The air was brisk and smelled of frost as the small company trekked through the forest. There were wagons and soldiers and servants, but in the very middle of the procession rode a cluster of officers on all sides of a young woman dressed warmly in rich furs. Princess Emma sat upright in the saddle and hoped her face didn't betray the weariness she felt from the early start on the way to the royal hunting lodge. She knew there were good reasons for rising and moving out well before the sun had risen, but as it neared midday she rather wished they'd slept in and taken to the road a little later.
"Nearly there, your highness," one of her officers said conversationally.
Maybe she wasn't as good at hiding her weariness as she thought. "I remember, Captain Jones," Emma said, though it had been a long time since she'd made this trek.
The war with Camelot had dragged on for years, spanning land and sea and putting a strain on the treasury. The fond memories of the Midwinter festivities of her childhood had been just that for much of the last decade: memories. Her lady mother had insisted that putting on the grand spectacles of a royal Midwinter in wartime was unpatriotic and would be seen by the people as frivolous, so the holiday always passed quietly and without much fuss.
Now, though, with peace finally attained, Emma was looking forward to a return to form. Though the treasury was still lower than any of her lady mother's ministers were happy with, Emma had managed to talk her parents into a small affair at the royal hunting lodge - a residence that had been left in disuse during wartime. Her mother had taken to the idea immediately, pleased to have the chance to get away from the larger court for a time. Her father had taken a little longer to talk around, but Papa had always been a stickler for duty and clean-up after the war was taking longer than anyone had anticipated.
And it wasn't as if Emma didn't appreciate that - nor did the queen. But she'd watched the strain on her parents as the war with King Arthur had dragged from weeks into months into years. Emma had grown up and come of age in wartime. She hadn't even had a proper presentation. Their lives had been upended by war for years. Was it so terrible that she wanted her family to retreat for a few days and recoup?
So after much debate and squabbling with some of the more stubborn ministers, it was decided. Emma volunteered to oversee the reopening of the lodge and preparations for the royal family and guests arriving in a week's time. It would do her some good to get away for a little while and it took a weight off her mother's mind to know that someone was supervising.
But it just had to start so gods-blessed early.
"Here." Emma blinked, her attention focused on a flash being presented in front of her nose. "This might help, your highness."
She glanced aside to the officer holding out the flask; after all this time she knew quite a lot of the officers and even some of the soldiers in her mother's service. There were always new commissions to be granted, medals of service to be awarded, and strategy meetings to attend. This one she knew well enough-only a few years older than she, Lieutenant Jones was handsome and kind, if a little shy at times around her or the other ladies. In meetings, however, he was firm and opinionated, clearly knowledgeable about war and tactics. She'd seen him forget his place multiple times, arguing outright with an admiral or her father, before remembering and sitting down in what could only be described as an annoyed huff, his red ears showing the only sign of embarrassment.
"If this is liquor, lieutenant, I'm afraid it might warm me but only serve to help me fall from the saddle and be trampled by Colonel Hanson's horse," Emma said.
He huffed, the slightest smile tugging at the corner of his lips. "I promise it's only tea, your highness. A pitiful guard I'd be to allow your own men to trample you."
She took the flask; even through her gloves she could feel its warmth and thought it must have been magicked to hold the heat for this long. It would take a bit to wake her up, but the hot tea warmed her wonderfully in the meantime. She handed the flask back with murmured thanks. "I'd hate to have to court martial my own brother," Captain Jones called back from his position in front.
"Some days it feels like you're searching for a reason to," the lieutenant retorted, and the other officers chuckled.
"I'd think causing the injury or death of a sovereign would have a higher penalty than court martialing," Emma commented.
"First step," the officer to her left said, Lance Corporal Atwood. "Military takes a bit out of your hide, then the queen's law draws and quarters the rest, begging your highness' pardon."
She hummed. "It seems this is all covered then."
"We do try to be very thorough."
She laughed, used to the crass, often bleak, humor of the military at this point. It took long enough to get most of the men to relax enough around her to make jokes; when life returned to normal, she fully expected to be bored by the dull, polite conversation of nobles.
