Chely was true to her word, much to Cass’s dismay. It wasn’t that she hadn’t believed the dhakyr; it was more of she had severely underestimated what she was capable of.
Twilight was just starting to fall when they entered a neat town split in half by the dusty road, except it was paved over in the town. Unlike Baiater City, the roads were smooth and uniform in width. They were lined with stone buildings where the name of the establishment or the family name of the inhabitants were painted on the doors. Orbs of light floated down the middle of each street, flickering to life as the last rays of the sun touched them. Laid out in a grid, it appeared to be a square with a large tree bursting with golden flowers in the center. In the distance, Cass could see a looming forest illuminated by the setting sen.
Though the sun was rapidly setting, the town was still bustling. Men and women went about their business, some with young children in tow. Older children were gathered under the tree listening to a storyteller or were themselves bustling about. Cass was most intrigued by their clothing, though. They wore simple clothes, a knee-length dress or shirt and pants, but all of it glimmered in the orb light, as though crafted from sequins or fashioned from colorful reflective material. Allison would love it.
A pang shot through Cass as the dhakyr slowly picked her way through the town, assuring Cass she knew a good place to stay, and who was she to question a talking horse that had spent her whole life wandering Sairon?
In the twenty-four hours since she’d left the palace, she hadn’t had much time to reflect on her actions or feel guilty, but now, thinking her sister would love the fashion of this town, the guilt seeped in and threatened to strangle her heart. She had no idea what ramifications running away would have, but knew her friends and siblings would be left to deal with it. She had never been one to run from her responsibilities, but having the hopes of the entire world pinned on her was too overwhelming to even think about.
Chely stopped abruptly. Startled, Cass looked up and saw they were close to the tree, where a few children were glancing at them with curious eyes. They were before a door with bold yellow and orange streaks painted across it. In red was the name: Darling Inn.
Cass’s eyebrows rose and she looked over the tidy two story building. The facade had windows on either side of the door and a larger window on the upper floor. Window boxes where wildflowers bloomed with abandon decorated each window, which glowed with warm light from within. The stones were white flecked with shiny particles that grabbed onto any light that fell on them and reflected it back with a twinkle. From the roof sprouted a tall chimney merrily piping out fluffy white smoke.
“Well,” Cass said as she patted Chely’s neck, “it certainly does look darling.”
A laugh brushed through her mind and Cass had the distinct impression the dhakyr was laughing at her. It was becoming a common occurrence, so Cass only rolled her eyes and sighed.
The name of the family that runs this inn is Darling. The dhakyr’s voice was gentle, but Cass still had the distinct impression Chely was laughing at her.
“Of course it is,” Cass muttered as she slid off Chely’s back with her bag in tow. “I trust you know where you are going?”
Again the laugh. Cass was glad she wouldn’t have to room with Chely. It would be a long night if she did.
Chely gently butted Cass’s shoulder with her head before trotting off around the corner. She flicked her tail towards the group of children surrounding a tall man dressed in a colorful vest, patched up pants, and a swirling cloak of every color imaginable, which looked even more vibrant against his dark skin, drawing Cass’s attention to him. He was neither young, nor old, but didn’t appear middle-aged, either. His dark hair was cut close to his head and his green eyes flashed with passion as he mimed a sword fight. The children were leaning forward slightly, hanging on to his every word.
Cass’s head swung towards the door to the inn and her stomach gave an appreciative growl. Marianora had provided some bread and cheese for her journey, but her last real meal had been breakfast many hours before. But something about the storyteller compelled her to head for the tree. The children appeared enthralled in the story and she was curious what tale from Sairon he might be relating. She’d read about gleemen, minstrels, and bards and wondered if this man was one.
“She fought valiantly,” the man was saying, stabbing forward with an empty hand, one leg lunging forward, as Cass approached and stood on the outskirts of the crowd. A few nearby children glanced at her, but quickly transferred their attention back to the storyteller. “The other queen didn’t stand a chance. Iris knew she had to protect her kingdom at all costs, even if it cost her her own life.”
