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Othniel frowned while he stared over the crowd at his bride’s shimmery dark hair. She disappeared through the door. He feared she would prove temperamental like her father tended to be. It had only been in recent years that he’d had reason to get to know Lord Drake Tenbow, but the man’s temper did flare from time to time, even in the king’s presence. There was really no telling.
“Give her time, my lord.”
Othniel, surprised, looked down to see Bimala standing just behind his right shoulder. The simple village girl had been a part of his life since boyhood as she’d worked in the kitchens most of her young life, and she’d later also become his mother’s helper in the queen’s own private flower garden. In the scheme of things in castle life, Bimala was no one important, but she had been someone special to his mother whom he mightily missed, especially in the last two days. His mother would have been so pleased by the wedding. When she’d been dying, it had been her grandest dream to live long enough to see Othniel wed. Sadly, she passed away before he’d even graduated from his schooling.
“What did you say, Bima?”
“She needs time, Sire. When your mother left us, my own heart broke, and I’m sure you felt more. But the lady . . . losing her family in coming here—”
“Yes, I know.”
“Tis not you she rejects.”
He didn’t mean to sound curt, but her reminders were not the encouragement she sought to bestow. When she didn’t respond, he looked to see that she’d disappeared as stealthily as she’d arrived, the strange girl.
As the crowd of well-wishers diminished to a few, Othniel decided to make his escape. He had no idea what to do with himself now that he was married. He thought he should be getting to know his new bride, but she obviously wanted nothing to do with him, which left him confused about his own feelings. He had no idea who she really was or if he could ever care for her the way he’d like.
He was certain he’d let the emotions of the day and her almost foreign beauty beguile him. For all he knew, she was a shrew.
“Highness,” a soft, feminine voice spoke from behind.
Othniel turned and was pleased to see it was exactly who he thought.
She curtsied low, her skirts a fluttering plume of layers circling her tiny waist, while the top of her golden head tilted toward him.
“Your Majesty, I didn’t have a chance to tell you yesterday, but I must express my congratulations. It appears I cannot feel pity for you; your bride is not a troll, as some gossips would have it said.” Her hand flew to her mouth, slender fingers parted to reveal glimpses of supple pink lips opened in surprise. “My apologies. I would never presume to imply—”
“All is well, my lady. I’ve heard the rumors, and I’m glad they are completely false.”
“All of them?” she asked, a certain something in her voice that pricked Othniel’s senses without raising any alarms.
“I would have to believe so, if what I’ve seen already is any indication.”
“Ah. Of course, Sire.”
His brows knit together out of curiosity. Something about Lady Grace’s tone unsettled him. She stepped closer and lowered her voice.
“I noticed, my lord, that she seems a bit aloof. If I may—that is, if you need help of the female persuasion to untangle the curiosity that is woman, I am at your disposal.” She took a step back and gave a half-curtsy, her dress swishing against his legs.
When their eyes met, Othniel could decipher nothing beyond politeness, though he was sure there was something he missed. “Thank you, Lady Grace. If I find myself floundering, I’ll take your kind offer.”
“Tis my honor,” she said, a small smile playing at the corners of her lips.
“Do give Lady Grentich my regards. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must speak with my father.”
“Of course, my lord. And I will be pleased to tell my great aunt of your thoughtfulness toward her.”
Othniel nodded at the formality and walked away without a backward glance.
* * *
As Ismene wandered the halls, people stopped and curtsied or bowed in curious respect when she passed. It startled her the first time, and every time after she wished it were possible to run the other way. The only thing that kept her on her unsure path back to her room was the thought that she had to represent her family with dignity. Her father would be disappointed if she did anything to embarrass them.
All the cramped halls looked the same. Most of them were covered in tapestries or filled with portraits of the royalty of Taisce going back centuries. The stern faces that looked out from those paintings did nothing to alleviate Ismene’s anxiety, raising the hair on her arms. No matter which way she turned there were eyes, both alive and long dead, judging her with mouths hidden behind fans or false smiles.
With her stomach tied in knots, Ismene rounded a corner when the hall she traversed abruptly ended at one running perpendicular. The way she chose, mercifully, was empty save for a single door, some five feet away. She looked the opposite direction and saw two guards standing outside a double door, but she thought better of going that way. More guests were sure to lurk beyond. Instead, she glanced around once more to make sure she was alone.
