It was a good thing, too, because she hadn't had any real sleep in four nights. The stress of the past three weeks was evident on her relaxed features--in the tension of her brow, the set of her jaw, and the pout of her lip.
Auden looked down at the resting lady, concerned. To the rest of the small troop of king's riders, she was a nobody in need of assistance. To Auden, however, she was a lady of the highest birth.
This was, primarily, because he was looking down at the petite form of Novette Elan of Duress, Crown Princess of Chellant.
She wasn't in any royal attire, that was certain. Her skirts were dust-stained and her bodice and sleeves practically threadbare, and all was made of a plain fabric. However, if he looked closely, Auden could see how well-made they'd once been. Likewise, among the marks of stress on her face, Auden could find the marks of her aristocratic heritage in her finely arched brows, sharp cheekbones, straight nose, and delicate skin.
He wondered at why none of the other soldiers could sense her true identity; then again, he had to remind himself, he'd had years of practice to do so.
The rest of the small troop of men, now sleeping soundly as Auden took final watch, were also unaware that their intent--to patrol the western Chellantine/Gamoiran border for banditry--was also a ruse. The men weren't suspicious, despite the fact that banditry from the strict western country was rare.
Auden, although surprised and a smidge disappointed in the perceptive skills of his fellow soldiers, was nonetheless pleased. This would make his assigned task much easier.
The dawning sun rose as Auden mused, and he realized his shift of watch was over. He had very little time before he would be expected to rouse the other men.
"Novette," he whispered. She was unresponsive. Auden tried again. "Novette!" Her eyelids fluttered, but she moved no more than that.
He inwardly winced, hating the awkward urgency of the situation; but, he reached out a hand to nudge her shoulder. "Nov-"
Her eyes flew open and she tensed for action: but then relaxed as she came to recognize the face leaning above her.
"Auden! My stars, I keep forgetting how you've grown since I saw you last." Her amber-colored eyes sparked at the jest.
His concerned expression finally cracked into a smile. "Novette, while I recognize how much I have changed, I must insist you have changed more."
She looked away, eyes still seeming to glow in the grey dawn light. "You may be right. What have you to tell me now? What is our next play?"
Auden slid down to murmur in her ear as she continued to lay still. "We must convince them that you are important enough to warrant one of us escorting you to Azona... or at least, convince the Captain of your urgentneed to get there... and I'll volunteer to escort you. We must simply make sure that I am the one the captain wishes to go." Auden grimaced slightly.
"Best be on your best behavior then; I've seen the way he glares at you. What on earth did you do?"
"I was assigned to his troop." He rolled his eyes. "In any case, just follow my lead, and be sure not to give them any clues as to your true identity."
Novette almost laughed, restraining herself at the last second when she remembered where they were. "You underestimate me, my dear."
Auden's smile matched hers. "I'm sure I do. But then, you must remember how acquainted I became with your... acting skills when we were children."
This time Novette did laugh, though softly. "Who could forget those days? My 'acting,' your 'persuading,' and all our endless mischief?"
Auden's thin smile broke into an all-out grin. "Of course, nobody could forget it. That is, if anyone but us two could puzzle out all the trouble we caused."
The sun had officially breached the horizon, and the light was beginning to make the men stir. The pair glanced at it, recognizing the end of their conversation.
"Sleep," Auden said, sitting up again. He smoothed a hand over her bedraggled hair. "Or pretend. Your choice." And he left Novette to lay unmoving once more.
She heard him rouse the other men, heard the groans they uttered, the rustle-thumps of their footsteps, and the various thuds and swishes that comprised the music of their morning routine.
She quickly decided she couldn't actually sleep any longer, so she set about to thinking instead. It was so good to see Auden after all these years, even under these circumstances. Back when the royal families of Chellant and Gamoir had been close friends, the children of each family had visited between the two palaces each summer. Novette had spent several summers playing with the young Prince Auden that way, before her mother had died.
The late Queen Delana of Chellant had died of a heart spasm, and all the mages that could confirmed there had been no foul play; since she had been so young, it had been suspected. King Langrey, Novette's father, had been mourning ever since, and that distraction had caused a slow neglect of the friendships between the two royal families. No animosity whatsoever came of the occurrence, and both sides remained friendly, if they did only chance to see each other during political affairs.
Novette and Auden hadn't seen each other since a few brief days when she was fourteen, and before that, when she was nine. They both eventually acquired younger siblings, too, which only complicated the matter of continuing a long-distance friendship.
Novette was now 19, and Auden 23. Even the correspondence they'd kept up wasn't enough to make up for the five years of absence.
