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Essence of Oleander Part 1 PDF Print E-mail
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Written by RHunt   
The sounds of heavy rain could be heard outside the carriage along with the whistle of harsh winds. If it hadn’t been for Kerani leaning against me, I would have froze. We were both wrapped up in our cloaks and huddled together. Across the carriage from us was a man that we had only recently came into acquaintance with. Endre was the name he had offered to us. Both Kerani and Endre were from the southern lands of Gyose. Tanned skin and black hair were common among their people. Unfortunately, my own people had long ago started farming their tribes for servants and slaves.

Kerani had only come to work for me for three years. She spoke very little of the common language, but I was well versed in her language. My father is very scholarly and ensured that all of his children were as well. Not only did he test me the ways of the books, but always how to defend myself during battle. It was not something that I was suppose to demonstrate to anyone as it was unbefitting for a lady. Yet he told me that there wouldn’t always be a knight around to protect me.

As we traveled deeper into the war torn lands of Seria, I knew that those lessons may one day be brought to good use. My betrothed, whom I have never met before, had asked that I be brought to him a year early. He explained that the war in Seria would only worsen in the next few years and that it wouldn’t be safe for me to travel. Lord Blaine Stavros was, from what I understood, a brave knight and an advisor to the king. He had also been the first born son to Duke Manten Stavros and with his father’s recent death had just gained a vast majority of lands and riches.

Our marriage had been arranged when I was two months old. Lord Manten and my father had once worked closely together during a previous war. They kept in contact for years afterwards and Lord Manten often joked that if my father ever had a daughter that he would betroth his first born son to her. Being the fourth child, after my mother had three sons, my father discovered that Lord Manten had been quite serious.

Of course, my father accepted the proposal as he was nothing more then a knight with a manor under another man’s rule. To betroth me to a future duke would not only elevate my status but my father’s as well. Though my father had checked throughout the years to ensure that Lord Manten was not teasing him. Always Lord Manten would respond with, “I shall see you at the wedding.”

There had been rumors that my father had saved Lord Manten’s life during the war more than once. My father had never admitted to doing anything for him, but it was the only logical reason that a woman of my standing could wed such a man.

I was not as excited as I should have been. I knew that wedding a duke would mean a lot of changes in the way that I presented myself. Having grown up with three brothers and no sisters, I had to deal with servants and my mother constantly telling me to behave like a lady. I wore all my brothers’ hand me downs until the age of fourteen, when my mother could no longer stand the sight of me in pants. She informed me that now that I looked like a lady I had to dress as one.

My wedding date had been set for my eighteenth birthday, but that day came and went. Lord Blaine asked my father to keep me until it was safer to travel and added that he suspected it wouldn’t be until after my twenty third birthday. It had been strange that he would make such a wild guess as to when the war would be over. Though it was more of a dispute back then as no one had died in the name of their country.

Many believed that Lord Blaine was looking for a way to escape his marriage with me. Most likely he was buying himself time with his father’s ear, but when his father past he knew that there would be no way out. Which was why he had summoned me three months after his father’s death. There were other rumors that Lord Blaine had a lover, which was also the reason he was trying to keep me in Requanar.

Whatever the case may be, I was more than happy to stay in my home country. I would have gladly married him and remained with my mother and father while my husband returned to Seria. He could have fathered as many bastards as he wanted and ignored my presence completely. Now, I would have to live in his home in Seria and listen to all the rumors about his lovers that he had taken in the very bed I slept in.

Kerani moaned in her sleep and it brought me back to reality. I looked over at the dark haired beautiful woman who was asleep on my shoulder. She was the most lovely girl that I had ever laid eyes upon. My father told me that I needed a servant girl to care for me, and though I am thoroughly against the slave trade, he demanded I purchase a Gyosian. I knew all about their beliefs of loyalty. Most women chose to keep a Gyosian servant because they would rather die a long, tortured death then ever tell anything that would hurt their mistress’ name. Whether that is true or not has yet to be proven to me. Kerani could only speak to me, my brothers, and my father as no one else spoke her language.

My eyes wandered up to Endre who was wide awake. Though he was a servant to Lord Blaine, he carried a sword and wore chain mail armor. Obviously, Blaine had trained him to be a protector. He spoke perfect common, which proved to me that he had either been taken from Gyose at a young age or he had been born into slavery. Considering that he spoke the Gyose language, I had concluded that he had been taken young. As most Gyosian infants were snatched from their mother’s arms the moment they were born. The infants were given to noble women to learn how to raise a child until they were able to be sold into labor.

Endre’s dark eyes embedded themselves into my own whenever I looked upon him. He spoke rarely, and most often it was to give me directions. I turned my gaze away and leaned my head against the carriage.

“You should sleep like your chamber maid. It will be a long night.” Endre’s voice nearly made me jumped through the top of the carriage.

“I can not sleep in a carriage.”

He looked at the window, but the curtains had been pulled and he seemed reluctant to open them. Endre was around my height as most males of his race were, but he had a strong, masculine body from years of hard labor, no doubt. His hair was long and kept pulled back. Kerani and he had had a couple of discussions, though he mostly answered her questions as briefly as possible.

“When will we arrive?” I asked and heard the sounds of several horses outside the carriage. I knew they were the escorts that had been sent with the carriage. They were all knights who were under Lord Blaine’s commands. None looked privileged to have to escort his future wife to the city. It was most likely considered a meager errand far below their skills.

“Tomorrow afternoon.” Endre answered me.

I propped myself up as I had been bent over, which forced Kerani’s head to drop. Her eyes opened and she looked between Endre and myself. I could tell by the look on her face that she was trying to remember where she was.

“Have you not slept?” Kerani asked me in her language.

I shook my head in response.

Bouncing on her bottom, she was on the other side of the carriage and patted her lap. “Lay your head down.”

“I won’t be able to sleep.”

“Try.” She reached out her hand and stroked my hair which coaxed my head downward.

I did not like it when others were right, but as it turned out I was exhausted. The trip from my home country to Seria was a week long journey. It was also highly stressful because of the ongoing war. Lord Blaine was a known figure among our enemies and killing me would have been a tactic that they could easily exploit to get to him. Though, I highly doubted he would care either way.

As Kerani stroked my hair, I could hear her singing a song in her native tongue. I barely made out any of the words as my mind began to drift away. It would be my greatest of pleasures for this journey to finally come to an end. This is what I thought as my mind finally gave way to sleep.
---***---

With the carriage windows still drawn, I could only tell that it was daytime by the sun that peeked around its edges. Endre had demanded that we keep them shut as to not give a clear shot to any archer assassins that we might pass by. This explanation only terrified me, though I was composed enough to not show any fear.

When I had awoken that morning, I had overheard Endre and Kerani flirting. It had been such a sweet display that I pretended to be asleep until there was a pause. Then I rubbed my face to inform them of my impending consciousness. Endre fell into silence though Kerani tried to continue speaking with him. She knew that I would not mind, but Endre seemed to believe that I would be offended if he spoke out of turn. It was the situation that he had grown up in. Gyosian servants spoke only when they were asked to and it would always be in direct answers.

Kerani had come straight from Gyose when my father purchased her. She had been “trained” by a slave handler, which meant she was beaten into submission until she had no fight left in her. For the first year, she had flinched whenever I raised my hand or made any sudden movements. Now, she was more like my friend then anything else. Though she still had to give me the proper respect in front of others.

Not speaking the common tongue, she got away with a lot of improper behavior. She had been caught saying things to me that a servant should not, when she had not tested a nobleman or woman to see if they understood her language. My father would always apologize and inform them she would be punished, though she never was.

