"Stop fidgeting." Aleria pinched Talon sharply on the arm.
Her older sister gave her a mock glare. "I can't help it, the collar itches," Talon complained, sliding a finger between her neck and the offending fabric to scratch.
"You'd better get used to it, my boy, because after tonight you'll be expected to appear in uniform every day," Captain Vaughn commented gruffly, but there was amusement in his eyes. "An officer in his Majesty's royal guard has a certain appearance to uphold."
Talon made a face at her instructor, and eyed herself again in the long looking glass, tugging at the bottom of her jacket. It was the more formal version of a royal guard's uniform, a crisp blood-red jacket with a high collar and gold braid across the chest, and white trousers with red trim running down the outer leg seams. Gold fringed epaulettes topped both shoulders, and a white sash banded in gold ran from one shoulder down to the opposite hip. There was also a hat, a ridiculously tall black thing with red and white ostrich plumes blossoming from a gold decorative facet above the forehead. Nurse had secretly altered the jacket for her the night before, adding padding to the shoulders to give the illusion of a more masculine frame. Talon had broad shoulders anyway, but she had to admit that the extra bulk was more convincing.
"You look very handsome," Princess Shasta assured her, coming up from behind to peek into the mirror. "Here, turn around."
Talon obeyed, and the princess carefully pinned a small red rosebud to her guardian's sash. "There. Now you will wear your princess' favor when you accept your commission." She smoothed the sash with her hands and shook her head. "I can't believe it's been an entire year."
"Earning an officer's commission in the guard in a single year is quite an accomplishment," Captain Vaughn stated affirmatively. "You've worked hard, Talon, and you deserve this."
"Thank you, sir."
"Before I forget-" the captain reached into his bag on the table, and pulled out a small pouch. "I have spoken with King Soltran, and he agrees that your work here this past year has been exemplary. Your duties are intensive. Even the lowest-ranking servants in the palace have a day off for their own rest, yet your position does not allow you so much as an hour to yourself. So this evening, I will assume personal responsibility for the princess at the celebration. You, my boy, have the evening off." He handed the pouch, which was stuffed with coins, to Talon. "And this is for you, to enjoy yourself with on your first free night in a year."
Talon took the pouch; it was quite heavy, and she blinked. "Captain, I'm most grateful, but I couldn't. It's the princess' birthday celebration tonight, and the anniversary-" she swallowed as she looked over at Shasta, "of the assassin's first attempt on her life. It's too dangerous. I should be by her side tonight of all nights."
To her surprise, the princess waved a hand. "Don't be silly, Talon," she said lightly. "The captain's right, you haven't had so much as a moment to yourself all year. I'll be standing by Father all evening, and Captain Vaughn will be watching over me. I'll be perfectly safe. You should go, have a good time at the celebration."
"Are you implying that you don't think I can protect the Princess as well as you?" Captain Vaughn inquired sternly, and Talon shook her head.
"Of course not, Captain, but…" she held the pouch out to return it to him. "Honestly, I wouldn't know what to do with myself, on my own. And I want to be there. Just in case."
Vaughn shook his head with a small chuckle. "Admit it, Talon, you're a workaholic." But he grinned and gently pushed the pouch of coins back into her hand. "Take the money, my boy, it's yours. And my offer stands if you change your mind."
Talon accepted the coins and gave her mentor a small smile. "I'll think about it."
The great hall of the palace was lined on every wall by members of the royal guard, in their blazing scarlet coats. The group of musicians by the entrance struck up a fanfare as Talon reached the doors, and she took a deep breath. This was it. She made sure her ridiculous hat was tucked securely under her arm; at least she wouldn't have to wear it for this event, as it was being held indoors.
Shoulders back and head held high, Talon marched through the doors and approached the thrones at the head of the room; she dropped to one knee and bowed deeply before the king, refusing to meet the princess' eyes. She knew Shasta was likely to make a silly face at her, or do something else to try and break her composure, so deliberately she avoided looking at the younger girl and instead kept her eyes on the floor.
