Doranand had finally fallen asleep. He tried fighting it off as he wanted to keep an eye on their would-be rescuer, but his exhaustion prevailed. Aliana blamed herself for dragging him into this. If he died because of her, she didn’t know how she would live with herself. She brushed a lock of hair from his forehead and he in turn caught her hand and placed it under his cheek as he murmured her name.
A jolt of surprise and warmth flooded through her at his unusual and unexpected behaviour. Doran had always behaved differently with her. She had over the years accused him of being a shameless flirt while he was amongst the ladies of the court. She was always just his friend and princess that he had to guard.
Shyly she ran her fingers through his hair and then pulled back as she didn’t want to have to explain her lack of propriety when he was fully awake and in his senses.
“Sorry to interrupt, but I brought you food. It is just broth, better for him to drink. I added blood bane to his. Iron rich, it will help with replacing the blood he lost.” he said putting the bowls between them and then stepped back.
“Thank you.” she said pulling away from Doran quickly and picking up her bowl. She felt uncomfortable as she felt the stranger’s eyes on her face. “The broth is still hot, so I will eat first while his cools.” She explained as she turned to find the stranger, Milos, still looking at her. Studying her it seemed.
He was tall, but of a slighter build than Doran. His face was sprinkled with rough beard, his curly hair brushed his shoulder but looked like he cut it with dull knife as it was uneven at the sides. His eyes were dark and piercing. His skin too was toasty brown, like he spent a lot of time in the sun. He could be her age or slightly older and spoke well, so she knew that he probably had some education.
“You are staring.” She said after tasting the broth.
“I rarely have company these days so I often forget my manners Your Highness.” he said as his lips lifted into a slight one sided smile as if he dared her to deny it.
“How did you know?” she said frowning.
“I have heard rumours about a plain princess who had eloped with a dashing earl. The descriptions fit.” Aliana felt her cheeks flame up. She always knew that she was plain but it was the first time that anyone had ever dared saying it to her face. The man continued. “That and I heard him call you Aliana, so it was simple arithmetic from there on.”
“Despite your brilliant deductions you still seem puzzled about something.” she said after clearing her throat and siting up straighter.
“I cannot help to wonder what two Arnayan nobles are doing wandering in the Arbors. Death by grim hardly seem like the ideal honeymoon activity. It has been a week since your marriage. Shouldn’t you two should be cuddling in the Whitby hold by now. That is if you are indeed married.” he said in an as-a-matter-of-factly tone.
Somehow, she felt like she was being interrogated. He said his name was Milos, so according to the naming system belonged to the magisterial caste. “Well Doran and I have decided to not let society dictate how we spend our time together.”
“I can see how that is ideal behaviour for the future queen and her consort.” he said wryly.
“You are hardly in a position to make judgements.” she bristled.
“Why because you are princess and I a lowly magistrate? Which by the way does qualify me to make judgements as I see fit.” he said raising a brow as if this conversation both irritated and amused him.
“No. It’s because of all these mismatched belongings, some which I doubt that someone like you could afford, marks you as a thief, Your Honour.”
His smile faded. “Quite intuitive Your Highness.” he had stopped smiling and seemed to be studying her again.
“So, you are not going to deny it?”
“A thief I may be, but a liar I am not...well most of the times.” his smile returned. “The broth is getting cold and the earl should eat.” he said turning around and stepping outside.
“That one is a piece of work.” said Doranand as we pushed himself up to sit. “A dishonest judge, who admits his dishonesty. Does that in fact make him honest?”
“No, what it makes him is irritating.” Something about Milos made her feel unsettled. He smiled a lot but she felt that there was something deeper there. “I didn’t realise that you were awake.” she said coming to sit beside Doranand.
“I shouldn’t have been asleep in the first place as I left you alone with a stranger.”
“He is harmless. If he wanted us dead, he would have let us be taken by the grim. Here, eat this.” she said putting the broth into his hand. Doran stared at the broth as he watched black dregs floating in it. “That would be blood bane, it is good for one in your condition.”
“My condition,” he snorted. “You make me sound pregnant not wounded.”
