Once Upon A Time - Merry Shannon



Chapter Three

The next few months flew by like a dream for Talon and her sisters. Captain Vaughn had established a strict routine for Talon's training that involved daily lessons in swordplay, horseback riding, hand-to-hand combat and battle strategy. Most of these lessons were conducted in coordination with the princess' own lessons, as the king had given specific orders that Talon was always to be within sight of her. This proved to be more difficult than one would think, as much of Talon's training involved activities that were usually conducted outdoors in the sparring rings, and most of Shasta's lessons were quiet, studious subjects like the history of the twelve provinces or the languages of neighboring countries. In compromise, Vaughn had arranged for the east hall of the palace to be cleared of all furnishings at one end; he worked with Talon in the empty portion of the room while Shasta and her new companions took lessons at the other end.

Talon was not quite sure what to think of her new charge; of all her duties she enjoyed the training most, while following the princess around she did not enjoy at all. Not that it was particularly difficult; the princess was still in mourning and barely spoke; she insisted on dressing only in black and wearing a heavy veil at all times, in remembrance of her brother's death. In the months that Talon had lived in the palace, slept on a cot at the princess' bedside, and become the official privy-chamber inspector each morning and night (and any other time the princess had need of it) Shasta had barely spoken more than a sentence at a time to her. Talon had overheard the maids whispering that the princess had changed drastically from her former self, ever since her brother's assassination. She couldn't imagine this somber, quiet slip of a girl, who got winded merely walking to her lessons each morning, ever having been the rambunctious little terror that the maids and Nurse sometimes described.

But all too often Shasta would interrupt both her own lessons and Talon's by leaving the room for no apparent reason, to wander around the gardens or corridors of the castle. Talon was forced to drop whatever she was doing and follow, as the princess was never to be out of her sight. She would try to encourage Shasta to return to the lesson hall, but it was as if the princess were deaf. She merely stared up at her guardian, her face obscured by her dark veils, and then kept walking; only when her restless wanderlust had been satisfied would she suddenly turn back, without a word, and resume her position at the desk in the east hall as if she'd never left it to begin with.

One of the unexpected compromises resulting from her position as Shasta's bodyguard was that Talon was often called upon to assist the princess outside of her normal training. Shasta's dance instructor, for example, was delighted to learn of Talon's presence and wasted no time in "borrowing" Talon away from her own lessons to serve as a waltzing partner for Shasta and her companions. This Talon did not mind so much, though Captain Vaughn was certainly less than happy about it; it allowed Talon to spend time with Aleria and Brie, as they too followed the princess nearly everywhere and shared in all of her lessons. Talon was immeasurably proud of her sisters. Like her, they both worked extremely hard, soaking up every bit of information that was offered to them. Every day Talon could see the girls' manners improving; they were even picking up dainty little affectations, in the way they held their teacups or pronounced the names of the foreign ministers. They looked like real ladies now, in corsets and hoops and brocades and silks, just like the princess herself. It was everything Talon had always dreamed for Aleria and Brie, and even at night when she laid down with aching muscles and bruises from a particularly strenuous training session, she was happier than she'd ever felt in her life.

Vaughn was a good teacher. Every lesson pushed Talon to her limits, but she still found his instruction to be more effective and gentle than the acrobatic torture sessions she'd endured as a slave. Her respect for the captain of the royal guard grew each day; he was every inch a soldier, a hardened survivalist and warrior, yet with the bearing and manners of a well-bred gentleman. Under his tutelage she found herself picking up new skills quickly, and Vaughn showed her how to use her existing strengths and acrobatic flexibility to her advantage in combat, both with and without the sword. To tell the truth, Captain Vaughn was impressed and pleased with his young student. In the beginning he had doubted the king's decision to place such an unqualified and untrained kid (and a girl, to boot) in charge of Princess Shasta's personal safety, and it was even more degrading to think that he, the captain of all the royal guard, had nothing better to do than play drill sergeant to some slave girl. But all doubts as to Talon's competency had been quickly erased early on, in a most unexpected way.

Scarcely a month after her training had begun, Talon had faced her first challenge as the Princess' new guardian. One evening as the princess and king dined together as usual, Aleria and Brie sitting across the table from the princess and Talon standing at attention behind Shasta's chair, the serving girl had brought out the main course and set each person's plate in front of them. Talon didn't even recall, now, what the dish was; only that her keen sense of smell had picked out something strange in the odor of Shasta's plate. As the princess raised the first bite to her lips, Talon reached out and stopped her wrist. Soltran looked at his daughter's guardian questioningly.

"Something isn't right, Majesty," Talon explained, taking the princess' fork from her hand and sniffing it suspiciously. "This doesn't… It has a different smell from the others."

Soltran held his hand out for the plate, and Talon handed it to him. Carefully the king sniffed at the plate himself, and frowned. "I don't smell anything."

Brie's eyes were wide. "Majesty, pardon the interruption, but…" she blushed a bit as everyone at the table turned to look at her. "Well, our brother's nose has always been sharper than most. If he says there's something wrong, he's telling the truth." Aleria and Brie were accustomed to referring to Talon as a boy, so it had not been difficult for them to continue this habit in their new surroundings. King Soltran still did not look utterly convinced, but he called for the guards and the cook anyway.

