Roderick mounted his horse at the front of the castle. Once he was settled on Magni, he turned the animal to survey the others in the group. Dracia was walking Aarit in a large circle occasionally speaking to different people, her Sentinel cape draped around her like a protective shield. Prince Fannar was sitting still upon his white stallion watching Dracia as she made her way around the group. Prince Leal was sitting up on his horse next to Lilith who rode a small gray mare. She was looking up at him as she spoke, he looked down at her though Roderick could see his eyes constantly shift to find Dracia in the small crowd.
Other lords and ladies sat on horses in various areas of the front. Galen and Princess Lexine were close to the well, talking quietly together as Princess Lexine leaned forward on her horse as though trying to see down the well. Lord Ethen and his wife stood still together at the side, taking to each other. In the middle of them all, Lady Belleth sat perfectly still on a large dapple gray mare. She looked at Roderick as he circled by her, giving him a small smile that Roderick did not return. He moved Magni until he fell into step next to Dracia as their horses moved together through the crowd.
“How are you feeling today, High Captain?” asked Roderick as they rode very slowly together.
“As well as one can in a place like this,” she answered softly. “What are your plans today?”
“To stay close to you,” said Roderick. “And watch Darron as much as possible.”
Roderick had kept a close eye on his fellow second since they had arrived in Navalia. Darron had been unusually quiet, speaking only to a few at the feasts, and spending his days roaming around the grounds. Roderick had only seen him talk to a handful of people for more than five minutes and two of them were in attendance today.
Roderick wasn’t surprised to see Darron spend as much time as he could with Princess Lilith. He had already noticed some sort of friendship there. He was surprised to see Darron in Lady Belleth’s company throughout each day. To show such attention to the King Arnar’s lover could not have been an intelligent move, but Roderick had seen Darron make worse mistakes when it came to beautiful women. Still, something about his relationship with Lady Belleth nagged at Roderick, and he wished he knew what they spoke of when they were together.
“I believe we are all here,” said Prince Fannar loudly. “Shall we ride out?”
Fannar moved his large horse forward and towards the stone bridge as all the others started following. Dracia and Roderick joined the pack, moving together almost as one.
“You will have to give me at least a little time with Fannar today, Roderick. Spend your time shadowing Darron and some of the others. Help me keep an eye on Leal as well. He seemed to be feeling not himself yesterday, and I wish he had stayed inside today. He insisted on coming.”
“What is wrong with him?” asked Roderick looking back at Prince Leal riding alongside Princess Lilith.
“Just a headache and some tiredness. I am sure he is not sleeping well here, and that is all. Still, I do worry. It is not like him to feel unwell,” said Dracia also peaking back to look at her prince.
“I am sure it is just lack of sleep,” said Roderick reassuringly. “I doubt any of us are getting much sleep here in Navalia. I know I am not.”
Dracia nodded. “I know, but…”
“What is it?” asked Roderick seeing pain flash across her face.
“He was rather short with me yesterday. I know I can be annoying at times, but he has never spoken in such a way to me before.”
Roderick looked back at the prince again.. He couldn’t imagine the prince saying something harsh to Dracia. He had seen them argue before, but never to the point where Dracia looked like she did now. The prince did look tired. Perhaps this place was getting to him.
“I am sure he is just tired, Dracia. I am sure he didn’t mean whatever he said.”
Dracia nodded again. She sat up straighter in her saddle, and took a breath. “I know, still, watch him with Princess Lilith when I cannot not. He has been toying with her the last two days, I think. I know he is trying to play the game, but none of us can go too far with this.”
“That includes you, Dracia,” said Roderick as he looked ahead at Prince Fannar who constantly looked back in their direction.
“I know how to handle Fannar, Roderick. He is not like his sister, not half as clever or as evil. Leal is intelligent, but I have a feeling there is more to Lilith than just simple evil. I wish he would just stay away from her.”
“After what she has done to you, he cannot leave her alone. He is trying to protect you,” said Roderick as he heard hurried clops of horses hooves against the stone path come near them. He looked up to see Lady Maia ride to his side as Lord Ethen rode to Dracia’s. Lord Ethen whispered something to Dracia, and she looked at Roderick before urging Aarit to walk ahead faster, following Lord Ethen away from Roderick and to the far right side of the group.
“Good morning, Roderick,” said Lady Maia as she turned and smiled at him. He couldn’t help but smile back. She was a very pretty woman who had a look of much kindness about her.
“Good morning, Lady Maia, I hope you are well,” said Roderick.
“How could anyone be well amongst these Navalians,” replied Lady Maia with a sigh.
