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HomeFantasy StoriesTo Catch a Merchant Princess Ch. 03

To Catch a Merchant Princess Ch. 03

Finally returned home after her ordeal, she feels as if she's traded one captivity for another.

Reader discretion advised. 

The story you are about to read contains mature content that some may find offensive. By choosing to read this piece, you agree that you are 18 or older and do not object to content of a sexual nature. 


"Welcome home," Fantil declared as the wagon crested a hill, revealing the sprawling city of Freeland. The bright noonday sun sparkled on the Groen Sea and the river Lionsfare, framing the city in a glimmering halo. Roads converged upon the city from every direction, filled with wagons, horses, and travelers on foot, all seeking the wonders of the magnificent city.

Though still many miles distant, the sight of the city filled Alicia with relief. She couldn’t yet distinguish her own home, and so turned toward a closer vision of familiarity, the soaring spires Osterfayre. She’d never seen her home city from such a distance before, but the castle where Gwen dwelled looked much the same as it did when approaching from the opposite direction.

Mounted men stood marshaled before the castle, and the group sprang into motion only a minute or so later. Alicia recognized a carriage, pulled by four white horses, at the center of the approaching entourage. Her excitement only grew, knowing that the carriage was one Gwen had taken as her own. Within a few minutes, the two groups would meet, reuniting Alicia with her dear friend.

Fantil clucked his tongue and shook his reins, urging just a bit more speed from his reliable team of chestnut draft horses. "It would seem that I will lose the pleasure of your company soon, Alicia."

"I want to thank you again, Fantil. Knowing my father, it is all too likely that I will not have opportunity to do so later."

"It was my pleasure, Alicia." The merchant leaned around the side of the wagon and gestured. "I know your father as well, and have little doubt you are correct. I should imagine there is someone else you wish to speak to before time slips away."

Thakkor jogged up next to the wagon, offering Alicia a nod of greeting and a radiant smile. Alicia smiled back, and fought the warmth rising in her cheeks with all her will.

She only partially succeeded.

After a couple of hops, Thakkor managed gain on the steps leading up to the buckboard and a grip on the wagon.

"I don’t know how to thank you for all you’ve done, Thakkor."

"Couldn’t hardly leave you out there alone, though you were doing pretty darn good for yourself. Besides, it looks like I’m set for work, now."

Fantil laughed. "Indeed. I would be a very great fool not to retain your sword before a competitor steals you away from under my nose."

His eyes never leaving Alicia’s face, Thakkor said, "Too bad we can’t convince you to come along. Those little magical arrows sure did come in handy."

Alicia couldn’t fight her blush this time. "Thank you."

"Thank you, and you’re welcome," Thakkor responded.

For long seconds, Thakkor and Alicia simply looked at each other. Fantil sat between them, glancing back and forth with a knowing smile, though neither noticed. With the group of Baronial soldiers nearly upon them, Fantil snapped the reins and called to his team, "Whoa."

Thakkor and Alicia looked away from each other, both looking quite embarrassed. Alicia saw Gwen waving from the window of her carriage, wearing a joyful smile. When both the carriage and Fantil’s wagon rolled to a stop, Gwen flung open the door of her carriage, nearly clipping the footman reaching for the door in the face as he dodged away.

The footman attempted to reach for the steps, but the Baroness shooed him away. "Damn propriety," Gwen declared, before hopping down from the carriage and pulling up her skirts to avoid tripping over them as she hurried toward Alicia. The footman affected a hurt, indignant expression, forcing Alicia to stifle a laugh as she climbed down from Fantil’s wagon.

Gwen wrapped her arms around Alicia, hugging her close and saying, "I’m so glad to see you. When I heard of your disappearance, I feared the worst." She released her friend and said, "Come. I simply must know what happened."

The cavalrymen that had accompanied Fantil’s caravan rode away toward the city, replaced by Gwen’s soldiers. An officer rode forward, his powerful black warhorse snorting as the rider reined in. "We will accompany you to the Nash estates. Master Nash is most eager to reward you all for the safe return of his daughter."

Gwen’s eyebrows shot up, and she turned Alicia toward her carriage, pulling on the blonde’s hand to encourage her to hurry. "Who is that devilishly handsome young man? The one who can’t take his eyes off you?" Gwen whispered.

Alicia glanced over her shoulder, and knew there was only one man Gwen could have meant. "Thakkor," she answered, her whisper carrying far more emotion than she intended.

"Oh my. Now we certainly need to talk," Gwen teasingly responded. She turned to her footman and said, "You know, your face will stay like that if you keep it up. Do relax. If it will make you feel better, I’ll let you open the door and put the steps out twice next time."

Alicia chuckled and covered her mouth with the fingers of one hand, unable to contain the mirth caused by Gwen’s over-the-top tone. The footman cracked as well, his scowl fading into a slight grin.

"That’s better," Gwen said with a nod. "I do apologize. I simply could not wait."

