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In Her Grace's Service

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It was not quite five by the time the train lurched out of Pontorson station and settled into its tracks. A whiff of coal-scented smoke blew into the railcar as Drayton Reed closed the connecting door between carriages, lurching a bit to keep his balance as the train went around a slight bend. "Nothing to worry about in the car ahead or in the one behind," Reed said, "and we've the only compartment in this one." He sighed. "And curse you, Tyrian, for looking unruffled. Almost as if you'd expected all of this."

"Not in this precise manner," Tyrian said. "I admit that, in her grace's service, I ought to consider the unexpected as an even larger part of the normal routine." He looked up and down the corridor, then turned to open the door Reed had just come through. "I will return shortly."

Tyrian made his way through the forward carriages toward the porters' mess. After a few minutes of conversation and persuasion, he settled against the wall to wait. Although he had not slept for nearly two days and nights now, he remained alert as he listened to crockery and metal clinking behind the door. He had let his guard down once in the past twenty-four hours. He did not intend it to happen again: not, at least, until he had conveyed his employer safely to No. 24, rue de Sommerard. What happened beyond that would not be entirely his decision.

In many ways, he knew, his job of the past months had not involved many of his own decisions. The duchess - first his responsibility, now his employer - was no meek schoolgirl, shutting herself in her study until her candle burnt out. Tyrian smiled, a bit ruefully, as he thought of what lay ahead in Paris and, after that, in Galazon. His smile disappeared as he thought of what lay behind.

He had first learned of Faris Nallaneen on the rue de Sommerard, slightly less than three years earlier. The job, on the face of it, was unremarkable. A young duchess, sent to Greenlaw from a faraway principality? Of course she should be watched and guarded. That he, Tyrian, was to travel to Galazon and present himself to the regent, her uncle, in order to be given that responsibility? Perhaps not so common. He had been relieved at the simplicity of ingratiating himself at Galazon Chase, and much less relieved at how easily Brinker had given the duchess's safety into the hands of a relative stranger. It strengthened his resolve as he took up lodging in Pontorson and began to learn his charge.

Coaxing her away from dangerous sands and watching her shop was the sort of work any guard could do. He even made himself obvious enough for her notice, at least at first. By the time the girl Gunhild had gotten herself in trouble at the Green Slipper, Tyrian was not surprised that the duchess was equally unstartled at his appearance, nor that she allowed him to escort her party back to the tree outside the Dean's garden. He was still taken aback that she had not known of his purpose until that night, however. Monsieur Hilarion had been more sure than Tyrian in assuming that Lord Brinker had given little thought to the duchess's safety while at Greenlaw, once the travel to and from Galazon was complete.

A brief argument from within the porters' mess caught Tyrian's attention for a moment. It soon ceased, and he returned to his musings. That night in the garden changed things, he knew. He had thought of the duchess only as the girl Brinker described: headstrong, willful, still young. In the Green Slipper that evening, he had seen her as she truly was: determined and self-assured in the face of danger, powerful in ways that Hilarion had seen but which Brinker could not understand. He had seen her as beautiful, as well - seen her as Faris and not the duchess. Deep into that night, long after he'd lifted her into the tree, he wondered if he had damaged his ability to guard her dispassionately.

He had continued to do his job, of course. As her studies deepened, she left the school less often. He practiced his skills, observed her when he could, and learnt every way in and out of the school's walls. Against his better judgment, he had even hoped for a chance to do something instead of guard against the chance that anything might happen. Knowing her was a different thing from guarding her at a distance, and he found himself regularly subduing impulses that better fit a world where dragons and evil witches lay in wait, than this world of schoolgirls and political sleight-of-hand.

In the dingy train corridor, Tyrian shook his head. He had known better, had told himself that he knew better, and yet he had still allowed chivalry to overcome his judgment and had endangered Faris in the process. One night - just last night, though it seemed years away now - he had heard Faris's voice in the Dean's garden. He dropped down from the same tree she'd climbed two years earlier, prepared to distract Menary until Faris could find her vigil place. Menary truly was every bad thing that Faris had been accused of being, but she was still a girl and no match for Tyrian's skills. Or so he had thought, until he found himself transformed and locked into a feline body with useless legs, wholly at her disposal. When Dame Brailsford and Faris finally arrived, it was all he could manage to flatten his ears and hiss as Menary held him tightly.

The next minutes were chaos. He was vaguely aware of flying through the air and landing heavily on the grass, then returning to his own body with Faris nearby. He awoke naked in an infirmary bed, sore in body and agonized in heart for failing his duty and leaving Faris unguarded. He rehearsed his apologies and resignation long before she opened his door, but found his voice untrustworthy as he met her eyes. Luckily, she left him to dress. When she returned, he found it easier to say his piece while paying careful attention to his bootlaces, constraining his failure and desolation to carefully composed phrases. That she had been understanding, even kind, was not what he had expected; that she accepted his resignation from Lord Brinker's service and took him into her own was even less likely. The subsequent flurry of activity, from Menary's shaming to the quick preparations for their own departure, was nothing in comparison to the relief he felt, nor to his renewed resolve to keep Faris safe, apart from any other wishes he might have.

"M'sieur?" One of the porters stepped into the corridor, carrying a large tea tray. "C'est ici."

Tyrian nodded and stepped away from the wall. He tucked a few notes into the porter's pocket before taking the tray and heading back through the forward carriages to his own. He slid the compartment door open and inclined his head to the ladies within. Obtaining tea on the French railway was no small feat. He hoped it foretold more good fortune on the road ahead.