King Desnekos of Doleatraya looked at Catharine as she stood and replied, “The one rare talent in your possession, Edrelaos, is that you can instinctively see and take advantage of benefits that arise from any situation. How did you come by this young though uncivilised beauty?” Edrelaos replied, “She was working in a pub in one of their small villages. I wanted to make sure that their beer was really as pitiful as the stories said, so I entered one, and singled this girl out as one I could bring back with me.” Desnekos stroked his fingers down Catharine's face, and commented, “Such a shame, that a girl as beautiful as you should be so uncivilised.” Catharine replied defiantly, “unserviete anduiltrequ asertle kasiknsevish... casilaksi.” Desnekos smirked coldly as the courtiers behind him murmured their disapproval, and then so fast Catharine could not see it to prevent it, he slapped her around the face, as Edrelaos had done. Catharine fell to her knees, scraping them both; blood was coming from the corner of her mouth where a small cut had opened up. She looked up at Desnekos as he stood over her, her hands raised to the corner of her mouth. Desnekos smiled cruelly, and said “Edrelaos, you have won favour with me. Tell me, how did you know I liked them young?” Edrelaos replied, “the same way I knew this woman would win your favour: by knowing she had also just returned to her village from a brief spell working for their so called King”.
Desnekos smiled broadly, and turning away, he said loudly, “Put her in the dungeons for now, Edrelaos. I will see her tomorrow evening, to see if she has any information on my old enemy, Edward.” Catharine bowed her head slightly, and Edrelaos pulled her to her feet. Struggling, she was pulled into the palace, and hauled down staircases and along corridors until her hands were untied and she was pushed forcefully into a prison cell. It was completely bare, except for a simple thin mattress of straw stuffed into a woollen sack, and an equally thin blanket. Shivering slightly, Catharine crossed to the window, and found that the bars were set firmly into their settings. She turned quickly, and inspected the door. She found that it was also firm in its settings, and the door was locked securely. She sighed, her hands resting on the bars, and sat on the mattress, leaning against the wall. Closing her eyes, her face became blank of all expression or creased frowns. The next few days were difficult for Catharine, as she was visited frequently by Desnekos and his courtiers. Edrelaos visited when he could with them, and simply watched, unable to do anything without appearing suspicious. Occasionally, he could do some small thing to Catharine’s benefit so as to appear in favour to gain control over Catharine once Desnekos had finished with her once and for all.
The days stretched into weeks, however, and Desnekos still showed no sign of losing interest. Indeed, he seemed all the more intent on getting information about Edward out of her. Some evenings, she was beaten severely for not spilling the secrets about her country’s militia and their tactics. There was deliberately no glass in the windows, she had discovered, and she regularly woke freezing in the middle of the night; it was autumn in Doleatraya and increasingly cold at night. In Eladreaya, Alexander had had a complete change of personality, and almost everybody had seen it emerge at some point. He spent a lot of time watching the horizon, or sitting on window seats, lost in thought. Nobody dared to bother him, lest he lose his temper, though Edward had once taken him to one side and had asked, “Alexander, are you alright? Only you’ve been doing a lot of looking at the horizon, and it’s disturbing more than a few people.” Alexander had replied, “Yes, I’m fine. I’m just wondering how Catharine and Edrelaos are doing in Doleatraya,” and had wandered away again, a frown creasing his brow. Anna and Edward briefly discussed why he might be so distracted that same evening in Edward’s study. “You don’t think he might possibly be in love with Catharine?” Edward asked. “I would not count on it, father. He hasn’t known her for long enough to have fallen in love,” Anna replied, but Edward said, “don’t be so quick to discount love as a possibility, Anna. Love doesn’t need time to take effect. Sometimes it’s quick enough to take hold within a few weeks; it could have been growing gradually as they got to know each other.”