The footman bowed and said, "Thank you, My Lady," before offering his hand to assist the two women in ascending the steps.

The door had barely closed before Gwen sat down on the plush red cushions and folded her hands before her breasts. "Let’s start with this Thakkor," she said with a knowing grin. "Whatever did you do on those dark and lonely nights on the road?"

"Gwen!" Alicia gasped, her face burning from the implication. "Absolutely nothing improper happened." Though she tried to sound indignant, she knew her friend was teasing, and couldn’t keep a touch of laughter from her voice.

Gwen sighed. "Pity, that." Her expression then turned serious. "I know I shouldn’t tease, but I was so frightened that I must to keep from crying. You are well, are you not?"

Alicia nodded, "I’m fine. I have to thank you for encouraging me to learn magic and how to defend myself. Both have served me well in my ordeal."

"Tell me what happened – as much as you are able, please," Gwen requested.

Alicia discovered that she did feel a need to talk about what had befallen her. She took a deep breath and began her tale with the attack on the carriage.

**

Her face ached from forcing the appropriate, demure smile to remain on her face throughout the day. She was certain she would never walk again from the pain of wearing the tight, high-heeled shoes that none could even see beneath her voluminous, ornate teal gown. The gown stifled her, leaving her feeling as though she would faint at any given moment.

Somehow, she remained standing and smiling as the last of the guests and well-wishers left. Alicia glanced at Gwen, who stood a few feet away with her husband. Without even looking, Gwen squeezed her right hand tight, and then traced a tiny smile in the air, their secret signal for Stay strong and smile – it will be over soon.

Though she dared not look at the men directly, she could tell that Thakkor and his fellow sellswords appeared even more uncomfortable than her. Thakkor in particular fidgeted enough to give her the impression that he was ready to run away screaming from the pomp that he’d endured all day. For just a few moments, her smile was genuine as she considered that a man who could face death without a second thought looked ready to offer unconditional surrender to speeches and platitudes.

Fantil and his merchants appeared at ease, a testament to the skills that made them successful in their trade. Alicia had nearly spoiled her performance when she happened to see the evidence of the men’s true feelings out of the corner of her eye earlier in the day. One of the merchants had mimed stabbing a dagger into his own gut, crossing his eyes and sticking out his tongue while one of Alicia’s long winded suitors tried to dazzle the gathering with his verbosity. Fantil and the other traveling salesman had nodded their heads while fighting back laughter.

Alicia’s father turned to the merchants and sellswords. "Again, we must express our undying gratitude for the safe return of our beloved daughter. You are, of course, welcome to guest with us this evening."

Fantil stepped forward to speak for the group. "We would not dare impose upon what will surely be an emotional evening of private reflection. Your most generous gratuity for the pleasure of accompanying your lovely daughter home is more than sufficient to provide us with fine lodging in fair Freeland."

"Then we wish you safe journey and good fortune."

Fantil nodded and walked toward the stables where his wagons awaited. The rest of the group followed, but Thakkor looked toward Alicia before falling into step with his fellow warriors.

Alicia’s eyes locked with his and her breath caught in her chest. He was about to leave, and she would likely never see him again.

"Do you think you will feel ready to resume our lessons next week?" Gwen asked, snapping Alicia out of her trance.

The Baron added, "I will send soldiers to accompany you on your journey, so that you might never fear such misfortune again."

Alicia knew that the Baroness had purposely distracted her – and just in time. Her heart still thudded in her chest, the strength of her feelings having nearly overwhelmed her. "Yes, of course," she answered, fighting the urge to seek out Thakkor again.

"I shall see you then. Welcome home, Alicia."

"Thank you, My Lady," Alicia responded with an appropriate curtsy.

"Come, daughter, before you catch a chill in the night air."

Alicia accepted her mother’s hand, masterfully negotiating the stone path in her heels, eager to shed both the painful shoes and the suffocating gown.

She was far less eager to walk away from the sound of Fantil’s wagons rolling out of the stable.

**

Alicia paced the gravel paths of the garden, the morning dew dampening the hem of her gown. From the moment she had awakened in her own bed for the first time in so long, she felt as though the walls were closing in on her. Even outside in the garden, she felt imprisoned.

Thankfully, she had an excuse to turn away suitors – for a time. She knew that her father’s patience would soon run out. After only a week, she could see irritation in his eyes whenever she asked for permission to withdraw early from dinner or feigned indisposition from her ordeal to chase away the strutting men seeking her hand.

When she heard the sound of horses and carriage wheels approaching, Alicia pulled up her skirts and hurried out of the garden at a speed just below a jog. She slowed only at the last second, resuming a stately walk once beyond the welcome seclusion of the flowers and fruit trees, picking up her day bag from a stone bench along the way.

The carriage appeared to barely move in Alicia’s eyes, seemingly taking hours to cross the grounds, mounted soldiers of the Baron riding alongside. Knowing that someone was always watching, she contained her urges and waited for the carriage to pull up and turn around, rather than running for the door as part of her screamed to do.

