When Alexander woke, Catharine had already left. Alexander dressed quickly, and left his room. As he stepped into the courtyard, he saw Keleya approaching from the gate leading out into the city, and looking up at him, Keleya said, “Alexander. Catharine has gone out into the city with your sister and her friends. She will be back at midday, for negotiations for the alliance will begin at two.” Alexander nodded, and went down the steps. Edrelaos stepped past the banister, and said, “Alexander. I take it you know where the ladies went?” Alexander replied, “Yes, they’re in the city. No doubt Catharine is showing them where to find the best dresses for the Ball tonight.” Edrelaos smiled, and replied, “She seems very much at home here, Catharine does.” As they walked through the gates, Alexander agreed, “She does that, Edrelaos. She does seem very much at home here.” Edrelaos said, “You seem disappointed, Alexander.” Alexander, shifting somewhat nervously, replied, “I just... I just hope she can understand how I feel some day.”
Edrelaos smiled understandingly and replied, “I’m sure she does now. But now is not the time to become sentimental, not when there is a war about to begin.” Alexander nodded, and they wandered throughout the city, trying to find Anna, Catharine, Sophia, Laura and Lucy. They had just reached the market, when they heard bagpipes, violins and drums, and saw, in the middle of the marketplace, Catharine dancing with a male soldier. She was laughing as she turned with the soldier, and there were people clapping in the crowds. The music stopped suddenly, and Catharine, turning to applaud the musicians, saw Alexander and Edrelaos standing a few feet away. Her hands clapped at her waist as she watched them, a half smile on her face. She then looked at the musicians and smiled fully. One of the musicians said “edreasume ajmilla destrimyue,” and Catharine laughed. “Nue, estrishe wasllie hetreklua,” she replied, and the musicians struck up a new song. Catharine danced with the same soldier, but half way through, Alexander stepped in.
When the music ended, Alexander took Catharine in his arms, and dipped her. Catharine couldn’t help but look in his eyes, as though looking for some hint of regret for the night before, but there was none. Then she stood up right, and looking for Anna, she took Anna’s hand and said, “come on, Anna, there’s a good shop down this way. Alex, you don’t mind tagging along with us – I know it’s boring for you and Edrelaos, but I don’t want to outshine Anna or the others tonight.” Alexander replied, “That’s fine. Edrelaos, you don’t mind do you?” Edrelaos replied, “I’ve been cooped up in the palace for far too long. It’ll do me good to spend some time exploring the city, so lead on, Catharine.” Catharine smiled, and pulled Anna towards a street. Sophia, Laura and Lucy hurried forwards; Laura linked arms with Catharine, and Sophia linked arms with Lucy, who linked arms with Laura. They wandered around the city before returning to the palace. Anna, Sophia, Laura, Lucy and Edrelaos went on ahead, and as Catharine stepped towards the palace steps, Alexander stepped up behind her, slipping his arms around her waist. “I love you,” he whispered in her ear, “more than anything else in this world.” Catharine breathed, “Alex, I... this can’t happen now, it...” Alexander pressed his lips to the skin of her neck just below her jaw line, and Catharine inhaled sharply.
Alexander's lips brushed up to her cheek and Catharine’s eyes closed; her mouth opened slightly. Keleya, coming to the top of the steps, called, “Catharine”, and Catharine swiftly stepped away from Alexander. “It is almost time for the negotiations. I suggest you both come quickly,” Keleya said. Catharine nodded, and the pair of them moved to the steps. Catharine reached her mother first, not meeting Keleya's gaze. As they walked, Catharine felt the brush of her mother’s mind, and Keleya said
- Something troubles you, Catharine.
- No, mother. I just worry how the Council will take the proposal of this alliance.
- You were never very good at hiding your true problems, my daughter. I give you leave to like the Prince. He seems a very honest man.
- But I can’t... until this war is over, I can’t...
- Sometimes, emotions can win wars, Catharine.