Soltran rose to his feet and held up his hands for silence. The musicians stopped playing, and he addressed the room full of soldiers.
"You have gathered here today to bear witness to the commission of Talon, faithful servant to the crown of Lysteria, to the rank of officer among the Lysterian royal guard. Rise, Talon, and swear an oath of fealty to your king and country."
Talon stood, making a fist with her free hand and holding it over her heart. Captain Vaughn stepped forward from the king's side, and mirrored the salute with his own. "Repeat after me. I, Talon, having been commissioned to serve the Lysterian royal guard by his Majesty, the king of Lysteria..."
"I, Talon, having been commissioned to serve the Lysterian royal guard by his Majesty, the king of Lysteria…"
"Do hereby swear my allegiance to the crown of Lysteria, to protect and uphold my sovereign in all things…"
Talon repeated the words. She'd heard the oath many times before, having been present for the commissioning of countless other guard officers. A commission was a near-daily occurrence, in fact, though it usually took several years of training to achieve. This was the first time that Talon had not experienced the ceremony from behind the princess' small throne. Though she had the oath memorized, the true meaning of the words struck her deeply as she repeated them. "To defend, with my life and honor, the authority and security of the royal family; I enter into this pledge of my own volition, under no averse influence and without personal reservation, to serve my king and country with all my strength and with all my heart from this day forward. May the Goddess guide and protect my lord, and those who serve his will."
When she had finished the oath, the king stepped forward again, and took a sword from Captain Vaughn's hands as Talon knelt again. "I, Soltran Novaris of the royal house of Lysteria, as King Regent of the twelve Lysterian provinces and chief commander of her military, do hereby confer upon Talon the rank and title of corporal in his Majesty's royal guard." The king tapped her lightly on each shoulder with the flat edge of the sword. "Rise, Corporal, and serve me well."
Talon stood, meeting the king's eyes and offering a firm salute. Soltran saluted back, as did the captain and all other members of the guard present.
"Will this officer's sisters please come forward, and pin his new rank."
Aleria and Brie both stepped up, Brie beaming proudly as Aleria reached up and carefully pinned a single gold bar to the collar of Talon's uniform.
"Congratulations, Corporal," Soltran declared, which was cue for the entire audience to begin clapping and whooping.
Talon bowed to the king once more, and then turned and bowed to the princess, a gesture which was not required but did not go unnoticed by the crowd, who increased the volume of their applause and cheers; she spun neatly on one heel and marched down into the assembly of soldiers who began clapping her on the back with raucous approval. She turned back to face King Soltran as he gestured for silence once more.
"As you all know, today marks our celebration of the Princess Shasta's fourteenth winter. You are all invited to attend the banquet this evening, and we will hold a reception in the palace gardens afterwards." More cheers went up, and the king waved his arms. "Now all of you get out of here so the servants can do their work." There was laughter as the soldiers began to disperse. Several of them tried to encourage Talon to join them, as they were going out for drinks before the festivities began, but she casually refused, insisting she had duties to attend to.
Talon turned to find her young charge standing at her elbow. "You could go, you know," Shasta prodded gently.
"Trying to get rid of me, Princess?" Talon teased with an uplifted eyebrow. "Planning some sort of trouble for our poor, unsuspecting captain, the minute I turn my back?"
"Maybe," she teased back, poking her guardian in the arm. But she quickly became serious again. "I mean it, you really don't have to stay with me. It's your one chance all year to do something for yourself for a change."
Talon shrugged. "I'd rather stay near you. I don't have much use for drinking. The other fellows mean well enough, but they get loud and obnoxious when they have a few drinks in them." She winked down at the smaller girl. "Besides, I have to protect Captain Vaughn from whatever it is you've got up your sleeve."
Shasta made a mock face of disappointment. "Damn you, messing up my evil scheme."
"Language, Highness," her guardian chuckled. "You are a lady of breeding, after all."
She stuck her tongue out at him.
