Once Upon A Time - Merry Shannon



Chapter Eight

The day of Shasta's fifteenth birthday celebration started off badly, with an argument between the princess and her guardian that was one of the most heated they'd exchanged since he'd come to the palace. It began when she emerged from her privy chamber that morning, in the gown she was to wear for the traditional evening banquet. The gown's designer and seamstress wanted to do a few last minute alterations to the fit, and so Shasta agreed to put it on that morning and allow it to be adjusted to her figure.

Talon's eyebrows disappeared into his hairline when he caught sight of her. "What in the name of the Goddess is that?" he asked incredulously, eyeing the daringly low neckline and corset that was designed to push up the princess' feminine assets into a dazzling display. Shasta had developed quite a pretty little figure, and in that gown she looked far older than her fifteen winters.

Shasta stuck her tongue out at him. "It's the latest fashion, is what it is," she replied defensively. "I think it looks pretty. I was never old enough to wear it before, but since I've reached fifteen I'm finally allowed."

Talon shook his head. "You can't wear that in public," he protested.

"Why not? It's my body, it's my gown, it's my birthday. I'll wear what I want." She looked at herself in the mirror, patting the blue feather necklace that fell at just the right place between her breasts, drawing attention to the alluring valley between them.

"You look like a courtesan," Talon insisted darkly.

"I beg your pardon." Her eyes snapped at him. "I think you're forgetting your place, Talon. I'm the princess of Lysteria. You are my servant. I did not ask for your opinion, and I don't care what you think."

"Well then, as your servant," he replied testily, "I don't want to have to follow you around all night rescuing you from the men who are going to be drooling all over that… gown… of yours, thinking you're wearing it to tease them. You don't understand how men think, Highness. They see you in that and all decency and honor will be forgotten."

Shasta glared. "I'm going to take that as a compliment." She lifted an arm so that the little seamstress could adjust her sleeve. "I think you just can't handle it that I'm not a little girl anymore. I'm a woman now, Talon, and you're just going to have to get used to it."

"There's a difference between looking like a woman, and looking like a harlot."

The princess' mouth dropped open and her face reddened with anger. "You know what, Talon? I don't even want you at the celebration tonight, if you're going to speak to me that way. My birthday is the one day of the year that Father gives you time off. Take it, because I don't want to see your face the rest of the night."


"Not another word from you," she spat. "Your free time begins now. Get out."

"Highness, I…"

"OUT!!" the princess shrieked, pointing at the door. Her guardian's eyes narrowed.

"Fine." He stalked to the chamber door and left, slamming it heavily behind him.

Shasta gazed at herself in the mirror, biting her lip with rage. Who did he think he was, anyway? I don't care, she told herself firmly, admiring her figure in the glass. I'm a big girl, and he's just going to have to deal with it.

A few moments later there came a knock at the door. "Come in," Shasta said absently, waiting for the seamstress to finish doing whatever she was doing at the back of the gown so that she could move again.

Captain Vaughn entered the chamber. "Talon says you kicked him out," he told the princess, struggling to hide the amusement in his voice as he eyed the princess' celebration gown. He could understand why his young protégé had been so upset about it; in that gown she looked more attractive and grown-up than he'd ever seen her.

Shasta's eyes narrowed. "I did."

"Then I guess it will be my duty to defend your honor from all the men who fall in love with you tonight," the captain quipped, taking Shasta's hand and pressing it to his lips. "Truly, you do look lovely."

"You should tell Talon that," she retorted, and a note of frustration in her voice caused a twitch in the soldier's brow.

"I'm sure he didn't mean to hurt your feelings," Vaughn assured her with a smile.

"I don't care what he thinks."

"Of course not, Highness," the captain replied smoothly, knowing perfectly well that it was a lie. Shasta looked up to Talon like a brother, and his criticism cut deeply, no matter how she might deny it.

"I really don't," she repeated, smoothing the front of her skirt with her hands. She just wouldn't think about Talon for the rest of the night. There was no way she was going to let him ruin the fun of the celebration for her.

Erinda found Talon sitting on a bench in the royal gardens, whittling away at a small stick with the knife from her belt, and looking like she'd just swallowed a mouthful of briars. It was a sunny day in early spring, and the snow had all but melted away entirely, leaving dark puddles here and there on the stones of the path. A few of the garden blossoms were beginning to open, and a gentle breeze ruffled the dark girl's hair as she sat chipping away at the stick in her fingers.

