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The Nudger Nudged

 
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Rolanda
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 05, 2018 9:23 am    Post subject: The Nudger Nudged Reply with quote

Rift Fell Castle without the court in session was a quiet, calm sort of place, a surprising change for anyone who might have seen it otherwise. Those summoned in this interim period had audiences with the king, and sometimes the queen, in a small greeting chamber, with far less of the pomp and circumstance than they might have been expecting. And this was the case with the knight summoned to the castle in haste on this day - King George, known to friends and family as Frederick, awaited him in this greeting chamber, attended only by the queen and his chancellor, Franz.

The knight was younger than most to have earned an estate of his own and a place of honor at court, but the king was nothing if not fair, and he believed in rewarding those in his service who had proven themselves deserving. Franz had inquired discreetly and found the young man was not yet married or betrothed, but he was not able to ascertain whether or not he had a mistress. As for the knight, he only knew what had been written in the message and did not truly know why he had been summoned to the king's court. He assumed the king wanted something of him, perhaps some new duty or position. Whatever it was, he could do nothing but obey. He was ushered past the guards and into the greeting chamber nearly as soon as he'd arrived, looking a little weary from the journey.

It was hardly necessary to announce his arrival, as the king was expecting him. The young man went down on one knee before the king and queen, sandy-brown hair falling across his brow as he dipped his head in a show of respect.

"Sire, Highness," he addressed both king and queen, without yet meeting their gaze. "I have come as quickly as I could." Sir Hugo d'Aranie had arrived at court at last.

Franz grinned at Frederick over the bowing knight's head. "Sir Hugo d'Aranie, your majesties," he introduced them a little belatedly.

Serafina glanced between her husband and his friend in slight confusion. "Please rise, Sir Hugo," she told him in her soft way.

He remained where he was, with his head bowed, until the queen gave him permission to rise, upon which he moved to his full height and lifted his clear blue-eyed gaze to the royals before him. "It is an honor to meet you, Majesty," he said, addressing the queen and offering another bow for her benefit.

"It is a pleasure to meet you, Sir Hugo," she countered gently. "Please, there is no need to stand upon ceremony. Would you care for some refreshment?"

"That would be most welcome, Majesty," the young knight replied, looking grateful for the offer, as he'd spent the better part of the day on the road, pausing only long enough to let his horse eat and drink and rest.

"Welcome to Riftfell, Sir Hugo. Or should I say welcome home to Carantan?" the king greeted the young knight, a friendly smile on his face.

As Serafina rang a small crystal bell set beside her chair that would summon refreshments, Franz checked the door and quietly dismissed the guards, assuring them that there was no danger to their king while this famed knight of the realm was with him.

The young knight took note of the fact that Franz was dismissing the guards, brows arching upwards. Though he was a trusted knight of the realm, that did not entirely explain why they might dismiss the guards, unless it had something to do with the reason he was summoned here. He knew better than to ask though; all would be revealed in good time. Instead, he replied to his king's welcome, with a carefully schooled expression on his face.

"Thank you, sire. It has been some time since I've been home." Whether he had an estate in Aranie or not, Carantan would always feel like home.

"You should visit us here more often, perhaps," Serafina offered. Though she was something of a shy sort, she never failed to offer a welcoming smile to those her husband trusted. "Please, be seated, Sir Hugo. You have had a long journey."

"Thank you, Highness," Hugo replied, echoing the thank you he'd just offered the king. He lowered himself into a chair, careful not to get too comfortable in their presence. They had still not explained why he'd been summoned, but he knew they would eventually. "I must offer my congratulations on your wedding. I am sorry I was unable to attend," he told them both.

"It was rather short notice." Sera laughed quietly, glancing up as a servant brought in a steaming tureen of soup, and another with a tray of coffee. The servants curtsied at the smiles offered their way, and quickly left the room, Sera in turn rising to serve their guest.

The unmistakable smell of the coffee was far more tempting than the soup, and much needed after a long day's travel. Hugo arched a brow as the servants departed, leaving the queen to serve them herself. This was, obviously, no ordinary queen, but he didn't think that was a bad thing.

"You must be wondering why we summoned you here today," Frederick finally said, taking an edge off the suspense.

"I cannot deny I am curious, Sire," Hugo replied, but did not prompt him further.

"What do you know of Ansburg, Sir Hugo?" Franz asked curiously, almost blushing as the queen handed him a cup of coffee. He wasn't yet used to a queen who would rather serve than be served yet.

Sera bit her lip at the chancellor's expression, turning to pass a cup to the knight before serving the king and herself.

"Ansburg, sire?" Hugo echoed, brows arching upwards. "It is our largest seaport. Most of our coffee and cocoa go through Ansburg." He looked between the trio, but mostly he looked to Franz and Frederick. "Is there trouble in Ansburg?" he asked, immediately assuming he'd been summoned her for some military reason.

Franz glanced at the king. "Let us say ... there is the potential for trouble in Ansburg," he said carefully. "The king has decided to send an emissary of sorts of ensure that trouble does not fall too disastrously upon the family there."

Trouble, thought Hugo. He would need to know more than that. "What kind of trouble?" he asked further, needing to know how to prepare and what to expect once he arrived. Would he be going alone or bringing some men along with him?

"We suspect that there is the beginning of a plot against the crown coming to fruition in Ansburg, aimed at the ducal family there," Franz informed him. "The current duke is unwell, and his daughter believes it an unnatural illness. Her elder sister's children are both under ten years old, and the removal of the duke would mean that - should he be persuaded to change his will - the next duke will be in his minority for a long time. The boy is also currently fourth in line for the throne. Should unsavoury elements gain influence over him, it is reasonable to expect that others in line for the throne will also be removed."

"I see," Hugo replied, taking this all in. He was still not sure what they wanted of him, but he knew that would come clear before long. "Who stands to gain the most if the others are removed?" he asked, assuming they had suspicions as to who was behind such a plot.

"The child," Sera said sadly. "He is barely six years old, and lost both his parents in a suspicious accident last year. At present, he and his sister are in the care of their uncle, a merchant in Ansburg itself. But should things move on without our interference, it is reasonable to assume that their uncle, the duke's daughter - their aunt -, and the duke himself will all be buried within a year, leaving the children to the care of a earl named Rivers."

"But the child cannot possibly have anything to do with such a plot, so it must be this earl," Hugo reasoned aloud.

"Precisely," Freddie confirmed. "We believe the plot might be part of a larger scheme to gain control, first of Ansburg, and then of Aranie."

"Our intention is to send Princess Rolanda to Ansburg," Franz then explained. "Her visit will not be suspected as anything but that of a cousin until she arrives, at which point she may need your assistance to hold the Earl at bay while she makes certain arrangements around the ducal family."
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 05, 2018 9:24 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"I see," Hugo replied, intelligent enough to fill in the blanks of their plan. The mention of Rolanda surprised him a little, though his only visible reaction was a brief quirk of an eyebrow. "And you wish me to pose as an escort," he said, though he would, in truth, be fulfilling that duty, as well as helping her hold the earl at bay.

"Indeed," Franz agreed. "You will also be traveling with Doctor Steinberger, and the princess' personal cook, both of whom will be remaining in Ansburg when you return."

That got another look of mild surprise from him, but it made sense given what else he'd been told. "You suspect poison, then," Hugo deduced. "It will be hard to prove."

"At this point, proof of the poisoning is desired, but not wholly necessary," the chancellor went on. "However, if proof can be found of the plot itself, and perhaps of collusion between Earl Rivers and the son of Duke Omberto ... that is something that can be turned to our advantage."

Hugo knew proof of the poisoning would fall upon the doctor, not him, unless he was called upon to coerce information from the earl in some way. It was unpleasant work, but he would do whatever his king asked of him and whatever was necessary to keep the royals safe. "You believe Albert is behind the plotting?" he asked, not terribly surprised by this, considering what he knew of the man.

"We believe he has been involved in some manner," Franz said, just as carefully as before. "Though it is highly doubtful that he would have been made aware that the aim appears to put a suggestible child on the throne, rather than himself."

"How high are they aiming?" Hugo asked, bluntly, wondering how deep this plot went and what exactly they were aiming for. If they gained control of both duchies, it wasn't hard to imagine them making a play for the throne. Up until now, both the king and queen had remained mostly silent. Freddie had a grave expression on his face, even as he allowed his chancellor to explain the situation.

Sera's hands had folded protectively over her midriff, a silent but powerful statement that could not be retracted.

Franz sighed quietly. "We fear that they are aiming for this throne, and through the boy's sister, possibly for the High throne in Pomerania."

The knight's brows arched upwards again in undisguised concern and surprise. "That is ambitious," he replied. That was one word for it, anyway, and that was putting it mildly. It didn't miss his notice how the queen was protectively holding her hands over her midriff, but it was not his place to question it. "I am your loyal servant, sire," he said, though they likely knew this already or wouldn't have summoned him. "I will do whatever is necessary and whatever is asked of me."

"Our goal in this endeavor is to make it absolutely clear to Earl Rivers that the crown is watching him, that causing harm to the family is not something he will survive," Franz explained. "It is a warning, and all the better should he heed that warning. Should he not heed it, he will do so with the certain knowledge that he is risking his head."

"The princess will be arranging a marriage, in order to layer protection to the duke's daughter as well as his grandchildren," Sera added gently. "It may well be that they will return with you to the capital."

Yet more intrigues. It was at times like these that Hugo was glad he was only a knight and only had to do what he was told. He was happy with his station in life and did not envy those who wore targets on their backs, simply because of their birthright. "Pardon my boldness, but ..." He paused a moment, as if he was hesitant to suggest what he was about to say. "If what you suspect is true, then the man is a traitor and does not deserve your mercy." He was not suggesting murder exactly, but they would be safer without such a man as a threat.

"But we are not savages, Sir Hugo," Sera said in her soft way. "If the man can be swayed from his course, then it should be encouraged. Mercy is the prerogative of kings."

"That is a very big if, Your Highness," Hugo replied, as he glanced to the queen. He might be young but he had seen enough of wars and plots to know that evil men were rarely persuaded to change their allegiances.

"But the queen is correct, Sir Knight," Franz interjected. Two months was plenty of time for him to have learned what it meant when his young queen flushed and lowered her eyes - that she thought she had spoken out of turn and wrongly. "I would recommend seeking proof of the end result he desires. If it is to put this boy on the throne, then passing that information to Albert Omberto will certainly encourage him to renounce his ambitions and sell his fellow conspirators to us in self-protection."

Hugo had not said that the queen was incorrect; his only concern was for their safety, after all. "My apologies, Highness. I spoke out of turn, but only due to my loyalty to the crown," he said, lowering his head to Serafina in a gesture of reverence and remorse.

"It is because of your loyalty that you have been summoned here, Sir Hugo. There is no question about that," Frederick interjected.

Sera accepted the apology with a shy nod, but her mouth stayed closed. She would likely not speak again unless her quiet sense of embarrassment faded quickly.

Franz looked to the king. "Shall I ask for the princess to be summoned here, sire?"

Hugo was still looking a little remorseful, but the mention of Princess Rolanda had him looking a little worried. "Sire, are you sure it is I you wish to escort the princess?" he asked, not wanting to question the king or his chancellor's wisdom, but they both knew he had some history with the princess in question.

"There is no one I trust more with my sister's safety, Sir Hugo," Frederick confirmed with a small smile.

"No one else who stands a chance at keeping her under control," Franz added, not quite under his breath. He might even have said that just to make the queen smile, smirking to himself as he moved to the door to summon the guard waiting at the end of the hallway and send him to request the princess' presence.

"Might I remind Your Highness that the princess and I did not part on precisely friendly terms," Hugo pointed out, unsure what Rolanda might think of him now or if she had ever forgiven him for whatever offense it was that had set her against him.

"Surely, Sir Hugo," Sera ventured uncertainly, "surely you do not believe that the opinions of a woman at twelve years old are still held close to her heart at two and twenty?"

"I would hope not, Majesty," Hugo replied, with an almost apologetic smile. He had never met the queen before and wanted her to like him, but it seemed they had not started off on the right foot as yet. "I was barely much older than that myself and a bit of a scamp."

"I should think all small boys are more than a little scampish, sir knight," she answered, a shy flicker of a smile showing itself on her face. "I have three younger brothers myself, and I must confess, I was the one who lead them into mischief. My stepmother must be awfully bored with their perfect manners since I left them."

"I hope Rol, er, the princess will overlook the sins of my past," Sir Hugo replied with a smile her way. He found her quite charming thus far, closer to his own age than the king's but he could understand what it was he had seen in her.

"It does not matter whether she does or she doesn't," Frederick interjected. "Princess or not, I am still the king," he said, with the hint of a grin. He did not like to throw his weight around often, but wasn't afraid to do so when it was necessary.

"Perhaps the way to overlook sins of the past is to commit sins of the present," Franz suggested in a teasing tone, laughing at the wide-eyed look that crossed the young queen's face for a brief moment. "Begging your pardon, your majesty, of course."