She smiled, “Just eat and shut up.” he crinkled his forehead and placed the bowl at his lips finishing it all in a few gulps.
“We need to leave soon. We don’t know when our host’s hospitality will end.” He said standing up. He tilted forward slightly favouring his right leg where one of the grim had cut him. The wound had bled torrentially until Milos had washed it out and bandage it.
“You should probably sit back down, you lost a lot of blood. It has only been a day. Hardly enough time for full recovery.” she said as she held herself fast against his shirtless body.
His eyes dropped down to hers and they softened. “It is not true what they say you know.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You are hardly plain. To me you are the most beautiful and bravest soul I have ever met.” her heart thumped erratically in her chest and she pushed herself away so that she could put him to sit.
“Well that is just the anaemia talking. I opened up myself to scrutiny when I started the rumour about us eloping before we left. I can deal with the backlash. I am just sorry that I dragged you into this with me. If I had just put on that stupid red cape like you’d asked you wouldn’t have gotten hurt. My stubbornness almost killed you.”
“Almost, but not quite. It is going take a whole lot more to kill me than a few grim, so lose no sleep over this small scratch because I sure won’t.” he started getting up again.
“Doran,” she protested but he still stood up.
“I am fine Aliana. Besides if I get accustomed to this nurturing side of you, I might continue to expect it for the rest of our lives.” he winked and then walked outside. She followed behind him.
“Ah my lord is finally awake and better it seems.” said Milos who was busy checking the supplies on his horse. He didn’t even look back at us while he continued to work. He had left earlier today and found our mounts waiting in the forest where we had last left them.
“How far away are we from Chrisoncor?” asked Doranand.
“About a day and a half ride due north-east.” he replied.
“Why are you asking about Chrisoncor? That wasn’t a part of our plan.” whispered Aliana.
“I am just trying to get a sense of how far we are from Nilian.” he whispered back.
“Nilian, did you two just say that you are going into Nilian?” said Milos who now for the first time gave them his undivided attention.
“And if we did, what of it?” asked Aliana as she folded her arms.
“I am just wondering what motivation two Arnayan nobles would have to go wandering in a country at the brink of war with its own.”
“It isn’t your place to question the princess.” snapped Doranand.
“We are looking for the red sapphire.” answered Aliana at the same time earning her an annoyed look from Doran.
Milos for the first time seemed genuinely surprised. “And you think that the sapphire is in Garion?”
“Yes, I think that they have something to do with the gem’s disappearance.” she answered.
Milos snorted and then turned back to the horse. “If you are going to Garion to search for a gem you will be on a fool’s errand as you would never find it. I humbly suggest that it is best you head home princess.” He said this looking at Doranand in a tone lacking the implied humility.
“Give me the order and I will kill him right here.” growled Doranand.
“You would have to catch me first and it would be hard for you to do so considering your condition.” He replied coyly.
“I am not going to just head home and stop talking to me like I am a child.” she said as she marched over to Milos and turned him to face her. “Things haven’t been the same since the sapphire disappeared. Our country is falling apart slowly and I have to stop it.”
“The country is falling apart because of poor governance, but what would I know about that. I am only a thief.” he said turning back to the horse.
“Yes, indeed what do you know.” she marched away from him. “Doran are you strong enough to ride?”
“I think I can manage...” he started.
“Good, because we are leaving.” she stormed into the tent and then came back out and took Milos’s hand dropping a wad of coins into his hand. “Thank you for your hospitality, I think that will cover all our debt.” she then whirred back into the tent.
“Is she always this tempestuous?” she thought he heard him ask Doran outside.
“I am not tempestuous!” she shouted back at them. How one person had managed to irritate her so much after such a short acquaintance was amazing. A thieving magistrate was talking down to her like she was a child. It reminded her so much of how her father treated her. She was tired of men dictating to her.
She scraped up all the weapons that belonged to her and Doran. She eyed the red cape that Milos was wearing the night before and took it up.
“I am taking the cape. The money I gave you is payment enough!” she said holding up the cloth in front of her face. When she got no response, she took it down only to see that both Milos and Doran were standing with their hands behind their heads. Both were surrounded by armed men.
Her father’s men.