Adalia could feel his gaze on her and it made her itch all over. “I learned from the best,” she said as made her rounds around the wounded men. “They must have known we were coming here, why else would they attack.”
“They wanted to get rid of all of us at the same time,” he never thought about that. Now the wheels in his mind were turning. They had been targeted and no doubt there was a leak within the palace, no one else knew of the visit but the royal family, the royal guards and the advisers.
“The reinforcements are here,” Adalia heard Conan tell her father.
“Who brought them?”
“Xander,” Adalia’s tone rose when she said his name. Just then she saw, what she thought was, a hint of jealous in Archer eyes.
Xander was Adalia’s childhood friend. They played together and trained together. He was the first warrior that she had ever beaten and the first man she ever felt a pinch of emotion for. He had gone away on Royal business and that was all he told her at the time. Her father wouldn’t divulge why and where he had sent him either.
He was beautiful, not a beautiful as Archer, but still beautiful. Her first and last crush, she vowed. She didn’t like how her emotions made her feel weak and although she was sad to see him go, she was relieved. There was a point she thought that she could be content with just being a wife and a mother to be with him. She would put on the silk dresses with all the skirts and corsets, all the bows and tool, the makeup and the hair braiding; to Adalia her father sending him away had saved her. However, it had been a year and she still felt a certain something for him, but the weakness was replaced by her sword and she was sure she would never feel that again. But the mention of his name and seeing him made her feel all giddy inside.
The first thing that she caught sight of was his sandy blonde hair, then his hazel eyes, his strong muscles bulging underneath the black, red and silver of his armor and his perfect smile. He was all man.
Gabrielle shot Adalia a warning gaze that had her fidgeting on the spot. She wasn’t going to move or go anywhere near him. She had the mind of holding onto Archer’s hand just to keep her aware of his presence and keep her from moving. But a smile from Xander melted all the shackles her father’s gaze slammed on her to hold her still. She wanted to throw her arms around him and climb on top of him like a little monkey, but she couldn’t. She had to be dignified and proper; she was a Princess after all.
When his lips brushed against her knuckles she felt a cool rush run through her body. She took in a deep breath and let it out slowly in a shuddering breathe.
“Your highness,” he bowed. “You look as beautiful as always.”
She had missed his deep baritone voice when he whispered sweet nothings into her ears as he planted tiny feathery kisses on her neck. Her whole body wanted to lurch at him.
“Xander, it’s nice to see you,” she didn’t want to let go but she had to.
Archer stepped in between them, glad that he was half a head taller than the blond man. “I am Crown Prince Archer,” he never introduced himself using his full title but he needed to establish and claim the hierarchy, and that he was above the pecking order. He had dibs on everything in the palace and at that moment they included Adalia.
“Your highness,” there was an icy prick in the tone of his voice. “It’s a pleasure.”
“Let’s go,” Archer felt this canal and emotional possession over Adalia. Her gripped her elbow and led her away keeping his eye on Xander as he made his way to Gabrielle.
Archer watched Xander as he watched Adalia. He recognized the same possessiveness that he felt towards her. He recognized a look in his eyes, want and betrayal. Archer didn’t like him, or maybe it was because of Adalia and how she smiled whenever she looked over at Xander, and the fact that she never had smiled that way for him. In any case, to him it meant war.
“I think you should both change for dinner,” Liora said. “Your fathers have an announcement to make.”
Archer knew what that announcement was, and the jealous part of him was glad. But the practical side of him said that he wasn’t ready for any form of commitment. He looked over at Adalia and saw the faraway look in her eyes. He wished he knew what she was thinking, but he guessed he would find out when the announcement was made.
Adalia retreated to Novia’s room, there her dress and corset lay on the bed. Captivity, she thought. She gazed at herself in the mirror, armor, dirty face and a sword in her hand, this was who she was, but she was also a princess and that side of her had responsibilities that included marriage. She dropped the steel and sank into the bath prepared for her. She let the warmth envelop her and all her tension seep into it.
She stood up in the bath and the door opened. Her wings sprouted and covered her nakedness.
“Sorry..,” Archer put his hand over his eyes but not before he caught sight of snow creamy legs peeking out from under her wings. “I just came to tell you that dinner will be served in an hour.”
“One of the chamber maids would have done that. You said what you wanted... do you mind?”
“Mind what?” Archer’s hand dropped from his eyes and he immediately put it back. He realized what she was referring to. Adalia was still in the bath and she needed him out of the room. “I’ll go now.”
