Erik Greystone in Skies of Death (5_41)

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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 Four

Lara Canton was impressed with herself for the balancing act she was able to perform. Her arms overflowed with a few books she was returning Mahrina, her latest cross-stitch project, and a box of the girl's favorite teacakes.

She didn't like to bother others, so she politely refused assistance from the maid as she was shown into the large 'war' room of Castle Airleas. Lara didn't understand the name; the kingdom hadn't been in a war since before she was born, but it was an impressive area.

Inside the chambers only official business of the kingdom and the royal family took place. The area was split by a thick, beveled glass wall, which dampened all sound. The front part of the room was a receiving area where guests could wait on comfortable leather sofas and peruse stacks of the latest reading materials. Inside the main chamber the walls were covered with a detailed map of Branaugh and the Swann Islands. In the center of the room sat a grand mahogany table around which the Royal Cabinet would convene. During these sessions Lara's father sat in the first seat to the right of the throne; his position of Prime Advisor made Lara very proud.

Coming to the war room always invigorated the young noble woman. When she would enter she felt like she was part of something majestic and exciting. That feeling dissipated, however, when she saw Mahrina and Rohrdan. Lara knew immediately the mood was grim.

The cabinet table was littered with papers and books. Lara noted the redness of the king's cheeks. She couldn't hear him, but his body language appeared as if he were yelling. Mahrina looked just as upset, nodding occasionally, as she curled a long tendril of hair around her index finger; a nervous habit she'd had since childhood.

Mahrina's gaze shot up and she instantly gave her friend a tired smile. A wave of the princess’s hand indicated she'd be out in a few minutes. Lara nodded and took a seat nearby on a buttery soft, leather sofa. Lara's fingers worked tirelessly on the cross-stitch project she intended to give her favorite teacher; a lovely peacock set on a lace background. She was insanely curious what was going on, but as intrigued as she was, like her father, Lara knew that if it were her business she would be told.

"I'm sorry to keep you waiting. Good Gods, what a morning," Mahrina sighed as she collapsed next to Lara. "Rohrdan is calling a discrete cabinet tomorrow. Baron Lange has been embezzling money the past year. Lots of it."

"You're joking!"

Mahrina shook her head, "Lar, the man has been with the family for...I don't know, over twenty years? This is killing Rohrdan; he's furious, he not only trusted the Baron, he thought they were friends. I can't believe Lange thought he could get away with it."

"Grandfather must be so upset."

"Immensely. I hate leaving in the morning with all this in the air, but like Rohrdan said, I won't be able to do anything if I stay. Then he started in about how great it will be in five weeks when I move into the little palace on the Island and help clean up this mess. I felt about two inches tall. I have to tell him, soon."

Lara gave her a wide-eyed stare. "Not today, I hope. Don't you think he's had enough surprises?"

Mahrina pressed her hands to her forehead, "Yes, I was going to wait. But thank you for checking. My sanity; it doesn't seem intact today."

"You think it's only today?" Lara questioned innocently.

Mahrina placed a gentle kick to Lara's ankle and giggled softly. "What would I do without you around to harass me? I know I deserve it now, though. The longer I wait, the more upset Rohrdan will probably be.  Maybe weekend after next I'll come back up here and we can have 'the talk'."

"Rina, it will work out, Grandfather loves you more than anything. Not only does he want what's best for you, you owe him the truth. He has a big say in who you want to marry."

Mahrina nodded.

"It's kind of like watching a drug wear off of you since Dirk left."

"Oh, please. Don't be so dramatic," Mahrina sighed. "Are you packed yet?"

"Almost, and you?"

"Of course. You want to take one last trip to Karl’s?" Mahrina's eyes sparkled with mischief. "There is nothing else I can do here and I could use a few good games of Larjonge before I help you finish packing. You're not making us late again, Canton!"

"Me?" Lara demanded, "Princess-just-let-me-check-my-hair-one-more-time-Airleas is worried about me making us late?"

"Are you coming or not?" Mahrina called over her shoulder as she sauntered to the door.

Lara gathered her items and rushed after the princess. "Gods, Rina, I could never have imagined anything like the last two weeks have been! I wish we could go back to kindergarten."

