Over the next few weeks it became painfully obvious that Talon had not been imagining things at all. More and more often she would glance up to catch Shasta watching her through half-lidded eyes. At first the younger girl seemed embarrassed to be caught staring and would look away quickly, but it didn't take long before the princess became bolder, and began meeting Talon's eyes with little smiles and fluttering lashes. Talon could scarcely believe it; it was as if Shasta turned sixteen and overnight became as big a flirt as any of the palace serving girls.
Then the love notes began. The first time Talon found one, she'd emerged from the privy chamber in the morning and there was a small folded piece of parchment resting on top of her boots. Opening it, she found a snippet of poetry from one of the princess' books, carefully copied out in curling handwriting and decorated with little flower and butterfly doodles. Talon wasn't sure what to do with it; when she looked up, Shasta was watching her with a self-satisfied smile. Her guardian lifted an eyebrow and dropped the note into her small wooden chest of belongings. After that, she found such notes on an increasingly regular basis, tucked inside her textbooks and lying on the pillow of her cot at night.
Captain Vaughn found the whole situation extremely amusing, as almost every day at lessons there was some new surprise that Talon inevitably discovered at the most inopportune moment. One morning while lecturing a group of young recruits, she drew her sword for a demonstration and found that Shasta had wrapped one such love note around the blade. It flew across the room with the force of her arm, and landed right in the lap of one of the soldiers. Before she could snatch it back, he'd opened it and began to read it aloud, much to the entertainment of the captain and his classmates. Talon was finally able to take it from him, but it was a matter of hours before every foot soldier in the barracks had heard of the princess' crush on her young guardian.
Shasta did not seem fazed by the teasing; in fact, Talon was sure that in some twisted way the princess thrived on it. And to make matters even more difficult, Shasta had begun a most inconvenient habit of calling for Erinda to brush her hair while Talon was bathing. As being the princess' shadow was Talon's primary duty, there was no other time of day that she could spend time alone with Erinda, and their trysts together became fewer and farther between. Though Talon tried at first to treat the whole situation with a sense of humor, she found herself quickly running out of patience, and becoming more and more irritable and snappish with her young charge.
Talon realized that Shasta enjoyed flustering her, and determined that she was not going to let the princess affect her so. The harder she fought to maintain her nonchalant composure, the harder Shasta tried to break it down, and the longer this went on the more amusing it became to the other palace servants and guards. Even Erinda could not help snickering from time to time at the look on Talon's face upon finding the princess' handkerchief in the pocket of her uniform, or discovering Shasta's red hair ribbons tied in cheerful bows around the hilt of her favorite belt-knife.
Talon began to retaliate in the only way she knew how: tearing up the love notes, purposefully ignoring Shasta's batting eyes and shrinking away from any of the princess' attempts to touch her. Instead, she began flirting more intently with the other palace serving girls, presenting them with little flowers and compliments for no apparent reason. It was truly a bizarre situation; Talon slept at the princess' bedside every night and tended her nearly every moment of the day, yet was engaged in an unspoken, constant battle of wills with her young charge.
"You're leaving already?" Brie propped herself up on one elbow and drew the sheet to her chest as she watched her lover's naked back retreating from his bed. Kumire gave only a grunt in reply, picking his trousers up from the floor and stuffing one leg into them at a time. Brie pouted prettily, but he didn't turn around to see it. "I don't understand why you always have to run off so fast."
"That's because you don't understand what it means to be a man, with responsibilities." Kumire buckled his belt and began looking around on the floor for his shirt. "I have lessons with the princess in a few minutes."
"I know that, silly. I'll be there too, remember?" She smiled sweetly and rose from the bed, keeping the sheet wrapped around her. Coming up behind him, she ran a small hand over his chest. "Princess Shasta won't mind if we're a little late." Kumire slapped her hand away, trying to do up the buttons of his shirt, and Brie's eyebrows drew together, but only for a moment. Then she shrugged patiently, her face brightened and she giggled. "I have a funny bit of gossip for you," she teased, ducking under his arm and helping him with the temperamental buttons.
"I don't care about gossip."
"You'll like this. It's about the princess. You know she's been mooning around after my brother?"
Chancellor Kumire glared darkly at her. "So what?"
"So… she told Aleria and I yesterday that she's in love with him." Brie snickered. "Isn't that funny?"
Brie smacked him lightly on the shoulder, then helped him with the tie at his throat. "Well, there's no need to sound so jealous, Chancellor. Talon is… well, trust me when I say the princess doesn't have a chance."
