He paced by the stables stopping to look off into the field behind the palace every so often. It would be dark soon, and they should have been back at least an hour ago. Cade looked at the stables again, wondering if he should call for his horse to go find them. Surely something awful had happened for them to be gone this long. What if her horse had thrown her somehow, or someone with malicious intent had gotten to her. He should have sent three times as many guards. How could he let her go so unprotected?
She was also out there with Thad. He hated the thought of the two of them together, laughing as they rode over the fields. He closed his eyes, imagining them by the stream, sharing food and maybe even a wineskin. Their hands would brush, or Thad would reach forward to wipe something off her soft cheek.
He opened his eyes and shook his head. Such thoughts would do him no good, and they were unthinkable. Thad would never do it to him, and neither would Mae, no matter what his father warned. He went to his father’s study earlier that day just as he was told, thinking he knew what his father had to say, but he was still surprised by some of the conversation.
Cade walked in and sat down heavily in a chair in front of his father’s desk. His father put down the message he was reading and stared at Cade. The seconds turned into minutes until Cade could take it no more.
“What is it you want, father?”
His father leaned forward. “I want to know how you could be so foolish.”
“Foolish?” asked Cade as he sat back.
“Yes, you are a fool, Cade, and it is past time that I told you. I know it is a burden not to be able to choose your own wife, but then you are blessed by our goddess to have one of the best young ladies in this kingdom fall into your lap.”
“I do not question her worthiness if that is what you think,” said Cade.
“I should hope not. That poor girl has done more for you than should be required of her. She has left all she knows and loves to come here. She faces ridicule by many, including people living in this palace, and she almost died saving you. You owe her your respect and attention. I cannot make you love her, but you will give her your due as your future wife.”
“You think I do not care for her?”
“I thought you did. The way you ran to her that day in the field and how you fretted over her when she was ill made me think perhaps you might have feelings for her, but now seeing how you treat her with contempt, I don’t see how you could.”
Cade was quiet as his father shook his head. “If only I could help her in some way. I wish I could release her from being tied to one who cannot value her as he should, even if he is my own son, but I know it is impossible. Selfishly, I do not want her to go. This place seems so much lighter now. I think the best part of my day is when I am able to speak with her. How can you not see her worth, Cade?”
“I do see it, and I do feel for her. “He ran his hands over her face. “I love her. I think I started to love her the moment I saw her, and then every moment I spent with her, I fell deeper in love with her. I fought against it, but it was impossible. I should have kept away from her. I thought I was only hurting myself. I didn’t think she could ever grow to feel for me as I do her.”
“But she does, Cade. For some reason, I think she could love you if you let her. I see the hurt on her face every time you ignore her or deny her your time and care. She has told me she is willing to wait for you, but everybody has their breaking point. I am afraid she is going to reach hers soon.”
“Good,” said Cade loudly. “She should forget about having any feelings for me and move on.”
His father looked at him in confusion. “How can you want it to be that way? You just told me you love this woman, and now you wish to throw that away?”
“I must throw it away and find a way to send her far from here. You know what the council will do to her, especially the Highest One. They will use her and demand things of her until there is nothing left. The pressure they will put on her will crush her, just like my mother. I cannot do it, father. I see how you have suffered all these years because of what happened to mother. I cannot let them do to Mae what they did to her.”
His father sat back in his chair with a sigh. “It was awful what they did to your mother. I tried to tell her she did not have to do what they said, but she was determined to show everyone she was strong enough to be queen. She didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I should have sent her away for her health, but she would not allow it. She came to me over and over, trying to conceive a child after you, desperate to have one born with the same gift she had.”
“And they will do the same to Mae. Not only that, but you have seen her powers and how the Highest One covets them. Not only will he demand she produces a child with magic, but he will keep pushing her to use her powers until he kills her. He already almost has.”
“Mae is not the same as your mother, Cade. She is very different,” said the king. When Cade looked at him in confusion, he went on. “I loved your mother, and she was strong in some ways, but her health was never good. She was slight and often ill with something. She also did not do well under the pressures put on her. She liked quiet and only being around those she trusted and loved. She would have been happy in a secluded house with just her family around her.
“Mae is strong in almost every way. She is bold, and she is capable of taking on the pressures of ruling, I think even better than you. She pushes herself to the limits because she wants to see what she can do. I agree that the Highest One has asked too much of her in the past, but that is why she needs someone to protect her even if she doesn’t want it. She is more than capable of being your wife and queen.”
“I cannot stand the thought of losing her,” said Cade quietly. “Of watching her suffer and think she is disappointing everyone, disappointing me.”
“It is up to you to help her understand her worth. The only way she can think you disappointed in her is if you let her feel that way.” His father stood up and walked around his desk to look at Cade. “Do you love truly love her?”
Cade nodded. “I cannot imagine loving another as much as I love her.”
“Then I will go back to my first words. Stop being foolish, and start treating her like a woman you cherish. Let her decide what pressures she can withstand. You should make sure she knows how you feel soon, as I don’t know how much time you have. The least you can do is quit throwing her into the arms of a handsome young lord.”
