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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 tamped down a fleeting image of a temperamental woman . . . something like her father tended to be but worse. He had no reason to believe that of Ismene, but the thought lingered. 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, Highness.”
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 this world, I felt her loss almost as a daughter might, and I know you felt it more. We have had years to mourn. And the lady . . . though not in death, she loses her family and all she has known in coming here—”
“Yes, I know.” Othniel bit the inside of his cheek, stilling the resentful words that had no place between them.
“’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 moved toward 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 made it clear she wanted to be alone. Maybe she didn’t want anything to do with him but was too polite to say it which left him confused about how he should respond. He’d no idea who she really was or if he could ever care for her the way he wished to care for a wife . . . for someone he dreamed could be more. He longed for someone with which he could speak with candor and his full trust. A true friend. Something he’d been trained to never expect as a prince. Power always attracted schemers and fortune hunters, liars and usurpers . . ..
But the emotions of the day and Ismene’s almost foreign beauty beguiled him. For all he knew, she would be the bane of his life. Still, he hoped not.
“Highness,” a soft, feminine voice spoke from behind.
Othniel turned and smiled knowing exactly who he’d find, and he was not unhappy to know it was a friendly face he’d see. “Lady Grace.”
A distant cousin who was often a court, Lady Grace curtsied low, her skirts a fluttering plume of soft layers circling her 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. I’ve heard the rumors, and I’m glad to report they are 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, Highness, 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.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must speak with my father. Do give Lady Grentich my regards.”
“Of course. It will please my aunt to hear 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 with anything less.
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, eyes—both alive and long dead—judged her with mouths hidden behind fans, false smiles, or frowns.
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 carved door some five feet away.
She looked the opposite direction and saw two guards standing outside a double door. One man glanced her way and took a step in her direction but stopped abruptly, his eyes widening. Ismene froze and gripped her dress. A sudden desire to bolt back the way she’d come hit her in the gut. But the guard only bowed to her and returned to his post.
She released the breath she didn’t realize she’d held. Once her heart slowed a fraction, she stepped toward the empty end of the hall and the beautiful door with an intricate carved rose and vine pattern. The frame sported something incongruent—dragons—and made the whole of it that much more curious.
Relieved she’d not incurred the wrath of a castle guard, Ismene reached for the latch of the door and glanced back again; the men ignored her and remained statues at their post.
She stared at the door knowing this wasn’t the way to her room, but she had no idea how to get there. Plus, this door . . .. “I’m princess now,” she said softly as though saying the words out loud could assure her of their truth. “It couldn’t hurt to just peek.” She gave a gentle push to the door. The heavy piece of art swung in with a gentle swoosh, and not a creak or groan broke the stillness beyond.
Ismene gasped. A slow smile lit her face. Beyond the portal a sprawling room brimmed with light from a wall of tall windows and a ceiling of the same. Extravagant didn’t begin to express the luxury. The heady fragrance of a myriad of blooms sent a thrill down her spine and swirled the worry from her veins. She inhaled the indulgent scents in a moment of pure ecstasy and stepped into the room, partly closing the door behind her.
Ismene stood within a conservatory, a beautiful indoor garden. She 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-thunk-thunk rattled the silence.
Ismene stepped toward the door, her hand raised, but she hesitated to reach for the latch. Before she could decide how to proceed, a man stepped out from behind a pillar with a sheepish grin. He held 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.”
The frantic beat of her heart slowed with her resolve to leave. How embarrassing to be caught where she didn’t belong. She barely gave herself a chance to glance at the gentleman.
“No,” he said almost as a command, so abrupt was the word. “I-I mean, you needn’t hasten away on my account, Your Highness. In fact, I was hoping to give you my congratulations in person.”
He paused and Ismene chanced to look at him again, something familiar in the sound of his voice. But she couldn’t possibly know—Lord Selin. Her mouth formed a small ‘oh’ of surprise.
“I suppose you don’t remember me,” he said, his voice intimate, low with a tone that almost seemed pleading. He chuckled and leaned back slightly before extending his hand. “My Lady Ismene—Princess—it has been four years, but I once stayed at your father’s manor house for a term. My name is Kendric. Lord Selin’s son.”
“I remember you,” she blurted and covered her mouth with her fingers.
