"Okay, sleepy heads, rise and shine!" Princess Anna Garfallo shattered the morning silence with her husky, grating voice. The princess of Langerston was dressed in a suede riding outfit of lemon yellow, her raven hair was tightly French braided, and her coal black eyes danced with amusement.
Lara Canton stirred restlessly and covered her head with a down pillow. "Don't you have any respect for the dead? Go find some other graves to dance on, Anna-Marie!"
"We still have plans for coffee, ladies, and I want to hear all about your experience last night. The camp is buzzing about how you taught that jackass a lesson, Mahrina. You broke his ribs! I guess once the jerks sobered up they pled guilty and are already on their way to the prison dungeons. How did Dirk Blackpool get involved?"
The princess opened her eyes, astounded how quickly word had spread. She took a deep breath of daybreak air. It carried hints of clover but the essence of lily dominated the sleeping area. Mahrina stood, met with pain from several parts of her body. Her head pounded from leftover stress and alcohol, and she fought to stay standing despite the scraped soles of her feet.
"He was close by when I yelled to the guards. Any other man would have done the same thing in his place," Mahrina downplayed. "Now, Miss Anna, what's this about you and Erik Greystone? Last I heard he was dating Catherine Scot. Then he was with redheaded Katherine. And now his sights are set on a certain cute brunette from Langerston."
Anna let out a girlish squeal and plopped onto Lara's cot, causing a grunting reprimand from the blond, who was trying in vain to get back to sleep. Mahrina worked a comb through her hair while listening to Anna glow about her new suitor, and wondered if Dirk had dreamt about her as she had of him.
Lara, never one to do well on little sleep, finally gave up. "Since you aren't getting the hint, Queen Greystone-to-be, are the baths crowded?"
"No," Anna informed with a slap to Lara's leg, "but they will be if you don't hurry."
"How are you?" Mahrina wondered, kneeling next to Lady Canton's bed.
"I'm gonna be okay, I owe you one, sis."
"Debt denied, you'd do the same thi-…what is that smell? Oh no," Mahrina pointed a finger at Anna as she lit up a cigarette, "Not in my tent with that thing, take it outside!"
"Killjoy," Anna pouted, shaking the white cylinder at Mahrina with bright, well-manicured fingernails. "I'll meet you over at the gazebo. Don't keep me waiting, girls."
Wrapped in white cotton nightgowns, the girls padded a few tents away through the desolate camp. Refreshed from the soap and warm water provided by the servants, both dressed in casual clothing for the activities they'd planned with Anna. Mahrina wore the outfit she usually used for horseback riding: caramel colored leather pants that hugged her like a second skin, knee high boots of the same hue, and a crisp, green shirt, tucked in and belted at the waist. Lara wore a set similar to Anna's, the light blue color bringing out the lovely shade of her eyes.
The young women reunited at a table under a dried grapevine lattice covering, where only a handful of early risers were gathered to begin their day. With animation the girls recanted recent happenings over mugs of creamy, cinnamon spiced latte. The stimulant helped clear Mahrina's head and she felt more like herself. The trio continued sharing jovial comments and giggling to the point of tears, attracting smiles and waves from the young knights and nobles arriving for breakfast.
"Well, don't you look like a ray of sunshine to brighten my day?" Erik Greystone purred to Anna as he straddled the bench next to her and placed a lingering kiss on her lips. Anna ran her fingers through Erik's long, blond hair, stopping to play with the shimmering gold vest he wore over a brilliant red shirt.
Lara rolled her eyes and Mahrina returned the gesture, sticking her finger deep inside her mouth with an exaggerated silent gag. A throaty chuckle caught Mahrina's attention and she was met with Justin Greystone's sparkling eyes. His head nodded in agreement at her reaction to his brother's sugary words. The younger Greystone made a dashing impression in his beige tunic and hunter green leggings. A large bronze medallion held his cape in place and his height of six-one seemed more substantial from the heels of his boots.
"What's up, 'Trouble'?" he asked Mahrina, then wrangled his way between her and Lara. "You angels been waiting' for me long?" Justin wondered with a crooked grin and placed a hand on each girl's knee.
"Not for a second, Justin." Lara informed the well-known trifler with a grin and flung his hand aside.
"All my life, blue eyes," Mahrina breathed with a coy smile and rested her chin in her hand inches away from his face. While the pair continued unwavering stares Justin's fingers started massaging her knee, slowly raising his grip up her leg.
