By Desert Mouse
As Ishara, Schala and Tammy approached the castles front gate. It was obvious almost immediately that something was wrong. The two usual watchmen were replaced by four fully armoured guards.
"Maybe we should come back another day?" Ishara suggested. Schala looked at her and shook her head.
"You're right. No matter what this is about; after what happened last year the Duke needs to know about what we've learned" Ishara replied. They approached the four guards and the end two took an immediate defensive stance.
"There are to be no visitors." One of the middle two guards called out.
"I must speak with the Duke." Ishara insisted.
"The Duke is not seeing anyone today." The guard told her.
"He will see me." Ishara said firmly.
"Turn around or we will use force." The guard replied looking her over. Despite the two swords she had she didn't look like she could use them. She was also traveling with a Jiyu'rei and they hated violence. The teenager traveling with them didn't look like she would cause any problems either.
"Again with this." Ishara thought noticing how he looked at her. His decision to go that route made her pull out all the stops as she flared up.
"I won't see the Duke then but you WILL take me to Ripley." She demanded.
"I will do no such thing." He announced.
"I don't wish for violence today. But I'm not here to play games. Do you think you can strike us both down before I draw this sword? Just take us to see Miles Ripley and your families won't have to be notified how you threw your life away."
"Do you really think you can take on all four of us alone?" the guard asked.
"She is not alone. But before you get any foolish ideas you should be sure what sword she draws." Schala warned them in a cold emotionless voice.
"I do not intend to draw the one at my side. If you push this I may not be able to stop from killing all four of you."
"And you think threats will get you in here?" the guard asked.
"Why do men always have to make things so complicated? Very well; I will show you." Ishara stated. She took several steps back so they wouldn't automatically assume she was attacking them yet.
"Here is my authorization to enter and speak with Miles Ripley. Look carefully but make no threatening movements or it will kill you." Ishara said calmly. She stopped dead when she caught sight of Tammy.
"No, I can't do it that way. If I lose control she could get hurt." She thought staring at the seventeen-year-old.
"I'm not going to risk drawing this sword with Tammy nearby. It's far too dangerous and if I can't control it she doesn't need to see me kill the four of you." Ishara said bluntly.
"If you want us to leave then remove your helmet and tell me your name."
"no." the guard replied.
"Remove your helmet and tell me your name." Ishara repeated.
"I don't have to do anything. Just walk away." The guard told her.
"With the weight of the news I bring, I will not leave without the ability to pinpoint the one responsible. "Ishara said flatly. She approached the guard and stared him right in the eyes.
"Remove your helmet and tell me your name; so that in a few months when Rei Windley suffers the same encounter as her brother last year. I can return and be sure that you pay for it." Her words alarmed the guard.
"What news do you bring?" The guard asked.
"Perhaps if I take Tammy to safety, you can draw the Sword of Stars and show them why you should enter." Schala offered.
"There's no need for that. Once he does what I said we will leave and it will be his head." Ishara replied simply.
"I have had enough of this, very well someone will go get you an escort." The guard said watching her carefully. One of the guards entered the castle as Ishara stepped back
"A much better idea." She stated.
"You could have just told us what sword that is; it might have gotten you in without the need for threats and theatrics." The guard said.
"And you would have believed me?" Ishara challenged.
"Well we won't know now." He replied. They remained silent until six extra guards arrived.
"How sweet, Miles sent six of them to protect us." Ishara said to Schala and Tammy with a grin. The feline looked at her with a pained expression on her face.
"Hardly woman. We have orders to cut you down if you even move to scratch your neck." One of the new guards said.
"I'd love to see you try it." Ishara said sweetly.
"But let's get this over with. Neither of us want to be here anymore then you do."
The guards walked the three of them inside silently. They were taken to the audience chamber where Miles Ripley was already waiting for them.
"This really isn't a good time Ishara. Why are you threatening my men?" Ripley said bluntly.
"I have important news; but you will need to be sure it reaches your Duke. These useless men wouldn't allow me to see him." Ishara started. She was quickly interrupted before she could get to her point.
"They acted on the Dukes orders. They could have killed you and still been acting on his orders the moment you started threatening them and refused to get the hint. This is not the day for unexpected visitors." Miles said sharply.
"If you are finished talking sir, I'll get to the point and get out of your castle. You don't want me here and I don't want to be here. The surviving member of the Red Reapers has begun recruiting. The red armbands have started appearing again." She announced
"Now if you will excuse us we need to find a room at the inn. You need us out of the castle and we need to rest before we continue on our way."
"That's not going to happen." Miles said shaking his head.
"Did you really think you could threaten your way into the castle? Drop news like that on our heads; and take off without spending the time to explain where this information comes from?" he asked.
"I don't know what you expect. But we are not welcome here so I've said what I came to say. Now it's time to leave; unless you plan to try and arrest us. And I will not allow you to put Tammy in chains." Ishara replied. Miles rubbed at his temples.
"Why do you always make such paranoid assumptions? No we aren't going to arrest you; I don't think it's come to that yet. Not all of my guards know who you are; so your refusal of entry into the castle could have been handled better. But I have not said you were unwelcome here. This however was not a good time to come charging in." Miles explained.
"I don't know what has security around here so uptight. And we won't be here long enough for it to matter. But after what happened last year I figured the Duke needed to know the Reapers were returning. They aren't going to make a full comeback in a couple days so when whatever this is passes; then you can send some people to find their new hideout and deal with it if I haven't already." Ishara replied.
"Now if you will excuse us."
"No." Miles said flatly.
"No?" Ishara questioned.
"No." Miles repeated.
"You will not be excused. We can't bring this to the Duke yet and you still haven't told me where this information comes from. However, I haven't the time to deal with it at the moment. Some rooms will be prepared for the three of you. I expect each of you to remain in the castle until the immediate situation is resolved."
"We aren't staying here." Ishara insisted. Miles closed his eyes for a moment.
"I was hoping you would make this easy. I really didn't want to reveal this to you." He sighed.
"Ishara, the reason you were denied entry in the first place is because the castle is in lockdown. No one is supposed to enter; and absolutely no one is to leave. Take the guest quarters because the only other option is to stay in the dungeon until it's over."
"Why is the castle in lockdown?" Ishara asked dropping her irritation at the situation.
"I am not prepared to answer that yet. You can ask the Duke when he's ready to see you if he wants you to know." Miles replied.
"You are familiar enough with the castle that I don't need to call you an escort right? You can have the pink rooms and Schala can take the purple rooms. Miss Tammy do you want your own room? Or will you share with Ishara?" Miles asked.
"I'll share." Tammy said quietly.
"I thought as much, the pink rooms have two bedrooms. Now Ishara I won't try to take your weapons away from you; but please leave them sheathed at all times and do not harass my men. As long as you are armed if you leave your rooms someone will have to follow you until the situations resolved. Things are a little tense right now and I don't want to see a deadly misunderstanding." He explained.
"Are you ok with this?" Ishara asked turning to Schala and Tammy. She didn't expect a reply from the teenager but she saw the look on the felines face and knew that Schala was not in agreement with the options being presented.
"There is little choice, but I do not do well with what he proposes. Can my quarters be amended?" Schala asked.
"This won't come as a surprise I'm sure, but I'm afraid I agree with Schala. We will remain here, but do you not have smaller rooms such as where servants of your noble guests might stay?" Ishara asked. Miles looked at her quietly.
"I always knew she wasn't thrilled with the honoured guest rooms. But this is the first time she's openly admitted it. She's usually a lot more diplomatic about it. She must be really angry about being stuck here so suddenly. I almost regret having to answer that." He thought. It shouldn't have come to a surprise; the welcome she received was hardly welcoming and now she was trapped here for reasons that she wasn't even being told.
"Ishara, and yes even you Schala. With everything you have done for the Dukes people; and your fight against the Red Reapers I cannot grant that request. Not even for Miss Tannis whom is an honoured friend of yours Ishara. The Duke would be horrified at our hospitality if I did, and my own feeling mirror his on the matter."
"He would not have to know." Ishara insisted.
"But regardless he would find out. "Miles started; then he thought a different approach might work better.
"If I did grant that request, do you really think you would be allowed to stay there once Rei caught wind of it? Her job is to know our guests, and what rooms they stay in. and her word is law when it comes to guests. You would immediately be moved to the biggest rooms we have." He suggested.
"Might I suggest a compromise then? So that we aren't taking enough room for thirty people. Can the three of us simply share a set of rooms?" Ishara tried.
"I will agree to that for now. I can't promise that even that won't be amended by the Duke or Rei later but the pink rooms are among the largest we have. You can all use them if you really don't mind only having two beds. If you change your mind tomorrow the purple rooms are still available." Miles replied.
"Now go get settled in. I have to get back to work." He said. Before leaving he warned the remaining guard that was going to follow them not to get in their way.
"Well, let's get on with it." Ishara muttered. She walked with Schala and Tammy towards the guest area of the castle. The guard following them kept more than a respectful distance and served only to warn off any other armoured guardsmen they came across along the way.
When the girls were alone in the main section of the pink rooms they dropped their bags by the door and looked at each other.
"Well this isn't what I expected. Are you going to be ok being stuck here for a few days?" Ishara asked.
"I will survive." Schala replied simply. She looked uncomfortably around the room.
"Tammy gets one of the beds, that's not debatable. Does it work if you take the other if we can't avoid spending the night?" Ishara offered. She already knew what the answer was but she had to ask anyway. Schala shook her head; but didn't waste the question.
"Have you ever seen the Duke or his people act this way before?" she asked.
"No, the closest I've ever seen was last year with what happened to Michael. This has a similar feeling to it; but there's something else. Do you get the feeling that it's not just one problem?" Ishara said.
"There is a hint of what we saw with Michael. But they act like they expect threats from both within the castle and without it. They are expecting someone with dreaded news but it wasn't us." Schala replied.
"I am concerned that we haven't seen Rei yet either. As Miles pointed out it's her responsibility to deal with guests but he assigned us the room. Do you want to go explore the castle and see what we can learn?" Ishara asked.
"We should remain here until they summon us. If we behave they may shed some light on the situation, or allow us to leave peacefully." Schala suggested.
"I'm not so sure; but since your people need more rest than humans. Go take the bed and replenish your energy." Ishara replied. Schala fiercely shook her head. There was still plenty of daylight left; she was not going to waste her days sleeping like some kind of house cat.
"Well I've decided the bed is all yours. You may as well use it when you are ready because I'll be sleeping at this table." Ishara insisted. A grin graced her lips as she heard Schala start growling at her. She was confident that Duncan would love the idea of Schala sleeping in a big comfortable bed.
"You may not agree with us Schala; but after the crap that life has thrown at you. You need to wallow in comfort once in a while." She thought.
Both adults rose to their feet when a knock came at their door. This had to have been what they were waiting for. Schala remained ready to move, but Ishara was the one that walked over to the door and opened it. The face waiting on the other side was the last thing she expected to see.
"Tima? Why are you here?" She asked. The name still had many ghosts attached to it for Ishara; but she could ignore those now by focusing on the woman in front of her, and not the name she shared with someone else Ishara used to know.
"Master Windley asked me to tend to your needs while you are here. He felt that you would be more comfortable with someone that you knew." Tima reported.
"He's hoping that you can keep us out of trouble if we don't want them to punish you." Ishara grinned. Even with her back turned to the feline she could feel the dark stare Schala was giving her at her choice of words.
"He wouldn't…" Tima tried to protest.
"You don't want to be here though do you Tima? I can see that you deeply regret leaving Rei's side." Ishara asked concerned.
"What I wish doesn't matter Miss Ishara. The Duke asked me to do this, I will return to her side when we finish." Tima replied with a quiet smile. It was genuine but strained. Ishara once again wondered about the unusual absence of the Windley family hostess.
"But I don't think you came in here just to introduce yourself. Come, sit down, have some tea. Tell us what we can do for you. " Ishara offered. Tima made no movement towards the table; but she didn't try to leave the room either.
"If it pleases you, I have been asked to bring you to the audience chamber to meet with the Duke." Tima finally reported.
"Well then Lady Tima. If you will." Ishara said with a curtsey. She flashed a smile at the squirming maid. She was obviously uncomfortable with being called what she would consider above her station.
"Tell you what, you stop trying to make us sound like nobles. And I'll stop doing it to you." She offered. Ishara didn't much care for the formalities herself.
"Please Miss Ishara, you mustn't." Tima replied
"Well it was worth a shot. I don't think anything will get this one to stop acting like she's lower than everyone else." Ishara thought grimly. She wasn't ready to give up on this attempt yet.
"Lead the way Lady Tima." She repeated.
Tima took them back the way they came only a few hours before. Inside the audience chamber this time Duke Windley stood waiting with Miles Ripley and a couple of the unusually armoured guards. Ishara gave the man a polite curtsey and out of respect for the type of man he was; and waited for him to speak first.
"I have been told that despite the castle being in lockdown. You managed to barge your way in here regardless." Windley said.
'To be fair, your men said nothing about a lockdown. Has Miles told you what news we brought?" Ishara replied.
"He has but before we get into that. We need to figure out what to do with you. They haven't been found yet but we can't keep you three locked in the castle either." The Duke said.
"May I ask what you are looking for? Why is the castle in lockdown?" Ishara asked. The Duke stood in silence for several minutes, he didn't really want to tell her; but in the past she's been proven to be able to help them. Maybe this would be one of those times?
"My daughter has become ill." He said finally.
"The priestess of water says that a poison was used."
"That explains part of it then. But what else is wrong?" Ishara asked herself
"Is she ok?" she asked.
"The priestess says that it will take another week for her to recover. But she is doing well and is in no further danger." Tima reported for them.
"Why would someone poison Rei?" Ishara asked.
"In four days delegations from Stewart and Tiberius will be arriving to discuss peace. We got dragged into a conflict between the two of them when Tiberius attacked some of our people within our territory." The Duke explained.
"If someone on either side of the conflict wants to get into a full war; attacking the hostess of this conference would be a good way to do it. With Lady Windley out of commission we don't have anyone qualified to negotiate a peace." Miles added.
"Don't you have other diplomats besides your daughter?" Ishara asked.
"Not at the moment no. the two most qualified to take her place are currently in their lands. Being there during the conference assures both leaders that this isn't a trap." The Duke explained.
