Walking down the palace stairs, Mae stretched a bit as she hopped down the last two. After living there for two months, it was starting to feel a bit like home, even if one of the main occupants wished her away. She stopped in the entry hall and peaked out the window to see the sun shining for the first time in over a week. She smiled, thinking she could finally spend some time outdoors.
“Good morning, Lady Maela,” said a voice behind her.
She turned from the window to see Prince Cadel looking at her from just in front of the stairs. “Good morning, your highness,” she said with a quick curtsy, all friendliness, and ease that was once between them, gone. “I hope you slept well.”
He shrugged. “As well I as I usually do.”
She half-smiled. “And it doesn’t appear as if that is very much. You look tired. Perhaps you should see a healer.” She walked closer to him, seeing his pale skin and the darkness under his eyes.
“You shouldn’t concern yourself with me,” he said as he started walking.
She hurried to join him, staying by his side. “I am to be your wife, so I would think your well-being would be one of my main priorities.”
He rolled his eyes. “You are enjoying your position so far, are you?”
She shrugged. “There is much in the palace and around it that I enjoy you. The food is very good, and having the library within walking distance is a dream. I have enjoyed getting to know the king, and Lord Aimon has proven a trustworthy friend.”
The prince turned to her, his expression dark. “You were so quick to forgive him. Have you forgotten how he treated you?”
She smiled slightly. “He made a mistake, but since it was in defense of someone I hold dear, I forgave him. He and I have the same goal now.”
“Is that why you spend so much time with him?”
“That, and he keeps me entertained. With the way the weather has been, I have been dreadfully bored.”
The prince looked at her, his expression softening. “It looks like today will be nice. Perhaps, you can go outside for a bit after your meeting.”
“My meeting?” asked Mae. “Will you not be joining us?”
“I have other things to do, and you know your land better than I ever could. You will meet with the lords and finalize the details. I trust you can handle them, and they will have to start listening to you if you are determined to see this through.”
Mae fidgeted with her hands as she walked. “I have not met with them without you or the king in attendance before. I am not sure how they will take it, me leading the meeting.”
“You are to be their queen, so they will have to accept you will have some power over them. You are wise and passionate about the well-being of your people. I have complete faith in you to do as needed.”
“Then I will do you credit as your future wife, my prince,” said Mae. She cautiously reached out and touched his arm, making him stop. He looked down at her hand before glaring at her. She moved forward slowly towards him. “Prince Cadel, Cade, perhaps you might come ride with me today after the meeting. I wish to give Drysi some exercise, and I am sure your horse would like a long run.”
His expression remained hard, but she would not look away. She gathered her courage and tried to remember how it felt to kiss him. She remembered the gentle look in his eyes he used to have for her. “Please,” she whispered.
He looked down as his arm fell. “I cannot as there is too much to do today. You should go, though. I will make sure you have plenty of guards to attend you.” He walked on, leaving Mae standing in the middle of the hallway with her head down.
“Good morning, my lady,” said Lord Aimon as he walked up behind her. “Though it doesn’t look like one according to your expression.”
“It gets harder every day, Thad,” she said quietly. “I didn’t think he would be so cold towards me even with his disappointment and anger. It makes me think I imagined the feelings he once held for me.”
He walked closer to her. “You did not imagine them, Mae. He is hurting as badly as you, even if he won’t admit it. He cannot keep it up forever.”
“I am not sure,” said Mae. “I don’t want to think I have made a mistake, but either way, it is too late now.”
Thad took her hand. “It will work out. I know it will. Come on, eating breakfast will help, and then you have your meeting.”
“And it will truly be my meeting,” said Mae as they walked. “Prince Cadel has declared he is too busy to attend and will leave it all in my hands.”
“He is not going with you?” asked Thad. “This is the final meeting showing the king has signed the order, and he expects you to handle this alone?”
“He told me I am to be the queen, so I must act like one.”
Thad huffed. “You will not go alone to this meeting, Mae. I will see to it.”
They walked into the dining room, where the king sat at the head of the table with his son to his left. As Mae walked in, the king stood with a large smile as Prince Cadel slowly rose.
“Good morning, Mae,” said the king brightly as Mae walked towards him.
“Good day, your majesty,” said Mae as she took his hand. He squeezed it and let it go as she passed and sat on his right. “I am glad to see the sunshine today.”
“I am sure you are,” said the king. “I know you have felt copped up this past week. We all have a bit. Perhaps you and Cade could go on a walk later or a ride.”
“I have already asked the prince,” said Mae as she poured some tea. “But he has informed me he is too busy for such activity today.”
“You are?” asked the king to his son as Thad sat next to Mae, and she poured him some tea.
