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Sneak Peek: Enveloping Shadows

In my attempt to post here more regularly, and because I've been busy sending out my overdue Save the Dates for the wedding, I thought I'd share the first three chapter of Shadows as a preview. Bear in mind these have only been edited by me and not the fabulous Anne, so they're still rough.

Chapter 1: Orders

Tightening her grip on her sword, Terrwyn eyed her opponent. The morning sunlight reflected off the polished breastplate he wore, and she squinted to get a better look. Shemir’s blade was as steady as hers, though even through the glare she could see how shiny his face was. She smiled.

Shemir stepped back at the sight of her expression, bringing his shield up higher, his sword turned towards her. Terrwyn shifted her lead foot forward slightly and raised her own shield. Only when she felt herself properly centred, with her sword almost an extension of her arm, did she move.

She raced forward, the dust of hard-packed ground beneath her puffing up with every couple of steps. Shemir angled his shield to meet the sideways slash she sent at him. His own blade snicked out to scrape harmlessly across Terrwyn’s shield. But she hadn’t just slanted her shield, she pushed back, the block halfway to a blow with the force she put behind it. Shemir’s sword went wide.

Terrwyn spun to his side, her shield pressed against the arm that held his blade and her sword kissing the side of his neck. Shemir instantly went still, only the sweat that still slid down his face moving. Terrwyn held her position for a moment, then stepped away. “As I’ve told you, the full plate will only weigh you down. It’s better than chain, but you still can’t move as fast as you can when you wear the leather-plate hybrid. Our job is to move fast to keep Aricia safe, remember?”

Nodding, Shemir sheathed his sword. “I thought for practice the full plate would be better. I could use it to build up my stamina,” he panted.

She blinked then smiled. “Good thinking! I’ll suggest it to the others. Though, if you keep wearing it, even all the polishing in the world won’t keep it parade ready.”

He flushed and opened his mouth, but a shout from behind interrupted him. They both turned to look. The woman, dressed in the dark grey dress paired with the white apron and cap of the palace staff, had stopped at the grassy edge of the practice ring. She leaned forward against the simple wood fence and called, “Sir Terrwyn! You must come quickly. It’s her highness.”

Terrwyn sighed and sheathed her own blade. So much for the rest of her practice with the other guards. “You should try another sparring match against one of the others before you call it a day. And remember you’re on the evening shift.”

He saluted her smartly. “Yes, sir.”

She waved and walked over to where the maid still stood, wringing her hands. “What’s she done this time?” she asked, hand on hip.

The woman, curly hair damp from her run through the halls, gulped. “Her highness is tearing her rooms apart! Neither myself nor chief maid Bethia were able to stop her, so-”

Terrwyn cut her off with a raised hand. “I got it. I’m coming.” Using a hand on the top of the rough wooden fence, she vaulted over it. Her muscles protested faintly, especially after the two sparring matches she’d already done, but she ignored them. Pushing her body’s limits was how she improved, and the older Aricia got, the more capable her bodyguards needed to be. Especially with her pretty face and single state.

Through the nearest door they went, into the main building of the palace. In the dim light of the narrow hallway, Terrwyn was forced to rely on her memory of the maze of rooms and halls until her eyes adjusted. The tan stone blocks that made up the palace were bare here, only the public rooms covered in elaborate tapestries and paintings. Terrwyn preferred the back areas. The public ones were always full of courtiers and other folk who would want something of her, and by extension, of Aricia. Court posturing always gave her a headache.

The maid hurried along and Terrwyn was forced into a fast walk, scanning around as they went. As always, she saw nothing out of the ordinary. Only more of the palace staff going about their duties with scarcely a glance in their direction. The servants flowed in every direction, all of them moving with purpose.

Terrwyn nodded, glad to see everything as it should be. The sweat on her back dried and began to itch. Her smile faded and Terrwyn made a face. She hoped Aricia didn’t keep her busy too long, since late morning was one of the times when the palace baths were at their fullest.

They made it to the nearest staircase and headed up. The narrow, turning stairway was steep and made Terrwyn hope none of the other guards ever had to run up it in full plate armour. She could imagine what would happen if someone were to fall. She winced. The maid heard her and looked over her shoulder at Terrwyn. “It hasn’t been all too long, my lady. I’m sure her highness won’t have caused too much damage.”