Anna nodded, though her expression one of disapproval and disbelief. The next day, though, was to be the start of her opinion slowly dissolving and changing. The day had begun in a somewhat normal fashion, despite a small incident in the courtyard where one of the soldiers had been kicked into a water trough by a horse, and emerged sopping wet and with a bruised chest. It began to rain around mid morning, and by the afternoon, the rain neither showed no sign of stopping nor was the light drizzle it had been in the morning; it was a furious rainstorm, and many people took shelter either in the stables, or in the side door to the kitchens, if they were in the palace courtyard, or in their homes. One person, however, was busily riding as fast as they could towards the city of Eleaya. They cantered through the streets and into the palace courtyard. Once in the courtyard, it was obvious that the rider was injured in some way, and slid from the horse unconscious. Several soldiers, seeing this from the stables, ran out to help, and as two caught the horse, slightly skittish, Tobias and three others crouched over the rider. Tobias, recognising the face under the hood, shouted over the rain, “it’s Cathy! We’d best get her to the King now – come on, help me help her up. Cathy, you awake?” Catharine’s eyes opened, though unfocussed, and Tobias helped her to her feet.
Alexander and Edward both looked up as one of the soldiers that had been with Tobias out in the courtyard ran into the Great Hall, and despite the fact that there was a meal still going on, he ran up the hall saying loudly, “Catharine’s just rode into the courtyard half conscious!” Skidding to a halt in front of Alexander and Edward, he repeated, “Catharine’s back in the palace,” breathlessly, “she’s being taken to the... to the guest room.” Alexander and Edward looked at each other, and then they both ran down the length of the Great Hall, Alexander drawing a swift lead on his father. The door to the guest room slammed open, as Alexander entered swiftly. Catharine turned, and before she could do anything, Alexander hugged her. Stepping back, he held her face in his hands and said, “Are you alright, Cathy?” Catharine nodded as best as she could with her face in his hands, and Alexander stepped back as Edward entered the room. They simultaneously took in Catharine’s appearance for a moment: the trousers she had been wearing were now almost shorts, and her tunic was now several inches shorter; part of it appeared wrapped around her left wrist and the sleeves had not survived at all. Her dripping wet hair was crudely cut short until it was almost at the base of her ears, and her arms were covered in cuts and bruises. There was also a large bruise on her right cheek, dried blood on the corner of her mouth, and a bruise on her chin, and she shivered constantly as though with an ague.
There was also a fresh, deep cut on her leg, as though someone had dragged a dagger deeply up her leg, as well as scars that were chillingly identical to the scars on her arms. She had been about to sit down when Alexander had entered the room, and she now sat down. Her hands, which were holding a leather pouch, squeezed it again and again in agitation, and Alexander suddenly realised with a shock that she was far thinner than she had been before the mission had set out. “What happened? Where’s Edrelaos?” Edward asked, and in a shaky voice, Catharine replied, “he’s... in Serckrea. He sh... Should be a... anyway, sire; it’s w... where he’d b... be safe.” She had risen to her feet once more; Edward asked, “How did he get there? He was meant to be looking after you.” With a slightly shaking hand, Catharine reached into the pouch, which was more of a small satchel on a belt, and pulled out several, darkly coloured pieces of what looked like rock crystals. “Th... they’re TravelStones... I g... gave him o... one the n... night I g... got away so he c... could get away t... too,” Catharine explained. “Did you get what you were sent to Doleatraya for?” Alexander asked. Before she could reply, Catharine swayed alarmingly, and her knees buckled. Alexander caught her quickly, and said loudly, “Tobias, get Adrian here. Tell him Cathy’s in need in of his best expertise.”
