I appreciated the Princess' eagerness. But sharing the back of a giant traveling turtle with the most powerful faerie in the world, whether judged by political power or magical ability. Especially when this was also a person who had met her on a number of occasions.
It did not seem to be the most effective way to preserve her anonymity.
I looked into my Princess' eyes as she smiled. Convinced I would support her, and I'm certain affectionate and unwilling to hold it against me if I didn't.
That accepting excited smile on her exquisitely expressive little face brought me back to the first time I'd spoken with the Princess.
I had only seen the maiden I'd been called to serve in passing for the first six weeks I'd been at Court.
That changed one morning, when I was shackled in the punishment corner. A place where the stable walls met the walls of the grand hotel used as The Eastern Palace. The walls had been extended a bit to leave a twelve foot square courtyard open to the sky but nearly completely walled to obstruct the view of curious humans and block such necessities as staff flogging from the delicate eyes of the nobility.
I had refused to accompany my assigned partner out into the mixed blood and lowborn clubs of Greenwich Village to find the necessary maidens for the amusement of the Crown Prince.
It had been the first time I had been ordered to this duty, but I had worked the other side of the Prince's rape machine several times by then. Taking the scared, violated, and often injured girls away from the palace and back to their homes or, if necessary, the hospital.
It was part of our job to threaten and intimidate the girls away from going to the human authorities or trying to involve anyone from the outside in these situations. We all knew no one in the faerie community would even consider opposing.
I would just explain their options. Being Hound trained, whether I took my vows or not, I was not going to threaten or intimidate a vulnerable innocent. But it was a fact that after a night with the Prince a woman's options were limited.
She could take comfort that it was over. The Prince liked variety and even if he had chosen to call again, his parents had given us standing orders that any girl he asks to see again must be paid off and flown from the country rather than risking him deciding he was in love with a woman of the classes he sought sport fucking in.
Most fae could choose when to get pregnant but if the girl was too weak, or something simply went wrong; there was something in place to provide the absolute best medical care and easiest most comfortable abortions possible for any woman who turned up pregnant within a year of laying with the Prince.
But that was basically it. Except for trying to move past it, and get on with their lives. Any attempts to prosecute or seek retribution would be met with violence beyond any reasonable conception.
I asked myself daily why I was not given the command to kill the Mad Prince. Any of my tribe regardless of vows might be given that command in a situation like this. But still that deep quiet voice that spoke the gods' will occasionally within me remained silent.
Not even silent, because it more said 'not yet' then 'no', it was just a diffuse feeling through my body and mind but it did seem to say, 'that's not who you are there to deal with'. With just a hint of, 'not yet'.
Perhaps it was because while he was definitely raping them by my definition, and I'm sure by the gods' and maybe even the human law. But they went willingly, knowing they were being invited to the palace to have sex with the Prince. They signed on and agreed to that.
What they didn't know until it was too late was the Prince was a true sexual sadist. Not even the fun kinky kind. I was more than half certain he could not perform sexually with a girl unless he had hurt her to the point that she changed her mind and then he forced her anyway.
In he end, I did not like to even try to guess the desires and opinions of the gods. The guilty prospered and the innocent suffered. And there was no rhyme or reason in the world as far as my eyes could discern.
All I knew was I would never have anything to do with such acts. I would clean up his messes for a time while I waited for the opportunity to befriend the Princess and hopefully get her to agree to run from her parents demesnes and escape to the comparative safety of the Western Court. But under no circumstances would I help him make the messes.
This meant I had been flogged to falling at dawn and left to hang there, from the whipping post, til dusk. I was not guarded. I was bound anyway and they trusted my honor to prevent me from escaping. Although I think it was widely acknowledged that I could.
My partner and the closest I had to a friend in the Guard had been forced to carry out my punishment. Which was all the harder on him because he knew I was right. However he was deemed to be too easy on me and was hung on the other side of the post in the time it took him to begin weeping in expectation.
This lad had no business being a guard. Being a great fighter wasn't the only thing required. Some natural hardness and stoicism must be in place. Six weeks working beside him convinced me this lad ought to be a governor, as in the male of a governess, not a politician.
He loved children was not only intelligent, but quick witted. His martial prowess would better serve protecting the children of a noble house and gently instructing them in their own swordsmanship lessons. I told him as much and his heart agreed but his head told him his family would not be proud of a male nursemaid as they were a knight.
