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 should have no trouble producing 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?
🔽 🔼 The Contingency Plan - POV Switch - Efren's POV - Part 2
The Contingency Plan - POV Switch - Efren's POV - Part 2
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 Princess 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?
🔽 🔼 The Contingency Plan - POV Switch - Efren's POV - Part 3
The Contingency Plan - POV Switch - Efren's POV - Part 3
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, Efren 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.
🔽 🔼 The Contingency Plan - POV Switch - Efren's POV - Part 4
The Contingency Plan - POV Switch - Efren's POV - Part 4
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.”
🔽 🔼 The Contingency Plan - POV Switch - Efren's POV - Part 5
The Contingency Plan - POV Switch - Efren's POV - Part 5
“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.
🔽 🔼 Change of Plans - POV Switch - Marcelo's POV - Opening Scene
Change of Plans - POV Switch - Marcelo's POV POV - Opening Scene
Chapter 1: Forget-Me-Not
Marcelo, present day
Marcelo, a rare and naïve young prince of matriarchal Sheburat, shuffled sleepy cobwebs around in his brain but remained unmoving. A warm body shifted lazily beneath him as if the owner of said body was also awakening.
The ambient sounds surrounding him were unfamiliar, as were the scents filtering into his barely-awake brain. The captivating, musky scent of the man—he was definitely a man—almost overpowered the milder odors of the unfamiliar bedding and room in general.
Marcelo pushed all thoughts about the oddly pleasurable sensations coursing through him in response to the man’s body pressing against his own to the back of his whirling mind. Naked. The man was naked. They both were.
Marcelo breathed in a forcibly steady breath that he hoped emulated that of a sleeping man. He wanted…needed…to remember his circumstances before opening his eyes to face this stranger.
At least the berry smell of his own hair was comfortingly familiar. A miniscule comfort.
The man’s slight movements seemed to indicate that he was looking over Marcelo as if he, too, might be confused by the situation. But surely not. It was difficult enough trying to comprehend how Marcelo could not know why he was awakening in a stranger’s bed without that explanation further covering how the stranger was also unknowing.
Was it morning? Hard to discern the light through his closed eyelids, but the chirping of birds outside a window indicated morning. Yet, he’d gone to sleep in his own bed. He would swear to that.
“Wake up, my lovely.” The man gently shook Marcelo’s shoulder and landed a light kiss to his forehead. Marcelo’s heart skipped a beat, and it was all he could do to continue feigning sleep. Or unconsciousness. That would do just as well. Perhaps better.
Marcelo remained still as the man ran a finger along his jaw and tipped his chin, then a warm, tantalizing buzz coursed through him when the man kissed him. Kissed him! On the lips. “Come, my lovely.” The man’s calm voice sent another curious shiver across Marcelo’s skin. “Let’s make the most of this glorious morning, hmm?”
The man punctuated and clarified that incredibly forward proposal by pressing his arousal against Marcelo’s own uncomfortably—and embarrassingly—hard manhood.
Marcelo’s eyes snapped open. They were well past the point where pretense was the better path to take.
The man was sleep tousled and clearly didn’t share Marcelo’s alarm at their shocking state. He merely said, “You are in friendly hands, my lovely. You are free to stay or go, whichever you’d rather.”
As if that would be reassuring. Was it common and acceptable for this man to awaken with a strange man in his bed? Assuming it was his own bed, since surely he would be conveying at least some level of alarm if he were as unfamiliar with his surroundings as was Marcelo.
It might be all well and good for this unidentified—although decidedly handsome, Marcelo’s traitorous brain insisted on acknowledging—man, but a vision of his mother’s frosty and deceivingly calm reaction to hearing this news ran through his mind and propelled him to action.
Marcelo pushed away and scrambled clumsily out of bed. The man huffed a heavy sigh, ran a hand over his face, and hefted himself to a sitting position as Marcelo stumbled to where two sets of clothing lay folded across the backs of chairs.
Clearly the man was displeased, but what did he expect? Could he honestly have thought Marcelo would…would…well…go along with his proposal? In fairness to the man, he didn’t appear to recognize Marcelo as the prince of the realm.
Marcelo’s gut churned, and his breaths grew louder and quicker as he sifted through the garments on the chair backs. Neither outfit belonged to him, yet they were two different sizes. How many people had gotten undressed in this room last night?
What in the four realms was going on?
“Where is my clothing?” Marcelo’s voice seemed disembodied as it wafted from between his quivering lips in a breathy whimper as another image of his mother’s likely response to this scandal—which would surely surpass all he’d ever been privy to—raced through his mind.
Not that this man seemed to mind about the scandal he was embroiled in. “My lovely,” he drawled, “I’m sure they must be the smaller of those two sets.”
