Chapter 8. Courtship
The morning light didn't wake Alanis, it was the sound of her barred door that shook her from her pleasant dreams. Her sleep-filled eyes opened and took in the many beams of light that streaked across her room. She closed her eyes and the door rattled again, this time with a knock.
"Harold," she said with a stiff groan. "If that's you, I wish you would leave. I'll see you later this afternoon." She rolled over and groaned again. Every muscle in her body ached, but in the familiar way she had learned to tolerate. That pain of her training would pass once she took her morning bath.
The only thing that had her tense this morning was Harold, the other night they had gotten into a little tiff when she failed to return in time for her meeting with the temple master, Tyrell. Harold was only annoyed that he had to go in her stead. He complained that the experience was painstakingly boring. Luckily, he managed to reschedule her meeting for today. Alanis saw it as some sort of payback, and it probably was. She deserved it, if it was as horrible as he claimed.
The door knocked again, this time a pleasant voice chimed with it, "Milady, I've come with a delivery."
She sat up, now that had earned her attention.
Can it be another letter from Berthold?
Alanis threw on her slippers and hobbled to the door, ignoring the nagging pain that ached in her calves as she walked.
The palace handmaiden at her door greeted her with a gorgeous bouquet. She stepped back and took a deep breath, taking with it the sweet fragrance of budding roses. There were a dozen of them, all white and bound in an exquisite silken ribbon. Who would send me something so beautiful, she wondered while she admired her gift.
"These were sent to me?" Alanis asked, her eyes lifted from the flowers to the young woman who held them.
Her honey-brown eyes lit up with her reply, "Yes, milady, they were most certainly sent to you."
"By who," Alanis hesitated, struck dumb by the display. "Who sent these?" she asked, while brushing a finger against the soft petals of a close rose. It was so smooth and delicate that she could picture the soft blossom melting under her warm touch.
The young woman smiled, blush spread across her pale cheek and she lowered her eyes as she replied, "They were from Lord Fulton, milady."
"Lord Fulton," Alanis repeated and the handmaiden nodded gingerly. "I wasn't expecting—" She stopped, her hand lowered from the blossom and she stepped away. Of course he'd do something like this, she knew he was interested in her, he made it clear the night he tried to console her by taking her hand.
"Do you not like them?" the lady asked, her voice was low and disappointed as she studied Alanis' gape.
"No," Alanis replied flatly. "I do not," she lied.
She found Fulton's gift beautiful, and would have gladly accepted it under different circumstances, but his gift was more than a friendly gesture, it was an invitation for something more, so there was no way she'd accept it.
The handmaiden looked her over, she looked both shocked and disgusted with her answer, but that didn't bother Alanis.
"Well what do you like?" The young woman scoffed, her eyes narrowed to match her tightening lips. "Lord Fulton made it clear he wanted you to be pleased with his gift."
Fulton wasn't going to stop, not until she accepted whatever he offered. It was obvious that he never planned on heeding her request to lighten up, he would continue to force his gallant gestures upon her until she either snapped or yielded to them. It was clear what she needed to do.
She needed to send him a message.
"Fulton mocks me by sending such a meager display," Alanis answered while crossing her arms at her chest. "If he truly wishes to please me he'll gift me something bigger—and more expensive." She turned her back to the handmaiden, and bit into her lower lip to stifle her forming grin.
It took all of her will to keep a straight face during her speech. She had never uttered something so horrible and bratty in her whole life, well nothing that shallow. If the captain truly knew her, he would know that this request was a joke, and would come and talk to her about what he was up to.
The maiden sighed and gathered the bouquet to her breast. Her hand clutched it as firmly as a warrior would hold his weapon. Alanis knew that look, resentment, it struck as coldly as the draft that flooded her room from the hallway. If she hadn't already stepped away, she would have now to keep a safe distance, in case the lady's threatening look turned to something more.
"I'll let his lordship know how displeased you were. On his behalf, I apologize." She bowed her head with her apology and turned to make her exit.
Thank Gods that's over.
Alanis closed the door with that thought and glanced at the dying fireplace in the corner of her room. Faris was right about the captain's popularity. These crazy, awestruck women could be her undoing if she didn't watch out.
