Disclaimer: I own none of the characters. Wish I did, though!
Perhaps I should have written in advance to warn Ara of my impending visit, but truth be told, I just didn't think of it. Plans for the wedding were proceeding apace and once I had married Vidanric and was crowned queen of Remalna, I would be even less free than I was now – if such a thing were even possible. If I wished to pay a private, leisurely visit to the girl whose family had saved my life by hiding me from Debegri and his soldiers, I had better move soon.
Besides, surprise visits are always more fun, right? If I wrote ahead, Ara and her family would work themselves into such a frenzy of preparation that I'd be causing them a lot more extra work than I wished. Better just to drop in on the family unexpectedly, have a cup of tea and admire Ara's garden, invite them all to Remalna-city for the wedding, and then ride home again. Simple, quick, informal.
The idea popped into my mind one morning as I sorted mail before breakfast – and on an impulse I scrawled a quick note to Vidanric, called Mora to bring my riding gear, and was on my way out of Athanarel before anyone could insist that I bring an escort or other appurtenances corresponding to my exalted station – such as it was.
Though I didn't remember the way to Ara's farmhouse, having been borne there semiconscious on the back of her father's horse the last time, I did remember where I'd inadvertently stolen said horse. Ara had mentioned it during my convalescence – the Three Rings, run by Master Kepruid. Surely he could give me directions.
The morning was early enough that very few people were about the inn. Just as well, for those who were immediately dropped whatever they were doing to bow or curtsey deeply. Feeling a little foolish, I smiled as I dismounted and bade them pay me no mind.
"My lady!" Master Kepruid himself hurried out of the inn, sweeping an awkward bow. "Would you care to come in for refreshments? Forgive me, but if I had only known you were coming I would have prepared – " He gestured helplessly, indicating with the motion that the inn was unworthy of such an exalted personage as myself.
I gave him a reassuring smile and hastened to explain my errand. "Actually, Master Kepruid, I was hoping you could tell me where a certain family lives. They have a daughter named Ara, and I understand that her father often stays in your inn."
Understanding crossed his face swiftly. "Of course, my lady! Is this the Vestuk family you're looking for, who own the fine mare Drith?" His lips twitched as he valiantly fought back a grin.
I laughed, though my face had begun to turn red. A fine queen I would make, who had once been not only a failed revolutionary but also a common horse thief! "Yes, indeed, they own a fine mare named Drith." As I'd had occasion to find out for myself.
The other people in the inn yard had by now returned to their tasks, with surreptitious glances in our direction from time to time. Now a young man, about Ara's age, wound his way to Master Kepruid's side, bowing to me with a mischievous expression. From the resemblance, I guessed that this was the son, one of Ara's flirts.
"My lady, allow me to present my son and heir, Elun," Master Kepruid intoned. Then, in a less formal voice, he added, "He knows the way to the Vestuk farm as well as I do, and perhaps better – " with a mock-angry look at his son – "for he can show you the shortcuts and back ways."
Elun bowed again. "'Tis true, my lady."
And you no doubt hope for a chance to see Ara again, I thought, amused. "I'd be most grateful if you could show me the way," I replied, curtseying back.
Elun Kepruid did indeed know numerous shortcuts on the way to the Vestuk farm. Very rarely did we ride on the main road; he led me onto one side lane after another. Though he was shy initially, he quickly gained confidence and was soon regaling me with tales of growing up in the city, so different from my childhood in the mountains. While I was tramping barefoot over the rocky trails, listening to the music of the Hill Folk, he was helping his father around the inn, running errands and the like, trying to catch a glimpse of the nobles who rode by.
"Not that any of them stayed at the Three Rings," he added. "Our patrons are more farmer folk, like Master Vestuk. The nobles either have residences in Athanarel or their own town homes."
He had seen the lords riding out to comb the countryside for me last year. "We guessed 'twas you who had taken the horse," he chortled, "but whyever would we tell them what happened?"
Remembering Chovilun's well-stocked torture room, I remarked drily, "Debegri can be persuasive."
