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It’s Not that Simple
Days morphed into weeks, and over that time, countless opportunities to witness just what kind of man Othniel was presented themselves. Ismene touched the petal of the daisy resting on her vanity table. He brought her fresh wild flowers every day for the last week, ever since he’d learned of her affinity. The silky-smooth texture of the daisy petal reminded her of the feel of his lips on their wedding day, and she bit hers to quell the rising blush. A quick look in the mirror revealed her lack of success. Hopefully, Helein wouldn’t notice.
Ismene glanced at the maid’s reflection to see she was still busy laying out Ismene’s cream gown with gold threading in the trim. She sighed in relief.
“M’lady?” Helein eyed Ismene over her shoulder.
“Nothing. I was just thinking.”
“A sigh is almost always related to unrequited feelings.”
Ismene suppressed a smile. “Don’t be silly. Sometimes a sigh is only a sigh.”
“And sometimes it’s not.” Helein smoothed the soft material of Ismene’s dress on the bed and then turned, placing her hands on her hips. “I’m worried about you.”
Ismene shifted on the vanity seat and picked at the lace on the cuff of her dressing gown. “It’s nothing, really. It’s only . . .” Helein’s eyebrows raised in expectation, and Ismene ducked her head. “Othniel. I don’t know what I feel for him. I’m so confused. He’s playful and teasing but never in a cruel way. Yet he knows who he must be and carries such . . . dignity. I-I . . .”
“You admire him.”
Ismene half-smiled, half-grimaced, and met Helein’s steady gaze. “Yes. I admire him very much.”
Helein stepped close and pulled Ismene to her feet. “And well you should. His kindness extends to even the lowest servants. I’ve seen it.” She helped Ismene out of her dressing clothes as she continued to speak. “Just the other day Conessa, the scullery maid I mentioned to you. You remember the one?” Helein waited for Ismene to nod. “Well, little Conessa was in raptures over your princeling and how he rescued her precious kitten—though it’s not her kitten; it belongs to the groundskeeper to help capture rats—but the prince rescued that kitten from a deep crevice near the skirt wall. Poor Conessa couldn’t get to it, her being so small.”
“Was the kitten injured?”
“No. And we’re not changing the subject. All that is to say you might not have got to choose for yourself, but you have got a worthy husband by Almighty. One you should leave in no doubt of his place in your heart.”
“Mmm?” Ismene heard something strange in Helein’s voice. Was she being chided by her maid, or was it a hint of something else? Something bleek?
Helein didn’t continue, and Ismene let it go. They finished the process of dressing Ismene, but Helein’s words sank further into Ismene’s heart, giving her a grudging sense of peace about her own future. Better still, the knowledge that the frown Othniel had worn almost constantly the day after the wedding had practically faded away.
As her thoughts drifted, a small cloud marred the blue sky of her more pleasant musings. While Othniel thought her enjoyment of archery surprising, he’d not made her feel it was below her station. The whisperings at court about her lowborn pursuits, though, had not gone unnoticed. The general snubbing she received when she and Othniel were apart made it obvious it was on his behalf that the nobility were ever kind, which made his forthcoming trip seem all the more discouraging.
She’d been at the castle for almost two weeks. In all that time, Othniel had never pressured her. He seemed content to get to know her better, and for that her gratefulness abounded. But she hated to admit to herself how disappointed she was that he’d not kissed her again. After all, they were married, she reasoned too often to admit. Unbidden day dreams about it proved terribly distracting.
In fact, even now, while she stood at the base of the keep’s entrance stairs and watched him descend the steps, she lost herself in examining the slight upcurve of the corner of his mouth.
Instead of allowing her mind to linger there as he drew near, she shifted to focus on his horse. With reins in hand and staring into the stallion’s dark eyes, she asked, “How long will you be away?”
Othniel stopped beside her, but she didn’t turn to look at him, afraid and hopeful all at once that he’d kiss her. But he only took her free hand in his and kissed it. Her lips curved downward.
“Only a few days. We will be back in time for the Fortnight celebration.”
Ismene chanced a glance at him and found herself surprised by the genuine look of regret he wore.
“I’ll miss you,” he said, hesitant and adorable to the point she felt herself sway in response. “Promise to pine for me every moment.”
Ismene couldn’t resist the smile that crept across her face. “I give my solemn word, My Lord.”
Surely, he would kiss her after that, but no. He squeezed her hand and released it, mounting his horse with a wide grin. Ismene’s keen disappointment only lasted a second; his contagious smile held a promise, and her conflicting thoughts and feelings converged upon each other, wiping all thoughts of kisses away.
“I look forward to your swift return,” she said and mean it, though her better judgement told her she only wanted him to return because he was nicer than everyone else at the castle.