Catharine’s cheek had come to rest on his shoulder, and when his father had gone outside to watch for Adrian, Alexander said softly, “you’re going to be fine, Cathy. I promise you, you’ll be fine.” Catharine, who was by now delirious, said something inaudible, and her hand came up to put the pouch against his chest. She said, “Give this... t’your father... it’s everything w... we could get.” With that, she fainted, and Alexander, catching the pouch, put it on the table, and looked around as Adrian entered the room. “Put her on the bed, and I need space and silence. Thomas, you stay with me to help; everyone else needs to go,” Adrian said; sliding one of his arms down, Alex picked Catharine up, and carried her to the bed. Setting her down, he turned to go, and turned back slightly as he reached the door. Adrian saw the movement out of the corner of his eye; looking up at the prince, he smiled and said, “I’ll do what I can, sire. She’s stronger than many. Realistically, though, I’ll be very surprised if she does survive.” Over the next few days, Catharine needed day and night attention, to make sure she did not dehydrate. Every so often, she’d wake up enough to have a drink, but then would slip back into the dreamless sleep that had claimed her since the night she had returned to Eleaya. Then, on the fourth day, a fever brought her temperature higher than it had been previously, and she shifted and stirred. Alexander spent hours at a time with her, even though Adrian told him that the chances of her surviving the fever were slowing reducing each day that she spent in the grip of the fever.
Finally, two weeks after Catharine had returned, Alexander entered the room and Adrian said, “You really don’t listen to me do you, sire? But I’ll say it again: her chances of survival are almost zero. It would take magic to bring her back or something extremely powerful.” Standing up, he winced slightly, and then he left the room, leaving Alexander and Catharine in the room together... alone. Alexander stood at the base of the bed, watching her for a moment, and then he moved to the chair that Adrian had vacated, to the right of the bed. Her hand lay on top of the covers, and he gently took it in his. Her skin felt dry on his, and her face was paler than he had ever seen it. Leaning forwards, he whispered, “Cathy... please don’t leave me. I need you now, more than ever.” Then, leaning forwards even more, he pressed his lips to hers gently, and then sat back down in the chair. All of a sudden, he realised with a jolt that she had fallen still, and instinctively made to hold a hand over her mouth to test for her breathing when she took a deep breath, the first deep breath she had taken in two weeks. Alexander stood up, and going to the door, he said, “Katie, get Adrian. Tell him that there’s a possibility that she’s waking up. He will know who I’m talking about.” Katie left down the corridor, and Alexander stood in the doorway until a weak voice inside the room said, “Alex?” Alexander looked towards the bed, and saw Catharine looking over at him, her eyes half open.
Alexander went to the seat, and said, “About time you woke up. You’ve slept for the past two weeks.” Catharine made to sit up suddenly, but Alexander laid a hand on her shoulder, saying, “easy, easy, Catharine. You’ve been almost completely dehydrated.” Catharine put a hand to her neck briefly, and then said, “I feel like a meerkat’s dug a hole down my throat.” Alexander laughed, and Catharine smiled faintly. Then they both became aware that Alexander’s hand had not moved from her shoulder, and he quickly moved it to his lap. There was an awkward silence, and then Alexander, gathering his courage, said, “Cathy... I was a fool for letting you go on this mission. I should’ve refused right out to let you go; made up some excuse to keep you here.” Catharine, frowning slightly, replied, “but... but the choice was mine, Alex, I CHOSE to go instead of sending someone else in my place.” Alexander, resting a hand on Catharine’s hand, replied, “But... if you had gone, and died there or if you’d gone only to never come back... I don’t think I’d have ever forgiven myself.” Catharine stared at him for a moment, and then her hand slid out from under his to hold his hand. His hand turned to face palm up to take hers and they sat like that until Adrian appeared at the door. Alexander looked up, and said, “ah, Adrian. There you are.” Catharine’s head rested back on the pillow as Alexander stood up and moved to join Adrian at the base of the bed. “I see you had reason to still believe in her strength, sire. Catharine, I never expected to see you alive again.”
