Godren lurched forward to catch her. He had given her quite a fright, but she was not opposed to him steadying her as she clawed for purchase on the wall that was slipping out from under her. The rush of adrenaline she suffered made the drop a far worse fate than being captured by a stranger’s arms.
Godren was all stuttering fright and apologies, having suffered quite the adrenaline rush himself. Idiot, he chanted over and over again to himself, humbled beyond words. What would he have done if he’d scared the princess off the wall and sent her to her death?
Catris clung to him a moment, heart racing, but drew away once she had steadied herself, finally interested in identifying Godren now that the excitement had passed. Recognizing him, a frown touched her face, but Godren was still bubbling over with concern and self-incrimination and there was no hope for her getting a word in edgewise.
“You must not ever forgive me,” Godren was insisting, “for I could not bear the injustice of it. If you’d fallen, you must believe I would have jumped in self-sacrifice for causing such a tragedy, and that I’m humbled beyond repair from being responsible for causing you such a close call.”
Princess Catris stared at him, waiting out his tirade of self-devastation, before asking the only thing she really cared about; “What are you doing here?”
With all of his heartfelt remorse disregarded like insignificant flattery, Godren blinked as if slapped awake and opened his mouth only to find that nothing wanted to come out.
Catris waited, steady gaze pressing him for a reply.
Godren searched hard for one. “I…was in the area, and I heard the music. Then I saw you.” He scratched his neck a little sheepishly. “The wall just looked inviting. With…you on it,” he finished, realizing there was nothing else for it. “That’s the complete truth, I swear.” He waited with solemn, earnest eyes, willing to accept however she took his explanation.
She considered him for a moment before a sly acceptance softened her own eyes, though. “Very well, then,” she said simply, letting it pass, and blinked up at him.
She was stunning this close up in the moonlight. With snowy teardrop pins glistening in her hair, and her white skirt all but glowing, she looked positively angelic. Only her dark, midnight purple bodice interrupted the saintly consistency, but it was luscious and distracting in the opposite extreme, and Godren wasn’t about to point out that it didn’t match. Only once he took a closer look at her skirt did he realize it was an underskirt, and was the real culprit for her mismatched attire.
“Forgive me, your Highness,” he said, blinking, “but do you realize you’re walking on the palace wall in less than is usually…ethically desirable? You’re before the whole city, if you don’t mind me pointing it out.”
“A whole sleeping city,” the princess dismissed. “Yes,” she laughed. “I do realize. But it’s impossible to get to this point with a mile of voluminous skirt wound around you trying to tag along and weigh you down, if you can imagine what I mean. It goes to tatters on the branches of the trees before I even make it onto the wall. Better just to discard it at the bottom. Usually, of course, I don’t have company.”
“Do you want me to go?”
“No,” she objected reassuringly. “It’s fine. You already scared me out of my wits; what’s feeling a little awkward in comparison to that?”
Godren shrugged his eyebrows. “A valid point.” He cast his eyes about what he could see of the palace grounds. “Will the guards cause us grief?”
“Guards? Ah – no. No grief.”
Glancing at her a little quizzically, Godren tried to decipher her tone.
“At least – well, not yet.” When Godren kept considering her oddly, she gave in and cut to the chase. “They’re asleep,” she admitted sheepishly.
“Ahh,” he replied knowingly. “I see.”
The princess bit her lip. “Though I do tend to lose track of time when I’m up here. I don’t know… How long has it been?”
“I’m afraid I’ve probably paid much less attention than you have,” Godren confessed.
“Oh,” Catris laughed. “Well I suppose if we have intentions of staying out for any extended length of time, we’d do well to get out of sight. The guards would never allow this, if they knew I came up here, and I don’t know what my father would say about my scandalous dressing habits. Come on, there’s a place we can go.”
Following the princess further down the wall, Godren found himself led to an overhanging copse of willow branches that dangled from an ancient height and spilled over to the outer side of the fortification. Pushing the trailing branches aside, Catris moved into the snare of the graceful canopy. Glancing over her shoulder, she waited for Godren to follow. A little hesitantly, suddenly not believing his luck and questioning the wisdom of the princess inviting him to be alone with her, he moved forward to join her.
