I slowly turned to face the Dermish warrior behind me. There was no need to draw a weapon. Yet.
“What excuse could a Rivanian soldier have for climbing up the side of the king’s sacred mountain?”
I was dressed in plain clothing, my visible weapons no more than an average traveler. The slashes shaved in the sides of my beard and hair were most likely what had identified me as a soldier of Rivania. Although I had left Rivania and was no longer bound to that country, bare gaps of exposed skin were ever present—partly from habit and partly because it helped me to maintain some level of respect on board the ship that brought me to Dermot.
“I asked you a question, Soldier. What are you doing here?”
“I was headed home before you stopped me.” Or at least, it had been home to me ten years ago. I still was not sure what kind of welcome I would receive once I made it there.
His brow wrinkled. “Home? No one lives on Mount Cullan. This is the king’s mountain, and it is illegal to pass over without his permission. I suspect you were sent here as a spy. Am I right?”
“I am no spy. I am no longer a soldier either. My service to Rivania has ended. I was on my way home to Gilvary.”
One side of his thin lips curled up in obvious doubt. “You must take me as a fool. Once you are sworn in as a soldier of Rivania, that service never ends.”
He was right. Every able-bodied adult male without a viable trade was pressed into service, where he usually fought until his dying breath. A soldier may be released if he lived through any great injury, but very few made it to retirement. None of those reasons had bought my freedom.
I gave no response as I studied the man in front of me. He wore a basic uniform with leather-covered armor embellished with the Dermot eagle. A scabbard hung from his side, and he held a primitive staff in his hand. I could render him weaponless in a matter of minutes with nothing but my bare hands, but I would not do this. I had truly come here in peace.
“Head back down the way you came, Soldier, and do not think to try anything. I will be right behind you.”
No protest fell from my lips. I knew how this would end. I would go before the king, my intentions would be revealed, and then I would be sent on my way. Yes, it was an annoying delay, but I would make it home eventually. No one was expecting my return anyway.
Regardless of what my immediate future held, I could not help but to soak up the serenity of the landscape around me. In mid-March, I expected the mountains to be nearly impassable, covered with drifts of snow. As it was, there was less than a foot present here and thinner still at the base of the mountain. The original plan was to take the ship all the way to Aisling and enter Gilvary from there. But I could not endure being cooped up on that crowded vessel any longer. When we docked in Dermot, I noticed the milder than expected temperatures and decided to take my chances crossing the Kearnley mountain range instead.
There was such a vast difference between this mountainside and the country I had left behind, a place crowded with buildings and people where peace could never be found. I had once loved living in Rivania. I was in my teens when I first arrived and there was excitement to be found in every corner. By the time I was pressed into service, I was ready. After all, I was already living the life of an adult, depending only on myself. Now here I was at the age of twenty-five, and it felt as if I was at the end of my life instead of closer to the beginning.
I paused when we reached the bottom of the mountain, expecting to be taken directly into the brownstone castle to face the king. Instead, I was relieved of my weapons, along with my bag, and was placed in one of the outside cells. I was not worried. Perhaps King Farris was too busy to deal with me now, but surely, I would not be imprisoned for long.
Four weeks, three days and approximately two hours—that is how long I languished in that frigid prison. The cell was actually just a cave-like hole dug into the side of the mountain with a rusted iron gate across the front. The walls, ceiling, and floor had been cemented to keep prisoners from digging their way out. This only added to the prisoner’s discomfort since no bed nor even a blanket had been provided. The only protection I had been offered from the cold was my own cloak. I spent every night and part of my days curled into a tight ball trying to cover my head as well as my feet.
But I had not remained idle the entire time. There was not enough room in the cell to make pacing profitable, so I exercised. I had been trained for the possibility of capture. It was essential that I keep my muscles from shriveling up to nothing. I was taught to keep my body prepared to fight should the chance avail itself.
The only person I had seen since entering this prison was the youth that slid food through the opening of the cell door. I tried to speak with him on several occasions, but he just stared blankly at me, if he looked at me at all. I took him for a deaf-mute and gave up after the first few days of trying.
