Elora watched Orin walk down the path to the palace followed swiftly by her newest maid, Beatrice. Her heart was rending in two at the sight of his back as he moved with swift purpose.
He hated them. He had every right to feel that way. She had thrust a Knighthood upon him, one that he neither wanted or expected. Now he was caged and at lunch he looked like a lion pacing between the bars. He had said it himself: He despised not being in charge of his own fate.
But what could she have done? He said that he didn't blame her, but whose fault was it if not her own? She had felt little for his plight as he lay broken and bloodied after his brief first battle with Craven. The tears she shed that day were not for him but for Cellus, Vera and Annabelle.
Yet he treated her with kindness. Even when she lost herself to the Bond he talked to her until she was once again one with her own mind. She shivered at the thought of it. As soon as Beatrice touched him she had lost herself, the Bond flaring in her mind, golden water that had gone from perfectly still to a maelstrom of barely contained rage. If he hadn't talked her down, if she had been allowed to continue, she could have killed Beatrice and Cellus.
Yet he had been going through it for as long as they had been sitting down. She noticed the wounds on his hands, the imprint of fingernails dug deeply into the skin to draw blood. Cellus had been holding her hand for the entire conversation. Had he really managed to contain the pain for so long? To control it when she could not, despite her training as a Smith? Holding her hand had been Vera's idea. She and Embla were watching from beyond the treeline, wanting to get a feel for how Orin reacted to feeling the Bond being tugged on. It was a cruel thing to do, but Vera said it was a necessity. If he couldn't be trusted around her then he would need to be confined until her mother and father returned and the Bond broken. It turns out that was not needed. After the way Cellus had acted he had decided to voluntarily be sealed away in his room, done with the lot of them. Elora couldn't blame him for feeling that way.
She had found him to be rather plain when she first laid eyes on him at the ceremony but had found herself watching him more than she should have. Drawn to his pale green eyes, sun hardened skin and long, dark hair. Being clean shaven suited him, his jaw was strong and pronounced, every inch the warrior that Delithia had proclaimed him to be.
Poor Delithia. Sister Erin had been at the Palace gates every morning since Orin was taken here, demanding to know how her son was doing. The guard said nothing and tried to send her away, but to no avail. Elora thought that the only reason she left at all was because of her duties to the other children, otherwise she would have never left.
Erin had called for Elora as well. Begging at the gates to see some sign that her son was still breathing. Vera had gone out to see her yesterday and the day before that to try and placate her. All they did was anger her further.
Delithia and a few of the other children sometimes joined her, though at her urging or their prerogative, Elora did not know. Most likely the latter in any case. Whenever Elora saw Delithia she spoke of her warrior brother, Orin. How strong and brave he was, how he would send them money whenever he could. Now she had taken that away from her newest friend. Robbing her of time that she would like to spend with him. The feeling of self-hate in her gut grew as the melting pot that was her emotions threatened to boil over and consume her.
“Good riddance, we don't need the little mercenary's help.”
Cellus. He had changed over the past few days. He was colder, more distant. A far cry from the warm young man she had known since she was a girl. He hated Orin so much, Elora should never have allowed him to join them today. Yet, she had wanted to believe that it would pass. That her reassurances of his place in her heart had not changed, despite the obscure law of marriage. Another thing that Orin did not know. How could you tell a man who didn't even want to be here that he is married to a woman he does not want?
“You fool!” Vera snarled as she turned from watching Orin and marched on the young Duke. His face blanching at her obvious anger. “We need his aid to break the Bond! It can not be done without the permission of both parties. Do you feel better now that you managed to have a dig at the man who holds the fate of this Kingdom's future in his hands?”
Vera grabbed the Duke by his collar and pushed him with all of her considerable strength. Cellus cried out in alarm and fell backwards against the stairs of the gazebo, stunned that the First Knight would attack him. Unfortunately it didn't last long enough to quell his rage.
“You saw what that peasant did! He clearly provoked Elora by getting close to the maid, this is his doing, not mine!” Cellus snapped as he pulled himself to his feet, his armour making the task difficult.
“The boy didn't do a thing,” replied Vera. “If anything he saved her from killing you. You should be thanking him for that but instead you give into your childish sense of rejection like a heart broken fool. Perhaps I was wrong about you. Perhaps you are no Knight at all.”
Cellus flinched at the words and his gaze immediately dropped, his hands curling into fists and teeth clenched in response. He wanted to reply but knew that would be a mistake considering how angry the First Knight seemed.
“This is my fault,” Elora whispered. “If I had better control then maybe Orin wouldn't have-”
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” Vera snapped, suddenly rounding on the Princess. “You did what you had to do in the moment and it saved us.”
“But if I had reached Cellus first then none of this-”
“If, if, if. There is no point in worrying about what would have happened if you had acted differently. Had you tried to reach Cellus you would be either dead or kidnapped. Not exactly the greatest of outcomes,” Vera sighed and rubbed a hand over her irritated brow with closed eyes. “Orin will be more difficult to control now. He seemed amicable when he woke up but thanks to the actions of the Noble Duke we've lost whatever good feeling we had with him.”