“How long have you been drugging the guards?” he asked as he sat down among the draping branches, his tone halfway between conversational and conspiratorial.
“Since last summer,” she replied, pushing a leafy stem out of her face. “The nobles went on a spree and threw about two dozen parties, and I was tired of the attention those thrust upon me. It became a constant thing, always laced up so I couldn’t breathe, dancing tirelessly with one partner after another until I was faint and starving and drunk off of the wine in their breath. For goodness’ sake, they weren’t even my parties, but I was always the most sought-after dance partner.”
“That should not surprise you,” Godren pointed out.
“It doesn’t – just annoys me sometimes. Anyway, I finally started going in my plain riding frock and pigtails, but Nell, my old nurse, got after me about my image. So finally I contrived to escape completely.”
“Don’t the guards get suspicious?”
She shrugged. “I think they fall asleep anyway, so they don’t want to say anything.” She turned to him, suddenly both dismissive and engaging. “So are you ever going to give me your name? I grow tired of everyone always knowing me when I know nothing of them.”
Godren’s mind blanked. “My – ah – name. It’s…plain, really.” What was he supposed to tell her? It was a miracle she hadn’t recognized him already. Then again, it was dark. Maybe that helped.
“Well tell me something, if not your name.”
“No, it’s…Ren,” he gave in, hoping that wasn’t too much.
“Ren…” she brooded, considering him. Then she accepted it. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
Paranoid, those words flashed through him full of warning. But then he realized she must just be referring to their lack of an actual introduction in the square.
“And do I get to say I’ve officially met you?” he asked, masking his scare. “Technically, you haven’t actually introduced yourself. Like you said, we’re privileged in just…knowing. But I’d rather you gave me your name yourself.”
She looked at him, then smiled. “You know…I don’t believe I’ve ever done this before. Introductions are always more of an announcement, spoken by someone else preceding my entrance to the room. How unpersonable,” she remarked disapprovingly, scowling in realization as if she’d never thought about it before. Shrugging, she cleared her throat in preparation and drew herself up with more dignity, facing him. “I’m Cat,” she said, but her face crimped uncertainly. “Is that good?” she whispered in perplexity.
Godren laughed at her amateurish struggle, amused by her expression. “That’s perfect,” he assured her. “It’s a pleasure to meet you as well.” He had to make a conscious effort not to stare, pulling his smiling eyes away from her and concentrating on the dark gaps between the swaying willow branches. Suddenly he didn’t trust himself to say anything else, didn’t know how to go about making small talk with the princess of Raven City. His voice felt clumsy where he kept it in his throat, and he had the distinct awkward quandary that he suddenly couldn’t decide what to do with his hands. That perplexity struck him oddly – he had never given his hands a second thought.
“So what warrants your notable choice of attire?” the princess asked, bold with her curiosity.
Faltering again, Godren hunted for something suitable to tell her. Curse him for jumping into the situation without at least half-way formed excuses ready at hand. He had nothing for why he was so contrastingly clad in dark, battle-scarred garb in comparison to her last, much more noble impression of him.
“I was…adventuring,” he said.
From the corner of her eye, she cocked a sly eyebrow at him. “Adventuring,” she stated, wanting more.
“What do you do on these adventures?”
Unable to meet her gaze while she pressed him so, Godren focused hard between the branches. “Breeze the streets,” he started, awkwardly at first but gaining confidence as he plowed on; “Rough it with a few fellows I know, go looking for a thrill or two – noble thrills, of course. Just typical youthful spirits stuff – braving all the dark alleys.”
“What kind of noble thrills do you find down dark alleys?” Catris asked skeptically.
Flattering himself with the story, Godren gained the confidence to look at her. “Chasing away the bullies,” he said in a tone that asked ‘what else?’. “Making the streets safe.”
“So you’re like an…honorable gang,” she wanted to confirm.
“Well,” Godren allowed, “one or two of the guys are…a little disreputable.” Giving a rueful, dismissive shrug, he let that serve for the likes of Ossen and Mastodon and the rest of her company. “Like I said – youthful high spirits.” Cringing a little as Mastodon’s aging image taunted him about the half-lie, Godren tried to let the breezy branches distract him with their hypnotic motion. He could feel the princess’s eyes on his face, though, and it was a trial to keep his composure.
