At the appropriate time, Jerryck made himself ready. The servant assigned to him showed the way to the royal dining hall. The table was so large and heavy, it had to have been constructed inside the room. Silver candelabra sat along its length, adding to the light shed by the crystal chandeliers above. Padded chairs surrounded the table, many of them occupied by people dressed so foppishly, Jerryck wondered if they were a troupe of actors trying to put on a comedy. There were no tapestries to soften the walls. No colored banners representing the districts inside Shontarra. The only wall trappings were iron light sconces between arms displays and shields in the prince’s red and gray. At the end of the table sat a striking woman, somewhere in her late teens or early twenties. Her black hair was pulled softly back in a loose bun, much like Leanne wore hers. She had a diamond on each earlobe, but no necklace or rings. She sat rigid and still, her eyes fixed on her place at the table, her face an emotionless mask. No one seated near even tried to strike up conversation with her. A couple of women entered the dining room behind Jerryk. One of them pointed to the lone woman and laughed to her companion. “She still has no sense of style.” “Good,” the companion said. “She doesn’t deserve to look as beautiful as us. She can keep dressing stupid and plain.” Jerryck eyed the two women. Their hair was piled at least a foot above their heads. Baring their necks might have made them more comfortable in the heat of the southern summer. But their heavy clothes had to erase any cooling benefits of wearing their hair up. Their dresses were so stiff they couldn’t possibly bend from the waist up, and so wide they would have to turn sideways to get through a single-wide door. The first woman noticed him looking at them. “You’re one of the Brendish guests, yes?” She batted her eyes at him. She flicked a wrist at the woman at the end of the table. “What do you think of the common filth there compared to our beauty.” “She puts you to shame,” Jerryck blurted. “You both look kind of stupid.” The two women gasped. One of them put a hand on the wall and panted as if she were about to faint. Jerryck sensed no fluctuation in her aura, so it was likely just a show. The other woman scolded him. “How rude! Just you wait until your princess comes in wearing the latest fashions, like us. Will you tell her she looks stupid too?” “She doesn’t tolerate stupid,” Jerryck said. More and more people entered. Some of the men dressed almost as flamboyantly as the women. Nita was one of the last to enter. Her hair was done much like the woman at the end of the table. Her dress was just as simply cut. She wore more jewelry, but nothing so ostentatious as almost everyone else in the room. People stared. Some of the women plucked at their oversized jewelry, twisting their rings around their fingers, adjusting their necklaces, touching earrings that brushed against their shoulders. Andreno and Prince Sanbralio entered very last. The old prince’s hair was a disheveled mat. His eyes had sunk in, and the rings under them were so dark they looked like bruises. His clothes hung askew and his skin sagged, a sign of sudden, rapid weight loss. Andreno was seated on his right, in the place of the heir. Nita was on Sanbralio’s left, with Jerryck on the other side of her. The meal began. Everyone dug into their plates and somehow held conversations while stuffing food in their mouths. Except Sanbralio. He ignored his plate. Servants changed it out with every course. He always brushed it away, or leaned over it to talk to Nita, completely absorbing her time and attention. She kept trying to shift his focus, pointing out other people in the room. He responded kindly, unless she brought Andreno into the conversation. Then Sanbralio got nasty, making derisive comments about him being ungrateful and taking everything from everyone around him. When the meal ended, Nita invited Andreno to her room to chat. As much as the socializing left him drained, Jerryck was not about to let her have a young man in her room unsupervised, especially not one who ignored servants and bodyguards. He sent his servant to fetch him a book, and tagged along. He stood by a wall with some of the guards, until one of Nita’s servants brought him a stool. He didn’t even have to ask. And the stool was much more comfortable than the chair he’d used in the dining hall. The room was much like his, the floor softened with rugs, the walls hung with bright colored tapestries. Except in here, the Brendish crimson and gold was prominently displayed, and a floral scent perfumed the air. Andreno settled himself into one of the chairs in the sitting area. “Thank you for entertaining Uncle so much. It’s frightening how despondent he is. It was good to see him responsive for once.” “It was more like doting affection than responsiveness.” Nita sat in front of a large vanity, taking pins out of her hair. The Shontese servants in the room rushed