Isabel lay in a cold bath in her chambers on the main silver ship, a washcloth over her eyes to stave off a pounding headache. Guards had been posted with instructions not to let anyone on the ship unless expressly told otherwise. The air crackled with animosity between the Shumkarja and Lothiarian soldiers but no one dared make a wrong move. The warriors waited anxiously for her next move, having gotten wind of the meeting, but she was too tired and full of emotion to make any decisions. Isabel had been a fool; she’d actually thought the prince loved her. He had been right there all the time and knew the Shumi weren’t the animals everyone thought they were. She thought he was a good man and that he would support her as she put her demands on the table. She knew the concept wouldn’t be popular, judging by what Nadhir had told her, but surely Alaric knew it was the right thing to do.
Then there was the reaction of his mother, such vehemence! The wise and gentle Dowager Empress turned on her in a way that would’ve made the Lord of the Underworld cringe. Truth be told, these people only cared about their precious war and they would win it at any cost. She was just a pawn, every bit as worthless and expendable as the Shumkarja. Isabel felt used, betrayed and hurt.
For a brief moment she considered taking her vast army and the ships and turning them on both sides of this war. She had the man and firepower to do a lot of damage and in the end the Shumi may just get their dignity back. No, even as she thought it, Isabel knew it was wrong. Although the Alliance turned out to be a bunch of bastards, she knew that Phaedra and Torquil’s brand of evil was far worst. She would do what she had set out to do, but she would insist on better treatment of the Shumi, at least until the war was over and they could return home.
She sighed and was suddenly aware that she wasn’t alone. She pulled the cloth from her eyes and found Alaric leaning against the wall, arms crossed, and watching her. Isabel closed her eyes.
“I really need to improve that guard.” She said wearily.
She opened her eyes again and crossly asked, “Is there something I can help you with, milord?”
“Are we back to formalities?” He asked, taken aback.
“Simply because I did not agree with you?”
“No,” she fired back, sitting up, “because you lied to me and didn’t back me up in there!”
“You are right.” He replied, grimacing. “The Shumkarja are a fine people and do not deserve to be regarded as they are. I will speak to mother and the rest of the delegation. We cannot allow them to fight with us if we are not prepared to treat them with respect.”
Isabel’s headache began to wane. At least that stress had been removed from her shoulders.
“Thank you, Alaric.” She said, smiling at him.
Alaric pushed back from the wall and began to undo his blouse.
“Hang on,” Isabel said, “what do you think you’re doing?”
He paused. “Having a bath with my wife, of course.”
“I hardly think so!”
“Tell me something, Alaric.” She asked in a level tone as she wrung out her washcloth, laid it across the edge of the tub, and looked at him again. “Why did you not want me to announce our union?”
Alaric did an excellent imitation of a goldfish standing there with his mouth opening and shutting. She fixed her gaze on him, eyes flashing with anger until he dropped his shoulders and set his jaw.
“I knew mother would not approve. She wants me to marry a woman of high birth.” He hesitated before continuing. “Isabel, I am engaged to Princess Nerissa.”
Isabel felt as if the man had just punched her in the heart and a wave of nausea swept over her. She clenched her jaw, swallowed her emotions and shook her head.
“You’re heir to the throne, the future ruler of Lothiari, yet you don’t have the stones to face up to your own mother.” Isabel chuckled bitterly. “Well don’t worry about it, tis but a temporary arrangement after all. Once all this is over I’ll be back in my world and you can take up with your princess again.”
She continued to bathe, struggling to keep the turmoil that raged inside her in check as she held a neutral expression on her face. Alaric remained fixed to the spot, silent for several minutes before Isabel looked up and asked, “Yes?”
Alaric, the fish, struggled to find the words before finally sputtering. “Has our night together meant nothing to you?”
Isabel wanted to laugh out loud that he of all people could even ask such a question.
“My good prince,” she replied calmly, “while I thoroughly enjoyed our time together our consummation was merely for political and ceremonial purposes. It will not happen again.”
Fully expecting Isabel, as a woman, to be an emotional wreck Alaric was ill equipped to find himself dealing with a cool and collected rock instead of the hysterical female to which he was accustomed when parting ways after a dalliance. Instead, he was the one who was falling apart.
“But,” he stammered, “what about the baby?”
Isabel was rising from the tub and reaching for a towel when she stopped, looking startled. “What baby?”
“Surely when a woman lies with a man in your world she grows heavy with child?” he scoffed.
