Katherine's answer wasn't a bright beam, but a softer smile. She pressed his hand in silent gratitude.
Nathaniel looked down on their hands and sighed softly. Somehow, he was unable to let go. Only this one day was left, and it was completely different from how he imagined it. He hadn't had time alone with her, couldn't show her the city or the grand theaters, one of the prides of the outer ring. Instead he was a prisoner in the palace. How down-casting.
With a deep breath, he let go of all the bad feelings. If Katherine wanted him to let go of his burdens for a day, today was the best choice. As a prisoner, he could do nothing but wait for the King's decree anyway.
He put on a rare friendly smile as he asked: "Now, do do you want your present?"
Katherine's eyes widened, the violet sparkling with surprise. "You've got a present? For me?"
Mockingly, Nathaniel raised a brow. "How can I not have a present? I would really be a bad betrothed if I didn't even get you a birthday present. Well, I guess I was never a good betrothed to begin with."
"Don't even start", Katherine warned with amus.e.m.e.nt. Today was not the time to indulge in bad memories.
"Alright", he said, and his smile widened. So handsome, Katherine marveled. Even as tired as he must be, he can still make a woman loose her rational thought. The white hair fell nearly over his eyes, disheveled as it was. The gaze in the red eyes was warm. She didn't dare call it affectionate, but it wasn't far from that. His shirt was fresh and smooth, but the top button open as if forgotten in a haste. When he leaned with his lower arms on his thighs like right now, it exposed the beginning of his right collarbone. Katherine couldn't help but stare.
That was until she felt his hand slip out of hers as he moved to a stand. Instinctively, she held on to it. "Don't go!"
"Don't you want your present anymore?" Nathaniel smirked. "I don't have it with me."
"Call someone else to get it", she demanded with a pout, and tugged on his hand to make him sit down again.
"Greedy woman", he grumbled in amus.e.m.e.nt, but obeyed. With his free left hand he reached for the string besides the bed and pulled on it. Not too far away, they heard a bell ringing.
"Now, that should - " Nathaniel stopped. When he had leaned forward, he came way closer to the lying Katherine than before. He was practically leaning half over her, their faces at the same level. What beautiful eyes, he thought in a daze. Deep and clear at the same time. Innocent and strong-willed. And right now, they were trying hard to meet his gaze despite the uneasiness that increased with each second he remained silent.
Katherine forced herself not to look away when his weirdly intense gaze lasted on her. Her lips prickled as if remembering how they met his, and it made her heart sped up. Why was he looking at her like this? What was he thinking? He couldn't be... thinking about kissing her?
"What?", she finally asked and uneasily turned her head away. She couldn't meet those unfathomable eyes any longer.
The Earl smirked silently and sat back down.
"What?", Katherine asked again and frowned at him in annoyance.
"Nothing", he said, but his smirk remained as if teasing her deliberately. But she wouldn't react to that. No, she wouldn't get irritated by his strange behavior and just ignore him -
"Tell me what's up already!", it burst out of her.
Nathaniel's grin widened. He couldn't help himself. She was just too sweet in her impatience.
"Nathaniel!", she berated and tried to pull back her hand, however, he held it too tightly. At least, it made him stop chuckling.
"Alright, alright. I'll tell you. It's nothing much, really. You just looked so charming lying in your bed. Then I remembered how you wanted to kick me out last time I got here."
Katherine grimaced. "That's what made you so happy? Should I kick you out for real?"
The corners of his mouth twitched as if holding back a laugh. "You shouldn't stand up yet."
"Hmpf", Katherine made, but she actually wasn't angry. How could she stay angry when Nathaniel was obviously so happy? Somehow, it made her feel as if she accomplished something.
Right at that moment, someone knocked cautiously. It was such a silent noise that it seemed as if the person wished she wouldn't be heard.
"Come in", Katherine called.
First, there was a pause. Then, the door was pulled open so energetically that it banged against the wall on the other side. "Milady! You're awake!"
Hazel rushed in with a smile as bright as the sun, though her eyes were red and puffy. Completely ignoring the Earl that sat to the right of the bed, she ran over to Katherine's left side. "Milady, how are you? Can I do something for you? Something to eat? No, no, you should drink first, and - "
"Wait", Katherine laughed, sat up, and raised her hands in a placating fashion. "I only just woke up, there is no need to - oh my!"
Suddenly, tears gushed down the maid's face like a flood. "I was so afraid, Milady! I thought you might die! You slept for so long and the Earl wouldn't let me look after you at all! I always feared you might just suddenly turn all cold on your own like - like my mom!"
When Hazel broke down, Katherine couldn't help but pull her in her arms. Soothingly, she patted her back. "It's okay. I'm here, don't cry. Your Lady doesn't die so easily."
Meanwhile, said Earl sat on the side, his face darkening with each second. How much courage did this girl get! To denigrate him while he was in the same room, did she think her Lady would protect her? Earlier today, this maid was frightened out of her wits by just a few words of him. How did this loss of respect come to be?
Dissatisfied, Nathaniel crossed his arms and leaned back into his chair, his glowering gaze at Hazel who was weeping pitifully in Katherine's embrace. Anyway, why didn't he get a hug? Wasn't he her betrothed? Shouldn't he be worth more in her eyes than this annoying maid? He sat by her side for hours without rest. He also wanted a hug.
But she couldn't just hug him now, could she?
When he noticed how much his thoughts resembled those of an irrationally jealous person, Nathaniel's countenance fell. Grimly, he turned away. Since she didn't seem to want his hand anymore, he should just get her the present himself. For a second, he thought about adding a cactus to the present. The meaning should be clear. But hastily finding a cactus in this cold country would be a pain, they were mostly imported from Falumor. Anyway, he shouldn't annoy her on her happy day. He just didn't want to stay in a room with to woman who looked like long separated lovers.
He slipped out the door soundlessly, but the palace guards still noticed his presence. Compared to their earlier treatment, they now looked at him with hostile expressions. They couldn't understand how someone who attacked the Queen could still be alive and breathing under their care.
Nathaniel coldly nodded at them and entered his own chambers. There he picked up a casket of about an arm's length. On it's dark wooden top was an orchid engraved, nearly as elegant as its future owner. Nathaniel's countenance was unreadable as he stepped out of his room. Would the present be to her liking? He had no idea how to give someone a present. Especially not a woman. Since it was for Katherine, he had wanted to make the decision himself, but now he wasn't sure anymore if this was right. Maybe he should have asked Aston for help. He surely would have known what to get. After he had a good laugh at him.
Nathaniel frowned and inwardly strengthened his resolve to never tell Aston anything about this, even if the present should archive its goal. This clown would only make fun of him.
Just as Nathaniel was about to enter Katherine's chambers, a scream reverberated through the air.