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Authors: Rachelle McCalla

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“He recognized me. He said he was afraid he might have injured me.”

Elisabette stuck out her tongue and blew it dismissively. “He didn’t injure anyone all day. Once he knew it was you, he could have simply been more careful.
That
wasn’t it at all.”

Intrigued, Gisela plucked grapes from the large bunch Bette had brought her. “Then why?”

The girl grinned. “I’m not sure I should tell.”

“What do you know?”

“That’s just it. I don’t know anything for certain, only what I’ve observed in the way he acts around you, the look on his face when he saw you’d fallen in the piste.”

“He was wearing a mask.”

Elisabette dismissed her protest with a shake of her head. “His entire body language changed. He went from being furiously upset to, to...”

“To what?” Gisela urged when the girl seemed to have trouble finding the right word.

Bette looked at the ceiling with a wistful expression. “He looked as though someone had just pulled his heart from his chest.”

“You’re being dramatic.”

“Am I? Did you hear him in the great hall when he laid you by the fire? I know what he’s said—that if anything happens to you while you’re in his care, we could end up at war with the Illyrians or your father or both. But it wasn’t
that
kind of fear that burned in his eyes. I know the look he gets when he’s worried about war, and this was nothing like it.”

Gisela’s heart thumped rapidly as she waited for Bette to explain further. She had her own suspicions about what had motivated John’s actions, but her suspicions were hardly objective, clouded as they were by her own very strong feelings. “What was it like, then?”

“You’ll say I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

“I wouldn’t suggest such a thing. You know your brother far better than I do.”

“Not that.” Bette stuck out a pouting lip and scowled at what remained of her baklava.

“What then?”

The younger woman seemed to wage a battle before she finally spoke. “I know you’re older than I am, but I’ve recently celebrated my eighteenth birthday. Most of my friends have married already. I’m not completely naive.” Something in the way she spoke suggested that she’d bottled up her secret for too long, and wanted desperately to share it with someone. Still, she held back.

“I never thought you naive.” Gisela tried to encourage her.

Bette placed the rest of her baklava on the tray and nibbled at her thumb nail indecisively. “You’ve got to promise not to tell John what I’m about to say. It cannot leave this room.”

Unsure how she could make such a promise when she hadn’t yet heard Elisabette’s news, nonetheless she doubted the girl would speak at all without her solemn pledge.

“My lips are sealed.”

Elisabette’s story spilled out quickly, as though it had been bottled up under pressure and was ready to burst. “Before my father’s death, we used to travel past the mountains for festivals. We were on good terms with our Illyrian neighbors and our family got along quite well with the royal families of the neighboring kingdoms. Unbeknownst to my father or brother, I fell in love with an Illyrian prince. We pledged our hearts to one another the summer before my father’s death. Since then, we’ve exchanged notes by courier. I still love him, and he loves me, though I haven’t heard from him in many long months.”

“Oh, Bette.”

The girl continued. “I understand what love is—sometimes I think I understand it better than my brother. He’s run from it ever since his wife died. It’s been years ago, but he’s never looked at another woman twice.”

Gisela’s heart felt as though it had been gripped in a vise. Was that the source of King John’s great sorrow? She could hardly breathe waiting for Bette to finish her account.

“I shouldn’t presume to speak for my brother. It’s his story to tell. But you must understand that I know what I’m talking about. I know my brother, and I know love.”

When the girl left off her story, Gisela finally sucked in a breath. “What are you saying?”

“He hasn’t been this way since he fell in love with Dorcas. Then again, I don’t think he was ever this way.”

“What are you suggesting?” Gisela knew well what her heart wanted the girl to be suggesting, but at the same time, her sensible self hoped Bette would deny it.

“I think my brother has feelings for you.”

“He can’t.”

“I know what I’m talking about.”

Gisela reached across the tray and took Bette by the hand. “I know you do. I trust you do. And I fear your appraisal of the situation may be right. But you know I’m promised to an Illyrian prince.”

“Yes, I know. And that’s the other reason I wanted to tell you my tale. When you get to Illyria, do you think you could take a message to my prince? I haven’t heard from him in weeks and weeks, and I’m very worried. Perhaps you could initiate talks between his family and mine. We long to be together, but the current political situation makes that impossible.”

It took Gisela a moment to process all that Elisabette said. The girl didn’t question that Gisela would soon wed an Illyrian, despite King John’s supposed feelings for her. “I will try to help you in whatever way I can. What is the name of your prince?”