“I have much correspondence to catch up on and someone to meet this afternoon. My day is very much full,” said Prince Cadel.
“But since you are skipping your meeting this morning, you must have plenty of time to do everything you need and still ride with Lady Maela,” said Thad as he passed Mae some bacon.
“You are not attending the meeting?” asked his father sharply. “Why ever not?”
“As I said, I have much to do and someone to see. I trust Lady Maela can attend to everything. It is about her homeland, after all. She knows better than anyone.”
“But this is your duty and your committee of lords, Cade,” said his father. “You cannot just abandon it.”
“I am not abandoning it. I am leaving it in the capable hands of Lady Maela. She is to be queen, and she must learn to do her duty as well.”
“It is fine,” said Mae as she put her hand on the king’s arm. “I can handle it, your majesty. I will not let you down.”
The king turned to her, his expression softening. “I do not doubt your abilities, my dear, but the prince should at least accompany you to show his support.”
“I am betrothed to her, so that should be enough to show them she has my support and commitment,” said Prince Cadel irately. “I am doing just as all of you ask.”
Mae gently put her fork down and picked up her cup with shaky hands. She would not be weak and cry at the table. She had not cried at all in public over the prince or what had happened to her. Only in her room alone had she let any tears fall. “So you have, your highness. I will lead the meeting and take this burden for you. I will not allow you to feel any further disappointment because of me.”
The prince looked up at her and mumbled. “You are not the one who is a disappointment, my lady.”
The king looked between them and sighed. “I should accompany you, Mae. There is no reason I cannot come.”
“Do not trouble yourself, your majesty. I want to do this as my future husband has requested. I know what is required,” said Mae.
“I will go with you, Lady Maela,” said Thad.
“You?” asked the prince. “You will go with her to the meeting on Adaria?”
“I am the highest lord in the land, and I know all it faces. I have been to Adaria and have seen the issues there. I am sworn to help and guard your family, and Lady Maela will soon be a Callagan. I will serve my future queen by attending this meeting with her and any other way she needs me.”
“Do you want him to go with you, Lady Maela?” asked the prince.
She looked at Thad, who nodded at her and then the prince. “What he says makes sense. I appreciate his support and will be happy to have his assistance.”
“Do as you wish, then,” said Prince Cadel as he looked down and started eating.
“Perhaps you would be so good as to ride out with me after lunch, my lord?” asked Mae as she looked at Thad. “It is the first nice day we have had in ages, and I am anxious to get outside.”
“A long ride sounds perfect, and I will be happy to attend you,” said Thad.
“I think you should go as well, Cade.” said the king. “Whatever duties you have can wait one afternoon.”
“They cannot, father,” said Prince Cadel as he stood. “In fact, I need to start seeing to them now. I look forward to hearing how the meeting went at supper, Lady Maela.”
“I will have a full report, your highness,” said Mae.
“Cade, I want you to come to my study in an hour,” said the king. “I will not keep you long, but you must come to speak to me.”
“I am very busy, father,” started Prince Cadel.
“This is not a request of your father. It is a command by your king. You will be in my study in an hour,” said the king with authority.
The prince nodded. “I will see you in an hour.” He walked away as Mae sighed.
The king reached out and took her hand. “I know it is difficult, Mae, but please give him more time. I know that is a lot to ask.”
She held the king’s hand. “He is worth it, your majesty.”
After finishing breakfast, she walked with Thad to the room usually used for the king’s council meetings. As they came to the door, she could hear talking in the room. She adjusted the scroll in her hand and stopped.
“You are very capable of this, Mae,” said Thad as he put his hand on her shoulder. “I am only here for support. It is not that I doubt you.”
“I know,” she said after taking a deep breath. “I appreciate it more than you know.”
“Even if you do wish I were someone else.”
She turned her head to look at him. “I do not wish you were someone else. I only wish he were here with us. I thought this was what he wanted as well,” said Mae. “It meant more to know he cared enough to do this with me.”
“He does care about Adaria and you,” said Thad.
“I hope you are right,” she said before she opened the door and walked into the room.
The long wooden table was over half full of important lords from the city. Their talking and laughter stopped as Mae walked into the room. They all stood as she walked to the head of the table with Thad following her. She nodded to the two guards behind the table as she took her place at the head chair.
After setting down her scroll, she looked down the table. “Thank you all for being here today. May our goddess, Aurulia, watch over our time together, reminding us that we are all her children.” Thad pulled out her chair for her, and she sat down. Everyone did likewise, Thad sitting to her right.
“I have here today the final order signed by the king that will lay out the reduction of resources coming from Adiria to the rest of the kingdom over the next several years.”
