3. Independent

Heather could do nothing but stare wide eyed at the table. Plates and goblets and cutlery of all different shapes and sizes were arranged in front of her. Why did one person need handfuls of forks, knives and spoons just to eat a meal?

Bread sat on a plate to her left while a bowl of soup sat in front of her. Her stomach growled, demanding her to eat, but she didn't know which spoon she had to use to consume her soup.

She reached for the spoon above the bowl but her tutor clicked his tongue at her. "No, Heather," he shook his head. Earlier he had introduced himself as Bancroft. "That is the dessert spoon. The soup spoon is the third to your right."

Breathing, she grabbed the correct spoon and happily dug into her soup. A strange but delicious flavor touched her tongue and she swallowed her mouthful, looking across at Bancroft. "What kind of soup is this?"

"It is lentil soup," he told her. "Do you like it?"

Heather nodded. "It's amazing. Much better than anything down in the village, that's for sure!"

She finished her soup and ate her bread. In seconds a maid took her empty soup bowl and replaced it with a plate of salad and grilled fish with a small handful of prawns and calamari rings. The maid also poured tea into the second teacup on Heather's right and offered a small plate of sugar cubes.

"Two, please," Heather requested and the maid dropped two cubes into the tea. Heather grabbed the closest teaspoon but Bancroft gasped in horror.

"No, no, no!" he cried. "That is a teaspoon!"

Heather could only blink at him. "Isn't that what I'm meant to use to stir my tea?"

He shook his head roughly. "The tea was poured into the demitasse, which is essentially a half-cup of tea. That means you must use the demitasse spoon to stir it. It is the second spoon on your right."

Trying not to groan, she put the teaspoon down; the first spoon to her right. She grabbed the next one and stirred the sugar through her tea. She picked up the demitasse cup and brought it to her lips. To ensure she didn't get yelled at, the flicked out her pinky finger and narrowed her eyes at Bancroft. He simply smiled and nodded in acceptance.

The tea was delicious, Heather sighed as she took a sip. It was strong and sweet and she guessed it could have been chamomile.

Putting the cup down, she turned to the main course of her lunch and chewed her lip. Her stomach continued to growl, not satisfied with the soup, and she wished she could just use her hands to tear into her food.

She looked to Bancroft to guide her to which piece of cutlery she was allowed to use and he raised his chin. "Your fish knife and forks are both second to your left and right, while the salad knife and fork are third. For the rest of the seafood, you must use the fork on your right."

Heather did her best to remember but her mind forgot it almost instantly. She exhaled loudly in complaint and let her head fall forward, slamming her forehead against the table. "This is ridiculous!" she exclaimed. She thought ballroom dancing and balancing books on her head was difficult!

Zane chuckled from where he sat a little further away, allowed to use his hands to eat the sandwich that was given to him. Diego stood somewhere behind her and she heard him trying to contain his own laughter. She was just thankful that Katrina decided not to join her for lunch.

It was a miracle to get through lunch and Heather was taken back to the library for the last lesson of the day where Evelyn was waiting for her. She greeted Heather warmly and the Raven immediately sat down at the desk, happy for the break.

"How was your lunch?" Evelyn asked.

"Exhausting!" Heather exclaimed. "So many rules just to eat."

Evelyn laughed and grabbed a pile of books off the trolley. She placed them in front of Heather and the younger woman delicately took them, flipping them open. She gently ran her fingers across the fine pages, unable to believe she was actually going to read books from the royal library!

"Right, let's begin," Evelyn sat down on the other side of the desk, facing Heather. "The kingdom of Aerilon has stood for many generations, but a bloody battle was fought in order for it to be the kingdom it is today. The Aerilon mines are rich with gold and rare crystals, and armies came from miles to claim it…

"However, it stands stronger than ever today, with our neighboring villages," Evelyn went on, opening a book and flipping the pages until she came across a map of the kingdom. "Hollowbridge, Fayhall, Ilragorn and Brookville. Lords and Ladies run those villages, keeping everything in order under the rule of our King and Queen…

"Our closest neighboring kingdom is that of Lunaris," Evelyn explained. "We have held peace with them for many years but lately there has been talk of joining our two kingdoms with an engagement between Princess Katrina and Prince Tristan of Lunaris."

