Valon returned with the gollum in tow dressed in a refitted version of their father’s robes and looking so much like him that it made her heart hurt. The gollum was taller than them both and offered them each an arm to walk down to the gardens as soon as Valena was dressed and ready to go.
She allowed Arstella to put the finishing touches on her hair and hand her the lace fan that matched her veil and gown before stepping out of her room. The blush pink veil was several shades lighter than the pink of her gown. The edges were embroidered with a soft gold thread that made her seem less pale. The hair of the wig was swept up and off her neck in a complicated knot and secured and decorated with several jeweled pins.
“I see you are in full form,” the gollum said, eyeing her. “I was under the impression that you did not favor any of your noble love slaves.”
Valon gasped in horror, and Valena laughed, “It is so rare that you come out to the noble’s tea, dear brother.”
“I have to make sure they don’t trample all over our roses,” the gollum huffed and Valena laughed. “Also, keep them from getting any ideas about either of you in place of father.”
Valon groaned and Valena considered that maybe the day wouldn’t be as bad as she first thought.
Maybe, if she stuck with the gollum she might actually have fun. She knew the basics of how the gollum worked. Because it was more of his subconscious, it was a great deal more truthful than Valon was and he wouldn’t remember all of the things they spoke about. Her best chance to get some honesty out of him would be to pawn Valon off on a nobleman and probe Valon’s gollum for answers.
As they approached the main gardens, the soft sound of music drifted towards them. Everyone turned to greet them kindly as they descended the back stairs and began to mingle.
“Emira,” a noblewoman called, approaching with several other young men and women near their age.
Valon turned to them, “Lady Falos, a pleasure to see you. Sir…”
“Quick,” Valena whispered to the gollum. “Shall we escape to get food?”
They took two steps away from Valon as he became engrossed in the conversation and hurried away before Valon could stop them. She laughed grateful to have such a chance to speak to the gollum from afar.
As they walked away, she heard snippets of the conversation enough to know that it had gotten around the capital and into the noble circles that Valon had faced a Gemini hydra.
They reached the table and Valena made herself a plate.
“They’ll be at it for hours,” the gollum said with a shake of its head. It looked at Valena. “What is that you wanted to talk with me about?”
Valena narrowed her eyes suspiciously, “Val’?”
“Yes, dear sister? Did you think you were that sneaky?”
She cursed and wondered when Valon came to be so proficient at controlling the gollum that he could have two different conversations like this.
“Fine,” she said and sighed. “Why… aren’t you pursuing anyone? Or letting anyone pursue you?”
The gollum’s eyes softened, “Why are you asking me this?”
“Because I want you to be happy,” Valena said, “And I don’t want to be the reason you think you can’t find it.”
The gollum looked at her and for a moment, she wondered if Valon had turned to focus on the other conversation he was having, but the gollum took her by the shoulders and kissed her forehead.
“You don’t have to worry about that,” the gollum said. “There are other things, more important things to me right now than romance.”
Valena wanted to protest, but the gollum held up a hand.
“I’m not ready for that,” the gollum said. “When I am, I hope you’ll be there to support me.”
Valena shook her head, “I don’t understand.”
“I mean everything I said, Val’,” the gollum said. “And my heart… won’t be at ease enough to think about it until you believe it too.”
Valena sighed and nodded, “Okay, Val’… Well, I’ll just have to work really hard so you can blossom, my little rose.”
The gollum chuckled as she pinched its cheek. She turned as Valon turned towards her across the way and nodded. He nodded back and turned back to the conversation as the son of an urbisa swaggered towards Valena with a woman on his arm. Valena looked between them and smiled.
“You are addressing her incorrectly,” the gollum interjected.
He cleared his throat, “Forgive me, Your Highness. I was never sure which emira I was speaking with.”
“And you need never be,” Valena said. “I’m sure it’s far beyond your understanding and as I hear it you have a fiance to focus on.”
He blanched and looked at her nervously, “The… arrangements are not final yet, Your Highness. This is Lady Delavi of the gerisark of Zetrin.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Your Highness,” she said, curtseying with all the air of respect though her eyes were arrogant.
“You make a lovely pair.”
“As I said, Your Highness, the arrangements are not final yet.”
“Well, I give my blessing,” Valena said, kindly. “As a fellow woman of Bjori. You’ve found at least… an adequate match.”
His jaw dropped open and Lady Delvai scoffed in shock as Valena took the gollum’s arm.
“Shall we, dear brother? I think it best we mingle. Val’ would be very upset.”
“She would be,” the gollum replied. “Excuse us.”
