Chapter 15
Royal Treatment

Scotia, Arma

"The external is but a mirror to the internal, the reflection warped by its imperfections. When you change the external, the reflection changes, revealing a different view of what lies within."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

The group was met by a guard escort that sped the way to the castle. Waiting for them in the main hall of the castle was King Breandan. Lines of care melted from his face at the first sight of his daughter alive and well.
"Regan!" the King exclaimed.
Even the return to her native land had not been enough to stir the Princess, but upon hearing her father's voice, it was as if a new life was breathed into her. Her soft green eyes glistened with tears as she cried out to him.
"Faither! Faither!"
The Princess ran to her father and Breandan wrapped his thick arms around her in powerful embrace. Tears rolled down the King's cheeks unabashedly as he held his daughter. After a few moments had passed, he recovered some of his composure and looked to the group.
"Hoo can Ah e'er thenk ye?"
Mark knelt before the King.
"It is not our place to ask anything of you, Your Majesty, but we need is a ship to return to our homeland. If you would grant us permission to speak with the magistrate from Porto Sul, we would be grateful. Beyond that, Your Majesty's gratitude alone will suffice."
Breandan nodded. "Ye sall hae mair than meir gratitude. A charter fra ane o' me schips sall be drawn up at wance."
"We are honored by Your Majesty's graciousness," Mark replied.
The King did not exaggerate. The charter was drawn up quickly, thanks to the fast hand of Breandan's seneschal. As Breandan affixed his seal to the charter, he looked up at Mark.
"Ye maun shew this tae the magistrat frae Porto Sool. He's noo in Moonteverde, a toon sooth o' here."
Mark accepted the charter and bowed to the King. "Then we will take our leave, You Majesty."
Breandan reached out and put a hand on Mark's shoulder before he could walk away. "No yet ye winna, yun knicht. Ye've seved me dochter an' noo we maun hae a fast tae celebrat. I winna tak' na fra an answer."
There was no way Mark could decline. As they would have probably spent the night in the city anyway, there was little reason for any of the others to object. Such luxuries were a rarity in their journey, and only a committed ascetic like Stefan could denounce the indulgence.
They were all to be given baths and fresh clothes in preparation for the feast. While the bathwater was being drawn, the chamberlain visited each of them to determine their identity, lest the court make the faux pas of failing to pay the proper respect to their guests. At first, Mark did not want to draw any added attention to himself, but after consulting with Sonia, he agreed to show the chamberlain his signet as proof of his identity as the current lord of House Aran.
After the chamberlain left, Mark was just about to undress for his bath when he heard a ruckus outside. Sprinting through the hall, he found Stefan facing off with a couple guards with maidservants screaming in the background. Mark quickly put himself in the middle lest one side or the other did something rash.
"What's going on here?" the swordsman demanded.
"This mon treed tae enter the lady's chaumer," a maidservants said.
"I heared the lassies scrame," one of the guards added, "sae me an' Seumas here cum tae se whatten's the matter. This blaggard's been bullyin' the wummenfowk an' talkin' in stringe tanges."
"Leave this to me," Mark said. He turned to Stefan and addressed him in Byrnan. "I take it this is Catherine's room."
"I won't let these dogs lay a hand on Lady Catherine," Stefan growled. He gave the Scotians a fierce glare. "They take one step closer and I'll kill them."
"For God's sake, calm down," Mark insisted. "They're not going to hurt her. All they want to do is give her a bath and wash her clothes. Do you really object to that? Would you be satisfied if you got to watch?"
Stefan's face flushed and he angrily stammered, "W-when did I ever say that!?"
The swordsman put his hands on Stefan's shoulders, ignoring the nasty look he got for it. "Look," he said calmly, "these people will take care of her. Why don't you go get ready for the banquet?"
Stefan brushed Mark's hands away. "I'm not going. My place is by Lady Catherine's side."
Mark could appreciate his loyalty, but he was taking it too far.
"Don't be like that, Stefan. The King is showing his gratitude for rescuing the Princess. If Catherine were awake, she'd go."
"And then I'd be at her side," Stefan replied, "but she's not awake and I'm not leaving her to eat with some foreign dogs."
Mark pressed his entreaty a little harder. "Stefan, please, I don't want to insult the King. It'll only be for an hour or two."