"Corporal Talon, I'm surprised to see you here," she said, sitting down next to her, close enough that her thigh pressed into the taller girl's suggestively.

Talon looked up and met the chambermaid's gaze. "The princess has decided she doesn't want my company today, and since the king has technically given me the day off there isn't much I can do about it."

Erinda clucked her tongue sympathetically. "What did you do to her?"


The shorter girl lifted an eyebrow. "She wouldn't have kicked you out over nothing. You must have said something to make her angry."

"I told her she looked like a harlot."

Erinda clapped a hand over her mouth to muffle her laughter. "You didn't."

"I did. You should see the gown she's planning on wearing tonight."

"I've seen it," Erinda replied, still giggling. "I just can't believe you'd say something like that. It's a wonder she didn't have you tossed into the dungeons."

"I wouldn't care if she did," Talon replied hotly, flicking a chip of wood with her knife a little too aggressively. "She looks ridiculous."

"You mean she looks sexy."

Talon's eyes widened. "Sexy?"

"Sure. She looks like a ripe, sensual, mature young woman and you don't like it." Erinda gave her a knowing grin. "Maybe you're jealous."

"I most certainly am not."

"Your sister Aleria is wearing the same style tonight. You've already seen her gown and I don't recall you getting this upset about it."

"That's different. Aleria's…"

"She's the same age as the princess. She has an even more developed figure," the chambermaid pointed out.

"But Aleria's not…" Talon ran a hand through her hair, the knife recklessly dangling from her fingers. "Aleria knows what she's doing. She carries herself differently than the princess. Even in a dress like that no one will dare to touch her, you know? She just gives off this unapproachable aura, I guess. But Shasta, she's too innocent and naïve for her own good." The dark soldier gave a grunt of irritation. "Every man in the palace is going to be chasing after her tonight. Chancellor Kumire, everyone."

"Sounds like jealousy to me."

"Well, it's not." Talon scuffed the toe of her boot in the dirt, refusing to say anything else.

Erinda grinned and patted her on the shoulder. "Whatever you say." With her index finger she delicately flicked the dark girl's earlobe, and leaned forward, her breath warm and tickling on Talon's neck. "Just remember, if you need someone to help you relieve the tension, I'll be waiting for you."

Talon stared at her, too startled to speak, and the buxom girl winked and stood up. "I have to get back to the kitchens. It's going to be chaos around here all day with the last-minute preparations. Enjoy your day off." She sashayed away down the garden path, her shapely behind swaying side to side in a most attractive way.

Talon felt her cheeks burning, and she looked back down at the stick in her hand, hacking at it with renewed vigor. "Jealous. Hah. Not a chance." But the garden was empty, and there was no one to hear her stubborn assertion but the cool spring wind and the little birds flitting through the trees above.

Shasta sat at the head table with her father on one side, and Captain Vaughn on the other. She had been thoroughly enjoying all the attention being lavished on her throughout the evening, and had to admit that perhaps Talon had been right, in his way. Every man she passed, from the provincial governors to the serving boy who poured her wine, had eyed her with appreciation. A few had even whistled softly or made a particularly lavish display of kissing her hand and commenting how lovely she looked. She couldn't understand why Talon had been so worried, though. No one had treated her with anything less than complete respect and politeness. She felt prettier than she ever had before, and was almost sorry Talon wasn't there to see it. She was sure he would have changed his mind.

The serving boy kept refilling her wine glass. Shasta did not much care for wine; it was the primary beverage served at the palace, as clean water was often difficult to come by. But the princess was usually careful to drink no more than a glass before switching to fruit juice or milk, which were less potent. She didn't enjoy the lightheaded, dizzy feeling of tipsiness. However, tonight she was feeling very grown up, and the servants kept refilling her glass before she'd even half emptied it, so she quickly lost track of how much she was drinking. It was not until the banquet had ended, and the guests were dismissed to wander about the gardens for the reception, that she rose to her feet and realized just how much the wine had gone to her head.

"Whoa, careful now, Highness," the captain said as she swayed and caught his arm for balance. "Perhaps you should retire to your room for the night?"

Shasta shook her head, unwilling to give up the evening's adoration and fun so soon. "Thank you, Captain, but I'm fine. I think I may have had a bit too much to drink, but really, I'm all right."

"Your highness, may I escort you to the reception?" Chancellor Kumire stood at her side, offering his elbow. In her compromised state, Shasta could not think of an appropriate refusal, so reluctantly she took his arm and allowed him to lead her towards the garden entrance, Captain Vaughn following behind.