"Ew," Heather recoiled. "Why would he even consider marrying her?"

Evelyn sighed. "I know Katrina is not the most… pleasant princess, but she is the only heir to the throne and she must marry a prince. Prince Tristan is the eldest of three siblings, so one of his brothers will rule Lunaris while he becomes king here in Aerilon."

"Poor guy," Heather mumbled.

"Believe me, I understand your feelings."

The lesson continued as Evelyn explained more about the neighboring villages and Heather couldn't stop herself from admitting she had taken several contracts in each of them. Evelyn didn't dare ask what kind of contracts they had been.

An hour ticked by and Heather enjoyed every minute of it as her tutor scratched the surface of Mathematics, English and Science. It was disappointing when Evelyn declared the lesson was over.

"Thank you so much," Heather offered to the woman. "I can't wait for the next lesson!"

"I should be the one thanking you," Evelyn replied. "I haven't enjoyed teaching this much in years. Katrina has never been so eager to take part in these lessons. It's great to finally have a student who is so keen for knowledge."

Heather ducked her head in embarrassment but took a deep breath. "Could I… Could I please borrow a book or two?"

"Of course! You may take as many as you like."

A girlish giggle escaped her and she made a beeline for the closest bookshelf. She searched through them, picking out all different kinds. She grabbed a few about Mathematics and some about Science. When her arms got too full, she called Diego over.

"Would you like me to take them?" he asked.

"Yes," she nodded and dumped them into his arms, returning to the shelves to collect more. In moments she called to Zane and gave him a pile of books to carry as well. She filled her own arms with another pile and Diego grunted.

"Do you really need so many?" he grumbled. "I'm pretty sure you could put a few back…"

Heather turned on him with a vicious hiss and Zane smirked. "Man, you do not want to get between her and books. Just let her have them and walk away slowly."

Diego blinked but held his tongue and Heather led them out of the library. They walked down the long halls until they found her room and she instructed them to place all the books on the bed. Doing as they were told, Zane straightened up with a frown.

"I guess there's no chance of sparring?" he asked.

"Maybe tomorrow," she promised. "I want to get started on reading."

"I understand," a smile returned to his face. "I'll go catch up with Tobias and Leon and see what they've learned. See you at dinner."

He took his leave but Diego remained where he stood. Heather grumbled. "You can leave now too."

"If that's what you want," he bowed. "However, I've been instructed to remain close by in case you require my help."

"You mean if an assassin sneaks in and tries to kill me?" she mumbled and he nodded. "I'm pretty sure I could handle it myself."

"Orders are orders," he shrugged. "But I will respect your privacy and leave the room."

"Thank you," she muttered, watching him make his way to the door.

"Oh, and by the way," he spoke up and glanced over his shoulder. "I enjoyed dancing with you today. I can't way to see how well you spar."

Heather's face burned from such a compliment and she opened her mouth to speak but her tongue was paralyzed. Diego dipped his head to her and left the room, shutting the door behind him.

Shaking herself roughly, she felt the pressure of the corset and decided it was time to remove it before her ribcage collapsed. She kicked her shoes off and rushed to remove the cursed dress. She got it off and reached behind her, tugging at the corset ties. With a bit of a struggle, she pulled them loose and ripped the corset off.

She gasped as the pressure disappeared and relief washed over her. She took several deep breaths to fill her lungs and didn't stop until she felt lightheaded. She would never take air for granted again!
Her next step was the crinoline. She had no idea how to remove the steel death-trap. Grabbing it, she tried to force it down but it refused to slide down her waist. Thinking quickly, she lifted it slightly and, although it was a bit heavy, it easily moved up her torso.

"I can do this!" Heather grinned, hurrying over to the closest wall. Facing it, she threw herself forward into a handstand and put her feet against the wall for support.

Carefully, she shifted her body and the crinoline slid up. She felt triumphant that she was capable of removing it without being swarmed by maids… until the crinoline was stopped short at her breasts.

"Oh no…" Heather breathed, trying to shimmy the hoop around her chest. Her next thought was to get out of the handstand and fix herself but with the crinoline caught where it was, there was no way Heather's body would bend in order to get back to her feet. That left only one option. "DIEGO!"