“I’ve never wished for a faster journey than I do this day, wife. Be well.”
His smile faltered as his eye caught something behind her, but she didn’t bother looking; she found she wanted to memorize him. He bowed ever so slightly to her and rode away, followed by his guardsmen.
“What a pity.”
“Lord Kendric,” Ismene said, turning to see him standing behind her while everyone else retreated back in to the keep, “to what do you refer?”
“Oh, nothing really.” He stepped down to stand on the same level, all joking erased from his countenance. “I just find it a pity that a man might have such a bride as you, and yet he could leave you alone after less than a month.”
“You are a flatterer, sir, if ever there was one,” Ismene said while tamping down the small rise of pleasure his words created.
Kendric waved his hand in a dismissive gesture and relaxed back on his heels. “I can’t not speak what’s true. If you were my wife, I’d never leave you.”
Ismene’s heart hammered at the words, never having expected to hear anyone utter anything like that to her. “I—well—I . . .. Excuse me, Lord Kendric. I promised the chef I’d share Cook’s bread recipe from back home.”
Ismene turned to leave but Kendric’s words halted her.
“I apologize for making you uncomfortable. Forget I said anything. It’s just that I can see you’re homesick. If you’d like to talk, consider me a friend.” He bowed and walked away.
Ismene watched him go, confused and relieved. She used his excuse to convince herself he’d only meant to set her at ease with teasing. With a shake of her head, she walked up the steps in to the keep.
The next few days would be lonely without Othniel, but at least she would be getting to know some of the staff at the castle.
Ismene looked out the window of the great hall at the gathering storm clouds. The late fall air chilled her bones, but the sky held an ominous hint of winter that she dreaded, knowing it would certainly separate her from her family for many months.
And with Othniel gone for the last two and a half days, she felt alone most of the time. The nobility hadn’t warmed to her in his absence, and Helein shooed her from the kitchen every time she tried to help prepare anything.
The only highlights had been spending time in conversation with Lord Kendric who’d gone above and beyond to make her feel at home as well as regale her with stories of his travels and of things he remembered from her family’s land and manor. He’d been nothing but a gentleman since their awkward conversation on the steps of the keep the day of Othniel’s departure.
He’d even saved her from his own betrothed when Lady Grace and her friend Lady Miranda had cornered her and were asking her all manner of pointed, personal questions. Grace’s tone and how she spoke of her distant cousin the prince made Ismene wonder if the girl had at one point had her sights set on marrying him.
If there was one thing Ismene had a basic grasp on, it was the jealousy of women. She’d seen it often enough between village girls. Thankfully, she and Ketra had such different taste in most things that they rarely fought over anything other than who got the settee nearest the fire in winter or the biggest roll from Cook’s basket.
“Here they are, Mistress,” Helein said as she walked up to Ismene with a stack of handkerchiefs and a sewing basket.
Ismene faced her and reached out for the stack, but Helein pulled them away.
“Please, can’t I help, Helein? I’m bored. It will give me something to do.”
“Tut, tut, My Lady. You will do no such thing. I brought you your book from the table in your room.”
With a resigned sigh, Ismene accepted the book Helein held out, and the two retreated to an alcove near the fire. The spot was private enough the two wouldn’t have every eye staring at them. Sir Wilen, who’d trailed her everywhere the last three days took up a post just outside their private nook.
Ismene did her best to read, but her mind kept wandering. She gave up after ten minutes and snapped the book closed, setting it in her lap. She looked at Helein and considered how she might escape to the kitchens or out for a ride on Rising Wind in the rain, but just as she opened her mouth to make an excuse, Lord Kendric’s head appeared around the corner.
“Am I interrupting?” he asked cordially.
“I wish you would,” Ismene said with mock seriousness.
Kendric smiled and stepped into full view.
Helein stood and curtsied. “Milord.”
Kendric made to reach for her hand, but Helein tucked them both close to her sides. He hesitated and bowed low to her. “Mistress Helein. You—and your lady—are looking lovely this day.”
Helein did not smile and moved to a seat nearby, relinquishing hers to accommodate the lord. Ismene watched him watch Helein for a second longer before he bowed to Ismene. She held out her hand to offer him the chair Helein had vacated.
Sitting, Kendric seemed to mentally shake off a weight. He donned a brilliant smile. “Thank you. How goes your day, Princess?”
“Wretchedly boring. I’d rather be home, playing hide and seek with Blayn. Here I am relegated to reading only, since Helein insists I cannot embroider my own kerchiefs. But worse, the only other option on such a day would be to talk inanely of this dreadful weather in politesociety.”
Kendric laughed outright, probably at her exaggerated tone, but she didn’t care. It at least lightened the boredom, and even Helein had to hide a smile.
