~The Crooked Knee Inn~
Charm, the Inn has a type of charm that Ana is unable to properly describe. The salt in the air has weathered everything down and the tang of brine cannot be dismissed. There seems to not been enough light in the otherwise, cavernous room. Dissected into three parts: the dining area, the stairs, and the family’s living quarters, Ann looks around in disbelief, unsure how they are going to fit their sizeable traveling party into the inn. Hoping that there is more to the eye, Ana goes over to stand by her husband as she exchanges words with the man who must be the innkeeper.
On closer inspection, Ana notes that the other man has small and beaded braids in his hair and white beard. As he opens his mouth to respond to whatever the Warlord said, Ana inwardly flinches at the man’s yellow, rotting teeth flashing as he speaks.
“Ye will have the finest rooms, of course. We will get ye and the princess all settled–Oh, your Highness,” The innkeeper catches Ana’s eyes and pauses to bow to her. Righting himself, the man smiles at Ana then continues to talk to her husband as if he did not expect her to part of the discussion.
Ana’s hands clench at the all too familiar dismal.
“I will send some of my boys to bring up your luggage. Dinner is being served in the dining hall. I can escort ye there.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“My wife is a Queen and not your princess any longer. And when you discuss matters in regards to our affairs, you will make certain to include her in the conversation.” The Warlord does not raise his voice but if his eyes could speak, there would be bloodshed. Intimating enough with his height and the aura of power that surrounds him, the look in Ana’s husband’s eyes could pause even the most confident man or woman.
Ana looks up at her husband and cannot hide the gratitude and pride as she admires him. There has been many a time where men like her father have dismissed her or blatantly ignored or sent her away during conversations as if her opinion did not matter. Ana has never considered herself the most intelligent person but she knows she is educated enough to add to an important conversation and that she is human enough to not to be silenced because of her sex.
The innkeeper looks as if he were about to wet himself. Ana hears a group of muffled snickers behind her. His face red with embarrassment, the man sputters and apologizes. It takes an almost herculean strength for Ana not to burst out laughing.
“My apologizes! Warlord Torien. And oh!” The innkeeper jumps as if he has been poked in the ass with a poker as he turns to Ana. “You too, Queen, I mean Ysurria Ana.”
Saving the man from further humility, Ana nods graciously at the man. “None taken. Now please escort us to the dining hall. I am positively famished from riding all day.”
“Yes, yes of course. Please follow me. My boys will instruct the servants where to store your luggage.” Snapping at the young men who must be his “boys”, Ana shares an amused look with her husband before following him into the dinning hall.
A large, square room with long wooden tables and benches, the dining hall is filled with wenches weaving expertly to their tables, flirting with their guests, carrying large trays bearing steaming plates and bowls of food and mead, loud, guffawing laughter from groups of weathered men, and the foreign click of travelers exchanging a tongue Ana has never heard. A family stands out to Ana; a woman wearing a hijab and her husband with kohl around his eyes. Their children are in bright, lightweight clothing and possess wide, dark and mischievous eyes.
Ana has never eaten nor even stayed in such a…rustic place like this before. The air smells of fish, probably today’s catch and the large, rectangular room is filled with people chatting, drinking barrels of a pale, brown liquid, and eating steaming food carried by the harried-looking wenches.
Personally escorted to their table by the owner of the inn, the man chats with Torien and he, as if he could remedy the earlier gaffe with desperate conversation
Tuning out the innkeeper, Ana takes a seat next to the Warlord. Having too heard enough of the innkeeper’s voice, the Warlord pointedly dismisses the man.
Almost tripping in his haste to escape, the innkeeper bows to both Torien and Ana before slipping away.
“Might have to check the pants of that one, Torien,” Nortega smirks as watches the man go with his observant eyes.
Nodding his head as a servant brings him a goblet of mead, Torien casually takes a sip before answering, “Don’t need to check. I can smell it from here.”
