Shasta flinched as the governor of Mondera slammed his fist against the table so hard that her teacup rattled.
"This is madness, your Majesty!"
"Lord Fickett, you will control yourself at this table or I will have you removed from it," Soltran replied calmly. He leaned back in his chair and sighed, softening his tone a bit. "I understand your concerns, dear Uncle. I am well aware of how heavily the province of Mondera depends upon slave labor in its coal mines; and also how strongly the rest of Lysteria depends upon Monderan coal."
Shasta eyed Lord Fickett, provincial governor of Mondera, warily. Technically he was her great-uncle, and he was also Chancellor Kumire's father, but try as she might Shasta could find no family resemblance between him and her father. A thin, wizened skeleton of a man, Lord Fickett had cruel, sharp eyes and an even sharper tongue. She could see where Kumire had inherited both his grasshopper-like appearance and his dull self-centeredness. Neither of them could even begin to be compared with Soltran, who was not only handsome and well built, but also had a easy charm and generous nature that made him both a good father and a good king.
She did not say much at these court conferences, unless someone directly asked her a question. Being surrounded by so many powerful men of the government, Shasta found herself a bit overwhelmed. Though her ideas had been the basis for the king's anti-slavery proposals, now the topic of heated debate among the provincial governors, she still felt out of place. Many of the arguments and figures presented by the proposals' opponents were complex. Even when she was fairly certain she understood what they were talking about, she was hesitant to speak out in case she was wrong. But just being present in the room was a learning experience; Shasta's respect for her father had deepened immeasurably over the last few months. Soltran truly had a gift for both keeping the conversation focused and defusing the anger of some of the more quick-tempered governors.
Fickett glared at the king sullenly. "Your Majesty, you cannot expect thousands of people who depend on slaves for their livelihood to be willing to give up their way of life, just because your daughter has a bleeding heart for the few that might be mistreated."
Soltran glared right back, his bushy eyebrows meeting in the center of his face. "Comments such as those, Lord Fickett, will not be tolerated in this discussion. The Princess Shasta's concerns for Lysterian slaves are no greater or less than my own. As I have said before, we are not here to debate whether or not slavery should be outlawed in Lysteria. It should, and it shall be. That is not up for discussion." Lord Fickett's glowering continued. "Be thankful, Uncle, that I am not as impetuous as some who have worn this crown before me. If I desired I could release every slave in Lysteria, this very hour. But I am not so foolish as to believe that would result in anything good for my people. In fact, it would be a disaster. That is why I have brought you all here, to receive counsel as to how slavery may best be eradicated from all of our provinces, gently and wisely."
The king rose and began to walk along the right side of the table, resting his hand on the back of each of the five chairs as he passed. "While I admire the intentions and resolve of the five free provinces," he said, addressing the governors seated on that side of the table, "we all learned the hard way that instantaneous emancipation is far too devastating for our people to endure. Learning from that unfortunate, though well-meaning, mistake, I want the fourteen of us to put our heads together and come up with a better plan."
Shasta felt proud to be included in the king's headcount, and she sat a little straighter in her chair.
"But you know all this already." Soltran crossed to the other side of the table, where the seven other governors were sitting. "You have before you hundreds of sheets of parchment detailing our options, ways we have open to us to tackle this problem. And it is to these pages, my lords, that I wish you to devote your energies. I am asking you to help me make this as easy and painless as possible for you, and for your people."
He reached the head of the table and squeezed Shasta's shoulder gently before returning to his own seat. "So, let's go over this once more, from the beginning, shall we?" He shuffled through the papers in front of him. "According to these numbers, at the wage we are discussing, and with costs of housing and food at cost to the slave owners, it would take approximately fourteen winters for the average, healthy, male slave to save up enough money to purchase a home of average size. That is, assuming that the cost of property does not rise in the meantime, which it almost assuredly will with inflation being what it is."
"Fourteen winters is too long," the governor from Daiban interjected from the right side of the table. His province was one that had emancipated its slaves entirely only a few years ago. "You cannot ask a man to work for poverty wages for fourteen winters before he is granted his freedom."
