This took longer than I expected, been distracted of late. World events can give great inspiration yet can also break the heart and I sincerely hope that we have seen the worst of it.
As before I warn you that this story involves bisexuality so if you do not like same-sex relationships or divided affections than this is not the story for you. If you are okay with it than enjoy :þ
Chapter 2: The Grand Ball.
Jelena had heard the whole conversation, King Talus had already made up his mind who Athanasia was to marry. She was scared for her Princess as any number of the men who waited for an audience with her could have made a deal with her father. Her choice might not matter any more.
Athanasia marched out of the throne room in a bad mood, “The insufferable bastard,” she seethed as she took Jelena into her arms, “He has already sold me!” Her resolve not to shed a tear at the hopelessness situation came dangerously close to failing.
“Then I suggest we think quickly about what to do,” Jelena whispered urgently in the Princess’s ear, “The one out you have is to pick a man before the deadline.”
“But who?” Athanasia swallowed hard to stifle the sorrow she was slowly drowning in, “My precious Jelena, if I make the wrong decision I may never see you again.” The gravity of the notion hit Jelena hard. “Hush my delicate flower,” Athanasia caressed Jelena’s cheek lovingly, “I will not let anyone take you from my side, ever.”
The shorter young woman gripped her tighter, “We must act soon or it will be too late.”
Athanasia tilted Jelena’s chin up and met her lips with a tender kiss, “I love you.”
The young women returned to the Princess’s room to ready for the evening, neither of them talking as the only topic to talk about depressed both of them.
Jelena solemnly dressed the Princess for the third time that day, a ball gown that suited Athanasia’s mood. A midnight blue with black diamonds and sapphires now graced the tall Princess making her pale skin look ghostly, she looked as though she was ready for a funeral and not meeting her future husband..
Athanasia stood before her mirror and took in her image, “Just like the tragic Queen on the way to the executioner’s block,” she commented, “Though I almost envy the prospect.”
“Maybe I could find out who your father made the deal with,” Jelena suggested.
“How?” Athanasia broke down again, “Only my father and the man he made the deal with knows that information.” The Princess turned to look at her lover but she had already left.
Jelena ran as quietly through the halls as possible, she had her goal in mind and would do what ever it took to make sure that Athanasia would remain close. Her feet carried her to Prince Castor’s room, she knew where it was but had never been in there. She knocked quietly on his door.
Castor opened it, the shock he felt at seeing the woman of his dreams standing in front of him paralysed his body to the spot.
“May I come in?” Jelena whispered, her voice filled with fear.
Castor nodded and stepped aside. Axel, who had been sitting with the Prince in a vain attempt to calm his fear of rejection, made his good byes and left. Jelena began to pace in much the same way Castor had no more than a minute ago.
“You sister is in trouble,” she informed him, “Your father has already decided who she will marry.”
The news had distracted Castor enough to, “What?”
“King Talus has made a deal with someone,” Jelena could not hold her fear in any longer, “I’m afraid for her.” She collapsed into his arms and sobbed.
Castor had dreamed of holding this precious young woman for so long but not like this. He pulled her into a tight embrace and took in the warmth she radiated. To see her in such a state broke his heart, he wanted to take her pain away to kiss that trembling lower lip. “How do you know my father has already made a deal with one of the suitors?”
Jelena sniffed, “He told her that if she fails to decide then she will marry of his choosing.”
Castor began to worry, who could have made a deal with his father so quickly? “And you have no idea who?”
She shook her head, “I was hoping you would know.”
“I wanted Sir Axel to be my sister’s suitor,” the Prince mentioned, “I have to somehow get my father to give him a title.”
Jelena’s head shot up, “That would be perfect,” she said excitedly, “I could see that she was at least attracted to him.” She hoped that Castor would manage to succeed, she prayed that he would succeed. “Castor, I know that you have plans for me to become your wife,” her statement caught Castor by surprise.
“I had planned to court you after Athanasia was married,” he admitted, “I have wanted to court you since you arrived at the palace.”
“I will agree to marry you if you can guarantee Sir Axel as Athanasia’s bridegroom,” she rushed out before she backed out.
Castor’s jaw dropped, “What?”
Jelena composed herself, “I said that I will be your wife if you can arrange that your sister becomes Sir Axel’s bride.”
She chanced a look up at shocked Castor’s face, “This was not how I imagined it would be,” he finally said sadly. “I had wanted you to fall in love with me, not offer yourself as payment to save my sister from an unfavourable match.”
“You don’t want me,” she sighed, feeling the fear rise in her again.
“I did not say that,” Castor reassured her, “I will compromise, I won’t marry you but you must agree to allow me to woo you and if you find yourself falling in love with me then, and only then, will I marry you.”
He gave her the same smile Jelena had frequently seen on Athanasia’s face, perhaps he would not be so bad as a life partner. He clearly loved her but she still could not feel the same intensity for him as she did for his sister. “Alright,” she nodded, “But you must find a way to rescue your sister.”
“I will,” Castor smiled and kissed her hand, “Promise me that I will get the first dance.”
Jelena’s face split into a small smile, “I promise.” The Prince released her and watched her leave. His heart swelling with hope.
In his room, Baldassare opened the cylinder he had packed with a few choice potion recipes inside. He had one in particular on his mind, a sleeping draft designed for the Princess. The scroll was delicate and old but the information it carried was worth more than its weight in gold. The Wizard King laid the parchment out on the desk in his quarters and began to assemble the ingredients together taking care to place each phial, jar or bundle in its place ready for use.
With a flick of his wrist a bronze urn appeared and floated gently onto the desk, “Eye of newt, virgin’s tongue,” he chuckled at the cliché use of fake items, “Really smelly stuff.” He grasped a jar of ground hollyhock buds and emptied half the contents into the urn, the powder looked like dried blood. “Valerian root juice,” he mumbled as he added a few drops along with the powdered remains of an odd ocean fish and a bunch of dried berries.
Baldassare picked up a stick to mix the concoction then added a whole bottle of red wine and sparked a fire under the urn. He let the stick continue to stir as he moved onto something else, a jewelled ring with a hidden compartment, “The classics are always the best,” he murmured moving back to the urn that had boiled down to a thick syrup with the berries still spherical though somewhat wilted.
