Informing Christiansen of his various flaws quickly became one of Caitlin's most beloved pastimes, but he knew his place and when to shut his mouth. That counted for something.
Malcot continued to trek through the forest, and he still hadn't brought up their earlier conversation by the stream. Obviously, her intellect far surpassed his, but Caitlin wasn't in the mood to justify saying she enjoyed his company. It was a conundrum she was still trying to reconcile. After all, Christiansen was an annoying, oafish, cowardly buffoon. How did any rational person tolerate him?
"Okay, that's too harsh." The knight wasn't as insufferable as the Godfreys or any of the innumerable royal idiots Caitlin had been forcibly acquainted with over the years. He was a great fighter, an excellent pillow, gentle and caring but unafraid to protect those he loved, and understood her sense of humor. As far as "sensitive and sickeningly sweet" types went, one could do far worse than Christiansen. It wasn't ridiculous to imagine some doe-eyed, giggly maiden becoming smitten with his 'inexpensive imitation of Prince Charming' style. He was a mother-in-law's dream made tangible, and that included the Queen.
Then again, Christiansen wasn't a descendent of a noble family, nor was he heir to a massive fortune. Not that Caitlin held that against him, but she wasn't sure if Mother approved of her or Lilith dating someone far beneath their social standing. Mother always said she wanted them to be happy, but...
Just then, as Malcot sidestepped a large boulder, an insidious thought creeped its way into Caitlin's mind.
Was Lilith the mystery woman?
Was Christiansen in love with her sister?
With all the available information, the mystery woman's identity was still, fittingly, a mystery. She could be anyone in Amorado, but Lilith was a prime suspect. Rich, graceful, beloved by the people, and, as Christiansen directly acknowledged, beautiful. She could have any man she desired with a snap of her fingers, and Christiansen was, in his own way, a man.
Lilith was, objectively speaking, better looking. Not that Caitlin put a lot of thought into anyone's physical appearance, but it was true. She was also far more genial and wouldn't verbally assault Christiansen every-time he made a mistake. After all, who didn't love constantly being mocked and derided? It was a method formally recognized by history as the perfect way to endear oneself to a man.
Although, Caitlin was Christiansen's favorite princess. Not just in Amorado, but out of every princess in the entire world. The O'Doererys stated it as a well established fact and he made no attempt to dispute their claim. And if she told Lilith what they'd been through, Caitlin knew she'd back off. Of course, that conversation could only take place in a world where she felt anything for Christiansen beyond dispassionate contempt.
Arakhum on High, he agravated her without even opening his big, stupid mouth! Didn't Christiansen understand the turmoil he put her through? Caitlin didn't deserve this anguish because of his obliviousness!
"Tell me something, Christiansen," Caitlin said, shifting her weight on Malcot's saddle to make sure she had a view of his face. "Is my sister the mystery woman?"
His cheeks burned like ripe tomatoes. "No. Lilith is very beautiful, that is true, but she's not her. The mystery woman isn't Lilith, is what I'm trying to say."
She hadn't expected such a definitive response from Christiansen. He didn't stutter or trip over his words.
That didn't mean Caitlin was going to let his transgressions pass.
"So she's not the mystery woman, but you think she's beautiful," Caitlin mused. "How so?"
"Uh, what do you mean? Why do I think Princess Lilith is beautiful?"
"Yes. Give me reasons why, and be as detailed as possible." Watching him squirm and blush made Caitlin smile wickedly, but Christiansen deserved it for being such an oaf.
"Well, uh, I think she has nice clothes, very beautiful dresses and jewelry," He swallowed to buy time. "She has a nice smile and pretty eyes. I've never spoken with her, but from what I've been told, Princess Lilith is very kind and considerate to friends and strangers. Those are all things I find beautiful in a woman," Ordinarily, Caitlin brushed off this type of vacuous sweet-talk as trying to get on her good side, but something told her Christiansen was being totally genuine about his opinion. "I suppose most of that is because she's the daughter of the King and Queen."
Her eyebrow shot up. "What do you mean by that?"
"Oh, well, uh, the Queen is a beautiful woman, and the King is a handsome man, so if you combine the two," He laughed, and the bashful grin from earlier that made thinking difficult returned. "You get someone who is bea-"
Caitlin had to stop paying attention to whatever Christiansen was saying, as she made an incredible discovery: when he smiled that glorious, shy smile, his cheeks dimpled! Her stomach fluttered with glee at being able to see the joyful young man he'd once been and still was in his heart; before he let himself be consumed by fear and guilt. Had he never smiled in her presence prior to now? It didn't matter, because she wanted more. She needed to see Christiansen's adorable smile and hear his laughter more and more.
"It's okay, Christiansen," Caitlin said, trying not to give away just how happy she was to the knight. "I'm forced to repeat myself yet again, but I'm only teasing you. I believe you when you say that Lilith isn't the mystery woman and I don't actually want to make you miserable."
As she hoped, he was still smiling. "If you don't want me to be miserable, will you stop asking about the mystery woman?"
"My tolerance of you doesn't go that far."
He shrugged. "It was worth trying."