Along with weariness from travel, happiness from seeing Auden, and nerves concerning the future, Novette was furious. All through the weeks of her travel, a calm, fizzling fury filled her from top to toe, and often she would recognize an odd, extraordinary wetness spilling from her eyes.
Her father, King Langrey, was dead. And unlike her mother's death, this one had certainly not been natural, at least due to the evidences of five different poisons on his Majesty's skin and lips. Novette's younger sister Cordeurie even privately accused Novette of treason by poisoning. True, Novette might have benefited politically from this move, but so did Cordeurie--she was one step closer to the throne. Novette couldn't claim the Queenship for another year and a half in any case, seeing as she wasn't to be coronated until her 21st birthday. She told Cordeurie so, and the younger princess protested vehemently. Distrust grew between the sisters who had never quite learned to get along.
Regardless, it was clear that an unidentifiable someone was targeting the royal family, and with the King gone and Novette not able to take the throne for another year and a half, the Grand Steward, Selwyn, took charge--to Novette's relief. Plans were made to send each sister--Novette, Cordeurie, and their youngest sister, Endora--into hiding in three separate places. For Novette, the trustworthy Selwyn called on the old friendship with the royal of Gamoir: even the sisters did not know each others' whereabouts. Only Selwyn knew all three.
So, disguised as a common traveler and reeling with fury directed towards her mother's killer, Alette was sent on her way to the Gamoiran border. She was guarded and on horseback until a mile away from the designated retrieval area, and her guards left her. Even they had not known who she was, just that they were paid highly to follow orders and protect her.
For the five minutes she was alone, Novette did her best to look like a sick, footsore, weary traveler who needed assistance. She was armed and trained with daggers, but the men didn't need to know that--she hid them in her boots and sleeves. She undid her carefully braided brown hair and shook it all around, letting her natural waves become impossibly tangled. She tore a few choice holes in her skirt, she took out a dagger and cut a seam, frayed edges--and, last of all, she dropped and rolled in the dust of the road for a solid minute.
When finally through, she no longer resembled her pristine and proper self, but that was exactly as she had planned. As a finishing touch, she swept dust along her cheeks and eyes in such a way that, while they lessened her appearance of stature, they still accented her features. Soldiers tended to be nicer to the ladies with a bit of beauty, and with the rest of herself torn and dirtied, she had to use it where she could.
Novette was nothing if not calculating.
Now, laying huddled and still in her borrowed blankets, she could still feel the smutches of red road grit on her skin, exactly where she'd put it yesterday. The men had been affected exactly as she'd intended--choosing to see only her obvious destitution,and not her perfect posture or proud stance. They chose to see her pretty face and dirty clothes over her polished manners and elocution. A little costume does wonders for those who do not wish to change all their behavioral patterns, she thought.
And that was how she came to meet Auden, who had been sent to find her. Surprised that such a high-ranking boy would be the one assigned to the task, she supposed that it was necessary for the secret of her whereabouts to be kept to a minimum number of people... and, she was highly pleased by it. Seeing him caused her to smile for the first time in weeks, and for a second it quelled the tiny, furious fire she always nursed in her heart.
Her father's death would be avenged, she swore it. But for now, Selwyn was doing all he could to find the murderer, and Novette could only wait and continue on in the name of self-preservation. What good would it do if she got herself killed too? Then her impulsive, selfish sister Cordeurie would be next in line, and Novette, though she loved her sister, didn't believe Cordeurie had the wherewithal for ruling.
A hand prodded her shoulder gently. Novette's eyes twitched into slits just wide enough to see from: upon seeing it was Auden, finishing his rounds, she opened them immediately.
"Good morning, miss. How would you care for some tea?" His speech told her that they were to put on a show--and not know each other--while his mauve eyes told her she could have fun with it. She decided to take him up on the offer.
"Well, I think it'd suit me on'y too good! C'n I get some o' that stew what you brewed last night? My belly's like to eat itself!" She twisted her words to mimic the accent of a port city girl, perhaps one of the flower-sellers or young bakers' wives she'd noticed on a recent trip to the Gamoiran port city of Nuerent. She remembered to crinkle her posture and tweak her facial expression to complete the illusion. She made as if to get up from her seat on the ground, and was met with the hand of the now-standing Auden. Grinning, she took it, and he swept her up off the ground. She pretended to stumble and brush grass off her skirts as he replied.
"Miss, it seems we've finished all that stew off. I sincerely apologize." She knew that, of course. "However, if I may interest you in some apples or pears, those we have fresh and on-hand. Or, even, a strawberry or two."
