[A/N:  This chapter is a bit longer than the ones before, but I couldn't find a way to cut it in half or anything.  I expected this to be a frivolous type of story, so I'm having a bit of trouble keeping it going.  But I think it's an important project for me to finish, so here we go... Also, I think it's interesting to note that about half of you think this is typical and the other half disagree.  I guess I'll let you decide!  By the way, I've made some important changes in previous chapters.  Chapter 1:  The mood was changed (Shadow Dreams, you were SO right... I'd been grappling with that same concern, and when you voiced it.. I knew I had to go and change it)  Chapter 2:  Further change in mood.  Chapter 3:  A paragraph was added in the beginning with a bit more information.]

Chapter 4:  Idle Conversation

          Breaking out of the rank of rear guards, a lone horseman rode furiously, drawing nearer to her carriage with every moment.  Because her tear-filled eyes were focused on the castle walls beyond, Calina did not notice him until he was nearly upon her.  By then, the horse had slowed to match pace with the carriage and its rider kept his eyes respectfully lowered from her reddened face as he bowed.  She nodded acknowledgement as calmly as she could and withdrew into the shelter of the carriage, her cheeks warm. 

          Taking a lace handkerchief wordlessly provided by Leana, the princess steeled herself against her pain and fear.  She must be strong despite her misgivings.  And most importantly, she must maintain her dignity and calm for those around her.  You sent me away to preserve an heir to the throne, Father.  I will not waver in the face of uncertainty.  With that thought, and the image of her father's loving eyes fixed in her mind, Calina swallowed away the icy lump in her throat. 

          "My lady," Leana's voice intruded upon her thoughts.  "Sir Malick Atrevene awaits your leisure." 

          Feeling dismayed at the realization that it had been Sir Malick who had seen her in such a state, Calina quickly dispelled the emotion.  Why should it matter if it was he or any other of the Knights of Golden Rank?  She motioned for Leana to lift the heavy velvet curtain.

          "My lady," he greeted with another bow.  Calina inclined her head and lifted her cool gaze to meet his.  "We will travel during the day, stopping at night to camp by the road.  With your permission, myself and my Brothers will assume charge of the soldiers."  She nodded briefly to grant permission.  "Gods willing, there will be safe passage to the Isle of Red Forests, but in any case you must remember that your safety is paramount." He emphasized these last words slightly, his eyes hinted at a mild attempt at humor but the rest of his body language was alert and tensely serious. 

          Acknowledging the disguised warning, the princess lifted her chin slightly and replied, "If you think me foolish enough to endanger this mission, you make a serious miscalculation Sir Malick."  The knight bowed his head in easy compliance of her will, but when he looked up again, the soft humor had gone from his eyes and was replaced with steely determination.

          He opened his mouth to speak again, but before he could rephrase his mild reproach in somewhat firmer words, Calina went smoothly on.  "I know how my father must have instructed you to deal with me.  In his eyes I am still an obstinate young girl without a care for my own safety."  She paused a moment and looked at him, her eyes weighing and judging.  She wondered if this knight also felt her a mere headstrong teenager now landed in his charge.  He met her measuring gaze with calm fortitude.  Was she imagining the impish glint in his eyes?  Her chin tilted up another fraction and she hardened her tone. 

"But I assure you that is not the case.  Did you think my father would present me with such a magnificent animal, expecting that I would stare at it longingly, all the while trapped in this insufferable box?" She'd gotten carried away.  Drawing herself up, she scowled at having to remind herself to be as commanding as possible.  "I will ride when I wish."  She stopped here, waiting as the golden-haired knight mused.  She would tolerate nothing but acquiescence, but when she received only a slight lift of the eyebrows, she bristled and fought hard to keep her indignation below the surface.  Why was she acting like such a willful child now, when it was imperative that she be seen as a mature adult?

          "Then it is agreed.  You may ride, as long as a guard is with you at all times.  And you will not stray from the camp."  Bending slightly at the waist, Sir Malick rode away toward the front of the line without so much as a dismissal.  Shocked and affronted, Calina let the curtain fall in place and sat back, fuming at his final words. 

