The Mischief (Story 2)
Mena could hardly believe it. That the proud man in front of her, hand holding forth a shimmering dagger and smiling slyly behind glimmering golden eyes while his expression remained properly serious on the outside, was no other than her childhood friend Rao.
“What happened to you?” She asked the man, certainly she had seen him only yesterday, but in his guard’s outfit she hadn’t remembered him being quite this ..shiny. Her hand maiden gasped in alarm and shot her a worried look. The man’s eyes opened in surprise and his servant’s hands moved to cover a frown.
Gods I didn’t mean it like that. She cursed to herself. But that was her whole problem wasn't it? People always took her comments in the wrong way, it was the reason that she had been given the nickname “The stormcloud princess.” Well, perhaps not the only reason. Unlike the rest of her family she had the dark hair of a foreigner and the stormy gray eyes of a winter night.
She parted her lips to apologize but suddenly Rao was standing, his gorgeous blond hair shaking around his shoulders as laughter racked his body.
“You haven’t changed at all Mena.” He smiled and took her hand, confidently placing a gentle kiss in the circle of her palm.
“As promised, from this day forth I’ll serve you.” He whispered in her ear, quiet enough so that only she could hear. A deep blush shot straight up her neck and she threw a hand up to cover her face. Those golden eyes watched her, laughing, it was their joke afterall, their secret pact from childhood. No matter what other people wanted to call it, he was now her faithful servant. He held up the sparkling dagger again and this time she took it from his hands, her own hands were shaking but Rao’s were perfectly still.
In the corner she heard a gentle cough and all of a sudden it wasn’t just the two of them, looking up the reality of the situation raced back to her so quickly that she felt faint. Mena stood upon the podium of her castle’s main hall, Rao on the steps below her, and the room around them was filled with more noblemen and woman than she could count.
Rao stood and taking a deep bow in the direction of Mena’s parents the king and queen of Raoslo he finally took his rightful place to Mena’s right, the new prince of Raoslo. Cheers shot up around the room until the entire hall was clapping. An echo of voices and smiles and congratulations trapped Mena in her spot and it wasn’t until Rao took her arm and gently led her up to the thrones beside her family that she managed to move. Her father the king stood and said a few words of congratulations, the crowd went silent when he began to speak, but she hardly heard the words, too busy trying to hide her blush.
“You look nice.” Rao mouthed from beside her with a winning smile. She frowned at him and shrugged in a very unprincess-like manner.
Even dressed in gowns with skin shined up and powdered to perfection she could still never match his looks. Rao looked gorgeous in the white suit and navy blue cape that they had fitted him in for the ceremony. He was born for the position of prince, even his name shouted his claim to the throne. Ever since Mena was old enough to know of marriage she knew that her own would be to the shining prince, but that didn’t stop her from dreaming of another future, of another path other than becoming the queen of Raoslo and marrying the man of every Raoslo girl’s dreams. No, for Mena, be it greedy or not, she couldn’t help but dream of a world beyond the palace walls and so she took to writing. Books lined her bedroom’s shelves, those she had read and those she had written. Papers lay scattered over her bedsheets, twisted between furniture and covered her desk like a mountain of sheer parchment.
However, now with Rao by her side, perhaps it was finally the time to give up what her mother spoke of as “Childish expectations.” With a frown she let her mind wander as the rest of the day long ceremony dragged on. A ride through the palace yards and down the mainstreet of the city, a feast, a ball. She nodded lifelessly as friends and acquaintances wished her well and when the night was finally done she slunk down the hallways alone, dragging her toes as if sacks of flour were tied to her ankles.
“Escaping princess?” A deep voice called to her and she found a man she was quite certain that she didn't know sitting in the windowsill of the hallway’s large bay windows. The man’s skin was tinged an olive brown and his hair as black as ebony. Perhaps it was due to a lifetime of being kept safe in the sanctuary of the castle, but rather than keeping her distance she foolishly approached him.
“I run from no one sir.” She growled. “I am only tired of this mockery and wish to find some peace alone.” The words surprised even her and she clenched her fists, ready for that look of surprise and worry that she was so familiar with, instead the man only nodded.
“Too true.” He reached into the crimson robe that hung around his tunic and pulled out a parchment folded three times until it was in the shape of a perfectly even triangle. “However, I was asked to deliver this message. Please, once you have found your peace, if you would be kind enough to look over its contents.”
