Nevaeh was leaning out her window, catching snowflakes in her hands when her door pounded open and she whirled around just in time to see Regillion stalk into the room. She willed her face not to go pale and swallowed nervously. His thundercloud eyes swept across the room until they landed on her.
“Nevaeh!” He snapped. She involuntarily backed against the wall.
“Yes, Regillion?” She answered, trying her best and failing to keep her voice steady.
“I sent a message to you TWENTY minutes ago to come down for supper!”
“I never… received… any message.” She said slowly.
His furious features cooled off a little until they were merely hard and set. Nevaeh pitied the servant who had failed to obey his orders and deliver the message to her.
“Get ready for supper then and be in the dining room in five minutes.” He said, then turned on his head and stalked back out of the room.
The door slammed behind him and she heard him yelling. Probably for the maid or manservant responsible for the message. She bit her lip. She wished he could be kinder to his subjects, few as they were. Maybe… maybe she could bring up the topic during supper.
Nevaeh quickly brushed her golden brown hair and pinned it back with a butterfly pin. She fluffed up her dress and surveyed herself in the mirror, turning around to make sure there were no holes or spots on the garment. There were none, so she set her nerve and went down to the dining room.
The room was huge. Easily a hundred feet long, possibly longer. A hundred-seat table took up most of the space, and at the very far end Regillion was sprawled out across his ornate dining chair.
Nevaeh tipped her chin up a little farther to ensure that she wasn’t staring at her feet, then walked down the side of the room to the single other place setting to Regillion’s left.
“You needn’t prance.” He said in a boring tone as she approached.
Her cheeks flushed and she quickly dropped into her chair. She hadn’t meant to look haughty or snobbish.
Out of the corner of her eye she caught an amused grin pass over his face before his customary half-scowl returned. He sat up straight in his chair and stretched his legs out under the table. Instantly Nevaeh jerked her own feet under her chair so she wouldn’t accidentally kick him.
The servants brought in several dishes and set them down in front of them, then retreated. All the courses were set out at once– not that there were that many. Regillion hated it when they continuously cleared dishes and brought more in. When she’d asked he’d told her he didn’t want them listening to his conversation or interrupting his thoughts.
He filled both their plates and they commenced eating in silence. Nevaeh focused on her plate. She didn’t need to look up to know he was watching her every move, every mouthful as her fork brought it to her mouth.
Suddenly she dropped her spoon and the contents–bright red cranberry sauce– splattered onto her golden-yellow dress. She gasped and her gaze jerked up to Regillion.
He was watching her. He’d seen the whole thing. He’d seen her ruin her dress. His eyes were deep pools nothingness as she stared into them. She expected a reprimand, or at least a snarky or sarcastic remark about how clumsy she was.
She was surprised when after a moment he continued eating. When she was sure he wasn’t angry at her, she slowly and carefully took another bite. She decided not to touch the rest of her cranberry sauce.
“Well, at least you won’t have to worry about ruining your dress when we go out riding. You already took care of that.” Regillion finally said.
She studied his face. He didn’t seem condemning, just stating a fact.
“I’m sor– wait, we’re going riding?” She interrupted her own apology.
“It would seem like it, as I just mentioned we were.” He answered, sitting back and wiping his mouth with his napkin.
“Oh… where are we going?”
“Oh.” She said again.
He waited until she was done eating, then raised his hand to snap his fingers for a servant. She wasn’t paying attention to him, and was only wondering how to take care of the mess on her lap. She pushed her chair back and prepared to rise when Regillion’s other hand latched onto her arm.
“Sit.” He commanded, snapping his fingers.
She plopped back down into her chair.
Two maids appeared in the doorway to Regillion’s right. “Yes, m’Lord?” They asked.
“Take care of the mess on the princess’s lap.” He ordered, slouching in his chair.
They nodded and went back to the kitchen, returning a moment or two later with a towel and a few damp rags. Nevaeh sat back and held her arms out of the way while they cleaned up the spilled cranberry sauce. Even after they’d scrubbed at it for several minutes, a noticeable dark red spot remained.
“That’s enough, you can work on the stain later.” Regillion ordered, making a shooing motion with his hand as he rose. The maids literally scurried out of the room.