          "I may ride as long as a guard is with me at all times," she muttered.  "And I will not stray from the camp.  Who does he think he is?"

          "He is the general leading this campaign, that's who.  It's his duty to look after your safety, my lady.  There is no dishonor in it," Leana replied calmly, sounding for all the world as if she approved.  "Besides, there is no reason for you to expose yourself to harm.  You belong in this carriage; it's only proper."

          Barely keeping from rolling her eyes, Calina leaned back into her seat as far as she could without slumping down like a sullen child.  Once Leana got into her tirades about what was Proper, there was no arguing with her. 

          "He did not even wait to be dismissed," Calina muttered, hardly expecting anything but the exasperated sigh that came from Leana in response.

          Somehow Calina had not imagined an adventurous journey could be quite so boring.  Sitting demurely in the carriage as a proper princess should, she refused to even peek through the curtains to watch the landscape slip by in case Sir Malick happened to pass.  She would not be caught dead peering through the curtains as if she were a naïve child, new to the world.   A small voice wondered why she should be so concerned by his opinion of her, but she brushed it away.  She was conscious of everyone's opinion of her as a young princess; it just so happened that Sir Malick had been the one to bring it to her attention.

There was no way to measure time except by the steady clip-clop of the horses' hooves; and even that sound grew numb in the princess' ears after only the first few hours. 

          Idle conversation did not aid the passage of time.  Leana had chosen three ladies to accompany them in the journey, but she had not selected those who were most companionable.  Instead, she had chosen three earthy, no-nonsense, dutiful girls to help with the chores normally distributed among twenty ladies-in-waiting.  The youngest of the three, Rosmyn, was a mere thirteen years of age -- scarcely a woman.  She was mostly silent when the others spoke, her wide brown eyes soaking everything in.  The other two -- Alise and Brittany -- were identical twins, fair skinned with blue eyes and honey brown hair, they could pass for country girls if not for their cultured speech and unspoiled hands. 

          They spoke of mundane household matters: which of Calina's dresses they had packed, what needed mending, and how to accomplish all their chores in the short time when they camped at night.  She closed her eyes against their polite chattering and heard the rain splashing dolefully against the top of the carriage.  To think she'd been in such a temper over the rain this morning.  The heavy drops had softened to a pit pattering now, just enough to inconvenience the riders and churn up the mud. 

The steady rhythm of rain, the beat of horses' hooves, and the soft murmuring of her ladies in waiting slowly lulled Calina into a half-sleep state.  The world seemed to fade, its fragrance dulling and its music softening to a muted hum. 

          "She was always so nice to me," one of the girls whispered, her voice barely loud enough to be heard over the surrounding noise.  "When I was afraid I couldn't finish the embroidery on her Highness' sheets, she helped me through it with never an unkind word."

"You mustn't call her 'Highness,' Rosmyn," Leana chided gently.  "She is the Baroness Niedra, both in and out of the public eye.  What would happen if you let her real title slip in front of the wrong people?"  A pause.  Then, softer.  "I, too, found no wrong in Erwyn's character.  It only proves that we can never be certain of whom we can trust."

"But what of Vye?" another voice chimed in.  "I never trusted her.  Especially after you found her in her Highness' bedchambers unbidden, lady Leana!"

"Alise!" Leana's stern voice cut the girl off, and there was a stricken silence as she realized what she'd said.

"My apologies," she breathed. 

Now fully awake, Calina considered what to do.  Sit up and demand to know of what they were speaking?  Or lie in the pretense of sleep until this conversation had faded from their minds?  There was only one way to abate her curiosity, however, and she was not a particularly patient person after all.  Calina cleared her throat and straightened in her seat, opening her eyes to the stricken faces of all four ladies.  One of the twins bowed her head, blushing furiously.  That would be Alise.  Leana intermittently glared at the girl and back at Calina, no doubt infuriated that she'd been eavesdropping - however unintentionally!  And Rosmyn, her youthful eyes wide with anxiety, seemed to shrink into the corner of the carriage. 

