. o 0 C H A P T E R 3 0 o .
Pierre looked over his shoulder, at the four-post bed where his hostage lay asleep above his bedcovers. The flickering light from the fireplace in front of him danced over her still form. Even as manhandled as she was, this Anya du Azarmon was a pretty little thing. Her chest rose and fell as she slept soundly.
The bath water was cooling, so Pierre stood up and grabbed a folded towel from a stool that had been placed next to the tub. The tub itself would have to be removed the next morning, for a rush of servants would surely wake the girl. Besides, it would not fare well for him if the servants saw their houseguest shackled to the bed.
He approached the side of the bed in silence and stared down at her face. It was flushed with sleep. He could see that her brows were drawn together, so he gently smoothed the pads of his fingers over her forehead to make the furrows disappear. Her face visibly relaxed, and she unconsciously turned her head towards his hand.
While bathing, Anya had closed her eyes for modesty's sake and pretended to fall asleep. This amused and annoyed him at the same time, for no woman had been able to resist ogling him. He had tried to ask Anya questions about herself and Azarmon, but she refused to answer each one. So when she had fallen asleep, he sent for the castle books where the accounts were recorded. When he was still a child and living in the castle, he had seen how Kildare ruled his people. He had been wise and careful, sometimes even to the point that he was labeled a miser. But Pierre could see, based on his father's last records, that Kildare did an about-face in the last years of his life.
Somehow, Queen Leticia had taken to her sickbed. The book stated that a large amount of money was spent on entirely worthless things that Kildare acquired for his wife to ease her last days in life. By the 'last days', Kildare meant two years.
Twelve new dresses for my beloved Leticia, since she claims the fever makes it hot for her to go outside - fourteen thousand Castols.
Thirty crates of herbal tea for my beloved Leticia, since her swollen throat cannot take anything else without aching - twenty-four thousand Castols.
Six silk-embroidered paisley pillows for my beloved Leticia, for her aching head that needs the comfort of something soft and comfortable - six thousand Castols.
Twenty-two thousand Castols in payment for my Leticia's lady's maid, due to her loyalty to her mistress in her time of need.
Kildare must have been out of his mind! He had spent sixty-six thousand Castols on his wife in just a span of one month! That amount of money could have fed more than five hundred mouths. His Leticia, a woman Pierre remembered to be a spoilt trollop who valued her figure too much to be ruined by childbirth, did not deserve any of the expensive things her husband gave her. Why couldn't the man have loved either his or Stephen's mother instead?
Pierre moved to the cabinet and pulled out a shirt and hose which he donned before proceeding to a nearby bureau. The next book of accounts was the one which Anya had started just a few days ago. He turned the knob of the lantern beside him and opened the book to its most current page. Her handwriting was neat and more specific compared to his father's. He could see that someone had taken the time to teach her how to handle a kingdom's affairs. One particularly long entry caught his eye.
Two issues have garnered my attention concerning the villagers. First and foremost is the lack of a health facility. Second is the lack of work horses this farming season. Both improvements require an amount of money that Castolla is sorely lacking.
In order to solve both problems as soon as possible, I will be spending some of Castolla's remaining funds in the building of an apothecary in the village, an amount totaling to twenty-thousand Castols, roughly ten-thousand Azars.
I will also borrow eighteen strong horses from my father's stables so that the farmers will not find it difficult to prepare the soil for planting.
I have left the assembly of a merchant caravan to my sister, Alice du Azarmon, as an additional source of income for the kingdom.
Twenty-two thousand Castols coming from the caravan will be set aside for buying new horses for the farmers in time for the sunny season planting.
By the kindness of my father, King Malcolm of Azarmon, Castolla now has twenty more wagon-fulls of food reserves, amounting to eight-thousand Castols.
Long live Castolla!
Pierre was impressed. He could use someone like her. Stephen was good only for hands-on work and military tactics. But he needed someone with enough sense to keep kingdom activities within its limits. He needed someone close to the people. Somehow he needed to convince Anya to stay with him and work under him.
But the woman was a princess. She couldn't just 'work' for him. Her statues required that she be free of master and overlord. In fact, the only overlord allowed to rule her would have to be a husband - Pierre shut the book quickly.
