Monotonous voice of Torgal was hardly bearable after six hours straight. David felt like he would be swaying his head dozily over the papers, were they not constantly changed. Since the morning he must've signed a thousand of them - or at least it felt like that. It seemed gaining independence was more complicated, than it seemed in the beginning…
'Decree number forty-seven, about appointing an Athlumian Merchant Guild. By the order of Lord David Nassau, we hereby…'
He was really trying to listen to what he was ordering 'all the merchants united', but he was getting tired. He allowed Torgal's voice to come through one ear and leave his head through another. Anyway, pointed out his dozing brain, when actually did the Sovani General prepare all those bigger and smaller decrees? Certainly, it wasn't possible to write them down so smoothly in last two days, right after Duke of Qubine paid Athlum a courtesy visit and declared her independent from Celapaleis reign, right? David risked a quick glance at the General. Torgal's face, as usual, showed no emotions, but there was something about his ears that suggested weariness. Well, maybe he DID write them all lately. Torgal was well-known for spending days and nights working without a break. It was usually Emma, who had sometimes been calling him to his senses and ordering him to go to sleep…
'My Lord, your signature here…'
David muffled a yawn. He was living in certain stress lately, being appointed as Acting Chairman of the Congress, having to organise simultaneously things in Athlum and trip to the Undelwalt… Even with the help of all Generals he wasn't getting much sleep. He finished ornamental zigzag under his family name and looked at the pile of papers Torgal had prepared on a small stool nearby. Then he cast a glance at Emmy, who was organising the decrees into thick files. She looked back at him and rolled her eyes to the ceiling. They stared at one another for a moment, then she pointed at Torgal with her chin and tilted her head to the side questioningly.
Exactly what would Rush do, if he wanted to get out of here…?
'I believe we need to take a break, Torgal' said David lightly. The Sovani gave him a quizzical look.
'If we intend to finish all the important decrees, before we take our leave for Undelwalt, it is crucial you become familiar with them today. There is no time for breaks.'
'Although continuous work makes all of us more prone to making mistakes' David tried to keep a straight face, when Torgal's left ear moved back and forth. It was not technically a lie… More like… Acknowledging a fact in advance. 'You already made one yourself.'
'Impossible!' The Sovani's ears lay almost flat on his head for a moment.
'Look here…' David tapped a piece of paper in front of him. 'I am almost certain the paragraphs have been mixed here…'
Torgal was going to kill him, he realised, when the General approached the table and scanned the piece of paper offensively. 'Almost certain', for goodness sake… It was 'almost' a confession!
'I shall compare this decree with the other ones' said the Sovani glumly. 'In the meantime I suggest you to take an adequate rest, my lord.'
David quickly left the chamber, slightly guilty for making Torgal do an extra and absolutely unnecessary work. He was certain Rush would do something like that, though. And wasn't it Torgal himself, who suggested David to become a bit more like his younger friend…?
David moaned on the inside, seeing Blocter's large silhouette approaching down the corridor.
'What is it, Blocter?'
'There's a problem with supplies, my lord. We need…'
'I asked Pagus to take care about that' interrupted David smoothly. He managed not to hesitate – it was true he wanted to ask Pagus to do it and it was also true he didn't want to be bothered right now… By anyone. 'I think you will find him somewhere in the courtyard…'
'Right! On my way then!'
As soon as Blocter disappeared in the distance, David took a turn left towards his chambers. For a while he was walking slowly, trying to look like he was deep in thoughts. As he lost the view of the last one of the patrolling soldiers, he quickly opened the door of one of the guest rooms and stepped in. There was a window, opening towards his mothers' garden and right under the windowsill there was a narrow ledge, hidden behind the climbing vine. David carefully climbed out of the window and hid under their flexible twigs. For a moment he stood motionless, calming his breath and watching spots of light, dancing on the stone wall under the curtain of leaves. He must have broken some of the twigs unconsciously, because he could now smell the intense scent of their juices. Oh, yes. He had stains on his left sleeve…
He pushed away an image of Torgal's face, once the Sovani notices that. He will worry about that later. Right now David worried rather about the ledge, more crumbled than he remembered it from few years back. He got to the column, conveniently carved in spiral motive, allowing support for hands and boots. Getting down, he realised the column too, was more crumbled than it used to be. That certainly called for a little renovation of the castle, once all the important things were dealt with. David also noticed something else, as he stood on the ground and turned towards the garden.
She was there.
She didn't turn around, so she didn't hear him getting down the column. It was probably for the best - David wasn't yet ready to let anyone know that Lord of Athlum skips important businesses by escaping out of the window. From the distance he watched sun reflecting in her brown hair, as the wind brushed it gently. She was obviously relieving the gardener with weeding the flowerbeds and she seemed to have fun doing that. David stared at her for a while, before he realised he was actually stalking her and that it wasn't a proper thing to do for a Lord. He coughed.
