Prequel to my romance novel "Bryce." Available in a compilation "Fear Itself" at www.nospine.com
Read and download this manuscript at www.rosedog.com: Manuscript ID: 7652852
Dark billowy storm clouds rolled across the gray evening skies over the green English hills in the country side kingdom of Ashley.On top a hill overlooking the stone fortress of Marnia, a cloaked, dashing young man casually stood. A breeze from the storm swept through Lord Malan Grayson's brown hair. He clutched the medallion in his hand, let out a long sigh and set his thoughts adrift. The medallion served as a constant reminder of his royal heritage as Prince of Willias. A fact he'd kept as a well concealed secret because he possessed a shy and reserved personality and was uninterested in the crap associated with the royal lifestyle.With a distant look in his eyes, he directed his attention toward Marnia, the only home he'd known all his life. He had been raised by his manservant, Buchanan. Thinking about his ever so proper and formal manservant, whom he affectionately called "Buckie," caused he to stifle a laugh and brought a mischievous smile to his lips.When he turned 16, he and his long time friend, Lacoul LaVia, rushed off to be pages then quickly rose through the ranks to become knights in the royal court. He'd spent part of his adolescence and young manhood in various battles but had grown tired of the fighting and sickened by the bloodshed. Although fighting was commonplace in a knight's life, King Rowland, the ruler of Ashley, had decided to appoint him as one of his trusted royal advisors. A position more suited to the his royal heritage and personality.He, Lacoul and Buchanan weren't the only ones who lived at Marnia: a French sort of maid known only as "Frenchie;" and three females of royal birth, the king's cousin, Ambrosia; a brown skinned Twainese with a sharp edge to her tongue, Diayla Avante; and a beautiful long blonde haired woman with a kind personality and powerful literary presence, Lathal Sinclair.Every time he thought about Lathal he was overwhelmed by the strong, powerful feelings he felt for her. Not only was he attracted to Lathal; he ached thinking about the tenderness she inspired in him. He tried to deny he wanted desperately to get involved with her. The more he denied his desire, the more persistent it became.He pushed thoughts of Lathal from his mind momentarily and considered his future. He wanted a romantic relationship with Lathal but also considered finding and bringing back Willias to its glory.What does my future hold for me? What am I going to do?The answers evaded him elusively and were laced with uncertainty. I don't know. I don't know what I'm going to do. He sighed and glanced at the ominous and foreboding sky. Guess, I should get going because it looks like it's going to rain -- again.He gracefully mounted his faithful and trusted steed and nudged it toward Marnia.**He arrived at Marnia about 15 minutes later and found the drawbridge, an impenetrable wooden barricade, closed. "Buckie!" He shouted."Who calls forth?" came the prim reply."Buckie, it's me. Lower the drawbridge.""Who's me, sir?"He groaned in frustration, "Buckie!"The middle aged, pompous man dressed in a long black overcoat glanced over the turrets on the upper ramparts and flushed in chagrin, "Oh, sir, it's you.""Of course, it's me! You knew I went out for a ride and would return shortly so why the Hell did you raise the drawbridge?""Well, sir, it wasn't my doing."He shook his head, "Never mind the explanation; just lower the drawbridge."Buchanan cringed, "I can't, sir, Lord Lacoul seems to be playing one of his usual pranks again and has hidden the crank."He muttered, "I'm going to kill him.""What was that, sir?""Nothing. Just find something to lower the drawbridge with, OK?"Buckie hurried off, and the rain poured upon him in a deluge. He pulled the hood of his cassock over his head and cursed under his breath. For this he was really going to kill his friend.**His drenched black cassock dripped water across the stone floor of the dining room.He dramatically dropped the hood of his robe and shot a disgusted look at Lacoul who lounged lazily at the large square wooden table eating a leg of mutton and drinking a goblet of ale. He felt his usual casual and easy going nature fraying like a rope worn by the numerous pranks Lacoul had pulled on him. The borrowed boots then the shirts never returned because Lacoul claimed his clothes looked better on him. He loved his friend, but the constant pranks were annoying.Lacoul saw the threatening look in his friend's eyes and asked innocently, "What?""I should kill you…""..But, you won't." Lacoul smiled mischievously which sent a matching grin to his friend's lips."Can I take your robes, sir?" Buckie appeared immediately ready to serve him. He didn't answer and brushed Buchanan off with a slight wave of his hand."Would you like me to put away your sword, sir?" Buckie said, feeling it was his duty to remain at his side until he was told he was dismissed.Whirling on Buckie, he demanded, "What have I told you about calling me sir?""Forgive me, sir."He slapped himself hard on the forehead in frustration. This was a discussion they'd had since him was 14. "Buckie, it's Malan..Get it.""Yes, Lord Malan…""No, Buckie..It's..," he shook his head in disgust and frustration and rolled his eyes at the manservant for never listening to him. "..Just forget it, okay?""Whatever you say, sir. Shall I bring you something to eat?""I'm not hungry," he said, shrugged off his wet cassock and hung it up to dry by the fireplace."Very good, sir," Buckie bowed then departed.Lacoul laughed at his friend and shook his head in amusement. He thought his friend's frequent discussions with Buckie were funny. He swept from the room so he could be alone and find some solitude for the evening. He wanted some time to think and read as he routinely did.**Laying across his bed still clad in his black leggings and boots, he relaxed. The sole of one boot rested on the bed covers, and the other stretched straight in front of him. His sword still hung casually from his belt as he read a black bound book of literature.Unable to come to any decisions about his future, he distracted himself with the text in front of him. He enjoyed reading and today had selected a compilation of poetry, minstrel type stories told in series and old Greek comedic and tragic plays. Engrossed in his book, a resounding knock at his bedroom door barely disturbed his leisurely escape into the realms of the story.He said distractedly, "Hmmmmm?""Lord Malan, sir?" "Come in, Buckie."The manservant entered and acknowledged the fact he was reading. "Oh, I'm sorry for disturbing you, sir."He never looked up and stayed buried in the book. "What is it?""Are you quite sure you don't want anything to eat before you retire for the night, sir?""Yes, I'm fine.""Isn't that one of the books you've already read, sir? There's quite a good selection of other works in the library…""Yes, I know there is.""Perhaps, I can suggest something you might like…""That's not necessary. I'm rather enjoying re-reading this one." "Very good, sir.""Good night, Buckie," he said fondly. "Good night, Lord Malan," Buckie returned as he closed the door.Thus distracted he found his thoughts drifting toward Lathal and wondered what she was doing at the moment.**"La, La, La, La…" Diayla sang bubbly as she danced gracefully and playfully into the bedroom, clad in a frilly pink bathrobe.Ignoring her, Lathal concentrated and fervently wrote on the glossy pages of the Gothic bound book open before her.Diayla bounded over to her friend and asked curiously. "What ya doin'?""Nothing," Lathal mumbled softly, rose regretfully from her work and stretched lazily.Diayla plopped on her belly upon the bed, snatched the paper lying there and began reading. She mused in interest, "What's this?"She drifted aimlessly, and Diayla looked at her friend impressed. "Hey, who wrote this?" She shrugged noncommittally. "You wrote this, didn't you, Lathal?""Maybe.""Maybe, my arse! I know you better than that, Lathal! I've caught you scribbling when you thought it was a secret." Diayla read the paper again. "This is really good. You should take this to be published in the king's court.""Yeah, right!""And, why not?""You know why not!""Yeah, letting a man take credit for your work when it shows you're a talented and gifted writer is a real drag. The whole policy is pretty stupid, if you ask me. I say, 'Fie,' to the whole: Only men are good writers idea. My friend, I think you should prove that it's a wholely foolish, misconceived notion."She didn't reply. Diayla looked concerned, seeing the doubting yet considering expression clouding her friend's face.***The chiseled ordinary features were engraved like stone upon Lord Vladimir Borishnakov's face. He rode his black steed through the gates of the royal palace lined with fiery red banners with yellow trim. Vladimir landed with his boots thudding soundly on the cobblestone as he dismounted. He slapped his horse, sent it packing then headed for the palace entrance.An armoured garbed guard nodded curtly in greeting toward the long black robed figure approaching the gate. "Good day, my lord."Vladimir huffed gruffly, "Is the king in?""Yes, my lord.""Well..What are you waiting for?!? Hurry up and announce me at once!"The guard retreated quickly. "Yes, my lord."