He lifted a brow at her. "I would think rather that your brother wouldn't have a chance with her. After all, she's crown princess of Lysteria, and there's not a drop of noble blood in his veins. It doesn't matter how ridiculous Princess Shasta's infatuations are, she's going to marry a man of breeding and title." He straightened the knot of his tie, and Brie drew back to stare at him in disbelief.
"Chancellor, you're not still thinking of marrying her yourself, are you?"
He met her eyes coolly and then cleared his throat, sitting down on a nearby chair to put on his stockings and boots. Brie's mouth dropped open. "But I thought… You and I, we have…"
"Oh, don't be such a child, Brie." Kumire huffed as he pulled one boot on, stamping his foot to settle the heel. "You and I have nothing. This is merely a diversion, a pleasant way to spend the afternoon. And as sweet a temptation as you are," his eyes raked appreciatively over her body, still wrapped in only the sheet, "my destiny lies in far greater things."
Brie knew she should be furious, but there was something irresistible about the way he looked at her, the lust and admiration in his eyes that always made her feel exceedingly beautiful and strangely powerful. She liked the feeling of being desired, knowing that the chancellor could rarely resist her when she put her mind to it. She wasn't ready to give that up, especially not to her young mistress who treated Kumire with such distaste and scorn. And so her little heart-shaped mouth curved up in a smile, and she slid into his lap. "Of course it is your destiny to be great," she murmured into his ear, flicking the tip of her tongue against his neck in the manner she knew he liked. "But you'll see. One day I'll convince you that you don't need her. You don't need anyone but me."
He seized the back of her hair and pulled her in for a crushing kiss, his mouth enveloping hers demandingly for a few moments before pushing her off his lap with a wry grin. "Now, little vixen, you must leave me alone and let me finish dressing. I have things to do and cannot afford further distraction."
She rewarded him with a triumphant smile, and picked up his books from the table, waiting for the chancellor to finish shrugging into his jacket before handing them to him. "Just remember, no matter how blue her blood might be, no one knows how to please you like I do," she said coyly.
Kumire rolled his eyes at her. "Yes, well, get yourself dressed and hurry to the east hall. It won't do for you to show up late to lessons."
She held the sheet in one hand and gave him a mock curtsy. "Of course, my lord."
Talon shifted her weight uncomfortably from one foot to another. The princess' weekly emancipation talks had quickly become her least favorite duty; standing alone outside the door of the conference room for the entire afternoon was hardly her idea of an entertaining time. Usually she would bring a book and try to do some studying, but it was hard to concentrate with the periodic bursts of yelling from the other side of the door breaking into her concentration. Shasta had explained to her that the talks were very emotionally volatile for many of the provincial governors, many of whom took the issue of Lysterian slavery personally. Talon didn't understand much of what Shasta said went on in there; while she could easily grasp some of the more basic concepts, when the princess began talking about crown-subsidized land development and the formation of ethical-treatment-law-enforcement-committees Talon was quickly lost among the big words and complicated intertwining definitions. She didn't mind listening, though, as she got the feeling that being able to explain it to someone else helped Shasta herself to understand what was going on.
The dark girl jumped as the door opened unexpectedly, and the provincial governors began to file out into the corridor. Talon blinked with surprise, and when the door had cleared and Shasta had not emerged, she poked her head into the conference room. Shasta was sitting next to the king at the end of the table. They both looked very tired.
"Your highness?" Talon spoke softly, hoping she was not interrupting, and Shasta's head came up.
"It's all right, Talon. Father just called a recess in the talks for a few minutes… everyone was getting a little too tense." She turned to Soltran and tugged on his sleeve gently. "Father, would it be all right if I were to send Talon to the kitchens to fetch us something to eat? I didn't have much for breakfast this morning, and you," she patted his face tenderly, "look like you haven't eaten in days."
Soltran grinned wryly at her, then looked over at where Talon stood in the doorway. "I suppose that would be all right. Go on, my boy, I'll watch over her for now."
Talon bowed, and Shasta clapped her hands. "Bring some strawberries, will you? And maybe some bread and cheese. And that white wine I like. Oh, and maybe some of Cook's tarts, if she has any left. Those were good." The princess licked her lips with anticipation, and Talon had to grin.
"As you wish. Anything else?"
"Yes, tell Cook I want roast lamb for dinner. I've had a craving for it all day. And hurry up, because I'm starving."
Talon snickered and bowed again before heading off down the corridor, hoping she could remember all Shasta's requests, and wondering if she'd be able to carry it all. She might have to borrow one of those rolling carts the serving girls used at dinner.
