After that night, Lessa had been quite active in her attempts to create situations where the two of them could be alone, which made it fairly difficult to keep things discreet. They were both well known throughout the town, easily distinguished by their silver eyes and finer clothing, so he wanted to avoid becoming a topic of public discussion. People loved to gossip about the aristocracy, a fact proven by recent rumours of Lessa’s engagement to Lord Edgar. There were only a handful of Silverkins in the county, and as members of the kingdom’s ruling house it was only natural that they attracted a fair degree of attention from the townsfolk.

“How am I ever going to leave?” said Lessa as she finished putting on her sundress a while later, an electric blue affair with short sleeves and silver trimming.

Feeling quite satisfied, Alistar scratched at the back of his head as a subtle blush added colour to his face. “We won’t be apart for too long. Once we see each other again, I promise that we can—”

“Not that,” she muttered in exasperation. Leaning a hand against a nearby tree trunk, she took a step forward on unsteady feet. “I meant literally. Why is it only ever me?”

Following her gaze to where Star and a black palfrey were tethered to some distant branches, he suddenly felt a bit guilty. If only he hadn’t pressed her to stay, then she wouldn’t have to put up with such an uncomfortable trip home.

“If you want, I can mend…” He wilted beneath her glare, subconsciously gathering up the blanket and folding it into a small bundle. “Ahem, after you.”

They returned the horses to the stables a short while later, Lessa a little worse for wear after the brief ride across the field’s expansive grounds. After helping her dismount from her palfrey and seeing the beasts back to their stalls, the two of them took their time walking along the cobblestone pathways that led through the gardens and over to the eastern gates of the estate. Once they had drawn close to the manor house’s eastern exit, Lessa assured him that she would be fine on her own and promised to seek him out at some point during the delegation’s grand parade.

“Are you sure?” he asked, more than willing to walk her into town. “I have something to do in Mayhaven anyways, so it won’t be any trouble.”

Standing near the stone steps that led into the manor house’s eastern vestibule, Lessa grasped both of his hands in hers and then fixed him with a slightly melancholic stare. “No matter what happens in the future, I’ll always cherish the memories we’ve made together.” Voice wavering for a moment, she continued, “Thank you, Alie. Because of you, I was able to learn what love really is. Whether it’s now or many years down the line, you’ll always be the only man in my heart.”

He did his best not to frown. The way that she spoke and the weight of her gaze gave rise to a sudden worry in his heart. Was it possible that she would be leaving earlier than she had told him? Knowing her, there was a strong chance of this. Recalling the sadness of saying goodbye to his mother, to Kaila and her grandfather, he judged that she wanted to avoid the difficulty of a designated separation.

“It’ll be fine, Lessa, so don’t be talking like that. Just…be sure to seek me out at the parade, okay? After that we can talk at length about anything that’s on our minds.”

She gave an absentminded nod and then leaned in to place a gentle kiss atop his cheek. Pulling back a moment later, she showed him a half-hearted smile and then turned to go, looking back over her shoulder several times as she continued on towards the distant gates. Her disposition, her gait, the longing expression in her steely eyes; a sudden sickness settled in his stomach as he was overcome with worry that he’d never see her again.

You’re being foolish, he told himself. You’ll see her later today.

A bit of movement within the manor house drew his gaze to a random window on the third floor where he caught a brief glimpse of a curtain of crimson hair, Anice’s aura hurrying down the hall and away from the building’s eastern wing. Sensing his uncle’s aura as well, he hovered around the entrance until the large doors opened up to reveal Caedmon’s willowy figure.

“Good morrow, Uncle,” said Alistar, glancing over his shoulder as the man came to stand at his side.

“Good morrow, Alistar.”

He returned his attention to Lessa’s fleeting figure, which was just passing the distant gates. Following his gaze, Caedmon said nothing and rested an ink-stained hand atop his shoulder, giving it a reassuring squeeze as they stood there in silent contemplation. When she finally made it to the large hill at the end of the oak-lined road and disappeared around the distant bend, Caedmon let out a sigh and tightened his grip before releasing his hold on Alistar’s shoulder.

“I wish she didn’t have to leave.” Feeling a bit of emotion in his voice, Alistar let out a sigh of his own, forlorn and slightly faltering. “If only her father wasn’t so damned stubborn.”

“I know it’s hard, Alistar. But that’s the world that we nobles are born into.” Looking off into the distance with sunken eyes and sallow skin, Caedmon appeared a decade older than he actually was. “For all the benefits we enjoy, we also have our struggles.” For the first time since Alistar had met him, Caedmon had grown out a slight layer of facial hair, a disorderly blanket of thin black stubble that only added to his unkempt appearance.

Caedmon’s evident exhaustion was proof of his words, for Alistar knew full well that the man would much rather spend time with his daughter and those that he cared for than dedicate almost every waking hour of his life to overseeing his territory and creating opportunities for his people to enjoy social progress.

“When will you be heading down to the parade grounds, Uncle?”

Rubbing a pale thumb over his chin, the count let out a tired laugh. “After a quick bath and a shave, I’d imagine. Anice said that you two plan to watch the proceedings with your friends?” Seeing Alistar’s nod, he added, “Then you’ll want to get there earlier, if possible. I expect most people in the county will be pouring into the city in the coming hours, so if you want to get a good view of the delegation then you’d best head there as early as possible.”

“Which gate will they be entering the city from?”

With most of Distan’s twenty thousand residents expected to attend the grand ceremony, it was likely to be the busiest day in Mayhaven’s history.

“They’re to enter the city through the southern gates, and proceed up South Street to the central plaza, and then along North Street to the cathedral. Most likely, both streets will be completely packed with people.” Sighing, he added, “Almost all of the city guard will be keeping the roads clear when the time comes. If only I had taken Alder’s advice and hired on another fifty men, things wouldn’t be so tedious.”

Alistar noticed a thick envelope in his uncle’s hand that was bound by a wax seal detailing his sigil as the lord of Distan, a swallow with its wings spread wide and its head turned to the side.

“Is that for Bishop Maels?” he asked, curious. His uncle had spent many nights drafting up the perfect petition to the clergyman in question, pertaining to the adoption and implementation of his various projects as commonplace contraptions throughout the kingdom and the empire. Likely, the envelope contained said petition.

“This? No, it’s for you, actually.” Pressing the envelope into his hands, Caedmon showed him a warm smile. “You’re a man now, Alistar, so I felt it necessary to explain some things to you. There’s a lot to cover, which I’m sure you can tell from the thickness of that packet, so be sure not to open it until after the day’s festivities.”

Pinching the envelope with a finger and thumb, he judged that it contained at least twenty pieces of parchment, likely folded to fit within their paper encasing. Sensing this, Alistar was moved. Despite the endless nights of labour that his uncle had been putting in for countless months, he had still found time to pen such a lengthy letter out of consideration for Alistar’s wellbeing. With his parents gone, Caedmon was clearly trying to guide him in a safe direction.

“Thank you, Uncle,” he said earnestly, offering up a tight hug. “Living here with you and Anne has been one of the greatest fortunes of my life. I promise you that one day I’ll repay your favours in full.”


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