Pouring the contents into a flat dish he pulverised it as it was dried into a powder. Scooping a little into the hidden compartment in his jewelled ring he tipped the rest into a small bottle and slipped it into his coat pocket.
Baldassare had used the sleeping draft many times in his plans to gain power. The night he drugged the Lunetta family was so easy it was laughable. The entire clan had gathered for a celebration and he was invited as a trusted member of court and adviser. It took little effort to drug them as they toasted his loyalty and friendship, ironic that they chose to toast him as they drank the wine with the sleeping draft sealing their own demise. After that it was easy to cast the spell to lock them in the painting that now holds them prisoner, forever to look out at the world but never to walk it again.
His plan this evening would be similar to that night, only he would slip it into the Princess’s wine and wait until she excused herself to retire for the night then it was only a matter to follow suit and take her while everyone was still busy with the ball.
With a wicked grin he began to prepare for the ball ahead.
“I tell you Axel,” Dirk remarked as he selected another garish outfit to impress the royal family, “Once the Princess is my wife she will not be allowed to wander out of my sight without an armed guard by her side.”
Axel rolled his eyes at the obnoxious Count, “I am sure she would like some time alone or to spend with her entourage of ladies.”
“And she can,” Dirk smiled, “As long as she has someone to watch over her she may do what ever she likes.” He turned towards his Knight, “I would like you to be the one to watch over her.”
Axel needed to inform his employer to the request from the Prince to also try for Athanasia’s hand. “Sir,” he began, “I have something to tell you.”
The Count chuckled, “Are you to tell me about what you were up to with the Prince?” Dirk turned back to his work, “Putting in a good word for your employer?”
“Not exactly,” the Knight huffed, “Castor has told me of a concern he has for one of the potential suitors.”
“A trouble maker?”
“The King of Galnoa,” Axel answered calmly, “He is one of the likely successful suitors.”
“Why would he talk to you about King Baldassare?” The man’s curiosity piquing.
Axel hesitated, he had to say something. “The Prince requested that I try my luck with the stubborn Princess.”
Dirk glared at him, “You are my body guard, not a suitable suitor for a Princess of the realm!”
“I have been offered a title should I succeed,” he explained, “And I have met the Princess, albeit briefly. She is quite beautiful, enough for me to accept the suggestion to try my luck.”
The far from handsome Count threw the outfit in his hands to the floor, “How dare you take what is rightfully mine!”
“She is not yours!” Axel yelled, “She will choose who she will be with and I highly doubt you have a chance but by all means try your luck.”
“Are you saying she won’t choose me because of my looks?”
“I am saying that a woman as intelligent as she is looks past physical appearances,” Axel moved closer to the little weasel of a man, “And I am certain that when she talks to you she will see a truely ugly little man who hides behind his title and expensive clothing. Yes your appearance leaves a lot to be desired but if you were an honourable man rather than a fiendish scheming usurper of the throne you would actually stand a chance.”
“I think it would be a very good idea that you leave my services immediately, Sir,” Dirk snarled at Axel with all the menace he could muster, which was not much.
“Gladly,” Sir Axel Fletcher agreed with loathing and left, wondering what he would do about an outfit for the ball in just a few hours ahead.
Castor marched to his father in the throne room, he was a man on a mission to find who his father had chosen to marry his sister off to. He had agreed to do everything in his power to guarantee Axel’s proposal would be the successful one but he needed to know who his father had formed a deal with. He prayed that his father was not foolish enough to agree to any deals with the Witch-King of the north but he would not hold his hopes up.
As he hurried through the corridors he collided with Axel, “I am sorry,” Castor apologised, lifting himself up off the floor, “I was not watching where I was going.”
“My Prince,” Axel bowed, “It is I who must apologise for my rudeness.”
“Nonsense,” Castor shook his head and stood aside to allow Axel to pass.
“My Prince, may I ask a favour?”
Castor was taken aback by the urgency of the request, “By all means.”
“I have a dilemma,” he explained, “I know you wish for me to be the one who saves your sister from a possible unsuitable match however I am lacking the appropriate attire and with not enough time to rectify the situation under my own control.”
Castor gave him his bedroom key, “Pick anything you wish, but my sister will most likely wear something dark to reflect her reluctance to marry.”
Axel gave him a quick hug and raced off to ready himself for the ball. Caster continued to the throne room to confront his father about the rumour.
“My son,” Talus greeted him, “What brings you here?” The King did not look amused at the worried expression on the Prince’s face.
“A little bird has told me you have already decided who Athanasia will marry,” he asked more directly than he intended, “Is this true?”
King Talus laughed, “I gave her an ultimatum,” he explained, “If she does not make her choice she will marry someone of my choosing.”
The King cocked his head at the simple question, “Why would you wish to know? It will be a very good match and the kingdom will benefit from such a union.”
“It sound like you have already accepted this suitor’s proposal on behalf of my sister,” Castor was worried at his father’s grin, it suggested a hidden plan.
“It may as well be,” Talus huffed, “Your sister will knock back any who approach and she will be left with my choice instead. The marriage might as well happen tonight.”
“Then father,” Castor probed, “Who is the lucky, or should I say unlucky man?”
“King Baldassare of Galnoa,” Talus chuffed, “And he wishes to pay me the honour of marrying her.”
Castor’s heart sank, how could his father allow such a man to marry Athanasia? But he guessed that the prospect of gold was more valuable to the King than the happiness of the Princess. Without asking to leave he made his escape.
“Where do you think you are going?” The King demanded, “I have not dismissed you!”
“The warm thighs of a certain lady-in-waiting back in my room,” this false yet amusing statement caused the King to laugh and not stop Castor in any way.
Castor closed the door behind him once he reached his room, he was greeted with a very pale and naked Axel as he rummaged through the Prince’s wardrobe. Castor made not sound at first, the man was quite the specimen with his lean muscles and broad shoulders. The Prince found himself staring at him in a way he had never looked at another male before. He found him beautiful.
Axel was oblivious to the Prince’s presence, he held up a midnight blue dress coat with sapphires for toggles. “That would be perfect,” Castor called out, alerting the Knight of his company, “I think it would look better on you than I.”
Axel turned, giving the Prince full sight of his body in it’s slightly aroused state before covering himself, “You’re Grace,” he choked, “You frightened me.”
