. o 0 C H A P T E R 6 0 o .
You have to protect Azarmon. It is your destiny.
How can I?
The only way you can protect Azarmon is if you protect her. Is if you love her.
Protect who? Love who?
Only your heart can tell you who. But you must, else Azarmon and Castolla will be lost to you. Else she will be lost to you. Beware king, for many deceptions will come your way.
Pierre briskly opened his eyes, almost blinding himself to the sun's rays seeping through the balcony beside the bed. He squinted and tried to lift his right arm above his eyes to block the light. But he found that he could not move it. Anya, who was still fast asleep and pressed head to foot by his side, was using it as a pillow.
Her beautifully messy hair blanketed his upper arm, and her parted lips breathed in and out near his collar bone. One of her arms was slung over his waist, and both her legs were sandwiching his thigh. Every breath she took caused her chest and stomach to make contact with his side. And her chemise had ridden up to reveal her legs, soft and delicate just like the rest of her. Pierre groaned. Waking up to her form almost crawling all over him was too provoking.
"Anya? Anya?" he whispered close to her ear so that she would not be startled. But she would not wake, and so he had to raise himself on the pillows and gently shake her by the shoulder. "Anya, sweeting, we have to get up."
Anya murmured something about 'not going to hunt no squirrels in the morning,' and pressed closer, burying her head in that warm space between Pierre's jaw and shoulder. Pierre lifted her head and called her again, this time running his hand over the length of her arm. Anya yawned. Her eyelids lifted slowly.
"Good morning, sweeting. Did you sleep well?" Pierre asked, his hand still moving over the same somewhat safe territory.
"Yes," she said in a hoarse morning voice. Then more sharply exclaimed an "Oh!" when she realized where her hands and legs have strayed. "I'm sorry," she apologized as she wiggled away from him. "I didn't know I was moving a lot."
She blushed and sat up, then started pulling down her chemise to cover her limbs. Pierre turned to his side and watched her as she fussed over herself. It was so amusing, the way she rambled and flushed in embarrassment.
"I sometimes tend to move a lot in my sleep, especially when I think too much before I do. But I just can't seem to not think about anything before I go to sleep. And usually when I think, I…" The only way to protect Azarmon is if you protect her.
"Did I kick you? I don't know if I kick in my dreams too, but Alice usually does. And it hurts sometimes. I'm so sorry if I did. I assure you I didn't know…" Is if you love her.
"My mother has been to the healers to ask if they can do anything about my moving in my sleep, but they told her it was normal. Or so mother told me. Father says so too, so I think that it's normal…" Only your heart can tell you who.
"Come here," Pierre said as he himself sat up and stayed where she had lain. The dream had never been clearer. He needed to take her now. It was his destiny, his duty. It was the way things were supposed to be. Anya had already accepted her role. She had slept beside him, had she not? And he was eager to accept his too.
"W-what?" Anya stuttered, letting go of her chemise and gawking at him.
"I said 'come here'," Pierre replied.
"I don't unders-"
Pierre pulled her into his arms so fast that Anya let out a little yelp before being smothered with a kiss so smoldering she had no time to react with anger.
Pierre tasted her lips, those delicate rose petals that had tempted him since the day he met her. His sudden outburst of passion mellowed when Anya tried to pull away. He replaced the blazing trail of his mouth with the mellow press of lips against lips. And then the woman realized that the sudden fire of his desire diffused into the gentle glow of fondness.
Her lips parted for him, her hands pulled at his shoulders to draw him closer, even though she was already crushed to his front and caged in his arms. But still he obliged, pressing against her until they outbalanced and tumbled, he on top of her, she between warm body and downy pillows.
"Oh Anya," Pierre breathed, not once stopping his tender attack, "You're so beautiful, so very beautiful. Anya, sweeting… my sweeting… mine."
"Pierre… please, no." she said even as she tangled her fingers through the dark hair at the nape of his neck.
"Why not? Oh Anya. My sweet, sweet Anya. I adore you. Will you not let me show you how much?" Pierre struggled to keep his needs in check. He decided that it would be better for the both of them if he proceeded carefully instead of rushing and getting it done with.
"Let me love you as the sun rises," he whispered in her ear, causing her to gasp.