The warriors erupt in booming, pure laughter. Sloshing their drinks as they make toasts, Ana finds herself in the middle of the chaos and she cannot help but feel…normal. Meals shared at home were either quiet or dreadfully polite. If Ana could excuse herself, she would take her meals in solitude in her room or share it with her Namieé. Formal dinners were nothing but a political cesspit. Where you are seated is a strategically move, your dinning companions can either be your enemy or ally, and Olliah forbid if you go for seconds, you likelihood of being married will decline. Who would want a plump, healthy-looking girl?
Opting for the water, remembering the last time she drank wine, she ended up missing her wedding night, Ana looks around the dinning table and feels a warmth the wine could never replicate. The soldiers are familiar with one another, that is obvious. Green-eyed Lars recounts a story with the golden-skinned woman next to him. The youthful Rionio bangs his fists as a fit of uncontrollable laughter courses through him.
This is what meals should always be like, Ana says to herself. Warm and full of laughter.
The warm feeling inside of Ana begins to scorch her as the proximity of her husband influences her. Like a furnace, the flames lick up her skin, growing in wicked strength as she takes in his form. Even under the weak light, he is beautiful. The contrast of his brown skin and white hair will never fail to surprise her. This feeling is driving her mad. Ana refuses to turn her head fully; knowing what will happen if she locks eyes with him, his that are both otherworldly and omnipotent, Ana fears she will combust.
Her heartbeat erratic, Ana attempts to calm herself as she reaches for the goblet of water like a lifeline.
As if he can hear the bounding in her chest, the Warlord reaches out and touches Ana’s chin.
Hot. Skin. Touch.
“Are you fairing well?” The Warlord bends down. Peering into her eyes as he examines her, Ana struggles to swallow. The heat from his fingers leaves an imprint on her skin.
Berating herself to keep it together and not pass out like a ninny, Ana swallows before answering. “Yes. I think I am just fatigued from today’s ride.” Her mouth tastes dry as the desert they are soon approaching.
Nodding as if in understanding, the Warlord does not release his grip on her chin. “Of course. If you would like, I can send a servant to bring your food to your room if you would like to rest.”
“No, it is fine. I would rather dine with you and the others.” Which is the truth. Having had plenty of meals alone, even if Ana had felt ill enough, she would have endured the pain to bask in the warmth of feeling accepted.
Regarding her once more, the Warlord releases her as if she passed his inspection for a bill of health. Pushing his goblet of mead close to her hand, the Warlord commands, “Drink, m’Ysurria. You are beginning to look flushed.”
Ana fights back a blush. If he only knew the truth behind the sudden rise of blood to my cheeks, Ana thinks to herself. She takes a tentative sip of the brew. Scrunching her nose at the strong distinction of alcohol, having been used to the watered wine at home, Ana pushes the goblet away from her. “Gah! That tastes awful.”
Nortega, Rionio, and a few other warriors in hearing, laugh but not in a mean way. “If you believe this is strong, s’Ysurria, you are in for a surprise when we reach home. You will expire when you try kafta.”
Not joining in their friendly laughter, the Warlord passes her his goblet filled with water. Thanking him with a grateful smile, Ana sighs in relief as the cool liquid rushes down her offended throat. “I apologize, m’Ysurria. I should have known you are not used to such common of drink.” Looking up, though the Warlord appears as stoic and powerful as usual, though there is a trace of contrite in his mesmerizing eyes.
“It is okay,” Ana shyly responds as she searches in her husband’s eyes. For what, she is unsure.
“Our famous stew and today’s catch for you fellas–and oh–my ladies!” The buxom barmaid balances the large tray of food without strain. Smiling as she sweeps her eyes on the group of warriors and smiles in apology to the female warriors and Ana, she expertly flirts her way across the tables as she drops off steaming plates of food and more drinks. Envying the way the other woman smiles teasingly and jokes with the Rhageon warriors with ease, Ana looks to her husband and wishes she had a similar skill of managing men.
If Ana were like the waitress, she would have already secured her husband’s attention and would have definitely ensured that their marriage had been consummated.
Sighing quietly, Ana takes a small bite of the stew. Uncaring of the mystery meat floating in thick, brown surface, Ana closes her eyes in pleasure as the broth warms her throat and her belly.