Castor walked over with a smile, “This from the legendary hero? I am honoured,” he let his eyes drift lower to try glimpse the impressive phallus again, “No need to hide Sir Axel, it is not as though I have never seen a naked male before.”
“It is not customary in Averny for men to be naked around other men,” he explained, “But if customs here say otherwise than I will have to adapt.”
The two men were of similar height and build, Castor slightly taller, enough to look down to Axel, “To tell you the truth, I have never thought about it.”
Axel watched him walk over to the mirror, “Does something bother his majesty?”
Castor just smiled, “Would you find it strange to hear that I find you handsome?”
The Knight shook his head, “I have received compliments like that since I was young, I am use to them.”
“Men have complimented you before?” Castor asked, curious at Axel’s remark.
“Mostly women,” Axel thought about the question a little more, “I believe you are the first man to do so.”
The Prince walked closer again, taking the outfit out of Axel’s hands and laid it on the bed. “Would you be scared to know I find you handsome?” The Knight shook his head so Castor continued, “I am quite use to getting what I want Sir Axel, can I trust you to keep your lips sealed with this secret?”
“You’re Grace?” Axel was unsure where this was going but his curiosity won out, “Yes, I will.”
Castor ran his calloused fingers up Axel’s arm, “Have you ever kissed a man before?”
Axel was not sure he heard correctly at first however when the Prince began to looked concerned he had to speak. “No,” he replied, “It is against the teachings.”
“I am not a follower of the new religion,” Castor confessed, “Once I am King I will allow people to worship how they want and never to impose their beliefs on those who are not so inclined.”
“What are you saying my Prince?”
“I wish to know what it is like to kiss you,” Castor’s deep violet eyes were filed with more than the chaste desire to press his lips against the Knight’s, “A real kiss, not what you would give a friend.”
Axel was confused, this was a man who wanted him to marry his sister and yet here he is attempting to seduce him. The worst part was Axel found himself wanting to go along with it, the wicked act itself only making the forbidden kiss more desirable. With a subtle nod Castor descended to Axel’s waiting lips, clasping his golden locks to pull him close. Axel did the same, entwining his fingers in the elderberry mane of the Prince, all his cares disappearing in an instant. For how long to two explored each others mouths neither of them knew but as they parted they tried to pretend it did not happen and silently readied for the ball to start. Each gave the other glances when the other had their back turned trying to process the new alien feelings that had sprouted within them.
Jelena felt ashamed, she had offered herself up to the one man she refused to marry only an hour before. She slowly made her way back to the Princess’s room to find that the Princess was struggling with her hair, “There you are,” the Princess sighed in relief, “I was worried my brother decided to kidnap you and rob you of your virginity,” she joked but quickly stopped when she saw the worry on Jelena’s face. “I jest you know, I do not want to upset you.”
“I’m sorry Athanasia,” Jelena chocked, “I’m just a little out of sorts.”
The Princess hugged her lover, “For the record, you would make a wonderful Queen,” she reassured her.
This made Jelena laugh, “If only your brother were King already we would not be so stressed about tonight.”
“True,” the Princess agreed, hiding her own nerves, “Castor will be a just and wise King … and he would probably make me marry Sir Axel.”
Jelena, who had begun to style Athanasia’s hair nearly dropped the brush at the comment, “Why do you say that?” She asked with a distinct wobble in her voice.
“He introduced us today and he has admired him in a hero worship way since the goodly Knight’s adventures reached our Kingdom,” Athanasia explained, “If Castor were a woman he would marry the Knight without hesitation, but he is not so he will settle for brother-in-law.”
“And would you?” Jelena queried, “I mean, he is handsome, more so than I thought he would be.” Jelena held her hope in check and waited for Athanasia’s response.
“He is handsome,” she concurred, “And he has a kind face, not one you would expect on someone who had cut down men in the heat of battle.” Athanasia grinned, “I wonder if he can dance?”
Jelena felt both happy and jealous at once, she did not want to share Athanasia with anyone but she knew she would have to. “We shall find out soon,” the lady-in-waiting said, “We are already late … again.”
Athanasia laughed, “Fashionably late,” she corrected her, “There is a difference.” The Princess inspected her hair, make up and jewels. The midnight blue velvet dress flowed like water over her form and she silently prayed that she would choose right this night.
Prince Castor stood by his father with the guests slowly accumulating around them in the grand ball room. Castor’s mind was spinning, his moment with Sir Axel had awoken something inside him that he knew nothing about. He chanced a look to the person who clouded his senses and befogged his mind, Axel whose lips were still swollen from their stolen moment. King Talus saw where his heir’s eyes were focused, “Why do you look at the Knight so much my son?” He asked suspiciously.
Axel heard the question and shot a worried look at the Prince and then to the King. Castor froze, did his father know? “Well,” Castor eventually answered, “I would like to give Sir Axel a title in our Kingdom.”
The King chuckled, “He has a Kingdom,” the Prince’s suggestion sounded like a joke so the King treated it as such.
“He no longer is under the employment of the Count Gott due to a disagreement,” Castor explained, “I was thinking an Earl or Baron.”
“This is a surprise,” the King mused, “But I am guessing that you want the Knight to be an eligible choice for your sister.”
Castor conjured the best offended look he could muster, “I believe him to be a great soldier, someone Balany could benefit from if the tensions between us and our enemies ever erupts into all out war.” Castor was impressed at his own quick thinking and hoped he sounded sincere enough to convince his father.
“Oraland will not be pleased if we poached their finest,” The King sounded unimpressed, “And what of the man’s family? Would they enter out Kingdom also?”
Castor had not thought of that, but figured it would be up to them, “Maybe we should ask Sir Axel.”
The King laughed again, “My boy you have achieved something I have wanted for years,” he slapped his son on the shoulder, “I have been trying to think of a way to get the world’s best Knight on our side for some time, but I think the title of Duke would suit a general of Balany.”
“You’re giving him the Duchy of Anata?” Anata was the only available Duchy in the Kingdom and it was the ideal title for Axel, the one Castor wanted for him.
The King’s mood changed as he saw his daughter was late again for another official greeting, “Please go see what is taking her so long.”
Castor nodded and left in search of his sister. He did not look for long as he nearly ran her down, “Castor!” Athanasia cried, “Where did you come from?”
