Dione wasn't happy but with as much money as the grand duke was offering it was too hard to refuse. Riyah could finally start a new life outside of Rembrooke Manor. She wanted nothing more than that for the girl she loved like her own daughter. They had drawn up a detailed contract signed in blood and bound by magic. She had been shocked when Riyah had presented the chest of remembrance stones to her. She didn't even know so many could exist in one place. The amount of money the duke had to have spent on them should have been enough to run a small country for a year. Regardless she and Snowy agreed. They filled every last stone with their precious memories of Riyah and locked the chest away in Dione's personal safe that no one but Snowy knew of.
Presently, Dione stood in front of a chateau that was nestled at the top of a tall cliff overlooking Port Galia and the sparkling blue sea. It was hidden and protected by magic. Dione had been aware of something at the top of these cliffs. She would be undeserving of her position if she wasn't but she was never able to learn exactly what sat at the top of this cliff. It would have taken an archmage to break through the illusion spell. She was annoyed that it seemed to be little more than a noble's summer home.
Snowy and Riyah stood on either side of Dione. Snowy stood as a formidable giant. Both feet were planted firmly on the ground and his massive arms were crossed over his chest. He eyed the soldiers who were running around preparing for their departure. Riyah was shifting her weight from foot to foot. She had never left Port Galia before. She too was watching the soldiers more out of nervous curiosity.
"You have the dagger I gave ya," Snowy asked.
"Of course," Riyah answered.
"Keep it with ya at all times," he told her, "Sleep with it under your pillow."
"I don't think anything bad will happen Snowy…"
"Under. Your. Pillow," he repeated sternly. Riyah nodded with a sigh. She couldn't blame him for being worried. It was a four-week journey to the capital and she would be surrounded by mostly men.
"Snowy is right," Dione lectured, "The grand duke gave his word that he would return you as you left but he cannot watch you every minute of every day so be sure to always be aware of your surroundings and be ready for anything."
"Dione," Riyah interrupted.
"What is it?"
"Instead of a lecture you've already given me ten times over, could the two of you just give me a hug?" Dione blinked down at her. She could see the sadness and worry written on Riyah's face. Dione smiled softly and opened her arms to Riyah. She dove into them and buried her face into the ruffles of her blouse.
"I will miss you," came Riyah's muffled voice.
"We shall miss you more," Snowy said. Dione looked up at him and was shocked to see he looked just as saddened as Riyah. Dione rolled her eyes and reluctantly released Riyah so Snowy could fold her into his own embrace.
Talon and Lennox walked up to an odd scene. The one-eyed mercenary normally looked strong and fierce. Now he looked like a heartbroken father sending his daughter off to her new husband. His body was so large Talon almost missed Riyah's small frame swallowed in his hug.
Lennox cleared his throat which only caused Snowy and Dione to glare at him.
"Are you ready to depart, Miss Grey," Lennox asked ignoring their glares. Riyah untangled herself from Snowy's arms.
"Yes," she sniffed.
"Remember what we discussed," Dione warned, "If so much as a strand of hair on her head is harmed…"
"Please refrain from threatening his grace," Lennox interrupted. Snowy cracked his knuckles as he looked down at the man. Riyah patted Snowy's chest to calm him. Snowy would be a formidable foe but Riyah had a strange feeling he would not win against either man.
"She shall be safe," Talon assured Dione, "You have my word."
"Words mean nothing," Snowy scoffed.
"Well you also have a contract," Talon added. Snowy pursed his lips.
Dione ignored the men and hugged Riyah again.
"Write to me once you've arrived," she said.
"Okay," Riyah said softly. She bit her lip. There would be no point in writing to her. By the time she reached the castle Dione and Snowy would have no memory that she ever existed. Riyah's heart began to throb. She forced herself to release Dione and turned toward Talon.
"I am ready, your grace," she said as she squared her shoulders, determined not to cry. As if on cue an ornate carriage pulled up in front of them. Thaddeus jumped down from the driver's seat and bowed deeply.
"Your carriage, Miss Grey," he said. Riyah paled. Why had she not thought about how she would be traveling to the capital? Four weeks stuck inside a carriage sounded like absolute torture.
"I'm sure you'll get used to it after a day or two," Dione encouraged. Riyah nodded. She was probably right. She would just have to get through the next couple of days. Thaddeus offered her his hand and helped her inside the carriage.
"There are blankets if you get cold and of course some snacks," Thaddeus smiled charmingly at her. He pointed toward a picnic basket on the opposite bench. A basket she was sure would not be touched.
"Thank you, Thaddeus," she said anyway.
