Aurei was relieved to learn that Krys had taken care of Leah and the girl had actually fallen asleep due no doubt to exhaustion from the horror she had experienced. There was no rest for the Drow girl though, as she busily ordered a guard of ten men on horseback to constantly ride a patrol around the outskirts of the town to watch for any of the Necromancer Guild’s raiding party that might still be in the vicinity.
Although the Inn and much of the town was awake, having been alerted of the events of the previous night, Aurei told the Inn personnel to get some rest before the King’s caravan arrived later in the day. So she took it upon herself to prepare breakfast for all those who had accompanied her to the Flydros farm. The Muddy Boot did not usually open that early, but had a generous pantry of breakfast food for its workers. Fortunately for those who sat rather somberly together eating, Aurei had spent many years in the kitchen and was an excellent cook, though since she began serving in the tavern, she seldom used her skills.
"Duchess, are ye gonna eat?" Thorm asked her as she pulled out a side of bacon from the enchanted cooling chest that Gamel had spent a huge sum having made when she was a small child.
"I’ll eat later." she answered, too tired to bother to correct the Dwarf on addressing her as Duchess.
"Ye are dead on your feet, lass." He continued.
"I’ve got a hundred chores to do today. We have to get everything in order for the King and his party this evening. Not to mention the meal following father’s funeral tomorrow. The town will be packed, Thorm, and all the visitors will be staying either here or at the Keep, and most all of them will be dining here. Add to that, I have to finish cleaning the Keep for Pinel. I’m not sure how I will ever get that big old magic chest of stuff down those stairs and over here…"
"Not to worry!" Pectros interrupted, "I had my men take it over here. It took six of them to carry it! They put it in the cellar inside your room down there… if that is okay?"
Aurei actually smiled, "Perfect, thank you Pectros. I think that is the safest place for me to stay once Pinel gets here. He’d probably yell and scream if I took father’s old room here at the Inn."
"Why? He never slept here."
"Oh, Pinel will think that is his reserved room as Duke. Then he’d grumble about me taking one of the upstairs rooms for myself. So I think my old cellar room is the best choice – we can’t use it for guests, and it doesn’t have any windows. It gives most people the creeps sleeping there. But it is perfect for an evil dark elf like me."
Thorm and Pectros grimaced at her self defamation but said nothing.
Tired as she was, she still had no time to sit and talk, and Aurei found herself forgoing sleep for the busyness of the day. She changed back into her hated barmaid dress, very glad to give her feet a rest from the strange high heeled boots of the suit of armor. Aurei’s muscles ached from the fight with the undead the night before, but she had no time to slow down or rest as it fell upon her shoulders to ready everything for the King as well as for Pinel. The thought of him sent acid into her stomach – she doubted she could win over the annoying little man, but she had no option but to try to get him to at least accept her as a part of the town.
Fortunately for her, she had great help from the tavern workers as well as the staff of the Keep and things flowed very smoothly. She spent the morning helping in the tavern kitchen, baking and running errands for supplies around town. Westmark was abuzz today and all the merchants were readying their stores for the royal visit. She usually enjoyed the excitement that filled the air on holidays and special occasions, but the events of the last week rendered her immune to it this time. The weather didn’t cooperate either, for by early afternoon dark clouds had moved in and soon a heavy rain fell that seemed to only highlight her mood.
All the preparations done at the Inn as well as at the Keep, Aurei stood on the front porch of the Muddy Boot staring out at the heavy rain that was quickly turning the dirt and stone road through town into a maze of puddles. It was nearly sundown when a message arrived from the Royal caravan. A rider who looked as if he swam the whole way gave the message – the rain was delaying the caravan, but they were determined to make it there before dawn. With a sigh of resignation, Aurei ordered the rider to come inside, dry off and have a warm meal, and she looked after the Inn’s other patrons.
Many had arrived the previous day, so the Muddy Boot was filled with several nobles – mostly the dukes of the neighboring duchies and their families, many of whom Aurei knew. Duke Frampbrum of Dullerm had long been a friend of her father as his duchy bordered Westmark and was somewhat similar, though it was a larger duchy made up of rich farmland. Lady Frampbrum had not really cared for Aurei until recently, when to her surprise, the Duchess seemed to have at least grown to accept her.
"Duchess, would you care for some more wine?" Aurei asked as she personally waited on their table. Lady Frampbrum looked up at her and actually smiled.
"I am fine, my dear… can you sit for a minute and talk to me?"
Though she was quite busy with the crowd in the Inn, Aurei was so surprised at the request that she immediately pulled up a chair and complied.
"I haven’t spoken to you in quite some time and I was wondering whom the King will select to replace Gamel?"
Aurei tried to seem pleasant as she answered, "I suspect it will be Pinel Sheldos."
"Gamel’s nephew?" The lady seemed surprised.
"Well, Pinel thinks so; he sent me a dispatch earlier in the week saying that he expected to be named Duke and ordering me to remove my belongings from the Keep."
"Really? How awful! Did you comply?"
"Oh yes, I finished last night after our little battle with the Necromancer’s Guild. He’s riding with the King, so he should be here sometime this night."
"I must tell you something, Aurei. I don’t want to offend you, but I will be frank – when my husband and I were introduced to you some years ago when we ascended to the Dukedom, I was not at all thrilled to see a Drow child living amongst humans. It deeply bothered me and I privately told my husband that Gamel was a fool to adopt you. But I have watched you for several years now as you have grown into a delightful young lady and you have been very faithful to your adopted father as well as to your community. I want to tell you that I was very wrong about you and I respect the care you gave to your father during his final days." The lady took Aurei’s hand and squeezed it.
"Lady Frampbrum, thank you, it means a lot to me to have your respect. My father considered your husband and you as his close friends."
"I hope that we both may now consider you our friend." The lady smiled.
"I am most honored, Duchess. You may indeed."
"If you are forced to leave Westmark due to Pinel, I want you to know you will be welcome in Dullerm."
"Thank you Duchess, I hope it will not come to that, as I plan to try to get along with Pinel, but it is a great comfort to know."
The Duchess leaned in close to Aurei, "Confidentially, I am not at all fond of Pinel Sheldos. He is not of the same rank of character of Gamel and I suspect he will never be as respected as your father was in this community."
Aurei nodded, "I fear you are right, Duchess."
The busyness of the Inn only intensified as the evening progressed. Aurei rushed from table to table serving orders, wiping up spills, collecting plates, filling flagons and trying her best to avoid the drunk, mostly flirtatious men who seemed to want to touch, pinch or squeeze certain parts of her anatomy. It was nearly midnight when a Keep guard handed her a message written minutes before in the flowery handwriting of Pinel:
The King and I have arrived. His majesty is tired from the journey and wishes to take to bed immediately. The Keep is in order and I find it satisfactory. Have
Breakfast prepared and waiting for The King and I by an hour past sunrise tomorrow morning. He wishes to speak to both of us following Gamel’s service.
You know what is expected of you, do not fail to do your very best.
Duke of Westmark
She threw the note down on the bar with a disgusted snort and forced herself to focus on emptying out the rather rowdy patrons as quickly as she could so she would have time to finish cleaning.