A couple of hours later, Melenthia was sitting at her vanity, brushing her hair after taking a bath. A knock on the door made her stop, wondering if she should actually answer. She was afraid that maybe Fallon had come upstairs to seek her out, but then chided herself for being ridiculous. Kevaan would never let that happen.
“Who is it?”
“It’s Kevaan, Mel, let me in.”
She stood up, went to the door and unlatched it. He came in as she was sitting on the bed. He sat down next to her and tapped her playfully on the nose.
“Are you alright?”
“I’m fine, Kevaan.”
“Did he hurt you?”
“My sensibilities maybe, but not physically, no.”
“Don’t lie to me, Melenthia.”
She sighed. “He did a bit, but I have experienced harder in the practice arena.”
“What did he say to you?”
“Things a sister should not repeat to her brother as it would embarrass him.”
“He should not have done or said anything that would insult your honor.”
“A nice gesture from a brother to his sister, nothing more. Men always think they have the right to take what they want whether it’s inappropriate or not. There’s no impropriety where men are concerned.”
“That’s not true of all men.”
“You are not all men, Kevaan. You have the last of the romantic, gentle hearts.”
“I should tell father.”
She snickered. “Tell him what, that his favored man came on to his daughter. He will not listen. I tried to tell him before, and he didn’t listen then either.”
“He needs to know that Fallon is a scoundrel, and he should not allow him near his only daughter.”
“Father sees only what he chooses to see. Fallon is a shrewd businessman who meticulously handles his estates. That’s the only thing that matters.”
“I’m sorry, Mel. I didn’t want you to have to deal with that on your birthday.”
“It’s just another day to remind me that I’m not married or betrothed or even have my sights set on some young nobleman. It’s just another day to remind me of my oddity.”
He looked at her with love. “I celebrate you. You are beautiful, smart and compassionate, and somewhere in that rough exterior is a woman with a heart of gold and a love for life. I see it in your eyes every time I look into them. You are special, Melenthia, that I know.”
She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.
“I love you, Kevaan. You will always be the only man I ever love.”
“You will find another. In time.”
“Yes, but will it be too late by then? When will father decide that he will not wait anymore?”
He knew his father was already thinking about it, but he had promised to tell Kevaan first. He didn’t want Melenthia to worry, so he fibbed. “He would not make a decision of that importance without my council. Don’t worry.” He kissed her cheek again and stood to leave. “Sleep tight, sister. Maybe if you dream of the one you want, he’ll present himself.”
She giggled now. “If only that really did work. My dreams are always full of handsome men that love me for myself. Men that love me so deeply, they’d die for me. If only they were not dreams.”
“There is one out there, I know it. Good night.”
“Good night, Kevaan.”
A couple of weeks later, Melenthia was down in the practice arena again, fighting off another challenger that was dumb enough to try and beat her. Randor was watching again from his audience chamber window. He had called for Kevaan to come down and see him. It was time Kevaan learned about Melenthia’s nuptials to the man of his choosing. Her party was over, and he had already had negotiations with her future husband. Things were arranged and plans were made. Kevaan would not be happy, but he had no say in the matter this time. He was her father, and his word was law.
Kevaan entered the room and approached his father who was still watching her. When he heard footsteps behind him, he turned and looked at his son.
“Ah, Kevaan my boy, come in and sit. It’s time you and I had a talk about your sister’s future.”
“You said that you’ve made a decision regarding Melenthia’s husband.”
“Yes, I have chosen. I have decided to accept the only offer she’s had in years.”
Kevaan hated to ask, for he didn’t want to know who his sister would be bound to against her will, but his curiosity prevailed, and he had waited two weeks to find out the truth.
“Whom have you chosen, father?”
The king glanced at his son, afraid to look him in the eye, and he didn’t answer for a long time. He was suddenly second guessing his decision and was afraid of telling Kevaan what he had done. The silence in the room was almost too much, the pause was too long. Kevaan was becoming nervous.
“Father, what have you done?”
Randor steeled himself and took a breath before answering. “What I should have done years ago.” He sighed. “I have chosen Duke Fallon for her husband.”
