"What? What’s going on?!" Alis asked, alarmed as Aurei ran into the kitchen area of the tavern looking wildly upset and out of breath.
"Quick, we’ve got to get all the food for the banquet over there now!"
"Relax; we have most of it there already. What’s wrong?"
"Alis, he was the King!"
"The knight I told you about yesterday afternoon, the one by himself who I talked to – it was King Haroldris in disguise! Yesh help me! I don’t even remember what I said to him, but if I don’t end up in the royal dungeon in King’s Reach, Pinel will have me in the Keep dungeon by sundown! What about the bread --- have you taken that yet?"
Alis’ mouth dropped open, "Bread?! I thought they were baking it at the Keep!"
"Yesh preserve me! They don’t have room over there! Quick, we’ll have to use what we have here for the patrons for starters. Take them what we’ve got; I’ll start rolling some dough."
"Aurei, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know they weren’t able to bake it all over there."
"Its okay, Alis, it has been a madhouse around here the past few days. Take all the bread we’ve got over there, I’ll start some more. Stall them if you can… and check out the King’s wife!"
"To an Elf!"
"It’s true, now hurry, Alis, or you’ll be taking meals to me in the dungeon."
Alis rushed over to a table where a small tray of dinner rolls sat cooling and throwing a towel over them, she rushed out the kitchen door as Aurei quickly tossed flour onto a baking stone and began to franticly bake more bread.
Since she had given the day off to everyone who worked in the tavern that wanted to attend the funeral, Aurei was not surprised to find she was alone in the kitchen area baking as quickly as she could. The tavern had closed for the funeral, and she was glad of that, but with no one to help, she found herself zipping around rolling out dough and then putting trays into the ovens and chanting the heating spell that three of the ovens had been enchanted with, many years ago by the same mage who had enchanted their cold bin as well as their plumbing and water. 'Practical magic' or 'arcane technology' was what members of his order had called their field of magic – the enchantment of everyday things to make life easier for people.
The cost was rather expensive for each permanent spell cast, but the effects were great. They had cold meat lockers, buildings that repelled rodents and insects, hot and cold water that flowed to multiple rooms in the Inn, Keep, and a number of other buildings in town, a simple sewer system that flushed waste away on the same type of magic that had been used by the water system, glow torches that produced no smoke nor consumed any fuel and other novel ways to use magic. It was rapidly becoming a very popular profession for wizards and their students and Aurei certainly loved the benefits of the art on days like this.
"Oven, warm this dough until it is bread." she spoke the cantrip aloud which started the magical heating of the ovens. She had felt so silly when they had first been installed, speaking aloud directions to the oven as if it were a living thing. But that is how the enchantment worked and she was so glad it did. The kitchen was filled with the smell of baking bread, but she had little time to enjoy it, for already Alis had came back for another tray of bread, which depleted their supply of baked bread.
The Half-Elf girl had stayed over at the banquet on the order of Pinel, to serve the King and his guests at the feast. She’d sent her back over to the banquet with the last left-over rolls and scraps of bread from the night before, and she hoped that her friend would somehow keep everyone from noticing it was not fresh until she finished baking a fresh batch. That had been nearly an hour ago and Aurei stood at the counter, rolling out dough for another loaf of bread, her dress partially covered with flour.
She heard the door open behind her and the rustle of movement, and catching a glimpse of long blonde hair, she knew it had to be Alis.
"Don’t tell me they’re already out of those scraps and old rolls! It’ll be a while before any more are done, I’m baking as fast as I can. You’ll have to stall them!"
"Aurei?" the voice wasn’t Alis’ and this caused her to twirl around to find Queen Eioldth standing behind her with an amused expression on her face.
"Your majesty!" Aurei was mortified to find the regal queen standing in the messy kitchen, "I apologize for the mess – is there something I can get you?"
"You can give me an explanation why you are not joining us at the banquet."
"It’s not my place to be there."
"Why do you say that?"
"I’m a barmaid; they don’t usually dine with dukes and royalty."
"You are the daughter of the Duke!" The Queen said, exasperated.
"And he is dead now, so I am just a barmaid. It doesn’t bother me, your highness, in fact I would rather be here making certain you have bread with your meal rather then sitting over there and have the new Duke glaring at me all evening."
"The King and I wish you to join us, Aurei." The young Elven lady’s look told Aurei this was not a request. Still she hesitated.