There were good things and bad things to the end of wartime.
The tea was just starting to work its own brand of magic when word passed back that the lodge was just around the next bend. Emma's mind started to swirl with possibilities and lists of things that needed to be done. There was no hope of having a particularly spectacular garden, not as winter fell upon them and having ten years' worth of neglect to contend with, but perhaps there could be some pruning here and there-
"Oh dear," she said as they came around the bend and saw the state of the lodge.
There were cracks and holes in some of the precious glass of the windows. The stone walls were covered in moss and ivy and while that wasn't necessarily a problem, they'd have to go over the whole of the exterior to make sure nothing had broken through the stone enough to make the whole lodge fall down around their ears. The roof was in desperate need of repairs. And this was after they'd sent a group ahead a few days ago with supplies to begin minor repairs; she heard hammers and saws working behind the lodge, in what she assumed would be the stable areas.
Her only solace was the knowledge that only the strongest charms had been placed to keep out pests and unwanted animals. They wouldn't have to be beating rats out of the pantries or finding raccoons in the wardrobes for the next week. "We have a bit of a job ahead of us," she said finally.
"Aye. We're at your disposal, your highness," Captain Jones said.
She dismounted with a wince for her sore thighs, and a foot soldier rushed to take her mare's reins. "Thank you," Emma said. "Let's find the carpenters and assess what's already been done." Her voice rose to reach the others. "Those of you with special skills and jobs get to work. We have a lot of work to do in a week's time, let's not waste a moment of it."
The sun filtered weakly through the clouds overhead, marking midday. As Emma hiked up her riding skirts and trudged around the back of the lodge, she knew this was the reason why they'd gotten such an early start.
After spending most of the day directing people around and being rebuffed at every chance she got to take up a broom or carpet beater, Emma wearily made her way upstairs after supper. Most of the servants had taken to clearing out the living quarters first, and she stepped into the rooms designated as hers with an appreciative sigh. There was a fire crackling merrily in the hearth and a warming pan between the sheets. There were still some areas of dust or in need of a thorough cleaning, but the bed was fresh and clean and that was all she could want for after a long day in the saddle and answering to every possible question under the sun.
There was a lot of work to be done and a short amount of time to complete it all, she mused as she went about unpinning her hair and finding where her belongings had been stowed. Emma could only be grateful that those in palace service who had come possessed some sort of household magic or were craft mages; there was no other way they could do so much without a little extra charm to get rid of mites or spells to strengthen and repair glass. Even the cooks had a spell or two to give strength and health to those who ate their food.
Sighing, Emma flicked her fingers, bringing the candles on her nightstand to flame. Her own magic was useful in approximately three ways and none of which were particularly applicable here. To do anything of real value she needed a spellbook and about three days to prepare the materials. She'd much rather focus herself on physical tasks and leave her party tricks - as one visiting nobleman had called them - out of the equation.
Well, she could at least undo her own laces and undress herself with magic, no need to bother one of the undoubtedly exhausted maids for help. She took her nightshirt out of the wardrobe and draped it over the quilt, flicking her fingers again and feeling her corset and breeches loosen. She hummed tunelessly as she started to remove her many layers, tossing them aside without much care. Lifting her blouse, it caught in a stray pin she'd missed in her hair when the door to her rooms opened and closed.
She whirled, still stuck in her shirt, and her foot slipped on the smooth floor, sending her crashing to the ground. "Your highness!"
Emma froze for a moment, recognizing the voice, but remembered that her chest was on full display and hurriedly pulled her shirt back on, wincing as the pin yanked itself out of her hair. Standing over her, his face so red it was almost purple, was Lieutenant Jones. He looked at her wide-eyed, mouth agape, for almost too long before he finally averted his eyes. He held out his hand to help her to her feet, but none of that answered the pressing question. "What on earth possessed you to enter my rooms?" she asked irritably, brushing off her skirt.
