Rain beat relentlessly at the windows and curtains of the carriage, soaking the interior as the wind pushed the fat drops inside. The lack of glass, meant to prompt inside a cool summer breeze, was instead allowing the harsh weather to flood the coach. There was really only one place that Larissa could sit, directly in the middle of the seat behind the driver, as the wind and rain soaked the seats and floors.
She kept her dress and shoes mostly dry by lifting them up under and beside her on the seat. However, the perch made her rock unsteadily with each gusting wind that beat at the outside. The once opaque curtains were made transparent for being wet, and she had covered herself with her veil. The ends of which were blowing about in time with her skirt.
It had been about midday when the storm had started, though the dark and angry clouds had been gathering since before the sun rose. Larissa had voiced her uncertainty about traveling despite that. She had thought it would be a better idea to stay where they already were and wait for the oncoming storm to pass over them and continue the next day.
Indigo, however, stated that they didn't have the luxury of time to do so. Even if they could only travel for half a day, it would be better than taking the full day off. She need not worry, he had assured her, she would be safe inside her carriage.
And while she was mostly dry – some of her dress was inescapably damp – she didn't feel as though she needn't worry. The way the wind rocked the carriage, almost completely off of its wheels at times, gave her concern every time it beat at the vehicle.
Though it was after noon, the outside was dark and angry, occasionally lit only by bright flashes of lightning followed by deafening booms of thunder. A few of the Santeri attempted to carry lanterns, but the harsh winds and rains would inevitably snuff the little lights out even held carefully in their protected lamps.
Eventually, even the great Ale Santeri had to admit defeat to the elements. Her carriage ceased moving forward, though the rocking in the wind didn't ease at all.
A man wrapped in black leather, treated to allow water to flow away from the wearer with the hood drawn up, appeared at her door. The Santeri had his hand on the front of his hood, holding it down to prevent the wind from blowing it off. Larissa couldn't see his face. Still, she knew that it was Kaz. She didn't need to see him to know.
"Rissa," he yelled to her over the loud rushing of the storm. "We're going to pitch your tent. Give us a few minutes and we'll get you inside so you can dry off. Are you all right?"
"I'm fine!" She yelled back, frowning at the waterproof leather. Did the Santeri have nothing that wasn't ugly? She didn't think even simple rain clothes needed to be quite so unattractive. It almost appeared as though the designer had done it on purpose.
Kaz ran off again to help bring her tent up. The task was made more difficult by the muddy ground and violent weather, but the Santeri were known for their stubbornness. It took nearly twice the amount of time as usual, but eventually Kaz returned to the carriage. He carried another one of the rain capes in hand because he could see how the rain made the opaque cloth she used complete useless. He knocked against the side of the carriage.
"Rissa, this way!"
The door opened after a moment and he lifted the cloth up and over her head. He slung it about her shoulders, protecting her from her head to her waist. He couldn't do anything about her skirts, but with any luck he could have her in her tent before they were stained too badly.
Larissa had already lifted them up in her arms. She allowed Kaz to direct her towards the tent that had been built as near to the carriage as they could manage. A few Santeri were already unhitching the oxen from the carriage while others were making efforts to cover the coach with tarps to prevent any further damage to the interior.
Then, Larissa was rushed inside and she couldn't see what the others were doing. Kaz was already tying the entrance shut behind her, locking himself out so that she could be comfortable. Larissa watched the movement of his fingers, slightly different from the waves on the fabric made by the rain and wind, for a moment before turning into the tent.
With Andromeda and her family gone, the larger space now seemed entirely too big for her. She still had her little space set aside to sleep, but the side that had once held Andromeda and Nero now housed her dinner. The low table with travel rations had once been placed in the center; a space now occupied by a seating area and a lantern to provide her with light.
Larissa sighed as she pulled the dripping water cloak from her head. After it, she pulled away her circlet crown and the veil. She held the items in her hand as she walked to the center of her tent and sat into the low cushions. She frowned between the brilliant veil and the uninspired cloak.
A few moments later, Kaz called to her through the front that he had brought her the chest where she kept her dress and her sewing kit. He asked permission to close his eyes and set them just inside before leaving again.
Larissa blinked down at the items in her hands. She called back to wait a moment before setting them aside and standing. She walked into her sleeping space and pulled the cord holding the curtain up and out of the way. The thick cloth fell closed, darkening her space. She sat on her bed and yelled out.
"Come in, Kaz. Don't worry about closing your eyes."
There was a long moment of silence. She heard the storm grow louder, then softer again as Kaz opened the tent entrance then tied it back shut again. She heard his voice.
"Where would you like me to put them?"
"Anywhere is fine," she replied, looking at the cloth separating them.
Because of the rain, she couldn't hear him moving about in her tent, but she knew that he was doing so and it made her heart pound just slightly. He was so close to her...
"Can I bring you anything else, Rissa?"
"No, I'm fine. How are the others?"
"Pitching their own tents. We're placing ours all around yours, and there will still be guards despite the rain. You'll be perfectly safe."
Larissa frowned. "You're staying outside in the rain? Won't you get sick?"
"Have no concern for us, Rissa. A little rain just makes you wet. Besides, we have our cloaks, and we'll be working in shifts. No one of us has to stay out for too long a period."
"And you? Are you going to be resting as well?"
She heard a guilty silence and she frowned at the cloth curtain.
"Kaz, you are going to be resting, aren't you?"
"It's my honor to watch over you during the-"
"You can't seriously tell me that you're going to stay out in this weather until Indigo takes over tonight? You'll catch your death of the cold!"
"It's a summer rain, it's actually quite invigorating. And the winters in Methone get much colder than this. Don't trouble yourself over me, Rissa. I'll be just fine."
He fell silent and Larissa frowned. Though she couldn't see him, she had a feeling that he wasn't simply standing around waiting for her to say something else.
"Yes, Rissa?" His voice came to her from the other side of the tent, confirming her suspicion that he was beginning to leave.
She frowned, biting her bottom lip. She hadn't really thought of anything to say, she had only thought of stopping him from stepping out. The thought of him out there in the storm, standing in it pointlessly, made her frown.