The whip master was enough of a bully that he was incensed by how easily the lad wept and went all the harder on him. Flogging to falling became flogging to unconsciousness because he fell on the first stroke, and there he hung by his wrists, his legs weak from shock and pain, writhing and crying out as blow after blow landed. Only to end when he lost consciousness and hung limp.
Now two hours later I knew he was awake. But he still hung, eyes open but blank, no effort made to plant his feet although I knew for a fact his weight hanging from the bonds was dislocating his shoulders from their moorings with agonizing slowness. Now if he moved but did not instantly plant his feet they would immediately tear loose completely.
I knew he was permanently damaged mentally as well as physically and I could not bear it.
Knowing this had happened to him because he showed me mercy I used one of the least known and least used of the powers of my tribe. I scraped my shoe off against my leg. Much harder than it looked as it was a boot laced tight to my calf. I had to twist my leg back and forth to loosen the laces then scrape it against my leg to inch it down. Then repeating the motion until maybe half an hour later I got it off and reached my leg around the post to touch him with my bare toes. Focusing my breathing and my concentration I said, "Within and without; flesh, mind, and spirit ; I take your pain."
I felt is lashings bloom on my skin with shooting burning pain. My muscles became strained and deeply bruised as I took his partially dislocated shoulders as well.
My mind was momentarily blinded with betrayal and hopelessness so black it physically darkened my eyes to shadow; as if an eclipse had taken the sun.
Finally my mind was clouded so quickly and completely it almost obscured the pain. Since the betrayal and spiritual pain were not my own they lessened almost immediately as my inner self shook them off.
This was because I was not the sort of person who took such things as personally as he did, but they did leave their mark and if I did this often enough it would shape me over into such a person.
The physical injuries were not shaken off so easily, but my tribe not only was more difficult to damage but also healed much more quickly than a faerie. So even in a moment they were just that tiny bit better than they would have been if he had still borne them.
The lad was standing, bearing his own weight and looking at me with clear eyes. "Lady Samothrace, What have you done?"
"Being tied to this post until dusk is sufficient punishment for you putting your trust and loyalty in an unworthy vessel. I will have you take no more than that on my account. So I took the tangible injuries unto myself and the mental. You retain the memories, because it is not my will to steal your experiences only your pain. But I expect in a few days they will be almost like a dream."
"Why? How?" He asked in wonder.
"Why, I just finished answering, you daft boy. And how is my own business. I only hope you learn from this and seek a life that you can take pride in."
Since he took his punishment in full and more so, he would be allowed to quit with no hard feelings and even a recommendation of the Knight Commander, for the time he had worked.
The comparatively honorable commandants knew the guard was not for everyone. So the worst he'd face is cruel taunts from his peers but I hoped he would leave the palace and the area before he'd even gotten many of those.
"Is my resignation your price for what you've done?" He asked.
"No, if I asked any payment I would be betraying the spirit of the gift. Not that I would choose to even if I could. It is me asking as a friend if this experience gave you pause. If, perhaps, you agree now, with the evidence you have observed, that these orders do not suit your temperament or your personal code of honor. If, by chance, you choose to make a life elsewhere?"
"I suppose I do, friend." He said. The last part of him that was willing to balk because he did not want my pity, disintegrated when he saw I was not keeping score, only offering my own heartfelt opinion.
"I cried and wailed like a schoolboy being strapped." He said. Allowing himself to accept and feel all he had been blocking, in an effort to be someone he wasn't, he now had thoughts that must be heard.
"I know." I said. Lying now would serve no one. He knew what he'd done. "It doesn't matter."
"I am a man, and a knight. I should not have cried like that." He said.
"You are a man. A strong and honorable one. That is a fact. And yes it is a fact that a knight should not have carried on like you did. But my friend you are not yet a knight. And I believe you should not try to be one. You would have to strangle too much of who you are to fill that role. Even if you were successful, you would mourn the loss of yourself the rest of your life. If you didn't mourn it would be because you had truly killed that part, which would almost be worse." I said.
His eyes looked pained for a moment then he just nodded, with melancholy finality. "The Crown Prince will destroy the entire court if allowed to rule." He said, shifting the subject from himself, but not really changing it.
"True." I said. "But the King and Queen will not see reason. I believe their dynasty will be sacrificed to his arrogance and their blindness. But the Court will not be lost, the Faerie Queen will step in to name successors of her choice if necessary."