“Well if it’s a noble cause,” Catris decided, “one cannot really criticize a few youthful blunders of character. Rebels will behave as they wish – if good comes of it, more power to them.”
Godren cast her a sidelong glance. “You strike me as a bit of a rebel yourself, your Highness,” he observed, betting that that’s what she was getting at.
“Please call me Cat; I am.”
He met her eyes, and grinned. She grinned slyly back.
Shifting as Godren took his eyes away, Catris pulled her knees to her chest and got comfortable in that position. “So how does a fellow get himself invited to join these adventures of yours?” she wanted to know. “Or do you recruit them?”
Godren turned wary, seeing immediately where she was going. “Well first of all,” he said, “you have to be a fellow.” There, that ought to be clever enough.
Catris shrugged, unbothered by the obstacle he presented. “Not an issue,” she assured him. “I can just command you to strike that rule from the book.”
“Ah – there’s no book. It’s a crude business, Princess. Nothing you should get mixed up in, not with the image you have to uphold. And anyway, there are more rules.”
“What makes you think I can’t break the rest of the rules too? I own the rules. I own the law. Call me Cat.”
Were these spoiled traces showing through, a disagreeable side of the princess he’d been blinded of until now? Or was this just her rebellious side?
“I would not do something that would harm your position,” Godren told her. “I would not disgrace your image.”
“What if I commanded you to, as the princess and heir of Raven City?” Catris challenged. “You cannot refuse that.”
“I could put you behind bars.”
“I would go.”
Her mouth turned stubborn, and she looked for a rebuttal to pose against that. “What if I just showed up, and tagged along?”
“I would bend over backward to keep you out of harm’s way. That is not a responsibility I would ignore, regardless of how it fell upon me.”
After a moment of humbled consideration, the princess ducked her head in appreciation, all spoiled traces of demanding gone. “I would not put you through the trouble,” she relented. “It would be wicked of me, with you vowing noble things like that. Because I know how much trouble I can be. I’m afraid it delights me.” Resignedly, she drew on a smile of acceptance. “Well if you won’t take me along, you must promise to continue stopping by once in awhile to recount these adventures. I want to hear about them.”
An invitation to return was too tempting. The fact that he would either have to make up stories and lie to the princess or risk disclosing discretional pieces of truth was only a minimal bother in the back of his smitten mind. He knew it would flare into an issue later, but he was not about to deny the princess her wish.
“I shall,” he agreed, stricken by a humble ache at his raging luck. He swallowed, and the princess considered him once again. When she did not remove her eyes, he finally grew self-conscious and looked at her. “What?”
Concentration creased her eyes. “I find I’m struck by a strange sense of familiarity about you,” she told him, then laughed. “But that’s silly. Of course you’re familiar to me, seeing as you are the one I kissed in the middle of the town square.”
He laughed in turn, but pulled his face away, cautious of her recognition. He prayed it would blow over this easily, wishing she would stop scrutinizing him.
Letting it go, Catris rested her chin on her knees and gazed through the branches. A silent minute passed between them as they sat on the wall. Godren was hounded by a voice that insisted he take up the silence, that he was wasting a priceless opportunity with every idle second, taking it for granted. Here he was with the princess of Raven City, and what was he making of it?
The breeze died, and music reached his ears once again. “What’s the occasion?” he asked, tilting his head in the direction of the palace.
“My extended birthday celebration,” Catris said with a roll of her eyes and a bit of a sigh. “The nobles have outdone themselves again. It starts with one of them organizing a perfectly legitimate, congratulatory event, and then it turns into a competition as everyone else tries to throw a better party. They’ll take any excuse they can get their hands on to indulge in festivities, but of course there’s no point unless they endeavor to outdo the preceding event.”
“What do they think of you skipping out on an event in your own honor?”
“My honor,” the princess said, “is merely the best excuse floating around the palace grounds. One must only declare their actions are ‘in my honor’, and they’re met with heartfelt approval and enthusiasm.” Suddenly her serious, dry manner turned woefully dramatic. “I am used,” she lamented, voice full of despair.
“Does it bother you?” Godren wanted to know. “Really?”
