When the moment came that everything clicked for Liam and he realized he sat before Prince Adrian Braime, the first thought that came to mind was that he had waved his sword in the face of the King's son. Crevelti was obviously getting no small pleasure out of the utter surprise with which the Ridgewood Five responded at this revelation. Durant was on his feet and once, bowing low and addressing Adrian as, "My Prince." Adrian responded to the adoration given to him with no lack of respect, but it seemed to Liam that he was uncomfortable with the attention. Liam did him the respect of sitting back.
When the courtesies had been observed, Adrian asked Claire: "So, what say you, Claire of Ridgewood?"
"What can I say, my Prince?" She asked in reply. "Other than that I would be more than honored. I could never have imagined this to happen in a hundred years."
"That makes two of us," Crevelti said with a chuckle. "If you will excuse us, I believe my apprentice has a great deal to discuss with his father. You will receive a message come evening."
"Of course, my lords." Father Durant bowed to a knee, and Risa mimicked him, followed by Evlein and Claire. Liam waved a hand as they left the house. "See you later."
When the door had shut and their visitors had left, the others let out a sigh of relief, like a great load had been taken from their shoulders. "Prince Adrian!" Father Durant said. "I can hardly believe it!"
"It's as believable as our story," Evlein pointed out. "Not many people would have taken five strangers on their word that they had to save the world. We were lucky."
"We sure were. Lucky that I was arrested," Liam said. He regretted it the instant the words came from his mouth. He should have just stayed quiet. Durant and Risa turned to him deliberately.
"I have had enough of your blatant disregard for authority, Liam," Durant said. "I am at my wit's end. You're not a child any more. Stop behaving like it."
"It wasn't my fault! A bunch of bullies came in and started harassing Claire. What was I supposed to do?"
"He was just defending me," Claire affirmed. Father Durant crossed his arms.
"Just be thankful things turned out the way they did. Matters could have gone very badly, very quickly."
The door flew open as Beezle and Bubba tramped into their house. "Hey Durant," Beezle called. "We just saw two funny-looking men come from the house. They didn't give you no trouble, did they?"
"No, Beezle, they did not give us trouble," Durant replied with a chuckle.
"Just checking. Thought I might need to knock some heads together," Beezle said before he toddled into the next room.
"What's on the agenda today, Father Durant?" Evlein asked.
"I was going to see if we couldn't find ourselves a ship and a crew, but that may very well be taken care of for us."
"Well, we can cross that off the list," Liam said. He leapt to his feet. "Looks like a free day!"
"You're not going anywhere, Liam. We all know how destructive a free day of yours can be." Liam looked at Durant, aghast.
"So I'm going to be stuck in this shack all day?"
"Excuse me! My house is not a shack! You're sitting in a veritable mansion!" Bubba shouted from somewhere nearby. The floorboards creaked as he waddled into sight. "My home has class! It has history! It has personality!" Liam threw his hands up in surrender, laughing.
"Sorry, I meant no offense!"
Bubba joined in his laughter, a rolling rumbling roar. He sat heavily down beside the Ridgewood Five. "I like this boy," he told Durant, pointing a fat finger at Liam. "Did I tell you that?"
"I'm sure that's because you can relate so well with him. Guess where Liam found himself last night. One of your favorite hangouts as a boy."
"You were arrested?" Bubba asked Liam, endlessly amused. "What did you do?"
Liam grinned. "I got in a bar fight."
"Did you win?"
"I would have, if the guards hadn't put shackles on me for drawing my sword."
Bubba sat back in his chair and tsked condescendingly. "You drew your blade in a fistfight? Shameful, my boy, really shameful. Next time, keep your hands off your sword and in your opponents' face!"
Durant put his face in his hands. "Bubba, this is not something I would have encouraged. We're going to spend the day cleaning up around the house, Liam. Beezle and Bubba have been kind enough to let them stay here, it is the least we can do."
It sounded like a simple enough task, but in actuality it proved to be an immense undertaking. For one, the house was immense. There were a dozen rooms on the second story, each stuffed with trinkets and treasures and other such junk. In one of the rooms, a tall winding staircase led to a third floor that Liam had not even known was there. It had four more rooms filled with objects Beezle and Bubba had discovered or purchased or otherwise acquired on their expeditions. There were candlesticks and necklaces and tools and instruments Liam had never seen before. These objects both men had grown much attached to, and it was difficult for anything to be moved around without upsetting the delicate balance Beezle and Bubba had created for themselves. They seemed to have their own, unique method of organization, and it upset them both to no end when things were moved about. In the end, it seemed to Liam their house guests had done Bubb and Beezle more harm than good, by the late afternoon most of the second story rooms having been tidied, dusted, swept, and reorganized.
