Siana didn’t think she would have trouble sleeping, but she did. Tarra had fallen asleep soundly next to her, like the whole day hadn’t happened. Like the week before hadn’t. Like the entire war meant nothing to her. Siana was exhausted, but she woke up at the slightest disturbances and after the shortest dreams. Falling asleep was a jumble of sounds, somewhere between conscious and unconscious, dreamed and not. It was the sound of dripping, the clang of metal on metal, the white noise that comes with a headache and—
A creak that was definitely not in her imagination.
Siana’s breath caught as she listened. There were footsteps outside the room.
In a panic, she looked to the futon rolled out next to her bed. Tarra had been asleep there before but the bed was empty now and—
The door creaked open.
She drew out the knife she’d stolen from Camellia from beneath her clothes. It had occurred to her that she’d needed better protection and she was right, but she couldn’t settle in the feeling of gratefulness. There was a figure in the doorway, backlit by the window in the hall.
It was strike first or wait for someone to save her.
There was nobody else—Tarra was gone.
She took a deep breath.
Siana jumped out of the bed, launching herself at the intruder and trying to stab them.
She found herself on her back instead. “Princess,” a voice said, quiet. Not quite chastising, but not gentle either. This close, even in the dark, Siana could make out Camellia’s face. It was Camellia who was pinning Siana down, Siana’s arm caught between the floor and Camellia—the knife safely useless in her hand. Camellia was looking at Siana with a brow raised, not quite a look of concern, but… almost. Her tone changed from quiet indifference to soft concern. “Are you alright?”
Siana couldn’t answer. Everything she’d been holding in was caught right now in her throat—the calm veneer was ripped open just as easily as Camellia had deflected her attack.
Camellia cautioned a glance at the knife. “I was wondering where that went,” she commented.
Camellia pushed herself up. Siana didn’t move.
“It’s okay,” Camellia said. “It was foolish of us to leave you without a weapon, though it would be wiser if someone taught you to use it.”
“I know how,” Siana gritted out. “My father…”
“I know.” Camellia leaned against the wall. “But practice and reality are different. Though the technique was fine and quick, anyone with experience in a fight would have heard you and you would have failed.”
Siana swallowed hard. “Where is Tarra?”
“We were switching shifts,” Camellia explained. “Tarra needs a snack to stay awake, so she went to get something before I went to bed. I apologize if we woke or startled you.”
Siana let out a shaky breath. “I’m fine,” she said, eyes fluttering closed as she tried to calm herself. As an afterthought, she added, “Don’t apologize, please.”
Camellia hummed, straightening the princess’ clothes as she lay, unmoving, in the strip of moonlight from the open doorway. “The sheath for that knife is in Leif’s saddle bag. In the morning, I’ll give it to you so you can keep it safely hidden on your body. For now, please put it away so you don’t hurt yourself.”
“I don’t need you to take care of me.”
A smile snuck its way onto Camellia’s face, but Siana was still staring up at the ceiling. She didn’t see it, but she could hear it. “I know,” she heard the soldier say. “You did well against the bandits today. And tonight, moving to protect yourself when you thought you might be in danger.”
Siana sat up with a huff. “Don’t make fun of me!” she hissed out.
The look on Camellia’s face was the most open she’d ever seen it. Her eyes were sparkling in the moonlight, and the smile was slight but… it was there. She shook her head. “I’m not, Princess Siana,” she promised. And Siana believed her. “You surprised me. You did well.”
Then why did Camellia look so sad? She thought she understood the expression the soldier had on her face. Siana could feel it, heavy in her chest and heavy in her hand as she moved the knife into her lap. She slumped forward. “You do this every day?”
“No,” Camellia said. “Not every day. But some days. And some are easier than others. It was him or you. It was natural for the choice to be you.”
“Because I’m a princess?” she scoffed, tears welling up in her eyes. “Am I so important?”
Camellia hummed, drumming her fingers against her legs. “No, not because of who you were born from. Because you were born at all. You are the most important person in your life. The instinct to survive is stronger than anything.”
The tears from Siana’s eyes spilled out onto her cheeks. “There’s blood on my hands.”
Camellia laughed. She leaned over and brushed the tears away from the princess’ eyes. “Mine, too. But your hands are also dirty with the soil of your kingdom. You protected yourself and you helped your people grow food to live off of. These things are nothing to be ashamed of. You are closer to your people than you’ve ever been.”
Siana sniffed, finally moving to wipe her own face.
“Rest easy, my lady,” Camellia advised.
The address was too informal—one they’d agreed on for the cover with the bandits. Closer to Tarra’s station than her own, but in Camellia’s mouth it sounded more respectful, more important than Your Highness or Princess Siana ever could.
Camellia stood, pulling the princess up to her feet. She guided her to the bed, taking the knife from her and setting it next to her own futon. “Tarra will be right outside watching over us, and I will be right by your side.”
She fell asleep that night, listening to Camellia’s even breathing.
When she awoke, sunlight, instead of moonlight, was pouring into the room through the doorway. It was remarkably quiet for the morning, and Siana felt better rested than she had in months. There were quiet voices drifting into the room from the open door, from the hall and downstairs. Birds chirped outside the window. The bed next to hers was empty and cold, but the shadows in the hallway were familiar. Tarra and Camellia were already up and about, it seemed, and if she listened closely she could hear them chatting. Something about cheese and a special brew of coffee the ladies at the market were talking about.
She laid there listening for just a few minutes before pushing herself up and breathing a deep breath of fresh air. Tarra poked her head into the room. She had her hair tied up in its usual ponytail, but there were bags under her eyes.
