Chapter 16, The HeartStone Path
Rhiannon and I let Aine pull and tug and primp and paint us until we looked like proper ladies long with her, ready to face a new court. I looked down at my dress and frowned at Aine. The neckline was far too low for my liking and left little of my back to the imagination and the sleeves were smooth like a second skin that went halfway over my hands. The bodice was a magnificent design but had no room for a knife or even a pin, the skirts were flowing and long and completely covered my feet that had been tucked in to heeled shoes. Again. The jewelry Aine had chosen was strategically placed and that was to be my only consolation besides the garter that held one of the stilettos that Prince Aerron had given me.
“You can’t go around looking like a mercenary all of the time, Mor,” Aine chided me. “You either, Rhiannon. This is the Oryn’lea style for balls and state dinners. Don’t you think it’s marvelous? So many ways to manipulate it.”
Rhiannon let out a heavy sigh. “This is going to be the death of me.”
I nodded my agreement. This was not my idea of fun, either. At least our sister was entirely in her element and I was thankful we had her with us to keep us sane. And, honestly, to design all of these dresses because, left to our own devices, we would be walking around in pants…like dirty mercenaries.
“Let her older ladies do their jobs,” I reminded them. “They are comfortable with watching over the Princess herself, so we can focus on the other people who will be there. From what I read about this court, there aren’t too many who are looking to advance themselves besides the Mineralage family.”
Rhiannon frowned thoughtfully. “I didn’t see any evidence of attacks as we came through the kingdom, either. There were no rumors of a demon presence.”
“It doesn’t mean it isn’t here, though,” I countered. “We haven’t seen the majority of the kingdom. If the Princess takes her wedding tour, we will be able to see more then.”
“Of course,” Aine said, “but she postponed it. With her father’s failing health, she will tell the council tomorrow morning that they will hold off on the wedding tour until her father is feeling better.”
“He won’t be feeling better,” Rhiannon whispered.
“We know that,” I whispered back. “The court is waiting to see the king recover. They don’t want the Princess to rule yet. They can’t control her.”
“All the better to set that crown on her head now, when there is no chance of outside influence,” Rhiannon said.
Aine hushed her. “Agreed, but we can’t control this. We can do what we were asked to do and keep an eye on the Princess and this kingdom. If Mor is right, it’s not just the court that is the threat. But we won’t know much else until she can write to Boudicca.”
“What do you expect tonight?” Rhiannon asked me.
I stood in front of the full length mirror and smoothed my skirts after I checked the placement of the stiletto one last time. The fabric was breathable and soft. In the shadows, the fabric looked like the blackest of night. But in the light, there were undertones of emerald and lilac. The fabric had to have been spelled by whomever had woven it. Rhiannon’s dress was woven the same, but with undertones of scarlet.
“A quiet dinner. The people of the court want to get a feel for Prince Curren. They don’t really care about us or his peers. They will want to see if he can be manipulated and encouraged to help control the Princess. Even Prince Aerron is just another visiting royal. A bystander. He will be treated civilly, but largely ignored. Their focus is Princess Arianna and how to continue to live as they have been. She has the makings of a true Queen, someone who will right the wrongs of the kingdom. I don’t think people like that here,” I said more to myself than my sisters.
“This court really doesn’t know their Princess at all, do they,” Aine mused.
“I suspect not,” I sighed.
“They will learn,” Rhiannon said. “She is going to be a strong leader. I can see it.”
If the events of the past week were any indication, this Princess would be a Queen to be reckoned with and I would enjoy the look on the courtier’s faces when they realized that she was so fiercely independent.
Rhiannon frowned at the dress Aine had forced her in to. “I still don’t like this,” she grumbled.
“Oh, hush, Rhiannon. Both of you. We are not warriors right now. We are assassins. Beautiful and deadly,” Aine said happily, like it was the most normal thing ever.
Rhiannon scowled at her, but I forced a smile. She had a point. Where Rhiannon would rather break down a door and lay waste to those who needed it, Aine preferred to be in and gone before people even realized she had been there. Two sides of the coin. And I was capable of both. The Master had been adamant about the fact that all Rangers had once been capable of both. But, as far as my sisters were concerned, I was just like Rhiannon.
