Daughter of the Wolf-head
A light knock at the outer door cut through the heavy atmosphere between Princess Agata and Baba Gu. Both women were instantly silent. Waiting. The quiet knock came again.
"Come," Agata called.
Kait Tamm put her head around the door.
"Lord Izak is here to take you down to dinner."
Agata and Baba Gu exchanged glances. Silently, they gathered their things and filed through the door. Lord Izak stood waiting, a slow smile in his eyes rather than on his lips. It was the smile of an old friend. With an answering gleam, Princess Agata put a hand through the crook of his arm.
Pilar and Kait Tamm stepped forward from either side of Agata's chamber door and flanked old Baba Gu.
As they approached the banquet hall, footmen pulled back the lofty, curved wooden doors, revealing a high-ceilinged room beyond. The chatter of many voices smote Agata's ears.
"I didn't know the prince had so many guests," Agata looked inquiringly up at Lord Izak.
"Prince Gurgen arrived mid-morning with a large retinue."
Agata disciplined her face into a smooth veneer that showed nothing of the blaze burning in her heart. Finally, the princes of the Far Reaches were coming. Gurgen was here. Prince Artak would come soon. She could lead forces back into Iberia and throw the Marauder people out.
The gloom of the room was lifted by lamps blazing from each pillar around the thick stone walls. Their glow chased the shadows deep into corners and recesses but did nothing to push back the coolness of the air. Agata shivered and drew the light folds of her fine, woollen cloak about her.
As they passed through the door, Kait and Pilar peeled away. Lord Izak led Agata between long tables set along each side of the great room toward a banquet table at the far end. Servants moved about, placing final touches on the snowy white table with its soft folds of gathered blue fabric falling to the floor. Nobles, unfamiliar to Agata, sat there as well as Prince Ren's men. Of her uncle, there was no sign.
As Agata stepped along with Lord Izak, a hush spread, stilling all conversation until at last the entire room full of people was silent. Agata swallowed and held her chin high. She would not be intimidated by these people. They must believe in her ability to return to the throne of her fathers. She kept her eyes on the table ahead.
The chief steward gestured to the seat on the left of Prince Ren's seat at the head of the table. With gentle courtesy, Lord Izak held the chair as Agata gathered her silken skirts and the long cloak and sat down.
No sooner had Agata settled in her seat than the great doors opened again and her uncle, Prince Ren entered. Among the lords and advisors following close behind a striking figure stood out. Half a head taller than the Prince, the stranger was dressed in rich garments. Prince Ren lowered himself into the high seat and gestured the stranger to sit at his right hand.
While Agata took stock of the newcomer, Kait Tamm and Pilar withdrew to stand along the wall, underneath a blazing torch. Present enough for all to realise the princess still had her own retinue about.
In a moment of cold clarity, Agata realised the truth of Baba Gu's earlier words. She could not come before hard men like these full of fury and disappointment like a thwarted child.
The people in the room were quiet. The newcomer held some magnetism that reached every one. He looked about him and smoothed his garments down.
"Let me present, Prince Gurgen," Prince Ren said.
"Welcome," many voices chorused and Prince Gurgen nodded genially.
The pleasant expression fooled no one.
Servants moved about, quiet and swift. Dishes of food were placed in abundance and glasses filled with ruby red wine.
Prince Gurgen cleared his throat and, with a delicate look in Princess Agata's direction, addressed Prince Ren.
"Prince Ren, how did you manage to whisk the lost princess of Iberia safely away from that wild Marauder, General Kazan?"
Prince Ren, with a bland face, and the tiniest head turn toward Lord Izak, replied.
"There were many of our loyal men in Iberia but it was a Messenger who penetrated Iberia secretly. He found the princess, convinced her to come and brought her safely out."
"She had to be convinced?" Prince Gurgen appeared to be puzzled but Agata, seeing the cold eyes, gold-flecked like the predatory hawk, felt a creeping unease.
