She arrived on an afternoon draped in sunlight and autumn crimson. From a high cliff through the dragon’s eye I saw the Kiavanu ship glide into the bay. I did not fly down. Elias received them on my behalf, with all due ceremony and his own gruff cheerfulness to fill in the gaps. I had given Rikkar the day off.
That night was warmer than most. So in accordance with my wish, lanterns were lit all along the terrace and a fire in its great open chimney, and dinner was served outdoors. The last of the sunset sparkled off silver and crystal. Shadows gathered under the trees below in the garden. Snatches of easy conversation and the notes of a harp drifted in through open windows, with the perfumes of woodsmoke and dry leaves. A perfect reception, apparently, in all possible respects — but for my absence.
I hesitated in the front room making sure I hadn’t missed a button or fastened the Tainumaun shoulder-pin upside down. Elias would have groused at me to let the servants help more with my clothing, but Elias was busy and so I had again escaped as much of that uncomfortable fate as I could. I stepped back from the door and regarded myself a second time in the mirror. The buttons and pin were perfect. I knew they were. Nothing was amiss, except of course the mask, and my continued presence alone in this room.
I heard a young woman’s laugh. I resisted the temptation to peer around the sill of the window.
I approached the door again with purpose in my stride.
“Will His Highness be joining us soon?” An older woman’s voice, courteous but a little fussy. I turned aside and paced once pointlessly around the room while outside Elias explained something essentially true about my duties and how eager I was to finish them.
I remembered the Lady Kiavan vaguely; I remembered her husband better. I had spoken with them in person once, years ago, on business. And at that time Lord Kiavan had made no secret of his disapproval of me. But — as my father had put into law while he lived — words spoken to the king face-to-face in the hearing of peers were sacred, and were to be answered in the same manner or not at all; I was young and preoccupied and I chose the latter. Since then Lord Kiavan had remained a forthright and sensible subject, resisting close oversight but upholding the law and his duties. I doubted his mind had changed in my regard. Yet he had come, with his daughter, to my castle. What happened now — it was already happening, with or without me.
I threw myself at the door before a second or third thought could interfere. Unannounced, with no fanfare and no attendants, as I preferred; the door’s hinges were hilariously silent as well, and so it took a few strange seconds for the dinner party to notice. The Lord and Lady Kiavan sat facing Elias and his wife Anja, all four engaged in conversation; it was the young red-haired lady sitting comfortably at the end of the table, resting her chin on her hand and her gaze on the castle doors, who saw me first. No surprise crossed her face. No shock, not even a change in posture. Her eyes only opened a little wider and she drew in a long slow breath.
Then Elias stood and rather loudly announced His Highness the King Estan Tainumaun, which of course shattered the repose of the evening as efficiently as a bucket of cold water. The ladies stopped their conversation mid-sentence, and everyone set down their glasses and scrambled to their feet so as to bow or curtsy.
“I’m sorry I’ve had to keep you all waiting,” I said. “Please, please, sit! I hope your wait hasn’t been tiresome.” I sat down between Elias and Lord Kiavan and leaned hard into friendly conversation — my only recourse when anxious eyes couldn’t stop darting so rapidly from my mask to the floor and back.
I asked after their travels (long, but in fair weather), their island (should be a good year for wine), their health (tolerable, though Lady Kiavan suffers from a mild cough). I graciously deflected compliments about the dinner and the gardens (it was Anja, primarily, who had arranged them).
“It has been a long time since I’ve seen the capitol,” Lord Kiavan said. He sat straight, but rested his hands comfortably on the table. They were hands that looked capable of easily crushing mine. “There was more travel for me in those days, under your father the king. I always liked to see this place.”
“Those were good days,” I agreed. “I would be glad to see any aspect of them return.”
Lord Kiavan chuckled. “Except the war, I suppose?”
“Except that, obviously.”
“I jest, my lord! You and I both remember it too well for disrespect. At least, I meant nothing against your father or his reign. He was a good and honorable king. He fought for us better than I daresay any king ever has.”
