Talon awoke the next morning with a jolt. It was still very early, and dark, and the gray fingers of dawn were only beginning to creep through the window. But something was wrong, and it took her about two seconds to figure out what it was. Shasta was gone.
In a matter of moments Talon had donned her boots and swordbelt and was racing down the corridor and into the courtyard. She was lucky; Shasta's dainty satin slippers had left light tracks in the grass that had not yet faded. The princess had been heading for the servants' stables. Of course, she has her fencing clothes hidden out there, Talon realized as she sprinted through the arched stone of the gardens towards the stables at the opposite end of the grounds. She didn't know how long the princess had been gone, or how much of a head start she had. Given the awkwardness between them last night Talon could understand why Shasta would run away, but as she sprinted across the palace grounds she cursed herself for not having been more vigilant. She should have expected this; Shasta had obviously been distraught and humiliated after Talon's rejection the day before. She should have talked to her, said something comforting, anything to let the princess know that she hadn't done anything wrong, that it wasn't Shasta's fault. It's not you, it's me. Talon snorted. If she were in Shasta's place she wouldn't have believed that trite assurance either.
The dark soldier could only hope she would find Shasta and get her back to the castle before anyone else realized that something was wrong-and before the princess got herself into trouble, or worse. She cast up a quick prayer to Irythria or anyone else who might be listening. Please, just keep her safe.
When she reached the stables, Talon ran to the haystack where she knew Shasta kept the pair of boy's breeches and loose blouse she wore for sparring practice. Sure enough, the princess' robe, sleeping shift and slippers were lying in a pile by the straw. Talon bent over to pick up the nightdress; it was warm, though from the princess' body heat or the mugginess of the air she couldn't quite tell. Dampness around the neckline told Talon that Shasta must have run all the way to the stables. One of the fencing foils was missing; at least the girl had enough sense to take a weapon with her if she was going to go running off by herself. Shasta was a good fencer, but such skills wouldn't do much to protect her against an experienced assassin or anyone else who really wanted to do her harm.
"Looking for something?"
Kallin's voice startled Talon and she spun around. Her eyes widened when she recognized the aged stable hand. "Kallin, did you see the princess ride out this morning?"
Kallin blinked. "Sure, she left about a quarter of an hour ago, rode out of here on that little black filly she likes so much. Running fast, like demons were chasin' her. I thought you were with her."
"Which way did she go?"
"South, towards the moors."
There was no time for a saddle; Talon chose the biggest mare in the stables and swung herself onto its back. She grabbed the bridle, kicking her heels with a guttural "Ha!"
The horse lunged forward, and Kallin watched them go, scratching his head and grinning to himself. The princess was getting herself into trouble again, apparently. Never a dull moment around the Lysterian castle, that was for sure. That girl would probably never really grow up. "Good luck, young man."
Talon leaned down over the mare's neck as its powerful hooves pounded the ground. If Kallin was right and the princess had only left a quarter of a hour ago, then she had a good chance of catching up to her. Talon thanked the Goddess that she hadn't slept any longer than she had, or Shasta might have had a much greater head start.
They picked up her trail quickly; Shasta was riding fast and hard through the grassy moor, so it wasn't hard to follow the grass beaten down by the smaller horse's hooves. But Talon knew she still probably had quite a chase ahead of her; the little filly Shasta was riding was not only fast, but possessed great endurance and probably wouldn't slow for at least an hour. Talon suddenly found herself very thankful for Captain Vaughn's repeated field exercises on these same moors; she was familiar with the terrain and knew what to look for. Shasta seemed to be heading southeast, and Talon pulled up a map of the area mentally, for the first time finding a reason to use all the geography Vaughn had pounded into her head. The moors south of Ardrenn were bordered to the southeast by Warin Forest, which stretched all the way to the banks of Indellus Lake. There was one small village on the edge of the forest: Warinsmoor, if Talon's memory served her correctly. Though Shasta probably had no particular destination in mind, her trail cut through the grass of the moor and managed to find the one developed road leading across it, right to the village. Talon wasn't sure whether to be relieved or even more afraid; while the village meant that the princess was unlikely to get lost, where there were people there was always greater danger. Especially for a defenseless, pretty, headstrong girl riding alone.
