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Excerpt From Chapter 6

   Caelerys’s dream ended before she actually woke. She slept a little longer than was her wont and eventually had to force herself to rise. Finally, she slipped out of bed and allowed herself to be dressed simply, as nothing was really going to be happening today. She mentioned that she might go riding later if she was allowed to, stretch Tempest’s wings, maybe go to the archery field. The more she thought about it, the more the archery sounded appealing. She had a strong need for physical exercise, to drive out the thoughts of the night before, when her best friend had lit her candle with Lord Rorik Griff, a man more than twice her age.

   As they were dressing her hair, Coral informed her that, according to her sources, Lady Liliwyn had not yet had any offers made. Cae hmmed thoughtfully, as if this was news to her. “Perhaps a young man himself told her this... said he would ask and then either hasn’t yet or had his mind changed.”

   “Or his father thought he hadn’t any real chance,” Pansy offered. “That happens sometimes too.”

   Sorrel nodded in agreement.

   Cae looked up at Coral. “Were it her ladies you queried?” she asked.

   Coral’s smile was full of secrets. “Of course not, my lady. I have sources at House Cygent. That is why it took me so long. Granted, an offer may have come in through one of her present brothers and it simply has not made its way to the duke, but I have no connections within Lord Selgan’s household.”

   “Oh. Who do you have connections with?”

   “Too many to name, my lady. Best you ask me for information and I will tell you if I can get it. This is a part of the game best kept in the shadows. But rest assured, I am loyal to you, and will do nothing to compromise you or your House.”

   Cae frowned. “But you are employed by the crown, are only assigned to me whilst I am here. Are not your first loyalties to them?”

   “Everyone’s first loyalties should be to the crown. But my rules are simple. Any lady I am assigned to serve has my loyalty, deserving or not. I will betray none of their secrets during nor even after my care of them has ended.”        Coral watched her carefully, reading things into the line of questioning, of that Cae was certain. She could almost see the pieces falling into place behind her eyes and pleasant smile. “Beyond that, I make friends and trade information, and keep friends among staffs I have previously served. At the moment, your well being is my only concern, and while I almost daily reassure the queen of that, and give her some information of you, I tell her no secrets, nothing intimate. She only has your welfare in mind, as do I.”

   Her conviction was firm, and Cae was satisfied she was not the spy but now suspected one. It did not make Cae feel any better that it was either Rosie, Sorrel or Pansy. She liked all three maids for different reasons.

   Whilst she sat to breakfast, Rosie brought her a letter, delivered by a page.

   The seal was intact and her father’s. Cae immediately left off eating and sat back to read it, only paying attention to Tempest’s helping herself to keep her from eating over much. The letter assured her that he was doing better, first and foremost, but that he needed her to come home. Not a permanent thing, but for at least a week, to talk with her. He had some important things to discuss. He also suggested that she come as quickly as she could to minimize her absence from the court, and to use a subterfuge to do so. As someone was keeping tabs on the family, he wanted nothing to happen to her on the way. Mace was to return with her.

   Cae folded the letter up neatly, and rose, looking as happy as she could. “Fern, come with me please.”

Fern bobbed ascent, handing what she had been mending to Rosie. “Good news, my lady?”

   “Yes. I have to go show this to Lili. Jelma, no more!” she said sharply, catching the bird trying to steal one more bite. “In fact, you come, too. We’re both going to need a little comforting now that Syera has left.” She looked up at Coral, “She and her husband have already left, yes?”

   Coral gave a stately nod. “Yes, my lady. They were up at dawn and gone within the hour. I believe the queen saw them off.”

   She nodded her thanks. “It is a long way to Griff lands. Did she look well?”

   “Like a blushing bride, my lady. None the worse,” she added pointedly.

   Cae realized then, just how much Coral knew that went on within the Citadel. She decided she would have to put her to better use in the future.

   With a smile and a thank you, she shouldered Tempest and she and Fern headed into the hall. When Caelerys turned toward the stairs, Fern looked back with confusion. “My lady, Lady Liliwyn’s rooms are the other way.”

   “We’re not going to see Lili just yet. First we have to see the queen.”

   “Ah,” she said, understanding now that a ruse had been in place. “Do you think... Coral is trustworthy, my lady?”

   “I do now. You’re to let her in on things as soon as you can, but only her. We’re going to need her help. And maybe Rue,” she added as she swept up the staircase to the royal floor.

