The stable was a small outbuilding, easy enough to find. As she walked in, she found Jaeni feeding an apple to a chestnut mare.
“Hello, Jaeni. Do we have two horses ready to go out for a ride?”
The servant girl turned toward her, looking surprised. “Two horses?”
“Yes. I need somebody who knows the country, so you’ll need to come along.”
Jaeni looked thoughtful. “If you don’t mind my asking, ma—Lirya, how much horseback riding have you done?”
“I learned to ride pretty well when I was a girl. After I moved to the city...” Lirya trailed off “...I haven’t really had any chances for the last seven years.”
For a moment, Jaeni looked like she was about to say something, but thought better of it. Instead, she remarked, “I don’t think you ever really forget, but just in case you should probably take one of the calmer horses.” She patted the muzzle of the horse in front of her. “Mandie ought to do just fine.”
“All right.” She waited while the servant girl fastened Mandie’s saddle into place, and then selected a grey mare for herself. They led the horses out the door. Lirya tentatively put a foot into the stirrup, and pulled herself up. Some of her old skill had stayed with her after all, she thought. She looked down and saw Jaeni, looking a bit tense and worried as if half-expecting her to fall to the ground at any moment.
She smiled reassuringly. “See, I’m fine!”
Her companion smiled back and mounted her own horse, quickly and gracefully. She began riding toward the gate.
“Just a minute.” Jaeni brought her horse back around. “Tell me what it’s like out there.”
“Tell you? In a few minutes, you’ll see for yourself.”
“Right now, I’d rather hear you describe it.”
Jaeni thought a moment. “It’s... pretty, all green and wild and open. There’s about a mile of open grasslands and wildflowers between here and the hill. Around the side of the hill there’s a two hundred foot high cliff with a waterfall. It should be really impressive today, after all the rain lately.”
“I’d like to see that.”
“I thought you would; we’ll ride there and back.” Lirya nodded. “Just watch out if you get close. It kicks up lot of spray where it hits the rocks, and you have to stay on the rocks or else you’ll slip in the mud.” She patted her saddlebag. “I packed a couple of spare cloaks, just in case.”
She paused. “They say there used to be one great big rock jutting out of the middle of the falls, until it fell down about two hundred years ago. The stories say it was the exact moment Emperor Kranor the Great fell in battle. The rainbows that shine over the falls when the sun hits them just right are supposed to be a promise from the gods that one day the Empire will be great again.”
Lirya remembered hearing that legend. It had seemed very impressive to a little farm girl fascinated by her mother’s tales of the old days. It didn’t mean so much to a young woman all alone in the city.
She smiled ruefully. Lately, promises from the gods didn’t seem quite so empty.
The description went on. “Back behind the falls, there’s a grotto in the cliff. It’s tricky to get to, and you’ll get wet, but it’s worth it. It’s all shiny and full of colors, with little bits of quartz in the walls picking up the sunlight that comes through the waterfall.”
“Sounds lovely.” Lirya grinned happily. “Let’s go see!” She turned her horse down the path and encouraged it to a quick walk; her companion followed along.
It sounds like such a lovely place, all isolated and romantic. She’ll be in wet clingy clothes... or maybe I can convince her that it makes more sense to leave our clothes behind. I can bring one of the saddlebags, and spread a spare cloak for us to lie on....
This pleasant daydream was interrupted as she saw an approaching carriage. The driver waved to get the riders’ attention.
“I have a message for Lirya Treluvar.”
“Lady Malyenne requests that you join her at court at once. She sent this carriage for you.”
Lirya turned to Jaeni and sighed. “I’ll have to explore your grotto some other time.” She began to climb down; Jaeni did the same. “No, no; I can manage. Lead my horse back to the villa and tell everyone that I’ll be away.”
As soon as she sat down in the carriage, it turned around and headed toward the main road. She settled in for the trip; it was two-hour ride back to the capital.
“Are you thirsty, ma’am?”
“A little. And don’t call me ‘ma’am’.”
The driver handed her a wineskin. She took a drink.
Suddenly, the driver cursed, “Demons’ balls!” He turned back to Lirya and said, “I apologize. I shouldn’t use such language in front of a lady.”
Lirya rolled her eyes. She’d heard worse every day for years.
“I was supposed to deliver this at the villa. Might I trouble you to take charge of it?”
He handed her a little crystal ball. It shone colorfully, like Jaeni’s description of the rocks in the cave. It was difficult to tell if it was picking up the sunlight or glowing within.
“Lovely thing, isn’t it? Your eyes just keep getting drawn in deeper and deeper, following the colors.”
That was true. She didn’t notice anything except the swirling colors inside the ball.
As her eyes closed, she saw the colors, until even that awareness faded away.