"It isn't nearly long enough." This came from the Olsta province representative, on the other side of the table. "When I think of how every textile merchant within my borders is going to have to try and prepare his factory for the loss of manpower, and to somehow manage to pay wages from their already meager profits…"
"We will handle these problems separately," Soltran declared, putting up a hand. "First, we decide how best to enable the slaves to free themselves. Then we will talk about minimizing the impact on the slaveholders."
"You can't talk about one without the other," Lord Fickett insisted.
Soltran raised an eyebrow. "Humor me, and try." He noticed something on his daughter's face. "Shasta, did you have something to add?"
"Oh… I…" she looked from one face to another and swallowed hard as every eye in the room suddenly turned to her. "I just…" She met her father's eyes, and he gave a nearly imperceptible nod of encouragement. Taking a deep breath, she said, "Well, about the fourteen winters being too long to work for such low wages… I guess I just think that if you're a slave, you're looking at working your entire life for no wages at all. Fourteen winters, and a wage of any sort… well, to me that seems like a better offer."
The room was silent for a moment, but to her amazement and relief she saw some nodding heads on both sides of the table. The king's lips puckered as though he were trying to hide a smile, and he nodded. "The Princess makes a very good point. As much as I would like to free the slaves sooner," he nodded at the governor of Daiban, "many industries currently relying upon slave labor, particularly the larger ones, need time to make arrangements so that they will be able to survive after the slaves are freed. And the slaves themselves must be able to start out as free men with some property of their own. That takes time for any man to accomplish, slave or not."
More nods, even grudging ones from some of the more vocal opponents of the proposals, followed the king's last statement. Shasta smiled proudly at her father, and he dipped a quill in the inkpot in front of him. "Now, my lords, we only have about another hour left for our discussions today, so let's make it count. Let's revisit the issue brought up last week, in regards to the possibility of government-sponsored land development, providing farmland for purchase from the provincial governments for the freed slaves when they have finished an indenture."
Talon looked up and made a face as Erinda approached. "Do I look like I'm having fun?"
The chambermaid giggled and looked around to be sure no one was watching, then pressed up against Talon and lightly tapped the dark girl's nose with her index finger. "If you'd just agree to come back to my quarters with me, I can promise you'd be having more fun than standing around out here."
"Tempting," Talon replied with a grin, deliberately letting her lips hover scarcely a finger's-breadth from the other girl's for a few seconds before drawing back with a sigh. "But you know I can't."
Erinda pouted. "I don't understand why the king makes you stand out here for hours. Either he should let you in there to watch over the princess, or he should give you the time off."
"Matters of state are confidential. Only the king, the princess, and the provincial governors are allowed into the emancipation talks. No personal servants, no bodyguards. But Princess Shasta's safety is still my greatest duty, so…" The soldier girl shrugged. "I guess he wants me out here to make sure no one gets in there to hurt her. This is the only way in and out, so I stand out here until they're done."
Erinda stuck her tongue out. "Pfft. Aren't you bored?"
"Then I'll keep you company."
Talon's eyes widened. "Erinda, not out here. Someone might…"
The chambermaid smacked the taller girl's arm. "Get your mind out from under my skirts, you pervert. I meant, I'll keep you company. That's all."
"Oh." The dark soldier's cheeks flushed, and Erinda burst out laughing.
"You're so cute when you get embarrassed."
Talon could feel her blush deepening. The chambermaid sat down against the wall, and tugged on Talon's sleeve. She sank down next to Erinda, her long legs nearly spanning the full length of the corridor. Desperately trying to think of something to say to change the subject, she just blurted out the first thing that came to mind. "So who was that girl you kept eyeing this morning?"
Talon lifted one eyebrow. "The Irythrian priestess. During prayers this morning I saw you watching her. You could barely tear your eyes away."
Now it was Erinda's turn to blush. "You heretic, you're supposed to have your eyes shut during prayers."
"So are you." The dark soldier gave her an amused smile, and waited for an answer. Erinda sighed.
"It's a long story."
"I have plenty of time."
