"I can't believe that stupid check point guard!" Lady Lara Canton huffed and pushed her blond bangs from her eyes as she struggled to keep pace with her friend. "The way he treated those farmers from the north was horrible!"
"It's war, Lar. Truce for the games or not it happens every day. We're lucky we don't have to deal with that in Branaugh, or at school. Checkpoints do slow travel to a stand still."
"Lucky, nothing; smarter is more like it. Why can't these people just make up their differences and go on?"
Princess Mahrina Airleas threw her head back and laughed. "Why didn't they just think of that? You have a future in politics; I feel it!"
"You know what I mean!" Lara insisted.
"I do. Grandfather has offered to host a truce many times and no one is interested. Lar, various kingdoms and territories will always have skirmishes. If it wasn't the Blackpools and the Greystones, it would be some other kingdoms, or, the Gods forbid, us!"
Lara shuddered, "No, don't say that. I pray all the time Branaugh never has to be involved in a war, any war. The people are so happy and they adore Grandfather and you. No one has any worries about you taking over the throne someday."
Mahrina rolled her eyes, "No one except me!"
Thundering applause from the arena up the path interrupted the girls' conversation.
"We're going to miss all of it!" Lara complained.
"I didn't ride all this way for nothing! Come on!" Mahrina raised her skirt and began to jog.
Lara fought her urge to let loose a string of curses. She was already exhausted and had to run to keep pace with Mahrina, who in actuality wasn't going all that fast. The seventeen-year-old eyed her best friend's appearance. Both girls had less than three hours of sleep and had traveled a dozen miles in unseasonable heat. After changing her clothes and refreshing her make up, Mahrina appeared radiant with nary a hair out of place. Lara, on the other hand, felt wilted and self conscious, hoping she, too, looked presentable.
Mahrina Airleas possessed a flawless beauty that made her a target of envy for most women she encountered, a target of desire for most men. Lara wasn't jealous of Mahrina, though. The blond knew more than anyone how little Mahrina's looks and status in life affected her. Mahrina, like her grandfather, possessed one of the most accepting, easy-going, and friendly personalities Lara had encountered, and she loved the princess dearly.
The girls had been inseparable since childhood. Lara's father served as one of King Rohrdan Airleas’ most trusted advisors, and both Lara and her family adored the monarch. At times she did envy Mahrina for the carefree and atypical way the king raised the princess on his own. Lara and her mother wasted years arguing over young Lady Canton joining Mahrina in her crossbow and fencing activities before the senior Lady Canton gave in.
"Lar, you're dragging your feet." Mahrina encouraged.
"I'm going to drag something of yours through the mud, Rina! I never should have listened to you! 'We can still go to the Iron Skull concert and make it up to the games, no problem'." Lara mocked Mahrina's argument from the previous week when she came home with tickets to the popular group's show. "Just admit it, you want to party too much, in too many places, and you were wrong!"
"You keep this up and I'm sending you off for a nap. I mean it; I'm not associating with you if you're going to be this cranky! And yes…you were right. There wasn't time to do both."
"Yes!" Lara threw her hands in the air, dancing by Mahrina in a sudden burst of energy from vindication. "I was right, I was right!"
"Don't get too used to it. You're like a comet, your brightness only appears every hundred years or so!"
Mahrina broke into a full-speed run before Lara could offer her retort to their usual repartee. The princess slowed down as she neared the stadium, sighing in relief as she spied the familiar billowing flag of Branaugh and her family's royal flag waving above the seating area of her kingdom.
Inside the circle of spectators two young princes each hungered for their own victory. It was under the guise of goodwill that they met, a friendly skills competition that would not allow a fight to the death. Still, the undercurrent of battle between two of the most powerful royal families of Aperans hung in the air like a stagnant fog. The champion was unknown, neither side conceding long enough for a clear-cut winner to emerge.
"You won't take the first place trophy this year, Dirk! I'll win today and kick your shield clear back to Karteia tomorrow!" Prince Erik Greystone bellowed as he regained his balance from a failed strike with his boot and swung a powerful sword blow against his opponent's heavy pewter shield. The blond heir to the land of Camarand chided, "What's the matter, Dirk? Cat got your tongue, or do you need all your concentration just to fight me?"
"Hardly, Erik," a deep silken voice replied, "Conversations with you bore me. Always have." Prince Dirk Blackpool held his shield out of the way and thrust his sword at Erik's hand—missing by only centimeters. Beads of perspiration covered Dirk's face and neck, but he would not be discouraged. His lithe, strong body was in perfect condition; when not victorious at the head of his father's army, the twenty-year-old spent each day perfecting his fencing, kick- boxing, and hand-to-hand combat skills. Adrenaline coursed through his veins as Blackpool confidently assured himself that conquest was closing fast.
Erik chuckled through short gasps of breath, "You realize you're becoming more intolerable all the time, Dirk. I'll forgive you. Today it's only because you're losing!" With a quick step, Erik wound his sinewy body around Blackpool's elevated frame, knocking the shield from Dirk's grasp.
A cheer rose from the crowd of the annual games of Aperans. From all provinces of the continent, nobles, royalty, and peasants alike attended the events. Some of the spectators had traveled for days just to watch the competitive matches of knights and warriors of different skill and age levels.
The prince of Karteia pressed his lips into a grimace. His chiseled features held a mix of passion for the event and displeasure over Greystone's latest maneuver. Switching his sword to his left hand, the ambidextrous prince rose to his full height of six-feet four inches and gazed emotionlessly at Erik. The leather of Blackpool's gloves crackled as he flinched his hands.
Erik Greystone was a bother to Dirk; a foolish optimist that didn't have a grasp on the reality of life's harshness. 'It's time to teach you a lesson, my old acquaintance,' Blackpool cynically mused. Dirk's features held an icy smile as he stated with princely politeness, "Why, Erik, I do hope you have a special place picked out for your second place trophy. The one you win tomorrow will complement all your other consolation prizes so nicely."