I followed my sisters out of my rooms and carefully locked the doors. I wouldn’t be forgetting the blood runes again. No one could pass those wards without me knowing, but I was still nervous. Another power had rolled against mine when we arrived. Stronger and vaguely familiar. I hoped it was the Master, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
The Princess was waiting for us at the end of the hall with her other ladies. We were a little closer to her age than the ladies she had grown up with, so it didn’t look at all suspicious that noble ladies closer to her age had traveled to be in Oryn’lea with her.
I made sure to memorize the part of the castle around us from our rooms to the main staircase that would lead us down to the open hall below. It was a fairly direct path from the royal wing to nearly anywhere in the castle. I found myself rather disappointed in the simplicity of it. It felt like a wasted opportunity, I thought, to make certain rooms more difficult to find.
Prince Curren was waiting at the base of the stairs with his guard, our Tuillaryns and Prince Aerron. Rhiannon visibly braced herself for the moment when Cam would see her in that dress. I didn’t know why, though. She was breathtaking, like Aine. Her raven hair was piled carefully on top of her head, held with sparkling ruby pins. The color of her dress, a deep inky midnight like my own with scarlet undertones, made her dark blue eyes even more striking. Her skin was flawless, pale and pure. She would turn every head in the room, but she was completely unaware of it.
Aine, on the other hand, knew exactly what she was doing. Her golden hair was curled and intricately set on top of her head with little tendrils slipping down and opal pins and combs adorned the masterpiece. Her pale pink dress accentuated the sun kissed hue of her skin, and her light blue eyes danced with happiness. My sister was well aware that her Tuillaryn would fall over himself at the sight of her and I wasn’t altogether sure if that wasn’t exactly what she was trying to do.
My Tuillaryn, however, was oblivious. He stood next to Prince Curren, but he didn’t even glance up at us as we came down the stairs. His eyes, instead, were on the crowd that was slowly making their way in to the dining room and on those who had stopped to stare at the women coming down the stairs. I wanted to throw something at him, or at least give him a mental nudge to make him notice. It was ridiculous. Why was I even trying?
Fashion was easier for men in every Realm, it seemed. Their suit jackets and tunics were all well-made, like our dresses, but not overly embellished. Some had their house crests sewn over their left breasts or they wore their crest as a pin worn on their left lapel. White linen shirts were worn under the jackets and were unadorned. Close fitting, but comfortable, trousers were tucked in to knee high leather boots that were polished to a high gleam rounded out the uniform of the nobility. Some men wore their swords still, or a dagger on their hip, but not many. I envied their comfort.
Tristan stood out among them, though, with his short hair, silvery blue eyes, tattoos, rough beginnings of a beard and his height. The other men in the room wore their hair to their shoulders or longer, long enough to pull back in a leather strip and they were clean shaven. There were men with blue eyes, brown, green, amber and the golden eyes like Prince Aerron’s. But not the silvery blue of the mountain Yova Tribes. More than a few women had noticed my Tuillaryn. Jealousy was not something I was accustomed to and I didn’t like it. They had their own men to stare at.
Prince Aerron was watching my every move, though. From the moment I started down the stairs until he stepped in front of me to offer his arm, every bit the Prince who was courting a lady of the royal court. Prince Curren was, of course, escorting his new bride and others from the Prince’s retinue had stepped forward to escort her ladies. I sent up another prayer to the Goddess for Boudicca’s foresight with Rafe and Aine.
“You look ravishing,” the Fae Prince whispered to me as we fell in behind the Princess and other ladies.
“Oh, please. Save the compliments. I would rather burn this thing than ever wear it again,” I snapped back at him.
“And here I was wishing that you would wear it or something like it every day,” he whispered calmly.
The feel of his breath against my ear and neck sent shameful shivers down my spine. I mentally shook myself to get rid of the feeling. I had no business feeling like that and I almost shook him off. No matter how much I wanted to, I knew better than to shake him off as an escort, but I kept my distance all the same.
For this dinner, I was seated next to Prince Aerron and another noble lady whose name I couldn’t remember. The Princess was seated next to her husband at the head table, but the rest of us were scattered around the tables near her. I’m sure it was Sybal’s doing so that we could learn more about the court. It was a smart move because we were spaced out just right to be able to hear every conversation happening at the higher tables.