Terrwyn sighed and didn’t bother correcting the woman. “I’m sure she hasn’t, but it’s getting her to stop that might be the issue. Aricia doesn’t always, or even often, listen to me. Also, I’m a knight so you needn’t call me ‘my lady’.”

“As you wish, sir. But I’m sure, between you and Bethia, her highness will stop. She has the utmost respect for both of you.”

She resisted the urge to snort. The maid was obviously new to working for the princess. “I’m sure we’ll find some way to distract her.”

They reached the top of the stairs then, taking the first door on the right. They emerged into the hallway that housed many of the nobles. The walls here were lined with gilded lanterns instead of the plain candles of the servants’ area, and featured many of the paintings that didn’t fit in the Royal Gallery. Terrwyn didn’t spare them a single glance, striding down the hall towards the closed and guarded doors just visible from where they were.

The Palace Guards were forced to wear full plate at all times when on duty, something that always made Terrwyn feel bad for them. She had her own suit of armour, but rarely wore it, preferring the extra speed she got from her lighter leather and metal hybrid. The pair on duty stood to either side of the double doors, their halberds planted against the stone of the floor.

As she approached, they both gave her half-salutes which she returned. The narrow slits in their helms gave her no idea who was inside, but it hardly mattered. All the palace guards on the grounds knew her on sight. Some from sparring with her and her people, some from seeing her during formal events, and the pitiful some who’d been forced to call her to handle one of the princess’s escapades.

The maid now trailing behind Terrwyn, she hurried her pace towards the second door on her left. Its thick wood and metal could only partially muffle the sounds of raised voices coming from the other side. With a sigh, Terrwyn opened the door and walked into chaos.

Aricia’s usually immaculate rooms looked as if a whirlwind had gone through. The antique ebony and blue velvet furniture, kept lovingly polished, was barely visible under the piles of fabrics that had taken over the sitting room. Everywhere Terrwyn looked, there were dresses.

She saw two maids in one of the corners, staring at the open doorway as another gown came flying out. This dress landed on the imported floral rug covering much of the stone floor. Eyebrows up, Terrwyn strode over to the door and poked her head inside.

Like the first room, this one was populated by ebony furniture, highly carved and older than all Aricia’s maids put together. But unlike the sitting room, the furnishings here were free of fabric guests. Terrwyn glanced around for the source of the flying clothes. The first person she saw was Bethia. The head of Aricia’s maids stood with her gaze narrowed, her lips pulled down. She caught sight of Terrwyn and rolled her eyes, jerking her chin towards the open closet.

Terrwyn sighed and walked over. She rapped her knuckles against the side of the closet’s door, her gaze on the figure bent over inside. “Aricia, what are you doing?”

The blonde head popped up and she was treated to the smile that had helped spread tales of their princess’s fair face. “Terrwyn! This is perfect! You are the person I most wanted to see.”

The knight shook her head. “Want to explain why you decided to redecorate with your gowns?”

Aricia waved a hand dismissively. “I am doing nothing of the sort. I am simply searching for the right dress for the masque ball tonight.”

Terrwyn’s eyebrows disappeared back under her black bangs. “You already have a dress,” she said, nodding at where the dress figure stood in the corner. Done in silvers and white and paired with a moon mask, it had taken the seamstresses nearly a month to put together. “Please tell me you haven’t changed your mind about it.”

The princess rolled her eyes in an uncanny imitation of Bethia. “It’s not for me. I am looking for a gown suitable for you.”

“No. Oh no, I’ll be working on keeping you safe. How can I do that if I’m wearing something I can’t fight in?”

Propping her hands onto her hips, Aricia glowered. “It’s a masque ball. No one knows what I will be dressed as, so the danger to my person is relatively low. I will not have you use your work as another excuse to avoid your duty as a lady and a woman. You will attend the ball, in a gown and without your sword and shield, and you will dance with young men. You cannot spend your whole life focused only on guarding me.”

“I don’t, but your safety has to be my first priority. I am your chief bodyguard. If anything were to happen to you, I’d be held responsible for it. So, you have my apologies, but I will go to the ball as myself.”

The princess’s chin rose and her eyes glittered dangerously as she looked at Terrwyn. “No, you will not. You are sworn to me and as such, I order you to attend the masque in a gown and without obvious arms,” she said, tossing her head. Her lips quirked up slightly as she continued. “You may hide as many weapons upon yourself as long as they won’t be discovered. And that includes if a suitor were to touch you or dance with you.”

