Georgianna took her seat at the end of a long table facing the grand hall. She was still surprised her fiancé, Lisbon, Prince of Covard, had allowed her to enter the banquet without him. Usually he made her wait until the food was all but frozen and picked clean off the platters. Yet it gave her little comfort to sit amongst the other guests and eating warm food, for it could mean only one thing. Lisben was again with a woman.
He wouldn’t want his father, the lecherous King Sampson, to notice his absence and send a page snooping and if Georgianna was missing, more specifically if her bosom was missing, the King was bound to notice.
She nibbled at her goose, taking in the rowdy and joyful noise around her. The King sat a few chairs down, directly in the middle, with his eyes on Georgianna’s chest and a mistress on his lap. Seated beside Georgianna, Lady Calida–or something to that effect–spoke loudly about Georgianna’s upcoming wedding. The goose fell in Georgianna’s stomach like iron.
“I saw the flowers arriving in from the farms. Have you seen them?” The Lady spoke with thin lips that never stopped. Even when words weren’t pouring from them, they always smiled, smirked, connived.
“I have not,” Georgianna replied. She took a long sip of water, and nearly choked on it.
Lady Calida looked at her sideways.
She rarely indulged, but tonight of all nights, her nerves would be the death of her. Georgianna waved her hand for a servant and asked for a large glass of wine. The servant nodded and left, leaving Lady Calida to ask more questions and for Georgianna to wish she’d asked for two glasses.
“I can only imagine how pleased the two countries are with this match. Even if it has taken a little longer than expected. Have you spoken much with your brother? He was quite amiable.”
“I have sent a few letters, but with the wars in the outer areas, replies are too few and very far between.” Georgianna bared her teeth and hoped it resembled a smile. The truth was there had been no replies. She’d had no contact with her father or brother since her arrival at the castle. At first, Georgianna really had suspected it was the wars, but when not a single letter had arrived, she began to realize the truth. Lisben was keeping them from her.
He had kept her distracted for a long time with parties and banquets. As the time passed, Georgianna realized them for what they were, merely a means for Lisben to show her off in a controlled environment. He hardly let her off the grounds, and never allowed her to do anything that he had not personally approved.
“A two-year-long engagement,” Lady Calida continued. “Much longer than either party expected, I’m sure.”
“Yes, well, everything has been settled. It will all happen soon enough, I pleasure in this test of patience.” As she recited her scripted response, Georgianna fought the urge to bite off her own tongue. Lisben’s one act of kindness had been not letting it known that their unusual engagement time was not due to the wars, but to her father’s inability to muster up a dowry appropriate to his rank.
Georgianna took another frustrated bite of goose and forced herself to swallow. Her stomach was a mess of butterflies, and her hands would not stop shaking. Thankfully, to the rest of the room she would simply appear as a nervous bride-to-be.
Her engagement with Lisben and the dismal future he provided was not the reason for her nerves. She had succumbed to the fact that her life was for trade long ago. To live as a princess and, one day as queen, was more than most people could hope for, and she would not turn her nose up to a safe life, even if it would be an unhappy one. In her home of Ceravique, most of her father’s people were starving. Ceravique had continued to wilt and Georgianna could do nothing but watch as hungry people died while she had been unable to help them.
But she had found a way. Daily, she had thanked the Lord for bestowing beauty upon her. Because of her, a link formed between the two kingdoms, one that could supply her home with the stability, security and the trade routes it so desperately needed.
Yet none of this was behind her nerves tonight. As always, it was only Braden and not her fiancé who could evoke any sort of strong emotion from her. This time, what she planned to do that heightened her emotions.
Tonight, she would break it off.
Trumpets sounded, tearing Georgianna from her thoughts. The servant arrived with her wine and she gulped it down. Before the doors opened, she thrust the goblet back in the servant’s hands with a request for more. The massive wooden plank doors swung wide and the King’s knights strode through. They marched inside in two straight lines, their footsteps echoing off the stone walls like a slow drumbeat. On some cue Georgianna didn’t see, they stopped and fell into a long horizontal line in front of her table.