Mena looked at the parchment doubtfully before taking it in her hands.
“Who is it from?” she asked, fiddling with the paper’s edges and tempted to open it right then and there.
“Me.” He said. She looked up to find the messenger crouched in the wide window. Before she could move to stop him he had jumped and instinctively she winced, expecting to hear the screams from people below at any moment. But, they never came and when she finally caught her breath well enough to move again she dared a look over the edge and saw no body.
Impossible, its nearly a thirty foot drop. She shook her head wonderingly. It was perhaps the first rule in combat, do not think that opponent’s abilities are limited to what you yourself can do. But what did she know about combat?, she was only a princess.
Tucking the letter into her sleeve she picked up her pace down a twisting maze of hallways until she reached the door to her rooms. With a practiced ease she threw the door open and caught its knob just before it hit the table inside. Kicking it shut behind her, she sighed loudly.
“Was it really that bad?” The voice, coming from so close behind her caused her to squeak in alarm and then he was laughing again.
“Rao!” She scolded. “What are you doing in here? Get out!” The prince was sprawled across her bed, head comfortably rested on her purple satin pillows. At least he had had the courtesy to take his boots off.
“Out? But we are married now! And the Queen pulled me aside specifically tonight to ask me to give her a grandson as soon as possible!” Rao smiled and Mena groaned. She had expected her mother was up to no good. “Any means necessary.” He said, emphasizing any and waving her closer.
“Honestly, I don’t know why she bothers going to such excess..” Mena threw off the ivory cup that held her long hair tight against her head and the hazelnut locks cascaded down around her shoulders. Annoyed now, she sat before her dressing mirror and began to comb out the knots that the maids had tied for her that morning.
“Its either love or security I suppose.” He muttered, curling up against a pillow as snug as a puppy in a basket.
“Security?” She asked absentmindedly, watching him in the mirror as she worked on the tangles that had formed in her hair.
“One can never have too many successors.” He yawned and closed his eyes. “Especially in times of war.” Mena set down her brush and looked in the mirror. It would take the rest of the evening to take off the horrid face paint the maids had made her up with that morning much to her displeasure. Getting more irritated by the moment she glared at Rao, comfy in her bed as she dipped a rag in oil and began working off the paints.
Mena wasn’t the first child of the king and queen, nor the second, nor the third, she was but the fourth child of six.
The crown prince Bellar was her eldest brother, a serious man of twenty eight. Bellar was the General of the Raoslo army and Rao’s direct superior. Sometimes she felt that the only way she knew even a thing about the man was through what Rao had told her in his daily rants. Crown prince Bellar didn’t seem the kind to worry about brotherly bonding and his fierce eyes scared her too much for her to approach him on her own.
Tesha was the second child and her elder sister. With skin of ivory and silky golden hair, it wasn’t a surprise that she was her father’s favorite. If she wanted to, Tesha could crush all the men of the kingdom with her beauty alone and yet, amazingly she was also the kindest person that Mena knew, always giving her time to the unfortunate and already a trained healer in the palace.
Griff was next, only a year older than herself, she had always been particularly close with her brother. Aside from Rao, he was the one person who knew her well enough to understand her rough way of speaking and not take offence. When they were children they had been tied at the hip, but now at seventeen, Griff was becoming a man and with his own young bride’s first child on the way, he hadn’t a moment to spare for a little sister.
Her younger sisters were twins, both ten years old they had come as quite a surprise to her father and even more so to her mother, who had been told by a healer after Mena’s birth that she could no longer bear children. The little girls were both the spitting image of her mother, long fingers and high arched noses but with the fair hair and blue eyes of her father.
“I believe my family has quite enough security.” She grumbled past the foul odor of the cleansing crème.
When she finally managed to remove enough of the paints so that she wouldn’t mess her fine pillowcases, she roughly shoved her new husband aside and crawled into bed. He murmured something unintelligible and wound a strong arm around her middle and for about the hundredth time that day, she sighed.
By morning Rao’s heavy body covered her own and she awoke to find his face resting against her cheek. Without thinking she jerked away from his sleeping form and in doing so bumped her head so hard against the bedframe that she bit the inside of her mouth. In his sleep Rao smiled and it was enough to set her back into a fury.