Somehow he managed to claim her mouth again without rousing her anger. But as he decided to finally allow his tongue to rove where his lips had caressed, something salty landed on its tip. He stopped, raising himself to look at her. To look on those dark, dark eyes where tears fell from one by one. "Anya? You're crying?"
"I-" Anya sniffedl, "I know what you're doing. It's okay. I know you don't love me, so you don't have to pretend. I'm so sorry that I denied you. That was cruel of me. But it's okay. Really. Let's just get this over with."
Pierre stared, and then frowned bitterly. He lifted himself from above her and cursed as he crawled to the end of the bed. He picked up the shirt he had worn the night before and shrugged into it, all the while cursing. All the while angry. And all the while not knowing what had set him off. Perhaps it was the way he had handled things, not allowing her to make the first move. Or Perhaps he was angry at her, for talking about being intimate like it was just another one of the errands she had to finish for the day.
"Did - did I say something wrong?"
He glanced over his shoulder, at his wife who was now sitting in the middle of the bed. For all her speech and martyrdom, she now looked like a dejected child. Her teary face was far from the drowsy beauty that had awakened at his touch. Pierre's heart shattered just looking at her. How he wished that she loved him. But he himself did not even know if he loved her. "No, you didn't. It was just the shock of the morning. I'll go down for breakfast and then pack for Azarmon. You can sleep in for as long as you want. Your choice."
The carriage rambled through the thick forest separating Whiteweed Plateau from the rest of the world. It was here Anya roused from a fitful nap that had not lessened the ache in her confused heart. Before her, Alice was still fast asleep. Her twin's head was cradled on one of Stephen's folded jackets, while the rest of her was curled on top of the leather seat.
Despite the seemingly angelic pose of her twin, Anya knew that Alice would sit up alert at the slightest sign of danger. For now, she rested. Anya cautiously poked her head out of the carriage and glanced up at the sky. The span of sky and clouds were tinged orange, hinting that it was already close to sunset. Three more hours and they would be above Whiteweed Plateau, where Azarmon stood proud.
It was, in her opinion, a beautiful kingdom. Unlike Castolla, whose buildings were made of sturdy wood and sometimes stone pillars coated thinly with gold-leaf, Azarmon was a proud assembly of establishments and houses, all with white brick walls and white columns. White sapphire decorated every silver-coated surface, and roofs gleamed with shiny red slates. Dark brown or black wood framed every fretted window. The season's flowers spilled over every flower bed. Lush trees dotted the farming fields at intervals. All these were enclosed and protected by a wall seven meters thick and manned by the royal soldiers and warriors.
And beyond the main gate of the wall was the road down the plateau, the road that they wanted to arrive at before nightfall. The road that intersected the wide fields of Whiteweed, the rarest of the herbal plants that grew anywhere else but surprisingly sprouted in abundance on the plateau.
It was necessary for members of the council and the royal household to have some sort of magical degree. Magus Napoleon, for instance, developed a sense of clairvoyance which he used to aid her father. Alice had been trained as a Warrior, her intuition the key to the lightning speed at which she moved during battles. Enchanters used persuasion, as well as several other tricks, to control other beings and bend them to their whims. Healers, such as her, used their photographic memories for memorizing herbal recipes that could help others. And Anya was skilled at recounting available remedies for common illnesses.
Whiteweed was, as she had been taught during her schooling years, a remedy for skin abrasions and wounds. Other plants, such as Redroot and Pinkpetal, were familiar to her too. She used her knowledge to aid the soldiers during war between Azarmon and other kingdoms. The latest war, the one with Castolla, resulted in very little mortalities, mostly by accident. For this she was grateful.
But above all the things that she had done, the healings that she had performed and the prayers she offered for those who were not so lucky, her role as an Azarmonian princess came first. She knew that someday she would have to be married off; she would bear the next heir to Azarmon, and to another kingdom. Suddenly, her simple role seemed like such a daunting task. She much preferred roving over the battlefields and hefting scarred soldiers to safety over having to sit idly on a throne.
Anya sighed. She closed the curtain of the carriage window after settling back in her seat. She could hear the pounding of horses' hooves even though she was fully enclosed by the carriage. Somewhere behind them, Pierre, Stephen and Prince Colin were mounted and riding with the royal soldiers sent to escort them back to the kingdom.
Since the disastrous incident that morning, Anya had not received a word from Pierre. The man now freely conversed with her twin and was able to make several comments addressed to the Prince. But why in the name of the stars had he not talked to her? Or even merely greeted her at the breakfast table?
