The King and Her Queen

Chapter 5:  Tonight's Entertainment


Warm sunlight filtered through the great hall to welcome them from the cold dark cave.  Before them stretched a lush green and brown carpet which ran from the platform to the opposite side of the hall.  Potted trees were equally spaced along the carpet.  Their branches extended overhead and offered the visitor a sample of its blossom or its fruit.
 
Tall narrow windows stretched from the floor to the ceiling and provided a clear view of the valley below.  A bench was conveniently placed next to each window.  On the walls hung various colorful tapestries of different sizes.  Most of the tapestries were nature themed and some were semi-transparent so that the weave seemed to glow. 

When their initial shock of amazement wore off, they followed Merlyn across the sunlit hall.  When they reached the doorway at the end of the hall, they heard the sound of someone sprinting towards them.  Merlyn stretched out her arms to welcome the sprinter.

"Mother!"  exclaimed a young maiden with a twinkling musical voice.  She was about sixteen years old and was six inches shorter in height compared to Merlyn.  "Welcome home!"  She hugged Merlyn tightly.  She was dressed in a light brown and pale yellow ladies shirt with a laced waist corset and a dark brown skirt.

When they heard the girl's greeting, Rin and Shiro's jaws dropped and they stopped walking.  They stood there in shocked silence as the girl kissed Merlyn on both cheeks.  Then, the girl noticed them.

"How wonderful!  Ye've bought visitors!"  The girl skipped towards them and beamed a charming smile.  Her facial features were similar to Merlyn's but were enhanced with rosy cheeks and fair smooth skin.  Her waist length hair was brown and braided in some places.  But the most striking features were her dazzling eyes which matched Merlyn's golden ones.

Merlyn cleared her throat and gestured as she introduced them.  "Tis Rhynne, Syrowe and Arturia.  And tis mine daughter, Airianne."

"Arturia!"  She glided over to grasp Arturia's hand in hers.  "Mother told me a lot of stories about ye!  She..."

Merlyn put a hand on Airianne's shoulder.  "We've journeyed far, Airianne.  Can ye prepare tea fer us?"

Airianne gazed at her mother for a moment as if lost in thought.  Then she smiled warmly.  "Of course!  I understand.  I will serve it in the rose garden!  Or... will the lily pond be better?"

"The rose garden is fine."  replied Merlyn.  Airianne curtsied gracefully and skipped to the left hallway at the end of the hall.  At her exit, Rin and Shiro released their bated breaths. 

They followed Merlyn across what appeared to be a sitting room furnished with padded chairs and sofas.  On several small tables lay scrolls and crudely bound books.  Stringed musical instruments hung on one side of the room.  The carpet was thick and lush compared to the sunlit hall.

They walked for a minute through several hallways.  Merlyn led them to an intricately wrought stained glass door.  The stained glass depicted an image of red, yellow and white roses intertwined together.  She opened the door and ushered them into an indoor rose garden. 

The soft scent of roses assailed their senses.  The rose bushes were separated into three groups by color and were equally distant from each other.  Rin recognized the pattern of an equilateral triangle formed by an orderly arrangement pebbles ingrained upon the grassy ground.  Her sense of direction indicated that the red rose bushes were at the northmost point of the triangle.  At the center of the triangle was a small iron table with a stained glass top.

"This place can be used for rituals."  thought Rin.  "A hidden function, no doubt."  She tried to recall if she had seen anything else that might serve a hidden purpose besides decoration, but could not think of any at the moment.   Rin set their packs down at a corner of the garden.

Merlyn pulled a chair and gestured at Shiro.  He carefully lowered Arturia into it.  They all sat down to wait for Airianne. 

Shiro looked up at the high ceiling and marveled at its construction.  "Was this made with magic?"

"Nae all of it.  Ordinary craftsmen trusted by mine family did a lot of the masonry.  Mine great grandmother enchanted the rock that lets the light in.  It looks like rock from the outside but lets light in to the inside.  Each generation of mine family adds enchantments to our home.  Mine is the platform, as ye can see."

"But before ye had the platform, how did you get up here?"

"We flew."

"Flew?  As in using a broomstick?"

"Do ye mock me, boy?  I'm not a conjurer of cheap tricks.  Only charlatans use broomsticks."

The door of the garden swung open and Airianne glided in with a tray in her hands.  She set the tray down on the table and served them tea and small loaves of bread and butter.  Then she sat down beside her mother.

"Tis mine favorite bread, ale bread.  Have some.  Airianne made it herself."  Merlyn picked a loaf and spread a generous amount of butter on it.

"Why am I not surprised..." thought Rin as she took one and broke it to examine its contents quickly.  She noticed some green onion and melted cheese.  "It can't be that bad..."  She took a bite and was pleasantly surprised at its enticing flavor.  "Tis delicious!"  she exclaimed.

Shiro nodded in agreement.  "Yea.  It is."  He took several large bites.

