Status

Recent Statuses

13 days ago
Current Bulk diet shopping is awkward. I keep getting asked at checkout if I'm "back to school shopping" for my family, and I have to explain that I have no kids, and the 4 pizzas in the cart are just for me.
4 likes
24 days ago
Since I started taking edibles to treat insomnia, I've discovered my cat is a pothead. She's never tried harder to get into a sealed bag than she has when she found my bedroom stash.
3 likes
26 days ago
As a native Arizonan, I can confirm that for Tucson.
3 likes
1 mo ago
The more I work at eating healthier, the less convinced I am that nutrition experts know anything about food. None of them can agree on anything except 'vegetables are good for you.'
1 like
2 mos ago
Met up with friends from out of town for a wedding today. We just decided we're gonna go to an escape room right before the ceremony, so we're gonna be the best dressed group of escapists there lol
5 likes

Bio

Personal Profile

Name: Taylor
Pronouns: They/them
Age: Mid 20s
Relationship: Married (happily, I might add)
Time Zone: Arizona (we hate daylight savings, so it's MST year-round)
Writing History: I've been on a number of different roleplaying websites for over a decade and a half
Hobbies: Writing, fitness, driving/exploring, hiking, camping, traveling, tabletop games, anything NEW (I love trying things I've never done before)
Roleplayer Profile

Format: 1x1s only. Maybe I'll try a group RP again someday, but I've never had one last longer than a few months
Posting Speed: Depending on my schedule, I can usually post at least once per week
Favorite Genres: Historical, Romance, Action/Adventure, Horror/Dark, Fantasy, Slice of Life, Dystopian, can be convinced to write some Sci-Fi
Hard 'no's: Fandoms. Sorry, but I can't maintain interest in characters/worlds I didn't build with my partner
Template: Public threads or PMs. I prefer to keep all my RPs in one place, so no emails or G-docs or the like
Rating: Comfortable with 18+ content, but it's not a necessity and I prefer not to center a plot around explicit scenes
Level: Advanced. Will consistently provide around 400-700 words per post, but can occasionally leap to 2000+
Character preference: One main character, but large side casts are greatly enjoyed. Because I write long posts, I prefer not to double
Gender preference: Male. You'll be hard pressed to convince me to play a female that isn't a background character. It's just not my forte
Romantic Relationships: MxF or MxM (currently prefer MxM)
Character Images: Faceclaims or detailed descriptions only. I envision the characters like real people in my mind, so I can't take anime seriously
OOC chat: Yes please! I'm a total extrovert who loves to get to know the amazing minds behind my partners' characters
Ongoing Roleplays

Let Me Steal Your Heart - Medieval saga going 7 years strong with @BuzzingBee
Amnesia - Modern dystopian romance with @sukikyoufu
Also shoutout to @Syrenrei @Angel Vicky @blindwoofer @Aalakrys & @mercenarius who are wonderful writers of the PM land

Most Recent Posts

“There’s no way that happened. You’ve gotta be making it up!” Cas buckled forward as he laughed. He and Raine had wandered out to the garden behind the palace while the party continued in the ballroom without them. After walking leisurely through the hedges for a while, he’d brought her to a stone bench by the pond, so they could rest their feet as they continued getting to know each other.

Like he’d thought when they’d first started talking, she had a fun personality, and it didn’t take her long to pull him out of the funk he’d landed in when he’d seen the girl in pink who had reminded him of Iris. He still couldn’t completely remove his last girlfriend from his mind—he kept comparing Raine against her memory whether he liked it or not—but at least he’d relaxed again. It felt nice to be with someone whose company he genuinely enjoyed too. She was kind, funny, and supportive, and he felt like he could be himself as they hung out together.

He also liked spending time alone with her. Of course, being the king of Aspiria, he was never truly alone anymore. There were security cameras covering the entire property, and security guards patrolled the grounds on regular circuits, making sure nothing was amiss. The men and women they passed in the garden steered well clear of them though, giving the two royals privacy to speak without worry of being overheard. They knew better than to interrupt without a good reason.

“It’s true!” Raine insisted with a bright grin. “You should have seen the look on the man’s face when he realized I wasn’t a handmaiden. He’d traveled all this way to meet me, and yet he couldn’t have put in the effort to look up a photo of my face on his phone? Of course I had to embarrass him by playing along when he beckoned me over to make him lunch.”

“Wow,” Cas shook his head, running a hand incredulously over his mouth. “What an ass—er, a, um…” He cringed as he realized belatedly that he’d let his tongue slip. Most women of nobility didn’t love foul language, but to his surprise, Raine just giggled at his fumbling.

“He was a complete ass,” she nodded her agreement.

He blinked, a smile starting to tug his lips into a smile. However, just as he opened his mouth to say something back to her, his heart jumped into his throat as a sudden, loud bang shook the bench they were sitting on and sent ripples across the pond water. “What was that?!” He turned sharply around in his seat, wide eyed, and watched in horror as a part of the palace wall that flanked the ballroom caved in on itself, shortly followed by the upper level of the building that no longer had the support to hold itself up. Large chunks of stone and cement collapsed, and distant screams echoed through the garden.

“Oh my god!” Raine gasped, smothering her mouth with both hands. All color had drained from her face, and she pressed into his side. “Oh my god… Are we being attacked? My father is in there!”

“Your Majesty!”

An urgent voice tore Caspian’s attention away from the ruined palace wall, and he turned to see Jacob heading a group of five other guards who were all sprinting toward the bench with weapons drawn. “We need to leave. Now,” the security head ordered. “Terrorists were seen just outside the palace. We’ve detained one, but the rest are still loose.”

“What?” Cas stood up, his heart still racing. “How did they get in?”

“We don’t have time to investigate,” Jacob replied brusquely, gesturing for the king to follow him. “Come with me, sir. The safe house isn’t far. We need to relocate before they realize you aren’t at the banquet.”

“Is my father alright?” Raine cut in, standing up as well.

