Chapter XVI

Early fall found Esesra tagging along with the last of the Treallic (unmarried) royal. Princess Eries Aston of Asturia was at the top of King Gareth's "suggestion" list. Everyone knew that Eries would become the next queen of Asturia, not Trellyx. King Aston had agreed to the visit for the same reason King Gareth had suggested it: to strengthen their alliance and to get a feel of what their children was looking for in a spouse. Besides, the eldest Aston, Princess Marlene, had just married the Duke of Freid less than a year ago; King Aston was not about to 'lose' another daughter quite so swiftly.

Esesra had taken an instant liking to the second-born Asturian Princess. She looked much like her sister Marlene and once again Esesra felt the mythical bond between Trellyx and Asturia. Whereas Princess Marlene had radiated beauty, Princess Eries' was subtle and refined. She wore a high-collared, sleeved dress and exquisite gold earcuffs; quite the opposite manner of dress than that of her elder sister.

While a traditionalist, the middle Asturian princess had taken an interest in how her father managed their country. Princess Eries had taken interest in the council at fourteen and her father had given her a seat on the council at fifteen. Esesra (and Prince Zatl) learned that Princess Eries was well-read in politics, court etiquette, psychology, and law. Princess Eries even requested that Esesra join their many discussions.

Sixteen-year-old Princess Calist Keram of Ker was a brat. A whiny, clingy, spoiled brat. Esesra had felt intense dislike for her the second she had stepped through the throne room doors. She had her nose up and her face told everyone that she smelled something awful.

Princess Calist was constantly complaining about Trellyx's weather and her food. She whined whenever she saw anything that was different from Ker or was remotely displeasing to her. She clung to Prince Zatl anytime they were in the same room and she was never seen without her four guards and six catty handmaidens.

The knight lady found it immensely hard to keep her face respectful instead of aggravated. Esesra felt great pity for whatever poor man was doomed to marry her.

"I heard she's part-hyena on her mother's side a few generations back; that explains her horrid 'laugh,'' Timothy Delveny joked.

Esesra tried to contain her laughter; she was in uniform and an easily-recognized royal attendant. She had a reputation to preserve and another to protect. They were in the booth that had become "theirs" at Cordiella's sometime over the years. Esesra preferred Cordiella's to Nelgen's. If he wanted a dinner partner, Timothy complied.

'What was Councilor Raark thinking when he asked me to hear the merchantile reports? I'm a knight, not a scribe. And I most certainly am not a cover for him to meet his "secret" mistress!' Esesra mentally grumbled. She furiously scribbled notes as the fruit merchant from Basram finished his presentation. She hoped she'd be able to read her notes later in order to give Councilor Raark a clear, readable report.

The merchant finished speaking and Esesra jotted down his last sentences. "Is that all?" she asked.

"There is one more item. No not look so crestfallen, Knight Lady! This item of business is more… personal. Basram heard of Treallyx's… plight all those months ago. My faction of the union would like to aid you, and receive aid in return, in keeping an eye on the goings on of our countries."

Esesra smiled. Building her and her father's spy network was far more enjoyable than stupid numbers and fruit. She pulled out fresh paper.

"Essie, these weekly meetings are far too much fun to be spy meetings!" Londa giggled. Sabine and Chandra laughed their agreement.

Esesra rolled her eyes.

"As she says each week, 'You girls just use it as another opportunity to gossip,'" Lunette defended.

"But she wants us to gossip! Isn't that right, Essie?"

"Jadyle, I repeat myself at each meeting. I want to know if you ladies have heard anything interesting pertaining to the welfare of Trellyx. Don't call me Essie."

"But Knight Lady Esesra also knows that we elder handmaidens don't hear the same juicy tidbits you younger girls do. We enjoy these tea parties; they make us feel younger," Sabine, one of the queen's handmaidens, stated.

Under her breath for the million and first time, Esesra mumbled, "They're not tea parties."

Everyone else in the room completely disagreed.

Timothy Delveny repeated the name. "Ah, yes; he did introduce himself. I am thoroughly honored, Lady Knight, that you mentioned me to him. Have you thought anymore about visiting me in Asturia and attending Mermaid Lagoons with me?"

"Remind me again why you think I should go."

