Chapter Thirteen – continued
Dismissed, Adrian left quickly, letting out a soft sigh as he closed the door behind him. He couldn’t blame James for preferring the look of the handmaiden, but devastation would fall on both kingdoms if this marriage didn’t go ahead.
For decades, a tenuous peace had reigned. But that didn’t mean sailors didn’t sneak out to the lagoon to capture a mermaid and it didn’t mean the merfolk didn’t sink a ship or send heavy rains. Much had been lost, especially trust, over the years. It would only be worse if the marriage failed.
Taking a deep breath, Adrian set off down the hall, trying to keep his steps as quiet as possible. Drawing in silent breaths, he listened carefully for any murmurings or footsteps. The halls, though, were silent. His heart beating faster with every second, he could feel sweat gathering along his scalp.
Finally, he passed by a hallway that held a soft swish of soft soled shoes and fabric. His breath caught in his throat. It could just be a servant. Or it could be his cousin getting himself into trouble. James had been expressing concern about the upcoming engagement. Marriage wouldn’t just mean entering into an alliance with a girl who normally had a tail, but also possibly spending half his own life under water. For a boy who had nearly drowned, it was a terrifying thought.
“The gardens are lovely.” Adrian immediately recognized his cousin’s voice, but not the earnest tone in it. “If you ever have a free moment, I’d love to show you around.”
Adrian didn’t hear an answering reply, but he did finally spot two people standing just outside the light cast by one of the large, arching windows that looked out over the inner courtyard. One head bearing long, flowing hair dipped slightly and a hand belonging to the other figure tentatively reached out to brush at the other’s face.
“James,” Adrian hissed as he quietly came up on them.
Startled, James jumped away from the handmaiden, who shrank against the wall with large eyes. He looked back at Adrian, both guilty and defiant.
“What are you doing?” Adrian demanded in a whisper, not wanting to draw attention. “Your betrothed is waiting for you to bring your gift.”
“I’m talking to the First Handmaiden,” James said coolly. His eyes narrowed. “Don’t judge me when I haven’t judged you.”
“That’s different. I’m not Crown Prince.”
James tilted his head and raised a brow. “You will be if I step aside.”
“You wouldn’t. Not over a woman.”
James shook his head, his shoulders slumping. “You don’t understand what it’s like, Adrian. You’ve had the choice of staying away for ten years. Court isn’t what you remember. This marriage isn’t what it’s supposed to be. The Count Olidan arranged for me to not have to spend half the year under the sea, but it means my firstborn will be heir to the Pearl Kingdom and, once they take that throne, I’ll never see my child again.”
Adrian drew back in surprise. “Why would the Count agree to that?”
“Not Lawrence,” he said, bitterness tinging his words. “He was only following what my parents wanted. They’d rather keep me on land, even if it means surrendering their first grandchild.”
Adrian glanced over at the handmaiden trying to make herself as tiny as possible in the shadows. “And you think you can get out of it by having a tryst with the princess’s handmaiden?”
James straightened up. “Not a tryst.” He looked over at the woman and his features softened. Then he looked back at Adrian, his eyes hard. “If this ever gets back to my parents, I will step aside and make way for you to become king.”
“You wouldn’t,” Adrian hissed angrily. “Stop being a spoiled brat, James.”
James bowed his head for a moment before lifting his eyes back to Adrian. “Think what you want, Adrian, but you don’t know what court is like anymore, you don’t know the demands on my shoulders already, you don’t know the changes that have been coming to the kingdom. So don’t judge me.”
Abruptly, James turned and reached a hand out to the handmaiden. Tentatively, she came to him, stepping out of the shadows. James didn’t touch her, but guided her down the hall, away from Adrian.
Adrian’s lips thinned as he watched his cousin walk away, smiling down at the woman who had the power to change all of their lives. But James was right. Adrian and Andalissa had been gone for ten years. They’d all grown up during that time, and the people in power had only grown older and more comfortable.
Murant Holdings was far from the sea, closer to The Spindle than the coast. His father rarely discussed the frequent letters that had come in from the King. While he’d been living an idyllic, pastoral life, his cousin had been thrown into what now sounded like a maelstrom.
Lips tight, Adrian spun on his heel and headed back to the parlor.
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