Jacob clenched his jaw, and Caspian swallowed hard. He was also worried about Quincy, but if there really were terrorists running around, armed with bombs, they didn’t have time to go looking for him. Grasping her by the hand, he nodded decisively at the security head. “Let’s go… Raine, you should come too. These people are dangerous.”

“But—”

“Please,” he insisted, meeting her gaze imploringly. Again, Iris flashed through his mind, her lifeless body on the floor beside Ethan, and he tightened his grip on Raine’s hand. He’d already lost one person he cared about to the Scourge. He couldn’t lose the Suphate princess too.

The desperation in his eyes must have registered, because after a moment of hesitation, Raine pressed her lips together and nodded her head wordlessly.

“This way, Your Highnesses.”

With both royals on board, Jacob ushered them to the nearest road away from the palace, where an emergency vehicle was already waiting to carry them to the safe house. Cas jogged alongside Raine, surrounded on all sides by guards who kept a sharp lookout for the missing rebels on the property. His mind was still reeling from the explosion, but they had to keep moving. The palace wasn’t safe anymore.
Despite all of his father’s prodding over the years, this was the furthest Caspian had ever gotten in a political relationship before. Before the former king’s death, he had been adamant that he would never agree to an arranged marriage. They were outdated, suffocating, and honestly kind of dehumanizing, he felt. When he’d pictured himself proposing to a girl, he had always thought she would be someone he’d chosen for himself, someone he cared about and who cared about him in return. Maybe he was just a romantic, but he didn’t like the idea of exchanging vows with someone like a business transaction.

And yet, that was exactly where he found himself as Quincy prattled off the list of agreements and compromises between Aspiria and Suphate that he wanted to see take place if their kingdoms unified through marriage. Economic policies, trade deals, military alliance, and other terms that would have never made it onto the pages of a romance novel flowed through their conversation while Raine sipped quietly at her champagne. It was hard to tell what she thought about everything. Cas wondered if she genuinely didn’t care that her father was using her as a bargaining chip or if she was just a very good actress.

Either way, he didn’t love the fact that he was making plans with his potential future bride’s father—God, that still felt weird to think about—when she was standing right next to him. So, after Quincy finished making his pitch, the Aspirian king flashed a smile that looked warmer than it felt to him inside. “You’ve definitely given me a lot to think about… I’ll meet with my advisor and have an answer for you tomorrow. For now, if you don’t mind, could I have some time to talk with Raine? Alone?” the last word was tacked on after a shot pause, since he realized belatedly that her father might try to stick around if he wasn’t explicitly asked to leave.

Quincy didn’t seem to mind, fortunately. He just seemed excited that the younger ruler was giving his proposal genuine consideration. “Of course, Your Highness,” he agreed readily, his smile as broad as ever. “Take as much time together as you’d like. Eat, drink, enjoy each other’s company. I’m sure you’ll have a splendid evening.”

Turning to his daughter, the Suphate king touched an encouraging hand to her shoulder and then stepped away to mingle with another group, leaving the young royals alone at the champagne table. Cas watched him go until he was out of earshot before he turned back to Raine and smiled behind the rim of his flute. “So, your father is…”

“A lot?” She supplied with a smirk on her painted lips. Resting a hand on her waist with her forearm crossing her stomach, she leaned toward him and lowered her voice. “I love him dearly, but he doesn’t realize how overwhelming he can be when he rambles like that.”

Cas laughed. “Okay, I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks so.”

“You wouldn’t be the first suitor he’s scared off,” she rolled her eyes.

“Who said he scared me off?” Setting his empty glass aside on the table to be collected by the waitstaff, he picked up another and shot her a look with raised brows. “He didn’t let me get a word in, but I appreciate his enthusiasm. And besides, I’m not going to make any decisions based on what another king thinks… If we do this, you’re the one I’ll be marrying, so tell me about yourself. Is this marriage even something you want to be doing?”

Raine studied him for a moment, seeming surprised by the question. After a thoughtful pause though, the emotion passed, and she smiled up at him in a way he interpreted as flirtatious, her green eyes peering beneath hooded lashes. “I’ve always thought you were cute, Cas,” she crooned. “I guess you just didn’t notice when we were kids.”

This time, it was his turn to be surprised, and she laughed. The sound of it was less demure than he was expecting too. Most noble-born girls had melodic, chime-like chuckles that seemed to have been rehearsed from an early age, but hers was a louder, more boisterous laugh. More raw and real. He actually kind of liked it. “You’re blushing,” she teased, pointing at her own cheek with a gloved finger.

“Yeah, that happens,” he winced, glancing away from her and tipping his head to the side as he dragged a hand across his jawline. As he fumbled to recompose himself, he caught sight of another woman across the ballroom, decorated in a light pink dress and wearing her blonde hair down in a thick braid. Her back was turned toward him, and he knew she was one of the high ranking guests that had been invited to the banquet, but somehow, his heart still skipped a beat in his chest.

Iris.

As her name crossed his mind once again, he felt a fresh stab of pain. Maybe it showed on his face or maybe he had fallen quiet long enough that Raine noticed his thoughts were elsewhere, but either way, he nearly startled when she suddenly touched his arm and nodded at a side door. “Hey, do you want to get some fresh air with me?” she offered with a smile that anchored him back into the present moment.

He took a breath and managed to give her one in return. “Sure.”

Offering her his arm, he led the way to the door to the garden, where they could escape from the crowd for a bit. He really needed to keep it together, he told himself along the way. Iris was gone, and he needed to move on. Raine was even turning out to be a fun person, yet he couldn’t stop himself from fixating on the woman he couldn’t have anymore. Not wanting to sabotage himself, he pointedly put her out of his mind and slipped out the door with Quincy’s daughter. Hopefully, some time alone would help him clear his head.
Cool cool. The next day will probably take me more than one post to get through (min. 2), just so you know in advance! I have plans for more than just Crow's talk with the Younisian king.
The scare of being attacked by mercenaries had lit a fire under everyone in Crow’s party. The next day, they were all up and moving at the very first light of dawn, anxious to complete their ride to the Younisian castle before their enemies—whoever they were—could make a second attempt to stop them. Preston got ahead of the horses, feeding and watering them in preparation for the long ride ahead; Percival took care of the packing and loaded up all the belongings they’d taken to their room at the inn; and Rayner followed up with Naida’s treatment to make sure her open wound didn’t show any signs of infection since the physician had bound it the night before. Even Crow, who wasn’t fond of starting his mornings in a rush, climbed out of bed without prompting and dressed and ate right away, so he was ready to go when they finally made their way to the stable to catch up with his attendant.

