Chapter Three – The Lights of Lyr
“Just around this bend, Master Hunter, and you’ll get a wonderful view of the castle…”
Jhase rolled down the window and nearly climbed out of the car to get a better look. The road to the castle was long and beyond it, Castle Lyr rose out of the earth like a majestic creature made of turrets and glittering glass and the purest, whitest stone he’d ever seen. Bigger than he imagined the four Hunter Houses would be combined, the castle was designed purely by fantasy and magic. Retaining walls rose around it, several tiers stacking the castle high like an ornate cake. The Cliffs of Lyr and the ocean beyond provided an impregnable defense from the back and the Hunter in him marveled the structure in the front, winding paths, gates, towers, walls. The castle didn’t appear to be built for defense, but it certainly had it.
“Magical, isn’t it?” the driver called from inside the vehicle, “See that wall up ahead? Everything beyond that is part of the castle. Could fit another small city within the castle walls!”
They approached a gate nestled within said wall and Jhase climbed back into the car. A soldier approached.
“Good morning,” he greeted, “What is your business at the castle today?”
“Master Hunter, here to see her majesty,” the driver handed over Jhase’s Contract information and his letter of reference. The soldier scanned it, glanced at Jhase, glanced into the rest of the car.
“Just you, Master Hunter?” the soldier inquired.
The soldier nodded, then waved over some comrades. There was a quick conversation and then the solider said, “You may continue. Follow the road and there’s a small circle before the main gate. We’ll have an escort waiting for you there, Master Hunter.”
They backed away and the driver continued his steady pace up the road, winding back and forth as they climbed higher. Jhase crawled out the window again and glanced back down the mountain they’d come. They were high enough now that he could see the city sprawling out beyond like a quilt laid gently over the land. He wagered that from the highest turrets of the castle, he could see miles of the countryside. To think, the Goddess herself had chosen this very spot to build her castle, a place where she could look out from her bedroom window and see the land she’d created, her people living peacefully, Anchors and Spirits together.
It was magical.
The road was fenced on either side and beyond it, the landscape was rocky. As the car drew closer to the main gate, the land flattened out, turning into a great plain, sculptured and manicured.
“In the summer time, the Queen opens up the gates and the city people have a farmer’s market right here on the front lawn once a month,” the driver informed him, “People from all over the country come. It’s one of the biggest trade events of the year. You’ll have to visit in the summer, Master Hunter.”
The car pulled up to the circle in front of another gate in yet another wall. The driver climbed out and went around to pop the boot of the vehicle and retrieve Jhase’s bags. The Hunter opened the door and marveled at the view. He had to tip his head back now to see the castle, looming over him.
Nerves kicked him in his stomach and his fingers tightened in his leather gloves. In just a few moments, he would meet Her Majesty, Queen Adelaide. He’d heard she was not only beautiful, but soft and strong, a delicate combination in a fine leader. He’d been told she compared to none but the Goddess Lyria herself in strength and grace.
Jhase took his meager belongings from the driver, and bid the man farewell. Royal Guards waited for the Hunter at the gate.
“This way, Master Hunter,” they greeted him, beckoning him to follow. He did wordlessly and they led him through the gate. Beyond was a footbridge, no wider than a single car, crossing over a wide moat. Jhase glanced surreptitiously over the sides. It was a long way down to the water, a dizzying height, he’d wager a hundred feet or more.
Beyond the footbridge was one more gate and beyond it, Jhase sucked in a sharp breath as the castle courtyard greeted him. Perfectly manicured, with great trees and bushes and a breathtaking fountain in the middle of a small pond. It was hard to believe that anyone could live in such beauty. It felt more like a museum than a home for real people. He couldn’t imagine children playing in this yard. He felt filthy and clumsy just walking through here and he’d bathed and scrubbed his boots this morning.
“If you would, please, Master Hunter,” one of the Royal Guard pointed up the short set of stairs to a large door being held open for him.
