Trotting horses rode through the desert. Their sweat was a lather, and their riders desperately looked around for some sort of shelter. There were three horses, but five riders, and as they approached the gates of Driazhek City, they yanked their horses up short. One of the three beasts fell, sending its two riders to the ground with it. One pulled himself from underneath, while the other kicked the over-burdened, gasping animal.
One of the guards hurried forward and shoved the kicking man away with a shout. “Don’t you kick that animal! It carried you across the desert! Show some respect, or learn to walk the sands yourself!” The other man carefully dribbled water into the horse’s mouth, who eagerly drank with a dry tongue. Once all three horses were watered, the guards led them in and tended to the beasts first, while other guards dashed to continue guarding the gate. The first guard glared at the travelers. “Idiots.” he muttered.
Finally, the young man who rode alone in his saddle scoffed. “Are you done? We are in a hurry. Take us to the duke. We are here to discuss trade.”
The guard laughed. “He’ll not see you, once he hears how you arrived, even if you are Republic!”
The young man snarled. “He’ll answer when he hears who I am! None in your puny kingdom would still live, if not for my father!”
“And who is that, some produce merchant?” The guard glared as he crouched and expertly ran a hand down the leg of one of the horses. Several other guards began to laugh.
“I am the son of the President, and you would do well to show me more respect.” His tone was a sneer, and the guard could only laugh harder.
“Well, sir, you can still wait and maybe talk to the stable master while you wait for Duke Achille to see you.”
“As the Knizche, I demand to be treated better than some incompetent drac! Where is the duke of this hovel? His face began to redden and his speech became heavily accented as he began to rage and rant. Two of the women who shared the horse that didn’t collapse began to coddle the young man, only to be slapped away.
The guard hurried to their aid. “Are you sound, ladies?” he asked with concern. “Are you unhurt?”
“We’re fine.” replied the first, a dour-looking crone with wicked eyes as she hurriedly fixed the Knizche’s collar. “You will not be when the Knizche speaks to your duke.” She stabbed a crooked finger against the guard’s chest.
A woman’s voice sounded from behind the foreigners. “Leonard!” The voice was warm and enticing, and the guard looked up past the travelers with a growing grin.
“Morella!” He stepped around the group and laughed. “What are you doing here, Countess?” His eyes filled with light as the dark-skinned red-headed woman entered his sight.
Morella was dressed in the daily whites that everyone in the desert wore to avoid the worst of the sun’s heat. “I came to visit my horse.” The woman smiled. “I thought you had duty today. Are you avoiding me again, Leonard?”
“No, not at all! We have visitors. They nearly killed their horses getting here, and one claims to be important.” He shrugged.
“Hm.” Morella tilted her head, then looked at the five people. “Oh, I suppose they are rather important.” She frowned. “Leonard, tend to their horses. I’ll take care of the rest.” She pursed her lips. “I’m sure this is all just a misunderstanding.” With a nod, the countess led the five guests out of the stable. “Your belongings will be transported, not to worry.” Again, she glanced back at Leonard. Would her father fire him? She decided she would fight her father to prevent such a thing. Leonard was a good guard, even if he was ‘overly casual’ according to her father.
The entire walk, Knizche Petya Arkhip Nika Varnava Kuznetsov complained about the duchy, about Leonard, about riding horses and saddlesores, and about how fifteen horses died between the border and Driazhek City. Morella listened quietly, a frown barely visible at the corners of her lips. At the entrance hall, Morella Bid Petya and his party follow a maid to a sitting room, while she walked from sight. Once safe from their eyes, she hitched up her puffed pants and dashed for her father’s library, where the man was having a meeting with several army leaders.
She slammed the expensive wooden doors open and ran to the back, where her father kept his maps and held his important meetings. “Father!” She cried as she approached, jarring the man.
Duke Achille looked at his daughter and paled. “Morella, you are indecent! Go, change!” He scolded as he looked at the puffy pants of a man that hung from his daughter’s waist and the barely-closed vest that restrained her bound breasts. The turban on her head was askew, and her hair fell out unevenly. “What would possess you to wear that?” He demanded before he turned to apologize to the men around the table. He walked away with the young woman. “What is it?”
Unphased by the scolding, Morella rolled her eyes. “The republic’s prince is here, and he killed fifteen horses to get here with four other people.” she began. “He tells how he hates our people and our lands, and he states an intention to do trade with us on his own, separate from his father.” Her eyes locked with her father’s, prepared for a battle of wills.
“I wasn’t informed he was coming. You recognized him, I take it?” The middle-aged man sounded calm, which surprised his daughter.
“Yes. He’s every bit the twat he was when he was ten, though he’s become even more self-entitled. Father, I suggest-“
“You suggest wariness and caution, even though normally you’d suggest telling him no and sending him home.” He frowned. “Certainly far from your usual ‘advice’, Morella.” Achille raised an eyebrow. “Which of your bedsheet friends did he threaten?” The man chuckled.
“Oh, you know, the one without the necessary parts, Father. Leonard the eunuch.” Her tone oozed with disgust.
Duke Achille pursed his lips. “Ah. Can’t lose the one guard who will not bed my daughter.” His smirk spoke of distaste. “Now, which sitting room did you have them sent to? Also, go change into something more befitting the daughter of a duke, rather than a grown waif.”
Morella groaned quietly and as she turned to walk away, she rolled both head and eyes. “Stupid dresses.” she grumbled absently, then paused to look back. “Am I expected for dinner?”
“Double that when you find out who is already invited to our table.”
“Not my fiance, I hope.”
Morella growled softly to herself. This dinner was to be a disaster, with two oafish buffoons and her father present.