The long hall leading to the Royal Suites was filled to capacity, dozens of bejeweled old women and equally frilled old men. The smell of sweat and perfume had combined to a heady heat and Rourke could feel his own simple tunic sticking to his skin as he struggled to keep the High Lord Herschal Van Witten upright and relatively quiet. As it was, the old man had started muttering again, spittle shining on his lips and his rheumy eyes wandering. “I’m tired,” he whined. “Take me home, Rourke. I want to go home.”
Rourke grimaced, all too aware of the increased glances his very presence was garnering and the stares that grew of them when they realized Lord Van Witten’s declining condition. “The Lady Queen has invited you to banquet, my lord,” he reminded and then, knowing too well his lord’s next question, went on. “She has commanded her lords attend, sir.”
Van Witten’s lips flexed fretfully, as if he were uncertain whether he wanted to smile or frown. “She asked for me?” he asked.
“Specifically,” Rourke lied, all too aware this banquet was just a formality, one that the elders among the royal court clung to and one the new Queen gave only passing courtesy. It was, however, a tradition that had once meant something to Lord Van Witten. “We mustn’t disappoint.”
Van Witten coughed and Rourke tightened his grip as the old man stumbled on nothing, his shaking worsening by the moment. “I’m tired."
“We must make greeting,” Rourke protested, already calculating how long they would have to stay before he could discreetly remove his master from the hall, from the castle back to his estate and his sick-bed, resume his own vigil beside it. “A greeting my lord, a bit of red-root soup, and I’ll have you home again.”
“I don’t like red-root soup,” Van Witten complained. “It’s too rich, too red-rootish.”
“It’s made of red-root, my lord,” Rourke allowed, urging Herschal forward as the line in front of them moved. “You liked it well enough when Raina made it.”
Lord Van Witten pulled against Rourke’s hold. “I lied,” he groused. “Never did like those rich…” The old man paused, looking around himself suddenly as if only just now aware where he was, as if only now recognizing those around him. “Rich,” he muttered. “Look at them, boy, all these rich and wasted fools…dressed in silk and eating roast goose.” He shook his head, free hand reaching up to tug at his own silken shirt. “Never give a thought to the poor, to the poor sods like you working all day for the leavings. I should…I should…”
They really were getting stares now. Rourke ducked his head a little. “Shush.”
“Don’t shush me!” The old man snapped, voice cracking as if it like the man were fragile, breaking. “The Lady Queen, forever rest her, named me her truth-sayer! I’ll not be quiet!”
Rourke bit his lip but said nothing more as the crowd around them shifted, pulled back.
“She said…” Van Witten said, coughing and spitting as he did. “She said I should bear no man to…no man to…” He stopped, looking around himself, brows hunched low on his face. “A thousand curses…or cranes…or…” He paused, his eyes dimming with his voice. “Where are we, my boy?”
Rourke swallowed but had nothing to say, his tongue arrested by the sight before him.
Van Witten kept talking though, his trembling increasing as he did. “I’m tired. I want to go…want to go…a thousand thousand cranes...a thousand curses…”
“A thousand cursed cranes to peck the eyes of him who will not see truth,” a soft voice finished.
Rourke fought the urge to drop to his knees as the Queen stepped forward, skin shimmering in gold paint and gown glimmering in the soft light of the great hall. Golden baubles dangled from her ears and hung loose around her neck. Rourke stiffened his stance but bowed his head, fingers clamped hard on the old man’s elbow.
The Queen pressed gentle fingers to his forehead in acknowledgment. “A thousand cursed cranes to peck the eyes of him who will not see, a thousand deaths for him who will not hear it. My dear Lord Van Witten,” she murmured. “My mother would be pleased to be so well remembered.”
Van Witten’s eyes narrowed to a fierce squint. “And you are?”
Rourke felt his eyes widen in alarm. He squeezed at his master’s elbow. “My Lady Queen,” he stammered. “My Lord is unwell. His mind…”
The young Queen looked at Rourke, her eyes a mild and steady gray, her sharp chin wagging a little in thought. She turned back to Lord Van Witten after only a moment. “My Lord, you are tired and should rest.”
“I am here at the Lady Queen’s request!” the old man sputtered. “We must…must make greeting! Eat red-root soup!” He paused and Rourke could hear the effort in his speech. “I’ve some truths left to share.”
Rourke glanced up at the rustle and shush around them, the looks of alarm from the other noblemen. “My Lord, we are here to share supper…”
The Queen’s voice firmed. “And truth. Always the truth, my mother said.” She set one golden hand against Lord Van Witten’s cheek. “But you are tired and dislike red-root soup. Nor is my hall large enough to house the thousand cursed cranes that will surely descend on us all should you enter.”
“My Lady Queen,” Lord Van Witten murmured, awed as he realized her identity. “There are things you must know.”
The Queen smiled, a thin-lipped press of her lips that betrayed neither warmth nor anger. She looked at Rourke. “Your master has many stories, I am sure. Take him home. And take care he should not unduly tire himself in their telling.”
Author's Note: I'm still trying to catch up...and falling further behind. But writing what comes out. I meant this for a little short story but it seems more an excerpt of something larger. Rourke may have a larger adventure. This challenge is such fun...new thoughts, new adventures, new characters. Huh. Check out the A to Z blog challenge