The carriage bumped and jolted down the gravel drive, but Adelaide’s hand rested firmly in her husband’s. The dreary clouds hung low, a blanket of gray over the city of Benalle, casting silvery light through the window and onto Ferryl’s unruly locks. The castle loomed before them, great white stone halls flanked by towering turrets that looked as if they staked the castle to the edge of the cliffs. The black-and-white flag of Navah flew proudly at each corner of the castle, greeting Ferryl’s return. Hailing the return of the king.
And the queen they did not know they were getting.
Adelaide swallowed once. Twice.
They will love you, Lizybet, Ferryl said to her mind, squeezing her hand for emphasis.
It’s not them I’m worried about, Adelaide admitted to him. And Ferryl met her eyes, pulling her hand to his mouth.
But he gave her no words of reassurance, for what could he say? His mother had despised Adelaide—Elizabeth—as long as they had known each other. How much more so now that she had gone and married Ferryl? Never mind that they had been betrothed since they were children—Meria herself had signed the betrothal contract to the Haravellian princess when Ferryl was only a boy. Would the queen of Navah believe them? Would any of the courtiers or people of the kingdom believe that she really was the princess of Haravelle?
“Yes,” said Ferryl out loud. “I will make sure of it.”
“It looks an awful lot like a prince who ran off to marry the woman he wanted instead of living up to his duties,” she said.
Ferryl took her face in his hands and kissed her once. Twice. “Yes, I did. How convenient that she should be my betrothed to boot.”
Adelaide huffed a laugh before Ferryl kissed her once more. But even in his confidence, she could see the worry that plagued him and slumped his shoulders slightly. It limned his brow, narrowed his eyes, and played in his nervous fingers as they tapped along her hand.
For Ferryl would not return to his kingdom as the hero prince with a legion of allied soldiers in tow.
He would return to his kingdom as their leader, with war on his doorstep and a murder lingering in every whisper, every stare. He would return to his kingdom with a queen they did not know they were getting.
A dead princess, come to life again.
For an absurd moment, Adelaide imagined they were in a circus caravan, pulling into the next town they would entertain.
Ladies and gentlemen! Step right up to see greatest show in Navah! Elephants! Lions! Beasts of all sizes! A terrified prince, poised to take the throne of the greatest kingdom in the realm. And if that’s not enough, you won’t want to miss the mysterious Dead Princess of Haravelle!
It was Ferryl’s turn to breathe a laugh. “Don’t forget the cretin cousin, the brooding half-wit passed over for the throne!”
“You shouldn’t joke like that,” Adelaide warned, though a laugh bubbled in her own throat. “Lord Adam won’t tolerate it forever.”
“I still don’t see why he had to come along.”
“And miss all the drama? Not a chance in Sheol,” she said. “I’m sure he is convinced no one will believe my heritage.”
“And like a spider, he can lurk in the darkness, waiting to claim his rightful throne once more,” Ferryl said, a scowl on his face like he had just swallowed sour milk.
“Ignore him, Ferryl. He is no real threat.”
“Let’s hope you’re right,” Ferryl said cryptically.
The carriage came to a halt, and Ferryl turned his attention out the window once more. Benalle Palace did not gleam in the endless sunlight of the Navarian coast. No, the blanket of clouds made the glorious castle appear gray. Sad. As if the weather itself understood the darkness, the curse that loomed over the people of Navah.
Ferryl took a deep breath. “This is it,” he said.
“Are you ready, King Ferryl?” she asked, the first time she had said his title out loud.
His attention returned to his wife. “I don’t think I’ll ever be ready, my love. But as long as I have you, I know I can face all of this.”
“You’re stuck with me now, sir,” she said.
Ferryl only waggled his brows as the page boy opened the carriage door. “Your Majesty,” he said, his prepubescent voice squeaking. He took a deep bow before pulling the door open all the way, calling out, “His Majesty, the king of Navah!” when Ferryl stepped foot on the gravel.
Ferryl looked around at the small crowd that had gathered at the castle entrance, all of them courtiers come to greet their king. Then he turned and extended his hand to his wife. “Come, Queen Adelaide. Your court awaits.”
He could hear the whispers as they passed. They crawled along his skin, and he ground his teeth to keep his retorts to himself.
It looks like the king has made her his official mistress.
She was always his whore, wasn’t she?
Quite the jewels for a paramour.
