Excerpt for Ariella's Rebellion by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

This page may contain adult content. If you are under age 18, or you arrived by accident, please do not read further.



Carolee Croft

Ariella’s Rebellion: Book Two of the Stars at Zenith Trilogy

By Carolee Croft

Copyright © 2018 Carolee Croft

Published on Smashwords 2018

ISBN: 978-1-7750479-5-7

Cover Art by Kellie Dennis at Book Cover by Design


Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18


Other Titles by Carolee Croft

About the Author

Futile – the winds –

To a heart in port –

Done with the compass –

Done with the chart!

- Emily Dickinson

Chapter 1

The ringing of steel echoed through the open courtyard as Ariella trained, battling Jaquelle and having a damned difficult time of it too. Her former nursemaid and now swordplay instructor had obviously never heard of easing back into things.

It had been three weeks since her fateful duel with Ancarette. The wound had recently healed, but Ariella was not in good fighting shape after her prolonged rest. This was the first time she picked up a sword since that snow-speckled day on the field outside Castle Leduryon, where she had incurred the near mortal wound in her chest. Now, the muscles had been repaired thanks to Jaquelle’s magical healing skill, but they were weak and stiff from disuse.

Jaquelle advanced, making Ariella retreat past several columns that supported the balconies encompassing the rectangle of the yard. The place had an air of abandonment. Servants passed unseen in the shadows of the balconies, their footsteps echoing loudly in the empty space. It was a remote wing of the castle to which Ariella was consigned so she would not be disturbed during her recovery, or maybe to keep her out of the way of the king and queen, whom she had still not met.

The winter of Sylcadia was so much milder than that of her homeland, Dezearre. Although the air held a wet and cloying chill, Ariella no longer felt it. She was down to her shirt and light wool hose, sweating from the exercise. Her arms, chest, and back ached from the unaccustomed strain of wielding the sword, but Jaquelle kept up the rapid attack, taking them through all the classic lunges and parries. These were manageable, but Jaquelle then began to throw unexpected combinations at her until at last Ariella pleaded for mercy.

“A small respite,” she cried, raising her hands and dropping her sword.

“Is this what you will say on the field of battle?” Jaquelle asked, but nevertheless lowered her sword.

Ariella drew a bucketful of water from the well that stood in the center of the courtyard. She drank deeply, and when she lowered the cup she felt someone’s eyes on her. Up on the balcony stood a young woman. Unlike the servants who walked by occasionally glancing at the training bout, she was standing perfectly still, her arms spread wide gripping the railing. She was looking directly at Ariella. She wore simple riding boots, tight hose, and a tight jacket, all in black, all chosen no doubt to show off the graceful contours of her slim body.

Ariella’s stomach gave a sickening lurch. She knew at once who this was.

The only way she could deal with this was to put on an air of bravado. “Good day,” she offered.

The woman nodded but did not deign to reply. However, she moved from her post on the balcony and stalked purposefully down the stairs and across the yard towards Ariella.

“Are you the Baroness of Leduryon?” the woman asked in an accusing way.

Her voice had a kind of huskiness that would have been attractive to some. The duchess was a few years older than her, but Ariella would never have been able to tell by her looks. Her face was all feminine softness. Her dark, liquid eyes looked large and sensuous even in anger, which seemed to be her current state.

“Yes, I am,” Ariella replied in a level tone, “Whom do I have the honor of addressing?”

The woman smirked. She was about to play her trump card, not knowing that Ariella had already guessed her name.

“I am Edoline, Duchess of Ichon, betrothed to the crown prince Demetrius.”

“It is kind of you to come and introduce yourself,” Ariella replied politely, “when I have not officially been summoned to the court.”

“Not at all, I just happened to be passing through,” Edoline pronounced, biting her lip probably at the disappointment she felt in Ariella’s lack of reaction. “Do you always use a great sword?”

“Yes, I usually favor it,” Ariella replied, a smile playing on her lips. She had not expected the conversation to shift so suddenly to weaponry.

“I personally prefer a simple war sword, like your instructor has over there,” she pointed to Jaquelle, who was resting in the shade below the balconies. “May I?”

Jaquelle threw her sword across the sandy expanse of the yard, and Edoline snatched it from the air with a confident hand. She twirled it around, performing some impressive feats of dexterity that would be mostly useless in battle. Ariella did not wish to be intimidated by this demonstration of strength, but she was. She could see that at this point the duchess was bursting with strength and energy, while her own arms ached from the simple drills she had done.

“This is a very fine blade,” she said with surprise. “Shall we have a bout?”

Ariella grinned. She was exhausted, but she would not say no to such an opportunity to take stock of her rival. She realized now that even though Demetrius may have told her the truth about his regard for Edoline, that she was nothing more than a childhood friend to him, it seemed that the duchess was a little more ardent in her feelings.

Ariella went to pick up her sword and saluted her opponent.

“We’re not wearing armour,” Edoline remarked lightly. “That is a little foolish. I suppose Demetrius would be upset if I accidentally ran you through…”

Ariella could not form a response, too stunned by the implied threat.

Edoline attacked, leaving no time for words. Her technique was flashy, filled with predictable little tricks. Ariella found she could easily deflect the first onslaught. Though her opponent’s blade whistled through the air with the speed of its onslaught, it created little more than noise. Ariella then took a couple of steps back, creating a brief pause. Now she knew what to say.

“You love him,” she declared, looking in the other woman’s eyes.

Edoline lunged with renewed fury. But again, she was far too easy to foil. Ariella supressed a triumphant chuckle, though upon reflection she wished she had been wrong about that particular point. Demetrius had always downplayed his relationship with Edoline, but the woman’s determination to fight her rival told a different story. Ariella stood her ground this time, and tentatively advanced, trying to break through Edoline’s defences.

“You love him too,” the duchess responded, panting with effort, or maybe with fury.

