King of Sacoridia escorting Lady Governor Estora Coutre!" rang the announcer, halting both the orchestra and dancers. As the royal couple ascended the diesis, the assembled guests bowed and curtsied. The king was striking in all black, reminiscent of the Weapons formal uniforms with a silver circlet shining like the moon upon his head. Lady Estora, like Karigan, had forgone much of frothy lace favored by those ladies present in favor of a satin so luminescent it appeared lit from within. The tightly corseted bodice topped with modest white lace to her neck fell into impossibly full skirts gathered down the fall of the gown creating the illusion that Estora simply floated along on a glowing cloud. The diamond and pearl drops at her ears and the intricate golden curls arranged on her head were the perfect adornments, showing off to best advantage Estora's natural beauty.
"My friends, thank you for attending Sacoridia's annual Solstice Ball," King Zachary began. "In this time of remembrance and rebirth, we ask you to keep my Lady Estora's late father in your hearts. He will be sorely missed by his family, friends, and the province that he loved. And as we light our candles for those loved and lost, let us also lift our hearts. We stand here surrounded by dear friends and allies. We have had a hard fight and the day is not yet done, but my heart is bright with hope. Brave deeds have been rendered; you the good people of this land have meet all challenges. I am honored to stand with you and for you in the battle to come, confident in our triumph."
The King's speech was met with thunderous applause and not a few solemn nods. Karigan felt her heart swell with pride. This was her king. This was the man she would follow into battle and lay down her life for without hesitation. The same pride and determination was written on Alton's face as he squeezed Karigan's sword-hand, still grasped in his own.
The King signaled for the music to begin again. Dancers found their partners and continued the familiar pattern around the grand ballroom. Alton's hand was coarse in her own, and Karigan could feel the warmth of his arm under her own. They finished the dance chatting companionably about the new Rider wing.
Before Alton could ask for the next dance, Fastion joined the Riders. "If you will excuse me, my Lord, the Lady has promised me a dance." Alton's reluctance was clear, however, he gave the other man a nod and moved to find another partner.
"Do you actually dance Fastion or are you just trying to bother Lord D'yer?" asked Karigan.
"Dance is excellent training for the sword," Fastion replied with a hint of superiority.
"Ah, so perturbing Alton is just a bonus."
Fastion studiously ignored Karigan's comment asking instead, "You are aware that your 'ring' is intended for your saber?"
"About that Fast, is Drent serious? Does this mean what I think?"
"Armsmaster Drent is known for many things, humor is rarely one of them."
"But… he hates me. He thinks I am rubbish. The only reason he even took me on was the Captain and Master Rendell," Karigan protested, thinking of the hundreds of humiliations she had endured at Drent's hands.
"Drent however, is quite well known for his total intolerance of incompetence," Fastion continued, his train of thought unperturbed by her protests.
Karigan saw that her objections were falling on deaf ears and decided to change tactics. "Even for you, it must be challenging to guard the King and dance with me, or is it possible you are actually off duty this evening?"
"And you choose to spend it surrounded by people. I am amazed."
"For a dance with you, well worth it, although, I do have a message for you, Rider."
Fastion's frank statement shocked Karigan so much she almost stumbled in his arms. Fastion could not have intended that how it sounded? Could he? Searching for safer ground Karigan made herself focus. "What message?"
"The King and Lady Estora would like a word with you," he replied with an unreadable expression.
"Oh, should we go then?"
"Let's finish our dance first. His Highness said we should both enjoy our night a bit first."
Karigan felt confused both by the King's message and Fastion's comments. Maybe the wine was getting to her.
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"Stevic G'ladheon, Chief of Clan G'ladheon."
"Captain Lauren Mapstone, of His Highness' Green Riders," cried the announcer moments after the heavy antechamber doors closed behind the royal couple, their guests, and guards.
"I do love a woman in uniform, but I must admit this makes an interesting alternative," Stevic complimented the Captain. Amusement and appreciation danced in his eyes as he enjoyed the view.
For her part, Lauren worked hard not to discreetly elbow him in the ribs. The dress had been his idea, and privately she had to confess its high necked military cut and full skirts appealed to her more than she would have thought. However, she would rather chew saddle leather than admit it to him. Stevic's easy confidence and aura of authority more than anything he could ever wear drew the kind of attention and respect many nobles never enjoyed. And honestly, the man was insufferable already! The nerve of him to 'take the liberty of ordering her something suitable' without even a by your leave.
"Alternative my lily white…" she started.
"Yes?" he smirked with a wicked gleam.
"Never mind. Later. I need to go report to the King." She finished resolutely tramping down the flustered mess he made of her composure.
"Later indeed," Stevic murmured suggestively, while offering his arm to escort her.
"Then we can go find Karigan. I believe she may be wanting a word or two with you." His reflexive wince was swift and rewarding. Lauren could hardly wait to see this rather formidable man squirm like a muddy child in his best clothing at the scolding he was likely to receive from his even more formidable daughter.
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The King and Lady Estora were not seated on the raised throne at the apex of the ballroom when the Weapon and Rider approached. Instead, they were shown through a nearby set of double doors into an adjoining chamber. The room was mostly open with a few clusters of elegant chairs and tables. Karigan noted doors leading into other rooms on two of the walls as well as several fine wall hangings and woven rugs.
Estora and Zachary, seated at a far cluster of chairs, looked up simultaneously as the pair entered the room.