A sudden knock on the top of the carriage caused both Kerani and me to jump slightly. Endre held back a grin, “We will be arriving at the estate in the next few moments.”

With that he leaned forward and opened the curtains so I could see the estate as we entered. Once we past through the gates it was mostly woods for several minutes. Then the meadow began and I could see the large stables and a lake in the distance. Flower beds lined the road until they reached the large white manor of the Stavros estate. Endre opened the door once the carriage came to a stop, and assisted me out. My eyes wandered over my new four story home and to the servants that had gathered on the front steps.

A woman with white hair and a thin build immediately approached me, “Lady Valora, allow me to welcome you to the Stavros estate. I am the house’s head servant, Leora.” Her smile widened as she looked me over. “My word, you are lovely.”

Her fingers went to my strawberry blonde locks that laid over my shoulders and then she seemed to inspect my hands. In the past years, my father had ordered me to stay inside so I had lost much of my coloring. It was considered unladylike to have a tan. My mother said that I should look like a porcelain doll, and I was very nearly there.

“Thank you, Leora.” I said ignoring her rude inspection.

She grinned, “These are all the house’s servants.” Her hand waved to show off the people standing on the stairs. “I am afraid Lord Blaine left a couple of days ago. The king summoned him to the castle and we do not know when he will return.” She rolled her eyes, “Look at me just rambling. You must be exhausted from your journey. Let me take you to your bedroom.”

I followed behind her and knew that Kerani wasn’t far behind. A couple other servants had grabbed my belongings and were making their way to my room.

“You’ll stay here until after the wedding. Lord Blaine has asked me to arrange all the details, but if you would like to be a part of it, I would gladly step aside, milady.” Leora opened the door and allowed me to step in.

“No, I am sure you will do a wonderful job.” I said looking around the room.

My own bedroom had been larger, but it would be satisfactory. A white silk curtain hung around a large tub in the corner of the room near the fireplace. My bed was on the opposite side of the room with a canopy of the same white silk. A bear skin rug covered the center of the floor and there was a writing desk near the window. The servants went to work putting away my clothing into the wardrobe.

“I do that.” Kerani told them in her heavy Gyose accent.

“You take a nap, milady. I will come for you when lunch is ready.” Leora bowed to me and exited the room with the other servants.

“Do you think Lord Blaine is a hunter?” Kerani asked as she started to unpack my belongings.

I looked down at the bear skin rug, “Someone was or is.” I said as I made my way over to my bed and sat down to watch her work.

“You were ready to meet him, weren’t you? Had your courage gathered and now you have to do it all over again.” Kerani hung up my favorite red dress.

“Yes. I just want to meet him and get this all over with. I hope that after we are wed, he will leave me be for the most part. He may do whatever he pleases and leave me to…”

“Don’t say such things, Valora. You don’t know the circumstances behind the delay. Basing your opinions of a person on rumors is very childish.”

I sighed and pulled off my shoes, “I was meant to marry him four years ago. Interestingly enough, he did not summon me here until after the man who could cancel our betrothal died. Those are facts.”

She nodded her head as she hung up another dress, “Facts yes, but not whole truths.”

I didn’t want to argue with her any longer and just laid back on my bed. After several deep breathes, I chuckled.

“What do you find so humorous over there?”

“I heard your not-so-subtle act of coquetry with Endre this morning.”

She burst out with laughter, “You little eavesdropper!”

“I was in the very same carriage as you. That hardly counts as eavesdropping.” I playfully defended myself and sat up to see the dark pink blush across her cheeks.

Standing up, she walked over to the bed and gently pushed on my shoulders. To allow her the pleasure of pushing me down, I released the tension in my arms and fell to the bed. “He is handsome, is he not?” She asked and sat down beside me.

“There is no question. Though he is very quiet.”

“It’s a rule that even I was taught. However, I was lucky enough to receive a mistress that didn’t enforce it.”

I frowned. She knew that I despised being called her mistress, even though it was true.

“I apologize.” She sighed and looked at the wall across from her. “I know that it is too early for me to be asking this, but do you think that Lord Blaine allows marriages amongst the slaves?”

I sat up and patted her knee, “I do not know, but if he doesn’t I will try my best to change his mind.”

She smiled and stood back up to finish her task. Kerani had told me that she was taken from her tribe three days before her bonding ritual with her lover. She had wanted to be married and was afraid that now that she was a slave it would never happen to her. I knew that she was slightly jealous of my upcoming marriage, even though I had never met the man before.

Laying my head down, I closed my eyes and allowed myself to fall into a shallow sleep. I wasn’t exceptionally tired, but the week long journey had taken much of my energy.

---***---

Leora came for me and left Kerani to organizing my bedroom. I informed her that I wanted to bathe when I returned so she went to fetch some water to boil in the fireplace. Leora lead me down the flight of stairs and through the large double doors near the front entrance. It was the dining hall, which was three times as large as the one I spent my life eating in.

The table stretched from one side of the room to the other. All the walls had small serving tables surrounding the large main table. A beige table cloth covered it and golden candle sticks with white gardenia bases adorn the table. Two places were set at the end of the table, and I sat at the side. The person who would be sitting at the head had yet to be announced.

Leora seated me and then disappeared into the kitchen. I was left in the dining hall with a male servant whom I was unfamiliar with. He poured me a glass of white wine and then returned to his position at the kitchen entrance.

One of the double doors opened and I turned my head to watch a tall, dark haired male enter. His hair was cut short though several locks hung over his forehead. He wore his tanned pants, black boots, and a gray riding coat. I knew that this was the riding attire of a nobleman so I tried to stand.

“No, please, stay seated.” His deep voice insisted. “You must be Lady Valora.” There was a grin on his lips and his eyes were dead locked on me as he came to stand at the head of the table. “You… you are quite lovely.” He sat down.

“Thank you, and whom might you be?”

He smacked his forehead, “I am Lord Durril, Blaine’s younger brother.” Jumping to his feet, he came to stand next to me and offered me his hand. I placed my own in his palm and he kissed my knuckles briefly. “Forgive my manners.” He sat back down. “Excuse my appearance, I was out on business most of the morning.”

“Only if you will excuse mine. I’ve been traveling all week and was just roused from a nap.”

Durril’s gorgeous face broke out in a full smile, “Well, aren’t we just a sorry bunch.”

“Lord Durril.” Leora walked into the dining hall, “I apologize for not being here to introduce you.”

“It’s alright, Leora. We seemed to have managed.” Durril smiled at me again and I nodded.

She smacked her hands together, “Then I will bring out your lunch.”

“Thank you, Leora.” Durril said without ever taking his eyes off me. His constant stare was both flattering and uncomfortable. “Was your trip without any difficulties?”

“It went very well, thank you.” I looked down to my plate, hoping to break his stare.

“I am sorry that my brother couldn’t have been here to greet you himself. Unfortunately, his duties dictate that he is away from the estate quite often.”

I gave a gentle nod, “I understand.”

“He is eager to meet you.”

“Oh? I was under the impression that he was delaying my arrival so that he could put an end to our engagement.”

Durril swallowed hard, it was all the information that I needed. Even if his words would have informed me of the opposite, I would have known they were a lie. “I wish that I could tell you differently, milady. However, it is true that Blaine had no desire to wed you nor does he now.”

Leora entered the room and filled our soup bowls up with a broth from a silver pot. She then placed the pot in front of us and returned to the kitchen.