“Do you not like the food, m’Ysurria?” The Warlord’s sudden voice rumbles next to Ana. Snapping open her eyes, Ana catches her husband bending over his own bowl of stew, the Warlord’s striking hair luminescent in the subdued candlelight.
Swallowing another bite, Ana smiles, “No, it is hot and tasty–everything I need right now. I did not realize how hungry I was until I took my first bite.” Since leaving the castle, Ana’s anxiety has been eating her up until it overcame the pangs of hunger that followed. The ache in her head fading as she takes another bite, Ana’s tongue lingers on the spoon, trying to catch every last morsel.
Looking in her direction once more, the Warlord nods at her bowl. “Good. I know you are not used to traveling, especially at this pace. Luxuries likes this Inn will be less frequent once we enter the desert. So I would advise using the time now to your best advantage.”
Ana wants to scoff at the word “luxuries” as she pretends to not see a small, scurrying animal slip under their table. “I understand, husband,” Ana replies quietly, slightly annoyed that he believes her so weak to need to inform her of the obvious.
After a lapse of quiet between her and her the Warlord, opting to be casual, Ana struggles to keep her husband engaged in conversation.
“Have you traveled to Poshmarina before, husband?” There. Casual. A tame question that can branch out to following questions. Good job, Ana!
“Yes, and other bordering towns with my roggae, my father before he passed. Though he was shunned from aristocratic society, the towns that have loyalty with Rhageon still accepted him.”
“Oh, I did not know you father passed. I am sorry.”
“Thank you. It happened a few years ago during the civil war.”
“The civil war?”
“Yes, we normally shield our internal strife from Myceans so we do not appear weak but since you will be our Ysurria, it is important for you to know.
“The previous king, Rhamick was not suited to be Warlord. He cared more about drinking and women then preforming his duties. So in response to his weakness, all the city-states rebelled.”
“Then how did you become King? Where you next in line?”
“No, I challenged him.”
“Is that how Kings or Warlords are chosen? Through battle?”
“No, normally it is passed through royal blood but in cases like Rhamick’s, there is a loophole. Any man or woman can challenge the current ruler if he is found inadequate. I had already won popularity because our patron goddess choose me, so the people urged me to fight him. And I won.
Her tongue slightly burnt form her exuberance, Ana cautiously blows before taking her next bite. “Do you like ruling?”
“In honesty, I am unsure. I never had the ability to choose to opt out any circumstance that came my way. I was born as Lyceria’a Chosen, I did not decide nor can I escape this blessing. It must have been prophesied by the gods that I would rule.”
“You have such grand responsibilities on your shoulders, at some points, do you ever feel you can meet everyone’s expectations?”
“In this case, it is not about not reaching them, is surpassing them.”
“How do you mean?”
“These powers that I have been given are not human. They terrify me at times and I worry that I will lose my humanity in the process.”
“I do not believe so.”
“Oh?” Torien catches her eyes.
Ana has to force herself to focus, lest she will find herself lost in the swirling, mercury depths of his eyes. Such magical eyes, so enthralling. Ana can imagine herself staring into them until the end of her days. “I will not allow that to happen.”
“You appear confident.”
“Well, I am your wife. I promised myself to you. Which means I will be with you until the end.”
Finishing their meal in silence, Ana is relieved when Julia comes over and leads her upstairs to their shared room.
Nortega clicks his tongue as he watches s’Ysurria be lead upstairs by her servant. Shaking his head, the genrys points his spoon at his best friend. “I say this because you are my dearest friend Torien, but why are you so dense?”
Glaring at him with his god-touched eyes, Torien growls. “Shut it.”
“Are you purposely trying to scare her off?”
“I do not know what you mean, genrys.”
“s’Ysurria is new to you. You need to be more…approachable.”
“Approachable?” In shock, Torien sits back and appears to be looking himself over. Now that Nortega thinks about it, the Warlord of Rhageon could not appear approachable even without the god’s aid.
“Yes. Less surly bear and more doting husband.”
“We did converse.”
