Clara hesitated a moment too long at the door of the women's wing.
Her aunt Amarante turned and said, "Child, what is the matter?"
Shaking her head, Clara forced her legs to move her forward. Amarante wouldn't understand why Clara felt as if the weight of Enrico's gaze settled on her whenever she so much as looked at the heavy wooden doorways. Two days of safety.
But now, the tournament.
Outside the women's wing. Fearghill and Siona. And Enrico.
Clara looked at her aunt's back. I wish mother could have come with me.
"One can only hope that seeing you will jog our Blessed Prince's memory and he will give you your audience."
"Si—I've heard it always takes a few weeks," said Clara. Amarante would not want to know who had told her that.
"I suppose," said Amarante. She looked over her shoulder. "But you do look rather fine in that dress, my dear. I shouldn't wonder if you catch Prince Zarinel's eye."
"I hope I don't," said Clara sharply.
Amarante thinned her lips. "You must stop shunning men's attention," she said. "It isn't the way to get by in the world."
Looking down at her hands, Clara nodded. Her fate rested on who she married and whether, when he became master of Vallebrion, he looked after the holdings—and her. But not Enrico. He was not the answer.
She trailed her aunt down the long corridor away from the women's wing. Out of the corner of her eye she caught a flash of movement around a corner. One of Enrico's men? It was easy enough to imagine that he had posted someone to watch for her appearance.
Clara quickly lost track of the turns through which they were guided. Vallebrion had as many turns as this warren, and she had often wandered in the shadows and gullies of the forest, but she had never felt as lost there as she did in the stone maze of High Rock. She felt as if, if she dallied and lost her guide, she might wander into the jaws of some monster.
They emerged in the courtyard and Clara looked up at the sky. The same sky that watched over her forest; the same sun that warmed her mother's face as she sat in the solar.
From the courtyard they went through a stone archway and into an arena. It was made of wooden palisades, with rows of benches raised up from the dirt and bright purple and gold drapes offering shade. Attendants were showing lavishly-dressed nobles to their places in the stands and offering them refreshments. Clara had never seen the Court at High Rock assembled together: they glittered more like jewels than people.
"This way, my lady," said the attendant and Clara realised with a start that she was one of them. Or might as well be. She didn't like the idea that she might fit in with all these shining folk. There was no dirt here: no fingers torn by brambles, no blistered heels, no sunburned faces.
She sat and folded her hands in her lap. Amarante had taken in the throng of nobles, weighed them up, and become more interested by the chilled honeywine offered by the attendant.
The stands filled up. Several middle-aged ladies occupied the places next to Clara, squeezing her against Amarante's side. They immediately started gossiping, and Clara half-listened as they mentioned Lord This's son and Lord That's daughter, and the guarant from Such-and-such Hold
Then, almost a bell after they had sat down, trumpets blared to announce the arrival of the prince. Clara craned forward as several men strode through the gate. The Prince was easy to make out—he was a barrel-chested figure with a square, jutting jaw and dark eyes, and he scanned the crowd as a man surveying his belongings. With a careless wave of acknowledgement, he mounted the stands to where a purple-draped throne awaited on a dais.
"Our blessed prince welcomes you to today's entertainment and hopes you may find it to your liking," said the herald standing by Prince Zarinel's side.
He gives no sign of it, thought Clara. While the herald spoke, the Prince had been picking through a platter piled high with pink meat. He selected what must have been the prime morsel and popped it into his mouth, wiping his hand on a napkin offered by an attendant.
"I beg pardon, ladies," said someone, "but I must inconvenience you. You see, that is my betrothed."
Clara looked up sharply, in time to hear one of the women beside her say, "Oh yes, of course, Lord Enrico," as they all shuffled away from her.
Clara had a moment to study the treacherous stretch of wood before it was filled with that hated form.
"Clara, my light, I am blinded by your beauty," said Enrico, capturing her hand.
"How sweet," said the woman on his other side.
"Lady Catalina, have you met my affianced bride?" said Enrico. At her denial, he shook his head. "Then how remiss of me. Ladies Catalina, Amina and Xione, this is Mistress Clara, heiress of Vallebrion, who is here to swear fealty to our blessed prince."
Clara mumbled some polite words and tried to extract her hand from Enrico's grip.
"Stop fidgeting, my light," said Enrico, tightening his hold. "The prince is watching."
Clara's gaze shot towards the dais. Prince Zarinel regarded her from under hooded lids. He leaned over to an advisor, who said something to him. Without taking his gaze from Clara, Prince Zarinel nodded. Then he turned his attention to the food platter and Clara had the sensation of being released from an adder's jaws.
"When shall we be married, Clara-light-of-my-life?" Enrico singsonged. "Do you think Prince Zarinel may permit the ceremony while we are at High Rock?"
"My mother won't agree," said Clara.
The façade of smitten bridegroom crumbled. Enrico said with a mix of venom and glee, "Your mother wouldn't go against the word of the Prince of Teleahn, you stupid child."
It was true. Clara gave up her struggle to free her hand from his. It was trapped there and he wasn't letting go of it. Just like he wasn't letting go of her.
YOU ARE READING
The Forest's HeartFantasy
Vallebrion is one of the old places -- a forest where the old and new worlds lie side by side. Clara has grown up walking its shadowed paths and green glens, and one day the man she takes as husband will be Master of Vallebrion and the mysteries tha...