Adelaide walked beside him, arm in arm, her shoulders back, her chin high. She looked every bit a queen in that emerald-and-gold gown. He had given her the jewels before they departed Chesedelle, but it was her mother who had given her the circlet that currently sat atop her head. An intricate weaving of gold and silver made to look like the needles of a conifer, it shone from the top of her black tresses, even in the muted light. Princess Adelaide of Haravelle, Queen of Navah. Today—today these courtiers would gain a new queen. A queen in mind and bearing, not just in name. So Ferryl ignored their insults and walked proudly beside his wife.
It was Delaney he spotted first, and a flash of guilt soon followed. She stood at the top of the stairs, her belly protruding rather prominently from her skirts, but she, too, held her shoulders back, her chin resolute. And Michael stood steadily beside her, their faces expressionless as the king and queen approached.
Ferryl decided to swallow his pride. “Your Grace,” he said, bowing his head to the former duchess.
“Your Majesty,” she responded, dipping into a low curtsey. Michael bowed, too. So did all of the gathered courtiers.
Delaney’s attention went to Adelaide. “Elizabeth,” she said, bowing her head. “You look beautiful.”
And Adelaide only smiled, bowing in return. Ferryl caught his wife’s eye and winked for her benefit.
The king and queen of Haravelle soon followed behind them, along with Leala and Lord Adam. Talia and the rest of the servants lingered behind at the caravan, though Talia beamed as if Adelaide were her own daughter.
“Michael,” Ferryl said, acknowledging his friend.
“Your Majesty,” Michael said with a dip of his chin. “We are glad of your return.”
Ferryl looked around at the courtiers that peppered the top of the steps —and noticed which ones did not. “Where is my mother?”
Michael did not answer immediately. No one did. When Ferryl met Michael’s eyes again, the guard only said, “There is much we need to discuss.”
King Ferryl sat with Elizabeth by his side, holding her hand as if she were an anchor and he a ship adrift on a raging sea. He listened intently as Michael recalled the events of the last few months: the death of the king, a court riddled with rumor and gossip, a queen who hid in her chambers away from it all. An invisible burden rested on the king’s shoulders—something Michael couldn’t quite place. He privately wondered what had happened on the road home to Navah.
“And my mother has not emerged? Not once?” Ferryl asked, appalled by what Michael conveyed. The muted light lit the king’s receiving room in a wash of silver sun—a real winter, unlike any Michael could remember in Navah. The chill seemed to have settled into his bones and blood.
“She is…not herself, Your Majesty,” said Michael.
“What does that mean?” asked Elizabeth, her face drawn in concern.
“Something is different,” Michael admitted. “She is much altered.”
“In what way?” Ferryl prodded, leaning forward, his arms resting on his knees.
“I think you’ll understand when you see her,” was all Michael could think to say.
Elizabeth looked to Ferryl for a moment, their eyes locked on one another as if in a silent conversation. It had always been that way with them—an understanding between them which the rest of the world was not privy to. They were in love, yes. But it was so much more than that. A bond, deep and true. Impenetrable.
Elizabeth patted Ferryl’s hand, and that’s when Michael spotted a ring…on her left hand.
“I will deal with my mother later,” Ferryl said, worry tainting his words. Not even home an hour, and Michael had already dropped the weight of the world on the shoulders of his king. Not to mention he had yet to tell him about what had happened with Delaney…
“Michael,” Ferryl said, turning his attention back to the guard. Michael wondered if the king would still consider him a friend when he learned the truth. “We need to discuss castle security.”
Ah. There it was. Something had happened on the road home. Michael sat upright.
But the rest of the story seemed lost on Ferryl, who fidgeted with his fingers and instead suddenly turned his attention to Delaney.
“Delaney, I am glad you are here. I need to apologize to you,” said Ferryl. Delaney only furrowed her brows. “I was unfair to you before I left for Haravelle. I said some things… things I should not have said, and—”
“Your High—Your Majesty, I mean—you do not owe me an apology,” Delaney interrupted.
“My name is Ferryl,” said the king warmly. “My friends call me Ferryl. And I do owe you an apology. My behavior was atrocious, not to mention unfair.” He looked to Elizabeth by his side. She merely squeezed his hand, a small smile on her mouth. It seemed to be enough to give Ferryl the gumption to continue. “I was wrong to accuse you as I did, when I was guilty of the same.” Infidelity—that’s what he meant. He had called her a whore for conceiving another man’s child while still betrothed to Ferryl. And here was Ferryl, admitting to her that he was just as guilty for loving another all the while. Michael wondered if his king would have the same grace when he learned the rest of the story—when he learned of his betraying friend who had stolen a duchess the moment he turned his back.
Absently, Ferryl rubbed a thumb along Elizabeth’s hand as he continued his speech. “Delaney, I am truly sorry for hurting you.”
