Once upon a time, before you or I, and even before the world as we know it, a handsome young king ruled over a great and peaceful kingdom. The king’s name was Andean; his kingdom, Wintan-ceastre. This peace, however, was new and hard-fought.
Generations before, in the time of his ancestors, Wintan-ceastre was a bleak and gray place. The suffering of its citizens hung like a great dark cloud above the land.
Despite the wide and coursing river that ribboned through it, the people had little in the way of trade to sustain them. All surrounding kingdoms knew better than to moor their boats in Wintan-ceastre, lest their purse or throat be cut. Worse still, the river was brown, brackish and dirty. Many toiled with little food and less clean water. And what food could be coaxed from the muddy land would likely find its way to the larder of the fearsome King Azazel.
There are many stories from the Dark Times. Some say they were stories alone- the king’s very real evil embellished upon by bards and balladeers. Others swear they heard the truth of it all at their grandfathers’ feet. If tales of those days are to be believed, the king was in league with dark forces, and had eyes as yellow as a late-summer apple. It was said that his knights had coal-black eyes, and could not be killed by sword or spear. Some of these black-eyed horrors were strong enough to toss a grown man like a stone. Others could break necks with the snap of a finger. Some could even steal a man’s face and walk around wearing his skin.
What never wavered in the stories, however, was the bravery of their young hero, Arturus the Carter. How good; how strong, handsome, and clever the young upstart was.
In one story, Arturus was visited by a good witch. In his eyes she saw his true purpose, and gifted him a magical dagger- the only means of harming or killing the black-eyed men. Another story told of Arturus drowning one of Azazel’s generals in a barrel of river water, and that the salt of it burned the skin from the man’s face like lye. Still another says that a spirit came and pinned King Azazel in place while Arturus ran him through with the blade. Each of Arturus’ deeds seemed more fantastical than the last.
Whatever the truth of it, two things were certain: First, that Arturus’ rebellion brought down the tyrant king. Arturus’ symbol—a simple carter’s mark of spokes on a wheel—became a five-pointed star in his earned grandeur. It was this he wore on his shield when he fought. It was this symbol that became a badge of the rebellion. It was this that was etched into his crown.
Second, that it was Arturus who discovered the great salt deposits that, in time, became the kingdom’s stock in trade. Merchants came with goods and new spices in exchange for salt; foreigners of every shade brought with them their exotic languages and new ideas. With all of it came great prosperity- keen minds and full bellies for all its people. Peace and plenty, with no more heard of black-eyed men or dark magic.
It was as if the whole world was night until Arturus brought them the day. The symbol of the kingdom became a sun, crossed with Arturus’ star.
Even at his death, no rain fell upon the kingdom. Arturus’ son was as good and beloved as he. So was his son, and his son, and so on until King Jon’s eldest, Andean, was crowned at the age of sixteen.
There was little doubt Andean would be just as good and beloved as his predecessors. Despite some measure of tragedy—the death of Queen Mayre when he was only a boy, his father’s death leaving him charge of his younger brother Samworth while in his own tender years— he was a fine king, and of good disposition. He loved good beer, the company of frisky women and stouthearted men, and a hearty song. He loved to ride and to hunt. And no one who had ever seen his face could say that he was not handsome, with his moss-green eyes, his pouting lips, and his fine features. All agreed he was as good as a king could be.
It was in Andean’s 29th year that the kingdom was to celebrate two centuries of peace and plenty.
It is here that this story begins.
All Dean wanted to do was ride.
For weeks now, no soul in the palace could spare a single word non-germane to the celebration. Worse still, from the moment he stepped out of his bedchamber in the morning until he retired at night, the king couldn’t find a solitary moment for himself.
Today would be no different, it seemed, for as soon as he opened his chamber door he saw the faces of his most trusted servants. To his right was the towering bulk of Benedick, his most loyal guard, decked in boiled leather despite the June warmth and ready to play his part as the king’s shadow. To Dean’s left was his senechal, Tran; she stood only collarbone-high to the king, but could glare down a tiger with only a tight smile. She wore that smile now, along with a slim, simple cobalt gown.
“Your majesty,” she said with the tiniest of bows. She rose her right arm, bidding him towards his first duty of the day.
Dean did as he was told, with Benedick walking close behind.
“Ellen says she’s had no word from you concerning your journey from the capital down to Wonsport in your progress. Tomorrow is her market day and she must be informed of what to buy.” She arched a dark eyebrow. “You’ll have a half-dozen companions by journey’s end, highness, and they will need more than salt pork and eggs.”