Jhase ascended and found himself in a great foyer. Twin grand staircases led up to another story and beyond that, a similar but smaller set of stairs led to yet a third story. He glanced around, taking it all in, the humble side of him amazed and enthralled, while the Hunter in him calculated entrances and exits and strategic attack points.
“Wait right there, Master Hunter,” the soldier pointed to a fancy chaise, “And Her Majesty will see you when she is ready.”
He was left alone after that. The silence was expansive, echoing off the painted stone walls and pillars. He touched the chaise, admiring its soft supple covering, but he didn’t sit down. His clothing was clean and fresh, but he still brushed some imaginary dirt off the knees and gloves, thinking that perhaps he should’ve purchased something more elegant at one of the shops in the city. At the same time though, he couldn’t deny that he was more comfortable in his Hunter’s gear.
He rubbed his shaved head, champagne eyes ceaseless as they wandered over the foyer. A hush of a door opening and the sound of quiet chatter. Jhase turned and caught two people coming out of a door from the second floor. They stopped when they saw him. A young woman and a young man, around his own age, both with blonde hair and light blue eyes. They were identical, right down to the clothing. Both of them were beautiful.
An Anchor and Spirit? Jhase thought.
“Oh!” the woman exclaimed, coming to lean over the banister, “Are you the Hunter?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jhase replied.
“Oliver,” she turned to the man next to her, “Does mother know he is here?”
He shrugged, “Shall I ask?”
The man’s form dissolved into hundreds of little orbs of light and in a heartbeat, he was gone. Jhase kept his surprise under control and bowed, “My lady,” he said, “Forgive me, I did not know I was speaking to a High Princess.”
The High Princess smiled and came around to the stairs. Jhase got a better look at her. She was dressed in a simple white long-sleeved gown that flowed with each step. Embroidered on the cuffs of the sleeves and along the hem and neckline were the colors and symbols of the Royal Family of Lyr. Her blonde hair was braided over her shoulder, with her White Kiss braided separately and entwined into the larger braid. She was stunning, but subtle.
“Forgive me, Master Hunter,” she replied, “I am not dressed for company. Mother had not been expecting you for a few more days. You are prompt,” she returned his bow, “I am Xael and my Spirit whom just left us is Oliver. What do they call you?”
“Jhase Kade, your highness.”
“Jhase. Pleasure to meet you. Are you alone for this Contract?” she asked.
“Yes,” he linked his hands behind his back, linking his fingers together to gather some control over his nerves.
“Oh,” she waved her hand in front of her face as her ears pinked, “Forgive me, you look Lyrian. I assumed you had a Spirit with you.”
“I do not.”
“I see…” she trailed off, studying him. He lifted his chin, but inside, he was shifting around awkwardly. What was she thinking? He was wearing clean clothing, freshly bathed, “You look so familiar to me. Have we met before?”
“No, my lady,” he answered, “I’d have remembered.”
“No matter,” a faraway look crossed her delicate features, “My apologies, Master Jhase, I have other things to tend to. Oliver has informed me that mother will fetch for you shortly,” she bowed to him and he returned the gesture, “I am certain we shall see each other again.”
“It’ll be my pleasure, your majesty,” he replied.
She smiled and walked away. Once she disappeared behind another door, Jhase let out the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. High Princess Xael. He knew of her, of course. She was the heir apparent to Lyr, and had three younger siblings; High Princess Lyra, High Princess Isla, and Prince Nico. He actually hadn’t thought about meeting them. He’d been so concerned with meeting Queen Adelaide that he hadn’t paused to consider her children. Of course he’d run into them at some point – he was in their home.
Jhase dropped carefully into the chaise, feeling as though his whole body was standing to attention. It was nerves talking. His first Contract as a Master, at the castle, representing the House Tiger. It was like being in the spotlight all the time. He hoped that he’d get a few moments to recalibrate in privacy after he met with Her Majesty. Maybe find a safe spot to work on some footwork or swordplay.
