Tall sea grasses bent in the mild breeze blowing in off the ocean. Harsh cries from the gulls and crows mixed with the distant crash of the sea to create a constant, familiar backdrop to the more immediate shouts of the peasants in the yard below. The last of the grain harvest was in, and though the weather remained deceptively mild, the tough people of the coast knew storms were coming. Anastasia sighed, pillowing her cheek more comfortably in the crook of her elbow. Unlike the farmers and workers beneath her window she lived within sturdy stone walls, her existence at a measurable distance from the elements. But even Anastasia knew when the seasons turned.
She sighed again and turned away from the window. Her room was small, but cozy. The fire crackling merrily in the hearth cast its light, heat, and a few embers onto the threadbare rug before it. It was one of her earliest knitting projects and she was glad only of its softness, for it had no beauty. A more recent attempt hung from the chimney above. This was more intricate, though not as beautiful as her mother’s work, an example of which lay lovingly across the foot of her bed.
Lady Tamsin, Anastasia’s mother, was legendary for her needlework. It was part of the reason Lord Gideon had chosen her, from a much lower house, to be his bride. That and, while he had stayed obstinately single, all of the other ladies of good birth had gotten married or been killed off in the wars. At least that’s what her nurse had told her.
Lord Gideon Avishey was Anastasia’s father, a good man, and a fair lord, so it was said. Anastasia knew from others that Easthaven, the great castle that was their home was nothing to those belonging to the kings, and those less still to the home of the High King, who ruled over their country from his fortress in the south. Still, it was a handsome building, and, she had heard, well suited for defense, which was all that really mattered this far east. The land they ruled was tame now, but Anastasia remembered snatches of battles, moments of fear picked out in the otherwise peaceful canvass of her childhood, when she had been woken in the middle of the night and hurried to the cellars with the other children to wait silently with the women as loud crashes and shouts trickled down from above. Always, as the candles began to gutter and go out, the door had opened and her father had stood there, with a great smile, to let them out.
At her feet her sister Raelyn flopped onto her back. Anastasia looked down at her. Two years younger and brash as a boy Raelyn had little in common with Anastasia. She was stocky and tall for her age, with their father’s dark coloring. A dog, blonder than Raelyn and far more elegant, raised her chin from her paws to survey the girl rolling about at her feet. Stella glanced up at Anastasia before making a whuffling sound and returning her head to the floor.
“Well it’s boring,” Raelyn complained in response to Anastasia’s exasperated look.
“Mother and father are busy entertaining our visitors.”
“Why can’t we go too?” she whined, turning back onto her stomach and reaching up to pet Stella before dropping her hand in annoyed boredom. “We only caught a glimpse of them from here and then they were gone, I should have liked to be in the yard at least, even if we did have to get all dressed up. It isn’t every day we receive messengers from the king you know!”
“They aren’t just the King’s messengers Raelyn, they are his lords, like father, only they live in his keep.”
“Either way, the last time this happened I was only a baby and I don’t remember a thing.”
“We must stay out of the way,” Anastasia reprimanded her. “If we are good perhaps we shall see them tomorrow.”
“Gregoir and Casey are with them, why not us?” Raelyn argued, naming their older brothers.
Anastasia rolled her eyes. “Gregoir is a man grown and father’s heir besides.”
“Casey’s only a year older than you, why can he go and not us?”
“You are too young even if you were a boy, which Casey is, and older besides. How would you like it if I went and you were left here alone?”
Raelyn lifted her nose into the air. “I shouldn’t mind one bit. If I were alone I should hide above and see them anyway.”
“Well go on then, I shan’t stop you.”
Her sister squinted sharply at her. “You mean it, you won’t tell mother?”
“Even if she asks,” Anastasia promised, thinking it would be worth it just to have her younger sister out of her hair for a couple of hours.
Apparently Raelyn trusted her enough because she was gone in a flash, grabbing her dark grey cloak and disappearing down the hall. Stella got halfway to her feet then lost interest and lay back down. Anastasia let out the breath she hadn’t known she was holding and patted the dog’s head. Her sister was too young, or too disinterested if Anastasia was being honest, to really understand. But there were very few reasons for the king to send any of his lords this far East, and Anastasia had a strong suspicion the reason was her.