"So you left them as collateral." Ishara shook her head.
"If anything happens to their diplomats. Then your people pay with their lives."
"So what do we do with the three of you? If we let you walk out while we are still searching for the one that poisoned Lady Windley then we risk either losing control of the exit for a time; or the guards trying to kill you by mistake." Miles asked.
"Do you wish our assistance in finding the one responsible?" Schala questioned.
"No it would be best of we didn't have strange armed women running around during the manhunt. Some of my people may get the wrong idea and decide that you are responsible." Miles replied.
"Could they take Mistress Rei's place?" Tima offered. The Duke thought for a moment studying them.
"With the colour and style of her hair Schala could almost pass as my daughter. But the ears and tail are dead giveaways; and her problems talking would complicate things." He thought. But he turned to Ishara and wondered if she could control her temper in such a setting.
"They are expecting my daughter to host this event. It could work as they might find the sudden change in hostess easier to handle if it's a neutral party." The duke suggested.
"He looks like he's already rejected Schala; probably because of her speech problem. Now he's staring directly at me while he says that." Ishara thought shaking her head. He couldn't possibly think this is a good idea.
"I'm going to have to decline. I wish to help; but it should be something more suited to my talents." Ishara explained.
"If I didn't think you could handle it, I would have already rejected the idea." The Duke replied.
"What about Tammy?" Ishara tried.
"She's too young. She might be able to pass as a personal servant in training. But not as an actual diplomat." The Duke replied quickly.
"Would you please consider doing it? Mistress Rei requires rest, but will worry if the conference is not taken care of." Tima spoke up. Schala borrowed the question to state her own opinion.
"It is clear that if you do not agree, they will persist in the request. You are getting nowhere."
"I seem to be outnumbered." Ishara muttered. She looked over at Tammy wondering if she should just agree. The experience might be good for the teenager.
"And what about you Tammy? Would you like to stay here for a few more days?"
Tammy didn't really want to stay in the castle any longer than they already have; but she knew that her employer liked to help people. Wouldn't this just be another challenge for the warrior to overcome?
"They have asked nicely for your help." Tammy pointed out.
"If I agreed to this, would it be possible for Tammy to observe?" Ishara asked.
"If she is as quiet as she's been during this meeting then yes. She could pose as one of your servants as I suggested earlier." Duke Windley replied.
"She is not a serving girl." Ishara protested.
"In the game of diplomacy appearances matter a great deal. The other delegates will have their own servant, and a guard or two. Schala could pose as your protector, while Tammy could pose as one of your servants. Tima will pose as the other, and be the one to actually get you anything you need. All Tammy will have to do is stand quietly." Duke Windley replied.
"But you don't think I should let her get involved." Ishara questioned.
"I don't know." Artemis replied honestly.
"The person that tried to kill my daughter may be part of the delegates coming; or they may be separate from the officials of their people. I do see what you hope for however; and your young friend can be protected if they become dishonest."
"I don't want to do this. I don't believe that it's something I can do. But if the experience can be used to help Tammy learn, grow, and even bring her a step closer to finding the path that suits her. Then I have no choice but to give it a shot." Ishara replied after several minutes of silence.
"Tima will give you a crash course in acting as hostess, and your negotiating duties. She was with my daughter during most of her formal training as a child." Artemis explained.
"If Tima was trained with your daughter, then why not have her fill in?" Ishara asked.
"That would not be possible Miss Ishara. It isn't my place to take over any of Mistress Rei's duties. I am where I belong." Tima replied quietly.
'Tima is trained, but her depressing concept of self-worth holds her back. She doesn't have nearly as much confidence as you do; and the way she holds herself would betray that she thinks of herself as nothing but a servant." The Duke explained.
"All right then, you should return to your rooms and Tima will help you find a more appropriate dress. You need to start practicing now so when they arrive you look and act the part."
'Sir, if I may point out…" Tima said quietly. She motioned towards the swords Ishara was carrying.
"Ah yes, thank you Tima." The Duke replied.
"I'm afraid I will have to ask that you hand your swords to Miles until the conference has ended. As hostess you should not be armed; that's why you will have Schala at your side at all times."
"I never agreed to that." Ishara protested.
"You will get them back. None of the other delegates themselves will be armed; it's unlikely they could even fight by themselves at all. But you need to look the part. That's why you will have Schala at your side still armed, and two servants with you for most of the conference." Artemis explained. Reluctantly Ishara unhooked her weapons and handed them to Miles.
"You can keep the big one by the way." She grumbled.
"Ishara, the only type of people that would want to take the Sword of Stars away from you; are exactly the types of people that should never have it." Miles said bluntly
"So no we won't be keeping your bigger sword. You will get that one back at the end as well."
"Come, let's go back to your rooms and I'll get a more suitable dress for you. I'll even show Miss Tannis how to get you ready in the morning." Tima said with a warm smile.
"Don't teach the young one any bad habits Tima." The Duke warned as they left.
"Please stand still." Tima said quietly.
"Do you have to make it so tight?" Ishara protested.
"Why are they even made like this?"
"It's not for me to say Miss Ishara. I only need to know how to help a lady into one." Tima explained.
"Would you like to try this one Miss Tannis?" she asked. Tammy nodded and moved to tighten the laces like she was shown on the last dress.
"Ow not so tight. I can barely move." Ishara said.
"You can move enough. Please stop squirming; Miss Tannis needs you to be perfectly still." Tima explained.
"Why is she learning to do this? She isn't my servant." Ishara asked.
"I may not always be able to be here in the morning. She has agreed to help on those days." Tima replied.
"I don't like it. She should be the one in this dress, not learning to put it on someone else." Ishara grumbled.
"How many more are you going to put on me anyway?"
"We are almost done Miss." Tima replied.
"Oh you are just loving this aren't you Schala." Ishara growled looking at the feline in the corner. She had an unusual smirk on her face while she watched Ishara being fitted.
"The next one goes on her." She insisted.
"I'm sorry Miss Ishara; but she is your guardian. She would be unable to serve you in this style of dress." Tima explained.
"Can we at least put one of these on Tammy for a while?" Ishara asked. She thought the teenager might look really beautiful in a dress this fancy; plus, it would be a new experience for her.
"It would not be proper as long as she is acting as your maid. But maybe an exception can be made as she won't be active?" Tima offered.
"I don't need to…" Tammy said quietly.
"I'll make sure she doesn't make yours as tight, you might even like it." Ishara replied as Tammy finished securing her dress. Ishara stepped forward, turned around and did a polite curtsey.
"How does this one look? Are we done now?" she asked.
"You look really nice in this one too." Tammy said with a smile.
"You stand out." Schala offered her thoughts.
"The white suits you as well, but perhaps it may be too bright for this conference. I suggest that for most of the interactions with the other delegates we stick with the pink and aquamarine colours. I will arrange to have a couple styles of both colours brought in." Tima suggested.
"That sounds fine. Now can I put my own dress back on?" Ishara asked. Tima shook her head.
"My orders are that you may not return to your own clothing until after the event. However it's become late so I'll help you change into a nightgown." Tima replied.
"I don't sleep in a nightgown. I haven't since I was a little girl." Ishara informed her.
"I would not advise sleeping on one of these dresses even if I was permitted to let you." Tima replied.
"You are to play the part fully until the delegates have left." She reminded her.
"Why did I let myself get talked into this?" Ishara asked.
The next morning Ishara woke up before anyone else. Her sleep had not been peaceful but it looked like she didn't disturb the others during her nightmare.
"It was unusually strong. Is it a coincidence? Or these nightclothes." She wondered getting out of the oversized bed. The silk nightgown felt nice against her skin; but when she caught her image in the mirror she couldn't help but shiver. She heard the voice of that other Tima call for her in her memory.
"Why did they have to take my normal clothes? All they left me are these stupid dresses from last night. So I can't even get dressed by myself." Ishara thought angry. She walked into the main room and looked at Schala sleeping on a chair by the door. It was another thing that annoyed her. Since agreeing to become the hostess of this little conference Schala and Tima seemed to be ganging up on her. She tried to give Schala the bed last night; but Tima insisted that it was no longer allowed. Schala took to her new guard duties by mockingly announcing she had to rest by the door to protect her "princess".
"Rise and shine kitty." Ishara announced loudly enough for the cat to hear her; but hopefully Tammy could continue to sleep.
"I can't run around the castle in this. I need you to go get me some clothes."
Schala shook her head.
'Why not?" Ishara asked.
"You heard Tima. You are to wear proper attire for the conference until after its conclusion. You will have to remain here; and dressed like that until Tima arrives to assist you." Schala replied.
"Then why don't you help me?" Ishara asked.
"That is not my purpose. I am to be your sword; nothing more. I will not cause you to be punished." Schala replied.
"Some friend you are." Ishara thought with a growl. She could see that Schala was enjoying the fact she has escaped this same fate yesterday.
She hadn't noticed that Tammy was awake; and had entered the room after hearing her voice talking to Schala. She was also dressed in a night gown that Tima got her for her stay. It seemed that the only one able to refuse the night clothes was Schala.
"I could help you get dressed." Tammy offered. Ishara turned to look at her and shook her head. She almost wanted to accept but her uncomfortable memories about the gown; were nothing compared to her strong feelings against having Tammy act like a submissive little servant.
"Tammy that isn't what I hired you for. Until we return to the road you are on vacation. You have been a hard worker; you earned it." Ishara explained. To her relief Tammy didn't fight it; but she could tell that the teenager was worried about it.
"It will only be for a few days. I'm not going to leave you here…although" Ishara said thinking.
"Maybe I can convince Rei to take you as her little sister?" she suggested. Tammy gave her a horrified look but didn't respond.
"I won't leave you anywhere you don't want me to. But since you are up could you go get me some clothes since this cat won't do it?" Ishara asked. Tammy shook her head.
"Tima made me promise I wouldn't. But she said I was allowed to help you into the blue dress today." Tammy apologised. There was a knock on the door before Ishara could even grumble about the Windley maid thinking of everything. She turned back to go open the door but Schala was already off her chair with the door wide open to reveal Tima waiting patiently.
"Speak of the dark beast; and she appears." Ishara commented.
"Dark beast Miss?" Tima questioned.
"It's nothing but an old superstition from my village Princess Tima." Ishara replied.
"Please Miss, it's not proper for you to refer to me above my station." Tima replied.
"Tima I'm mad at you, and I'm mad at your Duke. I may have gotten myself into this mess but I wasn't properly warned what I was agreeing to. So I will call you any polite title I want, including Princess." Ishara said bluntly.
"Why are you mad at me Miss? I didn't intend to cause you harm." Tima stuttered.
"Even without being here you have managed to block all my attempts to get out of this blasted night gown. You are guilty frankly of thinking of everything." Ishara replied.
"Is something wrong with the gown? I'll make sure that it's fixed for tonight." Tima promised,
"Tima the last time I wore one of these things was the night I lost everything. I just want to wear my normal clothes to bed." Ishara explained.
"I'm sorry but that isn't allowed. I have strict instructions not to return your normal dress until after the event." Tima replied quietly.
"I'm guessing sleeping naked is against the rules too." Ishara grumbled.
"Miss how you sleep is your own business. But you must have clothing before you can leave the bed. If you don't leave something on the night table, then you must wait until Miss Tannis or myself are able to dress you." Tima explained.
"I am to inform you that breakfast is on its way. Dressing will have to wait until you eat because due to our discussion it should be here momentarily."
"I guess that means me and Schala can't go kill something for breakfast." Ishara said with a smirk.
"You can't leave the castle Miss Ishara." Tima replied entirely too seriously.
"So many rules. Don't leave your room naked, don't leave the castle in your nightgown, don't get blood on the fancy dresses, don't be self-reliant, and if you try to escape you will be locked in chains." Ishara said mimicking the Dukes voice as best she could. She shook her head when she saw how uncomfortable Tima was getting.
"The least you could do is lighten up. This is going to be hard enough without my jailer taking everything so seriously." She added as breakfast started getting brought in.
The food was brought in and placed on the table without a word from the castle maids. They smiled before leaving the four of them alone again. The three travelers took seats at the table with Tima preferring to remain standing.
"Aren't you going to eat?" Ishara asked.
"I already ate Miss Ishara." Tima replied. She moved to the table to start pouring some tea for the three of them. Ishara looked at the food that was brought. None of it really looked like breakfast to the traveler used to eating what wild game they could find in the morning.
"Tea, biscuits, pastries? Is this all? No rabbit, or fish, or eggs? I guess that's against the rules too." Ishara questioned.
"I will speak with the kitchen for tomorrow morning. You may add to your meal but not replace any of these items." Tima replied. Ishara shook her head and joined Tammy and Schala in eating. She was starting to wonder how any of these nobles could live like this.
"If I may ask. I've spent nights in the castle before when having dealings with the Duke. Why have none of those breakfasts been so light?" Ishara asked.
"Normally the kitchen is made aware of your travels Miss Ishara. They prepare a meal that you would find more comfortable with; while remaining appropriate for morning meal. This time however you are to remain in the role of hostess and the kitchen has prepared a lady's breakfast." Tima explained.
"And it cycles back to that does it. By the eyes of the dark beast; how did I get talked into this?" Ishara thought grimly.
"Goddess of the forest Cyllene. Grant me the strength to endure." She whispered. She very rarely referred back to the goddess of her village's faith. But she needed help with this one and would feel strange to ask the elementals.
After breakfast Ishara was helped into one of the blue dresses by Tima and walked out of the pink rooms to wander about the castle. She was disappointed; but perhaps not surprised to find that she was being followed by not only Schala, but Tammy and Tima as well. She tried a couple of times to shake the maid at least; knowing that she could probably never escape Schala and that Tammy could be light on her feet when she needed to be. But the dress severely limited her movement.
"Where are we going?" Tammy asked quietly. Ishara smiled at her.
"We need to find that guard from last night. I need to ask him some questions." She replied.
"And no I don't intend to rip his balls off yet." She added. They found the guard from the previous night in the barracks preparing for his upcoming shift. He saw her coming and groaned; wondering how she had even found out who he was.
"I need to ask you some questions." Ishara demanded.
"I start soon, it will have to wait." He explained. But Ishara wasn't interested in being put off.
"If I have to wear this ridiculous thing. Then you have to answer some questions. Your other choice is that when I'm free I'll come back in a sour mood." Ishara replied.
