The next day, Catharine stepped into Anna’s bedroom, and Anna said, “Oh, Cathy, there you are. Your dress is coming this afternoon, and my usual makeup person will be coming at six. He’ll be doing both of us, but I’ll have mine done when you’re having a bath. I’ll see you down there, OK?” Catharine replied, “Sounds like a plan. And hopefully, our little plan will work as well, eh?” Anna smiled broadly, and Catharine looked out of the window, to where Alexander was practising his swordsmanship. She then pulled on the white shoes with rubies, and went about her day wearing them. Few people noticed them; most of Catharine’s afternoon was devoted to cooking cupcakes and brownies. She was allowed to return to Anna’s room with Katie at six o’clock, and bumped into Serdresin, who was also Anna’s makeup artist. He smiled at Catharine and Katie, and entered Anna’s room after them. “Ah, Serdresin you’re here. Katie, can you go and help Catharine with her bath – Serdresin’ll give you the shampoos you need. Catharine, you don’t mind getting yourself into your dress, do you? Only Katie needs to go back and help with Matthias in the kitchens?” Catharine replied, “It’s a daily happening with me, Anna, I can sort myself out.” Anna smiled, and as Catharine and Katie went into the bathroom, Catharine asked, “Is it always this hectic with feasts and balls?”
Katie replied, “You have no idea, Catharine. Come on – I’ll sort out the water.” Catharine nodded, and began undoing the front of her dress. There was a small knock on the door and Katie opened the door slightly. Serdresin said, “This is Catharine’s dress for tonight.” Katie gasped, and looking at Catharine, her hands came through the door and revealed Catharine’s dress. Catharine gasped as well, her dress half undone, and put her hands to her mouth. “It’s going to suit you completely!” Katie said, and Catharine replied, “Anna must’ve told him something. I only told him that I like blue and silver as my two favourite colours!” Katie said, “how about we get on with the bath, and see how you look in it?” Catharine nodded, and about twenty minutes later, Catharine was looking at herself in a mirror. “It looks amazing!” Katie said, standing behind her. Catharine smiled and replied, “What’re the chances that Alexander will try to take me back to his room after this ball?” she looked round at Katie, and they both laughed. Catharine and Katie left the bathroom, and as Katie left, Serdresin turned to look at Catharine.
Catharine, looking down, said, “Another success, Serdresin, but how about makeup to make it your best success”; Serdresin grinned broadly once more and said, “you and I are going to be very good friends, Cathy. Sit down, and let me work my magic.” Catharine giggled slightly as she sat down. Catharine approached the Great Hall and Tobias said, “You’re glammed up, Cathy.” Catharine smiled, and replied, “thank you, Tobias. Care to let me in?” Tobias pushed the door open, and Catharine stepped into the Great Hall. Anna was the first to notice her as she approached the far end of the hall, where Edward was sitting with Alexander, greeting guests officially. Anna approached Catharine and said, “Oh, my gods, you look absolutely divine. Are you absolutely one hundred per cent sure you aren’t a goddess in disguise?” Catharine replied, “I just checked five minutes ago, I’m not a goddess Anna. You are the goddess here, because you look even better than me.” Anna smiled broadly, and said, “Go and talk to my father, then. I hope our plan goes according to plan.” Catharine smiled broadly, and stepped forwards in the short queue.
Before long, she reached the front and Edward, having been speaking briefly to Alexander, looked to Catharine and said, “ah, Catharine. You made it here, then?” Catharine curtsied, and replied, “Your majesty. Yes, I did make it here, as you see.” Edward looked at Catharine’s dress, and commented, “I see Anna took you to Serdresin’s shop to get your dress.” Catharine looked down at her dress again; it was a dark royal blue, with a faint shimmering effect to it. There was a silver circle over her stomach and solar plexus, which looked almost like the sun, only thin threads came off the silver circle and one such thread went up across her chest, and up the only shoulder strap, on her right shoulder from Edward's point of view. The skirt of the dress reached down to Catharine’s ankles. Alexander couldn’t help but stare as Catharine told Edward, “I’m very grateful to Anna for doing this for me. She’s taken to me very well.” Edward replied, “I should think so. You two are more alike than it might seem possible. And she likes you very much, Catharine. I can only hope you become the best of friends.”