Michael knew Ferryl. The prince was like a brother to him. And he could see in Ferryl’s eyes that he meant it. Every word. That he was truly, genuinely sorry for how he had treated Delaney and for the things he had said. Michael stole a glance at the woman he loved, only to find her lip quivering as she fiddled with her fingers in her lap. Michael took the risk and rested his hand on her back.
Ferryl placed a hand over Delaney’s, waiting until she met his eyes again. “I am so sorry, Delaney. You became a true friend to me in those weeks when I thought Elizabeth to be dead. I am truly sorry that I threw all of that in your face.”
“You became my friend, too,” Delaney finally managed. And despite himself, Michael ran his hand down her back once. Only once. He dared not touch her more, though the urge to comfort her, to take her in his arms and hold her tightly nearly consumed him.
“Then it is settled,” said Elizabeth, a kind smile in her eyes. “We will be friends.”
Delaney’s gaze danced between the king and queen for a moment. “You do not know how thankful I am for it.”
“I meant what I said in my letter, Delaney,” Ferryl added. “You have a home here. For as long as you like, Benalle Palace is yours to call home.”
Delaney looked to Michael, tears brimming in her eyes. Michael gave her a soft smile, clasping her hand in his for good measure, taking no small amount of pleasure from the way she held on tightly. He ran a thumb along her palm as Ferryl went on, tracing idle patterns on the soft skin—a clover, an evergreen, an eight-pointed star.
“There is something I must tell you both,” Ferryl continued. He looked to Elizabeth beside him, and she nodded once before he spoke again. “I need your support. More than ever, I need you both.”
“Increasing castle security…” Michael said, curious why Ferryl had dropped the subject a moment ago. Delaney noticed the ring on Elizabeth’s hand, and she squeezed Michael’s hand once as if to tell him something.
Ferryl held his chin high when he finally said, “While we were still in Haravelle, we married.”
“I noticed,” Michael said, a small laugh escaping despite himself.
“That is not all,” Ferryl said, and at the worry, at the fear Michael saw… Why in the world would marrying Elizabeth merit increasing castle security?
“She is not… Her name is not Elizabeth,” the king stammered.
Michael furrowed his brows as he observed his king and the queen beside him.
Ferryl breathed once, clearing his throat. “Her name is Adelaide. The lost princess of Haravelle.”
The room went deadly silent, not a sound to be heard. Not even a breath. Michael took a moment to absorb the words, the sheer concept…
Adelaide of Haravelle. The lost princess. Supposedly dead. Alive again.
Married to the king of Navah.
“Say something,” Ferryl finally interjected through the silence. “Tell me you believe me.”
“How?” Delaney asked. “How did this happen?”
“I was cursed,” Adelaide said. “The same way Ferryl was last summer. I was cursed to forget who I am, from where I came. Only I was cursed as a little girl. And I did not remember. Not until we went to Haravelle.”
“And now you remember?” Michael asked.
“Magic. Magic gave me back my past. Just as it gave Ferryl back to me.”
The room went silent again.
“I know this is…a lot to take in,” Ferryl tried.
“If this is true,” Delaney said, speaking up. “If this is really true, it changes everything.”
“I know,” Elizabeth—Adelaide said, her voice small.
“And castle security…“ Michael tried.
“We wanted to keep it a secret. As long as possible,” Ferryl said, his grip on Elizabeth—Adelaide’s hand a vice. “But they know. Midvar knows. And on the way home we were attacked.”
Michael could barely take it in. The idea. The sheer concept. Princess Adelaide of Haravelle, Queen of Navah.
The world would be forever changed by such a revelation.
“We must protect her,” Ferryl said, and it was desperation that colored his every word. Michael wondered how he would feel, what he would do if it were Delaney in those shoes. If it were Delaney that needed to be protected from the world… Then again, in some ways, she did.
“My uncle,” Delaney said, but it was clear she could not bring herself to say more. It was a damning, palpable worry that settled on the four of them.
“I know,” said Ferryl solemnly.
“On my life,” Michael said, straightening his back. “I will protect you, Ferryl. I will protect you both. My king,” he said, taking Ferryl’s hand and bowing low to press a loyal kiss to his knuckles. “And my queen,” he went on, pressing the same kiss to her hand. “I will protect you both with my life.” At his side, Delaney shifted slightly.
“You believe us?” Ferryl said. It wasn’t his king asking the question, it was his friend looking for solidarity.
Before Michael could answer, Delaney said, “Yes, we do.” And when all eyes met hers, she said, “Only a fool would make up such a story at such a time. And I have never known you to be a fool.”