"Why did you not tell me the castle was in lockdown?"
"So that's the secret to becoming a noblewoman is it. Act like a spoiled brat and they make you a princess." He replied without amusement.
"Answer the question." Ishara demanded.
"I shouldn't have needed to. You were told to leave; that's exactly what you should have done. Now instead of playing princess you should be in the brig." The man said bluntly.
"You think I'm enjoying this?" Ishara snapped, she calmed down and continued.
"Never mind that. What can you tell me about Rei's attack?" Ishara asked.
"Unbelievable. You barge into the castle and instead if being put in chains they dress you up. And you make it sound like they locked you in the stockade and flogged your bare behind. I'm not going to tell you anything." the man snapped.
"I'm here to help, but I need information to start." Ishara said barely preventing herself from growling at him.
"You just don't get it princess. Let me put it this way then. I'm under orders not to tell you anything. You are not to get involved in the investigation; at all." The man explained.
"Call me princess one more time and I guarantee you will regret it." Ishara warned.
"And what are you going to do princess?" he pushed his luck.
"You better be prepared to kill me right here and right now while I can't move. Otherwise I'm coming back for you when I am free of this dress." Ishara said glaring at him.
"And be arrested for the likes of you? I'll pass. Now if you excuse me some of us have work to do." He said pushing past her.
"If he's really under orders then it must be Miles." Ishara thought out loud.
"Tima can you help me find Miles Ripley?" she asked. Tima was reluctant because she already knew what Mr. Ripley was going to say; but the warrior wouldn't be deterred.
It didn't take them very long to find the Windleys security chief. He saw the four of them approach him and shook his head.
"Lady in training Ishara; I have been expecting you." He announced.
"I was told about your encounter with Lt. Westman. Frankly I thought you would have come directly to me first."
"I'm just looking for some information to help find who attacked Lady Windley." Ishara announced.
"I know but the thing is; you aren't allowed to help with this anymore. The three of you have roles to play; you can't break those roles." He explained again.
"Of your entourage the only one that can be allowed to help the investigation is Schala since she is your sword. But only until the other guests start to arrive then she needs to be at your side at all times. You and your maids are to stay far away from the investigation. Do I make myself clear?"
"Why would you reject the extra help?" Ishara questioned.
"I would love to accept your help Ishara; I really would. But the moment you agreed to host the conference in Rei's place it became impossible. You have too much work to do before the guests arrive. That's why you must continue to practice until the very last moment." Miles explained.
"Fine, then Schala do you want to help them?" Ishara asked clearly not happy. The Jiyu'rei shook her head.
"No, my place is at your side. If the one that attacked Lady Windley is still here then you must be protected." Schala replied. Ishara could see the hint of a grin on her lips.
"I see that Schala is perfect at her role. She didn't even hesitate in refusing to run off and leave her Lady unprotected. From what I hear Tammy has settled into hers as well. So the only one that refuses to play her part is you. I think that you could learn a lot from your two traveling companions; and even Tima." Miles said firmly.
"It's easy to settle in a role like Schala's. She just has to mimic Terisa Swordsong's interactions with the Jiyu'rei princess." Ishara retorted.
"And you just have to mimic the actions of Lady Windley. But enough of this. You have some free time still before you meet with the Duke. Go use that time to relax while you still can. Tima has a lot to teach you in a very short amount of time." Miles said. He didn't give her a chance to reply before he left her alone with her group of followers.
"If I may make a suggestion Miss Ishara." Tima spoke up.
"What is it Tima?"
"Mistress Rei wished to speak to you before lunch. Perhaps now would be a good time?" Tima replied.
"Is Miss Windley well enough to have visitors?" Ishara asked.
"She is awake but even with her treatment she is too weak to leave her bed." Tima replied.
"Or she's just stuck there because everyone refuses to help her get dressed." Ishara muttered.
"Then let's go see her."
Tima led the way to Rei's room, deep in a part of the castle that Ishara had never been to before. They took the stairs several floors up until they reached a door Tima knocked lightly at. She didn't receive a response but slowly opened it anyway and announced herself before stepping inside.
"Rei, I have brought you some visitors."
"Thank you Tima, bring them inside please." Rei said. Tima waved the other three in and they approached her slowly. She gave them a weak smile.
"Please excuse my manners, I'm afraid I can't get up to greet you."
"Good morning Miss Windley." Ishara said.
"Please just call me Rei. I understand you are the one taking my place. Thank you." Rei replied. She looked at the warrior standing by her bed. She met the woman before but it was almost hard to recognise her in the fancy blue dress she wore now.
"Unfortunately that would be me yes." Ishara replied.
"What troubles you?" Rei asked.
"I'm not suited to this Miss Windley. It's only the first morning and the conditions of my agreement are causing me to go insane." Ishara explained.
"I trust father wouldn't have asked you if he didn't think you could do it. What are you having problems with? Maybe I can help." Rei asked.
"One thing is this dress. How do you live like this? Needing someone to change your clothes for you, and not being able to move almost at all?" Ishara replied. She had to think carefully about how to voice her other concerns; she didn't want to offend the Lady's lifestyle.
Rei couldn't help but let off a light giggle.
"You don't really think that's the style I wear every day do you?" she asked. Ishara looked at her confused.
"That style of dress is only for special occasions. Public events for example, or meeting with other nobles. For everyday wear I have several dresses that I can put on myself." She explained.
"And yet I'm stuck wearing this days before the conference starts." Ishara grumbled.
"I'm sure father has reasons, but it looks good on you. I barely even recognised you when you walked in." Rei smiled.
"Reasons or not. He didn't need to take my normal clothes." Ishara grumbled.
"But it's not just the dress. I'm out of my element here. Miles and Duke Windley won't let me do anything for myself since I agreed to this. They won't let me help find the person that attacked you, or even defend myself if I have to."
"But that's not your job." Rei pointed out.
"What you have to do is far more important than finding out who poisoned me. And you can't host a diplomatic conference armed. The delegates would never trust you." She explained.
"Rei, why am I here? Your father must be better at this then I ever could be." Ishara asked.
"The Duke is an imposing man. With his power he could intimidate the incoming delegates and there would be no trust." Schala answered for the lady.
"Our people have already been affected by this brooding war that shouldn't have anything to do with us. He hasn't been trained as much as I have; he can't keep a clear head about it. But you have no stake in this." Rei explained. She gave Schala a warm smile.
"I understand that your friends have offered to help you. Are they settling into their parts? Or having as much trouble as you are?" Rei asked.
"I have no issues with my role. It is no different than how I normally perform except that my blade is dedicated to Ishara's protection now." Schala replied without emotion.
"And you make an excellent choice for her protector. The fact that you are a Jiyu'rei will throw them off; but the cold look in your eyes will assure them you mean business. I don't expect anyone will challenge you." Rei said.
"What about you Tammy. Tima tells me that you have chosen to act like you are in training to be Ishara's personal maid. Are you sure you want to do that?"
"Miss Ishara would rather I was given something else to do. But I want to help her; I really don't mind performing Miss Tima's tasks." Tammy replied quietly.
"I know I could help her get dressed in the morning if she would allow me."
"You care about Tammy a lot don't you?" Rei asked. The warrior simply nodded.
"We may not be as different as you think. My advice is to give up and let her dress you; you can't win but you can limit the damage." She added glancing at Tima.
Ishara followed her gaze and understood.
"Then Tima does the same to you." She guessed.
"I've been trying for years, even when you brought her back to me from Forest Lake she insists." Rei smiled.
"Please take care of my Tima. She is my oldest friend but she has agreed to be yours until this is over, don't let her push herself." She begged.
"On my honour I will protect her." Ishara promised. But Rei shook her head.
"That's not your job. I know you don't want to involve your young friend but don't be afraid to ask the other servants for help. Otherwise Tima will try and do everything by herself." Rei explained.
"But I need to speak to you. In a few days the other delegates will arrive. You should know about them beforehand."
"You have information about them?" Ishara asked.
"Baroness Stewart is sending her own daughter Eliza. She is a noble and her mother's heir. So she's used to getting her way where she's from. She hasn't been trained as well as I have, but she will match her mother's goals. The fact her mother sent her means that the Stewart's do want to reach a peaceful agreement." Rei explained.
"The other is the delegation Earl Tiberius is sending. It's not someone personally related to the Earl but Toby Peterson is a professional. He will pursue his employer's interests; but it may not be obvious what those are at first."
"So if Earl Tiberius is sending a professional, does that mean it's less likely he wants to reach a peaceful agreement?" Ishara asked.
"Not necessarily, his son is probably more focused on learning to rule. I have one more word of advice for you, though it may seem obvious." Rei replied.
"What is it?" Ishara asked.
"Don't trust everything they say, but don't accuse them of being liars either. The truth can be manipulated but even if you catch them in an outright lie. Calling them out on it can be dangerous." Rei explained.
"Thank you Rei." Ishara replied sincerely.
"You will do fine." Rei smiled.
"What do you plan to do next?" she asked.
"I don't know. Even if your father hadn't taken away my sword I can't train in this dress. I am not allowed to help find who put you here, and I haven't been given any tasks to do instead. The castle is still sealed so I can't use the opportunity to head into town and get supplies. I am honestly at a loss." Ishara replied.
"Even if the castle wasn't sealed you wouldn't be allowed out like that." Rei said quietly.
"Why am I not surprised to hear that." Ishara groaned.
"I do have a suggestion though. You are meeting with my father for lunch right?" Rei asked.
"How did you know that? You are supposed to be in bed." Ishara frowned.
"Even sick this is my responsibility. I'll be kept up to date on everything that goes on. So you can come back here any time you feel like you are in over your head and need advice.' Rei replied.
"I'll keep that in mind. And I may end up holding you to it." Ishara warned.
"You are going to have to get used to that dress style. As hostess you could offend our guests if you don't look your best. You should take the time before lunch to relax. Do something that I would, and allow yourself to become more comfortable with your clothes." Rei offered.
"I will never get used to this outfit; but do something like what?" Ishara asked.
"Walk through the gardens. It's one of my favorite places to think." Rei suggested, then she smiled remembering what Ishara does most of the time.
"All the plants can feel like a small forest sometimes. The outdoor feeling might be comfortable."
"I may just do that." Ishara replied.
"But we should let you rest. Maybe Tima would like to stay with you?"
"I would love that, but you need her help more than I do. Like I said, she's yours for now. Please take care of her. I'll have to be happy with her visits at night; and in the mornings." Rei replied.
"Rest well Lady Windley. I'll bring her back here after lunch for you." Ishara grinned. Shortly she left the room not even checking if she was still being followed. She could hear three sets of footsteps behind her so she didn't even turn around when she asked.
"Tima can you direct us to Rei's gardens?"
"You plan on going?" Schala asked surprised.
"I don't have any better ideas." Ishara replied.
"Yes Miss Ishara, please follow me." Tima said quietly. She moved ahead of Ishara and directed them to the gardens.
"How did I get talked into this?" Ishara asked. She stood beside a tree in the gardens that went up two stories. She placed her hand on it like she could draw strength from it.
"You mustn't dwell on what cannot be changed." Schala replied.
"They needed your help." Tammy offered.
"I wanted to offer you a new experience Tammy. But perhaps that was a mistake. You shouldn't be involved in this; and the best they could do was have you pretend to be my servant." Ishara said.
"But isn't that what I am anyway?" Tammy asked.
"There is a difference. You are her traveling companion; what you do for her on the road is to help the both of you." Schala explained.
"If you were my servant Tammy. You would be building me a fire you don't get to share, and cooking food that you don't get to eat. A role that Schala is familiar with. You don't want to experience that." Ishara added.
"It isn't always like that Miss Ishara, and Miss Schala. Some employers really care about their servants. I have been with the Windley family for most of my life and never felt like I was taken advantage of." Tima spoke up.
"You don't agree do you Schala?" Ishara asked seeing a look on the felines face.
"Tima you are different. You could cease to be a servant right now and still be welcome in the castle. You are Lady Windley's friend. She only allows you to serve her because she doesn't know how to make you stop." Schala said without emotion.
"I have seen the same look on her face that Schala did. She would love for you to stop working." Ishara commented.
"That's not it. I've known most of the maids in the castle just as long; and they don't feel any different. I do not know what servants you have met but their employers aren't examples of them all." Tima protested.
"I don't mean to offend you Tima. You serve a very nice Lady. But I still don't think it's suitable for Tammy to be posing as my maid." Ishara stated.
"I still don't mind." Tammy tried to remind her.
"I see what the problem is." Tima stated.
"You really care about the young Miss."
"She is my friend. I asked her to travel with me because I wanted to help her. I'm trying to give her a chance to meet new people, experience new things, and eventually stand on her own feet." Ishara explained.
"I just want to be useful." Tammy said quietly.
"I know you do, and when we get back on the road you will be." Ishara replied.
"Why don't you let her help now? You want to protect her; but she doesn't have to do very much to pretend I am training her." Tima asked.
"Did you not accept this fate so that she may observe the delegation?" Schala questioned.
"I did yes. What's your point?" Ishara replied.
"I admit my own experiences with such matters are limited. But would Windleys suggestion not be valid? The guests would be more willing to let her observe if she was posing as your personal servant in training." Schala asked.
"It's the only way she would be allowed anywhere near the conference." Tima pointed out.
"There must be a better way though, we can think of something can't we?" Ishara asked; more to give Schala another opening than anything else.
Schala turned to look Tammy directly in the eyes.
"You want to help do you not? Do you want to take on the role of her personal maid for the duration of this event; and not be limited to just watching while Tima does everything?" she asked perfectly serious.
"What kind of question is that?" Ishara demanded.
"Yes." Tammy replied simply.
"She wishes to serve you. Should she not be permitted?" Schala asked.
"Schala you are the last person id have expected to say something like that. Why would that be a good thing?" Ishara replied.
"It does not resemble what you think it does. She is making the choice on her own to do this. She will not have been forced to serve you at any point in her life. So does it really matter if you allow her to do so?" Schala stated.
"If I may." Tima spoke softly.
"You have a suggestion?" Ishara asked. Tima nodded her head.
"Let her help you in the morning, and at night. She can dress you before I arrive. And she can get you ready for bed when it's time for me to return to Mistress Rei's side for the night. Even if you don't allow her to do anything else; it will at least be something so she feels she's earned her keep." She suggested.