"A mistake, your highness," Lieutenant Jones said, resolutely staring at the floor. "An error in being given my sleeping arrangements."
Her face burned with anger and embarrassment at her privacy being interrupted. "Could have knocked, could have-"
"Locked your door," he said, a hint of annoyance in his voice as he finally looked at her. "Your highness."
She started, realizing she wasn't quite sure who she was more irritated with: him or herself. "Well-yes, I suppose-look, can we just forget this ever happened? You leave and we'll never speak of it again."
His cheeks and even the tips of his ears were still very red and underneath her own embarrassment part of her admitted that he looked so very endearing like this. "I'd like nothing more, your highness. By your leave."
She nodded curtly and turned around, crossing her arms over her chest self-consciously. She'd never been alone with a man she wasn't related to before, and certainly not while dressed so casually, and she found she didn't know how to feel about the situation. She waited until the door closed again before going to lock it firmly, going so far as jerking the handle to make sure she'd have no other uninvited guests that night.
She finished getting ready for bed, laying under the covers and watching the flames dance in the fireplace. She felt conflicted. Certainly she could order some sort of punishment on the lieutenant for intruding, but he was right in that she could have locked her door and saved them both the embarrassment. She could find whoever told him where to go and find out if it was some sort of joke. But none of the options sat right with her - it was a mistake, and a humiliating one at that, but she supposed there was no real reason to exact punishment.
She just wished she could get the look on his face out of her mind, the awe-struck way he'd stared at her, as if he'd never seen something quite like her before.
Emma almost snorted at her own fanciful notion. Of course he stared, she thought, rolling over and fixing her pillow with more force than necessary. Seeing the princess' ribs on full display like that, he'll have a tale to tell when he gets back to the capital.
The next day was filled with lists and plans and meetings. Emma met with glass mages and carpenters and went over schedules with the new housekeeper. But it seemed like anyone she talked with or anything she inspected, Lieutenant Jones wasn't far away - hauling away garden trimmings, carrying wood, hefting crates of goods to bring inside.
She knew that he knew she was there; the determined way he kept his eyes ahead and away from her confirmed it. Resolutely ignoring her was more irritating than if he'd made overt references to the incident in her bedroom. Frequently she found herself staring after him with a frown on her face while a mage or servant tried to keep her attention, only coming back to the conversation when she couldn't see him anymore.
The lieutenant was becoming a distraction, and one that Emma was soon determined to be rid of.
She gave out the orders that the junior officers were to go out on a hunting expedition to stock the cold lockers for her parents' arrival. Then they were to find and cut down the trees that would be decorated in the lounges. They accompanied craftsmen and workers to inspect wells and pumps and shoring walls under the river bridge.
By their fourth day on the estate, Emma found herself face to face with the lieutenant after breakfast. "Can I help you?" she asked impassively, pulling on her gloves. The temperature had dropped significantly overnight and she wanted to be on hand with helping in the stables today. Without a word, the lieutenant grabbed her by the elbow and pulled her aside into the sitting room. A maid looked startled to be interrupted, but Emma dismissed her with a nod. "I certainly hope this isn't how you treat every noble you come across, lieutenant, most of them wouldn't be as forgiving as me."
"I thought we agreed to forget the incident," he said, adding a belated, "your highness."
"Then why does it feel like you're punishing all of the junior officers with menial labor so as not to single me out?"
Emma raised an eyebrow. "Lieutenant, forgetting an incident happened means going back to acting as usual. It does not mean pretending that the other person doesn't exist in the most obvious way. It does not mean a stiff nod and averting your eyes every time you can't get away with ignoring the other person. So yes, I have been sending you and the other junior officers out on tasks, but I don't see why you have a problem with it, seeing as how you'd apparently be anywhere else but in my presence!"
He flushed. "Your highness, that's not-"
"Not what?" she demanded, resisting the very strong urge to prop her hands on her hips and order him to speak frankly.