The Younisian knights that had helped them the day before also made an appearance to escort them, as an added precaution. In their company, Crow and the rest of the Brerratic entourage settled their horses into a quicker gait than they had until that point in the hopes that the could make it to the palace by nightfall if they pushed the animals to their limits. It was difficult, with Naida barely fit to be carried in a sling between two mounts. There was no way she was going to be able to ride upright by herself, so they had set up the same makeshift cot to transport her as they had after they’d found her in the woods. However, it was rockier this time, as they left the flatlands of the last village and navigated through the more uneven terrain closer to the central part of the kingdom.

The former thief felt a little guilty for putting her through the pain of getting jostled by their fast-trotting horses, but unfortunately, it was their only choice if they didn’t want to end the day at another city outside the palace. He hoped that when they arrived, the security in and around the castle would be enough to keep the mercenaries at bay until he finished negotiating with the foreign king. Once he had a signed treaty—which he didn’t plan on leaving without—they would be one step closer to ending the war between their two countries. One step closer to bringing Penelope home from the front lines and saving the outer villages from further desolation. That was something he couldn’t risk losing, even for the sake of his wounded half-sister.

He wasn’t without compassion though. Whenever she was awake and he wasn’t occupied by guiding Baine through the winding parts of the road, he kept her distracted from her discomfort with stories from the last time he’d been through this part of Younis. He told her about how Penelope had taught him to use a bow, how they’d forced William to steal horses with them when they needed mounts on their way back to Brerra and, when the Younisian knights were out of earshot, about how they’d gotten away from the castle with the king’s staff.

Naida found the stories amusing, but they also helped the viceroy pass the time on the way to the palace. Since they were hurrying, the group didn’t stop for lunch or dinner, and he was famished as the sun began to sink lower in the sky. Talking to his sister took his mind off the hunger pangs until the castle walls finally came into view up ahead, and he could breathe easy knowing they had made it without any more threats to their lives.

“The royal guard will lead you from here,” one of the knights announced when they finally stopped just outside the main curtain wall. He and his comrades dismounted to help Percival and Rayner with Naida’s sling, while Crow and Preston dropped to the ground to stretch their legs. Once his half-sister was on her feet—leaning heavily against Percy’s side—the Younisian knights left them to wait for their next set of escorts, who appeared on the other side of the gate after just a few minutes of standing around. From there, they were led into a courtyard the former thief didn’t remember seeing before, since he and Penelope had broken in through a back portion of the wall the last time they’d been to the palace and it had been dark and stormy throughout the night.

He trailed after the royal guards toward the back of the group, letting his eyes wander over the sprawling gardens and water features under the dimming evening sky until they stepped through the main entrance, and the green was replaced with marble and gold.

“This place is amazing,” Preston breathed beside him, his wide eyes lifted high to the arched, coffered ceiling.

Crow nodded his agreement, though his gaze was fixed on something he’d just noticed directly ahead of them. At the base of a split, grand staircase, there was another water feature like the ones he’d spotted in the garden. It sat above the floor in a circular, gray stone pool, but it stood out from the rest because carved into the wall behind it was an oversized sculpture of a woman in long, flowing robes and her hands cupped just below her breast. It had been a long time, but he recognized her immediately.

“Emissaries from Brerra?”

The sound of an unfamiliar voice drew his attention away from the statue as he turned to see a man about twenty years his senior descending the right side of the staircase. He was dressed in purple with a band-like adornment around his head and was flanked on each side by two armed guards whose hands rested imposingly on the hilts of their swords. Judging by the grand entrance, he looked important, but Crow remembered an older man the last time he’d come across the king of Younis. This person was much younger than the one who lived in his memory.

“My, my, this is unexpected,” the man mused, studying the ragged group with a curious expression. “To what do I owe this… visit during the middle of a war? Has your kingdom finally decided to surrender?”

Crow pressed his lips together. There was a condescending note to his voice that made him think this man wasn’t going to be excited to accept a proposal for peace without one kingdom conquering the other. He wasn’t about to be turned away before he could even give his pitch to the king though. Not after everything he and the rest of his group had been through—and not when Penelope was relying on him to see through this next leg of their mission. She had put in the hard work of winning over their kingdom, so now it was his turn to fight for the Younisians’ support.

Stepping forward, he met the older man’s gaze evenly. “I come bearing a proposition for your king in regard to the war. Is he available for an audience?” Remembering the training his father had given him before he’d left, he spoke more formally than he would have if he’d been spent with instructions to use his own voice. The pomp made him cringe internally, but he needed to be taken seriously, so he suppressed his disgust with the charade and straightened his shoulders determinedly.

The man on the stairs eyed him for a moment and then smirked. “I am he.” Descending the rest of the way to the floor below, he introduced himself with a flourish of his hand, “King Jerold Vieuxpont.”

As he stated his name, ritual seemed to register in the minds of the rest of the group, because everyone who was physically able in Crow’s entourage responded with deep bows. Percival tipped slightly to support Naida, who even ducked her head, though she winced at the motion. Crow wasn’t as quick to the punch, but when he saw the others show the purple-clad man respect, he followed their lead with a bow of his own, rectifying his first question while his gaze was still lowered to the floor: “My apologies, Your Highness. I was under the impression the king of Younis was…older.”

Jerold chuckled. “Ah, you were probably expecting my father, weren’t you? Relations between our lands hasn’t been great lately, I suppose… Unfortunately, he passed away two summers ago. Reign of Younis has since fallen to me.”