"It would give you more time to spend with Lady Windley." Ishara considered.
"But it would hardly be appropriate. She's only seventeen."
"You expressed dissatisfaction with your nightgown. You could limit your exposure to it if you allowed Miss Tannis to manage the lacing of your dress." Tima offered.
"If you are concerned about your modesty with someone you spend so much time with. You could slip the clothing on, or off by yourself and call her in just to tighten the laces."
"It would seem I am once again out numbered." Ishara sighed.
"I'll agree on the condition that she seriously consider if she wants to do it." She finally said. They spent what remained of the morning walking around the gardens. After meeting with Rei; and now the conversation she just ended there was a lot for Ishara to think about.
"Please have a seat." Duke Windley said as the three of them entered his private dining room. Ishara sat down in one of the chairs; if only because her feet still hurt from an incident with shoes earlier. But her three shadows didn't make a move to sit down.
"The three of you can have a seat too. I didn't just mean her." Artemis frowned. Schala and Tammy both moved to join Ishara at the table but it wasn't until the Duke glared at her that Tima joined them.
"Did you think I was going to force you three to watch?" he asked confused.
"It is not appropriate for the servants to eat with a noble." Schala recited a modified childhood lesson.
"It sounds like Tima has gotten into your heads." Windley sighed.
"Isn't it true?" Ishara asked.
"A little, but it's not as simple as you both make it sound." The Duke tried to explain.
"For the next few days you may as well eat with your friends. Schala, Tammy, and even Tima if you would like can join you for meals. But when the delegates start arriving you will need to keep up appearances. That means for meals done with the representatives they will have to eat before you; and stand by your side during your meal.'
"So just until the event starts." Ishara asked.
"No. even after the event starts you can eat with them for any meal that isn't with the other delegates. It's only with them that your friends can't join you." Artemis explained.
"How does this work then?" Ishara asked.
"Your friends will eat first when you are due to dine with the representatives. I would highly recommend that you hide in your room, or visit Rei while they do." Artemis replied.
"Why is that?" Ishara asked.
"Because you will become jealous of what your servants get to eat." The Duke grinned. He enjoyed the confused looks on their faces.
"These events are filled with fancy foods that look nice and sometimes even taste good. But they lack substance. They will leave you feeling hungry afterwards, in some cases even sick if you eat too much of it. Meanwhile the kitchen will be making real, satisfying food for your servants." He explained.
"Something else to look forward to." Ishara groaned.
"While you are eating they will stand at your side quietly. I would ask them not to look smug while they watch you eat, but I have yet to see emotion on Schala's face and Tannis doesn't seem like she has the ability to be smug." He commented.
"I would be surprised." Ishara agreed.
"Now. Would you like to explain to me why you aren't wearing the heels? They are part of the look." Artemis asked.
"Apologies my lord." Tima said nervously.
"Tima if he tries to punish you for this; he's going to be in a lot of trouble." Ishara spoke seriously. The Duke looked at them both and groaned.
"I asked why you weren't wearing them. I didn't say I was going to punish anyone." He said annoyed.
"We attempted that this morning. It didn't work." Ishara replied simply.
"Miss Ishara was unable to walk in them. We tried for a time but…" Tima spoke softly.
"My feet are still paying the price for the attempt. If you want me to be able to stand upright when they arrive. The heels will not happen." Ishara warned.
"Very well; I'll have some jewelled ballet shoes sent to your room tonight. You are to wear those." Artemis started.
"Now before we continue I need to ask you to be honest." He said seriously.
"What is it?" Ishara asked.
"You have been less than satisfied with this arrangement. If you continue will you be able to give it your full attention? Or do I need to find someone else while there still may be time. I have been hearing a lot about your complaints on the situation." The Duke said. Ishara took a deep breath, this was her chance to escape.
"It's not the game I'm used to. There are many aspects that I am uncomfortable with. But after speaking to Rei I understand the importance of what you asked me to do. I believe I can get used to the clothing, and the restrictions on my freedom. As long as she chooses it, I can even get used to Tammy being made to act like she will become my personal maid. To be blunt; this is bigger than my discomfort." She said finally.
"I'm glad to hear that. Tima will start your lessons in etiquette this afternoon then. You have a lot to learn." He said. Then with a grin he added.
"The way you eat would offend your guests by itself. Tima if you could start this afternoon with teaching her to eat more delicately the four of you can join me for supper and show me her progress."
"What's wrong with how I eat?" Ishara protested.
"A lady must eat with smaller bites, and slowly with her mouth closed in public." Tima tried to explain.
"You eat like you found it on the roadside, and expect to have it snatched away from you at any moment." The Duke exaggerated.
"Are you sure you don't want to switch my roles with Tammy? She barely eats anything at all." Ishara offered.
"No what I said before still stands. If she was a little older, and had your confidence she would probably make a very good Lady." Windley said.
"I hear you want to have her forced into a dress like yours. I think that can be arranged until the guests arrive." He grinned.
"I think it would do her well to wear something pretty for a while. And she won't miss the ability to swing a sword." Ishara suggested.
"Tima can help her into one after lunch. She can wear one like yours for the next few days. And for the event I'll see if I can't track down some of the party uniforms we used to have for Tima." Artemis replied.
"Party uniforms?" Tammy asked quietly.
"I'm not exactly clear on the differences. But they are a lot like the dresses Ishara has to wear for the event; but in the same style as Tima's normal maid uniform. Perhaps Tima can better explain. We had them made for her for when she accompanied Rei to parties or gatherings with other nobles; but wasn't on active duty. She was usually there as Rei's friend." Windley replied.
"They are not intended to be tightened beyond what is needed to keep them from falling off. Miss Tannis will be able to move; but not as much as what I will be wearing to fully serve you during the events." Tima explained.
"So a fancy dress that still says she's training to become my maid? Strange but I think I approve. Maybe it will actively prevent her from trying to do what Tima does." Ishara grinned.
The Duke leaned over and in a very low voice that only Ishara; and Schala because of her feline ears could hear said.
"Be glad yours is only pretending. Long after you are gone we will still be trying to get Tima to take off her apron and just be part of the family."
"You and Rei both care about her a lot don't you?" Ishara asked. The duke nodded but left it at that.
Just before lunch on the big day a runner from the main gate approached Ishara and her group.
"The first of your guests are arriving carrying the colours of Baroness Stewart." He announced.
"Thank you." Ishara replied before he ran off.
"I guess that means it's time" she said before starting towards the castles main entrance. She arrived several minutes before her guests and stood patiently at the entrance for them. Schala stood at her side with a stone expression and her two maids Tima and Tammy took places behind her. They were both dressed in the fancy version of the maid's uniform the Duke mentioned.
Finally the grand door opened and a stiff looking woman entered with her own people. Two armed men and three young woman carrying some of the bags from their carriage in their arms.
"You must be Eliza Stewart. Welcome to Windley." Ishara spoke in a sweet voice.
"I was expecting to meet someone else." Eliza said surprised. She looked at the warrior to try and understand.
"Unfortunately Lady Rei Windley has become ill. I have been asked to host these talks in her place. My name is Ishara." She explained.
"I hope she will be all right." Eliza frowned.
"She is recovering well but the healers demand she rest." Ishara told her.
"These are my guardians Greg Cor, and Rick Henderson. And the three ladies are my servants Lucy, Grace, and Crissi." Eliza said with a warm smile. Ishara could tell that she was still evaluating the warrior's worth as a replacement hostess.
"The Jiyu'rei is my guardian Schala and the two behind us are my servants Tammy and Tima." Ishara replied.
"A Jiyu'rei guardian? You must have some connections." Eliza smiled.
"She looks a little young to be a servant." She added motioning to Tammy.
"Tammy is in training; she will mostly be observing Tima. Schala here is a friend of mine, and the apprentice of my old friend Duncan Forester." Ishara explained. She noticed that the man Eliza called Greg Cor suddenly looked concerned.
"Eliza seems genuine enough. She is still deciding if I am worth her time but her concern over Rei was real. The man at her side however became nervous at the mention of Winter Wind." Ishara thought.
"If you follow us, I will take you to your rooms. Your servants and guardians will be placed in rooms next to yours." She said leading the large group to a series of rooms near where Ishara was staying.
It wasn't until after dark that the same runner came back. Ishara was watching some of Miles men train when he approached and announced that the other group finally arrived. Ishara thanked him and started back towards the main entrance again.
This time only four men entered the castle for her to greet.
"Are you Rei Windley?" The man asked. He had two armed men with him and a third that was dressed almost as well as he was.
"Lady Rei Windley has taken ill. My name is Ishara and I will be taking her place as hostess." Ishara explained.
"I'm Toby Peterson and this is my advisor from Tiberius. A replacement was not mentioned." Toby replied.
"You would have been on the road when it happened. I apologise for the confusion but the talks will go as planned." Ishara explained.
"Who do you swear loyalty to?" Toby asked.
"I'm independent. I don't have affiliation with Duke Windley or Baroness Stewart. I was asked here because of that neutrality." Ishara told him.
"Very well, if you will show us to our quarters." Toby said flatly. It wasn't worth wasting any more time to him. He traveled much lighter then Eliza Stewart; with each of the men carrying a single bag.
"He's right to the point and didn't even care to tell me the names of his companions. I'll have to watch him carefully, he's already become dismissive." Ishara thought.
"If you would come with us then. We have your rooms ready." She announced once again leading them forward.
The next morning Ishara woke up and slipped into the nightgown beside her bed. For a moment she considered calling for Tammy to limit her exposure to the silk nightgown. Instead she left the bedroom and found that Tima was already waiting for her in her normal uniform.
"Good morning Miss Ishara. Breakfast will be here shortly." Tima said softly.
"Thank you Tima." Ishara smiled.
"It's going to be a long day Miss Ishara; please eat well this morning." Tima suggested.
"Is Tammy awake yet?" Ishara asked.
"She was just out here a moment ago to check on you. I'm sure she will be out shortly." Schala replied. Before Ishara could say anything else the maids with breakfast arrived.
"Tammy, time to eat." Ishara called out. The teenager joined them in her own nightgown. The three of them sat down and started eating while Tima stood by and gave them a few minutes.
"I have some information you are going to need before today's talks." Tima informed them.
"During your first meetings you will likely learn what all this is about; but what they probably won't tell you is how Duke Windley was pulled into this."
"So there's a reason Windley is hosting these talks?" Ishara asked.
"When hostilities started between Baroness Stewart and Earl Tiberius. The Earl attacked one of Duke Windleys watch towers that overlooks both territories." Tima explained.
"A good place to watch if the Baroness made a movement against him. But he had to have known it could bring Windleys armies down on him." Ishara commented. In her first day training for these talks she had been shown a map outlining the Dukes lands; as well as those of the Baroness and Earl.
"It is not my place to claim what the Earl may or may not have known. But Duke Windley advised me that he couldn't completely ignore the Earl's actions. And he did not want to get into a war." Tima said.
"So instead he opened his home for peace talks." Ishara guessed. Tima nodded her head.
"There was resistance at first but Duke Windley has considerable more power than either of them." She explained.
"And here we are." Ishara commented. They finished eating in silence
"I'm supposed to wear the pink one today correct?"
"Yes Miss Ishara. After the meetings there will be a dinner party. So you will need to change after talks finish for the day." Tima replied.
"I'll go start getting into it then, if you could help Tammy pick what's appropriate for today's event; she can bind me when you are done." Ishara said entering the bedroom.
Ishara sat at the table with the other two representatives. Schala stood behind her watching the others carefully while Tammy and Tima stood on each side of Schala and waited until Ishara needed something. Each of the representatives was allowed one of their guardians and up to two servants. The representative from Tiberius had two maids on loan from Windley. So far no one had spoken, waiting for someone else to make the first move.
"This is getting us nowhere." Ishara decided.
"Why don't we start at the beginning? What has brought us to this point?"
"Agents of the Baroness murdered a diplomatic envoy the Earl sent to Stewart." Toby started off.
"They attacked the patrol that greeted them" Eliza interrupted.
"With what? They were unarmed." Toby retorted.
"What happened after the attack?" Ishara questioned.
"Neither one of them is lying. But they apparently lack some of the facts." She thought.
"Earl Tiberius responded with military action." Toby explained.
"By attacking Riker's point and killing over two hundred of the villagers and farmers in the area." Eliza said stiffly.
"A show of force had to be made to prevent the Baroness from continuing her aggressive actions." Toby pointed out.
"None of them were armed; they were simple peasants'." Elisa protested.
"At least when we responded; we only went after watchtowers and fortresses."
"Who was this Envoy that was attacked first?" Ishara asked. She now saw how the aggression had escalated; it was time to return to the heart of the matter.
"The delegation headed for Stewart consisted of the Earl's brother, and the best representatives the Earl had." Toby explained.
"I can't tell them I know Eliza thinks she's telling the truth. I'm not supposed to let on that I can read people. I'll need to steer the conversation to my suspicions." Ishara thought carefully.
"If someone in the envoy had attacked the patrol; who would gain from your two fiefdoms fighting." She asked.
"I can't think of anyone that would." Eliza said seriously.
"But neither would we gain from fighting them."
"Then why did you attack our envoy?' Toby asked.
"Perhaps this would be a good place to stop for the moment. Take a short break and think about things?" Ishara suggested.
"That didn't work at all. They are too focused on what little they think they know. I'll have to find a better way to direct the conversation."
"Then we will meet back here soon." Toby insisted.
"I wasn't sent here just to play around."
That evening after the last meeting for the day was finished. Ishara returned to her rooms while Tammy and Schala headed elsewhere to eat. This was going to be one of those unsatisfying dinner parties that the Duke warned her about. She couldn't do anything until Tammy and Tima returned; so she started laying out the really fancy pink dress that she was going to be wearing to the next event. It was worse than the one she was wearing, with multiple layers to weigh her down.
Almost too soon the three of them returned. Schala and Tammy looked satisfied while Tima was too professional to let it show.
"Enjoy your meal?" Ishara teased.
"It was very nourishing." Schala replied. If she didn't know any better Ishara might have sworn she saw a smirk on the felines face.
"It wasn't anything unusual." Tammy promised.
"That's supposed to make me feel better?" Ishara groaned.
