A girl with bouncing auburn curls dashed from the trees and stopped dead in her tracks when she caught sight of Celesta and the boy. “Oh, I thought we were... I mean, um, does this mean we're done now?”
“I don't think so.” He responded, still watching Celesta. “Are you sure you're all right? We're in the middle of a race, and that's why I didn't see you.”
“Donhans Leign!” The little girl couldn't have have been much older, or younger, than the boy, yet the way she spoke and planted her hands on her hips reminded Celesta greatly of Ahna. “Does that mean you ran her over?”
Jenisal's blue eyes sparkled with unshed tears. “You have the face of the Duchess Claria.” She held out her arms and Celesta stepped into them. “It's wonderful to see you again, Miss C'lesta!” She stifled a small gasp as her arms closed about the girl. “You are so grown now! I do believe you are my height!”
“She is, Ma.” Vrasen volunteered boldly. “An' she looks like you from the back.”
“No, she don't!” One of the smaller boys piped up. “Ma don't look nothin' like that!”
“Doesn't look anything, Kemual.” His mother corrected without taking her eyes from Celesta. “But I do believe you're right. She's a lot prettier than I am.”
“Oh, Kadsa, I almost forgot.” Jenisal gave one last kiss to the cozy cradle sleeper and came back to the table. As she sat down, she dug into her apron pocket and pulled out a small slip of paper. “I found this on the bottom of Miss Celesta's bundle, slipper between two pieces of gingerbread.”
Celesta leaned forward. “A paper? Ahna didn't tell me anything about that.”
“I'd expect not, Miss Celesta,” Jenisal sent a smile in the girl's direction, “as it's got Kadsa's name on it, and not yours. I think Ahna sent it, judging by the handwriting.”
Kadsa accepted the paper, and her eyebrows flew up as she read the scrawl of her name inked onto the front. “That's Ahna's handwriting, all right. It hasn't changed a bit since she left.” She held onto the note for a moment, her eyes misted over with the love and memories of the past, before falling to tearing the sticky seal Ahna had pressed onto the back.
Jenisal couldn't wait for Kadsa to properly get the note open. “What's it say?”
“Now does it have your name on it, then?” Kadsa grinned, moving her fingers even slower to only further aggravate her friend. When it was finally spread out before her eyes, Kadsa read it quickly, and a knowing look crept into her face.
“What? What does she say?” Jenisal put both hands on the table in her enthusiasm.
Kadsa cleared her throat. “She's sorry that she couldn't come visiting today, but she's certain she'll be around soon enough to make sure that young man I married is taking care of me. And of course, she wants to see Taimee and Rerik.”
Jenisal's eyebrows went up a hair. “That's it? I don't recall Ahna being in the habit of sending greeting cards. If she writes anything down at all, it usually means she's planning to move the sky and send us all upward to live on clouds.”
Ahna was singing.
Celesta and Hasteri exchanged astonished glances. It wasn't uncommon to hear the sprightly tune of Prince Filbert being sung amid the poorer people of Troisem, for it was a nonsense song that even most children knew by heart before they turned six. It wasn't even odd that some of the notes coming from the kitchen sounded flat or off-key because the old song had been passed down verbally through the generations, from lips that sang beautifully to mouths that rasped like a hurricane in a monotone, until no one was certain what the original tune was at all because so many variations had resulted from the different singers. No, nothing about that surprised them at all.
It was the fact that Ahna was singing that was so astonishing.
Ahna. The stern housekeeper, the steadfast organizer, the one who kept things running smoothly and the woman no one wanted to cross or argue with was singing. Ahna never sang.
In all the years that Celesta had known her, she had never once broken out into a song. Not even a simple hum had escaped her lips in all her time at work. She always claimed songs were distracting, that tunes kept one's mind off the important things that needed to be done. Ahna didn't even whistle while she worked.
And now she was singing.
“She can have some sausages,” Georgettica inopportunely offered. “They are quite delicious.” She selected one from the platter in front of her and bit into it hungrily before reaching for a second to slip to The Count who was waiting impatiently under the table. She licked her fingers in enjoyment, but Veroniscen only smoldered.
“My dear, ladies of noble birth do not consume meat.” The duchess reprimanded her youngest. “It is a disgusting habit, and it does deplorable things to one's waistline. I really cannot condone it.”
“But I saw Veroniscen eat some venison yesterday,” Georgettica said in a quick pout, “and you like fried fish.”
“Fish is not technically a meat, and I was speaking more of red meat.” Her mother sighed heavily. “Gracious, Georgettica, I have so much to teach you. It is a small boon to know that the Crown Prince will not be marrying you. Veroniscen is so much better suited to royal life.”
“The palace is the last place for you, Jetta. You would only embarrass us, I'm afraid.” Veroniscen looked sideways at her sister, her tone one of sympathy, but her eyes filled with a gloating.
Celesta could hardly blame Georgettica for stomping her foot, sticking her tongue out at Veroniscen, scooping up the entire platter of sausages, and parading out of the room with The Count behind her, his tail wagging expectantly.
“That name means nothing to me.” Julien rolled his shoulders back and stiffened into a rigid pose. “But names escape me more than I care to admit, so I suppose it is little wonder that I do not remember that one, Denstan. I can always remember a face, much to the dismay of many, yet titles and names are merely trifles, and I cannot recall them as well as I should please.”
“Indeed, my prince.”
“Denstan, it is not your place to agree with your Crown Prince when he is woefully berating his own flaws. Musketeers are to protect, not chafe.”
Julien caught snickers coming from the other guards and forced down his own smile. Denstan was the closest thing he had to a best friend, or any true friend at all, so how could he help such comments? They not only made Denstan speechless, which was an accomplishment all on its own, but it was also rewarding to break the stoic faces of the other musketeers.
“Indeed, my prince.”
Julien sighed. Almost speechless.