"That is a dangerous suggestion to make, especially where my sister is concerned," Freddie remarked, with a hint of teasing in his own eyes. His hand reached for that of Sera's, wrapping his fingers around hers with obvious affection.

Hugo did not quite seem to know what to think of the bantering, but managed to murmur, "I can assure you my intentions are honorable, Majesties."

"Hers may not be," Franz began, but was unable to continue, for the door opened to admit Princess Rolanda - wearing shoes this time, thankfully - in all her glory.

"You wanted me, brother dear?"
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 05, 2018 9:24 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Frederick cleared his throat as his sister joined them, thankful she was looking more like a princess and less like a wildflower. "Yes, Rolly. This is Sir Hugo d'Aranie. He is to be your escort," Freddie introduced the knight in question, waiting to see if she'd remember him.

Hugo moved to his feet as soon as Rolanda entered the room, but waited for her to speak first.

"Oh?" The princess turned to look at her proposed escort, her expression of polite interest quickly superseded by a rather cheeky smile. "Sir Hugo, now?" she asked in amusement. "Tell me, Sir Hugo ... do you still harbor the same opinions about women bearing swords?"

"In light of Queen Brynhilde of Carib, my opinion regarding women bearing swords may have changed somewhat in recent years," Hugo replied, attempting to hide a small smirk of his own. He was only too happy to banter with her, if that's what she wanted.

"How far, I wonder?" Rolly asked, ignoring the way her sister-in-law was looking curiously between her and the king. She couldn't see Franz eyeing her back as though she were a snake about to strike, either.

"Not far enough to allow you to travel to Ansburg without an escort, apparently," Hugo replied, almost forgetting he was talking to a princess and not the unruly girl he'd once known.

Her brows rose as he answered, hands moving to her hips for a moment as she considered him. "I see." Rolanda turned to her brother. "The ballroom is still unlocked, isn't it?"

Hugo arched his brows, wondering if she was going to drag him into the ballroom to berate him privately, rather than publicly. Well, that should be amusing anyway.

As for Freddie, he was looking far too amused for his own good and trying very hard to suppress a laugh. "Hmm? Yes, it's unlocked."

"Marvelous!" Rolanda beamed, turning her eyes back toward Hugo. "Let us see how far your oft-expressed opinion has stretched, shall we? Don't forget to pick a sword."

She flashed a grin at the queen, who was staring at her open-mouthed, and turned to pull a rapier from behind the shield mounted above the fireplace, heading for the door with a purposeful stride.

Hugo's eyes narrowed at the challenge and the position she had put him in. He could not very well beat her or he might hurt her, but he was too proud to let her win without meeting the challenge. "You do not seriously endorse this, do you?" he asked, turning to the king for aid.

Freddie shrugged. He had long ago stopped trying to control his sister. "Would you rather take her over your knee?" he countered. "Try not to hurt her," he added, waving him off.

"Come along, sir knight," Rolanda added from the door. "Unless you are afraid of a woman bearing a sword and wish to concede without honor."

"That is not a sword, princess. It is a rapier," Hugo corrected. Though it was arguably a type of sword, it was one more fit for duels than battle, in his opinion. He wondered how she would feel were she to try and lift his broadsword.

"You are afraid," she teased. "Oh, little Hugo with his too big boots and his belt falling down is still scared of a princess with a sharp stick."

Franz utterly failed to disguise a snort of laughter, despite his best effort to turn it into a cough.

"A sharp stick would hardly help you in battle, princess," he said, emphasizing her title, just as she had his. "With your permission, Majesties," he said, bowing to the queen and king before stalking across the room and plucking an equally sharp rapier from the wall.

"Do try not to hurt one another too much," the queen suggested, a falter in her voice suggesting she was close to incredulous laughter herself. "Blood is so difficult to get out of marble."

Rolanda laughed cheerfully, crooking her finger at the knight as she left the room, heading for the ballroom with a long stride. She didn't doubt she was about to be beaten, but she'd taken lessons from Crown Prince Stephan alongside his wife and a few of her ladies in the past year or so. She thought she could make a good showing, at least.

"I am not sure what it is you are trying to prove," Hugo whispered, a hiss of breath at her back as she followed her from the greeting room, leaving the king and queen behind to join them or not, as they wished. He was aware of their amusement at Rolanda's challenge, but she had put him in a tricky position.

"That the world has changed, that I have grown up a little, that I can still best you even if you think you've won," she said over her shoulder through a wicked smirk, aware that no one was following them to the ballroom.

"Still as headstrong as you were ten years ago," he replied with a chuckle, his stride easily catching up with her. He stood at least a head taller than her now, and was broad in the shoulders and arms, while she appeared as delicate as a flower.

"Do you think I am bluffing, Hugo?" she asked in amusement, waving away the footman to open the door to the ballroom herself. It was a very large space - more than big enough for a one-sided duel - and brightly lit with sunshine from floor-length windows along one wall.

"I think you are trying to prove something that does not need proving," he replied, coming to a halt just outside the doors. But if they were going to argue, maybe they should do it where others couldn't overhear them.

"And what is it you think I am trying to prove, Hugo?" she asked archly, stepping smartly into the ballroom and turning to face him. "Do you believe yourself capable of reading my mind now?"

"I believe you are still trying to prove you are as capable as any man," he said, following her inside and closing the door behind them. Whether they were going to actually fence or not was up to them.

"Then you are very wrong, Sir Hugo," she informed him, watching as he closed the door. "For if you remember me half as well as you claim to, you should know that this is not about swordplay."

"What is it about then?" he asked, as he turned back. He really didn't want to fight her, and if he was afraid, it was mostly because he was afraid of hurting her.

"A promise."

There was a clang as her sword dropped to the floor, as her hand cupped his jaw and pulled him down to meet her kiss. She'd promised him her first kiss when she'd been just eight years old, and despite all the conflicts of their friendship in childhood, she'd kept that promise, it seemed.

Too stunned to reply, the rapier remained in his hand, though he moved it away so that he did not risk injuring her as she moved close. He had not been expecting a kiss and he certainly had no way of knowing that this truly was her first kiss, even after all these years. Instead, his free hand fell to her waist, fingers light against the fabric of her dress while his lips plied hers, soft and warm and welcoming.

It was not a long kiss, nor more than a chaste one, but Rolanda was smiling as she drew back, her hands gentle against his shoulder and chest. "Well ... that was worth waiting for."

"I take it we are not fencing then?" he asked uncertainly, as she drew back from that kiss. One could never tell where Rolanda was concerned. She had never been very predictable, and it seemed that had not changed.

"Not unless you'd prefer to fence," she told him, her eyes sparkling with impish mischief at having surprised him so much he didn't quite know what to make of all this.

"Definitely not!" he replied, tossing the rapier away to join hers on the floor with a metallic clatter. "You've grown up, Rolly," he said, stepping back a pace to take a better look at her.
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 05, 2018 9:25 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

She laid her hands on her hips with a low laugh. "Well, I certainly don't have buck teeth and pigtails any more," she agreed. Her expression softened. "You've changed, Hugo. I think I like the man you've become."

He chuckled. "You never had buck teeth," he said, speaking the truth as he saw it. He had always thought her pretty, albeit headstrong. Stubborn and willful almost to the point of arrogance, but intelligent and cunning, too. He reached for her hand, tangling his fingers with hers. "You think?" he asked, amusement lighting his face.

"Well, I do not know for certain yet," she laughed, happy to let her fingers tangle with his. She was fairly certain this was definitely not what her brother had considered might happen. "It seems we will have a good week or so to make certain before I ask for your hand in marriage."

Hugo blinked. Of everything she could have said to him in that moment, he was not expecting that, but was she serious or just teasing? She was perfectly within her rights to ask for his hand, rather than the other way around, but he had not been expecting it. "Marriage? You are teasing me now, Rolly," he said, wondering if she would confirm or deny.

"Perhaps," she conceded, knowing she was something of an enigma to many people. "But if you truly believe me to be that much of a tease, why would you have allowed me to kiss you? Would I truly not have kissed anyone until I saw you again?"

"You are asking me questions for which I do not have answers," he told her, feeling a little frustrated, as frustrated as she'd made him feel all those years ago, when they were still little more than children. She had the answers to those questions, not him.

"Then you think me a liar?" she asked, leaning back a little, though her hand did not leave his. "To offer you something that is mine to give - the only thing that is mine to give - and then give it to someone else who would mean far less to me and care no more for me than for my title?"

"No, of course not, but ..." He trailed off a moment, not wanting to offend her, but unsure just how to explain. "Rolly, it has been ten years. Why did you not seek me out? You must have known where I was," he said curiously. If her brother had not summoned him here today, they would not even be having this conversation.

"I have been back in the country for less than a month, Hugo," she reminded him. "I have a new sister, who is ... timid, at the best of times, and not only that, but is expecting her first child. I haven't seen my brother for six years. The land has changed since I left. I would have come to find you in a few weeks, had this not happened. But surely you can understand that I need to reconnect with my family after so long an absence."

"Yes, of course I understand," he replied with a sigh, tightening his grip on her fingers just a little, as if he was afraid to let go. If anyone was listening, they might wonder why there was no sound of blades clashing behind closed doors. "Did you know that I am not yet wed?" he asked, still curious.

She hesitated for a moment. "I ... I made discreet inquiries when I got back," she admitted, glancing down at their joined fingers. "I wish I could say that I am sorry your betrothal fell through, but I'm not sorry at all. You're the only man I have ever even considered worth loving, Hugo, and we both know I'm stubborn enough to force the issue if I have to."

"Perhaps you should wait until we have made this journey to decide for certain," he suggested, not wanting her to rush into a decision they might both later regret. "Give us time to know each other again," he suggested, even as his thumb gently rubbed against her hand.

Hope lit up her eyes as she met his gaze. "That-that wasn't a no, Hugo," she murmured wonderingly. Was she really that lucky? And for that matter, what was her brother going to make of this?

If only she knew how her brother and Franz had hoped and plotted for this very outcome. "When have I ever been able to tell you no, Rolly?" he asked with the hint of a smirk on his face. Even as much as they tormented each other as children, he had almost always given in to her whims and desires.

She laughed, stepping closer to rest her hand against his chest. "You may have to learn how to tell me no," she warned. "I'm quite willful these days, and I don't always know when to stop."

"When have you not been willful?" he murmured, one arm going around her waist as she moved closer. He hardly minded, though, if her stubborn streak was to blame for the fact that he was holding her in his arms. He tipped her chin up, his head dipping downward to meet her lips, all too aware of the soft curve of her body so close to his.

His lips found her smile, soft and ready to be kissed as she leaned into him, ready to learn how to perform this part of being a woman that she had only read about in silly romances and watched from afar in marriages she had been friends with. "So you will come to Ansburg with me?"

"The king has ordered it," he said as his lips parted hers, but even if he hadn't, he could think of nothing he would rather do. His smile faded when he remembered the true purpose of their trip there though. "It could prove dangerous," he told her, though he assumed she knew the reason for their journey. He would not have been surprised to know that all of this had been her idea.

"It could, yes," she agreed. "Which is why you are coming with me. But I am hoping that we will be able to move quickly enough that we will disrupt plans in place and prevent new ones being formed. I am quite capable of being a petty princess if it gets what I want."

"I do not like the sound of this, Rolly," he said, ever a knight of the realm. Protecting the royal line was his duty; it was in his blood. It was what he had been raised from a small boy to do. It was all he had ever known or wanted, other than her. He had long dreamed of making her his wife, but those dreams had been shattered when she'd left for Pomerania. He had, in fact, never thought to see her again. The fact that she was there in his arms was enough to make his head spin, not to mention the plot they were being asked to foil.

"If I want to protect my cousins, my family, Hugo, then this is what I must do," she told him. "I need you to stand with me, to guard my back. I can handle a verbal fight, but if it escalates, I will need you."

He had a feeling she had not chosen him. No, it was likely the king who had done that. It was an honor to be so trusted with the princess' safety, and yet, it was also something of a burden, but a burden he preferred to shoulder himself. "I will, Rolly. I will do my best to keep you and your cousins safe."

"I know," she promised him. "Why else do you think I didn't immediately object when I saw you standing there? I know you will keep us safe."

"I thought perhaps you didn't recognize me?" he teased, a smirk upon his lips, blue eyes bright with amusement. "It has been so long, Rolanda. I did not think I would ever see you again," he confessed with a sigh.

She smiled up at him. "I have never broken a promise, Hugo," she assured him. "I never intended to break any promise I made to you. Although I do believe I only promised you the first kiss ..." Now that was a tease.

He smiled again, amused by her teasing. "What must I do then to earn more?" he asked, willing to do most anything to win her heart, just as willing today as he'd been ten years ago.

Rolanda's smile deepened, glad he was still as light-hearted as he had been when she had left. "Don't treat me like a princess unless you absolutely must," she suggested. "Too many people place emphasis on the crown and not the person wearing it. I trust you to see me, and not my title."

"I see both," he replied, though he understood what it was she was trying to tell him. "Would you like me to tug on your braids again?" he teased with a hint of a smirk. That had been a long time ago, before she had gone away to Pomerania to learn how to be a princess, while he was becoming a knight.