The palace cook was surprised and delighted to have Talon visiting her kitchens. A plump, pleasant woman not quite old enough to be Talon's mother, she chattered happily while piling several trays with the food Talon asked for, all the while poking the tall soldier in the ribs and making tsking noises at how lean she was. By the time Cook had finished preparing the trays, there was more food there than Shasta could eat in a week, let alone as an afternoon snack. She remembered to relay the princess' request for dinner before she took the trays, stacked onto a rolling cart as she'd hoped, and left the kitchens.
She had to move the cart slowly so that nothing dropped from the trays, and was only about halfway to the conference room when a familiar voice caused her to pause.
"We agreed to do this my way!"
"Quiet down, boy, unless you want the entire palace to hear us."
Talon recognized the first speaker. It had to be Chancellor Kumire; his distinctive, whiny tone was impossible to mistake. The other voice sounded older, and rougher. The conversation was coming from behind one of the closed doors set along the corridor; the palace was so big that Talon wasn't sure if it was an office, a bedchamber or a broom closet that the men were in, yet they had to be standing close to the door for she found that she could hear them quite clearly.
"Father, you have to give me more time."
So the older speaker had to be Lord Fickett; Talon recalled that the crotchety governor of Mondera was Kumire's father. The family resemblance between them was easy to see, and Talon liked Fickett about as much as she cared for his son. She knew she probably shouldn't be eavesdropping, but some instinct kept her there, hands on the cart but pricking her ears toward the door.
"I've given you three years, Kumire, and you've made absolutely no progress. You're no further now than you were when you began."
"It has been… more difficult than I thought."
Lord Fickett snorted. "That's putting it mildly. She doesn't want anything to do with you. And with each of these emancipation talks," the words were spat out with evident distaste, "my fool of a nephew comes just that much closer to signing these insane proposals of his into law."
"If I succeed, Father, the king can sign any paper he wants and it won't make a bit of difference in the end."
"That's if you succeed, which seems unlikely at this point. You're running out of time, Kumire. We are talking about the ruin of our family. The ruin of your future."
"My future? Father, if I can make this happen, my future and our family will be secure for generations to come. You know that."
"Which is why I agreed to let you risk this haphazard idea in the first place," Fickett growled. "But my patience is wearing thin. If you had followed my instructions at the beginning we wouldn't be in this situation. And if I do not see some definitive action from you in the very near future, I am calling it off entirely and we are going to revert to my original plan."
"Father." Kumire's voice lowered to a hiss, and Talon had to strain to hear his next few words. "You realize that your plan could throw the entire kingdom into civil war."
"Maybe that's just what Lysteria needs!" the Monderan governor shouted, before apparently remembering that they were supposed to be speaking in secret, and lowering his voice again. "The people of this country have grown soft. They've been too comfortable, living their little peaceful lives for so many years now that they've started to invent problems where there are none just to have something to entertain themselves. The king is trying to fix a system that is not broken, Kumire."
"I don't want to see the slaves freed any more than you do."
"Then prove it. Step up and be a man for once in your miserable life."
Talon drew a little closer to the door to hear Kumire's reply, forgetting that her hands were still on the cart, and the slight movement was enough to jar a spoon resting by her fingertips. It wasn't a loud noise, but the spoon still made a definite metallic clank against the serving tray.
"What was that?"
Talon managed to straighten herself and push the cart down the corridor several steps before the door opened, and Kumire appeared. The chancellor glared at Talon suspiciously. "What are you doing out here, boy?" he demanded.
Talon shrugged as casually as she could, and waved a hand at the cart. "The princess was hungry."
Chancellor Kumire narrowed his eyes, but did not inquire further, and after staring Talon down for several moments, he rolled his eyes. "Well, don't just stand around here, then," he sniffed imperiously. "Get on with it."
Talon gave him a little nod that she hoped would appear respectful, and continued pushing the cart around the corner towards the conference room.
"It's about time," Shasta cheered, launching herself at the tray of snacks the moment Talon wheeled it into sight. "What were you doing down there for so long, anyway, making friends with all the kitchen staff?" She didn't wait for a reply, stuffing a strawberry into her mouth, but suddenly fastening golden brown eyes on her guardian she thought better of her manners. Raising daintily manicured fingers she bit off the end of the fruit, letting the scarlet juice stain her fingertips and lips, and Talon caught a flash of white teeth and little pink tongue as she tucked the bit of berry into her mouth, lifting her eyebrows mischievously and winking. Talon rolled her eyes and shook her head. Even in the middle of a political battle, Shasta was still happy to continue their own more personal little war. Talon picked up one of the trays from the cart and held it out, and the princess took it from her with a victorious smirk, carrying it back to her seat at the head of the table.
