"Will she like me, Lo?" Prince Vistaren had no illusions about himself. Despite his good Crelin genes and olive skin, he would only be called handsome by a particularly charitable observer. His face was too round, his frame too short. He was, to put a fine point on it, pudgy. Everything, in Vistaren's opinion, that a crown prince should not be.
"Of course she will. You're intelligent and affable, and you understand both the pressure and the privilege of duty." Lozarr Algot was a kind man. Not at all what a general ought to be like, Vistaren thought. Thank the gods for that.
"I've wanted to meet her since I was ten," Vistaren admitted. "I was studying the conflict between Tamnen and Strid, and read about the battle between the Dawn Star and the Kerava. Did you know her back then?"
Lo scraped a hand down his stubbled jaw, trying unsuccessfully to hide a smile. "I did. She was barely older than you are now, and more full of herself than a he-cock on a--" He broke off. "That is to say, she was...well. Arrogant."
There was a warmth in Lo's eyes that made Vistaren's heart jump. That, something whispered. That was what love looked like. Not a few stilted words exchanged on a page. Not a promise made for economic and political compromise. Not even lust. Vistaren might be young, but he understood lust. What he saw in Lo's eyes when he talked about Arama was the real thing.
"Deservedly so," Vistaren commented. "She was, what, twenty? And she took down the flagship of the Tamnen navy."
"She was twenty-two." Lozarr shook his head. "And I was twenty." He was smiling, but to Vistaren it looked sad. "We were so young."
"I ought to be offended at that."
Lo chuckled. "You're older at twenty than I was at twenty-five, lad. The shadow of the crown has aged you." He stood. "And taught you better manners than I've ever had. We ought to have been at breakfast five minutes ago, and Captain Arama runs a tight ship, my prince."
Vistaren jumped to his feet. "There goes my chance to make a good impression on her," he lamented. "How do I look?"
"Tidy." Vistaren twitched. He saw Lo fight a grin. After a moment, Lo added, "Elegant, but not arrogant, highness."
Vistaren gave a sharp nod and left the cabin. A man had to have standards, and for the past three years, he had decided elegant was his. Amethir wasn't the sort of nation that needed a sophisticated or flamboyant king. She was peopled with fisherfolk, shipbuilders, and stormwitches. They sang songs and wrote plays, but they did not embrace high fashion as did the Strid, nor did they engage in convoluted political maneuverings as did the Tamnen. No, Vistaren was of Amethir, and he would be what she needed.
Even if that meant denying himself.
Captain Dzornaea was everything Vistaren had hoped for--and nothing he had imagined. She was short and skinny, with skin the color of coffee with cream. Her eyes were blue, which spoke of Crelin blood, as did her blue-black hair. But her nose had the thin bridge and slope of a Sterr. She wore dark blue velvet breeches and a crisp, white blouse, with a fitted leather weskit over the blouse. A crimson sash held her sabre and pistol. Her dark brown jacket draped haphazardly over the back of her chair. Vistaren would have thought her formally dressed, except that her breeches ended several inches above her ankles, and her feet were bare.
"Prince Vistaren." Her voice was crisp but friendly as she bowed. "I hope you dreamt well."
Vistaren smiled. "I did indeed, Captain Dzornaea. And you?"
He didn't think he was imagining the flicker of a shadow in her gaze. "Well enough, highness." She gestured at the table.
Vistaren sat, which allowed the others to sit as well. He took a roll and a piece of meat, glancing at the captain. There were shadows under her eyes. Her hair, which was wavy and cropped jaw-length, looked tousled. For a brief instant, Vistaren allowed himself to imagine that she'd spent a passion-filled night with Lozarr. Then he remembered the lines of sorrow at either side of Lo's mouth and realized that couldn't have happened.
"Tell me about our journey," Vistaren said.
Arama smiled. "It's ill luck to say a voyage should be easy, highness." She sipped from a thick-walled mug. "I have made the run from Maron to Ranarr more times than I can count. If I skim in close to the Blades and have following seas, I can do it under three days. This trip, we'll swing well wide of the Blades and make the voyage in a week."
Vistaren nodded. "The Dawn Star is a fine vessel. I've read of your exploits, of course."
"I hope your highness does not expect battles at sea," Arama said. Her mouth was quirked up. Vistaren thought she was teasing him.
He made a show of mulling it over. "Not unless you feel it absolutely necessary, Captain," he said finally. "I understand it is a serious request to make of you."
She laughed. "Your father would have me keel-hauled if I involved you in a sea battle, Prince Vistaren." Her amusement warmed him. She thought he was funny. Then her expression sobered. "And I suspect your bride-to-be would object, as well."
It was like she'd doused him in cold water. "Indeed." He helped himself to several slices of bacon. He didn't want to think about Princess Azmei. "I have complete confidence in you, Captain Dzornaea, to see us safely to Ranarr."
She inclined her torso, which impressed Vistaren. He'd never realized one could bow effectively while seated. He dismissed the topic with a flick of his hand. "Tell me, Captain, how are the seas this morning? I have little sailing experience, so while I find the rocking of the ship exhilarating, I have no idea if we are in heavy seas or...well, whatever isn't heavy seas."
Arama laughed. "The sea is in a fine mood today, your highness. Having little sailing experience is no flaw, but we shall fill that lack before we reach Ranarr."
She launched into a lecture about the many moods of the sea. Vistaren felt his shoulders relaxing as Arama spoke, and soon he had all but forgotten he was sailing to meet his bride.