“What does it matter?” Ariella said, thrusting forward with the point of her sword, “You are the one he is to marry.”

Ariella felt that she was winning, and not only the fencing match. She advanced steadily, trying different tactics to keep the duchess occupied.

“That’s exactly what I want you to understand,” Edoline said through gritted teeth, “This is a marriage forged as an alliance between our states many years ago, and it will not be broken.”

“Then you have nothing to worry about,” Ariella retorted.

Her sword was doing its own work now. Her body was one with her weapon, and she knew just when to parry or when to step aside and counterattack.

She nearly scored a hit, when suddenly her tired right arm shook with too much tension, allowing Edoline to seize upon that small advantage immediately and slip past her guard. In the next instant, Ariella was tripped, and she fell hard on her back. Breaking some of the impact with her arms, she left herself wide open.

She looked up to see Edoline’s sword uncomfortably close to her throat.

Ariella was overcome with the absurdity of the situation: here they were fighting a senseless battle whose outcome meant nothing. She burst out laughing, completely infuriating the duchess.

“This is not a game,” Edoline spat out.

“Isn’t it, though?” Ariella replied. She knew better than anyone that it was not a game, but she simply wanted to irk her opponent as much as humanly possible.

Edoline finally collected herself. She stepped away from her vanquished foe.

“Thank you, good woman,” she said, throwing the sword in Jaquelle’s direction.

The blade arced through the air, falling short of where Jaquelle sat, but with expert speed the warrior woman sprang up and caught it by the hilt. Ariella was grateful to her for this little feat of strength and dexterity, as catching that weighty sword would not have been the easiest thing. At least one of them did not fail. Jaquelle said nothing but gave Edoline a look that signified an utter lack of diffidence.

Ariella painfully rose to her feet as the sound of Edoline’s footsteps died away. She came over to sit beside Jaquelle.

“Another inglorious passage of arms,” Ariella remarked.

“You know as well as I that you could beat her easily when you’re in full form,” Jaquelle grumbled. “But the duchess is right about one thing: she is to marry the Prince Demetrius. You must not give yourself high hopes in that regard.”

“She is no duchess but a vain cockatiel,” Ariella replied irritably.

“Your retorts are about as good as your swordplay today.”

Ariella could not believe that Jaquelle held no hope of her marrying Demetrius. After all, Jaquelle had been one of the people who convinced her to seek Demetrius’ help when they were besieged. But Ariella did not wish to bring up the past. Nothing she said would make a difference. The ultimate decision belonged to the prince himself. In the meantime, she needed to regain the full use of her arms.

“Well, I believe I’ve had enough rest,” Ariella groaned as she stood up. “Let us continue, and I pray you, Jaquelle, show me no mercy.”

“I had no intention of showing mercy,” Jaquelle assured her.

“Good,” Ariella replied, lifting her sword into a high guard, “I need to break this losing streak.”

A few hours later, having recovered from the practice bout, Ariella headed away from the castle and into Argentz, which beckoned with its spirited clamor, its enticing food smells, and its convoluted streets. This was the first day in her recovery that she felt she could walk longer distances. Enough time had been wasted resting; she needed to see how her warriors were adjusting to their new quarters and to talk with her captain of the guard about future plans. Most of these involved revenge and taking her castle back.

She took a glance at the palace which loomed behind her as she left its gates. The proud towers of white and brown brick, the red roofs, the ornate windows and majestic domes. It was his home, where he had grown up, but to Ariella it held a menacing air, too grandiose to be welcoming. She was glad to leave its opulent facade behind and explore the city on her first outing since she had arrived here.

Emelote would be waiting for her at a tavern called The Kindly Tinker. They had been sending messages back and forth via the glider that Demetrius had lent her to communicate with her people during her recovery.

She found the tavern after a bit of meandering down tiny, crooked streets. Inside, it was dark and cozy. She spotted Emelote at once by her long, straight, blonde hair hanging down like an icy cliffside among all the dark-haired Sylcadians. The glider, a small, furry creature, sat on Emelote’s shoulder, nibbling on a bean.

“I see two of our troops here,” Ariella said jokingly, “but where are the others?”

“My lady,” Emelote stood up briefly and bowed. “I had hoped to bring a few of our people with me, but they’re most of them gone.”

Only now did Ariella notice Emelote’s grave expression.

“What do you mean gone?” she asked in a tense whisper as she took the seat opposite. “Dead?”

Emelote shook her head.

“Then where in the Blessed Realms are they?”

“You see, my lady, they grew restless.”

“It has only been two weeks... no, three weeks? Not more than three.” Ariella had begun to lose track of time during her recovery.

“Yes, three weeks it has been. And although our quarters here cannot be faulted, and we lack for nothing, it is not in our people’s spirit to be hangers-on, living a life of idleness. Most of them have left to seek other work, hire their swords out in neighboring provinces.”

“This is turning into quite a day,” Ariella said.

“I am sorry, I tried to stop them.”

“It’s not your fault. I’m glad at least you have stayed. How many are left with us?”

“There’s Kyra, Tycheon and his sisters, Selene, a few others... well, no more than eight altogether.”

The glider, having finished its bean, chittered and jumped onto the table, where Ariella petted it absently.

“I’ll have to count you as one of our warriors after all,” she said to the creature.

“Do not despair, my lady,” Emelote said in her earnest way, “When the time comes to take our land back, they will return to fight by your side, I know they will.”

“I thank you for your loyalty,” Ariella said, “Your heart is so true that you might have more trust in the others than they deserve. But truly, I don’t blame them for leaving. I have no legitimate claim on their loyalty after losing my castle and my lands.”

A barmaid came by asking them if they wanted drinks, but while Emelote asked for a beer, Ariella ordered only water and the same bean stew Emelote was having despite needing a drink very badly after hearing this news. She had barely touched wine or any other liquor since she lost her castle. Now, she had Ancarette to thank for keeping her sober; it was the best way to regain fighting shape, not wasting a single day on carousing, or recovering from it, a day that could otherwise be spent training.