"Glad I am to see you well," the driver said with a smile.

"As am I, you," Alicia responded, returning his warm smile.

"Nothing more than a crick in my back from the unanticipated nap, Milady."

The footman opened the door and set up the steps, which Alicia ascended almost before they could settle. Less than a minute later, Alicia let out a great sigh of relief as the carriage rolled toward the gates of the estate. Even so, she still wished she could ride with the driver, up where she could feel the wind on her face and see the countryside.

Upon the first, small lurch of the carriage wheels onto the cobblestone courtyard of the castle, Alicia looked toward the massive double doors of the fortress. Her brow wrinkled in confusion when she saw a servant waiting there instead of Gwen. The Baroness had always met her at the front door, and Alicia wondered why things had changed.

Once the carriage rolled to a stop and the footman put out the steps, the servant bowed and announced, "My Lady has asked me to convey you to her in her chambers."

"Very well. Thank you," Alicia responded, still confused. She followed the man through the halls, though she knew the way probably as well as he.

Alicia’s guide knocked upon the relief-carved door and announced her.

"Do come in, Alicia," Gwen called from inside.

The servant opened the door, and then bowed before taking his leave. Alicia crossed the threshold, and instantly knew the reason why her friend had not met her as usual.

"What do you think?" Gwen asked, modeling her blouse and skirt.

"It’s very becoming," Alicia answered, and then giggled. The Baroness had obviously taken a cue from the clothing she’d seen Alicia wearing upon her return, though Gwen’s outfit was made of expensive purple silk trimmed in gold thread rather than plain linen.

"My husband thought so as well, though he is too scandalized to allow me outside my room when I’m wearing it. I’d nearly forgotten how comfortable this is." She then bent to pick up a bundle resting upon the cushions of the cherry wood couch next to her. Holding out a nearly identical outfit in blue as Alicia approached, she asked, "Join me?"

Alicia nodded, more than willing to escape her gown. She removed it carefully, draping it over the back of the couch so it wouldn’t wrinkle, and then pulled on the blouse and skirt. The silk felt wonderful against her skin, and fit perfectly.

Gwen clapped her hands and sat down on the couch. "Now, show me your new spell."

Yet another request Alicia was happy to oblige, she sat down her day bag and sifted to the bottom until she found her spell component pouch. Once she removed the miniature arrow, she said, "I actually need to cast this cantrip at something for it to work. It’s not very strong, but I don’t want to ruin anything."

"The logs in the fireplace?" Gwen suggested.

"Good idea," Alicia agreed, and turned to face the fireplace. She cleared her head, and then started the chant.

"Marvelous!" Gwen declared as the blue-white bolt of magic hurtled from Alicia’s hand to explode in a spray of sparks against the half-charred logs. She then beckoned her friend to her and said, "I have some gifts for you."

"Gifts? On what occasion?"

Gwen beckoned again, more insistently this time. "If you must have an occasion, then your safe return. In truth, I simply wished to."

As Alicia approached, Gwen held up a cedar box about the length of her forearm, and perhaps one quarter as wide and deep. "What is it?" Alicia asked.

"Open it and find out." The Baroness stretched out her arms, offering the box.

One look at the dainty silver hinges and latches told Alicia that the box wasn’t really meant to be opened or closed frequently. She carefully lifted the lid and gasped in surprise when she saw the sheathed dagger within.

"I thought you should have one more befitting of your station," Gwen explained, and stood up. "The man who sold it to me swore that it is a wizard’s dagger."

Elaborate scrollwork decorated the leather sheath. The grip of the dagger was equally ornate, sporting a crystal quartz pommel stone. Alicia accepted Gwen’s silent offer to hold the box while she removed the dagger. When she slid the blade out of the sheath, she found the same scrollwork decorated the gleaming, double edged weapon. Though short – only a little longer than her middle finger – the blade nevertheless appeared quite dangerous.

Two soft leather straps dangled from the back of the sheath at the top and bottom, passing through metal grommets. A loop in the center was obviously for securing the sheath to a belt, but the other straps perplexed her.

Knowing exactly what Alicia was thinking while twirling one of the straps between her fingers, Gwen said, "Let me show you."

Alicia gasped in surprise when the Baroness hiked up her skirt, and then let out a little laugh when the action revealed the purpose of the straps. Gwen had a similar dagger strapped to her thigh, pommel down.

"It is a little awkward at first, but I’ve grown accustomed to it in the last two days," Gwen said as she let her skirt fall back down. You should be able to find the proper place if you put it on while sitting down."

Once again feeling the security of a weapon in her hand that had washed over her during her flight from captivity, Alicia sat down on the couch and bunched up her skirt.

"A little closer to your knee. Now up a little," Gwen instructed as Alicia placed the weapon against her thigh. "There, that looks right. See if you can buckle it on."

Alicia clamped her thighs together to hold the dagger in place, and then pulled the straps around her leg. Once she cinched up the buckles, she wondered how the blade would remain safely within its sheath when she stood.