“Get up!” She shouted in his ear and instantly those golden eyes shot open. When he realized that there was no emergency he shot her an annoyed look and pulled the covers back over his head.
“Get out of my room.” She demanded harshly.
“But, were married.” He whined from beneath the blankets.
“A formality.” She snarled. “And you know very well that my father has prepared separate chambers for us.” By tradition, although couples were married at sixteen, they were not to share a chambers until seventeen when they were officially considered adults by the court. However, judging by her mother’s attempt at getting her pregnant, she decided she was pretty much on her own with enforcing this rule.
Just as she was about to pull the covers away from him she remembered the letter from the night before and froze.
How could I forget something like that? Poking around in her sleeves she found it soon enough, slightly crumpled but still in that perfect triangle shape. As she opened it Rao poked his head out from under the covers, surprised by the suddenness at which her attack ended.
“What’s that?” He said and she waved him away absently as he sat up to read over her shoulder.
The writing was in Morn, the traditional language of her people. That in itself was somewhat strange as the country had officially changed their language to common before she was even born to increase trade opportunities. But, what surprised her even more was the color of the ink used. Bright red, almost like blood. It was an unusual choice.
Mena second princess of Raoslo,
We, of the mischief invite you to our party.
Gnawl- Bosha-mi, high prince.
Her brows furrowed as she tried to concentrate. Her Morn wasn’t perfect, but she certainly knew enough to translate a few simple lines. Then why didn’t the note make sense? The Mischief? She knew of tales of the mischief, a colony of rats so smart that they broke away from the human world and created a paradise for those who followed their ways, but those were but fairy tales for children. Was it some sort of secret code instead? And what of the messenger who brought the note? He certainly seemed human enough, at least until he had disappeared.
“Who gave you this?” Rao asked as he took the note from her hands. She knew that subtle change in his voice. His eyes turned hard and he was no longer Rao her annoying childhood friend, he was Rao captain of the Raoslo guard and protector of the court.
“A man.” She said, pouting slightly as he stuck the note in his pocket. She didn’t bother to protest, it wasn’t like the note had told her where to go anyways. Probably just another one of her brother’s dumb pranks.
“I had better check in with the general.” Rao said, slipping from the bed. Swiftly he pulled on his boots and threw a navy blue robe around his shoulders. No break for the happy couple, not even a fancy honey moon. Raoslo was in the midst of a war and one night of festival was all her father could afford to spare his guard.
“What will you do with it?” She asked as an afterthought, pointing to Rao’s pocket. As if some switch had clicked inside him that smile reappeared upon his lips and reached over to pat her head like a child. Though she glared at him she couldn’t help but feel a bit of love escape the fortress of her heart where she bound it. There were not many husbands who would respect their wives wishes and let them be on their wedding night, at least for that much she was thankful to have Rao by herside and no other.
“Don't worry.” He assured, pulling the note out to wave in front of her face. “I’ll bring it back.” Tauntingly he slowly put it back into his pocket and then, with his hand on the doorknob and his back to her he said, “If you see the man again, stay away from him and let me know immediately.”
With Rao finally gone, Mena set to work taking off the gown that she had worn for the ball the evening before. It was heavy and gaudy but somehow even on her worst day she still had to admit its beauty. Cerulean and violet waves danced around each other, with crystal beading covering the length. She had sparkled as Rao had led her along the dance floor that evening and yet what she thought of now was not the memory of what must have been a beautiful day, but rather why such an unimportant note, a prank surely, had frightened her new husband so.
She spent the day making rounds with her mother to thank the staff for the wonderful service, the elegant ball, the sumptuous feast. Mena wasn’t against thanking servants, but the repetition of the day began to wear on her by the time they reached the third floor servant’s quarters.
“You look like you could use a change of pace.” He mother finally sighed when Mena yawned for the fifth time in as many minutes. Her eyes brightened at the prospect of ending the day early.
Her mom laughed but something in her eyes made Mena think she would regret following her back upstairs to the royal chambers.
She was right. There on the middle of the big oaken writing table lay a stack of papers folded beautifully with a set of ink pens and wax sealant sitting beside it.
“Thank you notes?” Mena groaned, picking up an envelope and dropping it back onto the table in disgust.
