The Price of Protection

Chapter 15

King Edward stroked his beard slowly, his mind lost in thought. His mind replayed what his daughter had told him and the information worried him, but not enough to send him into the frantic state his daughter was currently in.

"What does he see in that commoner?" the princess asked, pouting and slumping into one of the velvet seats in the king's office. The king sighed and rolled his eyes at his daughter's dramatics.

It was a few hours after the party had ended and Meredith had come to frantically to tell him her story. If his daughter reported correctly on what she had seen in the garden, which was the prince kissing the female soldier, then there was some issue. The king had a sense that Prince Richard was not completely in agreement with the idea of marrying his daughter. If the prince was interested in another woman, then that would add to the problem.

"Are you sure that Richard initiated the kiss?" The king asked carefully, making sure he had all the facts before action was taken.

"Yes, I am sure." Meredith scowled. "They were dancing and the solider lost balance for some reason. Prince Richard led her to the bench and the talked for a few moments. Then, he kissed her." A renewed anger seemed to surge through his daughter at the memory.

"That woman is a threat and a distraction," the queen stated simply. "She must be rid of immediately." The king nodded in agreement.

Meredith sighed and turned to her father. "I respect your wishes, Father. However, I do not understand why I must marry Richard. We are more powerful than the Rodgers family, and I do not see what we have to gain from a union with them."

The king shook his head. "At the moment, we are more powerful than them. However, once they are out of debt, the Rodgers will be just as equally powerful. Combining our families would make us the most powerful people throughout several kingdoms."

Amelia assessed her husband quickly and said, "There are other reasons are there not?" The king chuckled and smiled. His wife knew him so well.

"Yes," he said. "King Alexander has relations with people I would like to associate with, powerful people. Unfortunately, due to our reputation, I have been unable to correspond with them. I am hoping that joining with the Rodgers family will give me the capability to do this."

Meredith nodded in understanding. "Do you think that your plan will work?"

"If you marry Richard that would be considered a sign of the Rodgers' approval of us. I believe that their relations will believe they are able to associate with us without a problem."

The queen smiled. "Also, the king would probably want to restore the royal bloodline."

The king nodded. "Ah, yes. I had actually forgotten about that. Thank you for reminding me, Amelia. Since the prince is only half royal, they would need to strengthen the bloodline by marrying another royal."

A confused expression formed on Meredith's face as she asked,

"Why does Prince Richard only have some royal blood?"

The king waved a dismissive hand. "Apparently the queen was a commoner before she married Alexander. It seems that commoners appeal the Rodger men." He chuckled bitterly.

"So," the queen chimed. "What should we do with this female solider?"

The king leaned back in his chair, thinking. He knew they had to get rid of, Katherine he believed her name was, without looking suspicious. The king thought for a few moments, before smiling.

"There is a way we can get the solider out of the way," he started. The two women leaned in closer, listening with interest. "However, it will take good timing and stealth. Also, we will not be the ones to do it." The king continued to explain his plan carefully, hoping that it would work.

Katherine sighed as she walked around the perimeter of the castle. She had been assigned to patrol the castle grounds and to signal to the gatekeeper if anyone wished to enter. It was becoming late in the afternoon, and Katherine was growing tired. The troop had been woken up early for drills, despite it being the day after the ball. The soldiers had again been given only a little food for breakfast. Katherine was grateful for the cake the prince had given her, since it held her over for the night.

The soldiers who were usually bitter towards her seemed to change their attitude. Maybe it was because they were all in the same situation. Or maybe it was because of what happened in the dining room. Whatever it was relieved Katherine. Instead of receiving glares from men in her troop, she instead had nods of greeting and slight smiles from them. Katherine smiled to herself. Maybe she had won their respect finally.

While she was walking around to the courtyard, Katherine heard a rustling noise nearby. She immediately stooped in her tracks, glancing around. Seeing nothing, she continued to walk, until she heard the faint sound of footsteps in front of her. Looking around, the brunette spotted a figure draped in a blue cloak, trying to climb over the portion of the wall that was near a hedge. Not wanting to alert the intruder to her presence, Katherine quickly, but quietly walked towards the figure and tackled it to the ground. The person let out a grunt as she pinned them to the ground.

"Who are you?" she demanded, the hood still covering the person's face. The cloaked figure let out a chuckle, one that Katherine recognized immediately.

"Your Highness?" she questioned, pulling back the hood to reveal the prince's smiling face.

"Hello, Katherine," he said, chuckling.

Since the night before, Katherine had avoided being in the same place the prince was. The kiss played through her mind several times throughout the day, and she always smiled when it happened. She remembered how soft the prince's lips were and how gentle he had been as his lips touched hers. Also, she recalled feeling some strong emotion as she kissed him back. She would then try to clear her head of the thought, since she knew that it could never happen again. Now, here she was, on top of him.

Trying to switch her train of thought, Katherine immediately removed herself from the prince's body, brushing the dirt off her uniform.

