. o 0 C H A P T E R 5 0 o .
"We build on the west side of the village," Anya said as she spread out a map of Castolla over Pierre's mahogany-colored study table. It was two days after the wedding, and they had not said more than 'good morning' and 'hello' since the disastrous wedding night.
Pierre's instant refusal pulled Anya out of her thoughts. "But the west side is closer to more homes than the east!" she argued, pointing to the section of bare land she wanted the medical center to be built upon.
"I said no."
"For your information, I was the one who started this project. I assumed that I would be spearheading it."
"Stephen and I used to play in that area of the village every sunny season. And only during the sunny season, because the place floods like the devil when the rains come. That's why the houses there are raised on posts. I say-" he pointed to another bare area a relatively longer distance from the village central plaza, "we build here. It's higher ground, not to mention closer to the caravan road. It'll be easier to restock medical supplies if the caravan can reach it."
Anya glared at him, then at his forefinger obnoxiously pointing to the spot on the map. "How are the people, in the case of an immediate emergency, going to get to the center if it's so far away from the village?"
"Parakeets," Pierre said with a sense of confidence. "Enchanted parakeets."
Anya knew about how other kingdoms, due to difficult transportation, used parakeets to relay important information. Enchanted parakeets, or those that have been spellbound and trained by enchanters, not only knew how to repeat human words but also understood what was being told to them. They could also identify one person from another.
But Anya knew that one enchanted parakeet cost nearly one thousand and seven hundred Azars, or something like three thousand and four hundred Castols. This was the very reason that her father did not demand every Azarmonian household have one, knowing not all Azarmonian families could afford the animal. And besides, Azarmon was located on flat land, and almost all farmers had a pair of workhorses. Travelling was never difficult. If Azarmonians couldn't afford the living convenience, then how could the Castollans? "And how, pray tell, will we be able to buy the villagers enchanted parakeets?"
"We need only one," Pierre answered. "The watchtower in the middle of the plaza is accessible to every house in the village. In case of an emergency, a parakeet stationed at the tower can be sent to the center to fetch a healer. Surely we can afford even just one bird?"
Anya looked out the window, weighing the pros and cons of Pierre's suggestion. She had to admit, the plan was as flawless as it could be. "Fine. I'm leaving you to take charge of getting us a parakeet. But I will oversee the building."
"You are a stubborn over-calculating dictator, my sweeting."
"And you," Anya said while darting an annoyed glance at his smug smile, "are an arrogant counselor with impeccable timing, your highness."
"Perhaps that's why we were Fated. We share the same impeccable characters, excluding your lovely eyes."
"Perhaps you've got a big head," Anya said as she collected the map, rolled it and tucked it under one arm. She heard his deep chuckle as she exited the study, and she knew that a small smile graced her face after having been tense for a long while.
"Anya! Thank goodness I found you," Alice called just as Anya was about to open the library door across the study's.
She looked to her left, to find Alice dressed in a pale blue gown similar to hers. Her twin was panting as if slowing down from a long run. "What is it?" Anya asked, walking towards her sister as she was taking deep breaths.
"Father's horses just arrived. And Prince Colin and his soldiers delivered them."
"Prince Colin is here?" Anya asked, almost dropping the map to the floor. "Alice, you must keep him from the castle. Only until I could tell Colin that the next Castollan king is here. And remember, he doesn't know about the wedding, so I have to talk to him about this too."
"Talk to me about what?" Prince Colin appeared at the corner of the hallway, his honey-blond hair and emerald eyes coinciding with his amber and emerald jacket.
Colin looked form one twin to the other, easily recognizing which one of them was who. The different shades of hair and eyes were a dead giveaway. Alice looked stunning in the pale blue gown, the sapphire stones sewed onto the hem and cropped sleeves making her beauty sparkle. Anya too looked amazing. Surprisingly, the paleness of the dress and the diamonds embedded in intricate patterns on her bodice contrasted wonderfully with her glossy hair. It was such a pity no suitor wanted her hand. If they only knew that she was the real maiden bound to Azarmon, they would not look anywhere else. Then again, it was a poor reason for marriage. Colin was nine-and-twenty, and he had no intention of letting love pass by.
"What's happening to both of you?" he approached the gaping sisters. "This is the first time I've visited without getting so much as a hug. I've never seen you two so still. And speechless."
