The devastation was near total. An enraged pack of mud runners would have done only slightly more damage. Hardly a melon in the entire field remained intact, as far as Chamberlain Shinobi O'Hattaran could see.
"May I speak freely, milord?" The voice came from near O'Hattaran's shoulder. He instantly knew two things: The first was that the farmer, who had worked this land all summer only to see most of his crop destroyed the day before harvest, was angry. The second was that he was going to speak his piece whether O'Hattaran granted him permission or not. In either case, the farmer had merely asked out of courtesy. The House of Halla was a progressive one and everyone under its rule was guaranteed a certain freedom of speech.
"Something's got to be done about Lord Halla's daughter," insisted the farmer. O'Hattaran, his back to the farmer, mouthed the complaint along with the farmer almost word for word. Of course, the problem was Lord Halla's daughter. It was beyond O'Hattaran how one girl could do so much damage and outrage so many people in a world where the days were only twenty-four hours long.
"The House of Halla will compensate your family for the damage to your crops," O'Hattaran assured him. This was a song he'd sung many times before as well.
"I know that, milord," said the farmer, grateful for the reassurance. "But it's not just the money. Caravan's coming through town in another day. Not having a crop to sell will hurt our reputation in other kingdoms. We'll have to sell cheap next year just to reestablish ourselves."
O'Hattaran sighed. He didn't have a ready answer for that one, although he knew it to be true. This and other incidents all reflected badly, not only on the House of Halla, but on all of Riparia as well.
There had been a time, perhaps as recently as when Shinobi O'Hattaran's father was Chamberlain, when a young Lady of the House of Halla could be expected to wait around the castle quietly until she could be married off to some prince or nobleman. Perhaps she'd dabble in the fine arts, or even take up a ladylike sport, such as badminton or croquet. The people, of course, would adore and admire her from afar, and young boys would fantasize about slaying a dragon or some other monster to win the young lady's love.
|It's possible that the whole slay dragon = win princess formula had been concocted by the dragons themselves in order to keep a steady supply of tasty young would-be heroes marching into their lairs.|
No one ever bothered to explain the correlation between killing a dragon and having a princess fall in love with you, but that didn't stop the idea from capturing the collective imagination of each generation of teenaged boys that came along. The smart ones got over it and eventually went into farming or entered guilds. The less smart ones trekked off into the wilderness, sword in hand, and were never heard from again. It's possible that the whole slay dragon = win princess formula had been concocted by the dragons themselves in order to keep a steady supply of tasty young would-be heroes marching into their lairs.
In any event, those days were on hold for the time being. There wasn't a young man in Riparia who was headstrong or delusional enough to believe he could slay a dragon big enough to impress Lord Halla's daughter. For one thing, she had already slain a dragon herself when she was fourteen. Technically, it had been a wyvern, and a rather small and sickly one at that. However, in the two-and-a-half years since she'd shot it out of the air, the tale had snowballed out of all proportion.
Regardless of the details surrounding her epic battle with the dragon, the young Lady Halla's speed and accuracy with a bow-and-arrow was undisputed and unmatched in Riparia. She also had a band of friends (or accomplices, depending on who was describing them) that she jokingly referred to as her Ladies in Waiting. Like her, they were rich, spoiled, and fairly skilled archers. Their hunting expeditions - when steered clear of the local farmlands - were rarely unsuccessful. These things, combined with the young Lady Halla's rapier-sharp tongue, made her one of the most intimidating people in the valley. The fact that Lord Halla felt the sun rose and set over her, his only child, didn't help matters either.
"I will convey your concerns to Lord Halla," said O'Hattaran. Yours and everyone else's, thought O'Hattaran wearily.
The conveying of concerns to Lord Halla would turn out to be an even more difficult, and unexpectedly wrenching, ordeal than O'Hattaran anticipated.
Valeria Desdemona Sapphire Stars-in-the-Heavens-over-Riparia of the House of Halla was finishing her dinner in the great dining hall when O'Hattaran concluded his meeting with her father. Her mood was ambivalent. While she loved nothing more than a good meal cooked from the efforts of one of her hunts, she still felt dissatisfied. She had already found excuses to bawl out the cook, her personal attendant, and a courier who had happened to be passing through. None of their offenses were the source of her moodiness.
She sensed the Chamberlain standing behind her chair. Without even turning around, she knew the expression on his face was disapproving. He would not have been looming silently behind her if he meant to tell her something she wanted to hear.
"What?" she snapped.
"You and your Ladies in Waiting destroyed a small fortune in star melons this afternoon."
"We were after the Black Stag," she explained. Every autumn, the Great Black Stag haunted the forests of Riparia, and every autumn, he somehow managed to elude Valeria's arrows. "We almost had him. I must have come within..."