Merlyn quickly finished her bread, slurped half her tea and stood up.  "I must greet mine wife."  she declared.

Rin almost spit out her tea while Shiro almost choked on his bread.  Arturia let her bread drop onto her plate.  

Merlyn kissed Airianne on her forehead and patted her shoulder affectionately.  "I'll be back, mine dearest.  Will ye entertain mine guests fer me?"

"I'd be glad to, Mother."  replied Airianne warmly.  Merlyn nodded and exited the garden.

Airianne smiled at them charmingly.  "How was yer journey?  Did ye travel by horse?"

Shiro replied, "Nay.  We rode a wagon which I drove."

"Did ye visit any great castles?"

"Nay, we traveled in haste."

"Ah, a pity.  Some castles art a marvel to behold."  Airianne poured some milk into her tea.  "Yer features art not Bryton.  Art ye Erisch, Pict or Saxon?"

At the mention of the word 'Saxon', Arturia's eyes narrowed and she set her tea down.

"Nay, I am neither.  Mine people call ourselves Nihon-jin, which translates to a person of Nihon."

"Nee-hun?  And where may that be?"

As Shiro told her all about Japan, he had a feeling of deja vu.  While he answered Airianne's barrage of questions, he was reminded of his original conversation with Arturia.  He hoped that Rin would add to the conversation, but she merely sat there drinking tea daintily. 

Eventually, Airianne giggled.  "Ye're a nice boy.  Do ye have someone dear?"

A drop of sweat trickled down his forehead.  "Yea."

"Ah, a pity."  said Airianne with a note of disappointment.  "Is she beautiful?"

Shiro smiled dreamily.  "Yea."

Airianne's eyes grew wide.  "Is it Lady Rhynne?"  At this point, Rin was doing her best to suppress giggling.

"Nay."

"Then it must be Lady Arturia!"

"Yea."

Airianne clapped her hands with glee while Arturia sat up when she heard Shiro's answer.  "What?"

Shiro faced her.  "Tis true.  Though our time together wert short, I hath grown fond of ye."

Confusion reigned on Arturia's face.  "I am flattered... so much that I know not what to say."

"Oh, how delightful!  The beginning of a budding romance!"  Airianne broke out in tiny giggles.  "And ye, Lady Rhynne, do ye have someone dear?"

Rin shrank back in her seat.  She was hoping that Airianne would not ask her.  "Yea."  she admitted softly. 

"Is it goodman Syrowe?"

"Nay."

"Ah, a pity.  How interesting if it wert a love triangle!"

To Rin's great relief, Merlyn came back.  Her face bore a solemn look which changed to a slight smile as she neared the table.  "Have ye eaten yer fill?"

"Yea.  Twas very good."

Merlyn nodded.  "Then come and rest.  I will show ye to yer rooms."

Airianne stood up quickly.  "Allow me, Mother.  Mama hath been waiting fer ye fer so long..."

Merlyn's eyes misted over.  "All right.  Show them the large rooms in the west wing."

Shiro carried Arturia and Rin picked up their packs.  They followed Airianne along several hallways.  Eventually, Airianne stopped and opened the door to a room.  "This will be goodman Syrowe's room." 

The room was about 30 feet by 30 feet.  The ceiling of the room and west wall were semi-transparent.  In the center of the room was a canopied bed with thick curtains.  A small fireplace was on the north side of the room.  On the south side was a vanity mirror and several dressers and closets.  Colorful rugs and carpets enhanced the stone floor.  Rin put Shiro's pack by the bed.

"Next door is Lady Arturia's room." declared Airianne with a mischievous smile as she opened the door to Arturia's room.  Shiro went in and put Arturia on the bed.  "This room is similar to the other room except that this bed is very comfortable, and can sleep two people."  continued Airianne.

Rin's jaw dropped with surprise when she realized Airianne's subtle innuendo.  She glanced at Shiro who stepped away from Arturia.  Because of the light in the room, it was easy to see Shiro's flaming ears even though he was facing away from her.  From his reaction, she concluded that Shiro realized it as well.

"Am I to share this room with Rhynne?"  asked Arturia.  At her unexpected question, Rin almost dropped her pack.

Airianne's smile was replaced with a surprised look as she turned to Arturia.  She cleared her throat.  "The room next to this one is to be Lady Rhynne's room."  Airianne blushed slightly.  "But if ye wish to share yer bed..."

Rin could guess what was going through Airianne's mind and did not wait for her to finish her sentence.  "Mine pack is heavy.  I shall go to MINE room and set it aside."  Rin quickly exited Arturia's room and went to the room next door.  She put the pack down and closed the door.

"I am confused."  She heard Arturia say.  Rin pressed her ear against the wood door.  "If Rhynne hath her own room, then why is mine bed so large?"

The silence that followed was deafening.  Finally, she heard Airianne clear her throat.  "Since ye art injured, it might be of help to give yer limbs more room so that ye art comfortable."

