CHAPTER 1 - THE SQUIRE

White stretches of royal silk hung from the castle walls to the garden trees, petals of myriad colours scattered all over the ground. The grass fresh and vibrant. The air breezy and scented. Beautiful decorations and a brilliant morning sun made this party quite a sight to behold. And no less, of course for a Princess's birthday party.

Underneath the gatehouse of Castle Rondiar, guards armed with pikes greeted them with nods and made no movement to search them. Such was only the most basic of trust that they could afford to show his father. They went on through the gatehouse, large as it was to house the equally sizeable drawbridge. In the shade of the gatehouse they found a moment of respite from the sun to wipe their foreheads dry. Once done, he went up to the old man with the monocle standing at the inner entrance of the gatehouse.

He greeted the custodian of Castle Rondiar and then whispered, "Fayte Kaywin."

The old man was a little thing, standing no taller than his shoulders. Looking through his monocle, the old man glanced behind him at his father before stepping out into the light. He followed the old man, wondering how he always wore an outfit of dark layered garments and not stink of sweat.

"Squire Fayte of the noble Kaywin family," the custodian announced.

Stretched before him was the White Path extending to the Celestial Steps of Sera, white polished stones glimmering in the light. On the Celestial Steps, a segment in the centre had been removed. In place of it was the King's Throne - a deep-seated chair of velvet cushions, framed with white marble and gold - with two smaller but no less grand seats beside it. Large enough for four horses to ride side-by-side, the White Path was flanked by knights from the Order of the White Shield. Each one of them stood stalwart with their white shields held at rest beside them and long swords by their belt.

Fayte tugged on his wide-rimmed feathered hat. He shrugged his left shoulder to let the heavy Squire's Mantle fall neater into place before he stepped into the garden of Castle Rondiar. Friends and nobles gathered in groups around standing tables beside the White Path. He smiled and nodded and they raised wine glasses and nodded in return.

"Lord Frendon of the noble Kaywin family," the custodian then announced. "Lord-Knight of the Order of the White Shield. Councilman of his King's Court. Protector of Hylan and her people and her peace."

At once the knights before him in their gleaming white armour reached for their swords. Together in a single motion they drew them, raising their weapons before their faces as they held up their shields to their chests. His friends turned to face them while the noblemen ceased their little chattering and did the same.

Fayte raised his chin and glanced to his left.

"By Sera's mercy if I do not roast alive in this suit," his father said.

His father had his dress armour on. It was not unlike the ones the knights in front of them wore. But being the leader of the Order, his father's armour was of course a touch more elaborate. His was forged with thicker plates for more intricate carvings. Clutched around his right arm was his helm, forged with a visor that protected as much as it blinded the user. And of course on his left arm was the white shield he kept for such formal events.

His father smiled convincingly.

"Try not to faint, father," Fayte said as they made their way across the path. "It'd be quite humiliating for us. I wouldn't have the strength to support you, let alone you and that armour."

The knights ceased their salute once they passed them, first lowering their shields then letting their swords swing down by its own weight, before sliding it with practiced precision into the sheath.

"Funny," his father said, sweat beading on his forehead, his inner shirt no doubt drenched already. "Let's see you tease your father when you're put on nightly sentry duties until the tournament."

"And tire me to the point where I am unable to compete?" Fayte shook his head. "That wouldn't reflect well on you either."

"You know what else wouldn't reflect well on me?"

Fayte turned to his father. "What?"

"You tripping and falling flat on your face."

"How would I possibly--"

--his father tripped him into a fall.

The crowd burst into laughter. Fayte hurried to his feet and dusted his mantle. He was stunned to say the least, and panicked momentarily about dirtying his symbolic mantle. Thankfully the White Path was a sacred path and so kept clean all the time.

"I can't believe you just-"

"The Kaywin family offers our greetings to His Royal Majesty." His father went down on one knee. "And to Her Royal Highness. And to Her Royal Grace…"

Fayte swept his mantle aside and went on his knee, pulling his feathered hat off to his left as he held his head low. With his right hand hidden by his mantle, Fayte pushed down on his sword gently, careful not to let the sheath touch the ground.

"Rise, old friend," he heard the King say and so they rose. "You're late."

"I beg for your forgiveness, my King," said his father. "The fault is to be borne by my son."

Once more Fayte was stunned, to say the least.

"Forgive me, father, but how is your taking too long to put on your armour my fault to bear?"

His father bore an uncharacteristic look of offense.