"You and me both. I just wish the world would stop and let me off for a few days, " Mahrina offered. "Unfortunately, I get the feeling my ride is just beginning."



The princess jumped when she heard Rohrdan’s call as she tiptoed past the library. "Son of a bone crack demon," she whispered. The princess had hoped he was already in bed and that she wouldn't have to deal with any further unpleasantness.

"Yes?" she replied, peeking around the corner.

 "We must speak at once. Is Lara with you?"

"No. I just left her at her family's house."

"Very well. Come in and close the door."

'Great,' the princess groaned inwardly, 'What has Lange done now?' Mahrina took a seat directly across from the king. She settled back and clasped her hands, waiting to hear the news.

"Were you on your way to bed?"

"Yes, Lar and I went out to play. I didn't think staying in would do any good. I only lost ten kolnas. I hope it wasn't a problem that I went out?" The expression the king wore was tense and his eyes were like two shining crystal beams that pierced her heart.

"I'm disappointed that you were going to leave without sharing the news of your engagement with me."

Mahrina shifted in her seat. Her chest felt like someone had parked a horse drawn carriage on it. "What?" she asked just above a whisper.

"Come now, Mahrina, ignorance doesn't suit you," he said coolly.

Her cheeks became aflame with a nervous flush. Mahrina scooted to the edge of the sofa, not breaking Rohrdan's stare.

Rohrdan's voice grew louder and angrier with each word. "I specifically told you not to get involved with Dirk Blackpool. Not only did you defy me, you let him stay with you, tarnish your reputation, and right here on the grounds of the castle you’re to someday govern with honor!"

The only person Mahrina suspected of revealing her secret was Lara; but the girls had been together all evening. Had she said something to the king earlier? No, Lara was her best friend. It couldn't have been her.

"How did you find out?"

"That isn't important!" Rohrdan yelled.

Mahrina jumped to her feet. "It is to me!"

Rohrdan pounded his fist on the coffee table, "You will sit back down and you will not be the one asking questions!"

Mahrina's mouth and throat felt as dry as the Sara Lee desert. She took her seat and prepared for the onslaught. The king glared at the fire for an uncomfortable amount of time. She fought every urge to fiddle restlessly; the princess wanted to appear as the mature woman that she believed she now was.

"Explain why lying to me, the man who has loved you your entire life, was necessary for a man you've known less than a fortnight."

"I thought," she began trying to steady her voice, "that if I told you I was interested in him, you would say no before I had a chance to get to know him. Then we had an argument at the games. I truly did not think I would see Dirk again. I swear by the Book, I didn't. I wanted to pretend it never happened, so at that time, there was nothing to tell you. May I get a glass of water?"

The king nodded in accord.

Mahrina continued while she retrieved the beverage, "He showed up here a few days later. It was a complete shock to see him. Dirk told me that he'd fallen in love with me, he wanted to apologize for his behavior and start anew. You weren't here for me to consult. He left the morning that you returned from the hunt. I did not tell you anything that happened, until now, but I have not lied to you." She resumed her seat and faced her grandfather with steadfastness.

"You really believe that?" Rohrdan demanded incredulously.

"Yes. If I were to have denied the relationship, after you asked me straight out, that would be lying. But I don’t believe getting to know him, was wrong."

Rohrdan's fury intensified, "Yes it was! You have no idea the kind of man you're getting involved with."

Mahrina felt her ire rising but attempted to keep it from her face. "Dirk can annoy people very easily, myself included, but once you get past the rumors and the stories, he is a dynamic person. But it took me spending time with him before I was able to really see there is more to him than just a strong warrior."

"Oh, for the sake of the Gods! Of course he was charming and professed his love for you! What did you expect? He's putting his best foot forward because you are to be queen of a successful country that conveniently happens to sit next-door to his sworn enemies!"

"Are you saying Dirk got involved with me because of politics?"

Rohrdan slammed his fist on the couch, "Of course he did! Your looks and intelligence are only the icing on his cake. I would rather see almost any other man in Aperans involved with you. You will not take this any further. I insist you end this relationship and you are to never see him again."



Mahrina felt a cold, bitter ache in the pit of her stomach as she stood up. "I won't end it simply because of your objections."

