Notes: It's been (eighty) four years! Very sorry for the long wait. What's happened since then? I started and finished grad school and moved to a different continent, so both fics had to go on the back-burner. Plus, Sherwood Smith's style is so distinct, and her worldbuilding is so rich, that it takes a lot of rereading to step back into the world. To readers old and new, and especially to reviewers Guest, Paradoxically, Vickie, NSFL, sherlock, and X, thank you so much for your kind words, which have encouraged me to return to the story. I hope you all are still just as enamored with Crown Duel now as you were then.
PS. Still stuck laying some of the foundation, but after it's all in place I plan to gradually step on the accelerator on Mel/Vidanric, as promised in the notes in Chapter 1!
At the palace, Vidanric arranged to have the girl brought to one of the airy reception rooms. He had a quick word with Kisa, the castle steward, to send a hot meal and wash cloth up (with hot chocolate to follow, if he succeeded in the matters to follow long enough without the place burning down).
If anyone thought it strange that the young marquis would treat this scrappy little prisoner as a guest in his own home, they kept it to themselves. However, there was some relief uttered quietly throughout the household when Vidanric stationed a guard by the door, proving their new commander had not lost his senses completely.
He gave the girl some time to herself, assuming she would be ravenous after being chased through Renselaeus all day. Back in his room, he stepped through the cleaning frame and - after some thought - brushed his short, Marloven-trimmed hair away from his eyes. Before going down to meet her, he informed one of the Blues to alert the prince and princess of the matter at hand. Princess Elestra, especially, would want to know that the outlaw in question happened to be a girl.
When he stepped back into the reception room he was greeted by the sight of the girl flipping through one of the books that lined the shelves. A quick glance at the table revealed she had indeed been hungry, as not a crumb was left behind. Should he have arranged for second servings? Perhaps after their talk, a light refreshment to serve as a prelude to dinner…
Steady, Vidanric. Of course: by dinnertime, the girl would be gone. Should be gone. She was no visiting lady. He had a potential spy on hand, a potential ally of his enemy, and all he could think about was tending to her comfort before dinner? If Marec and the others back in Marloven Hess had gotten wind of this, they would not have stood for it. Their jokes would have rung in his ears even in his dreams.
The girl didn't notice him when he entered, so engrossed was she in the book. Her long hair spilled over the pages, though the speed at which she tore through the book indicated that she wasn't truly reading the words. Still, it wasn't the casual pace of disinterest he detected, but the desperate speed of someone trying to absorb as much of the page as possible.
The wooden door - one of the few in Renselaeus - shut with an echoing click. The girl jerked up and flung the book back into the bookcase. When she saw Vidanric, her wide, expressive eyes narrowed flat.
"So what sadistic punishment have you whipped up for me?" she demanded with a lifted chin.
Vidanric blinked; the only indication that he was taken aback. "Do you consider yourself the perpetrator of a crime deserving of, ah, a sadistic punishment?" he asked.
She sighed impatiently. "You lot may call us barbarians, but I'm no fool. I know of the fortresses."
Vidanric, having been away from Remalna for so long, only knew of Galdran's efforts to restore the old military fortresses through letters, and from what his father relayed to him in the rare moments when it was safe enough to speak such things aloud. What he knew, however, was enough to cause a cold sensation to ripple down his back.
Instead, he said lightly, "Fortresses?"
The girl held up three fingers. "Vesingrui. Munth. Chovilun. Built to protect the people, so the king says. But if that's true, why are we off worse than before?"
He assumed her question was rhetorical, but she cut into the silence vehemently, interrupting a rebuttal that he had not even thought to conceive. "Because the tax increases needed to pay for those fortresses are killing us all anyway! Whether we're in those stone walls or not."
Vidanric exhaled his surprise, soft and quick. Well, if he could be sure of one thing in this strange affair, the girl was no spy. No spy for Galdran, at least. He did not have to be concerned about releasing her, only to have her run to Galdran's nearest ally and whisper the blueprints of the palace of Renselaeus into their ears.