"Excuse the interruption, but we should get started. I will need your help getting her ready Miss Tannis." Tima broke in.
"I laid it out already, but I can't get this one off." Ishara said and started back into the bedroom. Tammy and Tima followed her and helped her get changed. It took a lot longer than usual; and Ishara was very unhappy with the result.
"You look very beautiful." Tammy smiled.
"Tima will this be suitable for the party?" Ishara questioned.
"The colour suits you, the style is elegant but I don't think the restrictive nature fits." Schala offered.
"It's a very nice dress. But you don't need to fight now do you?" Tammy asked.
"No perhaps not. " Ishara replied.
"That would not be advisable. Please don't attempt that during the party." Tima spoke up.
"I couldn't even if I wanted to." Ishara pointed out.
"Is there time to eat before we leave?" she asked. Tima shook her head.
"A meal will be provided for you at the party. It wouldn't be appropriate to eat beforehand." Tima explained.
"But we should leave soon, the hostess must arrive well before the guests."
"Shouldn't we get Schala changed first? I don't think her normal purple dress is right for a party like this." Ishara asked.
"You will not get me into one of those. I must maintain my mobility." Schala insisted.
"It would have been preferable to get her a fresh one; however her dress style is unique to the two of you and we lack the time to recreate it." Tima explained.
"But we must get going."
"I suppose there's no other choice." Ishara replied. The four of them left together and headed for the ballroom that had been decorated for the event. It wasn't empty when they arrived; several servants were already running around getting the food out and touching up the decorations.
Ishara had to wait awhile before the other guests started to arrive. In addition to the delegates several other members of the elite in Windley had been invited. As they started trickling in Ishara had to stand by the door and greet every single one of them with a warm smile on her face; and a sweet tune to her voice.
Once everyone had arrived and the party got into full swing; Ishara had to start walking around the ballroom speaking with people about things that didn't matter to her in the slightest.
"I was wondering if you would show up." Ishara said with pleasant smile. Duke Windley approached her looking quite amused.
"You seem to have everything under control here. Have you spoken to the other delegates yet?" Artemis asked.
"Who has had the time? Why did you invite all these other people?" Ishara replied.
"What kind of party would it be with only three guests?" Duke Windley frowned.
"A nice one?" Ishara suggested.
"If you could keep people off me for a few minutes. Id actually like to speak to Toby and Eliza. We need to know if all this is just a waste of time, or if either of them do want to come to an agreement."
"I can do that; get going." The Duke replied. Ishara started off towards Eliza Stewart first. She approached the heir to the baroness talking to a powerful merchant. She hid it well but the warrior could see that she was finding the conversation less then stimulating.
"Good evening Lady Stewart. I hope you don't mind the interruption." Ishara asked.
"Not at all Miss Ishara." She replied. Eliza turned to the merchant.
"I'm sorry but I must cut this short. I need a word with our gracious hostess." She explained. He grunted something but left to find someone else to bore.
"We haven't had a chance to speak outside the conference table. Has the party been treating you well?" Ishara asked.
"Well enough. I have been curious though. How did you get involved in this? You aren't from any of the noble families and you are very new at this." Eliza replied.
"Is it that obvious?" Ishara questioned.
"Everyone is new at some point." Eliza pointed out.
"I was visiting Windley when I heard that Lady Rei Windley was ill. The Duke requested I fill in for her; as I show more confidence than many of his other options." Ishara explained.
"Are you a business woman then?" Eliza asked.
"Of sorts I suppose. I often have dealings with Duke Windley. He has invested interest in a long running side project of mine. I came to give him an update about it." She replied.
"What kind of project?" Eliza asked.
"I'm afraid that I can't tell you. There are a lot of people involved and I can't simply go around spreading secrets." Ishara smiled.
"Understandable I suppose." Eliza replied.
"Tell me though. What do you think of these peace talks? Your mother must be sincere to have sent you here." Ishara asked.
"I don't know what started this. Why our patrol attacked their envoy. But whatever really happened; is it right to go to war? The simple people are the ones that pay for it; not my mother, not the Earl." Eliza replied.
"Then you hope to see this succeed? I hope that Mr. Peterson is in agreement." Ishara smiled.
"Well I shouldn't delay too long, so many people require my attention tonight." She added saying her farewells. Eliza seemed reluctant to let her go at first; but Ishara couldn't tell if it was just because she was afraid the merchant would return or not.
"She wasn't lying. She really is worried about the commoners, and she doesn't want a war to break out." Ishara thought patrolling the party. She delayed several minutes before attempting to locate Toby Peterson. If the Baroness heir was still watching her; she didn't want what she was doing to become too obvious. But eventually she could delay no longer and positioned herself so that Toby's path would intercept with hers.
"Does something bother you Mr. Peterson?" Ishara asked sweetly. The representative from Tiberius was glancing around like he expected someone to jump out of the shadows.
"I've heard some rather...disturbing rumours. Perhaps you could shed some light on them?" Toby responded.
"I'll see what I can do." Ishara offered.
"The word is that Windleys illness wasn't an accident. Someone wanted to put a stop to these talks before they started." Toby explained.
"I'm not sure what I can tell you about that. I was intentionally left out of the loop." Ishara replied.
"I suppose they would at that." Toby commented.
"Do you suspect there are any truth to them?"
"I don't discount the possibility. But it couldn't have had to do with anyone involved in the talks. It happened over a week ago." Ishara pointed out.
"What does Tiberius hope to get from these talks? Would he be satisfied with a simple cease hostilities?"
"It's hardly the time to discuss the matter. It should remain at the table. But wrongs have been committed against the Earl and must be addressed." Toby replied.
"Tomorrow then." Ishara suggested. She returned to where the Duke was standing.
"Now that you have spoken with them. Can I retire from the party? I still have a lot to do for tomorrow." Artemis asked.
"Take Schala with you. She's looking exceptionally bored." Ishara offered.
"She should stay with you." the Duke replied shaking his head.
"She can get back here quickly enough. But she needs a break from this. We all do; but it's different for her." Ishara replied.
"Besides no one will make a move with so many people around."
"All right, if she wants to come with me. She can escort me to my office. But then she has to get back here immediately." Windley replied.
"Do you want to take a walk?" Ishara asked the Jiyu'rei.
"Thank you." Schala replied and motioned to the Duke that she was ready to depart when he was.
"Have her back by midnight." Ishara said in a sweet voice. She received a dirty look from Schala; and a heavy sigh from the Duke himself. She watched them leave the party with envy and turned to her two maids.
"I guess it's just the three of us now. Do you two want to go sit down somewhere?" she asked.
"Miss Tannis may if she wishes; but my place is here until the party ends." Tima replied. Ishara looked at Tammy but wasn't expecting the teenager would offer any better answers. She continued to patrol the party for a while longer. Wishing that she could have escaped along with Schala.
"So tell me. How did a commoner like you manage to get given such a grand task." A voice asked. Ishara turned around and saw that it was Greg Cor from Eliza's group; but the future baroness was nowhere to be seen.
"Excuse me?" Ishara asked looking at him.
"You obviously aren't cut out for this. How did you trick the Duke into putting you in that dress?" Greg asked.
"Shouldn't you be with Lady Stewart?" Ishara questioned.
"There's no need for armed guards around here. It seems yours has taken off as well." Greg pointed out.
"I was asked to take Lady Windleys place. That's all there is too it." Ishara replied.
"Perhaps you poisoned her and made her sick? What game do you really play?" Greg asked. Ishara gritted her teeth.
"What do you know of games?" she asked. Her sweet voice straining from his accusation.
"I hit a nerve. Perhaps some truth to it than?" he asked.
"That's a serious accusation to make." Ishara said.
"And yet here you stand. Dolled up like some kind of princess; but it's obvious you don't know what you are doing. You look like you are afraid someone will discover who you really are." Greg taunted.
"Maybe I should drag you to the Duke himself."
"And what would you have to gain doing so?" Ishara asked.
"We can't have Lady Stewart interacting with dangerous filth now can we?" Greg explained.
"Come with me to see the Duke; and we will expose your plot."
"He's looking for something. Is he testing me? Does he want me to attack him? No I'm supposed to be a delicate flower. If I show aggression I won't learn if he's involved; or merely testing threats to his lady." Ishara thought studying him. She could start trying to cry; but that would be too far out of character. But perhaps it wasn't too late for one of the tricks she always kept up her sleeve.
"Rei is my friend." She said letting some of her anger show through.
"I have seen friends kill for less. She gets sick, and suddenly you get to pretend you are important." Greg retorted.
Ishara glared at him; letting him think that he was getting to her.
"Fine, you want to go to Duke Windley. After the party ends; let's go. I won't let you say such things any longer." Ishara blurted emotionally.
"So you can run away? No I think we will go now. I'll drag you there by the scruff of the neck if I have to." He told her. He moved to grab the front of her dress firmly. It took all her willpower not to react.
"Do you want me to scream?" She asked him. She let a hint of fright into her voice. But the question was never intended for him.
"Unhand her immediately." Schala stated in her cold, emotionless voice. He turned around to see the Jiyu'rei with her hand already on the hilt of her sword.
"I'm done here anyway. She is incapable of threatening my lady." Greg stated letting her go. Before he walked away Ishara could see a satisfied smirk creep up on his face. Whatever it was he was looking for from her; he found it.
"Thank you Schala, you saved me." Ishara said just loudly enough for him to hear.
"I'll explain later." She whispered.
The next day as they neared the end of the day's talks. Every so often when Ishara caught sight of Greg; she looked away nervously. Continuing the game from the previous night. For the moment she had to pretend that she was a little afraid of him now; that he discovered something he wasn't supposed to and had power over her.
The talks had been going nowhere all day; and seemed insistent on remaining on that course. Ishara tried to bring things back together; with little hope for success.
"It all comes back to how this started. We don't know what really happened; and we never will. But a mistake was made. What will it take to move past it and talk seriously?" she asked.
"Stewart must make amends." Peterson replied.
"As must Tiberius for the innocent people he had slaughtered. Riker's point must not be forgotten." Eliza retorted.
"And we go in circles again." Ishara thought studying the two.
"Tiberius did not start this war." Toby replied.
"They both want to come to an agreement. That much is obvious. But something is holding them both back." Ishara thought looking at their entourage. She avoided the eyes of Greg for appearances but it gave her an idea.
"It must be someone on each of their teams. Peterson didn't bring any servants so it has to be one of his mercenaries; or the advisor he brought with him. Eliza it could be any of her maids; or the guards. It could be what Greg was fishing for yesterday."
"Maybe it would be best if we paused for the night and came back to this in the morning. I think we could all use some rest." Ishara announced.
"Agreed." Toby replied.
"That sounds like a good idea." Eliza agreed.
"I guess they can agree on something at least." Ishara thought with amusement. Without another word they got up from the table and each went their separate ways.
Later that night before supper Ishara was alone in her rooms. She was due for another supper with the other delegates so Schala, Tima, and Tammy were all having supper with Duke Windley while she remained behind.
"I hope they finish soon, I'm starving." Ishara said stretching. She was still wearing the same blue dress she wore throughout the days talks. On the bright side they didn't have the layers of the previous night's party; so a limited amount of her mobility had been restored.
"At least I don't have to get changed for tonight's supper. I hope that was the last time I ever wear one of those layered outfits." She muttered to herself. It was a small comfort in the face of the type of meal she knew she was about to get.
Restless and hungry Ishara wandered into her bedroom. She sat on the bed and closed her eyes trying to push past the disappointment from the days talks. If they had gone better maybe she would be getting a decent meal soon. Instead the diplomats had been letting their advisors talk them into postponing any real progress.
"It shouldn't be long now. Not enough time before they get back to sneak to the kitchen for something. But maybe I can after supper." Ishara thought getting back up. She heard the door to the pink rooms open. So she left the bedroom in a hurry to at least have something; no matter how unsatisfying.
"Who are you?" Ishara demanded. The man standing at the door was not Schala; or Tammy. It wasn't someone that she recognised from the delegations either. The man didn't answer her; instead he drew a knife and approached her slowly.
"I'm warning you. Drop the knife." Ishara growled. Finally the man spoke.
"Or you will what?" the man asked.
"He already told me about you. You may think you are strong but without your cat you are helpless."
"He may be right, in this dress I lose so much of my ability to defend myself." Ishara thought. She couldn't charge at him so she took a defensive posture and waited for him to get closer. Finally he took his swing and she used her dress to her advantage. She took a step back and turned her body to dodge just enough that his knife cut into her dress and got stuck in the fabrics. She delivered a powerful elbow to his face and swung back around to face him quickly; dislodging his hands from the trapped knife. She quickly ripped the knife free of its cloth prison but didn't use it yet.
He made a grab for her hand holding the knife so she grabbed his arm with her free hand while he became overly focused on the weapon and using his own force against him twisted downward until it broke. Determined he broke away from her grip and kicked her in the chest. It knocked her back and almost made her lose her balance.
"If he knocks me down it's the end. I can't get back up in this dress fast enough to defend myself." She thought grimly. Before he could make his next move she shifted the knife to a more useable position and swiped at his throat. He got out of the way in time. But he wasn't fast enough to avoid a sword piercing his heart from behind.
"Get to Rei's room before the healer leaves; NOW." Ishara was quick to yell at Schala. The feline nodded; pulling her sword out of the man's body and ran off.
"Are you ok?" Tammy asked worried.
"I'm fine, we need to go tell the Duke." Ishara replied. Tima however shook her head.
"It's too dangerous Miss Ishara. With Schala gone you must remain here. I will go inform Mr. Ripley and the Duke of what happened here." She informed them.
"Get my real clothes while you are out Tima. I might not be so lucky next time." Ishara replied.
"Nothing has changed Miss Ishara. You mustn't be seen in your normal clothing; or even having any ability to defend yourself. Tammy if you could please help her change into the aquamarine dress, she can't wear that one to supper." Tima explained before leaving.
Meanwhile Schala ran through the castle halls and burst into Rei's room. The surprised water priestess looked at her and demanded.
"What do you think you are doing?"
"Miss Windley may be in danger. Ishara was attacked while she was alone in her quarters. Please remain nearby and do not interfere." Schala replied flatly.
"Ishara was attacked?" Rei asked. But the feline ignored her. Instead she started walking around the room; just listening to the sounds the occupants made. As long as they remained quiet Schala started to hear more and more noises that didn't belong here.
