Prince Ottelo shoved another piece of salted pork in his mouth as he rolled his eyes. The inward sound of chewing helped drown out the incessant conversation Lady Deerdra was having with him. Though the dining hall was large, with high ceilings and expansive marble floors, he felt like he was stuffed in a wooden barrel. Her shoulder and thigh brushed his right side as often as she moved. He kept scooting over to make more room for her, but he was coming dangerously close to the noblewoman on his left. Lady Deerdra kept chattering away and leaning into him, as if she might eventually sit on his lap.
Though he had taken the regular precautions against it, Ottelo did not have to wonder how she came to attain the seat next to him. Lord Pitney was occupied across the table, but his constant glances and smirks in Ottelo’s direction told him Lady Deerdra had switched seats with his best friend. Pitney was not often able to say no to a lady with a deep cut on her bodice and Lady Deerdra certainly had that. Ottelo let out a grunt as he contemplated his retaliation and reached for the biscuit on his plate.
“So you agree then?” A pleased Lady Deerdra placed a hand on his arm and squeezed.
“Uh…um…sure,” he said through a mouthful of bread.
Seated down at the end of the long table, the line of nobles, knights, and his sister, gave way to his mother and father, King and Queen of Staas Kingdom. His mother was delicately cutting her meat into tiny pieces pretending not to notice his father eyeing the female servant who had bent over, bosom spilling out her untied bodice as she refilled his goblet.
His father, King Lothair, was a good king but his wandering eye had kept him ever on the verge of being great to those who truly knew him. If their kingdom had not signed the Providence Treaty in histories past, Ottelo felt many a battle would have been fought over his father’s questionable conquests outside the battle field. As it was, Ottelo’s uncle was sometimes sent with a caravan of local goods as peace offerings to neighboring kingdoms in an effort to smooth over inappropriate advances made to a nobleman’s wife.
His mother, in contrast, was loyal and kind; Queen Dima served her people and her king despite all circumstances and without complaint. She was never one to fall outside of decorum. Her graying red hair was always properly pinned, her bodice never too revealing. Her hands were not given to gesture, and her laugh, while pleasant, was never flamboyant. She served the peasants inside the walls of the city with bread and soup she ordered to be prepared once a week. She was known for emptying her baggage in the market upon returning from holiday to those who needed clothing, often entering her chambers with nothing left but the clothes she wore. The people loved her and her, them. Because of the love for their queen, they tolerated his father as king without uprising.
Ottelo sighed and threw down what was left of the biscuit. It was his mother’s hope that his rule would restore the kingdom to the high honor it once held. It was this type of arrangement and expectation that made him desperately want to drag his feet in regards to binding with Princess ReAnne. What if they were bound and hated each other, as his parents seemed to? Could he rule the kingdom with honor and integrity if he was constantly fighting the one other person he was supposed to revere as an equal?
Suddenly frustrated for not having a choice in the matter, he pushed his plate away and stood, much to Lady Deerdra’s surprise.
“Tell me, Prince Ottelo, where are you heading off to?” She grabbed his arm with both hands. He made eye contact with Lord Pitney who was whispering intimately with a noble woman. Whatever he said made her throw her head back in flirtatious laughter, but still, Pitney rose to take his leave from her.
Before Ottelo could shake Lady Deerdra off, Pitney had circled the long table and engaged her in polite conversation. She wasn’t to be distracted though, for as Ottelo turned to bid good night to his mother, he made it only halfway before Lady Deerdra grabbed his arm again. Not wishing to be rude, he bit his tongue against a chastisement for touching a crown prince for the second time without permission.
Ottelo wracked his brain for an excuse that would not cause Lady Deerdra any undo shame just as musicians began a lively tune. Servants refilled goblets and trays of fruit as the dinner guests began to partner up and shuffle across the floor. He nodded towards her, choosing silence, and turned in time to see his father grab the serving girl who was privy to his earlier advances. King Lothair twirled her around before patting her rear end and sending her off to the kitchen. Queen Dima sat staring straight ahead.
“My prince, you promised me a dance. Surely, you haven’t already forgotten.” Lady Deerdra looked up at him from under her eyelashes. They were not quite as long or dark as Lady Reanne’s.
Ottelo shot a glance to Pitney, who raised an eyebrow but said nothing. Beyond his best friend, Ottelo saw his mother with a furrowed brow cast in his direction. This, of course, she chose to notice. Knowing Queen Dima would be disappointed to find out he had given acquiesce and then denied it, he gave Lady Deerdra a half smile and held out his arm which she took with enthusiasm.
