Upon reaching Lady Anna’s room, Catharine sighed, and knocking on the door, she slid into the room quietly. Anna, turning from her desk, said, “Ah, Catharine, you’re here. Thomas found you sooner than I’d expected”, and she motioned to the two seats they had sat in the day before. Catharine replied, “He’s a fast runner, my Lady, I’ll say that for the man”, as she sat a moment after Lady Anna. Anna, laughing slightly, said, “Now, I’ve heard that you’ve volunteered to go on the mission with Edrelaos to get information about Doleatraya, Catharine. Is this true?” Catharine replied, “Yes, my Lady, it is true that I’ve agreed to it.” Anna said, “But... why, Catharine, when you know Doleatraya is not the safest place for a woman to be?” Catharine replied, “with all due respect, my Lady, it’s not the safest place for Edrelaos either, should he return. The Doleas Court will know by now that he’s in Eladreaya, and I’d be very surprised if they didn’t.” Anna sat back, regarding Catharine with a surprised expression on her face. “Alexander said you were patriotic. He forgot to say how patriotic you actually were,” Anna said, and Catharine, blushing slightly, looked down at her hands. “I also heard that you were invited to the ball that’s to be held in two weeks,” Anna added. Catharine replied, “That is also true, my Lady. I felt that having accepted the mission, I had no reason to refuse a ball, though balls are my worst nightmares.” Anna frowned, not understanding, and Catharine explained, “I sometimes get invited to a small ball in a sector hall. I always look terrible.” Anna smiled, and replied, “Well... I must say I totally disagree with you, seeing as you have far too pretty a face to look terrible at any event.” at this, Anna leaned forwards to put a hand on Catharine’s face, “but I think I can also say that you have no need to fear this ball. I’m going to help you find the perfect dress for you for this ball”. Catharine instantly began protesting, “oh, my Lady honestly, there’s no need –” but Anna, standing, replied, “no, Catharine. I insist, especially as Alexander seems to have taken a shine to you.” Catharine, subconsciously staring at Anna for a moment, blushed and then looked down at her hands. “What... are you not used to this sort of attention from a man?” Anna asked. Catharine replied quietly, “I... I’m afraid I’ve not experienced it, no, my Lady.” Anna smiled broadly and said, “Well, you’d better consider yourself lucky for the next two weeks.” Catharine replied, “I’m already considering myself lucky, my Lady, and I’m already missing those days when men paid me no attention.” Anna, grinning broadly, said, “Ooh, has my brother already tried to charm you? And from now on, you need only call me Anna.” Catharine replied, “well then, Anna, it’s not just your brother who’s been acting weird, it’s Edrelaos, too.” Anna’s expression became one of horror; sitting down, she said, “Edrelaos? But he’s ancient!” Catharine replied, “I know, but I don’t think he’s noticed it, or he’s noticed it, but doesn’t really care. I’m not interested in Edrelaos, but your brother... he’s a mystery, Anna, to put it quite frankly, and I don’t have the talent to let mysteries pass me by.” Anna smiled broadly, and replied, “Let me know when you’ve figured him out, because I’d love to know. I can never figure out what his intention in life is, and I’m sure that not only will you figure it out, but that you’ll have an influence on him as well.” Catharine smiled, blushing slightly again, and replied, “You have too much confidence in my abilities, Anna. I think this is one mystery I might not be able to solve lightly.” Anna nodded and said, “Has anyone warned you about his one most obvious vice?” Catharine replied, “About the talent he has on priding himself to be the most womanizing flirt in the country? Yes, Katie took the liberty of warning me, though I highly doubt I’ll end up won over by his charms. I try not to wear my heart on my sleeve.” Anna replied, “You sound like you’ve sworn yourself never to know a man.” Catharine replied, “Maybe Alexander would benefit from swearing an oath to that extent.” Anna replied, “He wouldn’t last a day under that sort of oath. He’s not exactly the priestly type.” The two women laughed together, their friendship becoming more firm. Catharine replied, “You know what? I think I knew that the moment I clapped eyes on him. And I think he’s picked out his next target, only this time he’s going to have competition for her.” They laughed, and Anna said, “You know what, Catharine? I think we are