Georgianna immediately spotted Braden. Except for the insignia identifying him as the General, he was dressed exactly as the others, in the armor they had worn to battle. He stood taller than the rest, but arrogance made him stand out.
“What news?” the King asked with slurred speech.
“We were victorious in the east, the land is claimed, and the threat has been eliminated,” the General replied.
The King beamed. “Your report was expected. This banquet is in your honor.”
When it was clear the King had finished speaking, the knights cheered, even though the banquet meant for them had already begun before they had arrived.
Georgianna suspected the two events were more coincidental. She snatched a fresh goblet from a servant then, with her eyes locked on Braden, took a generous sip. They could not continue, despite the way he could make her feel. She was affianced! To have let it begin at all was a sin, to let it continue, was impossible.
“I do hope they are given their own table,” Lady Calida whispered as she bent forward, offering the knights a better view. “Remember last time, Princess? When it was insisted they sit at our table?”
Georgianna remembered. Later that night, Braden had come to her in her chamber, taking her against the small window where anyone could’ve looked up and witnessed their transgression.
She realized she was blushing and nodded solemnly. Braden had removed his helmet, but his gaze hadn’t immediately found hers. He watched the King, with sharp green eyes, like the attentive and loyal knight he was.
Braden stepped forward after the cheering subsided. “If it pleases the King, we will stow our armor and return.”
The King nodded, his attentions already back on the pretty, drunken thing on top of him.
Georgianna commanded her legs remain motionless as Braden turned and left with the other men. The wine hit her body, making her numb and carefree. She shook her head and took another sip, even as the space between her legs ached at the sight of Braden.
When he kissed her, she wasn’t just something beautiful, traded for the safety of a realm. When he hiked up her skirts because he couldn’t wait for her to undress, she wasn’t a trophy or decoration. He wanted her. She was desirable.
The goblet almost fell out of her hand as she felt him behind her, caressing her back with hands like a cold, dead fish. “My darling,” Lisben murmured.
“You’ve made it.” She conjured another teeth-baring fake smile.
“I have,” He smirked.
He was getting sloppy. His disheveled hair hinted at his activities and his lips were still red, either stained or sore. He sat down beside her, ignoring the greetings from everyone around them. He tore a limb from the goose at the center of the table and leaned back.
“You missed the knights’ returning, they were victorious,” Georgianna said.
Lisben’s eyes narrowed, a bit of goose flesh hung from the corner of his mouth. “I didn’t miss it.”
“I only meant—”
“Be quiet,” he ordered.
Her head dropped, her eyes fixed on her lap. After a moment passed, she heard Lisben begin to tear at his goose again.
When he spoke, it was with a greasy whisper in her ear. “Drinking wine tonight? Does my rabbit want a repeat of last week?”
Her head snapped up even as she shook it back and forth. “No, my Prince. I just–”
The knights returning drowned the rest of her words. They seemed to bring in happiness and relief. Georgianna ignored her fiancé’s smirk and took another sip. The wine already buzzed through her, but she needed all the false courage she could get.
Once the knights had all assembled, the King stood up. Georgianna was impressed that he still had the ability.
“As a reward for your good service to God and our great Kingdom of Covard, it is my decree that tonight is knight’s choice. Sit alongside the prettiest, most handsome woman, and pray you’ve made the right decision. Don’t worry, there is enough wine left to help you if you do not.” The King guffawed.
Georgianna froze. She could not, would not, sit and watch Braden choose another woman. It would hurt too much. Even so, she peeked up and watched as knight after knight sat jovially next to the woman of their choosing. There was much blushing and giggling in the outer areas. Soon, Braden was the only one left, standing in the middle of the room, his gaze never leaving hers.
There was no way.
Yet, when he took a step, it was in her direction.