No, releasing her would not bring danger upon the principality, but it would bring danger to someone else. For the girl had—openly, angrily, without even a provocative word from him—revealed herself to be a traitor to the king of Remalna. And traitors, proven or otherwise, were swiftly eliminated.
This he had learned firsthand, on a lonely mountain trail only months before.
"You don't know?" the girl asked, her voice an unfiltered cascade of wonder and suspicion. Vidanric realized she had mistaken his reaction for ignorance.
Of course he knew. He even knew that there were four fortresses, not three. But how did the girl know even that much? And why, if she held such grievances against the Remalnan king, had she come here, to Renselaeus, of all places?
Again he studied her under heavy lids, a tactic he knew made people uncomfortable. Rather than look away, she glowered back. Again her face, the stubborn chin and wide eyes, struck him as familiar, but the answer hid in a fog of incomplete memory and history.
"I believe," he said, "It is time for us to ascertain your identity, once and for all."
The stubborn chin lifted. "And if I don't give it to you?"
"Do you expect those who run the fortress to ask? It was not I who mentioned sadistic punishments."
Vidanric watched her eyes flick around the room: the books, the ornamental glow globes, a heavy silver candlestick. Her fingers curled and uncurled. He could almost feel her grow taut, coiling into herself. Preparing to fling whatever she could grab towards his head.
No, she was not a trained fighter, not if she was giving away the map of her intentions so readily. Yet, Vidanric remained very still. He knew not to underestimate her—he'd already done that once, and his hand still throbbed from it—but more than that, he didn't want her to run from him.
What should he say next? He rarely found himself at a loss for words. He realized his control over the situation was slipping. He tried to imagine his problem being debated in Commander Keriam's class. Oh, ridiculous notion! Forthun would ask very seriously about the suitability of Aunt Northa's candlestick as a weapon. Stad would probably suggest a few morally dubious interrogation tricks. Marec would rest his chin on his hands and only want to know one thing: "Is she beautiful?"
The door opened, pulling him out of his rising panic.
The Prince and Princess of Renselaeus stepped in.
"Father," Vidanric said, relief flooding his voice.
Prince Alaerec took one look at his son's face and understood immediately. Behind him, Princess Elestra stood on her tiptoes, trying to peek past her son at this mysterious newcomer, about whose unconventional arrival she had already been briefed.
"I hear we have a guest," Prince Alaerec said mildly. He turned to the girl and bowed deeply, giving no indication of the pain his old arrow wound caused. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am Alaerec of Renselaeus. May I have the pleasure of introducing my wife Elestra and our dear son Vidanric, the Marquis of Shevraeth. Welcome to our home."
The terrified expression on the girl's face taught Vidanric two things. First, that the key to disarming her was not threats, but politeness. The more extreme, the better.
Second: whoever she was, she had no idea how unusual it was for a prince to introduce himself to her as Alaerec had. As if he were addressing an equal—as if an equal to the Prince of Renselaeus existed. Anyone raised at court would have been so embarrassed to have made a prince lower himself so, that they would have fled to their own lands for a good few months.
But thoughts on these peculiarities dissolved the moment his mother finally caught a glimpse of the girl and gave a sharp gasp.
"Ranisia!" Elestra cried.
Vidanric turned to his mother in surprise and discovered that her eyes had filled with tears.
The girl stepped back, as if the princess had dealt her a physical blow. Her hands grappled for purchase on the bookshelves. The flushed anger from her exchange with Vidanric bled away into whiteness, blanching all color even from her lips.
Ranisia. And finally the source of that familiar face flooded into Vidanric's mind. He had only ever seen her portrait, glimpsed in passing a few times in Athanarel Palace when he was younger—then, after her death, never again. By the time he had been presented at court, the woman in question had shunned it entirely for the mountains of Tlanth.
Ranisia Astiar, née Calahanras. One of his mother's oldest and dearest friends.
But that meant—
"Forgive me, you look so much like her when she was younger. It took me by surprise," the Princess said, voice wavering. "You're just as beautiful as your mother, Meliara."
"You knew my mother?" the girl—no, Meliara—whispered.
