Once Upon A Time - Merry Shannon



Chapter Eleven

"You're really not coming?" Shasta stared at her guardian in surprise.

"King Soltran does give me this one night a year," Talon replied, shifting his weight nervously. "I thought I would go ahead and take it. Unless it's not all right with you?"

She blinked at him curiously. "Well.. no… I mean, of course, it's all right. It's just that this is the first time you've actually volunteered to take the time off."

Talon cleared his throat, and his eyes slid over to where Erinda was clearing away the remainder of the afternoon's luncheon. "Yes, well… I have plans."

"You have plans?" Shasta's eyes widened, and she snickered. "Since when do you have plans? What are they, anyway… you going to sit up here all night sharpening your sword into a toothpick?"

"I could if I wanted to," he retorted, but there was amusement in his tone. "Are you sure you'll be all right with the Captain?"

"After what happened last year, I'm not letting Captain Vaughn out of my sight," Shasta asserted determinedly.

Talon grinned at her. "Better stay away from the wine, too."

She gave him a little kick in the shins. "Oh, shut up." She made a face at her guardian, but it quickly melted into a grin that matched his own. "I'll be just fine. Really. It's about time you loosened up a little and had some fun."

Erinda made a funny noise from the sitting room, and Shasta turned to look at her with concern. "Erinda, are you all right?"

The buxom little chambermaid coughed into a handkerchief, and turned to look at the princess. "I'm fine, your Highness. Just… a touch of a cold." She looked over at Talon and coughed again, her cheeks pink.

Shasta moved over and felt the chambermaid's forehead with one hand. "You're a little warm, and your face is all flushed! Perhaps you ought to take the evening off as well. I don't want you to get sick." This seemed to set Erinda off again, and she coughed very violently into her handkerchief. If Shasta hadn't known better she would have thought the girl was laughing. She patted her on the shoulder sympathetically. "I want you to take it easy tonight." Shasta turned back to her guardian, noticing for the first time that his cheeks were also rather red. "Talon, you're not looking so well, either. Maybe you and Erinda should both take some time to rest and relax a little."

This seemed to be too much for the chambermaid, who gripped the tray in her hands and ran from the room, coughing all the way. Shasta's brows rose as the door closed. "I hope she's all right," she said worriedly.

Talon made a little noise in the back of his throat. "I'm sure she'll be fine," he replied. There was something odd about the tightness of his voice, and Shasta peered at him closely.

"Well, whatever it is, I hope you don't catch it. If you get sick I'll be stuck in my rooms until you get better."

He nodded, and a strange expression of relief crossed his face as a knock sounded at the door. "That must be Captain Vaughn," he said quickly, crossing the room.

It was indeed the captain, and as he entered he presented the princess with a bouquet of roses that she recognized from the royal gardens. "Happy birthday, Highness," he greeted her cheerfully.

"Thank you, Captain," Shasta replied, taking the flowers and inhaling deeply of their sweet scent. "These are lovely. When Erinda returns I'll have her arrange them by my bed." She laid the roses down on the table.

"Highness, if it's all right I'll take my leave now," Talon said, and both the princess and the captain eyed him with surprise.

Shasta giggled. "Can't wait to get away from me, huh?"

He lifted an eyebrow. "Something like that."

She narrowed her eyes at him in a mock glare. "Well then by all means, go."

Talon gave her a sweeping bow. "Have fun at your party, Princess. And happy birthday." He went to the door, then turned back. "Captain Vaughn, keep an eye on her. Don't let her drink too much wine or eat too much candy. And if you see Chancellor Kumire come within a stone's-throw of her, break his arms for me."

The captain chuckled and nodded. "You can count on it, my boy." He cracked his knuckles for emphasis, making all three of them laugh.

When Talon was gone, Shasta turned to Vaughn curiously. "Do you know what Talon's up to tonight?"

Captain Vaughn shook his head. "He wouldn't tell me. Just said he had plans, and that they're a secret."

"A secret. Hah." Shasta turned to admire herself in the mirror. She was wearing another low-cut gown this year, though she'd asked the dressmaker to raise the neckline a little compared to last year's style. As much as she'd enjoyed the attention it brought, Shasta had learned that not all attention was desirable. She straightened the lace at her shoulders. "Talon couldn't keep a secret from me if his life depended on it. We practically spend every minute of the day together."

Vaughn pressed his lips together tightly to avoid laughing, and nodded. "I'm sure you're right, Princess."

