continued from here.
The castle was so large that it was visible from a day’s journey away, acting as a beacon for the weary traveler.
“Indeed,” Miriam commented to the bird she rode, quite aware that it was not likely to answer her. “Indeed I may be crazy. The trail grows fainter by the day. But this may still lead me to the princess.”
She climbed aboard the bird and began her journey, moving closer and closer to the castle. Briefly, critically, she glanced down at herself. In no shape to see a princess, nor even to be in polite company. How her mother would scold! Knee-high leather boots, in the style of a man. A single skirt, with neither petticoats nor corsetry. A nearly threadbare, now sand-covered tunic. Her hair a mess, sitting astride this bird-mount, also covered in sand. Not ladylike at all. Her mother would never have understood, but the princess might. If she was here.
The servant-slaves (they wore metal collars, so she knew they were not in bondage willingly), gaped at her with wide-eyes, though they dared not speak. Or perhaps they were not able. The Sultan’s paper was enough to persuade them, for even if they could not read, they might recognize the seal upon it.
Miriam’s understanding of the local dialect was improving, but still imperfect. She’d declined the offer of a translator for this solo excursion, just as she’d declined any companions of any sort. The men who greeted her with low bows managed to convince her that they would inform the castle’s ruler – she was fairly certain that ‘Prince’ was his title – of her presence. They directed her toward some female slave-servants dressed in barely more than their collars.
The girls – they were scarcely old enough to be called women – led her to a spacious chamber made of stone, with a bath cut out of the floor, lined with colored tiles. Already it had been filled with hot water. Their eyes widened as she undressed, eyeing the mage’s tattoo between her breasts. Miriam was not sure if they knew what it meant or they were merely fascinated by its presence.
They had brought her baggage, and so after she had bathed and one of the girls brushed out her long hair, Miriam was happy to change clothing and leave her dusty travelling clothes to be washed. She had packed a single corset, but no petticoats (it was too bloody hot for them anyway, she thought), and with the help of the girls, wore this under her dress. She often attempted to convey both highborn lady and powerful mage in the same dress, and for this one, a dark blue gown of silk, arcane symbols were embroidered on the bodice and hems. For her own countrymen, this would have been enough, but here, she was not sure if she would present as anything other than exotic foreigner. That might be good enough, however.
Soon after, the female slaves left, and were almost immediately replaced with a well-dressed male servant. He addressed her as “Madam,” a generic respectable title as he naturally did not know her pedigree, titles, or marital status, and spoke in her own tongue, so heavily accented she could barely understand him and might have preferred he spoke his own. He informed her that the Prince would welcome her presence at…some sort of meal, perhaps? She was not clear.
For politeness’ sake, Miriam nodded as though she understood the offer, and then followed the man through cool and dark cold corridors for some time before emerging into a large open hall. Tables were set up in a horseshoe shape around the edge of the room, and at the center sat an ornately dressed man in an ornate chair she presumed to be the Prince in question.
As she followed her guide down the hall, Miriam let her magical senses wander and explore the space. Undoubtedly, the Prince employed mages of some sort, and she faintly sensed their presence as well as ancient spells of protection on the building itself. She frowned thoughtfully, wondering if the mages’ auras were so faint because they were not very strong, or because they were hiding themselves and their power.
The Prince was fair-haired, like most of his people, his hair so fair as to be nearly white, and his eyes a deep green. Most of the people at his table had similar coloring, although some of the servants were darker. Miriam knew that her own dark blue eyes and darker hair would mark her as exotic enough, even if her dress had been plain.
At last she reached his table, and, remembering etiquette lessons of many months prior when she had entered the desert nation, did not curtsy or kneel as her own customs and princes might demand, but bowed low, extending her right arm as she did so. She remained in this bent position for the requisite amount of time and then rose slowly to find the Prince’s green eyes peering at her with some curiosity.
The Prince spoke in his own tongue, but slowly, so that she might easily understand him. “Welcome to my hall, Lady Traveller.”
With the same formal words, she answered. “I am called Miriam, your highness. Thank you for seeing me.”
“I am called Raymo,” the Prince replied, for now that she had given her name, he must give his own. “Twelfth son of the twelfth son of the Fourteenth Holy Sultan.” There was only mild pride as he recited this title. He held up the parchment she had brought. “Said Sultan’s words are not easily ignored.”
The servant who had led her to the hall stepped forward to retrieve the paper and return it to Miriam, who slipped it into a pocket of her skirt. “I hope you might be of assistance, your highness. My King,” and for ‘king’ she needed to use her own tongue, as there was no equivalent here, “is anxious that his people might be returned to their homeland.”
“A long journey, is it not?”
“Indeed, your highness. I travel alone presently, but I will rejoin my own prince and his caravan. They will, I assure you, provide adequate security on the journey.”
Prince Raymo appeared thoughtful for a moment, and then gestured with one hand toward the tables. “I will assemble them all for your inspection on the morrow. For now, please do join our meal.”
She bowed her thanks, and followed her guide to a seat at the far end of the prince’s table. She found herself seated beside an elderly white-haired gentleman who introduced himself as Torim, and called himself an adviser to Prince Raymo.
“I once traveled across the desert in my youth to visit the Borderlands,” he remarked as the soup, a clear broth with vegetables and mutton, was served. “I learned a bit of your language then, but I’m afraid it has since mostly been forgotten.”
“I suppose you have little chance to practice it here,” she replied politely, and sipped at the soup. It had a good flavor; clearly Prince Raymo did not lack spices.
“None at all,” Torim replied with a chuckle as he sipped his own soup. “All I remember is ‘how do you do.’”
His accent was not horrible, Miriam reflected, although the phrase itself was old fashioned. She smiled at him, and contented herself with bland but genial conversation for the rest of the evening.