Hundreds of voices merged into the loud murmur of a market crowd. A great multitude streamed along the narrow dirt corridors that divided rows of crude merchant shacks. Merchandise from across two worlds weighed the wooden tables down as sharp-eyed vendors coaxed, cajoled, bullied, and bargained to get the best for their wares.
Lena walked amongst the crowds, grateful that for once she was attended only by Mieu, her ladies in waiting banished elsewhere. Nobles and commoners mingled anonymously on the fair grounds, a neutral zone where there would be no observations of rank or title. It had been her idea, since her experience with her husband had made it clear to her that questions of honor and prestige could complicate even the simplest transaction between Orakians, let alone between two races that had loathed each other for ten centuries.
This fair was the first of its kind, a gathering of Layans and Orakians to trade, to display, and to entertain. It was the work of years of careful negotiations between ambassadors from Landen, Agoe, Shusoran, and Cille. The theory went that if the two peoples could interact with each other in a more familiar milieu, the ancient hatred might diminish. Caravans already journeyed from Landen to the Layan kingdoms and vice versa thrice a year. The fair was the next step.
It had not been an easy matter to arrange. Location had been the first woe, as no one had wanted to travel farther than the other nor cut off their own path of retreat in case of treachery. Rysel had been chosen as the best location for all. Then came the question of who would come, as courtiers competed for the honor. Men had unsheathed their swords, women had unsheathed their claws. It had all been a farce to rival the greatest of the playwrights.
"Mama, when are we going to get something to eat?"
A smile filled her face as she took in her son. Nial, with his lively brown eyes and unruly brown hair, was hers beyond doubt. He was her pride and joy, the delight of his father, a bright and winsome child, handsome, brave, and talented. Nial was also going to grow up to be a giant; at seven, he could already look her in the eyes.
"Have you seen anything you'd like to try?" Lena asked.
Nial looked around, uncertain. "Huh... good question..."
Lena's smile grew as her son sniffed the air. She shared an amused look with Mieu. "What do you think? Sickeningly sweet or fried and fatty?"
The redhead smirked at her. "As long as you're not cooking, he'll eat anything."
"I only burned one meal!" Lena protested.
"Every meal you were in charge of," Mieu corrected. "It's a small mystery they still let you cook."
Ahead of them, Nial darted in and out of the crowd as the boy followed his nose to Orakio alone knew what. "Nial!" Lena called out. "Don't go too far ahead!"
Obviously discontent, Nial waited for them in front of a stand filled with fascinating glass pieces. The fragile works of art looked shaped of bubbles, imbued with colors with a craftsmanship that surpassed anything Lena had ever seen in Landen or Satera. One in particular fascinated her, a cup that shaded from the most delicate sky blue at its rim down to an opaque indigo closer to black than blue.
"How can I help you, most exalted ladies?"
The accent was Cille. Before the tidal wave of memories could hit her, Nial tugged at her hand. "Mama, shop later! Let's find this food first."
Lena chuckled. "I'll come back later, but if you could be so kind as to hide that blue goblet for when I return, I'd be most appreciative."
The merchant bowed his head. "Ah, for such a pretty lady, I am willing to consider such a deed, if only for a glimpse of her gorgeous smile."
Laughter met such brazen flattery. All merchants were liars, Layan or Orakian, but at least their outrageous compliments made it fun to shop. Lena yielded to her son's persistent tugging and allowed him to lead the way. Her eyes roamed the crowd.
In deference to Orakian and Layan sensibilities and to make it easier for the two races to mingle, the traditional colors were forbidden on the fairground. Even Mieu had been chivvied out of her scandalous red leotard and into some decent brown travel leathers. At a glance, it was difficult to tell Layan from Orakian. That changed the moment people spoke, but it was a start.
Still, none of the rulers involved were fool enough to count on the good sense of prickly aristocrats; knights of Landen and Shusoran had been paired side by side to keep the peace. Needless to say that the only reason they had managed to work together so far, if barely, was their loyalty to their kings.
Lena blinked as the smell of fresh-baked bread filled her nose. Her stomach growled as she tried to take in the sheer variety. Breads with cheeses or meats inside, gooey sweet confections, loaves sprinkled with sugar... who would have thought that such a regular staple could be so diverse?
"Hail, noblest ones," called the baker in the accent of Agoe. "How can I be of service?"
Before she could do more than cast a helpless look at Mieu, a little girl suddenly called out, "Oh, Mama, Mama, these look so tasty! Can we have some, please, pretty please?"
A tiny little thing, as pretty as a porcelain doll, bounced up and down excitedly. Her long green hair reached down to her shoulders and her pretty blue dress was the color of the sky. Her arms were tightly wrapped around something Lena could not see from behind.
"Oh, Thea! How many times have I told you not to run ahead like that!"
Lena turned, startled, at the inflection of Shusoran. She found herself staring into a familiar pair of big, soulful eyes. Her mouth dropped. "You're..."
A mirror image of her surprise stared back at her. Much the same height as her, this pretty woman with the green curls had gifted her with a white shawl during Lena's time in Shusoran. She was the last person Lena had expected to run into and it was obvious that the feeling was mutual.
An awkward silence ensued as they stared at each other. What could they say? They had never been introduced while Lena had been in Shusoran, so she wasn't even sure of the woman's name. All she knew for certain was that the woman had given her a present in those long ago days of their youth. The little girl tugged at Lena's pants. "Do you know each other?"