She wasn’t surprised, exactly. After her fourteenth name day passed her mother had made it clear that they expected an offer any day, likely couched in an invitation to her father or perhaps one of her brothers. Still, a year had passed and none had come. The stress of waiting had been pushed aside by the duties of daily life and, while she hadn’t forgotten, Anastasia had quietly focused her attentions on other things. If an offer came, she would be ready, but ensuring her father’s keep and the lands surrounding it were supplied and happy was a much more pressing matter.
Catching herself staring blankly out the window Anastasia was just reaching for the embroidery she’d set aside when her door opened and Anastasia glanced over, wondering if her tutor was early, then leapt from her seat at the window, nearly tripping over Stella who had stood at the same time, and swept a hurried curtsey. Lady Tamsin smiled at her daughter, then bit her lip to contain a chuckle when Anastasia’s unbalanced curtsey failed her and she had to stand abruptly or fall over.
“Come, my girl,” the lady said, extending a hand to her daughter, “it is cold, I would sit by the fire.”
Anastasia leapt to obey, taking her mother by the fingertips and escorting her to the plumper of the two chairs arrayed before the fire before cautiously settling into the other. Stella followed them and curled up before the fire with a sigh.
“I had not thought to see you,” Anastasia said after a moment, “I thought you would be entertaining the lords sent by the king?”
Lady Tamsin dipped her head in acknowledgement. “I have just come from there.”
The door opened to admit one of her mother’s younger maids, Selah, Anastasia remembered, who approached at a nod from the lady and began teasing out Anastasia’s braids. Anastasia looked to her mother in confusion.
“You are to join us there in a moment, but first, we must talk.”
Anastasia’s heart suddenly began to beat double-time. Lady Tamsin understood the expression in her daughter’s eyes better than most, and she smiled. It was a complicated one, Anastasia saw, with layers of happiness and grief underlayed by others of worry and even anger.
“You know of your father’s oath to our king Silvanus, that the Avishey tiger answers only to the call of the Silvanus serpent.”
Anastasia nodded, heart in her throat.
“Well, King Báror’s son, Alexander, is turning seventeen in two weeks and we have been invited to attend the celebrations as guests of the king. This is a courtesy we cannot refuse, though,” she smiled, “it has been many years since I have seen King Silvanus and I know your father is eager to speak with him as well.” Lady Tamsin’s smile faded and she caught her daughter’s eye. “It is important that you distinguish yourself, even on the road. You understand?”
“Yes, my lady.”
Lady Tamsin smiled. “Let Selah finish with you, then you are to come down and greet us. Keep Selah, she will be useful to you.”
“And, you, child,” the lady addressed Selah, “I hope you have studied carefully.”
“Yes my lady,” the handmaiden murmured, casting her eyes down.
Lady Tamsin smiled faintly, laid a hand on her daughter’s head, then swept from the room. Anastasia remained where she was as Selah tugged and fastened her tresses to fit some grand vision of her own. The eldest daughter of the house sat quietly, eyes on the fire, enjoying its warmth and letting her thoughts roam. She was ready though, when Selah stepped away, and thanked the girl with a smile as she removed the apron covering one of her two formal dresses, donned on the off chance she would be called to sing for the King’s men after supper. Selah stepped forward to take the apron and Anastasia smiled again.
“Go get your dinner,” she said.
Selah dipped her head. “I will have tea waiting for you when you return.”
“Thank you.” Anastasia squared her shoulders, lifted her chin, patted Stella, and stepped out of her room.
Cold seeped from the stones that made up the hallway. Though their days were mild, only prolonged, direct sunshine heated the stones of their castle enough to warm them past sunset. Anastasia was used to it. As she walked she wondered how the king’s men were coping. Their lord’s castle was farther inland, and north. She knew from her brothers that armour was torture in cold climates but she’d seen firsthand the agony of wearing full armor in the sun.
