Efren, the Crown Prince of Zioneven, squared his shoulders as he and his entourage made their final approach to the royal castle of Sheburat. He’d had his whole life—since the age of five, anyway—to prepare himself for this journey. He didn’t relish the changes about to be wrought to his life, but he’d always accepted it as his fate. In the name of peace between the two kingdoms, he wouldn’t shirk his duty.
The castle loomed, much like his upcoming marriage. He had barely twenty-four hours left before he would be shackled for life to Princess Marcela, fourth daughter of Sheburat’s Queen Giselle and Prince Consort Elmer. The princess had been only a few months old at the time the treaty was signed. Did she dread this marriage as much as he did?
Zioneven’s diplomats had never reported anything unduly negative about her. Nothing beyond the obvious—her expected viewpoint, coming from a matriarchal society, that she was inherently superior to Efren rather than his equal. He could only hope that expanding her horizons would lessen that mindset.
His kingdom’s diplomats had assured him that Marcela was beautiful, and that there was nothing innately cruel about her character. Despite these reassurances, he advanced with a heavy heart. His parents sympathized, although there was nothing that could be done. They knew where his preferences lay.
Efren would be capable of ‘performing’ on his wedding night…and beyond if Marcela seemed intent on bearing children. He would be there in body if not in spirit. Thankfully, his younger siblings, like most people, experienced attractions to members of the opposite sex, and had already produced several heirs. He wouldn’t be pressured by his family to father children, although he’d be willing for the sake of marriage harmony.
Gideon Bailey, the Zioneven ambassador assigned to Sheburat, approached on horseback alongside Jeremy Cook, one of Efren’s entourage who’d ridden ahead to alert the castle of their expected day of arrival. As they got closer, it became obvious from Jeremy’s twitching expression that the man was bursting to give Efren some news. Gideon was much better at schooling his features, but still, his very presence riding out to greet Efren rather than waiting in the castle spoke of something important to report without Sheburat witnesses to—to what?
Had they discovered something meant to be kept secret, or was it information best conveyed where Efren’s reaction wouldn’t be observed? Was it good news, or bad?
Efren’s mind raced as he led his people up the steps to the open castle doors. Everything had changed. The news was…well…clearly bad. Death of an innocent was nothing to celebrate.
Yet, in a pragmatic rather than emotional light, the news had lifted a huge weight from Efren’s shoulders. The peace treaty’s contingency plan painted a far rosier future both for himself, personally, and in the large scheme of things for all of Zioneven.
He was saddened by Marcela’s unexpected passing even as the analytical side of his brain sighed in relief—while simultaneously chiding himself for the selfishness of that reflexive reaction.
Regardless, practicality pushed to the forefront. He had no doubt, knowing what he did of Queen Giselle’s nature, that she would also prefer to finalize the peace treaty on schedule. He’d traveled a great distance over several weeks to be here for his wedding tomorrow. Once his choice under the contingency plan was announced, there would be no sensible reason not to proceed with the wedding, albeit with a considerable role change.
He also had no doubt that the announcement of his choice would shock the Sheburat nobles to their core. The Zioneven court had submitted the wording for the marriage portion of the treaty’s contingency plan. One word in particular had been pointedly slipped in to allow them flexibility, all the while knowing the Sheburat nobles would never suspect the purpose behind that innocuous word.
Efren’s one worry was in regard to the reaction of Prince Marcelo, Princess Marcela’s younger twin brother. Efren had no doubt Marcelo’s astonishment would eclipse that of pretty much everyone else in Sheburat. But would that jolt morph into revulsion or interest?
Gideon had ridden back to arrange for the two courts to meet in the castle’s great hall. If the marriage was to happen on schedule, he needed to inform the royal family of Sheburat of his choice without delay. Otherwise, they would expect a deferral of at least a year, assuming they expected him to select the next eldest daughter, Kemble.
Efren stepped into place, front and center on one side of the hall, and his entourage arranged themselves around him. Queen Giselle was announced, and she nodded as she stepped into place opposite him. He returned the nod and stayed alert while the Sheburat royals and nobles were announced, one by one, as they entered and settled into formation around Queen Giselle.
One of the last to enter the great hall for this impromptu meeting was Princess Kemble, who entered with the air of someone determined to retain her dignity as she was escorted to the gallows. Her expression was tight. She obviously expected a momentary announcement sealing a fate she did not relish.
Although she would have grown up knowing she was the likely backup should Marcela die before her marriage day, she’d no doubt grown complacent as that date approached. Her expression when he made his announcement would be as interesting to watch as Prince Marcelo’s would be.