Terrwyn sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. She couldn’t disobey the order without going against her oaths, as Aricia damn well knew. “As you wish, your highness,” she replied.

Aricia grimaced. “You’re not going to start your highnessing me, are you? You’re one of the few people who I don’t have to endure it from. Besides,” she said, smiling. “I am certain to find a gown even you will love. My thought is something in a deep blue, since it pairs so well with your hair and complexion…”

The princess trailed off, gsze unfocused then she suddenly clapped her hands. “Aha! I know of the exact dress.” She whirled and went deeper into the closet, flipping through the endless racks of clothing acquired by the royal family for centuries.

Already wishing she could go back to her practice, Terrwyn watched Aricia snatch something off the rack and come running back with it. She held it high and watched Terrwyn expectantly. The overgown, more of a floor-length jacket that laced at the bust and covered everything besides the triangular sections at the front, was black shot through with silver. Underneath was a deep blue material patterned in diamonds of nearly the same colour so it was barely visible. The long, draping sleeves of the overgown were lined with the same blue material.

Terrwyn cleared her throat. “It certainly is blue.”

Aricia threw her free hand up and glared. “It is a splendid dress. It will be easy enough to find a simple black or silver mask, and you can pair with me as the night sky. Appropriate since you seem determined to spend your life in the shadows, never enjoying yourself or living properly!”

“It’s not that I don’t want to enjoy myself,” she said, rubbing the back of her neck. “It’s that my duty must always come first. And you know I’m not overly fond of balls. Too many people in too small of a space… I always end up with a headache.”

The princess’s expression softened. “I understand. This time the ball will be held in part outside, on the grounds, so you will have no excuse to escape early. I expect you to dance, even if I must tie a leash around you to do so. Now, you will make the appropriate arrangements to free yourself for the rest of the day and evening, and you will stay here, with me. We will get ready together and attend the masque together. After all, it will be easier for you to protect me if you remain at my side, will it not?”

Terrwyn hid a wince. Aricia had her cornered, and her smug smile left Terrwyn with no doubt about the princess’s knowledge of that fact. She buckled to the inevitable and bowed her head. “Alright. But if there’s any danger, we’re both leaving.”

“It’s a ball. What kind of danger could there be?”

Chapter 2: The Ball

Terrwyn stopped beside Aricia, facing the open doorway that led towards the palace gardens. They were well-lit and already full, people walking by in clothing ranging from elaborate to understated simplicity, all of them masked. The inability to see who was who made Terrwyn’s neck itch. Someone could smuggle troops in disguised and no one would know until it was too late and then-

Her thought was cut off by a kick from Aricia. “You’re thinking of something awful and unfitting of a ball,” the princess said, eyes narrowed behind her silver mask.

She sighed. “I hate balls, especially masques.”

“You will simply have to accept it. It’s not as if you do not have nearly every other member of my bodyguards in uniform stationed throughout the grounds. Now, I will not have the efforts I put into making you presentable go to waste any more than I will the time it took to tame my hair. Let’s head out.”

Terrwyn wrinkled her nose, causing her black half-mask to rise. “Alright, but I’d prefer it if you stayed close. You don’t know who gossips to who, and there are young men who will pay to find out what you’re dressed as.”

Aricia gave her a sidelong glance and a wicked smile. “Which is why I pay my seamstresses and maids an additional fee to remain quiet or to give any particularly persistent people a false description I provide.”

“I should know better than to underestimate you.”

“That is very true.” The princess led the way towards the doors. “Now keep your head up and enjoy yourself.”

“Easy for you to say,” Terrwyn muttered. Already she could feel nervous sweat prickling her palms and back. There were too many people and she only had a few knives on her. She wanted her sword and her armour, but with Aricia’s hard gaze on her, she fixed her face into some semblance of politeness and walked outside.

At least the air was cool, the last bit of light leaving the sky slowly as the deep blue of twilight was swallowed by the black of night. The wide stone terrace was well lit with torches, with most people currently mingling around the tables holding food and drink. Musicians were setting up in one corner, the light notes of their tuning rising above the general murmur of chatter.

Down the stairs the gardens were kept from being dark with lanterns hung on temporary poles, a few people already wandering around the central grassy area, only a few taking the paths into the flowers themselves. Terrwyn flickered her gaze over the assembled people, noting the grey uniforms of her people all spaced out so they could handle any trouble prior to it becoming an issue.

