The Price of Protection

Chapter 27

Katherine walked alongside the wall and, rounding the last corner, she smiled, the front of the castle a blanket of white that stretched almost endlessly. Her boots made crunching sounds that followed her as she patrolled, her shoes leaving a long line of impressions in the snow. Reaching the main gate, she heard the clomping of hooves and the rattle of wheels, the approaching carriage still hidden by the tress, and she furrowed her forehead. Could it be the Duke and Duchess perhaps?

Trying to be inconspicuous, she slowed her walk and watched in her peripheral vision as the ornate carriage rolled into sight, passing the gate and into the courtyard. The coachman hopped off, opening the door and helping a woman, probably the duchess, out of the carriage. She took the man's hand as she gracefully stepped onto the stone walkway. The woman was quite short. However, the dress made up for the lack of size. Bright white with a sprinkling of gold throughout, a small train trailed behind her as she shifted forward, forcing her to lift her dress up in order not to trip, and with the blonde hair that was piled on top of her head, she appeared to be an upside down mushroom.

Katherine's steps decreased until they were almost at a standstill, and as three children dashed from the carriage one after the other, she edged closer to the wall. A small boy, who looked about nine, scampered out first, his brown curls waving slightly as he ran, while another young boy, about seven and almost identical, only with black hair, tried to catch up with his sibling. And lastly, a pixie of a girl, stepped out of the carriage and walked as fast as she could to keep up with her brothers, her arms wrapped tight around a grey kitten.

As the family disappeared into the castle, Katherine pivoted, strolling back around the same corner, until a familiar voice stopped her.

"It's not polite to spy on people."

She pouted, turning to face the person.

"I was not spying!"

Her friend chuckled. "Yes, you were. I don't fault you though, since you've never met them before."

"I'm just naturally curious, Javier." She smirked.

"Indeed." He rolled his eyes. "The family is nice, but they don't really speak to the servants unless one of them needs something. They're…"

"Traditional?" Katherine finished.

"Precisely." Javier shrugged. "They won't cause any trouble though. The children are usually occupied in a room somewhere away from their parents."

"Well, sounds like it won't be very exciting until Christmas then," Katherine remarked. "I must get back to patrolling. I will see you at dinner." She nodded and smiled, and he returned the gesture before she walked away.

For some reason, she found herself hoping that the family wasn't as dull as they sounded.

Two days later, Christmas Day finally arrived. The whole castle was a buzz with excitement and the food was ready. Jennifer and the other servants were putting the finishing touches on the dessert and preparing some trays to be carried around once the guests arrived.

The soldiers, on the other hand, were going over the tactics that would be used in case of an emergency. They discussed escape routes and what to do with the royal family in case anything went wrong. Katherine hoped they wouldn't need to use them.

"Now, everyone must be on the lookout tonight. If you are done with your shift, you must wait until the next guard comes to take your place. Do not wander off from your post. Once you are done for the night, you are allowed to participate in the festivities. However, you obviously cannot dine with the guests." Captain Montgomery's eyes scanned the room, ensuring everyone was paying attention, his movements rattling the medals pinned to the fancy, green uniform he'd adorned for the night. Apparently, the crew was allowed to get dressed up to a degree.

No one made a sound and he smiled. "That is all. Everyone have a good night and make the royal family and I proud."

There was a chorus of "hear, hear" before everyone went their separate ways, Katherine spinning on her toes toward her own post.

"Katherine, a moment please." her Captain ordered, and she peered over her shoulder before walking up to him, furrowing her eyebrows in confusion. She didn't recall doing anything wrong, so why did he need her?

"Yes, Sir?"

"I just want to commend you," he said, smiling at her.

"For what?" Nothing had occurred out of the ordinary as of late.

"For how far you've come." He grinned at her. "I know it wasn't easy for you when you first came here. However, you seem to get along with everyone, and more importantly, your skills have greatly improved. You're quicker with the sword and your target practice on Aristotle has definitely gotten better." They both chuckled at that. "Anyway, I just wanted to give you my congratulations. Maybe one day you'll move upwards in the rank."

Katherine's eyes widened at the statement. She knew he did not compliment easily, so it was a pleasant surprise to hear such news.

"Thank you, Captain. That means a lot to me."

