by Yih

9. Testing Waters

IF I THOUGHT that I would be accepted into the royal fold with nary a word said, I was deadly wrong. When I arrived at the gates of the royal residence, Castle Monevassia, situated in the center of the capital city, I was separated by all whom I knew and thrust into a room alone with a strange young man whom I had never seen before. All I knew was to be on my guard because I sensed something dangerous about him. It didn't help either that we were in a room filled in every crevice with weaponry.

"Not totally helpless," he muttered as he gestured for me to take a sword. "I am here to test if you are more than a liability to the Prince, arm yourself." Even if he hadn't demanded that I arm myself, I would have anyway when he picked up a weapon. Something Yarn had always told me and drilled into my head was that if the enemy had a weapon, it was best to get one for yourself as soon as you could.

It took me a moment to glance away from the threatening, but forceful image my opponent made when he stood next to a window, letting the sunlight drape over his form. Whoever he was, he was bigger than Yarn in both height and weight, though he was probably not quite as tall as Dante. It was going to be hard to fight him, and to emerge victorious? Quite impossible, I decided but I knew that I had to try. I couldn't disgrace either Dante or Yarn.

I studied the swords available at my disposal. Some I knew from a glance were going to be too heavy for me to wield to any effect. I needed something that was light, but well balanced. Finally, I spied at the end a sword that I thought might do. I picked it up and tested it with two balanced movements that told me it was well balanced and though maybe a bit heavy for what I usually practiced with, it would do.

"So you know how to choose a weapon," he stated neutrally. "But do you know how to use it?"

I bit my tongue and pulled the hilt of my sword to my chest and executed a deep bow, appropriate for someone that was both my senior in years and rank. When I rose from it, he duplicated my bow, though not as deep for he was confirming he was indeed my elder and superior in rank. After the customary show of respect, the fight could begin at any moment and I was taken a bit by surprise when he moved with a speed and agility that I had only seen in Dante. No other man nearly as tall as Dante I had ever encountered moved as sleekly as he did.

It was my mistake. I found myself on the defensive, parrying each blow with mental thanks to Yarn for teaching me the skills I would need if I were ever cornered. I was definitely cornered now, as I felt my back brush up against the wall. I simply did not have the physical strength to try to force myself away from my impending doom. If this was not a test, I knew my life would soon be forfeit.

For a mere test, my opponent was fighting with a fierce desperation that was starting to make me feel decidedly anxious. There was such intensity in his eyes that it bordered on a maniac level that I had never seen before in either Yarn or Dante. It made me fight harder, trying to do anything in which to end the test but the harder I fought, the harder he fought.

I could feel my muscles begin to scream for some relief as I blocked another blow that would have decapitated me had I been a second slower. This might be a test, I thought with increasing panic, but it wasn't something I would escape unscathed if I wasn't cautious. Did my tester not realize that my stamina was fading and my movements were getting more and more careless as I fought to just stay alive? I could not last much longer…

"Stop, Knife," I heard a voice I had never heard before command. "I've seen enough."

I sank to my knees and turned my head to see who my savior was. Even though I had not recognized the voice, there was no mistaking who the owner of the voice was in that single glance. It was my chosen, Prince Kieran who had halted the test. I felt the relief that it was over being overtaken by the sheer embarrassment at not being able to complete the customary test. How in Valoir's name was I ever going to be able to be a worthy companion if I couldn't?

"You cannot judge him based on that." It was then I saw, to rising hope, Dante's form shadow Kieran's. "Knife is one of the finest fighters that have ever come from out of the Companion's City. There are very few that could dream of defeating him. There are quite a few that would not have lasted as long as Flute."

"He lasted scarcely a quarter of an hour!" Kieran exclaimed. "And in a fight, he will prove to be a liability to me rather than a help." Those words stung deeply. I had always known I wasn't a very good fighter, but I didn't think I was that incapable as to cause harm. I might not help as much as others could, but I certainly didn't hurt. At least, that wasn't what I thought.

"He would not hinder efforts to protect your royal self," Dante stated in a soft voice, but I could hear the subtle power behind them. Dante was a person that was used to being listened to and obeyed. There wasn't anyone that I knew that would dare to go against what he said. It wasn't for anything that he had been chosen as the next Lord d'Companions. "What you are testing in him are not his greatest strengths. I did not intend him to be another Knife."