As night was falling across the already-purple sky of the Amber City, a messenger clad in frilly red clothes came offering a cordial invitation. Claire of Ridgewood, chosen of the Immortals, was hereby invited to attend a dinner held in her honor by His Majesty the King, as were all of Claire's companions. Furthermore, in one hour's time the King would send a processional to accompany Claire and her companions to the Amber Palace to be cleaned and garbed in such a manner as is appropriate for a royal celebration. All dress and grooming would be provided for by the royal family.
After the messenger left, Liam noticed Risa fidgeting. She did not sit still, particularly odd for someone normally so straight and proper as Risa. She continually ran her long fingers through her hair, trying to rescue it from its various snarls; the effort was a lost cause. Her sudden bout of self-consciousness amused Liam to no end.
In contrast to Risa, Claire was calm. When an ornate carriage drawn by two brown Clydesdales stopped before the house, Claire greeted the driver cordially. Liam thought the man looked bemused when five commoners stepped from the crooked house and into his carriage. Inside, the seats were soft and thick beneath a tall, curved ceiling. Short curtains hung down in front of open air windows. Both Evlein and Claire were ecstatic to be riding so luxurious. Yet for all its elegance, Liam still bounced about the carriage as it drove over the cobbled stone road.
When the driver cracked the whip and the horses started off, Liam peeked beyond the curtain to find the city peeking back at him. People stopped what they were doing to watch the handsome cart pass by; children paused their games, gypsies skittered into the alleys, mothers let their washed clothes soak in the tub as their eyes lingered. Liam wondered if this was how the wealthy and powerful always lived, under constant scrutiny, judged, criticized, and envied by those less fortunate than themselves. Even from where he sat Liam could see the dull jealousy burning in the eyes of those on the street. It was no wonder Adrian preferred to travel beneath a hood and cloak than as a price, showered with attention.
Liam sat back in his chair as the carriage began its ascent through the districts. He set his head back on a plush cushion that seemed to be positioned for that very purpose. Evlein could hardly sit still. "This is so exciting," he gushed gaily.
"Liam, I expect you to be on your best behavior," Father Durant told him. Liam rolled his eyes.
"You don't have to worry about me, sir, I won't punch the prince," he replied sarcastically. He response did little to reassure the solemn sayer. The city crawled by them as the horses trudged steadily up the road. Each district sat higher than the one before, and so the buildings looked as if they had been piled one on top of another.
The evening dark that covered the city was accentuated as they passed beneath the gatehouse. When they emerged, they came upon a mansion bathed in light. It was taller than any building Liam had ever seen. Nearly a hundred times the height of any man, he could not see the top from where he sat in the carriage. The way the light of a thousand torches danced upon the palace walls in a yellow and orange pirouette nearly took Liam's breath away. Ramparts and balconies dotted the magnificent structure. Trees of white bark and green leaves grew on and around the building out of the mountainside. If the Amber City's walls were impressive, its Palace was magnificent beyond expression. Liam could only gape.
The carriage continued over a heavy wooden bridge extended over a moat of flowing water. It tunneled through another gatehouse, this one much larger and full of guards. They wore the deep red of the Crimson Guard and stood in silent sentry, halberds held at their sides. The gatehouse led to a large bailey where three trees grew from the stone, their leafy arms stretching into the air. It was a wide area, surrounded completely by thick stone walls. Opposite the carriage was another gatehouse, and on either side was a wooden door beneath the wall overhead. Young highborn boys played knights beneath the shade of a tree as the carriage passed.
Beyond the final gatehouse was the entryway to the Amber Palace. The driver pulled the horses to a halt before an open doorway. Enormous double doors of polished black wood were thrown open into the entrance chamber. The door to the carriage opened before them and the chauffer stepped up to help Claire and Risa down. Liam leapt for the carriage, his eyes drinking in the resplendent palace with a thirst he never knew he had. Everywhere Liam looked his eyes saw the clean cloaks of the Silver Guard. The carriage rolled away behind them as the driver whipped the horses into action with a curt shout. For a while the Ridgewood Five stood with open mouths, looking like fools before the Amber Palace. From somewhere within the mansion, a dapper butler turned the corner and started toward them. It took him a few minutes to cross the entrance hall to where they stood at the mouth of the Palace. He gave her guests a humble bow. "Welcome, honored masters. I have been informed of your arrival. If you will allow it, I shall take you to be cleaned and dressed for the festivities tonight."