Of course, Crow thought with a blink. Aeklora had said something about that to him last time, hadn’t she? In the years that had passed, he’d completely forgotten about the goddess’s prophesy that the former Younisian king didn’t have much time left. Apparently he’d already expired, and his son was in charge now. He wasn’t sure if that was a benefit or a hinderance to his agenda. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he replied, righting his posture again to meet the other man at eye-level.

“I’ve had more than enough time to grieve,” Jerold waved a hand dismissively. “Anyway. I am interested in hearing more about this proposition of yours…”

“Collin,” Crow supplied, guessing the king was fishing for a name when he trailed off.

“Collin,” Jerold echoed with a smile that only just touched his eyes. It was then that he finally turned toward Naida, who looked like she barely had the strength to keep clinging to Percival’s shoulder, and gestured at one of his men. “Why don’t we plan to speak tomorrow morning, after you and your guards have had time to rest? There are plenty of rooms available in the palace, so you’re more than welcome to stay here. Emory can show you to your accommodations.”

One of the guards on Jerold’s left bowed curtly and stepped out of position. “Right this way.”

Crow felt slightly hesitant to take him up on the offer immediately after he’d started to get the feeling that they weren’t as welcome as Jerold wanted them to believe. There was no way the king hadn’t heard about the mercenary attack by now, so it was apparent that he didn’t care Naida had been wounded by the paid attackers. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of a choice in the matter when his half-sister was going to keel over at any second though, so, swallowing his pride, he nodded and moved to follow Emory. “Thank you. We’ll speak in the morning.”

Leaving Jerold to ascend the stairs again, the former thief led his party down one of the side halls after the Younisian guard. With a set of ears present that were guaranteed to feed information back to the king, none of them bothered to talk amongst each other until they were shown to the three rooms where they would be staying—one for Naida, one for Crow and one for the other three men to share. Percy thanked Emory for escorting them, and once they were alone and had laid the princess down to sleep in peace and quiet, everyone who was still well enough to get around gathered together in the knights’ room.

“King Vieuxpont is an… interesting man,” Preston frowned, sitting on one of the beds with a sigh. “I can’t tell if he’s actually interested in hearing what you have to say or if he’s already scheduling our execution in the back of his head.”

“His kindness does seem tactical,” Rayner agreed quietly, reclining on his own bed.

“It doesn’t matter,” Crow shrugged. While the knights and his attendant readied themselves to sleep for the night, he stood with his shoulders against the door and his arms folded loosely across his chest. “Even if he’s against us now, it doesn’t change the fact that I won’t be leaving here without his signature on that peace treaty. We might just be here longer than we first thought.”

“I’m just glad I’m not the one who has to convince him,” Preston wrinkled his nose.

“I’m sure Collin will do fine,” Percival said supportively, turning to the viceroy. “That’s what all the training with King Albin was for, right?”

“Technically, most of that was for negotiating with Gorm,” Crow pointed out. “But I’m sure I can get him to come around. The treaty Albin came up with is a fair trade for both kingdoms, so he doesn’t have anything to lose by agreeing.”

“Except for the total control of an enemy kingdom,” Rayner muttered.

“But he isn’t guaranteed that by continuing with the war either,” Percy objected.

“And that’s what I’m leaning on to win him over before we leave,” Crow nodded. Taking a step away from the door panel, he reached for its ornate, gold handle and gave it a pull. “And on that note, I should get some rest, so I’ve got the mental clarity to speak with him tomorrow… Keep an eye on Naida for me, Preston.”

“I will,” the attendant promised.

They said a few parting words, and the viceroy traipsed to his own room to dress down for the night. He tossed his surcoat and other regalia over the footboard and collapsed on the mattress in his underclothes with an exhausted exhale. As long of a day as it had been, he had a feeling tomorrow would be even longer. He’d been serious when he had told the others that he wasn’t leaving without King Jerold’s signature though. No matter how much effort it took, he was going to make sure the war ended when he left Younis. It was what Penelope and Hazel and Rikki and Alistair and everyone else on the border deserved, and he wasn’t going to let them down.
Guess who's back, back again
Shady's back, tell a friend

Sorry that took an eternity and a half, but I hope the plot progression is worth it. Maybe? Hopefully? xD Now that I've read up on some of the older posts, I'll try to get replies up faster! Also, I don't have much planned for the rest of Crow's trip to the castle, so you can pace your next one however, and I'll make it work in mine.
All thoughts of Otto and the warning he’d tried to give had fled from Crow’s mind as he rode on Baine’s back through the trees. His heart thudded against his ribs, and his eyes swept over every bush and stone he passed in search of the missing princess. He didn’t know how much time had passed since he’d seen her take a sword to the midriff, and he didn’t know what he was going to do if he found her bleeding out somewhere, alone, on the forest floor. If she lost her life on this trip, it would have been his fault. After all, he was the one who’d insisted she should come with him to Younis, had convinced Albin to let her be one of his guards, and had let himself get too relaxed to notice the mercenaries on their tail. If he’d just let his father organize his entourage like he’d wanted to, then maybe—

“Collin, over here!”

His spiraling thoughts were interrupted jarringly by the sound of Rayner’s shout. Veering his mount to the left, he didn’t even give himself the time to call back a response before he hurried toward the source and found the knight dropping to his knees beside the fallen princess in a small clearing. Since she’d disappeared, she must have toppled from her horse’s back while it was still running, he pieced together as he jumped down from his own steed to rush to her side. The other horse was nowhere to be seen.

“Naida!” Barking her name, he dropped down next to her, his eyes sweeping from her pale face down to the gaping, bloody gash in her side. The mercenary’s weapon had cut deep, and he could feel the color drain from his skin as he stared at the gruesome wound. Suddenly, he felt lightheaded, and he forced himself to look away, swallowing hard. Even though he’d known she would be injured when he found her, he hadn’t braced himself to actually see her with a chunk of flesh taken out of her midriff. The sight was dizzying.

“Collin?” Weakly, his half-sister opened her eyes and made an attempt to lift her head off the grass.

“Don’t move, princess,” Rayner jumped in quickly, pressing his hands down over her gash to slow the bleeding.