going to be very, very good friends.” Catharine replied, “We’ll only be the best of friends, Anna, if you’ll allow me to insist that you call me Cathy.” Anna sat back, and said, “very well, as I’ve allowed you to call me Anna, it’s a small price to pay. Are we agreed that I shall help you find the perfect dress for the ball, and make Alexander and Edrelaos extremely jealous, then?” Catharine replied, “I think I could use some help in that, so in that case, we’re agreed, Anna.” They laughed together, and chatted for about another hour. Catharine then returned to Alexander’s room, and found Alexander sitting at his desk, reading a book. “How was your talk with my sister? I trust you both had fun,” he said, as he turned to see who had entered his room. Curtsying quickly, Catharine replied, “it was fine, your highness. We had a lot to talk about, as you no doubt noticed,” Catharine replied. Alexander replied, “I did notice. But I’m glad that you get along with my sister so very well. I wouldn’t have expected you to make such an impression on your second day.” Catharine half smiled, and Alexander was about to add something when there was a small knock on the door, and Katie’s head came around the door. “Forgive me, your highness, but Matthias needs Catharine desperately down on the kitchens,” Katie said. Catharine, who had looked round at Katie, looked back at Alexander. He nodded to the door, at Katie and said, “Knowing Matthias, it’ll probably be to do with your cupcakes. You’d better hurry – it’s not a good idea to keep a chef waiting.” Catharine curtsied quickly, and as she reached the door, Alexander said, “Cathy.” She looked round at him and he went on, “you’re a remarkable young woman.” Catharine blushed and curtsying quickly, she disappeared through the doorway. Katie, who had been waiting outside and had overheard this, stared at Catharine, and once they were around the corner, they both laughed at the look on Catharine’s face. “A remarkable young woman, wow,” Katie said, and Catharine replied, “he’s probably just trying to charm me for later.” They both laughed again, and Katie said, “You don’t think he’s handsome then, Cathy?” as they entered the kitchens. Catharine replied, “I think he’s got his charms, but that he’s using them on the one woman who might be immune to them.” Katie said sarcastically, “oh, so that’s what all your blushing was. I thought it was because you’d never had this sort of attention from a man before.” Catharine looked down at her hands and Katie said, “What.... have you never actually had this sort of attention from a man before?” Catharine replied, “I haven’t, no. Which is why, you’re going to have to help me, as Anna is determined to make both Edrelaos and Alexander extremely jealous when I arrive at the ball looking like the goddess Anna should look like.” Katie stared at Catharine for a moment, and then she said, “Well, I have to say this, but Anna is showing you a lot of favour at the moment. I think she sees something of herself in you.” Catharine replied, “Yes well, we’re not here in the kitchen to talk about that. We need to find Matthias”. At that moment, Matthias came over to them and said, “Cathy, Katie, thank the gods you’re here. We need some cupcakes baked in the next hour.” Catharine replied, “Well, how about something different this time? Cause cupcakes aren’t the only things I can bake, Matthias!” Matthias said, “Well, if you can bake enough of something in an hour to feed the King, the prince, Lord Edrelaos and a hall of soldiers, then please go ahead.” Katie said, “And don’t forget, Matthias, dinner isn’t until in two hours time.” Matthias said, “oh yeah”, and bustled away as someone called his name. Catharine and Katie laughed, and turning to the work surface where they had worked to bake the soldiers’ afternoon break, Katie asked, “What’re you going to make now, Cathy?” Catharine replied, “brownies, Katie, and again with a secret recipe. Seeing as you’re going to be working with me, there’s no harm in you learning the recipe.” Katie said, “I take it as read that I’ll have to be sworn to secrecy.” Catharine replied, “You’re beginning to know me very well, Katie. Don’t give Alexander any tips on how to charm me, OK – it’d only give him more confidence in his skills, which right now, are having zilch effects on me.” Katie replied, “You have a lot of confidence in your immunity to men, Cathy. Should I remind you of this moment when you end up the victim to his charms?” Catharine replied, “it’d probably be a good way of saying ‘I told you so,’ Katie, so