Taking a sip from my wine glass, I could tell that Durril was waiting for my response. “I had thought you would lie to me, but I appreciate your honesty. I can not say that I am too thrilled about wedding a man that I have never met either.”

He shook his head as he poured us both some more wine, “You do not understand the circumstances. It is not because he did not know you or perhaps it is. There were rumors that…” He placed the wine bottle on the table, “I should not speak of such things. I may give my brother the appearance of being what he is not.”

“No, please tell me.”

Durril sighed, “There were rumors that you were terribly homely, milady.”

I believe that my jaw dropped in that instance and I just stared at him for what seemed to be an eternity.

“So homely that your father had to purchase you a Gyose servant just so you could have a playmate.” He looked nervous and tapped his right foot under the table.

I just continued to stare at him.

“Obviously, milady, that is far from the truth. I apologize for bringing this matter up, I should of never spoken out of turn.”

“How… how could such a rumor start?”

He shrugged, “My father use to tell us how unattractive your father was and that your mother had married up when it came to appearances. Of course, others heard of this and I suppose that eventually the rumor began to speak of your own beauty… or lack thereof.”

I picked up my spoon and began to sip my soup. No longer did I want to speak on the subject and tried to ignore Durril. He seemed to sense my distress with the situation and remained silent for a few moments.

“It’s a rumor that holds no truth, milady.” He said after Leora brought us our chicken and asparagus. He cleared his throat, “I am sure your own people had falsehoods about why he was not sending for you.”

“They said that he had a lover and was trying to wed her instead.” I mumbled as I cut up my piece of chicken.

Durril remained silent and seemed almost oblivious to what I had said.

“That’s true, isn’t it?”

He said nothing to me and concentrated on his food.

“Are they still lovers?”

His eyes looked up from his plate to me, “No, her father grew tired of Blaine’s promises to end his engagement with you and wed her to another. He does not know that they shared a bed, otherwise he may have been forced into…” Durril bit his bottom lip, “Milady, I am sorry. I should not speak of such things in front of you nor should I inform you of my brother’s private matters.”

I nodded, “It’s quite alright. When I heard that he had a lover, I assumed that they had shared such intimacies. Why did Blaine not choose to use that in order to wed her?”

“Our father would have disowned him. He would be without the estate now, even though he would have been with the woman he claimed to love.” Durril shrugged, “It is a sacrifice that I would of taken. Not that I have the estate to give away.” He chuckled, “If he had done so, then you would of probably come here to wed me.”

I didn’t find anything he said humorous and only continued to eat my meal.

We fell into silence once again until a small desert pastry was brought out to us. “I feel I should say something pleasant about my brother now.”

I looked up from my food to him.

“Blaine is very much the gentlemen, milady. I know that you will want for nothing as his wife, especially when he sees how beautiful you are. I was told by his former lover that he is a romantic at heart and I am sure that you two will have many long, happy years together.” Durril watched me eat my pastry. “Although, my brother would rather kill himself then to show me or any other man his softer side.”

“Lady Valora.” I heard Kerani at the double doors, “Bath now.” She tried to speak in the common tongue, unfortunately it sounded like she was giving me orders.

“I will be there shortly.” I said in her language and she bowed before exiting.

“You speak Gyose?” Durril said in a voice that told me he was impressed.

I nodded, “I speak eight languages. My father ensured that I was well versed in language, history, and mathematics.”

“And swordplay or so I have heard.” He grinned.

“How could you of heard that?”

“Our father told us that Sir Crystek sent him a letter on your skills and that was listed among them.”

I rose an eyebrow, “I wonder why he would do such a thing. He always told me to never inform anyone of my unladylike abilities.”

“Your father has always been afraid that my father would change his mind about the engagement. He spent that last twenty two years explaining to your father that he would not and that this was no hoax. Which was probably why he would not give into Blaine’s demands to marry another.” Durril hadn’t touched his pastry, “You said something about unladylike abilities, you have more then one?”

I smiled, “I also said that I wouldn’t inform anyone about them.”

“Come now, I’ve offered information that could get me into quite a bit of trouble with my brother. I think it’s only fair, don’t you?”

With a chuckle, I shook my head, but answered him anyway. “I can climb trees, fish, ride a horse bareback….hmm, I’ve probably been in more mud fights than any male on the planet. Oh, I didn’t start wearing dresses until I was fourteen.”

Durril waved his hand at me, “Stop, stop.” He said as he laughed, “Are you telling me…” He was laughing so hard, he couldn’t talk. I had no idea what was so funny. “Are you trying to tell me…” He took a deep breath, “that you enjoy many of the activities reserved for males?”

“Yes. I have three older brothers and no sisters. I didn’t stand a chance.”

“My brother is going to love you.” He said as he stood up, “I have to finish my work, Lady Valora. I will see you at dinner, I hope. It was such a pleasure to finally meet you.” He kissed my hand and left the room.

I stood up when he was gone and headed up to my bedroom to inform Kerani of my meal with Blaine’s brother. I also wanted to enjoy that bath that she had prepared for me.
---***---

I heard what sounded like a thousand horses galloping toward the manor. It was dark in my room and my eyes flickered open trying to decide the difference between reality and the dream world. When I was certain that the horses were part of reality, I threw the blankets off me and walked to the window.

In the distance, I could see the approaching shadows of at least thirty horsemen. The guards near the manor’s entrance didn’t appear to be alarmed and stood perfectly still. Torches were burning around the outside of the manor to guide the horsemen towards us and I could clearly see the entry way of the manor.

When the group arrived in front of the entrance, one of the guards walked over to the man in the lead. He wore full plate armor including a helmet so I couldn’t see what he looked like. He dismounted his horse and allowed the guard to take the reigns from him. I watch the guard take the horse towards where I knew the stables were. The knight who had dismounted began to speak to another man in the party. The horses were so loud, I couldn’t understand what was being said.

Suddenly, they all flipped around and took off into the distance, and the knight remained in front of the house. My heart pounded when I questioned if this was Blaine. When the guard who had taken his horse returned, I received my answer.

“Has she arrived?” The deep voice asked.

The horses could still be heard in the distance, but their loud pounding hooves were slowly fading.

“Yes, milord. She arrived this afternoon.” The guard told him.

The knight looked towards the stables, “I suppose it’s too late to catch up with Lieutenant Gerik.” He jested.

“The horse is being brushed down as we speak, milord.”

I heard him exhale deeply before he removed his helmet. Though, I could barely make out his features because of the shadows the torch light cast.
“Did you see her?”

“No, milord, I was not on duty at the time.”

“Have you heard anything?”

“If you mean have I heard if she is as unattractive as they say, then no, milord, I have not.” The guard patted his shoulder. They were obviously friends. “You should go to bed and find out for yourself in the morning. She’ll be here. She’ll be here for the rest of her life.”

He looked up to my bedroom window at that moment. It was as if he had felt my eyes upon him. I stood frozen in the window, though I wasn’t certain if he could see me.

“Yes, she’s in the room you specified.” The guard told him, “If you are planning on taking a peek, you should pray she is not a light sleeper.”

“I’d take the armor off first.” He looked down from the window. “Besides this has been driving me insane since I summoned her. I don’t think I will be able to sleep until I know exactly how homely she is, Amon. Rumors can exaggerate.”

“They can lie too.” Amon, the guard, said.

“She’ll be practically in the next room, I can’t sleep knowing that I could have my answer this easily.”

“And what if she is the most hideous woman on earth? Are you going to ignore your father’s wishes? Are you going to run away?”