They followed behind the manservant, stepping beyond the threshold into the palace. Stained-glass windows lined the long entrance chamber, candles casting erratic light across the rainbow images. Shivers of muted yellow danced on the white stone of the palace. A great scraping and clattering echoed from the hall beyond.
If Liam thought the antechamber was large, then the only word that came to mind when he saw the great hall was gigantic. They stood in the largest room Liam had ever seen. The lofty ceiling made the Temple of Niphus look like a lean-to. Dozens of goblins scurried in and out of the great hall, dragging tables and chairs and sweeping the floors and carrying tall piles of shiny silverware. On the far side of the hall a wooden throne sat before a gigantic archway; on each wall to the side were a dozen empty doorways.
They followed the butler through one of the doorways and the labyrinth of hallways that ensued. They climbed stairs carved from the same white stone the rest of the city was. The palace had more rooms than Ridgewood had houses. Every so often they would pass a group of tapestries, woven with colors so bright it hurt the eyes. At last they came upon a hall that looked very much like the rest of the palace where they stopped. The butler turned to them briskly. "The gentlemen have been accorded a room for cleaning and dressing. My lady, your room is the door next to theirs. Miss Claire," the manservant gave her a cordial bow, "your chambers are to the right of the lords'."
It sounded funny to be called a lord, but Liam was never one to argue something like titles. If the butler wanted to call him a lord, he was more than free to. Lord Liam.
To say their room was spacious would have been a gross understatement. The beds alone were larger than the living area Liam had shared with the others that the abbey. Everything was plush and scented. The feather mattresses were so soft they seemed to melt as Liam brushed his fingers over them. The fireplace was so large they could have roasted three grown pigs beneath the hearth. Wardrobes the size of horses were lined against the wall. Servants stood in waiting as they entered. Liam dropped himself onto one of the sitting chairs and sank into the cushion.
Barely had he stretched his legs across the satin rug when the servants threw themselves upon Bernard and Evlein and him. The servants stripped them to their underclothes and put Evlein and Bernard in chairs beside Liam. Liam's manservant drew from the bag at his side a razor, and set it against Liam's skin. He bade Liam lay his head back as the razor sliced the scraggly beard from his face. As he worked, the servant began to speak in a soft voice at Liam. "I'll make you look presentable for his Majesty, don't you worry… rid you of this unruly, unbefitting hair… make you clean and bare and beautiful, I will." The servant did not stop at Liam's face; when his cheeks were shaven, the servant took the razor to Liam's arms, then his legs. Liam squirmed uncomfortably as the hair was cut from his limbs. When the servant was done he felt raw. Then two weeks' worth of hair was cut from his head, leaving it short.
"This is fashion?" Liam growled. The servant giggled uncomfortably.
"Hair is uncivilized, it's for barbarians. It grows then gets tangled and things get stuck in it, and if it gets bad enough the birds begin to nest there."
After the hair came the nails. Liam's legs tingled as the servant assaulted his fingernails and toenails with all manner of instruments. First was a small hook to clean the dirt and grime from beneath, then a file that the servant used to wear away at Liam's fingers. He wiped them down in a bowl of cool water with a cloth, and then sponged down the rest of Liam's body with water and soap that smelled like lilacs. When Liam was cleaned and dried the wardrobe doors were opened, revealing a lavish outfit that made him cringe. "Is that for me?" The servant nodded at him as he gingerly pulled the costume from the wardrobe. "Do I have to wear that?"
"This is the latest style among nobility, my lord." Suddenly the title didn't sound so appealing. The nobility could keep their lordship, along with their surcoats and hats and puffy sleeves. Durant and Evlein were looking at him to his side. The door opened and Crevelti stepped into the room, a look of welcome in his face and raised hands.
"They just told me of your arrival, welcome to the Amber Palace!" he said, hobbling closer to them. "The preparations for the dinner are finalizing as I speak. How goes the cleaning?"
"Liam does not approve of the suggested attire," Durant told him with a chuckle. Crevelti take a glance at the outfit.
"Good grace!" he cried. "They're going to put you in that?"
"This is the latest style among nobility," the servant said weakly. Crevelti turned to Liam.
"I'm sorry they want to put you through this, my boy. Bril is a trustworthy servant, and an expert in all things fashionable. Even if you're squirming, the ladies will love it." The magicker gave him a wink. Liam thought of Claire, and his reluctance dissolved. Most of it.
"I need pants, at least."
"Perfectly reasonable. Bril, fetch the boy some trousers," Crevelti said. Bril bowed, happy to have the issue resolved.