After a much needed bath Alanis dressed and headed to the palace kitchen to grab a bite to eat. While eating, Harold joined and reminded her of her upcoming meeting several times throughout their talk.
He also told her about his current endeavors. The man wasted little time making himself useful in Ati Harei, acting as a special advisor on the king's small council. While helping, he managed to straighten out several issues that plagued his advisors regarding city budgeting. She was glad for him, and happy he was busy with affairs of his own—plus it would give her freedom to pursue her mission without his watchful eye.
Before she could leave, Harold informed her that Tyrell had an interest in Strare Harei, that the old man expressed how thrilled he would be if he could look upon it just once, so Alanis decided to pick it up before she headed out.
While she journeyed down the hall she heard the taps of footsteps behind her, they rapped at the marble flooring in a pace quicker than hers. She turned to meet the stare of the handmaiden from earlier. She was following at her heels carrying an extravagant display, it was more beautiful than the last, meeting all of the mock requirements she had asked for.
The white roses from earlier had been paired with a type of lily she had never seen before, the tips of their petals were splashed with a yellow hue that shimmered like molten gold. Filling the gaps between the neighboring blossoms were several stalks of dried baby's breath, they were bound with a white ribbon stitched in gold thread.
Alanis brought her hand to her face and mouthed an obscene word to herself. Plans backfire, especially stupid ones, she knew that all too well, but never fathomed this would happen. Again Fulton had surprised her with his arrogance. Perhaps that's why she was apprehensive about forming a relationship with him.
"His lordship would like to apologize for the earlier delivery. He said you were right, and hopes this will rectify his mistake."
"Right about what?" Faris asked. Alanis jerked at his question, his arrival was sudden and ill-timed. Why wasn't he off riding his horse, he'd normally be long gone by lunchtime. He smirked as he took in the ridiculous bouquet. She knew by the look he was giving her, that he knew exactly what going on.
"Right about the pitiful display he sent Lady Alanis, your highness," she answered honestly, too honestly. If ever there was a perfect time for disaster to strike, Alanis prayed that it would be now. "Isn't it beautiful? Lord Fulton had the arranger add star lilies to the bouquet," she stopped and added with a polite smile that was directed at Alanis. "They're quite rare and expensive."
Faris cackled, which drove Alanis over the edge, she wanted to pinch his lips with a pair of hot iron tongs. Instead she rolled her eyes, and regarded the woman.
"Ask Wesley why he wishes to pursue me. I've told him several times that I'm not interested in being catered to. Is he so arrogant that he doesn't realize when I'm making a fool out of him?”
The young woman bit her lower lip and swung her long braid from her shoulder in disgust, she was angry, and another foul word about the captain would break her resolve.
"Go on, say what you want around me. I'm not of noble blood so you won't—" Alanis stopped. She was pulled back by the prince in mid-sentence by her shawl so the rest of her thought was lost to a swell of humiliation and anger.
"Just inform Fulton that his advances are unwelcome. Lady Alanis is from a settlement and not familiar with his form of courtship."
Alanis glared up at him, she was fully aware of the captain's intentions, she just didn't share them. She kept her mouth shut, it appeared Faris' statement had eased the tight scowl on the woman's face and so she left without saying another word.
"I can't believe you're rejecting the golden boy," Faris scoffed, his head swung to the side. "He won't take your rejection lightly, and neither should you."
She crossed her arms tightly against her chest. The prince had an anxious look in his eyes, the same look of disappointment he wore when he realized his sister hadn't written him, his somber change of attitude had her thinking he was serious.
"I doubt the world will suffer if Fulton doesn't get his way this once."
"Did you leave someone behind in Berthold, or are you only into females?"
She rolled her eyes and hoisted her satchel to her shoulder before continuing her walk, alone. The prince followed behind silently, but she knew it was only a matter of time before he would speak again.
"What's in the bag?" he asked, meeting her pace. His hand lifted to the leather bag, but caught her uncovered shoulder instead as she turned to answer him.
Alanis shuddered, but not in disgust or shock, although there was a great deal of surprise. His touch was warm and gentle, not at all how she imagined his rough hands to feel on her fair skin. That shudder was followed by the rushing tingle of gooseflesh forming under his grasp, his thumb glided over the taught patch of skin as he removed his hand.
