The following two weeks were busy. Sophia met and measured (in more ways than one) the unattached ladies of the Weriban court. Her list of interested or suitable candidates shrank considerably.
Indeed, the only young lady she felt had the grace, intelligence and humour to be a good partner to the Overlord was desperately pining over some arrogant young lord who barely even noticed her existence. Sophia had to fight a strong urge to give her a good hard shake and an even harder talking-to.
She did succeed in recruiting that lady’s equally intelligent and rather more clear-eyed maid into her circle of information sharers, so the time wasn’t completely wasted.
In all, she was glad to be leaving Weriban as they rode away from the castle one sunny but cooling morning, but frustrated by her lack of progress in the task before her.
Connor cocked his head in question. “But I’d say you have made progress. Knowing who is unsuitable is just as important as knowing who is.”
“But no one in an entire court? That’s just dreadful. I’m not being too fussy am I?”
Connor snorted. “You’re effectively choosing a man’s wife for him, I think you’ll find you can’t be fussy enough. He’s completely reliant on you for his future happiness and wellbeing.”
Sophia tried to find something to throw at him. “It was hard enough before and now you load that on me?”
Connor laughed. “Relax Sophie, you’ll do fine. You’re careful and you’re doing research, not making the final decision.”
“But what if I get it wrong and we end up with someone awful.”
Connor shifted his horse close to hers and gave her an awkward one-armed hug. “I was teasing. You won’t get it wrong, and more to the point, nor will the Overlord. He knows the type of person the role needs and he can supplement your information with news and opinions from dozens of others. He won’t be going into any alliance blind. In fact he’ll probably end up with too much information and have to try and disguise just how much he knows about each of his guests.”
Sophia sighed. “It’s also just that, she was so nice. And she’s wasting her time on that unfeeling, ignorant idiot.”
“Maybe you could suggest she’s assigned a role as one of the new Overlady’s attendants. She’s probably going to need one from each country to show equal favour or something.”
“Connor you’re a genius, that’s perfect, thank you!”
Connor flushed. “I was getting a lot of questions on why two people from Lillia were compiling the list for the ball, everyone seems to be very worried about favouritism.”
“What did you tell them?”
“That the previous Overlady was originally from Lillia, and so couldn’t be expected to provide another for the role so soon. Therefore we were able to be less biased than others.”
Sophia laughed. “Oh brilliant. Are you sure you want to be a soldier? I think you have a great future as a diplomat.”
“Hardly, I just tried to imagine what you’d say and that’s what came out.”
Now it was Sophia’s turn to blush. “That’s one of the nicest things anyone’s said. Thank you Connor.”
Since Connor didn’t think he’d intended the statement as a compliment, he was slightly stuck for a response, and settled for asking Acron’s opinion of his fortnight trotting between Sophia’s workroom and the barracks.
Acron’s response was rather less than polite. He found the Weriban courtiers to be decidedly self absorbed. They didn’t try to work for the good of the country as the Lillian people seemed to and they wore far too much perfume.
Connor translated and Sophia smiled at the latter. “I noticed that too, it must be much worse for the more sensitive nose of a wolf.”
This set off a whole new conversation on the relative sensory levels of humans as compared with wolves and kept the whole group occupied and entertained for the rest of the day.
Their stop for the night, a small wayside inn with an excessively jovial landlord, set off Connor’s instinct for trouble. He requested a single room for himself and his wife. Sophia managed to conceal her surprise and waited until they were alone to turn a questioning eye on him. Acron, at Connor’s request, had stayed with the horses.
Connor looked back, shrugged, and quietly replied. “Something’s off. I may be wrong, but I’d rather wake up and ride out tomorrow having been overanxious than discover our inn has been ‘raided by bandits’ and our horses are missing.”
Sophia looked around and stepped closer to him.
He smiled grimly. “Our horses are used to Acron, so he’ll be able to rest in his true form tonight, if he chooses, without sending them into hysterics. He’ll be an exceptional deterrent against would-be thieves.”
“What about us, and what about when we’re travelling tomorrow?”
“Tonight we take turns keeping watch. Tomorrow we name-drop the Overlord for good luck and hope my mention of Lillia as our destination sends any would-be ambushers off on the wrong road.”
Connor proved right. Shortly after midnight, there was a loud scuffle in the stable area, mostly consisting of muffled screams and running.
Connor listened hard, then smirked. “Acron says he’s scared the eyebrows off a couple of sneaks and to check our host’s right wrist for damage in the morning.”
“Should we go downstairs now? As concerned guests who heard a noise?”
“Good idea, I’d like to put the fear of the Overlord into him as early as possible.”
They’d opted to sleep fully clothed, so only had to don shoes to head downstairs. They were forestalled by a knock at the door.
Connor glanced at Sophia and she moved to one side, drawing her knife. He nodded and picked up his sword before opening the door a crack.
His caution was met by a nervously babbling landlord who, holding his right arm awkwardly, had come to reassure them that, while an attempt had been made on the horses, the thieves had been successfully driven off and they weren’t to worry.
“That dog of yours is quite the guard himself. What breed is he?”
Connor affected nonchalance. “Oh, he’s a High Mountains wolf. We saved him a while ago when he was injured and he seems to have adopted us as pack.”
Sophia held her knife out of sight as she approached the door. “Do you have a great deal of trouble with bandits here?”
She looked to Connor. “We should report it.”
The landlord withered further. “Oh no, very unusual I assure you, and I’ll notify all the proper authorities first thing in the morning.”
Sophia was all eager assistance. “I can help with that. We’re on an errand for the Overlord and I’ve been given a letter box for the Overcourt’s steward. They’ll be happy to look into it. The roads and highways joining the kingdoms are the Overcourt’s responsibility after all.”
The landlord’s eyes bugged in terror, his response so strangled Sophia couldn’t tell if he was agreeing, or denying all events.
There was a thump, a whimper and scrabbling sounds from the yard below their window.
Connor tipped his head to one side. “It sounds like one of the bandits has returned.”
Sophia went to the window and looked down. Acron, in all his dragonish glory, grinned up at her as a scruffy man tried to inch away.
She opened the window. “Acron, please don’t play with your food, it’s bad manners.”
The man below fainted as the landlord gurgled in terror.
She turned back. “You might want to go down and get that man before Acron decides to stop playing.”
Connor nodded and headed out of the door, herding the innkeeper before him. Sophia barricaded it behind him, then returned to the window, slamming the shutter open hard on the girl clinging to the wall next to it.
“Really, what kind of deaf and blind idiots do you think we are?”
“Please miss, it’s a dragon.”
Sophia grinned down at Acron. “Nonsense, it’s a High Mountains wolf.”
Acron flickered back into his furry form just as Connor and the landlord emerged. The girl whimpered again and Sophia growled in aggravation.
“Well, if you were planning on getting into our room, you may as well finish the job and explain yourself.”