Chapter 5. Princely Duties
Outskirts of Ati Harei
Lord Fulton led Alanis to his horse and lifted her to the saddle. He mounted up after she was settled, sitting tall behind her. As they neared Ati. she requested they walk the rest of the way. It wasn't because of his company, after he rescued her she truly began to appreciate his noble gestures, and felt at ease to have him near.
No, her worries now were on what the others would think, seeing them riding so closely. She didn't want rumors to spread about the pair, nor did she want word to travel about her near brush with death.
He agreed, but surprised her, by keeping close as he walked her back to town. While they walked, the captain assured her that he'd let her explain what happened, should anyone question them about her day. That gave her plenty of time to come up with a cover story for her facial injuries and for Trista's disappearance. She was hopeful that her horse would be found wandering near the stables—her steed was familiar with the area, so it was a good possibility.
The city guard greeted them when they reached the southern tower. They informed Lord Fulton that King Stronghold was back at the castle, awaiting his company. On the walk back, Wesley had told her that he was out scouting for the king when he came across her and the attacking man. He was supposed to escort him back to town and debrief him on the city dealings. She hoped he wouldn't be reprimanded for his absence, it was her fault, her stupidity had brought it on.
Back at the royal stables they found Trista, just like she expected, but her heart started to race when she realized who found her. She was placed in the stall next to Faris' steed, and something told her the prince had stalled her. He would definitely want to know why her horse was wandering Ati unattended.
This wasn't good, she worried biting her swollen lip, she flinched from the sudden sting. The salty taste of blood filled her mouth and she let up on her lower lip, realizing she had irritated the wound. No, this definitely wasn't good, she groaned frustrated by her brilliant plan to find him this morning.
Fulton hitched his steed and sauntered towards her, watching as she examined Trista's head for any open nicks.
"The king expressed interest in meeting with you when he returned. Would you like to accompany me back to the castle?" he asked, watching her eyes lift from Trista, back to him.
"Yes, that will be great." She was looking forward to meeting the king, she never had the chance to introduce herself before her departure from Berthold.
Fulton's smile crinkled and fell into a telling frown. She lowered her face, hiding her busted lip from view, she could tell that was the cause of his sympathetic stare. She had caught him peeking at her face several times throughout their walk back, but this time it wasn't such a quick glance, it was an uncomfortable stare she didn't need.
He stepped back adjusting his stormy gray eyes to the stall ahead and snickered.
"I hope you came up with something good, you know he's going to be on your ass when he sees you next," Fulton stated firmly, his stare was now on Faris' mount.
"The prince doesn't frighten me."
"That's good to hear. I was worried that you were intimidated by him after the way he's been treating you."
"More annoyed than intimidated," she lied, though it was apparent she was extremely intimidated by him.
The prince was a mystery to her. He was so hot and cold with his emotions and outbursts that she never knew what to expect when she was around him. But she knew his words were going to be harsh when they next met, so she tried her best to fortify her emotions before they entered the castle.
They made their way to the castle. The fireplaces and torches were lit, bringing life to the drab slate walls. All show, for the king, Alanis figured. The last time she toured the castle, it was as cold, and dark, as the hall of the keep.
"Stronghold has returned. Where the hell have you been, you never miss a chance to kiss the king's ass," Faris asked while pulling away from the stone pillar he was hidden against, he studied the both of them. He was certainly suspicious, that suspicion peaked as he took a step closer to view Alanis' battered face.
She covered her mouth and stepped back, hoping he wouldn't question her.
"What happened to you?" He reached out to take her hand and she stumbled back. Unfortunately, he anticipated her recoil and lunged forward with her. His hand gripped her wrist and he dragged her to his side.
"Who did this to you?" The prince's eyes scanned the ugly purple bruise that spread from her bottom lip to her cheek.
"I fell while riding Trista," she answered, glaring into the prince's focused stare.
Faris paused, his head lifted, but his cynical stare kept close watch on her reaction. She tugged at her arm, reminding him that he still had it seized. He let go and she glided back to Fulton's side.
"You fell... from your mount. I don't buy it, it looks like someone struck your face, and your wrists are also bruised. Besides that, your horse was found wandering near the stables. So, what really happened?" he questioned noticing her apprehension.
Though it wasn't hard, when he mentioned her wrists she looked down to see if what he said was true—and it was, there was a ring of purple around each of her wrists.
