Camellia was not quite sure how she got stuck in this situation.
The Princess Royal Siana was staring at her expectantly, her dress hiked up to expose her thigh. “Here, do you think?” she was asking, her voice innocent—way too innocent. Like she’d done this dance a thousand times. She probably had.
Camellia swallowed hard. Wished that Tarra was still here to jump in and intervene. But no, Camellia was chosen to stay, to become personal guard to Princess Siana, while Tarra was allowed to return to their unit. And now she was here, trying to strap a knife to the princess’ thigh without touching her.
It was… remarkably hot in the enclosed room they were in.
Once the sheath was belted to her, Siana turned to show it off. “Will I be able to grab it easily if someone tries to attack me?”
“With practice, yes.” Camellia tried to avert her eyes from the bare skin of the woman in front of her.
“We should practice a lot, then,” Siana decided. “I don’t want to be caught off guard.”
Of course, Camellia thought. Because she was now in charge of training Siana for battle, at the behest of the king and request of the princess herself.
It had really happened without her realizing. She would have refused if that was allowed—this was not the sort of thing she wanted to be tangled in. But there was no refusing an order from the king. She would have been killed at worst or discharged from her station at best. Siana had offered her an out, but Camellia took a look at the wobbly, fake smile plastered on Siana’s face and knew that the princess needed someone who knew what she was going through at her side. So she stayed. She decided to stay as her personal guard and train her to defend herself and teach her how to cope with taking a life. For who knows how long.
That was only the first week, and Camellia was beginning to regret her decision.
Over the course of the first month, she began to get used to court life. It was, for the most part, fine. Viola and Cera were the closest to the princess beforehand, but never officially slated as bodyguards. Camellia didn’t know the whole story, but Chrysan might have known something more about it. He’d worked at the castle before leaving to join the war effort after the queen died. Apparently, Viola had been quite sad at his departure. She seemed fine now, though, Camellia thought. She was lively as ever as she sparred and argued with Cera outside the barracks in the early mornings. The two knights helped her to train Siana—to teach her the different weapons she might run into on a battlefield.
As Camellia observed the sparring, she realized that Princess Siana must have had some serious training. Her form and posture were impeccable, like she was dancing instead of fighting. It wouldn’t do, not in a real fight. But when she threw Siana into a match against Cera, she held herself with the same grace, the same elegant limbs and long neck she always did, and she held her own until Camellia called for them to stop. Cera had been using his weakest weapon, a short blade, but Camellia was impressed to see Siana do as well as she had.
Aside from the training, the princess insisted on calling for Camellia when she wasn’t needed. Princess Siana had called Camellia to her private quarters a few times in that first month of work for frivolous things, and a few… not. The first time, Siana wanted to ask her opinion of the particularly ornate dress. It had a heavy tulle skirt with sparkle and beads, and an embroidered bodice with stays and ribbons. It was a very pretty dress. Very fitting for the occasion of meeting a dignitary from an allied kingdom, Camellia guessed, she actually had no idea, but the princess looked nice. Siana had called to ask if there was an assassination attempt on her life whether or not the dress would offer any protection or if she should wear a different one that might. None of the dresses she showed Camellia would have offered Siana any kind of protection, and Camellia was resigned to saying that she would protect the princess if there was any kind of attack.
The other notable time was the day after Siana had met with the dignitary. Camellia had never worked in protection detail before and was going over the regular processes with Viola when a young lady maid came to get her. Her name was Lily—a cute, little thing with light, ashy brown hair braided and pinned to her head in a crown.
“Lady Camellia!” she shouted, waving her arms across the training field.
It was early morning. Camellia figured the girl must have been preparing the princess for the day when she came to get her.
“Lily,” she greeted cordially.
“Something the matter?” Viola asked, haughty as she put her hands on her hips. “Shouldn’t you be gone for the day already? Miss Hyssop should be awake by now…”
Lily nodded her head. “She is. She’s with Her Highness now, but…”
“You need Camellia for something?”
Lily was still nodding her head, trying to catch her breath from running. “Yes, Lady Viola,” she said. “Her Highness woke up in a panic and nearly stabbed Miss Hyssop!”
Camellia stiffened next to Viola.
Lily continued, “Now she’s just… lying in bed and won’t respond to any of us. She threw a pillow at Miss Hyssop when she got too close.”
Camellia nodded. “Understood. I’ll take care of it. Thank you, Miss Lily.” And then she was gone. Camellia ran back to the princess’ quarters through the main castle. She pushed her way into Siana’s room, quickly assessing the situation—Miss Hyssop on the stool at the side of the bed, a lump under the covers, the fallen knife on the floor, a pillow across the room. A fallen vase with some spilled water and flowers. Nothing broken. Nothing harmed.