She smiled gratefully before bowing and leaving the quarters. As she went to her post, which was in the ballroom, she spotted the youngest of the royal children trotting around the garden, the kitten following after her.

Katherine felt sad for the little girl. It seemed that the brothers did not bother with her and the parents were always somewhere else, the cat her only constant companion. Kate had attempted to talk to her a few times and, while she'd discovered her name was Marie, and that she liked snow, and playing with it, generally, whenever they had passed each other in the castle, she'd only stared at Katherine in wonderment.

Trying to get back to the task at hand, Katherine walked to the great hall where the ball was being held. The servants were already beginning to come in with trays of wine goblets and the palace musicians were keying up their instruments. As she observed this, Katherine stationed herself at a door that led to the dining room. It was the perfect position; out of the way, but she still had a good view of the hall. Her left hand moved to her sheath, checking to make sure her sword was in its place. She gripped the handle, praying there would be no reason to use it.

A few moments later, the guests began to arrive, all of them in some form of Christmas clothing. The women's hair were donned with ribbons in shades of green, red, and gold. Some also wore dresses and carried fans of similar colors. The men on the other hand, went with more subtle touches of Christmas on them, such as different colored buckles and green socks. Either way, it was clear everyone was in the holiday spirit.

As she scanned the room, she noticed the king and queen greeting each guest warmly as he or she walked through the door. There was no huge announcement when someone made an entrance, just a smile and a shake of the hand from the royal couple.

"They always like to personalize things. It makes them feel closer to the guests," a voice next to her said.

"And easier to keep track of who's here," she added with a smile.

"That too," Richard agreed, grinning. "Also, Merry Christmas! I haven't seen you all day, so I figured I might as well say it now before I get whisked away."

Katherine rolled her eyes. "Yes, because you're so popular."

"Well, I am the prince," he said with a cocky grin.

"Of course."

His body went still beside her, his eyes searching hers as he asked, "Meet me in the library after dinner." She furrowed her eyebrows in confusion. Was something wrong? And as if reading her thoughts, he said, "Do not worry, it is nothing bad. I just have something for you."

She frowned. "I told you not to get me anything."

"You'll love it, I promise."

"Fine," she muttered knowing there was no way she could say no. Besides, she was curious as to what he had chosen as a gift.

"I hope you didn't get me anything." He narrowed his eyes playfully.

"I didn't promise that," she responded simply. However, her internal response was one of nervousness. His mention of the present reminded her of what her gift to him was going to be. She just hoped he would like and accept it.

"See you after dinner then."

Katherine nodded. "Enjoy the party."

An he winked before disappearing into the crowd.

The party went on, and Katherine continued scanning the crowd, noticing that some people of lesser rank were celebrating tonight. From the way they were dressed, Katherine assumed they were friends of the queen. She hadn't said it, but Katherine was sure that the queen was not borne into royalty. It didn't surprise her that Martha would have friends from a different class. It actually comforted her to know that all types of people were welcome into the castle, as she had seen with Alexandra. Speaking of Alexandra, where was that girl?

Katherine looked around the room and finally spotted the young girl in the corner talking to a boy who looked to be around her age. They seemed to be chattering intensely and paying no attention to others around them. Katherine chuckled, realizing that Alexandra hadn't really had any other human contact beside the people inside the castle. She was sure the girl enjoyed talking to someone else for once.

She was broken out of her thoughts from a commotion nearby. A moment later, she saw a flash of blonde and felt a tug on her pant leg. She looked down to see soft, sad blue eyes staring at her, and she frowned, confused as to why the little girl was hiding until she heard the patter of feet approach her.

"Come on and play with us, Marie," a voice whined. Katherine recognized the owner of it as the middle child of the Duke and Duchess. Unlike Marie, he always had a companion, his older brother. They would team up and tease Marie whenever the three of them were near each other. It made Katherine feel bad for the youngest and annoyance toward the boys. Katherine always wanted to say something on those occasions, but she knew it wasn't her place to do so.

"No," the little girl mumbled, hiding her face behind Katherine's leg, and she reached behind her, gently patting Marie's head in reassurance.

"Will you two stop teasing your sister?" a voice demanded. A moment later the duchess came into view, her red gown trailing behind her, and the two boys ran towards her, heads down as they mumbled apologies to her and Marie.