The conversation around the table where I was sitting was polite during the first two courses. People spoke about the weather, harvest, how much was set aside for winter and on and on. It was mind numbing and I had to fight to pay attention. When the third course arrived, the main course, the conversation shifted to politics and other council matters.
Unbearably dull, but Rhiannon was riveted. Aine was keeping up with the noble ladies around her, talking animatedly about the latest fashions and the shopping available in the city.
“And what do you think of our fashions, my lady?” asked the timid lady next to me.
“The fashions are beautiful, my lady,” I answered politely.
“I don’t care for them, either,” she confessed quietly. “My mother insists I pay attention and dress appropriately.”
I turned to look at her better, shocked at her admission. “And your father?” I asked.
“Tells me to listen to my mother for my own good,” she sighed.
“Pity. What do you like?” I asked her. I found myself honestly wanting to know.
She looked at me with wide eyes. “Truly?”
I took in her shocked expression and realized that no one had either ever asked or cared to listen to this woman. She was young and fair, with light brown hair and round fawn like brown eyes. At a glance, her features had seemed ordinary and it was easy to see how she had been looked over. But as I looked closer, I saw a beauty. Her nose was straight and strong, and it matched the determined set of her jaw. High cheek bones accented her eyes that were shaped similar to Aine’s, slightly turned up at the edges, like a cat. I nodded at her, eager to hear what she had to say.
“I have begged my father to learn how to be a warrior, like the Old Ways. I used to beg to attend the University in Keirhold or to have a tutor so I could be taught the Old Ways, but my mother refused. She says ladies don’t do that anymore. Oh, but I do so love alchemy and astronomy and so many other subjects. And I am quite good at spells and languages. My father and some of his men sneak books back for me when they travel,” she whispered excitedly under her breath.
“I love all of those things, too,” I whispered back.
A broad smile lit up her face. “You do?”
“Doesn’t anyone else?” I asked.
“Not that any lady here will admit,” she whispered sadly. “Everything changed with the Princess Arianna’s great grandmother. Oh, the Princess was still trained in the Old Ways, but the noble ladies were expected to be more soft, like silly little decorations for a man to collect.”
“Why hasn’t anyone changed it?” I mused, more to myself than to the woman next to me.
“I don’t know. I pray to the Goddess every night that the Princess will change things when she takes the crown,” the girl said wistfully.
“I’m Morrigan,” I said, extending my right hand to her.
“Lady Cleodonna Montebell,” she said, taking my hand. “But my father calls me Cleo.”
“Cleo it is, then,” I said, squeezing her hand softly.
This won me a conspirator’s smile and a twinkle of mischief in the young woman’s eyes.
“How old are you?” I asked her.
“17, my lady,” Cleo answered.
“Just call me Mor,” I told her.
She squeezed my hand back and returned her hands to her lap. I looked at her thoughtfully.
One of her parents was Immortal Kindred. The other definitely was not. I felt the tingle of power when her hand touched mine.
“Do you live in the castle? Or does your family live in the city?” I whispered to her.
“In the city, though my mother has been pushing to get me appointed as one of the Princess’s ladies. She was rather upset when the Princess arrived home with three new ladies,” she told me.
“I’ll see what I can do,” I promised her.
Such a fascinating mind shouldn’t be locked away in a town house waiting for a man to call on her and deign to marry her to acquire what was no doubt an impressive dowry. If I could get her appointed to the Princess’s household, I could at least learn what she knew of the city and get her away from that oppressive woman she called a mother.
“Taking in strays, are we,” Prince Aerron whispered in my left ear.
I jumped and bit down a squeak. I had completely forgotten he was there for a moment. Across the table, Tristan gave me a concerned look then turned back to the conversation he was having with one of the Lords. I scowled at the trollop sitting next to him. She was staring at him like the sun had just risen out of his ass. I rolled my eyes and turned to face the Fae next to me.
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” I said sweetly.
“The Lady Cleo,” he said knowingly.
“What about her,” I asked flatly.
