Chapter 2- You can deny it all you want
"Promises are just words unless they are fulfilled."
Sir Hawthorne went on with the introductions as if the appearance of those three were nothing. They refused to look away from me and I could do nothing but stare back. My gaze went from one to the other and back again. The Great Mother couldn't possibly be serious with this.
Viktorya cleared her throat behind me. I forced myself to look away. I'd have my chance to speak with them eventually. Sir Hawthorne finished his introductions and looked to the Terran Trinity to continue.
They stepped forward in rust-colored robes that matched their hair, moving with a synchronicity that put Rowan and his sister to shame. Rowan and his sisters were good at moving as one but these sisters had it down to a science.
In a unified voice they began. "You have been chosen by the Great Mother herself to possibly become the next King of Iron Forge. It is a privilege that you are here, treat it as such."
Their piercing brown eyes held each of their gazes. "The first round will be split into groups of five where you all will have a chance to meet with the Queen. After, it is up to her whether you stay or go. This first round is all we can guarantee, so make the most of it."
The group made up all sorts of men. Some seemed to be my age while others seemed nearing thirty. Some were average looking while others were incredibly handsome. A few had inherently kind eyes while others were completely closed off. I couldn't grasp anything from them. Then there were the one whose eyes held sheer ambition. There was no mistake what they were here for.
Viktorya cleared her throat again. It seemed it was my turn to talk. I stood from my throne and took the step down to their level. The Terran Trinity retreated allowing me free reign.
The men stood tall as they watched me walked ahead of them. I would not let them take away my confidence with their lusting and ambitious gazes. I held my head high and walked as confidently as I could manage.
"You are here because I have allowed it. I have the final say in whether you stay or go so simply put, impress me."
I turned to face Georgiana and Viktorya and gave them a brief nod before retreating to the small parlor room set aside for these meetings.
All bravado evaporated as soon as I was alone. Well, essentially alone. Diamond and Opal had followed me in but retreated into the furthest corners of the room. They were my security and chaperones for these meetings. I deflated like a balloon and fell into the nearest armchair.
What had I allowed? All for the sake of diplomacy. Stupid council for asking this of me.
A soft knock announced the first group of men. Georgiana opened the door and peeked in before allowing anyone to pass. Bless her for thinking of my privacy. I quickly stood and straightened my gown. I went to stand by the window before giving her the go-ahead to let them in.
She smiled at my antics before standing aside to let the men enter. A few palace staff followed the group of five men to take charge of the small spread of finger food and drinks placed in the room.
Thomas was part of the first group. His warm brown eyes were the first that I found. If it were any other instance I would have flung myself into his arms, but this wasn't like any other time. His smile fell an inch.
"Alright everyone, just make yourself comfortable while I find a moment to meet with everyone."
Thomas didn't waste a second. As soon as I was done speaking he made his way towards me. None of the others had thought to do that.
I was in Thomas's arms being swung around the room like a child. I couldn't hold in my laughter. He set me down gently. A few jealous stares were aimed at his back but he didn't care. His eyes were on only me.
"Pen," he said smiling.
"Thomas, what are you doing here?" I asked seriously, smacking his arm.
"Well, I'm here to win your heart, of course," he said all too seriously.
He closed my mouth with his index finger, leaned in and whispered. "I'm kidding, Pen. I was rejected once. I'm not looking forward to having my heart broken again."
His words left a hole in my heart. Had I truly broken his?
He pulled back. "Now don't go giving me that look. Think of me as your moral support throughout all of this craziness. If you choose not to cut me in the first round I'll be your wingman. It'll be a nice excuse for us to hang out. I haven't seen you in six months, Pen. What do you say?"
What was I supposed to say? I missed my best friend but would it be unnecessarily cruel to keep him here?
"Don't think too hard about it. Just say yes, okay?" he asked as he held onto my shoulders.
"Okay," I agreed.
"See, that wasn't so difficult, was it?"
I laughed. "I'm glad you're here, Thomas. I've missed you."
"Same here, Pen. Same here. I'll stop monopolizing your time before the others start to riot," he said directing me to some of the others.
I sighed. He was right. I had to make my rounds with them and so I did. Only one stood out among the remaining four and his name was Cane. His pale complexion, forest green eyes, and heavy set brows made him appear mysterious, brooding, and seductively handsome. I was curious about him so I allowed him to stay.