When he arrived, the cook glared at Talon huffily. "The very idea, suggesting that there's something wrong with my food," he muttered, taking the plate from the king and inspecting it with a cursory glance. "Your majesty, the boy is obviously imagining things. There's nothing wrong with this dish. It looks, and smells," he glared at Talon again, "just as it did when it left my kitchens."

Soltran lifted an eyebrow. "Then you won't mind tasting it for us. Just to be sure."

A muscle in the rotund man's jaw twitched with annoyance. "Of course not, Majesty." He set the plate down and cut a bit of the meat, putting it in his mouth and chewing quickly. "As I thought, it's perfectly fine. Delicious, if I do say so myself."

The king leaned back in his chair and eyed Talon. "It would seem you were mistaken."

Talon looked from the dish to the king to the cook and back again. She could still smell the strange scent, whatever it was; sort of spicy and sweet at the same time, though very subtle under the stronger fragrance of the sauce. Maybe it was just one of the herbs the meat had been cooked with? She nodded slowly, lowering her head. "My apologies, your majesty."

King Soltran sighed. "Give the princess back her dinner," he ordered.

The plate was placed back in front of Shasta, who had been sitting silently throughout this entire exchange. Everyone watched her put another small piece of meat on her fork. As she raised it to her lips, however, she was stopped once again; this time by the cook's sudden gasping cough. Everyone turned to see the royal cook sink to his knees, clawing at his throat. His face was turning interesting shades of purple, and in a matter of seconds the fat little man had collapsed completely onto the ornately woven carpet. He was not breathing.

The fork fell from Shasta's fingers and hit the plate with a clatter.

The king sprang to his feet, calling for the court healer. Aleria and Brie gasped, and Talon stared down at the cook on the floor in shock. She'd been right after all.

After inspection by the court healer, Talon's suspicions had been confirmed. The princess' plate had been poisoned, with a common chemical compound usually used for cleaning ink from a quill before it was stored. A clever choice, as nearly every room of the castle with any sort of desk or parchment had at least one small jar of the stuff. It would be impossible to determine where exactly the poison came from; and despite Captain Vaughn's best efforts the assassin had once again vanished without a trace. Apparently the kitchen staff had a habit of preparing the royal family's dinner plates on a cart, which was then left outside the kitchen door for the servants to deliver to the dining hall. As the cart was unattended for several minutes at a time, anyone could have had the opportunity to put the poison in the princess' food; and as Princess Shasta could not eat dishes prepared with a certain variant of barley, her plate was always carefully marked with a cheerful sprig of parsley to set it apart from the others. It would have been all too easy to pick out which was hers and ensure that only she was served with the poisoned plate. Soltran immediately decreed that a member of the kitchen staff would attend the cart of food at all times, and that Shasta's plate was to remain unmarked from that day forward; no one in the castle would be served a dish with barley, period.

That one lucky incident immediately cemented Talon's reputation in the castle; already a legend for her incredible intervention in the assassin's first attempt on Shasta's life, Talon had single-handedly saved the princess for a second time. Even the royal guard bowed slightly to the princess' guardian in the corridors as she passed, now. It was rumored that Talon had some sort of spiritual connection to Shasta that allowed her to anticipate any threat to the princess' life.

When Brie told this to her older sister one morning, Talon laughed aloud. "I wish that were true, it would certainly make my job easier."

"Don't be so quick to dismiss the idea," Aleria remarked quietly, much to Talon's surprise. "You've saved the princess' life twice now, and both times you were the only one to sense any danger. Perhaps you do share some sort of… bond."

Talon only chuckled and ruffled Aleria's dark hair, pulling it loose from its neat braids. "You've been spending too much time at the temple, little sister. I think those Irythrian priestesses are filling your head with too many strange ideas."

Aleria patted her hair back into place with a bemused smile. "Speaking of which, big brother, we're going to be late for morning prayers."

Talon grinned and winked at her, then moved to Shasta's seat by the window, where the princess sat reading a thick volume that was spread across her lap. There was a flash of something blue; she was twirling a small, bright blue feather in her fingers absentmindedly. Talon wondered at the feather for the hundredth time; she wasn't sure what it meant, but Shasta had that thing with her daily, at every lesson, lying beside her books or tucked into her belt. Sometimes she would pull it out and twirl it thoughtfully. Talon had overheard Aleria and Brie teasing the princess about it from time to time, but Shasta had never explained.

"Your highness?" Talon held out an elbow. "It's time for temple prayers."

Shasta looked up, her heavy veil making it impossible to read any expression that might have been on her face. She closed the book and set it on the windowsill, and stood, tucking the blue feather into the waist of her skirts. Ignoring Talon's offered arm, she swept past her guardian without a word and left the room. Talon blinked and then shook her head. "Yeah, we're really bonding now," she muttered under her breath.

Brie giggled as the three siblings followed the princess from the room. "What's the matter, Talon, not used to a girl who doesn't fall all over you every time you look at her?"

Talon made a face at her youngest sister, who just giggled again, and then took Talon's arm herself. "Well, cheer up. You may be my escort."

"And mine," Aleria added, taking Talon's other arm.

