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The Wrong Words
Standing in front of the mirror to examine the dress she’d be wearing for Fortnight caused Ismene to rethink Kendric’s remarks. While the luxurious sapphire material was voluminous from the waist down, it required just her chemise and only had stays running along her sides, down her ribs. The skirt remained open to the layer underneath from her hips to the floor. The gold-thread embellished neckline scooped low, revealing more skin than she would normally. The shoulder-to-wrist slit sleeves were loosely tied together in a gold cord crisscross pattern, exposing the thin material of her white chemise.
She slid her hands along the soft material at her hips.
“Will you not change your mind?” Helein looked up from the dressing table where she gathered a set of sapphire teardrop earrings to match.
“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“Do you not have any misgivings?”
“What are you not telling me, Helein?” Ismene turned from the mirror while attempting to squash a sudden burst of annoyance.
“Nothing.” She hesitated and looked down at the earrings in her hands. “The dowager queen brought the dress, but it seems almost improper. She said it was traditional Fortnight garb.” Helein sighed and looked back at Ismene. “My lady, I have a bad feeling.”
“Not you too? First Lord Selin and now you.”
“What if he’s right?”
“Don’t be silly.” Ismene splayed her fingers wide. “I’m sure he’s just overreacting, what with knowing how strict my father can be.”
Helein looked skeptical and handed the earrings to Ismene who slipped them into her lobes while her mind scrambled with other thoughts.
“Do you know where they’re taking me?”
“No.” Helein busied herself cleaning up the already organized vanity.
Ismene shook her head and gave up any further conversation. Neither of them knew anything truly useful about Fortnight or what to expect.
She’d hoped Helein knew more about the celebration than she. Her mother had only given the barest details. Fortnight was a game similar to capture the flag, but in this case, the princess. Two opposing sides, men against women of the castle. Othniel’s group would search for and retrieve Ismene from the ladies who desired to keep Ismene until the sun rose. If Othniel could not regain his wife by then, the noblewomen would be served hand and foot by the men for an entire day. If he won, the princess and noblewomen would be the servants to the men. It was all in good fun, but the trick would be to stay hidden all night. Of course, there was much intrigue and trap-setting to the game.
“Helein, could you excuse us a moment?”
At the soft rumble of Othniel’s voice, Ismene teetered and steadied herself with the bedpost.
“Moons of Oryxa,” she said, but the chastisement died on her lips at the sight of him. In full leather armor, he looked dressed for war. Sword at his waist and metal braces protecting his forearms and shins completed the look. “Is it to war we go, Sire?”
Helein scooted around him and ducked out the door.
He ignored Ismene’s question. “You look beautiful. But I think you must always be so.”
It was his lack of insistence she call him Othniel that gave her pause, not the soft note of regret she swore she heard.
“Thank you. I didn’t expect to see you again until . . .”
Othniel swallowed, his Adam’s apple shifting ever so slightly. “Yes, well, that’s normally the case, but something is bothering me, and I can’t think straight. I need my mind clear before Fortnight begins in earnest.”
He shifted and began pacing. Ismene watched him, concern furrowing her brow. She waited for him to speak again, confused and silenced by the subtle agitation of his demeanor.
“Lord Selin.” He stopped pacing, grasped his hands behind his back, and faced her, his eyes almost meeting hers.
“Our fathers’ friend?”
“No. Don’t play the fool. Please.” He paused and met her eyes, taking a deep breath. Ismene felt herself flinch, although she wasn’t sure why. “Who is he to you?”
“What is this?” Ismene’s confusion turned to fear at the indirect accusation in his tone, and proper words escaped her.
“I’ve seen you with Kendric,” he said hastily, as if unsure or afraid to say what he must. “I’ve seen how—” He shifted his hands, balling them at his hips. “Who is he to you? A lover?”
Othniel spit the last words out as if they tasted bitter. As well they should. They were acrimonious, unkind, thoughtless words, and Ismene hated them. She wrapped her arms around herself and frowned deeper, but instead of answering his question, as would have been wise, she let her stupid stubbornness rear its ugly head.
“I do not have to answer such baseless questions. How dare you.”
Othniel stepped closer, and she imagined his scrutiny raked over her face, searching out truths written there that she might not be willing to speak.
“I dare, Ismene. I have been given every reason to believe there is something between you that you hide, and the way you spoke together earlier seemed to confirm my suspicions.” He drew so close only inches separated them. “I ask again, who is he to you?”
Breathless, Ismene fought the hurt of his allegations even while she wished to lean in to his strength. “He is no one you need concern yourself with.”
They stood like that, chests heaving, eyes burning with fire for second upon second until Ismene thought she’d burst like a broken dam. But Othniel’s jaw relaxed and he backed away a step, breaking whatever spell bound them together in that moment. For Ismene, the action snapped the unspoken bridge they’d been painstakingly building between them, and as he retreated from her, she felt her heart being crushed in her chest.
He left without another word, and Ismene wished desperately to take back the ones she’d uttered in anger. Something terrible had just happened, but she couldn’t even begin to fathom the depth of her own stupidity.
Helein reentered to find her staring at the door with her handkerchief wrung tight in her grasp.
Othniel stormed out of the salon and down the hall, ignoring the surprised looks of those he passed. Nothing mattered. How he fooled himself into thinking this marriage would be a happy one, he had no idea. He didn’t want to face his feelings right now.
No one would understand. Not even his father.
Ismene’s face haunted his dreams. She won him over without even trying, but he could blame no one else. He’d convinced himself that her words to him at the rose garden were truthful, that she’d give this marriage and him a real chance. Lies.
She could melt a glacier in the middle of winter with that innocent smile. Now he thought it a cruel, false one meant to drown her victims. The wrenching pain left Othniel hollow. She made him believe her heart was open. What a fool I am!
He stepped out on to the wall overlooking the valley but had no idea how he’d arrived here. His mind wrestled so thoroughly against the pull of heartbreak that he’d walked without thought. Othniel looked down to examine the token he carried. The ring glinted with the last vestiges of light from the setting sun, and his palm throbbed with three dark red crescents as blood rushed back to where his fingernails had dug in.
His first impulse was to throw the ring over the wall, but hand raised, he hesitated with the feel of the metal burning his skin. Othniel relented to the warning in his bones and stared at the ring once again, but defeat seared his gut. After a longsuffering sigh, he slid the ring into his inner pocket and turned to lean his weary body against the wall.
He could offer Ismene an annulment, and that would free her to marry as she chose, but if Kendric was the sort of man Othniel believed him to be, that might never happen. If he ended their marriage, Ismene might forever be branded a whore, a prince’s castoff, and she would be shunned; this, no matter how terrible the ache of her betrayal felt, he could not allow. He had no idea what to do.
He wished his mother were still here. He wished he’d a close friend he could share his fears with; he’d hoped Ismene would be that person.
A guardsman approached and bowed. “Highness, the others await you at the stables, but the king asked to see you at the mews first.”
Othniel nodded and pushed off from the wall. He followed the guardsmen, resigned to carry through with Fortnight and hold off making a decision until he could focus.
Even if Ismene had broken his heart, he couldn’t really blame her. She’d known Kendric first, and maybe their love had been a longstanding promise. But why hadn’t she just told him? Why not stop this all before agreeing to the betrothal? What had she wished to gain?
It didn’t even occur to him that she might have had no choice.