“It will take another week at least to get my full strength back. Jaquelle demolished me today at training.”

“I will wait as long as it takes, my lady.”

“I may have to hold you to that,” Ariella said with a crooked smile.

“But even if we did have all our warriors with us,” Emelote said, “It wouldn’t be enough to take back the castle, and especially not if you wish to...” her voice dropped to a whisper, “do more than that.”

Ariella knew what she was hinting at, taking back not only her castle, but also the entire kingdom. They had only spoken of it in subtle whispers because after the attempt on her life in Chaldea, there could be good reason to believe that Queen Esclairmonde’s reach, her spies or assassins, extended to other cities too.

“I’ve thought of that,” Ariella replied. “We’ll need funds, and definitely more warriors. I’ve been thinking about the borderlands.”

“The borderlands?”

They had both fought there in a few skirmishes to repel the invading Koroi tribes. Ariella almost missed the place, a no-man’s-land between Dezearre and the wild plains where the Koroi roamed and more often than not fought amongst each other, too busy these days to make any serious attempts to invade Dezearre. It had been three years ago, but she could still recall the sweet smell of burning wood at their encampments, the atrocious screams of battle, the terrible yet beautiful silence afterwards beneath the desert sky. She also remembered how populated these regions were, despite her expectations to the contrary. Smugglers, merchants, mercenaries, prostitutes and thieves all found ample opportunities there to ply their trades.

“There must be more than a few desperate characters there willing to join the fight,” Ariella suggested. “Though perhaps too desperate... I’m not sure if I like the thought of hiring mercenaries.”

“I don’t trust the folk in that region,” Emelote said, “Mostly cutthroats without honor.”

“Maybe they’re just the sort of people we need.”


Ariella lowered her voice, “Honorable people might not wish to rebel agains their queen.”

Despite the disheartening news and despite the exhaustion and ache in her legs Ariella rallied as she trudged back to the palace. It felt good to be able to see the city, to walk long distances again, and she would only get stronger.

Jaquelle, on the other hand, was not in high spirits, had not been since they arrived here. The reason for Jaquelle’s general discontent was clear. Ariella was reminded of it as soon as she strolled into their luxurious quarters decorated with the finest silks and arrayed with the softest settees and beds among which Jaquelle looked distinctly out of place with her sober, dark clothing and her austere, disciplined air.

She sang a sad song, one of those ancient songs whose words were a mystery, while stitching a piece of hideously brown material that looked a good match for her usual attire. Skilled in both combat and healing, Jaquelle also turned her hand to most other types of work, anything to keep herself busy.

“You’ve been invited to a festive dinner,” she told Ariella, barely glancing up from her needle and thread.

“Oh, by who?”

“The king and queen, of course. It’s in honor of Demetrius’ return.”

“I might as well show up, since they had to cancel the last one on account of me.”

“I wouldn’t,” Jaquelle muttered.

“Well, I know you wouldn’t.”

“Keeping a low profile has been good, so far, even though that duchess is now sniffing about. Have you thought about what role you’re going to play at this event? The temptress, the ‘scarlet woman’? If so, there’s a perfect dress for it waiting in your chamber.”


A flutter of excitement coursed through her whole body as she went into the next room to verify this report.

Laid out on her bed in all its red glory was a dress the likes of which she had never seen. It was simply amazing. The boldness of its color drew the eye, while the cut of its design radiated grace and elegance even while it sprawled on the bed, unfilled by a human body.

“Where did this come from?” Ariella queried.

“Sent by his princeliness himself, of course,” Jaquelle replied. “Does he ever stop and think before he does something?”

Ariella grinned. “No, usually not. But I’ve never had such a beautiful dress in all my life.”

“And if you take my advice, you won’t wear it.”

“But I don’t have any other dress to wear.”

“You shouldn’t attend this dinner at all.”

“How can I not? The king and queen wish to see me.”

“They can come and see you here if they want to see you so badly.”

“Ha! Well, I want to see them.”

“Like a mouse wants to see a cat. Very well then, go, since I can’t stop you.”

“I will,” Ariella said, “I need to let everyone know that I’m here, and I’m here to stay.”

Chapter 2

The hall was decorated with mosaics in the old empire style. Images of flowers and mythical beasts built into the walls with amazing precision distracted Demetrius from the delegation that had just arrived, mostly older men and women in long robes.

“Your Highness...” a servant whispered in a tone of warning.

Demetrius had made yet another error, bowing to all the magistrates who entered the hall, when in fact they were supposed to bow to him. Now they stared at him and muttered to each other, perplexed.

“A lifetime of servitude isn’t easily erased,” he said loudly to all the people assembled, not one to ignore his own mistakes. “Perhaps next time you can all bow to me twice to make up for it. Only joking, of course.”

This earned only some minor chuckles. He was losing his touch.

Although he knew perfectly well he was the prince of the land, feeling it in his heart was another matter altogether. He sat down at the head of the long table.

The day seemed to go on forever in endless royal duties. Today they were discussing how the laws of the land would change if they were to ally with the Duchy of Ichon. Demetrius carried on with the discussion without trying to suggest that the wedding was anything but imminent. He would have to talk about it with his parents first; they were the ones who made the arrangement, and to break it without their knowledge would be unforgiveable.

When the session ended, he hurried from the room, eager to breathe some fresh air in the garden, where he had yet another meeting, this one more of a pleasant kind. Edoline was waiting for him, and this would be the first time the two of them would meet alone, though no doubt his parents had a hand in this too. They had made sure he and Edoline were never alone together in the first days since his return. They wanted him to ease back into life at the palace before such an important and sensitive meeting could take place. His best friend. The girl of his childhood dreams.

He saw her silhouette framed by the arch of the pavilion; she was dressed all in black, standing against the background of the most beautiful flowers.

