Prince Hokan was standing in Nessa's room, taking in the view.
When the girl took a step back, out of shock, the old floorboards creaked.
The prince turned. His flaxen hair was a mess. He'd been running his hands through it. It was a sure sign he was stressed. Understandably so. What Nessa didn't understand was why he was in her room.
She surveyed the room while she waited for him to explain himself.
It looked lived in, which was impressive, because even when she lived here it didn't look this homey.
There were clothes discarded on the floor, as well as armor and weapons. By the bed were stacks of books and papers.
He appraised her like he still couldn't believe she was real. "Do you realize I've never been to your quarters before?" He asked suddenly.
Nessa was keenly aware of it.
"I've practically lived here since you've been gone," Hokan continued. "It's the only place that reminds me of you."
Nessa made a face. She wasn't aware that there was anything in this room distinct from the others, other than that she'd lived in it for four years. She didn't have those baubles and trinkets from home that others kept in their rooms. She had only the things she'd been pulled out of the woods with and the gear they assigned Trainees.
"I'm sorry." It was the only phrase Nessa knew that came anywhere close to describe how she felt.
"I'm still trying to wrap my head around it," the prince said, running a hand through his hair, mussing it up. "My father told me to marry a Peacekeeper. Said it was about time."
"Neither of your brothers are married," Nessa pointed out.
"That's because he hasn't found anyone their age that he approves of."
"I suppose I should be flattered by that in some way," Nessa said.
"Well, there was no one else in the running," Hokan admitted. "You're the only friend I have and I used to be one of the few people you actually respected."
"You still are," Nessa's voice was quiet.
"Then tell me what happened," Hokan pressed. "Did my father really force you to say yes?"
Nessa wanted to explain. She wasn't sure she knew how.
The High King had called her into the Conference Chamber and explained Hokan's intentions. She took a deep breath and said, "Your father started the conversation by explaining to me that it is common practice in Cataire for young women to be married at age sixteen. He also informed me of how lucky I was to have your affections and that he approved."
"But did he make you say yes?"
"He described to me all that he and you have done for me over the years and how I owed it to you to say yes. He described it as a sense of duty."
Hokan nodded, "He would."
"And he told me I wouldn't get my shield of I said no."
"Did you want to say no?"
Nessa met his gaze and was compelled to answer. "Yes."
"Why?" Hokan seemed confused.
"I am sixteen. I know nothing of this world except for the woods I was found in and the walls of Fresia. If I married you, I would be trapped here."
"We don't have to live here," Hokan said.
Nessa crossed her arms, "Do you really think your father would let us live anywhere else? He wants me within arm's reach. He wants to control me. That's why he captured me all those years ago."
"What do you mean?"
"How have you not figured it out yet?" Nessa shook her head. "I may still struggle with Lowlander, but I understand the laws of nature. Your father wants Duggan to be the next High King. By tying me to your family they can use me to intimidate the competition."
Hokan was gaping.
"Your father even went so far as to suggest I drop out of the Academy and become a Courser," the girl spat on the floor. "If I did he would make me his personal Courser."
That wasn't the whole of it. Nessa knew that Tyr and Duggan would make her do more than intimidate the competition, but Hokan was struggling with the concept already.
"Do you want to get married?" Hokan's voice was quiet.
"Maybe one day," Nessa said. "I don't quite understand how Retirement and marriage are different. They both sound like something I'm not ready for."
"Why didn't you explain this all to me before?" Hokan wondered.
"I was afraid," Nessa's voice was soft.
"Of my father?"
"That, and I didn't know what to say. I didn't have the courage, or the words. That's why I ran away. I only intended to be gone for a little while, to go to the woods to think of a way to explain it all. I knew your father wouldn't like my absence. I knew he'd send someone after me. My plan was to think of something before they turned up…"
"But then you never stopped running," Hokan guessed.
Silence descended on the room, thickening the air into syrup.
Nessa couldn't breathe. She couldn't handle that look on Hokan's face. Was it betrayal? Disappointment? Sadness? She hated that she didn't know.
She had to move. She knew she couldn't turn and run. Not now. Not from Hokan. Not again.