On his last word, Dirk sprung into action with the tactics he'd been practicing for weeks. His long leg swung unexpectedly at Erik, his foot sending Greystone's shield flying across the dirt-filled arena. Blackpool began his assault, screaming louder with each clash of the prince's swords. Greystone was an excellent adversary but Blackpool was relentless in his attack. He bobbed and ducked with counterpoise, never giving Erik a chance to guess his next move. With lightning speed Dirk delivered another swift kick to Erik's left shin and at the same instant he yanked Erik's right ankle forward.
Greystone lost balance, his vision a blur of images that followed his line of sight as he tumbled to the ground. Briefly, Erik saw his father's and brother's concerned faces, the awnings of royal bleachers, a cloudless blue sky, and then the point of Dirk Blackpool's sword inches above his nose.
"What's the matter, Erik? Cat got your tongue?" Dirk spat before emitting a triumphant laugh.
Prince Greystone looked at Dirk's face and for a moment he saw malice that he'd sensed growing inside of Blackpool for years. It was bone chilling, witnessing the change in his one-time friend. This was not simple tension from their warring kingdoms. Erik sensed Dirk was becoming exactly like King Blackpool and slipping into his own abyss of darkness.
Victoriously Dirk Blackpool spun around and thrust his well-muscled arms in the air. The first cries and applause came from the spectators of his homeland. Dirk's younger brother, Prince Geoffrey Blackpool, was already on his feet, cheering louder than any of the Karteian lords and barons who surrounded him.
Next to Geoffrey a red glow appeared and from it the Blackpool family wizard, Vector, materialized. The mage felt it important to congratulate the prince after witnessing the match back at Castle Blackpool on his vision scope. The wizard had recently began to doubt King Blackpool would ever conquer the land, so Vector had decided on a plan of his own; convince Dirk Blackpool that he was his advocate, his confidant, the prince's very own master of the black arts. Then, Vector would kill King Blackpool and vicariously rule Karteia, and eventually all of Aperans, through Dirk's reliance on him.
Vector's stocky frame seemed even wider from the many layers of black and gray robes he wore. A wide black collar overpowered the shape of his head, still his sharp features were prominently displayed. The wizard twisted his face into his equivalent of a smile, and he granted Dirk a nod of approval.
The prince briefly acknowledged the royal mage, somewhat consoled that someone other than Geoffrey seemed to care about his performance. A wave of disappointment fell over Dirk's gaze once more when his eyes met the empty chairs where his parents could have been.
Blackpool still felt the absence of his mother after all these years. As a child Dirk had always relished the bright smiles she rewarded him with after any victory. Even King Saris Blackpool’s cold, militaristic style of approval would have been welcome in lieu of an empty throne. The prince had been most annoyed when the king announced he wouldn’t be attending the event for the first time in his reign. The monarch’s paranoia of an assignation attempt by a warring kingdom was growing daily.
Dirk's attention was caught by hearty applause from the viewing area of the Airleas family of Branaugh. Both the king and country were a neutral friend to all the kingdoms of Aperans. King Airleas held his hand high in the air and gave Dirk thumbs up and a congratulatory smile. Blackpool bowed slightly, and then his eyes froze on the female seated next to King Rohrdan.
Even with the distance between them, Dirk found her captivating. Waves of her rich chestnut hair spilled over her shoulders. Held back above her ears by a silver tiara, the dark tresses were a perfect contrast to her ivory complexion and softly sculpted features.
Dirk found himself wondering why he'd not noticed her before the competition; he always appreciated beauty in women. The young woman continued to cheer for Dirk with a stunning smile. A girl who appeared to be close in age to the brunette whispered in her ear. Dirk watched the young woman speak briefly to King Airleas, and then she left with the blond. Blackpool studied the stairs leading to the Airleas balcony and caught a glimpse of her pleasing figure in a brilliant emerald green dress before she disappeared.
Turning back to the crowd, Blackpool reveled in his triumph over Erik Greystone. Dirk heard Erik's steps behind him and saw the familiar profile out of the corner of his eye. A loud round of applause, grander than Blackpool had received, greeted the prince of Camarand. Erik graciously extended his hand to Dirk. "Congratulations. You stand no chance of winning the final competition, so I hope you enjoy your little victory."
Blackpool smirked, his lapis blue eyes glowing with success, "That's right, Erik, it's good to have a dream. Enjoy the festivities tonight, for after the defeat you will suffer, I doubt you'll feel much like celebrating."
Upon a final handshake between the princes, Dirk gave the satisfied crowd one final look then spun on his heels and stalked towards his tent.
His younger brother Geoffrey awaited him like an overly excited pup. "That was fabulous, Dirk! I wish Dad was here. He'd be so proud!" Geoffrey beamed, helping his brother from his leather chest armor. "You must teach me that latest move! I'll use it tomorrow when I fight Thomas of Southwick!"
"Perhaps later, Geoffrey." Dirk Blackpool stretched his bare, sculpted torso, and wiped away the perspiration with a cool damp cloth. Two servants assisted the prince into an outfit of fresh black leggings, sleeveless black leather armor with twin silver serpents entwined over the chest, and a purple cape with silver trim.
"What should we do now?" Geoffrey asked. "I heard there's a great roast vendor on the other side of the carnival. We could get something to eat; I'll starve if I have to wait until dinner! Who do you think will be there tonight? I hope Princess Anna will; she's so beautiful."
"Anna Garfallo? Isn't she a bit old for you?"
"Age has nothing to do with how two people get along! Look at..."
Dirk rolled his eyes while he pulled up his black leather boots and tuned out Geoffrey. It seemed that his younger brother never shut up. No, it was a fact Geoffrey never shut up, and it made Dirk wish for the only child status that he'd been denied since his brother's birth.
"...She knows Princess Airleas. Maybe I’ll talk to her about what Anna likes."
Dirk eyes shot up with interest. "Princess Airleas? Was she the brunette with King Airleas?"
"Yeah, you remember Mahrina don't you?"
"Not looking as she did today. Does she attend the Royal School?"
"No, she goes to some private school on the big Swann Island. White something or other."
