After a couple days, Riva felt as if she had never really lived anywhere else. She missed Illian terribly, and found herself looking around for Gabriel’s hovering presence, half-fearful of finding him. Much to her own surprise she even missed Marus and his odd acceptance of all that was odd about her. She had problems falling asleep the first couple of nights, but Annie nosed her way into her blankets to curl up next to her stomach, or lay across her ribcage and she was able to drift off knowing that she wasn’t alone.
When she wasn’t running errands or helping around the shop, the little ones took her exploring through the undercity enclave that opened into the back of the shop, and the older ones taught her what they knew of surviving on Castellan’s streets. She did her best to learn all that they had to teach her, though she was uncomfortably slow sometimes. She still expected too much, she supposed, even after all these centuries of adapting to wildly different worlds on a moment’s notice.
In return she soothed skinned knees, taught them songs to sing, and told them stories. They loved to hear the story of Lady Zaira and Lord Gryphon most of all. Gryphon had been one of them, and he had risen to be King of Castellan beside Zaira.
Then, one day, she discovered that she had even more that she could teach them.
Alban had been missing for most of the day. He was one of the mid-sized boys, perhaps twelve, perhaps thirteen, even he didn’t know how old he was. Brady, the eldest at the moment, had gone looking for him and showed up in late afternoon carrying the smaller boy in his arms, his face black with anger. Riva was waiting for them when they arrived and her eyes went wide with shock and pain.
Someone had beaten Alban to almost within an inch of his life.
The boy was bruised and bleeding and mostly unconscious, and with a lot of help from Kodran and a few other adults, they got him situated and bandaged. Riva was right with them. She might not have her healing gifts, but a sister had seen that she was taught some of the basics involved in the nonmagical side of healing.
After she had seen to Alban, Riva confronted Brady in another room. “What happened?”
“I found him like that, Motherling. I swear to you, I found him like that. I asked around and it seems like he ran into that group of squires. You remember the ones, from the day you got here.” She nodded. “They said they needed some ‘pell practice’, whatever that is, and just…” the boy’s voice failed for a moment before he could continue, “He couldn’t even defend himself.” Brady started pacing in anger.
“Can any of you?”
“Can any of us what?”
“Defend yourselves. If those maddening bullies show up again. Can any of you fight to defend yourselves or even just to get away?”
He looked at her, visibly trying to change his thinking. “I’ve been in a few street scuffles, and can hold my own as long as it’s just fists, but none of us have the training to stand up to squires in training for knighthood.”
For a moment she was silent, her lips pressed together in fury. “Are there laws against it, or is it simply a matter of available instruction?”
He blinked. “Songbird? What are you talking about?”
“Are there laws against you taking up a weapon to defend yourself? Are there laws restricting what sort of weapons you can use? Or is it simply a matter that most instructors wouldn’t think to teach streetlings?”
Kodran appeared at the door to the room. “Riva-girl, anyone not noble-born is forbidden the use of swords, though exceptions are made for those who are accepted into training for knighthood. Other than that, it’s catch as catch can.”
She was silent again for a long moment. “Can they use sticks and cudgels even if they hold them as swords?”
Kodran grinned. “As far as I know, there is no law about using a stick in a sword-like manner. Are you planning something?”
She looked over at him, her heart in her eyes. “I have to do something, and I am in the unique position of being able to.”
Kodran nodded. “Just keep it in the undercity, where those who would tattle cannot see.”
Brady looked at Riva, his eyes wide and disbelieving. “What are you planning to do?”
“I can teach you to fight, if you are willing to learn.”
— — —
They found a chamber deep in the undercity, in an area that only the dwarves went to. The dwarves, of course, knew what was going on, but they weren’t going to disturb anything that Kodran had authorized, especially when it involved helping the streetlings defend themselves.
Somehow Kodran had gotten his hands on a shipment of ironwood walking sticks. They were still being shaped and dried out, but when it was done they would be harder than the swords that the squires had, and wouldn’t be cut if used to block an edge-on blow. In the meantime, Riva had a supply of regular sticks of various lengths.
The first thing she had to teach them was how to stand, and then how to breathe, and it was quite a while before she started them on their first swings, but not against each other. This was going to be a long process.