Nevaeh rose and looked up at him. He was almost a head taller than her. “Regillion–” She began, her throat suddenly going dry.
He stared at her, waiting for her to go on.
“What did you do to the servant who didn’t deliver your message?” She finished, forcing herself to keep eye contact and to not stammer.
His eyes went a few degrees colder. “He was appropriately chastised.”
Nevaeh almost flinched. With a master like Regillion, she didn’t want to imagine what ‘chastisement’ might be.
“He’s not being tortured in my deepest dungeons, if that’s what you want to know.” He snapped, seeing the look cross her face.
“No!” She gasped. “I just… was wondering… why was he unable to deliver the message?”
Regillion paused, like the idea had never occurred to him. “He didn’t say.” He answered shortly, walking down the room toward the doors. “Come. Your maids will help you get ready for riding.”
Regillion had prepared a gorgeous, white, fur lined riding outfit for her. It included a dress, a cloak, boots, gloves, warm stockings, and even under leggings to keep her legs warm. Her maids helped her change into everything except the dress, since Regillion had mentioned her riding in the one she already had on since she had stained it.
Even with the gentle clash of colors, Regillion thought she looked absolutely gorgeous as she walked down the hall toward where he was waiting by the front doors. Her face was beaming with the expectant excitement of a ride. He couldn’t help but give her a tiny smile in return.
“You like riding?” He asked as they went outside into the silently falling snow.
She nodded eagerly and he wondered if she would change her mind after she saw their mounts.
They rounded a corner past a pile of crumbling rubble and Nevaeh stopped short, her mouth falling open.
“What… what are… those?” She gasped.
“Our mounts. They’re seahorses.” He explained.
Standing in the snow were two horses. Yet they were the strangest horses Nevaeh had ever seen.
They were an odd mixture of swirling green, blue, and grey. Their long manes and tails were made of something resembling tangled seaweed and they hung down close to the ground. As they came closer Nevaeh saw their bodies were covered in tiny rough scales, yet they did not look hard; just slick.
At the sound of their approach the two heads turned toward them and Nevaeh was surprised to see their deep blue eyes looked like waves rolling on the ocean surface.
The only restraint they had was a rope-like halter encircling their noses and it seemed to be made of seaweed as well. The reins stretched back to rest on their withers.
“Well?” Regillion’s tart voice broke into the haze of her mind. “Are you going to mount one or just walk?”
“Oh!” She gasped, jerking her face from the strange beasts. “Y-yes, I-I’ll mount.” She didn’t know whether she was afraid of them or not, they seemed harmless and docial.
She stared at the closer horse again, wondering how to get up onto it’s tall back. They had to be at least seventeen or eighteen hands. They were huge.
Hands suddenly grabbed her waist and before she could squeak or even object, Regillion had lifted her up as far as his arms would reach.
“Swing your leg over, I can’t hold you up forever.” He said.
She grasped a hold of the damp seaweed mane and swung her leg over. When she was sure she was balanced and in the center of the horse’s back, she straightened herself to sit upright. She looked down at Regillion and smiled nervously to let him know she was alright.
He went over to the other horse and hauled himself up, using the mane like a rope. He picked up the reins but he didn’t hardly have to pull on them at all. The seahorses turned and glided over the snow in a smooth, rocking trot.
“Where are we going?” Nevaeh asked.
“You already asked that.”
“I know, but we’re out already and we’re obviously not at our destination.” She answered.
A grin flicked across Regillion’s features. “We’re going to check on the townspeople.”
The announcement was a slight surprise and puzzlement for Nevaeh. She knew Regillion lorded over the few descendants of the last remnant of survivors from the ancient kingdom of Calmoania, but she couldn’t picture him as a kind enough landholder to do such a thing as ride out to check on his people.
She kept her mouth shut though and decided the wait and see what would happen.
They rode around the great expanse of ruined castle. The foundation for the original building was gigantic. Finally they turned a corner of the wall and Nevaeh beheld a little settling of homes built in the protection of the giant wall.