"Do not question your father," he said unconvincingly. "And if I may point out, my King, Her Grace isn't exactly on time either."

Seated on the White Throne, the King wore a white crown that bore no gems, carved with two dragons holding up an undecorated shield in the centre. The king was a bear of a man, comfortably seated in his throne of white marble. To his right, the Queen sat with an air of refined ease against her high-backed seat, draped in a slender royal gown of emerald greens and crystal blues. Placed upon her head was a tiara encrusted with silver diamonds, carved with two dragons holding up a stalk of uncoloured rose. And on the King's left was the smallest seat of the three, white as the other two were, but very much empty.

"Her Grace," the King said with a mocking tone, "is busy partying. What party would this be if Her Grace was kept to her seat the whole time?"

"Her Grace should at least keep herself near to Her Grace's seat when she is aware that the head of an Order was on his way."

The King sat up and said, "Her Grace-"

"Oh grow up the both of you," the Queen chided before easing back into her seat. "Can there not be a day when the both of you meet and not squabble like children?"

The King turned to his wife. "Frendon started it."

"I was merely being appropriate with my language, Your Highness."

"You were intentionally-"

"Enough," the Queen said warningly. Then a loving smile came upon her face. "Her Grace is here."

Fayte spun around.

Standing in front of him was a girl draped in a gown of silk with the white of snow, and a cloak of soft lace wrapped around her little shoulders. Her wrists and neck were royally dressed with jewelled accessories, and set upon her head was a little white coronet, carved with four dragons all around. The headgear was cleverly pinned to her hair to keep from falling. Her large clear eyes and short stature made her adorable like a child, while her luscious hair spiralling down her shoulders gave her a lady's grace.

The Princess, with a garden full of guests looking on, smiled eagerly at them and said, "Hi, Uncle Frendon! Hey, Fayte!"

And Fayte could hear the audible smack of the King putting the palm of his hand to his face.

"We have many guests today, my precious child," the Queen said, strained like she was fighting the urge to react as the King did. "Manners."

The Princess giggled shyly and bowed once to them and a second time apologetically to the guests watching her. Many were amused and only few were too serious to appreciate the light-heartedness of the Princess's innocence. Nonetheless, this was a formal event - birthday party or not - and so proper etiquette was in order.

She swept her white cloak behind her before lifting her gown as she curtsied.

"Princess Emily Whiteart offers her greetings to the noble Lord-Knight Frendon Kaywin, Protector of Hylan and her people and her peace," she said. "I offer my deepest regrets for not receiving you to my party sooner, Lord Frendon."

"I receive your greetings and do away with your regrets, " his father said. "Let there only be joy on this blissful day, my Princess."

Emily giggled then smiled hopefully at her father, asking if that was satisfactory enough. The King shook his head in defeat and waved at her. Pleased, Emily turned to him with a smile that stole Fayte's attention each time he saw it, no matter where or when since the first time they met.

"And I offer my greetings to you, Fayte of the noble Kaywin family," Emily said with the same curtsey. "Squire of the Order of the White Shield, future Protector of Hylan and her people and her peace…"

"I receive your…"

"…and her Princess's future personal knight and eternal best friend."

Fayte smiled.

"I'm not going to be your personal knight," he said. "You have the Whiteguards for that."

"Well you don't have a choice," Emily said, taking a step forward to him, her bracelets glinting with the sun's brilliance as she placed her hands behind her. "I'm the Princess and I command it."

"Well I'm the future Lord-Knight and I reject your command."

"Well-" Emily struggled for a rebuttal. "Well, I'm future Queen! You can't reject the command of a Queen even if you're Lord-Knight!"

For a moment they stared at each other. Stubborn, proud, and determined to quarrel. But in the end Fayte shook his head and laughed.

"Happy Birthday, Emily," he said, spreading his arms. "Now we're both sixteen."

Done with their little game, Emily stepped into his arms and they embraced each other. "I'm glad you could come."

"Come on, Frendon," he heard the King behind him. "Lasandra is waiting for that rematch after that last game when she came to the castle."

"Beating her again would be fun, Eardon." His father sounded like a stack of pots and pans as he walked away.

"Oh I'd advise against that," King Eardon said. "She has Icildix out with her today."

Fayte and Emily turned to the Queen.

"Your Highness," Fayte said with a bow, seeking her leave.

The Queen smiled, reminded of her own youth, and waved them off. "Go have fun. I'll have the custodian send someone to find you when we are ready for the feast."