“A superb choice to shape to your wants,” he shrugged.
“I don’t want to shape her in to anything. Her mother has tried to turn her in to a delicate damsel and she is anything but,” I said harshly. Probably too harshly.
“Are you so sure about that?” he asked me.
“I am. Why do you care?” It was an effort not to look at him and to focus on my plate.
“Her family is rather important. Almost as wealthy as the lord your dear Tuillaryn is talking with right now,” he said, indicating where Tristan sat across from us with a small movement of his fork.
I looked up to face the lord sitting across from me, talking with Tristan, but I kept my head slightly bent towards the Prince, as if we were intent on our own conversation. More than a few women around the table shot envious looks in my direction. I bit down the absurd notion to laugh at them. They had no idea what being with a Fae meant. And if they did, they wouldn’t be envious of who I was sitting next to.
“Who is that man?” I whispered to him.
“That lord owns the majority of the gem mines in this kingdom,” Prince Aerron answered. He was watching the table as much as I was.
I swallowed hard. That was the lord we had read about in the reports of the kingdom on our way down to this city and when I was studying the kingdom. It was rumored that he had compiled more wealth than the royal family.
Which meant the trollop was the Lady Gemadine. Her golden brown hair was twisted up on top of her head and studded with sapphires that matched the midnight blue of her sparkling gown that was designed like our own gowns. Her statuesque neck was decorated with golden chains that held even more sapphires. Even her blue eyes matched the stones she wore. Her painted lips were drawn up in a confident smile as she stared at Tristan and her father as they talked.
“And Cleo’s family?” I managed to ask.
“Wealthy merchants and land owners,” he answered me, grounding me back in the dining hall.
“Is it true what she said about the Princess’s great grandmother?” I had to distract myself somehow.
Prince Aerron looked across the table then back to me, as if deciding whether or not it was worth it to give away not only that bit of information, but a clue to his true age.
“Yes. That Queen drastically changed the roles in this kingdom. She was from another realm and found the Old Ways of warrior women abhorrent,” he answered.
“I find her abhorrent,” I mumbled.
“Don’t let anyone hear you say that,” Prince Aerron warned.
“Why? Worried about your investment?” I snapped. Tristan was bothering me more than I wanted to admit. I had no business snapping at a Prince like that.
“Contrary to popular belief, Mor, I don’t want anything to happen to you,” he said, leaning a little closer to me.
I still hadn’t gotten used to his use of my nickname. Somehow, when he said the simple name, it came out more as a purr and sent gooseflesh rippling across my body.
“You mean beaten? Or trapped in a kingdom against my will?” I asked, unable to stop myself from saying it.
“Low blow. I wouldn’t choose either of those for you,” he said honestly.
“You expect me to believe that? What about your father?”
“Yes, I do. I am not my father,” he said angrily.
I turned away from him and back to Cleo on my right, firmly ignoring Tristan across the table. I didn’t want to deal with either of them.
“You don’t approve of your escort?” Cleo’s mother asked, leaning around her daughter. “Oh, but he is divine. A mother could only hope that her daughter would find such a man to take care of her.”
I felt the urge to throttle Cleo’s mother instantly. My apparent escort put a hand on my left thigh under the table, anchoring me soundly. The feeling of lightening and fire rolled along my bones in answer to the contact. My power that I had thought I had kept contained was straining at its bonds, trying to get out. I panicked when I felt it and saw the glass in the room start to strain, but Rhiannon’s power snaked out before anyone could notice and settled the glass. I took a deep breath and settled my power. A few more moments of contact, and my power was comfortable with being so close to him.
I tensed my muscles, trying to shake him off, but he kept his hand where it was. Delicious warmth pooled under his hand and radiated outward. My power unfurled inside of me further and acknowledged the closeness and accepted it fully. Why did he have to do that?
Deep inside, somewhere near the Tuillaryn bond, I felt something crack and begin to break. Like a tapestry beginning to unfurl or a great wall beginning to crack.
I smiled sweetly at the older woman and said, “Ah, but my lady, my mother has taught me to take care of myself. A man to escort me around is only a decoration.”
The older woman huffed at me and I felt Prince Aerron’s body shake with silent laughter. “I don’t think we have met, miss…” Cleo’s mother said, blatantly not extending her hand.
