1 YEAR LATER
She wasn’t at all surprised that a ride through the woods was what allowed her to get her thoughts in order. Being on horseback and feeling the wind rush through her hair and smelling the trees had always had a calming effect on her.
And this morning, she definitely needed the solitude. She’d decided that it was about time she faced her uncertain future. It had been nearly a year since her mother’s passing; nearly a year since Giana was crowned queen, and that meant it was time for her to start moving forward. For the past year, she’d soaked in her grief and attempted to figure out what being queen actually entailed and now she needed to actually act like a ruler.
“You rose early this morning, Your Grace,” Freya, her handmaiden, said cheerily as Giana entered her bedchambers, stripping her riding gloves from her hands. “All is well, I hope.”
Giana had never been a fan of rising with the sun, so seeing her bed empty at dawn was a bit surprising for Freya, who’d had her fair share of troubles getting Giana to rise in the morning over the course of the five years she’d been the queen’s handmaiden.
“I went for a ride,” Giana explained, passing Freya her gloves and shrugging off her coat. “I needed to think.”
“About what?” Freya asked, tossing Giana’s dirty clothes into a basket for later washing and turning to the fireplace to continue with the bathwater preparation.
“The future,” Giana replied vaguely, stepping behind a folded partition to strip off the remainder of her clothes. “And my mother.”
“We all miss the queen dearly,” Freya said softly, pouring a bucket of steaming water into the tub.
Giana’s voice was muffled and threaded with sadness as she replied. “None more than me.”
“Of course,” Freya said, turning away as Giana stepped out from behind the partition and gingerly lowered herself into the tub.
Giana let out a soft sigh of contentment as she sank into the water and allowed the warmth to soothe her muscles. Leaning her head back against the edge, she continued to speak. “Before my mother passed, she had been in contact with King Leopold, working to arrange my marriage to the Crown Prince of Ravenna.”
The news her mother had sprung on her a year ago had seemed unimportant in the wake of Katrina’s passing, but in the past few weeks, Giana had been doing much thinking about the future of Izlia and she’d come to the conclusion that perhaps her mother may have been right. An unsurprising occurrence which had happened often throughout Giana’s formative years.
“Ravenna?” Freya responded as she turned towards the wardrobe to retrieve the queen’s clothing for the day, surprised, as Giana expected. “But Izlia has been on the cusp of war with Ravenna for over a century.”
“Yes,” Giana nodded, “But my mother hoped that a marriage alliance would ease tensions and bring peace to the land.”
Freya paused as she pulled out one of Giana’s favorite dresses, a lavender frock with silver embroidery. “And what do you think?”
“I think she might have been right,” Giana admitted. It had taken her weeks to come to terms with that fact, but after much mental back and forth, Giana had realized that the only way to absolutely ensure peace between Izlia and Ravenna quickly and effectively was for her to marry Nicolas.
Freya laid the dress and undergarments on the bed, noting the lack of excitement in the queen’s voice. “But the idea of marriage does not please you.”
“I take no issue with marriage itself,” Giana shrugged, “but if I am to spend the rest of my life with a man, I would it rather have been a man of my own choosing. Would the situation please you?”
Not for the first time, Freya thanked her lucky stars that she wasn’t queen. “The consequences of my marriage are not as great as yours.”
“I suppose not,” Giana nodded, a slight smile lifting the corners of her lips as she rubbed soap along her limbs. “I know very little about the Crown Prince of Ravenna. I do not want a spoiled, arrogant man coming to my kingdom and thinking they have authority over me.”
To be honest, that was what Giana feared most about the entire situation. She supposed she could have come around to the idea sooner if she’d been given the chance to at least meet Nicolas first. But mutual affection was not part of the arrangement, which meant that if it turned out that he was horrible, she’d have to be strong enough to bear it.
“Then do not give him the ability to do so,” Freya offered, holding up a large cloth for Giana to wrap herself in as she climbed out of the tub.