Keleya withdrew from her daughter’s mind; turning to Alexander's mind, she said,
- You know I saw you in the courtyard.
- I know.
- I do not have a problem with it, Alexander. But treat my daughter well. She is very, very important to me.
- I would die for her, Lady Keleya.
- It is not a good idea to jest with me, Alexander.
- I do not jest with you, Lady Keleya. I would die for her; I would kill just to be with her for all eternity. I love her, more than this life itself.
Keleya said nothing as they stepped into the main hall. Edward looked round from where he stood looking out of the window to the Serckrean countryside. Catharine did not look at Alexander as she stood beside her mother. Edward sat opposite, and several Serckrean officials sat opposite the door. There then began a heated discussion until one of the officials asked, “Why should this alliance happen, anyway?” Catharine, who had been unnaturally silent for most of the discussion, spoke up and answered, “Because if Doleatraya defeats Eladreaya, then Serckrea will most certainly be the next on its list to defeat and control, my Lord. That cannot happen – whether we like it or not, Eladreaya and Serckrea need each other if Eladreaya is to win this.” Alexander asked, “Why is Desnekos so determined to have this war, anyway? There must be some reason other than hatred for my father.”
Keleya and Edward looked at each other, and Keleya said, “Before your father met your mother, he met me. We did not last long – a few months. However, I had chosen your father over Desnekos, who felt and still feels that he was cheated through trickery and deceit, though I spent time with Desnekos after. His desire is to kill Edward for cheating him of a woman, and then to kill me for denying him his pleasure.” Alexander nodded, and Edward asked, “Is Catharine my child?” Catharine replied, “No, sire, I am not. My father lived in Edreanson Street; a baker.” Keleya said, “that is not true, either, Catharine. The fact that Harold looked after you is undoubtedly true, and taught you what you have needed to know from Eladreaya. But he was not your true father. Your true father is Desnekos.” Catharine stared at her mother in disbelief. She then looked away, and turning to the door, she left without saying anything. As she left, Alexander said, “Keep discussing the alliance. I’ll go to her, and try and comfort her. We might be some time.”
Edward began to protest, but Keleya said, “Go to her, Alexander. She needs someone she can trust right now.” Alexander nodded, and left. Catharine had left through a side door in the courtyard, and now she tracked across a field of long grass, towards a river that came from the stream near which Harold was buried. She entered the forest, crossing the river on a log that had fallen into it, partially blocking it. Alexander followed all the while, not close enough to hear her say anything, but close enough to sense that she was crying. When she was close to Harold's grave, Catharine stopped at a tree, and resting her forehead against it, she wept openly. She then heard Alexander step forwards, and she felt Alexander's hand land on her shoulder; a source of comfort, not an invasion of her privacy. Turning to him after a moment, she gulped back a sob, her cheeks still glistening with tears. Alexander's thumbs brushed her cheeks, drying them of tears, and then he held her close in his embrace. “I’m sorry, Cathy. I’m sorry about Harold, about... everything,” he breathed in her ear.
“You’ve done nothing wrong. It’s the way of the world,” Catharine replied in a broken whisper, and turning away from him, she stepped towards Harold's grave. Alexander said, “There’s no way we can escape this war, Cathy. I know I cannot stop you from fighting in it, but...” Catharine looked round and up at him, a frown creasing her brow, and Alexander went on, “I’ve seen my father secretly mourn my mother ever since she died... I don’t think I could survive if you died. Just... be careful should you ever have to fight.” Catharine’s brow cleared, and she said, “I’m going to be fighting with you, Alex. I know my mother still has admiration for your father; she would expect me to offer my services.” Alexander, stepping forwards, took Catharine’s hands in his, and said in a low voice, “but I don’t want to see you die on the battlefield, Cathy! I don’t want to leave this war knowing I’ll never know this sort of love again.” Catharine blinked in surprise, and whispered, “You... love me? You love me?” As she spoke, one of her hands slid from Alexander's to rest on her chest.
