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The King's Poet

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Shortly after I returned to Terre d’Ange, the King’s Poet died in his sleep.

It was fortuitous timing. He was old, although his health was reportedly good. I had just completed my education in Tiberium, and had entered D’Angeline society in a burst of popularity. My name had been tipped more than once for inheriting the position of King’s Poet—in a decade or two, when the incumbent poet passed away.

I was young and charming, of noble birth and with a gift for poetry. I enjoyed invitations to all the most glamorous parties, performed my poetry at the most exclusive salons, and tumbled into bed with any number of young courtiers as talented and beautiful as myself. My future was assured, my career flourishing, and my star rising.

Terre d’Ange flourished along with me. Aside from the ongoing border disputes with Skaldia, my country was rich and glamorous. The King and Queen were fair and beloved rulers, and our Dauphin had just married the lovely and popular Isabel L’Envers. The young couple was seen frequently at the same parties as myself, but we traveled in different circles, and it was known that the Prince had no great love for poetry. I retained bitterness that on our first meeting, when I had recited one of my poems at a salon where he was the guest of honor, he had yawned.

That summer was hot and decadent, and I was in the heat of my youth. I expected it to last forever.

The death of the King’s Poet thrust me very suddenly into the politics of the realm.

There were several months between the poet’s death and my reception of the title, but to me, it seemed like everything happened very quickly. As soon as the news of his death spread through the city, it was assumed that I would be named King’s Poet in his stead. The King himself was known to favor my poetry, and I had even received commendation from the King’s Poet himself. In anticipation of my inevitable title, my popularity soared higher. Copies of my poems sold out swiftly from every bookseller in the city, and I became the central attraction at parties, where the anticipation of my position was a sweeter allure for the nobility than the title itself.

I felt a little sickened by it. Before, my popularity had been my own, earned on the coin of my charm and my skill. Now, it was the product of a man’s death and the irresistible attraction of a star about to skyrocket.

When at last the title had been given and celebrated, and I had finished the poem that I wrote in acceptance of the position—a decadent piece on the best excesses of youth and beauty, with a drop of bitterness in the dregs—the fiery surge of my popularity subsided again, leaving me with only my own charm and talent and the more subdued honor of my new title.

Barely twenty, and I had everything to which I had ever aspired. I had title, land, position, wealth, youth, beauty, talent, and all the knowledge that Tiberium could offer me.

Crumpling another page filled with hollow, heartless poetry on the emptiness of fame, I threw it fiercely across my room. It scuttled into the pile near the foot of my bed, where my failed poems were building themselves a sad little nest of crumpled pages.

Listless, I considered my studies by the desk, unopened books gathering dust, and my sheathed sword hung across the door, but both great loves of my life felt bland now, drained of their joy because I was bored and frustrated. My friends and acquaintances were beautiful and clever, but as I watched them fall in and out of love I felt the ache in my own heart grow wearier because none of them quickened my pulse or captured my imagination.

Someone tapped at my door. Mired in self-pity, I turned my head and gazed at the gilt-trimmed wood that led to the palace outside, unable to find even the effort necessary to call an invitation.

After a moment, my visitor let herself in. Ines, one of the palace clerks, was shuffling through a pile of letters in her hands. She saw me in the windowseat and raised an eyebrow before one side of her mouth tilted in amusement. “Good afternoon, my Lord de Montreve,” she called, coming over and dropping a letter into my lap. “Your correspondence.”

I couldn’t help but return her smile, appreciative of her impudence. “Thank you, Ines.”

“I am going to arrange to have you kidnapped,” Ines told me, hands on hips. “You are letting yourself fall into a fugue.”

I squinted up at her, trying to decide whether or not Ines was capable of carrying out her threat. “Poets are meant to be melancholy.”

“No, my Lord de Montreve,” Ines replied, fetching the letter opener from my desk and bringing it over expectantly. “They are not. And your poetry especially is terrible when you are in this state.”

“Have you been reading my poetry while I’m in this state?” I accepted the letter opener, but rolled my head back against the wall, putting on a show of being too apathetic even to open the letter.

Picking up one of the crumpled pages from the nest, Ines opened it and began to read. “Leaves rot beneath the snow, frozen in a moment between brilliance and decay, and I—

“Elua have mercy,” I swore, scrambling to my feet and tearing the page from her hands.

“If your poetry does not improve, I’m going to arrange that kidnapping,” she promised.

“Madwoman,” I complained, tossing the page into the fireplace to destroy the words forever.

Ines left me, but she had at least succeeded in getting me up. Thinking on what she’d said, I considered a trip home to Montreve, or to seek thrills and adventure overseas. Hoping for some news of interest, I picked up the letter and opened it. It was from one of my tutors in Tiberium, and appeared to be nothing more than a polite congratulation on my newfound title. From habit, I ran my thumb along the edge of the letter, checking for the subtle notched code used by the Unseen Guild.

Congratulations, King’s Poet. Befriend Rolande.

An assignment.

A thrill of interest shot up my spine, and I checked the code again. Since I’d returned to Terre d’Ange, my contact with the Unseen Guild had dwindled to nothing but the occasional exchange of information in letters, and my skills from there felt useless in my new life as socialite and poet. But now that I had position, I had influence, and something had changed so as to interest the Guild in the Prince of Terre d’Ange.

It was something to do, a challenge at the very least. Their motives—at least on one level—were transparent enough. The Guild favored moving its pawns into positions of power, where they would have the ability to nudge the course of history in directions that the Guild approved. As King’s Poet and future Comte de Montreve, I had power, and all I needed was the friendship of the prince in order to become one of the most influential courtiers in Terre d’Ange, and the anchor of power that the Guild wanted.

And it was so very convenient that the King’s Poet had died so swiftly after my return to Terre d’Ange.

Chilled by that thought, I pushed it from my mind and tossed the letter into the fire. The Guild had given me training and an introduction into the world of intrigue, but until now I’d seen nothing of their influence. I’d accepted my position and training with the understanding that one day they would call upon my skills of covertcy.

It might be as simple as moving a pawn into place in anticipation of later use, but I had already been that pawn, and they had no urgency to reach out and move me unless there was a greater game unfolding.

Tempted at once to learn how, I roused myself from my stupor, mind already working on unraveling the puzzle behind the very simple assignment I’d been given.

Befriend Rolande.

Easy enough, if I dismissed my petty resentment over the long-ago yawning. I could prove him wrong, and vindicate myself and my poetry, with a little bit of effort. All I had to do was impress him.

Grabbing my pen and a fresh sheaf of paper, I set to work.

~

The stage I chose was a snowy afternoon when the court was trapped inside and bored. Rolande and Isabel and a group of their favorites were playing at cards at one end of the gaming hall, gambling for kisses.