Talon grinned and straightened a little. "I couldn't ask for better company."

The Irythrian temple on the castle grounds was a beautiful structure, one of the oldest of the palace buildings. A high vaulted ceiling painted with murals of the Goddess and her various consorts soared above an enormous central altar, carved from pure white marble in the likeness of Irythria herself, smiling down benevolently upon all who entered. Talon had never put much faith in religion of any sort, but she had to admit that there was a sort of peace and serenity about the palace temple that did feel almost spiritual. Aleria, in particular, seemed affected by the atmosphere of the place. Talon had observed her sister on several occasions engrossed in conversation with one or more of the veiled priestesses who served there, and it amused her to no end. Irythria, all-knowing goddess of wisdom and love, was exactly the sort of thing that would attract her gentle, thoughtful sister. Morning prayers were very obviously Aleria's favorite time of day. Talon would be willing to bet Aleria would spend all day long at the temple if it were allowed.

Talon, on the other hand, found the morning prayer service to be exceedingly tedious. Try as she might to connect with her spiritual side and hear the goddess' voice speaking to her, the most she ever could muster was a dull ache in her neck and arms from standing in the prayer position for so long. Why the goddess would have chosen such a position, with the supplicant's head tilted back, eyes closed and arms uplifted for a seemingly endless amount of time, was beyond Talon's comprehension. It didn't make her feel spiritual, but it was at least a good strength-building exercise for her arms and shoulders.

It was a breezy, sunny summer morning, and though opening one's eyes during prayers was considered a grave disrespect to the goddess, Talon could not help herself. Privately she reasoned that if anyone else saw her transgression, they would of course be committing the same sin, and therefore would be unlikely to call attention to it. She was observing the murals on the ceiling with vague interest, as they were the only thing within her range of vision with her head tipped back at that angle, when a strong breeze passed through the temple chamber. It caught the princess' veil, and suddenly Talon found her face being tickled with the heavy gauze-like fabric as she stood at Shasta's side. Shaking her head to free it of the sudden encumbrance, Talon was startled to hear a small cry erupt from the princess' lips, interrupting the rhythmic chant of the high priestess.

Talon looked over in time to see the princess' blue feather soaring through the temple chamber on a gust of wind, being carried in a gentle spiral over the heads of the other worshippers and out the open doors of the temple. Her eyes widened with surprise as Shasta suddenly darted out into the aisle and ran after it. She blinked; Shasta's movement had been faster than Talon had thought the small girl capable of. Coming to her senses she followed; her greatest duty was never to allow the princess from her sight and so she had no choice but to chase after her. The disruption alarmed the other worshippers, many of whom dropped their arms and looked around in confusion for the source of the disturbance, and the high priestess ceased in mid-chant.

Outside the temple, Talon looked to both the right and left trying to determine where the princess had gone. A flash of color in the corner of her eye caught her attention, and she turned to see that the wind had carried the little blue feather into the branches of a nearby tree, at least twenty paces above the ground. It was fluttering precariously there, snagged between two leaves, but looking like it might become dislodged at any moment. Talon looked into the tree's branches, but there was no sign of the princess.

A cry from one of the onlookers caused Talon to spin around, and her mouth dropped open to see the young princess making her way gingerly along the edge of the temple rooftop. How she'd managed to get up there, Talon couldn't imagine. The princess' black skirts and veil blew about her legs and face in the strong breeze, but she didn't seem to notice. While Talon was debating whether she should try climbing after her, or follow her along the ground to catch her in case she fell, Nurse came storming up with righteous indignation written all over her aged face.

"Shasta Talia Soltranis of Lysteria, get down from there this instant."

Shasta seemed not to hear her, intent on the feather which was hovering only a few paces above the edge of the roof.

"Don't you ignore me, girl. Get down here, now, or it will be the belt for you."

Talon lifted an eyebrow. Did they really belt the princess when she got into trouble, like she was any common peasant girl? Shasta had reached the corner of the roof now, but Talon could see that the blue feather was still out of arms' reach. The princess' foot slipped on a roofing tile, and all of the onlookers gave a collective gasp. Talon ducked into position beneath her to catch her should she fall. She did not fall, however.

"You've earned yourself five strokes, young lady." Nurse' voice bordered on hysteria now, as it seemed obvious that the princess had no intention of listening; in fact, Shasta regained her balance and reached for the feather again. "Ten strokes… Fifteen! Goddess save me, child, come down from there!"

No matter how Shasta tried, Talon knew full well she would never reach the feather she seemed to want so badly; it was up too high in the branches, still quivering precariously. It was evident she was determined to get it back, even if it meant falling right off the temple roof.

"Princess." Talon called up to the girl in black, her deep voice ringing out over the temple yard, quieting even the Nurse. All the onlookers fastened their eyes on the princess' young guardian; and Shasta herself paused, surprised, looking down at Talon through her veil. Talon cleared her throat. "It's all right, Princess," she said, trying to make her tone as soothing as she could. "I'll get it for you, I promise. Just… don't move." Talon looked around them, finally spotting one of the guards grooming a large spotted gelding several paces away.

"Excuse me, uh…" she eyed the single gold bar on the collar of the man's uniform, "…Corporal, sir. May I borrow your horse?"

