The Price of Protection

Chapter 5

Katherine's eyes widened to an almost comical size at Javier's question. The man standing before her was the prince? Katherine could not believe it, he dressed so plainly. As she was staring, the prince's lips formed into a small smirk. Realizing this, Katherine dropped her sword and bowed, looking at the ground.

"My apologizes, Your Majesty," she said softly, restraining herself from looking up. "I hope I did not harm you." She tried to keep her voice calm, not showing any trepidation. She knew at this point things did not look good.

Javier snorted. "How could you be so ignorant is what I would like to know."

"Calm down, Javier," the prince said. "I asked her to fight me. I wanted to see how she would do. You may rise, Katherine." Katherine stood up slowly, gazing at the prince. She was surprised to see a playful smirk on the prince's lips. "Do not worry, I am not going to have you beheaded," he chuckled. Katherine sighed in relief, but felt a slight annoyance at the prince's cavalier attitude. "You may go Javier."

"But Your Highness," Javier began to protest.

"Everything is fine, Javier. I highly doubt that Katherine wishes to kill me."

Javier frowned, looked at Katherine, and scowled. He then walked off towards the soldiers' quarters.

"Do not mind him," the prince said. "Javier has always had a bit of a temper."

"You know that?" Katherine asked, surprised. She thought that the prince would not try to get acquainted with any of the soldiers. She figured she was only an exception because he had heard about her.

"Of course," the prince said simply. "We were boyhood friends; we grew up together. He is sometimes my personal guard on long journeys. However, he has not had the chance to mistake me for a stable hand," he joked.

"Again, I am sorry," Katherine murmured.

The prince waved a dismissive hand. "It is okay, that was my intention. I figured that if you knew I was the prince, you would not show me your full potential."

Katherine nodded. "You are correct. So, you really are the prince."

He nodded and bowed playfully. "Prince Richard at your service, m'lady." He gave a charming smile and she could not help but grin.

"So, do you dress up in plain clothes often and walk about the castle grounds?" Katherine teased, feeling slightly more at ease.

Richard shrugged. "Sometimes. I do it every so often to get away from the pressures of the castle. However, today I had a goal in mind."

"Find me," Katherine guessed.

"Yes, find you. However, they did not tell me how beautiful you were." Richard grinned as spoke.

Katherine blushed. "Thank you, Your Highness. However, I doubt I look attractive in men's clothing and covered in sweat."

"You look just fine to me," Richard said, looking at her intently. Then, looking up towards the sky, he frowned. "The sun is setting, which means supper time is approaching. I must be heading back inside. It was nice to meet you, Katherine."

Katherine bowed. "Likewise, Your Highness. I am sure we will cross paths again."

Richard grinned. "Of course. Now, good night." He bowed, before walking away. She stared after him, before shaking her head and heading back into the quarters. She immediately went into her room and walked to the small, wood dresser. Katherine took a cloth and dipped it into the water-filled basin that was placed on the dresser. She slowly wiped her face, clearing it of any leftover sweat and dirt. Once she was finished, the brunette gazed at her reflection.

She smiled, recalling that the prince had called her beautiful. However, she was sure he was doing it just to be kind. Katherine had been called beautiful before, however, she sure was sure she could never measure up to the women who surrounded the prince. Their faces were clean and free of sweat and dirt, and their bodies were scented with oils. Their hair was shining and radiant, due to frequent baths they took. Also, unlike Katherine, their hands were smooth and free of callouses. This was due to the fact that they had never done a day of labor in their life. Their clothes were made of the finest fabrics, while Katherine had to occasionally mend her dresses to makes them fit. Yes, Katherine knew she was nothing like those women and never would be. However, she was content with who she was and would never change that for anyone.

Katherine then upbraided her hair and combed it out. Satisfied with her appearance, she went off to the kitchen to eat supper.

Richard entered the dining room where his mother and father were sitting, the table already set.

"It's nice of you to join us, Richard," his father teased from the his end of the long table. Richard chuckled as he sat down at his place. He then looked to see his mother giving him 'the look' as he called it.

"Yes, Mother?"

"What on earth are you wearing those clothes for?" Martha asked. "I hope you were not getting yourself into trouble, again." She raised an eyebrow.