"Wycliff," Dirk corrected.
"Yeah, that's it. Mike Tronin goes to their university," Geoffrey nodded. "They're on a different schedule than us. Their Spring break is now and they let out a month earlier than our classes. Come on, let's go get something to eat," Geoffrey prodded, rubbing his stomach.
The older prince nodded in agreement, his mind wandering over his brief exposure to Mahrina. It was time to become reacquainted with the Princess of Branaugh.
"Hey, sweethearts, how about a little kiss?" a man yelled to Mahrina and Lara as the young women passed by.
"That's not all I want!" a second redheaded man slurred and tried to expose himself to the women.
The girls were tall, shapely, and used to drawing the opposite sex into their charms. Usually the attention was welcome; Mahrina and Lara had turned flirting into an art form and had a lot of fun meeting new dates. But the fun ended when they were assaulted with boorish, inebriated behavior such as these men exhibited.
"Look at their clothes, they're nobles!" Lara whispered to Mahrina. "That's disgusting."
"Hey, Charlie, I don't think she likes us!" the taller one yelled in offense. "What's the problem, honey, can't you handle a real man?"
Mahrina put her hands on her hips, not at all in the mood for harassment after a long day's travel and a very short night. "The problem, 'Red', is that, unlike a real man, you mistake the size of your ego for nature's shortchanging of your...equipment."
Lara exploded into laughter and the women continued into the merchants' area, leaving behind the men's voices calling them ugly names.
"What about this?" Mahrina inquired as she held a piece of crimson material next to her face, studying the effect in a piece of polished metal that hung from the scarf vendor's display.
"I like that. Try this one too. It goes with your family colors," Lara suggested, handing her best friend a silvery-blue swatch of silk.
In his native Lagortan tongue, the peddler flattered Mahrina with compliments, insisting she should have both. The princess politely explained, flawlessly in his language, that unless he lowered the price on each one, she didn't plan on purchasing anything. They simply were not that high of quality. With a disgusted expression, the heavy-set man dismissed her with a nod and proceeded to speak to the next client.
"What is it about Lagortans and their need to try to bilk everyone who purchases their goods?" Lara exclaimed.
Moving on to the next booth, the girls were captivated by the array of crystal, gold, and pewter pendants dangling from chains. Each pendant glimmered in the afternoon sunlight, casting rainbows of color in all directions.
"These are gorgeous!" Lara sighed, gently moving several necklaces with her fingers.
"I should get one for my cousin, Ariel; she loves unicorns. Uncle Edwyn said she and Aunt Latinia were both too sick to travel. I'll send it home with him," Mahrina announced as she plucked a gold unicorn from the group and traded several kolnas from her purse.
"Which one should I get?" Lara inquired.
"Get the one that looks like Peter Bowen's family crest," Mahrina pointed to a deer and dramatically flung her hand up to her forehead, "then he'll always be close to your heart!"
"Shut up, Rina! He is so last quarter," Lara insisted.
"The lady doth protest too much," Mahrina giggled. "Considering how long it takes you to part with your money, I’m going to keep browsing. Find me when you’re finished."
The princess strode with disinterest past a gypsy telling fortunes, and stopped at a display of flowered head ornaments. Each circlet was unique, fashioned with flowers from every region of Aperans and entwined with contrasting hued ribbons. The princess admired several of the creations until a wave of warmth spread through her. She recognized the feeling and knew with certainty someone was observing her.
Mahrina faced Lara's direction and saw her friend was still busy selecting her jewelry. A blur of black and purple caught Mahrina's attention out of the corner of her eye. Casually turning her head, she spied Prince Dirk Blackpool less than fifteen feet away. He stood leaning against a large oak tree and his attention appeared to be on the goblet he held in one hand and the large tadmon leg in the other.
"May I braid your hair and weave in circlet, my lady? It would look lovely, and I charge a reasonable price," an elderly female voice asked.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I mean your highness," the old woman corrected and curtsied when she saw the state emblem of Mahrina's kingdom on her tiara.
Mahrina smiled and dismissed formality with a wave of her hand. "Don't be sorry, you just scared me. Would you have something in blue and silver? That's the color of the dress I'll be wearing later." From behind her table the withered woman retrieved a headband that drew a breath from Mahrina. "That is exquisite!"
"Thank you. Only made a few like this and she's my last one left; my pride and joy. The blue blossoms are rare, called Ice Dragons. Grow only in the coldest climate of my home in northern Aperans."
"Is that where are you from?"
"Yes, Karteia, a beautiful land, but very harsh."
"I have been there. It is beautiful. You out did yourself on the circlet, and the silver baby's breath is the perfect complement."
The younger woman touched the tiny buds gently and admired the peacock blue and silver ribbons cascading around the back. "If you're willing to part with it, I would love to have it. I’ll even dry it and hang it on my wall at home."
"It would be an honor to have a regal lady such as you wear my creation," she humbly told the princess.
"Thank you. Now how do think we should do my hair? What is your name?" Mahrina asked as she was seated on a bench in front of the flower weaver.
"I'm Carmen, my lady, and I think I'd gather your hair here... if I may?" she requested as she freed Mahrina's hair from her crown and handed it to the princess. "Hmmm. Could leave some of it down.... You can wear the circlet as you did your crown and I will decorate the length of it with flowers and ribbons! I still have a bit of silver ribbon out in back in my cart. Just a moment, I'll be right back..."
Glancing again at the oak tree, Mahrina was surprised at her disappointment that Dirk Blackpool had vanished. She sat up higher on the bench and waved at the pendant display until Lara knew of her location. Mahrina studied her bare fingernails, remembering she'd meant to get a manicure before she left for the games. She was just lucky she remembered to bring herself, Mahrina mused. With only two months until she and Lara graduated, her life had become a mix of hurrying through last minute projects and dreaming of the future.
"Look what I picked up!" Lara happily stood in front of her friend holding up two long strands of gold.
Mahrina nodded approvingly at the fluted heart and detailed rose pendants. "Those are pretty. Check out the colors on this headband. I can't believe how perfect they will be for tonight!"