The trousers were fetched, and Bril suited Liam in the garments from the wardrobe. They were lighter than Liam had expected. When Bril had finished, he put Liam in front of an ovular mirror on the wall. "I don't care what you say, I think you look simply strapping," the servant said boldly, and Liam couldn't help but agree with him. They had given him tight black trousers, worn beneath a surcoat of scarlet satin. A mantle dyed as black as night was thrown across his shoulders and spilled down across his chest. It was trimmed with ermine fur that looked white as snow against the black of his coat. The shoes that dug into his heels when he stepped were made of hard leather. On his head he wore a conical hat that had a single red feather of a phoenix. Arobeinhung naked from a belt of black leather, a crimson flame against coal. As nice as Evlein's handmade scabbard was, it had not seemed appropriate with the attire. The clothes of a lord. Liam wondered if it would impress.
Evlein was dressed similarly, garbed in a coat of blue silk, white stockings, and a velvet cap that matched his hat. His shoes were armed with long metal points. Durant had politely refused to wear anything besides the brown robes of the sayer, so he had simply donned a plain cloak of deep green cloth with a gold link. This he wore over his robes, and on his head sat a wide-brimmed brown hat with a high crown. A single white feather was the only part of Durant's outfit that didn't look like a vegetable garden.
"It's amazing what a few silks and a clean shave can do to a man," Crevelti said as they stepped into the hallway. Liam felt larger, more confident as they stood there in their fine dress. Amazing, Liam thought. "Claire and Risa may be a few moments yet," Crevelti continued, beckoning them onward with an outstretched palm. "Let's go on ahead, shall we?"
The great hall had been made up, and now it awaited the commoners from Ridgewood, a great murmur of voices drawing them in. Within, the hall shone with the light of a thousand candles, glittering off the silverware and sheening off the walls. The brightness took Liam aback for a moment, and he had to survey the scene with squinting eyes. Lines of tables had been set in place, running a short length from the high table. A few hundred chairs were tucked beneath four rows of the tables. The high table was long, with the throne positioned at the center. Six smaller chairs sat on either side. A small goblin slunk to Crevelti's side and the magicker spoke to him. "Abi, could you show our guests to their seats?"
Liam watched Crevelti walk to his own seat at the high table as they were led to the table at the far side of the great hall. They were seated in three large chairs at the front of the hall where they had a clear view of the king's table. "You will be seated at this place of honor," Abi said. "Sit and rest your feet. I pray you enjoy the festivities," the goblin said to them, backing away with a bow. They each took their seat finding the wood beneath them soft and comfortable.
It was not long before the first of the guests arrived, with the sound of a horn and the cawing of a crier. "Presenting his lordship Count Bruno of Lave!" Count Bruno was a well-fed man who spilled over his thick jeweled belt. Liam didn't know where Lave was, but judging by Count Bruno's weight, he figured it must have an abundance of good food. More came after the Count, but most were not lords or counts, though there was fair number of knights. The criers announced the arrival of each guest, and sometimes Liam would lean over to Evlein beside him to ask where some county or another was located. Liam sunk low into his chair when the crier called, "Presenting the esteemed merchant Donovan Rugart and his son Cadbury Rugart!" Liam watched as the well-dressed boy from the bar and his father were seated, and smirked when they sat at the far end of the table, nearest the entrance. From where he sat Liam could see Cad had moved his nose back into its proper place. It was a pity, really.
Soon enough most all the seats were filled, save for the throne and its neighbors at the high table. Conversation rang all through the great hall in anticipation for Claire's audience, and the feast and festivities to come. Liam's ears picked up bits of talk as the gentry gossiped. The excitement in the air seemed universal; the invitations to the dinner had been sent out that very day, and such an impromptu feast sparked a deal of discussion. Liam was astounded at what had been thrown together at such short notice. It was grander than anything everyone in Ridgewood could have planned in a month.
The sound of three herald trumpets sounding drew Liam's attention. The crier stood beside the door that they had entered from some time earlier. The great hall fell silent as all eyes fell on the crier, who stood undaunted beside the doorway.
"Presenting His Royal Majesty Prince Philip and Her Royal Highness Princess Elora," the crier cried, and crimson guards escorted a boy younger than Evlein behind a girl no older than ten years. Their personal servants accompanied them as they walked into the great hall. No sooner had the young royalty entered the hall when the crier continued: "Presenting the heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Braime and her provinces, His Royal Majesty Prince Adrian Braime." The Prince who had worn a hood stepped through the door in his regal attire, looking dapper in an outfit that was all blue. He wore a deep azure undershirt covered by a sleeveless jacket and a short, richly ornamented sapphire mantle. He had strong, muscular arms that held the silk of his shirt taut at some parts. At his side hung an ornamental sword that Liam wondered if he knew how to use. His eyes followed the Prince as he sat down while the crier continued his announcement. "Presenting His Royal Majesty King Aurelius Braime, high regent of all provinces of the nation of Braime and the Horsehead Isles." The entire hall stood as the king walked before them.
