Dianthe could not fathom what Valerius—no Xavier now—Dianthe could not believe Xavier was announcing his intent to wed Cardelia. Dianthe thought that Xavier felt something for her. The sharp stab of jealousy confirmed that she was in love with Xavier. Why were the gods so unfair? They’d gifted Cardelia with beauty, wealth, and royal status. And now, just as Dianthe realized she was in love, the gods gifted him to Cardelia too. Salty tears stung Dianthe’s eyes and she leapt up and ran out of the room before she embarrassed herself further.
“Lady Dianthe!” Xavier called out after her but she took no heed. Xavier rose from his chair and went after her. He doubted her unhappiness could match his own but he owed her an explanation.
He found her outside in a dark corner behind the inn. “Would that I were an ordinary man.”
Dianthe sniffed but gave no other response.
“If I were, I’d have asked for your hand, wedded and shared your bed by now.”
Dianthe looked up at him through tear-stained eyes and Xavier closed his, the thoughts of a life together with Dianthe made him waiver in his resolve. “But I rule a small kingdom; more of a village in truth. They are good, hardworking, loyal people who happen to live on a piece of land that is constantly under attack. It’s my duty to protect them, and the only way left is to join my kingdom with Cardelia’s.
“It’s my duty,” Xavier repeated. “But not my desire.”
He gazed down at Dianthe, who was crying openly now. He drank in her lovely features, and without a conscious thought, stroked her hair, then her cheek. She stepped closer, wrapped her arms around him and sobbed into his chest.
Just once. Just this once, he would allow himself, he thought as he lifted her chin and kissed her lusciously sweet lips.
As Xavier ran off to find Dianthe, Cardelia jumped up and headed towards the stable. She regretted that she’d have to forego a night in an actual bed instead of a rug outside on the dirt, but that was better than keeping company with the lying, conniving, brothers who would steal her kingdom and her freedom.
“Princess,” Valerius called after her. She didn’t stop but he had a longer gait and soon caught up with her. “Princess. Stop.”
“Why? So you can feed me more lies? So you can bully and manhandle me?”
Valerius wanted to strangle her but then he’d be guilty of her accusations. “By the teeth of the gods! You lied to us first! And I thought you were a boy!”
Cardelia found her horse and lifted the saddle onto it. Valerius took hold of her saddle and lifted it back off.
“What are you doing?” Cardelia cried, trying to grab the saddle from Valerius. He held it above his head, out of Cardelia’s reach.
“Listen. I just want you to listen to me for a minute,” he said.
“Fine,” Cardelia grumbled.
Valerius lowered the saddle and placed it on the ground.
Cardelia grabbed it and began to strap it onto the horse as quickly as possible.
“You said you’d listen!” Valerius shouted. Even though she was a princess, she was still irksome.
“I lied, what a surprise,” Cardelia said as she attempted to mount the horse.
“Oh no you don’t!” Valerius grabbed her by the waist, trying to pull her down. Cardelia wriggled, trying to squirm out of his grasp. Valerius lost his footing and the two of them tumbled to the ground.
The horse whinnied, nervously and Valerius rolled over onto Cardelia, intent on protecting her from the horse’s hooves. The horse moved harmlessly away from them.
“Get off of me you beast. I can’t breathe!” Cardelia pummeled his chest.
Valerius looked down at Cardelia, her beautiful face flushed with anger, breathing heavily. He couldn’t help himself, he kissed her.