For a moment, Eleanor did not know what to do. She knew that she should follow the Prince as he trained and compliment him, but in truth, what she should do could be damned. What she wanted to do was jump astride Moonbeam and rush after Sir Brandon, even if just to stare in his eyes for a moment longer. Her heart still felt as though it was stopped from the few minutes before, and as she felt it suddenly beating hard in her chest, Eleanor knew her decision was already made.
Rushing into the stables that Sir Brandon had just raced away from, Eleanor went to Moonbeam’s stall, pulled open the gate, and quickly slung herself up onto her mare’s back. Moonbeam almost seemed surprised, as Eleanor was normally at least in split skirts when she rode astride, but at that moment, nothing was more important to the princess than catching Sir Brandon. The stable hands looked at her in surprise, but Eleanor was too busy holding onto her horse’s mane and clicking her mouth to ride to even care what they thought of her.
Moonbeam took off fast, almost as though she understood the urgency, and Eleanor tried to follow the land that looked recently disturbed. She quickly ended up in the field that she had spent her morning, and looked around to see if she saw anything of her knight. She could see nothing, but continued to ride hard, looking further into the tree line. Moonbeam pranced happily and continued around the field, but within a few minutes, Eleanor realized it was no use.
Digging the heels of her slipper feet into Moonbeam’s side, the horse slowed down and then stopped, allowing Eleanor to slide off her back. Eleanor looked around again, wanting to call out, but also not wanting to make a fool of herself. What had she been thinking, riding out here in full jewelry and dress with no weapon or guard? It was yet another sign that she needed to get a check on herself before she made many more mistakes.
Stroking her fingers over Moonbeam’s mane, Eleanor looked around one last time. Why had he been running so hard from her? And when she saw him, what would she say? Her mind was running with thoughts and emotions, but even with the conflict raging in her mind, Eleanor suddenly felt so alone. She felt a sudden nudge at her arm and turned to see Moonbeam rubbing against her, and Eleanor couldn’t help but to smile and climb back up onto her back. Somehow, her horse just knew.
Eleanor clicked again, but kept Moonbeam from rushing back to the palace. Far too soon, she would be back to that place, making the worst decision of her life, and she was in no rush to get back there.
Once she did get back, Eleanor went up to Gayle, who fussed over her muddy slippers and hem. She was quickly shifted into a simple yellow gown, much like the one she had worn earlier, only with less lace and ruffle. A page came while she was getting ready to let her know that, once again, her mother and father could not join her at dinner. Normally, it would not have bothered her, but this meant she would be alone with Prince Alexander.
She kept hoping that the dinner would end faster. After a few attempts at getting a conversation going, Eleanor had given up and now just stared at the prince. He stared right back at her, and she knew that life had to be better than this. Was this what a married life with him would be like? While her parents were not perfect, they did have loving conversations and moments of stolen romance and secrets with each other. Would that not be possible for her?
Her thoughts did not only dash to thoughts of marriage with the prince, however. They also went to Sir Brandon. It was taking all of her concentration and quite a few glasses of wine to attempt to erase all thoughts of him, but the liquid was only enhancing her desire to see him again and discuss what had occurred earlier in the day. As soon as the meal was over, she would send for him. It was the only way she could put her mind at rest.
No sooner than the meal was done did she have a messenger rushing to his rooms. She rushed quickly from the table after sending the message up to her study, where she tried to bury herself in her books. It was, of course, no use. Thirty minutes passed, and she sent another message to Sir Brandon. She had already moved from a book at her desk to poems in the window seat, and still he did not come. An hour passed, and she sent another note, and was now simply staring down into the training yard.
Where was he? Was he avoiding her? Was he completely disobeying an order? Or was he off somewhere else? The thoughts were killing her, and Eleanor sent another note, this time making certain the messenger searched everywhere. She knew she would not be able to sleep without seeing him first. Eventually, the candle wax began to drip and the lights were dimming, and Eleanor knew that it was time to give up.
Slipping through the servant passages to avoid any sight of her mother or Prince Alexander, Eleanor ended up in her room and quickly slipped out of her dress. All of the servants, save for Gayle, were dismissed. Gayle helped her with her hair and jewelry, and then disappeared as well. All that Eleanor wanted was to be alone… or with Sir Brandon. She simply sat in front of her mirror and began brushing her hair to at least a hundred strokes.
