"But, Addie, you must!"
"I'm not going, Gwen."
The princess marched along after her bodyguard, who was walking quickly down the corridor to her room. She went straight through the door, leaving her quiver and sword on the table just inside, and proceeded to sit down on the edge of the bed with stately grace. Adeline kept her chin resolutely high, but not so high as to make Gwen think she was angry.
She wasn't angry, she was terrified. She was also determined not to make an utter mockery of herself.
Gwen, who had a reputation throughout several countries for possessing an extraordinarily large amount of patience, let out an exasperated huff.
"Why don't you want to go? It's not as if you'll be on display; this is a ball being held in honor of our visit. I'll be drawing everyone's eye tonight just by being there."
Yes, everyone's eye except for one man, Adeline thought darkly. And I have a tendency of staring at him and tripping over flat surfaces and forgetting what my name is when he's around, so I'd rather his eye not be on me tonight.
"Addie?" Gwen's quiet voice shook Adeline from her thoughts.
"Do you like Lord Xaviar?"
Adeline stared intently at the floor, memorizing the pattern of the rug near her bed. She had essentially two options here: Lie, which would hurt Gwen tremendously, not to mention it was pointless because she wouldn't be asking if she didn't already know, or she could be honest and tell her closest friend that yes, she liked Lord Xaviar, and the degree to which she like him scared her senseless.
Knowing she had to say something, she finally nodded her head ever so slightly and whispered, "Yes."
She half expected Gwen to squeal and drag Adeline to the closet to pick out a beautiful gown for the feast; what she didn't expect was for Gwen to come and sit beside her, draping an arm over her shoulders.
"Addie, did you think you would be expected to take care of me until you're old and gray?"
She looked at Gwen; there was no laughter in her eyes, only concern. She sighed.
"I don't know. I never really thought about it, I suppose. I've never allowed myself to ponder on marriage. Or anything in that category, really. I never dreamed anyone would be interested."
At her last words, Gwen's expression morphed into one of shock.
"Addie, surely you can't mean that. There are servants back home that gladly would ask for your hand, were it not above their station. My cousin is hardly the first man to notice how lovely you are."
It was Adeline's turn to be surprised.
"But…but I'm not lovely. I'm tolerable, I suppose, but next to you I never expected anyone with two good eyes to notice me."
Gwen chuckled before saying, "Adeline, if that is your aim, then you ought to go about in a suit of armor - with the visor down - all the time."
Adeline flushed slightly, but smiled a little too. It was rather funny, she supposed. She was trained in combat, in ensuring the safety of the Princess, but when it came to men she was utterly lost.
"I'm afraid to go the feast, Gwen," she finally admitted, "because I know he's going to be there. I don't know what to do, or what to say, or what if he's not interested, or what if I trip on my gown and fall down the stairs, or-"
Gwen's smile stopped her rant abruptly and she realized how ridiculous she sounded. She laughed at herself before taking a shaky breath and pushing to her feet.
"Alright, I'll go to the ball. Are you happy now?"
Her face split in two with a radiant smile, Gwen stood as well and led the way to the closet so they could find a suitable dress.
Two hours later, and Adeline was sorely regretting her decision. She didn't realize how long it took one to get ready for an event like this. Gwen had the servants come to her room so they could prepare together, and the princess was already waiting, dressed with hair twisted into an elaborate pile atop her head, with jewels glittering on her neck that matched the small crown nestled into her hair. The gown was a deep purple, with gold-colored lace and trimmings. It was not elaborate, but still rich enough to suit a visiting princess. She looked stunning.
Adeline forced herself to sit still while the maid placed the final touches on her hair. It was pulled back from her face, with the rest hanging down her back. Her gown was a medium blue, with a simple design. There was a small strand of pearls at her neck. She felt overdressed and conspicuous, but Gwen grinned at her before thanking the servants and leading Adeline out into the corridor.
As they neared the top of the staircase that would take them to the main hall, they saw the Tisroc and a few of his attendants waiting for them. As they approached the Tisroc looked at Gwen with admiration he did nothing to hide; it was borderline inappropriate and made Adeline long for her dagger, but aside from causing an international incident there was little to be done. He had already come and claimed Gwen's hand, leading her away towards the sound of music and dancing.