Speaking of whom, Efren’s breath hitched as a striking young man with strawberry blond shoulder length curls stepped into place in the doorway. He had a superficial femininity, but his lithe masculinity shone through. Prince Marcelo stood straight and tall as his name was announced, and he strode gracefully to his place below the youngest of his sisters rather than in age order as they were arranged. Efren schooled his features to not display his disgust at that demeaning convention.
Efren kept his gaze on Marcelo as the young man’s features softened inquisitively even as he lifted his chin in a show of strength while he perused the people on the Zioneven side of the room. Marcelo seemed to be everything his diplomats had reported. Curious and intelligent—albeit undereducated. He was also reportedly the most empathetic of Queen Giselle’s offspring.
Marcelo’s gaze eventually landed on Efren, and the young man blinked as if surprised to find his regard returned. The muscles in Marcelo’s jaw tightened, and he stared unwaveringly. He had spirit, and a corner of Efren’s mouth quirked up before turning his head, making a point of letting Marcelo “win” the stare down.
With everyone now in attendance, Queen Giselle stepped forward. “Your Royal Highness, Ladies and Lords, and people of Zioneven, please accept our warm welcome to Sheburat, and I hope you’ll accept our sincere apology for the chaos in which you find us today.”
Efren inclined his head. “Of course, Your Majesty. On behalf of Zioneven, I offer our heartfelt condolences on the loss of your beloved daughter.” Despite acknowledging that his hopes of marital happiness had risen dramatically in the last hour, his words were sincere.
“Thank you,” Queen Giselle replied. “Sadly, our loss yesterday affects more than simply causing us private pain.”
“Indeed.” Prince Efren kept his reply short. Under the circumstances, diplomacy demanded he let Queen Giselle take the lead to direct the conversation. If she pointedly avoided the topic of his choosing his alternate, he would step up. But, if his diplomats’ analysis of her strength and character was accurate, he needn’t worry.
He let a soft sigh slip when she continued as hoped. “Although disappointment caused by the cancellation of the wedding we’d expected tomorrow is unavoidable,” Queen Giselle said. “I hope you’ll find a small comfort in knowing that you may now make your own choice of your future bride from among my younger daughters rather than the arrangement made on your behalf at the tender age of five.”
Efren held back his threatening smile and maintained his sedate composure. Again, he inclined his head and said that one word—that one important word that his parents had worked into the contingency agreement. “Sibling.”
“I’m sorry?” Queen Giselle’s eyes widened perceptively. No, she had not seen this coming.
“Sibling,” Efren repeated. “The terms of the treaty specify I may choose an alternate from among Princess Marcela’s younger siblings. It didn’t restrict the choice to daughters.”
To a person, everyone on the Sheburat side of the room stilled. Of course, they understood he wasn’t merely being pedantic, but had said that with a purpose in mind. Efren’s gaze slid to see Marcelo’s reaction. Passing across the line of sisters, he couldn’t help but notice Kemble’s widened eyes and parted lips twitching up at the corners. Marcelo was likely the only person in the room who remained unsure of Efren’s intent. Suspicious and alarmed, yes, but confusion was evident in his demeanor.
Queen Giselle faltered. “Do…surely…but…”
Marcelo’s head turned toward his mother as if silently imploring her to voice an objection. Efren swallowed. He’d known Marcelo would be staggered, so his current response was no surprise. All Efren could do now was hope Marcelo’s delayed reaction would be more reflective.
Efren turned back to stare at the queen as she processed this unexpected revelation. She returned his scrutiny, and perhaps saw his determination, because her expression changed to reflect her acquiescence of his choice. In his peripheral vision Efren saw Marcelo’s head twisting back and forth between the queen and Efren before settling on Efren.
Efren turned to look at Marcelo, hoping against hope that he could silently convey some reassurance that he had only the best of intentions for Marcelo’s future. Worst case scenario, Marcelo would break the pattern of former royal sons of Sheburat and would have no interest in relations with other men. Or with Efren in particular. In that case, Efren wouldn’t pursue the issue beyond the required consummation of the marriage. He had no intention of forcing his affections, but he would certainly do his best to earn Marcelo’s.
A few more moments ticked by before the queen cast a brief apologetic glance toward Marcelo, lifted her shoulders is a barely visible shrug, and said, “The treaty does indeed use that word. Prince Efren, the choice is yours.”
Efren continued to stare into Marcelo’s alarmed eyes as he firmly stated, “I choose His Royal Highness, Prince Marcelo. The wedding will proceed tomorrow as planned.”
Marcelo paled and swayed as his eyes glazed with a faraway look. His youngest sister, standing beside him, whispered, “Marcelo? Are you unwell?”
She repeated the words as Marcelo wobbled. Efren reached and took a step forward, but was too far away. Thankfully, Kemble was quick to react and caught Marcelo as he dropped like a stone, at least preventing him from hitting his head.