He knew she had a weakness for strawberries, and as she met his eyes she saw that he knew what her answer would be. "I might have a bit o' interest in some berries... and a red apple. But no greens!"
He inclined his head. "I'll see what I can turn up for you." He strolled away as she stood, surveying the camp.
The fire was banked, the mounts prepared, and the bedrolls packed. The men were all milling around the dead fire, waking up and engaging in idle chatter. Three on the far side were guffawing at something a fourth man with a smug look on his face had just said--he was older than the rest, and appeared to be the captain of the troop. He turned to look at Alette just as she glanced away. Auden returned with her fruit.
"We'll be leaving soon," He muttered. "Have you thought of a different name you might use? The thought only just occurred to me."
Novette thought for a second, realizing the sense of his idea. She was lucky they hadn't asked for one last night. "I'll be... Dahlia." She picked the name of one of her favorite flowers; their big, vibrant blooms were famous in Chellant. She plucked at his sleeve. "Don't forget, now. A slip like that would be worse than using my real name from the start." She took her fruit--a dark red apple and three strawberries--from him and dropped into a mock curtsy for the watching men. She wobbled on purpose, just to throw them further.
"All right, then. Shall I introduce you to my companions, miss Dahlia?" He held out a hand, as if they were to start a dance. She took it, carefully balancing her fruit in one arm, and let him guide her to the gathered men.
They were all openly staring at her when she arrived. Instead of standing awkwardly like the rest of them, she sank down onto a log and took a bite out of her apple. Her eyes dared any one of them to come close and interfere with her meal.
Auden had to laugh at this new tactic of hers, but instead he kept a straight face, merely raising an eyebrow. She let the shadow of a wink prompt him to continue.
"Gentlemen, may I introduce miss Dahlia? We caught her up so suddenly yesterday that I don't believe she's met everyone yet." He gestured for the men to take his suggestion. The man who Novette had percieved to be the captain stepped forward first.
"Captain Rehan Beller, at your service, miss." He nodded, face strict but smiling loosely.
A thin, brunet man spoke next. "I'm Henton Pierce."
A stocky, quiet-seeming blond: "I'm Quelrin Coury."
A slender man with bright blue eyes and black hair: "Delan Longry."
A very tall sandy-haired man with a big smile: "Alm Worren, miss."
A dark, short man with brown eyes: "Sern Rigano."
A redhead covered with freckles: "Firen Donnetae." He winked.
And last, a burly man who smiled easily: "Kole Bennings."
"And you've met me, but here's my name again," Auden said. Novette wondered what, exactly, he was playing at. "My name is Auden of Ennorel, Crown Prince of Gamoir."
Novette reacted how any young lady might react, had she not known him all her life. "Prince?! Oh, your Majesty, it's that sorry I am that I been actin' this way around you. I'll fix up, I swear it, an' you won't ever have t' look after me again."
He smiled graciously, playing his part. "No matter, miss Dahlia, I am here on orders from my father. Nothing you do or say would have inclined me to dislike you, simply because you did not know my birth."
Pretending not to know what to say, she hastily took another bite of her apple.
Captain Beller crouched down next to Novette, calling her attention away from Auden, whom he met with a disapproving look. "Where were you heading, so poorly supplied and alone? You know we cannot consent to leaving you as you were. At the very least, we must give you a pack of supplies, and at most, we will escort you." His voice was understanding even as his face was stern. Novette was beginning to believe that his expression never changed.
She let her eyes flicker across the faces of the men nervously, giving them reason to believe she was a little afraid of them. Really, she was using the action to glance at Auden to confirm: he gave the tiniest of nods. She was to put the plan in action.
"I was makin' for Azona when you happened t' cross me." Azona, the capital of Gamoir, held the palace and the royal family, and was where Auden was meant to take her.
Captain Beller raised his eyebrows. "So far for one so little prepared?"
At this, Novette bristled. "I was more prepared before them thieves came an' took my pack! But then I was too far, an' had nothing for it but t' keep going. So here I am." She scowled defensively.
Captain Beller leaned back on his heels. "I'm afraid that's a little farther than our assignment will let us take you."
Alarm flooded Novette's chest. Nevertheless, she had something to accomplish. She crossed her arms defiantly. "Well now, what d'you wan' me t' do? How'm I supposed to get there?" she took another bit of her apple, daring him to defy her.
"I volunteer to take her to her destination." Auden said casually. "I have some business I'd like to take up with my father anyway."
Captain Beller's face darkened with conflict. Clearly, he was willing to help Novette, but he didn't want give anything to Auden that he didn't have to. His eyes snapped up as he made a decision. "We will all accompany you to Tholton, and then I will let you take her, Auden." He stood. "And we will give you a pack of supplies, miss Dahlia."