Talon followed the dusty road for nearly two leagues before Warinsmoor finally came into view. She hadn't seen any sign of Shasta leaving the road, but it had been impossible to distinguish the filly's hoof prints mingled with all the other traffic along the hard-packed earth, so she pulled on the big mare's mane, stopping short in front of a man standing with an overturned cart just outside the village. He was picking up shards of broken pottery from the dust, and muttering under his breath.
"Excuse me, sir. Have you seen a girl on a horse come this way? She would have been wearing men's breeches, long brown hair, riding fast…"
The man eyed Talon for a moment before replying. "Sure did, just a few minutes ago. Little hellcat nearly ran me down, she did. Turned over my cart and cost me some of my best wares." He spat on the ground. "Hope she gets what's coming to her, inconsiderate little wench."
"What do you mean?" Fear shot through Talon and she clamped down on it hard. Now was not the time to let emotion override her judgment.
"She galloped straight through the village and headed for the forest on the other side." He grinned as he pointed in the direction of the trees. "The outlaw Lucero and his gang have been living out there for the last two months, everybody knows that. Good for nothing pack of vermin, the lot of them, sneaking into the village at night and making off with our chickens and cattle, harassing all travelers coming in and out. Even the king's own royal guard haven't been able to snuff them out of there yet. Those ruffians'll be very happy to have a visitor like that one. Take her down a peg or two, I'm sure."
Talon gritted her teeth and kicked her horse. "Thanks," she grunted over her shoulder as she urged the mare through the village towards the forest, calling the princess' name.
They barreled into the trees without slowing. "Shasta!" Talon didn't dare call for the princess by her title. If there were indeed outlaws nearby and listening, she didn't want them getting any ideas about holding the princess for ransom. It was a risk even using her first name, but would be worth it if it helped to locate her. "Shasta, can you hear me? Shasta!!" Leaning close to the mare's neck she dug her heels in, urging her to go faster.
Suddenly a scream tore through the woods, and Talon cursed, drawing her sword and directing the mare off the path through the trees to her left. "Shasta!" It had been the princess' voice, she would have known it anywhere, and both fear and hope surged through her veins with a rush of adrenaline. She might not be too late.
Talon didn't have to go far to find her; Shasta's little filly reared back and pawed at the outlaws trying to put a rope around her neck, all the while making loud, screeching whinnies that drew Talon right to them. There were about five men, swarthy and dirty, who had the princess and her horse cornered up against a rock wall. Shasta screamed again as the one closest to her wrapped his hand around her ankle, trying to pull her down. She had her fencing foil out, and slashed at her assailant's face, drawing blood and causing him to release his grip. The other men laughed while he cursed in fury.
"Shasta!" Relief flooded through Talon to see that the princess was relatively unhurt. She charged towards the group of outlaws, the tip of her sword flashing and clearing a path. She pulled up alongside the black filly and held out her arm, kicking one of the attackers away with a booted foot. The princess dropped her foil to grab the offered arm and Talon swung the smaller girl onto the mare behind her. "I've got you. Hang on." Shasta didn't need to be told twice, wrapping her arms tightly around Talon's waist and burying her face in her guardian's shoulder.
Talon's mare lurched forward as Talon dug her heels into its sides. One of the outlaws received a quick kick in the face as he attempted to grab hold of the horse's bridle. From the other side, another man came at them with a sword. The mare reared back, and Talon lifted her own sword over her head with one arm while clinging to the thick mane with the other to avoid falling off. She was thankful for her acrobatic training, because without a saddle and with Shasta's added weight pulling behind her, if it weren't for the instinctive balancing grip of her legs they both would have slid right off the back of the horse. There was a sudden whooshing sound, and Talon grunted as pain exploded in her side. Shasta shrieked. The mare came back down and Talon brought her sword slashing across the attacker's throat, but did not pause to observe the results of her handiwork. Instead, she leaned forward over the mare's neck and shouted "Ha!"
The big horse broke through the outlaws and ran towards the path out of the forest. They ducked under several low hanging branches as they went, the whipping motion stinging Talon's arms and legs though she could barely feel it. The men chased them on foot, but only for a few steps before turning back. They had been able to apprehend Shasta's little filly, at least, and preferred to stay under the cover of the trees, knowing if they gave chase the villagers would surely call for the royal guard. The girl and her rescuer hardly seemed worth the risk of capture.
