Tomas stared at the man with the scarf until he turned and rode away again.
It was not in his imagination, it was not coincidence anymore.
That man was following him for reasons unknown. As if he did not have enough to worry about with the gloomy castle, aggressive guards, and mysterious betrothed.
Hearing someone enter the room he turned and stepped back inside.
“If you’re here with my belongings you can just leave them at the foot of the bed. If you’ve brought water to wash up then that is even better”
He began to pull his shirt off when his visitor coughed.
Pulling his shirt back on he turned and saw a woman. She was tall, and slim, pretty in a harsh and unforgiving way. She had long blonde hair tied into a braid and a mouth that was fast becoming a frown.
“My apologies. I was told that a servant would be arriving with water to wash up with. My name is Tomas Bern, it is my pleasure to meet you…?”
He half bent in a bow, but the woman interrupted him.
“You’ve blood on your face. And you’re rather ugly. Why do you wear the eyepatch? My cousin won’t like that”
“I am Guinevere Glante. Juniper is my cousin. And you are her betrothed? I must say, she has had all the luck around here.
A small smirk flitted across her face as she began to circle him.
“You’re skinny. Too bony for her taste by far. And you look like you’ve been fighting. She won’t like that either. Do you have a backbone? Will you refute anything that I say?”
Tomas straightened and looked the woman over.
“If we are judging the other based on appearance alone I have quite a few things to say about yours.
“Or, rather, I would were you not the cousin of my betrothed. I do not wish to make a negative first impression, and so I won’t offer any of the dozens of small criticisms that I could. Do you have anything else to offer? Or are you here only to insult someone who has done you no harm and who yet bears you no ill intent?”
“So you either have a backbone and do not wish to exercise it, or you are as spineless as you seem. Either way, you bandy words well; perhaps too well for my cousin’s liking”
“Ah. So, let me see. I am possessed of a quick wit, and may be a liar who has no backbone, or a mild mannered and honest man who has one. I am ‘ugly’ and wear an eyepatch. I am too skinny, yet am still willing to fight to defend my honour. And she would dislike all of these qualities? From your description so far she would far prefer an obese lazy and stupid man who is a coward and shows it, or is rude and shows it. He must also never fight himself, using only patsies and middle men to carry his words to the enemy, but those words must not be too long or too well thought out lest…what?”
“Lest he trip himself up with his own cleverness and insult me before he realizes what he has done”
“And so the cousin is indeed a fake as I had suspected”
“That is correct. I am myself possessed of a quick wit and a faster tongue, and I do not appreciate it when others try to bandy words with me. I enjoy it less if they stand a chance of getting the better of me in an exchange”
“And so you resort to telling them that you are a cousin who does not exist?”
“Oh, no, Guinevere exists. She is just absent, and not at all like me. Too stupid and fat to pull off something like this. But for those who don’t know her I can pull the impersonation off quite well”
Tomas and Juniper stopped circling each other. He paused for a moment and then motioned to the chairs.
“Fair Juniper, I apologize for my rude behaviour and for this rough start to our acquaintance. I wish to start again, if at all possible, and try and forget the rude and maybe ill considered words that I have said”
“No. I have told you what I think of you. You’re bony, and ugly, too smart and too violent. I don’t want a man who doesn’t fight, I want one who doesn’t get himself dirty while doing so. And your clothing is too fashionable, too colourful; you cannot outshine me or else it will never work.
“Which is again another reason why you cannot be smarter than me. It does not work that way, since you would again be in danger of overshadowing me. And as for you being too skinny I do not want a fat husband either. I want one who is muscular and handsome, well built and not in danger of being blown over by a slight breeze.
“Now do you see why we are completely incompatible?”
Tomas shrugged and sat down.
“I don’t care if we are completely incompatible as you say. I had never much planned on being in love with you anyways. And, I do not wish to be on this island, or in this castle with its too few windows and creepy atmosphere. I always wished to be destined for bigger things than this, marrying the third child of a small time Duke in order to strengthen political ties between our islands.
“However our families have decided that we are to be married. And we must do our duties by our families, and get married. We do not have to be happy in our marriage, and once we find a vocation of some kind and get a home we do not even have to talk to each other. I am more than happy to leave you to do whatever you wish. If that includes talking to me, then I shall be there so that you may talk to me.
