Sharde scratched his ear, knocking the metal band on his brow off center slightly. Making slow movements, he glanced at the set of tags in his paw, then put one with a wave shape inked upon it down on the table. He couldn't help biting at his lip in anticipation.
"Ha!" a young otter across the table from him grinned cheekily and slapped down her own slip of parchment on top of Sharde's card. It had a sandy scene painted on it. "You botched your play! I win!" She sat back satisfactorily, plucking a crepe wrap from a small stone plate and popped the whole thing into her mouth. Biting down on it released a flush of tart berry juices in a burst, and she let out a taunting sigh of delight.
The older otter sniffed peevishly, "You little sneak. How do you keep winning, Tasia?"
"I know your tell! It's too easy!" Upon Tasia leaning back down against table, goading Sharde with a grin, a card slipped from her fore-arm brace. It skimmed the air and landed right in front of Sharde.
"My tell, eh?" he snatched it up, cocking an eyebrow at his daughter.
"Agh!" she swiped at the card. Her ears reddened with mischievous guilt. "Hehe, I never meant any harm..."
Sharde glanced at what was left of the crepe wraps on the plate and lunged forward to pull the plate out of Tasia's reach, "The rest of these are mine, little cheater! Ha!"
"I'm not a cheat! I call it creative game play. Come on," she sidled around the table, trying to grab at the plate. Sharde used his hefty tail to hold her away as he ate eat crepe torturously before her eyes. Tasia let out a small growl, "You are cruel!"
"Cheaters never win," Sharde said matter-of-factly, and with a flourish he waved the last crepe in the air.
Tasia puckered her lips into a pout, her last resort. Her wide cocoa eyes were enough to melt the resolve of anyone, and her father was no different, "Pleeeeeeeassse?" With the sigh of one wrapped around her paw, Sharde couldn't resist her pleading and he handed over the remaining treat resentfully.
"No more games, you have duties to attend to," Sharde said sharply.
She poked her tongue out at him childishly, "Pfttt..."
"NOW," her father commanded firmly. Tasia giggled and flounced towards the door of the family hall, but as she was about to grab the handle it burst open and she had to dodge out of the way as an otter guard stumbled in.
"Sire! There's an urgent situation! The captain sent me to fetch you," he gasped, half out of breath as he tugged at the collar of his muddy uniform.
"What's going on, Grin?" Sharde grabbed the young officer's shoulder.
Grin shook his head to clear his thoughts, "I'm not sure, Sire. Zahn refused to tell me until you arrived. I think he might have spotted something on the sea."
Tasia came up behind Grin slowly, "Is there anything I can do?"
"No," was Sharde's quick reply. "Grin, is Zahn just up on the wall?" At the otter's nod, Sharde readdressed his daughter, "You are to go about your duties as normal. Grin, I'm assigning you as Tasia's escort to make sure she does as she is told."
"What?" Tasia stamped her foot-paw. "I don't need an escort!"
"That is my final word, Tasia!" Sharde snapped with uncharacteristic irritation. "Grin, take her to the aviary, now. I'm going up to meet with Zahn. If that daughter of mine gives you any trouble, her sister should be at the aviary already. She can help you deal with her."
"I do not need an escort!" Tasia shouted again as Sharde swept out of the hall, ignoring her protests. She turned back to Grin with a scowl, "Don't think I will be nice just 'cause this isn't your fault."
Grin swallowed hard, "Uh, I'm sorry princess, but I have to do as told. Please, I don't want any trouble."
Fenn, Tasia's sister, was actually running late to get to the aviary. She was on the far side of the lake that filled the center basin of the massive cavern, and took a running dive over the water. Her body, streamlined like an arrow, cut into the water with hardly a splash and she paddled swiftly forward. Going through the lake would cut down the time it took to get to the aviary, but being wet might be more trouble if she didn't dry off by the time she got there. The birds didn't exactly appreciate the extra water-weight when trying to carry their mounts.
She was nearly across the lake, when a swarm of tiny silhouettes surrounded her, causing her to backpedal to the surface for air. As soon as her head was above the water, a group of otter kits pounced from the shallows. They tackled Fenn before she could get a footing.
"Ah! Little beasties, you'll drown me!" She giggled softly as they tugged at her robe's hem.
"Come wif us for a swim, Princess!" a kit who had jumped on her back, squeaked.
"Oh yes! Please Fenn!" another called out in delight.
A third launched himself into the air and cannon-balled right in front of Fenn, swamping her with a miniature tidal wave. He popped his muzzle up and squirted her again, "We get to go to the deep parts today!"
"Oh no you don't, Tuck!" A voice rang out sternly from a little ways down the shoreline. A mink swam up alongside Fenn, plucking the various young ones from their perches on the Princess' shoulders and arms. "You rascals ran off, even after I expressly said to wait for me!"
"I'm sorry, tutor," Fenn ducked her head. "I shouldn't have distracted them."
"Why, Princess, it's not your fault at all!" the mink retorted. "These little one's have no sense of discipline."
"Well, I need to go now, anyways," Fenn turned away, her ears turning red uncomfortably.
The kits let out a collective whine, one even trying to grab Fenn's paw, "Pwease stay!"
"I'm sorry, little ones, I have duties to attend to. Maybe tomorrow," she tried to console them, but the kits kept groaning even as she swam the last few yards to shore. As their visitor left the lake, they turned on their instructor and pounced with a group giggle.
Fenn dashed from the water, her steps slogging on the ground noisily. She was blinking droplets from her eyes as she stumbled over a small sand hill and ran directly into someone. She let out a quiet cry of surprise, looking up as the otter caught her from falling, "Oh, I'm sorry, sir..." The otter was obviously not a native Nautican, as could be seen from his almost black fur and greenish-yellow eyes. Fenn recognized him instantly, "I'm very sorry, Vyraskar!"
He pushed her back so she could steady herself, "I'd accept your apology, but it really wasn't that big of a deal. I'm looking for your father."
"Um..." Fenn fiddled her paws, unable to meet his piercing gaze, "I think he was at the hall, playing a game of Tage cards with my sister."
"Hmmm," Vyraskar studied her dissonantly; Fenn wasn't the kind of otter who'd be able to handle the stress of being royal. The timid princess seemed very out of place with the rest of her head-strong and intrepid family. "Thank you, I'll let you be on your way." she ducked her head again as she slipped past the foreigner, and hurried on her way to the aviary. He narrowed his eyes at her back as she went, almost like he was waiting to see something happen, as if Vyraskar thought her hesitant nature was just an act.
End Chapter One