“There is more than this.” Her mother said with a haughty smile. “I’ll send your sister in to help later.”
Mena groaned and dropped her head on the table beside the stack. There were so many good books that she could be reading right now.
By that evening her hands were cramping so badly that she couldn’t even hold her fork to lift it to her mouth. She ate with the woman in her family as well as her brother Griff and his young wife. The rest of the men were fast at their posts, Rao included, watching the southern border for the Inamatos attack. She gave up trying after three bites of shaky food and tried to excuse herself from the table.
“Whats wrong Mena? Don’t want us asking about the honeymoon?” Her brother Griff taunted. The twins cheered in their seats, clearly oblivious to what he meant but happy nonetheless that there was going to be a fight. They always seemed to enjoy their older siblings arguments, of which there was many.
“Dena, Mina, proper young ladies don’t cheer at the table.” Tesha said, placing a finger to her lips the twins quieted to a wave of hushed giggles, hands pressed against their mouths.
“I don’t feel well I am going to bed.” Mena said through gritted teeth. Griff’s eyes lit right up at that,
“Hard night?” He said in mock sympathy and that's when she threw the muffin. With her weakened hands her aim was off and instead of his face it struck the wall beside him, knocking a priceless portrait of her father from the wall. Everyone watched in horror as it dropped to the stone floor with a bang and then the frame split in two and the twins started crying.
As Mena trudged down the halls to her rooms after a long scolding by her mother she shrugged in annoyance. “Well at least I got to leave.” She murmured.
Exhausted, she flopped into bed the moment she got into her room and hardly noticed an hour later when someone came in. A pressure on the bed beside her made her sigh in her sleep but it was a kiss that woke her up.
“Hey.” Was all Rao said when she woke with a start, eyes wide in confusion until her brain caught up with them.
“What are you doing here?” She demanded and he rolled his eyes.
“Can’t we just skip that part or are we going to have the same conversation everynight?” He asked, flopping onto his stomach and closing his eyes. She glared at the man, he was covered in dust and mud and scratches. He had worked hard today too, protecting her and her family.
“How are things?” She asked quietly and he frowned.
“Safe enough for the moment.” He said.
“I think my mom is going to disown me.”
His eyes shot open and he rolled to one side facing her with a smile.
“What did you do this time? I want to hear it all.”
After retelling the story in near entirety she couldn’t help laugh along when he did. It had been a ridiculous day.
“So, you didn’t eat then?” He asked with suddenly serious eyes and she shrugged.
“All day?” He asked again.
Right then her stomach growled loudly but his serious expression didn’t waver a bit.
“You need to eat.” He said.
“No, I’m not hungry I just want to sleep.” Mena protested.
Suddenly he kissed her on the lips, like a child’s kiss, a quick peck and she shoved his shoulder.
“Stop that.” She warned but now he was smiling.
“If you don’t eat, I’ll just have to kiss you.” He said and suddenly predatory eyes rolled over her body. She threw her arms over her chest and jumped back so that she was pressed against the bedframe. She laughed nervously and he pounced, quickly pinning her arms and straddling her middle. Quick butterfly kisses across her jaw and down her neck. It tickled and she couldn’t stop laughing. She spun away and managed to free a hand, using it to push his head away while kicking her legs at his back.
“Ouch!” He laughed, trying to regain his hold, but she swung out a leg and pushed herself until she was the one on top. She was smiling in triumph, using both hands to hold him down when suddenly the door swung open.
Both she and Rao froze, as did the woman in the doorway. It was Jezna, Griff’s wife.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” She said, with a quick bow the door was shut and it took another full minute before Mena had enough composure to look away from the door.
“Did she think?” She asked and Rao nodded. He sat up and put his arm around her shoulders.
“And in a day the entire palace will think the same thing.” He said and her eyes caught his own, a shadow of sadness quickly replaced by good humor.
“Well your mom is being pushy so, why not use this to buy some time?”
“You set this up?” She snarled, quickly hushing her voice when she remembered people may be outside.
He shrugged. “I told Jezna that you had that old romance novel that all the girls love and suggested that she ask you about it tonight, that's all.”
Mena moved off of his legs and sat on the bed, pulling her legs up against her chest. The move made sense, what married couple their age didn’t have a little bit of fun? But it was so embarrassing. When she thought over what their little game would have sounded like from out in the hall, what it must have looked like to see her pushing him down she couldn’t take it.
