PixieSparkle darted in through the half-open window, long ears flopping cheerfully as she lit on the edge of the massive desk Lady was seated behind. "Ladyix, whatix doix?" she asked in the high, piping voice Lady found so dear. One of her paws came to rest delicately on the pile of ledgers at Lady's left side as she sat on her haunches, her tail curled around her feet.
"I'm looking at the tax records from Mother's reign, 'Sparkle," Lady answered, pushing a blonde lock of hair back behind her right ear as she kept the ledger she was reading held open with her other elbow, dip pen held lightly between her fingers.
PixieSparkle's face screwed up in disgust and she shook her head, sparkles flashing from her bow and out of the length of her mane. "Boringix! Comix playix!" she said, pointing out the window.
"Oh, PixieSparkle, I can't," Lady said, shaking her own head at her Pixietail even as she put her pen down to reach out to scratch along her jaw. She was smiling even as she denied the entreaty, charmed as ever by PixieSparkle's delight in life and the outdoors. She would much rather be outside with her mare and her friends than here in this office with piles of leather-bound books filmed with more than a decade of dust, but this was where her kingdom needed her to be.
PixieSparkle's face screwed up a little more, and Lady signed and tried to explain. "I have to understand how my royal mother did this before I can make any changes, and Shining Glory can't help me with these details -- he can't see the ledgers, of course -- and, as he said," she nearly giggled, her dimples showing with her amusement, "he's a wizard, not a bookkeeper."
Lady was never entirely comfortable calling a woman she had no memory of her mother. Her real mother was SoftCurl, the wife of SureHand, mother of all of her brothers and sisters, the woman who had taken in a nameless infant carried on horseback to her door and loved her as if she was her own. But the Queen of Lovelylocks had given her the magic that colored her hair and allowed her to use the Looking Room for the good of her kingdom. 'Royal mother' worked well enough to differentiate the two, and kept her from feeling as though she was turning her back on her family.
"Ministrix doix," PixieSparkle muttered unhappily, even as she pushed into the little scratch of Lady's nails through her fur. "Theirix jobix. Comix playix."
"It is not my ministers' job to think for me, PixieSparkle," Lady said, taking a slightly deeper breath to restain the touch of sharpness in her voice. "I'm sorry, sweetheart, but I have to do this.
"Go play with Maiden CurlyCrown, she is out in the gardens this morning," she encouraged her friend to at least go and have some fun. Someone certainly should be, and it wasn't as though it was going to be her, up here in the office with these dusty tax records. "We can go for a ride on SilkyMane once I'm done. No, I am not going to change my mind if PixieShine and PixieBeauty come to try and get me to, either, so just don't bother. All right?"
"Noix. Butix willix," the Pixietail said with another disappointed droop of her ears before she flitted off the desk and bounced back out the window, leaving another trail of sparkles behind her.
Lady looked after PixieSparkle wistfully, the brilliant fall colors of her kingdom out her window waving enticingly, before she looked back down at the figures on the page in front of her, her jaw firming as she squared her shoulders. "Get with it, Lady," she told herself, "your people need you to make this just."
She focused on the numbers and the sheet of twice-scraped parchment she was making notes on, trying to understand the system of taxes that had fallen apart in the years the castle stood empty and untended. Shining Glory had explained the idea of taxes to her, and the principle made sense, but... She could remember how hard work on the farm had been, and asking for part of her people's labor in exchange for her protection -- when she would protect them whether or not they paid any tax -- bothered her. The other things she could do with that money and payment in kind, though, like see to better roads and bridges instead of the treacherous fords and ferries, like making certain that the reeves and bailiffs behaved fairly... those were things she could not do without the support of her people.
'Royal mother,' she thought to herself, 'how did you do this? How did you decide what was fair?'
Maiden CurlyCrown frowned at the door separating her from her friend and queen, holding the tray made up from dinner she'd put together as soon as she and Maiden FairHair had realized that Lady had never come down for food balanced against one hip. "Lady," she called, pitching her voice to be heard through the door, "may I come in?"