The listening children seemed to be holding their breath as they listened intently to how Iris fought off a queen who would steal her lands. The woman was fierce and stubborn while the queen was crafty and unwilling to bend or back down.
“Iris held out a hand,” the man said, raising his own hand, “and screamed, ‘I am Iris, Star Queen of Sairon. With my powers I summon a shield!’ The winds howled, the seas swirled, flowers of every kind flew forth into a great storm, and fire bloomed as lighting struck. There was a great crack of thunder and a brilliant flash of light. The world was blinded for a long second.
“When the light vanished and the people could see once more, the queens were gone.” The man sliced through the air with a hand. “In the middle of the ocean, dividing the world in half, was a great black dome, opaque, but shimmering with magic.”
As the man concluded his tale, the children seemed to settle back with a collective sigh and soft murmurs to each other. Cass stood rooted to the spot as it dawned on her that this was the tale of how the black dome had come to be. She was also jolted to realize her middle name had come from the second Star Queen. Had her first been for the first Star Queen?
Cass barely registered the children getting up and leaving, their excited chatter swirling around Cass as she and the man were left alone under the tree.
The man folded his cloak around himself and gave her a curious look as she continued to stare numbly at him. On soft feet, he stepped closer to her, a brilliant smile on his face.
“Good evening, lady,” he said softly. “I normally only draw children to my stories.”
“I,” Cass started, her voice sounding a little scratchy. She cleared her throat and momentarily glanced away from him. “Was that the story of the second Star Queen?”
He flashed her a grin. “Indeed it was. Tell me, have you heard another minstrel tell it in the same way?”
She shook her head, her braid lightly thumping against her back and shoulders. “No, never. I’ve never heard a minstrel before.”
His eyes rose. “Never?” Then he smiled. “I bet you must be from Serrialda. That collection of isles has never been welcoming to us.”
Mutely, Cass nodded. In her state, she hadn’t the foggiest idea of where Serrialda was, but, if he hadn’t been there, then there was a good chance she might be able to make him believe that was where she was from.
He bowed to her, whipping out his cloak to display its myriad of colors. “Garel the minstrel, my lady.”
“Iris,” Cass said softly, sticking to the name she had given to Marianora and her friends.
Garel’s eyebrows rose. “Named for the Star Queen?”
“I…suppose. Actually, my parents never told me. But my mother grew irises when I was a child, so I could have also been named after the flower.”
“Yes, very possible,” Garel agreed. He glanced up at the darkening sky. “If my lady would excuse me, I must take to bed as I leave at dawn.”
“Where are you headed?” Cass asked as he stepped past her.
The man pointed back the way she had come. “There’s a little village not far from here. I will be there tomorrow and will stay if the people are welcoming. If not, I hope to reach Baiater City before dark.”
A bolt of alarm went through Cass and her eyes widened slightly. “Do you go to the palace?”
The man’s white teeth flashed with a grin. “I hope to. Sometimes the Regent is welcoming to minstrels if they have a court to entertain. It isn’t often, but I hear they are expecting some new arrivals very soon.”
Cass forced a smile as fear shook her to her core. If this man saw Allison, he would realize she looked very much like the princess and might say something. The last thing she needed was a search party galloping out to find her and take her back.
“Safe travels, Garel,” she managed. “I hope you find a welcoming reception at the palace.”
“As do I,” he said with a flourish of a bow.
Without another word, the man walked off into the town, leaving Cass to stand, shaking, under the tree. She glanced over at the inn. A good night’s rest sounded lovely, but she had the urge to get as far away from this town as possible. Her stomach, though, had other plans.
Biting her lip, she headed to the inn with heavy feet. She needed to eat. Then she needed to collect Chely and hope the dhakyr was capable of traveling quickly at night.