Every meal was the same—watered down stew with stale bread. I had a feeling the leftovers from each meal were thrown into a pot with enough liquid to be considered stew. I suppose it was better than nothing. Anticipating my noon portion of the slop, I watched as a warrior showed up with only the keys to my cell in hand.
“The king is ready to see you now.”
I looked down at my clothes. Everything about me was covered in a month’s worth of filth. How was I going to convincingly state my case before the king looking like this?
As if reading my mind, the warrior pointed toward the barracks located behind the cells. “You can’t go before His Majesty looking like that. You need a bath first. You stink.”
Whose fault was that?
“Head out. I’ll be right behind you.”
I headed toward the front of the barracks.
“No, go around to the back.”
I changed direction without question. What other choice was there? When I got to the back of the building, I was surprised to find a natural hot spring with steam coming from it. It was apparent that there had at one time been a wall surrounding the spring. Now there was only a crumbling foundation that would in no way hide a bather.
He gestured toward the water. “Get in.”
I stripped off my clothing right there in the open for all to see. Modesty was nonexistent for soldiers. Hoping I would never have to don them again, I dropped the filthy rags into a pile. There was a change of clothing in my bag. If they were not presented to me, I could stand before the king as I was for all I cared.
I eased down into the warm water, letting out a sigh of relief. Maybe I would feel warm for the first time since arriving here.
“You don’t have all day. This bath is for the benefit of the king, not yourself. Make haste.” A bar of lye soap came hurling toward my face, and I caught it just in time.
It was good to see that the cold my joints had suffered had not affected my reflexes. I dipped down until my head was submerged. My blond hair and beard had become shaggy without the use of the equipment needed to care for my grooming. I lathered myself from head to toe, thankful for the unforgiving soap. I scraped what I could from nails that were too long. I expected the warrior to give another complaint that I was taking too long. He did not say another word as he leaned against the back of the barracks.
Reluctantly, I climbed out of the water. Somehow, I still did not feel clean, but it would do until I was once again on my way toward Gilvary. No doubt, I would soon be released. I raked my hands through my hair, releasing the excess wetness.
The warrior patted the stack of clothing on the bench next to him. “Get dressed.”
The clothes were mine. The rest of my belongings were nowhere to be seen. I used my tunic to dry myself off before getting dressed. The cold was already starting to seep into my bones once again. With damp hair and clothes, I would be fortunate to come out of this without suffering illness. My cloak had been left in the cell. It could stay there as far as I was concerned. A new one could be purchased after I was released.
I headed around to the entrance of the castle as instructed, with the warrior following close behind. I recognized the ancient looking man waiting for us just inside the door. I could not remember his name, but he had been the general over the warriors here in Dermot when I was a child. He seemed close to retirement even then. Judging by the ensign on his uniform, he still held that position. I was hard put to see how he could still be effective.
Authority sounded in his voice that did not match his appearance. “In a moment, you are to go before His Highness, King Farris. You are not to speak unless he asks you a direct question. Even then, you are only to answer the question asked, and your reply better be in a respectful manner. Do you understand?”
“I have done nothing to warrant the treatment I have received here. He will hear about it before I leave.”
The unexpected hit from the staff of the warrior standing behind me had me lying prostrate on the floor. The warriors of Dermot were the only ones I had ever known to use the primitive staff as a weapon. No longer would I question their effectiveness.
“You will not speak until spoken to. If you cannot comply, you may not make it out of Dermot. Do you understand?”
I gritted my teeth. “Yes.” There was no use arguing with this man. The king would be the one to reason with.
“Get him up, and tie his hands.”
I got up on my own before the warrior had a chance to touch me. There was no resistance as he tied my hands behind my back.
Following the general into the throne room, I looked up to where the king and queen of Dermot sat on the dais in their elaborately carved wooden seats. King Farris looked even more ancient than his general. A brazier burned on the stone floor in front of him. His thin face was the only part of him visible beneath the pile of furs covering his body. The king’s once dark hair was mostly white now. He studied me with his watery blue eyes.
A man stood to the right of the king. He could have been an advisor, but he did not look like a Gilvarian. With his dark hair and eyes, he could be from just about anywhere, but his clothing was that worn by the men of the neighboring country of Cordelia. His long tunic was embroidered and beaded around the edges. A look of boredom covered his face as he stood there with his arms crossed over his chest.