Soltran observed the exchange between his daughter and her bodyguard, and was inwardly pleased at how fondly Talon gazed down at the princess. As if she were the boy's own sister, the king thought, then mentally corrected himself. It was difficult to remember at times that Talon was not a boy at all. A year ago, had someone suggested that he would one day commission a former slave girl to serve in the royal guard, Soltran would have laughed aloud. But Talon had worked just as hard, or harder, than the young men who were hoping for that same honor. She asked for no special allowances, demanded more from herself, competed with the men on their own terms and still came out above them most of the time.
But this friendship that he had witnessed developing between Talon and his daughter was more than he had dared to hope for. When he first took the ragged slave girls in, Soltran had believed that only a threat to something Talon truly loved would be powerful enough to gain the girl's full cooperation. But as the months went by, it became clear that Talon was no longer thinking of only her sisters, or herself, as she tended the princess each day. She actually seemed to enjoy Shasta's company. And no amount of threatening on the king's part could ever have achieved such genuine devotion. Soltran was certain that putting his daughter in Talon's care was the wisest decision he'd ever made, and he smiled to himself as he watched Shasta lead her two companions and her dark guardian out of the hall to prepare for the night's banquet.
Talon shifted uncomfortably in her chair, and for the hundredth time craned her neck to peer around the princess. Shasta noticed and gave her guardian a light smack on the shoulder.
"Stop that. No one's going to sneak up on me, you worrywart, so just sit still and have fun."
Talon sighed and nodded, but didn't feel reassured. This was entirely new for her, sitting beside Shasta at a table rather than standing behind her chair. It was true that the back of the princess' chair was high, and the princess herself so short that it came up several inches above her head; that was at least a small comfort, as the wood was thick and unlikely to be easily penetrated by a weapon. Talon found herself scanning the tables along the sides of the hall with an anxiety that almost amounted to paranoia, searching for any sign of the black-cloaked assassin she remembered from the previous year. Shasta observed the tension on her guardian's face and sighed.
"Relax, Talon. Have some wine and stop looking like you're going to pop a vein or something." Shasta slid Talon's goblet a few inches towards her, but Talon shook her head. If something did happen, she wanted to be able to think clearly. Shasta sighed again. "You're going to drink this, right now," she insisted imperiously. "That's an order."
Talon snickered, but one glance at the princess' face told her that her young charge was not teasing. The smile left her lips and her eyes widened. "Your highness, I really don't-"
"Your first few hours as a corporal and you're already refusing an order from your princess?"
Talon opened and closed her mouth several times but could not think of an appropriate reply, and Shasta took the opportunity to put the goblet in her hand. "Drink."
Captain Vaughn, who was sitting at Talon's other elbow, leaned over with a wicked grin. "You'd better do it, boy. I think she's serious."
Talon shot him a glare, but obediently took a sip, albeit a tiny one.
"Good. Now keep drinking. I want that glass empty before the musicians finish playing this song." The princess' warm amber eyes snapped determinedly, and Talon reluctantly surrendered, knowing she wasn't going to win this battle. Shasta watched her guardian take a long draught from the cup, and gave a satisfied smile. "Much better. Look, they're about to start."
Talon looked in the direction the princess had indicated, and felt an odd twinge as she saw a group of brightly-clad, lanky performers enter the far end of the hall and take up positions against the wall. She didn't recognize any of the individuals, nor did she recognize the burly, well-dressed man who followed them and stood near the door, but she knew enough to know that this was a slave troupe not much different than her own, and that the man in the expensive clothes who watched them all with eyes like a hawk's, predatory and cruel, was their master. At the end of the table she heard a small gasp and knew that her sisters had also noticed the performers.
The musicians suddenly changed the tune and tempo of the music, and several of the dancers twirled out into the center of the hall, waving long ribbons and expertly weaving their bodies in and out between one another. This was a routine that Talon knew well; first a few brightly dressed dancers would warm up the crowds, and they would be followed by an acrobat or jester. Then would come some sort of sultry, seductive dance routine involving a lot of hip and shoulder jiggling, more acrobatics, a singer or bard to steer the audience back into a more somber mood (and perhaps even bring them to tears) and then a flashy finale combining acrobatics, music and dance to leave everyone in a festive mood. Being a part of the audience rather than the entertainment was a strange feeling.