"Good afternoon," she greeted. "If I may ask, what were you doing climbing the wall?"

The prince chuckled. "I was trying to sneak into the village to see what is going on," he said, keeping his voice low. "I also wanted to deliver this, it's for my father." He waved around a piece of paper. "It's about providing protection in the village where Phillip and Agnes live." Katherine nodded in understanding. She was glad that the prince was trying to help the villagers stay safe.

"You will not make it before nightfall without a horse," she pointed out. "Furthermore, someone should accompany you. You saw how angry the villagers were, what if you were hurt?' Her tone conveyed genuine concern.

"I do not wish for you to get into trouble," he stated. Katherine shook her head. If she went, one the Ameras might go after her, but she knew her duty to protect the prince came first.

"I will go with you," she said in a tone that ended the discussion. "We can take Aristotle." The prince nodded in agreement.

Once they reached the stables, Katherine went to Aristotle's stall and let him out. The horse gently nudged her shoulder with his snout.

"I missed you, too." She chuckled as she placed a saddled him. Once the horse was set, Katherine and Richard mounted the animal, with Katherine controlling the reins. Richard put his hands on her hip to keep himself balanced. Katherine had to control herself; the feeling of the prince's strong hands on her gave her a strange, but pleasant feeling. Clearing her mind of impure thoughts, Katherine gently kicked Aristotle, and the duo was off.

About an hour later, Katherine and Rick arrived in the village. Unlike when they had first arrived, the village was quiet, eerily quiet. The amount of the soldiers seemed to have increased as well, patrolling back and forth Rick could see some people looking out from shop windows, but they remained inside.

"The soldiers must be suppressing them," Richard murmured in Katherine's ear. She stiffened, but nodded. "Let us go into one of the shop and find out what is going on."

Katherine guided Aristotle to the general store and the two dismounted. When they entered the shop, the only person there was a blonde haired man at the counter.

"May I help you?" he asked, not looking up from the object he was working on. When he did look up, he scowled.

"I am Prince Richard," the prince said.

"I know who you are," the man spat, coming around the counter walking towards them. "You are here to visit the Ameras. Before you ask, Let me save you the trouble, we have no money." The man was getting close at an alarming rate and Katherine stepped forward, preparing herself to attack. Richard held up his hand, stopping her.

"We are not here for money." Richard's tone was calm. He did not fear the man in front of him, but he was concerned. "We are just to find out why the people here are so angry. What is your name?"

"Matthew," the man answered. "We villagers have many reasons to be angry."

The prince frowned. How bad was it is for the villagers?

"Well, perhaps you can name same of them." The prince gestured toward two wooden chairs in the room. Matthew looked at him, confused.

"You really want to know?"

Richard nodded, hiding his dismay. The people needed to be heard, not ignored. He hoped he could change that, without having to marry the princess. The prince gestured towards two wooden chairs near the counter and the two men sat down.

"Where do I begin?" Matthew started.

"How about with the main thing that is plaguing the villagers?" Richard suggested.

"Well, that is easy. We have little to no money. Any money the villagers earn from selling from their shops or crops from their land are given directly to the soldiers to be given to the king. We barely have any money to support ourselves. We usually have to hide money away to support ourselves."

Richard scowled and shook his head disapprovingly. "What else?"

"The amount of soldiers patrolling the town are concerning. They often attack villagers to obtain extra money for themselves."

"What happens if the villagers refuse?" Katherine could not help but ask. Richard gave her a smile before turning his attention back to Matthew.

"The person is beaten violently and the soldiers take whatever valuable item the person has on them," Matthew answered simply.

"What is the penalty if the villagers do not pay the money that I meant for the king?" Rick asked, curious.

"They will let it pass," Matthew said. "But with a cost." He diverted his eyes from the prince and his eyes flickered to Katherine.

"Whatever it is, you do not need to feel shame," Richard assured him gently.

"One time, I could not pay, and Aria, my wife, was in the shop with me. The soldiers said that either I allowed them to assault Aria or they would destroy my shop." Richard heard Katherine curse under her breath and he could feel his own throat tightening. Matthew swallowed before continuing.

"Aria offered herself up freely. I tried to change her mind, but she told me that it was better her than the shop. She forbade me to touch her for days after that." Richard could see the man's eyes turning wet before he blinked, clearing the tears away.

"That is despicable. Besides the other day, has anyone spoken out?"

Matthew shook his head. "We have tried, but the soldiers have suppressed us each time. We have given up any hope to be heard. The king simply does not care."

Richard sighed. "Thank you for telling me these things, Matthew. I will do my best to improve living conditions here." The prince rose from his chair and so did Matthew. "I bid you farewell until next time."

Matthew bowed and gave the prince a small smile. "Thank you, Your Highness. You have earned my respect: let us hope you can keep it."

Richard chuckled, handing Matthew the parchment to be sent out. He exited the shop to join Katherine.

