Five years later
Caitlin let out a heavy yawn and stretched as she made her way down the hall. She spent the majority of last night tossing and turning, her mind racing through all the possibilities of what was to come the following day. It was strange, knowing one’s world was going to undergo a massive change, but the excitement had made falling asleep very difficult.
At last being able to achieve a lifelong dream was exciting enough, but this was going to be her first true test; she wasn’t going to have her father or one of his hired tutors keeping a watchful eye on her progress. Walking the proverbial tightrope without the safety net terrified lesser warriors, but that only made things more exciting for the Princess of Amorado.
By tomorrow night, her world would never be the same.
First, however, she needed a large breakfast.
The hallway was lined with a dark crimson carpet and pairs of stone pillars. Between each was a portrait of one of her ancestors, neatly spaced so those passing by could show each the appropriate amount of reverence. Most of them were distant relatives who were legendary for their knowledge of politics or plants, but Caitlin was only interested in the noble heroes and great warriors of her family tree.
The exception was her maternal grandmother, Abigail Harrison-Ward.
Mother always claimed to see a resemblance between the two. Caitlin didn’t see it, but the compliment was nice. Her portrait didn’t exude beauty or intelligence, but she had the blue eyes and sweet smile of a kind, gentle soul. According to Mother, she possessed a fearsome sense of humor and found great joy in playing practical jokes on her husband and two children. It was unfortunate they never met, but Caitlin believed that her grandmother was watching over her and the rest of the family. Now, she knew for certain.
“I’m going to make you proud.” She whispered to the portrait.
Caitlin took a last second to absorb the moment before she turned and collided with one of the family’s many workers. Andrea had been carrying four finely crafted plates with the Faraday insignia embroidered in the center, three of which fell harmlessly to the carpet. Caitlin leapt over Aldreda's body and caught the plate, shifting her body ninety degrees mid flight so she’d land on her side and prevent it from being crushed.
“That-that was incredible, Caitlin!” Aldreda said, standing up before kneeling in recognition of her earlier folly. “I-I mean, I apologize, my Lady! I didn't mean to crash into you that way! It was very dishonorable of me to endanger your father’s finest dinery because of my negligence.”
The Princess gave her a calming smile. “It’s alright, Aldreda, and please don’t kneel or apologize in my presence. I’m not my mother.”
Aldreda, with the terrified expression of a youthful, newly appointed employee, looked up to make sure it wasn’t a prank before returning to her feet. “I apologize for-uh, apologizing, Caitlin. His Grace requested to eat on these even though it wasn’t a special occasion, but Her Grace commanded me to place them somewhere he couldn’t access without her knowledge.”
“Of course she did,” Caitlin rolled her eyes and handed her the plate. “Don’t be afraid of her. The Queen likes to bark orders when she’s in a foul mood, but she’s harmless.”
That got a tiny grin out of her. “I’ll keep that in mind, my Lady.”
“I’d also prefer if you called me Caitlin.” The Princess hated it when other people went on hand and foot to serve her, especially those her age. Even if they were considered royal servants, she hated being patronized.
“I will keep that in mind as well, Caitlin.”
“Good morning, Caitlin,” The Queen said. “Did you sleep well last night?”
Caitlin took her seat adjacent to her parents. “Fine.” She said, displeased that the plates and utensils weren’t set. The Queen insisted no one eat until all family members were present, but now it looked like she was taking the idea even further.
As annoying as the daily ritual could be at times, the dining hall was one of her favorite parts of the castle. Part of the affection likely came from the delicious food, but there was something comforting about eating there every morning with her family. A portrait of her grandmother kept watch over occupants with an ever present eye, and the air was always warm thanks to the fireplace; Caitlin didn’t like making special requests to the staff, but she insisted they get the fire running at least twenty minutes before her arrival during the colder months. Some didn’t consider October a cold month, but Caitlin cared little for their opinions.
“Caitlin, I meant to tell you,” Her mother continued. “Your father and I are going to be meeting Madeline Godfrey and her husband today, would you like to join us?”
That affection could be quieted just as quickly. “I’d rather not but thank you.”
“A wise choice, Caitlin,” Her father said. “That whole family is insufferable.”
