Surprising a horse is unfortunately easy. Despite their size, horses can be skittish creatures, and startling one is generally a bad idea for all involved.
Talking horses, it turned out, were less anxious than the standard variety and had, Anna decided, the most adorable expressions when they were met with a circumstance they weren’t expecting.
“You are very composed,” the tan horse said, her words slow and considered.
“Are you in fact human?” the dark brown horse asked.
They were gazing at her with their heads twisted slightly to the side, the easier for an animal with side mounted eyes to view someone.
“You are not the first ones to ask that question,” Anna said, declining to answer further as a negotiating tactic. They hadn’t answered her question and until they did she didn’t intend to be overly forthcoming with information.
“Our apologies,” the tan horse said. “Introductions! I am Duchess Luq and my companion is Duke Wellbagun.”
“Our missive arrived successfully?” Duke Wellbagun asked.
“Yes, your courier accomplished their aim precisely,” Anna said. “Both in delivering your letter and piquing our interest. I must confess that I expected to find a rather different layout for your estate though.”
“This is not our estate,” Duchess Luq said. “Our lands are beyond this abode. They begin at the line of the trees you see behind us.”
“Can we discuss your situation freely here or do we need to adjourn to where Ms. Royal cannot see us?” Anna asked, nodding to the farmhouse where the farm’s owner, Teri Royal, Tam and Val had retired to search for a letter from the Sunset Isle.
“Teri knows we are not what we appear to be, but she is not fully informed as to our nature and purpose,” Duke Wellbagun said. “It is easiest for all if we ensure circumstances remain as such.”
“What we have to request will require some delicacy as well,” Duchess Luq said. “If you ask to take us for a walk along the brook path, Teri will understand and we may welcome you properly.”
“While we await her return, perhaps you can describe the general scope of the issues you wish our help with,” Anna said. “Your letter requested aid in political negotiations but the Sunset Isles are not a sovereignty I am familiar with.”
That was a partial truth. James had briefed them on a number of mythical realms that had been referred to as the Sunset Isles but whether any of them were the ones the talking horses hailed from remained an open question.
“Our King and Queen will be arriving here shortly,” Duchess Luq said. “Within a few days. We are their advance guard, and have preceded them by several years. They expect us to have answer to the problem which besets our homeland, but despite our years of research we have made no headway on the issue.”
“We have not been idle though,” Duke Wellbagun said. “We have sought after parties and personages who could aid us since we first set our hooves on this shore. We believed we had made an ally in a human financier but within the last week, just when time became the most essential, he vanished, taking the funds we had developed with him.”
Anna shook her head. Years of planning ruined and only a few days to make up for it? That certainly sounded like a scenario the Second Chance Club would be called in for.
Before she could reply however, she saw Teri leading her two friends back from the main house.
“She was right,” Val said. “The Sunset Isle’s letters are very pretty.” She showed Val a note written in beautiful calligraphy and golden ink.
“The writing is similar to the one we received,” Tam said.
“I see you’ve been making friends,” Teri said, glancing at the horses with a smile.
“Yes, they are finely built,” Anna said. “I see you have some riding trails in the woods. Would we be able to take them out?”
Teri exchange another look with the horses, who both nodded in a very human-like manner.
“If you’re willing to give them some exercise, you’d be saving me a load of work,” Teri said.
Tam and Val exchanged puzzled glances but kept silent, trusting that Anna had her reasons for the request she’d made.
In short order, the two horses were fitted with riding gear and Tam and Val were mounted on them. Teri offered a third horse but Anna protested that she needed to get some walking in herself and instead chose to lead the two horses and their riders back into the ‘brook path’ which Duchess Luq had spoken of.
“You’re lands begin here?” she asked as the party crossed the boundary into the forest.
“Yes,” Duchess Luq said. “Though we will not be upon our own soil for another quarter mile from here.”
Tam simply blinked at the revelation that she was riding a talking horse, where Val’s jaw dropped open in astonishment.
“You mentioned a problem which is afflicting your homeland,” Anna said, confident the other two would be able to catch up to what was going on from the context of what was being said.
“Yes, the Sunset Isles are dying,” Duchess Luq said.
“It is a slow, withering condition, but one which must be addressed,” Duke Wellbagun said.
“Please forgive my manners,” Anna said. “Duchess Luq, and Duke Wellbagun, please meet my associates Ms Le Li Tam, and Ms. Valentina Perez. Tam, Val, Their Graces, the representatives of the Sunset Isles.”
“A pleasure to meet you,” Tam said, replacing a formal bow with a deep nod, which Val copied.
“The pleasure is all ours,” Duchess Luq said.
Typically when one met a personage of note, one was not riding on that person’s back, but any awkwardness in the situation didn’t seem to register on the Duchess or Duke’s consciousness. Each seemed more concerned about the matter at hand than following the proper formalities of rank, whatever those might have been.