"The drama! The history! The V'nim acting troop has the best stage fighting. And my parents will be in attendance; they want to meet you, my little sister as well."

"You're going to keep badgering me until I say 'yes,' aren't you?"

"You know me only too well, Lady Knight."

"When is it? As long as it doesn't interfere with Prince Zatl's search for a wife," Esesra finally gave in.

The second Kawynitt D'ladela of Daedalus was "alone" with Prince Zatl, she asked that everyone call her Kawyn. Esesra had kept a neutral opinion of the woman when she had first come through the throne room doors, bedecked in too many jewels and yards of fabric. Princess Kawyn surprised everyone when she arrived for her first outing wearing a common-style dress and plain earrings. The dress was still made of the finest of cloths and sewn with an expert hand, but it portrayed a simple woman with class.

By his wink to her in the throne room yesterday, Esesra knew that the king believed Princess Kawyn to be a good match for his son and country. After the first initial couple of awkward days, Prince Zatl and Princess Kawyn began to hit it off nicely. She was the eldest princess of Daedalus with two brothers above her and one sister below her and had taken an interest in the affairs of her country. She hadn't joined the Council like Princess Eries Aston, but her father had allowed her to learn from and follow many royal advisors, merchants, and men of the law.

Princess Kawyn was also interested in the advancement of women within the social structure. A fair amount of Princess Kawyn's time was spent asking Esesra bout her adventures. Esesra found herself agreeing with King Garath on the match.

Two months after Princess Kawyn's first arrival, Esesra averted her gaze as the royal couple shared their first kiss. The pang in her heart was the same as when Prince Brune had proposed to Airja. Esesra was beginning to wonder what she was missing out on.

"Not the best show we've seen, eh?"

Esesra absently shook her head 'no.' Her eyes followed a wagon bearing a couple out for the evening clattered by.

"Not as good as Flowers for You last month, for sure."

Lost in thought, Esesra didn't even respond.

"Hey, Gaea to Lady Knight!" Timothy raised the level of his voice.

"Hm? Sorry."

"You're really far gone today. Thinking of wedding plans already?"

She shook her head. "Prince Zatl won't be proposing for another month or two yet. And I won't be helping near as much with this wedding as I did Lynores' and Airja's weddings."

"So if you're not planning another Treallic wedding and you haven't mentioned any assassination plots, what are you thinking about?"

Esesra turned her head away, trying to hide the blush attempting to color her cheeks. "It's… a personal matter."

They walked in silence for several minutes, Esesra hesitant to reveal her heart and Timothy unwilling to pry. The gates of the castle's main courtyard loomed into view. Sensing a private conversation coming, Timothy subtly changed course for a less popular side gate. Lost in thought, Esesra followed.

"It's just…" she began, then faltered. 'Doesn't this sort of conversation take place with my giggling handmaidens? But Timothy Delveny understands my views…'

Timothy nodded encouragingly.

"I watched Lynores and King Danal, Airja and Prince Brune get married, and now Prince Zatl and Princess Kawyn. And… I'm a little…jealous, I guess."

A long pause ensued in which Esesra didn't look at the merchant.

"You're wondering if you traded knighthood for wifehood and motherhood; a sword for a homelife with a good man."

"Yes."

Another long pause.

"What if I missed my chance to at courtship? Marriage and children?" Esesra asked. More quietly, she continued, "What if I've missed my chance for love?"

Timothy felt something stir in his soul. He pushed it away and focused on his friend in her personal hour of need as his top priority. She had already done so much for others.

"I'm nearing my twenty-third year. If I was an ordinary Gaean woman of high society, I would have been married with at least two children by now. I… I'm practically an old maid now. I doubt there's a record of any woman on Gaea who married after twenty-three years of age."

The stir in Timothy's soul tugged at his heart. "But you aren't an ordinary Gaean socialite woman, Esesra. If you were, the princesses would have been kidnapped all those years ago. And if the Guard had managed to retrieve them, they would have died at Princess Airja's wedding, along with their parents, husbands, little Ardel and the King and Queen of Stahl. They'd all be dead and the three countries would have gone through turmoil only to have unjust rulers.

"You aren't ordinary because you're – " Timothy sucked in a breath as his mind clicked with his heart and soul. "You're extraordinary."

