The heavier the heart, the richer the kingdom.
It’s cautioned among the Elders: don’t start a war that your children’s children cannot finish. Bloodshed may be washed from armor, but it stains the cloth of generations.
The candles have burned nearly to the wick and all the while I have laid here, memorizing my surroundings. The dim light provides just enough to make out the stone walls and carved hardwood furniture. Each piece is delicately made, wreaking of the wealth this castle holds.
My heavy eyes are harder to keep open. My blinks become slower, my body weighted by the desperate need to sleep. The tink of my movement, the iron resisting the slight motion, is accompanied by the groan of the bed. My sore muscles beg me to give in, to allow rest to come for my aching limbs and tortured mind.
The soft sheets and warm comforter lures me as well. If only it weren’t the enemy’s bed.
At that thought, the floor creaks with the weight of his heavy steps. His foreboding frame is outlined by shadows. There’s a heat that overwhelms me, a fear and an anger. The back of my eyes prick with tears and I hate it. It was far too easy for him to steal me, to slip away into the night and claim me for his own.
“Why me?” I’m barely able to whisper the words, my throat burns from how raw it is. Screaming proves useless. Pulling against the cuff on my wrist only elicits a sharp pain from the bruise. The chains and this prison that is his bed chambers are unbreakable.
He told me I was his now and it’s useless to continue fighting and it’s hard to deny that fact at this moment.
I repeat the question, as his dark eyes peer into mine. The intensity of his gaze sends a shiver down my spine, paralyzing me as if I’m a prey caught by the hunter. “Why me?”
My vision drops as he wets his bottom lip, his eyes roaming down my body.
The bed dips as he sits beside me. The cut on his lip is proof I fought, but my position is proof it was hopeless from the very beginning.
“Why you?” His deep voice is soothing yet the cadence holds a tone that’s hard to place. It’s so quiet, I can hear him swallow, a rough hum of contemplation following his question.
“Eliana,” he whispers my name as if it’s a sin. Each of his hands presses against the mattress on each side of me as he leans down. I’m still and unable to even breathe as he lowers his lips to the shell of my ear. His warm breath lingers and the tip of his nose graces the curve of my neck as he tells me, “You ask as if there was ever anyone else. It was always you.”
“That’s quite tight enough.” The statement is barely heard and nearly comes out an embarrassing squeak. “My ribs will break if you pull anymore,” I comment with a hint of humor although I mean the sentiment. The boning of the silk corset my attendant so proudly presented before roughly tugging the laces is supposed to make me appear more feminine.
With my white knuckled grip tightening on the edge of the gilded mirror, I can attest that my figure is far more hour-glass as she promised.
The fine lace is from the far seas, and the silk from the East. My long sable hair is still damp from the rose bath. My locks lay across my shoulders now but it will be pinned up and rouge applied to my cheeks.
Tonight I will be prim and proper, upholding my title of heiress, and I’ll watch as I’m transformed, without any protest, well, perhaps only a smidge. I quite like my solitude. I prefer my books and quiet until I’m requested in the courts for my duties. The gatherings have never been my preference and they’re certainly unwanted when I am the centerpiece of conversation.
With a slow sigh, careful to learn the constraints of my breathing, I let the truth settle on my shoulders. My betrothal is the negotiation of the evening.
“The entire occasion is far overdone.” The moment the words are spoken, my eyes fall closed and I wish I had never uttered them.
“Hush now, Eliana,” Fuer, tisks, “You will meet your husband tonight.” The pride in her tone is unmistakable. It mirrors that of my father when he informed me every territory across all the kingdoms were presenting eligible suitors.
What was lacking from my father’s voice returned the moment his gaze slipped from behind the parchment and fell down my stature. Kingdown that’s been cursed to have a single heir… me. “You will choose accordingly,” he commanded.
I answered the words my father demands and the only response I manage in the rare moments I’ve shared with him in the last two years. “Yes, father.”
With a deep inhale, I’m reminded of my predicament. “I’d like to breathe if possible,” I murmur.
“Hmm,” Fuer murmurs and loosens the lace slightly. The relief is immediate. “I suppose breathing may be essential.” Her brow cocks with a knowing look and I manage to escape without giving much away, I hope.
Neither my father nor Ms Fuer are aware of the plan I made with Trevor, the rightful heir and the only eligible suitor I intend to give any attention to.