I looked to the left of King Farris expecting to see his wife, but it seemed that a much younger beauty had replaced Queen Babree. The king’s first wife had also been from Cordelia, and it looked as if King Farris had found his second wife there as well. Long black hair cascaded in waves that reached past her waist. She wore a long, heavily embroidered blue tunic that split just below the waist to reveal a loose pair of silky looking charcoal gray pants. Contempt shown in her smoky brown eyes as she glared at me.
I glanced at King Farris and then back to the woman beside him. She was younger than my twenty-five years. What was a young woman like this doing married to a man as old as the king? Was the title of queen enticing enough to warrant such a gap in age?
The general took a step closer to me and spoke in a low tone. “I suggest you train your gaze away from Princess Adrika. It would do you well to study the floor beneath you.”
In my shock at hearing those words, I jerked my head around toward the warrior before I looked down at the floor as he had advised. I was tempted to take another peek at the princess, but even a quick glance would not go unnoticed.
Was the princess still the brat she was when I knew her? She had bitten my brother once. A snicker almost escaped at the memory. It was doubtful that reaction would be well received as I stood shackled before the king, awaiting a verdict concerning my immediate future.
“Your Highness, I bring before you, Gunther Manlius, accused of climbing the sacred Mount Cullan. He is believed to be a spy sent from Rivania.”
I stole another glance at the general. I had not been asked my name since being imprisoned. That information had to have been gathered when they went through my bag. Surely, they would have found the parchment releasing me from my duties as a Rivanian soldier. Was that enough to prove that I was not a spy? It was doubtful. There was no need to worry. Once I had a chance to speak to the king, he would know of my innocence.
“And what did he claim as his reason for being on that mountain?”
It was annoying that he had not asked me that question. I was impatient to have this over with so I could move on. I glanced up to find the king studying my face even as he spoke to his general.
“Your Highness, he claimed that he was on his way home to Gilvary. I present that if he were truly a citizen of Gilvary, he would have known enough of our laws not to be on that mountain.”
“Gilvary, you say?” The king leaned forward as if to get a better look. My gaze automatically went up to meet his. I felt a tap on the back of my calf from the general’s staff causing me to once again stare at the stone floor beneath my feet.
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“Look at me, prisoner.”
Was he about to sentence me without giving me the benefit of defending myself? I boldly looked the king in the eye and held his gaze.
“You have the eyes of your brother, King Reagan, but even with your beard, you look too much like your mother to be mistaken. I suggest you tell me what I already know to be true. What is your name?”
A gasp from the princess had me stealing another glance in her direction before looking back at the king. “I have been living in Rivania as Gunther Manlius these last ten years, but my real name is Rian Barnali, as I am sure you know, Your Highness.”
The man standing behind King Farris made a sound in his throat that had me glancing his way once again. His brows were drawn together above the glare he now wore. Everyone in the room was probably wondering why they were just hearing this information. If I had seen anyone besides the boy who brought me food, this would have been over with a month ago.
The king rubbed his hand across his thin gray beard. He seemed in deep study of my face as he leaned forward. I had no clue what he could be thinking. “I believe you, Prince Rian. Now if you would, enlighten me as to why you were crossing Mount Cullan. You must have known it was forbidden. Not to mention the fact that it would have been easier to go through Nolan Pass.”
For the first time, I feared that things would not go in my favor.
He leaned back in his seat as he continued, his voice firm and foreboding. “For that matter, I was told you came here by sea. If you were already aboard ship, why not wait and get off in Aisling? You have a brother ruling that kingdom as well. Rumor has it that no one in your family has even had one word from you during your exile. I am sure King Garrett would have welcomed you with open arms and helped you on your way back home to Gilvary, if that was your desire.”
This part would be hard for anyone to understand but myself. I decided to be as honest as I could and let the chips fall where they may. “I was fifteen years old when I left the country of Kearnley. I left Gilvary by coming across Mount Cullan and catching the first ship away from here. Someone would have been watching for me to go through the pass and the thought of crossing over the forbidden mountain without being caught seemed like a thrill to my childish mind at the time.