"I'm making them nervous." She thought listening carefully. Every so often the slightest peep could be heard. It was only a matter of time before she tracked it down to an armoire. Flinging the doors open she thrust her sword inside and the body of a man armed with a sword fell out.
'You killed him." The water priestess protested. Schala simply turned and nodded her head.
"Why did you kill him?" she demanded.
"He came to terminate Rei Windley." She replied simply. She turned to Rei and before her window to speak could close she added.
'Ishara is fine, she fended off her attacker until I could arrive to dispatch him. You must be cautious Windley. The one responsible is likely still out there. Now if you would excuse me I must return to Red Sword."
Two days after the double attack the peace talks were still stalled. At this point they weren't even going around in circles anymore. Even worse perhaps was that the one behind the attacks had still not been found. They made no move since two days ago. Not that they would have had much chance; Schala refused to leave her side even to eat now.
"I think it's time to put a stop to this. I need to draw the person responsible for the attacks out." Ishara thought listening to Toby drone on about something. When there was even a slight hint of a lull in the talks Ishara stood up.
"I think we have wasted enough time. Toby, Eliza it's clear that you want something. But you are both being manipulated by your advisors. It's time for them to shut up and leave the table for good. "Ishara announced.
"You are out of line." Toby glared at her.
"No. but they are. If the two of you don't remove your advisors and come to war, or peace on your own merits. I'm going to have Schala remove them; small piece by small piece." Ishara informed them. Her voice was deadly serious.
"And why should we believe you can, or will?" Eliza asked.
"I don't care if you believe me or not. But they will leave so you can come to your own decision. As of now the manipulation and interference has ended. Schala, if you could help me remove the guardians, I'll get the servants." Ishara replied. Schala looked at her confused for a moment.
"Miss Ishara, this isn't the way to handle it." Tima spoke up.
"We won't get anywhere if these two aren't allowed to do this on their own terms." Ishara explained. She approached the official advisor that came with Toby Peterson.
"You sir are going to have to leave." She insisted. Meanwhile Schala circled around and growled at the armed men.
Very slowly they ejected everyone except for Tammy. Schala remained outside the door to make sure none of them tried to enter again. When it was only the four of them left Ishara turned to the two diplomats.
"This is your show now. What happens now must be on the two of you. And not as a result of manipulations by others." Ishara explained.
"Why does she stay?" Toby demanded pointing at Tammy.
"Because she is the only reason I agreed to do this. And I have nothing more that needs to be said. So I'm going to sit back down; and remain quiet until the two of you decide between peace and war." Ishara told them. She returned to her seat and sat there with a cute smile on her face.
She watched them for the next several hours while real progress was finally made.
After the talks finally ended Ishara waved Schala and Tima into the room while the diplomats joined their own people outside the door. She made sure they were far enough from eavesdroppers before she would say anything.
"Tima I need you to take Tammy to safety. Maybe bring her to Rei's room and post extra guards. Schala can you get me a knife and remain out of sight?"
"What are you scheming?" Schala asked. Instead of replying right away Ishara turned to Tammy to see her off.
"Good luck Tammy, take some time to talk to Rei; you could learn a lot from her.' She smiled.
"I'll see you soon?" Tammy asked
"Of course." Ishara replied. She offered Tammy a polite curtsey as the two of them headed off for Rei's rooms. Only after the two were long gone did Ishara turn back to Schala to explain herself. She knew better then to let the maid hear her plan and go running to her lady; neither did she want Tammy to know anything about it.
"Schala, you came in and saved my life when the attacks happened. If there's any chance that they still think I'm helpless; I need to take advantage of it. With the talks now over; whoever is behind it is going to start getting desperate. I mean to draw them out." Ishara explained in a very low voice. Schala nodded her head and left to get her a weapon. Meanwhile Ishara herself started back to her own rooms where she found someone already waiting for her.
"Not quite who I was expecting." Ishara commented. Duke Artemis Windley stared at her.
"Where are your servants?" he asked.
"Schala is getting me something; and I sent Tima and Tammy to visit your daughter." Ishara explained.
"You aren't supposed to be wandering around alone." He frowned.
"It's necessary." Ishara insisted.
"More to the point however. I heard how you handled today's talks. I am rather disappointed." Windley said.
"I don't see why. They came to an agreement; there will be no more hostilities. And they did it on their own." Ishara replied.
"You threatened to remove their assistants in pieces." Windley pointed out.
"I'm sorry, but there isn't really time to talk about it. Get somewhere safe." Ishara said lowering her voice.
"I was going to release you from the party tonight. Rei has recovered well enough that she could tend to the farewell event. However because of how you handled today. You will have to attend to be sure there are no consequences from your poor decision. He announced.
Ishara gave him a sad look.
"That is unfortunate. I really wish you hadn't told me that. But this needed to be done." She sighed. Before she could speak another word; Schala returned and discreetly handed her a bundled cloth.
"Thank you." Ishara said. Schala nodded and took off again quickly; but the warrior suspected she wasn't far.
"What is that?" Windley asked.
'It's something I need. Now with all due respect sir; you need to go." Ishara replied.
"All right; out with it. What are you doing?" The duke demanded.
"There really isn't time to explain." Ishara sighed. She stepped closer.
"It's a trap. Forcing the others out of the event; I'm driving them to desperation. Perhaps there's something you can help me with?" she whispered.
"You may have set two nobles to go to war with us for what?" Windley demanded.
"Keep your voice down." Ishara hissed
"They may be already approaching. Can you go spread rumours that my death may cause the new peace to fall apart? Ill handle the rest. And don't tell Rei why I did that today."
"I don't think it's a good idea, but I'll consider it." Artemis said glaring at her.
Ishara entered her rooms and quickly made sure that no one was around before unbundling the cloth. She took the knife and bound it to her leg. Now that she was armed Ishara left her rooms and simply took a walk.
She walked around for several hours; trying to be as visible as possible while still finding herself alone often. She headed to the gardens, went past the rooms the diplomats were staying in and past their guards outside the doors.
In the end however it didn't work. No one approached her with a weapon drawn. The only one that came to her was Tima and Tammy.
"It's time to get you ready for the party Miss Ishara." Tima stated.
"I suppose the Duke left you strict instructions to make sure I get there?" Ishara asked. Tima nodded her head.
"Then let's get going."
Ishara let herself be lead back to her rooms; but she wouldn't let Tima or Tammy enter until after she made sure that it was empty. When everything was clear she opened the door for them and submitted to a return of the layered pink dress. When her dress had been removed; Tima looked at the knife strapped to the warriors leg.
"Leave the knife where it is. "She insisted.
"I'm not supposed to let you be armed." Tima replied quietly.
"Was this part of his more recent instructions? Or from when I first agreed to this?" Ishara asked.
"From the beginning Miss Ishara." Tima replied.
"Then leave it. The situations changed; it may not help at all but it could just as easily be the only way I survive the rest of this event." Ishara said seriously. Tima was about to remove it regardless but she hesitated with how sure Ishara seemed about her need for it. Instead she got Tammy to help her slip the layers onto the warrior.
"Where is Schala?" Tima asked while they worked.
"She should be nearby but she has to remain out of sight. But if it becomes impossible to watch us both; she's to keep the two of you safe." Ishara replied. Tima looked like she was about to protest, so Ishara continued.
"The events almost over. My role here is finished after tonight. It's more important to keep the two of you safe then it is to maintain the appearance that I'm helpless."
They finished dressing her in silence and retreated to the second bedroom to get themselves prepared in the fancy uniform from before.
During the party Ishara continued to use that cute little smile she's been using the entire event. She interacted with the guest's just like at the first party; except that she had some help this time. Rei Windley was doing the same thing making Ishara's own involvement seem rather pointless. Eventually Lady Windley approached the warrior when things had gotten stable.
"It's nice to see you looking so well Lady Windley." Ishara smiled at her.
"I heard about what you did." Rei frowned. Nearby Eliza Stewart noticed the two talking and started on her way over.
"Your father expressed his dissatisfaction at my work as well." Ishara explained.
"That wasn't an acceptable way to act. No matter how frustrating it can be, you don't threaten to kill other members of the delegation." Rei replied.
"I wasn't even armed. How could I have followed through with my threat?" Ishara offered.
"It really doesn't matter if it was an empty threat, or if you intended to ask Miss Schala to do it for you." Rei replied.
"I'm sorry Lady Windley. Causing you problems was not my intention. But they needed to be separated from the corruption. If need be I will give my life." Ishara offered.
"From what I've been hearing, your death would mean an end to the peace we just achieved." Eliza pointed out.
"Then the rumours have been flying around. Good. It was starting to look like the Duke either failed to start them, or refused to help." Ishara thought.
"No one wants your life. But you need to have more tact." Rei replied.
"She may not have handled it the most delicately. But she was right. This whole time I was letting one of my guards plant doubt in my mind. Convince me that Earl Tiberius wasn't really serious. They even made me feel confused about what my mother really wanted." Eliza spoke up.
"You were lucky this time Ishara. But in the future you need to find a better way." Rei said softly.
"You think there's going to be a next time?" Ishara laughed.
"After tonight no one will let me near a talk like this. And even if they did the dark beast itself couldn't get me to agree to this again."
"The dark beast?" Eliza asked.
"It's a superstition from my birth place." Ishara explained.
"The dark beast was the cause of most disasters. When something bad happened that was out of our control. The dark beast had a hand."
"I have never heard of that one." Eliza admitted.
"How far did you come to get here?"
"It's the first time I've heard of it myself." Rei smiled
"It's a pleasure to see you again Eliza Stewart. It has been awhile."
"My roots don't matter, but you two must have plenty to talk about." Ishara smiled.
"If I may Lady Windley, we will speak again later."
"Yes of course. Go ahead. Enjoy the rest of the party." Rei smiled. Ishara left the raven haired woman and shook her head. Enjoying the party was the last thing Ishara was going to be able to do.
When she finally found a moment of peace. Ishara left the party; telling Tima and Tammy to remain because she wouldn't be long. She thought about going to the courtyard for some fresh air; but decided it would be easier to find a balcony nearby.
She found one near enough to the party that she could still hear the crowd. But the fresh air more than made up for it.
"It was starting to feel like I would never get back out here. But it's finally coming to an end. I miss the road." Ishara thought looking up at the stars. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes; pulling herself away from the stuffy castle and the shallow people invited to tonight's party.
"Just a few more days. Then I will be back where I belong." She thought. Soon she would be free; soon she would be able to move again and do things for herself again.
She was pulled back to the castle when she heard movement behind her. Simple footsteps trying to move quietly. When no one announced themselves she opened her eyes and turned around in time to see a sword trying to pierce her heart. Ishara moved as quickly as the weighted dress would allow her; barely giving the sword a new target.
Like the previous attack she used the fancy dress to try and trap the man's weapon; but the sword was much sharper then the knife and he wasn't stupid enough to let it get caught. He managed to slice through the dress but not her.
"Greg Cor. I knew I'd find you here eventually. But are you the leader behind these attacks? Or just another lackey?" Ishara asked.
"You won't be rejoining the party. It doesn't matter if I'm just another lackey or not." Greg replied.
"And the peace will end with my life." Ishara replied.
"But that's what you are hoping for isn't it?"
"Stop talking." Greg said bluntly.
"So he is the one behind all this. I need to get to my knife, but I don't think I can." Ishara thought studying him.
"Do you think you will get to walk away after killing me?" She asked trying to stall him.
"Do you think you are going to care when your dead?" Greg questioned.
"Stalling isn't going to save you, only give you a few more minutes.
"Schala is back in the party watching over Tammy and Tima so I'm alone here. If I could get to my knife I could try to defend myself. But I can't just reach down in this dress. I'll have to get him to knock me to the ground." Ishara thought. Any other day she would have had this guy dead by now; but armed only with a knife in a dress she could barely move in. she was now struggling to survive this. She wasn't even confident that once down; shed be able to get back up.
"It seems to be all I have." She pointed out.
"Would you like me to turn back around? So you don't have to look me in the eyes when you kill me?" she offered.
Instead of wasting any more time with words Greg swung his sword again. She rushed towards him pretending to try and knock it out of his hands. She was now too close for him to use the blade so he abandoned the swing. To keep from losing control of the fight Ishara made a loose grab for his arm. He responded quickly and belted her in the face with the hilt. Following it up by kicking her to the ground to finish off.
Ishara collapsed on the floor tucking her feet behind her. Her face stung from the hit but she didn't think he broke anything.
"He got me good, a little to the left and my nose would be broken. This is harder than it should be." She thought giving him her best frightened look.
"Please." She begged shifting her feet just a little closer to her reach.
"Your cat isn't here to save you this time. Die with some dignity." He demanded.
"Are you going to go after her too?" Ishara asked allowing her voice to go weak.
"I don't care about your pets. I only need you to die." Greg replied.
"Then if I do fall here, Tammy should be safe." Ishara thought satisfied. She saw that he was about to make another move; this time to finish her off while she was curled up on the ground. She swung her feet out and took his out from under him; then quickly she reached under her dress and grabbed for the knife. She ripped it violently from its sheath; almost injuring herself in the process.
Before he knew she had it. Ishara used the knife to even the odds a little and stabbed into his leg so he wouldn't be able to stand up either. She pulled it out with a painful twist to be sure.
"You bitch." He hissed.
"You don't have to do this." Ishara said. She held the knife like she didn't know how to use it. She wasn't sure if he would still believe her helpless ploy by now; but it was still her best chance.
Greg got to his knee's and started to bring his sword back; if she let him he would bring it in for her head. Ishara reached out and grabbed the blade just above the hilt. It cut deeply but she ignored the pain and shifted her grip on her knife without him noticing. Without wasting a moment she brought it in and stabbed it into his sword hand; finally causing him to release the sword.
"I'm going to make you suffer for that." Greg growled. Ishara used the time to struggle back to her feet now that she didn't need to move swiftly. Her hand was now useless; but she still had the knife in her other arm. She didn't have much time however as Greg grabbed the sword back up with his other hand and stabbed for her legs. Beneath the dress he missed; barely grazing her left leg instead of puncturing it outright.
Ishara tried to twist away while the sword was stuck in her skirts; but he managed to get it loose before she could and the two blades met at last; the force of his blow almost knocking the smaller knife out of her hands.