"Oh Colin," Alice recovered first. "Of course we're speechless. We weren't expecting you to deliver the horses." With this she rushed to Colin's arms and hugged him.
"Well, I'm expecting both of you to come back with me so that you can catch the wedding ceremony and festival. Your father, unfortunately, is stuck in an important kingdom affair," He patted Alice's shoulder and took her hand, placing it on his elbow as he made his way to the other sister. "The engagement festival was a success, but it wasn't the same without you two. Adele also wishes both of you to come as soon as possible. What do you say, Anya? Can you neglect a few duties to leave early?"
"I don't know, Colin." Anya stated uneasily. Colin had been a family friend for as long as she could remember, and it was always very difficult for her to deny anything he asked for. "I have a building I need to plan, not to mention the farmers I need to schedule with the horses. There's also the upcoming caravan, and the rains-"
"Oh come on, sugar plum." Colin cuddled her, his usual way of greeting. "Please, please, please!"
"Get away from my wife!"
Anya gasped as the tip of a sword cut through the space between her and Colin, the latter looking so shocked that he opened and closed his mouth like a fish. She turned to her left and met Pierre's burning eyes. The man was outraged! "Anya, who is this?"
"You know her?" Colin addressed the question to the newcomer. And then - "Wait. Anya, who is he?"
"I asked first!" The other answered. "Anya, who is he? Is he your lover?"
"You have no right to insult me and Princess Anya that way, young man."
"And you have no right and reason to hold MY WIFE the way you just did now!"
"Wife? You're married? The two of you?! I don't even know you!"
"And I don't know you! So how dare you enter my castle without my permission?!"
"STOP!!!" Alice, feeling that she had been left out for too long, held out her hands to keep both men away from each other and interrupted the argument. "Stop it, both of you. Colin, meet Sir Pierre de Castolla, future king to this land. Pierre, this is Prince Colin de Auria, bridegroom to our sister Princess Adele. Now put down that sword before you hurt anyone!"
Pierre lowered his sword, causing Colin to breathe in relief and wonder. "You two are married? Since when?"
"Two days ago," Pierre said as he sheathed his sword and pulled Anya into his arms, claiming and protecting her at the same time. Colin saw the barely contained jealousy in his eyes and the matching embarrassment in his future sister-in-law's. He guessed that if this was not a love match, it would be pretty soon. "Your Highness," Pierre continued, "Princess Anya is now Anya du Azarmon et de Castolla. Future queen of this land, and my wife."
"Then congratulations is in order," Colin said, not taking his eyes off of the man. "And I have to warn you, de Castolla. Take care of her. There's only one Anya in this world, and she's a jewel."
Pierre laid his head over hers and did not let go of his hold. He closed his eyes as if to imprint in his mind the sensations of holding the princess. "Don't I know it."
"As proven. Impeccable timing…" Anya murmured as she buried her face in his jacket to hide the hot blush of her cheeks.
Colin looked to Alice, whose only response to the ebbing jealousy in Pierre and silent ire in Anya was a nonchalant shrug and raised brow. He may not have known how this unusual and hasty marriage between, from what he guessed, two complete strangers to each other came about, but he was sure it came about for a reason.
He realized that Alice was not one bit disappointed with the match, nor totally elated. If the marriage had come about as a tactic to seize Castolla from Azarmon's hold, then Alice would have assembled the Azarmonian soldiers by now. This was a strange marriage indeed. But before he could ask its nature, an even younger man in a tan shirt and dark brown breeches entered the hall.
"Hey! What did I miss?"
"Colin," Pierre said, "may I present to you my half-brother, Sir Stephen du Castolla."
The air was filled with tension as Princesses Anya and Alice, Lords Pierre and Stephen and Prince Colin seated themselves at the dining table. The kitchen servants, upon knowing that their masters were to receive the very first visitor to the castle, outdid themselves by preparing many various dishes. There was rabbit and chicken soup, lamb chops dripped with sauce, crisp vegetables smothered with cream and all kinds of sweetmeats. Dessert consisted of custard and caramel cake, as well as peach and apple pie and butter tarts with cherries on top.