He seemed to have trouble meeting her eyes again, but managed to lock on as he said, "I can't bloody look at you without remembering, all right?" Emma blinked, unsure what to do with that information, but he saved her the trouble by continuing. "I look at you and I see you half naked on the floor and I hate that it's all I can think of. It's not just bad form, it's terrible. Your highness. You're a princess, not some common slattern, and when I see you now all I can think is-"
He cut himself off, looking away and looking somehow ashamed and furious all at once. "My apologies, your highness. I'll do better from now on. By your leave."
Lieutenant Jones - Killian, she thought, for when a man admits he's unable to keep from fantasizing about you it should only be proper to be able to call him by his given name - hardly waited for her nod before he left, striding out to the yard where his fellows waited to bring in fresh game. She went to the newly repaired window and watched as they took the dogs with them, her cheeks flushed with the thought that the handsome young lieutenant couldn't keep her out of his mind.
After a week of preparations, Emma declared there was hardly anything else they could to to prepare, and sent most of her retinue back to the palace to retrieve her parents and their guests. The cooks stayed on, as well as a detachment of the soldiers and some of the servants, but most were needed to prepare more goods or the guests for travel or return to their real jobs as part of the palace and village ecosystem.
The night after most of her people had gone, she sat heavily in the chaise in front of her fire and put her feet up. At least this exercise gave her more respect for running a household, albeit she hoped never to have to revive a house from years of neglect ever again. Even so, there were some areas they'd had to rope off and leave to workers in the spring or summer; she dreaded to think what state the other royal residences might be in, or what would need done to bring them back to working order.
A knock at the door roused her from a warm doze. She struggled to her feet; after the incident last week, she'd made sure to lock her doors any time she wanted privacy. "Lieutenant," she said, surprised to see Killian in her doorway. "What's happened?"
He looked apprehensive. "Weather mages sent a message. A storm is coming up on the capital and it looks like it'll be a few days before the way is clear enough for anyone to come out. We'll start seeing heavy snows in a few hours time."
Emma's heart sank. "We'll be snowed in."
"Snowed in and without…" Mentally reviewing, she knew they had supplies enough to last for weeks - they'd been preparing for over twenty people, after all, and that didn't include the servants - but she was going to be separated from her parents on Midwinter. She would be away from her family and this whole endeavor had been to spend the holiday with family and friends, bringing back some of the warmth and festivity to a time of year they'd long gone without.
She was embarrassed to realize there were tears stinging her eyes. "There's no time to return without getting caught in the snow," she said abruptly. "I understand. Thank you, Lieutenant."
She moved to close the door and give herself the privacy to fall apart, but Killian asked, "Princess, do you need anything? We're short-staffed right now, but those of us left here will do whatever we can to make you comfortable."
Emma's fingers traced the door. She didn't even have any official work to do here. She was stranded in the woods, without family or anything to keep herself busy. "No, Lieutenant," she said softly. "I just want to be alone and feel sorry for myself for the night."
Under normal circumstances, she would never have uttered such a thing to anyone outside of her family. But like the last ten years, these weren't normal circumstances, and she shut the door firmly behind her before going to collapse in her bed.
The next morning found her reviewing the situation. She wasn't alone, not really. A handful of servants and soldiers didn't qualify as 'alone'. Having little to do bothered her, but being short-staffed as Killian said might force the housekeeper's hand in allowing Emma to help with chores. And yes, the holiday itself would be lonely, but she'd try to keep everyone's spirits up with a meal fit for a king to celebrate anyway.
The world outside was covered in snow and it fell thick and fast, leaving no time for anyone to do much clearing before their work was rendered useless. Emma watched from the windows for a moment as some of the men did their best to keep a clear path to the stables. Shaking her head, she went to go lay out her Midwinter plans to the housekeeper and beg for something to do.
At breakfast, the cook set her favorite fried bread with cinnamon in front of her. "A little birdie told me you needed some cheering up, princess," she said with a wink, setting down a bottle of warmed syrup.
Emma looked up, touched at the gesture, over to where Killian sat at the other end of the table, tucking in to his porridge. "Thank you," she said softly.