That was his solution!
He quickly replaced the book as the idea formed in his mind. He needed a helpmeet. She needed a job. Castolla needed heirs. Definitely needed heirs. It was time he got himself a wife.
Anya rolled to her side and snuggled closer to the warmer pillow on her left. She draped an arm over its hard frame and bent her leg forward to straddle it. It was strange. She swore that the pillow was squirming. Had one of the dogs in the kennel found its way into the castle? She swore she could smell her apple-scented bath oil on the pillow. But had she not slept without taking a bath? Hadn't she been cuffed to her own bed?
Wait. Her wrist was unshackled, and a little sore.
So the blackguard had finally seen reason and allowed her to sleep in comfort. If so, had he left? Where was he? Why was her pillow intimately caressing her waist with one large hand?! And who the hell was kissing her?!!!
"Oh my stars!" Anya opened her eyes and sat up so fast that she lost her balance and fell to the floor.
A bout of masculine laughter boomed. And because of that, Anya on her wobbling knees grabbed the edge of the bed and attempted to stand in dignity.
But her mussed hair and her chemise askew must have been an appalling sight, for Pierre de Castolla's roared laughter increased. "And good morning to you too, sweeting." He said after most of his guffaws have subsided, leaving him teary-eyed and smirking.
"Why were you on this bed with me?!" she demanded, trying to find some sort of material to cover herself in the light of day. In the end she grabbed a pillow that had fallen off the bed and used it to cover her front.
"You seemed to need the extra warmth, sweeting."
"Don't call me that."
"I can call you whatever I want. It's my castle you're in."
Anya threw the pillow at him, but immediately realized her mistake, for she had nothing else she could use to cover herself. Unless she picked up and wore his discarded shirt. This was not an option, since Azarmonian culture could see the act as completely scandalous. It would be like announcing to the whole world that she had appointed him as a lover. Especially if the mark transferred to him.
"Oh. My. Bloody…"
Anya paled. She raised her hand and felt behind her neck, hoping and praying that the slightly raised skin under her brand was still there.
"Hey! What's the matter?"
Pierre scrambled from his bed and laid his hands on her upper arms. Anya had turned pale. She trembled. Her unfocused eyes faced forward. She bit down on her lower lip. This was not how he had planned to start the morning. He had planned to leave her to her bath, break his fast with her and escort her to the garden to discuss about the kingdom. "Please. Tell me. What's the matter?"
As if she had been catapulted from a crossbow, Anya shoved at his chest to little effect. He simply stepped away from her range and held up his hands in defense. "I'm ruined, damn you! That's what the matter is! This can't be possible! How can you - you of all people - get it?!"
"Nobody saw us! We're practically in this room together. Alone. So for goodness' sake, snap out of it."
"You don't understand! I am not referring to the fact that we slept on this bed together." Anya's lips quivered as she lifted her black hair over one shoulder and turned to present the back of her neck. There, just below her hairline, was a tattoo of what looked like a sole wing.
"Look at your hand, you idiot."
Pierre looked at the palm of his left hand. Sure enough, there was an identical wing tattoo on his palm, the right wing to pair the one on Anya's neck. "What the hell? What is this thing?"
"It's a brand that a magus on my father's council placed on each of his daughters. It's especially designed to transfer to the destined champions of our assigned kingdoms. I promised father I would never be careless and prevent the mark from transferring prematurely. And now I - now I - oh no…"
Damnation! Pierre caught her from behind as she sank to the floor. He steadied her and held her close. Comforting a wailing princess had most certainly not been on his schedule today. Good heavens! "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I'll fix it, I promise."
Anya wanted to step out of his arms, to break free. But what would that solve? She had lost her brand. If she wore her hair up, like she usually did, everybody would see. Everybody would know. Her father would be disappointed in her carelessness and mother would have a heart attack. Adele would be affected and Colin might even be judged for having a careless sister-in-law. And worst of all, Maximilian would know. The man had an obsessive streak where she was concerned. He'd make sure she died rather than go to somebody else.