They walked away from the pair. Valena crossed him off her mental list of noblemen. She glanced over to where Valon was still engaged in conversation with a group of noblemen and women, laughing at something and exchanging conversation. He would probably be the life of this tea whether he liked it or not.
The rest of the tea was spent drinking some of Valon’s special blends out of their royal cups, cutting down more of her list and watching young men leave Valon’s side dejected, defeated, or otherwise saddened that he was completely untouched by their apparent charms. She expected there would be a slew of formal courting letters soon and more brazen attempts at the future gatherings.
Her poor brother would try to be polite, and that just wouldn’t do.
She bet their fathers would be furious. The few on her list who had at least the sense to keep their distance and not assume they were speaking to the right emira spoke with Valon mostly as Valena spent the afternoon speaking to their fathers about trade and tariffs. Her stomach roiled as she carried the conversations, but there was something about having Valon’s gollum at her side that gave her courage and strength to keep going. Everything would be fine. No one would dare try to attack them in the middle of the Noble’s gathering and Valon had blessed everything they would be served anyway.
The sooner she had a handle on the fate bestowed upon her by birth, the faster Valon could pursue his own happiness and be assured that she would be alright.
She would be alright.
This party was a small step in the right direction, but one she was proud she could make.
By the end of it, Valena was exhausted. She really didn’t understand how Valon could be so polite to all the nobles of Bjori. Not all of them were terrible, but it was exhausting. The gollum escorted them up to their rooms, kissed them both on the cheek and headed back down the stairs to the third room most assumed was another bedroom.
They parted at their individual doors and as soon as the room was clear of servants who did not belong to the royal attendants, she took off her shoes, grabbed a roll of parchment and hurried through the bookcases to jump on Valon’s bed. He sat at his vanity and took off his shoes before joining her on the bed.
She knew when the gollum had returned to its usual place when he sighed deeply and his body relaxed into the cushions. She lay beside him like they were kids again and smiled.
“There is flooding in southern Riceal caused by a massive storm that settled between us and north Archios on the coast near Bellkeep. Veda pretends like it wasn’t a big deal, but judging from what the merisa of Inigo said, Bellkeep has been silent and there have been magical disturbances along Bellkeep’s coast that have been spreading up the coast line. They need official relief efforts and knights to deal with the threat. I think a group of mages and a band of knights should do it to supplement the force already there. We can open the national food reserve and transport supplies down with them.”
Valon turned to look at her, his eyes wet and trembling. Valena curled up to him, “I mean it too, Val’.”
He wrapped his arms around her, “I’m so very proud of you.”
Valena smiled and hugged him back as he sniffed into her shoulder, “Don’t get all emotional. I still expect you to be present at all these meetings!”
“Of course,” he said softly. He laughed and drew back, “I have my suspicions about Veda, however.”
“What sort of suspicions?”
He sat up and hummed. Veda had always seemed to rub him the wrong way, but she never imagined her to be treacherous. Valon wasn’t convinced of her treachery so much as having some unknown agenda. It was unusual for the southern provinces to flood due to storm surge. Magical disturbances in that region weren’t unusual alone, but combined with a storm it was likely that there was more going on than Veda let on.
“Like advancing into the Blue Forest.”
Valena gasped, “You can’t be serious.”
The Blue Forest was a magical haven marked by the leaves of every tree turning as blue as the sky on the branches. Guarded by an unknown entity, everyone knew it was a place to be entered with delicacy and managed by the mage guild. It spanned over south Riceal, north Archios, and southeast Grigari. No one knew exactly why, but Valon was sure that it was related to why disturbances in the Blue Forest caused such magical fluctuations in the area. While not protected by a barrier, interference and unmonitored entry into the forest brought about terrible magical fluctuations. No one knew why exactly, guessing that it had something to do with the guardian, but it was agreed that for the sake of the area around the alliance’s southern channels that entry into the Blue Forest should be heavily monitored and controlled. It was a tenant of the alliance for the safety of everyone. Anyone who had to travel through it, had to have a certified mage escort and only take the paths that were sanctioned by the alliance and protected by powerful enchantments. Valena shuddered at the thought of what could be lurking within the forest.
“It’s the only explanation, and if she’s trying to cover up the fact that a team went into the Blue Forest and brought about the storms, the best way to do it would be to keep you from knowing.”
“Well, what do you suggest?”
Valon smiled, “Well, we’re dispatching a small force to help with relief efforts anyway aren’t we? It would seem to me that the answer is obvious.”
Valena grimaced, but she understood his meaning.