"Maybe on the wedding night." The words were out before she could stop them, but the brilliant blush that lit up her cheeks punctuated her subsequent giggle with charming innocence. She could play the game, certainly, but it was obvious she'd never been an active participant.

There went those brows of his again, arching upwards, wondering if she was really serious about marriage or just teasing him. She could do worse than to marry a knight, especially one who cared for her the way he did, but she could do better, too. She was settling for a knight, when she might have had a prince, and yet, she didn't seem to mind. "Tell me, princess," he said, drawing her closer, one arm around her waist. "Was that really your first kiss?"
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 05, 2018 9:26 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

She bit her lip, her smile gentling even as she offered just the barest suggestion of tension at the new closeness. Tension that eased swiftly, yes, but it was there for a heartbeat. "Yes," she confessed, almost shy if it was possible for Rolanda to be shy at all. "Unless you count being taught how to do it by Jane and Marianne."

There was a look of mingled surprise and confusion on his face at her reply. "You ... were taught how to kiss by ... the Crown Princess of Pomerania?" he asked, wondering just how one learned how to kiss without actually doing it. He'd had lessons of his own, but they'd been much different than hers.

"Among other things, yes." Rolanda laughed softly at the look on his face. "It involved fruit. And that really is all I am going to say on the matter. Yours are the only lips I have ever kissed."

The thought of her kissing a piece of fruit in place of lips made him laugh. "I should hope my kisses are better than a piece of fruit," he said, his eyes bright with amusement. "What am I competing against? An apple or an orange?" he teased.

"If you must know," she told him, trying hard not to laugh, "it was ... a series of peaches that that been carved into lips. You may rest assured that you are neither as sticky, nor as dribbly, as a ripe peach."

"But am I as sweet?" he asked, unable to hide the smirk of amusement on his lips. He had always enjoyed teasing her, though he was no longer a foolish boy who only knew how to show his interest by tugging her braids. He had learned that there were far better ways to win a woman's interest.

"Mmm, difficult to say," she teased him in return, the confidence given to her by her years at the Pomeran court definitely having added a certain lustre to her personality. "There were a lot of peaches."

"Shall I kiss you again so you can be sure?" he asked, confident she would prefer the taste of his lips to that of any kind of fruit. He leaned so close that his lips were hovering only inches from hers, close enough to tell that her eyes were closer to green than gray. How had he never noticed that before?

Her fingers stroked against the fabric of his tunic, flexing to grip for the briefest moment before relaxing once again. She could feel his breath against her lips, enchanted by how careful he was of going too far, even when she had already stepped far beyond the bounds of propriety. "I may need more than one kiss to be certain."

Thankfully, there was no one there to see them and no one had followed. He knew they were both taking a risk by indulging their desires, but he was no fool and knew better than to risk ruining her by going too far. Even so, he gently nudged her lips open with his tongue, eager to explore a little further, and perhaps tempt her with a sweeter fruit than that of a peach.

Now that, she had not expected. No one had told her that the other person was allowed to play with your tongue as you played with theirs, and yet Rolanda barely even hesitated. She gave him her gasp, her soft tremor of surprised desire, the rippling curl of her fingers to his jaw ... and surrendered to his kiss. If he had been uncertain of her certainty before that moment, there was no need for such now. This princess never gave way unless it was her choice.

Now that she was wrapped in his arms, their lips locked together in a passionate kiss, he almost forgot where they were and that she was a princess. She would always be Rolly to him, the girl he had loved since he'd been a boy, but she was so much more than that. He forgot, too, that they were supposed to be fencing, and that before long, someone might come looking for them to make sure neither had hurt the other. All he knew in that moment, all he cared about, was the girl in his arms who had grown into the most beautiful woman he had ever known.

No amount of dreaming or pretending with fruit could possibly have prepared Rolly for how it felt to be held and kissed and wanted like this. Hugo was gentle with her, but there was no denying that somehow he had wanted this too, despite their years of separation. There was nothing, no one, but him.

Until the door opened, and a familiar voice let out a gasp of surprise.

"Oh! Oh, I am dreadfully sorry," Sera apologised, swiftly turning her eyes away from the passionate embrace. "Ah ... Freddie was concerned you might have actually hurt one another."

Another man might have been mortified to have been caught with the princess in his arms, but Hugo only smiled as he pulled himself away. He was simply too happy to feel very guilty about sharing those kisses. "Apologies, Majesty. We, er ... We were getting reacquainted with each other," he said, with a slightly guilty smile, mostly for Rolanda.

"So I see." But there was no censure in Sera's smile, as she glanced swiftly to them and away again, unwilling to interrupt such a private moment too forcefully.

Rolanda laughed, hugging her arms about Hugo's waist for a moment. "Oh, do relax, Sera," she teased her sister-in-law. "I'm sure you know what a kiss is by now."

Hugo might have extricated himself from Rolanda's embrace, given the queen's unexpected interruption, but who was he to argue with the princess? He hadn't lied - they were getting reacquainted, or maybe better acquainted. And if the princess really did want them to be married, there was no harm in a few kisses. "Perhaps, with your leave, Majesty, Rol-the princess and I might take a walk in the garden."

"Perhaps, Sir Hugo, it would be better that you eat," Serafina suggested, glancing to Rolanda with a curious brow. "Lunch is to be served for you in the small dining room - I am afraid the king and I have already eaten, but I do not think the princess will mind keeping you company."

Hugo arched a brow, wondering if they really had already eaten or if she was making excuses so that he could spend a little more time alone with Rolanda. There was bound to be talk if they were found spending too much time alone together, but then, there was no one left at court to spread rumors. "I must admit, I am a bit hungry," he replied, remembering he hadn't eaten anything in some hours.

"It is best that you become easy in one another's company," Sera added, the barest suggestion of mischief in her gentle smile. "You will be traveling together come the dawn." She inclined her head to Hugo, smiled at Rolanda, and slipped from the room.

They could hear her giggling to herself as she walked away. Rolanda turned her eyes back to Hugo. "I do believe the queen has just given me permission to keep you all to myself for at least another hour."

"We are leaving in the morning?" he asked. He understood the importance of their task ahead, but he had only just arrived. He would only have one night's rest before he set off on yet another journey, this time to the ducal estate outside Ansburg.

Rolanda nodded reluctantly. "We need to move quickly," she told him, stepping back to tuck her hands into the crook of his arm and lead him from the ballroom. "Should the duke die before we reach Ansburg, the task of securing the family there will be far harder."

He glanced briefly at the rapiers they had left on the floor, presuming someone - some servant or other, most likely - would come by and return them to where they belonged. But most of his attention was focused on Rolanda, bending his arm to accommodate her. "Understood," he replied, sobering as he remembered how dire their task. "Even if he still lives, it may be too late," he said. If the duke really was being poisoned, it would be hard to prove and maybe impossible to cure.

"I know," she said quietly. "But so long as he lives, whether he is truly aware of the world or not, we can act with authority in his name. This earl is going to have a crimp put in his ambitions ... provided Esme doesn't beat me bloody in front of him."

"Why would she do that?" he asked, as they made their way to the small dining room where lunch was waiting. He knew his way around well enough, having been there before, but he let her lead the way. What he didn't know was why Esme might be angry with Rolanda.

"A part of the protection we need to give the children is a firm alliance between their disparate families," she explained. "She will be made a Countess in her own right, and through marriage to her, the boy's uncle will be Earl, and both of them legal guardians to the duke's heir and his sister."
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 05, 2018 9:26 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hugo shook his head, looking a little confused, or maybe he was just tired. "I don't understand why that would be a problem," he admitted, unless she didn't want a title, but then, she already was the daughter of a duke.

"She's only just met the man, and I'm going to order her to to marry him," Rolanda told him with a faint smile. "The tone of her letter suggests she likes him well enough, but you know what the women of our blood are like. She might try to claw my eyes out just for ordering her to marry at all."

"It could be worse. She could be forced into marrying someone she hates," Hugo pointed out, as was common in arranged marriages, especially those with a noble bloodline. "Like us," he teased, elbowing her gently, a faint smirk on his face.

She laughed, squeezing his arm fondly. "Oh, yes," she agreed in an impish tone. "It's perfectly obvious to anyone who looks that I simply cannot stand you, Sir Hugo."

"Yes, well, I was not sure you would be very happy to see me again," he said, though it seemed he'd been wrong about that. If anything, she had proved to him just how much she'd missed him - just as he'd missed her, even if he had yet to admit it.

"I was something of a brat when I left," she pointed out in amusement. "Of course, I still am something of a brat, but in a more mature manner, I hope."

"I never thought of you as a brat, Rol-" He broke off before he could finish uttering her name, coming to a halt and turning to face her, though they had not yet arrived in the dining room. She was not Rolly anymore, a nickname given to the princess when she was a child, but she was a child no longer. "We have both done what was expected of us, but we are no longer children, Rolanda. Some things we decide for ourselves."

"And you do not mind that I have decided for us both, without discussion?" she asked curiously. She knew that she had been hasty in declaring her mind so soon, but she knew she would love him in time, as she knew she would not love any other half so well. There were worse ways to begin a marriage.

"Did my ..." He looked around briefly to see if anyone was near enough to eavesdrop, lowering his voice to a whisper before continuing. "Did my kiss not speak for itself?" he asked, wondering how she had not seen how he felt about her before now, even if it had been six years since they'd seen each other. Perhaps there were those who thought they'd forget each other, but Rolanda had proven hard to forget.

She paused, color blossoming in her cheeks as servants moved to lay dishes on the table, keeping her voice low for their sake. "I do not yet understand the language lips may share," she confessed for his ears alone. "I believe you liked it, that you like me. But I could be wrong."

Hugo gnawed at his lower lip, as if debating something, some small secret he had yet to tell her, something he had never told anyone. "Do you know why I am not yet wed? Why the engagement was broken?" he asked, knowing she might have heard rumors, but it was doubtful she knew the truth. And what of herself? Why had she not yet married?

"I could not discern the reasons," she admitted, her hands folding into his grasp as she looked up at him. "I did not want to assume that I played on your mind these past six years as much as you have played on mine. You were my shield at the Pomeran court, and you never knew it. But I came home, prepared to love the woman you married for your sake, only to find a reason to hope."

"The reasons were simple. I could not marry someone I did not love. She sensed it somehow, without me ever saying a word. I tried to pretend, but I have never been a very good actor. Her family was not noble, but they were well off. We would have made a good match, but I could not marry her when I loved another," he told her, quietly, almost afraid to admit the words aloud.

"But you can marry me?" the princess asked. It wasn't that she was slow, or found his point difficult to understand. It was more that she had played the game of love in the Pomeran court too many times not to cherish straightforward words. She had been sixteen the last time she had seen Hugo. She needed him to be clear with her.

"Yes, I can marry you, Ro ... Shall I call you Ro? You are too old to be called Rolly," he said, the hint of a teasing smirk on his face again. He had not quite answered the question in her heart, and yet he had been more honest with her than he ever had before.

Her lips twitched a little at this new nickname, though it suited her far better than the juvenile Rolly ever had. "I think I would like that, yes," she agreed, but returned quickly to the subject at hand. "Hugo ... how it you cannot marry someone else when your heart is elsewhere, but you can marry me?"

"Oh, Rolanda," he said, with a small chuckle and a roll of his eyes, even as he drew her closer. "Don't you know it's because my heart is with you?" he asked, curious to see how she would react to his confession and a little bit afraid she might not share his feelings. But if her lips spoke for her, as his had for him, then he did not need to worry.

A faint trickle of delight poured down her spine, lightening her face as her lips found their smile once again. "I do now," she admitted, her tone more a laugh than a whisper. She tugged at his hands, drawing him close to rest her brow to his. "I will try to be a good wife to you."

Maybe it was strange to admit after all the years apart, but it was those years apart that had helped him to realize what and who it was that had been missing from his life. He smiled at her promise, as she drew him close. There were no sappy promises of love and devotion, but with luck, that would come in time. "As I will try to be a good husband," he promised in return.

Rolanda laughed softly. "I haven't asked you yet," she pointed out teasingly, squeezing his hands for a brief moment. "I do believe you said it was much too soon, and we agreed on a week to get to know one another again."

He laughed, blue eyes bright with amusement. "Then why are you promising to be a good wife?" he asked. If she was talking about being his wife, it stood to reason that they'd be wed. "One week, then. What do you think your brother will say?"

"I don't intend to give him much say in the matter," she admitted, gesturing for him to sit and eat. "But I don't think it will be a surprise. Why else would he have sent for you, over every other knight in the kingdom?"

"He sent for me because I'm the bravest, smartest, strongest knight in the kingdom?" Hugo said with a smirk, knowing there were plenty of other worthy knights, besides himself. But he had been only a day's hard ride away, and the king had known him all his life and knew he could be trusted. It hadn't even entered Hugo's mind that Rolanda might have anything to do with his summons to court.