"Cut it out, big boy, or you'll lose more than just your hand. That's cheating!" Mahrina warned, trying desperately not to smile.
"Your eyes are getting so dry, you just gotta blink...come on, I see it," Justin tormented.
"I hate you!" Mahrina cried, once again losing the staring contest they engaged in at each of their infrequent meetings.
"How come I never get any love letters from you?" Greystone demanded of Mahrina, slinging his large arm around her shoulder.
"Maybe because she doesn't love you, Justin," Anna retorted, lighting up another cigarette. "Face it, no one will ever share the same level of devotion you have to yourself!"
The group laughed but Mahrina noticed that Justin's smile wasn't matched with the expression in his eyes. She believed a much deeper person dwelled behind his well-worn facade of indolence and self-absorption, but she couldn't confirm it; she didn’t know him well enough.
As youngsters Justin and Mahrina had spent a fair amount of time together. At home, the children tried their governess’ patience to sainthood. When paired, they made a formidable duo, and their so-called dare contests became legendary among their friends. Once the war started they didn’t see each other again until their early teens. Childhood friendship then turned into an adolescent attraction. Instead of giving in to a youthful courtship, they independently were intimidated by the pull of the magnetism. Without ever discussing it, they handled their feelings by initiating a humorous flirting in front of others, and avoiding situations that would require unaccompanied interaction.
He was looking at Erik and making small talk about the games when Mahrina felt Justin's hand slip over hers. The pair tightly entwined their fingers under the table, though no one around them detected. She was fascinated by the way his large, thick hands made hers feel dainty and protected. As a little girl she would often hold her hand up to her grandfather's and feel secure. Rohrdan’s were so sturdy.
Mahrina laid her head against Justin's shoulder, wondering if anyone else picked up on the unspoken connection that seemed to radiate between them. She studied his solid profile. He wasn't perfect like Dirk, but she found Justin attractive in a different way. His thick, wavy chestnut hair was carelessly tousled. His tanned face held a smirk at what his brother was saying, but Mahrina sensed a thousand different thoughts spinning behind his steely blue eyes.
Little more than a year older than Mahrina, Justin had already proved himself a capable leader on the battlefield. After a barrage from fresh Karteian troops, Justin was the senior officer left alive and led one of the most successful counterattacks in history against Saris Blackpool's army. With Rohrdan's insistence that his future successor be well versed in the art of war, Mahrina knew the intelligence such a feat required. She wondered with her innate curiosity why, then, Justin Greystone literally worked at being regarded as nothing other than an inane, lazy playboy. Mahrina wished for the answer—despite the dichotomy of attraction and apprehension that overwhelmed her when she and Justin were together.
"We've got to run, girls. Lots to see and do before the games start!" Lara announced.
"You're right, I'm interested to see the new layout of the camp this year," Mahrina agreed behind Justin's neck to Lara.
Anna and Erik began exchanging several long good-bye kisses. Justin shook his head and turned to Mahrina as she got up. "You girls be careful if you go in those woods again. I got enough filling my head without havin' to worry about ya'll."
"You're a bigger mother tadmon than Lara," Mahrina teased warmly. Bending his face back she placed a swift, upside down kiss on his forehead.
"Good luck today, Erik," Mahrina wished him sincerely, without adding she didn't think her wishes would do him any good against Dirk's superiority.
King Airleas and his son-in-law King Edwyn Baaldorf sat smoking their pipes in the bleachers of the Southern kingdoms. Mahrina waved her hand in the air at the smoke that seemed to follow her no matter where she moved.
"I'm sorry, gentlemen, I'm going to find a different place to sit," Mahrina choked. "Enjoy the games. I'll see you later."
"Mahrina," Rohrdan said, "I've barely seen you since your break started. Meet me at the banquet; I'll take you shopping before the vendors close down."
The princess took a deep breath, 'Neutrality or not, he's going hate the idea.'
"I've already agreed to go to the feast with Dirk Blackpool. And a group of us are going to be doing something after dinner. As soon as we get home, you'll have me all to yourself."
The expression on King Airleas' face tightened. "I'm going hunting with Rich Greystone from here. I suppose our visit will have to wait until next week. How long have you and Dirk been acquainted?"