Alexander nodded, and replied, “More than anything else in this world. I could turn my back on my family, my city, my country; as long as I know that I can be your man for as long as we live.” Catharine smiled, and gasped, “Alex”, before Alexander stepped forwards and pressed his mouth to hers. Catharine moaned in surprise and pleasure, and her arms slid around his neck, as they kissed in passion, over and over and over, almost never ending. Catharine stepped back, as though trying to find a tree to lean back against, and she tripped, pulling Alexander down with her. They shared a gaze of unfathomable love, before Alexander turned and pulled Catharine onto his chest. How long they stayed like this, neither of them knew, though it was some time later when Catharine sat up. She brushed her hair behind her ear, and standing, she moved towards the stream. Alexander, leaning on his elbows, watched her as she knelt by the stream, absently washing her hands. Standing, Catharine turned to him, and simultaneously smiled and frowned, and asked, “What is it?”
Alexander replied, “Nothing, I just...” as he stood up, he went on, “you’re just so beautiful right now.” Catharine pressed her lips to his and murmured, “Save the compliments for the ball tonight, Alex.” Alexander said, “Damn, I completely forgot about that.” Catharine replied, “We’ve still got time, Alex, no need to worry.” Taking his hand, she smiled faintly, and said quietly, “come on. They’ll be wondering where we are.” Alexander, knowing she meant Keleya and Edward, replied, “We wouldn’t want to keep them waiting, would we?” Catharine laughed, and they returned to the palace. Alexander was immediately taken aside by Edward as he entered his room, and Edward said, “What did you two talk about?” Alexander replied, “Nothing. She needed someone to be there as company; I was there to do just that.” Edward said, “I know what you’re doing Alex, I’ve seen you do it for some time now. Some day you’re going to meet your match, and I’ll be there when you do.” Alexander turned to his father and replied, “How do you know I haven’t met my match already?”
Alexander was waiting in the entrance hall for Catharine, as she came down the stairs behind him. Hearing her footsteps, he turned; his expression became one of amazement. Catharine looked down at the pure white dress she wore, and looking up at him, she said, “It’s not too much, is it?” Alexander did not reply, as he looked at her. Her dress appeared to be made of a fabric made by spiders; the skirt was made up of three or four layers of thin, tissue like fabric that reached to a few inches below her knees. Her hair had grown back, and was now in a simple bun; the torso of her dress had thin, spider web lines of silver sewn into the dress. “You look amazing,” Alexander said, and Catharine smiled; looking down at her dress once again, she asked, “It’s not too much, is it?” Alexander replied, “it’s fine, Cathy. You look beautiful.” Catharine smiled, and they entered the Serckrean Great Hall. Once again, it was grand architecture, and paved with fine granite, except for where the high table stood, where the floor was paved with marble. This was where Catharine and Alexander were headed. Alexander sat next to his father, while Catharine sat on the far side of her mother from him. The evening was filled with laughter, good natured conversation and dancing.
When they left, Catharine and Alexander were both laughing. Alexander pulled Catharine to one side, and said, “Look, Catharine... I’ve got to talk to you.” Catharine smiled and said, “What is it?” Alexander became slightly restless, and Catharine frowned slightly. “We... us... it can’t happen,” Alexander said, in a sudden outburst. Catharine was shocked, and Alexander said, “I’m sorry. I misled you this afternoon, I don’t love you...” moving past her, he said, “I’m sorry.” Catharine was frozen with shock, her mind struggling to believe what he was saying. She then went to her room, as though trying to put barriers between her and the outside world. Once in her room, she slid down the door, and wept openly, unable to cope with the death of Harold, the revelation of Desnekos as her true father and Alexander's latest revelation. She stepped out onto her balcony, her tears showing no sign of stopping, and stood there long into the night. Strands of her hair came loose in the wind, but she did not brush them off of her face.