over with horrified expressions to do it for her. “You stood out,” Andreno said. “That catches his attention. You didn’t style yourself as fancy as other women, and still you stood out.” “I dressed fancier tonight than suits me for just a meal.” Nita put her hands in her lap, letting the servants work. “Would you be offended if I told you the favored styles I’ve seen here look more like ostentatious facades than any real expression of taste?” Andreno burst out laughing. “I think some of them dressed up more than usual just to impress you.” “They failed,” Nita said. The servant from Jerryck’s room slipped in and silently handed him his book. The women attending Nita removed the last pin. One of them took a brush to her hair. Nita watched in the mirror with her hands still folded in her lap, still talking to Andreno. “I thought they looked silly. Besides you, Sanbralio, and Jerryck, there was only one other person who dressed sensibly.” “Who?” Andreno asked. “The woman at the end of the table opposite your uncle.” Nita unfolded her hands and removed her earrings. “She wasn’t overdressed. She didn’t look like she cared what anyone thought of her.” “Probably because no one cared enough to think anything of her,” Andreno siad. “That was just Charllass. She’s nobody.” “Then why was she sitting in a place of honor at the foot of the table?” Andreno shrugged. “Because Uncle likes her. She’s his second son’s bastard daughter. She’s common and illegitimate. She’s nobody.” “I didn’t know Prince Sanbralio had a granddaughter.” “You might not want to say that where others can hear you. They’d take offense to that much honor being given to a nobody.” Nita’s cheeks colored. “There’s no such thing as a nobody. Everybody is somebody.” Jerryck glanced over at the servant. Perhaps he should have sent for earplugs as well, in case Nita went on a tirade about social injustices. If it got really bad, he could always just use a spell on his ears. “Everybody worth counting is somebody,” Andreno said. “Even minor nobles. But Charllass isn’t even that. Her mother was utterly common, not even born of a minor noble. So she really is a nobody.” Nita’s flush spread. Her reflection in the mirror glared at Andreno, her eyes growing dark with anger. Except for the shape and color of her eyes, she looked exactly like her mother before a fit of temper. Then the moment passed. Her expression changed to something closer to her father’s cool aloofness toward someone who had angered him. “Please excuse me.” She tilted up her chin and looked away. “I’m feeling tired. I would rather not entertain company anymore.” “How thoughtless of me.” Andreno rose from his seat. “You just finished a long journey today. Of course you’re tired. I’ll go so you can rest. Good night, Princess.” As soon as he was gone, Nita said, “Someone please remind me who is in Prince Sanbralio’s family. I thought his second son had no children because he had no interest in women.” She looked at the three Shontese servants in the room. None of them said a word. Jerryck couldn’t help her. He didn’t keep track of foreign nobility. He had a hard enough time remembering the names of the Brendish ones. She looked to the Brendish elite and her bodyguards. Then she focused in on Tajor’s skinny, elite friend. “Cade, help me out here.” “You’re thinking of Prince Yaquerro,” Cade said. “The one that was just killed in the mountains. He was the first son.” Nita frowned. “I thought the first son was a stillborn.” Cade nodded. “Yes, so he wasn’t counted as the first son. He didn’t even get a name. That honor went to Prince Yaquerro, the first son to reach adulthood.” “That’s what messed me up,” Nita said. She went about removing the rest of her jewelry. “I was thinking Yaquerro was the second born, Chaxten the third, and the fourth died as a child when he fell from a tree.” “That was Ganthos,” Cade said. “That happened when he was four. He would have been the third son if he had survived to adulthood. Since he did not, if Sanbralio had sired any other boy, that child would have been the third son once he was grown.” Nita closed her jewelry box and rose from her seat. “I think I’ve got it now,. So Chaxten was the second son, even though he was the third born. And he’s the one who died in a boating accident ten years ago?” “Eleven now,” Cade said. “He chose a woman who was a common born servant to a district premiere on the border with us, and he was loyal to her until the day he died. She gave him two children, Quillen and Charllass. When he died, Sanbralio had the children brought to the palace to live. When their mother protested, he banished her from the country. I think she went south, across the Ahnjwat Sea, according to rumors.” Nita gasped. “That’s terrible for her!” “That’s lucky for her,” Cade said. “Shontese princes of the past would have executed her. I think the premiere she served may have had something to do with the mercy she was shown. Or maybe Quillen. Or both. It’s all rumor from that point.” Nita looked