My father used to tell me the aughisky were magic made flesh, and since men were not magicians, we could never truly tame them. I believe him still though he’s dead. But that was never my goal with Falcon. He only needs to know a few things: the sea does not rule him, I am not his enemy, and always gallop a straight path. I think he has mostly learned in our four years together. Mostly. I know the ocean still sings to him a song I will spend my whole life trying to learn.
He wails, throwing his long neck with impatience. I’ve kept him standing above the beach on a grassy cliff for too long. I flex his head to the left and then to the right. You do not make the decisions this close to the water. He flicks his tail in protest as if he heard my thoughts. Sometimes I think he does. We stand there another thirty seconds before I let him set off trotting back towards Gradlon’s castle.
It’s a gorgeous expanse, twice the size of my own keep. Stones stack high into several different towers, offering huge windows meant to let you see the dark blue ocean in all her dangerous wonder. The courtyard itself is a massive crabgrass circle lined with short stone walls with a marble fountain placed at the center where a group of hippocampus leap, spraying water from their open mouths. All of Gradlon’s people, competitors and spectators alike, arrived here yesterday afternoon. It was a loud, chaotic mess that ended with the death of a hound that thought it a good idea to snap at one of the aughisky.
I draw Falcon to a walk as we return, letting him drop his head to explore a bit. We’ve been in the courtyard each year since I was fifteen but each time he feels the need to investigate. He stops at the backside of the fountain and I slide off his back. He stretches out for the water, sniffs, then pins his ears. It’s not saltwater.
His reaction makes me smile as I lead him across the yard towards the west end of the castle. Gradlon has a huge stable built here, one half dedicated to the aughisky, the other to horses. While I haven’t seen an aughisky attack a horse, I would never trust them not to. Best to keep them apart.
Neora sat curled on one of the windowseats of the sitting room that was part of her chambers. It was probably her favourite room in the whole castle; situated in one of the soaring towers, it boasted views not only of the ocean but also of the sprawling gardens and lands that stretched away from the castle. From this particular window she could see down to the courtyard with its sparkling fountain and emerald lawn.
It was almost a gardening miracle, she thought, that the grass still looked so well kept after what felt like thousands of people and animals had trekked all over it all the previous day and for most of the morning as well.
She hadn’t met any of the visitors yet, be they rider or spectator. The official reception and welcoming banquet were scheduled for that night, giving the visitors a little time to settle in and recover from their travels before they had to present themselves in front of their king. She supposed the official announcement about this years prize would be made then too. If it had been let slip earlier, the race this year would have overflowed beyond any manageable scope. Every farmer who could spare the time would have turned up.
Neora sighed, her breath misting up the glass of the window. Her father was insane to do it, but he wouldn’t listen to her or anyone else when his mind was made up. Before her mother had died he would have listened to reason, but the death of his beloved wife had changed him. Now, apparently all she could do was take what he dished out to her and hope for the best. It irked her to no end, but she saw no other solution. Yet. She would think of something. She had to.
She scowled down at a lone rider that had just entered the courtyard. From this distance she couldn’t tell if it was an aughisky or a normal horse, but she felt pretty sure it would be an aughisky. She wished childishly that all equines would just disappear off the face of the earth, but knew it was hardly worth the dreaming.
In the meantime she had to get ready for the reception. Unfolding herself from the window seat, she rang a bell on a small table and when the maids appeared they all trooped into the dressing room where Neora prepared to be dressed up and pampered like a doll. At least it gave her time to think in relative peace.
The stable is setup fairly similar to the actual castle, boasting another wide yard of perfectly cared for grass with the barn made of stones. There are separate entrances to the left and right, each taking you to the respective stalls for either aughisky or horses. The center building has a great wooden doorway, inside serving as storage for grain and hay but also raw mutton and goat. Gradlon keeps his guests’ horses as well as his own very well cared for.
Falcon goes beside me through the left gate, his hooves clicking softly on the cobblestone floor. These stalls are made of stone with reinforced wooden doors that sport only bars to allow in light. The aughisky are not as friendly with each other as normal horses. Open windows would be asking for a fight or injury. Each stall is labeled by number and the name of the assigned water horse.
