The Price of Protection

Chapter 13

Once Richard was settled into the room that would be his chambers during his stay, he was escorted by a servant to the king's office. When he approached the door to the office, a servant opened it for him. Richard was slightly surprised, since at home, the servants' duties were kept to basic things. Richard and his parents were a fairly independent family.

"Hello, Richard. Please come in and sit down," the king greeted him. Obeying, Richard sat in one of cushioned chairs across from the king's desk. "Do you like your room?"

Richard nodded. "Yes, it very nice and comfortable." It was also a little on the ostentatious side for Richard, due to all the lavish decorations, but he would not admit that to the king.

"Excellent!" The king exclaimed. "So, before we start, tea?"

"That would be good," Richard said as a tea cup was placed in front of him. The prince sighed as he took a sip, parched from the journey.

"So, now business," the king announced. "I know why I told my daughter to write to you. However, what do you have to gain from this visit?" The king raised an eyebrow. Richard almost chuckled. The king certainly did get straight to the point.

"Your Majesty," the prince started. However, the king raised his hand.

"Please," the king interrupted. "You may refer to me as Edward when we are alone."

"Of course. Well, first I would gain a wife if your daughter accepts my offer." The king nodded. "However, my father wishes something from you as well. Unfortunately, our kingdom is in debt, and we are having a problem getting out of it. My father hopes that if I marry your daughter, you will agree to helping us clear our kingdom of the debt. After all, your kingdom is prosperous."

The king furrowed his eyebrows in confusion. "Why not just raise the people's taxes?"

"It has already been done," Richard stated. "However, my father wishes to not raise them more for fear of riots and further impoverishing the people." Richard's thoughts briefly flitted to a certain brunette, but quickly returned his focus.

Edward scoffed. "Let them riot. The people do not know what they want or what is best for them. That is why there are families such as yours and mine that rule over them."

Richard frowned, disliking the king's attitude. "Yes, well, it is said your kingdom is thriving, but I am a little concerned." Richard's tone was cautious as he said this. The king frowned, and a glint appeared in his eyes, one that made Richard slightly uncomfortable.

"Why would that be?"

"It is just that when my troop and I arrived here, the villagers seemed, unhappy." Richard tried to be as gentle as he could. "They were actually rioting."

"Were you hurt?" Edward's body had stiffened and a concerned look appeared on his face.

"No, your soldiers held them back."

The king relaxed considerable and leaned back in his chair. "Good, I would be concerned if they were not doing their duty properly. The peasants are always complaining, I would not worry about it." The king waved a dismissive hand.

Richard frowned. "Some of the buildings were dilapidated and abandoned. There were also homeless people," he pointed out.

The king shrugged. "It has been a while since people have moved into the village. There is no need to maintain houses that are unoccupied. As for the homeless, they are not motivated to find a way to better themselves." The king gave the prince a smile. "I assure you, there is nothing to worry about. The kingdom is prosperous and I will be able to help your family. Provided of course you marry my daughter."

Richard nodded, not fully convinced of the king's reasoning. "Yes, well, I hope to get to know the princess more during my visit here."

The king chuckled. "You will have plenty of opportunity to do that in the upcoming days." The king walked around the desk and patted Richard on the back. "Well, I am off to bed. I suggest you do the same."

"Goodnight," Richard said, leaving the office and heading to his chambers. After waving away a servant, Richard prepared himself for bed.

Richard was not happy with the way his conversation with the king had gone. He had hoped to get some concerned reaction, instead of the calloused one he had received. The prince made a mental note to ask one of the soldiers to go into the village and find out more about what was going on. Richard would even go himself, if he had the chance to during his stay. He had a feeling though that he would have to do it in secret, seeing that King Edward was not overly concerned.

As Richard crawled under the covers of the large bed, his thoughts returned to Katherine. He hoped that she would not have any problems while they were in the castle. The king's accusation had bothered him greatly, and Katherine had still been able to hold herself together. Richard smiled. The woman did not cease to surprise him. He just hoped that the king's soldiers would leave her alone, since they probably would not be so ready to accept the idea of her being one of them. That, and he hoped they did not pay attention to the king's words and kept their hands away from her. Richard shook his head, forcing himself not to think of the worst case scenario.

Turning over, the prince closed his eyes and willed himself to sleep, forcing thoughts of the brunette that was a floor below him from his mind.

Katherine awoke to the sound of snoring next to her. She stifled a groan as she rolled over, her back aching from the uncomfortable mattress she had slept on. She chuckled lightly as she saw Javier sleeping, light snores emanating from him, and slight drool coming from his mouth and dripping onto his too small pillow.