Dean scowled. “I don’t know. Carrots? Apples?”
“They’re not horses, sire.”
“And I can’t live on food for rabbits,” he snipped. “Last progress Ellen sent the cooks along with sacks and sacks of vegetables. She packed no dried beef, hardly any good cheese… Do you know she had me eating porridge every single morning that we camped? Tried to pass off some crushed-almond water as ‘almond milk’ for that porridge too.”
Tran rolled her eyes. “I’m sure you endured the days from feast to feast admirably, sire.”
“Almonds, Tran. You can’t milk an almond. She even tried to feed me some of that chickpea muck that Samworth is so fond of. Lucky that Duke Victor was there to eat it or it would have gone to waste entirely.”
“So you would have no vegetables at all?”
“Some carrots for Babe,” Dean ribbed at her. “Benny, what do you say?”
“There ought to be potatoes and onions in the wagon, if possible,” he offered in his bastard-Gallic drawl, “in case we have to stew a rabbit on the way.”
“There!” Dean barked happily. “There’s your rabbit food, Tran.”
“Fine. Have Ellen pack more of that bean slop,” Dean grunted, “and some of that stinking goat’s cheese that Lady Mills is so fond of with her eggs. We can buy more vegetables as needed in town. Just bring whitebread flour and salt pork so I can have a decent breakfast.”
“Of course,” she sighed, already disheartened.
“Might we have some strawberries,” Benny entreated, “if they’re ripe?”
Dean glared daggers at him. He wasn’t about to deny him the request, but that he dared to bring up fruit now, after Tran had forfeit, personally offended him.
“Fine,” Dean puffed, “and ripe strawberries for Benedick.”
“Very good, sire,” Tran said, with the smallest of triumphant smiles. “Now, onto the royal barge...”
“What about it?”
Tran bit her cheek. “For Arthur’s Night,” she gritted out. “You must pick the flowers you’d like to decorate the barge for Arthur’s Night.” Tran huffed through her nose. “I’ve shown you many, many sketches and fabric samples, your highness. Did any of them appeal to you? Any one?”
Dean waved a hand dismissively. “Pick one yourself, if it sticks in your mind. As long as there are enough pillows and furs, you can decorate the damn thing with weeds and burlap for all I care.”
“That’s your cue to cover it in petunias and primroses,” Benny smirked at Tran, “with bright pink lanterns.”
“Very funny,” Dean sniped. “You’ll be riding it too, smartass.”
Dean sighed audibly. “I don’t see the reason for all this bother. I’ve done progress twice as king—plus another as prince—and I’ve never had to plan further than being fitted for a new pair of hose.”
“Which reminds me,” Tran interjected, “Aaron needs to take your final measurements. And you still haven’t told him if you’d prefer that green velvet doublet be ready for Arthur’s Night or if you’re saving it for the ball. The draper is coming this morning, and if you’d like a cape to match…”
Benny sniggered behind him. Dean sighed again, twice as loud.
Progress in itself was nothing, but aligned with the celebration of two hundred years of the Winchester dynasty and the annual summer festival, well, then, no detail must go unconsidered.
He would leave more of this sort of thing to Samworth, who had a better head for numbers and empty pleasantries. Given the circumstances, however, handing him any more duties would be especially cruel. Having to stay behind as Dean sipped and supped with his most loyal vassals had already made Sam peevish.
“…and I think the new servants’ morale would much improved by a word, your majesty…”
Furthermore, any complaints about these duties on Dean’s part was sure to open another avenue of discussion: why he did not yet have a queen—or at the very least, a consort with a mind for letters—to take on these sorts of tasks. Someone to write the letters and make the arrangements, leaving the king to greater duties. Tran was a more than capable seneschal, but she was no substitute.
“Yes, yes- of course, Tran.”
And though Dean had never cared much for the idea of marriage —his bed was open to both sexes, and he was in no hurry to settle for either— he’d never wished for a queen until a few moons ago. The festival was all he’d heard about since the spring thaw. Any respite from it would be welcome.
Because, on top of all these cursory preparations, Dean needed to hunt. To seek out strange smells or cold spots in the forest; to investigate animal carcasses that looked far too ravaged to have been set upon by mere wolves. To make sense of the disaccording omens of ill weather and gossip amongst the townspeople. Such was the secret vigil kept by the kings of Wintan-ceastre.
