The next few moons flew by like a dream for Talon and her sisters. Captain Vaughn established a strict routine for Talon’s training that involved daily lessons in swordplay, horseback riding, hand-to-hand combat and battle strategy. Most were conducted in coordination with the Princess’ lessons, as the King had ordered that Talon was always to remain within sight of her. This proved to be more difficult than might have been expected, as Talon’s training involved activities usually conducted outdoors in the sparring rings, while most of Shasta’s studies were bookish subjects like history and economics. In compromise, Vaughn arranged for one end of the east hall of the palace to be cleared of furnishings; he worked with Talon in the open portion of the room while Shasta and her new ladies-in-waiting studied with her tutors at the other end.
Talon was not quite sure what to think of her new charge. She enjoyed her training, but following the Princess around was a different matter. Shasta drifted through the days like a ghost, in black silks and heavy veils that hid her face. Talon was at her side every moment, through lessons and meals, and slept on a cot at her bedside. Yet most of the time Shasta acted like her guardian was invisible. She never spoke more than a few words at a time, and then only in murmured responses to Lyris’s gentle attempts at conversation. The maids whispered of how much the Princess had changed since her brother’s assassination. Talon couldn’t imagine this somber, silent girl, who got winded just walking to her lessons each morning, ever having been the noisy, cheeky troublemaker that the maids and Nurse described.
Often, Shasta interrupted both her own lessons and Talon’s by leaving the room for no apparent reason to wander the gardens or palace corridors. Talon was forced to drop whatever she was doing and follow, as the Princess was never to be out of her sight. She tried to encourage her charge to return to the lesson hall, or at least get her to say what she was looking for in these meanderings, but Shasta just stared up at her, face obscured by her dark veils, and then kept walking. Sometimes she would walk an entire wing of the palace, entering every room to run a black-gloved hand slowly over the furniture, and stand for a time gazing at the paintings and tapestries hung on the walls. Talon couldn’t tell if she was actually looking at them. Half the time she wasn’t even sure the Princess was aware that she was standing there. But after a while she would move on, out of that room and into the next. Only when her wanderlust had been satisfied would she turn back, without a word, and resume her seat at the table with her books.
One of the unexpected results of her role as bodyguard was that Talon was sometimes called upon to assist with the Princess’s lessons as well. Shasta’s dance instructor, for example, was delighted to borrow Talon away from her own training to serve as a waltzing partner for the Princess, as well as Lyris and Bria. Captain Vaughn wasn’t pleased about it, but Talon didn’t mind as much as she might have, because she enjoyed the time with her sisters. She was immeasurably proud of them; like her, they were both working hard to soak up every bit of education they could. They looked like real ladies now, in corsets and brocades and silks, just like the Princess herself, and they were even picking up elegant little affectations in the way they held their teacups and pronounced the names of the provincial senators. It was everything Talon had always dreamed for them, and even when she laid down at night with aching muscles and bruises from her training, she was the happiest she’d ever been in her life.
Three moons into their new lives at the palace, Talon faced her first real challenge as the Princess’ guardian. One evening as the Princess and King dined together with Lyris, Bria, and several other members of court, Talon stood at attention behind Shasta’s chair. A serving girl brought out the main course and set each person’s plate in front of them. Talon didn’t recognize the dish, some sort of meat and a creamy orange-colored sauce. But her keen sense of smell had picked out something strange. As the Princess raised the first bite to her lips, Talon reached down and stopped her wrist.
The room went quiet, and there were a few indignant huffs from the other end of the table. The King frowned.
“Something isn’t right, Your Majesty.” Talon took the Princess’ fork from her hand. “This has a different smell from the others.”
Soltran held his hand out for the plate, and Talon handed it to him. The king sniffed at the plate. “I don’t smell anything.”
Bria’s eyes were wide. “Your Majesty, pardon the interruption, but…” she blushed a bit as everyone at the table turned to look at her. “Our brother’s nose has always been sharper than most. If he says there’s something wrong, he’s telling the truth.”
King Soltran still did not look convinced, but he called for the cook anyway.
When he arrived, the cook glared at Talon. “The very idea, suggesting that there’s something wrong with my food,” he muttered, taking the plate from the King. “Your Majesty, the Outlander boy is obviously imagining things. There’s nothing wrong with this dish. It looks and smells just as it did when it left my kitchens.”
Soltran lifted an eyebrow. “Then you won’t mind tasting it for us.”