There were perhaps two dozen homes that she could see, at a guess, along with a few stables, workhouses, baking houses, and one solitary blacksmith. They rode into the central area of the settlement and stopped. Men, women, and even children hurried back and forth, busy with numerous tasks. Most of them worked as one unit, each with their own necessary task, bringing ores from a mine in the mountains a mile or so to the north. She watched as the ores were unloaded from the carts on the rails, sifted to get rid of any loose dirt or grime, sorted into different bins of the same rocks, then either stored in warehouses or taken to the blacksmith for refining and smelting.
Regillion leaned forward, his arms resting on the green neck in front of him, closely watching the whole procedure. The peasants hardly noticed them at first, but when they did they dropped to one knee in respect to Regillion, or gave him a deep yet quick bow if they were in the middle of something.
Regillion ignored these signs of deference as he surveyed the work of his people. Nevaeh looked around at the homes of these people. They might be small, but she could see they were well constructed. The boards forming the walls were straight and she couldn’t see one crack or hole in them. The roofs were made of reeds, branches, and clay. She could see even at this distance that they were solid and didn’t leak.
She glanced over her shoulder when she heard laughter and saw a group of children flinging snowballs at each other. There must have been about nine of them, all under the age of eight. Glancing back at the workers, she saw that all the children older than that were working.
“Regillion,” She said, putting her hand on his arm.
“What?” He responded, his body hardly moving, his eyes still pearing at the workers. She was surprised he didn’t tense up under her touch.
“Can I go play with the children over there?”
“Yes.” She could tell he wasn’t even paying attention to her. She slid off her horse and stumbled in the snow when she fell a few inches more than she expected. She got up and brushed the snow off.
When she looked up all the children had stopped playing and were staring at her. She was grateful to see they were wearing warm clothes. Smiling warmly she came toward them.
A few of the younger ones backed off a few steps, but the oldest ones stood calmly and watched her approach.
As if all in one accord their eyes shifted to something behind her and they dropped to their knees in the snow before her. Her eyes widened and she whirled around to see Regillion gracing them with a withering glare and noticed his hand, out flat, near his knee. He had silently ordered them to kneel for her.
She sent him a frigid glare and turned back to the children. Still kneeling, they were hesitantly looking up at the two adults.
“Stand up, please.” She said, her voice a little firmer than she intended.
All their eyes glanced back at Regillion once more and she let out an irritated sigh. “Don’t mind him. You already obeyed him, now obey me and I tell you to stand up before you get soaked to the bone.”
They rose hesitantly to their feet and looked at her expectantly, wondering what she wanted from them.
She herself knelt down in front of them so she could talk to them on their level. “I saw you playing with snowballs a minute ago. Would you mind if I joined you?”
A few tentative glances passed between them and then they shook their head, no. A bright smile lit up her face. “Goody! I love playing in the snow! I hardly ever get the chance though. We never got snow where I came–”
“What she means is,” Regillion’s voice interrupted from close behind. “Is she never got the chance to play in the snow before.”
Nevaeh turned and looked up at him. “Please go away and leave us alone.”
He shrugged and trotted his seahorse north along the tracks leading to the mine.
Nevaeh looked back at the children. “He’s right, I never really got to play in the snow befo–” Something cold, wet, and sharp exploded in her face and she shot backwards, pawing the snow away from her eyes.
When she opened them she saw one of the eight year old boys half belt over and hooting with laughter. A few other boys were laughing too and many of the girls were staring at her apologetically. Nevaeh laughed and finished brushing the snow off her face. She scooped up some snow in her gloved hands and packed it into a ball, sending it flying back at the boy’d thrown first.
When Regillion came back from the mines over an hour later, he stopped in the middle of the township to see Nevaeh half buried in snow, shrieking and laughing at the top of her lungs. Children were all around her, even some old enough to be working. They were shoveling snow on top of her as fast as they could while she did her best to push it away.
His gaze swept the rest of the settlement and to his great annoyance he saw many of the men and women grinning and laughing at the spectacle instead of working.
“ENOUGH OF THIS NONSENSE!” He roared.
The group of children around Nevaeh jumped back, half of them tripping and stumbling in the powdery snow. Regillion charged his horse forward a few more strides. He pointed a finger down at the work age children. “YOU should be working, not wasting time burying the princess and ruining her clothes! You should be lucky I’m not going to flog you!” He whirled to face the other onlookers. “And you! Adults! You better than any of them should know how important it is to keep that mine running and not slack! Why’d you let those children stop work in the first place? You saw them leave their stations didn’t you? Why didn’t you order them back to work!” He yelled.
