Ariel Baaldorf in Night of Terror (4_57)

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A Falcon's Tale
A Visit from the Past
Aperanian Talk Show
Aperanian Talk Show Revisited
Kartian Carol
Of Things Forgotten
The Crying Blade
The Prize
Torn Heartstrings
Traitor's Pass

The Prize

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4

The Prize

Chapter Three


"Rina, let me stay," Lara insisted.

"Go home," Mahrina insisted back and turned Lara by her shoulders to the door of the small cottage. "Your offer is wonderful, but I’d be uncomfortable if you changed your plans. You need to see your family."

Lara Canton wanted to believe Mahrina was all right. The last night of the games Mahrina had cried herself to sleep in their tent. After a silent horseback ride back to Castle Airleas, Mahrina explained her break-up with Dirk. The girls had stayed up most of the previous night talking, but Lara knew Mahrina was still devastated.

"Will you stop looking at me like that," Mahrina pleaded and pointed to a desk piled high with various reading materials "See, books! I plan on losing myself in them when my paper is done. I have a full cupboard of my favorite food, a lake to lounge by, and the castle with all Rohrdan's bothersome servants only a short walk away. You are fulfilling your best friend duties admirably, but you're driving me crazy. Go home."

Lara giggled. "I can take a hint, but you know where we are if you get lonely. The whole family wants to see you, and Dad can't wait for the horse show. Be sure to come right over when Grandfather gets back!"

Shutting the door tightly behind her guest, Mahrina backed against it and sighed. She dearly loved Lara, but there was one fundamental difference between the girls. Growing up with Rohrdan, instead of with a mother, grandmother and aunts close by, like Lara, Mahrina did not have the insatiable need to talk out every bit of problems with other women. She did have some requirement to get things out with a trusted companion, but once she felt purged, she needed to be alone for awhile. Reading by the lakeside, curling up in front of the fire with mulled wine, relaxing in a bubble bath. These unaccompanied activities would clear her mind and bring her peace.

Mahrina hummed absently as she spread her sheets of parchment over the floor, carefully numbering the pages of her senior research project. Hours slipped by as she reworked the paragraphs, trying to capture the most appropriate words for the task. Shaking her hand from writer's cramp, the princess got a cup of tea and reclined on a chaise lounge chair to watch the sunset.

Her thoughts began to turn to him...he'd be just nearing Karteia about now. No! She would not think of him! Padding over to the kitchen, Mahrina began preparing salad vegetables for dinner. The more she tried to forget about Dirk, the more obtrusive thoughts of him became. The reality of the entire situation was beginning to hit her. The gift of her, herself, that she’d always imagined giving to her husband was gone for good, and to someone who didn’t care about her in the least. Mahrina flung the bowl of greens across the room. Desperately needing fresh air, she grabbed her wrap and charged out the front door—running straight into Dirk Blackpool's chest.

"Hi," Dirk greeted softly, a small bouquet of lilies in his raised right hand and a contrite expression on his features.

Mahrina caught her breath from the shock his unexpected arrival caused. Quickly recomposing herself she folded her arms and took in his appearance. He wore a gray tunic and cape, very plain, as if he were trying to hide his royal status.

"I thought you'd be happier to see me," Dirk pressed.

"You thought wrong," Mahrina replied and slammed the door in his face.

Dirk nearly tore the door off its hinges with fury. Two entire days without seeing or hearing from him and this was the way Mahrina responded. He hurled the flowers to the ground and slammed his hand against the wooden door,

The wench wasn't worth this! He was Prince Dirk Blackpool! He could have any woman he wanted in his bed; Mahrina was the one with the problem! The prince condemned himself for turning around halfway home, unable to think of anything but her. He'd switched horses and clothing with a knight of similar size from his kingdom, not wanting his whereabouts known among the provinces of the south.

He pounded on the opening to the cottage, wishing he could yell to his father right then, 'You are so right, women are a curse!' Dirk stalked to the window and pressed against the glass. He expected to see her give him the same heartless glare she had at the door. Instead, he viewed her sitting in front of the fireplace, crying.

Dirk felt an unfamiliar tensing in his chest and drew his hand down roughly over his face. This was not at all what he had intended with his visit. He picked up the flowers and spoke calmly through the entry. "Give me an audience of five minutes; then I will go. I give you my word."

He wasn't sure how much time passed while he shut his road-weary eyes and leaned his forehead into the frame of the overhang on the cottage porch. Finally, he heard the lock unbolt and noted she didn't wait for him to enter before returning to her chair by the fire.

Dirk laid the flowers on a sofa table, then knelt down in front of Mahrina and placed his hands over hers. "Why are you crying?"

Mahrina's eyes were dry, but still red. She refused to meet his gaze and instead watched the dancing flames of the hearth. "You have four and a half minutes left. Say what you intended."

"Not until you tell me why my being here upsets you. I only seek to understand! I'm not familiar with women, especially you, and the way your thoughts work." Dirk grimaced and tightened his grip on her hands.

Mahrina tried to keep her voice from shaking. "I'd just convinced myself that I would have the fortitude to look you in the eyes the next time we met up at some formal function. I feel like a whore after how quickly...and the way you treated me...and just when I thought I was going to be all right, you show up."

"You are not a whore, and we are not a mistake! You are all I could think about these last few days. Our first night together you pointed out we never properly introduced ourselves. We barely know each other and the intimacy was overwhelming. Start over with me. I vow things will be different. Because of our inexperience we had a misunderstanding. That shouldn't signal the demise of our relationship. There is much to learn about each other, to experience together. We are perfectly suited for one another. Tell me you are as certain of that as I am?"

Mahrina drew a sharp breath and pressed her lips together so they wouldn't tremble. She wanted to say yes but there was one issue remaining. "If you choose to get angry with me, then blame me and speak to me the way you did that night, it will be the last time you speak to me. I won't stand for it."

If she had been any other person, other than his father, Dirk might have struck her for telling him what to do. Coming from Mahrina, however, it surprised him that instead it deepened a growing respect for her, even if it did sting slightly.

"Agreed; but how else would you prefer I express myself? It felt like you were twisting a knife in me. My actions were reckless because I was faced with the prospect of losing you." Dirk rested his face on Mahrina's legs, encircling his arms around her calves.

Mahrina didn't plan to touch him, but her fingers drifted down over his shiny, mahogany hair. Gently smoothing it at first, she soon raked through its silkiness. "You weren't losing me. I wanted Rohrdan to have time to get used to the idea of us. I'm not out to hurt you. I thought we were friends at the very least."

"We are, and I am sorry. Let me stay and put this incident behind us now."

"All right," she nodded her head, trying to ignore the tight, forbidding feeling in her chest.

Dirk stood and pulled Mahrina out of the chair to face him. "I am Prince Dirk Blackpool, heir to the throne of the Blackpool kingdom and land of Karteia. It is most enjoyable to make your acquaintance, my lady."

Mahrina gave him a quick curtsey and extended her hand. "Thank you, sir. Princess Mahrina Airleas, heir to the territories of Branaugh and the Swann Islands, and that's swan with two N's," she instructed with jesting formality.

After a gentle peck to her hand, Dirk drew her into a passionate kiss. He picked her up and they reclined on the couch in a tangle of arms and legs.