Talon eyed King Soltran uneasily, wondering if she should tell him what she'd overheard. It was evident that Lord Fickett and Chancellor Kumire were conspiring to somehow undermine the emancipation of the slaves. Kumire had even mentioned civil war. But it would be Talon's word against Kumire's, and without proof she wasn't even sure the king would believe her. Talon hadn't understood half of what Fickett and his son were talking about, anyway, and until she had something more solid to go on it would be a bad idea to go around making accusations that smacked of treason.
The governors had begun to file back into the conference room, and Talon bowed to the king and princess before leaving to resume her stance outside the door. She passed Lord Fickett in the doorway, and met his gaze evenly. She wasn't afraid of the old weasel and hoped that he would get the message in her dark eyes: she was on to him.
Fickett seemed not to notice, and brushed right past her into the room. Talon took her place along the wall and sighed as the door closed once more. It was going to be a long afternoon.
"I just don't understand it," Shasta complained, keeping her voice quiet while watching Talon from across the lesson hall.
Her guardian was explaining some sort of acrobatic maneuver to the young recruits he was training; he moved his hands animatedly to demonstrate the proper technique, and then bent backwards, planting one hand on the floor and flipping his legs over his head in a smooth arc. His sword was still held firmly in his one free hand. The younger soldiers applauded enthusiastically and hopped up, eager to try the move for themselves.
Shasta stabbed the tip of her quill into the parchment she was supposed to be working on. "How much more obvious do I need to be before he'll start taking me seriously?"
Aleria smiled. "Highness, you mustn't be angry with him. Talon thinks of you as a sister. We all do."
"But I'm not his sister. Doesn't he realize that I love him? I just want Talon to feel about me the way I do about him." The princess glared sullenly in his direction.
"Maybe you just need to be a little more direct about it." This suggestion came from Brie, who had a twinkle in her eye.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, you keep fluttering your eyes at him and sighing like that, and it looks like you're just playing games with him. If you want a man's attention you need to command it."
"Oh, Brie, hush. What would you know about it, anyway?" Aleria reprimanded gently, with a touch of amusement in her tone.
Brie made a face at her older sister. "I know more than you do, Miss I-want-to-be-a-virgin-the-rest-of-my-life."
Aleria was shocked. "Brie!"
"Well, it's true, isn't it?" the younger girl pointed out cheerfully before turning back to Shasta. "Let me tell you something about men, Princess. They only understand one language, and that's this." She wiggled her fingers in the air. "You want a man to notice you, you have to get right in his face and touch him until he can't think of anything but you."
"Brie!" Aleria's mouth hung open. "That's not… It's an entirely indecent thing for a young lady to say."
Brie shrugged. "But it's true."
"I can't believe you'd say such a thing," Aleria breathed incredulously. "Don't let Talon hear you talking like that, or he's likely to scrub your mouth with soap and lock you up for the rest of your life." The young Pledged noticed Shasta looking at her own fingers, wiggling them experimentally, and she shook her head. "Pay no attention to my sister, Princess. I don't know where she gets such vulgar ideas."
"I know what men like, that's all," Brie replied with a snicker, and elbowed Shasta conspiratorially.
The princess was still looking at her hands. "So, you think I should just… what, march up to Talon and kiss him or something?"
Brie burst into a fit of giggles. "Oh, what I wouldn't give to see that."
"Now stop it, Brie. I mean it, this is going too far." Aleria's usually calm voice was suddenly snappish, and she took Shasta's hands in her own, staring the princess straight in the face. "Listen to me, Highness. Talon isn't like other men."
"Tell me about it," Shasta sighed dreamily, her gaze following her guardian at the other end of the room as he helped spot some of his students attempting the back flip he'd demonstrated.
"No, I mean that you can't just approach Talon like that. You mustn't. Highness, I know your feelings for him are strong, but trust me when I tell you they will lead you nowhere. Talon just… he isn't your type."
Shasta snickered. "Really? And what's so not-my-type about him? He's handsome, he's so intelligent and courageous and strong…" She trailed off, leaning her cheek into her hand and once again becoming absorbed in watching Talon work. Brie nearly fell off her chair laughing, and Aleria glared hard at her younger sister, mouthing something that Shasta was too lost in daydreams to notice. Brie reluctantly composed her face and sighed.
"Yeah, Talon's great and everything. But in all seriousness, Highness, Aleria's right. It would never work."