Her drama fell limp, and a grin tugged at her mouth. “If I let myself be a victim to it, it would. But I have ways of holding my own.”
Godren could imagine. Catris did not strike him as a damsel prone to much distress.
“You haven’t called me Cat yet,” the princess pointed out, still intent on it.
“To be honest, I can’t quite make myself,” Godren admitted. “I would not want to pay you any disrespect by using anything less than your esteemed title, but aside from that I rarely call new acquaintances by name until we’ve gotten to know one another a little better anyway.”
“Are you trying to say relationships are something you approach with care and take at a discretional pace?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You kissed me on our first meeting,” she reminded him.
Curse him, she had a point. He had smoothly trapped himself with his own words. Blinking, he looked for a way to smooth it over. He had no defense, though. She was absolutely right. “Not that it justifies it, but I never dreamed there would be any relationship,” he said at last. “But I had the opportunity, and – what can I say? Youthful high spirits; they’re a curse.”
“So at what stage will you start believing in our relationship?”
Godren thought. “Now, I suppose. We’ve been introduced…held two conversations…learned a bit about each other. And there are tentative meetings planned in our future. Sounds substantially established enough to me.”
“I agree. What does that make us? Acquaintances at this stage?”
“I suppose. Though circumstances do seem a little abnormal, seeing as we have kissed and I already know I’d die for you. But we don’t have to count the kiss. And I suppose you could count on most anyone pledging to die for you. So yes, acquaintances. If that suits your Highness.”
“Cat,” she stressed. “And yes, it suits me fine.”
“Do your other acquaintances call you Cat, my lady?”
“Some of them. The ones I like. The others don’t have permission.”
“I’m…flattered by the privilege.”
“But still not tempted enough?”
“Tempted, surely. But it still feels wrong.”
“Must I remind you I’m the princess of Raven City?”
“Yes. It gets hazy with you always insisting I call you Cat.”
She cocked a dryly quizzical brow at him, appreciating his humor but not willing to tolerate it. “Very smooth, Cleversticks. But you will call me Cat. I don’t like all the flowery alternatives.”
“What about in public?”
“Our relationship is taking place on a dark wall behind a secretive veil, with no one but the drugged guards to bear witness. When and if we are ever seen together in public again, you may use your discretion. But don’t flatter yourself too much – I never said anything about being together in public. You’re dreaming now, Ren.”
Her sudden shielding attitude surprised him a little, but he was glad to see it. At least she showed some evident trace of using discretion when it came to fraternizing with strangers. When she was so common a target and tempting a victim, she ought to practice some caution and illustrate some limits. Who knew what assassins and general opportunists would jump at the areas she was leaving open in the situation she had granted him? Godren wasn’t about to complain about the openness she was treating him to, but in truth she was lucky that he wasn’t a more corrupt criminal. Because when it came right down to it, she shouldn’t even be with him. Regardless of allowing the temptation in the pending relationship to influence him, he did not approve.
“Of course. I didn’t mean to imply anything,” Godren said. Then, curiously, he inquired, “Do you know how to defend yourself, your Highness?” Perhaps it was not a tactful question, and he didn’t know what she would make of it, but it was a concern he felt compelled to look into.
“How do you mean?” As was to be expected, there was a twinge of sudden caution, of wary vigilance, in her voice.
“You do well enough proving you put your own discretional limits on pursuing relationships – that is, by calling me on prematurely suggesting we might ever be seen together in public – yet do you not think it is a more intimate state to meet in secret like this? In the dark, with music weaving fantasies in the background? It does not seem to bother you that I am a stranger, my background questionable, and that the drugged guards could never hear you scream.”
For the first time, her sly eyes turned guarded when she looked at him. He regretted that he might have just taken things too far and scared her away, but he did not regret planting due caution in her mind. He felt a tension rise as the princess considered for the first time that his advice could apply condemningly to him as easily as anyone else, that the warning might be doubly significant under the surface of his words.
The princess looked him up and down, and when her eyes returned to his, there was a sly light creeping back into them from their edges. She sat there collected for another two moments, drawing out her composure. Then she flung her forearm solidly into his throat, knocking his balance backward and canceling his wind. Reactively, his hands clamped down on the wall to catch himself, and he found his unprotected face bashed in with an elbow, followed by the sound of a blade being scraped swiftly out of its sheath. Recovering his balance, Godren’s hands flew up to deflect the knife, his vision still battered by black spots. What he received was not in the form of the sharp thrust or slice he was expecting, though. Suddenly he was under assault by the weight of grappling limbs and surprising brute force, progressively burdened until he was driven mercilessly over the edge of the wall.
