Shasta awoke the next morning and gave an unhappy groan as the morning sunlight blinded her with its brightness. She sat up and rubbed her eyes, which felt grainy and hot from her crying episode the night before. A flush crept across her face as she remembered, and quickly she looked around her, relieved to realize that Talon's cot was empty; he must be in the privy chamber already. As if on cue, a cheerful whistling could be heard from behind the privy door, and Shasta had to smile. Talon had begun a habit of whistling just as he was about to emerge, which gave her time to don her dressing robe before he appeared.
She slid from the bed and wrapped the robe around her shoulders, and sure enough in a moment or two the door of the privy chamber opened and Talon stepped out. He was carrying a lidded chamberpot, which he set outside the door of the princess' rooms for one of the maids to carry away, and when he turned around he gave a small bow.
"Your chamber awaits, my lady."
She grinned at him. "Thank you, kind sir," she replied playfully, making her way to the door. When she stepped inside, she could see that the maids had already laid out her black silk breakfast gown and mourning veil, ready for her to dress for the morning meal. After breakfasting with her father and two companions, she would return to her chambers to be properly outfitted in corset and hoops for the remainder of the day.
A flash of blue caught her attention, and she walked closer to where the gown was draped over the back of a plush upholstered chair. In wonder, she reached out and picked up her blue feather, lying on top of the gown. A thin gold wire had been wrapped firmly around the base of the feather, strung through tiny holes bored right through the shaft to hold it securely. The wire formed a loop through which was threaded a delicate gold chain. Shasta held it up for a moment, then turned and ran out of the chamber.
"Did you do this?" she asked her guardian, who was buckling his swordbelt.
Talon's head came up, and he nodded.
Shasta looked from the feather to Talon and back again, then put the chain around her neck. The corner of his mouth came up in a smile. "I just thought it might keep that thing from taking off into any more tree branches."
She felt like crying again, but instead just met Talon's eyes earnestly. "Thank you."
He nodded, and Shasta returned to dress herself. As she picked up the black gown from the chair, however, her hand came up to the feather around her neck, and she made a decision. Taking the dress and veil from the chair she went to the door of her rooms and called for her chambermaid.
The plump, buxom girl popped around the corner as if by magic. "Your highness?"
"Erinda, I want you to put these back and bring me my yellow one."
Erinda's eyes widened with surprise, but she curtsied. "Yes, your highness, at once." She took the black dress and veil from the princess' hands and darted over to the wardrobe, and in a moment was back with a soft yellow satin breakfast gown, embroidered with small blue flowers. "Is this what your highness wanted?"
Shasta took the gown with a nod and a smile. "Yes, thank you, Erinda. Will you help me with my hair?"
The maid curtsied again and followed Shasta into the privy chamber, closing the door behind them.
When they emerged, Talon nearly dropped the small knife she was sharpening at the sight. Erinda had arranged Shasta's hair in an elaborate twist of smooth braids and loops, fastened with sparkling pins here and there that glittered in the morning light. The cheerful yellow gown brought out the warmth in the princess' golden brown eyes, turning them a rich shade of amber, and the little blue flowers scattered across the dress accented the blue feather at her throat. It was the first time Talon had seen the princess without her heavy veils and black dresses since she'd come to live at the palace. Shasta looked like an entirely different person; Talon was reminded of what a pretty girl the princess actually was.
Shasta giggled at her. "You look so shocked, Talon. Was I that much of a fright before?"
Talon gulped and shook her head sheepishly. "No, of course not, Highness."
The princess giggled again. "Well, come on then, we'll be late to breakfast."
The guards in the corridors bowed a little lower as they passed this morning, looks of surprise written plainly on their faces as the princess greeted them. When they reached the royal dining hall, King Soltran stood up from the table as they entered, and his face lit when he saw his daughter, unveiled for the first time in months.
"Shasta. I'm glad to see you looking so… well."
"Thank you, Father." Shasta sat as Talon held her chair for her, and grinned across the table at Aleria and Brie, who were both staring with expressions of startled awe.
"Your highness, you look beautiful!" Brie exclaimed, taking in the princess' gleaming hair and the rich colors of her gown. Aleria nodded in agreement, and Shasta's smile widened.