I watched them with half my attention, fascinated by the way that both tried to manipulate the other into forfeiting a kiss to someone else. Rolande grinned openly as he met his wife with scheme for scheme, matching wits in a game of jealousy and fidelity for which the cards were only a front.

With the rest of my attention, I tapped my finger against the table and mumbled artful scraps of phrase, composing lines to the poem I hadn’t yet finished and letting anyone near me take notice.

“Anything good?” Gaspar Trevalion asked me, halfheartedly pushing dominoes around the table and losing utterly to Quintilius Rousse.

“It will be,” I tell him, tempting him with a grin. “Once I finish it.”

“Sounds like some sort of war epic, from the way you’re muttering,” Quintilius teased.

“You have an excellent ear.”

“Two of them. And you mutter very loudly.”

“Oh, Elua’s balls,” Gaspar grumbled, tipping over his dominoes in frustration. “I’ve lost again. Anafiel,” he huffed, as bored and restless as the rest of the court, “let’s hear it.”

“Hm?”

“Your new poem.”

“Isn’t finished.”

He leveled an irritable glance at me. “Well, recite what you have. You said it was good.”

I grinned at his temper. “It is good.”

Tapping a domino against his wine glass to make it ring, Quintilius took the initiative to put me on the spot, in exactly the manner I’d expected. Heads started turning in our direction, focusing on me once they saw where my friends were looking. “Poem! Poem!” Quintilius demanded, his bellowing voice getting all the attention I needed.

“It isn’t finished!” I protested again, putting my hands up and starting to laugh at the triumphant smirks on my friends’ faces.

“Oh, let’s hear it, Anafiel,” Marc de Trevalion pressed, from a nearby table.

“A new poem?” one of the Stregazza twins piped up, and a set of grinning Shahrizai moved to claim seats nearer to me.

“What’s it about, Anafiel?”

“Do tell us it’s something scandalous about love.”

“Very well!” I surrendered, standing up and holding out my hands for silence.

My audience quieted, and their silence drew the attention of a wider ring of courtiers, who fell quiet in turn, curiously glancing over at me. Only the ring of favorites near Rolande and Isabel had yet to take interest.

Afar I hear the drums of war,” I started, lowering my voice so that it carried across the court as a low rumble.

The poem was some of my best work, a stirring retelling of the battle of Ambert where a spare company of a few exhausted D’Angelines had held their fortress through the night until reinforcements could arrive. I had written it in fury and frustration, designed to catch the attention of a proud young prince who had once been disdainful of my poems. I’d heard him mock flowery poetry before, and knew that he especially hated poems of nationalism and love, but I knew also that our Dauphin was a skilled fighter and fascinated by war.

Two stanzas into the poem and I had the attention of the entire hall. Even Rolande’s game had paused.

I poured all the passion in my nature into my performance, drawing on my skill as an actor to sell the illusion of myself as one of those doomed and valiant soldiers prepared to die in defense of his country. Netting all of their hearts in my recounting of that dread night and the unceasing waves of enemy attack, I brought them to the climax of the poem—where all had fallen but the last ten upon the wall, while enemy soldiers poured in through the gates…

And I stopped. Lowering my arms and falling quiet, I let go of the soldier’s mien and came slowly back to myself.

The hall was silent, all attention on me, breaths held in anticipation of the conclusion of my story.

“Anafiel!” Gaspar demanded, pounding his fist once upon the table to urge me to continue.

“It’s unfinished, I told you that,” I said, turning an amused smile on my friend.

“Namaah’s Tits, Anafiel!” Quintilius took up the complaint, groaning at me. “You can’t leave us there.”

“Forgive me.” I bowed to my audience, putting on a show of being flustered. “I’ll finish it soon.”

My glance crossed the hall, to where Rolande de la Courcel was staring me down, his interest piqued.

Scattered applause and compliments rose and petered out around me. I’d left them stunned but unsatisfied, which I didn’t mind. I didn’t tell anyone that I’d already finished the poem, and had left it there intentionally.

Slowly, the court returned to their earlier amusements, although little tangles of interest continued to orbit me. I let my friends hassle me, pleading innocence about their frustration.

Keeping my attention on them, and not the table at the far end of the hall, I could pretend that I didn’t hear Rolande’s chair push away from his table, or the polite excuses he made as he navigated his way across the court to me, until he was standing directly behind me and his hand rested on the back of my chair as he leaned over to speak.

“I thought I should express congratulations at your success in forcing me to enjoy poetry,” Rolande murmured, his voice rich with amusement. “Your title is well-earned.”

I didn’t try to contain the grin that spread itself across my face. Turning in my chair, I looked up to meet his eyes with mirth and challenge, and saw his gaze sharpen with interest in reply.

“You honor me,” I replied, as humble as I could manage without breaking our locked gazes.

“Do you often leave your audiences so unsatisfied?”

“I hope never,” I said, forgetting the presence of my friends, or of anyone else in the world but Rolande. “At most, I pray that my audience’s pleasure is only delayed. I promise you’ll have your satisfaction of me, my prince.”

“When you finish that poem,” he said, his other hand coming to rest on the edge of the table as he leaned over me, forming a cage within his powerful arms, “I want to be the first to hear.”

An unexpected thrill of lust went through my blood. I’d only meant to catch his interest and befriend him. Seduction had been the farthest thing from my mind. But with Rolande leaning over me, offering physical and intellectual challenge as we sparred verbally, I felt my pulse beating fervently in reply to his posture and that rumble in his voice.

“You have my word,” I vowed, eyes and voice steady as my grin widened.

“Until then, my Lord de Montreve,” he said, drawing away and returning to the table with his wife.

Isabel arched a perfect golden brow at me, her attention on me alone as her husband took his leave. She had seen how close he’d gotten to me, and the intensity between us at the few sentences we exchanged. Everyone else had seen us, also, but Isabel was the only one I saw whose gaze lingered after we had parted.

~

I let two days pass before I sent word to Rolande requesting an audience.

My reply came swiftly, an invitation to join him in his chambers now, if I pleased.

I expected to find his rooms lively with companions and courtiers. Instead I found only Rolande, who pushed away a few papers at his desk and rose when I entered.

“My Lord de Montreve,” he greeted me, with an amused tilt to his head.

“Dauphin,” I countered, with the deep bow of respect due to the heir to the throne.

“Rolande,” he corrected.

“Anafiel,” said I.

“Anafiel.” He extended his hand to me and I took it, clasping his hand firmly and feeling the calluses on his palm. “You promised me a finished poem.”

“And so I did.” I held his gaze, feeling my blood rush again with lust at the unexpected intensity of this spark between us.

He drew back his hand first, gesturing an invitation deeper into his rooms.

