Bharia woke slowly. Mind sluggish, thoughts unclear, she struggled to open her eyes. Always she jumped to full consciousness, her mind instantly alert and aware. It annoyed Thalia to no end, the princess more likely to laze about abed than to rush to meet the day. Even Stahg, Bharia’s fellow guardian and he of the dispassionate demeanour, seemed on occasion annoyed by her cheery alertness. The nature of their vocation made it so they rose early more often than not and she’d often seen Stahg struggle to wake, his features boyish and unsure before he found true consciousness.
Now, slowly, impressions came to her. The bed at her back was soft and the pillow beneath her cheek was smooth against her skin. The familiar aroma of oatmeal and beef wound about her, but underneath lay a strange scent, sharp with chemicals. Dye. Why was there dye?
Memory teased, distant and blurred. Red-stained cobblestones. Blue and yellow splattered across the stone of buildings. Hands tinted with purple. They were in Dyerston. They were travelling. Why were they travelling?
Pain exploded through her skull, intense and bright. With a gasp, she burrowing deeper into the pillow, but pain brought with it memory. Thalia. They were to return her to Queenstor. To the throne. But… they had been attacked.
Memory whirled. Thaila screaming as she desperately fought those seeking her harm. The foppish tailor shedding effeminacy to reveal a vicious ruthlessness.
Stahg taking a dagger.
Bharia shot upright. Her head shrieked a protest, her stomach revolted, but she ignored both. Across the room, Stahg looked up from oiling his sword, his expression calm.
Relief flooded her, intense and consuming. A mark rode high on his left cheekbone while the edge of a bandage rode his upper left bicep, covered mostly by his gilet. The sleeveless jacket was rumpled, as if he’d spent the night in the too-small chair in which he sat, but he was alive and regarding her with his usual calm.
Bright sunshine lit the hired room of an inn, a room of finer quality than those in which they’d stayed on this journey home to Queenstor. The chair Stahg occupied was well-upholstered, the wooden arms intricately carved. The washstand was porcelain rather than wood, and real glass filled the window. A clearly expensive Thymician carpet covered the floor while a magnificently embroidered quilt lay in a heap at the foot of the bed.
The room, for all its finery, lacked one vital element. “Where is Thalia?”
Stahg started oiling his sword once more, calm, measured strokes. Too calm. Too measured. “You should rest.”
That calm could, on occasion, become infuriating. He should know. He should know her. She would not rest until she knew of her charge. “Where is Thalia?”
The strokes ceased. Hand tightening on the pommel, he kept his gaze locked upon his sword.
Fear made her voice sharp. “Where is the princess, Stahg?”
Head bowed, he exhaled. “She is gone.”
Gone. Throat tight, Bharia stared at him. Eight years they’d guarded and only once before had they failed, when they had been young and untested. They’d allowed the princess her arrogance and had paid the price, the young royal taken and held. Stahg had found her and Bharia had fought her free. Since then, all three of them had been wary.
But not wary enough. Thalia was gone. “How long?”
Two days. She’d been insensible for two days? The throb in her head worsened, shards of pain darting behind her skull. Fighting the disorientation, she forced herself to think. “Did the Cormare take her?” The villains that had attacked them hadn’t claimed any allegiance to the crime horde, but what criminals native to Dyerston were not affiliated with the Cormare?
“No. ” Stahg stood, rising and then rising still. He was tall, taller than her by a head or more and she was herself not small, standing above most men. Placing his sword by the dresser, he wiped his hands on a cloth methodically. “She has boarded a ship to Queenstor with the tailor.”
Relief filled her. She sagged against the pillow but a moment before tension returned, brought this time by anger. Stahg would not think to tell her immediately Thalia was safe. His damn dispassion, giving the facts and nothing more. “So she is safe.”
“As safe as she can be.”
“You could have told me that first.”
He shrugged. “What would it have changed?”
Fury bit her, bright and sharp. “It would have changed the worry I felt.”
Light blue eyes regarded her steadily. “Bharia, if Thalia was in danger, I would have said immediately. You know this.”
Crossing her arms, she glanced aside. He had no call to sound disappointed. He should have told her.
He exhaled. “The tailor will protect her.”