He snapped his head up when a door opened and quickly rose to his feet at the sound of footsteps. A woman appeared, dressed in a beautiful long sleeved gold and white gown.
Her majesty Queen Adelaide.
“Master Hunter,” she greeted him, “Welcome.”
“Your majesty,” he bowed, “I’m afraid I’m earlier than your grace expected.”
“Never,” she waved a delicate hand, “Hunters always arrive precisely when they intend to,” she was tall and willowy, like her daughter, yet with the delicate softness and regality that came with age. Her golden hair was coiled neatly on the top of her head, with her Goddess Kiss braided and tucked separately. A thin, jeweled crown rested across her forehead and disappeared into her hairline, “Come, into my study, if you will.”
Jhase followed behind her. She was the epitome of grace and dignity, defining the role of Queen in its most natural and effortless form. People spoke highly of her, that she was a queen to rival that of the Goddess herself.
The study was large and bright, with high ceilings and stained glass tucked into the walls. Queen Adelaide gestured to a chair before taking a seat herself, but he chose to remain standing. To sit would’ve required him to remove his weapons and a Hunter must always be prepared when in the presence of the Royal Family.
“You’ve traveled a long distance,” she remarked, “but T’jr is warm this time of year, comparably.”
“Yes, my lady,” he reached into his jacket and pulled out his letter of reference, “My credentials for you, if my queen wishes to read them.”
She took them from him with a smile and scanned them. He tucked his hands behind his back, crunching the leather of his gloves to outlet his nerves while he waited, “Master Jhase Kade,” she glanced up at him, “Your first Master Contract, I see.”
“Yet you come highly recommended,” she folded the paper and laid it on the table near her, “Top marks, highest in your class.”
“Excellent,” she stood and went to retrieve an envelope from her desk, “For the instructor position, the class does not start for a few more days, but you should find everything you need in here,” she handed him the envelope, “You shall have a two week window in which to teach. Is that sufficient?”
“Yes, your grace.”
Adelaide smiled, “Is this your first time in the city?”
“Then perhaps it is just as well that you have arrived early. A few days to acclimate will suit you well, I think. It is a very different environment here than in the Houses, is it not?”
“A lot more people here, your majesty,” he conceded, “And noisier.”
She laughed, “Take some time to get to know the city. It is quite charming and so full of life. There is much to be had here, that I can promise you,” she paused and cocked her head at him slightly, studying him, “You resemble someone I know,” she mused, then shook her head, “Never mind. I shall have one of my handmaidens show you to your chambers. Make yourself at home, Master Hunter.”
It took Jhase all of about two minutes to settle into his temporary quarters. Draping his hands over his hips, he glanced around.
If he were home, he’d be doing some training, or studying, or helping some of his students with their remedial lessons. He rubbed his hand over his hair and down the back of his neck and blew out a breath. Couldn’t do any of that here.
Perhaps no one would mind if he wandered around the grounds? He was a Hunter, after all, so it shouldn’t be too suspicious or anything, right?
He strapped his swords over his back once more and left his room, navigating his way down to the front door once again. He had his hand on the handle when the door was pushed open from the other side. He jumped back hastily.
“Oh! Goodness! My apologies!” High Princess Xael appeared, “Are you alright, Master Hunter?”
“Ya,” he replied, bowing to her slightly, “I was just…” behind the princess, her Spirit Oliver came through the door, followed by another young woman and Jhase lost track of his thoughts as he stared at her. She was a Princess, judging by the tiara across her forehead, identical to Xael’s and Oliver’s. A younger sibling, perhaps? Her hair was lighter, almost platinum, her White Kiss hardly recognizable among the locks, and she was smaller in stature, not as tall and willowy as Xael. Perhaps a cousin? She switched her gaze to him for the briefest of moments and he noticed her eyes were light, almost a champagne gold, unlike Xael’s, which were sky blue, and she had light freckles dappled across her nose and cheeks. She was striking. Was she beautiful? Certainly, but it wasn’t her beauty that disarmed him. In fact, he wasn’t sure what exactly…
He ripped his eyes away from her and back to Xael, “Is it alright if I wander the grounds, my princess?” he recovered his train of thought as Oliver and the young woman walked passed, towards the stairs.