When they had cleared the woods and Talon was satisfied that they were not being chased, she pulled the mare to a stop and looked back over her shoulder. "Are you all right, your highness?" Breathing was surprisingly painful, and her words came out as a wheeze, but she still gave a gasp of concern when she saw the long cut across the princess' cheek. "You're bleeding."
Shasta lifted a hand to her face and looked at the blood on her fingers, then stared at Talon in disbelief. "Am I all right? Talon, I have a scratch. You have an arrow sticking out of your side."
It was then that Talon looked down and realized that Shasta was right. A red patch had already spread through her shirt, soaking the thin white linen in an ever-growing circle around the shaft, which was sticking about a foot out of her ribs on the right side. She grunted. "Huh. No wonder it hurts."
"That's not funny. Quick, we need to get to the village. They have to have a healer there who can-"
Talon shook her head. "No." It was impossible, she could not risk being examined by anyone who might discover her secret.
Shasta's eyes narrowed. "Really, Talon, now is not the time to be stubborn."
"No. We'll return to the castle and I'll see the healer there."
"That's ridiculous," Shasta snapped, and slid down off the mare before Talon could stop her. "I'll go fetch the healer myself."
"No!" A note of desperation found its way into her exclamation.
Shasta spun around, her eyes shooting sparks. "And why not?"
"Princess, I can't… I'm not…" Talon gritted her teeth as a wave of dizziness crashed over her. She was losing a lot of blood, very quickly. "I can't be seen by another healer. We have to go back to the castle."
"We're not waiting that long. Look at you, you're practically white. I'm going."
"No!!" Shasta spun to glare at her guardian, and Talon's desperation grew. The princess was determined, and in her wounded and distracted state Talon racked her brain to come up with an excuse that Shasta would accept.
"Give me one reason why not!" the princess shouted suddenly, her fists clenched. "I'm tired of this, Talon, I'm sick of all your silly games and secrets. If you can't give me one good reason-
"I'm not a man!" Talon winced as she blurted out the words, but there was no taking them back, and horror spread across her face as she realized what she'd done.
Shasta stared at her in confusion. "What?"
Talon took a couple shallow breaths, each one sending sharp stabbing pains through her abdomen. "I… your father, he doesn't want anyone to know. Your highness, you have to swear you won't tell anyone. I'm not a man. I'm a woman. And if the healer in that village finds out, the news will be all over Lysteria by tomorrow evening. You'll be in great danger."
The princess took a step back, her eyes wide with disbelief. "Talon, if this is a joke-"
"It's not a joke, Princess." Talon looked down at the mare's mane in her fingers. "Your father-why do you think he trusts you so completely with me? Lets me share your room, sleep beside your bed? I'm a woman, and so he knows I wouldn't hurt you, or… compromise your virtue." She flushed. "But the rest of the castle, the rest of the kingdom-they have to think I'm a man. They have to believe your bodyguard is formidable, capable of protecting you, and people just don't have that kind of respect for a woman. If the assassin who killed your brother ever found out, he might think you're not well guarded after all and make another attempt on your life."
"You're lying. I don't believe you." Shasta stamped one foot in the dirt. "Do you realize how completely insane you sound?"
Talon closed her eyes and fought for breath. "Please don't make me do this."
She opened her eyes again, gazing at Shasta for several seconds. The skepticism on the younger girl's face, and her quickly fading strength, convinced her that there was no other way. Talon began to unbutton the front of her shirt. Looking from side to side to be sure no one else was nearby, she pulled the shirt open, wincing as the movement jarred the shaft of the arrow embedded in her side. The wrappings that held down her chest were clearly visible, as was the small but undeniable line of cleavage peeking above them.
Shasta's golden eyes grew to the size of saucers as they flew from Talon's wrapped chest up to her face. The princess shook her head in hysterical disbelief, then spun on one heel, turning her back. Talon's face contracted with regret as she refastened the buttons. When she spoke her voice was low, and shook strangely. "I wanted to tell you…. Goddess knows, Princess, there were so many times I would have given anything to tell you. I never meant for you to find out, not like this."
Shasta's knees gave way, and she sank to the ground on the spot. She was silent for a long moment. "Three winters." Her back was still turned. "You've been with me three winters. You've shared my meals, my lessons, my sleeping chambers. And now I find out that you're…" She shook her head. "You've been lying to me the whole time."
"I never lied. I just couldn't tell you the truth."