"Good, now go say hello to your other cousins."

"Yes, Mother," they replied in unison before scampering off.

"I'm sorry for the bother," the duchess said, looking at Katherine.

"They were no trouble, really, Your Ladyship," she responded, shrugging.

The woman waved a dismissive hand. "Oh, I know my sons and I'm well aware they can be quite the trouble makers." Looking at Marie, she said, "Come along, sweetheart. I'm sure it's almost time for supper." Marie removed herself from Katherine's leg and trotted toward her mother, clutching the skirt of the dress with her tiny hands once she was in reach.

The duchess gave Katherine a small smile and a nod before carrying her daughter off into the crowd and Katherine's lips curved upward in their wake. Perhaps the other Rodgers weren't as traditional as she thought.

As the duchess had predicted, the dinner bell clanged a few minutes later and everyone filed into the dining room. Katherine followed suit, slightly relieved at knowing that her shift was over once dinner was finished. Everyone sat down at the table, glancing at the silverware or continuing their previous conversations.

As soon as everyone was seated, the king clinked his glass with his spoon, and a hush fell over the table.

"I would just like to thank you all for coming. It's always grand to see the familiar faces of friends and family, especially at such a joyous time of year. So I give a toast, to health, happiness, and prosperity to you all." Everyone raised their cups in unison and replied 'hear hear'. Then smirking, the king added "And may my son find a bride in the upcoming year, so that she can keep him out of trouble." The guests roared with laughter, including Richard. However, Katherine was surprised when she saw Richard's eyes land on her, his small smile appearing to be just for her, before he turned away.

What was he thinking?

Katherine shook her head discreetly, forcing herself to concentrate on the task at hand.

Soon, the food was brought out, each dish more delicious looking than the last. However, unlike the last party, she wasn't drooling with hunger. Thankfully, before their shifts had started, all of the soldiers had been fed a meal that consisted of samplings of the night's menu, including dessert. It had all been delectable and Katherine was still full.

The meal continued peacefully. None of the guests fought with one another or tried to hurt anyone else. As the meal drew to a close, Katherine saw several guests stand up and return to the hall. Richard was among them, but Katherine noticed he went off in the direction of the library. Once the soldier covering her post came, she followed Richard, meeting him at the doors.

"Close your eyes, Katherine."

"But-"

"Please?" He pouted, giving her an adorable look.

She chuckled, relenting. As soon as her eyes were closed, she felt his hand on her back, followed by the creaking of the door opening. As soon as they were in the library, he ordered her to open her eyes. She obeyed, gasping at the two people standing near the fireplace, her lips then breaking into a grin.

"Mama! Papa!" she exclaimed, running to embrace them. She gathered both her parents into a hug and they returned the gesture with the same amount of enthusiasm. "It is so good to see you. Oh how I have missed you."

Her mother laughed. "It is great to see you too, dear. Now step back so I can take a look at you." Katherine rolled her eyes as she obliged, allowing her mother to examine her. "You look well, Katherine, healthy even. It also seems you're stronger too."

Katherine nodded. "Yes, I am stronger. The training I do each day has helped me build up my strength. Also, the meals here are hearty." She smiled, examining her mother. "You look well, too, Mama." She did. Her mother's cheeks looked fuller, pinker and her eyes were brighter. Also, her form wasn't as slim as it had been when Katherine last saw her.

"Yes, we had a good harvest. Also, your papa made some extra money in the shop, so we were able to buy a little more food."

"That's good." Katherine was thrilled at the good fortune that had befallen her parents. Hopefully, it would last a while.

Richard cleared his throat, and the small family turned to look at him, all three having completely forgotten he was there.

"I apologize for the intrusion, but I must return to the party," he stated, giving them a small smile.

"It is okay, I know you have guests to entertain." Katherine walked up to him and boldly decided to embrace him. She heard a slight gasp come from her mother, but she did not care.

"Thank you," she whispered, gazing up at him. He grinned at her and squeezed her hand. Releasing him from her embrace, she gave him a little wave as he walked out of the library.

She turned around and almost groaned when she saw the looks on her parents' faces.

It seemed she had some explaining to do.