Adeline kept a close eye, determined to swoop in if Gwen acted the least bit upset. She had confided in Adeline just the other day that she was certain the Tisroc would bring up his marriage proposal soon. Hopefully he would not become angry at her refusal, but with the Calormens one could never know. Her thought process was broken when she stepped into the hall; bright silks were draped over the impressive columns, the musicians were already keeping the crowds on their feet with quick, fast-paced tunes, and the aromas from the banquet table made her mouth water.
Startled, she spun quickly to see Xaviar standing behind her, wearing white breeches and a crimson tunic. He was freshly shaved, and she caught a whiff of his clean, musky scent as he bowed deeply before her, the back of his head proving to be every bit as handsome as the front. Fighting back the blush that was already creeping up her neck, she smiled and curtsied in return.
"You look lovely."
She blushed (he must think she suffered from consumption) and managed to squeak, "Thank you, my lord."
He smiled, and there was a moment of awkward silence before the music changed; the lively folk dance being replaced with a stately pavane. Without a moment's hesitation, he held a hand out.
"May I have the honor?"
Without letting herself think about it too much, she smiled and placed her hand in his warm one, and allowed him to lead her out on the dance floor. The dance was a simple one, slow enough to allow conversation while performing the steps, but other than an occasional smile when they turned, little was said.
His grip on her fingers was gentle yet firm, and Adeline caught a glimpse of Gwen watching while chatting with the Calormen nobles. The princess shot her friend a wink, which of course only served to make Adeline blush even more. At last the music ended; she and Xaviar made their way to the edge of the floor as a livelier tune was played.
"You dance very well, my lady."
He stood behind her, and had bent slightly to speak quietly in her ear over the din. The feel of his breath on her ear, tickling the soft wisps of hair that refused to be combed back, was nearly her undoing. She took a deep breath and clenched her hand in the folds of her dress, focusing on forming words articulately.
"As do you, your Grace."
The call to dinner came just then, and Adeline had never been more relieved in all her life. There would be more dancing after the feast, but for now she could relax a little and enjoy the food. She'd immensely enjoyed the Calormen cuisine; the blend of spices and herbs was beyond anything she'd ever tasted before. She was so excited about the food that she failed to notice Gwen sitting across the table from her, or Xaviar to her left. The Tisroc took his seat beside Gwen, obviously forgoing the usual protocol for a separate royal table in favor of remaining near her.
As the meal progressed it became obvious that the Tisroc had every expectation of his proposal being accepted. Adeline found it remarkable that one man could be so confident in himself. She also found it somewhat repulsive.
Gwen was clearly maintaining as much grace with the situation as she could, but Adeline tensed when she heard the Tisroc lower his voice to speak for Gwen's ears alone. Fortunately, he'd either forgotten Adeline was seated near them, or he didn't care, so Adeline was able to keep up with the conversation without too much trouble.
"Princess, have you considered my proposal?"
Gwen paled considerably, and only Adeline's sharp eyes caught the slight tremble of her hand as she set down her fork and took a deep breath.
"Your Excellency, I am afraid I must decline your offer."
There, the words were spoken. Now for the reaction.
To Adeline's shock, the Tisroc nodded slowly.
"I must admit being disappointed, Princess, but nonetheless it is not surprising. I expect the age gap has a great deal to do with your decision?"
Eyes round with surprise, Gwen nodded. "You deserve a wife who would love you unreservedly, my lord. I would not suffice for that role."
A kind smile graced the Tisroc's features; his entire demeanor changed from attracted to polite courtesy, and Adeline was forced to give the man some credit for not forcing the matter. It seemed that the Calormens had some decency in them after all.
"We will speak no more of it, my lady. This is a celebration of your presence; do not let this dampen your spirits."
Gwen's face broke into a smile of great relief, and she nodded again before they all returned to their meal.
Adeline caught her eye, and the look that they exchanged said it all. They would discuss it in great length later, but for now the peace at having the matter settled was enough. There was a feast to enjoy and dancing to be done after they finished eating; the diplomatic affairs would wait.
Several hours later the two girls made their way back to Gwen's chambers, giggling and flushed with excitement. The dances after the feast had been so much fun that Adeline had forgotten to be nervous, dancing several times with Xaviar. Gwen was so relieved that the proposal was addressed and had gone so well that the two of them had quite enjoyed themselves. It was late, but Adeline helped Gwen into her nightgown and brushed her hair as they chatted quietly.