"It's the same thing!" Her voice shook with anger. "You let me believe that you were… That I could…" Her hand suddenly flew to her mouth. "Goddess save me," she breathed. "Yesterday, I tried to… and you… I kissed you."
"That wasn't your fault, Princess. You didn't know." The sheer horror in Shasta's voice pained Talon in a way that made the arrow seem trivial.
"I've been such a fool."
"No. You had no way of knowing. And I wanted so badly to find a way to tell you, but… well, I just couldn't." She coughed, and little flecks of red stained the cuff of her sleeve.
The gasping sound snapped Shasta back to reality. The princess stood up, turned, and regarded Talon's injury, then her face, coldly. Finally she stepped forward and held out a hand. Her guardian understood and lowered her arm so that Shasta could pull herself back onto the horse behind her.
"Let's go." The princess' voice was flat, and her touch at Talon's waist was light as though she wished to avoid as much physical contact as possible. Talon directed the mare back towards the castle at a full gallop in spite of her injury.
Shasta was in shock. She didn't know whether to be angry, or amused, or horrified. Talon, a woman? It seemed ludicrous, but her guardian had never lied to her before. Except that now it seemed Talon had been lying all along, and Shasta didn't know what to think. Her romantic fantasies, the beautiful wedding and perfect twin children and glorious reign all seemed like a twisted joke now.
Aleria had said her brother wasn't like other men. Shasta realized that in her own way, the priestess-in-training had been trying to warn her, and she hadn't been listening. She was too wrapped up in her own idiotic daydreams, believing that nothing Talon ever did or said would hurt her. How very wrong she had been. It felt like her guardian had just plunged a knife into her heart, and it was the betrayal that hurt more than anything else. She'd thought they were friends. More than that… how many times had she told Talon that he was like a brother to her? Only it turned out that Talon wasn't a 'he' at all.
Her guardian coughed again, and Shasta found herself caught in a swirl of emotions, fury and shock not quite able to overwhelm her genuine worry over Talon's wound. She'd run away from the castle like a child throwing a temper tantrum, and if Talon hadn't come after her she might have faced a terrible fate at the hands of those outlaws. Talon had saved her, possibly at the cost of his life. Her life, Shasta corrected herself, though the idea was still bizarre.
Shasta wasn't sure how to feel, and so she made up her mind to concentrate on one thing at a time. First, she would make sure Talon received treatment for her wound. Then, she would decide whether or not to have the lying bastard executed for treason. (The thought was ridiculous, of course, as Talon had only been following her father's orders, but in her infuriated state it still gave some perverse comfort to consider it.)
The ride back to the castle seemed to take longer than she remembered going the other way, even though the big mare was running just as fast. Talon was slumped forward over the horse's neck now, clinging to its mane, but Shasta feared at any moment her guardian would slide right off. Talon seemed to be growing weaker by the minute, and Shasta herself began kicking the mare's sides impatiently, and reluctantly strengthened her hold around Talon's waist. The bloodstain on her shirt had spread around the side and was beginning to creep along her back, and Shasta could see a damp spot growing down Talon's front hip as the blood from her wound just kept flowing with no other place to go. As angry as she was, she still didn't want to watch Talon die, and especially not on her account.
King Soltran himself came running into the courtyard as the princess and her guardian flew in on horseback and slid to a stop. A small crowd of guards and curious servants had assembled there, and Shasta had no doubt that someone had run to fetch her father the moment they appeared on the grounds, tearing right up to the palace doors as if they were being chased.
"What happened?" he demanded, pulling Shasta from the horse and into his arms, and holding her tightly as two guards carefully helped Talon dismount. Kallin led the exhausted mare away.
"We were out riding this morning, and were attacked," Shasta explained. It was not a complete lie. "Talon fought them off, but was shot before we escaped."
Soltran was not fooled. "And where exactly were the two of you riding, that someone would attack you in broad daylight?" He surveyed her woolen breeches for the first time and his eyebrows shot up. "Goddess save me, child, what are you wearing?" And then he noticed the thin stripe of blood, now dry, that lined her cheek, and his face darkened. "You're hurt."
Shasta shrugged dismissively. "It's just a scratch, Father. I'm fine, and I can explain everything later, but Talon… she needs help."
The king stiffened immediately, and turned his hard gaze on Talon. "She?" he repeated quietly.
The former slave nodded weakly and responded in a soft voice. "She knows, Majesty. I'm sorry."