"Your majesty, I am certainly not properly dressed to dine with royalty."
"We are not at all concerned about the flour on your dress, Aurei. The King is to soon address the people of Westmark in the Great Hall and everyone in the town is expected to be present. That includes you. The people are already filing into the Hall to hear the King. But first he wishes you to dine with us. I am rather curious about a few things in your life as well. As dinner is about halfway over as we speak, I want you to come with me."
"But the bread is still---"
"Excuses, Aurei; that is what you are making. I will send one of my guards over here to take the bread out of the ovens."
"But they are not normal ovens!"
The queen laughed, a very pleasant, almost musical sound, "My dear girl, do you think that we lack the same sort of ‘practical magic’ in King’s Reach? There are 50 enchanted ovens in the royal kitchen. Even our servants’ quarters have one. Believe me when I tell you he will be able to save your bread." She motioned with her hand and Aurei bowed slightly and allowed the young Elven queen to lead her out of the kitchen.
"I apologize, your highness… I think I am rather uneasy being around Pinel."
"Who isn’t uneasy around that man?" Eioldth asked with a smile that could not help but put Aurei at ease.
"Your majesty, may I ask you a rather personal question?" Aurei asked as they left the Inn.
"Certainly! What is your question?"
"Well, you are so tall and beautiful, I was wondering if you are… one of the Faesidhe Elves?" She hoped her curiosity would not offend the queen, but she had nothing to worry about, for the lady smiled warmly.
"Well, yes and no. I was born in the great Elven forest, as were my parents. My father was a younger brother of the King of the Faesidhe. He did not agree with his people’s paranoid protection of the great Faesidhe Tree… I assume you have heard of it?"
"It’s the tree that restores health and life?"
"Among other things, yes, that is the one. It is a huge old tree in the very middle of the forest and it produces a great amount of red fruit each year that, when eaten, gives health and removes about a year of age from those who partake of it. Greater still is the millennium fruit – about every 1,000 years or so, a handful of white pieces of fruit will grow amidst the red, and those who eat of it will stop aging for ever. It grants physical immortality, though of course one can still be killed, but to disease and age, one is impervious. Naturally this fruit is greatly cherished by the Faesidhe people, who see it as their own, though the Creator God placed it there for all people of every goodly race."
"I had heard stories of it – so it is true?"
"Well, I have seen the tree, and I know it to be true, yes. My father tried unsuccessfully to convince the Council of the Ages to allow anyone access to the tree, if they were one of the noble races. He was branded as a traitor to his people and he along with and his family as well as several families that agreed with his idea, were banished from the great forest."
"Really? That is harsh punishment for simply having a different point of view!"
Eioldth nodded, "Indeed. The banished group left the forest, and in fact came through this very town, 520 years ago, on their quest for a new home. We wandered north, through the Dwarven lands until, in the far north, we found a huge lake that had been once the mouth of a colossal volcano. In the middle of this great round lake was a very large island of volcanic soil. It is like a paradise – lush and green. The water of the lake is warm year round, fed by the remnant of the old volcano so that even in the long winter, the lake does not freeze. There we settled, building a humble kingdom that is on friendly terms with the Dwarves around them as well as the human communities to the south. We call ourselves the ‘Losasidhe’."
"Snow Elves?" Aurei knew enough Elven to figure out the compound word.
"Very good! Do you know much Elven?"
"Not really. I know I am a Mori'Quessir which means something like ‘black devil’ or something like that."
The queen laughed again, "It actually means ‘dark-elf’, Aurei. ‘Mori’ is dark, Quessir is the word for ‘people’ as in ‘race’ and usually means Fae folk. The term is actually rather respectful of the few Drow who deserve respect. The spiteful term they use for the hated Drow is Tel'gothrim, which means "The Enemy", not Mori’Quessir."
Aurei nodded, "I see – an Elf told me once that it meant black devil."
"That Elf was insulting your race, I fear, for he did not give you the correct meaning of Mori’Quessir. "
"Oh well, I don’t blame him, I do look pretty scary."
"No you don’t, you look as the Creator intended you to look."
"Evil? He wanted me to look evil…or at least sinister?"
"Many find the Mori-Quessir as a very beautiful race. Even some of my people are enthralled by them. I have never met one – and I mean that even after having met you, for though you are physically a Drow, you certainly are not one in your spirit. You remind me of my sisters, Aurei."