The night before had been unpleasant to say the least. When Katherine went into the soldier's quarters, she had been directed to the servant's quarters next door. When she had said what she was, one of the king's soldiers began to argue with her, saying she had no place in the soldier's quarters. Fortunately, Javier had stepped in and assured the soldier that she was supposed to be there. Her comrade invited her to share his room, since the other rooms were occupied.

As she stepped out of bed, her stomach growled. The soldiers' dinner the night before had been only meager table scraps served in the too cramped kitchen, nothing like what Katherine received at the Rodgers' castle. Katherine had eaten slowly, hoping to feel full, a trick she had learned when on the rare occasion her family did not have enough food to last them a few days.

Once she changed into her uniform, Katherine headed to the kitchen for breakfast. When she arrived, she saw some her fellow soldiers were already there, scarfing down their meal. The brunette cautiously stepped up to the cook, who seemed to have a stern personality.

"May I have some breakfast?" Katherine asked. The response she received was the cook briefly turning around, examining her, before thrusting a small bowl in the solider's hands. The cook resumed his activities without a word. Katherine frowned, before leaning against the wall. She examined the content of the bowl and wrinkled her nose before taking a bite. She almost threw up the moment the mush went into her mouth. Whatever it was that had been served, it definitely was not porridge. Fighting off a grimace, Katherine quickly ate the rest of the contents, and saw that the other soldiers were doing the same, also trying to fight off grimaces that were appearing on their faces.

Everyone was so quiet in the kitchen, that Katherine was startled by the sound of a bell ringing. At the loud ringing, the king's soldiers immediately dropped their breakfast and ran upstairs. Confused, Katherine asked what was going on to a passing soldier.

"Roll call. It is best if your troop comes too," he said quickly. Katherine shrugged, following the man upstairs and outside. Once they were outside, Katherine joined the rest of her troops in the long line of soldiers. When the captain arrived at her area, he examined the soldiers.

"Am I correct in assuming that you are Prince Richard's soldiers?" he asked in a rough voice. His dark mustache twitched as he spoke.

"Yes, Captain," one of the soldiers answered quickly.

A smirk appeared on the captain's lips. "Yes, well, the king has given specific instructions to assign you to certain areas. So, let us begin." Immediately, the captain began to dictate where the soldiers were to patrol. Three were to go to the dungeon, one was to guard the gate, another two had to patrol the halls. When he arrived at Katherine, the captain gave her a knowing look.

"You must be Katherine," he stated. "You are to guard the princess for today. The king feels Princess Meredith might enjoy having another woman around."

Katherine blinked, surprised. "Yes, Captain."

"Your shift is not over until the princess is asleep. You are not to stray from her at any time, understand?"

Katherine nodded. She could handle the assignment. She spent almost a week guarding one person.

"Yes, now the Princess Meredith's quarters are on the second floor. A servant will escort you. You are dismissed."

Katherine bowed, before heading back inside the castle. She was a little surprised that she was to guard the princess. The king's demeanor the night before indicated he thought little of Katherine. When she arrived at the door, Katherine was greeted by a servant who gestured her to follow him. She obliged and she was led upstairs to the princess' quarters. When they arrived, the servant knocked on the door and smirked at Katherine.

"Good luck," he snickered, before returning downstairs. Katherine frowned before shaking her head.

The door opened to reveal the beautiful red head from the night before. The girl looked confused when she saw Katherine standing there.

"Who are you?" she asked the brunette.

Katherine bowed respectfully. "I am Katherine, Your Highness. I am to guard you for today."

Meredith frowned but shrugged, opening the door wider. "Come in and sit down." Katherine entered and sat in an elegant chair by the bed. As she looked around, Katherine noticed that the room was not as gaudy as the rest of the castle, but still had lavish decorations.

"I suppose Father heard my complaint about the constant guards," the red head hummed, reaching for a bottle of perfumed oil on her dresser. "Although, I don't know you. Are you new?"

"I am one of Prince Richard's soldiers. I was assigned to you today."

"Oh, I see," the princess murmured. "A woman soldier? It is surprising."

"It is personal circumstances that led me to be here," Katherine stated carefully.

"Hmm," Meredith hummed. "Interesting. Anyway, what is he like?"

"Who? Prince Richard?" Meredith nodded. "He is a nice man, kind even. He treats everyone fairly and with respect. The king and queen are also lovely people."

Meredith chuckled. "I guess I should be put at ease then. I am supposed to meet him in the garden in a little bit, in order to get acquainted with him. Is the kingdom wealthy?"

Katherine frowned. "Yes, I mean, I suppose so."