"Since yesterday. After his help with what happened last night, I thought it would be interesting to have some conversation over dinner. It's not like it will be easy to do again with a continent between us," Mahrina smiled, hoping her voice sounded as casual as she intended. "Oh, Uncle Edwyn, I have a necklace for Ariel and a letter for Aunt Latinia. Please remind me if I don't give them to you tomorrow."
"Sure thing, bright eyes," Edwyn nodded and affectionately gave Mahrina's hand a squeeze.
"Don’t distract too many women from the events, you silver foxes," Mahrina called back.
Edwyn looked after the young woman who had been his real first exposure to children. Mahrina was two when he married Latinia, and Edwyn recalled with fondness the days when the pre-schooler, still too young to accompany Rohrdan on his official travels, would stay at their castle. Mahrina had easily wrapped Edwyn around her little finger with her infectious giggle and tireless energy. Baaldorf tapped the mouthpiece of the pipe to his fuzzy beard and turned to his father-in-law. "You really going to let her go on a date with Dirk Blackpool?"
Rohrdan's eyes narrowed. "She can have a meal with him. If I disagree it might only make her more intrigued by him. Just wait until Ariel starts her boy craziness."
"Starts!" Edwyn exclaimed. "Try started! She’s barely twelve years old and for months now all I hear about is D’Wayne this and D’Wayne that!"
King Airleas chuckled, spotting Mahrina across the field talking and laughing with Lara and King Garfallo's daughter. "Enjoy it while you can, Ed. They grow up so fast, and then one day they won't tell you much of anything."
Mahrina found herself having to concentrate on the matches of the less skilled knights and princes. Her mind drifted to Dirk Blackpool and the knowing stare he'd given her from the practice area.
When he strode onto the dirt filled arena in only black leather leggings and an open vest, Mahrina couldn't take her eyes off of him. He fought Erik Greystone with the ferocity of a recently liberated caged lion. Taking on no injuries he triumphed over Erik in a record amount of time for the last event. The crowd took a moment to applaud for the dark prince, stunned and disappointed with the quick defeat the heir of Camarand suffered.
After the ceremonial presentation of the awards and trophies, Princess Airleas fought through the crowd.
"I'll be back!" Mahrina yelled over her shoulder to Lara and Anna. She hadn't spotted Dirk yet. Not wanting to be forward and actually seek him out, she hoped to bump into him by chance. And if that happened, she wanted to be alone.
"Geoffrey!" Mahrina addressed the younger Blackpool when she saw him striding by, "You were excellent, congratulations!" Mahrina truly was impressed with the imitation of Dirk's routine from the previous day that led to Geoffrey's conquest over Thomas of Southwick.
Brushing long wet bangs out of his eyes, Geoffrey stood proudly, "Why, thank you. Dirk showed me a new move and I perfected it even further. See what I got?"
Mahrina examined the small trophy and smiled up at the younger prince. He was already towering over her in height, and at five-feet nine inches Mahrina rarely felt petite.
"So, little brother, I see you put my advice to good use. Well done," Dirk spoke, having approached so stealthily behind Mahrina he noted she jumped at his words.
"Hey, good job to you, too! That was incredible! I've never seen you fight like that. Mahrina, have you seen Anna? Did she see me win?"
"Yes, we all did. Last I saw, she was over in the west part of the stands."
Mahrina giggled when Geoffrey sped past her toward the stands, his good-bye to her and his brother barely understandable.
Dirk eyed Mahrina up and down, aroused by the way her body was encased in the casual riding habit. "And how are you today?" he asked taking her hand to his lips for a brief kiss.
Tucking her hair behind her ears, Mahrina tried not to stare at his bare chest. In his current attire, his torso glistened from perspiration and was chiseled from hours of intense exercise. "I'm just fine and I guess I don't have to ask how you are."
"Did I give you a good enough show?"
"I suppose," Mahrina sighed, not able to resist toying with him after the supremacy she detected in his voice.
"Perhaps you can assist me with something," Dirk encouraged, leading her to the seclusion of his tent. Once inside the darkened area he securely tied the door flaps, slid his vest off over his powerful biceps, and handed Mahrina a small glass bottle.
"It seems my masseuse has wandered off. Would you be comfortable giving me a rub down? I'll be much too sore to do anything if I don’t receive one. Our plans for the day, and I, am at your mercy."
Mahrina looked at the large portable table set up in the middle of the tent. "Well, if you put it that way...lie down." The princess seriously doubted there ever was a masseuse. Dirk looked far too pleased with the circumstances for it to be otherwise.
