Once Upon A Time - Merry Shannon



Chapter Seven

One winter morning, Talon awoke just as the first rays of dawn were creeping across the carpeted floor of the princess' chambers. She yawned and stretched a little, then swung her legs over the edge of the cot and sat up. The movement caused a peculiar sensation that made her jump up and turn to look down at her bed in dismay. Blood had formed a spreading scarlet stain on the sheets where she had been lying. Talon blushed furiously, grateful that the princess was still sound asleep.

Working quickly and quietly, the dark girl stripped the sheet from the cot, and went to her chest by the window where she removed a clean pair of undergarments, and clean breeches. She ducked into the privy chamber and closed the door behind her gently so that the noise would not wake Shasta, and then grabbed one of the heavy upholstered dressing chairs and slid it in front of the door to prevent any accidental interruption. This was one of the most difficult parts of keeping her secret; the inconvenient, monthly reminder that she was not the man she pretended to be.

She removed her soiled clothes, and padded the inside of the clean undergarments with a roll of gauze from the basket beneath the washstand before redressing. She was lucky that her young charge was also female, and suffered the same monthly inconvenience; the supplies she needed to care for her problem were within easy reach. Talon just had to ensure that the princess did not notice an unusual dwindling in the rolls of gauze. And of course, there was also the matter of her dirty clothes.

Rolling up the soiled garments, she placed them in the middle of the sheet and carefully wrapped all of it together, making a neat bundle. Talon tucked it under one arm and slid the chair away from the door. She peeked cautiously out of the privy chamber to be sure Shasta was still sleeping before emerging, and carried the bundle to the door.

When she opened it Talon was startled to see Erinda standing there expectantly.

"Good morning, Corporal," the buxom chambermaid greeted cheerfully, keeping her voice to a low whisper so as not to awaken the princess. She eyed the sheet-wrapped bundle in Talon's hands and gave a knowing grin. "Is that for me?"

Talon sighed. "How did you know?"

Erinda was the only other person in the palace who had been brought in on Talon's well-guarded secret. Nurse realized, within the first few weeks that Talon came to work as Shasta's bodyguard, that the former slave was going to need some special assistance during that time of the month to keep from being found out. Erinda was the logical choice. She was a full winter older than Talon, and had already been assigned to care for the needs of Aleria, Brie, and the princess; adding one more to the list was easy. And Erinda's family had been serving the royal family of Lysteria for four generations. She had proven herself to be a trustworthy girl, one who could be counted on to keep quiet.

The maid winked coquettishly at Talon. "I've been a chambermaid since I was six. When you've been doing this as long as I have you grow familiar with your mistress'… timing." She handed the taller girl a roll of gauze to replace what she knew Talon had already used, and took the sheets and clothes from her. "I'll bring you a fresh sheet before the princess wakes," she promised, and darted off down the corridor.

Talon watched her retreating back with confusion. She could have sworn the chambermaid had been caressing her hands as she took the bundle from her, deliberately prolonging the contact between them for a few moments longer than necessary. Talon rubbed her forehead. She had to be imagining it, she told herself. She closed the door and returned to the privy chamber, putting the replacement gauze in the basket so it would look full again.

A light knock on the sleeping chamber door signaled that Erinda had returned with the promised sheet. Talon let her in, and the busty girl went right about her work, tucking a clean sheet around the cot mattress and folding the corners into neat lines so that it would hold securely. As Erinda moved around the cot, Talon noticed that she seemed to be leaning a little farther forward than she needed to, making her impressive cleavage even more visible and pronounced. When the chambermaid looked up, met Talon's eyes, and gave a sultry smile, Talon knew it was not just her imagination. She followed the maid to the door and stepped out into the corridor with her, pulling the door closed behind them.

"What's going on?" Talon asked the maid quietly. This had been going on for weeks; the princess' chambermaid had begun flirting with her even more than usual. It used to be solely for the benefit of onlookers, or so Talon thought, but recently Erinda had been flirting even more when they did not have an audience than when they did.