Her mother eventually entered the room, and standing behind her daughter, she did not speak. There was a long silence between them, and then Keleya said, “We need someone to go out and scout The Plains. You and Edrea are our best scouts.” Catharine did not reply, and Keleya said, “Catharine, please answer me.” Catharine was silent a moment longer, and then she replied, “Yes. I will go alone, though.” Keleya reluctantly agreed, “Very well”, and left Catharine to her thoughts. Catharine bowed her head a moment, her hands keeping her steady against the balcony rails. Then she looked up, a determined expression on her face, and brushing her tears from her cheeks and eyes, she turned into her room. She changed into a pair of simply pantyhose, which went under a pair of black trousers, and slipping on a sleeveless top, she pulled another top on top of that, and then buckled on her armour. Pulling on a pair of Astreilan wool mittens, she buckled on her sword, and looked out of the door to her balcony to the horizon, where the dark blue of night was blending into the grey of pre dawn. She retied her hair in a ponytail, and left her room.
Keleya was waiting with Alexis, in the courtyard. “Ride hard, and scout well, Catharine. Do not get into any trouble if you can,” Keleya said. Catharine, nodding once, nudged Alexis’s sides and trotted out of the palace courtyard. Keleya watched her go, a mixture of worry, pride, and anxiety clouding her face. Catharine rode as fast as she could. Once she had reached the tree line on The Plains, she dismounted, and tying Alexis’s reins to a low hanging branch, she patted his muzzle and said, “I’m just going for a look. I shouldn’t be too long – you know how to reach me.” Alexis replied, “I always know how to reach you. I just don’t know how to make you see sense.” Catharine replied, smiling, “watch it, Alexis”, and moved swiftly into a run out onto The Plains. She knelt at several places throughout The Plains, her palms pressed flat against the earth. Each time, her eyes shone an unnatural leaf green, and after a moment’s pause, she would straighten up and move on. Before long, she moved back to Alexis, when she realised she was not alone, and instinctively clicked her fingers. A magical, clear shield except for the faint outline of a disc behind her back sparked into existence, just as an arrow clattered against it.
Several black shapes flitted between the trees towards her as she mounted Alexis, and said quietly, “edresuien catheritea kelsitye!” Alexis nodded his head once, and galloped away, full of energy. The Doleas spell casters ran swiftly after her, inhumanly fast. She reached Serckrea just a few hundred metres in front of them, and the door closed behind her before they could get in. Catharine did not slow Alexis’s pace, though, until she reached the palace courtyard. Keleya approached her as she stroked Alexis’s muzzle. “Well?” she asked. “It’d make a good battle ground. I’ll need the planning table to show it properly – I got attacked and followed. By Doleas spell casters – the same as those who sent me to the Nether Realm,” Catharine replied. Keleya said, “Then we have a worse problem than we thought.” Catharine replied, “I left a trap just outside the Entrance, so they should be drained of energy.” Alexis replied, “all but the Master is; those drained of energy are dead, Cathy”, and Catharine, nodding once, sent Alexis to his stall. There was then an emergency battle meeting in the Serckrean Great Hall, and Catharine extended her hand over the planning table.
The surface took on a likeness to The Plains, and Catharine, pointing at the end closest to Alexander, said, “At that end, there is a pass. It’s the closest to Doleatraya, and the Doleayan army will have to come through that to get to Eleaya. If King Edward's armies camp up here”; at this, she pointed to the end closest to her hip, and continued, “if they camp here, then the Doleayan armies will have a harder time in battle, because they will not have room to manoeuvre.” Edward asked, “how far is it from Eleaya?” Catharine, looking pointedly at Edward, ignoring Alexander replied, “It’s two days from Serckrea, on the other side of The Plains, your majesty. From Eleaya, it’s about the same distance. I and my troops are at your disposal in this war.” Edward replied, “thank you, Catharine. The help of the Keleysanel would be very, very much appreciated in this war.” Catharine inclined her head at him, and Keleya said, “I take it you will soon be leaving to Eleaya to call your armies to war, Edward?” Edward replied, “as soon as I possibly can. Alexander will be coming with me – we leave this afternoon, if it is not too inconvenient.” Keleya and Catharine replied simultaneously, “not at all”, not looking at each other.
