Ladies stepped forward one by one and waited as their partners approached and kneeled. Pleasantries were exchanged in accordance to tradition, then hands were held and dances were danced. The band played by the floor, strings and pipes, drums and chimes. The present few priestesses even took places near the band and as the tune faded to a song, the servants of Sera serenaded the Princess with their heavenly voices.
"Do you realise something?" Emily asked, her head resting on his chest as they danced, so familiar to the other that their steps were always in sync. "This is the last time you will be dancing with me…"
"…as a squire," Fayte said, looking at her eyes when she lifted her head and gazed at him. "The next time we dance, I will be a knight."
"A knight of Hylan," she said, moving her hands from his firm arms to his shoulders. "With his own shiny armour and a knight's white shield."
An old man dressed in undecorated garments caught Fayte's eyes. It was the custodian who made his presence known only when necessary. The old man nodded at Fayte and tapped his wooden cane gently once on the ground.
"The custodian is here for you," Fayte said. "Time for you to go."
"But we've only just began!"
"Only just?" He laughed. "The band would weep openly for their fingers and breaths if they heard that. Dance any longer and you will have the priestesses return home without their voices."
Emily pouted. They had been dancing for quite some time. Many couples had come and left to rest their feet. Only they had been dancing from start till past the time the band was to rest. And now was the time for Emily to leave and change her gown.
"Go on," Fayte said. "The sooner you change the sooner you may open your gifts."
That was reason good enough to stop dancing.
"Very well then," Emily said and they both came to a stop.
That was their cue and the band began to soften while the other dancers all came to a stop as well.
"I thank you for leading me in this dance, squire Fayte," Princess Emily said with a curtsey. "I look forward to another dance next year."
"Next year?" Fayte said, bowing. "A day wouldn't pass before you drag me into another dance across the castle's hallway."
"You make it sound as though you dislike that," she said. "Very well, perhaps I shall find another partner to dance with next year."
"Every year you say the same words and every year I'm still your partner."
The Princess fumed. She twirled around and left without another word.
"And you'll be speaking to me again by the time you're changed," Fayte said, smiling, knowing her all too well.
He glanced to his right at his friend before turning back to watch Emily leave with the custodian and Lady Elisen.
"I will be the first to laugh if Emily truly does end up choosing another partner next year."
"You shall be the first to laugh, Wilson." Fayte stepped off the dance floor with his friend, putting on his mantle before they went down the steps to the lower garden where the refreshments were. "She will choose another partner and that person will be Sir Fayte of the White Shield, not squire Fayte any longer."
Wilson scoffed. They helped themselves to fruits and plenty of water, taking shelter under a tent as they watched the preparation for the next event.
Servants dressed humbly went to work, taking apart the dance floor on the upper garden. Long rosewood tables and stretches of white tablecloths were brought out, set with chairs and flowers and noble family banners. A great white carpet was rolled out from the entrance of Castle Rondiar, across the bridge built over the little pond and the flowers that grew around it, across the ground and over where the dance floor previously was. The King's Throne was moved back onto the carpet some distance in front of the bridge. A table was placed in front of it, and on it the servants stacked gifts from the many nobles that came to attend the Princess's party.
"What did you get her this year?" Fayte asked.
They made their way to the upper garden after the tables were set. Only the important people got to sit down. Squires and even Hylan's youngest priest had to stand by the side.
"Holy facial cleanser," Wilson said.
Fayte gave him a look. "It's just a bottle of scented water isn't it?"
"Holy water is used to cleanse evil during exorcisms," Wilson stated. "Pimples and blemishes are not evil or vengeful spirits that need exorcizing. Besides, why stop the lie now when she truly believes these scented waters make her skin fairer? And no one will know since my gift will not be opened later."
True. The Princess would only be opening gifts from men and women of importance as a show of respect and gratitude for their attendance. It was also a time for many of the nobles to flaunt their wealth. Not that Emily minded. Many of the gifts she received she never liked; instead they would be traded for coins and the coins given to the poor for food and clothing.
It was nearing midday now. The sun was roaring but they were shaded by large trees with the grass beneath their feet and tiny spots of flowers dotting the green with colour. The guests began to gather at the upper garden to await the Princess. The King and the Queen had both seated themselves beside the King's Throne, leaving the centre royal seat empty for their daughter. The tables formed a large square around the stone path that led to the castle. Fayte saw his father take a seat behind the table on the right. Beside him were other knights and mages and a very old man with a waist-long wispy beard, draped in white robes with a staff as tall as he was leaning against his seat.