Bette stood and took a step toward the door, blushing at the thought of her love. She’d clearly said all she’d come to say, and now appeared ready to retreat, half embarrassed by sharing so much. “He’s a prince of the Dometian tribe. Warrick, son of Garren.”

Gisela stared after Bette, but there was no calling the young woman back, not when she’d scampered off in such a hurry, and Gisela couldn’t find her voice anyway.

Of course, the younger princess didn’t know the name of Gisela’s betrothed. Gisela had purposely not told her because of the connection between Warrick’s family and the man who’d killed Elisabette and John’s father, King Theodoric.

Did Bette know about the connection between Warrick’s family and Rab the Raider? What would she think when she found out?

Worse yet, what would she think when she learned that Gisela was pledged to marry her longtime love? Fear gripped Gisela. What if Warrick sent a message to Elisabette confessing his betrothal to Gisela? What if Bette learned she was going to lose her love to the very woman who’d promised to help her unite her to him?

“Oh, dear God in Heaven.” Gisela pinched her eyes shut and prayed. “Help me, please.”

* * *

John lay awake for a long time, regretting that he’d spoken aloud words best left buried. Why had he brought up Gisela’s coming marriage? Why had he asked her about breaking it off? Legally and politically he knew she ought to make haste to Warrick, be married and gone from Lydia, out of his castle and out of his thoughts.

But would she really be gone from his thoughts? He hadn’t managed to forget her yet. Outwardly the situation seemed so simple. She wasn’t his and he had no intention of marrying. They weren’t to be together. Simple.

And yet, inside his heart everything had gotten turned around backward.

He rolled from his bed and knelt at the side, his hands held tight together in prayer. “Dear Lord,
why?
” He couldn’t put into words exactly what he was feeling. He didn’t understand it himself. But surely God understood. Surely God knew what to do. “What am I to do?” he pleaded. “Show me what to do.”

John had his eyes pinched shut when an oddly familiar fluttering sound distracted him. He quit his prayers and rose to the open window, where the moonlight cast a shadow over the figure perched there.

“Fledge.” He greeted the bird before he realized his falcon wasn’t alone. Another falcon landed on the windowsill beside his falcon.

His leather gloves still lay on the side table where he left them. He pulled one on and extended his arm to the bird. “Ah, Fledge, you’ve returned to me.” He ran a hand down the bird’s smooth feathers and determined that she had no injury. She was no worse off after her absence.

A sense of peace cut through his despair. Everything in his kingdom and in his heart was in upheaval, but his bird had returned to him. God was faithful. God watched over sparrows—it said so in the Holy Scriptures. Surely God watched over kings, as well.

John looked up into the starry heavens. “I don’t understand,” he confessed, “but if You lead me, I will follow.”

* * *

Grateful for the exhaustion that helped her forget her troubles in sleep, Gisela nonetheless awoke all too cognizant of the distressing circumstances in which she’d found herself.

And Hilda was missing.

As Gisela splashed on rose water and put on a suitable gown, she thought back to the night before. If Hilda had ever returned after she’d left to fetch Gisela some food, she’d gone again while Gisela was sleeping. What had distracted the faithful maid from her usual devotion to her duties?

With her long length of braid coiled within a silken net, Gisela set off in search of Hilda or breakfast and hoped to find them both together.

A visit to the kitchen yielded no maid nor any clues to where the woman might be. However, the cook obligingly offered Gisela her choice of breakfasts, and she continued her search munching on a pastry filled with chunks of apple.

Having always been a fan of high towers and the views one could see from them, Gisela navigated through the hallways, checking her position periodically through the wide-open windows until she found the winding stairs that led to the highest tower.

She didn’t expect to find Hilda there, but since she’d had her breakfast she had no more need of the maid. And she’d been so busy planning the tournament that she’d yet to fully explore the castle. The view from the tower would help her to understand the layout of King John’s fortress, as well as the lay of the land. Perhaps she might even spot Hilda from that vantage point.

“Delightful,” she whispered to herself, swallowing the last morsel and hoisting her skirts as she climbed the winding stone stairs.

The steps circled around and around until she was nearly dizzy. Narrow windows lit the space, but they were only wide enough to shoot arrows through, and allow a little light in. The stone walls were far too thick to permit her to see anything through the arrow slits.

Finally the winding trail ended and opened to a large room with windows all around. As her eyes adjusted to the sudden light, she saw she was not alone.

“King John.”

A pair of birds startled at her voice, and John turned to her, surprise on his face.

“Shh.” He extended his arm toward one of the birds, which had fluttered up to the rafters and now glared at her from his perch with an expression that was quite disapproving, for a bird.

