Dear Ella,

I wanted to take this opportunity to apologize for

Dear Ella,

What is it that you find so offensive about me that you felt the need to

Dear Ella,

I said I would write to you and so I am, but you can't possibly expect me to bare my soul to you when you refuse even to

Ella of Frell,

As your sovereign, I hereby command you to divulge any secret you may possess affecting your interactions with

Dearest Ella,

I am so sorry I didn't get the chance to see you before I left. I had hoped to ask you a question – [will you] [would you ever consider] [do you]

Dear Ella,

Do you really think you're too young to marry?

I set down my pen and crumpled up the latest attempt at a letter. Nothing sounded right. I couldn't apologize when I wasn't sure what I was apologizing for, couldn't demand an explanation, couldn't carry on as if nothing had happened. I was running out of ink and parchment, the fire was burning low, and still I had nothing.

It would all have been much simpler if I could have just confronted Ella in person, but I couldn't bring myself to regret the late night with my family, even though it meant I was so late in waking that I had to rush just to get through my morning routine before Father was practically dragging me to set out.

For the most part, my party was the same as it had been for border patrol, but Sir Aubrey had been replaced with Sir Richard, a lad not much older than I. He hadn't been with the military very long, but he had family in Ayortha, which made him an ideal candidate to stay with me and provide translation and bodyguard services as needed when the rest of the men continued on to various temporary assignments.

A rustle from the underbrush brought me sharply back to the present, and at once I was on my feet. The night would really be complete if a band of ogres invaded the camp on my watch.

"Who's there?"

The wood was quiet, but it was the quiet of someone trying not to make a noise, rather than the quiet of no one there.

I raised my bow. "In the king's name, show yourself." Silence. My eyes found a pale spot near a tree, and I took aim. "Show yourself or I'll shoot."

The pale spot resolved into a form as the man stepped forward. I blinked. "Sir Richard?"

He waved his hands in the air. "Me, 's me. Don' 'urt me."

"Where on earth have you been?" As far as I knew, he should have been asleep in the camp with the rest of the men. Guard duty didn't change for a few hours yet, and even then it was Sir John's turn.

Sir Richard stepped forward to clap a hand on my shoulder. "J'st out, Y'r Highness. Di'nt mean t' wake ya."

"I wasn't asleep, I was on guard duty… are you drunk?"

"J'st a little," he said, holding two fingers apart.

"Sir Richard, I can smell your breath from here. Where did you even find a tavern? The nearest town is half a league at least."

"I sniff 'em out. Got the nose for it," he said, tapping his nose and waggling his eyebrows.

I sighed, realizing I'd get no sense out of the man tonight. "Go to sleep, soldier. We'll talk in the morning."

He gave a wobbly salute but made no move to leave. "Whatchu guardin'? Looks like letters t' me."

I quickly stuffed my parchment out of sight. "Sir Richard. You are intoxicated and insubordinate. Please go to sleep before you make things worse for yourself."

He gave a loud giggle. "S'nice, you and y'r letters. Never one for letters, m'self."

I swallowed the reply I wished to make, that perhaps there was simply no one to endure the indignity of corresponding with a drunken buffoon. Instead, I fought to keep my tone level. "I'm sorry to hear that. Correspondence can be an excellent way of passing the time, while on the road."

Richard shook his head impatiently. "No, no. Letters." He pantomimed writing in the air. "Don' like 'em. Can't work 'em."

I frowned, feeling inexplicably sorry for the man. "You're illiterate, you mean."

"Not… not ill-lit-trate," he said, his mouth working to pronounce the word. "Just don' get along with letters much."

"I could help you with that, if you like. Once you've sobered up, of course."

"Help me?"

"Well, you could decide who you'd like to write to, and I could help you find words that you… get along with."

"S'pose. Then they'd jus' write back."

"Well, that would be the point."

He shook his head. "Too much work."

"Don't you have anyone you care enough about to go to the effort of writing to keep in contact?" I asked with an encouraging smile, feeling at this point as though I were speaking to a small child.

"Have you?"

My smile slipped. "Maybe."

"Who's that, then?"

I gritted my teeth. "To bed, soldier. That's an order. And if I catch you sneaking away from camp again I'll have you dismissed."

Something in my tone must have finally gotten through to the man, because he saluted and stumbled off.

. . .

The next day when we set out, Richard was considerably the worse for wear, refusing his breakfast and wincing at loud noises. To his credit, he at least did not complain or slow us down.