In the gardens, Shasta found herself clinging to the young viceroy's arm more for balance than because she wanted to. He smiled down at her as they made their way to the garden square, a large area covered by close-set paving stones, with an enormous fountain shaped in the likeness of a shapely, nearly-nude peasant girl pouring water from a jar into the basin below. The court musicians had moved from the banquet hall to set up around the base of the fountain, and so the splashing of the water mingled with the sounds of their stringed instruments and the chatter of a hundred subdued voices. All the sounds blurred together in Shasta's head.

Kumire led the princess to a seat on one of the stone benches, from which she could watch the musicians play, and offered a low bow. "May I get your highness something to drink?" he asked.

Shasta nodded, hoping that additional fluid might help clear her head. "Just some juice, please. I've had enough wine for one night." A smile spread across his face and he nodded.

"Of course, highness. I will be right back."

Captain Vaughn, standing at her shoulder, shook his head. "Princess, you don't seem well. Are you sure you don't want to--"

She cut him off. "I'm fine, Captain. I want to enjoy my party."

He gave a resigned sigh as the chancellor returned with a glass filled with red liquid. "Here you are, highness."

Shasta took the glass from him. "What is it?"

"A blend of juices, I believe, that the cook created especially for the reception. They said it's mostly apple juice, with some other berry flavors."

Shasta took a sip. "Mmm. It's good."

"I'm glad you like it." There was something about the chancellor's smile that Captain Vaughn did not like, and the soldier opened his mouth to ask for more details, but was interrupted by a young lieutenant who came up behind him.

"Good evening, Captain. I just wanted to come over and say hello."

Vaughn shook hands with the younger man and exchanged pleasantries; as tedious as these social functions were, he understood the importance of giving attention to the junior officers trying to make a good impression. When the lieutenant offered a final salute and excused himself, Captain Vaughn turned and discovered to his dismay that the princess and the chancellor were nowhere to be seen. Cursing, he made his way through the crowd to look for them; he was supposed to fulfill Talon's duties tonight and he'd already managed to break the guardian's number one order: never let Shasta out of sight.

"Chancellor, where are we going?" Shasta giggled, tripping a little over her own feet and gripping the viceroy's arm to avoid falling over. "I feel… so strange…"

"It's just the wine, highness," Kumire assured her with a silky smile. "Here, have another sip of this." He watched with greedy eyes as the princess obediently took a big swallow. "That's it." The glass contained more than fruit juice, of course. In truth it was primarily a liquor even harder than wine, but Shasta didn't need to know that. He'd been waiting for this chance, to get the princess away from that annoying captain of the royal guard who had been hovering over her shoulder all night. This was the first time he'd ever truly been alone with her, and he planned to make the most of it.

"Your highness, you look so beautiful tonight," he intoned, taking the empty glass from her and tossing it away into the bushes behind them. He grasped both of her hands, bringing them to his lips. "You are truly a vision. I can't believe how you've grown."

Shasta pulled her hands away, her head spinning. "Thank you, Chancellor. Don't you think we should go back to the party?" She turned as if to go, but was confused. In the dark, with her impaired senses, she wasn't sure which way the party was. Kumire came up behind her, putting his hands at her waist and speaking over her shoulder into her ear.

"Not yet." He trailed a line of kisses down her neck, to her shoulder, and spun her around to face him, his arms holding her firmly so that she could not escape. "Such a pretty girl," he said, placing one hand against her cheek, and leaning forward.

Shasta pushed against his chest and turned her face away, though she was not strong enough to break his grasp. "Chancellor, please."

He took her chin in his fingers, forcing her to turn back towards him. "You should relax, Princess. I'm not going to hurt you. I just want you to give me a kiss."

She shook her head, freeing it from his hand. "No, I don't want--"

"You'll like it, you'll see." He lowered his head, and she put a hand up, this time forcibly pushing his face away.

"Stop, please, Chancellor."

His eyes darkened. "What's the matter? You think you're too good for me?"

"No, I just…" Shasta's head was spinning, and as he again attempted duck in towards her lips, she struggled more violently in his arms. "I mean it, I don't want this. Stop it!"

She couldn't get any farther away from him, and her struggling was to no avail; he was much stronger than she was and the drinks had overwhelmed her senses so that she could not think of how to defend herself. Kumire held her face in one hand, and her waist firmly pressed to him in the other, and his lips were only a hairsbreadth from hers when suddenly his head snapped back, and his grip on her was abruptly torn away.