Her sixteenth birthday celebration was not much different than any other before it, and Shasta actually found herself bored with the usual banquet-entertainment-reception routine. It was not that the food wasn't delicious, or that the performing troupe wasn't extremely talented and engaging. The music was lively and the party guests were in high spirits, but Shasta just couldn't get into a celebratory mood for some reason. Truth be told, she felt more like snuggling under a warm blanket with a cup of tea and a good book, than parading around in diamonds and jewels and dancing the night away.

Still, she did her best to appear as cheerful and energetic as she could, particularly for her father's benefit. He kept casting glances in her direction and smiling proudly, and she knew he'd gone to great lengths and even greater expense to prepare this party for her. She wanted him to know she appreciated his efforts, and so she put on her prettiest smile and tried not to let even a hint of boredom show on her face.

The princess was also very careful not to even touch a drop of wine at the table. She had learned her lesson from the previous celebration, and wanted to face the entire evening with a perfectly clear head. She laughed and applauded with the rest of the audience as the performers did their work, and spent time engrossed in small talk with Aleria and Brie. Captain Vaughn escorted her to the reception, where she danced with her father and various men of the court, some of whom she recognized from the emancipation talks.

At one point it seemed that Chancellor Kumire might actually ask her to dance, but Shasta shrank behind Captain Vaughn's broad-shouldered frame, and he glared so imposingly at the impish viceroy that Kumire seemed to change his mind at the last minute, and instead of approaching her turned and made a show of inspecting the pastries on the nearby refreshment table. Shasta breathed a sigh of relief. Let the chancellor dance all he wanted with her lady-in-waiting; Brie obviously enjoyed his company and she was welcome to it.

Aleria, her other companion, stood serenely by the center fountain of the palace gardens where the musicians were playing. Wearing the robes of the Pledged and her hair cut in the distinctive Irythrian style, no one would bother asking her to dance; those pursuing the service of the Goddess only danced at temple festivals, and then only in specific ceremonies as ordained by Irythria.

A few of the young soldiers attending the party actually had the courage to approach Shasta and ask her for a dance. Several of them were quite handsome and charming, and she accepted nearly all their invitations; Shasta loved to dance and knew that a turn on the floor with the princess of Lysteria was quite an honor for these young men in her father's service. It annoyed her, however, that none of them seemed to treat her like a real person. They held her as if she were made of glass, and sputtered shyly at her every attempt to make conversation. Shasta found herself missing the company of her guardian. At least he would talk to her and tease her without staring as if she were some mythical fairytale creature.

After a particularly rousing waltz, Shasta sank onto one of the garden benches to catch her breath, her wide skirts spanning the entire length of the seat. A red-faced corporal came up to her as the musicians began to play a minuet, and cleared his throat nervously.

"Princess Shasta, may I…" his voice cracked oddly, and Shasta suppressed the urge to snicker. She didn't want to embarrass him any further; he already looked like he wanted to sink through the earth and disappear. He hemmed and hawed again before continuing. "May I have this dance?"

Shasta smiled at him wearily. "I would love to, my lord. But would you mind asking me again in a few minutes? I'm just so tired from that last waltz, I need a moment to rest."

"Oh. Oh, of course, highness." He bowed awkwardly and began to walk away, and Shasta sighed. The poor boy was so nervous asking her the first time, she was certain he would probably be too discouraged to repeat his request.

"What's your name, my lord?" she called after him, causing him to spin around in surprise.

"Oh. It's Jen, Highness. Corporal Jen Cross, at your service." He offered her a stiff military salute, and she had to smile.

"Well, Corporal, don't forget about me. I expect you to be my partner for the next piece."

The grin on his face stretched from ear to ear. "I won't forget, your highness, I promise."

"See that you don't." She winked at him and unfurled the fan hanging at her wrist to cool her overheated face. Shasta had to snicker to herself as the young officer scurried away quickly, a decided bounce in his step.

Captain Vaughn spoke quietly from behind her seat. "That was very kind of you, Princess. I'd wager you just made that young man's evening."

"Hah. He hasn't danced with me yet. I'll probably step all over his feet and he'll be wishing he never asked me."

The captain chuckled, and eyed her flushed face. "Are you sure you'll be all right to keep dancing like this, Highness? You look tired."

"I'm just a bit winded, Captain, that's all." She smiled at him. "You've seen me get more exhausted in our fencing lessons."

"Just trying to look out for you the way Talon would," he insisted cheerfully, patting her on the shoulder. "After last year's… events… your guardian would skin me alive if I let anything happen to you." Vaughn gave her a mischievous wink.