I remove his saddle and bridle inside his stall and brush him thoroughly before leaving. We are used to this routine but my heart always aches a bit when I have to be away. Nothing else makes me feel more like myself than Falcon.
The walk back to my guest suite is rather uneventful. It seems none of the other riders thought to bring their aughisky out this morning before the welcoming ceremony. There are two serving girls waiting for me in the chamber with fresh, more formal attire and they quickly set to getting a bath ready. After undressing I sink into the tub, letting the warm water soothe me while the girls wash my hair and body. After, I dress as simply as I can in a white tunic tucked into navy blue trousers with a black velvet vest and finally black leather sword belt. One of the girls sets to adjusting my shirt collar and tries to make some sense out of my wild auburn curls, the other polishes my riding boots before helping me lace them up.
Once they have finished preparing me, one girl offers me a looking glass. Little could be done about my hair, but I’ve grown to like it messy, the same way I like to keep the thin, scruffy beard I have managed to grow. After giving them my thanks, they both leave silently.
Bells announce the start of Gradlon’s welcoming ceremony, ringing loud as thunder through the castle. Everyone in attendance for the race makes their way down to the great hall. I’ve seen the room before but each year it never fails to amaze me. The high rounded ceilings with their golden engravings and colorful paintings are lit by dozens of crystal candle-lit chandeliers. Long oak tables line either side of the room absolutely stuffed with every sort of food or drink imaginable. The freshly polished floor shines and the walls boast open windows with views out over the cliffs to the wild ocean beyond. Then finally, sitting on his huge driftwood throne at the very end of the room, is the king himself. Beside him I can only assume is his daughter, a girl I’ve only heard of and not actually met.
I sit silently as the maids whirl about me, all in high spirits about the upcoming events despite the added work load they bring, including getting me all dressed up. Usually I enjoy their talk though it is hard for me to contribute much to the conversation if topics stray from the few aspects of court life my father allows in his precious daughters life. Today they chatter mostly about the various prospects of potential riders this year, which family is taking part, who has already caught an aughisky and who is still hoping to get lucky before the race. I listen absently, taking note of some of the names mentioned, more focussed on my own gloom. Until this year I had not been allowed close to the races, only permitted to watch from afar, from a castle window or one of its towers. I had been exited to be allowed to actually join my father in the spectator’s stands before he had sprung the wonderful news on me.
One name I notice is mentioned several times with giggles and sighs to accompany it. Murtagh Callaghan. Its familiar ring pulls me out of my reverie enough to remember that he was the winner of at least the last two years races, if not more. Apparently he would be competing again this year. As I am pushed onto a stool in front of the vanity I wonder how much wealth this Callaghan has won and where he came from before being bestowed with titles and lands. I watch as my reflections long hair is wrestled into an artful up do quite beyond my own capabilities. At least I am allowed to apply the small amount of make up I wear on my own, with only some helpful opinions on choice of colour.
When I am finally done, I am dragged before the large mirror, where I eye the whole picture critically. The gown I chose was the deep blue green of the ocean on a clear day with a sleeveless silver over robe that is almost sheer. Several gold curls have been left free to tumble over my shoulders from under an equally sheer veil pinned in place over the rest of my hair in its curled braids. My hands tremble slightly as I brush imaginary lint from my skirts. I haven’t been to a large formal gathering like this one since my childhood, and then I had to leave for my bed time long before things got truly started.
Laila, my main maid, darts forwards to smooth the fabric over my shoulders and give them a gentle squeeze. Her bright blue eyes only just manage to twinkle over my shoulder. Despite being several years older than me she is shorter by several inches, the difference now made greater by the heels I wear under my gown. I manage a tremulous smile in return before she’s pushing me out of the room. “I’ll be in the back corridor if you need anything my Lady. And don’t chew on your lip!” She calls after me as I descend the steps to join the guard that awaits to escort me to the great hall.