"Yes, but there were very few who liked the Baron, my lady! He was a cruel one, and no one wept a tear when he was killed." He sneaked a sideways look at me. "The inn's been getting better business ever since word got out that you'd been there. Seems like folk appreciated how you kept your promise about there not being civil war. They want to see places where you were. The inn where you nicked a pie from the Baron – that's even more popular than the Three Rings! Pity it wasn't the Baron's horse you stole at our place!" He laughed happily. "Ara tells me their farm has been seeing more visitors of late, too. Look my lady – over there."
Following his gaze, I saw the farmhouse clearly, without a haze of exhaustion and fear, for the first time. It was large for a farmhouse and surrounded by fields; the Vestuks were evidently prosperous farmers. But of course, I reminded myself, I knew that already. From this angle I couldn't make out the garden, though in the distance I could see the mountains. My mountains. I sighed.
The sound of hoof beats brought a young boy to the door as we rode up past the chickenyard. Well I remembered falling face down in the mud among the chickens the last time I arrived! I blinked, realized I was staring back at a perplexed rooster, and hastily looked again at the boy who was now gaping at me.
"Luz!" I exclaimed, dismounting quickly. "It's good to see you again!"
He gasped. "My lady!" He bowed as elegantly as he knew how. "Mama!" he turned to call. "Lady Meliara and Elun are here!"
Pattering feet announced Ara's arrival. With a few roses in one hand and pruning shears in the other, she had evidently just run in from the garden. "'Tis you, my lady! Oh, I was just wondering how you were, wasn't I Luz, and I was looking at my moonflowers and remembering how you admired their color once – I told Emis and wasn't she jealous! But here – would you like some roses?" And she thrust the blossoms at me.
"Ara," her mother said warningly as she caught up with her daughter. "My lady." She turned to me and curtseyed. "It is good to see you well."
"Mistress Vestuk. It is wonderful to see you again." I sniffed at the flowers, red and pink and white. "You do have the loveliest roses, Ara."
Elun, who'd been quiet until then, grinned over at Ara. "And she knows it too."
She pouted at him as her brother exclaimed, "Doesn't she ever! Some of those visitors wanting to see our place asked to buy her flowers, and hasn't she been impossible since then!"
Mistress Vestuk, trying to restore some dignity to the proceedings, shepherded us all into her sitting room.
"You didn't see this room last time!" Ara chattered on brightly, ignoring both her mother and the boys. "See, I've brought in some of my moonflowers for the vases." And indeed she had. Two large vases of blue and purple moonflowers scented the room from side tables. A small bookcase held a few books and some knick-knacks, and a single moonflower in a delicate vase. "Do you like them?" Ara asked anxiously. "Look – I'm starting to get ones that grow completely lavender."
"It's the soil," I replied absently, bending to admire the arrangements. I'd read about the acidity of the soil affecting flower colors, back when I was planning the gardens at Tlanth. "Have you been adding something new?"
"Oooh, yes! I have! The last time the shipment of fertilizer came in I told Papa it looked different – "
"Ara," said her mother wearily. "Don't chatter her ears off. Do fetch some refreshments for our guests."
With a grimace, Ara swept out, her skirts swishing around her from the speed of her spin. Elun gazed longingly after her. Luz met my eyes and grinned, and I knew we were thinking the exact same thing.
"Won't you have a seat, my lady?" Mistress Vestuk offered, gesturing at the carefully embroidered cushions scattered around the sitting room. She, too, had noticed Elun's expression.
I knelt on one and motioned for the others to sit as well when they hesitated. "I sent a letter last year once I returned to Tlanth," I said hesitantly. "I hope it arrived, for I did not know your name. I could only address it to Ara and hope that it would find its way to you."
Mistress Vestuk nodded. "Aye, it arrived. We were relieved to hear you were well." She seemed a little awkward, twisting her fingers together as she went on, "In truth, though we did not wish a civil war, we felt a little – we felt guilty that we did not aid you more."
I looked at her in surprise. "I do not see how you could have given me more aid, Mistress. You saved my life, hiding me until I was well, giving me clean clothing and food for my journey home. I could not have asked for more."
From his cushion, Luz cheerily added, "We didn't tweet at all! But Mama did find ways to spread word that you'd promised no fighting here – figured that might make folk more inclined to help you."
