The merchant party turned to look as Connor and Sophia approached. The guards quickly resumed unloading the wagon, their decision prompting the others to do the same.
“I’m not sure whether to be relieved or slightly offended.”
Sophia’s lips twitched at Connor’s comment, but kept a curious and concerned expression evident as they came within easy reach of the group.
She pulled her horse to a stop and asked if they could be of assistance.
The older woman directing operations looked up, “Nothing more to be done than we’re doing I’m afraid. Although if you would be so good as to carry a message, I would be grateful.”
“Of course, did you need to write something?”
“No, I simply want to let one of my customers know we’re going to be late. They’re waiting on some items I’m bringing and is like to fret if they’re not on time. Some people are just born worriers.”
“I’ve known a few of them, especially when I’m making up a gown for an important dance. Who would you like me to deliver the message to and who should I say it’s from?”
“A seamstress are you? A well-spoken one I must say. The message is from Merchant Gilys and needs to be delivered to Maistre Roxmaine. The house is just off the main square; anyone can direct you to it.”
Sophia nodded, repeating the names to herself, “How long do you think you’ll be? They’re bound to ask.”
“Say we’re a day behind schedule, and my thanks to you for easing both our minds.”
With a further wish for better luck and good speed, Sophia’s party moved off, picking up speed as they moved back under the trees.
They passed a small inn a short time later, Connor continued on, “We’ve got hours of travel yet and the next inn puts us within easy reach of Leaf’s capital. We stay there the night; you’ll be delivering your message early afternoon tomorrow.”
“Whereas if we stop now, we wouldn’t arrive much ahead of the merchant.”
“And I’d rather not have a sharp lady like her having a whole evening to get curious about just how well-spoken you are for a junior dressmaker.”
Joy looked at them suspiciously, “Why?”
“Because I’d rather not tell the whole world we’re from the Overcourt and before you ask, my mode of speech is completely normal for someone in my position, if that person is on Overcourt work and not just from any old place.”
“You told Uncle.”
“I was trying to intimidate your uncle and encourage him to behave himself.”
Joy snorted in appreciation, “I’d be sorry it didn’t work if it hadn’t ended so well for me.”
“Well there is that.”
Connor’s inn proved to be a large, comfortably situated building on the very edge of the forest. The capital city of Leaf could be seen in the far distance over the fields and orchards, when tower windows or other ornaments caught themselves in the light of the setting sun.
Joy’s eyes were huge, “Never seen so much space with no trees. Is the sky always that big?”
“When there are no trees to screen it out, yes.”
Their stay was thankfully uneventful, other than a small stampede in the stable area when Acron changed back to his normal form for the night. He was able to reassure the spooked horses of his goodwill before they prompted any but the most cursory check from the inn staff.
They made good time the next day and approached the city walls around midday. Acron took a quiet moment to shed his pony guise in favour of the wolf and Joy re-joined Connor on his horse.
Connor looked at Sophia curiously.
“I’m trying to work out if you’re wearing that dress or not. I can never tell.”
“I’m not. I thought we’d wait until tomorrow to go to the palace. We can use the time to send a message up and find something a bit more suitable for Joy to wear. The fit of my dress on her is hopelessly undermining my claims to be a competent seamstress.”
“In that case, let’s find a place to stay and go and find good Maistre Roxmaine.”
They settled on a neat little place tucked into a quiet street just back from the main square, unloaded their belongings and gathered downstairs for lunch and directions.
Maistre Roxmaine’s house proved to be a good-sized dwelling, on the uphill side of the square, leading towards the castle, but off the main thoroughfare. Sophia knocked.
The door was answered by a woman of similar age to her father, with the air of a scholar and similarly inky fingers.
Sophia delivered her message as promised and the woman’s face broke into a relieved smile.
“Oh thank goodness, I had been getting a tad worried, but only a day or so won’t be a problem at all.”
Her gaze narrowed as she focused properly on Sophia for the first time, “Although I’m a little surprised to find one of the foremost ladies of Lillia delivering the message.”
She looked to the rest of the group, “Accompanied by the Overcourt’s brightest junior officer, a mage, and a wolf that isn’t a wolf. I really do think you should all come in for tea.”
Connor sighed, “I should have made the connection earlier. Sophia, I’d like you to meet Magister Geraldine Roxmaine, the Overlord’s chief sorcerer. I think our merchant got her pronunciation confused.”
He lunged to grab Joy, who’d taken to her heels the minute she’d heard the title. Acron got there faster and brought her back with a wrist held in gentle jaws.
The girl was chalk white and choking on sobs, Magister Roxmaine sighed, “So, an untrained and unregistered mage. It’s most definitely time for tea.”
Sophia put her arm around Joy in a firm but comforting hold, “Let’s see what she has to say, and what you have to say, then we’ll work things out together. I will not let anyone push you into something you’re afraid of or don’t want.”
“She said you’re a Lady.”
“I am, but I’m still on an errand for the Overcourt, exactly as I told you.”
She led the girl inside, still talking calmly, and settled them on a sofa in the large front room. Connor and Acron trooped in after them, one taking up a guard position at Sophia’s shoulder and the other lying across their feet.
Magister Roxmaine looked slightly befuddled by the defensive stance and called into the back of the house for tea and cakes.
She took a seat facing them and looked to Sophia for an explanation.
With a little context for Joy’s sake, she and Connor shared the same story she’d told her parents.
They concluded with the events that led to both Acron and Joy joining their expedition and Acron shifted back to dragon form, much to the sorcerer’s delight.
“Never in my life did I think to have the honour of meeting a high mountains ice dragon. I must say I’m terribly envious of your ability to converse with him.”, She shot Joy a look, “Has interesting indications of your magic’s inclinations that you can. I’d like to know your story as well if I may.”