After Raena finished an early evening workout with the two Nyss, she cooled down and washed up with a wet towel. Working out with them was the perfect challenge in her mind; either one of them was more skilled than she was, but she was usually twice as fast as either of them alone. Their combined skills often had her on the defensive and she had to work hard to land a “touch” — something they all did so as not to cause injury at a time they had to be in top form. Since she was at the greatest disadvantage, her philosophy was that she would have the most to learn.
Besides, life wasn’t fair. Either she and her allies were ganging up on an opponent or it was the other way around. If she was to be in top form at all times, then she had to prepare for the worst.
Her thoughts turned to recent events. She’d confronted a strange amphibian king alone, then challenged a wereboar to a fight just to prove it was more than they seemed to her friends. She’d been drunk for a week straight and topped it all off by duelling an orc war leader. If she hadn’t had Mel, Lars and the Nyss at her back for that, she’d have returned to the embrace of Gaeruilil by now. But they had wiped out the orc war leader’s immediate minions and Mel had kept her on her feet long enough to do enough damage to bring the orc general low.
Realization that she’d won an army with that single fight had come in the moments afterwards. Knowing why and who she’d name to be it’s general came in the next instant.
Finished cleaning up, Raena stripped off her clothes and slipped into something the High Elves though to be attractive. Of course all her outfits had been modified to her own tastes, but this one was more… modest. Modesty was a vice the high elves most frequently indulged in, mistaking it for a virtue when all modesty did was provide those with low self esteem a layer of cloth to hide behind. Modesty was simply a form of sloth called cowardice. But she was among high elves and as ambassador she had to try to respect their ways, however decadent they might seem to her.
Which brought Prince Barry to mind. No, not that he was decadently modest. Rather that she’d been depressed for many days and nearly self-destructed as a result. She’d delved too far into decadence herself, having attempted to drown herself in alcholohol instead of confronting what had bothered her. Sloth. Cowardice. Hiding from problems was not the way of her people. She remembered that now.
It took several conversations with Mel for her to really understand how intimidating she could be to others. Even for a drow, she knew herself to be bold to a fault in normal circumstances, but she had rarely stopped to consider if that boldness could be a disadvantage. It certainly hadn’t hurt her performance as an ambassador. She was fairly certain she now had a reputation for getting precisely what she wanted. That was good for the daughter of Mistress Remiriel Torduis. It was not so good for the drow maiden who truly wanted the attention of a high elf prince recently chastised by a stern and disappointed father and then ill treated by a human knight.
“Ill treated” was her opinion of course, but she knew herself to be biased. While she understood what the King wanted for his son, she disagreed with the manner in which he asked it to be implemented. But, it was not her place to criticize how the royal family chose to discipline or teach their offspring.
Mel had made it clear she was intimidating to Barry, but more importantly, the prince was simply so busy with all the inane chores that had been laid upon him, he never even had time to think about what Raena had offered him. Raena realized Mel was right. She needed to be a little more patient and a lot more gentle with the Prince. Everything that had happened in the last few weeks must have happened very fast for him.
Now that Werner was gone, Barry was working for Eidelwyn. She went looking for him and found him caring for the horses. He hadn’t heard her approach, but instead of interrupting, she picked up a curry comb and stepped up next to him, helping him comb out the charger — brother to her own riding horse.
“Barry” as he was getting used to being called was finishing up his stable duties. The exotic Drow didn’t quite take him by surprise as her own horse had reacted to her presence.
“Me lady, how fare thee today?”
His manners dictated certain pleasantries should be done before finding out why the ambassador was calling. She was sharp, intelligent and dangerous. His mother had warned him to pay attention to her, as her race was as inclined to challenge you to a duel as to stab you in the back with a poisoned knife that belonged to one of their rivals.
Even as he listened to her response he noted her features were beautiful even for one of the Elven race, her figure fit as any fighter, and the modest dress only seemed to tease him with hints of what was below. He had seen her fight in much less and he knew well those curves hinted at well shaped legs and a waist that he could wrap his arm around as he scooped her into an embrace…
She was waiting for a reply. And he just plain had not heard her since the words “I am well.”
Stammering an apology, he finished the horse and asked for her forgiveness for he was far too busy to have a conversation and made off to help with the food, leaving her without her realizing that he really needed to get away before the bulge in his pants ruined his ability to think further. How could he “court” her when all he thought about was that touching that onyx skin and feeling her response would be all that was needed to cause him to lose control?
As he got to the mess area Raena heard Nikki pipe up. “Did brushing the horses get you going?! Damn man, no wonder the Prince is so sought… Oh, I didn’t see her there, sorry Barry.” Nikki’s voiced trailed off in embarrassment, but the inflection was not for her.