'Good afternoon, Irina.'
She jumped, turning around swiftly and hiding her soiled hands behind her.
'Uh, mister David… I… I didn't hear you coming…'
David smiled at her.
'Forgive me. I didn't mean to startle you.'
'What? Oh, no, no it's okay, I just…'
'I can see you were enjoying yourself.' He came closer, looking at the flowerbed, now carefully cleaned and weed-free. Purple asters, commonly referred to as "Marion's Stars" were his mother's favourites. They grew all around the garden, their colourful petals shining in the afternoon sun. David realised Irina was looking at him with a smile. He coughed again. 'You should have told me you like to work in a garden. I would provide you with appropriate tools.'
'I didn't want to bother you, mister David. I can take care of myself well and besides, you always seem to be so busy…'
'Even though, it is not polite to neglect my guests.' Especially not so charming guests as you are, he added in his thoughts. As if responding to that, Irina smiled at him gleefully.
'Mister David, I am grateful to be your guest, with or without the trowel!'
It was impossible not to smile to that. The girl tilted her head to the side, laughing with him. There was something extraordinary about her - as if the mysterious power of hers shone from the inside, giving her the charm and beauty that captured his heart. David considered it a pleasure to be in her company - something he was not expecting to find at this distressing time, but something he was ready to gladly accept.
At the sound of incoming footsteps, David froze. Was it one of the Generals or someone else, sent by them to find him? He wasn't ready for that yet. Making up his mind in an instant, he caught Irina's hand and, putting a finger on his lips, pulled her behind the rose bushes. Squeezed between their thorny branches and the wall, they waited in silence, until the steps died in a distance. David reluctantly released the girl's hand and they left their hideout.
'I apologise, Irina. It was at least improper of me.'
'Oh, no, it's okay!' She gave him a smile, her cheeks slightly blushed. 'It's totally fine! We all need to take a break sometimes, I think.'
'Naturally' David's voice faltered a little. In the depths of his own mind he scolded himself for hoping she'd say something else. Indicate she enjoyed that occasional warmth of his presence, perhaps; as he enjoyed hers... 'Again, I apologise.'
'Maybe you'd like to go on a walk with me, mister David?'
His heartbeat speeding up, he looked at Irina's open face in surprise. He didn't just imagine that right there...?
'Surely, that would be a splendid idea...'
'Yay! Come with me!'
This time it was her, who led David by the hand, taking him out of the gardens and down some corridors, he almost forgot about. They were mostly used by the servants, leading to the backyards of the Castle, where all kitchens, storerooms, laundries and other important buildings were located. By the smell of it, it was the laundry they were headed to.
'Wear this' she handled him brown coat with a hood. 'Put it over your head, so your hair won't be visible and let me do the talking.'
'I don't seem to...'
'Me and Rush are usually going out to the city together. General Blocter told the guards to let us in and out any time' explained Irina, grinning at him from under her hood. 'You can pretend to be my brother for a moment, for the sake of quick walk around Athlum, right?'
This was... Unexpected and surprising, but David decided not to worry anymore. Slightly unnerved, he waited, wrapped in the coat, while Irina was exchanging hellos with the Castle staff. She seemed to be well-known around here, and the guard at the door let them pass without another word.
Afternoon sun blinded David for a moment, when he stepped out to the bustling streets of his own city.
... ... ...
The sense of expectancy hovered in the air above the streets of Athlum. There were lanterns in red and green colours, hung everywhere. Several people moved around with massive ladders, adding more of them here and there. Garlands of flowers decorated every stall on the Xiphos Way. Irina watched David, as he walked among them, his eyes wide in surprise. She wondered if he has ever visited the city incognito, as he was now. Probably not. Perhaps every time he was accompanied by a bunch of soldiers and at least one of his Generals – most likely Torgal, who seemed to have a mild obsession with David's safety…
'Why are they doing all this?' asked David suddenly, when they stopped at the entrance to the Town Square in order to let some Yamas with huge carts pass. The carts were harnessed with Anbus and filled with food and drinks. 'There was no official announcement or call for celebration! The time is not proper for that…'
'I don't think people need an official announcement to be happy, mister David' said Irina smiling. 'Athlum is independent, isn't it? That's certainly a reason to throw a party!'
She was able to sense his hesitation. He looked up at the lanterns that were swaying happily on the wind and sighed.
'Well… I suppose it's nothing wrong to be happy in such circumstances. However, concerning the current political situation…'
'You talk like Torgal now, mister David.'
For some reason it made him chuckle. He laughed silently, the hood pulled over his face, before he straightened up and looked at her again, smiling.
'I'm afraid you're right, Irina! This is something inevitable, concerning the fact he was my tutor since I was eight years old, I guess.'
'That must have been hard for you, mister David!'
'Oh, not as such. Torgal is detached from others, but he was always a great mentor for me, ever since my father…' He become silent, staring into the distance for so long, that she decided to interrupt him.