As soon as she considered the conundrum, she noticed the two small leather loops. These hooked over protrusions extending from the joining of the blade and grip of the dagger. A gentle tug on the dagger reassured her that it would remain in place, but only a flip of her finger released one of the leather loops. She could draw the hidden weapon in a matter of seconds.

"Try to walk a bit," Gwen suggested.

Alicia smoothed her skirt back down and stood. After only a few steps, she found that the dagger felt perfectly natural – and very comforting – riding securely against her thigh.

"It seems to agree with you. I had to concentrate not to walk bowlegged for most of the first day." Gwen laughed and asked, "Do you like it?"

"I adore it, Gwen. Thank you," Alicia said with a vibrant smile as she sat down, the dagger again not hindering her movement in any way.

"Now, for your second gift." Gwen reached to the tabletop next to the couch, retrieving a small silk bag and a palm-sized book.

"New spells?" Alicia guessed, eagerly reaching for the book and bag.

Gwen nodded. "I spoke with the woman who taught me magic, and she said that you might be able to cast these, since you managed your new spell. I’ll never have the aptitude."

Color flooded into Alicia’s cheeks when she opened the book and realized the nature of the first spell. The magic discerned whether a woman was in a fertile part of her cycle. The next spell increased a woman’s natural wetness. Every page in the book detailed another spell that had something to do with fertility, sex, birth, or child rearing. She closed the book and remarked, "This must be the naughtiest spell book ever written."

Gwen laughed and nodded in agreement. "If you can learn the magic, it will certainly come in handy some day. The first and last, especially."

Alicia tucked the book pouch of spell components into her day bag, along with her other tools of magic. Gwen’s mention of the final spell – a magic to lessen the pain of deflowering – caused Alicia’s cheeks to burn even hotter. As soon as she’d realized the nature of the spell, she had thought of Thakkor.

"Just learn them," Gwen said with a wink.

Though she tried not to think about it, Alicia could almost hear the new spells calling to her.

"Will you cross swords with Trell today? I do know he is anxious to see you."

"I certainly wish to thank him," Alicia replied. Her fingers brushed across her practice uniform, the garments a little worse for the wear after serving in a capacity far beyond their intended use. She’d nearly left the uniform in its hiding place at home, uneasy about engaging in mock combat so soon after circumstances forced her to utilize those skills in a real life or death situation.

As she considered it now, the frustration of returning to her old routine weighed down upon her. After her first taste of true freedom, albeit an unwilling one, Alicia found it nearly impossible to endure the tiring, meaningless ritual of her life.

"Alicia?" Gwen asked, concerned by the frown on her friend’s face and the long pause.

Alicia snapped out of her dark brooding. "I’m sorry, Gwen. Yes, I think I will."

The Baroness smiled. "Let us have tea then, to fortify you for the exercise."

**

Alicia’s wooden blade smacked against Trell’s in a diagonal, two-handed cut. The well-trained warrior pushed Alicia’s blade down and launched a slash of his own. Alicia felt the satisfying shock of her weapon deflecting the stronger man’s blow, her body moving almost of its own accord to bring the wooden blade into proper position. She immediately thrust directly from her blocking position. Though she could put only a portion of her strength into the attack, it forced Trell back and into a hasty, sweeping defense.

Every ounce of Alicia’s irritation and the lingering traces of fear from her kidnapping surged from her into her blade. Sweat poured from her body, threatening her vision, but she pressed on. For the first time, she maintained an even footing with her instructor far more often than she retreated.

Faces appeared in the windows and doors of the castle, anyone who heard the clatter of the pitched battle unable to look away. Trell’s soldiers filed out of the barracks, their expressions showing astonishment at the spectacle. Alicia noticed none of it, and continued to press her attack.

"Hold!" Trell called out.

Her heart pounding and her eyes still narrowed in concentration, Alicia suddenly realized she’d scored a touch on Trell’s weapon arm. She drew back her blade and stared at it in near disbelief.

"Magnificent, Alicia!" Trell declared. He let his weapon drop to his side and rubbed his upper arm, the angry red welt there a testament to the strength of Alicia’s blow. "You weren’t thinking, were you?"

"What do you mean?" Alicia asked between deep, rapid breaths.

"You weren’t thinking, ‘I need to bring my sword up to defend against this attack,’ you just did it, didn’t you?"

Alicia wiped the sweat out of her eyes and considered for a moment. "I did feel as though I was already moving before I could consider the proper parry."

Trell held out his hand for Alicia’s wooden sword. "That’s not all. I threw a few things at you that you haven’t seen before. Do you remember?"

Almost instantly, Alicia recalled a low, one-handed thrust, and one occasion where Trell had actually switched his sword to his off hand for a slash.

"I can see it in your eyes," Trell said, and then laughed. "You were improvising – modifying what you’ve already learned to deal with the flow of the battle. You’ve reached a new plateau, Alicia."