The corporal blinked at Talon in surprise, but held out the reins.

Talon took them with a deep breath. Time to see if all that practice with Captain Vaughn in the riding ring had rubbed off. Putting her foot in the stirrup, she swung herself onto the horse's back. The onlookers stared with confusion and amazement as she urged the gelding into a gallop, away from the temple. They began to mutter to one another… what was the princess' guardian thinking? He was heading the wrong way!

When Talon had reached about four hundred paces from the tree, she reined in the horse and turned it around. Cupping her hands around her mouth, she yelled at the crowd. "Would everyone please move out of the way?"

Aleria and Brie suddenly understood Talon's intent, and began to help by encouraging the others to clear a path. "Please, sire… madam… would you mind stepping back?" "Give Talon some room… can you move over a bit more, my lady?"

When Talon was satisfied that she wouldn't trample over anyone, she nodded and waved an arm over her head. "Ha!" She kicked her heels into the gelding's sides, and it began to run. When the horse had reached full gallop, it was still over two hundred paces from the tree; and the entire crowd of onlookers gasped in shock as the former acrobat tucked her legs in underneath her, carefully, matching the horse's rhythm… and stood up in the saddle, arms out to maintain her balance, rocking with the motion of the horse's back.

Talon wasn't sure that this would work, but if she didn't find some way to retrieve that blue feather from the tree it could mean the princess' neck… and thus, her sisters' as well. Blocking everything from her mind but the steady rocking of the saddle beneath her, she focused in on the tiny spot of blue suspended from the tree branch ahead. Even standing on the horse's back, it was still too high for her to reach. And so her mind worked quickly, judging the ever-decreasing distance from the horse to the feather, and the feather to the roof. If she timed it just right… Talon bent her legs as deeply as she dared, and finally sprang into the air, gritting her teeth as she catapulted herself in a smooth arc up and over the tree branch. Her feet came up over her head just as she passed over the feather, and she snatched it from the leaves, giving a half twist as her legs came down on the other side, and using her free hand to catch the edge of the temple roof, right by the princess' feet.

The crowd of observers were stunned for a moment, at the sight of the lanky former slave dangling from the edge of the temple roof by one arm, the other hand offering up what looked like a small blue feather to the veiled girl balancing gingerly above. The princess took the feather from her guardian's fingers and held it for a moment, before tucking it securely into her belt once more. Talon let go of the edge of the roof and dropped to the ground, then held out her arms to the princess. After patting her belt to be sure the feather was safe, Shasta stepped from the roof and allowed herself to fall right into Talon's outstretched arms.

Cheers and applause broke out then, as Talon lowered her charge's feet to the ground. Nurse pinched Shasta's shoulder roughly, looking like smoke would billow from her ears at any moment, and escorted the princess in the direction of the palace. Talon followed behind, the onlookers continuing to clap and shout excitedly; gleeful chatter erupted as she passed by, and Talon had to shake her head. She'd done it again. The palace was sure to be abuzz with this latest episode for the next week, at least. She ought to have felt more proud of herself, but instead she only felt a deep sense of relief; with the princess safe, no harm would come to her sisters.

Brie came alongside her and elbowed her in the ribs with a grin. "Well done, brother dear," she teased. "You know you're the stuff that legends are made of."

"Oh, shut up," Talon retorted, but she tried to make her voice sound lighter than she felt. "You've seen me do harder tricks a hundred times."

"Well, the horse was certainly new," Aleria commented. "Our troupe never could afford a horse for trick riding. I didn't know the Captain was teaching you such things."

"He isn't. I had to improvise."

Aleria arched a brow, and Brie snickered. "And you wonder why they call you the Marvel."


"You haven't heard? Everyone's saying it now. 'Talon the Marvel.' I think somebody even wrote a song about it, I've heard them singing it in the kitchens. And now they can add another verse."

Talon just shook her head and laughed.

"What's going on?" Talon whispered in Brie's ear as they stood together watching Nurse pace back and forth, flicking a wide leather strap in her hand. They had all been summoned to the west conservatory, and from the strap in Nurse's hand it wasn't too hard to figure out what they were there for. Talon cast a glance over at the princess, who even beneath her veil seemed entirely unconcerned.

Brie shrugged. "I'm not certain."

After a few more moments there came a timid knock at the door, and Nurse grunted in satisfaction. "Good, he's here. We can begin."

Talon's confusion grew as the door opened and a young boy, about eleven or twelve winters in age, peeked cautiously into the room. When he caught sight of Nurse, his face contracted for a moment in an expression of fear. Nonetheless, he stepped into the conservatory and closed the door behind him, looking like he would rather be anywhere but in that room at that moment.

Nurse beckoned to the boy. "Well, come on, child, I haven't got all day."

Reluctantly the boy, whose hair was a shockingly bright shade of yellow, shuffled over to where Nurse stood. There was a strange contraption in the center of the room; it looked a little something like a low chair, but with a curved seat and no back. Talon had been wondering what its purpose was, but that question was answered when the boy, with a sad little whimper, kneeled in front of it and leaned forward, so that his stomach was cradled in the curve. He gripped the high sides of the curve with anxious hands, and Nurse turned to glare sternly at Shasta.