"The Bishop seems healthier," Fayte noted. He threw his mantle over his shoulder, exposing his sword and his body to the wind.
"Seems healthier," Wilson said. "He has only gotten up once since he arrived. The man has lived a good life."
"Tsk, tsk! What a sinister message you hide in your words, you rude little priest."
Fayte jumped when he heard the voice right between them. Of all the people in the people in the castle, the court jester was the only person who could wear a motley of colours - with bells tied to his hat - and not be noticed until the very last moment.
"Careful your dragon doesn't eat you in your sleep, you rude little priest."
"Go away, Mailer," Wilson said, who never quite liked the jester. "Go make some sheaths or something."
"Oh how original," Mailer of the Sheaths family said, "bravo I say, bravo, you rude little priest."
Wilson began to leave. "Let's stand elsewhere, Fayte."
The court jester wore a suit of white, blue, and green, the Princess's favourite colours, and never once before had Fayte ever seen him without his mask and his marotte in his hand. The false sceptre had a sculpted head on it that bore an uncanny resemblance to Mailer's own head. In fact, every time the jester turned away and changed his mask in the blink of an eye, the mask his marotte wore changed as well. Right now Mailer had his 'Sly-Grin' mask on.
"Leaving without saying goodbye now, you rude little priest?" Mailer asked, a tall and lanky man whose voice never cracked. "Now that really is rather rude, you rude little priest."
Wilson spun around. "That's it."
When Fayte looked, Mailer had already switched his mask to his 'Tough-and-Fierce' mask, holding up both his fists with his marotte clasp underneath his left armpit. He hopped around and tossed a few punches at the air, dropping his marotte when his left fist shot out. The jester picked it up, exposing his colourful rear at Wilson before going back to hopping on his feet.
"Come on! Come on!" Mailer taunted. "Let's fight! I fear you not! Bring on the hurt, you rude little priest! Let's go!"
The guests gathered to watch, amused by Mailer's antics, leaving a wide space for the both of them to fight.
"Wilson, ignore him," Fayte told him, trying to play the peacemaker. "Mailer, go away before I tell the Princess."
Mailer was now wearing his 'Oh-No-You-Did-Not!' mask.
The expression painted on the mask forced Fayte to stifle his laughter. The guests burst into laughter and Mailer went back to his 'Tough-and-Fierce' mask, throwing more punches into the air and picking up his marotte when it dropped again. Wilson shook his head and strode to Mailer. With the whisper of an incantation, Wilson snapped his fingers and a flash of light summoned a silver mace into his hand. He raised his weapon and--
"--AHHHHH!" Mailer threw his arms into the air and began running in circles shrieking, "AHHHHH! AHHHH! AHHHHHHHH!" until eventually he ran into the guests and disappeared… only to return a moment later - still shrieking - to fetch his marotte before running off again. "AHHHHHHH!"
"It is beyond me why the King would hire such an incessant thing for his court," Wilson said. "I swear I will set Preston on him one day."
"Where is Preston anyway?" Fayte asked.
"Most likely with Emily right now. I saw him flying… yes?"
They looked down and saw a little boy in a brown tunic stained with dirt and spices. Behind him were four other children. One of them was clearly the daughter of a noble, while the others were likely the children of the servants in the castle.
Wilson's expression softened.
"Mister priest sir, tis flower-tailed mouse tis hurt…" The boy raised both his cupped hands to Wilson. On his palms was a little brown mouse with its eyes shut tight with strain. "Might you help tis please?"
"Of course," he said, putting his mace away with a flash of light. "But I will need your help. All of you."
The children came forward with some coaxing from Wilson. He got the boy to gently cover the mouse with his other hand and then he got the others to place their hands on top of his. Once all the children had their hands together, Wilson place his hand on top and below theirs.
"Now, close your eyes and pray," he said, watching as they shut their eyes really tight and their faces strained hard as they prayed equally hard. "Pray to Sera and ask that she lend some of her strength to help heal this little animal."
"But it's just a tiny mouse," one of the girls said. "Lady Sera is a great white dragon. What if she eats the mouse instead?"
Wilson laughed softly. "No creature is too small for Sera's grace and no, Sera is not going to appear and eat your mouse. Now go on and pray."
As he spoke his hands already began to glow with a soft white light that seeped into their hands deeper and deeper until it reached the mouse. Wilson barely made any effort with all the children helping him. Their faith lending him strength and Sera granting him the ability to channel their faith. Then it happened.
"I feel tis moving!" the boy said, shaking his arms to get everyone to take their hands away. "Look, look!"
