The smells of dust and sunlight were thick in the air. Stepping silently, the girl crossed the open floor and kept a sharp eye on the two doors before her - one let into the barracks, the other into the training ground. The door she'd entered through, which let in through the outer wall, wasn't a problem. Not right now, anyway. The folk she didn't want to be caught by were inside, not outside.
There, in the cabinet. Passing through a shaft of golden sunlight, she felt the warmth of it spread through her silken skirts and smiled a little. No one would be looking for her here - but it wasn't the ones that were looking for her that she was worried about right now. It was the ones that might walk in on her all unexpected.
"This is a bad idea," hissed her sister from the door, and the princess flapped a hand at her to be quiet. Noise carried in here, and she didn't want to attract attention if she could avoid it.
With a squeal of protest, the cabinet door opened, revealing neatly bagged lunches, each marked with a name or initials in coal. She didn't really care which of them she stole, but when she saw a familiar name, she reached for it. A junior officer that had caught her on the wall last week. This would be a good way to pay him back, even if he never knew it was her that did it.
Well, he'd find out one way or another.
Snatching the bag, she pushed the cabinet door closed and darted back the way she'd come, through the sunlight and into the shadow against the outer wall, where her sister stood in the doorway, chewing her nails. Ushering her outside and closing the door, the princess giggled, feeling wonderfully successful. Her sister, though, still didn't look convinced of the brilliance of this idea.
"We're going to get in trouble, and there's not even any point to it," she grumbled. "Why are you stealing some poor pilot's lunch, anyway?"
"Because I'm not going to be the goody-goody princess they want me to be anymore," Bell shot back, and smirked. "I'm tired of always obeying the rules and being a disappointment to everyone because I wasn't born a boy. Well, I don't need to be a boy to have some fun, and if they're going to be disappointed with me anyway, then I might as well have a few laughs along the way."
Bell was the younger of the two, and her sister Rose wasn't as bold or as dissatisfied as she was. Still, Rose seemed to feel responsible for her sister's actions, and stayed with her. It was good to have company, even if Rose's motherly attitude was a little smothering at times. With a grin, Bell took her shoulder and shook it a little, encouraging her to be brave, then she closed the door quietly.
"We're going to hang it from a high branch in the big tree by the wall," Bell whispered, shaking the bag with a laugh, and Rose's eyes widened to the size of saucers.
"Please tell me you're not going to climb that tree again. You tore your dress last time and mother was so angry-"
"Mother is always angry about something," dismissed Bell with a wave of her hand, trotting off toward the tree. "It won't matter if I tear my skirt or fall and break my arm, she'll be just as angry either way, so I might as well have some fun."
"Falling is not fun!" squeaked Rose, picking up her skirts and following after her sister.
A guard spotted them from the top of the wall and called down to ask if they needed to be let in again. Bell flashed him a grin and waved, but didn't answer, instead reaching the big old pine and beginning to climb, even as her sister fluttered anxiously around the foot of the trunk.
Bell ignored her, scaling the familiar branches one at a time, hauling herself upward with clumsy but eager determination. It was only when she'd reached the level of the top of the wall, a good twenty or twenty five feet off the ground, that she noticed her sister wasn't her only audience. The guard that had spotted them earlier was standing there, leaning on his spear and laughing to himself. But he wasn't alone - Junior Officer David Pratt was there, too, arms crossed and a scowl on his tanned face. He was still in his uniform, too, which gave him a very stern aspect, even though he wasn't usually. Well, not with the other pilots, anyway.
Wind hummed through the branches as the princess froze, grinning guiltily at the pair of them. "Guess this means I'm caught, huh?"
"Among other things," rumbled Junior Officer Pratt, though a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. Even if the rules said she was in Big Trouble, he at least saw the humor in her prank.
"Well... if I'm gonna be caught... you have to actually catch me, first." She waved his lunch bag at him impishly, the canvas rustling loud in comparison to the whisper of the pine needles around her, and then she started down.
Bell wasn't as good at climbing down as she was at climbing up. True to her sister's prediction, she tore her skirt in two places, and scraped her hands badly as she descended. There was nothing to catch her if she fell from this tree, not like the climbing walls that the pilots used when they were training. But she wasn't allowed to train in anything but dancing and embroidery, so this was the best she could get. She was only eight or nine feet up when her foot slipped and she dropped like a stone, smacking a branch on the way down and landing in an undignified heap of torn silk and mussed auburn braid.
"Bell! Bell, are you alright?" Rose was by her in a heartbeat, but Bell was already shoving herself to her feet with a mad grin.
"I'm fine. Quick, run before he gets his-"
The screech of a gryphon from the wall above galvanized Bell into a run, though Rose let out a soft a princessly scream before following her sister. The huge shadow of wings passed over them and Bell changed direction, laughing with delight. There was plenty of space between the outer wall of the pilots' training facility and the gardens for her to give him a run for his money, but enormous talons closed around her shoulders and picked her up, her feet swinging wildly under her as the gryphon lifted her into the air with a satisfied chatter.
Bell shrieked, though more out of delight than fear. When the gryphon landed again on top of the wall, she spun to face the beast's pilot with a grin, empty hands spread wide.
Officer Pratt stared at her from his beast's feathered back, then began to laugh. It was a real laugh, hearty and loud, and Bell felt extremely satisfied with herself for having brought it out of him.
"You're a royal brat, Miss Bell," he told her, though his broad smile took all the sting out of his words.
"And proud of it, Mr. Pratt," she answered, and curtsied.
"So my lunch is still in the tree?"
"It surely is. I wouldn't recommend going back for it, though. There were some very hungry-looking squirrels eyeing me when I came down."
He went back anyway, and she followed him. What happened was even more surprising than angry squirrels - the lunch was slowly melting in the canvas bag, decaying with visible speed. They both stared at the food as it turned black and slimy, then looked at one another.
"Poison?" she whispered, stunned.
"I don't think so. Not exactly, anyway. It looks like venom."
"But why would it not do this in the cabinet?"
"The sunlight, I think. Some venoms are like that - swamp wyrm venom, for one." The pilot tied the bag closed and held it away from his body, disgust clear on his face. "I need to tell the captain. And you should go back to the palace. Your tutors will be upset you've disappeared again."
"Well... better that they're upset than that you're dead," Bell muttered, rolling her eyes. "You're welcome, by the way."