The sisters met one another's eyes, trying to come up with a reasonable explanation, and Brie shook her head. "Because this is just infatuation, Princess. I know it probably feels very real, but trust me, you'll get over it and feel silly for ever letting it get to you." The younger girl patted the princess' hand, all mirth gone from her expression. "We just don't want to see you get hurt."
Shasta looked from one to the other, blinking with surprise. "Talon would never hurt me."
"Not on purpose, no," Aleria agreed quietly. "But if you keep chasing him like this, he might not have a choice."
Shasta turned Aleria's words over and over in her mind for several days. She couldn't imagine Talon ever doing anything to cause her pain, despite his sisters' warnings. Talon was the most honorable man Shasta had ever met. Surely he was worthy of her affections. And even though Brie had seemed to agree with Aleria in the end, she had given Shasta an intriguing bit of advice that the princess could not help but ponder with sly curiosity.
Aleria said that Talon was not like other men, but Shasta's memory of her guardian in the stables seemed to agree more with Brie's version than Aleria's. After all, Shasta had seen with her own eyes just how much Talon apparently enjoyed Erinda's touch, though she couldn't imagine what else he could possibly have in common with the plump little chambermaid. Maybe that was how Erinda had won him over to begin with; Shasta had observed that Erinda possessed a sort of worldly aura that implied confidence and experience. And if a common chambermaid could seduce someone as stoic and focused as Talon, why couldn't she? She was a princess, after all, a much better catch.
She wasn't worried about what the king would say. He had married her mother, a common soldier's daughter, in open defiance of his entire family and the courts when he fell in love. Shasta was certain her father would allow her to choose her own husband, and she fantasized dreamily what a wedding to Talon would be like: she would sweep into the temple, dressed all in white, with a train so long that the temple doors would have to be left open so it could tumble down the stairs behind her. She would stand at Talon's side and he would smile down at her with love shining in those incredibly deep, dark eyes of his. They would pledge their devotion in front of the entire court, but be so absorbed in one another that it would be like they were the only man and woman left in the world; and then she would place the crown of Lysteria on his head, creating him heir to her father's throne and cementing the royal line for another generation.
They would have children, of course. A boy and a girl to rule after them. Maybe even twins. She would name them Daric and Talia, after her brother and mother… unless of course Talon wanted to pass on one of his own family names? And when the king had reached an age where he was too tired to continue the responsibilities of the crown, he would abdicate in favor of his handsome young son-in-law, and together Talon and Shasta would be the best rulers Lysteria had ever known. They would abolish slavery completely from the kingdom, and oh the delicious, romantic irony of seeing a former slave rule the country as king!
It was a pleasant daydream. Of course, there was the small matter of getting her guardian to return her feelings, and he seemed more and more determined to ignore her attempts with each passing day. She was beginning to think she might never get through to him.
Spring turned into early summer, and the weather began to get hot, especially in the afternoons. The summer heat had just as bad an effect on Shasta's fragile health as the intense cold of winter; she grew dizzy and faint from the combination of heat, tight corsets and heavy gowns. Her tutors began to schedule lessons in the cooler hours of the morning, so that her afternoons were free and she could lounge around her chambers in lighter, less constricting clothing.
One such afternoon in Shasta's sitting room, the princess looked up from the book in her lap and brushed a damp strand of hair from her forehead. Shasta resented the mugginess of summer almost as much as the winter cold. Both extremes kept her cooped up indoors with nothing much to do, and though she was free of corsets and hoops for the time being, clad in a simple, light cotton dress, she was still feeling slightly lightheaded. It was more humid than usual today, probably thanks to the rain shower the night before, and the air felt heavy in her lungs.
Talon was sitting in his usual chair by the hearth, one ankle crossed over his knee. The heat did not seem to bother him as much as it did her; even on this sweltering afternoon he wore long dark trousers and a linen shirt buttoned all the way to his neck. There were several open books on the floor and an unfurled map on the table to his right, and he was busy scribbling something on the blank page of a notebook balanced carefully against one thigh. His dark hair was plastered lightly to his forehead, and one stubborn lock kept falling forward into his eyes as he worked.
Nurse had left a few minutes ago to see to the preparation of lunch, so they were alone for the time being. Shasta closed the book in her lap. I've tried everything else, she reasoned, rising to her feet. It's now or never.
Talon looked up at her. "Highness?"
She approached him with deliberate steps, taking the quill from his hand and closing the notebook, and setting them both on top of the map on the table.
Her guardian blinked at her curiously. "Is everything all right?"