Dirk strode back with a carafe of wine and two glasses. Mahrina eyed his smooth skin and sculpted body in the firelight. She sighed contentedly and sat up on the sofa, drinking the refreshment and gazing at the flowers he'd brought when she noticed they were tied with a silky, black cord and something sparkled on it.

Mahrina studied the inch-long dagger pendant with a small ruby stone set in the handle. "It's lovely. Where did you get it?"

"The dagger is the symbol on my mother's family crest. That is also what my name means," Dirk informed her, hoping she would be pleased with its significance. "I purchased it from the vendor you and Lara spent time at your first day at the Games. I was planning to give it to you after the banquet."

"Thank you." Mahrina pulled the velvet cord over her head and jumped up to rise on her bare toes and kiss him deeply. Secure in his embrace, she wondered softly, "Did you leave your horse at the castle?"

"No, I have Sir Bannon's horse in the grove of trees by the lake."

"How did you know I was here?"

"The wizard Vector. I summoned him and he located you for me."

Mahrina's expression soured, "I'm hurt he didn't stop in to say hello. Miserable invertebrate."

"I sense a bit of hostility towards my royal magician."

"Let's just say I hope there's a special place in hell for him and leave it at that. Vector is the one that planted the idea of murdering my grandfather with Osryd, then insisted that my father be put before the Council after their little plan didn't work. Hypocrite!"

"I must speak with him about this," Dirk thought out loud.

"And expect him to tell the truth?" Mahrina laughed as she pulled on her dress and headed to the kitchen. "You do know how to amuse me! Oh, did you make other arrangements for sleeping in case I wouldn't see you?"

"Of course. I planned on staying at the inn over in the next village. That is, if you didn't take pity on my road fatigue and at least let me stay at the castle."

"Liar," Mahrina smirked, "you expected to be at the castle. You'd never stay at that inn. It's far too unsophisticated," she sighed with mock haughtiness. "I can make us tadmon or steak for dinner; which would you prefer?"

"Why don't you have a servant cooking our meal?"

"Two reasons," she explained, holding up her fingers in a v- shape. "One, I think keeping your house guest status from the staff would be a good idea. It won't be good if Rohrdan finds out you were here, but if he does, I'd prefer it be from me. Two, I always cook for myself when I stay here, and, yes, I do know how. I hate being bothered by hired help who are so worried they're going to do something wrong. It has me walking on egg-shells."

Dirk dressed in the borrowed leggings and boots. "I'll get my pack and put Hermes down for the night. Steak would be preferable. Medium-well!" he called back through the doorway.

Mahrina stood over the top of the stove, feeling the pendant around her neck, when suddenly the realization of the situation hit her. "He did it again!"

Less than an hour ago she'd rather have died than give Dirk Blackpool the time of day. Now, still flushed from their recent encounter, she was preparing his dinner. Medium-well, at that. "Amazing how he causes my judgment to take a flying leap from the Cliffs of Death," Mahrina sighed softly. "Absolutely amazing."

"'The Eleventh Summer Battle of the Ashen Plateau. A scenario of outcome if General Begouin had led the charge. By Mahrina Airleas," Dirk read out loud with fascination, over Mahrina's shoulder.

"Don't pry until it's finished. If it ever will be finished. I can't draw and this map is driving me insane!" The princess wadded a piece of paper and hurled it to the floor where it joined several other crumpled parchment casualties. "Can you turn the flame off of the bacon?" Mahrina requested, dipping her quill in thick, azure ink to attempt another illustration.

Dirk nodded, slicking his damp, freshly washed hair back and tightening the towel around his waist. "I'd be most interested to read it. Stimulating idea. What is this for again?"

"Senior research paper for political development class. I think it would have been a much different outcome if Begouin hadn't gotten his head cut off so soon. His lead-from-the-middle maneuver might have won them the battle. That's the scenario I'm using. Only six more weeks and I'll never have to see the inside of a Wycliff classroom again. I plan on tutors from now on. I’ve done my royal duty of attending the kingdom’s over-rated university prep school," Mahrina sighed, joining Dirk in front of the stove.

Dirk turned to gaze at her. His relationship with Mahrina was unlike any other. The last few days with her had been perfect, and he dreaded their impending separation. "You are well-versed in battle strategy and military leaders. Somewhat unusual for a woman."

"Other princesses were taking ballet and learning needlepoint. I was playing 'Seven Kingdoms' War' with Rohrdan. Finally did get those dance lessons, but I can't embroider a pillowcase to save my life," Mahrina giggled.

"Seven Kingdoms' War? I haven't played that in ages," Dirk recalled the tabletop war simulation. "It's a very basic game, of course, but it is amusing."

"Basic? I'd have all your kingdoms and coffers before you even controlled one of mine," she informed him voraciously.

"Be careful what you threaten; you may have to prove your prowess."

"It's up at the game room of the castle," Mahrina baited.

"Retrieve it when you go for the food supplies this afternoon," Dirk insisted. "Now, on a more important matter, do you love me?"

"I might."

"Then say it," Blackpool demanded quietly.

"Why? You never do." Mahrina wrapped her arms around his neck and embraced him tightly.

Dirk kissed her harshly and Mahrina nearly growled in response, rising up to meet him in every place they touched. She enjoyed both their mild and furious encounters, but right now she, too, was in the mood for the roughness Dirk seemed to prefer.

"I think I got here just in time, I could smell the bacon half a mile away!" Lara Canton's voice broke the silence as she threw open the back door. "What in merry Winter Solstice is going on here?"

Dirk glared at their new arrival. "Didn't anyone ever teach you how to knock?" he chastised.

Mahrina ran her fingers back through her tousled mane, stunned at Lara's interruption. "Surprise to you, too. Come in, close the door, have some breakfast." Mahrina retrieved stoneware plates from the china hutch and moved her papers aside on the table.

Lara glanced at Blackpool's mostly unclothed and impressive body with an expression of boredom. She moved next to Mahrina and grabbed her arm. "What is he doing here?"

"'He', is enjoying himself with pleasures that would shock your delicate senses, my dear Lady Canton," Dirk answered coolly with a mocking bow.

"Please, you two!" Mahrina faced the pair with her palms forward. "Dirk, would you excuse us for a minute? Lara, remember what philosopher Gracian advises about suspending judgment until all the facts are known?"

Blackpool stopped to place a lingering kiss on Mahrina's forehead before he sauntered into the bedroom and shut the door.

Mahrina retrieved two cups and filled them with tea, handed one to Lara, then leaned into the counter. "I know this looks bad, and I know what I said before. But Dirk told me he couldn’t just go back home and pretend all this never happened, that he’s falling in love with me, and this was just the first night he was here."

Lara put down the steaming beverage untouched, her voice only above a whisper. "You told me he made you irrational and that you couldn't trust yourself alone with him. So what do you do when he shows up but let him right back in and hide yourselves away? I could have been your grandfather walking in! I can't believe you've shacked up with Dirk Blackpool in one of your family guesthouses! Has the staff seen him? You know they'll tell Rohrdan the minute—"

"Hold on!" Mahrina interrupted. "I know what I said, but you don't understand. And no, no one has seen him. He's leaving tomorrow and I want our last day to be a good one. Lara, he's different than everyone believes. Please spend a little time with us, just breakfast, and give him a chance."

"I can't believe you're saying this! Give him a chance to what? Hurt you again or whisk you off to his kingdom? Mahrina, he brings out a side of you that I don't know and that can't be good. You never took chances like this with your reputation, or your future, before. Don't you realize what he's doing to you? What you are risking for him?"