The King of Braime was a handsome man, with a chiseled jaw covered in a soft brown stubble. He wore a long black cape that flowed from a coat of snowy white and yellow. On his head was his crown, a bejeweled band of solid silver that sat atop his ears. He walked with long, even strides to where his throne stood waiting for him. Prince Philip and Princess Elora had already taken their places to the left of their father, and Prince Adrian was at the seat to the right. Only two seats remained empty at the high table, beside Adrian. All eyes looked to the crier as he spoke again. "Presenting His Majesty's guest of honor tonight, Claire of Ridgewood and her companion Risa."
Risa came first, looking surprisingly elegant in an earthy green dress with long embroidered sleeves. Her long, slender neck was bare save for a simple silver necklace that hung down the top of her chest. A humble headdress held her dark blond hair up in a neat bun. After Risa came Claire.
Liam took a sharp breath as Claire stepped into view with her soft demeanor as ever. She flowed into the great hall like a leaf on the wind, in a dress that sparkled with an autumn gold down to her feet. It hung off her shoulders, and her golden hair tumbled down her back. A low neckline exposed Claire's collar, laced with long silver bracelets. The bead necklace Liam had bought her hung around her neck as the centerpiece. Jute as blue as the skies was sewn into the sleeves and waist, running ornate patterns that made Claire's eyes shine. She wore her streams of blue on a field of golden grain. Liam stared after her as she walked nervously to her seat, and he reckoned the rest of the hall did as well. How could they not? She looked like the sun and the sky, and the stars and the deep, beautiful night.
When she stood at her chair King Aurelius bade them to sit, and began to speak. "I would wish on Clairette of Ridgewood a welcome worthy of her undertaking. My lords and ladies, my friends and subjects, I have the honor of introducing to you one Chosen by the Immortals. The Angel King Niphus came to Clairette and her companions to deliver a warning, that the Fourth Prophecy recorded by the Prophet Islesh would soon be fulfilled, and that supernatural darkness would grip the realm of mortals. But in his wisdom, he came too bearing a message, telling that Clairette had been bestowed a very special responsibility; the honor to travel across Alstatia to bring the Immortals back in touch with the world they created. This young girl from Ridgewood has agreed to make the ultimate sacrifice for the good of humanity, and it is for that reason we sit here tonight. So, I raise my cup to honor Clairette of Ridgewood, saver of worlds." Liam grabbed at his cup, his eyes hardly leaving Claire as he raised it and joined in the chorus of cheering. Then he drank, to Claire, saver of worlds.
Beside him, Evlein crinkled his face in disgust as the rich wine hit his tongue. Evlein had grown up on cow's milk, and had little tolerance for such strong drink. But he drank anyway, and Liam was impressed at how well he handled it.
After the toast came the first course of the feast. The high table was served before all others. Along with the royal family and Claire and Risa were men whom Liam did not recognize. There was a tall, grumpy looking man who wore a gleaming set of armor. Beside him a short, plump man sat eagerly awaiting his food. There were a few others as well, but the only one Liam recognized was the old court wizard. He grinned merrily as a goblin set before him a plate of food and refilled his goblet. As the food was set out among the hundreds of nobles, knights and notables, minstrels pranced about between the tables, plucking their lutes and singing in high, light voices. The king and his table had all but cleaned their plates by the time all the guests had been served.
The courses that followed were many and magnificent. There came quartered stag, hare, stuffed chicken, and veal. There was beef pie, quince bread, rice tarts and meat tarts and stewed pigeon. There were rich dishes that Liam had never even seen before, and most of what he ate he could not name. There was cod and salmon and creatures brought in from the sea, stored in salt and boiled in oil and butter. Tiny curled creatures, and hard shells with insides of warm, delicious meat goo. Even Durant indulged in onions with cumin sauce and parsley salad. Wheels of cheese sat dripping moisture. For dessert bowls of fruit was served with the best cream Liam had ever tasted, with sweet caramels, followed by several rounds of pies, honey cakes, tarts, and custard.
Liam's stomach was full to bursting by the time the dishes were cleared away and they were asked to stand. The tables were pulled to the side of the room and the musicians who had danced about the hall during dinner now stood in the center of the great hall. Each of the troubadours held a different instrument. There was a lute, a wooden fife, a fiddle and a small drum. The musicians wore bright, loose clothing and floppy red hats with feathers on their heads.