This was the son of her father’s longtime friend. He’d grown taller somehow and more handsome.
Kendric held out his hand still, and as if of their own volition her fingers moved from her lips to his palm. He brushed his lips over her knuckles, but when he lifted his face, she saw a mischievous gleam in his eyes. It stirred old memories she once cherished and made her suppress a smile.
“How could I forget the boy who hid around every bend, waiting to jump out and scare me from my skin. I would have hoped you’d grown out of that habit, but alas . . ..” She gestured to the column from behind which he’d appeared and let a wry smile cross her lips.
He laughed, and the pleasant ring of it seemed to fill the air. Ismene found herself smiling at the familiar memories his presence invoked, and she couldn’t help but appreciate the twinkle in his eye 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 one breath,” she said with a smile.
“My Lady.” He held out his arm. “Would you forgive my terrible manners of yesterday and do me the honor of a promenade? I’d be pleased to learn of how Lord Tenbow and the rest of your . . . household get on. Has much changed?”
Without a thought beyond how nice it was to talk to someone interested in her family and home she took his arm. “All that has changed is me coming here. Our chamber maid—you might remember her—Helein accompanied me as well, and I must say how grateful I am to have her here.
Ismene smiled at his amused tone. “But, otherwise, you would find nothing has changed at Tenbow Manor.”
They strolled through the room. It was larger than she anticipated, and they talked the whole time. Ismene barely noticed the plethora of roses so animated was her enjoyment in speaking of the familiar. The spoke of the grounds, horse riding, archery, Cook’s delicious baked goods, and her brother’s antics. Deep in conversation, she didn’t even hear when someone else entered the room.
They’d stopped to smell a particularly fragrant rose when Ismene sensed 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 right 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, his jaw set, stared at Kendric. 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 while my father aided in his education.” His unnerving stare set her off-kilter. “We were just reminiscing and . . . and I was telling him how things have changed—or not changed, that is—since his, uh . . . his stay . . . with my family . . ..”
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.” 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.”
After a pause, he said, “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.
At a loss for words, she turned to Kendric. “It was a pleasure seeing you after all this time, My Lord. Please excuse me now. I would like to rest some after all the excitement of the last few days.”
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, unspoken pleasure and mischief shone as clear as day. Her breath hitched, and her heated skin burned further.
“I have been honored by your kind attention, Princess. Give my regards to your family,” he said with a generous smile.
“I will.” She spoke barely above a whisper. Ismene faced Othniel, discomfort interrupting her otherwise graceful movements.
“I’ll escort you to your room.”
Othniel didn’t give Kendric a second glance, and his laconic reply was nothing like Ismene had come to expect from him after his otherwise kind and free conversation during their previous encounters, few though they had thus been. Feeling the lingering tension, she avoided looking back at Kendric as she and Othniel walked away.
After a time in uncomfortable silence, Ismene couldn’t take it anymore. “Your mother’s garden is beautiful. I had no idea so many rose varieties existed.”
“She adored roses. That was her private sanctuary. Father had it built for her after my younger brother died.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” She cringed and regretted starting the conversation.
“He was barely a year my junior and died within his first year. I can’t remember him beyond a vague recollection, 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. Quite a few are of 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 the tension between them. 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.
With heavy silence encircling them, they arrived at the door to the salon—the only way into Ismene’s chamber. 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; he just let it hang there like a piece of rotting meat left out to tempt the wolves. 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 rarely been alone outside the room she shared with Ketra.
“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.”
Ah, the crux of her predicament. Always her actions would be a reflection on others. Would she always fear being herself might cause others pain or trouble? Now the whole kingdom sat on her shoulders.
Othniel didn’t seem to notice the darkening cloud she felt forming in her mind as he glanced into her room. “Where is your lady-in-waiting?”
“I don’t have one,” she said, her voice low. 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 will be queen someday.” His exasperation more evident, he continued, “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 a sudden rush of unwelcome tears. She nodded, not even sure herself which question she answered. She reached for the door, closed it in his face, and stared at the wood grain for a minute before she walked to the bed and sat down on the edge. A wave of mortification roared 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 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 knowing he had all the power and she none. He couldn’t possibly be that sort of man. 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.