"Well, um, yes," Lena managed, not sure what to say. "Your mother gave me a present a long time ago that I still treasure. A warm shawl that helps keep the chill away when I dig in the gardens."
The woman relaxed a little. She glanced at the baker's stand, then down at the little girl. "My Thea wanted lunch, so perhaps you would like to share it with us?"
Lena smiled at the tentative offer. "I'd be delighted." She extended her hand. "We never really exchanged names. I'm Lena."
A gentle hand clasped hers as a shy smile filled the other woman's face. "I'm Lann."
"Mama," Nial called. "We picked stuff out! Can we get some meseta?"
"We?" Lena turned back toward her son. Her hand leaped to her mouth to help stifle her giggles. Her gentle giant of a son was holding little Thea up so she could see over the counter and pick out breads. A glance at Lann showed she was stifling the same urge. It was so cute!
Lunch purchased, they reconvened to the wooden benches set up in a large clearing for the sole purpose of lending meals a picnic air. The adults ate in comfortable silence as the children eagerly attacked the food. Lena nibbled at bread baked with cheese inside as her son ravenously consumed several different loaves. Little Thea went straight for the sweet breads with sugar sprinkled on them, her stuffed animal, a rotund knitted Chirper with a distinctly peevish look to him, by her side.
"He is your son with King Rhys?" Lann asked.
"Yes," Lena confirmed, the affirmation still a pleasure to her ears. "If I may be so bold, she is your daughter by King Lyle, not so?"
The astonished look on Lann's face brought a smile. "Please, don't be so startled. It was obvious to me that you were in love with him back then. Besides, Thea's hair color is distinctly Lyle's."
Her expression became rueful. "I didn't hide it very well, did I? You're right, I did marry him. Somehow. I'm still not sure how it all happened. I wasn't even the best potential match for him."
"You were so clearly afraid when you went up to Rhys, but you did it anyway," Lena said thoughtfully. "That would have been enough to impress him."
The Queen of Shusoran blushed like a teenage girl. "It wasn't such a big deal..."
Lena adroitly changed the topic. "Tell me about your little Thea, do!"
Maternal love filled Lann's face as she smiled and revealed a dimple. "Oh, she's a complete handful! Her tutors and nurses chase after her to no avail. Laya alone knows what mischief she'll get up to next."
"That's her father in her," Lena giggled.
"Oh, don't get me started about her father," Lann said with a little sigh. "She has him wrapped around her little finger. It doesn't take much effort for her to do that to any other males, either. She'll make big eyes at them and pout, and just like that, they're enslaved."
"Her tutors and nurses are all women, then?"
"They have to be," came the glum reply. "If they weren't, she'd be running Shusoran. Sometimes I think she already does."
"At least she looks like you," Lena said reasonably. "She's a beautiful child, so she'll probably grow up to be a beautiful woman."
"Your son certainly looks like you," Lann commented. "But so large!"
It was her turn to sigh glumly. "I'm the only little one in my side of the family. My father and mother are tall, and Rhys' side of the family is not inclined to shortness either. Nial probably got my share of the family height as well as his own. Does Thea do well at her studies?"
"When she's captured, yes. She loves stories and literature." Large blue eyes sought the children, who had wandered away to play, Mieu caught in their death grips. "What about Nial?"
"Very bright. He loves to hear about honorable knights and heroes. His father is very pleased with his progress in the sword arts, but I think Nial loves music more. Still, Rhys seems to think his son will be a splendid King of Landen and Satera when the time comes."
"The Queen of Cille has named Thea as her heir, so our children have that in common," Lann said.
Lena swallowed in a suddenly dry throat. "Does she have no children of her own?"
Large blue eyes ostensibly looked away to check on the children. "She has no husband. She has many suitors, and she flirts outrageously with those men, but I think she only uses her charms to manipulate them and secure the throne she overthrew her father for. It is known by all that she has had no lover, so she is called the Virgin Queen."
Maia, the Virgin Queen, the amnesiac who had almost married Rhys in her place. Even now, eight long years since the events that eventually led to her marriage, she felt wary. She wasn't jealous, per se, just... jumpy. It was entirely possible Maia had not thought of her in years, but somehow, Lena did not believe that.
Either way, she didn't have a rational reason to be insecure. Lena had been Queen of Landen ever since King Saiki had died shortly after their return from Aquatica. She had given her husband a beloved son and heir. Over the years, their marriage had been a good one, better than many. Still, it lingered, that concern over a familiar rival who had come within a hair's breadth of marrying her husband through the sole recommendation of her beauty.
She sighed. Her anxiety was her problem to deal with and Rhys had given her no reason to believe those doubts were true. Some private time with her husband would be enough to reassure her, but first...
"Lann, can you accompany me? I saw some beautiful glass and the merchant's accent was from Cille. Perhaps you can steer me to an honest price while I haggle with him?"
The dimple returned. "I'd be delighted to help."
"Why am I carrying you?" Nial complained.
"Because I'm littler than you and little kids should be carried by big kids," Thea replied.
The sight that met her eyes made her once again suppress giggles. Little Thea was comfortably ensconced on her son's back, her peevish Chirper plushie firmly held under one arm. It was an adorable scene but poor Nial's put upon face made it clear he had no idea how he had been maneuvered into it!
Lann's expression could only be called rueful. "As I told you, if it's a male..."
"He's wrapped right around her little finger," Lena finished. "Let's shop."