Traffic out of the city was slow, owing to an accident with a cart, and as they waited to get through the city gates, children of all ages would run up to Catharine shouting her nickname with genuine glee. Several of the older boys got together in a small group, and Catharine, rolling her eyes, said, “oh, no. Not this again – they’ve done this every time.” Anna asked, “What’ll they do?” just as one of the boys approached. He went a furious scarlet as Catharine smiled at him, and held a small bouquet of small woodland flowers. She smiled again, and took the bouquet, saying, “thank you. Tell your friends I said thank you, Matt and tell them again, they shouldn’t.” The boy nodded, and scurried away again. Catharine stood up in her saddle and tucked the bouquet firmly under the headband of Alexis’s reins. “Admirers, Cathy?” Anna asked, smirking as Catharine turned to face her, a half smile on her face. “Please, Lady – I have enough of those to last me several lifetimes,” she replied. They soon left the city and Alexander and Edrelaos came out from behind the two women to ride beside them. “Have you ever been outside the city walls, Cathy?” Alexander asked. “Yes, sire – every summer. I... I go down to my Uncle’s house, which is in Dunsienin,” Catharine replied. Edrelaos asked, “That’s near the border with Doleatraya, isn’t it?” Catharine replied, “It’s about halfway to the border, Lord Edrelaos. That’s... four days ride from here, complete with stops for the night at hostels.” Edrelaos nodded, and they all moved into a canter. Alexis and Zanzibar instinctively speeded away from the others, and Alexander and Catharine reached the forest far ahead of Anna and Edrelaos. They cantered down into a large clearing, and pausing next to a small stream, Catharine looked downstream, and dismounted. Alexander followed, and tying the reins of both their horses to a low hanging branch, they moved together into the forest, after Catharine had taken the wineskins and tied them around her waist. She also took her dagger with her, slipping it into the haversack when she thought Alexander wasn’t looking. Before long, they had found the source of the stream, not far to their left: a small lake surrounded by trees. There was a clear patch of blue sunlit sky visible over the lake, and Catharine met Alexander’s gaze with a mischievous smile. Slipping the haversack straps off of her shoulders, she undid the wineskin straps and leaving these at the base of a tree, the two of them waded into the shallows until the water came halfway up to their knees. Catharine suddenly bent down and splashed water at Alexander, grinning furiously. Alexander coughed as he unintentionally inhaled some, and then splashed back at Catharine. She pulled a shocked face as it soaked through her top, and kicked her foot through the water at him. When they stamped out of the water ten minutes later, they were both completely soaked. Catharine squeezed water out of the base of her top, and said, “Where do you suppose Anna or Edrelaos are, Alex?” Alexander replied, “I’m not sure – although I don’t like the idea of Edrelaos being alone with Anna at all.” Catharine agreed, “Neither do I. I’ve met men like him before, and I c’n recognise the signs fairly well – he’s a definite womaniser. A flirt too, although I’m not sure about that part.” Alexander said, picking up one of the wineskins, “you seem pretty sure of yourself when it comes to men, Catharine.” Catharine replied, “Well... there’s my small fan club in the market, there’s my slightly larger fan club in the army, there’s you, and there’s Edrelaos. And then there’s the man who proposed to me because he thought I was THE pretty woman who could bring him a better standing in court. Lord... Selstiern, I think he was.” Alexander laughed slightly and said, “So YOU’RE the one who turned down Selstiern. I don’t blame you for turning him down, Cathy. I think it did him a lot of good.” Catharine replied, “If you’re referring to his oversized ego before I turned him down, then I don’t disagree with you, Alex. He came across pompous and regarded me as some possession. I hate men who are like that.” Alexander smirked, and said, “I think I could tell that a few days ago.” Catharine looked at Alexander in mild surprise for a moment, and smiling, she looked away and replied, “Well, I didn’t think I was that easy to read.” Alexander replied, “You’re not that easy to read. It’s just... sometimes... I