He didn’t give Amon an answer and ran into the manor.

I jumped into bed and turned my face towards the window so that he would have to enter the room to view me. After fifteen minutes, I was beginning to believe that he had changed his mind and had started to drift to sleep. That was when I heard my door squeak open followed by a mumbled curse, which I assumed was towards the squeaky door.

He seemed to be tip toeing towards my bed and he was extremely quiet. Had I actually been asleep, he probably would of made it without ever awakening me. When his shadow covered my face, I tried my hardest to not grin and keep a sleeping face. I heard him exhale deeply as if in relief and head towards the door.

“So, am I homely?” I asked and heard something slam against the ground which I assumed was his feet after he jumped with a start.

“You scared the hell out of me.” He snapped in a whisper.

I grinned but kept my eyes closed, “I asked a question.”

He was silent for several long moments and I was beginning to think he might of left the room. Turning over onto my back, I sat up and could still make out his shadow in the middle of the room.

“Are you not going to answer me, Lord Blaine?”

“Did you hear my conversation with the guard?” He asked removing himself from the sneaking position to stand erect in front of my bed.

“Do you think anyone in the manor could still be asleep after a herd of horses came thundering up the way?”

“Do you always answers questions with questions?”

I crossed my arms, “Do you?”

There was a deep chuckle that came from him which told me that I was amusing him, “I apologize for awakening you.”

“You should apologize for making me wait for four years while you tried to convince your father to end our engagement on a rumor that I was homely.”

He chuckled again, “Alright, I apologize for that as well.”

“Very well. If you are finished I would like to go back to sleep. Besides it’s hardly proper for you to be in my room this late. Think of what the servants may think if they saw you sneak out at this hour.” With a wave of my hand, I laid back down and closed my eyes. A little sense of pride filled my chest as I reviewed what I thought was a clever plan.

After sometime I didn’t hear the sounds of anyone leaving and I sat back up to find him standing at the end of my bed. His hands were on the footboard and he stood stiff.

“Why are you still here, Lord Blaine?” I ran my fingers through my hair to brush it back away from my face.

He was silent for several long moments, “Would you be inclined to walk out to the lake with me? It’s lovely this time of night.”

“First and foremost, I am in my sleeping gown and tired. Second of all, it is hardly an appropriate situation. Thirdly, you have just returned from a long trip, I think it would be best if you went to sleep.”

“Already speaking as if you are my wife, I see.” He crossed his arms, “No one will see you. I think it would be a nice way for us to come to know each other without the restraints of proper etiquette. I find they get in the way of knowing the real person.”

“The real person that I am is exhausted. I, too, arrived from a long journey today and though you may be use to it, I am not. Now, milord, I bid you goodnight.” I laid back down and closed my eyes again.

I heard him chuckle from the footboard, “Goodnight, Lady Valora.” He whispered before the sounds of my bedroom door closing filled the room.

---***---
“Wake up.” Kerani shook my shoulder.

“A little while longer.” I mumbled and covered my head with the blanket.

She giggled and pulled the blanket down, “We aren’t in your father’s home anymore, Valora. You can’t sleep in like this. Lord Blaine arrived home last night and he and Lord Durril are waiting for you in the dining hall.”

My eyes turned to her and I sighed loudly, “Tell them I am still exhausted from my trip.”

Again she giggled, “You can’t put off meeting him. It’s going to happen sooner or later.”

“It happened last night when he arrived.” I sat up in my bed and she finished pulling the blankets off of me. “I heard him come home and ask about my homeliness to one of the guards. He then snuck into my room while I was pretending to be asleep to see if the rumors were true.” I had told Kerani about the rumors after my lunch with Durril.

“Not only was that childish on his part, but it was quite improper. What if one of the servants caught him sneaking out?” She grabbed my upper arm and pulled me out of bed and into a standing position.

“That is what I told him.” I said as I watched her scurry across the room to grab a dark green dress from the wardrobe. “Did you see him?”

“Lord Blaine?”

“Yes, it was dark, I could barely make out his features.”

Kerani grinned, “Yes, I saw him.” She brought the dress over to me and began to remove my sleeping gown.

“Well?”

“You’ll have to find out for yourself. I am not going to take all the magic out of your first true meeting. And do not mention what he did last night in front of his brother. That is something best left between the two of you.”

I rolled my eyes and stepped into my dress. “I just want to know if he has the right to judge me based on appearances alone.”

“Yes, he does.” She teased and began to tie my dress shut. “Now, do you want your hair up or partly down?”

“It’s warm, let’s place it up. Perhaps a few loose curls.” I said as she led me over to the mirror and sat me down. “Did you spend more time with Endre last night?” I asked her as she began to brush out my hair. I could see her smile in the mirror. “Is that a yes?”

“Such a thing to talk about.” Her smile widened, “Yes, we shared a lunch out by the lake. Though we were suppose to be bringing water to the stable boy.”

“That’s not something you would normally do?”

“I know, Endre asked me if I wanted to join him on the walk. I, of course, said yes.”

I smiled and watched as she placed pins into the bun she had created on the top of my head. “Doing chores that are below you to be with a man. I never thought you could sink so low.” I mocked her and she laughed.

“Oh, I would and I will again!” She laughed and came to stand in front of me to look over my hair. “Lovely, what do you think?”

I nodded after I looked at the loose bun and curls and stood while she went to fetch my shoes.

“Now, remember, Valora…”

“I know. Act like a lady and don’t mention last night.”

“I was going to say not to eat like a starved beggar, but I suppose that falls under acting like a lady.” Kerani kneeled down and helped me step into my shoes.

Crossing my arms, I frowned. “I do not eat like a starved beggar.”

“You and your brothers had speed eating contests every morning for breakfast since I arrived. These two men are not your brothers, remember that.”

I grinned and released my arms from their fold, “How could I forget?”

Kerani looked up at me, “Just don’t and everything will be alright. Now…” She stood up and took a couple steps back. “Perfect. Only slightly homely.” She winked at me then rushed me over to the door and down the hallway.
---***---

As I reached the dining hall, Durril was the only one inside. He smiled at me and greeted me with a kiss to my knuckles. I didn’t bother sitting down because the table was not yet set.

“Blaine just stepped out for a moment.” He told me and pivoted back and forth on the balls of his feet to his heels. “Did you sleep well?”

“Yes, I did, thank you.” I looked at Leora as she exited the kitchen with the plates and silverware.

“I am so sorry, milord. It must have slipped my mind.” She continued to apologize as she set the table.

“It’s quite alright, Leora. None of us were prepared to be seated anyway.” Durril patted her shoulder as she walked past him.

“Lady Valora, good morning.” Blaine’s voice said from behind me.

Durril grinned at me as I turned around and allowed Blaine to kiss my hand. “Lady Valora, this is my brother, Blaine.”

Both Blaine and Durril stood about a hands spread taller then me. Blaine, however, had the masculine mass of a warrior and his hair was slightly longer. I couldn’t tell in the dark from the night before, but they both looked remarkably similar. There was no denying that the two men were related. Both had sharp squared jaws, dark hair, and deep brown eyes.

“Pleasure to meet you.” I said with a smile.

“You look lovely this morning.” Blaine returned my smile.

I gave a gentle nod, “Yes, my lady-in-waiting told me that I am only slightly homely today.”

Both men seemed to choke on their own tongues before Leora announced that the table was ready. Blaine walked ahead of us to the table and Durril playfully smacked my arm. He didn’t know about my meeting with his brother the night before and most likely thought that I had given him away. Blaine, on the other hand, probably didn’t want his brother to know that he had snuck into my bedroom to take a peek.