Richard gazed at the crowd, keeping a smile on his face. He knew and loved almost all of the people at the party, but he was beginning to grow tired and was thankful that the night would soon come to a close. The best part so far for him was seeing the look on Katherine's face when she met her parents. The utter joy on her face made his heart flutter and he was happy he was part of the reason for it. Her family had begun talking as if no time had passed, and while he hadn't wanted tot go, he had little say in the matter.

"Something on your mind, darling?" his mother asked. He looked at her and rolled his eyes at the arched eyebrow she gave him.

"No, Mother."

"Hmm. You're an awful liar, but I won't bother you about it." She paused for a moment, before asking, "Who are you going to dance with?"

"Mother," he warned, not really surprised she brought it up. The one thing he hated about parties was the customary dance he had to do with one girl of his choosing. He had been doing this since he turned eighteen years old. "I'll pick someone, I promise."

"Good. Just not a relative again, please?"

He smirked. There had been a few times where he had picked a cousin to dance with and his father had not been pleased.

"I won't, Mother."

"Whatever you say," she drawled. "I'll be back in a bit."

He turned to give her a confused expression, but she had already disappeared into the crowd and he shrugged, figuring she had gone to mingle with some other guests.

Deciding to re-enter the crowd, he roamed about, noticing that the older Becketts had returned from the library and were conversing with some of the guests. They appeared a little nervous, but also seemed to be slowly adjusting to the crowd around them. Richard felt bad because he realized that they had probably never been to a party of this scale. Hopefully, they would continue to adjust as the night went on. he liked them and wanted them to enjoy being at his home.

Speaking of Becketts, where was Katherine? He knew her shift was over. Perhaps she had gone back to the soldier's quarters. He couldn't search for her, so he settled for hoping that she was resting. She deserved it.

After a few minutes more minutes of wandering, Richard went back to the head of the room, knowing his father would announce the dance any minute.

As if on cue, the moment he entered the space, the music quieted down and the king clapped his hands.

"May I have your attention, please." He waited until the whole room fell silent before continuing. "It is now time for my son to choose who to dance with. Who knows? It might be my future daughter-in-law." A collective chuckle came from the crowd.

As his father talked, Richard noticed his mother scurry up besides his father, her expression implying she was up to something. Richard narrowed his eyes, and shook his head at her possible antics.

After ordering all the girls to line up in the front, his father signaled for him to step forward and Richard obeyed. He began to walk through the line, hating the feeling of looking at each girl as if they were cattle. They were all fine looking, but he didn't really feel anything for them besides friendship. He just wanted to get this done and over with. When he got to the end of the line, he began to turn around; however, he stopped when he saw her.

She was dressed in a purple satin dress, one of his mother's older ones. It was clear it had been mended slightly to fit her, but he didn't mind, not one bit. The lace trimming on the cuffs encircled her wrists and the bodice accentuated her chest perfectly. Her hair was out of of its normal braid and hung loose around her shoulders, the ends having a slight curl to them, and she had a touch of makeup on around her cheeks, giving them a slight glow. She looked radiant.

He gave her a small smile, before asking her to dance, and she accepted. He took her hand, kissing it lightly, and as he pulled her closer, the band began to play a slow tune.

"It was you mother's idea," she whispered.

He chuckled. Somehow, he wasn't the least bit surprised. Regardless, it made his Christmas a lot better. He twirled her around, very aware of the people watching them.

"Well, I'm thankful you went along with it."

She looked up at him and when he peered into her eyes, the only thing he could see was love.

"I wanted to. I actually thought about dancing with you, but didn't think I would get the chance."

He closed his eyes, wanting to pull her close at that statement, but knew he couldn't because of the audience.

"Well, now you have. And I'm very glad for it."

They both chuckled.

"Can you meet me by your chambers later?"

He furrowed his eyebrows in confusion, dipping her slightly before bringing her back up. He thought her request strange for a moment, but decided to agree with it anyway.

"Of course."

A look of relief crossed her face before she smiled, and he twirled her some more, her feet gliding gracefully across the floor, her dress fanning out as she moved. All too quickly, the music slowed, their dance coming to an end, and they stopped. However, the spark that was always there kept flowing through them and he knew she could feel it too.

He bowed and she curtsied. There was polite applause from the crowd, clearly happy that the dance was over with.

"Thank you, your Highness," Katherine said. She curtsied again before winking and disappearing into the crowd.