Miss Hyssop glanced up from where her hands were clenching at the sheets. She gave a hopeless look, a shake of her head.
Camellia offered a small smile, gestured to the door. Miss Hyssop nodded and let herself out. Camellia took her spot.
“Your Highness,” she said, patting the sheets. “You know better than to leave a weapon lying around. You could hurt somebody.”
“I could already hurt somebody.” Siana’s voice was muffled, but it sounded like she was crying.
“That was the original reason for my staying here, after all,” Camellia said.
“Not like this. I almost hurt Miss Hyssop.”
Camellia hummed. She turned in her seat to look at the room. It was just as ornate as the rest of the castle had been—pretty, painted with giant flowers, decorated with gold and pink and green and pearls on the walls and furniture. The fact that she was getting more and more used to being here scared her, but she pushed the feeling down.
“Who do you want to hurt, then?” Camellia asked.
Siana pushed the covers down in a huff, glaring at Camellia with puffy, red eyes from underneath the downy plush of her bedding. “People who want to hurt me!” she shouted.
Camellia nodded, looking back down at her. “Yes. You are Princess Royal Camellia Daucus. You defend yourself and the people of your kingdom, you don’t attack them.”
Siana took in a shaky breath.
“So why did you attack Miss Hyssop?”
“I… I panicked. I don’t know.” She moved to cover her face again, but Camellia caught her by the wrist and stopped her.
“I have told you, I will protect you.”
Siana shook her head. “We both know there will be times when you can’t.”
Camellia shrugged. “We can practice defending yourself without making a preemptive strike.”
Siana stopped struggling in Camellia’s hand. “Will all this ever get easier?”
“Some days will be harder than others, but overall? Yes,” Camellia said. “Go get your knife. You need to take care of the things that will take care of you.”
The princess sighed, sinking into her bed momentarily before pushing herself up. She grabbed the sheath from underneath her pillow and the blade from the floor and covered it. She called Miss Hyssop from the hall and apologized, and Camellia took her leave of the incident.
Another month passed and Camellia was resigned to say not only was she getting used to life in the court, but that she was getting used to life with the princess. She got used to standing next to her during boring meetings, behind her during schmoozing parties and balls. Got used to the way Siana gifted her an old dress or two, the way Siana complimented her offhandedly, like she didn’t realize she was doing it, and the way she was when she definitely realized she was doing it.
Siana’s improvement with weapons was remarkably fast. She was getting better with a knife, more accurate with long range weapons. Camellia was consistently amazed to watch her magic training—she worked on her own, as the royal magician was on a sojourn to a neighboring kingdom, gathering allies and intel against the insurgence and teaching promising students what she could. Siana had said herself she was one of the best mages in the kingdom, and Camellia could tell just by watching that she had a precise control of what she was doing. Some bloodlines only carried a specific type of magic, like Tarra Dracul, who only could use or make fire. But the princess… she showed Camellia countless things she could do, not all of them useful, but all of them pretty and skilled, and Camellia was sure she hadn’t seen even half of what Siana could do.
In her spare time, Camellia exchanged letters with Chrysan about their unit and how they were doing, but news on the front was slow. Chrysan complained about the general’s priorities. He filled letters with anecdotes about how annoying Yarrow was, how condescending Cori was, how she was itching to do recon and learn something new. It felt like he was filling the letter out with nonsense, like she was missing something other than her friends.
Camellia shared news with Viola. She was normally happy to hear about her old friends, but she seemed distracted, wringing her fingers as Camellia showed her the letter. When Camellia asked what was wrong, Viola fidgeted.
“Nothing is wrong, it’s just…” she sighed, pushing her short hair behind her ears. “The royal magician is coming back soon. I’ve been sending her letters, at her request. She has a lead and wants me to investigate.”
“A lead?” Camellia echoed. “On…?”
Viola shook her head. “I’m not to speak of it, but I’ll be gone for a few weeks at most.”
Camellia sighed shortly. She’d been in this sort of position before, she understood. “Be careful. Is there anything…?”
“Please keep an eye on Cera while I’m gone,” she said. “Make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid. And if I don’t come back…”
She held out a tied stack of letters. Camellia took it, nodding. The top one was written for Cera.
Viola had a sheepish smile on her face. “He likes you. He’d like to hear the news from you, I’m sure.”
Camellia tucked them into her tunic, her face stiff. “I will be sure these are delivered to the appropriate parties. However, you are a skilled knight. I’m sure you’ll complete your mission and return safely,” she said.
Viola pat her on the arm. “Thank you, Camellia. You are truly a good ally and friend.”
Camellia watched her go, to prepare for whatever it was she was tasked to do. Then Camellia went to attend to Siana.