see different sides of you, sometimes. It’s a complicated thing to explain.” Catharine had looked back at Alexander by the time he had finished, with a raised eyebrow. “I think I understand,” she replied, and took the wineskin from him. Her hand landed on his, and their eyes met for a full moment before Catharine pulled her hand away from his. She took a long drink, and looked back at Alexander; she found him watching her, an odd expression on his face. “What’s the problem?” she asked, and Alexander didn’t reply for a moment. He then opened his mouth, closed it again, and then stepping towards Catharine, he pressed her chin upwards with his fingers and pressed his lips firmly to her mouth. Catharine froze completely, as everything around her seemed to disappear into non existence; there was only Alexander and her. Her hand subconsciously came up to slide behind his head, as she kissed him back; all too soon, it was impossible to tell who was kissing whom. Suddenly, Catharine pulled away, taking a few steps back. It was as though she had just realised who she was kissing, and her hand came up to rest her fingers gently on her lips, before covering her mouth completely. “Alex, Catharine! There you are – Edrelaos and I were...” Anna said as she came over a small hill; her voice trailed off as she saw Catharine’s expression. Catharine looked from Anna to Alexander, and then looked up at the sun. She moved past Anna, saying awkwardly, “I’m just... gonna... find Edrelaos.” Once out of their eyesight, Catharine ran as fast as she could for a few minutes, and then she stopped in a clearing. She paced briefly, and then sat at the base of a tree. She had kissed the one man who was not only her master and her employer, but a prince! How could she have been so STUPID!? Feeling restless, Catharine came to her feet again, and began pacing again, not noticing Edrelaos standing behind her. “Catharine,” he said, in a low voice. Catharine jumped slightly, noticing that he was standing there, and said, “Lord Edrelaos”; she bobbed a quick curtsy. Edrelaos stepped down the hill into the clearing, saying, “You seem troubled, Catharine. Can I help?” Catharine backed away a few steps, replying, “No... No I’m fine, Edrelaos. I’m just... I’m just thinking ahead to the mission, that’s all.” Edrelaos smiled, and said, “But there’s something else bothering you, too; not about me though... it’s about Alexander, isn’t it?” Catharine shook her head, and replied, “No... No, why would it be Alexander who’s bothering me?” Edrelaos’s head went to one side as he contemplated her for a full moment without saying anything; then he said, “Because you’re wondering how he’ll take the news that you have Potential.” Catharine smiled uncomprehendingly, and replied, “Potential? You think I have Potential to be a witch? That’s not likely, Edrelaos.” Edrelaos clicked his fingers, and blue green fire played around his hand. Without warning, he thrust out his hand to Catharine and a ball of this fire the size of Catharine’s head flew at her. She did not even flinch, but a similar sized ball of golden fire appeared in the air in front of her, and before long, the blue green fire was completely gone. The golden fire floated in the air in front of Catharine’s face, and then she waved her hand in a single jerky movement, and the fire was extinguished. She did not meet Edrelaos's gaze for a moment, and then meeting his gaze briefly, she turned away and put a hand on the trunk of a tree behind her. “How long have you known?” she asked. Edrelaos replied, “for a while, now, Catharine.” Catharine turned back to him, her hand still on the tree, and asked, “Where’s your partner?” Edrelaos smiled, and a faint shimmering began at his left knee. The shimmering went to the ground, and then disappeared to reveal a chocolate Labrador. Catharine smirked, and Edrelaos asked, “what about yours?” Catharine smirked again, and looking to the side, she whistled long and loudly, with two fingers in her mouth. After a moment, there was the sound of galloping hooves, and Alexis trotted into the clearing; his coat shimmered, and dissolved into a gleaming white coat. Edrelaos stared at Alexis for a moment, until the horse looked at the man and said, quite clearly, “what?” Edrelaos looked at Catharine, and said, “you’re one of... one of the Serckreans?” Catharine stroked Alexis’s nose and replied, “Yes. I’ve yet to make my choice.” Edrelaos said, “Then you