“I was sent to retrieve you,” he responded as he bowed his greeting to Jelena, who was standing behind the Princess. Jelena’s face flushed pink at the attention the Prince gave her. “You are late and father was getting,” Castor paused contemplating the right words to use and still sound polite, “Worried.”
Athanasia laughed, “Worried that I won’t show up or worried that his choice of suitor would change his mind.”
“You can ask him when we enter the ball room,” Castor suggested and offered his arm to both women which they accepted without hesitation.
“Is the King very angry?” Jelena timidly asked, “For it was my fault that the Princess is late.”
Castor shook his head, “Merely annoyed that his introductions are now taking up valuable meal time.” Jelena laughed at the light-hearted comment.
“Admit it Castor,” Athanasia smiled, “I am a third wheel here at this moment.” She withdrew her arm from her brother’s, “Jelena clearly would like to walk with you alone … much to my surprise.” The Princess gave a slight bow and confidently walked in the direction of the ball room leaving Castor and Jelena to talk. In truth the thought of her brother taking Jelena away from her hurt more than she was willing to admit but it was clear that Jelena was not so opposed to the idea of becoming his wife as she originally implied. Maybe she would do the same, find Sir Axel and stick with him until the proposal is uttered from his lips. She knew that her time with Jelena would end one day, their love was forbidden and she was always destined to marry for political reasons rather than love. If Sir Axel was as charming as he was good looking then life with him should be tolerable at the very least. She was yet to meet any other suitors but some of them must be coming back for another attempt at her affections.
Behind the Princess Castor and Jelena were held in an awkward silence, Castor had the moment he shared with Axel running through his mind but at the same time his hopes and desires for the young woman next to him made their presence known also. He was so very much in love with Jelena, her exotic golden skin and soft dark hair had filled his amorous dreams nightly yet his voice could not muster enough power behind it to speak to her. Eventually Jelena spoke, “Sire, you look at me as though I am a dish on the menu.” The small grin that played on her lips caused his stomach to flutter.
“I am awe struck at your beauty dear Lady,” he responded, “I do hope that one day I can show you what it is to feast on a woman such as yourself.”
Castor had made an assumption, Jelena had blushed again but the Prince had thought it because of the suggestive nature of his comment and to some part it was true but she would never tell him that his own sister had taught her the meaning of such a phrase years ago. “I am a virtuous girl with only pure thoughts,” she explained coyly, “If you continue to speak in such a manner I will glow scarlet for the rest of the evening.”
“The colour in your cheeks enhances your loveliness,” Castor spoke with an honesty that caused the girl to flush again, “I cannot help wanting you to look so gorgeous. Your natural elegance is the envy of all courtiers.”
Athanasia entered the ball room with poise and grace. Her other brothers Devin and Marshall wasted no time chatting to a few of the courtiers, no doubt wanting to introduce them to the carnal pleasures the body can offer, they paid little attention to anything else. The potential suitors had all stood waiting for her to arrive and her father looked mortified that she entered alone. With a few quick steps he was at her side demanding an explanation. “I gave my lady-in-waiting a chance to get to know Castor,” She explained calmly, “I heard that he was enchanted by her and I am not one to stand in the way of love.” This comment appeared to anger her father which only confused her, she had been informed that her father had approved of the match but his reaction spoke otherwise. “Have I said something wrong?”
“No,” King Talus waved the question off, “We cannot start until your brother has arrived as he is my heir.” He gripped his robes tightly in restrained frustration, this was not unnoticed by the Princess.
“I am sure they will be here shortly,” she offered, “They were not too far behind me.” As though summoned the Prince and Jelena entered arm-in-arm, “See, here they are now!”
Talus grumbled something unintelligible in response.
“Father, please forgive my tardiness,” Castor apologised and glanced down at his companion, “But in the presence of a beautiful Lady time does not matter.”
Talus ignored Jelena entirely, “You have a responsibility to your sister and this Kingdom.”
Athanasia stepped in, “I think what father is saying is that there is plenty of time later for that sort of thing,” she winked at the two of them.
“Do not assume that you can read me my daughter,” Talus growled at Athanasia.
The Princess chose not to argue with her father at that time, the room filled with dignitaries from the many Kingdoms would perceive this as a weakness and she did not want them to think such a thing. “My apologies father, I did not mean to insult you.”
With a harrumph the King began his introductions, Castor moved to where he was needed leaving Jelena at his sister’s side.
“I see a few familiar faces,” Jelena commented.
“And a few new ones,” Athanasia added, “And not all friendly in appearance.”
As each man stepped up to offer greetings to Athanasia, the Princess would curtsy in a formal fashion and make a rude remark quietly to Jelena who would smile to hold the mirth inside. Once the formalities had passed the two maidens waited for their first dance partners to approach.
Castor quickly excused himself from his conversation to approach Jelena. She stood next to his sister swaying to the jovial tune played by the minstrels and giggling at something he could not hear. She was truly a gift from the heavens, her innocents and purity broadcast to all those around her.
He stood before her, deterring other would be dance partners from her side, “I am here to collect on a debt Lady Jelena,” he grinned.
Athanasia cocked her eyebrow in askance of what her brother meant but received not reply as Jelena took the Prince’s offered hand and joined him among the many dancers moving around the floor in time to the rhythm.
“You may have just angered my sister,” Castor teased, “She does not like to be kept out of a secret.”
“She holds so many of her own,” Jelena replied demurely, “I cannot see why being left out of another’s business would concern her.”
The Prince laughed at her wit, “I should fill you in on our plans to rescue my sister from a fate worst than death.”
“I am surprised you remembered the situation,” the lady-in-waiting smirked, “Your eyes are wandering to places not suitable in public.”
Castor chuckled and continued, “I have discovered who my father wished Athanasia to wed.” He lowered his voice so only Jelena could hear, “King Baldassare of Galnoa is the man he made the deal with and that is very concerning.”
“Why is that?” Jelena whispered back.
“I would not expect you to know the man’s reputation as an evil sorcerer who imprisoned the rightful King and his entire family in a painting where they are trapped for all eternity,” Castor quickly explained as they danced closer to the King in question.
Jelena held her tongue until they were away from him again, “How terrible!”
“No body has the nerve to oppose Baldassare so my counterparts in the north will remain imprisoned.”