Edward and Alexander did indeed leave that afternoon with Anna, Sophia, Laura and Lucy. Catharine spent a few moments with the latter four, and she said, “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you I was a Serckrean princess. I would have, believe me.” Anna was the first to step forwards and embracing Catharine, she said, “it was your secret to keep, Cathy.” Sophia added, “And besides – we don’t really care about it, do we?” Lucy replied, “nah – it was an interesting surprise, though”, and Laura interjected, “yeah.” Catharine smiled, and they gathered together to have a final group hug. Alexander then took Catharine to one side, and awkwardly said, “I... I guess this is it, then.” Catharine reached a hand out to him; in it was a simple chain, with a dove made from silver with a tiny emerald for its eye. There was a sprig of olive in the beak of the dove, the leaves also made from tiny emeralds. “Take this. It’s charmed with a protective charm,” she said, “it should protect you from swords, arrows; most spell work. Your father asked if I could manage something. I started working on it before... before yesterday.”
Alexander, having looked down at it, looked up at Catharine, and then his hand closed around hers as he said, “thank you, Catharine.” Catharine’s hand slid out of his after a long moment’s hesitation, leaving the small amulet in his hand. Alexander then mounted Zanzibar, and left Serckrea; before he left, he looked back to the Seleucian palace; at the same time, Catharine looked back just before the palace gates, and their gazes seemed to meet across the distance that separated them. Zanzibar reared slightly, and Alexander left Serckrea. They rode hard and fast to Eleaya, and soon preparations were underway for the Eleayan armies to leave Eleaya in at the most four days. Sure enough, four days later, Eleayan soldiers moved through the streets; women that had gathered in the streets handed those who had their favour small bouquets of flowers, which were tucked under the head collars of their horses. They marched as quickly as they could towards The Plains, scouts moving ahead to check on the progress of Desnekos’s armies. They arrived at The Plains to find that Desnekos and his armies were still two days away.
Edrea arrived later that day with the news that Catharine and the rest of the Keleysanel would be arriving the next day. Alexander stiffened slightly as he heard the news, but Edward said nothing of it until they were alone. “I thought I told you to let Catharine be,” he said. Alexander replied, “You didn’t know anything about her until two or three weeks ago, father.” Edward replied, “Neither did you.” Alexander replied, “I knew she was an amazing woman. I knew she would’ve been honest with me had she had any choice; I knew that our friendship wasn’t what it appears to you. It was more than that.” Edward frowned slightly, and then he said, “Oh.” Alexander, stalking past his father, replied, “Exactly” and left the tent. Edward sighed, and bowed his head before leaving the tent as well. Edrea was standing at the very edge of the camp, her face turned to look out over The Plains. Alexander approached her and asked, “Where exactly are they now?”
Edrea, looking at the prince, smiled briefly and replied, “She can look after herself, my Lord. But she is not far from the Doleas armies, with the rest of her men. They will all be on their guard tonight, my Lady most of all. She worries for her men more than herself.” Alexander said, “You like her?” Edrea looked at Alexander once more, her hair blowing in the wind, and replied, “She is a good leader, my Lord. And a very considerate younger sister, despite her being away so long – her time in Eladreaya has done her a lot of good, in spite of all my initial fears – although her situation with you could be a lot better.” Alexander, blinking at the sudden revelation of Edrea’s relation to Catharine, replied, “That was not my choice, Edrea, though I wish I had defied my father in that.” Edrea smiled, and commented, “There is still time to save her admiration for you, my Lord, though a battlefield is not the ideal place to win a woman’s heart.” Alexander replied, “Through my obedience to my father, I fear, not through any plan of the fates.” Edrea turned to him and said, “don’t hurt her feelings again, my Lord, because you will not have just my mother coming after you.” Alexander replied, “I will not be making the same mistakes again, Edrea. You have my honest word on that.” Edrea replied, “I hope I do, my Lord.”