"Let me know if you need anything," he continued, "Just give a knock to get my attention." He demonstrated the knock and Riyah nodded. He gave her one last smile before shutting the door. An uncomfortable wave of nausea rushed over her. She ignored it and looked out the window. All the soldiers were on their horses now. She waved at Dione and teary-eyed Snowy as the carriage lurched forward. She kept waving until she could no longer see them. Then she finally let the tears fall.
Riyah's stomach rolled. She was sticky with sweat and her head pounded. She had managed to keep down her stomach contents. It helped that she had skipped breakfast. She had been too nervous to eat. They traveled all day and didn't stop until sunset.
"How was the ride," Thad asked cheerily when he opened the door, "His grace made sure it's the most luxurious carriage you can buy. You must have been comfortable since you never asked for breaks…" His voice died as he reached up to help her down. Riyah stood on wobbly legs and took deep breaths. When she stepped down her knees buckled. Thaddeus caught her in his arms and set her gently on the ground.
"Are you okay Miss?" he asked, "You look a little green." Riyah pushed away from him as her stomach rolled again, violently. In truth, she had asked for a break. Several times but the sound of her knocking was drowned out by the bouncing of the carriage and the sound of the dozens of hooves against the rocky road. He probably also forgot that there was even a passenger in the carriage he drove.
Riyah turned away from him to see about two dozen men eyeing her curiously. She wobbled around to the other side of the carriage. She braced herself on one of the wheels and let herself vomit what little food she had left in her stomach. When it settled again she took deep cleansing breaths. The carriage was very pretty, a burgundy color trimmed with gold. Even the wheels were pretty though slightly dirty. This particular wheel was now covered in vomit. She felt guilty.
Riyah wandered back around the carriage. All the men were busy setting up camp but she still felt their eyes on her nonetheless.
"Here," a voice said. Riyah had expected Thaddeus to be standing by her but instead it was a different knight. Upon closer inspection, it was a woman. She was taller than most men and her armour added bulk to her frame. Her hair was shaggy but short, no longer than the tips of her ears. But she had a pretty face. Large amber eyes with dark thick lashes. She had a button nose, high cheekbones, and full lips. Her skin was pale with a sprinkle of freckles across the bridge of her nose. She was gorgeous.
"Drink," she said holding out a flask. Riyah nodded her thanks and took it. She took a sip and immediately choked. She thought she would be drinking some water but a burn of whiskey hit her her instead. She started to cough as the woman took the flask back with an amused smile.
"You are a ward of his grace, yes?" she asked taking a sip herself.
"He is my temporary employer," Riyah said in between coughs.
"His grace isn't fond of weakness," the woman replied. Riyah wanted to be offended, but the mix of whiskey and bile in her throat kept her quiet.
"My name is Riyah," she said instead, "What's yours?" She put on a fake smile.
The woman snorted, "Too cowardice to even stand up to someone who has insulted you. Though I guess you are at least somewhat smart. Trying to befriend me instead of fight me." Riyah sighed. She didn't understand this knight's hostility but she hoped they weren't all like this.
"You are mistaken," Riyah said, "I only wish to know your name. Your opinion of me means nothing." She wouldn't even have it in a few minutes. She spotted Thaddeus across the clearing carrying a box of supplies. She didn't want to disrupt him but she wanted to get away from her. Thaddeus was the only knight she had spoken to besides Lennox and the duke but neither of them seemed to be present. Riyah felt the woman's glare at her back as she walked away. She did her best not to look over her shoulder and keep her back straight. Thaddeus smiled at her as she approached.
"Did you enjoy the carriage? It's the most luxurious carriage money can buy," he said. Riyah gave him a weak smile, used to repeat conversations such as this one.
"It's nice," she said. Thaddeus dropped the box he was carrying and started handing tools over to another knight, an older gentleman who seemed utterly uninterested in her presence.
"The seats even fold out so it should make a decent bed to sleep on," he mentioned. The thought made her stomach roll.
"We're not sleeping in tents or something?" Riyah questioned.
"Nope," Thaddeus grinned, "The men will be sleeping on the ground under the stars. But do not worry there will be guards outside the carriage at all times." The carriage wouldn't be moving but Riyah had a feeling she would feel no less queasy.
"I always wanted to sleep under the stars," Riyah smiled. Thaddeus blinked at her.
"But a woman such as yourself shouldn't sleep on the cold hard ground."
"Then where is she sleeping," Riyah said pointing at the woman knight who seemed to be helping another knight go through the supplies on the cart.
"Kira?" Thaddeus questioned, "That's different. You can hardly call her a lady." Thaddeus laughed awkwardly but Riyah only stared at him.
"I don't think his grace would go for it," he admitted.