Jelena chanced a glance at the intimidating man whose eyes were focused on Athanasia, “I can feel his evil from here.”
“Enough gloom my dear,” Castor distracted her, “The other thing I must tell you is that Sir Axel will soon no longer be a part of Oraland as the King plans to offer him the Duchy of Anata.”
“Will that make him suitable to marry Athanasia?”
“Indeed it will,” Castor’s voice held the confidence he felt at the way their little plan was unfolding, “I had suggested that he become an Earl but father admires him greatly and said that a great general should hold a position in court more suiting to his reputation so he will be a Duke.”
“That is fantastic,” Jelena dropped her head to Castor’s shoulder, “Now all we need is for Athanasia to accept any proposal given by him. You know how obstinate she can be.”
Axel watched the Princess standing alone on the side of the dance floor, she blankly stared over the mass of swirling people with a loneliness in her eyes. She waited silently for the suitors to approach but none seemed too eager.
The goodly Knight shuffled his feet, he wanted to approach however she shear presence was enough to intimidate any man. She held herself with honour and that dissuaded many potential suitors deciding to choose other dance partners and avoiding the Princess.
Athanasia’s pained sigh was enough for Axel to move, he wove between those on the dance floor with the sole intention of taking the Princess in his arms and making her night. His feet carried him swiftly but he was not quick enough as Prince Ruben of Oraland beat him to Princess.
He hastily changed his direction and approached another woman waiting for a dance partner. The woman clearly was astonished at her dance partner but Axel paid no attention to her, instead he watched Ruben and Athanasia.
“Are you trying to snatch my fortune or an ally against your enemies?” Athanasia jested after a few moments of silence with the handsome Prince Ruben.
“I like the idea of seeing you in the Oraland Crown jewels when you are crowned Queen,” he answered cheekily, “And preferably only in the jewels.”
Athanasia feigned shock, “Sire, such talk is not becoming of a gentlemen.”
Ruben pulled her in closer to his body, “I know, such talk should be kept to the bedroom,” he leaned in close enough to whisper in her ear, “And I do plan to keep you in the bedroom until we have conceived an heir.”
The Princess choked, “I hope the time is as enjoyable for me as it would be for you,” she quickly recovered.
“I assure you Princess,” Ruben allowed his hand to drop from her hip to the where her royal bottom would be under the many petticoats, “I will make you glad that you are a woman for you would be jealous of my skill if you were a man.”
Athanasia let all that Ruben had boasted about to calm before she returned volley, “So the rumour of your desire to overthrow your father is a just that?” She raised an eyebrow in challenge, “A rumour?” Ruben’s brilliant green eyes locked with hers, Athanasia noted a faint tinge of fear in them. When he did not answer she continued, “I jest You’re Grace,” she smiled sweetly, “Surely you do not take offence at childish rumours?”
Ruben laughed nervously, “No, do not be silly, it does not become you.”
Athanasia grinned knowing she had confirmed the rumour she had heard upon his arrival the previous day. The song ended and the two parted with a slight bow.
Axel nearly laughed aloud at the expression on Prince Ruben’s face, clearly the Princess had said something to ruffle his feathers and now he retreated to the sidelines to lick his proverbial wounds.
The Knight turned his attentions back to the Princess who now was approached by King Baldassare. Axel panicked momentarily and shot a look to Prince Castor whom had seen the same thing, he too had worry in his eyes.
Athanasia clearly was apprehensive around the Galnoan King but did as she was raised to do, be courteous and polite to the attentions the King gave her. Axel admired her determination and bravery in the face of such an ominous man.
The music took a dramatic edge when King Baldassare took Athanasia’s hand, “I will not insult your intelligence by trying to flatter you with descriptions of your appearance in comparisons to inanimate objects,” His voice was smooth like melted dark chocolate, rich with a sharp bite.
“An I will not bother with praising your vast power,” Athanasia countered, “As I am sure you have heard it all before.”
The Wizard King knew the instant he touched her skin that she was not the one he sensed when he arrived but she was in the room. “I probably have,” he laughed, “But nothing of my devastatingly good looks.”
The Princess smiled falsely, the man had an ego that rivalled her older brother. “I find that true attraction is from the soul,” she tactfully spoke, “A package, no matter how beautiful, will never betray its contents until it’s too late.”
Baldassare did not care that she openly insulted him with such velvety words and voice, he had lost interest in her the moment he knew she was not his target, but his honour said that he must still be a gentleman to her and finish the dance. “You are most correct,” he agreed, “The surface of a gift rarely hints at what sits just below the surface.” His eyes scanned the crowed looking for who had the energy he could feel flowing through the room like a raging river in the dark. He knew it was there but could not see where.
“Who are you looking for?” The Princess asked curiously.
His eyes fell on Jelena who was standing next to the Crown Prince with a goblet of wine looking particularly nervous. “No one,” he replied, bringing his attention back to her, “I am not use to such large gatherings of young ladies in one place.” They glided through the dancers with such proficiency and grace that many of the bystanders applauded them. “Balls in Galnoa are rare and somewhat distasteful to the locals.”
“If I were Queen of such a noble Kingdom,” she smiled politely, “I would make them compulsory as I enjoy them immensely.” She chuckled, “It keeps the nobles fit.”
Baldassare laughed, “Perhaps I should implement a monthly ball,” he laughed some more, “I have many fat aristocrats lounging around court.”
The image of fat old men and women filled her mind and imagining them complaining at such a notion as to move to music. “If they are fat then perhaps daily balls until they are thin again?”
Baldassare felt slightly sad at the thought of a woman with a sadistic sense of humour was not the one he was looking for, yes her words were in jest but he knew that this Princess was hellfire when roused to fury. He had heard the rumours. He would have dearly liked to see her enforce nightly dancing among the nobles, perhaps with a big black leather whip in hand. “I would very dearly love to see you force them.”
Axel kept glancing between Athanasia and Castor and Jelena, who returned the same worried expression. Baldassare seemed to be charming her, her face glowed with delight at the way the Galnoan King smiled and conversed. The Knight’s heart threatened to jump out of his chest during the whole score until the music stopped and the two parted ways.
Castor approached Axel, “Why are you hesitating?” He asked concerned, “Does my sister not please you?”