“Of course!” Xael laughed, “Please, wherever you wish to go, you may. Nothing is forbidden for you here, you are a guest. Will you be joining us for supper?”
Wait, supper? With the Royal Family?
His floundering hesitation drew another small laugh from the High Princess, “Do not feel pressured, Master Hunter. Join us if you would like,” she gave him a small bow which he returned, “Enjoy your tour of the grounds.”
“Thank you,” he managed.
She nodded and walked away, following the other two and Jhase turned to watch them. The young woman whose name he didn’t know turned and glanced back at him one last time. Then she turned around and he took that as his cue. He headed out to the grounds.
That evening, Jhase examined his reflection in the looking glass. He supposed he looked alright; no one truly expected a Hunter to be dressed to the nines, right? He didn’t own anything remotely appropriate for dining with the Royal Family, so after his walk around the grounds, he’d opted to head into the city to maybe find something sporting to wear.
Not knowing even remotely where to begin, he’d gone back to the Spirits Inn. Master Hunter Anne seemed more than happy to assist him and gave him directions to a fine tailor. Just a little over an hour later, Jhase had walked out with a fine black silk shirt and a double breasted jacket with dark silver fastenings.
Killed, of course, by his heavy boots and leather-lined pants.
Ember would know what to do with his outfit. Women always knew that kind of thing.
Seeing as she wasn’t here, he had to make due on his own.
His swords lay across the thick white duvet on the bed. He considered them for a moment. Part of him didn’t want to be without them, seeing as he was in a strange place and he felt naked without them. At the same time, it was dinner, for Goddess sake. He didn’t need to be parading around with his weapons strapped on.
After some more indecision, he ultimately settled on tucking an extra knife at the base of his spine under his jacket. He also had one in each boot. With a final look in the mirror and picking some imaginary fuzz out of his hair, he called himself ready.
The Royal Family had a private dining hall that they shared together, smaller and more intimate than the larger banquet hall he’d seen earlier. He supposed it would be awkward for a family to sit down at a large banquet every night. Then again, he wasn’t sure what to expect with this dining experience either. Most of his meal-time experiences consisted of one of either extremes – loud and rambunctious, or absolute exhausted silence.
Outside the door to the dining room, he could hear the gentle rumble of voices. Nerves punched him in the gut. He could face down griffins and wraiths and even Skelliors with ease, but the idea of having a sit-down family meal with the Royal Family was wrecking havoc on his nerve endings.
He pushed open the door. The chatter stopped instantly. Nine pairs of eyes turned to him and Jhase felt the back of his neck heat. Eight pairs of bright blue eyes, and one set of light eyes, from the nameless woman he’d seen earlier with Xael and Oliver.
“Master Jhase!” Adelaide stood from where she was seated at the head of the table, “So grateful that you could join us. Come, sit,” she gestured to the seat opposite her, the other head seat of the table.
He slid gingerly into the seat and immediately, a servant was at his elbow, pouring him a glass of wine. He nodded his thanks, but didn’t touch the glass just yet. His stomach was turning too hard to think about drinking.
“Might I introduce the rest of my family?” Adelaide continued, smiling, “You are already acquainted with my oldest children, Xael and Oliver.”
“Nice to see you again, Master Jhase,” Xael greeted him.
He nodded, his throat stuck.
“This is Czar, my Spirit.”
Not surprisingly, Czar was identical to Adelaide, but with a stronger jaw and a larger build. His long blonde hair was secured at his nape with a tie. He inclined his head to Jhase in greeting.