"Thank you, Lady Brie, Lady Aleria."
The serving girls brought in their food and began to serve the family. King Soltran cleared his throat. "Princess Shasta, you remember Chancellor Kumire, the viceroy from Mondera province." He indicated the tall young man at the opposite end of the table. "I have invited him to breakfast with us this morning."
"Of course, chancellor," Shasta replied politely, inclining her head. "You are most welcome."
The chancellor bowed, and waited until the king was seated before taking to his own chair. "Your highness." He was a young man, only about eighteen winters and scarcely old enough to serve as viceroy, but Shasta recalled that Chancellor Kumire was an only son, and his father, the governor of Mondera province, was quite old. It made sense that he would try to give his son as much leadership experience as possible before he passed away, and the governorship fell on Kumire's shoulders entirely. Shasta had seen the chancellor around the palace with increasing frequency of late. She did not much care for him; there was a self-importance and haughtiness to his manner that irritated her, and after greeting him with what she hoped would be considered a sufficient display of respect, Shasta decided to ignore him entirely.
"Father, I have a request I would like to make."
Soltran looked up from his breakfast. "What is it, my child?"
"I want to join Talon's fencing lesson with Captain Vaughn."
The king nearly choked on a mouthful of eggs, and shook his head, reaching for his goblet.
"I know we've argued about this before, Father, and you've always said no. But things are different now." Unconsciously she reached up to touch the feather at her throat. "If I am to inherit the throne of Lysteria one day, I should know how to defend it. At the very least, I should know how to defend myself. I want to learn the sword."
King Soltran regarded her gravely for a moment. "I suppose now is as good a time as any… I brought the chancellor here this morning hoping to speak with you. The chancellor and I have had several discussions in regards to, well…" he took a deep breath. "With Daric gone, all of our plans for the future must be reconsidered. The chancellor has suggested, and I agree, that perhaps we should look at the possibility of your betrothal."
Shasta stared at him. "My betrothal? To whom, may I ask?"
"To the chancellor, of course."
The princess gave a short laugh. "That's ridiculous. Father, I'm far too young to thinking of marriage. And when I do marry, I want to be able to choose my own husband." She nodded at the man at the foot of the table. "No offense intended, Chancellor Kumire."
"None taken, highness."
"Shasta, I don't think you understand. You are the only remaining heir to the Lysterian throne. And with your fragile constitution, I worry that you will not be able to withstand the stress of ruling a country. You have no idea what a burden it is. If you were to marry the chancellor--"
"He would rule after your death and I wouldn't need to worry about anything but being a pretty arm decoration. I understand perfectly." The princess' eyes sparked angrily. "Daric loved Lysteria, and as his sister and the last remaining Lysterian heir I refuse to sit back playing with my hair and jewels while someone else rules his kingdom… our kingdom… for me. I am not going to be betrothed to the chancellor or anyone else just so I can hide from my birthright."
"No!" The princess leapt to her feet, so quickly that Talon had to take a step back to avoid being hit with her chair as it skidded backwards. "I will admit, up to this point I haven't taken as close an interest as I should have in the politics and troubles facing our country. I guess I always figured Daric would handle it… that was irresponsible of me. But not anymore. This isn't the chancellor's responsibility, Father, it's mine. And fragile constitution be damned, I'm not going to walk away from it."
"Father, you can't--"
"Sit down!" Soltran's face was deadly serious, and the tone of his voice clearly indicated that he was not making a suggestion.
Shasta sat, defiance written all over her face, and Soltran sighed. "I did not mean to imply that you had no choice in the matter, Shasta. Of course I will not force you to marry against your will. It was merely a recommendation. You are right, you are far too young now to be thinking seriously of marriage. Which is why I am going to propose a compromise. I will agree to allow you to study fencing under Captain Vaughn, but you will also study economics and politics under the chancellor's tutelage. In doing so you will learn many of the things you will need should you decide to take the throne yourself; and perhaps it will afford you the chance to get better acquainted with the chancellor. You might find that you enjoy his company."
Shasta rolled her eyes slightly, but at her father's frown she sighed. "Very well." She rose from the table. "But I'm not making any promises." She turned and swept from the room, and those remaining in the room exchanged surprised glances.