"Do you think you can help these people?" Katherine questioned him. Richard looked at her and did not see any traces of doubt in her eyes, only concern.

"I hope so," he mumbled. "Let us see the rest of the town." The walked in comfortable silence together; the only sound being Aristotle's hooves hitting the ground. They traveled until they reached the decrepit part of town. The two slowed their pace and carefully looked around.

"This area appears as if it has not been touched in years," Katherine murmured.

Richard nodded. "I want to see what the people around here have to say."

As they continued to walk, Richard felt Katherine gently nudge him and tipped her head to something. What he saw broke his heart. A girl, no older than seven, stared at them with wide eyes. There were smudges of dirt on face and she wore tattered clothing. Her brown eyes were filled with sadness and fear as they looked at the duo. Katherine and Richard carefully approached the girl and kneeled down to her level.

"Do not worry," Katherine said in a soothing tone, "we will not hurt you."

Richard nodded and the girl relaxed a little. Richard saw Katherine reached into her pocket and took out what appeared to be a carrot.

"This is supposed to be for my horse." The brunette pointed toward Aristotle. "However, I am sure he would not mind sharing. Especially with such an adorable girl as you." This earned a giggle from the girl who took the carrot. Richard smiled at the scene, his heart filling with warmth as he watched Katherine interact with the girl.

"Do you have a mother?" Richard asked. The girl nodded in response, pointing towards the abandoned house next to her. "Okay, we are just going to talk to her for a little, is that oaky with you?" The girl nodded. The two then entered the house, gently knocking on the splintered doorframe.

"You can come in," the woman responded with a smile on her face.

Katherine and Richard entered the small house, which was partially boarded up.

"Unfortunately, I cannot offer you anything," the woman said and she chuckled lightly. "Forgive me, I did not introduce myself. My name is Eleanor. I see you have met my daughter Mary."

"She is a lovely child,' Katherine said.

Eleanor sighed. "I am afraid she does not talk much, but she has quite the personality. Now, what brings you here? I can tell from the way you are dressed that you certainly are not from these parts."

"I am Prince Richard and this is Katherine." Richard gestured toward his companion. "We have been exploring the two and listening to the villagers' concerns. Would you mind telling us how you came to be here?" Richard and then frowned as realized what it sounded like. "I am sorry. I do not mean to be insulting."

Eleanor waved a dismissive hand. "It is fine, and yes I will tell you. I will warn you, the story does not have a happy ending." Richard nodded and gestured for the woman to start. She sighed, before speaking.

"I was married once, to a wonderful man named Jonathan. We had known each other all our lives and knew we were destined to be together." She let out a small chuckle at this. "We fell in love and it was no surprise when I became betrothed to him. Our families were not wealthy by any means, but we managed. We had small wedding, containing of our closest family and friends.'" She smiled at the memory before continuing.

"During this time, the old king still had a say in ruling the kingdom, so the village flourished. However, about a year after Jonathan and I married, the old king died and his son Edward took his place. Unfortunately, things changed from then on. Soldiers started appearing in the village and soon there was a soldier at almost every door. The taxes were raised and people found themselves having to give all their money to the king." Eleanor shook head in dismay. "Jonathan and I were struggling to make ends meet. Meanwhile, about four years after our marriage, I became with child. We were so scared we would be unable to provide for the baby, but we were determined to try."

"What happened?" Katherine asked.

"Little Mary was born in the spring. She was so precious and despite our struggles, we were still a happy family, as happy as we could be." Mary sighed, seeming to prepare herself for the next part. "A year after Mary was born, Jonathan fell ill. He was severely sick and could barely do anything." Eleanor's voice weakened. "He died two months later. Since then, it has just been Mary and I. Unfortunately, we were unable to make ends meet, so we left our home and came here. The soldiers do not bother the people here, so we can live safely."

"What about food?" Richard asked.

"We steal crops from a nearby farm. It is wrong, but we must do it to survive. I have a feeling that the farmer knows we do it, but we only steal a small amount, so it does not really affect him."

Richard nodded in understanding. "Thank you for telling us this story, and we give you our condolences for your loss."

"Thank you," Eleanor said softly.

"We must be going," Katherine said, standing up. "It will be night soon and people will begin to wonder where you are." Richard nodded and bowed to Eleanor. "Thank you again."

Eleanor curtsied. "You are welcome. I hope to see you both again, Your Highness."

The two exited the house, waving farewell to Mary on their way out.

"Thank you for coming with me, Katherine." Richard gave her a smile.

Katherine shrugged and smiled. "It was my pleasure, Your Highness."

As they mounted the horse, Richard looked around one last time.

"I will help these people," he said with resolve. "I will find a way."

Katherine nodded. "And I will be there to support you if needed."

Richard gave her a grateful smile and a gently squeezed her hand. "Thank you."

Instead of responding, Katherine gently tugged Aristotle's reins, starting their journey back to the castle.

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