It felt as though the trip had barely begun when Camellia was forcing them to stop to set up camp. Tarra didn’t protest, just hopped off her horse and started unpacking all the supplies for tents and cooking they’d need. Siana sat by and watched, all protests caught in her throat as the two worked in perfect, silent coordination.
Tarra was a family friend—someone Siana had known since her youth. She looked different in this light. As a soldier. As she gathered dry brush from the forest on the other side of the river and rubbed her hands together to spark the beginnings of a fire in her palms with the magic her family had. Her eyes were brighter, more alive, but also more alert. She had seen things, knew of things that Siana was just now learning about thanks to the other woman in their party.
“Princess,” Camellia called.
Siana blinked herself from her reverie, tearing her gaze away from the fire Tarra had started. The sun was dipping into the horizon already, though it felt like hardly any time had passed since she was freed from her captivity, and everything seemed orange or golden—unless it was shrouded in the darkest of shadows.
“Princess, there is a river if you want to bathe.”
She hummed in acknowledgement. “Thank you, Camellia.”
“I don’t expect that the journey will be particularly arduous, but we should be on our guard all the same,” Camellia continued. “Tarra advised me not to mention it, but I think a disguise would be prudent, given the situation.”
Siana heard Tarra gasp from her place by the fire. “Cam! I told you!” she shouted, her voice shrill. “She is a princess! She can’t wear a commoner’s clothes!”
Camellia sighed, giving her a sideways glance. “So give her yours.”
Tarra stood just to stamp her foot. “Camellia!”
Siana decided it was time to put an end to their bickering. She cleared her throat, and Tarra promptly shut her mouth to look at her with attention. “What do you mean, ‘given the situation’?” the princess asked.
“You have been abducted once,” Camellia answered plainly. “We don’t know how, but information among the rebels has been travelling between groups even if one has been entirely decimated. They likely know you’d been captured and rescued. Not to mention, bandits have been more active with food and money being poured into war efforts. Your dress would make us a target.”
“As tattered as it is?”
“In the eyes of the poor, it’s hardly ruined,” Camellia said. “Besides that, it doesn’t suit a princess to wander around in such dirty clothes.”
It was a sad appeal to what Camellia must have thought was important to her, but she took it all the same. “Yes, fine. The river?” she asked.
Camellia smiled, and Siana heard Tarra give a little huff as she sat back down. “Down that way,” Tarra directed, pointing. “I’ll bring a spare set of clothes.”
Siana nodded and, with a sigh, went to wash herself of the days’ events. The river was cold, and she felt exposed in the open. When she heard footsteps approaching, she jumped.
Tarra set clothes down far enough away to stay dry, sitting herself next to them. She picked at the grass, keeping her eyes down as Siana ran the water over her arms.
“I’m sorry for my comrade,” Tarra said. “She has no respect for nobility. It doesn’t matter on the battlefield, but…”
“Here I thought she was a brilliant strategist, but it turns out she’s just good at thinking like our enemies,” Siana said lightly, laughing. “I’m fine, Tarra. Camellia is charming, in her own way. She was actually very polite at the banquet we threw.”
“I heard she caused a ruckus!” Tarra sighed. “The general scolded her, and she sulked for days. Chrysan wouldn’t stop laughing at her until I nearly broke his foot.”
“She is a good strategist, though,” Tarra continued. “It… frustrates our General sometimes, how good she is at breaking through their defenses and finding unconventional ways to win. Seeing her fight seriously is… Well, I hope you never have to see it.”
“What does that mean?”
Tarra hummed. “I’d almost say she isn’t fit to be a soldier. It’s… uncivilized. Not honorable. But she is a survivor, I’ll give her that. And she’s saved me more times than I can count. On the battlefield, what else can we ask for?”
Tarra handed her a rag to dry off with and then stood up to meet Camellia on her way to them. Funny, Siana thought, she hadn’t even heard Camellia approaching, but she supposed Tarra had. Her friend really had changed because of this war.
By the time she was dressed, Tarra and Camellia were nearly done cooking what Camellia had caught. They ate quietly, and then Siana had barely put her head down before she was deeply and soundly sleeping.
The next day came suddenly. It felt like the night was gone in a blink, and then they were packing up what little they were carrying and starting on their way towards the castle again. They rode along the river, through fields of wildflowers, past farms of crops. By the time the horses needed a rest, the three were beginning to feel the rumblings of hunger in their stomachs. They dismounted by the river, letting the horses graze and drink and rest their hooves in the cool water. Camellia grabbed some dried meat Yarrow had made from her saddle bag.
Camellia warned them that the forest across the river had thinned enough for bandits to take up residence. It was an ideal spot—between towns and villages so they could attack unsuspecting travelers and steal whatever they could off their bodies.