The next group was extremely boring and they were the first to go collectively. It was a quick cut and an easy decision but difficult to deliver. Some left easily but others had to be forcibly removed by Diamond or Opal.
Rowan was part of the third group. He casually remained back, allowing me to meet the others before coming to find me. When he did, he held out his hand for me to shake. "Hunter Graham," he said, introducing himself.
I raised a brow. "Hunter?"
"Changing your name doesn't mean anything, Rowan. You're still the same man who lied."
His eyes darkened and he swallowed roughly.
I sighed. "What are you doing here, Rowan?"
"I was chosen and I'm here to show you that you can trust me," he said as he moved closer. " I still love you, Penelope. I wasn't about to let this chance pass by. I intend to make up what I did to you," he promised.
Georgiana called for the group to move on and Rowan reluctantly left. I sent two men from group three home.
The first half of the day had dragged on and we still had one more group to go. Tobias would be in this group. After, I'd be free to relax for a bit before having to meet with everyone again.
The last group entered and Tobias stood out among the others. My dreams played on repeat in the back of my mind. Being in the same room with him was dangerous. This group was different. They all huddled around me trying to gain my attention with witty conversation and humor, but Tobias had stayed away as Rowan had. He chose to let everyone else speak to me before finding his moment alone with me.
This group was nice. They were a decent group of men and I was tired of sending men home for the day, so I let them all stay. Nolan, Dean, John, and Ryan were ecstatic when I told them all I'd see them at dinner.
Tobias still had yet to speak to me and he'd chosen to wait for them all to leave before approaching me.
"Penelope," he grinned.
I asked him what I asked everyone. "Why are you here, Tobias?"
"You know why."
"No, I don't."
He moved closer. I glanced around the room. The palace staff was gone. All that remained were Diamond, Opal, and Georgiana and they were looking everywhere but at us.
"We have something together that you have with no one else. You can deny it all you want, Penelope; but it's there and one way or another I'm going to get you to acknowledge it."
I took the last step forward closing the gap of space that kept us apart and stared into his eyes. To say his eyes were blue was like saying the ocean was merely blue, adequate but not accurate enough to capture the raging intensity beneath the surface or the array of green in them.
My lips were a breath away from brushing against his as I whispered, "And so what if there is? It doesn't mean we belong together."
With that, I turned and walked out of the room. Georgiana followed behind me.
"That was...Well, I don't know what that was. What was it?" Georgiana asked.
His presence had rattled me the most. I blamed it on the dreams. Those stupid erotic dreams. As if reading my thoughts Georgiana smirked.
"Oh shut up," I grumbled.
She laughed. "I didn't say anything."
"Yeah, well you didn't have to," I said annoyed.
She cackled evilly as we went to find Viktorya. I had one more meeting before I could disappear for a couple of hours.
We entered the meeting room. Killian, Trixie, and Viktorya sat around the oval table awaiting our arrival. Killian jumped up at the sight of his wife. He quickly offered her his seat, which she gratefully took. Being eight months pregnant had taken a toll on her tiny body.
"What was so important that we had to meet today?" I asked sitting down next to Georgiana.
Viktorya let Trixie begin the conversation. Trixie had been my combat trainer in the game of crowns and now she was the lead trainer for the Queen's Army and head of Iron Forge's group of clandestine services.
It was a surprise to me that we had spies but it didn't surprise me that Trixie was in charge of it. She was as hardcore as they came. Her forehead crinkled as she prepared to discuss the reason behind this impromptu meeting.
"I've heard news about your parents," she stated simply, getting to the point.
The blood drained from my face. My palms began to sweat. The moment had finally come. The moment I'd hear of their death. They had been missing for nearly seven months without a trace of their whereabouts. A simple trip to the Terran trade markets was all it was supposed to be. I should have been with them, but instead, I stayed home and sulked like a child. My parents and I had not left things on good terms.
My father blamed me for being marked as a harlot by Thelonious. The previous king's best friend and hand, his murderer. Only we hadn't known it at the time until it was too late. He then went on to kill my partner and friend in the games, George.