I give you leave to tell me that when I have a broken heart. Besides, I’ve liked many a stupider man.” They laughed, and continued to chat and joke while they baked. By the time the two hours was up, Katie and Catharine had made about three dozen batches of brownies between them. Catharine, wiping her hands on a cloth hanging from her apron ties, stood next to Katie and said, “Wow... we worked hard”, to which Katie simply raised her hand in a high five, and they high fived. Matthias joined them, and said, “Well done, ladies. I think the soldiers will love them”; Catharine replied, “I hope they do, this’s the first time I’ve used this recipe.” Katie said, “You coulda told me earlier, Cathy!” Catharine replied, “but then we’da been stuck making cupcakes, and if people get the same thing over and over, they eventually get bored of it. That’s what I’ve learned in my experience”, and stepping forwards, she began putting the brownies on trays. Matthias shrugged at Katie, and said, “Cathy, I’ll let you know when you and Katie can take them out. And Katie, try NOT to dance to the music, OK – however tempting it is, you almost dropped the bread last time.” Catharine laughed and Katie said, “OK, Matthias, that was because one of the soldiers stuck his leg out, not because I was dancing.” Catharine cut in, “well, when you’re dancing, you tend not to see those sorts of things.” Katie replied, “And you’re supposed to be supporting me against this guy, Cathy”. They laughed, and Katie helped Catharine sort out the brownies. Not long after this, Matthias shouted from the far side of the kitchen, “OK, Cathy and Katie take the brownies through. The soldiers are getting desperate to see you two.” Catharine, balancing a tray on her hip, said, “Something tells me Matthias thinks we shoulda stayed away from the soldiers.” Katie, balancing a second tray on her hip, replied, “Well, it wouldn’t surprise me if he does think that. Are you ready – oh, and if I start dancing, save your own reputation and don’t dance.” Catharine replied, “And leave your reputation in ruins? No – I’ll dance right alongside you”, and she grinned wickedly at the look on Katie’s face. They both went out through the side door and the soldiers cheered briefly when the two women emerged. Catharine smiled a small smile and as they both stopped by the end of the high table, Catharine said, “I’ll do the high table. You start on this side”; she motioned to the left hand table, and went on, “if I finish on the high table with extras, I’ll go onto the tables over there”, and she pointed to the other side of the room. Katie nodded, and as she moved down the left table, Catharine bobbed a swift curtsy to the high table. Stepping up some small steps to it, she set down several plates of brownies. “What happened to the cupcakes, Catharine?” Edward and Alexander asked simultaneously, and Catharine replied, “I tried a new recipe, sirs, for brownies. If soldiers get the same thing for too long, they tend to grow tired of it.” Edward looked at the table where Katie had handed out the brownies, and replied, “I think your new recipe is going down very well, Catharine.” Catharine, her cheeks colouring slightly, replied quietly, “thank you, your majesty”, and bobbing another curtsy, she moved away to the right hand table. Several soldiers chorused simultaneously, “hello, Cathy”, and smiling, she replied, “hello boys. It’s a different recipe this time – chocolate brownies. Enjoy” and she headed down to the end of the table. It was a similar story here, only it was not a small number, but most of the end of the table who chorused, “hey, Cathy”, and she grinned broadly. “Hello, boys, how are you all doing? A different recipe this time, but hopefully you’ll still like it. They’re chocolate brownies, so... enjoy,” she said, and as she turned, her gaze met Katie’s, and three drummers began drumming out a beat. The two women grinned at each other, and as Catharine began walking slowly towards the side door, Katie subconsciously began grape vining. Catharine grinned, and laughed as she began grape vining as well. Katie looked down at Catharine’s feet, and Catharine said, “I’m not sacrificing your reputation for mine”, as they reached the end of the high table. They stopped, stamping their left feet together, and the two tables of soldiers applauded loudly. Catharine and Katie turned, and curtsying deeply, they turned and as they headed to the side door, they raised their hands and high fived. Edward laughed, and said, “those two are going to be the best of friends, aren’t