King Airleas sprang up at Mahrina like a wild tiger. He grabbed her arms and shook her roughly, "How dare you defy me?"

Mahrina's temper had reached the same fury level as the king. The harder she tried to get away, the tighter his grip was. "Why are you being such an unreasonable old man?"

"Unreasonable old man?" the king whispered as he released Mahrina and pushed her away with disdain. "Agreeing to marry a maniac who would ruin this entire kingdom, that is unreasonable. How could you turn out just like your mother?"

"Like Astalynn? You are the one who always assured me I possess a different kind of soul than that woman who gave up everything for a traitor. I know you’re not being yourself, now. To even suggest I would act as she did is ludicrous."

"You already have," Rohrdan replied evenly. "That is, if you choose to remain Blackpool's fiancée. I will not have that strong warrior of yours in my line of succession. If you plan on marrying him I have no choice but to formally disown you. From the monarchy, the royal treasury, and the family."

"What are you saying?" the princess felt like the room was spinning and the ocean was roaring in her ears.

Rohrdan strode to the set of double doors that led to his study. He swung them open, his words terse. "It seems you've won her over. I hope it wasn't her money that you wanted!"

Mahrina had to steady herself on the back of a chair when she saw Dirk Blackpool saunter into the room. Mahrina stared at him. He was dressed in black from head-to-toe. His boots, pants and gloves were shiny leather; his doublet was fashioned of an even heavier grain and overlaid with silver studs and chain mail. The width of it in the shoulders, along with his height, made him appear even more immense. His eyes were unfamiliar; Mahrina still saw a fire, but this was ignited by something cold and cruel.

Blackpool strode past the king to Mahrina's side. "Forgive me. One of our enemies has wounded my father. He slipped into a coma the day before yesterday and the healers believe he may die soon. I am in charge of the kingdom now. I couldn't wait to settle our marriage contract; I want you by my side. I thought if I came to see the king in person, assure him how deeply I am devoted to you that he would lend an empathetic ear and approve our union. Unfortunately, my assumption he would be reasonable was giving him too much credit."

Mahrina faced the king, "Please, don't do this. There has to be another way. We can talk for as long as you like and calm whatever fears you have. I am so sorry you found this out from someone other than me. You know I would never hurt you intentionally. Tell me what I can do."

Rohrdan's face softened and he took Mahrina's hand. "You made the decision to become involved with him. You have to face the consequences. No amount of talking will ever change my mind." His hand gripped hers tightly, "I'm not angry with you for thinking you've fallen in love. I'm angry you would make a decision of this magnitude without saying a word to me. All my years on the throne has given me an insight to others, an insight you've always trusted. Mahrina, he's not what he's portrayed to you. Tell him it is over and this will all be forgotten. I swear, I will never speak of this again or hold it against you."

Mahrina closed her eyes and willed herself not to cry.

Dirk broke the silence that hung around the trio. "Mahrina, this man is as close-minded a fool as the rest of the southern rulers. He is mistaken if he thinks disowning you will deter me from wanting you as my bride. You don't need this land, this kingdom; I give you mine. Leave with me. Right now."

Mahrina turned and gave Blackpool an icy glare, "My grandfather is not a fool," she whispered, "I think you should apologize to him for saying so."

"I wouldn't accept his apology, it would mean nothing to me. Tell me, Dirk, how is it going with your father's advisors? The fact that half of them oppose you wouldn't be the reason you came here tonight to ask for Mahrina's hand in marriage by next-week. That is when they will convene to attempt to bar you from becoming Regent, isn't it?"

"You wanted us to be married next week?" the princess cried.

The king could not help but let a small, satisfied grin cross his face when met by a murderous glare from the young prince. "It certainly would be to your favor to have the house of Branaugh in your corner, would it not?"

"Mahrina…" Dirk began.

"Is this true?" she interrupted.

"Not the way he's insinuating. You shouldn't be surprised. You were aware of my desire for us to be married as soon as possible. However, I have serious duties I must begin. I don't know that in the future I will have the time for us to have a large wedding. We must do this immediately."