Before Mahrina could answer Dirk rejoined the women wearing a heavy purple robe; obviously fashioned for a much cooler climate. He took the cup from Mahrina and finished her brewed stimulant before refilling it and returning the mug to her.

Laying his arm around the tall brunette's shoulder, Dirk gave Lara a look that was arrogant and territorial and it made the young woman want to wipe it right off his face.

"Rina, I hate to see you make a mistake; and to see either of you get hurt," Lara grimaced. "I know what you're like after breakups. You wouldn't want a simple transitional fling to cause you more trouble than it's worth, would you?"

Dirk raised an eyebrow at Lara, "What a devoted subject. Your concern for the princess' well being is most touching."

"And a little touched," Mahrina added.

"I am concerned about you! How can you go from hating him a few days ago to this? What was it you said? 'Dirk Blackpool is a pretentious, domineering, ego-maniac who gets his kicks from using and abusing women.'"

"I thought it was women and animals that I get my kicks from abusing?" Dirk pondered.

"No, she's right. I think I did just say women," Mahrina nodded. "And I said he probably got his kicks from that."

"Thank you for the benefit of the doubt," Blackpool chuckled.

"You told him what you said and he thinks it's funny?" Lara threw her hands in the air and charged to the front door. "You're both sick and you deserve each other! And the next time he breaks your heart, I am not going to sit up all night listening to you cry about it!"

Mahrina was silent for several moments as she stared after Lara's wake. She sadly exhaled upward, causing her bangs to flutter from her breath. "Lar never yelled at me like that before."

"She'll get over it," Dirk assured his lover. "You don't need her. She's just a child."

The front door flew open and Lara slammed it closed with her body. "Someone's coming down the path!"

"Who?" Mahrina asked.

"I couldn't see them clearly. You'd better prepare for anyone and get rid of any sign of Prince Charmless," Lara announced and began picking up anything seeming to belong to Dirk and hurling it into a closet.

Mahrina gathered the extra place setting at the table and deposited the dishes into the sink. Dirk beat Lara's hand to his sword by seconds and he took the deadly silver blade from its sheath.

"Dirk, you don't need a weapon!" Lara exclaimed frantically to Blackpool.

"How do you know?" Dirk barked. "You seem to forget I'm no longer under the truce flag of the games. What if one of Greystone's men tracked me here?"

"You are in a neutral country. They'd be out of their area of jurisdiction," Mahrina told him firmly. "But don't put your sword away just yet. Lar, sit down, you're as white as a sheet," Mahrina instructed as she went to the window and peered through the lace curtains.

"Well who is it?" Dirk barked.

Mahrina let out a sigh of relief. "It's the gardener, Mr. Stiller. I don't think I'll ask him to stay for a drink. Although you could use one, Prince Charmless."

Dirk rolled his eyes and sheathed his sword, muttering something neither girl could make out.

"This isn't funny, Mahrina, " Lara said softly from the table, "What if that had been Rohrdan, or worse, someone looking for him?" she pointed at Dirk with a sour face. "What would you have done if they'd fought their way in? Let Dirk kill one of our guys right there in the living room?"

 "Soldiers from the other kingdoms aren't 'our guys', Lar. You'd do well to remember Branaugh is neutral to all the provinces. Neutrality that comes with a lack of respect for my family and our choice to not become involved in a war that the people and the army did not support. Believe me, other royalty doesn't think of our troops as their guys and you shouldn't think of theirs as yours. Let Stiller in and I'll get something a little less comfortable on," she added with a sarcastic bite.

Dirk was right behind her until they reached the bedroom. He locked the door and watched her pull on her riding pants and angrily button a crisp, white shirt.

"Those erroneous comments about your family bother you a great deal."

Mahrina pulled a brush through her hair. "War and love, all is fair, correct?" she replied as she past him. "I'll knock when he's gone. It won't take long."

Dirk sat on the bed and tapped his finger absently on his chin. That was the first he'd heard of the tension between Branaugh and its neighbors. He found it most interesting and tucked it away into a corner of his mind.

An already deep affection for her grew deeper as Dirk remembered Mahrina's words, the way she wanted to distinguish herself from his enemies. She was a woman that would be more capable to be his wife than any northern princess, all of whom Dirk found dull, unattractive, or had already taken liberties with.

Dowry disputes, or family objections be damned, Blackpool was going to be wed to her. It was all well and good that his father would be pleased with the successful stronghold right between Baaldorf and Greystone's lands. And he hoped that Rohrdan would be satisfied with the generous husband he intended to be to Mahrina.

For Dirk, however, it was simply Mahrina that he wanted; for once, none of the political benefits of a royal marriage mattered as much. They could be married right after she graduated and then the world would know what a commanding, unbeatable pair they would make.

'Queen Mahrina Blackpool', Dirk ran the name over his tongue. 'Entirely devoted to her husband, King Dirk Blackpool, ruler of all Aperans.' A calculating smile spread across his lips and he laughed from deep in his chest. The dark prince had never felt satisfaction as this in all his life.

Once Mahrina satisfied the old grounds keep with the story Dirk made up, precisely in case of inquires about the strange horse by the lake, the trio sat down to a very quiet breakfast.

"I really don’t know the last time I had such stimulating conversation," Mahrina complained after a particularly long lull. "I'll be certain to seat you two together at all my formal functions. And to bring plenty of barrow root tablets, I'll need them for the headache I get from the tension you both emit."

"Some of us have headaches from being yelled at," Lara sighed and played with the drink in her glass, swirling it around with her finger.

"I am sorry I got mad at you earlier. I was wrong to take it out on you. I just can't stop thinking what Anna said last week."

"Apology accepted. Anna is so hot for Erik; she thinks being patriotic will get him to propose. I heard what she said. You have a right to be upset, but don't worry about her. Everyone else thinks she's a gossipy wench."

"What exactly did she say?" Dirk asked.

"Anna and her lust-induced loyalties aren’t worth going into. I’ll tell you when our time together isn’t at a premium. Lar, you look rested, how has your visit been?"

"I’ve had fun. Went shopping with my mom in Dunfirm. Made four quilts with the aunts. Finished my project, I take it you're done?" Lara picked up the pile of papers next to her.

"Aside from the illustrations and a few paragraphs in the middle. Let's go for a walk. I'm tired of sitting," Mahrina suggested.

"No, you two go. I'll edit this for you while you're gone," Lara announced and went to the chase lounge to immerse herself in Mahrina's report.

"What did you write your topic on?" Dirk inquired, looking in Lara's direction.

"Me?" Lara pointed to herself, a little suspicious of Dirk's interest. "The Woodsmen's strike in Tronin three summers ago. How it could have been handled more effectively before Fall, and not had all those people freeze to death."

Dirk nodded with approval, "I'd be interested to see your hypothesis. Always looking for future negotiation tactics. Someday I'll take over the kingdom, and someday usually comes sooner than one expects."

"You wanted to show me the other side of the lake before I leave." Dirk rose and took Mahrina's hand, then turned to Lara. "Shall I have her back in fifteen minutes, or could you spare her a bit longer today?"

It took a moment for each girl to realize Dirk's intended joke. Mahrina burst out laughing, but Lara didn't smile for long. She’d be polite for Mahrina’s sake, but Dirk didn’t stand a chance to get on her good side.