Erinda lowered her eyes, her long, thick lashes casting shadows on her cheeks. "It's not obvious?" She flicked her gaze up into Talon's face. "I like you, Corporal."

Talon lifted an eyebrow. "I think you're forgetting something about me that's rather important."

"I haven't forgotten a thing." Erinda's pouty, heart shaped mouth curved upwards, almost shyly, and she used one finger to trace an invisible pattern on the shoulder of Talon's shirt. "I know what you are, Talon, and… well, it's part of the reason I like you so much."

"What are you talking about?"

The chambermaid met her eyes then, and snaked her arms up around the taller girl's neck. "I'm not suggesting that we start anything serious, Goddess knows I'm just not that kind of girl." Her face was only a finger's-breadth from Talon's, her warm breath fanning the dark soldier's lips. "All I'm saying is, it can get terribly lonely around here. Sometimes a person really just needs someone to hold them, you know… to feel close to." Talon felt her own breathing quicken as Erinda slowly pulled her head down. She knew she should stop this, but there was a part of her that wanted to know what it would feel like. She remembered her kiss with the unfortunate slave girl she'd rescued on the night she received her commission, and the warm, heady feeling that spread through her body at that gentle contact.

She was not disappointed, though Erinda's touch was softer and less purposeful than the slave dancer's had been. Talon still found herself aroused by the other girl's kiss, the way Erinda's sensual, full lips moved slightly against her own, the light salty taste of her mouth. But Talon still could not allow herself to give in completely, and after a moment she pulled back.

"Erinda, I…" Talon swallowed hard. "I can't do this. I'm not…"

Erinda smiled, trailing a finger down the smooth planes of the tall soldier's jaw. "Shhh. The idea takes time to get used to, I know."

"We're both women."

"That's the way I like it." The maid's voice was sultry and playful at the same time. "But you're not ready yet. I understand that. Just… know that the offer is open, and I'll be here." She planted a small kiss on Talon's cheek, and then sauntered away.

Talon was stunned. She stood outside the door of the princess' chambers for several minutes, her mind racing. Now that she thought seriously about it, Talon realized that Erinda had always been particularly flirtatious with her, even knowing full well that the princess' guardian was not what she seemed. Talon was used to it; many a servant girl in the castle had developed a crush on her since her arrival, and would follow her around with batting lashes and lovelorn sighs. But there was one enormous difference between those girls and Erinda-- Erinda knew.

It wasn't as if she had never heard of women like Erinda before, who preferred the intimate company of other women rather than that of men. Talon recalled one of her troupe's 'special' clients, a wealthy spinster heiress who used to pay the showmaster on a regular basis for a few hours at a time with one of the dancing girls. But she'd never imagined she might one day encounter such a person, much less find herself seriously intrigued with the idea of becoming involved with one. The more she thought about it, the more Talon realized just how right it felt, to be touched and kissed by a woman, and just how uncomfortable and bizarre those same actions felt with a man. Have I been impersonating a man so long, she found herself wondering, that somehow I've become one, on the inside? But that didn't make sense either, because Erinda was certainly not masculine in the slightest, yet she still professed attraction to women.

"Talon?" The princess' voice, muffled by the chamber door, reached her ears, and guiltily she realized that while she'd been standing in the corridor lost in thought, Shasta had awakened and was probably wondering where she'd gone.

Talon reentered the room. "I'm here, Princess."

Shasta tilted her head curiously. "What were you doing out there?"

"Nothing," her guardian shrugged, and changed the subject quickly. "You should hurry and get dressed. There's snow on the ground so you'll want to wear something warm for prayers at the temple."

The princess nodded, and waited for Talon to perform the habitual check of her privy chamber so that she could tend to her morning toilet. When she emerged, Aleria and Brie were already in her sitting room, and Talon had donned his everyday military uniform and swordbelt. Today he was also wearing a heavy cape across his shoulders, that glided above the ground by his heels as he walked. Aleria and Brie helped the princess with her own winter cloak, made of soft blue wool lined with white fur. She picked up the matching muff, which hung from a cord around her neck, to keep her hands warm.