**The pudgy, benevolent ruler, King Rowland, "The Beloved," sat in his red cushioned throne and patiently listened to the droning of his royal financial advisor.Vladimir breezed into the main audience chamber, decorated in gold, ivory chandeliers, fine paintings and mounted animal heads, such as fox, boar and deer on the wall. He dimly saw the king sitting above him.It sickened him that such a weak and good king ruled over Ashley. He thought it was a huge waste that the king distributed the wealth to the poorer lower class. Rowland allowed the peasants access to education and the arts, and this made the king well loved among his people. To Vhim, Rowland was too gracious a king and not strong enough to control and rule a kingdom like he was. He believed if he were in control Ashley would be emulated for its structured and disciplined society.He had been a knight years ago, and then Rowland had appointed him as royal defense advisor. He had made Ashley into a strong military power. Although he was pleased by his efforts as royal defense advisor, Rowland didn't recognize his hard work.There has to be a way I can rule. If I could somehow get into the king's favour… his thoughts trailed off contemplatively.He tensed with rage and thought about the one who stood in Rowland's favour -- Lord Malan Grayson. Both men served as knights and royal advisors. Instead of looking upon Malan as his brethren in arms and a member of a fraternal fellowship filled with camaraderie, he thought Malan didn't deserve his position in the king's court or nobility.He knew about Malan's true identity as prince of Willias and how the Grayson family had destroyed the good Borishnakov name with a treasonous falsehood. He refused to believe the stories - rumours, in his opinion - that his grandfather, the magistrate of Willias, had been a homosexual and been caught with one of the Grayson's servants. These untrue stories - rumours - included how his grandfather had murdered the Grayson family to keep his homosexuality a secret. Another of many reasons he swore he'd kill Malan. He had used his position to demote the Grayson's most trusted knight. He dismissed the idea that Buchanan knew about the scandalous incident since the stories were untrue . But, he had Buchanan lowered to manservant status anyway. If he eliminated Grayson then he'd earn the king's complete favour ... but, there was another way he could have the power he desired…Already substantially wealthy, he could have a more significant stake in the kingdom and take the throne if he married one of the king's ladies in waiting Lady Lathal Sinclair. He knew Lathal was the surviving heir to half the property and wealth in Ashley. A fortune she couldn't access until her marriage.Rowland made the daughter of his dearly beloved friend, whom he loved like his own daughter, his most favourite ladies in waiting in the royal court. Although Lady Lathal was unconcerned with the lavish requirements on the ladies in waiting in the royal court, her beauty and charm surpassed that of princesses. He felt drawn and romantically interested in the young woman. He plotted how to woo Lathal. He didn't care what he had to do, he would obtain his desires and what was so rightly his -- no matter what the costs.**The clicking of high heels hit the stone floor. Richly dressed Diayla sauntered into the dining room, followed closely by Lathal in a rush. Diayla applied her hot pink lipstick as she glanced into her golden and ritzy makeup compact; she frantically tried to put the black pump on her naked foot.Already at the table sat Lacoul relaxed in a silk ruffled shirt, and Ambrosia haughtily reclined there."It's nice to see you guys coming so early," Ambrosia gave them a smart smirk.Just as she and Diayla took their places, Malan entered with his left hand resting casually on the hilt of his sword on his belt then joined the group at table."Evening," Malan greeted all seated there."Evening," echoed everyone in return.Buchanan brought in the food. The group ate a meal of freshly baked breads, pheasant, veal and mutton with fruit. Lacoul continually sipped the red wine in his silver goblet, He occasionally took thoughtful swigs of mead, Diayla and Ambrosia sampled a fine wine and she drank her ale. He picked at his food and shyly glanced across the table at Lathal. He thought back to when they were youngsters, climbing trees and rolling down the grassy hills around Marnia. He had known Lathal for as long as he could remember and over the years they'd become close friends. But, now she had grown up -- into a beautiful woman.A wave of undeniable feelings of attraction and love for Lathal hit him powerfully. It sent a thrill of pleasure and excitement coursing throughout his body. He fantasized the way her lips would feel brushing against his in a tender and passionate kiss. He steadied himself after the vivid imagery and strong emotions this fantasy had awakened in his heart and soul.He didn't see Lathal as she also picked at her food and shyly admired him from the opposite end of the table. She couldn't recall exactly when Malan had transformed from being a friend to a handsome, gentlemanly man. She had to admit she had the hots for Malan. She liked Malan more than a friend would. She often wondered what it would be like to kiss him, bed or even be married to him. Her flirtatious attentions toward Malan didn't go unnoticed. Ambrosia fumed with deep and dark jealousy. She'd caught Lathal's appreciative looks in Malan's direction. Lathal has a thing for Malan, does she? That simple, unrefined girl doesn't have a chance and is definitely unworthy of a dashing knight's attentions and affections.Her looks were no secret to Ambrosia, and it pleased her that so many men had been attracted to her. She'd experienced a whirlwind of racy, pleasurable encounters with the opposite sex. Despite the powerful attraction Ambrosia had on men, there was one man she wanted like no other -- Lord Malan Grayson. How Malan seemed unaffected by her beauty and charms appealed to Ambrosia most. This made her want him more.Ambrosia drooled with desire thinking about Malan's gentlemanly charisma. She swelled with pleasure and pictured the experiences she'd have with him. Lord Malan deserves a real woman, one better than the likes of you, Lady Lathal Sinclair! You can't compete with me. You'll never get him over me.**Following dinner, Ambrosia retired to her bedroom to scheme up ways to get Lathal out of the picture.Lacoul and Malan walked off to the den for a little midnight conversation. Lacoul leaned back in the leather chair with his feet crossed on the ottoman and continually sipped amaretto whilst he sprawled across a divan engrossed in a book. Diayla and Lathal strolled past the den."Mi ladies," Lacoul called after them flirtatiously.Diayla backed up slowly and looked inquisitively at Lacoul, "What?""If you two have nothing else to do, why don't you hang with us?"They looked at each other like no, shook their heads then both said, "Sure.""Mi ladies, you grace us with your presence," Lacoul greeted the women flirtatiously then scowled at his friend who hadn't acknowledged the presence of women in the room and was still very engaged in his book.Lathal hesitantly contemplated sitting down by Malan, and Lacoul noticed. He beckoned Diayla with his finger, and she slid over toward him. Lacoul whispered, "What's going on between those two?""I think it's blantaly obvious."Lacoul looked shocked. He wondered, Lathal? Why would his friend chose Lathal? "You can't be serious?""Haven't you seen...? Wait, I forgot..You're only enamored with yourself.""Ho, Ho!" Lacoul chuckled softly, grinning broadly. "Not true , mi lady, I find myself extremely enamored of you." Diayla rolled her eyes, batted her eyelashes at Lacoul playfully and muttered, "I find that hard to believe."Lacoul remarked suggestively, "So, mi lady, perhaps you'd like to come to my room later to get better acquainted?""As if..."Lacoul feigned hurt, "Come now, you know you want and can't resist me, wanting to come to my bed." "No, No, No! Let's get it right..If you want me, you come to my bed."Whilst Diayla and Lacoul conversed, she moved slowly across the room toward Malan. She hoped to discover what he was reading since she also enjoyed literature and was an avid reader.She leaned closer to him, peering into his book, "What are you reading?"He glanced up slowly from his book. He found himself looking into her gentle bluish green eyes.He murmured gently, "Lathal..."She shifted so she sat beside his legs, "Sorry, I didn't mean to disturb you.""You didn't.""Whatever you're reading must be very interesting.""Oh..It's..Poetry.""Walking through the vale and meadows, they found the beauty of the rose that had been rained on."He said softly, "That's beautiful. I don't recall which poem it comes from.""Well..."He let the book slide down into his lap and leaned closer to her. She saw the twinkle in his brown eyes. "It isn't in any poem I've read, is it, Lathal? It's something you wrote, isn't it?""No, it's..."He locked his eyes with hers, "I know you're a writer, Lathal.""That's not possible, Malan. Women are not writers."He repeated, "I know you're a writer, Lathal.""How do you know I'm a writer, Malan?""The book you've been carrying with you since you were 14; I remember seeing you writing in it. Plus, I sense you're a writer and a talented one," he looked at her hopefully. "Will you let me read your work, Lathal?""Malan..."He leaned closer to her, begging gently, "Let me read your work, Lathal, please.""Malan...""Please."He closed his eyes and leaned closer to her. He brought his lips next to hers, shyly brushing her lips in a tender and passionate kiss."Would anyone care for some tea?" Buckie interrupted as he brought a silver tea service into the den. He looked at Lathal and then at Malan in curious interest. "Oh, I see, Sir, is already being served."He flushed in embarrassment at being caught displaying his emotions for Lathal and rushed from the den.**Lacoul dropped by his friend's bedroom unannounced a short time later."Soo, Malan, what's going on between you and Lathal?""Nothing.""That's not what I saw so I'd figured I'd give you some advice on how to land her.""I don't need your advice, my friend.""Yes, you do. Because I sure as Hell don't know why you'd pick her. What do you see in her?""I...""You like her, don't you?""No, not really.""Hmm, I think you do. I especially think you'd like to bed her."He flushed shyly and shoved his friend out his bedroom door. "Good night, Lacoul."