they, Anna?” Anna replied, “I agree totally. They are almost like sisters, in a way, father. Don’t you agree, Alexander?” Alexander looked up at her after a moment’s hesitation and replied, “Oh, yes. They’ll definitely be the best of friends, there’s no doubt about that.” As the two women entered the kitchens, they burst out laughing, and Matthias said, “You didn’t dance, did you Katie?” Katie replied, “And I wasn’t alone, either.” Catharine added, “She didn’t get tripped up, this time, and we actually got applauded!” Matthias smiled as Katie began laughing hysterically, and Catharine said, “don’t mind her, she’s hyper.” Matthias said, “Anyway, more beer needs to be taken out. Seeing as Katie’s busy dying by death of the giggles, Cathy, can you take the beer out - just to the three tables?” Katie, who had just calmed down, burst into laughter again, and Catharine replied, “I don’t think I have a choice, Matthias”, and taking the large tray with several large jugs of beer, she pushed the side door open with her hip. Several of the soldiers whooped, and Catharine grinned broadly as she passed the end of the high table. Curtsying, she approached the high table, and Edward asked thoughtfully, “where do you live, Catharine?” Catharine replied, “In Edreanson Street, your majesty, on the outskirts of the city”, as she refilled his goblet and set the jug down on the table in front of him. “But that’s easily an hour away,” Anna exclaimed, and Catharine replied, “it is, Lady, but I leave early enough to miss the usual traffic.” Alexander asked, “What are your parents’ jobs?” Catharine replied, “My father’s a baker, your highness. My mother is – she died two winters ago.” There was an awkward silence in the midst of the buzz of conversation; curtsying quickly, Catharine said quietly, “excuse me”, and left, heading to the table of soldiers to the right. They cheered as she approached, and she grinned broadly. Setting down several jugs of beer along the table, she did the same with the other table, and disappeared through the side door without incident. Soon, the soldiers began to leave in small groups; Catharine, Katie and Thomas came out to tidy up the tables. Alexander, who was standing talking with his father, Anna, and Edrelaos, looked over and seeing Catharine, he excused himself and walking towards her, he said, “Catharine.” Looking up from where she was stacking plates onto a tray, Catharine bobbed a swift curtsy, and as he slowed to a halt in front of her, Alexander said, “Forgive me. When I enquired after... I had no idea your mother was dead, Catharine. Forgive me.” Catharine looked down briefly, and then looking up at him, she replied quietly, “there’s nothing to forgive, sire. I overreacted, so the fault is mine.” Katie called, “Cathy! Matthias says he doesn’t want to take too long here, so could you kindly get a move on?” Catharine nodded at Katie, and curtsying quickly to Alexander, she stepped away from him to the side door and disappeared with the tray she had loaded. Alexander stood motionless a moment, and Anna, who was behind him, touched his elbow gently; looking round, he smiled and left the hall with his father, sister and his guest. Over the next week and a half, Catharine and Alexander spent small moments getting used to each other’s company, as it was clear from the night Alexander had mentioned Catharine’s mother that there was no established friendship between them. Before long, they were on nickname terms as Cathy and Alex, although Catharine always called Alexander “sir” or “sire” or “your highness”. In the evening about three days before the ball, Alexander entered his room to find Catharine wiping down the surface of the large desk he had in the corner. “Hello, sir,” she said, looking up briefly. Alexander replied, “Don’t I always tell you to just call me Alex?” Catharine flashed him a brilliant smile and replied, “Yes, well, I don’t want to lose my job, sire, so I highly doubt it’s going to happen.” Alexander said, after a moment’s consideration, “I suggest a compromise. You call me Alex whenever we’re alone, and you can call me sire whenever there are people with us. And that doesn’t count for the ball”, he added as an afterthought. Catharine replied, “That sounds like a sensible compromise, si... Alex.” Alex half smiled, and Catharine, smiling a small smile, returned her attention to cleaning the desk. They were silent a moment, and then there was a small knock on the door. Anna came in, and asked, “Well? Have you asked her, Alex?” Catharine, looking up at both of them, asked, “Asked