Brilliant noon sunlight illuminated the entire countryside in warm splendor. The scent of early spring grass and flowers drifted in the air. Each tree held dozens of buds, shyly opening their delicate treasures to nature. Dirk and Mahrina took in the serene, rural area, walking hand in hand and discussing a range of topics.

"From the shore of Addin's Port and all the land west until you hit those," Mahrina pointed toward a group of distant mountains, explaining the personal land holdings of the Airleas family. "Across the canyon, Branaugh's western counties are divided by the natural geographical boundaries. But you probably know that."

Dirk smiled at her correct assumption of his cartographic knowledge of the entire south. "A fine area of land. I am impressed. I only wish my country were as hospitable a climate to live in. Successful crops mean more taxes, better fed workers and troops. Not to mention living accommodations for the royal family, but our home is still elegant. I hope you will find it pleasing when you visit. I do envy your situation down here, however."

The princess moved ahead of Dirk and walked backwards so they could be face to face. "This may surprise you, but I like cold weather and I think Karteia is beautiful. Four years ago I visited the Mage mountain range, it’s exquisite! What I found most captivating was the contrast on the mountains; the sharpness where the dark tree line met the stark white snow. Sort of a metaphor of the images of good and evil. Pretty philosophical, don't you agree?" she added with a wink.

Dirk sighed and rolled his eyes. "Such amazing philosophy from such a young mind."

"Just wait until you hear my impressions on the Land of Storms. I think several of its meteorological phenomena hold no fury if compared to your temper." Mahrina dashed away toward a group of trees before Dirk could respond.

A few feet into the thicket Mahrina felt Dirk's grip and was hoisted into his arms. Dirk met her smile with a fierce stare. "You do realize the penalty for insulting a member of the Blackpool family, don't you, Princess?"

"No!" Mahrina squealed and tried to jump away but was quickly dropped to the ground and pinned down by Dirk. She screamed out with laughter and protest as he tickled her mercilessly. A weakness she cursed him for finding out by accident, and using to his advantage more than once in their short time together.

Dirk restrained her hands above her head with just one of his own and laid over her, speaking with a slow patronizing whisper. "Now, dear girl, unless you want me to punish you further, this is where you say: 'Dirk, I am sorry and I beg for your royal mercy. '"

"I'm not begging for anything, but you will be sorry when I get up, you royal pain!" Mahrina challenged and struggled valiantly to get away.

A low chuckle escaped Blackpool and he shook his head, "Not the correct response. We will have to try this again."

"Wait!" Mahrina cried out when his fingers caused spasms on her ribs. "What if I could make the offense up to you?"

"What did you have in mind?"

"We’ll have to wait until we’re alone again at the cottage," Mahrina whispered seductively.

"Sounds promising, go on."

A noise from a nearby bush caught Mahrina and Dirk's attention. Dirk sat upright with a start, his defensive mode activated. A few tense seconds passed and he didn't like the silence.

Mahrina moved away and let out a sound of tenderness when she saw a large white cat scurry along with a mewing kitten in its mouth.

"I think we disturbed the new mommy," Mahrina told him softly.

The pair watched quietly as the mother cat took four additional offspring far away from the human intruders. The feline returned to the bush, looking anxiously at it, then the couple. Her back was arched and she spat loud hisses in their direction. Mahrina wondered why the cat was still vicious now that her kittens were to safety. Rising and approaching the overgrown shrubbery, Mahrina paused when the cat growled with vengeance.

"Don't go any closer to that thing, it could give you rabies." Dirk admonished.

Between the leaves, Mahrina could see a tiny mass of gray fur. It laid very still and she had to stare for several seconds to detect any breathing from the wee sixth kitten.

"Oh, no, is your baby sick?" Mahrina soothed to the white cat, getting down onto her knees to appear a little less threatening. Inside the thicket red ants began crawling over the comatose gray cat. Not willing to stand by and see it get bitten, Mahrina grabbed the tiny feline and quickly retreated.

"Look at him," Mahrina cooed, cupping her hands around the little ball of fur. The kitten's breath came in shallow, infrequent puffs, and his tail hung lifeless. The only motion he exhibited was a flinch with a bite from an ant. Raking through his fur with her nails, Mahrina quickly dispersed all the pests and stroked him softly.

"Give that thing to me," Dirk commanded. "You'll get fleas and who knows what else from it. I'll break its neck and put it out of its misery."

Mahrina stepped back quickly. "You will not! There's an animal doctor right over in Hawk Meadow. I'll take him there. If I leave this baby here his mother won't be able to help him. He's obviously the runt. I'm going to take care of him myself. The first thing he needs is water." Mahrina sidestepped the anxious mother cat and headed toward a small brook than ran along the other side of the trees.

Dirk drew his hands back through his hair. Rescuing kittens from certain death in the forest was something he imagined Erik Greystone did, but not him! He briefly thought about returning to the guesthouse, but decided to wait. However, he vowed, Mahrina was going to have to do something about that do-gooder nature of hers. Dirk would not allow her to involve him in further situations as this.

"Dirk, could you come here a minute?" Mahrina's voice beckoned him. Trudging through underbrush he finally spotted Mahrina kneeling near some rocks by a winding creek. "Do you have anything small I could put some water in?" the princess wondered and noticed Dirk had such an odd expression on his face when he approached her.

"Small? No, I certainly do not," Dirk said, hoping to get her alone on the grass again and her attention off the blasted quadruped. "Why don't you accept the fact of natural selection and let me do the humane thing?"

"Your button!" Mahrina realized happily and ripped the top gold ornament from his vest. "Don't worry, Lara can sew it back on for you," she assured Dirk, then turned the small replicated badge of his family crest over and formed a makeshift bowl. Holding the kitten's mouth open with one hand, she let several cool drops of water hydrate its swollen gray lips.

Dirk was still reeling from her assault to his vest when several twigs snapped behind him. He whirled about into a defensive crouch, almost forgetting the desecration to his crest. He relaxed and straightened as he saw the mother cat, who soon resumed her cautious approach to better study intently what Mahrina was doing to her newborn. When the kitten accepted the moisture to his mouth, Mahrina continued watering him. A rough pink tongue lapped at the refreshment and a pair of tiny blue-green eyes opened for Mahrina for the first time.

"You like that, big guy? He just opened his eyes!" she told Dirk with relief.

"Stupendous, I'll alert the national councils. It might be a female, you know," Dirk sighed.

Mahrina ignored Dirk's sudden mood swing and concentrated on the kitten. "I hadn't thought of that. Guess we'll find out when you get your physical."

Blackpool took a seat on a large, brown rock, unwillingly captivated by the tenderness the princess bestowed on the animal.

Bringing the kitty up to her face, Mahrina fell further in love by the second. She noted his ribs were so tiny and fragile they reminded her of small fish bones. She held the kitten to her chest for warmth and approached Dirk.

"He's purring!" she announced with such exuberance, she thought she detected a hint of a smile on Dirk's lips.

Blackpool drew Mahrina to him, holding tightly around her waist. "You are a capable nurse, but don't get too attached to it. Perhaps when you show him to the veterinarian he'll have to put the creature down."

"Your glowing optimism is one of the things that really appeals to me, Dirk. I can't believe you're jealous of a cat. Look at it this way, he can keep me company after you leave." Mahrina felt a lump form in her throat with the thought of Dirk's departure now less than twenty-four hours away.