My mother is a memory, she had said to him on the ride back to the castle.
Princess Elestra stepped forward and gently took Meliara's trembling hands into her own. She turned to her husband and son with a small smile, eyes still bright with unshed tears. "Let us meet again at dinner. Meliara has traveled a long way from Tlanth. I will see to her comfort."
The Prince bowed at his wife, understanding her meaning. "Surely no one under your care will lack for comfort," he said with a smile.
He tossed a small but meaningful glance at Vidanric. "My son, I am eager to hear your report. If your schedule permits, will you join me in my study?"
Still too flummoxed to trust his own voice, Vidanric bowed at his father in assent, then at his mother in farewell. Then, because now it had been revealed that the girl with the bite of a feral cat was actually the daughter of a countess, he bowed to Meliara, then followed his father out the door.
Meliara Astiar. Meliara Astiar. Her name rang in Vidanric's mind like the bells ringing the candles in Athanarel. Had that thought really popped into his mind? He could never tell Russav this. A woman's name ringing like music all through his head? Oh, he would never hear the end of it!
But as he trailed his father's slow but sure gait, he could not stop a small smile from spreading. The girl was staying for dinner after all.
In the few hours leading up to dinner, Vidanric prepared for every possible scenario he could imagine. If she were still angry at him? Why, he would employ a version of his father's politeness and warm her to his side. He would only ask her questions if she asked him questions first, despite the very many questions he had.
If she grew tearful at the table (though he could not really imagine this happening), he would excuse himself to spare her pride. If she accused him in front of his parents of dangling her out of the tree, he would be honest without being defensive.
He wouldn't even mention the biting.
Given the afternoon he had devoted to pre-empting Meliara's reactions, he arrived for dinner feeling confident that whatever misunderstandings had arisen from their first meeting would be smoothed over by the second course.
But the one scenario he had not anticipated was the vision of Meliara entering the dining room in a dress. It was a simple dress of dark blue velvet, gold embroidery stitched across the waist and hem, but the effect on him belied its simplicity. Unlike the Court women, who subscribed to the fashion of a waist slightly smaller than their natural measurements, the dress simply made visible what her baggy clothes had concealed. Her hair hung straight down her back, a glimmering curtain of gold-lit brown, a simple circlet of flowers adorning her head.
She did not notice him staring, thank the stars. Meliara was concentrating too hard on moving in the dress, which she did not seem accustomed to wearing, to even see her surroundings. She gripped the front of her skirt tightly and walked as though stepping past shards of glass on the floor, tracing Princess Elestra's footsteps exactly. When Vidanric finally came to after his initial surprise, he realized he had been gripping lightly onto the back of his chair for support. What was this curious sensation, this weakness in the back of his knees?
When the Princess took her usual place across Vidanric, she observed, from the corner of her eye, the impact Meliara's entrance had made upon her son. She suppressed a knowing smile. Instead, she turned her head, not acknowledging to anyone what she'd seen, and beckoned for Meliara to sit on the cushioned chair beside her.
Under the masterful skills of the Prince and Princess, the dinner conversation moved smoothly, despite the complete silence of Ranisia's daughter and the unusually automatic responses of their son, who seemed preoccupied with other matters. The three Renselaeuses sensed that Meliara would brook no questions about her arrival, no matter how entitled they might be to demand answers. She found no need to explain why or how she had arrived at the principality, but picked at her food as though troubled. Sensing also that she stiffened under their combined attention, they instead allowed the conversation to flow around her: minor incidents in the principality, news from Athanarel, and non-malicious court gossip (of which there were few).
They took care not to mention Galdran. Still, Vidanric detected that behind the silence and feigned indifference, Meliara was listening avidly.
Earlier in the afternoon, his father and he had discussed their approach towards the issue of Meliara Astiar. It was of course assumed that she would stay. Princess Elestra, after all her wishes to see Ranisia's daughter had been rebuffed by the old Count over the years, would not want Meliara sent home so swiftly.
The Prince's brows had furrowed—a normal person would have rubbed their temples in frustration.