Shasta stumbled back a few steps and put a hand to her aching head. When she looked up, she could just make out with her wine-blurred vision the tall, dark form of her guardian, holding the chancellor by his hair, and with one arm twisted behind his back. "Talon," she hiccupped with relief, and then her legs would not hold her up any more and she dropped in a heap of silks to the ground, holding herself up with her hands and moaning as a wave of nausea threatened to empty her stomach into the nearby bushes.

There was a commotion as Captain Vaughn came charging towards them, alarmed by the sound of Shasta's voice. He took one look at the princess on the ground, and Talon's livid face as the soldier girl gripped Chancellor Kumire in an inescapable hold. He could easily guess what had happened, and he tapped Talon on the shoulder. "I can take over from here, my boy," he said quietly, nodding his head towards the girl retching into the bushes. "You should get Princess Shasta back to her rooms quickly. There's no need to make a scene."

For a moment he feared that his young student was going to break the viceroy's arm, she looked so angry. But Talon took a deep breath, her eyes on Shasta, and nodded. "You touch her again," she hissed dangerously into Kumire's ear, "and I will kill you." She released the chancellor, shoving him roughly at Captain Vaughn who seized the young man firmly by the shoulder.

Talon bent down and put Shasta's arms around her neck, scooping the small girl up. The princess was too dazed to do anything more than cling to her guardian's shoulders, burying her face in the warmth of her jacket. "Mmm. You smell nice," the princess mumbled, nuzzling the dark soldier's neck.

She stiffened a little as the princess' lips brushed her skin, but patted Shasta awkwardly on the back. "Let's get you into bed," she said quietly, deliberately choosing a path through the garden that would not take them back through the party where there were sure to be questions and rumors at the sight of the drunken girl.

"Not tired," the princess protested, but Talon paid no attention, and carried her back into the palace and up to her rooms. Upon arriving, she helped her young charge directly into the privy chamber and held her voluminous skirts out of the way as the princess threw up into a chamber pot. The maids were all waiting on the party below, and so without waiting for help Talon unbuttoned the back of the other girl's dress, lifting it over her shoulders.

"Hey," Shasta protested weakly.

"I'm sorry, Princess, but we need to get you out of these clothes. I promise to be quick." Talon untied the hoop skirts, leaving them abandoned on the floor of the privy chamber for the time being, and unlaced the whalebone corset, dropping it with the hoops and leaving the princess wearing only her linen shift. Wrapping a dressing robe around Shasta's shoulders, Talon guided the princess back to the bed.

Just as she had tucked her in, Shasta looked up at Talon with apologetic, bleary eyes. "Talon, I think I'm going to…" she made a small gagging noise.

"I'll get it," Talon promised, darting into the privy chamber and bringing the chamber pot to the bedside just in time to catch a second wave of the princess' sickness. When her body had stopped heaving, Talon lowered the pot to the floor and covered it with a lid.

"Yuck," Shasta exclaimed, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

"Don't do that, Highness. Here." Talon pulled a white handkerchief from her pocket and gently cleaned the princess' face. "That's better." She left the linen square on the bedside table should Shasta need it again, and stood. "I'm going to make you some tea to help calm your stomach."

Shasta watched her guardian move quickly around the room, filling the teakettle from the pitcher on the table and swinging it out over the fireplace to boil. "Talon, I'm sorry…"

"Shh, Princess. Just rest."

"No, I mean it." She struggled to lift herself onto one elbow. "I shouldn't have yelled at you the way I did this morning. You were right. And now I'm sick and you're being so nice…"

"All part of the job," Talon replied lightly, but seeing the hurt in Shasta's face she sighed. "I'm just glad you're all right."

"Me too."

Shasta was quiet as Talon prepared her tea, measuring out the tea leaves into a silver strainer and choosing one of the china teacups from the sitting room cabinet. The kettle over the fire began to boil and she retrieved it, pouring steaming water into the cup and then hanging the kettle back on the iron hook. She brought the cup to Shasta's bed, swirling the strainer to darken the tea. "Here you go. This should help." Shasta took the cup from her hands and sipped at it, even though it was still very weak. Talon smiled down at her and moved to take off her sword and uniform jacket. It was past the princess' usual bedtime anyway, so she figured she might as well get undressed and go to sleep. Faint music drifted up through the window. It would still be several hours before the celebration below would wind down.