"Wonderful. You look like you are going to be here awhile. I could use some lemonade; I'll bring you one back. I might be a few minutes, though. There's a really cute fire-eater down by the lemonade stand. And don't you dare make some stupid comment about his hot lips!" Lara commanded.
Mahrina caught sight of the familiar black and purple outfit directly across the path from her. Dirk Blackpool's eyes abruptly left the princess and he turned to a companion. Mahrina had noticed the shorter, obviously younger male in the Blackpool family area after she had arrived, and surmised he had to be Prince Geoffrey Blackpool. Mahrina tried not to be obvious, but she enjoyed studying the brothers while they inspected finely crafted swords and knives, even sampling the weapons by engaging in a short, spontaneous fencing match.
"Here we are!" Carmen sang. "I do hope you will be pleased."
Mahrina sat patiently still while Carmen combed through her wavy, waist-length hair. The princess knew Dirk was nearby and she decided to see if it really was her that was holding his interest so long. Mahrina tried not to register a readable expression when she was met with an unwavering stare from Dirk's handsome face. He leaned against a beam of wood that held the awning of the vendor beside the silver smith. His body was set in the same all too self-assured posture he'd had against the tree. He sipped a beverage from his goblet and raised it in her direction as if to give a toast.
The princess returned his gesture with a charming smile, and the couple continued their game of watching each other while Carmen worked tirelessly on Mahrina's hair. Mahrina did not have to tell Lara of her interest in Dirk when she returned with the drinks. Lara watched Mahrina's face, and it wasn't long before the astute blond was aware of the attraction between the royal heirs.
Mahrina couldn't help but laugh when Geoffrey walked away and Dirk turned to join him, but not before sweeping his hand across his chest and bowing gracefully to her. Mahrina's eyes were glued to his confident stride and powerful body as he left the merchants' area. They had not spoken a word, yet Mahrina felt her attraction to Dirk Blackpool cause a rush of desire that warmed her midsection and brought a flush to her cheeks.
"There we are, your highness!" Carmen announced and handed Mahrina two mirrors for her to inspect the work.
Her hair was as pretty and unique as the old woman had promised. Lara was still gushing about how wonderful it looked when Mahrina handed Carmen several kolnas for the flower piece and a rather large tip.
"Oh, no, my lady, it's all right," Carmen insisted.
"But I have to pay you!" Mahrina insisted right back.
"I've already been paid. Prince Blackpool took care of your charge."
"Dirk Blackpool?" Mahrina and Lara both asked at the same time.
"Yes. I was out back getting the ribbon for your hair when he approached me," she told Mahrina with a smile. "I hadn't the honor of meeting his highness before. He is quite charming. Princess Airleas, he asked me to give you these." Carmen pulled aside a heavy dark blanket she used as a curtain for her shack and retrieved a bundle from behind her cart. "They're the official flower of Karteia. Other than the Ice Dragons, they're the only pretty foliage that grows in the highlands, called Challis lilies."
Mahrina nodded, still taking in the enormous bouquet of large white petals. She cradled them in her arms and delighted in their fragrance, "I am familiar with them, Carmen. They are my favorite flowers! Thank you so much, and I hope you have a very pleasant journey home."
Lara shook her head as they left Carmen's stand. "Wow, how do you think he knew to give you those?"
"I don't know," Mahrina kept her eyes on the bouquet, "But I'm going to find out. Hey, there's a card."
"What does it say?" Lara squealed and reached for the small piece of parchment.
"'Dear Mahrina,' " the princess read the elegant penmanship aloud, jerking away from Lara's reach. "'I realize we are not well acquainted, an oversight I would very much like to correct given the neutrality of our kingdoms. If you have no previous plans, I would delight in the pleasure of your company on a walk after the feast. Your beauty is truly remarkable, and I look forward to seeing you and speaking with you this evening. Prince Dirk Blackpool.'"
"Wow, smooth guy. He is really good looking, even if his family is psychotic. Are you going to go?"
"Dirk couldn't be much worse than the last eligible bachelor that enriched my life."
"Oh, come on, you can't compare Kiefer to Dirk. He's an eighteen-year-old trapped in a thirty-year-old's body! And he isn't ruthless like Dirk is supposed to be."
"Actually, Kief can be when he wants to. And yes, I think I will accept Dirk's offer. After all, the games are over tomorrow. What could happen?"
Lara nodded and withdrew one of the lilies from the bunch to inhale the fragrance. "Right, and even if he is a weirdo, Dirk would make a great character to base your next story on. His body and face at least," Lara added with a shy giggle.
Mahrina bumped her hip playfully against Lara's. "You are right again. Wow, twice in one day, Canton, and you never even had that nap!"
"Mahrina, if you don't hurry up, I'm leaving without you!" King Airleas threatened through the flap of the princess' tent.
"You can come in now. I am nearly finished," she placated to her grandfather while taking extra care with her appearance.
The unbelievably handsome monarch strode in with a polish and refinement that often accompanied men of import. However, Rohrdan's regal presence was inborn. Many had speculated that had the king been born a simple farmer, his gait and the impact he left on others would have remained the same.
"Heavens, don't you look spectacular? I'll be the envy of every man there with you on my arm. You don't need to do a thing more."
"Flatter all you want, silver-tongued orator, I'm still not going to be ready any faster." Mahrina stood and turned proudly to display her new style. "How do you like my hair?"
"It is very nice," Rohrdan approved as he took a seat by a small bedside table. He'd noted immediately the large vase filled with Challis lilies, a huge bouquet even by his standards. "No card?"
"I’m sorry?" Mahrina asked, busily applying perfume to her wrists and neck.
"With your flowers, there is no card."
"An admirer left them." Mahrina had planned on telling Rohrdan they were from Dirk, but something tugged at her not to call attention to her interaction with the prince.
Mahrina announced, after one last look at her reflection, "Thank you for waiting, your most generous majesty, I am ready."
"Then let us go. I assume we're picking up Lara on the way?"