Instead, she stayed in her captor's arms and allowed him to soothe her with his soft murmurs. She wept softly, for once letting someone else try to solve her problems. "Calm down, Your Highness. I have no idea of what is going on, and none of this crying will help any."
She placed her hands over his linked ones. What other choice did she have?
Stephen strapped his leather satchel to the saddle of his horse. It was still early in the morning, but he wanted to be sure that he delivered all the important information to his brother as soon as possible.
On their journey to Castolla, he and his half-brother split up, Pierre to continue on to Castolla and take charge of the castle and Stephen to detour to Auria and gain knowledge about King Malcolm. He learned from several innkeepers that King Malcolm's daughter, Adele du Azarmon, was to be married to Auria's own Prince Colin. In fact, the engagement celebration was to be held on that very day in Azarmon.
Alexei, his noble chestnut Trakehner steed, snorted in impatience.
"All right, boy. We're going, we're going."
Several hours into their journey, they reached the border of the Castollan lands. They emerged from the tree line and onto a dirt path that stretched into the valley where Castolla was located. Part of the path cut through a channel with rock walls on both sides. As Stephen eased his mount into the narrow pathway, a sudden whip of air swooped close to his cheek. The sound of an arrow embedding itself onto the rock wall close to his side garnered his attention. Someone had indeed tried to kill him!
"Show yourself you coward!" Stephen removed his sword from the sheath attached to his hip, then focused on the area above the rock wall where the arrow had most likely come from. He turned his horse in that direction and scanned the surface.
He did not, however, expect his enemy to jump from it and land straight onto him.
Alexei reared from the surprise impact of an added weight, causing his master and the attacker to fall to the dirt path. Stephen felt like the world was spinning. He barely realized that he was rolling and rolling on the dirt path, with his attacker still latched onto him. It was several seconds later when he realized that he was sprawled on his back in the middle of the road, his killer pinning him down with-
With her body?
"Who are you and why are you going this way?" the woman asked as she pressed the sharp edge of her dagger into his throat. Her red and gold curls swayed in the breeze, tickling the sides of his face. Her cold eyes, however murderous their gaze now, were the most intriguing color Stephen had ever seen.
He cleared his throat more from surprise than fear. Nobody had ever snuck up to him without his notice. No woman had ever successfully shot an arrow that close to him. And no woman had definitely been able to pin him helpless before, something which he could still remedy. Stephen rolled to his side, catching her unawares, and switched their positions. "Now that I have the advantage, I think I'm the one who's supposed to ask - Ah!"
Blasted son of a harlot! The girl had kneed him where it was most important!
"What the blazes did you do that for?!" Stephen ranted as he doubled over and tried to at least sit up. "Do you have any idea that you just attacked a Castollan Lord right in his-"
"You? Ha! A Castollan Lord? Very funny, mister. I suggest you shut your mouth until we reach my sister's castle."
Oh god. The woman was mad! How on earth would he be able to face two of them? "My name is not Mister. It's Sir Stephen de Castolla, son of the late king Kildare. And if I'm not mistaken, the castle you're referring to is the one my brother's about to own as the new king of Castolla." Stephen spoke of his background while he approached the woman with his hands up. He did NOT want another attack, especially one that would end his ability to procreate.
"I don't trust you." the woman said.
"Of course you wouldn't… What are you doing with my horse?"
The woman had taken Alexei's reins and seated herself on the saddle. "Borrowing it."
"And what am I supposed to use?" Stephen positioned himself in front of the animal so it wouldn't go anywhere. Alexei knew better than to trample his own master. "I can't just walk into the kingdom without my horse. My brother paid for this horse. He'll kill me if I lose him."
"Look, Stephen or whoever you are. I don't care where you came from or why you're here. But if you want to stay alive, you better hop on behind me. I have better things to do than play nanny to your pathetic backside."
"That's not very nice," Stephen tried to yank the reins off her hands, but she slapped his hand away. "I am brother to the future king of Castolla and I demand that you return my horse."
"Aren't you even listening to me? If you don't get out of this channel this instant, you're dead!"
"Give me back my horse!"
"Listen to me, arse-head!"
And Stephen did hear something. It sounded like running feet. Very fast running feet. And it was coming from above the rock wall.