“I left the ship once I returned to your shores because, frankly, I did not think I could stand another minute on that boat. It was a nostalgic and obviously foolish notion, but having honestly forgotten about the law I decided to return to Gilvary the same way I left. I promise you that I had no malicious intent in crossing your mountain, and I would be glad to take the pass into Gilvary now.”
“Be that as it may, you are my prisoner. I am not inclined to allow you to leave at this time. Guard, untie the prince and have one of the servants show him to a room.”
He cannot be serious?
My hands released with a jerk as the general cut the rope behind me. “I do not understand. Why are you keeping me here?”
“You may be a prince, but I am the king. You will do well to keep that in mind when you address me.”
Panic pressed upon me. My jaw clenched as I tried to keep a neutral face. “Your Highness, I mean no disrespect, but I have done your kingdom no harm. What do you think will happen when my brothers find out that you are holding me here?”
“Your brothers have no jurisdiction over this kingdom.” He nodded to the general behind me. “Take him away. I grant him permission to move about the grounds, but make sure a guard is with him at all times.”
There was no use in arguing further. My brothers were sure to hear of this. They may not have jurisdiction here, but it would not bode well for the king of Dermot to have the other two kingdoms of Kearnley against him.
The guard took hold of my arm and pulled me toward a door on the left side of the chamber. Princess Adrika came into view, and I allowed my attention to linger this time. I may not be on level with the king, but regardless of the fact that I was being held prisoner, she and I were on equal standing. At first her mouth hung open as if she was as shocked as I was at her father’s command. Then she lifted her proud chin in order to look down at me, and I winked just to see if the shocked look would return. I smiled as if I had not a care in the world before turning away from her glare.
I was a child of seven when I last encountered Prince Rian. He seemed much older then, at twice my age. He had given the impression that he hated everyone at that time. It was hard to reconcile that teenager with the man who had stood in my father’s court this morning. The gap in age no longer seemed significant.
I tried to not show interest in what had transpired as I waited, hoping my father would say anything about the prince. To have the lost prince of Gilvary show up here after all of these years was the most exciting thing to happen in this kingdom since . . . well, since before Mother’s death a couple of years ago. It seemed everything good in my world disappeared the day she passed away.
Why would Father keep Prince Rian prisoner? Did he not fear retaliation from the two brothers? I had seen the condition of our prisons. Just the time the prince had spent in one of those cells was enough to bring the wrath of his entire family down on our kingdom. If a battle ensued, we would lose. Our warriors did not compare to those of the rest of the country. It was also surprising that Prince Rian had not earned further punishment for his brazen actions as he flirted with me on his way out.
One stolen glance at my father told me that he was deep in thought. My uncle made a noise as if he meant to speak, but Father lifted his hand in a command for silence. Knowing him, he had started making some plan as soon as he figured out the identity of our prisoner. Father was always making plans. Most were harmless, as they never made it into action. My father was a thinker more than anything else.
Only when he spoke to me was I allowed to look at him directly without fear of reprimand. “Daughter, I would like for you to become reacquainted with Prince Rian.”
I knew this was not a request but a command. “Do you want me to . . .”
“No questions. Just do as I say. You are dismissed.”
“Yes, Father.” I stood and curtsied before making my way quietly from the room.
Uncle Galik began speaking in a low rapid speech as soon as I started walking away. I knew better than to dawdle. I only heard do you think that is wise considering . . . Considering what? That we knew nothing of Prince Rian? That he could bring harm to this kingdom’s only heir? That my uncle had an agenda that had nothing to do with the prince?
Father obviously wanted me to spy on Prince Rian, but how was I to know what information I was to try and garner if he would not tell me? I stomped up the stairs, taking out my frustration. There was no need to hide it now that I was away from Father’s presence.
I entered my bed chamber and began stripping off my silken court attire as soon as I shut the door. The clothes I wore when presented in public were designed after the clothes worn in Cordelia—my mother’s homeland. The blue tunic, embellished with embroidery and beads on the gleaming silk fabric, had me looking like a foreigner to this country, rather than its princess.