Meredith sighed. "I guess you would not be privy to such things, nor would you really understand them." Katherine fought the frown trying to form on her face. "Anyway, how do I look?"

"Lovely, Your Highness. Fit for a prince's eyes."

Meredith nodded, admiring herself in the mirror. "Come, let us go to the gardens. I suppose you are to be our chaperone, since my ladies in waiting are not here. Just do not speak unless you are spoken to. I do not need anything interrupting us."

Katherine nodded, following the princess outside into the large gardens. Standing near a white archway was the prince, wearing more royal looking attire than he had for the past few days. He greeted them both and kissed the princess's hand. He gave Katherine a nod and a smile. The trio walked through the beautiful gardens, Katherine making sure to stay a few feet behind Richard and Meredith.

As the two carried on conversation, Katherine wanted to roll her eyes. Meredith kept on touching Richard's arm and laughing at things he said. She would also occasionally bat her eyelashes and smile at him in a silly way that made her mouth look deformed. They mainly talked about nonsensical things, nothing really personal, although Richard had been trying to steer the discussion towards that area. When he tried to discuss politics with the princess, she just shrugged and said that was a man's concern. Katherine could see the prince's smile becoming more strained as the day went on.

When Meredith was called over to check on something further in the garden, she huffed and rolled her eyes, instructing Richard to stay put. The moment she was out of ear shot, Richard frowned, running a hand through his hair. He turned to Katherine, a hopeful look in his blue eyes.

"Please say something intelligent. I cannot take anymore," he groaned, causing Katherine to chuckle.

"She appears to be very friendly, Your Highness," she teased.

"A little too friendly," the prince grumbled. "I wish to carry on a normal conversation, not one full of giggles and petting." He scowled.

"I promise to stop her if she tries anything further." Katherine winked at him. "Maybe you can convince her that you are not looking for that type of woman. Maybe she will act more like herself."

"I fear that she may be acting like herself." He huffed. "I am trying, I really am. However, I just cannot really get to like her." Then more quietly, he added softly, "I wish she was you."

Katherine blushed, her heart beating a little faster. Attempting to ignore his comment, she said, "You still have plenty of days here. I am sure you will get to like the princess in time."

Richard shook his head and then smiled. "You have been awfully quiet, not even a snicker this whole time."

"I am not to speak unless spoken to," Katherine explained. "Besides, I must remain respectful, regardless of how many snickers I wish to let out." She gave him a playful grin.

Richard chuckled. "I am sure there are plenty. I am becoming concerned though."

Katherine furrowed her eyebrows in confusion. "What is it?" Richard recounted his conversation with the king, and Katherine cocked her head, thinking. "One of us can go into the village and speak to the people."

"I was thinking the same thing. However, I wish to go myself."

Katherine frowned. "Someone must go with you. You cannot go without a guard. I can accompany you."

Richard shook his head in dismay. "No, I do not wish for you to get into trouble. I can ask one of the others. Anyway, how are you holding up?"

Katherine shrugged. "Fine." She was not going to complain to him about the small issues, such as the bed. He did not need to worry about such things.

"No one is giving you any problems?" She shook her head. "Good."

"Are you excited for the ball tomorrow?" Katherine asked. She had never attended a ball herself, and was curious to see what one was like.

Richard rolled his eyes. "I usually find them tiresome, to be honest. Always the same old people, talking about the same old things. The poor servants were scurrying about before, preparing last minute details. They actually looked a little frightened."

Katherine chuckled. "Yes, well, I do not think you would want to miss any detail, for fear of angering the king."

"That is true," Richard conceded. "So, are you looking forward to it?"

Katherine shrugged. "I have not been to one before, so it will just be interesting to see how they are run."

Richard was about to say something else, except Meredith reappeared at his side.

"What were you two laughing about?" she questioned Richard, eyeing Katherine carefully.

"I was just telling Katherine a story from my childhood," Richard lied.

"How charming." The princess smiled tightly. "Let us continue our walk." She then dragged Richard by the arm further down the walkway.

The trio walked through the garden for an hour more. Katherine distracted herself by looking at some of the flowers, which were quite beautiful. Soon, a maid approached them, telling them it was time for tea.

"Come," Meredith said. "My mother would probably like to speak with you."

Richard nodded, following the princess inside the castle and into what Katherine assumed was the sitting room. Katherine stood by the door, watching as plates of food and tea were served. She felt her stomach growl at the sight.

Once greetings were done, the royals sat down.

"So, Richard," the queen started. "How are you liking your stay so far?"

