Veran had always loved the calmness he found in the little girl who was brought in by his Uncle after a particularly bad expedition all those years ago, claiming she had been separated from her family and Adras just couldn’t find it in himself to leave her behind in all that bloodshed. She had been so frail back then, not skinny enough to warrant concern over an extreme lack of nutrition but there was a sharpness to her small figure, as if she only had enough food to survive. Her now shiny and well groomed hair was rough and in long tangles back then.
Veran wasn’t surprised by this, even when he was quite young, having seen the difference between kids of nobility and those of commoners the few times he was allowed to step outside palace grounds with his mother when she was still alive. He was too young to truly acknowledge and understand such distinction back then but it stayed in his mind, making him wonder what could the useless ministers be doing instead of doing something that would be for the betterment of the subjects. It didn’t take long for him to get the answers as he continued to witness several acts of corruption and greed among the nobles growing up.
“Mother,” he remembered asking during one of their visits outside, “how come some people live in big houses but others don’t? Fergo says it’s because of their own doing.”
His mother, Queen Relia Dazeriatt, had pushed a stray chunk of long hair from his face before she looked at the houses and people her son pointed towards.
“That is certainly not true for everyone, Ver. It’s true that some people end up wasting away their wealth and assets through wrong means but a lot of people are unfortunately born into less than favorable circumstances. Some of them get the opportunity to change their situation while others continue to struggle.”
The young prince had frowned then, puzzling over his mother’s words for a moment, “Can the King help those people? The ones who don’t manage to get enough chances to improve their lives?”
Judging by the knowing smile tugging at the Queen’s face, Veran assumed he had asked something good.
“That is precisely what the duty of a ruler entails, Veran. As someone who is privileged enough to be in a position where they can create opportunities for others according to their needs, a good ruler makes use of such privilege and creates a nation that runs for the people, first and foremost.”
“Is Father a good ruler then?”
At the young prince’s curiously innocent question, there had been a dimness in the grey eyes of the Queen, the previously open smile turned tight at the corners.
“Well, he tries,” she had responded after a brief pause, “But he’s not perfect, your father. Power politics and corrupt advisors keep him too occupied. If you choose to succeed him, Ver, I wish for you to become the kind of King you want to be without worrying about what the others in the palace expect you to be. Be the ruler you would want to be ruled under, Veran.”
Perhaps that’s why his mother emphasized on his frequent visits to nearby towns, explaining to him the hard life some people lived and reminding him what he should be appreciative of. With young Cirthe’s presence in his life, that fact got further cemented. The stories she recalled from her life lived before coming to the palace, the mundaness of it all and yet the simple joys her tales carried left a deep impression on Veran. He wanted to know everything about her. Perhaps that’s where it started, her quiet happiness becoming a source of peace for him, something that was lacking quite a bit ever since his mother passed away.
And while he still remembered his mother’s words and Cirthe’s tales, Veran could not help but feel irked listening to the people he was meant to rule soon, speaking so bitterly about him. They had all the right to, but it still made him uneasy. So it really was a blessing that his attention was taken by the figure that approached him, before he said something in his restless state.
Except, looking at the stoic calm on Cirthe’s face, Veran started to question if it really was a blessing to be caught by her when he did.
“You,” she pulled him away from the two men still chattering behind him, his cloak bunched up in her fist firmly. As if he could run away now, “What exactly are you doing here?”
Veran smiled, looking around the market once before turning back to her and shrugging, “I could ask you the same.”
If her stormy silence was any indication, Veran knew there was no chance of getting out of this with his charm and smiles. He sighed, relenting.
“I wanted to see the night market.”
“I don’t see the personal guards appointed to you anywhere.”
She really doesn’t miss anything, huh. Veran grimaced, placing a gentle hand on the fist that was holding on to his cloak. They needed to not look like they were about to start a fight. Worst way to expose himself really.
“That’s because they’re not with me,” he told her, unfurling the fingers in his cloak slowly but not letting go of the hand itself even after the thick cloth was back to its original place, albeit a bit wrinkled from the tight grip. “I..sneaked out. Before you get mad, give me a chance to explain. Please.”
Cirthe did not answer right away, her gaze locked on the hand that was holding on to her own, gentle and unrestrictive. Yet she didn’t let go, glancing back up at him. She looked less angry at least.