She nodded inwardly, pleased at the discipline she saw. Everyone was where they should be and they were being ignored by the revellers. Just the way it was supposed to be. Terrwyn turned to Aricia, who was smiling at her in a way that made her tense.

“I am pleased to see you embracing your feminine side, even if it was done under protest.”

“It’s not my job to be feminine. It’s my job to keep you safe.”

“One does not preclude the other,” Aricia retorted. “And for tonight, being feminine should be your only concern.”

Before Terrwyn could ask what she meant by that, Aricia turned and hurried into the thickest part of the crowd, disappearing in moments. Gritting her teeth, Terrwyn stayed where she was. Drawing attention to Aricia would be worse. And it wasn’t as if all of her people didn’t know exactly what the princess was wearing and would keep an eye on her. She’d have to trust them to do their jobs.

With the press of people that even the open air couldn’t entirely keep from feeling confining, Terrwyn went straight to the table holding drinks. She grabbed one of the delicate goblets filled with pale liquid. A quick gulp told her it was plum wine, and she resisted the urge to toss it all back. She didn’t need the headache she’d have in the morning if allowed herself to overindulge.

Terrwyn sipped at her glass as she hovered around the edges of the terrace, listening to the people around her. Most of what they had to say was the usual court posturing and nonsense she didn’t bother with. She did hear two young men openly wondering where Aricia was, and what she was wearing. When a third joined them and mentioned the princess was dressed like the night, Terrwyn nearly choked.

Contemplating Aricia’s murder might not be professional, but she felt it was appropriate given the circumstances. To avoid the young men, who were obviously scanning the crowds, Terrwyn took the stairs down to the gardens. She didn’t trust the men’s powers of observation and really didn’t feel like having to fend off any attention meant for the princess. Not when she couldn’t see anyone’s faces.

With the musicians playing a lively piece, the grass below the terrace was full of dancers. Terrwyn settled to one side awkwardly, watching people swirl by. She glared when she caught sight of Aricia, who offered her a smile as she was whirled away by her partner. She’d remember this the next time the princess wanted her to cover up for her.

“…dark magic in the city.”

The words caught Terrwyn’s attention and she drifted towards where the man’s voice was coming from the other side of one of the gardens, the shadows here deep. “Heard someone died in the middle of dinner at an inn but no one saw who did it.”

“Probably drunk,” replied a second male voice.

Terrwyn only barely kept her snort of agreement from emerging.

“No, they weren’t. I heard there’s some kind of monster living in the darkness, one that cuts your throat and drinks your blood, and no one can see it coming.”

This time she did snort and wandered away, keeping to the edge of the area claimed by the dancers. Another stupid rumour that would probably grow with every time it was repeated. The last one had been about some enormous wolf terrorizing the city, which had turned out to be a big stray with a penchant for getting into people’s chicken coops.

She came to a stop in the corner farthest away from the musicians, where the music could just be heard and she was outside the main glow of the lanterns. Terrwyn sighed, revelling in the cooler air and quiet, but not daring to go any farther into the gardens. She knew Aricia would never let her hear the end of it if she did, and that if she was willing to disobey a direct order from the princess. She would if it were for Aricia’s own good, but wouldn’t tarnish her honour for something as stupid as not wanting to be at a ball.

“Are you hiding?”

Terrwyn jerked to stare at the man beside her. She could swear he hadn’t been there a moment ago, but in the shadows it was hard to see. His dark hair flopped over the top of his half-mask of black almost the twin of her own. Dressed in the same shade only lessened in a few places by silver, the man practically blended in with the darkness. “Pardon?”

He smiled, teeth bright in thin light of the lanterns. “Are you hiding?”

She shook her head, both hands wrapping around her now empty glass. “No, just watching the dancers and enjoying the cool air.”

“Ah, I can understand. Though I can’t understand why a pretty lady has been left without a dance partner.” He offered her his hand. “Would you join me for a dance?”

Terrwyn flushed a little, most men in court avoided her if they didn’t treat her like the other knights, and looked down at her hands. She knew she should accept, that Aricia expected it of her, but she didn’t know him. Part of her couldn’t help but wonder if he hadn’t made some kind of mistake.

Movement entered her field of vision, and before she knew what he was doing, the stranger had plucked the glass from her loose fingers. With a smile and a wink, he carefully put it down on the stone edge of one of the gardens. He took her hand in his then and nodded towards where the other dancers were finishing up their current set.