O'Hattaran interrupted her. A drawn-out hunting story from the girl was one of the few things he could think of that would actually worsen his mood. "Be that as it may, you led your riders through farmlands and ruined an entire season's work for at least two families."
"So tell it to the Black Stag. We were just following him."
O'Hattaran shut his eyes tightly and began silently counting backwards from ten.
"Look," said Valeria, as the Chamberlain was beginning his second countdown, "I'll make it up to the peasants. A couple of extra hunts a month and they'll be eating better than they would have been based on a star melon harvest."
"Frankly, I don't think you can provide enough venison to compensate them."
"Oh don't you?" In a fluid motion, Valeria's short bow was off the back of her chair and an arrow sailed to the other end of the great hall. It embedded itself between the eyes of a mounted stag's head above the fireplace. One of the stag's glass eyes popped out and got under the foot of a servant who was carrying dishes to the kitchen. She and the dishes went down with a crash.
"Sorry about that," called Valeria. She was sincere, but not really concerned. It was the kind of apology one might make after brushing against a stranger on a crowded street.
O'Hattaran strode across the hall to help the maid to her feet. After he had ascertained that she was unhurt and excused her from her duties for the remainder of the evening, he returned to Valeria and said: "Secondly, it would help matters if you stopped calling the citizens of Riparia 'peasants.' They are the people who do the actual work in this valley, and a little respect would go a long way. If you would make some effort to wrap your mind around that idea, you would understand why a few pounds of meat this winter won't make up for what you did this afternoon."
Valeria rolled her eyes. "Citizen, peasant. Whatever. It really won't matter that much to them as long as they're fed."
O'Hattaran sighed. "Anyway, the reason we're having this unfortunate conversation is..."
"'Unfortunate?' Oh, Shinobi, don't you know it's always a pleasure to have you share your thought with me?"
"...is because your father wishes to see you..." He waited a beat and glanced over at the shattered dishes on the floor. "...after you clean up the mess you made."
"What?! You can't make me!"
"Of course, I can't," said O'Hattaran. "But I did go ahead and send the maid - you recall, the one that you tripped - to let your father know that you would be tardy."
"You had her tattle on me?!"
"I had her mention that you generously offered to assist the serving staff in their sometimes difficult daily chores." Smugness was beneath O'Hattaran. Usually.
"You massive boob of the stars!"
"It is always a pleasure to have you share your thought with me, milady," said the Chamberlain, turning to leave. "Do a good job and try not to keep Lord Halla waiting too long."
If any member of the serving staff had come within three rooms of Valeria, she would have ordered him or her to clean up the broken dishes. O'Hattaran was one step ahead of her, however. He had sent the entire household staff on an unscheduled dinner break. So, after spending several minutes looking for someone to delegate the work to, and then spending several more minutes sulking and muttering vile curses upon Chamberlain O'Hattaran, Valeria cleaned up the mess. She did a poor job, on general principle, however.
As appropriate as it would have been, Gregory Halla could not bring himself to be angry with his daughter. But, he reflected, perhaps that had been part of the problem these past sixteen years. He was running out of time to correct that problem, but he had already taken drastic steps in that direction this evening. Now all that remained was the unpleasant task of informing his daughter.
Valeria stalked into the study. Lord Halla knew she'd had another clash with O'Hattaran and had come out on the losing end.
"Father, I demand..." Valeria started to complain.
"Please," said her father softly. "Have a seat."
Valeria barely heard him as she began to launch into her tirade. Lord Halla cleared his throat. It was a long, loud, thick, phlegmy and thoroughly unpleasant throat clearing.
Valeria fell silent. This throat-clearing business had become a bad habit over the last six months or so. "What?"
Lord Halla sipped from a mug of hot spice tea. "You and your Ladies in Waiting did a lot of damage this afternoon," he said finally.
"Look, it was just a few star melons and I already offered to make good on the damage," she said.
"It's not just a matter of financial compensation," explained Lord Halla. "I need to be sure that you're ready to rule Riparia when I'm gone."
"Well then," said Valeria confidently, "you have nothing to fear. Have you ever known me to back down from a challenge?"
Lord Halla smiled. "No, never," he said. "Of all the souls in Riparia, you have always been the most fearless. If I were to ask every single man, woman and child from Tears-of-the-Mountain to the mouth of the Badlands, I would find none who would question your courage, beauty, or skill with the bow."
Valeria beamed. She would never tire of hearing her father sing her praises.
"Unfortunately," continued Lord Halla, his heart heavy with the words he had to speak, "you have also shown yourself to be self-centered, arrogant, uncaring and just plain rude."