He led her around the floor and endured her girlish giggling and two left feet, managing to not trip too often on her dark blue dress that swayed in afterthoughts to their circling around the floor. After enough time was spent, he saw the tall, black-haired Pitney take his place among the nobleman standing along the outskirts of the dance floor, watching them and keeping time. As Ottelo neared him, he swung the Lady Deerdra around and when she twirled back in, Pitney was her new partner and the shorter and brunette Ottelo had slipped through the crowd of observers.
Disappearing down a long hallway to the east wing, Ottelo chuckled at their well-honed skill. He and Pitney had worked out maneuvers to evade many things long before they were expected to dance. They covered for each other growing up more times than either could count. When they were younger, stolen loaves of bread or salted meat from the kitchen, even a drawn bath was considered fair game. Now that they were older, they finessed their evasions until they worked with thorough precision.
Pitney’s father had been the most trusted knight of King Theosi, Ottelo’s grandfather. When he settled on a countryside manor to live out the last of his days away from battle, Theosi had gifted Pitney’s father with a young maiden named Belda and her brother to help with the tilling of the land and upkeep of the manor. It was not long before Pitney’s father, Lord Wentry, fell madly in love with Belda. They performed the Binding, against her brother’s wishes, and ten months later, Pitney was born. Lord Wentry died shortly after and Pitney’s mother and uncle were never to be found. An honorable field hand in need of work had somehow stumbled across the sleeping Pitney in a basket within the gates of the empty manor. Knowing it to be Lord Wentry’s land, he brought the infant to King Theosi’s court. Immediately, he set Pitney within the guardianship of his son. Prince Lothair took the infant and raised him so Ottelo might have a sparring partner for training and a debate partner for schooling.
Ottelo never knew anything different than to love Pitney as a brother. Only two times had their lack of blood relation been brought to the forefront of their minds. The first, when King Theosi had passed on and Lothair had his coronation. A side-effect of Ottelo’s father becoming king was that he was now considered Crown Prince Ottelo. His rooms were moved, and Pitney was moved along with him, but into a small room outside Ottelo’s chambers. The adjustment was awkward and embarrassing for both of them.
The other time was when King Lothair talked of binding Pitney with Princess Opia. King Lothair had insisted, but Princess Opia had taken to a hunger strike, refusing to have him. When the king’s physicians examined her, they informed the king that she seemed intent to starve herself and was already dangerously malnourished. He rescinded his position on the matter and Princess Opia emerged from her room the following day looking thin, but vindicated. Ottelo and Pitney both had breathed a huge sigh of relief, neither of them wanting Pitney to be bound to Ottelo’s spoiled and peculiar sister.
“Sorry to have to cut the evening short, huh? She’s a wild one, eh, that Lady Deerdra?” Pitney ran up behind him and slapped him on the back, knocking him forward a few feet.
“Yes, I must express my gratitude to you for allowing me the pleasure of her rather persistent company.” Ottelo feigned a gracious bow.
This sent Pitney into a fit of laughter. “Fair game, I say, for shoving the stable hand’s daughter after me last week. I had to hide in a stall.”
“Where’s the harm in that? She was pretty enough.”
“Yes, say most of the stable hands. For your information, the horse used me as his very own chamber pot.”
It was Ottelo’s turn to roar with laughter.
“Oh sure, laugh now, but it wasn’ t at all funny. Lady Deerdra is a bit more persistant. I’ll give you that. I had to feign dizziness to get away from her.”
“So you acted like a lady in order to get away from one, huh?”
“Shut your horse-mouth, or I’ll send a message to Princess ReAnne that she has quite the bit of competition.”
Smirking, Pitney held the door open to Ottelo’s room and entered in behind him, waiting for Ottelo to retort back. He didn’t.
“You are still planning on going through with it, aren’t you?” Pitney walked through the room, checking behind curtains and Ottelo’s dressing wall for intruders.
Ottelo knew Pitney had been smitten with Lady ReAnne from the moment she dismounted her horse. The noble ladies in Staas did not ride horses, choosing instead the luxury of carriages. Nor did they do much more than embroidery and tending to the manor. But rumors about Lady ReAnne had circled Staas upon the intent of her arrival. Not only did she ride atop a horse, but she also was an avid marksman and could hold her own with her brothers during a duel.
“Disappointed if I say yes?” Ottelo asked.
“A little.” Pitney was nothing, if not honest.