Together they made their way across the snowy courtyard; though Shasta and her two companions had warm leather boots designed for such weather, they still slipped from time to time and grabbed onto Talon for balance. The castle grounds were strangely beautiful and ghostlike under the thick blanket of ice, and Shasta's breath formed clouds of mist in the cold air.

"I love winter," the princess declared happily, surveying the sparkling icicles dangling from bare tree branches, and the smooth, glittering expanse of unbroken snow that stretched across the ground, softening angles and piling up on the occasional fencepost or barrel. "It's so pretty and clean."

"But it's eerie, too," Aleria pointed out. "It's so quiet. Like everything is sleeping."

"I could wake it up," Shasta grinned, and suddenly threw her arms out and gave a whoop that echoed against the stone of the nearby buildings, not caring who heard. "WAKE UP!!" She spun around in a circle, but her foot hit a patch of ice and stumbled.

"Careful," Talon warned, catching her against his chest before she could fall flat on her face. He looked down at his small charge, the tips of her nose and ears bright pink from the cold, and chuckled wryly. The few people who were also making their way through the snow towards the temple had paused to see what the commotion was; realizing that it was their precocious princess, whose antics the entire palace had grown accustomed to by now, most just shook their heads and moved on. "Really, Highness, I don't think your father would approve."

"Spoilsport," she retorted, sticking her tongue out at him.

"We're going to be late," Aleria reminded them all gently, and Brie made a face at her sister.

"Yes, you wouldn't want the high priestess to see you come in after prayers had begun, would you?"

"It's disrespectful to the Goddess!"

"Sure it is," the younger girl teased. "Come on then, I'll race you."

"I'll race you both," Shasta interjected, and took off running, her wide skirts swinging from side to side.

"Hey!" Brie exclaimed, chasing after her. Aleria, not to be outdone, darted after them, and Talon had no choice but to follow and hope that neither the impetuous princess nor his foolhardy sisters would break their necks in a fall between there and the temple.

When they reached the temple doors, all four of them were out of breath and laughing. Aleria and Brie had both overtaken Shasta, in spite of the princess' head start, and so when Shasta did catch up she collapsed into both of them, causing all three girls to pile up onto the temple steps in a mass of cloaks and hoopskirts and snow. Talon came jogging up after them, and just stood there shaking his head as other temple patrons stepped around the giggling girls on the steps to get inside.

After a moment, both Aleria and Brie had caught their breath, but Shasta was still wheezing. In fact, it was getting harder to breathe, not easier, and Shasta coughed as her lungs began to burn for lack of oxygen. Her windpipe was closing, and she couldn't get any air through it. She put her hands to her throat, and in a heartbeat Talon was by her side, shooing his sisters away and calling for a healer. She looked up at him, suddenly frightened.

"I can't…" she tried to get the words out but she didn't have enough air.

"Don't try to talk, Princess. Just relax. Relax and concentrate on breathing."

But she couldn't; her lungs gasped and spasmed but it felt as if they were swollen shut and the small amount of icy air that she could get into them stabbed like needles. Shasta grabbed the wool of her guardian's jacket and closed her eyes, her entire body heaving with the effort it took to inhale. Talon suddenly shifted positions, moving behind her so that she was nestled between his legs, her back pressed up against him, and put his arms around her, one hand on her stomach and the other against her upper chest.

"Like this, Princess." He inhaled and exhaled, the motion of his own chest rising and falling behind her. "Don't think, just breathe with me. In. Out. Breathe with me." He spoke quietly into her ear, the deep tones of his voice soothing and nearly hypnotic. Shasta coughed, trying to match his rhythm, and he kept breathing against her back, steadily and deeply. "That's it, keep trying."