“Excuse me, my lady,” said an older man, two chairs down.
“Yes, Lord Gibbens, what is it?”
“Is Prince Cadel not joining us?” asked Lord Gibbens.
“No,” said Mae. “He had prior business and asked me to oversee this meeting for him.”
“Should we not meet when the prince can be here?” asked another man. This one was younger with red hair and lots of freckles on his face.
“Lord Andrews, we will go on with this meeting not only because it is what the king and prince wish, but because it is what I want as well. As your future queen, I will have some authority over the council.”
“You will when and if you are queen,” said Lord Gibbens.
“You doubt your prince’s word, my lord?” asked Thad angrily. “He has pledged himself to Lady Maela.”
The man shrugged. “They are not officially united by the goddess, and from what I hear, the prince might not prefer the lady. I mean no disrespect, Lady Maela. We all know you did not come to this position exactly by your own choice.”
“I made a choice,” said Mae. “And when I did, I knew this was a possibility. I am not unhappy with my future position, and you should not assume you know Prince Cadel’s thoughts either.”
“I am just trying to decide if this meeting is worth our time,” said Lord Gibbens. “If an official member of the royal family is not in attendance, what good will any word that comes from it be.”
“Lady Maela is as good as a Callagan, and she speaks for them now,” said Thad. “I am the highest lord of this land, and her word is good enough for me. That should be enough.”
“I also have a signed directive from the king that I will show you. Does that satisfy you, my lord?” asked Mae.
Lord Gibbens looked at Thad and then her before nodding.
“Then let us truly begin,” said Mae as she unrolled the scroll.
She read over the king’s decision to lower the resources provided by Adaria by a third the next year and then another third two years after that. There was much heated discussion about what other lands would do, but Mae showed them with just a few changes, all would be well with even very little inconvenience in all other lands.
“And it says that the city will provide Adaria with the aid of food and medicines throughout the rest of winter into spring,” said Lord Andrews. “Can we afford to do that?”
“We can, and we must. If you want the resources of Adaria, you must take care of the people,” said Mae.
By the time they finally finished, it was lunch, and Mae was very ready to leave the room. She dismissed them, and they all rose from the table. She heard the whispering and grumbling of the men, some calling her a puffed-up false queen under their breath. Others say they look forward to the day she was sent back to Adairia. Mae ignored them all as a few lords bowed to her on their way out. One gave her an encouraging smile that she returned. Thad huffed next to her, staring at those who spoke harshly about her.
She put her hand on his arm/ “Let them grumble, my lord,” she said quietly. “What can they really do?”
“You deserve their respect and loyalty, Mae, “ said Thad. “You will be their queen, and you saved their king and prince.”
“Then I shall have to work harder to earn it,” said Mae.
Thad glanced out the window before looking at her. “What do you say to doing lunch a little differently today?”
“What do you have in mind?”
“I will call for some food to be packed up, and you and I can ride out to the fields outside the city. There are some rocks by some trees and a pretty stream we can sit and eat before making our way back. You can ride as fast as you want on your pretty mare.”
She smiled, thinking it would be nice not to have to sit in the dining parlor watching Prince Cadel ignore her or give her dark looks. “I think it sounds perfect.”
“Then I shall arrange it while you prepare.”
Mae hurried to her room, where she put on her boots for riding and grabbed her black cloak. She threw it on as she went down the stairs to meet Thad by the side door of the palace. At the bottom of the stairs, she found Prince Cadel looking out the window.
“Are you waiting for someone?” she asked, making him turn around.
“I was just seeing if it were still fine outside. I know you are looking forward to your ride.” He noticed how she was dressed. “Are you not coming to lunch first?”
“Thad and I have decided to ride out with some food prepared. We will eat in the fields by the stream.”
“You are going on a picnic with Lord Aimon?” he asked with his eyebrows raised.
“I wouldn’t call it that. We are just taking some simple foods to stop and eat quickly.” She looked a way. “You could come with us. I would like it if you would.”
He moved closer to her, making her look up at him. “Would you really like it, Mae?”
She nodded. “I would like it very much, my prince.”
He continued to stare down at her with intensity. He even leaned down a bit, making Mae close her eyes as she nearly shivered in anticipation of his kiss. Instead, he backed away. “As I said, I cannot not, but I wish you a pleasant day. I will still send a few guards with you.”
“I don’t think that is necessary,” said Mae. “I will not be alone.”
“I will not leave you unprotected with a man who not very long ago caused you pain. It is proper that you have a royal escort as well,” said the prince.
She nodded and turned and walked from him, wondering how much more she could take living in the same place as the prince.