Cellus' eyes blazed anew. “I did nothing wrong! He looks at Elora like he owns her, like he wants her for his own!”
Vera laughed then, the harshness of what she was about to say sinking into her bones as she turned and looked at the Duke mockingly. “Wants her for his own? Do you not hear yourself? How can one person change so much within the span of a few days.”
“Perhaps if you had actually done your job and protected her then none of us would be in this mess!” Cellus roared.
This time it was Vera's turn to flinch and look away. Elora knew what they had been saying about Vera behind her back. The maids heard everything in the Palace. The Nobles whispered of her inability to protect the royal family and that her title of First Knight should be stripped from her, as well as her title of Steward. The Princess couldn't imagine the strain that it was putting on her teacher's shoulders. The Nobility were conniving at the best of times and could be needlessly cruel at the very worst. Vera's position in the Palace was under scrutiny even now.
“I will speak with him. Alone.” Elora tried to muster as much authority in her voice as possible as she stared down the two warriors.
Vera chuckled. “Do you think that would help, Princess? The only reason he cares about you at all is because you helped his family. How do you hope to convince him to aid us?”
Elora shook her head. “You heard him. He already said he wants to break the Bond and sooner rather than later. He would be willing to cooperate at that time.”
“Yes, I heard him both times. But that doesn't mean that he won't change his mind between now and then. It could be weeks before your mother and father return. More than enough time for his dislike of us to fester.”
“But he doesn't know that he is my husband,” Elora ignored Cellus' wince. “He doesn't even know that he is safe because we are Bonded. Cellus made sure to make him feel like his death could come at any moment.”
“I did not threaten him!” seethed the Duke as he looked at his betrothed.
“Yes, but you didn't make him feel very welcome. He comes from the Commons, where the people live day to day and are under constant threat of violence. Do you think that your Noble attitude has soothed his worries, beloved?” Elora had grown tired of Cellus' childish games. Tired of having to constantly reaffirm the fact that she loved him and cared for him. It irritated her to no end to have to reiterate what he already knew.
Vera frowned at the Princess. “So what is your plan? Telling him he is technically married to you could backfire. If he pressed the claim then Cellus would be knocked out of the line of succession for good and Orin would eventually become King.”
“No, I won't tell him that. What I will tell him is that he has nothing to worry about as long as we are Bonded. Anyone who harms him will inevitably harm me,” Elora chewed her inner cheek as she thought of a way to calmly explain the next part of her plan. “And he needs training. He needs training as a Knight.”
“Horse shit! Not on my watch, Elora. I forbid it!” Cellus shouted as he walked towards his betrothed, whose eyes flashed with fear for single moment. Cellus saw that flash and came to a stop, his fists unwrapping and a haunted look appearing in his eyes. “I-I'm sorry, Elora. I didn't mean...”
Elora tried her best to put on her brightest smile to hide the the uneasiness that had settled in her chest at being the focus of Cellus' rage. “I-I know, Cellus. It's fine. I know you'd never hurt me.”
Vera watched the exchange with narrowed eyes and it did not escape Elora's notice that as soon as Cellus had begun to walk towards her, the First Knight's hand had dropped to the dagger that she had affixed to her waist. She didn't remove that hand until Cellus was a good distance away.
“But why? Any training we give him will strengthen the Bond and increase the pain of the separation. Why take the risk of it hurting you more than it already will?” Vera asked the Princess, her eyes still staring at the disheartened Duke.
“It will hurt regardless and the Bond won't become completely unbreakable for at least another year. I'm not saying that we Merge whenever there is an opportunity, but he needs to know about the Gifts, the Forge and the strengthening exercises. The more in sync our souls become-”
“The less the reliance you will feel on each other,” Vera looked skyward while tapping her chin with a finger. “Annabelle and I came across that one when searching for a solution. We disregarded it because it requires the two of you to spend time together, more than we wanted.”
“Then you agree?” Elora said with a smile, finally pleased to be getting somewhere.
Vera grunted in a very unladylike fashion. “I can't say that I agree but we haven't received word from your mother and father yet. Without knowing when they get home to help with the separation we need to think about the long term.”
Elora beamed and not just because they finally had some kind of plan. The Bond ached when she wasn't around Orin. Despite how disastrous their lunch had been she hadn't been happier in the past few days than she had been when she was around him. She knew that Vera had planned to give them limited interactions. Ten minute meetings to soothe the Bond until the King and Queen could return with the other Master Knights and Smiths to permanently dissolve the Bond. Elora wasn't sure yet how she felt about Orin himself, but she would like to get to know him better, preferably without Cellus or Vera around to complicate things. She had barely managed to speak to him at all because of the complications that arose during lunch. She clenched her teeth as the feeling of being lost and not in control of her body swam through her head. No, she couldn't allow something like that to happen again. Helping Orin come to terms with his Knighthood and strengthening their connection could only be a good thing, at least until the time came to end it.