Perhaps the man’s certainty that there hadn’t been a third person participating in this wild little party should be mildly reassuring, but it was lost on Marcelo, who shook his head. “Not mine.”
Yet there were no other options, and he could hardly sort out this muddle in the nude, so he quickly but jerkily stepped into the smaller set of leather leggings, then slipped the tunic over his head. He drew his brows together as he peered down at himself.
These garments were not his, yet they fit as perfectly as his own custom-made clothing. None of this made any sense. They even smelled familiar. Like himself, as he would expect clothes he’d been wearing to smell.
As if he hadn’t a care in the world, the man snorted, stood, pulled the bell rope, presumably to summon his personal servant, and stepped into his own pair of snug leather leggings.
The man held his shoulders back, though his expression had slumped into a neutral yet vaguely regal mien. “As I said, my lovely, you are not a prisoner here. You need not panic so. I have plenty of enthusiastic partners available, and I feel no desire to force myself upon unwilling lovers who’ve changed their minds.” He waved a hand toward the door. “No doubt Dru knows to bring tea and toast for two in case you’re inclined to break your fast before rushing out, but you may leave now if you’d rather. Dru will show you out if you don’t remember the way.”
The man’s tone clearly conveyed his preference for the latter. Again, perhaps it should be mildly reassuring that the man was cultured enough to extend the offer, but Marcelo’s belly clenched like an angry man’s fist. He could not have held down a meal even without the certainty that needlessly delaying his return to Sheburat castle would fan the flames of his mother’s ire into an inferno. No, he would not casually break his fast with this man.
Speaking of…why wasn’t this man equally concerned about the potential consequences of their situation, and how was it that he didn’t even recognize Marcelo? No one living in the vicinity—certainly not of this man’s apparent class—would fail to recognize him. Or likewise, whom Marcelo wouldn’t recognize in return. Perhaps he was a foreign visitor. The oddly snug leather leggings did suggest that. Or…
Marcelo’s breath quickened further, and he spun before rushing to the window to throw open the heavy draperies. The sun was reflecting off majestic mountains, just clearing the horizon where the range tapered off.
Marcelo recoiled in alarm. There were no mountains in Sheburat. Neither were there mountains this grand in either Gagel or Proye.
He had to be in Zioneven, the land of Sheburat’s former enemy. It would have taken weeks to get here, yet he knew he’d gone to sleep in his own bed in Sheburat last night. He would swear to it in front of any court in the four realms.
He whirled in place to face the strange man. “Where—?” He gulped. They appeared to be in Zioneven, yet that was inexplicable. But even if true, where within that realm? “Who—?” Not to mention, how and why, but the words failed him.
The man’s brows drew together. Finally, Finally, he was exhibiting some mild concern. “Where are you from?”
“Where am I?” Marcelo countered.
The door swung open, and a servant Marcelo didn’t recognize entered followed by Erich—Erich!—bearing trays.
“Erich! Thank goodness!” Marcelo expelled a breath that also deflated some of the terror that had stiffened his frame. Erich, his personal servant from Sheburat was here, acting for all the world as if nothing were amiss. Perhaps the situation wasn’t as grim as it seemed, although what could possibly explain how he’d been transported, unconscious, to Zioneven, not to mention put to bed with this man.
“Sir?” Erich sedately placed his tray on a small table, and his brows raised in his familiar, calming manner. “How may I be of service.”
Erich was acting as if this were just another day with nothing amiss, which was an odd mix of disturbing, curious, and consoling. Surely an explanation was now imminent.
“Yes, thank goodness.” The man rolled his eyes and turned to the other servant. ‘I appreciate the effort, Dru, but next time, please find a bed-warmer who isn’t so deep in his cups he won’t remember how he came to be here.”
Bed warmer!? This man had no idea whatsoever who Marcelo was.
Dru halted with his laden tray halfway down to another table. “Sir?” Dru’s brows came together over widened eyes, and Erich’s countenance now mirrored Dru’s. They both stared at the man with a concentration that reversed Marcelo’s short-lived semi-relief.
Their evident concern—which was alarming considering how well servants schooled their features—surpassed any reaction one might expect in response to the ‘bed warmer’ insult the man had directed at Marcelo.
Dru carefully laid the tray on the table and took a deep breath. “You don’t know one another?”
The worry in both servants’ eyes clearly conveyed that they should. They should each recognize the other.
The mild loosening of Marcelo’s muscles at the news implicit in the servants’ behavior—that the seemingly compromising situation he’d awoken to was not, in fact, scandalous in and of itself—didn’t prevent his blood from chilling as he and the man both shook their heads. Something was clearly drastically amiss.
Dru gulped and yanked the bell pull three times. Signaling an alarm?