"It's foolishness and sad that they are so ridiculously confident in their own superiority and through their line, his." The lad said. "And yet they can completely disregard their daughter who might make a fine Queen. No one knows because she is not allowed to even be a Princess, so no one can imagine her a Queen."
"In a family of madness the sane one can become the scapegoat, because they resent that someone can be untouched by the rot that fills them near to bursting... Well not untouched," I caught myself. "She bears scars I'm sure. A multitude probably. But she is effected by their madness without being infected with it."
"I don't think Mother and Father are mad. I certainly hope not." A voice said and Sam was able to turn enough to see the Princess approaching. "The Prince, you'd never believe me if I denied it, so I shan't."
The Princess looked foolish, but even with their short and distant acquaintance, Sam knew it would hurt the girl to mention it, even in a way where Sam tried to advise her what to do different next time.
The Princess had left her ornate gown someplace and instead wore only a camisole and bloomers, both were dusty but obviously of a quality beyond even the concept of a commoner. Over the top she wore a horse blanket. With her head poked through a hole in the center her arms through two roughly symmetrical holes in the front. It stopped her from walking about outside in her underthings but made her no less conspicuous. I had caught more than one glimpse of the Princess watching me from a perch in the eaves of the palace. So I was not surprised to find that she liked to shinny through the duct work in her shirt and pants when her indifferent family thought she was quietly sitting in her room. Where they preferred she stay, so they didn't have to look on her.
She was small and slim in a way most purebloods of noble families were tall and slim. She was the height I was at fifteen with the body I had before my breasts and hips came in. But I knew her to be nearly my age and her body to have reached its full growth.
Her hair was done in fat ringlets that would have looked more fitting on a doll than framing her small triangular face. "You were talking about me." She said, not accusingly, but certainly surprised. "And my family. Too nice on my part, too hard on theirs."
"I respectfully disagree, Princess." I said.
"I saw what you did." She accused, jerking her head at the lad, who watched us with shocked silence.
"Well, I saw what you did." I accused back.
She looked terrified for a moment but then caught that I might be teasing and asked. "And what was that?" Ninety percent serious and ready to bolt, but open to play and speak for at least another minute or two if I handled her gently.
"You approved of me saving him." I said.
She actually looked shocked for a moment. "I did not! The pain of some strange knight means nothing to me when compared to you taking your punishment and his on top of it. I'd much rather you were healed. No offense, Sir Knight." She added as an afterthought.
"I'm no knight and never will be. And I don't disagree that the Lady Sam deserves comfort and healing more than I."
"Hush the both of you," I said. "His punishment was because of me and if he took my pain as well that would be him punished doubly for something entirely my fault. Or my decision rather; because I cannot see the saving of an innocent, when I balked at that order, being a fault."
"Why not take him to a healer?" She asked.
"Healers don't repair damage caused in punishment. And besides as you may have seen, we are both tied to this post." I said.
She peered into my eyes as she added this information to her opinion of my action. Then with a nod she said, "We have never been introduced. I am Catarina of the House of Valentine.
"I am Sam. Of Puckett House." I added.
Though we both used 'house' in our introduction, her use meant house as in dynasty. While I actually meant the building I was born in. Yes my entire family had lived and trained in that manor once. It still was a significant difference.
"I like you Sam Puckell." She announced.
"Puckett." I corrected.
"Perhaps," She allowed, clearly not quite agreeing.
"Glad to finally meet you in person, Princess Cat. With the climbing you do, Cat suits you. Or maybe Monkey," I teased. "Madame Marmoset on formal occasions."
She snarled at me, but was clearly playing and just as clearly was loving the attention.
Unfortunately, I knew there wouldn't be many chances the two of us could talk. So I decided to sacrifice the easy camaraderie of the moment to make sure some things that needed to be said were said.
"You know your brother is as dangerous as he is mad. Even to you. Even though he's your brother."
She laughed deep and long, but entirely without humor. "You must be new, my Lady. And I'm sorry to laugh. But no one walking the earth knows my brother's danger more than me. I just have no choice but to bear the risk. To bear anything that comes, where he is concerned."
I knew the truth of her words. At least at that moment. "Sorry, of course you do. But every day is a new beginning and what is true today may change tomorrow. Thank you for meeting with me. It was a pleasure. I hope when next we meet it will be in better circumstances. But now you must go before you are seen."
"Do you want me to free you before I go?" She asked.