“You wish to meet with him alone then?” Vera asked quietly, peering at the Princess with such intense focus that Elora was afraid that the First Knight would pierce the veil around her soul.
“It would be best. He doesn't trust you, Vera. I think Orin will trust me and I will ensure that he helps us without alienating him.”
“And how will you do that exactly?” Cellus snorted, folding his arms across his chest.
Elora glared at the Duke. “By treating him like a person instead of an obstacle. The both of you have done nothing these past few days but scheme to try and bring him on side. There is no point to that because any plan you concoct will not be enough to fool him.”
Cellus scoffed. “You seem to have a high opinion of this peasant, my love. Are you sure that the Bond is the only thing that connects you?” His tone was sharp and his top lip curled in disgust.
Elora sighed and started to massage her temples slowly. How could they not see things as she did?
“I am done soothing your battered ego, Cellus. I will do this with or without your permission. You will give me the time I need to be alone with Orin. I will teach him the basic facets of Knighthood which will ease the Bond for the both of us. If you can't see that all this is necessary then you are not the man I thought I was marrying,”
It hurt to say that but it was true. Elora was feeling like Cellus was slipping away from her, day by day, bit by bit. She wondered if any part of the old him still remained. Instead she found herself stuck with this shadow of a man, one filled with darkness and a bitter hatred of the world around him.
“And as we're on the subject of your foolishness, why do you insist on calling him a peasant like it is an insult? You helped along side me when we fixed up the orphanage and provided aid to those children. Are they merely 'peasants' now as well?” Elora snapped, a bit more harshly than she intended but she wouldn't take it back. Cellus needed to understand that this was the way of things, at least for the moment. Vera was right. This was not the moment to feel sorry for herself just because she Bonded. She is Princess Elora of the Kingdom of Venos and her duty is, ultimately, to her people. If helping Orin was the best way to do that then she would do it.
When she said those words Cellus made to reply but that look of self-loathing passed over his face again and his gaze dropped to the ground. Perhaps the man she loved was still inside after all.
“There's that fire, Elora,” Vera stated fondly, a smile on her face for what seemed like the first time in days. “I approve of this plan. Though it will only be on a provisional basis. If it shows results then we can continue. Teach him well, but not too well. I won't allow you to Bond, but Compression can only help him. You can talk about the Gifts you used during the wedding, but nothing else. We can't have him asking for a Weapon or anything like that.”
Elora laughed at that and shook her head to reassure the First Knight. She couldn't tell Vera what she had already seen because it was almost too foolish to imagine.
During that first Merging, when she had fallen into Orin's body and he opened the way up into the depths of his flaming soul, she had seen something. It was merely a glimmer, a beginning, a promise of power if she but reach out and grasp it. She dare not, she could not. For to do that would mean having to tell Vera and Annabelle what even she herself couldn't believe.
It was the imprint of a weapon. It was Orin's Weapon. A weapon she could never see Forged lest all be lost to her. To create a Weapon is a permanent thing. She had never heard of a Knight and Smith being separated after the Forging of a Weapon but that wasn't what concerned her the most.
Forging a new Weapon for a Knight took time because the connection needed time to grow. It was the reason that Knights and Smiths were paired together as young as possible. Even with Cellus she couldn't be certain of Forging a Weapon even within a month of the Bond taking hold.
This begged a question. Why did she know what to Forge for Orin after knowing him for all of ten seconds?
* * *
I was not the best of moods.
The troubling lunch I had with the Princess and the Duke was still very fresh in my mind and I couldn't shake off the worrying feelings that had followed me from the Princess' secret garden.
I was jumping at shadows around every corner. Beatrice touched me on the shoulder when we got back to the room and I very nearly attacked her out of instinct alone. I sent her away after calming her down. This was her first day on the job and the young redhead was attacked by the Princess of the Kingdom who had something close to a psychotic break. She needed time to gather herself and, despite receiving profuse apologies from Elora, Beatrice would be a nervous wreck for the foreseeable future I'm sure.
I stood in the centre of my room now, the pain in my hand reduced to a dull ache. I didn't have any water in the room to clean out my wound and while I would like to get some I don't think I could stomach even looking at another one of the wardens. They had followed much more closely on the way back to the room than they had on the way to the lunch. How did everything go so wrong so very quickly?
I reached for the hilt on my waist only to find it absent and I swore. If there was a small chance I would've received a blade before that travesty occurred there was no chance of that happening now. I wouldn't trust me with a weapon if I was them. Still, I might be able to fashion some kind of shiv from a piece of wood for at least some form of self-defence. I;m sure the Duke thought I'd insulted him quite severely and I knew better than most the problems that could arise from speaking down to Nobility.