Shasta tugged at his hands and he stood obediently. She found herself looking up into his face, a full head above her own. Taking a deep breath, the princess thought of Brie's words. Men only understand one language. She placed her hands on his chest, running them slowly along his collarbone and then over his shoulders and around his neck. Meeting his dark eyes, she smiled shyly and rose on tiptoe.
Talon's entire body tensed at the smaller girl's touch, and her eyes widened. "Princess, what… What are you doing?"
Shasta's fingers wound themselves into dark hair, pulling her guardian's head down so that her lips brushed lightly against one tanned earlobe. Her breath tickled softly along Talon's neck, sending a sudden uncontrollable shiver coursing along the soldier's spine. Talon gave a sharp gasp, and seized Shasta's wrists. "Shasta. Stop." She rarely used the princess' first name, but it seemed to get her attention.
"Why?" The princess' amber eyes searched her face, a teasing smile playing at her lips. "Don't you like me?" She pressed her hips into Talon's gently, but did not attempt to free her hands from her guardian's grip.
"That's not even an option, Princess, and you should know that." Talon forced herself not to concentrate on the feel of the smaller girl's body against her own. With her heat-flushed cheeks and charmingly damp hairline, Shasta was remarkably beautiful all of a sudden, and Talon realized too late that her young charge must have tired of subtlety and was now going to try a more aggressive approach. If it had been anyone else it might even have been comical; the princess was such an innocent when it came to such things, and she was trying far too hard to be seductive. "You don't know what you're doing."
"I know enough. And what I don't know, you can teach me."
Talon took a deep breath and backed away, releasing Shasta's wrists. "No."
She was startled by the sudden hurt that crossed the princess' face. "You don't seem to mind when Erinda touches you." There was bitterness in Shasta's voice.
"I've seen you, so don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about."
Talon ran a hand through her short black hair, her mind racing. She wasn't sure when the princess had learned of her relationship with the chambermaid, or exactly how much Shasta really knew. Talon chose to keep her answer vague. "That's different."
"Why? Because I'm the princess?"
"No… yes… It's just… it's different. You don't..." Talon took a deep breath. "Princess, there are things that you don't know… about me. I'm your guardian, your bodyguard, and this is wrong."
"I love you, Talon, what's wrong with that?"
"Everything!" The taller girl growled roughly, turning away. "You can't have feelings like that for me, Princess, you mustn't." She took a deep breath. "Look, I know you think you're in love with me, but you're not."
"You don't even know me."
Shasta blinked. "I spend every minute of the day with you, Talon, I think I know you pretty well."
"You don't know anything."
"And Erinda does? Is that it?"
"Are you in love with her?"
The hurt in the princess' voice was unmistakable, and Talon closed her eyes tightly for a moment to maintain control before replying. "No. Erinda and I have an understanding, that's all."
"What kind of understanding could you have with a servant girl that you can't have with me?"
"I can't explain it."
"Can't, or won't?"
Shasta gave a little screech of frustration. "Why do you always do this? Why are you always so closed off and distant? If I don't know you, maybe it's because you're so damned elusive, like you're hiding some huge secret all the time. I tell you everything, Talon. Everything. It's not fair." The princess' eyes narrowed. "I could make you tell me, you know. Or I could make your precious Erinda tell me. It wouldn't be that hard."
Talon spun around and met Shasta's eyes, her own dark ones sparking dangerously. "Princess, if you love me as you say you do, then you have to trust me." She took a step forward. "I'm sorry I can't tell you everything, but I can't. And you have to trust me." The confusion and pain in the other girl's eyes was still too much for Talon to stand, and she could not help taking the princess' face in her hands. "Listen, if my relationship with Erinda bothers you so much, I'll call it off. Is that what you want?"
Shasta's hands came up again and locked themselves around Talon's neck, and almost instantly Talon regretted getting that close. "What I want…" The princess tilted her face up and kissed her guardian.
Her lips were so soft, and Talon's keen senses were suddenly overwhelmed with the smell of her, the flowery fragrance of the princess' perfume mingled with the salty sharpness of her perspiration, and beneath it… Shasta's own unique scent, like raspberries and rain, the natural fragrance of her very skin. It was a scent Talon had grown to recognize easily over the years, and she found it suddenly intoxicating, knowing that it belonged only to the princess. A powerful wave of desire swept through her before she could stifle it, a fire that began in her belly and spread outwards until Talon wasn't sure she still had control of her own limbs. Shasta's lips parted against hers and suddenly her small tongue was teasing at Talon's mouth, flickering over her lower lip and eliciting a moan from the tall soldier that allowed her to slip inside. Delicately, playfully, the princess explored the smooth inner surfaces of her guardian's mouth, running her tongue along the bottom edge of Talon's upper teeth before pushing deeper. The taste of her was sweet, so erotic in its forbidden innocence that Talon felt herself falling; in a few more seconds she would be completely bereft of her ability to reason at all. This could not be. No matter how much she wanted it, no matter how much she ached to take her princess into her arms and give her everything she was asking for, Shasta was the future queen of Lysteria, her responsibility. And more importantly, Shasta didn't know the truth about her guardian, and could never be told. Her life depended on it. With Herculean effort Talon broke the kiss and pulled away, her breathing ragged.