Catharine replied, “If I may say so, sire, she’s like the sister I’ve never had. She helped me a lot on my first day here.” Edward replied, “I’m glad you see her that way. Anyway, enjoy yourself, Catharine.” Catharine curtsied, and replied, “Your majesty.” Looking to Alexander, she curtsied again and added, “Your highness”, and moved away into the crowd. Alexander’s eyes followed her until he lost her, and Edward put his hand on Alexander’s arm. “Pay attention, Alexander,” he said. Catharine soon found Anna once more, and she was swiftly introduced to four of Anna’s closest friends: Sophia, Lucy and Laura. Laura asked, “So, Cathy, how long has Alexander been showing interest in you?” Catharine smiled, laughed quickly and replied, “I wouldn’t call it interest, just... just a very overbearing friendship.” They all laughed and Sophia said, “he never paid that much attention to me, though, when he –” Alexander suddenly appeared in the crowds, and looked at them. They all curtsied quickly, as Alexander inclined his head towards them.
His eyes rested on Catharine last, and for the longest before he was called away by his father. “You see? He’s definitely interested in you,” Lucy said, and Catharine replied, “I can’t understand why.” Sophia commented, “Maybe they’ve found the one woman who could control his every whim through the power of love and made her his servant. What do you think, Anna?” Anna laughed and replied, “Catharine, you’re very pretty. Don’t underestimate beauty – it’s caught the attention of many a stupider person.” Catharine raised her eyebrows and agreed, “yes, especially e –” Edrelaos, stepping out from the crowd behind Catharine, said, “Catharine.” Catharine turned quickly, and curtsying, she said, “Lord Edrelaos” and quickly introduced Anna’s friends. Edrelaos inclined his head to each of them, and asked, “Catharine, will you do me the honour of dancing the next dance with me?” Catharine blinked quickly, and then inclining her head, she replied, “The honour would be mine, Lord Edrelaos.”
Edrelaos bowed slightly, and extended his hand to Catharine. Catharine looked to Anna and said in a low voice, “your luck had better have rubbed off.” She then took Edrelaos's hand, and followed him to the dance floor. She turned to face him, and took his other hand as the hand that held her left hand slid round her back, and her left hand went to his shoulder. “You have a good posture, Miss Catharine,” Edrelaos complimented as the music began. “A lot of invitations to small hall balls, and a lot of time with my aunt in ladette classes,” Catharine quipped, and Edrelaos laughed softly. “But with you, it is a natural posture, not like many ladettes I have met,” he replied, and dipped her quickly. “I have had a few years to let it become habit,” Catharine replied. “About the mission tomorrow, it may well come down to you being pre war spoils,” Edrelaos said, and Catharine replied, “Why does that not surprise me?” Edrelaos turned Catharine once and said, “You were expecting to pose as pre war spoils?” Catharine replied, “unwilling and extremely rudely, I can assure you. After all, it’s what the Doleas Court would expect from a supposedly uncivilised country girl, would they not?” Edrelaos said, “You have been planning this very thoroughly, Catharine.”
Catharine replied, “not by choice, I can assure you, but by habit. I take it there may well be some violence towards me involved?” Edrelaos imitated a phrase Catharine had just used: “not by choice, I can assure you.” Catharine laughed, and Alexander turned to look at her. Serdresin stood behind him, and said, “she is a very lively, beautiful young woman, isn’t she, your highness?” Alexander replied, “Indeed she is, Serdresin. Indeed... she is that and more.” Serdresin commented, “She would make anyone a very, very good wife. Indeed, I could say she would make anyone an excellent wife. But it is not my place to say this, your highness.” Alexander was not paying attention; he walked slowly around the dance floor, watching Catharine dance with Edrelaos. The music came to an end, and Catharine curtsied as Edrelaos bowed; they then applauded the musicians. As Catharine made to leave the dance floor with Edrelaos, Alexander stepped forwards and held a hand out to Catharine. Catharine stared at Alexander for a long moment, and silence fell. Catharine then curtsied, and turned back to the dance floor, taking Alexander’s hand.