"Of course." Mahrina smiled radiantly, feeling butterflies soar around her stomach and looking forward to the evening much more than she had anticipated.
"Who are you looking for?" Geoffrey Blackpool inquired, noting Dirk's interest with each new arrival at the banquet.
"No one, little brother, simply aware of my surroundings. We may be here under a truce but it is no reason to let our guard down," Dirk replied smoothly.
"You're as paranoid as Dad. I'm going to find Mike and Bryan Tronin and see what the guys are doing after we eat. You wanna come too?" Dirk gave his brother a cold stare, so Geoffrey sulkingly shrugged his shoulders and left.
The Feast of the Games each evening was often the highlight of the entire event. A white canopy draped over dozens of round tables that held the dignitaries of the kingdoms. Just outside the canopy, a large band with all makes of horns, lutes, violins, and drums played rousing songs to be danced to before and after the meal. Delicious aromas filled the air several yards in each direction from the cooking tents; the fare included a full course meal with dishes from every country and liquors imported from other continents.
Dirk nursed his second glass of champagne and felt his stomach tense when Mahrina entered the tent. She was with her grandfather, and her friend was on King Rohrdan's other arm. The blond with the delicate features wore a silk gown of peach. Obviously of lesser quality than the princess' dress, Dirk noticed. He found her pleasant enough to look at, but not like Mahrina. His full attention was drawn to the statuesque princess in her figure-hugging peacock dress and silver cape. The old woman had done a lovely job on her hair and Blackpool believed Mahrina was the most beautiful woman at the event.
The meal was quickly dispersed and the prince continued to study Princess Airleas while she hastily took a few bites of each course of the meal. She gave her grandfather a quick kiss on his platinum beard before she and her friend got up and began visiting others around the makeshift dining hall.
The princess carried herself with grace, poised beyond her years as she went from table to table, conversing happily. Blackpool noted the apparent amount of high regard and friendliness the various royal parties showed Mahrina. When she neared his table Dirk strained to overhear her speak and found her soft, lyrical voice captivating.
Mahrina's gaze fell on Dirk and she approached him with an elegant walk that turned heads as she passed by. "I'll probably trip and fall right on my face at his feet," Mahrina thought, and had to bite her lip to keep from laughing at the mortification that scenario would induce.
For the first time Mahrina was able to study Dirk Blackpool up close. He was even more handsome than the earlier distance had allowed her to observe. His eyes were the most unique color of blue, like twilight-darkened sky at sunset. His face was chiseled with aristocratic features, his coloring similar to her own. The only lack of perfection she detected was his lips: almost a bit too thin for the rest of his face, but sensual and appealing on him.
Dirk did not often smile at others but Mahrina's dazzling smile caused him instinctively to return the gesture. Taking her smaller hand in his own Dirk raised it to his lips and left a lingering kiss before meeting her eyes and uttering his trademark greeting.
His simple welcome was not what she expected, but out of fear of appearing nervous she stifled her giggle. "Thank you for the flowers. Both sets." Mahrina added with a raise of her eyebrows, "I must ask, how did you know the lilies are my favorite flower?"
A pleased expression crossed Dirk's face. "Unfortunately, I can't take credit for a secret knowledge of you, Princess, I'm afraid I simply wished to share beauty from my home country. How fortunate they gave you even more enjoyment. May I ask if you are going to allow me the pleasure of your company?"
"I'd be happy to spend some time together. I only arrived this afternoon and I would like see the trophy room before tomorrow."
"We can begin our evening there. Then perhaps we can take a stroll around the camp?"
"Sounds wonderful, I'll let my friend Lara know where I'm going, and I'll be right back."
Blackpool could not take his eyes off of Mahrina while she was away from him. There was something captivating about her, and not her physical attributes. It was the way she did not treat him with haughtiness or an undercurrent of fear. Dirk found that most refreshing.
Mahrina joined him outside and let him take her arm through his while he led her to a well-illuminated tent. Inside, several guards stood watch over the jewels, precious metals and trophies bestowed once a year to the best warriors in Aperans.
Mahrina blinked her eyes several times as they adjusted to the brightness of the room. "Quite impressive," she commented on the biggest trophy.
"It's not as large as the prize I received for first place last year," Dirk informed her smugly.
"I had other travel plans the last few years right around the time of the Games. Too bad I didn’t get to see your win," Mahrina told him softly. "Give me a repeat performance tomorrow?"
Dirk liked the flirtatious way she lightly traced her nails over his hand before she stepped away and studied another group of gold statues. Dirk stared at her features, trying to decide what he liked more: her soft pink lips, or her eyes. Their color reminded him of fine jade sprinkled with golden flecks, and her dark lashes and brows framed them perfectly.
Blackpool wanted to be alone with her and see if she felt a reciprocal attraction that matched his. Dirk hurried her through the rest of the tent and stopped at his quarters to retrieve a large blanket. He and Mahrina walked hand in hand along a slightly worn path enclosed on each side by large fir trees. The countless stars became brighter as they left the crowds and fires behind.
Dirk tugged at his neckline with discomfort in the differing climate. "It is so warm. How can you stand it down here?"
"Branaugh isn't like this, and neither are the Swanns. We have desert heat, not this humidity. I despise it too," Mahrina agreed, wrinkling her nose at the haze of southern Aperans. "Belated congratulations on your victory this afternoon. Your technique at the end was great. You're working with Montoya, correct?"
The prince stopped dead in his tracks and faced Mahrina. "How did you know that?" he demanded, his suspicious nature triggered by her knowledge of his new royal trainer.
" I recognized the moves, Monty used to work for my grandfather. I’m surprised you don’t know all his references. The ankle pull is my favorite—especially effective on drunk, overzealous suitors."
Dirk chuckled softly and shook his head. "You are fascinating."
"Thanks, I'm glad someone thinks so."
"I would like it if we could become...friends."
"I would like that, too," Mahrina sighed casually. Her emotions held a mixed bag of apprehension because she did not explain to Lara that she was leaving the grounds with Dirk, and pleasure because no one would know where to find them.