He reeled. He never expected a fate as horrible as that. Fallon was a barbaric ogre. It was rumored that he used violence to instill fear in the villages of his realm. That was how he had obtained as much land as he had. He did not earn it, and he certainly didn’t deserve it. It was also rumored that he dabbled in the Dark Arts.
He was only interested in power, and he was a warrior through and through. He loved no one and was seen with a different mistress every week, all of them harlots he picked off the street. When he tired of them, he cast them out, usually in worse condition than when he found them. He was insensitive, crass and very lewd. Melenthia would be in hell.
The only time Fallon took a mistress from the court was to get whatever power or riches from the family he could, or to buy someone to join his cause.
His father had been more then fair, he had to admit, and his father was right, it was more than high time she marry, but he felt that this punishment was too harsh. He had already had to deal with Fallon the night at the party. He was not yet married to her and was already pushing himself forcibly upon her. He would not tell his father that, because he was not sure he would believe him, but he was afraid for her. Kevaan breathed to calm himself and practically broke his teeth from clenching them so tight, trying not to speak. But his anger and disappointment prevailed. He couldn’t remain silent.
“Father, you can’t possibly be serious. Fallon is not a good match for her, for any woman to put it bluntly. Power is all he seeks. He will not treat her well. Everyone knows he is quick to anger with words and with fist. She will be his only in name. She will be a slave under his roof, to bend to his will, and if she doesn’t do what he wants, she’ll suffer greatly. He’ll take her by force to make a son. He won’t love her like a husband should. She’ll be put aside to make room in his bed for his mistresses. Is that really the life you want for her? What would drive you mad enough to accept his proposal?”
“He’s the only one who has asked. Everyone knows she has no suitors breaking down the door to ask me for her hand. To deny her to him could cause my reputation, and in saying so, your future, to crumble. You will be king someday so it was imperative that you choose a wife to be queen, and you have done so. She’s still a princess, and I won’t have her stubbornness embarrass me and my kingdom.”
“He only asked because he seeks whatever hold he can gain over you. He’s looking for something you can give him. There’s a more sinister plan in his mind, father. Can you not feel it? Are you willing to put your only daughter through a life of humiliation and sadness just so you won’t have to hear the words people say about her? Are you willing to lose her, maybe sentence her to death, just to make sure Fallon doesn’t invade, doesn’t try to destroy you? We can fight him if we need to, father; we’ve fought worse.”
“I’m afraid of him, Kevaan, and you should be too. His power is stronger than I could ever hope to vanquish. I’m sorry, Kevaan, I have no choice this time. I know you love her like no other and will do anything to protect her, but the future of this kingdom, your kingdom, lies on whether she marries or not. Sometimes we have to sacrifice in order to survive. We have a kingdom to protect.”
“She was not given to you to make her the sacrificial lamb to the slaughter. She’s your daughter, your blood. Mother would not have approved of this, and you know it.”
“If your mother were still here, I wouldn’t have had to do this at all.” King Randor hung his head sadly and shook it. “I will not have an old maid for a daughter. I’m sorry, Kevaan, but she no longer gives me any option but this. You have done your duty for the crown; it’s her turn now. I would have rather chosen someone else other than Fallon for her, but no one else has asked, and I’ve run out of time. She will marry him. He will return in three days to go through the proper traditions. Do you want to be here when I tell her?”
He thought about that for a moment, pictured the scene in his head and his heart started to ache. He could do nothing to stop her heart from breaking, but maybe he could be there for her after, to put it back together.
“No, I don’t, father.”
“Very well then. Please go down and send her to me.”
Melenthia sat on a stone bench wiping her face with a towel, her sword lying on the bench beside her. She heard someone approaching and moved the cloth away from her eyes so she could see. Her brother walked toward her, looking not in the least bit pleased. He was tall, almost six-one, and had wide shoulders and large arms. His brown hair was short but thick, and a neatly trimmed mustache matched his hair color. His brown eyes were sharp but held a boyish sparkle at times when he was trying to joke with her. She could never look into those chocolate brown eyes and not smile. The eyes that watched over her all her life, the eyes that held a love for her she’d never seen in another man. At the moment, however, they held no sparkle, no jesting.
She stood up to greet him and smiled. “Did you see that last duel, Kevaan? I was better than ever.”
“Yes, I did. So did father.”