Black silhouettes stood against the blinding rays of the sun. They appeared one by one on top of the wall, their huge forms and heavy weights causing several loose rocks to roll downward. Stephen gulped. With his friends, he could take on any enemy. But he had no comrades nearby. He had only himself, plus a lady to protect. He grabbed for his sword, which was lying close to his feet, and gripped it tightly. "Who are they?" he asked his female companion.
The woman readied her own sword in her hand. She did not take her eyes away from the shadows. "Pelans."
This was not how Alice expected her Castollan homecoming to happen. Somehow she ended up without a horse of her own, a lost Lord for a helpmate and her sword as the only available weapon to resort to. She pointed the tip of her sword to the biggest of the men atop the wall.
"Who are you and why did you come here?!"
"We seek a Princess of Azarmon."
"It is I." she said, tossing a lock of her hair behind her shoulder before raising her chin. They could have just said so in the first place. Instead they had to watch her from a distance. They ran when she ran, they lingered when she stopped. She might not have left Czarina to find her own way home once she realized somebody was silently following her.
"Not you. Your sister."
"What do you want with my sister?" This was definitely not good. She could understand if they wanted money or a ride to the nearest inn. What did these big Neanderthals want with Anya?
"Lord Maximilian sent us."
Oh great. "What does he want?"
"None of your business."
"Then I'll make it my business!"
No sooner had Alice said the words than the Pelans jumped down to circle her and Stephen. There were five all in all, each wearing black leather vests over tattered shirts that needed a miracle more than mending and washing. They weren't part of the Pelan army, so they must have been hired for some dirty job.
"I'll take care of this."
Alice heard the lost Lord scrape the tip of his sword on the dirt before lunging at the closest enemy. The long blade slid effortlessly between the man's ribs before he could blink. The man's speed was impressive. Not to be outdone, Alice levered herself and twirled on her toes, leaning to one side as she did so. Her momentum caused an increase in the force with which her sword slapped the closest enemy's chest, spraying her with a warm splash of blood. The man fell to the road, eyes still open. "Haven't you forgotten the saying 'ladies first'?"
"I'm not exactly a gentleman now, am I?" Stephen answered jokingly without breaking his movements. He pulled out the sword from the man's chest and somersaulted, landing close to the second opponent and chopping his arm off. A quick slash to said man's chest also had him dead. "And from the way you fight, you're not exactly a lady."
"Why thank you for the compliment." Alice muttered as she chased the fourth Pelan down the road. She caught up with the man and stabbed him in the back. Blood spread over the back of his vest.
Like a synchronized dance, both Stephen and Alice turned about to face each other, trapping their last enemy between them. Stephen had his sword at the ready, the tip dripping blood on the dirt at his feet. But Alice did not want to end things so quickly. She had to know just what the Lord of Pela was planning. "What does Maximilian want to do with Anya?"
"Please madam," The man, his frame trembling, dropped to hands and knees. "We were sent to find the princess and take her to Pela. When we saw you riding towards Castolla, we thought to follow you in hopes that you may lead us to the woman. We don't know anything beyond this. I swear!"
Alice raised the tip of her sword a mere inch before the man's nose. "For attacking a member of the Azarmonian royal household I could kill you."
Alice looked at Stephen, who was clearly confused and looking from her to the Pelan and back again. "You, Stephen whoever you are, tie this man to the horse if you may. He may be of use to me when we get to Castolla."
"You're ordering me about?" Stephen asked.
Alice rolled her eyes in exasperation. "Fine then. If you won't help me, then go. Though if you truly were a lord and a gentleman you would not abandon a helpless woman-princess in the middle of the road, horseless and with a possibly dangerous hostage."
"Helpless? Hardy-har-har. And princess? Forgive me for saying so, but you talk like a nagging milkmaid. From what I can see you're more dangerous than that sorry excuse for a man." But even as he said so, he led his horse to Alice and took out a length of rope from his satchel. Alice grinned.
Stephen tied the man's wrists tight, and then looped the other end around Alexei's neck. He then took Alice by surprise when he grabbed her by the waist and settled her side-saddle on the horse.
"What do you think you are doing?!" Alice demanded as Stephen hopped up behind her, then restrained her from getting down by anchoring her to his chest with one arm.