She groaned and squeezed her eyes shut again. “It’s bad, isn’t it?”

Crow and Rayner exchanged a glance, but when no one answered her out loud, Naida spoke again, more nervously this time: “A-am I going to die?”

“No,” Crow said reflexively. Turning back to her, he was careful to avoid looking directly at her side. “You’re going to be fine. We just need to get you to the next town, and they should have a physician who can patch you up.”

“Actually… I have supplies in my saddlebag here,” Rayner posed, lifting his gaze to meet Crow’s with a frown. He leaned back slightly, lifting some of the pressure off the princess’s wound, and dark red blood seeped between his fingers. He grimaced. “I can get them now, but Collin, you’ll need to take my place here to keep her from losing any more blood.”

“Me?” The word slipped out before Crow could catch himself. Clearing his throat, he glanced at the knight’s waiting horse at the edge of the clearing. “Shouldn’t I get the things you need while you keep applying pressure?”

“Do you know what you’re looking for?” Rayner knitted his brows.

“Well…”

“Come around to this side.”

Rayner gestured at the empty space beside him with a nod of his head. The former thief glanced there hesitantly for a moment but followed the order. If his sister’s life depended on his involvement in her treatment, he didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. So, when Otto’s son leaned to the side to give him room to come in next to him, Crow took a steeling breath and rocked up on his knees to position his hands over the princess’s side, pressing them down as soon as the other man pulled away to stand. Instantly, he felt a shiver zip up his spine as her blood coated his palms, sickly warm and viscous, and he winced as she whimpered in pain.

“Just stay still,” he murmured, half to himself, as Rayner hurried off to dig in his saddlebags. “You’ll be alright soon.”

“Are you sure?” Naida looked up at him through squinted eyes.

He nodded, turning back to meet her gaze with a forced half-smile on his lips. “You will. A wound like this… It’s like a rite of passage. Every knight gets one at some point in her life. And when we get back to Brerra, you’ll get to tell everyone at the castle about how you fought a mercenary in Younis and survived.” As he spoke his smile turned slightly more playful. It was easier not to think about the gash in his sister’s side when he kept himself talking, and he could see her light up a little as well.

“Yeah. Right,” her lips curved upward, though he could see her throat move in a nervous swallow. “And father will see I was ready to handle a real job as a knight.”

“Exactly, so that’s why you need to just lie still and let Rayner patch you up, okay?”

“Okay.”

Giving the princess a break from conversation, Crow lapsed into silence and looked up to count trees until the other man returned with the supplies he needed to close her wound. When he came back, Rayner knelt to take his spot, and the viceroy gladly got up to give them space. He removed himself from the vicinity to pace along the edge of the clearing, doing his best not to feel squeamish as Naida occasionally moaned and whimpered through the painful treatment. His hands felt sticky from her blood, but he hadn’t quite calmed down enough to take the time to clean them off, so he just tried to ignore the feeling as he walked along the tree line.

After a minute or so, he noticed movement in the distance, coming from the same direction as he and Rayner had earlier. Stopping in place, the former thief watched until he recognized the faces of Preston and Percival riding with the rest of the Younisians in tow. “Over here!” he called, waving a hand to flag them down. “We found her!”

The other men noticed him and hurried over on horseback. Without waiting, Percival dropped to the ground and jogged—or rather, limped hastily—over to Rayner to ask if there was any way he could offer assistance, while Preston hung back by Crow’s side, watching the scene with a scrunched face. “Is she going to be alright?”

“I don’t know yet,” Crow murmured, avoiding his servant’s eyes. “She’s coherent enough to talk, but she’s lost a lot of blood.”

Preston nodded. For a few beats, they both fell quiet. Then, his servant spoke up again.

“Do you need help getting cleaned up?”

Crow blinked and glanced down at himself. He hadn’t noticed it before, but while he’d been keeping the princess from bleeding out on the forest floor, the red stains had reached more than just the palms of his hands. Reluctantly, he let his attendant scrub the drying blood off his skin and clothing until Rayner announced that Naida was stable enough to transport, and they all pitched in to create a makeshift sling between two horses, which was then used to carry her into the next town ahead of them.

Along the way, Crow and Percival offered their limited knowledge about the mercenaries to the Younisian knights, who planned to pass word along to the other nearby guards in the hopes that they could catch the ones who had escaped. The knights also assured them that they would increase their security measures along the major roadways to the capital, so they could rest easy knowing that they would be safe from ambushes for the rest of their journey.

Crow wasn’t convinced they would be able to hold the mercenaries off forever, but he thanked them for their vigilance before he parted ways with the rest of his group to settle in at an inn.

For good measure, Rayner ventured out into the village to look for a physician to evaluate Naida’s condition while the viceroy and his entourage brought her up the stairs in her makeshift sling to their shared room for the night. Once she was lying on the bed closest to the door, Crow sat down heavily on one of the free cots near the back and stripped off his surcoat and undershirt to assess the damage from his earlier fall off Baine. His side hadn’t stopped aching since the adrenaline of the fight had worn off.

And the pain made sense to him when he saw the mottled green bruise that had taken up residence on his ribcage. He brushed it gingerly with his fingertips and hissed at the tenderness.

“That looks painful.”

Lifting his gaze, the former thief found Percival standing over him with furrowed brows. With Preston sitting in Naida’s company, the knight had stepped away from her to make good on the promise he’d made in the woods before. “If you’d like it, there’s a salve in the medical supplies that should take the edge off.”

“Please,” Crow nodded. Exhaling slowly, he leaned back on the palm of a hand while the knight dug in a leather bag until he retrieved a small sealed jar. Percival handed it off to him, and he twisted the lid off with a word of thanks, applying a dab of the cream inside to his bruise.

For a minute or so, they sat quietly. The only sound in the room was that of Naida and Preston having a hushed conversation at her cot. Percival watched the viceroy treat his own wound, reclining against the bed across from him with his hands clasped loosely in his lap. His lips were pursed and his eyes thoughtful, and when Crow was done with the salve, the knight looked up to catch his gaze. “So… about Otto.”