Blackpool stared at her as he removed his leggings and wrapped a towel around his waist. Dirk became frustrated with Mahrina as he rolled onto his stomach. She had too much control of her expression, not showing dismay, upset, or pleasure with his current state of undress.
Mahrina poured a bit of the lightly scented almond oil into the palm of her hand. She held it closed for a moment to warm the liquid, then smoothed it over his shoulders. "Is this all right?" she asked softly.
He only grunted an affirmative response and laid his forehead to his arms. Mahrina added pressure to her touch, gliding her fingers all over his fully muscled back. His skin was still warm from the physical exertion, and the sensation of her hands covered in the oil and rubbing his body began to fill her with desire.
"You impressed me last night," Dirk told her quietly. "I enjoyed the retribution you exercised on that low-life."
Stepping around the table, Mahrina began working on his legs, starting at the knotted calf muscles and working up. "I didn't know if I'd turned you off or not. I usually contain myself—"
Dirk interrupted, "You are an intriguing mix of physical strength and sophistication. I find that a wonderful combination."
He had planned to entice Mahrina into giving him a rub down in hopes of some sensual pleasure, but as she expertly rubbed the tension from his thighs, Dirk groaned with relief. While Mahrina finished with his shoulders, Dirk felt the need to share with her an observation he'd formulated.
"Are you aware why I was able to defeat Greystone so quickly today?"
Mahrina wiped her hands on another towel and stood by the head of the table. "You paid him to throw the match so we could be alone sooner?"
Dirk sat up and held her close. "Hardly. It was you. Knowing you were there to appreciate my skill. Your presence fills me with success." He kissed her roughly and opened his mouth onto hers before her lips had a chance to part.
Mahrina ran her fingers through his short, silky hair. She allowed his hands to explore every inch of her until a small voice inside her demanded an audience; ‘If you don’t get out of this tent right now you’re going to regret it—forever.’
"Did you think about me last night?" he demanded, and brushed her hair to one side, gently kissing her neck.
"Yes, I even dreamed about you." Mahrina stopped, startled at how quickly she’d relayed the admission.
The passion he felt for Mahrina, added to his intoxicating victory over Greystone, filled Dirk with merriment he not often experienced. Dirk led her to a chair and pulled Mahrina down to straddle him, their passion more pronounced with each kiss.
Dirk looked up at her and ran his fingers over her flushed cheeks, reveling in her unabashed desire for him and lack of inhibitions; given the time of day and their location, they were not completely without the prospect of discovery. Taking her in his arms, her legs still encircling his waist, Dirk moved them to his bed and pulled off her boots before lying on top of her.
Feeling his manipulation to the button on her leggings, Mahrina tensed. "How many women have you been with?"
Lying a few inches above her face he nuzzled her gently. "It doesn't matter. Nothing about our pasts matters." Dirk freed her of her clothing and threw his towel aside. He took in the beauty of her toned, feminine physique with a smile.
Mahrina was overwhelmed with sensations and emotions. She felt she didn't care about anyone or anything else in the world. No one had ever made her feel so important, needed or desired. The voice inside her was crying out to stop, but she willed it to silence.
"I adore that," Dirk revealed, when Mahrina ran her hands up and down his stomach and chest.
That was the last thing she was conscious of him saying before it happened…
Afterward, Mahrina stared at the fabric ceiling of Dirk’s tent. She shivered suddenly, remembering the little she'd heard about his reputation for conquest and then quickly moving on.
Dirk's voice startled her and she looked up at him. "I asked if you are all right," he repeated, kneeling down in front of the bed, his brow furrowed with concern. "There is blood."
"I'm fine. That's normal," Mahrina said softly, embarrassed at his discovery. She sat up, folded her arms over her knees and couldn't look at him.
"Yes, but only on the first time or two. You should have told me if I'd hurt..." Dirk became silent, studying her body language and expression. "You seemed comfortable with what we were doing, Mahrina, why didn't you tell me? If I’d known, I would have been more gentle. Forgive my assumption."
Dirk hugged her with such force Mahrina had to ask him to loosen his hold on her. She got the impression that not many things surprised Dirk Blackpool, but unknowingly taking her virginity was now near the top of the list.
Dirk propped himself up on a pillow and pulled Mahrina to his chest. "What is it I did that allowed you to give this part of yourself to me? We barely know one another, yet you trusted me not to harm you. I don't understand."
