"Prince Rainhart," said Tancred.
Rainhart hesitated and winced. He stopped in the act of crossing the room to Philomena's side. "Your majesty."
"I am glad you could find a way to be at the coronation."
Philomena blinked. She hadn't expected that.
"However, I will have to hold you to your word. The last thing I need is a Jovani army galloping towards Breg."
Rainhart nodded. "Of course, your majesty. Thank you for your understanding."
Tancred nodded. He beckoned Philomena over. "Prince Rainhart must rejoin Lord Cassius immediately. Would you consent to escorting him to the city gates, Baroness?"
"I—of course, your majesty."
Tancred nodded, clasped Rainhart's hand, and was drawn back into a throng of advisors and well-wishers. Next, there was Holle. "I hadn't looked for you to return so soon, brother," she said.
"Only for a moment," Rainhart replied. "I realised that it wasn't that Tancred didn't want me at the coronation—it is right that House Reuz present a united front. But he did not want a Jovani presence. Lo, I arrive alone. But I suspect the Jovani presence—or some portion of it—may not be far behind."
Philomena gave him a wide-eyed look. "Did you run away from Lord Cassius?"
Ducking his head, Rainhart said, "I left him a letter. I think he will understand. But... best not to test his patience."
Holle poked him in the ribs with the cane. "It is right that you were here," she said.
"Ouch," Rainhart replied, rubbing his sternum.
Holle gave him a glittering, amused look. "Make sure he actually leaves, this time, Mena," she said.
"So eager to be rid of me, sister."
"Of course—nobody pays me any attention when you're around."
"Hah." Holle drifted away, and Rainhart turned to Philomena. "I left my horse saddled, but we will need one for you... Baroness."
"I'm sorry," said Philomena in a rush, "I had no idea that Tancred planned this for me."
"When we were in the forest and you told me I had to leave, you mean?" said Rainhart.
Bracing herself, Philomena nodded.
"I know that," said Rainhart. "You wouldn't keep something like this from me. You'd speak and take the consequences." He tilted her chin up with his knuckle, examining every feature of her face. "My guess is that Tancred realised that, which is why he told you nothing until I had left."
"I hadn't thought of it that way," said Philomena.
"And I cannot think of anyone better to rule Traumwald than you. Come on," said Rainhart. He took her hand and they went together towards the stables.
"I don't know whether I can do it," said Philomena. "At best I'm a prince's bastard. At worst... well, the rumours Valdon spread are true. How could anyone take one such as me seriously as a baroness?"
Rainhart paused. "It will be difficult," he said, "but you will make the folk of Traumwald love and respect you. I know it. I wish I could come with you to help."
"I do too," said Philomena quietly. They went into the stables and Rainhart instructed the groom to saddle a horse for Philomena.
"Rainhart," she said as they stood beside an empty loose-box. "I—yes I will."
Rainhart turned his attention to her. "Hm?"
"Pledge to marry you. I will."
"Oh." Confusion turned to joy like the sun breaking across a field. She found herself in his arms, pressed against his chest.
"Sweet Mena." There was a different quality in the way he said it. "You always did have in your mind that I would marry a Deusetatsi baroness."
"If no Merot princess was forthcoming," she said into his doublet.
"None have presented themselves." He held her back, studied her face. Then he leaned in and brushed his lips against hers. "I thought..." Rainhart broke off, seeing the groom leading another horse forward. They followed the man into the yard where Rainhart's horse also stood. "I thought that when Briga has her pups you might like one. I could train it up, and when weaned, send it to you. For company. And safety."
"Oh, yes please," said Philomena, wide-eyed. To have a dog of her own... a big hound like Briga...
Rainhart laughed. "I promise I will give you the cleverest of the litter."
They rode through town. When they reached the gate, Rainhart stopped and drew his horse around, so they were side-by-side, facing each other. He leaned across and pulled her in for a last, long kiss, winding his hand in her loose hair. She let go of her horse's reins and clung to him instead.
"We are doomed to be apart, for a while, at least," said Rainhart, resting his forehead against hers.
"But not forever."
Wordlessly, Philomena shook her head. "Ride safely," she said.
"May the gods hold you in the hollow of their hands," said Rainhart.
"And may the Blessed few guide and keep you," she replied.
With a half-smile, Rainhart turned his horse around and rode through the city gates. Philomena watched his receding figure. Rainhart stopped his horse, turned, and gave her a half-wave. She nodded, then turned her own horse back towards the palace. She had plans to make, and things to do.
* * *
Rainhart met Cassius a half-day's ride out from Breg. The Jovani Commander stood on the high ground, one hand on his hip, the other holding his horse's reins. Rainhart gave him a sheepish look as he rode up.
"Good of you to rejoin us, Prince Rainhart," said Cassius, raising his eyebrows.
"I am sorry to delay your return to Jovan," said Rainhart. "Thank you for your understanding."
Cassius nodded. "Are you now ready to leave Deusetats?"
"I am," said Rainhart. "Lead on to Monsilys, Lord Cassius."
YOU ARE READING
Philomena is a child of the empire, traded to faraway Deusetats to seal an alliance and marry a prince: the handsome but arrogant Prince Rainhart. However, politics is never simple. On the eve of Philomena's wedding, the king is brutally assassinat...