The excuse seemed flimsy for Rin.  Arturia had been recuperating on a narrow straw bed and a makeshift cot on a wagon.  The lack of room did not deter her progress.  Rin waited for Arturia's response.

"I understand."  said Arturia after a brief pause.  "That is kind of ye.  And if I may beseech ye, please tell Rhynne that mine bandages hath not been dressed yet."

Rin's eyes widened and she quickly grabbed the pack.  She sprinted to the nearest closet.

Airianne's voice echoed faintly in the hallway.  "Aye.  I shall see her now."

Rin opened her pack and scattered a few items.  She opened the closet door and pretended to be putting stuff into the closet.

There was a knock on the door.  "Come."  answered Rin. 

Airianne opened the door.  "Lady Rhynne, Lady Arturia wisheth to let ye know that her bandages hath not been dressed."  She tilted her head as if in thought.  "Do ye wish to do laundry?"  she asked.

"Err... no... not really."

Airianne smiled and walked to where Rin stood.  "If ye need to wash yer clothes, ye need but toss it in yon chute."  She gestured at the open closet.  "Clothes art washed every third day."

Rin looked in and saw that there was indeed a chute in the closet.  "Whither doth it go?"

"To the basement.  Now, please excuse me.  I shall prepare dinner."  Airianne curtsied and closed the door behind her.

Rin examined the chute for a while.  "This place is really cool."  she thought.  Then she fetched the medicine kit and bandages from her pack.  Suddenly, she realized that the basin she used for water was still in the wagon.  Furthermore, she needed some warm water.  She would have to ask Airianne.  She picked up her kit and walked to Arturia's room.  The door was slightly open, but Rin knocked anyway. 

"Enter."  replied Arturia.

"Tis I.  Didst Merlyn forget to dress thy bandages?"  Rin put the kit and the bandages down on the bedside table.

"Yea.  Methinks, in her haste to finish our journey, she hath overlooked it."

"Tis an important task."  said Rin gravely, with an air of a professional doctor.  "E'en though thy physic forgeth, as a patient, thou hath a duty to remind her.  Shall I fetch her for thee?"  Rin tried to reign in the teasing in her voice and attempted to sound as serious as possible.

Arturia bowed her head slightly.  "Nay." said Arturia guiltily.  "The thought hath occureth to me, but yet, I kept mine peace."

Rin raised an eyebrow in curiosity.  "Why so?"

"Methinks, thou perform the task better."

Rin blinked several times.  "How so?"  she asked with curiosity.

Arturia bowed her head some more.  She remembered the tenderness of Rhynne's touch and how refreshing it was to feel her wipe her skin.  In contrast, Merlyn rushed through the task and sometimes the washcloth would catch on a scab.  She also had a tendency to bind the bandages rather tight.  Maybe, she could convince Rhynne to do it instead of Merlyn.  However, words seem to fail her and she blurted out, "With thou, it feels gentler and... cleaner."

"Cleaner?"  repeated Rin.  She tried to make out Arturia's face, but her long bangs obscured her line of sight.

"Yea."  Her hand curled to grip the blanket.  Somehow, it felt embarrassing and inappropriate to describe how she felt.

Rin was not sure how to respond.  After a bit of thought, she replied with mock solemnity.  "I am pleased to hear that.  A physic must do what she can to promote her patient's cleanliness.  Is it not saith that the cleanliness of the body reflects the cleanliness of the spirit?"

Arturia raised her head slightly and her eyes lit up.  "Ah!  I see truth in thy wisdom and mine thoughts art in accord with thine."  She was relieved that Rhynne accepted her reason.

Just under the shadows of her hair, Rin could see that Arturia's cheeks colored to a slight shade of pink.  For some reason, a part of Rin enjoyed seeing Arturia that way.  Her amusement escaped into her lips.  "I will need a basin and warm water.  Please abide here whilst I fetch some."

"Please pace thyself.  I will rest until then."

Rin excused herself and went to look for Airianne.  After a few minutes of searching, she smelled the mouth watering scent of baked bread and followed it to a large kitchen.  There, she found Airianne juggling several tasks of baking, frying and chopping.  Airianne glided about wearing a cute apron embroidered with yellow chicks.

"Lady Airianne!  Ye art cooking so much!  Please let me assist ye."  Rin stepped forward to flip over some slices of meat in a frying pan.

"Nay, Lady Rhynne.  Ye art mine guest."  Airianne set a knife on a carrot on top of a cutting board.  "Besides, ye hath come for something?"  After a quick flurry, butterfly shaped carrot slices were lying on the board.

Rin stared in amazement for a moment.  Meanwhile, Airianne basted several roasting chickens in the oven.  "Yea.  I require a basin and warm water to dress Arturia's bandages."

"Warm water?  Ah!  Ye mean to do some cleaning."  Airianne crossed her arms and thought for a moment.  "Is she well enough to bathe?"