I shall marry my dear friend of mine. The only ally to Ferlington, the only safe choice. I’m far too aware of my Kingdom’s reputation. The cruelty, the ruthlessness. The courts, attended every third day of the week for the last eight years, since I aged to ten, have made me far too aware.
With a sharp tug, my body bows and I tighten my grip, regaining my composure while attempting not to let too much show lest Ms. Fuer catch on to my wandering thoughts.
We are the wealthiest of the Kingdoms, with the largest and strongest army. Our resources are vast and our people comfortable. And for those reasons, we are very much a threat to those Kingdoms less fortunate, those who have suffered at the hands of my Great Grandfather’s war.
Ms. Fuer has told me fairytales of our home and our history since I was little, but I don’t miss the claims and looks from war-born men and the elders.
She can not shield me any longer from the truth, even as she hums behind me as though my marriage is anything other than a power grab.
I’ve heard the curse from my father throughout my life, I should have been a male.
Trevor though, heir to our greatest and closest ally, and a true friend for the last four years, he can shield me. He promised he would years ago.
The glimpses of the memory grant me a warmth as Ms. Fuer leaves me to gather the remainder of my attire. After a horrid trial in courts, at only fourteen, I struggled to remain my composure. The moment I was able to flee, I did so with as much dignity as I could, praying the sentence I witnessed wouldn’t haunt me when the dark evening cloaked the day.
Trevor followed, he comforted me. Only a year older, he promised that the terrors would wane, that I would harden and that it would get easier.
Trevor is robust with a hardened edge when needed, but a gentleness came about him when he confided in me. He said a voice came to him while he slept and told him he would meet the woman who would hold his hand in his dying days, a woman who would love him and save him when he so very much needed it. The voice told him to keep her close, as close as he could for all his days.
I faintly recall wondering if he believed in mages. It took great effort to bite my tongue and not warn him of the dangers of simply uttering the word within the castle walls: mage.
As the years passed, I no longer guarded my thoughts from him, but in that moment, I didn’t want to lose him. I didn’t want to be alone. And more importantly, I wanted him to continue.
“I think that voice meant you.”
He smiles the same manner he did that evening, looking down at me and promising he’d keep me close. Naturally, whenever my betrothal became a topic of conversation, Trevor made it known that he’d prefer to take my hand and I promised I’d give it to him the moment he requested.
He also has a preference for Dorian, his aide. He told me one night while enjoying bitters and ale. The man can hardly handle a drink, but I do enjoy his company. He’ll protect me, we will remain close friends. I’ll share his bed if he like, and he can enjoy other company, Dorian’s specifically, all he desires.
I will have my solitude and reign in the courts beside him without fear.
In return, he’ll have my kingdom. Vast and most powerful, we have prevailed in every war for centuries. Which also means we have gained enemies as far as the eye can see.
All but Avaline, Trevor Runes’ kingdom.
He is who I will choose. So tonight, the joining of kingdoms for the sake of my hand is … a farce. I will marry Trevor but for the sake of my father’s honor, I will meet with every man who came to offer his hand.
My betrothal is necessary.
It is fealty.
It is destiny.
A chill flows over my shoulders as I realize, the night is finally upon us.
With the thick deep red velvet dress draped over her arm, Fuer gathers the train of it and delicately presents the dress I chose for tonight, although my father had to approve.
A smile plays at her lips, thinned with age, and wrinkles form around her eyes. If not mistaken, the woman who has been by my side for as long as I can remember, her voice cracks just slightly as if on the verge of emotion.
Before I can offer her comfort, she shushes me and releases the thick fabric to present it and lift it against my frame.
“Let us get you presentable for your husband, shall we?”
With a steady inhale, I let the sight wash over me. The din of men making casual conversation although their armies have been at war with one another only decades ago. The laughter of women here and there as they’re entertained by men who have committed barbaric acts that would terrorize in the dark of night when sleep evades us.
The wooden tables on the far side of the hall from where I stand provide plenty to gorge, in treats and perfectly seared and seasoned meats. The drapes that line the stone walls from stories above down to the polished floor, reek of wealth and warmth, even in this dead of winter.
Fire blazes to my left, and the couples dance merrily in the center.
Not a soul feels out of place, as the princess is introduced, one by one. Not a soul but her.
The clink of iron from guards on either side of the expansive hall catches my attention, brining me back to the present task.
“More wine, Sir?”
