The sultry evening light filtered through the stained glass windows of the royal chamber, illuminating the specks of dust that hung heavy in the air.
The woman in red flicked her eyes back and forth across every surface as she stalked her way towards the throne, the look of distaste on her face growing ever more visible with every passing second. When at last she arrived, she flicked one plump finger across the armrest and threw a tantrum more befitting a six-year-old than a lady of her years.
Barely a second later, a wiry figure resolved itself from the shadows at one edge of the room and hurried forwards, whilst bowing profusely and trying to make soothing noises. The fact that this made him look rather like a chicken pecking at the ground had presumably been noticed before, as the man sported a hairpiece that - although impressive - would have far better suited a cockerel.
The lady paused to inspect herself in one of the many mirrors that adorned her throne room whilst the servant busied himself with the cleaning. Her eyes beheld the reflection of her unglamorous waistline, and she sighed. Two years on the road, two years of riding all day and eating travellers' food, and she hadn't lost even a tiny bit of weight.
The Duchess struck a pose, and smiled. At least if she couldn't manage 'thin' she could certainly manage 'imposing'.
"If you might pardon the cluck introduction, my Lady, your throne is now cluck fit to hold your most highly esteemed presence."
She turned, and grinned as she saw her servant's ridiculous posture. He was bowing from the waist, his entire upper body bobbing slightly as his ancient muscles stressed and fretted.
"Thank you, Mister Chicken," the Duchess replied. "Now, summon the Court. One has returned home - and when one returns home, one returns home in style!"
The musicians arrived first, arranging themselves on the lowest part of the floor to the Duchess' left, and began to play a calm melody. Next came the lady's advisor, who knelt to one side of her and whispered urgently in her ear; then her two sons who sat to her other side; then lord after lord, lady after lady made their way into the chamber and milled around expectantly.
Within a few minutes, the place was full of so many nobles, retainers, musicians and serving staff that the floor might have all but disappeared.
before long the music quietened, and a trumpet blew abruptly. All heads bar the Duchess' turned to face the herald. At last there was quiet, and he began his announcement.
"All rise, for her ladyship Duchess Regara of House Poppy!"
Out in the stables of the castle, the horses that the nobles of house Poppy had ridden for so long were relishing the almost palpable taste of home almost as much as they were relishing their generous helping of hay.
All except one, anyway.
One horse lay down as if to sleep, snorted, flickered, and the air shimmered around it for a moment.
A hand reached up and unlatched the stable door, a mop of brown hair and two green eyes poked out, and with a split-second flash of faun he was gone.
The stable door clattered shut in the slowly gathering spring breeze.
A few moments later, in the kitchens, a faun ducked down behind one of the huge cooking ranges and uncorked a vial of black liquid...
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