The Price of Protection

Chapter 23

Katherine entered the kitchen the next morning well rested. Her dreams had been filled with her and Richard just spending time together and eventually doing…other things. Katherine blushed at her improper thoughts as Jennifer handed her a bowl of porridge.

"Where did you go last night? We missed you at supper," Lanie said as Katherine sat down at the table.

"I went to the training fields," she lied, before taking a bite of her breakfast.

"Really? I didn't see you," Javier, who was sitting next to Lanie, responded.

"Well," Katherine said, trying to think up an excuse. "I wasn't there for very long. I went to the servant's quarters afterward."

"I didn't see you there," Kevin chimed in. "I was late to dinner, so I was the only one there."

Katherine bit her lip as she felt the trio's eyes on her.

"Well, I wasn't there for very long either and then I went to the library after that." It wasn't exactly a lie; she had gone to the library after all.

"What were you doing there?" Lanie inquired with a raised eyebrow.

"I just wanted to look around. Why all the questions? Am I not allowed to miss supper?" Katherine scowled, folding her arms across her chest, glaring at her three friends.

Javier leaned back in his chair, a smirk on his face.

"Do not worry, we are only teasing you. It is just that it is not like you to miss dinner," he said.

Katherine shrugged. "Well, there is a first time for everything."

"Mhmm," Lanie replied. "I guess so." She narrowed her eyes at Katherine. "Anyway, I must start my shift. I will see you all later." Lanie got up, putting her bowl on the counter. Kevin and Javier followed suit.

"I will see you during patrol," Javier said before leaving the kitchen.

Kevin just gave her a smile before heading upstairs.

Katherine rolled her eyes, before breathing a sigh of relief. She had been so close to almost revealing her secret. She had a feeling her friends knew something, but weren't letting on.

She just hoped they wouldn't say anything.

"Don't worry, they won't," Jennifer said from the fire.

Katherine turned around and raised an eyebrow at her.

"They won't say anything, if there is anything going on between you and the prince," Jennifer explained.

"What makes you think anything is going on between us?" Katherine asked.

Jennifer chuckled. "Please. The prince asks for two plates of food the same night you miss supper? I don't think it is just a coincidence." She smirked.

Katherine bit her lip. "Just don't say anything, please?"

Jennifer smiled. "Don't worry, I won't. Besides, I have other things to worry about." She winked, a hand going over her stomach.

Katherine's eyes widened, before asking, "Are you,"

"Yes, I am." Jennifer grinned.

"Does Kevin know?"

The blonde shook her head. "Not yet, I plan on telling him tonight."

Katherine beamed before embracing her friend.

"I am so happy for you," she said enthusiastically. "I hope everything goes well for you!"

"Thank you, Katherine," Jennifer replied. "Now you better get going, don't want to anger the Captain."

"Yes, of course!" Katherine exclaimed, before running off to her post.

Everything in the castle seemed to be going well, and Katherine hoped it would stay that way.

The next few weeks in the castle went by quickly. Katherine went on doing her usual routine of drills and patrolling. As the temperature continued to drop, her uniform was changed over to one lined with fur. She was also given gloves and socks made of wool. Also, as promised, the linens on her bed were switched to thicker material to accommodate the cold weather.

Richard and Katherine continued their nightly routine of sessions in the library. Katherine found herself nearing the end of the alphabet and her writing was pretty good, with the exception of the H, which she was still having trouble with. Regardless, she was proud of her progress and so was Richard, it seemed. Whenever they were done with a lesson, Richard would look at her with admiration and Katherine would just smile. Some nights, she would read to him as they curled up by the fire. There were a few times where he corrected her pronunciation, but overall, she read independently.

By now the trees were bare, all of the leaves having fallen from them a week before. Katherine waited for the first snowfall to come, and it did. During one of her patrols on the grounds, she felt snowflakes fall onto her hair. She stopped for a moment, enjoying the sensation of the flakes gently covering her body.

Normally, she would be worrying about which crops would be able to harvest for the winter. Also, she would be helping her mother close up the cottage to prevent cold air from entering. However, in the castle, she didn't have to worry about such things. She would still have to stay alert for intruders, especially since the snow would make it harder to fight. For now though, she could just enjoy the first snowfall of winter.

She heard a familiar set of footsteps approach her and she smiled.

"Hello, Your Highness," she said as she continued to walk the border.

"You knew it was me?" he inquired, sounding surprised.

"I recognized your footsteps," she replied.

"Ah." He hummed. "Do you like the snow?"

"Yes, although I usually don't get to enjoy it very much. I would be helping my family with things to prepare for a storm." She stopped walking and turned to face the prince.

Richard frowned. "That is unfortunate, but understandable. So, I'm assuming that means you have never built a snowman?"

A snowman? "You mean snow people? No, I never have." Katherine furrowed her eyebrows in thought, trying to recall if she had ever made one as a child. She could not remember.

"Well, when there is enough snow, would you like to make one with me?" Richard gave her one of his charming smiles, the one he knew she had a hard time saying no to.

"Yes," she replied with a smile. "I would love to build a snowman with you."

"Excellent," he said. "I'll make sure to find you after your shift one of these days once the snow is high enough."

Katherine chuckled at his reply, before asking, "So, have you found any mines that still may be untouched?"