"I am taking you to Castolla, Your Highness."
Pierre paced the length of the breakfast table as the servants set the dishes that cook had prepared. He knew that Wendell stood just outside the door to the room, waiting for the Princess Anya to descend from the royal chambers.
He had no idea of what got into his head. One minute, he was looking down on the girl, and the next he had the sudden urge to taste those pouty lips. It was just one kiss, he justified to himself. It was just one taste, to see if they were compatible enough as a couple. He should have known better. One taste was all it took and he was a goner. He had not even noticed that his hand began roaming to more other interesting places than the pillow at his other side.
The black imprint of a wing stood out against the pale skin of his palm. Pierre stared at it as he came to a stop at the end of the table. In a span of just a few hours, he had found a perfect queen. Smart, feisty, somewhat pleasant to the eyes. He tried to tell himself that these were the reasons why Anya would make a good helpmeet with his reign over Castolla. Not the spark of energy that passed between them when their lips met in a drowsy kiss.
"Master, may I announce the presence of Princess Anya du Azarmon."
Anya slipped through the doorway, the hem of her lacy silver-colored dress barely sweeping the floor. She had tied her black hair into a braided bun at the nape of her neck. A lone golden chain decorated her neck, just above those delectable collar bones that Pierre had been tempted to sample as well.
"Good morning, your highness."
Anya eyed him wearily before taking a seat. Pierre, upon realizing that she had no intent to answer his greeting, proceeded to seat himself on a chair beside her. Throughout the meal they did not touch or talk, except when Pierre requested she pass some of the dishes that were on her side of the table.
Finally, when both their plates were clear of food, Anya made to get up. But Pierre stopped her before she could go anywhere. "I've arranged for a carriage to take us to Azarmon this afternoon," he began. "I wanted to ask for your hand in marriage in person instead of just by letter."
Anya glared at him and pulled her hand from his. "I don't love you," she said.
Pierre just sat back and eyed her from head to toe. "But you don't really have a choice, right? Plus, you did say that you intended to help Castolla recover from poverty. I say the position of queen wields more authority."
"So this is it? Some sort of contract?"
"You can't honestly expect for something more to come out of it." Pierre said, although he did think that something more than just status would come from the bargain. "And I've barely known you for one day."
Anya turned her head away and faced the open window behind her. "I suppose you're right. Why would I even think someone like you would…?"
There was a definite sorrowful set to her shoulders. A wistful note in her voice that caught his attention. "What do you mean?"
"That's not nothing. You're hiding something from me, sweeting."
"I told you not to call me that," the sharp edge in her voice was back again.
Pierre ignored the tell-tale annoyance in her sentence and moved to her side, taking her hand in his. She was unyielding, but Pierre held fast, finally succeeding in prying her fingers open and intertwining them with his. "Once your father sees the black wing on my palm and gives us his blessing, I can arrange for a simple wedding ceremony in the castle temple as soon as we return. Wendell says that the village priest can still make the journey here despite his advanced age."
"Well, we can't exactly pay for a three-day festival."
"No," Anya faced him, confusion evident in her onyx eyes. "That's not what I meant. Why did you kiss me? This morning, in the bedchamber?"
She deserved a good answer to a perfectly innocent question. But what could he say? That he found her fascinating? That she looked like an untried delicacy when she slept peacefully on his bed? That her intelligence and common sense were so evident in her writing his admiration for her could not be expressed by words alone? So many reasons, and all true. Finally Pierre gathered his courage and pulled her closer, so that if they both breathed deeply enough, they would touch.
"I kissed you," he said, looking down at her upturned face, "because I wanted you."
And after he said the words, he found his lips on her again.
Anya knew what she was doing was foolish. Standing close to him, letting him kiss her, was something she never thought she would ever do. But she was doing just that now. This was crazy! Want was different from love. Want was a thousand steps below love. But it was as irresistible as a favorite wine. By the stars, she did want him! With a fire that swept through her very being. She was acting worse than a wanton.
"No," she breathed as she tried to move away from his grasp. "I can't let you do this to me." his hands kept a good hold on her forearms, pinning her securely in place in front of him.
