The greater part of a year passed like a snow drift – magical, surreal. Natalya remained at The Hand where she gave birth to a son. He was named Charles. She had written to the king and at first he enthusiastically replied. As time passed his replies became less frequent. Eventually Count Vasinov began replying on the king’s behalf. Roman had been so consumed by a visit to the southern kingdom of Susiname but Natalya was assured of the his affections.
Count Vasinov wrote, ‘His Majesty thinks of you often and fondly but for the time being it is best you remain at The Hand with Charles. The king will look in upon his nephew as soon as he can.’
Roman returned from Susiname and more months passed. Charles was growing fast. He had Roman’s long nose and warm smile as well as the same dark brown curls. He had Jerome’s temperament though. He cried ceaselessly.
Finally, the day came that Charles reached the age of four months. A letter came for Natalya inviting her to the castle. It wasn’t a hand written request from Roman with the usual romantic flare. It was a formal invitation, addressing her as a member of the court. Nothing more. She accepted the invitation in the hope that in after their long separation Roman would be glad to see her and Charles whom he was yet to meet.
Upon her arrival at Castle Kroestov, Natalya wasn’t greeted by Roman personally. Instead she was escorted to the Great Hall carrying her baby in her arms.
The court was gathered. A great excitement had washed over them.
“What’s all the fuss?” Natalya asked Countess Vorgovna. “
Vorgovna raised her eyebrows. “Haven’t you heard?” she asked. “The king is engaged to be married. We’re going to have a new queen.”
Natalya’s mouth opened in horror. She clutched her arms around Charles who wriggled against her.
Sonya Vorgovna continued, “I’m surprised you weren’t the first to know. You always seemed to be a close confidante of His Majesty. It seems ever since you were with child you have been distant.”
Natalya glared at Sonya. “What are you suggesting?”
Countess Vorgovna sneered. “Nothing at all my dear. You are sensitive.” She reached a long finger out and tickled the corner of Charles’ upper lip. Charles remained expressionless.
“He doesn’t look much like Jerome, does he? Shouldn’t you have left him with a wet nurse?”
Natalya ignored the comment.
“Who is the king’s bride?” she asked.
“Some woman from one of the villages. They say she is something of a queen amongst her people so I guess it is appropriate. Why don’t you go and see for yourself. I know His Majesty would is excited to meet his nephew.”
Natalya ignored her again. She was more consumed with meeting Roman’s betrothed.
She pushed her way to the farther end of room where she found Roman laughing with Vasinov. His whole face brightened upon seeing her.
“Natalya!” he cried. “It’s so good to see you. It’s been too long,” he declared. The king took Charles from her arms and cradled him in his own. “You must be Charles.” Roman addressed the infant. Charles smiled in return.
“Susiname seems to have agreed with you, Your Majesty.”
“It did,” Roman replied. “Ever since I returned I have had a clear mind.”
Vasinov eyed Charles with what Natalya could see was a little suspicion.
There was another man with them. He was tall and strong and with a square set jaw. He had the smooth, black skin found in Susiname.
“This is Justus,” Roman introduced. “He has been invaluable to me and partly the reason why I am so clear headed.”
Justus, a young man of around twenty years, gave a curt nod.
“Shame on you Majesty,” Vasinov patted Roman’s arm. “I think the Countess may be more interested in meeting the woman you intend on taking as your bride.”
“Of course,” Roman cheered. He turned and a group parted. “This is my bride to be. She will be a tremendous queen.”
Natalya was horrified. Stepping forth to take the king’s arm was the witch, Francesca. Her raven hair had been dressed. She wore a regal gown of royal blue silk, laced with jewels. Beside her, in much less finery was Annabelle.
Francesca reached out her hand and took Natalya’s. It was ice cold to touch.
“It’s a pleasure. Roman speaks of you so often,” she said. “I hear your husband is missing. That must be awful for you with such a small child to care for. If there is anything I can do to comfort you please let me know.”
“Isn’t she something?” Roman cried, completely besotted. “She will rule this kingdom by my side soon.”
Natalya was handed back her baby.
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