Suddenly, she just wanted to get away. Far away before that intense, seeking hunter's gaze fell on her. Even as the thought passed through her mind, Prince Gurgen gestured toward her.
"This, I believe is the lady of legend. You must introduce us to your niece, Prince Ren."
"The Princess Agata of Iberia," Prince Ren said formally, looking from Agata to Prince Gurgen.
Agata murmured a polite greeting and, after a brief glance into Prince Gurgen's volatile face dropped her own away. One glance had been enough. The prince was a seething, roiling volcano of a man, barely suppressing his own vital energy to mouth the empty words that court protocol demanded.
She sat up straight, making an effort to hide the shaking of her fingers by clasping them together.
As the dishes were carried to the table, the Vizier diverted Prince Gurgen's attention by asking a question of trading along routes that passed through the prince's own lands.
"The routes have been under attack," Prince Gurgen answered.
His voice wasn't a bellow by any means, but it contained a carrying quality that cut through all other conversation and without any seeming effort, he commanded the attention of every person at that long table.
They watch with bated breath, Agata thought, as though he is going to do something. As though, he might pounce.
The prince's own peculiar brand of magnetism reached out and surrounded every person in the room like liquid quicksilver. He is a puppeteer and we are the puppets.
A quiet chatter developed and Princess Agata began to believe that the meal would be ordinary after all when the prince spoke aloud to all and no one.
"She seems so shy for one they claim led raids against the Marauders,"
Prince Gurgen bent his gaze in her direction again.
Agata cleared her throat. The small noise sounded loud in the sudden silence. The faces ringing the table, stilled expectantly. Agata turned her dish a little to the left and straightened her knife.
"Not so much, Prince," she lifted her chin a little higher, "like all present, I am listening to you."
A small titter spread and quickly died.
Not a muscle moved in the Prince's face but something in it stilled and darkened. Agata forced herself to keep her fingers still. She fought back the urge to lick her lips nervously. The Prince leaned forward and picked up her hand. With a small gasp of surprise, Princess Agata pulled it back. He held tight, his gaze bold, challenging her to make an uncomfortable scene.
"Such a small, white hand," he mused to himself but every person heard him clearly, "surely it has never held a sword or..." he paused and looked at Agata with a dangerous glint, "killed a man."
The surrounding women cried softly, lifting napkins to their mouth in horror and still the odious prince held Agata's hand in his grip.
A small ember of anger began to rise in Agata's heart. Before she could say or do anything, Prince Gurgen turned her hand over. His eyes widened and then narrowed as he saw the calluses at the base of her fingers and ran a finger lightly over their hardness.
He dropped her hand with a small sniff and looked at her with eyebrows raised. Everybody craned forward.
"Beware any future spouse," he murmured.
A new voice interrupted.
"The princess, being the granddaughter of Vax'tang the Great, is of course versed in sword play."
Lord Izak was tranquil, smiling at Prince Gurgen in an easy-going fashion.
People nodded, speaking to each other in undertones. No introduction to Vax'tang was needed. His deeds and legend were well know to all.
"And where is your prince, Lord Izak?" Gurgen asked.
He smiled back at Lord Izak, sitting beside Princess Agata, but it was the snarl of a wolf pulling lips back to reveal the teeth.
"His focus is on keeping the Arabs at bay, Prince," Lord Izak spoke easily, "he rests full confidence in Prince Ren and will send forces to his aid when he calls."
And so the meal continued and Agata endured a continual light pricking and prodding from the prince she'd hoped would lend his armies to regain Iberia. By the time the evening drew to a close she was exhausted.
"If you will excuse me, Uncle."
He nodded and Agata pushed back her chair and rose. Lord Izak leapt to his feet but Agata waved him back.
"No need to accompany me, Lord Izak. Kait and Pilar--"
"I will escort the Princess to her chambers," Prince Gurgen interrupted.