She opened her arms, and he could not resist giving in to her heartfelt embrace.

“Your parents keep you busy,” she remarked.

He shrugged. “Perhaps it’s for the best. I don’t feel completely at home yet, but maybe these meetings with the magistrates will make me forget I had ever left. That council chamber, it had seemed much bigger in the old days. Everything seems different...”

“Do I seem different?” she asked, toying with a strand of her hair.

“Yes and no. You’re all grown up now. In my imprisonment, I pictured you just as I’d last seen you, when you were fifteen years old. It was my memories of you that sustained me, Edoline, kept me from losing my mind. But as I grew older, it seemed wrong to think of you in that way. You had always been like a sister and a friend to me, and in my mind, you were a young girl...”

She seemed nervous, afraid of what he might say next, so she changed the subject.

“Have you seen your other friends?”

There were a few young men of noble rank he had been friends with, and he tried his best to spend time with them, though he found their company somewhat tedious. It was not their fault; they lived lives of carefree leisure, and had never experienced what he had suffered.

“You’re the only friend I need, Edoline,” he said.

A warm smile spread across her face, lighting up her eyes.

“That’s what I like to hear. And soon we shall be married, as soon as you’re more settled. We have missed so much time together.”

He hated to bring this up now, but there was little choice. The more he delayed, the more painful it would be for her later.

“The wedding... I wanted to talk to you about that, Edoline.”

Frown lines creased her forehead. She could probably tell from his tone that this boded ill.

Just as he opened his mouth to go on, who but his royal mother should stride up to the pavilion followed by the king himself. Two pages accompanied them.

His mother was on his trail like a swifthound, preventing him from having any reasonable amount of time alone with Edoline. She must have sensed his hesitation about the wedding, though he had not spoken about it yet.

“All is ready for the feast,” the queen said, “Come, my dears, we must get the two of you dressed as well.”

“Welcome home, Your Highness!”

“Thank you. You are most kind.”

Demetrius smiled at another couple of guests who approached the royal table, then heaved an exhausted sigh as they retreated. The usually sweet and nutty muckpitts and the fragrant tortoise roots were like ash in his mouth. The clamor of the guests around him sounded rather like the cawing of crows than joyous voices raised in celebration of his return. Children ran about the hall, ruining their finery by play-fighting, crawling and slithering in the large space in the middle of the hall, and all he could think about was how soon their innocence would be replaced by sordid adulthood.

He may as well have acting the role of the melancholy Prince Baconius whom he had portrayed in Vidor’s theater. But the feast, after all, was in his honor. He tried his best to smile at the courtiers who approached the royal table to congratulate him on his newfound freedom from slavery, but in his heart he did not believe he was ever free.

“Your pretense of good cheer may fool most of our guests, Demetrius, but it will not fool me,” his mother said more loudly than was necessary.

His mother’s directness came as no great shock to Demetrius. Fortunately, his father, King Gaufridus sat between him and his mother, providing the cushion of intercession in their constant disagreements.

“For heaven’s sakes,” Gaufridus stepped in, “leave the boy alone, Larissana. You cannot force him to feel happy.”

“Put on a better pretense then,” Larissana suggested.

“Mother, I have left my brief acting career behind,” Demetrius rolled his eyes in exasperation. He thought she would now scold him for being brash, but her expression softened.

“We have no choice, my son,” she said, “It is part of a monarch’s duty to be an actor.”

“In that case, dear mother, I will procure a jester’s cap for you so that you may entertain us all.”

“I am not about to put an end to this feast,” the queen continued, ignoring his remark, “We have already had to cancel once thanks to your gallivanting. This is it. Enjoy it and let the people see you grateful for their attention.”

“I will try,” Demetrius muttered, “even if by ‘gallivanting’ you mean I came to the aid of the lady who helped me regain my freedom.”

He felt a stranger in this throng of courtiers. And what had he truly done to deserve such celebration? Saved his own hide, that was all.

On his other side, Edoline, sporting the colorful puffy sleeves that seemed to have taken over fashion while he had been away, was flirting with a young baron in a silly attempt to make her fiancé jealous. All he wanted was to see Ariella, and all he could think about was what was taking her so long.

It was not the custom in Sylcadia to announce the names of new arrivals at official parties, and so when Ariella entered the hall, she walked up to the royal table to make her own introduction. This did not mean her entrance went unnoticed. Whispered comments and curious gazes followed her. She walked through the main entranceway past two long tables that lined the walls, all the way to the third long table of royals.

She wore a red dress, but not just any shade of red. It was the most vivid, bold red that could be seen in the entire dining hall, and she wore it well. The bodice clung faithfully to her slim waist, and the sleeves outlined her lean, muscular arms with a dashing flare at the wrist. The skirt swung alluringly with her swift stride.

Demetrius wondered whether everyone suspected that he had that dress sent over to her, that he had chosen it himself. He scolded himself for the perverse desire for them to know that this was his woman.

He had not seen her in days. His parents had made sure of that by heaping royal duties on him since his return from Dezearre. There were courts to preside over, decrees to formulate, and council sessions to sit through. He was relieved to see that Ariella was regaining her health and vigor. Her face was no longer as pale as it had been during her recovery from the wound. Her walk was sprightly and confident.

“Your Majesties,” she said, “It is an honor to be here. I am Ariella, Baroness of Leduryon.”

“At last,” the queen pronounced, “we meet the lady who caused our son to ride off for days, abandoning his royal duties, and this when we had just got him back after thirteen years of absence.”

Demetrius glared at his mother. But Ariella did not flinch at the not-so-thinly veiled jab.

“Maybe he preferred my company,” Ariella replied, boldly meeting the queen’s eye.

The royal princes and princesses, his aunts and uncles, as well as a few dukes and duchesses who were seated within earshot gasped at such audacity. They may have known that Ariella had arrived here because of a quarrel with one queen, but no one could have the gall to speak to their Queen Larissana in such a manner.