have to make it before the war comes. You know as well as I do the longer you take to make your choice, the more impact it will have on this war, and on him.” Catharine’s smile disappeared rapidly from her face. Edrelaos’s mouth did not move, yet she heard him clearly: - You know what I’m talking about, Catharine. - No, I don’t. I’ve yet to make my choice, remember, so nobody’s told me of what this war will bring. - You must make your choice soon. And he will be the influence of your decision. There was a brief vision in Catharine’s mind: a brief tangle of limbs, a hand brushing across skin, and then it was gone. - His desire has already begun, Catharine. You know of who I talk of. Catharine turned away from Edrelaos, and stopped beside the tree behind her, a hand on it as if for balance. - Why must you tell me this now, Edrelaos? I am not cut out to be the decider of wars. - And yet the choice will be yours, before the war is even begun. - It cannot be my choice, Edrelaos. - Then both sides will fight this war for eternity. - Don’t over exaggerate - I do not over exaggerate, Catharine. Catharine’s head came up, and she said, “Alexander and Anna are coming. Alexis, as you were before.” Alexis replied, “I hate this shape. It’s so tiresome”, as he reassumed the saddle, reins and his black coat. Edrelaos’s Labrador disappeared, and they both turned as Alexander and Anna appeared. While Catharine and Edrelaos had been talking telepathically, Anna had been having a go at Alexander. “Are you insane?” she had hissed at him as he had paced on the lake bank, “Catharine could well resign tomorrow, and you know as well as I do that Father will want to know why.” Alexander had replied, “I know what I’m doing, Anna. Keep your nose out of other people’s business.” Anna had given him an odd look for a moment and then she had retorted calmly, “for your sake, I hope you do know what you’re doing, Alexander.” But now, Alexander did not meet Catharine’s gaze. “Anyone know what the time is?” Edrelaos asked, in an attempt to ease the awkwardness of the moment. Catharine replied, “ah...about midday, sir.” Anna said, “I think we can have that picnic in about an hour, can’t we?” Catharine made to reply, when drums thundered throughout the forest. Catharine whipped around, her eyes darting from tree to tree and then she looked at Edrelaos, who looked back at her, concern in his eyes. “What’s that for?” Catharine replied, “It’s the Serckreans, sire.” Anna asked, “Can you understand what the drums mean, Catharine?” Catharine turned away from Anna replying, “I’ll try, but I can’t promise anything.” Her face went blank for a moment, and her gaze became distant and unfocussed. They were all silent for a moment. Catharine did not move at all for fully five minutes, and then she said, “We should get out of here – there’s a group of Serckrean soldiers that’re going to be coming through here.” Looking to the side, she pointed to the left and said, “You should go up that way”, and that was as the first soldier appeared. Anna, Alexander and Edrelaos moved in the direction Catharine pointed. The soldier called, “eldrensi ajella achuteji?” Catharine pressed her right fist to her left palm as a form of greeting and replied, “Eleja poredras aunsijetro, treijo dethresak wretros.” The soldier approached Catharine, and Edrelaos said, “Catharine, what’re you doing?” Catharine looked at him and made a shushing noise, and then she looked back at the soldier as the soldier stopped in front of her; Alexander, Anna and Edrelaos suddenly realised that the soldier was in fact a woman. The soldier gasped and said, “Catharine – estrendri aer wretu?” Catharine frowned for a moment, and then she smiled broadly and said, “Astridia – wea, estrendi mriteyu. Hrateja mriteyu majesuzue”; neither Alexander nor Anna nor Edrelaos understood what was being said between Catharine and her friend. The soldier looked at Alexander, Anna and Edrelaos, and Catharine turned to them, saying, “This is a good friend of mine, Astridia. Astridia, this’s Prince Alexander of Eleaya, and his sister, Princess Anna, and Lord Edrelaos.” Astridia curtsied quickly and Alexander asked, “Catharine, how do you know a Serckrean?” Catharine replied, “Astridia is the one who taught me to speak Serckreas, sire.” Astridia replied, “You’re the fastest person to learn the language I know, Cathy.” Catharine replied, “And that’s all thanks to the teacher, Astridia! Anyway, what