“It is rather dreadful out today, isn’t it?” He reached for the volume on her lap. “I see you have a book to take you out of this place.”
Ismene stiffened at the brief brush of his fingers over the material of her skirt. He pretended as if it hadn’t happened, and so did she. Kendric lifted the book and examined the title.
“‘The Histories of Ovlander Greatshield.’ Could you read anything drier on such a dreary day?” He smiled, and Ismene couldn’t help but grin at the subtle teasing. “But on that note, I hope to distract you from the doldrums of life at court with something I remembered from my stay at your family’s manor.”
Ismene sat forward. “Oh yes, please do.”
Kendric followed suit and leaned forward, holding the book against his thigh. He recounted the time he’d convinced Blayn, who’d been less than eight at the time, to snatch a batch of cookies.
“Oh my! I remember that. When caught in the act by Cook, Blayn—”
In uinson they finished, “—shoved all the evidence in his mouth.” They leaned back, laughing at their combined memory.
Kendric’s gaze shifted to Helein’s embroidery work.
Ismene’s gaze followed his, but she continued speaking of the past. “Mischievous Blayn. My brother can be riled up by the slightest challenge to his ability. You played him like a fiddle. Like the time you convinced him to rappel from the ramparts of the manor.”
“He would have done it without my slight nudge, I’m sure.”
He glanced back at Ismene, but some of the joy had disappeared from his eyes. She dismissed it as a phenomenon of the weather and smiled, thinking of her impish brother.
“Your slight nudge brought about more mischief from the fearless rascal.”
She mentioned how Blayn was forever finding ways to get himself in trouble. After his successful rappelling adventure, he’d nearly broken his neck by using the same rope to tie from the ramparts to a tree some distance away and slide down its length.
“Speaking of mischief, I’ve heard rumors of you and a bow.”
“Ah yes.” Ismene sighed, nearly rolling her eyes. “Apparently being the prince’s wife does not exempt my enjoyed pursuits from ridicule. Mark my words, archery is just as noble as the sword or spear.”
“I wondered if you’d continued learning the bow.” He leaned his elbows on his knees, his eyes earnest. “Don’t let the whisperings at court deter you from the things you enjoy—the things that matter to you, My Lady.”
Ismene’s anger at the rumors subsided, and she smiled. “Thank you, Lord Selin.”
Kendric’s smile faltered as he looked beyond her. He stood with slothful grace, but the joy seemed to have been ripped from him in an instant. He bent a slight degree at the waist.
Ismene looked over in time to see Othniel, drenched but just as handsome with his hair darkened and weighted by rain and a shadow of stubble across his jaw. His stoic expression sent her heart soaring and then plummeting to her stomach for reasons she could not comprehend. She stood as well.
“Selin,” Othniel said, his tone noncommittal.
Kendric sunk back into his chair without waiting for permission from the prince.
Ismene, consumed with innumerable emotions, remained silent. She noticed the slight twitch of muscle in Othniel’s cheek before he turned his penetrating stare to her. He bowed his head and walked away.
Ismene watched him, a stunned silence rekindling every awkward feeling she’d possessed upon arriving here weeks ago. Her mind whirled with warring thoughts. She refused to feel guilt, as if she’d done something wrong. Othniel obviously didn’t like Kendric, but she couldn’t understand why. In fact, Ismene was sure they would be great friends if they’d set their male egos aside.
Kendric stood, interrupting her pensiveness. He bowed and stepped close, pressing her book back into her hands, his warm fingers brushing hers. “My apologies, My Lady, but I have just recalled a meeting I am late to. Please forgive me.”
Ismene lifted her chin. She did not want anyone’s pity, and she was sure Kendric pitied her at that very second. Othniel had barely acknowledged her. “No. No apology. I am sorry to have kept you from your responsibility with my selfish pouting,” she said with as regal a tone as she could muster. Kendric’s next words made her brave front falter for a second.
“You are not selfish, Ismene. And if that was pouting, I’d take that over certain other people’s disdainfulness any day.”
Ismene’s mouth dropped open, but he bowed again, to her and then to Helein. He was gone before she could think to make any reply.
“Close your mouth before you swallow a fly,” Helein said from where she resumed her seat. She slowly worked her embroidery, but her next low words carried the saddest undertone. “And don’t let the viper’s beautiful dance fool you. His venom is meant to kill, and his bite is lethal.”
Ismene knew full well what Helein implied, but the idea that she was doing anything dangerous by being friendly with Kendric made her bristle. “A viper can be tamed, as any other snake, and their fangs removed. There is no danger. I’m married. He’s betrothed, and frankly, he’s quite harmless.”
Helein glanced up. “If you say so.” If Ismene wasn’t a little embarrassed and angry, she might agree with the maid. Still, her mind returned to Othniel. What welcome had she given him?