Crow paused in the middle of setting the jar down beside him. “Right,” he mused. Now that things had calmed down and Rayner wasn’t with them, it was the perfect time to discuss the other man’s father. Glancing at Preston, who had looked up at the sound of Otto’s name, he frowned as he thought back over the run-in he’d had with the baron in the woods. “Not long after the mercenaries attacked us, I noticed him standing off in the distance, watching,” he started, turning back to Percival. “I don’t know exactly what he was doing there, but I didn’t want to let him get away from us again, so I went after him.

“He tried to run, but I caught up to him and tried to make him tell me what was going on… I didn’t get much out of him before one of those men showed up and put an arrow through his head though.” He wrinkled his nose at the mental image. “All I managed to wring out of him was that he claimed he was being forced to help someone and that there was some sort of change to their plans.”

“What does that mean?” Percival asked.

“He said something about a different trap for someone before the king chose to send me to Younis instead of Gorm. Apparently when that changed, I became the target instead.” Crow studied a crack in the wall to his right idly. “It sounds to me like whoever was pulling the strings behind this attack really doesn’t want our two kingdoms to be negotiating right now.”

“But this war has been hard on everyone,” Preston suddenly spoke up from across the room, wearing a perplexed expression. “Why would anyone, Brerratic or Younisian, want to stop us from ending it?”

Crow lifted his hands in a broad shrug. “Beats me, but whoever it is was apparently desperate enough to blackmail Otto into helping by threatening his family. He said that if he refused to do what they wanted, Rayner and his wife would have been killed.” He paused as another piece of the conversation came back to him. “And he also said he wasn’t the only one they’re using. There was someone else in the castle that was relaying orders to him… I think it’s someone close to the king.”

“That isn’t good,” Percival exhaled anxiously. “If there’s a traitor among King Albin’s circle, he needs to be made aware of it before they do any more damage.”

“But how?” Preston shook his head. “It’s not like we can just send him a letter. If this person has informants, they’ll intercept it for sure.”

“We just need to wrap up this trip and get back to the castle as quickly as we can,” Crow said, glancing at Naida, who seemed to have fallen asleep at some point during their conversation. “For now, we focus on getting to the Younisian king, negotiating for a truce, and keeping a lookout for mercenaries until we’re safe in our own land again. Ending the war is top priority.”

“Agreed,” Percival nodded, standing up from his bed. “And on that note, I will wait up for Rayner and the physician, so the two of you should get some rest. I have a feeling we’re going to have a long ride tomorrow.”

“Probably,” Crow sighed, turning to lay down on his cot. Taking the knight’s advice, he and Preston both settled in for bed, and Percival put out the oil lamps everywhere in the room except near Naida, so the physician could see her when he arrived.

As the room darkened, the former thief closed his eyes and rolled over to face the back wall, shifting to make himself comfortable on the thin mat underneath him. Now that they’d been attacked once, he didn’t know what to expect for the rest of the journey. He just hoped the mercenaries were only after him and that Penelope was safe in the outer villages. Pulling the sheet up over his head, he sent a prayer to any god that would listen that she would be left alone and that he and his group would make it to the Younisian palace without any more ambushes.
Events at the palace were always extravagant, but the yearly banquet was a creature all its own. Every spare room in the building had been filled the night before with guests from around the continent, rich and royal supporters of the Aspirian monarchy, while the on-site servants had been hard at work decorating the ballroom. Every table, chair, banister and wall was practically dripping in luxury by the time they were done with it, and visitors were already milling about admiring the sights and sampling the hors d'oeuvres before the party. Both the men and the women were dressed in expensive, colorful dresses and suits, washing the ballroom floor in painted fabrics that created an impressive tapestry from above—which was where Caspian found himself at the start of that evening.

Once he’d settled himself over his appearance in his room, Harry had stopped by to let him know it was time for him to make his grand appearance for the banquet. With one last glance in the mirror, Cas had followed him and two other guards out to the top of the staircase, where he hovered as his presence was announced to the crowd below, and he stood with a forced smile as the sea of politicians applauded as if he was a celebrity. He’d never liked all the pomp and pageantry at these things—showing up for a rooftop party with a bunch of people his own age was much more appealing—but he just grinned and bore it until the clapping tapered off, and he could descend the stairs while everyone else resumed their mingling.

It felt a little surreal to be back in front of a capital crowd. The last time he’d seen this many people gathered in one place had been his father’s funeral. He swallowed as the thought threatened to stir up unwanted memories of Atlas. Of Iris. Her face flashed through his mind again, and he felt his lip twitch, fighting against the frown that tried to take over. He still missed her deeply, but he couldn’t think about that now. There was nothing he could do to bring her back, he reminded himself for the thousandth time, and fixating on her would just exhaust him. Right now, he needed to get through the banquet, make his rounds among the invited guests, and find Suphate King Quincy to talk about his proposition.

Who knew? Maybe somewhere along the way, he would even start to enjoy himself.

That was what he hoped for as the evening wore on, and he circled around the ballroom, greeting people he hadn’t seen in a year and answering questions about his plans as the new ruler of Aspiria. Everyone seemed most curious about his agendas—and about whether he had any plans to find himself a queen. He knew why they were asking, of course, since he was acutely aware of the fact that the entire royal line hinged on him now that his father was gone, the rest of his extended family had been cut from the will, and he had no siblings or heirs of his own. If anything happened to him, the monarchy would crumble, and Aspiria had no backup plan in place.

Still, he didn’t like feeling pressured into a relationship, so even though he understood the weight his singleness carried in the eyes of his allies, he kept his answers vague, only telling the politicians that he had some prospects on the horizon but hadn’t made any firm commitments yet. That was enough to keep them off his back, and he would move on to the next groups, repeating most of the same topics with them.

After about two hours, he was finally approached by one of his guards, who let him know that the royal family from Suphate had arrived and were looking to speak with him. Excusing himself from the family he had just been conversing with—and breathing an inward sigh of relief that he didn’t have to humor their suggestion of taking more than one bride to grow the Maydestone royal tree faster—he followed the guard over to the base of the grand stairs, where he spotted a familiar face through the crowd.

