"Royce, get back here!"
Royce glanced over his shoulder and grinned at me. "No."
I let out a yell of frustration and hurried after my brother. He had just returned from the village with Father, piled down with books on all sorts of weapons and training. He had dumped them on his bed, grabbed me from my conversation with Mona and pulled me down the pathway to the village. As soon as we were out of sight of the castle he had let go of my hand and sprinted on ahead, leaving me quite a distance behind him. It remined me quite clearly of the day he snuck out. With another huff I picked up my skirts, made sure the pouch of coins Mother had given me was secure and ran after him. Thankfully once Royce reached the forest edge he waited for me. He was bouncing impatiently on his toes, glancing over his shoulders and into the trees. As soon as I caught up to him he went down the path at a brisk pace. I rolled my eyes and hurried to keep up.
"What is your rush anyway?" I asked him, puffing slightly. "We have all day."
"The day is almost half gone Sharda!" he said in annoyance. "The eleventh chime had gone once Father and I cam back. It must already be halfway to the twelfth. That means we only have till eighteenth to get back."
"That's still oer six chimes!"
"Six chimes is barely enough time to play!"
"Barely enough? Royce, you get bored playing after one chime!"
He huffed at me and brushed his curls from his forehead. "That's different. Zale is interesting and I won't get bored with him."
The gypsies were waiting for us at the end of the path. Royce all but lept on Zale, who caught him with a laugh. I watched as the pair spun around, Royce's legs wrapped tightly around Zale's waist.
One of the younger gypsies, Rawnie, came up to me and smiled. "Hello princess! You guys came back!"
"Yes, well, Royce was very eager to and I guess I wanted to see you guys again," I admitted with a smile. "I'm guessing your parents are still here?"
"Yes, Loiza was very interested when Zale told him what had happened. Come, you can go meet him!"
I remember that Loiza was the leader of the gyspsies, Zale's father and the man that supposedly put a curse on Royce. I saw that my brother had gotten off of Zale and the two had their heads bent close together. Jal was watching them with a tiny frown but smiled at me when he saw me watching. He tilted his head towards the clearing and I nodded, albeit a bit nervously.
"Come on Royce, you wanted to meet Loiza," he said, gently pulling my brother from Zale. I saw Zale frown at the older boy before quickly grabbing Royce's arm, linking them together. Rawnie grabbed my hand and led me after them, chatting excitably about the things that had happened. Kizzy walked on my other side, conjuring up flowers and tucking them behind my ears. After a turn or two we were in the clearing and I saw the adult gypsies for the first time in eight cycles.
They were sitting around one of the tree stump tables, a platter of food in front of them. The rest of the gypsy children that hadn't met us were standing behind them. Lennor ran over to Royce and gave him a quick hug before speaking to Jal in that strange language. Dudee and Syeira came over to me and smiled, dropping into quick curtsies cheekily.
"That's the proper way to greet a princess right?" Dudee asked, eyes twinkling.
"Is it?" Rawnie asked, looking troubled. "Oh no, I didn't do that! I'm sorry princess."
"No, it's okay," I assured her. "You guys don't have to do that. It doesn't… feel right really."
"So," one of the adult gypsies interrupted. "These are the royals who paid us a visit."
The man was tall and practically oozed power. I could tell at once that he was Zale's father. While they didn't look similar, they both held themselves in the same way, tall, relaxed and confident. Unlike the other gypsy adults, he was bald, his head as dark as the rest of his skin, with inkings going down the centre. He wore a deep purple robe over his other clothes and wasn't wearing any shoes. Looking down at his feet, I could see he had some more inkings on them.
I looked over at Royce and saw he was watching the man in awe. He still had his arm linked with Zale who was watching my brother with a smug smile. He turned back to the man and grinned.
"Pappie, this is Royce," he said, walking a few steps forward and pulling my brother along. I bit my lip to stop myself from making a noise of protest. "And Sharda is with Dudee and Syeira."
I was thankful that the gypsy man didn't look at me but didn't like that fact that he had walked over to my brother. He moved with grace and ease, going down on his knees so he was face to face with Royce. Royce was still watching in awe, eyes brighter than I had ever seen them. I had to bite my lip again when the gypsy raised his hands and brushed a hand down Royce's cheek before smoothing his hair back. I was shocked when his face broke out in a grin.
