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Chapter Three


Ahead of me was Issur's weapon shop, a sign in both Shapeirian and Common saying "Closed until I return." I furrowed my brow as I read the sign in Issur's gruff voice. I then noticed the leather wares merchant, an elderly Katta - who stood and smiled at me, bowing slightly.

"My Prince, you honor me with wearing my wares!" I blinked, smiling back at him. He must have been the one Xand commissioned to make my sheath. "When the young lady said she wanted your family crest on the sheath, I feared she was jesting, and almost refused."

"You did an excellent job, my friend."

The elderly Katta closed his eyes and smiled, his furry cheeks seemed to puff out with pride. "I am pleased that you are pleased, my Prince!"

I bowed to him, receiving another in return, before I turned around to face the Guild Hall. Its large green doors were shut with a sign posted on the left one, and above it all was a sign proclaiming its name.

Sitting just outside on a laid out carpet was Miroshi, a Tigertaur; a White Tigertaur to be exact. She had her infant cub held to her breast, the young boy suckled hungrily for his mother's milk, and his tiny tail flicked happily behind him.

Across from her was my favorite person in all Gloriana! Serra was the daughter of the innkeepers Shameen and Shema, who also served as ambassadors for the Katta. She was my first crush, and a smile came to me as I remembered our first kiss.

As I slowly made my way over to them, Miroshi quietly glanced up at me and smiled. Serra didn't seem to notice, as she had her eyes closed and was leaning back to face the sky, her brown and tan fur soaking up the desert warmth.

I approached her silently, expecting her to open her brilliant green eyes any second, but she didn't. Being careful not to block the sun, I stepped behind her and put my hands over her eyes. Her body went rigid immediately, and I couldn't help but chuckle.

"Three guesses," was all I said as I looked down to her. Gods, she gets even more beautiful every time I see her! From the corner of my eye, I saw Miroshi smile and shake her head.

Serra moved her hands up to mine and started to purr softly, and despite myself, my heart always skips a beat when I know I'm the cause of it. "Let me see... are you Mirrek?" she teased, naming her younger brother.

"No, sorry, wrong." She left out a playful huff and began to lightly scratch the back of my hands with her index fingers, and even in this heat, I got goose pimples. "Two guesses left."

"I don't know," she sighed her cute little sigh. "Are you Raneb?"

"Excuse me?" I coughed out. She had to mention him; the cocky, arrogant son of the Captain of the Guards.

"Alright, then if you're not him, you must be," she paused, running her hands along mine, "my Prince." Now, I know I get called that a lot, but it's something special when she calls me it. She pulled my hands away from her eyes and gracefully stood up, turned and wrapped her arms around me, purring softly. Hell, if I could purr myself, I would have as I hugged her back.

"You win," I whispered to her, and I got her melodic chuckle in reply.

"I always win," she teased.

She placed a soft kiss on my cheek and pulled away to look me over. I suddenly became a bit more aware of what I had on, and wished I had chosen a different colored shirt than just white.

"You're the last person I expected to see here!" The slight fact that our fingers somehow became entwined made me momentarily forget why I was here.

Let me take a moment to explain things. In recent years here in Shapeir, there's been a rise in the number of Human-Katta relationships. Now, don't get me wrong, it's not that it hasn't happened before, it's just become more and more common lately. The main problem is that the public generally frowns upon it.

It's even worse for me. Politics have a firm grasp on how I should conduct my personal life. Palace advisors constantly remind me to mind my tongue, and to not do anything that would jeopardize the city's reputation. Sadly, my desire to be with Serra falls under this. While I'm sure Shapeir would turn a blind eye to it, other cities wouldn't.

Raseir itself is a major factor. Even though the city is where most Katta dwell, those that live there are less than tolerant on a Katta choosing a mate that's not one of them - not to mention the humans that live there share the same views. It amazes me that something as simple as being with the woman I love could cause other cities to view my actions as the actions of the whole of Shapeir. This could, in the long run, wreck havoc on the economy.

Trying to grasp that concept when you're fifteen is rather hard, especially when you're still coming to terms with yourself, even if you are considered a man.

Serra and I have known each other for technically our whole lives. She was my playmate from infancy onwards. She was my first crush, my first kiss, and, well, my first everything! I actually had the joy of calling her my girlfriend for a little over a month...

That is, until word got out about it, and we were told we had to stop. Her parents gave us their blessing. "As long as you both are happy, then we are too," was what her mother told us. My father, on the other hand, seemed to have a bigger problem with it than I would have thought, but perhaps he was centered more on the political earthquake it would have caused than how he personally thought about it.

