Lochnan was so different from Anvard.
Rhiannon Faylinn watched the consistent scenery roll past the carriage window. Despite the fact that the young noblewoman’s convoy had passed through only three major cities on its way to Lochnan, it was hard for Rhiannon to believe that her home and destination were both within the immense kingdom of Tyrhennia.
Lochnan was a coastal city, the keep of House Glehn Lochnan built on the very bluffs overlooking the the Dinlor Sea. The terrain surrounding was even and painted with long grass that swayed in the cool, salty breeze. The carriages passed several charming villages and hamlets, where the men paused respectfully in their work, the women curtsied, and the children waved. Rhiannon waved back incredulously.
Was this honestly the same Tyrhennia that Anvard knew?
The Faylinn party came to the mansion that was provided for them and a Scrub helped Rhiannon descend from her chariot. The young woman gazed around in wide-eyed wonder, wandering to the front of the regal building. It provided a perfect view of the ocean, the waves crashing against the jetties with a majestic roar. Rhiannon was certain she could feel the spray. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply.
This air was clean and exhilarating. Rhiannon smiled.
“I take it this place meets with some approval, my lady?” a voice prompted from behind, the owner appearing beside her with the deceptive smoothness for which all trained Tyrhennian stewards were famous.
“It does,” Rhiannon assured him. She glanced back at the enormous mansion with a satisfied nod. “The house might even do, as well.”
Dax, the steward, smiled, his dark black eyes glowing in pleasure. “I see your sense of humor is making a reappearance.”
“How can you not smile when breathing this air?” Rhiannon posed, lifting her chin and inhaling. “Breathe, Dax, and enjoy it for once!”
The faithful steward obeyed and shivered, suddenly appearing younger than his fifty years.
“It is indeed exhilarating. Almost frightening, if you understand me, my lady.”
“I do.” The gift of adrenaline through something so simple as breathing was so strange that it was nearly frightening, as Dax had said. In Anvard, breathing was a chore to which its inhabitants simply had to accustom themselves. Smiling took too much energy and laughing hurt the lungs.
How could Lochnan even be part of the same world?
Dax touched her arm. “My lady, our host is coming to meet us.”
Rhiannon turned. A man in noble clothing was descending the causeway, flanked by Scrubs who rushed forward to help unload the carriage luggage. Rhiannon walked through the damp grass, Dax a few paces behind her, and met their host at the bottom of the causeway. He bowed deeply, his thick brown beard touching his chest.
“You are welcome, Lady Rhiannon Faylinn Anvard, to humble Blueveil Hall and Lochnan. We hope your stay will be most comfortable and will strive for any accommodation for you and your party.”
Rhiannon smiled. Here, it was so easy. “Thank you and your people for your kindness. I am sure we will be most satisfied.”
“Would you care to inspect your accommodations?”
Rhiannon hesitated, looking out over the ocean again. The sun was high, setting the water surface aglow with shimmering diamonds. The cool, salty wind tossed her carefully done hair behind her, sending long cinnamon tendrils floating on the breeze like a cloak.
Dax touched her back reassuringly. “I can see that everything is in order, my lady, if you so wish to rest in the fresh air.”
Good old Dax, always reading her mind. It was to be expected that he knew her so well, for he had been present at her birth and practically raised her. Rhiannon smiled gratefully.
“I would appreciate that, Dax, thank you. And thank you, Sir…”
“Elias,” their host replied, bowing his head in introduction. “Sir Elias Haider of the House Haider Lochnan. It bids House Faylinn Anvard welcome. My lord steward, shall we proceed?”
Dax winked at Rhiannon mid-bow and followed Sir Elias of the House Haider Lochnan up the causeway, his traditional black steward’s cloak with the three silver, interlocking rings of House Faylinn Lochnan emblazoned down the right shoulder snapping in the wind behind him.
Rhiannon watched the Scrubs unload her luggage. Even they seemed invigorated, chatting pleasantly and excitedly in place of their typical dragging silence. Sir Elias’ Scrubs seemed even pleased to be doing the work. This was not the type of labor the young woman was accustomed to witnessing. In Anvard, the Scrubs knew that they were inferior to the Nobles. They knew that they could never come close to the stature that the Nobles shared, so they had to be happy with their lot, their menial tasks in service of the superiors. Most of them, though, chose to be spiteful about it. These Scrubs seemed to leap at the chance to serve their master’s guest. She supposed Sir Elias kept them well disciplined.
Still, everything seemed so different here.
The noblewoman was loathe to sit after so many days in the carriage, so she walked. The long grass dampened the hem of her pale green gown, but she could not have cared less. Her mind was on other things.