People had come streaming out of the temple to see what the matter was, and when they saw the princess cradled in the arms of her guardian, struggling to breathe, several of them also started shouting for the healer and took off running towards the palace. The rest just stood in a stunned circle, not sure what to do or how to help. The high priestess moved through the crowd, and when she realized what was going on, sank beside the flailing girl and placed a warm hand on her forehead. Steam from her breath rose through her white veils as she began to chant a soft prayer.

The even rhythm of Talon's breathing blended with that of the priestess' chant and became the only thing Shasta could sense clearly. Her head was spinning, she felt dizzy and her lungs felt like they were on fire. Her ears were ringing so loudly that she could scarcely hear; the rumble of Talon's voice in one ear and the priestess' light chant in the other both sounded like they were coming from a great distance away. Her hands balled into fists as she continued gasping, her strength being sapped by each breath until she wasn't sure she'd be able to lift her chest anymore. Shasta didn't know how long she lay there, but suddenly there was a pungent smell at her nose and mouth, a sharp, tingling sensation that forced the swelling in her throat and lungs to recoil. A slow, gradual feeling of release began to expand through her body, and she gulped gratefully at the air, not caring how cold it was. She was incredibly tired, with barely enough energy to do more than pant weakly in Talon's arms, but she opened her eyes to reassure him that she was all right.

"Shasta!" The first face that came into focus belonged to her father, and when he saw that she was conscious again and breathing easier, he scooped her up and held her tightly.

"I'm all right, Father," she reassured him faintly, patting his concerned face.

"The princess should recover in a matter of minutes, Majesty," said the old healer who was standing at the king's elbow, "though it is my recommendation that she receive plenty of bed rest today. Fighting for breath like that has exhausted her."

The king nodded. "You have my thanks, Master Healer." He addressed the high priestess. "My apologies, your grace, but my daughter and I will be unable to attend temple this morning."

The veiled woman bowed, her long gold earrings tinkling. "The Goddess understands, Majesty. The daughters of Irythria will keep Princess Shasta in our prayers today."

Soltran inclined his head to acknowledge her statement, and then turned and carried the princess back towards the palace himself, his heavy boots crunching briskly through the snow. Talon followed, and Brie moved as if to join them, but Aleria caught her arm.

"Not us, dear sister," she reproached with a twinkle in her eye, knowing that Brie was hoping to also be excused from having to attend temple. "It is our duty as the princess' ladies-in-waiting to remain behind and offer thanks to the Goddess for sparing her life."

Brie glared at her sister and sighed. "Oh, all right." Reluctantly she followed Aleria and the high priestess back into the temple with the other worshipers, steeling herself for a particularly long and impassioned prayer service. After such a dramatic morning, the Irythrian priestesses were sure to have a lot to say.

Soltran didn't put Shasta down until they had reached the princess' own chambers, where he gently laid his daughter onto her bed. Nurse was waiting for them, and immediately put a warm towel on Shasta's forehead before untying her cloak and removing her boots.

"Really, Nurse, there's no need for such a fuss," Shasta protested as the old woman helped her out of her snow-soaked outer clothing. "I'm fine now."

"The healer has said that you need bed rest, and bed rest you shall have, child," came the sharp reply as she fluffed the girl's pillows behind her.

Soltran stood and backed up a step so that he was standing next to Talon. "What happened?" he asked quietly, though Shasta could still hear every word.

"She… she was running, your Majesty."

"Why was she running?"

Talon rubbed the back of his neck. "She was racing Aleria and Brie to the temple."

The king rolled his eyes. "Of course she was. Let me guess who came up with that brilliant idea."

Talon did not reply, and Shasta felt bad for him. It had actually been Brie who first mentioned a race, but she didn't want her friend to be blamed, and she knew Talon did not want to get his sister into trouble. "It was my idea, Father," she volunteered brightly.

Soltran shook his head. "Shasta, how many times do I have to tell you? You know your body cannot handle such strenuous exercise, especially not out in the cold air. What would you have done if the healer had not arrived in time?"