   She paused outside the royal apartments, waited as one of the guards slipped inside to announce her. As she stood there, she felt fiercely determined and yet uncertain. There was a sensation of sorrow followed by anger and stubborn pride and.... She closed her eyes, taking a deep breath, trying to purge herself of what she was feeling, knowing suddenly that this was not hers.

   The door opened and she and Fern were admitted into the audience chamber. She was fully aware that the domestic tableau before her was at least partly staged. The queen sat in her usual chair, just handing off the infant prince, Verlan, to his nurse. The king stood behind Balaran’s chair, his hands upon its back, and Valan was seated in another chair, leaning back with an air of indolence that Caelerys knew to be feigned. They looked like a family who had just been interrupted in the midst of a very ordinary breakfast.

   Cae observed the formalities, curtseying and remaining down until requested to rise. “What may we do for you, young lady?” asked the king.

   Cae started to flush, as she had not really expected to be facing all of them at once. “Forgive me, Your Majesty, but I have received a letter this morning from my father requesting that I return home at once.”

   The king shot a look at Valan who ignored it.

   Is everything well?” asked Balaran.

   “I think so, Your Highness. He does not really say his reason for sending for me, but that I am to... be circum-spect in my travel plans,” she said painfully. “Apparently there is some reason for concern, what with what happened to Willam.”

   “I see,” said the king.

   The look the queen shot him clearly questioned the truth of that. But she quickly turned and smiled at Cae.     “When do you leave, my dear?”

   “Well, as soon as I can arrange it. With a little assistance and some leeway, I could be away in an hour, but... I did not want to just leave without my hosts knowing the reasons. Father said I will only need to be home for a week, which will be a full fortnight all told, with travel to and from.”

   The queen nodded, thinking. “Things can be arranged. Provided my husband has no objections,” she added, looking over at him as if daring him to do so.

   He shook his head. “I see no reason to deny your father his request. You are returning to the capitol?” he asked.

   She gave a small bob, “As long as I am welcome, Your Majesty. I would not leave at all but that he has called.”

   “He trusts you a great deal, yes?” the king asked.

   Cae blushed. “He... does value my input on certain matters. And I have assisted him in the last five or six years with some of the day to day matters of the Duchy and its people.”

   The king seemed to absorb this. Valan stood, gave a half bow in his direction. “By your leave, father, I am going to see what I might do to help. Make any arrangements that might be necessary.”

   It looked as if the king might protest, but he finally waved his hand. Cae thought there was more to it than a mere gesture of dismissal.

   Valan took her by the hand and led her back to the door where he turned again. “I am going to ask,” he stated, obviously answering a previous argument.

   The king sputtered, his anger rising like ice in water.

   “It is already done,” Valan added.

   “I am the King!” he roared.

   Cae desperately wanted to melt into the wall, not wishing to be privy to a family squabble.

   “Yes, Father,” he said with a fierce joy. “You are right. You are the king and can refuse. You are well within your rights not to allow it. But I warn you: It is this or nothing. I will accept nothing less.” With that, he drew Cae and Fern from the room, closing the door behind him with finality.

   Cae caught a glimpse of Bal smirking even as the argument suspended for her benefit began again seconds before the chamber door was closed.

   Standing in the hall, stunned, Cae looked up at the prince, afraid to ask what that had been about, and very much afraid she knew. He looked down at her and gave her an apologetic smile. “Forgive me,” he said. “I had to put my foot down. Shall we go and deal with your problem?” he asked.

   Cae could not seem to find her voice, was still overwhelmed by the riot of emotions. Fern stepped forward, curtseying. “Your Highness, if we could find a place of absolute privacy? It might be easier to explain what my lady needs,” she said.

   Valan gave her a long look, but Fern did not back down, in spite of showing him every deference. Finally, he nodded, lead them down a side corridor with a very low ceiling and tapestries lining the walls. He stopped about halfway down, looked to make sure the hall was empty, then reached behind one of the tapestries and fiddled with the wall. There was a scraping noise, and then he was holding side the hanging and gesturing for them to hurry.

   Cae stepped willingly into the dark, and Fern followed. Valan was close behind, easing the door shut behind him.

He reached out in the darkness, felt the fabric of Cae’s dress and sought out her hand. She gave it to him willingly. Then he was pulling her close and finding her lips in the pitch black and setting them on fire.

   “Oh, by the Mother, I can hear you,” Fern said, exasperated.