The instant "Of course?" she received, tinged with Lady's mild and endearing confusion over her asking, turned CurlyCrown's frown into an affectionate smile as she tried to decide if she could get the door open and get through it without help. No, she decided, but thankfully help was never far from her these days. She tossed her hair a little, enough to bring PixieLocks awake and out to see what was going on.
"PixieLocks," she said, "be a dear and open the door for me?"
PixieLocks chirped and darted towards the door, fluttering her wings at it until it slid open. "Thank you, dear one," CurlyCrown said softly as she nudged the door open enough to step through with the tray.
"Easyix," PixieLocks said from the doorway before she flew away.
CurlyCrown stepped into the room and looked for Lady, finding her behind the desk. It looked like she had been there all day, given the sheer number of leather-bound books on and around her desk, the expired inkwells, and the stack of palimpsests covered in Lady's handwriting growing on the stool beside her. The room was lit with a combination of oil lamps and the small, multifaceted crystals that glowed when Lady put her attention towards them, bright light spilling from all sides of the room. In that light, she could see that Lady looked worn and drawn, focus tightening the lines of her mouth and drawing a furrow between her brows. There were streaks of heavy dust and leather gone to powder across her sleeves and the bodice of her dress, across her cheek and forehead and even in her hair, as though she'd pushed it out of her face repeatedly. CurlyCrown couldn't help but smile at the sight, at Lady mussed and determined. It was such a familiar sight, after all, and reassuring. Lady might be the last Queen's daughter, might have magic beyond anything CurlyCrown would ever have guessed, but she was still her friend, still Lady.
The door opening had obviously caught Lady's attention, because her gaze was fixed on her face, the strain quickly shifting towards a mix of welcome and confusion. "Maiden CurlyCrown?"
"It's late, Lady, and you didn't come down for dinner," CurlyCrown answered as she came across, looking for somewhere to put down the tray, "so I brought it to you."
"Is it so late?" Lady asked in surprise, leaning back against the frame of her chair and stretching, rolling her neck as though to work out a knot of muscle. "I knew I'd had to light the lamps and crystals, but I didn't realize I'd kept reading past dinner, I'm sorry. Please tell me you didn't wait for me?"
"We didn't," CurlyCrown said, shaking her head. "I thought you'd eaten with FairHair, FairHair thought you'd eaten with me," she shrugged a little as she decided that the only place to put the tray was on a clear section of the floor. She carefully went to her knees, folding down to place the tray without spilling anything, then stood back up and glanced around. "You can't eat off the floor, so which books can I move, Lady?"
Lady pushed the chair back and got to her feet. "There's no reason I can't just come sit on the floor, Maiden CurlyCrown, it would not be the first time -- and it's rather like a picnic, isn't it?" she asked with a smile as she started to come around the desk.
"Lady, it's just not right -- "
"Why move piles just to move them back?" Lady asked her as she came to her side, then looked down at her hands. "Oh my, I'm covered in dust and leather and ink, aren't I?"
Curlycrown giggled, nodding at her as color came up in Lady's cheeks. "Go on and wash up, Lady," she encouraged her friend, "before this gets any colder."
"All right, I will -- but just leave it, I know where those books are right now and I won't if you move them," Lady said as she lifted her skirts by the side-seams and hastened out the door towards the closest washroom. CurlyCrown leaned against the corner of the desk, studying the organized piles curiously, and waited for Lady to return.
That didn't take long -- Lady had always been incredibly quick at cleaning up -- and soon she was back in the room, smiling at her before she settled down beside the tray to start in on the meal.
"What have you been doing all day, Lady?" CurlyCrown asked, settling down on the floor across from her. "Pixiesparkle grumbled something about ministers and taxes, but I didn't get much sense out of it..."