"Fulton," Faris added with apparent discontent toward him, "I know you know what's going on. Who did this to her?"
"A dead man," the captain replied as he shouldered past Alanis and stood nearly toe-to-toe with the prince.
Faris' focused brow fell with his captain's response.
"Wait—Someone had the gall to attack her in the city?" Faris questioned as his eyes peered over Fulton's shoulder to Alanis' gape.
What business did he have interrogating us like this, she pulled at the frayed fabric at her neck then noticed the captains movement as he strategically inched his body in front of her in a protective stance.
"It happened in Furisre Sreuni," Fulton answered.
"Furisre Sreuni," Faris growled, shoving past the captain. "What the hell were you doing in those woods, are you mad?"
"Calm down," she replied, "I was riding Trista and decided to explore the outer border of the forest. Trista took off and this man approached me. How was I to know that man, or anybody else was going to attack me?"
"Oh, I don't know, maybe because you were told not to. You were told to avoid travel through the forest, were you not?"
"On the way in—" she stopped as he took her by the frayed collar, forcing her to acknowledge the severity of her situation.
"Yes or no, I can't bear to hear another one of your excuses right now, this isn't a game."
"Yes," she muttered, "But I don't think I'm at total fault here."
"What?" Faris spat, his hand lowered to her shoulder and he forced her to walk to the wall nearest them. They stopped in front of a large oval mirror that clung to the slate wall. "Look in this mirror and tell me if you still feel confident about your answer."
She shuddered, it was worse than she imagined, the bruise, the busted lip, they were all very apparent to the world around her. Her neck even bore the marks of her would-be killer. Fulton had been kind when he adverted his eyes earlier, but now she wished he would have told her that her cheek looked like some poorly inked map.
"That's what I thought." He jerked his hand from her shoulder and walked away, leaving her free to simmer on his words.
He was right, she was placing blame when it had been her fault. She lowered her head and felt the sting of her tears as they rolled down to the broken skin on her lip.
"Now I see why the southern king gave you a chaperone. You're just some lost child that has yet to learn their place in the world. No, wait, the children here know better than to play in Furisre Sreuni."
"Enough with your ugly words," Wesley interrupted, "What's done is done. The real issue at hand is your incompetence, instead of performing your princely duties you were busy doing gods know what."
Faris cawed, "Princely duties, how do you not choke on the shit you say."
"I'm glad I amuse you, your highness. But you know your father, our king, expected some sort of effort out of you. He wasn't here to order an official escort to show her around Ati, and properly warn her about the murders and degenerates the forest attract. That duty fell to you, and you handled it the way you handle everything."
"I'm not her keeper."
"And it's no wonder the king gives you one."
"I do, that would be you, Lord Fulton."
"Not for all of the gold in King Stronghold's vault."
Alanis stepped forward, unable to take any more of their childish argument, she had to think of a way to straighten this mess out before she met with the king. The arguing men stopped and watched her as she tromped towards the doors of the great hall.
"Where do you think you're going, you can't meet with the king looking like that," Faris said as he jogged to her side. He was definitely concerned, but not for her, himself likely.
"Go get yourself cleaned up and find a way to cover those marks on your face. If the king sees them shit shall fly, and my good captain—" Faris sneered over at Fulton. "That shit shall land on you as well."
"I can handle my own, unlike some," Fulton countered.
"We'll try our hand at her story. Perhaps Stronghold will believe she fell from her steed if we all nod our heads in prayer," Faris said while he briskly strode toward the castle entrance.
Alanis made her way back to her room, alone. What a disaster that could have been, meeting the king with wounds like this, she thought while lowering her pocket mirror from view. She sat next to her bed with her mostly emptied, pack on her lap.
A lost child, she sighed bitterly, he really hit the nail on the head with that observation. Gods, coming from him—that one hurt. What was really going on here? Was she unnerved from her almost, untimely death, or was it something more? She did sulk a lot, and at first she would secretly blame it on her past. She thought she'd grow out of it in time, but that time never came.
She lifted a covered box from her pack and unwrapped it with trembling hands. The little light that filled her room bounced gorgeously from the polished lid of the music box that was gifted to her by Berthold's king. She took in its beauty and fell forward, pressing her forehead against the cool granite.
What am I doing here, I should be with you, Alexander. I feel it in my heart, but I let you down when you needed me most. I was a coward, I couldn't face the truth, I still can't, she whispered on a silent breath.