Catharine replied in a hoarse voice, “well, doubting your own skills definitely wouldn’t have helped, would it, Adrian?” Adrian laughed, and turning to Alexander, he said, “I’d suggest she spends the next few hours rehydrating – at least the next day; just soups, drinks. I’ll come again tomorrow, and if she’s doing well, she can start on solids.” Alexander nodded, and when Adrian had left, he smiled at Catharine, and said, “I guess I’d better go and let the kitchens know. Everyone’s been really worried that you wouldn’t survive, especially Anna and her friends.” Catharine smiled, and replied, “They would have been, wouldn’t they? Our trip to Serckrea would have been dulled somewhat by the fact that they wouldn’t know which the best dress shops were.” Alexander laughed, and Catharine chuckled somewhat. Anna ducked her head around the door, and said, “Cathy! You’re awake – Sophia, Laura, come on – she’s awake. Oh, Catharine we were so WORRIED! When father told us that you’d collapsed – you should have seen Sophia's face!” Catharine sat up as Anna, Sophia, Lucy and Laura entered the room. Alexander looked from one to the other as they walked past him, and watched for a moment as the three of them sat around Catharine. “Yes, so I gathered – but I assumed it was because I know so much about Serckrean fashion, no doubt.” Anna replied, “yes, but also because you’re such an amazing friend.” Catharine smiled and they all began chatting.
Catharine laughed at something Sophia said that Alexander hadn’t heard, and Alexander turned to leave. Catharine’s eyes flicked to him as he left. When he had gone, Anna said, “so. I heard, from a small, very truthful birdie that you collapsed straight into Alex’s arms. Is that true, Cathy?” Sophia and Laura leaned in slightly, and Catharine replied, “Yes, it’s true. I did collapse into his arms, albeit unintentionally. The Gods must be attempting to torture the man, or embarrass me completely through little tricks like that.” They all laughed, and Sophia said, “But... was it RIGHT into his arms, or did he have to help you or anything?” Catharine frowned at Sophia, and then laughed. “I... I THINK he might’ve helped me to the bed. I think he might’ve picked me up,” she replied, and Laura and Sophia squealed almost knowingly. “But just because he picked me up, it doesn’t mean that he loves me or anything,” Catharine said, smiling. “You haven’t SEEN him all the time you’ve been away in Doleatraya with Edrelaos. It was like he wasn’t him; it was like...” Anna said, trailing off slightly as she tried to think of a description. “He was like a ghost of himself,” Sophia said, and Anna nodded at her. Laura caught Catharine’s disbelieving gaze and replied, “Hey, those two are exactly right. He kept staring at the horizon, or out of windows, and he was always smiling slightly, like he was remembering something really good, or sometime really happy.” Lucy agreed, “Yeah, that’s right. And sometimes, he’d shut himself up in his room, and begin playing the lute really oddly, like he was trying to write a new song or something.”
Anna said, “that’s nothing compared to what I’ve got on him.” They all fell silent and Anna went on, “I sometimes mentioned your name just to use your work in the palace as an example to compare with someone else’s work, and he’d always agree and then go on and on and on about you. I swear, he could talk for Eladreaya about you, Cathy.” Catharine stared at Anna, smiling faintly, and a moment later, she looked down at her hands. There was a knock on the door, and Edward entered. “Your majesty,” chorused Sophia, Laura and Catharine, and they giggled briefly. Edward said, “Ladies, if I may, can I ask for a few minutes in private with Catharine?” Sophia, Anna and Laura looked at each other, and then agreeing in various different ways, they stood up and left the room, chatting happily. Edward smiled, waiting as they passed him, and then closing the door behind him, he moved to the seat that had been occupied by Adrian, Alexander, and later Sophia, and asked, “How are you feeling now, Catharine?” Catharine tried to reply, but her throat was so dry, nothing came out but a hoarse whisper. “Would you like some water?” Edward asked, and Catharine nodded. Taking the goblet Edward passed to her, nodding her thanks, Catharine had a few sips, and handing it back, she said, “thank you, your majesty. I’m feeling a lot better since I had that drink. Talking so soon after waking up...”