Still though, for a moment there it looked like Elora was pleased to see me. She had smiled when I sat down and she seemed to genuinely care about what was happening. That was probably because she blamed herself for what happened at the wedding. I couldn't say I would do anything differently if I went back to the moment of our Bonding. If Elora hadn't made me her Knight then I would be dead, along with the Sister and the rest of the kids who had come to the ceremony. It was a sacrifice I was glad to make because it wasn't much of a sacrifice at all. My family are alive and well because of Elora's decision, something I would never forget for as long as I live.
While her decision did put me in a precarious position with regards to my own well-being, it was something I was more than able to deal with. I was a warrior, a mercenary who had trained hard to become as proficient as I am today. The fact that I had come to the conclusion that I didn't want to settle down in the city any more was as much of a surprise to me as it had been to the Princess. It was only when I had been walking through the Garden towards Elora and her true Knight that I became aware of how large and intimidating the walls were, how stifling they felt. So much so that I swear I could feel their oppressive presence pressing against my very soul.
My thoughts turned to the Sister and the kids once again and I cursed myself for not asking Elora about how they were doing. If anyone would know it would be her. She seemed to care very deeply for them and Delithia especially, which was nice. Delithia hadn't had the best of lives growing up as she did and, like the rest of us, she turned to crime to help her survive when the Sister just couldn't afford to feed us.
Perhaps I could arrange to see the Sister before long. We didn't get much of a chance to speak on stage, what with the fireballs and crazed yellow-eyed maniac. I didn't know how she would react to me, considering our falling out a few days ago. I just hoped she would forgive me. I had very little family as it was and I wanted to keep what I had.
Seeing her would depend on Vera. The First Knight hadn't looked too happy with me at the gazebo but I could chalk that up to the whole meeting going the way of the birds. It was as I was wondering whether to ask to see her when the knock came at my door.
“Hello?” I called awkwardly from my place at the tiny desk, raising my head from my hands, my eyes slightly bleary from staring for too long.
“Sir Orin? It's Elora, eh, I mean Princess Elora. Can I speak with you?” The quiet voice was hesitant and filled with doubt.
“Elora?” I asked, confused. Why would the Princess want to see me again so soon? Was it even safe for us to be near each other? Why would the First Knight allow her to visit? Was it a trap? Was Elora sent to lower my guard so that when I opened the door I could be jumped by the Duke and his cadre of guards?
I shook my head angrily at my own foolishness. If the Duke wanted you dead he wouldn't need to wait for anything. He would just overwhelm me with the sheer number of protectors he no doubt had at his command and, without Elora to Bond with, I would be killed within moments. Disregarding even that, Elora didn't seem to be the type to be part of such a thing. She seemed like a soft thing most of the time, though I had seen some steel in her more than once.
“Come, come in!” I called with a cracking voice as I pulled myself to my feet and waited as Elora walked in.
She looked as beautiful she always did but her face was marred by a weariness that mirrored my own, as if she was already tired of the days events. Something I couldn't blame her for feeling. Her blonde hair was still in the same arrangement of curls as before and her eyes were a dark gold in the small light reflected inside the room. She looked happy to see me. At the very least, I thought she was. But why would she come? I had said all I needed to in the Garden, there was no need for a follow up visit.
I bowed awkwardly at the waist in a poor attempt to replicate what I once seen in court a few years before and smiled at the young woman tightly. “Elora, it is good to see you but... well.”
“You are wondering why I'm here?” Elora asked sadly with downcast eyes. “I'm here first and foremost to apologise. Duke Cellus was out of line doing what he did, but I don't think he meant any harm by doing it. He was just trying to keep me safe. He has been rather protective recently.”
“With all due respect, your Duke knew exactly what he was doing. He seemed to care very little for the fact that his actions were obviously causing me pain,” I replied before I could stop myself. “I don't know why you're apologising for him. He's a grown man and should be able to talk for himself without sending his wife to do it for him.”
Elora bristled at that. “He's a good man and has been for the entirety of my life. He didn't want to be here for this in case he said something that would only make things worse. He is trying his best to come to terms with what has happened.”
“With all due respect, no he isn't. You defend him as any good wife should, but do not do it to the point of idiocy. The Duke is a child, a snivelling boy. Not a man.”
“You know nothing about him!” Elora suddenly snapped, her tiny hands balled into fists by her side.
“I needn't know his life story to understand what I saw,” I harshly replied, too incensed to be cordial. “I will not be looked down upon by anyone. Not you, not Vera and certainly not that little shit, Cellus.”
Elora glared at me with steel in her eyes. “What makes you think that I'm looking down on you?”
I sighed and sat back down in the chair, my heart no longer in this fight. I don't know why I lashed out at her. What was my plan? Change her mind about the man she had been destined to marry since infancy? This was a useless endeavour. I just wanted to go home.
“Have you come to talk to me about something else other than your asshole of a betrothed or are we done here?” I pressed my thumbs into my eyes in an attempt to stave off the sudden exhaustion that threatened to claim me.
