Elenaril cringed at the bitter taste of leek soup overwhelming her tongue. She wanted to be polite so she forced a swallow and covered her mouth with a napkin. Tears pinched the corner of her eyes. She rather be dead than slurp another spoonful.
“Do you like the soup, my lady?” Inuril’s question annoyed her. He stared at her in a way most inappropriate, spoon delicately in hand and his posture poised like an ivory statue one would find in a museum of ancient relics. Perhaps to some, he appeared a refined elf. But he repulsed her.
“Yes, it’s quite flavorful,” she answered, spreading the cloth napkin across her lap once more. Best not to make eye contact with him.
“Good.” His shoulders shimmied just a little and his tone reflected pride. “It’s my family recipe passed down from my great grand uncle Limunil who lived on terrain so mountainous and cold only leeks could be grown.”
“Ah.” She nodded with half-interest.
“By Styr! How did he manage to survive on only leeks?” Elu shook his head in disbelief.
Fool, Elenaril thought, that you should believe his story.
Inuril smiled. “Magic, Your Highness. He transformed the leeks into other vegetables and hunted game from the forests. Mostly rabbits and squirrels.”
“Was he a thin elf?” Elenaril asked, trying to suppress a smirk. That didn’t sound like any kind of familiar magic.
“He was healthy. Yes.”
She caught the sharpness in his tone but didn’t care. In a way, it pleased her to have offended him.
“There’s no need to endlessly stir the soup, my lady,” Inuril said. “It’ll only grow cold on you.”
Elenaril blinked at the bowl of green liquid that possessed not only a foul taste but a peculiar smell which made her nauseous. Or maybe it was the nerves. Either way, she’d lost her appetite.
The dining hall, large enough to seat the entire town, had been reserved for the royal guests and their entourage. Glowing orbs contained within glass lanterns hung from the ceiling in twine looped through the root system. Rich purple streamers connected the lanterns in a beautiful display of color matching the velvet tablecloths draped over pinewood tables. Candles flickered softly as centerpieces, casting romantic glows over those partaking of the fancy meal. Vases of lavender emitted a powdery and much-needed fragrance, making it possible to dine without the smelly interruption of the roots.
Around the table, councilmen and Lord Omarion’s assistants sat waiting for his arrival—as did Elenaril and Elu. It seemed to her unfathomable that a lord should keep his king waiting. And her. If she was to be disrespected in this fashion by the elf she was to marry, then what would their relationship end up like? She squeezed the spoon’s handle, resisting the urge to take another slurp of the nasty soup even though her stomach grumbled terribly.
Inuril’s gaze was heavily upon her. She could feel it burning through her very soul.
“My lady looks lovely this evening,” he said, without shame or reservation. “Not many elven ladies can wear a deep maroon with such pale skin and look so ravishing.”
Elu smiled down at Elenaril. “Sister. Her radiance blossoms, does it not? She will make a fine breeder. So proud am I of our royal heritage, which will provide offspring of high status for generations to come.” Elenaril bit the tip of her tongue, tasting recognizable iron. She was nothing more than a sow. A cow. A well-bred bitch. To Elu, her feelings didn’t matter. In fact, not much about her existence did. And she knew he would return to Caramil pleased as pie to no longer have to deal with her.
She hated him for it.
“Does my lord’s right-hand elf not know the proper etiquette of how to speak to a princess?” Elenaril looked up, staring right into Inuril’s deeply sharp eyes. “Even though my brother does not recognize your disrespect, please be assured it will no longer go unnoticed with me.”
The room’s chatter dulled to a hush. Many pairs of golden eyes blinked at Elenaril, fear very much alive and present in them. Underneath the table, the heel of Elu’s boot slowly pressed down on the toes of her soft suede heels. She yanked her foot away.
“You should know your place, serah,” she added.
Elenaril swore a smirk entertained Inuril’s lips. And it made her uneasy.
“My most gracious apologies, fair lady.” He bowed his head. “Please, Your Highness, forgive my forwardness. I shall make no excuses for my poor behavior.”
Elu’s jaw tightened. “You are forgiven.”
But before he had the chance to reprimand Elenaril, the servant lad at the door called out Lord Omarion’s entrance. The shocked guests adjusted their way to a stand and the entire room, everyone except Princess Elenaril and King Elu, bowed in reverence at the presence of their lord.
Elenaril sucked in a breath.