Throughout the journey from Anvard to Lochnan, Rhiannon had questioned her father’s decision to send her to the coastal city. He had explained that he wanted her to experience a more upscale social community as a budding noblewoman, but why Lochnan? Most girls were sent to the capital city of Tyrin, where the king’s own House Artolius Tyrin produced the kingdom’s greatest socialites. While Lochnan was popularly visited, it was not known especially for its noble atmosphere. As Rhiannon breathed, though, she began to see her father’s explanation. He had been worried by her last illness - an illness that kept Dax by her bedside for many nights - and the weakness that followed. Anvard was infamous for sicknesses and now it stared Lord Mened Faylinn in the face.
He had to get his daughter out of Anvard, and Lochnan was an ideal place to fully recover.
Why had he not come with her? Why stay in Anvard, where everyone coughed and trudged their feet and watched the nobility with resentful eyes? Why not escape to a virtual heaven for a while?
She would have to ask Dax about that soon.
She came to a low white fence at the edge of a sharp, grassy decline. At the very bottom was a long stretch of pure white sand, the ocean sending white foamed waves to distort its perfection. Rhiannon brushed her hand along the smooth wood, half closing her eyes against the wind in her face. The only wind in Anvard was forever heavily laden with dust and smoke and ash. She never liked it. Here, she let it pull at her hair and dress and give her a feeling of freedom like she had never known before.
At least Dax was here with her. He had always been a secondary father to her and doted on her and they had always shared such lovely secrets, despite their drastic difference in the cast system. Dax had been born a Scrub and therefore could never rise above his place as a servant, a virtual slave. He had proven so trustworthy, though, that Lord Mened had granted him much responsibility, including that of his only child, and Dax repaid him tenfold in flawless management. Rhiannon was grateful to her father for sending such a trusted friend with her on this journey to a strange land where everything was different.
Lochnan was beautiful and she felt more alive than ever, but it was unfamiliar and not to be trusted so soon. She would ease her way in.
“My lady!” a Scrub called breathlessly, sprinting towards her from Blueveil Hall. He was younger than her and easily the quickest Scrub on the force. He was often sent on these kind of retrieval missions. He bowed upon arrival, releasing a quick puff of air and recovering. “Steward Dax and Sir Elias are prepared to receive you for a meal of refreshment.”
Rhiannon nodded, looking out at the ocean again before turning to him.
“That is very kind of Sir Elias to anticipate our whims. Everything here just seems...refreshing in itself. Doesn’t it?”
The Scrub smiled incredulously, nodding and brushing his foot repeatedly over the soft grass.
“I understand you perfectly, my lady. Knowing what Anvard is like...well, grass is much more pleasant to run on than the ashroads back home.”
Rhiannon nodded thoughtfully, then a bit awkwardly. At home, she would never be conversing with a Scrub. “I’m sure it is. Shall we go?”
“Yes. I apologize for rambling,” the Scrub stuttered with a flush. Rhiannon shrugged delicately.
“No harm done.”
The Scrub opened the white wood front door and stood aside to let the noblewoman pass inside the gigantic mansion. Rhiannon’s eyes widened as they were drawn to every inch of the atrium. All white marble, the gorgeously wrought pillars run through with Tyrhennian silver. Vases cradled bouquets of flowers with hundreds of bright colors in every corner, on every shelf, every pedestal. A chandelier hung from the domed ceiling, glittering with the light streaming through the windows set high on the walls. The Scrub came beside her, rubbing his hands together giddily.
“Just look at it all, mistress; not a speck of ash!”
“All the flowers...and the light!” Rhiannon gasped. The Scrub gestured forward.
“Wait until you see the dining hall.”
Rhiannon followed him eagerly and the Scrub opened the doors to the white and silver tiled dining room, the drapes drawn away from the tall glass windows. A long, polished stone table dominated the room, surrounded by pale blue cushioned chairs. Sir Elias sat at the head and Dax stood by the chair to his right, prepared to pull it out for Rhiannon to sit The host rose his arms with a welcoming grin.
“Ah, my lady, the sea air does your effervescent countenance much good, as it does all.”
Rhiannon curtsied with a pleasantly surprised smile. “If all the world were so flattered as I, your silver tongue will see you far.”
Sir Elias chuckled as Dax helped her into her seat. “And yet, if the world was so gullible as to accept it without question, I believe Tyrhennia would be in much trouble. Boy!” The Scrub stopped in the middle of pulling the doors shut, his body suddenly stiff in anticipation of a scolding. Sir Elias smiled. “The Blueveil kitchen has prepared a refreshment for the convoy as well. Please, help yourself and make yourself at home.”