At that moment, Shasta happened to glance towards the arched entrance to the palace gardens, which opened onto the grounds, and was startled to see two shadowy forms running across the hard-packed earth in the direction of the servants' stables. There was a shiny glint of metal, and Shasta could have sworn it looked just like Talon's new silver sword-sheath, the one her father had given him for the Solstice. She rose to her feet and rubbed her eyes, squinting out into the darkness beyond the garden arch, but the shadows were gone; either they were too far away for her to see or else she had only imagined it. It was silly of her to think that she recognized Talon from such a great distance, anyway; even if they had been in broad daylight the figures would have been too far away for her to identify. Still, she was suddenly gripped with the impulse to investigate, and took a step towards the arch when she heard her name being called.

"Princess Shasta? Your highness, the next dance is beginning."

Reluctantly Shasta turned her attention from the archway to the eager young corporal waiting expectantly for her. She smiled as graciously as she could. "And you kept your promise, Corporal." Shasta extended her hand so that he could kiss it. "Shall we?"

As they spun around amidst the other dancers, Shasta could not help her gaze wandering repeatedly to the dark garden entrance. Her curiosity got the better of her, and when the musicians had finished playing and the young corporal had escorted her back to her seat on the bench, she turned to Captain Vaughn and made a pouting shape with her mouth. "Why, Captain, I can't help noticing that you haven't been on the dance floor all evening."

He lifted an eyebrow. "My duty is to watch over you, your Highness. Unless of course, you'd do me the honor?"

She fanned herself briskly and nodded. "It would be my pleasure, Captain, but I'm afraid I need another few moments to rest." She nodded in the direction of one of the benches across from the fountain, where several ladies of the court were gathered together gossiping. Shasta had noticed Captain Vaughn's attention often drawn to that corner of the garden, and she knew why. Lady Minde, the daughter of the governor of Olsta province, was well known to be Vaughn's favorite among the noblewomen at court. Though a self-proclaimed bachelor, Captain Vaughn was not quite too old to be considered an eligible catch, and the golden-haired Minde was the only woman Shasta had ever seen him express an interest in. Shasta's eyes twinkled as Vaughn's gaze followed the direction of her nod, and she grinned and poked the captain's arm. "You should dance with her, Captain. She looks quite lonely over there by herself."

"You think so?"

In truth, Lady Minde appeared quite content to engage in conversation with her friends, and showed no indication of loneliness whatsoever, but Shasta nodded anyway. "I'm sure she would love a chance to dance with one of the most eligible bachelors of the Lysterian court," she teased lightly. "You should ask her. I'm just going to sit here for a while and rest."

For a moment the captain seemed undecided, his eyes flickering between Shasta and the beautiful Minde, but when the blond woman tilted her head back to laugh at something one of her companions said, causing the diamonds at her throat to glitter in the torchlight, he made up his mind. "You're going to stay here?" he asked Shasta, his eyes never leaving Minde.

She wiggled her brows at him. "Of course. Go on, have a good time." Shasta watched through half-lidded eyes as the captain made his way through the throng of dancers and extended a hand to Lady Minde. As she'd hoped, the pretty blond accepted his offered arm and joined Vaughn on the dance floor. Shasta met Vaughn's eyes and gave him a conspiratorial grin, and when she was sure that his attention was completely absorbed in his dancing partner, she stood and slowly made her way to the garden entrance.

Looking around to be sure no one was watching her leave, Shasta slipped around the stone arch and made her way briskly across the grounds towards the servants' stables. Her heart was pounding in her chest; a little voice in the back of her head insisted that this was a very bad idea, sneaking off alone into the dark like this, chasing mysterious shadows. This is exactly how I get myself into trouble. Father would kill me if he found out. What if there's an assassin waiting for me out here? But her curiosity, combined with the boredom that had built up throughout the evening, won out. It's probably nothing. At least it beats spending all night making nice with nervous soldiers and stuttering courtiers.

Shasta winced as she stepped on the occasional small pebble scattered across the dirt; her dainty dancing slippers were not designed for any surface rougher than a neatly tiled ballroom floor. But she would not allow such a minor inconvenience to deter her from her mission, and the closer she got to the stables the more she slowed her pace, suddenly feeling the inclination to be sneaky. When she reached the stable doors, she leaned against the planks for a moment, trying to catch her breath quietly.

She stiffened as a strange noise emanated from inside the stable; it sounded like a woman moaning. Shasta pressed her ear to a gap between two of the wooden planks, and her eyes narrowed when she recognized the deep, throaty sound of Talon's laugh. I was right, she thought triumphantly. What in the name of the Goddess is he doing out here? Another moan, definitely feminine, suddenly made her realize that Talon was not alone.