The Drow blushed with a smile, "I am honored by your compliment, your highness."
"Aurei, you probably have no idea how important you are in this town, do you?"
"Well, I serve up ale and do pretty well on bread, so I guess that is of some importance."
Once again the Queen laughed, patting the girl on her shoulder, "Aurei, you have no idea! It is not Yesh’s will for me to enlighten you, either, so I will let you get the joy of discovering your worth in this community."
"I’m just different, your highness, -- a novelty. That is all."
The queen smiled slightly, "Oh really? You shall see soon enough, I imagine. But we have arrived, so let us go join ‘Sir Hugh’ again, shall we? He so enjoyed his little jest on you."
"I feel so foolish not realizing who he was."
"It was refreshing for him to not be recognized."
The two Elven women approached the main table, which had been set up in the main hall, on a slightly raised platform. The rest of the Hall was packed full of the people of Westmark and Aurei was surprised to see that most of them had been given flagons of ale. They crowded all around the tables where the ‘honored guests’ sat and continued to eat. Never had she seen the Great Hall filled to capacity. The King sat surrounded by Pinel and his brood, and was more then a little pleased to see them enter the room. He stood, of course extracting an instant mimicry from Pinel and, a moment later, from his sons. Pinel did not smile when Aurei passed and though he stood respectfully, she saw his hands clenched at his sides as she walked past. She smiled at him but was met only by an icy stare.
"Ah, you found her!" The King said as he took his wife’s hand and seated her.
"She was busy making bread." She told her husband, gesturing for Aurei to be seated between the King and her. She hesitated, not sure that this was proper protocol, but the King pointed at the spot and she had to comply. She could feel Pinel’s daggers of hate and jealousy on her back as she sat next to Haroldris.
"Your majesty, I am honored but I am not properly dressed to—"
"Flour does not offend me, Aurei. Whatever were you doing, baking bread instead of entertaining the Queen and I?"
"I-I’m sorry, your highness, we… I mean, I neglected to bake enough bread for this banquet." She hung her head.
"What? Not enough bread?! Off with her head!" He feigned displeasure, before bursting into laugher, joined by the Queen. Pinel and his family did not share in the mirth.
"It was my intention to honor you, your majesty, with this feast."
"We are honored, Aurei, but more so with your presence here. Dine with us."
Before she could say anything else, the King clapped his hands twice and several royal servants brought various plates of food for her to choose from, though she was more concerned with how they were presented than choosing something to eat. She saw Alis standing nearby and beckoned to her. The Half-Elf girl rushed over to her friend.
"Alis, there is bread still in the ovens, please go over there and watch for them, they should have about half an hour left."
Alis nodded, but before she could move, the queen held up her hand, "Wait! You shall not go over there. I wish to talk to you, young lady. I am most interested in your life here as a Half-Elf."
"You are?" Alis retorted.
"Yes, you see…" The queen stood up and smiling widely, stretched back the fabric of her dress across her belly, revealing a very slight bump, "…I need to understand how Half-Elves think."
Both Aurei and Alis forgot for a moment that the Elf lady was their Queen and expressed the typical female reaction to such a revelation. King Haroldris smiled proudly and those near enough to have heard the conversation broke out into applause. Pinel’s face looked completely pinched and he was pale, but mustering all of his effort, he smiled and offered a toast to the expectant parents.
The Hall stood and with cheers raised mugs, flagons and chalices in their honor. The King bowed slightly to the people, "Eioldth and I thank you. You are the first outside of the Royal court and my Barons to know of the Queen’s pregnancy. Or that there even is a Queen, for that matter. We were married two years ago in secret, at the insistence of the Barons so as to not offend those who still distrust the Faesidhe people. Part of the agreement made with the Barons was that Eioldth would not inherit the throne upon my death. Only a child of ours would, and when she found herself with child, we would then be allowed to let our people know of our marriage."
"But, your majesty… you were ‘allowed’ to tell? You are the King!" Aurei asked.
"Yes, but politics are rather more complicated back in King’s Reach. I respect those who sit on my royal council, so we did not find their demands as unfair. It has given Eioldth time to get to know her people and we have no worries about revealing her status as Queen here to the people of Westmark, for we see that they are a kind and welcoming people." He gestured to Aurei as an example of that kindness and the people assembled again cheered for their King who had complimented them.