"A lot can happen in an hour or two. I won't shirk my duty."
Mark could see there was no winning this one. "Think about it."
He got no reply, but Mark nevertheless held out the hope that Stefan would come around. He turned his attention to the maidservants.
"This man is the lady's bodyguard," he told them. "He'll stay outside while she's being bathed and dressed, but don't stop him from coming in once you're done. Is that understood?"
"Yes, me laird," the servants replied in unison.
"Good," Mark said. "I'm sorry about the trouble. Carry on."
The guards walked away, but they kept themselves within eyeshot of the room. Stefan stood outside the door while the maidservants tended to Catherine. It looked like the peace would hold for a little while at least. Happy that the situation was resolved but exhausted from the ordeal, Mark headed back to his room.
He was truly thankful for the bath. Aritan monastics were known for their cleanliness and would rarely go much longer than two days without a bath, a stark contrast to the general population, which generally bathed once a week at best. Obviously, it was impractical to expect frequent and regular baths in a life on the road, so he had every intention of relaxing and fully appreciating this time while it lasted.
The swordsman had not been in contact with any warm water since they were in Niflheim and this time it did not smell like brimstone. Absently, he remembered how embarrassed he had been waking up in the hot spring with everyone else. Just as he was thinking to himself how much nicer it was to be afforded a little privacy, a maidservant walked in.
Bowing to Mark, she said, "A've cum tae help wi' yer bath, me laird."
"That's quite alright, miss. I can bathe myself."
"Bot, me laird..."
"Anyone who tries to punish you for it will have to answer to me. Now, please, go."
Although not entirely sure of herself, the maidservant obeyed, bowing to Mark before leaving the room. Mark thought that was the end of it, but after his bath, he had to put up with a valet dressing him. He had tried to protest, but the valet was under stricter orders. Apparently the house steward did not have much faith in the guests' ability to dress themselves properly and worked in concert with the housekeeper to ensure that each of Mark's companions had at least one servant attending to their appearance.
Unaccustomed to the fine clothes and the high class treatment he was given, Mark was more than a little uncomfortable, but he soon found that he was not the worst off. He was not the only one who felt like a fish out of water, some more so than others. While everyone, for the most part, did their best to play along, the preparations were not entirely free of conflict.
There had apparently been quite the battle of wills between Sonia and the housekeeper. Sonia refused to wear a dress, but the housekeeper would not countenance the idea of her dressing as a man for a formal dinner and the fencer's regular clothes had already been confiscated to be cleaned. That left Sonia with the choice of going naked or wearing the dress. With her stubbornness, it was entirely plausible that she would have done the former, but the aged servant did not hold her rank for nothing. The housekeeper had dealt with all sorts in her many years of service, and she was a far more formidable creature than Sonia was prepared for. No one will even know exactly how it happened, and Sonia would keep it a secret until her dying day, but somehow the housekeeper managed to bend the fencer to her will. And so Sonia attended the feast wearing a dress and looking like a proper lady.
As with many formal occasions, each of the attendees was introduced before taking a seat. It was the custom in Scotia to announce the guests of honor last. The Scotians believed they were showing respect for their special guest by having everyone else assembled beforehand to hear the introductions. As part of the official protocol, each person was spaced several paces apart and it was considered rude to look around while waiting in line. As a result, Mark was not able to see the transformation of his companions until after he was seated.
As he stood there waiting to be called forward, Mark could not help feeling a little nervous. He felt woefully ill-equipped for the occasion. One of the butlers had given him an all too brief lesson on the manners and customs he was supposed to observe, but the swordsman feared he would make some critical blunder during the meal. King Breandan did not seem like the sort who got too worked up over matters of propriety, but Mark still wanted to make a good impression.
In stark contrast to his own uneasiness, Edward appeared all puffed up with confidence, even from a distance. Mark had no idea what life was like in the court of Edward's father, but apparently the Prince found it familiar enough. In fact, he was probably looking forward to this after all his years as a barhopping rebel.
While Mark was thinking on this, the chamberlain stepped forward to announce them. "An' noo Ah present oor honored gihsts frae the soothern kinrick o' Gladius, wha seved Her Heichness frae the wicked bandit. Furstly, His Ryal Heichness Prince Edward, Laird o' Greystane an' Croon Prince tae the Thrane o' the Muntain Keing."
