Dido rushed up the hall, long skirts flowing behind her, face flushed and red hair bouncing with her rapid stride. Another flight of stairs, one more corner. Hurry, hurry! She tripped on the wide steps, but expertly caught her balance.
“Damn dress,” she mumbled, gathering up the heavy golden brocade so she could run more easily. She made it to the top of the stairs and dropped the dress. Two deep breaths and then she turned the corner. The family was already waiting.
“Dido!” Lady Tabea’s lips curved down in disapproval at the young woman’s tousled crimson locks. She reached out and righted the silver circlet on the girl’s brow, shook her head at flushed face, the heaving breast.
“Take a moment to compose yourself,” the lady ordered. She herself was the picture of perfection, long, graying gold-brown hair caught up in a complex bun, her diamond-set circlet in just the right position on her brow, pearl-and-diamond earrings catching the light as she shook her head. Her right hand grasped the edge of her midnight-blue dress, embroidered with real gold and silver threads. She turned and stepped next to her husband, resplendent in the white uniform of the Lord of Carrock.
“You were late again,” Asha whispered as Dido took her place next to Kyle.
“Shut up,” she snapped at the other girl. The young man glanced at his fiancée, brow just slightly annoyed.
“Stop it, Asha,” he ordered. His sister stuck her tongue out — very unladylike, but typical of her. She straightened her green dress, cut just like Dido’s and held her arm out to her cousin Jeb, who had offered to escort her that afternoon.
The lord nodded to the marshal, who in turn waved at a servant. Melodious thunder of a horn and the curtains raised to let in the light and allow the royal family to step out onto the balcony to watch the arrival of the ambassador from Geshur.
Dido bit her lip as she glimpsed the woods beyond the walls of the castle of Carrock.
“Homesick?” Kyle asked through his official smile. She gave no answer, only bowed her head slightly for a moment, then raised it again.
The train of the ambassador wound its way up the hill like a gaily colored snake. First came the honor-guard of Carrock, all on horseback, then the cavalry of Geshur, followed by the gilded carriage of the ambassador and two more in silver. Another cavalcade of armed horsemen completed the train. Dido’s brown eyes followed with only marginal interest as the first carriage drew to a halt and disgorged its cargo. She stuck out her lower lip a bit as she noticed the squat man in the turban and flowing, varicolored robes. The lord and lady descended the stairs, followed by their children and escorts. Kyle gently squeezed Dido’s hand and she immediately put on her winning smile, but her eyes stayed cold.
“Welcome to Carrock, Ambassador Kasim,” the lord said with a courtly bow.
“Lord Dylan, an honor it is,” the ambassador replied, pressing both hands together under his chin and bowing lower than his host. “And m’lady.” He bowed to her as well.
“My family,” the lord said, stepping aside.
“Ah yes, young Lord Kyle,” Kasim acknowledged with another deep bow.
“My fiancée, Dido,” Kyle introduced her. She curtsied. The ambassador gave her only a quick smile, just glancing at her fresh, full beauty.
“And young Lady Asha.” The girl was delighted as she curtsied. “You are looking more like your beautiful mother every day.” At that Dido’s smile drooped a little and her eyes became even colder.
“Thank you,” Asha whispered.
“Shall we?” the lord asked, gesturing to the entrance to the great hall beneath the stairs.
“Of course, of course.” The ambassador officiously stepped up next to the tall, gray-haired man, a fat dwarf compared to the ruler these lands. For a moment Dido’s smile became a sneer, but she quickly contained it, flicking a quick glance at Kyle. His smile was still there, but it was perfunctory, his eyes fixed straight ahead at the back of his mother’s head. The lady dropped behind the two men, as Geshurian custom dictated, and followed them into the great hall.
The young people came next, followed by five servants of the ambassador and later by two veiled women and their entourage. Dylan took his seat on the throne at the head of the high table, Kasim to his right and Tabea to his left.
“You must be tired from your journey, lord ambassador,” the lord was saying cordially as Dido was seated across from Kyle, next to Tabea.
“Oh, no, oh, no,” the little man laughed, brushing at his formidable moustache. “I usually sleep when we travel. The Geshurian carriages are built in such a way that they make the ride almost as smooth as a boat trip over a calm lake.” Dido’s eyes flicked towards him disdainfully and then rested on the table cloth. She looked across at Kyle. His smile was still there, just barely and his green eyes had a bored quality to them. She waited long enough until his eyes caught hers.
“How long ?” she mouthed. He wove his head back and forth slightly. Too long. She bit her lip again and then winced. She looked at Asha who was sitting next to her, grinning impishly. It was all Dido could do not to reach down and massage her leg. She looked back over at the little man, who was droning on about Geshurian technology. Tabea was still smiling and it still looked somewhat real. The lord looked interested, but there was just a slight tautness to his smile. She looked at Kyle and then abruptly stood up.
“Excuse me,” she announced, turned and walked out, leaving stunned expressions at the table. Only Kasim didn’t notice and continued his monologue. Tabea gave a quick nod to her son, who rose and followed his fiancée out of the great hall.
She ran down the hall, tearing the circlet out of her hair and making the pearl-tipped pins fall out as well. Up one flight of stairs, then to the right.
“Dido!” came a voice from behind her, but she did not slow. She slowed just before the wide, oaken door, shoved it open and careened into her room. The door slammed behind her.
“Aaaaaagh!” she howled, hurling her circlet across the room. She looked around and grabbed up the heavy silver pitcher from her washing stand. It, too, crashed against the wall.
There was a thumping at the door.
“Go away, Kyle,” she snapped and hurled a cosmetic bottle at the entryway.
“Come on, Dido, what’s wrong?” he called through the heavy wood. “Can’t we talk?”
“I’ll tell you what’s wrong, Kyle á Carrock!” she screamed. “It’s all this pomp and circumstance. It’s that fat little b------- in the great hall. It’s that stinking sister of yours. It’s your mother’s looks. It’s your whole damn family! You understand?”
On the other side of the door, the young man sucked his breath, a furrow on his brow, eyes clenched shut. His one fist tightened then released. His eyes opened.
“Look, I’m sorry.” He pressed the words out uncertainly.
“Yeah, right, you’re sorry!” the girl on the other side roared. “You drag me up to the castle from my lovely home. You make a lady out of me. You make me attend boring state dinners. Your family disdains me. Well, I tell you what, Kyle á Carrock, I’m leaving. I’m going home.”
“No!” The strangled cry escaped his lips. He could hear a bustling about in the room, then a tearing sound.
“Come on, Dido, just this one more time and then we’ll go out to the woods, like I promised,” he pleaded.
“You said that last time and then that jerk of a father has you riding all over your precious lands to make sure that all is in order and I have to cool my heels here in this dank dungeon of a castle with that stinking sister and arrogant mother of yours! Well, not anymore, Kyle á Carrock, not anymore!”
“Just leave me alone, will you?” It was almost a wail. He grasped the handle and turned it. The door gave easily and he looked into the room. She was standing there in the middle of it in her under-dress, the gold brocade in a crumpled heap beside the bed. Her hair was wild, her makeup smeared. A single tear ran down her cheek, brown eyes angry, broken. Unbidden, the memory rose in his eyes.
“Dido,” he whispered. She sniffled and stumbled two steps forward, a wounded doe, and collapsed into his arms. Her head was on his chest as she sobbed, makeup and tears staining his white uniform. Tears of his own stood out as he stroked the dark red hair, kissed the top of her head, drew in her smell.
“Don’t leave me, Dido,” he whispered. “Don’t leave me.”