***Rumours confirming Lathal's romantic interests in Malan floated around the kitchen.Frenchie pretended she was cleaning the counters whilst over garbed and rotund cook diced vegetables and threw them into the steaming soup. Cook disgusted the maid had lingered too long in her kitchen doing ideal busy work heard the maid's bubbly chatter."Cook, I just don't want to see Lord Malan with Lady Lathal. They're not suited for each other, and it's inappropriate. But, you know, Lathal has the hots for Malan." Cook nodded only slightly interested. "She does, you know. You should have seen what I did when I was pruning rose bushes in the garden. They were talking at first then she was all over him kissing him like crazy.""Spying! How could you?!""I wasn't spying. It's not my fault. She did it in the open right for everyone to see. Besides, Buckie told me she tried to kiss him in the den the other night.""If I hear you say one more crude remark or untruth about a sweet girl like Lady Lathal, I'll…""Oh Cook, quit being such a prude! You know what I'm saying is true ."Ambrosia strode resolutely into the kitchen and past the fruit in the bowl without a second glance and asked innocently, "What's true ?"Frenchie denied saying anything, "Nothing."Cook said, "Lady Ambrosia, is there anything you require?""I didn't say I want anything," Ambrosia said rudely.Cook continued her work, stirred the soup and spooned it to her lips. She blew over the liquid gently, sampled it then added salt and other flavorings. Ambrosia looked at Frenchie who had begun to drift out the kitchen and called after her in a sweet, friendly way, "Frenchie?""Yes, mi lady?"Ambrosia buttered her up, "You're so much better at picking a wardrobe and helping me than my maid. Could you please come to my room and help me?""I'd love to, mi lady."**Frenchie pulled out an emerald dress that seemed more like a dream or a fine stone in a an engagement ring than a garment."Frenchie, you did it again. This is perfect.""I'm glad my services are so useful to you."Ambrosia saidd surprised, "Why? Does someone complain about what you select for them to wear?""I really shouldn't say, mi lady.""Come on, Frenchie, you're my favorite maid. Nothing you could say would bother me.""It's..Lady Lathal..I can never get her to wear anything I select for her. She's always wearing blue. It's too much and doesn't suit her."Ambrosia said curiously, "Does Lathal always act this way?""Lathal is a sweet young woman, but she's not suited to be a royal lady in waiting.""Whatever do you mean?""It's certainly inappropriate for a lady in waiting to be going around writing poetry and such all the time. It's silly. If the royal court knew she was doing this, she'd be in big trouble.""You don't say.""That and her behavior with men is deplorable.""I didn't think Lady Lathal was interested in men.""Hard to believe since she's more engrossed with her writing, but there's one she's been making most her pursuits upon. I don't think her advances are entirely proper.""Lathal isn't the type to have many men in her bed.""That's not what I meant, mi lady, a woman shouldn't be chasing a man. He should be courting her.""Of course." "Lathal is shamelessly making advances upon Lord Malan.""She is?""Yes, mi lady, Buchanan told me she tried to kiss him last night in the den. I saw her the other day in the garden with him. She had her hands all over him and was kissing him. A few days ago, I was dusting by Lady Sinclair's and Avante's rooms and overheard Lady Lathal say she was in love with Lord Malan. She definitely has the hots and a thing for Lord Malan, mi lady. If you ask me, I think she wants to bed him."It's more than that for Lathal, and I refuse to let her have Lord Malan. A crafty smile curled up on Ambrosia's lips. Lathal's days are numbered. She's not getting in my way or keeping me from getting the man I want.***Lacoul and Malan walked down the streets in the advancing darkness of the evening. On both sides of the streets, lanterns flickered on and signaled it was 10 o'clock. The clacking of their boots crossed the foyer of their most frequented Day's Ende Taverne, and the two friends entered the establishment.Anita wore a corset with a linen camisole, a short skirt and boots. The bar wench favoured them with a smile as they sat down in their usual spot. She winked at them, "What kin I get ye for?""A flagon of mead," he replied uninterested in her womanly advances whilst Lacoul flirtatiously answered."I would get strawberry wine, but it'll never be as sweet as you." Anita giggled then scurried off."Once again, Lacoul, you've managed to charm the ladies into a free round.""I've got it like that. It's all in a day's work." Lacoul leered after a pretty barmaid who past them. "But, what's all work and no play? So, that's what I'm off to get -- play."He found himself alone at the table when Anita brought their drinks. She failed to mask her disappointment about Lacoul's absence, "Where did yer friend go?""He's around here some where.""No matter, yer the cuter one anyway."He nearly spat out the drink he had thoughtfully drank. He flushed shyly at her remark, "Who me?""Unless ye see some other incredibly gorgeous guy sitting here worth talking to." "Are you coming onto me?" He said shocked. Usually the barmaids and women in the taverne hit on his friend, not him. "I thought you were interested in Lacoul.""Lacoul does come here a lot, I've seen him around before, but I don't remember ye. Where do ye keep yerself? In hiding?"Their conversation was interrupted by the ruckus across the taverne. He glanced over to a dark corner of the taverne, where he saw a burly, well built patron in a heated discussion with Lacoul. The man had anger blazing in his eyes and stood intimidatingly close to Lacoul who feigned innocence and denied any involvement in some situation. The patron demanded, "What do ye think yer doing sitting in my wife's lap?"Lacoul said surprised, "Your wife?"The man shoved Lacoul roughly, "That's right. My wife!"Lacoul kept his sophisticated airs about him and answered the brusque man, "Sir, I had no idea she was your wife.""Ye should have thought about that before ye put yer hands all over her bosom, kissed her several times on the mouth lustily and told her ye wanted to bed her."Lacoul denied it, "I did no such thing!" "Dare ye, call me a liar!" The guy took a swing at Lacoul who gracefully avoided the first blow. Then the patron threw himself at Lacoul in a tackling lunge. Some of the man's friends rushed over to render their assistance in the feud. He rose in disgust. Now he's done it!!!! He reached underneath his robes, his hand heading for his belt where he expected to find his sword. Except he felt no hilt.Great!!! I forgot my sword!!! -- Because I didn't think I'd need it -- but, I should have known better to bring it especially if I'm hanging out with Lacoul.Without any embarrassment on his part, he stretched down to remove the dagger from his boot whilst Anita admired him appreciatively. Except for he didn't find his dagger either.I came in here -- unarmed!?! -- what was I thinking? That my friend and I would have a few drinks in our favourite taverne without anything happening -- I should have known better!!!He knocked over the table taking out two of Lacoul's aggressors. Then he found himself in a rousing fist fight with two others. Out of nowhere the glint of a dagger's blade whizzed through the air and plunged into the burly man's shoulder. He removed it from his flesh without any hesitation and threw it harmlessly into the main bar. The clang of the rapier meeting four other swords echoed in the pub as the cloaked figure posed himself to do battle.The patron glutterily roared, "Get him!!!"Swift, sure and well aimed shots from the individual sporting the crossbow took out the targets who tried to defy the swordsman who held his own in the battle.Lacoul managed to get out of the fighting mostly unscathed. He watched in wonderment as the robed individual soundly defeated the bandits surrounding him then pointed the rapier's tip at the throat of the surly man who had started the whole brawl.The swordsman said coldly, "I highly suggest you leave my friends alone."The patron gulped, "Whatever ye say.""Get out of here."The man wore fear and embarrassment in his eyes, grabbed his wife and forced her out of the taverne with him.Lacoul gracefully prostrated himself before the swordsman who had rescued him gallantly. "I owe you a debt of gratitude, my friend. Come let me buy you a drink."The swordsman put the rapier away then lowered the hood of the cassock, "It's funny that a lady must save the day."When he recognized it was Lathal, his mouth dropped in surprise. Then a smile of pleasure quickly crossed his lips. Diayla joined her friend and quipped, "I think I quite agree with you, Lathal, it's funny that we're saving our knights in shining armour." ***Ambrosia appreciatively undressed Malan with her eyes as he strode into the palace courtyard. Whilst he had been locked behind closed doors for hours in a royal advisor meeting, Ambrosia waited impatiently to entice him with her beauty and charms.Ambrosia glided over to him lost in deep thought. "It's hot out here, isn't it?" "Mmmm," he mumbled distractedly, turning his attention to her.Ambrosia smiled meaningfully at him. "It's so hot. Don't you think?"He noticed how Ambrosia's eyes flickered down his body in a seductive caress. He flushed shyly and adverted his eyes. "I..."Ambrosia tightly locked her arm around his and pouted. "It must be awfully boring sitting in that dull meeting. I don't see how you could bare such -- boredom when there's more pleasant company.""It's something I have to do.""Pity! I can think of better things to do or ways to spend my time." Ambrosia remarked and leaned suggestively close to him. Reserved about displaying his affections for women, he became embarrassed. The situation filled him with guilt as his thoughts dwelled on the emotions he felt for Lathal. He stepped away and distanced himself from Ambrosia to regain his composure.Vladimir interrupted the conversation, "Forgive me, Lady Ambrosia, but the king needs to speak to Lord Malan.""Can't my cousin wait?"Vladimir smiled politely, "I'm afraid not, mi lady, it's an urgent matter." He silently thanked Vladimir for giving him a reason to get out of the unwanted and uncomfortable situation and left the courtyard.Vladimir raised his eyebrow inquisitively at Ambrosia, "What was that all about?""It's none of your business, Lord Vladimir." Vladimir shrugged, "Very well, it seemed like you were interested in him. I thought I might help eliminate the threat from the competition.." Vladimir saw by the anger in her eyes he had struck a chord. "..Ah, so that's it, is it?""I don't believe it, but I've been told Lord Malan and Lady Lathal have a thing going on.""I wouldn't concern yourself with Lady Lathal.""Why not?""I have some plans to convince her to marry me. We could work together to further these plans, to include making Lathal believe you and Lord Malan are involved then he would be yours."