"I don’t either. It might seem hard to believe, given my actions, but I’ve never moved this quickly with anyone before. You didn’t use a spell on me, did you?"
"An enchanted enchantress? A bewitched witch?" Dirk mused.
"I’m not a witch. Not in that sense of the word," she giggled.
"Rest assured no sorcery was used in acquiring your affection, but there is something powerful between us, Mahrina. You belong with me."
The couple stood at the rear entrance to his tent. Dirk embraced Mahrina, not wanting to separate even for her to get ready for dinner. He was filled with a hunger to explore his sensual side with her, and was aware that the days when only exercise and war simulations could sate him were gone. He rather liked this new game of seduction, even though there were no clear-cut winners or losers.
Dual thoughts of Mahrina demanded his attention. Part of him cherished her, wanted to shower her with gifts and fulfill every wish she'd ever made. Yet coexisting, he felt a hellish threat from the power that she could now exert over him. Once he was aware of his status as her only partner, Blackpool felt a proprietary hold on her the likes of which he'd not known possible. Dirk had never been anyone's first—even his own first time.
"I'll be by to pick you up in half an hour," he told her with a kiss.
Mahrina could only nod before breaking away and slipping out of his temporary abode. Though it was dusk, she kept looking at the ground, unable to meet anyone's face as she hurried along. Upon reaching her tent Mahrina heard voices inside and prayed Rohrdan's was not one of them. She finally crept in after eavesdropping until she was reasonably sure her grandfather wasn't there.
"Where have you been?" Lara cried.
Anna eyed her shrewdly. "Looks like you got mauled by some kind of wild animal."
Mahrina looked at the hourglass confirming it had been hours since she'd left them in the stands. She turned away from both girls, knowing her appearance betrayed whisker burn on her lips and chin. Her clothing was obviously wrinkled from being wadded up and thrown aside.
"Is anyone looking for me?"
Lara approached Mahrina, shaking her head. "I haven't said anything yet, but I should have. I didn't want to think that you were in any trouble, but that remains to be seen!"
The discomposure of Mahrina's face sent Anna reeling. "Okay, kids, let me in on this; who's the secret suitor? What happened here?" With genuine concern, Anna's fingers pulled Mahrina's hair aside revealing several purple bruises on the younger princess' neck.
Mahrina faced the mirror. A blush rose over her face when she spied the dark hickeys left behind from her encounter.
Realizing their cause, Princess Garfallo’s resolve to solve the mystery grew. "Who is he? Come on, Mahrina, don't make me ask around!"
"Anna, I will tell you later, but I really have to get ready now. I'll see you after dinner, and we have to get together for coffee before you leave tomorrow!" Mahrina literally threw Anna out of the tent and tied the flap restraint vigorously. Mahrina couldn't meet Lara's eyes, so she sat heavily on her cot and stared at the lilies.
"You slept with him, didn't you?" Lara's question held no judgment or disapproval but an odd sadness.
"Well, we didn't sleep." Mahrina had meant to add levity but quickly realized the comment didn’t amuse her friend.
"Mahrina, I don’t know what to say. Gods, you don't even know him! And he's a Blackpool!"
"And what exactly is it that you object to, Dirk's name, or his father's sins? Neither of which he is responsible for!"
"Are you saying you see a lamb in wolf's clothing?" Lara baited. "Do you think a guy raised by King Blackpool is a good catch? He murdered his wife! Is that a man you want your children to call Grandpa? Perhaps Dirk will handle things the same way if he gets sick of his future spouse. The fruit doesn't fall far from the tree, so open your eyes!"
Deep down, Mahrina knew Lara was right. But she couldn’t acknowledge it, not while a raging battle was currently being fought between her conscience and her pride.
Mahrina choked down a bitter taste of nausea in her throat. "You seemed to like him last night," she hissed. "What's the matter? Are you jealous?"
Lara’s expression registered the hurt of Mahrina’s tone. "What kind of spell has this demon cast on you? You wanted to wait for your wedding night. Kiefer pursued you for a year like a madman and you wouldn’t give in. And remember Shelly? One time with Philip and now they have a baby. Rina, you could get pregnant, too. How would Dirk treat you then?"
Mahrina sighed and backed down. "It’s like he drew me into a world where it's only him and me. It’s completely irrational. If he’d asked me an hour ago to go to Karteia with him, I’d have said yes. But now that I'm here with you, it seems like another person was with him. I wanted him so much that I didn't even care if he would speak to me tomorrow. Lar, I don't know what I'm doing."