The chambermaid gave her a wry grin, and shook her head resignedly. "Very well." She took a deep breath. "Before that priestess took her vows, her name was Lyris."
Talon nodded, familiar with the Irythrian collective ideas. Once a girl promised herself to the Goddess' service, she was believed to give up her individuality. She no longer had her own name, or anything else that might set her apart. All priestesses shaved their heads and wore veils and long white robes, so they looked identical. It was thought that they became extensions of the Goddess herself, and as Irythria's vessels, they were no longer people.
Erinda took a deep breath. "We grew up together, Lyris and I. She was my best friend in the world. When we reached six winters we both started doing light chores as chambermaids. But Lyris was the first-born daughter in her family, so she was being groomed for service in the temple. Lysterian parents, especially those whose families have served in the palace for generations, have a tradition of dedicating their first-born sons to the military, and their first-born daughters to the Goddess."
"So I've heard," the soldier girl replied, and Erinda gave a wistful smile.
"My older sister was born nine winters before me, so she was already a priestess by the time Lyris and I turned seven. There was a time when I remember begging my parents to let me take the vows with my best friend so we wouldn't be separated. But one child is all most families can afford to sacrifice, even to the Goddess." Talon could hear a touch of bitterness in the other girl's voice. "And I think my parents were worried about how attached we were to each other. They kept saying it wasn't natural."
Talon blinked. "Were you…?"
The chambermaid snorted softly. "Lyris was the most beautiful person in the world to me, and the most important. She felt the same about me. But it wasn't until our last month together, the month before her sixteenth birthday when she was to take her vows, that we realized just how powerful our feelings for one another were."
"By then it was too late. Lyris could have refused the vows, I suppose, if she'd really wanted to; Irythria does not force anyone into her service. But Lyris truly loves the Goddess. She believes she was born to be a priestess, and couldn't turn her back on destiny. Not even for me. I wouldn't have wanted her to. If she'd chosen me over her faith, I think she would have been somehow empty the rest of her life, and eventually would have come to resent me for it. That was the last thing I wanted, for either of us." Erinda snickered humorlessly and looked up at Talon. "You know, I don't know why I'm telling you this."
Talon smiled back, genuinely sympathetic. "So I guess it's safe to assume that you and Lyris don't ever…"
Erinda laughed, her eyes widening. "What kind of a girl do you think I am, anyway? She's a priestess now. Untouchable. The Goddess herself would probably strike me down on the spot." Her smile faded into an ironic twist of the lips. "But I'd be lying if I said I hadn't thought about it." She met Talon's eyes, and her own twinkled wickedly. "Since you came along, though, it's not quite so difficult to bear. We women have to help one another out sometimes, especially when the ones we really want are so close and yet unattainable."
The soldier girl wasn't sure she liked being included in that last statement. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Sure you do." Erinda gave her a knowing grin. "In a way, it must be worse for you. At least I never have to worry about seeing Lyris with someone else, but the princess… she's growing up fast. Pretty soon she's going to have men lined up from here to the coastal provinces hoping for a chance at winning her hand. I don't envy you that."
Talon's face twitched. "It's not like that," she denied hotly. "Why should I care who the princess marries? Shasta's like a sister to me."
"Uh-huh." The chambermaid shook her head slightly. "I suppose that's why you keep asking me to come to you, especially after you two have had lessons together all day. Or you've gotten into an argument. Or she happens to wear something particularly pretty."
"Stop that," the dark girl insisted, feeling her cheeks flush again. "That's not it."
"It's nothing to be ashamed of, Talon. I don't blame you. She's a smart little thing, lots of spunk, and she's not bad to look at, either. Just be careful. That one's going to break your heart." Erinda rose to her feet before Talon could protest again. "Sounds like they're just about done in there," she said, jerking her thumb at the door where sounds of chairs scraping against the floor could be heard. "I'll see you tonight."
With that the busty little chambermaid trotted down the corridor, and Talon jumped up as the heavy oak door opened and important men of state began to pour out of the room, all looking very grave and a few muttering under their breath. She waited for the princess to emerge, which she did after a few moments, and silently waited at her side while Shasta hugged and kissed her father before he dismissed her to return to her chambers. Talon followed behind the younger girl as she always did, until Shasta stopped and turned to give her an odd look.