"Died, I guess," she replied flippantly, but the king was not amused.

"That's not funny." He pressed a finger to his forehead with a frustrated expression. "Shasta, you cannot keep doing such irresponsible, childish things. You say you want to be my successor, that you are capable of ruling when I am gone without the help of your husband. But when you do things like this, it makes me doubt very much that you will even live to see your coronation."

Shasta dropped her eyes. He was really upset with her, and she knew in her heart that he was probably right. It was one thing to be careless when it was only your own neck on the line, but her life and safety was tied to so many other people, people she didn't even know who would be affected terribly if something were to happen to her.

Her father sighed heavily. "There's only so much I can do to protect you, Shasta." With that he eyed Talon. "And as for you, Corporal. I expect better. You should have stopped her."

Talon's face flinched, but he nodded. "Yes, Majesty. It won't happen again."

"See that it doesn't." He paused, and then his tone softened. "However, if it weren't for your quick thinking, helping Shasta to breathe, she might not have lasted long enough for the healer to get to her. I thank you for that." The dark soldier bowed, and Soltran turned back to his daughter. "You, young lady, are going to spend the rest of the day in bed, on the healer's orders."

"But Father, I feel fine now."

"You're not moving from that bed," he replied firmly. "Nurse, I expect you to see that she stays put."

"Yes, your Majesty," the old woman answered, shooting Shasta a stern look. Shasta pouted, but to no avail; her father only clapped Talon on the shoulder and then left her chambers.

"What am I supposed to do all day?" she complained.

"You could try resting," Talon offered dryly, and she shot him a look. He put his hands up in a mock gesture of surrender. "Hey, don't blame this on me. I tried to tell you the king wouldn't approve."

"I know." She sighed. "I'm sorry he scolded you. It wasn't your fault." She looked around the room in annoyance. "But really, how am I supposed to pass the time? I'm not sleepy."

"Perhaps you should practice your needlepoint," Nurse suggested, and Shasta groaned.

"You know I hate embroidery, Nurse."

"Yes, I know… Fourteen winters old and you haven't yet completed a single sampler worth mentioning. When I was your age, girl, I had embroidered entire tapestries. Several of them." She brought over a sewing basket and set it on the bed next to the princess, pulling out the wooden hoop that held an unfinished stitching sampler. Nurse clucked her tongue at the uneven, knotty threads scattered carelessly across the surface of the linen, and thrust the hoop at Shasta. "Here. Perhaps a day in bed will do you good in more ways than one." Shasta sighed and took the sampler, staring down at it unhappily. "Now, child, you stay here and work on that while I go and tend to the preparation of your luncheon." Nurse bustled from the room.

Talon came over to the bed and looked down at the sampler, with its complicated lines and markings showing where the thread was supposed to go. He whistled softly. "I'm so glad they don't expect me to do needlework," he quipped.

"Talon," Shasta stretched her guardian's name into a whine.

He shrugged. "I don't know what to tell you, Princess, your father says you're stuck here for the rest of the day."

"So are you," she pointed out. "What are YOU going to do?"

"I don't know. Study, probably. Captain Vaughn's been working with me on the topography of the Lysterian provinces."

"Boring." The princess scrunched her nose in distaste. She looked down at the hoop in her lap and huffed. "There's no way I can spend all day making the same tiny stitches over and over. I'm going to go crazy."

"Maybe I could read to you."

Shasta met his eyes. "Would you?" she asked eagerly, and he grinned at her sudden enthusiasm.


She craned her neck to watch as Talon entered her sitting room and went to the bookcase. "No, not from there," she called, and he looked at her in confusion. "Behind it," she directed, and though he did not quite understand, he obediently looked behind the heavy wooden bookcase. There was a small gap between the stone wall and the back of the shelves, and a tall leather-bound book had been carefully wedged there, pushed far enough back that it wouldn't have been seen if she hadn't told him to look for it. He pulled the book out and scanned the cover, his eyebrows flying up, and then returned to her bedside.

