. o 0 C H A P T E R 4 0 o .
"So are you really going to go through with this?" Alice asked as she settled herself in an upholstered settee opposite to the one her sister occupied. She fingered the edge of a cushion encased in velvet, its golden color similar to the one of her gown. She had changed into a new gown after helping Stephen and several of the castle servants shove their prisoner in one of the basement cellars.
The twins were sitting atop a balcony on the west side of the Castollan castle. The raised balcony's railings were crawling with vines, reaching the small roof that shaded it from the sun. The two settees faced each other, separated by a crystal table that held an expensive tea set Wendell had provided the both of them.
"What else could I do?" Anya said as she set down her teacup on her lap. "When we were born, mother wasn't going to be able to bear a male heir for the Azarmonian throne. Father has no male children to inherit his kingdom, no male keepers for his other external kingdoms. That's why Magus Napoleon branded us, so that we may be able to find men with the ability to take care of the kingdoms until such time our sons can take over them."
"Maybe Sir Pierre tricked you into giving up your wing. Haven't you ever thought about that?"
Anya pursed her lips. "He couldn't have possibly known about our brands. Not even mother knows their real purpose."
Alice looked over the railing and spotted Pierre and Stephen in the courtyard below. They were down to their shirts and pants, the metallic clash of their swords permeating the air as they sparred with each other. "Are you sure, sis? How much do we really know about these brothers? For all we know, they came back just because they want to sack the kingdom."
"That can't be. Magus Napoleon said that the wing would transfer only to those deserving of the kingdom."
"So you think this Pierre de Castolla is capable of handling Azarmon?"
"Hush!" Anya rushed to her sister's side, spilling her tea to the floor in the process. But she didn't bother with cleaning it up. She instead took her sister's hand and pulled her away from the railing, as if anybody standing beneath them would hear.
"Oh my goodness, I didn't realize I just said that!" Alice stated.
"Nobody must ever know that Azarmon is bound to my name," Anya said.
Alice nodded. She knew the many measures that King Malcolm took to secure Azarmon. The strategic tactics taught down the generations have saved the kingdom from both natural and man-made threats. The idea of binding the home kingdom to the youngest daughter's name had come about as a necessity due to the increasing number of suitors after Adele's hand.
It was the kingdom of Kantilla that had been left to Adele's name. And it was this kingdom that Prince Colin would be protecting with his title. The town of Maya was bound to Alice. Alice's future husband would ensure the safety of that external post.
It was Anya who carried most of the burden. Aside from the fact that Azarmon was bound to her name, their father also planned to give her Castolla. And her future husband was entitled to a seat in the Azarmonian Council. Nobody in the whole kingdom except King Malcolm, Magus Napoleon and the three sisters knew about these arrangements.
"Does Pierre even know that he will be in charge of both Azarmon and Castolla once you two are married?"
Anya frowned. "Over my dead body he will. If he does marry me, I won't agree to just his terms. Either we divide the kingdoms, with Azarmon obviously in my care, or we share the power."
Alice considered this. "You know that Adele gave her brand to Colin not because of its ability to detect a powerful leader, but because she loved him. Are you sure you'll be able to live the rest of your life under a contract?"
"Under a…" Anya's hand paused midway to summoning a servant to clean up the mess of she made of the tea. "Oh shoot! Alice, I just realized something. On our tenth birthday, father and Magus Napoleon wrote the contract containing our names and the kingdoms and wealth entailed to each of us. It hasn't been changed since."
"That was the birthday when we decided to ditch the party and go wandering in the forest. That was the day we rescued Lord Maximilian. We took him to the castle to be taken care of. He never left the castle for a month because of his broken leg. He may have seen the contract at some point of his stay. Do you think that's why he's after me now? Do you think he knows Azarmon is under my name?"
Alice crossed her arms. "I don't know sis. That's an unlikely theorem, but I'm not about to throw it out the window. But still, how would he have known anything about the contract?"
"I don't know Alice," Anya rubbed her temple as she crossed the room to the door. Too many questions were still unanswered, too many mysteries unsolved. What was Maximilian's motive behind his pursuit? And why had he waited to act now? "But as Fate has decreed that Pierre de Castolla carry my brand, then so be it. I will not go against it."
"Anya," Alice moved to her sister's side. "I worry for you. Fate has a way of crippling people. What if this doesn't turn out right?"
"Then I guess," Anya answered, "I'll just have to deal with it." And with that Anya left the room to find her bridegroom.