All was silent for a moment and I thought that the Princess had left until I removed my hands and found her standing in the same place. The fight seemed to have been leached out of her and she looked ready enough to keel over and pass out where she stood.
“I'm sorry I put you through all this,” She said quietly, looking at anything else but me. “I know that Cellus is acting like a fool. I see it as easily as you do but nothing I say will reach him. I just don't know what to do.”
Elora fell heavily onto the edge of my bed, hands in her laps as she finally looked at me, as though seeking an answer to her problems.
“If you came here to seek my advice then I'm afraid you're out of luck. I can't say I've ever been in a situation quite like this one before.” I said wryly.
The Princess smiled at that. I noticed one of her curls had fallen across her brow and I fought the sudden urge to brush it aside.
“I suppose you haven't. I think our situation is rather unique.”
I grunted. “You can say that again. I'm sorry for what I said. I'm... not feeling my best since I've woken up. The Bond wasn't making things any easier.”
Elora nodded knowingly. “That's partly the reason I decided to come and see you. I want to ask you one thing first though. How did you do it? How did you resist the Bond for so long?”
“I don't really know,” I sighed. “I'm still figuring this all out since no one wants to tell me what's going on. I've found that pain helps in suppressing the Bond but obviously that's not really viable going forwards. I can only cut myself so many times before I bleed out.”
Elora flinched. “Pain... your hands.”
The Princess got up then and before I could do anything she took my hands in her own. They looked strange next to her own. My fingers and palms were calloused and looked gigantic next to her small and delicate ones. She ran the tips of her fingers gently against my wrapped left hand before doing the same with the right. I felt electricity run up my arms everywhere she touched and The Bond within my soul purred in contentment at her closeness.
“It feels nice.” Elora said softly, her eyes fixed on my hands in wonder.
“Yes,” I croaked, not knowing what to say but not wanting her to stop. The Bond had not been this quiet since I had been on stage and I was enjoying the peace that came with it. I was beginning to wonder if she was feeling the same way until she took a sharp breath and took a few steps back.
“I'm sorry, I shouldn't have done that. They must still hurt terribly.”
I shrugged. “No more than they did before. They began to hurt less when you were touching them.”
“Really?” Elora asked. “That's something to keep in mind then. I feel more comfortable the closer I am to you, The Bond goes quiet and I can finally relax.”
“The same with me,” I nodded hesitantly, unsure of how to handle the disappointment of her backing away. “Best not to get too close though. The Bond will be broken soon.”
“Yes. Yes, of course,” Elora said, though she looked at me intensely and was biting her lip. “But you might have to put up with me a while longer. Mother and father are still on campaign and with them are all the Master Knights and Smiths in the Kingdom of Venos. We will need them to break the Bond and there's been no word from them since before the wedding.”
“Is that a concern? Surely the King and Queen would be in almost constant contact with Lady Vera?”
“Ordinarily I would say yes, but mother and father have a habit of not checking in for long periods of time when they're at war. I think they enjoy getting away from the palace for a while. Like a holiday. That sounds terrible now that I say it out loud.” Elora laughed weakly.
“Not at all. I can understand that. If I was cooped up here for months at a time and was suddenly allowed to go on a little adventure I'd probably be the same way.” I knew that I'd be the same, but I didn't want to make the girl feel any worse than she already was. It wasn't her fault but it still irked that she continued to look at me like I was some kind of wounded animal.
“I imagine so. I wouldn't know anything about that. I've never left the city.” Elora said as she took a step closer.
“Really? I thought you go on tour or something like that? I know that the Andapan Prince visits the different cities of his country at least once a year, I thought that you would do the same?”
Elora rolled her eyes at that and I suddenly felt quite stupid. “Maybe for male heirs but I'd never be allowed to do something like that. Even getting out into the Commons took weeks of begging my mother and father.”
“But what's the difference? Women are just as capable as men, you only need to look at the First Knight to realise that.”
“Yes, Vera is quite something,” I didn't fail to notice her eyes flashing up to examine my expression as she said that so I tried to keep my face studiously blank. “But it isn't about capability as much as it is about propriety. Daughters of a royal line are considered to be rather delicate and valued for their marriageability. Sons are expected to play adventurer, to become better warriors and leaders when their time comes to ascend the throne. Even if I could fight Vera and Annabelle to a draw and outdrink Lord Elgard while I was doing it, it would mean nothing. I'm still a daughter of royalty, a Princess. As such I am expected to be prim and proper, while training to be the perfect Smith for my future husband.”
“Cellus,” I muttered, though I was unsure if Elora heard me with the rather forlorn expression on her face. I don't think she enjoyed being the perfect lady. If she did then she never would have gone down into the muck of the Commons to help the Sister and my brothers and sisters. “But your mother is a famed Knight. Queen Gida is spoken of as far away as the Eastern Islands for her prowess as a warrior.”