“With your leave, I’ll begin from the top,” I proposed, choosing for my stage a spot in the center of the room nearest a couch. He draped himself across it, his muscular body powerful even in leisure and his eyes locked upon my face.

“Granted,” he said, permitting all my plots and purposes within that one generous word.

This time, I gave my performance for him alone. Within the privacy of his rooms, I tamed the power of my recitation into a breathless tragedy. Invoking the memories of the unnamed soldier whose story I told, I murmured his passions and fears as I repeated the story of the battle of Ambert. This time, I let it finish with the sound of trumpets from the reinforcements who arrived with the dawn, and a suggestion that the storyteller’s eyes were closing their last when I spoke the poem’s final words.

He stared unblinking at me when I had finished, caught my spell. As I held his gaze again, he lifted his hands and began to applaud, a slow, sonorous clap that couldn’t express half of what I saw in his eyes. “Incredible, Anafiel. I’d make you Prince’s Poet, if my father hadn’t already snatched you up. I hadn’t realized that poetry could be so stirring.”

“All poetry is meant to be, if it is done right,” I answered, taking my seat on a cushion on the floor by him.

“I seem to recall another recital of your poetry which I found less stirring,” he pointed out, reminding me of that embarrassing night long ago in Tiberium when my prince had yawned at my poetry.

“I chose the wrong poem for you,” I said, letting go of my old resentment. “Had I to do the recital again, I would have chosen differently.”

His blue eyes were dark with interest as he watched me, as the spark between us began to fan into a low flame. “Show me.”

My lips moved before I had a chance to think, and I was reciting an ancient Hellene poem of a soldier on the battlefield fighting to defend his lover who lay bleeding beside him, perhaps already dead. When it finished, I recited a poem about the ache of love. He said nothing, only watched me as I performed for him, and I began to tell an epic poem about an ancient king fighting battles against creatures vast and unknowable. Poem after poem I told him, and he listened, rapt, until at last my mind faltered, unsure which one to tell next.

“I hear you’re an admirable fighter,” Rolande said to me, his eyes never having left my face. “The warrior-poet, they call you.”

“Do you listen to all the things that people call me?” I asked him, relaxing back against my cushions.

“I will now.”

“Then I will make an effort to ensure that they are all good things.”

“Do you hunt, Anafiel?”

“Betimes,” I allowed, surprised by the change in topic.

“Promise that you’ll come hunting with me.”

I inclined my head in agreement. “My Prince.”

“Rolande,” he corrected.

I repeated the name back to him, caressing my tongue over the syllables. “Rolande.”

He reached out, closing the distance between us, and clasped his hand at the base of my neck, pulling me in for a kiss.

Befriend Rolande.

I was fulfilling my assignment in a manner that I had not anticipated, and I found myself wondering about the implications of what would happen if Blessed Elua saw fit to shift my loyalties.

Of all the love poems that I’d read and recited, my heart had remained aloof and untouched. Now, suddenly, I felt my world tilting beneath me, and the steady, mundane life I’d lived until now seemed distant and illusory.

His lips crushed mine, heat rising between us as I grasped his shirt and returned the kiss with equal intensity.

Quickly though it had begun, our kiss slowed and then stopped, both of us hesitating. “I don’t imagine your wife would be best pleased to find out about this.”

His breath was warm and sweet against my lips. “I don’t imagine that she would.”

Inches away, his eyes caught mine and held. I felt more than saw his smirk and then his laugh, my only warning before he launched himself at me.

Reacting as a fighter, I twisted as he hit me, using his velocity to flip us so that I would land on top. We wrestled, breathless and growling, until he won a pint and pinned me, using his knees to lock down my shoulders.

Panting, I stared up at him. Two days ago, my prince and I had hardly exchanged five words in our lives. And now I was pinned between his legs.

He shifted his weight, that same hesitation crossing his face like a veil. “We play these games, Isabel and I. It’s our way. You should understand that. You’d be nothing to me but a pawn.”

Reckless, I grinned up at him. “It’s fortunate, then, that Elua saw fit to give me a heart inclined to dalliances apart from love.”

The surprised laugh and grin that he returned to me were like the breaking sun. “Best be careful of that heart, Montreve. You’re still D’Angeline.”

I reached for him, pulling his face down to mine. “Then I pray that Blessed Elua keeps me from falling in love.”

He stopped my lips with a kiss, and we left the discussion there.

~

Rolande invited me hunting.

The young couple and their favorite courtiers left early, riding out to the royal hunting lodge outside of the city. Rolande placed me at his side, near the front of the party and distracting me with tales of his recent hunting adventures. He was as charming as he was handsome, and I spent the morning with my sides aching with laughter.

Isabel rode further back in the group, looking stunning at the center of a group of court beauties. I knew I was being reckless by letting these two draw me into their game, but I couldn’t resist the temptation. It put me squarely at Rolande’s side for as long as I could survive the game. I’d been trained in courtesy and covertcy for precisely these sorts of games, and I was ecstatic at finally having an entry to the inner circle.

It was midmorning when Barquiel L’Envers called Rolande back to settle a dispute about falconry, and Isabel smoothly stepped into his place at my side.

“How lovely of you to join us today, Montreve,” Isabel said, her smile flawlessly cordial. “It’s so pleasant to see new faces in our little hunting party.”

“The honor is mine,” I replied, sincerely. Rolande might have made me his attendant, but I expected to get farther by charming them both than by creating divisions, and I’d heard enough about Isabel to consider her a fascinating opponent. “If I may, your highness: being so recently returned from Tiberium, I have not yet had the opportunity to congratulate you personally on the birth of the Princess Ysandre.”

I saw a moment of surprise cross her face at my unbarbed sincerity, followed by an unguarded flicker of motherly pride. Rolande had mentioned his daughter only briefly, to express hope that Ysandre would have interest and skill in hunting as she grew. He had seemed to me more aware of his hopes for what the princess would become than the baby she was now.

“We are very blessed,” Isabel replied. She was defensive now, which was an improvement upon what I suspected to be her original plans to test and threaten a rival. “The princess is healthy and of a sweet disposition.”

I’d only see the princess at something of a distance, from across rooms and at formal events. She was a curious, pretty child, with wide, intelligent eyes that studied everything she saw.

“I expect she’ll grow to be as beautiful and clever as her mother,” I said.

Isabel’s eyes lingered on me, likely trying to decide if I was either a naive fool or playing some deeper game. “How kind of you to say. I hope you’ll forgive me for knowing so little about you, Montreve. It was such a surprise, how quickly you appeared in all our lives. Courtier, King’s Poet, and now Prince’s plaything. You do work fast.”

“The bloom of our youth is so quickly flown. I have no intention of wasting it.”

