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"I THINK I'M GOING TO VOMIT."
I paced in front of the barren fireplace that spanned most of one wall in my parlor, clasping and unclasping my hands. My younger sister, Princess Miranna, had retired to her quarters after breathlessly assuring me I would have a lovely evening, but then, she was much more enamored with the man I would be meeting for dinner tonight than I was. Now it was only London, my bodyguard and a member of the King's Elite Guard, waiting with me in the richly furnished room.
"You're not going to vomit, Alera. Just try to relax," London advised, one eyebrow raised in bemusement. He picked up a book from the table beside the burgundy velvet sofa and began to leaf through it.
"How can I possibly eat?" I asked, my voice sounding shrill even to my own ears. "I don't think I can go through with this."
"It's going to be fine. He's just another suitor, and like the rest of them, he has to impress you, not the other way around. Besides, as far as I can tell, you have no real interest in him, so I don't know why you're working yourself into such a state."
"You don't understand! If something goes wrong tonight, Father is going to be so disappointed."
"Well, unless you've made plans to marry Steldor that I don't know about, you're going to disappoint your father in the long run no matter what."
I stopped pacing and faced London, who had set the book back on the table and was now leaning against the tapestried wall by the door, arms crossed over his muscular frame. Unruly silver bangs fell across his forehead, contrasting sharply with his deep-set indigo eyes, which were fixed upon me in anticipation of a response. I fumbled for one; every moment I could feel the noose of my impending marriage growing tighter. With my seventeenth birthday just around the corner, a betrothal would soon be arranged, with or without my approval of the gentleman. The idea that Steldor might be that gentleman
"But I can't stand him. How can I spend the whole evening with him?"
"It's just one evening. You can survive one evening." London hesitated, then teasingly added, "Besides, he may just win you over. I'm not one to underestimate the power of a romantic stroll in the garden."
"Please say he won't expect that of me!"
I stared at him, unable to find humor in such an awful possibility, and he tried to alleviate the worry he had inadvertently created.
"If he does, tell him you're feeling ill and that you must return to your quarters at once. He can't argue with that."
I sank into one of the plush armchairs that stood near the hearth, buried my head in my hands, and moaned. My father, King Adrik, had arranged for this dinner between Lord Steldor and me, for he felt Steldor was better suited to be his successor than anyone else in the kingdom. As the heir to the throne, I was to marry on that basis alone, for it was my husband, not I, who would come to rule Hytanica.
Even I had to admit that Steldor was the obvious choice. Three and a half years older than I, he was the son of Cannan, the Captain of the Guard, and had one year ago become a military field commander at the young age of nineteen. He was charming, intelligent and strong, with stunning good looks, but I had disliked him from the moment we had met.
A rap on the door interrupted my thoughts, and London stepped into the corridor while I fretfully plucked strands of my brown hair free of its upswept style.
"We'd better go," he said upon reentering, and I slowly rose from the chair. "I have just been informed that Steldor is waiting for you in the Grand Entry."
London opened the door for me, and we left my parlor to walk through the second-floor corridors of the Royal Residence toward the spiral staircase at the rear of the palace. In addition to my quarters and those of my sister and parents, the residence included a library, a family dining room, a kitchen and a visitor's parlor. The Royal Ballroom and the King's Dining Hall were the only areas on the second floor that were used for public events.
We descended the stairs, emerging into a lantern-lit corridor, and London offered his arm to escort me toward the palace's main entrance. As we walked, I hardly glanced at the intricate tapestries that adorned the walls, for my attention was drawn to the end of the hall where Steldor awaited me. Supporting himself with his left hand on the wall, he was flipping a dagger over and over in his right, impeccably positioned for maximum visual effect.
"Have fun," London said glibly, stopping midway down the passage, for my handsome dinner companion had noticed my approach.
"You're not going far, are you?"
"No, I would wager you'll need more protection tonight than on most occasions. Besides, I'd be a pretty poor chaperone if I did, although I will try to give you two lovebirds some privacy."
"Go ahead and enjoy yourself at my expense, won't you?" I complained, irritated by the tease that had once more crept into his voice.
Steldor had returned his dagger to its sheath and was striding toward me. Although he was dressed more informally than was usual for him, his deportment would have made any clothing appear elegant. He was tall, broad shouldered and well muscled, with dark brown hair that fell in a perfectly careless manner to just below his prominent cheekbones. His brown eyes were guaranteed to make most girls swoon, and his smile was irresistible, given his straight and even, white teeth.
Steldor bowed and kissed my hand. His eyes swept my form approvingly, taking in my shimmering gray gown and the silver locket that graced my neck. "Allow me to escort you to the dining room, Princess Alera."
With an uncomfortable glance at my bodyguard, Steldor drew me to his side, and I was certain London's demeanor had given warning of how closely he intended to monitor the captain's son. Suppressing a smile, I walked with Steldor through the remainder of the corridor, the savory smells from the kitchen arousing my appetite. At least I would be getting a delicious meal out of the evening.
The first-floor dining room was designed to accommodate intimate gatherings. There were twin marble fireplaces, one on each side of the room, with an oblong table that could seat forty-five centered in between. Three candlelit chandeliers were suspended above the table, and oil-burning lanterns were attached at intervals along the walls. A small, round table draped with white linen had been prepared for us at the far end of the room in front of the bay window. On it, two flickering candles provided subtle illumination, aided by the last glimmer of the day's sun. I sat across from Steldor and he offered me a glass of wine, which I accepted with some trepidation, having no more liking for wine than I did for the man extending the goblet.