He didn’t blame Pitney for his attraction. She was a beautiful creature, with petite features and round, hazel eyes softened by thick black eyelashes. Her smile was inviting and her demeanor even more so. Being raised with three brothers, there was a hint of charming roughness about her. But it wasn’t her beauty that simultaneously drew Ottelo to her and gave him pause. Indeed, in the month she had spent here, they were never without topic of conversation, but neither were they without complaint. They had argued each day, over many things. And while they often concluded that her views of circumstance and nobility obligation were much in line with his own, he was left feeling as if he had lost the argument, all the same. She had a way of speaking that made Ottelo feel as though she was used to being heard and appreciated for her thought, which was much different than his mother or even Lady Deerdra. Lady ReAnne needed to give no foolish giggles or bat her eyelashes. Nor would he get away with ignoring her, as his father did his mother.
“Her brother is a bit of a snoot, though,” Pitney offered.
“Lady ReAnne assures me he is a brilliant person, but woefully bound by honor and duty.”
“No wonder he is groomed for the crown of Mirias, then. Is it true he has the gift of Foresight in Shadow?” Satisfied that trouble was not lurking in the corners of Ottelo’s chambers, Pitney threw himself on the seat near the balcony and helped himself to grapes on the small table nearby.
“She says it is.” Ottelo worked on getting his boots off. “You know, you’d be a lot more helpful if you’d pull these things off me.”
“Ha, you wish! You are the one who dismissed your last valet, not I. I thought he was positively delightful. Beside his apparent disdain for both you and me, of course.” Pitney threw a grape seed at him, hitting Ottelo squarely on the forehead.
“I suppose the fact that he was dipping into my jewelry and selling whatever secret he could holds no weight for you.” His second boot flung in Pitney’s direction, barely missing his head and falling behind the chair. Pitney barely flinched.
“You hate wearing jewelry and you have no secrets, so what was it to you?” Again, Pitney threw a seed, but Ottelo was quick. Catching it, he threw it back, missing his target, as he walked out to the balcony. Pitney followed him.
“Would you like me to find a few ladies to entertain? I know how you love it when your father entertains.”
Ottelo didn’t respond to his teasing. He looked out to the stars, bright and shining, lighting up the east garden below his balcony. “She would not be like my mother.”
“You will not be like your father.”
Ottelo was frustrated that she had thrown him off during her visit. He found himself doing things he never would have done before. He had shown off for her, sparring with Pitney and whispering in his ear to let him win in an effort to impress her. She had made him laugh, eyes shut tight, mouth open, unable to stop. He had gifted his most revered gelding to her after they went riding. Lady ReAnne had liked Whicker so well that she left her previous mount in his stables at Staas and chose to make the journey home to Mirias on his horse, instead.
“I think of her often since she left. And it’s only been a week. I am afraid I will not have level thoughts around her.” Only to Pitney would Ottelo ever dare to share his deepest thoughts. It was true that she made him want to please her, but at what cost to his kingdom? If he ever had to choose between what was right for his kingdom and what would make her happy, he wasn’t sure what decision he would make. “She is also infuriating.”
“And capitivating,” Lord Pitney added.
“Yeah. That, too.”
He was quite certain she would see to it he would make her his world or decide he wasn’t worth her effort and refuse him. Proper alliances to be made were definitely not of her concern for binding. With three princes and the most powerful kingdom within the treaty, the Great King had no obvious need to bind her. As heir apparent, Prince Ottelo had all the reason in the world to be bound.
“What does Uncle Alde say?” Pitney was referring to Ottelo’s uncle, Prince Aldetrudis. Next to Pitney, Uncle Alde was his greatest ally.
“He said the Great King would not have instigated our binding if he did not consider us a good match.”
“Well,” Pitney shrugged, “He is supposed to be the wisest king of all within treaty borders.”
“Yet, shrouded in mystery to all who neighbor his kingdom.”
“Are you afraid he keeps Staas nobility in his dungeons?” Pitney nudged him with his shoulder as they leaned over the balcony railing. The east garden, though lit by the night’s stars, had its own share of shadows. Thinking of Prince Edward’s gift, Ottelo tried to decipher what was hidden in them to no avail.
“I doubt Princess ReAnne would deny her father, much less her king, of his wishes. No matter how she feels about you and your poor swordsmanship.”
Pitney was working hard at lightening the mood.
“Yes. That is also concerning. She doesn’t need to be bound, but she would do it for her king and not because she wanted to.”
“So, your heart is to marry for love, then? Like some plucky village girl madly in love with the smithy’s son?”
“My heart is for my kingdom. I’m not sure there is room for me to love anything else. I’m afraid she would require a great amount of my love.”
“But great would be the love she could give you in return. Of that I have no doubt, my friend.” Pitney slapped him once again on the back and turned in for the night, leaving Ottelo to his thoughts.
He searched the night sky and its stars for an answer from the Provider, but none came.