“Evidently not. But you do gamble it, don’t you?”

Now we were to the barbs and threats that I’d anticipated. I kept my demeanor cheerful and charming, hoping to turn the situation somehow. It would be harder for her to maintain jealous wrath if I managed to make her like me.

“It seems that I do.” I tipped my head to the sky, which appeared brighter and more richly blue now that I found my life steeped in intrigues and affairs. Grinning at the sharp bite in the air that made me feel alive, I looked back to her. “Rolande mentioned that the two of you enjoy gaming.”

“We’re fiercely competitive people,” she agreed. “Cards, kottabos--”

“Love?”

Her eyes narrowed at me, but her lips curved. “Yes.”

“Perhaps one day you’ll honor me with a game.”

Exquisitely conniving, she gave me a smile full of secrets. We both had our footing again in the conversation, and now I had her interest. “Did you have something in mind?”

“Chess.”

“Chess it is, then.” By the way she smiled I guessed that she had some amount of skill at the game. “I look forward to it, Montreve.”

Reigning in her horse, she rejoined her group of courtiers and left me alone in the Prince’s position near the front of the party.

~

As vast as the Unseen Guild intimated that it was, the only contact I had with them was through letters to Tiberium, always weeks delayed. It seemed to dull their claims more than a little if I was the only Guild member in Terre d’Ange. As was their way, they gave me to believe that many were their spies in Terre d’Ange, and it was only my journeyman status in the Guild that kept me so in the dark. It made me wonder how dedicated and loyal to the organization one had to be before finding out how deep it went.

Still, they knowledge and skills that they provided me were well worth the price of a little spying. Betimes I doubted their morals and intent, and whose interests they truly had at heart. More often than not, I suspected it was simply a vast game that the powerful played to keep themselves entertained, and bored noblemen’s sons like myself joined in hopes of adventure and scandal.

They held me by no bond but my love of knowledge and intrigue, and their eternal vague threat of destroying me and all I loved if I ever betrayed them. I think the absurdly maniacal nature of the threat drew me as much as anything. My world was dull without the intrigue and conniving of the guild. Being a pawn in a greater game leant my life spice.

Since my nomination to the rank of King’s Poet, my tasks from the guild had increased, but aside from the one assignment to befriend Rolande, all of them were tiny things like find out who supplies steel to House Aiglemort and plant the idea that Helene Stregazza’s sister was responsible for the orchard fire.

I tended my little tasks and fished for further information, but nothing came of any of them, and I began to feel like my organization was nothing but a great library of useless spies, taking notes on the favored colors and sweetmeat preferences of the nobility.

But in the more select society of our future king and queen, young nobles shared secrets like currency, and I played the game with the best of them. I had no loyalties aside from that of Montreve--a sleepy noble house half-forgotten in the Siovalese countryside--and my D’Angeline pride, so I played to my own advantage, forming alliances and solidifying my place in the upper ranks of noble society.

I also made one enemy.

House L’Envers was as tight-knit as any of them, and Barquiel made himself guard of his sister’s interests and honor. Where Isabel met me as a rival, Barquiel sneered to see me approach.

I didn’t take him seriously as a threat. He had no sway over me, and my tongue was swifter and more cutting than his. Isabel and I were enjoying the challenge of being rivals, and the third L’Envers scion who enjoyed favorite status was her fourteen-year-old cousin Nicola L’Envers. She was a bright-spirited and laughing girl who discovered that I would indulge her in word-wit battles of puns. I let her win more often than not, because I found it charming to watch her strut about with pride at having outwitted the King’s Poet at his own game.

The first days at the hunting lodge I had little chance at Rolande alone, but there were plenty of other amusements to distract me. True to her word, on the first day that we had poor weather, Isabel summoned me to a chess game.

“Anafiel!” She met me with a kiss of greeting in front of her ladies, as though we were friends, and bid me to sit down across from her at the table. “How fares my husband?”

She had generously left me the opening move, and I took it. “I hear he fares well, your highness, although I think the boar in the area have cause to regret it.”

“Dissention among the swinefolk,” she said, raising her brows in mock concern. “Ought we to fear an uprising?”

“I believe that your husband is well-armed against porcine foes, and much trained in combat against them.”

“I am relieved that you think so. If you see him, do counsel him to take care. It is unwise to be gentle to one’s enemies.”

She played well, developing her pieces with reliable, basic strategy. I chose to take a riskier approach in the hope that a more complex strategy might give her pause. “You will have to teach me how to conduct ungentle diplomacy.”

“Do you have enemies, Anafiel?”

I met her eyes. The smile she offered me was sweetly vicious, an absolute challenge. I grinned at her in reply. “I hope I have only potential friends, Princess.”

“Tell us some stories about Tiberium,” she prompted, diverting us to a more amiable topic. “What is it that you studied there?”

Acquiescing generously, I entertained the princess and her ladies with stories of my exploits in Tiberium, while she soundly defeated me in two games of chess.

When at last I was dismissed, I retreated to my chambers, mentally exhausted. Sprawling upon my bed with a groan, I flopped a pillow over my face and ran our conversation back over in my mind, checking for nuances or revelations that I might have missed the first time. I was in the midst of this when my door opened, revealing Rolande.

Pulling the pillow from my face and half sitting up, I stared at him in surprise. The way he’d been neglecting me, I was beginning to worry that I’d fallen already out of favor.

“I hear you’re charming half my court,” he teased, strolling idly across my floor to stand over me at the bedside.

“Forgive me my nature.”

“Including my wife.”

I flopped back onto the covers with a groan. “I don’t think that charming would be an applicable description. Duelling verbally for my life, more like.”

Mouth twitching with a smile, Rolande shifted his weight into a less aggressive stance. “She’s like that when she’s charmed.”

“Elua defend me from finding out what she’s like when she gets it in her head to dislike someone.”

Crawling onto the bed beside me, Rolande slid his hands up my arms in order to pin my wrists above my head. I couldn’t find the effort to put up a fight, so I let myself relax beneath him.

“You have been very busy, though. The only name on anyone’s lips is Anafiel.”

“Including yours?”

He leaned in, whispering the name against my lips as his dark hair fell forward like a curtain around my face. “Anafiel.”

I kissed him, not caring if it was brash. My blood burned for him.

If I’d thought that the spark between us had cooled in the days apart, I was disabused instantly of the idea when he kissed me. Our tongues dueled for dominance, and when I fought his grip he tightened it, making us both groan.

I slammed my hips up against his because I couldn’t free my hands, which earned a growly laugh from him, and he fell back off me to keep laughing. Grabbing him with a wrestler’s hold, I tried a pin of my own and failed.

