“Kira, we should speak of this matter,” Ayla interjected gently, distracting Kira and her ire. “Let Hope drive. You and I will converse in the carriage.”
“With the princess listening to every word? No,” Kira refused adamantly. “You want to put a scout in charge of our fate, with two armies bearing down on us? I think not. I will keep the reins. You may ride up front with me. Hope will ride with the princess. Hope, ensure that she does not escape.”
Hope seemed eager enough to escape Kira and her rapidly multiplying punishments and quickly disappeared into the interior of the carriage. Ayla hiked up her skirts and Kira assisted her up onto the driver’s seat.
“What did you see of Ariadne?” Ayla asked the question gently as the carriage once more started rolling along.
“She was standing on the road,” Kira said. “She looked at me. I saw it clear as day. She is back, Ayla. I do not know how, but I know she is.”
“If she were back, if she had somehow returned…” Ayla frowned. “I cannot say this isn’t true, Kira, but I think Ariadne would return in a fury.”
“We do not know that,” Kira responded. “Much time has passed. Time changes people.”
“Not goddesses,” Ayla replied. “Goddesses are immune to time in a way even immortals are not.”
“I am alive, Ayla,” Kira said. “I should not be. The fact that I continue to draw breath means that Ariadne never died. She was just very far away. And now she is close.”
“I do not feel her, Kira.”
“That means nothing,” Kira replied bluntly. “I am connected to her in a way you are not.”
“True,” Ayla admitted. “I supposed, with the advent of a new summoner, the world is entering a new phase. Perhaps that coincides with Ariadne’s return. But what of Erwydden? She consumed Ariadne. How could Ariadne have escaped?”
“I cannot imagine anyone, living, dead, or beyond the veil of mortality to be able to contain Ariadne,” Kira said grimly. “I have never believed that Erwydden so much as touched her.”
“Kira,” Ayla sighed. “The magic was drawn out of the world, replaced with conduits from the elven realm to ours. The clockwork goddesses. We have felt Ariadne’s absence this way for hundreds of years… if she was back, the world would return to the way it was…”
Hope drew her head back from the hatch at the top of the carriage and sat down, sighing.
“They’re talking religion,” she informed the princess. “Old people love to talk religion.”
Nive looked at her with a haughty but curious expression. “Who are you?”
“I’m Hope. I’m a scout. And I’m your guard,” Hope said cheerfully. “I’ll be making sure that you stay in, you know, custody.”
Nive’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly at that news. “I don’t want to be in custody. I had other plans. I am supposed to be getting married.”
“Married!” Hope clapped her hands. “How exciting! Who is the lucky lady?”
“It’s a prince,” Nive said.
“Oh.” Hope screwed up her nose for a moment. “Well. If you like that sort of thing, I suppose that’s alright. You’re sure it’s a prince? Not a princess who lost the last couple letters of her title?”
“It’s the prince of Iskendar,” Nive said proudly. “My father has arranged our marriage. We will be very happy together, and I will live abroad in a large castle with hundreds of servants.”
“Huh,” Hope said, scratching her nose. “Well.”
She did not seem impressed by Nive’s story, which irritated Nive greatly.
“You are probably used to sleeping with the horses in the stables,” she said. “You do not understand what luxury is.”
“I’m a scout, not a squire. I don’t sleep in the stables.” There was no ego or offense in Hope’s reply, simply a statement of fact which seemed to disarm Nive.
“I will be rescued soon,” she said. “I’m afraid you will all likely be killed, apart from Ayla.”
“Oh no,” Hope shook her head, smiling broadly. “I’m never killed. And Kira, she can’t be killed. So that won’t happen.”
Faced with more bald logic, Nive stared at Hope. “You are very strange,” she observed.
“Everyone is strange when you get to know them,” Hope nodded. “The most interesting people are the strangest.”
“I’m not strange,” Nive said proudly. “I’m beautiful. I am a pretty princess.”
“And what else?”
“What else?” Nive seemed confused by the question.
“You must be more than that,” Hope said, sitting on one side of the carriage and resting her feet on the other side. “You must have more to you than being pretty.”
“Well,” Nive admitted. “I like to weave.”
“Weaving,” Hope nodded. “A very useful skill. Weavers are probably in higher demand than princesses.”
“I can weave cloth and wool and silk,” Nive continued. “I would have woven my own wedding dress, but my father said I should leave that to the peasants and merchants and focus on being a princess.”
“How do you focus on being a princess?”
“Well, I curtsey a lot,” Nive said, frowning slightly as she tried to think. “And I say ‘how do you do?'” She intoned the question with rounded vowels and an accent which made her voice sound as though her nasal passages were congested with something expensive.
“How do you do?” Hope repeated in an effort to mimic the question.
“How do you do?” Nive replied.
“How do you do you do?” Hope smiled, teasing.
“I do how you do,” Nive riposted without missing a beat. “How do you do?”
“I do what you do, if you do how I do,” Hope said, her expression beginning to crack as she gave way to laughter. “Being a princess seems silly.”
“It is silly sometimes,” Nive admitted, smiling in a genuine way which made her look much more beautiful than any of her haughty expressions had. Her violet eyes were lit with humor, her cheeks dimpling as she grinned with an easy innocence which belied her dress stature. “But someone has to do it.”