"I remember you," he murmured but his voice carried loudly across the silent clearing. "The Crown Prince, yes? Royce?"
My brother nodded with wide eyes, still in complete awe. Zale was grinning brightly, pressed up against Royce's side and arms twinned tightly together. The gypsy saw this and frowned slightly but held out a hand to Royce.
"My name is Loiza and I'm the leader of the gypsies. It is a pleasure to meet you."
Royce finally seemed to find his voice as he shook Loiza's hand. "Pleasure to meet you too."
Loiza inclined his head before turning to me. "And this is your sister?"
I took in a sharp breath when he began walking over. Rawnie squeezed my hand reassuringly but it did little to calm my nerves. Royce was watching with concerned eyes, as if he could tell I was nervous. You probably could, I wasn't hiding it too well. Jal was also watching in concern, a small frown on his face. My eyes turned back to Loiza when he knelt down in front of me and brushed a hand over my cheek.
"Relax," he whispered, so quietly that only I could hear. "We are not going to harm you or your brother."
I let out a soft breath of air that I didn't realise I was holding and he smiled. I gave a tentative smile back and he stood up, inclining his head towards me.
"You are free to play as you wish though do not disturb us," he said out loud, addressing all of us children. "Do not do anything that may cause harm to the royals and when they are to leave you are to let them." At this last part he shot Zale a look before walking over to the other adults. They all stood and headed towards one of the larger tents, all inclining their heads to Royce and me before entering. It was silent for a turn before Royce let out a loud rush of air.
"Your pappie is intense," he said to Zale before brightening. "Hey, which is your tent? Can I see inside?"
"Sure!" Zale laughed, leading him over to the smaller tents. I watched as they disappeared inside before turning to the gypsy girls that surrounded me.
"So what to do you guys do normally?" I asked.
"Well, it depends on the day and the season," Dudee told me, leading us over to a tree stump table. "Rawnie, go get something for us to eat please?"
The little girl nodded before skipping over to one of the tents. It was lighter in colour, more of a sandy colour than the dark browns of the other tents. Lennor followed in after her and I turned back to the twins.
"Sometimes we have lessons," Syeira said, twirling a strand of her hair around her finger. "Sometimes we go to the village and play with the other kids."
"You guys go out to the village?" I blurted out before blushing. "I'm sorry, that was rude."
Dudee laughed and patted my hand. "It's alright. Yeah we do. They treat us like anyone else. Jal actually is quite… friendly with the baker's daughter."
"You mean… you mean he's courting her?" I whispered, eyes wide. I looked over at Jal who was talking with two other boys, Chik and Gillie. He looked to be between Mona and Mara's ages and neither of them had anyone courting them. "Isn't he a bit… young still?"
"Young?" Syeira asked, raising an eyebrow. "How old do you start 'courting' someone?"
"Well, normally around sixteen or seventeen cycles," I explained. "My eldest sister has only just got engaged and she's eighteen cycles now."
"That's… I don't know how many seasons that is," Dudee admitted. She called out to Jal. "Hey Jal! Come here and help us with something? It's about seasons and cycles."
Jal wandered over, as did Chik and Gillie. Jal sat next to me and gave me a smile.
"What's the problem?" he asked, looking between us.
"Well, we were talking about you and the baker's daughter and then Sharda thought you were too young and was telling us about her sisters and the way we mark our ages are conflicting and I don't know how old her sisters are," Dudee explained in a calm rush.
Jal looked at me again and I struggled to keep the blush of my face. "When she says it like that…"
The boys laughed and Jal shook his head. "How old are your sisters?"
"Eighteen, sixteen and fourteen cycles."
It was Gillie that answered. "Seventy-two, sixty-four and fifty-six seasons."
"Okay, Jal would have been bonded before the first one," Syeira said.
Rawnie had returned with the food and was looking at is curiously. "What are you guys talking about?"
"Nothing for you to worry about," Jal said, kissing her forehead. "Why don't you go play with Pias and Rye, yeah?"