“Oh.” She changed the subject. “What’s wrong? Why so glum?”
He tried to hide his gloom by smiling at her and saying, “nothing”, but she was not easily convinced. She knew her brother.
“What is it?”
He gave up and said, “Father would like a word with you in his sitting room.”
“Why do you look so upset? What does he want to see me about? Is he still upset about me leaving the party?”
“No, but I cannot tell you because he wants to tell you.” He tried to make it sound less serious. “Why don’t you take a bath and change first.”
She eyed him for a moment. “Goodness, Kevaan, it sounds very serious.”
“Well, that’s because it is.”
“Please tell me. You can break bad news gentler than he can.”
“I can’t, Mel. It’s for father to tell you, not I.” He wanted to tell her. Wanted to try and break the news gently, tell her it would be okay. But he knew it was not his place. Besides, whatever wrath she would invoke on their father, he deserved.
She sidled up to him smiling largely, her brilliant emerald colored eyes sparkling in the afternoon sun. She tried using her girlish charms to persuade him. “Please.”
He chuckled, for her playfulness always made him forget every pain. She wasn’t an ugly girl at all; on the contrary, she was a beautiful woman. Kevaan was ten years older than his sister, and when their mother died, he made sure she got all the best as she grew and often helped out whenever he could. He saw her bloom from an awkward tomboy, a lanky clumsy girl, to a vibrant feminine woman. All the attributes men find attractive were there. She was thin, but not boney, her features chiseled, but she lacked none of the womanly appeal. She had a small waist, perfectly proportioned hips, and a full bosom. Her long golden red, naturally curly hair was thick and shiny, and her skin was creamy and soft as a rose. Just like himself, she inherited her mother’s small nose, but unlike her father and brother’s eyes of brown, hers were emerald. Her color was different than anyone in the lineage, and it only added to her charm and intrigue. It wasn’t that men didn’t find her attractive when she was social and wore gowns; they practically tripped over themselves to be near her. It’s when she opened her mouth, showed them her personal side that men ran away. Even after growing up and learning how to be a lady, she never completely grew out of her tomboyish antics. She didn’t think a woman should be silent and always agreeable; she rode horses like the devil on the wind, still enjoyed swimming in the water hole down in the glen and fought with a sword better than a lot of men. She often dressed boyish too, like now, with baggy pants and shirt to hide her curves and knee high black riding boots. Her hair was pulled back and tied with a leather strap. Far away you may wonder about her gender dressed as she was, but up close, there was no mistake. He had asked her once why she dressed like that, and she said that whenever she dressed like a lady, mostly to try and make her father happy, men would come on to her, paw at her, and made statements of what they wanted from her. She grew weary of the innuendos and false personas.
She spent a lot of time in the stables with her friend Lucan, which also bothered her father. He didn’t expect her to shun the people that worked for them, but it worried him that they were so close. Since Kevaan had gotten betrothed and moved away from the palace, she and Lucan spent many hours together. He was her friend, and confidant. Nothing could ever become of it, he knew, and so did she, for even she was not bold enough to start something romantic with a commoner. She respected Lucan too much to get him fired, or worse, hung for treason.
She preferred to stay away from court as much as possible. Whenever there was a party in the castle, she would make an appearance at dinner, but then sneak away soon after, before the festivities started and the men would prowl. Just like at her birthday celebration. She did not tell him what Fallon said, but he knew it was probably vulgar and disrespectful.
He looked back to that, how he had rescued her from what could have been a terrible situation. He promised her that everything would be fine, that father would never do anything without discussing it with him. How could he had been so wrong? Why was this so hard? If people would take the time to know her, they would see wonderful things.
Most men generally liked her, especially the less haughty ones, and there had been interest a few times, but none of them ever turned into anything more. She was down-to-earth and easy to talk to, putting people at ease, except those looking for a wife. Those men were intimidated by her; their egos were damaged in her presence. He wished he could help her, wished he could protect her once again from the pain she would soon endure, but he knew he could not. He would only be able to comfort her later, and he knew this time it wouldn’t be enough.
“I’m sorry, my little sweetheart, but this responsibility is father’s alone. What he has to say should only come from him. I don’t want to be the one to make you bare such news.”