**Lathal became increasingly interested and fascinated in the book about male anatomy she was reading. She talked amiably with Di about men, sex and other popular female topics in the bed chamber they shared. Their conversation was interrupted by three knocks at the door.She said distractedly, "Shall I get it, or do you?"Diayla answered wickedly, "You get it!"She shook her head, resigning herself to do the task. She discovered Buckie standing there like a royal messenger. The manservant held a box of chocolates wrapped in light red crepe paper.She smiled politely, "Good evening, Buchanan."Buchanan blushed in embarrassment since he'd been assigned to bring a token of affection to a women. He said gravely, "Good evening, Lady Lathal. I have a gift for you."She said in surprise. "A gift for me?""Yes."Thank you, Buchanan." She closed the door then looked at the box of chocolates curiously."What was that all about?" Diayla said."Someone sent me a box of chocolates.""How sweet! You can share them with me. I love sweets. Who are they from?"She silently read the small tag on the box: To My Dearest Lathal. From: Your Secret Admirer, Malan. "Malan sent them. What a hopeless romantic he is!!!" She clutched the box close to her heart and wore a high school girl in love look in her eyes. "He's so..oh, how I care for him so...""Lathal, stop and smell the chocolates. When a guy sends you a gift it only means one thing.""He likes you?""Lathal, this is a reality check because I know you oft live in fantasy worlds. Men send women tokens of affection like sweets so they can sucker you with sweet notions when all they want is to have you in their beds and nothing more.""Oh, Di, don't you believe in anything?""Yes, but I don't believe in nonsense. You know, Lathal, you have a lot to learn especially with the way you view love and relationships.""Love's not nonsense, Di. Haven't you ever been in love?"Diayla shrugged, "Sure, lots of times.""I mean really in love.""Please, Lathal, spare me! Just eat your chocolates, dream your fantasies but don't come crying to me when you get crushed by reality."She opened the box and selected a chocolate covered caramel filled with cherry. A squirrel quietly crawled in through the window and onto her extended arm. It sniffed the chocolate then stole the candy. It took its prize and nibbled on it hungrily. Suddenly the squirrel started gyrating around then stiffened and fell to the floor in death. "You know, Di, I never pegged you as a cynic," she remarked, begining to shove the chocolate morsel into her mouth.Diayla shouted at her friend, "Wait, Lathal, don't eat that!!""What's your problem, Di?"Diayla pointed at the dead squirrel at her friend's feet, "That's the problem, Lathal. That squirrel ate the chocolate in your hand, and now it's dead. Those sweets are poisoned.""Why would Malan send me poisoned candies?""He didn't, but whomever did wanted you to think he had, Lathal."**Weeks later, Diayla and Lathal traveled through the forest on the way into Ashley. The poisoned chocolates had been one of several attempts on her life. She thought they were merely coincidences. There was absolutely no reason why anyone would want to kill her. Except she was the surviving heir to half the fortune in the kingdom. She knew the money would go into the king's coffers if she wasn't around to claim it.Arrows whizzed through the air toward her. She ducked at the last minute then glanced upwards and saw the arrows land harmlessly in a tight shot group in a tree's trunk. She murmured slightly unsettled, "That was close. Too close!""Lathal, you've been taking too many close calls lately. I think someone is trying to kill you. You really should be more careful." "No one is trying to kill me. Accidents happen, Di.""Oh, yeah, like the poisoned chocolates, the daggers and now your near misses with the arrows were accidents. Lathal, how much more do you need to see before it's clear to you that someone wants you dead?""Di, you worry too much. Those things are unpredictable accidents and could have happened to anybody. No one is trying to kill me. I can take care of myself, and I'm a good fighter and very careful so you shouldn't concern yourself so much on my behalf..."Diayla sighed as her friend brushed her worries away. She was convinced someone wanted her friend dead. In Diayla's opinion, the evidence was obvious and clearly indicated someone wanted her friend out of the picture permenantly. Despite the fact her friend refused to admit she was in danger, Diayla was aware that deadly hazards existed for her friend. Diayla believed she knew who was behind these attempts on her friend's life. She suspected Ambrosia mostly but considered the possibility that Vladimir was also involved.Diayla made a silent vow she'd keep protect and keep her friend safe. But, she had someone to ask for help in protecting her friend. Diayla knew Malan was constantly concerned because he loved Lathal.***Night.Black regal looking shoes clicked along the floor. Buchanan walked slowly and stiffly down the hall with his brow furled in anger. "This has to be the seventh time somebody has rung the bell in the last three minutes. Women..bahh." He said as he swung around the corner and headed toward the west wing, the wing of the ladies in waiting.Buchanan walked up three flights of stairs before coming to a door locked on both sides and secured with a guard. He said the password, unlocked the various types of locks and finally entered the hall where the suites were on.It was royal policy that anyone who rang the bell for the butler was suppose to light a candle outside their suite to signify who had rang. He looked around, and none of the candles were lit for the fifth time that evening. Buchanan fought the will to turn around and go to bed. Instead he courteously knocked at each door to ask who had called for him. Every lady had denied the call until he got to the rooms of Lady Avante and Sinclair. Buchanan huffed under his breathe then knocked.Knock..Knock."Aye?" Diayla opened the door with her dark hair unraveled, and her dress hiked to her knees.Buchanan turned quickly as not to offend her by looking at her now exposed ankles. He replied in a hushed tone, "Mi Lady!"She sighed and tugged at her skirt to give Buchanan some relief from talking to her with his back turned. Her British accent made the sound of the consonants sharp and crisp. "What is it now, Buckie?""Did you ring for me, ma'am?""No, so sorry."Diayla closed the door so fast that Buchanan had to jump back to avoid getting caught in the hinge. Muttering "Buckie" under his breathe, he proceeded back down the hall. Buchanan told the password to the guard, locked the various locks, went back down three flights of stairs and was back in his room at the exact moment the bell sounded for him to return to the ladies' hall.Diayla almost wet herself as she rang the bell for the sixth time."You really shouldn't give Buchanan such a hard time, Di," she chided her gently."Aye, but it wouldn't be as fun if I didn't."They laughed hysterically and heard Buchanan's familiar footsteps in the hall. Diayla tried to gain her composure so she could keep a straight face when he came to their room."Should I show up in the buff next time?" She asked with a mischievous look in her eyes and began shedding layers of clothes quickly."I can't believe what you are doing," she said, cut off by the rapping at the door.Knock..Knock.Di opened and greeted him with a smile and nothing else. Buchanan looked and fainted like a feeble women and hit the floor like a boulder."Could have likely killed him, Di! You know old men can't handle so much at one time!" She laughed so hard that her hair came undone from the elaborate French braid atop her head."Men are like snow. They come and go, and you never know how many inches you're gonna get," Diayla said.She looked down and declared that Buckie was everything but a blizzard.