She gave us all one last look before nodding and running off to the littlest boys. Twins seemed to run through that family, with Zale being the only single born child.
"What's bonded mean?" I asked, turning back to the older gypsies. "Is that like marriage?"
Jal hesitated. "I guess. Kind of." He paused and gave a huff. "It's hard to explain. Mammie is better at this."
"It's when two people are joined for life," Chik explained. "They take part in a ceremony that will bond them forever, even past their dying days.
"So it is like marriage?"
"Not really," Chik continued, frowning. "You see, gypsies live a lot longer than regular folk, it's the faerie blood in us. And most often, we take human partners. So… the ceremony is a joining a soul and blood. The gypsy partner needs consent from the human's family before it's allowed to be conducted. Then…"
"They share blood," Jal finished, nodding his head. "And their life forces are tied together. It is complicated now that I think about it. The human partner gains many years while the gypsy loses some. But they will pass through to the higher planes around the same time, no more than twenty season between."
"Five cycles," Gillie informed me at my confused look. "The process is much better explained in books."
"Yeah, Royce wants some," I said weakly. "We're heading to the book shop later to pick up some."
"You can take some of ours," Jal offered. "Patia, that's Chik's Mammie, writes about way of life. I'm sure she wouldn't mind letting Royce have a few."
"That's… thank you," I smiled, glancing over at the tents. "What… what do you think they are doing? Royce is never this quiet."
We all looked over at the tent that Zale had taken Royce into. It was silent, no sound coming from it. Jal was frowning as well, muttering something in their language under his breath. He stood up and stalked over to it, opening the flap and stepping inside. I heard a thud plus a shout that I recognised as Royce's. The three of them came put, Zale glaring at Jal and Royce clutching his head.
"What was that for?" Zale demanded. "We weren't bothering anyone."
"Royce, are you okay?" I asked, hurrying over to him. I checked his head and was relieved to see that there was no bruise or bump forming.
He nodded. "Yeah, just hit my head when I fell off the bed. Why'd you come storming in anyway?"
"You guys were being too quiet. I don't know about you Royce, but Zale is barely silent for more than a few turns." Jal answered, crossing his arms. "You two weren't up to anything were you?"
"No…" both boys answered, giving each other a look and drawing the word out. I groaned.
"Royce, what did you do?"
"Nothing!" he said, not looking at me. "At least nothing that concerns you."
"What is all this racket about?" Loiza asked, coming out of the tent he was in. He looked around at all of us. "Well?"
"Zale and Royce were up to something," Jal dobbed them in straight away. "They won't tell us what."
Loiza stared hard at Zale before turning to my brother. Royce stared right back, his whole posture defiant. Loiza's eyebrows drew in together before a look of understanding dawned in his eyes. He sighed and beckoned to them both.
"Come with me. You too Sharda. The rest of you stay out here."
We followed Loiza back into the tent where the rest of the adults were watching us curiously. Loiza told Royce to sit on one of the benches with blankets and pillows heaped on it. Royce did so and I stood close to him, giving him anxious glances. Zale jumped up nest to him and leaned against his shoulder, whispering in his ear. Loiza pulled up a stool in front of my brother and sat down, placing a leather pouch on his lap.
"Shirt of Royce," he said, opening the pouch up. "Caterina, could you fill a bowl with water please. Add some chamomile to it."
"Chamomile… that's used to sooth skin…" I muttered, eyes widening as I glared at Royce. "What did you do?"
"He didn't do anything," Loiza sighed. "Zale pierced his naval."
I watched as Royce pulled his shirt off reluctantly and sure enough he had a piece of jewellery hanging from his belly button. I groaned and hid my head in my hands.
"Oh Royce, why?" I moaned, shaking my head. "And Zale, you knew he wasn't allowed."
"But he asked," Zale said simply. "I couldn't say no."
One of the gypsy adults muttered under their breath in their language and Loiza huffed out a laugh. I peeked through my fingers to see him gently prodding around Royce's belly button. He took out a metal tool with a hook on the end from the pouch and lifted the piece of jewellery up, tugging slightly. Royce's skin stretched a bit and it was slightly red.
