With the wedding feast well underway, Ismene tamped down her relief at the physical distance between the man she must now call husband and herself. Unbidden, her gaze drifted his direction over and over.
Husband. Even the thought of the word was foreign and . . . complicated.
She’d spent months wondering about him, not only what he looked like or how old he was, but who he was as a man. Was he a credit to Taisce or cavalier and rowdy? She thought it odd how she knew next to nothing about him. His father, she knew, was quite old. Older than hers.
Her father—in some form of twisted amusement she suspected—refused to even answer the most basic questions about Prince Othniel.
Her mother had no recollection of meeting the prince. It had worried Ismene when Victara hemmed and hawed about every question posed. Ismene was left to her imagination, which ran wild with all possibilities.
She settled on an image of an old man with graying hair and missing teeth. The thought of enduring the sound of smacking gums day in and day out was cringe-worthy. In her daydreaming, Ismene couldn’t decide if this old prince was kindhearted or cantankerous. If she had to marry an aged man, she’d hoped for the kind one. Her mother had eventually assured her the prince was neither a child nor a graybeard but was, in fact, less than a handful of years older than herself.
While that confidence had narrowed the possibilities, Ismene still hadn’t come close to imagining the real thing. At two and twenty, he came across as a mix of boy and man. His hair was longer than she’d pictured, but she liked the way it curled and waved a little unruly, even when he’d obviously attempted to tame it. It reminded her of her brother and how he hated haircuts.
In the midst of her staring, while contemplating his height and broad shoulders, his vision caught hers. The heat of her blush rushed up her neck and across her face before another breath passed her lips. He had the nerve to smile—the rogue. She quickly looked away and fought the urge to look again.
Her head snapped up at the use of her new honorary title, realizing her companion had said it more than once. Great moons, but she was having a hard time focusing on anything . . . other than a certain man who would remain nameless. This seemed the best way to push him out of the front and center of her thoughts. Words failed Ismene as she choked out an awkward reply. “Oh, um, I b-beg your pardon. What was that?”
“I asked how you are adjusting to Castle Taisce.”
“It’s been just one day, Lady Grentich. I— It is rather warm in here.” She held up the fan attached to her wrist and gave it a vigorous flutter.
“My poor dear. You must be overwhelmed with joy. Such an illustrious match for you.”
“To be sure.” Ismene bit her lip to hide her irritation at the subtle jibe.
“What a lovely wedding!”
“Mmm, yes, it was grand.” Ismene watched guests mingle and let her mind wander. “I must admit, Lady Grentich, I’ve only been to one wedding of a nobleman before, and these celebrations differ quite a bit from the ones performed in the village by my home. Both have attractive qualities, I think.”
Lady Grentich didn’t reply which caught Ismene’s attention. She looked back at the woman with a question in her gaze but was surprised to be greeted by a disapproving look.
“I realize ‘princess’ is a new title for you, but I would suggest you do not speak of such base things as peasant weddings within the circles you will grace here. I, my dear, am most forgiving of such things.” Lady Grentich offered a dismissive wave. “But you can be sure that the gossips roaming your halls will not be kind. It would never do for you to disgrace your husband, the future king, before his subjects.”
Thunderstruck, she nodded; it never occurred to Ismene that it would be improper to mention the simple things from her village. Her feelings rebelled against the idea of it being wrong, but she didn’t know what to say.
After a fraction of a minute, standing in awkward silence, Lady Grentich must have taken pity on her. She reached out and patted Ismene’s hand.
“Now, now, you are safe with me. If I can be of service to you here, please feel free to visit my suites. I am a cousin to the dearly departed queen.”
“Thank you. I’m afraid there is much I must learn of life at court.”
“Yes, it’s quite obvious. Not to worry, I shall be your guide. My niece would also make a worthy confidante for you.” Lady Grentich leaned in and lowered her voice. “She is, you must know, recently engaged to Lord Kendric Selin of Lithgrall Hall.”
Ismene stiffened at the mention of his name. Lord Kendric was someone she knew, and someone she’d be pleased to see again, if she were willing to admit it.
“Ah, I see you are familiar with the young lord. His father is friends with yours, if memory serves me right.”
“Uh, um, yes. That’s exactly right.” The pit of Ismene’s stomach roiled with the unnerving feeling that Lady Grentich pried for more than her words let on.
Ismene struggled to form a smile with her tense lips. Her eyebrows pinned together in the middle, but with as much grace as she could muster, she said, “I’m most appreciative of your kind attentions, Lady Grentich. Please do excuse me. I see my mother, and I must speak with her.”
She curtsied, and Lady Grentich returned the gesture in a slight, austere manner before Ismene escaped across the room to where her mother stood in conversation with several other ladies. On the way, she glanced toward the doors. There, a silhouette against the bright afternoon light, was the man from the crowd. Why did she feel she knew him? She glanced away and then back, but he was gone.
Her approach did not go unnoticed by the group of women surrounding her mother. Ismene dared to look at each woman’s face while her mind reeled with thoughts of what they must be thinking. Did they think she was a vulgar country girl as Lady Grentich had implied? The idea of becoming a queen to people who could think ill of her without knowing her did nothing to endear Prince Othniel to her mind.
“Ladies, some of you already know my daughter, Princess Ismene Ovlander.” Her mother laid such heavy accent on ‘princess’ that Ismene had to stifle a cringe. It would be difficult, to say the least, getting used to that new title and name. “Ismene, may I introduce to you Lady Elvestry, Lady Sheen, and Lady Sheen’s daughter, Claudia. Claudia is just seventeen, the same as Ketra. They are often here at court, and I’m sure the two of you could become very good friends.”