I ignored the insult. “Of course, my lady. I am the Lady Morrigan. My escort is His Grace, Prince Aerron. Crown Prince of the High Forest Fae. My betrothed. I was just talking to your daughter about joining the Princess’s court. She would no doubt enjoy access to the libraries and tutors that her majesty employs,” I said with as much politeness as I could muster.
The older woman’s face flushed an alarmingly crimson color. “I am the Lady Gertrude Montebell. My husband and I have petitioned the Princess already for admission of our daughter in to the household. Surely she has said as much to you.”
“I’m quite sure the Princess would trust my judgement fully on the matter, my lady. Such a brilliant mind and strong character could hardly be overlooked. What a shame she has been hidden away in her rooms,” I said sweetly.
“Our family would, of course, be honored, my lady,” the older woman said through clenched teeth.
As a member of the royal household, I outranked her, and she couldn’t argue with me without causing problems for her husband on the council and with the other nobles. Boudicca would have chided me for picking an unnecessary fight with the woman, but I couldn’t help myself. I was irrationally argumentative and short tempered with everyone. I had been ever since Corbyn’s death.
“How wonderful,” I said, ignoring Prince Aerron squeezing my thigh, silently begging me to let it go.
“Oh, thank you, mother!” Cleo said, throwing her arms around her mother’s neck.
The older woman flushed an even deeper shade of red and pushed her daughter’s arms back down in her lap. “A lady does not show such outward signs of affection in public,” she hissed at Cleo.
I ground my teeth as I watched Cleo’s smile fade. What an awful woman. I purposely grabbed Cleo’s hands in my own and said, “I will make sure you have rooms near mine. We have so much to learn from each other.” I pulled the younger woman in to a tight hug and smiled brilliantly at her mother who looked like she was about to explode.
“You are treading on dangerous ground,” Prince Aerron whispered when I turned back to my plate.
“No, I’m not. I will not allow that woman anywhere near Cleo ever again,” I whispered back.
“She is her daughter. You can’t make a claim like that,” he said against my ear.
I smiled and turned my head as if I was enjoying the conversation. The move cost me dearly, as I felt gooseflesh raise on my skin when he breathed against my neck. I put my hand up to hide my whisper, and my potential blush. Two could play this game.
“I can, and I will,” I said against his ear, fighting back the best I could.
The Prince stiffened imperceptibly under my hand as I rested it on his sinewy thigh under the table. I was sure it had nothing to do with our proximity, though. I had argued with him
instead of accepting his advice. It was something he had never taken well in all of the years I had known him. There were days that I had purposely defied him because I was in a bad mood and spoiling for a fight because I knew his pride wouldn’t allow him to step down.
He took a deep breath, growled so only I could hear, and leaned back away from me ever so slightly. “Fine. But the consequences are your own.”
“Fine,” I said, withdrawing my hand from his thigh. The move away from him was more difficult than I had thought it would be. I had to clamp down roughly on my power to keep it from lashing out as the heat from his proximity was withdrawn. I still wasn’t sure if I liked the affect he had on me.
He did not remove his hand from my thigh, though, and that’s probably what saved me from an outburst. In fact, it stayed there through the rest of the evening as the courses were cleared away and conversation continued around the table. I kept up conversation with Cleo, careful not to upset her mother any further. Prince Aerron was probably right, I was treading on dangerous ground with a noble lady that I knew very little about.
Once all of the dishes were cleared, we were ushered in to a grand ballroom. Three thrones were set on a raised platform at the end of the hall for the king, his daughter and her husband. One the old king took his seat. The Prince and Princess waited for the music to start with other young couples on the dance floor. I tried to escape to stand next to older ladies by the throne.
“Not a chance,” Prince Aerron said next to me.
“I don’t want to dance, your grace,” I said tightly.
“Your lady and your peers are dancing. It would be rude,” he said as politely as possible.