Out of the corner of her eye, Catharine could see Anna, Sophia, Laura and Lucy talking together excitedly. As she turned to face Alexander, his hand slipped around her back, and their other hands met. The music began, and they moved together. “Are you nervous about the mission tomorrow?” Alexander asked. “I think the right expression is mixed emotions, sire,” Catharine replied, “but yes, I am slightly nervous.” Alexander replied, “If I were you, I’d be absolutely terrified.” Catharine replied, “But then terror gets out of control and causes a loss of efficiency, sire. It’s best to control it until you can be absolutely sure you’re safe.” Alexander asked, “Have there been many times when you have felt scared, Catharine?” Catharine replied, “sometimes for my family, sometimes for my friends. Occasionally for myself – forgive me, but why all these questions?” The music ended, and they stepped away, and bowing, Alexander replied, “I’m trying to figure you out, Catharine. You are very much a mystery to me.” Catharine replied, “And I am in very much the same position with you, sire.”
Alexander frowned slightly, and Catharine explained, “I have heard so many different accounts of your personality from so many people; I cannot decide which is true, if any.” Alexander, taking a step forwards, said, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t listen to every account you hear about a person.” Catharine, also taking a step forwards, replied, “And maybe you shouldn’t discount the possibility that some of them weren’t slighting you in any way.” There was an awkward silence between them as people moved around them; someone moved out of the corner of their vision; they realised how close they were to each other and Catharine, bobbing a swift curtsy, moved away to find Anna. Anna was with Sophia and Laura, and the moment she found them, Catharine sat next to them and said, “I should never have danced with Alexander.” Sophia asked, concern creasing her brow, “why?” Laura asked, “Did he try and charm you to his bedroom?” Catharine shook her head once, and replied, “We just... we just disagreed about something, it’s nothing major. I just hope he forgets it before the night is out.” Anna replied, “Every argument he’s ever had with a woman usually results in him trying to charm her. He didn’t try anything, or....?”
Catharine replied, “I think I left too soon for him to recover his wits to try anything.” Anna said, “that’s odd... he doesn’t usually lose his wits around any woman he’s trying to charm.” Sophia replied, “Unless he’s actually fallen for you, Catharine. You know you’re extremely pretty for many women. I mean, I thought I was pretty until I saw you this evening, and if I’m pretty, then Catharine, you are beautiful.” Anna and Laura looked at Catharine, and while Laura said, “yes, you have a point, Sophia,” Anna said, “yes, you’re not wrong there, Sophia. You see, Cathy, you’re prettier than you think you are.” Catharine replied, “Yes. If Sophia is to be believed, I am a lot prettier than I have thought for a long time. But for me, it’s not just beauty or handsomeness that counts; personality counts, too, don’t you agree? I just don’t feel I have the right personality to invoke interest from a prince like Alexander.” Sophia, Lucy and Laura all immediately began protesting, but eventually Anna managed to say, “Cathy, you’re wrong. Not only are you beautiful, but you’re funny, you’re elegant in a humble way, you’re witty, and I’m sorry, but how did I describe you as two days ago? I described you as intelligent, and some men look for that in a woman. In theory, you should be in great demand around here, Cathy. Not to mention the fact that you speak what’s on your mind, making you honest of your opinions to others. That’s not exactly the most common trait in a personality.”