With my goblet filled to the brim, it would spill if I were to gesture to the servant cloaked in deep red velvet. All I offer the young man is a curt shake of my head. With a nod, he’s off with the silver decanter to pour for someone else.
The colors of Ferlington are everywhere and in the back of my mind all I’ve done in compare this decadance to my own castle. The damp halls lit by fire torches and the stark court a quarter this size. The wealth is undeniable and it will all fall to Eliana.
Every eligible man in this room is more than aware of the worth a marriage to her would be.
“The rumor is,” Luca’s voice greets me before I even see him. Dawned in all black, just as I am, he sips his wine, his gaze focused on the topic of conversation. “They’ve been intimate and she’s already promised to him.”
“She’s powerful and can do whatever she’d like. Or whoever she’d like…” I answer although a possessive urge runs through me. He’s far too comfortable and at ease with her.
“It could be a problem we hadn’t considered.”
A low hum that’s nearly a grunt leaves me and I stare down the beautiful woman. She’s striking, even from a distance it’s obvious. I do wonder when stripped of this affluence, bared to me and granted nothing but what she earns what her beauty will look like. When no one is looking, when she hasn’t wealth to hide behind… what is left of her?
“See, there again, she keeps looking back to him. As if he’s the one she’s chosen.”
She’s returned to Trevor more than once and he’s been attentive to say the least, as is his accompanying hand.
“They are friendly,” I comment as I watch her smile at the tall yet lanky man. His territory is an ally and closest to Ferlington. It would make sense for her betrothal to be promised to the heir of Avaline.
“It’s upset a number of other guests.”
“I can imagine,” I murmur as Luca takes another sip of his drink.
My brow raises and he smirks back at me, “I’m only fitting in, unlike you.” A chill flows over my shoulders at his comment. “Lurking in the dark corner and stalking the woman of the evening.”
“It doesn’t matter, does it… if she cares to be with him. None of this matters.” My tone is flat. And in this moment, it appears she may have heard me. There’s a click, a blur, a change in the atmosphere and her bright eyes find mine from across the hall. My body tenses and a heat flows through me as I’m trapped there, caught by her although it isn’t possible that she could have heard.
“Are you sure of this?” His voice is muffled and all I can hear is my pulse hammering and the adrenaline of what’s to come raging through my veins.
“Colin, are you certain of this?” Luca’s lowly hissed statement breaks whatever spell came over me. And then her attention has turned, a smile replacing the concern, her mask back in place, leaving me alone once again.
I turn to look down at Luca, my friend and hand to the throne. “Are you sure of this?” he asks again.
“They’re never wrong.”
“I didn’t ask about them… I asked about you.”
Dread consumes me, very aware that tonight blood will be shed and lines will be crossed. “For the kingdom… I’ll do what I must.”
“Here here,” a call from across the room is met with silver tinking against glass and the merry guests raising their goblets in the air.
I lift mine in cheers, knowing my actions will start a war.
“For the kingdom,” I whisper.
“Although he’s covert, I’m all too aware that he’s staring.” The murmured words are nearly lost in the goblet of wine as I take a demure sip, my gaze staying on Trevor, who’s solely focused on the men in the corner. The men from Vadon. As I swallow thickly, the wine tastes more bitter than it should.
“I’m surprised they came at all,” is all Trevor responds although his expression is harsh and it’s worrisome. I can’t shake this feeling that everything has changed.
“Were they not at the last hearings?” I attempt to keep it casual, nodding at a passerby who observes Trevor and I with interest.
“Perhaps,” he answers and takes a sip from his own goblet, before finally looking back at me. His focus is quickly shifted as a messenger I don’t recognize asks for his attention.
“One moment my Lady.” He leaves me with the parting words as he steps away for privacy and a hushed discussion. Without him, my anxiousness rattles again and I nearly look back at the man I can’t stop thinking about.
It takes everything to stay focused and to pretend this is the greatest night of my life as Fuer refers to it. As all the people in the land would. Tonight, I meet my husband and our King.
Heat engulfs me and the large gulp of wine does nothing to settle my nerves.
I maintain a polite smile and distance, swaying gently to the festive music as if I’m not discussing the intentions of the men here with the only man I’m wiling to give my hand to.
At that very thought a chill runs up the back of my neck, my lips part and I swear I can feel him. His piercing gaze is like a weapon. One aimed at me, one that steals my breath.
The moment I intend to face him, to catch him once again staring, I turn and find the brooding man right there.