"Don't blame Talon, Father. I was trying to bring the village healer-"
"Village healer?" Soltran rounded on his daughter. "You mean to tell me that you were out riding by the Warinsmoor village?" Furiously he glared at Talon. "What were the two of you doing out there, so far from the castle? Do you have any idea how dangerous that was? There are outlaws in Warins Forest. The Lysterian guard has been trying to apprehend them for weeks now."
Talon grimaced. "Yeah, we… uh… we've met."
The anger in the king's face was so terrible that several of the maids standing nearby took a step backwards, and even the guards regarded one another nervously, glad that they were not the focus of that rage. Soltran took a deep breath, and when he spoke his tone was dangerous. "Guard. Escort the princess to her chambers. She is not to leave until I summon her. And you-" he jerked his thumb at another of the guards, "take the princess' guardian to the infirmary, and call for the healer. As soon as Talon is patched up we will be having an audience." He lowered his voice so that only Talon could hear his next words. "There will be consequences for this."
Shasta did not dare voice a protest, and followed the guard meekly up to her chambers. She'd never seen the king so angry before. It frightened her. She wasn't sure what her father was going to do, but whatever it was, she knew it was not going to be pleasant.
The very next morning, Shasta found herself in her father's study. Talon was already there, and she was relieved to see that some of the color had already returned to his… no, her… face. Argh, it's going to be so hard to start thinking of Talon as a woman.
The court healer had removed the arrow, announcing that while it did graze the lung, it had not caused any permanent damage. Blood loss had been the primary enemy, and careful administration of fluids combined with poultices to stop the bleeding and prevent infection had Talon feeling much better already. However, though the old healer predicted a full recovery, he was quite disgruntled by the king's command for an audience with Talon so soon after her injury. He tried to convince Soltran that Talon should not be on her feet yet, and that she should at least receive several days of bed rest first. But the king was insistent, and so angry that the healer did not dare to cross him.
Shasta sat timidly in one of the chairs before the king's desk, casting anxious glances at Talon from her seat.
Soltran ordered the guard who had been Shasta's escort to close the door, which he did with a deep and resounding bang that made the princess gulp. Her father's eyes were pinned to Talon, and when he spoke his words were quiet, and deceptively calm. "I'm sure I don't need to tell you how disappointed I am." Talon nodded, hanging her head. "In fact, disappointed doesn't even begin to describe it. My daughter could have been killed yesterday. I expected more from you, Talon."
"Father…" Shasta tried to interrupt, but the king held up a hand.
"Silence." He didn't even look at her, continuing to stare darkly at her guardian. "Not only was Shasta's life put in danger, but somehow you managed to break your secret to her at the same time. I believe I was very clear on the terms of your service here, Talon. You know the consequences of failure."
At this, Talon's head snapped up and she met the king's gaze with pleading in her eyes. "Majesty, please. Please, you can do whatever you want with me…"
"That was not our bargain. Guard!" The door opened and the guard outside saluted. "Have Lady Aleria and Lady Brie taken to the west conservatory, and inform Nurse that her services will be required there." The man saluted again and closed the door, and Talon leaned forward in her chair, mindless of the wound in her side.
"Your Majesty, no. Please, no. Let it be me."
Shasta looked from her father to her guardian and back again, and her mouth dropped open in astonishment. "Father, what's Talon talking about? What bargain?"
Soltran lifted an eyebrow. "Would you like to explain it to her?"
The pain on Talon's face was excruciating as she locked eyes with Shasta, but only for a moment. Then she tore her face away, looking down at the tapestry covering the floor. Her voice shook. "It's my duty to protect you. If you are hurt under my care, Aleria and Brie pay the price. Their lives for yours."
"That's positively insane." Shasta stared at the king in shock. "Father, you can't do this. Aleria and Brie didn't do anything."
He remained unmoved. "Talon's duty is to protect you, and she failed. She knew what would happen."
"I don't see how she failed, Father. I have a tiny scratch, that's all."
"That's not the point." Soltran was colder than she'd ever seen him. "You should never have been in that situation in the first place. It doesn't matter how badly you were hurt. It never should have happened, and you were never supposed to learn of her true gender. It is not to your benefit to know. I'm just glad you are the only one she disclosed this to, or I would have to have her replaced completely, even executed for breaking the law of the Goddess."