me what?” Alexander, looking back at Catharine, replied, “Anna and I were planning on going for a ride and picnic tomorrow, and we were hoping you’d join us.” Catharine’s eyes looked briefly to Anna, who nodded a single, small nod, and Catharine, looking back at Alexander, replied, “Of course, sir. I will join you tomorrow – what time do we leave?” Anna replied, “we were thinking about eight o’clock at the latest, weren’t we, Alex?” Alexander replied, “yes – that is, if you can get in before that time, Cathy?” Catharine replied, “as long as I don’t oversleep, then I see no reason why I shouldn’t make it, sir.” Alexander smiled, and they all looked at the window as Katie shouted, “CATHY!” from outside in the courtyard. Catharine opened the window and asked, “What is it?” Katie pointed to the courtyard gates and replied, “Your horse, Alexis, has escaped! I don’t know where he’d be going, do you have any idea?” Catharine replied, “Yeah, back to my house. I’d go back and get him, but it’s so close to finishing... I can always walk, it’s no problem. I’ve walked the distance before.” Alexander said, “Anyway, you can finish up here, and then you may go home, Cathy.” Catharine nodded, and said, “Thank you, sire.” Alexander left, and Anna, looking over her shoulder to make sure he was really gone, looked back at Catharine and said, “He’ll probably try and get to you tomorrow. Are you sure you’re ready for it?” Catharine smirked up at the princess and replied, “I was born ready, Anna. Just hope that I get a good night’s sleep, cause otherwise my immunity’s going to be pretty much rock bottom.” Anna replied, “Then I hope you get a very, VERY good night’s sleep. Cause Edrelaos is probably going with us.” Catharine made a strangled moan, causing Anna to laugh, as she said, “Why is it everyone in this castle is trying to cause me death by over imposing men?” Anna smiled broadly, and left. When Catharine returned home, she found Alex her horse waiting outside the front door. Grabbing his reins, she tapped his nose with her hand, a basket looped over her arm, and she told him, “You know what I’ve told you about running away, boy. You’re not supposed to run away – and this time you were seen.” Alexis snorted, and Catharine took him into his paddock. When she entered the house, she found that Tobias had discovered her address, and was talking with her father. She smiled as she found this out and said, “Tobias! I didn’t know you knew where I lived,” as she approached the pair of them. “And you never told me that you worked in the palace kitchens,” her father replied. “Yes, well, when did you ask?” Catharine replied. Tobias finished talking to Catharine’s father as she quickly cooked up a meal; he declined to stay, saying that he had a meal waiting for him at his house, and he left soon after. Catharine said, “Father, I’ll be leaving early tomorrow morning – I’m meant to be accompanying the prince, his sister and another out into the forest for the day.” Harold said, “But you cannot be serious! You know of your heritage, Cathy, and you SWORE to me, you would never enter the forest unless there was no other choice.” Catharine replied, “But... you have felt the changes, just as I have, father. You know what is to happen, and it can only go in our favour if I do this. You know there is no other way; no other choice.” Harold bowed his head, and Catharine, stepping towards him, added, “you know what I say is true, father. If they do not help us, then this war is lost before it is even begun.” Harold looked up at his daughter, who was the same height as he, and said, “But you know how this war ends, Cathy. You know the sacrifice you must make to the prince. Can you bring yourself to that – not just to the prince, but to yourself?” Catharine smiled, and stepping back, she replied, “You never know, father. Maybe the impossible may yet come of this – we shall never know until the time comes.” Harold nodded, and they said no more on the subject for the rest of the evening. That night, Catharine sat for what seemed like hours by a window, looking up to the castle. Alexander was also leaning on his windowsill, looking down to the northern quarter of the city, where Edreanson Street was. He sighed, and looked down at his hands, before looking up at the moon. The next morning, Catharine rode into the palace courtyard on Alexis, wearing a plain, woollen shirt, and her brown, sculpted trousers as though she had been born to wear a man’s clothes. There were several wolf whistles as Alexis came to a halt, and Catharine simply