Timothy pulled Esesra to him. Her world tilted as his head bent to hers. Through a haze of confusion, Esesra realized that the merchant was kissing her.

Her eyes fluttered closed.

bSlam!/b "Merchant Delveny! I'm so glad I found you!" A man wearing Asturian merchant robes burst through the door several paces from them. Timothy turned to his right hand man as Esesra took a step back in shocked surprise. "I've had the guards searching everywhere for you! I was lucky the watchman saw you turn this way."

"What is it Matthias?"

"There's been a fire at the warehouse! Several men and your brother are trapped inside! There's a carriage waiting in the courtyard."Matthias turned and ran back through the door.

Timothy turned back to Esesra. "I – "

"Go. Take care of Neith and your men."

He nodded solemnly. "I'll write, as soon as I can." He turned and dashed after Matthias.

Esesra watched him go. She touched the fingertips of one hand to her lips. 'He kissed me… Timothy Delveny kissed me…' She slowly made her way to her office. 'My first kiss. From Timothy Delveny, Merchant of Asturia.

Four months came and went. Esesra turned twenty-four. Prince Zatl proposed to Princess Kawyn. Her father received word that Ziaback was mining drag-energists.

No word came from Timothy Delveny.

Esesra's heart broke each time Prince Zatl and Princess Kawyn kissed. She tried to keep her mind away from her first kiss, but the memory would flood her mind. 'What could possibly be keeping him?'

She had heard about the fire. One of the Delveny storehouses had caught fire, men trapped inside. Some had died; Neith had survived but badly injured. Timothy Delveny had whisked his brother home to Asturia, to their family. Esesra hoped all was well.

Esesra met with Aeli after he was finished giving his merchant report. The Alorian had become a good friend over the years. He had wept for joy a year ago when he passed on the announcement that Mishka had found a wife. Today, however, the usual sparkle in his eyes was absent. "Mishka believes that the darkness is looming very close upon Gaea."

"Father's spies have told him that Ziaback is mining more drag-energists than necessary."

"We are near war, then."

"Possibly. Of course, King Garath hopes not. But life is reality, not fantasy. Father is subtly increasing the size of Trellyx's army."

"It seems that your Teradosq has granted Trellyx some foresight."

Esesra nodded.

Both prayed that the possible on coming war could be averted.

She finally received a letter from Timothy Delveny the next day. His scrawl was different than normal, Esesra noted. As if he had somehow forgotten how to hold a quill and use it to write. She tilted the parchment to better read his short letter.

Esesra, Lady Knight,

I am terribly sorry I have not yet written. Neith is doing well. I am hoping to be in K'Shied two months after you receive this. I will speak with you soon.

Esesra almost doubted that Timothy Delveny had written this note. It was far too short compared to the rolls he usually wrote to her. Why had he scratched out the 'terribly'? Why hadn't he spoken more of Neith? The note lacked the merchant's flair. More damningly, why hadn't he said why he had taken so long to write to her?

The signature at the bottom barely passed as his.

She was getting a headache. Esesra doubted anyone had forged the letter. They had failed spectacularly. She was also sure that Timothy hadn't told anyone about their 'romantic encounter.' If such gossip existed with Esesra in the middle of it, her handmaidens would have pounced the second it reached their ears.

She would just have to wait two more months.

Timothy asked her to meet him at 'their' booth in Cordiella's for dinner. The merchant had asked her to meet him via a letter written by a paid scribe, she assumed as the handwriting again wasn't his but much different that the last letter's. Esesra crumpled it up and went to the kitchens to receive the satisfaction of burning it in the hottest fire she could find.

Megera raised an eyebrow but Esesra ignored her.

She arrived early at the restaurant that evening. Esesra surprised the waitress by ordering something a bit stronger than her usual, despite the fact she was in uniform. He was late.

Timothy slid into the booth, posture shouting submission. He looked her dead in the eyes and said, "Before you say anything and let loose your woman-scorned wrath, let me apologize profusely and explain."

Esesra folded her arms, eyes hard, but nodded.