He had me there. It would be noticed by everyone if I didn’t stay on the floor at least as long as the Princess did. I found where Aine was waiting, holding on to Rafe’s arm tightly. Rhiannon was standing next to some fierce looking lord who seemed determined to match her in anything. I chuckled a little despite myself. It looked like my sister had met her match in pure stubbornness. Cam was escorting a young lady that looked like she would faint the moment he said anything to her. And Tristan was standing with that painted trollop he had been seated next to at dinner.
“That is the Lady Gemadine,” Prince Aerron whispered to me.
“I don’t care,” I said.
“Of course, you don’t,” he said dryly.
“I don’t,” I said again. “He can do whatever and whomever he chooses.”
“And does he feel the same about you?” he asked innocently.
“You are a beast,” I grumbled.
“Aye, I am,” he said in a serious voice, “but I am a loyal beast.” He took my waist firmly as the music started, commanding my attention.
I finally looked up at him as we took our places. His golden amber eyes were locked on to my own. I clamped down hard on any feelings that might try to take root in my heart as he pulled me closer to his body. The Princess had requested a Gods damned Ventoretta. A song that required a lot of lifts and extreme proximity to your partner. The music itself was even intimate. I really needed to confiscate those contraband books that I knew the Princesses read.
“Why,” I asked when he pulled my body flush with his.
“Me,” I breathed.
“Why not you?” he asked, confused.
“Answer me for once,” I sighed. I was losing my desire for arguing.
“Ah, my heart, but you are my answer for everything,” he teased.
I glared up at him, but he wasn’t looking at me. He was looking over my head at his sworn who were watching us intently. Ridiculous pet names were the least of my worries. Prince Aerron’s sworn were watching our every move.
Tristan was wrapped up with the Lady Gemadine, whose midnight gown was split nearly all of the way up her left thigh. I stuffed down thoughts of brutally dismembering her and hanging her with that dress.
I rolled my eyes. “That’s not an answer.”
“It is for me,” he said, looking down at me again.
“Not for me,” I argued wearily.
“Then I shall endeavor to give you a better answer, my heart,” he promised.
“Don’t call me that,” I growled.
“I will call you whatever I wish,” he growled back against my ear. “My sworn are watching and will report everything back to my father.”
I looked up at him again and caught the shadows behind his eyes this time. “What are you not telling me?”
“How safe is your room, my pet,” he breathed against my neck, sending heat racing through my veins.
“Safer than anywhere in this castle,” I answered.
“I will tell you everything when it is safe, then,” he whispered in my ear, causing my traitor body to react to his.
My body relaxed in his arms as he gathered me up to prepare to lift me. Maybe my sisters were right, there were worse matches and he actually did believe us about Hel possibly through this realm. And we did need his father and the Fae legions. I could tolerate Prince Aerron long enough to get through whatever we needed to do in this realm. Then we would be back at the High Keep and everything would be back to normal with my Tuillaryn. The Fourth Realm, the Mineralage family, Hel and everything else would be just a bad dream.
“Don’t do that,” I said, nicer this time.
“But I love the response I get,” he purred against my neck.
“You’re incorrigible,” I sighed.
“An absolute beast,” he agreed.
A laugh escaped my throat and I let him pull me closer as the music picked up in tempo. We were lost in the crush of bodies on the floor, every couple intent on the complicated steps. I caught a glimpse of the Princess and my sisters every time there was a lift. Aine and Arianna were flushed with exertion and laughed brightly. Rhiannon looked like she was still locked in a battle of wills with her partner.
The next song was slower, but just as complicated. This thinned the crowd out on the dance floor a little but as only the experienced dancers could keep step. I silently cursed the Princess for her song choices again. This dance required our legs to move around and between each other’s and several spins and dips. I understood the Princess flirting with her new husband, but I had to get away from this.
There was no escape in sight, though. Prince Aerron held on to me for the entirety of the song and, indeed, the four songs after it. I already had intimate knowledge of how he danced and fought. The final test in Bridgette’s ballroom flooded my memory. This wasn’t entirely different. He moved with the grace and confidence of a large predator and forced my body to move the same.
“What do you think you are doing,” I said between the lifts of another song.
“Giving my sworn something to write about and distracting you,” he answered, not in the least bit winded as he dipped me scandalously low. Miraculously, his eyes remained on my own and never once dipped lower.
“From what?” I said against his chest when he pulled me back up from the dip.