"Princess Shasta Talia Soltranis of Lysteria, you have brought shame to your house this day. The punishment has been set at fifteen strokes of the strap." Nurse walked over to the boy, and looked at the princess once more. "Are you ready?"

Princess Shasta inclined her head, and Nurse raised her arm.

Talon's eyes widened and she stared at the princess at her side. She'd heard of such things, wealthy children of noble birth whose parents would punish a surrogate for their misdeeds as they could not punish the children themselves. But she'd never actually seen a whipping boy before. As the nurse brought the strap down upon the boy's backside with a loud crack, he gave a whimper.

"One," Nurse announced, pulling her arm back again. "Two. Three."

With every stroke came the sickening smack of leather on flesh. Talon could not see the boy's face, but she winced each time the strap came down. She'd experienced such beatings herself, and knew all too well the stinging, burning pain that grew worse with each strike. Yet the princess stood perfectly still, without any indication of concern. She might as well have been watching a horse race or political speech, for all the interest she showed. The thick black veil over her face made it hard to read her expression; all Talon could make out was the princess' long lashes blinking occasionally.

"Eight. Nine…"

Talon felt a wave of anger. How could Shasta just stand there, uncaring, while someone else suffered such pain on her behalf? How could she be so cold, so unfeeling? Talon had been a slave long enough to know just how little some people cared about the well-being of others. It had always infuriated her. And this boy… he wasn't a slave, just a servant in her father's house. Probably the child of a servant. Yet he was considered deserving of such beatings where the princess, due to her noble birth, was not. Talon's hands balled into fists at her sides. Selfish, cruel, careless… all nobles were the same.

"Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen." Nurse brought the strap down one last time. The boy was crying unabashedly now; even when Nurse was finished administering the punishment he made no effort to rise from the curved chair, gripping the sides with white knuckles and sobbing into the floor.

Brie was staring with her mouth hanging open, and Aleria had tears running down her own face, but the princess did not say a word. Nurse looked down at the boy. "When you have regained your strength, child, you may visit the infirmary and receive balm for the welting." He was crying too hard to reply, but the bright yellow head nodded to show he'd heard.

Nurse narrowed her eyes at the princess and sighed. "And you, your highness. Perhaps you will think twice about trying such a dangerous stunt again." She eyed Brie. "Close your mouth, Lady Brie, it's not becoming." Brie's jaw snapped shut quickly. Nurse swept from the room, ordering as she went, "You may all return to your chambers and remain there until called for the evening meal."

Princess Shasta turned and left the room without so much as a backward glance at the boy on the floor. Talon looked from the boy to the princess' retreating back; the boy obviously needed some help, and she didn't even want to be in the same room with Shasta at the moment, she was so disgusted. But her orders were to stay at the princess' side at all times, and Aleria nudged her older sister gently towards the door.

"Go, Talon. We'll look after him."

Reluctantly Talon nodded, and with one last sympathetic glance at the whipping boy, followed the princess from the room.

The rest of the evening was spent in silence. Talon did not even want to look at her young charge, much less attempt conversation with her. Shasta seemed content to sit in her usual spot by the window and read, and so Talon chose a chair as far across the room as she could get without actually leaving the chamber, and spent the better part of an hour polishing her black leather boots with a soft cloth. Once she'd buffed the leather to a shine so bright she was sure Captain Vaughn would be blinded in their lessons tomorrow, Talon turned attention to her short sword, a weapon that had been given to her on her first day at the castle. Vaughn had insisted that she learn immediately to wear a swordbelt, to become accustomed to its presence so that she would eventually feel naked without it. He'd given her a small whetstone and demonstrated how to properly care for her sword after every lesson.

"A soldier is only as effective as the sharpness of his blade," Vaughn had insisted, and so every night before sleeping Talon obediently pulled out the short sword and prepared it for the next day's training. There was something immensely satisfying about the soft shing! shing! of the stone against the metal.

A maid knocked on the door, to summon them to the evening meal. Talon could not sit at the table during the princess' meals, as this might leave her vulnerable from behind, so her duty was to stand behind the princess' chair while she and Talon's sisters ate. Once they had finished eating and returned to their rooms, a maid would bring up a plate for Talon, who would eat while the princess prepared for bed. Talon liked this schedule; Shasta usually spent an hour or two in her privy chamber each night, leaving Talon to eat her dinner in relative privacy. It was the only time of day that Talon had completely to herself, and she looked forward to it.

Talon wasn't sure what the princess was doing in her privy chamber for such a long time each night; probably brushing her hair a thousand times or some other such girlish silliness. There was a bathing tub set into the floor in one corner, and Talon knew the princess liked to bathe every night. She would summon maids with buckets of hot water to fill the tub for her, and perfume it with various soaps and oils. When she was done, the maids would return to drain the tub, which had a plug at the bottom that released the bathwater out of a pipe that ran the length of the castle wall before emptying into the irrigation canal used to water the garden. It seemed like an awful lot of work, and a huge waste of water and expensive perfumes, but regardless of the extravagance, the princess insisted on a daily bath.