Fayte searched around him and plucked a tiny white flower from the grass. It was a miniature white rose bred to be exceptionally small for this particular kind of mouse. As the children cheered and took turns to hold the mouse, Fayte bent down to level with them and held out the little rose to the noble girl who now held the mouse. She lifted the mouse closer to the flower. It sniffed the white rose, poked its nose once and again at the flower, then it took the tiny flower with its tinier hands and stuck it into its bottom.
The flower twitched to life and now the flower-tailed mouse had a tail.
"Do you think that noble girl's parents know she's playing with the servants' children?" Fayte asked, watching the children run away.
"Unlikely," Wilson said, dusting his robe. "But the girl herself seems kind enough. And seeing her reminds me to find a white rose for Amelia."
"Didn’t I bring her some the last time I visited?"
Wilson was on his knees again, searching for another little white rose.
"She gave them all away to a bunch of children who got sick from eating mudcakes. My sweet Amelia didn't even realise she gave away her last one. Isn't she just the kindest-"
"Yes, yes." Fayte had heard about the wonders of Amelia far too many times already. "I know."
Not a single white rose could be found. Left with no choice, Wilson plucked a flower at random and ran off to search for the children to trade his for the mouse's tail. Fayte made his way closer to the entrance of the castle, placing himself at a better spot to look at Emily when she came out. Soon all the guests had gathered at the upper garden and the nobles had seated themselves.
"Her Grace, Emily of the royal Whiteart family," the custodian announced, standing next to the bridge. "Daughter of His Majesty, King Eardon, and of Her Highness, Queen Remilda. Princess of Hylan."
The harpist began a song and a priestess lent her voice. Petal fells from the sky as the majestic gryphons flew across the garden. Step by step, Emily walked out of the castle alone, now in a gown coloured with different shades of forest green and royal gold, with her cloak of white, fur-lined velvet flowing behind her. More petals fell as large shadows ran across the garden. Fayte could not bear to tear his eyes from Emily, gazing at her fair face as she smiled ever so beautiful - so blissfully - waving at friends and mouthing words of gratitude to the applauding guests. When she strode across the bridge, Emily finally saw him and in response she stuck her tongue out playfully for just a glimpse. Fayte shook his head and laughed as the shadow of a gryphon enveloped her, and very quickly the shadow grew larger instead of sweeping away.
Lady Elisen appeared from nowhere and dove into the Princess, dragging her into a tumble across the ground right before a massive bird crashed into the bridge. The water in the pond gushed and slabs of stone and debris were scattered all over. The guests screamed and ran. The priestess ceased her singing. The harpist made away without her instrument.
Fayte drew his sword.
Gryphons were only a fair bit broader than warhorses. This bird Fayte was now charging at was at least thrice the size of even the largest mountain gryphon in Hylan. Its feathers were golden-brown and its giant head had a beak so large it could bite off half of him. The bird's eyes, as large as his own head, scanned its surrounding and the first thing it saw was Lady Elisen and Emily.
Commander Reyner reached Emily first, pulling her to her feet before fleeing with Lady Elisen covering the rear. The remaining Whiteguards had dragged the King and the Queen away, while the castle knights and guards defended the nobles and guests. It seemed as though only he was engaging the monster bird.
The giant bird screeched so loud Fayte nearly stopped to run in the opposite direction, but he saw it move one leg forward and spread its wings threateningly. Fayte wanted very much to run, but he would not have a monster bird attack his best friend.
Upon hearing Sir Percson's voice, Fayte glanced to the knight and he saw all he needed to. Fayte jumped into a spin and caught a white shield in the air, thrown to him from the Whiteguard. He landed softly on his feet, cutting off the mantle from his shoulder to free his arm. Cool air rushed him as he ran and blew off his feathered hat. The monstrous bird went after Emily but Fayte met it head on with the white shield of Hylan.
He flew backwards.
Fayte crashed into the ground and lost all sensation in his left shield arm for a moment before pain shot up from his wrist to his neck. No doubt he'd broken bones and torn muscles, but the clash forced the bird to reel back. Blood ran from his bitten lip. Fayte was on his feet before he felt the blood on his chin, charging at the monstrous bird once more. The bird screeched and moved to strike but a blast of fire the size of a melon struck it on the beak from a side. It did no harm but served to distract the bird. Fayte glimpsed a little white dragon snarling with smoke spewing from its mouth. A glimpse and no more as his eyes locked with the neck of the bird.
"For the Princess!" he cried and drove his sword hilt-deep into the neck of the monstrous bird.