   “A bit impertinent, aren’t we?” he growled.

   Her tone took on a bit more deference. “I would be remiss in my duties to my lady if I failed to point out that fact. Half my job is chaperone, Your Highness. Even with one as highborn as yourself.”

   There was a rumbling growl, but Cae knew it was good-natured. “Back, beast,” she whispered.

   “That is where you had better end up,” he rumbled.

   “What?”

   “Back. Here. Soon,” he quipped, still not letting go of her. “But for now, let us see how we are going to get you out of here. The sooner gone the sooner returned, aye?”

   “Aye,” she shivered, and not from the chill in the passage. “I have an idea. We are going riding.”

   “We are?” he asked.

   “Well, you are. With Fern.”

   “My lady!” she protested. “I should go with you!”

   “You are more valuable to me as a decoy right now.”

   Valan’s voice said he was nodding. “You are of a height, rough build.”

   “My hair is no where near as dark and I look nothing like her, Your Highness. My lady, I haven’t your grace.”

“T’is a good thing it has grown colder since the moons have turned,” he said. “A cloak will not go amiss. The question is, what is she a distraction from?”

   “Well, for that I have your uncle to thank,” she smiled. “And I will likely need Rue.” She outlined her plan and the pair of them ironed out any hitches that might arise. The prince added a few stipulations of his own.

   They were making the final touches when they began to notice the darkness growing noticeably lighter. The prince put the ladies behind him and turned to face the approaching light source. Cae slipped her dagger from the sheath beside her pocket.

   A chirp made her groan and put it away again. She could hear the clicking of talons on stone as the bird ran around a far bend and appeared at the end of the long, narrow hall. Bal was right behind her, holding a candle. As Cae came into sight, the bird launched herself into the air, landing on her upraised wrist fussing at her.

   Bal joined them at a more sedate pace. “You left her behind,” he said.

   Valan rolled his eyes, cracking his neck. “I was the one, feather-head,” he grumbled at Tempest. “I didn’t see you. I closed the door. Now leave off your scolding, you old fish-wife, before you give us away. It’s not her fault.”

   Tempest twisted her head to look at him, huffed and promptly ignored him, but she shut up.

   “Finally,” he complained. “So you figured I headed for the nearest secret passage to talk?” he asked his twin.

   Bal chuckled. “Where else are you going to go? Your room? This is closer than the gardens. So what have we decided?”

   “Oh, you are going to love this,” Cae smiled.

   In short order, the plan was in place, and Liliwyn dragged into it. Fern went downstairs to draft Rue and then to inform Coral privately what was going on.

   Cae went to her rooms to prepare for a ride with the princes. She distracted Rosie, Sorrel and Pansy with questions about what they did during the wedding, whether they had slipped off with anyone. Pansy was a wealth of information, having seen and recognized quite a few of the couples slipping off into dark corners. Meanwhile, Coral and Fern were packing up the barest minimum Cae would need, including her armour and her bow, which had taken both women to unstring, and hiding it in the bedchamber. When they were done, Coral came through the dressing room door to admonish the others that her ladyship would never be ready in time if they did not stop distracting her.

   While they ushered her into the dressing room to change into a riding habit, Fern brought the two modest packs to Rue in the hall disguised as laundry. The bow box and quiver was harder to disguise, but putting it on the bottom to support the whole with linens draping off it, hid it well enough. Rue would then pass it, minus the laundry, off to Roan, who would whisk it off to the stables with other instructions.

   Cae had her hair dressed simply, just braided and coiled. It would be easier to hide that way. When she was ready, she and Fern put on their cloaks and headed downstairs to meet the princes and Lili in the courtyard. They rode out in a stately procession around the Citadel and out through the side gate, Tempest flying over head as was her wont.

   As they approached the stables, Roan stepped out and waved the party down, bowing and claiming to have need of Balaran’s time on some matter. Cae did not hear what excuse he had come up with, but was certain it was clever. Valan ordered everyone to dismount for the moment, that they would resume their ride shortly, and went with Roan and his brother.

   The ladies took this opportunity to go for a short walk and explore the stables. They found the tack room without too much trouble, slipping in and barring it from the inside. Fern and Cae undressed as quickly as they could, with Fern putting Cae’s clothes on and, after binding her breasts as best they could, Cae put on the clothes of a guardsman. Tempest watched with confused curiosity. In the end, Cae looked like any random Citadel guard, without the identifying tabard. Because of the increasing cold, the helm was worn over a hood that was little more than a sack with a hole in it for the face, but it kept the head and neck warm under the metal skullcap. It served well to hide her coil of hair.