She hesitated, but the sight of Aricia’s glare as the princess went by made her sigh and allow the stranger to tow her into edge of the dancers. “I’m not the best dancer,” she warned.

He smiled again. “I’m sure you’ll be wonderful.”

Terrwyn studied him as they took their places while everyone else waited for the musicians to begin the next piece. Taller than her by a bit, his complexion was nearly the same as hers, indicating some kind of foreign parentage. He could be a diplomat, but his lack of accent made her uncertain. She didn’t think she’d seen him prior though, which gave her a bit of pause. Then again, if he was newly come to court, she’d likely not have noticed given her deliberate attempts to stay out of the politics she didn’t need to be involved in.

When the music started, Terrwyn’s shoulders tensed. It was a free dance and she always ended up stepping on her partner’s toes, one of the many reasons she didn’t dance often. Her partner squeezed the hand he still held gently and offered her a reassuring smile. She winced. “I’m sorry in advance.”

They started off slow, so they had taken at least a dozen steps before Terrwyn’s foot inevitably came down on top of his. She stumbled forward but he caught her, turning the movement into a spin like they’d planned it. She looked up and found him still smiling. “How about I follow you?” he said, shifting his hold so his hand was higher up on her waist.

She blinked for a moment then nodded. Concentrating on the music and the steps she’d been taught, she turned them slowly around then added in two quick steps. Her partner kept up easily which made her smile. Relaxing a bit, she took them deeper into the crowd, using long gliding steps that melded with the strings then matching short, almost tiptoe ones with the faster beat of the drum.

The stranger didn’t hesitate, matching his steps to hers with ease. He was certainly the best dancer she’d ever partnered with. She admired his ability to match with her, even as she continued moving, her body relaxing into the rhythm so she didn’t need to constantly focus on where her feet were.

At the end of her next quick turn, her partner added in his own flourish, releasing her waist so he could gently spin her with a hand. She smiled at him as she came back into his grip, moving them both faster in time with the music. Other dancers floated by, but none came close to them. They were alone in the centre of the grass, dancing as if no one else existed.

When the music finally stopped, Terrwyn found herself grinning up at him. She couldn’t remember ever having had that much fun dancing. Not since she was a child, at least. He returned the expression, a hand snaking out behind him. It reappeared a moment later with a red flower from one of the planters which he stuck into her hair above her ear. “Like I said, wonderful.”

She pinked but smiled her thanks. Terrwyn let him lead her out of the dance area, not really noticing the whispers that followed them or the clear space the other dancers had left around them. Once they were back in the corner where they’d come from, he brought her hand to his lips and gently kissed the back.

Now Terrwyn went red, but didn’t pull her hand away. He squeezed it once more and offered her a little bow then released it. “I do hope we meet again. I’d enjoy another dance and maybe we could even share a drink…?”

She looked down for a moment, thinking maybe Aricia had been right. Terrwyn lifted her head to say she’d love to, but found he was gone. She looked all around, turning slowly, but could find no sign of him. Only the flower in her hair showed she hadn’t hallucinated the whole thing.

Chapter 3: Stolen

Keeping pace beside Aricia, Terrwyn kept her eyes moving, identifying every bit of movement in the gardens they strolled through. The princess had already dismissed her two ladies-in-waiting, leaving it just the two of them for the little time they had left before they needed to get ready for dinner. Already the sun was dying, the light turning golden making it clear they would have to head back to Aricia’s rooms shortly.

The princess looked at her, a wicked edge hiding in the corners of the polite smile she wore in public. “Have you had any luck in finding your dance partner from last night?”

Terrwyn sighed. Aricia was like a dog with a bone. “No, and I haven’t been looking. We danced once, that’s it.”

“It appeared to me as if you were in the midst of quite the moment prior to his departure. I have also never seen you dance so gracefully or with such obvious joy.”

“You’re reading way more into one dance than you should.”

“If you bothered to embrace your femininity rather than ignoring it, this would not be such a rare occurrence. You do well when you relax and stop worrying about your duty. I appreciate you take your job seriously, and I don’t want you to stop doing what you believe is necessary, but you need to have a life outside of my safety.”

Terrwyn stopped and met Aricia’s gaze squarely. “Your safety has to be my first concern. If it isn’t, you should replace me as your chief bodyguard.”

Aricia held her gaze. “I will not replace you. You are everything I want for someone in the position. You are skilled, intelligent, don’t feel the need to bow and scrape to me, and as an added benefit, you’re female so I need not worry about any rumours about our closeness. And I do like you on a personal level which is why I worry you will one day wake up with nothing, having spent your whole life focused on me.”