The silence was supremely awkward as he waited for her to tell him what she stopped him for. She blurted the first thing that came into her head.
"W-Will you fetch me my sewing kit? And the chest?"
Grimacing, she started smacking herself in the head, mentally berating herself for her stupidity. Fetch me my sewing kit? All this time, Larissa had had no idea that she was a moron.
Movement at her curtain caught her eye and she stopped punishing herself to watch Kaz's hands appear as he pushed the two chests into her sleeping quarters. She didn't see more than his hands; his head was carefully out of sight so that he couldn't see her. No matter what, he made sure that he never saw her face. Not just now, but always.
She smiled softly as he closed the gap in the curtain he had created.
"Do you need anything else, Rissa?" He asked from beyond the cloth. She could practically see him there, down on one knee, awaiting her order.
Butterflies danced in her belly at the mental image. She had no idea why it had such an effect on her, or why she didn't want to send him away. The desire was a strong one though, and she quickly cast her mind around for something else to keep him from leaving.
"Er, thirsty... I-I'm thirsty. Can you bring me a goblet of water?"
There was a slight pause. "...Yes, Rissa."
She reached down and lifted the two chests he had brought and set them beside her on the bed, giving him room. When he came back with the next offering, he repeated his actions from before, placing it down without ever looking through the gap.
She reached down and lifted it up. She had no idea what to do with it. Her mouth seemed unreasonably parched, but the thought of swallowing anything seemed too great a task. It was all she could do to swirl the clear liquid around for a moment.
"Then, if you need nothing else-"
"M-My veil!" She cried out before he could finish.
More silence. She cleared her throat and repeated, less desperately.
"If you would bring me my veil, and the water cloak, please. I would be grateful."
He was faster to reply this time. "Yes, Rissa."
She set the full goblet down beside her cot and waited. Within moments, he was pushing the folded water cloak and veil into her space.
"Oh, dear me. I seem to have forgotten your circlet. Did you want that as well?"
"Yes," she breathed. Was he playing along with her? With whatever odd game this was that she had begun? She reached down and lifted the cloak and veil then placed them on top of the chests he had already brought.
By the time she looked back, he was sliding the circlet past the curtain. She was reaching down and picking it up before he could withdraw his hand. Part of her hoped to brush her fingers against his, but they didn't even get close.
She held the silver ring between her hands, staring at the gems made dull by the darkness. She could feel Kaz waiting for another order just a few paces away. Would he be close enough to touch, were the curtain not hung between them?
"Perhaps you'd care for some food with your water?" Kaz suggested with all apparent innocence.
Larissa grinned. He was definitely playing along. "I am beginning to feel a bit peckish. We didn't even stop for the midday meal, did we?"
"No better time than now."
She giggled softly to herself as she felt him get up and move away. "Kaz?"
"Yes, Rissa?" It sounded so much like 'yes, princess'.
"Perhaps you'd care to join me in my meal?" She hoped her voice sounded more nonchalant than she knew it was. "I do so enjoy good company while I dine."
The silence was longer this time and she thought she might have misstepped. After an eternal few seconds, he replied with more genuine nonchalance.
"As you wish, Rissa."
A minute later, he was pushing a plate with travel rations into her space. The hardtack was paired with salted and honey dried meat. There would usually be freshly hunted meat and prizes from foraging, but the Santeri could do neither in this weather, so they had to dip into their travel rations.
The dried meat, originally preserved in salt with honey added to combat the extremely salty flavor had been boiled to be edible again. The two combating flavors may preserve the meat for long term usage, but the taste wasn't the best.
It was very handy, then, that Larissa couldn't actually taste it when she took a bite. She heard Kaz moving just beyond her curtain and she wondered if he was standing in place or sitting on the floor. She heard him break off a piece of hardtack and crunch into it.
"Yes, Rissa?" His voice was coming from rather low down. He was sitting on the floor.
She smiled. "Er...What, er, what made you decide to join the Ale Santeri?"
More silence. Then, happily, he responded, "I suppose you could say that it's because of my father. He was a very demanding sort of person. His belief is that you need to earn everything you are given. It's a good philosophy, in its way, though receiving gifts during the winter festival was always difficult."
Larissa laughed. "He made you earn your gifts?"
"He made us earn everything. He believed it built character. To earn my place in life, and to satisfy him, I suggested joining the Santeri. He was agreeable. Thus, here I am."
"Well, you've done very well for yourself. He must be proud. You're going to be the next leader."
"Hm... Proud is a bit of a strong word. He's more... pleased? He expected nothing less from me, so it's natural that I give him at least this."
Larissa made a face. "Your father sounds terrifying."
"Oh, he is. Don't worry about him though. He's also polite and fair. He's a judicious man, slow to anger, though quick to disappointment. Consider him a bit of an acquired taste."
A loud boom of thunder was accompanied by a harsh gust of wind at Larissa's back. She frowned at the tent walls as they bowed inward against the force.
"What a storm..." She breathed.
"Methone is famous for them. The mountains get a great deal of strong weather."
"It makes me fear that the tent will come crashing down over us at any moment."
"Lay the fear to rest. We're accustomed to storms, we know how to set a tent against them. Your tent has very strong support poles anyway. If any tent will be blown away, it will be one of ours."
She nodded, but still had to lean forward so that her tent wasn't pushing against her back. A flash of lightning from outside briefly brightened the world. She frowned as the resulting blast echoed loudly through the air.
"Are you scared of storms, Rissa?" Kaz asked softly.
She shook her head, forgetting that he couldn't see. "No. In Poseidonium, we get a yearly storm, usually at the beginning of summer. A massive waterspout forms in the ocean and lands on our beach. Sometimes, it's not so bad. Other times, it destroys stone houses. It hasn't been bad recently, but I remember one from my childhood that nearly took down the palace walls. The storm actually picked up a wooden house and threw it against the castle."
"My. Now that's a powerful storm."
Larissa nodded, setting aside her mostly untouched food. She leaned her head against her hand, elbow resting on her knee. "What's Methone like, Kaz?"