“No,” the man whispered. He sat heavily on the edge of the bed. Evidently, he had figured out what was going on. Not surprising, really. Likely anyone whose life wasn’t as sheltered as Marcelo’s would have at least a clue.
“I’m sorry, sir.” Dru’s eyes mirrored his words. “I fear you’ve both been dosed with Forget-Me-Not.”
The man seemed to know what this “Forget-Me-Not” toxin was. His lack of further reaction indicated that Dru’s words had merely confirmed what he’d already suspected. He shivered and stared blankly at his hands, frowning, as he processed the information.
Marcelo remained standing in front of the window and clenched the top of his tunic closed with one hand. “What…what is Forget-Me-Not?”
The question was somewhat rhetorical, since it obviously did something to wipe a person’s memory despite the name seemingly implying the opposite, but specifics would be appreciated, as would an explanation of how he’d come to be in Zioneven, not to mention who was this man, and why were they sharing a bed, which was seemingly a perfectly acceptable situation?
In Marcelo’s now-outdated memory , his twin sister, Marcela, had been mere weeks from marrying Crown Prince Efren of Zioneven. Perhaps Marcelo had been recruited to join her, although that would be odd, since they hadn’t been close in years. Still, Marcela might have considered any familiar face to be comforting, and mother would never have spared any of his sisters to be sent along as her companion.
The stranger’s gasp drew Marcelo’s attention. The man stared for a few moments at the hand Marcelo was clenching at his chest, then he stood, straightened his back, and neutralized his features as he crossed the room and took Marcelo’s hands in his own.
“You must be Prince Marcelo,” the man said. Had he drawn the same conclusion?
But then the man ran his thumb over an unfamiliar ring on Marcelo’s third finger and gestured to a ring Marcelo did recognize as one of his own on the man’s smallest finger. “And I am Efren, the crown prince of Zioneven. It appears we are married.”
To each other?!
What an utterly preposterous conclusion. And yet, someone as worldly and in-the-know as the crown prince of Zioneven would be able to draw correct conclusions from minimal data far more readily than someone as uninformed as Marcelo. And neither of their personal servants spoke to correct the prince’s assumption, thus confirming it.
The man…Crown Prince Efren’s eyes appeared kindly, as if he were silently begging Marcelo’s forgiveness for his earlier behavior and words. Marcelo focused on those warm brown beacons of hope as the room around him diminished along with the chirping of the birds and the strength in his muscles.
This was just too absurd to be true, and he dropped, as reality—or perhaps this odd dream—faded to black.
🔽 🔼 Plans Trilogy - Visiting Sheburat
Plans Trilogy - Visiting Sheburat
Bonus Scene – Change of Plans
I received 5 prompt words for this scene, and used them all:
Kareni: ale – marks – bloom – ink – tavern
~ ~ ~
Queen Giselle of Sheburat was trying, or at least her son, Prince Marcelo, sensed that she was. She refrained from sniffing in derision, but a bloom of flush crept up her neck when Marcelo accompanied his husband, Efren, the crown prince of Zioneven, into Sheburat’s assembly chamber where a new trade agreement between the two realms was to be signed.
Marcelo nodded politely to his mother, the queen, and diplomatically also restrained himself by not allowing a smug grin to curl his lips. His presence was not, by any means, merely for show. She’d likely known that for a couple years now.
Efren gave Marcelo’s hand a gentle press before relinquishing it as they sat. Final versions of the agreement were passed between Gideon (Zioneven’s ambassador in Sheburat), Efren, and Marcelo for review before signing.
Shortly after immigrating to Zioneven as a naive and starry-eyed newlywed, Marcelo had been invited to attend council meetings alongside Efren. In hindsight, Marcelo had no doubt his loyalty had been tested in the early days, but no more. He knew his input was valued, initially for his fresh perspective as a political novice, but eventually for his savvy.
Having risked his own life to save Efren’s early in their marriage, Marcelo’s loyalty was now unquestioned in Zioneven. Or, for that matter, in Sheburat or anywhere else in the four realms.
Marcelo breathed an inconspicuous sigh of relief that nothing beyond that mild flush betrayed what he suspected were the queen’s true feelings, considering the propaganda he’d been fed growing up. She’d treated him as a respected member of Zioneven’s delegation, with a small nod to their relationship in the form of a single, restrained hug upon arrival. She was still nothing if not diplomatic in…well, basically everything.
Marcelo perused one of the documents then pointed to two small words as he slid the paper to Efren. Those words weren’t nearly as significant as the single word the King of Zioneven had inserted in the long-ago peace treaty between Sheburat and Zioneven. A word that had allowed Efren to select Marcelo under the treaty’s contingency plan in lieu of one of his younger sisters when Marcelo’s twin—Marcela, Efren’s original betrothed—passed away shortly before their wedding.