"But…" Shasta took a deep breath. "Father, listen to me, this wasn't Talon's fault. I… I lied to you before." She blushed as she made the admission and one of the king's thick eyebrows rose, but hurried on so as not to lose her nerve. "We didn't go out riding together. I ran away. I left while Talon was sleeping, and he… I mean, she came after me. If it hadn't been for her I really might have gotten hurt. And she had to tell me about the… well, about not being a man, because I was going to drag her in front of the village healer and then everyone would have known. It's not like I'm going to tell anyone. Talon didn't do anything wrong, and neither did Aleria or Brie. You can't do this, I won't let you."
Soltran slammed a fist down on the desk in frustration, and Shasta jumped. "What do you want me to do, Shasta? Summon your poor little whipping boy just so you can sneak out and console him tonight with candy and trinkets?" Her eyes widened. "Oh yes, I know all about your little arrangement with Bari. I've always known, but I let it go on thinking that at least if your conscience bothered you enough to try and make it up to him, that perhaps it wasn't a total loss. But this…" He shook his head. "This is much too serious a matter to allow for such light punishment. You have to learn, somehow, that there are consequences for your actions. Everything you do has an effect on everyone around you, that's the way the world works. Perhaps watching your friends suffer for your mistakes will finally get that through to you!"
"NO!" Shasta leapt to her feet, hands clenched into fists at her sides, and the king pressed his lips together.
"I'll tell you what, Shasta. You keep insisting that all of this was your fault, so I'm going to give you a choice." He cocked an eyebrow. "Aleria and Brie will each receive twenty strokes for your foolishness." Talon gave a small cry in the back of her throat, and Shasta looked over at her guardian with horrified sympathy. Soltran was still watching the princess carefully. "Or," he continued, "you may choose to take them yourself. All forty."
Shasta sank back down into the chair, and now it was Talon's turn to stare in shock at the king. "Me?" the princess breathed. She'd never been beaten in her life. It was an idea too foreign and terrible to comprehend. But witnessing the desperation in Talon's face, the sight of the bandages that were clearly delineated beneath her shirt, Shasta suddenly felt herself recalling that day, years ago when Aleria and Brie had come to sing to her while she was confined to bed. She had imagined then what sort of pain it would bring to Talon, to be forced to watch as her beloved sisters were beaten before her eyes. At the time it had been nothing more than a melodramatic fantasy, but now she found that the possibility was very real. And she had been given the power to prevent it.
Shasta inhaled quickly, and set her face with determination. "I'll do it." The words came a little more tremulously than she would have liked, and her hands were shaking, but she did not back down now that they were out of her mouth. Talon's head snapped up and she stared at the princess with her mouth hanging open.
King Soltran regarded her with some surprise. "Are you sure?"
She gulped, but nodded. "Yes."
"Very well. Talon, escort the princess to the west conservatory for her punishment." Shasta took a deep breath and stood, and as she opened the door, the king spoke again. "And, Talon… tell Nurse she is not to spare her arm." Shasta flinched, but did not turn back around. She stepped out into the corridor, and as they walked towards the tower stairs that led towards the west wing of the palace, she sensed Talon's presence at her back.
Her fists shook at her sides as she walked, forcing one foot in front of the other despite how every fiber of her being was telling her to run the other way. Forty strokes. The most she'd ever seen Bari receive was twenty, and that had been enough to reduce the usually-cheerful boy to screams towards the end. Was she insane? No, it's Father who's the crazy one, her mind insisted hotly. Beating Aleria and Brie. Holding them hostage over Talon like they're inconsequential tools for his purposes. He's no better than a slave master himself. That thought made her even angrier. He thinks I'm too much of a coward to go through with it. I'll show him.
She held on to the anger that suddenly filled her, because it was dulling her terror. Still, when they reached the door of the conservatory, she faltered.
"Princess." Talon spoke for the first time, her deep voice close to Shasta's ear, and full of concern. "You don't have to do this." Oddly, those very words strengthened the princess' resolve.
"Yes, I do." She pushed the doors open, in time to see Nurse rolling up her sleeves. Aleria and Brie stood to the side, with fear on their faces the likes of which Shasta hadn't seen since they first came to live at the palace. "Nurse, stop." She licked her lips nervously when the old woman turned to look at her, but stubbornly quelled the wave of fright that was nearly nauseating in its intensity. "Father has given new orders. I have chosen to take the strokes myself. All of them. And Father says…" She swallowed hard. "Father commands you not to spare your arm."