"You're awfully quiet back there, Talon. Aren't you even going to ask me how the meeting went?"
"Oh." Talon cleared her throat. "Uh… how did it go?"
Shasta heaved a great sigh and shook her head grimly. "Don't ask." She then kept walking, leaving her guardian to puzzle over this for a few seconds before quickly running to catch up with her.
The seasons passed quickly and uneventfully, for the most part. In autumn, King Soltran promoted Talon from corporal to the rank of second lieutenant, adding another gold bar to the collar of her uniform. This new rank came with new responsibilities, and Captain Vaughn began bringing some of the young guard recruits, still hoping to earn their own commission, to Talon's lessons so that she could provide some of their training herself. Talon's particular specialty lay in her acrobatic background; she was one of the fastest swordsmen the captain had ever seen, and her creativity seemed to know no limits. In fact, his young protégé had nearly exhausted all the teaching he could give her in the past two and a half years; she was an expert in battle theory, in command protocol, in nearly every aspect of a soldier's duties save actual combat experience. And that was the one thing he was not allowed to give her; as the princess' guardian, Talon could not under any circumstances leave the palace, not even for field exercises.
The captain did what he could in compromise: every so often he would take Talon and the princess out riding, often across the grassy expanse of the southern moors, and Shasta would sit atop her horse and watch as her guardian and Captain Vaughn skulked around in the fields, hiding from imaginary enemies and planning survival tactics. She was greatly amused by the whole thing, and teased Talon mercilessly throughout the exercises until Captain Vaughn threatened to pull her down off her horse and make the princess join them in the dirt. That quickly sobered her up; Shasta had no desire whatsoever to go crawling around on the ground where there might be bugs or snakes or other undesirable creatures. Besides, she was glad for their little excursions; it gave her an excuse to miss lessons with Chancellor Kumire on a regular basis, and for that she was extremely grateful.
Shasta never told her father about Kumire's inappropriate advances the night of her birthday celebration. After considering it, she'd realized that the king was likely to blame Captain Vaughn for his failure to keep her in sight, and that meant not only that the captain would be punished, but also that she was likely to get into trouble herself for drinking so much and wandering off with the chancellor. She didn't want to have to explain her fight with Talon the morning before, either, and so decided it would probably be best for all concerned if her father never heard of the unpleasant events of that night. It did, however, mean that she was still expected to attend lessons with the chancellor every day, much to her disgust.
When the first snows began to fall, Captain Vaughn had to call a halt to their outdoor exercises; though he felt no qualms about exposing his young student to the harsh conditions, he could hardly ask the princess, whose health was frail as it was, to endure the cold, dry winter air for hours on end. No one wanted a repeat of last winter's episode. The cold weather kept everyone indoors, to Shasta's great disappointment; Kumire took the opportunity to schedule extra lessons with the girls and so between her daily lessons and weekly court conferences, Shasta scarcely had time for anything fun. Not that there was much to do for fun indoors, anyway. That was why she waited anxiously for the Winter Solstice celebration; the one week of the year that her family actually left the castle and traveled out of the capital city.
For hundreds of years, the Lysterian royal family celebrated the Winter Solstice on the bank of Indellus Lake, the biggest landlocked body of water in Lysteria. Three provinces formed its borders: Mondera to the northwest, Olsta to the south, and the capital province of Aster, where Ardrenn was located, to the northeast. Every year Shasta and her father traveled by coach to visit the ancient Dervaughn estate, owned by the exceedingly wealthy and traditionally royalist Dervaughn family. Captain Vaughn himself was a distant relative of the Dervaughns, and accompanied the royal family every year to the lake.
Shasta loved the week at Indellus most for its traditional winter pastimes, sledding and ice skating. Though they were outdoor activities and she was generally not allowed outside in winter, the week of Winter Solstice was an exception. She was limited, per the court healer's orders, to an hour of play at a time, but she didn't mind. It was a welcome break to the otherwise dull winter season.