"But wasn't he?" Kieran retorted. "If… Real were still here, this boy would have been another guardian companion and expected to fill the role that Knife does."

Dante inclined his head a bit, as if to say that some of what was said was right but in his clear blue eyes, I saw that there wasn't a full acceptance of what the Prince had said. "While Flute might have been a guardian companion to you, Prince Kieran, he was never intended to fill the same niche that Knife does. He was trained to be good at different things, though his purpose is the same, to ensure that you live longer than you would without him."

"I would think that defending me from attacks would be the greatest thing he could do," Kieran snapped.

Dante didn't look the least bit perturb by Kieran's rude tone. The expression on his face was calm and detached, something I admired about him and what made him seem quite mysterious. However, I knew behind the disconnected look was a man who cared deeply for what was around him. "If you were to be assaulted physically," Dante responded evenly, "you would not only have Knife defending you, but the entire Royal Guard. I would have to say that Flute fights better than the guards, though he cannot compare to Knife's abilities."

"Or even my own," Kieran added fiercely.

"Or your own," Dante agreed complacently. "But if you would allow me to test him in what he is good at, you will see that he is quite capable of protecting you from harm."

"How do I know that what you are testing him he hasn't already been made aware of so that visibly he will know everything needed to impress me?"

I wanted to go up to Kieran and tell him to his face that Dante was an honest and admirable man and he would never do such a deceitful thing like that. However, I had to admit that there was cause for concern. If Dante was giving the test, then there was reason to suspect foul play involved. But if Kieran knew Dante like I knew Dante from Yarn's stories, then he would know that Dante would never falsify anything for anyone's benefit. It wasn't in Dante nor would Yarn have been pleased to know that the only way his prized student had been able to impress his chosen was by lying.

"He won't," Dante stated simply.

"But how?" Kieran persisted in his question.

"Because I won't be administering the test," Dante responded. "Your sister's companion will. Yarn is making the arrangements right now with Star. You do trust her not to do anything underhanded, I trust?"

I saw Kieran visibly relax. It was as the tension was leaving his body that I realized how tense he had been. I had thought that this meeting and testing would only be stressful for me, but I was wrong to assume that I was the only one that was being greatly affected by this choosing. Kieran was too. It was bad of me to forget that the Prince was going to have to adjust and adapt to as many changes as I was. I wasn't Real, and neither was he Thyme.

"I trust her."

"Then you do not protest if she carries out the tests for Flute?"

"I do not protest," Kieran stated. "However, I wish to know what tests that he will be carrying out."

Dante nodded and gestured for Kieran to follow him. All I could do was watch them leave as I wondered why no one had told me about the test. If anything, I would have thought that Yarn would have at least tried to warn me, even if it might have been forbidden. Yarn was always willing to help me when I needed it, and I did need it now. It was too bad I didn't know where he was.

It was too bad that I was left in the sullen presence of Knife. It was all too bad.

A BOOK WAS given to me and I was to read the first few pages and then recite it back to Star. I opened the book with trembling fingers, glad for the soothing presence of Yarn, who stood by Star's side looking at me with encouragement. I had no idea where Dante nor Kieran was, but I knew that they would be watching from somewhere. In a way, it was better that Kieran wasn't there. I think his presence would have only made me more nervous than I already was.

I glanced down at the text and I knew immediately that it wasn't anything I had seen before. At least, I had never seen the history of Svetlana's grandfather written in this form. Of course, that would make sense if they wanted to test my memory. However, there were so many books and tomes in Thyme's vast library that it was hard to believe that there was something written that she didn't own. It seemed I would need to find a way to send a copy of this back to her when this test was over. Even if she wasn't particularly keen on the topic, it was surely a text she wouldn't mind adding to her collection.

"Are you done?" Yarn asked.

I glanced up and heard Star saying, "He surely cannot be done yet, Yarn. He has scarcely finished reading it once."

Yarn merely smiled and asked me again, "Are you done?"

I nodded and I saw Star's expression shift between amazement and disbelief. It was something that I was used to dealing with. There were many that didn't believe in my memory capabilities, that I only had to see it once and if I wanted to remember it, I would. "Where would you like me to begin?" I inquired softly. "I've read the first few pages, and anywhere you'd like me to begin reciting, I can."

Star pursed her lips together, and I knew that even though she was skeptical she was going to test me thoroughly as if she believed I did know it. "Begin with the second sentence of the second paragraph, Flute."