“But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that we get married in order to strengthen the ties between the Free Lords, Rin, and Destria. Because if we do not then there may be a war. I’m not if you know the political situation within Rin at the moment but-”
“But I do not care. If your islands get annexed by Destria or get crushed by the Laeros, I really don’t care. So long as you get out of the castle sooner rather than later”
“Did you not listen? I cannot leave! We are betrothed, and it is our duty to get married!”
Tomas was standing again, and shouting.
“There might be a war if we don’t! I’m not sure how high tensions are, but this could be the thing that tips them over breaking point! Do you understand me? This could break the peace, and if Destria declares war on Rin or withdraws their support then Lomwar can attack us! And if they attack us we won’t be able to defeat them, not without Destria.
“And even if at that point Destria decides to enter the war once we are losing by that point it’ll be too late, and by the time they mobilize their forces Rin will have been conquered.
“Which means that Lomwar, Laeros and Zarg can annex Krovat. With Krovat annexed Destria will have no allies. And while the three may need to take some time to build up their forces again they will be able to strike directly at Destria without fear of interference from Rin. And Destria may be formidable with its Great Fortress and floating border towers, but even its military might is not enough to repel a three pronged attack or a direct attack by the combined might of all three nations.
“Destria will fall and your way of life, and mine, will end!”
He turned and motioned for the servants in the doorway to come in.
“Put that basin in the washroom, now. Don’t just stand there, move!”
His voice building to a roar again he spun back around to face Juniper.
“If you really do not understand this then I will try even harder to maintain our engagement. I apologise, but I must say that in this I hope you do not get your way. I will protect my family in this, I will protect all families, prevent anyone from losing loved ones to a pointless war that could have been avoided!”
Struggling to compose himself he pulled off his shirt and eyepatch, dropped them on the chair and marched into the washroom. Pushing the maid out of the way he plunged his head into the basin, soaking for as long as he could hold his breath before pulling it out, taking another, and dunking it in again.
Finally feeling slightly calmer he snatched a towel from the maid’s outstretched fingers and began to dry himself off as he walked back into the sitting room.
“Juniper, I apologize for my earlier outburst. I think that-”
As she turned to look at him she screamed and scrambled backwards to the balcony.
She covered her eyes as she screamed at him.
“Your face! The bloody hole in your face where your eye should be! Put your eyepatch on now!”
Shrugging he did so, tying it tight so that it would not slip. Perhaps that would explain the maid’s reaction.
He so rarely did not wear an eyepatch around those who did not know him that he had forgotten their reactions to his face.
Because of the way his eye had been ripped out his eye socket was a mess. In order to stop the bleeding the doctor had needed to cut away much of the bone around his eye socket. As such it was not so much an empty socket as a ragged looking half sphere taken from his head.
He had never understood why the doctors had done such a truly ugly job of it. His parents had explained it having something to do with their hurry in stopping the bleeding, and something about the Sketching gone wrong, but he did not really care. He didn’t need it to be fixed since he wore his eyepatch, and he didn’t want it fixed since he did not wish to suffer any pain that was not necessary.
“I’ve put it back on”
Juniper pulled her hands away and resumed her regal posture.
“And that is one more reason why we cannot be married. You are to never remove an eyepatch while in my presence again. Do you understand?”
“Is that a condition for our marriage?”
“No, it is a rule for the remained of your thankfully brief stay in this castle”
“I shall do my best to abide by it”
The sitting room and landing outside were now full. The two maids and three porters with his belongings blocked the entrance from the eighth person trying to enter the area.
“Master Bern? Lady Juniper?”
Drake had returned.
“It is time for dinner, if you would be able to come down post haste. The Duke and Duchess are already waiting”
“What about my brothers Steward?”
“They are, as usual, late. I have already been to remind them, and am going to go remind them again”
“Excellent Steward. You may do that now. We shall be at the table as soon as possible”
As Drake hurried off to find her brother again she turned to Tomas.
“Get dressed. But don’t bother unpacking. I’m going to talk to my father as soon as I get down there and have this arrangement called off. He’ll listen to me”
She hurried out of the room doing her best to act like she was not waiting for the porters to move his luggage out of the way.
“You can put those in my chamber. And don’t drop them please”
He folded his shirt and draped it over the back of a chair.