Nearly an inch from me. His height is domineering and the air seems to bed around him. My breath leaves me in both shock and something else.
As if the hunter doesn’t want to play with the prey. As if his chosen victim has been denied the chance to run at all. There is no playing, only conquering.
There’s a spark in his eyes, a slight turn up of his lips that’s seemingly charming. Like a mask. I’ve watched a mask slip into place.
“I’ve startled you,” he tells me, not asks. His voice is deep, masculine. It’s just as shocking as the way my heart instinctively races.
“You have,” I swallow and attempt to remind myself, we’re surrounding. There are no less than a hundred men in this room. Both of my hands slip along the pewter of the goblet and I clear my throat, gaining composure inch by inch.
“It’s a pleasure to formerly meet you, Eliana. I am Colin of Vador.” He denies the titles for both himself and I. It’s peculiar and no doubt intentional. I’ve heard Vador is far less polite, but never has anyone of power spoken to me without the proper titles in our first meeting. It only rattles me more.
“It’s a pleasure, Prince Colin.” I barely make out the words, the intensity of him is suffocating and as his hooded gaze rakes down my body I’m certain he’s aware he’s gotten to me.
I assume he would take a half a step back to give polite distance, but he doesn’t.
Instead he leans forward to whisper, taking in more of my space and heating the little distance between us, “I have a question, if you don’t mind my being blunt.”
“Oh, something tells me you’ll be asking regardless,” I dare to address him boldly. Raising my chin and meeting his gaze. I don’t look away as amusement flicks in the fires of his iris. “If you would prefer I didn’t ask, I’ll bite my tongue…” it appears he might say something else, as his gaze slips to my lips, but he stops himself.
“This may be the only time we meet Colin,” I take in a steadying breath until his name on my lips brings those intense eyes back to mine, “I’d hate to think you’d wonder for the rest of eternity if you didn’t take your chance now.” Delightful heat and rebellion bring every nerve ending to life in me. What am I doing? Playing with fire as I am now, where all eyes could see.
“Do you fuck him?” he questions and my jaw drops.
“Trevor, I’ve heard you two may be intimate and I’m curious.”
Anger billows its way through me and just as I intend on slapping him, striking him for daring to pry, his hand wraps around my wrist and the heat of it, the shock of his skin against mine paralyzes me. He’s quick to whisper, “I wouldn’t mind, I simply want to know if you’re experienced. If you have preferences, if you would take lovers.” As he releases his grip on me, he licks his lower lip and again his gaze drops to mine. “I believe I would be possessive of you and another man taking you as you please is …” he breathes in deeply, before looking me in the eyes, “I’m not sure I’d be able to stop myself from killing him.”
“You are bold, Colin.”
“And you are resistant to answering me.”
“I have enjoyed Trevor’s company, but never in that way,” I settle with the truth. Answering him bluntly and with the intention of brushing past him, but again he touches me, this time his hand on my front hip. The manner we’re positioned would prevent most from seeing it. My heart races like a caged animal and he lowers his lips to the shell of my ear.
“It would kill me if I don’t ask one more question princess.”
The rampaging slows as I peer up at him. The plea on his lips is deceptive, but there’s a pull to this man I can’t deny.
“Oh, one more question to insult me?”
“My intention wasn’t to insult, it was to explore you,” he admits and a heat roams my body.
“What is your question so I can be done with this,” I push out the words as quickly as possible. It takes great effort to stand upright and I can barely keep my gaze on his.
“If I were to–” his hushed question remains unasked.
“Princess,” the deep rumble of my father’s voice forces me to jump back. The familiar shock of being caught runs through me, as if I’ve done something wrong.
A numbness spreads through my hands as I grip the now empty goblet tighter and stand straighter. My father glances between the two of us only once before addressing Colin.
“Mateo,” Colin responds and my ears burn as tension flows through me. His title is King. As my father heaves in a breath, no doubt controlling his temper, Colin raises his drink, “It’s a wonderful event, for a captivating honor.”
“I trust you’ve endured enough time with my daughter,” my father lowers his voice to ask and it’s as if he’s struck me with his intentional wording.
Colin’s gaze shifts to mine but I don’t look back. I focus across the room as my father’s large hand lands on my shoulder and gently squeezes.
I can’t explain the loss and even the fear that engulfs me when Colin agrees with my father and leaves me right where he found me.