He stood and started for the door.
“I’ll go get you that food.” He said and before she could protest he was gone.
That night was the first that Mena heard chewing in the walls. Rodents were not uncommon in the castle, but the cats usually did a good job of keeping them from the upper rooms. Before she drifted off, belly full of warm turkey pies and sweetbread, she made a mental note to borrow Tesha’s big tom cat the next morning, he would catch the culprit soon enough.
The next morning the sky was red with sunrise. She awoke, always a poor sleeper, to the jingle of Rao’s uniform as he slipped it on. Not his guard’s robe, but his leather armor for riding.
“Rao?” Her voice called out, lost in the darkness, but he crept to her side.
“Shh, go back to bed I’ll see you later.”
“Is it something bad?” She asked and he hesitated.
“No, its just a routine check of the supply fields.” He lied and she wanted to ask him not to go, but she knew he would anyways so she nodded, thankful for the lie.
When she woke up again it was already past noon and she was surprised to find the maids hadn’t roused her. She had expected another long day of thank you notes and endless writing, but perhaps her mother’s anger from the night before was a bit greater than she had expected.
Sleepily she rubbed her body clean with a basin of cold water. It was from Rao’s wash that morning, so the maids hadn’t been in at all since then. When she stepped out into the hallway in breeches and a deep green shirt she found an even stranger sight. Bellos the gray tom cat she had wanted to borrow from her sister was sitting right next to a gray rat nearly half his size. At first she had smiled in satisfaction, thinking the cat had killed the little chewer already, that was until its little white whiskers twitched and its black beady eyes turned to her.
“Ah!” she jumped back, not because she was the kind of girl to be afraid of a little rodent but from sheer surprise that it looked at her so calmly.
Confidently as if stepping with purpose the rodent hopped forward until it was nearly at her feet and then it stood on its hind legs, balancing delicately, head bobbing up and down once in what she could have sworn was a bow, and then it turned and raced away so quickly that it looked like an arrow released from a bow.
“Bellos?” She yelled in exasperation, pointing to the escaping chewer. “Aren't you a cat?” In response he flicked his tail twice and then lay down in the middle of the floor.
“Useless cat.” She grumbled and stepped around him.
She would go to her mother and apologize directly, if that's what it took. Surely she was still mad if she had ordered the maids not to serve her. She hated the walk to the royal chambers; countless numbers of family portraits and paintings of long gone Raoslos lined the hallway like some sort of morbid family tree. Every one had the same beautiful flashing blue eyes and silky golden hair, every single Raoslo except for one. Apparently, when she was born the nursemaid’s had gasped and dropped her onto the changing sheets. Her hair was so dark and her eyes such a strange gray hue, she looked like a completely different family’s child, perhaps one from Denma where all the dark skinned races came from, or even a rare fluke from their enemy the Inamoto where the firehead children lived. But despite the doubt it should have caused her father never once denied her paternity and for that, even if his baritone scared her, even if his blue eyes seemed to watch her every step with disdain, for that she could never hate him nor betray him.
When she was halfway down the hallway she heard skittering on the stones behind her and whirled to face what she assumed would be a tiny rodent and ended up being an olive skinned man towering over her.
“Who are you?” She demanded and the man smiled, bright teeth stark white against his dark skin. He held out a piece of paper, folded into a perfect white triangle and she took it without looking away from his face.
This time she didn’t wait until he had disappeared, she ripped open the letter and read its three lines written in morn.
Before the time is past, Come to the Mischief.
It is as agreed.
From time to now, we make the trade.
Gnawl-Bosha-mi, High prince.
She glowered at the words and looked up to the tall man who still wore a rather dumb smile on his face.
“Who is this from?” She demanded and he replied as the other had, “Me.”
“Well if it is from you then explain yourself. The Mischief is nothing but a fairy tale! Are you from Denma? Inamoto? If you are then I suggest you escape soon or else the guards will be upon you soon.”
He shook his head.
“I made a deal with your guard, he said that if we bring him milk he will ignore our messengers for the next week.”
It took her a moment to put that sentence together, another for her memory to flash back to the strange scene before her door that morning.
“You are a rat?” She felt dumb even asking it but before she could regret the words he nodded. “I’m a Mischief messenger.” He said with a smile. “The prince will be awaiting your arrival. Call us any time and we can bring you to him princess.”
