Wilhelm followed Lilita to a narrow space between two buildings and Lilita stopped at a door built into one of them. It did not appear to be a proper entrance with the lack of space around it, but Wilhelm was not going to risk an argument with Lilita now for fear that she would send him away or change her mind and return later, alone.
A few quick, light knocks on the door resulted in its opening abruptly. Inside was dark and full of warmth, the room smelling of pleasant spices. Zofia, shrouded in shadows, brought them into a room just off of the narrow hallway they had entered through. The room was faintly lit with small, poorly placed candles. She would do far better illuminating the room by rearranging the flames.
“I am glad you came,” Zofia said to Lilita. “It surprises me to see your prince again so soon.”
They both looked at Wilhelm. He tried to stay quiet. He wished for them to forget his presence and discuss candidly whatever matter they intended on.
“You have seen something new?” Lilita asked.
“I have.” Zofia’s voice deepened, and her silhouetted figure straightened.
“What is it?”
Zofia sighed, stalling. “It is not something we will look forward to.”
She waited so long to continue, it seemed as if that was all she was going to say. Zofia shot a glance at Wilhelm, hesitant. “Tell me,” Lilita said.
“The moon will be at its brightest tonight, the spirits will be restless.”
Lilita scrunched her brow, considering the information. “Zofia, this is not anything new,” Lilita said.
“No,” Zofia admitted. “But tonight they will be in search of something, and someone will get in their way.”
“Someone will stop the spirits?”
“The spirits cannot be stopped. Not through ordinary means.”
“Was there anything else?”
They stood in silence, the weight of the information hanging in the air around them. Wilhelm could not piece it together. They were worried over spirits. Never before had he heard such nonsense. A spirit losing something. Someone interfering. None of it made any sense to him, nor could he see any reason it should make sense to either of them.
“We should return to the feast,” Lilita finally said.
“Be vigilant this evening, princess.”
They were finished. That was all they needed to tell one another and, even though they did not speak of it further,
As they exited through the narrow hallway, Wilhelm could still feel the cryptic information weighing on them. He glanced back to see Zofia closing her door behind them. Lilita did not offer any explanation about what Zofia had told her as they returned to the feast.
“What was that?” Wilhelm asked, unable to ignore it any longer.
She did not look at him.
“That warning. Tell me what it meant.”
“It is nothing you should be concerned with.”
“Well it is something I am concerned with.”
“It is not yours to worry over.”
“We are engaged to be married. If it is something for you to worry over then it is something for me to worry over.”
Lilita stopped at that. She looked as surprised as Wilhelm felt. They had made hardly any connection with one another, yet he felt a need to keep her safe. He told himself it was for Gavelon and dismissed the thought.
“Zofia has special talents. And it is with those talents that she has come to believe something is going to happen tonight. Something bad.”
“’Talents?’ You mean she has magic.”
Lilita neither confirmed nor denied the statement.
“And you trust her? That her talents are real and her visions are accurate?”
“I trust Zofia with my life.”
Wilhelm could not believe it. She actually thought Zofia had magic and could see the future. This girl was full of nonsense, yet nothing about her gave him any impression that she was joking.
“So what is going to happen? Tonight.”
“I do not know exactly, but the spirits will be among us, and at least one of them will be dangerous.”
Wilhelm saw the fear in her eyes, pushing through her composure. She wanted him to believe her. Beneath all that, Wilhelm could see that she truly believed it herself, and how much it troubled her.
“I will not allow any harm to come to you,” he said.
“Let us hope no harm comes to either of us.” She turned away from him, “we should join our parents.”
They went to the table their parents were sat at and joined the still laughing group.
They sat and talked through the afternoon. As the food was eaten and fresh food was being brought out to replace it, the sweet smell of berries and the enticing scents of poultry and pork turned bitter and earthy. Even in their haze of wine and too much food already consumed, people began to notice. Noses worked at the smells, trying to determine the source of such a foul odor.
The smell caught Wilhelm’s nose at the same moment it caught Queen Frieda’s. They looked about confused, trying to trace where it was coming from. Everyone else in the group noticed the smell just after they noticed Wilhelm and Frieda’s scrunched up faces.
Everyone was sniffing about for the smell, but it was Ehren who spoke the source first. “King Nikolai, I do not wish to be rude at your generosity, but I do believe your food is most foul.”
Nikolai leaned closer to the food on the table that had just been brought out, as did Queen Valya. They discovered that Ehren was correct in his observation.
“Who did this?” King Nikolai asked, quite obviously outraged. “Where is that serving boy?”