Anya made her way across the courtyard, her silvery gown snagging on several long clumps of grass. But this did not stop her from looking at the two half-brothers that continued to attack each other with the skills of a master swordsman.
Both men's shirts were soaked with sweat and clinging to their toned torsos. It was clear to anyone watching that their brisk footwork took years in the making, as did the bulk of their leg muscles. Their arms tensed and strained every time they struck or blocked. The two set a rhythm that Anya guessed only they could tackle. She wouldn't be surprised if they were better sword masters than her sister.
She didn't know that she was gaping at them until, both men paused mid-strike. "Why did you stop?" she heard Stephen ask, whose back was to her and his sword raised to block Pierre's.
Pierre lowered his sword and leaned to the side to look over Stephen's shoulder. And Anya felt her face heat up the moment he winked at her. "Oh, I see!" Stephen continued, now looking in her direction.
Anya shook her head and brushed a stray lock of hair away from her cheek, hoping that some of the blush would cool down immediately. Then, having not noticed that she had stopped walking, Anya resumed her fast pace until she stood in front of them. "I need to talk to you," she said.
"To the grass?" Pierre asked with amusement in his voice.
How could Anya be able to make eye contact with him? Especially when he was enticingly covered with a sheen of sweat? Especially if, the moment their gazes clashed, a wave of heat would cause her body to shiver and eyes to widen with desire. But if that was what it took to stop him from fooling around then she would look at him. After all, come sunset they would be facing the altar.
"Pierre, I need to talk to you. It's of the utmost importance."
"Hmm, wonder what that would be," Stephen murmured as he sheathed his sword and reached for a towel hanging from a nearby post.
Anya ignored the man's jabbing and pulled Pierre by the hand.
"Hey! I haven't even cleaned myself."
"There's a barrel of fresh, clean water in the stables you can make use of."
"Holy heavens, woman! Can't this wait 'til morning? If it's the wedding night you're worried about-"
Anya halted abruptly and faced him so quickly that she ripped a part of her skirt on a bush close by. But she didn't even care about the rip. Hands on hips, she glared at Pierre unmercifully.
"Now what in heaven's name gave you that idea? Here I thought you agreed that my life was at stake and you intended to help me."
"I do intend to help you."
"Oh really? Well you should be enthusiastic that I'm giving you a heads-up by providing information on my past. And I do believe it would make the difference between the survival of both our kingdoms and utter destruction."
"Very well, lead on then."
Pierre and Anya entered the stables, her eyes darting everywhere except at him, his eyes never leaving her. Ultimately Pierre found the barrel, where he immediately dunked his head. He shook the water off his hair afterwards, not caring if they splashed the woman standing beside him.
"Would you cut that out?!"
"You told me I could use the water in here."
"I didn't tell you to get me wet in the process," Anya marched to a stack of hay and propped herself up on a low bale. She crossed one knee over the other and laid her hands palm down on either side of her. "Now, regarding the information."
"I suppose you know the custom of the land. In the event that a kingdom has no male heir, the kingdom itself and the other belongings that the king owns are divided between the daughters according to how he sees fit. The properties are bound to his daughters' names until such time that they produce the male heir, the eldest of them being the one to relinquish the home kingdom and all higher properties."
"Of course I do. Though I'm not exactly a pureblood I was educated."
"Well, I have to inform you that, if we proceed with our plan to marry, you will not only be king to Castolla, but also champion to Azarmon."
"Pardon?!" Pierre stepped closer to her, his index finger plugged to one ear as if clearing it of any obstruction. "Did I hear correctly? I'm champion to Azarmon? Azarmon!"
"Yes. Champion, protector, defender, whatever you want to call yourself. Bottom line is, you will protect Azarmon. Because Azarmon is bound to my name."
"How could that be?" Pierre asked, sitting beside her, his eyes never leaving the black pearls that were her eyes. They seemed masked, shrouded in darkness, as if Anya did not want them to reveal anything until the time she chose to let them do so. "Stephen told me you had an older sister. Should she not be the one to hold Azarmon in her name?"
Anya drew small circles in the area between them, feeling the texture of the hay as she traced her pattern with her eyes. "My father's council is made up of many different men, all strong and loyal to his name. One of them is Magus Napoleon, famous for his ability to see into the future, as well as his magical capabilities. Magus Napoleon is a godfather to us three. He provided us with the brands and he became our tutor while we were growing up. He taught Alice how to fight and he taught me how to heal. He also wrote the contract binding the names of the different kingdoms to us. He consulted with my father and only they know the true reason behind the arrangement."