Lady swallowed the mouthful of juice she had and shook her head just a little. "That might be because I can't make much sense out of it. I'm reading the tax records from her reign, since Shining Glory pointed out that they haven't been collected in years, and there's not much left in the treasury. If I don't figure out how to do this, how to convince our people that we need the taxes to be paid, I'm not going to be able to fix anything that I can't handle by joining with the Realm in the Looking Room." She paused for a moment, and CurlyCrown could see the mixture of confusion and awe that Lady's own magic still stirred in her when she had to think about it. Lady shook her head and went on, and CurlyCrown tried to just listen and wait.
"Natural things I can help with, but... bridges and ferries? Roads in general -- you know how bad they are, CurlyCrown, you saw them when we came to the castle the first time -- and the big mills. I remember how much it upset Mother when the storm four winters ago destroyed the waterwheel closest to our home, and how much the prices for bread went up. It needs to be repaired.
"And I'm sure that's only scratching the surface of everything that needs to be done to repair our Realm, that's only a few things, but even with all that I've read, I don't understand how to make things fair, or how to tell the people to give me their money or goods, CurlyCrown. I mean... I'm just a girl."
"You are not! You're not just a girl, you're Lady, and you're the Queen. Your hair says so, and that you can do the magic with the Looking Room says so, too!"
Lady dropped her eyes and colored, and CurlyCrown planted her hands on her hips and stared across the tray at her. "You are, and we know it. Everyone that's come to the castle to help knows it, too. Anyone who saw the tornadoes last month stop before they reached those poor children and pixietails is just as sure that the true queen has returned to our castle. So you just stop that."
"All right, Maiden CurlyCrown. All right, and... thank you. That still doesn't tell me how to do this, though."
"I don't know that part, Lady," CurlyCrown said, shaking her head in rueful confusion. "But for the bridges, why not put people you know you can trust at either side of them -- or the ferries that are there right now -- and charge a toll for everyone that crosses? If they know it's going to go to fixing it, surely no one would object to paying.... the same thing could work for the roads, too. At least, I think it would?"
"It would cost to put the people there, and I would have to do something to make certain that they kept honest records -- but that would at least get some money coming in, CurlyCrown, you're right," Lady said, smiling at her, a little more cheer shining in her eyes as she rolled a few pieces of meat together with some cheese to eat. "I just... it seems like a lot of the taxes from my royal mother's reign were on land, and that doesn't seem right. The people are the ones that do all of the work, why should they give part of it over to me?"
"Because you keep things from going terribly wrong?" CurlyCrown suggested, her mouth curving in an affectionate smile at her friend. "I know we've had a wonderful summer and it's being a better fall than there's been in years, and that's due to you."
"But they've had all these years -- "
"Yes, and you know how bad some of them were, I remember how bad three winters ago was, and that awful summer when we were eight and it was so hot that even in the basements the milk curdled before nightfall and no one could stand to sleep inside. You've made that better, Lady, you've made it so that the crops have water -- you can't do that if we can't be here in the castle. Set it low, if you're that worried, and let the people know that they can come to you and ask for relief if they have good reason."
She loved seeing the way Lady smiled more brightly and relaxed a little for her words, and she considered riding to her mother and father to ask for their help. They both remembered the last queen, they would surely be able to tell her how to help Lady make sense of all of this. Perhaps she would send a letter first and ask Mother to come to the castle instead. That would work.
"CurlyCrown, that just might work," Lady said, smiling with relief. "I've found so many references to the Queen's nobles in these ledgers, to their holdings and their duties... and yet I don't remember Mother or Father ever really mentioning the Countess of our region. Do you?"
"No, not really -- once or twice, maybe, just in passing, but it's nothing I can remember any details of," CurlyCrown shrugged a little. She had never really cared about what was happening outside of their home village, until suddenly Lady was more than her friend and she had to care, had to go with her. "When Shining Glory told us what happened, he said that many people were at the party -- that would have been mostly the nobles, right?"
"Probably... so unless they had children about our age, or were too old to travel, there might not be anyone left in their places, either." Lady's voice was thoughtful and sad all at once, and CurlyCrown reached across the tray to hold her hand for a moment.
