The Price of Protection

Chapter 26

As the weeks had flown by, the castle prepared for the upcoming feast, and Katherine had watched in awe as the supplies for the kitchen had come in. Sacks of flour, extra silverware, and other items had filled the cupboards and pantry, and even for the moderate festivities, there was barely an inch of space left.

The servants had gone about stringing up garland in the great hall and the main rooms, giving off a fresh smell that lingered on their clothes. Katherine was amazed how much brighter the castle looked with the decorations, especially the grand tree which had been put up in the parlor, red and silver ball ornaments hung beautifully on it, along with shimmering garland.

The soldiers also had their own miniature tree in their quarters. They'd made some effort to decorate it with pieces of flowers, but besides that, they hadn't done much else; most of their day was spent away.

The demeanor of the residents was another area that reflected the upcoming season. Not that anybody was ever that unhappy around the castle, but it seemed Christmas had doubled the spirit. Staff members were amicable to each other and the royal family seemed to spread their own seasonal happiness wherever they went.

The additional jubilation within the royal family may have also been because of the extended family members who were coming to stay for a while. It was the king's brother's family. Katherine didn't even know that the king had siblings since Richard had never spoken of them, and when she'd asked why, he'd just grinned, telling her there was no reason to. Regardless of the silence that had surrounded the subject, he seemed fond of them, so she hadn't worried too much.

The snow had calmed down over the weeks, but it was still deep, which was why Alexandra continued to stay with them. That and the queen was apparently afraid of bandits attacking the girl, so she'd insisted the girl stay put. Katherine didn't really have a problem with Alexandra, the young woman was okay, but something about her remained odd. She was always looking as if someone was watching and she would disappear for a while and return to the castle later. Katherine assumed she was roaming the grounds, but she planned to follow her on a day when she wasn't on shift.

Katherine and Richard lingered in the library together whenever they had the chance. However, it consisted more of her reading to him and them just talking about their day, rather than her learning anything new. It didn't matter what they did while there, she just enjoyed spending time with her? She still wasn't quite sure what Richard was. He was more than a friend but she couldn't exactly label him her lover either. Either way, she liked seeing him at the end of the day and was grateful for their time together.

During their nights in, Katherine had been inquiring as to what he wanted for Christmas. His reply had remained, "The only thing I want is you." Although this made her very happy, his answer didn't help her in the slightest. Katherine had vowed to herself that she would find something to give him for Christmas, in her mind there was no other option!

When he'd asked, she'd told him not to get her anything, since it would be a bad idea, considering the situation they were in. He'd pointed out the flaw in her logic since she wanted to get him something and she'd rolled her eyes before changing the topic. She hoped he wouldn't get her anything, but she had a feeling he wouldn't listen.

Not that it mattered today, Katherine had finished her duties a little earlier, apparently, one of the other soldiers was eager to start his shift, and she wasn't going to question it. She'd traveled around the grounds looking for Richard. However, she hadn't been able to find him, thankfully though, when she went into the kitchen, Jennifer seemed to know what she wanted.

"He is out for the day," her friend said the moment Katherine entered the room.

"Where did he go?" She furrowed her eyebrows in confusion. He hadn't said he was going anywhere. Maybe it was a last minute trip? Although that happened rarely and Richard wasn't usually the one who went.

The cook shrugged. "To the village, I believe. He left a few hours ago. I suspect he'll be back later tonight."

Katherine shrugged before going back upstairs. She wandered the halls until she found herself in the parlor, and looking around, she saw that she was the only one there. Due to her dirty uniform, she resisted the urge to sit on the long couch that was off to the side near the wall, choosing instead to walk, glancing at the various items on the wooden table situated in the middle of the room.

The one item that caught her eye was a book. Picking it up, Katherine ran a hand over the smooth, red cover, and, opening it, she tried to read the words, but found they were in a language she didn't know. However, she admired the pictures in it. Bright and colorful, they seemed to be able to tell the story on their own.

"That is one of my favorite books," a voice form behind said, and Katherine started, promptly shutting the volume in her hand.

"Good Evening, Your Majesty."

The queen chuckled and smiled. "Oh, don't mind me, dear. I'm sorry I gave you such a fright." She walked over to the couch and sat on it. "I was only coming in to rest my feet a bit. I've been running all day making sure preparations are in order for the feast and the guests who are visiting in three days."

"I heard they are His Majesty's brother and wife?" Katherine questioned, walking over to her side.

"Yes, it is. Along with their three children." The queen patted the cushion. "Come sit with me." Seeming to see the brunette's hesitation, she smiled. "Don't worry about dirtying it, dear. Lord knows Richard did much worse to it when he was younger."

Katherine complied, carefully seating herself in one spot and trying not to move too much.

"That's better." The queen hummed. "Now, as I was saying, they have three children. The eldest is nine, the middle child is six, and the youngest one is four, I think." The queen cocked her head in thought. "I haven't seen them in a while, so I'm assuming they've grown quite a bit. I always enjoy when they visit. Brings me back to years ago when Richard was a boy, not that he's changed much." Both women snickered. "The Duchess, his wife, is a nice lady. And the Duke is the complete opposite of my husband." She rolled her eyes. "But they still get along quite well."