“Nikolai,” Valya said, sounding far away. Her hand landed gently on his arm, but her eyes were scanning the tables around them. Everyone had noticed the foul food as it was on every table in the field.
Nikolai’s mouth fell open as he saw how much rotten food there was. A serving girl was passing by with another tray as he was looking around, much to her misfortune.
“You there,” he pointed at her, everyone in earshot looking on as the girl stopped in her tracks startled by the shout. “Explain yourself.”
“I-” The girl stammered, visibly shaking. “I have a fresh platter of cheeses.” She held out her plate for them to see the food laid out on it. Slices of cheese, sprinkled with berries. The food looked fine at first glance, but as they moved closer to her, they could tell that it was clearly not fine for consumption.
“Why would you bring something of this quality out to a table?”
“It did not look like that when I brought it out. Honest.”
Nikolai looked furious at such a ridiculous claim. That the food had turned in the time it took her to carry it from the kitchen to the field.
He marched to the edge of the field, shoulders held tight beside his neck, mouth scrunched up as he mumbled something unpleasant sounding.
Valya was quick to follow, then Penrod, tailed closely by Frieda and Ehren. Wilhelm looked at Lilita, still beside him. Her eyes were concerned, but she had not moved to see the source of the rotting food being brought to the guests.
Wilhelm got up to see for himself what could have caused such a disaster and Lilita promptly got up with him. They followed their parents to the kitchens where Nikolai was already letting the cooks know just how rude and disrespectful and unacceptable their behaviour had been.
“But sire, I assure you. We did not send out any spoiled food,” one of the cooks defended.
“No? Then tell me, what is this?” Nikolai motioned at a plate filled with rotting meat.
“I swear, sire, that was freshly roasted only moments ago.”
“You can freshly roast rotten meat all you like, but it will not unspoil it.”
“It wasn’t spoilt, sire. Was only butchered this morning.”
“And I suppose these berries were picked fresh this morning as well?” Nikolai held up a large bowl of fruit that had grown fuzz such an unappetizing color no one could mistake it for anything edible.
The cook looked shocked at what she was seeing. Everyone else in the kitchen looked on with the same horror.
“Are you saying that before we arrived in this kitchen, all of this food was of fine quality?” Valya asked just as firmly, but more nicely than Nikolai had.
“Yes madam, honest. Everything was as fresh as could be. We worked tirelessly all day on this feast. We would never do anything to risk ruining it.”
Nikolai was about to snap again when Valya interrupted him with a look.
“The servant claimed the same,” she said.
Nikolai let off a bit of the tension that had gathered in his shoulders and replaced the reddening look on his face with sudden realization.
“King Nikolai,” Penrod said. “You believe these claims?”
Nikolai turned to face Penrod slowly, as if he needed his guests faces to remind him what he was meant to be doing. “I will see to the matter,” Nikolai finally said. “The games will begin soon, I would feel terrible if you missed them to see me sort out such things with my kitchen staff.”
“No trouble at all, I’d prefer it if we got a look at how you rule your people first hand,” Penrod said.
“No, no, I insist. The search for the flowering fern is tonight. It only happens one night a year. And what a marvelous way to start off the festival. I insist you go and participate.”
“The search for the flowering fern?” Penrod asked.
“Yes, of course,” Valya said. “Every year on this night our people go into the forests in search of the legendary flowering fern. It is said that whomever may find it will receive their greatest wish.”
“What sort of fern grants wishes?”
“Well we have not found it yet,” Valya giggled awkwardly. “But that is how the legend goes. It’s an old tradition, I am sure it seems silly to foreigners, but it is one we are always sure to honor.”
“Lilita,” Nikolai said. “You should take Wilhelm into the forest. I’m sure he has some marvelous tracking skills. Surely you two can find that fern together.”
“Would I not be more use to you here?” Lilita asked.
“No, your mother and I can handle this. Go, enjoy the rest of the night.”
Lilita hesitated before backing out of the group to exit the kitchen. Wilhelm followed her when neither of his parents spoke against it. He lingered long enough to overhear Valya convincing Penrod to go with Frieda. It was more telling than convincing, and she was attempting to send Ehren off as well when Wilhelm could no longer hear their voices carrying down the corridor.
“We are meant to go to the forest to find a plant that no one has ever seen before?”
“It is a long held tradition of my people.”
“And if we find it we will be granted a wish?”
“That is how the legend goes.”
Wilhelm did not press the matter when he noticed Lilita’s brow furrowed with concern. She was no more thrilled than he was about being sent off to partake in a game when the feast was being sabotaged. He remembered Zofia’s warning and, while he still did not believe this to be the work of spirits, considered if she was the reason Lilita was so willing to obey and leave the castle grounds.