Wow… it's been a while.

This Kitty fic is set some time in FRC, since that's when KZ had the meeting with Spane The Pain and other nobles from Coutre – first time in canon that we see KZ being pressured into the marriage. (Unfortunately I wrote the earlier chapters before re-reading the book, so there are a few bits which contradict canon… bonus points if you can tell me what they are :) )

Luckily, in my fic universe here, Coutre's dastardly ways have been exposed by our hero Mr Felinius Rex shortly before it got to that point.

I really liked a GR oneshot by Once Upon a Faerytale, called "Dreamcatcher". I thought it fitted in with this AU, so I have permission from the lovely author to adopt it.

So – go and read it if you haven't already – that One-shot is intended to fit in after the chapters I've done so far but preceding this chapter – and then come back and read this. Huzzah!

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Chapter 4

The mending wing seemed quieter than usual as Karigan padded down the main corridor. Of course, since the episode where she had swung her sabre at Ben, most of the menders avoided her. Except for Ben, who somehow seemed understanding about the whole thing, and Master Mender Destarion, who refused to let himself by cowed by anyone, patient or no.

She breathed a sigh of relief as she exited and headed off towards the east wing, the great oaken door clicking shut behind her; despite the fact that she had only been visiting Mara, and not a patient herself, it was always a sense of freedom to be leaving that place. This time, she thought. You had better keep your wits about you Kari, before more trouble finds you.

She startled to hear the sound of boots approaching behind her, and turned to find the King's secretary Cummings, looking unusually flustered.

"Are there you are, Rider. The King requests your presence in his study." He nodded once and hurried off the way he'd come, before she had the chance to wonder why he hadn't just sent a Green Foot runner to fetch her.

She paused before turning down another passageway that led to the royal quarters. She smiled to herself, remembering the hot chocolate she had shared only a few nights ago with the King. Her heart gave a small lurch, thinking of the warm expression in his brown eyes when he told her to call him Zachary.

She thought he looked much happier these days, now that Captain Mapstone was back to her old self, but their encounter in the kitchens showed how much still weighed on him, constantly. Having the Captain at his side in the many meetings would surely be a comfort though; she hadn't been needed at any meetings now, for which she could only be glad, since she hadn't felt able to contribute much.

As she had attended the meetings she realised just how much she admired the king – for his patience, his unwavering dedication to his subjects, his sense of fairness, his ability to deal firmly but kindly with all manner of people and topics. No, he didn't need her advice, but sitting in the dim light of the kitchen she had felt he appreciated her company; they had a kinship in their struggle to do their duty. But, that was where they differed, she mused; while she acted out of fear, caught in events bigger than herself and struggling constantly to hold herself together, he had the power to deal confidently with his duties, the support and advisors around him to do so effortlessly. But yet, in spite of all his power and exulted station, he kept finding ways to show her the man beneath the crown. One who – her cheeks heated at this thought – singled her out and chose to see the honourable part of her, the part beneath all her doubts and fears. One who, seeing her distressed at the loss of friend, had held her while she cried and covered her in his greatcoat.

She had felt his distress when the news came about Alton's disappearance, and of course he was affected, he cared for his subjects, and especially his Riders, she knew. But there was another sadness in him when he looked at her. She chewed this over in her mind as she walked down a wider corridor.

The sadness, she realised, was in empathy for her own sadness. "I know he was your friend", he had said, looking sorrowfully at her. And was he? She knew she felt something for Alton, something she hadn't wanted to examine fully at the time, whether it was more than the friendship that they had.

She shook herself and realised her feet had stopped moving, and that she stood in front of the King's study door. Another pair of boots stood near her own, and she raised her eyes to look up at a bemused-looking Fastion. She cleared her throat, embarrassed at being caught daydreaming, and unconsciously smoothed her uniform.

"The – the king asked to see me." Fastion, to his credit, only nodded respectfully and moved to open the door.

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The late summer breeze curled invitingly as she entered the large room. She glanced around to find its source, then stopped short. The room looked larger, and barer and she stood perplexed for a moment before hearing a chuckle from near the open window.

"I found myself not quite so fond of all the suits of armour after our little… adventure the other day."