She lowered her eyes and tugged her shawl in place, all the while her heart tripped with stuttering thoughts.
"So," he said. "You gonna tell me, or is it secret?"
Secret... what was he asking?
Alanis' eyes bore into the tapestry that clung to the wall beside her. The pack, he had asked about the pack, she remembered suddenly.
"Strare Harei," she replied coolly without giving him a glance then remembered he wasn't versed in the Old God Language. "It's a book of white magic crafted for those blessed by Letando."
"Oh, boring stuff," he said and leaned against the wall in a boyish pose that begged for her attention, she gave it with a smirk.
"Yes," she grumbled. "Boring stuff..."
"So... you're not at all interested in Fulton?"
She lowered her head.
Again with Fulton?
What was his deal and why did he keep bringing this up? He should be happy she was making a fool out of him. He detested the man, didn't he?
"If you're so infatuated with the captain, why don't you court him?"
"The captain is hardly my type, but I know he's yours."
"Again, you have no clue what my type is."
"The captain is every woman's type."
"Gods, would you push me to bed Fulton if he asked? Now I'm wondering what you have to gain by this because you're acting so damned weird, weirder than normal, even." She peered up at him and caught his emerald eyes expecting to see them smiling, reveling, and proud that he had successfully gotten under her skin again, but he wore that soft look once more, melting both her anger and demanding stare.
"It's no secret that the captain and I detest each other. I just think it would be wise of you to rethink his offer before you totally dismiss him. Despite all of the negative words I've said about him the man really is a stand-up guy. You'd be happy—" he paused. "With a man like him."
"Are you serious?" she sputtered. Did she hear him right, or had she slipped into a parallel universe where everything was opposite. She couldn't believe Faris uttered the words stand-up guy to describe Fulton.
"What gives you the right to decide what's right for me? The captain may hold an illustrious title, but I don't know him from the next man. Just the other day you said a relationship with Fulton would spoil our relationship. Are you having second thoughts about training with me, is that what this is really about?"
"No, of course not." He chuckled. "I don't plan on stopping unless that's what you want. I was giving you a hard time when I mentioned Fulton's crush on you. It was meant only to be a joke." His eyes lightened and he nudged her. "Geez, you take everything so seriously. If you keep at me with that fiery attitude of yours I'm going to suspect you have some sort of feelings for me."
"Listen here," Alanis blurted. "You're mad. I'd have to be crazy to—I can't even say the words without gagging on them, that's how ridiculous your notion is. It will never happen, never in a million years, your highness," she added on a longwinded breath that left her dizzy and seething.
The prince chuckled and held on to his sly smile as he pushed away from the wall.
"Whatever you say, Oraur Lahre. But never say never. Your gods of fate have a funny way of twisting hearts. Never speak your plans, they'll fall apart, for they so love to fuck things up."
What did he know about fate or destiny, while he was constantly avoiding his. King Stronghold would have to pass the throne to someone else because he'd never accept it.
"Pardon my language, but fuck fate. Who are you to talk of fate, when you know nothing about it? I'll never have interest in you, not while you buy women with gold," she roared, stealing his smile and soft stare.
She was infuriated with his cavalier attitude, how every heated discussion of theirs had to end with a stupid joke and a smile. He told her to express her anger instead of holding on to it, so it was only fair to call him out on his shit because that was how she truly felt.
It was only after he abruptly walked away without saying so much as a word to her that she felt bad, and saw how wrong she was on calling him out on the women he entertained. But it was too late to voice her argument in the gentle manner a lady should conduct. Although what she said was half his fault, he did badger her, it didn't make it right to say aloud.
And then there was Fulton, she sighed and kicked her heel against the ground angrily. She had forgotten her manners when she regarded him so lowly earlier. He wasn't going to be pleased with her after the handmaiden got through with him.
Dammit, she grumbled wondering what she was going to tell him. This was supposed to be a boring and uneventful day, now it was ruined and she would have to apologize to two grown men.
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*Should Alanis accept Fulton's advances?
*How should she apologize to Faris and Fulton for her juvenile behavior?