Her pretty face scrunched up in a frown, and she slumped back down onto the bench. “You’re so melodramatic. You make it sound as though someone had died.”
Kevaan grimaced inside. That was one way to put it. “Now stop that, child, and go clean up like I told you to do,” he said trying to use his stern tone.
“Alright, brother,” she said. “I’m going.”
She picked up her towel and sword from where they lay on the bench. As she passed by him, she twisted up her linen and snapped him in the rear. He turned toward her with a pretend snarl, and she squealed, running from the courtyard with him quickly in tow.
When she went down to see her father, she found him pacing back and forth across the stone floor of his sitting room. When she entered she almost hesitated to bother him since he looked so distressed, but decided she had better see what he called her about. She cleared her throat; he stopped pacing and turned toward her. She made it a point to clean up and put on his favorite dress; it had been her mothers, and she hoped that whatever bad news he had would be less distressing if her appearance pleased him.
He saw her standing in the doorway, and he tried to smile at her, but he knew that doing so would be like lying to her, for the news he had would be painful, and he could not pretend otherwise.
He had not come to the decision lightly, despite what his son had implied, but the reality of the situation could not be frosted over any more. It was time for her to start her life.
He approached her and took her hands in his. He looked down at her, noticing suddenly the dress she was wearing. He had to breathe in deep in order to build up his nerve. Tears started to well up. He knew that if her mother were still alive, just as Kevaan had said, she would never let him go through with this. But if she were still alive, he reminded himself, he wouldn’t have to make this decision in the first place. Melenthia would have grown up a proper girl with a mother’s influence, a girl of the court, already married to a proper man. The dress was Melenthia’s way of trying to butter him up. But he had to be strong. His kingdom and Kevaan’s future depended on it. He could no longer put this off. It had to be done. He took a deep breath again and sighed.
“What is it, father? Why do you look so distressed?”
“Because I have something to say to you, and it’s something you’re not going to want to hear, but nevertheless, you must.”
He led her over to the bench on the far side of the room, and she sat down beside him, still looking into his eyes. She placed her hands neatly in her lap, her legs crossed daintily at the ankles. The many layered skirts of her dress billowed out on the bench, her bosom peeking out from under her corset. There was pain there she could see, and she was extremely worried about him. She had no idea that the pain in his eyes was for her.
“Melenthia, you are my beloved daughter, and you know that I love you more than life itself. I have always been supportive of your needs and wants, but it has come to a point in my life where I need to put the needs of the kingdom and my estates first. Your brother will inherit this realm, and I need to make sure that he gets a strong and secure kingdom to pass along to his next in line. I have been patient with you, but I can no longer wait for you to decide on a husband. I have come to the decision that I need to make the choice for you.”
Her eyes got wider. “No, father, you can’t.”
“You have given me no choice, Melenthia. I feel you are deliberately avoiding the decision, even though plenty of young men have come forward and offered their hand over the years. You have turned down all of the men who have shown at least some interest in you. You have given me no choice. You will marry. And since you have not made the decision for yourself out of love, I will make it for you out of duty. You are a princess whether you like it or not, and that means you have certain responsibilities. I have an offer for you, and I have accepted it.”
Her eyes narrowed and she crossed her arms over her chest defiantly. She was no longer worried about her impression on him. She no longer wanted to be charming and cooperative. Her rebellious nature was coming out.
“Who have you chosen, father?”
He paused for longer than she could stand. His silence stung so much it hardly mattered that he did not touch her. A slap across the face would have stung less.
“You will marry Fallon Tab Rommel, Duke of Xenos.”
She gasped, and her hand flew to her mouth. The horror of her encounter with him at her party rushed back to her memory. She felt as though she’d swoon, but forced herself to stand. He stood up as well.
“Father, how could you possibly be angry enough at me to stick me with a sentence that cruel? He is an ogre, father, mean and vindictive. I couldn’t possibly marry him.”
“The choice is no longer yours.” His voice seemed to crack a bit from pain at having to put this burden on her, but he had to stay strong. He cleared his throat again. “I have no choice now. I have already given your hand to him. He and I have already come to an arrangement.”
