“Did you hear what happened to our poor princess, Ash?”
“I most certainly did, Morrin. Thank the Protector she’s back on her own two feet again.”
“But it was so sudden! Had she contracted the Black Death?”
“Hush, now, Sioned! She’s perfectly well now! You might-”
“Quiet your superstitious lips, Tesni!”
“Humph. You’re one to talk, Wynne.”
“I’m a fearer of the Protector’s Word, Caron; anything else is idolatry, so you can keep your prejudiced thoughts to yourself. Just because I’m an outsider does not make me a pagan.”
The six dairymaids crossed in front of the four young men leaning on the pillars about the stables. Sioned was particularly uneducated, but she knew when something was different. These men weren’t workers in the stables. Her green eyes tore from one of the men, whom she found exceptionally handsome. His face was bronzed and dark and his thick hair was black as a raven’s wing. His eyes were almost as black. She knew this as he was looking at her with as much enamorment as she at him.
Sioned never would call herself beautiful, but this man gazed at her as if she were a gem. She smiled shyly at him as the other five women scuttled through the stables with worry of the men.
What lovestruck Sioned failed to see was that the man and his companions carried sgian dubh blades with the hilts showing at the top of their boots.
“Helô,” the man voiced.
Sioned’s heart skipped a beat as she looked back at him. To her remorse, he was never looking at her, but at Ash, the eldest of the dairymaids. She was a finely shaped woman with a slim neck that melded into perfectly poised and squared shoulders. Her face was mature and angular, but her blue eyes were soft and gentle. They were mysteriously caped by dense lashes. Her mass of brown hair was kept in a tidy side braid that dangled past her bosom and came to a halt at her waist.
Ash looked up to acknowledge the man who addressed her. She was not known for frivolity or acting on her infatuations, but her fair cheeks flushed with red color at the sight of the tall and strapping fellow.
“Helô,” she replied, clutching her milk pail nervously. The dairymaids stopped chattering and gazed at the four men, as if they had come out of nowhere.
Two of them, including the one of interest, were undoubtedly foreigners. The other, who was lanky and had a mass of black curly hair, dark skin, and bright blue eyes, beamed at Wynne, showing off blinding white teeth. She paid no heed to him, given he was half her age and no more than a fisherman’s boy. The other two could have been from Bryngaer or a neighboring country. The older, a young man of maybe twenty-four, bore no humor in his eyes or lips. His honey gold locks were tied back in a messy tail, but stubborn strands hung lazily on his forehead, partially covering his piercing blue eyes. His companion, a youth of twelve at most, shook his fiery red curls out of his fair, freckled face to flash a crooked toothed smile.
“You work in the palace?” asked the tallest, most handsome man. He still gazed at Ash, though he opened the simple question to all of them. His voice was rich and low, and reminded Ash of caramel sweets somehow. His voice surrounded her and pierced her, though he said his words so quietly.
You’re a humble sort of man, she thought absently as she stared at him. His face was so smooth and deep. Undoubtedly he was from those far away lands that Sa’di had painted so vividly in his words. Only a place so exotic could be the home of such an exotic creature.
Morrin rolled her hazel eyes at the paralyzed maid and slung an arm over her shoulder. She was married and had three children, so of course she was immune to the mystery of the stranger.
“We all work in the palace, now don’t we, Ashy, dear?” Morrin urged.
Ash hadn’t taken her eyes off of the man yet, but she nodded wordlessly. “Uh-huh.”
The foreign fisher boy hopped up. “Have you met Her Highness the princess?” He waggled an eyebrow at Wynne. Why she appealed so well in the boy’s eyes was her familiar skin color and custom. Over her dairymaid tunic she wore the simple golden chain of an unmarried woman around her neck. Her skin was deep olive and her wiry and curly black hair was pinned up under her linen veil. He deduced she had to have been a proper Udaen like himself.
Wynne shook her head at him and squinted dangerously. He would be in big trouble for trying to woo her if that was what he was doing.
“We know of Her Highness, and her poor contraction of the Black Death,” Sioned chimed in. “She’s all right now, thank the Protector.”
Caron slapped Sioned’s shoulder. “She never contracted the Black Death, you silly goose!”
The blonde man stood himself upright and crossed the stable, arms still crossed over his chest. He was also winsome, but his characteristics were familiar in the kingdom, therefore not as capturing. Still, no humor came to his lips. “We’re here to see to her coronation. After we heard of her illness, we were worried.”
Why would two Udaens and two neighboring countrymen be seeing to the coronation, Ash thought. She should have frowned and excused herself and her friends, but the gentle gaze of the stranger and the thumping of her heart were hard to ignore and especially hard to escape.
“Well, she’s all fine now,” Tesni voiced, a nervous prick in her voice. Her cat-like frame was quivering with fear, and her blonde curls bounced on her thin shoulders. “The coronation will carry on tomorrow. At- at the sun’s zenith.”
Oh, Tesni, we don’t know what these men want, Ash’s heart cried. They could be capable of just about anything. You should have kept your mouth closed.
The countryman nodded. “That was just what we needed. Thank you for the information.”
Ash, now past her infatuation for the tall outsider, grabbed frozen Tesni’s hand, her pail, and tugged the girl out of the stables. Morrin sensed her fear and had a good fantasy of giving Tesni the worst punishment possible for her big mouth. Caron sighed and followed, and Wynne walked briskly to escape the fisher boy’s waggling brow. Sioned wished that the taller stranger would gaze at her while she left the stable, but his eyes were still set wistfully on Ash as she fearfully dragged away Tesni and the others.
“Goodbye,” she mumbled sheepishly as she carried out her pail of milk.
Not the stranger, not the lovesick puppy sort of boy, not the humorless countryman - who had shown no interest in anyone whatsoever - nor the fiery boy who had stared at Tesni the whole time, shifted his gaze to look at her. The countryman nodded his acknowledgement, however, as she left and trudged towards the running dairymaids.
Breixo straightened and sighed. “Did you catch the eldest’s name?” he asked, crossing his arms over his broad chest.
Arlo laughed. “Oi, weren’t you a lovestruck right there!”
“Shut it, Ar.” He let out a chuckle as he rustled Arlo’s fiery red head. “Chance, I don’t know what you do, but you extracted that information with no effort. My hypnosis on the eldest wasn’t stronger than her will, sadly.”
Chance shrugged nonchalantly and stuffed his hands in his jerkin’s pockets. “Dairymaids trust countrymen, not so much Udaens, after the battle on the border two years ago.”
Breixo held up his hands in surrender. “I wasn’t there, Chance. Don’t blame me.”
Noe ran a hand through his unruly black hair. “Did you see that Udaen girl, Breixo?”
The eldest rolled his eyes. “C’mon, boys. We have to tell Lord Crofton of our finds.”
“Did you hear what happened to our poor princess, Ash?”