"Why not?" Pierre moved closer, brushing his lips over hers once again. "We have more than what others have. We find each other irresistible. It's more than what others find in marriage. Don't deny it. I see it in your eyes, as you see it in mine."
Anya looked up at his eyes, their half-closed lids barely masking the desire they contained. Then they closed once more as Pierre took the light kisses deeper. Anya's knees grew weak and she instinctively grasped the lapels of his jacket to keep herself upright, allowing Pierre to slide his hands to the back of her waist. "I'm afraid," she whispered between kisses, "I don't know if I can… love you…"
"Then… don't force it." After one deep kiss, Pierre released her lips and looked into her eyes. "Can you not be content?"
Anya's body was pressed to his, and for some reason she felt it not the least uncomfortable or inappropriate. The hard planes of his chest and stomach cushioned her softness. The muscles in his arms embraced and warmed her. She could feel the strength of his legs even with her skirt between them. She felt oddly protected. She was more than content. She felt more alive than she had ever been before.
"Anya, can you not be content?"
"You'll have to be." The new female voice that interrupted them forced Anya to leap away from Pierre. But his protective instincts must have kicked up, for he had her behind him in no time. Anya peeked from behind him and, when she saw who stood at the door, placed a hand on his shoulder to stop him from doing anything rash.
"You know that girl?" Pierre asked.
"My sister," Anya eased out from behind him. But no sooner had she moved than Pierre had her hand in his. She dismissed scolding him for now and led him to the doorway. "This is Alice du Azarmon, my twin sister. Alice, this is Pierre de Castolla, heir apparent to the Castollan throne."
"I see father's conquest is indeed useless now," Alice moved into the room and looked them both over. "Apparently I've been gone for only one night and already a few interesting things have happened. So it is true?"
"That's what I've been trying to tell you," a brown-haired, green-eyed gent stepped into the dining room as well, leading a roped man behind him.
"Sister, who is he?"
"That's my brother, Stephen." Pierre muttered, facing his sibling and raising one brow in question as to who his companion was. His brother wore a shirt a shade lighter than his own forest green. It was dusty, as were the black pants and boots that were so much similar to his. He could also see the splotches of blood on his shirt and pants.
"We were attacked by Pelans," Stephen announced in explanation. "And before you could say anything, I wasn't the only one involved. Miss Independent here took out several of the enemy as well. Now there's only this one and he keeps telling us that the Princess of Azarmon's presence is required in Pela."
"Pela?" Anya gasped, earning Pierre's curiosity and concern. "That's Lord Maximilian's kingdom. What does he want?"
"You know he's always wanted you. For the last ten years he's always wanted you." Alice muttered.
"No doubt for my dowry and the position on the Azarmonian council. But he won't touch anything that's mine. Would you please lock the man up in the dungeon?"
Stephen huffed in agitation and crossed his arms in front of him, almost causing their captive to trip over himself. "Pierre, are you really going to allow these ninnies to boss us around? This is our kingdom after all."
"Do as she says, Stephen."
"I said 'do as she says.' She's to be my wife, after all."
"And like I said before," Alice interjected, casting her gaze to her twin. "You'll have to be content Anya. Maximilian will do anything to get you as his bride. He already attacked the guards that father sent to watch after us."
"Wait, there were guards following us here?"
"Were being the operative word, as they're all dead now." Alice moved passed her sister and faced Pierre. She set a determined look on her face and poked a finger to his chest. Even if she was wearing her dirtiest set of shirt and trousers, she had to make her stand clear to the two brothers. "You sir may be a future king, but I will not stand for anything if I find out you hurt my sister. Considering I found you both in a very interesting position before I came here, can I assume that I'll be hearing wedding bells in the near future?"
Pierre grinned, tightening his grip on Anya's hand. Lord Maximilian. The man's name didn't ring a bell, but Pierre could see from the way Anya stiffened at the mention of that name, he was not exactly welcome. This was another leverage he could use to tide Anya over. "We were supposed to leave for Azarmon this afternoon, but your warning came just in time. I think it's safer that the wedding take place before we leave."
"I agree," Alice turned to Anya. "Only if my sister allows it."