Between Christiansen's smiling and once again joking with her, Caitlin beamed. Not only was teasing him enjoyable by itself, but it came with the added benefit of bringing out a lighter side of her companion. Mrs. O'Doerery was correct that getting Christiansen out of his shell was difficult, but the rewards were so, so worth the struggle.
He might try to deny the truth, but he enjoyed their playful squabbling. And, increasingly, so did she.
"Fine, Christiansen. If you answer one more question about your mystery woman, I will consider backing off." Caitlin said with a mischievous smile.
"I don't think I'm going to like answering, but if it will stop the questions, go ahead."
"I said I'll consider backing off, Christiansen," She clarified. "When did you first meet her?"
He paused for a moment. "Five years ago. Or, it will be five years ago in a month."
"You remember the exact date?" Caitlin said, a little shocked. "She must've left quite an impression on you."
"I met her shortly before I began training to become a knight. The first time I met her, I was at work," She didn't need to see Christiansen's face to determine this was a treasured memory. "I worked in my grandparents shop at the time."
"The O'Doererys mentioned your grandparents owned a bakery." Assuming the store in question was still in business, Caitlin felt she should stop by and sample some of their food when this was over.
"Correct. So, I'm standing around eating, I turn around, and there she is," He said wistfully. "The most stunningly beautiful girl I've ever seen. She orders, pays for her food, and leaves."
She waited in silence for more details, wondering if Christiansen was too lost in the memory to continue speaking. "That's all?"
"She ordered a strawberries-in-snow. No, she only ordered one, so I suppose it's a strawberry-in-snow," He said plainly. "I saw her a few times after that, but we didn't speak much. I was too busy training and she was too busy, uh," Christiansen paused. "Doing her work. She has a very important position and it doesn't leave much time to talk with ordinary people."
While that was likely a decent approximation of the story, something told Caitlin that the knight was being evasive. There had to be more. To fall for someone that hard, and for the crush to foster for so many years, there was something Christiansen wasn't telling her. He needed to pay for trying to deceive her, but something else caught her attention. Through the trees, she saw they were coming up on a row of pristine thatch-roofed cottages flanked by a clock tower; it was the village of Eldaroon.
Trouble was, the village was totally abandoned. No shopkeepers moving inventory by horseback, no carefree child running with her puppy, not even a bothersome merchant. In the middle of the afternoon with cool, crisp weather and plenty of sunshine.
"Does it strike you as a bit odd no one's around?" Caitlin asked as Christiansen slowed Malcot.
"Maybe everyone had to go somewhere in a hurry." It sounded more like a question than a statement, but Caitlin still rolled her eyes.
"Perhaps they heard you were coming along and all fled in disgust. At least all the women." She added with a satisfied smile.
He let out an amused chuckle. "That's one possibility."
Truthfully, if the single women of the village heard Sir Christiansen was paying a visit, the stampede would've blazed past by now.
"Arakhum on High," She thought to herself. "Am I jealous of hypothetical women chasing after the big, stupid oaf I'm stuck with for some cursed reason? I don't care if he marries Cassandra Silvercloak." Caitlin squashed the pang of illogical jealousy as quickly as it emerged. Why would she care at all about who Christiansen dated?
Malcot brought them to the town center, a circular space demarcating sections of the village, at the center of which sat the brick clock tower. The world remained as still as the untroubled forest they just exited. Caitlin dismounted, still trying to make sense of the situation.
"This is Sir Jamie Christiansen of the King's Battalion," His deep voice called out from atop his trusty steed. "If you can hear me, you can come outside. There's no danger."
Caitlin was walking past the northern portion of the village when she made a horrible discovery.
In a patch of grass between cottages were two bodies.
Embroidered on all four shoulders was the same symbol as the mercenaries she and Christiansen encountered the night prior; a large white hand surrounding a black sword.
"Christiansen," She yelled back to her partner. "You may want to look at this."
She squatted down from a distance to have a look. One was a burly man with a salt-and-pepper beard and wrinkles slowly settling on his face, the other was a younger woman with blonde hair. There was no blood, no sword or dagger wounds, no arrows embedded in their bodies, not even a sign of a struggle. Were they poisoned? Fast acting poisons weren't too hard to find, but how did the townspeople get it into-
She barely had a moment to process Christiansen sprinting at her before he threw his arms around her and tackled her. He shifted his body so he landed on the ground, leaving Caitlin on top of his armor.
"What do you think you're doing you-" Caitlin said inches from his face, hundreds of thoughts racing through her mind. "Why did you do that?" While Christiansen's armor wasn't nearly as comfy as his tunic-covered chest, she wasn't entirely displeased with his sudden display of boldness. She didn't appreciate cuddling in public, but-
"That!" He pointed behind her.
Caitlin pushed herself off Christiansen's chest and looked behind her to find a man standing a few feet away from them.
Only something was horribly wrong with him; his tunic had been torn apart trying to contain his freakishly large muscles, pale blue veins in his neck and arms pulsated sickeningly, and his hunched back made him resemble a bear on its hind legs. The golem let out a bone-curdling scream and slowly lumbered towards the two.