It was one of the few feminine rituals that she kept with, knowing that in later life, she would be glad she had. Her mother had the most beautiful and soft hair she had ever seen, and she brushed her hair every night 100 times. Eleanor would not be breaking that ritual any time soon.
Her thoughts, however, were not on the softness of her hair nor on the number of passes the brush had made through her hair. Instead, her thoughts were occupied with Sir Brandon’s face. When they had seen each other in the training yards, the world stopped for a few moments. Eleanor had always known that there was some sort of bond between them, but suddenly there was a whole new light around him. Perhaps it was because she was looking at men as possible spouses instead of just her subjects, but the reason for the change did not matter.
When he had seen her, it looked as though his face had lit up. She knew that her face had done the same, and paused for a moment in her brushing to lightly touch her cheeks. They were red again, simply from the thought of him. It was all because she had looked into his eyes. Never before had she allowed her eyes to catch his, but she had done it now twice in one day. No wonder she was going crazy. Eleanor could only hope that he had not seen the reaction his presence had caused in her.
Knowing her hair was fully brushed, Eleanor slipped into bed with a book of poetry. It was not romantic, but it was almost a love for nature and the natural beauty of the outdoors. She wondered if Prince Alexander enjoyed poetry… she wondered even more if Sir Brandon enjoyed poetry.
Her eyes somehow fell asleep while she was reading, but it was not long before there was a pounding on her door. Gayle appeared from her room through the side door to help Eleanor into her robe, and Eleanor rushed to the door, worried that it was about her father. Opening the door, she saw a messenger she had never seen before being held back by the guards.
With a wave of her hand, the guards released the boy. “What is the meaning of this? The hour is late, so you had best have something important to tell me.” The boy looked at her as though he was scared, and Eleanor sighed, knowing she had been too harsh. As Gayle was always saying, she should not punish the messenger for the message. The boy was holding out a note with a shaking hand, and Eleanor took his hand in his and held it to steady it. The boy looked started, and Eleanor took the note and opened it to read the few words.
It was enough to make Eleanor want to scream. She handed the note to Gayle, who simply looked at it and frowned. The two women stared at each other for a moment before Eleanor sighed. She would not be sleeping well tonight. “Tell that… man… that I will be down as soon as I am presentable.”
The boy nodded and dashed off, leaving a very annoyed Eleanor and a slightly angry Gayle watching after him. “I swear, I will kill that man,” Eleanor muttered under her breath, and shut the door. Gayle was already busying herself, finding a simple green gown for Eleanor to wear. It was nothing special in the slightest, but it would work for pulling on without worrying about special corsets and undercoats.
Eleanor pulled on a plain underskirt and the dress was pulled on over top, leaving Gayle with just a few ties to pull and buttons to snap. It took no time at all, and Gayle began working Eleanor’s soft hair into a loose bun at the nape of her neck. She took the simplest tiara from the jewelry box and placed it atop of Eleanor’s head, a single emerald in the center. This was all the effort she would put into this meeting.
“Back to sleep with you, dearest Gayle. I fear that this shall take longer than I am willing to keep you awake, and I know that the morning shall come early and I shall not be too pleasant to deal with. Rest, now. I can take care of myself.”
Gayle sighed and nodded, letting her mistress go. Before Eleanor reached the door, Gayle called out to her, saying, “Now, my lady, the benefits may be good, but remember, not all that seems good is good.” As if Eleanor needed to be reminded of that around Duke Phillip.
• • •
Of all the men that were seeking her hand in marriage, Duke Phillip was the only one that she had met before. He was also the one that she had the most reservations against marrying, and the one that she knew could help her kingdom in both military and trade. Eleanor knew that her first choice should have been Phillip, and she was scared that he knew that too. A marriage between the two of them was probably what most of the nobility were expecting. The fact that she had invited two others was more than likely a mere courtesy in their eyes.
Phillip’s grandfather had made perhaps one of the most strategic marriages of her kingdom’s history in marrying the heiress to another dukedom. They had only one child, Phillip’s father, and Phillip himself was also an only child. He possessed the most land in the kingdom, including two large centers of trade, and in turn held more money than perhaps even the crown. His land was also perfectly bordered on the southern rim, far away from the northern borders that was plagued with wars.