But after what happened to Alban, no one was complaining.
It was tiring, but rewarding, even though it did keep her in the undercity for most of the day. She still hadn’t tracked down either of her Knights, but she was willing to be patient, if only for a little while longer.
— — —
Two weeks after the conversation in the tavern, Bastion still hadn’t found time to go wandering through the Merchant’s Quarter with Connor looking for this strange golden-eyed streetling girl, who might or might not be noble. He was in the training salle seeing to a new crop of students, a few of them were even streetlings. There were rumors flying around of a streetling mother, and he had to smile when he heard them.
It reminded him so strongly of stories he would read when he was a child in another place and time. Stories of boys very like these streetlings, and the girl they adopted for a mother. He remembered his own time on Castellan’s streets, and he knew that they were much safer than they could have been, because of Kodran, but Kodran wasn’t a mother. He was called the Streetling Father for a reason.
Besides, he could swear that one of the streetling boys who had entered training was better prepared for it than previous boys had been. Like someone had already taught him the very basics. If someone was training the streetlings it could make life very interesting in Castellan.
He caught motion out of the corner of his eye and turned to see Princess Keara entering the salle. She looked around and spotted him and walked over to silently hand him a folded piece of paper. He looked at it curiously. It wasn’t time for another letter from his Princess. That wasn’t supposed to happen for another week. And she tended to write several pages at a time.
He opened the paper and his face drained of blood. He didn’t even notice the way that all sound in the salle seemed to stop, how everyone turned to look at him. He looked up at Keara and saw that her eyes were glistening, as if with tears. “Princess?”
“Father is waiting for you in the library.”
He swallowed carefully. “Did you read it?”
She shook her head. “No, but – but her letter to me said that she needed an answer quickly. I have an envelope prepared already.”
He bowed and then almost ran from the salle.
— — —
King Ainmire did his best not to pace as he waited for Bastion’s arrival. When the Knight-Captain entered the library chamber he turned quickly. “So you have the letter.”
Bastion nodded. “You wished to see me?”
“I need to know, what did she ask?” The King looked at him, a tense interest written across his face. He was almost afraid of the answer, but ready for action because of it.
Bastion was silent for a long moment. “I cannot reveal her letters. I promised her.” He had promised to hold her confidences as his own honor, and that was just what he did. Normally, there were smiles when the King or his children pestered him to know what Princess Dauris wrote. Like they just wanted to hear him tell them no. There was no smile this time.
The King sighed in very real frustration. “Very well, just confirm or deny the matter for me. Does she ask about that which we were forbidden to reveal to her during the Coronation?”
Bastion nodded. “Yes, Majesty. I- I do not know how she would even know to ask such questions. Who could have told her…?”
The King silenced him with a motion. “Do not concern yourself with that right now, Captain. Do you intend to respond to her?”
Again Bastion nodded, more certain of himself. “Yes.”
“Then prepare your response and give it to my daughter that she may see it on its way.” He paused. “My niece has not been seen in the city of Pallantia for some days at last report. There were rumors, unconfirmed, of an attempted kidnapping.” He wasn’t sure that he should even tell the Knight-Captain about the rumors, but the man deserved all the information that they had.
Bastion turned very pale. “I must go to her.” He started to turn to run.
The King stopped him and shook his head in negation. “No, not yet. Not until we know that she is in need of rescue, or wishes our aid in escape. We must be patient, for a little while longer.” The last was almost a plea, almost a promise.
Reluctantly Bastion nodded his acceptance of the will of his King. Then he turned and left to see to his response. It would not take long. He stopped by his chambers to jot down his quick response to the letter, brief as it was. Then he folded the page and fairly ran to the Princess’ chambers.
Keara met him at the door with her own letter in hand. She quickly folded her letter around his and sealed it and then handed it to Bastion. “I need you to take it to my contact in town. Give it to the man at the rental stables behind the Green Tavern near the Sun Gate. Tell him…” she paused for a moment and then continued, “tell him this is important.”
Bastion nodded and then bowed. “Thank you.”
She smiled. “You aren’t the only one worried about her.”