“You said that you were working with a financier?” Anna said. “And that he has disappeared with the funds you entrusted to him?”
“Indeed,” Duke Wellbagun said. “We are less concerned with the funds however and more focused on the plans they were meant to support.”
“What purpose was the money supposed to be put towards?” Anna asked.
The brook path was a lovely sun dappled lane, less overgrown that it should have been given the lack of visible pruning or other human maintenance it showed.
“Mr. Steele, our financier, had proposed building an amusement park with the wealth we provided to him,” Duchess Luq said.
Anna was silent for a moment, calculating the scale of the funds involved and the various methods of embezzlement that might have been employed to prevent the money from being reclaimed the instant the theft was noticed.
“Pardon me,” Val asked, taking pains to be clear and polite, “Why were you building an amusement park. What sort of crisis is your home country facing?”
“It will be easier to show you, I believe,” Duchess Luq said. “Around that bend in the path, if you willing travel with us that far, and are willing to step onto our land for a time, we can make our needs much clearer.”
Tam’s gaze instantly shot to Anna, who met her eyes and nodded. Things that led you into the woods were far from always being safe, or sensible, to follow but there was a case to resolve and running away was not going to get the job done.
“We would be delighted to join you as your guests,” Tam said. It wasn’t precisely a magic spell, but the Laws of Hospitality were shared across many cultures and were sometimes stronger and more binding than the most powerful enchantment.
“Thank you,” Duke Wellbagun said.
“As you have no doubt guessed,” Duches Luq said as they approached the bend. “We are not quite as we might appear to you.”
On the far side of the path, the sun fell through the treetops in great gold shafts. The air took on an electric tingle and gained the scents of a thousand distant flowers. Birds with wings splashed in a kaleidoscope of colors flitted from the tree limbs to the bushes and back again. And the horses Tam and Val rode on were horses no more.
Duchess Luq and Duke Wellbagun were still equine in form, but from the center of their foreheads long spiral horns rose, shining with an iridescent light.
Anna wasn’t entirely surprised by the reveal. Once she’d accepted that there were talking horses, making the leap to believe in unicorns required a comparatively small effort. Val’s struggles with comprehending what she was seeing were more difficult, in part perhaps because she’d had less time to assimilate the idea of the Duchess and Duke as being intelligent beings.
Tam, on the other hand, didn’t seem to notice the change in her steed at all.
“We’re not on Earth anymore are we?” she asked, point up to a large hole in the canopy where two suns hung in the sky.
“These lands are a shared realm,” Duchess Luq said, her voice all liquid joy and soft light.
“We established an embassy in this domain,” Duke Wallbagun said, his voice as deep as the rolling ocean and as gentle as a warm blanket. “The sky above us is a shared heaven, just as the ground we walk upon is mixed from parts of your world and parts of ours.”
“How is that possible?” Val asked.
“We are creatures of many worlds, and many forms,” Duchess Luq said. “It is part of our nature to exist in Wonder, and so we shaped this tiny island of home to reflect who we are.”
“This mixed realm is tiny you say?” Anna asked. “Is it the extent of the changes you can make, or can you work an effect like this on a grander scale?”
“If we were illusion casters, the magic spent on this embassy could have covered your world, but that is not our way,” Duke Wellbagun said. “This small piece of home cost us dearly, but has also provided for us well. We can expand it not even a single pace in any direction though.”
“Is that why you wanted to build an amusement park?” Tam asked. “As a spot where you could foster wonder in the world?”
“That was related to our aim,” Duchess Luq said. “The Sunset Isles were a refuge of delight and amazement for ages, but something has been eating away at them, slowing draining the color from their borders and leaving both the living and the inanimate brittle in its wake.”
“We paid no attention to the change at first,” Duke Wellbagun said. “The borders of our realm were so broad and far flung that we rarely visited them, and never concerned ourselves with what might lay beyond. Not until the Great Feasting Hall at Moon’s Landing crumbled and fell into the sea did we perceive the peril that was encroaching upon us.”
“We are not the only ones our King and Queen dispatched to search for a solution,” Duchess Luq said. “All of the nobility were sent out to search the worlds we had left behind. We hoped this Earth might hold the key to breathing new life into ours, but it seems that we have misplayed our one chance.”
“I thought you said the blight was progressing slowly?” Val asked.
“It was growing more pervasive every day when we left,” Duke Wellbagun said.
“More urgently though, with the failure of this enterprise, our King and Queen will never wish to invest time and resources into pursuing a plan here which isn’t guaranteed to work,” Duchess Luq said. “Not after the reports we provided which spoke so glowingly of our chances and the kindness of those we had met.”
“That is what we must request of you,” Duke Wellbagun said. “Will you be our go between and can you find other sponsors who would be willing to support our endeavor?”
“Oh, I believe we can do a good deal more than that,” Anna said, plans and schemes percolating furiously in her mind.