“You look beautiful,” Archer cooed when Adalia walked into the dining room. She was in the same dress that she wore before the attack, but this time she looked different in it. He gave her his arm and escorted her to her seat.
“You are in a dress,” Xander teased.
“She looks beautiful,” Archer shot at him.
“Thank you,” Adalia smiled at Archer and stuck her tongue out at Xander.
Archer only sat down once Xander had taken his seat further down the U shaped table. Once again he watched him as he watched her.
Adalia pretended that she was oblivious to the silent rivalry in the gazes Archer and Xander slammed into each other. It didn’t interest her. Not as much as the decision from the two Kings did. She looked around the grand dining room and all the crystal and white seemed foreign to her. She longed for the bold colors that canvassed her own palace. She longed for the red roses in her mother’s garden, her father’s royal shield that hang on a mantle in the throne room. Instead of the dress she was wearing she wanted her mother’s, her first armor, the training ground she fought on with her brother and the balcony where her grandmother would tell her stories and where she wrote in her diary.
She felt nostalgic and the decision of her marriage was yet to be rendered.
A clang of the glass pulled her out of her worm hole of memories and into the present. The two kings stood up and called them to their sides. Adalia trembled knowing that each step she took brought her closer to her new life and future.
Archer could see her shake. He felt everything she felt and imagined everything that she did feel and he couldn’t. He held onto her arm and they took their steps together.
“We celebrate because we are victorious and we are all alive,” Lionell began.
“We celebrate,” Gabrielle picked up. “Because, we are united. And in this unity we must have a symbol of the bond between our two families.
He took Adalia’s hand and Liora moved beside them. She tied the hem of her dress to Adalia just as tradition demanded. This was the sign that she was Adalia’s keeper until the time she took her marriage vows.
Ilana in turn stood up and took Archer’s scabbard a symbol that his sword was still at her command until he married. Then his sword would be at Adalia’s command, to serve his queen and his kingdom and no one else.
“Liora Queen of the South,” Lionel’s bold voice filled the tensed air. “I give you my son to be your daughter’s protector, companion, King and husband.”
Adalia trembled when she felt her dress tighten around her chest. She couldn’t breath and nor could Archer. She remained steady as his father took his hand and lifted it in the air. He had the impulse to run. To turn around and leave them all to their madness. But he couldn’t defy his father, shame his mother and reject Adalia. Duty held his feet firm to the ground he stood on. He saw the fear in her eyes, a weakness and uncertainty he had never seen in her raven eyes and he knew he had to stand by her.
“I accept,” her mother’s voice rang loud in her mind as she waited for her father to give her away.
“Ilana, Queen of the North, I give you my daughter as wife, confidant and keeper of your son’s secrets and future Queen of the North,” Gabrielle took Adalia’s hand and held it inches away from Archer. Two words separated them from being bound forever.
“I accept,” Ilana’s rosy voice filled the air.
Adalia never understood this ritual. How when it came to everything else it was her father who decided but when it came to marriage, it couldn’t happen without the mother accepting. She swallowed hard and almost burst out laughing when she saw Archer’s throat move and the gleam from the sweat on his forehead. Their hands were joined together by a ribbon from both families leading Adalia to think that this had been inevitable even without the attack. The vows that would soon follow would complete the marriage ritual.
She saw how nervous Archer was and she too wasn’t ready, so with all her wit gathered in a bunch Adalia spoke up. “Father, I think it would be better if we took our vows later.”
Archer was waiting how this would play out and where Adalia’s boldness would lead them. But the look in her eyes told him that she expected him to back her up but what exactly was he supposed to say. He had never before challenged his father’s authority. Lionell was King and Archer did everything that was asked for him. But Adalia had now presented him with the opportunity to speak his mind and he decided not to waste it.
“We talked about it,” he began the tone in his voice not supporting the rebellion. He cleared his throat and started over. “Adalia and I have talked about this. We accept the marriage but we felt that it would be better if we took the oaths once we got to know each other better.”
“Yes,” she jumped in. “We don’t want to regurgitate everyone else’s vows. This is too important not to enter into it seriously. We want to make our vows our own and the best way of doing that would be getting to know each other better,” she took Archer’s hand in emphasis and let out a sigh of relief when neither king refused.
The rest of the night was spent in laughter. But Archer could see Adalia was still thinking. She excused herself from the table and headed out.
Archer saw Xander begin to stand up to follow, so he decided he would beat him to it. He breathed in the cold night air, a welcomed relief from the smell of ale and roasted pig. He first caught sight of her raven hair, as it danced in the night breeze. Then her snow white face and red lips, a vision. He took a step forward but stopped. He didn’t want to spoil the perfect picture by putting himself in it.
