The muddy mountain roads were so slippery, Anton found himself wishing for snow. He’d hoped now that spring was near they could make better time, but the mules had to pick their way just as carefully as they had on snow and ice.
“It’s all right.” Maryna rode at his side, like she always did. “I don’t mind going slowly.”
“I mind.” Anton tried not to show his impatience. Now he was official bodyguard of the Princess of Terragand he expected more dignified behavior from himself. “I must get you home, or at least to Lennart as soon as possible. Who knows what’s happened while we were gone?”
He wouldn’t say it out loud, but his real worry was that Lennart had already marched over the pass. Surely it was clear by now? And if he had, he might well be at the gates of Atlona. Anton would be very upset to miss a chance at fighting Teodora.
Anton worried they were going the wrong way. If Lennart had reached Atlona, they should have headed back to the sea, finding a ship to take them to Capo. But if Lennart remained in Kronland, Anton couldn’t risk taking Maryna straight into Teodora’s clutches. Not after all he’d gone through to rescue her.
He looked at her out of the corner of his eye, since he didn’t want her to see him staring. She was so pretty. Anton was sure he would have fallen in love with her if she’d been a regular girl. But she wasn’t and he couldn’t. He spent at least half the day every day telling himself that, and when he forgot, Karil reminded him.
“I don’t know, Captain,” Karil would say when they were alone in the tent they shared. “You looked especially love-struck today. You really need to stop that.”
“Stop making fun.” Anton rolled himself up in his blankets and turned his head away, since it was hard to look Karil in the eye when they discussed this topic.
“Not making fun,” Karil said as he settled into his bedroll. “Just telling the truth. You are in so much trouble.”
I am not, Anton told himself, though it was hard to think of anything but Maryna’s face as he fell asleep. She always looked at Anton so attentively when he spoke, maybe even adoringly. A lot of girls liked him; why shouldn’t she? He had to admit, it would be very satisfying to have the Princess of Terragand fall in love with him. That was the kind of thing someone might write a song about. Not that it would do any good. He squeezed his eyes shut.
As they made their way over the tallest mountains in Tirovor, Anton realized he missed Trystan. It was hard being in charge of a huge string of mules–most of whom weren’t as nice as Hansi–and several companies of tired soldiers anxious to get home.
He had to hire guides, worry about the money running out, decide which road was best, all while trying to keep Maryna’s spirits up. That wasn’t always easy. Anton could tell she was trying not to show how upset she was about her father, but she never spoke of him, and several times, Anton had caught her crying when she thought no one was looking.
He wished he could comfort her the way he had that time in the stable, when he’d first told her, but never got the chance again. Not only were they never alone together, in spite of her friendliness, Maryna seemed to keep a careful, polite distance from Anton. It was probably for the better, though he wished he could hug her again and tell her he would take care of her.
Anton was her official bodyguard, but before they’d left the mountain village, Natalya had chosen a young woman to be Maryna’s companion. Greta was a hearty blonde with rosy cheeks and a snub nose, and very protective of Maryna, scowling at any man besides Anton who dared look at her too long, and hustling her off to bed hours before anyone else turned in for the night. Anton was sure that was the proper way to do things, though at times, he wished he could get rid of the chaperone, just for a few minutes. He wondered if Karil might help.
“How do you like that Greta?” he asked him one evening.
“I dunno.” Karil shrugged, but turned pink under his beard.
“Pretty cute.” Anton couldn’t stop himself. “And she’s not afraid of you, which is a good start.”
Karil gulped. “I’m afraid of her, though.”
Anton laughed. “She can be pretty fierce.”
“I saw her saddle was loose and offered to fix it.” Karil was smiling now. “She told me it was none of my business and to step away from the princess. As if I’d ever move in on your territory,” he added with a cheeky grin.
Anton snorted. “You won’t ever let it go, will you?”
“Maybe I will when she marries some prince or duke.” Karil said it lightly, but watched Anton closely.
Anton’s breath caught, but his expression never changed. He knew Maryna would have to marry someone important someday. He just didn’t want to be around when she did it. When the time came, he supposed he’d have to hand his guarding responsibilities off to someone else.
But she was only fourteen and wouldn’t marry for a long time. And when she finally did, Anton resolved he’d make anyone else look bad by comparison.by