The Scrub’s eyebrows shot up and he glanced quickly at Rhiannon and Dax. Rhiannon frowned slightly.
“Sir Elias, is he not to serve us during our meal?”
Their host waved his hand dismissively. “Your servants have traveled far, as you have, and they must all be tired. I have a maid who will bring the food out to us, and then I have dismissed them all to refreshment.”
Rhiannon cocked her head in growing confusion. “But who will -”
“My lady,” Dax whispered, lowering his mouth to her ear. “The Lochnan nobility are very independent and a House rarely keeps more than five Scrubs at one time. Those servants are on payroll and are treated like family. There are no presiding Scrubs at meals as they are eating on their own.”
Rhiannon paused. The idea of paid Scrubs made no sense to her, nor did only keeping five at a time. How could five people take care of the entire house, garden, food supply, dressing their owners and so one? And what of their children? Who was giving them work?
If this was how it was done in Lochnan, she must learn.
“Very well.” She waved a hand to the Scrub at the door. “Join the others. You are dismissed.”
He bowed and vanished. Sir Elias nodded.
“A fine boy, that one. I have never seen a servant so young. How did you come by him?”
“His father was born in the House Faylinn factory,” Rhiannon responded, seeing a perfect explanation in her answer. Sir Elias, however, frowned.
“I don’t...well, all right. Dax, would you prefer to sit with us or with the servants?”
“His place is with me,” Rhiannon interjected in a brief moment of panic. Dax was her anchor in this strange place. Still standing behind her, the steward laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.
“I shall remain with you.” His quiet, even voice was reassuring. Elias gestured around the table.
“Than, please, take your place.”
Strangely, Dax did not hesitate, as the Scrub had. He seemed perfectly in his element as he moved to the chair at Rhiannon’s left, pulled it out for himself, and sat, his hands tucked properly in his lap. Rhiannon resisted readjusting herself. It was a strange sensation to haver her family’s steward at her side instead of behind her. Yet, the dignified, silver haired steward seemed at ease, still in a perfect position to help her.
How much was really so different about this place?
Sir Elias leaned back in his chair, looking to a side door.
“Mariana? Would you set out your wonderful display, please?”
The door opened and a portly, smiling woman with deep tan skin and a cloth wrapped around her dark hair bustled into the dining room, rolling a trolley laden with plates of food and goblets and a pitcher of some ice drink.
“Happy to, my lord!” she exclaimed, her voice deep and jovial. “I managed to whip up my specialty this morning.”
“Ah, fruit shortcakes!” Sir Elias moaned in satisfaction as Mariana passed out delicate china plates of golden cakes tastefully loaded with cream and strawberries, blueberries, and kiwi. “Trust me, Lady Rhiannon, Steward Dax, this is something that you must try before leaving Blueveil. Lord Bentrel of House Costin Lochnan asks for them especially for his birthday, and House Glehn Lochnan borrows Mariana to oversee the kitchen for their balls.”
“Oh, speaking of, Master Elias,” the servant started, setting out bowls of nuts, berries, and tiny crackers. “They’re having a ball this next Sunday.”
“But that’s in two days!”
“It was rather last minute, but House Glehn Lochnan wanted to welcome all this year’s spring visitors.” She winked at Rhiannon as she filled her goblet with an icy orange drink. “You might think of attending, my lady. There will be countless eligible young nobles going!”
Rhiannon blushed heavily, dropping her eyes. Mariana gasped.
“Oh dear, I’m sorry, did I -”
“Her father deems her too young to be searching out a courtship,” Dax quickly explained with an understanding smile. “Don’t worry yourself; it’s nothing you could have known.”
Mariana slowly nodded, moving onto other goblets. “Well, my lady, the men won’t be the only people there. There will be many noblewomen your age whom you might take a liking to. I know Lady Jemell of House Manette Lochnan is a very nice girl.”
“I could see you two becoming good friends,” Elias agreed sympathetically. “And she could introduce you to the rest of the socialites.”
“I’ll think about it,” Rhiannon replied in a tone of finality. Dax took a sip of his drink. Mariana glanced at Sir Elias and he smiled. She returned the smile uncertainly and curtsied.
“Please enjoy.” She wheeled the trolley back through the door.
Rhiannon sipped the drink in her goblet. It was delicious, a tropical combination of orange, lemon, passion fruit, and tea, all on crushed ice. She had never had anything like it before. She sighed and set it down.
“Sir Elias, I apologize for my behavior. In Anvard, Scrubs are just Scrubs and the nobility do not go out of their way to converse with them. To have a servant suggest that I find myself a young man was...disorienting.”