Roderick laughed. “The High Captain said something similar not too long ago.”
“I find that she and I see eye to eye on most things,” said Lady Maia fondly. “I was wondering if you would ride with me today, Roderick.”
“Will you not ride with your husband?”
“No, as much as I love Ethen and never tire of his company, it is good to have fresh conversations at times. I also think you and I might have some similar interest today,” said Lady Maia as she looked pointedly at Lady Belleth.
“I see,” said Roderick.
“I would also like to get to know you. I am a good judge of character like all High Nobles of Siccaria, and I think you might be an interesting man of sound judgement.”
“I don’t know how interesting I am, but I try to make good decisions that are based on fact.”
“Just as I thought. Yes, I am very interested in getting to know you. Ethen likes you, which is enough for me, but you have the added bonus of being important to Dracia. I think you and I need to spend a little time together. You do not need to worry for your High Captain. Ethen is planning to stay close to her all day, even when she spends her time playing with Fannar,” said Lady Maia.
“It seems you know much of what is going on, my lady,” said Roderick as he glanced at her.
“I know more of what is going on than most, but there are still a few things I need to figure out. I am hoping you will help me today,” said Lady Maia.
“I will do what I can,” said Roderick. “I will put myself mostly at your disposal if you will allow me some time to watch my other second.”
“That Darron fellow?” asked Lady Maia with a sour look on her face. “Yes, I will gladly help you watch that rat. I think we all need to keep a close eye on what he has planned. I wonder at Dracia putting him in a position so close to her.”
“She had her reasons, but I believe even those reasons have gone sour to her. She is very ready to be done with him, but it is not an easy thing. Until she can, I will make sure she is protected from him and anything he has planned.”
Lady Maia nodded. “You can count on my help. No one can be a threat to one of our own and get away with it,” said Lady Maia fiercely.
“Can I ask why you refer to Dracia as one of your own? You Siccarians have seemed to claim her in some way.”
“We have. Lady Elise has proclaimed Dracia is one of us, and that is the end of it. I can assure you the lady has her reasons, and they are sound.”
“Will I ever hear these reasons?” asked Roderick, curiously.
“I believe you will, but they are not my reasons to tell, nor yours to hear first. They are grounded in truth, and truth always comes to light eventually.”
The group rode through the city of Port Venala at a good pace until they reached the bottom of one of the smaller mountains. People started breaking off in smaller groups or pairs as they made their way into the tree line at the base of the mountain. Roderick saw Lord Ethen and Dracia join Prince Fannar as they disappeared in the trees, Roderick feeling much relief knowing Lord Ethen would be watching over Dracia.
He and Lady Maia moved their horses towards the forest at the base of the mountain, following Prince Leal and Lilith at a good distance. Lady Maia made a slight noise and looked at Roderick as Lady Belleth rode up to ride at Prince Leal’s side.
“How good are you at sneaking around on a horse, Lady Maia?” asked Roderick.
“I believe I am better than most. I may not have been trained by the Sentinel, but I have had my own guidance by those in my kingdom. I also have abilities that you do not. I will not give you away, Elite. In fact, I can help keep you concealed if you stay close to me,” said Lady Maia as she and Roderick rode a bit faster to close the gap between their party and the prince’s.
They moved to the left of Prince Leal and the two ladies as they made their way through the forest. Always staying far enough away to keep out of sight as they slinked between trees, their horses’ hooves muffled against the snow. They moved as close as they dared, trying to hear any conversations that might be had between the three.
“Are you looking forward to your wedding, your highness?” asked Lady Belleth as they slowly rode along.
“I hardly know,” answered the prince. “I haven’t given it much thought.”
“It will be very soon, my prince,” said Lilith with a small laugh. “You better find time to think about it.”
“Be kind to him, princess,” said Lady Belleth. “Men do not think of such things as women do. He will probably not give it much thought until you are walking towards him in the royal chapel of the High Palace.”
“There are other things to look forward to beside the grand ceremony,” said Princess Lilith with a purr. “I am sure most men look forward to the marriage bed.”
“Princess, you will make your future husband think you are some simple harlot, talking of such things,” said Lady Belleth with a laugh.
“I don’t see why,” said Princess Lilith. “I would think he would want to know he is marrying a passionate woman who looks forward to being taken to bed by him.”
Lady Maia looked at Roderick with a disgusted look on her face as Roderick shook his head.
“You still should not speak so in polite company. You were raised better than this, princess,” said Lady Belleth with reproach. “I apologize for her brashness, your highness. I am sure she is just excited about your coming marriage.”