But the queen was unperturbed.

“You may find me more difficult to charm,” she said.

“We are grateful to you,” the king assured Ariella. “This feast is but a small token of our affection for you, Baroness.”

Ariella bowed and walked off to take her seat.

“Though we would be much more grateful if she were removed soon to another province,” Larissana whispered as soon as Ariella had gone far enough away. “This is too much, having her at court.”

Demetrius felt his heart sink like a dead weight as he settled back in his chair. His mother saw Ariella merely as a source of embarrassment, or maybe even an impediment to his marriage.

His fiancée, Duchess Edoline, who sat on his right, tried to look amused, but he could tell by the way she was fiddling with her food that Ariella’s presence was unsettling to her too.

Meanwhile, Ariella found a seat at one of the tables beside Lady Daphne, the biggest gossip in the kingdom. Daphne’s buxom beauty contrasted Ariella’s strong and lean physique. The two women’s personalities differed as much as their looks did, and so he supposed they would either hate each other or become instant friends.

“Her being here does not bother me,” Edoline said as casually as she could.

“I don’t see why it should,” Demetrius replied rather curtly.

“She is a fragile woman in need of protection,” Edoline continued, “You know, we tried a passage of arms the other day, and all I can say is… I can see why she needed your help to fight her battles.”

Demetrius shuddered with rage. He should have known she would not simply leave Ariella alone. There was an archness to Edoline’s character that he remembered from the days of old when she had seemed to enjoy tormenting him.

“You should not have done that, Edoline,” he said in a low voice deep in his throat.

For a second, the duchess looked almost frightened. But she recovered her poise and gave him a winning smile.

“I’m sorry if it upset you. It will take a little time for us to become accustomed to each other’s company again, won’t it? After all, we are no longer children.”

She gave him a look that was meant to be seductive, but he merely found it annoying. Still, he had missed that little girl with dark ringlets of hair and bejewelled dresses that would inevitably get muddy from traipsing through forbidden boglands and forests. In those days, he would have done anything for her. Now, this woman sitting before him was almost a stranger.

It wasn’t that she was not attractive, far from it. But there was no room in his heart for any woman, save Ariella. Besides, he could not understand this ardent feeling that Edoline harbored after so many years. In the old days, she had never shown him any romantic sentiment, only friendship. Of course, he had been a scrawny boy, and now he returned a full grown man, handsomely built and overall not too shabby looking.

The main course of roast pickor had been served and eaten, and now it was time for the dance.

The musicians filed into the room and began with the rousing sound of the finelle. It was a merry dance that involved leaping, spinning, and making strange figures with one’s arms. Of course, Edoline expected him to dance. He took her hand and led her to the dance floor in the middle of the hall. It brought back memories of dance lessons where both he and Edoline pretended to be most unwilling, but which they enjoyed nonetheless. Now, her eyes sparkling with excitement, Edoline, his friend and companion, was before him.

Demetrius enjoyed the dance, but felt guilty for doing so. He knew Ariella would be pained to see them dancing together, a real proof of their engagement visible to all. He glanced at her talking with the gossip-mongers around her, then caught Edoline watching him, smoldering with anger.

Finally, the music came to an end, but then it was the giaronda, an even giddier dance. It did not require much skill, with everyone simply skipping or stepping in a long human chain, hands linked together. The children formed their own chain, which later wound itself into a circle in the center of the hall.

The adults were still in the midst of making their chain into a larger ring around them when Ariella was pulled into it. She was one of the people in the tail end, while Edoline was at the front. The tail of the human chain made its way around the hall, and just before it joined up with the head, the lady holding Ariella’s hand fell back dizzily and had to leave the dance. Ariella was now the last person in the chain, and she had to join hands with Edoline to complete the circle. Ariella offered her hand, and Edoline clasped it with the air of someone holding a rotten vegetable. They circled round the hall, until the music mercifully came to an end.

“She’s everywhere,” Edoline pronounced in a fierce whisper.

It was one of those tricks of sound that carried her utterance to the farthest end of the hall in the silence that ensued after the last musical note.

Demetrius knew it was all unfair to Edoline, and that was why he needed to be open with her.

“Ariella is staying here,” he said, “She is my friend, she saved me from slavery, and I will not cast her out, not even for you. I’m sorry.”

Edoline’s eyes filled with tears. It made him instantly regret saying anything. He hated himself for hurting her.

In the next instant, she slapped him across the face. It was not a gentle, symbolic slap either. His head whipped to the side, and his cheekbone burned.

Edoline gave him a withering look, as if to make sure that he noted how the tears gathering in her eyes did not spill. She seemed to be holding back with superhuman effort. Then she turned away and walked out of the hall.

“Welcome home,” Demetrius muttered to himself.

The guests busied themselves with pretending they had seen nothing. The queen stood up from her seat, signalling the logical end of the festivities.

As everyone departed for the night, a ten-year-old boy approached. This was his cousin, Prince Marcus.

“I don’t hold it against you, cousin Demetrius,” the boy said, looking up at him with a serious and frank expression.

“What, being slapped?” Demetrius asked.

“That you’re going to inherit the throne now,” the boy said.

This curly-haired child was the next heir to the kingdom after himself, and he was the only one who dared meet his eye and talk to him after what had just happened. Demetrius was touched by his gesture.

He saw something of his former self in the boy. He used to be quite serious too in those carefree days of youth.

“But Marcus, if I produce an heir, then you may never get a chance at the throne,” Demetrius stated.

“Don’t worry, I will not send assassins after you,” the boy assured him. “I really don’t care if I become king or not. I’m happy either way.”

For the first time that evening, Demetrius was surprised to feel his lips forming a genuine smile. He squeezed the boy’s shoulder affectionately.

“Then you might make a good king one day,” he said.