We tumbled off the bed, snarling and exchanging bites and kisses, and his back took the brunt of our landing. He was taller and more powerful, though not by much, and I was quicker and more agile, though not by much. This time, I landed on top, holding one of his arms wrenched behind his back.

Laughing, he rolled his hips beneath me, undulating his body and no doubt putting a strain on the arm I had pinned. “Are you going to claim your prize, poet?”

“I am,” I promised, leaning forward to bite his ear, just hard enough to leave a mark. “Perhaps a lesson to not underestimate the power of poetry.”

“Poets, nothing,” Rolande laughed. “My trouble was catching the interest of a warrior-poet.”

“That does seem like trouble.” I ground my hips down against him and he moaned beautifully. “My trouble is much more serious.”

“Warrior princes?”

“No. I don’t think I can get your trousers off without letting you go.”

Rolande’s reply was a roar of laughter.

~

I was in Rolande’s arms when word came of trouble on the Skaldi border.

My half-awake, well-sexed brain categorized the knock as urgently courteous, which was enough to catch some of my attention.

“In,” Rolande called, his hand in my hair and too lazy to get up or put on clothing.

The messenger stepped inside and promptly blushed, eyes skittering along the floor in nervous courtesy. “Highness, I bring word of conflict with Skaldia.”

War was enough to bring Rolande to full wakefulness. He sat up, glorious in his nudity, and studied the courier with interest. “Go on.”

“There was an attack on a newly reinforced fortress at Vosges. We incurred heavy losses.”

Rolande frowned, rising to his feet and beginning to dress himself as the messenger spoke. I sat up groggily, trying to urge my brain into functioning.

“It seems there was a conflux of bad luck. The fortress was not considered a major strategic point, and therefore manned by new recruits with new equipment.”

“New equipment?” Rolande asked. It took me a moment longer to realize why he was asking. New equipment was a strange thing to categorize as bad luck.

“The steel was bad.”

Find out who supplies steel to House Aiglemort.

I felt my blood chill.

“Just further bad luck that the Skaldi chose that outpost to attack, that week, I take it?” Rolande threw on a shirt, leaving the laces open at the throat.

“The full details are in the report, highness,” the courier answered, handing over the letter that he’d brought.

Rolande took it, dismissing the courier as he read. “What do you think, Anafiel? Do you believe in bad luck?”

Crawling out of bed, I found my own, rumpled, clothing and stepped into it. “No one could have known where the Skaldi would attack.”

“The Skaldi could have known.”

“How?”

“Who provided the steel?”

I was careful to keep my features blank and puzzled. That was information that it was suddenly very, very dangerous for me to have.

“We’ll have to return to the City of Elua at once,” Rolande said, turning back to the letter without noticing anything amiss with me. “The Skaldi are holding the fortress. I’ll have to send a company to take it back, if my father hasn’t done so already.”

“Take me with you,” I prompted him. My suspicion of Guild involvement was only a wild inkling based on coincidence, but I needed to know more, and I needed to remain at Rolande’s side.

He looked over, a surprised half-smile breaking across his face. “Of course you’re coming with me. You can fight, can’t you?”

“Fight?” I feigned surprise. “I just intended to record poems dedicated to your bravery.”

Rolande gave me a playful shove back toward the bed, but stood his ground instead of following. “Don’t tempt me. We need to move.”

~

The court scrambled to get ready, and Rolande paced with impatience as servants scurried about packing and preparing things for the journey. More accustomed to travel than most of the nobles of the court, I packed swiftly and tried to keep out of the way while everyone else went about their business.

“Anafiel!” Rolande called me, and I went. He was having a murmured conversation with Isabel, who looked me over. Their court demeanor temporarily discarded, the two of them looked me over with weighing gazes.

“Are you any use in war?” Isabel asked me, voice quiet and to the point.

“Yes,” I answered. “I am a library of strategy and war history. I’m not trained to fight in formation, but I have experience with mountain terrain and I am very good with a sword.”

Her eyes were piercing, but there was no cruelty or pettiness in it, only a need to obtain information. “Very well,” she agreed, turning her attention back to Rolande. “He goes with you.” She arched a perfect golden brow at me, icier now that she’d already made her impartial decision. “Bring my husband back safely, Montreve.”

“Can you be ready soon?” Rolande asked.

“I can be ready now.”

“Then we leave at once. I need to speak with my father, and I expect he’ll dispatch soldiers immediately to Camlach. Get your things. Meet me at the gate. The court can fare without us.”

Obeying swiftly, I saddled my own horse and entrusted the main portion of my luggage to an attendant, taking only what I needed to travel. Rolande met me a few minutes later, alone.

Surprised, I lifted my brows at him. “No guards?”

“I haven’t the time. You’re guard enough, if you’re as good with your sword as you say.”

I didn’t like the decision, but I didn’t argue.

Without the court, we halved the travel time to the city. Rolande’s horse was swift, and mine was sure-footed, and we were matched for skill in the saddle.

More than a few heads turned as we entered the city, and I wondered whether it was Rolande alone who made them stare, or if it was the pair of us that drew eyes. Rolande had made no secret of our dalliance, and now here we were without the court, riding hell-for-leather back to the city.

Once we were back inside the palace, with courtiers and guards openly eyeing us askance, Rolande grasped me by the back of my neck and hauled me in for a kiss. “Go refresh yourself,” he ordered. “I’ll speak with my father. We’ll leave in the morning, if I have my way.”

Dismissed, I went.

My chambers felt cold and ordinary after the dazzle of life in Rolande’s rooms and Rolande’s presence. Worse, I didn’t want the time to think. Thinking let my skills start to stray into territory of what involvement the Unseen Guild had between Terre d’Ange and Skaldia.

I trusted my mentor, Master Gonzago. He had been my teacher and friend in Tiberium, and I had learned from him about the Guild. When I had taken my vow of secrecy, I had been promised certain protections. The Guild watched out for its own—it would protect my person, my family, and my fortunes. Any known member of the Guild must render me aid when asked, and I must do the same.

Somehow I had assumed that they would never ask me for outright treason.

And this wasn’t outright treason, particularly. I’d learned much about the history of the Guild and how they’d guided events through the centuries—or claimed to. According to them, they had valiantly felled dictators and protected freedom of thought since the glory days of ancient Hellas. Their records told of vast and subtle conspiracies to guide the course of history, always from behind the scenes. Even if they were conspiring with Skaldia against Terre d’Ange, it could easily be a bluff in a greater game which would turn out to our advantage.

I had far too little information and far too many concerns.

In the morning, Rolande sent a messenger to fetch me. He would be leading a small army out from the capitol, and I would ride unofficially at his side. I had no rank or title in the military, and no position as Rolande’s consort. I was a dalliance, with barely two weeks in his bed, and I didn’t have any idea of how frequently Rolande conducted affairs like mine.

