'But where are you actually going?'
High in the castle, in lavish quarters of golden stone, a golden haired young woman almost stamped her foot in exasperation. She was not beautiful, but neither was she a hag; her nose was a tad overlarge and her eyes the green of ripe grapes, though in that light they were grey as quartz and just as sharp. Her splendidly plain dress bunched as she crossed her arms, leaf silk to match her gaze and a dark bodice to match her mood.
Before her a man toyed with a sword, twisting it in the air and striking the emptiness with concerning agility. His hair was black as oak, his eyes glinted an emerald sheen of onyx. He wore black; black clothes, black boots, olive skin. Shadows swayed about him like a cloak.
His name was Septimus, and he was not a nice person.
He paused in his swordplay and raised his eyebrows as if her question was absurdly simplistic.
'To find the stone, of course,' he replied. His voice was deep, smooth, soothing; like the rolling waters that came before the sudden drop to the rocks below.
'Yes, but where will it be?' she enunciated every syllable as if addressing a dimwit. He sheathed his sword and answered in the same mocking tone.
'I don't know. It wouldn't be a quest other wise, would it?'
'Oh, I see. A quest.' she repeated gloomily. He smiled and moved towards her.
'You worry for me.' he stated softly.
'Of course I do, Lord. You are most precious to me, as a master and as a friend. You are,' she swallowed, 'everything.' She bit her lip, suddenly embarrassed.
'Your loyalty does you credit. As does your friendship.' He drew closer to her, unblinking. She felt the heat from him, and the damp tickle of his breath on her nose. There was a hot, hesitant silence.
'But suppose someone else gets there before you?' she blurted, breaking the moment. Septimus raised his gaze to the painted ceiling and turned away.
'"Someone", Isabel? I assume by "someone" you mean my brother Primus?'
'Not just him, it could- just a moment. Why did you not say Tertius?' Isabel Donner narrowed her eyes. Long ago she had learned that Septimus' words were never chosen by chance. He faced her, looking guilty.
'I did intend to tell you…'
'Oh, Sep! Why?' she wailed. 'I could understand Secundus, forgive you Secundus, but what threat was poor Tertius?'
'He was my brother; therein was his threat. By the way, I'm glad to hear you call me that again, Bell…'
'Don't change the subject, Sep!' He sighed, and held up his hands in surrender.
'All right, I apologise. I apologise for killing Tertius. Am I forgiven?' Isabel pursed her lips but nodded, tartly. Septimus smiled.
'Good. What were you saying?'
'That anybody could get to this stone thing before you. A peasant could just happen upon it, or-'
'How can you be so sure?'
'Because,' he laid a hand on the hilt of his sword, 'I will get there first.'
'Oh, well. That's all right then. That's fine. I suppose I'll just break out the bunting and organise the parade for your triumphant return as king, shall I?' she said in a voice of molten sarcasm.
'Actually, Bell, I was wondering if you'd like to come with me.' Bell blinked.
'On the quest. You could accompany me. We don't spend enough time together anymore-'
'You are very busy.' she defended him, flustered at the unexpectedness of his offer. 'Affairs of state, knocking off your remaining brothers…' Bell glanced up to see if he had caught her jest. She so longed to see him laugh as he once had, before the ghosts had begun to gather about his shoulders.
He laughed, loudly.
'Indeed. So what do you say?'
'Yes, a hundred times yes. It would be a great honour, and besides…'
'I would worry too much if I didn't come with you. It would be torture to remain here at the castle, to sit and wait for your return. Wondering if you would return.' She smiled shyly. 'I am your servant, my Lord. I swore never to leave your side unless ordered away, and I never intended to.'
'Excellent,' he took her hand and held it to his mouth, where he brushed a kiss over her knuckles, seeming not to notice her breath deepen and flutter, 'for I never intend to order you away. We ride in an hour. Meet me at the stables – and bring your knife.' He released her and strode across the floor. Over his shoulder he added: ' You may need it.'
Bell the serving girl watched Prince Septimus disappear through the heavy doors. She stood still for some moments, staring at the space he had just occupied with glazed, green eyes.
'Oh, Sep.' She murmured. Then she stepped over to an ornate chest of drawers set against the wall and pulled the topmost one open. Out of it she took a bundle of cloth, which she unwrapped to reveal a pretty little knife. Beautiful to look at, but still very much a weapon for stabbing people and killing them stone dead.
That had been one of the first things her Prince had taught her when he had given her lessons on life; just because something is attractive and harmless looking doesn't mean it should be trusted. Trust nothing, and nobody but him.
'An "adventure".' Bell pondered. 'God preserve us all.'