“Alright. This way, then. We need some place quiet. Less crowded,” And with that, she was pulling him after her, her steps quick and sure. She seemed to have no trouble gliding through the crowd, taking turns here and there without hesitation. Veran wondered if she frequented the town on her own for her to know the paths and alleys so well.
They finally came to a stop in a quiet alley, a narrow space between two small buildings that seemed to be closed at the time. It wasn’t as brightly lit as the rest of the market and the noise and buzz of the crowd wasn’t as loud now. It meant he could take off his hood at least. The cool night air felt almost chilly on his nape, the skin sweating both from the glaring lights of the market set up as well as the constant tension in his body at the thought of having snuck out alone.
Though there wasn’t much light, Veran could see well enough to notice the muted anger on Cirthe’s face. Even when vexed, there remained a quiet calmness to her that was honestly much more terrifying than an enemy hurtling towards him with a war cry. She didn’t shout or throw cruel words when she was enraged. Instead her annoyance manifested in the tightness of her mouth, in the way her eyes went from a pale brown to almost black, the way her figure seemed stiff and unmoving. Veran had rarely been on the receiving end of her wrath. Perhaps that was why he didn’t feel fear as much as he felt a nervous energy flittering through him whenever she did get angry at him. God knows he didn’t want to ponder on what that said about him.
“Ciri,” he started, “I promise I didn’t come here to just fool around.”
Well, that was partially true.
She raised a thin brow, disbelief clear on her face.
“Alright so maybe I did come here to let out some stress,” he relented, hurriedly adding, “But! I’m not lying when I say that was not all I had in mind. The issue with the night market was brought up by Adler today during work. And I wanted to see things for myself first.”
“Why couldn’t you have come with your guards then? They’re appointed to your side for a reason,” Cirthe threw a quick glance at the sound of footsteps passing by the alley they stood in. When she turned her body further towards the opening, so her back was towards the street outside while the prince remained hidden more or less by her figure, Veran had to press himself back into the wall to avoid bumping their chests.
She’s just being herself. Protecting me. He reminded himself, hoping the flush on his neck wasn’t visible to Cirthe.
“You truly think I would be allowed to roam in the town like this if I told them? I have been barely allowed to step outside of palace buildings. And I’m not nearly as defenceless as you think I am, Cirthe. I do know how to protect myself,” Veran couldn’t find in himself to hide the bitter tone in his words as he added, “You would know how skilled I am if you had actually been around in the training grounds.”
Alright, so maybe he was a petty prince who was still not over the fact that his best friend had been so easily replaced by a pair of stoic strangers. He never did claim to be the perfect person after all.
He could see his words had softened the hard gaze Cirthe had been looking at him with, her attention now fully on him instead of on the occasional passing figures on the street.
“If they hadn’t, it would be for a good reason, Veran,” she replied, moving closer still so her voice wasn’t overheard.
Veran doubted she realized how dangerosus that slight movement was for his heart. His back was already pressed to the wall and he had to keep his head tilted away to the side to avoid brushing against Cirthe’s forehead. There wasn’t much he could do about the familiar sweet scent that occasionaly drifted towards him, given that there was barely any space left between their bodies. He could try not breathing but he figured it wouldn’t do him any favors to faint in the current situation. So he breathed, admitting to himself that she smelled divine.
Cirthe continued, unaware of the internal struggles the prince was going through due to their proximity, “I know you’re more than capable of protecting yourself. I’ve seen first hand how well you’ve come to hone your swordsmanship. Don’t think Adras doesn’t constantly brag about his dear nephew being the best at even hand to hand combat. But it is also true that training is quite different to the real thing.”
Veran knew that. Though there was no immediate threat to his life, no wars he needed to fight, there was also only so much he could endure being stuck in his little protected bubble in the castle.
“There are no assassins coming for my neck in this frankly too brightly lit and overly crowded market, Ciri,” he sighed, squeezing the hand that was still holding on to his. There was no immediate response from her and Veran thought he might have irritated her further, lowering his head to get a better look at her face.
“If,” she started after a pause, turning back to him, “If I accompany you while you look around the market to your heart’s content and escort you back to the palace safely, will you promise me that you will have your guards with you next time you want to step out?”