"Don't hurt him," I muttered before I could stop myself. "I'd rather not die anymore than I already am."
"I'm just checking to make sure it was pierced properly," he informed me, putting the tool down. "Zale actually did a good job, cleanly done."
Through my fingers I could see Zale puff his chest out in pride. Royce still hadn't said anything but was staring down at his belly. I took my hands away from my face and laid one on my brother's shoulder.
He shrugged. "They're really pretty. And I wanted one. It's my body, I can do with it what I want."
"Yes, but if Mother or father found out you would be in so much trouble!" I hissed at him. I turned to Loiza. "Can you take it out?"
He shook his head, taking the bowl the gypsy woman handed him. "Not without risk of infection. They could set in the broken skin and irritate the skin which can then lead to infection of the blood."
I watched as he gently cleaned the skin around the jewellery. The water smelt very nice, and had a claming effect over me. Royce was relaxing as well, leaning heavily into Zale. Zale wrapped an arm around my brother's waist and I saw some of the gypsy adults exchange looks. The gypsy woman who had brought the water over handed me a small glass bottle, filled with a light purple lotion. I looked at her in question and she smiled.
"Each night after he bathes, have your brother rub a small amount of this around his naval," she explained. "It will keep the skin calm, prevent it from irritating. He'll have to be careful as well, make sure he doesn't pull it as it my tear the skin. If that does happen I suggest you come here as quickly as possible."
"Okay, each night after bathing," I nodded. "Thank you."
She smiled at me before moving back to the other gypsy adults, talking in low tones. Loiza was wrapping a flesh coloured bandage around Royce's middle, covering the piercing up. He spoke to the other gypsies, one standing up and leaving the tent. I could hear the gypsy kids asking questions but I don't think any of them were answered. I looked back to Royce, who had his eyes closed and was resting his head on Zale's shoulder. Zale was whispering in his ear and every few ticks the corners of Royce's lips were turn upwards. Loiza was watching them with a small frown as the other adults continued talking in their language. I didn't quite understand why everyone was frowning at the two of them.
"Have they done something wrong?" I murmured to Loiza, who turned to look at me. "I mean Royce and Zale. Everyone seems to be frowning at them. Jal was earlier as well. I mean, I'm frowning at Royce now because he did something he wasn't meant to and now I have to keep another secret."
Loiza laughed softly before turning back to the boys. "I'm afraid, Sharda, that at this stage you will not quite understand what is happening. Rest assured, your brother hasn't done anything wrong."
Before I could say anything else the tent flap open and the gypsy adult who left came back in. She was carrying a pile of books, which she handed to Loiza before giving me a small smile. He flicked through them quickly before nodding and handing them to Royce. He blinked and sat up straight, looking down at the covers.
"I assume you would still like these?" Loiza asked my brother, who nodded eagerly.
"Wait, how did you know that?" I asked. "You were in here when we were talking about the books."
"Children have voices that carry easily," one of the gypsy men said wryly, holding a pipe in his hand. "You lot weren't too quiet."
"Thank you for these," Royce said, looking through one. "Thank you very much."
"Do you think you could wrap them?" I asked hesitantly. "Like we just purchased them? That way Father won't see the covers and get angry."
Loiza gave me a strange look but nodded. "Very well. Cato, wrap these please."
The gypsy with the pipe stood up with an exaggerated sigh and wandered over. He took the books from Royce with a wink and moved over to the far side of the tent where a table was set up. It wasn't like the tree stump tables, but looked like it was actually made in a workshop. I felt Royce hop off the table and I tried to grab his arm but he slipped through my grasp. He walked over to the table, Zale hurrying after him, and watched as the gypsy worked.
"Could you tie them string in bows please?" my brother asked. "When I went to the bookshop earlier today the man there tied them in knots, and I can't undo knots. Bows are easy though."
"If that's what the Crown Prince wants," the gypsy replied easily. He had a nice voice, deep and rumbling. I recognised the tone and sat up straighter.
"You're Jal's father!" I exclaimed, jumping off the bench and moving to stand behind Royce. "Is it true he's courting the baker's daughter?"
