Disheveled but alive.
And with a pocket full of assignments.
Ember shut the door to Bethania’s rooms and almost tripped over Immilene when she turned around. Apparently Trin and the Tixerie guard had been waiting just outside almost the entire time.
Immilene looked Ember over with a distressed expression on her face while Trin gave her a calm once-over.
“Did she break anything?” Trin asked.
Ember shook her head while trying to suppress a glare.
Trin smiled at her.
“Then you listen better than I did,” Trin said. “Bethania has been the head weapons master for the entire Tavarin family for over a hundred years, and has been training in combat for close to three hundred. She expects complete attention from every one of her students, and she always gets it.” As she spoke she examined her right forearm, turning it while flexing her fingers, as if looking for something under the skin.
Trin looked up from her arm.
“Her lessons have saved my life too many times to count. And she knows a lot more than fighting. Listen and she’ll take care of you.”
Ember nodded. She had encountered some fierce but wise teachers before. Just never any that were quite so… Bethania.
She pulled out the first note Bethania had given her, the one she couldn’t read, as well as another that was in Tokarien and appeared to be a list of books. On the back of that one was also a list of assignments, most having to do with the books, but one simply saying “Get a job”. Ember handed the lists to Trin.
“Bethania gave me these. She also said that I needed training equipment and personal weapons.”
Trin tooked the two notes and looked them over. When she flipped the book list over and looked at the back she smiled and hmmphed.
“What does she mean by ‘get a job’?” Ember asked.
Trin looked up at her.
“You’re part of the Tavarins. Every Tavarin works.”
Ember was confused. Apparently she looked it, because Trin flicked an ear at her and chuckled.
“You were a guest before. Now you’re family. Every family member contributes something. Letting you sit around on your duff everyday wouldn’t be very good for you, anyway.” She waved the incomprehensible note at Ember. “Don’t worry. This one has a good idea for something to start with. I’ll take care of the books and equipment right now, and get the rest of this list drawn up with some more detail. Immilene!”
Immilene snapped to attention and saluted.
“Look at that,” Trin said in an aside to Ember. “Ever since we appointed Tirret to Captain we can’t get the starch out of any of the guards. It’s depressing.”
The Tixerie stared at Trin in horror then narrowed her eyes and stuck her tongue out at the Tavarin princess.
“That’s better. I remember when you used to throw snowballs at me instead of saluting. I liked it better.” Trin held out the incomprehensible note to Immilene, who took it and looked it over. “First take Danya back to her room for a bath and some fresh clothes. Then see that she gets to Mekel down in the bestiary and give him the note. He’ll take care of the rest.”
Immilene nodded and snapped off another salute, accompanied by another showing of her tongue.
Trin snorted and turned to Ember.
“I’ll see you later. Just keep moving while things get sorted out and you’ll be fine.”
She gave Ember a squeeze on one shoulder and left.
Immilene told her to follow a moment later and took her back to her room, where she found the two maids at work replacing her wardrobe with a selection of clothes that all fit her. The Lilta introduced herself as Selani, while the black furred woman, a Naramirin, introduced herself as Mirza. Apparently Mirza was going to be her personal maid from now on, showing up in the mornings and evenings to help her with choosing outfits and such.
Remembering who had put the necklace on her, Ember wasn’t certain she liked that prospect. It must have showed, because Mirza bowed deeply and apologized.
“I am very sorry, Lady Firrisskahv. The Lady Bethania gave me the order herself and said you would not be harmed. She has never broken her word in my knowledge.”
Arguing with an order from Bethania was something she herself wouldn’t want to do, so she told Mirza to forget it.
Mention of mornings had reminded Ember of her appointments with Bethania and she told Immilene. Immi said that would be fine, then hustled Ember to the bathroom and showed her how to get a hot bath out of the taps while Mirza undressed her and made off with the dirty dress.
Slipping into the hot water was incredible. Ember hadn’t realized just how much pain she was still in from the Bethania’s beating until it dissipated into the bathwater. Immi showed her some scented bath salts that made the water smell of lilies and lavender, then left to stand guard outside. After a few kellas of joyous, silent soaking, Mirza came back in and offered to wash her hair for her.
Ember lost herself in the luxury, guarded and pampered like a princess again for the first time in forever.
Too soon it was done and the water had cooled, but then Mirza helped her dry off with a giant, fluffy towel, and dressed her in fresh set of clothing. The new dress was similar to the one she had worn to see Bethania, but this time the overdress was red and the underdress was silver gray. The sash was the same amber-gold one as before. Finally Mirza brushed her hair again, put it back into Selani’s layered ponytail look, and pronounced her ready to go out.
Ember couldn’t resist asking if there was any jewelry for her to wear, then felt bad when Mirza’s ears drooped.