He smiled as he watched her retreating form. Once the audience returned to their chatter, he went back to the head of the room. Looking at his mother, he mouthed "thank you" and she nodded in response.

Meanwhile, the king wore a confused expression on his face before shaking his head.

Richard sighed in relief, happy that his father hadn't caught onto anything or recognized Katherine.

Hopefully no one else would say anything.

Katherine waited patiently by Richard's door, knowing it would still be a bit before he came. He was probably saying goodbye to the guests. Her parents were supposed to stay the night and leave in the morning after breakfast, and she smiled at the memory of their conversation. Apparently, Richard had given them an inkling of what their relationship was, something she had not been sure of before. But now, with what she was about to do, she was sure she cared for him deeply. She might even go as far as to say she loved him. She chuckled at the thought. Her, in love with the prince. And he was in love with her. It was surreal.

The rest of the conversation had been pleasant, most of it consisting of her parents telling her the goings on in the village. Most of it was new engagements and their neighbor had a baby girl. Katherine was happy to hear that there was joy happening in the village, despite the state of the kingdom. After they were done, her parents went back to the party and Katherine had planned to go back to the quarters. However, the queen had grabbed her, insisting that she dress up and join in the festivities. Katherine agreed, leading herself be clothed and made up like a doll. It actually felt nice. Although, she definitely did not like the corset.

The dance with Richard had been wonderful. She wished they could have been a little closer, but she was fine with the way it turned out. Now, as she waited for him, footsteps approached.

"Hello," he greeted, giving her a warm smile.

"Hello, your Highness," she whispered. "I wish to give you your present." He grinned like a little boy at the statement and she stopped herself from rolling her eyes. "May we go in?"

He looked at her, shocked, but agreeing. After he opened the door to his chambers, she stepped inside and he followed suit, shutting the door behind him.

"So, what exactly is my present?" he asked, obviously trying to hide the eagerness in his voice. He was terrible at it.

She hesitated.

"I wasn't sure what to give you," she started, facing the fireplace, her back to him. She didn't want him to see the uncertainty in her face.

"I told you, you didn't have to give me anything," he interrupted.

"I know. I just wanted to give you something. And besides, you gave me something." Her eyes narrowed into slits playfully. "Also, thank you again for that. I really appreciate the trouble you went to, it was lovely to see my parents again."

"I only wish to make you happy." His tone was sincere, making her chest clench.

"I wish the same." She paused, facing him. "As I was saying, I wished to give you something. I wasn't quite sure what to give you, but then…" She approached the bed where he sat and he moved over to give her some room.

"What?"

She sat down next to him slowly and faced him.

"I wish," She swallowed, trying to muster up the courage to finish her thought. "I wish- I wish to give you my virtue."

His eyes widened in shock. Before he could protest, she continued.

"I thought this through. Truly I did." She began to talk faster, her nerves getting the best of her. "I trust you so much and I have deep feelings for you. Also, I thought I should give you something that is of value, that could be yours. I-"

"Katherine," he said firmly. She stopped, feeling the fear and embarrassment set in. He was silent for a moment, and she took it as a bad sign.

"Oh god," she muttered. "You don't want me, do you? God, I'm being so stupid, I-"

She was stopped by his lips being placed upon hers, before he pulled back, chuckling.

"Finally. Now will you listen?"

She nodded.

"Good." Taking her hand in his, he made circle patterns in her palm with his thumb, soothing her.

"Now first, I want you. I always desire you, never doubt that." The way his eyes darkened during the statement made her face heat up. "But, have you really thought this through? The consequences? What this could mean for you?"

She nodded her head fervently.

"Yes, I have." She felt calmer now, making her voice steadier. "I know what the consequences are, what could happen if we do this." She stopped, taking a breath. "But I also know that I want you, that I have feelings for you, and that I trust you in a way that I trust no other man." She took his face in her hands. "I want to give you my virtue because it's the one thing of value that is special and can never be given again." She leaned her forehead against his and kissed him before whispering, "I just want you."

He took her wrists in his hands, and her stomach dropped. He was going to reject her. Instead, he asked, "Are sure? There's no going back after this." His eyes searched hers and she nodded.

"I know and yes, I'm completely sure. I want you, Richard."

After that statement, he kissed her again, pressing her into the bed.

Both of their dreams would come true that night.


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