Swallowing her ire, Bharia nodded. It was how he was made and no collection of words would change him.
The tailor would protect Thalia. Second in power only to the king, this newly appointed tailor possessed a thinly veiled savagery, a ruthless willingness to protect what he considered his. And, by what Bharia had seen, the tailor was well on his way to considering his fate tied to Thalia’s, and on the ship there would be little— “Why did you not book passage on the next ship?”
A flicker passed over his face. “You were hurt, Bharia.”
“I am of no concern.”
“No concern?” In his jaw, a muscle ticked. “So I should have abandoned y—I should have abandoned my fellow Guardian to follow a charge contained on a ship?”
It did sound imbecilic when he phrased it so. “Yes,” she said, knowing it foolish.
“I chose differently.” He rubbed a hand over his face, a sure sign she was vexing him. “Thalia is safe with the tailor, contained on a ship, and I would not reach her any quicker should I have not waited for you to wake. The ship for Queenstor does not leave for another five days. It made more sense to wait for you to wake and then ride for Rivermouth and the ships that depart daily. Are you thirsty?”
The sudden change of subject hurt her head. Abruptly, she realised her throat was parched. “Yes.”
Collecting a tumbler from the dresser, he made his way to her. The bed dipped under his weight, and she rolled toward him. Her thigh brushed his. Familiar breathlessness filled her, but as she had a thousand times before, she brushed it aside.
He handed her the glass. “You should rest, at least one more day.”
She took a sip, the cool water a balm. “I am fine.” They should not delay. They were already two days behind. Raising her hand to the lump behind her ear, she winced.
“One more day, Bharia. It wasn’t the lightest of blows.” Stahg crossed his arms over his broad chest, his fingers digging into his biceps. “You overextended.”
She had. A stupid error, one for which she now suffered.
Stahg wore his own errors on his skin. The bandage on his shoulder spoke of the injury she’d seen, a glancing blow of a dagger to avoid a sword to the gut, while the bruise high on his cheek and the split in his lip suggested he’d stopped someone’s fist with his face.
In a conflict, he always knew where she was, how she was, just as she knew the same of him. The sense they had of the other made them ideal to guard the princess, and perhaps that was why they’d been chosen. Privately, Bharia had always thought it their youth. She was but three years Thalia’s elder, and Stahg was even closer in age, having only a year and a half more than the princess. Three people of similar age—it would garner less attention than two noticeably older guardians.
But then, they should never have been so long away from Queenstor and the throne. Thalia’s royal Tour should have lasted a year, maybe two, not the seven it had taken for the tailor to find and retrieve her. Bharia had no notion why it had lasted so long, but it was not her place to question. She was but to serve and protect, and she had done so. That she liked Thalia, respected her, was due to the knowing the princess and counting her a friend.
She couldn’t leave her friend unprotected. “We can’t let her get too far,” she said, raising her hand to her throbbing head. Her fingers shook. Perhaps she was more affected than she thought.
“I know.” Stahg’s hand twitched. She wondered at that. He often looked at her with the same expression and his hand would twitch or clench. Before she could wonder further, he said, “Now you have woken, I will secure us passage to Queenstor, but you will need one more day.”
She threw back the covers and ignored how her head swam. “I am ready.”
Stahg said nothing, his light blue eyes watching her.
She met his gaze. “I know myself, Stahg.”
A long, thoughtful silence. Finally, he nodded. “Then, we shall leave.”
Swinging her legs around, she stood. A wave of nausea overtook her, and her knees buckled. Strong hands circled her waist. Gripping Stahg’s shoulders, she swallowed the ill feeling rising within her.
As the nausea faded, awareness grew. Gentle fingers brushed her hair, traced the shell of her ear. A shiver reverberated through her skin, along her neck, down her arm, and she wanted to sink into him, to let him take her burdens. She wanted his lips against her temple, and then against her mouth. She wanted his tongue and his taste. She wanted these things, and she wanted him.
Closing her eyes, she allowed this one moment, this one vulnerability. She knew he meant comfort only, but this one time she would pretend….
But pretence was for fools, and those who didn’t guard. Thalia needed them.
Pushing herself from him, she thumped his shoulder. “Come, Stahg, let us away. We have a princess to find.”