The friendly maid appeared at the door of the summer house a short time later with two bowls, one of water and one of a finely chopped mix of meat, grains and vegetables.
The maid nodded at it. “Orders of Mother Eulogia for the gryphonling, we’re to provide it every night.”
A boy of about twelve trotted in behind her with a shallow box of sand. “She also said to make a dog box. The Old Cat near choked but ain’t no one goes against Mother Eulogia.”
He put the box down near the door then shuffled forward. “You really got a gryphonling kit then? And you’ve not been torn up?”
Leila eased her snoozing bundle down onto her lap. “He’s too sleepy right now. I’m not sure how well we’ll get along as he starts to feel better.”
The boy reached a cautious finger towards the glossy black head but snatched it back as Perran snapped his beak out. He wriggled onto his stomach and looked around with a squawky growl.
The maid put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Come on Cas, he’s going to be here every night till he’s better. You can make friends when he’s a bit more settled.”
The boy pouted. “But Selene…”
Her eyes widened meaningfully as she nodded towards the house.
Cas sighed. “The Old Cat’ll come looking, I know. Alright.”
They headed out of the door with friendly nods to Leila, she heard Selene say as they left. “One day, she’s going to hear you calling her that, and then what?”
She didn’t hear the reply, focusing instead on unbundling Perran again and putting him down next to the food and water. He wriggled a little, stretched his neck forward, and buried his beak in the food bowl. She watched him take a few bites then, when he didn’t move for a little while, checked him. Still breathing, but he’d fallen asleep with his face in his food.
She gathered him up, doing her best to clean his beak and face without waking him. She made a nest of the cloth on the bench next to her and set him down.
Free from distractions and with no sign of the prince, Leila finally dug for the coins at the bottom of her bag. Silver, silver… she felt her shoulders ease, there would be enough to feed both her and Perran and pay the rent… silver, gold. What? She dug for more. Yes, half the coins were gold. The prince, or possibly Xavier, had been worryingly generous. She’d be able to buy the threads for Mistress Matas’s loom, and even then have a little buffer against the prince changing his mind.
Perran twitched, and gave a squeaky whimper, then wiggled closer to her. A bad dream? Or was he crying for his mother? He was so little, so fierce and scared. Leila gently stroked the fluffy line of fur between his furled wings and softly started a lullaby.
Andreas strode through the front gates of the house, his head-near splitting with the afternoon’s effort to calmly smile and pay attention to the inane complaints of the Capital families at the picnic he’d foolishly agreed to attend.
The sun was nearly gone, only the faintest glow of gold at the horizon pushed against the darkening purple shades of night. He had no events, no guests, no responsibilities that night. An unusual occurrence, and one he had avoided as much as possible since arriving on the island. Time alone meant time to remember, time for the nightmares to gather themselves ahead of sleep.
He pulled a staff from one of Xavier’s stashes and headed for the courtyard. If he was exhausted to the point of collapse when he went to bed, his dreams found it harder to attack.
Soft light from inside the summer house glowed across the space, and her voice beckoned. Softly, gently, as if she were singing to a wounded child.
Andreas set the staff against the wall of the house and crossed the open space. Softly, gently, his feet making nearly no sound on the gravel as he drew slowly closer to the wooden lacework of the near wall. He sat, leaning back against one of the posts, and listened, breathing slowing, headache easing.
He was jolted back into the world by a scandalised squawk and a crash. The song stopped. He shot to his feet, pulling the knife from his boot as he did, then stepped back as his eyes caught up with his reaction.
Mistress Helden stood a body length from him, beside a shattered plate of yesterday’s leftovers. He straightened, lowering the knife but not yet slipping it away. “Is there something wrong, Mistress?”
The woman sniffed. “If you wish for a seat, Your Highness, you need only ask for a bench to be brought here.”
“And if I wish for peace and quiet? What then, Mistress?”
A voice sounded from behind him. “I’m sorry. I should go.”
He spun. “No, please, you were the peace and quiet.”
Now he sounded addled.
He was distracted by movement from a bundle in her arms. A bird? It rested its head on her arm and glared at him. A gryphonling! How on the Shifting Seas had she managed to tame one of those vicious little beasts?
She jerked back as he stepped closer, the gryphonling complaining as she tensed. He eased back a step scanning her face. She was frightened of him. It was in every wary line of her stance and her slightly-too wide, darting gaze. She wanted to run.
The knowledge settled like a boulder in his stomach. He stepped back and to the side, leaning casually on the wall of the summer house and keeping his gaze on the gryphonling, mildly curious.
“How did you find your companion?”
She’d relaxed a little but was still watching for open escape routes. At his question she glanced down. “A couple of children found him injured in a gutter. Mother Eulogia has put him in my care until he’s well enough to take care of himself.”
Mistress Helden sniffed. “And so we have to put up with a feral beast ruining the furniture.”
Andreas had all but forgotten the woman was still there. He turned his best silent, judgemental gaze on her. It was a look that reduced even the most arrogant young loudmouths in the Scattered Isles court to uncomfortable silence. It wasn’t quite as successful here, but the woman did at least shut up.
He straightened. “I would hope any guest of my home, human or otherwise, is welcomed and treated with appropriate courtesy. My mother’s cats have cloth-covered posts to scratch at. I believe the first one was commissioned by your mother, Mistress. Perhaps you’d like to follow her example.”
Mistress Helden flushed, curtseyed and stalked off.
He looked back at the singer. Leila. He should do her the courtesy of remembering her name, given how he’d just been pontificating. Her expression now was more curious than scared, so he shared the story. Maybe if she saw him as more human, her fear would drop.
“Mistress Helden’s mother was nursemaid to my mother.”
Leila blinked. “They must be very close.”
Andreas glanced around, then chanced the truth. “Not even a little bit. The older courtiers say Miss Hilda – Mistress Helden now – felt the princess stole her mother and resented her for it. My mother tried to make it up to her by giving her this position but I’m not sure it was successful.”
Her expression turned thoughtful. Before she could answer though, the most awful stench wafted out from the gryphonling.
They both choked and Leila lifted her arms, still cradling the gryphonling and revealing a brown stain on the front of her dress. The little thing clearly wasn’t privy-trained.
She looked down at herself and said. “I need to go.”
She did indeed, so he bowed from where he stood against the wall. “Until tomorrow then, Mistress Leila. I’ll, um, make sure we provide spare cloths for your charge, just in case.”
He’d made her smile. Little more than a brief quirk of the lips but it warmed him inside. Whatever he’d done to frighten her before, he’d mended a little piece of it. He wanted to mend more.