"Evidently you also have the biggest head in the kingdom, too," she laughed, moving to seat herself at the table. "No wonder Freddie thinks you're a good person for me to hide behind."

He quickly sidestepped toward her so that he could pull out her chair. "Hide behind?" he asked, curiously. He wasn't sure exactly what they were going to do when they got to Ansburg, but he had a feeling Rolanda had a plan.

"I'm teasing you, Hugo," she reminded him. "I have no intention of inviting violence. But I am not allowed to travel without at least a protector, you know that."

Hugo sobered as he took a seat across from her, the smell of food reminding him and his stomach that he hadn't eaten in a while. "I won't let anything happen to you, Rol-Ro. You have my word as a knight of the realm."

She laid her hand over his for a brief moment. "I am not afraid," she assured him. "I can use that sword I was threatening you with, you know. The Crown Prince was quick to offer his wife's ladies lessons in sword play if they wished it, after the former princess of Edessa bested both his brothers for the entertainment of the court during her sojourn there."

"I do not doubt it," he replied, meeting her gaze across the table as she touched his hand. "But it might be best not to let it become common knowledge," he pointed out.

She pulled a face, but accepted that advice. "You may be right," she conceded. "A woman with a weapon is either a dangerous animal to be put down, or a source of mockery in this country."
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 05, 2018 9:26 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"That is not what I mean," he said, looking to the variety of bread and meat and chees that had been left for them on the table. "May I?" he asked, hoping she wouldn't hear how his stomach was grumbling.

"Oh, don't stand on ceremony," she laughed, waving a hand permissively toward the dishes. "Eat, Hu, for goodness' sake. You've been traveling since morning." She was silent for a few minutes, letting him load his plate and start eating before she spoke again. "What do you mean by keeping my prowess from common knowledge, then?"

He loaded his plate with various meats and cheeses. Breaking off a hunk of bread, he took a bite, waggling the bread at her a moment while he chewed and swallowed before speaking again. "Don't you think it better that an enemy underestimate you?" he asked, turning the question back around on her.

"But that is a surprise that can only be used once, and may never be needed," she pointed out. If she was honest, she rather liked the idea of showing off her newfound prowess with a blade, but she did understand why it wasn't a wise decision.

"Not necessarily," he reasoned. "If someone attacked you and you killed them, they wouldn't be telling anyone your secret," he said, skewering a hunk of meat with a knife and popping it into his mouth.

Rolanda laughed quietly. "Do you really think I would ever be able to kill someone, Hu?" she asked. "I know myself that well, at least. Unless it truly was my life or theirs, and even then, I do not know if I could do it."

"Why?" he asked, as he skewered another bit of meat. "Because you lack the skill or because you simply do not think you could do it? Most people will do whatever they can to stay alive, even if it means someone else's death."

"I don't know that I can take a life," she admitted quietly. "I don't particularly ever want to find out. Does that make me a coward?"

"I would not call you a coward," he replied, almost relieved she did not harbor ambitions toward becoming a warrior princess, like the women of Edessa. He didn't want her putting herself in that kind of danger, if he could help it. "That is what knights are for," he said, smiling, obviously proud of his own achievements.

Her smile echoed his. "And you are my knight," she agreed fondly. "You know you will likely be made a duke in marrying me, yes? Our children will be in line for the throne."

Hugo's brows arched upwards at the news of that. He knew Rolanda was a princess, but he hadn't considered how marrying her might elevate his own station or that of their children. He was happy being a knight. The king had rewarded him for his service with an estate of his own. He had never expected anything more, until now. "A duke?" he echoed, not having considered that before. It seemed marrying her would change his life in more ways than one.

"You will be in direct proximity to the crown, our children closer than Ranulf's grandchildren in Ansburg, or Alfred and Albert," she reminded him gently. "The royal blood is marked with a duchy, always. There just hasn't been a princess married within our borders for several generations."

"Yes, of course," Hugo replied, instinctively knowing this already, though he hadn't really thought about it much until this very moment. He thought it likely that the king and queen would eventually have a son, but nothing was certain. "An heir would do much to foil these plots." Whether that heir came from the king and queen or from them hardly mattered.

"But we will not know if she is carrying an heir until the birth," she pointed out, tacitly confirming what had not been said aloud - that the queen was pregnant. They had circulated the rumor, but had not yet confirmed it officially. Sera was terrified that the moment it was announced, she would miscarry.

"Yes, but if there were multiple heirs, they could not possibly eliminate them all," he told her. It wasn't that he wanted to draw a target on any son the king and queen might produce, but ensure the safety of that son by producing more than one possible heir, so long as that heir remained within the royal bloodline.

"That is the reason why women are expected to produce at least two sons for their husbands," Rolanda pointed out with a weary smile. "An heir, and a spare, I've heard it called."

"And if we have a son or two, there will be several spares," he pointed out, though he was probably getting ahead of himself. He didn't like the thought of any child being put in danger, but the more children they produced between them, the chances of anyone trying to eliminate them lessened substantially. "And it would help protect Esme's niece and nephew."

"True." She had to concede that point, though it felt a little cruel to be considering overwhelming Sera's joy in her pregnancy with an abundance of children she would not bear herself.

"Of course, it will not happen overnight. And hopefully, we can root out the traitors before that," he added. "I am told your brother dismissed the court," he said, curiously. Though it seemed the traitors would be found in Ansburg, there might be more of them among those who'd been dismissed from court.

"That is more to do with the current crop of nobles having grown complacent," Rolanda explained to him confidently. "Though I am sure there are suspects among them, too. Franz is of the opinion that we do not want anyone with such thoughts circulating too closely to the throne, and I agree with him. But the problem with the court is that those who have until recently held a position here believe it to be an unassailable right. They are being reminded that the power in the land rests with the king."

"They should not need such a reminder," the knight pointed out, though sadly, it seemed that they did. He was not overly fond of courtly plots and dramas, but it seemed he was going to have to get used to such things again.

"No, they should not," she agreed. "But the reminder is necessary. At least some among them think they can somehow gain ground by keeping the queen isolated in her own court, without friends or confidantes. I will not have that. She is alone enough, having come from a different land to be Freddie's wife. I will not have stuck up idiots who only owe their position to the person their mother bedded hurting my new sister simply because they can."

"What does the king propose?" he asked, as he continued to work at emptying his plate and filling his stomach. Or perhaps more accurately, what does Franz propose, since the man was the king's chancellor and closest adviser and friend.

"In about a month, invitations will be sent out to populate the court again," she told him. "Everyone will be hand-chosen by Freddie, and by Franz, and Sera, too. And twenty of those invited will be invited eventually to take the temporary title of Lord or Lady of the Royal Household. An inner circle, you might say, made up of the people with the most value, or the closest friendship."

"I see," he said, wondering just what names might be end up on that list. Certainly not his, though all things considered, it hardly mattered. He was a knight of the realm, first and foremost, and would remain so, until the king decided differently. "What about you? Do you intend to remain at court?"

She smiled a little ruefully. "Until Freddie and Sera are secure, I think I must," she said a little reluctantly. "But that will not take so very long, I do not believe. A few years, at most. And then I will have the freedom - we will have the freedom - to spend much of our year on our own estate, our own home, visiting the court only when we choose to."

A few years? He frowned a little, but a few years at court was a small price to pay for a life spent with Rolanda. "I suppose we shall just have to suffer through it then," he said, reaching across the table to link his fingers with hers.

"And how is your mother going to handle the thought of being a duke's mother?" she asked then, twining her fingers with his as her smile turned ever so slightly wicked.

Her question made him grunt, though the hint of a smirk appeared on his face. "You would do better to ask how my mother is going to handle the thought of having you for a daughter. She has always adored you, you know."

"You mean I still haven't managed to scandalize her?" Rolanda laughed, shaking her head. "I really should try harder. Perhaps you should get me pregnant so we have a rushed wedding and a premature baby - that would work, surely?"
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 05, 2018 9:27 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Of course, as you reminded me, you have not officially asked me yet," he teased further, laughing a little at her suggestion. "Are you propositioning me, princess?" he asked, blue eyes bright with humor.

"If I was, would it be successful?" she asked with impish good humor. She knew perfectly well that if her brother overheard any of this, he would either send Hugo away quickly or announce their engagement immediately.

"I am flattered, princess, but a knight is supposed to be above all reproach; hence, you will have to wait for the wedding night, if that is what you truly desire," he countered. Hopefully, if Freddie overheard that, he would be relieved.

"Do I have to wait until the wedding night for another kiss?" was her immediate response, storm-cloud eyes sparkling with the same impish good humor that seemed to color everything about her these days.

The look on his face mirrored her amusement, his fingers tangling further with hers. "I am at your command, Princess," he replied, though apparently unwilling to go too far, for fear of a possible scandal that could tarnish both their good names.

"You may regret saying that, someday," she warned laughingly, lifting his hand to her lips to kiss his knuckles. "You'll be invited to share dinner with the king and queen, and I, tonight, but don't worry about dressing for it. It's all very informal here while the court is not in session."

"And we are to leave in the morning. Shall I take it that all the arrangements have already been made?" he asked. At least, here at court, he could relax and let others take care of the details involved in making ready for their journey.

She nodded. "Yes, they have," she assured him. "There is not much of an entourage - you and I, the physician, my personal cook. No carriage; we will ride. And we will stop overnight at inns, not noble houses."

"I take it your physician and cook are capable riders then," he said, making that assumption. Many people knew how to ride a horse, but that did not necessarily make them capable riders.

"Bessie's more used to riding an ass, but she knows my mare well enough to ride well on her," she chuckled. "I have a palfrey I can ride myself. And Doctor Steinberger spends much of his life on horseback, traveling between the villages and estates. I don't think we will have much trouble."

"Very well," he replied, satisfied. After all, he didn't want to spend the entire trip babysitting the cook and physician. He was going as an escort and would do whatever was necessary to protect them, but he wasn't going along to play nursemaid. "We should retire early," he added. "We'll want to get an early start in the morning."

"Of course," she agreed. "We will be traveling light. I do not believe there will be any call for ridiculous fashions on this journey."

"No," he agreed. "We should only need to overnight one night in an inn," he said, though she must have known that already. Would he then be sharing a room with the physician and she with the cook?

She nodded in agreement, folding her hands beneath her chin as she leaned onto her elbows. Her expression was very solemn. "We cannot bandy it about who I am," she said quietly. "For this journey, I will have to be your sister, and the rooms we take will have to be shared, men and women."

"Meaning?" he asked, brows arching upwards. Was she saying they would be sharing a room with each other, as so-called siblings, or that the men will be sharing and the women will be sharing?

"Meaning we may, all four of us, have to share a single room, and you and I a bed," she warned him. "I am told that we may place a bolster down the center of the bed to separate us."

"Uh ..." he stammered, mouth dropping open as she clarified the sleeping arrangements. "Are you sure that is wise, Princess?" he asked. Keeping a low profile was certainly important, but what would the physician and cook think?

"What else can we do, Hu?" she asked pointedly. "I cannot travel as the princess, or word will rush ahead of us. For the same reason, we will not be able to commandeer the entire wing of a coaching house and not cause gossip to rush on ahead. We have very little choice when it comes to this, and lives may depend upon our moving quickly."

There were other options open to them, but she might not appreciate those options. Still, if anyone found out she was the princess, there could yet be a scandal, and he wasn't sure he trusted her physician or cook not to talk, no matter how long she'd known them.

"Or we could be married and travel as husband and wife," he suggested, though he thought that might be pushing his luck. He could have suggested sleeping in another room or even in the barn, but she needed him there to protect her.

Rolanda's mouth fell open. That had not even occurred to her, though she had considered herself privately engaged to him since she'd left to attend the court in Pomerania. It was scandalous, certainly, but it did have a certain charm. And it definitely appealed to her impish side. She bit her lip as a wicked smile touched her face. "You should know better than to think I will take that for just a tease, Hu."

He shrugged, an almost nervous-looking smile on his face. "You are the one who mentioned marriage," he said. "I only suggested waiting because ..." He broke off, as if he had almost revealed too much.

"Because?" Her head tilted, her smile softening. She wanted to hear his reasoning; needed to know if he truly did want to marry her, or if he was just humoring the princess until he could ask her brother to call her off.

"Because I don't want you to make a decision you may later regret," he said, though that wasn't entirely true. What he really wanted was for her to love him and to want to marry him for no other reason than that she loved him.

She held his gaze for a long while. "Of all the decisions I have ever made," she told him, her voice soft and certain, "I have never regretted this one. And it was made six years ago."

A single brow arched upwards at her statement, his heart skipping a beat, almost afraid to hope that she loved him already. "Then ask me, Rolanda. Six years is a long time to wait."

"Will you marry me, Hugo?" she asked then, all hint of smiles gone. She wasn't wearing a mask, or hiding behind a bright face; she truly cared to know his answer, even if she had not yet put a word to why she felt it so deeply. "Will Hu marry Rolly, and not care for the title that comes with her?"