"Here is our—I hesitate to say predicament, for it is not quite that. Renselaeus is and remains an ally to Remalna. Despite our repeated endeavors to prove it, the crown finds it necessary to continue to test this loyalty, by any means possible," Prince Alaerec had said. "She made comments about the fortresses?"
"I believe her concern was more towards the welfare of the people, rather than the fortresses themselves," Vidanric had replied.
"Ah," the Prince had said, and fell silent. Time passed while he sifted through the facts and considered the ramifications.
When next he spoke, it was to offer a suggestion.
"We have been poor neighbors to not have requested Meliara's company sooner, given her circumstances."
"It is my understanding that previous overtures were made towards the Astiars, but not returned," Vidanric had said, choosing his words carefully. He had a vague recollection from years ago, of his mother dashing away tears of frustration upon receiving a letter from Tlanth. Though he had been too young then to know why, links now began to fire between his fragmented memories.
"And now we have an opportunity to ask once more. We must treat Meliara as an honored guest for the duration of her stay, the length of which we must leave to the women to determine."
After a pause, a quick sigh had escaped the prince's lips. "But we must find out why she is here. We must listen to what she is saying, and to whom she is saying it to, without ever seeming complicit in her beliefs. However much we may find ourselves on common ground."
Vidanric had not missed the deepening crease in his father's temple. Even to say that much out loud was to invite risk to Renselaeus. "Mother will be delighted," he had said instead. "Meliara must stay at the palace, not only for our safety, but for hers."
A small smile had touched upon the Prince's face. "You will see to it, then? And ensure her stay is comfortable?"
There: the tiniest trembling in Vidanric's chest at this impossible, but not undesired task. "I will."
So it had come to this: now, the final dinner course was cleared, and the attendants set down bowls of sweet shaved ice for dessert, drizzled with syrup infused with summer herbs.
Vidanric watched Meliara take a bite. Her eyes brightened with delight and she smiled—the first smile Vidanric had seen from her. It suited her so naturally that he surmised that the hostility which she displayed towards them was not part of her usual demeanor.
The princess spied her opportunity. "Do you like it? This is one of my favorite desserts, particularly once the days grow hot."
"Yes, it's delicious," Meliara said, more warmly than she had ever sounded before. "We have something just like it in Tlanth, though with a slightly different flavor. Julen only makes 'em on special occasions, or if I ask very nicely, and even then she'll find a way to strong-arm Oria or me to shave the ice ourselves. That shoots our appetite quick, as working the old grinder takes the better part of an afternoon."
The princess nodded, as if she knew perfectly well who Julen and Oria were, and that it was not at all strange that Meliara would be involved in as menial a task as ice grinding. "Do you suppose having to expend some effort into making a dish imparts a sweeter flavor to it? The taste of reward, perhaps?"
Meliara wrinkled her nose. "Pfah to a reward! Now having tried it both ways, I can say that I don't miss the sore arms that make it almost too painful to lift a spoon!"
Elestra's eyes crinkled in mirth. "Then, my dear, you must feel free to ask for it whenever you wish, for we have more expedient ways of readying ice. This was one of your mother's favorites as well. In fact, she passed on this recipe to me in her letters. We have had to amend it, for some of the herbs are less readily available in Renselaeus."
"Oh, that's because our version uses some herbs you can only find in Hill Folk territory," Meliara said. "They never seem to mind us gathering, though we always ask beforehand—"
"The Hill Folk?" Elestra raised an eyebrow. "You've met the Hill Folk?"
"Many times! They only live up near the goldenwoods, a half a day or so's ride from Erkan-Astiar."
Meliara's subsequent description of the Hill Folk, whom Vidanric knew of only through tales and song (and through the Fire Sticks that appeared every winter) seemed almost as wild and as convoluted as their territory. Under Elestra's gentle encouragement, Meliara's tumbling, amorphous imagery began to settle into somewhat-solid forms and lines. Humanoid figures with the bearings of trees, melting into the fog. Music and dancing. Redwoods and bluewoods. Night upon night of a sky splashed with stars of all colors.