Rin assessed Arturia's current progress.  "Yea.  She hath recovered enough."

"Then, why not bathe?  Tis much better than a basin and warm water.  And the bath and privy art just at the end of the hall from yer rooms.  Bath supplies and towels art stored in a closet within."

"I will let Arturia know about the bath.  However, if she chooses not to bathe, dost the bath have a basin?"

"Aye."  Airianne chopped some mushrooms and onions with lightning skill.

It was obvious that Airianne needed no help, but out of politeness, Rin asked her anyway.  "Art ye sure that ye doth not require assistance?"

"Verily.  Dinner will be ready in half an hour.  I shall fetch ye when it is ready."

"If by chance that ye require any assistance at a later time, I would be glad to lend mine aid."

Airianne abruptly stopped chopping and looked up.  "Any?"  she repeated.

"Yea, any."

Airianne's lips drew into a wide grin.  "Mayhap, I shall accept yer offer later.  I will surely let ye know.  Now, off with ye, and dinna be late fer dinner."

At the sight of that grin, a chill went up Rin's spine.  She felt like she had just signed away her life.  She hoped that it was just her imagination. 

"Mine thanks."  muttered Rin.  Then she returned to Arturia's room and told her about the bath. 

Arturia's face lit up.  "A bath would be refreshing."

"Then I will ask Syrowe to carry you there."  Rin went to Shiro's room and told him about the bath.

"That's great!  I want to take a bath too!"  said Shiro with great enthusiasm.

So Rin gathered a change of clothes while Shiro carried Arturia.  Together, they went down the hall and looked for the bath.  They found two doors at the end of the hall.  The left door was a privy.  After Rin opened the right door, they gaped in astonishment.  Rin and Shiro expected to see something like a regular bath room but instead they found something like an onsen.  They marveled at the size of the bath for a few moments before Shiro put Arturia down on a nearby bench.

"Methinks, I shall bathe later."  Shiro said sheepishly and left, closing the door behind him.

Rin found some shelves and put their clothes in it.  The cabinets were nearby and she located some towels, washcloths and soap.  Then she turned to where Arturia sat to give her a towel.  Rin's voice caught in her throat at the sight of Arturia undressing.  She watched with bated breath as her shirt slipped off her shoulders and down her back.  She put it aside and was only clad in her bandages and trewes.  Arturia looked from left to right and then turned around to look behind her.  Her green eyes met Rin's and she smiled warmly. 

By now, Rin realized why Arturia looked so different. The sun had begun to set and its rays suffused the stone around Arturia with a rich golden orange color.  Even Arturia's hair caught some of its light and each delicate strand seemed to glow.  

She released her breath and walked over to Arturia.  "I hath found some towels."  She handed her a towel and a washcloth. 

"Mine thanks."  Arturia accepted them and put them beside her on the bench.

Rin sat beside Arturia on the open space on the bench.  She cleared her throat.  "Shall I... remove thy bandages?"

"Yea."  Arturia lifted her arms and put her hands on Rin's shoulders. 

Rin shuddered slightly at the contact.  She bent her gaze to where the bandage was secured and attempted to undo the knot which was located between Arturia's breasts.  She was not sure whether to thank Merlyn or curse her for tying it there.  She decided to curse her after spending a minute trying to untie it. 

Arturia noticed the scowl on Rin's face while she undid the bandage.  "Mine apologies, Rhynne.  Merlyn hath secured it tightly."

"Nay, tis no one's fault." replied Rin.  She carefully unrolled the bandages. As she unrolled them, she noted the wounds underneath.  It was indeed amazing.  The wounds had closed and it was only a matter of time for the scabs to fall off.  The bones and ligaments were healing quickly as well.  After she was done, she put the bandages aside.  "Whither thou wish to wash?"

Arturia looked about and pointed to a recessed area with stools.  "Methinks that one washes over there."

Rin nodded.  "Mine strength doth not match Syrowe's, but I can carry thee there."

"Art thou sure?"

"Yea."

"But Merlyn saith that thou art weak of heart.  I doth not wish to exhaust thee."

"What?  I have no such malady.  When didst she saith this?"

"Today, after thou fell into a swoon."

Rin's jaw dropped slightly and her brain tried to come up with a good excuse.  "I... I... hath kept watch almost ev'ry night and... the lack of sleep hath done its toll.  Tis I who must ask thee for forgiveness for the inconvenience I caused." 

"Thou needst not apologize.  At the moment, mine concern is for thy health."

"I am fit now.  As thou shall see..."  In her mind, Rin chanted the spell, 'Strength of a Thousand'.  "...now."  When the spell activated, Rin scooped Arturia into her arms.  It was an extravagant use of her mana, but she decided to splurge for this occasion.

Arturia let out a small yelp and wrapped her arms around Rin's neck in surprise.  When she found her voice, she said, "I see... Thy strength proveth thy malady false."