“We should be more careful now than before when out in the open, especially since our sight is limited,” Camellia said. “We could rest easy before, but—”
She was in the middle of explaining when it happened.
A group of bandits rushed out of the forest on their own horses, circling the women as they brandished their sabers and scythes.
Tarra grabbed ahold of Siana’s wrist, tucking her between herself and Camellia.
“Ana,” Tarra said carefully. The princess wanted to prickle at the nickname and lack of title, but they had talked about this beforehand—in the presence of company, they didn’t want to give her identity away. “Cam and I will make quick work of them. Stay clear of the fight, and we’ll chase them off.”
Tarra pulled the shield and sword from her back, launching herself towards their enemies. Camellia tossed a glance behind her, watching Tarra and passing her eyes over the princess. She didn’t want to leave her side, considering what had gotten her abducted in the first place, but she heard one of the bandits dismount. It stole her attention to the front again, and then Camellia was parrying the man’s saber with her own rapier.
She struck without hesitation, but the man dodged with a quick backstep. Camellia followed, catching him in the leg with a thrust. He didn’t crumble, just continued to retreat until the three girls were separated.
“That’s some nice armor for your horses, huh,” the man said. “Who are you plannin’ on fighting with all that? The royal army?”
Camellia raised a brow. “What gives you that idea?”
“Just a hunch.”
She saw the man look over her shoulder. Camellia followed his eyes, checking on Siana. The last of the bandits was still on his horse, passing Siana with a raised and ready weapon.
She could see Siana’s brain working—could see her preparing to jump out of range of his blade, but she wouldn’t make it. She was hesitating, and he would lean over, and she’d be hit, and Tarra was too far, too focused on her own fight to even notice the princess was in danger. Camellia grabbed a knife from her hip and threw it.
It lodged itself into the man’s chest, and he fell off the horse. Siana watched his body fall, frozen for a second as the horse ran past without a rider, and then she was on top of the bandit, grabbing the knife out of his chest and slicing it deeply through his neck.
When Camellia looked back to the man in front of her, he was signaling for his comrade with Tarra to retreat. They were at a disadvantage now and they knew it—the armor or the information or whatever they were after wasn’t worth it, clearly. Camellia watched as the bandits whistled for their horses. The man jumped on, cursing them, and Camellia watched until their enemies were out of sight.
She went back to the princess, and Tarra, who was fawning over her like a mother hen.
“Yes, I’m fine,” Siana was saying.
“There’s blood on you!” Tarra fretted. “I told you to stay out of harm’s way!”
“Harm’s way came to me,” the princess explained.
Camellia cast a glance at the body. He was certainly dead. “My knife?” she asked.
Siana hummed. “I tried throwing it at the one Tarra was fighting, but I’m not quite as good as you,” she said, gesturing. “It must be lost over there somewhere.”
“We shouldn’t leave it for anyone to find.” Camellia sighed. “Tarra, you and the princess should wrangle the horses. They got a bit of a scare through all that.”
Tarra sighed, resigning herself to everything, in fact, having to be okay. To the facts that the princess was covered in blood, killed a man, but she wasn’t hurt. Tarra took Siana’s hand, gently, and went to the river to clean her off and calm them both down.
Before Camellia could find her knife, Tarra was calling for her. She gave up the hunt and went to the river. Tarra was braiding Siana’s hair, running fingers through it while the princess looked sufficiently indifferent to her ministrations. Camellia went to Leif, and he whinnied into her hands. He was calm, and it seemed that the bandits hadn’t even bothered them before attacking the owners. It was a smart move, Camellia thought, relieved. Leif was a biter.
“Should we stay in the village tonight?” Tarra asked.
“What does Princess Siana want?” Camellia asked. “It was not the original plan, but it would be fine.”
She waved a hand. “I don’t care.”
Tarra sighed shortly. “My lady…”
“I would be home sooner rather than later,” she answered. “And no, I am not angry at either of you for how that fight went or for the agreement to address me by my given name. It was predetermined and I trust, as you advised, that it was the best course of action. I will defer any decision in the case to you two once again.”
“With all due respect,” Camellia began. “It was not a question of consideration for you station, Princess Siana.”
This caught her attention, and she looked over at Camellia with a look Camellia recognized in the war-hardened refugees of Gladiolus. An eerie calm separated Siana from the realities of what her father had put so many people through, and she herself was trying hard not to realize this.
“It was a consideration for your comfort,” Camellia said delicately. “It has been a long few days for you. I’m sure Tarra has more than enough to cover the costs of the nicest inn in the nearest village, and we will take turns standing watch during the night from now on.”
“I—” Tarra huffed. She swallowed whatever protests she was going to spout with a mouthful of air. “Yes,” she agreed, “of course I do.”
“Then…” Siana stalled, her shoulders falling. “The village. Please.” Camellia nodded.