Pierre looked up at the rafters that held the barn together. "And somehow you were more fitting to hold Azarmon."
"No Pierre," Anya replied firmly, "the reason why Azarmon was bound to my name was because somehow Magus Napoleon knew that I would give the kingdom to you. It was to your protection that Magus Napoleon expected the kingdom to go to. At first, I thought I had been careless by being so close to you, but now I realize only love can transfer the mark. And since I don't love you, the only reason left is that Azarmon was truly meant for you."
"So what is this?" Pierre exclaimed, "The hand of Fate? By the stars, Anya. No man could have guessed I would be the one standing beside you at the altar tonight. And - and why would I be chosen to protect Azarmon? From your vast knowledge you would be as fitting."
"So you agree?" She said quickly.
"That I alone will be enough to rule over Azarmon. I mean, I am not judging you incapable, just that I have been helping my father hold Azarmon for so long that it has become close to my heart. Once we marry, I can give you back Castolla. You will be king and you can rule however you want to. It will be like a payment for restoring my reputation. I thank you, and I'll let you go."
Pierre's eyes widened in surprise. He stared at her, his pride somewhat hurt by the words she had uttered. True, he did not want her to expect anything from their marriage. He'd tasted love and women too many times in his twenty-five years. He knew they could dissolve and leave one or both parties hurting. He remembered the last woman he had promised to cherish. In the end, she had walked away on the arm of another man. And he had just watched, because he had never loved her enough to keep her. Falling for someone was one thing, but keeping her was another.
However, hearing this one girl say the words he had told so many women was hurtful. How many times had he thanked a woman and told her to go? Now he realized how much it hurt to have your affections thrown back at you without being considered.
Pierre did not know what affection he harbored for Anya du Azarmon, but something in the resolved way she talked to him about marriage, specifically their marriage, squeezed his heart. Could it be possible that he had become fond of her overnight? "I appreciate the offer, but I think it best if we work together. We may have gotten off on the wrong foot, but come on. I don't think I'm so horrible that you would want to avoid me for the rest of your life."
Anya let out a little laugh. "Somehow I don't believe in the things you're saying, Pierre. I mean, you could avoid me anytime you wanted to. I won't blame you for doing so if you did."
Pierre drew his brows together. "What makes you say that?"
Anya shrugged, drawing her hand back to her lap. "I know I'm not beautiful. I know very few take a second glance at me. All my life only Lord Maximilian has shown interest in me, and it's not even true love. I don't have stars in my eyes. I know my lot in life Pierre, and if it means I have to give up all my conceptions of a happily-ever-after for my kingdom then I will."
"That's not true," Pierre said as he glanced her way. The shafts of light that sparkled through the stable windows cast a soft orange glow around her, emphasizing the sheen of her hair, the glitter hidden in her eyes and the silver layers of her gown. The play of light at her feet and at the walls behind her back provided a beautiful backdrop. How could she say she was not beautiful? "You're blind then. I see a nymph of the highest beauty when I look into your eyes."
Anya blushed and clutched her hands tighter, not daring to look at him. "That's not funny. You should have seen the number of suitors Adele had at her debut. And you've already seen how beautiful Alice is. Sometimes… sometimes I wonder if my plainness was the reason father put Azarmon in my care. You know, so that those nasty suitors wouldn't grab hold of it."
"Of course it's not funny," Pierre answered sincerely. He took one of her hands in his own and tilted her chin towards him, looking deep into her eyes, which held unshed tears. "It's not funny because it's true. I wouldn't have kissed you otherwise."
He had her, just like that. Her lashes lowered and her lips parted at the slightest brush of his fingertip. He knew he wanted to kiss her again. In fact, he wanted to kiss her now! He bent his head and moved closer, until he could feel her very breath on his lips, until he had both of her hands threaded through his. He pulled her as close as they could get and-
"Anya? Sir Pierre? Are you in here?" Alice called from the doorway, "Stephen and I are going to call for the village priest. You two better be ready in four hours."
Two men met where a sole lamp post stood between crossroads. Both wore extensively long cloaks. To an ordinary observer, it would have been seen as a simple meeting between two travelers. It was a very common occurrence in Azarmon, for at most times travelers usually banded or paired together for a drink and a good rest once they reached civilization.