As we rode out, Rolande ignored anyone who looked askance about me, and no one dared to bring it up. Left a bubble of silence between my lover and an unfriendly military, I kept to myself.

The court in Isabel’s favor has been easier. There, I had been tolerated as long as I could keep up with the barbed courtesy of Isabel and her followers, because I at least had rank and title to recommend me. Here, I was the unpopular lover of a prince with a popular wife, out of my depth in war. I knew strategy aplenty, but kept my mouth shut because I’d seen no service. To them, I was a pampered nobleman’s son and a poet, nothing more.

At night, I had Rolande to myself in the tent, only to find him hunched over maps of the border. Glad to be back on a topic where I had some knowledge, I leaned over the table across from him. “Are you going to take the south approach, or come around over the pass?”

Interested, he glanced up at me. “If we come from the pass, it will hide our numbers and delay their first sight of us.”

“Yes, but these are Skaldi, and we have no idea of their numbers. If they meet us on foot, they’ll have the advantage of terrain. Your men are trained to fight on broad, flat ground. We’ll be bottled in and disadvantaged on the approach from the pass. If they’ve posted scouts, then we risk ambush.”

Studying my face, then reconsidering the map, he nodded. “From the south.”

We discussed strategy for hours, with my studies pitted against his field experience, until he was satisfied. Exhausted but needy, we tumbled into bed and grappled sloppily, exchanging rough kisses and breathy moans. After, he fell asleep against my shoulder while I lay awake and gazed at the dark tent ceiling above.

Mere weeks ago, my world had been stable, familiar, and agonizingly dull. Now, the ground had dropped suddenly out from under me and I felt lost. My heart had latched on to Rolande like an anchor, and I could feel the way that it weighed anew in my chest, different from the light, fickle heart I’d thought I owned.

No matter how I sought to deny it to myself, I wasn’t here for the Guild, nor for knowledge, adventure, or the affair.

I was here for him.

~

It took days to reach the border. The men and officers of Rolande’s army continued to ignore me, but Rolande himself lightened once we were away from the city. He’d never truly seen battle, trained though he was, and he was a young man, still excited for skirmish that we had every hope to win.

I was more wary, but I couldn’t resist his cheer. We rode hard by day and practiced our swordplay in the camp every evening before tumbling into Rolande’s tent by night.

The swordplay did more to gain me respect among the men than anything. Rolande and I had both trained to duel before we’d been taught military styles, though I was out of practice. He was by far the best opponent I’d ever encountered, defeating me almost every time, but I was proud to at least give him a challenge. When we started sparring, men gathered around us to watch, cheering us on. I didn’t even mind that the cheers almost exclusively favored Rolande.

Remembering my training quickly enough, by the last night I was almost a match for him, and Rolande finally called our fight off as a draw and dragged me off to his tent amid lecherous cheers.

“You’re irresistible,” he whispered in my ear, heated and panting in the afterglow of shared pleasure.

I smiled at him, winding a lock of his dark hair around my finger. “Would you be wroth with me if I fell in love with you?”

He grinned. “What happened to your heart inclined to dalliances?”

“You happened.”

“I love Isabel,” he told me.

Continuing to play with his hair, I smirked. “Yes, and?”

“And you’re irresistible,” he growled, pressing me back into the blankets and stealing my breath with a kiss.

~

There was no battle.

Whatever the Skaldi originally intended, they saw our force and took the opportunity to slip away without a fight.

We reclaimed the fortress, with its ravaged stores and desecrated halls, but the victory felt empty. By the numbers, we were lucky for a bloodless victory, but the men were restless and spoiling for a fight.

Rolande sent a troop up into the hills to scout, but they came back empty handed and just as frustrated. I set myself to helping clean and repair the fortress in order to keep out of the way.

When I retired to the room set aside for Rolande and myself, I found my prince back at his maps.

“Damned Skaldi,” he growled. “They could have reinforced. They had time to reinforce, and then they would have had a foothold within Terre d’Ange. That’s the whole reason we brought such a sizable army. This position would have been valuable for them.”

“It wasn’t worth the cost to hold it,” I suggested, pouring myself a goblet of wine. “It is to us, but not to them.”

“They just sacked it and moved on, the way they always do.” He pushed his maps away with a snarl of frustration. “Barbarians.”

“Rolande,” I said, setting the goblet down within his reach and fetching a second for myself. “Before we arrived, you were thinking that this was an intelligent, planned attack.”

“That’s clearly been proved wrong.”

“What if it hasn’t?”

His gaze sharpened, mind overtaking his temper as he considered the possibility. “That seems far-fetched, Anafiel. It makes more sense for it to be a spate of bad luck connected with a random raid. What’s the purpose, otherwise? To make us think that it’s a random raid while meanwhile they, what, killed a handful of our new recruits and then returned home basically empty-handed? I appreciate your attention to the schemes of the world, but I don’t see one here.”

I disagreed, but the one scrap of proof I had was damning to me. Shutting my mouth, I dropped into a chair and stewed on it.

He didn’t touch me that night. In the morning, he sent me back home with a letter for his father.

I kept my spine straight with pride as I received the letter and my instructions. He was short-tempered and frustrated still, but it worried me that I’d been brought all the way out here only to be sent away.

“Are we done?” I asked, because I needed to know.

He stopped his pacing and looked over in surprise at my question. Sighing, his temper softened. “I need to stay and oversee the repairs for the fortress. If you stay, you’ll either be bored or put to carpentry, and I’ll be busy and temperamental. We can spare you better than the rest.”

Crossing to stand in front of me, he claimed my lips in a kiss. “Besides, this will give me a chance to miss you. Go back to court. Cause trouble in my stead.”

“My prince,” I said, smiling again. “I will.”

~

I was only one day back to court before Barquiel cornered me in a quiet hallway. “You know, I heard the most interesting thing,” he gloated.

It would be easy enough to duck around him and make my escape, but the dread settling into my heart told me I needed to hear what he had to say. “Did you?” I replied flippantly.

“The battle at Vosges. They’re attributing our loss to bad steel.”

Glancing past him down the hall, I made a show of looking bored. “Is that so? How interesting.”

Not perturbed by my demeanor, he continued his gloating. “And it reminded me of a conversation I’d been in, wherein you had turned the topic to trade and there was some discussion of Aiglemort steel.”

I put on a bemused expression. “I’m a poet, not a tradesman, Barquiel. I don’t see your point.”

“I just find it very interesting, you asking about Aiglemort steel sources not long ago, and now this trouble in Camlach.”

Shaking my head in bafflement, I furrowed my brows at him. “What are you suggesting, that I’m sneaking off from my constant presence at court in order to supply Skaldi raiders?”