"I have to say," Steldor observed, "you look exceptionally beautiful tonight, Alera."
He paused as if permitting me an opportunity to extend my flustered thanks. When none were forthcoming, he smiled.
"You seem a little overwhelmed
perchance from hunger, although it's not unusual for my company to have this effect upon women. Some food may restore you." With a flick of his hand he indicated to a servant that we were ready to receive our meal. "Some sustenance may enable you to find your voice as well."
I stared at the man my father desired me to wed, feeling ill-equipped to deal with his overly familiar attitude. The arrival of the kitchen staff with vegetable-laden platters, warm bread and roast grouse saved me from having to reply.
Steldor nodded curtly to dismiss the servants, then placed a slice of the sizzling game bird on each of our plates, permitting me to select my own vegetables and bread. We ate in silence for a time, although I found it difficult to do more than nibble, for his eyes continued to shamelessly peruse me.
"I hope we shall come to spend a great deal of time together," he finally said, his voice a practiced blend of honey and conceit, velvety smooth but with an undertone of boredom that not even he could conceal. Clearly this was not how he would have chosen to spend his evening free of duties. "Although I should caution you that the military demands much of me. I am well suited for such a life, of course when I was at the Military Academy, my combat instructors had nothing but praise for me. As you probably know, I was allowed to graduate a year early due to my abilities."
Finished with his meal, he pushed his plate forward to rest his left forearm on the table's edge.
"After fifteen months as a foot soldier, I went into officer training and became the youngest field commander in Hy-tanican history. But despite the demands of my position, I find time to help train the students at the academy in hand-to-hand fighting. The instructors at the military school continue to hold me in high esteem and readily welcome my assistance."
I found myself paying more attention to his gestures than to his words as he droned on, for his movements were so fluid they seemed almost rehearsed. He paused to settle back in his chair, slowly swirling the wine in his goblet, once more perfectly posed.
"Of course, I didn't do anything special to win such admiration," he continued. "I was simply born with enviable talents. It was natural that I would become the favored one. You can understand that, can't you, Alera? It's much the same with you."
"And how is that like me at all?" I challenged, his arrogance at last goading me to reply.
"She speaks," he gently mocked, then elaborated. "Well, you didn't ask to be born into the royal family, did you? I likewise didn't ask to be the most admired man in the kingdom."
"More admired than my father? Well, then, I suppose I should feel honored just to be here with you."
"Alera, admiration isn't about wearing a crown. Your father is revered. But I have the eyes of an entire citizenry on me at every moment. That you cannot deny."
The churning in my stomach could no longer be attributed to nervousness. Just being in Steldor's company was making me physically ill. When I did not converse further, he glanced to the other side of the room where London was sitting in a chair, booted feet resting on the oblong table.
"It's a shame London has to be here, isn't it?"
"Perhaps from your point of view. I believe it's important that he diligently carry out his duties."
"Don't take offense, Princess," he said with a chuckle. "I only meant that, if we were alone, things could be a bit more
He leaned closer and reached for my hand, dark eyes lazily scanning me as if I were a gift for him to unwrap.
"That would be improper, would it not?" I reproached, picking up my napkin to spoil his attempt.
"And have you never done anything improper, Princess?" he drawled, wearing an insufferably indulgent expression. He stood when my only response was a deep blush. "As you don't seem to be particularly hungry, I suggest we forgo dessert in favor of a stroll in the moonlight."
I tried to think of an excuse, or to remember London's advice, but my brain had stopped working. In combination with my dry mouth, I found myself speechless.
"I'll take that as a yes," he said, slipping a hand under my elbow to direct me to my feet. "To the garden, shall we?"
Steldor's arm snaked its way around my waist as he escorted me from the dining room, and London let his feet drop loudly to the floor, drawing our attention. He rose, his eyes connecting with mine.
"No need to keep such close watch," Steldor told him with a dismissive wave. "She's in good hands."
"That's an interesting assertion, considering your reputation," London replied, not about to let the young man out of his sight.
We walked down the corridor that London and I had earlier traversed, toward the rear of the palace and the garden that extended to the northern section of the walled city. Beyond the high stone wall stretched the forest that climbed into the foothills of the rugged Nineyre Mountains.
Steldor acknowledged the Palace Guards who were stationed at the rear entrance, then held one of the double doors open for me, but I vacillated, reluctant to go into the dusky grounds with him.
"I'm not sure this is a good idea," I fussed, still struggling for words, aware that my periodic lapses in speech might be attributed to girlish excitement, when in reality all I wanted was for the evening to be over.
"Of course it isit's a beautiful night."
"I'm a bit cold, and I neglected to bring a wrap," I said lamely. The temperature was still comfortable, but since it was the beginning of May, a chill would advance as night settled over the land.
"Just stay near to me, Princess. I assure you I'll be able to keep you warm."
I nodded, and Steldor again draped his arm about my waist to guide me onward, one of the Palace Guards alerting the others who patrolled the area that I had entered the grounds.
Stars were beginning to glimmer in the clear nighttime sky as we strolled along the stone footpaths that wove through the walled garden, dividing it into sections. Although torches burned around its perimeter, their flickering light did not penetrate the garden's depths, and we depended on the moon for guidance. Steldor led me toward one of four double-tiered white marble fountains located on the paths, and I was certain he viewed our surroundings as spectacularly romantic, even while I dreaded every impending second.