smiled broadly. Thomas stood by Alexis’s right foreleg, and Catharine slid her leg over Alexis’s neck; Thomas held his arms up and taking Catharine by her hips, he helped her down. “Thank you, Thomas,” Catharine said, and hurried up the front steps as Thomas tied Alexis’s reins to a ring set in the wall of the courtyard. She reached Alexander's room, and knocking on the door, she entered. Alexander stood on the other side of his bed, naked from the waist up, and just about to pull a shirt on. “Ah, Catharine, you’re here,” he said, and Catharine, curtsying quickly, replied, “yes, si... Alex. As you see, I didn’t oversleep.” Alex smiled at her, and said, “And as I noticed, you almost forgot our compromise from yesterday.” Catharine smiled, looking down slightly. Alexander pulled his shirt on, and said, “Anna should be joining us with Edrelaos in about five minutes”, just as a knock sounded on the door. Catharine opened the door and Anna and Edrelaos entered. “I am glad to see that you’re coming with us, Catharine,” Edrelaos said, giving her a confident smile. Catharine’s eyes flicked to look at Anna, who smiled a small smile. They all then left Alexander’s room, and before long, Alexander and Edrelaos were out of earshot. Anna and Catharine walked together in silence for a few moments, and then Anna linked arms with Catharine and said, “I don’t know if you noticed, Cathy, but Edrelaos seems intent on winning your trust as well as your heart.” Catharine replied wisely, “I can’t say I blame the man, Anna, when he’s to be working with me to gain information from the Doleas Court in three day’s time. He needs my trust if we’re going to work as an effective team. And besides – he’s risking his life just as much, if not more by returning to Doleatraya. As you know by now, the Doleas Court should know that Edrelaos is in Eladreaya, and when he returns with me, he is going to have to come up with a very, very convincing reason as to why he was here. I’m inclined to believe that he’ll say he took me from a town someway between the city and the border with Doleatraya, as a part of his pre – war spoils, in light of the destruction wars always cause.” Anna said, “Has anyone told you to become a scholar lately, because you are being too intelligent for your own good right now about something this dangerous?” Catharine laughed, and replied, “I am aware of that, but no, nobody’s asked me to become a scholar. Besides, are you sure you shouldn’t be talking to Alexander about his habits?” By this time, they had reached the top of the courtyard steps, and Anna and Catharine laughed. Alexander looked up at them just before he mounted Zanzibar, and Catharine couldn’t help but lock gazes with him for the briefest of moments. She then looked to where Thomas was holding the reins of her horse, Alexis. He was standing by the right hand banister of the courtyard stairs, and Catharine looked to Anna, smiling mischievously. Anna grinned, and said, “Cathy, it’s a bad –”, only she was too late to finish the sentence; Catharine had already jumped sprightly onto the banister, and she now slid down it, to jump lightly onto Alexis’s back. The stallion reared slightly, forcing Thomas to let go of his reins. Catharine sat the rear perfectly, and Alexander asked, “Are you alright?” Catharine replied, “Never better, sire. Come on, Lady, we can’t really wait all day! The forest never looks better than when the sun’s rising between the trees.” Anna hurried down the stairs, and soon the four of them were all on their horses. Thomas approached Catharine with a haversack that was clearly bulging, and several wineskins. Catharine took these with a smile of thanks and slipping the haversack straps on her shoulders, she tied the wineskins to her saddle. As she did so, her leg that was closest to Alexander shifted up, pulling up the saddle flap, and exposed the hilt of a dagger. Alexander noticed, and frowning, he chose not to pass a comment at that moment. Straightening up, Catharine said, “ready when you are, sire. I won’t be here most of the day, Thomas. Give the boys my regrets – they’ll miss the cupcakes, knowing them.” Thomas replied, “Will do, Cathy. Be careful out there – you never know what could happen in those forests”, as he stepped back. Catharine smiled down at him, and Alexander said, “Cathy, lead the way, please.” Anna trotted in front of Alexander as they left the palace courtyard, and Catharine turned Alexis with ease to the left. They soon reached the marketplace, and here, it became clear that Catharine was in her element.