Blackpool nodded in agreement and studied the animal a bit closer. "He is a mangy thing, isn't he?" Dirk scruffed the tiny back of the cat, and was pleasantly surprised as the kitten arched up for further petting.

"Not the finest fur coat I've seen, but he will be a silk purse before the summer is over." Mahrina closed her eyes tightly. She would not cry in front of Dirk; it served no purpose and would upset them both.

With a penetrating stare, Dirk noted her change of mood and placed his hand on her chin to make sure she would not look away. "Mahrina, what is it?"

"I'm going to miss you."

"Have you ever loved a man the way that you profess to love me?"

"What do you mean?"

"You're going to go back to your real life at Wycliff. I fear your feelings for me will fade once you begin keeping company with your other suitors: Micheal Tronin, and that professor. He had no business consorting with a student in the first place."

"Mike is my friend, nothing more. Kiefer is a consultant for the university, not a professor, there is a difference and there was nothing improper when we saw each other. Grant me some credit in that suspicious mind of yours. You were the one who said our pasts didn't matter, and yet you won’t stop bringing up mine." Mahrina looked away, deeply disturbed they were having this conversation again.

Dirk regained his cool exterior and stared at her. "I want you as my wife."

"Why? You can hardly trust me."

"Forgive my accusations, it isn’t you that I’m worried about. As for why I know you should be with me, the fates, or the gods, or whatever is in charge of this insane existence, meant for us to be together. You complement my strengths and would be a valuable helpmate in building the empire I desire."

Mahrina cradled the kitten in one hand and touched Dirk's face with the other. The prince looked so open right then. Vulnerability wasn't what she sensed but a wish to please her, to be appreciated and desired. It touched her heart and she felt a desire to take care of him in a way she believed no one ever had.

"I don't want the morning to be a sad farewell; this is only the beginning for us. I wanted to ask you to marry me when I had the perfect ring, flowers, and candlelight, all that you deserve. But there simply isn't time for that." Dirk withdrew his family ring from his large right hand and moved off the rock to bend down on one knee before Mahrina.

Mahrina felt absolutely hypnotized by Blackpool's unwavering stare. Those extraordinary blue eyes so filled with his internal fire they burned into her soul. His powerful aura had captivated her in the arena at the games. Never had she felt so overcome by anyone's presence, she was enveloped by it.

"Tell me you will marry me."

"I will," Mahrina managed to say through her astonishment.

She splayed her fingers and Dirk slipped the much too big ring onto the fourth finger of her left hand. The kitten pawed briefly at the shiny ruby in the center of the ring, rousing a laugh from his new mistress.

"See, Dirk, a little water and he’s feeling better already. And you wanted to break his neck."

"Are you always going point out when you believe you are right?"

"No…only when I know it."

Dirk stood and embraced her tightly. "I still look forward to making our home together."

"So do I," Mahrina sighed and they returned the guesthouse, Dirk's arm never leaving her shoulder.

Billowing clouds filled the early morning sky, casting scarves of dark pink and purple above the eastern horizon. The air held a pre-dawn chill and Mahrina shivered under her cloak, barefoot and in her long, sleeveless nightgown. She watched Dirk's profile as he raised his hand to his brow and studied the weather for his journey, and she wondered what he really thought of their whirlwind courtship.

They had not informed Lara of their engagement, as the cottage was empty when they returned from their walk the previous afternoon. The memory of the note Lara left instructing Mahrina to come to the Cantons' home after Dirk's departure comforted the princess. Already, Mahrina had her things packed in preparation of returning to her room in the castle. Staying at the cottage without Dirk would be odd.

Dirk still did not look at her, and his tone was sullen when he spoke. "I'll send word when I've arrived safely. You should be back at Wycliff by the time it arrives. Perhaps we should consider individual delivery at a mail office. You were correct; being discreet is best until the details of the marriage are worked out by our kingdoms."

"Why don't we worry about breaking it to Rohrdan before we worry about the barristers' involvement? I will arrange for the mail as soon as I'm settled back in."

Dirk held his arms out to Mahrina. Neither knew for how long they embraced. The sun became more intense over the horizon but they could not let go.

"Write me each night. I want to hear everything you do," Dirk whispered and gently kissed the top of her head, "I will visit you at Wycliff next month."

"That would be wonderful. We can stay at one of the nearby port cities and I'll show you around. It's very different than what you're used to."

Dirk ran his fingers over her face, memorizing every detail, each curve. "I don't why you were sent to me, but I am eternally grateful."

"It is so strange feeling like I've known you forever, but not knowing a simple detail like your favorite color."

"I'll think about you each night at sunset, do the same for me?" Dirk requested.

"Every day." she agreed, watching him mount the war-horse.

Mahrina watched his silhouette depart. His pace was slow and he turned around several times. He yelled to her, but she did not understand his words.

"What?" Mahrina yelled, shading her eyes from the rising sun as she searched for his shrinking outline against the northeastern sky.

"Purple!" he bellowed, "My preferred color."

"I favor teal, myself!"

"I shall remember that," he vowed before kicking in the spurs on the horse and charging away on the stallion.

Mahrina clung to the pendant and crested ring that now hung around her neck on a long chain. When Dirk had asked her last night to return to Karteia with him immediately, it took hours of talking to convince them both it was wisest to wait. At that moment, it took all Mahrina's strength not to call to him to stop and climb on the back of his saddle, shoeless and without any belongings. With tears blinding her the princess ran all the way back to the guesthouse.

The cottage felt dismal and empty when Mahrina returned. The kitten mewed pitifully in the cozy, makeshift nest she'd made for him. She murmured comforting words to the kitten and fed him some milk from a small glove with a hole poked in the end of a finger. Once he was sleeping, she gathered the bed sheets and burned them in the fireplace, not wanting any evidence of her intimacies to be discovered by the maids who would be in cleaning by afternoon; once they were aware of her return to the palace.

Mahrina bathed and dressed for the day, gathered her belongings, and retrieved her new feline from the fabric-filled box. The silence was deafening. Mahrina had felt alone in her life, but never this lonely. With mixed emotions she took one last look through the rooms and locked the door.

As she readied her horse for the ride to Hawk Meadow, Mahrina wondered why she felt so sad. She found the man she was going to spend her life with and he adored her. Falling in love so quickly with Dirk was like the fairy tales her governess used to tell her before bed. Mahrina knew she would end up with a handsome prince like that, and live happily ever after; she assured Gia of it each time they read the stories.

Riding through the courtyard with the kitten sleeping snugly in her riding vest, Mahrina studied the spiral towers of Castle Airleas. She wasn't surprised the courtyard and surrounding gardens were still empty. Rohrdan and she had never been early risers and as such his staff knew better than to be bustling around shortly after sunrise. Even with the king away, he insisted his kingdom be kept on the same schedule; the monarch demanded consistency.

Mahrina felt peculiar as she glanced at her home in the distance. What was it about the place that was so alienating today? Then it hit her. It was not different, she was.

Less than two weeks ago she was planning her graduation trip with Lara; a retreat with the Sisters of Charity. Rohrdan had started hinting he'd like her to take over the Swanns while their overseer, Baron Lange, took an extended leave of absence in the fall. Presently, she wondered if her honeymoon would be her graduation trip. Dirk was adamant they have their wedding as soon as possible.

Their wedding. Good Gods, she was getting married! As the words swirled through her head and it began to ache, Mahrina felt weak. Dipping into her reserve of personal strength, she tried to reclaim her sanity.