The door burst open and she lifted her head, seeing Diego upside down. He stared at her for a long moment, his mouth hanging open. It took him several agonizing heartbeats before he collected himself enough to speak. "I left you alone for five minutes."

"Oh, shut up and go get Desiree," Heather growled.

"Did you want me to help you down first-"

"Now!" she yelled at him and he scrambled, dashing out of the room. "That's just great," she added to herself. "Make yourself look like a complete idiot, Heather. Stupid princess. Stupid Ravens making me do this shit. They owe me big time!"

Minutes ticked by before Diego returned with Desiree. Heather's arms were beginning to burn, but thankfully she was used to holding herself up for long periods of time. She was fitter than a fiddle!

"What on earth have you done to yourself?" was the first words out of Desiree's mouth, the maid unable to hide her laughter.

"I couldn't get the damn thing off, so I thought I could shimmy it over my head," Heather admitted.

Diego laughed. "You thought it would fit over your tits, even though it wouldn't fit past your waist?"

She hissed at him. "You talk about my tits one more time and I will crack open your skull! Just get me out of this."

Desiree sighed deeply and told Diego she would need his help. Together, the two of them helped Heather back to her feet and Desiree professionally detached the steel trap. The Raven shook herself, standing in front of her two companions in nothing but undergarments.

The soldier's eyes began to wander and Desiree slapped her hands across his eyes. "Don't be so disrespectful! Damn soldiers always act as though they've never seen a woman before. Sorry, Heather. I wouldn't have been able to get you down without his help."

"It's fine," Heather waved it off and started for her wardrobe. "I'm not embarrassed to stand in front of a man like this."

"Would that be because of your past?" Desiree dared to ask and Heather nodded to her.

"What past?" Diego muttered, pulling his head away from Desiree's hand.

"None of your business," Heather told him and grabbed a blue silk dress, slipping into it. To her dismay it was as tight as the green one and she grabbed a knife out of her bag, cutting slits on both sides, from just below the waist to the bottom of the skirt. She stepped out of her wardrobe and stretched her body. "You can go now, Diego. Thanks for the help."

He looked disappointed to be leaving, but he left the room without complaint. Desiree shook her head at his departure but smiled at Heather. "How was your first day?"

"It was fine until lunch," Heather fell onto her bed. "All I wanted to do was eat, but there were so many rules! And with the way Bancroft was explaining it to me, I'll never remember which things I can use and when."

Desiree giggled. "If you would like, I'd be happy to help teach you outside of your lessons. I can borrow a whole dinner setting and bring it here so you can memorize it better without the pressure of Bancroft."

"I think I would like that," Heather said, sitting up. "It would be a really big help. But for now, I'm looking forward to burying myself in these books."

Desiree stared at the assortment in awe. "You were allowed to borrow so many?"

"Yeah, Evelyn said I could take as many as I wanted," Heather grinned, taking in the maid's expression. "Have you ever read them?"

"No. Work as a maid keeps me too busy. Katrina would probably order for me to be executed if I ever opened the first page of a book."

Heather growled at that but shuffled over and patted the bed. "Come and read a few. If a lowly peasant like me can be allowed to read them, you can too."

The brunette smiled softly and crossed the room, sitting on the bed with Heather. Together, the two of them cracked open the books and began to read. Heather was fascinated by the history she was reading. It was all about the wars waged in order to claim Aerilon, some of the losing armies going so far as to try and destroy the precious mines so that no one could claim them.

Heather narrowed her eyes as she read further, seeing a paragraph about a once-strong alliance between Aerilon and Lunaris. "Hey, check this out," Heather spoke up, holding the book out to Desiree. "A few decades ago, a princess from another kingdom was promised to a prince of Lunaris."

Desiree took the book and read over the paragraph. "Apparently the princess turned the prince down and married the prince of Aerilon. The alliance between Aerilon and Lunaris was broken after that."

"If that was a few decades ago, the princess has to be our Queen," Heather mumbled. "But if the alliance was broken back then, why are they trying to reform it? And why didn't Evelyn tell me about that when she mentioned it?"

Desiree put the book down and looked deep in thought. "Do you think these enemy spies are of Lunaris? Maybe the whole alliance is just a ploy to get close to the royal family."

"It would make sense," Heather nodded, staring down at her dress. "The Queen denied their prince, so they must want to kill Katrina to get back at her… I have to find out more about this engagement. I need to find the Ravens and tell them."