Soltran rubbed his beard and chuckled remorsefully. "And she's back." He eyed Talon, who was still blinking in surprise at the entire exchange. "Well, go on after her, boy. Who knows what trouble she's going to stir up between the dining hall and her own chambers."
Talon bowed quickly and followed Shasta from the room.
"You don't think he's handsome?" Brie goaded with a giggle, poking the princess with the tip of her fan.
Shasta shook her head. "Goddess, no. He's got a pointy nose. And a weak chin. I've seen horses more handsome than Chancellor Kumire."
Brie fluttered her lashes. "Well, I think you do him a disservice, Princess. I find him to be absolutely lovely."
"He's coming back," Aleria warned with an amused tone in her voice as their young teacher approached the table to check their work.
"Well, ladies, I think that's enough for today. Tomorrow we'll go over the various currencies of Lysteria and its neighboring kingdoms, and the effect the exchange rate has on our economy." The chancellor smiled down at all of them, and Shasta thought to herself that he looked rather like a grasshopper, with his large forehead and narrow face.
"Thank you, Chancellor," Brie replied sweetly.
Shasta rolled her eyes at her friend and stood up, closing the book on the table and rolling up her parchment. "Yes, well, if that's all…" She marched to the other end of the hall, where Talon was bent over a map with Captain Vaughn. Her guardian was tracing a line on the map with his finger, engrossed in conversation with the captain. Shasta cleared her throat and they both looked up at her.
"My lessons are done for the day. I want to go riding."
The captain sighed. "Your highness, Talon still needs several hours of exercise and sword practice this afternoon."
Shasta waved a hand. "I give you my word, he will receive all the exercise and practice he needs. Tomorrow." She turned and began to walk away, knowing Talon had no choice but to accompany her.
Talon met his instructor's eyes and shrugged, then stood and followed the princess. Aleria and Brie came running up to them. "May we ride with you, Princess?" Brie wanted to know.
Shasta paused. "Oh… well… I thought you wanted to practice your dancing this afternoon… the harvest ball is only a week away."
Aleria curtsied. "Of course, your highness," she replied, and gave Brie a warning glare as her sister began to protest. "Enjoy your ride. We will see you this evening." She took Brie's arm and led her away before the younger girl could say anything else.
"They know you're up to something," Talon commented dryly, his dark eyes suspicious. "Why don't you want them coming along?"
Shasta grinned at him. "You'll see. Come on, there's something I want to show you."
She led her guardian across the palace gardens and out into the castle grounds, across the hard-packed earth trampled smooth by horse's hooves and the boots of countless soldiers, servants, and nobles. The servants' stables were on the far south end of the castle grounds, near the south gate. It had been months since her last visit, and she found both excitement and trepidation growing with every step. This had been their special place, a secret between twins, and she was about to share it with someone else. Part of her couldn't wait to take up the sword again, to feel the freedom of a pair of breeches and the rush of adrenaline in her veins; she'd missed it terribly. But there was another part of her that felt guilty. Was it a betrayal of Daric's memory, of their time together, to bring someone else into their secret? Shasta suddenly stopped walking.
She looked up into the face of her guardian, realizing again just how tall he was. He could easily rest his chin on her head from that height, and probably have to duck a little to do it. She blinked at him, suddenly uncertain. "I…" She took a deep breath and looked down, scuffing her foot in the dirt beneath her wide skirts. "Daric and I, we were really close. We spent a lot of time together." She looked up again. Talon was watching her with those fathomless dark eyes, waiting for her to go on. "If I show you something, will you promise me not to…" She paused, struggling for the right words. It wasn't that she was worried that Talon might tell someone else. She could order his silence easily, and she knew he would obey; it was his duty to her. What she wanted was to ensure, somehow, that the special tradition she'd shared with her brother would remain special.
Talon seemed to understand the frustration on her face. "You want to make sure he is not forgotten." The gentle rumble of his voice was oddly comforting.
Shasta nodded. "I just… I need someone else, for this, and Daric's gone. It was our secret, together. I don't want to give it up forever, but I don't want to lose his part of it either."
"Perhaps you are not ready to share it yet. You don't have to, you know."