Inevitably, the talk turned to Lord Xaviar (it appeared that since Gwen wasn't getting married, she'd seized on Adeline's potential romance out of either amusement or boredom, Adeline wasn't sure which), and Adeline was grateful for the low firelight that hid her flushed cheeks.
"You ought to have seen the way he looked at you, Addie. It was so beautiful. His eyes followed you the entire night; I knew that dress was perfect."
"I had fun, Gwen," Adeline admitted even as she laughed, "and I wasn't expecting to enjoy myself at all."
"Can I ask you something?"
Surprised, Adeline sat back as Gwen turned to face her. She waited, and after a moment Gwen asked, "Do you love him?"
The question made Adeline's eyes widen and she took in a sharp breath; but the most surprising thing to her was how reluctant she was to say no. She was equally reluctant to say yes, however, so she simply shrugged and said, "I'm not sure yet."
That seemed to satisfy Gwen. A content smile lifted her lips and she reached forward to hug Adeline warmly. Shortly after that they said goodnight, Adeline taking a candle down the dim corridor to her own chambers. Once she'd closed the door she realized how weary she was, and she quickly readied for bed and blew out the candle. Her head hit the pillow, and she didn't remember anything past that.
Adeline jolted awake suddenly, completely alert and straining her ears for – what, she didn't know exactly. But something was wrong, very wrong, and even if it just was her mind was playing tricks on her, she knew she'd not get a moment's rest until she investigated.
She reached for her housecoat and a lantern, but then she noticed the bright full moon and knew she'd be able to see clearly without a flame. Her door opened silently, and she crept down the corridor, the stone floors ice cold beneath her bare feet. She paused, uncertain of where she was going or why she was going there.
That was it, Gwen must be sick or Adeline had had a dream or something and now she would just pop in and make sure everything was alright and then she'd go back to bed. It had to be past midnight; the silence of the sleeping palace was deafening, ringing in her ears.
As she reached for the door handle on Gwen's room she paused. The door was not quite closed, but she was sure she'd pulled it tightly behind her when she left.
She raised her eyes to the hairline gap between the door and frame, and she felt her heart rise into her throat when she made out a hooded figure standing near the bed; there was something long and silver and wickedly sharp in his hand, and as it caught the moonlight Adeline caught a glimpse of bright red and just as the figure turned to the door Adeline's feet remembered how to work and she charged in the room, one hand going for the handle of the sword and the other for the man's throat.
His free hand, balled into a fist, rammed into her cheek, sending her backwards several steps but her fingers still clutched at his throat; they scraped down to his shoulder where she felt a metal square of some kind, carved ornately and thick and cool against her fingertips. She yanked, thinking it was part of his armor but there was a tearing sound and the square came away in her hand. She held it tightly, with one of the rough corners sticking out between her knuckles, and swung upward with all her strength. She heard the sickening crunch as her fist collided with the man's jaw, felt the metal dig into the flesh, felt the blood spatter on her hand but before she could do anything else he grabbed a fistful of her hair and literally threw her face first into the wall, and then everything went black as she slumped to the floor.
The axe hit the block with a dull thunk, chips of wood flying as Edmund worked doggedly on the pile beside the cabin. At first he'd found the axe heavy and awkward in his hands, but the longer he worked the better he got; eventually there became a rhythm to the chore, and he discovered that he enjoyed the quiet steadiness of it. The already decent-sized pile had been doubled just in the past hour or so, and Amos had been by recently to tell him it was nearly dinnertime.
Pausing to catch his breath, Edmund let the blade sink into the chopping block and reached for his shirt. He was stripped to the waist under the hot sun, but there was nice breeze and he wasn't too uncomfortable. He used the garment to wipe the sweat from his brow and hands and was reaching for the axe again when Amos came back around the corner of the cabin, his brow furrowed.
"Come and see this."
Curiosity piqued, Edmund followed the irate man back towards the pasture. Peter stood near the far fence, feet splayed as he looked down on a fallen sheep. As they drew closer Edmund saw that there was a small cut on the animal's neck, and that blood had soaked the entire side, making the fleece thick and sticky. The poor creature was bleating weakly, and Amos's scowl deepened just as Peter spoke.
"I've looked at the wound; it's small but very clean and right over a large blood vessel. She either had bad luck near a thorn bush of some sort or someone did this to her intentionally."
"Someone? You think a person did this?" Amos asked, momentarily forgetting his irritation in his surprise.