From what Vidanric could discern, Meliara spent a majority of her time in the mountains with the mysterious Hill Folk. She spoke of them as freely as she clammed up about herself.
In fact, the difference in her demeanor was almost astonishing. Meliara gesticulated when she spoke, her face alight with expression, spoon waving artlessly in the air. Several times Vidanric found his own spoon paused halfway from bowl to mouth, so transfixed was he by what he witnessed.
Did her presence in Renselaeus have something to do with the Hill Folk? He gritted his teeth to stop the question from being uttered. He had forgotten, in his time away from Remalna, about the circuitous methods his parents relied upon to acquire information. A necessary tactic in the court of Athanarel. But three years of military training in Marloven Hess had drilled into him the need to gather all essential information as expediently as possible.
As a commander, he was failing. Miserably.
He needed so much to ask, to put to right all his questions, but he knew if he did so, Meliara would see him as nothing more than her captor and interrogator.
And he did not want that to happen.
He didn't know why he did not want that to happen, or why what Meliara thought of him mattered at all, but he didn't, and it did.
Thankfully, Princess Elestra chose this moment to bring her own smooth machinations to a close. "Our home may not equal the majesty of the land of the Hill Folk, but we hope it will bring you pleasure during your stay. We would be honored to have you with us for the summer, with Lord Branaric's permission, of course."
Meliara looked stricken. "You want me to stay? After I…" Though she trailed off, her crimson face spoke volumes.
It was then that Vidanric realized that the silence he had taken for obstinance might have actually been due to chagrin. Had Meliara been merely embarrassed all this time? He did not know if that made things better or worse.
The Princess continued cheerily as if she hadn't heard. "Our famous Midsummer Festival is not to be missed, and the traveling playgroups from Sartor visit at the end of the summer, bringing only their most popular plays and newest songs."
Her voice softened. "You may, of course, leave any time you wish. Only give the word and a carriage will be waiting to escort you to Tlanth. But, my dear, though this may be forward of me, I do hope you stay. You were so young when your mother died, and there is so much I can tell you about her, if that is what you want to know."
Meliara stared down at her plate, absentmindedly nibbling the edge of her thumb. Then, a sharp resolve settled over her features, and when she glanced up it was with a lifted chin. Her spoon clattered onto her empty bowl as she crossed her arms.
"I'll stay," she said. "On one condition: I know Renselaeus has been building up an army, and I want to know why."
The three Renselaeus were not typically predisposed to demonstrating collective surprise, but Meliara's statement caught them all off-guard. The Princess, whose cultivated persona was supposed to care not a whit about the logistics of her own security, could not respond without putting such a persona at risk. Prince Alaerec, as prince of the realm, was the formal commander of the Renselaeus Blues, but he had ceded full control of it to his son. He could not speak either, lest he undermine the authority of the young marquis.
They both shot quick glances at their son, whose next words would determine their course through such dangerous waters.
But the son was too flummoxed to have a plan. So he said the only thing that came to mind, in a calm voice that completely belied the racing fragments of his thoughts, and the quickening beat of his heart:
"If you want to know, you'll have to rise early. The army begins training at dawn. I'll have someone escort you to the grounds tomorrow. That is," he added, "If you would not rather sleep in and recover from your journey."
Foolish boy! Of all the stone-tongued things to say! Why had he not stopped at "tomorrow"? For, of course, Meliara had interpreted his offer in the last way he had intended for it to be interpreted: as a challenge. Vidanric had learned to deflect knives as well as he could throw them, but nothing had prepared him for the dancing glint in Meliara's eyes as she fixed an eagle-glare directly upon him.
"I'll be there at dawn," she said.
No longer trusting his voice, Vidanric merely bowed from his seat, registering little else but two things: one, he should be dismayed at his swift acquiescence to Meliara's outrageous demand, but he was not.
Two: though this was the third time since he had discovered her that Meliara had stared him down, it was the first time she had done it with a smile in her eyes. And he realized he didn't dislike it. Not at all. In fact, he wouldn't exactly dislike it if, in the future, she felt it necessary to do so again, and again and again.