"Sis? What are you thinking of?"
Anya was startled. She looked at her twin, who was already sitting up and awaiting her answer. "Nothing," she replied, "just letting my mind wander off. What about you? I haven't asked about what you've been doing lately. I heard from Wendell that you've been spending a lot of time with Sir Stephen."
Alice huffed. "Only because the man seems to be getting into difficult situations. I watch him so he doesn't pull any mischief. I don't trust him that much. And I can't believe he eats with his bare unwashed hands after sparring with the Castollan soldiers."
"Oh please, Alice. It's not like we didn't used to do that when nobody was watching."
"But he ate like a pig! None of the manners and finesse of the royal court. And he acts like one too, strutting here and there like he owns the place."
"Technically, he does own the place. His half-brother is the future king. And don't forget that despite being raised in the Castollan castle for an amount of years, his mother was just a servant. He's not expected to turn into a complete dandy. And you should be thankful he lent you that 'pillow' you're sleeping on. Otherwise your coiffure would have turned into a bird's nest."
Alice unfolded the jacket, ticked off a few invisible particles and refolded it carelessly. "Still I don't like him that much. I mean, I could never imagine him fit into the Azarmonian court, playing the nice aristocratic gentleman from Castolla."
Anya giggled, and then quickly used her gloved hand to stifle it. "Oh Alice. You never change. You're still masking your infatuation with anger. Someday you'll be surprised by how people can be so different from what you perceive them to be."
"Like how you were surprised that the arrogant bastard king of Castolla could be quite a kisser?" Alice replied slyly.
Anya did not reply, but in her mind she knew the answer. Yes, it was an unexpected, astonishing surprise.
King Malcolm watched from the staircase descending into the courtyard as the gate was opened for the return of his daughters. Behind him, Olivia chewed on her thumb while waiting with him. "Come now, my love. You don't look attractive biting off your nail like that," he said as he turned around to pull her hand away from her teeth. She looked so attractive in her dark red gown with gold embroidery at the sleeves and waist even for her advanced age.
He pulled her closer to him using his right hand holding hers, at the same time spreading his red cloak over her shoulders with the other hand. He enveloped her in his arms under the shared cloak and looked into her eyes. Olivia looked at him with the smile that he fell in love with many years ago. He hand-picked her from the women of the court despite her refusal, and the first few months of their stay in Azarmon castle had been hair-raising. There were petty arguments and misunderstandings, not to mention vases crashing against the walls and dishes shattering like rainfall. But soon they came to an understanding and eventually found the love and passion that they so craved.
He didn't know his wife would have a strong throwing arm. He chuckled at the memory, causing Olivia to frown slightly and raise her thumb to her lips again. Malcolm always considered that a cute gesture, but did not like the anxiety hidden behind it. He again retrieved his wife's hand and enclosed it in his. "I was just thinking about the silly things we used to throw at each other, figuratively and literally speaking. What about you, Livy? Your daughters are coming back to Azarmon. You should be happy."
"But Mali, the lookout soldiers said that there are more men on horseback accompanying them here. Shouldn't we be suspicious?"
"Nonsense, Livy-Love," he reassured her with an arm slung over her shoulder. "Prince Colin is with them, as are my most trusted soldiers. They'll be fine. Look. Here comes their carriage now."
The carriage went below the raised portcullis, followed by thirteen men, two of which rode beautiful Trakehners. One of them rode a chestnut Trak, keeping to the end of the procession. The other, regal-looking in a suit of dark green, was atop a black Trak and riding on Colin's side. Malcolm shrugged off his uncertainty at meeting the two gentlemen and proceeded down the steps with Olivia right behind him. He reached the paved drive as the carriage stopped abruptly.
Colin stopped as well, closer to him than the carriage. His riding companion halted several feet behind him. "Your Highness?"
Malcolm smiled at the young man, his soon-to-be son-in-law. Adele was lucky to marry for love. And Colin was an even luckier man to have his Adele. "I see by that tilt of your mouth that you've delivered my daughters safely. I trust there were no complications along the way?"
"Hardly, Sir. They're both in one piece, and grumpy from having been forced to ride the carriage instead of their horses. They seem to value the scenery more than their safety."
"Oh dear. You better hide while you still can. Especially from Alice," Olivia quipped. "She has a mean throwing arm." She shot a taunting look at her husband.