If it had not been for Pierre and Colin's chance encounter that morning, Anya would have had more enthusiasm in commenting on the excellent food choices that cook listed on the menu. As it was, she had energy only for a murmur of her appreciation. The rest of her energy was coiled like a spring inside her, waiting to be used for an attempt at stopping the next confrontation between her husband and friend.
Her husband. It was strange that she finally thought of someone as hers. For a brief moment earlier that morning, she swore that he had been not only jealous, but worried her heart was already captured. By Prince Colin, no less! If only Pierre knew how when they were little, she and her twin were the ones who secretly caused the prince and Adele's 'chance encounters' during Azarmonian Festivals. Up to this day, Adele called them the 'royal matchmakers.'
"You two were so clever to set Colin and I up," she once commented, "that I don't quite understand why you never set yourselves up. In my opinion, husbands would be able to temper your penchant for mischief."
Anya giggled abruptly, forgetting that she was having dinner with two amused warriors and two men glaring at each other from across different sides of the table. Alice raised her brow in curiosity, as did Stephen. The two men momentarily interrupted their glaring competition to look at her too.
"Anya?" Colin asked from beside Alice, who was sitting across from her.
"It was nothing Colin," she said feeling a little embarrassed. "I just remembered a few childhood memories."
"Ah, yes!" Alice interrupted, pointing her fork at her sister. It seemed she still had not developed impeccable table manners despite being in the royal court all their lives. "I distinctly remember the pranks we used to pull on poor Colin."
"Exactly what pranks?" Stephen asked, shoving another piece of meat into his mouth by fork.
Colin glared at Alice, daring her to tell any of his humiliating secrets.
"What?!" Alice pleaded, "If it wasn't for my efforts at making a fool out of you, then you would not have received Adele's sympathy and she would not have thought you cute and fallen in love with you."
"And she would not have decided to marry you," Pierre took a drink from his wine goblet and wiped at his mouth with a cloth napkin. He tossed the napkin down on the table, signaling that he was through with dinner. "What day is the wedding, by the way?"
"Three days from now," Colin focused on Anya. "If you can get your things ready tonight, we can reach Azarmon at around this time. Presuming we can leave early in the morning, unless you prefer sleeping in?"
"Now why would I sleep in?" Anya asked, the puzzlement in her voice and face evident.
Colin stared at her first, then erupted into such a loud round of laughter that Alice and Stephen, who was seated to Alice's left, looked at each other in bewilderment. "You're telling me," the prince said, "that you rose at cock-crow after the wedding night? Anya, you are something! Or maybe there was something wrong with lover-boy?"
Anya heard a low growl beside her. She turned and saw, to her horror, Pierre's face turning into a thunderstorm. She had to take matters into her hands before anything got out of control. Clearing her voice, she dropped her utensils on her plate and sat straighter in her chair. "Colin, that's enough. We're not at father's castle, therefore it's rude and downright disgusting to talk of such things over the dinner table, especially when there's still an unmarried lady present.
"You of all people should know better than to meddle into my affairs, especially my relationship with my husband. Plus, Pierre does not deserve to be insulted at his own table. If I were you, I'd apologize to him before either Stephen or Alice beheads you."
Colin's eyes widened. "Of - of course. Pierre, I am so sorry. I was only trying to make a joke. I didn't mean to meddle with anything! It's just that I'm so used to discussing random topics with Anya that I sometimes forget myself."
Anya discreetly let out her breath under cover of her napkin when she realized that Pierre begun to cool down. "No offense taken, right Pierre?" she said, answering Colin and beseeching Pierre to agree at the same time.
"Of course. None taken," Pierre said.
Anya was about to resume finishing off her tart when she felt a hand slip atop her knee. She glanced at Pierre and met his eyes, which were focused on her and her alone. She did not know why, but she impulsively reached under the table to rest it atop his hand. He quickly turned it palm up, and interlocked their fingers. The pad of his thumb caressed the back of hers, and she felt tingles shoot from the tender, intimate gesture.
Pierre smiled at her. He mouthed a thank you for stopping what could have been a messy brawl. Anya smiled back and let herself imagine that she was actually having a normal dinner with her loving husband and close friends. In truth, she and her indifferent husband were deceiving the close friend. They weren't actually in love. They certainly hadn't married for love. They didn't even share the same bedroom.
Anya gasped. "Pierre, I forgot to mention something to you earlier today."