“It makes little difference to me what she talks of,” said Prince Leal flatly.
“What do you think of your brother’s potential match, princess?” asked Lady Belleth. “I know you don’t think much of the woman, but you must admit it would be advantageous for him and our kingdom.”
“She does bring another connection to Lanoxan, I suppose. Her father is known to be powerful, but I still cannot like her. You must see it, Lady Belleth.”
“It will do you no good to hold a grudge against her. You will have what you want in the end, and that is all that matters. I am sure any friendship your prince enjoys with her after your marriage will always come second to you.”
“It will have to,” said Lilith. “I am sure Prince Leal understands it. You really should start distancing yourself now from her, Prince Leal. She will be living in Navalia soon, and I don’t plan to invite her or Fannar to see us any time in the near future.”
“Distancing myself?” asked Prince Leal quietly.
“Yes, letting her know her place,” said Lady Belleth. “Prince Lilith is quite right. The High Captain must know you will have a wife soon, and your time cannot be consumed by her.”
“Are you well, my prince?” asked Princess Lilith with concern in her voice. “We could go back to the palace if you would like.”
“No,” said Prince Leal. “I am just tired today, but I will press on. Perhaps we can ride a bit faster, and the cold air will help wake me up. I am tired of talking for the moment.”
Roderick could hear the prince’s horse take off in the snow, leaving the two women behind.
“Do you think it is working at all?” asked Princess Lilith.
“Of course, it is working,” said Lady Belleth harshly. “Give it time, and keep your mouth shut about it. If you want things to go your way, you will have to trust me.”
Roderick looked at Maia as they heard both women’s horses bolt forward in the snow, presumably going after Prince Leal.
“What do you make of that?” asked Roderick quietly as they both stopped their horses for a moment.
“It is hard to say, but it is not good. I cannot get a good read on that Belleth woman at all. The princess is a bit easier. She thinks she has some way to control Prince Leal, though I don’t know what or how.”
“Should we follow them or look for others?” asked Roderick.
“Let’s see who we can find close by,” said Lady Maia as she turned her horse to the left.
“I would like to catch a glimpse of Darron if we can. I wonder what he is up to,” said Roderick as he followed Lady Maia.
“Why did you choose to join the Sentinel, Roderick?” asked Lady Maia as they rode through the trees keeping an eye and ear out for any nearby riders.
“I am the second son of a lower lord who died when I was ten. I wanted a way to serve the kingdom without being a burden to my family. I have some skills in Mystics, but I am not as clever as some so I knew the Royal Academy would be a waste of money my family could not afford. The Sentinel was the perfect fit.”
“It is a hard life though, isn’t it?” asked Maia
“It is at times, but there are things that make it worth it. I have found friendships there I would not have had otherwise.”
“Such as that with your High Captain?” asked Maia with a slight smile.
“I had seen Dracia at court a few times before I joined. We even talked once. She was not unkind, but we might as well have been from different worlds. She grew up with royalty, the daughter of a powerful man. I grew up comfortably enough, but a quiet life full of obligation. Only at the Sentinel would someone like me ever be able to call Dracia Yates my equal. Though, I have never truly been her equal. I doubt anyone has. She is beyond anyone I have ever known.”
“Ah, Ethen did tell me you were in love with her,” said Lady Maia with a small laugh.
“Perhaps I am, but it is not like what you think,” said Roderick with some frustration.
“Ethen explained that to me as well. I didn’t mean to make you angry or uncomfortable. I am just trying to make you out. You do not seem a cold man or an unpassionate one. You are not unhandsome or without some family connections. Do you not wish for someone to love, a wife perhaps?”
“I am happy serving my kingdom and my High Captain for the time being.”
“And when she moves on, what will you do?” asked Lady Maia.
“She will hopefully be my queen someday, and I will continue to serve her as she sees fit,” said Roderick with finality.
“You are very devoted to her,” said Lady Maia softly.
“I am, and I do not hide it. She deserves my devotion,” said Roderick.
Lady Maia stopped riding for a moment, Roderick pulling up with her. She stared at Roderick with her deep brown eyes for a few seconds.
“Yes, I believe she does,” said Lady Maia gently. “You do not need to feel guilty loving her as you do, Roderick. She loves you as well. Love comes in many different forms, one is not better or stronger than the others. What you two share is special. I or anyone else should not judge either of you.”
Roderick stared at Lady Maia wondering how she could speak the truth to him so easily. How she could touch upon his deepest fears and calm them. Fears he had never even spoken aloud. Fears he had barely admitted to himself.