“He was,” I said after a pause. The pause was too like the enigmatic silence, regrettably, which had no place at this table, but it allowed me to choose the second option once again. “He was a good king. A good father, too. If I cannot have him back, then perhaps I can learn to be half the man he was.” I raised a glass (either Elias or Anja had set one for me, though they knew I wouldn’t drink anything) and offered, “To better times again.”
Everyone repeated the toast, and drank. Elias shot me a half-nod and a half-smile.
All this time the young lady Neivain sat silently watching me, with her hands tightly clasped in her lap. Her face was like rain on a window — peaceful, only by its muting effect on the lashing storm behind it. She dropped her gaze only once or twice and I found myself faltering, distracted and waiting nervously for it to drop again.
When the dinner party began to dissolve and I asked her to walk in the garden, she accepted graciously and with a smile, but her hand when I took it was shaking.
We went slowly through the trees under the terrace wall. The lingering voices were dim above us. I had thought to show her the rose garden; when we reached it I hastened to assure her that it looked a lot more interesting in summer. Most of the bushes had given up for the year, but here and there a flower remained, looking especially luxuriant by isolation among withered branches. Neivain obligingly bent to smell one.
I couldn’t quite think of what else to say.
“Right,” I said, as she straightened up. “Well. You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that I wear a mask.”
Her trembling poise finally fell apart, and for a moment I was certain she would cry. But then an undignified snorting noise turned into a full-throated laugh. She attempted to restrain it behind both hands.
“I’m sorry,” she coughed out between gales of laughter, “Excuse me — your Highness, I—”
“Oh, don’t bother with the Your Highness business.”
“My lord! My lord, of course — I’m not laughing at you, I promise I’m—”
“I mean, you may just call me Estan,” I said. “Estan. That’s what’s buried underneath all the titles. Just my name.”
She wiped her eyes with a shaking hand. “Are you sure?”
“Fairly sure,” I said drily. “I mean, you might as well call me by name at this point. Anyway I’m king, so who’s going to say you can’t?”
She laughed again and agreed this was so, then apologized again. I rather helplessly shook my head.
“I’m not usually like this,” she protested, “at least, I hope I’m not — I’m just nervous!” No sooner had this confession burst from her lips than the storm of panic burst over her face again.
I replied with the first words that sprang to mind, for better or worse, and found I could hardly have done otherwise. “Well, you’re not the only one,” I said.
She mustered a thin smile. I sat down on a low wall and motioned for her to join me.
“Listen,” I said, “I wear a mask. I stay up most of the night. I know you have questions. And I suppose I owe you apologies in advance, because you must understand there are certain arrangements I cannot change, and there are certain questions I will not — cannot answer. But you need have no fear of asking. What I can answer, I will answer honestly. I promise that.”
Neivain thought for a while, biting her lip. Then she asked with surprising intensity, “Is it true that when you were sixteen, your brother knocked you out a tower window and you fell twenty feet but somehow weren’t hurt, but then you hid in the bushes —”
I laughed — a real laugh.
“— hid in the bushes for an hour afterward to make sure he was really sorry, and everyone thought you’d vanished and they went so far as to send a search party into the woods that didn’t come back until after dark, and after everyone was in a panic they discovered you waiting in the main hall like nothing had happened? Or is that just one of those stories people tell?”
“To be clear,” I replied, “he didn’t do it on purpose. But essentially, yes.”
“How did you fall twenty feet and not get hurt?”
“Ivy, followed by some bushes, and then an unused passage behind the kitchens. I’ll show you sometime. And if I did bruise a rib or two, I certainly didn’t let on.”
“That’s the question you wanted to ask first?” I said incredulously.
“I’ve been wondering about that for years. It didn’t seem plausible.”
“Well, that was my aim at the time. My sixteen year old self would be pleased to know it worked.”
We both looked back at the castle for a while.
“Oh, go on, go on,” I finally said. “Please. The suspense is too thick.”