His eyes met hers. "Me?" he asked. "I didn't do anything."
He stood, gathering his plates and cutlery to take back to the kitchen. "As I said, your highness, I didn't do anything."
She gave him a look as he passed. "You may not have made the breakfast, but you said something to make this happen, and for that I thank you."
His footsteps paused behind her, then returned, and she heard his voice right in her ear. "You're welcome."
A shiver rolled down her spine, warming her pleasantly, and she turned to look over her shoulder to watch him walk back into the kitchen without another glance back.
Midwinter morning arrived in a flurry of fresh snow and a bone-aching chill. The smell of the feast for later that day wafted through the entire lodge, tormenting everyone through their simple breakfast and afternoon tea. Even though they were stranded in the middle of nowhere, trapped in the house amidst several feet of snow, everyone still seemed to be in good cheer with all the decorations and the good food.
Emma blessed whatever had given her the foresight to bring all of her Midwinter gifts with them on the first trip; she looked forlornly at the brightly wrapped gifts for her parents, then took two bags and shut her trunk firmly against anymore sad feelings. All of the servants got the customary gold coin for their service and the soldiers and officers received good cigars from a faraway island. Seeing as how there were so few people anyway, Emma gave one of each to everyone to much fanfare and thanks. She was sure there would be some bartering - she doubted everyone smoked cigars - but after the gifts were out of her hands she didn't particularly care what happened to them.
After the Midwinter feast, most of the men disappeared into the drawing room to smoke and play cards. Emma found herself playing hostess to those who weren't on cleanup duty, most of the women and a few of the men who weren't interested in cards or smoking.
Including Lieutenant Jones.
She felt his eyes on her as she listened to some of the women tell stories about their families back at the palace. When she dared to look up, he met her gaze for only a moment while carrying on a conversation with the scullery maid. Then there was a moment later when her glass was empty and he appeared at her elbow as if by magic, holding a fresh glass and offering it with a smile. And towards the end of the evening, when those who kept early hours bid them all goodnight, she found herself engaged in a game of chess with him.
"You're good," she told him, moving a knight out of harm's way.
"Aye, my brother taught me," he said, pondering his pieces. "He'd give you a real run for your money, highness."
Emma nodded at another maid who was leaving the sitting room for the evening. "Doubtless anyone with more than a passing interest in the game could give me a run for my money, lieutenant. My mother taught me as a way to understand strategy, but I can't quite visualize seven steps ahead like she can."
Killian hummed, taking one of her pawns. She scanned the board while he said, "It's not something that comes naturally to everyone, so don't feel like you're missing out. That's why you have generals, after all."
Her mouth twisted in a wry smile as she moved a bishop. "I've played chess against General Hanover."
"And how did that work out for you?"
She caught his eye and she liked how the grin on his face made his eyes sparkle, or maybe that was the firelight behind her. Either way, the effect was stunning and she felt her cheeks warm. "If the general wasn't thrashing enough for you, milady, I'd suggest Admiral Perkins as your next opponent. Sometimes Liam - Captain Jones, that is - thinks he's gotten better and offers to play with the admiral."
Emma watched in frustration as Killian took another pawn. "And how does that work out for Captain Jones?"
"Very badly." Another flash of teeth, she noticed now how very white and straight they were for a commoner. "I rarely see Liam return to our quarters with his tail between his legs, but when I do, I know it's because he's got it in his head that he can finally defeat the admiral and was sorely mistaken."
"Surely that just means it's a continuing challenge," Emma said, taking one of his pawns with her rook. "It's always more rewarding to win when you've been working for something."
"Aye, milady, but the day Liam bests Admiral Perkins is the day they erect a statue of him in the market square. The man's a cunning old fish, may we be grateful he's in Her Majesty's service and not one of our enemies." He moved his queen. "You're in check, by the way."
Emma kept herself from growling in frustration, but only barely. She moved her king out of harm's way. "You're very fond of your brother," she observed.