“What? Don’t pretend you enjoy their company, Mary; you told me yesterday you thought the entire family was a coven of arrogant morons.”
“That’s not the point.” Her mother growled.
Caitlin and her father shared a subtle smile as the doors behind them creaked open, signaling Lilith’s arrival. “Our savior deigns to show her face,” Caitlin said before her sister sat down. “May we now eat?”
“Nice to see you, too, Caitlin,” Lilith said as she took her seat. “And, yes, I give my subjects permission to eat.”
“Finally,” Their father said. “Look at my stomach, I’m famished!”
“Before we do,” Their mother said, eliciting a loud groan from their father. “Lilith, you’re planning to meet Miss Godfrey’s daughter Jacqueline for lunch, maybe Caitlin would like to come along?”
“Actually,” Caitlin said as the staff swarmed inside with an array of delicious plates. Herring for her and Father, toast and eggs for Lilith and Mother. “I’m going to visit Odonia for a few days”
The Queen beamed at the prospect. “That’s fantastic, Caitlin! Is there anything you two have planned?”
“ We’re going to braid each other's hair and talk about cute boys we like!” Even by Caitlin’s standards for sarcastic quips, that was harsh, and she didn’t want her mother soured on the lie. “Her cousin is visiting and is supposed to be skilled with a harp. She’s performing an original composition that’s over an hour in length.”
“That sounds wonderful Odonia’s such a lovely girl. A touch curt, but you two have always been good friends. Remind me, does she have three or four brothers?”
“Three brothers, two sisters.” Caitlin said with just a hint of self-satisfaction. Keeping the ego in check was important, and she certainly didn’t enjoy lying, but she believed her ability to craft and execute deceptions was among the best in the world. Visiting a neighboring kingdom’s royal family implied the possibility of meeting an oafish but well-off man.
For now, Caitlin enjoyed the meal with her family.
“So, Lilith,” She said. “Lunch with Jacqueline Godfrey. That sounds delightful.”
“I don’t understand all the scorn. Jacqueline is a great conversationalist who always has something nice to say about other people. You’d do well to learn from that.”
“That’s a nice way of saying she’s untroubled by the complexities of life.”
“Please stop, both of you.” The Queen said.
"She’s right, Caitlin. Cease your mockery or Arahkum will curse you and you’ll end up stuck riding along with someone you hate for several days.” The King said in a deep, faux-clerical voice.
“First, I’d have to think of someone more noxious than the Godfreys.”
That seemed to push the Queen over the edge. She looked like Caitlin just swore. “I acknowledge everyone here dislikes the Godfrey family, but your father and I asked Lilith if she would tolerate them for a day. Placating them helps us keep the peace.”
“I truly don’t think she’s that bad, Mother.”
“I know, Lilith, but what’s important is acknowledging that we all have to make sacrifices for the ones we love. We put those closest to us before ourselves because-what are you doing?” Her mother said, attempting to swat away her father’s fork as he poked at her plate. “What do you think you’re doing?”
The King continued to strike at her breakfast. “I spotted that slice of toast with butter and decided to forgo your dietary treaty.”
“Eat your herring, Benjamin, please. It’s for your health.”
“I don’t even get to put salt on it, Mary, that’s the type of evil we stood against when we were younger. Tell you what, Caitlin, Lilith; the three of us will forgo food until such time as this constraint is lifted!”
“I’m with you, my king.” Lilith said without looking up from her plate.
Mother hated it whenever they encouraged Father’s antics, but Caitlin thought her mother lacked a sense of humor. “I’ll join your rebellion, Father,” She put down her fork and crossed her arms. “Let us cast off the yoke of tyranny together.”
Across town, in a tiny cottage flanked on all sides by trees, Jamie was finishing a meal before work. The birds were chirping their morning song and sunlight covered the walls in a peaceful, orange glow. While making sure his grey surcoat and light chain mail armor were free of crumbs, he heard the front door open and the sound of his grandfather slowly making his way inside.
"Mornin’, Jamie,” He said. “Up nice and early, are we?”