"We haven't been here at the castle long, not really," CurlyCrown pointed out. "Perhaps we -- well, you, but we would go with you -- should ride to the nobles' homes and see if they're in the same condition as the castle was? If they are, we know there's no one left of that family, but if there is someone still there, they should know you've returned."
"Does it count as 'returned' when I can't remember ever being here?" Lady asked, her mouth curving in an amused smile even as she nodded. "It's fall, but I can hold the weather decent for a few days. That would let us at least reach the closest counties -- I think that's a wonderful idea, Maiden CurlyCrown!"
"I'm glad I could help at least a little, Lady," CurlyCrown said, smiling, "and FairHair will be delighted to hear that we're going to leave the castle for a while, you know how much she loves it out in the countryside."
"So true," Lady said, her own expression brightening even more. "Thank you for listening to me -- and for all of your good counsel, dear friend."
"You know I'm always glad to help you, Lady," CurlyCrown said, leaning across to kiss her cheek. "Are you done with dinner?"
Lady glanced down at the tray, then laughed softly. "I seem to have cleared it all away, so yes, I think so. Oh, CurlyCrown, don't, I can handle my own tray!"
"I brought it, I'll take it back. You, Lady dear, need a good bath. Go on. I'll take care of the dishes, and then I am going to bed myself."
Lady looked at her for a moment, then smiled and got to her feet. "All right, dear friend. Thank you, and sleep well."
"Don't I always?" CurlyCrown said with a soft laugh as she picked up the tray and headed out the door towards the kitchens with Lady's laughter trailing behind her.
Shining Glory was seated in the main entryway of the castle when Lady descended the stairs the next morning, his blind, blank gaze turning towards her at the first sound of her feet. Prince was lying beside him, and his tail thumped heavily against the tile, welcoming her.
"Shining Glory! Prince!" she called out in pleasure and ran the last few steps to wrap her arms around Shining Glory's shoulders, then drop down to hug Prince and have her face licked. Once she had greeted them both, she settled onto a corner of the bench, her body turned towards Shining Glory. "What brings you to the castle this morning? It's not that I'm not glad to see you, I just wasn't expecting you..."
"I heard a whisper that you intend to ride the kingdom, to attempt to find the noble families who should make up your Court and aid you in ruling the Land," Shining Glory answered, his voice its usual, steady rumble. "I find it a wise choice, but a dangerous one. You know that the farther you are from the castle, the more easily RavenWaves can attempt to harm you."
"I know, Shining Glory, but if I am going to return LovelyLocks to what it should be, I must know my people, I must have the best of them willing to work wholeheartedly with me," Lady said, reaching out to cup one of his hands. "I cannot have that if I do not go out to them, if I do not attempt to put things right."
She saw his shoulders shift with his long sigh, and his hand tightened on hers for a moment. "This is true," he agreed, nodding. "All right, Lady. Just say that you will be careful. LovelyLocks cannot stand another loss of its Queen."
"I will be most careful, Shining Glory," Lady promised him, smiling at him as she did. "I have wonderful, brave friends and companions to aid me if she comes to cause trouble again, and I will remain within LovelyLocks.
"Since you are here, my friend, perhaps you can help me."
"With anything I can, Lady," Shining Glory said, and she smiled at him a little more as she dropped her hand to ruffle Prince's fur.
"I need to find people that can be trusted to collect taxes at the bridges and ferries, two coppers a person, four for a single-beast cart and its driver. Another for every hundredweight of dry goods, or half a copper for every beast driven across. Those aren't high, but before long it will be enough to do the necessary repairs. Do you have any ideas on how to find people that will do so honestly and fairly?"
"As a matter of fact, I believe I do, Lady," Shining Glory said, nodding slowly. "While you are gone on your ride through the realm, I shall set to finding you honest women and men for your tax collectors."