Talon removed her boots and laid them neatly against the wall, then blew out the lamp on the table. She went back to the princess' bed and took the tea strainer, returning it to the sitting room, and then blew out the two sitting room lamps. Coming back to the sleeping chamber, it was much darker; only one lamp remained, the one at the princess' bedside table, which the princess herself always extinguished when she was ready.

Talon slid her legs under the blankets of her cot, and laid down, tucking one arm behind her head and closing her eyes. But Shasta was not ready to sleep yet.

"Have you ever kissed anyone?"

Talon's eyes flew open again. "What?"

Shasta peered down at her over the edge of the bed. "Have you ever kissed a girl before?"

Talon blinked, and sat up. "Why?"

"Just wondering."

"Well… yeah, I guess." Technically the girls had kissed her, but she was pretty sure it didn't matter.

"How many?"

"How many what?"

Shasta wiggled her eyebrows. "How many girls have you kissed?"

Talon blew out a breath. "It's really none of your business."

"Oh, come on." The princess puffed out her lower lip. "You have to tell me. Please? You know I'll just keep asking until you do."

The dark girl rolled her eyes, and she gave in. "Two."

Shasta frowned. She was still tipsy, Talon could tell by the way her eyes were just slightly unfocused. "That's all?"

"It isn't enough?" Her guardian gave a slight chuckle. "It's just that… well, I see how all the girls around here look at you. I bet you could kiss as many of them as you want. Some of the noblewomen, too." She winked at Talon and dissolved in a fit of giggling.

Talon shook her head. "Go to sleep, Highness." She laid back down.

"What's it like?'

"What's what like?"

The princess giggled again. "Kissing. What's it like?"

The darker girl sighed and sat up again, regarding the princess with amusement. "If you wanted to know so badly, why didn't you just let Chancellor Kumire kiss you tonight?"

"Ugh." Shasta made a face. "I can't stand him. He's so… well, if you were a girl would you want him kissing you?"

This gave Talon pause. "I suppose if I were a girl," she said slowly, the irony of the words making her want to laugh, "I wouldn't want his lips anywhere near me."

"See." She waved an arm in the air, for no particular reason that Talon could tell. "I don't want my first kiss to be from someone like him. It's going to be something I'll remember the rest of my life. Can you imagine?" The princess shuddered. "I want my first kiss to be with somebody I like. Somebody who I feel safe with. Like you." Talon gave a sharp intake of breath as the princess' eyes suddenly widened with a look her guardian knew well. "You should kiss me."

"Princess, you're still very drunk." Talon turned her back and laid down on her cot. "Just lay down and go to sleep."

"No, I mean it. You should give me my first kiss. I can't think of any other man in the entire palace I like as much as you."

"It's not going to happen, Highness."

"But… you're not always going to be there, Talon. When I get stuck with the Kumires of the world. What if you hadn't gotten there in time tonight? My first kiss would have been ruined forever."

"If you had listened to me this morning, and hadn't sent me away, he wouldn't have had the opportunity."

"I know." The regret in the princess' voice was genuine, though her speech was still a little slurred. "But I've made up my mind. I want you to be my first kiss."


Shasta's eyes narrowed. "I can make you."

"No, you can't." Talon still had her back to Shasta. "What are you going to do, tell your father?"

"Maybe. I could tell him about that slave girl you brought up here last year."

"What?" This made Talon roll over and sit up, staring at Shasta in disbelief.

The princess gave a little smile. "Didn't think I knew about that, did you? You paid that slave master all the money Captain Vaughn gave you to bring that little redheaded dancer up here. To my room."

"It wasn't like that." Talon shook her head. "Nothing happened. I just wanted to keep her from getting beaten for my mistake."

"I wonder if that's what Father will think when he finds out," Shasta said triumphantly.

"Princess, you can't…"

"Just one kiss, Talon. It's not like I'm asking you to marry me or anything."

Talon sighed. "This is a very bad idea." But Shasta had already scooted out of her own bed, coming to sit beside her on the low cot. She closed her eyes and lifted her face expectantly.

Talon didn't know what else to do. Shasta didn't know that she wasn't a man, but the king certainly did. She couldn't imagine how she'd be able to explain to Soltran why she'd paid for a slave girl to accompany her to the princess' chambers during last year's celebration. It would have been shameful enough had she been a man, but as a woman, she had the sinking feeling that the king would be even less understanding. She took a deep breath, and gave the princess a peck on the lips.