“Yes, like a surly bear. Smile once in awhile too! You look like you are facing an enemy.”
Nortega looks upward and begins to pray for his best friend. Fully aware of his stubbornness, the genrys shakes his head as Torien makes his way upstairs.
A claw-footed tub sits wonderfully full and steaming in the center of the room and for some unspoken reason, Ana cannot find any desire to delve in. Running her fingers over the lip of the tub, the steam curls up, beckoning her to envlop her in the warm water. After the hard ride today, Ana normally would have not hesitated to jump but after peering down at the beach when riding in, with waves calling to her like beguiling sirens, Ana finds the bath before her, lacking. Ana sighs.
Thylima and Murissa had been unpacking Ana’s things when she and Julia walked in. Seeing Julia’s face when walking in, Ana had smartly asked the two Rhageon servants to gather supplies in town.
“Princess? What happens to be the matter? Is the water too hot? Not hot enough?” Julia’s concerned voice breaks through her musings. Having taken over the task of laying out her clothes, the other girl rises from the bed and approaches Ana.
“No, no. It is perfect.”
“Then why do you hesitate?”
Biting her lip, Ana hesitantly replies, “I do not know what causes these strange thoughts but I wish… I wish I could have taken a dip into the ocean.”
“Yes, I know it is a silly thought but–”
“Let’s do it.”
“Surely you jest?” Ana’s head snaps back in surprise. Laura had always been the one who was more rebellious, urging her and Julia to break the rules. Julia, in turn, was the more demure and cautious. To see the passionate fire brewing in the other girls’s summer sky blue eyes, Ana realizes that she is not the only one going through a transformation.
“No, I am serious. Let us do it.”
“I do not think the Warlord would approve.”
Not spurned by her words, Julia rushes to the window and begins to mess with the latch. “Then let us sneak past the guards. We can climb out the window.”
Running up to her, Ana takes Julia’s hand away from the window. “Julia! When did you start having such a rebellious streak?”
“Ever since we left Tareriae.” The words are deadpan, her eyes are depthless.
Ana murmurs, “I…I cannot.”
“Why not, Ana? The distance is not too far. We can make it back and forth with no one the wiser.”
“I understand but the Warlord would be upset if he were to find out.”
Julia throws up her hands in frustration. “The Warlord this, the Warlord that! Who gives a rat’s ass what he thinks. He forced you to marry him, Ana.”
“You are right but I have duties now, I am his wife. I cannot just go off without telling him.”
“Such loyally to a man who does not even share your bed. You think I have not noticed? There was no blood on your sheets. You two did not consummate the marriage.”
Ana’s cheeks burn with shame. Not wanting to admit her insecurity about the Warlord avoding her bed, Ana says, “That is between the Warlord and I!”
“Has he spoken to you since leaving the castle?”
Blood rushes to her cheeks until Ana’s entire face is burning. “No–”
“I should be abashed for speaking to you so brashly, Ana but as your friend, it is my duty to tell you when you’re being foolish.”
“I will ask him in the morning if we can visit–”
“As I thought.” Julia looks at Ana with such pity, that Ana wants to launch herself at the other girl. Shaking her head once more, Julia opens the door and slips through the crack without a sound.
Clenching her fists, Ana muffles her frustrated screams through her lips.
Glaring at the still steaming bathtub, Ana marches over to the tub and growls at it. Kicking at the bottom with her bare toe, pain shoots up Ana’s foot as contact is made.
Her teeth ache from the pain. Hoping up and down, holding her throbbing foot, Ana hisses in agony at she damns her own foolishness. Setting her foot back down when the pounding lessens, Ana crosses her arms as she reviews Julia’s surprising words. Is Ana in wrong for not wanting to disobey her husband? The roles of a wife and enforced into Mycean girls before they utter their first word. Obedience and piety are to be taught until it becomes as natural as breathing. Even though their marriage is solely in name because he has yet to touch her, Ana is still obligated to preform her duty, right?
Lost in her thoughts, Ana almost misses the slip tap on the door.
Curious, Ana walks swiftly to the door, swinging it open with a whish. Taking a step back, Ana squeaks at the sight of her husband at the door.
