Exalted: Chapter 1

In a land far away, where kings and queens still reigned supreme, there lived a girl who wanted more than what the crown had to offer her. Though born into privilege and married into greater prestige, every night she took to the streets of the city, unseen and free. Normally a pardonable offense to a besotted King, if not for the fact that freedom seemed not to be all she was seen to be seeking.


Barrington Manor

Entering the life of a Queen was a jarring experience. This would be a lesson the sleeping figure resting soundly beneath her covers would soon learn.

Miles away from the Kingdom of Jeraylia, in the topmost corner room of the grand manor that sat atop the hill overseeing its plantation, a young girl slept peacefully, her breath deep and slow. But the peace of slumber would not last long, for even before the sun had a chance to rise, the shadow of a woman glided through the manor’s halls.

The woman was dressed in a dark gown, her hair drawn back into a crisp bun. The usual appearance of high tier servants in the county. Her figure moved expertly though the corridors guided only by the dim light of the moon.

She swung open the doors of the bedroom belonging to the daughter of the house without so much as a knock. She swept over to the bed and gave a quick and violent shake to the hard lump beneath its covers. She heard a small intake of breath but did not bother to see the result of her actions as she hurriedly set about lighting the candles in the room.

Outside, the hallways mimicked the room’s rise as other servants under her instruction had started lighting the hallway lamps and candles, their warm glow readying the manor for its occupants.

As the woman lit the last candle in the room, she glanced back at the bed and scowled. Taking a quick peak outside the bedroom, she saw that two young maidens were haphazardly making their way down the hallway, gingerly balancing a large pot of steaming water between them. A bit further down the hall, two servant boys were carrying a large wooden tub.

She rushed back toward the bed.

Pulling up her sleeves, she leaned over, got a good grip and shook hard.

The young girl gasped under the violent assault. When she opened her eyes, she saw her former governess, now her mother’s lady-in-waiting, looming over her. Aside from that bit of observation, she was unable to grasp what else was transpiring in the room. Two girls were struggling to carry a large cauldron past her bed. Steam from the pot snaked through the air. Following them were two boys carrying a large wooden tub. Each carefully set their heavy loads down at the center of the room.

“Agatha!” She attempted to exclaim, but her voice came out a stunned whisper.

“Up you go,” Agatha said, reaching over and pulling the girl off her bed in her nightgown even before the boys had completely retreated, “No time for decency at this late an hour, child.”

“Late?” She asked, still in a daze.

“It’s a quarter to four,” Agatha replied, as the girls took over and began undressing the still drowsy girl. Agatha walked out of the room and before she closed the door, provided instructions, “Claudette, Shaunelle. Please ensure Lady Annalisa is dressed and sitting at the dining table within the hour. Is that understood?”

The last image governess was met with as she closed the door was that of the two maids looking at each other in horror over the impossible deadline set upon them.

Through the closed door, she could hear frantic scrambling and then a loud splash. Agatha closed her eyes and fought down an urge to demonstrate the proper completion of assignments even under severe time constraints. Instead she gathered herself together and hurried down the corridor. This time toward the other end of the manor to wake Duchess Isabella, lady of the house.


Breakfast

The Duchess entered the dining room and took her place at the head of the table as she glanced at her daughter before nodding to the awaiting servant to present her food. “Your father will meet us there, Annalisa.”

Annalisa nodded as she chewed and read the scroll that was brought to their house every morning by special courier. It held news of the ongoings in Jeraylia, but the stories were usually a day or two old as the scroll was scribed within the city itself. There were other newskeepers in the districts that lay between the Kingdom and their region, but her father preferred the scribes directly within its walls. He felt them to be in the best position to provide reliable and timely information. Along with the other communications received from some of his informants, the Duke depended heavily on the scrolls to stay abreast of the happenings of the Kingdom during the now rare occasions he was found to be working from home.

On the days he was not present, such is this day, Annalisa had the opportunity to read them first. Her mother preferred to obtain her news from the letters of gossip she received from her cousins at court. Annalisa did not wish to put much stock in those, but did notice her father perusing them from time to time. When met with inquiry, he had answered, “All information could prove valuable, however unlikely they are to be reliable.”

A servant came forward with a plate of sliced hard-boiled eggs and the Duchess looked up. “Please summon Agatha.”

At this, the servant curtsied and left the room.

Isabella looked at her daughter’s slow progress on her meal with disapproval. “Where is your Aunt?” She asked, in an attempt to bring her daughter back to the present moment.

“Aunt Helenor is running late and requested her breakfast be brought up to her room,” Annalisa replied, not looking up from the scroll.

Isabella stared for a moment longer when her daughter’s spoon still hung mid-air before finally speaking, “If you are unable to read and eat at the same time, I advise you to not read.”

Annalisa shoved the spoon into her mouth, chewed quickly and swallowed. Her eyes never having left the scroll. The Duchess fought the urge to rub her temples and called for Agatha again. “Chantelle! Clairoise!” When she was met with no answer, she exclaimed, “Where is my household?”

Swallowing another mouthful, Annalisa drew the ends of the scroll closed and set it aside. She met her mother’s frustrated gaze and said, “They’re close to breaking through Azaleus’ defenses. Word was received from a bloodied messenger. Though they suspect he was in fact a wounded soldier who fled the battlefield as it would have been more expedient to send doves in his stead.”

Her mother froze at the news. “Unless the Fort was overrun.”

Annalisa shook her head and swallowed before she answered. “Unfortunately the poor fellow gave away his own guilt when he mentioned that the Fort was indeed not overrun. At least not when he was fleeing from the fight.”