It was a quiet morning for the most part. We were about a third of the way through the journey, and our path took us through the deepest part of the forest. Every hour brought thicker woods and a narrower path, till the dim light filtered greenly through the foliage to illuminate what might optimistically be called a game-trail. It was an ideal ambush spot for bandits, if any bandits were persistent enough to target such a little-used stretch and foolish enough to challenge a royal party.

It was a reasonable opportunity for a conversation I knew I needed to have. "Sir Richard, with me! I'd like to scout ahead, make sure the way is safe." I didn't turn in the saddle, only sped up my pace and trusted that Richard would follow. After a moment, I could hear his horse's hoofbeats cantering to catch up.

When I was sure we'd been swallowed up by woods and the other men couldn't eavesdrop, I spoke. "You have family in Ayortha, Richard?"

I still didn't look at him, tried my best to seem stern and princely. When he replied, he sounded appropriately nervous. "Yes, your Highness."

My instinct, always my first instinct, was to ask him to call me Char. None of the other men called me Highness – it was always "lad" or "son." But right then, in that moment, I needed all the authority I could muster. "You'll be seeing them soon, then," I remarked instead, keeping my voice light.

"Ye- no, your Highness. They're not at court, they've an estate in the country."

I frowned. "You were chosen as my knight specifically because you had connections at court."

"I go where they tell me to. That's all it is, being a soldier, yeah?" he responded casually. My disagreement must have showed in my face, because a moment later he gulped and added, "Your Highness."

"You'll find that being a soldier also means you are the face of Kyrria. It means you have to show some dignity." I was forcefully reminded of a month's worth of speeches to the guards at the Rhinian border.

"Yes, your Highness," he agreed dully.

"That means that you do not leave this camp without permission, and you certainly don't get yourself drunk when you might be called upon to defend us."

"Yes, your Highness."

"Good. I'm glad we understand each other. Now, last night I offered to help you with your writing."

"Yes, your Highness," he repeated in the same tone.

I shook my head, frustrated. "No more of that. I don't mind helping you write letters. When's the last time you wrote to your family?"

He paused. "Last spring, I think."

"Last spring?" I repeated, surprised. I couldn't imagine anyone going nearly a year without contacting his family, if only to assure them he was still alive and healthy. It had been only a few days since we set out, and already I'd seen all the men break away from the group in the evenings to start letters home. "Are you not on good terms, then?"

"Nah, we're fine. I just don't write much. They don't mind."

"What was last spring, then?"

"Oh, I got in a bit of trouble with a local, needed their help to straighten things out."

I considered this. "What kind of help could they offer you with a letter?"

"It was just a few KJs. Nothing to get too worked up over."

My jaw tightened. "If you can write them when you need money, then you can write them once in a while to keep in contact."

He shrugged. "If you say so."

"Tonight, I'll take first watch again. Once the others are asleep, come meet me and we'll get started."

. . .

I waited nearly an hour that night before it became clear that he wasn't coming. A perfunctory scan of the campsite revealed that he wasn't with the other men either.

In the quiet of my solitary vigil, I sighed and scrubbed my hand across my face. I had been lucky up to now that my men had for the most part respected my authority. I wasn't sure where luck came into the business with Sir Aubrey, but even he had been a model soldier up until his betrayal. I had very little idea how to handle disciplinary issues within my own ranks.

It wasn't as if I could approach one of the other men about it – it would come off as though I didn't know how to fight my own battles. And it would be even worse to write to Father for advice, now that he was finally giving me a bit of independence. Really, I thought, the opinion I most wanted was Ella's. Ella would know what to do.

I pulled out my next-to-last sheet of parchment.

Dear Ella,

It's three days since I last saw you, and already I'm lost without you. You may think this a pretty exaggeration, but if navigation is left to the newest of my knights, I may well become so lost that I don't live to see Ayortha.

I went on to describe, in great detail, the scene Richard had just caused.

You'll think me mad to be asking your opinion on this matter. Perhaps I am mad. But it is still very new to me, having the command of a group of men older and more experienced than I. I very much want not to foul it up.

Growing up, I became very close to my family. I had my parents for guidance, my brothers for me to guide, and my sister to tease me. I love them all, but I've never known anyone like you. I've never had a friend like you, someone I could talk to as an equal. I'm afraid you'll have to put up with me asking your opinion on any number of random matters, just for the thrill of knowing I can.

I joke about you putting up with me, but I do hope you feel the same way, that you consider me a friend. If my correspondence is a burden to you, please don't feel obligated to continue it simply because I am a prince. I won't ask what happened in the days before I left. That secret is yours to tell or not to tell as you see fit. But if you fail to respond to this letter, I promise you that I shall take the hint and leave you alone.

Your friend,

Char

Satisfied, I tucked the letter away, to post as soon as we arrived in Ayortha.