Rin beamed her a smile of confidence and sauntered over to the recessed area.  She sat Arturia upon a stool near a flowing waterspout.  Then she fetched their towels and washcloths and placed them nearby.  "I beg thy pardon.  I will now change mine clothes."

"Why not change them here?  I will be glad to assist thee."

Rin blinked several times.  The zipper on the back of the dress was a pain to reach.  Rin was about to refuse but she got caught in Arturia's expectant gaze.  "All right."  She sat down on a nearby stool with her back to Arturia.  "The dress is fastened by a clasp near mine neck.  Just pull yon clasp down."

Arturia located the clasp and pulled it down.  She was amazed at how easily the dress parted.  "Thy dress is of marvelous construct.  I hath ne'er seen a clasp such as this.  And what, perchance, is this black strap?  Ah, I see it hath hooks."  She unhooked the strap.

Rin's eyes grew wide when she realized that her bra was undone.  Her hand hastily reached for a towel while Arturia undid the knot of the sash around her waist.  When the knot was fully untied, the dress began to slip off her shoulders.  Rin brought the towel to her chest and blushed at the thought of Arturia undressing her.

Arturia reached over and pulled down the sleeves of the dress to reveal Rin's upper arms and back.  She noticed that the black strap went around Rin's front and over her shoulders.  She touched the strap with her fingers.  "And how doth this strap come off?"

Arturia's fingers upon her skin caused Rin to break out in goosebumps.  She put her hand on her bra strap and turned towards Arturia slightly.  "Thou hast giveth me enough aid.  I shall complete the rest."

"I am glad to be of assistance.  I shall finish undressing as well." 

Rin remembered that Arturia was still wearing her trewes.  She kept her back to her and stood up.  She let her dress fall and took off her bra which she tossed out of the recessed area.  Now only her panties remained.  She blushed some more in embarrassment, for she had forgotten that she was wearing her lacy black bikini style panties.  She hoped that Arturia would not notice as she tugged one side down.

After Arturia had removed her trewes, she spread a towel over her lap.  Then she glanced over to Rhynne and was surprised to see her wearing an unusual piece of clothing for her underwear.  She watched as she pulled it down over curve of her buttocks, past the length of her long slim legs and off her feet.  She picked it up with the dress and tossed them aside to where the black strap lay.  Just as Rhynne began to turn around, her sense of propriety warned her to turn away before she caught her in the act of observing her.  Quickly, she turned her head away guiltily.  She suddenly realized that this would be the first time in which she would see her naked.  The thought filled her with excited curiosity.

Behind her, Rin cleared her throat.  "Shall I wash thy back?"

Arturia faced Rhynne with an innocent smile.  "Yea.  Please do."

Rin repositioned herself and her stool behind Arturia.  She prepared her washcloth with soap and water.  With slow, gentle strokes, she began to wash Arturia's back.

Arturia closed her eyes and smiled to herself.  She had missed Rhynne's treatment since Merlyn met them at the inn.  For now, she was content to relish Rhynne's treatment for the next few minutes.

Her smile melted when Rhynne poured some warm water to rinse her back.  It was over too soon.

"Let me know when thou wish to soak in yon pool.  I will carry thee there."  She picked up her washcloth and began to wash herself.

Suddenly, an idea entered Arturia's mind.  "Allow me to return thy favor and wash thy back."  She held out her hand for Rhynne's washcloth.

Rin stopped and gaped in surprise.  She was about to refuse but the sight of Arturia smiling so expectantly changed her mind.  With hesitation born out of uncertainty, she slowly handed Arturia her washcloth.  "I... I thank thee for thy kind offer."

She turned around to provide Arturia easy access to her back.  She felt the washcloth touch her back.  Once again, her skin broke out in goosebumps.

Arturia mimicked the slow, gentle strokes that Rhynne had used.  She worked on her task methodically. 

Internally, Rin was squirming with the sensation of Arturia wiping her back.  "Ohmigod... is this how she feels when I do it?"  thought Rin as her breath came in ragged gasps.  She tried not to make her gasping audible.

Meanwhile, just to make sure that she scrubbed well enough, Arturia ran her finger over Rhynne's skin.  It slid smoothly over her skin.

On Arturia's touch, Rin shuddered and clasped her hand over her mouth to suppress a gasp.  Her other hand gripped the towel with all her might. 

Pleased with her work, Arturia smiled and continued to scrub.  Soon, Rhynne's skin had assumed a nice healthy sheen.  Arturia leaned back in satisfaction.  "I am done.  Thou may rinse."

Rin let out her breath.  "M-- mine thanks..."  she blurted out. 

"Thou art welcome."  said Arturia.  After Rhynne rinsed, she returned her washcloth. 
Then Arturia washed her own hair and the rest of her body. 