“Ah, good morning, Your Highness!” she greeted. “Did we wake you up?”
Siana shook her head, smiling. “Aren’t you tired, Tarra?”
“I’m fine,” she said, bowing her head. “We should head out soon. Camellia went out and bought some breakfast for us. She’s downstairs whenever we’re ready.”
Down in the stables, Camellia was preparing the horses for their journey. When she heard Siana and Tarra walking in, Camellia turned to look at them, her hands absent mindedly petting her horse’s neck. “Good morning,” she said.
Siana gave a shy nod. She felt heat creeping up the back of her neck at seeing the soldier again. Luckily, Tarra was there, grabbing for the bag of food on the stool next to her comrade. “Did you get what I asked?” she was saying, digging through the bag.
Camellia rolled her eyes as she answered that yes, she bought the fresh bread and goat cheese Tarra wanted. There was a canteen of coffee for them as well, if they wanted. Tarra served them and they ate, and then they were off.
When they stopped again for lunch, the sun was high in the sky and the weather was heating up. Camellia was taking the horses to the nearby river. They’d been following it—it was the same river that ran through the town by her castle, the one her father claimed was a natural defense against enemies where it was wide and deep enough. Here it was perfect for the horses to stand in and drink from, and it was pretty. She’d always thought it looked nice, but it was especially so here, with the wildflowers and the quiet company at her side.
“Princess,” Tarra said, softly, at her side. She offered a handful of bread, the same type from the morning breakfast. “Eat some. We’re in the final stretches now. You’ll need some strength.”
Siana smiled, taking the food gratefully. “Will we arrive by tonight?”
Tarra nodded. She dipped a cloth into the river in front of them and placed it on the back of the princess’ neck. Siana shivered involuntarily, relaxing into the cooling sensation as her eyes fluttered closed. “As long as we stay on track and aren’t interrupted, you should be home soon, Your Highness,” she said.
Soon, there were fingers in her hair. When she cracked open her eyes to look, Tarra was behind her with a carved wooden comb, brushing out tangles and tying it at the back of her head.
“Do you mind?” Tarra asked belatedly. “It seems like it bothers you when we ride, and it’s getting hot outside, so…”
“Hm? No, I don’t. Thank you.” She let herself relax, her eyes closing and her mind drifting again. Everything became the sound of the river. The smell of the flowers. The taste of the bread. How big these small things felt in this moment when everything comparatively was so much… More than everything else.
Someone cleared their throat.
The hands in her hair stopped.
She opened her eyes again, turning her head to the new noise that was entering her sphere, keeping her mind from wandering to a place she didn’t want it to. She was thankful for the interruption.
“My lady,” Camellia said, her voice stiff. She approached slowly and held out a knife in a leather sheath. “The knife. And the cover,” she clarified. “The one we discussed last night.”
Siana took it quietly in her empty hand.
“’My lady?’” Tarra echoed incredulously from behind Siana. “You never address nobility correctly! She should be Your Highness—Your Royal Highness, in fact! I know we agreed on informalities for cover, but nobody’s around!”
Siana watched as Camellia did something strange—she huffed, color flooding her cheeks. “You didn’t even bring her the cheese or dried meats,” she stammered, shoving a small pouch into Siana’s lap. “Princess, once we arrive back at the castle, I’ll help you find a comfortable way to conceal your weapon. However, we should leave again as soon as you’re ready.”
And then she raced off, back to the horses. Water splashed up as she stomped through the river, wetting her legs and stomach.
Siana coughed, looking down at the bag in her lap. The small lunch Camellia had mentioned was inside.
“Sometimes I don’t understand her,” Tarra mumbled with a sigh.
Siana chuckled, offering Tarra some of the food over her shoulder. She took it with a short thanks and then sat next to her. When they were finished eating, the three women mounted their horses and began the trip again.
The lands were becoming more and more familiar as they traveled. It wouldn’t be long before she was finally back at the castle—back home.
It was nightfall by the time they arrived at the gates. The knights on guard recognized her instantly and started to usher her in.
“Stop, wait—” she demanded. “Please alert my ladies-in-waiting that two rooms will need to be prepared for the soldiers who have escorted me.”
The knight froze for a fraction of a second before shouting a strong, “Yes, Your Highness!” and marching back to find a chamberlain to guide them. Siana nodded to the two swordsmen behind her, waving to someone to take the horses.
“I won’t have you two staying in the barracks when you’ve done so much for me,” Siana said, her shoulders back and neck long. “Please accept this humble thanks for all you’ve done for me in the past few days.”
Camellia watched as someone she didn’t know led her horse away to the royal stable. “You don’t have to—”
Tarra elbowed her in the stomach. “Of course we accept, Your Highness.”
She bowed her head accordingly as Camellia doubled over in pain.
Siana smiled. This was familiar territory. She was in power again—a princess again. The two followed her as she led them, meeting her ladies-in-waiting and directing them to show Camellia and Tarra to their rooms, offer them something to eat, and get them some fresh clothes.
Camellia looked panicked as she was pushed off by the girls. Tarra was used to this sort of thing and followed obediently to a new room.
Siana heaved a deep sigh as she let herself into her room. It was cool and dark here—quiet, with the bustle of people in the hallway. Soon, the ladies-in-waiting were in her chambers, drawing her a bath, washing her hair, changing her clothes.
In a short time, she was settled comfortably into her own, soft bed. It was clean and she smelled like flowers—they’d put rose petals in the bath for her. Siana relaxed, breathing into the shadowed silence of her room.
I’m fine, she thought, I’m home.