Since coming to live at the castle, Talon and his sisters accompanied the royal family on their annual visit to the Dervaughn estate. Aleria and Brie, neither of whom cared much for the cold, did not find the Winter Solstice trip as appealing as Shasta did; but the princess' enthusiasm was usually infectious, and with the regular breaks every hour to warm up in between activities, the cold was not as unpleasant as it might have been. Shasta couldn't really tell what Talon's opinion of the place was. He seemed indifferent, following her around as he always did without any apparent lapse in his vigilant attention. Shasta wished he would loosen up, even a little, especially when they were supposed to be on vacation.
This year, there was an additional guest joining them. Shasta couldn't imagine how Chancellor Kumire managed to get himself invited on their family outing to the lake, but there he was, riding along in the coach behind theirs. This made Talon even more tense than usual, as he had to sit in the royal coach with Shasta and the king, while Kumire rode behind with Aleria and Brie. Shasta didn't blame him for being unhappy about the situation, after what the chancellor had tried to pull with her. But Captain Vaughn was also riding in the coach with her companions, and she was certain the weaselly chancellor wouldn't try anything with the captain of the royal guard sitting right there.
Periodically Shasta reached over and patted her guardian's hand encouragingly, but she was careful only to do so when her father wasn't paying attention. She didn't want to have to answer any uncomfortable questions. Talon met her eyes gratefully, but she could still see the concern on his face, and she knew he wouldn't be able to stop worrying until they had arrived and he could see for himself that his sisters were safe.
The journey to the Dervaughn estate was a long one, beginning very early in the morning and lasting late into the night. By the time the coaches pulled up in front of the immense mansion, Shasta had fallen asleep against Talon's shoulder. After shaking her gently a few times to no avail, Talon sighed and carried the sleeping princess through the massive doors, and followed the direction of the housekeeper who showed all the arriving guests to their rooms. Shasta was so sound asleep that she didn't feel a thing as her guardian gently lowered her onto a soft feather mattress, removing her boots and tucking a feather-stuffed duvet beneath her chin.
The next morning, Shasta awoke slowly to a soft, rhythmic shing! shing! noise that she was quite familiar with. She blinked several times to adjust her eyes to the unusual brightness. When she remembered where they were, she sat up immediately and threw back the covers, looking around for her dressing robe. Talon had awakened before her, as usual, and was sitting cross-legged on the floor by the wall, sharpening his sword.
"Good morning, Highness," he greeted her quietly, and she beamed at him.
"Morning!" She looked around, seeing her dressing robe hanging on a nearby coat stand. "Would you get that for me?"
Obediently he put down the whetstone and laid his sword against the wall, and rose to his feet in one smooth motion, fetching the dressing robe from the stand and handing it to her with a small bow. "Your wish is my command."
She made a face at him, sensing the note of amused sarcasm in his voice. "You know I don't like to walk around in my nightshift," she said defensively.
"I know." He glanced around the room, and then lifted an eyebrow. "I'll wait outside for a few minutes."
She understood what he meant; there was no privy chamber in these guest rooms, so he had to step outside the door in order to allow her privacy enough to use the chamber pot. When she was finished, and one of the housemaids had helped her to dress, she opened the door. "Breakfast?" she asked him brightly, not waiting for an answer before skipping down the hall.
Shasta loved the first meal of the day at the Dervaughn estate; it was always served in the enormous morning parlor, a sunny room with big windows on the southeast corner of the main house. They always served her favorite sweet rolls and hot, spiced cider. It was a delicious way to wake up in the morning, and to prepare for a day of fun in the snow.
"I think I want to go sledding first," she said around a mouthful of sweet roll, and when Aleria looked at her with mild disapproval she grinned and took a big swallow of cider to wash it down. "Sorry," she said when her mouth was clear, "I'm just excited."