"What's this?"  she asked, schooling her face to calm composure.  She would not stand for Leana's evasion now.  "Vye, in my bedchambers?  When did this occur and why was I not immediately notified?  What reason can you give for failing to dismiss her?"

Her friend's unjustified anger quickly drained from her expression.  She folded her hands in her lap and spoke quietly, her neck bent in submission. 

"Only a week ago, my lady.  The girl begged mercy.  She claimed to have forgotten the weaving pattern of your quilts and was afraid to ask lest she be punished for her wandering mind.  Vye always got in such trouble for not remembering the simplest patterns.  I took pity on her, my lady, though it was not my position to do so."  There was a slight catch in her voice that Calina was sure only she had noticed.  She waited.  "I ordered the other girls to keep it a secret, so do not misdirect your anger at them."

The princess considered for a moment, pulling the velvet curtain back slightly to glance outside.  The rain had lessened considerably and was now a faint mist that turned everything blue-gray.  It was nearing dusk; she had slept much longer than she realized.  She turned her attention back to the girls, all remaining still and waiting for her judgment.  With a sigh, Calina let the curtain fall back in place.

"Your vows of service are made to me not Leana, though she may be senior to you all.  In the future, you will report such things to me despite any orders to the contrary." 

The three girls bowed their heads in assent, clearly relieved that she was not visibly angry with them.  Leana, on the other hand, stared straight ahead, her blue eyes full of hardened emotion.

"I will ride alongside the carriage, Leana.  Join me."  With barely a blink of surprise, Leana handed her a light blue traveling cloak and fastened her own around her shoulders.  She leaned her head out of the carriage and requested their horses, her voice brisk. 

Calina's bay handled beautifully and she could almost ignore the trail of twenty men following in her path as she stroked its soft mane.  She led Leana away from the procession and into the lightly wooded area beside the road, riding slowly and close together so as not to be heard by the men. 

"I know I deserve your rebuke," Leana spoke before Calina could part her lips.  "But I thank you for your kindness to the other girls.  You are right, they did not swear to me."  She bowed her head in meek expectation.

"Please, Leana.  Do stop.  Your actions stemmed from pity and mercy; I cannot reprimand you for what was done in kindness."  Leana lifted her head quickly, her mouth open in protest.  This fool girl would actually ask for punishment if it were proper and expected.  Calina shook her head impatiently to stop her from objecting.  "Even had I wanted to set a penance for you, I think your overwhelming sense of guilt more than suffices."  Leana smiled faintly at the teasing.  "I sensed there was something you left out in your account.  Now that we are in relative privacy, will you tell me all?"

"O-of course," Leana stammered uncharacteristically.  Her eyes darted to the men guarding them and lowered her voice, though they were out of earshot already.  "I found Vye searching through your oaken chest.  After I sent her away, I inspected the contents and found that you were missing an item of value."

"What?  What was it?"

"A silken robe, embroidered with the Almieran rose sigil, given to you by your father at the Autumn Equinox."

"You believe it was Vye?"  Calina's favorite robe; she had thought it was taken away for laundering and care when she noticed it was gone.

"I did not notice any extra bulk in her skirts or anything in her hands, though her manner was extremely agitated.  I was loathe to accuse her without certainty of her guilt, yet..."  Leana released the reins of her dappled mare and smoothed her hair unnecessarily - she was nervous. 

"Yet?" Calina prodded.

"And yet, I saw her riding hard out of the castle walls one night soon after; a bundle tied about her waist.  I know the ladies are not forbidden from leaving the castle during their own time, so I thought nothing of it.  I did not connect it until just today that... that..."

The reason for Leana's agitation suddenly dawned on her.  The robe, a precious item, given and received with love, was a talisman.  And Vye, working for the Mages, would have been in an ideal position to steal such a token of power for them.  The robe, delivered to the Mages, could be used as a direct link to her.  Making her a target, easily followed and easily assaulted. 

She turned her horse sharply and waited with barely controlled impatience as the guard approached.  The captain, a ruddy middle-aged man, swept off his hat and saluted.   After a moment's hesitation, he cleared his throat and said, "My lady Niedra, how may I serve?" 

"Take me to Ceidus Mage immediately.  I seek his counsel."