XXI. A Familiar Stranger

In the morning, Frost was still scowling, but she nonetheless joined them in the stables as they prepared to set out. “I told you she’d come around,” said Flame to Garthniiel, at which Frost shot both a look, but said nothing.

Izra joined them a few minutes later, a covered basket on her arm. “I hope you all like sweets,” she announced. “The innkeeper made some things for the road.”

“Excellent,” said Garthniiel, gleefully taking the basket. He peered inside. “Strawberry tarts. Would you like one, Deena?”

“Hm?” asked Deena. “Oh, um, no, it’s fine.”

“Are you alright?” asked Avenel.

“F-fine,” said Deena. “Um, I’ll have one later. I’m just—I didn’t sleep well.”

“Don’t wait too long,” said Izra, biting into her own tart. “They’re better warm.”

Deena nodded. She watched Izra for a moment, but the woman barely looked her way.

“Are you sure you’re alright?” asked Avenel.

Deena nodded and forced herself to smile. “I’m fine.”

The road they were on took them through alternating woods and plains, but by the third day they had left that road behind for a smaller one that lead deep into the thick of a forest. To call this new path a road was generous; it was narrow, overgrown, and with many low-hanging branches that snatched at their hair and cloaks. Just after noon, it rained, and though they could hear the rain, the dense canopy of the forest kept them from the worst of it. Deena closed her eyes. These woods were different from the woods around Taunsgrove—more evergreens and sparser undergrowth—but smell of rain was the same.

There weren’t many settlements along their path, so they supplemented their provisions with wild game and edible plants. Mostly, it was Flame and Avenel who did the hunting, though Garthniiel often tagged along. Deena was enlisted to forage for firewood, and sometimes berries and other edible plants if she could find it. Izra often did foraging of her own, searching the undergrowth for plants with medicinal value. Frost, still sulking somewhat, mostly just tended to the horses, joining them by the fire only to eat and help with the tents.

The campsite they had chosen on their third night was a small clearing just off the road. A little way away, there was a second, smaller, clearing where the horses could be left to graze. Evidently, the rain earlier that afternoon hadn’t reached this area, because all the wood Deena encountered was blessedly dry, and it wasn’t long before she had found enough for the fire.

When she returned the the clearing, Izra was the only one there. The woman was sitting crosslegged by a pile of assorted plants. As Deena watched, she picked two different leaves from the pile, sniffed each in turn, then put both in a mortar and pestle. She ground the leaves with her pestle for a while, then picked up her dagger to scrape a bit of some small white root into the mixture.

“I—I want to apologize,” said Deena.

“For what?” asked Izra.

“For that night at Triinton.”

“You had a bad dream,” said Izra. “That’s all.” She sniffed her mixture, then added a bit more of the white root. “Hurry up with the fire. This needs to be baked.”

“R-right,” said Deena, placing the firewood on the ground. “Um, what’s it for?”

“It helps close wounds,” replied Izra.

“Couldn’t you just do that with magic? Close the cut, like you did at Triinton?”

“I don’t like using magic. And you ask too many questions.”

“Sorry,” said Deena.

“You apologize too much, too.”

Avenel soon returned, and the others not long after. “Ladies!” exclaimed Garthniiel. “Flame has shot us a goose.” He gave a grandiose flourish as Flame followed him into the campsite, holding the bird by the neck. “He shot it through the eye, too,” added Garthniiel.

“Oh, it was just luck,” said Flame modestly.

“Remember the first time you tried to shoot a goose?” asked Garthniiel.

“My scar certainly does,” said Flame, putting a hand to his rump.

“What happened?” asked Deena.

“He missed and made the whole flock angry,” said Frost.

“He’s lucky he got to keep that buttcheek,” added Garthniiel. “Can you imagine if he lost it? That would be something to explain to anyone he takes to bed.”

Avenel cleared her throat.

Garthniiel glanced at Deena. “Oh, come now,” he protested. “She’s sixteen! When I was sixteen, I’d already—”

“Not everyone is like you,” said Avenel.

“Well then, care to share what you were up to at sixteen?” asked Garthniiel.

“No,” said Avenel. She held out her hand. “Give me the bird. I’ll clean it.”

Within the hour, they had a pot of water bubbling merrily over the fire. They threw in the goose, along with some potatoes, leeks, and wild mushrooms that both Avenel and Izra verified was completely safe. It was easily the best meal they had had in days, with enough left over for breakfast.

