Vankara (Book 1), page 15
I swore Inara to secrecy before divulging my plans of visiting the fae.
“How are you going to get there and back in such a short amount of time?”
“I’m sorry but I can’t tell you that. But I do need to ask something of you.”
“If something happens and I don’t make it back…”
I held up my hand, effectively stopping Inara from insisting nothing would happen to me.
“If I don’t make it back, I want you to promise me you will look after Dena.”
“Well, you will make it back,” Inara said, completely confident in her statement. “Or I’ll have Fallon’s head on a stick for not protecting you. By the way, who is your escort to dinner tonight?”
The question caught me by surprise. “I honestly have no idea.”
Strangely enough, I hadn’t even considered the need for an escort for the night’s activities. Gabriel hadn’t mentioned anything to me about needing one.
After Inara left, I found myself pacing back and forth before the hearth in the drawing room waiting for someone, either Gabriel or Fallon, to come to my chambers and escort me to the state dinner.
Almost half an hour later, there was a gentle knock on the outer chamber door. I walked to the door and drew it open to find someone I had not expected to see.
Aleksander stood on the other side of the doorway dressed in the same outfit he had worn to Dena’s birthday celebration.
He cocked his head to the right slightly as he quietly studied my reaction to his presence.
“You look surprised to see me,” he said, a hint of uncertainty in his voice. “Didn’t Gabriel tell you he asked me to be your escort for the evening?”
“No,” I admitted, feeling as though Gabriel had betrayed me in some way. I felt completely unprepared to deal with Aleksander. “He neglected to inform me of the situation.”
“Hmm, well he did seem in a bit of a rush when he came to tell me a little while ago,” Aleksander made a shrug of indifference. “I hope you’re not disappointed he asked me.”
“Not at all Aleksander, you simply took me by surprise.”
Aleksander’s eye raked over my body with an intensity which made me quite uncomfortable. I suppose I should have known then his intimate appraisal of my womanly form was drawn from a source.
“You look beautiful this evening,” he murmured, his lips stretching into a suggestive grin. “Like the sweetest confection.”
I instantly understood his seemingly innocent innuendo and felt my face grow hot under his perusal.
“Shall we go?” He held his hand out to me in a gentlemanly fashion even though he had been anything but a true gentleman thus far.
As we walked through the palace, Aleksander asked me about the events of the previous night with Adam Bellas. I knew I had to tread lightly on the facts of my meeting with the leader of the Plague-bringers. Considering the fact Bellas had accused the Vankaran Royal College of Magic of causing the plagues, I didn’t think it prudent to divulge such information to the leader of another nation. I simply implied to Aleksander that Bellas had provided me with a lead on the source of the plagues and that I would be looking into it personally.
“If there is anything I can do to help,” Aleksander said with a seriousness I had not expected from him, “please let me know. I would do whatever you asked of me with no questions asked. We have all suffered losses from these plagues. I am willing to do what needs to be done to bring a stop to them.”
“I will keep that in mind, Aleksander. Thank you for the offer.”
He nodded but didn’t seem completely satisfied with my acquiescence to his heart felt request.
I admit I was pleased and surprised to see the king of Chromis did in fact care a great deal for his people. It revealed a side of his character I had not expected to see.
As we walked down the marble corridors of the palace, I was thankful Aleksander seemed to know exactly where we were going. I hadn’t had time to explore the seemingly never ending halls of the palace as of yet and wouldn’t have been able to find the dining hall if my life depended on it.
We turned a corner at the end of one hallway and were met by a pair of closed double doors made of crystal designed in a starburst pattern. Stationed on either side of the double doors were two male automatons dressed in black suits, white shirts and black cravats. As Aleksander and I approached the doors, the automatons opened them revealing a long lacquered mahogany table within an all glass room with a cathedral ceiling. I came to an immediate stop as the aromas of freshly baked meats, breads and vegetables assailed my nostrils. Usually, such smells would bring a sense of comfort to me but it felt like the aromas had taken on a physical nature. Their tiny tendrils flew into my nose and down my throat wrapping around my stomach to squeeze it so hard I knew nothing within it would remain there for very long.
I immediately dropped Aleksander’s arm and ran to a set of glass door leading out onto a balcony. Thankfully the landing led down to the back gardens where the circus tent had been just the night before. The gardens were empty, devoid of any sign of the previous night’s festivities. I scurried behind one of the bushes just as the harsh acidic feel of my lunch making a reappearance over the tender flesh of my throat occurred resulting in a most unlady like retching noise.
I heard Aleksander’s worried voice just as another convulsion racked my body. Aleksander’s large, warm hand rested comfortingly on the middle of my back as I tried to steady my breathing bent at the waist. As soon as I knew there was nothing left in my stomach, I straightened to my full height. Aleksander withdrew his hand slowly.
“Emma, are you all right? Is there something I can do for you? Has the sickness returned?”