The old woman's brows disappeared into her hairline. "Is that so?"
Aleria ran forward, taking Shasta's hands in her own. "No, Highness, it's all right. We…" she looked back at her sister, "we've had whippings before. You haven't, you don't know what it is you're asking for. Let us do this for you."
Shasta's eyes filled with tears at this selfless generosity. If she hadn't been determined before, she certainly was now, and she shook her head. "No. Not this time, Lady Aleria. And never again." She turned to Nurse. "I'm through letting other people take my punishments for me." She squeezed Aleria's hand before releasing it, and marched to the center of the room, where the curved whipping chair was waiting.
Staring down at it, again she felt the urge to run. But she wasn't going to. She knelt in front of it, taking a deep breath before slowly leaning forward, gripping the sides so hard her knuckles whitened.
She heard Nurse step up behind her, heard the light smack as the strap was experimentally tapped against the old woman's hand. "Princess Shasta Talia Soltranis of Lysteria, you have disobeyed the orders of your king and put the sole heir to the throne in undue danger. The punishment has been set at forty strokes of the strap." She cleared her throat. "Are you ready?"
Shasta closed her eyes tightly. "You may begin." The brave words were undermined considerably when they came out as barely more than a squeak.
The leather strap sang through the air, and when it finally connected Shasta gave a cry of pain. She'd known it would hurt, but hadn't imagined how much. Her entire body jerked, and she tightened her grip on the sides of the chair.
Another strike, more painful than the first, and she could not suppress a second gasping cry. She was wearing a simple breakfast gown, with only a shift beneath as the morning had been hot. Still, it was one layer more than Bari had on when he suffered these beatings, and Shasta still couldn't imagine how he ever withstood the pain. "Two."
Talon's face flinched each time the strap came down, and her heart broke with every cry that escaped the princess' lips. She couldn't believe it. Pampered, self-centered Princess Shasta had chosen to be beaten herself rather than to allow her companions to suffer for something they hadn't done. It was a sacrifice Talon almost couldn't bear. She wasn't sure which was worse, being forced to watch her sisters or her princess in pain… And she knew perfectly well that no one had ever laid a hand on Shasta before.
Shasta cried out again and again, her gasping sobs turning into a constant low moan punctuated each time the strap fell, yet she did not call a halt. All she had to do was say the word, but as Nurse's arm continued to rise and fall Talon realized that Shasta had no intention of backing out. She would let Nurse beat her to death before she'd go back on her word now. And at forty strokes, she might very well come close. Though the leather of the strap in Nurse's hand was not designed for the purpose of drawing blood, at the force she was bringing it down Shasta might just faint from the pain before it was over. Talon dug her nails into her palms.
"Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen."
Aleria's face was streaming now, tears running down her cheeks and wetting strands of her hair into clumps. Even Brie, who at first had looked rather belligerent at the idea of an undeserved beating, was now looking very teary-eyed, realizing that Shasta really was going through with it. Talon felt her own eyes beginning to fill, and she shook her head trying to clear it, even screwing her eyes shut for several seconds to try and regain control.
It was only halfway over, and Shasta was already crying so hard she could barely breathe, making choking sounds that ripped at Talon until she was ready to snatch the strap out of Nurse's hand herself. Each new strike made a terrible sound, a cruel cracking noise of leather over thinly-protected flesh, and the princess' screams were ragged and out of breath. Time seemed to drag by, a hellish eternity between each sharp blow.
As Nurse completed the thirtieth stroke Shasta lost her grip on the chair and she slid to the side, her forehead striking the high arm of the whipping chair with a thud. Talon sprang forward then, unable to stand it any longer, and grabbed Nurse's arm as she prepared to bring the strap down again.
"Stop, Nurse, you have to stop now. Can't you see she can't take anymore?" Talon threw herself to the floor beside the princess, the violence of her motion causing the newly-formed clot over her wound to tear at the edges. She paid no attention to the burning at her side, gathering the whimpering girl into her arms and rocking back and forth for a moment. "Shhh, Highness, it's all right. I've got you."
Shasta's gasping sobs racked her body so hard for several minutes that she could not reply, and she clung to Talon's arms so desperately that it made Talon's heart ache. But when she did finally lift her face, her breath still convulsing her entire torso, there was still stubbornness filling those amber-colored eyes. "I have to… finish this."