Rin reached into her small pouch of bath supplies and extracted her shampoo bottle.  She squeezed it until a pea-sized amount of concentrated goo landed on her finger.  Despite the need to minimize their luggage, Rin made a special exception to this shampoo which was a special blend of camellia that would keep her hair lustrous and silky.  Of all the lessons in Ise jingu, the shampoo formula was the most practical one for everyday use.  Of course, the true reason of bringing it was vanity, but she reasoned that it was essential for hygiene and health.  She lathered it on her hands and then shampooed her hair.  When she was satisfied, she rinsed and waited for Arturia.

Eventually, Arturia finished and turned to her.  "May I ask thee to convey me to yonder pool?"

"Of course."  She knelt by Arturia and took her into her arms.  She stood up and felt something slither off her torso.  The horrible realization that her towel had just fallen off filled her with embarrassment.  It was not easy to ignore Arturia pressing against her breasts.

She calmed her nerves and proceeded to a pool that did not look like a boiling pot.  She dipped her toe into the water to test it, and was satisfied with its temperature.  She stepped into the pool and carefully positioned Arturia on a small bench attached to the sidewall.  She selected that particular bench so that Arturia can have a view of the landscape beyond the walls of the bath.

"Is this satisfactory?"  asked Rin.

"Yea.  Tis perfect."

"I am glad."  Rin waded to the steps to get out but Arturia called out to her.

"Whither goest thou?"

"Mine towel hath slipped off.  I will fetch it."

"Why dost thou require a towel?"

Rin was uncertain how to answer.  She decided to act conservative.  "Tis for modesty.  Besides thou hath don one upon thy waist.  I doth not wish to offend thee by not observing thy customs."

Arturia shook her head.  "Nay.  Tis not a custom."  To emphasize her point, she pulled the towel off, squeezed the water out and placed it outside the pool.  "And be at ease.  I shant take offense in viewing thy exquisitely shaped form."

Rin blushed slightly.  Her thoughts were in a jumble.  "Was... that a compliment?"  she asked herself.  She attempted to untie her tongue.  "M--- Mine heart gladdens with thy words.  Thanks to thee, I will no longer need to fetch mine towel."  Rin waded to the sidewall on Arturia's right and sat on the bench there.  To prevent herself from staring at Arturia, she closed her eyes and let her body relax.  In an effort to keep time, she decided to recite a meditative mantra in her mind.

Arturia watched Rhynne for a moment and then turned her gaze to the landscape before her.  She tried to find the road which led to this valley, but could not recognize any.  Memories of their journey filled her mind.  Even though she had known Rhynne for a short period, she felt a familiar camaraderie between them.  However, every time she tried to search her memories for Rhynne's presence in her past, she could not find any. 

"What hath happened to me?"  she asked herself.  She raised her left arm to examine it.  Rhynne told her that bones in her forearm were broken and that the flesh around it was sliced open and was further damaged by the broken bones.  She touched her arm and let her hand open and close.  Her muscles felt stiff, but she did not feel any pain.  As her eyes examined the skin on the arm, she noticed a red mark on her palm.  The mark was not there when she washed her body.  She touched it.  It seemed to glow under her skin.  "What could this be?"  she asked aloud.

Rin heard Arturia's question and opened her eyes.  "What is it?"

"There is a mark upon mine palm."

Rin waded over and held out her right hand.  "May I see thy palm?"

Arturia was about to show her palm, but stopped when she noticed a red mark on Rhynne's palm.  She took Rhynne's palm with her right and gently turned it up so she could view it fully.  She held her left palm next to it.  "Thy palm hast a similar mark."

Rin's eyes grew wide with surprise when she realized that the marks from the blood cleansing ritual were visible.  She tried to remember if she cancelled the spell properly.

"Mine mark seemst to be a mirror of thine."  remarked Arturia.  To test her observation, she aligned the marks and pressed their palms together.  Arturia gasped as a tingling sensation spread from her palm and into her body.   The sensation filled her with a sense of exhilaration.  For a moment, she felt like she was somewhere else.  She could see a wood paneled room.  The floor seemed to be covered with light green woven mats. 

Rin gasped as mana gushed from her palm.  She pulled away abruptly.

Suddenly, the vision of the room faded away along with the feeling of exhilaration.  Her heart was beating fast so she sat still to calm herself.  Her thoughts wandered to the vision of that room.  Somehow, she felt like she had been in that room before.  She was jolted from her thoughts by Rhynne's voice.

"Arturia... Arturia... art thou well?"

She looked at Rhynne with dazed eyes.  "M-- methinks so..."

"Didst something happen to thee?"  asked Rin anxiously.  The meeting of the marks had caused some sort of side effect.  She hoped that it did not do any harm.

"I felt a great excitement overwhelm me... and then... I saw a vision of a strange place..."

"Didst thou feel any pain?"

"Nay."

"And what didst thou see in thy vision?"

"I beheld a room boarded in wood.  Upon the floor lay woven green mats."