"Is there anyone else coming early?" Katherine questioned.

The queen shook her head. "No, just them. Everyone else is arriving the night of the party. Some may stay overnight, but most will probably start traveling home the same day."

Katherine nodded, making a mental note to know every guest that arrived.

She looked around the room, fiddling with the book in her hands when her eyes fell upon a portrait that hung over the mantel of the fireplace. The portrait was of the royal family when Richard was clearly much younger, probably about six or seven, Katherine guessed. Richard was sitting on the queen's lap, who was sitting in a chair. The king was behind them, his hand resting on Martha's shoulder.

"You see the way I'm holding him in my lap?" the queen questioned, chuckling. "I had to do that to keep him from running off. That was about our third hour into the painting. I was getting restless too, but we wanted to finish it. Richard and I were both very happy when it was completed," she mused, obviously remembering the day.

"I saw the painting of you in the guest room, you look lovely," Katherine admitted, smiling.

"Ah, yes." The queen rolled her eyes. "That was done shortly after the king and I were married. It's apparently a requirement to have separate portraits done right after marriage." She shrugged her shoulders before eyeing the book Katherine was holding, and taking it from her dirt stained hands, she flipped through it with a smile on her face.

"I love this story." She sighed, touching some of the pages, before wrinkling her nose. "Although, I do dislike that the relationship is made to be so easy."

"Well, couldn't it be easy?" Katherine suggested, thinking of her parents. Even through the hard times, her parents' love for one another never seemed to waver.

"Love is never really easy," Martha remarked, glancing at Katherine. "And it shouldn't be portrayed as such with this couple."

"What's wrong with them?"

"Well," the queen stated. "It isn't really them, it's the outside world. You see, their love is forbidden. The girl is a chambermaid and the man is the soon to be king." Katherine bit her lip to stop herself from commenting. "Although clichéd, it's a very nice story. But the author just makes everything rosy and good. It never really goes into the hardships and complications that the couple could face due to their status differences."

"Something tells me you're speaking from experience," Katherine murmured. She knew of the baby, but she wasn't sure if there were other problems the king and queen had faced.

The queen flicked her eyes to Katherine, examining her face.

"I'm not quite sure what you have and haven't heard about me, Katherine. But I assure you, I appreciate my life now compared to what it was before I met Alexander."

"I haven't really heard anything, Your Majesty," she answered honestly. "No one discusses your past."

"Except from whatever Richard has told you, I assume." The queen raised an eyebrow knowingly.

"I don't know what," Katherine started, but the red head raised her hand.

"You might as well save your breath." The queen chortled. "I already told Richard I knew, so it's only fair that you know too. Since it seems he didn't say anything to you about the discussion I had with him."

"He talked to you about us?" she questioned, knowing there was no point in denying it.

"Yes, just a little." The queen's face formed into an amused expression. "He was trying to be subtle about what he was talking about, but I saw through him."

"What did you talk about?"

The queen shook her head, sighing. "That, my dear, is a conversation for another day." She placed a gentle hand on Katherine's and squeezed it. "My point is, you need to be a little more careful. Also, that trouble will come if your relationship is discovered by someone who is not me."

"That's why we've been keeping it a secret," Katherine muttered.

"I realize that." Martha shook her head. "But the time will come when you have to reveal yourselves. Unless you're comfortable with being a mistress." Katherine scowled. "I didn't think so."

"But what exactly are we supposed to do?" She knew that they would have to come out at some point, but so soon?

"That is up to you, dear." The queen reached across, resting a hand on her shoulder. "Alexander and I took care of it and told his parents right away. They didn't approve, but they didn't stop us from marrying either."

Katherine's eyes widened. Marriage? Was she ready for that? She knew she felt something for Richard, but marriage?

"I'm not telling you to get married. I'm just telling you to come out in the open about your relationship. That way, any backlash can be done and over with before any idea of marriage enters your heads."

Katherine nodded, unsure of what to say.

"Now, I must bid you good night, it's getting late and my husband will be wondering where I am." Martha rolled her eyes again, but smiled lovingly, and as the red head went to get up, Katherine grabbed her hand, immediately regretting the bold action.

"Yes?" She gave her a friendly, almost loving smile.

Reassured by this, Katherine asked, "Do you approve, Your Majesty?" She bit her lip nervously, scared of the matriarch's answer.

"You make my son happy," the queen started. "And it's clear he loves you." Katherine furrowed her eyebrows in confusion. "Oh, don't look so surprised, dear. I can tell he does. The way his eyes lit up when he talked about you, it's the same way mine or Alexander's does when we talk about each other." The queen then took both of Katherine's hands in hers. "But to answer your question, yes I do approve. You are good for my son. You just need to be careful."

The moment the queen finished her statement, Katherine's grinned, and unable to contain her excitement, she jumped up from the couch, hugging the red head tightly.