She blinked up at him. "I know. But Daric… he wouldn't want me to give it up." She realized, as she said the words, that they were true, and a slow smile spread across her face. "Come on."
He followed her to the servants' stables, and after checking to be sure no one was looking, Shasta yanked on the heavy door and opened it just enough to allow her to slip inside. She beckoned to her guardian to follow.
Inside the stables, she stood still for a moment to allow her eyes to become adjusted to the cool darkness. These stables housed the horses used by the palace farmers and messengers; since the only servants who frequented the place worked in the fields from dawn till dark, the stables were virtually abandoned during daylight hours. Only Kallin, the aged stable hand who tended to the servants' horses, ever came by in the afternoons, and he had kept the twins' secret faithfully for years.
When her vision had cleared and she was no longer seeing spots, Shasta moved over to the haystack at the far corner and began digging through the base until she found what she was looking for. "They're still here," she said triumphantly, pulling out the two silver fencing foils and grinning. She dropped one and flicked the other through the air a few times. "Wow, that feels good." Putting that one down beside its mate, she continued rummaging in the straw and pulled out a pair of rolled-up breeches. "Okay, turn around," she ordered her guardian.
"Well, I can't put these on with you standing there looking at me," she said impatiently. "Turn around."
"Oh." Obediently Talon turned his back.
"Daric and I used to come out here almost every day," Shasta explained as she kicked off her dainty slippers and wiggled out of the long pantaloons beneath her voluminous skirts. "When we were kids, Daric started taking fencing lessons. I begged Father to let me join in, but he wouldn't. So Daric brought me out here one day and started teaching me himself. Every time he had a lesson, he'd teach me what he'd learned and then we'd practice together." She grunted as her fingers struggled to fasten the buttons of the breeches around her waist. "Now that Father's finally agreed to let me study fencing for myself, I need someone to practice with. Especially since it will be a while before I can really show Captain Vaughn what I can do with a sword. If Father ever found out that I'd been secretly practicing since I was six, he'd probably take the lessons away out of spite." She pulled her bulky skirts over her head, and wrestled with the knots of the hoopskirts at her waist. Finally free of the heavy steel, she stepped out of the pile of fabric on the ground and smoothed the front of the breeches. "Oh, that's SO much better. You can turn around now."
Talon turned around and surveyed her new attire with amusement on his face. He shook his head.
Shasta crossed her arms defensively. "What?"
"It's just that…" He chuckled and shook his head again. "I remember the first time I saw you, at your celebration banquet. You looked so little and fragile. Yet to hear Nurse talk, a person would think you were made of fire and thunderbolts. I always thought she had to be making it up."
The princess snickered. "I may be little, but I'm not as fragile as you'd think."
"Here." She tossed him one of the fencing foils. "I've had to let you trounce me in all our lessons with the captain so far, but out here…" her eyes twinkled at him, "there's nothing to stop me from kicking your butt."
He gave a startled snort of amusement. "Why do I have the feeling," he asked as he stepped into an opening lunge, "that you are just full of surprises, Princess?"
She matched his stance with a wicked grin. "You have no idea."
In Shasta's chambers later that evening, the princess sat at her window as usual, reading from a thick leather-bound book as she waited for her chambermaids to finish filling her bathing tub. Periodically she would look up at Talon, who was sitting in a chair across the room, sharpening his sword with long, methodical strokes. When their eyes met they would exchange grins, and Shasta would return to her reading. But it was difficult to concentrate on the pages. She was experiencing an irrational excitement, something she hadn't felt in months.
Talon had turned out to be quite a good fencing partner. His movements weren't as polished and elegant as Daric's had been, but he seemed to share her affinity for creatively bending the rules, and his acrobatic background made him quite an interesting opponent. It had been a while since Shasta had felt the breathless, contented exhaustion of real physical exercise. And it was fun, having a secret again. It almost felt like it had when Daric was alive, and for that she was immensely happy.
Nurse came bustling into the room then, and eyed the princess and her guardian suspiciously. "Just what are the two of you grinning about, then?" she demanded.
"Nothing, Nurse," Shasta replied sweetly, and Talon gave an innocent shrug.