“It won’t be forever,” she replied, rubbing the back of her neck. “But I’ve only had the position for two years, and you know there are people who still question it. And you’re single. Once you’re settled, everyone else should settle down as well.”

The princess studied her face for a few more seconds then she nodded. Then she made a disapproving noise as she started walking again. “Please do not remind me. Mother has taken to mentioning possible matches whenever we are together as a family. It’s gotten wearing far faster than I thought it would. I do understand the need, but I intend to choose my partner carefully. I will not have my rule usurped.”

Terrwyn snorted. “It wouldn’t get that far. You know I won’t allow anyone to hurt or usurp you. My loyalty and sword are yours, and always will be. You took a chance on me when no one else would.”

Aricia smiled. “This is why I like you. You don’t really want anything of me. The things you do want are only to keep me safe, and while I don’t always agree, I do appreciate the care you take. And it was less of a gamble than everyone else seems to believe. I remember how you dedicated yourself to your training, had seen you fight in matches, and knew that the Frostpeaks don’t tolerate stupidity. If your brother was not heir and already married, I would consider him as a possible suitor.”

“Cadell’s alright, I guess, but you could definitely do better,” she replied, wrinkling her nose. She couldn’t imagine anyone but her sister-in-law, Dianthe, thinking her brother was any kind of catch. And even then, she was pretty sure sometimes Dianthe thought Cadell’s obsession with trade was odd. Though with how strong it ran in her family, her sister-in-law would have to get used to it.

The princess chuckled. “With that in mind, I believe it’s past time we return to my rooms. I must prepare for dinner. Father has said we will be welcoming some new diplomats tonight. We may even find your oh-so-mysterious partner.”

Terrwyn looked to the sky for help but said nothing, not when Aricia was giving her that mischievous sidelong looks of hers. With any luck these new diplomats would provide enough of a distraction that the princess would forget about last night’s stranger.

Though, she had to admit, he was hard to forget. As she walked Aricia back, she couldn’t help but wonder who the man was and why he’d disappeared so quickly. Also how. It would definitely be a useful skill to learn, for her as well as her men, if it was something you could learn.

She waved goodbye to Aricia when they reached her rooms, leaving the princess to get ready and trusting the men on duty at the doors in case of any issues. Not there ever was any, but Terrwyn believed in being cautious, especially with Aricia’s safety. It was her duty.

Returning to her own rooms, down the hall from the princess’s, Terrwyn kicked the thick wooden door shut behind her. Her small sitting room full of antique but worn furniture was tidy, the room dim, with only two lanterns lit at the moment. She moved quickly through, not really needing the light to know where to step.

Her bedroom was far brighter, the small window open, letting the orange sunlight in. She closed the thin curtains, obscuring her rather boring view of the kitchen gardens and turned towards her wardrobe. Like the rest of her furniture, given to her as part of her position, it was worn but still sturdy. She pulled out a set of her more formal uniform. More of a silvery grey with piping in the forest green of the regular uniform, it was surprising comfortable for the severity of it, so Terrwyn didn’t even glance at her usual armour. Especially since Aricia had already made her feelings clear about her wearing it to dinner. More than once.

She changed quickly, tightening her sword belt around her waist and double checking the placement of the few knives she wore. Once she was ready, Terrwyn headed back to Aricia’s rooms. She nodded at the two men on duty, Istvan and Savill, who saluted, then knocked on the door.

It opened almost immediately, one of the maids ushering her in. Terrwyn could hear Aricia’s voice coming from the other room and sighed. She had taken only a few steps when the princess’s voice went quiet. She relaxed only a bit until she could poke her head in. Bethia was handing Aricia a deep pink dress while a pale purple gown lay crumpled on the floor. Knowing both women’s preferences, told her all she needed to know.

Terrwyn leaned against the stone walls between two tapestries, one depicting the legend of sealing of the monster Slel, watching Bethia first lace Aricia into the dress then begin work on the princess’s hair. There wasn’t much that needed to be done since she’d had her hair pinned up in the morning, but some tendrils always escaped. Adding a few small jeweled pins to surround a larger one at the back of her hair helped transform Aricia’s look into something appropriate for greeting diplomats in.