Adalia was a warrior, and the first thing she learnt was to rely on her senses and not just her eyes. She was like a predator and she knew when someone was lurking around her. Standing still, she didn’t move although the feeling of Archer’s eyes on her made her uncomfortable. But when the pause between his steps stretched out, she had to say something.
“I can feel your eyes on me,” she laughed. “What are you so afraid of?”
“Nothing,” he laughed and his deep timbered voice startled her. She had never heard anyone laugh like that. Plus, she had never had such a reaction. It was like the waves of his voice vibrated through her body.
“I came out here to think,” she said when she finally got her composure.
“What about?” Adalia could feel the warmth of his body as he stood behind her. The close proximity was too much for her naïve body to bear. She wanted to move away but her body wouldn’t let her. She had the urge to lean back into his arms. But she caught her body before it betrayed her.
“What had you so deep in thought, before I interrupted?” His hot breath tickled his eardrum.
She took several breaths to calm her rapidly unraveling nerves. “You, me and our families,”
The word our hung heavy in the midnight air. Lurking around them, like a prison sentence waiting for them to take their vows of marriage. She exhaled wishing that she could let go of her insecurities just as easily.
“Our families,” he repeated an exasperated sigh escaping from his lips. “Do you want to marry?”
Adalia spun around to stare at him, sending her thick hair flying, brushing against his face. She watched as Archer caught a strand and slipped it through his fingers like soft silk. Her heart swelled with a tender ache, which terrified her. She had to get back to the subject.
“Will you force me to lay down my sword?” She said it as if it were a condition to their marriage and hoped that Archer would take it as so. Adalia had seen how her mother watched as she trained. It was like dangling a bottle of water in front of a man who had spent a decade roaming around in a desert. She wasn’t going to be that man in the desert.
“I wouldn’t think of it,”
“I would defy you if you would,” she challenged.
She watched as Archer’s lips spread into a smile, making the corners of his eyes crinkle. His silver eyes pinned her in place as he said. “I know that. I don’t put it past you to defy me. From the second I saw you battling the rebels on the castle walls, I knew you were born to have a sword in your hand. Besides, how could I ever deny you or myself her glory on the battlefield?”
Archer’s palm stroked her cheek and Adalia couldn’t resist but to lean into it. “But,” her eyes flew open at the sound of the halt in that word. “It must be within reason. My duty would be to protect you and our children,” Our children, her heart shot into her throat. “You are my priority, and so are our kingdoms. It is my duty to be the best King, husband and father I can be.”
Adalia noticed the order in which his titles came. “How do you do it?” She couldn’t imagine her free will being taken away from her. “How do you just obey your father’s every command? Or submit to within the borders of your title?”
“I was bred for duty and responsibility. My Kingdom and my crown are more important than that I desire or personally need,” a frown perched between his brows. “Those words have been drummed into my head ever since I was a baby. I was bred for duty.”
“That is sad,” her father never made her feel like she was just a crown. But she knew she would get along with Archer. It would only be a matter of time, but only if he didn’t deny her, her favorite pass time. Her sword.
“You will be happy,” he swore.
Adalia was relieved, but she wasn’t sure that the promise was enough to make her marry. She wanted to ask hundreds of follow up questions, like if he would still feel the same way when they would have children but she didn’t. She wished she had her diary with her, although it wouldn’t give her an answer it would give her relief.
“What are you thinking about now?” Archer stroked her cheek once more.
She noticed how his face looked perfect in the light of the moon, especially when he was concerned. Like a painting.
“My diary,” she regretted the words as soon as they left her lips. Adalia waited for the teasing that she was sure would soon follow. “I guess you think it’s silly that with the same hand I wield my blade, I use to write down my thought and emotions,” what a sap.
Archer laughed. She seemed to surprise him at each and every corner they took.
Adalia felt insulted by his bellowing laughter. But worse off she felt embarrassed. “I don’t think it’s funny.”
“I do,” he gasped out. But Adalia’s hostile gaze slammed into his and he went silent. “I remember the blade you keep hidden under your skirt. I think it is best for me to explain myself before you get any angrier.”
“I wouldn’t hurt you, intentionally,” she gave him a sly smile. “You are my future husband after all.”
“I think it’s funny that out of all the women my father would have chosen for me he picked one who kept a diary.”
Her eyebrow rose questioningly.
“I keep a journal,” Archer said in once breathe.
“You mean a diary?” She answered amused, finally finding the funny part.