Waiting for You
Megan Derr © 2017
All Rights Reserved
Shanna sighed in the gloom of the stables, enjoying the dark and quiet, even the smell of horse, dragon, and manure.
Gingerly touching her sore cheek, the result of a stepfather who’d succumbed to a rare fit of temper and struck her, she went to get some treats for the animals.
After she’d given apples to the horses and hazelnuts to the dragons, she pulled out the small flask of wine she’d brought with her, upended a bucket to make a seat, and settled in front of her favorite dragon’s stall for a night of drinking.
She’d prefer to be making merry, a proper ceremony honoring her mother, two years dead now, but of course her worthless stepfather, Mercen, preferred a much smaller, quieter, and more somber affair. Just one more occasion for him to do what he needed to further his own goals while paying token respect to the woman who’d made him consort.
At least it was late enough she’d be left alone out here. Everyone else was asleep or on duty. The only person who’d be in the stable at that hour was Tikki, the stable boy, and even if he woke and realized she was there, he’d leave her alone.
All the problems of the day—week, month, past two years—tried to rise up, but Shanna had endured more than her fill of them for the present. They’d have to wait until tomorrow. Instead, she drank wine and tried to focus only on happy memories of her mother, the sorts of things her mother would tell her to think about.
She’d almost managed to achieve a good mood, or something close enough, when she heard voices outside. Voices that were not speaking Remnien. If she wasn’t mistaken, they were speaking Morentian, which was bizarre. Morentians didn’t travel this far north very often, and certainly not in the dead of a winter night.
Pushing to her feet, Shanna headed for the stable doors—and barely jumped back in time to avoid being whacked in the head by one.
Two figures, accompanied by horses, hurried into the stables and closed the doors behind them. The shorter of the two said something, and Shanna caught snatches of “finally” and “snow” and something she didn’t understand but suspected was a curse. Her mother had never taught her those words, though Shanna had tried to learn them.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
They spun toward her, going still a moment before removing the snow-crusted wrappings from their faces—which revealed extremely handsome men, tired and travel-worn though they were. Shanna swallowed, painfully aware suddenly of her own unkempt state: the old, ragged dress she’d thrown on, her hair only loosely knotted back, the bruise slowly forming on her cheek.
Oh, what did it matter? She was a princess—a queen in waiting—what did it matter if she looked good to a couple of travelers she’d never see again?
“I am sorry to disturb,” the shorter man said, mouth curving in a smile that reminded Shanna of the kitchen boy, Benni, who caused no end of trouble but always charmed his way out of it with smiles like that. “We are humble peddlers from Morentia and not accustomed to your wretched snow. We were hoping to reach the royal castle tonight, but I honestly have no idea where we are right now.”
Shanna laughed. “You’ll be relieved to know you’ve reached your destination, though you’ll have to wait until morning to peddle your wares. But come, there are places aplenty for you to stay the night, and the kitchens can give you a meal.”
“We’d be most grateful, Lady…”
Both men stilled again briefly before venturing farther into the stable, closer to Shanna. She moved backward a few paces and nearly collided with one of the two lanterns that lent the stables light.
The shorter man said something in Morentian she didn’t understand, the words spoken too low and fast to catch. “You are no lady, but the fine princess herself,” the man said, his wickedly charming smile returning. “We are most honored to make your acquaintance, my princess.”
Shanna shivered. My princess. She liked the way he said that.
“Shall we tend the horses before you attempt to flirt with someone too good for you, Kallaar?” the second man asked gruffly.
“Yes, Ahmla.” Kallaar glanced back at Shanna. “Where should we put our horses, Your Highness?”
Once the horses were tended, Kallaar returned to her side immediately, almost but not quite standing improperly close. “Now then, what brings a lovely princess to the stables so late at night? And all alone. Surely there are better places to be in this terrible weather? I should think anywhere else at all would be better.”
“It’s not that cold.”
Kallaar looked at her like she had lost her mind. “There is snow.”
Shanna laughed at his affronted tone. “Yes, but it’s early winter yet. Soon it will be so cold every breath feels like knives in your lungs, too cold even for snow, and everything that ventures outside unprotected freezes immediately.”
“How can it be too cold for snow?” Kallaar sounded affronted. “That sounds like a nightmare come to life.”
Ahmla made a noise that sounded like agreement.
“I’m certain many people say the same about the heat of Morentia. What brings you so far afield this time of year? Surely your wares could wait to be traded in weather you find more pleasing?”
“I come from a very bossy family, and there are things that must be done, and I am the one to do them,” Kallaar said, looking oddly intent for a man who probably traded in bobbles and knickknacks. “Not that I mind, of course. I am just as bossy and demanding as the rest of them—” He gave a snickering Ahmla a look. “Anyway, despite our grousing, we are happy to be here, my princess. Now, I do not suppose there is anywhere in this place where a couple of frozen strangers might thaw?”
“I think I can help with that,” Shanna said, smiling in a way she hadn’t since her mother had died two years ago. Hard to find anything to smile about when she was a prisoner in her own castle, constantly afraid she would join her mother in the afterlife while Mercen stole their kingdom.
“Splendid!” Once they were outside, Kallaar offered his arm.
Amused and charmed despite herself, Shanna made to accept—and slipped on a patch of ice, but even as she drew breath to scream, she was scooped up before she hit the cold, hard ground.
Shanna blinked at Ahmla, who held her like she weighed nothing, and was shockingly warm for a man who had seemed cold and miserable. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“Um. Yes. Thank you, Master Ahmla. That would have been a nasty fall.”
“My honor to serve, princess.” Instead of setting her down, though, Ahmla carried her all the way to the castle and only put her on her feet once they reached the stones of the kitchen yard, which were kept clean by the staff so they could work safely.
“Thank you again,” Shanna said and hastened inside to hide her flushed face.
In the kitchen, she found the late-night cook in the pantry and requested she see about food and beds.
Returning to Kallaar and Ahmla, she said, “You’ll be taken care of quite well from here by the staff.”
“It’s most appreciated, my princess. You are even kinder and more gracious than rumors say.”
Shanna highly doubted any such rumors existed, but she smiled all the same. “It’s sweet of you to say so.”
“No, it’s not. Don’t encourage him,” Ahmla said. “He’s enough of a brat.”
“You wound me,” Kallaar said with a pout.
Shanna laughed. “I will leave you to charm sweets from the cook, for I must to bed. It was a pleasure to meet you both. Perhaps I’ll see you again before you continue your travels.”
“Count on it, my princess. I could never leave here without seeing your lovely face at least once more.”
Ahmla lifted his eyes to the ceiling, and even the cook snorted as she brought them bowls of the soup kept on the fire for staff and soldiers working through the night.
Smiling again, Shanna bowed her head as they bowed. “Goodnight, dear sirs. Sleep well.”
“And you, my princess,” Kallaar said. “Sweet dreams.”
As she headed off to her room, still smiling at Kallaar’s antics and how nice it had felt to be held so easily by Ahmla, Shanna thought maybe for the first time in a long time, her dreams just might be sweet.