"Keep busy; you won't miss him so badly, and this will all work out," Mahrina assured herself and quickened the horse's trot, while she wished very much she wasn't such a tough audience to convince.

Upon her return to the castle, Mahrina found herself and her new pet surrounded by all the females on Rohrdan's palace staff.

"Your highness, he's the most precious thing I've ever laid eyes on!" Lisbeth, Rohrdan's head chamber maid cooed over the gray kitten in Mahrina's arms. "And look at the bottle. I didn't know they came that small. Are you sure I can't do that for you, my lady?"

Mahrina nodded and watched the kitten's mouth suck happily on the small nipple fashioned like that of a child's bottle. "You can feed him later. The vet told me this formula he made up might not agree with the kitty's tummy, so I need to keep an eye on him. Can you believe he didn't even register on their scale? Under fifteen ounces!" She shook her head in awe.

"At least you don't have to burp him, like my four human babies needed," Erynn chided.

"So true!" Mahrina agreed heartily and headed for her room. It wasn't yet noon, but she felt exhausted. Mahrina laid in the billowy softness of her feather bed and brought the purring, satisfied kitten to her chest. Images of Dirk swirled around like gauzy pictures under her eyelids and Mahrina's last thoughts were of him as she drifted into a fitful slumber.

Muffled voices and loud clanging caused Mahrina to stir from her sleep. She opened her eyes slowly and felt the kitten sleeping across her neck. An image of Dirk and their last week together rushed through her mind, and she fingered the chain around her neck just to be sure it hadn't been a dream.

She turned to her window, wondering if someone had come in and drawn the drapes since the room was so dim. The princess gently deposited the sleeping kitten on a pillow, stunned when she realized she'd slept the entire day.

It wasn't difficult to keep her promise to Dirk and think about him at that particular sunset. It felt as if thoughts of him would be a permanent part of her consciousness. She could picture everything clearly about his face, hear his commanding voice, almost feel his powerful hands touching her skin.

A round of hearty male voices drifted to her room, and the princess knew Rohrdan had returned. Mahrina could hear his laughter above every other noise. She illuminated her room with candles and oil lamps, her only desires to have a good meal with her grandfather, light conversation, and familiarity to surround her for the evening.

Her dress was a brilliant red, and she laced the silver bodice tightly out of the habit of showing off her admirable figure. A quick application of cosmetics, a comb through her loose hair, and Mahrina felt presentable. Until she caught the reflection of her sparkling chain.

She removed the necklace, knowing she couldn’t wear the reminder of Dirk under her dress and be comfortable. It was not that she feared Rohrdan if he did happen to find the ring of the northern family. Mahrina simply hated secrets. She felt devious and dishonorable keeping the king ignorant of her plans with Blackpool. The princess vowed to find a way to tell Rohrdan soon, and as much as she loved Dirk, for now, the necklace would stay in a drawer.

Mahrina took the stairs two at a time, hoping the kitten in her hands didn't mind the jostling too much. She hurried to the king’s den where she could hear Rohrdan's hearty, raucous chuckle and felt her excitement at seeing him rise with each step.

"My, aren't we amused with ourselves today?" Mahrina stated as she swept into the room and embraced Rohrdan.

"Did you see my buck yet?" Rohrdan wondered cheerfully. He returned her hug and continued to sift through the pile of documents that required attention in his absence.

"I'm going to have to hear about this ten pointer for the rest of my life," King Richard Greystone sighed from a plush velvet sofa. "Hello, Mahrina, and how are you?" the monarch greeted with a warm smile.

Mahrina returned his pleasantries with less enthusiasm than usual for her. She wondered why he even bothered associating with her grandfather, given what she'd heard about his opinion of the Airleases.

"This is my ten pointer," Mahrina held up the kitten to Rohrdan's face.

"What sewer did you find this little rat in? His ears are bigger than his whole head!"

"Don't say that, you'll hurt his feelings!" Mahrina protectively covered the out-of-proportion flaps on the kitten's head. "I found him yesterday in the woods. The vet says he's going to be fine, he’s not even a month old yet. I promised his mother I'd take care of him. She has five others to look out for."

"Splendid. Welcome to the family, son." Rohrdan scratched the feline's chin gently, then looked at Mahrina. "You must have had some wild parties. Lisbeth said you only came up from your lair today, and that was to sleep."

"And just where is this buck you are so excited about?" Mahrina, as she knew Rohrdan would expect, feigned sudden interest in his kill and accompanied him and King Greystone outside the castle to view it.

Prince Erik Greystone was busy beside a flat wagon rig, and Justin was talking with the vassal unhooking the horses. Rohrdan started barking orders over how to handle his pride and joy, promising he'd have them over for a grand feast as soon as the deer had been cleaned and smoked.

Mahrina walked around the cart with an expression of distaste. "Glad I won't be around. I can't stand this stuff."

"Now Mahrina, venison is the most—"

"Disgusting meat in the world!" Mahrina finished for King Airleas. "Send it over to Baaldorf Castle. Ariel loves it," she added with an evil smirk.

Erik acknowledged Mahrina with a nod, for most of his attention was focused on pulling the massive carcass of Rohrdan's kill off their wagon and onto the cart of the royal butcher. "Does your cousin really like deer meat?" the young prince wondered about the girl he was betrothed to and had not seen since her infant baptism.

Rohrdan shook his head. "No, Mahrina and Ariel share a dislike of venison, and each other, although I don't understand why."

"Because she's a brat," Mahrina informed Rohrdan.

"I meant the deer meat!" the king cried.

"Oh," Mahrina sighed and returned the wave the younger Greystone made in her direction. "Hi, handsome."

"Hey there, gorgeous!" Justin Greystone grinned as he approached the princess with an overzealous bear hug.

"Watch the cat!" Mahrina cheerfully instructed and held the kitten out of the way to return the friendly gesture. She felt Justin's arm slip around her waist as she stared with disdain at the deer's lifeless body. "It really is huge."

"I hear that a lot," Justin whispered to her in earnest with a proud nod.

Mahrina feigned a scandalized expression before quickly retreating to the front door, hearing Justin’s low chuckle behind her.

Dinner passed slowly for Princess Airleas. She enjoyed listening to the masculine bantering until the subject of the war came up. Mahrina fought hard to control herself when they started in on the Blackpools. Richard, then Erik, spent their energy and animated words informing Rohrdan of the latest evil deeds they'd received from a royal messenger.

Erik angrily hit the polished dining room table with his hand. "There were just women and children left in that settlement. Do you think the Blackpools gave a damn?"

"Not that I want to seem rude, but innocents being slaughtered is not the usual topic of conversation at my meals. Must we discuss this right now?" Mahrina interrupted.

"I'm sorry, I get carried away sometimes," Erik apologized. "Why don't you choose a better topic?"

"Thanks." Mahrina relayed with a grateful smile and avoided Rohrdan's eyes. "Anna tells me you are going to be taking a trip of the southern region soon. Where exactly will you be traveling?"

Mahrina tried to concentrate on the Greystone's up coming trip, but her mind was too preoccupied with concern over Saris, and supposedly Dirk, attacking a camp of defenseless women and children. Mahrina knew differently and part of her ached to tell them, with certainty; the younger Blackpool had not attacked that camp four days ago.