"Princess," he said, shaking the book in his hand. "What is this?"

The corners of her mouth came up in a wicked smile. "I borrowed it from Father's library one day when no one was around."

Talon exhaled in a half sigh, half chuckle. "I hardly think your Father would want you reading," he read from the cover, "Torture and Executions: An Illustrated Study of Criminal Punishment Through the Ages."

"It's interesting," Shasta insisted.

"Why would you want to read something like this?"

The princess looked down. "Because." She fidgeted. "Some of the people who died in that book were really bad. But some of them weren't, and they were killed anyway. Every day my father has to make decisions about criminals who are brought to him for sentencing. He decides whether they should live or die. And someday I'm going to have to do the same thing. Learning about the decisions that other rulers have made, and their mistakes… I think it's important." She met his eyes. "And besides, there are some really disgusting pictures."

One corner of his mouth twitched upwards. "I should have guessed you'd have a morbid streak," he commented. "Are you sure you wouldn't rather hear a nice adventure story, or one of those romances the girls around here seem to like so much?"

Shasta shook her head.

"All right, we'll read this. But as Nurse likes to say, if your father ever catches wind of it, I will deny knowing anything about it."

She snickered. "Agreed."

Talon pulled up a chair, but he had only been reading for about an hour when there came a light rap at the door, and a nasal masculine voice calling out "Princess Shasta?"

Shasta's eyes widened. "Quick, under the bed," she hissed, and Talon snapped the book shut, dropping it to the floor and kicking it beneath the princess' bed, and managed to lean back in his chair and cross his ankle over his knee in an exaggeratedly relaxed position just as the door opened. Shasta picked up her embroidery hoop, which had been lying neglected in her lap for the last half an hour, and poked the needle into the fabric with a little too much enthusiasm.

She feigned a delighted smile when she recognized her visitor. "Chancellor Kumire."

The young viceroy waved a bouquet of flowers at her. "I brought something for you."

"They're lovely," she replied politely. "Talon, do you think you could-"

"Of course, Princess," her guardian said, jumping to his feet and taking the flowers from the chancellor.

"Those are difficult to find this time of year," Kumire pointed out proudly as Talon carried the bouquet into the princess' sitting room and laid it on the low table. "Very expensive to obtain. They're grown in buildings made entirely of glass, in order to trap the sunlight." Shasta nodded, but she really wasn't listening. "I was so very worried when I heard of your… episode… this morning. I cannot express what a relief it is that you are all right."

"Thank you, Chancellor."

He stood there for a few awkward seconds, clearing his throat nervously.

"Was that all, Chancellor?"

"Uh… well…" He obviously did not want to leave, but could not think of an excuse to stay, so Shasta gave a delicate yawn.

"Oh, my, I'm just so tired," she said sweetly. "Thank you so much for dropping by, Chancellor Kumire, and for the lovely flowers. If you don't mind, I think I'm going to take a bit of a nap and rebuild my strength."

The viceroy's face fell, but he nodded reluctantly. "Oh…uh… of course, your highness. Sleep well." He gave a little bow and left the chamber.

The moment he was gone, Shasta rolled her eyes. "Ugh. He follows me around like a shadow, and he's so boring!"

Talon laughed. "He hopes to marry you, you know."

"I'd sooner take vows to become an Irythrian priestess and never marry at all, than be stuck with somebody like him for the rest of my life." The princess gave a shudder.

There was another knock at the door, and Shasta groaned. "Please don't tell me he's back…"

But this time her visitors were much more welcome; Aleria and Brie poked their heads into the chamber and grinned at the princess.

"How are you feeling?" Aleria asked.

"I feel perfectly fine, but my father insists I have to stay in bed all day," Shasta answered with a sigh.

"So we heard. We thought we might come cheer you up." Aleria winked as Brie moved to hold the door open for her, and to Shasta's surprise the dark girl pushed a large harp into the room. The princess clapped her hands excitedly.