Dirk led the princess to a group of large, flat boulders. Showing off a bit, he scaled the tallest slab before spreading the blanket on the most even surface. With a loud thud he jumped down and hoisted Mahrina up by her waist, then climbed up next to her. The couple took in the bird's eye view of the valley below. A gentle wind spiced with the aromas of sage and moss caressed their skin. Both were silent, but not uncomfortably so, for several minutes.
She felt Dirk's fingers gently brush her cheek and sighed when he traced his finger down the hollow of her neck. How strange it was to be here with Dirk, son of King Saris Blackpool, a man everyone claimed was mad with domination; a man who'd stop at nothing to attain his goals. And Dirk was rumored to be just like the king. Mahrina usually knew better than to listen to innuendo, but too often it contained important grains of truth, and that worried her a little.
Mahrina ran a finger down his face, wondering what brought him joy, or pain, or how he could emit such calm before her and be the same heartless leader she'd heard about on the battlefield.
Rohrdan had instilled in her from childhood that every person had many facets, showing individual traits and strengths as the situation dictated. Mahrina appreciated the observation and found it true with most she encountered. Could it be that Dirk was simply misunderstood? She knew for a fact that several highly regarded southern families were ruthless, petty, and disagreeable. They just happened to be less interested in acquiring more land through war.
Dirk entwined his fingers in one of her soft curls and picked a group of petals from her hair. He fanned the fragrance under his nose, then stared off into the distance.
Mahrina studied his profile as he reclined against his elbows, sensing the sadness his expression betrayed. "What are you thinking about?"
"My mother. The Ice Dragons in your hair remind me of her; she liked to wear them on special occasions. How old were you when your parents died?"
Mahrina drew her knees up to her chest and removed her shoes while she looked straight ahead. "I don’t really think of them as parents in the literal sense. I was two months old when my mother, Astalynn, took her own life. Osryd, my father, isn't dead. He was banished for two hundred years to the Dark Plane of Existence by the Council. From what I understand, Osryd and Astalynn decided to murder Rohrdan because he wouldn’t approve of their relationship."
"Your father is a wizard?" Dirk clarified, looking at Mahrina's neck for the chain of a conjurer’s talisman.
Mahrina managed a weak smile. "Not all mages wear evidence of their abilities. I don't have one, however. Nor do I practice the arts."
The prince nodded, trying to hide the surprise he felt at her admission. "You seem quite a favorable mix of magic and royal blood. I'd heard it is a tedious and sometimes volatile combination. How does it affect you?"
"I'm still finding that out. I occasionally have strong impressions of people or events. Some call it precognition, but I can't control it so it does me very little good. For a short time I worked with the wizard Trayquill. I did not enjoy that."
"But why not expound on your inborn talents?"
"Going before the Council to receive a talisman is no small task. The channeling of energy required to spell cast makes me feel like I’ve run back-to-back royal triathlons. Inborn or not, magic leaves me quite drained. I will need all the energy I can get once the responsibility of the crown is upon my head."
"Curiouser and curiouser. Your life story does have me spellbound. No pun intended," Dirk added with an innocent expression.
"Of course not," Mahrina smirked.
"Why didn’t your parents simply elope?"
"I doubt that would have increased Rohrdan’s favor. They never did marry, and that was quite a scandal among the gossipy set in the kingdoms. I don’t let it bother me, though. Rohrdan clarified the Branaugh Canon so there would be no question of my birthright. He told me he had a good feeling about me—despite the circumstances of the time."
Dirk exhaled abruptly, "All the old school royalty and their self-righteous arrogance; it makes me ill. You are more fit to be queen than those obnoxious philosophers in their rose-colored glasses!"
"You really don't know me that well. Are you sure you want to make that kind of assessment so soon?"
"A simple thank you would have sufficed, dear girl."
Mahrina's laugher was interrupted by the distant sound of her name being called. "Sounds like Lara," she detected and rolled onto her stomach looking for her friend. "Do you mind if she joins us?"
Dirk nodded in accord and the princess called out until Lara knew their location. Blackpool stepped down from the rocks and helped Lara up to their perch.
"Look what I had Mike Tronin snag for us!" Lara triumphantly held up a bottle of orange-peach liquor with two cups. "He said you can pay him back after the break. And Grandfather was looking for you, but have no fear, I told him I'd find you and keep his darling out of trouble."
"My guardian angel," Mahrina giggled.
"Are you two actually related?" Dirk wondered.
"Only by over-exposure. King Airleas has always insisted I call him Grandfather," Lara informed him proudly.
"Good job, Canton," Mahrina praised when the rising moonlight illuminated the bottle's label. "Would you mind?" she requested, handing Dirk the container.
Dirk used the knife he kept in his boot to free the cork from the neck of the blue glass bottle. He filled the glasses to their limit with the thick orange beverage and handed one to Lara and sipped from the other before passing it to Mahrina. "It is quite agreeable," he approved as he ran his tongue around the sweet aftertaste. "Do you ladies drink often, considering you aren't even legal age yet?"
Lara quickly swallowed and pointed at Dirk, "Don't let her have more than one glass; Princess Intoxication here can't handle her liquor!"
Mahrina conceded, "It's true, pathetic but true. We drink when we feel like it. We're close to eighteen...well, close enough. Besides, that's what fake papers are for," she added with a wicked laugh.
Casually lying on their backs and looking at the stars, the young women entertained the prince with tales of their 'adventures': school, travel, and personal likes. The more Dirk listened to Mahrina's thoughts and desires for the future, the more enchanted he became with her. Part of him wished for Lara to leave them alone again, but Mahrina did seem happy and animated around her friend. The young women were like sisters, albeit their different physical appearances. It was obvious to him that Mahrina was the leader and Lara adored her, not unlike his younger sibling did him.