“Who is the prince?”
He cocked his head to the side.
“What?” She couldn’t see the smiley rat man being a prince, but then she wasn’t really one to judge, seeing as she didn’t exactly fit the part of royalty either.
“So you are the prince?”
He shook his head.
“No no no, I’m Gnao a messenger and chewer for the mischief.”
Now she was really confused.
“Mena! Who are you talking to out there?” She turned to face her mother’s voice.
“Mother, stay in your rooms I’m..” but when she turned back he was gone, the hallways empty. Her eyes even searched the ground for the scurrying of a little rat as if it were possible, but even here there was nothing.
“Mena, come in here this instant.”
Her mother’s furious voice pulled her from the mystery and she spent the rest of the afternoon finishing the thank you notes all by herself as punishment for her “outrageous behavior.” But every now and again she caught her mother’s expression out of the corner of her eyes and seeing a sly smile on her lips, was horrified when she realized that meant that Jezna’s story had spread, and now everyone though that she was doing that with Rao.
“Oh come on its not that embarrassing.” He said in bed that night. She was getting much too used to sharing her bed with her friend. His snoring at night was like white noise and his warmth seemed to burn away the nightmares that had plagued her since her youth. Beyond chaste kisses and teasing he was careful not to push her further than she cares to go, not that he had the energy after a day on patrol.
When she woke up suddenly in the night he would talk to her until she calmed down and as he had since they were children he barely even took notice when her tone turned sharp. With Rao she felt safe, but even with the happy blonde by her side she still felt unease, because again that night she heard chewing, and again the night after that, whatever it was was coming closer.
That morning when she awoke she looked out the window and there by the gates amongst a throng of guards who took no notice, were the two olive skinned men from before, standing with a horse bridled and set with packs and staring up at her window as if just waiting for her to come to them. A shiver shot down her spine and she nodded once towards the men. Throwing on her clothes, she shot down to the courtyard as fast as her golden flats would allow.
Straight past the servant’s room, past the house guards and straight into the training field. Delicate flats squished in fresh mud and she took big steps to push through it. The men still stood in the same spot, waiting for her.
From the corner of the yards Rao looked up from tightening the girth on his mount to see his fiancé stamping through the mud towards two very foreign men. The look on her face was a mask of fury, but he alone could understand that it was fear that caused her to look this way. Before he could think his feet were moving after her.
“What do you want?” Mena hurled the words at the two men. They looked at her with calm smiles as all of the messengers before them had. These two seemed new, but all four men thusfar had looked so similar it was difficult to tell.
“Princess, the Bosha-mi has bid us to come find you and bring you back where you belong. He fears if you come alone that you may.. get lost along the way.”
The rat men paused and turned to one another. A silent exchange passed between them and prickles raced down Mena’s back.
“Come now, if we leave now we will still make it for the party.”
One of the men reached out for her, but before she could react, strong arms pulled her back and a menacing sword cut the distance between her and the two men.
“And exactly where do you intend to take my wife?” Rao’s voice snarled against her head and his grip on her became painfully strong.
The two men looked to one another again and then one stepped forward and nodded a greeting.
“Prince Rao of Raoslo. For today we shall bid you farewell. The Mischeif awaits your return joyfully, but the Bosha-mi is not the most patient prince so I bid you hurry for your own sake.”
Mena twisted her neck to look at Rao and the look she saw there was frightening. Lips drawn tight over a warrior’s snarl, his eyes dared the men to step closer in range of his blade. This must be the man who Rao’s enemies faced on the field, it was a thrilling change.
With a quick bow the two men mounted their horses and were off before Rao could shout an alarm. Bellar’s men had seen the confrontation though and were settled and after the messengers before they even left the castle’s gates.
“Don’t worry.” Rao growled, “They will catch them and we will get to the bottom of this.”
“Rao.” Mena tried to push him away but his body was like a rock.
“You are hurting me.” She gasped and he instantly let go of her and his expression turned back into her normal cheery friend.
“Sorry, are you ok?”
She rubbed her arm with a grimace.
“They are rats Rao, I have no doubt about that anymore. Your men will not find them.” She turned and began back towards the castle and where she left them Rao whispered,
“We shall see.”