The closest town was at least four hours’ ride away, and as the sun set, Sir Victoria’s jet black war horse melted into the shadows under the two of them. Tessie felt like she might be riding some sort of invisible magical creature rather than a horse, and when she said so to Victoria, the Knight’s low and gentle chuckle above her ear made Tessie wish she was riding her, instead.
To make matters worse, Victoria wasn’t one for idle conversation so they mostly rode in silence which gave Tessie a lot of time to dwell on that thought. If it had been light enough, she might have distracted herself by admiring the majestic peaks or the rocky crags of the mountainside around them, but unfortunately, it wasn’t light enough. It was the dark of the moon and there was nothing to occupy her except for the hand on her waist and the breath on her neck. It was sweet, sweet torture.
“You may sleep against me, if you wish,” Victoria told her quietly as they made their way down the mountain. “I won’t let you fall.”
Oh, it’s too late for that, Tessie thought with a big defeated grin on her lips, but took that invitation as an excuse to rest her head back against Victoria’s shoulder. Her pauldrons were warm. “I’m not sure I’ll be able to sleep so easily.”
She’d simply meant because she was excited about being rescued, but Victoria misunderstood. “Yes, I imagine you wouldn’t,” she told Tessie soberly. “Months and months of being held prisoner by infernal monsters, unable to talk to another living soul, wondering each day if you will perish alone in a tower—it would be enough to drive anyone mad. It is a testament to your inner strength and optimism that you have endured for so long.”
Tessie secretly thought that it wasn’t that bad in the tower—the dragons mostly left her alone and one of them was quite a good cook—but she didn’t say as much. Victoria didn’t seem to understand that being kidnapped by dragons was just about the best thing that could have happened to her, and Tessie wasn’t about to explain exactly why.
They reached the closest town in the foothills after midnight—a walled village with watchers posted on every corner. No sooner had the gatekeeper laid eyes on Sir Victoria, however, the gates fell open and they were both welcomed inside.
‘Helpful’ villagers who’d stuck their heads out of their houses offered to escort them to the inn, and then others came outside to see what the commotion was, and by the time Victoria and Tessie reached the inn, they were followed by a procession of assorted villagers in their nightclothes.
Victoria looked somewhat accustomed to being treated like a celebrity—no surprise, given that she was a knight—but no one had ever treated Tessie like she was someone particularly important before. But here she was, being lifted from the saddle by a handsome knight in shining armour like a real princess, an adoring crowd all watching. When Sir Victoria lifted an arm to escort her inside, Tessie could barely conceal a big elated smile as she took it.
The inn was fronted by a tavern, and no sooner had Victoria and Tessie set foot inside, the patrons toasted Sir Victoria, roaring and smashing their steins together. Tessie had to avoid the sloshing ale as Victoria led her up to the bar.
A weathered old woman was serving, and from how everyone was deferring to her, Tessie guessed she was the innkeeper as well as the bar tender. She looked between Sir Victoria and Tessie and then gave them a cheeky, toothless grin. “If you’re after the honeymoon suite, you’ll have to evict my husband as he’s still waiting for me to join him in it,” she joked. Behind them, the patrons all laughed.
Victoria looked uncomfortable. “Apologies, my good woman, but we’re not married,” she clarified. “I’ve just rescued this poor young maiden from the clutches of dragons.”
The innkeeper looked even more interested. “Ooh, a rescue?” she said broadly, leaning forward on the bar. “How romantic! Well, it won’t be long then, anyway, will it? Perhaps we can have the suite ready for you both the next time you pass by.” She winked at them, and Tessie giggled.
Victoria’s cheeks flushed. “I’m afraid you’ve been reading too many fairy tales.”
The innkeeper scoffed. “Nonsense: if there wasn’t any hope of marrying the damsel, why would the dragons use pretty and eligible maidens as dinner bait in the first place? No one aside from a girl’s own family would try and rescue her if there wasn’t a chance at her heart.” She shook her head sagely. “No, I think secretly that’s what you knights all want, isn’t it?”
“I want nothing more than to serve The Light and my King,” Victoria told her stiffly. “Now, please, my good woman, we’ve been riding for—”
“Yes, yes, your room,” the woman interrupted her, turning and unhooking a set of heavy iron keys from the wall behind her. “Come with me.”
Much to the disappointment of the celebrating patrons and the crowd of curious villagers, Victoria bid them all farewell, leading Tessie to follow the Innkeeper upstairs.
Tessie’s heart lifted when the woman only unlocked one room. “Here you are,” the Innkeeper said, standing aside so they could enter. “It’s probably a mite bare compared to the luxury you two are used to, but it’s clean, and there’s a nice, big bed for—”
Victoria’s stopped her abruptly. “I’m sorry, my good woman, there’s been some misunderstanding. We require two rooms.”