"Where is he," Riyah said looking around, "I shall ask him. I won't complain. As long as I have a blanket I can sleep as soundly on the ground as any man."
"He's not around," Thaddeus said in a rush.
"Well I will go find him and…"
"I'll find you an extra bed roll and set you up by the campfire, alright?" Thaddeus interrupted, "Just do not expect these men to act gentlemanly in front of a woman. It will be very noisy."
"You snore the loudest out of the entire battalion, Thad," the old knight said.
"That's not true!" Thaddeus snapped.
"You could wake up a thousand years sleeping legendary with the sound of your snores," another knight said as he passed by with a sack slung over each shoulder.
"No one asked you, Phillip," Thaddeus snapped. Riyah giggled.
"Don't listen to them, Miss Riyah," he begged glaring at the surrounding knights who were also chuckling, "At least I only snore. Most of these pigs create enough gas that will make your eyes water."
"Don't scare her off, Thad," someone called. Thad sighed.
"Are you sure you'd rather sleep outside?" Riyah glanced at the carriage, sparkling in all its beauty. Her stomach flipped in protest.
"I'd much prefer it," she replied.
"She will sleep in the carriage where we can keep better track of her," a voice said. The camp suddenly went quiet and they hastened their work. Riyah turned to see Lennox looking at her sternly.
"I don't mean to be a burden," Riyah said cautiously, "I would be perfectly fine sleeping outside with everyone else." Lennox raised his eyebrows.
"How naive," he mumbled. The words were quiet but they still stung.
"She will be perfectly safe, Len," Thaddeus tried. Lennox glared at him.
"Do you trust each and every one of these knights?" Lennox questioned, "Do you trust that they will keep you safe or even refrain from harming you when they have no idea who you are?"
"That seems like an insult to your comrades," Riyah pointed out.
"They are men," he replied, "Most have yet to experience the touch of a woman who isn't paid for. Do you truly feel safe?"
"Stop trying to scare her, Lennox," Thaddeus told him though he seemed to shrink back a bit from Lennox's stare.
"I have been in the carriage all day. I wish to sleep in the fresh air," Riyah argued confidently.
"Are you saying you are too good for the carriage that his grace provided for you?" Lennox asked.
"No, that's not-"
"Lower your expectations, Miss, because you are here to assist his grace, nothing more," Lennox continued, "If you continue to make these demands you will come to regret it." Did Kira and Lennox agree to make her time on this journey as difficult as possible?
"I don't think-"
"We are not here for your opinions or to listen to your demands."
"Lennox-" Thaddeus tried to interject.
"Are we clear," Lennox asked sternly. Riyah was already regretting agreeing to this journey. Instead of answering, she turned away. She wanted to put space between her and this man being needlessly aggressive. She tried to stomp away but Lennox caught her by the arm.
"Do you understand," he repeated. Riyah tried to yank her arm away from his steel-like grip.
"I am not a knight," she snapped, "I do not answer to you." She felt his arms squeeze her arm.
"What is going on?" Talon suddenly appeared before them. Lennox instantly released her. Riyah looked around at Lennox, Thaddeus, and the surrounding knights seemed to take a step back. Riyah knew that the duke was intimidating but she felt more like stepping toward him rather than stepping back.
"Your grace," Riyah spoke up before Lennox could, "I would like to sleep outside." There was a beat of silence as Talon's eyes went from her to Lennox to Thad and then back to her. Riyah chewed on her lip nervously.
"Then sleep outside," he said simply. Riyah smiled.
"But your grace-" Lennox tried.
"She is perfectly safe surrounded by all these knights," Talon narrowed his eyes, "No harm will come to her in our presence." It sounded like a threat and the way all the knights shrunk further back they took it as one. Riyah, however, gave a tiny jump for joy.
"Thank you, your grace," she said, "I promise I will stay out of everyone's way." She resisted the urge to stick out her tongue at Lennox.
That night she laid on a cot that Thaddeus had procured for her, under a thick wool blanket. Despite her earlier conversation, she wasn't surrounded by snoring knights. Instead, she had her own fire and two knights standing guard which made it really awkward to fall asleep. The night sky was beautiful though. It was black with pinpricks of light glittering in its expanse. Dusty clouds moved lazily blotting out the glow of the moon. Sometimes Riyah wished she were a painter. She would love to paint the sky. Whether the sun was rising or setting, or if the moon was full or new, or a blue sunny sky or s dark stormy one. No matter what the sky looked like it was large and wide and full of endless potential.
Despite the cold air biting at Riyah's nose and the tips of her ears she was warm beneath the blanket. She didn't know how long she had stared at the sky but eventually, her eyes drooped and her vision faded and just as she drifted off she swore she could smell the scent of vanilla.