   “Now,” Cae said, helping Lili make final adjustments of Fern’s costume, “this is not going to hold up much past your return to the Citadel, but that should give me enough of a head start they won’t be able to catch up with me even if they find out.”

   Lili was tucking Fern’s clothes back where they had found the guardsman’s. “Don’t worry, we’ll get her back as Fern before then. You were met by some of your father’s men and taken to a waiting ship,” she smiled. “There’s a late outgoing tide today, I checked.”

   Cae kissed her cheek. “Thank you for this. I won’t forget it. And don’t let them take advantage of this,” she added.

   “As if I would,” Lili huffed. “They get too vicious, I might even spread a few counter rumours of my own. See how they like it.”

   Cae crossed to Tempest and lifted her up. “Jelma,” she began, shifting to Vermian. “I need you to stay with Fern. Guard her like you would me until she tells you to find me, all right?”

   The bird chirped forlornly.

   “No, this IS to keep me safe. Watch her. I’ll be guarded. When she says leave, you can find me then. All right?” Tempest gave her a reluctant nod, pressing her head to her cheek. She pulled back, frowning at the hood and helmet, but obediently went to Fern’s shoulder.

   “Oh, but she’s heavy,” she moaned.

   “She’ll be heavier on your wrist, so don’t do it often.”

   She nodded and Cae pulled the hood up for her. Lili did the same and Cae unbarred the door, following the two of them out of the tack room, trying to walk as much like a man as she could while getting used to the idea of trews. She felt so exposed, in spite of the long cape the uniform provided for warmth.

   They met the princes on the way out. Bal nodded with delighted approval. Val almost did a double take, finding a conflict between what he felt and what he saw. He walked up to Fern and offered her his hand. She took it, trembling. “Just breathe,” he said. “I shall not bite. All you have to do until we are in the woods and out of sight is sit and ride. Can you ride astride?” he asked.

   Fern managed a weak smile, “If I would keep up with my lady, Your Highness, I had to learn.”

   “Good,” he smiled, aiming it more for Cae, standing behind all of them. “Then we ride.”

   Cae felt the kiss he had planted on her in the passage burning her all over again, and was secretly glad she’d have that to take away with her, as they would not be getting a decent farewell. She chastised herself. She would see him again in a fortnight.

   She followed them out to the horses, where the men were beginning to remount. She held Wraith’s head as Valan helped Fern into the saddle.

   Wraith was confused, nosing Cae forcefully. She pressed her gloved hand to her face and whispered in Vermian to her. “Not this time, my sweet. Be good for her. I’ll be back before you know it.”

   Wraith did not like it, but settled down. Her ears let Cae know she would be taking up the issue with her later. When Fern was settled, Cae stepped back, watched the party ride off without her and felt a reluctant sadness. Tempest glanced back at her briefly, but stayed where she was, identifying Fern as her mistress for any who did not look close enough.

   Larch came up to her leading another horse, handed her the reins. “We should take advantage of every moment,” he said, swinging up into his own saddle. She noticed he wasn’t wearing his tabard any more. He looked down at her. “I’m not going to have to help you up, am I? It would be... awkward to say the least.” His eyes were laughing at her.

   She smiled. “No,” she said, vaulting into the saddle. “This is so much easier in trews,” she said softly.

   “I imagine,” he chuckled. “Come on, lad. Our errands won’t keep,” he added loudly, clapping his heels to his horse and trotting off.

   Cae rode after him. No one challenged them, not even at the dragon gates. They rode with other traffic up the long, winding slope of the King’s Road as it wound up to the entrance of the Mistwood. There was a crossroad just before the wood itself, and a number of people diverted one way or another here. Only about a quarter of the traffic headed into the wood itself. Once they had passed the majority of carts and foot traffic, they opened up and galloped.

   It was a short ride to the Mist’s End Inn just a few miles inside the wood. Cae remembered the neat little place from her trip to DragonsPoint. She looked around in wonder, feeling nostalgic for a place she only visited once, and that only for a bath and a meal. She had come a long way since then.

   Larch clapped his hand on Cae’s shoulder as he would have any young man in his charge. “Wake up, lad. You’ve seen an inn before. Where’s your friend?”

   Cae snapped back to the present, glancing around until she saw Mace sitting at a table by the fire eating. She almost missed him with the eyepatch he was wearing.