Lara bit her tongue; she decided to wait to tell Mahrina that she agreed with her assessment. "This doesn’t have to be the end of the world. First thing, you get cleaned up. Second, I'll get Anna to hold her tongue, if that's possible. We can worry about the rest later. This is some spring break! I almost get raped; Dirk Blackpool seduces you! And I thought a break would do us good before graduation. I can't wait to see what the next two weeks will bring. Now, get your clothes laid out, and I'll get a small bathtub brought in. I doubt you want to use the public tent. And I certainly don't want to know where else you have those hickeys!"
"Thanks," Mahrina softly called after Lara, lying down on her bed. She curled her knees up to her chest, feeling like a little girl who wished she could go back to the time when she could run to Rohrdan and tell him of all her troubles. For years she really believed he could fix anything. Peace with the Blackpool kingdom or not, if Rohrdan had any idea what she and Dirk had done, the king would have run him through with his sword. What Lara had said about Saris kept going through her mind, along with the other things she knew Dirk himself was responsible for.
"You belong with me." Dirk's silken phrase, the tone of his voice, repeated without ceasing. At the time he'd said it, she wasn't sure why it had bothered her. Presently, she ruminated the words through her head until one word changed the feel of the sentiment to what she believed he’d really meant.
She heard his voice as clearly as if he were really there, "You belong to me."
A chill snaked over Mahrina's spine and a sense of dread filled her. What if Lara were right and he was like Saris? Mahrina fought her tears and wondered seriously about the consequences she would now pay for her passion with Dirk Blackpool.
"You two don't mind if I interrupt, do you?" King Airleas stated rather than inquired.
Rohrdan took a seat next to Mahrina as she picked at her dessert. The king eyed Dirk with a growing dislike for the young prince. Rohrdan didn't know Dirk well, but from what he gathered through the grapevine, and his knowledge of Saris, the king had felt sorry for Dirk before. The strong, intelligent young man held such promise, but Saris had poisoned his son for years with delusion-filled stories about how all his old friends betrayed him and how their family should rule the entire continent.
Rohrdan had closely studied Dirk and Mahrina since the stunning couple had arrived together at the banquet. As the evening progressed, it concerned the king the way Blackpool glowed with vigor, and congratulatory handshakes over his championship were the one thing that captured his attention away from Mahrina. The princess appeared almost ghostlike beside Dirk. A bit pale, quiet, her face exuded a tightly controlled expression each time Blackpool bent over and spoke in her ear or touched her hand.
The King engaged Dirk in a lengthy conversation about Montoya, Saris not attending the games, and the most favorable design of crossbow. Mahrina didn't mind sitting back and letting the two men interact. She was interested in the subject matter but had nothing to add.
"It's been nice seeing you, Dirk. Give my regards to your father. Now, if you'll excuse us, I must speak with my granddaughter." The look King Airleas bestowed on Mahrina caused her to flinch. His hazel eyes bore in to her own, and she knew he was not pleased with her keeping Dirk's company.
Tension permeated the air around the trio. Mahrina, staring at Rohrdan, tapped her long nails on the top of the table. With a sigh, she tried to smile at Dirk. "I'll be around the bonfire later with the girls; perhaps I'll see you then?"
"Unfortunately, no. I must prepare for an early morning departure and can't be kept up late. King Airleas, I will extend your greeting to my father. Mahrina, getting to know you has been a pleasure. How sad this has to be good-bye." Dirk bowed with an icy glare at the princess and swept out of the gazebo.
Mahrina rolled her eyes at Dirk's attitude and took Rohrdan's arm. "Come walk with me. There isn't anything pressing to talk about, is there?"
Rohrdan conceded with a nod, noting the lack of ire in her voice. He wondered why she wasn't throwing a fit at his desire for the couple to call it a night. They strolled for a few minutes until Mahrina stopped and embraced her grandfather.
"What's all this for?" the king exclaimed.
"I wish you didn’t have to go hunting."
"Rina, if something is bothering you, I'll cancel the trip."
"No, don’t do that. I’m just going to miss you. Lara and Anna are meeting me for the singing at the bonfire, but we aren’t staying late. The ride tomorrow will be even longer if we're tired. Can you join us for a while?"
"I'd love to," Rohrdan accepted with a smile.