Valeria gasped as if struck. She was used to hearing (and ignoring) such assessments from Shinobi, but hearing it from her father bordered on the impossible.
"Although you are more than able to lead, people must be willing to follow you," said Lord Halla. "You have yet to give the people of Riparia any reason to have confidence in you. It pains me more than you can know to say this, but you are not liked. If you ruled Riparia, you would find yourself thwarted at every turn. Ultimately, your tenure would end in either assassination or exile."
"Father, how can you be saying this to me?"
Lord Halla cleared his throat noisily. "Because it is true," he wheezed and drank some more tea.
"Well, what about the Ladies in Waiting? They follow me."
"They are not liked either. Most of the kingdom views them as a pack of spoiled rich girls made even worse by your influence."
Valeria opened her mouth and then closed it again. "Well, who cares what the peasants think?" she finally said.
"You should!" snapped Lord Halla. He was growing weary of trying to spare the feelings of a child who simply didn't get it. "Those peasants, as you so crassly call them, are the source of your power and position. You owe them everything. Without them, you have no kingdom."
Valeria had no comeback. Speechlessness was not a state she experienced often and she did not like it at all.
Lord Halla went on: "The fault is my own. All your life, you have been perfect in my eyes and my willingness to turn a blind eye to your faults has in turn blinded you to them. If I were..." He cleared his throat and sipped some more tea. "If I were to die tomorrow, you would be unfit to rule."
"Unfit to rule?" Valeria was shocked. This went beyond a mere scolding.
"Fortunately," continued Lord Halla, "I do not intend to die tomorrow, and there is still time."
"Time for what?"
"Here is what will happen over the next week," said Lord Halla. "I've spoken with the parents of your friends and, effective this evening, the Ladies in Waiting are disbanded."
"WHAT?! You can't do this," cried Valeria. "I won't stand for it! Unless you plan on locking me in the tower, you can't prevent me from seeing my friends."
"True, but, as it turns out, they will be too busy to see you. Dannae will be marrying the son of Lord Zanbridge next week."
"But that wasn't supposed to happen for two years!"
"The wedding date's been moved up. I've arranged safe transport for her and her family. They'll be leaving at dawn. Likewise, Jaxanna will be leaving for Runestaff to attend the School of Sorcery. The House of Halla will be financing her education and living expenses, just as it will be paying for Dannae's wedding. Actually, you've volunteered to pay for those things out of your allowance."
|If only Lady Halla were still alive, perhaps she might have been able to temper their daughter's fiery spirit with some wisdom and compassion.|
That last part had Shinobi written all over it. Royal weddings and college educations didn't come cheap. She'd be paying for those things for years. However, any protest and Jaxanna wouldn't go to school and Dannae wouldn't get married, and it would be all her fault. "What of Genara and Tia?" asked Valeria, suddenly feeling meek and defeated.
"They're both fine archers with a lot of potential. They've enlisted in the Riparian Rangers, Officer Training School. You're sponsoring them."
"But women can't serve as officers."
"Stupid law that pisses away some of the finest talent in Riparia. I'm repealing it tomorrow. My advisors tell me that a good number of young women in the kingdom will jump at the opportunity."
"Oh." No argument there. She herself had complained about the inherent unfairness of the military's males-only policies. "What about me?"
Lord Halla sighed and looked at his daughter. She was the spitting image of her mother, from her petite but athletic build to her penetrating green-eyed gaze, right down to the strands of auburn hair that always seemed to be in her face. If only Lady Halla were still alive, perhaps she might have been able to temper their daughter's fiery spirit with some wisdom and compassion. It was scant consolation that Lady Halla's sacrifice had been to save all of Riparia. Lord Halla had never felt so alone.
"Valeria Desdemona Sapphire Stars-in-the-Heavens-over-Riparia," said Lord Halla. Pronounced correctly, the long name was musical and beautiful. He remembered how Lady Halla had sung that name to the tiny red-haired baby girl. "Between your skill with the bow and the sheer force of your personality, you have been a dominant force in this valley for much of your life. It's been comfortable for you, but it's robbed you of the perspective you need to view the world and your place in it accurately." He cleared his throat again. "When Caravan leaves at the end of the week, you will leave with it and travel to and receive instruction at a convent of the Sisters of the Sightless Eye."
"Y-you're sending me away? To become a Rogue?" It was too real. Had she truly been so awful that her own father wanted her to go away? She knew she could be rude and that she was sometimes mean, but she hadn't been that bad had she?
"First of all, never call a Sister a Rogue," warned Lord Halla. "Secondly, they will show you how to increase your prowess with the bow to levels you'd never imagined possible. They will also teach you how to observe and listen so that your every act is informed and disciplined. And, I fear you will learn some very hard lessons in humility."
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