“She is radiant,” Axel replied, “More beautiful than anything I have ever encountered.”
“So what is the problem?” Castor asked impatiently.
“I find that my courage is selective,” he nervously explained, “A battlefield in action is easier to approach than her serine form.”
“You fear her?” The Prince laughed, “Yes she is expressive and not afraid to show it however you yourself said that you are use to women like that.”
“She has something about her that befuddles the brain,” the warrior continued, “I do not know how to approach her.”
Castor spotted Axel’s former employer approaching his sister, “Watch what he does and do the opposite.” He pointed to Dirk who tried, and failed, to look impressive.
The Princess forced her face not to grimace as the unpleasant Count approached her, “You grow more beautiful with each time we meet,” he said as he bowed in respect.
“Thank you,” she replied strenuously, “But I am puzzled as to why you persist.” She really was, each of the eight times he tried to gain her favour she shot him down, with great respect for his rank.
“My heart says you are the one who will make me happy,” he responded calmly.
“I find that highly doubtful, Sir,” Athanasia attempted not to chuckle but a faint huff escaped her lips, “You are so focused on what others think of you, what would you be like with me at your side? Yes your self worth would have risen but your paranoia of wondering if any men were trying to steal me away would increase rapidly and you will be accusing men of inappropriate attentions toward me resulting in either you being responsible for many deaths or I becoming a widow before I grow use to a ring on my finger.” The Count looked mortified at her logic, he had not thought about that, he always assumed he would be happy in the knowledge that he succeeded where others had not by winning the hand of Balany’s ice Princess. “Dear Count, are you well?”
Dirk Gott felt that feeling one gets when one realises that the dream they had for years was well and truly crushed and it made him sick to his stomach, “I am afraid that I am not.” He felt faint, “I think I will take a seat and a snifter of wine.”
“Let me help you,” Athanasia guided him to the nearest chair and haled a servant to bring some wine for him, “I must go as I have many who wish to dance with me.” Dirk gave her a subtle nod and she left sighing in relief that she would never have to deal with that annoying man ever again.
As she re-entered the mass of dancers as they swirled about happily she caught Sir Axel’s eyes, he was standing with her brother and Jelena and all three were looking at her. She gave them a smile and moved to the side of the dance floor.
“Go to her,” Castor chuckled and gave him a playful shove, “She’s all but begged you.”
“What do you mean?” The Knight asked unable to take his eyes off her.
“Get over there, dance with her, ask her to marry you and refuse to let her go until she agrees,” the Prince grinned turning his gaze to his sister’s lady-in-waiting eliciting yet another blush from Jelena’s cheeks.
Axel grabbed at a goblet of wine and downed it for added courage and made his way across the room to where Athanasia waited. Her glossy black hair cascading down her back in soft ringlets to where her dress flared at her waist. She was truly a vision to behold, to think that this woman caused many men to feel emasculated was baffling. Her amethyst eyes followed his movements like a hawk seeking its prey. Like a moth flying to a fiery doom he moved towards her, his feet carrying him of their own accord.
“I did wonder when you would come to me,” She asked coyly the moment he stopped before her.
The Knight reached for her hand, “All that matters is that I am here now,” he brought her hand to his lips for a gentle kiss, “And I do not wish to ever leave.”
“Do you have something on your mind , Sir Knight?” Athanasia playfully asked.
“Your brother has secured a title for me,” he explained, “For no other reason than to be eligible to ask for your hand, I am to be the Duke of Anata.”
“That could be curse rather than a blessing, Sir Axel,” the Princess cautioned, “It is said that the Duchy is cursed for the last seven Dukes have either been murdered or revolted.” She gave him a smile that seized his heart, “You would be number eight of the cursed Dukes of Anata if you married me,” she chuckled, “For I am not easy to live with. As my father reminds me constantly.”
“A man with you as his bride would truly be blessed,” Axel manoeuvred her to the dance floor, “Without the dowry.”
Athanasia smiled slyly, “Are you implying that my fortune does not interest you?”
“Your fortune is exactly that, yours,” he explained, “I may not have a penny to my name but I would not dream of taking anything from you.”
“Even if I offer it willingly?” She baited with a raised eyebrow.
“I will be a duke,” he shrugged, “I will have wealth in time.”
The Princess laughed, “That you will, it is a wealthy Duchy with the mine and agriculture.” She sobered then sighed, “Perhaps I should choose you for financial gain,” her face split into a grin at his shocked expression, “I jest Sir Knight.” In truth, she was overwhelmed at the knowledge of Axel’s pending ascension to the rank of Duke. Finally a man who was amiable and of the right social status, now all she had to do was wait for him to make the proposal and foil her father’s plan to marry her to some unknown man from a foreign land.
Axel felt strange, the beauty he first saw that morning had enraptured his heart but he could not help but make comparisons between brother and sister. Both had the vibrant violet eyes, iridescent black hair and eburnean skin, he wondered if their lips were the same. “Princess,” he spoke just over the sound of the music, “Please join me on the balcony alone.” His eyes pleaded in sympathy with his words and promised an untold reward if she were to oblige. He lifted her hand to kiss it gently and swiftly disappeared into the crowd.
Castor watched from the sidelines as Axel retreated from his sister after only a few moments of dancing. It looked like his sister and the Oraland Knight were showing a real connection when the Knight retreated without warning. The Prince had to find out why, “Dearest Jelena,” he turned towards his demure companion, “I must leave your side and investigate our co-conspirator as to why he has withdrawn when it looked to be going splendidly.” The elegant young woman simply smiled and nodded, “I will return soon.” He kissed her hand and stealthily navigated to where Axel had disappeared to. “What are you doing?” he asked the Knight who was leaning against the stone guardrail with two goblets of wine with a baffled look on his face.
“I wanted the Princess alone,” Axel admitted without hesitation, “It would not seem right to ask for her hand in a room filled with competitors.” He watched the Prince’s expression change from demanding to apologetic.
“You were going to ask her?” Castor stuttered out, “So soon?”
Axel grinned sheepishly, “That’s what the wine is for.” He gestured to the two jewelled goblets in his hands. “I have informed her of my ascension to the aristocracy.”
“Good to know,” Castor huffed in relief, “I should return to Lady Jelena before anyone tries to dance with her.”