"Thank you, mother!" Emily grabbed his hand and pulled him along. "Come on, everyone's waiting for me to start the dance, and I said I wouldn't until you were here."

Over a hundred and fifty guests were present for her party. They consisted mainly of nobles from various families all across Hylan. To them this was just another social gathering to mingle and chat, talk trades and politics between thedifferent noble families. There were also mages from the Order of the Elements. They had come a long way from Iredis, the City of Learning. Only few from Grand-Rosia came, for the holy Order was the smallest amongst the three and tasked with a great responsibility.

The noblemen dressed themselves in lavish doublets and vests, flowing gowns and dresses, smart feathered hats and a plethora of expensive jewellery. Mages who came under the banner of their noble families dressed as such. As for those who came from Iredis and represented no banner, they wore their beautiful mage robes and pointed hats, with intricate, spellwoven embroideries that glowed and hummed ever so faintly with magic. The few priests and priestesses fared no worse with their silks and laces of white.

They ascended the Celestial Steps. Standing behind the King's Throne were two of the five Whiteguards - guardian knights of the royal family. Sir Percson and Sir Airagon stood behind the Queen's seat. Their visage unseen under the shadow of their helms.

Their silver-white armour scarcely resembled the dress armour his father wore for formal events. White plates chained together with steel links underneath, guarding the chest, neck, abdomen, wrists, and calves. Where their bodies would stretch and movement was frequent, tough leather and white cloth were forged, welded, and sewn together with the white plates. The armour granted lesser protection than the dress armour, but it guarded vital spots well enough. Most important here was the leather and cloth, for they granted the user tremendously more mobility.

Fayte allowed Emily to guide him up the stairs while he turned back and looked. Following behind them were two other Whiteguards; Lady Elisen who was the sole female in the Whiteguards, and Commander Reyner who was the oldest of the five and served as Commander of the Whiteguards. He had thought of asking why the Commander was following her instead of the King, but he found the answer himself remembering that a certain Lord-Knight was with the King now. Though the Whiteguards answered only to the royal family, they were trained and handpicked by his father himself.

Three flights of steps later, Fayte found himself on the second tier of the castle's garden. Here the path stretched even wider and planks of lacquered wood were laid in the centre to create a dance floor. The floor was empty until Emily stepped onto it. Being the Princess, everyone's attention was on her and they watched as she hurried across the floor to speak to the band.

Fayte took off his hat while a page, just a few years younger than him, unbuckled his mantle from his shoulder.

"Fayte Kaywin."

He turned and upon seeing who it was, forced a smile.

"You're more than an hour late," Jason, son of Edmor Paven, said. The sword Jason wore by his left was excessively lavish, with a sculpted pommel the shape of a dragon's head and gold weaved by magic into the silver hilt. "One might have expected more tardiness from a noble family."

For generations now the Paven family had been trying to win the favour of the King and be named a noble family. This would grant them their own land where they could build a town should they have the means to do so. But the Pavens' had always been just an ordinarily rich family, with a lesser lord who owned a few farms and stables. The only reason Jason was here was because he was a squire. King Eardon had insisted that she invited this year's graduating squires, on account that the Lord-Knight's son was one of them.

"You have my apologies for worrying you," Fayte said, rubbing the plain round pommel of his sword, issued by the Order. His father would allow him to commission the forging of a sword once he was knight. "Fret not, I hadn't been ambushed by thugs along the way."

Jason did not react to his sarcasm.

The Kaywins had always been a peasant family. Though Kaywin was an old name, no one from the family had ever achieved anything great… until his father. Frendon Kaywin, who fought and earned his way to the position of Lord-Knight. King Eardon had granted nobility to his family when Fayte was just a baby. It happened when his father achieved the rank of Master Knight, second-in-command of the Order and next in line of succession for the title of Lord-Knight.

The day his father became Lord-Knight was the day they had both lost everything.

The string of a harp was pulled.

"Nobles of Hylan," the Princess said, twirling in the centre of the dance floor. "Honoured guests, and friends, I thank you all for coming today to share this joyous occasion with me. They say a Princess is never late, only her guests are early, but alas I would not feel right should I not apologise once again for the delay… …"

Emily went on with her opening speech.

Traditionally, the birthday person would choose a dance partner for the first dance. This was when boys or girls, men or ladies, would step up and try to receive the honour of being chosen. While this was a small matter for peasants and a game of politics for the nobles, the choice of a Princess had always been of great interests to the people as it would indicate the possible romantic interest of the Princess.