But the meeting was not about deciding where to drink or which inn to stay in for the night. It was not even a back and forth banters of the differences between their journeys.
No. this meeting between the two men was of a very different nature.
"Have you got the girl?" One man asked the other in his gruff voice.
"No," the other replied with a voice deeper than the first man's. If one had listened in to their conversation, one could clearly discern which was the younger and which the older. "The men you hired for me followed the wrong girl. Not to mention lost their lives in the process. From the way I see things, you're a complete failure despite your abilities."
"Now, now young man. If I were a complete failure, we would have been caught already. I may have made a wrong decision by hiring common soldiers instead of the elite, but I guarantee you it would have been worse if they found out the real motives behind our attempted abduction."
"It wouldn't have been attempted if you listened to me in the first place!" the younger man hissed between clenched teeth. "You promised me the girl if I gave you the kingdom. We had a deal. We should've used my father's soldiers."
The older man grabbed his conspirator by his neck and raised him from the ground with a strength that should not have been possible for a man his age. "I made the deal. You simply took it. And if we had used you father's soldiers, we would have been found out already."
The younger man gulped, attempting to get enough air into his throat and lungs. Some of the light from the lamp post behind him landed on the hood of the man's cloak. The older man was so covered up that the only thing he could see despite the added luminosity were his cold blue eyes. He immediately realized his mistake. What the man said was true; he had only shook hands after he heard the proposal. "Fine! Fine!" he choked.
Upon hearing the agreement, sputtered though they were, the old man released his hold and stepped back into the shadows. "Do not forget that you don't have the kingdom yet. You need the girl to gain the kingdom. Then you give the kingdom to me and me alone."
Rubbing his throat with his long, tapered fingers, the younger man stood up from his indignant fall. He too slunk into the shadows, afraid that a view of even the slightest fraction of his face would put him at a disadvantage. He was too concerned with worrying over his being unattended by bodyguards that he did not notice the amused chuckle his companion directed at him. He did not dare to challenge the man again. Instead, he folded his hands behind his back and looked downwards. "The princess has not arrived in Azarmon yet. I intend to gain hold of her by then."
The older man gave a spiteful laugh. "Tsk, tsk, tsk. My dear fellow, you intend to give her the chance to walk away? By the heavens, you are a relation to the king of Pela! You have every right to court the princess and marry her. Then you could rule over your father's kingdom."
"But I have told you that I don't want the throne. You can have both kingdoms, but I'll have your princess in return. Besides, though the king calls me son, I guarantee that he has no tender affections for me. He only married my mother so I would become his legal heir. And my mother married him only for the money."
The older man smirked, though the younger could not see it beneath the shadow cast by his hood. "I must say your old man is not lucky in the field of matrimony, my boy."
"It appears so am I."
"You are not to worry." The old man patted the younger one's broad shoulder before stepping back and going to his horse, which was tied to a nearby tree. He felt through his various items before fishing out a small object that glinted in the moonlight.
"Eh, what is that?" the younger man asked without daring to come closer. He would very much like to keep his head on his body.
He was barely ready to catch the object that the elder threw at him. But he did so, and only afterwards found that what he had caught was a small vial containing a dark violet liquid. "Is this it?" he asked uncertainly, "Is this the love potion?"
"Yes. That, my boy, is a dreadfully potent infatuation-inducing potion. A mixture of brownberry and pinkpetal for sweeping out memory. I figure you can use it to do away with the princess' bitter feelings. In the meantime, I'll be returning to my manor and wiling away the time until Princess Adele's wedding."
"Why would you do that?"
"Because one, our plan of kidnapping the girl backfired. A second attempt will only alert the royal household. Two, no one must know that we are working together. The whole royal family is wary of you, but if they become wary of me there is little chance that you will get your woman. Three, I am most certain your girl will come to the wedding. She is the bride's sister after all."
"And how do you plan to get her alone from the castle? Many people will be watching. The area will be heavily guarded." The young man asked, slipping the small vial into the inner pocket of his cloak.
"There will be too many people to watch over. The guards will keep a tight rein on the girl. They won't allow her to be with anyone unless they are part of the royal household. She'll trust me because she knows me, and nobody will bat an eyelid if I get her away. And by the time I have her, it will be too late." The older man untied his horse and leapt on its back. "And I hope by that time, you'll be ready to take on your role."
The younger man patted the horse's nose before walking past, away from the lamp post and back to the inn. "Don't worry. I'll see to it." he said with tightness in his voice.