What feels like seconds later I am standing to the right of my father’s throne as the first guests enter through the great doors opposite us. I try not to fidget, watching as the people take their places, registered riders at the front, then the spectators in order of rank behind them. I watch the riders especially, trying to guess who might fit the names I heard earlier. Many of the riders are young, which surprises me a little though I know participation is allowed to anyone above the age of 16. Aughisky races are dangerous at the best of times. Would so many families risk their children on the off chance of procuring favour from the King? On the other hand, would father truly marry me off to one of these green boys and gift him the title of King?
At that moment, said man rises from his throne, causing me to lose the distressing train of thought as I join everyone in the hall in dipping into a curtsey. I am glad my station permits me a looser greeting than that which even other nobles are required to perform. Even with the considerable training I have had, I doubt I could execute that deep a curtsey in heels without toppling over. Rising at the Kings signal, I tune his voice out as he launches into his welcoming speech, instead examining the room and the people once again.
Some of the riders I recognize from years past and most of them I am on decent terms with. Jack Lochlan comes up beside me, grinning as he grasps my hand in greeting. He is of age with me though several inches shorter and a bit thicker built. Scanning the hall I take note of a few other faces. Ronan Murphy, a hard older man with two victories under his belt. William Grady, the youngest I am familiar with at seventeen and probably the most attractive with his pretty blonde hair and blue eyes. Tomas Carroll, only a few years my senior, rides the only pinto aughisky I’ve seen and won the year before I was eligible. Then there’s Brendan Walsh, a man well into age but a worthy competitor with five previous wins to his name. The other faces are young boys, sons of lords too old to ride or otherwise uninterested with only a few other exceptions being older men my father knew but I rarely bothered to meet.
The mood in the room takes a heavy shift as Gradlon finishes his speech by announcing a change in this year’s prize, “My daughter, now of an appropriate age, will be given as wife along with my castle and position as king to this year’s champion. Be sure to introduce yourselves my lords and enjoy this night! Tomorrow, beach training begins!”
Beside me, Jack’s smile widens as he looks over at the princess. He nudges me with his elbow and leans in to whisper, “She’s pretty enough to raise the stakes a bit, wouldn’t you say Callaghan?”
Tomas laughs at having heard the other boy. “Didn’t you know Jack? His head’s too far up his aughisky’s ass to care about girls!”
I glare at both of them, ultimately ignoring their jests and leaving them to their fun. Hearing the change in award makes me almost want to back out, or at least lose purposely. I have no desire to marry, let alone be king. Would I even make a good one? My father was a just lord, his people loved him as they love me now, but our hold is far smaller than what Gradlon is offering. And what would happen to my mother? My sisters? Then there’s the princess herself… how does she feel about this arrangement? A man’s ability to ride a flesh-eating horse has little to do with his talents as a husband.
My thoughts continue to wander about this entire predicament as the party goes on around me. There’s joyous music, laughter, smiles, graceful dancing and delicious food. It all means little to me though and at some point I end up standing by myself by one of the grand windows, watching the ocean as her waves crash against the rocky shore. She’s a mystery, one that has enchanted Falcon and myself alike.
My fathers final words are like a bucket of ice cascading over my head. He really did it. I realise only now that I had not truly believed him until now. With the official proclamation out in the world, there’s no turning back any more. I hide my feelings behind a straight posture and polite smile, watching as many in the crowd are not as adept at concealing reactions. As soon as the King sits back down on his throne talk breaks out everywhere. It looks like the race stakes will be the only topic of discussion tonight. I stay at my fathers side as several of the guests step up to the dais to greet him more personally. Many are riders, either the slightly older men or what seems like the newest contenders. All of them bow low over my hand as they murmur greetings before conversing with my father. I feel the eyes of half the room on me, even the men paying tribute to the King often glance away from him. My father does not include me in his conversation and I dare not speak without leave, especially not to these men who look at me like a prize to be won and not a person.
Finally when the onrush of guests to the dais slows a little, I am freed by a dismissive wave of the royal hand. After dipping into another curtsey, I flee from his presence. I want to rush straight to Laila’s promised sanctuary of the side corridor, but I am virtually accosted the moment I step away from the throne. A part of me understands that the people want to meet the elusive princess, even more so after the announcement. Still I want to scream at them all to leave me alone and go bother someone else. My manners however are too ingrained for that and I find myself producing a smile and a greeting to what feels like every single person in the room.