As Talon had predicted, when the dancers were finished a dwarf-like man wearing a ridiculous multi-pointed hat and enormously oversized slippers waddled out into the center of the room and performed a few simple slight-of-hand magic tricks, then began telling jokes while juggling random food items that he picked up from the serving platters as he worked the room. Talon knew most if not all of the punch lines, but couldn't help laughing anyway as the diminutive man made faces and chattered on in a voice that seemed entirely too big to be coming from such a tiny person. He was talented, she could tell. Probably one of his master's most valued commodities.
Then came the dancing girls, with their silken scarves and bare bellies, jingling bracelets and chains of coins at their hips as they moved. There were about six of them, of various sizes and shapes, though all were so thin Talon could see their ribs as they bent and swayed. Apparently their master was not as concerned for their appearance as hers had been. The musicians played an incessant, sensual drum beat and the girls moved their bare feet in time to the rhythm, the sheer fabric of their shirts affording everyone in the room a generous view of their calves and thighs. After swirling through the center of the room, they suddenly scattered, each one going to a different table and choosing a male guest to favor with special attention. One of them, a redhead with hair the color of ripe apples, approached the head table and flicked a scarf seductively at the king. He smiled but lifted a hand, politely rejecting her invitation, and so her eyes scanned the rest of the guests and suddenly locked onto Talon.
Talon's eyes widened as the girl came towards her, sashaying her hips and tilting forward to allow a full view of her ample cleavage, and she swallowed hard, looking first to the princess and then to Captain Vaughn. Neither seemed at all inclined to offer any help out of the situation, instead grinning at her with amusement. The slave girl moved Talon's plate aside and lifted herself onto the table, caressing Talon's cheek with a handful of silk. Talon tried not to let her discomfort show; she knew full well that this girl's next meal would probably depend on her own reaction. If she didn't appear to be satisfied with the girl's performance, she knew the redhead would probably pay for it dearly.
Reluctantly she forced a smile that she hoped would not betray how nervous she was; the slave girl seemed to take that as a sign she was succeeding, and leaned farther forward, over Talon's goblet still half-full with wine. Worried that she might accidentally knock it over, Talon raised a hand to move it, and the girl on the table, thinking Talon was reaching for her, moved her own arm to allow Talon access. In the process, both of them ended up bumping one another's hands awkwardly, and the goblet tipped over, right into Talon's lap. Without thinking Talon jumped to her feet to try and avoid any more of the scarlet liquid from staining the white trousers of her uniform. She met the dancing girl's terrified gaze and suddenly realized that her reaction had caused a disturbance in the performance; everyone was now staring at them and the musicians stopped playing. Talon's heart sank as she realized what she had done, and caught a glimpse of the enraged expression on the showmaster's face. The girl was sure to suffer a terrible punishment for what had been an unfortunate accident. She watched helplessly as the redhead slid off the table, bowing over and over again. Her master snapped his fingers, and quickly the musicians started playing again as a couple of acrobats took to the floor. The slave girl returned to her position by the wall. Her master would not beat her in the middle of a performance, but Talon could guess what sort of pain he would put her through the moment the troupe left the palace.
She looked down at Captain Vaughn, and in a low voice said "Captain, I may have to take you up on your offer after all."
Her mentor nodded in understanding. "Go clean yourself up, kid," he agreed. "I'll keep an eye on things here."
Talon gave a slight bow to the princess, and left the hall to change.
Back in the chambers she shared with Shasta, Talon berated herself as she stripped off the ruined trousers and reached for a clean pair. She shouldn't have jumped away from the table like that. If she'd stayed in her seat, and inconspicuously righted the goblet, it was likely no one would have noticed the accident. As it was, the poor slave girl was probably going to be beaten within an inch of her life, and it was Talon's fault for not thinking. As she re-buckled her sword belt, her eyes fell on the pouch of coins on the table, the one Vaughn had given her before the commission ceremony. And suddenly, Talon was struck with an idea. Before she could change her mind, Talon grabbed the pouch and left the room.