“Hello,” Ana says, her eyes wide as she takes in his tall, muscular form wedged in the doorframe.
“Ana,” Torien’s rumbling reply caresses Ana like a kiss. Nodding at the damning, steaming bathtub, Torien continues, raising his silver brows, “I hope I am not interrupting.”
Blushing, Ana shakes her head, “Uh, no. I was going to take a bath but…I no longer desired it.”
Staring at her, Ana realizes that she is beeing rude by not letting him stand in the doorway as if he is a stranger and not her husband. Taking a step back, Ana murmurs, “Wont you come in, m’Nysurria.”
Without preamble, the Warlord steps into the room, sweeping past Ana as if he owns the place. A pang of irritation thrums through her at his confidence as he enters her private space. So easy, the Warlord claims the room with his great height and energy. The air buzzes around him and his eyes are even more impossibly otherworldly in the candlelight.
Forcing herself into her action, Ana ambles toward the fireplace, taking the poker to shifts the logs. Ana turns back towards her husband to see him glaring at the tub, the crackling fire warm at her back.
“What happens to be the matter, husband?”
“Is there something wrong with the tub?”
The state of her bathing seems to be the hottest of topics today.
“No,” she mutters through clenched teeth.
Looking around, Torien asks absentmindedly, “Where is your personal servant?” Knowing him, he probably already knows where Julia has already gone.
“After denying the bath, I gave her reprieve to do whatever she wants in town.”
“What did you require of me husband?”
“A husband needs to give his wife notice before meeting with her?” Torien impressively raises one of his brows, “You Myceans prove once again to be strange.”
“No, we do not do that but in Mycea, a husband does make time to talk with his wife instead of ignoring her.”
A puzzled expression twists his face, Torien opens his mouth to respond before pausing and turning towards the door. Not understanding why he paused, Ana raises her eyebrows in understanding when she hears a pair of boots stomping towards her room. A moment later, Julia slams open the door, declaring, “I know how to sneak past the Warlord!”
Pausing with her mouth left hilariously agape, Ana would have laughed at any moment than this particular one.
Leaning his back on the far wall, the Warlord looks relaxed as he crosses his arms and tilts his head. “Sneak past me, you say? Do continue.”
Watching the horror wash over her friend’s face, Ana jumps to Julia’s defense. “She did not mean that! We were solely jesting.”
“Yes! Your Highness, we were only being silly.”
Nodding his head, Torien asks, “Where did you intend to “sneak” to?”
Catching Ana’s eye, it is apparent that the servant is faltering underneath the Warlord’s otherworldly eyes, “Uh–”
“The beach,” The Warlord’s eyes snap towards her, “I wanted to swim in the ocean. It looked so refreshing when we came here this morning. I can only imagine how wondrous it looks under the night sky.”
After a moment of silence, the Warlord straightens up and nods to Ana. “Come. We will go. Together. Bring an extra set of clothes and towels.”
“Thank you.” Shocked that he agreed, Ana gestures for Julia to begin packing a bag for her.
“You have ten minutes. Nortega and I will wait for you in the hall.”
True to his word, the Warlord brings Ana and Julia to the beach. The sand cool and gritty beneath her feet, Ana cannot hold back the bubble of laughter that escapes her lips. Turning to Julia, the other girl returns her grin. Clasping her hand, Ana and Julia run to the waterline. Throwing their bundle of clothes behind them, Ana squeals as her toes meet the dark water. “Ah! So cold!”
The water is almost black as the night sky. The waning moon makes Ana’s skin look silvery and ethereal. Turning back to the two men stalwart in the distance, Ana waves for them to join. Nortega looks as if he is going to follow but Torien shakes his head. “We will stand and watch here. Do not go out too far, m’Ysurria.”
A pang of disappointment courses through her but Julia tugs on her hand. Her sadness forgotten, Ana allows Julia to pull her into the war, the two girls squealing and laughing as the cold water touches their flesh. The water to their chest now––Ana smiles at Julia and says, “You were right, this was a great idea.”