"On one condition," he replied, needing this one condition. The last thing he wanted to do was trap her in a loveless marriage the way so many royals were trapped and unhappy. He reached across the table and took both of her hands in his, meeting her gaze with an expression that matched hers - serious, solemn, and sincere. "Do you care for me, Rolly? Tell me you love me, and I will not only give you my life but my heart."

"Is it love I feel?" she asked him, unwilling to speak a lie. "I've not looked at any man but you, though there were many to tempt me at the High Court. My first thought when I returned home was to discover if you were wedded or promised, but I was afraid to make myself known to you. My heart aches at the thought of you wedded to another but ... but I would endure it, if you truly loved her. Is this love, then, that I feel for you?"

"Is it any different from what I feel?" he asked. There had been a time when he had not understood his feelings either, but he had never been in doubt. Once he was old enough to give what he was feeling a name, he knew there was no other word for it but love. "You have never been far from my thoughts these past years. I tried to forget you, to put you from my mind, but all these years I have never met another who could take your place in my heart or my life. If that is not love, Rolanda, I do not know what is."
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 05, 2018 9:27 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Her fingers tightened on his, a smile touching her face at last. "Then yes," she said, her chin bobbing as she nodded swiftly. "I do love you, Hu. For years, in silence, in a completely different country, but I loved you faithfully. I still love you. And I would be honoured if you would take me for your wife - not to make a single journey easier on us all, but because you want me."

"I have wanted you a very long time, Rolanda," he assured her, lifting each of her hands to his lips for a kiss, one at a time, an almost flirtatious smile on his face. A very long time that was counted in years spent apart, but never forgotten or far from his heart. "Shall we share the news at dinner or would that prove too much of a shock?"

"We need permission from my brother, and only this afternoon to arrange this," she pointed out, a soft flush colouring her cheeks under his flirtatious affection. "I do not know how he will respond, but ... I hope he will let me make this choice for myself."

Little did she know that Freddie and Franz had been doing a bit of plotting of their own in hopes for this very outcome. "I am confident the king will react as any brother would to his sister's request, though I worry he may think we are being a bit hasty."

"If we are, it is our mistake to make, and not his," Rolanda reminded him gently. "But we've been six years without each other, and still feel as we did then. I cannot see that changing, no matter how hasty others might think we are."

"I lived for your letters," he confessed. Even if they were few and far between, each one was cherished and read and re-read. He'd kept every one of them, carefully tucked away in a safe place and preserved for future reading - a little piece of Rolanda all his own.

"I kept every one of yours," she confessed in answer, ducking her head with a low laugh. "It seems so trite and sentimental to admit it, but they have a small chest of their own, and I, the only key."

"Did you?" he asked, eyes lighting up at the notion that they had treasured each other's letters equally, even if they did not speak of love and affection. "I kept all of yours, as well," he admitted, amused by her embarrassment at admitting such a thing.

"Truly?" Her eyes lit up with delight on hearing this. "Perhaps we should seek out my brother, the king, now, before we confess something that will lead us further into scandal."

He laughed, though he was willing to indulge her in seeking out her brother, if she so wished. "I cannot think of anything else we could confess that might lead to scandal," he admitted. At least, nothing he was willing to admit out loud.

"Oh, I think you can," she teased, rising to her feet. "If you truly set your mind to it." She held out her hand to him, unafraid to be seen hand in hand with him even by the servants. "Come, Hu. Let us scandalize my brother."

"I have a feeling the queen, at least, will have a different word for it," he teased, smiling as he moved to his feet and tucked her hand into the crook of his arm to go in search of her brother.

"The queen is a married woman, and like all married women, she wants to see everyone around her as happily wedded as she is," Rolanda intimated in amusement. "At present, she has only me to focus on. We may be the cause of celebration in the royal bed tonight."

"I should rather we were cause for celebration in our own bed," he blurted, risking a blush from the princess, though he believed sharing a bed was one of the chief benefits of marriage. "I have heard that the king is rather enamored with his new queen," he remarked, hoping that would play in their favor.

Rolanda let out a loud bark of laughter, hastily shushing herself as, yes, she blushed at the thought of their own marriage bed if all went well. "I would risk my reputation to state that there is love in the king's marriage," she told Hugo fondly. "On both sides. Look a little more closely when you see them together; it's nauseatingly obvious."

"Well, that is probably appropriate considering the queen's condition," he added with a smirk. He had suspected even before he'd been told - it was difficult not to notice how protective the queen was of her midriff, though she was not showing yet.

Rolanda's smile faded at his words. "Sad to say, it is not common enough," she said quietly. "Too many wed for necessity and never know love in their marriage. I think I've been spoiled, to see two princes married for love in Pomerania, and my brother in love with his wife."

He paused, turning to face her, taking her hands in his once again. "And I intend to spoil you further," he told her, a soft smile of affection on his face. He leaned closer, daring to steal another kiss at the risk of being seen. What did that matter now? There was little risk of scandal if they were to be wed.

He tasted her smile as she leaned into him, as heedless as he of being seen by anyone that might be passing through these halls. Those servants permitted to attend the private wing of the palace held their place on sufferance - namely that nothing they saw went any further than their own eyes. Anyone caught sharing the privacy of the royal family was soon without employment or any hope of gaining any in their former position. But Rolanda drew back from that kiss with a faint frown. "And here I am, proposing to order my cousin into a marriage where she might only ever know friendship and not love."

"That is still more than many can ever hope for," he pointed out, though it was probably little comfort. He didn't dare draw her any closer into his embrace, but he did give her hands a reassuring squeeze. "She could do worse than marrying a friend."

"True," she agreed softly. "And the man is giving her his friendship without any expectation of reward or title. That will have to be enough." Rising onto her toes, she kissed his lips quickly. "Come, or we will have to rouse the king from his bed."

"And here I thought we were having dinner together," he teased, though he would not begrudge the king some rest. He could use a little rest himself after his journey, but he was far too excited about this unexpected turn of events to sleep now.

"You have just eaten lunch, dinner is some hours away yet." Rolanda laughed, squeezing his hand as she pulled him along the halls, finally coming to a halt outside one of many similar-seeming doors to knock sharply on the wood.

That wasn't quite what he meant, but he only chuckled to himself, not bothering to argue with her about it. "I was not aware that the king takes an afternoon nap," he teased further, refraining from remarking on her brother's age.

"I do not think much sleeping goes on when my brother retires for the afternoon," the princess pointed out with a rather suggestive grin. "Indeed, Prince Stephan retires for the afternoon now and then, and he is not my brother's age yet."

A soft call came from within the room she had knocked on - the queen, answering that knock. "Come!"

He was about to remark on that, perhaps by pointing out how they would have to continue that tradition in their own marriage, if they were able, but before he could say a word, the queen was inviting them inside. "You are sure about this?" he asked, giving her one last chance to back out if she wasn't sure.

"I am." And to her credit, there was no hesitation in her as she answered. "Are you?"

"I am, too," he confirmed, giving her hand another squeeze. He was nervous, yes, but it was a good nervous. It wasn't the kind of anxiety he felt before going into battle or even a tournament. He could only hope he was right in his feeling that the king would not be able to tell his sister no.

Drawing in a breath, Rolanda flashed him a bright smile and pushed open the door to the king's own private suite, leading her knight into the most private place in the palace. And no, the king was not taking a nap, but was certainly more relaxed with his wife in these rooms than he had leisure to be outside them. Sera was stood beside the window, her gown loosened and her hair down, calmer and less on edge than the queen seemed when she was performing.
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 05, 2018 9:28 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

It was a rare treat Hugo could not have expected, to be escorted into the king and queen's private chambers. Despite his optimism, he could feel his stomach clenching with nervousness, hoping the king and queen would not see him as an intruder in this their private space. If they approved of the match, he would not be merely a knight of the realm any longer, but connected to the royal family through marriage. He would not only become Rolanda's husband, but a brother to the King and Queen of Carantania.

For possibly the first time, Rolanda's bluster deserted her. There was no flouncing in, no declaration of her intent before anyone else could say a word. No true sign of her intentions at all, but for the wrap of her hand through Hugo's.

Arms wrapped about her own waist, Sera noted the flushed hope on the two faces before her, and glanced to her husband, half-amused by what she expected to hear. She had, of course, told Freddie what she had seen in the ballroom, but she had not expected it to come to a head so soon.

The king was seated in an armchair, sipping a cup of coffee - more invigorating than a nap. There was no book on his lap or papers piled up that needed to be looked over and signed. No, this was the time of day the king and queen reserved for relaxation. It was a short period of time, but much needed for the pair of royals who started their day early and ended late. By the looks of things, it seemed the young couple's arrival was not entirely unexpected. It was hard to read the king's expression, though he had arched a brow at the sight of his sister on the arm of his favorite knight.

"I take it no blood was spilled in your duel?" he said, the merest hint of a smirk hidden behind the cup as he sipped at his coffee.

"Not wounded, sir, but dead," Rolanda informed her brother, glad for the teasing opening that brought her usual humor back to the fore. "I suppose you could say I ambushed him."

"And yet, here you are," Freddie remarked, in his gravelly tone of voice, gesturing to the pair of them with a lift of his cup. Though Sera had already spilled the beans about what she had witnessed in the ballroom, he pretended not to know, waiting for Rolanda and Hugo to speak for themselves. He could not help but hope that he and Franz's plotting was already paying off.

Rolanda's eyes narrowed at her brother. He was a little too at ease with having his privacy invaded, raising her suspicions that he already knew what she was here to say. "Would you like me pregnant before or after I'm married?" she asked him rather bluntly, ignoring the shocked splutter from the queen by the window.

The young man beside her tensed at her question, but held his tongue, deferring to the king. Meanwhile, Freddie barked a laugh, realizing Rolanda had probably guessed his hopes. Why else would he have summoned Hugo, a full day away when any escort would have served?

"After is always preferrable, but I suppose that is up to you," he said, unable to wipe the smirk from his face, risking his sister's anger.

"Then you had better call for the palace chaplain, because I intend to marry Hugo of Aranie and bear his children," the princess said bluntly. A tiny smile was quirking at her lips, relieved that her brother was not in any way going to object.

"Does the knight have any say in your intentions, sister?" Sera asked tentatively.

"Now?!" Freddie sputtered, gaze darting between the pair. While happy their little plot had been successful, he was not expecting his sister to want - no, demand - a wedding so soon.

The look on Hugo's face confirmed his wishes, visibly relaxing at Rolanda's side and looking from the queen to his intended with a soft smile that could only mean one thing - he was in love. "I am not opposed to the idea, Majesty," he replied, eyes on Rolanda.

Whose smile was fixed on the king, and more than a little bit offensive in its smugness. "Weren't expecting that, were you, brother dear?" she asked cheekily, taking Hugo's hand to wrap his arm about her own waist possessively.

At the window, reassured that it was a mutual decision, Sera dissolved into silent giggles, her wide grin hidden behind her hand as she waited to see how her husband was going to handle this.

For a moment, Freddie looked speechless, but he hadn't become king without knowing how to navigate even the most difficult situations. He knew if he allowed Rolanda and Hugo to get married today, there would be talk, and people would be counting the weeks to see if she gave birth before nine months had passed, and yet, he wasn't sure he cared. Rolly's happiness was and would always be foremost in his mind - within reason, at least.

"Well," he started after a brief moment's hesitation. "It could be presumed that these last six years were a sort of long-distance courtship."

"If there are objections raised, we both have proof of our private contact over the time it is known we have been apart," Rolanda assured him. Admittedly, there were no words of love in their letters, but there was a familiarity that few could boast of outside marriage.

"You can hardly object as a brother, my darling," Sera pointed out. "We were married a week after our first meeting."

"Oh, it is not my objection that troubles me, dear heart," Freddie replied with a glance at his queen. Then again, he had dismissed the court and there were none here to spread gossip. Still, he did not wish his sister to bring a scandal down upon herself here or elsewhere. And they could hardly compare his marriage to his sister's, when everyone knew the purpose of the ball had been to find the king a bride. "You know I can never deny you anything, Rolly," he said, turning back to his sister, his gaze taking in both young people who looked flush with excitement and eagerness. There was a look of hopefulness on their faces, and even if they did not recognize it, he could see more affection between them than many couples who had been together for years. "Do you wish to wed before or after your journey to Ansburg?"

"Before," Rolanda told him, "but the haste is more to preserve reputation than through any desire to rob you or the land of a wedding celebration." She looked to Hugo, her eyes soft with tender affection. "I would be happy to repeat my vows before the court when it is back in session, and allow them to think that is our wedding date."

Freddie released a sigh of relief, so slight as to hardly be noticed. Thankfully, his sister wasn't thinking entirely with her heart, but also with her head. He smiled at her proposal, mirroring her affection. She was not just his favorite sister, but his only sister, and there was little he could deny her. "The celebration is for no one but you and your intended, sweetling," he told her, though he understood what she meant. The wedding of a princess was reason for celebration and something to be acknowledged, not only by the court, but the people, as well. "Very well," he said, granting her wish with those two simple words, though he had already granted her wish before she had even dared ask it. "Shall I send for the chaplain or would you prefer to, uh ... freshen up first?" he asked, looking mostly to Hugo, who had only arrived at court a short time earlier and hadn't had a chance to wash and change.