**She considered leaving Diayla to continue her pranks on Buckie. She'd considered taking her poetry over to Malan's room. He'd asked to read it, but she wasn't sure she should let him. Part of her was afraid he wouldn't like her writings. She didn't want to hear him say she wasn't a good writer because that would break her heart into smithereens. Yet, something powerful inside told her he would really love her writings.She picked up her book laying on the bed and gathered her failing courage. She slowly and quietly drifted from the bedroom so Diayla wouldn't know she was absent.With grave doubt, she walked down the hall past Malan's door several times before she had the courage to rap on it."Come in."She shyly entered his room, and he turned to face her. He gave her a gentle smile and admired her with his eyes. "Lathal...""Hi," she blushed, extending her book toward him. "You said you wanted to read my poetry so I...""Will you stay and read it to me?""Do you want me to?"He said softly, "Yes."She sat on one side of his bed and he, the other. She looked at him teasingly, "So, my lord, do you sleep with your sword?"He glanced shyly at his belt, "Oh…""Afraid someone will harm you in your sleep?""Only in my dreams.""And, what do you dream?""That I must defend the woman I love.""Others would say you're weak fighting for love, my lord.""Do you?""No, I know what your name means, and that's what you are: Brave of Heart."He tried to hide his feelings from her so slid the book toward him, opening it as she recited:Why should I live with regretsBecause I'm afraidOf things that may be pettyInside these circumstancesAide to keep me in stupidity When I really should tell youThe way I feelHow much I careHow special you areHow much you mean to meThat this is real and true Undying and never endingI'm just not sure I knowWhat to say or doYet,I'm sure inside of youYou feel the same way I do.He murmured, "That's beautiful." He read a few others and looked at her. "Lathal, these are really, really good. I love them.""You do?""Yes! Why didn't you let me read your work before?"You never asked. I was naive, afraid, stupid and didn't want you to know how I felt about you. It's written right there in black and white, obvious right before your eyes, and I feared seeing that you'd reject me."Malan, I…"He leaned over and closed his eyes. He kissed her lips for the first time. Excitement, pleasure, tenderness and passion shot through them. It sent thrills coursing throughout their bodies from the other's caresses. The forgotten book of poetry landed lightly on the floor as they kissed over and over.He pulled her closer to him, and she managed to get her hands under his shirt. She caressed his skin, chest and back and discovered his body. His hands drifted down and explored her body as he gently caressed her breasts. Somehow they ended up lying side by side. Both of them continually and helplessly kissed each other passionately on the bed. Gently she loosened his belt and slowly dropped it to the floor. With unsure and trembling hands, she unbuttoned his shirt until it too went on the floor.He had as much difficulty as she had as he unbuttoned her dress. He got frustrated with his lack of experience and naivete of the situation. He pulled desperately at her frock trying to remove it. His erection brushed against her. Both moaned in desire and longing."Malan...""Lathal..."He fidgeted with then removed her white camisole. He tenderly caressed her naked breasts with his hands then kissed them with his lips again and again."Lathal, I want you.""So, do I, Malan."She giggled in embarrassment and pulled off his leggings until she had him on top of her in only his gray undergarments. They kissed each other hungrily again and again.He murmured huskily, "Lathal, sleep with me..Bed me."They rubbed their bodies desirously over each other."Malan, take me..Bed me."The turn of the knob and swishing sound of the door opening made him quickly grab for a large quilt to cover up the two of them lying in an uncompromising position.Diayla was surprised when she saw him lying on top a large mound in his bed. She noticed his clothing scattered all over the floor and a familiar female's frock suspiciously hidden beneath the quilt."Have you seen Lathal?"He croaked hoarsely, "Lathal?""I can't find her. I thought she was in our room. I thought you might know where she might have drifted off to.""Sorry, I haven't seen her."Lacoul popped by suddenly and startled Diayla who jumped in spite of herself. He flashed her his best smile, "Mi lady, a pleasure to see you as always." He glanced between her and his friend, shaking off the improbable thoughts Diayla had come to his friend's room instead of his for a late night rendezvous. Lacoul mused aloud, "Retiring early, my friend?" She bite her lips hard and stifled the fits of laughter about to erupt from inside her. She'd begun to sweat under the squashing pressure of his body, but she remained completely still. "You can't be too comfortable sleeping like that because it looks like a pile of rocks are in your bed.""I was trying to change when the two of you walked in here unannounced.""Lathal would love to see you changing," Diayla said knowingly."Did you look for her in the library? You know she wonders down there a lot.""Hmm..aren't you usually in there too, Malan?" Lacoul contributed suggestively."If you two don't mind giving me a few minutes, I'll come and help you find her.""Well, I'll start in the library," Diayla said."I'm coming with you," Lacoul chimed in, and both departed.He looked down at her beneath him. "I'm so sorry.""I'm not. I'm just glad we didn't get caught.""Perhaps we can do this again when we can get some more privacy.""Count on it."He kissed her lips gently. "Lathal, I love you."Her heart soared as he said those words to her for the first time. Her heart was his, and it wasn't coming back; she knew his belonged to her. She kissed him tenderly, "I love you, Malan." She got up, grabbed her frock and hurried off so she could be found as if nothing had every happened between them.***The royal palace glittered like a sparkling jewel in the night on the wintry evening. Ashley was in the festive spirit of the holiday season, and King Rowland hosted the most renowned Christmas masquerade ball in all of England. The horse drawn carriages crunched over the powdery wonderland blanketing the palace grounds. Men and women from near and far dressed in the finest apparel and wearing ornate masks arrived at the party.The guests paraded under the bridge of shiny brass trumpets held by the red and black trimmed garbed royal trumpeters. Servants hurriedly brought in roasted chestnuts, donuts sprinkled with powder sugar, raisins soaked in chocolate and brandy and long glasses of champagne and offered it to the guests. Children's laughter echoed through the halls as they played a variety of holiday games or received candy treats or gifts. The older kids crept toward the ballroom to look inside to get a peek at the beautiful party being held within.The triumphant trumpets' blares signified to all the king had entered the ballroom, and the party was soon to commence.Rowland extended his hands toward all present, "Greetings, I welcome all to these grand festivities. I invite everyone to join in the merriment and celebrations of this most joyous season. A loud, reverberating applause greeted the king's speech. The king commanded, "Let the festivities begin, bring forth the minstrels, players and poets." **Arriving fashionably late, ritzy dressed, Diayla, and blue garbed, Lathal, quietly entered the ballroom. They saw the king sitting on a throne on the dais where the guests had gathered to listen to the players and poets.Diayla jabbed her friend in the ribs lightly and whispered. "Now's your chance."She whispered back, "My chance for what?"Diayla replied exasperated, "For you to read your work, Lathal.""I can't.""You can. Just go up there and recite your poetry. No one will know because they're all too drunk to tell the difference. Besides, no one will know it's you with your face hidden behind your mask." Diayla looked at her friend sternly. "If you loyalty to the king is true , then show your talents, and he'll be impressed and pleased."She didn't argue. She shielded her face with the mask and crossed the room. She stood below the dais, waiting until Rowland acknowledged her. She stepped onto the dais, and a hush fell over the audience. Without closing my eyesI can see clearlyA twinkle in your eyesYour gentle smileI just want you to knowWhat I should havetold you long agoI Love YouSo you knowHow much you mean to meVery near and dear you areAlways holding a special placein my heart.What I feel for youThis Love I haveWill never end or die.The women clutched their hearts deeply touched, but the men seemed unimpressed. Except for Rowland who had tears glistening in his eyes, and Malan who smiled broadly and admired Lathal.Other poets recited verse but before the dancing started Rowland announced. "I'd be honoured if the poet dressed in blue would grace us again with his verse."Still disguised she returned to the dais and recited:Walking through the vale and meadows,They found the beauty of the rosethat had been rained onDon't be a foolAnd pass bySuch a wonderful and beautiful thingLest you be filledwith regretsThat you didn't pluck itSo have the good fortuneto capture, experience and enjoythis flower you foundalong your way."Sire, this poet has recited verse which isn't found in books," Vladimir pointed out."Quite so, but the verse you find in books have grown rather old and tired. I find it refreshing to hear new muses showing such creativity, vision and talent," Rowland said, turning to her. "Poet, you honour me with your verse. I'm impressed and ask you to reveal yourself so all can salute you for your art."She hesitated, and Malan intervened, "Sire, I'm well aware of this poet's work. I would be happy to give you a compilation of this muse's work."Rowland smiled at his trusted advisor, but Vladimir said, "Your Highness, I agree all should know this muse's identity and give him credit. His works should be added to your royal court's libraries.""Your Highness, I beg you to let me speak to you first before you force the poet to reveal his identity," Malan pleaded.She lowered her mask, "Your gallantry on my behalf is noted, Lord Malan, and it has incurred my favour."The king smiled fondly, "Lady Lathal, your bravery is so noted. I'm quite impressed with you. Why did you not present your talents to me before?""Your Highness, I feared because of my sex...""My child, you need not fear me. I consider you to be the king's beloved daughter even though you're the child of my long time, beloved friend, the Duke of Barden. I hereby proclaim as of this day forward that you are my royal muse. Your