"They might be down at the training fields," Desiree suggested. "You can see it from your balcony."

Heather jumped to her feet, rushing to the glass doors and pushing them open, stepping out onto the balcony. She could indeed see the training fields where soldiers were going through drills. Leon, Tobias and Zane were easily spotted among them with their black clad outfits. Heather lifted her arms up to wave to them, unsure if they could see her. In seconds, they waved back.

She made a quick signal to them, keeping one arm up and bending the other, clasping her hand around her elbow. It was a signal that they would know well and Heather made a move to head towards the training fields but a high-pitched scream alerted her.

Heather's gaze darted down to the royal gardens. Over by the hedge maze, she saw some rustling leaves and a dark silhouette moving away from the entrance. A spy!
Anger churned in Heather's stomach and she told herself someone was in trouble. She ran off the balcony and Desiree was already on her feet. "I heard the scream. Did you see anyone?"

"Stay here," Heather ordered, racing to her bag and snatching out her machete. She strapped it around her torso so that she could reach over her shoulder to unsheathe it and she dashed for the door.

"Heather, no!" Desiree yelled with a stern voice. "A princess cannot engage in a fight!"

"I'm not a princess," Heather growled. "I'm a mercenary, and I will not hide away while someone's life is in danger."

She tore out of the room, her bare feet pounding against the cold marble floor. She ran as fast as she could, turning as many corners as she could remember. It felt like an eternity had passed before she reached the royal gardens.

Heading straight for the hedge maze, she rounded the first bushy corner and froze. A maid sat in the corner with a hand pressed to her stomach, her face creased with pain. Heather dropped to her knees beside her and saw blood oozing through the woman's fingers. She had been stabbed.

"You're going to be okay," Heather told her, unsheathing her machete and ripping a strip from the bottom of her dress. She put her weapon down and moved the woman's hand, pressing the material against the wound. "Keep pressure on it. Help will be here soon." There was no chance that the Ravens didn't hear the scream, they should be here any time now.

"Your… Highness," the maid whispered, lifting her free hand to point. Heather followed the gesture and saw a dark figure further into the maze, peering around a corner at her. "Run before he gets you too."

"Not a chance," Heather growled, picking up her machete. She jumped to her feet and ran at the spy. He seemed to be taken by surprise and fled into the maze.

Heather pursued him, rounding corner after corner. She gripped her machete tightly, doing her best to keep the spy in her sights but they were one step ahead. It wasn't until she reached an intersection with four possible directions that she lost sight of the spy.

She stood in the middle, glaring down each path with her shoulders tense. "Which way did you go?" she grumbled.

She heard an angry cry with the sound of heavy feet charging towards her. She whirled around and threw her machete up just in time as a broadsword came swinging for her. She blocked it and pushed it back, snarling at her attacker. He wore a dark cloak with a black mask covering his entire face. The cloak did nothing to hide the powerful build of this man and Heather instantly calculated his strengths and weaknesses.

She swung high and he lifted his sword to block it but she dodged back and kicked out his legs. He landed heavily on his back but he lifted his sword and Heather knocked it away with her machete. He rolled backwards, jumping back to his feet and Heather struck for him. He tried to dodge it but the tip of the machete nicked his chest, ripping open his shirt. Heather narrowed her eyes, seeing the fresh gash bleeding. Beside it, she spotted a tattoo; a howling wolf head. She made a mental note to remember it.

While she was distracted, the spy took the opportunity to punch her in the face. She cried out as her vision blacked out for a second and she dropped to her knees. She could do nothing but watch the man flee into the hedge maze.

"Heather!" she looked up as the Ravens ran over to her, falling into crouches to check on her. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," she grumbled, feeling blood trickling from her nose. "The spy got away though."

"Let's worry about you first," Zane sighed, taking her arm and helping her to her feet.

"What were you thinking?" Leon asked. "You're supposed to be acting as the princess. Princess' don't chase and attack people."

"Well maybe they should," Heather grumbled. "Maybe then they wouldn't be targeted so easily."

Leon shook his head a rolled his eyes, but a smile crossed his face. "I know it doesn't seem fair, but you really should leave most of this to us."

"I really should," Heather echoed. "But I really won't."