“You two should take breakfast out to the lake.” Durril suggested.

Blaine nodded, “Would you be inclined to do so?” He asked me.

I wanted to mention something about why he was always trying to get me out by the lake, but knew that would break our unspoken vow to not speak of last night. “It would be fine.”

Durril jumped to his feet, “I’ll tell Leora to pack it in a basket for you two.”

“Won’t you be lonely?” I asked him.

He grinned, “Thank you for your concern, but I think I will manage.” With that he spun around and entered the kitchen. He never returned to the dining hall after that.

“I have read your father’s letters about your skills. It’s a rarity for a woman to be as intelligent as she is beautiful.” Blaine broke the silence.

“Oh so I am beautiful now?”

He smirked, “I don’t believe I will ever be able to live that down, will I? You will be teasing me about it until the day I die.”

“I rarely forget an insult.”

“Should I have one of the servants take the blanket and basket out there for you?” Leora asked appearing with a beige blanket and a larger brown basket.

Blaine stood up and took the items from her. “We will be fine, thank you.” He said as he threw the blanket over his arm and headed for the front door.

I jumped from my seat and scurried after him. After all, the man did have my meal with him. I opened the front door for him since his hands were relatively full and shut it as we stepped out onto the stairs. Once we were a good distance away from the manor, I decided to ask about the lake. “Why are you so set on taking me to this lake? Do you plan to drown me?”

He looked shocked for a moment then smirked, “It’s my favorite location in the entire estate. Didn’t you have a place that you like to go to in Requanar?”

“It depends. Am I suppose to honestly answer that or make up some story about flowered trees?”

Blaine laughed, “I do not know how terribly improper the honest answer is, so I can not answer that.”

“We had a stream near our home and my brothers and I use to go fishing there. Though there were few fish in the stream so eventually we would grow bored and someone would throw a mud ball at someone else. We would always return covered in mud and get a lecture from my mother on how unacceptable it was to allow me to join in such barbaric games.” My eyes were straight ahead so I couldn’t see Blaine’s reaction to my story, though he didn’t laugh.

“That certainly was not the story I thought you would tell.” He finally said as we reached the lake. He set down the basket and began to spread out the blanket.

“What tale did you think I would tell?”

Walking over to me and the basket, he picked it up and set it on the blanket. “Something about sneaking away to see a boy or going into town without an escort.” He opened the basket and began to pull out the pastries and sausages.

I sat down on the blanket across from him with the basket between us. “I am sorry to disappoint, but my father would of slaughtered any young man that thought I was for anything other then polite conversation. And the town knew who I was and would have informed my father. It would then be me who would be slaughtered.” I watched him take out the wine glasses, though we would be drinking juice for our breakfast. He looked a little upset with what I said and I couldn’t decide why. “Is there something the matter with me playing in the mud with my brothers?”

“No, no.” He offered me a plate and napkin. “I just assumed a lady such as yourself would have had many suitors back home trying to gain your attention.”

“You mean you hoped.”

His eyes shot up to me, “Excuse me?”

“You hoped that I had some lover back home to make you feel better about your own.” I stared into his eyes and could see the answer turning over in his mind. He wasn’t entirely certain how he wanted to reply.

“Who told you about that?”

“It was the rumor being told about you, Lord Blaine. I may have been homely here, but back in Requanar, you were promiscuous.” I watched him pour some juice into my wine glass and then offer it to me.

He shook his head gently, “You do not keep many of your thoughts to yourself, do you? This is not something I would expect most women to confront me with.”

“If we are to be wed, I do not see a reason that I should hold my tongue. Unless you want me to and then I will remain perfectly silent to you for the rest of your life.”

“One extreme or the other, I see.”

I nodded and took a sip of my juice. It had a strange berry-like flavor that I couldn’t quite place. “If you don’t wish to speak to me on the matter that is fine. I just wanted you to know that it is no secret to me.”

“It does not bother you?”

I shrugged, “From what I understand, she is gone now. Unless I have misheard?”

He shook his head, “No, she is gone. Her father married her to a man far away so that she would not be stuck in the midst of the war.”

“And because he was tired of waiting for you to convince your father to end our engagement.” I added and took one of the sausages off the plate with my fingers.

Blaine smiled at both what I said and my obvious unladylike eating habit.

“It’s a picnic, I can eat with my fingers.” I defended myself.

He shrugged and scooped up a pastry in his hand, “Fair enough.”

I laughed when he took a large bite out of his pastry and watched as he had a hard time chewing it down. “Eating with your fingers doesn’t entitle you to choke yourself on your own food.”

“Doesn’t it?” He took a drink of his juice. It was silent for a moment as we ate and watched the small wavelets on the lake’s surface. “I suppose I should be glad that you already know most of the reason why I didn’t bring you here. Though, I would have thought you would be more upset.”

“There is very little that I can do. No sense in worrying myself about things that I can not change. If I had loved someone and thought you to be horribly ugly, I probably would of done the same.”

“There is a difference. I am a duke. You are marrying up in society. If I were ugly or not, you would of came out here to gain both the title and the money.”

My eyes turned from the waters to his cold staring eyes, “Are you accusing me of being a gold digger, Lord Blaine? I will have you know that I would much prefer to marry a knight like my father was.”

“I am a knight.”

“You are not of the same order as my father. I had several well off suitors who were part of the same order as he, who sent my father requests since the day they heard you were postponing our wedding. One actually came to our home and argued with my father about whether or not you would ever summon me here. And may I remind you, that my father’s order is not part of Seria’s war. I would of remained in a country that was not part of this greed obsessed bloodbath.”

Blaine’s mouth had opened slightly halfway through my speech.

“If you would prefer after we are wed, you can send me back to Requanar, where you can forget that I have ever existed. Then you may continue having as many affairs as you wish. You may even plant your seed in the belly of as many women as you can convince to join you in bed. Now, if you will excuse me, I am no longer hungry.” I tossed my sausage down and stormed off towards the manor.

The nerve of the man to accuse me of being a gold digger. I had not been a part of the entire engagement process between us. Our fathers had been the ones to arrange this whole matter.

I was surprised that Blaine did not try to stop me from walking away or even attempt to apologize. When I reached the manor, Durril stepped out and greeted me.

“Where is Blaine?”

“At the lake!” I barked and stepped inside the manor.

He came after me. Grabbing my upper arm, he stopped me from heading up the stairs. “What happened? What’s wrong?”

“Your brother has accused me of only wishing to marry him because of his money and title. I had nothing to do with this engagement and would rather be in Requanar. I was only two months old when this was all agreed upon and had no concept of greed.” I growled, “Now…” I ripped my arm from his grasp, “if you will excuse me, I am going to read in my room.”

---***---
Sitting on my bed, I had opened a poetry book and was enjoying the quiet manor. In Requanar the town was so close to the manor that I could hear all the shopkeeps and the people. I could even smell the smoke from the blacksmith shop. Here it was peaceful and I found more enjoyment in my books.

My eyes looked up at nothing in particular when I heard the sounds of someone yelling. After several more minutes, there was a loud crash and the argument continued. Kerani appeared at my bedroom door and looked over at me with worry.

“What is happening?”

“Lord Blaine and Lord Durril are arguing about you.”

“Me? Whatever for?” I tossed my legs over the side of the bed.

Kerani came to sit next to me, “Apparently Lord Blaine said something to you that he should not have. That is all that I understood.”