Lord of Athlum shuddered, as if waking up.
'Pardon me, Irina. I got lost in thoughts.'
He looked at her without a smile – come to think of it, he wasn't smiling too often … But now there was something melancholic about him and it made her catch his hand comfortingly. David's eyes widened in surprise. For a moment they stood like that, motionless and then Irina realised she'd gone too far. She made a step back and coughed.
'I'm sorry, mister David. I shouldn't…'
'No, don't be sorry' he shook his head. 'Thank you for this kindness, I appreciate it.'
'I'm straightforward like my stupid brother!' she said, trying to turn it into a joke. David snorted with laughter.
'It's not necessarily a bad thing, Irina. Rush has a golden heart on his sleeve.' He tilted his head to the side, and rim of his hood slipped down, revealing strands of his blonde hair. 'In fact, I think you should follow one of his habits and try referring to me as 'Dave', at least for the time of this little outing.'
She couldn't believe he was actually suggesting this! Lord of Athlum…?
'Mister… I mean… Dave, really?' she asked, knowing there was that look of surprised kitten on her face. She loathed it, but it seemed David was pleased. He smiled widely.
'I believe it would be less suspicious – after all we pretend to be regular citizens of Athlum' he said.
'O-okay!' It was strange: now it seemed that anything she did could make David smile. She started to wonder, whether he really might be thinking the same way she did… Irina quickly pushed those thoughts from her head. No way. She was just a girl, who happened to be cursed with the so called Marion's Blessing and he was the ruler of a great city. No way he could…
She followed his lead into the Town Square, watching him walking. He might have been pretending to be incognito, but if only someone tried to watch him for a while, they'll recognise him. He walked the pavements like the Lord he was. Together, they manoeuvred their way through the crowd. There were comedians, preparing for their performance in the evening, and some kids were already hanging around, hoping for a glimpse of a show. Irina found some change in her pockets and bought waffles for her and David. Ignoring his weak protest ('How come the lord of Athlum must be indebted in such a case?'), they sat on the balustrade of the fountain eating.
Evening sun warmed their backs. David was watching the citizens and Irina was watching him; his royal profile, visible from under the hood, unruly strands of blonde hair, his hands rested on his knees. Feeling her heartbeat speeding up, she got up, standing on the balustrade. David looked at her, slightly surprised. Irina shrugged. It wasn't like she was trying to impress him – at least she hoped it wasn't – but, she made some dance-like steps on the balustrade, making her dress swirl around her. David smiled.
And then, in the blink of an eye, Irina's foot slipped on the wet rock. As if the time slowed down, she felt loosing her balance and saw David springing up, his hand extended towards her… She managed to scold herself for acting like a stupid kid again, and they both landed in the cold water of the fountain.
David got up first, pulling her to her feet.
'Irina, are you hurt?'
She shook her head, feeling a hot sensation crawling up her neck and cheeks. She felt too embarrassed to say a word, but she couldn't help but looking at him. They stood in the clouds of spray, their clothes drenched. Irina watched small drops of water, dripping down David's hair. He leaned closer.
'You are all right, I hope.'
'It was stupid, wasn't it? I'm so sorry…' she said silently and, to her surprise, saw him smiling widely.
'I don't mind at all.'
His hands… So warm…
'Hey, is the missy okay?' asked the voice of some Yama. Irina looked around. There were people, standing around the fountain, staring at them.
'I-I'm fine. I just slipped, that's all! My brother caught me, though!' she said out loud, grinning the best she could. David made a move, as if he was going to step away from her, but didn't let go of her arm.
'You better get outta the water, you gonna catch colds, the lot of you!'
With a bit help from David, they managed to get out and away from the curious looks. Irina breathed with relief only when they left the Town Square and slowed down on the streets of Virtus Parish.
'That one was close' sighed David with relief and suddenly began to laugh. 'What do you think will be today's greatest gossip? Freshly named Lord of Athlum is having a bath in the fountain with a pretty girl?'
'I hope no one recognised you, Dave…' whispered Irina, a bit pleased with the 'pretty girl' part.
'So do I. We need to go back to the Castle post haste. If Torgal finds out about it, he will skin me alive. Come.'
Almost absent-mindedly, he caught her hand and began walking towards the Castle, Irina trailing behind him in a sort of dreamy trance. His hand was so warm…
Behind them, invisible in the crowd, General Pagus beckoned one of the Athlumian soldiers, who stood guard on the street.
'My boy, go and find General Torgal in the Castle. Pray tell him I have found his loss' the elderly Qsiti hesitated for a moment and then smiled widely. 'And do tell him there is a minor issue we will have to discuss soon.'
As the soldier saluted and marched towards the Castle's gate, Pagus looked around in the direction where David and Irina disappeared.
'Youth' he sighed happily. 'Minor heart's issue to discuss indeed.'