“Do you mean Thad?” asked Cade with annoyance.
“Doesn’t it bother you how much care he shows her? He is doing things that should be your duty, Cade. If you depend on another to give her the attention that she needs, you shouldn’t be surprised if something comes of it.”
“I do not like them spending time together, but it is not because I fear anything coming of it,” said Cade.
His father shook his head. “Believe as you wish, but I am afraid you will regret it.”
Cade saw something in the back of the field coming into view, and it took him out of his thoughts. He walked out towards the field, seeing a small group on horseback coming his way. He gave a quick sigh of relief until they came closer to him. At the front was Lord Aimon’s large blood-bay stallion. Mae was perched on top in front of Thad, his arm around her waist. Mae’s mare was tethered to the stallion and trotted alongside.
He stood still, waiting for them to reach the stables. Thad pulled up his horse by Cade.
“Do not worry, your highness. She is not badly injured,” said Thad
“It is true. I look much worse than I feel,” said Mae with a laugh. Half of her dress was covered in mud. There was also some caked in her hair.
“What happened?” asked Cade as Thad took his hand off of Mae and jumped down off his horse.
He walked over to help Mae down, but Cade stepped in front of him to the horse’s side. He held out his arms toward Mae, and she slowly slid down into them. He held her and looked her over.
“It is only my ankle and a few bruises. I am sure I will limp for a few days, but I will recover quickly.” She tried to step away from Cade, but he held her tighter.
“Did you fall?” he asked.
“More like an ungraceful slide,” said Mae with a small smile.
“I don’t know what half-wits you have working in your stables, but her saddle wasn’t clinched right. It slipped in the middle of a jump. Luckily, Mae knows how to fall off a horse,” said Thad.
“And lucky there was a large pool of mud near me,” said Mae with a laugh. “You should release me, your highness, before I spoil your clothing.
Cade ignored her. “Your saddle slipped?”
“I am sure it was just some overlooked mishap. I know it was not intentional. Things do happen,” said Mae as she pushed away from Cade and limped closer to Thad.
“You could have been killed,” said Cade. “You said you hurt your ankle?”
“I checked it, and it is only a mild sprain,” said Thad. “But she should go upstairs and get cleaned up so she can elevate it. I can help you, my lady.” He reached for her, but Cade moved forward.
“I can help Lady Maela into the palace. I am sure you need to get home, Thad. You have been gone all day.”
“Mae, will you be alright?” Thad asked
“I will. I just wish to clean up and rest for a bit. It is not so bad. I could even manage the stairs on my own,” said Mae. “I will see you at the library tomorrow after breakfast, won’t I?”
“Of course,” said Thad as he took her hand. He made a big show of rubbing some mud off of the back of it before kissing it and letting it go.
Mae laughed, and Cade felt his irritation grow. “You have plans tomorrow to go to the library?”
Mae glanced at him and nodded. “I spend many mornings there lately, and Thad often accompanies me.”
“I didn’t know this,” said Cade.
“You have never asked how I spend most of my days,” said Mae softly. “Do you mind if I go on to the palace?”
She started hobbling away, and Cade glanced at Thad. “You enjoy spending every possible moment in Lady Maela’s company, it seems.”
“Only a fool would not,” said Thad. “You should assist your future wife, Cade. If you do not, she might do some real harm to her ankle.”
Cade hurried forward. “My lady, let me assist you.”
She looked back at him and stopped. “There is no need, your highness. It is practically nothing.”
“You are limping, so it must be something,” he said as he put his arm around her.
They started walking, and she kept as much distance from him at first before she stepped wrong and hissed. He pulled her close on instinct, and she leaned into him. He almost gave an audible groan of relief. He had wanted to feel her against him for so long. She was soft and warm, and he felt his body react as he worked to keep himself under control.
“Where were you jumping when you fell?” he asked.
“Close to the stream, next to those pretty gathering of trees. There is a large log there, and I probably came upon it too fast. We would have made it, though had the saddle not slipped.”
“I will make sure I find out who was responsible and release them immediately,” said Cade.
“Do not, your highness. Let them know the mistake they made, and if it was not one of many, show them some grace.”
“You could have easily died. What if it would have slipped off while you were running hard over the fields, or what if that mud had not been there? Your head could have hit a rock, and then you would be gone.”
“So would your problems then, I suppose.”
He stopped walking, making her halt with him. “Never saw anything like that again. Anything happening to you is unthinkable. It’s hard even to see you in pain.”
“If that were true, you couldn’t bear the sight of me each day,” said Mae. “I have been in pain for many weeks. Ever since I started recovering from my injuries, and you disappeared.”
They started walking again as he wasn’t sure what to say. He wanted to tell her he was in agony as well. His mind was always filled with her. He was tempted every time he saw her to take her into his arms. At night as he lay in bed trying to sleep, he remembered what it was like to kiss her . He thought about the sounds she made as he kissed his way down her neck. He thought perhaps it would get easier in time, but every day he wanted her more and more.