Flame had gathered some of the feathers from the goose, and after they had eaten, sat humming as he fletched some arrows. Frost sat on a log behind him, absentmindedly braiding his hair. Izra had returned to her mortar and pestle, and Deena took it upon herself to tidy up the remnants of their dinner. Avenel and Garthniiel sat with a map spread between them, plotting the next day’s route.

“Lord Majjreo’s home isn’t far from here,” said Garthniiel. “If we set off early tomorrow, we should make it there by dusk.”

“Who’s Lord Majjreo?” asked Deena.

“A friend of Greoore’s,” said Garthniiel. “We could lodge there for a night. It should be more comfortable than the ground.”

“Do you know him well?” asked Avenel.

“Not really,” admitted Garthniiel. “We’ve only met a few times at court, but Greoore speaks highly of him, and he’s always seemed harmless enough.”

“Is he that loon that dyes his hair green?” asked Frost.

“You shave yours,” pointed out Flame. “I really wouldn’t judge others by their hairstyles, Sister.”

It was only when they arrived at Lord Majjreo’s home that they learned his eccentricities extended beyond his hair. His entire home was eccentric. It looked less like a manor house and more like what a toddler might envision a manor house to look like. Which, as it turned out, was exactly what it was.

“I built this place from the ground up when my little Sorenna was three,” explained Lord Majjreo as he greeted them at the door. “I wanted to encourage her creative side, so I asked her to draw how our new home should look. This is the result.” He gestured at the house, and his expression indicated that he expected no less than absolute adulation from his guests.

“That’s an… interesting decision,” said Garthniiel diplomatically. “Not many would let a child that young design their home.”

“Perhaps if they did, we would have more artists in the world,” said Majjreo. “There is creativity in all of us, but for most, it is never given a chance to truly bloom. But please, come inside, come inside. You must all be famished, by now. Let the servants take your horses and your bags, and we can go straight to dinner.”

Though the outside of the house had been colorful, it had been dark enough out that the colors were muted. Now, the inside presented itself in all its lamplit glory. The walls of the entryway had been painted a blinding yellow, while the rugs were cerulean blue. Underneath, the wooden floorboards had been stained a deep olive color. Numerous paintings hung on every wall, and while the artwork itself was lovely, the frames were a pink so vivid that Deena was positive she had never seen such a color before. Just being in the room made her eyes water. Majjreo himself was no less colorful. In addition to his leafy green hair, his tunic and trousers were both a lurid shade of orange. The colors clashed horribly with each other, but no less horribly than with the magenta of his shoes.

“Very expensive, you know,” said Majjreo, “to get the dyes for these rugs. The pigment used is a mineral only found in Osgola across the Sea. But this was little Sorenna’s vision, and who am I to deny her creativity? Now, if you’ll follow me, this is the same color used upstairs in the—”

Garthniiel cleared his throat. “Dinner, Lord Majjreo?”

“Ah, I apologize,” said Majjreo. “It is simply so exciting when a visitor steps into my halls for the first time. They are always so awestruck by the beauty that Sorenna envisioned, you see, that they simply cannot wait for a tour. But alas, I suppose sustenance must trump even art. This way, then, to the dining room.”

“I’m definitely in awe of something,” muttered Frost under her breath. Deena tried not to laugh.

They walked down a short purple corridor into a surprisingly normal looking dining room. The floors were a dignified walnut and the walls were a plain and drab beige. The only colorful thing in the room was a large painting of a bowl of fruit.

“Please, sit where you like,” said Majjreo, gesturing at the plain and inoffensive table. “Dinner will be along shortly. I hope you will like what my cook has prepared.”

“I’m sure it’ll be excellent,” said Garthniiel.

“Is Sorenna not joining us?” asked Deena.

There was an awkward pause. “Ah, no,” said Majjreo. “She passed away when she was five. It’s why this room is so bland; she never had the chance to decorate it.”

“Oh,” said Deena, wishing she could somehow shove her words back into her mouth. “I-I’m sorry; I didn’t know.”

“It’s quite alright, my dear,” said Majjreo. “We always knew her disease was fatal; there was nothing to be done.”

Thankfully, the servants brought out the food before Deena could further insert her foot into her mouth. And fortunately, by the time dinner was over, she wasn’t the only person to have made such a mistake.

“So,” said Majjreo as he cut into his pork pie. “How has Raeniira been?”

Garthniiel made a choking noise and nearly spat out his food. “She’s—she’s fine, I think. She’s married now.”

“Married?” asked Majjreo. “I should congratulate you!”