"You'll play for me?"

"Yes, and Brie's going to sing."

Brie gave a little curtsy. "We'll make you forget all about being stuck inside all day," the younger girl promised with a grin.

"I'm glad. I haven't heard the two of you play together in a long time," Talon said approvingly, and Brie jabbed a finger in her brother's ribs playfully.

"Maybe when I'm done singing you should do a few acrobatic routines for her," she suggested, wiggling her eyebrows, and Talon made a face at her.

"I don't think so." But he did help Aleria move the harp in front of the bed where Shasta would be able to watch her play, then returned to his chair by the princess' bed.

Aleria ran her fingers lightly over the harp strings a few times, and tuned a few that were in need of it. She played another chord, delicate and full, and nodded in satisfaction when she heard no sour notes. Looking at Brie to be sure her sister was ready, the dark girl began to play.

Shasta was familiar with the sisters' musical talents; all three of them took regular music lessons together as part of a proper young lady's education. Aleria and Brie were, of course, much more advanced than she was in that respect. They had relied upon music from a very young age to please their master, and so their skills were finely developed while Shasta still struggled with the technicalities of reading and learning various pieces. But she enjoyed their lessons together; the sisters were always encouraging and willing to help her, and when she played with them it felt like, for those few minutes, she had become a part of something beautiful and much larger than herself. The princess' usual instrument in lessons was the harpsichord, which when played correctly made a lovely accompaniment to Aleria's harp and Brie's voice. She was also learning to sing, and while her own voice was not as angelic as Brie's remarkable soprano, or as rich and warm as Aleria's alto, she had a tone that was somewhere in between and so when they sang together in harmony it was a truly glorious blend of sound, even though she was not as well-trained.

Shasta knew some of the melodies Aleria played for her now, and so she sang along when she knew the words; for the songs that she didn't know, she sat back against the pillows and listened rapturously. She couldn't help noticing the pride glowing in Talon's face as he watched his sisters, and it filled her with the familiar, bittersweet longing that often struck when she spent time with all three siblings together.

It was both charming and touching to see how deeply Talon cared for his sisters. Shasta knew that the three of them had probably spent a very difficult, even traumatic, childhood together, and that had formed an unusually tight bond between them. They were all the family one another had, and the girls had been Talon's sole reason for living for many years; likewise, he was their protector and caretaker, almost like a father figure who had looked out for them since they were small children. It was beautiful to see such love and devotion between them, but it always made Shasta a little envious. Even though the three treated her like an addition to their little family, there was a history they shared that she could not be part of.

Shasta had found herself wondering more and more often recently, about the lives of her guardian and companions before they had come to live at the palace. She knew they had been slaves, but other than that they never told her anything concrete. None of them liked to talk about it. Talon had admitted, once, that they had been beaten. She'd also gathered, from comments he'd made here and there, that they had rarely received enough to eat and were often hungry. Shasta tried to imagine what that must have been like. She suddenly conjured up the memory of the man with the bullwhip in Ardrenn's markets, but instead of the pregnant slave woman, in her mind it was Talon who received the brutal lashing. The sweet, mournful sound of Brie's voice uplifted in an aria somehow made this altered memory more vivid.

Her gaze shifted to her guardian as her imagination played this vision repeatedly. He looked so strong and capable, this former slave now wearing the uniform of the royal guard, that it was difficult to picture him ragged and half-starved like the slave woman had been, helplessly suffering beneath the cracking of a whip. But she had become familiar with Talon's moods and expressions, and could easily imagine the look of fury and pain on his face were he forced to watch Aleria and Brie under such cruel punishment.

That thought brought sudden tears to her eyes. Talon had spent his entire life trying to ensure the safety of the few people who loved him, and who were weaker and unable to defend themselves. It was no wonder he was so overprotective of his sisters, and of her.

"Your highness, are you crying?" Talon's question was tinged with concern as he noticed the princess watching him, tears sliding down her cheeks.