His expression went somber, eyes darting around to make sure no one else was near enough to hear. "He's all the family I have left," Killian said quietly. "Practically raised me since we were boys."
"I'm sorry," Emma said, meaning it. "That can't have been easy."
"It wasn't. I'll not sully your ears with the details, your highness, but the happiest day of our lives was when we were able to enlist in Her Majesty's service. It meant security for the first time in a long time, despite the ongoing war."
They traded moves for a few moments in silence. "I'm glad," Emma said finally. "That we could offer security for you, and that it brought you both to this moment."
Their eyes met for a moment before she lowered her lashes demurely. She meant it, having company in an otherwise unfortunate situation was nice, but she hoped he understood that she meant she was glad to have him here.
Despite the disastrous first night and the awkwardness that followed, she was growing very fond of the lieutenant. Oh, she told herself that it was only the flattery that was pulling her towards him, some romantic notion that he couldn't keep her out of his mind; she knew it was likely her breasts he was referring to, and turning it all into whatever crude jokes soldiers and sailors told amongst themselves. 'I've seen the princess' tits', she imagined he'd boast.
But the less cynical, less war-hardened part of her thought that perhaps the lieutenant wasn't like that. That maybe he did have more than a passing fancy for her that wasn't rooted in an awkward and improper moment.
She didn't know which side she liked less.
"Check," Killian said, bringing her back to the moment.
Emma moved her king again.
There were only so many places to hide.
Gods, he was pursuing her, aiming straight down the barrel at her.
He'd have her cornered in a moment, nowhere to run, completely at his mercy.
"Check and mate."
Emma tried not to fume as he knocked over her king with his queen. "Battle well fought, lieutenant," she said. "You've bested me."
Killian met her gaze and actually winked at her. She flushed - no one had ever winked at her like that in her life, almost like a rogue. "You're not one to be bested very often, princess, I'll bet on that."
"You'd be right. Had we swords-" She paused, not sure of her boast, actually. Sailors and soldiers alike had arms practices, and officers in particular had swords. "Well, I'm sure I'd give you a run for your money at least."
He stood and offered his hand to help her to her feet. When she was fully upright, he bowed over her hand, pressing his lips to it; a feeling like lightning raced up her arm. "In that case, your highness, I'll savor the victory. And perhaps I'll take you up on the swords sometime."
She nodded, then took note of how few people remained in the room. She felt drained all of a sudden, whether from the full day or just the battle of wits she'd just endured, she didn't know. The housekeeper seemed to notice, standing and coming to her side. "Don't fuss over cleaning up, your highness," she said in her clipped, DunBroch way. "We'll snuff out the candles and pick up the rest of the mess. If you're weary, go on up to bed."
"Thank you," Emma said gratefully.
But after preparing for bed, she found her mind was too restless to sleep. She sat in front of the fire for a long time, hoping the dancing flames and crackling logs might send her into a sleepy stupor. But where her body was weary her mind raced round and round, mulling over the chess game and the words traded during it. And then her thoughts turned more somber, regret that she was separated from her family for the holiday and self-pity for having no close friends or family with her.
She'd had a nice time with those who were here, but no one, no matter how festive their spirits, could shake the knowledge that there were many, many rungs separating them all on the social ladder. Nor the fact that Emma was technically their employer. There was a massive difference between spending time with people of your own station and with whom you can be natural or with those who you needed to maintain a mask with.
Sighing with disgust at her own pity party, Emma got to her feet and wrapped a dressing gown around herself, going out into the chilly hall and down to the kitchen. The lodge was quiet, everyone having retired to their rooms by now, and she kept her footsteps light and tried to make as little noise as possible so as not to disturb anyone. The gods only knew that if someone were to hear her rattling around in the kitchen She set up a kettle of milk and a saucepan of chocolate on the warm stone in front of the hearth, then puttered around gathering a mug and wiping it clean for use.
A sound in the hall made her pause. "Who's there?"
Killian ducked through the door. "Apologies, milady, I thought I heard something. If I'd known it was you I'd have just left you be."