Every activity in my life had a special outfit to go with it. Why could I not just go through my wardrobe and choose whatever I fancied for that moment like any other woman would?
Damini came in with a gasp just as my outfit slid to the floor. She ran to the glass door leading out to the veranda and jerked the drapes closed. “Did you not think to close the drapes or ask me to do it before you stripped? What if someone saw you?”
“So, let them look.” Truthfully, I had not given the open drapes a thought as I undressed, but I would never admit to such foolishness.
She mumbled under her breath as she picked up my clothes and began placing them neatly in my wardrobe. I wanted to remind her of how many times she had reprimanded me for the same thing. The servant had been with me since I was born. My mother had wanted a nursemaid from her home country to look after her daughter, one to train me in the “old ways.” It was so frustrating to be handed a different set of rules from anyone else living in Kearnley, and this in addition to the ones set for royalty.
I sat at my dressing table, staring into the ornate mirror as I brushed my hair. I twisted it into a knot and used one of my hand painted picks to weave through the knot, holding it in place. I could see Damini’s reflection shaking her head in disapproval.
“How am I to get your evening dress over your head with that thing sticking out of your hair?”
That was not the problem. The problem was that my mother deemed it inappropriate for a woman not yet married to wear her hair up. I was never sure if it was one of the old ways or just another of the many rules Mother had made up. Two years gone, and I was still being stifled by her teachings.
“I am going for a walk before supper.”
“We do not say supper. You know this. You just like to vex me.”
“All of Kearnley says supper, but I must call it the evening meal. You know, maybe I would not vex you if you stopped treating me as a child.”
“You will be a child until you are married, then your husband will tell you what to do. I just hope your future spouse has the constitution to finally put you in your place.” She snatched my hiking clothes from a hanger and slung them across the bed.
I slipped into the sturdy pair of trousers and pulled the sweater over my head. A snicker sounded from behind me when it caught on the stick holding my hair up. I twisted it up with less care this time and replaced the hair ornament. I slid my feet into my boots and began tightening the straps.
“I heard your father was going to try the prisoner today. He was not released, was he?”
“You have not heard? It turns out that our prisoner is none other than Prince Rian Barnali of Gilvary. You know, the one who has been missing. Father should have let him go, but instead he is holding him here. The prince was offered a room in the castle, though I doubt that will make up for how he has been treated up until this point.”
Damini looked up from rearranging dried flowers in the vase on my bedside table. “It is not up to you to question your father, and he cannot be blamed for what he did not know. I am sure the prince would have been given accommodations sooner had his identity been revealed upon his arrival.”
I crossed my arms over my chest. “Do you think his family will see it that way?”
“That is none of your concern. Let your father worry about appeasing the other kingdoms, and you just worry about yourself.” She came to me and placed her hand on my cheek. “Maybe you should refrain from going on a hike until we get to know this prince. What if he should approach you?”
“Actually, Father has asked me to spend time with Prince Rian. Maybe I should be the obedient daughter and seek him out now. I wonder which room he was placed in.”
“Oh, just go on your hike already. You are wasting time.” She crossed her arms and sat down on the side of my bed.
Damini knew I was baiting her. I would never go searching for the prince. If I happened to be in his presence, then I would gather any information that might appease my father. Otherwise, I would keep to myself as usual.
I bent down and placed a kiss on her cheek. “Mini, please do not fret so. I am going on my hike now. I will have my staff and can take care of myself. I will be back in plenty of time to dress for the evening meal.”
I had made life difficult for her these last eighteen years, but I still cared deeply for the woman, and I knew she cared for me. My life would be much lonelier than it already was without her.
Wrapping myself in my cloak, I took up my staff and stepped out onto the veranda. I breathed deeply of the crisp mountain air. Snow was usually still thick on the ground in mid-April here in Dermot, but not so in recent years. With the drought we suffered these past five years, everything had changed. The snow left now was more of a muddy slush in the more frequently traveled places.
The castle was built into the lower part of Mount Cullan. The private verandas leading out from each room on this side were nothing but squares of packed earth. It was more of a tiered garden than anything else. Paths wound around the foot of the mountain. They were off-limits to everyone but the occupants of the castle. I tried to spend a little time out here daily. It was the only form of exercise I was allowed.