The minstrel holding the lute bowed deep as the king spoke. "Minstrels, musicians, trouncing troubadours, play us a song worthy of these halls!"
"We can stand here upon your floor, but no more than that can we do," the lutist sang back.
"I pray you, good sir, why say you so? Are my halls not fertile for the songs you sew?"
The musician strummed his lute and found a tune, and begin to sing instead of speak.
"It's just so, just that, for the ground here is hard,
and ground so hard is the bane of a bard.
It's what frightens the bashful young maidens away.
It's what keeps all the eager young lads at bay.
This floor's not for dancin' on soft supple feet such as theirs
This floor's for holding grumpy kings and their chairs!"
The musician dramatically threw a finger toward King Aurelius and his throne. As Liam looked about the hall it was clear others had seen this before. Many of the nobles held grins on their faces, and Crevelti clapped happily as the exchange continued. The king stomped a foot and the hall chuckled at the spectacle. Then he opened his mouth and replied with a verse of his own.
"If this you so believe, minstrel, play me a song,
And I'll dance you a dance just to show you you're wrong!"
King Aurelius swept around the high table, scooping his giggling young daughter in his arms. The musicians began to play a lively tune without words as the king and his princess sped down the steps to the floor. As they began to dance, Liam leaned to Father Durant.
"What's this all about?" he asked the sayer.
"It's called the King's Dance," Durant replied. "It's been a cherished tradition in Braime for centuries. Usually the first dance of any royal occasion is shared by the king and his wife, or the prince and his bride if the occasion warrants, but because the Queen has passed His Grace shares the dances with Princess Elora."
It was a charming sight, the King of Braime holding his daughter by the hands as she stood on his feet. She was half his height. They danced about lightly, and when the dance ended the great hall clapped and father hugged daughter and ruffled her hair playfully. The minstrels bowed deeply as King Aurelius commended them. "His grace could dance in an avalanche and be as graceful as ever. And the Princess too, of course, yes, he could not do it without her. Now, shall we see if dancing blood flows through the veins of the young Princes of Braime as well?" Hooting and hollering came from the great audience as the princes stood, Philip looking sheepishly and Adrian amused. They stepped down to the floor and the musicians began playing a song Liam immediately recognized. It was a classic Braimish dancing song called "The Mug's Sweet Kiss," a dance Liam could have done in his sleep. He cringed as Prince Adrian ravaged the dance. Everyone clapped at the end anyhow, as though they thought he was any good.
When the song was done, the audience flooded onto the open space as the minstrels began another song. The tunes from the troubadours' instruments were not the flowing, stuffy music Liam had expected. He recognized most of them from the wandering musicians who frequented Ridgewood's tavern. They were wild and rambunctious, and soon the guests grew rowdy and excited. They stomped their feet and moved their hands to dances they knew, and when they did not they stood back and tapped their toes to the beat of the drum. Liam threw himself into the fray, spinning and hopping and twirling as much as anyone.
The night continued on, and the dancing continued with an endless vivacity. Liam was passing a pass with a well-dressed plump young woman when the minstrels ended one song, and began another one. It was a song Liam recognized immediately, probably the most famous partner song in the country. As the bard began to sing "Midnight's Mistress," couples started forming all around him. Dapper men and their wives, children in matching outfits, young star-crossed lovers, and strangers who had never before met all formed couples as Liam strained his neck. The high table was empty, save for magicker Crevelti who sat clapping his hands to the beat with a smile on his face. Liam pushed through the sea of partners, swimming with his head high, on the lookout. He saw Durant sharing the dance with Risa, which he thought was nice, and Evlein danced awkwardly opposite some wealthy merchant's daughter, his face red as a beet, but there were so many people Liam could not find his partner. The great hall was filled with dancers, moving together to the raucous melody.
Then, as he slid between two couples, he spotted Claire not a few steps away. He spoke her name, but it was lost beneath the scattered murmuring and laughter and the bold bass of the bard. He said it again, louder this time, trying to make his way through the crowded space. He raised a hand and waved at the blond girl, and she seemed to see him, but then there was a hand on her shoulder, and Claire turned away from Liam, into the hands of Prince Adrian. Liam stopped where he stood and let his hand hang disappointedly.
Liam followed the flow of the dancers until he reached the outside of the mass, and he left the dancing fools to their dancing. He scooped some stranger's cup of wine in his hand and drank deeply. "That wine isn't going to help you find yourself a girl, Liam," came Court Magicker Crevelti's voice. Liam looked up, and saw that he was just below the high table. Crevelti sat alone, leaning over the table to look at him with his sallow eyes.
