‘All right, everyone quiet down and listen.’ Captain Mapstone did not have to wait more than a few seconds before the hush fell. She nodded.
‘Now, I know all of you are very excited for tonight’s festivities. And you’re right to be – it’s a great honour that King Zachary is granting you, and it is meant to be an enjoyable evening. However.’ She looked around the room, and her voice became stern. ‘There are a few things I need to make absolutely clear. Firstly, this is not a party, nor a casual celebration – it’s not like going down to the tavern with your friends. All the lords and ladies attending tonight, all the nobility, and most of the merchants, will be working. More power will shift and counterbalance in the hall tonight than in your average council meeting because this is where it happens.’
She heaved a breath and looked around at her riders, all attentive.
‘This means you cannot afford not to take it seriously. This event is intended to be enjoyable, but it will not be relaxing. I expect you to be on your very best behaviour, and all demonstrating the manner that befits the Green Rider corps. I’m not going to stop anyone from drinking,’ she continued, and ignored the relieved sigh from Yates at her words, ‘but I will say now that I won’t tolerate anyone drinking to excess. If I think you are exceeding your limit even slightly, I will have you removed and you will spend the next month scrubbing down the entire barracks.’ At this, she glared around the room. There were a few winces. She continued.
‘I also expect you all to keep to perfect form and manner when you interact with members of both the nobility and the merchant classes. Be polite. Be respectful. I have always backed you against any criticism from members of the nobility, and I still will, but tonight I ask that you do your utmost to avoid me having to do so.’
Ty and a few of the others nodded.
‘King Zachary –’ here Laren hesitated a moment before plunging on ‘- you are sworn to King Zachary, and your duty is first and foremost to him. King Zachary is, as of this afternoon, beginning a series of very delicate political manoeuvres. I’m sure some of you have heard the rumour that the King is considering the courtship of someone not of the nobility. I can confirm that this rumour is correct, and the details will be announced to the Lord Governors at today’s meeting.’
The Riders started whispering, but when she held up a hand they fell silent again, watching her intently. She fought the urge to look at Karigan.
‘While I completely support the king’s decision in this matter, tonight and the next few months will require a great deal of work – and all of you are part of that. The Green Riders come from all stations of life, and all ranks,’ she continued, looking from Fergal, to Tegan, to Alton, ‘and you are a shining example of how the classes can work together as equals and find respect for one another. Your behaviour tonight will be very closely observed by the nobility, and any problems – no matter how trivial – may be used against Zachary in the months to come. Certain members of the nobility – perhaps even Province-Lords – may try to provoke you, or be deliberately rude or offensive. If so, I want you to consider it an attack on your king – and you defend him by staying calm, by not rising to the bait, and if needs be by excusing yourself politely from the conversation. I will try to keep an eye on you all and be there to support you, but there’s only one of me.’
She sighed, and then gathered herself again. The whole room felt solemn now, serious. Some of the younger Riders in particular looked nervous.
‘In addition to supporting your king, you will also be representing myself and the Green Rider corps, including those Riders who are not able to attend tonight. The reputation of the Green Riders is what keeps you safe when you are out of the King’s reach and direct protection. King Zachary’s decision to invite you tonight will greatly support that, and may in all reality save lives in the future – the more the king demonstrates his respect and regard for the Green Riders, the less likely they are to be attacked or killed for fear of his response. That said, there is only so much he can do, and your behaviour tonight is absolutely essential in maintaining our reputation and therefore your safety.’ Laren allowed a little reassurance to enter her voice. ‘I have great faith in your abilities, all of you – and you should know that both I and King Zachary have no doubts that including you tonight is the right thing to do. We know what you’re capable of. But I have to make sure you understand the gravity of the situation.’
She met eyes with each Rider and felt proud at the determination she saw there.
‘Finally,’ she said, hyper-aware of Karigan in her peripheral vision leaning against the wall, ‘finally, though I know that I’ve given you reason enough to do your very best this evening, there is one more part to it. If supporting your king is not enough of a reason, if protecting each other is not enough of a reason, then I ask that you demonstrate the best of the Green Rider corps in order to support your friend, fellow Rider, and, if all goes according to plan, your future queen –’ the room went absolutely still, and Laren took a breath ‘- Rider Sir Karigan G’ladheon.’