"Well, the mountains coax great snow storms from the sky every winter. There's wonderful sledding though. The palace is built on the side of a cliff and it has the most beautiful view of the sunrise and sunset, depending on which side of the castle you stand. There's even a waterfall right next to it and a courtyard that allows you to view it whenever you like."
"It sounds beautiful. What of the people?"
"Methonites are strong and hardy group," he chuckled. "Mostly goat herders. We tend to sell the wool and the milk to make our money. There's not really much farmable land in Methone, but the river the waterfall feeds into does give fish. Methone is less wealthy than Poseidonium, but the people are happy. I think that's just as important."
Larissa smiled. "I would agree. I suppose being followers of the god of justice makes for a peaceful nation."
"It does. Our court system is unlike any other!" Kaz paused to allow another round of rolling thunder to pass over them before continuing. "Their dedication to complete neutrality guarantees fairness. The god of justice would have it no other way."
Larissa started to speak but the roaring of the wind picked up. She frowned, turning to watch as her tent was pushed inwards. The impossibly large hand shape imprinting it forward looked to be reaching for her.
Larissa screamed, falling backwards.
"Rissa?!" Kaz jumped to his feet, reaching for his blade, ready to leap in to protect her.
He wasn't given the chance. Realizing that she was now out of reach, the hand grasped, clutching the side of the tent. Larissa screamed again, rolling over and scrambling onto her feet. She burst out of the curtain, right into Kaz's arms. He didn't get a chance to see her uncovered face, he was looking past her into the room to see what had scared her so.
Something ripped and shredded beyond the flapping curtain. His nose caught the distinct scent of smoke and ash as the storm became louder. Wind whipped inside, the curtain being thrown about by the squall's power.
Kaz saw nothing. "Rissa, what was it?" He asked, frowning at the room she had escaped from. He didn't think she would have thrown herself out, unveiled, for no reason.
"There was a hand!" She pointed back, running behind him. He still couldn't see her face, but he heard her small sound of surprise when she saw nothing.
The curtain was thrown back by a particularly powerful gust of wind, but the cot room was empty. The only thing different was the large hole ripped in the tent. Rain lashed inside, soaking her bedding and the floor.
Kaz peered closer, cautiously, but saw no one there. "Are you sure it was a hand? It wasn't the wind?"
Larissa crossed her arms. "You think I can't tell the difference between wind and a-ARGH!"
Something grabbed her hair, jerking it back painfully so that she fell onto the ground. Kaz called out for her even as she twisted about. She felt the hand that had grabbed her, but when she lifted her eyes to it, she saw nothing. Only her hair, clenched together as though it were being held.
Before she could react to her invisible attacker, she was yanked along the floor. She screamed, kicking her legs and beating her fists against the unseen hand. It did no good.
With a roar, Kaz sliced across the empty air. Larissa felt the force on her hair lessen and she stopped moving. Kaz frowned because he felt nothing contact his blade. He hadn't hit it, whatever it was.
"Rissa, are you okay?" He looked down at her where she was laid out on the floor, his feet planted on either side of her shoulders.
Their eyes locked, hazel to black, and he saw her face for the first time.
A hand closed around Larissa's ankle and she cried out as she was jerked away from him. Kaz turned quickly. Her leg was suspended in the air, lifting her bottom from the ground, as she was dragged towards the hole in the tent by the unseen force. She was kicking at it with her other foot, trying to grab onto anything to keep herself from being taken.
Kaz flipped his sword around, drew back, and threw it across the tent. This time, the metal sank into nothing, half of the sword disappearing as an unholy screech of agony filled the air. At that moment, the tent entrance was thrown open and Indigo led in a force of four other Santeri. All of whom stopped short when they saw half a blade stuck in midair.
Her attacker, whoever it was, had released Larissa. Her body flopped to the ground and before she could be taken again, she was scrambling to her feet. She had barely taken a few steps before Kaz was grabbing onto her, holding on tight in case something tried to take her again.
They all watched as the sword was lifted up, the bottom half of it gradually reappearing. The point re-materialized and the sword was dropped. It clanged against the ground.
A second later, the curtain was violently ripped away. The hole in the tent widened then fell limp again as the invisible attacker disappeared.
Indigo didn't hesitate. He turned to the others that had heard Larissa's scream. "It will have left footprints in the mud. Track it!"
"Yes, sir!" The four men turned and ran back outside. A moment later, Larissa saw them through the hole in the tent before they sprinted into the darkness.
The princess was trembling, clutching onto Kaz's uniform as though scared to let go. Her wide eyes were focused on the hole, her face bare and uncovered. Kaz and Indigo could both see it. The four men that had been ordered out of the tent had both seen it. She didn't even realize that she didn't have on her veil until Indigo was standing in front of her and she realized that she could see his grizzled face without the barrier between them for the first time.
She gasped and flinched back, but Indigo wasn't even looking at her.
"What happened?" He asked Kaz, frowning. "What was that?"
Kaz shook his head, his grip not lessening on the terrified princess. "I don't know, sir. Rissa said she saw a hand pressing against the tent. Next thing I knew, it was grabbing her and trying to drag her out. Besides the scream, I didn't hear or see anything."
"Invisible," Indigo frowned at the hole. "Until we find it, don't leave the princess' side. I'm going to go assist in the search. You both remain here."
"Yes, sir," Kaz nodded.
He still didn't release Larissa. She stared as Indigo looked down at her. He inclined his head once, as though to assure that everything was going to be all right, before running and jumped out of the very hole the unseen creature had created.
"Would you like to sit down?"
Kaz's voice from above her head made her jump. She looked up to see him, once again, looking at her through unguarded eyes. He smiled reassuringly.
"Here, this way." Without waiting for her to move, Kaz bent down and scooped her up into his arms as though she weighed nothing. She cried out, clinging to him so she wouldn't fall but his steps were confident and even as he took her to the seating area.
He sat her down before taking a knee in front of her. He gave her a smile. "One second, let me get my sword."
Larissa watched him walk away, then return. Once again, he kneeled before her. He said nothing as he pulled a cleaning cloth from his belt and wiped away the dark blood that now stained the end. Then he slid it back into its sheath, moving slow enough that she had had time to calm her racing heart, before he looked back. He smiled at her.