"I could freshen him up afterward," Rolly almost immediately declared, dissolving into giggles at the disapproving look that came from her sister-in-law - a woman who was several years her own junior.

Hugo cleared his throat and shuffled, clearly embarrassed by Rolanda's cheeky remark, his face flushing with color, and yet, there was a smile on his face, albeit a slightly nervous one.

"Rolly, this is serious," Freddie chided his sister gently. "Once you are wed, there is no turning back," he reminded her. Though exceptions were sometimes made and annulments allowed in some cases, he did not want that for her. "You must be sure."

Rolanda sighed, rolling her eyes. "I know," she promised her brother. "And I have been certain about this far longer than you think. But I'm not built to be solemn and stuffy and serious at all times, you know that. I am sure, and I am serious, but I cannot answer a question for my love, nor him for me."
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 05, 2018 9:28 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

In the time they were debating all of this, Hugo knew they could have been married already. Perhaps Rolanda was right; perhaps it was time he speak for himself. He did not miss the way she had referred to him, even if she had not yet spoken of love or affection. As for himself, his feelings for her were plain enough to see, and he was not afraid of admitting them here or in public.

"Sire, Majesty," he began, looking from one royal to the other and back. "I assure you we are both serious. We have known each other since we were children, and during these past six years, I have come to realize that I will never care for another the way I care for Rolanda." Need he make his feelings any plainer than that?

Sera moved from the window to stand behind Frederick's chair, resting her hand affectionately on her husband's shoulder. "Then you will want to be clean and fresh, and at least a little rested," she suggested gently. "And to allow us a little time to make arrangements for your evening meal to be delivered to you." Her cheeks were bright red as she added, "From my own experience, I can predict that you will, neither of you, wish to leave your rooms once the door is closed."

Hugo smiled, relieved the queen had stepped in to make a few practical suggestions of her own. "Thank you, Majesty," he said, with a respectful bow of his head. As eager as he was to make Rolanda his wife, he was grateful for the opportunity to bathe and rest before they were to take the most important vows of their lives.

Rolanda bit her lip, but didn't argue, understanding that impatience was hardly warranted when it seemed they would be married within hours.

Sera caught her glance with a faint smile of her own. "Shall we speak with the chaplain then?" she asked her husband softly. "The service is not a long one, after all. In an hour's time, perhaps?"

An hour would be plenty of time for at least a bath, if Rolanda didn't distract him from it. But Hugo said nothing, only waited quietly for the king to reply.

"Hmm? Oh, yes," Freddie replied, as if the queen was calling him back from wherever his thoughts may have wandered. In truth, he'd been thinking about the day Rolanda had been born and how much he had adored her right from the start. His baby sister had come a long way since then, and now, he was going to have to entrust her to another man. Thankfully, that man was Hugo of Aranie.

Sera smiled, bending to kiss Freddie's temple fondly. "I will speak with the chaplain," she said then. "Come, Sir Hugo, let us see you to your temporary rooms. I believe there is a goodbye that must be said before anything else is done."

Freddie arched a brow, wondering if his thoughts were that transparent that Sera suspected what he'd been thinking. She was right, though - there were some things that needed saying between brother and sister before he gave her into the arms of a husband.

Hugo looked between them, but knew better than to argue, also sensing some moment that was needed between the siblings. "I will see you soon," he told Rolanda quietly, pressing one hand to his lips before pulling away to follow Sera from the royal chambers.

Rolanda's fingers gently stroked Hugo's cheek as he pulled away from her, sending him off with a smile. Then she turned to her brother, worry bright in her eyes, listening to the door close once again before she spoke. "Are you angry with me, Freddie?"

"Angry?" Freddie echoed, looking about as far from angry as one could get. "No, sweetling. I'm not angry," he assured her, with an almost wistful smile. "I was only thinking of the day you were born," he admitted. It didn't seem all that long ago, and yet, in a way, it seemed like another lifetime ago.

"But it seems as though you don't approve," she said quietly, moving to crouch before him where he sat, her hands folding over his. "You did not give your blessing, you left it to Sera. Don't you like Hugo?"

"My darling, there is no one I would like more for you than Hugo," he assured her, following her with his eyes and taking her hands in his. "In truth, I was hoping for this very outcome. I just did not think it would happen so quickly."

"But you were so quiet," she murmured, worried that he wasn't as pleased as he declared himself to be. "And honestly, I would not rush and risk scandal if we were not traveling tomorrow. We will still travel as anonymously as we may, but as husband and wife, there will not be so much trouble at the inn when we stop."

"It is not easy to give my little sister away to another man, even to one she loves," he confessed, with that wistful smile of his. He lifted a hand to touch his fingers to her cheek in a gesture of brotherly affection. It was something he'd done countless times before, from the time she'd been little, but she was little no more. She was a woman now, with a woman's heart and desires. "I only want you to be happy. It is all I've ever wanted. You know this, don't you, Rolly?"

"Of course I do, dearest," she promised him, rising to wrap her arms about his shoulders and kiss his hair fondly. "I will be happy with Hu, I'm sure of it. And you will be able to see for yourself. I am not going to leave you, Freddie. We have already talked about this between us - we will stay at court until you and Sera are secure and safe, and even then, we will visit you here often."

"You will stay here?" Freddie echoed, having assumed she would return with Hugo to his estate at Aranie. Though not far, it was a full day's hard ride to get there, and after sharing her with Pomerania for the past six years, Hugo was not the only one who'd missed her.

"For a year or three, yes," she promised, drawing back to meet his eyes. "You didn't think I'd abandon you when you need us most, did you?"

"Abandon, no, but I thought you might want to accompany him to Aranie and help him run the estate," Freddie told her, pleased and relieved to have learned otherwise. Though he could easily have ordered her to stay, that had never been his way, at least, where Rolanda was concerned. His smile brightened. "Sera will be so pleased. She's grown quite fond of you, you know."

"We will visit the estate from time to time, but until you are secure in your place and the immediate dangers have passed, our place - my place - is here, to show a united front to anyone who thinks to divide us," she reminded him gently. "And I am rather fond of your wife, too. You both need me around to stop you from taking things so seriously all the time."

"That would make me very happy, Rolly," Freddie admitted, giving both her hands a squeeze, that affectionate smile still on his face. "I have missed you these past years," he admitted, though this wasn't the first time she was hearing it. Though he understood the necessity of her time spent in Pomerania, he had missed her more than words could say and though he wanted her to be happy, he was not too eager to say good-bye again anytime soon. "Promise me you will be careful in Ansburg."

"I promise you, Freddie, I will be as careful as I may be, and with Hu at my back, you can be sure no one will lay a hand on me," Rolly told him fervently. "This Earl Rivers needs a swift lesson in just how power trickles down from the top, and a reminder that he does not hold any influence that will protect him from the crown's justice. Besides, Ranulf adores pretty little girls. He'll do anything I ask."

Freddie snorted at something she'd said. "You are no longer a pretty little girl," he reminded her. "Will you be traveling openly as Hugo's wife?" he asked, wondering how those at Ansburg would receive that bit of news.

"I will not keep it secret, but I will not announce it, either," she assured her brother. "Should the Earl wish to declare some scandal against our traveling together, the information is there to refute him, but in truth, it is not for him to demand."

"But what of your living arrangements once you arrive?" he asked. If the couple was not presumed to be married, they would be assigned separate quarters and that could put one or both of them in danger. Proof could be supplied, if necessary, but it would almost be an insult for the earl to not take the princess at her word.

"Freddie ..." Rolanda squeezed his hands gently. "You forget that Esme is the one in charge of the household. She will assign rooms to us, and she, I trust to tell the truth in its entirety. I do not propose to keep my marriage a secret, but rather not to declare it for the world to see until after these vows are renewed before the court."
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 05, 2018 9:28 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Esme is not the one who concerns me," Freddie said. It was Earl Rivers and those loyal to him that worried him - a man they suspected not only of treachery, but attempted murder, a man who might very well be part of a plot to commit regicide. "It is Earl Rivers you must be wary of. He is dangerous, Rolanda. I do not like the idea of involving you in these intrigues, but it seems we have little choice."

"If he raises a hand to me in violence, he is declaring himself a traitor," she reminded her brother. "Ansburg is not so far from the capital here that doing so would be a secure decision - there is the standing force here that would march immediately word came to you of any harm done to me. He would not escape."

"Hugo will keep you safe," he assured her, hoping that was so. Not everyone in Ansburg were traitors, but they had not yet determined everyone who was involved in the Earl's scheme. "You are my voice and he is my sword. If Rivers dares raise a hand to you, Hugo is well within his rights to defend you any way he can."

"Exactly. And he would defend me whether or not I was also his wife. Hugo is a good man, Freddie. I love him." She laughed a little as she said this, dropping onto her knees beside her brother once again. "I didn't realise I loved him until he asked me if that was my heart. But now I think about it ... I have loved him since we were children."

"I know," Freddie agreed, smiling. Though he hadn't seen them together in six years, he'd noticed even then the way they had looked at each other and how difficult it had been for them to say good-bye. Six years was a long time to be apart from someone you loved; he knew this from experience. "You need never be parted again, dearest," he assured her, giving her hands a soft squeeze.

"You know he does not take your place in my heart, don't you?" she asked him. Their only true experience of familial love outside one another was their mother and father, and with the death of their mother, their father had pushed them both from his heart, if they had ever been there to begin with. "I will always love my Freddie."

The smile on his face assured her that that was something she did not need to reassure him of. "Just as Sera does not take your place in my heart," he returned. There was no one he loved more than his sister, save Sera, but the love for his sister was far different from the love he held for his wife. "I do not mind sharing you with Hugo," he assured her. "In fact, there is no one I would rather have for you than him." He had not exactly chosen Hugo for her husband, but he had not discouraged it either.

She laughed softly. "How long have you thought to matchmake me with Hugo?" she asked, curious to know just how well her brother knew her. "Did he say something in my absence, or are you just that clever?"

Freddie shrugged, neither denying or confirming her suspicions. "He did not need to say anything. Every time your name was mentioned, his expression gave him away," he said, proving he was not quite as unobservant as some might think. "As for matchmaking, well, you might want to talk to Franz about that," he added with a smirk.

"Oh, I'll get him married off yet," she threatened in amusement. "To some lovely woman who will bring children of her own to the marriage so he doesn't have to worry about taking his clothes off around her."

Freddie laughed. If there was anyone who could make good on that threat, it was Rolly. Franz had sacrificed much for his country and king, but Freddie had never intended for him to sacrifice that of having a wife and family. "Now, that I would like to see," he replied with a grin. "Ah, Rolly, how I've missed you," he said, glad she was there and that she intended to stay.

"I won't be away long," she promised him fondly, rising to hug her brother again. "But I suppose I should at least wash a little for my bridegroom, shouldn't I? I refuse to dress in anything ridiculous."

Freddie chuckled again. Grown or not, she was the same old Rolanda he had always loved. "You could wear a potato sack and your knight would still find you mesmerizingly lovely," he pointed out with a fond smile.

"Hmm, I'm not sure I could lay hands on a potato sack at such short notice," she teased, though they both knew she would at some point, if only to say that she had done it.

He chuckled again before moving to his feet and pulling her up with him to draw her into a brotherly hug. "I am so very proud of you, Rolanda," he told her, calling her by her full name and not the silly nickname he'd given her when she was still a child.

Hugged into her brother's arms, for a moment she felt sixteen again, saying goodbye on the dock before she stepped into the coach that would take her Pomerania for six long years. But this wasn't so much a goodbye as a farewell, and one that would not last anywhere near so long. "I love you, big brother."

He smiled as he held her safe in his embrace, happy to hear those words from her lips, even if he already knew as much. "As I love you, little sister," he replied, touching a kiss to the top of her head, as he'd so often done when she was a child. Nothing had changed between them really, except that they'd grown bigger and older and hopefully a little bit wiser.

Rolanda squeezed him gently before she raised her head, drawing back with a warm smile untouched by her usual flicker of impish mischief. "And you don't mind that we won't be sharing dinner tonight?"

"So long as you promise not to leave without saying farewell," he told her. He wouldn't even make her promise to breakfast with them, suspecting she might want to linger in bed with her new husband a little while longer come morning.

"We won't disappear," she promised him, bouncing up to kiss his cheek. "But I have to wash and find something less complicated to wear. And you should find your wife and make sure she isn't arranging anything ridiculous for what is supposed to be a short, sweet ceremony."

"Yes, ma'am," he replied with a grin, as he finally released her to send her on her way. He was sure Sera wasn't planning anything ridiculous or complicated, but he thought he should probably find her and have a few words himself with the chaplain.

An hour was not so very long a span of time to fill, crackling as it did with excitement from at least two of those within the palace. But when the hour was up, Rolanda found herself standing outside the chapel doors, a last moment of sudden nerves somehow preventing her from going inside.

And there was Hugo hurrying to get to the chapel on time, looking and smelling a lot fresher than he had when he'd arrived. "Apologies, Princess! I fell asleep in the bath," he said, his hair still damp, a wayward lock stuck to his forehead.