There was a moment of complete shock and awe, and Laren capitalised on it before it could dissolve into a frenzy of questions. She held up both hands to stop anyone else from speaking.
‘That piece of information will be given to the Province Lords at the end of today’s meeting. I have special dispensation from King Zachary to pass it on to you all now, as I will not have time to meet with you between the end of the meeting and the start of tonight’s event, and it was important that you all knew before you attended. However, it is vital that it does not leave this room – and I mean that literally.’ She looked around at all of them. ‘You do not discuss it anywhere outside of this room, not in the corridor, not in your own rooms, not anywhere, and you only discuss it in this room if all the doors and windows are shut and there are only Riders present. Do you understand me?’
There was a mass of wide-eyed nods; most of the Riders were dividing their attention between listening to their Captain and sneaking glances at Karigan. Laren glanced briefly at her too; she was still leaning against the wall, her face neutral, but her position not entirely concealing the tenseness of her body. She was watching Laren, who gathered herself again and looked back at the others.
‘Now, I’m going to have to leave for the meeting. You know I expect you all to be dressed and ready and waiting in formation at a quarter to seventh hour. Ty, I leave that to you.’ She looked at Karigan, properly this time, and gave a little half-smile. ‘Karigan, King Zachary asked that I give you one last chance to change your mind about today.’
Karigan didn’t quite roll her eyes, but it was close, and Laren had to bite back a real smile.
‘I’m not going to change my mind,’ she said simply. Laren nodded, unsurprised.
‘Very well. Well, I’d best –’
‘May I say something?’
Laren turned at Alton’s voice, and after a brief hesitation, nodded. He stepped forward, and cleared his throat a little, watching Karigan.
‘Karigan, I – I can’t guarantee what my father’s stance will be. And I cannot influence it. But for what it’s worth…’ he moved one hand a little upward in a faint echo of the bow of a nobleman ‘… you have my support, and always will.’
Karigan met his eyes; there was a pause, and then she gave him a small but genuine smile, her expression grateful.
‘Thank you,’ she said sincerely. Alton nodded. Laren released a breath she’d been holding.
‘We’d better get going,’ she said to Alton, ‘or we’ll be late. The rest of you, not a word outside this room, and I’ll see you all in a few hours. Karigan – good luck, and I’ll see you later. You’ll know when he’s made the announcement.’ Karigan nodded, and with that Captain Mapstone left the room, Alton following behind her.
The door closed behind them with a soft thud. There was a moment’s silence.
‘Aeryc and Aeron, G’ladheon,’ said Tegan in awe. Karigan shrugged awkwardly, and then Tegan burst out laughing. The others quickly joined her, including Karigan. When the laughter faded out, it was Garth that spoke first.
‘You’re going to be our queen,’ he said, as though he couldn’t quite believe it. Karigan pulled a face, and Tegan started giggling again. Ty threw her a disapproving look.
‘Congratulations, Karigan,’ he said to her sincerely. Karigan gave him a nervous smile in response.
Mara seemed to finally find her voice.
‘Karigan, congratulations – but you’ve been holding out on us!’ she said. ‘How long has this been… well, going on? You must have known for…’
‘Months,’ Karigan confirmed sheepishly. ‘Zachary wanted to do a lot of political manoeuvring before it was announced. And we both wanted to take time to think it over before it happened.’
‘Oh I like that,’ said Yates, with a grin. ‘He’s ‘Zachary’, is he now – no title or anything! Very romantic.’
Karigan tried to glare at him but Tegan’s giggles were getting to her and she didn’t entirely succeed.
‘Are you really going to marry him, Karigan?’ asked Fergal, sounding stunned.
‘Aha!’ Dale exclaimed. ‘Your father was here, what, six months ago? Was that why?’
When Karigan nodded again, Dale grinned.
‘I knew something weird was going on,’ she said confidently. Mara rolled her eyes.
‘You knew no such thing,’ she said, and ignored Dale as she stuck her tongue out at her. ‘He’s telling the Province-Lords tonight? Does he think they’ll support him?’