“Good morning, Grandfather,” Jamie replied. “I wanted to check on Malcot before I left for work, maybe give him one last meal before we leave.”
“That won’t be necessary, cuz we just had breakfast. Well, mostly I ate a little somethin’ while I fed him carrots. I tell ya’ what, he’s a true member of this family, never passes up a meal,” He smiled and took a seat across from Jamie. “And don’t worry none about takin’ him tonight, I’m gonna do it.”
“I already told you, I’m more than happy to take Malcot back.” Jamie said.
“Love ya’ to pieces, Jamie, but I’ve done things my way me’ whole life, and I’m not stopping now, even for you.”
“I’m not saying you shouldn’t, I just think I’d be better suited to the task,” From time to time, Jamie forgot that his grandfather was the most stubborn person in the world; the type who interpreted offering to pick up a dropped utensil as a slight upon his honor. But what would happen if he fell off Malcot and injured himself in the middle of the forest? Or what if a group of bandits decided to take the horse from him? “I’m a knight, I was trained to ride horseback.”
He scoffed. “You say that like it’s somethin’ to be proud of.”
Despite the sarcasm, Jamie knew Grandfather felt wounded, which would only make him dig in harder. Jamie was going to continue the argument when Grandmother walked in from the adjacent bedroom.
“Morning, my favorite gents.” Jamie’s grandfather leaned back to face his wife, who leaned in, cupped his cheek and planted a light kiss on it: “How are ya’, darling?”
“Not so great, cuz’ my grandson thinks I’ma’ invalid who can’t ride a horse.”
She rolled her eyes and pulled back. “He does not think that,” His grandmother said. “I don’t know why you gotta’ give him such a hard time about Malcot.”
“I have to bring Malcot back to the O’Doererys,” Jamie said. “But he insists on going himself.”
“Have ya’ forgotten your grandson isn’t a wee boy anymore? He’s a knight trained to ride horses, Domnall, and he’s offerin’ to do it for free. Since when have ya’ past up on somethin’ that’s free?”
“It sounds like you’re sayin’ I’m a cheap-ass who can’t ride a horse no more. Did either of ya’ know me and Fintan Sullivan used to ride horses through snow and wind when we was Jamie’s age,” He said. “Alright, fine, just for you, Bridget, but I’m the one who bought the horse, don’t neither of you go misremembering that.”
“Promise we won’t,” She rolled her eyes and sat down beside him. “Now, what you got goin’ on today, Jamie?”
“Claire and I will be working, then it’s straight back here to take a ride with Malcot.”
“We gotta’ have Claire over for dinner again sometime, she’s such a sweet girl.” She said.
“Ya’ know, if you got somethin’ else goin’ on, I can always cover for you with taking Malcot back, Jamie.” His grandfather said.
“Thank you, Grandfather, but I promise I’m fine taking her.” Jamie said, scraping down the last of his food. Before the argument reignited, he stood and went to his room to retrieve his equipment. At the door, he turned to say goodbye to his grandparents. “I’ll be back after my shift ends. Grandmother, please don’t let him take Malcot.”
“Just as long as you don’t go breakin’ too many maidens’ hearts today, you understand son?” His grandfather pointed with a mischievous smile.
After he departed, Bridget put a hand on Domnall’s shoulder. “Jamie ain’t tryin’ to hurt your pride,” She said. “If anythin’ happened to you while you were deliverin’ Malcot, he’d never forgive himself.”
Domnall gave a hefty sigh. “I know, it was wrong of me to argue. Breaks my heart to still see him that way, even now.”
Amorado’s Castle Town bustled with life. Among the rows and rows of grey buildings with cobblestone roofs, horse drawn carts perpetually brought people and supplies in one direction or the other and the streets were littered with merchants eager to draw in customers. Lucky for the citizenry, crime was a relatively tame problem, as Knights were enough to deter the majority of nefarious characters. Most of Jamie’s days consisted of him walking around trying his best to look intimidating.
It also helped that he had Claire Donovan watching his back. The two spent the past hour walking the streets of Skystead, careful to keep an eye out for potentially dangerous characters. Presently, the two were walking through cobbled streets past Harrison’s Cathedral, an intricately designed behemoth dusted with a light brown coat of paint.