Talon rolled her eyes as she used a hunk of bread to mop up some of the remaining beef juices on her plate, and eyed the door of the privy chamber. The princess was incredibly spoiled, she decided, as steam began to roll out from under the door, filling the rooms with the scent of lavender and roses. People like her had no idea what real life was like, for real people. Talon was willing to bet the princess had never felt the pangs of hunger, never lain awake at night shivering because she was too cold to sleep. Shasta probably hadn't ever even bruised her knee without the entire castle making an ordeal out of it. And, as Talon had learned today, the princess had never experienced the consequences of her own actions. No one had ever laid a hand on her, of that Talon was certain. The selfish little brat had no concept of what pain was, or how much she could cause to someone else just by being careless.

When Shasta finally stepped out of her privy chamber, dressed in a long white nightgown and soft woolen dressing robe, she noticed that her guardian was already stretched out on the cot by her bed, his back to her. He'd been particularly cold to her the entire evening, and she could guess the reason for it. She dismissed the last of the maids with a wave of her hand, and they blew out the standing lamps as they left, leaving her only the small hand-held oil lantern for light. Quietly Shasta set the lamp on the table by her bed. When she was satisfied that Talon was not looking, she removed her dressing robe and slippers and quickly climbed into bed, pulling the satin bedclothes up to her chin.

Her father and his ridiculous ideas. She didn't mind so much when Talon was following her around the castle; she didn't even mind sharing a lesson hall with him. In fact, it was a welcome distraction from her own boring lessons, to be able to sneak glances over where the captain would be showing Talon some flashy sword maneuver. But really, to have the boy sleeping in her room, right next to her bed… it was bizarre, not to mention embarrassing. A respectable lady was never seen in her nightdress, and though she was always careful to wait until Talon was turned away from her before disrobing and getting into bed, it was irritating that she even had to deal with such a matter in her own sleeping chamber.

But she didn't have the energy to argue with the king, at least not as violently as she might have before all of this happened. Before Daric… Shasta's breath caught in a small sob and she reached over to the small table to pick up the blue feather, lying next to the lamp. In the dim light she turned it around and around in her fingertips. Daric. It was so strange, getting up every day, going to lessons every day, eating at the family table, and not seeing him there. Not hearing his mischievous laugh echo through the corridors. She hadn't been back to the servant's stables since the day her brother was killed; vaguely she wondered if their fencing foils were still there, under the hay, waiting for them.

It felt like a vital part of her was missing, like she'd awoken one morning to find that she'd lost an arm, or a leg, yet was being asked to continue to do everything exactly the way she'd used to. But she couldn't. And her father… Shasta knew the king was worried about her. She knew he wanted to talk to her, but she didn't have anything to say. Everything that had ever bothered her had always gone through Daric first. He was her twin, and he seemed to share her mind at times. Without him, Shasta didn't know how to communicate with anyone else, not even her own father.

Casting a glance down at her guardian's still form to be sure he was asleep, the princess tucked the blue feather into the sleeve of her nightdress and slipped from the bed, donning her dressing robe. There was still something she had to do before she could sleep this night, and she preferred to do it alone. Sliding her feet into her slippers, Shasta bent and pulled a carefully wrapped package concealed beneath the head of her bed. She patted the package for security, and then took the oil lamp with the other hand and quietly went to the door.

The leather hinges squeaked a bit as she opened it, and she froze, but Talon did not seem to be disturbed by the sound. After pausing in breathless silence for a moment, Shasta opened the door just a bit further and squeezed out.

The stone corridor was dark and cool, and the princess shivered, walking briskly to warm herself up as best she could. Her hair was still damp from her bath, which made even the slightest draft feel chilly. Shasta followed the corridor to the turret stairs, and descended the curving steps until she reached the ground floor. Pausing for a moment to be sure that the way was clear, she then proceeded past the kitchens and out to the entrance to the servants' garden, the package held securely under one arm.

The servants' gardens were not landscaped for beauty like the palace gardens; it was here that many of the vegetables and herbs used by the cook and kitchen staff were grown. Her father allowed the servants to tend small patches of ground for their own personal use, as well. Unlike the perfectly groomed bushes and flowers of the palace gardens, the growth here was wild and thick, and the paths through the various beds were occasionally overgrown, which made it the perfect place for games of hide-and-seek. Shasta and her brother had spent many an hour here as children, either playing or hiding from Nurse.

She stepped around a large pumpkin growing in the middle of the dirt path, and ducked beneath an overhanging vine. "Bari? Bari, are you here?" She whispered as loudly as she dared, not wanting to awaken any of the kitchen staff as their quarters were on the other side of the garden wall.

The boy stepped out from behind a fruit tree on the elevated terrace, his yellow hair glinting in the moonlight. "Your highness?"

"Bari." She held out a hand, and he jumped down from the terrace. "I'm glad you came." She bit her lip. "Are you… How are you feeling?"

He made a face. "Eh. I've had worse." He shrugged, then winced. "Gonna be sore for a bit though." Bari noticed the expression on her face, and grinned. "Aww, don't worry about it, Princess. All in a day's work."

"I'm so sorry, Bari. I didn't mean for this to happen." She held out the package. "I brought something for you."