"No, not too much trouble," Richard trying to reassure her. The red-head's unmoving expression said otherwise. "Do not worry. I was just wandering the grounds, relaxing for a bit. I just wanted to enjoy nature... and meet new people."

"Please do not tell me you went to bother that girl, Richard," his mother scolded. "She is probably having a hard enough time as it is."

The prince shrugged. "She seems to be kind, and quite skilled."

Alexander frowned. "You fought her?"

"Yes, I did. Only for a little while, though. She defeated me pretty quickly. I think she became a little nervous though. Unfortunately, Javier thought she was trying to harm me and started yelling at her." Richard scowled. Javier had always been one to jump to conclusions, even as a child. It had gotten him in trouble often with the king and queen, and also cause the occasional disagreement between him and Richard.

"She is new, so I guess he did know what else to think," his mother said, taking a sip of her wine.

Alexander shrugged. "Well, hopefully he will warm up to her, since Katherine is working her now." The other two Rodgers nodded in agreement. The king then turned to Richard, giving the prince an expectant look. "So, while you were out, did you think of what you are going to say in your letter to Princess Meredith?"

Richard wanted to groan as his father asked the question. The king had been pestering him lately about replying to a letter Princess Meredith had sent about coming to visit her some time during the month. Richard had been putting it off, not thrilled with the prospect of having to travel just to see her.

"No Father, I had not giving it much thought," the prince replied, being purposefully defiant.

Alexander glared. "Damn it, Richard. I have been telling you for two weeks to reply to her! You know what I wish to happen between you two."

Richard scowled. "Yes, I know Father. However, I do not see why I should. You and Mother married for love, so why can't I?" He tried to keep his voice calm, but his anger was boiling.

"Because when we married, the kingdom was not debt," the king said harshly. "I cannot afford to keep raising taxes. If I do, the people will become restless and eventually riot."

"Or more female soldiers will come," Richard muttered under his breath, chuckling.

Ignoring his son, Alexander continued. "The Amera family is very powerful and their kingdom is prosperous. A marriage between you and Princess Meredith would expand our kingdom and secure it financially for decades."

Richard sighed as his father talked. The prince understood the reasoning behind his father's wishes, he did. However, Richard did not want to be a pawn in the process of restoring the kingdom back to its old status. Especially since his father was the reason for the debt in the first place. On the other hand, Richard knew that he would have to eventually comply and fulfill his father's wishes. So the prince decided that he would write to the princess, to please his father and in hopes of no longer being badgered about the whole affair.

"Fine," Richard sighed in defeat. "I will do it."

Alexander looked at his son, surprised, but pleased. "Good, write to her to tonight. Tell her that you will be coming some time in the next few weeks."

Richard nodded. "In three weeks," the prince decided. The journey to the neighboring kingdom of Lockwood was at least five days, depending on weather and other things.

Alexander nodded in agreement. "Yes, three weeks is good. You will begin to make preparations next week, and leave the week after. I will tell a few of the soldiers to let them know that they are going." Richard was tempted to ask for a certain brunette to come, but he knew she was too new to trust on a long journey. "So, that's it then. Now go and write the letter, so that it be delivered as soon as possible!"

Richard nodded. "Good night, Mother," he said, giving her a kiss on the head.

"Good night, Dear. I will see you in the morning," she replied.

"Good night, Father," he said, giving his father a nod. The king nodded in response, before Richard left the dining room.

When he entered his chambers, the prince immediately went to his desk, took a piece of paper, and began writing.

Dearest Princess Meredith Amera,

I am sorry to have not replied to your letter sooner and hope this letter finds you in good health. I write to you now to let you know that I will becoming in three weeks within the date of this letter. I hope this is enough time for you to prepare. I look forward to meeting you and the king and queen in the near future.

Kindest Regards,
Prince Richard Rodgers

Richard smiled as he finished the letter. Short and sweet, just how he wanted it. After stamping the royal seal onto the paper, Richard put the letter under the door, where it would get picked up in a few moments. It was an odd system the way the letters were picked up around the castle, but it worked. As the prince put the letter under the doorway, he hoped that the meeting would be as pleasant as possible.

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