"Oh ..." Relieved and laughing, Rolanda turned to him, raising her hand to gently smooth that wayward hank of hair off his brow. "I have just arrived myself," she assured him affectionately. "Are you ready?"

"I have been ready for years," he told her, smiling as she smoothed his hair back, away from his brow. That statement was telling in that he'd had plenty of opportunity to marry since they had parted. He had even been betrothed at one point, but it seemed no one but Rolanda would do.

"Shall we, then?" she asked, biting her lip as she stepped back from him. She knew the king and queen, and Franz, were waiting with the priestess who served as chaplain to the royal household, but she would not enter without her Hu.

He reached for her as she stepped back to draw her back to him, a serious look on his face. "Rolly, wait. Before we do this, there's something you should know." He frowned, worried what he was about to tell her might make a difference, though it was hardly unheard of. There were few men his age who had never been with a woman, though he had never loved anyone but her. "I-I have not been exactly virtuous," he admitted, with a hint of shame clouding his eyes.
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 05, 2018 9:29 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

She hesitated, her head tilting in gentle curiosity as he stuttered over some confession that seemed to carry a lot of weight for him, but did not make sense to her. "I'm not sure I understand," she said quietly. "What lack of virtue are you referring to?"

He looked almost as if this bit of knowledge he had not previously confessed was tormenting him. It had been six years - a long time to wait and a long time for a handsome young man of his standing to remain celibate in hopes of winning the hand of a woman he was afraid he might never see again. In the end, he regretted straying, but he had never made her any promises, except those he'd made in his heart. "Must I say it out loud?" he asked, wishing she knew what he meant without him having to explain.

Comprehension dawned at his hesitance to say it openly, color blossoming in her cheeks as she absorbed what he was telling her. "Oh," she said, the sound a simple acknowledgement that she did understand. "I see." Her hand rose to touch his cheek. "Why should I mind it? If you love me, want me, then ... well, I should think it just as well one of us knows what to do. Isn't it?"

"Truly?" he asked, unsure he was hearing her right. "You are not angry?"

"Why would I be angry?" she asked him gently. "Hu, I've spent six years in Pomerania, where a man is expected to visit a brothel before he reaches twenty, or to take lessons from an older woman as his mistress. It is not so very different here. I would only be angry if you had a child you kept secret from me, or if you loved another."

"No, no!" he exclaimed, looking appalled. "Nothing like that! I swear to you, no one has any claim on me or my heart and never has. It has always been you. I have never strayed in my heart, but my body is weak and ..." There was that guilty frown again. "I was not sure I would ever see you again."

"We never made one another any promises," she reminded him. "We never even spoke of this until today. How could you have known? Truly, love, I do not blame you for it. I know very little of what happens intimately between a man and a his wife; in truth, I am relieved that you know more than I. But this is not something that would turn me away from you."

There was more to it than that, but she didn't need to know the details. She didn't need to know how his fellow knights had plotted to make sure he became a man in every sense of the word. He breathed a sigh of relief, needing to be honest with her right from the start. A marriage based on lies was no marriage at all. "I have never loved anyone but you. That I promise and swear to be true," he told her, gripping her hand tightly in his as if that would make her believe him.

"Then that is all that matters, Hu." She raised herself onto her toes, touching a gentle kiss to his cheek. "I love you," she told him finally. "I've loved you since I was small. All that matters to me is that you want me for your wife."

"I do," he confirmed, though that much was already certain, smiling as she kissed his cheek. In just a short while, she would be his wife. It was more than he had ever dared hope for. "Shall we?" he asked, offering her his arm, eager to say his vows and become joined with her in marriage, not because he wanted to elevate his station, but for love.

"We shall." Beaming happily, she wrapped her arm through his, one hand reaching out to push open the door to the chapel.

It was a small space, designed for the private worship of only the royal family, and it was very likely that Hu had never seen what made this particular chapel so unique. The statue of the Goddess here was not standing with Her arms outstretched, but kneeling, a child wrapped close in a warm hug, Her other hand open as though inviting the watcher to take it. It was a warmer vision of the deity they believed in, and it explained an awful lot about this particular royal family. Frederick and Sera were already there, Franz with them, and the priestess who served as chaplain, too ... all waiting patiently for the couple to join them.

Freddie looked relieved the princess and her knight had finally arrived. He had no idea what it was that had kept them, nor did he care. They were here now and looking very much like a young couple in love - rarity among royals, but a tradition he thought was long overdue.

Hugo took in his surroundings, noting the uniqueness of the chapel's interior, as well as the small group of people who'd been waiting for them to arrive, but he was mostly aware of the young woman at his side and couldn't help but to keep darting glances her way, almost as if to make sure he wasn't dreaming.

As they reached the little gathering, Sera slipped a ring from her own finger - a plain band of gold - and pressed it discreetly into Hugo's hand. Clearly the queen had thought of the one thing they did not have for this ceremony. Rolanda shared a smile with her brother, bright and hopeful and just a little nervous.

The priestess, an elderly woman who had blessed both the king and his sister at their births and presided over the king's marriages too, smiled her own familiar smile. "Have you come willingly, highness and sir, to be wed in the eyes of the Goddess?"

Hugo turned a questioning look on the queen as she pressed something small and cold and metallic into his hand, but there was no time to ask questions. He recognized the weight and shape of it as a ring and dipped his head in quiet thanks to her for her remembering something that in their excitement and haste, no one else had. Freddie exchanged smiles with his sister, offering encouragement without saying a word. And then, all eyes turned to the priestess as the couple stepped forward to say their vows before the goddess and be wed.

Hugo glanced to Rolanda at his side, but did not wait for her answer. "We have," he said, speaking for them both.

"Then may the grace of the Goddess be with you," the priestess intoned, slipping smoothly into the rite itself. "Marriage is the blessing of the Goddess, Her greatest gift, that of abiding love and devotion between a man and a woman. May it be adorned with true and abiding devotion, and blessed with fruit."

The mention of fruit made Rolanda struggle not to laugh, remembering her fruit-based lessons in love in Pomerania.

Hugh could almost sense Rolanda's struggle not to giggle and had to bite his own tongue against interjecting some commentary about the "fruit of his loins". He quietly cleared his throat to regain his composure and nudged Rolanda gently with an elbow. This was no laughing matter, and yet, the couple were clearly happy and lighthearted in the wake of their wedding.

The old priestess' smile never wavered, well used to young couples giggling their way through the short ceremony used from the highest to the lowest across the continent. "Hugo d'Aranie, wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife, to live together at the Goddess' will in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honor, and keep her, in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others, keep thee only to her, so long as you both shall live?"

Thankfully, Hugo only had to respond simply and not repeat all those words. Like Rolanda, he was trying to keep from laughing, but it was only because the laughter was practically bubbling over from happiness. "Ahem, I wilt, er, will," he replied, with nervous excitement but that was only because he was practically bubbling over with happiness.

"And you, princess," the priestess said encouragingly, "have you learned the vows you must speak?"

Rolanda made a supreme effort to control herself, raising her head only to snort with laughter again. "I-I have, I just ..."

Laughing quietly behind her hand, Sera abandoned her own husband's side to stand behind the giggling princess and feed her the vows.

"I, Rolanda Georgiana Matilda, swear faithfully to have this man to my wedded husband, to live under his hand at the Goddess' will. I swear to love, comfort, honor, and obey, to be bonny and buxom in bed and at board; to keep him in sickness and in health; to cleave to no other, so long as we both shall live."
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 05, 2018 9:29 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Even Freddie was smiling, but he only quietly shushed his wife before turning back to witness the couple exchange vows, trying to look as stoic as possible, despite the giggles erupting around him. Hugo's expression changed as soon as Rolanda started saying her vows, turning serious, blue eyes bright with happiness.

As she came to the end of those vows, the laughter had fled from Rolanda's voice, her gray/green eyes lifted to Hugo's with absolute sincerity.

The priestess gently touched his arm. "To claim your lady, lay your ring on her finger, and repeat these words," she told him softly. "With this ring, I thee wed; with my body, I thee worship; and with all my worldly goods, I thee endow. In the love of the Goddess, Her wrath, and Her ruin, I take thee as mine own as long as life endures."

So lost was Hugo in his beloved's gaze that he almost missed the priestess' instructions, until she touched his arm, drawing him back from his thoughts. "Oh!" he exclaimed, blinking a moment before reaching for Rolanda's hand to slide that circlet of gold upon her finger. "Ahem, with this ring, I thee wed," he repeated, hoping he remembered all the words right. "With my body ..." He had to pause to stifle another round of laughter before continuing. "I thee worship," he said, emphasizing the word and arching his brows upwards to give it meaning. "And with all my worldly goods, I thee endow. In the love of the Goddess, Her wrath, and Her ruin, I take thee as mine own as long as life endures." He let out a breath as he finished, hoping it got it all right.

Freddie leaned toward Sera and whispered, "Did we giggle that much?"

Sera squeezed her own husband's arm between her hands affectionately, whispering back to Freddie, "I think I was too nervous to do anything but mumble."

To her credit, the priestess gave him as much time as he needed to get the words out, despite the fact that Rolanda was almost crying with laughter at the emphatic eyebrows Hugo added to certain lines in the recitation.

The priestess let herself smile as she raised her hands in benediction over the laughing newly-weds. "What the Goddess has blessed, let no man tear down. I name thee man and wife."

It wasn't the first time Hugo had heard these words or witnessed a wedding, and yet, somehow it was different now that he was the one getting married. It was at once both serious and hysterical for some reason, but he wasn't sure if it was because some of the words were so silly or if he was just too happy to keep a straight face. Rolanda's laughter was infectious, but then, that was one of the things he'd always loved most about her. He didn't wait to be given permission to kiss his bride, sliding an arm around her waist to draw her close and press an enthusiastic kiss against her lips.

She threw her arms about his neck, meeting his kiss more than halfway, as enthusiastic as he was in this first gesture of marital affection. Behind her, she heard Franz chuckle and turn to thank the priestess; behind Hugo, she heard Sera murmur to Freddie.

"How do we explain it if they suffocate one another before they even reach the marriage bed?"

Freddie had no answer for that. He merely shrugged. "At least they will have died happy," he said, leaning close to brush an affectionate kiss against his own wife's cheek.

Hugo smiled against Rolanda's lips, amused at hearing the queen's question and in complete agreement with the king. He could not deny that he was happy - happier than he'd ever felt in his entire life. Even happier than the day he'd been declared a knight of the realm.

Who would have thought that a summons to be escort to the princess would result in his becoming a member of the royal family? Rolanda could not have predicted it, but she would not have it any other way. There was a strange sort of peace that came with knowing she was his, that he was hers, that she never needed to fear him loving and marrying anyone else. Smiling, she drew back from Hu's kiss, nipping the tip of his nose before letting herself drop to her heels. It took a moment longer before she remembered the protocol, gently urging him to turn and bow to the king.

Hu mirrored her smile, almost forgetting they weren't alone, until she nudged him into remembering. He couldn't help but chuckle a little as she kissed his nose - something he couldn't remember anyone ever doing before, since he was a small child. He offered a grateful and respectful bow to the king and queen, who were now officially family.

"It would appear I have a new brother," Sera commented softly, her smile shy but pleased for them both. "I've never had an older brother before."

Rolanda laughed, surging forward to hug the younger woman. "You haven't been the eldest since I got home!"

As for Hugo, he'd never had a brother or a sister, the only child of a knight who'd been killed in battle, leaving behind a wife who'd never remarried and their young son. It was strange to know he was part of a larger family now, and even stranger to know that family was royal.

"She said brother, Rolly, and that you most certainly are not," Freddie pointed out with a grin. He stepped forward to congratulate the young couple, clasping a hand against Hu's shoulder. "Welcome to the family," he told the younger man before turning to his sister to touch a kiss to her cheek. "Rolly, I trust you are happy now."

"I was happy before," Rolanda assured her brother. "I am incandescent with delight now!" She squeaked, bouncing over to throw her arms around her brother with a loud laugh.

Left behind, Sera touched Hugo's shoulder with a light hand, daring to kiss his cheek. "Her effervescent energy is your problem now."

Freddie laughed at his sister's exuberance, remarking, "I'm not even sure what that means!" He returned her hug, not quite as exuberant as hers, but warm and brotherly. "We will have a proper wedding when you return," he told her quietly.

Hugo chuckled at Sera's form of congratulations. "I'll consider myself warned," he replied with a grin. He drew back a little to look at both royals, his hand searching for Ro's beside him. "Thank you both," he said. "I shall never forget this kindness."

"You will never have cause to regret it," Sera assured him, leaning into her own husband's side. "But please remember to eat this evening when your dinner is delivered to you."

At Hugo's side, Rolanda blushed deep crimson, aware that the ceremony was just a small part of being a wife.