Ariella left without looking back at him. He admired her presence of mind. She was almost too good at not displaying her feelings for him in public, and he wondered if she resented him for bringing her here, in plain sight of all these festivities relating to his engagement. Ariella did not wish to be his lover in name or in deed, not while he was still engaged. To keep her isolated would be insulting to her, but to have her here observing everything was perhaps even worse. And that left him caught between two angry women; three, counting his mother.

From the dining hall he made his way into his parents’ chambers. It was time to pose the question to them because things were clearly only going to deteriorate from here.

His father was pouring himself a glass of tortoise root spirits as Demetrius entered. He remembered the way his father would do this every night, and Demetrius imagined he had always done so, even in the last thirteen years, all that time he had missed. His father looked ever handsome and majestic, though with much more grey in his luxurious black hair than Demetrius remembered from the old days.

His mother’s looks had suffered more over the years, frown lines marring her perfectly oval face.

“Ah, you’ve come to say goodnight?” King Gaufridus asked.

His father’s voice at times held a tremulous note that had never been there before.

“Yes, but there is something else…”

Several servants were fussing over his mother as she sat before her mirror. They had removed her face paint and hair ornaments, but she still wore her festive clothes. In this mid-stage, she looked like a fraud, a common woman thrust into a queen’s robe. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

“Please leave us,” she said to the servants, and they all filed out of the room.

Demetrius watched them with sympathy. Only a month ago, he had been in their place: wearing clothes that others had chosen for him, disappearing into the shadows when he was not wanted.

Larissana did not turn from her mirror, but Demetrius could see her face reflected in it. At least his father was facing him, looking eager for his news.

Demetrius began, “I have come to ask you an important question.”

“I know what you are going to ask,” his mother interrupted wearily.

“Mother, how could you know?”

“I can see the way you look at that lady from Dezearre.”

“Ariella,” Demetrius corrected.

“You rode like a madman to rescue her,” his father added with a wry smile, “I think your mother and I know what that means. And we are happy that Ariella is safe here with us.”

“But you know as well as I, son, that she cannot stay here long, and she could certainly never become queen of Sylcadia. The people would never accept it. Edoline would never accept it.”

Demetrius felt all the blood drain away from his face. He had not expected his question to be predicted and dismissed so casually.

“Besides,” his mother continued, “You must give Edoline some time to work her charms on you again. Do you remember how you used to chase after her?”

The king chuckled. “There was a time when you would do anything for her, and she knew it too, the little minx.”

Demetrius recalled all too well how he would risk life and limb to steal a giant cherry from the royal gardens to be rewarded with a small, lopsided smile, and once, only that one time, a kiss on the cheek. He still remembered that kiss. He had been twelve years old then.

“Father, what do you think? Could I not break the engagement?” Demetrius asked in desperation. He knew his father usually deferred to his mother in all important questions. Somehow he did not imagine this would ever change.

“Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad,” the king uttered to his surprise, “for the boy to marry whom he wants.”

“Gaufridus, of all the foolish things!” the queen exclaimed.

“I don’t want my son to be unhappy in marriage,” the king replied, “And I don’t want Edoline to be unhappy either. Maybe she could marry Marcus?”

“Oh nonsense!” the queen cried. “Marcus is still a child, while Edoline is almost past her time for marriage. If something isn’t done soon, she will burst like an overripe flamefruit.”

“Mother, how can you not understand that so many years have passed since I was a boy smitten with Edoline?”

The queen finally turned away from the mirror. She stood up from her chair and came towards Demetrius and put her soft hand on his cheek in a rare gesture of affection. “Of course I understand, my son. I know your life has not been easy. But through these many years here without you, we suffered too. Edoline mourned your absence. She wore black all these many years, and she prayed every day for your return.”

“I never deserved such devotion,” Demetrius muttered. “How was I to know she would suddenly come to love me?”

“We do not know what’s in another’s heart,” his mother said softly.

“I pray you, at least postpone the wedding,” Demetrius pleaded. “I am not ready for this.”

“The date is not yet set,” Larissana said. Her tone and her look now lost that motherly warmth, but she was still standing so near him and looking intently at him. “We will not rush into it. But Demetrius, I know you would not fail in your duty to your people. Breaking the engagement would mean losing the entire Duchy of Ichon and weakening our kingdom, it may even mean war. I know the kind of man you are. You would never allow this to happen.”

Demetrius returned to his room. Each night he made a supplication to the goddess of fate, looking up at the flickering star. He guessed it was she who had brought Ariella into his life. But each night she denied his prayers. He felt it. All she granted was a fitful, nightmarish sleep.

Chapter 3

“You are much distracted, Ariella,” Lady Daphne teased.

As she walked down the gravelled paths of the royal gardens Ariella had been gazing at the marvellous red flowers whose petals were shaped like butterfly wings. She had been reluctant to have Daphne as a companion, but the lady’s chatter was after all not too disagreeable, sometimes even pleasant.

Ariella envied her lackadaisical existence. In Dezearre, both men and women were trained in weaponry, even if they had another calling, so that the entire population could stand strong in case of barbarian raids. Here in Sylcadia, there was no such custom. There were quite a few men and women who had never picked up a sword or a lance. Daphne was one of them. She did not seem to have any occupation at all, in fact.

“I wish I could be distracted,” Ariella sighed. “These gardens have many sights that could distract the mind.”

One of these was the sight of two men fondling each other on a park bench. It was not considered proper for people of the same sex to display affection in public in many parts of the Northern Coast, but here such rules were nonexistent. Ariella felt slightly aroused and intrigued. She had never seen two men kissing before, and she decided it was foolish to outlaw such practices. Daphne waved to the couple, and they greeted her. She seemed to know everybody.

The two women walked through a lofty greenhouse filled with innumerable plants. Sheltered from the winter chill, many of them sported flowers and fruits. The butterfly plant attracted real butterflies that alighted on the blossoms, sending the slender stalk dancing and the pollen spilling as wings fluttered in a flurry of color. Ariella’s thoughts were too heavy to be lifted by butterfly wings.

