The Princess passed the morning expelling her grievances. In airing and examining them, she pacified herself; and when the fanfare announcing the Duke of Lirna’s return burst through her window, she returned calmly to the Dining Hall. The Duchess swept her out onto the eastern balcony.
The Duke, Lord Molan, was accompanied by his men and another nobleman—the Duke of Dara. This Duke was Ione’s brother, a golden-haired man of serious countenance and slightly worn attire. The Princess observed the men dismount, taking particular note of the contrast in his kindness to his horse and avoidance of the other men.
__Ione had mentioned her brother often. Régan knew his attention was dedicated to his lands, which were dryer than most; a dedication which left him unmarried. Her mother had once mentioned this eligible Duke in the north, only to have her father dismiss him as awkward and odd. Were Régan not already in possession of a lover, this would certainly have made him a more appealing prospect.
__The women waited as the men dressed for their meal. They arrived in good time, washed and freshly pressed.
__‘Your Highness,’ Lord Molan bowed. ‘I have kept you waiting.’
__‘I came with little notice; I have interrupted your plans.’
__‘Not at all.’ He turned to his companion and held out a hand. ‘Allow me to introduce my brother-in-law Lord Carrick, Duke of Dara.’
__Carrick bowed to Régan, taking and kissing her offered hand. ‘Your Highness,’ he said.
__‘Lord Carrick. I have often seen your empty chair at Court.’
__He laughed uncomfortably. ‘Offenure is quite some distance from Dara, Your Highness. I seldom make the journey.’
__ She smiled. ‘Yes.’ Turning to her hosts, she indicated to the table. ‘Please, let us begin.’
__They bowed their heads, and took their places. They spoke briefly of the journey and its sights, but chiefly ate in silence for the men’s ride had been long and they had need of nourishment.
__Their plates were cleared and they sojourned to the large southern balcony. Overlooking the town and protected from the sun by the palace’s shadow, it was a favoured space among guests.
__The Princess remained standing as the others assumed their seats: an expectant pause came over the group.
__‘I rode north and summoned you to discuss an urgent matter.’ She clasped her hands together. ‘However, a message came this morning and the Throne has forbidden me to speak of it.’
__Molan and Carrick exchanged a glance.
__‘The Custodin cannot be disobeyed without consequence,’ she reprimanded Molan. ‘My position does not protect me from the charge of sedition.’
__Molan silently cursed his display of frustration. Carrick placed his forearms on the table.
__‘The political differences between my father and I are not news to the Duke and Duchess,’ said Régan, taking her place beside Carrick. ‘I regret your fruitless journey.’
Duchess Ione made a gesture to a servant inside, who appeared with a decanter and goblets of fine crystal. Once the wine was poured, the servant was quickly dismissed.
__‘I am sure it is a difficult situation, Your Highness.’ Ione rose her glass. ‘Sláinte.’
__‘To your health,’ the men echoed.
__Régan rose her glass, and drank. ‘Lord Carrick,’ she said decisively, dismissing the previous topic, ‘your sister has told me much about you. I am told it is rare to find you in the palace.’
__‘That is true. My lands keep me occupied, my Lady.’ He paused; Ione frowned. __‘Particularly of late.’ The words seemed to fall forward, unbidden.
__Régan recognised the subtle censure in Ione’s eyes. ‘I am pleased that you do not simply consider them an asset of your title. What recent changes have you had?’
__‘Ah,’ he cleared his throat, ‘my sister reminds me that fine company requires fine conversation; I have been far too immersed in talk of cattle and crops to think on other topics.’ He reached to hold the stem of his glass. ‘Perhaps you would suggest one?’
__‘As it happens, my present interest is the weather.’
__Carrick took up his glass, nodding politely, though frowning a little afterward. What interest would a princess have in the weather? Was the heat was irksome to royalty? All that fur and velvet.
__‘The matter of crops and livestock also interests me. Will you give me an honest report of your harvest?’
__The others watched, knowing the questions were more than idle talk.
__Carrick frowned. ‘We have brought in a smaller crop than last year, but no two are the same.’
__Régan smiled falsely. ‘I am not in need of optimistic forecasts. Ione’s accounts paint a man who knows his lands, and talk of the Court suggest you are not one to gild the truth.’ __She waved off his awkward laugh. ‘I came on a different matter, yet here you are, and so I sit in the hope of procuring a sincere report—for my weather-readers in Alendae have confessed that Miggest’s drought is crossing our northern borders, and is unlikely to relent for some time. What do you make of that?’
__He examined her face. ‘I would say my experiences as a northern landlord confirm such a notion.’
__‘And if the rains fail to come again next year, we will have to decide whether to retain stock or prioritise the grain store.’
__Régan nodded. ‘Which would you favour?’
__‘Stored grain does not have three stomachs.’
__And here the Princess laughed, abandoning her inquisition. The others joined. ‘This is true.’ She remembered her hosts’ presence. ‘Now, to the games! Do you also shoot, Lord Carrick?’ She removed a gold pin from her hair and passed it to the Duchess. ‘For you, most esteemed tutor. Did you hear I was crowned Master Archer at the Castlefall Open?’