"I shall try, Majesty," Hu assured the queen, with a grin. He and Ro would definitely need to be rested and well, not only for their journey, but for the task that lay ahead of them when they reached Ansburg. But tonight was their wedding night, and he planned on enjoying it and making sure his young wife enjoyed it with him. He looked to his new wife, noticing her blush, and offered her a playful wink and a grin.

"I'll have copies of the official documents added to the dossier you will be taking with you to Ansburg," Franz added as the priestess took her leave of them. "A precaution against unfounded accusations."

"Thank you, sir," Hugo told Franz, relieved they would have official documents with them to serve as proof of their marriage, if it became necessary. "If there is nothing else, we shall retire to our rooms," he said, eager to share more than just kisses with his new bride, though it was unclear which rooms they would be sharing.
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 05, 2018 9:30 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Yes, I simply must show my new husband my doll collection," Rolanda added, very nearly managing to say it without cracking a smile.

Franz chortled, rolling his eyes at the pair of them. "I think we can safely say that their majesties are fully aware of what you are intending to do, princess."

"I believe I am expected to worship you with my body," Hu said, quoting his recently-recited vows, with a hint of mischief in his eyes.

Freddie coughed at the couple's obvious eagerness to consummate the marriage. "We shall, uh, leave you to it then," he said. "Please be sure to bid us farewell before you leave."

"And what kind of fruit are your loins made of?" Rolanda countered her husband's comment in a mischievous tone.

Sera choked on a giggle, hastily turning away as she laughed.

The princess grinned at her brother. "We won't leave without saying farewell," she promised him, one hand wrapping into Hugo's. "In the morning."

"Pomegranates," Hugo replied without hesitation, another grin forming on his lips as he tugged his cheeky bride toward the door. "Definitely pomegranates."

As the couple departed, Freddie rolled his eyes. "Good goddess. Were we ever that young?" he asked, mostly to Franz, since Sera was even younger than Rolanda.

"I couldn't say, sire," Franz chuckled. "I can honestly say I do not believe I have ever been so young as to think the contents of my smalls are pomegranates."

"At least he did not compare them to grapes," Freddie murmured, almost forgetting that Sera was there. This was the kind of talk that was best shared among men, without ladies present.

Sera had been considering something else, though. "If ... if that is the size of a pair of pomegranates," she said thoughtfully, "... how big is the rest, I wonder?"

Franz let out a bark of laughter, hastily muffling himself.

"I would rather not know!" Freddie said, with a chuckle. He had a feeling the young knight had been exaggerating just a little, perhaps to impress his new bride. "You must admit it, it is a little amusing to think they might produce fruit, rather than children."

"Fruit ... fit for a prince?" Sera suggested, daring to show off the humor only Freddie ever really saw. Her lips twitched in a suggestion of a wicked little smile as she glanced between the two men.

"If he is as fruitful as a pomegranate, soon we may have a castle full of little people," Freddie said, with a soft smile at Sera, knowing they already had a head start on his sister and her new husband, where children were concerned.

"Then we should hope he is not exaggerating," she countered fondly, curling her arms through the crook of his elbow. "And that Rolanda doesn't giggle when she finally gets to find out for herself."

"Perhaps we should make sure their rooms are not too close to ours," Freddie said, not really wanting to listen to the newlyweds at play well into the night. Though she had never complained, he found himself hoping, not for the first time, that his young queen did not mind having an older man for a husband.

"She cannot hear us at night," Sera pointed out with a gentle tease of her own. "She would certainly have mentioned it by now if she could. Your sister does not miss an opportunity to make mischief."

"That is true," Freddie agreed, but for one difference. "But I do not think we are quite as ... energetic as they are," he said, quoting her earlier description of his sister. In all truth, he was not a shabby lover, despite his age - attentive, affectionate, and loving - but not quite the exuberant lover he might have been when he was a younger man.

Franz rolled his eyes, bowing as he took his leave. He could see where this conversation was going.

Sera inclined her head to him, looking up at her husband once again. "Do you truly think I would prefer anyone over you, darling?"

"Coward!" Freddie called after his departing friend, but the taunt was made with affectionate familiarity. He smirked as he turned back to meet Sera's gaze. "I should hope not, since you are married to me," he teased her.

The young queen giggled softly, leaning into him. "Even if I were not your wife, I would still love you better than all the men in the world," she promised affectionately.

"Then I suppose it is good that you are," he said, leaning close to brush his lips against hers in a gentle display of affection. "Shall we retire to our own rooms to await dinner, my love?" he asked, a hint of mischief sparkling in his gray-green eyes.

"It has been a very exciting day," she agreed, matching his mischief with her own. Her fingers curled tight into his sleeve. "And promises to be an equally exciting night."

"Indeed," he agreed, with an expression that told her he was intending to prove that even a man of his age was still capable of a few surprises.

Still, however many surprises the king had to show to queen, it was his sister who would encounter the most surprises in this one afternoon and evening. Rolanda knew kisses, and a few teasing hints of everything else that might happen, but she'd never felt the need to learn more. Not until now.

Hugo was not so well-versed in lovemaking that he could not learn a thing or two, but where the king had the advantage of experience, the young knight had youthful stamina and enthusiasm. And he was very enthusiastic about teaching Rolanda everything he knew and learning the rest along the way.

What she lacked in knowledge, she certainly made up for in enthusiasm, but even the most enthusiastic need a moment or two to breathe. Lying in her husband's arms, Rolanda let herself relax, teasing her fingertips over his chest as she giggled softly to herself. "Tell me again, love," she teased affectionately. "What were you expecting to happen when you rode in today?"

Having only recently come up for breath, he held her snugly in his arms, unable to wipe the smile from his face now that his greatest wish had come true. She was even more beautiful in every way than he had remembered her, and now she was his. "I was certainly not expecting to end the day married to a princess," he told her, not quite answering her question.

She laughed aloud, tilting her head back to meet his eyes. "Since we have technically been engaged for six years, I don't think anyone could accuse us of being hasty," she reminded him in a giggly tone, though her smile faded a little as a worry crossed her mind. "Was I ... that is, am I ... I mean ... was it ... good?"

He smiled, turning onto his side to face her and reaching over to brush his fingers against her cheek, pushing her hair away from her face. It was not so much skill that made one a good lover, in his opinion, but the love that was shared between them. Skill would come in time; for now, he was happy merely to be near her. "Yes, it was good, but in time, it will be even better," he assured her, leaning close to kiss her lips. A small frown touched his face, if only for a moment, knowing it was not usually pleasant for a woman the first time. "Did it hurt very much?"
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 05, 2018 9:30 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

She blinked, concern flickering across her face. "Was it supposed to hurt?" she asked him in turn, nuzzling to him as he kissed her. "Does it make me awfully wicked that it didn't?"

He arched his brows, a little surprised for a moment, but also relieved. He had heard that sometimes a woman would not have pain or even bleeding the first time, even if she was a virgin, especially if she was accustomed to riding a horse. While some might find it suspicious, he felt only relieved. "No, dearest. It does not make you wicked," he assured her, pressing a kiss to her brow.

"Truly?" Perhaps it was strange that the mischievous princess should worry about being wicked, but Rolanda was deeply devout in spite of her mischief. It worried her that perhaps there was something wrong with her.

"Rolly," he started, propping himself up by an elbow. "You have been riding a horse almost since you could walk, have you not?" he asked, though she might not have been told enough about her own anatomy to understand what he was getting at.

"Of course," she answered, bemused by the question. "I'm an excellent rider. I even beat Prince Felipe in a straight race once - he was terribly put out to lose to a girl."

"There you have it," he said, though he still wasn't sure she'd understand why this should make a difference. He didn't really want to give her an anatomy lesson, when he didn't understand it all that well himself. A thought came to mind. "Perhaps you should ask the queen ... or Esme," he said, thinking this was a conversation between had between women.

That did not make one jot of sense to her, but Rolanda tried to make it stretch. "Hugo ..." she said slowly, rolling onto her back, the sheet tucked over her chest. "Are you saying I've been deflowered by my own horse?"

"Er ..." Hugo stammered. He would not put it quite like that, but that was essentially what he meant. "Yes?" he asked, trying hard not to laugh. "But don't worry, love. I'm not jealous," he said, lunging forward to leave a trail of kisses against the side of her neck.

"But I - oh!" His lunge knocked the thought from her tongue as she dissolved into giggles at the sudden onslaught of affection, a moment of concern forgotten as she arched to him, fingers gripping at his hair. "I think you are teasing me, sir knight."

"Try not to think so hard, princess," he told her, before his lips grazed her neck again, slowly inching lower. He drew the sheet down, so that his kisses could follow, teasing her flesh with lips and tongue and teeth. He was gentle but persistent, following the cues she gave him with every moan and sigh of breath, learning how to love her, equally willing to be teacher and student.

Certain it was that no one would ever see her quite so vulnerable, nor so pliant, as she was with him, here where time meant very little and intimacy was in everything. She gave him those moans, those sighs, half-afraid to give more but unable to stop herself as she writhed under his touch. Learning and learned, and loved.

Love her he did, to the best of his ability. As inexperienced as he was, he did not lack for effort, learning and teaching each other the ways of love. It was a good thing they were having dinner brought to their rooms, as neither seemed willing to leave the bed for long.

"You know," Rolanda volunteered a few hours later, dripping chocolate from the last of their dinner over his chest to chase it with her tongue, "I'm fairly sure that some of what we are doing here is probably illegal in parts of Pomerania."

He grinned up at her as she licked the chocolate clean from his chest, hoping she didn't get any chest hairs in her mouth, but she seemed unconcerned. "But we are not in Pomerania," he pointed out. "And even if we were, who is going to tell?" he asked, tracing the curve of a breast with a fingertip.

She giggled, no longer covering herself from his eyes as she grew used to this ease with him. Crawling up, she set the spoon back in the dish on the side table, leaning over him to press a slow kiss to his lips. "I'm told that a gentleman never kisses and tells."

He licked the last of the chocolate from her lips, growing easier in each other's company, even after only a few hours. Then again, they had known each other since they were children, and there were very few secrets between them. "Who said I was a gentleman?" he countered, eyes dancing with mirth and mischief.

She let out a gasp of laughter, prodding at his side even as she traded kisses back and forth with him. "Are you saying that you will discuss our marital acrobatics with the king at the very first opportunity you get?" she giggled teasingly.

"Don't worry, Your secrets are safe with me, love," he assured her, touching a kiss to the tip of her nose. He drew her down to lie beside him, wrapping her in his embrace and sighing contentedly. "Are you happy, Ro? Truly happy?"

She thumped down into his arms, wrapping her own arms with robust affection about him as they sighed together. "I am," she told him with absolute confidence. "Very happy. I never thought to wish for this, but I am so glad it's real."

"Really?" he asked, tilting his head toward her, brows arched upwards in curiosity. "You never thought what it might be like to be with me?" he asked, a little surprised by that, since he had often wondered that about her. Thankfully, she had not disappointed him.

"I never thought that you would want me," she admitted softly. "Why waste dreams and break my own heart on wishing for something that I never thought could be mine? You know me, Hu. I am no good at wearing a smile when I'm sad. If I'd let myself hope, and come home to find you married? I'd have been the saddest princess in the thirteen kingdoms."

He frowned a little to know he might have caused her sadness. "You should know, I never loved Salome," he confessed, though he had admitted as much earlier. "Nor did she, me. And she had loftier ambitions than of marrying a mere knight." There was some irony in that now that he had won a princess for a wife, but that was not what he loved about her. Rolanda could have been a commoner and he would have still loved her. "I was never going to be good enough for her or her parents. It was my mother who made me see it, but it was Salome who broke it off. She married a count."

"She may end up on Freddie's list of courtiers," Rolanda warned him. "Do you think she will cause trouble for us? Some people forget that certain titles only come through marriage."

"She is a countess now. She would not have had such a title had she married me," he said, with a slight shrug. He didn't much care what his former fiancee thought or did, but he didn't much like the idea of running into her at court either. "I think she is happy with her count, and if she is not, she has no one to blame but herself."

A rather wicked little grin flickered over Rolanda's face. She was about to demonstrate that not all her education in Pomerania had been exactly appropriate to her station. "Tell me," she mused, trying not to laugh, "is he a massive count?"

He couldn't help but smirk at her insinuation. "That depends on what part of his ... anatomy we are talking about," he said, as wicked as she was where gossip was concerned, especially where a possible adversary was concerned.

She cackled impishly, brushing a kiss to his lips as her fingers travelled over his skin. "I'd much rather talk about your anatomy, husband."

"Which part? My pomegranates?" he teased, grinning broadly. She had yet to complain about his anatomy, whatever the size.

Rolanda giggled, nose to nose with him as her hand found the prize she had been seeking. "Let us ... see what crops up first, shall we?"

He drew in a breath as she found that prize. "Hmm, I think it's already up," he replied, smothering any more giggles or chatter to claim her with a kiss, not in the least bit chaste.

As would they both be for some hours yet, celebrating a marriage neither one had looked for but neither one regretted. The next day's journey might be a long one, and wearisome, too, after a long night before, but as far as Rolanda was concerned, safe and warm and loved by a man she loved in turn ... it was all worth it.
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