“After she became Queen,” Elora grinned. “According to my father she was worse than I was, sneaking out of the castle at all hours of the night to drink with the commoners. My grandfather managed to keep a lid on it and any friends she had from her time as a Princess were paid off to ensure word of her antics didn't reach unfriendly ears. Mother tried to keep this from me, but father could never stop talking with a drink in him.” Elora laughed and I joined her.
I was more than a little relieved that the shell of the Princess of Venos was being removed bit by bit. She seemed to be getting more comfortable around me which I probably enjoyed more than I should. She was the Princess after all and speaking to a member of the Royal Family was something of a novel experience for me. I was still surprised that she didn't recognise me. I thought I had made quite the impression on her when we were both young, but I would be damned if I was to be the one to bring it up. The memory made me shiver internally. No, it was decided. I would never tell Elora about when we first met, not if she didn't realise it herself. The Sister was right to laugh at me, I am ridiculous.
“Well, good to know that our Queen liked to party with the peasants every now and then. You should do it yourself sometime. All this decadence is nice and all but...” I wave at the luxurious room around me. “...I'm sure it's nice to get out and see how the other half live.”
Elora shrugged nervously. “When I was younger I thought about it quite a bit. But it's best not to dream of things that can never be. I'm not sad about it or anything, I just know my place and have done for some time now. I grow up, I marry Cellus, we rule the Kingdom together. I was happy with that arrangement for a long time. It was only after meeting Delithia that I started to wonder about the outside world”
I nodded knowingly. “I know that feeling. When I first saw Boldrin and the Brigade pass through the city gates I felt like my eyes would blow out of their sockets. I wanted what they had. I wanted adventure and battle, to fight with a sword in my hand. I wanted to be free. I would never have it in the Commons. If I had stayed I would have been forced to either find some paid work, which is nearly impossible for a young orphan, or fall in with one of the gangs. I thought I could do better. That I could see the world outside these walls and maybe help the Sister and the kids while I was at it. Boldrin let me live that dream and I'll always be grateful to him for that.”
It was only after I had finished my little speech that I noticed the Princess had returned to sitting on the edge of my bed, her head in her hands and smiling softly. I coughed and apologised but she waved me off immediately.
“Please, it was the most enthusiastic I've seen you since you woke up. I don't want to sound insulting but,” Elora looked at the ceiling as though grasping for the right way to say it. “Do all mercenaries speak as eloquently as you do? It's just, I've never heard a commoner speak like that. You are more noble than most of the Nobility around here and believe me, I'd know.”
I grumbled, embarrassed. “The Sister was very strict in her teachings. She knocked any slang I learned right back out of me again and taught me to be... articulate, I guess.”
Elora beamed. “I had a teacher like that. Her name was Miss Tully and she taught etiquette to me and a handful of other Noble girls.”
“You were allowed around other Nobles growing up?”
“Yes, from a very young age I was taught with a group of all female students. I think the idea was for me to socialise with children around my own age though I can't say I liked them very much.”
“Oh? And why was that?”
Elora sighed with exasperation. “They all kept making eyes at Cellus and it annoyed me so much that at one point I threatened to have one of the girls hanged,” The Princess looked off into space with narrowed eyes. “Edith of House Bower. That little vixen thought that Cellus would be fooled by her pretty red hair. I cut off one of her pigtails when I sat behind her in class.”
I stared at the Princess with no small amount of trepidation. “Uh-huh, and how old were you when this happened?”
Elora shrugged non-nonchalantly. “Oh, maybe eight or nine? Hard to remember.”
Note to self: Don't make eyes at Cellus.
“You really love him, huh?”
Elora nodded earnestly. “I do. I have since we were small. I knew then that we were going to be Knight and Smith. It was arranged before I was even born. It was just a happy coincidence that I loved him as well.”
I smiled at the young woman. “I'm happy for you. I know that Nobles never really get a choice in who they marry. I always thought that it was one of the better parts of being a peasant.”
“Have you never been in love?” Elora asked.
I was going to shake my head, but I hesitated, my hand inevitably going to the suddenly itching scar on my thigh. “Once, I guess. Turns out she wasn't as nice as I thought she was”
“Oh? What did she do? Did she reject your proposal of marriage because her family wouldn't allow it?” Elora asked, her face flushed and eyes wide with excitement.
“This isn't a fairy tale,” I laughed. “Things like that don't really happen in real life, at least not to a commoner like me. It was nothing so dramatic.”
“Oh,” Elora pouted, disappointed. “Then what happened then?”
“She tried to kill me.”
“What do you mean 'what',” Elora snapped, hopping in place. “A woman tries to kill you and you don't think that's dramatic? Are you dense?”
“It wasn't like it was vindictive. She was hired to kill me and she's a professional.”