Untying the thong holding her blonde tresses back in a tail, Alicia asked, "You truly think so?"

"I know so. I’ll look forward to sparring with you even more, from now on." He gripped the welt on his arm. "Though I fear this will be the first of many bruises I’ll nurse for it. Now, off to the bath with you. Wouldn’t want to invite bad luck by getting carried away, as we did last time."

It was at that moment that Alicia realized she had an audience. Her flushed cheeks grew even redder when she noticed the looks of surprised pleasure on the faces looking out into the courtyard.

Gwen knew Alicia well, and hastened to extradite her embarrassed – but still proud – friend to the safety of the castle.

**

Alicia breathed a sigh of relief as the door closed, finally giving her time alone again after returning from her visit with Gwen. She’d hastened through her bath, eager to have the time away from her parents and the servants that bedtime granted.

A look out the window revealed that the rain continued to fall in sheets, eliminating any possibility of enjoying the night air out on the balcony. Alicia unpacked her day bag, carefully hiding her practice uniform and placing her new dagger atop it. Fortunately, even her mother wouldn’t dare violate the small cedar chest where Alicia kept her diaries – and what Gwen mirthfully called her contraband.

As Alicia placed her silken pouches and spellbooks into the chest, she found her fingers lingering on the new book Gwen had given her. The spells almost seemed to be calling to her to learn them.

Her cheeks warmed as that call carried with it an image of Thakkor.

She nearly put the spellbook away, concerned that she was letting her baser desires overwhelm her, but her fingers refused to release the book. He’s gone away with Fantil, so what temptation do I have to fear?

With that rationale firmly set in her head, Alicia closed the top of the chest and carried the book to her dressing table. Opening the book on the table to the first spell, she reached for her ivory-handled brush. As she brushed out her long, golden tresses, Alicia thought, How much easier might it be to give my future husband a child if I might know when I could conceive?

The steady litany of good reasons to study the magic Alicia contrived overwhelmed the other, shameful thoughts that emerged in her head as she looked over the spell. With her hair brushed out and her conscience salved, Alicia took the book to her bed to study in earnest. She pointedly ignored the part of the spell description that stressed the magic served a second, naughtier purpose. Quite naturally, a spell that could tell a woman when she could become pregnant could also tell her when she could not.

Alicia knew that this spell would not come to her quickly. Even the first word made her tongue feel as though it was trying to tie itself into a knot. The challenge only strengthened her resolve. The patter of the heavy rain outside helped to focus Alicia’s mind, drowning out the sounds of the night and those few still awake within the house.

Alicia barely found the presence of mind to hide her spellbook away many hours later.

**

Stephan droned on and on, his passionless recital making an already bad poem all the more awful. Weary from her long night studying magic, Alicia’s patience had eroded within minutes of his arrival. Even the elation of having learned both the first and last spells in her new book over the last month couldn’t overwhelm Stephan’s irritating presence. The boorish cousin of a Duke obviously believed he was the god’s own gift to womankind, and treated the servants little better than dogs.

She could finally bear him no longer when Stephan moved close and delivered his next line of prose while staring down into her cleavage without the slightest hint of shame or tact. Alicia gasped and covered her bosom with her hand, immediately rising to dart around him. She didn’t look back as she tried unsuccessfully to hide her irritation. "Please excuse me, I’m feeling rather indisposed."

Alicia could just hear Stephan’s indignant snort over her mother calling to her. Ignoring them both, she crossed the sitting room and stepped out of her painful heels as soon as she passed out of the room. Gathering up her skirts, she hastened to the stairs in the entrance foyer and ascended the curving stone steps at nearly a run.

Almost as soon as she slammed her oaken door shut, Alicia covered her face with her hands and lamented her foolishness. She knew full well the consequences she would face for such a graceless display. Her already stifling routine would now include the angry stare and constant chastisement of her father for weeks to come.

Hearing her mother’s heels clicking on the stones of the hall between the carpets, Alicia slid the iron locking bolt closed and crossed the room to sit down heavily on her bed.

"Daughter, you will come make your apologies to Stephan immediately."

"I will not!" The final word emerged as an angry shout, accompanied by an irrational desire to hurl something at the door.

"Your behavior is inexcusable, Daughter."

"That preening lecher staring at my breasts is perfectly acceptable, of course," Alicia retorted.

"You are imagining things."

"You are ignoring them!" This time, Alicia didn’t resist the urge. She picked up the delicate glass vase of summer blooms next to her bed and hurled it with all her might toward the door. Water and flowers scattered across the floor, quickly joined by shards of glass when the vase shattered against the stout portal.

Alicia flopped down on the bed in tearful frustration, not even acknowledging her mother’s warning about the forthcoming consequences when her father returned home. Only a few minutes later, she dried her eyes and summoned up her composure, embarrassed by her spoiled, childish display.

She nearly relapsed when a knock on the door interrupted an attempt to fix her makeup without starting all over again. "Please go away," she managed to implore with a fair amount of civility.