Soon afterwards was when all hell broke loose. Apparently, my father's advisors suggested that it was time for me (without any of my input) to find a wife that was 'suitable' - a word they emphasized far too much. In other words, I was to marry royalty for sake of the country, and who gave a damn if I was happy?

It was rather big news, if I may say so. I never once thought that I was the actual 'prize' that all the other royal families wanted. Oh no - they wanted me to marry their daughter simply to signify a union between their country and mine. So, for the sake of the country, I bit my tongue and went along with it. It was a pain explaining it all to Serra.

Princesses from plenty of countries came to try and win me. I'd be a liar if I didn't say some were very attractive, but no matter who they were, I couldn't love them. No matter how kind, charming or attractive the princess was, my heart never leapt at the sight of them like it always does for Serra. All the girls could sense my heart was fixed elsewhere, but it didn't matter to everyone else though. The fact that I was with a different girl every week didn't slip past the public, and I soon was labeled a 'playboy,' that I could have any woman I chose. Any woman, that is, but the one I desired.

Then came the day I was dreading. The daughter of the royal family of Raseir was sent as barter. It's not a particularly nice way of putting things, but hell, the way the government treats these issues, it's the only word to describe it. Arisha was the daughter of Zayishah, the ruler of Raseir, and was a close friend of mine.

She was more understanding than I thought she'd be about things, since it turned out (as I thought) she was forced into this as well. She didn't even need to ask about who the girl was that caused all this. Arisha and I were close friends, and she knew about Serra long before anyone else did. In the end, it was she who had the idea of fooling everyone.

We walked around the city together as she explained it all to me. Our final stop was the Katta's Tail Inn, the inn belonging to Serra's family, where we would explain everything to Serra.

First off, we both thought that if the public saw the two of us together, then they would think I finally found somebody. Hopefully we could fool my father as well.

Shameen's face was stoic as I walked into the Inn hand-in-hand with Arisha. Hastily, we explained that we were doing this to find a way for Serra and I to be together. I was a bit worried when we first started explaining. Shameen advised it wasn't wise to try this and fool my father, but I think my devotion to his daughter made him accept this false display of affection between Arisha and I, put on simply for the sake of public relations.

Shameen reached out and took my hand, closing his around it affectionately as he bowed. I was momentarily stunned, as Katta are not ones to shake hands.

"Erihkam, please, you and Lady Arisha have a seat. We will attend to everything for you." He bowed again and excused himself as he disappeared behind the wall leading to the kitchen.

Arisha and I headed toward a table against the far wall, one of the few left opened. Neither of us cared that all eyes in the room were on us. All eyes, including a certain pair of green, filled with tears at the sight of Arisha, who had just noticed her as well. I was spared seeing this heart-rending sight any longer when Shameen had started to talk with her. I sat carefully at the table and watched, I sensed Arisha doing the same.

Serra's initial expression of heartbreak had changed to confusion, then disbelief, and finally I watched as she embraced her father, new tears of relief streaming down her cheeks.

We were served some tea shortly after by Shema, Serra's mother. She placed her hand atop mine on the table and smiled, whispering softly to us. "I appreciate what you're doing, we all do, Erik." She turned to Arisha. "Thank you, both of you."

I smiled in return. As Shema walked away, Arisha asked in a barely audible whisper. "You truly do love each other?" I nodded, and she smiled. "At first I thought this was a bit of a plan by the two of you to piss off your father, but..." she paused and reached across the table and took my hands in hers. "I'm happy for you, 'Rik, I truly am." She beamed at me, and I felt myself blush.

"It's all I can do for the woman I love," I replied. A gasp a table away caused us both to look, and the commoner blushed hotly. No doubt news of my words would get out, misinterpreted, as usual. At least it fell under our new plan.

After a delicious and filling dinner, Arisha and I were ready to leave when Shameen approached us at our table.

"My Prince," he said, a bit too formally for my tastes, "It would honor us if you would stay the night at our Inn, free of charge. The Lady is welcome too, of course!" he said with a bow to Arisha.

Naturally, we accepted the offer because we had both realized Shameen's intention. That night, instead of sleeping in the room with Arisha as the whole city believed, I was with Serra in her room, with her in my arms. I'd never felt happier!

I left reluctantly the next morning with Arisha. As we made it back to the Palace, the guards seemed a bit more at ease around me. I later found out they were on orders not to disturb Arisha and me. It turned out that our plan had worked - perhaps a little too well. Everyone now thought that - much to our dismay - I had slept with Arisha the night before. We were quick to tell everyone that we were provided with separate rooms, leaving out the fact that the room I was provided was my lover's room.