"You had me at a disadvantage. But even if you kill me now; you will be discovered the moment you leave this balcony." Ishara spoke flatly. She stepped back to release the death-lock of the two blades and he took advantage of it to stab upwards for her side as hard as he could. The blade was slowed by the corset ribs in her dress; but she still felt it make contact. She clenched her teeth with the pain but continued moving back out of its immediate reach before allowing herself to fall back to the ground. She held her side like she could keep the blood from slipping out; but if he came back at her again she would be helpless.
"How bad did he get me? It feels deep but it should have been deeper. Did the dress just slow his sword down?" she asked herself.
"You should know that the rumours are lies. I asked the Duke to spread them. Even if you kill me tonight; it will have no effect on the peace they crafted." Ishara informed him. She had to stall for time, she needed to figure out a way to win.
"It's far too late for that. I'm going to kill you for fun now." Greg replied.
"Don't kill him!" Ishara suddenly shouted. Greg glared at her just before a sword came from behind and pierced his good arm at the shoulder. He turned his head and saw the stone face of the Jiyu'rei guardian.
"Where did you come from… I didn't even hear you." he asked shocked. She pulled the blade from his shoulder and kicked him to the floor.
"Aren't you supposed to be at the party watching over Tammy?" Ishara asked giving her friend a window to speak. With Greg immobilized she dropped the knife completely so she could give full attention to putting pressure on her side.
"You took too long." Schala replied simply.
"Why did you request I not kill him?" she asked before her window closed.
"He tried to kill Rei first; her father should handle him." Ishara replied.
"Can you please bind him; then help me up?" she asked. Schala nodded and vanished for a few minutes to find some rope.
"Who are you two?" Greg demanded.
"I told you before; she's the apprentice of Winter Wind. " Ishara replied.
"And who are you? Why was I not able to take down one useless girl?" Greg asked.
"You almost did." Ishara pointed out.
"Now it's time for you to shut up and have a little dignity. I don't like being saved and now thanks to you Schala has done it twice. Say another word and ill I'll remove your manhood before she gets back. I still have one arm that can hold a knife." She warned him. This got his attention; the threat wasn't completely empty as shed gladly let go of her side to do it. He didn't say another word until Schala returned with the rope; and a guardsman.
"Miss what happened?" The guard asked.
"Oh great, couldn't you have found someone else?" Ishara asked looking at Lt. Westman.
"I slipped and fell, and this guy tried to steal my shoes." She offered. He glared at her while Schala bound Greg's hands.
"I'm bleeding here, can we please skip the lengthy arguments? Just get him to a holding cell for the duke to handle." Ishara replied. She allowed Schala to help her back to her feet.
"We need to get you to the water priestess." Westman stated.
"No, I have a job to do. The water priestess will have to wait until the party ends. But this man is the one responsible for two attempts on Rei's life. "She replied.
"You are stubborn. Don't go anywhere I need to get someone to help me bring this guy in." Westman finally grumbled. Greg just sat slumped against the wall and didn't say a word.
"He should be ok here. Help me get back." Ishara asked her feline friend. Schala nodded and the two of them left the room to go back to the final party. They just made it inside the door when Rei approached them almost running. Behind her Ishara spotted Lt. Westman.
"Lady Rei, what a pleasant surprise." Ishara said in a sweet voice.
"What do you think you are doing? You can't come back looking like that." Rei said glaring, she waved them out of the room; following quickly behind them.
"He was supposed to be getting help for Mr. Cor." Ishara grumbled.
"He did the right thing. You are dripping blood on the floor. We need to get you to a bed; and get the water priestess here." Rei insisted.
"Miss Windley, I have work to do. The priestess will have to wait." Ishara replied. Rei shook her head.
"Ishara you are bleeding. Your dress is torn and covered in blood. If we don't get you looked at you might die. I can handle the rest of the party. You just go get fixed up. Schala could you please take her back to your rooms? I'll send Tima down after you to get her undressed." She said firmly.
"I can't argue anymore. I promised that I would host this event and I won't let a few cuts make me break my word. If people can't trust my word; they won't trust me." Ishara explained. Schala shook her head and started pulling Ishara away from the party.
"Where are you taking me?" Ishara demanded.
"Miss Windley is correct. You require attention." Schala replied.
"Fine but I'll only go quietly if the moment we get there you come back and keep Tammy safe. Windley don't send Tima down alone either. Greg was the leader but he may still have some lackeys waiting to finish what he started." Ishara compromised.
"I had no intention of leaving Miss Tannis unprotected." Schala replied simply.
"Don't worry I won't send her alone." Rei promised.
Ishara was taken back to the pink rooms and sat down on the bed. After Schala left she doubted she could stand back up even if she wanted to. She closed her eyes and tried to conserve what remained of her strength. She was starting to feel weak. Now that she was sitting idle there was nothing to take her mind off the blood she already lost.
"Well let's see how badly he got me." Ishara decided. She examined the hand which the blood didn't seem like it was slowing down. The cuts were deep but nothing had been severed.
"That won't be easy on the healer. But it could have been worse." She thought studying it. Next she carefully lifted the hem of her dress to examine her leg. It was barely more than a scratch. The rest of her injuries were covered by the dress. Until Tima got it off her she couldn't check it out.
A woman wearing the blue gowns of the water temple arrived before Tima did. She took one look at Ishara and gasped.
"What happened to you?" she asked taking Ishara's injured hand for a closer look.
"Sword wounds but I don't suspect a poison coating." Ishara replied. She knew from experience that healers needed to know if poison was likely.
"What? Did you grab it with your hands?" she asked.
"It was either that or let him cut my head off." Ishara replied.
"How did this happen without a guard stepping in?" she asked.
"He waited until I was alone. This wasn't a spur of the moment attack, or an overreaction to rejection. There's a scratch on my leg and the slice in my side feels fairly deep. I've been trying to keep pressure on it as much as I can." She explained.
Tima arrived while she was trying to describe her injuries.
"Miss Ishara!" she exclaimed.
"Tima you are involved with this one too?" the healer asked.
"Can you help me get her clothes off?"
"Yes Miss." Tima replied.
They carefully removed all of her clothing and Ishara lay perfectly still while the healer worked. She closed her eyes again to save her strength but still spoke knowing that Tima hadn't left yet.
"Tima can you get me some clothes I can put on myself?"
"What about the nightgown beside the bed?" Tima asked.
"I can't recover wearing that. I need something I can feel comfortable in." Ishara replied.
"I'll see what I can do Miss Ishara." Tima promised. Ishara could hear her leave the room shortly afterwards. The healer didn't say a word. She was too busy concentrating on closing the wound on her side; and trying to detect any interior injuries.
The healer was almost finished with the biggest wound when someone else joined them.
"Please excuse my intrusion." she heard Rei's voice speak up. She waited quietly until the healer finished with the gash in Ishara's side.
"How is she?"
"She got cut pretty bad, and she lost a lot of blood. I can heal the wounds but she will have to rest for at least a day before she should be out of bed." the healer explained. Ishara opened her eyes and looked at both the healer and Rei
"Miss Windley, I need some clothes." She said.
"Tima already told me about your request. I met her in the hallway on my way down here. But the Priestess says you need to rest. Why can't Tima come help you into the nightgown?" Rei asked.
"Because I can't wear a nightgown to interact with the guests. I did as you asked and came down here. But I won't abandon my duties any further just because I lost some blood first." Ishara replied.
"Ishara, the party is going to be over soon. I don't think you will even be able to stand before it's finished and your young friend has returned here. You haven't abandoned anything; you were attacked and nearly killed.
"You said you couldn't be comfortable in the night clothes. Why is that?" The healer asked taking a moment to rest before trying to heal the hand.
"Do you need to call in a replacement to finish? You look like you are pushing yourself too hard." Ishara said studying her worn face. She looked like she expanded a considerable amount of her energy in healing as much as she has.
"No I'm fine." The healer replied.
"Maybe the Duke has some skystone?" Ishara suggested.
"Thank you but I don't need it." The healer smiled. Her face showed mild surprise that Ishara even knew of the stones.
"Is it something you can't talk about?"
"It's complicated. I know several girls that died in a nightgown; and my life was destroyed while I was in one. They hold some very unpleasant memories" Ishara explained.
"I'm afraid I can't get you anything then." Rei said softly.
"You need to rest; if I get you anything to wear then you won't. You will come back up to work, or worse try and find more of Greg's men. I can't let you do that. I'm sorry." She explained.
"Can I have my dress back if I promise not to?" Ishara asked. The healer took hold of her hand and washed it carefully before starting.
"I'm sorry." Rei replied shaking her head.
"I guess I'm stuck here until morning." She sighed
"You are going to let me get dressed in the morning right? If not you may as well lock me in the dungeon now. Because I'll charge through the castle stark naked if I have to." Ishara warned.
"Yes, you will have to explain to Eliza what happened. Why one of her people is now in fathers dungeons. You are still acting hostess; so tomorrow it's back to work." Rei smiled at her.
"For the last few days can I please just skip the fancy dresses? I'd like to get one like you wear day to day instead." Ishara begged. She could feel her hand getting warm as the healers magic went to work.
"I'm afraid not Ishara. Father left strict instructions. Even I can't do that now; because I've gotten better and have been seen. I have to wear the same style as you do." Rei replied with a quiet giggle.
"Well at least misery loves company." Ishara muttered.
"It's not so bad. But I need to get back to the party to start winding it down. I'll send Schala and Tammy down here once I get back up there. Just rest; and let them get you anything you need tonight." Rei said.
"If it makes you feel better, maybe I can even sneak down to the kitchens and have them send you some real food." She smiled.
"If you can do that for me Lady Windley. I promise I don't know where it came from." Ishara smiled back.
"You get nothing unless you call me Rei." She teased.
"I'll call you Brightmoon if it will get me something real to eat." Ishara replied.
"You don't need to go that far." Rei giggled.
"I'll stop in tomorrow morning with Tima." She promised before leaving.
"Looks like it's just you and me now." Ishara said looking at the healer. The priestess didn't reply while she was still working on mending the warrior's hand.
Ishara left the Duke's audience chamber and headed towards the gardens. That's where his men had last placed Eliza Stewart. She moved as quickly as the slightly less irritating dress then last nights would let her; but she reached the gardens and knew that she hadn't been too late.
Ishara could hear the sounds of Eliza speaking to one of her servants. It sounded like they were friends; perhaps not as close as Rei and Tima were but there was never any disrespect in her voice when she spoke to them.
"Lady Stewart, may I speak with you?" Ishara asked.
"Of course Miss Ishara. I was actually wondering why you vanished from the party? I heard something happened. But no one would say what." Eliza replied.
"That's part of why I came to see you. I'm sure by now you have noticed the absence of Greg Cor." Ishara said.
"Well that was going to be my next question. But I wanted to see if you were ok first. Are you saying they are related?" Eliza asked.
"I vanished last night because Greg Cor attempted to kill me. He was hoping to ruin the peace that you negotiated." Ishara tried to explain.
"Are you all right?" Eliza asked.
"I am fine. The priestess of water healed my wounds last night but they prevented me from returning before the party ended. You have my apologies." Ishara replied.
"What happened then?" Eliza asked quickly.
"Greg didn't want peace between your mother and Earl Tiberius. He came after me because of the rumours that my death could stop that peace. I fought him off until he could be captured. I just spoke with Duke Windley and we now understand why." Ishara explained.
"How could you have fought him off? He's a seasoned fighter." Eliza asked confused. She looked at the woman in front of her.
"He was lucky last night. If I had been properly armed or wearing something with more freedom to move. He wouldn't have almost won. You see Miss Stewart; it's what I do. On a good day I have gone sword to sword with Winter Wind." Ishara replied.
Eliza couldn't see it when she looked at Ishara.
"Someday you will have to stop by mother's castle and show me." Eliza smiled at her.
"Why did he do it?"
"His brother was in the patrol that first encountered the Envoy from Tiberius. He was one of the men killed on your side during that exchange. He used what influence he could muster to be sure he was on your team; and even had advanced scouts try to make the talks fail before you even arrived. He was the reason that Lady Windley got sick before I arrived." Ishara told her.
"I should have killed him just for getting me involved in this." She thought angry.
"On behalf of Baroness Stewart; I apologise for his behaviour. Officially we will back whatever sentence you; or Duke Windley wish to pass on him." Eliza stated.
"Thank you; but it's for the Duke to decide. I would have taken his life last night like a Red Reaper dog. But his first victim was the Lady." Ishara replied.
"I hope we have another chance to talk before I depart back for Stewart." Eliza smiled.
"When do you leave?" Ishara asked.
"We are getting ready now, but won't leave for another three days." She replied.
"Then I am sure we will have ample time to speak. I will be remaining as hostess until the last carriage leaves the city gates." Ishara explained.
"I look forward to it then. You can tell me more about your normal work." Eliza said.
"If Rei will let me. She may be angry I told you as much as I did." Ishara laughed.
"Our little secret then." Eliza whispered.
After she finished talking with Eliza Ishara said her farewells and left the gardens with her usual shadows. She didn't get very far before she was approached by Lt. Westman. He stopped her from walking away but for a few minutes didn't speak. He just seemed to be studying her.
"What is it?" Ishara finally demanded.
"If you are done speaking with Lady Stewart, Lady Windley wished to speak with you." he announced.
"Then are you going to get out of my way so I can go see her?" Ishara asked. Westman still hadn't moved.
"I underestimated you." he announced.
"Underestimated me? You saw me enter the castle armed with two swords; including the Sword of Stars. You didn't think I could defend myself against one man?" Ishara questioned. It was clear that he wasn't going to get out of the way until either she made him; or he got this off his chest.
"Just because you carry a magic sword around doesn't mean you know how to use one. But you didn't really defend yourself now did you?" Westman replied.
"Still I thought you were nothing but a brat. A spoiled woman coasting by on her looks. You even managed to barge into a locked castle without getting killed or locked away."
"Your thoughts on me are quite obvious." Ishara pointed out. If she had been granted her real clothes last night she would have knocked this man to the floor by now.
"There's something I want to ask you." he said finally getting to the point.
"What is it?" Ishara replied. She held the annoyance from her voice; hoping to get it over with.
"You were almost killed last night. Why were you so insistent in returning to the party that you would have bled to death?" He asked.