He drew in a breath. "I am terribly, horribly sorry that it took me so long to write and that my note was utter trenches. I burned my hands pulling Neith and another worker from the fire. I tried to have a scribe write something, but the words wouldn't come. I didn't want you to read my sentiments in another's handwriting. And I was a bit embarrassed baring my soul to a stranger. So I waited for my hands to heal. As soon as I could write legibly again, I sent you that note. But even after extensive muscle therapy it hurt for me to write.

"Father and Mother had a massive hissy fit over Neith and I getting injured. Neith is fine. But Father and Mother kept us home, even long after we had fully recovered. And I had to help Father with recovering the business after the fire.

"But I couldn't bear to have you hate me, or worse, reject me. I had a lot of time to think wandering around home while I recuperated. You have intrigued me since your coa nearly a decade ago. When we danced that night, you had such spirit! But I knew that I was too old; a young think like you was beyond my reach.

"But then I met you again, as a testing for Princess Lynores' taste in men. You had become a knight! I watched you grow into an extraordinary woman. I didn't realize until the night of the fire that I had fallen in love with you. You were pouring your heart and soul out, worrying about your future, and it hit me. I saw us together for the rest of our lives.

"And now I'm afraid my chance has slipped away; that I've lost you."

Esesra's eyes had softened throughout his story. "How could I not forgive you?" She blushed. "Over the years, you have become my closest friend. I… I don't want you to disappear from my life. I don't know… what I feel for you, but I cannot erase from my mind the feel of your lips against mine." Her blush deepened. "My heart beats faster each time it crosses my mind. I'm… I'm willing to explore that emotion."

The tension left Timothy and his entire body lit up with happiness.

Six months went by. Little in their years-established routine changed. Sometimes Timothy held her hand or pecked her on the cheek. He kissed her twice more. They never displayed such affection in public. Esesra would get the gossip mill of a lifetime if anyone found out.

Just before Prince Zatl's marriage to Princess Kawyn, Timothy formally requested permission from Delma and Chelsea Amia to court their daughter. They were taken completely by surprise but consented.

Esesra turned twenty-five, a happy woman. Trellyx was at peace with itself and Mishka's foreseen darkness had not yet erupted. Esesra finally found herself content and fully complete.

"What happened?" Esesra knocked her chair over as she jumped to her feet. Zerrak of Basram stood before her in her office.

"The rumors of a Mystic Moon inhabitant are true. I've seen her. She travels with Van Fanel, surviving king of destroyed Fanelia. The Ziabackeans had a large storehouse of drag-energists; they are preparing for war. King Van's guymelef, the Escaflowne, turned into a dragon and as King Van flew over the storehouse, the drag-energists within reacted to Escaflowne's. The entire storehouse exploded and caused the ground to shake and crumble."

Esesra righted her chair and sat in it, dazed. Mishka's prophecy of darkness covering Gaea seemed to have finally come after five years. First Fanelia burning to the ground, then a red Ziabackean guymelef burns Asturia's Palas harbor. Now an energist explosive.

She whispered to herself in horror, "What if it could be repeated?" Then louder to Zerrak, "I must report this to my father. Please wait in your quarters until we send for you."

"Zerrak left only hours after you informed me of the drag-energist explosion incident," Delma informed Esesra later that evening. "I only hope that Basram does not do anything too drastic with the information."

"We can't hold him here?" she queried.

Delma shook his head. "Zerrak is a spy for his own country than he is for Trellyx; as he should be. It would be a breach of treaty to detain him. We can only be thankful that he informed us of the situation."

Timothy led Esesra down the winding path along the creek at the outskirts of K'Shied. They rarely walked the path, but both knew it well: they had come here after Timothy had received permission to court her. They were nearing their one year anniversary of courting.

"Yes Esesra, I know you're worried about an upcoming war. But as I've already told you, put it out of your mind for just a few hours. That's what I made you were something other than your personal guard uniform. We – meaning you – are leaving our cares and concerns behind us for a picnic."

Esesra huffed but let him have his way. War wasn't quite yet upon them.

"Timothy, what's this?" she asked an hour later. They had finished dessert, what else could possibly be left in the basket?

"Oh damn, I nearly forgot about that! Give it here! Timothy swiped the small, cloth-covered box from her hands. With a flourish he pulled the cloth from the box, opened it, and bent down on one knee. "Esesra Klarita Amia, would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?"

The box held a ring; a tiny green diamond winking up at her.