Or maybe it would be just as irritating as his every memory of civilization was. The banquet was far too loud for Andrew’s comfort, and the guests were rude and disgusting. He found himself unable to focus on Marie’s telling of their story to the king, distracted as he was by the constant comings and goings and sudden noises in the great hall. He finally forced himself to stop looking at every newcomer and managed to listen to Marie.
The Princess happened to be finishing the story, saying, “…So Andrew brought me to the capital, and here we are.” She smiled winningly.
“This is very troubling,” the king said with a frown. “Who would be desperate enough to keep our kingdoms apart that they would attack a royal conveyance?”
Andrew cut in here, saying, “They wore no emblems, and carried no pouches or packs of any kind. Their weapons and armor were strictly normal, with no distinguishing features. The men may have been amateurs, but whoever sent them was not.”
The king nodded. “That’s what I’m afraid of. One of the nobles in my court is a traitor, though I do not know which.”
“I’m sure you will find him, your majesty. Now, if I may bring up a more personal matter, the Princess promised that I would be compensated for my time.”
“Compensated?” The king raised an eyebrow. “In what way?”
“She pointed out, rightly, that if Olion and Aryalis unite, my forest will go from contested land to prime timber. I want legal possession of it, so that it cannot be despoiled.”
The king laughed. “That can be arranged.” He gestured, and a scribe came forward, took some notes the king dictated to him, and left. “Before the day is out, the forest will be yours.”
Andrew inclined his head deeply. “Thank you, your Majesty.”
“Think nothing of it,” the king said, waving a hand dismissively. “It’s the least I can do for the man who saved my ward.”
Andrew’s head snapped up. “Ward?”
“Yes. Marie. She is entrusted to me by the kingdom of Olion, as I have sent them my youngest brother.”
A whirl of thoughts and emotions whirled through Andrew’s mind. Marie wasn’t betrothed. She was not only single, but the youngest princess, which meant that as long as she stayed in Aryalis, remaining a guarantee of peace, she was free to do what she wished. Andrew forced himself to keep his emotions from showing on his face as he replied, “It was the only thing that I could do under the circumstances, your Majesty.”
“Of course.” The king turned to one of his nobles who needed his judgment on something.
Andrew found his eyes drawn to Marie, noticing that she seemed ill at ease, surrounded by Aryalians who were reluctant to associate with Olion royalty. Suddenly he felt vulnerable, and he stood and left the hall, making his way to the battlements. The cool night air settled his nerves, and the starry night sky let him forget for a moment that he was not at home in his forest.
“Andrew?” Marie’s voice brought him back to reality, and he turned to see her looking at him, concerned. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I just needed to get outside.”
She nodded. “Not used to the big city?”
“Something like that, yeah.”
Marie walked up beside him on the battlements, looking out at the stars. “Beautiful, aren’t they?”
Andrew’s eyes were on Marie as he replied, “Yes. Very beautiful.” He looked away immediately. What was that? You’re acting like a complete idiot!
Fortunately, Marie seemed to not have noticed that his comment was directed at her. “Do you ever wonder how many there are?”
“I try not to think about things beyond this world. This world has more than enough to think about.”
“That’s true.” Marie looked at him and noticed for the first time that he had been gazing at her. She blushed and turned away, letting her hair fall in front of her face.
Andrew gripped the battlements, his knuckles going white as he berated himself. I’ve got to get out of here. If I stay much longer I won’t be able to leave. “I’m going to have to leave early tomorrow, so I guess I’ll turn in. Goodnight, milady.” He departed without waiting for the reply she called after him.
When he reached the door of his room, he stopped with his hand resting on the handle, remembering only at that moment that Marie had insisted that they share a room. Not seeing any other option, he entered with a sigh, found the couch that was farthest from the bed, and flopped down on it. A few hours later, when Marie entered, he feigned sleep, and she went to bed without trying to wake him.
He waited a few more hours, until the sky to the east began to lighten almost imperceptibly, and then rose, gathered his few belongings, and left. The guards did not even notice him as he slipped through the shadows, avoiding all human contact, and he reached the outer wall of the city without incident.
The fresh air restored his spirits greatly, and he walked towards his forest, ignoring the road and traversing the open country. It took him much less time to return to the forest than it had to leave it, owing to the absence of the Princess and the eagerness with which he walked. He topped the final rise before the forest and paused a moment, taking in a deep breath and smelling the evergreens which he had missed.
Before he could continue, however, he detected a rider fast approaching along the road to the capital. Turning, he beheld a man wearing the livery of the king’s servants, coming towards him at a reckless pace. Andrew waited for the rider, who seemed to be trying to catch him.
Breathless, the messenger stopped and handed Andrew a letter with the king’s personal seal. Andrew opened it with a frown, and his face paled as he read it.
The Princess Marie, whom you so courageously brought safely to us, requires your help once more. She has been carried off by brigands, whom we believe intend to hold her against our kingdom joining Olion. My men have been unable to track them, and we believe time is of the essence. Please, help her.
King James I, Ruler of Aryalis