The princess turned away from both the men. Her eyes fell on the statue of Dyanecia, a warrior queen known for her strength and virtue. Mahrina had chosen her to be the spirit protector of her reign on the Airleas throne. She had always dreamed of emulating Dyanecia. Honor, integrity, and duty first—and doing what she knew in her heart was the right thing—not the easy thing. Mahrina seethed with anger and betrayal at Dirk. Since he'd entered the room she felt an emotional chasm between them that she did not think could be bridged.

"Mahrina, no other person knows the strength of the bond between us," Dirk prodded.

Mahrina's voice was soft, but full of renewed energy. "I need to talk to Dirk, alone. I'll be back," she told Rohrdan as she stormed into the hallway.

Two guards stood nearby. When Mahrina waved her hand, the men departed a short distance away, but not so far away as to have the couple out of their view.

Once the soldiers were out of earshot Blackpool glared at the princess. "Tell me what is going on? Either you're leaving with me right now or you aren't, in which case, my dear, I am going to be beyond disappointed."

"I can't leave with you right now! I have school to finish, and I need time to think."

Blackpool raised his left eyebrow in perplexed anger. "Mahrina, nothing that has occurred should change your mind. I can not understand why you're making a mockery of our relationship like this."

"Me? You are the one who went behind my back about something this important. And if this is just the beginning of the relationship I can't imagine how bad it would be later! You're as arrogant and disagreeable as you were the last night of the games; I don't even know who you are."

Dirk let out a haughty laugh. "After all your sworn devotion to me. Your grandfather holds your monarchy over your head and you are controlled just like his puppet. What a child you are, Mahrina."

"I'm no one's puppet, you of all people should know that. Nothing Rohrdan said tonight is the reason I am breaking our so-called bond. I won't marry someone I don't trust, and I no longer trust you. The way you've been acting tonight, I don't even like you!"

"Do you believe you can toy with me and not feel the repercussions?" Blackpool demanded.

"I am sorry about your father, Dirk, and that your actions tonight are making this so unpleasant. But I'm not toying with you. I've been a fool from the beginning; animals in the wild are choosier about their mates than I have been. My life is already going to be complicated enough without marrying the wrong man. If you would have spoken to me, there can't be any 'would haves'." Mahrina pulled the chain over her head and thrust the symbol of their engagement into his hand. "These are yours, take them."

Dirk grabbed Mahrina and bent down less than an inch above her face. "You will regret this someday, Mahrina Airleas. I'll take your throne and you will beg me for mercy when I destroy your family crest before your eyes. I curse you to think of me each time another man touches you, and given how easily you threw yourself at me, I'm certain that will be quite often. Which causes me to ponder your claim of virginity; I do hope you were honest about that. I'd hate to be called a liar when boasting of you as my most interesting prize from this year's games."

Through her shock Mahrina heard herself speak with ice-cold sarcasm. "And they say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. You're pathetically transparent. As for your threats of taking my throne, I won't lose any sleep over it. I've seen how successful your army has been attempting to seize Camarand for going on what...decades? Oh, and please, boast all you want about me. I doubt anyone will believe I'd have anything to do with a charlatan like you. Now get out of my castle!" She yanked her arm from his grip and snapped her fingers for the guards.

"Bye...for now." Dirk growled with growing hatred

Mahrina turned on her heels and stalked away. Her heart pounded in her ears, but she could still hear Blackpool's powerful footfalls growing softer along with those of the guards close behind him. The main palace door closed with a deafening thud. Mahrina drifted back to the study and leaned against the entryway.

"He's gone," she stated flatly. "And I'm sure you'll be relieved to know for good."

"Rina, honey, I am sorry," King Airleas told her gently. He shook his head and approached her. "In just a short while, tonight will be nothing but an unpleasant memory."

"I don't want your sympathy. You were ready to throw me out of here just a few minutes ago. Now it's, 'Oh let's put this all behind us.' Well, I can't just put it all behind us. I never in my worst fears imagined you would threaten to disown me as punishment. And I'm never going to forget the way you reacted. If you'll excuse me, your majesty, I'm going to collect my things and stay the night in Addin's Port. After I graduate, I'll go straight to the palace in the Swanns. That is, if you still trust me with them?"