Richard sighed. "I have a found a few, but they are not in our kingdom. Fortunately, though, we are well connected with the family in the kingdom that they are in. I was going to send some men this week to inspect the pits, but am reconsidering it since it is snowing. I will see what the conditions are later. I do not want the men traveling in treacherous circumstances."

Katherine nodded, happy that Richard was concerned for the servants' well-being.

"Well, I must return to patrolling, I will see you after supper," Katherine remarked, winking at him. She saw his hand twitch, clearly trying to resist touching her since there were other guards nearby.

"I look forward to it," he said, before heading into the castle.

As Katherine watched his retreating form, she couldn't help but smile. As child-like as he could be sometimes, Richard was also a very kind-hearted man and good-natured. He often put others before himself, and treated everyone equally.

She hoped that he would never change, even when he became king.

Later that evening, Katherine and Richard were in the library, finishing up another lesson. Katherine grinned as she put down her quill in triumph.

"Congratulations," Richard murmured in her ear. "You have officially completed the alphabet."

She leaned her head back in the chair she was sitting in. and as she did, Richard gave her a gentle kiss on the lips.

"Thank you." She sighed after returning the gesture.

"For what?"

"For teaching me, for taking the time to help me," she said as she got up from the chair.

"I am more than happy to teach you," he replied, wrapping his arms around her from behind.

Katherine relaxed in his embrace, resting her head on his chest.

"I should go," she murmured. However, she didn't move from her position. She heard him sigh as he began to kiss her neck. It had been like this for the past few weeks. Richard seemed to be touching her more, and his actions held an increasing level of passion to them. It made it very hard to keep things chaste. Katherine was surprised at the change in his demeanor, but welcomed it.

She turned around, placing her hands on his shoulders, gently pushing away to free herself. She chuckled as his pouted.

"I really must leave since I am duty tomorrow."

"You're always on duty," he pointed out. She just rolled her eyes. "At least let me walk you to the door."

She huffed. "So stubborn." However, she didn't protest as he led them out of the library. As they made their way to the door, Richard gently reached for her hand and as she realized they were still free from prying eyes, she interlocked their fingers, squeezing a little.

When they arrived at the door, she opened it, and immediately frowned. The snowfall had turned into almost a blizzard during the last few hours. Katherine couldn't really see anything in front of her and the darkness only made it worse.

"Guess it might take me a bit to get back," she muttered. The quarters weren't too far away, and if she walked carefully enough, she could make it.

"Maybe you should stay in here for the night?" Richard suggested.

Katherine thought about it and agreed. It would be better than traipsing through the snow and freeze in the process.

"I will see if there is room in the servant's quarters," she replied.

"Or, you could stay with me," he said. However, Katherine was already shaking her head before he finished his sentence.

"No, that would be extremely improper. Thank you, though." She grinned at him, before heading in the other direction toward the quarters.

"One day, you'll stay with me," he muttered and she snickered, trying not to blush. It wouldn't bother her in the least to stay the night with him, especially if there were other things involved. She then shook her head; she really needed to get her thoughts under control..

As they headed toward their destinations, Katherine began hearing a commotion coming from the throne room. She turned around to look at Richard, whose head was cocked in confusion, trying to listen. The duo looked at each other, and as if reading the other's mind, headed off to the noise.

When they entered the room, Katherine saw the king and queen out of their perspective thrones and looking at someone in front of them.

"Mother, Father, what is going on?" Richard inquired.

"I apologize for the noise, Your Highness," a guard said. "There was someone at the gate who refused to leave." As he said this, Katherine noticed the guard holding a shaking figure by their arm.

"Who are you?" the King questioned the person.

"I apologize for the intrusion, Your Highness," the person, clearly a female, said. "My name is Alexandra." She removed her snow covered hood to reveal a pretty young face. She had light red hair and a heart shaped face. "I was traveling through, but unfortunately, I lost my way due to the storm. That is how I ended up at your gate." She wrapped her arms around herself, still cold from the snow.

"How old are you, child?" the queen asked.

"I am fourteen years, Your Majesty," Alexandra answered softly. "Again, I apologize. However, I was wondering if perhaps I could stay the night?" The girl looked at the royal couple hopefully.

Katherine examined the girl carefully. The stranger was wet from head to toe due to being in the storm. She was obviously cold since she was shaking. Her clothing suggested that she was of the same rank as Katherine. She felt bad for Alexandra, but did find the girl strange for some reason. Katherine couldn't put her finger on why, but she just had an odd feeling about the young woman in front of her. However, she knew it was not her place to object if the king allowed Alexandra to stay.

The king seemed to be doing the same thing Katherine was. He was quiet for a few moments before saying, "I will have one of the maids prepare one of the guest rooms for you."

"Oh, thank you, Your Majesty," Alexandra said, curtsying.

"You are most welcome, Alexandra." The queen gave her a small smile.

"Richard?" the King inquired, turning to his son. "Would you please show our guest to her room, the closest to the hall."

"Yes, Father," Richard replied, gesturing toward Alexandra to follow him. She quickly walked up to him and trailed behind him as he left the throne room. He gave Katherine a small smile before he left.

Katherine smiled in return and stared at Alexandra. She was sure the girl was fine. Nonetheless, she would still keep an eye on her for the rest of the night and the next morning.

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