Raena paid no mind to the social faux pas, but simply joined the prince in his task once more by readying plates, added potatoes when requested and more. With her help, they were done in half the time.
And she seemed happy to do so. She was never unpleasant in normal circumstances, just outspoken but tonight she was very quiet, reserved even, but not shy. She didn’t wait to be asked to do something — or more accurately, did not wait for the prince to be asked to do something — she simply did what she saw needed to be done. Nor did she try to do everything for the prince. She did half, no more and no less.
If she noticed his obvious attraction to her, she never called attention to it. She’d already seen his embarrassment and took note not to humiliate him. It wasn’t hard for her; she was just as excited to see him and felt a thrill at the occasional, accidental touch. Her skin coloring and the lighting might have concealed any flush, but for those who weren’t trying to avoid looking at her, lingering looks with curious eyes and stolen opportunities to be near him spoke of her own attraction to him.
For those who’d come to know her over the past weeks and months, her behavior was very different toward him. She was always very good at using conversation to make whoever she was with feel important. She had a flattering tongue and had never been afraid to use her sex appeal to entice or simply to play. But she was using neither here. A perceptive third party might even be lead to believe she was desperately trying to get the prince’s attention, but in the gentlest way she knew.
Suddenly, preparations for dinner were over and he was well ahead of schedule. Raena was standing there looking up at him less than an arm’s length away. “Your Highness, will you walk with me?” she said softly enough he had to lean a little to hear exactly what she said.
“Of course, melady.”
Barry was now stuck and he knew it. She had removed any chance for him to excuse himself and now he was going to have to deal with this creature that made him more than a little uncomfortable. His father’s words came to him, unheeded. “Never put off doing something hoping it will go away, get done with it before it gets worse.”
“May I call you Raena?”
Her slight nod granting him that allowed him to continue.
“Raena, I am at a loss. You are beautiful, without question. Your mind is sharp and your skills impressive. You are everything I would ever want in lady and then some. The issue is not you at all. It is my mother and yours. You are the daughter of a House which rules a realm. From what our intelligence has gathered, your house has amassed enough support and caused enough stability to actually rule for several generations. My own house is similar. We would be well matched. And that terrifies me.
“My mother is a monster. Her machinations have caused strife and my kindgom survives because my father is respected and has limited her influence. If she were to believe you to be someone I were interested in, your own mother would be given a message indicating an alliance of our kingdoms will be expected and I am to take your hand in marriage. My mother would then work to undermine your own mother in order to make sure that whatever child we had would be the ruler of both kingdoms. With her ‘advising’ until the child was old enough to rule instead.”
Without looking at her he said, “She told me one night, during one of her drunken tirades about this plan. Marry me off to the heir or even just someone in line to be heir and then remove all the obstacles once I had a child. Told me she would be better than a queen to a man she couldn’t manipulate anymore. She thought I would forget. It was 70 years ago, and unlike other things, I have made sure to always remember this tidbit.”
“I decided to become worthless, figuring they would have another child and that I could pawn off being heir to the other one. I could keep my brother or sister safe and then try to keep it from happening. My mother refused to touch my father after I was born. He told me so a few years ago. So here I am, the Prince that killed a dragonspawn which was attacking a small village because I happened to be near there for a hunting trip. The accidental killer of a wonderful little girl that used to sneak into the stables to help me groom my horse and talk to me. Did you know she wanted to be a vet?”
Tears in his eyes, Barry simply trailed off.
Perhaps when Raena took his hand in hers, it was an unexpected display of sympathy coming from a dark elf, but it was an honest emotion. Her hand was warm.
“My prince,” she said, “Your fears are valid. I’m sorry your mother behaves that way and I fully empathize with how you feel. But maybe I can assure you in a couple ways.
“First, I’m not the first born of my own mother. Not that it matters; she will either choose whomever she feels is most worthy to rule after she is gone, or she will leave it to the strongest or most devious of her heirs to decide for themselves. The fact is, she is likely to outlive us all and undoubtedly, that is her goal. But, if your mother is so creative and ambitious that should could put a potential child of ours on your throne as well as my mother’s, she would have to make the child extraordinarily competent. Only the most competent and skilled can survive the assassins of rivals and machinations of internal politics in my homeland. In truth, I would not be concerned in the least about your mother trying to put a single person in charge of both realms. Good on her if she can manage. At least she isn’t interested in harming us.
Now that they had walked far enough to feel certain they were alone, Raena stopped to face him. She produced a few fairy lights to provide him with enough light to see her very clearly. She wanted him to see how she felt in her eyes and her face. “I would defend you and everything we might have one day with all my being.