Returning to the great hall, Talon waited outside the double doors for the slave troupe to finish their performance. They were on the finale number, she could tell by the volume and speed of the music, and a few minutes later she heard the hall erupt in applause as the slaves took their last bows and collected the shower of coins that were thrown into the center of the floor. Then the dancers began to file out, probably headed to the gardens to provide additional entertainment for the post-banquet reception. The redheaded dancer passed, her eyes on the floor, and didn't notice Talon standing there. Behind the slaves came their master, his pockets jingling with the evening's profits. Talon put a hand on his shoulder as he passed.
"Excuse me, sir, but I was wondering if I might have a word with you."
The showmaster recognized Talon's face almost immediately, and bowed. "My lord, please accept my deepest apologies for the inexcusable behavior of my stupid slave girl." His voice was irritatingly grating, almost whiny. "I can assure you she will be dealt with."
"Actually, I wanted to find out if your girl was free, this evening." Talon drew her hand from the shadows, allowing him to catch a glimpse of the very full coin pouch. As she expected, his eyes immediately lit greedily, and he licked his lips.
"My lord, if you desire company this evening, perhaps you would allow me to recommend one of the other girls. Several of them are quite… skilled."
Talon's smile widened. "But you see, sir," she said, lowering her voice conspiratorially and leaning towards his ear, "I have a particular fondness for redheads." She shook the bag in her hand for added emphasis, and his eyebrows went up.
"Ah, I understand perfectly, my lord." The showmaster gave a sharp whistle, and beckoned to the flame haired slave girl who, when she recognized Talon at her master's side, immediately looked as though she might be sick with fear. Nonetheless, she approached quickly and fell to her knees, bowing her head to the floor.
"This gentleman requires your company this evening, girl. I expect you to serve him well."
The girl on the floor did not look up, but she nodded. "My lord."
Talon dropped the entire pouch into the man's greedy hands, and his eyes grew big as dinner plates as he felt the weight. "Enjoy your evening, my lord," he simpered with a bow. "You are welcome to keep the girl all night long, if that is your wish."
Talon lifted an eyebrow and nodded, then turned her attention to the girl on the floor. "Come," she ordered, trying to sound as authoritative and calm as possible, as if she did such things all the time. The redhead stood, without meeting her eyes, and followed Talon as she strode down the corridor. The princess' guardian let out a breath of relief as they rounded the corner, out of sight of the showmaster. That hadn't been too difficult. She knew the amount of money she'd given to the burly man would be enough to assuage his anger; the slave would not be beaten. And Talon would see to it that the girl received a solid meal, probably the first she'd had in a long time, if her sunken cheeks and protruding ribs were any indication.
Talon led the way to the princess' chambers, and held the door open for the redhead to enter.
"Make yourself comfortable," she said to the slave girl as she moved to her small chest of belongings beneath the window. "I'll only be a moment." She unbuttoned her uniform jacket, eager to shed the stiff, heavy coat with its itchy collar. "The servants are all attending the celebration, so we will be left to our own devices, I'm afraid," Talon told the girl as she removed the jacket and shook it out to remove any creases. The simple white linen shirt she wore beneath was much more comfortable, and considerably cooler. "But we're lucky-- everyone was so excited about the party tonight that they forgot to clear away this afternoon's luncheon. The princess eats like a bird, so there should be plenty left." She unbuckled her sword belt and propped the weapon up against the wall.
When she turned around she was startled to see the redhead standing less than an hand's-breadth from her, and before she realized what was happening the slave girl was pressed up against her, little fingers working quickly at the buttons of the dark soldier's shirt. She succeeded in unfastening the first three, and pressed her lips to the tanned throat.
Talon's eyes widened and her hands came up, capturing the slave girl's wrists and preventing her from going any farther. She backed away to look into the girl's eyes, gray-blue like the sky during a summer storm. "You don't have to do that," she said quietly. "I didn't bring you here for that."