   She crossed over and dropped onto the bench across from him much as she had watched her brothers do for years. “How’s your head, old man?” she asked, trying to keep her voice as gruff as possible.

   He glanced up at her, scowling a moment, then grunted, “Don’t talk so much.” He looked her companion over, seemed to find him to measure. “You eaten?”

   Cae shook her head.

   Mace nodded, waved to the serving girl and held up two fingers. She nodded and headed to the kitchen. “Eat light, we have a hard ride.”

   Cae looked him over. He looked far more grizzled than she remembered him being, as if he had aged in the week since she’d seen him. “How’s your head?” she asked again, keeping her volume low enough not to carry.

   “Fine. Won’t keep me from the hard ride ahead. We’ve moren’ an ‘undred miles t’ cover,” he growled.

   Cae wondered what had gotten into him, then she realized what was off about his behaviour beyond it being out of character. It was just that, a character. His demeanour was gruff and coarse, but his emotional state was not. That was merely worried and cautious.

The proprietress brought over their food, smiled flirtatiously at Cae. “And who’s this handsome thing?” she grinned.

Cae blushed, and buried her head in her food, mumbling her thanks.

   “New recruit,” Larch quipped. “Still wet behind the ears. Not man enough for a woman like you,” he smiled.

   She was suitably distracted. “Hmmm, maybe later,” she said as other customers began to clamour for her attention, including a trio of men in rough black leathers who came in and looked around before choosing a table near the wall. They watched the room even as they ordered drinks. They seemed to be settling in for a long wait.

   Cae noted a trace of copper on one of them, and another wiped his neck with a grey kerchief. She concentrated on her bowl of stew, eating with as little grace as she could. She tapped Mace’s foot under the table three times, reached across Larch to grab the salt cellar just past him instead of the one closer to her. Mace flicked an eye in that direction and went back to polishing his bowl.

   They finished their food casually and rose. Larch tossed the proprietress a couple of coins on the way out with a smile. At the stable door, after calling for Mace’s horse, Larch handed him the reins to his own animal, said in a low voice. “I’ll get your mount and catch up. I want to make sure those toads don’t follow.”

   Mace nodded and climbed into the saddle. Cae thought she felt a burst of pride from him as she vaulted easily onto her own. The pair of them rode out of the courtyard and down the road.

   “So,” she began when it was safe to talk, though making sure her voice would not carry too far. “The patch a disguise?” she asked hopefully.

   He nodded. “And driving me buggered,” he swore, reaching a finger under it to rub it. “I’ll take it off when we camp tonight.”

   “No inns, huh?” she commented, smiling.

   “No hunting lodges either, my lady,” he said softly.

   She shrugged. “I think I’m going to like this little adventure.”

   He chuffed, “We’ll see how you feel about it after a night of the cold hard ground.”

   They cantered for a little ways down the road, rode for maybe half an hour before they heard hoof-beats galloping up behind them. They turned in the saddle, drew to opposite sides of the road and Mace drew the sword strapped to Larch’s saddle.

   They relaxed when they saw it was only Larch on Mace’s horse.

   Larch eyed the sword in Mace’s hand. “With my own blade, no less?” he chuckled.

   Mace shrugged, re-sheathing it and dismounting. “You had my crossbow,” he quipped.

   “So I did. My lady, you may wish to string that bow of yours, just in case,” Larch advised.

   She dismounted and pulled the plain box from where it had been strapped to the saddle. Opening it, she saw that all the decoration that could be identified from a distance, everything that made it special, had been wrapped with linen strips as if to hold together an older, inferior weapon. She smiled. Her friends had thought of everything. She bent and strung the bow with swift ease and slid the box back into place, looping the quiver over her shoulder to situate it comfortably on her back. Ready, she remounted.

   “If they are looking for us,” Larch said, “they have been blind to their quarry.”

   “Good,” Mace grunted, remounting on his own horse. “We should put as much distance between us as we can. We’ll change horses at the way station.”

   The two of them then turned to look at their charge.

   Grinning at the two men watching her, Caelerys turned her horse’s head down the road. “Hope you two old men can keep up!” she crowed, and spurred her horse to a full gallop.

   Mace flipped up his eyepatch and cursed, charged after her with the prince’s personal guard at his heel.

