Riding down a muddy road gets old really fast, and more than old after five days. We had camped around inns twice, getting warm meals they didn’t have to cook for everyone and rooms for me and Taver. The priests refused to leave their squadrons and Alan, barely hiding his amusement, only teased my guards before sitting up his own tent. Today we are eating the mid-day meal at an inn, having forewarned them via a scout, ensuring they had been cooking for hours before we arrive. Taver pays in coin and in supplies, as he has done previously, so we are doubly welcomed, having provided gold without depleting the supplies they would need once the spring trading season arrives.
The weather is mild, hinting at spring. The inn is perched on the side of a respectable hillside, providing a good view of the river below. I am glad we are on Blythe’s side of the river and will not have to cross the still icy water. Theoretically there is a bridge, but it rarely survives the winter undamaged. Father claims that he supports an entire town with the monies he has to spend each spring repairing it, and threatens to start levying a tariff on the traders that use it. But he never does.
There is a large boulder, almost flat on the top and sun-warmed, that I decide is a better place to eat lunch than the dark inn. The guard fuss over me, the females from the battalion fuss over me, and I am half driven to distraction before they finally leave me to eat in peace. I hear footsteps and turn my head, intending to snap that I want to be left alone, but it is Alan, so I don’t. He’s carefully carrying two tankards of ale.
“If princesses aren’t allowed ale, I’ll drink both.”
I don’t answer, I just grab one of the tankards. He takes this as an invitation to join me, as he should.
“I don’t want wine, and I didn’t want ale badly enough to argue about it. So I got nice cold well-water.”
“And all of them are staring at us.”
“Not all, just the ones who aren’t on sentry duty. If the sentries were watching us instead of watching everywhere else, the sergeants would be yelling.”
“You’ve got the sword, you’ve killed demons, and they think I’m a danger?”
“Just one demon,” I don’t explain they think he’s a danger to my virtue; not going to have that discussion.
Alan shifts so all he can see is the river below. I could tell him it doesn’t help; the weight of the eyes press against your back even when you can’t see them. “I thought your guards were going to have fits in unison when I pretended I was going to say in the inn two nights ago.”
“They would have,” I agreed. “The word overprotective was invented to describe my guards.” For a moment I amused myself thinking about what they would do if I just suddenly leaned over and kissed Alan. I wouldn’t, of course, there was too much serious business ahead. Or maybe I was just afraid to put things to the test.
Alan was silently staring off into the distance too. “Do you think your father will let me stay? He doesn’t seem to like sorcerers much.”
“He doesn’t like demons and dead bodies in his town squares.” I decide not to start the ‘you’re not a sorcerer’ argument. I’ll save that for amusement on the way home. “You haven’t summoned any demons, and the only dead bodies you’ve caused were outlanders trying to kill us. You fought for the city against outlanders and against runaway magic, you have a place with us, if you want it.”
Alan nods in acceptance, but doesn’t say anything as footsteps crunch on the gravel path behind us. I turn around, trying not to show how much I want to strangle Taver for interrupting at exactly the wrong moment.
“We should start moving, Princess.” Taver ignores Alan. He also ignores that he had planned to rest here at least another hour. I watch soldiers and guards scurrying around, saddling horses, getting ready for the road with no grumbling. I think about reminding them they are warriors not chaperones, but it would be a waste of my breath, my guards undoubtedly think they are both.
“Of course,” I agree in my mildest voice. Taver looks worried, he has known me for a long time. I turn to Alan and retie the knot on my ribbon around his arm. Alan looks confused, because the ribbon wasn’t loose. Taver doesn’t look the least bit confused, he knows what I just told him. No, not confused at all, and not happy either.
I smile sweetly at everyone as I mount my horse. Now my guards look worried too. They all know the only time I’m sweet is when I’m plotting. Except I’m not. The mission is too important for me to amuse myself tormenting the overprotective.
We splash back out to the road. Three more days if we are lucky, four or five if we are not. The innkeeper stands in his door waving good-by to us, a big smile on his face. His profit must have been good.
There are still patches of snow in shady places, but it is dirty and melting. The river is completely free of ice, but there are no boats on it yet, and won’t be until it resumes the more placid pace which is normal when it’s not swollen by melting snow. The sky is blue, the clouds high and wispy and the conversation non-existent. Alan is off in his head somewhere, probably thinking about exploding magic pottery, and Taver is silently watching me from the corner of his eye and pretending not to. We plod on muddily, proving you cannot die of boredom.
One of the scouts comes back down the road at a brisk but not panic-inducing pace.
“There is a party of traders on the road just ahead, going to Misthold.” He can’t decide if he should report to me or to Taver, so he stares at a point between the two of us. Taver decides for him by snapping questions about number of men and weapons.
“Likely no thread,” Taver assures me.
“Probably not,” I agree in my over mild tone. Still annoyed with him. Wonder what he would do it he knew mother had provided Alan’s embroidered ribbon? That mother had suggested it. Yeah, probably best not to mention that just yet.