"Oh, good. Thank you, Shining Glory!" Lady hugged him again, quick impulsive wrap of her arms around his neck. "I have other thoughts about the taxes, but those are the most pressing, and seem most fair. Was there anything else you needed, before I go and see to getting SilkyMane and her sisters ready for the ride?"
"Just to urge caution," he said with a slight shake of his head, "and to urge you to enjoy yourself. Fall in LovelyLocks is a glorious time of the year."
"Oh, I shall enjoy it!" Lady promised, hugging him one more time before she leapt up and headed towards the stables, Prince bounding from his place at Shining Glory's feet to follow her. He smiled after her, then rose again to walk out into the village.
Being awakened by Maiden CurlyCrown bouncing into her room and flinging her curtains open while carolling, "Wake up, wake up! We're going out on a journey, FairHair, come on, wake up!" was not really on FairHair's list of favorite things, but she had only thrown one of her pillows at CurlyCrown with all of her strength. All things considered, she thought she'd been amazingly restrained.
CurlyCrown had stumbled from the impact and caught the pillow up against her chest, staring indignantly across the room. "What was that for?"
"You're loud, CurlyCrown," FairHair said for an answer, "and it's bright and I was sleeping."
"Yes, well, you're not sleeping now and you shouldn't sleep in anyway, Lady has a plan for us to go and tour the realm, trying to find the nobles that should be here to support her! It's going to be wonderful, she's going to make sure that the weather holds, so come on, get up and get packed and help me pack for her!"
FairHair took a slow, deep breath to avoid snarling or flinging more pillows -- maybe her hairbrush? -- at her friend, and lifted the back of her hand to her eyes, rubbing at them as she yawned. PixieColor, curled up on the bed beside her, opened one eye just long enough to chitter in annoyance at all of the noise. She stretched her other hand over enough to pet her pixietail, looking at CurlyCrown through narrowed eyes. "You are disgustingly cheerful this morning. What do you mean Lady has a plan, she was locked up in the study all day yesterday."
"Well, yes, but I took dinner up to her last night and we talked and now she's decided she needs to ride to all of the counties, to all the properties that the old nobles had and see if we can find any of them, or any mention of children that should be here to help her."
"We're here to help her," FairHair said, finally pulling herself out of the bed, now that she was certain there was no way she was getting back to sleep today. "But LovelyLocks is a big place, and we are here at the palace. All right. So Lady wants to ride throughout the realm? That -- well, it will be interesting. And more fun than more cleaning!"
"I thought that's what you'd say," CurlyCrown said with a bright smile at her. "I even agree with you. So. I'm almost all packed, let's get your things done and then we can go see about Lady's bags. If she's going to be visiting the important people, she can't just have her travelling clothes!"
"No, of course she can't!" FairHair agreed, coming alert and intent on what needed to be done if they were going to get out of the castle any time soon. She wanted breakfast before they left, but first the packing. She wasn't going to bother dressing until after the packing was done, there wasn't much sense in it. Packed, dressed, turn PixieComb loose on her hair, breakfast somewhere in there, and then they could be out of the castle well before noon. "Lady has at least a mental map, right?"
"I think so? We can ask when she comes back up from the stables, and if not, we'll go find a real one," CurlyCrown said as she pulled open FairHair's closet door and started dragging out the saddlebags that had accompanied her to the castle the first time.
"CurlyCrown," FairHair said, patient and calm, "I can pack for myself. Will you please go track down breakfast?"
" -- oh. That's what I haven't done yet, thank you, FairHair! Yes, of course. I'll be right back." CurlyCrown darted out of the room, her riotous auburn curls nearly wrapping around the door handle as she left. FairHair smiled wryly and shook her head just a little, then walked over to deal with deciding which skirts, bodices, and full gowns had to go with her.
"PixieColor, PixiePoo, come help me pack these," she called out, and both of them came to join her, darting around the clothes in quick circles before they started folding them up as tight and neat as they could. She gave her aid where she could, and before CurlyCrown came back through the door, they were done packing. She was almost dressed, PixieColor pulling the laces of her bodice tight, and she waved at CurlyCrown's reflection in her mirror.