"Did I hear someone say sledding?" asked the chancellor, who moved as if to sit next to the princess on the couch before the fire, but thought better of it when he saw Talon's sharp glare and instead chose a chair across from her. He set a mug of cider on the table beside him. "When I was a boy we used to start building our own sleds in autumn so we could race them when the snow fell. I always found that green hickory saplings were the best wood to use, they bent well and…"
"How fascinating, Chancellor. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to return to my room now and get my cloak." The princess rose to her feet and he followed suit, bowing as she made her exit before sitting back down to finish his explanation. Shasta did not see the look of irritation on Brie's face at her rather rude interruption.
"You were saying, Chancellor?" Brie encouraged as Shasta left the room, her dark guardian following at her heels.
Shasta hadn't even finished her roll yet, and her stomach complained loudly at being denied the rest of its breakfast, but she preferred being hungry to having to endure Kumire's insufferable attempts to start a conversation. One of the advantages to being a princess was that she could choose to be rude when she felt like it, and no one would dare question her, no matter how offended they might be. Of course, Talon didn't have to say a word for Shasta to feel the silent reproach in his eyes, and she sighed as they reached the room. "He's boring," she complained. He only nodded his head. "Ugh! I shouldn't have to listen to that if I don't want to."
"I didn't say you should."
"You don't have to say it. I can feel you reprimanding me with your face," she said stubbornly, ignoring the fact that her last comment made very little sense. "I can't stand him."
"Me either." His voice was dispassionate.
Shasta opened the wardrobe, where one of the housemaids had neatly hung her various gowns, and pulled out her cloak. "I guess, as princess of Lysteria, that I should be more polite," she said grudgingly. "But if ever there was a man worth being rude to, he would be the one."
"I agree." He helped settle the cloak around her shoulders, tying the cord at her neck.
"Fine, I'll apologize," she grumbled, pulling her muff from the bottom drawer of the wardrobe and hanging it around her neck.
His mouth turned up slightly at one corner. "If you think that's best."
She glared at him, and stamped a foot. "How do you do that?" she demanded. "You can guilt me into doing the right thing, and the whole time you're just agreeing with everything I say. It's so annoying!"
He picked up his own cape and draped it around his shoulders. "It is, isn't it?"
She punched him in the stomach, though not very hard. "Stop that," she said, but she was grinning. His eyes twinkled back at her as he opened the door and made a little flourishing motion with his arm.
"After you, your Highness."
Shasta stuck her tongue out at him and flounced through the door, and he followed behind her with a faintly victorious smile.
Talon watched her breath crystallize in mid-air as she crunched through the snow behind the princess, carrying a large wooden sled on her back. The sled was not terribly heavy, certainly lighter than some of the feed-sacks the Captain made her lug around during their exercises, but it was long and unwieldy, so she had to be careful not to lose her balance. By the time they reached the top of the hill, there was a dull ache in her shoulders, and looking down at the steep, snow covered slope, Talon had the feeling she was definitely going to be worn out by the end of the day. She didn't mind too much, though. The past few weeks of confinement indoors had been hard on her young charge. Shasta had been so antsy from being cooped up inside day after day that Talon had actually suggested extra fencing practices with the captain, just to give the younger girl something to do.
She grinned to herself as she swung the sled from her shoulders and set it down in the snow. She really ought to be more careful, in the way she handled the princess. It was all too easy to forget that she was only a servant in the royal house, and no matter how many little gold bars they pinned to her collar, her position was still only a small step above slavery in many ways. She was not free to leave, nor were her sisters. They were in the palace for one reason only: to ensure Shasta's safety. Those were the facts. Yet the captain, the other household staff, Nurse, even the princess herself, they all treated Talon, Aleria and Brie like they were family. Talon couldn't believe some of the things the princess had let her get away with. She was fairly certain that most of the time, Shasta also completely forgot that her guardian and young ladies-in-waiting were not her equals.
Talon held out a hand and helped the princess onto the sled. The smaller girl sat, tucking her skirts carefully around her legs so they would not get caught in the shiny runners, and then flashed her guardian a grin. "Push me?"