Lord Omarion had brought the scent of horses with him, cutting even through the lavender potpourri. He was a tall elf with skin the color of grapevines and eyes cold as stone. Ebony locks fell smoothly down his back, braided at the sides as was common custom in these parts. His features were rugged like the mountains of Caramil, full of character and breadth marking adventure. She was taken by his beauty, entranced by his grace. Every bit of flesh in her body responded to the call of a mate—her mate—and she could hardly stand the pangs of lustful desire overcoming her.
She cast her gaze down, away from him, improper yet she was too nervous to look back up.
He strode through the dining hall, a picture of impeccable grace and strength. The smell of the outdoors clung to the fabric of his leathers, wafting its way over the now kneeling guests. He came to a stop in front of Elu and took a knee himself.
“My king,” said Omarion in a gust of breath. “It is a pleasure to be in your company once again.”
Elenaril trembled. Never had a male made her feel so vulnerable, so ordinary.
Elu motioned for Omarion to stand. “Likewise, old friend. How was your ride?”
“Breathtaking.” Omarion’s gaze slid over Elenaril. Then he looked away. “My king, have you found your accommodations to be comfortable?”
“Yes, of course.” Elu leaned into Omarion’s ear. “Although I wouldn’t mind being sent company later if you’d be so kind.”
Elenaril’s stomach turned. The thought of her brother in intimate positions brought bile to the back of her throat. She was uncomfortable, nervous yet writhing in her own skin, wishing she was bathing in the waterfalls under the Crystal Palace far away from the pressures and demands of her life.
“Princess.” Omarion’s voice lured her out of her mental escape. “It is an honor to finally meet you.” On cue, she gave into a deep curtsy. “As well, Forest Lord.”
He took her hand. The feel of his was rugged, just like his features, and her fingertips rubbed against a callus on his palm. It threw her off for a moment—no lord should have such heathen-like hands. But by all accounts, he was not the average royal, and she would simply have to grow used to this fact.
“May I?” he questioned, an eyebrow raised.
She glanced up at Elu for approval.
Elu gave a firm nod.
Omarion brought her hand up to his lips. His kiss was light, barely noticeable, but it sent a rush of dramatic waves down her spine. She exhaled desire, embarrassed by the heat pooling in her cheeks. The very tips of her ears tingled.
He released her hand with ease, strongly connecting with her gaze before allowing the guests to return to their dinner. Chatter livened the room once more, filling every nook and crease with joy over the Forest Lord’s upcoming nuptials.
Omarion took his seat beside Elenaril. In one brisk movement, he pushed aside the bowl of leek soup set before by him a servant and demanded meat instead. The servant gal nodded and stuttered over her words.
“Right away, my lord. Forgive me for forgetting your dislike of leek soup.”
Elenaril grinned. Perhaps they would be kindred spirits after all.
* * *
In the nourishing depths of the hot spring, Omarion sunk into oblivion. His thoughts, while consumed with the many frustrating aspects of the disease killing Rivenfell’s trees, betrayed him with an interest for Princess Elenaril. There was something about her quiet demeanor which seemed to not quite be her—for the intrinsic parts of her were hidden from sight and overshadowed by her king brother.
Throughout the course of dinner, she’d hardly spoken a word. Did anyone long to hear from her? What did her sweet words sound like? He couldn’t guess. She seemed more afraid than anything, and so he’d opted out of prompting her into conversation simply out of respect.
Omarion swam to the surface and gasped for air. Pungent stench filled his lungs and so he dove back down to the bottom of the spring, lingering until he yearned for breath. Upon breaking the surface, he noticed Inuril standing with a towel at the water’s edge.
“What is it?” Omarion asked, irritated that his tranquility was once again being interrupted. “Did I not request to be left alone?”
Inuril’s face stiffened. “I beg a million pardons, my lord, but the king wishes to speak with you.”
“I did not inquire. It isn’t my place.”
Omarion climbed out of the spring and rubbed the towel over his face. “He probably wants a wench. Send whichever one you think he’d like best.”
Inuril parted his lips but no words came out.
“Well?” Omarion had no time for games. “Speak your peace, serah.”
“With all due respect, I have no idea how to select a woman for such...things.”
“Then have Mirie do it.”
“She is with the princess, Your Grace.”
“Then ask her to have another servant attend to the task. Tell her I instruct it. Go on.”