He would have preferred if she was the one accompanying him everywhere but he figured it wasn’t the right time to be making demands, not unless he wanted Cirthe back to her icey self who had no sense of personal space. Not good for his heart.
With a pleased grin and a nod, he started to pull her out of the alley they stood hidden in and back on the main path, shifting the hold on her hand so their fingers intertwined as they weaved through the people and got back to the main part of the market together.
“You can’t be out too late, however,” Cirthe spoke, her voice low and soft in his ear. Veran barely stopped himself from jerking away, not realizing how close she had been following behind him until she spoke up.
He looked on ahead, heart thundering like he had been running a race without a break. Veran wondered if the reaction was because he’d been with Cirthe like this after quite some time. He was willing to bet that the real reason was the same as always. She had this effect on him and he wasn’t sure if he was grateful or not that she was so oblivious when it came to matters of emotions.
“Here,” Veran dragged them to a stop in front of a sweets stall, “Have you eaten yet? This is really good! I had a little bit of that tart there earlier.”
Cirthe looked at him and back to the food he pointed at. She could act all nonchalant but he knew her better than anyone else. She had a massive sweet tooth and he had unashamedly taken advantage of the fact quite often when they were kids. Just like he was planning to do now.
The vendor was smart enough to recognize eager customers as he started to prepare a number of desserts at Veran’s gesture. Soon they were off to the centre of the night market, with Cirthe nibbling on some sort of sweetened bread while Veran sneaked glances at her every now and then. They stood in a dimly lit corner, listening to the music a few older folks had been playing while a few couples danced energetically. It was all very loud and chaotic and absolutely wonderful to him. Veran wondered how it would be if he could pull Cirthe into the middle of it all and joined the rest, completely unconcerned about who saw him and who did what about it. He couldn’t imagine her moving like that, so freely and with no thoughts in mind. But what a sight it would be, what a dream to have her with him like that, close and touching, faces red with laughter and merriment.
Well, he thought to himself as he looked at her again with a smile as he watched her bite into a thick biscuit with a look of pure wonder on her face. This will more than suffice for now.
He didn’t know how long they stood there, watching the crowd dwindle with time, the young ones being sent home as the night went on while the vendors started preparing for their close up for the night stall by stall.
“I think it’s best we leave now, Veran.”
Sighing, he nodded and let her lead their way out of the town and back towards the bushy path where he came from. He wondered vaguely if she did follow him after all. But then again, she knew him and his ways better than anyone else.
Soon the noise of the town and the lights were far behind them, the slight moonlight the only source of brightness for them the further they went into the grassy land that surrounded the town.
“You have to admit,” Veran started, ignoring the shushing he received in reply. “You had fun. It was a fun time back in the market.”
There was no sound other than their footsteps for a while, dried leaves and grass crunching softly as they made their way to the tunnel leading back into the castle.
“Yes, I did,” her voice much quieter than his. It was only because there was such silence around them that he could even hear what she said, “But it was also incredibly risky for you, Your Highness.”
“Back to that, are we?” he scoffed, ignoring her warning to lower his voice once again. “You were doing so well back there. You called me by my name every time.”
“I had no choice. Anyone could have overheard. It was a necessity to ensure that you didn’t get recognized.”
“So it’s only for show then?”
When she shushed him again, he pulled them to a stop with a frown. With her mind so set on getting to the end of the tunnel and back into secured grounds, she didn’t expect the sudden halt in their stride and fell into his chest when he whirled her around, pulling her close with the hand that was still intertwined with hers.
"Veran," he corrected, voice quieter than it had been.
He knew he was being childish and petty. He perfectly understood her reasoning behind not referring to his title when they were in the market and among so many strangers. But Gods, he was sick of being seen as just that, by her of all people. Why couldn’t they have a few more moments as just them and not as a knight protecting some Prince who was stupid enough to sneak out on his own?
“When did you start seeing me for my title, just as yet another royal to protect and lay down your life for, and not as your best friend you could consider equal and joke around with?”
“You know that’s not what I meant.”
“Yes, I do. But I also know that every day you become more devoted to being my protector and less my friend and I hate that. I hate that I can’t talk with you as I would do with other friends if I had any. The fact that you see me as your Prince first and your childhood friend second, it does my head in. Why are you so ready to give up your own well being for a vain prince?”