Novette turned her nose up, just barely using this gesture from her royal past to suggest her dissatisfaction, but acceptance, of this idea. She supposed this plan would accomplish what she and Auden needed to do--get to Azona--but the addition of the soldiers would slow them down significantly. At least it would only be for a small part of the journey.
"All right," Auden conceded, noticing the consent on Novette's face. "That plan seems satisfactory." He gestured to the horses. "Shall we proceed?"
Captain Beller nodded, looking weary already.
"The last thing: where will I ride? You've no spare mounts, and I don't think any o' them are goin' t' be able t' take me plus a big soldier for too long at once." Novette's logical concerns won out, in light of the recent decision-making.
The solution to this dilemma came easily to the captain's lips. "Then you'll switch riding partners. We'll go by turns--one in the morning, a new one in the afternoon, and so on. We'll get through--" He did a speedy calculation in his mind. "--About one rotation before
we get to Tholton, and by then perhaps we'll have worked something else out for the remaining journey with his Highness."
Novette nodded, impressed with the readiness of his solution, and looking forward to riding with Auden. She had no doubt that there would be few issues while she was traveling with him,and she was looking forward to being able to speak openly with someone. "That seems a good idea."
Captain Beller took the mild praise with a nod. "Bennings!" He called sharply. "You'll be her first riding partner." The burly man she'd met earlier nodded cheerily. "Now, let's get you set up with a pack, before we go." He waved for two of the men and Novette to follow him.
He was already riffling through some packs when they caught up: an empty leather messenger bag, worn from use; a pair of thick, woolen blankets; generous packages of dried fruit and meat and nuts; and an oilcloth containing flint and tinder were already lying on the ground to be used. Captain Beller added a pair of daggers, which made Novette smile, remembering the set she'd stored in her boots.
"Delan, get bandaging. Quelrin, twine." He himself also added a waterskin, and two pairs of socks. Then he set about consolidating all the supplies into the leather bag, layering everything on top of the blankets and explaining it all as he went on. Novette hardly paid attention: she knew how to use everything in that bag, and even if she hadn't known, most of it was fairly self-explanatory. He asked if she had anything on her person to add, and all she volunteered was a small coin purse that held jewels and coins from her home. A hedgewitch had charmed it long ago so that it felt to others like there was nothing in it but maybe a few small coins. The captain watched her tuck it into the mass of supplies, an odd look on his face.
"Thank you, sir." She said meekly. "I can't pay you, you may's well know."
HIs stern look softened. Despite how strict he was, she saw that he had a caring heart. "You'll pay us well enough just by living through this journey, and I assure you we feel much the better having you properly outfitted." He handed the pack to her; it was heavy. "Now, go find Kole Bennings! He'll take care of you well enough."
She stood a moment as the captain walked away. When he'd strolled out of sight, she tried to hoist it up, but lost her grip. A pair of tanned and calloused hands jumped to catch it. Auden, the owner of the hands, returned the fallen pack to her.
"Thank you," she breathed. She slung the bag over one shoulder, adjusting her stance to do so. This brought her a step closer to Auden, who didn't step away.
She glanced at him and smiled apologetically, trying to convey how sorry she was that her problems were causing him problems. It was needless. While she was looking at him, Auden's eyes caught and held her own. His had a dreamy character that rarely sharpened into steely grey-violet. They did just that right now, she noticed with interest.
He took her chin in his fingertips and pulled her closer to examine her eyes further. "Have I ever told you how clear your eyes are? Like crystal. And such an unusual color too, a warmer color than anyone's eyes I've ever seen." He released her, but his eyes were still sharp with interest. "Golden, almost. I would say--amber. Yes, amber." His face blushed only the tiniest bit. When he next spoke, she was Dahlia to him again, the girl who would need explanation after a friendly display like that. "I'm sorry," he said formally. "I didn't mean to frighten you off with my closeness. I'm a mage, you see, and odd eyes usually mean that a person has power. I have never seen your kind of eyes before, though." By now, Auden had his usual mischevious spark in his eyes, knowing the answers to all the questions he asked. "Can you work magics?"
"Not that I'm aware." Novette glared at him, urging him to take the hint.
Auden was toying with her. "Well, we'll see." He smiled in earnest and walked a couple steps before turning back. "And I apologize for intruding, again."
Novette shook her head. Auden had always been silly: she was glad he'd retained that trait.
"All right, miss, you ready for a bit o' adventure?" The burly man, Kole Bennings, grinned at her. She had a feeling she was going to be laughing with him all morning.
"Why, o' course!"