"Thank you, Your Majesty. That means a lot to me." She swallowed the lump that was forming in her throat.

Martha returned the embrace with the same strength, she then leaned into Katherine's ear and whispered, "I would be proud to call you my daughter-in-law one day."

She separated herself from the young woman, winking before turning away, and leaving the parlor, the queen's purple dress trailed after her, as Katherine remained standing, a silly smile on her.

Perhaps things would work out after all.

At the same time, the youngest member of the royal family sat at a small wood table, two pairs of eyes staring at him, obviously confused by his presence. He looked at them directly, hoping not to come off as intimidating. That would definitely be a bad way to start off with the two people his lover held most dear to her heart.

Richard had slipped away to the village earlier that afternoon under the pretense he had needed to search for a gift or two. It hadn't been a complete lie. He'd looked for gifts, just not for his parents like he had said.

No, he'd been looking for a gift for the woman who captured his heart. Granted, he already knew what he wanted to get her. The idea had come after a discussion they had about things they'd done when they were growing up and activities they'd had done with their parents. The way she'd smiled when she talked about them, it had stopped his heart, and in that moment, he'd figured out what to get her.

He had spent the majority of the day roaming the shops, looking for something a little extra to give Katherine. However, he hadn't seen anything she would like or anything that wouldn't be too obvious.

So, after he'd finished browsing, and once away from the stares of the townspeople who'd been surprised to see the prince wandering around town on his own, he'd gone to the small cottage that was just on the edge of the village. He had asked one of the shopkeeper's, the seamstress to be exact, where the Becketts lived. She'd happily pointed out the direction of their cottage and then he'd set off with Thunder in tow.

As he had stood at the wooden door, he'd become nervous and had almost laughed at himself. The prince nervous of peasants, who had ever heard of such a thing? However, he'd sobered up, remembering why he was there. He'd just hoped they would agree with him. If they didn't, he wasn't going to force them into anything.

And, that's how he landed where he currently was, the two Becketts staring at him in confusion.

"Would you like something to eat, Your Highness? We have some bread and stew. I'm sure it's not what you're used to, but I assure you it tastes just fine." Before he could object, Johanna was giving him a bowl of steaming stew with a piece of bread on the side. When he inhaled, he caught a heavenly scent from the bowl in front of him and he smiled. It would be rude to refuse and he hadn't eaten since breakfast.

As he took a bite, he stated, "I'm sure you're wondering why I'm here?"

"Yes, actually, we are," James replied, still wearing a confused expression.

"Well, I am here because I have a request or an invitation rather."

"An invitation to what?"

"The castle for Christmas. I want the both of you to come. You can stay for as long or as short as you like. However, something tells me Katherine would much rather prefer you stay longer." Richard smiled, as their eyes grew wide.

"Katherine? Our daughter Katherine?" Johanna asked surprised. "You know who she is?"

He nodded, chuckling. "Yes, I most certainly know who she is." His eyes traveled between both of them. "The reason why I'm inviting you is because it is a Christmas present for her. I know she misses you both dearly and would be very glad to see you. I was hoping to surprise her on Christmas Day."

James cleared his throat. "Forgive me, Your Highness. But may I ask you something?" Richard nodded. "Why exactly do you want to do this for Katherine?"

"I am wondering the same thing," Johanna chimed in. "Please don't take this as us being ungrateful, but I am quite curious as to why you're inviting us personally." Her brown eyes gained an inquisitive glint, one that Richard was familiar with and enjoyed seeing every day.

"I am not offended," he replied, grinning. "But the reason I am inviting you is because I care for your daughter deeply and enjoy making her happy. I know that seeing you would make her extremely happy."

"You care for Katherine?" James inquired.

Richard nodded. "Very much so," he replied in a sincere tone.

Johanna examined him with a critical eye. "And what exactly are your intentions with her?"

Richard sighed, but understood where her questions were coming from. He ran a hand through his hair, thinking carefully.

"My intentions are pure, I assure you. I wish to be with her some day, permanently, but as you have probably realized, that is rather…difficult at the moment. Not to say that it will never happen, but we are still being careful about the whole thing ourselves."

"Katherine isn't a thing to be played with," James warned.

"I know and I would never do that to her, I promise." He looked at his hands. "I love her too much to hurt her." Peering back up, he smiled hopefully. "So, will you come? I promise you'll have a grand time."

Johanna shrugged. "Sure, why not?" And turning toward her husband for approval, James nodded. "Then it's settled, we will come on Christmas Day. Oh, it will be great to see Katherine again! I've missed her so much."

"Me too," James murmured.

Standing up, Richard bowed. "Well, it was nice meeting you and thank you for the meal, it was delicious." He smiled at Johanna. "I will see you in a week."

He turned and opened the door, giving one last wave to the family before shutting it. Mounting Thunder, he pulled his scarf over his nose to protect him from the cold. However, he felt warm inside.

He finally got Katherine her present and he was sure she would be very happy with it.

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