Edward's swagger was something to be seen. It was really no surprise. In his head, Edward had never stopped being the Crown Prince. Even without the treatment afforded to him by Siegfried Martel and the surviving loyalists, it was unlikely that his ego would permit him to view himself as anything less. He was clearly reveling in this rare moment where foreign heads of state were acknowledging him by his rightful title. Next to Randwulf's ouster, it was the main thing he had been striving for ever since Gladius' conquest.
"The Maist Honorable Mairk the Guardian, Laird o' Hoos Aran."
Mark nearly missed the call, having allowed himself to get so lost in thought. Breandan had arranged for the group to sit closest to him, placing them ahead of all the other lords in attendance. Bowing to the King, Mark took his place opposite to Edward. He would have dwelled on how strange it was to hear his name in noble address had Sonia not been called next.
"The Maist Honorable Sonia the Defender, Lady o' Hoos Leon."
After hearing the story of her fight over the choice of wardrobe, Mark was curious to see how his cousin turned out. She apparently did not suffer a total loss in the battle of wills, for the simple design of the dress and the absence of any extra adornment were most certainly her idea. She still looked a little angry over the whole affair, but presently she was more preoccupied trying to walk without tripping. No doubt she had not worn a dress since her mother passed away.
Although they were supposed to alternate sides as they took their places, Sonia made a point of sitting next to Mark rather than taking her designated seat next to Edward. Even the locals who knew nothing about the friction between those two could tell it was a deliberate move. Some hushed mutterings broke out among the guests and Edward looked positively livid at being slighted in public. Somehow, he managed to keep his temper in check. It seemed that the Prince could actually exercise a little self-control when his image was at stake.
Even though the peace was holding for the time being, Mark was afraid he was going to have to break up a new round in the squabbling between those two. Once again, he nearly missed the announcement of the next companion on the list.
"The Lady Flaivia Aidriana o' Hoos Flaivius."
At first, Mark did not believe his ears, and then, seeing who was walking forward to take her place at the table, he did not believe his eyes. Although Adrienne was known for dressing like a man just as Sonia was, she did not seem to have any problem adapting to a dress. In fact, she seemed perfectly comfortable in all the trappings of nobility. It was surprising enough to hear her introduced by a patrician name, even more surprising that her bearing actually made the claim plausible.
Her hair was arranged to hide the scar on her cheek, and it was but one aspect of what seemed to be a total transformation inside and out. There had always been a haughtiness to her, a menacing way she treated other people like a snake among mice, but now she was acting demure, reserved, like a typical well-bred aristocratic woman. It was a jarring difference, but there was something else Mark found unnerving. He could see it in her eyes. It was like her conscious self had gone to sleep and allowed her body to become the puppet of this other person. Was it the memory of long-lost days... or something else?
"Sister Teresa o' the Arder o' Saint Niccolo," the chamberlain proclaimed.
Mark had completely forgotten about the rest of the group still on its way. Rather than dwell on Adrienne's façade, there was a more pleasant sight to be had. Certainly over the novice's protests, her clothes had also been confiscated while she was bathing, leaving her with little choice but to adopt secular attire for a little while. A short, gauzy veil held in place silver circlet had to suffice for a head covering, her crucifix the only other sign of her clerical office.
Teresa's blushing might lead someone to think otherwise, but her attire was hardly immodest. As a matter of fact, her dress looked very similar to the one worn by Princess Regan herself. Given how close the two were in age and physique, Mark imagined that it came from the Princess own wardrobe, possibly meant as a reward for the care the novice had given her.
Seeing her discomfiture, Mark took pity on her. Once she had sat down, he leaned over to her and said, "It's okay, Teresa, relax. You haven't taken your final vows yet, and these are extraordinary circumstances. I'm sure the Father Abbot would have nothing to say against you. The servants of God aren't made by what they wear." He tapped his chest. "It's about what's in here."
Teresa gave a subdued nod, a sign she was not entirely convinced. Grinning, Mark decided to take a different tack.
"The only sin you're likely commit here is breaking the hearts of the bachelors here."