The boy's eyes lit, and he took the package from her hands. Sitting on the stone of the terrace he tore away the paper. Inside were several smaller packages, each wrapped in cloth. "Cake!" he exclaimed delightedly on unwrapping the first one, and immediately crammed a huge bite into his mouth with a grin.

Shasta had to smile. "Well, I know it's your favorite. There's peppermint and a jar of sugar candy in there too, and I had Erinda make an entire batch of cookies. I'm sure she thinks I have a terrible sweet tooth." She watched Bari gleefully take another bite while inspecting the contents of the other packages. "And… that little one on the bottom has coins in it, for your mother. I would have put in more but it was all I had left from my weekly allowance. Tell her I'm sorry, will you?"

Bari grinned at her around a mouthful of cake. "Aw, your highness, you really don't have to do this, you know." He swallowed, wiping the crumbs from his mouth with the back of his sleeve. "Not that I'm complaining."

Shasta laughed and sat down next to him on the cold stone of the terrace, drawing her robe a bit more tightly around her for warmth. "Yeah, well, it was my fault. I hate it when they do this to you. It's not fair."

Bari regarded her seriously for a moment. "I really don't mind that much, you know. We've been friends since we were kids, you and Daric and me." Shasta's head dropped, and he patted her shoulder gently. "I still can't believe he's gone."

"Me either." Shasta stood suddenly, blinking back tears. "You should probably go back to bed now, before your mother realizes you're gone."

Bari nodded, gathering up his packages. "Yeah, I want to hide these before she sees them. She doesn't like it when I eat sweets." He winked at her. "Hey, thanks, Princess."

Shasta watched as the boy trotted off through the foliage. She should be thanking him. A few smuggled sweets was hardly sufficient compensation for the hurt she knew he'd gone through on her behalf. If she were in his place, she would not be so forgiving. Shasta turned to go, but a rustling sound froze her in her tracks. "Is someone there?"

Her heart leaped into her throat as a tall shadow moved out from behind the garden entrance, and she let out a deep breath of relief when she recognized who it was. "Talon. Don't scare me like that." She took a few steps toward him and frowned. "What are you doing out here, anyway?" "I could ask you the same question…" Her guardian's dark eyes looked pointedly off in the direction that Bari had left, then slid back to her. "…your highness."

Shasta sighed sadly and brushed past him, but then paused. "I'm not the spoiled brat you think I am, you know," she said quietly, over her shoulder. "I just-- I can't let them see that I care." She kept walking, knowing he would follow.

At the top of the stairs, Shasta had to pause to catch her breath. She leaned against the cool stone wall for a moment, and closed her eyes. When she opened them, Talon was watching her with an unreadable expression on his face. His eyes were so deep and penetrating at times, she marveled, it was like he was trying to read her mind.

A pricking at her wrist reminded her that the blue feather was still tucked into her sleeve. She held the oil lamp out to Talon, and he took it wordlessly. Reaching into her sleeve she pulled the feather out, turning it in the pale moonlight that filtered in through the window in the turret above them. Shasta looked up and saw the question in her guardian's eyes, and smiled wistfully. Moving from the wall, she started to walk again, down the corridor towards her chambers. She could feel Talon behind her, and she slowed her pace so that she could walk beside him, inside the small circle of yellow light cast by the lamp.

When they reached the room, she stepped back so that he could open the door for her, and took the lamp back from him as they entered. She set the lamp on the table beside her bed, and touched the collar of her dressing robe, casting a shy glance at her guardian. His dark eyebrows went up, and she could have sworn she saw a twitch of amusement at the corner of his mouth, but he turned his back to allow her to remove her robe and climb into bed. Only when he was sure she was covered again did he turn around, sitting on the edge of his cot to remove his boots.

Shasta leaned against the pile of pillows, holding the feather up to the light. "When my brother and I were young… right after we'd celebrated our seventh winter… we snuck off one afternoon while Nurse was napping and ran out onto the moor." Her voice was soft, hardly above a whisper, and Talon turned to look at her in surprise. It was the longest sentence he'd ever heard her speak. Shasta scarcely noticed, suddenly immersed in the memory.

"We were running among the grasses, shouting and chasing one another. Hardly behavior befitting a proper prince and princess, and that was the whole point… And we saw this amazing bird. It was bright blue. I'd never seen anything like it." She twirled the feather in her fingers. "Daric got this crazy idea, to try and catch it and take it back to the castle with us. He wanted to keep it as a pet. I couldn't see how he'd manage to catch it, since it was a bird and all. I mean, all it had to do was fly away. But Daric was so focused, when he put his mind to something. We followed that bird for… oh, it must have been hours. And it didn't fly away, for the longest time. It just hopped from here to there, and would fly a little every now and then but always stayed low to the ground. And then, suddenly, it stopped. It was just sitting there on the ground, looking at us."

Shasta wasn't sure why she was going on like this. She hadn't wanted to speak of her brother at all in the months since his death, but suddenly she felt the need to talk about him, to say his name. As the words tumbled from her lips unchecked, she was flooded with an indescribable feeling of relief, of release. "Daric took his hat off and snuck up on the bird, so slowly. I ran out of patience a hundred times before he even got within arms-reach of it. He held his hat out, over the bird, and it just sat there. Then he brought the hat down fast. I thought for sure he'd gotten it, but when he lifted it up just a little to check, the bird was gone. There was only a little blue feather under the hat. Daric was so disappointed." A faint smile crossed her face.