After fulfilling promises of dancing with several of the men, I feel slightly better. I have always loved to dance and even good dancers are often too preoccupied with the steps to some of the faster traditional dances, which leaves me only the task of smiling and keeping up, which I do with not too much difficulty. Twirling around the dancefloor in the arms of some noble or other, I watch William Grady, one of the first men to ask me to the floor, as he dances with another young lady. During our dance I had learned he was the same age I was, here for his second season of racing. I hadn’t quite plucked up the courage to ask him why he raced, but I wondered. He had seemed a little too vain to risk his looks in dangerous sport. Watching him now from afar, I noticed again how gracefully he danced and found myself giggling a little at the idea of how his movements would look in skirts. Give him a wig and a good shave, I thought, and I would almost mistake him for a girl.
The thought that followed the mental picture made me lose my rhythm and stumble. I felt a little faint. Excusing myself quickly, I all but dashed from the dancefloor, dodging around guests and servants alike. I desperately needed air and a moment to rethink the crazy idea that had just hit me. Grabbing a glass of something from a passing server, I finally reached one of the glass doors that lead out onto the one of the terraces overlooking the ocean, not even noticing that I had almost crashed right into someone already standing there, half in shadow. I leaned my forehead against the cool window pane and watched as my breath misted up the glass. “I couldn’t…” I whisper to myself, trying to stop my brain and heart racing faster than a water horse.
My thoughts had gone away, washed far out into the ocean, and left me barely able to notice as a girl came running out to the balcony. Her body almost slams straight into mine, pulling me from my own mind. It is clear she paid just as little attention to me though as she doesn’t bother apologizing and goes to the other side, pressing her head to the window.
I don’t recognize her through the darkness that surrounds us out here. Some pale light flickers at the entranceway but doesn’t cast far enough to see well. Even so, I can tell she seems distressed over something. It isn’t truly any of my business, but I am a lord after all, how would it be if I simply ignored her? Especially if she needed help or were hurt.
“My lady? Are you quite alright?” I ask gently, taking a few steps closer to her. I can make out the details of her face better then and it finally strikes me. She’s the princess! Almost like a reflex, my courtesies send me directly into a low bow. “Apologies, your highness… I did not expect you here.” My words come out sloppy, but I have never been great with people. My father taught me how to be a gentleman and usually I can act the part, yet at the heart of my being I’m completely terrible at talking. At least to humans. It’s very different with Falcon or the aughisky.
I whirl around at the quiet voice next to me. By the time my eyes have focussed on him, the man has fallen into a bow just as low as the one everyone had given father earlier. I see only the top of his curly dark head. It seems he recognised me, though I have no idea who he is. How could he not, with the spotlight the King put on me earlier.
For some reason, his bow flusters me more than any of the flattery that has been directed at me all evening. Perhaps it has something to do with our slight distance to the actual festivities, making everything more personal.
“No, please-” I’m not quite sure what to say to get him to look up, so I latch onto the last thing he said. “Where did you expect me?”
“Shouldn’t you be with your guests?” In my past three years, no one had come outside. The cold air deterred most of them, and the men were usually occupied enough with the ladies and wine. I preferred it here though, I could breathe without dozens of riders begging for advice or my friends making a jape out of me.
All I could truly think of tonight was the race. It was months away, but I had no desire to ride. Not for a wife and title anyway. Before, there had been more riches than I could ever hope to need though truly I never cared for the prizes. At least gold was a substance, a possession, not a person with thoughts of her own. I rode Falcon for the tradition of it and love for everything he is. The magic of the aughisky compels me, the same way it captured my father and his before him. I can remember stories of how men were once so enchanted they would let water horses carry them into the ocean to drown. Fishermen still disappear even today, only it is less by choice and more by ill luck and hungry aughisky.
No, I couldn’t see myself racing this year. Yet, I had no other choice now. I had come here and in another week would swear the blood oath tying me to Falcon and to race day. To refuse would be a craven’s way out besides. Oh, the fun Jack and Tomas would have with such news. But what would forcing Falcon to lose do to him? He knows his brilliance, he knows he can win; would he even listen to me if I held him behind? Doubtful. He doesn’t fight me like he once did, but we have come to understand one another. I’ve given him as much freedom as I can without getting myself killed, it would be cruel to suddenly demand control.