Things were certainly different here. There were no rules, the people here would cut you down with a good word, and a smile on their lips.
The door flung open, stifling her thoughts. Standing on the other side of the threshold was the prince. Alanis lifted her head from her folded arms. Faris was silent as he entered her room, leaving only his emerald stare to speak his greeting. He shut the door behind him and before she could frame a response he was standing in front of her.
What is he doing here?
"Have you ever heard of knocking? I could have been... dressing," she said while throwing her cloak over the music box, concealing it from view. She pushed it to the side while he wasn't looking.
He laughed. "Perhaps I should leave then come back when you are."
She smirked, though his joke was funny, she fought back the urge to bludgeon him with her fists for violating her privacy.
"Aha, a smile, now that's a better look for you." He grinned, shaking a small wooden box in front of her with his reply.
He placed it near her lap and walked to the foot of her bed.
"What's this?" Her eyes lifted from the box to him.
"Makeup," he answered while sitting on the end of her bed. "It will help cover your wounds. I didn't think you had any."
She opened the box and looked at the powders and concealers. Most were used up, the colored eye makeups were mere stains at the bottom of their tin trays.
"Thanks," she mumbled, not knowing how to take his generosity. This was the first act of kindness she had witnessed from him, so she was skeptical to say the least.
"Do you know how to use it?"
She nodded and dabbed the concealer across her bruised cheek, after she smoothed the beige cream into her skin, she padded her jaw with the powder puff diffusing the shiner. It was definitely passable. If the king would ask about her flayed lip her cover story would pass. All she needed now was to change her tattered clothing and she'd be set.
"So—" he hummed, "What were you doing in the forest anyway?"
"I was curious," she answered curtly.
"Would it have anything to do with me?" He grinned again. Alanis sank away from him as he leaned in. "John told me you had asked about me. He was worried that you had gotten yourself lost somewhere when Trista galloped into the stables alone."
That little brat told him, she groaned mortified of what ideas the prince had dancing in his head at the moment.
"I merely asked him where you went in the mornings. He said you go out riding, so I thought I'd go for a ride of my own. But that doesn't mean I was—"
"Do you have any more of that ointment on you?" he asked abruptly, sidetracking their current conversation.
"Yeah," she replied and tugged the leather strap of her pack, pulling it to her side. With a little work she found the small, glass container at the bottom of the bag. He snatched the jar from her hand and twisted the lid off.
She blinked, her hesitation was countered with his movement to her. He sat down in front of her on the straw-littered floor.
"Keep still." He warned as his finger dug into the ointment. "This may sting a little."
"What do you think you're doing?" She stopped his hand, fighting back the flutter of a memory she held dear—the fond memory of how Alexander had tended to her wounds while they were on their supposed bonding trip.
"Calm down. You're cut keeps opening when you get worked up. I promise I won't try any funny business—unless you up to it."
She shoved him.
"No chance, huh...? I'll make it quick then."
He leaned in and delicately blotted the medicine against her wound, she flinched, expecting it to burn, but it didn't. It was cool and soothing and, not to mention, pleasantly administered. She could also smell something. It was leather, a scent that stained his hands. It was comforting scent—he was surprisingly comforting. But why was he acting like this, it was a complete turn of character. It was as if he was apologizing for his earlier behavior.
"I have a question," she asked as he pulled his hand away.
He cleaned his finger with his cloak and she ignored how disgusting that action was and kept it to herself.
"What's your question?"
"What's wrong with you?" she asked, but continued when she noticed how cold her question sounded. "I've noticed you have two personalities when you're around me, angry, and whatever this is."
"I don't want you to get the wrong idea about me, chosen one."
"Wrong idea?" She let the nickname slide in the moment.
"People are always trying to fix, or better me, so it's best you keep your distance."
"Why would you say that, and what makes you think I would try?"
"It's not a question of why—but when. And you seem the type."
"You're lucky you're too stubborn to fix." Alanis laughed, as did he. "But, I think I understand why you feel the way you do, ever since I left Larska I've been trying to fit in. I've changed so much, but I also haven't. If that even makes sense. I hate having people look to me, or try and use my powers to promote their interest."
She supposed he could relate somewhat, being a prince, he likely dealt with people trying to use his title too.