I tightened my grip on the bottom of the upholstered chair I sat in and dug my fingernails in.
"What news?" I asked, trying to portray a calm demeanor when I was anything but.
"Our spies indicate they are being held in the Terran territory," Trixie announced. She flipped her braided hair behind her, allowing it to swing from side to side.
"Then they're alive?" I whispered.
"Yes, my queen. We yet have to discover why they are being held and by who. We can never seem to find their location until after they have been moved. They have been moved twice as of yesterday."
"Then why am I only hearing of this now?" I asked angrily.
I could do anger. I would not let my fear and emotions have run of my body.
"I didn't want to come to you with mere rumors. I waited until we knew it was them." Trixie answered.
"And how do you know it was them this time?"
"Because they left a note. We will have more information soon, my queen."
I inhaled and exhaled purposely trying to calm myself. Trixie was only trying to help. "Thank you, Trixie, but next time I'd like to hear it all. No matter if it is unconfirmed or trivial."
She nodded and stood. A quick fist of respect to her chest and she was gone. I turned to face Viktorya, Killian, and Georgiana who had been quiet thus far.
Viktorya cleared her throat before she stood. "I will be overseeing the budget meeting for the new welfare program now and will bring you the details when it's over."
"Thank you, Viktorya, but tomorrow will be fine."
She moved to leave but before slipping out of the room she said, "I'm sorry about your parents, your highness," and left without another word.
I turned to face a surprised Georgiana.
"She never ceases to surprise me. She has been a great asset to Iron Forge," Georgiana mused.
"No one is as surprised as I am," I laughed. "So, Killian, how goes your time with Trixie? Is it easy being her second?" I asked trying to act as normal as possible.
I could fall apart later when I was alone, not here.
Killian's heavy set eyebrows furrowed. "The woman is intense."
If any word described Trixie, intense would be it.
He continued, "She knows what she's doing and I'm honored to work with her. Thank you again for keeping us here, Penelope. After my parents disowned me, I feared for the type of life baby Jasmine would be brought up in."
"It's nothing, Killian. I wouldn't have it any other way. I, however, do have a question."
He raised a brow.
"Did you know Tobias would be here?"
He fiddled with the sleeves of his shirt. "Maybe."
"Killian," Georgiana gasped. She smacked his arm forcefully.
"Georgie, I'm sorry, but he made me promise not to tell anyone, even you. He was afraid you'd tell Penelope."
"Of course, I'd tell her," she confirmed. "And you wanted to ask a favor," she scolded.
"Go on. Might as well ask her," she answered annoyed.
I looked at Killian.
His shoulders fell an inch. "I was hoping my sister could come to visit for some time. She has been the only one who hasn't cut off all ties with us."
Georgiana's annoyance fell away as she took hold of his hand in hers, comforting him.
"Of course she can come, Killian. Did you honestly think I would say no?"
"No, but after your question about Tobias, I wasn't sure."
I ignored his statement. "Have I met her?" I asked.
"No, you haven't, but she has been at the palace. She came during family day during the game."
A vague recollection of a woman with gorgeous black hair and astonishingly high cheekbones came to mind.
"I'm glad not everyone in your family is an idiot," I smiled.
Killian laughed. "Thank you, Penelope."
"It's nothing. Now, do me a favor and take your lovely wife home. She's been working too hard today. Get her to put her feet up."
Georgiana narrowed her eyes. Killian shushed her complaints with kisses and led her out of the room.
I let myself relax into the chair for a second before Viktorya came in to tell me I was needed in a meeting. I sighed and went to do my job.
The rest of the day passed in a similar manner. I wasn't able to meet with the participants again for the remainder of the day, thankfully. My only regret was Kealie.
I rushed to her room, praying to the Great Mother she was still awake. I peeked in and found her snuggled into her bed. My shoulders fell. I was doing a terrible job being a surrogate parent to her. George would be disappointed.
I tightened the covers around her and brushed away the stray hair from her face. Her dark brown hair was exactly the same shade as George's. As were her eyes. She was such a beautiful child and it hurt that she had lost both parents at such a young age. Instead, she was stuck with me and I was doing a lousy job.
I laid a small kiss on her forehead before heading to my suite. I made a promise to her father and I intended to keep it. I would begin fixing it tomorrow.