Immilene came in while Ember was wrestling with the strange urge to apologize–Mirza had betrayed her!–pronounced Ember glorious again, and told her that they had to leave immediately if they wanted to meet with Mekel before he vanished for lunch. Ember took the opportunity and escaped without doing anything about the maid’s drooping countenance.
Mekel Tanneg turned out to be an aging Kentinshir man and the head beast trainer for the Tavarin family, in charge of overseeing the training for all their working animals. These included all their Vahkin warhorses, their sturdy Zdaroun hunting dogs, and guard, tracking and hunting kirtaks, as well as more mundane animals such as herding dogs, vermin terriers, and even mousing cats (preferred over terriers for permanent indoor assignments).
“I don’t do birds, though,” Mekel said, looking down at one woman then up to the other. “Talk to my wife for the hawks and falcons. Kirtaks are as close as I get.”
In the bright electric lights of the stables his eyes were only slightly reflective, showing vivid blue irises that made a shocking contrast to his marble white skin. Wrinkles were only just beginning to etch his cheeks, but the skin around his eyes and forehead was deeply carved and his pitch-black hair was shot with plenty of gray. His round, Bortinlike ears were also starting to look a bit large compared to the younger Kentinshirs that Ember’s mother had often hired for her army.
“Well, don’t worry, sir. It’s not hawks that she needs.” Immilene held out the note and the old man took it to study. After a moment he glanced at Ember again.
“So it’s true. The prince is betrothed to a Garagran. Hmm. Exciting times, and pleased to meet you, Lady Firrisskahv.” He bowed and Ember examined his expression for any hostility. She found none. “This here says I’m to give you a kirtak. One that’ll stay close and keep an eye on the people around you. It also says I might want to offer you a job training horses. Maybe even get the cavalry in on it.”
“You want me to train horses?” Ember asked.
The old man laughed and his skin darkened to a medium gray until he stopped.
“Oh no. No. No. I didn’t mean that kind of training. Unless you were raised to it, it would take at least a decade to train you up to the King’s standards for that. I just meant helping us do some special training that someone like you would be really good at.”
Ember eyed him, trying to figure out what he was getting at. Special training?
“What would this special training involve?”
“Not much, really. You just put on your big and scaly and come sit at the training fields while we run the horses through their paces. Maybe growl or roar or spit some fire in the air from time to time. The kind of stuff that tends to make a horse go all wild eyed and throw his rider.”
Ember wondered why he would want that, then saw the obvious.
“You want to train your horses to ignore Garagrans,” she said.
“Exactly,” the old man said.
Ember felt pleased.
“I’ll talk to all the Generals and we can get their elite cavalry out here on rotation as well, put all the top units through some proper training so their mounts don’t run away if we ever get another angry Garagran over here. Be a big service for us. Thank you, my lady.”
Ember nodded. It seemed like a singularly odd job, but it definitely was one with a point, and it also didn’t seem like she’d have to do much for it besides sun herself and do a little acting.
“And now let’s get you a proper companion.” the old man motioned for them to follow and lead the way to a high-roofed room where the walls had large niches stuffed with cozy straw nests. Ember scanned the nests and spotted fluffy feathered forms curled up in about a third of them.
The old man stopped in the middle of the room and studied the occupied nests for several kellas before nodding and going to one at about waist height. He reached in and pulled out a kirtak about the size of a modest housecat, with black feathers all over its long body and tail, and brick-red wings and tail-fans. The kirtak yawned with his little fox-face and then looked around, taking in his master holding him and the two women looking at him. Ember watched his tufted ears swivel as they searched the room, and his nose twitch as he took in their smell.
“This is Brogo, son of Danlig and Porria, both solid guard kirtaks. His name means ‘big brave’ in our tongue. Brogo! Chik! Chik lon mag!”
The kirtak perked up and looked around the room again with more attention. Mekel held him out to Ember. She stared at the tiny animal warily. It was the first time anyone had ever asked her to hold something small and predatory with sharp claws and teeth.
“Go on, Lady Firrisskahv,” Immi said. “All the Tavarin kirtaks are good critters. He won’t bite someone he’s been told to guard.”
So that’s what the old man had been saying.
She held out her hands and the kirtak sniffed them, then swarmed up her arm and draped himself over her shoulders like he belonged there. Ember tried to look at the warm animal now wrapped around the back of her neck, but it was hard to turn her head that far. All she could see was a black head resting on some paws on her left shoulder and a red-feathered rump on her right.
She looked to Mekel. Somewhere a bell rang.
“Is that it?”
Mekel laughed again.
“Oh no. There’s all sorts of commands I’ll have to teach you. But it’s lunch now. How about you two come with me while I go get something to eat and I’ll teach you the basics once I’m sitting down.”