The next thing he knew, he was dangling on the inside of the wall with his feet a few meters from the ground, clinging to the ledge where the princess knelt over him with a knife in her hand. Playfully, she trailed the weapon at the edge of his fingertips, as if she were going to use the blade to peel his fingers from their grip on the wall.
“I don’t make a habit of needing my guards,” Catris said from above him, leaning down on her elbows so she was closer. “Depending on others can prove frightfully inconvenient.”
Godren grunted as his wind came back to him. He hadn’t realized he’d lost it a second time; there must have been quite an impact between his body and the wall on his way down. Doubtlessly he would discover the bruising all down his front tomorrow. Craning his neck to better his view of the smug princess, he peered up at her silhouette. “It was…just a question,” he managed, feeling his bruised breath rattle in his chest.
Catris shrugged. “Not my fault you didn’t realize what you were asking for.”
Godren felt like he was growing heavier by the second, and his injured hand strained with the effort of holding his weight. Inwardly, he cringed, anticipating a fresh tear.
“So what…now?” he wanted to know, trying to ease his grip on the right side, but only ending up swaying right along with the willow branches.
Removing one of the pearl pins from her hair, Catris held the decidedly wicked sharp end just above his hand. “How would you like to go adventuring across the palace grounds?” she asked. “The guards should be waking up, and you could catch up on a few thrills.”
“I’d…rather not. Thanks.” Godren swallowed as he watched the pin hover over his skin. The tip gleamed ever so slightly – poison, he thought. He was decidedly wary of poison these days.
“But it would be fun,” Catris insisted. “Nothing to worry about – the king’s men are just fellows. You’d get off the hook after I explained things to them, easier than if you were caught down those dark alleys of yours.”
Justice is what I’m afraid of, Godren thought, but couldn’t say it. “You would have to give away your secret,” he pointed out persuasively instead. “And you would lose your privilege of escaping to the walls. Trust me, your Highness, no one would like me any better after you explained.”
“Hm. Then I suppose you’ll just have to get away,” the princess shrugged. It was the obvious solution. “And call me Cat, curse you,” she growled for the last time, and dug the pin into his hand.
The numbness so recently cured from his hand spread right back into it, fogging his bloodstream. His grip on the wall faltered, then slipped, and the rough edge dug into his other strained palm until, with urgent resignation, he grimly let go and dropped to the ground, suddenly alighted on enemy territory.
“Have fun,” Catris bade, and replaced the pin in her hair.
Cursing, Godren rotated to survey the grounds through the sheltering willow branches. The music had stopped inside the palace, and he could hear voices exchanging a report somewhere nearby.
Suddenly he was not so sure if he was really very fond of the princess. Instinct kicked in when the gravity of the situation suddenly intensified to a matter of him, as a wanted criminal, thrust into the midst of his most dreaded enemy, endangered on the grounds that were the very source of his condemnation. Of course Catris could not know, but what if she had just doomed him? Godren tried to keep his composure, and tried to forgive her in advance. His eyes were grave as he watched through the branches, though, and noticed movement next to the palace for the first time. There were guards on the balcony. It was unlikely they could see him in the dark from this distance, but he was afraid to break from the cover of the trees.
Then the voices he had heard piped up again, closer this time, and he moved up against the willow trunk to let them pass. Their conversation proved they were the guards Catris had drugged, waking up and agreeing to check the grounds for trouble. And like the princess had guessed, they didn’t want to risk treading too close to the subject of sleeping on the job, sheepish about slacking, and so decided not to mention the incident to the king.
“I should have them reassigned to the mines,” the princess said from the wall once they were past. “They’re a risk to have on duty here.”
Ignoring her, Godren took his chance and forsook the trees, staying low as he swept along the inside of the wall. Rustling willow branches, and the princess’s light, musical laugh, sounded in his wake and saw him off as he sprinted into the foreboding, lawful dark.