The Innkeeper tapped her nose. “Oh, if anyone asks, I’ll tell them I gave you two rooms,” she promised. “I can even charge you for them, if—”
“No,” Victoria said firmly. “I will not be the cause of rumours about Lady Tessa. We will take separate rooms.”
The Innkeeper sighed at Victoria, and then unlocked the room opposite, as well. “Suit yourself,” she said, gave them both an odd look, and then headed back down the squeaky stairs.
Victoria’s cheeks were still a little flushed. “Why in heavens name would she seek to encourage me to take advantage of your gratitude?” she asked mostly to herself after the woman had gone.
Tessie found Victoria’s fluster rather charming. “Because people expect you to,” she said. “It’s what always happens. It’s the unspoken reward for the knight who rescues the maiden.”
Victoria looked rather astonished by that suggestion. “Is that why you were expecting it in the tower?”
“Well, yes, I suppose, but I—”
Victoria took two neat strides over to her. The words died on Tessie’s lips, and her pulse raced and her bosom heaved and she was certain she was about to be embraced and ravished the way she so wanted to be, but instead of wrapping her arms around Tessie and pressing their lips together, Victoria just stood firmly in front of her and gripped her shoulders. “You need never worry that I will do that do you, my lady,” she swore. “I will protect your honour, not tarnish it.”
Victoria was so close and her grasp was so firm that it made Tessie’s knees weak. “You can tarnish it if you wish, Sir Victoria,” she murmured, lingering on her title. “I don’t mind…”
Victoria was unmoved. “Oh, my good lady,” she said with—perhaps, pity? “You don’t have to pretend to embrace that sort of obligation with me. It is my privilege simply to be your saviour.”
“But I’m not pretending,” Tessie began. “Really, I’d like for you to—”
Victoria silenced her with a finger to her lips. “Perhaps you have to pretend with men,” she said quietly, “but you don’t need to pretend with me. You may relax knowing I won’t ask that of you.” With that, she gently touched Tessie’s cheek, and then bid her goodnight as she retired to her own room.
After the door had shut, Tessie slumped, putting her hands on her hips. Was she really spending the night of her rescue alone in her own bed? She obviously didn’t do very well at her goal of ‘winning Victoria over’, did she? She groaned aloud, turning sulkily towards her own room.
This whole ‘you’re pretending’ business is simply ridiculous, she thought as she shut her door. She wasn’t pretending about wanting Victoria to take her! She never pretended. If Tessie wasn’t interested in someone, she would simply tell them exactly that that in no uncertain terms! And Sir Victoria was so dashing, so handsome… Why would she so confidently assume that Tessie was just pretending to want her?
…or perhaps Victoria wasn’t that interested herself, and she assumed the feeling was mutual?
Tessie walked up to the mirror to begin taking her jewellery off. It had never occurred to her during her captivity that the knight who rescued her might not be interested in her. No that men went to war over her legendary beauty or anything, but—she considered herself in the mirror above her washbasin, brushing a lock of hair from her face—she was passing fair nowadays. She had to be, didn’t she? Otherwise the dragons wouldn’t have taken her. Obviously, empirically, she was beautiful and eligible, and everyone would be forced to agree on that point now the dragons had determined it by kidnapping her.
She began to miserably unlace her own bodice—which was not at all how she expected it would come off that night—before it occurred to her that while Victoria needn’t lock her own door, she herself probably should, lest some drunkard burst in and see her undressing. When she pulled out the key, though, light from the hall shone through the big open keyhole.
She frowned at it. Anyone could see me unclothed through that, she thought, and just to test how likely that might be, she tightened her laces for a moment and went to kneel outside her own room. When she put her eye to the keyhole, she could see everything inside.
She was standing again and wondering what she should plug the hole with, when her eyes fell on Victoria’s door and Victoria’s keyhole.
She stared at it for a moment, her lips parted.
No, she told herself firmly, closing her mouth. Her pulse quickened anyway. No, she repeated more firmly. That’s not good manners, intruding on another person like that.
Then again, Victoria had seemed confused but somewhat willing to take Tessie when she’d been instructed to do so in the tower, hadn’t she? Before she’d decided Tessie was just pretending? Perhaps she wouldn’t mind if Tessie did watch her undress.
Then you should knock on her door and openly ask if you may come inside and watch, a voice in Tessie’s head told her sternly.
Despite that voice, Tessie lost the battle against her conscience and ended up standing in front of the door, staring down at that keyhole.
Tessie knew she shouldn’t. But all she could think of was those strong arms that had carried her and what they might look like under her armour; how the rest of Victoria might look under her armour. Imagining it made her breath catch and her cheeks flush, and if Victoria wasn’t interested, she might never find out any other way than this.
Mentally pleading for Victoria’s forgiveness, Tessie knelt on the floor by Victoria’s door, and put her eye to the keyhole.
Inside, Tessie wasn’t greeted by the glorious sight of Victoria’s rippling muscles or her bare torso framed with that luscious black hair. Instead, Victoria was seated on her bed, fully clothed, with her head in her hands.