"I have a girl," Liam replied forcefully. "She's just indisposed right now."
"Dancing with the prince, you mean?" Crevelti smiled at the scowl Liam gave him. "When you get to be my age, you learn a few things of love and life. There is a connection that goes on between two people who share a strong emotional bond, a connection that is palpable to those who have studied the arts of the arcane and the abstract. The bond you share with Claire is… very powerful. Very powerful indeed."
"We grew up together," Liam explained. "We've been together since the day Father Durant found us at the abbey doors. I showed up that morning, and Claire was found that night."
"Coincidences like that happen for a reason. You and Claire share some fate together."
Liam wondered if this fate included Prince Adrian. "Well, we are going to save the world."
Crevelti smiled again. "I'm confident you two have a greater fate in store than some world-saving."
"I didn't know you could see the future," Liam said. He emptied his mug and left it with the self-proclaimed mindeye, sitting at his seat and smiling his smile and predicting the future. Liam needed to find more wine.
Late that night, Liam's head ached as he stumbled out of bed. Claire had spent the whole bloody night with the prince and his princely clothes and his royal dancing feet. The notion of marching over to them and giving Prince Adrian a piece of his mind sounded better with every cup of wine. By the time the dance was done, however, Liam had succeeded in getting drunk, knocking a few nobles over as they danced, and pouting beneath the stained-glass windows. Claire hadn't even noticed Liam's finery. He had dressed up and drenched himself in perfumes for nothing.
The privy seemed impossibly far away as Liam stepped unsteadily from his room. Claire and Risa slept in the rooms where they had readied for the feast, and Durant and Evlein and Liam were all accorded their own enormous sleeping quarters. The privy was at the end of the long hall, against the wall. It was an interior wall, so the palace must have had some kind of elaborate plumbing system. After Liam finished his pilgrimage to the privy and relieved himself, he laced up his breeches and started the long trek back to his room.
He passed Risa and Evlein's rooms, and could hear them snoring softly. The middle room, the room Evlein and Durant and Liam had cleaned up in, was where Durant slept now. Beside that was Claire's room, where the door stood ajar. Liam stepped closer to the open door to shut it when he heard a peculiar noise. Or absence thereof. Where he should have heard Claire's gentle breathing, the sound he had fallen asleep to for seventeen years, he heard only silence. Liam opened the door gently and whispered, "Claire?"
The darkness beyond held no answer. Liam opened the door and let the torchlight from the hallway flood in. The illuminated room beyond housed an empty bed. Frowning with concern, Liam left Claire's door and looked up and down the hall. Now that he looked, a second door had not been closed. Beyond it was a small, cramped stairwell that led up and down. Liam shrugged, took a guess, and started up the stairs. He kept climbing and climbing, ignoring every door that he came across, until he came to the end of the line. He halted his tired legs in front of a solitary door, surrounded by stone, where the stairs disappeared. It was ajar, and a cool fresh breeze fluttered the bottoms of Liam's trousers.
Liam opened the door and stepped into the open night air. To call what he stood on a "rooftop" would have been both appropriate and inappropriate. He stood on the top of a great round turret, yet the rest of the palace and the frosty mountains still towered behind him. Liam stepped from the palace into this wide world. Claire sat near the edge of the turret, before a short decorated stone wall, looking up at the stairs. Liam walked toward her across the smooth stone of the turret top. She turned sharply when she heard the approaching footsteps, but her caution was immediately disarmed when she saw Liam.
"Liam," she said softly. He smiled amiably at her and stood beside her. "The night is so beautiful."
Liam had to agree. The city below was lit up with a million torches, so far away they looked like a reflection of the starry sky above. The moon was a silver orb in the sky, casting soft white light down on the valley. The river flowed as far as the eye could see in blissful silence, beneath the dull, constant rumble of the waterfall. The grey mountains slept on either side.
"Are you having trouble sleeping again?" Liam asked Claire. "I would think you'd be dead tired after all that dancing."
"Liam, this night… all the food, all the music, all the people…"
"It was in your honor," Liam finished for her. "You don't like that kind of thing."
"I don't know what these people expect of me," she said into the open beyond. "I don't even know what I'm doing. How can I explain that to these people?"
"The Immortals are guiding you," Liam said. "And I mean that literally. You know I'm not exactly a pious guy."
Claire gave a reserved laugh at the truth.
"Niphus led you to Aedromina, who told you how to find the Dwarves," Liam continued.