Emma shrugged with one shoulder. "It's alright. Couldn't sleep. How did you hear me?" She thought she'd been so quiet.
He looked at his feet and she remembered she was only in her dressing gown. She folded it tighter against her, as if that might help the situation, and crossed her arms over her chest. "My rooms are just down the hall. There's a creaky floorboard above my bed so I seem to always pick up on movement in the lodge. It seems silly, we can't get out so there's no reason to think someone could get in, but I worried for your safety and-"
Emma shouldn't have felt touched at the notion. It was his job to protect queen and country - which included her. In fact, it was his job to protect everyone in the lodge.
But in a night full if silly emotions, feeling a moment of genuine surprise and gratitude for a man doing what he was paid to do seemed to fit right in.
"Thank you, lieutenant," she said. "I'm sorry to have roused you, I thought cocoa would help me settle enough to go to sleep." He inclined his head and she hesitated only a moment before asking, "Would you like to join me?"
She didn't wait for his reply, going to check on the milk and chocolate. Killian remained in the doorway for another moment before going to gather his own mug.
Emma poured out the milk into both mugs and conjured a small flame in her palm to melt the chocolate enough to add it. "I've never been very patient," she said by way of explanation, setting the pan aside and taking up a spoon, stirring both drinks to a mild froth. "It might explain why I'm terrible at chess."
"You're hardly terrible, princess," Killian said. "You just need…"
He seemed to realize what he was about to say and she watched his face redden. Emma smiled, handing him a mug and taking a tentative sip of her own. She sighed in content. "It may not be Granny's recipe, and it may not make me ready to sleep, but it's nice on a cold night."
Killian took a sip of his own, blinking in surprise. "It's very sweet," he observed.
"Have you never had cocoa before?" The words were out of her mouth before she realized that it very well might be his first time. Cocoa, and chocolate in general, was still fairly new in their realm, and expensive enough that it was only a treat reserved for nobility. Her mother spoke of it in fond childhood memories, but her father, born to a shepherd family, had never had it until after they'd taken control of the realm again. "I'm sorry, that was presumptuous of me."
"No, you're right, though we did act as a guard for a merchant ship carrying it. It smelled divine, but the taste is quite something."
"It's not to everyone's taste, but it's Mother's preferred drink and I've picked up her habit."
She picked up her mug and went to sit at a small table in the corner of the room. Killian hesitated for another moment before joining her. "I seem to be learning quite a bit about the royal family this trip, your highness," he said.
"I suppose you would have if my parents had been able to come as planned. Especially with guests, protocol would have called for the officers to join us for meals." She wrapped her hands around her mug, letting the warmth soak into her skin.
"You're still disappointed they couldn't join us."
Emma bowed her head slightly. "I shouldn't be."
"Because-" She stopped, thinking. "I don't know," she said finally. "I suppose… There are people - ministers, advisors, my etiquette teacher - who would say that because I'm a princess I should be above such feelings. I live a fanciful and privileged life," she said, her voice turning sarcastic, "so what should I ever have to feel disappointed about? Chin up, carry on, be a strong face for the people to rely on."
She hadn't realized how pent up all of this was as it came spilling out of her in some sort of mortifying stream she couldn't seem to stop. "I can't always be a strong face for the people to rely on. I've been a strong face for ten years - ten years! I'm hardly twenty years old, I've had to be strong since I was a child with no reprieve for half my life. So yes, Killian, I am disappointed. I'm disappointed that for the first time in half my life I was expecting to have some quiet, reflective time with my family in a time we haven't gotten to celebrate for fear that the country might see us as unpatriotic and wasteful, and that didn't happen. I'm disappointed that I couldn't provide a better celebration for those who were left here, that I can't even have a normal conversation with the maids without everyone remembering the invisible crown I always have to wear. I'm disappointed and I just… I just wanted something nice."
Her eyes burned and she closed them for fear of embarrassing herself further. "You called me Killian," he said softly.
So much for saving herself further embarrassment. "I'm sorry, that was rude of me."