Edward replied, “Yes, I know what you mean. I must say I’m surprised that you survived despite Adrian's claims that you would not survive the next few days.” Catharine, smiling briefly, replied, “yes, and Adrian is normally correct in his predictions. I guess it’s about time that someone proved that he wasn’t always correct.” Edward laughed, and replied, “I am beginning to like you very much, Catharine. But I must know: is Edrelaos really in Serckrea?” Catharine replied, “I would not have abandoned him, your majesty. I promise you, he is alive and well, and most importantly safe in Serckrea; you have no need to fear that he died to save my life.” Edward nodded, a smile of relief creasing his face. “That leads me onto the second subject I need to talk to you about,” he said, “the emissaries I have sent to Serckrea have been returned with requests for someone they know well. I recalled that you said you had been to Serckrea, so I request that you go with Alexander, Anna and her friends, Katie and Thomas.” Catharine replied, “I take it that this will be as soon as I am well, so I agree your majesty. I have wanted to visit Serckrea again for some time, and now I have a reason to.” Edward smiled, and said, “Good. Thank you, Catharine. I can only hope that they recognise you, and listen to what you have to say.” Catharine replied, “they won't have forgotten me, sire. I am very, very sure of that.” Edward smiled, although he was rather puzzled by Catharine’s final comment. They would have talked a bit more, but Alexander entered with Katie carrying a tray with a bowl of soup on it in tow.
Catharine smiled when she saw Katie, and Katie said, “Everyone misses you in the kitchens, Cathy. Matthias said to tell you that he needs his best pastry chef back, so get well as soon as you can. Oh, Thomas said Eric said he wants his best saddle polisher ASAP.” Catharine laughed; Edward said, “You’re much in demand, Cathy.” Catharine replied, “I noticed, your majesty. Katie, if you tell Matthias that you make brownies, and tell Eric that the saddles need decent polish, that’d be great. There’s some polish being sold on Edreanson Street, which is good quality for a good price – tell him that. Thanks.” Katie nodded, set the tray down on the table, curtsied to the King and the prince, and left. “Looks like you know how to make Matthias and Eric calm down without causing fuss,” Alexander said, smiling slightly. “I know; I don’t normally have this influence over people,” Catharine said, and Edward said, “I’m not so sure about that, Catharine.” Alexander replied, “Cathy... just out of curiosity, but why did the Doleas Court cut your hair?” Catharine put a hand to her roughly cut hair, and replied, a faint blush rising in her cheeks, “oh... they cut my hair as a mark of humiliation. You see, to them, cut hair is the sign of a traitor in a woman. But it doesn’t bother me, sire – I’m quite used to short hair; I used to have short hair as a child.”
Alexander nodded, curiosity satisfied, and Edward, standing, said, “Well, you’ll find no humiliation here, only a deep pride for what you’ve done for us.” Catharine inclined her head, replying, “I was proud to for my country, sire.” Edward nodded, and Alexander said quickly, “Adrian said to eat all of it, and not to try moving around until he says so.” Catharine raised an eyebrow at Alexander and replied, “he should know that I’m not planning on lying around all day.” Alexander replied, “I wouldn’t mind having my servant back. It’s been lonely without you, Cathy.” Handing her the bowl, he smiled as their hands brushed and left. Catharine leaned back, and looked out of the window, a frown creasing her forehead. Over the next few days, Catharine recovered quickly, and by the third day, she was moving around the castle, taken readily under the wings of Anna, Sophia, Lucy and Laura. They spent a lot of time sitting in an interior courtyard, chatting and laughing together. Alexander often joined them, and Catharine spent an afternoon with Serdresin, having measurements taken for a new set of riding clothes. They were delivered the day before Catharine and the others were due to go to Serckrea. The trousers, which were fitted to Catharine’s legs, were a deep navy blue, while the tunic was a smoky grey, and the belt was of fine leather. Her boots were the ones she had bought on Dreskensil's Street. She also had a short cloak of unusual material, which she made clear she knew when she saw it. She pulled it out of the bundle and said, “Astreilan wool! Serdresin must have been to Serckrea; they’re the only ones who make this wool. It’s completely waterproof, windproof.”