over at Jerryck, horror and disgust written all over her face. “Are things like this why you hate coming to Shontarra?” “Something like that.” Jerryck stood. He excused himself and left the room, just in case she let loose the rant she’d held back earlier. # Prince Sanbralio officially opened the palace gate. Locals poured in. Nita went out to mingle with them, claiming it was expected of her. Jerryck bit back a groan, dressed up, and accompanied. For the most part, people left him alone and focused on the princess. There were some who tried to argue their way through the crowd by claiming they wanted to talk to him. The elites kept most of those away. The only ones they let through to him were people with ties to his profession. A middle aged magician was allowed to approach. He put a hand on the shoulder of a boy who had the protruding front teeth and gangly limbs of most children at about eleven or twelve. The magician smiled broadly. “Lord Jerryck, I want to introduce you to my nephew.” “I’m sorry,” Jerryck said. “I recognize your face. Remind me your name?” “Alysses,” the man said. He pointed over his shoulder at a young man just behind him. “I took on an apprentice out of Kershet a couple of years ago. Then my nephew started showing talent. I’ve been keeping an eye out for him ever since. When I heard you were looking for an apprentice of your own, I made sure to be in the area when you arrived.” The boy looked Jerryck up and down. “Isn’t he the one you used to say—” “—is extremely talented!” Alysses cut him off. The boy shook his head. “That’s not what you said.” The young man behind them snickered. Alysses snapped at him. “Quiet, you!” “Why?” the young man sassed. “You used to complain about Lord Jerryck as much as you complain now about that foreigner.” “Foreigner?” Jerryck asked. Masorno came up behind them. “No one important.” He pointed up to a balcony where a fair featured young man watched the crowd below. He looked about nineteen or twenty. Like many, he seemed particularly focused on the Brendish group. “No one really likes him. He’s from the Chemwanitz.” Jerryck glanced at Garret, who leaned and whispered something to Cade. None of the others seemed to notice. They kept right on talking. The apprentice said to Masorno, “I heard he wasn’t a Chemwanee. Him or any of his friends.” Cade slunk off. Was he going to go find out more about this ‘foreigner’? Or should Jerryck try and ask more? Maybe Cade was taking care of something Jerryck hadn’t noticed. Jerryck shook his head. He really should just trust the man to do his job. Masorno must have noticed the head shake. He said, “My thoughts exactly. This his ridiculous. What is this nation coming to when a mere apprentice is disrespectful enough to a full fledged magician to infer he’s a liar right out in the open in front of everyone?” Alysses bowed his head. “My apologies for the behavior of my apprentice.” “You should leave now,” Masorno said. “Go teach the lad some manners.” “Of course…” Alysses quickly ushered both of his charges away. “Sorry about that,” Masorno said to Jerryck. “He was pretty far down the list of people for you to meet with. But don’t you worry. I’ll stay right here and make certain no one else who isn’t worth your time bothers you.” “Actually,” Jerryck said. “I think I’ll go up and talk to the Chemwanee.” Masorno wrinkled his nose in disgust. “Why would you do that?” “In case…” Jerryck probably shouldn’t say in case Cade hadn’t left to investigate him. The only other excuse that came to mind was to see if the man’s tribal shaman knew Sakila. That could only lead to a line of trouble with a magician loyal to the Gathering. “In case… Uh…” Jerryck couldn’t think of an excuse that wouldn’t give away that he was looking for someone who might know who had poisoned the river. Masorno just smiled and patted Jerryck on the shoulder saying, “Don’t you worry about him. I’ve got people keeping a close watch. And I’ll spend all of today with you just to make sure he doesn’t bother you.” For the rest of the morning, Masorno hung over Jerryck’s shoulder. When Nita finally made her excuse to leave the gathering, he tagged along with her and Jerryck, insisting on lunch. Nita declined, having already made arrangements. Jerryck was stuck for it. Masorno babbled all through the meal. He didn’t stop when the it ended. After a while, he called in a couple of fellow magicians. Each of them tried to get Jerryck to slate the boy they favored as a future apprentice. At first, they touted the advantages of the boy they represented. Then they started slandering the boy the other represented. Then they flung insults directly at each other. Masorno giggled with delight. Jerryck tuned them out. They didn’t act like they noticed. So he took a chance they were no longer paying him any attention at all, and slunk to the door. Since he made it out without any of them calling him back, he assumed they hadn’t noticed. He headed for Nita’s room, Garret chuckling as he trailed behind him.