“I’m suggesting that you’re a traitor to the realm.”

That accusation touched me. Tensing my jaw, I glared at him. “I realize your bed is cold and lonely, Barquiel, but perhaps you could take a little less interest in your sister’s.”

“I know your nature,” he growled at me, all pretense of courtesy dropped between us. “And I will see you beheaded for your crimes.”

I shook my head, letting him have the last word, and brushed past him down the hall.

~

That afternoon, I received a summons.

The letter was delivered by a palace courier. Written in an undisguised woman’s hand, it read, simply, Prince’s library. Now.

It was not signed, but at the bottom of the page was a sketch of the cynic’s lamp which the Guild used as a symbol.

Tossing the letter into the fire, I made my way with all speed to the library.

A pair of guards stood outside the doors, but they let me past without a second glance. Within, Isabel browsed the shelves with graceful patience.

“Anafiel,” she greeted me, smiling and gesturing to a chair. “Sit, please.”

Isabel. I wasn’t sure if she had scared off my contact, or if she was my contact. Warily, I sat.

All smiles, she gathered her skirts and sat down across from me, pouring a cup of tea that was set on the little table at our side and holding it out to me. As I took it, I saw the ring on her smallest finger: the cynic’s lamp embossed within a plain circle of gold.

“It seems my brother is very concerned about some business about Camlach steel supplies.”

“I was asked to obtain the information,” I admitted, my eyes locked on that ring before I managed to tear my attention up to her face. “I did. And now, the battle at Vosges. You must already know that Rolande has reclaimed the fortress, without a fight. He thinks the loss was nothing but bad luck.”

Her gaze was steady and regal. Showing me that ring meant she was declaring herself as a member of the guild and asking my aid, and I could not refuse. “What do you think?”

“I think I do not know enough about the organization that pulls my strings, especially when their questions lead to what seems to be aiding enemies of the realm.”

Her smile was venomous. “It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? How deep does your loyalty run?”

“It’s an interesting position for the future queen of the realm to be embroiled in what looks like treason,” I responded, veins burning with adrenaline.

“When I made my vow of secrecy, I was simply Isabel L’Envers. The promise of protection and promotion I was given applied to House L’Envers. If I can trust them, then I believe I can assume that protection extends to Ysandre. I am not so certain that it extends to Rolande.”

“Would they sell us to the Skaldi? It goes against everything they claim.”

“What, their fancy histories of freedom and prosperity, masterminded at the hands of a benevolent organisation?” Isabel curled her lip.

I studied her, wondering about her motivations and my own. “How did you know about me?”

“I didn’t know. I suspected. You have that uncanny habit of always being around when something interesting happens, and then you made it your business to befriend my husband.” She rested her lovely head on her hand, watching me with Barquiel’s hawk eyes and a languid smile. “What I find almost amusing is that to all appearances you seem to be in love with him.”

My cheeks heated with a blush. I let her make whatever assumptions she liked, keeping my peace on the matter.

“And now you have your suspicions about the guild. As do I. As far as I know, it’s only we two.” She raised a brow to ask me to correct her.

“My only known contacts are in Caerdicci,” I confirmed.

“So, Montreve. What do you suggest we do?”

I stewed on the question, the same question I’d asked myself since word came of the attack on Vosges. Did I trust the Guild enough to let them gamble with my homeland?

“I think it isn’t our decision to make,” I said at last.

“L’Envers and Montreve. Not quite Courcel, are we?” She nodded thoughtfully in agreement. “We tell Rolande.”

“We tell Rolande,” I repeated at a whisper, my heart thudding with the risk of going against the whims of the guild. “We let him decide.”

“Do you really love him?”

I nodded, heart aching. “Fool that I am.”

“I never thought I’d endure sharing someone’s heart,” Isabel said, finally pouring herself a cup of tea and sipping at it. “But it seems we have something more important in common, you and I.”

I didn’t know what to say, and didn’t try.

“You’re dismissed, Montreve,” she murmured at last, slipping the ring off her finger and into a pocket.

Not bothering with any courtesies, I set down my untouched tea and left.

~

Rolande was slow returning from the border. It seemed he had taken an interest there, and found himself useful. I couldn’t help but worry that he’d found someone of interest, and wondered how often Isabel worried the same.

Boredom had begun to settle back into my bones on the day I was standing alone in my rooms, staring out at the snow and trying to find the ambition to compose poetry, when I began to hear chaos.

There was a distant sound of wailing that set my blood on edge, combined with several loud crashes. I bolted out into the hall, finding it full of confused nobles who had left their rooms at the sounds and were milling about in confusion.

“What is it?”

“The princess--she was ill.”

“Are we in danger? Are we under attack?”

Worming my way through the crowd, I made my way toward the royal apartments in time to see King Ganelon stride swiftly past me and into Isabel’s rooms. The guards hesitated at the sight of me, shifting indecisively as to whether or not to let me pass.

“I’m on Princess Isabel’s business,” I informed them, slipping past before they could decide against it.

My need for information more crucial than courtesy, I put my hand on the door and pushed it open.

Isabel lay silent on the bed, surrounded by the King, Queen, her brother, and several attendants. More than one piece of furniture had been overturned, and the room was tense with silence. Everyone turned to stare at me in surprise, except for quiet, frozen Isabel.

“You,” Barquiel snarled, advancing on me. “You did this.”

“Barquiel,” the King snapped, commanding tone making him stop in his tracks. “Explain yourself.”

“He’s a traitor to the realm, a spy, and now a murderer,” Barquiel accused, pure hatred in his eyes.

My gaze returned to Isabel. She looked so peaceful and lovely, her golden hair spread across the pillows.

“What happened?” I asked, heart numb with horror. They’d killed her. Someone had suspected that she was going to break her vow of secrecy, and they’d killed her. We were wrong about the Guild’s influence in Terre d’Ange. They were here, and we had made them our enemies.

“Poison,” the King explained, his voice hard and merciless.

There was a half-eaten tray of figs--her favorite--on a side table, cold and pristine in the center of the chaos of the room.

“Why are you here, Anafiel?” King Ganelon asked.

“I had made a pact with her,” I said, locked in place and unable to do anything but to stare at Isabel. “Not two days past. A secret. We made a vow to tell Rolande. We were alone. I don’t know--”

“Some months ago, I overheard Anafiel making inquiries about where House Aiglemort got their steel,” Barquiel interrupted with his version of the story. Unfortunately for me, his version included facts that he was free to divulge. “In light of recent events in Camlach, I brought the matter to Isabel’s attention. She insisted that I keep quiet and let her handle it alone.”

“In light of current events, Anafiel,” the King said, “I think you had best elaborate upon this secret pact.”

“We vowed to tell Rolande alone,” I repeated, the words feeling hollow in my mouth.