It could be difficult to have a servant who didn’t speak the common tongue. Most ladies-in-waiting would hear gossip and report back to their mistress, especially if it involved her or someone they knew. However, Kerani was more likely to tell me of something she saw than heard.

My door opened again, it was Leora. “Lady Valora?”

“Come in, Leora. Is everything alright?”

The elder woman stepped inside, “Lady Valora, I want to apologize to you for what Lord Blaine said.” She sighed, “I know it’s not my place to ask for forgiveness for my master, but that is such a horrible thing to say to a lady. You have been nothing but kind and…” She shook her head, “This was none of your doing and you can not be blamed for it.”

“None of my doing? You mean the engagement?”

Again her head shook, then she seemed to change her mind and nodded,. “Yes that and his loss of Maita.”

“Maita is the name of his lover, I presume.”

“Yes, milady. He loves her very deeply and blames you for not being able to wed her. It is not your fault. He should of never of allowed himself to grow attached when he has known all his life that he is engaged to another woman. His hopes ran high that Lord Manten would change his mind, but were destroyed when he died.” Leora sighed, “We weren’t suppose to speak to you about this. I felt that it was important for you to know. Please don’t tell anyone I told you.”

I nodded, “Your words are safe with me.”

She smiled and then flinched when she heard stomping footsteps in the hall.

“If you like her then you marry her!” Blaine screamed.

“If there was a possibility of convincing father to then I would. And I wouldn’t be a blind bastard like you and not see how lucky of a man I am!” Durril yelled back and then two doors were slammed shut.

Leora bowed her head and exited the room.

Kerani gave me a questioning look as she couldn’t understand what Leora was saying. I explained what she had said and saw the unhappiness in her eyes. “What a bastard!” She growled.

“This might be partly my fault.” I sighed, “I told him that I didn’t want to marry him either and that I wanted to marry a knight from my father’s order.”

“Valora!” She cried out, “Why would you say such things? Now, he thinks you blame him for ruining the life that you envisioned for yourself.”

“And shouldn’t he? He blames me for the same thing!” I realized that I had yelled and bowed my head, “I apologize, I shouldn’t raise my voice to you.”

The worry on Kerani’s face vanished, she wasn’t use to seeing me angry. “All this situation needs is some time for you both to calm down and then some apologies would be in order. After that, you will both need more time to realize that the other isn’t as bad as you each believe.”

Leaning back on the bed, I began to read my book again, while Kerani mended one of my dresses.

“It’s so quiet here, isn’t it?” She said after what seemed to be a half hour.

I smiled and looked out the window to the green meadows, “Yes, it’s lovely. I…” There was a knock at the door and Kerani went to answer it.

When she opened the door, Durril smiled down at her and then his eyes found me. “Lady Valora, I thought perhaps you would like to go riding with me. I have to check in with the guards at their posts, but there is a lot of distance between them. After that I can show you where a few berry bushes grow.”

I smiled, “I would love to join you. Allow me to better dress myself and I will be right down.”

He bowed his head and walked away from the door.

“I need my riding dress, Kerani.”

She smiled and went to fetch it from the wardrobe after she shut the door. “You be carefully riding alone with him.” She warned as she dressed me then rearranged my hair into a tighter bun.

“And why is that?”

“There is no telling why he would want to place you two in a situation where you’ll be alone.”

I sighed, “He probably just wants to make me feel at home, since Blaine clearly isn’t going to.”

“Just be careful.” She said before pushing me out the door.
---***---

I met Durril at the front door and he already had two brown horses ready for us. Since I was a lady, I had to ride sidesaddle, but luckily Durril had them place a normal saddle on the horse. At least, I could ride it the way I was meant to in between posts. Or I hoped that Durril would allow it.

We started out by speaking of the book that I was reading, though poetry did not seem to be something that held his interest. He told me a couple childhood memories that he had had with his brother. It seemed like he was trying to make Blaine seem like a good man in my eyes, though I already knew the truth of the matter.

Whenever we got to a post, he would climb off his horse and take their reports. They would go into a case that was attached to the side of his saddle and we would continue on.

“If he loved her so much then why didn’t he just marry her and lose the land?” I suddenly asked and I saw Durril wince at my question.

When I looked over he was looking ahead of us, “Without the title and the land, he would lose his position in the knight’s order and as the king’s advisor.”

“He would still be a knight though, wouldn’t he? He could perhaps earn his way up the ranks rather than having them handed to him.”

Durril nodded, “I suppose. It’s not easy to be at the top, however, and then to have to start at the bottom.”

“Why didn’t he just tell my father no after Lord Manten past?” I was playing with the reigns between my fingers and had completely forgotten that I was riding sidesaddle.

With the next post in sight, he stopped his horse which made me do so as well. “He could of just married the girl behind my father’s back and then denied the engagement to you when he died. However, Blaine wanted our father’s blessing. He has always been a man of ceremony and rituals. He knows that our father's blessing for marriage was with you and not the other woman. She is with her husband now.” Durril swallowed, “You have to understand that he is heartbroken, Valora. You have come at a rather stressful time for everyone. He knows that he has to love you and no one else, but you can’t force yourself to love someone. Especially, when your heart is broken and not ready to love again.”

I nodded, “Alright.”

Durril smiled and we began to move forward again. We got the next reports and continued on with our short journey. “I’ve always been jealous of my brother.” He grinned, “To be honest, I was rather hopeful that you were dreadfully ugly. Alas, my brother has always been the lucky one. Born first, father’s favorite, made it to knighthood, king’s advisor…” He looked over at me, “and now he will wed probably one of the most beautiful women in all of Seria.”

I ignored his compliment, “Did you try to become a knight?”

“Yes. I am not made for battle though. Father eventually put me to work here as head of the guards and Blaine asked me to stay after his death. It’s nice of him, but I think I may eventually have to journey out on my own. When I finally marry and have children, I don’t see Blaine allowing my wife and children to live in the manor.”

“Maybe he will have another house built for you. That would be the brotherly thing to do.”

Durril smiled, “If you have his ear then that might just happen.”

I winked at him, “You’ve got a deal.”

“Oh and what’s my end of the deal?”

“To find a wife, I thought.”

He laughed, “So, I have the hard part I see.”

I shook my head, “You are a wonderful man from what I have seen. I doubt it will be hard for you to find a woman that swoons whenever you walk into the room.”

“Oh, now you are flattering me, I see.” He stopped his horse and pointed to a line of bushes near the wall. “There they are.” He dismounted then helped me off my horse. “I’ll show you the best ones.”

We kneeled down in front of one bush and he pulled a couple off. “Here try these.” He put them both in my hand.

“They are a little green, aren’t they?”

“Just trust me.”

I popped one into my mouth and crushed it with my back teeth. As soon as the sour, tart flavor hit my tongue I began to spit it out.

Durril started to laugh and nearly fell over. “I am sorry, I couldn’t resist.”

I threw the other berry at him with a smile. “That was disgusting. I’ll have that flavor in my mouth for weeks now.”

“No, try this one. It should clear the taste out.” He reached over and pulled a purple berry from the next bush and offered it to me.

I looked down at it in his hand then back up to him.

“I swear it’s good.”

“You lost my trust. You eat it.”

Durril laughed and popped the berry into his mouth, then grabbed another one and offered it to me.

“How do I know it’s the same kind?”

His smile widened and he bit half the berry, then placed the other half at my mouth. I opened my mouth and he dropped it inside. It was sweet with just the right amount of tartness.