writings shall be published in my royal libraries. Anyone who disputes or challenges this decree shall suffer a punishment worse than death." She courtesied then departed. The king commanded, "Royal musicians, play your instruments! Let the dancing begin." *An old waltz played throughout the dance hall, and everyone was changing partners. Somehow Malan had made himself one of Lathal's partner. They danced closely and adored each other with their eyes. Lost in her eyes, he realized he'd found the answers about his future he sought there. He wanted to spend his life with her, they'd bring Willias back to its glory, where they'd rule then live happily ever after. Their eyes met and there was so much both of them wanted to say, but the music changed as Vladimir became her dancing partner.Vladimir flirted with her, and she adverted her eyes shyly. He whispered, "Lady Lathal, I was quite impressed and deeply touched by your poetry. It would be a shame for talent such as yours to be wasted. You need someone who has the wealth to fund your writing career. I'm very well off and would be pleased to support the woman who touches my heart not just with her verse but beauty and charms." Lacoul tapped Vladimir's shoulder, "May I?"Vladimir consented politely, "Of course."Lacoul whirled her around and cracked a joke, and she laughed softly. Lacoul pranced around with her a few times then twirled her so she became his friend's dance partner again.He desperately wanted to tell her his feelings and the truth about his royal identity. But, when he looked at her, he became more shy and reserved. He tried to speak the words, but they died before reaching his lips. Vladimir tapped his shoulder and asked to cut into the dance, which he reluctantly allowed. She blushed as Vladimir admired her appreciatively as they danced. "I've been hearing these terrible stories and have been very concerned about you, Lady Lathal. I've been told there's been several deadly attempts on your life. I find these stories very disturbing. Since I care very much about you, I swear I'll protect and keep you from harm."Lacoul tapped Vladimir's shoulder, "Can I cut in?"Vladimir consented politely, "Of course."Lacoul purposely stepped on her feet, and she smiled at him. "I don't know what's wrong with me tonight," Lacoul claimed. "But, you should be with someone whose a better dancer." He flipped her away so she was again his friend's dance partner.As they danced again lost in each other's eyes, he knew he couldn't live without her. He wanted to share his life with her. He needed her in his life. She was his life. When Vladimir cut in again, he regretted the things he should have said or told her.She flushed shyly, and Vladimir gently smiled as they danced across the floor. Vladimir whispered, "You're wasting your time chasing after Lord Malan. He's told me he was interesting in courting Lady Ambrosia. It tears me apart seeing him lead you along, fair maiden, when you could be with me, the man who wants you and no other woman."Her emotions were now in turmoil so she politely excused herself from dancing and dashed into the gardens.He looked for her, but she was nowhere to be seen. He went over and joined Lacoul who was surrounded by and talking to a group of women."She's in the garden," Lacoul said before he ever asked his question. He nodded then drifted outside.**She walked around the frozen garden lost in her thoughts. She felt bombarded by her feelings and tried to sort through the confused emotions she had. She thought she was alone but wasn't."Lathal," Malan called to her quietly.She turned, finding him standing beside her. "Malan.""The king's proclamation made me so glad and proud. You really are a wonderful writer, and I love what you write.""Do you?"He saw her shiver. "You're cold, Lathal." He started to take off his cassock, but she stopped him."Malan, I'll be all right.""It's a beautiful night, Lathal.""A nice night to get lost in one's imagination."He pulled her close, wrapping his cassock around her, "Can I join you?"She didn't answer. All she remembered were his lips on hers and hers on his. It felt good to both of them, and neither wanted the kiss to end. They kissed each other passionately over and over. Sparks of deep love coursed between them. He murmured, "Lathal, I love you.""Malan, I love you."On that night all her dreams came true .**She floated on cloud nine. She believed she knew Malan was hers. Then her world shattered as she saw him kissing Ambrosia on the dance floor. Tears stung her eyes as their kiss proved what Vladimir had told her about him was true . He was courting the king's cousin.Why did Malan hurt me this way? Doesn't Malan know he's shattering my heart into pieces by brushing my feelings for him away as if they were nothing? Why did he ever say say he loved me when it wasn't true ?She refused to let him know how much he'd hurt her. Instead she planned to him jealous. She walked away but saw Vladimir admiring her from across the room. She thought to herself: If Malan truly loves me, when he finds out I'm courting Vladimir, he'll come and compete for me. Vladimir smiled at her warmly as she approached him. She blushed thinking about his remarks on the dance floor. Vladimir broke the silence by gracefully kissing her hand. "You grace me by with your company, Lady Lathal." She fumbled trying to come up with a response, but Vladimir noticed the sad look in her eyes. "A beautiful face such as yours shouldn't be spoiled by such a sad look. Let me cheer you up by inviting you to join me for dinner tomorrow. I'd be honoured and pleased to have you come to Donnington."She ccepted his invitation then departed. Vladimir smiled pleased. He didn't believe how easy it'd been to get the naïve and heartbroken Lathal to fall into his trap. **She felt a little whoosie as she dined with Vladimir at Donnington castle the following evening. She had lost track of how many times Vladimir's servants had refilled her goblet with wine. As heartbroken as she was, she wanted to drown out the pain and hurt she felt. Vladimir complimented her on her beauty, charms and writings. He reminded her he was more than financially able and happy to be the patron for her writing career. Vladimir expressed how concerned he was about the deadly attempts on her life and promised he would protect her from all harm. He also told her how Ambrosia and Malan had been involved and observed how well their courtship had been going. She had thought Vladimir was too brusque but was impressed with how refined and genteel he was. Vladimir continued to woo her then said he loved her then proposed to her. She was convinced Vladimir was the best man for her and would make her happy so accepted his proposal. Then feeling light headed she passed out.**"Malan! Malan! Malan" His name echoed throughout Marnia as Diayla ran around frantically searching for him. Unaware of his presence there, she ran into him and almost knocked him over.He gripped her by the arms gently, "Di, calm down. What's wrong?"Tears brimmed in her eyes. "It's Lathal."He felt himself getting very concerned. "What about her, Di?""Vladimir has her.""What do you mean Vladimir has her?""She went to Vladimir's last night for dinner.""Why?"Diayla looked away, "She did it to make you jealous, Malan. She saw you kissing Ambrosia at the Christmas party.""That was an accident." Diayla gave him a disbelieving look. "It was, I swear! She claimed she was under the mistletoe and insisted I keep the holiday custom." Diayla shook her head, "Malan, how can you be so blind? Can't you see what's going on? Ambrosia is a conniving bitch who wants to possess you as one of her sexual exploits, and she'll stop at nothing until she gets you. This is all apart of a scheme to drive Lathal into Vladimir's arms.""Di, I'm not interested in Ambrosia. I'm only interested in one woman. I love Lathal.""Bad news then, my friend, she went to Vladimir's last night, and she didn't come back.""Lathal's not here?""No," He rushed past her, thrust his sword in his belt confidentially and threw on his cassock. "Where are you going, Malan?""I told you, Di, I love Lathal. I'm going to rescue her. Vladimir can't have her. I can't allow that. I'd die before I let it happen. "Diayla said a silent prayer as he mounted his steed, kicked it determinedly and rode off.**He arrived a short time later at the long, thin black towers of Donnington Castle. Surprisingly he managed to slip inside undetected. He crept up the winding stairs and narrowly missed being discovered several times by Vladimir's guards. He headed toward the sleeping quarters and spared furtive glances behind him. When he wasn't looking, he plowed into Lathal.Her frock was wrinkled, and her hair was disheveled. She'd woke up and found herself mysteriously in Vladimir's bedchambers after a hazy evening.He whispered, "Lathal?""Malan, what are you doing here?""I came to get you out of here, Lathal.""I don't need you to rescue me, Malan.""Lathal, love, what's going on?" Vladimir said, nodded politely toward him. "Lord Malan, a pleasure to see you. I apologize for the inappropriateness and rudeness my servants since they didn't announce your arrival. They'll be severely punished.""That's not necessary," he assured Vladimir."I hate to be rude, Lord Malan, but I wonder why you decided to call upon me.""I was worried about Lathal.""Worried about her? Why in Heaven's name would you worry about her?""I got concerned when her friend told me she had dinner with you and hadn't returned to Marnia.""I'm fine, Malan.""Yes, she is," Vladimir smiled warmly at her. "Shall you tell him the good news, Cherie, or shall I?""I'll tell him in the library if you don't mind.""Of course," Vladimir bowed then departed."Love? Cherie? Lathal, why in Hell is he calling you that? I thought you loved me.""Malan, Vladimir asked me to marry him, and I've accepted his proposal. He loves me. You don't." "What?!""Malan, Vladimir told me you and Ambrosia have been courting and getting along very well. Plus, I saw you kiss her at the Christmas party. She's the one you want, not me.""Lathal, that's not true .""Vladimir wants to be a patron for my writing career, will protect me, he'll be good to me and really loves me. I want to be with someone like that.""But, what about you and I?""You chose Ambrosia, Malan.""No, I didn't.""Then, Malan, tell me what you want."He flushed shyly, "Lathal, I...""Malan, I have to know. I want to be with the one who makes me happy. Vladimir tells me what how he feels and wants me and makes me happy so the least you can do is be happy for me."He said sadly with no meaning in his words, "Congratulations. If this is what makes you happy, Lathal, I'm happy for you.""Thank you, Malan."He left Donnington a bitter, broken man.