These words were mere prepositions, but their switch injected some ambiguity that, if exploited, would favor Sheburat. Efren nodded and softly but forcefully expelled a long breath. He dipped his quill into a bottle of ink and slashed bold marks through the two erroneous words, then he tidily replaced them with the preapproved words.
Gideon looked over and nodded. He’d noticed the same, and he passed his copy to Efren for correction and signature.
The queen’s eldest daughters, who Marcelo thought of as the heir and the spare, sat stony-faced on either side of the queen. Kemble, a year younger than Marcelo, and the daughter who everyone in Sheburat had thought would be Marcela’s replacement as Efren’s bride, sat next to the spare with a far more benevolent expression gracing her face.
Efren initialed the changes and signed the adjusted documents with a flourish then passed them without comment to Queen Giselle. She barely glanced at them before adding her own initials and signature and returning one of the fully executed documents to Efren.
The queen sniffed. “I’ll speak to the secretary who copied the final documents about those errors. I appreciate your understanding.”
“Mistakes happen,” Efren said. “I’m not concerned.”
Though Marcelo sincerely doubted that Efren considered it to be an honest mistake any more than he did.
The queen rose, and everyone else followed suit. Pleasantries were exchanged before making for the exit. They would all meet again for a formal dinner that evening but were free for the next few hours.
The queen and Marcelo’s older sisters turned toward her private library, but Kemble hung back. Once the others disappeared around a corner, Kemble turned to Marcelo with a sincere smile.
She took Marcelo’s hands in hers. “I’ve long been wanting to tell you how proud I am of you.” She gave his hands a light squeeze. “And I know Marcela would have been, too. She always said you were braver and more clever than mother gave you credit for being.”
“Thank you.” Marcelo’s chin rose a notch as he returned her smile. Efren ran a warm hand comfortingly up and down Marcelo’s back, sending delightful tingles across his skin. “And I wish you all the happiness in your upcoming nuptials that I’ve enjoyed in my own marriage.”
In two days time, Kemble would marry Roderick, a young man she’d favored since before Marcelo’s marriage. That had been the primary reason for Efren and Marcelo to make this trip. The documents could have journeyed back and forth via diplomatic couriers for signatures, same as they’d done to hash out the agreement.
Efren had once joked that the expression of utter relief on Kemble’s face when he’d announced his intention to marry Marcelo rather than her would have bruised his ego if he’d been at all interested in women.
Kemble tittered. “Thank you. Speaking of…” She bounced her gaze between Marcelo and Efren. “Would the two of you care to join me and Roderick for a pint of ale at Land’s End Tavern? I’m to meet him there shortly.”
Marcelo glanced at Efren with a raised eyebrow. Efren nodded.
“Of course,” Marcelo said. “We would love to.”
“I would have been interested to hear your firsthand accounts of your journey to Zioneven after your wedding over the ale, but I suppose that’s not possible?”
“No.” Marcelo shook his head. “We never recovered those memories after the Forget-Me-Not incident. We can only relate what we’ve been told.”
“Probably for the best,” Kimble said. She paused a moment before adding, “Mother masks her feelings well, but you should know that it was obvious she was deeply affected personally—not only because of the political implications—by what happened to you. She was horrified on your behalf and clearly relieved that you’d survived relatively unscathed.”
“Thank you. That means a lot to me.” Marcelo turned to Efren with a sly grin. “Land’s End is next door to Mr. Tolly’s sweets shop.”
Efren affected a mock grimace, and Kemble snickered. She said, “I dare you.”
Efren laughed, pulled Marcelo into his arms, and landed a kiss to his forehead. “I’m sure the nutter buzzers on display to the public will be safely untainted by Forget-Me-Not.” Efren was referencing the time, early in their marriage, when they’d unwittingly been dosed with that mind-wiping toxin when an enemy had poisoned the package of nutter buzzers Efren had ordered for Marcelo all the way from Sheburat. “Would you like to stop by Mr. Tolly’s?”
Marcelo gnawed his lip, but a grin twitched up, and he nodded.
“We’ll get four of them.” Kemble waggled her eyebrows playfully. “One for each in our party.”
“Well.” Marcelo shrugged. “At least our relationships have existed for long enough that we would all at least remember our partners even if we were—and I agree this is most unlikely—ever again dosed with that awful stuff.”
“Indeed,” Efren said. “To worthwhile risks!”
“Hear, hear!” Marcelo and Kemble replied in unison.
With Marcelo in the middle, they all linked elbows and walked far more sedately than they felt toward what would probably be an enjoyable but uneventful afternoon.