“You fell in love with an assassin!” Elora was pacing now, her hands on her hips. “That's the most dramatic thing I've ever heard! Star crossed lovers, one a mercenary, the other an assassin. Trouble strikes when the assassin is hired to kill the man she loves, but she refuses because of her deep abiding love! Together, they run away and-”
I held up a hand. “Yeah, none of that happened. She was hired to kill me, that's true, but she didn't refuse. Apparently I was worth quite a bit of money to her. I had led a small team to take down some low level smugglers and one of their family took a contract out on my head after the fact. She tried her level best to end my life.”
“But that's so sad!” Elora moaned. “My ending is so much better.”
“If it makes you feel better she did warn me she would try.” I replied weakly.
Elora narrowed her eyes at me. “It does not.”
I tried to ignore the strength of her glare. “Anyway, she tried to kill me and failed, obviously. Last time I saw her was over a year ago.”
“Did you fight her?” Elora asked, absorbed into the story once again.
“Well, yeah, but I didn't do very well. She was much better with a blade than me and stabbed me in the leg before I was rescued.”
“Yeah, my friend Tessa kicked her in the head.” I couldn't stop myself from snickering from the memory of it. Tessa appearing out of nowhere, both feet flying as she drop kicked my would be assassin into a pile of manure, knocking her unconscious. The sharp eyed mercenary had wanted to kill my lady love but I told her to leave her be. She wouldn't follow me out of the Empire so there was no need to end her life.
“I should probably thank this Tessa then,” The Princess said thoughtfully before noticing my confused look. “Without you, I wouldn't be here today. So if not for your friend, I would most likely be either dead or kidnapped.”
I rubbed my neck and grunted in acknowledgement. “Yeah, I suppose that's true. She's actually in the city as it happens. She's a member of the Brigade still.”
Elora beamed. “Excellent, I'll be sure to send word for her when the opportunity allows.”
I didn't really know about letting someone as wild as Tessa near the Princess of the realm. Tessa was more accustomed to living in the wilds. In fact, she thrived in that kind of environment. She had told me once that even staying in an inn makes her jumpy and irritable. I don't know why she had the need to tell me that, seeing as how the Brigade and I got front row seats to said irritability. Something that Fendi and a few of the others did little to help alleviate.
I should go and visit Boldrin at some point as well, considering he had been hired by the ruling body of Venos to keep order in Myrin. Again, that came down to the First Knight and I continued to think that my chances of securing a meeting with him and the others was slim to none. But...
“Elora, Vera said that the Sister's been trying to get in and see me over the last few days. That true?”
The Princess suddenly looked guilty. “Yes. I wanted to go out and meet her but the First Smith forbade it. She felt it was too dangerous to open the gates after everything that happened.”
“But not any more, right?” I asked, almost desperately. “I can see my family, it's not like they mean you any harm.”
Elora nodded with a tight expression on her face. “That's true, the Sister and the kids have been nothing but nice to me. But... well...”
I raised an eyebrow.
“The Spymaster discovered that one of the orphans has a connection to the Common Dogs. He doesn't suspect that they had any part in the attack, but he wants to err on the side of caution.”
I snorted with derision. “Gertrand? The kid doesn't know what he's doing half the time. He was hanging around with a low level enforcer for the Dogs. As far as I know he isn't even a true member.”
Elora shook her head, confused. “No, it wasn't Gertrand. I never knew that about him. Spymaster Yale mentioned someone called Pater.”
I'm an idiot. I had assumed she was talking about my little brother because of how recently he had been involved in the seedy operations of Sig the Pig. I thought the matter on Pater was already closed. My oldest friend was a high ranking member of the Dogs, that much was true, but I didn't really classify him as one of us any more. He was his own man now and that made his decisions his own as well, as much as I would have liked to talk him onto the right path. Perhaps Yale hadn't told Elora yet, it had only been a few hours since we spoke after all.
“Pater. I already spoke with the Spymaster about him. Without Pater, I don't think I would have made it to the stage in time. He's a Dog, but he cares about the Sister as much as I do.”
“I didn't know,” Elora said. “So it seems I owe a thank you to a great many people for getting you to that stage in one piece.”
I laughed at that. “I wouldn't go looking for Pater just yet. I have no doubt that he would've let that Craven bastard take you away if the Sister and our brothers and sisters weren't on stage.”
Elora smiled tightly. “I suppose I'll leave that one be for now then.”
“It's a good idea,” I nodded. “Thank you for coming to see me, Princess. It has been nice to just... talk for while. It's calmed me down quite a bit. I was wound pretty tightly when I left you in the garden.”
“I saw that. None of us expected the Bond to react like it did. It's stronger than even Vera first thought. But she and Annabelle were impressed by your control. I've been training to feel my soul for years now and as soon as poor Beatrice got near you I lost myself.”
I smiled, remembering how terrified Beatrice had been. It was a terrible thing to laugh about, but the reactions of my maid were so exaggerated, I couldn't help but chuckle.
“Yeah, Beatrice is not having the best of first days.”