Sophia and Laura looked at each other and Laura said, “You know what, Anna? That is exactly what we think, too, and Catharine, what Anna says about your personality, most people will notice it in the months and years to come. Even if Alexander doesn’t win your heart, I can only hope someone truly worthy of you wins your heart.” Catharine smiled, and Alexander appeared in the crowds. Catharine said in a low voice, “speak of the royal devil”. They laughed, and Catharine suddenly added, “Oh, did I tell you all about the time that Lord Selstiern proposed to me. Oh, I could have laughed at the look on his face!” Her voice seemed to fade into the noise made by the crowds around her as Alexander watched her; he couldn’t seem to see anything else apart from her face. Sophia and Laura shot looks at him every so often, and Anna’s eyes flicked to him once or twice. When he was eventually called away by Anna’s father, Catharine gasped, and said, “I was actually about to hurt him if he didn’t stop staring.” Anna replied, “I was about to hurt him for you.” Sophia commented, “That’s my theory on Cathy’s beauty tried, tested, and proved. He loves you, Cathy; it is plain as the nose on his face.” Catharine laughed, “it’s the expression ‘as clear as the scar on his face’, not his nose on his face, Sophia!”
Sophia replied, “Well, he doesn’t have a scar on his nose, does he, Cathy? Or his face, even – Anna shut up, I meant face!” Catharine laughed, as Edward and Alexander emerged from the crowds; Catharine’s eyes flicked to both of them, and then she returned to the conversation. “No, it was so funny last night; I was down at this pub on Edreanson street – I was there to help my father get home, cause he always gets drunk on Quatroday nights, and the bartender was just like –” Catharine looked away, and then whipped her head back to the others so that her hair flicked slightly across her face; she then brushed her hair back, and said in a breathless tone, “‘so what’ll it be, lovely?’ just like that, and I found it so hard not to laugh out loud!” Anna, Sophia, and Laura were all laughing; Catharine laughed with them, and a few minutes later, she wiped her tears of mirth away, trying not to smudge her makeup. She then looked at Alexander, and burst into laughter again, and pointed a finger at him; she said a few words, and Anna, Sophia, and Laura looked round at him and laughed. Alexander quickly schooled his expression, not before Edward saw it. “Alex... you know as well as I do the protocol our family must follow, especially the regulations about marriage. Catharine cannot be one of the people you marry.”
Alexander nodded once, and servants began to motion the guests to the tables that had been set up. Alexander approached the group of girls, and said, “on behalf of my father and my sister, I would like to invite all of you to sit with us through the dinner. That goes for you too, Catharine.” Catharine, who had been pointedly looking away from Alexander, looked up at him with her clear hazel eyes, and replied, “The honour would be mine, sire.” Alexander bowed slightly, and moved away after Catharine inclined her head to him. Anna said, “now what do you think about our ‘Alexander loves you’ theory, Cathy?” Catharine replied, “he was merely being polite, Anna. And besides, you know I couldn’t marry him. The circumstances would not allow it.” They then all moved up to the high table; Catharine sat next to Alexander, with Anna, Sophia, Laura and Lucy sitting on her other side in that order and enlightened Lucy on their conversation. They continued their conversation, until Edward asked, “Have you ever been to Serckrea, Catharine?” Catharine immediately looked to Alexander, and then replied, “I have been only once, your majesty, several years ago.” Edward asked, “What did you think about it?”
Catharine replied, “It has a very good fashion industry, your majesty.” Edward, Alexander, Anna, her friends and Catharine laughed together. On a more serious note, Catharine added, “but the Serckreans also have a very good militia force, and their archers are some of the best around – I was lucky enough to see an archery demonstration the second day I was there. They are also a people excellently.... excellently versed in horsemanship, your majesty. They would make the best allies in any situation involving warfare.” Edward nodded, and said, “Forgive the questions, Catharine, but I am considering sending emissaries to Serckrea, to ask their help in this upcoming war in exchange for an alliance.” Catharine nodded, and after a moment’s silence, a conversation began between Catharine, Anna, and Sophia about a trip for a few weeks to Serckrea. Edward and Alexander began discussing who would be best to send as an emissary to Serckrea. Before long, the band started up another song, and standing, both Alexander and Edrelaos offered their hands to Catharine. Catharine looked from one to the other, and then looked up at Alexander; she took his hand, and stood. He led her to the dance floor, and she turned to face him. His hand went once more behind her back, and he pulled her closer.