“Alright, then — my lord—”
“—Estan … why do you wear a mask?”
“Right,” I said. “That one I can’t answer. At least not just yet.”
She shrugged. “Of course.” She looked searchingly all over the mask. “At least — please don’t be offended, but — you have got a face under there, right?”
“Yes. What? Of course I have a face!”
“I just mean — well, nobody rightly knows I’m sure, but people say things anyway. They say that some magic you did once required your face as payment for something, and so you wear a mask because there’s nothing underneath it —”
“No! God, no.” I reflected a moment. “That would be horrific. People really think that?”
She laughed nervously. “Well, they say it. Not that I ever really believed it. I didn’t actually think of it much at all. Think of you. At all. Until two weeks ago.”
“I hope it hasn’t been an excruciating two weeks,” I said.
“Why, has it been so for you?”
“No,” I said slowly, and regretted that my bemused smile couldn’t assist. “Though I confess some relief at finding this evening far more pleasant an engagement than… than I typically expect my appearance to produce.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “I admit, it does feel better to know than to wonder.”
We looked around the gardens for a while. Then she shivered. In response to questioning she admitted forthrightly that she was cold, and tired as well. I accompanied her inside and left her in the capable hands of Anja and an assortment of maids at the bottom of the stairs to the east wing where her chambers awaited.
Lord Kiavan was in the front room, holding a drink and regarding the line of portraits over the fireplace.
“She’s a wonderful young woman,” I said, coming up at his elbow. He recovered from a near spill, and agreed.
“I am glad you came,” I pressed on. “As you said. It’s been far too long since our two islands have communicated.”
“I expect that will change if my daughter wishes to stay.”
“I hope it will change regardless. We don’t wish our border islands to be neglected.”
“Of course not, my lord.”
“There was a ship,” I said, “a ship from the north at anchor in your bay these two weeks ago.”
“Indeed there was.”
“When was I going to hear about that ship?”
“I assumed you already had, my lord,” he said, “as your dragon saw it the day it arrived.”
I conceded his point with a tip of my head.
“And, as I received your summons two days later, I determined to carry the details myself,” he continued. “It was a message, my lord, from the king of Resaivus, to this effect: that they are considering declaring the dragon’s activity at sea, including his surveillance of trade, an impermissible war crime. They wished to negotiate some concessions in the dragon’s regard and though the messenger did not ever say so in so many words, he made it clear that any man of them would kill the dragon if given the opportunity.”
I digested this. I was grateful for the thin space of privacy behind my mask where I could panic unobserved.
“If their intention was truly to negotiate, why stop at my outer islands? Why not ask an audience with me?” I asked. My voice shook a little — let it seem like anger, not fear. In truth it was both.
“Wanted to find out whether the lord of a border island felt the same way about the beast, and whether he would help them.” Lord Kiavan took a long drink and watched the fire.
“I told him yes to the first,” he said flatly, turning his eyes to me. “You know, my lord, that I do not trust the dragon overmuch. But I told him that the second question smacked of treason. He denied having really asked it, of course, and the ship departed the next day bearing what I imagine is displeasing news. And if and when Resaivus learns of my current errand, he will probably be even more displeased.”
“I have wondered whether he would stoop to something like this,” I said.
“Subterfuge? Well, he is persistent. And now that … now that Tainumaun has eyes and fire in the sky that have rendered his fleet so ineffectual, what other tactics could he pursue?”
I drew in a long breath and watched the firelight flicker. I felt suddenly very tired, though it was still not even midnight.
“My lord,” said Kiavan after a while, “I await my daughter’s answer, but for my part, I only wish to know that the dragon will never hurt her if she stays here.”
“I promise it,” I said vehemently. “Few things could I promise with such certainty. The dragon is in my power and I swear that it will not harm her. She will be safe here. And I will do all I can to make her happy here as well.”
“Good,” he said. His face did not quite echo the sentiment, I thought.
I watched the fire a long time after he left.