"Make sure you do," the old man warned after him as he kicked his horse's side. "Or you'll pay dearly. I control this game, lad. Remember that."
The old man rode back to his manor, not looking back. It was as if the conversation had never been at all.
The ceremony had been lovely, Anya thought.
Earlier, at the start of sunset, Anya had walked her way down the aisle of the Castollan temple. She had changed her silver gown into a velvet buttery-cream sleeveless dress with pearls and gold-embroidered flowers at the square neckline. The skirt paled and flared as it progressed downwards, hiding her glass-slippered feet from view.
Pierre had been dressed in a gold jacket that fit to his body like a second skin. Its lapels were embroidered with black vines, as were the cuffs with shiny gold links. His legs were encased in what must have been the most expensive black breeches and knee-high black boots, going nicely with his dark hair. The gold buttons running on the outer sides of the boots glinted as the sun's last rays fell on him from a round window above the temple altar.
Anya thought that he was the picture of the perfect groom. Mayhap she could imagine, at least once in her life, that her wedding was real. Her wedding was not a coincidence, not Fate's decision. Mayhap she could pretend that the man standing there, waiting for her with a hint of a smile on his face, was a real anxious-excited groom waiting for his lady love.
She put a brave, indifferent front, narrating the legend of the first Man and Woman when the priest told her to do so. She blocked out Pierre's voice as he repeated the original vow of honor that the first Man had said to Woman. And, despite her hand being cold, she did not flinch when the priest pricked her finger and let a drop of her blood fall on the temple fountain to join with Pierre's.
"Now these two have been joined by time, words and blood," the priest had said. "If there is anyone who wishes to stop this marriage, then speak your grounds." And since only Alice, Stephen and Wendell were in attendance as witnesses, nobody had really been there to object. The priest let them proceed with the final part of the ceremony. He put their hands together and Pierre kissed her; on the eyes, on the forehead, on the lips; the representation of union by body.
That part of the ceremony was always Anya's favorite to watch. She had seen friends and relatives marry. She had seen how lovingly a man held his love's hands, how solemn and chaste his kisses were. That was the way Pierre had done it. And even though it was all an act, she was at least thankful that she had felt, even for just a fraction of time, adored.
Yes, the ceremony had been lovely, but tonight it was all coming to an end.
Anya shook her head to concentrate on the present. She hugged herself, pulling her cream and beige stole tighter. She was about to knock on the royal bedroom's door, but Pierre opened it from the other side before she could do anything.
By the heavens! The man was still handsome as ever, even with the way his clothes were messed up. His jacket hung over one shoulder, and one front side of his crisp, white shirt was sticking out. The top buttons of his shirt were unconnected, thus putting his wide chest directly in front of Anya's view. He had rolled his breeches to the knees and pulled his boots off, showing off the sculpted calves he had behind his legs.
"Um," Anya started, almost forgetting what she was about to say. Darn this blasted attraction, she cursed to herself.
"Coming to bed?" Pierre said in a soft, sensual voice.
Anya gulped and tried to meet his eyes despite the fact that her cheeks could be as red as strawberries. "Um, well, yes - I mean no!"
Pierre raised a brow and folded his hands in front of his chest, causing his shirt to stretch, exposing more of his chest and arm muscles.
"I - it's not what you think. Yes, I am ready to come to bed. But not with you. Never with you."
"Oh? And I suppose you'll be sleeping on the floor?"
"Yes. Fine." she said after several breathless seconds, resolved to do anything to make it so.
Pierre huffed in anger. "For goodness sake, Anya. We're both old enough to go about this. If you're not ready for anything between us, then I understand. But it doesn't mean we can't sleep on that bed, side by side, without touching each other. We've already done so before and nothing happened."
"But it's different now!" Anya protested.
"How is it different?"
"I - know you and you - well, I - I think it's not enough that we know each other. I don't love you Pierre." she finished lamely.
"Oh for crying out loud! We are not going to do anything! What would make you think that not being in love has anything to do about -" he tugged on his jacket and marched out the room, past Anya. "Forget it. I'm sleeping in the library. Good night Anya du Azarmon et de Castolla. I don't love you too."
The moment Pierre turned the corner towards the main steps, Anya released the breath that she did not know she had been holding. She congratulated herself for avoiding the dreaded wedding night. But why oh why did the man's last statement make her feel that her heart had been torn in two?
I don't love you too.