"Yes, in fact I'm nearly certain. It looks like it's from an arrow, but if it is I don't understand how someone came right up the pasture fence and shot without any of us noticing. It's still quite fresh."
Edmund thought for a moment, then said, "I thought when I went to chop wood you two were going to let them out the back gate, into the forest? You said they sometimes find roots and herbs."
Nodding, Amos replied, "Aye, it's good for 'em to get some variety in feed ev'ry once in a while. But I didn't notice her bleedin' when we brought 'em back in."
"That's because we were trying to find the last one," Peter reminded him.
"There's one missing?" Edmund asked.
"Yes, we still haven't found it. Amos had to go finish the work in the garden while I kept looking for it. There's no trace of it anywhere. I've only just noticed this injured one when I came back into the pasture."
"Well, if someone injured this sheep, who's to say they wouldn't actually kill another?"
Amos and Peter looked at each other, surprised that the possibility had never occurred to either of them.
"You 'ave yourself a point there, Your Majesty. Maybe we ought to look again."
Ten minutes later Edmund was scouring the forest floor, seeing the hoofprints from the sheep and the occasional set of boot prints from Peter and Amos. A speck of red caught his attention, smeared on the leaf of shrub.
He got closer and noticed another set of prints – sheep, by the look of them – that he'd not noticed earlier that led behind a small grouping of trees and then around a short cropping of rock that jutted up through the forest floor. He turned to Peter and Amos, but they were nowhere in sight since they'd split up to cover more ground faster.
He followed the trail up to the base of the rock, and froze. Was it his imagination, or were those horse hooves he heard? The sound was coming from the other side of the boulder, so he silently crept up and peered over the top.
There was a horse, alright, along with its rider: a single figure in a hooded cloak. He noticed a full quiver hung on the saddle horn, with the bow clutched in the rider's hand. As they drew nearer Edmund also caught a glimpse of a sword hanging from the belt, but what was most interesting was the gutted and bled sheep hanging just before the saddlebags.
A sheep thief. Well, that was something he'd never had to deal with before.
First time for everything, he mused, and seconds later when the horse drew near the rock he jumped, taking the rider clean out of the saddle and down to the hard ground.
Instantly he knew this was not his brightest idea; for one thing the rider was tiny, but very scrappy and fast. Almost before they hit the ground they had managed to give Edmund a very bloody nose, and after they had hit the ground the battle just got worse from there. With little to no effort the stranger pulled his very short legs up over his chest and pushed his knees against Edmund, forcing him off at least two feet away. The moment Edmund's weight was no longer fully resting on him he placed the toe of one boot behind Edmund's neck and pulled, while pushing with his other foot against Edmund's chest. The result: Edmund went flailing to the side, but he managed to grab the ankle by his ear and bring the attacker with him as he rolled near the base of a huge oak. Muscle memory from six years ago finally kicked in, and Edmund was pleasantly surprised to find himself pinning the rider to the ground a few short moments later.
Eventually the fellow stopped squirming and struggling; the hood of the cloak had fallen completely over his face during the fight and Edmund reached up and pushed it back…and promptly stared in utter astonishment at the girl (girl!) who lay beneath him on the forest floor.
He noticed several things all at once; one was that for a girl who less than half his size, she fought better and harder than most soldiers he'd ever met during his time as King. Secondly, she was not without injuries herself; there was a nasty purple and green bruise near her hairline. It looked several days old, but there were also a couple of small scratches from where she'd hit some small stones and twigs when he'd tackled her. Thirdly, and perhaps the most profound observation, was that she was extremely pretty. Eyes bluer than the Great Eastern Sea in the summer, with the lightest smattering of freckles across nose and cheekbones that were so perfect and delicate they reminded him of a Renaissance sculpture he'd once seen in a London museum; her hair was matted and dirty and pulled back into a thick braid, but even after all that he could see that the color was a rich gold, like Peter's old crown.
"Are you going to let me up?"
Her voice, tight and irriated, slapped him awake.
Get ahold of yourself, Ed. You've seen women before, he thought. Aloud he said,
"That depends. Did you kill a sheep earlier today?"
"So what if I did? I have to eat somehow!"
"Not when that animal belonged to someone else."
She grew quiet at that, looking worried for the first time. Her voice was quiet and humble when she spoke next.
"I didn't know it belonged to someone."
"Well, it's too late for that now, but it does help that you didn't intentionally steal."