Ismene sucked in a sharp breath, inched closer to the door, and reached for the mysterious entry’s handle. She thought it must not be anything more than storage, since there were no guards here. But after a gentle push on the door, the view beyond left her astonished. A large room brimmed with light and the gentle fragrance of a myriad of lush roses. She inhaled the indulgent scents in a moment of pure ecstasy and stepped into the room, partly closing the door behind her.
The room was a conservatory, a beautiful indoor rose garden. She stood and soaked in the peacefulness and realized this was the first time in weeks she’d been able to feel the tension relax from her shoulders. But no sooner did her guard slip than a triple thunk rattled the silence.
Ismene took a step back toward the door, her hand slightly raised, hesitant to reach for the latch but fearful she’d interrupted someone’s privacy. A man stepped out from behind a pillar with a sheepish grin and holding a broken garden ornament.
“I beg your pardon, my lady.”
“Tis I who must beg your pardon, sir. I didn’t mean to intrude. I’ll show myself out.”
She could feel the frantic beat of her heart slowing with her resolve to leave, but before she could even turn away the young man’s hand shot up.
“No. I . . . I mean, you needn’t hasten away on my account, my lady. In fact, I was hoping to give you my congratulations in person.”
He paused with a strange look that Ismene could not read. Her short time at court had taught her she was not a good judge of what people were thinking. Her brow furrowed as she sought a proper response, but before she could formulate a reply, he took a step nearer.
“I suppose you do not remember me,” he said, his voice intimate, low with a tone that almost seemed pleading.
“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t believe I do. Have we met? Yesterday? Oh, I know. I saw you as we rode in to the castle.”
He chuckled and leaned back slightly before extending his hand. “No, my Lady Ismene, or do forgive me, Princess. But yes, I did see you then as well. But, well . . . it has been more than four years, but I once stayed at your father’s manor house for a fortnight. My name is Kendric, Lord Selin’s son.”
She remembered the name. This was the son of her father’s longtime friend, but her memory of him continued in vague shadows. She held out her hand and he kissed it. When he lifted his face and she saw the mischievous gleam in his eyes, it suddenly dawned on her.
“Oh dear me! I do remember you, Lord Kendric. How could I have forgotten the boy who hid around every bend waiting to jump out and scare me from my skin. You naughty thing. I would have hoped you’d grown out of that habit, but . . . .” She gestured to the column from behind which he’d appeared and let a wry smile cross her lips.
He laughed again, the pleasant ring of it seeming to fill the air around them. Ismene found herself smiling at the familiar memories his presence invoked, and she couldn’t help but appreciate the twinkle in his blue eyes as he grinned back.
“That was you. At the ball. Why did you not speak up then?”
He cleared his throat but covered it quickly with a lop-sided grin. “I was too shy.”
“I do not believe that for a second,” she said with a smile.
“My lady,” he said while holding out his arm, “would you forgive my terrible manners of yesterday and do me the honor of a promenade around the rose garden? I’d be pleased to learn of how Lord Tenbow and the rest of your family get on.”
Without a thought beyond how nice it was to talk to someone interested in her family and home, she took his arm as they strolled through the room. It was larger than she anticipated and they talked the whole time, Ismene barely noticing the roses themselves so animated was her enjoyment in speaking of the familiar. She was deep in conversation and didn’t even hear when someone else entered the room.
They’d stopped to smell a particularly fragrant rose when Ismene felt her companion stiffen next to her. She frowned and glanced over to see what he was looking at.
“Lord Kendric,” Othniel said, his voice as taut as his posture.
Ismene’s frown deepened but she said nothing.
“Prince Othniel,” Kendric replied with the slightest—and near to disrespectful—nod.
Both men seemed to ignore Ismene whose confusion and discomfort would soon get the best of her if she didn’t say something.
“P-pr—Othniel. I see you know my father’s old friend.” She half-laughed at the description and wrapped the fingers of her free hand around the fabric of her skirt. “I mean, Lord Kendric’s father is my father’s old friend. He and I were getting reacquainted.”
Othniel stared at Kendric in silence, his jaw set. Ismene shifted ever so slightly away from Kendric and clasped her hands against her stomach.
“He was a guest at our manor some four or so years ago.” His direct stare at Kendric unnerved her and she kept rambling. “We were just reminiscing and . . . and I was telling him how things have changed since his stay.”
Finally, Othniel’s gaze shifted from the other man to look her in the eye. A bubble of defiance for she-knew-not-what surfaced and straightened her shoulders, but his glare immediately softened to something indecipherable where his eyes lost their harsh edge.