“King Caspian,” Quincy greeted him with a broad smile, one hand resting on the shoulder of a young woman dressed in all white at his side. “Thank you for responding to my letter. You remember my daughter, Raine, don’t you?”

“It’s been a while, but yes, I do,” Cas nodded, offering a smile of his own. “It’s good to see you again.”

“You as well, Your Majesty,” Raine dipped into a curtsey and extended a gloved hand toward him. Her long, dark hair had been pinned up in loose curls, framing her olive-skinned cheeks. She was short and lithe—very unlike her stout father—with a cinched waist and supple curves that had been highlighted by her fitted cocktail dress. However, the most striking feature about her were her bright green eyes, highlighted piercingly with black liner. After ten years apart, she certainly knew how to make an impression.

Following the steps of tradition, Cas placed a kiss to the back of her hand and inclined his head toward one of the drink tables near the edge of the ballroom. “Why don’t we grab something to drink while we catch up? The champagne is excellent tonight.”

“Let’s,” Quincy agreed eagerly.

As the visiting king shepherded them both over to the table, Cas could see that he was practically buzzing with excitement. He felt a little guilty for not matching the Suphates’ enthusiasm, but ultimately, their meeting wasn’t about his feelings anyway. He was considering their proposal because it was a good move for Aspiria. It was just politics, nothing more. And it was better this way. If he left his feelings out of it, like he should have done with Iris, no one else would get hurt. So, taking a steeling breath, he picked up a champagne flute and readied himself to discuss options for an arranged marriage.
With Iris looking well enough to be left on her own, Jacob returned to the palace to resume his duties as the head of security. No one seemed to have noticed his absence, fortunately, and Caspian was still locked up in his room, so it was easy to slip back into place as one cog in the royal machine. He went back to work for the next few days, only checking in on Iris as needed to make sure she was still recovering and had enough supplies to last in between his visits. And once the pattern was established, he kept it up for the rest of the following month. Every three days, he would drop by the condo to see her and restock groceries, stay for no more than one hour, and then drive back to the palace as if he had just been on a lunch break. If any of his colleagues noticed the slight change to his schedule, they didn’t say anything about it.

Meanwhile, Caspian took the same month to readjust to life as king—without Iris. Losing his father not long before her murder, it was difficult for him to pull himself out of the depression that gripped him for the first two weeks. At least with Atlas’s passing, he’d been able to grieve publicly. He had a reasonable excuse to keep a light schedule and give himself time and space away from other people until he’d moved on. However, since his relationship with Iris had been a secret, his mourning over her had to be done privately too. The only time he could let himself become emotional was when he was behind closed doors in the palace. It was exhausting, especially when he was roped into meetings that dragged on too long or when he had too many tasks to do with deadlines that were too close together.

Almost on a daily basis, he wished he wasn’t Aspiria’s king. He wished he could have been a normal guy in the capital with a normal life, normal friends and a normal girlfriend. Maybe if he hadn’t been born into the royal family, Iris wouldn’t have died. Maybe they could have been together, or, if not, then maybe at least she could have met someone else who was better for her and who wouldn’t have led her to such a horrible end. Whenever his emotions turned dark, it was difficult to escape from the guilt. He was convinced it was his fault that she was gone. As much as he wanted to choose his own life partner, he was starting to wonder if he father had been right. He should have just agreed to an arranged marriage after all. Apparently the only kind of woman he was cut out to be with was someone who already belonged to his world. It would have been a lot harder for him to hurt a princess.

Time was the only thing that helped him move forward. After the first two weeks, it steadily began to get easier for him to go about his routine. The pain of losing Iris never faded, but the kingdom wasn’t going to put everything on hold for him to get past her death completely. For the next two weeks following, he made a real effort to be the leader his country needed. It was his duty. Knowing that there were plenty of things that needed to be done, decisions that needed to be made, and legal changes that needed to be enacted, he pored over his work until the loss of his girlfriend was pushed to the back of his mind. He’d let her down, but he didn’t have to let the rest of his people down too.

His main agenda was the ongoing civil war. After seeing firsthand how it had ravaged the people of the outer districts, he wanted to end it as quickly as possible. While organizing the military to strike the rebels in the most meaningful points, he also worked with a well-spoken ambassador on composing a letter of peace that he hoped the leaders of the rebellion would be open to receiving. If they were willing to surrender, he could start implementing some of his plans to restore the districts that had been destroyed in the fighting. At the moment, he had no clue if they would listen though, so he didn’t hold out much hope that the letter would be received well.

Within the capital, life continued moving as if the war didn’t exist. The people went about their daily routines without fear or worry, operating their businesses, traveling to vacation spots, and organizing parties—the same parties he used to make appearances at before his father had died. It was a little surreal to see it all happening from a distance, but he was optimistic that would be changing soon. Later that evening—exactly one month after Ethan had killed Iris—the palace would be hosting its annual banquet to honor a few royal families from nearby kingdoms who had been longstanding allies of Aspiria. Cas had been going to the event since he was a kid, so he was looking forward to seeing old friends again and re-greeting the men and women his father had once seen as equals. The only thing he was nervous about was a letter he’d received from the king of Suphate a week before the event.

It wasn’t the first time the older man had tried to interest him in courting his daughter, but with Iris’s death still fresh in the background of his mind, it had almost stung to read an official proposal. Unlike the hints and prods of times past, the most recent message had been a formal offer to unite the bond between Aspiria and Suphate through Caspian’s marriage to Quincy’s oldest daughter, Raine. It had caught him off guard, and at first, he’d been disgusted that the other king would even suggest it—until he’d grounded himself in the reality that Quincy had no idea he’d just lost another woman that he cared about. He was making the offer because he thought it was a strong political move for their respective kingdoms. And, if he was honest, he could see the benefit of agreeing to the plan.

