(pardon typos etc, this is still very much in progress)
Shanna wiped sweat from her brow as she put away her shovel, pulling off the kerchief around her neck to mop away more sweat and grime. There was nothing quite like an afternoon of cleaning out the dragon stables to burn off anxiety and worry.
Unfortunately, it did not burn away the long evening looming before her. A hateful father—stepfather—looming over her, piles upon piles of suitors from which she must pick a consort she didn't want. Because her father might hate that she was the queen-in-waiting, but the law was the law, and he was only a consort himself. But she also wasn't stupid enough to think he'd let her pick anyone who didn't meet with his approval, which means someone who either would immediately ally with him or would be easily walked over.
If he thought she would tolerate that as placidly as she tolerated everything else he did—or did not do—then he was sorely mistaken. She might not particularly want a consort, but whoever she married could be an advantage for her as much as for him if she was able to slip the ideal one past him. Too many ifs, but there was nothing to be done about that. And for all he could manipulate and threaten, he could only go so far. Many laws were flexible and gray, but those commanding the throne were set in stone and steel. She had the right to choose her future consort, and the choice must be freely made, and all suitable candidates given fair and equal choice. If even a whiff of scheming was detected, the whole affair would be called off and begun anew next year. Even the useless council under her father's thumb would not be able to do much if she cried there had been a violation of the rules.
But that was not a card to be played lightly, for it would only work once and could easily backfire. No, she had to pick the right person the first time.
Hopefully, whoever it was would prove be her key to freedom and safety. She was exhausted living on edge and in fear every hour of every day.
She had watched the suitors trickle in all day, from the imperious and tiresome Prince Gorna from Ashta, who'd taken her for a servant happy to double as a prostitute, all the way down to Princess Nina, who'd taken her for a servant and therefore invisible.
So far, she was none too pleased with most of her options, to judge by the way they thought servants were to be treated. A few had been polite, though, even cordial, so at least a few options existed.
One of the stable hands brought her a cup of cool water, and Shanna thanked him, smiling warmly. "How is your mother?"
"Starting to walk again, thank the Goddess. She'd been stuck abed much longer, we'd have killed her or she'd have killed us," the boy said with a grin.
Shanna laughed. "I remember being that pleasant to deal with myself when I broke my ankle as a young girl."
Most would argue she was a young girl still, and normally she might agree, because twenty-three still left a lot of life and learning to do—but with her mother suspiciously dead the past six years, a stepfather determined to put himself on the throne and forever keep her off it, a court and council who refused to see her as a woman grown, and still two years from being old enough to claim her throne, Shanna didn't feel terribly young.
She felt alone, tired, and afraid.
Handing off the cup, she handed it back to Tikki and ruffled his hair before sending him off. She'd check on the sick red dragon then head back to the keep to dress for dinner.
The voice slid down her spine like good whiskey down the throat. Shanna turned, and drew a sharp breath through her nostrils at the handsome men standing just inside the stable—with horses. Intrigued they would use horses when their clothes marked them as nobility or royalty, she closed some of the distance between them.
The man on the left was short and lean, with yellow-brown skin and thick, dark hair pulled into a short braid. It was dark but she still caught a hint of freckles across his nose and cheeks, and his eyes seemed to be dark blue or green. He would barely reach her chin, but what he lacked in height he certainly made up for in presence—especially the friendly smile he gave her. "My pardon, Highness, I didn't realize it was you until you came into the light." He glanced around the stables. "You've some handsome dragons here, from what I can see."
"Thank you. I am honored you recognize me, but chagrined I do not know you. Have we met before and I callously forgot?"
He laughed, as did the man beside him, who was as tall and broad and dark as the first man was short and thin and light. "Not all, Your Highness. This is the first time anyone from my kingdom has visited your lovely home for a long time. I am Kallaar bella Fontare of Morentia, at your most humble service."
"Your Highness," she said, and matched his elegant bow. "It's an honor to have you here, you and…"
He looked up with another of those bright, boyish smiles, like he'd somehow never lost the ability to be happy about even the smallest things that came so easily to children. "This is my bodyguard and dearest friend, Master Ahmla della Taar. Master Ahmla is the proper address for his station."
"Thank you. An honor to meet you as well, Master Ahmla. I was about to return to the keep. Let's get your horses settled and then you may walk with me. What brings you to Rumark?"
Kallaar's face filled with surprise. "Why, we were invited to send a suitor, of course. Did Your Highness not know?"
"Forgive me, no, my mother arranged all that shortly before her passing. I must have forgotten, in the aftermath of her sudden death, that she had extended an invitation to you. Forgive me, please."
"No forgiveness necessary, Your Highness." Kallaar's smile was soft, sweet and understanding. "She and my father were good friends, but it's true the rest of us seldom knew what they got up to. I only knew of the invitation myself a month before I left to travel here."
"Well I am happy to have you here, please be assured of that." And she was, if only because it would annoy her father, who would be insulted to have his time 'wasted' by a small kingdom that was generally content to ignore and be ignored by the rest of the world.
"That's most gracious of you, Highness." They led the horses along as she showed them where to put them—really, it was a portion of the stable used almost exclusively by servants and less wealthy guests, since no noble or royal would be caught dead traveling anywhere save by dragon.
She tried not to stare while they worked, but it was difficult. Both men moved with the familiarity of people used to working in stables and tending their own mounts. Neither had seemed surprised to see her there, and Prince Kallaar at least had recognized her.
Ahmla's hair clacked as they worked, cut to his chin and strung with wooden beads that seemed carved to resemble various birds, beasts, and insects. More than once he was forced to stop working because his mare loved to try to nibble at them.
When the horses were finally settled and happily eating, Shanna led the way out the back entrance of the stable and along the servants' path to the back of the keep, through the enormous, always busy and hot kitchens. Standing in the large servant hallway that was the main connection point to getting to the rest of the enormous royal castle, she gestured to a large wooden door at the far end. "If you go through there, you'll find your way to the great hall. Look for a man with long white hair, Steward Graiss, and he will tend you properly."
"Thank you, Highness. We will see you at dinner."
She nodded, watched them depart—only staring at the way their leather breeches fit a little bit—then finally headed up the stairs all the way to her own room.