“We need to concentrate on the task at hand,” said Lady Maia. “But first since I spoke of something so personal to you, you may ask me any question you like, and I will tell you the truth.”
Roderick paused, thinking for a moment. He finally chose his question. “Can you see into the High Captain as easily as you see into me?”
“In some ways, yes. In others she is more shielded than you,” said Lady Maia.
“What do you find?”
“I find a woman who is dedicated to the good of her kingdom and those she loves. I find a woman who is much more than she even knows.”
Roderick smiled. “I could have told you that.”
“Could you? Then I will tell you she is much more than you could even know as well.”
“What do you mean?” asked Roderick.
“Oh, no you already got more questions than I offered, so that will be all I will say,” said Lady Maia with a pretty laugh.
They rode on in relative silence though at one point Maia hummed a pretty tune as they made their way up the mountain. Roderick listened to the soft sounds she made, thinking she must have had a beautiful singing voice. He would like to hear it sometime. He was listening to the light tune when she abruptly stopped humming and turned to Roderick with her finger over her lips. She pointed to their right, and Roderick followed her behind a large grouping of trees and bushes. She stopped in the middle of this covering and hopped down off her horse. Roderick did likewise and followed her just to the edge of the covering, where they both looked through a large bush to see Lady Isadel and her daughter standing next to their horses.
“Why aren’t you riding with Martin?” Lady Isadel asked.
“He wanted to spend the morning with his friend Galen, so I let him be,” said Lena with a huff.
“I thought you liked his friend Galen? You should have joined them,” said Lady Isadel angrily.
“Galen is nice to look at, but he is always in the presence of that stuck of Cassendar princess. They talk of the most boring things. All I ever see them do is read together. If I had a moment with that man, I could find more interesting things to do than read.”
“Hush child,” said Lady Isadel harshly. “Do not speak so. You are to be committed to your future husband, at least officially.”
“Martin is probably as passionate as a mushy bowl of peas, mother. I can’t imagine I’m going to have to spend my life tied to that boring oaf of a man.”
“You will have a place of power in the court of Lanoxan, especially when our princess becomes queen, and all happens as it should. Think of the bigger picture, and stop being so simple,” said her mother harshly.
“Why are you in such a bad mood?”
“The Siccarians,” said Lady Isadel as though she was spitting out a bad mouthful of sour drink. “Them coming here adds complications we do not need.”
“Why? There are just two of them. What could they possible do?”
“The Siccarians could ruin all the plans set forth by our king. You may not know of what I am speaking, but the Siccarians are the last thing we need around here before Prince Leal is married to Princess Lilith.”
“Once again mother, I will ask, what could they possibly do? How could they stop a marriage between Prince Leal and Princess Lilith.?”
“I am not sure, but the Siccarians are a bad sign, take my word for it. At least there is no daughter of the High Noble Quain. He only had that son of his. Thank the winter goddesses for that blessing.”
“What do you mean?” asked Lena with a frown.
“Only that it would have been very bad for us had there been some Siccarian noble woman to distract Prince Leal from our princess. It wouldn’t have matter, I suppose, had there been a daughter, I am sure our king would have found a way to do away with her.”
Lady Maia gave an angry grunt next to Roderick causing him to look at her. Lady Maia’s eyes were deadly as she stared at Lady Isadel.
“Do I really have to marry Martin and live in that awful place, mother?” whined Lena.
“Yes, and you will be glad to do it. You serve our king and Navalia. Besides, you will like Lanoxan once Princess Lilith is the queen and all is as it should be. You will feel very at home in your new kingdom. It will be very much like living here.”
Lena rolled her eyes and crossed her arms, but she did not disagree.
“Now, mount your horse. We are going to go find your intended, and you will spend the rest of the day with him. Do not let him out of your sight for too long. You don’t want any of his friends filling his head with any doubts about you.”
The mother and daughter walked over to a log that had fallen and used it to carefully climb back up on their horses. Lady Maia walked over to her own horse muttering to herself.
“Help me back up on my horse, Roderick. I have a great desire to find Dracia and my husband very quickly,” said Lady Maia with much agitation.
“Are you alright, my lady?” asked Roderick looking at her with worry.
“No, not particularly, but what can be expected amongst such people,” said Lady Maia with resign. “Help me up, and we will be on our way. I know you had plans to look out for that Darron fellow, but I am afraid it will not be possible unless you want to part ways here.”
“No,” said Roderick as he carefully lifted Lady Maia up onto her horse. “I would not leave you alone out here amongst such awful people. It would not be very gentlemanly of me. It would not be of the Sentinel.”