As soon as Rin heard about the mats, a sense of apprehension welled up within her.  She began to consider the possibility that Arturia would remember her time as a servant.  She needed to know more.  "Was there anything else?"

Arturia shook her head.  "Nay.  When thou removed thy hand, the vision faded."  She stared at her hand.  "Mayhap... if we hold our hands again... I may see more of it..."

Warning bells began to ring inside Rin's mind.  She had to derail this train of thought somehow.  "Hmm... methinks that thou hath seen a part of mine memories.  The mark on thy hand activated a spell which allowed thee to peer into mine mind."

"Thy mark was mine mistake.  I didst not dispel it properly after I hath healed thee.  Please, allow me to correct mine error."  Rin held out her hand.

Arturia stared at Rhynne's hand.  She felt that the vision was part of her memories and not Rhynne's.  She could not fully accept her explanation.  If Rhynne dispelled the mark, then she may not be able to see that vision again.  "Nay."  she said firmly.  "Allow me to keep it." 

A mixture of surprise and disappointment filled Rin.  She considered insisting on removing the mark.  However, if she insisted, it might arouse Arturia's suspicions.  She lowered her hand.  "As thou wish.  If thou wish to dispel it at a later time, please let me know."  Rin noted the waning rays of the sun.  "Dinner will be ready soon.  We may stay for a few more minutes before we must ready ourselves."  Rin waded back to her bench.

"All right."  agreed Arturia. 

When they had soaked long enough, Rin carried Arturia to the dressing area.  They dried themselves and combed their hair.  Rin quickly put on a shirt and skirt while Arturia dried herself.  When she was done, she applied ointment where needed and bandages to protect sensitive skin.  She assisted Arturia in dressing up.  When they were done, Rin went to Shiro to ask him to carry Arturia.  Together, all three of them went to the dining hall. 

Merlyn and Airianne were already there.  They sat on either side of a hunched old woman at a wooden round table.  The old woman's thinning white hair and waxen complexion indicated her advanced age.  Her face was lined with wrinkles, but she displayed a serene smile.  She wore a simple beige gown. 

Shiro carefully put Arturia down on a chair next to Merlyn and sat down next to her.  Rin sat down next to Airianne. 

When they were seated, Merlyn introduced them.  "I'd like ye to meet mine wife, Wybrenne.  Wybrenne, the lass next to me is Arturia, the young lad next to her is Syrowe, and the lass next to Airianne is Rhynne.  They will be staying here fer awhile."

The old woman answered in a warm voice mellowed with age.  "Welcome, all.  Tis mine hope that thou will enjoy thy sojourn here.  Avail thyselves of our abode as thou wish.  And now, let us sup and partake of Airianne's efforts."

Together, they ate with animated conversation.  Naturally, Wybrenne and Airianne wanted to know more about them and they eagerly supplied answers.  Merlyn mostly simply sat back and ate like glutton who had not had a meal in weeks.  The meal was delectable and was a veritable showcase of Airianne's talent.  Shiro had to control himself from overeating. 

At the end of the meal, Merlyn got up and pulled Wybrenne's chair away from the table.  "We shall now retire for the night.  Good night, all."  Wybrenne nodded in their direction and then Merlyn pushed the chair which had small wheels attached to its legs. 

Rin and Shiro cleared the table and wiped it clean.  Airianne washed the dishes while Arturia dried them.  When they were done, Airianne whirled about and asked, "What art yer plans for the evening?  The night is still young."

Rin and Shiro looked at each other questioningly.  Rin shrugged.  Shiro decided to reply.  "We haven't planned anything.  Doth ye have something in mind?"

Airianne's face broke into a wide grin and glinting eyes.  "Aye, I do.  Come hither."

They followed Airianne into the sitting room which was near the great hall.  She pulled out a board with an arrow stuck to it like a compass.  She laid it on a table and they sat down on the chairs around the table to look at it.

The board had labels such as 'Singing', 'Tales of Romance', 'Tales of Adventure', 'Dancing' and more.  "When Mother is here, we choose our evening's entertainment by using this board."  She brought out a pack of cards.  "And we decide who gets to spin yon arrow by cards.  The loser must entertain the winner."

"What card game will we play?"  asked Shiro.

"Old Maid.  Doth ye know how to play?"

They all replied affirmatively.  Airianne clapped her hands in glee.  "Splendid!"  With a whir, she shuffled the cards.  Her hands flew across the table as she dealt them their hands.  Her movement reminded Rin of a nightingale.  When she was done, she faced Arturia.  "The winner is the first who discards all of his or her cards.  If it pleases ye, Lady Arturia, start the game."

"I shall."  She picked a card from Shiro and placed a matching set onto the table.  The game was afoot.  Soon, matching cards were piling up in front of each player until Airianne had one card left.  Rin held out her cards to her.  Airianne's finger alighted over the joker which was drawn as a crotchety old hag. 