A general malevolence seemed to be growing in strength around the kingdom, settling thickly in the air. Something he could feel in in his gut. (He’d dare call it a sixth sense if the very term didn’t smack of magick.) Nothing he could yet put a name or a face to—not until he could break free from his desultory duties.
Sir Robbett would arrive soon, and Dean would be able to breathe easier.
Bobby had sent word of his departure two days previous, and Singer’s Hold was a mere three days’ ride away. Unless he’d chosen Rumsfeld—the cranky, fly-bitten bay that was old even when Dean was housed there— he might well see him by lunchtime tomorrow. He would bring word from the furthest edges of Wintan-ceastre, and they could go over the Book of Kings together.
Tran came to a sudden stop. Sam had appeared in their path, casual as you please in shirt, trews, and open jerkin.
“Your royal highness,” Tran said with a small curtsy.
“Tran,” Samworth nodded, with equal formality. Then, more freely, “Benny. Dean.”
“And how does this morning find you, sire?”
Samworth smiled wanly. There was no lie to fit them all equally, so the truth would have to do. “I was on my way to the library.”
“Of course you were,” she said proudly.
“Of course you were,” Dean parroted, baiting him.
Sam’s face soured at that. “I’d wanted to do further reading on a book I just found- a history of the Animadverti.” He glanced at Dean. “It’s generations old, maybe even from the reign of the Frog King. It seems our last sanctioned witch hunt was much, much later than we first thought. It was only about a seventy-five years ago—”
As expected, Dean waved dismissively, as if the words themselves smelled foul. He was about to fully excuse Sam when Tran’s son Kevan came bounding into the hallway.
“Mother!” he called over a large wicker basket, “the florists have arrived!”
He lowered the basket—so wide and heavy that he needed both arms to carry it—and, finding himself amongst royalty, offered a tiny, perfunctory bow. Inside were sheaves and posys of every sort, meant to render the florists’ vision in miniature.
Kevan thrust out a hip. “The draper’s here too.” On his belt hung a clasped metal ring, through which strips of cloth were strung like bunting. “Or rather, his daughter is.”
Tran turned a daunting eye to the king. “I don’t suppose you’ve chosen floral arrangements for the ball either.”
“Can’t say that I have,” he replied coolly.
Tran’s lips pursed tight.
Dean relieved Kevan of the basket, and, with a single step, jabbed it against Sam’s chest until it was forced into his arms. “It looks like you won’t have to spend a day stuck in the library after all.” He turned to Tran. “I’m sure Samworth would be happy to choose flowers for the grand hall. Curtains, too.”
Sam’s face said he’d rather drink moat scum.
Dean lay a hand on his senechal’s shoulder. “Tran, I’ll leave the barge to your impeccable taste.” He glanced at his brother before giving him an amiable clap on the back. “Pick something pretty, Sammy.”
He then shouldered past the crowd, heading towards the throne room as quick as his bow legs would let him.
“Lilacs and primroses!” Benny winked, before stalking down the corridor behind Dean.
Dean didn’t wait for Benny. With even a little time made free, he could hear reports from his constables; be ready to compare notes with Bobby when he arrived. Perhaps he could even spar some—Ashe had been on him to hone his swordsmanship before taking to the open road.
Still, report as they may, all the constables in the capital wouldn’t recognize a grindylow until it was eating their children. He must break free. Must hunt. Must ride. There would be no peace in his head elsewise.
Bobby would arrive soon. He consoled himself with the thought. Bobby could keep Samworth safe during his absence.
For all its luminous beauty, Prince Samworth could only see the grand hall as a brilliant white sepulchre. All its pilasters and gilded sconces could not take the taint of early death away from it.
This had been his mother’s project- to remake Azazel’s grey and vaulted hall into a place of light and joy; a place of wine and dancing and song. It was a great expense, his father had said, and had taken more than a little assurance from their bookkeeper that the kingdom could afford such a luxury. This was the place that was supposed to entertain kings and khans and sultans. It was here that he and his brother were to court; to marry. (Once, deep in his cups, Jon let slip that Samworth’s own presentation before the gods was to be the first use of the hall. Upon sobering up, Jon dismissed this confession and never spoke of it again.)
With Mayre’s death, Jon had the grand hall bolted, all hopes for the future having withered on the vine.