A muscle in the rotund man’s jaw twitched with annoyance. “Of course not.” He set the plate down and cut a bit of the meat, putting it in his mouth and chewing. “As I thought, it’s perfectly fine. Delicious, if I do say so myself.”
The King leaned back in his chair and eyed Talon. “It would seem you were mistaken.”
She looked from the dish, to the King, to the cook and back again. She could still smell the strange scent, spicy and sweet, though very subtle under the stronger citrus notes of the sauce. Maybe it was one of the herbs the meat had been cooked with? She bowed her head. “My apologies, Your Majesty.”
King Soltran sighed. “Give the Princess back her dinner.”
The plate was placed back in front of Shasta, who had been sitting silently through this entire exchange. Everyone watched her put another small piece of meat on her fork. As she raised it, however, she was stopped once again; this time by the cook’s sudden cough. He sank to his knees, clawing at his throat. His face was turning purple, his cheeks puffing and eyes bulging. In a matter of seconds the fat little man had collapsed onto the ornately woven carpet. He was not breathing.
The fork fell from Shasta’s fingers and hit the plate with a clatter.
Soltran sprang to his feet, calling for the palace healer. The room erupted into exclamations, and Talon stared down at the cook. She’d been right after all. Maybe she ought to feel vindicated, but the sight of a dead body removed any desire to gloat. She looked over at the Princess’s pale face. She couldn’t tell what she was thinking, but watched her reach up and pull the thick veil back over her face. It might have been her imagination, but she thought she saw the thin fingers tremble a little.
After inspection by the healer, Talon’s suspicions were confirmed. The Princess’ plate had been poisoned with a solution used for cleaning ink from a quill before it was stored. A clever choice, as nearly every room of the palace with a desk had at least one small jar of the stuff. It would be impossible to determine where the poison came from. Apparently the kitchen staff had a habit of preparing the royal family’s dinner plates on a cart, which was left outside the kitchen door for the servants to deliver to the dining hall. Anyone could have had the opportunity to put the poison in the Princess’ food; and as Princess Shasta could not eat dishes prepared with a certain variant of barley, her plate was always marked with a cheerful sprig of parsley to differentiate it from the others. It would have been all too easy to pick out which was hers. Once again, the assassin had disappeared without a trace.
Soltran immediately decreed that a member of the kitchen staff would attend the cart of food at all times, and that Shasta’s plate was to remain unmarked from that day on; barley would simply be eliminated from the kitchens. But as Captain Vaughn pointed out, how many other unthinking customs like this one could offer the assassin opportunity to try again?
Talon’s blood ran cold at the thought. If the poison hadn’t acted so quickly on the cook, Shasta would have eaten it too, and died. Lyris and Bria would have been executed, and it would have been her fault. She had to be able to anticipate every possible means by which the Princess might be harmed. Her sense of smell wasn’t enough. Strength and swordplay weren’t enough. She had to think better, or next time she might not be so lucky.
As far as the rest of the court was concerned, however, Talon had saved the Princess’s life for a second time. Already something of a legend for her intervention in the first assassination attempt, this incident only further cemented her reputation. Even her dark Outlander coloring could be overlooked, in light of these accomplishments. Some of the royal guard actually began bowing to her in the corridors as she passed. Clio, one of the royal chambermaids, even told her there were rumors that because she was an Outlander, she had some sort of shamanic connection to Princess Shasta that allowed her to thwart threats to her life.
Upon hearing this, Talon laughed aloud. “I wish that were true, it would certainly make my job easier.”
“Don’t be so quick to dismiss the idea,” Lyris said from her perch on the sofa, as Clio flitted to the other end of the Princess’s sitting room with her dusting cloth. “You’ve saved the Princess’ life twice now, and both times you were the only one to sense any danger. Perhaps you do share some sort of bond with her.”
Talon only chuckled and ruffled her sister’s dark hair, pulling it loose from its braids. “You’ve been spending too much time at the temple. I think those Ithyrian priestesses are filling your head with strange ideas.”
Lyris patted her hair back into place. “Speaking of which, big brother, we’re going to be late for morning prayers.”
Talon grinned and winked, then moved to Shasta’s seat by the window, where the Princess sat with a heavy book spread across her lap. There was a flash of blue; she was twirling a bright feather in her fingers. Talon wondered at the feather for the hundredth time. Shasta had it with her daily, at every lesson, lying beside her books or tucked into her belt. Talon had overheard Lyris and Bria asking about it from time to time, but Shasta never explained.
“Your Highness?” Talon held out an elbow. “It’s time for temple prayers.”