The King held up his hand for silence and everyone sat down. Alis and Aurei sat beside the Queen at her insistence.
"Duke Bugley" The King resumed his remarks, "was a noble man, humble in his nobility and concerned with the people with whom he was entrusted. I was not fortunate enough to have met Gamel Bugley, however I have corresponded with him frequently, at least until poor health prevented this."
Aurei was very surprised at that statement as he had never told her that he wrote to the King.
"One letter that your Duke sent to me… in fact it was one of the last letters I received from him, was concerning two people here today. One of whom I knew well – Pinel Sheldos is well-known by everyone in King’s Reach from his work as a deputy administrator for the merchant’s guild. He is known for his ability to make money and use it wisely."
Pinel was smiling now, though trying to at the same time appear humble. His piggy sons also beamed proudly.
"Duke Bugley was wondering about the future of his nephew in his letter to me. Gamel suspected that he would not have long to live, and his thoughts turned to his family. He wrote of Pinel’s skills of finance – which I already had heard of— and he felt that they would be wasted administrating the duchy of Westmark."
The townspeople looked surprised and turned to look at Pinel, who also looked rather stricken as the King continued.
"But Duke Bugley knew that Pinel was of great worth to His King, and so he made a suggestion to me that I have considered for several years as I watched Pinel carry out his work in King’s Reach. He was found to be very skilled. Therefore I wish to carry out the suggestion of Duke Bugley and announce my intention – approved of by my council of Barons- to elevate Pinel Sheldos as King’s Baron of Finance. He will not only have the function of the Royal treasurer, but will be entrusted with the taxes of the Kingdom and will have a vote upon the council as all of my Barons. What do you say, Pinel?"
Pinel was dumbfounded, but rose with a rapturous expression upon his face and bowed passionately to his King. He seemed nearly to float on the air.
"I am honored, your Highness, beyond all words. I humbly but joyfully accept this glorious position!"
The townspeople applauded, though not as lustfully as perhaps he would have imagined. Aurei was totally confused – how could he serve both as a Baron and as a Duke? Haroldris raised his hand again to continue his speech.
"Duke Bugley had one other person he was deeply concerned with, a person that I had never met but had heard much about… until a few days ago. I had heard, over the years, of a Drow girl adopted by Duke Bugley that worked in his tavern. Gamel mentioned her often in his letters to me. He wrote of how wonderful of a child she was and how she was good natured and loved people, handling the sometimes rude or even mean drunk patrons with wisdom far beyond her years. When she grew older, he wrote to me on how helpful she was to him and how he relied on her more and more. He wrote about how she had won over the people of Westmark who were at first very skeptical about a Drow child living among them. Even when his illness forced an end of his letters to me, I began to hear stories of the beautiful Drow barmaid of the Muddy Boot Inn. Apparently her fame spread for then there were rather coarse songs sang about her as vulgar men tend to do. The very last dispatch I received from Duke Gamel Bugley was his suggestion of a replacement after his demise, which he knew would be soon. As he felt his nephew would better serve his King in my court, there was only one person he felt very passionately about that could take his place. As he worded it, "My daughter, Aurei"."
Aurei sat there totally speechless, her mouth agape as the King went on.
"There were several problems with this, however. First, it would not settle well with my Barons to allow a non-human to join the ranks of the nobility, especially after they had conceded to allow Eioldth to be proclaimed as Queen. No-one knew her, only what they had heard of her, and much of that was not reliable. Second was that no adopted child had ever been allowed their father’s title in the history of Northmarch. This was a new question to be asked, regardless of her race. Third was her age. While I had heard that she was very mature for her years, and while she was over 7 decades old, I knew that Elves and even Dark Elves aged much slower than humans, and that would mean that she was the equivalent of a young teenaged human – certainly not the typical age you would want to bestow nobility. So disregarding Duke Gamels’ suggestion, I decided to not make a decision and to instead see for myself before I decided. Though I usually follow the suggestions of my Barons, I do not have to, it is not forced upon me, as I am King and I overrule all of them – at my own peril of course."
