Bayard held the teacup gingerly, more than half afraid he would break the damn thing it was so delicate. The bright painted flowers and gold around the edges seemed almost garish in the middle of an army camp. He looked again at the little girl sitting across from him at a table as incongruous as the teacup. The table was small, round, covered in expensive linen and decorated with flowers—where in the devil had anyone found fresh roses?—and more of the fragile china. An entire set of it.
Princess Anna pouted at him. “You’re not drinking.”
Ever obedient to the whims of royalty, ignoring the snickers of the other men who walked by the royal tent, Bayard sipped tea that tasted more like tea-flavored sugar water, and tepid at that. “You make an excellent pot of tea, your Highness.”
She giggled and poured more, and how on earth did she not break it all? Her hands looked so tiny and clumsy holding the tea pot, but she never spilled a drop. Then she picked up a little plate filled with sweetmeats and brightly colored little cakes decorated with sugared rose petals.
Where had she gotten all of this?
But, he knew the answer to that, and hell if it wasn’t the same reason that instead of doing his Captain’s duties, he was sitting to afternoon tea while in full armor and enduring the good-natured sniggering of his men and the less pleasant comments of his superiors. He would do anything for Prince Ladislas—go to war for him, give up his personal pursuits, quietly pine, die for him.
And sit down beneath a blazing sun to enjoy stale cakes and tepid tea. They should put Princess Anna on the front line; that pout could topple kingdoms. Sipping his tea, he asked any question he could think of that would be appropriate to ask a little girl.
Somehow, he would rather be facing the enemy; that seemed much easier. But every time she smiled, he just wanted to keep the smile there, make it brighter. Why in the hell was she here, anyway?
He looked up at the sound of spurs drawing closer than they had before, and his heart lodged in his throat as he started to stand to offer Prince Ladislas a hasty bow.
“Sit,” Ladislas said dismissively. “Anna, whatever are you doing, kidnapping knights for tea?”
“He offered!” Anna protested, bring out her mighty pout. “He said pretty girls should not drink tea alone, and pretty princesses should have a knight, and I said he could be both.”
Ladislas looked at her in surprise, then shifted his gaze to Bayard. His mouth twisted in a soft smile. “Did you say all that, Captain?”
“Yes,” Bayard said, tensed for whatever ribbing he was going to take for his old fashioned notions of ‘chivalry and whatnot’.
But Ladislas’ smile only widened, and he sat down to join them, as a foot soldier came rushing up with a chair. “You are never a disappointment, Captain, but always the best of surprises. Thousands of men in my camp, and only one stopped to comfort a lonely princess in a strange place.”
Bayard ducked his head, flushing at the praise. “It is an honor to serve, Highness, and no man could be but honored to be invited to tea by such a lovely little princess.”
“Mm,” Ladislas replied. “Hopefully she will be safely away tomorrow morning. If the road she was taking had not been overtaken by our enemies, she would be far away and safe elsewhere.”
“I hope she travels safely tomorrow,” Bayard replied.
Ladislas nodded, and thanked Anna as she poured him a cup of tea and held it out to him. He smiled and stroked her hair. “Thank you, little sister.”
Anna flushed and hid behind her hair, but mumbled, “Welcome, brother.”
Looking back at Bayard, Ladislas said, “I am certain you have duties, Captain, after we are finished with tea, but it would please me greatly if you would come by my tent tonight after dark. I think we should speak.”
Something in the way he said it, the look in his eyes, made it very hard for Bayard to breathe. He lifted his teacup and nodded, then finally managed, “My pleasure, Highness.”
“And mine,” Ladislas murmured quietly, brief smile faint and hot and only for Bayard, before he turned to his sister and chatted idly through the rest of tea.