"I heard glass breaking," Kylie said from the other side of the door.

Alicia winced, glad she hadn’t snapped at the young woman. "It is of no matter. I will attend to it."

"If you wish, but I have gloves where you do not. Your mother has retired to her chambers."

Alicia knew that the last was meant to reassure her that it was safe to open the door. "One moment," she acquiesced, and retrieved a pair of shoes from the racks in her closet. She picked her way through the shards of glass and slid back the locking bolt, allowing Kylie to enter.

The young woman nodded and smiled. She wore gloves, and carried a tin pail to dispose of the broken vase. Inside the pail was a new vase, and flowers to fill it.

"Thank you, Kylie. You are too thoughtful."

"Anticipation is half of the task of those who serve," Kylie responded as she closed the door and locked it again.

"I fear my actions this day will create unpleasantness for you as well – for all of the servants," Alicia lamented as she accepted the vase from the brunette and placed it on her bedside table.

"Perhaps, although I believe many of us would consider Stephan’s hasty departure worth the trouble," Kylie said while handing Alicia the flowers.

Alicia couldn’t help but grin as she arranged the flowers in the vase. Kylie pulled a cloth from the pail, knelt to pick up the flowers closest to the bed, and then blotted the water spots from the carpet and floor. "If you wish, I might quietly bring you something from the kitchen for your meals."

"You are too kind. I would not trouble you so beyond your normal work," Alicia responded as she finished with the flowers.

Kylie waved her away as Alicia started to kneel to help with cleaning up the mess. "It is no trouble."

"It will be if my parents were to discover that you offered me comfort beyond your duties. No, I will face my punishment."

"As you wish. For whatever comfort you may take from it, there is no need for shame in your actions. I fear I would not have managed such restraint were I faced with the prospect of Stephan courting me."

The contempt with which Kylie said Stephan’s name caused Alicia to chuckle, bringing her a small measure of comfort as she sat down to work on her smudged face once more.

**

The day proceeded much as Alicia had anticipated, with one welcome exception. Her father’s anger was so overwhelming that he could find no words to chastise her. Alicia retired early to watch the sunset from her balcony, leaning against the stone railing in quiet contemplation.

Her sense of duty and proper behavior warred with her independent nature, neither side able to gain any ground over the other. Once, she had nearly accepted her lot in life, taking advantage of the comforts afforded to her with the lack of care expected in her station. Then, her father’s choice of suitors had reawakened her rebellious side, and the ordeal of her kidnapping and escape had further strengthened that part of her.

Torn between what she had always known and what she truly desired, Alicia could not resolve the conflict within her. The crimson glow of the setting sun faded, replaced by the pale light of the full moon. Softly humming romantic songs helped to quiet her mind, allowing her to enjoy the sounds of the night and the cooling breeze.

As though summoned by her quiet rendition, Alicia saw a couple walking hand-in-hand through the garden below. She recognized the young woman as an assistant to the cook. The older man worked for her father as a driver. The couple obviously had eyes only for each other, and Alicia doubted that either realized she was standing on the balcony above them.

Alicia sighed as the couple sat down on one of the benches in the garden to kiss. The surrounding foliage likely shielded the pair from nearly any other location in the house or on the grounds, but Alicia’s balcony overlooked the spot from just the right position.

Though she tried to ignore the couple and the bittersweet feelings the sight of them summoned up within her, Alicia frequently found her eyes returning to the tender scene. On one such occasion, Alicia covered her mouth and stepped back toward the balcony door. The couple had progressed beyond simple kissing, and the bright moonlight plainly revealed the man’s hand beneath the woman’s blouse, and her hand in his lap.

Alicia’s cheeks burned as she quietly opened the door and slipped back into her room. She had watched the passionate scene for far longer than could remotely be considered appropriate in her surprise, and the reaction it caused in her only reinforced her shame.

Her nipples stiff against the chemise beneath her dressing gown, Alicia tried to shake away the lusty emotions surging through her. Despite her efforts, the insistent tingle in her loins only grew stronger by the moment. As always since meeting him, thoughts of Thakkor melded with the surging arousal that threatened to overwhelm her.

After a few minutes of pacing in front of the balcony door, Alicia peeked out the window almost without thinking. When she noticed the couple had abandoned the garden – probably for somewhere even more private – she stepped back out onto the balcony. The cool night air proved a marked contrast to the heat she felt, causing her to shiver despite her woolen dressing gown.

The lights of the city called to her eyes. Freeland never slept. Even now, some were only just rising from their beds. Though she’d daydreamed of visiting the city unescorted many times, the desire was especially strong this night. She’d planned her escape many years ago, but had never found the courage to undertake the adventure. Whispers of thieves, drunkards, rapists, and other dark elements of society had always caused her to abandon any thought of venturing to the city alone.

Such considerations seemed trivial now, after facing the wilderness alone with murderous men seeking her. Guardsmen patrolled the streets of the city, maintaining law and order. Bright lamps lit the street corners, keeping the thieves at bay. True, the dangers were real, but far less so than those conjured up in Alicia’s mind over the years.