"Karigan, you made it, thank you." Greeted Estora. "You look absolutely fantastic." And no small bit intimidating, she continued to herself taking in Karigan from head to toe. The rider's aura of self-possessed assurance combined with her dark attire brought back memories of that day in the cave, when dressed in Estora's black ridding habit, Karigan had set out to draw pursuit away from her and Furgal's escape. Remembering how Karigan had faced down almost certain death with focused calm and decisive action reassured Eatora. This is the right decision she thought. Glancing to the man beside her she could see the smallest hit of his silent struggle to conceal his desire for his Rider, prompting her to add silently; for all of us.
"Thank you. You look amazing as well my Lady. Sorry to have keep you waiting." Karigan apologized while dipping into a deep curtsy. She was a bit embarrassed by Estora's praise and, deeply wished that she had skipped the dancing so as not to have kept the royal couple waiting.
Fastion closed the door behind them, and then turned to offer the King and Lady Estora a formal bow of his own.
"Don't apologize, I hope you enjoyed yourself. I am sorry to impose on both of your evenings, but things are moving fast and I have need of both of you." Replied Zachary
"Of course." Karigan and Fastion replied in unison snapping to attention. Their perfectly synchronous reaction of support brought a faintly amused smile to Zachary's lips.
Estora, cast a brief look at Zachary then approached the Rider, "Karigan, I was wondering if we could have a word? There is something you should know, and I am afraid there is no delicate way to say it." Estora watched a professional mask of polite interest clamp firmly in place over Karigan features. You look ready to face down the most terrifying of foe my friend, Estora mused, let us hope you are prepared to face your own heart.
"I have decided to break my break my marriage contract with Zachary and return to my own province," Estora said in a steady tone.
Karigan's eyes flew to the man in question, while trying to reign in her own thundering heart. Part of her wanted to rejoice, but part of her was shocked that Estora could hurt Zachary in this way. He was standing against the far wall, giving Eatora and Karigan as much room as possible. As Karigan's mind began to work once more, she observed his calm resolve and had to assume this was not the first the King had heard of Estora's plans. His thoughts on the subject were locked down tight behind his King's mask, but no shock was evident.
"Why?" Karigan asked bluntly, knowing she was showing a horrible disregard for rank.
Estora was a noble and did not owe her any explanation, but her confusion and instinct to protect Zachary had her charging ahead.
"A couple of reasons actually," Estora began. "First is that it is what I truly want for my life. I never wished to be queen, my father did. And because I loved him and feared him, I could just never really tell him no. In the end, I know now he came to see this too and while I have his letters as proof of his love and acceptance of me, I wish every second that I had found the courage to face him in life. Second, the king is a kind man and I do love my nation deeply, but the welfare of Coutre Provence will always be first in my heart. And that is no way for a queen to feel. Also, I am in love with another and we both know Zachary is as well," Karigan's choked sound of protest threatened to cut Estora off, however her upraised hand forestalled the Rider.
"King Zachary and I have spoken to the counsel. And while they are not at all happy with this change of plans, my father's letters and my governorship leave them little room to protest." Here Estora paused to glance over her shoulder at the King then turning back to her friend added- "Curiously enough, the moon priests also supported our decision to dissolve the marriage contract. Apparently, no matter how many times they read the signs no auspicious day could be found for a marriage between Zachary and myself."
Zachary cleared his throat and stepped forward quickly. "Yes, well we will be announcing Lady Estora's return to Coutre Provence and the dissolution of the contract tonight. With the counsel and moon priests already aware the secret will not last long and we would prefer to tell the people ourselves." Zachary glanced behind Karigan's to the quiet Weapon. "Fastion if you could gather a few of the other off duty Shields, I am sure Willis and his men will be happy for the support."
Fastion nodded curtly then turned to slip back out the door to the ballroom. Zachary's words brought Karigan's still reeling mind into sharp focus. Instinctively, her hand dropped to her hip looking for her missing saber.
"There is a spare in the next room," Willis informed her.
"Ah, let's not," Zachary said with a hint of a smile. "I don't think there is any need for obvious additional guards. It rather sends the message we are expecting trouble, besides, you look radiant Rider and I think a sword and belt might clash a bit."
"He is right Karigan, on both counts. If we act like we expect issues, people will likely oblige. And you do look amazing. I don't think I have ever seen anything like the stones you are wearing and your dress…you are sure to set a new trend. Next year there won't be a scrap of lace in the entire room." Predicted Estora.
As the ladies spoke, Fastion and several other Weapons entered the room and Zachary moved over to join them in quiet conversation.
"He is not the only one in love," Estora told Karigan. "You have never been afraid of anything, Karigan G'ladheon, don't let this be the first."
"But I am not a queen!" She protested in adamant undertones.
"Unwavering bravery and loyalty for king and country and an endless capacity for compassion and self sacrifice in the face of horrifying evil; sounds like a queen to me. One I would be proud to follow," Estora stated her words filling the room.
Karigan looked around the room, her gaze catching both Zachary's and the assembled Weapons. No no no gods no, that is not me! I could never, she thought frantically.
"Well said," Zachary approved, while beside him Fastion nodded solemnly.
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Sooooooo, that is all for now. I am excited for the next chapter, and a little worried. I have a lot of ground to cover. This was supposed to be a short little fic, but it keeps trying to be a book. Ugh! I think my muse has it in for me
I can't wait to hear what you all think of it. Please read and review! I depend on your good will and guidance to motivate me!