An hour before lunch, and Helen went to the Yellow Garden.
The dragon and his rider was already gone, the Duke’s mission done. With no other way to spend time, she thought to take a look at the plants.
After dodging a few maids carrying fragile items, she crossed the hall to open a wrought iron gate into paradise. At least her version of the word.
It was a small garden, only five yards on the side. Tall trees with fronded leaves cast dappled shade, their orange-gold flowers blending with the masses of frothed sunflowers along the bricked path. White bell blossoms peeked through the tall foliage, nodding gently as she brushed against them. Songbirds darted across the trees and twittered across the yard. A breeze picked up, causing the plants to sway.
A turn to the left, and the path opened up to a small tiled courtyard. Benches, both stone and wooden, were placed on the sides of the patio while potted yellow roses rambled over their pots. Trees of the same type were carefully positioned between the benches, the shade a welcome sight to anyone sitting down. A sigil of a bird in flight was inlaid in glittering, yellow stone.
She placed the small wicker basket she was carrying on a bench and sat down next to it. She opened it and pulled two rather long spikes of metal and a huge ball of mallow pink wool yarn. After a moment, she begun to knit, slowly at first but then with more speed. She looked up at the azure sky and played around with cloud-telling.
“Serpents,” she said to a mass of long, sinuous clouds. “Craftiness, cunning.” She picked another one. “A fox. Cleverness.” Her brow furrowed and picked another cloud. “A dragon!” She paused to admire how the cloud looked, with its spread wings and the snout shaped just right. “The Kingdoms and their wisdom.”
Just then, she saw another dragon, a real one in wine purple, slowly gliding through the sky.
She dropped a few stitches in shock. Her fiancée had that effect on her.
She fixed the problem, finished the row, and put the knitting away. Clasping the basket in her hand, she left the garden and went back to the stables, where Antony Foghaven, Crown Prince of Foghaven, Twenty-Third Province of the Kingdoms of Redhedge, was directing a few grooms to help unpack a few packages from the saddlebags.
Even now, after a year of being Princess-Betrothed, Helen stood entranced by Antony’s dangerous grace. He stood a head taller than her, lithe and wondrously taunt with power. She often wondered what was under his bronze armor.
Antony noticed her appearance. “Ah, Majesty,” he said, bowing deeply. “I fear this is not a social visit. I bring dire news from the north.”
“Really?” she breathed out, charmed by his angled face, his full lips.
He smiled, adding another layer of charm to his appearance. “I know you do not like the servants to talk, but I think we can stand for a bit of gossip.” He leaned over to give her a small peck on the cheek. “Mackery, sir,” he said, turning to one of the grooms, “please help with the packages. Their Majesties will want to see this.” He turned back around and glanced down. “I see you’ve been mixing again.”
Helen followed his gaze and noticed a small part of the hem was covered in small rooted seedlings. “Hm. I must have spilled some of the potion on my dress when I was using it.” She reached down to pluck them from the wool.
“Leave them,” Antony said, gently pushing her back up, “as a mark of your station. It is not everyday a princess of your worth is slated to be a potionmaker.”
She smiled and blushed, unaccustomed with the praise. “You are one of the few who compliment me.”
“Then the rest are fools,” he said, placing another peck on her other cheek.
One of the grooms cleared his throat. “We are ready, Highness.”
Antony smiled ruefully. “Then I must meet them.” He took a step back and extended a shoulder towards Helen. “Betrothed?”
She nodded and linked her arm with his. “Betrothed,” she said, smiling.
The walk to the throne room was slow, with the couple in front occasionally greeting the castle servants dressed in red and yellow livery or the usual supplicants to the king, and the grooms in the back that were carrying their packages. They crossed several hallways until their steps lead them to a doorway bordered in white tile. A guard in green livery stopped them.
“Majesty,” the guard said in a rough tenor. He raised his pike in salute. “Highness,” he continued. “What brings you to see the king of Gaynesford?”