Here came Ara with a copper tea tray. "And I didn't even tell Emis until it was all over! Wasn't she jealous when she found out!" Deftly lowering the tray onto a table, she poured me a cup of tea.
"Thank you," I said to her. Then to the others, "Thank you all. For everything you did. Or didn't do. You saved my life and helped us defeat Galdran."
"And now you're going to be queen," Ara breathed, her eyes wide.
That reminded me of my purpose in coming. Finishing my tea, I pulled an elaborate wedding invitation out of my pocket. It was on thick cream-colored silk paper that looked woven, with gilt edges and a bouquet of roses and starliss outlined in gold at the top. The Astiar and Renselaeus devices were embossed on either side. Though I'd been forced by the sheer number of invitations to hire scribes, I'd handwritten a fair number myself. In fact, I'd learned a flowing calligraphy script, originating in Renselaeus centuries ago, especially for the task. The invitation I now held out to Ara's mother was one that I'd written.
"I was hoping you could all come to the wedding and coronation," I said. Mistress Vestuk took the paper carefully, fingers barely touching the edges. For a heartbeat, no one spoke.
Then Ara bounced up to dance around the room. Luz leapt up with a whoop. "Can we go? Can we go, Mama?" they begged. "Please? We have to go!" Ara hovered over her mother's shoulder, lightly brushing her fingers over the embossing. Seeing that, I had to hide a grin – I'd had the same reaction the first time I saw embossed paper.
Then I noticed that Elun was keeping his face carefully composed and his eyes down, and I cursed myself for not thinking to bring an extra invitation for the Kepruids. Of course, I hadn't planned on having one of them escort me out to the farm…but that was no excuse. I should have been prepared. I should have thought this out more! Julen was so right about my impulsiveness. "Your family too," I told him, embarrassed by my thoughtlessness. "I'd love to have you at the celebrations."
At that, his face broke into a grin. "Thank you, my lady!"
Mistress Vestuk had been staring silently at the invitation, her expression unreadable. Glancing at her, I found that she seemed worried. Worried? Why would a wedding invitation worry anyone? And then it struck me – the Vestuks probably could not afford to leave their farm for so long. And the new wardrobe they would need to assemble for court would be prohibitively expensive. On the verge of offering to cover their expenses, I caught myself. Such a gesture would only smack of charity. Thoughtless! I scolded myself. Thoughtless! Now they'll feel obliged to come, whether they can afford to or not, because the future queen invited them in person, and all I wanted to do was thank them. Casting my mind about desperately for some way to release them from their perceived obligation, I tried my best to assure Mistress Vestuk that I would understand perfectly should other matters preclude a journey to Remalna-city. Ara and Luz had quieted and were gazing pleadingly at their mother, and Elun was looking between them and me in puzzlement. Great. Now I'd spoiled their happiness as well. I really should have consulted Vidanric or Nee about this trip beforehand!
Propping the invitation carefully against one of the vases, Mistress Vestuk told me somberly, "We are honored, my lady. The farm, though…." She sighed. "I will speak to my husband."
"Of course. I understand completely, and to lighten the mood I quickly launched into a story about managing the (desperate) finances of Tlanth before the rebellion. Soon I had them laughing again.
"Thank you very much, my lady," Ara's mother said at the end. "Whether we can come or not, this is something to be treasured." She nodded at the invitation.
Well! I thought as we moved backs towards the front door. That's what I get for being too impulsive! Julen would be dismayed. If I'd but consulted Vidanric beforehand – but it was too late now. Still, I'd meant well! While we said our good-byes, Ara hovered about her mother and I knew she was just waiting for me to leave so she could pester her mother more thoroughly. It was in a more sober mood that I rode back to Remalna-city with Elun.
No word came from the Vestuks for three days. Then, on the fourth morning, I found a letter from Ara on my table. It said:
Dear Countess Meliara,
We thank you for the great honor of an invitation to your wedding.
That sounded a little too formal to be Ara's own diction. Her mother must have dictated the letter to her. I read on.
Unfortunately, Mother, Father, and Luz present their deepest regrets at being unable to attend. I, however, most gratefully accept your invitation. I am,
Your humble servant,
And then there was a postscript:
I can come! I can come! I can't believe it! Thank you, thank you!