When I was a boy, I used to go with my father to the beach, watch him just stand completely silent with his bare feet in the tide, the water washing up to his ankles, falling back, then washing up again. I thought he was a madman for years until my fifteenth year when I saw Falcon come charging from the ocean like a force to challenge hurricanes. Then everything seemed to make sense and I was gone, another man lost to the ocean’s mysteries.
“Oh, well, they’re my father’s guests, not mine and I needed some fresh air. Besides, they did just fine without me all the years before this, they will manage again.”
Despite his attentive posture, I can tell he’s only half listening to me. It’s a novelty, after all the guests practically hanging on to my every word inside, and very refreshing. I don’t feel quite so scrutinised by this gentleman, my every move no longer critically watched. I move slightly past him to the edge of the terrace and look out over the black water. The ocean sparkles, even in the dark, much like the night sky above.
“It’s beautiful out here.” I say quietly, my words snatched from my mouth by the breeze that blows from the ocean. ”I wonder more don’t come out to enjoy it.”
I move to take a drink from the glass I took from the server in my rush to get outside, then wrinkle my nose when I realise what’s inside it. I have never been one for spirits of any kind. Setting the glass down on the stone banister, I half turn so I can see the man and the lighted windows behind him. Richly dressed people chatter and dance in the candle light, probably not even noticing that I am no longer there.
“Or am I bothering you? Please be honest, Lord – “ I realise I don’t know his name and try to gloss it over, “I do not wish to impose.”
I stay quiet for a moment, watching her as she moves towards the balcony edge. A harsh wind comes howling from the sea, bringing with it the stinging smell of salt and fish. I welcome it, letting the breeze tousle my hair further and send chills up my arms.
“Beautifully dangerous this time of year. Ladies typically shy from the ocean… even some men.” I step up beside her, leaning my arms on the rough stone railing. The moon is bright above us, fully reflected over the black water; not a single star to be accounted for either I notice. A slight smile tugs at the corners of my lips, the sky looked exactly the same the night Falcon emerged from the water.
I was alone down below on the rocky beach, watching the water close. Everyone riding that year had already claimed their aughisky, including my father. He would also be dead within the week. Yet I waited. Falcon came ashore screaming like a banshee hours into my search. His long legs carried him through the brine onto the sand, set him forward at a gallop faster than I could recall seeing an aughisky move. It wasn’t his speed that called us together though. I can’t quite place the feeling even today, I just knew he was the stallion for me.
“Callaghan, Murtagh Callaghan, and no you are no bother to me princess,” my voice remains quiet despite the roaring of the waves below us. The other jockeys had all made a point to introduce themselves to her earlier but I had kindly opted out of that. The whole arrangement this year perturbed me immensely, meeting her would only solidify the reality of it. But here I am standing beside her in the late night anyways. Such irony makes me laugh gently.
I am a little startled to hear his name. The victor of the last few races. I would not have expected him out here. Surely he should have been as asked after as I in the great hall.
„Perhaps we shy away because that is what we have been taught and what is expected of us. Women are closer bound to sea; it is after all from the ocean inside us that all men are born.”
I quote one of the sayings of the Salt Temple, the main religion all along the coast that pays homage to the ocean. My father is a devout follower of its teachings, though I have never understood how such a male dominated doctrine can speak so highly of women and simultaneously all but bar them from the waters we are apparently bound to.
“Perhaps that is why people are drawn to the water and its creations.”
The wind plucks at my gown and my hair; carefully placed strands blown into wild disarray. I tuck several curls behind my ears, then reach to the back of my head to make sure my veil is still pinned firmly in place despite the gusts that seem determined to steal it from me.
I turn to face the man properly. He is quite a bit taller than me, but we are not standing so close that I have to crane my neck to look him in the eye. The distance makes gauging his expression a little harder though.