"Are you all right? Nothing hurt?"
Her scalp was sore, and her ankle burned where that hand had grabbed her. The latter might be more psychological than physical though. She shook her head in the negative.
"What of you? Are you... well?" She asked in return, her voice hoarse with fear.
He shrugged. "It didn't touch me, whatever it was."
"That wasn't really what I..."
She trailed off as the tent was opened again. Three different Santeri ran in. All of them saw her face and took a knee. They looked to Kaz.
"What happened?" The man in the middle asked.
Kaz frowned. "Something attacked Rissa. We didn't see what it was. Indigo took some others out to track it through the storm if they can. Gather the others, begin making a perimeter around the tent. Lock arms if you have to. Nothing else gets in."
"Yes, sir." The men jumped up and ran back outside.
Larissa watched them go with a frown. Though the storm was still loud, she could hear the cries of the Ale Santeri as the orders were propagated through the ranks. When she turned to look out of the hole in her tent, she could see a line of men. They were forming a ring around her. To defend against something that couldn't be seen, they had no choice but to put up an impenetrable wall. Larissa blinked at the sight of them before looking back at Kaz.
He smiled in understanding. "Do you want your veil?"
She frowned, gazing over to where she had set it on the chests in her ruined sleeping space. The rain from the storm had already soaked it through completely. Even if she did pull it over her head now, it would be completely transparent.
"To what purpose?" She asked, turning back to him.
He shrugged. "I suppose if it would make you feel better..."
"You've already seen me. It's too late now." Sighing, she wrapped her arms around herself. She stared at him, waiting for that moment when his eyes would widen and his jaw would slacken. Everybody looked at her like that the first time they saw her.
Kaz continued to smile peaceably, kneeling down before her without concern. He only looked away when a new person came into her tent to report that the defensive line had been set up and that they had spotted Indigo and the others returning.
The man left, after giving Larissa a cursory glance. None of their eyes remained on her for long. It was almost like he was just looking at her out of respect, as though he didn't want to appear rude by leaving without acknowledging her presence. The intent was clear though. He had only come to speak to Kaz, and he left without gawking at her.
It was more than a little disconcerting.
Methone wasn't like the south. Their culture and Poseidonium's wasn't so different. They would already have an expectation of beauty from her that Nero never had. So, then, why were they all reacting as if they were long used to her face?
"Kaz?" She spoke softly.
"Am I... beautiful to you?"
He smirked. "I had no idea you were self-conscious about your looks."
"You know that's not what I meant!" She trembled in fear.
Was he perhaps like Nero? Maybe the Santeri had been able to work out the expectation rule of the princesses' gifts and had responded by training them not to expect anything. Perhaps he was seeing her face as it was under the enchantment Oceane had put on her. Could she be so lucky to be a normal girl to these men?
Kaz shook his head. "I know what you mean, Rissa."
He reached forward and took her hand. He bowed over it formally.
"The rumors did you no justice, my princess. I don't think I've ever seen beauty before this moment."
His heart wouldn't stop beating. Desire was pounding at him like a hammer. It struck cords in his heart that had never been moved before in his life. It seemed that the sun itself was shining through her skin while stars danced in her eyes. Just the subtle rise and fall of her chest with each frightened breath seemed to be the most elegant of possible motions.
He could understand, in an instant, why men would fall insane through love for her. He even understood the petty, grasping jealousy of women that would want her dead. Larissa didn't even appear real to his eyes. He could break down her appearance by parts - hair, eyes, lips - but the pieces alone weren't what made her beautiful. It was the whole of her. Everything about her, working together in harmony, was what made her so beautiful.
However, just because she was stunning to the point of stealing his breath, didn't mean that he had lost control over himself. He desired her, but that was to be expected. He wished that he could stare, but that would be rude.
He could appreciate without overstepping his bounds. He could admire without trying to claim. She was beautiful, but Kaz was trained better than the common oaf.
Larissa watched him bow over her hand, confused and concerned. She didn't know what to think of his reaction. She was suspended in a strange place between fear and comfort and she didn't yet know where she would fall.
More Santeri came into the tent, bringing with them reports from scouts that had gone out into the storm in search of her invisible attacker. Though none of them brought good news, every new man treated the sight of her, unveiled and unprepared, with the same level of respect and distance that they had when they had first seen her.
It wasn't fazing them, she began to realize. They could see her beauty, but they could also control themselves around her. The intensive training that they had all touted so devotedly seemed to be working exactly as designed.
Late in the afternoon, probably near sundown – though the storm made it difficult to discern the exact time – Indigo returned to the tent. He was soaked to the bone, even despite the waterproof cloak he had tossed over his shoulders. Probably owing to the fact that the hood had fallen back when he had been running around and he had never bothered to pull it up again.
He approached Larissa calmly, not even commenting on her lack of veil.
"Forgive us, princess. The entity seems to have escaped. We tracked it over two furlongs, but we couldn't catch up to it. It disappeared into the trees after that and we weren't able to pick it up again. Our sincerest apologies, princess."
"No, no! It's fine." Larissa stood quickly, giving him a reassuring smile. "No one was hurt, right? That's the most important thing."
Indigo nodded to her before turning. "You did well, Kaz."
"Thank you, sir," his protege grinned, getting to his feet. "Though, if that thing wasn't caught, then there's still a chance that it might return. I believe we should at least double the guard around the tent."
"Oh, surely that's not necessary," Larissa frowned out towards the storm that was still billowing wildly just outside of the hole in her tent. She could even still see the line of resolute Santeri that had created a protective ring around her. "You all will catch your death in this weather."
Indigo grinned. "Don't worry about us, princess. Winters are far more harsh in the mountains than this summer storm. My men will be fine. What's most important is your safety. We'll keep up a guard around you for the rest of the night. However, there is one other thing."
Indigo gestured around the tent. "We can put a put a bed for you there, so that you can remain dry, and we'll hang the curtain again. I would like to request, however, that you allow Kaz and I to sleep out here in this area so that we can be near you. Just in case."