“News of the giants,” Antony said, his arm still clasped around Helen’s. “News of the north.”
The guard saluted again and turned to face the throne room. “The Crown Prince of Foghaven wishes to discuss matters of state with the king,” he called out, the voice echoing in the room.
The group entered the room, their shoes clacking against the tiled floor. Helen glanced around the room. Tall, double-arched windows let in the sun, illuminating the room. Bright tapestries depicting trees and other plants hung on the worked plaster walls.
King Ephraim, Grace of the Light and Holder of the Throne of Gaynesford sat in a throne gilded with silver while his wife, Queen Marlena, Blessed of the Light, sat on matching throne. Near her, two of her sisters sat doing needlepoint and smiling at the couple.
“Welcome, Prince,” the king said. “Welcome, daughter.”
“Welcome, welcome,” the queen and daughters echoed.
Antony let go of Helen and knelt for a moment. “King. Queen. Princesses.”
“What business do you have with the court of Gaynesford, Prince?”
“News most dire,” Antony said. He turned to find the grooms unbuckling the packages. “I will finish this,” he told them. “Go back to Sevilind.”
“Also, take this to my quarters,” Helen said, passing over the wicker basket she was holding throughout the trip. “Be careful, it is my knitting.”
The two grooms nodded, bowed to the assembly, and left the room.
“Now, to business,” Antony said, walking to the smaller of the packages and unbuckled an oblong leather bag. “I found this when I was scouting the Sankarn Province.” He opened it to show a glittering umber stone, about three feet long and a foot across; the faceted crystals refract the sunlight onto the ceiling and across the floor in misshapen rectangles.
The king leaned forward to look at the stone. “Mind me asking what this is?”
The king rocked back into his throne while the queen and daughters softly gasped. Helen looked at the gem with interest tinged with horror. Sage told her of such a gem. They were rare and often used for weather magic, hence the name. However, with the stone’s use came corruption of spirit and conscience; the bigger the stone, the stronger the magic, and the quicker the malignancy. A stone this big could wreck havoc on all the kingdoms.
The king seemed to reach the same conclusion. “Why are you showing this to us?”
“When I informed my parents of this, they both agreed that, seeing we are to be in an allegiance, I was to show you as well. But this stone is part of the problem.” He pointed towards a jagged break at the stone. “See this, sire? My scholars think that this part of the whole, and that someone else took the other shard.”
“Or shards,” Queen Marlena said. “We see only a part of the stone, and the whole might have splintered into more sections.”
“Indeed, Queen,” the king said. He looked at the stone with an unreadable glance, and he shook his head. “This is a terrible thing. What can we do about it?”
“It is beautiful,” one of the daughters piped up. “Can’t we keep it and put it in the gallery?”
“Such a piece like this will surely make fair game to any thief, Clarissa,” Antony said. “Not to mention the temptation for such a powerful weapon as this.” He looked at the rulers. “I was asked to suggest that we put it in our vaults. As you know, we have magics that can deter most forms of thievery, and other things to help with the rest.” He paused and looked at the other package, a large, bulky sphere covered by a thick burlap cloth.
“The queen’s comment reminded me of the other thing I am to show you.” He undid the bindings. “This might shock her and the daughters, so if you wish to, ladies, please avert your eyes.” The belts came loose, and the fabric unveiled a head almost two feet tall. The hair was shaved off and almost the entire scalp was tattooed in black swirls. Wrinkles and scars decorated the face; the lips slightly parted. However, the oddest part of the head was that the left side was sprinkled with dark brown crystals.
The daughters screamed shrilly while the queen turned a slight shade of green. “That is a giant’s head, isn’t it?” she asked.
Antony nodded. “Yes, your majesty.” He waved a hand to it. “It was found on top of the stone.”
“Which explains the crystals on the side,” the king said. “This is the head. Where is the rest?”
“That I do not know,” Antony said. “It was nowhere to be seen when I saw the stone.”