I walked across the flat surface and was about to take a step down to the path when I was startled by the voice of our prisoner. “I would not go there if I were you. You may be treated to a stay in one of your lovely prison cells if you dare to step foot on the sacred mountain.”
Rian was standing near the castle wall on the veranda next to mine. He was without a cloak. His arms were crossed at his chest, causing his tunic to pull tight across his broad shoulders. He had the build of a warrior. Come to think of it, none of our warriors were built like him. I felt a moment of panic at being alone with him. At my quick glance around, I noticed a warrior on the path just off from where the prince was standing.
“Do not worry, Princess, you are safe with me.”
I could feel the heat rising to my face at being caught. I hated that he had noticed my fear. I hoped to convey contempt rather than embarrassment as I glared up at the smirk on his face.
“Let me assure you, Soldier, I can take care of myself.” I thumped the end of my staff on the ground for emphasis.
“Are you trying to imply that your parents allowed you to be trained to use that stick? I find that highly unlikely.”
As a matter of fact, they had. It was the only thing outside the normal strictures placed on me that my mother had allowed. She wanted her only child to be protected at all times. Since I had a tendency of wandering off at an early age, she had reluctantly agreed to the lessons. I refused to answer his question. It was probably best for him to think me completely helpless.
“How would you know anything about what my parents would allow?”
He looked up toward the peak of the mountain and then back at me. “I was a teenager when I left Kearnley. I remember plenty from my time here.” The meaning behind this statement seemed to run deeper than our current conversation. “You were still an infant then. You probably do not even remember me.”
“There are only seven years between us. That would hardly make me an infant when you left Kearnley. And I do remember you. You are just as mean spirited and cocky as you were back then.”
The smile slid from his face, and his brows knitted in concern. I had not expected my words to affect him but they obviously had. “I am truly sorry that you think so of me. I cannot deny the person I was back then, but I hoped I had matured since that time. Please forgive me.”
I did not know what to say. Should I apologize for my words? I remembered then that my father had asked me to get to know this man. I felt I had somehow failed and had no idea how to redeem myself. In the time it had taken me to contemplate any further action on my part, he had decided to end this meeting.
He bowed low before me. “I will keep you no longer from your journeys, Princess.” He then turned and went back inside the castle.
What a strange thing for him to say. I noticed before that his accent and phrasing were a little off from the people of Gilvary. Maybe that was what made him seem more interesting to me than he should be. What had he been doing these past ten years? General Cormac said he had been a soldier in the country of Rivania. I could not imagine why a prince would take on such a role.
I had been standing there staring at his door for too long. What if he saw me through the window? Hastily, I turned to make my way down the path. I had become chilled from my lack of activity, and I had promised Damini I would be back in time to dress for the evening meal—two reasons for more vigorous action. I glanced back at his door one more time before it was cut from my view. For the first time, it struck me as surprising that Father would allow him to be so close to my own chambers. What could he be thinking?
I had to wonder if King Farris was losing his mind to old age. What could he have been thinking to hold me as prisoner? And then to place me in a room right next to his daughter? If I had a daughter . . . I would think a loving father would protect his child from men like me.
The truth was she could not have been any safer in my presence, but King Farris had no way of knowing that. Any fool should have been able to guess that I had been out in the world for the past ten years. I had been a soldier for the Rivanian army. A certain reputation went along with that status, and it is to my shame that I had lived up to most of it. Hopefully, I had learned from my mistakes, but I must admit, the Dermish princess was tempting.
Through the gap in the drapes covering my window, I could see her staring back at my door for the longest time. What did she think of me? There was a time when I would not have given it another thought. Adrika Mahon had been a brat of a child back when I knew her. She still showed spunk, but she was definitely a woman now.
I took in the sway of her womanly curves as she made her way down the path. She made one last turn to look my way just before the trail took her out of my sight. I knew interest when I saw it. I would have to be careful. This woman was not part of my plan. I was not even sure what the plan was myself. For the first time in my life, I was depending on God to show me the way. If there was a woman in my future, she would come in the form of a wife. Of that I was sure.
