Isla had never been anywhere like the tavern before. She had expected it to be noisy, crowded and rowdy – her expectations were exactly correct. What she hadn't foreseen, however, was the cheer and positivity bouncing around the room, ricocheting off the people as they danced and laughed and talked.
"Come on, Miss Wallis," called Ferrin over the din. "You aren't in the presence of royalty here. Have a dance!"
"No thank you, Ferrin," Isla responded, as quietly as she could manage while still being heard.
Ferrin dodged around the various dancers, crossing over the room and sitting down at Isla's table.
"Not even with me?" he said in a low voice.
"Certainly not with you," she laughed.
Realizing any attempts to get Isla up and dancing were futile, Ferrin returned to the dance as quickly as he had left it. Isla watched him with a smile. He was a terrible dancer and seemed to be moments away from falling at all times, but the energy he put into everything he did made his uselessness endearing.
Isla's attention, however, was soon taken away by another character. She hadn't seen him come in, but she hadn't noticed him before either. He wore a long, black cloak, and his eyes were entirely covered by a piece of red cloth wound around his head. In the brightness of the tavern he should have stood out dramatically, but no-one seemed to notice he was there. Tucked away in the corner, he was like a shadow on the wall.
As Isla looked closer, she could see something sparkle in his fingers. He was holding some kind of silver-white gem, but before she could identify exactly what it was, the gem was slipped inside the cloak out of sight.
"Drat," Isla muttered. Despite her outward sophistication, she couldn't deny an unladylike curiosity that she had yet to master.
"A mystery," said a voice from behind her, thick with an accent she didn't recognize. Isla snapped her head around and saw another strange figure. Up to his neck, his attire was the same as every other man in the inn. His head, however, was covered in an unnerving, grinning mask, and his head covered with the garish hat of a jester.
"He is a traveler," the man said, sitting in the seat opposite Isla. "Like myself. Like you also, I believe. We stand out from the crowd. Diamonds among pebbles."
Had she not known better, Isla would have snapped that he and the cloaked figure stood out from the crowd far more than she did. But she was a Tushtag lady, and so instead sweetly asked where it was he was travelling from.
"A distant place," he replied. "Beyond the four kingdoms."
Here Isla was lost for a reply. Until yesterday she had never left Tushtag, let along the four kingdoms that made up her entire world. All she knew about life outside was of a mountainous wasteland, cold and mostly uninhabited.
"And what brings you to Kirry Kaily?" she asked, the sugary tone consistent.
"I want to free the princes."
Isla choked slightly, a mix between a laugh and a gasp. Free the princes? She thought of Colby, laughing and joking – she had never seen a freer spirit, and yet this man wanted to free it more. The three princes had a palace so large it contained the cottages of around a hundred workers inside its courtyard; they had the fastest horses for miles around; they had everything they could dream of. How could they possibly be any freer?
"I think you may be confused," Isla said, trying not to giggle. "Are you sure you mean you want to free the princes? Because I'm don't think that quite makes sense."
"I mean what I say," the man said. "The princes are trapped behind those palace walls. My purpose is to free them."
Baffled, all Isla could say was: "How?"
But before he could reply, a hand appeared on his shoulder. Ferrin was scowling, a darkness across his features that Isla hadn't seen before.
"Are you okay?" he asked her, his grip on the stranger's shoulder never faltering.
"Yes," Isla said meekly. She was astonished by Ferrin's reaction – and also by the other man's. Even with his face covered by a mask, Isla could sense the terror radiating off him.
"I think we'll be leaving now," Ferrin said firmly. Cautious that a scene might occur if they stayed any longer, Isla rose from the chair and left with him. The dancing and music continued throughout, but she noticed the occasional head twisted in their direction.
Ferrin was quiet as they trudged up the mountainside. The growing darkness and cold of the evening made the journey uphill even more tiring, and the bitter atmosphere didn't help at all.
"What was that, then?" she finally said.
"What was what?" he mumbled moodily, like a disgruntled child.
"At the inn. Why did you act that way?"
Ferrin hesitated and shrugged a few times before eventually coming up with an answer.
"That guy seemed dodgy."
"Yeah. Some of the people at the bar were saying he's always around there, spouting some revolutionary ideas about overthrowing the royals."
"Freeing the princes," said Isla.
"Exactly," said Ferrin. "He wasn't going on about that to you, was he? I was worried he might. He calls himself the Rooster, apparently – heralding a new dawn, or something. I don't think that's the kind of person a lady like you should be hanging about with."
Isla glanced at him, a laugh on her lips. He was blushing a little redder than usual, and staring at his feet.
"I'll forgive you your protectiveness this time," she said, "but from now on, I'll decide who I talk you – yes?"
He shrugged sulkily, but that characteristic grin shone through and Isla knew that any tension that had arisen between them had completely disappeared.