“You are brooding on Prince Demetrius, no doubt,” Daphne said. “Perhaps you didn’t notice the way he looked at you during the banquet. He was brooding too. His pouting mien is quite an attractive sight, so I won’t be the one to complain.”

Ariella had never confessed her feelings for Demetrius to anyone here, and she did not like how easily Daphne had guessed them. Not wishing to be dishonest, however, she neither confirmed nor denied such feelings when Daphne ventured to talk about them.

“I wonder what reason he has to brood,” Ariella said vaguely.

“Oh come, dear lady, now you are simply teasing me,” Daphne giggled. “Everyone knows the reason. He is to be married off soon. Just when he has regained his freedom, he must lose it again. And obviously he is not marrying for love.”

“How does everyone know this?” Ariella asked, doing her best to appear disinterested.

“It’s inevitable,” Daphne shrugged. “News travels quickly in the royal palace.”

“And you are one of its bearers?” Ariella queried.

She had already guessed that Lady Daphne was quite the gossip monger.

They left the greenhouse, and both shivered in the humid air of the wintry garden. Here, most of the trees still had their leaves, thanks to Sylcadia’s mild climate, but few fruits or flowers could be seen.

“Indeed, I sometimes think of myself as a bearer of news,” Daphne agreed complacently, “but it does not harm anyone. Ariella, I want to help you. In fact, there is some information you should know, and you may not like it, but I feel that I must tell you about it.”

Ariella decided there was nothing for it but to take the bait. “What is it?” she asked.

“There is talk… people, not I, but other people, are talking about you. Nobody knows exactly, but some say…”

“What?” Ariella prompted impatiently, though she feared she already knew the answer.

“Some say you are the prince’s mistress.”

Ariella raised one eyebrow. “And what do you believe?”

“I don’t know anything about it,” Daphne protested innocently, “and you are silent on the subject, but I respect that.”

“You have a strange way of respecting it,” Ariella declared. She had not meant to sound quite so harsh, and she waited for Daphne to take offense. Just what she needed, another enemy.

“I’m sorry if my curiosity gets the better of me sometimes,” Daphne said as meekly as ever, “But I would like us to be friends. I truly say this only with your welfare in mind, to warn you of the envious courtiers that surround you.”

“And why do you seek to be friends with someone who is the object of so much rumor and speculation, someone who has no rightful place here?”

“Because I was like you once,” Daphne replied, toying with the ruffles of her dress. “I mean not exactly in your place but…”

They stepped onto a small bridge and leaned on the stone railing. Below, water lilies lay serenely open to the grey skies.

“What do you mean?” Ariella asked as she observed the gently flowing water.

“I have an illegitimate child,” Daphne confessed, “When it happened, I did not know whether I would ever have a place at court again. Everyone looked at me as though I was worthless, an embarrassment to the royal court. Luckily, all has turned out well. My son remains here with me. He is educated alongside the royal children and the scions of noble families.”

At this moment Ariella saw Demetrius walking purposefully towards them down the garden path. Her heart beat louder against her ribcage, and she was lost for words, with nothing to say about Daphne’s story, though she was not unmoved by it.

“I want us to be friends too,” she finally said, just as Demetrius stepped onto the bridge and greeted them.

“Well, I must be off,” Daphne murmured. “I wish you good day, Your Highness.”

Obviously she had formed her own opinion about Ariella’s relationship with the crown prince.

“Shall we walk?” Demetrius asked, offering her his arm.

Ariella threaded her hand through it, and they strolled down from the bridge, into the shade of piper trees whose long, reed-like leaves whispered and sang in the breeze.

When passing courtiers looked at them, Demetrius offered them good day, in a tone that implied for them to mind their own business.

“Your mother hates me, there’s a fine start,” Ariella blurted out.

“She doesn’t hate you. She simply wishes you didn’t exist… and I strongly disagree with her.”

Ariella did not feel in a joking mood, and she merely scoffed.

“Believe me, I know how hard this must be, contending with my mother,” Demetrius said, “she can be quite impossible. But no matter what happens, I will never side with her against you.”

“She will never agree to our union,” Ariella stated.

She settled down onto a stone bench decorated with the images of gods and animals.

Demetrius was silent, standing beside her and looking through the branches and leaves of the beautiful garden. For a while he stood still, and only his hair moved in the breeze.

“Then we must run away together,” he suddenly said. “No more kingdoms and palaces and royal duties.”

“You would leave your kingdom?” Ariella asked, “Leave your parents now that you are finally reunited after this long separation? And Edoline… I think you do love her in a way.”

“Edoline is my friend,” he admitted, “and we do love each other in a way. But she is more like my sister.”

“She went after me like a firebrand burning with jealousy. A fine sister indeed!”

“I may have given her too many signs of my affection when I was young. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the whole truth. I did love her in my boyish way. We have always been so close, and if I were to leave her behind, a part of me would die. But I’m willing to never see her again in order to be with you.”

“I do understand,” Ariella said, although jealousy pierced her heart to hear him speak of his feelings for Edoline. “But what about your kingdom?”

“I have given enough for this kingdom,” Demetrius said bleakly, sinking down on the bench beside her. “So many years as a slave, a hostage ensuring peace between our kingdoms. I have sacrificed enough.”

“Is there no middle ground, then?” Ariella asked, “No way that you can be with me and yet fulfill your duty?”

“I have been going over it in my mind, but there is nothing I can think of, short of asking Edoline herself to disband the engagement. But her parents are dead, so it is only up to her. I fear what she might do, however. She’s vain, unpredictable, and volatile. She hasn’t changed much since our childhood. There is one other thing… my mother thinks that you cannot stay at court. She has suggested that I allot some land for you and a castle, your own domain. You could stay there until everything is sorted out.”