"No." Talon's arms tightened around her. "Princess, you've had enough. I'll take the rest myself if I have to."
"I won't…" She choked a little, then coughed, and pulled herself from her guardian's grasp, grabbing the arms of the chair and once again placing her body into it. "I won't let you do that." She coughed again, her hair in such wild disarray that Talon could scarcely see her face. "I'm going to finish this. For once in my life I'm going to take responsibility for my own damned mistakes. Nurse!" She twisted her head slightly, though from that angle she couldn't actually see her. "You only get ten more. Better make them count."
Talon shook her head. "Shasta…" she breathed in disbelief, too distraught to care if Nurse heard her calling the princess by name. Reluctantly she moved as if to stand, but Shasta caught her arm and looked up at her through a mass of tangled hair.
"Stay with me." Her voice was very small. "Please? I… I need you."
Talon swallowed and dropped down immediately, moving in front of the chair so she was facing the princess and placing her hands on the arms. "I'm here. I won't leave you, I promise."
Shasta's gave her a grateful smile, her little fingers winding themselves over Talon's and gripping her guardian's hands hard. "Nurse… keep them coming."
The old woman raised the strap again. "Thirty-one."
This time Shasta didn't cry out, but she did squeeze Talon's fingers so tightly that Talon thought they might be crushed. She didn't care. Leaning forward, the dark girl whispered softly into Shasta's ear, nonsense words of comfort that weren't important; what mattered was the sound of her voice, the reassurance that she was there and would stay with her until it was over.
"Thirty-two. Thirty-three. Thirty-four."
With each stroke Shasta's grip pulsed in Talon's hands. "Almost there," the princess gasped, her eyes squinted shut.
Shasta began to count as well, but backwards; and her voice came as a hoarse croak, forced out with every crack of the strap. "Three. Two. One."
As the last of the strokes fell, Shasta collapsed into the chair, and Nurse stood watching her for a moment with an indescribable expression; but Talon was almost certain she saw a measure of newfound respect in the old woman's eyes.
Aleria and Brie both ran to Shasta, shoving the whipping chair out of the way and gathering her in their arms. By this time they were both sobbing just as hard as the princess, and Talon sat uncomfortably for several minutes, not wanting to interrupt them but uncertain what else she could do to be of help. When Shasta at least seemed to be breathing fully again as opposed to giving a series of intermittent, choking sobs, she leaned forward and very carefully drew the princess' arms around her neck.
"Brie, would you go down to the infirmary and ask the healer for a salve?" She did not look at her sister as she spoke, all her attention focused on the weeping girl in her arms. Brie nodded, jumping to her feet and running from the room with tears still streaking her cheeks.
Aleria blinked at her sister. "What are you going to do?"
"Take her to her room, of course." Ever so gently, Talon slid an arm beneath the princess' knees, careful not to touch the backs of her thighs or buttocks. She didn't have to see them to know the angry red welts that now covered that sensitive area. She rose to her feet, Shasta cradled in her arms, ignoring the screaming pain in her side. "Help me?"
Aleria nodded and ran to hold the door, and Talon carried the princess through the corridors and up the stairs to her chambers. She was so light; it was easy for Talon to forget sometimes just what a tiny girl Shasta really was. Upon reaching the room, she set Shasta down on the bed, making sure to roll her onto her stomach to avoid contact with her backside and upper legs.
Aleria tugged at her older sister's sleeve with concern. "Talon, you're bleeding again."
Talon waved a hand, never taking her eyes from the girl on the bed. "It's nothing."
Shasta moved her head to see, and her eyes narrowed at the sight of a scarlet patch spreading across her guardian's shirt. "I did not just take forty strokes of the strap so you can bleed to death, Talon. Get to the infirmary. Now."
Talon looked down at the growing bloodstain and sighed, wanting to argue but knowing that if she didn't obey Shasta was likely to throw a fit, regardless of the pain she was in herself. "Very well." She turned to go, and her hand was on the latch when the princess' voice gave her pause.
"This doesn't mean I forgive you. For being a damned liar."
She turned and met Shasta's eyes, her expression sad. "I know." She opened the door, and saluted the guard that Soltran had ordered to stand watch while Talon was recovering from her injury. Then she made her way down the corridor, the burning pain in her side no comparison to the deeper pain pricking cruelly at her heart.
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