King Baldassare had been dancing with each of the ladies in attendance with the exception of one, the Lady Jelena, lady-in-waiting to Princess Athanasia. She had been glued to Prince Castor’s side the entire night until now. She stood by a carved column and swayed to the music as she waited for the Prince to return, the invitation was too much to ignore. After negotiating a path through the whorl of dancers he stopped at Jelena’s side.
Jelena had watched Castor slip through the silk curtains out to the balcony following Axel. Athanasia waited for a moment before following with a smile. Jelena was happy for her, finally she had a chance for happiness with someone who would want to be with her and not the fortune that would accompany such a marriage. She was so withdrawn in her thoughts that she did not notice who had approached her until a foreboding chill ran up her spine.
“Such a beauty should never be left alone,” the Galnoan King grinned and offered her his hand, “Let me remedy that immediately.” He could feel the power radiating from her like a raging fire, it was incredible.
“I am sorry Sire,” Jelena bowed her head respectfully, “I am promised to Prince Castor and it would be inappropriate to dance with you.”
Baldassare knew exactly what to say to motivate her into agreeing to his invitation. Leaning in close he whispered in her ear, “I feel your magic my dear lady,” Jelena froze, “I seriously doubt the Prince would be understanding of your natural skills.”
“Please,” Jelena begged, panicking at the potential outcome if Castor were to discover her secret, “I beg you do not! I have hurt no one.”
Baldassare’s negotiated silently by sliding his hand to her waist and pulling her to the floor to dance.
Jelena had never felt such power from another, her natural magical ability dictated that she could detect another of her kind without effort, however that also meant she could not hide. She was afraid of this man who guided her every move.
Castor exited the secluded balcony to see his beloved in the arms of the sorcerer King and she looked paralyzed with fear and it distressed him to no end. He completely forgot about his sister and her Knight as he stalked the dancing King and Jelena around the room. There was something bubbling up within his soul, something dark, sinister and dangerous, something that would cause great diplomatic trouble of he lost control.
Baldassare was whispering something to her, how dare he get so close to her! The Galnoan King must have know they were being watched as he looked directly at Castor and grinned slyly. Castor became murderous, the Galnoan King was up to something and he had no idea what it was but he did not like it on little bit.
Baldassare found it quite amusing, Prince Castor actually believed that Jelena was his, how absurd! The moment he felt her astonishingly powerful aura she became his. No mere man could ever hope to wed such an omnipotent creature, if she were ever discovered in this land she would be put to death and that would be a terrible waste.
What Baldassare did not see was across the room sitting in an imposing throne with a glower on his face was King Talus and he was angry. His deal with the Galnoan King was that Baldassare wed his daughter not the lady-in-waiting! And where had that daughter of his disappeared to? She was mingling with all the men who wanted to try their luck with her but each left her looking disappointed which made him happy but the last man, his soon-to-be general and Duke Sir Axel Fletcher had appeared to succeed where multitudes of others had failed. He did not know what to think of the man now that he was showing a liking to his daughter, the man’s loyalty would never be questioned but he wanted his daughter to solidify a treaty with another Kingdom, it was her duty.
Talus felt his mood sour considerably and demanded another goblet of wine and grumble to himself as he watched the Galnoan King enjoy the company of Lady Jelena.
Axel waited fretfully as Castor left, the music from inside drifted out and it only caused him to become more anxious. His nerves were at the end of their tether when the curtain was pulled back and the vision that was Athanasia appeared with a halo of candlelight. “I do apologise for making you wait,” she gave him a small bow, “But I saw my brother enter and decided to wait until your business with him had concluded.”
The Knight gazed upon her, she was the feminine opposite of Castor and equally beautiful and the very idea that he compared the two disturbed him. “Wine?” He offered the Princess one of the jewelled chalices with a slight tremble in his hand.
“Please,” Athanasia accepted and took a dainty sip, “Thank you, I have been quite parched for most of the evening but wished to keep a clear head so I would not make a disastrous choice when it came to my life partner. One too many beverages and I could have ended up with your former employer.”
They laughed at the image but it did not ease the turmoil Axel still felt, he found that any words he had planned to use to seduce the Princess caught in his throat and now feared that if he did try to speak he would only utter a garbled noise that would frighten her.
“Sir Axel,” Athanasia finally said after a moment of silence, “I must confess that I find you handsome and intriguing.” She took another sip of her wine, “If your words on the dance floor were truthful, that you want nothing of my dowry than I must ask what is your interest in me?” Her eyes seemed to be begging him to say something meaningful.
“I,” he paused and placed his wine on the railing of the balcony, “I must confess that the initial reasons for my elevation into the ranks of the nobility was to make me eligible to ask for your hand.” The Princess’s expression did not show any shock at the revelation. “Your brother suspected that King Baldassare had come to marry you for nefarious reasons. When Lady Jelena approached Prince Castor pleading that he aide her in finding you someone … me… to wed you after a dreadful piece of news that your father had made a deal with an unknown party.” Still she did not show any surprise to the information. “Your brother and Jelena conspired to have the two of us wed.” Her gentle nod was the first indication that she had paid any attention to his speech. “I agreed but found myself paralysed by your beauty,” he tentatively moved closer, his lips barely brushing against hers, “I fear that if I continue like this I will find myself hopelessly in love with you.” He pressed closer for a kiss that stole both their breaths.
Under the moonlight of the night sky both Knight and Princess lost themselves in the moment, it was the first time Athanasia ever kissed a man. The stubble that surrounded his mouth tickled her in a delightfully wonderful way, his tongue felt firmer than that of Jelena’s. His arms encircled her waist and held her tightly to his battle-hardened body. She felt the familiar rush of heat she only ever got with her Jelena but this man almost demanded it and she had little resistance against his assertion.
“Dearest Princess,” he sighed heavily, his voice growing husky, “Would you take a chance and become my wife?” Athanasia would have been lying to herself if she said she had not expected this, she was looking for a husband and Axel seemed to tick all the boxes when it came to attributes with the exception of one, she wanted to know if he was well endowed as the stories said. She ground her hips against his softly determining his size and to her pleasant surprise he was clearly feeling what she felt with a rod of steel greeting her that ran a good distance down his thigh. “That will have to wait until our wedding night,” he whispered in her ear causing a flush of warmth to spread to her cheeks.