“You are a rider, are you not Lord Callaghan?” I ask abuptly. Even before I knew his name, I would have guessed he was no spectator, though I don’t quite know what it is about him that told me this. Something about the way he looks out over the water from where his mount came, or how he breathes in the harsh salt air as though it were perfume. I take a deep breath of the same air, preparing myself to ask things I have never dared ask of my father or my teachers. Questions I have had for a long time, now only amplified by the hair brained idea that sprouted as I danced earlier.
“Tell me, why do you think only men ride the aughisky? Women are similarly good with horses, why not with their sea brethren?”
Hearing her quote the Salt Temple’s religious book was almost enough to make me leave without another word. I shouldn’t be so surprised though, nearly everyone in Gradlon’s kingdom were so indoctrinated. While my own father was heavily invested, I had long ago left the Temple and all its’ folly behind. I did not need a ragged old priest to tell me there was magic in the ocean nor how to worship it. After spending so much time as prey to the aughisky, being so easily killed and drowned by them, I couldn’t believe any book that spoke of understanding the power that created them. I had spent my whole life trying to decipher the mystery, no ugly ancient volume was going to have more answers than I’d been able to find myself.
I had only ever assumed women were forbidden from racing simply because of the danger behind it. If fathers died, mothers would be there still to birth and raise children. Fathers could not carry on in such a way if a mother were to die. Of course that was simply all I had been taught. I hardly agreed with it. “Because men are stupid enough to think they can,” I reply finally. Women were intelligent enough to not be so easily warped into risking their lives for a magic they would never understand.
Riding Falcon was ultimately a privilege, a gift, not a right. He could kill me tomorrow if he wished it so. The other riders called me a water whisperer, some kind of prophet made of salt and seaweed. That was perhaps the most absurd statement to ever be spoken. The aughisky do not bear any love for me, that is saved only for their mother the ocean. I have watched them though, I have learned their language to enough of an extent that they respect me. Or at least Falcon does. It keeps me alive while around them, but only just so. I am still made of flesh. I can still be killed.
“Do they interest you? Come down to the beach tomorrow, see how they truly are. Then tell me you still wish to be near a water horse.” At least one man would be dead by the end of the day and another quarter of them when February arrived.
I see the tiny frown that pulls at the corners of his mouth as he recognises the Salt Temple preaching and I think I have messed up my chance, but when he does speak, his answer to my question makes me laugh.
“But you can.” I say simply. “You and so many others in there,” I gesture at the lighted windows, “have been doing it for years. Aughisky riders have existed long before my father made it a royal contest.”
His offer makes my smile slip slightly. I have never been near a water horse, only glimpsed the beasts the men ride from afar and a few wild ones from even further away. I have never been permitted to go down to the beach below the cliffs on which this castle stands without at least a dozen guards to protect me from human or animal. Such a large gathering of people generally dissuades the water horses from coming too close, even if they are hungry.
“The sea interests us all, whether it be religiously or otherwise.” I dodge his question, unwilling to admit that the aughisky to me symbolise all that I can never be. I am just a pretty goldfish in a small bowl of water, only able to see a small part of the world around me and to touch even less of it.
I hope he understands the layers under my few words, hope he understands that I am not like my father. I like this man, who speaks openly to me despite my title and sudden importance to the race he partakes in. I don’t want him to think I am a naïve girl, who can only repeat what my elders tell me, who follows blindly without thought.
She’s clever, this much I can tell. There is a depth to her that intrigues me, a part of her that likely goes unrecognized by everyone else. She needs not to tell me her yearning for the aughisky, it’s all too clear. I was younger once, distanced from the wildness of the beach like she is still. Only I was a boy, and perhaps a bit more stubborn, and refused to be kept away. I was riding my father’s water horse by seven years old, joined him for every race since then up until his death.
A sudden idea strike me, perhaps one that is a bit more feasible for the princess. I could take her down to the beach with Falcon one night. He was strong, solid, and though it was advised against, I trusted him. Unlike many of the beasts that would be presented tomorrow Falcon knew a man could be seen as a friend.
“If it would please your highness, I can invite you to watch Falcon and I train one evening. He is… more reliable than most aughisky.” Riders would normally take their mounts down to run during the daylight hours. I found that to be too distracting. At night when the world had gone quiet and it was just the sky, the sand, and the sea I could better keep Falcon’s attention.
