The Great Hunt(8)

By: Wendy Higgins

Aerity was still in a state of mortification when Mrs. Rathbrook began laughing.

“Don’t hold your tongue on my account,” the woman said. “Officer Vest is very dear to me. I trust him with my life each day.” She gave the girls a wink and made to stand. Aerity helped her, though the woman seemed quite capable.

“Thank you so very much for visiting. Please come again soon.” Mrs. Rathbrook put a hand on Aerity’s arm, and the princess bent to kiss her cheek.

“It was my pleasure. I promise to return.”

Vixie was still blushing when she leaned forward to kiss the woman’s cheek, and then rushed from the chambers, nearly tripping on her skirts.

They’d barely made it to the bottom of the steps when Vixie whispered, “What’s wrong with lover lad?”

“Vixie . . .” Aerity shook her head and silently cursed their mother for not talking with the girls about important things. They learned far too much from the lips of maids. “When someone has a lover it means they have . . . a romantic relationship. Like married people.”

Aerity headed in the direction of High Hall.

“You mean kissing and the like?” Vixie asked.

“Yes, Vix. And it’s impolite to ask people about such private matters. Understand?”

“Have you ever kissed anyone? Or is that too private for me to ask, even of my sister?”

Aerity sighed. She wanted to shush her sister, but Vixie didn’t have the blessing of a cousin her age or a friend to speak of such things with. Her best friend was her horse.

“I’ve kissed one lad.” On several occasions. She felt Vixie’s big eyes on her.

“Is he your lover, then?”

“No! Stop saying that word.”

“Who was the lad?”

“Breckon’s cousin, the lieutenant.” Her heart gave a squeeze.

“You mean Harrison Gillfin? But he’s twenty! Three years your senior!” Vixie pulled a sour face, as if he were an old man.

Aerity laughed.

“Are you going to marry him?” her sister asked.

This gave Aerity pause. She loved Harrison, but not in that way. They’d tried many a time to force something romantic, but their friendship overrode those notions. Their kisses had lacked passion and often ended in laughter. But during the summer gala when Aerity, Harrison, Breckon, and Wyneth had sneaked down to the castle’s wine cellars and shared several bottles of mead, Aerity and Harrison had made a fuzzy-minded pact as they snuggled together between two crates, giving their cousins privacy.

“What if I never find a lad to marry, Harrison? What if I never find a good match or fall in love, like my parents did? What will the people say if I rule alone?”

She’d been leaning back between Harrison’s legs, and he kissed her hair.

“You will rule well on your own or otherwise. But if you feel you must take a husband, I will marry you in a heartbeat.”

She’d turned to peer up at his smooth-shaven face. A face she trusted. “You will find a wife long before that.”

He’d stared past her, his eyes going blurry for a moment in thought, then he took a long drink from his bottle. “I don’t think so, Aer. I will always be here for you.”

But it hadn’t been a confession of love. Of that she felt certain.

“I don’t know, Vixie,” Aerity finally answered. “I’m not sure I’ll ever marry.”

“Me either!” Vixie said.

Aerity pushed open the doors of High Hall and let out a relieved breath at the sight of their little brother and cousins running about. She pushed heavy thoughts from her mind.

Already the lot of them were at one another’s throats with boredom, whining and shouting, and it had been only three days since they’d been confined to the castle. Princess Aerity had volunteered to entertain the children during the day while studies were suspended, distracting them and keeping them away from the adults, in exchange for having her acrobatic silks brought up from the practice room, a space which was too small for all of them to play in.

Her youngest cousins, Caileen and Merity, were playing with the silks, running through them, letting the light fabric flow over their heads. Six-year-old Merity grabbed hold of the bottom of the red silk, which hung from the tall ceiling. She tried to climb, but it slipped through her fingers.

“Here,” said Caileen, much wiser and able at eight years of age. “Let me show you.” The girl took hold of the silks as high as she could reach with both hands, and attempted to circle her leg around the bottom. She made a frustrated sound when the fabric wouldn’t catch against her foot, repeatedly sliding through.

Aerity giggled, and the girls turned. Their faces brightened.

“Aer! Show us!” Caileen begged.

The princess obliged. “You’ve got to get it nice and tight around your foot, like a band, to the point where it nearly stings.” She grabbed hold up high with both hands, wound her ankle about the fabric with a downward thrust to tighten, and then placed her other foot securely on top of the silks to leverage it, stepping up. Aerity swung lightly above the ground, her legs locked, muscles tight. She explained each step as she went, then hopped down to let the girls try. “One at a time, youngest first.” Caileen pouted as Merity cheered.

Also By Wendy Higgins

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