Reflexively Terrwyn checked her own tight braid, finding it as always, wrapped around her head. Keeping her hair long was the only vanity she allowed herself, especially when she could keep it out of her way like this. Also she was fairly certain her mother would kill her if she cut it, and even as an adult, her mother still scared her.

It wasn’t too much longer before Aricia was ready and Terrwyn could fall into step behind her as they exited her rooms. Istvan and Savill stayed where they were, saluting them both as they passed, then returned to their usual attention. Aricia gave them both a smile as they went by, but said nothing. Not that Terrwyn expected her to. In public, she was the princess first and foremost.

Down the hall they went, past the palace guards who guarded the royal quarters, and into the area that housed most of the nobles who lived at court. Only a few people lingered here, mostly young men, all of them bowing deeply to Aricia. Terrwyn eyed them, not liking the barely hidden expression of hunger some wore. Even for all the gold in the kingdom, she still wouldn’t change places with the princess.

Aricia nodded her acceptance of their attention, but otherwise ignored them. Terrwyn kept close and wore the stonily blank expression she favoured while on duty. It discouraged people from trying to get information out of her and helped counter the impression her youth gave people. At least, that’s what she hoped it did.

They descended the wide stone stairs covered in a thick green carpet, then turned down the nearest hall to head towards the great dining hall. Lit by enormous crystal chandeliers that each held almost a hundred candles, the sight of the room never ceased to impress Terrwyn. On a raised dais was the elegantly carved mahogany table where Aricia would sit at, her parents and sister already standing up there, talking to the evening’s guests.

Below the dais in neat rows were the other tables, each place at them carefully assigned based on degree of nobility, age, and distinction. How the seneschal avoided offending people, Terrwyn had no idea, but she was glad he did. Her own table, if she were eating at court that night, was the one farthest from the royal end of the dais.

She turned her attention back to looking over everyone they passed, most only bowing and murmuring, “Your Highness.” Aricia swept them with a smile, making each feel like she met their eyes individually, a skill Terrwyn had seen the princess practice. She might tease her for being serious about her job, but Aricia was just as dedicated to her own position.

Climbing the dais, Terrwyn fell an extra step behind as they approached the royal family. King Stavros smiled at his daughter, waving her over. “Ah, Aricia. On time as always,” he said, nodding at Terrwyn. “Thank you, Sir Terrwyn. You always take such care.”

She bowed deeply. “It is my honour and duty, your majesty.”

He smiled, turning his attention back to Aricia. Terrwyn stepped back then, moving to her position behind Aricia’s seat and against the wall. From there she had a good view of the whole room and all the entrances and exits, including the windows. The king and queen’s personal guards were in similar positions.

With Aricia’s arrival, the dining hall quickly filled, everyone heading to their assigned seats with the usual chatter and laughter. The high windows showed the sun was gone or mostly so, the sky a deepening blue so the chandeliers light seemed to glow all the brighter. They cast shadows throughout the hall and reflected off the various gems and precious metals adorning the nobles below, making everyone seem to glitter.

It was a pretty sight, one Terrwyn ignored. She scanned the room again but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Another peaceful dinner after another peaceful day. Just the way it should be.

She watched the royal family take their seats, the signal for everyone else to do the same. Aricia moved gracefully to her place, carefully arranging her skirts as she sat, her head held high. Something shifted beneath the table, making Terrwyn stiffen and turn her head so she could get a better look. But there was nothing there, only the stone floor, Aricia’s feet, and the deep shadow cast by the table.

Terrwyn frowned and dropped a hand to her sword hilt. Something wasn’t right. She looked around again, but couldn’t pinpoint what the problem was. The other guards didn’t look worked up, though two of them were watching her with significant looks.

She waited an extra minute then shook her head slightly and resumed her position. Maybe she’d had more to drink last night than she’d thought. Maybe that was what had her on edge, a hangover she was only now-

Movement snapped her attention back to Aricia, only this time it wasn’t slight. Like a small wave, darkness came out from under the table and rose up, resolving itself into a black-haired man dressed in dark leathers. Terrwyn only managed a single step forward before he grabbed Aricia and yanked the princess towards him.

Terrwyn watched as the world seemed to slow, her hands scrabbling for her sword as each step she took seemed to take a minute. She could do nothing as the stranger clapped a cloth over Aricia’s face, even as the princess began to struggle. She was only a few steps shy of them when the darkness rose up and covered both.

Terrwyn skittered to a stop in the spot that Aricia had just been, sword in one hand, eyes wide and staring.

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