Unable to hear much more than muffled voices through the stable door, Shasta made her way around the side of the building, to a loose plank that Daric had discovered many years ago, when they were children. At some point one of the horses must have kicked a hole in the wall of its stall, and whoever had repaired it had obviously been lazy about his task; a single wide plank of wood, held by one nail at the top, was meant to patch the gap. Of course, this made it very easy to simply rotate the plank, and the hole was big enough for a small person to slip through. Shasta and Daric had used this secret entrance many times, when the stable doors were barred from the inside.

There was the rather inconvenient matter of Shasta's ball gown, which she couldn't possibly just remove, but the hoops were so wide there was no way for her to fit through the gap in the wall. In fact, she had quite an awkward time of it, hiking the delicate fabric of the dress up around her waist so that it would not be snagged when she knelt in the dirt by the loose plank. After wrestling with it for a few minutes, she finally managed to get the skirt fabric wrapped somewhat securely around her waist, leaving only her petticoats and heavy muslin hoopskirt. She sank carefully to her knees and patted the petticoats and hoops down as they ballooned around her, then carefully rotated the plank, as slowly and quietly as she could. She might not be able to sneak all the way into the stable, but at least she'd have a better eavesdropping spot.

As it turned out, she was able to do much more than eavesdrop. Leaning forward, she caught a glimpse of motion in the hay, directly across from the stall she was peeking into. It took her a moment for her eyes to adjust to the eerie glow of the lantern hanging from one of the support beams, and to discern just exactly what it was she was seeing.

Beneath a pile of blankets at the base of the haystack, Shasta could make out two heads, one with mousy, curly brown hair that she immediately recognized as belonging to Erinda; she was the only person in the palace who had such curls, though Shasta had never seen her wearing it down before. And the other was unmistakably Talon. It took Shasta a moment before realization dawned, and her mouth dropped open. She knew then that she should look away, that she was intruding on something very private between her guardian and the chambermaid, but she found herself too fascinated to tear her eyes from the sight.

Talon murmured something she couldn't quite hear and Erinda giggled, and then Talon's hand appeared from beneath the blanket to stroke the maid's face. He drew her in for a kiss. Shasta's face grew hot as she watched her guardian's mouth move over Erinda's with an intensity that the princess was familiar with herself. Unconsciously she raised her own hand to her lips, recalling the feel of Talon's kiss… it had been exactly one winter ago on this very same night, in fact, that she'd blackmailed him into giving her first kiss. She'd been rather drunk at the time, and so had been too embarrassed to mention it since, but she certainly hadn't forgotten.

Then Talon moved, rolling himself on top of Erinda, the lantern light painting shadows across the firm muscles of his bare back as the blankets fell to his waist. The sight caused a strange feeling in Shasta, a sudden golden twang in her stomach that spread heat through her body and caused her cheeks to burn. She heard Erinda sigh, and Talon's responding groan was something guttural and feral, unlike anything Shasta had ever heard from him before. It caused a shiver of goosebumps to form down her arms, and with a soft gasp Shasta dropped the plank back into place and rose to her feet, running back towards the gardens as if there were fire at her heels, and untwisting her skirts from around her waist as she went.

She was so distraught that she nearly tripped over her own feet several times, and paused behind the stone of the arch to settle the fabric of her gown back over her petticoats before re-entering the party. She patted her hair carefully, hoping that she didn't look too disheveled and wishing for all the world that she had a looking-glass. Taking a deep breath she slipped back into the gardens as unobtrusively as she could, and made her way over to the refreshment table.

"Your highness." If the serving girl noticed anything odd about Shasta's breathless appearance, she showed no sign of it. "What may I get for you?"

"Wine, if you please."

The girl selected one of the pitchers on the table and filled a crystal goblet, watching with large eyes as Shasta snatched it up and drained it. "More, your highness?"

"Yes, please. The dancing has made me quite parched."

"Of course, Highness." She refilled the goblet, and this time Shasta took it in a more reserved fashion, and sipped in a much more ladylike manner.

"Princess!" Captain Vaughn clapped her on the shoulder and spun her to face him, his face lined with worry. "Where have you been? When I looked up you were gone…"

"I'm perfectly fine, Captain. I'm sorry to have worried you; I needed to get up and stretch my legs. I was beginning to cramp a little." She offered him a smile, but he stared at her suspiciously, and then at the wine goblet in her hand.