He could tell Cirthe was trying not to speak too loud, as if afraid someone was waiting to eavesdrop on us. He had given up on keeping his voice quiet a long time ago because what danger was he in really in the middle of a secret path.
“Because it is what is expected of me. Because it is what I promised to His Majesty when he agreed to provide a shelter for me. And it is my duty to protect you to the best of my abilities, protect my friend and my future King, particularly in the current--”
Veran looked at her, wondering why she cut herself off. Before he could gather anything from her expression, she turned around and dragged him more forcefully towards the end of the path which led out to the space outside his office building.
“In the current what? What’s happening currently that has you so alert?” he prodded, tightening his grip on her fingers when she tried to pull away. She gave no answer, insisting on walking faster till.
“Fine. Keep me in the dark,” With a scowl, he jerked his own hand away and strode past and ahead of her, “Be like the rest of them. Treat me like some fragile glass bird as you do.”
He didn’t look back to see if she was following or not, his mood beyond ruined. He just wanted to get out of the damn narrow tunnel and get to his room so the day could be over before he did something he would regret later.
“Wait!” he heard her call out, the sound of her footsteps becoming louder and sounding closer but he was already pushing the stone wall open and stepping out.
“Just go back, Cirthe,” he shouted in return, turning back to her halfway and watching her run up to him with a look of urgency on her face. “I don’t exactly feel like continuing our--”
“Veran, you idiot--!”
And suddenly she hurtled into him, their bodies falling back into the soft grass outside the tunnel. A second later, there was a sharp noise behind them and Veran looked up to see a thick arrow stuck into the bark of the wisteria tree. It was clearly aimed at where he was standing a few seconds ago before Cirthe had pushed him down.
“What in the world...?”
“Get up. Right now.”
Cirthe was already shuffling into a low crouch, pulling him behind her as she lead them in the space that wasn’t lit up by the moon light. “Stay low and get to the front of the building but don’t step out of the shadows. We don’t know where the archer is or how many there are.”
His heart was racing and mind in shambles but he nodded instead of questioning anything further, doing as was told and quickly made his way along the rough walls of the building, careful not to step out into the brighter areas.
“Keep moving, Veran. Don’t look back,” Cirthe warned from behind him when there was multiple thumps behind them as they hurried along to the front of the building where the entrance sat. It seems that whoever was aiming for him was still shooting in the dark despite the fact that they couldn’t possibly be visible now.
It was only when they had managed to slip into the ground floor through an open window that Veran let out a deep breathe. He didn’t realize how tense he’d been until now, his body slightly trembling now that the adrenaline was running out of his system.
“Are you alright?”
He let Cirthe look him over for any injuries. He did the same, brushing his fingers over a rough looking scratch on her neck that wasn’t there before. Possibly when she pushed him down?
“It’s nothing.” she said, body flinching almost unnoticeably as his fingers touched the sensitive skin. The scratch was smarting under his hand but she wasn’t sure if the shiver that went through her could all be chalked up to the injury. Her own hand flew up to stop his when the sensation persisted for too long.
“What was that?”
He made sure that his voice was barely above a whisper despite the fact that they weren’t out in the open now and were relatively safe.
Cirthe was looking around, body alert and brows pinched in a frown as she led him away from any windows and further into the building.
“I don’t know. But I’m guessing they were waiting for us so I can only assume it was all planned,” she replied, calling out to a passing maid who looked just as bewildered to see them both sneaking around looking disheveled. “Call for Sir Adras and gather the guards of the Prince. Tell them Knight Cirthe has called for an emergency meeting. Hurry.”
She turned to him next, expression grim and focused.
“Whoever it was, they were aiming for you, knowing who you were. So we need to keep you as protected as possible. So please, Veran, for my sake, listen to whatever Adras asks of you even if it means being confined to a secret room for a while or having more than 2 guards at your side.”
In any other situation, Veran would have argued against what she was suggesting. Being forced to lock himself up to be protected or having hundreds of other people hovering around him to keep him safe left him feeling uneasy and suffocated. But he had never seen Cirthe looking so serious and almost panicked. He could tell there was something very ominous going on that he was not being informed of but with his thoughts muddled in the moment, he couldn’t find it in himself to badger her about it right then.
“Alright,” he nodded, faintly aware that his hands were shaking. From fear or simple adrenaline, he wasn’t sure.