"So I rode ahead of the caravan several days ago, in hopes of sneaking into Westmark as one of the King’s guard, sent ahead to scout out the road. I intended to go into the Inn and see what I could learn about Aurei Bugley. But I never had that chance, as on the road outside of town I was attacked in the night by a force of Undead – scouts of the Necromancer Guild. I suddenly found myself in great danger and my foolishness of plan was evident to me. But in the midst of this suddenly came riding down upon my foes an armored woman with a Dwarf in tow, ordering my attackers to stop in the name of the Duke of Westmark. I was amazed to find it none other than the very person I had ridden to see, but instead of a barmaid, here was a leader of a squad of men, trying to save a local family as well as myself when I had inadvertently stumbled onto the scene."
"Aurei obviously was not a seasoned warrior, but her skill at arms was sufficient and her bravery was exemplary. I witnessed, following the battle, her great concern for the Flydros family as well as one of her troop that had been seriously injured. Yet when I spoke with her on the way back to Westmark – and bear in mind that she did not know who I was— I learned that she was at the same time a somewhat uncertain, very humble young woman with a great charisma that complimented her beauty. Her actions while filling in after the death of her father proved to me that she had the wisdom to lead, and I beheld her in charge. Yet at the same time she was a servant, not seeking rest following the raid but serving others and making preparations to honor her father. Even now she sits here with flour covering her mourning dress as she had skipped the dinner in her father’s honor to make certain the townspeople and her King and Queen would have fresh bread with their meals. One who leads must first know how to serve, and serve with humility. I am much more confident of a person who is scared of failure then one who is confident of success. Therefore, I hereby announce to you, the people of Westmark, that I, Haroldris IV, King of Northmarch, do bestow on Aurei Bugley the title of Duchess of Westmark and grant unto her and any firstborn offspring legally born of her body or publicly acknowledged as her heir, the same rank and title following her death. She is commanded to guard, lead and protect the people of the Duchy of Westmark and be a faithful servant of myself and any future monarchs of Northmarch. In accordance with Duke Gamel Bugley’s wishes, I grant unto her this Keep and all land and holdings of her father. She is given the authority to administer the King’s Justice and to deputize or commission public officials in her Duchy. She has the right to judge and to mete out punishment including death to those she finds guilty. I charge her to do this impartially and with mercy, as Yesh commanded us to do. She is granted the right to levy taxes and tolls and is required to keep this stronghold and to raise, equip and train troops to guard the Duchy, keep the King’s Peace, and to be called to the King’s service as I deem necessary. Aurei Bugley, rise and approach me."
Aurei could not move, she sat there with her mouth drying out, frozen in amazement. Alis nudged her and then she felt the Queen pull at her on one side as if to set her in motion. Numbly she rose and went before the King, dropping to her knees when he gestured that she should. Haroldris touched each shoulder with a rolled up parchment scroll he had pulled from his cloak.
"Aurei Bugley, I hereby name you Duchess of Westmark, peer of Northmarch. Rise, Duchess Aurei." He gently took the stunned girl’s arm and pulled her to her feet as the townspeople shocked her even further by breaking forth into joyful cheers.
"Here" the King said softly to her, handing her the scroll, "My name and seal are on this proclamation – it also states that all of Duke Gamel’s possessions are now yours."
"No" she said, dumbfounded at it all, "This is a mistake… I’m not worthy. Pinel-"
"Pinel is a Baron now, a far more suitable role for him. Look over there, is he not standing and giving his approval of my choice?"
Aurei looked somewhat meekly over to the man, who was indeed smiling and politely clapping. His confident expression told her that the King’s bestowing of rank of Baron upon him had totally satisfied his lust of position and he now looked at a Dukedom as something lesser. She absolutely couldn’t believe what had just happened.
She looked back at the King, "Your majesty, I don’t know what to do! I’m terrified!"
Haroldris smiled, "My dear, you have administered the Duke’s government for several years as Gamel’s health declined. Do not think that your charm convinced me to do this – I spent much of the morning speaking to the people of your town and everyone – and I do mean EVERYONE— felt you would be the best choice to follow your father as Duchess. It only confirmed what I knew already – that this was the role for you. You should stay terrified every day. When you feel as you can handle everything, you are in great danger. I feel terrified each day of my reign. Terror of failure keeps you focused. I have complete confidence in you, Duchess, and so do the people of your duchy."
Aurei curtsied to the King and then turned nervously to the still cheering crowd. They silenced when she rather pensively raised her hands to speak.