"But you're wrong to push people away—nobody can force you to change unless you're willing to change yourself. If they don't like you for who you are then they weren't really a friend to being with. Anyway, all I'm asking for, is for you to lighten up when you're around me. Hell, treat me like a human being."
"Such optimistic words," he replied sighing, his eyes lowered to his hand where he watched his emerald ring. He sat silently for a moment, twisting the band around his finger mindlessly. "Hmmm, I only lashed out at you to prove a point. You said it yourself—that our simple warning didn't cut it. I just wanted to make sure you understood, so it would never happen again."
"After what happened—I'll never forget. I was lucky Fulton was there, I'd be dead if he hadn't shown up when he did."
He looked up from his ring, his green eyes caught hers. "You should invest in a dagger, something small and spryly. I could show you—" he paused ending his high-pitched statement abruptly. He continued when he noticed her intrigued lean in, "I could show you to my blacksmith. He'll be able to custom fit you with something. That is, if you're interested."
"Really—my own blade?" She beamed. Back in Berthold she had trained with dozens of borrowed weapons, but none she could call her own. It was customary for men to brandish a weapon—but forbidden for a woman to carry a blade unless they served under the king or a lord.
"Let me guess, the good king told you that a woman shouldn't know the cold steel of a weapon, that it was a man's duty to protect what's his." His brow rose as he watched her smack her lips together hesitantly. "Regardless of what you were told, everyone should have the right to protect themselves. Every woman in Ati knows their way around a blade."
"I've noticed, things are definitely different here."
"That they are," he said dryly while standing, he lowered his hand to help her, but she stood on her own and walked to the old dresser.
"I can't believe you've been staying in this shithole for four days, and haven't once complained." He laughed. "I thought for sure you'd take up the captain on his offer to house you in an inn."
Her head turned in time to see him sweeping his boot across the dusty floor.
"How did you know he offered?" she asked, he smiled slyly and retrieved the box of makeup.
"The captain is a very predictable man."
Alanis nodded. "Oh, but you're not?"
"No, not quite, as you may have noticed."
"Well if you don't mind, I'd like to get dressed privately."
"I'll be outside your door—if you change your mind," he replied and left her alone.
First she removed the decorative combs from her hair and let it fall past her shoulders. After the events of today, she could no longer ignore the traditions of these people, it would be unwise of her not to. She quickly stripped and dressed in her most modest wear, making sure to conceal her neck and wrists from view—her flowing hair made that task a little easier.
Faris knocked at the door. "Hey, Oraur Lahre, you done yet?"
She groaned, hating the way he used her title as a nickname, but was pleased he knocked instead of barging in on her again. She rushed to the door and opened it. The prince took in her unbound hair, following the long wavy locks that cascaded to her waist. He took it in for a lengthy moment then reached into his cloak, searching for something hidden.
She smiled briefly, but removed it before he could see. She was revolted that she almost took pleasure in his stare, it was something she wouldn't allow to happen again. That look must be the same one he shares with his lady-friends, she chanted that statement in her head, it would help her keep focused should he flash her one of his charming grins.
Her stupid thoughts fell away when his hand resurfaced with a small, bronze-hilted dagger. She backed against the slate wall, as stiff as one of the pillars that held them up. Gods, just the sight of it made her heart race again.
"You okay," he asked, his free hand lifted to her shoulder and she eased.
"I'm... fine. I just wasn't prepared for—"
"No it's my fault. I should have used more sense. You're going to be on edge for a while," he apologized while handing her the dagger. "For now I think you should carry this until we—you find something more suitable."
She slipped the weapon through one of the decorative loops at her hip—a perfect fit.
"Thanks. I can't wait to get back to training."
"Training." He gaped. "You mean you've trained with a weapon before?"
"Yes, don't look so surprised. The king's not as oppressive as you would like to believe." She smiled thumbing the hilt of the dagger. "Of course I was never allowed to own a blade. I fear what little technique I learned was lost though. I haven't trained since we left Berthold."
"Well, fear not. I can help you." He wiped the sweat from his brow, and she wondered two things, why he was so hot in this chilly hallway, and why he was being so nice to her.
"I will train you, how to use a sword, if you'd like."
She lowered her stare then brushed the hair from her face. She smiled. Things were coming together more perfectly than she could hope for. If things kept up like this she'd be able to complete her task.
"So is that smile you're hiding a yes?"
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