   Cae was wise enough, or rather, in tune enough with her mount, to know how long he could keep what pace. They rode as hard as they could without running their animals into the ground, changing mounts at a way station about twenty five miles from the Inn. They paused there long enough to stretch, grab a swallow of water and rest whilst their gear was transferred to the new horses before they were off again.

   They were well over halfway home when they stopped to camp, slipping off into the woods, far enough away from the road that their fire would not be seen.

   “My lady,” Larch began, “I must commend your saddle skills. I admit, at first I was worried for you at the pace we were going to be setting, but you have owned the challenge admirably.” He gave a self-depreciating laugh, “Of course, after that ride through the woods after the fight I should have known better.”

   She smiled. “I suspect you were more worried how I’d take to dressing like a man. I admit, I will be glad to pull out my skirts and dresses again. I feel far too exposed in these,” she said, rubbing her hands on her thighs. “But with the two of you... I do feel safe.”

   “Well, it’s not like you’re flashing bare ankles,” he said, trying to keep a straight face.

   She looked at him in horrified shock, then laughed, throwing the heel of her bread at him. He laughed and dodged. “He told you?!”

   “More like interrogated me.” He held up his hand at her concerned look. “Nothing to worry about, my lady. He’s actually pleased about the incident. It gives him something to tease you with.”

   Mace was looking from one to the other, frowning. Cae took pity on him, explaining. He hung his head before shaking it and mopping his plate with the last of his bread. “Well, my little bird never was one to mind her modesty when there was a crisis. ...Or she was in a temper,” he chuckled. “Speaking of birds,” he added, jerking his thumb in the air.

   Tempest came crashing through the canopy, managing to right herself before she crash landed. She walked over to Cae holding something in her beak.

   Cae set down her plate and took the roll of paper from her. She gave the bird a bone from the rabbit they had cooked which still had a good bit of meat on it.

   “It’s from Prince Balaran,” she said.

   “He signed it?” Mace frowned, worried that the prince had lost enough of his mind to actually do so.

   She shook her head with a smile. “No, he doesn’t have to. I know his handwriting. He says 'everything went to plan. Fern is at Stag’s Hall for the duration. Claim is a messenger caught up with us and you had to rush home. Two hooded women were seen boarding a ship headed to the Reach. Fear not, there will be a Navy ship near at hand should anyone attack it.’ That was thoughtful of him,” she mused, tossing the message into the fire.

   She reached down and stroked Tempest fondly. “Thank you, my sweet. Was it so terrible?”

   The bird gave an indifferent reaction and continued to pick the meat from the bones.

   “Well, we should not have too much trouble then,” Mace sighed. “I will give you this for your princes, they have more care and wit than rumour gives them credit.”

   Larch’s eyes flashed at that. “My prince only has his responsibilities to the kingdom in his mind.”

   “Of course, Mester Larch,” Cae said soothingly. “We do not say otherwise. But he is said to be distant, unapproachable and ill-tempered. And he does very little to discourage such rumours. I doubt there are very many, if any, young women who dream of him beyond merely being his princess and eventually his queen with little thought to the man who comes with it.”

   Larch studied her. “And my lady?” he asked simply.

   She met his gaze. “I dream of the man,” she said simply, standing. “I don’t give a damn if he is king or not. I would prefer him a beggar.” With that she walked off, cleaning her plate in the little stream they’d made their camp by and going off into the trees to attend the call of nature.

   She could still hear the two of them talking though.

   “Would she really rather he were Folk?” Larch asked Mace, incredulous.

   Mace’s voice was proud, “What you need to understand about my little bird, is that rank means nothing but responsibilities. She takes them very seriously. And to those to whom she holds responsibility, she is warm and caring and inviting. They are not strangers to her. To be responsible for more people than she can personally know? That terrifies her.”

   “So she is not a good candidate for my prince in spite of any attachments,” Larch began.

   “She’ll make it work. Always does. That one does not run from what she fears. What she prefers is not the same as what she’ll accept and make work. She prefers not to tend to battlefield wounded and the nastiness that it can present, but I’ve seen her swallow her gorge and wade in, not giving a damn about the blood on a new dress and getting her hands as dirty as the rest of us. Afterwards, she dyed the dress to hide the stains and wore it proudly.”

   Cae wiped a tear from her eye and finished her business. She returned once she had control of herself, laying her folded blanket on the ground and curling up on top of it, her back to the fire and her hand resting on the handle of her bow.

   Mace chuckled softly. “I told you she’d be fine. Been hunting since she were a mite.”