The Duchess closed her eyes in relief at the news of the Fort withstanding the attack, then said resolutely, “Whatever the case, it is not our place to judge the action of soldiers. War is difficult. If he has made it out under such dire circumstances, then I believe his actions to be more commendable than disgraceful.”

Annalisa nodded, slightly surprised at her mother’s show of empathy. “Of course,” she replied and then added, “But I believe, given the time since his arrival at court, the scribes taking note of his presence and news, and the delivery of the scrolls to our gates, it is likely that Azaleus has already been taken. Then again, if the Fort managed to withstand the onslaught…”

Isabella watched her Annalisa in silence. At certain points in her life, she was awestruck by daughter’s resemblance to her husband. The thoughtful expression that appeared on her face as she considered the implications of a piece of news received mirrored her father’s exactly when he mentally examined new information. It was times like these that Isabella felt a quiet pride and a strong, almost desperate hope for the future.

Annalisa shook her head as if to shake off her thoughts and finally said, “Maybe Father will have more news when we reach the palace.”

Reminded of their day’s activities, the Duchess spoke sharply to her daughter. “Finish your breakfast,” her eyes flashed, “and quickly. If you are unable to get this task done smartly and efficiently, how will you handle all the other responsibilities that are to come your way?” The Duchess knew better than to coddle.

Annalisa wiped her mouth. “I am finished.”

Isabella looked at her plate that remained half eaten and raised an eyebrow.

“Truly, I cannot consume one more bite.”

The Duchess knew it was futile to argue and so she straightened and called out once more, “Agatha!”

Agatha raced into the room, her once perfect bun now in disarray from the morning’s activities. “Yes m’lady.”

“Where is Chantelle? I had asked her to call you ages ago,” the Duchess inquired impatiently but cut off Agatha’s response with a command, “Please ready the carriages.”

“They have been called, m’lady, and is now being stocked with provisions and luggage.”

“Good. And what news of my sister?”

“Present and ready, sister,” Helenor, Countess of Mydia, entered the room busily pulling on her gloves. The Duchess raised her eyebrow at her youngest sister’s tardiness, but nodded her dismissal at Agatha.

Agatha leveled a warning gaze at Annalisa, hoping that all the years she taught the girl of etiquette and manners would keep her out of trouble this morning of all mornings. They could not afford any unforeseen delays. Though, to be sure, if Annalisa were to delay, no sensible person would say it was unforeseen.

Annalisa lowered her gaze and nodded almost imperceptible to all but her former governess. She stood, grasped the news scroll and turned just in time to come face-to-face with her Aunt. Countess Helenor placed her fists on her waist and stared at her niece, “Annalisa, darling, why must you always dawdle?”

Annalisa had to take great care not to express exasperation at the hypocrisy of that statement. She curtsied to her Aunt and clutching the scrolls tightly, said, “Good morning, Aunt Helenor. It will take only but a moment. If you’ll excuse me.”

When the Countess continued to stand in her path, Annalisa looked up again. Her Aunt looked back at her expectantly. The Duchess looked on in silence from the table. Annalisa stood still until such a time she was able to successfully reign her emotions and add, as expected, “Please do accept my apologies for the delay.”

Her Aunt nodded with satisfaction and stepped aside.

Trumpets sounded at a near distance. Agatha reappeared at the doors of the dining hall, slightly out of breath, her bun even worse for the wear. “The King’s guards are here.”

The Duchess nodded.

Agatha added, “It is lead by the head of his personal guard. Sir Garrett.”

A stunned expression flitted across the Duchess’ face and she exchanged a quick look with her daughter and sister before recovering and waving her hand in dismissal. “Please lead them to the staff dining and ensure they are well fed. Lead their steads to the stable and ensure the same for them. Bring Sir Garrett to join us here.”

Agatha nodded at each piece of instruction.

The Duchess added, “And please notify me as soon as our party is ready for departure.”

Agatha curtsied and Annalisa spoke up before Agatha retreated once more, “And please, Agatha, take a breath and eat something.”

Agatha gave her a stern look and Annalisa smiled back widely.

“Annalisa is right, Agatha. After you bring Sir Garrett in, please take a moment for yourself.”

Agatha hesitated and then nodded, reluctantly. “Yes, m’lady.”

Annalisa moved to follow Agatha out, but the Duchess spoke up, “Annalisa.”

Annalisa froze, but did not turn around. “Yes mother?”

“As your Aunt mentioned, please do not dawdle. I would like for you to be here to greet the King’s personal guard, the presence of whom the King was very gracious to provide,” her mother said, meaningfully. It was unlike a King to send the head of his personal guard for escort, especially during these dangerous times. Even if it were to provide protection to his bride-to-be. It was unheard of.

“It will only take but a moment,” Annalisa repeated.

She hurried out of the dining hall and returned to her bedroom, where she quickly grabbed the small piece of parchment she had hidden beneath the large volume she was supposedly studying the night before. Instead, she had spent the better part of her night thinking about this day.

Making her way through the hustle and bustle of the manor, praying no one would notice her in all the preparations for their journey, she went out through the doors of the kitchens.

Matthew, a little boy belonging to Marie Louise, one of her mother’s maids, was playing with the chickens in the garden. She smiled and waved at him on her way by and made her way out to the small extension just past the apple trees. Being careful to stay out of sight of their guests at the front gate, she walked up to the small shed where they housed the pigeons.

She held her finger out and a small, brown-speckled pigeon stepped on.

“Well hello there, little brave one.”

She brought it closer to her and as she spoke to it soothingly, her other hand worked on tying the small piece of parchment brought from her bedroom to its leg. Once secured, she smiled at the bird and whispered, “Fly, little one. With strength, speed and, most of all, stealth.”

The small pigeon spread its wings and took flight, carrying with it the message, “Soon.”


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