She rounded a corner and the hall opened up, affording her a short glimpse of the main hall before she entered the staircase. There were four lords, she counted quickly, sitting with her father and his seven men; her two elder brothers, three advisors and two high-ranking soldiers, the best their home had to offer.
At the foot of the stairs Anastasia twitched the corner of her skirt so it would lay flat and smoothed her hair. Selah had formed an intricate knot at the back of her head, incorporating strands from the front but leaving the bottom half down. Girls in her part of the country cut their hair to their shoulders at the age of twelve and it grew uninterrupted until their marriage. At fifteen her hair was nearly to her waist again, curls stretched into ripples by their own weight.
The door to the great hall opened and Anastasia tossed her hair over her shoulder and raised her chin. Hands folded in front of her, she paced slowly but confidently into the room. Out of the corners of her eyes she saw the men at the high table turn to watch her, but she kept her eyes on her father, who was gazing down into his wine cup. His once-black hair now contained streaks of iron gray, but his face had little of the hardness of other men half his age, and when he glanced up at her his brown eyes were as clear as ever. Beside him, her mother looked like a queen. She was tall, like her husband, but thin, with lighter coloring; pale eyes and auburn hair, like a Southerner. As always Anastasia wondered how her mother manufactured the air around her. Unlike Lord Gideon, whom one could tell was lord only by the deference paid him by others, Lady Tamsin carried that sense with her like a cloak. It inhabited the space around her like a physical thing. Anastasia had never encountered anyone else with a presence quite like hers. Though she took after her mother’s looks, Anastasia knew she didn’t have a touch of her royal bearing.
“My lord Roderic, my lord Jesha I present my daughter, Anastasia. Anastasia, these men are Sir Thraxes and Sir Ilric, servants of the king who call on us for all our poor hospitality,” Lord Gideon joked gruffly.
“Your hospitality, sir, is far from poor,” Sir Thraxes spoke up, eyelids fluttering with obsequiousness. He was tall, Anastasia could tell, even though he was sitting, and slender, though she had no doubt he was quite strong. He wore his dark hair long, but tied out of his eyes in some complicated knot she doubted poor Selah could recreate. His skin was darker, even, than that of the people of Easthaven, and his hooked nose confirmed his foreign blood. Something about him brought to her mind the image of a large cat, like the leopard she’d caught a glimpse of once in the forest when she was very young. His hooded lids and languid expression couldn’t disguise the flicker of fire within his eyes and she wondered what his sigil was.
“He’s right,” chimed in Lord Roderic from across the table, “we haven’t eaten half so well all summer!” He guffawed and the rest joined in. Even Lady Tamsin cracked a smile. Anastasia wondered at the joke. Lord Roderic seemed Sir Thraxes’ opposite. He too was dark, but there their similarities ended. Lord Roderic was short, and round, barrel-chested, with a fighter’s body that had seen too many days of wine and feasting. Still, his scarred, meaty hands had lost none of their power, and when he pounded his cup on the table demanding more drink, the legs shook.
“My lord, do not speak of your king so ill!” Lord Jesha protested, smiling, “it isn’t his fault the prince has no appetite for game.”
“Nor chickens neither,” Lord Roderic roared and the hall echoed with their laughter.
Lord Jesha smiled at Anastasia as if inviting her to share their joke and she returned it, though she didn’t understand. He was portly, like Lord Roderic, with a similarly ruddy complexion, but his hair was orange, his beard only a few shades darker. His eyes twinkled with mirth and Anastasia decided she liked him already.
“What think you, sir?” Lord Roderic asked, turning to the final, and so far silent member of their party. He was the youngest by at least a decade, around her brothers’ age Anastasia guessed, but far more awkward in company. She wondered how long he’d been a knight.
Sir Ilric frowned as though displeased. “It is my lord’s right to do as he pleases, what right have I to comment on the matter?”
Lord Jesha smothered a laugh but Lord Roderic had no similar qualms and roared again with mirth, clapping the young knight hard enough on the back to make him spill his wine.
“We’ll make a diplomat out of you yet lad.”
“What thinks the Lady Anastasia of the king’s men? Are we not an embarrassing band of libertines?” Sir Thraxes queried.