Of course, she thought, feeling her cheeks heat up in embarrassment. The Weapons and other castle staff had carefully dismantled all remaining suits of armour in the corridors; of course that would apply also to his own personal suite. Not only that, but her cheeks heated further as she thought in embarrassment of their late night meeting in the kitchens, and how somehow despite all the worries he must be facing – murderous suits of armour, dark magic loose in the land, the traitorous actions of Lords Coutre and now d'Ivary, the problems in d'Yer with the wall, Captain Mapstone only recently returned to duty – despite all this, he managed to smile and share a drink with her, and be concerned about her worries, her emotional turmoil. And she hadn't thought once of his. Not that she hadn't thought of him, it was a little hard not to, these days. That moment of landing on top of him, after wrestling that suit of armour, had been all too interesting. She cast her eyes at the wall above his desk, looking something to say to fill the awkward silence.

"That's a nice, um, painting you have there."

He laughed again. "Well after removing the decorative weaponry the room was rather bare, so that one was moved in from further down the wing. It is not quite to my taste, but that can be remedied shortly."

Truthfully she couldn't imagine anyone liking it, the large picture with dark green trees forming a backdrop for what was meant to be a hunting scene; in the foreground half a dozen large savage dogs ripped apart a deer, their muzzles dripping blood onto the earth. It was grizzly, and downright depressing.

She turned back to him, and saw him still trying to suppress a smile. "I needn't ask what you think of it, the look on your face is quite sufficient. Laren told me she thought people might take me more seriously with that kind of décor. I think she was joking. At least, I hope she was."

The twinkle in his eye as he gestured towards the armchairs by the fireplace told her he wasn't bothered by either sentiment. She sat carefully in one of them, and accepted a cup of what looked like a cool lemon beverage before he sat in the other.

"How do you do it?" she said suddenly, before she had the chance to marvel at her own boldness. After all, she knew him, but not that well, and he was the king after all. He raised one brown eyebrow, prompting her to explain. "With so many problems, and you're expected to solve all of them, and the intrigues and the politics, how do you stay so… unaffected? And I heard about what happened with d'Ivary, and… "

She trailed off uncertainly, catching a dark flash in his eyes at the mention of the suffering that he surely blamed on his own failure of judgement.

He sighed, the levity that had been there slipping from his shoulders, forcing him to grip his own cup tighter. She cursed herself silently and opened her mouth to apologise, but he shook his head slightly, frowning and appearing to withdraw into himself for a few minutes.

Finally he set his cup down and turned slightly towards her. "It's not… it's not easy, being the king." In spite of himself his mouth lifted slightly, as if amused by the obviousness of this statement. He leaned forward as he spoke again, the earnestness in his face endearing.

"It's true there are many expectations, and now more than ever, problems that our country faces. And never doubt it, I take my responsibility very seriously, I care deeply for my people. I think – I think you know this. I used to be a very serious young monarch indeed, although somewhat cynical perhaps, before a certain young lady whirled into my throne room and had the audacity to question my knowledge about the state of my own kingdom. But over time, I've come to see that the threats to the kingdom would only multiply if I were to wear myself to the bone. I've grown into a wise old man, and I now learn to take what comfort I can, from those around me. It's friendship such as Laren's, and yours, Karigan, which buoys me."

Her jaw dropped, and she tried to gather her wits to protest this; that as she was constantly the constant bearer of terrible news, this could hardly be the case; but he smiled and she found herself somewhat dazed by his almond eyes. She blinked and found it necessary to study the pattern on the rug for a few moments.

"Forgive me Karigan," his gentle tone drew her gaze back to him "- if I sound overly sentimental, but knowing I can trust you means a lot to me. It's rare to find people whose actions aren't calculated to get what they want from me, however innocent that may be. Even the castle terriers want a pat or a nice titbit here and there," he finished, a studied lightness finding its way back into his expression.

She glanced again at the rug in front of the empty hearth, grasping his mention of said dogs as a welcome distraction. "And where is Finder this afternoon?"

"The stable master has some new apprentice lads, and they've apparently decided the dogs needed a decent grooming." They shared a grin at this, for surely no more pampered pooches existed anywhere in the kingdom.

The afternoon light waned as they talked about inconsequential matters, and Karigan felt she'd never been so at ease around him. Somehow it helped that he'd spoken so openly, and she felt she understood him a little.

Eventually she stood to take her leave, the Weapon by the door moving to open it for her. Zachary – for he had insisted yet again that she should call him that – took her hand and kissed it gallantly. However his expression grew more serious as he held her hand for a moment. "Karigan, promise me something – Laren may approach you and the other Riders with a proposal – please say you'll consider it carefully before agreeing?"