I shook my head. “No, I don’t think I’m sick. Other than what you just saw,” I said somewhat chagrined at having Aleksander see me in such a compromising position, “I am a bit nauseas but other than that I feel perfectly fine. I think the worst has past.”
When I looked up at Aleksander, I could see a sincere look of concern for my welfare on his face and felt my heart involuntarily warm towards him.
“You shouldn’t go to the dinner if you’re not feeling well,” he said, taking on the role of protector. “I’ll take you back to your chambers.”
“No,” I told him, straightening my shoulders and examining my dress quickly to make sure it was still clean. “I won’t have people gossiping about me anymore than they already do. I’ll be fine.”
Aleksander wore a grave expression of uncertainty.
“If you insist on going, we’ll go,” he conceded, “but if it looks like you need to rest, I will take you back to your rooms even if I have to carry you back to them on my shoulders,” he warned.
I knew I was supposed to be leery of the Chromis king, considering his real agenda, but the sincere look of concern for my welfare on his face made me wonder if he might actually harbor true love for the Queen. Everyone assumed Aleksander’s true intentions for marrying Queen Emma stemmed from hunger for power. But, what if he truly did love her? It would make him even more dangerous.
“I’ll be fine,” I assured him, retaking his arm and steering him back up the steps towards the palace interior. “I promise if I start to feel as though I’ll be sick again, I will voluntarily return to my rooms and rest.”
Seeming satisfied with my concession, Aleksander and I walked back to the dining hall. People were milling about talking to one another in the all glass room awaiting my entrance. As soon as we stepped into the room, I heard a man with a deep baritone voice announce our arrival. Everyone in attendance turned to us and bowed. Aleksander escorted me to the chair at the head of the long table. Only then did guests take their seats. Aleksander sat to my right and Thaddeus Irondale sat to my left. I saw no signs of Gabriel or Fallon anywhere and began to worry if something might have happened to them.
As if they had one single mindset, they all turned together and walked back through the doors they had entered through.
Both Thaddeus and Aleksander proved to be companionable dinner mates for one another. They kept to safe subjects such as the unseasonable cool summer weather we had experienced during the year and discovered they each had a passion for horse breeding. Since I had no knowledge about breeding horses I wasn’t expected to add much to the conversation, for which I was exceedingly grateful.
Although prepared with the utmost delicacy and talent, I wasn’t the least bit interested in the seven course meal laid out before us that evening. Each course the automatons brought out sent my stomach down a spiraling well of turmoil. I could only explain my condition away with one explanation: stress. It seemed completely reasonable to me that the culmination of events within the past few days was causing my body to feel an exorbitant amount of stress manifesting in a physical response. My conclusion seemed sound. How naive I was to think the answer to my dilemma would be so simple.
I picked at the food on my plate hoping no one in attendance would notice how little I was in fact eating. But of course, Aleksander kept a watchful eye on me and raised a questioning eyebrow at me when desert arrived. I indiscreetly shook my head and forced myself to eat the lemon tart with raspberry sauce on my plate to help alleviate his worry.
“So tell me Thaddeus,” Aleksander said, cutting his tart with the edge of his fork, “anything interesting up for vote in parliament this session?”
“Quite a few things,” Thaddeus answered cutting a wary glance in my direction. I felt sure Thaddeus understood the Queen’s position on the Population Reconstruction Act and wondered if he would bring it up in front of me. Obviously, Aleksander knew more about Vankaran politics than I could have ever credited him for.
“Is it true you’re paying your citizens to stay home and make babies?” Aleksander questioned, sarcasm heavily ladened in his voice.
“It’s not quite as crude as you make it sound,” Thaddeus defended lightly, trying to keep the conversation congenial.
“Well I can’t imagine it sounding good anyway you put it,” Aleksander replied before looking over at me. “So what’s your stand on such a practice taking place in your country?”
“For one,” I began, warning myself to tread cautiously through this particular subject, “the program has only been implemented here in Iron City. It is not practiced throughout Vankara.”
“So does that mean you support it?” Aleksander asked, completely unconvinced I would willingly endorse such program.
I felt the sting of being baited into answering and giving away my position on the subject. It was almost as if Aleksander wanted me to have a heated public discussion about the issue. When I looked down the table at the other guests, almost all of them were watching and listening intently to our conversation. I knew I had to put a stop to things immediately.
“I believe such matters will be discussed when the bill is voted on. This is not the appropriate time or place to have a debate on the matter.”
Aleksander stared at me as though he were trying to calculate his next move before dropping his eyes to his plate and cutting another bite from the lemon tart with his fork.
“So tell me more about your stud, Thaddeaus.”
The rest of the conversation went smoothly as Thaddeaus graciously offered his stud services to Aleksander’s mare.
At the conclusion of dinner, Aleksander escorted me back through the maze like halls of the palace to my private rooms. As we approached the door to my chambers, he suddenly pulled me into his arms and with no compunction for propriety crushed his lips to mine in a kiss which literally stole the breath from my lungs. I could taste the lingering sweetness of lemon and raspberry on his tongue as it parted my lips in its quest to coax mine into a dance of flesh. The experience left me reeling with contradictory feelings: joy with a dash of curiosity and trepidation, considering the fact I was experiencing my first kiss.