Karigan leant back against the wall again as she reiterated the discussion she’d had with Zachary a thousand times.
‘He thinks that over half of them will definitely not stand against it,’ she said. ‘and that most of the others will be neutral. I know he’s been talking to a lot of them recently about noble-commoner marriages and he’s confident he knows where they’ll stand.’ She shrugged.
‘I guess that’s partly why this event’s happening tonight, then?’ Mara asked.
‘He said it was something he was considering anyway – he’s been trying to support Lady Estora’s stance as best he can, so something like this was always going to happen. But partly. Yes.’
‘Captain Mapstone said – how will you know when he’s made the announcement?’ Fergal asked. Tegan answered before Karigan could.
‘Because she’ll pick up a couple of shadows, right?’ she said. ‘King Zachary’s bride-to-be has to have Weapons on hand.’
Karigan nodded, fighting back a slight blush at Tegan’s conspiratorial tone. Some of the younger Riders looked awe-struck.
And now it came. Months of preparation, and it all came down to this. Laren forced her expression to stay neutral.
‘Do my lords have any other matters to bring to the attention of the meeting before I draw it to a close?’ Zachary asked. There was a general shaking of heads. Zachary nodded.
‘Very well,’ he said, and with barely a moment to steel himself he continued. ‘I myself have one final matter to raise before we all separate to prepare for this evening’s festivities. I am aware that there have been rumours circulating – certainly in the keep here in Sacor City and undoubtedly elsewhere – that I am considering to court a young lady who is not of noble origins. I can confirm to you today that this rumour is correct.’
A susurration of murmuring passed through the room, but all eyes stayed on King Zachary. Laren watched the Province Lords, trying to gauge their reactions. Some seemed intrigued, one or two disdainful, but most retained their carefully guarded neutrality.
‘Part of the purpose of this evening’s celebration is to allow her to be introduced formally, though she is known to most of you already,’ Zachary continued. This prompted some expressions of surprise, and those with less patience frowned slightly as they tried to guess ahead.
‘The young lady I intend to court is Rider Sir Karigan G’ladheon.’
The murmuring again, quickly silenced as Zachary opened his mouth to speak once more.
‘She and her family will be attending tonight’s festivities together. I believe that as that is the last matter to be raised, that this meeting can now be concluded. Of course if there is anything you wish to discuss with me I will be glad to speak to you tonight, or you are welcome to arrange a meeting with me for tomorrow. Thank you, my lords.’
With that he stood, and the rest of the room came to its feet in response even as he made his way to his exit. Laren needed to leave swiftly too – she had to ready herself for the celebration and there was little time in which to do it – but nevertheless she lingered, appearing to help the minute-taker and clerk gather King Zachary’s papers for him.
The three eastern Province-Lords left quickly and together, their heads bent to facilitate their murmured discussion. Predictable. Whatever their response would be, it would be unified. Lords Wayman, D’Yer, and Oldbury held their neutral expressions and left the hall separately. Lord L’Petrie was the only Province-Lord who looked openly pleased, but then Karigan was from his province and no doubt he was already considering the benefits of the future queen’s father operating merchant trade from within his territory. The young Lord Penburn looked thoughtful, as did Lord Adolind. Zachary’s cousin, the Lord-Steward of Hillander Province, had lingered as Laren had but when he met her eyes he only gave her a courteous smile and excused himself. Lord Mirwell was scowling and Lord D’Lvary approached him as they both left the hall, but Laren didn’t see anything else.
Going over everything she had just observed in her mind so as to be able to report to Zachary later, she hurried from the room. Fortunately she had had the presence of mind to have her change of clothes ready in an empty room nearby. A little undignified, but no one would notice, and it would save her the trip all the way back to the barracks.
The dress was lovely, of course. It was in soft, deep shades of purple and midnight blue, and layered over with silk ribbons and beautiful fine embroidery. The corset fitted perfectly, though Karigan had to breathe slowly a few times to make sure, and the whole ensemble… she had to stare at herself in the glass for a long moment before she worked it out. Unlike what she had worn to her ill-advised meeting with Braymer Coyle, this dress had been designed not to force her into the most fashionable appearance, but to work with hers. She had asked for more flexibility and more movement, and here it was – the colour suited her skin and made her eyes stand out – the skirts were light without being indecent, and had plenty of give in them for ease of movement.