"All right!"  thought Rin.  "I can still win!"  Suddenly, Airianne's finger moved over to the other card and pulled it.  Rin's face fell in disappointment as Airianne plopped down a matching set. 

"Done."  said Airianne with a note of finality.  She touched the side of the arrow with her index finger and spun.  "And now, tonight's entertainment is... 'A Romantic play'.  Airianne clapped her hands with joy while the other three grimaced at the thought.  "Oh how wonderful!  It will be so much better with three people." 

She flitted about the room as if looking for something.  "Oh, what should we do?  What should we do?"  She opened a cabinet and began looking at scrolls.  "Ah, this one should fit our cast!"  She pulled out several scrolls.  "Hath ye heard of the play, 'Cinderella'?"

Shiro and Rin replied that they had, but Arturia did not know the play. 

Airianne began handing out scrolls.  "Tis well that ye art not familiar with it, Arturia.  Ye will be both audience and performer.  And now, I shall cast ye to yer roles.  Goodman Syrowe will be the narrator and all the male roles in yon script.  Lady Rhynne will be the stepmother and her daughters as well as the fairy godmother.  Lady Arturia will be Cinderella."

Airianne gestured to a slightly raised platform on one side of the room.  "This will be yer stage."  She opened a door near the platform.  "If ye require any theatrical devices, ye may search for it in this room."  She glided over to a comfortable armchair in front of the platform.  "Ye may begin when ye wish."

Shiro sighed.  He and Rin went into the room and returned with a small rug, a basin and several pieces of cloth.  Rin laid out the props on the stage while Shiro carried Arturia to the stage.  After Shiro put Arturia on the rug, Rin tied the piece of cloth around her waist and handed her a towel.  Shiro stood at the left corner of the stage and begin his narration.

Arturia tried her best to do what Syrowe described in his narration.  Rhynne entered the stage when one of her roles came up.  Arturia watched with admiration as Rhynne acted out a conversation between the stepmother and stepsisters.  She was so entertained that she often forgot to read her own lines.  She blushed in embarrassment and tried her best to concentrate.

Meanwhile, Rin was glad that she could rely on her theater experience at the academy.  She pitied pour Shiro who was obviously trying his best with his monotonic reading and stiff acting.  After she acted out her roles as stepmother and stepsister, she waited for Arturia's response.  Instead, she found Arturia gazing at her with undisguised wonder.  Rin blushed and cleared her throat.  She repeated her last line and emphasized the word 'Cinderella'.  Arturia blushed and fumbled at her scroll until she found her line and recited it.  Rin chuckled to herself.  "How cute..."  she thought and continued her acting.

Arturia acted through the play with a sense of bewilderment.  Just as Airianne had predicted, she was caught up in the play as an actor and as a spectator.  She had a few moments to watch Rhynne without interruption when the stepsisters tried to coerce the prince to dance with them.  Syrowe seemed so wooden compared to Rhynne.  Eventually, it was her turn to dance with the prince.  Syrowe put her on the stool and pretended to dance with her.  When the scene was done, she was relieved. 

She was treated to one more scene when Rhynne acted out the competition of the stepsisters to fit the glass slipper.  Somehow, Syrowe actually managed to find a glass slipper in the room behind the stage.  Her turn came and Syrowe fitted the slipper perfectly on her foot.  He beamed at her with genuine adoration and declared that he had found his princess.  Finally, the play was finished with their wedding.  The script indicated that the prince was supposed to kiss Cinderella, but Syrowe merely stood there and declared, 'The End'.

At this point, Airianne stood up and protested, "Nay, nay, nay!  Ye must kiss the bride."

Shiro flushed in embarrassment.  "Now...?  In front of... all of ye...?"

"Aye."  said Airianne firmly.

Shiro hesitantly placed his hands on Arturia's shoulders.  He leaned forward to kiss her on the cheek but Arturia stopped his advance with her hand.

"Nay..."  said Arturia softly.

He pulled away.  He did not want Arturia to misunderstand his intentions.  "I was going to kiss ye on the cheek.  I apologize if I made ye feel uncomfortable."

"Apology accepted."  replied Arturia curtly.  She spoke to Airianne with a firm voice.  "Mine apologies, Airianne, for a rather poor performance.  Methinks that the journey hath taxed mine strength.  I must ask thee to excuse me and let me retire for the night."

Airianne shook her head.  "On the contrary, twas splendid!  Much better than Mother's.  Tis I who must apologize fer poor manners."  She clapped her hands with great enthusiasm.  "A wonderful play!  Know ye that I hath enjoyed every scene.  And ye wert amazing, Lady Rhynne!"

Rin bowed deeply.  "Mine thanks.  I am pleased that it was to yer liking."

"Well then, let me escort ye to yer rooms and bid ye good night."

They did just that and prepared for bed, except for Shiro who declared that he wanted to take a bath before going to bed.  That night, they all slept well under the starry sky provided by the ceiling above.




Chapter 6
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