"'Whilst in the second year of his reign, Basil married a minor lady of Monevassia, Anastasia, in line with prior marriages made between the Royal House of Valoir and their loyal nobles in their duchy. It was in the fourth year that Basil's heiress, the Princess Ludmila, future Queen of Valoir and Duchesse de Monevassia was born to Basil and his Queen. His heir to the King of Valoir throne was born in the sixth year and named Vasili in honor of his own name. The last child of this union was called Giffard and he subsequently became the Duc de Lyonne when he married the Duchesse Esme de Lyonne."

"That's enough," Star remarked. "I'm suitably impressed. You have an excellent memory. You must have only spent a few minutes reading it and yet you've already memorized that passage and I daresay the rest of whatever you read?"

"I have," I answered honestly. I still didn't understand how others didn't memorize what they read or saw after seeing it once. For me it was like breathing, I did it instinctively. While I didn't understand how they couldn't or why it was hard, I knew that they couldn't. "Are you going to test me further?"

"Yes," she replied simply, "but in another way. Come," she gestured for me to follow her, "and I believe that the next portion of the test has been prepared for you."

I didn't know what I expected to see. I remembered Thyme having me identify plants that she had selected because they were so similar to the point of being the same. It wouldn't be entirely unexpected for me to have to identify some plants and perhaps make some medicines out of them. I was almost an herbalist master, after all, and that had to be a useful ability to own up to. Every remedy Thyme could cram into my memory, she had. I could make jasmine scented oil to headache cures as easily as I could make a powerful fever tonic that would reduce the chills to nothing.

Instead of being greeted with the sight of plants and herbs that I would need to concoct into mixtures from my experience under Thyme's tutelage, I was met with the overpowering aroma of several soups that were being displayed in an elaborate setting that wasn't necessary to tempt the stomach. The delicious smell alone was enough to make my mouth start watering.

"I think the castle chef has outdone herself again," Thyme remarked. Turning toward me, she asked intently, "Do you know what sort of test these soups will test you in?"

I had been expected to be tested on my herb skill, but I hadn't thought that I would be tested in this manner. "I will taste the soup and identifying what is in there?"

She nodded. "That's correct. The major ingredients, like chicken or salt, the usual you don't have to list, but the herbs and spices and… well whatever has been added in, I will expect you to identify."

It went without saying that they expected me to identify if there was anything unusual and poisonous in the soup. I wondered if this was the manner in which Kieran's companion had been fatally poisoned. If it was, even if Real had been trained to recognize some of the major poisons, the heavy flavoring of traditional Monevassian soup would have overwhelmed most of the after flavor of a poisonous plant. And having a plant cooked also changed many of the properties of its particular taste.

It didn't help either that Thyme had never considered testing my ability to decipher poisons in food within soups more than a few times. I had inadequate experience with them, and considering the sheer variety of soups there were and the different ways each cook makes them--- it was almost impossible to prepare for them. She had done drinks mainly instead, since drinks were the preferred medium of poisons because most poisons lost quite a bit of potency when they were cooked.

This was going to be hard. I glanced to the side and saw Dante standing at the far corner with a stout woman who was likely the cook. The woman looked like she was arguing with him about something, but I couldn't hear a word that she was saying. My entire focus was on the steaming soup bowls. I tried hard to sense if I could smell anything discernible, but I detected nothing. I wasn't surprised. It would have been too easy if the castle chef had used a poison that gave off a noticeable odor. I couldn't think of any assassin that would be stupid enough to use a poison that was that obvious.

Tentatively, I took a spoon and dipped it into the first bowl. I swirled it to see if there was any possible way that I might be able to guess at what was in the soup without having to taste it. I had a gut feeling that while Dante wouldn't put anything in these soups that was lethal with a small dose, he also had to prove myself to the rest in a manner that was quite personal.

I brought the light red liquid close to my nose and tried once again to smell what was in it, since I saw nothing wrong with the tomato basil mixture. I smelled nothing but the rich tomato flavor. I sipped the soup slowly, allowing the rich flavor to roll over my tongue as I noted the basil and the use of cilantro as well as the slightest hint of lemon. There was nothing else that I tasted and I told Star of what I tasted. Her expression was mute, and so I decided to move onto the next soup, a heavy clam chowder.