Catharine did not say anything, and tried not to meet Alexander’s gaze; he said, “You were right before, Cathy. About not discounting the fact that not all the stories a person might hear about me mightn’t say anything bad.” Catharine replied, “So were you, sire. Now’s not the time to have silly arguments, and I shouldn’t have argued with you.” Alexander replied, “Yes... it’s not often that I have my servant argue with me.” Catharine laughed, and replied, “I should think so, which is why I said I shouldn’t have argued with you, sire... I’m sorry for that.” Alexander smiled, and Catharine knew she was forgiven. “Are you ready for tomorrow?” Alexander asked, and Catharine replied, “ah... as ready as I think I can be for a mission that involves a lot of harm and gathering information. But it’s for my country, sire, and I’d rather my country survived if I play some small part, than my country was conquered because I did nothing when I could have done something.” The music ended, and Catharine, stepping back, curtsied. The evening ended; Catharine returned home, to gain some sleep. That was the first night she dreamed of Alexander. His face, his hand in hers; a whisper: “I need you. I can’t live without you.”
She woke, sitting up, and gasped. When she rode into the courtyard later that morning, Catharine showed no signs of having had a troubled night’s sleep. She wore a blue tunic, with a small insignia that none recognised, and a pair of plain brown cropped trousers. Alexander arrived at the top of the stairs just as Catharine arrived at the base of them on Alexis, and dismounted. Looking up at Alexander, she curtsied briefly, and Edrelaos came down the stairs towards her. “Are you ready, Catharine?” he asked, and Catharine replied, “well, seeing as I have a knife down my boot just in case, and I’m as ready as I could be, I see no reason to say no in reply to that question. I’m ready, Lord Edrelaos.” Edrelaos said, “May I suggest that we use your horse to get to Doleatraya?” Catharine frowned slightly so Alexander could not see, and Edrelaos said to her mind:
- It would be best, should you need to return here without me and with all the information I gather. Alexis trusts you, Catharine, and through you, he can trust me. I know you have not had your full training, but it would be best, believe me, if we went on Alexis.
- Are you absolutely sure it is the best idea, Edrelaos?
- 100% sure, Catharine. -
Very well, Edrelaos. Alexis, don’t buck Edrelaos off, OK.
With that, Catharine swung lightly into the saddle behind Edrelaos, and Alexander raised a hand in farewell. Tobias and several other soldiers stood to one side of the courtyard; Tobias shouted, “Cathy”, and they all hit their spears against their shields. Tobias shouted again, and they repeated this three more times. Catharine smiled, but did not speak, and as they left through the courtyard gate, Alexis paused, and reared, turning as he did so. Catharine turned her head quickly to look around, and her gaze met Alexander’s in one moment that seemed to sear itself into Alexander’s memory; Alexis reared once more, before he cantered into the right hand street. Edrelaos and Catharine rode hard and fast for three days, camping each night. One such night, Edrelaos and Catharine were sitting by a fire; Catharine was leaning back against Alexis’s side, sleeping lightly. She stirred, frowning slightly, and Edrelaos’s eyes flicked from the dancing flames to her face. She stirred once more, breathing uneasily, and then she startled awake, looking at the ground to one side of the fire.
“Been having bad dreams, Catharine?” Edrelaos asked; Catharine replied, “Not bad, so much as disturbing, Edrelaos. They’re just... just confusing, and rather stupid.” Edrelaos nodded, and Catharine leaned back against Alexis’s side once more. “When it comes to it... IF it comes to it, Catharine... would you leave me behind in Doleaya?” Edrelaos asked; Doleaya was the capital of Doleatraya, and where the Doleas Court called home. Catharine sat up again, every muscle snapping taut in surprise at the question. “I... no, Edrelaos, I wouldn’t. King Edward needs you more than he would admit to anyone; more than he would admit to himself, I believe. If you did not make it back, then he would most likely blame himself for making the mistake – for it would seem a mistake in his eyes – of sending you back to Doleatraya to gather information.” Edrelaos said, “But if you had no choice, Catharine, would you honestly for one moment not consider leaving me to any fate?” Catharine replied, “I would NOT, Edrelaos. Never, as long as I have the gifts that I have, would I abandon any acquaintance of mine to any fate. And that includes the possibility of a fate of death.”