Larissa frowned. Two men, warriors both, being so close while she slept? While she knew that the Santeri were close to her every other night, none of them had actually come into her tent with her before. No man had ever been that close to her while she was sleeping and vulnerable. It was simply too dangerous to allow such a thing to happen.
Indigo waited patiently for her to speak. He was giving her the option. She was afraid that if she said no, both men would sleep outside of her tent regardless. She didn't think she would be able to rest while imagining them outside in the bitter cold and wicked storm. It was bad enough that she knew the other Santeri would all be doing it in shifts. These two, however, were her most personal bodyguards and they likely would be there the entirety of the night.
However, letting them inside, letting them that close, would mean she would have to put a great deal of trust into them. Trust that she had never been able to put into a man before. She hadn't even slept in the company of her brothers before, and she trusted both of them implicitly.
Kaz and Indigo were silent. Waiting.
She bit her lip and nodded slowly, just once. It was all the permission that Indigo needed.
The bed that Nero and Andromeda had been using was pulled from the wagon and placed into the tent. Her soaked mattress and sheets couldn't be saved tonight, but the ones that had been safe from the storm were readied for her within minutes. A new curtain was hung over the new sleeping area, and Indigo and Kaz brought in their sleeping pallets to lay out on the floor.
Larissa spoke to neither man as she laid her head down for the night. She heard them whispering together about when to wake up and how to alert the others should something happen. They fell silent rather quickly though.
Larissa fully expected herself to lie awake in restless worry. Even after the harrowing experience she had just faced tired her out, she didn't really think herself capable of sleeping. Which was why it was so surprising when she suddenly woke the next morning with bright sunlight in her eyes feeling more re-energized and relaxed than she had since being told she would be going on this journey.
Through all the next day, there was a general concern filling the air. No one knew what had attacked Larissa and no one knew if it would be coming back. They were rather quick to reload the wagon and begin their march again. Larissa was in her carriage, but, for the first time, the curtains had all been drawn back to allow some sun inside.
The breeze that gently caressed her hair and cheeks was such a painful contrast to last night's storm that it seemed almost to be a dream. Larissa's hands were deft and quick as she worked on finishing her funeral dress. When they stopped for the mid-day meal, Larissa came out of her carriage without her veil and ate with Kaz and a couple others.
The men were initially very formal, but as Larissa became relaxed, so too did they, until she was pulling the men into telling fun stories and laughing along with her. As they became more relaxed, she became more trusting.
Kaz took her back to the carriage after they finished eating and helped her inside. She gave him a smile and he winked at her before walking off to begin the march.
Within only a couple of days, Larissa found herself more comfortable with this group of warriors than she had ever felt at home. She didn't feel this pressing need to dress herself down or turn her eyes away from everyone she might look at lest they get the wrong idea.
With each passing day, she become more confident in their abilities. Some of them didn't even mention the veil, as though it had never happened. A few commented on her beauty, but it was more a simple statement than the longing sighs that she was used to receiving.
When the invisible entity didn't attack them a second time, the Santeri began to relax as well. It was suggested that they had walked into the territory of something that hadn't liked them there. Something magical and irritated. The casual way with which they spoke of magic startled Larissa more than slightly. But, out here in the world, it was different from Poseidonium. Sometimes, magical things happened and people had no explanation for it.
"Is the world really so magical?" Larissa asked Kaz as they sat and ate their evening meal while the tents were being pulled up behind them.
She was still in her carriage, curled up on the large, comfortable seat. Kaz had chosen to sit right in the door, his back against the frame, so that he could look out and in at the same time. The apple that had been picked from a tree they had passed earlier was half eaten in his hands. Larissa had been offered the fruit first, but she had given it to him because she didn't like apples.
"There's magic in it," he said easily. "Witches and fairies and dragons. There used to be giants, but they've all gone extinct."
"I've met fairies before. My people have a treaty with a group of them in our Black Woods. They're very kind. Distant, but kind."
Kaz grinned. "That surprises me. Most fairies don't want to have anything to do with humans. Your people must have made quite an impression on them."
"Well, they tried attacking and destroying us over false pretenses, so really it's probably guilt."
Kaz bust out into surprised laughter that made Larissa smile. She was currently picking at the hard tack she was supposed to be eating. Somehow, when talking to Kaz, she wasn't hungry. She just wanted to talk to him instead. She had to remind herself to put bites into her mouth every so often. Kaz would notice if she didn't. He had a few times in the past and it had worried him that she was displeased with the travel rations.
While not exactly tasty, they weren't inedible. She just couldn't really work up an appetite when she was eating with him. He was more interesting than the food.
"I thought dragons had gone extinct, too," she frowned, thinking back to her lessons.
Kaz shook his head. "Not really extinct, but they're nowhere near as large in population as they used to be. The only dragons that exist now live in the far, far north."
"Really?" Larissa smiled. "In Rhamnus?"
He nodded. "Their king is called the friend of dragons. All of their rulers are. I hear that they actually raise dragons there. Can you imagine?"
Larissa shook her head, smiling at the marvelous image it made though. "Are there any magical creatures in Methone?"
"Not that I can think of. I suppose we get the occasional witch, but they're hardly friendly. Methone is small. It's not very wealthy. Mostly, we herd goats and train Ale Santeri. That's really the only thing we have to our name. I'm sorry it's not more interesting to you."
Larissa shook her head. "I don't think it's so uninteresting. I've enjoyed looking at the mountains around Poseidonium in the past. And I'm intrigued about your justice system."
"Really?" Kaz seemed to perk up and she nodded.
"We don't really worship any of the other gods in Poseidonium, just the ocean god and Oceane herself. I know there are shrines to the others, but none of them are particularly large or impressive. I've never even seen followers for the god of justice."
"Oh, well, then I have great news for you." Kaz threw the apple core out towards the grass. "On the path we're taking, we're going to end up visiting the main temple of the god of justice. The temple keeper told us when we passed through before that he was going to have a gift for you when we brought you back. I'm sure he'll be quite happy to show you around the temple."
"That sounds wonderful," Larissa beamed. "I'll look forward to it."
He nodded. "There's one other town between here and there though. It's a trading post between Methone and Scabrosa."
"Oh..." Larissa frowned.
"What is it? What's wrong?"