Shasta opened her eyes. "Not fair," she said petulantly. "I want a real kiss. That one was just exactly how Father greets me every morning."

Talon closed her eyes, then opened them again. "The king's going to kill me."

"Who's going to tell him, you? There's no one else here." She lifted her face again.

Talon didn't have any choice. She leaned forward and pressed her lips to Shasta's, more firmly this time.

The smaller girl lifted a hand to her guardian's face, and the gentle brush of the princess' fingers against her cheek caused an explosion within Talon that was unexpected, and unlike anything the dark soldier had ever felt before. Her arms came up of their own volition, encircling Shasta and drawing the princess close. Her skin felt like it was tingling everywhere that the other girl touched it, and for the first time Talon knew what desire was. She found herself wanting… no, longing for Shasta's touch, in a way that she'd never thought possible. Hungrily her lips moved against the smaller girl's, and she thrust her tongue gently against small pearly teeth until they parted, allowing her access to the warm sweetness of the princess' mouth. She tasted the tea and a lingering hint of wine, and for a breathless moment her tongue danced with the princess' own small one, until Talon knew she had to stop this before it went so far that she was unable to call a halt.

She pulled away without meeting the princess' eyes. "Happy?" she asked, her voice huskier than she would have liked.

Shasta just sat quietly, her fingers coming up to touch her lips wonderingly. "Wow," was all the princess said, and Talon gave a short laugh that was harsher than she intended.

"Now, will you please go back to bed and let me get some sleep?" She avoided Shasta's eyes as the princess crawled back up into her own bed, and blew out the light.

Talon laid back on her own pillow, and listened as the princess' breathing gradually deepened into an even, soft rhythm. She stared at the ceiling above them, the shadows forming long patterns against the stone. What in the name of the Goddess was that? , she asked herself over and over again. She'd only been kissed twice before, but neither experience had been like this. She'd found herself intrigued, even aroused, by the others, but never had she felt like this, like a fire had been kindled in her very skin at the princess' lightest touch. Even now her body ached with the desire to take Shasta back into her arms, to wake the sleeping girl and kiss her once more until they were both senseless. And it was terrible, she told herself. Completely impossible. The princess was like a sister to her, and Talon felt dirty for even thinking such a thing. Only right now her feelings for Shasta were anything but sisterly.

With a low groan Talon rolled onto her side. Sleep would be a long time coming tonight.

The next morning she could barely bring herself to meet Shasta's eyes, but she did her best to seem as cheerful and nonchalant as she could. Shasta didn't mention their kiss from the night before, and that suited Talon just fine. She wasn't sure what exactly the princess had done to her, but now she could barely look at her young charge, going about her morning preparations, without feeling the same fire from last night re-ignite low in her stomach. What's wrong with me, she chided herself in near desperation. It didn't used to be like this.

Talon agonized throughout breakfast and morning prayers, certain that everyone who looked at her could see the guilt written plainly on her face. Just standing near the princess was difficult; the sweet fragrance of her hair was constant torture. Talon was so ashamed of herself that she was surprised no one else seemed to notice her discomfort.

The princess took lunch in her chambers as usual, and Erinda bustled around the sitting room pouring tea and serving the plates. Talon watched the chambermaid with dark eyes as she worked, and Erinda, sensing the soldier's gaze, rewarded her with several winks and seductive smiles. Talon knew she shouldn't, but she couldn't help herself. She had to do something, or else continue to endure this silent shame for who knew how long. As Erinda came to refill her teacup, Talon reached up and caught the other girl's wrist.

Erinda looked down at her, surprised, and Talon returned her gaze evenly. The maid's lips parted slightly and her eyes widened in understanding; then a slow smile spread across her face and she nodded. Talon released her wrist, filled with a strange sense of relief as Erinda finished up her duties and took leave of the room.

That night, when the princess had finished her bath and sat in a chair toweling her hair and humming softly, Talon rose from her spot by the fire.

"I'm going to bathe now," she said quietly.

"Good," Shasta affirmed cheerfully. "It's about time. Have fun."

Talon nodded and ducked into the privy chamber. Erinda was waiting for her inside.

Talon closed the door behind her, sliding one of the dressing chairs in front of the door to prevent interruption, and then removed her jacket and began to unbutton the white shirt she wore beneath. Erinda stepped forward and helped her with the buttons, a slow, sultry smile spreading across the buxom chambermaid's face.

Part 9

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