She recalled what he said about being less painful if she went willingly. She realized that his come-on to her at the party was a warning. She suspected now that he was only there to secure a deal with her father. The party had been a lie. He had already promised her hand, and Fallon was just trying to secure what was already, unbeknownst to her, his property. She shuddered, but then yelled.
“My party. You and Fallon had already made the deal that night, didn’t you?”
“We made the final preparations, yes. He had already asked for your hand before that.”
She really seethed now. “Have the deal revoked!”
“I cannot. What’s done is done.”
“Father, I refuse to subject myself to that kind of torture. I thought you loved me enough to not do something so cruel. I will not do it!” She stamped her foot now.
He was saddened at his daughter’s pain, but he had to stand his ground this time. If he did not get through this by putting his foot down he would end up giving in to her, just as he’s done for years. He had already promised her hand, and although he would have rather her chosen someone else, anyone else, her lack of cooperation brought him to this. He had a kingdom to think about, and he needed the army that Fallon possessed. Fallon was becoming more and more powerful, and he could not risk a war with him. Going to war was not something his kingdom could survive. With Fallon and Melenthia married, there was no way Fallon could ever enlist war with him. They would be family.
“I have tried for years to keep you in mind, to keep your want for love in mind, but you have over and over again failed to find that person you want. I’m beginning to think you have done it on purpose just to cause me grief. You have always been a willful child without a mother, and I understand that you were brought up by men, but enough is enough. You’re getting old. You’re already older than all the girls in the court who have been married for some time and already have children. I will not embarrass this house with an old maid for a daughter. I don’t understand why you are so obstinate.”
“I have not met one man who wants me for me. They want me to be someone I’m not. I’m not a giddy little girl who dotes on her man because he’s powerful and rich. I won’t be dutiful because I’m supposed to be while he brings multiple mistresses to his bed. If someone is going to marry me, they’ll get the whole package, the real me, not what they want me to be. I won’t be taken against my will!”
“If you would stop acting like a ruffian and start acting more like the princess you are, maybe you would find the right man for you. A man doesn’t want a woman who does things like a man. He wants a feminine woman, a woman who can charm his friends and raise his children. He doesn’t want a woman who can protect herself; he wants to be her protector. I told Kevaan it was a bad idea to teach you such things, but, like you, he doesn’t listen.”
“I don’t like who I am when I’m at court, trying to impress men who only want one thing from a woman. I want love, like you and mother had, not just a bed companion.”
“Your mother and I loved each other dearly, yes, but she was a proper woman of the court. She had her little quirks that I found amusing, but she did not flaunt them around for everyone to see.”
Tears started to well up, but she fought them back. “Please, don’t do this, father.”
“There is nothing I can do now, Melenthia. I have given my word, and my word is stone. It’s over, Melenthia. You will marry Fallon at the end of the month. He will be back here in three days to propose to you.”
She knew that he would never wait until marriage to take her. If he was coming here, she was in danger of being violated right under her father’s nose. She started to cry, knowing there was nothing else she could say to convince him, but she held it back. Crying would certainly not convince him, but maybe a threat would.
“I will be gone before that. I won’t be a slave in his house, a plaything he can discard for another when he tires of abusing me. I won’t be subjected to a life of misery and physical pain so that you’re not embarrassed, so that Kevaan can inherit a kingdom that is untarnished. I will leave before that happens.”
She thought it would work, but it did not.
“If you choose to do so then you will be banished from this house forever. You will never again be my daughter. You will be stripped of everything that is supposed to come to you after my death. You’ll be an outcast. I don’t think you want that.”
“You would do that to me to save your precious reputation?”
He paused for a moment, knowing his answer would break her heart, and his. “Yes.”
She started to cry now, but not fully; she held back as many tears as she could. This was her last stand and did not want to go out with weakness.
“So be it then, father. I will be gone before morning.”
“If that is your choice, then I will abide by it, but know this, if you do so, you will never again be able to see or speak to your family, even Kevaan. As far as I’m concerned, from the moment you walk out the door, you are invisible. You no longer exist. I never had a daughter. But I don’t think you would do that to yourself, or to your brother.”
She turned on her heel and ran from the room. When she was gone, Randor slumped down to the bench, his knees too weak to hold him up any longer. He placed his head in his hands and wept.