The earls steps paused. Did he hear it right? The girl called his name as high-pitched as a frightened little squirrel, but still loud and clearly. Nathaniel. There weren't many who dared to call him like this. He didn't want her to do it, it would only complicate their relationship. On the other hand however...
He gripped the handrail tightly. His chest hurt. He didn't want her to do it, but he didn't want her to stop either. It felt like something long forgotten was slowly and painfully awakened again. A strange yearning made him not want to stop the process, although rationality told him, the thing inside his chest would only bring him bad luck and endless pain.
Torn in between, he decided to ignore it for now. Maybe she will stop then. So, without reacting to her call, he began to climb the steps again, turning to the left at the end of the stairs and vanishing into the corridor leading to his study.
Katherine decided for herself, no reaction was a good reaction. She almost expected him to turn and give her his frightening ice-cold stare or yell at her. He did neither.
A silly grin spread on her face. That, together with her newly-won freedom, might count as a big first step. Good, good. It could only get better now. Someday she will have him wrapped around her finger hopefully. That would be the day to use him to get back what she owned.
The only thing she needed to watch out for was to not get any feelings for him. What happened at the fountain was a dangerous thing. She needed to guard her heart from now on. Otherwise it would be a disaster.
Happily, she swirled around to the guards. "Come on! I need to get something first and then we'll go out again! I'm officially allowed to explore everything now!"
Most likely with exception of the dungeons, she reminded herself, but she didn't want to alarm the earl by asking specifically about that. Which normal lady would want to see the dungeons? Only those who were spies or had weird taste. She didn't want the earl to believe she was either of them.
The "thing" she wanted to get was her beloved rabbit Froseti. She promised the little one to let it free as soon as she herself could roam the garden freely. Now she would do exactly that.
Hazel was not so happy to give the rabbit it's freedom back. She loved the black fur ball dearly, although she needed to clean up behind him constantly. That was why she pouted as she heard of Katherine's plans. "Can't we keep it? I really, really want to keep it! It's too small to cause much trouble and outside he will get eaten eventually."
With a sigh, Katherine explained: "I don't want to let it go either, you know? But always inside without fresh, yummy grass and sunlight isn't a live for a rabbit. And", she added with a slightly disgusted face and pointed to a corner of her room, where some liquid had obviously wet the floor, "It can't be trained like a dog to do some things only in specified places."
With a brightly red face, Hazel stuttered: "I- I'm sorry, milady. I should've paid more attention to these matters. I'm sorry!"
Seeing her fl.u.s.tered state, Katherine felt like a bully. "It doesn't matter. But we can't let it stay here, okay?"
Hazel nodded fervently. "Yes, yes, milady."
"Good." With a fast grip, Katherine swiped the rabbit into her arms, which was nibbling on her pillow and was a little reluctant to let it go. Katherine pulled it out between it's teeth. "Come on, little troublemaker. I'll show you something better to gnaw on."
With big black eyes Froseti looked up to her and blinked shyly as if to say: who is the troublemaker? I'm obviously the most adorable, obedient rabbit you have ever seen!
"Yes, yes.", Katherine grinned and petted its head. "You're totally right."
With Froseti in her arms, Katherine strolled out of her chambers, leaving Hazel staring at the wet spot and the door alternately, before finally following her lady out. She didn't want to miss the possibly last moments with Froseti.
The two of them and the guards build a small procession down to the gardens as if they were some kind of sect doing a sacrificial ritual. Katherine walked in front, holding the black rabbit and taking slow, measured steps. She knew that she would have to let go of Froseti at the end of her route, so she wasn't hurried. In her back Jack and Pete were affected by her seriousness. Two steps behind was Hazel, who wanted to catch up with her lady, but the corridor was exactly wide enough to fit Jack's and Pete's shoulders, so to overtake them she would have had to ask them to step aside. However, their gigantic build intimidated her, so every time she opened her mouth, the words got stuck in her throat. In the end she just lowered her gaze and followed them obediently.
This was why all of them were wearing serious - Hazel even frightful - faces, making the other personnel whisper quietly among themselves while stepping out of the way.
"Did something bad happen? Maybe someone got poisoned again?"
"I heard the lady has medical knowledge. Was there an accident and they need her help?"
"Or maybe the earl summoned her! I at least would be frightened to death if that demon summoned me."
"Hush, do you have a death wish?! Don't call him that!"
"Aaah! You're right, you're right!"
"But what has the rabbit got to do with all of that?"
Right, Froseti puzzled them the most. Until now, most of them didn't even know the lady was keeping a rabbit in her chambers. The maid, who had brought the rabbit to the dining room, was out of one reason or the other instructed to remain silent. Well, of course that was because the earl didn't want anyone to get curious as to why the rabbit was doing great shortly after it got slashed open, but the maid didn't know that.
Where to set him free?, Katherine deliberated as they passed the entrance. She wanted Froseti to have everything it needed and not be caught again by bad people (the earl). So, no open field and somewhere with water in the vicinity.
"I heard there is a lake somewhere around here?", she asked her guards.
Jack and Pete exchanged glaces. "Yes...?"
"How is the terrain there?"
"Flat with a few flower fields.", Pete answered. Although they both didn't know yet, what their lady wanted to do, he hurried to help out.
"Not there then...", Katherine said thoughtfully. "Do you know a place where there is water and many bushes or other things to hide in?"
Jack's brows knitted. Why would the lady want to hide? And need water to survive over a longer time? Had she done anything wrong? A bad idea messed up his head. Did the lady want to leave the earl and would even stoop so low as to be a homeless person in his gardens?
"Milady, you don't need to worry, we will protect you from the earl! You don't need to be a homeless person! Whatever the earl did, I will - " A ridiculing glance from Pete interrupted him. Angry, Jack shouted: "What? You don't think I can protect the lady?!"
Pete shook his head in disbelieve. "No, I just want to know what is going on inside that head of yours. Does lady Katherine look like a runaway?"
As Jack peeked down at Katherine, he saw her bewildered look as if she wanted to ask: Are you a fool? Why would I want be a homeless person? If she wanted to be a runaway, she would at least bring enough food for a few days, alright! Don't forget about the tent and clothes... And she obviously wouldn't ask the earls guards where to hide best!
Embarrassed Jack scratched the back of his head. "So... ah... milady, what do you need that place for?"
With raised brows Katherine pointed her chin at the rabbit. "For Froseti!"
"Umm, well that makes sense."', Jack admitted.
"So, is there a place like this in the gardens?"
The two guards fell silent. After a few seconds, Pete said: "I think there is the pond in the middle of the labyrinth."
Katherine's eyes lit up. If that was the case, it would be the ideal spot. The rabbit could just hop through under the bushes while all people coming there would need to take the longer way around to catch it. Sadly though, she herself most likely wouldn't find it again either.
Chasing the sadness washing over her away, Katherine let the guards lead her to the spot.
Thirty minutes later:
"Are you sure this is the right path? I think we've been here before.", Katherine asked, examining the bushes around her suspiciously.
"Yes!", Jack replied, "I'm absolutely sure we are on the..." he saw the cold glare Pete threw him. "wrong path! I admit, I admit! We got lost."