Lara continued regaling Dirk with many humorous stories of herself and Mahrina, going back to early childhood. Dying of embarrassment at Lara's loose tongue, the princess collapsed in a fit of laughter on the large purple blanket emblazoned with the initial 'B'. Mahrina was not expecting Dirk to show any affection or interest with Lara there; so it surprised her when he moved behind her and pulled Mahrina against his immense body, grasping the indentation of her waist with his large hand.
"Well, I'm exhausted. I think I'll call it a night," Lara announced, feeling a third-wheel status approaching. "It's been very nice talking to you, Prince Blackpool. Mahrina, I'll be at the tent. Have her back in fifteen minutes and I mean it. Don't make me come back here with the guards," Lara warned in her best parental tone.
"Your word is axiom," Dirk patronized dryly. "It was a pleasure making your acquaintance, Lady Canton."
"You okay getting down?" Mahrina inquired.
"Am I okay getting down?" Lara's offense was obvious and she slid down the rock with ease until she was out of sight.
The couple was momentarily silent, but upon hearing a rather loud thud—followed by a string of curses from the proper young Lady Canton—their bodies shook with laugher.
"Not funny!" Lara's voice called up. "I mean it, children, fifteen minutes!"
Dirk sat up and drained the last drops of the liquid from the bottle before he dove onto Mahrina passionately. His tongue gently parted her lips and he shared with her the last tastes of the sweet, fruited beverage.
Mahrina hadn't been ready for his kiss. Quickly she responded and interlaced her fingers around his neck, eagerly exploring his mouth with the same fervor that he bestowed on her. There was a lonely urgency in his touch, a sentiment she could understand and wished to erase from him.
Descending her neck slowly, he inhaled her rich, spicy perfume, and brushed his lips over her throat. Dirk had picked up on her natural sensuality when he'd observed her earlier, and now that he felt her respond to him with such passion, he doubted she was a stranger to intimate encounters like this. Dirk longed for her with a desire that ripped through him completely.
Unwelcome thoughts began to swirl through Mahrina's mind as she moaned with pleasure from Dirk's arousing kisses. There were so many reasons she shouldn't become involved with him, and those thoughts pushed through the peaking desire in her body. Unconsciously, she tensed up, and within moments Dirk drew back an inch over her face, his hot breath fanning her not unlike a dragon's flames.
"What is it?" he whispered. "Did I hurt you?"
"No, this is just happening so fast. We just met! We’ve never even formally introduced ourselves."
Dirk pressed his lips to her forehead, bemused at her correct observation. "You'd tell me if I were pressuring you—"
"That's not it!" Mahrina adamantly interrupted. "I just don't want to move so fast it becomes awkward between us."
He traced her cheekbones with his fingertips, still reveling in her interest in him as a suitor. "You are wise to not be entirely ruled by your passion. I'll return you to your tent before Lady Canton releases the dogs for us. After my victory tomorrow I would like to spend the evening you. I'd hate to let one moment pass that we can't be together before we depart for our homes."
The thought of only one more day with him saddened Mahrina, still she tried to remain cheerful as they dusted themselves off and folded the blanket. Mahrina held onto his shoulders as he lifted her down effortlessly from the peak. Mahrina pressed against him affectionately before he released her to the soft earth.
"May I have one of these to carry with me tomorrow?" he requested, fingering a silver ribbon still tied in her hair.
"Of course," Mahrina nodded, and allowed him to remove the shiny fabric without pulling her tresses. She sadly realized how difficult it would be to remove Prince Blackpool from her mind once they'd gone their separate ways.
Dirk held the princess' hand tightly as they walked along in the darkness. To his pleasure he studied her body language and noted she was aware of her surroundings. Mahrina kept looking into the bushes and around the path.
Mahrina paused as she removed a few stray twigs and leaves from her hair. "It's so late I'd better go the rest of the way alone. Rohrdan’s probably still playing cards, but he doesn't know I was with you and I don't want to take any chances of him hearing some blown-out-of-proportion version."
Dirk nodded, "I'll watch that you get there safely." He shared one last embrace and lengthy kiss before Mahrina slipped away into her temporary sleeping quarters.
Prince Blackpool slung the blanket over his shoulder, picking up hints of Mahrina's ethereal perfume on the material. The scent brought an arousing vision of the princess in his arms; however, further intimate thoughts of Mahrina made Dirk slightly anxious.
Compared with most young royalty, Dirk was relatively inexperienced with women. He knew the chivalrous way to behave around them, and how to be a proper suitor, but the few physical encounters he'd had were not what he'd expected.
Blackpool had spent the last several years building up his once sickly body to competition form, and filling his mind with war tactics and simulated table top battles, while most his age were out dating and having fun. Dirk was often peeved with the expected romantic commitment young ladies demanded before giving him any of their affections, and, believing he deserved better, was not enticed by the idea of servants in his bed.
The prince often found himself agreeing with Saris' warning to him since childhood. A warrior does not make a good lover, and women are trouble; they were never to be trusted, their frailties drained strength from their men, and they caused distraction—fatal if the preoccupation occurred at a critical time.
A handful of females had intrigued Dirk enough to pursue them until they had given in to his desires. To his dismay, however, Dirk had found the situations most uncomfortable. He was unfamiliar with a woman's body and his lovers seemed unhappy with his efforts. Prince Blackpool loathed feeling inferior, or anyone insinuating something he had done was less than spectacular.
Dirk began a pattern of avoiding his lovers once he'd sated his urges. Eventually, he earned a reputation for being a cad. Most of the time that suited Dirk just fine. The image killed two birds with the proverbial one stone: future potential dates began to avoid him, and Dirk was portrayed with an overestimated 'social' life like that of his peers.
"Dirk, wait!" a worried voice startled him as he'd reached his destination. The Karteian prince spun around to see Mahrina rushing towards him.
"Lara's not in the tent. She hasn't been there at all. Something is wrong."
Blackpool studied her features, the seriousness in her eyes. "Are you certain? Maybe she's with friends."
"You don't understand; I know something is wrong!"
Dirk responded with the efficiency of a seasoned senior officer barking out orders. "You get the guards. I'll get my sword."