The civil war against the Scourge had been a drain on Aspirian resources for years, and an alliance with Suphate would be a powerful move against the enemies of the monarchy. It would show the people of the capital that their leadership was still strong and their country was still growing, and it would show the rebels that they were outmatched and outnumbered. Taking all emotion out of the equation, he had to admit the pros outweighed the cons. So, reluctantly, he sent an email back to the Suphate palace that he would agree to meet with Raine at the banquet.

Which was in one hour.

“Can anybody tell me where Jacob is?”

Craning his neck to peer over his shoulder, Cas frowned as the guard standing by his bedroom door shrugged at his question. He’d spent the last half hour getting ready, fussing over his clothes and hair like a teenager going on a date. All he’d committed to was talking to Quincy’s daughter, but he was still anxious about making a good first impression—Well, sort of first impression. They had met before when they were much younger, but it had been about ten years since the last time he’d seen Raine. He had no idea what she looked like or what kind of person she’d become, and he didn’t want her to think she was getting the short end of the stick if they found themselves in an arranged marriage. Doing his best to look presentable, he’d put on his favorite slate gray suit with a dark blue, silk tie and run a thin layer of gel through his hair.

“If that doesn’t impress the princess, I don’t know what will, Your Majesty,” one of the palace servants complimented when he noticed the king fiddling with his hair again.

“Thanks,” Cas sighed, frowning at his reflection. He still wished he was dressing up for Iris though. The thought of her cut him like a knife, and he took a deep breath to fight off a wince. “I hope you’re right.”
“I don’t need repayment for following orders,” Jacob said simply, folding his arms across the t-shirt he was wearing. “My king asked me to rescue you, so I did. That’s all there is to it.” Technically. Caspian had been the one to assemble the strike team and assign him to lead it, but seeing the video from Ethan and watching her nearly die in the house had been the deciding factors in the rest of his actions. In fact, he was disobeying his liege by harboring her in his condo, risking the loss of his job and even a potential prison sentence for keeping this secret from the Aspirian ruler. He never would have asked or expected a common girl from the districts to repay him for that though. She had nothing while he had everything he wanted out of life as a respected capital citizen and leader of the monarchy’s elite security team.

The anger in Iris’s voice didn’t faze the guard when she reacted to his announcement that Caspian thought she was dead. Holding her gaze unflinchingly, he just stayed where he was, leaving her to process the news however she needed to until she asked him why he was going to so much trouble for her sake. “Honestly? Spite,” he replied with a half-smirk on his lips. “I didn’t want to give Ethan the satisfaction of taking you with him when he died, and…” he trailed off, averting his gaze to look out the window with a shrug of his shoulders. “I suppose you could also say that I care when I see someone get hurt who didn’t deserve to be.”

He didn’t care to elaborate more than that though, so he turned back to her again when she mentioned telling Caspian she was still alive. “I know you won’t, because you know just as well as I do that it’s for the best that you two never see each other again.” Once again, he was blunt with her, but he’d never been the type to beat around the bush. Holding her eyes without wavering, he watched the emotions flicker across her face as the initial burst of anger faded. She might not have been capital-born, but he could tell she was a smart girl. Given time to think and process, he trusted her to make the right decision. She had been a brief chapter in the king’s life that needed to come to a close, both for their sakes and for that of the country. He wouldn’t be changing his mind about that.

Their conversation seemed to be draining on her, and he wanted her to recover as quickly as possible, so when she requested to get some more rest, he nodded. “Please do.” Turning to the door, he took a few steps away from her and only glanced over his shoulder once more as he took the knob in his hand. “I need to check in with my men at the palace, but I left a sheet with a number you can call if you need something. First aid supplies are in the washroom, and food is in the kitchen if you have an appetite. Just try not to move around too much while I’m gone.”
At Iris’s quiet objection to Caspian’s role in her rescue, Jacob stood beside the bed with pursed lips. “No, he shouldn’t have,” he agreed after a moment, though there was no anger in his voice. The statement was made just as calmly as if he’d agreed that chocolate cake was better than vanilla. Maybe it was harsh to say so, but she wasn’t wrong in her assessment. Ethan had used her to bait the king out and exploit his weaknesses, and his plan had worked. Now, as the head of security, he was going to have to double down on his efforts to ensure it didn’t happen again, and there was a chance that Caspian had lost favor in the eyes of the military members who knew about the strike team to rescue one politically unimportant girl. The whole campaign had been a mistake.

“But he did.”

Sliding his hands into his pockets, Jacob concluded his thought in the same casual manner with which he’d spoken the first half. No matter what he thought about it all, he knew his king wouldn’t have had it any other way. Plus, he had seen the video Ethan had sent for himself. He’d only gotten a taste of the rage Caspian must have felt, and it had been enough to push him over the edge to obey the order to assemble the soldiers. “And I don’t regret saving you,” he added with a frown. “What Ethan did to you just to provoke King Caspian… it was abhorrent. I’m glad you’re away from him now.”

Watching Iris inspect the wound in her side, he hovered for a little while longer. She didn’t look like she was going to lay back down yet, and he didn’t want to walk out and leave her alone to hurt herself unintentionally. When she whispered, he shook his head. “There is nowhere else for you to stay in the capital, and I’m not going to release you back into the districts in that condition,” he said firmly. “Until you’re well enough to be on your own and no longer at risk of infection, you need to stay here.”

The question she asked next was a touchier subject, and the guard shifted his weight slightly as he considered how best to answer it. “No,” he said after another pause, lifting his gaze from the corner of the bed to the former rebel’s eyes. “The king believes Ethan kidnapped you from the capital. He isn’t aware you left of your own volition, which is part of the reason why he organized a rescue team. However… he also doesn’t know you’re still alive.”

Studying her carefully, he explained: “When my team found you, you were barely clinging to life. I wasn’t even sure if you would last the next hour. If King Caspian found out the condition you were in, I knew he would do everything in his power to bring you back to health... but he would also be so worried about keeping you alive that he would lose sight of his other duties as the ruler of Aspiria, so I made the decision to bring you back here quietly—without his knowledge.”
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