The novice blushed furiously, but Mark figured the worst of it was over for her. Although she had made progress over the course of their journey, she was still a little too conscientious for her own good. He hoped she would learn to see life through a slightly less legalistic lens. There was hope for her yet, but she still had a long way to go.
"Guidman Jeles o' Darkwa'."
It was no surprise that Giles made no claim to his former rank in the Marauders. Even though it was in the service of the enemy, Mark felt sorry for Giles' loss in status. All his life's work had been wiped out, but Mark appreciated his sense of priorities. No moral individual could ever allow title and prestige to trump conscience. By presenting himself as mere commoner, Mark considered the pikeman to have more nobility than any of them.
He was struck by the fact that Giles identified himself as being from Darkwall in spite of severing his ties to Randwulf and the Marauders. Everyone had their own circumstances, but Mark was left to wonder. For better or for worse, was Darkwall the only home Giles had ever known?
"Guidman Ignatei o' Dragova."
Mark had to suppress a laugh. Some valiant soul had tried to tame the chaotic tangles of his hair, but gave up early in the task, leaving a single shock of straight hair at odds with the rest of his head. It looked like no one had any clothes to fit Ignatiy's bony frame, and what he wore was hopelessly baggy and ill-fitting in spite of what must have been the servants' best efforts to make him look presentable. As funny as the sight was, Mark noticed something more serious. More than simple nervousness or discomfort, Ignatiy looked honestly scared.
Mark could guess what was troubling him. Unfamiliar surroundings, unfamiliar faces. Too many people, too much strangeness. Mark had never known Ignatiy to function well in a social capacity and after the trauma of his years as a prisoner, it was a wonder he had made it this far. Barely crossing the threshold, his steps were halting and uncertain. It looked like he could run away at a moment's notice.
Rather than let that happen, Mark broke with the standard protocol, getting up from the table and guiding Ignatiy to his seat. Comforting his friend in whispered Byrnan, Mark slowly but surely headed toward Ignatiy's place. Once Mark had him seated, Teresa took over, forgetting her own troubles to tend to the skittish firebug.
"Guidman Jaisper o' Aivelin."
Although one of Jasper's professions called for work in stealth and shadows, the other thrived on the attention of other people. This side of him was on display tonight. Unlike so many of them who were feeling rather uncomfortable, it looked like the thief was enjoying the moment even more than Edward. That was no small feat.
Although the fashions in Scotia were fairly reserved, he had somehow managed to get his hands on clothes almost as gaudy as his usual garb. He wore the pleated, wide sleeved tunic common among the Scotians with red stockings, a plaid cloak draped over one shoulder, and an oversized version of the traditional bonnet on his head.
He doffed the bonnet with a flourish and gave an especially theatrical bow to the King. Both Breandan and the other Scotians were all rather amused by his flamboyant behavior. He made a face at Ignatiy for sitting next to Teresa and monopolizing her attention, but he quickly made it clear that he was only joking.
While Jasper was busy with his antics, Mark whispered to Sonia, "I've never heard of a land called 'Aivelin', have you?"
Sonia shrugged. "He probably made it up. What do you expect from a thief?"
Perhaps it was so, but it seemed pretty clear from Jasper's accent that he was not a native of Gladius. Where did he come from? Mark did not realize how little he knew about the thief, even though he was one of his earliest companions on this journey. Perhaps there would come a time when he could learn more. He had long suspected there was more to Jasper than what was on the surface, but what was it?
"Guidwife Jill o' Ro'en."
It seemed like there was no end to the surprises this evening. Once again, Mark leaned over to Sonia. "'Goodwife'?" he asked. "You mean Jill's married?"
Taking a sip from her wineglass, Sonia cocked her head. "Didn't I tell you? Maybe not. Anyway, yeah, she's married. Been married for five years now."
Mark found this hard to believe. "You're kidding. What about her husband? Wouldn't he have objected to her coming with us?"
"He was patrolling the borders when we left," Sonia explained, "so he didn't know." She grinned. "Besides, it's not like he could've changed her mind. There's not much you can do to stop her when she's decided to do something. Why do you think Papa agreed to let her come in the first place?"