"I can't believe the way Dirk got his armor in a twist back there. He does think the world revolves around him, doesn't he?" Mahrina shook her head at the prince's haughty behavior once the situation was no longer going his way.
"He's a Blackpool, Love, it comes with the territory. I am relieved to know you aren't interested in seeing him anymore."
Mahrina felt her heart skip a few beats. "It would bother you if I would have?"
"I wouldn't allow it. It would never work. But, I sense you feel the same. I saw how uncomfortable he made you at dinner. Dirk does seem to be very taken with you, however," Rohrdan prodded.
"Who could blame him?" she sighed nonchalantly in a little girl voice and primped her hair, "I am Ariel Baaldorf's cousin, after all."
"I could see how disappointed you were not that she didn't make it this year. Nice touch with the necklace, though. You two used to get along. Latinia and Ariel take somewhat after your grandmother, rest her soul."
"I do imitate her pretty well, though, don't I?" Mahrina elbowed Rohrdan and giggled.
Rohrdan chuckled and hugged Mahrina in one arm as they walked. "Yes, but my favorite of your eloquent impressions is King Tronin's fourth wife."
"What do you mean fourth wife'?" Mahrina shrieked in a thick, eastern Aperanian accent. "I'm his only wife and don't you forget it, Rohry! Of all the nerve, you think you're so high and mighty…" the princess suddenly stopped, her brow furrowed with suspicion.
"What is it?"
"I don't think I put out all the candles in my tent. Let me check, then I'll catch up with you. And you needn’t remind me of this the next time I make fun of Ariel for being absent minded," she added with a laugh, not wanting to alert Rohrdan to what she sensed.
Once her grandfather departed, Mahrina narrowed her eyes at the line of trees next to the path. She couldn't see his brilliant blue eyes, but she knew Dirk Blackpool was among the branches, spying on her.
On the way to the feast, Mahrina had asked Dirk to play it a little cool in front of everyone to give them some breathing room from the political intrigue that could arise from the heir apparent and heir presumptive sharing a meal. Instead, he'd insisted on whispering lust-filled sentiments to her every few minutes, insisting she kick Lara out of her tent that night so he could sneak over.
Mahrina was troubled over his obvious, possessive behavior, and then assumption that she, along with Rohrdan, had slighted him. From Dirk, though, she picked up a distrust of everyone around him. The dark prince seemed like a little boy who believed he had a steel perimeter around his emotions, yet it was obvious to Mahrina the extent she'd been able to invade and do damage without even meaning to.
"You're acting like a spoiled child," Mahrina announced. "I'm not coming back there to find you."
Dirk stalked out from the branches and grabbed her so roughly she met his glare with an expression of dismay. "I am not acting like a child, Princess. You must forgive me for not enjoying this game you're playing!" Dirk snarled and pulled her into the bushes.
"All I asked was that you give us some space at dinner, and you ignored me. I warned you that Rohrdan was not thrilled I’d be with you tonight, but that didn’t matter either. And when I didn't defy Rohrdan in front of everyone you announced we wouldn’t see each other again, but the first thing you did was follow me! If anyone is playing a game here it certainly isn’t me."
Dirk folded his arms across his chest, gazing down at Mahrina with superiority. He was not going to let this little girl admonish him. "What about my desires? You give yourself to me and then expect me to act as if nothing happened. You, my dear, are the one acting childish. You are lucky I'm putting up with such behavior. No other man would."
"Don't you dare turn this around on me!" Mahrina insisted.
Dirk planned to continue to manipulate her, feeling he would not be satisfied until she was begging him not to leave or end their relationship. "I believe I owe you an apology, Mahrina. I took advantage of you today; it's obvious you aren't ready for an adult relationship. I only wish we could have discovered this before indulging in such a binding encounter."
"If that is what you believe it really is time to say good-bye," Mahrina said flatly and walked away.
Dirk stared after her in outrage, his fists tightly coiled by his side. "Mahrina! This is far too sudden and cold for you to be serious! Not after what we experienced!"
"’Quick and cold is the best way to deal with the opposing side;’ General Chang's Dictates of War, chapter three," Mahrina spat with venom over her shoulder, not slowing her stride.
All Mahrina's years of training for lightness in public, no matter her true emotional state, served her well that evening at the bonfire. For every smile she bestowed on another, a silent tear was shed; with every word sung around the fire, another crack ran through her heart; and Mahrina Airleas cursed the moment she'd ever laid eyes on the Karteian prince.
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