Talon nodded and gave the back of the sled a little shove, sending it over the edge of the hill. It picked up speed as it went, and she heard the princess' squeals of glee as she flew down the side of the hill, finally slowing as the ground leveled. When it came to a stop, she hopped off and waved at her guardian, and Talon sighed. It was going to be a long day, she thought to herself as she carefully picked her way down the side of the hill, trying not to slide too much, until she'd joined the princess at the bottom.
Shasta happily hopped onto the sled again, and Talon picked up the rope, trudging back up the hill while pulling the sled behind her. She was lucky the princess was such a small girl, or her task would have been much more difficult. As it was, she felt lightly winded when they finally did reach the top. Shasta jumped off to allow her guardian to turn the sled around for her, but before she could settle herself for another ride, there came a hoot from the direction of the main house.
The princess groaned. "Did they have to bring him along?"
Chancellor Kumire was waving at them enthusiastically, while Brie clung to his arm and Aleria walked beside. Shasta did her best to compose her face and waited reluctantly for them to reach her. One of the house servants, a little boy of about eight or nine winters, came puffing along behind dragging two more sleds, one rope in each hand. Talon jogged forward and took one of the ropes from him, and the boy smiled at her gratefully as she helped bring the cumbersome sleds to the edge of the hill. He waved and took off running back to the main house.
"How's the snow, your Highness?" Kumire asked cheerfully.
Shasta stiffened as his loud, nasal tone echoed in the still morning air, but she gritted her teeth and forced a smile. "It's lovely, Chancellor, perfect for sledding." She caught Talon's eye and sighed. "Please, accept my apology for my rudeness this morning. You were in the middle of a story and I interrupted."
His smile widened, revealing sharply pointed teeth on either side of his mouth. "Think nothing of it, Highness. All is forgiven." He eyed the hill, and her sled. "You know, sledding is more fun with two people. The extra weight allows you to pick up more speed. Shall I demonstrate?" He motioned with his arm as if to help her onto her sled, but Shasta shook her head and offered him a dazzling smile.
"Thank you, Chancellor, but… uh…" Talon was surprised when the princess grabbed her arm. "Actually, Talon's going to ride with me. I'm nervous, being so far away from home. You never know if the assassin who killed my brother might not try something out here, so far from the palace and the royal guard. I just feel safer this way."
Kumire blinked. "But, your highness, there has not been an attempt on your life in years. I'm certain the assassin, whoever he might be, would not attack you out here in the open."
"Better to be safe than sorry," Shasta replied brightly, still gripping Talon's arm. "Come, Talon."
The soldier girl did her best not to snicker as she helped the princess onto the sled, then settled herself behind her, one long leg on either side. She spoke quietly into Shasta's ear. "That was the worst excuse I've ever heard. He has to know you're making it up."
"See you at the bottom, Chancellor!" Shasta exclaimed cheerfully before throwing her weight forward just enough to start the sled moving down the side of the hill. Kumire was right, with Talon behind her they slid much faster, and when they reached the base of the hill they glided quite a bit farther before coming to a stop. Shasta twisted to address her guardian over her shoulder. "Terrible excuse or not, I had to think of something. I don't want that man touching me."
Talon grinned and got off the sled, grabbing the rope to pull it, and her little charge, back to the top. They made several more trips down and back, and Talon noticed with irritation that after Shasta's rejection, the chancellor had decided to ride with Brie. She didn't have to guess whose idea that was. Her youngest sister's crush on Kumire showed no sign of abating any time soon, and it grated on Talon's nerves. It seemed the more she argued with Brie about it, the more her sister seemed determined to flaunt it in her face. So now she was trying to ignore it completely, in the hopes that Brie would think she didn't care anymore, and lose interest in her little rebellion.
It was getting close to the hour mark, when Shasta would have to return to the main house to warm up before she could come back out again. The princess talked her guardian into allowing her to make one more run, and so Talon got on the sled behind her and started them off. One corner of Shasta's skirts got loose this time, however, and as Shasta attempted to retrieve it so the fabric wouldn't be shredded beneath the sled runners, she accidentally threw off their balance. The sled tipped over just as they reached the bottom of the hill.