As for Phillip himself, he was a conceited, arrogant, selfish ass. He had plenty of good looks and thought of himself as a gift to all women. When he wasn’t drinking or gambling, he was whoring, and in the off chance he wasn’t doing that, he was insulting anyone beneath him, which seemed to mean most everyone. If their marriage was not the most strategic of all and if he had someone else to claim his title, Eleanor would have done away with him long ago. She prayed that he would at least be amicable in this situation. If she was lucky, he would wed her and go back to his estate, never to return.
• • •
Standing outside of her receiving room, Eleanor glared at the door, not wanting to go inside. She knew that he was waiting for her, and that the sooner she got it over with the better, but neither of those facts could push her to just open up the doors. He was banging around in there, and she could hear him letting books drop to the floor as he most likely dug through the bookshelf. Of all the times that her tongue needed to be still, this was certainly the most important.
She reached her hand towards the door, ready to go inside, when she heard the sound of boots coming from down the hall. Turning, she saw a very tired and perturbed looking knight coming toward her, followed by a messenger, a servant, and a few other knights. When he grew closer, she could see that it was Sir Brandon. Stepping away from the door, she waited until he was close before she raised the candle so he could see it was her. Brandon raised his hand to stop everyone behind him and continued walking towards her, opening his mouth.
Not wanting Phillip to know that she was outside his door, she raised her hand to stop him, and felt the warm air of his breath reach her fingers. Grabbing the sleeve of his shirt, she pulled him back down towards where he had come, out of earshot from the clearly annoyed Duke.
Once they were far enough away, she released his sleeve, and looked up into his eyes. He looked somewhat angry, but the softness was escaping his hard features. Looking back down again, she sighed, not knowing what to say.
He seemed to take it as an invitation to speak, and said, “What is all the noise, my lady? I got a knocking on my door saying there was an intruder. Is everything alright?”
The way he said ‘my lady’ almost made her breath catch in her throat. She had noticed it before, that it was almost as though he put the emphasis on my, but right then, with that look on his face, it felt like so much more. Trying to brush away present thoughts, she returned her mind to the situation at hand. Ah, if only she could consider Duke Phillip an intruder, and have Sir Brandon throw him out.
“It is Duke Phillip.” Sir Brandon looked almost as though he flinched. Everyone knew about the man. “He has arrived and is waiting to greet me.”
Sir Brandon nodded, and they stood there in silence for a moment.
“I saw you in the training yard earlier. You rode off. I needed to speak with you, but… where did you go?” Her voice was soft in speaking until the last few words, in which she tried to sound like a monarch, and not a woman. Brandon looked up at her for a moment before lowering his head again. His mouth looked as though he was trying to form words, but could not speak.
“I- I went riding, my lady. I did not return until recently.” Eleanor nodded and accepted his answer. What more could she say to him? “If that is all, my lady, I will take my leave. Please, send for me if… you need my assistance.”
Eleanor nodded again and watched as he bowed before her then walked away, his knights following him. She wished that she could go with him, but there was an issue she had to deal with before she could do as she pleased.
• • •
It took all of Brandon’s strength to walk away. She had invited Phillip Astendra, Duke of Thearith and Mirasa, to court? Was she considering marrying him? He was beyond enraged had the thought – he was absolutely livid. It was hard enough to imagine some foreign prince becoming king, but that man was beyond reason. He almost turned around and stormed into her study, ready to pulverize the man and accept the punishment. Eleanor deserved the best, and Phillip was by far the worst.
He had seen it in her eyes. She did not want to see the man any more than Brandon wanted him in the palace, let alone the kingdom. He knew that he had to face the fact that she would choose the man that was best for the kingdom, but Eleanor was a selfless woman and would give up her own feelings for the good of all. While it was a noble trait in his monarch, it was a horrifying idea for the woman he cared about.
He shouldn’t have avoided her after seeing her in the training yard. No matter how fast he had rode, he could hear her behind him, and had pushed to stay in the trees. Even from where he had sat along the tree line, he could see that she was looking for him. Why did she care where he went? Didn’t she have some prince to entertain?
After she had ridden off, Brandon had stayed in the field long past dark, not wanting to run into her again. He knew it was wrong and cowardly, but he couldn’t bare the thought of seeing her on the arm of Prince. He would be a good match for the sake of military protection, but he was too stiff to make Eleanor happy. Of course, now that Brandon looked back at those earlier thoughts, he knew that Prince Alexander was a far better decision than Duke Phillip.