The king furrowed his brow and rubbed his temples, "Someday, you'll forgive me for this, I know you are only acting this way because of the hurt right now. Sweetheart, it will never be this way again. The next young man you fall in love with…"

Mahrina cut him off, "Don't speak to me again about love or who I'm going to marry until it's someone you've decided on and made the marriage contract with. After my experiences of the last few years I have no interest in using love to decide on a husband. Better it be an arrangement that is convenient for me, rather than something based on emotions. It will be much easier to run my kingdom that way. I have to get going."

"I won't try and change your mind, you're too upset. Yes, I still trust you with the islands. It will make the entire process of rebuilding the economy much easier with you there. So this is good-bye until I come down for your graduation?"


She was halfway up the stairs when she heard her grandfather's words. "I'm proud that you are my blood. I love you."

"I'll leave word for Lara to meet me at the ferry in the morning, it's too late to disturb the Cantons now." Mahrina briskly replied.

She quickly ascended the stairs and fought with all her might the sobs that wracked her body. Mahrina's chest heaved, but she would not allow tears to fall while she packed. Allegra, as she'd dubbed her kitten, hopped into the carrier she had made for him. The princess blew out the candles in her room and did not seek out Rohrdan before she left the castle.

Mahrina was saddling her horse when a soldier from the guard informed her the king had insisted a small detachment accompany her to the city. She agreed, knowing it was Rohrdan's concern for her that prompted an escort, not a fear she was going to join Blackpool.

The king watched Mahrina depart, his form hidden in a darkened window. Memories of her when she wasn't more than five years old filled his mind. Mahrina would have nightmares and beg him to stay in her room until she'd fall back asleep. Tonight, Rohrdan felt like the bad dream was real; and this time it had a face and the name of a northern family.

The king silently berated himself for not taking better care of Mahrina. For allowing her too much freedom at her young age. He was now determined to protect her from any further pain, emotional or otherwise. Rohrdan knew Dirk Blackpool was a sore loser like Saris. While he didn't hear Dirk's final words to Mahrina he saw her face afterwards. And if Dirk ever did do anything to hurt his girl, Rohrdan vowed he would kill Blackpool with his bare hands.


"No, Sir Jeffrey, I specifically said number eight because that is where your carriage will fit in the best. You are not being punished by riding behind Lord Rielley in the parade." Princess Airleas tried to hold back her laughter and address the noble man whose beet red face hovered over her desk.

Sir Jeffrey pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed the summer perspiration from his jowls. "Your highness, I know you are a fair-minded woman. I did not mean to insinuate that my former friendship with Baron Lange was something you would hold over me."

Mahrina rose and slid her arm through the older man's. "Of course not, I didn't think that for a moment. Now, I'm glad you came to me with this concern. You are leaving assured that it's just the best placement of the floats and carriages?"

"If your highness sees it that way."

"Excellent. Please give my warmest regards to your family, and I look forward to seeing you at the next cabinet." Mahrina shined her best diplomatic smile until he was out of sight, then she slapped her hand to her forehead. "I cannot believe the petty tadmon manure that goes on down here!"

"Pardon?" Clarence, the royal decorator inquired poking his head up from behind a sofa.

"Nothing." Mahrina assured him, "Oh, yes, those are perfect."

The princess nodded approvingly at the dove gray and creamy mauve patterned fabrics being used to recover the sofas in her library. The floor had been redone in a heather marble with fluffy white fur rugs spread luxuriously in front of the sofas and fireplace. Each window took up most of one wall and Mahrina had had Clarence tear off the dark, heavy shutters and hang scarves of mauve silk which draped elegantly around the frames. It was a definite improvement over the look Baron Lange had favored, if she said so herself.

"What was it you said this room was decorated in before, Clar?"

"Early Grogan Bordello," the slight man replied through a mouthful of pins.

"I love having you down here. If you can stay a while longer I think the dining room needs work."

"I was simply waiting for you to give the go ahead." Clarence nodded.

"Wonderful. Oh, is that the time?" Mahrina gasped when she saw the hourglass. "Gilasia!" Mahrina yelled as she hurried into her bedchamber, "could you please get out my blue silk dress? I'm meeting Mike for dinner at the seventh hour."

"It's already laid out, my lady, along with your pear cut sapphire earrings and necklace."