Talon tightened her grip around the princess and rolled to break the fall for the smaller girl, and she hit the ground hard. When they stopped moving, she found herself lying in the snow on her back, and it took her a moment to remember how to breathe as the impact temporarily knocked the wind out of her. Shasta seemed to be all right, though she was unwittingly pinning her guardian beneath her, and she blinked sheepishly down at Talon.
Talon gave a chuckle as she tried to catch her breath, and then realized that Shasta wasn't moving. The princess was gazing down at her, her head tilted to one side thoughtfully, and Talon was suddenly very aware of the soft, gentle weight of the other girl's body pressing into her chest. She cleared her throat awkwardly. "What?"
"I just noticed. You have very pretty eyelashes. They're so long and dark and curly." The princess grinned at her. "A woman would give anything for those lashes. How come the Goddess wasted them on a boy?" Then Shasta peered closely at her face. "You know, you're just too pretty for a boy altogether. That's just not fair."
Talon opened her mouth but couldn't think of a reply. Instead, she looked down and grunted, "Um, Princess, if you wouldn't mind…" and lifted an eyebrow.
"Oh. Sorry." Shasta rolled off of her guardian and sat up.
"We should go back to the main house now," Talon said, standing and brushing snow from her trousers. Shasta sighed, but didn't argue, and Talon wondered if the princess was getting a bit tired. Not that she would admit it, of course. She took the rope and waited for Shasta to seat herself back on the sled before returning them to the top of the hill. On the way up, her mind flooded with worried thoughts. The last thing she needed was to arouse the princess' suspicions about her gender. She wondered if it was possible to cut one's own eyelashes, or thin them out at least; anything to avoid drawing attention to them again. It was a bizarre thought.
"We're going in for a while," Shasta called to her two companions.
"I'll join you," Aleria said, brushing a stray lock of hair out of her eyes with a mittened hand. "Brie, you coming?"
The younger girl met the chancellor's eyes, then shook her head. "No, I think I'll stay out here for a little while longer."
Talon gritted her teeth. "Suit yourself." She picked up the sled, swinging it over one shoulder, and walked away.
Shasta trotted up behind her and laid a hand on the tall soldier's shoulder. "Talon, are you sure you want to leave Brie alone with him? After what he… you know."
Talon shrugged. "If Brie wants to get herself into trouble, let her. I don't care anymore."
"That's not true," Aleria contradicted quietly from beside them as they made their way back to the main house, but Talon didn't answer.
Stupid, irresponsible child, that's what she is. I have enough to worry about without having to constantly fight to save my sister from her own idiotic actions. She wants to be alone with him, fine. Maybe he WILL try to take advantage of her. It would serve her right. Stubbornly Talon ground her teeth. Of course then I'll have to kill him.
Alone on the snow covered hill, Brie batted her eyes playfully at Chancellor Kumire. "Another ride, Chancellor?"
His gaze was fixed on the retreating group, specifically on Shasta who was happily marching alongside her tall protector. Brie reached up and took Kumire's chin, turning him to look at her. "Forget about the Princess, Chancellor. She doesn't know a good man when she sees one." Her eyes flickered from his face down the length of his body, then back up again. "I, on the other hand," she leaned into him while running a small hand up the inside of his thigh suggestively, "can fully appreciate your many excellent qualities." She was nearly fifteen, but the smile she gave him belonged on a much older woman. He couldn't help returning it, especially when she began to unfasten the buttons on the front of his trousers.
"Lady Brie, now is not the time…"
"They won't be back for a while." She slid a hand through the opening, and he gave a sharp intake of breath as her fingers found their mark with little difficulty. His eyes fluttered closed involuntarily, and her smile got bigger. "I'm going to make you forget all about her. I don't want you thinking of anyone but me."
"You're still… too young," the chancellor panted as her strokes picked up rhythm.
"That's never stopped you before." Her voice was scarcely above a whisper, and she nuzzled his neck sweetly without ceasing the motion of her hand. He forgot all about protesting, and Brie grinned. She was very good at getting what she wanted, and Kumire belonged to her. Shasta might be the princess of Lysteria, but she wasn't going to take Brie's one true love away. Brie was determined to make sure of that.
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