Nessa stepped into the room and closed the door, setting down her bag and surveying the room a second time. "How long have you been living here?" She asked as she waded through his things.
"Since you left."
"Any chance I can have my room back?"
"As long as you promise not to run away again."
The words were meant to lighten the mood, but Nessa couldn't bring herself to promise such a thing. "You're a prince of Cataire. Take the room across the way. Or the one next to me if you want to stay close," she said instead.
"People live there."
"What happened to you out there?" Hokan asked, looking at her like he'd never seen her before.
"Your father sent his Courser after me."
"Hunter?" Hokan made a face. He knew the man's reputation, with the ladies and also for his ability to bring in a bounty. "But you didn't come back with Hunter. Why did you come back at all?"
"I didn't want to spend my whole life running. I want to enjoy it. And I owed you an explanation."
"You think you will enjoy life here? You came back to the Academy, if you graduate, you'll be in the service of my father."
"While true, I also realized that the only people I care about are here: you, Muski, and North." In the pause, Nessa added, "And I realized, I've come too far to not get my shield."
"Did you convince my father of that?"
"He's agreed to give me time, and to let me get my shield. He didn't say how much though."
"You were going to take the final tests before you left."
"Things are different now."
"I sponsored Miran Swift."
"That's the girl from Tolin," Hokan remarked.
Hokan nodded to himself. She'd revealed herself to the masters because she expected them to protect her from the High King. It would buy her some time but it wouldn't last forever. "You can't stay in the Academy forever."
Now didn't feel like quite the right time to tell Hokan that Miran had asked Nessa to travel with her back to Tolin. Nessa chose not to say anything as her thoughts moved in a different direction. Hokan had just given her a fantastic idea.
Rarely, Trainees chose to extend their time at the Academy to become Elites, a higher rank of Peacekeeper. Sometimes they went on to become Masters. Could that be a life she could accept?
"I haven't figured that part out yet," Nessa admitted finally.
"Maybe you should be a Courser," Hokan said suddenly. When Nessa shot him a look that could kill, he explained, "I don't think you'd be happy stationed in one town for the rest of your life."
The idea was not without merit. As a Courser, she could rove the country. She could pick and choose the jobs she wanted and disappear into the woods when she wasn't needed. It was the reputation of Coursers she didn't like. "Would you be happy roaming the countryside? You're much more used to city walls."
Hokan's surprise slipped into a grin, "You'd want me to come with you?"
"Just because I'm not keen on the idea of marriage doesn't mean I don't want you in my life. I just feel too young—too inexperienced—to make that decision so soon."
A life as a Courser might not be so bad, if she had someone with her she could tolerate. Nessa was fairly certain Tyr would never go for it. He liked his sons where he could see them, so he could control them. Luckily, Hokan had informed his father that he was despised by the occupants of this room. That might give them some breathing space.
The pair seemed to have reached an accord.
Nessa turned back towards the door.
"Where are you going?" Hokan asked.
"I should probably go find my rookie,"
Hokan nodded, "Do you want me to get my stuff out of here?"
Nessa shrugged, "I don't mind if you stay, as long as you don't mind a crowded bed."
Nessa marched to the dining hall, trying to plan things out.
As much as she liked Hokan, Nessa knew she couldn't stay. She was scared of what Tyr and Duggan would request of her. She was scared of what they might do should she refuse. By running away, they had no power over her. Self-exile over losing the respect of the only person that mattered sounded like something she could live with.
Miran was smart and well-versed in many topics. Nessa suspected it wouldn't take long for the girl to get her shield. One, maybe two years if she and Hokan worked hard. In the meantime, Nessa could study and get status as an Elite.
Then, Nessa could return Miran back to Tolin. Nessa could make a life there. Or keep traveling. The possibilities were endless. Maybe she could work for their queen. Would that be different than working for Tyr?
Nessa decided to focus on the things she could control. For now, that involved making sure Miran got her shield as soon as possible. She would leave with Miran. Tyr might be expecting it, but she would find a way around him. She had at least a year of planning. She would manage it.
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