“Unfortunately, I’m not a wizard who can look into people’s minds.” Jamie said.
“I’m not saying you have to be, all you need is the ability to see the world around you,” Claire said. She was dressed in the same silver surcoat and chainmail armor as Jamie, with her long, blonde hair kept neatly in a bun. “If you actually talk to a beautiful lady who’s interested in getting to know you, you’ll find there are plenty of hard to miss signs that she likes you. But you won’t know for sure unless you ask.”
“You’re saying I should just scoop a woman into my arms? What if she thinks I'm a disgusting monster before that?"
"They probably won’t like it if you pounce on them like a wild animal, no, but if you need them to tell you they find you attractive, I think the problem may lie with you, Jamie.”
He was going to offer a rebuttal, but a scuffle down the street caught his eye. A woman around his age stood with her arms crossed in front of a gesticulating merchant. She attempted to walk away down one end of the street, only for the street merchant to almost jump in front of her. When she turned around to go in the other direction, he intercepted her again. The woman looked like she was ready to punch him in the face. His ‘persistence’ wasn’t necessarily illegal, but Jamie turned to Claire and motioned towards the two. She nodded and they walked quickly down the street.
As they got closer, Jamie noted the merchant, clean cut and around his height, was selling a variety of small gems out of cases placed at his feet; despite their size, the sapphires, rubies and emeralds gleamed brilliantly beneath the light of the sun. “Are you sure you won’t reconsider, ma’am? You won’t find these gems at a cheaper price anywhere else, and that’s a promise.”
“Again, I’m not interested, now cease bothering me unless you want to lose some of your teeth, creep.” The young lady spat.
“But a young, fair lady like you deserves only the finest crafted jewels!” He greeted Jamie and Claire with a bright, winning smile. “Brave knights! The protectors of peace and justice! Care to purchase the treasures I’ve cultivated?”
“Is there a problem here, Miss?” Claire asked.
“No, I was merely reiterating my distaste for this loser’s offer.” She said.
The merchant put up his hands defensively. “I’ve grown familiar with lost causes, but from the ashes of one, we may build a better world,” He shifted to the knights. “How about a jewel for our other beautiful, young lady? A reward for keeping this country safe. Or how about something for you, big guy, maybe an amethyst for the wife or girlfriend?”
Claire smiled. “May I have a look?”
He made a flourish with his arm, presenting his treasures. “I’ve gathered these from all different lands, Galozar to the plains of Efline. Please, sample the wonders of my travels. Take as long as you wish.”
Claire knelt and picked up a small topaz gem with her thumb and forefinger. Jamie leaned in to examine it closer, uncertain of what his partner was thinking. There probably was a method to determine the legitimacy of jewelry, but that knowledge was far beyond Jamie’s education.
“Do these look stolen to you, Jamie?”
He considered the idea for a moment, then nodded. “Definitely. Definitely stolen.”
The merchant’s confidence didn’t falter. “Stolen? I’m offended, my good knights! I’ve spent years honing my craft, accumulating my inventory. We can still do business, but I retract my offer of a knightly discount.”
“I say that because we’ve received word from Efline, Galozar, Marshplo and Bahsilv about a gentleman with your height and hair stealing precious gems from all sorts of people,” Claire continued unabated. “In particular, he’s been said to have a fondness for harassing young women until they buy his stolen goods to make him go away. Am I right or am I wrong, Mister Frederich Gilon?”
The merchant’s mask of sly confidence wilted away, replaced with abject rage. “I’ll kill both of you dead before I ever go back!” He brandished a dagger from his sleeve and lunged at Claire, but Jamie caught his arm and ripped the blade from his hand. She retaliated with a punch to his stomach, after which Jamie cocked his fist and uppercutted him square in the nose, causing the merchant to topple onto his boxes. As the gemstones bounced and spilled into the street, Jamie thought about adding a boot to the face for posterity, but the thief deserved just treatment now that he was incapacitated.
With the situation diffused, Jamie looked at his partner to make sure she was okay.“I’ll take these, you take him.” She said to reward him.