"Gilly, thank you. I've never been able to have a maid around who didn't drive me crazy, let alone attend to my needs before I knew them, until I met you. Lange was a fool to not steal you. You are more than welcome to assume you have lifetime employment."

Gilasia giggled and tucked a stray, strawberry blond curl back into her bun. "Thank you, my lady. And might I say that you don't drive me to drink, as my former employer did, and that I am honored to take your offer of lifetime employment?"

"You may," Mahrina smiled.

"If you need anything else, ma'am, I'll be having supper." The lady-in-waiting's skirts rustled around her ample waist as she crossed the floor. "Have a nice time with Prince Tronin."

"Thank you, I will." Mahrina opened the glass doors to her balcony and breathed deeply the fresh, salt air. The warm pink glow of the sunset gently illuminated her bedchamber, but it did not seem to counteract the chill the princess felt creep up her spine. Goose bumps slowly spread all over her body and she grimaced at the presence she sensed.

Mahrina approached her bed and pulled back the gauzy, sea foam green drapes on the canopy. In the center of the satin, down comforter lay a heart shaped wooden box. The fine craftsmanship was evident; the oak surface gleamed even in the low light. She clenched her jaw unconsciously as she reached for it. Mahrina brushed her fingers over the cool surface of the lid.

Examining it more closely she noted it was a puzzle box. Mahrina held her breath and slowly moved the pieces until she heard a click and the top left corner opened. Inside a compartment, lined with crushed purple velvet, was one of the most exquisite rings the princess had ever seen. The marquis diamond blazed with a colorful fire; Mahrina surmised the stone must be at least a half dozen carats. She tipped the box and watched the platinum band as it shifted positions and dazzled her with sparkling glory.

"Lucky man, Michael Tronin, to have such a beautiful dinner companion." A familiar voice drifted from the small study to the side of her bedchamber.

Mahrina closed the compartment on the box and strode with purpose to the source of intrusion.

Dirk Blackpool sat with his feet up on her desk. He eyed Mahrina up and down, noting her once waist length tresses cascaded a few inches past her shoulders in becoming waves. "When did you cut your hair?"

Mahrina threw the puzzle box at Blackpool. "I'm not impressed with your trinket, and I doubt you came to discuss my appearance. Did you come to take my throne, or are you just looking for that family crest to demolish? It's downstairs, over the fireplace. I'm sure you can't miss it on your way out."

Dirk stood, hot and uncomfortable in his heavy leather doublet. Having Vector transport him directly from his own cool climate, he'd forgotten how problematic it was to wear in warmer places.

Blackpool felt his passion stir looking at Mahrina in her dress; more of a long, white silk slip in fact. The women in the south always did wear the most pleasing outfits during the heat of the summer. He had hoped to find her looking rather haggard and run down after the last several months spent governing the Swann Islands. Being in charge obviously agreed with her.

"Not even an offer for refreshment. The hostessing graces here leave something to be desired!"

"Get used to it. Are you going to tell me why you are bothering me, before I summon my guards to throw you out?"

"Fine, summon them. Of course, if you do, you won't learn the whereabouts of Baron Lange...that information would interest you, would it not?"

"Dirk. I'm not in the mood to play." Mahrina sat back on a chair and crossed her legs, allowing the split skirt of her dress to reveal their length, glowing with a summer tan. He'd accused her of toying with him before; he hadn't seen anything yet. She bent forward, the thin straps of her gown falling around her shoulders. "What makes you think I would even trust information you give me on our fugitive embezzler?"

"Very well, if you aren't interested my knowledge…"

"I'm not." Mahrina wrapped a tendril of hair around her finger and looked around the room with feigned disinterest. "I wondered what your excuse would be to show up."

"I'm flattered that you expected me, and have thought of me."

"You misunderstand. I dreaded, not expected, this day. Now, you are welcome to leave." Mahrina pointed at the puzzle box, "And don't forget your tacky gift. On second thought, leave it. I can donate it to the Camarand Soldiers' Weapons Fund."

Dirk sighed and gazed at her with his most penitent look. "I was out of my mind with worry for my father the night I made the mistake of going to Branaugh. What I did was out of shock. I miss you, Mahrina, and I know you miss me as well, but you'll never admit that. You must keep up this facade, or betray your true feelings to me. The only problem is, I am aware of your concealed passion."