Ismene bowed her head to each lady as she was introduced. Lady Elvestry’s sharp features and beak-like nose reminded Ismene of a crow. Lady Sheen and her daughter both had round, soft faces, giving the impression that they were cheerful people. Ismene hoped that was true.
“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
All the women in the little circle turned in unison to face Ismene and curtsied low, heads bowed. She thought it odd until a masculine voice spoke from behind.
“Ladies, please excuse me while I steal away with my bride. The dancing is about to begin.”
Ismene’s eyes briefly closed at the soothing timbre of his voice. Her heart fluttered in her chest, and if she had been prone to fits was sure she would have passed out. She didn’t turn around right away. The surreal quality of the moment struck at her composure with unparalleled force, but his hand cupped her elbow from behind. Surely he could feel the tenseness of her muscles vibrate into his fingers.
“My Lady, may I have this dance?”
She composed her features and turned in a slow circle to face him, his fingers gently sliding down her lower arm until her hand rested in his. “Yes, Your Highness.”
She did it again—avoided eye contact and stared at their hands. Her fingertips and his joined in the cupping of their palms. Her heart pounded against her ribs, picking up rhythm with each second they were in contact, and she didn’t know why.
“I’ve introduced myself to you,” he said while leading her to the dance, “but you haven’t told me your name yet.”
Eyebrows knit, she looked up at him, again distracted by his height but drawn to his laughing, stormy-sky eyes.
“I-I beg your pardon, Sire?”
“No, I’m Othniel.” He took both her hands and held her out in front of him as they stood facing each other for the beginning of the dance. “And what shall I call you?”
“Sire, you know my name,” she said, her tense confusion unmistakable.
The music started, and Ismene walked in a circle around the prince, her heart thudding at thrice the rhythm of the song’s steady beat. When she rounded the other side of him, she took his proffered hand. He led her down the tunnel of dancers and released her hand at the other end, both of them circling and standing in the row.
“But, My Lady, we’ve never been properly introduced.” His smile held mischief, and his eyes spoke something more.
Whatever game he played at, Ismene couldn’t guess, but something about his demeanor made her want to make things difficult for him.
Other dancers passed between them, and one young blond woman’s eye caught hers with a look that spoke dislike bordering on hatred. It flashed across the stranger’s face so quickly Ismene almost missed it, but the thought was soon erased from her mind as Prince Othniel’s laughing eyes came back into view.
Ismene and the prince circled in place and started again, hands held high, arms touching from palm to elbow. Their faces were close over their shoulders as they stepped around in a circle figure. Ismene couldn’t breathe as she fought the urge to look up at him, so close.
“What shall I call you?” he asked, his warm breath tickling at her eyelashes and cheek.
“Please, call me Ismene, Your Highness.”
“Othniel. Call me Othniel.”
It was the first time he’d sounded serious. She finally stared up at him and saw he wasn’t teasing anymore. For some reason, it made her heart pound a little more. She nodded and did her best to put on a smile, remembering they were in a room full of people studying her every move. The general sense of well-being that usually accompanied a smile, though, was not present.
Ismene continued to dance, still unsure of the man to whom she was now married but drawn to him in the same moment. She found herself wanting to run away all over again; this marriage would never work and she’d never find love.
It would go against everything she believed if she were to fall for him just because he smiled at her . . . and kissed her. Without thought, she touched her lips but realized where she stood amidst the dancers and quickly pulled her hand away. The flush of embarrassment traveled from her head to her toes, and she stumbled.
Othniel caught her elbow and led her from the dance floor. “Are you well, Ismene?”
The concern she heard in his voice did the opposite of what it should. She glared. All the months of fear and worry and sorrow caught her up in a melting pot of internal pandemonium.
In hushed but adamant tones she said, “No, Prince Othniel. I am not well. I am . . . I am undone by my helplessness to control my own life and future. I am wed to a man I do not know, in a place I’ve never been, surrounded by strangers who judge me based solely on first encounters and station. I am not well. I am— I must request to be excused from this madness.”
His look of concern clouded over the longer she talked, but she had no idea what he was thinking after her tirade. Ismene stood tall, unwilling to back down.
Othniel kept his grip on her elbow and pulled her toward the balcony and into a small alcove near the wall. Once there, he dropped her elbow and faced her, but his features were lost in the shadows. In the ensuing silence, she began to realize how her outburst must have looked to the gathered nobility who had come to celebrate their union.
A well of shame at her selfish behavior bubbled up inside. Would she ever learn?
“Prince, I-I apologize. What I said was . . .”
Was what? Reprehensible? Shameful? Unkind? She hung her head.
“True,” he said.
Her head jerked up, and her mouth dropped open. In a whisper of disbelief, she repeated him. “True?”
“Yes, Ismene, what you said was true, though difficult to hear. I know this is no easy circumstance, but please put on a brave face for your parents and mine and all the people here. The ball will be over in a short few hours. Please, if not for me, for your family?”
How could she refuse such a request? He was right and he was giving her a chance to save her dignity and her family’s honor. She nodded once, swiped at the stray tear which had escaped her eye, and took his arm. Othniel led her back to the ball room where they stood facing each other once again.
Ismene curtsied while the prince bowed, and they twirled through dance after dance, partner after partner until the ball was done and Ismene could escape the prying eyes of strangers who were no doubt intent upon spreading the gossip of her life.