"What's this, now? I thought you were going to stay away from the wine tonight."

She waved a hand dismissively. "I changed my mind. Don't worry, captain, I won't overdo it. This," she waved the glass, "is hardly enough to set me tipsy."

"Would you like to retire for the night, Highness? You don't look well."

Shasta considered it, her mind still reeling from what she had seen in the stables. What she really wanted was a few moments of privacy to think, and to shake off the heavy embarrassment threatening to overwhelm her composure. But if she returned to her rooms now, Captain Vaughn was sure to accompany her and lurk around until Talon returned. She had too many things to mull over, and the last thing she wanted was to spend all night answering awkward questions. At least out here, among the other party guests, she could hope for a few moments in which she could ponder uninterrupted. So she shook her head and smiled brightly at Vaughn. "Really, Captain, I'm fine. I just want to observe the rest of the dancing, I think."

He led her back over to the bench she had occupied earlier, and stood at attention behind her shoulder. Shasta realized that there was no way Vaughn was going to be convinced to leave her unattended again, but she was grateful that at least she had her back to him and he could not see all the conflicting emotions warring on her face.

Embarrassment was tinged with an irrational anger, though she could not tell whether she was angry with Talon, or Erinda, or herself. After all, it was not Talon's fault that she had decided to sneak away from the party to follow him out there. What Talon did with his one free night a year was his own business; he was what, eighteen winters of age now? A fully grown man, capable of making his own decisions. And of course he would be interested in women, especially one as flirtatious and attractive as Erinda. It was just that Shasta had grown accustomed to her guardian's seemingly impervious manner. Girls flirted with Talon all the time, and occasionally he responded in kind, but Shasta had never noticed him pay more attention to one than another. He acted as if it were all a lighthearted game, and until tonight it hadn't even occurred to her that he might have an interest in anything more. Apparently she had been very, very blind.

Her face still burned, and she hoped her cheeks didn't look as red as they felt. She could still hear his soft groan in the back of her mind, and picture how the warm, tanned skin of his back looked in the lantern light. These feelings were new to her, this strange, wicked curiosity that had suddenly awakened in her consciousness. It was both exciting and shameful at the same time, and she found herself deliberately replaying the memory several times to hold on to the dark fascination it evoked in her.

How long had this been going on? Shasta tried to remember if she'd witnessed anything between Erinda and Talon that might have given a clue as to the true nature of their relationship. She recalled their conversation earlier that afternoon, and suddenly realized why Erinda had coughed so loudly, and why Talon had such a strange note in his voice… All the while she'd thought Erinda was catching a cold, when in fact they were both laughing at her innocent attempts to find out what Talon planned to do with his evening. Her eyes widened and she clapped a hand to her mouth. The whole time, she'd just gone on and on, and they had been laughing at her. Why wouldn't they? She had been so naďve about it all. A fresh surge of anger and embarrassment washed over Shasta as she thought of it. Here she'd thought she knew everything there was to know about her guardian, and now she was finding out that, contrary to her rather self-centered assumption, he did indeed keep secrets from her.

"Ah, Talon." Captain Vaughn's voice broke into her thoughts, and at the sound of her guardian's name Shasta's head snapped up and her face flushed yet again. Sure enough, Talon was striding towards them, now fully clothed of course, the gold braid of his uniform shining in the torchlight. Shasta looked away quickly, unable to meet his eyes.

"Captain Vaughn." Talon saluted his mentor formally. "How was the party?" His face darkened when he caught sight of the wine goblet in Shasta's hand, and he took it away from her. "What's this?"

Shasta didn't look up, and after a moment of awkward silence Vaughn shrugged. "The princess wanted some wine after the dancing. Don't worry, my boy, I've kept an eye on her. She hasn't even finished one glass."

Shasta bit her lip. Captain Vaughn didn't know about the full goblet she'd downed before getting it refilled, but she certainly wasn't going to correct him. Talon lifted an eyebrow but made no comment, instead finishing off the rest of the wine in two swallows and handing the empty crystal glass back to the captain. Shasta caught sight of Erinda then, quietly entering the garden through the archway and taking a spot at one of the refreshment tables. She had rebraided her hair, though one stubborn strand still curled rebelliously down her forehead.

The princess rose to her feet. "I'm quite tired now," she announced, still refusing to look up at Talon. "I wish to retire for the night."

Captain Vaughn bowed deeply. "Pleasant dreams, Highness."