She shook her head. "I guess I forgot that your people still trades with Scabrosa."
Kaz frowned, staring at her for a moment. He gasped in understanding. "It's about your sister, isn't it? Princess Reanna and her betrothed."
"Former betrothed," Larissa corrected, crossing her arms. "I'm not particularly fond of Prince Cadmus' memory. Not after what he did to my family."
Kaz tilted his head interestedly. "Was it really so bad?"
"Bad that he sent a group of fairies to destroy us on false pretenses?"
Kaz's eyebrow rose. "Did he now?"
Larissa nodded. "We broke off trade with them. I can't imagine our relationship ever improving."
"Will there be war?"
"No! Oceane, no." Larissa shook her head quickly. "That's the last thing we would want. Poseidonium doesn't even have a real army. I would never want war brought to our borders. Our people's lives would be the price paid for that."
Kaz smiled, pleased with her answer. "So, live and let live?"
"I suppose." She was petting down her hair, frowning. "I imagine that we're just going to have to deal with Cadmus and Scabrosa for the rest of our lives."
"Princess." One of the Santeri came walking up to her. He stopped and took a knee. "Your tent is ready, my lady. Would you like to retire now?"
Larissa nodded and Kaz moved so that she could climb out. He offered her his hand and she smiled as she stepped down. He smiled back even as he released her hand, to her disappointment.
"When will we reach the trade town?" Larissa asked as she led him to her tent. It was probably about time for Indigo to awaken, which meant that he would be doing his 'morning' exercises. Until he was finished, Kaz would still be on duty.
The two of them no longer slept in her tent, but they slept right outside of it. Sometimes, Larissa could hear one of them walking around, checking to make sure that no one and nothing was coming back to try and hurt Larissa.
"It should only be a day or two more," he responded as they passed the newly repaired hole that the invisible entity had ripped into her tent.
At the entrance to her tent, she turned to wish Kaz goodnight. She found him smiling at her. His raptorial face held a smile surprisingly well. It cut through the predatory edge of his features and made him seem friendly and enticing.
"Are we going to stay in town?" Larissa asked, hesitating about going inside. Once she did, she would no longer be able to speak with Kaz. At least until tomorrow.
Kaz shrugged. "If we get there late, we will. If not, we'll probably keep on moving. Did you want to stay?"
"I suppose it would be nice, but we don't have to."
Kaz reached down and lifted her hand. He brought it to his lips and kissed her knuckles gently before smiling at her over her own hand. "Goodnight, Rissa."
"Goodnight, Kaz." She smiled as she turned to walk into her tent. She closed it behind her, tying it off to give herself some privacy. However, she didn't move until she heard Kaz's footsteps walk away. It didn't happen immediately, making her smile.
The trade town that Kaz spoke of was well within Methone, but it was close enough to Scabrosa that it could function as a trade hub. One of the Santeri ran ahead of the group to alert the mayor that Princess Larissa of Poseidonium was en route and, since the sun was beginning to set, she would be staying the night in the city.
The mayor, in hearing that royalty would be visiting, immediately offered his home for her and the Ale Santeri that came with her. An offer that Indigo accepted only if the Ale Santeri would be the ones looking over the princess. They trusted no one else.
Larissa found their lack of faith reassuring. At least it told her that they were aware that others wouldn't be unaffected by her beauty.
Which was why it wasn't surprising when Kaz brought her the veil that she hadn't been wearing since the unknown magical creature attacked her tent. She frowned at the sight of it, but she didn't hesitate to take it from his hands.
"Would you like me to draw your curtains?" Kaz asked, frowning as she let the material slide through her fingers as though it were made of water.
She shook her head. "I can do it."
Kaz nodded and walked ahead to fall in line with the others. Larissa moved around the carriage and released all the curtains from their ties, shutting herself back inside. She didn't realize just how much she was enjoying not having them until she was forced to seal herself inside again. At least it was only for a single night.
And, while she was here in town, she would get to see someplace new. That was going to be interesting. Even if she had to view it through her veil.
One of the Ale Santeri at the front began calling for people on the street to make way. He declared who was passing through and ordered the peasantry to step aside for her. Larissa frowned out of the opaque windows of her coach at the blurry world that passed her by.
She couldn't actually see the town though. She heard people calling out in amazement at the grand coach. She heard mumbles about her specifically and how she was supposed to be blessed with great beauty. More than once, she heard people, man and woman alike, saying they should very much like to see someone with such legendary beauty.
She sighed, letting her veil fall to the floor. She shook it out before throwing it over her head. She grabbed for her circlet to lock it in place. Once if was settled on her hair, she pushed the veil over again so she could still breath until she had to step out.
As they came close to the mayor's residence, she heard large metal gates being opened. Soldiers ordered curious commoners back. The Ale Santeri calling out her approach silenced. The oxen grunted in annoyance as they were pulled to a stop. Her coach rocked as it was brought to a halt. She grabbed the edges of her veil and pulled it down.
Through the veil and the curtains together, she could see nothing of the outside. A gentle knocking against her door alerted her that Kaz had come back.
"Are you ready?" He asked softly.
"I am," she moved over towards the door.
"Presenting, her royal highness, the third princess of Poseidonium, Larissa!" Kaz's voice was loud and powerful as he called out her title and opened the door to her carriage. She saw his hand, a blur behind the opaque veil, and she lifted her own to let him help her down.
Whispering and murmurs broke out from those gathered. She could see the general shape of the large manor that the mayor called home. She could also see what must be him standing at the base of a set of steps and what appeared to be either guards or servants that lined the steps all the way up to the entrance. They all remarked softly about her veil.
Larissa withdrew her hand under its opaque cover and began walking forward. Kaz stood to one side, just a step behind her, with Indigo to the other. Larissa came to a stop in front of the man that she imagined to be the mayor and inclined her head. He was rather rotund, speaking to his love of fine food.
The man with obscure features bowed his head. "Princess, you honor me with your presence. I knew you would be returning this way on your journey to the palace, but I didn't know that you would be staying the night. I'm more than pleased to have you."
"Thank you for allowing me and my men to stay, er... I apologize, I didn't catch your name."