“I hate to say it, but perhaps I agree with your mother,” Ariella pronounced at length, “I feel like I am constantly watched here, always on my guard. I await some sort of attack, but it never comes. And when it does come, I fear it will be too devastating, for I am not standing on solid ground and can’t defend myself.”

Demetrius clasped her hand. “Ariella, you’re describing a nightmare. This is not what I wanted at all when I brought you here. I’m sorry I have let this drag on, but I wanted you to recover your strength first. We need a better plan. In a week, Castle Reimfred will be ready for your arrival. It is part of my lands, but I have never stayed there, and the castle has fallen into disrepair. I have already ordered my people to make it ready for you. You will be a baroness with your own stronghold once again, and you’ll be safe there. Meanwhile, I will make one final effort to break this engagement. If it doesn’t work, I will come for you and we’ll go wherever we wish.”

As much as Ariella was disturbed by the courtly life, the thought of being separated from Demetrius, even for a short time, repelled her even more. However, it seemed like a wise course of action.

“It is a good idea,” she said

“Good, then Castle Reimfred is yours. It will give you some ground to stand on.”

“Thank you, my prince,” Ariella said.

“Ariella, please don’t address me in that way,” he remonstrated. “Call me anything you like, call me a scoundrel and a filthy son of a bitch but, do not talk to me as a subject to a prince.”

“But if I am to rule one of your domains, then I would be one of your subjects,” she reasoned. The last thing she wanted was to be merely his subject, but she could see a future where the wait to resolve the situation dragged on interminably until that was all she was. “Maybe that would not be so bad after all. Here, I’m just the butt of all gossip.”

“If I should ever find out who is spreading this gossip,” Demetrius growled, “I will give them something to remember.”

“It matters not,” she said, though his anger on her behalf sparked a sudden desire. His blue eyes flashing like lightning, he was like a fierce god, “Courtiers who are bored need something to talk about.”

They reached a more secluded part of the garden. Wandering among the trees, they left the path, and now they could safely talk without being observed. Demetrius stopped walking and turned to face her.

She could not resist it any longer. The desire to hold him in her arms was too strong, and she yielded to it, her heart pounding with fear and excitement. Demetrius returned the embrace with tremulous feeling. The pressure of his arms felt wonderful after these many days apart.

“I love you,” she whispered, shutting out all the other things she wanted to say, the doubts and the reproaches.

In response, his lips consuming hers left no doubt as to his feeling. She forgot about the possibility of being watched. The kiss, the only one they shared in weeks, burned away any doubts or hesitation. She held him tighter as her lips and tongue responded in kind, but he pulled away, looking pained.

“We could be seen here.”

“I know,” she said, not begrudging him the sudden ending of the kiss. It could have only led to more, and the garden was definitely no place for it.

“Soon...” he said, “we shall resume, when you’ll be mine by right.”

The next day passed in the usual routine. Ariella trained once again in the courtyard, and Jaquelle attacked her with even more vigor than before.

“Your strength is returning,” Jaquelle remarked as they sat down on the steps for a small rest.

“At least everything hurts less,” Ariella shrugged.

It was true; her muscles no longer protested at being used to their full capacity. Yet her former strength was yet to be regained, and she could not feel the Zaliati powers like she had before. If she was supposed to be a warrior of legend, that day seemed very far in the future.

“You have spoken with Prince Demetrius, haven’t you?” Jaquelle asked.

“How do you know this?”

“Don’t look so stunned,” Jaquelle said with a grin, “I would never spy on you. I just had the feeling that you were invigorated by something more than merely recovery from a wound.”

Ariella breathed out slowly. “So, you did not see us meet in the garden?”

“No,” Jaquelle said in a more serious tone, “but I’m sure that sooner or later someone will.”

Ariella did not like where this was going. “What are you saying, Jaquelle?”

“I remember when you told me how he had first got himself captured. Getting carried away in the heat of battle... it seems foresight is not his strong suit. That is what has placed you in this awkward situation.”

“That much is true,” Ariella agreed, “Demetrius does not excel at making plans. Maybe he was naive to think that this could be easily arranged, but—”

“There is no but. This needs to stop. We need to leave this place.”

“I know that,” Ariella cried, “by all the gods, don’t you think I know that?”

She had gone over her plans hundreds of times in her mind, wondering whether she should let Jaquelle in on the secret she shared with Demetrius. But something told her not to confide in the older woman. Somehow, she could not see Jaquelle approving such an impetuous plan as running off with the prince of the realm. Besides, there was the small sliver of a chance that they wouldn’t have to elope.

Jaquelle stared at her disapprovingly, a familiar sight. She did not often scold her young charge but waited for her to calm down in her own time.

“I’m sorry, Jaquelle,” Ariella finally said, “It is just so frustrating, being here. And the way I feel about him… well, I suppose you’ve guessed by now.”

“All I care about is protecting you,” Jaquelle replied, “I understand that you and Demetrius are drawn to each other, and that is why your situation is so dangerous. Your feelings are too strong, and when you cannot control them, that’s when you lose, in battles, and in life.”

“I don’t believe that,” Ariella said.

“To win a sword fight, you must be fully in command of your senses. Your intellect must be as keen as your blade. Even now, you are angry with me for sticking my nose into your business,” Jaquelle continued.

“You’re not far off the mark,” Ariella replied. “But we love each other—”

“Love is not enough,” Jaquelle said.

Something in her tone made Ariella believe that Jaquelle had once experienced love after all.

“I’ll risk your displeasure to tell you the truth,” Jaquelle continued, “You are now attached to this man, but there was once a time when you believed one man was about as good as another. You were free to act as you pleased. I didn’t exactly approve of your wasting your time in the company of men who cared nothing about you, but now… I think you’re even more unhappy than you were then. Now, I see you confined here, almost like a prisoner.”

Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-33 show above.)