**Lacoul found his friend standing by the pond in the courtyard at Marnia. His friend stared into the rippling waters with a lost and distant look on his face."Malan, are you OK?""Hmm?""What's wrong, buddy?""Lacoul, there's something I have to tell you, and I'm not really sure how." Lacoul looked at his friend expectantly. He took a deep breath. "I'm a prince.""You're a what?!?""I'm a prince, the prince of Willias.""Are you serious?" He showed Lacoul his medallion bearing the royal crest of Willias. Lacoul stammered in shock. "Holy Hell, my friend's a prince!""You're not going to get all formal on me, are you?""I think you know me better than that," he said and then changed subject. "Lathal's engagement to Vladimir was announced in the royal court today.""I know.""Does she know about all this?""No.""You went all the way to Donnington to rescue her then you didn't tell her.""Lacoul, it's complicated.""The only complicated thing about it is you're too shy to tell Lathal know you want to spend your life with her and love her." His friend was right. He sighed. "You know why Vladimir wants to marry her, don't you?""Sure, he loves her.""No, Vladimir wants Lathal's money so he can use it to oust Rowland, claim the throne and have control of Ashley.""Vladimir is using her?""Exactly!""If she marries me, what do I have to offer her?""Malan, you're a prince. The two of you can find Willias and bring it back to its glory days. As much as it sickens me to admit, you two belong together and really love each other. I can't think of a better thing to offer a girl than true love for the rest of her life." Lacoul looked at his friend. "It's up to you to stop Vladimir and tell Lathal the truth about him.""I tried, Lacoul, but I blew it.""I don't think you tried very hard, Malan.""What do you mean?""Malan, do you really honestly and truly love, Lathal?""Yes.""Then love won't let anything stop you from speaking and not forever holding your peace."**Diayla helped Lathal dress in the wedding gown in the bridesroom of the grand cathedral. Ambrosia served as Lathal's maid of honor and busily rushed around to check that everything was perfect. She wanted Lathal to marry Vladimir without any complications or problems arising so she could have Malan.Diayla asked quietly, "Lathal, are you sure about this?""I'm sure."In reality, she was lying to herself and Diayla. She still loved Malan very much. He was the man she really wanted to share her life with. She had carried this jealousy thing too far, but she felt she'd made a commitment by accepting Vladimir's proposal. She thought she owed it to Vladimir despite her feelings to the contrary to go through with the wedding.The music solemnly played, and the bridal party marched down the aisle. As "Here Comes the Bride" played, Rowland escorted her down the aisle.Vladimir stood regally dressed in his military finest at the altar. Rowland kissed her veil covered cheek then placed her hand to Vladimir's outstretched one. The red garbed bishop with a big Bible in his hands stood before the couple. "Dearly beloved, we're gathered here today to unite this man and woman in the banns of holy matrimony. If there be anyone here present who has just cause or reason why these two should not be joined, speak now or forever hold your peace..."Malan crossed his arms sternly and casually over his chest which revealed the sword hanging obviously from his belt. Buchanan nodded his approval as his voice resonated throughout the church, "I object!"All gathered murmured in stunned amazement and turned to gawk at him. He repeated. "I object! I object to this marriage. I can't let you marry him, Lathal.""What cause or reason do you have for her not to marry this man, sir?" The bishop said."She doesn't love him. She loves me," he said, gazing at her meaningfully. "Lathal, I can't live without you. I want to share my life with you. I love you."They were the sweetest words she'd ever heard. Tears filled her eyes. "Malan.""You're the only woman I want or need. There hasn't been any other woman. I love you, Lathal.""Malan, I love you."Gasps and whispers floated like rumours around the cathedral."Lathal, there's something you have to know. Vladimir's marrying you for your money." She demanded Vladimir, "Is that true ?"No, I love you, Lathal," Vladimir said."He's lying, Lathal. Vladimir wants the power your fortune brings because of the position it'll place him in..next to the throne or he'll use it to eliminate the king so he can rule Ashley.""A lie, my liege!" Vladimir said."Vladimir will stop at nothing until from what he wants -- just like when his family killed mine."Screams and horrified chatter erupted inside the church. "Why would my family eliminate yours, Lord Malan? Your family stands for nothing of importance."He pulled out his medallion, showing it to Vladimir. "Recognize the royal crest on this, Vladimir? King Rowland does. I didn't want to reveal my identity this way, Lathal, but I'm forced to now -- I'm the Prince of Willias."The noisy commotion from the people packing the pews created an uproar.Rowland confirmed his royal advisor's claim. "The medallion bears the royal crest of Willias. Lord Malan is a prince."She looked at him in surprise, "You're a prince?"He said gently. "Yes, but you always thought I was a prince anyway, my sweet, lovely princess, Lathal.""I love you, Malan.""I love you, Lathal. Don't make the biggest mistake of your life by marrying him. His grandfather, the magistrate of Willias, murdered my family to keep his homosexuality a secret." "Liar! How dare you say such a treasonous thing!" Vladimir said."You've known your family's history all along, but you've lied about it to everyone else. You've been exposed Vladimir, and the worst day of your life -- No, the nightmare you dreamed wouldn't happen has come. The Prince of Willias, I, am here to claim what belongs to me, to include the woman I love.""We'll see about that." Vladimir bellowed thunderously. "Guards!!!"In the confusion, thousands of voices yelled for the guards, and the commotion grew. He pulled her toward him, flipped back the veil and admired her unabashedly with his eyes. He held her hands in his. "Lathal, I should have done this a long time ago.""Oh, Malan, I love you."He kissed her lingeringly on the lips, murmuring tenderly, "I love you, Lathal. Marry me."She didn't get to answer as the guards with their swords and clubs stormed into the cathedral.Rowland pointed at Vladimir, "Take him away! He's accused of serious crimes and will be interrogated about the crimes he has committed against this kingdom.""Yes, Sire!"He saw them moving toward the king and realized the guards' loyalties lied with Vladimir. He looked at her with deep love in his eyes. "I hate to ask this of you, Lathal, but you may have to fight with me.""Malan, you know better. I'm always willing to fight with or for you anytime and anywhere." "I love you, Lathal.""And, I you." She looked at him teasingly. "I'm not sure what I'm going to fight with though. They don't make sword belts much less let you wear one with a wedding dress."He kissed her passionately but quickly. "I know you, Lathal, you'll think of something."Sje stared at the crossed swords that adorned the altar, coming to a quick decision. "Vladimir, the wedding's off! I wouldn't marry you if you were the last man in Ashley or the Earth."Vladimir's face turned blood red in anger. "I should have killed you long ago, Prince Malan Grayson of Willias!" He spat through his gritted teeth, drawing his sword. "I see, I don't have to continue to live with that mistake!"He saw Vladimir's sword thrust toward her in a blinding rush. He yelled, "Lathal, watch out!"She narrowly missed getting a nasty injury as she somersaulted onto the red carpet below the swing of Vladimir's sword, which he determinedly blocked. Mayhem and chaos broke loose in the church as Buchanan joined the battle. Buchanan weeded his way into the fighting, wielded the sword like the knight he'd been of old and diced through the opposition. Lacoul also threw himself into the din as the opponents swarmed around him like a dark cloud of bees.She took the hilt of the sword hanging on the altar into her hands as the other clanged to the floor. She kicked off the formal wedding slippers and stood surely in white tights on the carpet. Then she grabbed the veil, tossing it to the ground in disgust. Her long hair flowed wildly and freely down her back. The bishop's mouth dropped in stunned disbelief then he panicked. He grabbed whatever gold he could like a greedy thief in a raid, running off like a scared pig toward the sacristy.Her eyes twinkled in delight, and her laugh lofted boisterously and boastingly. She fanned the sword challengingly at the men who came to overwhelm her. With unsure movements, she swung the weapon back and forth aimlessly yet menacingly in rapid succession as the aggressors tried to find holes in her attack.A loud crack echoed through the cathedral. From her spot in the front pew, Diayla punched one of the mercenary guards, sending him reeling. A pleased and satisfied Diayla applauded like an excited school girl. Without hesitation