I could feel Aleksander’s arms tighten around me, drawing me ever deeper into his web of slow seduction, a trap I had to will myself to disengage from no matter how tempting it was to allow things to follow their natural course.
I pushed away from Aleksander both of us breathing heavily from the shared experience. His eyes seemed to glow with a lustful hunger I knew I was incapable of satisfying.
I leaned my back against the cool wood of the door to my chambers. I could feel my heart pounding against my rib cage as I stood there before Aleksander, emotionally naked. It was impossible to stay hidden behind the cool veneer of Queenly confidence I had manufactured to present to the world as his eyes searched my face for evidence of my true feelings toward him. In that brief, sweet moment, I felt like Sarah Harker once again, having just experienced her very first kiss with a man.
“Emma,” the name sounded like a growl coming from deep inside Aleksander’s throat. I felt my legs tremble slightly as he took a determined step closer to me fully meaning to continue the kiss he had started.
“Stop,” I begged, even though the request sounded weak and half-hearted, even to my ears.
Aleksander placed his hands on either side of me against the door frame with his face slowly leaning in towards mine.
“Give me one good reason why I should?” He asked as if he knew I wouldn’t be able to come up with one. “Why can’t we pick up where we left off on your last visit to Chromis?”
The words ‘where we left off’ brought me up short, quickly dissipating the fog of romance and lust which had completely clouded my mind.
Had the Queen’s relationship with the king of Chromis gone further than she let on? Gabriel had assured me the two weren’t lovers but could she have hidden her indiscretion from him finding it easier to lie than admit a weakness for companionship.
“Please, Aleksander, I still feel ill,” even as the words left my lips I knew it simply sounded like an excuse.
Aleksander growled his agitation and roughly pushed away from the door.
“You know I don’t believe that for a second,” he said not attempting to hide his irritation with me. “Why do you insist on acting the part of the widow, Emma? I thought when you arrived here yesterday wearing red it meant you were ready to move on with your life.” He ran an agitated hand through his wispy blonde hair fanning the strands around his face as they fell back into place. “Haven’t you publicly mourned the loss of my brother for long enough?”
My mind was a blank slate. I had no idea what to say. No witty comebacks came to mind. Without knowing how far the relationship between Queen Emma and Aleksander Chromis had escalated, I was treading deep waters with no idea which way to turn the direction of the conversation in order to find safe harbor.
“I am ready to move on,” I finally said. “But I need to go at my own pace.”
Aleksander looked at me for a long while. I could tell from the subtle way his eyes twitched he was trying to consider his next words carefully. I felt as though he wanted to ask me something but was having difficulty in deciding if he should voice his question or simply let the matter drop. Finally, he made a decision.
“Does your change of heart have anything to do with Fallon being back in your service?” The unmistakable tone of jealousy wasn’t hard to miss in Aleksander’s words.
“Fallon?” I asked dumbfounded by the others name even being mentioned.
It took me a moment to realize Aleksander must be
“That relationship was long ago. I can barely remember it,” I said, not lying completely.
“I see the way he looks at you. He still has feelings for you even though he’s trying to hide them.”
I could only assume Aleksander’s own jealousy had tainted his supposed observations of Fallon’s affections for me. I felt sure whatever he thought he saw had been misconstrued because of his romantic interest in the Queen. Fallon no more loved me than I him. The notion of us having secret feelings for one another was laughable. We had just formed a friendly alliance, one which could shatter into a million pieces at the slightest misstep.
“You mistake what you think you have seen,” I said truthfully. “Fallon and I are just now finding friendship again. There are no romantic intentions between us.”
It probably would have been more prudent of me to let Aleksander think Fallon and I had feelings for one another but for some reason it just felt wrong to lie to Aleksander.
“Then why are you trying to push me away?” He asked, desperately needing to understand my actions. My heart ached to tell him the truth, even though I knew that admission could only lead to folly.
“I thought you understood my feelings for you, Emma,” he whispered, broken, like only a man who has given his heart to another and been rebuffed could.
I so desperately wanted some flash of the Queen’s memory to tell me what her feelings for Aleksander had truly been. Had her heart led her to believe she could fall in love with the brother of her dead husband? If it had, why hadn’t she mentioned something so important before her death? If she could have given me some sort of warning, perhaps I could have given Aleksander a better reply.
“I need some more time,” I said lamely. “Will you give me that?”
Aleksander lifted his face to the ceiling and closed his eyes, letting a heavy sigh escape between his parted lips. He looked back at me and nodded as he turned on his heels and walked away without saying another word.
I leaned my head back against the door allowing myself time to relish in the womanly feel of being desired, even if I wasn’t exactly the woman who Aleksander truly wanted. A man like him would have never given Sarah Harker a second glance.
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