The crowds parted before the parade’s advance. Little girls clamored to the street, waving blue and green streamers and shouting the princess’s name in their clear, small voices.
Aileen dismounted. She held out her hands to the children, smiling. She reached out and touched their hair and quietly asked for their names. Excitable voices shrunk into shyness the closer she came to them, but the little ones’ eyes glowed with wonder and happiness at the princess’s approach.
And they always cast fearful glances at the tall figure in red that loomed behind the princess. Aileen acted as if there was nothing amiss. That is, until a little girl screamed when The Guardian got too close.
“There, there,” Aileen said to the girl, holding out her white hand to beckon her back, “it’s all right. My Guardian will not hurt you. The Guardian is only looking after me, the way your big brothers might look after you.” Aileen turned to the creature and smiled. The orange fox around her shoulder flicked its tail happily, as at ease as its mistress.
The Guardian said nothing, but watched. She took a single pace backward. The little ones inched forward as Aileen questioned them and laughed with them.
Aileen melted further and further into the crowd. After all, these were only children, and could do her no harm. The Guardian drifted behind her, a red ghost.
Near an alley, a shadow flickered through the passel of children. A hooded man crept around the brightly colored children, advancing so low that it seemed his belly was scraping the ground. He was stealthy enough that no one noticed him slither closer and closer to the Princess. No one noticed the black Rat keeping close to his heels.
No one, that is, but the Guardian.