It had been a while since Buck had seen so many stars. Normally if he was out this late he was staring up at fire displays that blotted them out, or blearily watching his feet as he stumbled home drunk. As opposed to heading home, tonight seemed barely halfway done with. He was stood in the centre of the marketplace. It was silent of course, as all vendors, banana or otherwise would have been tucked up in bed. Well, one or two may have been at the banquet, which was probably just finishing up.
Victane had brought the note to the treehouse not long after Buck and his friends had got back. It had been a hurried scrawl from Pires saying she'd meet him in the marketplace after the banquet. Buck wasn't sure if it was possible to tell tone from handwriting, but Pires's at least didn't look any different from normal. Then again, how furious at him was she if she wanted to meet so far from any witnesses. Shuddering, Buck looked around at the wide, exposed plains and moved slightly closer to Misene.
"I think that might be her," Rydone said, pointing at the gap in the mound back towards the city centre.
Buck squinted at the figure hurrying along the path. That threw him off for a moment; Pires always walked with a long stride, but it was slow, deliberate. Besides, this person was wearing a knitted shawl pulled tight around them, maybe brown or faun coloured, but it was hard to tell even with all these stars.
After a while she got close enough that Buck could see her face and recognised her easily; he saw that face every day. And it he wasn't going mad from sleep deprivation, she seemed to be smiling.
"Bucket, hello," she said, rushing up to him and wrapping her arms around him.
Buck caught Misene's gaze as he moved away, but his eyes were as wide with confusion too.
"Uh, hi," Buck said, as Pires pulled away. She straightened her shawl and the robe beneath, and stood very stiffly, facing directly away from the city. The shawl was a few shades lighter than her skin and blended in with the moonlit grass well.
"Oh right," she said, "The paper was too small to explain in the note. As you may have guessed, I'm not actually cross with you."
"I... had not guessed," Buck said. "How should I have?"
"I suppose I did shout rather loudly," Pires said, chewing her bottom lip. "Well, rest easy in the knowledge that everything is going according to plan."
"What plan?" Rydone exclaimed, stepping up to Buck's side. "Uh, my lady."
"Well, it's not like I told Buck in advance," Pires said, squinting at Rydone. "But you can't have thought I'd have let things get this out of control."
"Uh, I guess not," Buck said. His eyes stung from sleepiness and his mind was a little fuzzy, but he figured that made sense.
"Anyways, the plan's going perfectly," Pires said, rubbing her hands together. "Basically, at the end of the meeting you were in the ceiling for, Erson was incredibly strict about how under no circumstances was there to be talk of potential marriage for him. He didn't say why."
"Yeah, I've heard... now," Buck said.
"Yes, I kept that back so you wouldn't think it was a lost cause," Pires said.
"Well, clearly it was!" Buck exclaimed. "You had to banish me! That's game over."
"Ah, but Buck, think of the long game." Pires stuck her index finger up in the air. "That game is very much still going. Erson's mother is the one who keeps trying to press marriage on him, so now that I've defended his right to be left alone, I may well be his favourite person in the entire kingdom."
"Okay..." Buck frowned and took a deep breath, desperately trying to process this. "But you're still not his wife."
"Long game, remember. In the long run, we will get your father back," Pires said. She stopped shifting around and pulling her shawl and robe. Steadily holding Buck's gaze, she said, "Are you still in?"
Buck ran his hand down his face. "What would you want me to do? You banished me! What can I do?"
"I did banish you - everyone saw it - and I need you to go far away from here. I need you to go north, find a place in Erson's court, and one day, when he's ready to not snap off a person's head at the mention of marriage, send him back here," Pires said. She pursed her lips. "If you end up in a position to maybe nudge him in that direction, that wouldn't be the worst thing."
Buck screwed up his eyes and glanced from one friend to the other. Both seemed to be seething, which was obvious from Rydone's glare, but he knew Misene well enough to know that when he held one arm with the other hand like that it was because he was preventing himself from punching someone.
"I must still be missing something. He'll recognise me?" Buck squeezed his eyes shut then opened them again. "I'm awake, I swear."
"He won't recognise you if you behave like a northern courtier," Pires said. "Wipe off your face paint, dress in greys and browns and stop carrying a bucket everywhere you go and it'll never even occur to him."
"Oh god... choral music..." Buck mumbled. He pushed his hair out of his eyes. "Right, okay, say I do this. I can come back some day?"
"Of course. When Erson is happy I'm sure your talk of marriage won't cut so near to the bone," Pires said.
"But not til then?" Buck asked.
"I see... Well, in that case I'm not sure I have a choice," Buck said, rubbing the back of his neck.
"Of course you do!" Rydone whirled around to face him. "You could go anywhere! Find a different court, go live with your mum, anything."
Buck sighed. "There's no court like this one, and can you imagine me as a shepherd? No... I will do it."
"Wonderful!" Pires exclaimed.
Buck watched her smile, then said, "But I'm taking the bucket."