A smile curved the princess' lips as she observed the effect her actions had. "That's what I want," she stated mischievously.
Talon stared at her, panting softly to catch her breath. Unbelievable. The princess was such an innocent, she had no real understanding of the response her touch aroused in her guardian. To Shasta this was a game. But for Talon it was quickly becoming much more than that. Her trysts with Erinda were purely for fun, and to satisfy their mutual need for physical contact, but neither of them had any sort of emotional attachment to one another. With Shasta it was different. Talon was shocked to realize that, for the first time, she wanted more than just something physical. Never in her life had Talon cared for someone so much, or wanted someone so much. Why did it have to be the one person in the world that she could never have? If Shasta knew, if she ever discovered the truth, she'd be disgusted.
Talon backed away, shaking her head. "Don't do that again." Her voice felt thick, like sandpaper. She turned and left the chamber, closing the door behind her. Leaning back into the stone wall, she willed it to cool the heat suddenly coursing through her veins, heat that had nothing to do with the summer weather. Talon closed her eyes and groaned. How long could she keep this up?
Shasta stood in the middle of her sitting chamber, eyes on the door, and raised a hand to lips that were still warm and tingling from the broken contact. Had she done something wrong? At first she could have sworn that Talon wanted the kiss as badly as she did. She felt the response of his body to her touch, the way his arms tightened around the small of her back and drew her in. But then he'd just pushed her away and left. Perhaps she'd made a terrible mistake. Had she made him angry? Shasta knew Talon hadn't gone far; it was his duty to stay by her side and he was probably right outside the door, but she was too humiliated to go after him. What was she thinking, throwing herself at a man like that? She was no better than a common harlot. What must he think of her now? How could she face him again after this? And why… Why doesn't he want me? A small whimper escaped her, and with flaming cheeks threw herself onto the bed.
Talon had no idea how long she stood outside the princess' door, listening to Shasta's muffled sobs. The sound tore at her heart. She knew Shasta had to be confused, and hurting. A young girl's first crush was a powerful thing, and mentally Talon berated herself for ever flirting with the princess, for ever giving her a reason to think she might be interested. In truth, Talon had thought it was harmless fun. Shasta was a princess, destined to be courted and wooed by princes and kings, and Talon was only a soldier. And a former slave, at that. She had to admit to herself, though, that there had been moments when the flirting went beyond playfulness. Shasta was unlike any other person Talon had ever known; intelligent, beautiful, and fiercely independent, yet fragile. It was the princess' ferocity and tenacity, despite her ironically frail constitution, that Talon admired most. It awakened her deepest protective instincts in a way that only Aleria and Brie had ever been able to. Talon had originally taken the position as Shasta's bodyguard to protect her sisters; but now she found that she wanted to protect the princess just as much. Maybe even more.
Talon straightened as Aleria emerged from her own chamber and came down the hall, an expression of concern on her face. No doubt she had been alarmed at the sound of Shasta crying from the other side of the wall. "Talon, what…" She eyed the princess' door, and Talon's flushed face, and her eyebrows went up. "What's going on?"
Talon just shook her head. Aleria sighed. "I'll go talk to her."
"I didn't mean for this to happen," Talon said quietly.
Aleria patted her older sister's shoulder. "I know, Talon. It's not your fault. You're just too charming for your own good. She'll get over it, you'll see." Aleria winked. Then she paused. Something about the pain in the taller girl's eyes struck her strangely. "Talon, you're not… you don't have feelings for the princess, do you?"
Talon ran a hand through her hair. "I don't know."
"Talon…" Aleria's voice took on a warning tone. "You know you can't… You're not a man, Talon. Erinda is one thing, but the princess?" Aleria was the only other person in the palace who knew of Talon's relationship with the chambermaid; Talon hadn't even felt comfortable telling their youngest sister about it. Somehow she was sure Brie wouldn't be able to understand. Even the generally open-minded Aleria had found the situation strange, to say the least.