“You’ve been accused of killing a member of the royal family,” the King said, merciless. “You’ll be kept under guard in your room, without visitors, until a trial can be arranged. I advise you to reconsider your refusal to explain yourself to your King.”

Making swift mental calculations about the possibility that my own life was forfeit, I snapped my eyes away from Isabel and onto the King. “I’ll write it down. Your Highness. If that will suffice. Give me paper and I’ll write it down. In the case that I do not survive long enough to keep my promise, you’ll have all the facts in your care, if you will give me the promise that you will only read the letter if I die.”

“Done,” the King agreed. “Barquiel, you are dismissed. Anafiel,” he pointed to the paper available upon Isabel’s desk.

Swiftly, I wrote down the details of what Rolande needed to know, and folded it, entrusting it into the King’s hands.

“Elua have mercy upon you if you have betrayed us,” the King said to me, tucking the letter safely away.

~

I sat alone in my room to wait for Rolande and mourn Isabel.

She hadn’t been a friend to me, nor even an ally. At most we’d been rivals. And yet I had come to like and respect her. It hurt to think of the young princess Ysandre motherless and Rolande bereft.

I didn’t even know why she’d been killed. The guild had seemed immediately likely, but as a second day ended without word and without any threat to my life, I had to assume that my silence wasn’t of urgent concern to them.

It was late when Rolande tumbled into my rooms, exhausted from a hard, urgent ride from the border. His face was set in a hard frown, demeanor closed off and cold.

“Barquiel L’Envers is telling anyone who will listen that you murdered my wife.” Rolande’s gaze was as merciless as his father’s, and I found myself speechless. “And my father repeated something about your claims to a secret vow that you refused to tell anyone but me.”

“Sit, please,” I said, my mind and emotions spinning with gratitude to see him. “I think I had best start at the beginning.”

I started in Tiberium, telling him about the Unseen Guild and my vow of secrecy. I told him as little as I dared, fearing for how possessive the Guild was of their secrets. He listened in stern silence as I spoke of the question of the steel, Barquiel’s suspicions, and the last conversation I had with Isabel.

“A vast conspiracy of spies and noblemen, is that it?” he said, eyes unfocused with thought. “It’s quite a story, Anafiel.”

“And a story for which I have no proof except for her ring--if it can be found--and Barquiel’s memory of a conversation. Isabel and I knew that we had a choice: trust the Guild and hope, cut ourselves off from them in hopes that would handicap their aims of using us against our country, or to attempt to double-cross them and use their goals to our advantage.”

“If half of what you’ve told me is true, then they’ll simply kill us if we tried to betray them.”

“If half of what I fear is true, they’d have no compunctions against releasing a plague in the city in order to keep their secret, in order to keep us all silent. I didn’t dare tell the king--every person who knows is an additional risk.”

Finally he looked up at me, studying my face. “Do you really think this Guild is behind her death?”

“I don’t know. We didn’t know if there were any guild members in Terre d’Ange but us two, and they had no reason to kill her alone after our conversation and to let me live.”

“Unless they intend to pin the crime upon you and let your defense sound like a madman’s ravings about a vast conspiracy.”

My jaw hung open. I hadn’t thought of that.

“You have motive. Jealousy, at the very least. And even if part of your story is true, you might have killed her to keep your own secrets.” He paused, letting me gape. “The servant who brought the figs claimed that they were given to him by a man fitting your description.”

“He lied,” I said, feeling the weight of the conspiracy crushing in around me.

His eyes met mine and held. “But I don’t believe they accounted for the fact that I trust you.”

My throat felt tight. “Rolande.”

“Isabel did, too.” He looked down again, folding his hands. “She told me once, that she was certain you knew more than you were telling. And she confirmed your story.”

“What?”

“She often enjoyed being opaque. She was better with politics and intrigues than I was. Among the more peculiar of her mysteries was something she once told me, shortly after our marriage.”

I stared at him, speechless.

“She said to me that if anyone ever invoked the lamp of Diogenes in a conversation with me, then they could be trusted as much as she could. I’d almost forgotten.” He rubbed a hand over his face, exhausted and miserable.

Moving to kneel in front of him, I laid my hand on his knee.

“I swear on the blood of Blessed Elua himself that I love you, and you alone. By the blood that Blessed Elua spilled, for so long as we both shall live, I bind myself to you, and you alone.”

“Anafiel!” He clasped my hand as if to stay me, frowning with concern at the depth of my oath after such a short time between us and everything that had happened.

“I’ll send word to the Guild that I choose the price of silence, and that I will no longer play their games or make use of their resources.”

He took my hand, gazing at the fingers. “We’ll sort this, Anafiel, even if we have to take on the guild ourselves in revenge for her death. I’ll vouch for your innocence myself, and one day you and I will find her killers.” Lifting my hand to his lips, he kissed it. “You and I--I’ll need to mourn. It wouldn’t be proper.”

I nodded my understanding. “She loved you. She would have been an exquisite queen. She deserves the year of mourning.”

“And after that, shall we see if there is still something between us?”

“I will wait for you,” I vowed. “For years, if necessary.”

He pulled me in and kissed me, hard, aching and bittersweet, and then he let me go.

~

After the funeral and the trial were settled and past, Rolande didn’t speak to me. He didn’t look at me, if it could be avoided. Nor did he speak to anyone else, when he could help it. The carefree, laughing prince I had known had been replaced by a more somber version of Rolande, and I couldn’t help but love him for it.

He spent most of his time with his daughter, or attending his royal duties. He buried himself in work.

Though I never saw him, I did see Ysandre. Half a year after Isabel’s death, I found myself posted as a tutor to the princess. She was still barely out of infancy, but I began to tutor her in language and history. Ysandre was curious and clever, although her father’s sadness had made a more serious child of her as well. I taught her anything she wished to learn, talking with her for hours and teaching her history by couching it as stories.

A year passed and I heard nothing from Rolande. I observed the anniversary of her death and the funeral without a word, focusing on my pupil and the more mature poetry I’d begun to write.

It wasn’t until spring that he came to me.

He came as Ysandre was leaving. Picking her up and spinning her around, he kissed his daughter on the forehead and sent her off to her music lessons, and then he came in to see me.

Surprised to see him, I looked up with ink-stained fingers from the writing lesson I’d been tidying up.

He smiled sadly at me, studying my face as if to refresh its memory in his heart. “Good morning, Anafiel.”

A rush of longing washed over me, and I set down the ink and papers. “Are you here to ask if I still love you?”

His smile became just a little bit more like the Rolande I remembered. “I am here to ask if you still love me.”

“Forever,” I swore to him, tugging him into my arms regardless of the inkstains. “I love you, Rolande. You, and only you.”