Karigan didn’t realise how caught she was in her own reflection until she heard Mara make a soft, pleased noise. She looked around.
‘What is it?’
Mara gave a gentle laugh.
‘You,’ she said. ‘I’ve never seen you be pleased with your appearance like that before.’
Karigan looked away from her, embarrassed.
‘I didn’t – I just thought I’d look different. That’s all.’
There was a rustle of movement, and then Mara was stood behind Karigan’s shoulder, looking at them both in the mirror.
‘Karigan, look at me.’
Karigan met her eyes in the glass. Mara’s expression was fond, but firm.
‘You’re beautiful,’ she said plainly. ‘You’re allowed to enjoy that, it doesn’t make you arrogant. And besides,’ she added, ‘it’s good that you feel right in the dress – I imagine you’re pretty nervous about tonight, let yourself enjoy this one thing, okay?’
Karigan swallowed, then squared her shoulders and lifted her chin.
‘I will, then,’ she said, trying to inject into her voice the confidence she didn’t feel. Mara laughed again and put an arm around Karigan’s shoulders. Their dresses brushed together, green and blue.
‘You’ll get there eventually,’ she said confidently, then grinned. ‘Especially when you realise that King Zachary’s struggling to keep his eyes away from you.’
Mara just laughed.
‘Don’t worry so much. You’re going to be wonderful. Come on, shoes, and then we’re both ready to go.’
A few minutes later they emerged back out into the barracks corridor. It was strange to see so many Riders here, and even stranger to see them in different colours. There were a fair few dress uniforms in evidence – many of the Riders would not be able to afford much in the way of formalwear. But there were also a handful of formal gowns – Tegan was in a soft peach dress, and Dale in light blue – and some of the men were wearing their own clothes including a very awkward-looking Fergal Duff, who was wearing a restrained shade of grey that made him look much more mature than he normally did. He pulled a nervous face at Karigan from across the corridor, and she shrugged at him uncertainly.
‘Form up,’ Ty called. The Riders shuffled into position, two by two, with Mara and Ty leading. Karigan took up her place at the rear, her two Weapons flanking her without a sound. She tried not to look as though she found them unsettling. The whole evening was starting to feel a little surreal.
They proceeded through the corridors in a respectable manner. Their dress and the size of their group garnered a few stares, but most of those were reserved for the two Weapons on either side of Karigan – and then for Karigan herself. She wondered how far the information had spread by now, now that the Province-Lords had been told.
Captain Mapstone was waiting for them just outside the doors to the great hall, and Karigan almost started in surprise – the captain was dressed in a formal gown, not her dress uniform, and it was a shade of bright amber that almost exactly matched her hair. The embroidery was in gold, as were the ribbons in her hair; she looked like a candle-flame. Karigan saw the same surprise on the faces of the other Riders as Captain Mapstone walked along their formation, checking they were all in place. When she reached Karigan, she gave her a grim smile.
‘All right?’ she asked.
‘Just about,’ Karigan said in response. The Captain nodded, but before she could walk away Karigan spoke again.
‘You look beautiful,’ she said quietly. To her surprise this provoked a genuine smile from Captain Mapstone.
‘Well, I’m not exactly youthful these days, but I polish up okay,’ she said. ‘It was a gift, from King Zachary. For all my help.’ She shrugged, and Karigan smiled back at her.
‘Okay everyone, stay in form, ready to proceed into the hall,’ she called, before taking her place at the head of the formation. The Riders shuffled back into their places. Unexpectedly Alton D’Yer, all clad in his clan’s blue and gold but with a Rider-green sash around his waist, emerged from the hall and found himself a place in the line with the others.
There was a brief pause while they waited for their moment, and then the column began to move and they entered the great hall.