“This is my husband Edward, and his Spirit Maxine.”
The High Prince stood and extended his left arm to Jhase, who stood up automatically to accept it. His eyes widened, “A Hunter!” he said.
Edward grinned, “A lifetime ago, it seems,” and he pulled his sleeve back to show the intricate tattoo of a Master Hunter of House Bear, “It was a viable option for my birthright at the time.”
Jhase flipped his eyes to the Light Spirit, “You as well?”
Maxine laughed lightly, “Oh, I am afraid not. As a Light Spirit, I had different training.”
He pinged his eyes back and forth between them. He’d never heard of a Pair not undertaking Hunter training together. Then again, never in his lifetime had a member of the Royal Family come through House Tiger. Not even a non-Light Spirit Pair.
“Do you still take Contracts?” he asked as he sat back down. His eyes flickered around the table, aware that everyone was watching him, especially the woman with the light eyes.
“Goddess, no,” the High Prince chuckled, “There is hardly time. It is the task of the High Prince and the Queen’s Spirit to see to the affairs of the Royal Guard. I am afraid that my Hunter skills are less needed these days. One could say I have retired from the life.”
A retired Hunter. He was just starting out on his path as an independent Master Hunter that the idea of actually someday retiring from the life seemed farfetched and mythic.
“Master Jhase,” the queen called his attention back, “Might I introduce my other children; Lyra,” she pointed to the young woman with the light eyes, “and Isla and Nico, my youngest,” the last two seated at the table were hardly teenagers, their faces still rounded with youth. Clearly a Pair, with twin-like features, still young enough to be nearly identical with the exception that Isla had plaits in her hair and Nico had his short and combed back.
Wait. He glanced back at the other woman – Lyra was her name – and she was studying him with interest. Clearly she was a sibling, as Adelaide had lumped her in with “my other children”. Was she adopted, perhaps? She looked Lyrian, but it didn’t appear she had a companion. Did she not have a companion?
But Adelaide seemed through with her introductions and had sat back down in her seat.
The servants began to bring in the first course and over their salads, Xael addressed him, “How has your first day in the capital been, Master Jhase?”
“Busy,” he replied, “There’s a lot to see here.” in truth, he felt a little lost, despite there being so much excitement. The interruption to the routine of the House that’d been his whole life had left him rattled.
“It is busy at the House of Hunters?” Lyra asked him, leaning forward slightly, her champagne golden eyes alight. Those eyes were so fascinating, bright and clear, with flecks of blue and brown.
“Always,” he answered her, forgetting about his salad for the moment, “Teaching, chores, practice, Contracts, lessons, there’s always something to do.”
“So you still have lessons?” she continued, “Even though you are a Master?”
“Of course. Gotta keep my skills sharp. Don’t use it, you lose it.”
“What are your plans now? What do Hunters do, when they are promoted to Masters?”
“Well,” he hedged, “They can do lots of different things, I suppose. Take Contracts, teach, roam the country, hire themselves out, or slide into a cozy job in the military or the Royal Guard.”
“The Royal Guard is hardly cozy…” someone muttered, “Training all the time, forced to be still and guard and do nothing…”
Jhase ripped his gaze away from Lyra as people around the table chuckled and other conversations began. Oliver was explaining to Nico that all the training was good for him – it must’ve been the young Spirit who claimed it to be boring – and Czar was telling Nico that he’d change his mind.
“Mother wouldn’t let me be a Hunter…” Nico muttered to Jhase.
“She knows you would not last three days as a Hunter,” Isla tutted at him, “You are far too needy.”
“What? Needy?” he exclaimed, “Who cried last week because Lyra borrowed her third favorite pair of white leather boots and scuffed them?”
“I apologized for that!” Lyra scoffed.
“That’s hardly the issue, Nico!” Isla exclaimed.
“Seriously though, Master Hunter, do you even own three pairs of leather boots? Much less white ones?” Nico asked him pointedly.