“That,” he said, nodding to my right as he spun me away from him, holding on to my fingers.
I turned and saw Lady Gemadine holding tight to Tristan, flushed and laughing, as if they had been dancing through every song like we had. I fought down the anger and jealousy as I spun back in to Prince Aerron’s arms.
“So, what,” I said, pretending to be bored of it.
“You are a terrible liar,” he laughed.
“So, I’ve been told. I meant what I said earlier. I don’t care,” I said.
“I won’t mention it again, then,” he said.
“Thank you.” I meant it. I was heartily sick of talking about them.
He nodded and pulled me away from the dancing couples. I smiled at Aine as she twirled past me. She flashed me her biggest smile and turned back to Rafe. Those two were nauseating sometimes. Rhiannon had escaped her fierce lord, but he wasn’t standing far from her. He looked as if he was prepared to engage in round two of whatever battle they were fighting.
“Who is that man who was dancing with Rhi?” I asked Prince Aerron, leaning up so I could reach his ear.
He turned to look at where I indicated and smiled. “That, my dear heart, is Lord Roman. Youngest commanding general ever appointed in this realm. His father is a legend. As is the rest of his bloodline. The Canatol family has protected the royal family for generations.”
So, that was Lord Roman. The Yova Tribe leader I was supposed to find. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get up to the towers or up to the walls, yet. The castle buildings were sprawling on top of the massive hill they were set upon. I didn’t think it was safe to approach him in public, though. And I couldn’t rely on Boudicca for an introduction like I did before. I didn’t trust Prince Aerron to do it, either. I would have to find another way.
I nodded and took a drink of the glass of wine a servant had handed to me. “Then perhaps she has met her match.”
Lord Roman was tall and lean. Inky black hair and amber eyes made him look similar to Cam, but he lacked Cam’s boyish charm. His firm jaw and stubborn set of his mouth indicated a man that was only ever all business. He didn’t have the tattoos, that I could see, that the Mountain Tribes wore on their face and neck. Perhaps the Plains Tribes were different. That he was a general instead of a captain meant that his father must have stepped down very recently.
“I don’t know about that,” Prince Aerron was saying. “Cam might have something to say about that.”
“No, he won’t,” I answered, indicating where Cam stood across the room engaged in deep conversation with a woman who could be twice his age. “They have no feelings for each other beyond that of siblings.”
“Interesting,” Prince Aerron mused.
I shrugged. “It’s their dynamic. I don’t question it.”
“Did he take a lover in Vahl’strael?”
“Not that I know of,” I answered. “Rhiannon didn’t, either. It’s not her style. She won’t judge Cam, though.”
“But he is loyal to her otherwise?”
“Fiercely,” I said, taking another drink.
He nodded and went back to watching the crowd of people in the enormous room. Couples twirled past and I took careful note of who was dancing with whom and who was talking with whom along the walls. The council members had congregated near the king and were observing the crowd, specifically the Prince and Princess who were making their way to the thrones. The older men bowed respectfully but eyed the clasped hands of the newlyweds.
“Would you like to go outside?” my escort whispered, nodding towards the open balcony.
“I would need to ask,” I said, trying to deter him.
Instead, he pulled me towards the throne where the Princess had just sat down and accepted a glass of wine. Not only did the Princess agree, but she wanted a walk as well and her ladies were all obligated to go with her.
The garden was lovely in the moonlight. We all got the hint when the Princess headed down a darker, quieter garden path with her Prince. The older ladies stayed by the fountain, Rhiannon with them, though the general had followed us outside and was standing by the doors. Aine and Rafe took advantage of the opportunity and found their own path. Unfortunately, Prince Aerron steered us towards a different path.
“I do have something to tell you,” he said.
“What? What did you do?” I asked.
“I had thought the Princess would tell you before you came down to the dinner.”
I didn’t ask again. I waited patiently for him to tell me as we walked deeper in to the garden and towards the labyrinth.
“I asked the Princess for her official permission to court you. As her lady, she had to give specific permission as you are a member of the royal household,” he said hesitantly.