"It was then that we realized how dark it was. We looked all around, but couldn't see the castle, and we knew we were completely lost. I became very frightened… it was getting colder, and darker, and I was hungry. I started crying." Shasta's voice had taken on a soft, sing-song rhythm as she spoke. "But Daric, he patted me on the shoulder and said 'It's okay, sis, we're going to get home. See? We were following the bird, and it was facing away from the castle when I tried to catch it, so if we just go in the direction that the feather's pointing, we'll get home.' " She shook her head. "He knew as well as I that it was nonsense, but somehow his confidence made me feel better, and we started walking. We walked and walked, until I felt like my legs were going to fall off. I was ready to just lay down in the grass and cry myself to sleep when we heard voices, and saw little lights coming towards us. Father had formed a search party to look for us, and we'd walked right into them. He picked me up and held me so tight I thought my face would turn blue."

Shasta stroked the edge of the feather thoughtfully. "The next day we met Bari for the first time. Father ordered ten strokes for each of us, but we were the prince and princess of Lysteria… of course they wouldn't actually beat us. They found the only child in the castle who was close to our age, and he received the whipping for both of us. Nurse counted out the strokes and said our names after each one. 'One, Daric. One, Shasta. Two, Daric. Two, Shasta.' Twenty strokes. It was awful. But Daric kept whispering in my ear, saying 'Don't cry, Shasta, you can't let them see you cry. If they know it bothers you they'll beat him every time you misbehave.' So I didn't cry, I just stood there trying to look like I didn't care."

"When it was over, Daric and I combined our stashes of Solstice sweets… you know, the candy that's handed out for the Winter Solstice celebration? We saved our candy as long as we could after every Solstice, trying to outdo one another with how big our piles were and how long we could resist eating it… Anyway, we gathered together every last piece and when everyone else in the castle had gone to sleep, we snuck down to the servant's quarters and found Bari. We gave him all our candy and told him over and over again that we were so sorry… from that day on Bari, Daric and I became friends." She met Talon's eyes with a wry smile. "We never let on to Father or Nurse, though. We didn't want them knowing how much we liked Bari, or we knew they'd beat him more often to try and control us. Whippings have always been their last resort, when they couldn't think of anything else."

Talon was silent for a moment, then to Shasta's surprise, he reached out and took the feather from her fingers, looking at it with a slight smile. "We used to see birds this color every spring," he commented softly, his husky voice melodic in the semi-darkness. "My mother used to say they brought good luck."

"Your mother?" Shasta rolled on her side to look at him. "Was she a slave too?"

"No." The smooth plane of his forehead furrowed for a moment. "No, I was born as free as you are."

Shasta blinked, studying his face in the lamplight. "Then how--?"

Talon sighed. "I don't remember a lot about my childhood. I know my people were nomadic, and our tribe would travel to the plains in the colder months and then back to our mountainous hunting grounds in the summer. I was about nine winters, I think, and our village was preparing to make the move out of the mountains before the first snows, when this army of raiders came sweeping down on us out of nowhere." A muscle along his jaw tightened. "They killed my father, and…" he was about to say something, but then seemed to think better of it. "… and my mother too. Burned our house to the ground. Burned the whole village. Took me, and my sisters, and forced us to travel with them for weeks until we'd reached the ocean. I'd never seen the ocean before." Talon took a deep breath. "Anyway, when we got there, they put us up on this auction block and sold us off to the highest bidders like we were nothing more than cattle, or… pieces of furniture." There was anger in his voice, and he was silent for a moment, turning the blue feather in his fingers. He suddenly met the princess' eyes. "I guess we have something in common after all. We've both lost people we love to murderers."

Shasta reached out and touched the feather in his hand with a fingertip, and suddenly realized she was crying. Tears poured down her cheeks and without thinking, she wrapped her arms around her guardian's neck, sliding out of her own bed and down onto his cot. "I… I miss him, Talon, I miss him so much."

Talon stiffened with shock, uncertain how she should respond as the sobbing princess somehow found a way to climb into her lap, crying into her shoulder. She wasn't expecting this, and patted the smaller girl awkwardly on the back. When it became clear that Shasta wasn't leaving any time soon, Talon sighed and leaned back against the bed, bending one knee for balance, and putting an arm around the crying princess' shoulder. She held the girl until her sobs quieted, and Talon realized she was sleeping. Carefully she slid her free arm under the princess' knees, and stood up, carrying her back around to the other side of the bed and laying her gently onto the soft mattress. Tucking the satin duvet beneath Shasta's chin, Talon realized she was still holding the princess' precious blue feather.

Gazing at it for a moment, and then down at the princess' tear streaked face as she slept, Talon was suddenly had an idea. She took the oil lamp from the table and moved to the window, where she rummaged through her own small chest of belongings before finding what she was looking for. Setting the lamp down on the window seat, Talon settled herself on the floor beside the chest and set to work.

It was several hours later when she finally blew out the lamp and climbed back onto her cot, but she fell asleep with a satisfied smile on her face that lasted even through her dreams.

Part 4

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