Jessa had taken a liking to this room. She had seen its potential—its resplendence—even in the few stark daylight hours of winter. She had thrown open the draperies at each of the thirteen great windows, the warmth of her hand melting the frost gathered on the glass. On her knees, she had admired the patterns of fruits and flowers inlaid in the wood. She said she would be married in here if she had to polish the chandeliers herself, which made Samworth love her all the more.
For a brief minute, it seemed a place of life and light again. A lily gone dormant, only awaiting the warm breath of spring.
The hall was too soon bolted again, untouched for these four years now. And here he was supposed to open this tomb, festoon it with flowers and drape it in gaudy shrouds.
Sam didn’t know where to begin.
He unloaded his burden onto the flat top of the harpsichord, sighing at the cloud of dust that wafted from it. Four years’ worth, at least. And though Sam had duties enough, he figured he ought to have the instrument examined- assure that it was in a condition to be played.
He groaned softly to himself. If it were to be played, he would be expected to dance. Dean would be too busy searching for the bottom of his goblet or the next body to warm his bed, so Sam would have to dance for the both of them. His stomach soured at the thought.
Baron von Rosen’s daughter was still unmarried, so no doubt he’d have to give her a turn on the floor. The last time he’d partnered with her she couldn’t keep her hands off his backside—a problem she attempted to blame upon their difference in height. He managed to break free of Rebecca only to end up with another, even shorter daughter of some laird or other who doted on his ‘manly shoulders’.
That had been at Don Cesar’s wedding. Doubly droll.
With all five points of the kingdom represented, from the highest dukes to the lowest knights, maybe he would meet a young woman at this ball. A smart one, whose love for books would match his own. Noble -but not spoilt- with a quick tongue, and a good heart. And maybe, if he were lucky, she would even be be beautiful.
And maybe his head was too stuffed full of stories.
He picked up the first posy his his fingers touched and held it aloft. It was green all over, with showers of hanging leaves and a flower that looked like a droopy green horsetail. There were thistles and carrot greens and what he swore was a cabbage. The whole thing had the appearance of a withered salad more than a decoration, and he tossed it aside.
The next was a tall, rounded bouquet made of blood-red roses and deeply, darkly-red lilies accented with stiff sprigs of rosemary. Too funereal, he decided in an instant, and he put it down
Sam squinted over each new posy, trying to picture how each might look cascading over a vase or spilling from an urn. Which may be most easily knocked over by a drunken reveler? Could one be caught in a lady’s high hairstyle?
He huffed in exasperation. Thus was ludicrous. This was the job of a queen or a consort, not the prince of the realm. He should be riding beside Dean, speaking statecraft to their allies, discussing trade with their vassals! Not picking out flowers like a summer bride because Dean wasn’t inclined to do his duty.
“Ugh!” He pitched the flowers in his hand down onto the canvas with a satisfying thwack.
Surely there was something else he could do. Something that didn’t involve this place.
Let Tran decorate this tomb. She would sigh and she would frown, but it would be done, and he wouldn’t have to set eyes upon it until the ball.
He turned sharply on his heel, ready to storm away in protest, when he came to face-to-face (or, rather, chest-to-face) with a small, dark-haired woman.
“Oh!” she squeaked, stumbling backwards.
As if by instinct, Samworth swept her in close, holding her steady with one arm around her waist.
It was not until she stilled that he felt the soft crush of her breasts against him, or the feminine hands clutching at his jerkin. Only then did he look down to meet her deep umber eyes.
Sam may have gasped aloud—he certainly felt the catch of breath.
She had a slim, heart-shaped face and a wide, rosy mouth set against pale golden skin. Sam’s eyes trailed down the fall of a long chestnut braid, sweeping across one shoulder and cascading onto her scarlet bodice.
He averted his gaze immediately, meeting her eyes again.
She stared at him in open-mouthed awe, marveling at the difference of size between them; the way his large, warm hand had enveloped hers.
“My apologies,” he stammered, “I didn’t see you there. Are you alright?”
“Fine now, thank you,” she murmured. “Though,” she added with a small smile, “I wonder what those poor flowers have done to make you so angry.”
Sam grinned despite himself. “Nothing.” He shook his head. “It… It’s only this room.”
“But,” she blinked, batting her long, dark lashes, “it’s so beautiful.”
“It is.” He licked his lip. “But it brings back too many ugly memories.”
“Well, think of all the new memories you’ll make here.” She smiled plesantly. “You’re giving a ball! With music, and dancing, and wine… You may even meet a beautiful girl.”