"Oh! Forgive my lapse in manners. I am mayor Augustin." She saw his hand come out as though to take hers and bow over it, an automatic response. She also saw him hesitate and retract the limb when he realized she couldn't take it from under her veil. "I, er, have a room prepared for you and your two guards here. The rest of the Santeri will have beds in the guard barracks."
"Thank you." She stood in place, waiting for him to lead her up.
Augustin didn't move for a long moment. It wasn't until Indigo cleared his throat, quickly but obviously, that he flinched and remembered his manners. Larissa wondered if he had been staring at her veil, trying to see her face.
"Er, yes. Uh, this... this way. I'll show you to your room myself."
"Thank you," Larissa repeated, grinning as she lifted her skirts to follow him up the steps.
She wished that she could see the mansion he brought her into. She was very interested in what sort of style choices and furnishings a different country would have in comparison to Poseidonium. She supposed that she would have to settle for what parts of her room that she could see.
"We'll be having dinner shortly," Augustin told her happily. "You are more than welcome to join us. My wife and children are very eager to meet you. Though, if you would prefer to eat in your room, that would be fine as well."
Larissa frowned, wondering for a moment how she would eat through her veil. She didn't want to insult the mayor by refusing his offer, especially when he had been kind enough to open his doors to her, but it would be awkward to try and eat under the long fabric.
Eventually, she agreed and tried planning the best way to pull her veil back enough to reveal as little as possible while still allowing herself to eat.
The mayor took her to her room and showed her the inside. She wouldn't be able to actually see it until he left, but Kaz assured him that the accommodations were suitable. Indigo left with the mayor to get a better understanding of the area just in case something was to go wrong. Kaz stayed with Larissa and grinned at the way she ripped the veil from her head with a gasp of relief.
"Is it that hot under there?" He asked curiously as she pushed back her disturbed hair so that she could look around.
"Mostly it's my own breath making it hot," she admitted. The four-poster bed had no canopy, but it did have far too many pillows. Most of them appeared decorative, not the sort that she could actually use with any sort of comfort. She frowned at the sight of them.
"Do you need anything before dinner?"
"No, I'll be fine." She smiled over to her Santeri before looking past him to the wide window that had been left open to coax in a summer breeze. It didn't face the sunset, casting the room in partial shadow and nearly prompting her to light some candles to alleviate the darkness.
"Oh, actually." She turned back to Kaz. "I need some of my things from the wagon. I have to get changed before dinner."
He raised a curious eyebrow. "As you wish, but what's wrong with what you have on?"
"This?" She gestured down at the pale green frock. "I've been traveling in this all day. This is not at all suitable for dinner. At least, not at one held at a table before company."
"But good enough to sit down on a rock with me?" Kaz grinned as he asked. "Besides, I think you look perfect in that. Why change at all?"
Larissa laughed, gathering her hair into her hands. "I am not taking fashion advice from... well, you."
He frowned, looking down at his uniform. "What's wrong with me?"
"Kaz, that is the single most shapeless, tasteless, piece of cloth that has ever had the unfortunate fate of being stitched together."
"I'll have you know that this is completely functional. It is designed for combat, for travel, and for withstanding the elements. It's not meant to be pretty, it's meant to be useful."
His words, mostly spoken playfully, had an effect on Larissa that surprised him. Her smile collapsed into a frown and sadness flashed into her eyes. Before he could really see it though, she turned away from him and let her hair fall back down again.
"My trunks, Kaz."
He hesitated, frowning. But the tone of her voice didn't leave room for disobedience. He bowed his head, "Yes, Rissa."
She didn't move until she heard the door close behind him. Only then did she look back, holding onto herself as she looked at the place where he had stood. The decorative pillows placed on the bed caught her eye and she frowned. Walking over to her bed, she grabbed the offensive décor and threw it away from the mattress into a corner of the room. She doubted it would, but she hoped that the night's stay there would make them dirty and ugly.
A washing tub was prepared for Larissa as the wagon was unloaded and by the time that Kaz and two other Santeri came bearing her trunks, she was washing. She was happy it gave her an excuse not to talk to Kaz for a short while.
He hadn't meant to say it, she knew, but it still hurt, his suggestion that something that was pretty was automatically useless...
She dressed by herself, choosing to wear one of her fancier, yellow gowns. Since they wouldn't see her face, she thought she could at least show them one of her prettier designs. No matter what though, there was going to be whispering about her tomorrow.
The veil she placed over her head, as usual, but she pulled it down further in the back until the lace edge at the front hung down just past her chin. It would allow her to eat without forcing her to reveal her face. Once she had it where she wanted it, she put the circlet crown back around the top, locking it in place. She turned and wasn't surprised to see the end now trailing on the ground.
There was a knock at her door and she called for whomever it was to enter. She figured it would be Kaz or Indigo, telling her that it was time for supper. However, when she turned, it was neither of their familiar silhouettes that she saw.
"Ah, princess, I'm glad I caught you," Mayor Augustin said, shutting the door behind him. "I wanted a chance to speak with you privately before dinner. I hope you don't mind."
Larissa shook her head, clasping her hands before herself calmly. "I don't. What did you need, lord mayor?"
"Um, it's slightly embarrassing, but it's about our trade agreements with Scabrosa."
Larissa frowned. "I should have no idea why that should matter to me."
"Well, it's well known that Poseidonium and Scabrosa have a relationship that is rather... strained, we'll say. I don't blame either party. In fact, Lord Nereus from Poseidonium has a trading post here in town. I like to think that we're neutral to all three kingdoms, despite being in Methone. In fact, maybe because of it. The god of justice, after all, does prefer absolute neutrality."
"That makes sense. I don't care that you trade with Scabrosa. You're certainly free to do so. My people made their decision based on the king and crown prince's crimes. Yours were not similarly slighted, it wouldn't be reasonable to expect you to sever your ties as well."
"Good. That's wonderful." He was stepping close to her, grinning sheepishly. "Your opinion is important to me, princess. You were slated to be our queen, after all."
"I was," she nodded. "That time has since passed. Your own princess shall be your queen now."
"Yes. Princess Zoe. A precious girl. Er, she's not quite the type who can lead though."