She started to withdraw her hand from his, "But what is she suggesting, and why are you so concerned – ouch!" she exclaimed loudly. She shook her hand before examining the offending part of her finger in consternation.

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Felinious Rex was walking jauntily down the corridor past the Royal Suite, tail held high. He'd had an interesting visit with his mouse-friends – something was definitely a-foot with the Second Empire humans, they told him, or rather one might say a-paw, he smirked to himself. Then he'd had a very successful trip to the kitchens, where one of the under-cooks had fed him post-lunch scraps of bacon and chicken stew. After sunning himself in the courtyard, he'd encountered one of the stable cats, a lovely lady with brown eyes; mind you, being no ordinary cat made a permanent agreement somewhat tricky, but there'd be no harm in a little dalliance in the future, hm?

And now he was wending his way back to Karigan's rooms, to check on things there. Her nice bed didn't hurt either. That said – he could smell her scent here. He stopped outside the door, nose twitching and barely glancing at Willis, who was giving him a rather stern glare. Karigan must be inside that room.

All of a sudden he heard a loud "ouch", and then sounds of discomfort. What if – he thought of the nasty humans with dead trees drawn onto their hands – what if they'd got a hold of her? He must save Karigan! He looked at the black-clad Weapon who looked back at him for a moment with the same wide-eyed expression, before they both looked at the door. Willis put his hand on the doorknob, pausing for a split second before swinging it open, and they both rushed into the room.

There was Karigan, who at that moment gave another muffled sound of pain, and the king, who had been holding her hand, but had at that moment released it with a look of satisfaction – and another weapon on this side of the door, who was looking on without concern. All three of them swivelled to stare at Willis, who suddenly looked rather embarrassed, and then looked down at the cat by his side. Despite this sudden scrutiny, Felinious Rex made his way swiftly to Karigan and butted his head against her, determined to make sure she was alright.

Karigan now had her finger in her mouth, and bent to scratch behind his ear with her other hand. "Hello there Kitty," she murmured, "did you come to save me from the splinter?"

As Willis looked rather bewildered – and Felix did too, but it would have been indecipherable to a human – Zachary grinned and explained. "Seems our Rider here had a splinter in her hand from training with Drent. I think we got it out now."

His grin grew as Karigan scowled at the thought of the horrid training, which had involved lifting heavy pieces of wood with one arm, in an attempt to strengthen her injured wrist. Or so he said – it could easily be mistaken for a form of sadistic torture. The Weapons looked solemn as if they quite understood – which all things considered, they probably did – and the white cat flattened his ears, although that may have been because Karigan was now scratching under his chin in a most gratifying way. In fact, he'd be tempted to roll on the floor on his back, if it weren't that that was what the castle mutts did, and he was much too self-respecting for that.

Karigan sighed, and straightened, rolling her eyes at Zachary, who was starting to laugh.

"Looks like you've got a furry saviour there, Rider."

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Later on after dinner though, all thoughts of levity were gone. Captain Mapstone had called a meeting of all the Green Riders in the common room, and so every armchair, stool and available surface had a Rider perched upon it. Garth's eyes were unusually downcast, and even Tegan looked solemn.

Laren looked upon them all sadly. "I'm sure by now all of you have heard the news about Alton." There were muffled murmurs of assent. "Officially we've been told we must assume that he's dead. However –" she continued, "despite the unfortunate passing of his uncle Lord Landrew in trying to find Alton, I don't believe he is dead." There were startled looks at this, but her audience remained captivated, a silent hope rising.

"Reports tell us that the provincial troops stationed there are stretched thin, dealing with attacks from beyond the wall, tending their injured and continuing to patrol the area of the breach. But Alton was one of us, we won't abandon him while there's still hope. My plan is to send a delegation of Riders to the wall and if there's any chance he's still alive, we will go into Blackveil, and we will find him. This is not an order, but some of you whose abilities may come in handy, may wish to volunteer." Karigan could feel the Captain's gaze fall on her, and then move to the back corner of the room, where she knew Lynx was leaning against the wall.

"I want all of you to think on this tonight. And come and see me tomorrow. Dismissed."

So, that was it, thought Karigan numbly. What the king had tried to warn her about. The Captain wanted her to go into that most dreadful of places, from whence no one could possibly expect to return – into Blackveil.

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so - there it is... A strange mix of drama and humour, I know, but I must write what comes! Planning to get this out of my head before Book 6 comes out.

Reviews would be most gratifying, as Kitty would say!