Storming into his room, Brandon slammed the door behind himself so hard, he was certain the entire building had to be shaking. The rage that was within him would not calm down, and he could not stop himself as he grabbed the chair from beside his bed, picked it up, and threw it against the wall. The piece of furniture broke into many pieces, and Brandon turned to his wardrobe to take his anger out on that next. Slamming his fist into it, the wood cracked, leaving his balled up hand covered in cuts and already forming bruises.
A knock came at the door and Brandon went to it furious, and opened it to see who it was. “WHAT!” he growled, to see it was simply a page. The boy looked scared out of his wits and was visibly shaking from having to stand in front of the fuming knight, and Brandon immediately softened. “What is it boy? Out with it.” His voice was much gentler this time around, but it did not hide the anger that was still built up.
The boy stretched out his hand with a stack of notes in it, and Brandon took them as gently as he could, nodding at the boy. “Thank you, lad. Go on back to sleep. I shall be quiet now.” The boy nodded and ran off, leaving Brandon to mentally beat himself up over the situation.
Regardless of how angry he was, the boy did not deserve the wrath that Brandon had taken out on him. It had been all that he had known as a boy. Any time something bad happened, anger was released from somewhere. That was not the time of man he had wanted to grow up to be, but it seemed as though it was the time of man he had become.
Running his fingers through his hair as he sat down on his bed, Brandon began to read through the notes. They all seemed to say the same thing… Eleanor was looking for him. It just made Brandon feel even worse. While he had been out in that field, sulking and pitying himself, the woman that he pined for had needed him.
Falling back onto the bed and groaning as he felt the pain in his hand, Brandon closed his eyes, hoping that sleep would come swiftly. How could the day have started so well, and ended so badly?
• • •
Nodding to the guards that stood on either side of the door to her library, Eleanor prepared herself to greet Phillip. As soon as the doors were opened, the man turned and looked at her shocked from his position beside her liquor cabinet. She saw that he had already cleared through one of her favorite bottles and was working on another. Smothering her anger, Eleanor put a smile on her face and went to see the man.
“Oh, Phillip, I am so glad that you could join me here,” she said, a fake smile plastered across her face. No one could ever say that she wasn’t courteous.
Duke Phillip took her outstretched hand in both of his and kissed it delicately, a similarly fake smile spreading across his face. “Of course, Princess Eleanor. I could never deny you the benefit of my presence when you request it.”
It was enough to make Eleanor gag. She took her free hand and pressed it to her mouth, hoping that he had not noticed her moment of weakness, but the icy touch of his blue eyes told her that he had seen she was unhappy he was here. A real smile crept across his face now, almost as though he was enjoying seeing her uncomfortable.
“Come, my Lord. Won’t you sit with me? We simply must catch up.” She really was going to be sick if she had to keep this up. All she could tell herself was to think of the benefits. All she really wanted, however, was to punch him in the nose.
Duke Phillip finished topping off his glass before taking her hand and escorting her to the sofa. His blonde hair, which reached almost to his eyes normally, was slicked back with far too much grease. His attire looked wrinkled as though he had attacked her liquor cabinet without even changing from his riding clothes, and she could already smell the liquor pouring out of him. If he so much as glanced at her in an inappropriate way, the money and land could be damned – Sir Brandon could do as he chose with the man.
Thoughts of Brandon took her away for a moment, but Eleanor was quickly brought back to reality as Phillip began to speak. Even his voice made her feel ill. Everything about him felt so wrong, and she knew that her marriage to him would be an unhappy one.
Not caring about what he had to say, Eleanor interrupted him with a rather loud yawn. “Oh, my dear, please forgive me. I fear that I am quite tired. You know, my birthday ball is in two days, and I have just been so busy with planning.”
Phillip looked as though he was fuming out of his ears at being interrupted, making Eleanor have a real smile on his face. Ah, how the tables had turned. He quickly composed himself, of course, and gave a quick nod and swallowed the rest of his drink.
“But of course, Princess. I know that every woman must have her little amusements.”
That comment almost earned him a slap, but Eleanor quickly rose from her seat, watching the slightly intoxicated Duke jump up as was required by decorum.
“I trust that you can find your way to your room. And, if you cannot, I am certain that a guard would be more than willing to help you. Good night.”
She turned before he could even speak, and as she stepped into the hallway, she could hear the sound of glass shattering against the wall. Had he truly thrown one of her glasses in anger? If he kept this up, money or no, he would not be staying in her palace for much longer, let alone her kingdom.