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Royce walked alone in the gardens of his ancestral home. The sun was setting, gilding every leaf and blade of grass with its last gifts of the day. As he watched night seep over the land, he looked out toward the sea, following the silver trail of the risen moon. In the stillness of the moment, there rose from deep within him the sense that he stood on the edge of something shadowy and undefined, yet momentous. Indeed, so powerful was the sensation that without thought, he raised a hand as though to seize it. The day had been long and he was tired, and thus perhaps it was that as he stood there with hand outstretched, breathing in the fragrance of stone and sea, he thought, just thought, he caught the scent of lemons . . .
Drifting on the night air, mingling with the jasmine, thyme and oleander to weave the fragrance she had known all her life here in Akora, home and prison both. How she longed to leave it, how she would miss it when she did. Kassandra sighed and laid her head on folded arms, gazing out beyond the high windows of the palace to the sea turned silver by the risen moon. Moon that cast the ribbon of a road leading . . . where? Into which of all the futures lying just beyond the next breath, the next moment? For once, she could not see it, could only feel. In the feeling, she reached out her hand and for just an instant, touched another's.
London, April 1812
Through the thin soles of her silk slippers, she felt the thickness of the Persian rugs varying with the smoothness of the polished floors over which she passed as she made her way along the corridor from her bedroom to the stairs. The curving banister was slick and cool beneath her palm. The house smelled of lemon oil, dried roses, the lavender water used to scent the linens, and faintly of vinegar, for all the drains had been cleaned the day before, as they were weekly.
The dove-gray light of morning softened every edge, blurring color that would emerge only in the full glare of day to withdraw again into shadow when night came and the lamps were lit. One night she had been there, one glorious night since setting foot on the quay at Southwark. Her first glimpse of London seen from the great river had exposed the limits of her fantasies, paltry when compared to the stunning reality. So, too, the ride through the crowded streets, brimming with people, smells not entirely or even mainly pleasant, and a din so impressive that the keeners for the dead would fall silent with envy. Never had she imagined such a place, for all that she had imagined a great deal, dreaming there in Ilius of the journey she longed to make.
Was making. She was here, glorious here, and the enormity of that had kept her wide-eyed and wakeful as all around her the house slept. Until she could bear it no longer and having dressed herself, an awkward process for all that she had practiced before arriving, came tiptoeing down to pause in the hushed hall and . . .listen. She could hear the city, only faintly to be sure, for the house was surrounded by generous lawns and gardens, and further sheltered by a high stone wall. But beyond the twittering of birds already darting after worms, the whisper of a breeze in the fragile spring leaves, and the occasional murmur of voices from the distant kitchen, she could just make out the creak of wagon wheels and the clop of hooves ringing on cobblestone streets. Delight jolted her. The sounds were proof that the city really did exist and she was really in it. She did not merely dream of following the silver ribbon of the moon road over the sea, as she had on so many nights lingering at the palace windows when she should have been abed. As she would be now but for the excitement that thrummed within her.
She laughed and twirled, the jonquil-yellow of her skirt belling out around her, her arms flung wide to embrace the new day in so wondrous a place.
So Royce first saw her. Through the high windows near the front door, the sight shimmering behind the veil of the breeze-wafted muslin curtains. The Lord of Hawkforte stopped and stared.
Kassandra, Princess of Akorathe fortress kingdom beyond the Pillars of Herculesdaughter of the royal house of Atreides, bearer of a name out of bloody legend, dancing as though round the maypole in the giddy flush of fairest spring.
He knew her at once. Had he not been aware of her arrival, he would still have guessed her name, for there was an air of the exotic in the tumble of ebony curls down her back and the sun-kissed blush of her skin. She bore a faint, highly feminized resemblance to his brother-in-law, understandably enough, as Alex was her own brother. They were both half-British through their father, but just then and despite the fashionable garb she wore, he thought her the embodiment of the mystery that had fascinated him since boyhood.
Akora. For a long time men had called it a myth yet gone in search of it all the same. Those who returned did so disappointed. Others, perhaps cursed with better luck, were never seen again. Stories abounded: Akora was a fortress island, the dwelling place of fierce warriors who slew any foreigner unfortunate enough to near their shores; it was the last refuge and ultimate glory of the selfsame race that had stormed the walls of fabled Troy; it sheltered wealth and wisdom beyond calculation; it would emerge one day from the realms of legend to challenge the world.
Little had been known about Akora except that it truly did exist. Sheltered behind impregnable cliffs, guarded by warriors who were indeed among the fiercest on earth, Akora remained inviolate. Or nearly so. In the library at Hawkforte, Royce's ancestral home, was a collection of artifacts believed sent from Akora by a younger son who had stumbled across the place about the time of the First
Crusade. It was even said that for some years thereafter contact had been maintained between the Fortress Kingdom and Royce's own ancestors.
Contact that had been renewed the previous year with the marriage of Alexandros, the Prince of Akora who was also Marquess of Boswick, and the Lady Joanna Hawkforte, herself the daughter of a house more ancient than any other in England. The union had thrilled the ton, which for months had seemed unable to talk of anything else. Had they known the true circumstances attending the wedding, they would have chattered even more. But only a select few suspected the truth, and even they could not be sure.
Such obscurity suited Royce perfectly. He preferred to work in the shadows. Yet just then he stood revealed in sunlight, a figure of such masculine perfection that, catching sight of him, Kassandra stopped suddenly and stared over her shoulder, half turned away, half turning to him, suspended between one and the other.