brings you outta Serckrea in your armour?” Astridia replied, “I’m on patrol today. The Thembrianas council demanded that someone with expertise went out to make sure the forest was in order. And it was until I found you.” Catharine stared at Astridia, her mouth open in mock shock, and then she said, “Oh, you have had it. Excuse me, sire – sir, Lady – I’ve got to teach this one a lesson”. bobbing a quick curtsy to Alexander, Anna, and Edrelaos, she ran after Astridia, shouting, “come back here, you cheeky monk!” Anna smirked mischievously, and then she ran after Catharine, saying, “Beat you two to Cathy and Astridia when they stop!” Alexander and Edrelaos looked at each other, and then simultaneously started after Anna. They then stopped for lunch; Astridia accepted Catharine’s invitation to join them, and all too soon, it was time for Catharine, Edrelaos, Alexander and Anna to return to the castle, as the sun began to set over the forest. As they passed through Edreanson Street, Catharine dismounted in front of her house, and said, “This is where I stop for the night. I’ll see you all tomorrow – good night.” Anna nodded, and smiled; Edrelaos raised his hand in farewell, and Alexander simply smiled a small smile. Catharine removed Alex’s saddle and reins, and he followed her to the paddock as the royal siblings and Edrelaos left in the direction of the castle. The next day, Catharine rode into the palace courtyard to find Anna saddling up her horse again. “You and I are going dress shopping today, Cathy,” she said as she saw Catharine dismount next to her. “Of course, Anna,” Catharine replied, and she mounted once more. Today, she was wearing a plain blue tunic with brown trousers, belted with a brown leather belt, from which hung a small money pouch. “I see you were anticipating the shopping trip,” Anna said, noticing the money pouch. “I’ve been saving my wages to get a few bits and pieces,” Catharine agreed, grinning broadly. “Then I hope you’ve got enough for the market on Dreskensil’s street,” Anna said, and grinned at the look of shock on Catharine’s face. “Dreskensil's street – oh no, honestly, Anna, you can treat me if you want but not that much! Everything on Dreskensil’s street is so expensive, too – honestly, don’t go to the trouble,” Catharine protested, but Anna said, “Who’s the one who gets the final say so?” Catharine fell silent, and Anna laughed, “Exactly. Come on – seeing as you are the one who is going to figure out my brother and have an influence on the man, I may as well give you an expensive helping hand.” Catharine grinned, and they were just about to go when Thomas reached the top of the courtyard steps and shouted, “Cathy!” as loud as he could. Catharine looked back at him, and Thomas tossed a small pouch to her. It should have missed completely, but Catharine still caught it in her hand. “Your wages for this week,” Thomas called, and weighing it in her hand, Catharine said, “feels like I’ve had a pay rise. You don’t suppose your father’s guessed at what I’m trying to do, Anna?” Anna replied, “I hope he hasn’t, because then he’ll know it’s me who’s behind it, and will have a go at me about it.” Catharine laughed, and they headed to Dreskensil's street. Catharine looked around eagerly, and Anna said, “Have you never been here before?” Catharine shook her head, and replied, “No, this is a first time for me to be here, Anna – and I think I like it already, if truth be told.” They left their horses tied to wall hoops, and Catharine said, once Anna had dismounted, “following you, Anna; I’ve no idea where the best shops are.” Anna smiled, and said, “Come on, then. There’s this tailor I know very well – makes the most gorgeous dresses, and makes them in a fashion nobody else has for six or seven months.” Catharine nodded, and they entered the shop where this tailor worked. “Hello, my Lady,” said the tailor, who introduced himself to Catharine as Serdresin. “Hello, Serdresin. This is Catharine, a very good friend of mine, who is in need of a new dress for a ball tomorrow evening. Can you manage something?” Anna said, smiling as she introduced Catharine to Serdresin. “I’m not flooded with business, my Lady, so if I may take some measurements, and ask a few questions, then I may get started straight away,” Serdresin replied. Anna said, “I knew you’d do it. Catharine, go with Serdresin – oh, Serdresin, if you could organise the jewellery with Dermiendi, then that