“Am I going to have to test all the berries like that from now on?”

“You’ll never gain my berry trust back.” I jested.

Durril stood up and offered me his hand which I took. “I think I can live with that.” He brushed his thumb over my bottom lip, “Your lip is stained.”

“You touched the berry to it when you put it in my mouth.” His sudden contact had made my lip shiver and I had hoped he didn’t notice.

He didn’t seem to and turned his attentions to another bush with red berries. “Blaine and I buried the seeds for all these bushes when we were eight and ten. Our father brought home a packet of berry seeds for our mother. She was going to bury them around the house, but Blaine and I kidnapped them. We wanted to hide the bushes so only we could eat the berries. So, feel lucky. You now know the secret hiding place.”

“Against the wall? How well hidden.”

He smiled at me and picked two red berries. “We were eight and ten. We thought we would find them if we just followed the wall. Unfortunately, we forgot all about them for three years and one day while we were riding just stumbled upon them.”

I laughed as he bit half the red berry and then offered it to me. He tossed it into my mouth again before I could take it. “Are you afraid I am going to bite you?”

“After what you said to my brother this morning, I wouldn’t be surprised.”

I sighed, “What did he tell you I said?”

Durril shrugged, “That you didn’t want to marry him either and would rather marry a knight from your father’s order. Also mentioned something about sending you home and that he could plant his seed in any harlot that he wanted.”

“I didn’t say harlot. I said any woman he could get into his bed… Though I guess that would only leave women that he had to pay for.”

He laughed with his lips pressed together as if he was trying to stop himself. “Not a very nice thing to say.”

“I apologize.”

He popped the other berry into my mouth without biting it, “May I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“Why… why didn’t you marry someone behind your father’s back to stop this engagement? You had other suitors.”

I looked at him for a moment, “The thought never crossed my mind. I may have had other suitors, but none would of married me without my father’s consent. They were knights of the Blood Rose Order like my father.”

He nodded, “This may seem like an odd thing to say and I hope you don’t take offence. I wish my brother had summoned you out here before his lover was wed and my father died.”

“Why is that?”

“He use to tell me that if you and Blaine didn’t seem to get along that he would have no choice but to end the engagement. He, of course, never told Blaine that because he would only summon you here to argue with you. Had that happened, I may of asked my father for the engagement to be transferred to me.”

I chuckled, “Flatterer.”

Durril smiled, “If you had been willing.”

My mouth ran dry for a moment when I realized that he was being serious, “That would have been kind of you, Durril. I would have been willing, I think.”

“To give up a duke or a knight of the Blood Rose Order for a head of the guards? I do not believe you, but I thank you for humoring me.” He turned around and headed back for his horse.

Helping me mount, we made our way back to the manor. Our horses were taken by the guards and I gave my goodbye to Durril as he had work to do.

---***---
Entering the manor, I caught Blaine coming down the stairs. He glared at me as he made his way downward and seemed to be processing what he was about to say.

“Where were you?” He asked when he reached the bottom stair.

I pointed to the door with my thumb, “Durril took me out on his rounds. I needed to get out of the manor.” He continued to stare at me, “He showed me those berry bushes that the two of you planted. Why? Was there something you needed from me?”

“Why didn’t you tell anyone that you were leaving?”

“I told Kerani where I was going. I didn’t think I had to tell anyone else.” I cocked my head to the side. He was acting strange as if he thought something had happened between Durril and me.

The harsh look on his face evaporated, “No, I don’t suppose there was anyone else to tell.” He sighed, “Come speak to me in my office.” His finger pointed to the door to my right at the end of the stairs.

The study was rather dark but Blaine fixed that by lighting some oil lamps. The walls to my left and right were covered in bookshelves. Two chairs were on either side of the door and two more in front of the fireplace on the right wall. His desk was seated at the end of the room in front of the large picture frame window with two more chairs in front of it.

“Sit down, please.” He pointed to the chair in front of the desk and took a seat behind it.

I did as I was told and waited for him to begin speaking. He seemed to be having a difficult time trying to decide where he wanted to start.

“Is this about this morning?” I asked.

He nodded, “Yes and more.” He tapped his fingers on the desk and sighed.

“Just say what is on your mind. You do not have to sugar coat your words with me.” I leaned back in my chair and crossed my arms.

Blaine looked up at me, “Very well. Who the hell do you think you are to speak to me in the manner you did this morning? I am Duke Blaine Stavros and though you may one day be, you are not my wife nor the duchess yet. I have never had someone insult me so fully in all my life. Do you honestly believe that I would wed you and then send you away? Or ‘plant my seeds’ as you put it and have bastard children?”

“You were certainly risking it with your lover.” I snapped back, though I knew I should of kept silent.

I could see Blaine’s face turning red and his hands tightened, “How dare you! You have no say in what I do until the day we are wed. I have a past just like you do and I will not spend my life having you throw my faults in my face.”

“Then don’t expect to have any say in what I do until then either. I can share my bed with all the guards…”

“Silence! You will do no such thing!” He stood up and slammed his fist down and then seemed to remember himself. Sitting back down, he took several deep breathes. “I am beginning to wonder if you are doing this just so I will break our engagement, Valora. Let me explain this to you. My father blessed our union and therefore I have no choice but to wed you. I want us, no I need us to become friends.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose, “We will be wed. You will live here on the estate. You will be the mother of my children. You will not be returning to Requanar. Do you understand?”

“I never suspected otherwise. It is you that seems to be the one who is trying to sabotage our engagement. I tried to be friendly and open with you and you called me a gold digger.”

Blaine nodded, “I did and I apologize for saying such an offense thing.”

“Then I, too, apologize. I was just aiming to hurt and insult you with what I said. There are things in this life that are better left unspoken, and what I said after you insulted me was one of them.” I had folded my hands in my lap and was looking down at them.

When I looked up, Blaine held half a grin on his face. “Thank you, Valora. That is all.”

I bowed my head and stood from my chair. I almost turned to leave, but stopped myself and turned back to him. He was writing on a piece of paper and the words ‘Dear Sweet Maita’ caught my eye briefly. I ignored them and decided to speak my mind, “You don’t have to love me.”

Blaine stopped writing and looked up at me. He wasn’t even trying to hide the letter from me. “Excuse me?”

“You love someone else and you are heartbroken that you couldn’t be with her. I understand that. Don’t believe that I think one day you will fall in love with me. I am not a naïve, stupid little girl with grand dreams of an undying love from my husband. I understand how the real world works even if this is my first visit to it.” I shrugged my shoulders gently, “So, do not think I will be waiting to hear you say that to me or even feel that towards me.”

I didn’t give him time to reply just flipped around and headed out of the study and up to my room. I felt better now that we had apologized and even more so that I had explained my feelings on his love. I think I had always known that Blaine would never be the love of my life or vice versa. It was important to me that he knew I wasn’t going to be waiting around for him to say that I was.

Kerani entered my bedroom and smiled at me. “I saw you leave Lord Blaine’s office. Did you apologize?”

“Yes, we did.” I sighed loudly.

“What is wrong?” She rushed over to my bedside and sat down.

“He was writing a letter to his lover. He didn’t attempt to hide it from me at all.” I sat up on my bed.

“Perhaps, he is still friends with her. She is far away after all, there is nothing that he can do.” Kerani patted my leg, “Endre wants to take me out to the lake for dinner again. May I? I probably will not be back to help you into your sleeping gown.”

I nodded, “Of course, one of us should be happy here.”