For now, I only knew I was headed to Gilvary. I wanted to spend time with my family and then maybe settle down in a manor in the country. I would not mind a view of these mountains. One thing was for certain, I could not imagine living back in the castle of Gilvary permanently with my brother. I loved Reagan and his wife, Gwen, and respected their position, but I was no longer a child. I had led troops into war. I knew I would want to be a man of my own household. This was as far into the future as my thoughts had carried me.
I was allowed to eat in the dining hall that night like everyone else. I made myself slow down and enjoy the meal after nearly choking on the first bite. There was no need to try and swallow everything on my plate at once. I wondered what they did with the leftovers when they were without a prisoner to torture. My guard sat several seats away as if he might catch some otherworldly disease if he got too close.
It was not as if the room was crowded. Years of training had blessed me with a keen sense of observation. Since I had been allowed entrance into the castle, I noticed that much of the structure’s maintenance had been neglected and this room was no different. Had the whole country fallen on hard times in my absence, or was it just Dermot? Maybe it was a case of there not being enough workers. Unlike here, the castle at Gilvary had been bustling with people.
I looked up at those sitting on the dais above me. This table was usually reserved for royalty. If my brothers were here, they would be sitting up there on each side of the king. On this night, it was just King Farris, his daughter, and the man from Cordelia who had been present during my trial.
It was easy to read the hate in the Cordelian’s dark eyes every time his gaze met mine, but I had no idea why he should feel anything toward me. To my memory, we had never met. He shared deep conversation with the king while the princess sat silently on the other side. She never seemed to look at anyone in particular. She just sat there stone-faced, eating her meal as if she were the only person in the room.
When the king stood, his two dining companions rose with him. I watched as the princess curtsied and stepped out through a door at the back of the room. The two men headed in my direction. King Farris turned suddenly and spoke to the Cordelian man, who then bowed and walked back in the opposite direction, leaving through the same door the princess had used. The king made his way to where I was sitting.
He glanced at me as he came even with my table. “Walk with me.”
I took one last sip from my goblet before falling into step beside him, my guard trailing behind us. Hopefully, the king had come to his senses and would release me. He waited until we were in the hallway before speaking.
“Rivania is not known for letting go of their soldiers so easily. I am curious to know how you gained release—if you were indeed released.”
My mind scrabbled for what to say. I was no deserter, but saying so would only bring up the fact that I had abandoned my own kingdom. I doubted he would be too impressed with the fact that I had only been fifteen at the time.
“Once the emperor was made aware of the fact that I was the long-lost prince of Gilvary, he decided to allow me to return home as an act of good faith.” Would he take the hint and do the same?
King Farris stopped and looked directly at me. “Tell me what else have you been up to these last ten years? Perhaps you left a family back in Rivania as well?”
My gut tightened. “No family. Soldiering took everything I had to give.”
“Maybe now you will look toward settling down.” His smile made me nervous.
That was exactly what I had in mind—not that it should concern him in any way. Where is he going with this conversation? “That is a possibility.”
“There is nothing like the comfort of a good wife.”
I studied the man beside me for a moment as we meandered aimlessly through the hallways. He seemed to be giving great thought to my future, which was unsettling. I decided to focus the conversation back on him. “I know you must miss yours. I was sorry to hear of Queen Babree’s passing.”
The slight smile he had worn melted from his face. “Yes, I never expected to be the last to go.”
“At least you still have Princess Adrika.”
The smile returned brighter than before. “Yes, she has been a blessing to me. Now, there is someone who would make a good wife for one very fortunate man.”
I tried to picture the princess with a husband, but the only image I could conjure was the one of her on the terrace, her smoldering brown eyes looking up at me through thick, dark lashes, and full lips that . . . I shook my head to dispel the image.
“I am sure she would. Do you have someone in mind for the princess?” I knew this king would be the one to choose a husband for his daughter. I only asked to make conversation. I truly did not care who that man would be.
He turned and smiled up at me. “As a matter of fact, I do.”