“No,” said Garthniiel quickly. He glanced at Avenel. “No, uh, she married Sir Petriin.”

“Oh,” said Majjreo. “Oh dear. Well, you’ll have more chances. Sow your wild oats, as they say.”

“Uh, yes,” said Garthniiel, looking distinctly like he wanted to crawl under the table and die. “I’m, uh, sure I will.”

There was a small noise to Deena’s right, and she turned to see Avenel stifling a laugh.

When the last of the plates had been cleared away, Majjreo got to his feet. “Now that we have all been fed, shall we have a tour of the house? I’m sure you are all dying to see the rest of my Sorenna’s brilliance.”

“Thank you,” said Garthniiel, “but I think we’re all tired from our journey.”

“Oh,” said Majjreo, his face falling a little. “Yes, of course. Well, we can still have ourselves a bit of a tour on our way up to the guest chambers.”

Majjreo led them up the stairs, where each individual step and banister had been painted a different color of the rainbow. At the top, the corridor they walked down was equally garish, the walls a canary yellow splattered with purple dots of varying sizes.

“Sorenna painted that one herself,” said Majjreo, pointing to a purple smudge near the bottom. “She was too weak to hold the brush properly, bless her, but she tried.”

The only redeeming part of the corridor were the paintings that lined the walls. They were all different sizes and depicted a variety of different subject matter, but all were skillfully rendered and beautiful despite their surroundings. “Who painted these?” asked Deena.

“Oh, various people,” said Majjreo. “Most of these I collected before Sorenna was born. Some were commissioned, some bought, and some were given to me as gifts. Ah, here, your rooms are this way. I shall leave you to rest, but please do not hesitate if you require anything in the night. My own rooms are just down this hall.”

“Thank you,” said Garthniiel, “and thank you for your hospitality.”

“Think nothing of it,” replied Majjreo with a flap of his hand. “I’m glad you came; it’s been too long since Sorenna’s opus was last shared with anyone.”

The room that Deena had been given was thankfully free of Sorenna’s unique aesthetic. It was large, too, with an ornate four-poster bed in the middle and giant windows overlooking the front garden. Deena let herself flop down onto the bed, and it was so soft that it may as well have been a cloud. There was a tub, too, behind a silk screen, but no water to fill it with.

Deena lay there staring up at the canopy for a moment. It was so comfortable that she didn’t want to get up, but it had been days since she last bathed. She raised her arm, sniffed, and immediately regretted her decision. With a sigh, she forced herself back onto her feet and picked up the lamp by the door.

It was quiet outside. The others were all already in their own rooms. It took Deena a moment to remember where Majjreo had pointed, then she walked down the hall and knocked on the door of what she hoped was the right room.

Lord Majjreo opened the door. “Yes, my dear?”

“I, um, I was wondering if I could draw a bath,” said Deena. “If it’s not too much trouble.”

“Ah, yes, “ said Majjreo. “Yes, of course. Wait here while I fetch one of the maids.”

Lord Majjreo quickly disappeared down the hall, and Deena took the time to examine some of the paintings. Up close, she could only see the individual brush strokes, but once she had taken a step or two back, the full image quickly emerged. It was fascinating.

She was squinting at a picture of a waterfall when a portrait to the right caught her eye. The subject was a blonde woman sitting before an easel, a paint palette in one hand and a brush in the other. She wore a paint-splattered apron over a fine peach gown, and around her neck was a sapphire pendant.

Deena’s hand went to her own necklace, the one that Vallus had given her at the Silent Tower, sitting hidden beneath the neck of her blouse.

It belonged to your mother.

So then why was it here in this painting, sitting around the neck of some woman she didn’t know?

Lord Majjreo soon returned. “I see you’ve taken an interest in this portait,” he said. “A fine choice.”

“Yes,” said Deena. “Um, who is it?”

“An artist named Fosette,” said Majjreo. “This is one of her self-portraits. Very talented, as you can see, and very kind to my Sorenna. I acquired this after she passed away. A sudden illness, I was told. Very sad.” He held out his arm. “Shall I walk you to your room?”

Deena tore her eyes away from the painting. “Yes,” she said. “Thank you.”

They left Lord Majjreo shortly after dawn, after a quick breakfast of oatmeal with honey.

“You should encounter a fallen tree by late afternoon,” said Majjreo as he saw them off. “If you turn right off the road, there is a clearing that should make for a good campsite.”

He was right. The clearing was breathtakingly beautiful, situated at the edge of a lake with a thick copse of trees to block them from view of the main road. There were even tiny purple flowers in the groundcover, each barely bigger than the tip of Deena’s pinky.