Again, I tasted nothing out of the ordinary, picking out the different herbs and spices added easily. I was consciously looking for poison, but I didn't taste nor smell any. Maybe I was being paranoid. Maybe I wasn't supposed to be looking for poison at all, but just identifying herbs and spices that were mixed into the soup. I glanced over the last bowl without really looking at it and brought the spoon to my mouth. I promptly spat it out.

"Asignon," I answered and gulped down glass of water that Star handed to me so that I could rinse my mouth out quickly. Even though I had gotten no more than the merest taste of the highly lethal plant, even the slightest bit of it could cause significant irritation. While the flavor had been faint, I had still been paranoid enough to identify it even if my visual guard had been lax. "A lethal poison," I added as an afterthought.

I had noted throughout the soup tasting, that the Prince's expression had been etched with surliness. But when I had identified the asignon in the last soup, he had looked started enough that I knew he hadn't known about this beforehand. There had also been a trace of something else on his face that made the hostility into something far more volatile. It made me think my guess that this was the way the Prince's companion had been poisoned all that much more of a certainty.

"Very well done, Flute," Dante murmured as he gestured for the servers that had been standing in attendance to take away the soup bowl. The knowing glance he shot the master chef had me guessing that the protestations from the cook had something to do with the dangerous ingredient he had added to her soup. He must have been reassuring her that I would be able to name the poison without poisoning myself. She didn't look like she liked it, but the worried lines that had marred her face had disappeared. "Shall we move onto the other tests, my Prince?"

"So that you will kill my new companion before he has become my companion?" Kieran retorted, his eyes flashing with an anger and animosity that I didn't understand. After all, he had been the one to push Dante to this. If he hadn't, Dante would never have designed such a test for me to take. Though with all the preparations that this would have taken, I suspected Dante must have known beforehand that Kieran would require visible proof of my suitability as Real's replacement.

"Nothing I have tested in him has been beyond Flute's capabilities," Dante responded smoothly. "If I didn't think him capable of being up to the task of being your companion, you would be sure that I would not have assigned him to you as his chosen one. He is up the task and will serve you admirably. Now, shall we get on to the other tests?"

"There is nothing else that he needs to prove," Kieran snapped. "I can see for myself that you have trained him as well as can be expected in a companion for a man that is marked for death by Valoir knows who. Though I would like to know who tutored him in his arms. I expect better fighting skills than what I've seen out of him."

Dante inclined his head apologetically. "Flute's other talents have always surpassed his ability to defend himself and others. He has continued to show great improvement, the older he has grown. I am sure under your guardian, Knife's tutelage that his skill will continue to grow. As I've already told you, with his vast array of knowledge and unsurpassable memory, he will prove vital to you and your inheritance."

"I pray that be the case by Valoir," Kieran muttered, "if he can survive all the machinations of a royally corrupted court."

The Prince and his guardian companion swept out of the room. I was stunned by his bold declaration of the political intrigue and manipulations that were threatening not only his inheritance but his very life. Though I had never been taught to retrieve information for the good of Valoir, like the lesser known emissaries that learnt their trade in the shadows and veil of obscurity, I knew one didn't go about stating a truth like that in the presence of others. I could see that Kieran was different and that even if he was older than me, he still had much to learn about the holding of one's words.

I felt a soft hand on my shoulder and heard a beautiful voice whisper, "The Prince is a temperamental young man, but he has a good heart and he will be a good chosen for you, Flute."

I recognized Star's voice. "He doesn't like me."

"No," she agreed. "But he does accept you or else he would have said he would not have you in his service even if you were the only one acceptable."

"Are you sure?"

I heard a chuckle that was not feminine. "You ought to believe the highest companion in the land," it was Yarn speaking, "when she says something. I have not known Star ever to be wrong in anything."

"I am not the highest in the land," Star responded in objection. "And I don't know if I am always right, but I always speak what I believe to be true. I know Kieran perhaps better than anyone other than his sister, and he is too straightforward for his own good. He still has pretense to learn if he wishes to get through the royally corrupted court unscathed. If he didn't accept you as his companion, he would have told you."

"And," Yarn added, "Dante would not have assigned you to this role if he did not believe you capable of it. You heard him say in his own words that you are up to task and will serve admirably."

Star smiled encouragingly. "He is the one that's never wrong."

I glanced at both their kind eyes and still further at where Dante was nodding approvingly at me and hoped I did not fail their expectations.

A/N: Sorry it's been so long. I have a new original novel, sci-fi and fantasy, published. It's complete and will be posted each week until I'm done! It's called THE GLASSHOUSE!