It was a falcon. Gisela recalled that he’d lost his along the borderlands. She shrank back, not wanting to scare the birds away. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” she whispered and took the first three steps down. “I’ll leave you alone.”

“You’re welcome to stay.” John held one bird on his leather glove. “You startled them. They really don’t mind humans. At least, Fledge doesn’t. I can’t speak for this fellow.” He pointed to the bird that glared at them from the rafters. John chuckled softly at the bird’s antics.

Gisela couldn’t help giggling as well. “I’m not entirely certain he approves of me.”

“How could anyone not approve of you? No, he’s just a stodgy old bird.” John turned his attention back to the falcon on his glove. “I don’t know why she brought him home.” He smoothed the falcon’s ruffled feathers.

“Fledge is a ‘she’?” Gisela stepped forward cautiously.

“Yes. They have similar markings, but the females tend to be noticeably larger than the males.”

“That’s a bit different from humans.” Gisela had arrived at his side and looked up at him, his considerable height advantage over her providing evidence in support of her words.

“Indeed. I believe the birds require that size advantage among the females to enable them to lay eggs. As for why the males are smaller, I don’t know why God wanted them to be so, but I don’t doubt there’s a good reason.”

“God does seem to know what He’s doing, even when we can’t understand it,” Gisela agreed, reaching tentative fingers toward the bird. “May I?”

The animal dipped its head as though inviting her to stroke its feathers. Gisela couldn’t suppress a delighted laugh as she ran the tips of her fingers down the bird’s delicate head.

“She likes you,” John murmured.

Gisela met his eyes and immediately felt a blush rising to her cheeks. She wished she could think of something to say, but one glance at the king had addled her brain, and stolen her voice, as well.

Chapter Ten

J
ohn held his falcon out toward the princess and tried frantically to think. She’d been ready to leave him alone in the tower. If he’d have kept silent for another few seconds, she’d have been gone. Why had he been foolish enough to invite her to stay?

Because he longed to be in her presence, that was why. Except for his reasoning faculties, which knew far better than to go anywhere near her, every facet of his being longed to be as close to her as possible.

It was as though his entire physical body had mutinied against his rational self.

It was high treason, when he got right down to it.

Perhaps he should find out why she’d climbed the tower and then quickly take his leave. At the very least, he could hope to retreat before she brought up their conversation from the night before. He rushed to fill the silence before she could fill it for him. “Are you enjoying your stay at Castlehead?”

“Very much so, thank you.”

“Is there anything you lack?”

She shrugged, then laughed. “My maid has gone missing.”

“Hilda?” John thought quickly, seeing an opportunity to retreat. “I shall ask my courtiers if anyone knows where she might be.” He raised his arm to place Fledge back on her perch.

“It’s not an urgent concern.” She raised one hand, and he paused. “Since you’re here, perhaps you could help me in another way.”

“I am at your service.”

“I climbed this tower in hopes of garnering enough of a view to understand the layout of this expansive castle of yours, as well as the surrounding landscape.”

“Your Highness has chosen an excellent vantage point from which to observe.” As John spoke, Fledge seemed to grow bored with him and hopped off his glove to join her new mate on the rafters. John didn’t take her abandonment personally. He was quite relieved to have found the bird had returned at all, even if she’d brought along a new mate.

Gisela crossed to the nearest of eight windows, which occupied the eight walls of the roughly octagonal tower. John crossed to stand beside her and pointed out the various sights. “There is the front gate with the drawbridge, beside the gate tower. Directly across the courtyard is the large roof that covers the great hall.”

“Oh. Then what is under that large peaked roof?” Gisela pointed.

“That’s the chapel. Did you worship there on Wednesday?”

“Yes. The service was lovely. But an attendant escorted me from the great hall. I had no idea how I arrived there or where we were in relation to the rest of the fortress.”

“We’ll have Sunday worship there tomorrow morning. The bells will ring, calling everyone to come to the service, and then they’ll toll three times more when the service begins.”

“I’m so glad you told me. Now I’ll be able to find it without an attendant. But where is my room from there?”

John crouched to meet her eye level and shuffled closer to her, his attention so focused on the architecture outside that he didn’t realize how close he’d moved toward her until his shoulder brushed hers, just as he pointed. “See that window there?”

Instead of moving away from him, she leaned closer. “The arched window?”

“No, rectangle.” John could smell the scent of roses rising from her, and found his thoughts consumed with her proximity.

“Oh, I see. Under that wide tower, there.”