“Obviously,” Jamie put his arms under the incapacitated merchant’s neck and knees and hoisted his body over his shoulder. “It’s times like these I wish I could afford to keep a horse.” He turned and found Claire smiling at him with a cocked eyebrow. Before he could ask what was wrong, he felt a finger tap his shoulder. It was the woman from earlier, carrying one of the dropped jewels.
“I don’t suppose I might be able to keep this,” She asked with a grin. “As recompense for my troubles.”
“Uh, I’m afraid not, my Lady,” Jamie said. “We may need to return them to whoever they were stolen from.”
“Oh, well, it was worth asking,” She shrugged and handed it to Claire before returning her attention to him. “If I must depart with that, then may I at least have your full name, Sir Jamie?”
Trying to think of a response was more stressful and taxing than the clash with the merchant. “Christopher,” He would’ve smacked himself in the face if he had a hand free. “I meant to say Christiansen. My last name is Christiansen,” Jamie quickly added. “Jamie Christiansen.”
“Well, Jamie Christiansen, the people of Amorado are grateful for your service,” She said with that smile that made thinking difficult. “Are you stationed here often, Jamie Christiansen?”
“It depends on where my commanding officer sends me, but most da-yes. I’m here almost every day I’m working.”
That made her smile grow wider. “So the next time a miscreant besieges me, you’ll be there to rescue me? I was ready to punch that man right in his face, but I didn’t mind you coming in to save me.”
Her vocabulary was a bit too advanced for his liking, but her tone sounded pleased. “I, uh, I hope that no one else gives you trouble, but if they do, I’ll do whatever I can to help.”
That got a light laugh out of her. “Then you have my gratitude, Sir Jamie Christiansen. Someone as brave, selfless and handsome as you deserves that and much more. Farewell for now, and you as well, my Lady.”
Jamie sucked in his lips as he watched her leave “Do you think that she, uh, do you think she is, I mean, do you think she finds me attractive?”
“I think Miss Feisty would've accepted a nice dinner under the stars with her hero, but don’t worry, she’ll be back,” Claire said. That should’ve made Jamie want to kick himself, but he knew courage to ask her out, regardless. Being able to hold a mostly coherent conversation with her was an incredible feat. “Am I mistaken, or is her hair the same golden, radiant shade as Princess Faraday?"
Jamie started walking, primarily to get rid of the merchant weighing him down, but also to make sure Claire couldn’t see his face turn red. “Are you suggesting I drop to one knee and ask her to marry me?”
“I’m suggesting gaining some experience with womankind might be helpful for when you’re getting married to your one true love,” She responded. “There's something I’ve been wondering: you don’t seem to have a problem talking to me, and I’m a woman. Is it because I’m not as beautiful as Caitlin Faraday? Are my charms not enough to enthrall you?”
“You’re my partner, Claire. It’s either talk to you or lose my job, and failing to communicate puts both our lives at risk. There isn’t much of a choice.” That was the truth, in a certain way. His partner was good looking, and he wasn’t alone in that opinion, but the threat of mutual unemployment or demise was enough to get past the usual anxieties when they first met.
“Oh, sir Knight, you wound me!” She delivered the line with the voice of a bombastic thespian, placing the back of her hand to her forehead in despair. “All this time, I’ve harbored feelings for you, and you’re in love with another! You wouldn’t even speak to me were you not obliged! How could I ever hope to compete with a beautiful princess? Yet my heart is forever scarred by fate’s cruelty!”
Claire’s teasing was mostly tolerable, but she loved discussing his flame for the Princess. She always claimed she was simply trying to help, in her own unique way. “I don’t love Caitlin, and I’m not in love with her, I just think she’s...nice.” Pathetic as it may have been, Jamie was a seventeen year old who knew next to nothing about love. Having a conversation with Caitlin was daunting enough, they were a long way from love.
“And beautiful, too, don't forget. And charming, and sweet, and graceful, and-"
"You've made your point."
"She stole your heart the way she stole that King's Medallion. I can only imagine your reaction when you two meet again,” Claire snickered. “You’ll probably be left looking like you got punched in the face by Arahkum Himself. But if I’m not invited to the wedding, you will feel my wrath, Jameson.”