This again. “I know my position, your grace,” I said. “What I don’t understand is why you would do that. At least her, I mean. Your father forced it in Vahl’strael, but he’s not here. He doesn’t have to know that Princess Arianna hasn’t expressly given her consent. I already told you that I will not marry you. I will not chain myself to a kingdom.”
“Don’t call me that when we are alone. Please. And I know you said that. I did it because it’s what my father expects, and it will keep him appeased for the time being.”
“What is going on with that?”
I gave up asking and let the silence settle over us again. I let him guide our walk through the garden and listened to the night birds and other sounds. The path he had chosen was lined with lilac bushes and rowan trees, interspersed with vines of honey suckle and moon flowers and other flowering vines.
We passed through a tunnel made of branches and vines that had been coaxed in to forming the living tunnel. Glittering tendrils of moonlight drifted gently through the overarching bows of rowan and oak branches. I could hear horned owls among the shadows of the higher branches. I smiled when I saw the telltale violet shimmer of wisps flitting among the bushes, coaxing the pearl moon flowers to bloom.
The steady hum of the city was an undertone of everything, though the walls of the castle kept it from being overbearing. I was surprised to find that the city never really went quiet. Though it was well in to the night, taverns were still open as well as the play houses. Factories at the opposite end of the city were still working, adding to the din. I guessed it was much like Tarvael, and never truly went still.
Prince Aerron didn’t push the conversation any further about approaching the Princess and I didn’t want to talk about anything with him. I was turning over the possibilities in my own head, putting the pieces together. Between him, Tristan and what had happened before we had left Vahl’strael, I had too much to sort through.
Tristan had sought out Lord Mineralage when we had all taken our seats. He had said just enough to Lady Gemadine to keep her enthralled but had mostly spoken to her father until the dancing began. Rhiannon had been paired, I was sure purposely, with Lord Roman Canatol. I would ask about that later when I was finally able to speak to the young general. Cam would be useful in ways I didn’t want to think about. The abrupt change in Tristan’s behavior would be something I would have to sort out. This was beyond what we had discussed, what we had planned, before leaving the north.
I couldn’t help but feel that we were all being moved around like chess pieces in a game we didn’t completely understand. As I walked next to Prince Aerron, I realized that we had had only the illusion of choice up until this point on our lives. It wasn’t about to change, either. Sure, I could make small, insignificant decisions, like if I wanted to wear a dagger or not under a dress. But I was in a court, masquerading as a lady and courting a Fae Prince…all without my consent. Simply following orders of those above me.
We were all at the whims of those greater than us, those who had been around longer than us. Even the great kings and Queens of the realms were subject to the councils and the Order of Ebon Lys and its High Seat. Well, the Known Realms, anyway. And we helped maintain that control.
I suddenly saw a glimpse of the bigger picture and felt disgusted with myself. No matter how fond I was of Princess Arianna and Prince Curren, if the High Seat demanded their removal to maintain their control and balance, I would remove them or someone else would if I refused. And whose perceived balance and control? The Order and the High Seat. Theirs alone. Val’s anger made perfect sense.
I looked up at the Fae male walking next to me and wondered if he had ever thought about the same things. He looked as troubled as I felt. His hands were clasped behind his back as we walked, giving the illusion of a couple out for a moonlight stroll, but I could feel the conflict inside of him.
A full circuit brought us around to the main fountain again and the Princess and Prince arrived moments after we did. Laughing, she led us back in to the ballroom and settled down on to the throne again. It was easy to forget, just for a moment, why we were here in this kingdom. The people were happy. Dancing and drinking and reminiscing with friends. The Church and Hel seemed so far away.
The king retired early. Princess Arianna waited another hour before she politely excused herself from the ball. The court took her cue and began to make their way towards either their rooms in the castle or their houses out in the city. I was more than ready to get to my room and take this dress off. Rhi looked more uncomfortable than I did when Lord Roman bowed and politely placed a gentle kiss on the knuckles of her right hand before offering his arm to escort her to the stairs.
The Prince said good night to his men at the bottom of the stairs but held firmly to his wife. I reminded myself to make sure that I couldn’t hear anything in my rooms. I was happy for the Princess, though. The young couple seemed truly in love. It would be a boon for the kingdom in the days to come to have such strength.