Jason stepped in front of Fayte and was the first to set foot on the dance floor.

"I see a fine blade by your side, squire," Emily said, holding her hands behind her.

She was stunning in her gown and her fair voice betrayed no impatience. Fayte rolled his eyes when Jason drew his sword, thrust it at Emily in a show of finesse, then held it up to the sky.

"A fine blade it is," Jason said, admiring the gleam of the sun along the steel edge. "If Her Grace fancies it, I should be most honoured if she would accept it as my gift to her for…"

The foolish boy finally looked away from his sword and saw the Whiteguard standing between him and the Princess.

Idiot…

"Sheath your blade, squire," Lady Elisen said, standing a head taller than Emily and even Fayte. Her strong armour-clad arms crossed in front of her. "And pray I do not find out which knight you are currently attending, for he has sorely lacked in your teaching as a squire, and in behaviour before the royal family."

Never draw your sword unless necessary, especially so in front of the Princess.

Emily's soft hand looked so fragile and gentle when she placed it on Lady Elisen's arm. She smiled and softly thanked the Whiteguard before the knight stepped away.

"I am pleased to see such energy in our squires," Emily said diplomatically.

And she said nothing more when she should have asked for Jason to name himself, so that she may choose to accept or reject him as a partner. Jason's face was flushed red and a tall, sullen man dragged him away when he stepped off the dance floor. A fool he might be now, but Fayte knew well that Jason was a rare talent with the sword within the Paven family.

Emily was smiling at him when he turned back. Eager, Fayte raised his foot and… was a raised foot too late as another person had stepped onto the floor.

"Another shield from the Order I see," Emily said, looking to her right now. She lifted her gown and curtsied while the squire with long, hazel-coloured hair lowered himself to a knee. "Rise, brave shield, and name yourself."

"I am Jeremiah of the noble Vladertz family," Fayte listened as his friend said. "And I ask for the honour of taking Your Grace's hand and leading you for the first dance of your new age."

"I thank you, Jeremiah of the mighty Vladertz," Emily said with a bow once more. "It is my honour to be led in a dance by one of the Vladertz family."

You can't be serious-

"-though I'd prefer to save this honour for when you come to me a knight of the White Shield."

Jeremiah smiled graciously - he had expected a rejection - and thanked the Princess. As he turned away, Jeremiah saw him and tipped his head before he gracefully stepped off the stage. Many of the girls present had their eyes following his exit and quickly made their way to stand closer to him. Emily twirled back to face him, the skirt of her gown sweeping the dance floor. She smiled and nodded with just a hint of impatience now. She watched as Fayte placed his foot on the stage only to stop when he saw another person approaching Emily.

"Just get on the floor already, Fayte!" someone shouted.

He took his foot off the stage with a shrug.

The third person to ask was dressed in a white robe, woven with silver threads in the patterns of dragons and roses. He had a head of gold and eyes as dark as the bark of the trees around them. When standing he was half a head taller than the Princess, but he went down on a knee and swept aside his robe, holding his head low respectfully.

"Rise, follower of the White Rose," Emily said, glad and much delighted. "It will not do to have Hylan's youngest priest in over a hundred years kneel before me."

"I will rise only if you would let me take your hand, my sweet Princess and darling friend," Wilson said, charming and handsome with his fair, spotless skin and neatly-trimmed brows. "Wilson of the Sayde family, priest of the Order of the White Rose, servant of the White Dragon God, Sera. I ask for the pleasure, my Princess, to be the first man to dance your first dance with… or at the very least, be the guy who dances with you first before him." Wilson jerked his head towards Fayte. "What say you, my Princess?"

"No," said the Princess, twirling away from Wilson.

Wilson groaned as he got up. "Youngest priest in over a hundred years and all I get is a 'no'." He went on mumbling as he took his place outside the floor. "Hurry up, Fayte. We're all waiting."

Indeed they all were.

At last Fayte took to the dance floor and held his sword to keep it from the ground as he kneeled.

"Fayte of the noble Kaywin family," he began, "son of Frendon Kaywin, squire of the Order of the White Shield. If it pleases Her Grace, I will take her hand and lead her in the first dance of her new birth year… as I always have and hope with all my heart to always do."

The audience cooed, some of the squires whistled, the priestesses giggled shyly while a mage or two even brought a breeze towards Fayte, running the air through his dark hair, making him twice as charming as he already was.

Emily blushed.

"I would have no other."