Armed with a decanter of brandy, Richard and Rohrdan insisted the "youngsters" join them for tales of the so-called good old days by the fire. Mahrina and Justin exchanged bored facial gestures across the room, causing Erik to stifle the smiles they caused him. Once the liquor had taken effect, their reminiscing sated, the kings suggested they call it a night.

"I know you won't be coming up yet," Rohrdan informed Mahrina, "but don't plan on sleeping all day tomorrow. We've got that horse show."

She nodded somberly and slunk back in the oversized velvet chair. Mahrina wondered where Dirk was, where he'd spend his first night. Thoughts of him overtook her concentration until Erik Greystone's hand waved just in front of her nose.

"Hello? Anyone home? I asked if Ariel is really a brat."

Mahrina looked around and saw it was just her, Erik, and Justin. She didn't even remember wishing King Greystone goodnight. Sitting up higher, she nervously grabbed a handful of butter-rum candy from a crystal dish beside her.

"Ariel isn't really...give her a few years to grow up and she's going to...Ariel is very pretty. She'll be a knock-out when she gets older." Mahrina rarely sputtered for words, but she did not want to mess up any potential of her cousin's future. Truth be known, however, Ariel was the very definition of the word brat.

Erik nodded thoughtfully, "I'd hoped to see her at the games. I was disappointed she was sick."

"You don't know what she looks like?"

"She looks like you and Erik's a real lucky guy." Justin stated with seriousness that neither Erik nor Mahrina picked up on.

"No, Ariel and I look nothing alike. She looks like our grandmother's side...wait! The paintings! I could show you some portraits. I bet they've sent a new one. Let's go see!" Mahrina encouraged and led the young men to the other side of the palace and the hall of family pictures.

Justin claimed he didn't like the darkened wing of the castle. As soon as a lull would occur in the conversation, he would yell as if he'd been attacked, then demand Mahrina hold his hand. Erik and Mahrina walked ahead with the torch, not willing to let Justin know how amusing they found his descriptions of the monsters that followed the trio.

Mahrina held the illumination up to a few portraits and sighed. "Rohrdan's decorator has been playing with the pictures again. This is my grandmother, Angelique, and it's her mother that Ariel looks so much like. I think that picture is in here."

The tall princess opened a door to an alcove filled with framed paintings. Soon the room glowed softly from several candles and the torchlight. Mahrina noted the men studied the different images of her ancestors with interest and that made her surprisingly happy.

"So what do I do if one of these guy's eyes start moving' and their gaze follows when I walk away?" Justin wanted to know, glaring at a somewhat ruthless looking bunch of long deceased Airleas monarchs.

"Run like mad, or accept you're trapped in a Steffan King novel?" Mahrina suggested helpfully.

"He is the master of horror," Erik whispered in a hushed voice, then smiled. "You read his last book, Mahrina?"

"No. Lara liked it. Gave her nightmares, that's how she judges if it's scary enough or not. I have enough bad dreams as it is," Mahrina shuddered, "I don't need to solicit more."

"Hey, you ever stop to think that if Steffan was the oldest kid of royalty, he’d be King King?" Justin wondered loudly.

Mahrina grabbed Justin's arm excitedly with a squeal. "Not only have I thought that, I sat up an entire night just to ponder the intelligence it takes to realize something so profound!"

"No kiddin'?" Justin guffawed and threw his arm around her neck. "What ya' know, I think I've found my dream girl, Erik."

"You two need therapy," the blond prince smirked.

"Only one kinda' therapy I need," Justin growled, playfully reaching after Mahrina as she tore away.

"Oh, Caroline!" Mahrina called, looking for the blonde's portrait. "There she is! This is Ariel's and my great grandmother when she was about fourteen. She and Ariel could be twins."

Erik studied the petite blond in the picture and found himself captivated by the looks of this young woman. If Ariel did indeed resemble her, he thought they'd get along just fine.

"Justin," Mahrina said seriously, "I've written a senior research project, heavy on the military strategy. Would you mind reading it and telling me what you think? Your input would be most appreciated, I'm kind of nervous about it."

"Sure," Justin smiled. "Let me at it."

The brunette pair stood in the doorway, sighing loudly and clearing their throats. Mahrina extinguished the candles and still Erik cocked his head at the painting in front of him.

Mahrina lost patience and attempted to sound stern. "Erik, we're locking you in here." When he didn't reply, she rolled her eyes and went to the hall.

Justin slammed his hand on the doorframe, his voice commanding and gritty. "Come on, Erik, that's not even the right woman you're gawking at. Something's wrong with you, boy, always has been."

The younger Greystone turned to Mahrina, "You know he’s always been weird. He actually liked school, used to turn his assignments in on time and garbage like that. Always telling the truth, helping little old ladies across the courtyards."

Erik sauntered out, elbowing Justin's side. "I don't have to take this abuse. Come on, you two."

Justin carried on to Mahrina, "I'm telling ya', he's a deranged puppy. You gotta stay away from him or your bad girl reputation is gonna get tarnished."

Mahrina stopped with her hands on her waist. "I don't have a reputation, good or bad!" she cried.

"Stick with me, kid. We can change all that." Justin exclaimed

Erik's voice drifted up the staircase, "You two could wake the dead."

"There isn't anyone over here to be quiet for, Erik, it's okay." Mahrina assured the ever-vigilant prince.

Justin stepped in front of Mahrina, gently pinning her to the cool, polished marble wall. "Sorry, my lady, but you can't pass until you pay the toll."

"The toll?" Mahrina giggled. "And what are you, a troll who lives under a bridge?"

"Yep, that's me, the toll troll. The going rate around Camarand these days is one kiss, then you can pass." Justin explained, gently encircling her wrists with his hands and holding them behind her back.

"There is an old proverb that states trolls should beware the princess with the over-protective grandfather who demands the princess is well trained in self-defense. Especially when trying to blackmail the princess in her own palace."

Mahrina's smile slowly faded as she felt the prince's body press fully to her own. A wave of betrayal to Dirk swept through her as she realized how much she enjoyed Justin's proximity, the feel of his warm breath on her neck, his strong hands playfully restraining hers.

"You can’t blame a guy for trying a new tactic. At least I didn’t give you the dare again," Justin whispered, brushing his lips over Mahrina's forehead.

"Justin, I can’t—"

Justin released her hands and cupped her face gently. "Shhh, " he soothed in a deep, calm voice. "How much longer are we gonna keep playing this game? Haven't you ever wondered what it would be like to kiss me?"

"What are you two whispering about?" Erik questioned a few feet behind the pair.

"Your little brother was telling me all your deep, dark secrets." Mahrina informed Erik, gently pulling away from Justin. "Who'd have thought you were into that?" she added, shaking her head as she approached the older Greystone.

"Justin!" Erik reprimanded sternly.

"Oh, that's the game we're playing, is it?" Justin demanded.

"I guess so," Mahrina laughed.

"You're asking for trouble now, girlie!" Justin roared and charged toward the princess.

Mahrina squealed and nearly knocked Erik over as she ran down the stairs with Justin only a few steps behind. Erik had to run keep pace with Justin, who chased Mahrina all the way to the sitting room.

"So have you thought of a name for this guy?" Erik inquired, pulling a tether from his vest over the floor, enjoying the diminutive kitten pouncing at it with vigor.

"Nothing fits for him yet," Mahrina sighed and looked over at Justin, who'd been silent since he began reading her thesis.

