“You’re looking more skittish than usual, princess.”
It would be abnormal for someone to blurt that out to their master, especially without greeting them first, but for myself, I knew I wouldn’t be punished for it. In fact, the noblewoman looked relieved to see me.
“You know you don’t have to call me that when we’re alone.”
“It’s a formality – out of respect, of course.”
The girl sighed, curtseying at my approach. “Whatever you say, Lady Juno.”
“Don’t call your guard ’lady,’” I grumbled, my gaze narrowing. The princess dipped her head in defeat; she’d been scolded for that before. I never found it funny no matter how many times she said it.
We were outdoors, strolling through the gardens as we usually did. I trailed behind the princess after relieving her other guard from his duties so he could rest. With my two swords strapped to my legs and the dagger that rested across my lower back, I was well equipped to protect the young noblewoman.
“So,” I muttered, scanning the gardens, “what bothers you, princess?”
Princess Saranna of Kiandra averted her eyes, her fingers digging into her silken skirts. The noblewoman wore a gown of pink and pastel green, the entire garment a collection of long layers that went from her shoulders to the ground. It was a waterfall of fine cloth, flowing around her delicate form like it was trying to swallow her. The princess’ brown hair was braided down her back and adorned with floral ornaments. Her light blue eyes suited her sweet, innocent face, contrasting her warm golden complexion. She was the type to have a smile that could thaw even the coldest of hearts, but that smile hadn’t made an appearance all morning.
“Now that Aryn will settle their war with Kiandra, they want something to solidify the bonds between kingdoms. Since my brother is next in line to be king, the duty of marrying one of their royals falls to me.”
We’ve all known that for some time now.
I prompted her to continue nonetheless, silently offering for her to release her burdens with someone she could trust. That sort of thing – a safe environment to be vulnerable – is rare, even in the wonderful kingdom of Kiandra.
“And that troubles you?”
She shot me a desperate look. One that was questioning my opinion.
No one else was present – I gave her a firm nod. She relaxed immediately, but had tension to spare. Her shoulders sagged.
“A little,” Princess Saranna murmured. “But if you’re certain that you think it will work out and benefit the kingdom, then I trust you, Juno.”
I bowed my head. “Thank you, princess."
With an uncertain smile, my princess continued her tour of the gardens. Her face retained its faraway look, her unfocused gaze exposing how deep in thought she was. I noticed, and I knew why she was so far gone, but I couldn’t do anything to help.
It was when we were heading back toward the castle after two rounds of the path that the princess grabbed my hand. I could feel her shaking.
“Will you be alright without me when I go back to Aryn with my betrothed?”
“Of course,” I assured her without hesitation. “Everything will be fine. Do your duty, and I will do mine.”
She pursed her lips.
I gently squeezed her hand, pulling her toward the doors. “Not now, Your Highness. When are the emissaries from Aryn arriving?”
“Tomorrow,” she answered obediently. Once we were inside, I dropped her hand, nudging her in the direction of her room. Resuming my position one step behind her, I shadowed the princess until we reached her doors.
“Get yourself ready,” I told her firmly, glancing around us. No one was here to listen to me order the princess around. “I’m going to find someone to take over my post here. I’ll meet with the king to speak with him.”
Not many guards could tell someone that they’d go see the king without requesting an audience in advance, but I had a few advantages. The princess knew that well, nodding at me one last time before disappearing inside her royal chambers. I walked to the end of the hall, signaling one of the guards on patrol to stand outside her room. He nodded, his armor clicking as he walked, the sound echoing through the stone hallways. His partner bowed his head to me as I passed, barely batting an eye at him.
I stopped outside the king’s study in another wing of the palace. Here, tall windows let sunlight fill the rooms unlike the dark part of the castle where the princess was. Four knights were posted in the hall, all watching the double doors that led to the king’s study.
“Juno,” one nodded, “you came at the perfect time. His Majesty is currently alone.”
I bowed my head to the four of them before continuing inside. The study was clearly well loved, with filled shelves and many beautiful paintings on the walls. Rugs covered the hard floor, and there were more windows in here. One large bay window was my personal favourite place to sit. Despite being in the presence of the ruler of my country, I walked toward it, unconcerned about permission. King Augustus of Kiandra, tucked into his grand lacquered desk, snorted as I sat down.
“My king,” I murmured, absentmindedly looking at the mountain of paperwork lying before him.
“Hello, Juno. Is everything alright?”
I pursed my lips, staring at the old man. He had a darker complexion than his daughter whose skin tone was closer to my olive-tinted brown. His eyes were a light golden colour, and his dark hair fell in tight curls over his shoulders. Streaks of silver in his hair showed his many years, but they were tasteful. I knew that underneath his heavy robe, battle scars littered his arms.
“Your daughter is going to be married off to an Aryna.”
“Yes, she is.”
“Are they a part of the incoming group? How long will they stay? Who will they send?”
“Yes, her betrothed is coming as well. I haven’t decided how long they will stay. And I believe it is their crown prince.”
I scoffed. “I’m glad I stayed in the dark.”
“It’s for the best, Juno. As it turns out, our conflicts with Aryn will only subside with this union,” the king sighed. He walked over, gently taking my hand. “I’m sure the princess will be safer when our alliance with Aryn is solidified.”
I squeezed his hand.
“She will be.”
I sighed before continuing. “But if she is married off to Aryn’s prince, she will one day become their queen. That cannot be undone, and she will be stuck.”
King Augustus gently patted my head the way a father would.
“It’s the best we royals can do to protect Kiandra. Now go, I think our own prince wanted to see you.”
I nodded, releasing his hand. The king returned to his desk as I sauntered to the door, laying a gloved hand on its surface.
When I paused, an unspoken thought forcing its way to the surface, it was wholly unintentional.
“Are we making a mistake?” I asked, never turning.
The question hung in the air, and I could tell that my king was taking his time with his reply. Still, he couldn’t contemplate forever.
“The royal family of Kiandra is what matters,” was his eventual answer. “We are the ones who will lay down our lives to protect our people. We do whatever it takes to survive.”
I swallowed, clearing my throat loudly.
There was some irony in that statement.
“Right. Make sure to rest well, Your Majesty.”
“Stay safe, Juno.”
My hand dropped to the handle, pulling the heavy door open. The wood croaked as I passed through, dipping my chin in respect to the guards. There was an occasional echo of my footsteps as I walked, my destination being the training grounds where I could find the prince. I pushed the conversation to the back of my mind, as my king had spoken, and his word was law.
After all, a lowly guard shouldn’t worry about the affairs of princes and princesses.