"The only thing of mine that’s concealed is a weapon. You had your second chance and blew it. There isn't a third."

Dirk retrieved the box containing the ring and knelt down before her. Slowly, he slid open the compartment and held the ring up to the fading rays of sun. "I had it commissioned the day I returned from our week together. I am in love with you. I know I didn't say it before, but you knew voicing that sort of sentiment is not who I am. For a very long time I wasn't even certain I was capable of this emotion. You do believe me, don't you?"

"I don't know what I believe anymore," she shrugged.

"I will do whatever you desire for me to regain your trust. Now that my father has recovered, I can spend less time on the business of the kingdom and dealing with the petty disputes among the cabinet. Just tell me what you desire. You are an understanding soul, I know you will forgive me." Dirk pulled her hands apart and tried to place the ring on her left fourth finger.

"Stop it!" Mahrina commanded, flinging his hands away.

"I've thought it through: we can remain unmarried until King Airleas dies. He'll have no say once he's in the grave. Meanwhile, we can be together."

The tightness in her chest rivaled the night she'd seen him at Castle Airleas. "You lied to me. You presented me with a false image of who you are by not allowing me to see the complete Dirk Blackpool."

"What are you talking about?"

"Oh, for starters the missing members of your father's cabinet who opposed you taking becoming Regent. The prisoners in your dungeon who could have been traded for your men held in the south—prisoners you murdered just to clear out room for new arrivals. I’m actually relieved you came to see Rohrdan that night. That gave me the opportunity to see what a colossal mistake marrying you would have been. I am only sorry I ever allowed you to touch me…"

Dirk cut off her words with an angry kiss. He tore at the material of her dress, pulling her off the chair onto his knees. Mahrina wasn't able to scratch him; he pushed her to the floor and restrained her hands above her head too fast. His mouth crushed hers again and Mahrina bit into his lip.

Blackpool put his fist behind her neck and grabbed a handful of her hair as he pulled her head to the floor. The action caused Mahrina to arch her back in response and she cried out in protest. He lay over her, licking salty blood from the corner of his mouth, "That hurt. Don't do it again. You do still want me, I sense it. You can’t lie to me, Mahrina."

Mahrina stopped the struggle and looked deep into his eyes. "I did love the part of you that you presented me with. But you in your entirety turns off any desire I have."

Dirk brushed his lips over hers. "We've been apart all these months, that's why you feel wary."

"That isn't it. Get off of me, now!"

Dirk, weary from her rejection, and sensing another tactic would have to work, complied. His fingers traced the smoothness of her back when she sat up. "I will respect your wishes. I won't force myself on you. A man who did not love you might do otherwise."

"Save it," Mahrina snapped.

Before he rose Dirk pressed the engagement ring into her hand. "Don't lose this, you'll wear it someday. In the future you will come to me, but until then I will take my pleasure from other women, as I'm certain you will with other men. I look forward to the day you are my queen."

Having no desire to begin another round of the inane discussion, Mahrina unceremoniously dropped the diamond solitaire to the floor and refused to watch him walk to the balcony.

Dirk stopped and turned to her. "Baron Lange is staying in the Haven Islands. Our spies were aware of his presence there the night before last. Give my regards to Micheal Tronin. I do hope he won't have quite as good a time with you as I do."

Mahrina smiled weakly, "I'll be your queen when the fires of hell freeze over."

"In that case, I do hope the demons have warm clothes. Bye."

Mahrina stared at the sands in the hourglass until the last particles filtered through. She didn't move until she heard Gilasia's voice through the bedroom door.

"My lady, Prince Tronin is here."

"Tell him I'll be right down. Oh, and Gilly, please tell a royal messenger to ride to grandfather. Baron Lange is in the Haven Islands."

"Right away, your highness."

"I do hope the demons have warm clothes." Mahrina repeated Blackpool's parting words in a deep, mocking voice.

Her eyes focused on the shiny object on the floor. The princess picked up the ring and walked to the balcony. She hurled it onto the surf below, not caring where it landed.

"Good-bye, dreams of living happily ever after with a handsome prince," Mahrina whispered, swallowing just a hint of a lump in her throat. "Good-bye Dirk Blackpool...and good riddance."


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