"There is a whole continent to explore in the far north. A freezing, ice-covered, forsaken continent. We could die before we get close."
"Why have you been so negative lately, Claire?" Liam asked. "This isn't like you."
Claire curled her arms around her legs and set her chin on her knees. "I don't want to lose the people I love," she said, barely more than a whisper. Her voice was nearly lost on the wind. "I don't want to have to say goodbye to Father Durant or Risa and Evlein. I'm not strong enough to see you leave me, Liam."
Liam walked in front of Claire and knelt before her, taking her hands in his. "We've been over this, Clairette. We will never leave. I will never leave you. We're in this with you until the end."
"I don't want the end," Claire said.
"None of us want the end. The end of this means the end of an era. It means darkness and death. But it also means the end to all the bad, because the Immortals are going to come and teach evil a lesson. And that's where you come in, Clairette of Ridgewood, saver of worlds."
Claire giggled and Liam pulled her to her feet. "I thought that sounded so silly when His Grace said it," she said.
"It's catchy. And coming from the King of Braime makes it all the better. The whole kingdom will know about you soon enough, and every voice will be talking about you, the saver of worlds."
"My secret is out," Claire said, biting her lip.
"Anybody who comes after you, is going to have to deal with the King and his knights and nobles and soldiers. And me, of course."
"Of course," Claire smiled. They stood close together in the summer air. "I suppose the feast wasn't all bad. I got to dress up and eat and dance…"
"I saw you dancing with the Prince," Liam said, feigning a smile.
"He was magnificent," Claire beamed. Liam rolled his eyes.
"He was mediocre, at best. He looked stiff and awkward."
"And you could do better?"
"Claire, don't talk to me like you've never seen me dance. I'm the reigning champion of the Harvest Festival dance, remember?"
"Liam." Claire stifled back a laugh. "The backwater dancing of Ridgewood is entirely inappropriate for the halls of the Amber Palace."
The city was getting to her already, Liam thought with a smirk. "It's a good thing we're on the parapet, and not in the halls." Claire just shook her head at her. "How about it? One dance, to make up for spending all night with prince charming and ignoring me?"
"I did not ignore you, you just didn't have the courage to take me from the Prince of Braime!" When Liam said nothing, but instead gazed intently at her, Claire looked around with a laugh. "You mean here? Now?"
Claire looked at him incredulously. She had a grin on her face that made Liam's heart warm. "I have a better idea," she told him. "Why don't I teach you a dance I learned tonight while you were getting dizzy off wine?"
"Is it a city song?"
"You could say that."
"I don't have much of a choice if I want a dance with you, do I?"
"You could say that."
Liam rolled his eyes. "Fine," he jibed. "Teach me."
"Okay!" Claire said, her excitement radiating. "Put your left hand up in the air and I'll put my hand in yours, like this. Now, put your right hand on my waist." Liam raised his brow at her, and his hand lingered. "Don't give me that bashfulness, mister. Follow my lead."
They started off, Liam holding Claire close by the small of her back, as they twirled slowly on their feet. Liam could feel the rhythm as they moved, could feel the pulse in his beating heart. They danced to the sound of their soft breaths on the night air. Claire's eyes glittered like the stars on the river. Liam closed his eyes for a moment and let the movement wash over him. The hand he held in his was warm and soft. Liam closed his eyes for a moment, and he felt a head lay upon his shoulder. They slowed to a halt and stood still for a while, and Claire wrapped her arms around Liam's stomach. Liam put his arm around her shoulder and hugged her.
"I won't ever leave you," Liam whispered. "Don't you ever leave me."
Time seemed to stop as they stood in their embrace atop the Amber Palace. How many minutes passed in their contented silence, they could not have said. Passing seconds were irrelevant as they took solace in the each other's warmth. The wind danced about them, sending ripples across Claire's nightgown and playing with her hair. Liam could feel it brush against his face and tickle his nose.
It was like Liam was waking from a dream when Claire finally pulled away from him. "I should let you get back to bed," she said softly. She brushed past Liam toward the ledge.
"Aren't you going to come in?"
"I can't sleep," she replied. Liam stood for a moment, and then started for the door. "Liam." He stopped at the sound of his name and turned to Claire. "Thank you."
"Good night, Claire."
Liam shut the door gently behind him, and walked the winding stairs to his room. He crawled into the plush feather bed and sunk with a smile. The fire in the hearth was cold compared to the warmth of Claire's body against his. The fine blankets were coarse in comparison with the soft touch of her skin. The nobles could have their titles and their featherbeds and their big rooms. Liam had something worth so much more than all of it.