"Lt. I'm a traveller. Along the way I help people that are in need of a sword. When I agreed to host this conference in Lady Windleys place. I gave my word that I would do it. If I don't give my life to honouring my agreements; what else do I have?" Ishara replied by asking him.
"There is more to you then a simple spoiled brat. I can respect that." Westman stated.
"If I didn't know better I would say you were trying to apologise." Ishara replied with a hint of sweetness in her voice.
"Perhaps; if only because of your dedication to your word. And how well you handled the pain from your wounds last night. I'm not sure I would have expected that looking at you." Westman said.
"Lt. If you think those cuts from last night even counted as being painful. Then you know nothing of pain. There was a time when that would have been mercy." Ishara replied flatly.
"But a word of advice. You made assumptions based on my choice in clothing when we first met. If you hadn't done that I would have been more co-operative. But keep in mind that had you done that on the battlefield you would be dead now."
"Regardless of what I may have decided looking at you. It remains that you should have been locked away the moment you entered the castle. I do not respect how you forced your way in." Westman said.
"So then you respect me now? But you don't?" Ishara asked.
"Nothing you do can negate the first impression that you made. But last night you proved that Duke Windley did not make a mistake in offering you Lady Windley's duties." Westman replied.
"No." Ishara said shaking her head.
"He did make a mistake. All I proved was that it wasn't a complete disaster."
"Perhaps; but that is unlikely." Westman replied simply.
"This." Ishara said waving her hand over her dress.
"Is not my element. It's not my skills; or my strength. I overcame the challenge but that doesn't mean the Duke did not make a mistake. He simply had no one else to ask on such short notice." She pointed out.
"If that's what you wish to believe then so be it. I just wanted to say that I hope next time we meet there will be no more hostilities." Westman said.
"That would be preferable." Ishara replied. He stepped out of her way so she could finally head up to see Rei.
Ishara watched from the front gate while the final carriage left Windley castle. Eliza and her group was the last of the diplomats; Peterson left the day before. The moment it was out of sight she dropped the smile on her face and turned back to re-enter the castle.
"Finally." She thought marching towards the Duke's audience chamber. She found Artemis speaking with Miles.
"I think you better take this one." Miles commented.
"Eliza Stewart and her entourage have departed. Toby Peterson left yesterday meaning the conference is now over. I want my clothes and my sword back." Ishara demanded.
"I've been giving that some thought. Your actions during the latter half of the conference were quite reckless. I have decided that I should keep you here another two weeks so you can be taught the error of your ways." The Duke announced. He sounded deadly serious; even Ishara couldn't spot any hint that it was a joke on his face.
"That wasn't part of the agreement." Ishara growled.
"Neither was threatening members of the delegate's party." Artemis pointed out.
"You have no right to keep me here." Ishara snapped.
"You are free to leave any time you want. I'll even give you back the sword of stars. But that dress is hardly ideal for traveling." Artemis replied. He stood like a castle wall under her glare.
"You would let me walk out of the castle today wearing this; but not return my own clothes or the sword Thomas Mcalpine passed on to me." Ishara growled at him.
"Calm yourself Ishara. Hear the Duke out before you get yourself in trouble." Miles warned.
"I won't keep you here for two weeks, though you could use the extra time. However I won't return your things for three more days. I want you to spend that time with Rei and learn what your mistakes were. You not only almost started a war by threatening the delegate's advisors; but you then almost got yourself killed luring a dangerous man into a poorly thought out trap." Artemis replied.
"Then why did you help me set that trap?" Ishara asked.
"I didn't think you would be foolish enough to try and take him on your own. I thought Schala would be nearby at all times." Artemis explained.
"And what of my friends?" Ishara asked.
"They can do what they wish. With the conference now over they don't need to escort you everywhere. "The Duke replied.
"Then let's get Tammy in one of these again for a few days." Ishara grinned.
"If that's what you want. I don't see a problem with it. "He replied.
"So then no more escorts, no more fake meals or needing someone to dress me?" Ishara questioned.
"Yes to the first two. But if I agree to the third I'm sure you will steal your sword back and run off." Windley replied.
"Fair enough." Ishara grumbled. She could hardly deny the possibility.
"Rei I mean no disrespect. But I just don't see why it matters." Ishara said finally. The conversation had been going in circles for hours already.
"Let's start with kicking the advisors out of the meeting then. Why did you do it?" Rei asked.
"I had my reasons. And they went beyond just trying to get the talks moving forward. Your father knows this; so why am I here?" Ishara replied.
"What were they? Father must not have thought they were very good reasons." Rei pointed out.
"Does it matter? Rei I'm not a diplomat; and I'll never be one either. This was a onetime thing." Ishara explained.
"You never know. Maybe you will be called to do this again someday? You are capable, and confident. So why did you kick them out?" Rei asked again.
"Because I could see they both wanted peace. And the one that tried to kill you twice was still at large. I knew that I could draw them out if I removed the possibility of them influencing their delegations. I could drive them to act if peace was made." Ishara explained.
"And if war was declared instead?"
"Then I could out the one that truly looked happy about it." Ishara replied.
"Why would peace have made them come out?" Rei asked.
"Because I spread rumours that the peace was tied to my life. If I was killed then the peace would end; so by attacking me directly they had one final chance to achieve what they wanted. Schala kept out of sight so I'd look like a helpless target." Ishara explained.
"That's why you are here." Rei reported.
"I'm sorry Mistress…This girl…I didn't know. Miss Ishara didn't tell her what the knife was for." Tima stuttered.
"Tima its ok. You didn't do anything wrong, so please don't call me Mistress." Rei replied. She shot an angry glare at Ishara.
"Now you have my Tima worried that she's in trouble. That was an incredibly foolish idea. You could have been killed. You almost were. What if instead they went after Tammy?" she said annoyed.
"It wouldn't have mattered if I was killed or not. The game is never safe; you die or you live by its whims. There isn't any purpose in worrying about it. But Tammy would have been safe. Schala was to favour protecting her and Tima over me if we got split and it was impossible to do both." Ishara replied.
"And what would happen to Tammy if you had died? She looks up to you, she needs you." Rei asked.
"Tammy is far from helpless. She's a strong girl but she often hides that strength out of fear of what people will think of her." Ishara told her.
"That's not the point. She's too young to be on her own. She needs you." Rei replied.
"If I didn't make it, you could have taken her in as a little sister. I'll bet you have always wanted one." Ishara grinned.
Rei shook her head.
"It doesn't work that way. And as much as I love my Tima; you are not dropping another one on my lap." She warned.
"It was worth a shot. She might be happier in a real home." Ishara replied.
"Would you have been happy here?" Rei countered.
"No I need to get back on the road. This kind of protected lifestyle is great for someone like you. But it's not for me." Ishara replied.
"Someone like me?" Rei asked.
"You have been training your whole life for this kind of lifestyle. You can wear these dresses, eat that kind of food, and even deal with people like Eliza and Peterson." Ishara explained.
"Just because I have been taught these things doesn't mean I like them any more then you do." Rei frowned.
"But you learned not to complain about it. I didn't." Ishara laughed.
"You didn't have to complain either. You just choose to be very vocal about it." Rei pointed out.
"I was never taught to be a good girl and keep my mouth shut." Ishara said with a shrug.
"It's not the same thing and you know it." Rei frowned again.
"I'm just glad to finally be rid of my shadows. Being followed everywhere was maddening." Ishara said.
"But it was necessary for appearances. It always seemed a little strange to me too. But at least I always sleep alone; once I get back to my bedrooms it is just me. No matter the importance of the event my escorts never sleep in my rooms." Rei smiled.
"Except Tima when I want her; especially when we were smaller."
"And speaking of shadows." Ishara grinned as Schala and Tammy walked in.
"You wear that dress well Tammy. So much less complaints then your mentor." Rei smiled.
"And with more grace then I could ever muster." Ishara agreed.
"Thank you." Tammy said quietly. She gave Ishara an uncomfortable look.
"You don't like the dress much either." Rei observed.
"It's not that Miss Windley. I'm sorry…It's just that I." Tammy said. Her voice trailed off.
"Don't deserve it."
"It's much finer than anything she's been allowed to wear so far. I have a bit of work to do on her confidence too." Ishara explained.
"It suits you; and that one goes well with your ribbon." Rei replied. Tammy just seemed to look embarrassed but didn't say anything.
"What did you think of this event? Did you learn anything?' Ishara asked.
"She learned not to let you wander off by yourself." Schala commented.
"I don't know." Tammy admitted.
"Mr. Peterson and Lady Stewart seemed like they didn't say what they wanted."
"You might be good at this kind of thing. Do you think you might want to try it? We could find you some teachers whenever we are in Windley or Sutherland." Ishara suggested.
"No." Tammy replied shaking her head.
"That kind of thing is too important. I could never be someone like that."
"But you could be a maid following someone like me?" Ishara sighed.
"You always sell yourself too short Tammy. You could do anything you wanted; you just have to stop thinking something is out of your reach."
"I was only your maid." Tammy sheepishly pointed out.
"I wanted to help you. It was the only way I could for something like this."
"You helped me most of all just by being here. You were the only reason I had the strength to go through with this." Ishara replied. Rei gave Tima a knowing glance.
"I sometimes forget about yours." Ishara laughed.
"If I wasn't here Schala would have been looking out for you. It's my fault you got hurt." Tammy said quietly.
"You really believe that don't you?" Rei asked shocked.
"Miss Tannis. If you had not been present Red Sword would have thrown the delegates off the castle wall. As well she would have evaded my protection on purpose and ended up in the same situation." Schala said.
"She's right. I have never tested my skill in the old game against Schala. But if it wasn't for you I would never have accepted having her guard me at all; or Tima following me to wait on me. I'd have done exactly as Schala said and ran off every chance I got." Ishara explained.
'I guess it's a good thing Tammy was here then." Rei smiled.
"That would have caused all kinds of problems for the conference; father might have even had his own men try and guard you."
"That's kind of you to say." Tammy said quietly.
"But you wouldn't really have."
"I think she would have." Rei commented.
"But would you have let her Schala?"
"I would have no choice. I still would have done everything in my power to preform my task as I did during this event. However as effective as I have learned to be at tracking. Red Sword has much greater skill at evading capture." Schala replied.
"So what did you think of the conference then Schala?" Rei asked.
"I have been present at such negotiations before. I found the discussions no more engaging as Ishara's sword then I did kneeling to the side."
"They had you kneel during a conference like this?" Rei asked confused.
"It is not something I discuss. I will only say that I was not directly involved. I was only present at those negotiations because they wanted a display piece." Schala replied.
"I think I understand; how terrible." Rei said.
"Did you enjoy bodyguard duty this time?" she asked.
"If it had not been Red Sword I was protecting. I would not have volunteered this time; remaining at her side at all times would not have been desirable had it been anyone else. I owe Red Sword much, and I respect her true capabilities. That is the only reason I allowed myself to be led around." Schala explained.
"Well then why didn't you ask to trade places?" Ishara asked with the pleasant smile she used on the delegates.
"I will not allow myself to be placed in such bondage." Schala replied motioning to the dress Ishara was wearing. Ishara was almost sure that was a joke; despite the lack of emotion in the felines voice.
"It's hardly bondage." Rei said with a blank look on her face.
"More like only being half tied up." Ishara smirked.
"Now you're just getting silly. It must be almost supper time." Rei commented.
"Would you care to join me and Tima?" she asked.
"Tammy would love to and I'll go to make sure she eats." Ishara said.
"I have no objections. Thank you for the invitation." Schala replied.
"You have no idea how good this feels." Ishara said coming out of the bedroom for the last time. She was finally back in the green dress she always wore.
"You seem happier." Tammy commented quietly.
"Are you ready to leave Tammy?" Ishara asked.
"Whenever you are." She replied. Ishara could see a spark in her eyes briefly.
"She's looking forward to getting back to work." Ishara thought with a smile. She remembered feeling the same way when Thomas had them stay an extended time away from the road.
"Then let's go get my sword and get back out there." She announced.
Schala nodded her head and the three of them left the pink rooms behind. They found Duke Windley in the audience chamber again, this time with Rei, Miles and Tima by his side.
"Looks like you are ready to go." Rei commented.
"Once your father returns my sword; I will be on my way. We need to stop in Craik and visit Duncan. Then continue our travels." Ishara replied.
"Thank you for your help." Rei said politely.
"Or rather thank you for not killing the delegates and starting a fight." Ishara offered.
"Some of your methods need improvement. But I'm serious. You were a great help.' Rei replied.
"I'm just glad it's over." Ishara replied. She spun around and kicked at the air near Miles head.
"Freedom." She exclaimed.
"It couldn't have been that bad. " Rei suggested.
"Rei, they may be great for you. But you have worn that style all your life. It's just not for me, I need the freedom of movement my own design gives me." Ishara explained.
"But you did look very nice in them." Tammy piped up.
"So did you, but I don't see you complaining that you had to take it off today." Ishara pointed put.
"The only one that got spared was Schala wasn't she? Next time we must remedy that."
"You will do no such thing." Schala growled.
"I believe these belong to you." Miles spoke up when Lt. Westman arrived carrying two swords. Ishara took the katana from him.
"You can keep that one. Maybe Rei should learn to use it?" Ishara suggested.
"Would you stop trying to give it away?" Artemis said holding his head.
"If it's such a problem, why don't you bury it?" Rei asked.
"It's a long story, but I tried that when I was a child and it didn't work." Ishara replied grabbing the Sword of Stars from Westman.
"Before I leave there's one thing you and I have to settle." Ishara said glaring at Lt. Westman.
"You didn't think I would forget about your calling me Princess did you?"
"That was a mistake." Westman admitted.
"I should knock you to the floor for it. I did promise I would come back for you in a sour mood when I got back into my own clothing." Ishara said.
"I would rather you didn't make a mess." Duke Windley interrupted.
"I won't." Ishara promised.
"I will accept your apology on the condition that if you ever do it again. I will come back for you. You have my word on that."
"I will not repeat that mistake. I believe I made my position clear days ago." Westman replied.
"And that talk is the only reason you are still standing upright.' Ishara explained.
"Thank you for the….unique hospitality. We won't trouble you any longer." She said finally. They said their farewells and the three of them returned to the road. Ishara not intending to return to the Windley area for a very long time.
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