I bite my lip, Lailas warning from earlier completely forgotten, even as my eyes light up despite my attempt to stay calm and composed. Could I? His offer is so very tempting…
“You are very generous Lord Callaghan.” I say to give myself more time to think. It would be easy to feign tiredness, especially after all the excitement today. Laila has helped me escape in such a way several times before, but would she do it this time, for this reason? And if she did, would we be able to reach the beach without getting caught? Sneaking away for a bit of solitude and a walk in the gardens was very different to going all the way to the beach with a man I hardly knew and his half wild water horse.
Still I feel I can trust Callaghan and his judgement of his mount. He hasn’t won several races without some talent and skill. Making up my mind, I nod slowly. I will do whatever it takes to persuade Laila and we can figure out the details together with her knowledge of the castle and its workings that only a servant can have.
“I would like to come see you, but only if you are aware of the consequences. If someone finds out I’ll be punished, but that’s nothing to what they’ll do to you. I wouldn’t want someone to pay for my curiosity.”
I put a firm damper om my hope and excitement, leaving him the final choice if he really wants to risk so much for me.
“You wound me, highness. Of course I would seek your father’s permission first, but I see no reason for him to deny me. I’ve been his champion three years past with strong chance of making this my fourth. Thus, I may become your husband. It is only natural that I should want to spend time with you.” My eyes are fully on her now, excitement lighting my previously gloomy mood.
I did not know Gradlon as well as my father had, but their friendship alone already put me in good standings with him long before I was ever old enough to race. I’d made it a point in the past to at least keep touch with the king; a positive relationship with our ruler had turned out well for my father, I figured it couldn’t hurt for me to carry on as he did. Then after winning on Falcon I was only lifted higher in the old man’s graces. I truly saw no reason why he should not allow his daughter to simply watch me practice one night.
Of course, if things went well, I was already thinking of how to provide her with more liberation. There was an indescribable sensation that the aughisky brought by simply standing in their presence, though riding them was something else entirely. Freedom, power, magic came with being upon their backs, going with them down the beach as the wind burned your eyes and sand scratched your cheeks. Nothing had ever brought me more happiness. If I could give that to someone else, someone so guarded like the princess, then I surely would.
“I can speak with him on the morrow once everyone returns from the beach if you would like,” I offer next, letting myself smile slightly. Maybe… maybe winning this race would not be such a terrible accomplishment after all.
„Oh.“ I feel myself flush hotly despite the chilly air. It never occurred to me to simply ask my father. I always assume his answer will be ‘no’, as it was so many time when I asked for something, especially something that could put me at risk. My mothers passing changed him so much from the father and King I remember from my childhood. I suppose it was never quite so obvious to an outsider, even one in close and frequent contact with him, but I know and the knowledge has almost made me fear the man I should be closest to. Perhaps he believes that shutting me away will protect me, but that can’t go on for ever, especially now he wants to marry me off.
Marriage. Another thing that had briefly slipped my mind during this conversation. Of course Callaghan would have high odds of winning this year’s race again and thus winning me. I wish I could read his mind, to find out what he truly thinks of me and this arrangement. Does he have someone back home waiting for him? A promised bride or just someone he likes.
On that thought, what of the other riders? Some are older, married with children of their own. My father is truly getting old if he has forgotten that little detail. Am I to become a mistress if someone like that wins? How high are the odds of that happening? Callaghan seems very sure of himself, as he has a right to be given his past victories, but the races are always a matter of luck and chance as well skill.
If he does win, I will have to marry him by royal decree. How do I even feel about that? It seems mind reading will never be a possibility for me, if I cannot even fathom my own thoughts and feelings properly. My first impression of him is well enough, but what can 20 minutes of conversation truly say about a person?
Realising that I have been lost in silent thought for a little too long, I return Callaghans smile with a small one of my own, resisting the urge to cup my cheeks to check if they are still as warm as I think they are.
“I apologise for doubting your character Lord Callaghan. You are of course welcome to ask my fathers permission and I wish you luck in the endeavour. He is,” I search for the right word, “highly protective of me.”