Dressed as they were in their finery rather than their regular uniforms, they did not march in step like soldiers – not that the Riders ever did anyway, of course. Instead they proceeded into the hall at a respectable pace, fanning out into two lines as they reached the dais to pay their respects to their king. Karigan looked up to the dais.
Zachary looked flawless as usual, wearing the Hillander black and silver. The embroidery on his jacket was exquisite, and prevented his appearance from being too sombre – so did the smile that appeared on his face when they met eyes. He was too well-mannered to be so rude as to stare, but she did catch his slight intake of breath when she smiled back at him. After that moment of connection, he looked away from her and across the ranks of Riders.
‘My welcome to the Green Rider Corps,’ he said. ‘Please be at your ease, and join the celebration.’
At his words and a nod from Captain Mapstone, the Riders melted from their formation into smaller groups. Alton immediately attracted one or two members of the nobility and drew Mara, Fergal and Daro with him. Karigan envied him his ease, but did not stop to watch them. Instead, ever aware of the two Weapons walking softly behind her, she headed to where she knew her father would be waiting, nodding respectfully to those she passed without beginning conversation.
‘Kari, you look wonderful,’ her father said when she reached him, his face proud. She smiled, trying to keep her nervousness out of her expression.
The whole world seemed to be buzzing around her. She was fairly safely ensconced in her conversational group – Mara, Councillor Dovekey, and two of her aunts far outnumbered the three less familiar members of the nobility who had decided to join them. Zachary had asked her to stay with familiar faces for the evening while she got used to her new status. The greatest surprise had been the Coutres.
Lord Coutre’s approach had made Karigan’s heart feel like it was going to thud right out of her chest – if she said the wrong thing, if she made a mistake or caused offence –
But then there had been someone very familiar beside him.
Lady Estora had pulled Karigan into a hug, and Karigan had returned it – grateful, but confused. Lady Estora had released her and stepped back, beaming. She was beaming.
‘Karigan, I’m so happy for you,’ she had said sincerely. ‘Are you happy?’
Karigan had managed to get enough of her wits together to nod, and Estora had smiled back at her.
After that little display had caught the attention of the surrounding nobles, everyone seemed to want to talk to her. She stayed close to her family and her friends; but then she saw King Zachary approaching through the crowd. He reached her; she curtseyed, and he smiled.
‘Rider Sir G’ladheon, will you dance with me?’
Karigan gathered her nerve and tried not to show it.
‘I’d be honoured, sire.’
Zachary offered her his hand and she took it, and he led her out onto the dance floor. With one hand holding hers and the other resting politely on the small of her back, he guided her into a fairly simply waltz-step. When she looked up at him gratefully, he smiled.
‘No need to make it more difficult than it is,’ he said, low enough not to be overheard by those around them. ‘When I was learning to dance I used to hate it. Spent the entire lesson sulking.’
Karigan felt a grin start to spread on her face.
‘You, sulking?’ she said teasingly.
‘Only thing that helped me learn was thinking of it like the footwork in sword drill. Now I’m better at it, I find it more enjoyable.’
‘Is that supposed to be some kind of moral lesson?’
He laughed, and she watched the way the creases formed in his face, hardly aware of the movement of her feet as they travelled across the floor. His hand on the small of her back suddenly felt very intimate, and she hoped she wouldn’t blush.
A number of other guests had joined them on the dance floor, she realised, registering the swirl of fabric as they passed them. She wondered what they saw.
‘You look beautiful,’ Zachary said quietly.
Karigan felt a blush start in her cheeks, and raised her eyebrows at him.
‘You’re biased,’ she retorted equally quietly, and this time they both laughed.
Quite a different conversation, however, was occurring in the opposite corner of the hall, between Lord Oldbury and Lord Wayman and a small number of the lesser nobility.
‘A merchant’s daughter for our queen, then.’
‘So it would seem.’
‘Hmph. Well. She’s pretty enough, I can certainly see why she caught his eye.’
‘I hear Stevic G’ladheon’s quite the shrewd bargainer. What do you suppose he’s exchanging for her?’
‘Oh now, don’t be crude.’
‘Well, you know what merchants can be like. We can only hope that she has some capabilities other than showing well in a gown – though it seems plain to me that King Zachary’s not been thinking with his head.’