After Azeem, my father's Counselor left, a few of the younger guards in the room laughed. "Too afraid to touch a real lady?"

I shook a little, but Arisha snaked her arm around my waist, resting her head against my shoulder, speaking softly to them. "It's a shame you'll never have the opportunity to. Unlike you, 'Rik here knows just what a lady likes." She put her hand on my chest and I couldn't help blushing as the group of rookie guards stared, dumbstruck.

Arisha's and my charade worked well for a couple of months. I could tell she was eager to visit the Inn as often as she could. The way Mirrek, Serra's brother, kept looking at her, I knew something was going on between the two; something Serra confirmed one night as we lay in bed together.

Then, as my sixteenth birthday arrived, talks of a wedding began to surface. It was then that my sister approached me.

"You know, Erik," she began. I stood my ground, thinking that I knew what was coming. Talk of being a decent husband, treating her like a lady... Was I ever wrong. "I fail to see why you constantly take Arisha to the Inn when you can just as easily bed her here." My jaw dropped at how forward she was being.

"Unless..." and then my heart froze in those chilly seconds she was quiet. "Unless you're not going there to bed her," her eyes studied me as she spoke the next part, "but some other girl."

I hung my head in defeat. It was all over; I knew it was. "Is it who I think it is?" she whispered, and I gave a weak nod. "I thought so; you've been a lot happier since too. I'm just surprised nobody else has caught on yet."

I raised my head and looked at her. Her face was soft and kind, sisterly, loving; it was not the look of disgust and hatred I was expecting to see. "My little runt's become a man..." she muttered and stepped closer, putting her hand on my shoulder. "Tell Serra hello for me next time you see her." She leaned in to kissed my forehead and ruffled my hair before walking off, leaving me confused.

Things were getting wildly out of control - and fast! They had us set to marry in a month, and the thought made me sick. We had to break off the feigned engagement before too much happened. Arisha had started her wondrous acting, finding everything to complain about. Soon, we were no longer engaged, not because of me, her love, as she said, but because of political interference. She made quite a show of it too, kissing me goodbye passionately with a heated farewell. "Goodbye, 'Rik, my heart. Alas, it was never meant to be." She had gotten into the Saurus drawn carriage that would take her back to her home city just days across the desert.

I played my role rather well too. Arisha suggested I mourn her leaving me, and go constantly to the Katta's Tail Inn to bask in the memories we had there. The place, after all, was our favorite place to be together. At least, that's what everyone was meant to think.

Until, yet again, my sister came to me. This time slapping me in the back of the head and growling lowly, "You're supposed to be depressed over your fiancée leaving you, idiot! Don't look so happy every time you come back from Serra's!"

So, here we are today, my false playboy image vanished, replaced by the false mask of the brooding, heartbroken lover. It makes things a lot more difficult if it should ever come out that I am still with Serra. She is still my love, and I try to visit her as often as I can; but as I get older, the more responsibilities the Palace tends to throw at me, like learning to use a sword, or taking these countless language lessons. As if I plan on using the northern dialects any time soon.

I squeezed Serra's hand in mine. Any minor public display of affection we could have would have to do.

"You know I rushed here the second I found out," she beamed at me with her large green eyes. I could feel the Katta merchants' eyes boring into my back from across the Plaza.

"I wonder how you found out," I smirked a bit, giving Miroshi, who now had her son cradled in her arms, a fleeting look. She smiled at me.

"It wasn't me, Prince Erihkam." I blinked. "Serra arrived with your sister." Serra squeezed my hand, and I could hear her softly purring beside me. Miroshi gave the two of us an affectionate glance; she was one of the few that knew of the secret relationship Serra and I had.

"Now you'd best get in there or you'll be late." She winked at us, despite her motherly authority.

"Alright, alright!" I could feel Serra lightly scratching her claws on the back of my hand. I looked into her bright eyes. "You coming in?"

With a smile and a nod, we reluctantly let go of each other's hand and moved to the door. I'd only noticed the sign "Closed for Private Lessons" as I opened it. Serra went in first; I followed just behind.

Alexandria was leaning against the arch leading to the training room. She gave a slight wave to Serra before turning to me. "Seems you caught up with your fan club," she grinned playfully. "Whenever you're ready, runt. Issur's in here waiting already."

I glanced at Serra and took a deep breath. "Guess there's no need to leave him waiting," I sighed, slowly making my way over to Xandy and the training room. Serra smiled and blew me a kiss as she followed behind. Perhaps with her watching, I wouldn't feel as nervous.