The moonlight further illuminated the city, revealing a building she’d often heard the servants speak of. The bright red stain of the wooden shingles stood out from the nearby buildings. The roof hearkened to the name of the place, the Red Dragon Inn. A popular destination for its affordable accommodations and the congenial atmosphere of the taproom, the well paid servants of the estate frequented the Dragon.

How could I bring any more trouble upon myself? Alicia thought, curiosity overwhelming her arousal. She stepped back into her room, instantly feeling cabin fever despite her opulent and spacious surroundings. In a surge of determination, Alicia pulled off her dressing gown to absently discard it on her turned-down bed. Her chemise soon followed, falling in a pool of silk to the floor as she bent in front of her chest of drawers.

From the bottom drawer, Alicia retrieved a blouse and skirt. Despite frequent admonitions to discard the garments she’d obtained on her flight from her captors, Alicia had adamantly refused to do so. Alicia pulled on the simple linen garments before her nerve failed, and then walked to her cedar chest. From this, she retrieved her new dagger, spell pouch, and a small purse of coin. With the dagger securely strapped to her thigh and the two pouches tied to loops designed for exactly that purpose at the top of her skirt, Alicia took a deep breath and stared at her door.

She almost surrendered to fear as she had so many times before, but managed to summon up the courage to approach the door. First, she listened for sounds of anyone outside in the hall. Then, she cracked the door open and peered out into the corridor. She knew her best chance lay in speed as much as stealth, and thus she slipped out into the hall almost as soon as the thought crossed her mind. A few steps down the hall, she pulled on a handle disguised as an ornamental hook, sliding back the door to the servant’s corridors.

When necessary, the servants could move throughout the entire home without ever appearing in the halls, with one notable exception – Alicia’s father had sealed the door leading to her room. The hidden passageways were rarely used, only pressed into service during grand parties or when important guests stayed overnight at the estate. Thus, the corridors were currently empty – and pitch black.

Alicia centered her mind and spoke the words of a cantrip, her fingers dancing through the necessary gestures as she held the miniature candle. The tiny wax replica vanished, replaced by a hovering sphere of yellow light in her palm. Wearing a triumphant smile, Alicia tiptoed through the narrow corridor toward the steep stairs she knew lay a short distance ahead.

The stairs creaked enough to give Alicia cause for alarm as she descended. While she didn’t feel as though the steps were unsafe, she feared the noise might alert someone to her presence. When she reached the bottom of the wooden staircase, Alicia quickened her pace. Having explored the corridors often as a girl, she knew them as well as she did the rest of the house. She reached what the servants called the mud porch without incident, and didn’t see anyone when she slowly cracked open the door to exit the secret passages.

Knowing that some servants were always awake and at work, Alicia exited the hidden passage and crossed the small room to the door. Once through that portal, she stood in the side of the estate grounds, set aside for the growing of vegetables and herbs. Though offering little cover to conceal her, this side of the grounds had few windows facing it. She had to hurry and hope that none of the servants chose to look out the window during her escape.

Feeling alive, with the night breeze whipping her blonde tresses, Alicia jogged across the grounds, putting what little bit of vegetation and outbuildings she could between her and the house. She had an almost uncontrollable desire to giggle when she closed the servant’s gate behind her, having completed her escape.

Alicia had to fight the urge to skip as she hiked to the road a few hundred feet away, and then toward the city. A few minutes later, she passed between the guard towers and into the city proper.

Having never visited the city at night before, Alicia was surprised by the number of shops still open for business. Around half of the storefronts and booths were shuttered with closed signs, but the rest looked as though they would remain open the whole night through. Though the cobblestone streets bore only a portion of the daytime traffic, people and carts still moved from place to place in large numbers.

Some places thrived in the night, advertising their presence with bright torches, lamps, and in some rare cases, magical lights. The inns, taprooms, and brothels drew a fair share of the traffic moving through the city. For the first time, Alicia heard the sounds of Freeland’s nightlife from a more personal perspective.

Plunging necklines dominated the attire of the women – especially the prostitutes. Despite the ample number of well displayed chests, Alicia noticed more than a few men turning her way with glances that ranged from curiosity to outright, debauched lust. While the attention made her tingle all over, it also carried with it twinges of uneasiness. Only the sight of a guard on patrol nearby calmed her nerves, allowing her to proceed toward the Red Dragon.

Alicia turned a corner amidst the sound of loud feminine laughter coming from a pair of ladies playfully fleeing two men chasing them. She had to step aside to avoid a collision with the first of the women, and caught her first sight of the Dragon as she did so.

As the owner intended, the first thing that she saw was the Dragon’s primary advertisement. The red stone statue stood in the middle of a ring of fire that illuminated it, upon an island in a small pond in front of the inn. The dragon statue’s head pointed toward the sky, its mouth open in a toothy snarl. Real flame danced in the night breeze, emerging from the stone monster’s mouth.