"I know. I know, all right?" Talon shook her head. "I know it's all wrong. But she's…" Talon laid a hand on the oak paneled door for a moment, looking for all the world as if she wished she could see right through the wood. "I can't explain it, Aleria. I feel like my heart's being taken from me."
Her sister squeezed her shoulder with a worried expression. "I just want you to be happy, Talon. You've given up so much for everyone else, and you deserve to be happy. But this… this is only going to bring you pain. You know that."
Talon looked down into her sister's eyes helplessly. "I know."
Aleria sighed again. "I'll go talk to her," she repeated. "Maybe I can cheer her up."
That night, Shasta lay in bed staring at the ceiling, listening to Talon's rhythmic breathing from the cot nearby. The whole evening had been awkward; Talon hadn't even come back into the room until right before it was time to sleep. He'd just walked in without a word, inspected her privy chamber for her as usual, waited for her to finish, and then laid down and fallen asleep without even meeting her eyes. Part of her was grateful that her guardian hadn't mentioned the events of the afternoon, and part of her was angry. Both embarrassment and frustration had been battling back and forth inside her for the last few hours. She knew she'd overstepped an invisible boundary today, and obviously she'd made Talon extremely uncomfortable. But he should feel lucky for her attentions, she told herself stubbornly. She was Crown Princess Shasta Talia Soltranis of Lysteria, for pity's sake… did he think he could do better? Or perhaps he was afraid of her father? Shasta had no such worries, and if that was Talon's only reason for rejecting her she was certain she could explain it to him. That is, if he ever spoke to her again.
Bitterly Shasta replayed the memory in her mind for the hundredth time. The rich, throaty sound of Talon's laugh, and Erinda's irritating giggle. The shock of the sight of them lying together under a blanket in the hay. And the weak feeling in her knees as she saw them kiss, at the view of Talon's tanned, muscled back when he moved. Shasta had run away quickly, blushing to the roots of her hair, but ever since she'd been unable to get the image out of her mind, or to stop wondering what it might be like to have been in Erinda's place. A crazy mix of jealousy and longing had filled her as she'd run back to the gardens, and it had only grown stronger over the past few months.
It had been at that moment that she'd realized just how attractive Talon was, and in the days that followed she'd become more and more aware of his presence, the warmth of his body as he stood behind her chair at the table, the way his teeth flashed when he grinned. She realized how safe she felt near him, admired the strength of his well muscled frame when he swung her down from her horse after their rides. Even the sound of his quiet, husky voice in her ear when he helped her with her lessons caused warm shivers down her back; she was surprised he hadn't seemed to notice. She did everything she could to try and let him know how she was feeling, from flirtatious winks and smiles to love notes strewn daily among his possessions. She even told Aleria and Brie, quite bluntly, that she loved him, hoping they would tell their brother and he might finally get the message. For the love of the Goddess, everyone else in the palace was well aware of her attraction to her guardian; why did he insist on ignoring it?
Shasta knew that Talon's sisters were convinced she was merely infatuated with him. And his words to her that afternoon seemed to indicate that he thought so too. He probably thought she was just playing games with him, as Brie had said. But what else was she supposed to do? Shasta had never experienced such feelings before, and she told herself stubbornly that they were far too intense and real to be a meaningless crush in spite of how silly everyone else might think it was. The thought of Talon with Erinda was what really stung, though. Today, Talon had said he would give up Erinda if she asked him to. That would help, but it wasn't what Shasta really wanted from him. She wanted him to hold her, to kiss her, to care for her the way he did for the servant girl. She wanted to know what it felt like. And she could swear there were moments when he felt at least some attraction to her… a flicker in his dark eyes sometimes when he thought she didn't know he was watching. But maybe she was just imagining things. She had to be, because she'd practically thrown herself at him today and he'd rejected her completely.
In the darkness her face grew hot again, remembering the way she'd wrapped her arms around her guardian and kissed him as brazenly as a barmaid. What was she thinking? No wonder he didn't want her. Talon was such an honorable man, and like a fool she had tried to test that resolve, to make him forget the same strength of character that made him so noble in the first place. No decent man would want a girl who threw herself at him like that. A tear slid down the side of her face. How was she going to face him tomorrow? And every day, for the rest of her life?
Listening carefully for any change in her guardian's soft, steady breathing, Shasta slipped out of bed and slid her feet into satin slippers. Carefully she picked up her robe from the base of the bed, and tiptoed to the door. Holding her breath, she opened the door a tiny bit at a time, agonizingly slowly, but with such patience that the leather hinges barely made a squeak. Once in the corridor she wrapped the robe around herself and started to run.
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