The Overlord accompanied Sophia and Connor as far as the forest road leading to Lillia’s main city – they had left the island the same way Connor had arrived, rather to Sophia’s relief. She wasn’t very confident about the water route from the cove she had washed up in.
They only had Connor’s bay mare for transport, so Sophia was riding pillion, with the promise of the purchase of a second horse at a farm on the way, recommended by both Evan and the Overlord. Acron had taken his wolf form and was ghosting along behind, in between investigating smells and movements.
“Unless you’d rather wait and retrieve your own horse when we visit your parents.”
“I didn’t really have one I rode exclusively, I was expected to be able to adapt to any nature of mount, so they were quite regularly changed.”
Connor squeezed the arm currently around his waist, “I never realised just how much was being put on you with this whole queen thing. Were you ever allowed to have fun?”
“Have fun, yes. Forget I was preparing to be the future queen of Lillia, and must behave accordingly, never.”
“But now you’re free of that and on a secret mission for the Overlord.”
Sophia laughed, “Indeed, it’s been a very interesting couple of months. From future queen, to rejected fiancee, to lost child, to quester. I’m rather looking forward to being a dressmaker’s assistant for a while.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing how that dress the djinn gave you works. How are you going to test it?”
“Simple, we’re going to have to stop at an inn tonight as we’ll arrive too late to make it to the castle. So I’m going to wear the dress tomorrow and you are going to accompany me to the castle as the representative of the overlord and see what reaction we get. I’ll either go in as myself or as the dressmaker.”
“What if you have some people recognising you and not others?”
“We’ll avoid spelling out who or what I am until we absolutely have to, I want to see what the dress actually does and this is going to be the best place to understand that.”
Connor grunted in acknowledgement, although he still had misgivings. She could fool most of the members of court and their staff with her dressmaker persona, but Prince Stephen, Prince Michael and their parents would spot it in an instant.
As promised, there was a good selection of horses at the roadside farm, it was clearly a lucrative side-business for the family and Sophia was able to choose a neat mare, very similar in colouring to Connor’s, as her companion for the journey.
Watching her delight in getting to know her first ‘very own’ horse, Connor silently swore at all the people who’d spent so much time and effort in training and developing the young queen, but completely forgotten about the girl underneath.
The ride into the city was uneventful, although things took a turn for the unexpected when they found themselves (and their dog) required to share a room at the inn they selected. Connor turned slightly purple at the idea and suggested finding somewhere else. Sophia considered it, then shook her head.
“We’re going to have to get used to it. Given it’s just the two of us travelling together, everyone’s going to assume we’re siblings or we’re married. And frankly the latter is likely to be safer for both of us.”
Connor hadn’t considered this aspect before. He paused, then reluctantly conceded her point.
“But if anyone up at the castle asks?”
“We were in completely separate rooms. Should we be on opposite sides of the inn, or next door to each other?”
Connor played along, aside from anything else, it was good practice in coming up with stories and keeping them straight.
“Next door of course, I have to be on hand to protect you.”
The innkeeper was showing them up to the room at this stage, so diplomacy was in order.
“Not much at this inn, sadly, but I’m sure others will require my valiant defence against bed bugs and rattling windows.”
The innkeeper chuckled at this and offered to import a couple of mice from his competitor down the road if it would please the young lady.
The sent Sophia off into a peal of laughter. She thanked the man for his consideration but assured him she’d cope without for one night. She did opt, however, for a meal in their room, rather than in the common area downstairs. This was a preferred off duty retreat for many members of the palace guard and she thought it best they not see and run the danger of recognising her.
After dinner they bickered about the sleeping arrangements. Sophia flatly refused to have Connor sleeping on the floor. Aside from being uncomfortable, cold and bad for him, Acron needed floor space to change into his natural form – much more comfortable for resting. So he ended up with a compromise involving layered blankets and pillow forts.
The pillows were clearly not much use, as Connor woke the next morning to find Sophia cuddled into the curved nest he’d created around her in his sleep.
He froze in alarm as she stirred, stretching, then stilling as she took in their situation, and smiling sleepily at him.
“You’re nice and warm, that’s going to be very useful when we’re crossing the mountains. I can never sleep when I’m cold.”
With that, she yawned and kicked herself free of the tangled bedclothes, mercifully avoiding Connor, and walked across to the window. She opened the shutters just a crack to peek out at the day.
“It’s a fine morning, but there might be rain later.”
Connor shook himself out of his stupefaction and got up as well, pulling on enough clothing to brave the corridor and collect washing water. He delivered it, then stood guard with Acron outside the door until she opened it and swapped places.
He wasn’t sure about the suitability of Sophia standing guard but she really couldn’t stay in the room while he was changing and the common room, even at this time of day, wasn’t a good idea. It was always busy and he didn’t want her testing that dress without him there.
With that thought in mind, and now dressed, he opened the door and inspected Sophia from head to toe, frowning, “I thought your were going to wear that djinn’s dress.”
Sophia looked confused, “I am.”
“It just looks like one of your normal dresses to me, and I’m still noticing you.”
She smiled and kissed his cheek, “You always did, so it won’t work on you.”
He wasn’t quite sure what had earned the kiss or why it wouldn’t work on him but decided this was one of those times he was best advised to let it go and trust his companion.
The first test came at breakfast, taken downstairs this time in the hope of some sort of encounter. The subject was a local guard, who recognised Connor and attempted to tease him about his ‘pretty little friend’.
Connor was not amused, “My colleague is a representative of the Overlord’s court. I am accompanying her on her errand to the castle, regarding the Overcourt’s Midsummer Ball.”
The guard nodded knowingly, “Ahhh, the dresses for the single ladies? The note came through a day or so ago and all the court’s atwitter.”
He sobered, “And what of the Lady Sophia?”
Connor started, “What?”
“Well she’s been gone visiting for a while now and though she’s sorely missed, I hope for her sake she gets a gown and goes. Then maybe she can meet someone who does appreciate her.”
Connor somehow managed not to choke and not look at the dumbstruck Sophia.
“I’ve actually just come from visiting her. She’s well and has been invited to the ball.”
The guard expressed his approval and blithely went on with his day.