The old woman's eyes narrowed as she looked from one to the other. "Well, your highness, your bath is prepared."
"Thank you, Nurse."
Talon stood and went to the privy chamber, stepping inside and looking around to be sure it was empty, then returned and nodded at the princess. She smiled and closed her book, but as she walked past Talon to enter the chamber, her nose twitched and she turned and gave him an odd look. "Talon, when's the last time you had a bath?"
He blinked. "I'm not sure, highness. It couldn't be more than a week or two ago."
She wrinkled her nose at him. "Ugh! How can you stand it?"
A look of consternation crossed his face, and he opened and closed his mouth as if trying to find the right words to reply. She waved her hand. "Never mind, I don't want to know. It's got to be hard to find the time, anyway, since you have to follow me around every minute of the day." He nodded, seeming relieved, and she arched a brow at him. "When I'm done bathing it will be your turn. From now on you will use the privy chamber bath at least twice a week." Her nose twitched again. "And… any other time you've been sweating." She paused. "Or near horses." She eyed him up and down. "Or doing anything… involving dirt."
"Your highness, the boy's duty is to watch over you at all times," Nurse interrupted with a clucking of her tongue. "He can hardly watch over you and bathe at the same time."
"I don't want him anywhere near me smelling like that," Shasta replied indignantly. "I'll be just fine for the few minutes it will take him to de-putrefy himself." She snickered as a funny look crossed Talon's face; he looked as though he were trying to decide whether he was offended or amused.
"Your highness, the king gave strict orders--"
"Well, what my father doesn't know won't hurt him," Shasta retorted, cutting Nurse off sternly.
Nurse sighed as she, too, eyed Talon critically. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt," she admitted after a moment. "Very well. But if the king ever gets wind of it I will deny knowing anything about it." She bustled from the room.
"Of course you will," Shasta muttered under her breath, rolling her eyes and turning to wink at her guardian. He shook his head and grinned back.
"I'll be out in a bit," the princess told him, entering the privy chamber and closing the door.
Talon stood outside the door for a moment, and breathed a sigh of relief. The truth was, she had a very difficult time trying to arrange for a bath; usually Captain Vaughn would find a way for her to use the soldier's bathing rooms, but he had to stand guard outside to ensure that no one interrupted and discovered her secret by accident, and in the meanwhile he had to find a way to keep the princess in sight and occupied at the same time. This would be much easier, and it allowed her to stay closer to Shasta in case she was needed.
A slow grin crossed her face at the thought of the princess, and she ran a hand through her short black hair as she went to retrieve her sword and sharpening stone from the chair where she'd left them. Shasta had certainly turned out to be nothing like what she'd expected, and it was a pleasant surprise. Talon actually found herself having fun as Shasta's guardian. Shasta treated her more like a friend or brother than a servant.
That thought gave the dark girl pause. What if the princess was transferring her affections for her deceased brother to her guardian? It would make sense, as Shasta obviously missed Daric terribly. From what Talon had been able to gather, the royal twins had been inseparable since birth. Shasta was accustomed to having a troublemaker to stir up mischief with, and Talon wondered if she had become Daric's replacement in that respect.
The thought both charmed and troubled her; she had always thrived on being needed, and other than Aleria and Brie, no one else had really had a need for her until now. But at the same time, she reminded herself, she had to be careful not to allow herself to get too comfortable. No matter how friendly the princess was with her, she was still the crown princess of Lysteria, and Talon… well, up until a few months ago, Talon had been nothing more than a slave. And even now, she wasn't really free. She had promised the king that she would serve as Shasta's protector in exchange for her sisters' education and comforts. It hadn't been much of a choice; it was either accept his offer or be put to death as a criminal. And as pleasant as life in the castle was, she told herself, she could not let herself forget that she was a servant here.
And there was also the matter of her revenge. Talon couldn't allow herself to get distracted. She had sworn as a child to repay those who had murdered her family, and sold her and her sisters into a life of brutality and terror. She could still hear the screaming of the villagers, and see the panic on her mother's face. She could still smell the stench of the raiders as they burst into her home, hear their guttural language and their cruel laughter as they raped her mother over and over again…
"Talon. Talon! Are you all right?" A small hand on her shoulder caused her to jump, and she turned to see the princess, wrapped in her dressing robe, staring at her worriedly. Shasta took a step back at the sight of Talon's expression, and her golden brown eyes shone with sudden fear. "You're… you're bleeding." Her voice was timid.