"Why ever not?"
"Well, she was born... deformed. She has a defect that has always been hers. They say that it will impair her ability to rule. A ruler must be perfect, you understand. No mental or... physical flaws."
Larissa frowned. She didn't like the way he said the words. Not just because he was insulting his own princess. The last statement sounded rather... hungry. While he spoke the words, his eyes had moved down her perfectly shaped body. For all that her beautiful face was hidden, the swell of her breasts and hips were not. Her beauty did not just apply to her face.
Reflexively, Larissa took a step back from the mayor. Her heart stuttered in fear to see him take a similar one towards her. As though he were drawn to her.
"Well, thank you for coming to see me with your concerns," she said deliberately loudly. "We can speak more on it at dinner. With your wife."
"Ah," he laughed, his eyes straining to see through her veil. "That girl isn't at all interested in things like politics or trade. I've actually met Prince Cadmus, you know. While he was here, he spoke of you. He mentioned that your beauty was truly a sight to behold. The stories do make a man... curious."
"Kaz!" Larissa yelled for him immediately. She knew that tone. She knew that expression. She couldn't allow it to progress any further or the mayor would get himself into trouble.
However, her cry prompted Augustin to react. He leapt forward slamming his hand over her mouth to prevent another yell from escaping. The other hand wrapped around her neck, imprisoning her face in his hands. She pushed back against him, muffled yells barely heard through his pants of excitement.
"The most beautiful woman in all the world," he whispered eagerly, still trying to stare through the opaque shield that was her veil. His eyes were wide and crazed. Obsessed. He had barely seen her and already he was entranced.
Turning the hand he had on her neck, he grabbed the back of the veil and yanked roughly, upending the circlet keeping it in place. He threw the fabric away and she heard him gasp for breath. The sight of her hazel eyes, even widened with fear, was like a punch to the gut. She could actually see his obsession warping his thoughts until there was nothing left but her in them.
"So... beautiful..." He whispered in a shaky voice. He grabbed onto her face, trying to hold it still so he could marvel at it. Doing so, he released her mouth.
"KAZ!" She screeched.
"No! NO!" Augustin grabbed her throat, choking off the sound. He became manic at the thought of someone trying to take her beauty away from him.
Larissa scratched at his fingers, her blood rushing loudly in her ears as she struggled to bring in a breath around his large hands. He was shaking his head, shaking her, as he tried pushing her down to the ground.
"Don't scream. Don't." He begged her. "It's okay. I'm not going to hurt you. I just want to see you. I just want to keep you... Gods, you're perfect..."
Her vision was turning gray. She turned her nails up to his face, trying to scratch at his eyes, his nose, anything to try and hurt him enough to release her. He was too enchanted to notice her efforts. The way the redness pooled in her cheeks, the way tears gathered in her eyes. She was tragically beautiful now, and it was even better...
Larissa barely heard the door slamming open. When Augustin was grabbed by the back of the neck and thrown away from her, it was all she could do to gasp and struggle to breathe in the next burning gulp of air. All the background noise, all the activity, faded away.
Soft hands grabbed her and she felt the floor rushing away as Kaz lifted her in his arm. His fierce, raptorial face filled her vision. The pleasant smile that usually cut through his harsh features was gone and in its place was something vicious and cruel that really made him appear to be a predatory bird, looking down on its unfortunate prey.
He wasn't looking at her though. She turned her head and followed his vision to where Augustin was fighting against two Santeri. Both of whom were baring weapons and appeared to have just come fresh from a fight.
"Pack Rissa's things," Kaz ordered them. "Catch up to us when you can, we'll be going ahead."
"Yes, sir!" They both nodded.
Kaz left them behind, carrying Rissa from the room. She was still coughing, her voice rough as she struggled to ask what had happened.
He shushed her gently. "It's okay. Don't worry. We have everything under control."
She looked back into the hallway and her eyes widened to see the dead bodies of Augustin's guards being stood over by the victorious Santeri. The unfortunate men had tried to block their progress when the mayor had come to see her alone. When they didn't let the Santeri pass, they had forced them to act.
It occurred to her then that Augustin had tried to keep her Santeri away so that he could have uninhibited access to her. A weak-willed man, probably tempted by every one of life's pleasures, hadn't been able to resist the rumors of the most beautiful woman in the world.
Outside, Larissa's coach had already been prepared. The rest of her Santeri, including Indigo, had gathered around it. All of them had their weapons at the ready. The oxen were prepared to pull the coach when ordered. The wagon usually loaded down with their things wasn't ready, but it was more important to remove Larissa from this place first.
Kaz didn't drop her into the coach. He climbed in after her. Indigo shut the door behind him and immediately they were moving. The Ale Santeri maintained a tight ring around the coach, preventing anyone who might dare to come in too close.
Only once they were moving did Kaz set Larissa onto the seat. He kneeled down in front of her and frowned at the bruise marks left around her neck.
"Forgive me," he whispered, his voice tortured and guilty. "I came as quickly as I could. We didn't realize their intentions at first or we would have been there immediately."
Larissa shook her head. Her voice was hoarse when she spoke. "S'not their fault. They were just following orders."
"Yes, and so were we. Augustin will pay for this crime, I assure you."
"It wasn't his fault either."
Kaz pushed back her hair, frowning. "Of course, it was. He's the one that did it."
"It was my face that did it..."
"No, Rissa. It was him. He hadn't even seen your face yet. Do not make excuses for the weak willed and the wicked. They do not deserve your pity, nor do they warrant your guilt. Are you all right? Is it difficult to breathe?"
She shook her head, fighting back tears. He took her hands in his and bowed his head over them. "I promise you, this will not happen again. There is nowhere you will go that I will not follow. If there is even a chance of the wicked trying to claim you as an object, I will not leave your side. This, I vow to you, my princess."
Sniffling, Larissa threw her arms around his neck. He stiffened in surprise as the force of her jump threw him back against the opposite seat, both of them now crouched on the floor. Her shoulders shook with silent sobs and he frowned as he held her tightly.
"Do not fear, Rissa. I will be here for you. No matter what, I will be here for you."