There were several nodded heads and murmured sounds of agreement.
‘Rider Sir G’ladheon is the most courageous person I have ever known. Her nerve, her loyalty, and her integrity are impeccable, and she is a credit to her family, her friends, and the Green Rider Corps. I am honoured to call her my friend.’
The lords and ladies in the small group all turned to see Alton D’Yer, who had spoken, standing beside Lady Firell. Lord Oldbury raised his eyebrows and scowled.
‘Do you seek to rebuke me, boy?’ he demanded.
Alton felt his father’s hand, gentle but warning, on his shoulder. He spoke again, choosing his words carefully and keeping his tone respectful but not placating.
‘My lord, I do not presume to do anything to you. But Rider Sir G’ladheon is not just a good friend of mine – I also owe her my life. If I did not defend the lady’s honour in her absence, I would consider myself to be failing her both as a gentleman and as a friend, not to mention disgracing the manners with which I was raised.’
There was a slightly awkward pause, and then Lord Oldbury nodded a grudging concession. His wife placed a soothing hand on his arm.
‘Well said,’ she said to Alton. ‘Regardless of our opinions on the matter, there is no need for gracelessness.’
Alton gave her a respectful nod in thanks, aware that the rest of the small group was watching the three of them avidly. Lord Oldbury’s expression was still less than pleased.
‘Hm,’ he said. ‘I suppose I put you in an untenable position. But then; so, you seem to have a high opinion of the girl – the young lady, rather. Will you share it with us, so we can gauge some kind of understanding?’
His tone wasn’t exactly sarcastic, but it wasn’t exactly in earnest either. Alton considered for a moment, and then concluded that it would be best to respond as though the request had been both genuine and polite.
‘Well, my lord,’ he began. ‘I don’t know how much you know about Rider Sir G’ladheon already – no doubt information about her will soon be circulating – but I will tell you what I know, and hope there is not too much redundancy.’
He paused briefly to allow Lord Oldbury to nod in agreement, and then continued.
‘Rider Sir G’ladheon joined the message service in something of an unusual fashion; she was travelling alone from Selium to Corsa when she encountered a badly wounded Rider, dying on the road. Upon his request she took his message and his horse and completed his errand – and braved many dangers to do so. The message she was carrying contained information about Prince Amilton’s coup, without which the Green Riders would not have been able to come to King Zachary’s defence at Lost Lake.’
‘Admirable indeed, but this is common knowledge,’ interjected Lord Wayman. ‘Her history as a Rider was circulated when the king knighted her.’
Alton nodded in concession to this.
‘Very well, then,’ he responded. ‘Perhaps not a summation of her actions; rather my opinion of her character?’ He shrugged. ‘It is possible that I am biased. Rider Sir G’ladheon saved my life, and life of a number of people I care about. She is a highly respected member of the Green Rider corps, and I believe…’ he hesitated for a moment, wary of revealing too much, but plunged on ‘…she is also highly regarded by the Black Shields due to her actions in defence of the king’s life during Prince Amilton’s coup.’
‘Highly regarded? By the Weapons?’ said Lady Firell. Alton shrugged again.
‘All I know is that they permit her to wear the black, if circumstances demand.’
There was some fascinated muttering at this.
‘Black Shields are notoriously discerning on the subject of loyalty,’ said Lady Wayman speculatively. Lord Oldbury harrumphed again, though some of the others nodded in agreement. Alton had a slight twinge of unease; was that information about Karigan confidential? Perhaps he should not have shared it; but it was too late now. He spoke on.
‘I don’t know that there is much I can say that can convince you, my lord, beyond what I have expressed already,’ he said. ‘I have a great deal of faith in Rider Sir G’ladheon; I believe she deserves this honour, and that she has the integrity, resolve, and the wit to see it through. I hope that in time you will come to understand why I hold her in such high regard.’
‘I hope we do too,’ said Lord Wayman, sounding unconvinced. But Alton saw one or two of the nobles break away into discussion, looking intrigued, and hoped he had shifted the winds in Karigan’s favour at least slightly. It would be a hard road for her, and the fewer opponents she had, the better.