Connor sat, stiffly awkward, holding Sophie as she sobbed. Soon, though, concern won over terror and he hauled her in closer and ducked in to try and see her face.
“Don’t, I’m red and puffy and blotchy.”
“Seen it before.”
“Not since I was eight.”
He managed to win a watery smile, a deep breath and a move to sit upright.
“I’m scared to ask but what brought that on? As you just said, I haven’t seen you cry for a very long time, not even that afternoon.”
“Just been there, remember?”
Another small smile, another sigh as she looped her arm through his and rested against his side. Something else she hadn’t done since they were children.
“I’ve always been valued for who, or rather what, I was going to be. Even my parents, while I know they love me, their eyes have always been set on my future and preparing me for it. You’re the only one who’s cared enough about me-right-now to pay attention, to come and find me, even though the future me is not longer what was planned.”
“I’m not entirely sure I understand, but I think I’m understanding enough to be appalled. Sophie, you’ve always been so much more than just a future queen.”
Her chin wobbled, then firmed again, “I’m afraid you’re the only one, other than the people I’ve met here, who thinks that.”
Connor opened his mouth to argue, thought through the past few weeks, then months, then years, and closed it again. It was his turn to sigh and briefly brush his cheek against her hair.
They sat for a while in companionable silence, then Sophie shifted, pecked another kiss to Connor’s cheek and urged both of them up.
“We still need to go and see the deity, maybe they’ll have some advice on options for a new future me.”
“So long as it’s a happy future you.”
“Aside from occasional moments, I do think I’m happier now than I’ve been for a very long time, so I think I’m on the right path. All in all, Stephen may have done me a favour.”
“You’d be the only one then.”
They continued walking, finally easy in each others’ company again.
Arriving in the deity’s clearing, Sophia was surprised to see the deity in their near-corporeal form, in discussion with a person she didn’t recognise. She paused and felt Connor move to alertness beside her.
The deity looked over and waved them in with a smile, “This is the Lady Sophia now, and I believe her recently-arrived knight protector.”
Aware she had clearly been a topic of conversation, Sophia stepped onto the porch and curtseyed neatly. Connor followed her lead, then started when he got a proper look at the visitor.
“Overlord, what brings you to Lost Island?”
“I try to drop by every six months or so to consult with the deity, visit Imelda and Evan and see how the world is changing. I brought the visit forward though, after word came in of the presence of the future queen of Lillia. What happened?”
“Stephen found a prospective wife he preferred to me, Overlord. I was upset at first, but am starting to think it may be for the best.”
“For you, almost certainly, for Lillia, I have concerns. However, it’s an internal matter and officially none of my business, although there will doubtless be cross-border repercussions and my court must be prepared to stomp on unsuitable behaviour.”
The deity shooed the two of them off to discuss stomping and invited Sophia indoors. She smiled reassuringly at Connor and followed the glowing figure through the door.
They sat, and the deity poured tea, “You are ready for the next stage of your quest then.”
“Is that what I’m doing? Of course, yes, yes I am. Am I?”
The deity laughed, a warm thread of fondness reaching through and wrapping itself around Sophia’s still-battered heart.
“You want to know what new life purposes are out there for you. The best way to answer that question is to go out there and live them until one feels right. You already know what moves you, and what you’re good at, so you are well on your way already. Of course that purpose may change in a few years, but there’s nothing wrong with that.”
“So where do you suggest I go to?”
“The Overcourt of course. Why else do you think the Overlord is here? He’s always on the lookout for talented new diplomats and intelligence gatherers.”
The doorway darkened as the Overlord and Connor entered.
The Overlord took up the conversation, “In fact, I have a very specific, very delicate fact-finding mission I’m hoping you both will agree to undertake.”
Sophia and Connor looked at each other, then leaned forward.
“I’m afraid it might be a bit of a sore spot. It involves marriage, but it’s one of the reasons I feel I will be able to trust your judgement.”
Sophia frowned, “I’m listening.”
“My advisors are getting rather strident over their wish for me to marry. In fact they made a list of suitable candidates I’m apparently meant to choose from by midsummer.”
Her jaw dropped and the Overlord nodded in agreement, “My thoughts exactly, it’s an appalling way of doing things.”
“What I want to do is present them with a shortlist, to be invited to the Overcourt for midsummer celebrations and I want you to compile that list.”
“My selection criteria are a little different to theirs. First, and most importantly, only those who would welcome the union wholeheartedly.”
Sophia subsided, appeased.
“The Overlady is far more constrained by protocol and ritual than I am, so she needs to be someone with the patience and poise to navigate the role as it is, plus the strength and intelligence to shape it into something more over time.”
“Is Sophie on the list?”
“She was, I crossed her off. Although, I do hope you’d consider becoming one of my future wife’s ladies in waiting.”
Sophia wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or insulted by this exchange. Once again, the Overlord proved disconcertingly observant.
“I mentioned the protocol and ritual, and I believe you could endure it should you wish. However you’re not like a songbird, that thrives in a sheltered place, your time here has shown that quite emphatically. I’d liken you more to a falcon, happiest when on the wing and free to chase the winds.”
The Overlord eyed Connor’s glower, “There are other reasons of course but I think you can see why you’re the best person to undertake this project, just as the Colonel here is best suited to keeping you safe and helping collect information. I am relying on you to provide me with a clear, honest report on who might want to spend the rest of their life with me, and vice versa, with all attendant inconvenience.”
He sat back and slapped his knees, ready to stand, “If we leave now, we can make the cottage in time for dinner. I could do with a decent meal after trail rations for the past few days and Imelda and Evan can give us, or you, some useful ideas on where to start if you decide to take on this rather unique task.”
“It’s our choice?”
Sophia looked to Connor, he shrugged, “I’m happy to follow whatever path you decide. The deity named me as your knight protector and I think that’s a good thing for me to be right now.”
She sat for a minute, while a smile grew, “Find a strong-willed woman of intelligence and poise to become the Overlady and your partner sir? I would be delighted to accept the commission.”