A bolt of unease filtered through me. Surely, he did not mean me. That seemed to be the implication, but I could easily change his mind by giving details of my personal life up until now. I was probably the only man in the country who carried a title equal to his daughter, but I was not the prince he had in mind. Calm down, he is not thinking of you.
“In that case, I wish the couple every happiness. When do you plan to release me?”
His thin lips pressed together at my abrupt change of subject. I was tired of the small talk. His daughter’s future was of no concern to me. I was more than ready to get on with my own life.
“We will discuss that at another time. I am ready to retire to my room.”
“Will you at least get word to my family that I am here?”
“That can be arranged, but as I said before, your brothers have no say over how I run my kingdom. Good night, young Prince.” He made a few shuffling steps to the door I assumed led to his chambers and entered in.
I thought over his last words as I made my way to my own chambers with my guard trailing behind. He had not given me a definitive answer. I had my doubts that my family would be contacted. Regardless of what he said, if either of my brothers showed up, I was certain it would affect his decision in holding me here.
I peeked out through the window of my bedchamber. Toward the west, a purple glow spread out across the edge of the earth where the sun had just set, but the rest of the sky was dark. I pulled one of the blankets from my bed to use as a cloak before stepping out onto the veranda. A brazier was burning out on the mountain path where a guard stood warming his hands as he peered through the darkness at me.
I took a deep breath of the clean crisp air. My bondage here was more than a little irritating, but still nothing compared to being in that prison cell. I walked over to the edge of the terrace where the princess had stood earlier that day. I could have sworn I still smelled her jasmine scent lingering.
“Are you planning your escape, Prince Rian?”
I jerked my head toward the sultry voice. The princess sat on a bench near the door to her room. How had I not known she was there? A soldier should be more aware of his surroundings.
“I could ask you the same, Princess.” I walked over closer to her, expecting the guard to call a halt to my steps at any time.
She patted the seat beside her. “Join me.”
I sat down and pulled the blanket closer around me. Instead of an invitation, I would have thought my comment would have provoked more of the banter we had shared earlier. I tried not to analyze my wish to see her riled up again.
“Did you enjoy your supper?” She had not looked pleased during the meal. I wanted to see what she would say about it.
“It fulfilled a need. I do not believe I would use the word enjoy. How about you? Did you enjoy your evening meal?”
“Very much so. It was a feast compared to what I have been eating lately.”
She looked down at her lap. “I know the accommodations of our prison leave much to be desired.”
“That is one way of putting it. No offence, but your father should try it out for himself some time.”
“Were you unable to talk Father into releasing you?”
“He had other things on his mind.”
She turned her head slightly and glanced at me from the corner of her eye. “Like what?”
“We talked about you, as a matter of fact.”
She slapped her gloved hand against her chest. “Me? What could he possibly have to discuss about me with you?”
“We talked about the spouse he has picked out for you.”
She sucked in her breath as she turned to face me. “Did he say who it was?”
“You mean you do not know?”
The door opened beside us. “Rika . . . I am sorry, My Lady, I did not realize you had company. I just wanted to alert you to the hour. It will soon be time for you to retire for the night. You must come in and make ready.”
I recognized the old nursemaid. It was not unusual for one to stay around after their ward was grown, but their job usually changed to that of a handmaiden. This woman still treated the princess as a child.
“Give me another minute, please.”
As soon as the nursemaid was gone, she grabbed my arm. “Did he give a name? Tell me quickly.”
I tried to study her features, but the light from the moon shone from behind her. “What is your father planning to do, introduce you on your wedding day?”
“Did he give a name?” Her voice was laced with panic.
“No, he only said he had someone in mind.”
She stood. “We will talk about this more later.”
“Good night, Princess.”
She stopped just before she got to the door. “Good night, Prince Rian.”
I continued sitting there after she entered the castle and thought about my conversations with her and her father—both had been strange. For the first time, I felt a little sorry for the girl. From what I had seen today, she lived a lonely existence. Few within the castle were close to her age. Even when she had taken her meal sitting next to her father, she had been alone. And I could not imagine what it would be like to have no say in choosing the person you would spend the rest of your life with.
I reminded myself once again that none of this was my concern. I needed to put my efforts into getting away from here. I was more than ready to put my past behind me and reconcile with my family.