"Oh." Shasta sniffled and looked around for a handkerchief. "I just--" The song had just ended, and she gave a sheepish smile, glad to have a reasonable excuse for her emotional state. "The music was so sad, I guess it just made me start thinking of sad things."

Brie drew a handkerchief from her bodice and handed it to Shasta. "We didn't mean to make you cry," she offered apologetically as the princess dabbed her eyes.

Shasta shook her head. "No, it was beautiful. Your singing, and the harp, they're just too beautiful for words." She smiled at her young ladies-in-waiting, forcing herself to stop picturing their sweet, pretty faces contracted in pain. Such imaginings were too morbid. Perhaps she shouldn't have asked Talon to read that particular book after all. "Please, will you sing another for me?"

Brie and Aleria exchanged glances, and Brie nodded. "Something happy this time, I think," she said as her sister struck a bright chord on the harp strings, and Shasta leaned back again. The handkerchief lay forgotten in her hands as the chamber filled with a cheerful melody.

The day passed surprisingly quickly, in spite of Shasta's confinement. When Aleria and Brie had exhausted their repertoire, they sat with the princess and shared lunch with her, then chatted for a while about the most recent court fashion trends (Shasta despised the extremely pointy toed shoes that the noblewomen were wearing with increasing regularity) and discussed some of the juicier palace gossip, like the rumor that the countess from Daiban province was caught up in a scandalous romance with her husband's coachman.

When Nurse interrupted to insist that the princess' companions attend at least a few lessons that day, Talon pulled the book from under the bed to resume reading, but she asked him if he would return it to its hiding place and choose something lighter for a while. He was surprised, but did as she asked, reading from a book of classic fairy tales and legends for the next several hours while she did her best to concentrate on the embroidery sampler in her lap. It was time for dinner before Shasta even realized the day had passed, and as the servants cleared away their empty plates she stretched and grinned at her guardian.

"Well, today wasn't so bad," she said, making sure that the door closed behind the last of the servants and that they were alone before continuing. "But I can't wait to get out of this bed tomorrow. You and I are going to visit the servants' stables the minute lessons are over. It's been days since our last practice."

Talon shook his head. "I don't think that's a good idea, Princess. Maybe we shouldn't fence together in secret anymore."

Shasta frowned. "What are you talking about?"

"After what happened today--"

"We've practiced fencing together a hundred times, Talon, and you always make me stop before I'm even close to having an attack like the one this morning."

"I know, but," he took a deep breath, "the cold weather makes it harder on your breathing. It would only take one mistake. One time, that we don't stop soon enough."

She waved a hand dismissively, but he caught it in his own and met her eyes. For the first time she realized how very serious he was. "You didn't see yourself this morning, before the healer came. You were turning blue, Highness. I really thought…" He swallowed, his voice unusually rough. "You could have died, right there in my arms. You almost did."

Shasta blinked at him. If she didn't know better, she could have sworn Talon was close to tears. He cleared his throat and released her hand, moving to the window to remove his swordbelt and jacket. His back to her, he spoke a little more firmly. "I think we should stop fencing together, at least until the weather changes. We'll both get plenty of exercise and practice in lessons with the captain, and you'll be in the palace, nearer to the infirmary, in case anything happens."

"Talon." She waited for him to turn and look at her. "I'm sorry. For scaring you today." Shasta twisted her fingers in her lap. "We won't practice out there anymore. For the winter, anyway."

Talon nodded, realizing it was a sacrifice on her part, small though it was. "Thank you."

They exchanged smiles, and Shasta realized something she hadn't before: he truly cared about her. She might not be a part of his family history, but she had her own past with him, one that not even his sisters shared. It was then that Shasta's feelings of envy dissipated, and she knew she wouldn't feel left out of their little circle any longer. She wasn't Talon's sister, but she still had a connection with him that was just as powerful, and the princess found she was quite content with that.

Part 8

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