She frowned, “Don’t say such things. Tomorrow is another day. If that doesn’t bring a friendship between you then you have a whole lifetime of tomorrows.”

“I want to live for today, Kerani.”

“Today is overly glorified.” She laughed.

I smiled, “Except when you are meeting a handsome Gyosian at the lake for dinner.”

Kerani hit my leg playfully, “Do not tease me. You’ll make me think on it too much and then I will be embarrassed the entire evening.” Her frown returned, “Was Durril gentlemanly the entire day?”

“Yes, he was.” I rolled my eyes, “He only wanted to tell me stories of his brother. I think he wants me to feel pity for Blaine so that I may one day love him.”

She grinned rather sadly, “You two seemed to be compatible this morning in the dining hall. I think if you both tried, you could find that you are very much alike.”

“I find that I am more like Durril then Blaine.”

“Don’t say that either. Thoughts like that will make you develop feelings for Durril and you aren’t marrying him. Now,” She grabbed my book, “you read and I’ll finish that dress.”
---***---
Blaine left the next day to return to the castle. The king had once again summoned him and we had to postpone our wedding until his return. I was rather relieved that it would be a while longer, but I also wanted to get this over with. I knew that as soon as I was Blaine’s wife that he would have to start accepting me or at least I hoped.

Durril kept to himself after the day of our ride. He had probably caught himself thinking the same thoughts that I had been ordered by Kerani not to have. I found different ways to run into him though I knew that I would never do anything to harm my engagement or marriage to Blaine. I suppose I just wanted his companionship and Blaine didn’t seem willing to want to offer it.

A month past before Blaine returned to the manor and again he had done so in the middle of the night. This time, however, he didn’t come to my room. The next morning, he had locked himself up in his study. My suspicious mind assumed he was writing letters to the love of his life.

I told myself to give Blaine time to mend his heart and then perhaps he would be more friendly towards me. Though I don’t know if I could ever forgive the person that kept me from my love.

Walking down the stairs, Durril entered the house and saw me staring at the study door. He waved his head in a gesture that told me to go inside, but I simply shook my own and headed into the dining hall. He followed me in and took my hand to stop me from going into the kitchen where the servants were.

“You should initiate conversation with him first. He is too stubborn.” He told me, but all I could concentrate on was his thumb rubbing my knuckles as he spoke.

When I didn’t say anything, he walked me over to the study door and knocked gently. “Come in.” I heard Blaine say and it shocked me back into reality.

I shook my head again at Durril and he nodded. Leaning forward, he gently opened the door and then ran up the stairs. I was going to get him for this later. I stepped inside the study and noticed Blaine’s exhausted glare. He was too tired to argue with me, I could see it in his eyes.

“Yes?” He asked when I just stood there.

I cleared my throat, “Durril has told me that you haven’t been out to the berry bushes for a while. I thought we could…”

“No.” He snapped and looked back down to the book he was reading.

“May I ask why not?”

He didn’t respond. His behavior was starting to make me annoyed, but I had told myself that I would be my own mediator and not start arguments.

Walking over to his desk, I sat down in the chair that I had occupied a month before. “Leora said she could bake a pie if we brought her enough and Durril said there should be a lot more…”

“I said no.” He looked back up at me.

Leaning back in the chair, I watched him read. It bothered him or so I thought. He would clear his throat and rub the back of his neck. “You don’t have to like me, but you can, at least, be hospitable. I have to live here with you the rest of my life.”

“How is telling you that I don’t want to ride a horse, after spending four days on one, being inhospitable?” He continued to read or probably pretended to.

“Because you didn’t say that, you said no with no explanation.” I sighed, “We could walk.”

“No.” He mumbled again.

I stood up and he probably thought that I was leaving, but I walked around the desk to stand beside him. Grabbing his upper arm, I felt the soft fabric of his shirt and his taut muscles underneath. My touch made him jerk a little, but he tried to act as if he were unaffected. I began to yank his arm towards me, “Come, grumpy. Come out and play with me.”

I saw that he was fighting a grin and so I continued my childish behavior.

“Let’s go be friends or pretend to be if that suits you better.” I continued to yank on his arm and he shut his book before looking at my hands on his arm.

“Friends, you say?”

“Yes, like we were starting to do before we argued. That was good and berries are good… and berry pies are better.”

“Berry pies are better than friendship?”

I stopped pulling on his arm and rose an eyebrow as if I were thinking on his question.

Blaine smiled at this behavior.

“Depends on the berries, I suppose.”

He stood from his chair, “Well, you can be charming. I did not know that.”

I grinned, “Then you haven’t been paying attention.” I spun around and headed for the door. Pride built up in my chest from my victory, though I would never tell him that I had won this one.

I grabbed a basket from the kitchen for the berries and met Blaine at the front door. He opened it for me and we walked down the stairs towards the stables. He apparently had decided that he would rather ride a horse then walk. I was glad for this decision because even through the direct route it was a long walk.

“How was your journey?” I asked as the stable boy prepared our horses.

“It went as usual.”

I arched an eyebrow, “I do not know what usual is.”

Blaine explained what he did during his time spent at the castle. He mostly argued with the generals about the war and what tactics should be used during battles. He had the king’s ear for the most part and normally the king would side with him. I discovered that he was schooled in battle tactics from a young age and so was his brother.

“I read that you are fluent in sword use?” Blaine asked me.

I nodded, “I wouldn’t call it fluent, but I could get myself out of a tough situation if I had to.”

“Why were you taught that?”

“My father wanted me to be able to defend my own if I had to. He said that a man may not always be around and that I had to learn how to protect myself.” I shrugged, “Don’t worry, with all your training you could win against me if it came to that.”

Blaine smiled, “Good, you had me worried.” He teased me and then stopped his horse as we had arrived. He helped me dismount and we began to pick berries from the bushes. “This is going to be a mixed berry pie, I assume.”

“Looks to be that way, yes.” I grinned and popped what was probably my sixth berry into my mouth.

“That is if we get them back before you eat them all.” He dropped another handful in the basket that I was carrying.

“I make no promises.”

He chuckled and then looked around the bushes briefly, “I believe I have gotten all the ripe berries off these bushes. What about your own?”

“I think I’ve eaten them all, yes.” I placed a couple in the basket before closing it. “We should try to have another meal at the lake sometime. I’ll be on my very best behavior and won’t stomp away next time. I might hit you though if you are mean again.”

Blaine grinned as we walked back to the horses, “Alright, we will do so for dinner.”

“For dinner? It would be too dark then.”

He took the basket from me and placed it on the ground before helping me onto my horse, “I’ll have the servants set up torches around the area. I’ve done it before.”

I didn’t seem too keen on the idea and I think my face foretold that.

“Just trust me.” His hands were still on my waist.

“Very well, but I must warn you. The last time a man in your family told me to trust him, I ended up with a mouthful of green berry.”

He laughed, “He does that to me almost every year.”

I was beginning to feel uncomfortable with his hands resting on my hips, “Well, we should head back. If we make it in time, we may have berry pie for dessert tonight.”

He remained silent and unmoving for a time, “Did you mean what you said?”

“About berry pie tonight?”

There was a brief grin on his face followed by a serious stare, “That you would never love me.”

“Why would that be important to you?”

“Just answer my question.” His hands on my hips tightened briefly.

“I never said such a thing. I distinctly remember saying that you didn’t have to love me. That I wouldn’t disillusion myself with thoughts that one day you would.”

He nodded his head and released my hips. Turning to the basket, he handed it to me and mounted his horse.

 

 

 

 

 

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