"No, I - I like the way you say it, princess," Killian said, making her look up in surprise. "It was just unexpected."
"I've been struggling to remember I should call you by your title," she admitted. "It seemed strange to do so after your admission the other night."
The spots of red on his cheeks came back. "Princess-"
Their eyes met. She gathered her courage and lay her fingers on his. She had no idea where all this boldness came from - perhaps she was going stir crazy after being in the lodge for so long, perhaps it was just the cover of night and silence giving her courage - but if all of her secrets were coming out tonight, then to hell with one more. "I… I need someone to remind me I'm not just a princess or a lady. Just for tonight."
He swallowed, she watched his Adam's apple bob, and murmured, "As you wish. Emma."
His hand turned over and took hers; his palm was warm and rough from what she supposed was years of work at sea, but she didn't find it unpleasant at all. She liked that he did something useful and had evidence with him always to prove it. "As I said before, your - Emma. You don't need to hide your disappointment or frustrations over the situation. I can tell you that most of the staff here felt it mightily - and that your idea to provide entertainment and a feast fit for Her Majesty's own table did much to improve their spirits. I'm only sorry that it couldn't fully erase your own sadness, but perhaps that wasn't only from the current circumstances."
She thought about that for a moment. "As in, a decade of sorrow coming down on me all at once."
She took another drink, chuckling weakly. "I'm not sure I like the sound of that."
"No, but it happens to the best of us. Even princesses."
She made a face and he smiled, making her feel warm inside and not from the cocoa.
Their talk continued, moving from sad things to trading tales of their childhoods. She learned a few more details that he'd mentioned earlier, but as their hands never parted she was able to squeeze his in sympathy or reassurance when he spoke of something particularly painful. Their mugs were long empty by the time she yawned and he insisted it was time they both tried to sleep.
Emma left everything in the washing tub, making a mental note to apologize to whoever's job it was that she added a few more items to their workload, and allowed Killian to escort her to her rooms. "Thank you, Killian," she said again outside her door, speaking softly so as not to wake anyone else in the hall. "For everything tonight."
"It was my pleasure, pr - Emma," he said, catching himself at the sidelong glance she gave him.
She didn't know which of them she surprised more with her next move, leaning forward and pressing a lingering kiss to his cheek. But she saw his wide eyes and her own heartbeat thrummed in her ears, and she may have surprised herself most of all when she leaned forward again and met his lips with her own, soft and sweet and making her melt all over again.
She particularly liked the little sighs that escaped him, little whines or grunts as his mouth moved against hers and his hands went to her waist and then pulling her close against the hard planes of his body. She liked their closeness, the way he grew bolder the longer the kisses lasted, the alien and delightful feeling of his tongue sweeping into her mouth and tangling with her own. She liked the feeling of his hair between her fingers and the rough stubble on his chin and cheeks brushing against her own.
And she loved that her heart, for the first time in days, felt lighter than air, as if the power of Killian's kiss could banish all of her sorrows and take them flying away into the night.
There came a natural stopping point, though they remained in such close proximity that there were little brushes of lips and nibbles and nuzzles, and they swayed in their embrace, weary and delighted at this turn of events. She couldn't have imagined a week ago when he'd stumbled across her indecent state that she'd be kissing him outside of her room after a vulnerable evening of trading secrets.
And maybe that's how life should be, full of delightful little surprises like this. Though she'd prefer any future surprises take place while she was fully clothed.
(There were, her traitorous mind suggested, some events that could take place with fewer clothes.)
"I should go to bed," she whispered.
"As should I," he murmured.
"Goodnight, Killian." She pressed her lips to his again.
"Goodnight, Emma." He held her close and stole her breath and her wits with another kiss.
She would never, until her dying days, be able to recall how she was able to untangle herself from him and place the solid barrier of the oak bedroom door between them, but though her mind was still racing, Emma found herself pleasantly able to drift off to sleep, falling from awareness of the real world to dreams of snow and laughter and a handsome lieutenant waiting to catch her.