"Everyone is quite pleasant," Richard stated. "The castle and the grounds are magnificent."

The queen chuckled. "We try our best to keep them in shape, especially the garden."

"Yes, it is lovely," Richard hummed looking around the room. He stopped at embroidered picture of a cat hanging on the wall. "That's quite an interesting picture."

"Oh yes. Meredith here embroidered that a while ago. She has quite the skill."

"I see," Richard hummed. An awkward silence fell among the three, one that even made Katherine uncomfortable.

"So, are you ready for tomorrow's ball?" the queen asked.

"Um, yes. I believe I have something suitable to wear," Richard answered.

"If not, I am sure the seamstress in the village has something on short notice." The queen waved a dismissive hand. "My husband enjoys parties. It gives him a chance to show off." She chuckled.

"I am sure it will be grand." The prince sipped his tea.

"Have you had a chance to explore the castle?" Meredith asked.

Richard shook his head. "I slept in, so I have not really had any free time."

The queen nodded. "We have a grand library if you wish to see it. It has books from all over."

Richard smiled. "I plan to at some point."

"How about after you finish your tea? You can lose yourself there until dinner time. Princess Meredith and I must discuss some things."

Richard nodded. "Well, I guess I must be off then." Katherine could tell he was looking for an excuse to leave. He gave both women a bow before leaving. As he walked out the door, he gave Katherine a small smile.

As soon as the prince left, the queen and princess immediately began discussing him. Katherine tuned out their mindless chatter and focused her thoughts on the next day.

She knew the palace would be filled with people from all over the land. She would need to be careful and be on guard at all times, keeping a close eye on the prince. She would make sure her fighting skills and sword were ready in case something happened. If she was honest with herself, Katherine would not know what to do if something happened to Richard. Not just because it was her duty, but also because she felt something for the prince. Katherine was not sure what it was, but it made her fear for his life even more.

"Come, Katherine," Meredith instructed her. Katherine frowned, hating being called like a dog. "I want you to help me pick out a dress for tomorrow night."

Katherine followed the princess back to her chambers and sat in the same chair as she had before. The red head opened the double, wooden doors of her wardrobe, revealing an array of dresses.

"These were all made specifically for me," Meredith said proudly, holding up one of the dresses. "Do you own any dresses?" She eyes the brunette's uniform.

"Just one," Katherine answered.

"Ah yes. You probably can not really afford more than one can you? Poor thing." Meredith sniffed. "What do you think of this one?" She asked, holding up a green dress with an indecipherable pattern on it.

"It looks lovely," Katherine lied. In truth, the dress looked horrible, but she was not about to tell the princess so.

"I don't really like it." Meredith threw it back in the wardrobe. She picked out another dress, this one being blue.

"So, what were you and the prince talking about?" She held the dress up against herself, before throwing out in the wardrobe.

Katherine shrugged. "Nothing. Like he said, he was just telling me a story."

"Well, I don't want to you to be talking to him anymore."

"Pardon?" Katherine was shocked at the princess's statement.

"I don't need him distracted from me while he is here. That includes any commoners such as yourself."

"I am assigned to protect him," Katherine objected.

"And you can do that without conversation, like all the other servants here." Meredith rolled her eyes. "Now, go get my jewelry box on the dresser there."

Katherine complied, glaring at the back of the princess's head.

The rest of the day went uneventfully. Dinner was a quiet occasion where the royals sat at different ends of the table, Richard and Meredith being the closest together. Once dinner was done, the royals went into the drawing room for a game of charades and and tea. The room was filled with laughter and even Katherine could not help but let a few chuckles escape at some of the guesses that were made. After a while, everyone decided to go to bed, their departures filled with yawns.

Since her stomach was grumbling from having not eaten since breakfast, Katherine headed down to the kitchens for dinner. Much to her misfortune though, the brunette was gruffly told that there was nothing left for her to eat, so she would have to sleep on an empty stomach. Katherine frowned, her stomach increasing in noise volume as she walked to her room. When she arrived in the soldier's quarters, she was met by the captain.

"Katherine," he barked.

Immediately standing at attention, she answered, "Yes, Captain?"

"The king orders that you wear a dress at tomorrow's ball," the captain said. "He does not need the people thinking he has gone soft."

Katherine frowned. "But, Sir, I do not have a dress."

"Then I suggest you find one by morning," the captain responded, pushing past her.

Katherine sighed, heading to her and Javier's room. She would probably have to rise earlier in order to go to the seamstress in town. However, when she reached the doorway of the room, she was surprised to see a familiar dress laying on the bed. Katherine chuckled and shook her head.

It looked like Prince Richard won after all.

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