No one ever called her Cassandra—she was Casey for as far back as she could remember. Mousy Casey, the quiet, misfit princess. A joke in the court, more content to be alone in her chambers than attending balls.
Of course, the real reason she preferred to be alone was an open secret—her uncle, now the king after his brother’s mysterious death, was cruel to her. They preferred to forget her, and she preferred to be forgotten about. Soon enough, her uncle would marry, and then his children would be next in the line of succession—Casey would be forgotten about yet again, and better off dead in the eyes of many, no doubt.
One quite clear sign of her value at court was the fact that the knight sworn to protect her was considered a laughingstock. Oh, Dennis was strong, and capable—but he was strange, antisocial, quiet—and something in his past had cast him into disgrace, although she’d never been able to learn exactly what that was. “A perfect match for you,” her uncle had joked coldly, when he’d assigned Dennis to be her personal guard.
Dennis did not seemed thrilled with the assignment either—he was standoffish, avoiding looking in her eyes when he could, even moreso than he would with someone of her status. Really, it seemed as if he did not like her very much at all, although it seemed he didn’t like anyone—he never smiled, his face usually creased in a frown, and he folded his arms most of the time, looking stern. He barely spoke. Of course, it wasn’t his task to be friendly—it was to watch over her, and he stayed by her side faithfully, that was true. Every night, he was outside her door.
That would make her plans to leave more difficult.
For Casey was planning to leave this place. She was considering seeking refuge in the neighboring kingdom, where lived the woman her uncle was going to marry—she wanted to tell her what he was really like, so that no one else would be doomed to live with him as she had been.
But first she’d have to get past Dennis.
It was the wee hours, and Dennis stood at his usual post next to Princess Cassandra’s bedroom. No one else was in the hall in this wing of the castle, as usual. It was dark except for the torches.
He stood silently, thinking. Trying not to think about the princess, and once again failing, as he did every night. Since she’d become a young woman, he’d been her guardian (although his appointment was considered a farce), and he was in her proximity at almost all times, except when her uncle the king called her to speak with him. For some reason, Dennis was forbidden to accompany her then, and though he noticed how pale and subdued she was after such meetings, he could ask her nothing, and certainly couldn’t say anything to the king about it. Dennis was not in good favor at court, due to a mistake he’d made years before, and had no leverage or cards to play. Many considered him better off dead. Really, he only stayed on here because his assignment, as much of a joke as it may have been, was very important to him.
The princess—Casey, as she was known—was everything Dennis wanted, and nothing he could have.
She was beautiful, of course. Well, most people at court didn’t seem to think so—Dennis had no idea what was wrong with them. Casey was exquisite, from her long chestnut hair, her enormous, wide brown eyes, cupid’s-bow mouth, and long, pale, elegant limbs. It seemed many found her looks mousy or unfashionable—her curves were more pronounced than the slim delicacy that was considered the height of fashion, her doe eyes too large and her lips too obvious, when smaller features were favored. But to Dennis, she was perfect, half his age or not. He’d never touched her, barely spoken to her, but he followed her faithfully like a dog, kept near her like a shadow, as much as he could….
Suddenly, interrupting his thoughts, the door next to him opened.
Dennis was immediately alert. The door was being opened from the inside—the princess was leaving her chambers.
“Your Highness,” he said, bowing to her. When he raised himself, she was looking at him consideringly, brow creased, biting her lip. She was wearing her cape, and holding a sack that looked to be heavy.
“Sir Dennis. I was hoping you’d be asleep.”
“I’m never asleep on watch, my lady. My duty is to protect you.” He was aware of his heart racing. She almost never spoke to him and never tried to leave her chambers in the middle of the night.
“I’m…. Dennis, I’m leaving tonight. Please, don’t stop me.”
He stared at her in shock. “Leaving? Leaving… why? Where are you going?”
“I can’t stay here anymore, Dennis. I… I don’t belong here. I need to leave.”
“You….” Dennis swallowed, mouth gone try. He folded his arms. “Your Highness, you can’t leave.”
Her eyes welled with tears. “I have to, Dennis. Please.”
“I’ll go with you,” Dennis found himself saying, the sudden despair in her big dark eyes melting something in him. “You’ll need protection. You can’t go alone, wherever it is.”
She looked at him for a very long time, silent, clearly thinking.
“I’ll carry everything for you,” he offered.
She nodded just slightly, and he tried not to sag in relief. No, he must seem unmoved, simply saying what was sensible. Because it was sensible—there was no way the princess could possibly survive out there on her own, wherever she was going.
“All right,” she finally said, “you’ll come with me.”