“I have two black pairs,” Jhase allowed, “One for colder weather, and one for warmer.”
“See? It’s not practical to have more than that. Do any of the female Hunters own white leather boots?”
“I need those white leather boots, you know!” Isla interjected.
Jhase fought a small smirk, “Never seen a pair of white leather boots.”
Nico held up his hands, “See? And they say I am the needy one. Honestly.”
There was laughter and conversation after that, punctuated only by the servants bringing out food courses. Jhase allowed himself to relax, to drink a single glass of wine – fine Jayanti wine, even – and watched the interesting family dynamic around him. It felt surreal to him, to see the Royal Family so normalized. They were always painted as beautiful, legendary leaders, regal and revered. But their dining space was lively, their relationship with each other intimate and lovely – though more proper than he was still accustomed to. No one had resorted to throwing food at each other just yet – and it was odd to see such frivolity among them.
Nico loved to argue. Jhase discovered very quickly that the young boy was sharp and witty. Despite what his Anchor might think, Nico would’ve made a fine Hunter, in Jhase’s professional opinion. Isla liked to argue with him, but she was far more easily flustered over it. Xael and Oliver were the quiet ones, seeming preferring to watch, much like Jhase was. Adelaide was quiet too. Czar was stoic and serious, but sharp as well, and he had this voice that shut everyone up rather quickly, though Nico turned the conversation around to some other topic with hardly any downtime. Edward and Maxine – or Maxi, as she liked to be called – were animated and jovial, and Maxi enjoyed egging Nico on a little with his topics.
Jhase found himself watching Lyra the most, during the whole dinner. She was curious and bright, and when she would lean towards him to ask him a question, he found that the other diners vanished, and it was just the two of them in deep conversation about nothing. It wasn’t like when he was speaking to Adelaide or Xael; she didn’t fluster him. He simply found himself completely engaged in her company.
Which was odd, because as a rule, he didn’t fancy himself much of a “friend maker”.
The elaborate, but light dinner was topped off with the servants passing out a fancy dessert paired with delicious coffee. Jhase examined his plate and resisted the urge to poke it. It was a cold, white lump of something, garnished with chocolate and fruit.
“Is something the matter, Jhase?” Lyra asked.
He flipped his eyes to her, “What is it?” he asked quietly. Everyone else seemed to be in conversation, chatting and eating.
“It is ice cream,” she frowned slightly, a little crease appearing between her dark blonde brows, “Have you not had ice cream before?”
He shook his head and studied his dessert again. He’d heard of ice cream before, but never had an opportunity to see it, let alone eat it. He supposed the ingredients weren’t readily available at the house. Simple chocolate was a delicacy.
“Try it,” she told him, “And if it does not suit you, I shall eat it for you,” she grinned a little.
He watched her for a moment, watching as she used her spoon to carve out a scoop and pop it into her mouth. He mimicked the gesture. It was freezing, thick and sugary, with a sharp bite under it. It melted in his mouth almost instantly. He swallowed.
“That’s…” he struggled to think of a word to describe it, “… rich.”
“It is my favorite. So creamy.”
He pushed his towards her, “Here, princess. Enjoy.”
After dessert and a final mug of coffee, Jhase thanked the Queen for the dinner and excused himself from the table. His day had been long and busy, and he found that the interruption to his routine was exhausting.
He tucked himself into the lush bed with a book, but his thoughts kept getting interrupted by Lyra. Lyra, with her champagne eyes and bright, curious face. He found himself captivated by her. What was it about her? She didn’t fluster him; in fact, he almost seemed to have more of his wits about him when he was talking to her than say, Xael or Adelaide.
Jhase always thought he had a hard time opening up around people, but apparently not Lyra. He was, well, at ease talking to her.
His dreams were filled with lights and vague, senseless memories. And in the morning, he had nothing more than impressions and a whispering itch in the back of his mind.