Edrelaos stared at Catharine, and said, “But... even though you are a Serckrean, Catharine, that does not mean you are in full control of your powers yet. You are young; you still have a lot of training to go through.” Catharine was silent for a moment in hesitation. Then she said, “When I told you that I was a Serckrean... I did not tell you the entire truth.” Edrelaos frowned; sighing, Catharine explained, “My mother is Keleya.” Edrelaos stared at her, knowing fully who she meant, and then he said, “I did not expect that.” Catharine replied, “I know. When I am in this disguise, nobody notices the details that make me her daughter.” Edrelaos looked her over once, and agreed, “It is a very good disguise.” Catharine smiled, and Edrelaos said, looking up slightly, “we should both get some sleep. Tomorrow we reach Doleaya, and then a good night’s sleep will be out of both our grasps.” Catharine nodded once, and she leaned back once more against the side of her horse.
The next morning, Edrelaos made to shake Catharine awake, but she shifted, and sat up before he could touch her shoulder. Edrelaos said, “Today we reach Doleaya. I’m going to have to tie your hands now... so that the Doleas Court does not suspect anything, let alone the people.” Catharine nodded, and once they had had a swift breakfast, Catharine took some rope from one of the saddlebags on Alexis’s saddle, and tying one end to Alexis’s saddle, she handed the other end to Edrelaos, and held her wrists together as he tied them together. Once this was done, Edrelaos mounted Alexis, and they set off once more toward Doleaya. By midday, they could see the walls of Doleaya. They arrived at Doleaya that evening. They paused at the gates while the guards confirmed Edrelaos's identity, and Catharine found a few minutes to view her surroundings. There were several children next to the gates, and three or four of them began throwing mud and stones at her. She flinched briefly, and then suddenly lunged at the children.
They scattered, and Edrelaos pulled on the rope. Catharine was pulled back towards him, and he dealt her a stinging blow around her face. When they entered the city, Edrelaos told her in her mind:
- That was a good idea on your part, Catharine.
- I’ll take that as permission to continue having good ideas on my part.
- But be wary, Catharine. Getting past the city guards was the easy part. The Doleas Court won’t be so simple. - I know. I have met one of the Doleas Court members before, not you. He won’t recognise me, though. He saw me in my true form, when Doleatraya was a more peaceful country.
- Who was it you met, if I may ask?
- Seeing as I trust you, you may ask. It was Desnekos before he became King. Even then, I did not see what he would become. And he is doomed to die by my hand, although I would have no control over it.
- Why would you have no control over it, Cathy, when you are one of the most powerful members of your House?
- Because I suffer from Jelassenik, Edrelaos. I cannot control it when it arises, but I can attempt to control it before it rises.
- Jelassenik! Then you are stronger than even I thought you could be, Catharine.
- Stronger maybe, but by no means am I any safer, Edrelaos. There are signs, symptoms, when I am under Jelassenik influence.
- Then I will be watching for them should you fall under its influence around me. And you should probably hide the Serckrea insignia on your tunic. It will only attract unwanted attention.
- Thank you, Edrelaos. That’s all I ask from one friend to another.
By this time, they had reached a large building, which looked more like a university than anything else; Catharine knew this was in fact the palace where King Desnekos now lived. As Edrelaos dismounted and began untying the rope that bound Catharine's hands, a group of men came out of the building. Catharine struggled against the rope, but Edrelaos pulled her forwards, causing her to trip forwards and land on her knees. “Lord, Edrelaos. Where on earth have you been? We have sorely missed both your council and advice, and your company in the Beerhall,” said the man that was at the forefront of the group. “That was an unfortunate consequence, sire, and one I did not take to heart lightly,” Edrelaos replied, bowing swiftly, “however, with the upcoming war, I could not miss the chance of riding across the border and taking pre war spoils for his majesty.”