He sighed, resisting the bait. “True as that may be, this room will be bare urns and naked windows until the flowers are decided. Then I’ve got to pick curtains to match. And all to the taste of my brother, who can’t deign to choose flowers for an event in his honor.”
Her dark eyes positively glimmered. “Well, fortunately for you, you have my expertise to draw on.”
She swept towards the piano, moving light as air.
Sam tried, and likely failed, to subtly appreciate her from behind. The girl had a delicate waist, though her behind was hidden under a full velvet skirt. The piping of it was all cloth-of-gold, with filigree of the same color in patterns on the sleeves. His heart skipped a little. Her clothes were fine enough—but who was she?
She pulled on each of the tightly-wound ribbons surrounding each nosegay, and set them upon the draped table to her right.
From one discarded posy she pulled the deep-red lilies. From another she plucked some bulbous, peach-pink roses and held them tight. The furthest bouquet had a branch of thin, fern-like leaves with small berries in hues of white and pink and red, and more green horsetail. She opened her delicate hand to clutch them all together. After all that, she tucked in slim stems of white flowers as it suited her.
She pored over it for a moment, eyeing it on the top and sides and pronouncing it acceptable. “Do you like it?” she asked sweetly from beneath her lashes. She held the improvised bouquet aloft, so that it might be imagined in its proper place in the ballroom.
Sam stuttered empty syllables before finding his tongue. “It’s…it’s quite lovely.”
“I think it’ll be a good fit for your celebration,” the girl said insightfully. “Flowers have meanings, you know.”
She smiled. The prince was all attention. “You see these?” She pointed to the green horsetail. “These are called amaranthus. They stand for immortality; for something that will never fade. And the color of these roses is expressive of gratitude. These little white flowers here are called phlox. They stand for harmony.”
“And the red lillies?”
Her smile grew wide and anguine. “Passion.”
Sam nearly swallowed his tongue.
“And the little berries?”
She giggled. “They’re pepper berries. They’re just pretty.”
Sam exhaled a breath he didn’t think he was holding, the tension now cut to ribbons.
“I’m Ruby,” she smiled, offering her free hand. “My father is Domnhall the Draper.”
“Samworth,” he said in a rush, before finding his regal manners. “Prince Samworth of Wintan-ceastre.” He took her rather lissom hand in his, lifting it so that it reached his lips—barely. Sam couldn’t help but grin over her the softness of her fingers; the lingering scent of flowers and spice.
He let her take her hand back, and paused to quickly collect himself.
“How do you know so much about flowers? As a draper’s daughter, I mean?”
“Weddings,” she said with a blush. “When you’re showing bolts of cloth for a wedding dress to a nobleman’s daughter, her maids can’t help but talk of flowers.”
“You could’ve fooled me. I’d have thought you were the florist.”
“No. Only a woman with supplied with insight and intuition.” She caressed the spathe of a lily with her finger. “I don’t think your brother wouldn’t care for orchids, or delicate blooms of any sort.”
“True enough,” Sam conceded with a grimace; he excused the buried gibe almost immediately, though. “I suppose I should consult you about the curtains as well?”
“I’m afraid I may not be impartial,” she earnestly. “Thirteen sets of curtains for these windows could feed us for a year.”
“Which do you like best, then?” He held out the iron ring. “Which color goes best with new memories?”
Ruby considered them all as if she hadn’t seen a single scrap of them before. She ran a delicate white damask between her fingers before picking out a dark cerulean fabric with a subtle sheen. “This one.”
She put both full hands together, letting Samworth see how they complimented the other. “This will make your flowers stand out,” she said smartly. “And it’ll be lovely against the white and gold. A color for the whole year ‘round.”
A warmth spread through Samworth- one that he hadn’t felt on his cheeks in years. “Yes. Yes, I think it is.”
“Well…” Ruby put the bouquet down onto the piano, still holding the ring. “Now that that’s settled, I can let my father know. I’m sure if he and I and our apprentices work on these alone for the rest of the week…”
“You won’t be cutting yourself a dress?”
“A dress? Whatever for?”
“For the ball, obviously,” Sam grinned. “It’d be a shame if you never got to see your own handiwork.”
Her entire face lit up- bright as the sun reflecting off the gilded sconces. She threw her arms around him, barely making a circle of them.
Samworth smiled to himself. To damnation with wishing. He would make his own luck. His own story.