“I will be your wife, Sir Axel,” she bit her lip and felt for his masculinity again, “I will give myself willingly to you and solidify your new rank of Duke and if all goes to plan my heart will quickly follow.”
It was good enough for him, he had not expected the famous Princess to fall instantly in love with him but she certainly found him attractive judging by her bold sexual advance which, quite frankly, nearly had him whisking her away for a night of premarital debauchery that would have done neither of them any favours. He captured her lips again in a passion filled kiss filled with promises of more later. He let his hand explore up her back as it was one part of her body not covered in many layers of undergarments. Much to his astonishment he found her body firmer than other women, something exotic that had him wanting to encourage more hip grinding but restrained for decency’s sake. So lost in her body, Axel had not noticed a distressed looking Prince Castor standing next to them.
“I take it she said yes?” He asked trying to sound casual. Both Axel and Athanasia jumped at the apparent appearance of Prince Castor who sported a smile but a few worry lines on his brow.
“Yes brother,” the Princess responded with curiosity, “Your plan to have me wed to Sir Axel has come to fruition.” She paused and looked over her brother again, “Something bothers you.” She did not ask.
“The Galnoan King has shown an unwanted interest in Lady Jelena,” he explained and drew back the curtain to show a distressed Jelena in Baldassare’s arms as they moved around the dance floor. Athanasia first paled then flammeously glowed in rage. Neither men saw her reaction. “I need a way to rescue her without angering him.”
“I have an idea,” Athanasia smoothly spoke, hiding her anger at the way the man clung to her Jelena. She glided out after several calming breaths and approached the dancing couple. “I know it is not customary for my to cut in but I must as my lady-in-waiting has some neglected chores.” The ruse appeared to work as Baldassare glowered but reluctantly released her to take Athanasia again.
Castor sighed in relief to see his beloved slink out of the room, “I am glad that both ladies are safe,” he finally could congratulate the Knight properly on the successful plan to wed his sister before disappearing to join Jelena in the hall.
The night progressed well, Axel would not let Athanasia out of his grasp once she finished dancing with Baldassare who had congratulated her on her nuptial arrangement. Prince Castor had informed Jelena of the betrothal during their alone time behind one of the tapestries in a hidden alcove. “I am relieved,” Jelena nearly cried, “I do hope he will make her happy.”
“With what I saw,” he chuckled, “They will have a very large family.” He scooped Jelena into his arms, “Now to business,” he grinned mischievously, “I believe I now have your permission to woo you.”
Jelena shivered but nodded, “I have not been this close to a man in my life,” She swallowed hard as Castor lifted her hand and pressed it to his heart.
“My dear,” he softened to her hesitation, “We have all the time in the world to become comfortable with one another and I do not wish to cause you any distress.” He dearly wished to kiss her, to hold her in a more intimate way but Jelena clearly anxious at the closeness of their bodies. “Did he hurt you?” Castor did not need to say his name, Baldassare made his displeasure known at loosing Jelena’s company when Athanasia cut in by ending the dance quickly and retreating to wait for the young lady to return.
“No,” Jelena finally replied unconvincingly, “He was just too …” her voice faded at the anger she saw in the Crown Prince’s eyes, “I do not like him, he makes me uncomfortable.”
Castor would kill the man if he had the chance for any unease he caused Jelena. “He will be gone on the morrow and then you will be safe,” Castor comforted her, “And perhaps we should celebrate my sister’s engagement tomorrow with a picnic in the garden, just the four of us?”
Jelena smiled shyly and nodded, “That would be lovely.”
“My I seal the arrangement with a kiss?” He asked hoping to persuade her with his charm.
Jelena blushed and trembled again, “Alright,” she whispered and offered her hand which Castor ignored completely and caught her lips in a quick and playful kiss.
“Slap me if you must,” the Prince chuckled as he dodged the swift hand of his lady, “But that kiss, however brief, is the sweetest thing I have ever had the privilege to partake in.” His words appeased her somewhat and allowed him another chance for a kiss to her cheek, “Come, I am sure the main banquet of the evening is ready to be served in the dining hall.”
With the dancing portion of the evening over the guests migrated to the dining hall and assembled to their assigned seats. Baldassare took the opportunity to see where the Lady Jelena was situated for the evening and slipped the content of his ring into her wine goblet and quickly moved to his seat on the other side of the room. Resorting to such underhanded measures felt degrading, however the importance of establishing his lineage to secure his right to rule in Galnoa required him to produce a powerful heir. Ideally the Princess would give his offspring the royal bloodline but the prospect of the power Jelena possessed was too tempting to pass up.
From his position on the far side of the dining hall at the other end of the main table he watched the object of his plans and the Princess sit down after thanking the Prince and Sir Axel who sat not too far away.
Athanasia reached for her wine and took a big gulp, her lips were swollen from the attention Axel gave her earlier. Her cheeks were in a permanent flush from the extra wine she had consumed since accepting Axel’s proposal. She looked up at the handsome Knight and caught his eyes, her heart fluttered at the smile he gave her. She felt like she had escaped a fate worse than death only to have her dreams come true. She reached for Jelena’s hand under the table and gave it a gentle squeeze, “Tell me my dear friend,” she whispered behind her cup, “What has you face scarlet this eve?” Jelena responded with more colouring to her cheeks. “You vanished for some time with my dear brother, perhaps that has some factor in your current state?”
“He was a gentleman,” Jelena finally spoke after sipping her wine, “He kissed my cheek but that was it.”
Athanasia giggled, “So you are warming to my brother?”
“He will need to prove himself,” Jelena insisted, “But he wishes to know me better before he tries sincerely.” Jelena paused and yawned, “Oh goodness!” she exclaimed mid yawn, “I am so tired.”
“Maybe you should retire early,” Athanasia suggested, “We have had a big day.” The young women chuckled.
“I still owe you from this morning,” the lady-in-waiting whispered in the Princess’s ear, “I am sorry.”
“Do not fret,” Athanasia consoled, “I will ensure that you make it up to me.” She gave Jelena a squeeze of her hand to enforce the promise, “And I expect it to be good.”
“Always, my lady,” she began to feel normal again albeit drowsy, “I do hunger for something other than you at present.” Jelena felt emboldened for an unknown reason, “But some honey for breakfast sounds delightful.”