"Jal's courting the baker's daughter?" Royce asked, turning around. "I like her, she gives me free cinnamon twists."
"And I've told you to pay. But is it true?"
The gypsy nodded. "Yes, I am Jal's… father but you may call me Cato. And I do believe he is 'courting' the baker's daughter. Did he tell you about her?"
"No, Dudee did," I answered. "Were they not meant too?"
The gypsies laughed, Zale joining in. Cato shook his head and handed the wrapped books to Royce. He gave me a smile before moving back to where he was sitting.
"No, it was fine. I was just curious that they are so open about it with you two," he explained, lighting his pipe. "Gypsies normally keep those things quiet until an official announcement."
"Dudee doesn't know yet to not stick her nose in other's business," the woman who had given me the lotion sighed. "Both her and Syeira are to inquisitive for their own good."
"Let them be kids," Loiza laughed. He stood up and started leading us out of the tent. "Off you go, have fun now. And Zale," his tone turned serious as he stared at his son. "Don't do anything that will result in them getting in trouble. If you are unsure, ask Sharda. Do not take Royce's word for it."
"Aww… not fun," I heard Royce mutter under his breath and Zale giggled. The other gypsy kids were waiting for us, crowding around the tent entrance. Jal raised an eyebrow at me but it was Dudee that asked what had happened.
"Zale pierced Royce's belly button," I told them, making my way back to the table we had been sitting at.
Jal sighed. "I'm thinking it would be the best not to leave those two alone for extended periods of time."
"Agreed," I nodded. "I met your father. He's kind of funny."
"Yeah, he is," Jal grinned as he sat on the grass. He tugged on Zale's arm and the other boy fell into Jal's lap. "You, my dearest cousin, are staying with me."
"Are you guys cousins?" Royce asked, sitting down as well. "Are all of you related?"
Zale shook his head. "Only mine and Jal's family are related. Our dads are brothers. Chik and Gillie's family are both from the East. They both travelled here after Chik was born."
The rest of the day was spent talking, and Royce and I learning more about the gypsies. Royce had much more questions than I did but then, he was much more interested in them. Zale answered most of the questions, speaking up before anyone else had the chance to. The other gypsy kids looked mostly amused by this, Dudee and Syeira giggling behind their hands while Jal just rolled his eyes. The youngest ones, Pias and Rye, both crawled into my lap and snuggled up to me.
"Do you have a prince, princess?" one of them asked. Unlike Dudee and Syeira, these two were identical to the last freckle on their cheeks and I couldn't tell them apart.
"Um... no… not yet," I stammered, trying not to blush. "I'm still too young."
"But Jal was with the baker's daughter at your age," Rawnie argued.
Lennor sniggered. "Yeah, hands up skirts and in shirts!"
Jal was blushing when I looked at him in shock, the other kids laughing. Even Royce was laughing, leaning against Zale who had squirmed his way out of Jal's grasp some time ago.
"Jal! I thought you would have more respect than that!" I scolded him, frowning.
He blushed further. "It's not true. That stuff didn't come till… later. Anyway, our way is different than your way."
"I like your way better," Royce giggled. "Hands up skirts and in-" He broke off in another peal of laughter.
It took quite some time for them all to calm down. Jal explained to me that their courting moved a lot faster than the way we did it. In ten seasons he would be bonded, assuming he had the baker's permission, he said. It's just the way the gypsies lived. Dudee added that they only ever loved one person and often found that person at a young age, around forty-five seasons.
"That's just over eleven cycles," Gillie said. He then grinned slyly and nudged Kizzy. "And you and that blacksmith boy have been sneaking off. Don't think I haven't seen you!"
"We have not!" Kizzy yelled, blushing and whacking Gillie. "And you have not right to spy on us! I don't spy on you and Adrianna!"
"Isn't she the girl that works at the flower cart?" Royce asked, looking interested. "She's really nice to me."
"Everyone seems to be nice to you," Jal remarked, leaning back on his elbows. "How'd you manage that?"
"By being the Crown Prince, being cute and pretending to be an angel," I grumbled. I couldn't stop my grin though when they all started laughing.