“I went to your room to check on you, but when I found it empty I grew concerned.”
“I . . . well, to be honest, I became lost on my way.” She shrugged and did her best to not feel guilty for making him search her out. “But when I happened upon this quaint rose conservatory, I couldn’t resist.”
“It was my mother’s.”
The words had been spoken with the slightest hint of a break, as if just saying it caused him pain; but it was a pain he must have buried. Ismene didn’t miss the flicker of it, nor did she miss the tension that hung like a cold, damp cloth over the room.
“Lord Kendric, if you’ll excuse me, I would like to rest some after all the excitement of the last few days. It was a pleasure crossing paths with you today.”
He bent low and reached for her hand, kissing it once again. Before he stood their eyes met. While peeking out from under dark locks of wavy hair, his unspoken pleasure shone as clear as day. Her breath hitched in her throat, but she was unsure how to respond.
“I have been honored by your kind attention, my lady. Give my regards to your family,” he said with a generous smile.
Ismene faced Othniel, discomfort interrupting her otherwise graceful movements.
“I’ll escort you to your room to rest and freshen up for the noon meal.”
“Has it truly grown so late?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, his laconic reply nothing like she’d expected from him after his otherwise kind and free conversation during their previous encounters, few though they had thus been.
After a time of walking in uncomfortable silence, Ismene couldn’t take it anymore. “Your mother’s rose garden is beautiful. I had no idea so many varieties existed.”
“She adored roses. That conservatory is her private sanctuary. Father had it built for her after my younger brother died.”
“Oh. I’m sorry,” she said and regretted starting the conversation.
“He was barely a year my junior. I don’t remember him, but my mother was unable to bear any other children after. She loved those roses, and Father brought her home a different kind to plant after every journey he took. Some of them come from as far away as Agora. Many are her own making, using a skill taught her by a discipler my father convinced to come visit us from Nevin.”
There was a hint of a smile in his voice, which worked to alleviate some of Ismene’s regret over bringing up his dead mother, but when she glanced up, it was to see sadness marring his angled features. The sparkle didn’t dance in his eye, and he fell silent once again.
Ismene didn’t have the heart to try to speak of anything else for fear of stirring up more pain, but she had a surprising urge to get to know him better. Lamentably, she didn’t know how.
The only way into Ismene’s room was through the salon. Othniel walked her in and to the bedroom door. He opened it for her and stood aside, but as she turned to thank him his next words stopped her.
“Tis unwise to walk alone with a man, especially now that you are wed. If anyone else had happened upon you . . .”
He didn’t finish the sentence, just let it hang there. And the way he said man with a hint of antipathy didn’t go unnoticed. Ismene’s stomach dropped and her cheeks flushed. She’d not have thought what she’d done was inappropriate. At home, that never would have been an issue. Of course, everyone knew everyone at the manor, and there were servants everywhere. She’d never truly been alone.
“Forgive my bluntness,” he said with very little apology evident in his tone, “but it is obvious you have no idea how things work at court. You best learn now or risk your reputation and mine. Tis serious and any rumors generated would be damaging to the kingdom as well. Where is your lady-in-waiting?”
“I don’t have one,” she said, her voice low as a strange form of humiliation twisted her insides.
She dared to look him in the eye for half a second but couldn’t sustain her composure whilst doing so. “No, my lord.”
“You are to be queen someday, Ismene. Why has no one explained these simple things to you? You should have at least one lady. My mother’s cousin was hers. She said it was good to always have a friend nearby.” He cleared his throat as an uncomfortable silence settled upon them. “Would you like me to send for your maidservant? Helein is it not?”
Ismene blinked back the sudden rush of unwelcome tears that sprang to her eyes and nodded, not even sure herself which question she answered. As if of its own volition her hand reached for the door and closed it in his face. She walked to the bed and sat down on the edge, a wave of mortification roaring over her.
Her encounter with Lord Kendric had been entirely innocent. Could it really cause trouble for her to have conversations with old acquaintances? Or was her new husband jealous? Was he the jealous type? Did that mean he was an angry man like Old Bart in the village who beat his wife and children often enough to see himself thrown in the makeshift jail run by her father’s steward? No. Just the thought of it caused her to shudder, but she had no idea what kind of man she had been married off to—none whatsoever. The sobering thought did nothing to comfort her.