He got up, slowly, and pulled her with him, keeping a grip on her upper arm. She apparently thought he was dragging her to her execution or something, because she started babbling the moment she noticed that he wasn't letting go.
"I'll pay for it, sir, just please let me go, I'm truly sorry, I had no idea, but-"
"I'm not the owner. I'll take you to him."
Without further ado they set off back the way Edmund had come, his stride shortened considerably by her small steps. Peter and Amos were nowhere to be found in the trees, so he went through to the pasture and found them both near the barn.
To her credit, the girl wasn't fighting against Edmund's hold or dragging her feet. Her pale face was determined, but when they came to a halt in front of Amos she spoke before anyone else had a chance.
"Which of you owns the sheep?"
Amos stepped forward. "That'd be me, miss."
They watched as she reached into a small leather pouch on her belt and withdrew several gold pieces. She held them out in her palm, and simply said, "Take what I owe you."
Amos reached and slowly closed her fist over the money, his look pensive.
"Still have the meat?"
Surprised, she nodded, still holding the money out uncertainly as though she expected him to change his mind.
"There still be enough for six?"
She nodded again, understanding dawning.
"Yes, sir, there's plenty. Shall I go get it?" She turned her glance to Edmund's grip on her arm, which didn't slacken until Amos said, "He'll take you back to your horse. Bring it here to the barn, and when the meat's cooked we'll all eat together. Go on now."
A short time later the girl led her horse by the reins towards the barn, Edmund carrying the sheep over his shoulders. She had said nothing on the walk back and right at the moment she wasn't even looking at him. He wondered if perhaps he'd seriously injured her. The idea bothered him somehow, so before he could stop himself he blurted, "You're not hurt, are you?"
He'd clearly surprised her; her head jerked in his direction in a way that told him she'd forgotten his presence completely. She shook her head, but he must have looked a bit skeptical because she said, "No, my lord. I'm quite well. But thank you."
The discolored lump on her forehead said that she most definitely not quite well, but Edmund had two sisters and knew better than to argue when a woman was in this sort of mood. He'd have make sure she was alright later.
When they reached the barn Edmund started to set the sheep down so that he could help her take off the heavy saddle, but she unfastened it and lifted it off easily. It shouldn't have surprised him, after all his nose was still quite sore, but she was so petite it was quite easy to forget that she had the strength to bodily throw a grown man through the air with her legs, all while lying on the ground.
He caught himself staring at the way her braid bounced between her shoulders when she walked the horse into one of the stalls; she didn't notice but she put a good three feet between them as they walked to the house. He realized that she might be afraid of him, and he disliked the idea so much that he stopped abruptly, reaching a hand out to her forearm but she instantly drew away as she came to a halt.
She looked very suspicious, unwilling to come within arm's reach, so he contented himself with just talking to her.
"I do not wish for you to be nervous around me. You did no wrong by my friend, so I'm not going to tackle you off your horse again anytime soon."
To his surprise, a wry smile lifted the girl's mouth just the slightest bit.
"I was hoping you wouldn't, my lord. I don't imagine that was much fun for either of us."
"Well, whether or not it was fun, I don't like people to be afraid of me unless they need to be. Since you're not, I'll ask again: Are you hurt?"
"No, I assure you I'm alright."
He couldn't stop his gaze from going to that nasty bump, and she immediately waved a hand dismissively.
"It's several days old, and it doesn't hurt much anymore. And I'm not dizzy so often either, so it's already begun to heal."
That did sound reassuring, but he offered anyway, "My sister is quite competent in home remedies. You might ask her to look at it for you after dinner. She would be more than happy to help."
Another slight smile, this one accompanied by a soft word of thanks, and they turned and covered the remaining distance to the house and the waiting meal.
Dinner, it turned out, was delicious. Edmund had not had mutton since before they'd gone to Professor Kirke's house; and the roasted vegetables that Lucy had prepared vanished quickly. They ate mostly in silence, but after most of the food was gone Amos set his mug down and turned to his newest guest.
"What's your name, lass?"
She hesitated for a moment, then said, "Adeline."
Amos's jaw swung open; he stared at the girl a moment before he said in a strangled voice, "You don't mean…you're not Lady Adeline? The Lady Adeline?"
Another moment's hesitation; her eyes swung around to each of them, resting the longest on Edmund, before she finally answered.
"Yes. I am Lady Adeline."