Colin grimaced, causing his horse to jump a bit. He shook his head to clear his thoughts and gestured to the two strangers to come forward. "By the way, I have very fresh news to say to you. This is-"
Before he could introduce the two men with him, the loud bang of the wooden door above the courtyard steps and the high squeal of a delighted Azarmonian princess rang out. Adele rushed from the castle interior and down the steps, not minding how the drive's dust would stick to the hem of her pale caramel gown. "Cole! You're back!"
Colin grinned, jumped from his horse and eagerly sprinted to his fiancée, catching her in his arms and swinging her around in a circle. The two lovebirds shamelessly kissed right in front of everyone, causing the servants to smile their approval.
"Oh Mali," Olivia sighed, "children these days. Not a decent bone in them."
But before Malcolm could reply to his wife's observation, the dark-haired man on the black horse approached him with a respectful, somehow cautious gaze. Malcolm smiled and raised his hand in salute. "Greetings, young man. You're a friend of Colin?"
The man forced a smile upon his face and returned the salute. "Yes, a recent friend."
The king frowned. "Recent?"
"Yes. I'm more acquainted with your daughter."
"Who?" Olivia interrupted curiously. "Adele?"
"No. I meant my wife, Anya."
"Pardon?" Malcolm asked at the same time that the other man he still did not know descended his own horse and opened the door to the carriage. From his viewpoint he could see his two daughters descending, noting the dark green gown Anya wore. The swirling embroidery of gold and silver flowers running the whole length of the gown's front, right from the turtleneck collar to the frothy skirt, exactly matched the pattern on the dark-haired man's jacket sleeves. "Are you implying that my youngest daughter is married to you?"
"I was not implying, Your Highness," The man said in a neutral voice. "My name is Sir Pierre de Castolla, the future king of said kingdom once I can be crowned by my wife. Over there is my brother, Sir Stephen."
Malcolm barely heard his explanation, as his gaze was riveted to his youngest daughter, who seemed hesitant to approach them. So instead of rushing to her and hugging her, he proceeded to question the man before him. "Anya never mentioned that she was holding certain affections for anyone."
Pierre descended his horse and moved closer to the royal couple, holding up his palm for their inspection. "You could say that Fate was the one with the affections for me."
The half of the wing brand on his palm astounded King Malcolm. And Olivia gasped in surprise beside him. She did not know the whole story behind the tattoo, but she had been assured by both Malcolm and Napoleon that the man who wore it would be deserving of Anya. Malcolm pursed his lips and rubbed his bearded jaw. Even though he was close to fifty and his hair was graying, his athletic physique remained intact. This factor of his appearance intimidated most people, but he could see that Pierre was not unsettled one bit. "Alright. You've convinced me, young man." He took a quick look at Anya. "Have you been treating her well?"
Pierre gulped. "I've never had a wife before, but I think I'm doing it right."
It was an honest answer, and Malcolm was mildly amused at his insecurity. He wanted to smile, but let out a small cough instead and held out his hand for a shake. "Yes, she's a bit difficult. She doesn't have her twin's temper, but sometimes her practicality can be quite overwhelming."
Pierre grasped his hand and nodded, though a bit of a frown crossed his face. "I try my best to cope."
"And I say you're coping extremely well," The queen held out her hand too. "I can see she hasn't ordered Alice to burn you at the stake yet. I'm Olivia by the way, Queen of Azarmon. And that over there, hugging the life from poor Prince Colin, is my eldest daughter Adele du Azarmon."
Malcolm sighed with relief discreetly. Olivia's acceptance of Pierre as their son-in-law was the signal for Anya to come closer.
She made her way to Pierre's side and smiled tentatively at him when he took her hand. Malcolm raised a brow at his wife, but all she did was shrug and caress her daughter's cheek. "Greetings, my Anya. You chose a delightful man in this one."
His daughter blushed. "There wasn't a lot of choosing involved, mother. But he is somehow delightful."
Malcolm took his daughter's hand in his and looked her in the eye. "It's wonderful to finally have you back, my daughter. We'll leave you and your husband alone for now so that you can settle in. But I plan to have a word with you two after dinner. Magus Napoleon has missed you."
Anya smiled genuinely this time. "No need to talk in riddles, father," She looked to her husband. "Pierre already knows."