Erik smiled at Mahrina and rested on his elbow. "Ann tells me you have a secret Romeo."


"Said you kept sneaking off with him and got some pretty brutal looking hickeys. Come on, you can tell me, who is he?"

Mahrina shifted and noted Justin was looking up from the papers at her. "Oh, Anna. Ask her not to say anything and what does she do? I told her the morning I left for home that I’d broken up with mystery man."

The princess tried to convince herself she wasn’t lying. She and Dirk had broken up and she had told Anna before leaving the Games. However, Mahrina didn’t think the Greystones would enjoy hearing the rest of the story. She wasn’t sure she was enjoying the rest of the story. Each hour the evening progressed she’d felt a small seed of regret over the past week growing larger.

"Yeah, well, don't say nothing to Anna you don't want all over Camarand," Justin said without humor.

Erik sat up and folded his arms. "I know you don't like her, Justin, but that's not a nice thing to say."

"Might not be nice, but it's accurate," Mahrina agreed with Justin. "I don't know you guys that well, anymore, but something Anna told me that you think about my family took me by surprise. I might be opening a bag of trouble here, but I'd like to know what caused this opinion. What she said doesn't make sense with the way you and your dad act around Rohrdan and me."

Justin joined Mahrina on the sofa. "Hold on. What are we supposed to have said? I don't like this. I haven't said two words to that girl outside of hello and—"

Erik cut off Justin's words with a hand facing his brother, "Go on, Mahrina."

Mahrina sighed and stared at the crackling fireplace. "She started out by saying she cares about me and that was the only reason she was telling me this. And then she was vague, using phrases like 'other royal families'. She said these so-called other people think my family isn't in the war because Rohrdan is a coward and only cares about his wealth. That people are sick of King Airleas throwing money around. That anything nice we have was really bought with the blood of soldiers from the south. After I practically hog tied her to find out who said this, she told me it was you guys and your dad."

Justin slammed his hand on the sofa cushion. "Now that is the biggest bunch of bull I've heard in my life! Erik, you gotta have a talk with her." Justin reached over and took Mahrina's hand, "She's been drinking some bad wine. I'd never say anything like that, never even thought it."

Erik rubbed his chin, feeling a flush rise over his cheeks. "I'm with Justin, I have no idea where she got ideas like that. I'm sorry she said that to you, and I will have a talk with her."

Mahrina pressed her hands to her face and groaned, "Now she's going to hate me!"

"Don't you feel bad!" Justin exclaimed, "I'll tell you where she probably came up with that load of fertilizer; her old man. That guy is the most kolna-hungry, name-dropping piece of work I've come across."

"I'm just glad you don't feel that about us," Mahrina said with a weak smile.

"Your country's hospital has never turned down our wounded. The extra food when the north burned our crops…well, I could go on with the ways your kingdom has helped without officially being in the war. Ann, where was your brain?"

"I'll talk to her next time I see her, too. I'm curious to know why she lied. So, how's the paper?" Mahrina wondered to Justin.

"It's great!" he told her with a crooked grin. "You got a good tactical imagination, Ought to let Erik here have a look at it."

Mahrina nodded and drew her knees up to her chest, playing with the hem of her dress. "Now all I need is the illustrations. I think a two-year-old could do a better job than I can. When the gods were handing out art talent, I went back for seconds in the love of chocolate line."

Erik chuckled as he was seated at the table. "Justin could help you out; he's a great artist."

"Really?" Mahrina's face brightened.

The younger Greystone shifted self-consciously. "Hardly great. Just like to doodle here and there."

"Don't listen to him, Mahrina. He's good, best art student Instructor Calimonte said he'd ever had at the Royal Academy. Come on, Justin, help her out."

"Yeah, come on Justin, help her out. Please?" Mahrina pleaded softly with her hands under her chin.

Justin picked an apple from a fruit bowl on the table behind the sofa and juggled it with one hand. "I think I'm being ganged up on here. Guess I ought to get my pad and pens. They're in my saddle bag."

"Thank you!" Mahrina beamed to him as he left. "You're the best."

Justin winked at Mahrina. "I've heard that before, too."

Erik's looked up with confusion. "What was that?"

"You don't want to know," the princess told him, smiling, watching Justin's tall frame saunter down the hall, still tossing his apple in the air.

When Justin returned he sat next to Mahrina at the table with his cache of drawing materials. Mahrina explained her concept of the scenarios to him, pointing out the trouble spots on the samples she had made. Greystone needed only a few minutes before he handed her the first sketch, adding improvements even Mahrina hadn't thought of.

The princess attempted to copy the fine lines and details of Justin's artwork, finally convincing him that she really could not draw. Mahrina studied every pen stroke Justin made as he turned a blank sheet of parchment into a blueprint for battle in an extraordinarily short amount of time.

"I am very much in your debt, good Prince Greystone."

"All right now, none of that 'good' stuff. That's him." Justin warned pointing to Erik.

"Sorry, bad Prince Greystone. Thank you for being my illustrator extraordinaire," Mahrina stated with amused relief, impressed as she perused the drawings before her.

"Helping damsels in distress, it works for me occasionally. You're gonna label these, right? You got the good printing; that's my weakness." Justin held his arms up and twisted his shoulders from the awkward angle he'd been in while drawing.

The young people spent the next few hours in conversation, each sharing lighthearted bits of themselves, until the discussion turned to seriousness and the horrible atrocities of war. Mahrina hadn’t spoken at length with either prince in young adulthood, and she found them both charming, well spoken and mannered. They displayed a passion for seeing justice in all of Aperans, especially Erik. His personal desires seemed nonexistent. How diametrically opposed that sentiment was to Mahrina after so many days of Dirk speaking constantly of his ideas, his future, and, foremost, his needs.

After wishing the brothers a good night, Mahrina and her kitten went to bed. The princess had fed the infant feline every few hours as the vet had instructed, and she repeated the ritual before changing into her nightgown. She was thrilled with the recovery the kitten seemed to be making. He playfully waited around the corner of her bedpost to pounce on her toes as she turned down the covers.

"Now if you just grow into your ears, you'll be perfect!" Mahrina giggled and hoisted the cat onto the bed. She felt the rumbling ball of fur settle on her chest once she'd laid down. Remembering her necklace, Mahrina retrieved it from her bedside, and ran her fingers over the intricate details of the Blackpool crest, its pewter hull cold and solid. Much like Dirk when he got into one of his moods, she mused.

It was easier without Dirk than she had worried it would be. Spending the evening with others helped, and she relaxed even more after her talk with the Greystones about Anna. Mahrina began thinking up something she could send to Justin as a thank you gift for helping her finish her paper. Now that it was no longer hanging over her head, she looked forward to the rest of her vacation.

She looked forward to the hours that would be spent by the lake getting an early tan. She didn't care what others clucked about with wrinkles and all; she'd get them anyway in thirty years, so why not enjoy herself now? A few social calls on old friends, maybe some shopping and getting together with the dressmaker for ideas on her graduation gown.

Yes, she had plenty of enjoyable activities to keep herself occupied. If only she could shake the feelings of anxious worry that filled her. For Mahrina wanted to believe she and Dirk were meant to be together. But beliefs were not what one should base the future on. And Mahrina knew all too well the pain of a bad coupling. Being the result of one, she vowed to never betray herself or a child for a man. Even a man she was as drawn to as the dark prince from the north.


Chapter 4


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