“Yes. That’s the Queen’s Tower. All the best rooms are situated around it. My suite is on the other side.”

“So to get to chapel in the morning, I’ll go down the hallway from my room.” She pointed with her finger, tracing the route through the sky.

“Actually, that hallway has many confusing branches.” He caught her finger and guided her hand until she pointed back to her room. “The fastest route, assuming it’s not raining, is to exit there and cross the courtyard. See the double doors?”

She hesitated.

He was sure she saw it, but more than that, with all his pointing and directing, he’d gotten his arm most of the way around her shoulder and their heads quite close together. In fact, he found it nearly impossible to speak or think. Breathing wasn’t terribly easy, either.

“Double doors,” she repeated the words, but her attention clearly wasn’t on the doors. She turned to look up at him.

He was too close. His thoughts had gone to mush right along with his knees. He hadn’t planned to allow himself to be so close to her, except for when he’d removed the stitches from her eye, and for that he intended to have plenty of attendants nearby to compel him to stay in line. But they were alone now. He staggered back, disturbing the falcons.

Fledge squawked to express her annoyance before settling back next to her new mate.

“Oh, Fledge.” He didn’t need a bird chastising him. “I don’t need a lecture from you. I could give you one of my own.”

Gisela giggled, almost as though she felt relieved to have something to talk about that didn’t require them to stand so close together or admit what they’d felt while doing so. “What would you lecture your falcon about? Running away from home?”

“Yes, that. And fidelity.”

“Fidelity? Is that related to the running away?”

“Well, she’s gone off and found herself a new mate, as you can see.” John felt flustered by the new line of discussion, but he couldn’t very well go back to discussing the view or he’d have his arms around her again within minutes.

“Oh, Fledge.” Gisela looked up at the bird, who looked down her beak at the princess with an air of birdly disdain. “Have you been unfaithful?” She turned her attention to John. “What did she do with her other mate?”

“He died.” It occurred to John that the conversation presented him with an excellent opportunity to make an important point. “But she—”

“Died?” The princess cut him off and started laughing. “That’s hardly grounds for accusing her of adulterous carryings-on.”

“It was only this past winter.” John realized Gisela was still laughing, so he turned his accusing glare on the bird. “The two of them raised many young together, and now she’s moved on as though he’d never been.”

“She moved on because he’s dead and she’s not.”

Even the bird cocked her head at him and blinked rather pointedly, as though she agreed with the princess.

John realized he was outnumbered by the two females, and on top of that, Gisela’s tone was still decidedly condescending, which, as king, was something he wasn’t particularly keen on. Granted, Eliab and Urias tended to treat him that way at times, but he didn’t put up with it from them, either.

He’d only put up with it from the princess because her father was the emperor, and he was in no position to cross either of them. Besides, he was certain his theories were correct, if only he could make Gisela see things his way.

“Falcons are supposed to mate for life,” John asserted.

“Yes.” Gisela smirked at him. “For the life of one of them, not both of them. You can’t expect Fledge to live out the rest of her existence alone, can you? That’s not what mating for life means.”

“But she’s moved on. It’s as though she’s forgotten him.”

“John—” Gisela’s voice turned soft and she took a step closer to him “—if Fledge is ready to move on, that doesn’t mean she didn’t love her first mate. It just means she wants to move ahead with her life. She wants to hatch more young.”

“But he’s not there beside her anymore.” John felt his jaw tighten. He wasn’t winning this argument anymore. He could feel it slipping away from him, just as Dorcas had slipped away from him. He pulled in a breath.

Gisela’s hand fell on his arm.

He startled away.

“I’m sorry,” she apologized quickly. “Would you like me to leave?”

John looked up at Fledge and her new mate, sitting on the rafters. How long he looked at them, sitting there, he wasn’t sure, but his raw emotions churned inside him, muddling his thoughts. Should Gisela stay? He couldn’t say. Ought she stay? Perhaps it wasn’t right for them to be alone together, with him feeling as he did toward her. But did he
want
her to stay?

There was no denying it. Finally he answered, “No. I’d rather you stay.”

She didn’t respond.

He turned to look.

Gisela was gone.

Hurrying toward the stairs, he looked down the long spiral but saw no sign of her. She must have tiptoed away quickly, the sound of her steps swallowed by the thick stones. He looked back at Fledge and her new mate, but they were absorbed with one another and paid no mind to him.

His sense of loss grew along with a yearning for the kind of close companionship the two birds shared with one another. Gisela had offered him that kind of companionship when she’d placed her hand on his arm.