Hawkforte. She knew him at once though she had seen him only once. No, not true, seen him only once in person and then only a glimpse. Hawkforte yet not Hawkforte, the man she recalled who had survived a captivity the previous year that would have killed most anyone else. He looked . . . like the sun, she decided, entrancing yet dangerous to gaze at directly. His hair was golden, untainted by powder, and thick, just brushing the collar of his morning coat. His features were compelling, powerful and unrelenting. He was as tall as her brother, which was tall indeed, and he had the same broad sweep of shoulders and torso. He stood with the easy grace of a warrior, likely unaware of the perfect balance of his body. But he was aware in other ways . . . of her and, she saw just then, of them both caught in that moment.
She was a young, unmarried woman alone in the hall of a house not her own, confronted at an unfashionably early hour by the arrival of a man to whom she had never been introduced. She might reasonably withdraw and summon a servant to deal with him. Indeed, Royce expected her to do exactly that.
She turned fully toward him, regarding him through the muslin curtains. Her skirt still swung slightly with her exuberance. A faint smile touched her mouth. Without hesitation, she walked across the marble floor and opened the door to him.
He was a sensible man, but just then sense seemed to be deserting him. In the back of his mind he made note not to expect the Princess Kassandra to do the expected.
"Good morning, Your Highness. My apologies for disturbing you at such an hour. I am Lord Royce Hawkforte, Joanna's brother."
She offered her hand. He bent over it as she said, "Let us not stand on formality, my lord. After all, we are family. Please call me Kassandra."
He straightened and she saw the surprise in his hazel eyes. "Oh, dear," she said, "is that too forward? Should I not have asked you to call me by my given name? It is just that we do not put so much store in ceremony on Akora."
"No, it's fine," he assured her. "And please call me Royce. For all that I spent several months on Akora"he discreetly avoided mention of the unpleasant nature of that stay"I know little of it, but I tend to find formality tiresome and am glad to know it is not so much the custom there."
He released her but reluctantly, and promptly clasped both his hands behind him as though preventing himself from reaching out for her again.
A pleasing, female awareness stirred within Kassandra. She knew what that signified, of course, for no young woman growing up in the sensual atmosphere of Akora could possibly not know. Yet she was startled all the same, for no such awareness had ever come upon her before. It made her look at the Englishman warily.
Unless she was mistaken, the same surprised caution lingered in his eyes. Already they had something in common.
"What amuses you?" he asked as she smiled.
She laughed, a little flusteredshe who had never been flustered in her lifeand shook her head. "Nothing. I am just very excited to be here."
"Joanna and Alex were both delighted when word came that you would be allowed to visit."
"No more delighted than I was myself, I am certain. I have dreamed of such a trip for years. My eldest brother, Atreus, is a wise and good leader but he does tend to be quite protective. At any rate, it is very rare for anyone to leave Akora."
"So I understand. May I ask what persuaded the Vanax Atreus to allow you to come?"
"He has complete trust in Alex and Joanna, of course, and they are expecting their first child. It was only natural that I should wish to be with them at such a time. Besides, conditions seem to be calmer than they were a few months ago."
"They do seem that way," Royce agreed, but doubt showed in his eyes.
Her eyebrows rose. "You have not come at such an hour with some dire news, have you? Has Napoleon suddenly launched a fleet toward England's shores? Are we about to be invaded? No, wait, I know! It is that fellow, what is his name, Byron? The one who wrote the poem of which everyone is speaking. He has foresworn poetry and vows to never write another line. Is that it?"
Royce shook his head in masculine befuddlement. Her speech was quicksilver, her mind seemingly the same. She challenged him to keep up with her.
"How can you possibly know about Byron? That poem of his was only published a few weeks ago and you have scarcely arrived."
"Ah, but Joanna sent me a copy with the clothes she so kindly arranged. I read it on the voyage here."
"I see, and what did you think of it?"
"He is being hailed as the poet of the age, is he not?"
"I suppose. At any rate, all society is agog. But you have not told me, what is your opinion of the work itself?"
"It is very . . . vivid."
"It is that."
"And romantic. People are saying it is romantic, are they not, and Byron the man as well?"
"People say all sorts of things. What do you think of it?"
"I think the poet rather taken with himself, if you must know. But as I am looking forward to going about in society, I shall probably refrain from announcing that to all and sundry."
"A diplomat," Royce said with a grin.
"Do I perceive you are no more enamored of Lord Byron than I?"
"In time, should he ever emerge from his absorption with himself, he might produce something worth reading."
"I shall not wait with bated breath. At any rate, it is good to know I am not alone in my view of him. But come, I am rude to keep you standing in the hall. The servants are awake, I heard them in the kitchens. Perhaps we can beg tea."
"A princess beg?"
"Beseech? Entreat? Courteously request? Is none of that the done thing?" She sighed, anticipating his answer. "I have so much to learn."
"No," Royce murmured, looking at the play of light over the fullness of her mouth. "I rather think you don't." All gallantry, he offered his arm.
They were seated in the morning room overlooking the gardens when Alex found them. Royce stood as his brother-in-law entered. "I hope you will forgive me for coming round so early but we need to talk."
Dressed casually in trousers and a white cambric shirt left loose at the neck and with the cuffs rolled up, Alex looked at ease but his eyes were as perceptive as ever. He missed nothing, as Kassandra reminded herself.
"Of course, Royce, you are always welcome. I see you have met Kassandra."
"We introduced ourselves," she said blithely. "No doubt a dreadful breach of protocol but somehow we've survived. How is Joanna?"
"Fine, or so she claims, and I have to admit, she looks it. She is awake. I'm sure she would welcome your company."
That was rather pointed but she supposed it meant Royce's early arrival really did signify something of importance. Much as she would have liked to linger, Kassandra was far too schooled in the ways of men to do other than nod demurely. She stood, smoothing her skirt. "I will take tea with her and we will chatter about all sorts of suitably female matters, nothing too serious or substantial, of course, for that would tax our brains."