“From the moment I saw you the first time, I could feel potential in you. I saw you a second time, and I realized I was very attracted to you, even though you tried to put me off, send me away.” She smiled, amused at the memory. “But I saw through that facade. And then you came to the wedding and I was on your arm. I… liked it.”
“I know your mother will try to run your life and mine, too, if she can. My own mother will do the same. But I like our odds far better if we are together, than if we were to face our futures apart.”
She put his hand against her chest so he could feel her heart. “I’m so sorry for what happened to the little girl. I can see how terrible it makes you feel to this day. You are a good person — better than me. You have a wonderful heart and I would never hold something against you for which you show such remorse.
“I know your fortunes thus far have swung wildly. But what I have seen in these past weeks also proves to me that the gods yet smile upon you. I saw you take heads of orcs and your bravery in battle cannot be doubted. Your endurance with what these knights put to you is worthy of admiration. I think you will be a great king one day, should that be your fate.
“My prince, choose me and you will find no one more devoted to you and what you feel is important. If I could remain at your side, I wouldn’t care if I never returned to visit my homeland. I know some will criticise me because I am a dark elf and will think me subversive because of my race and who my mother is. I am ready to prove them wrong.
“In the past week, I have turned cannibals away from harming people, revealed evil in human-like skin so that they could be dealt with safely, and conquered an orc army and set it upon our enemies because I was trying to impress you. It was… I was stupid I guess. I thought you didn’t like me. I feel deeply for you but hadn’t realized how deeply and I got drunk and I… ”
She suddenly stopped talking. She’d begun talking faster and faster, then realized she was babbling. She looked hopefully, pleadingly at the prince. “You have no idea what I would do for just one touch, one kiss, a promise you would court with me,” she whispered.
Barry leaned down and kissed Raena with a passion she wasn’t entirely expecting. The kiss held as his arm around her back tightened and his hand against her chest felt her heart quicken in response. He reluctantly pulled away, looking in her eyes as he spoke.
“I’d be a fool to not desire to court a woman beautiful as you. I do not know what our future holds, but I promise you this, I will do my best to be worthy of your affection. I will not ask for you to be someone else, I know your passion runs hot and your tastes in men and women are very broad. I won’t ask you to put that away for me when I will be unable to satisfy such wants and needs for the years of my apprenticeship to the other mercenary companies.”
“As for the now, how would you wish to be courted? The High Elven tradition dictates a period of no less than a year where the man and woman get to know one another as friends and allies. This can be a formal agreement between our houses not to do one another harm, or an informal gesture. After that, we are to ‘date.’ These are public shows of our favor and affection and are simply to let everyone know our interests are more closely aligned. It is traditional to go to a ball of some sort and dance to the lover’s dance together. That period has no time constraints.
“Once the formalities are met, if you still favor my company and are willing, a dowry is arranged, the family of the one asked provides it. Chiara asking Eidelwyn was a good for both of them and he asking her would have caused problems for her father’s financial position.
“With us things would be a bit more complex, but those are the general lines.”
He looked at her and smiled. “I have no clue what your courting rituals are. Do I need to declare I wish to be considered worthy of you to your mother, prove myself in some manner and then take your name? I am good with either. My father and the kingdom may not be, but right now, your eyes looking into mine, I could not care less. If you told me it is traditional for your women to eat the heads of their lovers after the first night of sex, I would take you to bed and ask you to be nice enough to at least kill me first.” His smile reached his eyes. She could tell he knew better and was making fun of the stupid rumors about her people his own had.
Raena’s eyes had lit up at the kiss, and her smile was bright. “Some female drow have appetites as great as mine, though I admit I may have been… more frivolous than most. Even so, rest assured I like your head very much just where it is and just as it is!” She laughed a little.
“How would I wish to be courted… well. I am an ambassador to your people. I would be courted in accordance to your own traditions, not mine. You don’t need to prove anything to my mother. When our women choose who we would be with, it’s because the man has already proven himself worthy, and that worth is no one’s business but the woman’s. Should my mother criticize you, then that would be an insult to me and I would be forced to defend your honor and mine. But in my heart I know she wouldn’t do that. She’ll be only too happy that we could have a future because that means less chance she’ll find me in her bed with the manservants again.” Raena laughed, then sobered quickly. “Of course, I have sisters. They might come around to see for themselves the kind of man I have found.” She shook her head, pushing off a worry she really couldn’t plan for anyway.
“I am ready to face whatever complexities might arise, my Prince. Whatever dowries or other requirements will be needed, I will see to it. And, as to my tastes and appetites… I have noticed that being too frivolous can lead to scandal for you. I don’t want that. But I don’t want to be lonely either. Perhaps during this getting to know each other period, we might steal away from time to time? After all, how can you really get to know me, unless you… really know me?”