Elias smiled gently. “I know our ways may seem strange to you during your stay in Lochnan, my lady, but it may help you to put titles aside for once. We are not nobility and Scrubs. We are all human beings trying to help the others be better in their given position in life. Do you think you can do that, Lady Rhiannon?”
She glanced at Dax, who had been watching the exchanges and his charge carefully. He was chewing a bit of the fruit shortcake. The steward smiled, his dark eyes sparkling.
“This is very good.”
Rhiannon smiled helplessly at him and turned back to Sir Elias.
“I can certainly try, Sir Elias. And...I think I will attend the House Glehn Lochnan ball. Do you think Mariana would like to help me pick out a gown?”
Their hst’s smile spread as he laughed, raising his goblet in a salute.
“Lady Rhiannon, let her and she will never stop trying to thank you!”
Hours later, after the ten Scrubs who had accompanied Rhiannon and Dax had been sent to bed after settling all the luggage, Rhiannon stood on her balcony. The marble rail was cold beneath her fingers, the smell of the rose trellis below vibrant in her nose, the stars shining unnaturally brightly above. Rhiannon had heard that the stars were once this bright in Anvard, before they had been veiled by the smog. The mood, even, had taken on a sickly yellow color. Here was the same moon, as white and bright as marble.
She could not wrap her mind around it. How was this all the same world? It made no sense.
“Permission to be a friend?”
Rhiannon bit her lip, afraid of what was going to be said.
Dax emerged from behind, leaning his elbows on the stone rail. It was strange how she never heard him coming. In fact, she did not remember him ever being in her suite. The steward looked at her. Something about him had always been mysterious, wrapped in the black steward’s cloak, his smooth grey hair always impeccably done, his face cleaner than an egg. No one had ever served House Faylinn Anvard so well as Steward Dax.
“You handled refreshment well,” he started quietly. Rhiannon sighed.
“I thought the woman was going to cry! Dax, I never knew how awkward I am around...Scrubs.”
“You have never been in an environment where anyone cared. That is why Master Haider’s proposal on how to consider this is so wonderful. Back home in Anvard, servants and nobility could never be in the same league.”
“Even you, Dax,” Rhiannon breathed in realization, looking up at him with wide eyes. He shrugged, staring into the night.
“However privileged I am, and grateful to be working for House Faylinn, I still am a servant. Here, though, they have the chance to look at things differently. Watch how Master Haider treats his servants. They love being here and helping him, unlike those on the plantations and in the factories in Anvard. You know what they’re like.”
Rhiannon swallowed and sighed through pursed lips. There had been deaths of factory owners. No one could point fingers at the Scrubs as there was no evidence, but all the nobility were growing worried. She nodded.
“My point, my lady, is that you have seen both sides of the equation. You can change this for yourself.”
Rhiannon nodded quietly. “I suppose I can. I just wonder...what would Father think of this now? Why did he send me here and what if I return changed in ways that would displease him?” She turned to her family’s steward. He continued staring away, refusing to meet her eyes. “Dax, do you know why Father sent us here to Lochnan?”
The steward was quiet, his hands folded over the rail as if in prayer. He sighed.
“To regain your strength and to learn something of regular social life.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Just understand that your father is trying to protect you. I can’t tell you why, not yet, but always know that you must trust your father and me. You know that, don’t you?”
Rhiannon nodded quizzically. “Of course, but -”
“No buts. You simply have to understand that we will do only what is in your best interest.” He turned earnest eyes to his charge. “Believe me, Nonny, we only want the best for you.”
Rhiannon smiled a little, reaching out to cover his hands with her own. She liked it when he called her by the pet name he had given her as a young one. Little Nonny, he would call her. She trusted this man with her life.
“I do, Dax. Thank you, for looking out for me.”
He smiled at her. “I’ll never stop, little Nonny. Not for as long as I live.”
Dax straightened, glancing up at the moon. “Time to be a steward again. I suggest you take to bed, my lady. You may want to see the area before attending the ball in a couple days. You’ll have just enough time to recover from your journey.”
“I suppose so.” Rhiannon yawned, turning back into the bedroom. “This entire experience has been overly exerting. Will you head to bed as well?”
Dax shook his head. “There are some things I must finish before-hand. A steward’s duties never end, my lady.”
“Oh, I’ll get to sleep eventually. Never worry about me, my lady. Good night.”
“Good night, Dax.”
The steward bowed and exited the suite, quietly shutting the doors behind him. Rhiannon, already having prepared for bed, crawled beneath the covers and lay there, looking up at the ceiling.
What were her father and Dax trying to protect her from?