Talon looked down and realized that she'd been gripping the blade of her sword, cutting right into the palm of her hand. She pulled her hand away and gazed at the scarlet line that had formed, dripping thickly down her wrist. The sharp stinging brought her back to her senses and she looked up at the princess, trying to think of how she was going to explain herself. Shasta was still regarding her with bewildered eyes, and Talon cursed inwardly. It was obvious that she'd frightened the smaller girl, and she hadn't meant to. "I'm sorry, I didn't…" she looked back at her hand.
Shasta backed away, sitting down on Talon's cot and staring at her in disbelief. Talon rose to her feet. "I didn't mean to scare you, Princess," she offered quietly. When Shasta did not reply, she sighed. "I'll go clean up." With a slight bow she stepped into the privy chamber and closed the door.
Going to the washstand, Talon winced as she ran cool water over her hand, staining the water in the bowl a brilliant red color. She looked up and met her own eyes in the looking glass. What a strange person stared back at her, she thought, this androgynous dark face with its delicate elfin features, high cheekbones, lips too full for a boy but not quite dainty enough to be feminine, thick black eyebrows jutting out over eyes the color of coal. She'd been living as a boy for so long, at times it was a shock to remember that she wasn't. In truth she was just a worthless outlander girl from a vanished tribe of savages, a slave girl pretending to be a soldier boy. Everything in her life was one big pretense.
With a heavy sigh, Talon took one of the small towels from the stand and wrapped it firmly around her injured hand, and sat down to remove her boots. She shrugged out of her vest and unbuttoned the front of her white linen shirt, making a face as she caught a whiff of the fabric. No wonder the princess had complained. She made a mental note to ask Erinda to add her clothes to the laundry the next morning, and dropped the shirt in a pile on the stone floor next to her boots. Then she began the painful process of removing the wrappings that held down her chest, carefully rolling the strips of fabric as she went. She didn't have much in the way of a womanly figure, for which she was extremely grateful, but in the months since she'd given up acrobatics, her body had apparently decided to make up for lost time; she now had breasts noticeable enough that they required strapping down in order to be indistinguishable beneath her shirts. She gave an involuntary gasp as the last piece came free, suddenly releasing her chest so that she could breathe fully, and for a moment she sat doubled over, inhaling and exhaling a few times to try and accustom her brain to the sudden rush of oxygen. It was a strange feeling, not being wrapped tightly in layers of fabric, and Talon suddenly felt oddly self-conscious.
Quickly she stood and unbuckled her belt, removing her trousers and undergarments, and stepped into the tub of fragrant water. It was still very warm, and Talon mused absentmindedly that the princess must really like her bathwater near-scalding. She sank down in the tub so that the soap suds came up and covered her shoulders, careful to leave her injured hand out where it would stay dry. Closing her eyes, she inhaled deeply, enjoying both the feel of the warm water enveloping her body and the scent of lemongrass and chamomile. A wry smile touched her lips. She was sure to receive plenty of teasing tomorrow from the captain about her sweet-smelling skin and hair. At the moment, however, she didn't really care. This was the most luxurious bath she'd ever had.
Remembering that she really shouldn't be leaving the princess alone in the other room, Talon ducked her head beneath the water to wet her hair, and with her one good hand awkwardly managed to rub some of the soap from one of the delicate crystal bottles on the edge of the tub into her scalp, then ducked beneath the water again to rinse out the lather. After making sure she'd thoroughly "de-putrefied" every other important area of her anatomy, she reluctantly stood and left the warm water of tub, shivering a little in the cool air. Grabbing a towel, she dried herself briskly, scrubbing her hair and then slicking it back out of her eyes with her fingers.
With expert movements she re-wrapped herself, pulling the strips of fabric tight until she'd achieved a neat, flat chest with no sign of curves. Satisfied, she finished dressing, but decided against the belt and boots as she was only going to bed in the next few minutes anyway.