"Yes, we're through packing, I've just got to get my hair finished," she said at CurlyCrown's expression, "and then I can come help you."
"Good. Breakfast will be in the kitchens by the time we're ready," her friend promised, and PixieComb darted over with her brush. Pixietail magic and nimble fingers combined to have her hair falling perfectly in mere moments, and FairHair glanced over her reflection in the mirror. She decided it was more than good enough, and followed CurlyCrown to Lady's room. If they left it to Lady, she'd go with just her sturdy travelling clothes and cloak -- and thus leave entirely the wrong impression on anyone with power that they met -- and they both knew it. She needed to have her best clothing with her, so that at least she could pull it out when needed.
"Bless pixietails," she said across a dress to CurlyCrown, "we'd never get the wrinkles this is going to cause out with just an iron."
"Perish the thought!" CurlyCrown said, shaking her head hard enough that PixieCurl flew out of her hair, chirping indignantly as she flew to perch on a corner of Lady's bed and preen her feathers back into place. PixieLocks, PixieComb, and PixieBeauty -- all of whom had been observing from other places around the bedroom -- chirped and chittered with laughter, and PixieCurl fluffed up her feathers as much as she could, cheeping indignantly at them.
"Perish what thought?" Lady's voice asked from the doorway. "Good morning, Maiden FairHair, did you sleep well?"
"Oh, FairHair was talking about trying to get wrinkles out without pixietails to help," CurlyCrown said cheerfully. "I'd rather not have to think about it, and told her so."
"I can understand tha -- oh, dear ones, you didn't need to pack for me, I can get my own things together," Lady said, and FairHair looked over her shoulder at her.
"Of course you can, Lady. But you were doing other things, and breakfast wasn't ready yet. We'll be able to go sooner now that we've got almost everything packed. PixieBeauty thinks we've done well, don't you?"
"Wellix, yesix. Beautifullix," PixieBeauty nodded quick and repeated before she darted over to rub her cheek against Lady's. "Goodix, isix," she insisted, and Lady smiled.
"All right, I know when I'm outnumbered. Thank you, my friends. Did I smell breakfast as I came back inside?"
"Yes," CurlyCrown said, "you did. We just need to finish this last dress, and then we can get going. You do know where we're going, right?"
"I found the last map from my royal Mother's reign," Lady said, pulling out a leather tube from a previously-invisible slit in her skirts, "and it's in here. So yes, I know where we're going first."
"Good," FairHair said cheerfully. "Always a good thing."
"Yes," Lady agreed. "I've told SilkyMane, SatinTail, and SilverHooves where we're going, as well, and they seem excited."
"SatinTail and SilverHooves are taking FairHair and I?" CurlyCrown asked, smiling with delight. "Do they care who rides which of them?"
"I doubt it," Lady said, shaking her head just a little. Not enough to draw PixieSpine and PixieSparkle away from what they were doing, but enough to say that she really didn't think so.
"Oh, good," FairHair said as she and CurlyCrown tucked that last dress into her saddlebag and closed it up. "There. We're all packed."
"Wonderful. PixieBeauty, will you help the others take our bags down to the stables?"
"Yesix, willix," PixieBeauty said, her voice as brightly cheerful as always as the several pixietails in the room hooked claws and talons into the straps of the bags and began to fly off with them.
FairHair and CurlyCrown spoke in nearly the same breath, "Breakfast now!" as Lady's eyes followed the pixietails, and Lady's eyes snapped back to them, her eyes dancing with amused laughter as she nodded.
"Yes, dear friends, yes," Lady agreed, and she closed the door to her bedroom with a smile once they were headed down the hall. She would be back to her castle soon enough, but right now she had a beautiful day, the best company anyone could ask for, and a wide-open (if somewhat battered and worse for wear) road to travel on her quest.
She knew there would be trouble ahead, RavenWaves was always lurking somewhere and ruling was rarely as simple as it appeared to be, but with her friends beside her, she could get through anything.