“When a woman lies with a man in my world, she has many means at her disposal to prevent becoming heavy with child.” She replied dryly. “Fear not, milord, your seed remains unplanted.”
In the woods near a little country tavern in Southwest Althea, a chameleonic dragon of Lothiari slumbered. Inside the tavern Alaric fell heavily on to a stool beside Iskander as a busty wench slid them large mugs of ale with a wink and a smile. Alaric drained the mug, slammed it down on the table, and beckoned the wench over.
“More ale, milord?”
“Perhaps you’d like something sweet with your ale?” She asked, batting her long lashes, her copious bosom threatening to burst from its confines as she bent far more forward than was necessary to pick up the mug.
The prince looked into her green eyes and replied, “Just the ale, thank you.”
The wench’s face twisted with disappointment and she hurried off to refill the mug.
“Truly the Underworld has frozen over today! Never did I think I would live to see the day the Losangier of Lothiari would turn down the soft embrace of a ripe saucy wench!” Iskander remarked in astonishment. “Tis the Lady of Kendra, I take it.”
The Losangier of Lothiari, Alaric always hated that moniker, it made him sound so heartless. So he enjoyed the pleasures of women, was that so wrong? The prince made a face and grasped the mug the wench had set down before hurrying off again.
“Does the marriage bed make a maid so remarkable?” Iskander asked.
Alaric glared at him and silently took a swig of ale. The King of Shayn’del leaned back, raised an eyebrow and smiled at his friend’s brooding silence for a moment before saying soberly, “You are in love with her.”
Alaric sat so straight so quickly he nearly fell off the bench.
“You tread on dangerous waters, man!” The prince warned.
Iskander laughed so brashly he caught the eye of many a wench who smiled and made eyes at the king as they went about their business. He reached down the front Alaric’s trousers but the prince slapped his hands away.
“What in blazes do you think you are doing?” he growled.
“Just checking to see if you had given your bollocks to the lady as a wedding present. What else would explain your losing your head over a woman?” He chuckled.
“I think you have had enough, Iskander. You’ve gone mad!”
Iskander clapped his hand on the prince’s shoulder and laughed. “And I do not believe you have had enough to let the lovely Lady Isabel slip through your fingers.”
Alaric began to laugh also and then sighed.
“Iskander, my friend,” he turned to face him, “I have bedded women fairer than she, have I not?”
“I have bedded women with far more wealth than she.”
“I have bedded women with far more grace and breeding than she.”
“Then why Iskander?” He roared. “Why does this woman affect me in such a way? Whenever I see her, the day grows just a bit brighter and every moment away from her torments my soul! She does not need my protection, yet I feel honor bound to give it.”
He looked at his friend solemnly. “I disappointed her, Iskander. She needed me to stand by her and I failed her, I left her to fight alone. She called me on it and although she did not admit it, I know I broke her heart.”
Iskander sighed at the torment his poor friend was experiencing. “You are a cad!”
“I am a cad.”
“You know what you must do, of course.”
“I need to make it up to her. I have already spoken with mother and the Alliance and told them I stand with Isabel. Mother had already calmed herself and acknowledged that, though not very diplomatic, Isabel was right in what she said. I think she was embarrassed about being confronted with her own hypocrisy by someone beneath her station, they all were, and those who still disagree will not dare put a foot wrong, lest they lose their protection amongst the Alliance.”
“It will be difficult to convince everyone that their prejudices are wrong. It will not happen overnight.”
“True, but at the very least we can act with decorum and show some respect. The Shumi are good people and good fighters. We would do well to call them friend.”
“You should tell all this to Lady Isabel.”
“Well,” Iskander stretched, yawning and allowing his fingers to brush the bottom of a passing wench at the same time, “damsels need to stew for a bit before they cool. They always forgive the men they love.”
“I do not think she does.”
“Surely, she would not be so angry with you if she did not.”
“She spoke of returning home at the end of the war.”
“She cannot! Lady Isabel is a fine woman, she would not leave the side of the man who loves her.”
Alaric remained silent as he gloomily stared into the contents of his mug.
“Alaric, did you not tell her you love her?”
“I did.” He hesitated.
“Not during the throes of passion, man. I mean before or after, did you tell her?”
Alaric looked up at him. “I told her I was engaged to Nerissa.”
Iskander smacked his forehead exclaiming, “Oh, you are a grand idiot! You do not deserve her!”
Alaric drained his mug. “I know.”