“It was good of Majjreo to point us to this spot,” said Garthniiel, dismounting.

“Almost makes up for his bringing up Raeniira, doesn’t it?” asked Flame.

“Oh, come on,” sighed Garthniiel. “Will you let it drop already?”

“You were with her for seventeen years,” said Avenel. “It’s understandable that he would ask after her.”

“How do you know that?” asked Garthniiel. “Wait, actually, don’t answer that.”

“Honestly, Garth,” said Frost, “isn’t it about time you moved on?”

“He has moved on,” said Flame. “Remember Liiha?”

“That doesn’t count,” said Frost. “He was drunk.”

Garthniiel threw up his hands. “Can we please stop discussing my love life?”

Flame feigned a bow. “Of course, your highness. We’ll wait until you’re out of earshot before we resume.”

With a wordless noise of complaint, Garthniiel stomped off into the woods.

“I saw some rabbits earlier,” said Avenel, taking a ball of twine from her bag. “I’m going to set some traps for tomorrow morning.”

“Mind if I tag along?” asked Flame. “Your technique’s different from what my wardfather taught me; I’d like to learn.”

“Of course,” said Avenel. “Bring your bow.”

Deena kicked off her shoes and took a few steps into the lake. A school of tiny fish emerged from the lakebed to nibble curiously at her toes.

“There’s fish here,” called Deena to the others. “They’re small, though.”

Izra looked over her shoulder. “There might be larger ones further in,” she said. “They’d make for a good dinner.”

“How are you going to catch them?” asked Deena.

Izra looked around until she found a long, straight branch on the ground. “This looks strong enough,” she said, testing it. “Help me find some earthworms, if you aren’t doing anything else.”

By the time they caught enough fish, it was almost dark. Garthniiel had returned with the firewood, and it was by the light of the fire that Deena set about cleaning the fish. Beside her, Frost was packing some potatoes in mud to bake in the fire, while Garthniiel finished setting up the tents.

“Caught another one,” said Izra, smacking it against a rock to stop its wriggling before handing it to Deena.

“What do you want to do with them?” asked Frost.

“I don’t know,” said Deena. The fish weren’t large, just the length of her hand. “Can we roast them? Maybe with some onions? And some of the—Ow!” Her knife had slipped, a bead of red forming on her finger.

“Be careful with that,” said Izra. “Here, let me take a look.”

“It’s fine,” said Deena, putting the cut to her mouth.

“I’ll decide that,” said Izra, snatching her hand away. She held it up to the firelight. “Prince Garthniiel, my medicine bag should be next to you. Can you bring it here?”

“She’ll want the red jar with the yellow ribbon around it,” added a strange man’s voice.

Frost was on her feet at once, Deena’s dropped knife in her hand. They looked up toward where the strange voice had come from, but the only thing there was a bright yellow bird perched on a tree branch overhead.

“Hello, Izra,” said the bird. “Did you miss me?”

Izra let go of Deena’s hand. “You,” she said. “How did you get out?”

The bird did a motion that almost looked like a shrug. “I lifted the latch. It’s just telekinesis, Izra. I’ve been doing it since I was five.”

“I thought you couldn’t use magic in that form.”

“So did I,” said the bird, “but as it turns out, being trapped in a cage and left to die is a fantastic motivator. Funny, isn’t it? Three hundred years of waiting for you to do the right thing, and in the end I figured it out myself.”

The bird swooped down from his perch, and his shape changed as he did so. His body elongated, his feathers retreated, his beak shrank and became flesh. By the time he landed on the ground before them, he was a man, naked as the day he was born.

And his face. His face was one that Deena had seen before, just once, in a dream.

Nicholas. Avenel’s Nicholas.

Izra’s expression darkened. “No. You need to leave.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” said Nicholas. “It took me a fortnight just to find you, and I’m not leaving until you tell me why you left.”

“No,” said Izra. “You need to leave. Now!”

“Why?” asked Nicholas. “What are you afraid of, Izra? That I’ll tell your new friends who you are? What you’ve done? That I’ll ruin the image of the saintly Doctor Grey?”

“Nicholas, just LEAVE!”

“And why should I?!”

Thunk! An arrow flew out of the woods, just past Nicholas’s face, leaving a thin line of red above his cheek. At the arrow’s origin stood Avenel, Flame’s bow in her hand, her face contorted with fury.

“Because I’m here,” she said, her voice quavering. “and you’re supposed to be dead.”