“I would hate to part from your company so soon,” said Lady Maia she adjusted herself in her saddle. “I can see why my husband likes you so much, and your High Captain values you. I think we are going to be great friends, Roderick.”
“I do as well,” said Roderick with a smile as he walked over to Magni and pulled himself up.
They rode on through the trees, going at an angle. They passed a few lords and ladies including Dracia’s brother who rode along with some other young lord. Lord Colm gave Roderick at nod and did not look to be in a good mood. Lady Maia and Roderick circled around looking for Dracia and Lord Ethen for some time, when finally, Roderick heard Dracia’s voice.
“I meant nothing by it,” she said apologetically. “I am just worried for you. You do not seem well.”
“Perhaps I am not yours to worry about,” said Prince Leal in agitation. “I am sure you have plenty of other things to do besides bother me with your questions, High Captain.”
“Leal,” said Dracia breathlessly as Roderick and Lady Maia rode up to the group. Roderick could see Dracia had pulled up her horse and Lord Ethen was by her side. Prince Leal was a little ahead on his own horse and looking back at Dracia with annoyance.
“Oh, look here is Roderick. He can distract you for a while so you will leave me alone. I have enough of you and all the problems you bring with you. You should know your place, High Captain, and keep to it,” said Prince Leal before he kicked his horse and rode off swiftly.
Dracia looked down at the ground, but Roderick could still see the tears in her eyes. He felt nothing but anger as he looked at her. How dare the prince talk to her in such a way. How dare he accuse her of bringing problems, when it was the prince who had caused nothing but pain and issues for Dracia. He was about to ride after the prince and let him know his feelings, when Ethen spoke.
“Let him be, Roderick,” said Ethen. “Whatever is wrong with him, it would do no good for you to go and get blasted into pieces right now. Let him rest, and I will go see him myself later.”
“Dracia,” said Lady Maia riding over to her. “I am sure he didn’t mean it. He will rest and look back at what he said and be sorry. Do not cry over it. It is not worth crying over, men rarely are.”
Dracia smiled slightly as she looked up Maia giving a small sniffle. “He is worth it to me, Maia. He has to be because I shed too many tears over that man for him not to be.”
She wiped her eyes with her fingers and looked at Roderick. “Will you ride back with me, Roderick? I want to go to my rooms for a while, and I could use a bit of your steadiness on the way.”
Roderick nodded, and she turned to Lord Ethen. “Spend some time with your wife, Ethen. After the morning we have had, I am sure you could use a bit of her good cheer and sense.”
“We will both check on you soon, Captain. Do take care of yourself,” said Ethen.
“You take care of her as well, Roderick,” said Lady Maia. “I have no doubt you will.”
Roderick and Dracia rode slowly side by side down the mountain. He looked at her several times to find she seemed to be deep in thought. He did not see her shed any more tears, but her full lips were downturned and seemed to quiver every now and then.
“Do you think even the strongest love could turn cold, Roderick?” asked Dracia after a while.
“I would say if it did turn cold, then the love was never strong to begin with,” answered Roderick.
“He has never spoken to me like that before,” said Dracia quietly. “We have had arguments, but he has never been so unfeeling. He has never looked at me with such disdain.”
“He is not feeling well, Dracia, and he is under a lot of pressure here in Navalia. I am sure it has nothing to do with you.”
“He was distant with me yesterday as well. He accused me of enjoying Fannar’s company at one point. I assured him I did not, but he kept bringing up things Princess Lilith had said,” said Dracia with obvious pain. “He mentioned her many times yesterday.”
Roderick looked at Dracia, not sure what to say.
“Do you think he has decided to just marry her and put me off, Roderick? It would be easier for him, wouldn’t it? He could avoid war with Navalia and go back and rule eventually with her. She is clever and beautiful. Perhaps he has decided a life with her wouldn’t be so bad.”
“No,” said Roderick. “I do not believe it. No man worth anything would throw you aside for someone like her. No man would throw you aside for anything, not if he had earned your love.”
“You are blinded by your devotion of me,” said Dracia shaking her head. “You think too well of me.”
“What I think of you is based on who you truly are. You are a woman worthy of devotion and love, and you have both from me,” said Roderick intensely.
Dracia nodded. “Would you sit with me for a while and take lunch with me? I do not feel like being alone, but I do not want to face the court.”
“I will do whatever I can for you, Dracia,” said Roderick as they rode to the bottom of the mountain, thinking he would go visit the prince soon, no matter what Lord Ethen had said. He had promised the prince he would tell him when he had hurt Dracia in a way Roderick found unacceptable. This was not acceptable, and the prince would know it.