All their eyes turned to her, but, rather than nervous, Anastasia felt somehow calm.
She smiled faintly, easily imitating her mother’s manner. “It is an interesting question is it not, the right of an attendant to comment upon the conduct or eccentricities of his lord? Perhaps it is more of a matter of appropriate timing and relationships. One may think what he likes, but whether or not to speak must be left to the attendant’s sense of the aforementioned factors, do not you think?”
There was a short silence, in which Anastasia’s confident expression faltered, afraid she had said or done something irredeemable, that her first attempt was about to become her last, then Lord Jesha chuckled. Sir Ilric and Sir Thraxes were both staring at her, Sir Ilric like she was some strange beast and he wasn’t sure if he should cut her down where she stood or flee to fight another day, and Sir Thraxes with an amused, but calculating look Anastasia found she didn’t quite like.
Lord Roderic turned to Lord Gideon with an incredulous look on his face. “Where’d that one spring from?”
Lord Gideon was smiling when he replied: “She may surprise you yet, old friend. They say she has a lot of her mother…”
“And I see a good deal of her father,” Lady Tamsin continued, smiling softly at her daughter though she spoke to the lords.
Lord Roderic seemed to consider that for a moment, before slapping his thigh loudly. “I like her!”
“And I,” Lord Jasha agreed, smiling at her with such unmitigated friendliness that Anastasia couldn’t help but smile back.
“I as well. I am intrigued to see which of you she will grow more to resemble,” Sir Thraxes remarked, eyes glinting beneath heavy lids as he sized her up.
Anastasia kept her eyes on him until he looked away, towards his silent companion.
“I have no place to comment, my lords,” the young knight huffed.
“And yet, as the lady said, the situation being what it is, your opinion would be welcome,” Sir Thraxes pressed.
“But Sir,” Anastasia heard herself interrupt, “it is also only at his own discretion that the attendant may choose to voice his thoughts.”
“And why is that?”
“Because, as you well know, all men own the contents of their minds, and, even if a higher power demands it, it is only at the wish of the attendant himself, that he needs make known his thoughts.”
Another silence followed her words, this one less awkward, but sharper somehow, like the dinners between her father and the suborned lords, whose loyalty was always under question.
“What a beautiful idea milady,” Lord Jesha said kindly as Lord Roderick muttered something into his beard.
“She’s saved you again, come to his rescue a third time and he may do something embarrassingly desperate,” Sir Thraxes drawled, flicking jeweled fingers in Sir Ilric’s direction.
Anastasia blushed and Lord Roderic guffawed.
“He’s a sweet-talker that one. Be careful, little lady, lest he charm you too much.”
“I?” Sir Thraxes purred, settling back in his seat with his wine glass steepled between his fingers.
Lord Roderick shook his head again, but this time he wasn’t laughing.
“Come my dear, sit by me,” Lady Tamsin said, lifting a hand and indicating the empty seat beside her.
Anastasia dipped her head and took her place, her eldest brother, Gregoir flashing a faint smile her way. Casey, a year his junior didn’t even try to hide his grin. Anastasia was surprised to see little red-haired Theid at Casey’s other side. At only ten years, her father’s ward was stick-thin and almost too short to sit comfortably at the high table. Raelyn must not have known he was here or she would have insisted on her own attendance. He was bouncing in his seat, eyes huge in his freckled face, which broke into a wide, gap-toothed grin when Anastasia patted his head on the way to her seat.
“Well done,” her mother murmured and Anastasia shook her head, confused by the turn the conversation had taken.
The main topic swung back to the harvest and the state of the kingdom, with Lord Jesha informing Lady Tamsin of all the gossip from court.
“It is important to know the mood of a place before one enters it,” Lady Tamsin told Anastasia, Lord Jesha nodding in agreement, “that way, you know the best places to make friends, and those to avoid.”
Anastasia nodded, wondering privately if it could possibly be that simple. Probably not, she reasoned, and as she listened to Lord Jesha’s tales of the woes and triumphs of the families at court she began to realize just how deep these feuds and relationships went.