“Did you fail to hear me?” Omarion didn’t like being harsh with his servants but he was tired of everyday demands. The hot springs on the edge of Rivenfell were his only source of privacy, for the locals were not allowed to bathe at this particular spot. The river just below the canyons were designated for the commoners, and so he was able to find tranquility out in these parts of the forest.
“Yes, yes of course.” Inuril nodded tersely. “I leave you with a filled lantern.”
Omarion watched as Inuril disappeared under the cover of darkness, fading from sight as quietly as he’d appeared.
Finally alone with his thoughts, Omarion returned to the water. “Princess,” he whispered. “Tell me what’s in your head.”
* * *
Inuril stormed down the lantern lit walkway leading to the servant bathhouses. He burst through the main door of a sauna, unfazed by the startled screams of the half-naked bathing beauties. With a loud clearing of his throat, he summoned the nearest one standing to him. “You. Come with me.”
She was a younger elf, daughter to Rayam who tended the kitchens. Silver hair spilled down to her waist, which was narrow and firm. Taut breasts, exposed to his line of sight, were round and pink enough for the king’s entertainment. It pained Inuril so, but obey orders he must.
The young elf panicked. “Have I done something wrong?”
“No.” He shook his head. “Grab your things. Quickly now. King Elu awaits.”
Gasps erupted around her. She bowed. Gathered her belongings. Kept her gaze down as she followed him outside. He turned away from her.
“Get dressed,” he ordered. “Hurry. Otherwise I shudder to think of—”
The young elf looked up at him for further instruction. “Serah?”
Inuril could hardly believe his brilliant idea. If he waited to send up the girl, the king would be too bedding experience. He gazed down at her. Rayam was a wonderful cook and an elf he very much respected. Bedding a king was an honor to most females but this young thing had been chosen on a night where the royal wasn’t in such good spirits.
“Have you any finery to wear?” he asked her.
She shook her head. “Aside from a plain silken robe...no.”
Nothing short of rags covered her thin frame. Presenting her to a king in this manner was, naturally, not good.
“You will be the king’s bedwarmer tonight,” he said, hating himself and Lord Omarion at the same time. “But you will need to be groomed and manicured. Come. Let’s see if Mirie has anything special for you to wear.”
“The king?” She nearly laughed with her words. “Why didn’t you say so, serah? I’d be more than glad to serve Rivenfell in this way.”
Inuril purposefully took the young elf to the guest quarters where Mirie tended to Princess Elenaril. The excuse for his interruption was simple: please the king, obey his lord. In reality, he couldn’t wait to catch another glimpse of Caramil’s finest with her skin of creamy goat’s milk and beauty untouched by the marvels of any female he’d ever seen. She was delectable—and he found it difficult to tame his ever growing desire for her. Appearances aside, the fire within her soul drew him near like a moth to a flame. She was of higher standing than him by leagues. She was to become the Lady of Rivenfell. Yet he’d yearned to overthrow Lord Omarion the fool for so long he’d been consumed by nothing more than a rabid hatred for him.
Princess Elenaril, however, had reminded him of a feeling other than hate. And so he’d decidedly stop at nothing to win her over so they could rule together.
Crazy? Yes. But he had the backing of two very high elders in the Rivenfell Council. Besides, Omarion would never figure out how the trees were dying, and he’d most certainly never learn how to undo the magic afflicting them.
Inuril knocked on the front door of the guesthouse, the girl standing right behind him. Footsteps clamored inside until Mirie poked her head through.
“Good evening,” she said politely. “May I assist you with something?”
“Who is it?” Princess Elenaril’s voice sounded like the song of a lark.
He pushed the girl forward into Mirie’s arms. “Take care of this one for His Highness. Have her sent over when she’s been prepared.”
Mirie’s face crumpled together in disgust. She pushed Inuril and the girl forward, bringing the door to a close behind her. “Not in front of the princess,” she whispered.
“How is she?” Inuril couldn’t help but ask.
“Fine.” Mirie frowned. “You shouldn’t have brought the servant here. Take her back to the bathhouse and I’ll have someone sent to adorn her there.”
“Lord Omarion’s orders,” Inuril said. “Not mine.”
“Yes, yes, I understand. But I do not want the princess upset about her brother’s affairs.” Mirie turned to the young elf and gave her a tight smile. “You’re a lucky lady tonight. Be on your best behavior. Our king awaits.”