He’d been wrong to pull away. Maybe he’d been wrong to close his heart off to her. But what did it matter? She would marry Warrick. She’d be wed by Christmastide.

The birds fluttered on the rafters above him, and Fledge looked down at him with her beady eyes almost as though she meant to give him a message.

Companionship.

Was that it? Perhaps that was why God had sent Gisela into his life—not because he was supposed to fall in love with
her
—but because he was supposed to open his heart once again to the possibility of love.

Could he do that? Could he forget the vow he’d made after Dorcas’s death and move on to love another?

He stood and looked out over the sea, his thoughts troubled. Perhaps he could love another. Gisela had taught him that. But he most certainly couldn’t love
her.
Loving Gisela was politically and ethically impossible.

So he could not allow himself to feel anything more for her.

* * *

John missed lunch. Gisela had heard he’d had a message from his brother about the situation in the borderlands, so it didn’t surprise her when Elisabette asked her to host the meal without him, since he was in a private meeting with his advisors and couldn’t be interrupted. Though Gisela suspected his absence might have also been influenced by their discussion in the tower, she did her best to be gracious and enjoy the company of the courtiers, whose names and customs she was quickly learning.

When he missed the evening meal as well, she began to get sincerely suspicious.

“Do you suppose he’s avoiding me?” she asked Elisabette in a hushed voice during a lull in the meal.

The young woman smirked. “I told you he wasn’t comfortable with his growing feelings for you. But he can’t keep missing meals without people noticing. Tomorrow’s Sunday—a holy day. He’ll have to make an appearance then.”

Still, Gisela spent an uneasy night contemplating her next move. With Boden dispatched to take a message to her father at Rome, she had little choice but to stay at King John’s castle for as many weeks as it took to receive a reply.

She could hardly imagine going another day without talking to John. She couldn’t let him avoid her for weeks on end. No, the best plan, as far as she could see, was to address the situation directly. She’d never been one to avoid important discussions—her father would never tolerate it.

Perhaps the tension between them would dissipate once they discussed what they felt. She’d observed many a romance in her father’s court. Half the time, it seemed the feelings between the pair came from their uncertainties about the other’s feelings. So it stood to reason that if she and John could speak openly of what they felt, the unwanted emotions would melt away and they could move on.

Even after she resolved to speak with King John, Gisela lay awake for some time listening to the surf crashing against the rocky shoreline and wondering how John would take to the discussion. He’d tended thus far to push her away. She’d have to have God’s help, then, if she was to broach the subject without frightening him off.

The resolution settled in her heart and gave her peace. That was it, then. She’d rise early to pray and read the Scriptures.

Books being notoriously expensive, she herself owned only a copy of the Psalms and the Gospels, both gifts from her father, finely penned copies of the Vulgate, Jerome’s fifth-century Latin translation. Her father had employed the best scholars and commissioned them with translating the Scriptures into the common tongue of the people, but the task was monumental and progress slow.

She realized she was extremely fortunate to have access to any written Scripture at all. But surely given Lydia’s Christian heritage, King John would retain a larger selection of books of the Bible. He’d demonstrated familiarity with the book of Acts, so somewhere he must have a copy of it. And the chapel was the most likely place for such a treasure to be stored. The deacon had read from something during the midweek worship service. Surely something as precious and fragile as a Bible would be kept at the chapel instead of being moved between services.

Her plan was so simple, she smiled to herself. Yes, she’d simply go early to the chapel the next morning. John had indicated that Sunday morning services were held midmorning. If she rose early enough, she might have a couple of hours alone to herself to read the Scriptures before the other worshippers began to arrive.

And then, as Bette had indicated, John was sure to arrive. In keeping with their seating arrangement at table, he was bound to position himself somewhere near her. She’d just have to find a moment to speak with him privately.

And then? Maybe then she could stop thinking about him all the time and finally experience some peace.

* * *

John stared out his open window at the eastern horizon and determined that the sun was hiding somewhere just on the other side. Eventually it would have to rise.

There wasn’t any chance of his falling back to sleep—not when he saw Gisela’s face the moment he closed his eyes. Not when her words churned his heart to a useless froth.

Would he be happy if he wed again? Every time he began to think that he might, his conscience pricked him. How could he allow himself to be happy when Dorcas was dead?

And not just dead, but dead in childbirth. Dead from trying to bear him an heir. He’d failed Dorcas twice already—in causing the pregnancy that had killed her and in failing to save her as she fought against death trying to bring his child into the world.

BOOK: A Royal Marriage
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