"No, it'd be better not. But if you could hold my boot so I could slip back into it, I'd like to keep them guessing about what happened to the lad. Perhaps I'll say the gods healed him because the punishment was unjust."
The Princess laughed with me a moment and then she had my shoe both on and re-laced in a trice. Quite good when I thought of the fact she would have possibly never laced her own shoes let alone someone else's.
She gave me a small kiss on the cheek with her goodbye. Not unusual with our affectionate people, and possibly meaning nothing. But I liked to hope at least she thought me a friend.
Now, five months later, she is my closest friend, and she had made it clear that she wishes we could be more. A fantasy I treasured to my heart but could not conceive as a realistic possibility. I was a good and honorable person, I did not make less of myself than I was. I would make some woman a marvelous bride one day, but a Princess, even in exile, could not be with someone like me.
There was no way she could be in hiding forever, and I don't think either of us ever expected her to. She would just take this time to come into her own, with my help and the rest of our little rag tag six member mini-clan.
I could see her compassion, but I could also see her strength. Both strength of character and raw magical power. I truly believed that spending a bit of time finding her path and becoming confident walking it, would allow her to be able to face her family on their own level and demand the respect she deserved.
The boys were the last to arrive, and all three of the rest of us were in favor of starting our meeting without them. Since they were the Princess' servants and would not be willing to vote against her, even if they wanted to. So it was a waste to delay.
But the Princess was the sole dissenting voice and she did make a good point. "I was once a Princess and I might be again, though part of me hopes not. Regardless, at the moment I am a simple mixed blood girl, with no unusual skills or features, except I happened to study a little harder than most, when learning Faery.
All six of us must think of me only as Cat Valiant."
I'd suggested the pseudonym because it was similar enough that the Princess would immediately recognize it written or spoken. It sounded like a mispronunciation of her true name but since the Princess's name was always given as Princess Catarina or Princess Catarina of the House of Valentine, no one would hear Cat Valiant and even think of Her Highness.
I was right though. The boys just agreed with everything Cat said. We could have had the meeting without them for all the help they gave.
Although I can't honestly say any of us was particularly eloquent. Cat argued that it would be fun and interesting and no one could deny that. But she also argued that there simply was no other opportunity that compared to managing security for The Cirque during the summer of the Faerie Queen, if we wanted to make a name for ourselves. Another point no one could deny.
I still was worried practically green about the possibility of Cat being discovered as the Princess.
Oddly it was Jade, my cousin's wife, who put me in my place. "Sam, you need to stop infantilizing her, that's exactly what her family has been doing. Even if you think you are doing it to protect her. Cat is an adult, past saining.
As far as I understand your culture, she can do anything she wants. There might be a social price to pay but she doesn't have to do as her parents say, and she certainly doesn't have to be raped by her brother. She could kill him for trying and face no retribution. Sam, you couldn't kill him on her behalf, because he's royalty and you're not. But anything Cat did to him herself is fine. The only reason that it might not be best to show herself and ask the Queen's protection is she isn't likely to be willing to take sides.
In fact I'm only now realizing that Cat's plan for the future doesn't include killing her family and ruling in their stead because she is too kind and fears that she will never be strong enough. I thought she just didn't wish to be Queen. Which actually would be a worse crime in the Faerie Queen's eyes. If I'm not mistaken, she is one who feels royal families are chosen. Although it was her grandmother who created new royal families to reign in the new world. So I personally don't see where chosen by the gods fits into it."
Tori said. "You're right about the Queen and Cat's right to retribution as long as she does it herself. Against anyone else Sam can act in her stead as her champion. But not against royalty.
I said, "All truth absolutely. I ignored it because when she escaped she was years younger inside in many ways. Though it's been only three weeks.
She takes in new information and happily grows from it. She's still far from ready. But we do need to think of that as an option. We need to entertain all realistic options. It is Cat's decision in the end. But we should never discount an option's existence just because she is not presently interested in pursuing it."
"Blah, blah, blah; whatever." Cat said, "This is a meeting to decide if we are taking the offer to work the Cirque for the summer. Not discuss what I may or may not one day do about my relatives."
Dice laughed, "Work the Cirque, that rhymes."
"I know, right?" Cat said, slapping his palm in the way of humans.
In the end we all agreed that if Cat was willing to risk her disguise, it really was an incomparable opportunity to get a reputation in a couple months that some businesses take years or even longer to build.
We had to do it.