“I can assure you, I will not,” Giana replied fiercely as she began to dry off, vowing to never allow a man to rule her head or her heart without her permission. “What have you heard about him?”
If anybody had heard whispers about the Crown Prince of Ravenna, it was Freya. Giana had long been convinced that Freya knew absolutely everything that went on in the kingdom.
“Just the gossip from town, your highness,” Freya replied, holding up an underdress for Giana to slip into once she was dry.
Giana waited until the dress has fallen to her ankles to speak, mentally preparing herself for the impending discomfort of the corset. “Which is?”
Giana could hear Freya trying not to smile as she laced up the corset and said, “Apparently, he’s quite handsome.”
“People have seen him?” Giana lifted her eyebrows in surprise. Although Izlia and Ravenna bordered each other, the people of the kingdoms hadn’t intermingled since the first war, decades ago. Of all the Ravennian people for any Izlian to have seen, the Crown Prince seemed like a highly unlikely candidate.
“Only from afar,” Freya clarified with one last tug on the corset strings before securely tying them, “It seems that if you stand on the river bank, you can see into the palace courtyard.”
“How…,” Giana was cut off in her response by Freya holding up her dress and she waited until the hem of the lavender silk was touching the floor to complete her thought, “inappropriate.”
Although her tone was scolding, Giana’s inability to hold back a laugh kept Freya from feeling as though she should apologize for her observation. Smiling to herself as she tied the final bow on the back of the queen’s dress, she said, “Yes, my lady. Do you need anything else?”
Giana nodded as she smoothed down the skirt of her dress. “Send word to General Jessup at the camps along the river and inform him that I must speak to him as soon as possible.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” Freya responded, dipping into a curtsey before turning to leave the room.
“Thank you, Freya,” Giana called after her, retreating to her desk to answer the bevy of letters she’d received over the past few weeks, as well as write an original one of her own.
An hour later, her hand was cramping slightly and covered in ink stains from writing replies, but she didn’t have time to wash it off, as Freya announced that General Jessup was waiting for her in the throne room.
Smoothing out the skirt of her dress, she made her way to the reception hall to the throne room, sealed letter in hand, her smile wide as she greeted the most highly regarded general in the Izlian army. “General Jessup.”
“Your Majesty,” he bowed his head as he took her extended free hand and pressed a kiss to the back of it, “I was told you requested my presence.”
“Yes,” Giana nodded, deciding it is best to get straight to the point, “Before my mother passed, she informed me that she had been in contact with the King of Ravenna for some months. Were you aware of this?”
General Jessup hesitated, as though he was not sure speaking the truth was the best course of action, but soon decided that lying to the new queen wouldn’t bode well for him either. “Yes, my lady. Your mother trusted me with this knowledge.”
She suspected Queen Katrina did as much. It would have been very difficult for her mother to maintain correspondence with King Leopold for so long without some sort of external help. If was she was going to trust anyone, it would be the general who had been a leader in the army since Katrina first became queen.
“Then you have ways of getting messages to Ravenna,” Giana inferred. She wasn’t sure how the system worked, seeing as Ravenna lay on the other side of a rather wide river and the bridge which used to cross said river was destroyed years ago.
The General nodded, looking a bit anxious. “The Ravennian soldiers stationed at the narrowest and shallowest part of the river are friendly.”
“Wonderful,” Giana grinned.
General Jessup lifted his eyebrows in surprise, apparently expecting she would find such news to be disastrous. “Wonderful?”
“I need you to take them this message.” Giana held out the letter towards him. “As quickly as possible. It’s for King Leopold.”
Knowing better than to question orders, even from such a young queen, General Jessup took the letter and stashed it safely in the inner lining of his coat. “Yes, Your Majesty. Right away.”
“Thank you, General,” she nodded in gratitude.
With one last bow, the general left the room with Giana’s future in his hands.