When Talon opened the privy chamber door, Shasta was still sitting on her guardian's cot. The necklace that Talon had fashioned for her was in her hands, and she was stroking the blue feather with an anxious expression. As Talon stepped into the room, the princess looked up apprehensively. The taller girl winced a bit at the fear still lingering on her young charge's face. She went over to the wooden chest by the window and carefully put her belt and boots away. After hesitating a moment, she withdrew a clean shirt. She didn't want to sleep in the one she was currently wearing.
She stood and withdrew into the privy chamber for a moment to change her shirt. When she returned to the room, the princess had climbed into her own bed and was lying very still. The lamp by her bed had been blown out; the only remaining light was the one on the table by Talon's small chest of belongings. Talon sighed and blew it out, feeling her way through the dark to the edge of her cot. She lay down, pulling the blankets up to her chest. For several moments she lay staring up at the ceiling, the princess' soft breathing the only sound in the room.
Finally she couldn't take it anymore. "Princess." She propped herself up on one elbow, looking over at Shasta's still form under the covers. Shasta didn't move. "Princess, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you." She made her voice as gentle as she could. "You have to know I would never hurt you."
Shasta rolled over then, her face pale in the moonlight, and strands of her long hair falling over her eyes. "Is that what you think? That I'm afraid of you?" She shook her head. "I'm not afraid of you, Talon. If you laid a hand on me my father would skin you alive."
Even in the darkness Talon could see her eyes twinkling slightly. "Then why…?"
"I just wish I knew why you're so angry." She tilted her head to one side. "What were you thinking about, when I interrupted you?"
Talon shook her head. "I… I don't remember."
"That's a lie." She didn't sound upset, just matter-of-fact. "You were bleeding all over yourself and you didn't even notice. Someone's obviously hurt you, Talon, and I'm afraid for you. The way you looked, when you looked at me… like you were ready to kill someone… I've seen that look before. On criminals and murderers that my father has sentenced to death." Shasta's voice trembled for a moment. "I know you haven't been here long, but I like you. You're the only person around here who…" she paused, and suddenly Talon saw the shimmer of a tear as it dropped from her eyelashes. "I know it sounds silly, but with you around I don't miss Daric quite so much. And I'm afraid for you. I want to help but I don't know how, and I'm afraid if you do something stupid you'll be taken away."
Talon looked down at her blankets, picking imaginary specks of lint from the heavy wool. "I'm just a servant, Princess. Your bodyguard. Nothing more."
"You're my friend." Shasta's tone was firm, though she might have been blushing a little; it was hard to tell in the dim light. "I like Aleria and Brie, of course, but I grew up with a brother, not sisters. I'm just used to having a boy around, and…" she lowered her head, "honestly, I don't know how I would have made it through these last few months without you around."
Talon stared at her in disbelief. "You barely spoke to me."
"And you still treated me like a person, not a princess. I could tell when you were frustrated with me, when I'd annoyed you. No one else in the palace ever gets abrupt or cold with me, no matter how much of a brat I am." She gave him a rueful smile. "You treated me just like you'd treat Aleria or Brie-- like I was your sister." Her voice caught a little. "I miss being a sister. No one can ever replace Daric, but at least with you I don't feel so lonely and lost."
Talon was silent for a moment, touched in a way she wasn't sure she could describe. Finally she reached up and brushed the tear from the smaller girl's face. "Princess, I promise you, I won't do anything stupid that would get me taken away. I have…" she took a deep breath. "I have some of my own demons to deal with, but I promise, I won't let them interfere with looking out for you. You come first." Talon was surprised to find that she meant it.
Shasta reached up and caught Talon's hand, still wrapped in the thin towel. She inspected it in the faint moonlight. "Tomorrow morning I'm taking you to the infirmary. I bet this is going to hurt like crazy until it heals. You know Captain Vaughn won't take it easy on you just because you made a dumb mistake."
"Well, it will give you the excuse to… how did you so carefully put it… kick my butt in public as well as in secret, now won't it?" Talon waggled her eyebrows at the princess, making her laugh. "Now go to sleep, Highness."
"Good night, Talon." Shasta snuggled down into her pillows, closing her eyes.
"Good night, Princess."
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