Elora sighed morosely. “I'll apologise to her properly when I see her next. I told Embla, one of my guard, to find her and make sure she takes the rest of the day off. I don't want to scare her away. She's the first maid we've ever had whose not a Noble.”
That surprised me. “Really? I thought you would have common-born ladies lining up to serve in the palace?”
“It's not that we don't have enough volunteers, it's just that the Nobles get the first chance to send their sons and daughters to work here. Of course, they are usually the fifth or sixth in line so they are not needed for succession and working in the palace, even as a maid or guard, can offer quite a bit of prestige to their families.”
“Makes sense,” I replied, my eyes roaming towards the ceiling in thought. “Still, must be a bit of a nightmare for you. If any Noble can send their children, I imagine that quite a few of your maids are not working in your best interests.”
“Such is life for a Princess,” She shrugged. “I always thought of it as a game. We let them know what we want them to know so they can report it back to their fathers or mothers and use that information to our advantage. I made it my duty early on to learn the names of every single member of our household staff.”
“Politics,” I grumbled. “Give me a sword and an enemy any day of the week. I always find myself outmatched when any subtlety is involved.”
“I noticed,” Elora snickered. “You seem to have a problem with titles, especially.”
I was confused by her statement for a moment before I remembered my blunder with the title of her betrothed.
“Well, in my defence, the first time I met a Duke was when I dropped Delithia off. I'm a common soldier, I have rarely interacted with any members of the Nobility.”
“Cellus as well, but you've had a problem before that.”
“For instance, when I first walked into the room you called me Elora. You should be referring to me as 'Princess', 'Princess Elora' or 'Your Highness'.”
“Oh,” I winced and rubbed the back of my neck. “Sorry about that. I just thought it would be easier to keep it simple. Having to trip over myself and remember all of these different ways of addressing people is probably going to get annoying really fast.”
“Don't apologise,” Elora grinned. “I enjoy it. You're not like anyone one else I've ever met. Most people, including commoners, refer to me by title. No one but my closest friends and family call me Elora. I suppose I can count you among their number now.”
I answered her grin with one of my own. “I think so. If you're not friends after melding souls together then I don't what we are.”
We both laughed and I suddenly realised that I was sitting next to her on the bed. How had that happened?
“I've enjoyed talking to you like this. It's hard to speak honestly with people in the palace, even Cellus, Vera and Annabelle. They are my closest friends, but they're still beholden to the rules of Nobility. It's rare that I get the chance to just talk.” Elora took my hand as she finished speaking and I froze in place, afraid of breaking her if I squeezed too hard. Why had she done that? She was still facing forwards and smiling, I wondered if she had even noticed what she had done. I decided not to say anything. It felt nice to be so close to her, the Bond was purring like a cat at the contact.
“Yes, ah, me as well. But I think I already said that.” I coughed very unsubtly.
“You did,” She smiled and stroked the back of my hand with her thumb, causing a shiver to run the length of my spine. Did she really not notice? “But the time for pleasant talk is over I fear. I did come here for a reason and not only to apologise.”
“Oh? Are we finally getting to the heart of your clandestine visit?"
Elora furrowed her brow. “Yes, we are. With mother and father at war, like I said, there is no way we can break the Bond in the foreseeable future. Which means we're both going to have to learn to live with it, at least for the moment.”
“I see.” I can't say I was too happy about that. I wanted to get out of here as soon as I could and I hoped the Brigade was still here when I did. I would explain my reasoning to the Sister, but I don't think I could join the guard now. The battle on stage and being locked in the palace had put a lot of things into perspective for me. I was a mercenary and I loved it more than breathing. The travelling, the fighting and the camaraderie that came with being part of something. I would endure it though, for Elora's sake if not my own. The girl had grown on me quickly, it seemed. She was much like me, in a way. I think she hated being cooped up in the palace as much as I did and wanted the freedom that I had taken for granted, despite her assurances to the contrary. Of course, she was surrounded by wealth and all the trappings that came with it, but that didn't help to alleviate the need to live your own life.
“I spoke with Vera at the gazebo. I convinced her to let me teach you the ways of a Knight. At least, parts of it.”
“What?” I could feel excitement bubbling up inside me. Learning to be a Knight had been my dream as a boy but even after I had first woken up, I hadn't given the idea of actually learning to be one a passing thought. Elora was the Princess and promised to another, I was merely the result of an unfortunate event. But if what she was saying is true then I could actually be a Knight in full, at least for a while. Who knows? Maybe I could find a Smith after breaking the Bond with Elora. How much would Boldrin pay for me to be in his band then? I felt giddy just thinking about the possibilities and Elora must have noticed because she smiled at my excitement.
“I said I'm going to teach you to be a Knight. It won't be full training. I can't build you a Weapon, and we're not even going to have a enough time to go over Armour, as well as most of the other gifts, but we'll do what we can to help weaken the reliance the Bond has over the both of us.”
I didn't care about any of that. To become a Knight, a least in part, would be a dream come true for me.
“When do we start?” I asked excitedly.