she picked up the sword her opponent had used and waded into the battle.No injuries had been inflicted in the evenly matched blow for blow sword confrontation between he and Vladimir. Both were excellent swordsmen. They managed to find their weapons locked, forged together like hard steel in a clinch. They circled each other, and both tried to break out and strike at the other. "You won't make it out of here alive, my young prince.""We'll see about that, old man." "Perhaps, I should kill Lathal first. I want to enjoy tasting the agony of loss you feel when the woman you love more than life itself is no more.""If any of your goons or you, lay one hand on, harm or kill her, I swear none of them nor you will live to see another day."She managed to escape after leaving many of her opponents lying on the ground moaning in extreme pain. She recovered her veil and securely tied the sword to her waist. She twisted the red and white banners that hung from the buttresses and jumped into the air. She swung from the raised altar over his and Vladimir's heads to where Lacoul barely held his own against the amassing odds. She sailed through the air, kicking two knaves' faces and sent them sprawling to the floor unconscious. She landed then used the sword to inflict injuries against Lacoul's combatants. "Lathal I appreciate you help, but," Lacoul grunted, muttered a few swear words softly as he maimed his enemies. "You should be over there fighting with Malan."Across the raging sea of battle in the cathedral, she heard the clanging of metal, saw the flashes of blades then watched Malan momentarily lose his footing. Vladimir took the brief advantage to drive him back forcefully. She gripped the weapon in her hands like it was a long and powerful dagger. She ran like a mad woman toward Vladimir. She cried a warrior's yell with every intention of driving the sword's blade into Vladimir's chest.Vladimir turned to defend himself against her onslaught, but she tripped over the train of her wedding dress. This gave Malan the distraction he needed to regain advantage in the sword duel. He feinted and directed the blade of his sword toward the villain's throat. Bloodied and bruised guards, wanting revenge, encircled him, blocking his means of escape. They moved to strike since he was completely engaged with Vladimir.She picked up the sword that had been knocked to the ground when she'd fallen. She rose quickly. She tore off the train of the wedding dress with her foot and kicked it out of the way. Then she posed herself to do battle against his back, striking at the goons who had tried to overtake the man she loved.He felt her body next to his and spared a quick glance behind him. He favoured her with an warm, affectionate smile. He mouthed inaudibly, I love you, Lathal.She inaudibly mouthed back, I love you, Malan.He turned and snuck in a brief, tender and passionate kiss while driving Vladimir back. Without hesitation, she dropped her sword and gripped the hilt of his. His hands were on hers and hers, on his, locked in a passionate kiss as they swung the weapon together swiftly and surely cutting down all who stood against them. They slashed Vladimir grievously across the chest and stomach and sent his blood gushing all over the place. The villain slumped to the ground and grimaced in pain.He dropped his sword and held her in his arms, and they kissed passionately over and over. He stepped away to catch his breath. He shyly looked at her with a teasing look in his eyes. "Boy, it sure got awfully quiet."She saw their enemies lying seriously wounded or dead at their feet and bantered back. "What happened here?"He pulled her close, murmuring huskily, "I'll tell you what happened, Lathal, that was some kiss you gave me."She flirted with him, "It was, was it? How about another one?"They kissed again, but Vladimir grabbed his sword. He rose and steeled himself to kill both at once. He heard Vladimir's painful battle cry, used his boot to flip his sword into their joined hands and directed the weapon so the blade plunged into Vladimir's shoulder."Get it out! Get it out!" Vladimir cried in agony, slowly pulling the sword from his flesh. He slouched to the floor in defeat."Mmm," he murmured, disengaging himself from their kiss. "I love you, Lathal.""Were you sincere about wanting to marry me, Malan?"He dropped to one knee, holding her hands in his. "Yes. I love you, Lathal, marry me."She pulled him off his knee and kissed his lips. "Yes."He kissed her in return, murmuring a soft confession. "Lathal, I don't have a ring to give you.""So?""I do have something else I could give you. My medallion. I give it to you as a promise, a promise of a ring and of my undying and never ending love for you."He slide his medallion over her head carefully. They embraced then kissed each other lovingly. Vladimir drifted in and out of consciousness. Above he barely perceived Rowland's usual gentle eyes filled with anger. "I should have you killed, Lord Vladimir, but it's out of the kindness of my heart that I forgive you. However, your villainous actions and behavior won't go unpunished. You're no longer my royal defense advisor instead you're my royal bed changer. You'll be responsible for changing and cleaning all the linens in the palace. From now on you'll be closely watched."Vladimir groaned, "No! Please. Just kill me."Rowland shook his head in disgust, turning away in rude dismissal as if Vladimir were nothing but filth. "Take this knave out of my sight."Guards dragged Vladimir's limp body out of the cathedral. Diayla had tears in her eyes and wore a smile on her face as she watched Malan and Lathal shyly demonstrate their love for each other. She saw them smile, laugh then passionately kiss again and again.**Thousands of Ashley's citizens packed the royal courtyard. King Rowland dressed in his knights garb of old extended his hands toward the people. "My friends and citizens, welcome!"Cheers and applause filled the courtyard as out of the shadows Malan appeared. The king beamed at him, gripping the young man's hand in a congratulatory manner."Your Highness," he said with a small graceful bow. "Malan, there's no need for you to be so formal considering how you and I are equals.""Your Lordship, you honour me by calling me your equal. I'm merely a servant.""Not so, Malan, you're a prince, my trusted knight and royal advisor who I've chosen to succeed me to the throne.""That's not necessary, my liege. Again you honour me by your choice, but I would like to bring Willias back to its glory. I hope we can work together and unite our two kingdoms for prosperity, peace and kindness while standing as a powerful adversary against our enemies."Rowland shook his hand, sealing the agreement. "That would be my pleasure, honour and privilege, Lord Malan, Prince of Willias." Rowland smiled at him. "Are you nervous?""Just shy about public appearances but definitely not nervous about taking Lathal as my wife.""You've a good woman, Malan. I foresee Willias be hailed as a kingdom of great literature.""I promise, Your Lordship, her talents as writer will be well known all over England.""I know you love Lathal very much, Malan. Take good care of her.""I will, Your Lordship."His smile broadened then softened as Lathal walked into the main audience tower. She was dressed in a long, baby blue dress and her long, unrestrained blonde hair fell down to mid back. She wore his medallion and carried a navy Gothic book filled with her poetry. She held the stem of a long red rose only beginning to bud ontop the book.He murmured, "You're so beautiful, my princess."Rowland hugged her, gave her a fond kiss and then turned to his people. "My friends, I'm pleased you've come to mark this joyous occasion. I ask you to remain and celebrate at the banquet afterward. It's my pleasure and honour to announce the engagement and upcoming banns of marriage between Prince of Willias, Lord Malan Grayson and Duchess of Barden and royal muse of Ashley, Lady Lathal Sinclair."Revelry filled the courtyard, trumpets sounded and the people danced below.The king turned to Ambrosia, who grudgingly took the book and rose Lathal had held, watching her cousin place Lathal's hands in Malan's. Ambrosia wanted to cry since she was dying inside. She wanted to break Lathal's neck and rip her heart out. Instead Ambrosia feigned a supportive smile and cursed her cousin for making her serve as chief bridesmaid in the Malan and Lathal's wedding.Ambrosia refused to accept Lathal had won Malan over her. Her smile turned into a pleased smirk. This isn't over yet!!! I can still eliminate you, Lady Lathal and have the prince all for myself. I promise you this isn't the last you'll hear from me. No, this isn't over yet.!He pulled an amethyst ring from his shirt sleeve and slipped it on the third finger of her left hand. "I love you, Lathal. Marry me."Tears of joy misted in her eyes. "Yes, Malan, I'll marry you."Rowland showed everyone present a blue and white cord. He smiled as he wrapped it around the wrists their joined hands to signify their impending union.Buchanan stood in the rear of the audience tower. He smiled proudly and deftly wiped the tears from his eyes. The couple's closest friend's Diayla and Lacoul, stood behind the couple. Always the ladies' man, Lacoul remained attentive yet constantly shot Diayla, who hung gracefully on his arm, flirtatious winks.She caressed his face tenderly, smiling at him affectionately. "I love you, Malan.""I know, Lathal. I love you.""I know, Malan."He murmured shyly, "I really want to kiss you right now."She gently teased him. "So, what are you waiting for?"Lacoul smiled at Diayla suggestively, "So, what are you doing after the banquet, Di?"Diayla gave him a skeptical frown, an indication to Lacoul that he should give up trying to land her. She smiled as she saw Malan and Lathal engaged in passionate kisses, which were met by the overjoyed and approving cheers and applause from the crowd below.