The slave girl gave a seductive smile. "My lord, you paid a great deal of money for my company this evening," she replied, her voice silky. "I wish you to fully enjoy what you have paid for." She pressed her hips into Talon's, and the taller girl was so startled that she loosened her grip on the redhead's wrists to catch her balance against the wall behind her. The slave girl's hands traveled lightly downward, brushing over the firm muscles of her abdomen. Talon could guess where they were headed next, and with a gasp she slid to the side and out of the slave girl's reach.
"You don't understand," she tried to explain, but the redhead seemed undaunted.
"Perhaps it is you who does not understand," the girl said as she advanced. "You may not realize it, my lord, but my mistake tonight was certain to cost me a terrible beating. Your generous gift to the showmaster has saved me, and for that," she reached up and locked her arms around Talon's neck, "I want to show my gratitude." She rose on tiptoe, pulling Talon's head down to meet her lips in a kiss.
An electric shock went through the tall soldier's body at the soft, sensual contact of the redhead's lips against her own. For a moment she was frozen with a paralyzing combination of surprise, curiosity, and something else… something she'd never felt before, a heat that started low in her abdomen and spread into her arms and thighs, making them feel strangely weak. Her hands came up instinctively to cup the smaller girl's shoulders. Talon had been kissed before, but always by dirty, drunken older men whose advances she was attempting to avoid without seeming openly uncooperative. It had never felt like this, so soft and warm and pliant, and she had never before found herself desiring more, wanting deeper, stronger contact. It wasn't right. Her body shouldn't react this way to the touch of another woman. Should it?
Talon pushed the redhead away and backed up several steps, finding it hard to catch her breath. The slave girl's face immediately contracted with fear, misinterpreting Talon's confusion for anger, and she fell to her knees on the floor. "Forgive me, my lord, if I have displeased you." She sounded close to tears. "I truly only desired to give you pleasure."
Talon realized that regardless of the thousand warring thoughts screaming through her head at the moment, she had a more immediate problem; the girl on the floor was terrified. Pushing all else to the back of her mind, she knelt down beside the redhead and lifted her from the ground. "The only pleasure I desire of you," she said gently, "is the pleasure of your company while we eat. I have no other expectations, I promise." Talon rose to her feet and offered the other girl her hand. "Come. Sit with me."
The redhead looked up with wondering eyes, and took the offered hand, allowing Talon to lead her into the princess' sitting rooms. A low table before the plush upholstered couch was laden with covered dishes, and Talon seated the redhead on the couch before lifting the silver cover of one of the platters to reveal an assortment of sliced cheeses and meats, and a colorful arrangement of several different types of fruit.
"What's your name?" Talon asked, noting how eagerly the girl eyed the food.
"Elsi, my lord," the slave girl replied, her eyes never leaving the platter.
Talon lifted another cover to find several nearly-intact loaves of crusty golden bread, and reached for a bottle of wine, still over half full, resting in a silver tub of melted ice. "Well, Elsi," she said with a grin as she filled a glass with the wine and held it out, "tonight I want you to stuff yourself with all this until you can't hold any more, because anything we don't eat will just get tossed to the dogs when the kitchen staff clears it away."
Elsi accepted the glass with wide eyes, and nodded. "It will be my pleasure, my lord, I can assure you."
Talon grinned and filled a glass for herself, lifting it up so that the lamplight glinted in the red liquid. "To pleasure, then."
Her companion grinned. "To pleasure, indeed." She clinked it with Talon's glass, and brought it to her lips, but before drinking she added quite seriously, "And to the kindest, most honorable man I've met in all my life."
Talon wasn't sure what to say to this, so she merely nodded and took a sip, then broke off a hunk of bread and handed it to Elsi with a flourish. She watched as the smaller girl ate ravenously, remembering with a twinge that she used to know such hunger herself. She had no doubt that the redhead would eat her fill, just as Talon had commanded, and made a mental note to wrap up whatever was left for the girl to take with her. Elsi's last words echoed disturbingly in her mind. Kind she might be, but after that kiss, Talon wasn't sure that she was so honorable; and contrary to popular belief (and evidently her own rebellious body), she was most definitely not a man.
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