Lirena and her Bard lay quietly, the light of the moon the only illumination of the room. They'd finished their love making ages ago. He should have left, stolen away into the night but he'd yet to make a move. And she didn't want him to leave.
For fear he'd fallen asleep, she turned to him, to see his hazel eyes watching her.
"You're awake," she said.
"I'm just admiring you," he replied.
"It's too dark to admire," she said, "You should leave before someone sees you."
"I will go. But first, a question, Lirena."
It was so rare she heard her own name. Only from her brother, and now, her Bard. "What is it?"
"You are so stoic. So is your brother. Even amongst the throes of passion, you look so neutral. Why is that?"
"It's my mask," Lirena replied, "My great-grandfather lost my family our masks. It puts us at a disadvantage. So my face must become my mask. My mother taught my brother and I. My grandfather taught her. It is how we play the Game."
"Surely you can drop the act for me, love?" He asked.
"It would take a lot to make me break my composure," Lirena said, her voice neutral. Every facial expression, every tone of her voice, it was all controlled. She could play the Game, with or without a mask. And she would restore her family's honor. But this wasn't an act she could drop. It just was who she was.
"In that case, I'm sure I will find a way," her Bard said. He kissed her. "I'll consider this a challenge. But I must go. Have a good night, Lirena."
He got up. Lirena watched him get dressed and slip out of her room. And it was as if he'd never been there at all.
It was the duty of the Marquise to listen to the problems of the people but Lirena found it dreadfully dull. But she endured it with a calm face, as always. Her brother and her counselor, the Elegant Abbess, were there to watch the proceedings. And at least she could talk to them later about this.
The next petitioner came forward, a woman, barely more than a girl, with golden ringlets. She was quite pretty. And scared. Her face was pale and she was shaking. The Weary Bailiff helped her in front of Lirena. She did a weak curtsy, but Lirena let is slide. What was wrong with the girl?
“Your Grace,” she started, “It’s your Bard, your Grace. We were - ah - riding in the woods.”
The court was quiet. They all looked at Lirena.
She was stunned. The girl had burrs in her hair and grass stains on her skirt. They weren’t riding. She knew what they were doing. Her Bard had been cheating on her with this woman. She hadn’t expected that. Was this the first time? Were there more lovers? More people he betrayed her with? Did he have no respect for that they had at all?
She schooled herself back to neutrality. This was not a big deal. She would deal with it later. But she had to listen to the woman’s story first.
“But we were interrupted by a Horned Knight. He said your Bard was to go with him, for there was a song he needed written. He took your Bard away. You’ll save him, won’t you, your Grace?”
The Horned Knight had been a problem for weeks now. But this time, he had gone too far. He had to pay for this.
“In that case,” Lirena said, “We will have to find him.” She stood and the court bowed to her. Lirena left her throne and walked into the château. The people in attendance started whispering but she didn’t pay attention to it.
Once out of the main hall, she heard footsteps behind her. When she turned, she saw her counselor and brother.
“How bad was it?” she asked, keeping her voice neutral.
“In truth, bad,” Josel said. Her brother’s face was just as neutral, nothing revealed in his eyes. She wondered what he was thinking.
“It was apparent that you care for him,” the Abbess said.
“He is cheating on me,” Lirena replied, “I am only rescuing him to prove that he is my subject and not the Horned Knight’s. He goes too far.”
Lirena looked at their faces. Her brother revealed nothing but the Abbess looked concerned, a frown on her face and sorrow in her eyes. Lirena did not want her pity.
“I must prepare. Tomorrow, I hunt a Bard.” Lirena walked away. She deserved to take off her mask in private.
The hunt started early in the day, The hounds were eager to be out of their kennels. Her companions whispered amongst themselves. The trees rustled and the animals scampered. Lirena was almost certain the Horned Knight knew she was there. But she was going to get the Bard back.
It took a while to find clues. The hounds were keen. An inhabitant of the Applewoods had seen the Bard. She found footprints and broken branches. And after some time, she heard him.
He sounded so sad. And so sober. He’d been trapped for a little over a day.
Lirena’s heart ached as she heard his song. This was the man who’d dallied with the other woman. She couldn’t let herself forget that. Her entire court had seen her moment of weakness. She had to be strong.
A row of hedges separated her from the Bard. It quickly became apparent what it was. A maze. She’d either have to fight her way through or solve the maze.
She wasn’t clever. Josel was called the Scholar and she, the Huntress. He was more clever than her. But if she fought it, she’d be torn to shreds by the thorns. She could do it. So she started inside.
Lirena found herself backtracking quite a bit. She’d find a dead end and turn back around. But the next would lead her further from the song. It took longer than she wanted but she emerged in a beautiful garden. It was full of trees and the greenest of grasses. Flowers and spirits danced in the breeze. And among it all, the Bard.
She called out his name.
He stopped his song and looked at her. There was a haunted look in his eyes.
“Thank the Maker you’re here,” he said, “I’ve had enough of this place.”
He took her hand, that haunted look replaced with something softer. Lirena didn’t break her neutral expression. They weren’t out of danger yet.
She showed him the way back through the maze. She’d marked the path back and got back on her horse. The Bard got on behind her, and wrapped his arms tight around her. She loved the feeling, like their late nights together. But she pushed it aside and urged her horse on. He’d cheated on her and she couldn’t forgive that.
They returned to the château, their mission a success. The Bard left to get cleaned up. And to get drunk again, based on his rant as he wandered off.
Lirena went to her room. He’d come to her, given enough time. Sure enough, a few hours later, he did just that. He slipped into her room and sat on her bed in the dark. He regaled her with the stories from his imprisonment. She listened but didn’t allow her mask to drop.
But he didn’t seem to notice. “You know what the so-called ‘Lord of the Forest’ had me doing? Penning a ballad called ‘The Shame of Serault’. He’s obsessed with it. Both the event and the man. Thinks of nothing else.”
In a pause, he leaned forward to kiss her. Lirena pulled away, her face blank.
Then he realized. “Ah. Yes. Of course. Rather buggered that up, didn’t I? I’m so-” He stopped himself and looked at her hand on the bed. He didn’t try to reach out to her but she still pulled it away. “Thank you for rescuing me, your Grace. My service, as ever, is yours.”
As he got up to leave, Lirena just watched. When he got to the door, she said, “A shame you were not here. You finally managed to stun me.”
He looked back at her sadly, maybe looking for some sadness in her own face. But she knew he saw nothing. Because she projected nothing.
He said nothing as he turned back around and left.
Lirena knew she couldn’t marry him. He was a Bard and she was the Marquise of Serault. But that didn’t stop her heart from yearning for him. She cared for him, maybe even loved him.
But she wouldn’t tolerate this. She wouldn’t be just another fling for him. Not anymore. So she’d move on, no matter how much it hurt.