Pierre raised a brow. But Anya ignored him and pulled him out of the dining room before their guest and siblings could say anything. "What have you forgotten? Is it about the health facility?"
Anya stopped when they reached the stairs that led to the upper floor of the castle. "Pierre, you have to get your things from the guest bedroom."
"Why? WHY?! We have to sleep together tonight!"
Anya rolled to her back, feeling rather sore after hastily and silently helping Pierre transfer his things into the royal bedroom. Sure there were three other bedrooms that they could stick Colin in, but Anya was not about to reveal the nature of their wedding. She needed to make Colin think that she and Pierre was a couple. Even if it meant helping the servants lug Pierre's trunks to speed things up.
Anya looked to her side and noticed that Pierre was wide awake too, staring at the canopy with his hands behind his head. And as if sensing that she was staring at him, Pierre turned his head in her direction and smiled. "Now this isn't so bad, is it?" he asked, "Like I said before. We can lie in this bed and not touch each other, like complete adults."
"I could have slept on the floor," Anya muttered as she rolled away from him. But Pierre caught her arm and pulled her to her back again.
"Or I could have chained you to the bed like I did on the first night we met," he chuckled when she scowled at him and made herself as comfortable as she could without any parts of their body touching. "You haven't told me much about yourself. And mind telling me about Lord Maximilian? I reckon from Alice and Pierre that you saved him from drowning in a river. I assume he was a past love?"
Anya almost laughed at the evident displeasure on his face. Instead she snorted and pulled the coverlet tighter around her. Even in the dark of night, with the embers from the fireplace barely illuminating the room, she felt uncomfortable lying next to Pierre. Even if she had her thickest camisole and leggings under her chemise, she felt more than naked. And the fact that Pierre was bare-chested above his black hose was not helping her get sleepy. "There's no chance in time that he was ever a past love. Nor will he be a present or future one."
"Care to explain why you're so opposed to him?" Pierre had moved closer. She could sense just by the body heat that was hitting her left side. Anya ignored the sudden temperature change and swallowed before explaining.
"I met Lord Maximilian during my tenth birthday. Even then, Alice and I hated dressing up in frilly outfits, so we decided to skip the dancing and head out for adventure. At that time, father and Magus Napoleon were busy writing up our debut contract, so nobody noticed that we sneaked out of the castle.
Lord Maximilian, who was to be one of our guests, also strayed out of the castle and into the forest. Unluckily, he didn't know that a rogue wolf lived in the part of the forest where he chose to explore. He was chased into the river, and almost drowned when he went over a small waterfall. Thankfully, Alice and I were able to swim over and rescue him before he got more than a broken leg.
"He stayed at the castle for nearly a month because of his injury, and was rude to everyone he met. Even Alice and I couldn't take his foul disposition. But a week after he left to return to his stepfather's kingdom, he came back and hung out with us. At first we would not hear of it, but father and Magus Napoleon insisted we let him in our circle of friends. Ever since then, he's been a thorn in my side. He'll be much more so now that somebody actually married me before he could."
Pierre remained silent all through her story. And when he continued to remain so, she glanced over at him and raised one brow. "What?"
"He's a strange one. First he doesn't like you and then he suddenly turns the other way and is infatuated with you. If I were in your place, I would have slapped him in the face."
Anya shivered. She had, on multiple times, did even more than just slap him in the face. But the man hadn't cared. In fact, he had seemed to enjoy the painful attention after attempts to kiss her. "I don't want to talk about him anymore, especially when he's obviously planning something bigger to have me this time. He makes me too nervous."
"Alright. What else should we talk about?" Pierre lifted himself onto one elbow and studied her. If the curtains had been drawn, Anya would have had a better view of his chest.
Anya blushed and looked away, even though it was too dark for him to see any change in color on her cheeks. "Can we talk about you?"
She did not expect him to agree to the topic immediately, being a bastard son and all. She had heard rumors that Kildare fathered a boy on his housemaid, but she had not believed. Funny that now she was married to the person she thought did not exist. His voice was low and soft, droning and rolling like a tender lullaby. He explained about his past, his half-brother, even the scarce encounters with his father.
Anya yawned and instinctively rolled to the warmer part of the bed. Pierre's voice faded as she allowed sleep to take her - and Pierre to wrap her securely in his arms.