“It is not easy for me either,” he finally said softly.
“Then why do it at all. I miss you, Cade. We barely even speak now. Can you not at least talk to me?”
“What do you wish to speak to me about?”
She grinned a little as they came to the side door. “Everything. I want to tell you about my day, and hear about yours. I want to learn more about your life, your fears, and your hopes. I want to speak of my homeland with you and talk about my family.”
He opened the door and helped her through it. “How did the meeting go today?”
She winced as they turned down a hall. “It was long, but in the end, all was settled. I am not sure how convincing I was, but what could they do. I had a signed declaration from the king.”
“I am sure you were more than convincing. Some people just hate change not matter how much it is needed,” said Cade.
She nodded. “I am sure you are right.”
“Was that it? Did anything else happen?” She looked away. “Mae?”
“Nothing of consequence, your highness. What did you do with your day?”
“I send some messages to some guards I sent out into the kingdom,” said Cade.
“Where in the kingdom are they?”
“They are in Morven but should be in Adaria by week’s end,” replied Cade.
“Adaria? Why did you send royal guards to Adairia?”
“To check on the council guards the Highest One sent to watch your family. Do not worry; no one will see the ones I sent. I just want to see how many are watching your family and what can be done about them.”
She looked to the side, and her voice sounded strained, “You are still trying to send me away.”
“I want you to be happy and safe, Mae. Nothing has changed.”
“You think I will be happy being so far away from you, worrying about you at every moment, wanting nothing more than to be near you. It is agony living with you and having you appear so indifferent to me, but being away from you may be more than I can take.”
“You will get over me, and you should. I am not sure why someone like you would have feelings for me at all.”
They came to the stairs, and Mae moved away from him. “Because even with the aggravation and pain you have caused me, I still know how wonderful you really are. You are intelligent and kind and even funny at times. I believe you are brave except when it comes to claiming what you want and need. Or perhaps I have been fooled, and you don’t want me. If that is the case, tell me now. If you have found you do not feel for me as you thought before, you should let me know.”
It should have been easy to lie and tell her he did not want her. He could have said he had no feelings for her, and perhaps, she would give up on him, but as he looked at her even half covered in mud, he had never seen anything or anyone so beautiful. Her clear blue eyes looked at him in such a pleading way that all he wanted to do was say something to make her smile and relieve some of her sufferings.
“I said nothing has changed, and perhaps that was a lie. I think my feelings have changed in that I love and want to protect you more and more each day.”
“Then I will keep trying to change your mind somehow. I cannot give up on you.” She turned and started up the stairs.
He could see how much she was struggling, and he was sure she was in pain. He hurried to her and picked he up, holding her in his arms as he continued to climb.
“Cade, this is not necessary, and you will hurt yourself under my weight.”
“You think me so weak?” he asked with a laugh.
“No, I just know my own weight. My father always called me sturdy for a reason.”
He couldn’t help but laugh as he came to the top step. He sat her down gently. “I would never use such a word to describe you.”
“Oh, then what would you say, substantial, wide, sizeable?”
He kept his hands on her, moving them slowly along the dip in her waist to her hips. He could think of many words to describe her, lovely, beautiful, desirable.
She smiled up at him. “You choose not to answer? Probably the smartest choice.”
“I have never been very good with words,” he said as she moved further into his arms.
“I prefer action anyway,” she said breathlessly.
He leaned down towards her, drawn to her in a way he could not resist. His lips brushed hers when the door to her room opened, and her assistant walked out into the hall.
Cade quickly stepped back, letting go of Mae.
“I am sorry,” said Enid quickly. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“It is fine, Enid,” said Mae after a moment. “I need to get cleaned up anyway.”
“Look at you, my lady. What happened?” asked Enid with concern.
“I will tell you in a moment. Would you call for some water? I would like to bathe”
Enid nodded and walked past them to the stairs.
“I should go inside and get undressed,” said Mae. “Thank you for your help.”
She started for her door, and Cade wanted to say something, anything. “Perhaps, I might find time to come to the library and join you for a bit tomorrow morning?”
She stopped in her doorway and looked at him. “I would like that very much, but you should come well before lunch. I have to meet with the Highest One in the temple.”
“He has summoned you?” asked Cade.
She nodded. “He wishes to speak with me about something.”
“I could come with you,” he offered.
“He said I must come alone. I am sure I won’t be long.”
“I hope you will be careful, Mae.”
“I will,” she said simply.
“Do not worry about coming down for supper. I will see a tray is sent up to you, and I am sure my father will visit at some point. He has missed your company today.”
“I will be happy to see the king as always.”
She lingered for a moment before giving him one more small smile. “Good night, Cade.”
He nodded to her before she closed the door. He sighed and stood still in the hallway for a moment. He felt like a man torn in half. He wanted to find a way to send her away, but the thought of doing it left him empty.