She had a point. Jill had already demonstrated that her loyalty to Sonia was first and foremost. It was probably a blessing that her husband was denied the opportunity for a confrontation on the matter. As for the huntress herself, her usual agility was completely thrown off balance by the unfamiliarity of wearing a dress. Perhaps even more so than many of the others, she had never known any fineries, the whole of her existence devoted to the rugged life of a Rowanite scout. Although her movements were awkward, she had apparently had enough coaching beforehand to make it to her seat without tripping or tumbling.
Mark noticed that there were no more announcements to follow. As he had suspected, Stefan had not changed his mind. It was all well and good for him to be so faithful to Catherine, but she would hardly begrudge him accepting the hospitality of their hosts. It could not be helped, and since most of the group had showed up, Breandan looked no less pleased at the turnout.
The meal was an impressive spread. A whole roasted boar was the centerpiece, accompanied by gamefowl, tubers, mushrooms, cream cheese, oat cakes, and several types of imported fruits and vegetables. While they ate, the Scotians eagerly asked all manner of questions, from the details of the fight with Wilde to the most popular ale in Gladius. Mark and Sonia were particularly singled out because Breandan's ancestor had led the Scotian army alongside the Eight Stars in the final years of the Great War. Sonia received even more attention, not only because a female swordfighter was such a novelty, but because her family originally hailed from Fodla, a kingdom which had long enjoyed warm relations with Scotia.
The Scotians were deeply interested in Randwulf's conquest and the group's fight against him. Scotia had suffered two particularly brutal civil wars in its history and the people had not forgotten the pain and suffering caused by unchecked ambition. The Gladian guests received hearty encouragement to keep up the fight. A little tipsy by that point, Breandan declared that he would send aid in all forms to unseat Randwulf, but his advisors warned the group not to take him seriously.
Entertainment came in the form of a few jugglers and acrobats, whose performance was followed by a bard singing the tragic ballad of Queen Deirdre, who was abandoned by her husband the King in favor of another woman. Jasper jumped in at the end of the ballad, surprising and delighting the Scotians with a ballad about the Brothers mac Dubhghall, famous heroes from the early days of the kingdom. Having impressed them with his knowledge of their own traditions, he delved even deeper into his repertoire and sang of an ancient war and the bold hero who fought two great kingdoms to give birth to a new nation. Mark, who was fairly well-versed in history, thought Jasper might be singing about the Trident War that ravaged the Far West millennia ago, but he was surprised the thief knew about it, much less a whole ballad to commemorate it.
The feast went on well into the night. When it was all over, they were all thoroughly exhausted. The group slept in the next morning, rising late before setting out. After a light breakfast with Breandan, they said their farewells and were on their way.
While they were walking down the stairs toward the main gates, Edward stepped forward so he was walking right alongside Mark. He obviously had something to say.
"I've noticed this ever since we were in that ice land," the Prince said. "Why is it that you change your speech for a foreign king, but not your rightful lord?"
None too concerned about all the slights Edward perceived, Mark replied, "When you have the crown, I will treat you as king."
"It'll take more than a crown to make that fool a king," Sonia scoffed.
Before the inevitable argument could ensure, Giles suddenly broke ranks with them, driving his through the chest of a nearby peasant. Except for Adrienne, who placed no great value on human life, everyone was shocked at what they saw.
"What's wrong with you, man!?" Edward shouted in confusion.
Giles drew out his pike and crouched beside the peasant. Pulling off the peasant's cowl, he spent a few moments examining the body. When he was satisfied with what he saw, he rose to face the others.
"I don't kill without reason," Giles said. "The dead man you see before you is known as Algernon by the Marauders, but he goes by many names. He's Randwulf's master spy, the very best in the whole kingdom." He looked at the body again. "It had been bothering me a long time. I thought I had seen him once or twice before, but this time I was certain. Who knows how long he's been shadowing us, reporting our movements to Randwulf and his agents? This won't stop the people chasing us, but it should slow them down."
They did a quick search of Algernon's person and found the fang the merchant Perry had boasted about, the Antiochian gold coins Felix had given Rodrigo in Porto Sul, and in a small leather pouch around his neck the lock of hair Thorfinn claimed as a love token. Sonia promptly drew her main gauche and gave the body a few extra stabs when she learned that the flirtatious Thorfinn was one of Randwulf's agents in disguise.
The idea did not sit well with anyone. How long had he been watching them? How many places had he been? How many people did he pretend to be? And the gravest question of all: how long before the enemy would make their next move?