Mahrina yelled to soldiers from several kingdoms to join her. She kicked off her uncomfortable shoes and ran with urgency towards the path she'd just taken with Dirk.
While following an invisible, beckoning aura, Mahrina silently chastised herself for being so focused on Prince Blackpool that she hadn't recognized earlier the odd feelings she’d sensed when passing the hollow.
Beams of light from the guard's portable lanterns eerily illuminated the grass and leaves to each side of Mahrina. Before she actually saw Dirk next to her she heard his powerful footfalls as he easily caught up to her.
"Lara, where are you?" Mahrina yelled, wincing as she felt her bare feet being scratched by underbrush the further she moved into the foliage.
Both she and Dirk spotted movement in a clearing. As an adrenaline surge progressed through Mahrina's body she ripped up one side of her skirt and pulled a knife from a sheath tied around her right thigh.
"Don't let them escape!" Blackpool commanded when two figures fled from the approaching lights and people.
Mahrina dropped next to Lara; the young woman was huddled and crying, holding together her ripped dress that was covered in dirt. The princess removed her cape to cover Lara and rocked her back and forth, battling her own urge to cry.
It seemed like hours of madness, but in reality it took only a few moments for the soldiers to capture the slower of the two perpetrators. Blackpool pursued the other to a short struggle in the neighboring group of trees. Dirk dragged him back by his hair to be taken to the camp brig until the hosting kingdom would levy their punishment.
When the struggling captives were illuminated, Mahrina instantly recognized the two drunken instigators from the merchants' area earlier that day. Taking Lara's face in her hands she spoke softly. "What happened…did they?"
Lara shook her head no, burying her face against the princess. The beaten men were shoved to the ground on their knees, their hands tied behind their backs. Still, they carried on to the guards, vowing the soldiers did not know whom they were dealing with.
The taller man slurred, "We didn't get to teach the spoiled little bitch a lesson, yet. And you, pretty one, disappointed me; you weren't here for class at all." He spat a mouthful of blood at Mahrina and laughed.
Dirk Blackpool was infuriated as he lifted his sword handle at the would-be rapist's head to inflict a fatal blow.
Before he could execute his maneuver, Mahrina lunged at the man, delivering a potent kick to his face with her bare foot. He fell backwards onto the odd angle of his arms, landing in a reversed fetal position with his chest elevated.
Mahrina pounced on him with a vengeance, driving one of her knees into the man's rib cage and the other into his neck just below the windpipe. She raised her knife above his throat and waited for the look of terror to fill his eyes. Would he feel it? The same chilling fear and helplessness he'd just inflicted on Lara? Mahrina hoped so. She dearly hoped so.
His pathetic whimper reached a fever pitch and he called out for mercy. Mahrina waited for him to slowly raise his eyelids, knowing he wondered why the blade still threatened above. She met his stare with an icy smile. "I believe you owe my friend an apology, then your so-called class will be dismissed!"
He coughed and sputtered just above a whisper, but was unable to speak. Blood, mixed with saliva, slowly oozed out of his mouth and down his lips.
Mahrina recoiled with disdain, taking several steps backwards. She calmed her ragged breath and let the cold rage seep out of her body. Two of the guards picked up the wheezing man from the ground. A third guard left his lantern and shoved the second attacker towards the camp. Mahrina sheathed her knife and dropped back next to Lara.
"It happened so fast, I tried to yell and they covered my mouth. But I knew you'd find me, Rina."
"I'm just sorry I took so long." Mahrina raised her eyes to Dirk and expected to be met with a look of disgust at her outburst.
Dirk knelt next to Mahrina; he hadn't taken his stare off the princess since the first movements of her attack. He brushed away a bit of dirt from her cheek and cupped her face softly. Mahrina held his gaze and saw nothing resembling the negative judgment she had feared.
"Over here!" Dirk shouted when an approaching party called out the girls’ names.
Lord Canton, King Airleas, King Greystone and his sons Erik and Justin made their way into the clearing. Their torches and portable lanterns cast dancing shadows throughout the forest, making the scene appear direr than it was. Jeorge Canton dropped his lamp and rushed to Lara’s side when he saw his only daughter's condition.
"What in hell’s fire happened?" King Airleas demanded.
Lara sniffed and spoke up. "I went for a walk. Mahrina knew I was gone, and she and Dirk, they saved me from those men. I’m sorry, Daddy, I know I shouldn’t have come out alone." Lara's voice broke off shakily.
Mahrina smoothed Lara's straight blond hair, loving her friend even more for Lara's loyalty in not revealing the earlier events. "The worse of the two gave the guards quite a run. He would have gotten away if Dirk hadn’t caught him. We got here in time; she just has some scrapes and bruises."
Lord Canton picked up his daughter and cradled her as he’d done many times when she was a little girl. Still in shock, he addressed Dirk. "Prince Blackpool, how can I repay something of this magnitude?"
"There is no debt," Dirk replied evenly.
Rohrdan held his granddaughter’s chin with his fingers and studied her face. "How fortunate Dirk was near by to help."
"Rina, come with me," Lara beckoned over her father’s shoulder.
Mahrina broke away from Rohrdan, turning to Dirk before she departed. "Thank you," she whispered, and wanted to say more, but a lump caught in her throat, and she feared another moment in front of the others would reveal her growing affection for the prince.
Dirk nodded as he watched her depart. Blackpool coolly sheathed his sword as he took in the surprised expressions of the Greystones. He glared at the family trio with a raise of his left eyebrow. "Perhaps you were expecting to find me out here attacking women?"
Erik stepped forward with a sideways glance at Dirk. "No, we just had to see if you really were a hero. Good job."
Dirk drew a breath as he attempted to assert the angle of the veiled insult he was certain Erik's words contained. "Only a true coward rapes or hits a woman, and only an idiot would stand by and do nothing if he were aware of a woman in danger. I am neither. Bye."
Justin Greystone shook his head and patted Erik's shoulder. "That guy can't take a compliment."
"No kidding," Erik laughed and joined the others to head back to the camp in the moist, heavy air.
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