She turned and acknowledged him with a tilt of her head. "Thank you for your services this evening, Captain. You were the perfect escort." Without a word to her guardian, Shasta made her way through the party guests, pausing to kiss Soltran on the cheek and bid him goodnight before continuing into the palace and up the tower stairs to her rooms.

Talon opened the door for her, and she brushed past him into the room without looking up. She heard him close the door behind her, and suddenly his hand was on her shoulder. "Have I offended you somehow, Princess?" Transfixed by the warmth of his fingers against her bare skin, Shasta's eyes widened and she ducked away.

"No, of course not. I'm just very tired. Will you ready the privy chamber for me, please?"

Obediently, Talon went to the door of the privy and inspected it to be sure it was empty, then stepped back to allow her to enter. She went inside and closed the door behind her, and wearily sank into one of her dressing chairs, ignoring the uncomfortable steel band of her hoop skirt digging into the back of her thighs. This is ridiculous, she told herself firmly. You can't just avoid him the rest of your life. He shares your room, for the love of the Goddess! You're going to have to find a way to get over this. After all, Talon was certainly not the first man in history to make love to a woman. This sort of thing happened all the time, and so long as it did not interfere with his duties why should she be bothered by it?

Taking a deep breath, Shasta stood and wrestled herself out of the heavy hoop skirts and petticoats, and after much twisting managed to unlace her own corset. Usually she had a maid to help her with that task, but all the servants were currently working the party, and she wasn't about to send for Erinda or ask Talon to help her. Just the memory of his fingers against her skin was enough to make her shiver again, and she gritted her teeth, stubbornly working at the lace at her back until she was able to loosen it enough to turn it so the grommets were at the front where she could unlace it completely. After slipping on her nightshift and robe, she went through the motions of taking down her hair, brushing it out, washing her face and using a damp cloth to clean the sweat from her shoulders and breasts. She would bathe first thing in the morning, she promised herself, as there was no one to draw a bath for her at the moment.

She rinsed her mouth with a peppermint wash designed to eliminate any unpleasant taste and freshen the breath, and then made quick use of the chamber pot. When she could no longer think of any other reason to prolong her stay in the chamber, she took a deep breath and opened the door.

Talon had removed his jacket and boots, and was in the process of unbuckling his sword belt as she emerged. For a moment Shasta stood watching him. She'd seen her guardian perform these same simple actions a hundred times before, but she was noticing for the first time how the soft white linen shirt seemed to glow against the dark olive tone of his skin, how the broad, lean lines of his shoulders filled every seam, muscles contracting visibly across his back as he bent to prop his sword against the wall. Shasta noted how long and graceful his slender fingers were as he folded his uniform and placed it on the table beneath the window, and she marveled that she'd never really paid attention to them before. Talon turned and met her eyes. Shasta started, looking away quickly and climbing into bed. She gave an exaggerated yawn.

"Ah, I'm so exhausted. I think I tired myself more than I'd originally thought." She blew out the lamp by her bed, and laid back against the pillows. "Take care of the rest of the lights when you're ready, will you?" She tried to mumble the words a little to make it sound as if she were already half asleep, though in truth her entire body felt like it was tingling, and her mind had never been more awake.

Talon stared at the princess' form in the bed. Shasta had drawn the covers up so far that only the very top of her head was visible, and Talon blinked with confusion. Just now, when she'd turned around and caught Shasta's eye, she thought she saw something in the princess' face that she'd certainly never seen there before. It almost looked like… The soldier girl shook her head. She was imagining things, probably because she'd just spent the entire evening in Erinda's arms. It was the first time they'd been together without feeling the need to rush, or to stifle the sounds of their pleasure. A wicked smile curved Talon's lips at the memory. While she and Erinda had no deep emotional connection to one another, they certainly had plenty of chemistry in other ways.

She gazed at the princess' still figure again, and found a lump rising in her throat. As comforting as Erinda's touch was, there was something shallow about it, something that didn't seem completely satisfying no matter how intense the physical feelings were. Whatever it was she saw in Shasta's face tonight, Talon's fevered imagination was just taunting her with impossible hope. And even if it were true, even if the desire she thought she'd caught on her young charge's face were real, it would only make everything harder. After all, Talon was not a man. There was absolutely no chance that she could ever be anything more than the princess' faithful guardian, protector, and servant. Those were the facts.

With a sigh, Talon extinguished the lamps in the sitting room, and after one more glance at the girl in the bed, she blew out the light on the table and slid onto her cot, pulling the blanket up to her chin.

Neither girl slept easy that night.

Part 12

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