“Regillion!” He heard Nevaeh’s voice and turned back, shooting a deadly glare at her. “Stop it, they’re just children! They need time to play! And the grown ups need a break too sometimes! They’ve only been watching for ten minutes, maybe, at the most! Do you ever even give them a day off?” She asked. She stood up and brushed the snow off her dress.
He glared at her, not wanting to continue this confrontation in front of his subjects. “Get on your horse.” He growled.
She sighed and rolled her eyes, then crouched down to hug her playmates and say goodbye to them. “I’ll come out and play again tomorrow!” She promised.
She climbed up onto her seahorse and followed Regillion as he led his horse around the castle to the front gate. He didn’t say a word as they dismounted and went inside. Grabbing her arm he dragged her up to his room before she could turn down the hall to go to her own. Once they were inside he slammed the door and turned to her.
“What do you think you were doing!” He demanded.
“Playing with the children!” She yelled back before he could continue. “What did it look like I was doing? And why did you yell at them like that? They’re NINE and TEN year olds for goodness sake, Regillion, they’re still children and you force them to work in the MINES?”
“I don’t force–”
“Yes, you do!” She cut him off again, almost growing afraid of her own confidence. She had no idea what Regillion might do to her for speaking against him like this. “And they weren’t hurting me! We were having fun! We were LAUGHING. I know, foreign concept to you, right? Even if it pains every ounce of your being to be happy, there are NORMAL people out there who ARE happy on a regular basis!” By now he was too shocked at her outspokenness to retaliate. She continued, her nerve strengthening.
“And don’t tell me I can’t go back out and play with them tomorrow! I feel cooped up and restrained staying in the castle all day. I want to go outside, I like playing outside.” She took another breath and went on. “And do you ever give them a day off? Do you? I thought so, you heartless, wretched man. I’m surprised they haven’t tried to revolt against you yet! You will give them a day off. I will give them a day off and don’t you dare stop me. Every tenth day they will have the whole day off. Oh, shut up about your stupid mine, you’re filthy rich already, you can go a day without increasing your wealth half over again!” She was on a roll now and she wasn’t stopping until she had gotten it all out. “And what did you do to that servant this afternoon? The one I asked about, the one who forgot to deliver your precious message and made me ten minutes late for dinner? That’s not a federal crime! Unlike you, other people aren’t perfect. We’re HUMAN. We make mistakes, we forget sometimes. I know, and you never do. You don’t even forget to give me the book I asked you for two weeks ago. No, you never do anything like that. I want to know what that man did, how he was unable to deliver your message and I WILL NOT let you punish him. Believe it or not, you don’t need to hit all your subjects with a mallet every time they step out of line to keep them back in line. I know this sort of thing. I’m a princess, remember? Even if I’m not the crown heir, I was still schooled in how to be a good ruler. And I’m going to tell you something whether you want to hear or not; you AREN’T a good ruler!” She turned on her heel and stalked away from him.
“You done?” He snapped.
“Yes, and I’m just dying to hear your rebuttal.”
There was a long pause and she was half afraid he was sneaking up behind her to strangle her or something. She dared a look over her shoulder to see him staring out the window, a very strange look on his face. She realized he was fighting a smile. A real, full, genuine smile.
“It’s okay, go ahead and smile. I promise I won’t tell anyone.” She said, her voice drowning in sarcasm.
He shot her a look that was meant to be a glare, but the tight smile finally took control of his face and he grinned sheepishly at her. It must feel awkward for him to smile, she realized, after never smiling before in his life.
She smiled back and wrapped her arms around her middle, giggles bubbling up from inside. After a moment the smile dropped from Regillion’s mouth, but it was still in his eyes. Try as he might, he couldn’t hide it.
“I will find out the reason why your precious message didn’t reach you.” He relented at length.
“AND!” She said, holding up a finger at him. “You won’t punish the manservant, no matter what he did.”
“Alright, fine.” He growled, kicking the edge of the rug.
She came up to him and patted his cheek. “Thank you, darling. Can I go to my room now and change?”
He jerked back from her touch. “Yes, go.”
She beamed at him and skipped out the door.