“I’m sure there are many places you would much rather be than here,” said the king. “I fear you are starting to look old before your time.”
Perrin offered a smile to Roman. They were making their way to the main entrance of the castle. Perrin had plans to visit The Square – the central part of the Kingdom of Navaria which sat at the foot of the Rugintov Mountains upon which Castle Kroestov sat.
“I’m afraid when one reaches my years of service, Majesty, tiredness becomes the natural look.”
Roman laughed but a certain solemnity remained with him like a fine mist over a hill.
“My father always said that,” Roman replied, more to himself than his counsel.
When they reached the door Perrin stopped. The guards remained stationed.
“Your father was a wise man,” he stated sincerely. He lowered his voice. “I worry about you Roman,” he said.
“I try my best to follow my father’s example. I trust I haven’t given you cause for concern.”
Perrin observed the young king. He drew his finger along his white beard as he stroked his chin.
“I hear you are dining with the Countess Hargovna again. Is that wise?”
Roman patted Perrin’s shoulder good naturedly.
“You wished me to find a wife,” said the king. “Natalya is the best company of any woman in this kingdom.”
Perrin’s tone became serious. “She already is a wife. She is your brother’s wife,” he said. “She should be with her husband. People have been talking. Servants have seen her sneaking to warm your bed at night. You must tell her to return to The Hand and be by her husband’s side.”
Roman lost his usual jovial air. He was angered. “Let them talk!” he spat. “If my bed where their concerns lie then the kingdom must be faring well otherwise. I will not send Natalya back to Jerome after what he did to her. He has a monster within him and the sooner it is dead, the better for all of us.”
“Hush your mouth!” Perrin barked. “Your father would be ashamed to hear you wish your brother dead.”
Roman glanced to his guards who had reacted and back to his advisers.
“You were an invaluable member of my father’s court. You guided him faithfully for many years.”
Perrin bowed respectfully.
“But remember,” Roman continued. “This is not my father’s court, it is mine. If you ever forget your place again I will have you removed, permanently.”
Perrin sighed and stroked his beard again.
“My humblest apologies, Your Majesty. You must see that Natalya Hargovna can never be your queen.” When he gave no answer Perrin added, “If there ever was to be a downfall of your dynasty it would be through women.”
Roman laughed at this and found his good cheer again.
“My father always said that too. That’s why after mother died he took no other.”
Perrin smiled. “I know you love her but even a king doesn’t have the authority to come between a man and his wife. A marriage is a union before the Lords and Ladies above.”
At that Perrin approached the doors. The guards opened them for them. They were two young boys on their first assignment as part of The Guard.
Perrin disappeared into the dark, Navarian, early evening. Snow was beginning to fall and a wind whistled at the top of the mountains. By the time the door closed behind him, the king had already forgotten his advice.
Roman ate heartily that evening. A meal of beef, onions and potatoes was placed before him. Across the table from him Natalya was distractedly moving vegetables around her plate.
“Lost your appetite?” Roman asked. He wiped his mouth with a napkin.
Natalya looked up. Her eyes were glazed like the shine of the normally brilliant green had been dulled with the addition of black.
“No news from The Hand?” the king pressed. He knew if his brother’s condition had worsened he would have been informed.
Natalya sniffed and shook her head. Tears began to spill. Roman stood, went to her and put his arm around her.
“Whatever is the matter?” he asked.
Natalya sobbed and gripped his arm around her neck.
“I’ve made a fine mess of things,” she cried.
Roman tried to comfort her. “Of course you haven’t. Whatever befalls Jerome it is his own doing. Someone, somewhere is punishing him for his behaviour in ways we couldn’t possibly comprehend.”
Natalya closed her eyes tightly and shook her head. The wind was howling now like a choir of screams calling into the night but inside the castle the fire still burned gently and the smell of cooked meat hung in the air. Outside was like a world away. Here Natalya was safe. Here in the arms of the king, Natalya had everything she ever wanted.
“It’s not Jerome,” she said. Truthfully she hadn’t given her husband any thought in the months she had stayed at Kroestov save for the letters the doctor’s wrote to her to tell her there was still no change in her condition. She reached up and touched Roman’s face softly. He brightened under her finger tips.
“I’m with child,” she told him. “I’m carrying your child.”
Roman immediately pulled away. Suddenly Perrin’s warnings were ringing in his ears. His father’s words were haunting him.
The downfall of a dynasty.
“We have to marry,” said Natalya. “Quickly.”
Roman stepped back from her and closer to the fire. The crackle became violent as the furious wind found it’s way to the flames through the granite.
“Out of question,” said the king. “You are Jerome’s wife. We can never be.”
Natalya stood too but she didn’t approach her lover. She placed her hand over her womb.
“We are going to have a child,” she told him.
Roman turned away from the flames. “We could never be,” he repeated.
“We could if Jerome were dead,” suggested the countess.
Roman gave a stern warning. “I’ll pretend you didn’t say that.”
Natalya became desperate. She wailed and threw her arms around the king.
“For the sake of our child!” she cried.
When she looked into Roman’s eyes she could see the turmoil he felt. His paternal pride clashed with his regal duty in a storm of emotion that was difficult to contain.
“I will of course treat the child no less than my own but I cannot raise them as such.”
Natalya slapped him.She lifted the skirts of her cream gown but she didn’t leave. She stared at him furiously.
“You must return to your husband. You must go back to The Hand tonight.”
Natalya top lip raised in a sneer. She turned to leave but Roman pulled her back.
“You must know this isn’t what I want.”
He kissed her passionately but she pulled away.
“I am Jerome’s wife, Majesty.” She snatched her hand back in a sharp tug.
“I would give the crown to Jerome. I would abdicate if it meant we would be free to raise our child.”
As she travelled home Roman’s words resonated with her. Natalya couldn’t help but think there was still some hope.
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