Alicia fell into step with two or three other patrons approaching the inn, and a wide smile broke out on her face as she entered. The atmosphere reminded her of the small town taproom she’d entered with Thakkor as her first taste of civilization after escaping her kidnappers – if a bit more crowded and loud. A troupe of minstrels played in one corner, and several couples danced in front of the musicians in an area obviously set aside for such.

"First time?"

Alicia jumped a little from the voice, and turned to find a busty brunette barmaid standing next to her. "Yes, it’s my first visit."

The woman laughed. "Come along then. I’ll get you set up at the bar where we can keep an eye out for you while you get comfortable."

"Thank you very much," Alicia responded as the brunette waved for her to follow.

**

"You are absolutely certain?"

"Oh, it’s her, it is. Gone to the Red Dragon all alone. No soldiers or ladies in waitin’ or nuthin’."

Coins changed hands, and the roughly dressed man scurried off to spend it, leaving behind his benefactor – who wore a wide, dark smile.

**

Already nervous from the unwanted advances of a drunkard that had accosted her, Alicia felt even more unsettled when she stepped outside. Many of the lamps and torches had burned down, leaving only islands of light in the previously bright streets. A quick glance behind her through the window revealed the barman and one of his toughs still dressing down the drunkard, at least giving her the piece of mind that he would not follow her.

Alicia tried to take comfort in the pleasant evening she’d spent up until that unfortunate encounter. Fascinated by the interaction between people not caught up in protocol, she would have been content to people-watch. The single men would have none of that, though. Fortunately, Alicia’s own coaching in manners and her pleasant demeanor meant that most of those men left her side feeling only disappointment, and nothing worse.

Nevertheless, the darkness made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Without even realizing it, Alicia quickened her pace. Only now did she consider that she still needed to travel the road home after midnight – alone. She briefly considered asking a guard to accompany her when she reached the gate, but realized that such had a far greater potential of reaching her father than anything else.

Resigned to the short but frightening journey, Alicia hurried toward the gate. As her eyes adjusted, she was glad that the full moon actually left few places completely hidden in shadow.

Just as she started to relax, a voice emerged from an alleyway as she passed it. "Well, look who we have here."

Before Alicia even realized what she was doing, she’d set her feet and snapped her dagger from its hidden sheath.

"We’ve got to stop meeting like this," Thakkor said with laughter in his voice as he took a step back and held up his hands.

"Thakkor?" Alicia asked incredulously.

"Yep. Uhm – you can put the dagger away now, if you want."

Alicia blushed when she realized she still stood as if ready for battle. Her blush only deepened as she considered what she would have to do to sheathe her dagger – which she’d already done as she retrieved it. Thakkor turned away to give her a measure of privacy, only confirming that he’d certainly seen several more inches of her thigh than the skirt intended. Alicia slipped her dagger back in place. "I’m terribly sorry."

Thakkor laughed. "Don’t worry about it. Nice dagger, by the way. It suits you better than that skinning knife you tried to gut me with last time. Surprised to see you here in the city."

"I’m surprised to see you as well," Alicia said with a smile, absently smoothing back her blonde tresses.

"I was just heading back to the inn. Ran into an old friend and went to have a couple of beers with him."

"I was just returning home."

"Alone?"

"Well, I..." Alicia trailed off, not really knowing what to say. Her heart knew exactly what to say, and screamed at her to ask him to accompany her.

"Snuck out, huh? Can’t say as I blame you." He laughed again, the deep sound full of mirth. He pointed a thumb over his shoulder toward the gate and asked, "Want some company on the walk before you sneak back in? We’re in town for a couple of days, so there’s no rush for me to get back."

Alicia nearly swooned, her heart thudding in her chest and tingles running up and down her spine. "If you don’t mind," she answered, pleased that none of her excitement had crept into her voice.

The couple turned toward the gate, walking side by side. Some scandalous part of Alicia’s mind willed him to reach for her hand.

"Been coming here often?" Thakkor asked, and then winced. "Damn, but that sounded much better in my head."

Alicia laughed, having heard a very similar line in the Dragon. "This was the first time I found the courage, actually. I think I might try again tomorrow night, though."

"Any place special?" Thakkor asked as they passed through the gate, sounding a little nervous.

"I’ll probably go to the Red Dragon again. I enjoyed my evening there," Alicia responded, her smile growing wider.

"I’ve heard about that place. Never been there."

"Perhaps I’ll see you there tomorrow night."

"I’ll make sure not to sneak up on you this time."

Thakkor and Alicia both laughed at the same time, and then continued down the road, chatting as they walked.

**

With the couple now well out of earshot, one of the men huddled behind an outbuilding asked, "Why’d we let ‘em go?"

"Ah, let us not be so eager. Preparations made in haste are only appropriate when there is not opportunity for a studied approach." He gestured for his men to follow, and then muttered under his breath, "Tomorrow, I will have satisfaction."

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