would be amazing. He’ll give his usual discount, no doubt, so here’s the money for him. Catharine, when you’re done, come and find me, and we’ll move on.” Catharine nodded, and about ten minutes later, Catharine and Anna walked out of Serdresin’s shop. “You’re going to look like an angel; Edrelaos and Alexander will NOT be able to take their eyes off of you,” Anna said. Catharine replied, rather uneasily, “um... Anna, about yesterday, when... when you found me and Alexander...” Anna, looking around at Catharine, replied, “don’t worry – he does it to every woman he tries to charm, Cathy. He always tries to get in before his target gets a choice, so I’m used to it.” Catharine nodded, still looking slightly uneasy, and Anna, resting a hand on Catharine’s shoulder, said, “Hey, Cathy, I’m not mad. I understand that he threw you and left you a bit surprised, but honestly – I’ve walked in on my brother kissing a woman many times before – it’s just this time he made it personal, and I’m determined to teach him a lesson in the end.” Catharine smiled a small smile, and Anna said, “Come on – I am in desperate need of some new shoes, and I’m sure we can find some gorgeous ones to go with your dress for tomorrow.” Catharine smiled broadly at this, and took Anna’s extended hand. “I feel like you’re my sister by now,” Anna said as they entered the shop Anna recommended. “Well, as far as you’re concerned, to me, you’re the sister I never ever had,” Catharine replied. Anna smiled broadly and Catharine added, “But that could actually become a possibility, should Alexander ever be insane enough to choose me.” Anna smiled broadly, and replied, “I could definitely do with having a sister like you, Cathy. You and I have a lot in common.” They turned simultaneously, each holding a pair of shoes, and about to ask opinions. The pair Catharine held was black, with a leather strip going up the foot with diamonds going up this strap. They were high heels, with a back to the heel, and Anna said, “for example... we are alike in the fact that we both have a good sense of shoe fashion!” Cathy looked at the shoes Anna held, which were the same style, but in white and with rubies, and replied, “You know what, Anna? I don’t disagree with you there – those are amazing!” Anna said, “You know what? How about we get both pairs, and break them in tomorrow morning, and then I’ll wear that pair tomorrow evening, while you wear this pair. It might not go, but what the hell – maybe my luck’ll rub off on you.” Catharine looked down at her feet and replied, “At this rate, your luck will make me an exceptional dancer, Anna.” They laughed, and bought the shoes, along with a new pair of black leather boots for Catharine; they were flat heeled boots, with silver buckles around the tops. They spent most of the day shopping, and in the end, Catharine had more shopping than Anna. “Admit it, Anna – you spoilt me,” Catharine said as they rode into the palace courtyard. “I did not, and even if I did, then I’d be glad I did, because you could be a prospective sister in law,” Anna said, and Catharine, blushing furiously, replied, “I wish I had never made that remark now!” Anna laughed, and Alexander stepped out into the courtyard. Looking at the bulging saddlebags on Alexis’s saddle, Alexander called, “did you get enough shopping, Anna?” Anna and Catharine, looking at each, other, laughed gaily. Alexander waited patiently for a reply. Catharine replied in Anna’s defence, “are you sure that’s not my shopping, sire?” Anna and Catharine then laughed, and Alexander replied, “well... are you sure that some of it is Anna’s, Catharine?” Catharine replied, “Don’t worry, sire – the saddlebag closest to your sister is full of her things.” Hitting the one to her left gently, she said, “This one’s my stuff. We shared the money equally, though an – your sister, rather – spoilt me TOO much.” Anna replied, “I did NOT spoil you, Catharine – you’d never been to Dreskensil's street, so I decided to TREAT you, not spoil you. There’s a difference.” Catharine looked up at Alexander, raised an eyebrow and then replied to Anna, “what ever you say, my Lady.” Anna smirked and they dismounted simultaneously. Anna turned to Catharine, just as Catharine turned to look at Katie; looking under Alexis’s neck as Katie laughed, Catharine laughed with her, as did Anna. Alexander smiled, and Catharine soon left for her home, about three quarters of her savings on her belt.