He would need to find something else to wear for dinner, which meant, since those in his carryall were dirty from the trip, waiting for the porters to bring his luggage in and finding something in there.
Luckily he had packed his best things on the top.
Hurrying downstairs following the maid he arrived in the dining hall in time to see Juniper storming out.
A tall and proud looking man stood at the table’s head, a woman seated beside him. He had hair swept back, graying at the temples. Wide shoulders and large biceps showed that he was familiar with fighting. His face was currently a stern mask devoid of emotion.
The woman had long blonde hair like Juniper’s, but with a few white lines in it. She had a face that was crinkled with smile lines.
Tomas stepped into the room carefully, worried about disturbing the two when they looked so serious. And they had no doubt just heard a great number of bad things about him.
“You have said mean things to my daughter. They are, to hear her tell it, unnecessarily cruel and unprovoked. You lost your temper and yelled at her and then terrified her. You will explain yourself”
“My apologies sir. I am not sure what you have heard from her, but I shall give my side of the story. She told me that she did not wish to marry mr for many reasons, which I acknowledged. I responded by saying that it was our duty to our families to get married, whether or not we wished to. When she refused to accept that I was not going to give up I explained my reasons, especially including the political situation in Rin. When she still did not even acknowledge the reasons and stated that she would be happy is Rin was conquered and burned so long as I left this castle I lost my temper and shouted at her. I apologize again, and realize that I should not have done so. There is a better way to talk to people than shouting at them, and-”
“No. You’re wrong about that. Thats the only real way to talk to Juniper. Sit down Tomas, if I may call you that. I hope that my daughter has not given you a negative opinion of the entire house”
“Not at all sir”
“Tomas. You don’t have to call us sir and ma’am. We are after all to be family”
The woman moved her chair so that the three could face each other more easily.
“My name is Anwen, and my husband is Carian. Please, sit down. I think that the three of us need to talk about Juniper, and your betrothal”
Still wary, but somewhat reassured by their reactions Tomas pulled out a chair and sat.
“Our daughter is somewhat troubled”
“And troublesome. Tomas, you know the political situation. You grasp that. You’re a smart man, obviously. Juniper is not very politically astute”
“No, she is not. And she can be very pushy and bossy. When she wants something she will try her hardest to get it”
“However, in this she will not get her way. There is not a chance that she was going to dissuade us on this issue, no matter what. You could have been a horrible man who she would have suffered unduly with and we still would have had to go through with the betrothal. The fact that you seem instead to be conscientious, loyal, and wise greatly eases my conscience”
“Our daughter will not take this well Tomas. You will be the target of much of her anger the next few days. But do not hate her for it. She just resents the fact that from a young age she has had her fate predetermined. She never wanted to be married to someone in order to preserve a treaty. She wanted to be free to do whatever she wanted with her life. To tell you the truth, no matter who you were, had you been the person she told you was the perfect match for her, she would have rebelled against it, and rejected him. She hates everything to do with her predetermined fate”
Tomas nodded slowly.
“I understand. I do. I myself have in the past aspired to more than this. However, I began to look at it as more than most will ever get to do. I get to avert a war and save countless lives through this act. And it is not like this marriage will define my life. I have options. I can travel, still join an army, train to be a Knight, become a merchant prince, explore the Northlands if I wanted. This marriage does not trap me as much as I originally feared, as much as Juniper seems to think it will trap her”
This was not an entire truth. While he did not feel entirely trapped by the marriage he still felt that his options were limited and that he would not be free to do what he wished to with his life.
But he did not have to tell the two that.
“You are much wiser than most men twice your age Tomas. If we can convince Juniper than I would be honoured to have you as a son in law.
“As for our sons I am sure that you will meet them soon enough. They are good men, and I am sure that you will get along with them”
“I hope to do so. Are we doing something else at the moment, or shall we wait for them to come to dinner?”
“We’ve cancelled the dinner. With our daughter in her rage we cannot have a true family dinner and the cooks will need to prepare her an individual meal anyways. It is easier if they prepare all individual meals. We’ll have something sent up to your room”
“Thank you” He stood and bowed to them “If you don’t mind then I’ll take my leave. I have to unpack my things”
Tomas turned and walked back down the cold draughty hallways. Perhaps his stay here would not be as bad as he thought. But then again, perhaps with Juniper in the picture, it would.