Andrealia walked through the candidates three more times, dismissing most of them until only three remained. Among these three was Arcane. The other two were as opposite as night and day. One, on Arcane's right was short, by the Frayen standard. His hair was a soft black, like the fur of the panthers that once roamed jungles and woods like her home. The other man was a tall by the standards as the first was short. His hair was a bronze gold, falling in elegant ringlets while the first's was short and straight. This man had the look of an aged warrior. Seen it all and failed to be impressed. The first man looked as innocent and cuddly as a teddy bear. Then there was Arcane, standing between the two looking like the middle step of the ladder. The king, long since bored with the goings on called a halt to the proceedings and said that they would wait until the battle was over. There would be no point to it all if they chose now and the man died. Of the three, only Arcane looked nervous. As much over the prospect of dying, as the calm and off hand way their king had said it. Andrealia nodded, gave her farewells to the court and the king, and then faded from Kriana. Kriana stumbled; the magic that had flowed over her during the whole process had drained a significant amount of energy. Arcane caught her and helped her regain her feet. The king eyed them thoughtfully. She made her curtsy to the king and to the courts, and then turned to go. The other two, not wanting to be outdone, tagged along to offer their services. When they had left the room, they introduced themselves.
"I'm Cristoph," Said the tall bronzed man, and raised Kriana's hand and brushed his lips softly over hers. "I hope we get to see more of each other." Kriana fought the blush that crept up her neck, but failed. Cristoph smirked as he looked from Kriana to Arcane. Then the teddy bear guy spoke.
"I'm Arthur. I can only hope that our paths cross again." He gave her a long sweeping bow that seemed to require a hat in his hand. As he straightened, Arcane tugged her towards the door; Kriana waved her good-bye and let her be pulled towards the gait of the city. Arcane was scowling at the thoughts running through his head. He was so focused on them that he didn't see Kriana's smile of amusement. They walked in silence until they past through the gaits to the dessert. Only then did Kriana break the silence. Until then she had been watching Arcane's expression change with each thought.
"I can't believe this whole Marriage Competition thing." Arcane glanced at her, and smiled.
"It really bugs you?"
Kriana gave a harsh laugh, "I'm the freaking prize at the finish line." She struck a statue like pose, and then made a face. Arcane laughed at her antics.
"It could be worse." He said. Kriana scoffed.
"Yeah, they could have the "Wedding Olympics, with yours truly as the Gold Metal."
Arcane laughed again, this time Kriana joined in as they discussed what event would be in the Wedding Olympics. They decided there would be a kissing event, the trivia event and, of course, the "What to do when the wife is PMSing?" event. By the time they had reached the edge of the forest, they were clinging to each other in hysterical laughter. They collapsed to the ground to calm down. It took a few minutes because, as is so often with hysterical laughter, as soon as they started to calm down, they would get into another fit of giggles. When they had calmed down and stayed calm, Arcane and Kriana stared at each other. As Kriana started to shift to get up, Arcane placed a hand on her cheek and kissed her. Heat rocketed down to Kriana's toes and back. The kiss had so much heat, that if she had a coherent thought in her head, she would think that the gold and silver on her skin had melted and blended together. When the kiss broke Kriana had to wait for Arcane's hands to untangle themselves from her hair. Both were blushing like mad. What was wrong with her? She hadn't blushed because of a kiss since her time in the Academy. The Academy was the main school for all Xerians. There, the first two years are the basics. Things that everyone will need to know, such as defense. After those two years you get to choose what courses you learn. Kriana had chosen politics, and military training. There was no point in being a spoiled princess. Learning had to fight had given her a sense of worth, if all else fails, she could be a good fighter. The fact that it kept her in great shape was just a perk. Kriana walked through the woods, though she could no longer feel her legs. Arcane had gone back towards the city. It wasn't long until Mikal found her; he had been scanning the woods for her ever since she had left for the city. He took one look at her expression and laughed.
"What did you eat there, and how can I get some?" Kriana thought about the probable cause of whatever expression she had on and started to giggle. Mikal looked very confused, but pushed past it.
"What happened? Tell me everything!" Kriana took a few steadying breathes, and then told Mikal all that had happened. He had been sad that he couldn't have gone along, and deserved the whole truth, except for the kiss. Since that didn't happen inside the city, it didn't count. By the end of it, Mikal was speechless. It looked as if he didn't no how to feel; Outraged, Relieved, Happy, or indignant? All were such good options. He decided on Outraged and indignant. They went well together.
"So, in the short version; they agreed, you got raped, discovered the blood magic, and are the door prize in a marriage competition."
Kriana nodded. "Yeah, that's the gist of it."
Mikal threw an arm around her shoulder. "Well, I'm going with you next time. No courtiers will try for you with me around." Kriana laughed and looked up at her friend's Warrior face, and the muscular arms.
"No, they wouldn't. Especially with that scowl on your face."
Mikal looked shocked. "What scowl?" He asked defensively.
"The one that says 'I don't care' and 'don't mess with me' at the same time."
Mikal smiled. "So how many are in the running for Groom?"
Kriana shrugged, "Three."
"That's not so bad." Mikal considered.
"It started at twenty."
Mikal laughed the loud boyish sound that comes out sometimes when he's surprised.
"That's not exactly slim pickin's" He said, wiping a tear that had leaked out in his burst of laughter.
It was Kriana's turn to scowl now.
Sobering, Mikal asked, "So, tell me about them."
Kriana sighed. "Well two of them look like complete opposites. Arthur and Cristoph."
Mikal scoffed. Kriana rolled her eyes at him. "Are you going to let me talk or what?"
Mikal raised his hands in peace and make the sign of locking his lips closed. Kriana rolled her eyes again.
"Arthur is kind of short, by their standards. Only a few spikes shorter than me. Mikal smiled. He, in some way, reminds me of a teddy bear, cuddly. Cristoph is tall, almost four leaves taller than me, and has bronze hair. Definitely Mr. Smooth."
Mikal laughed. "Oh, I'll have to meet him. Who's Number Three?"
Kriana turned her head to pretend to look at a flower and mumbled, "The Dessert Dweller."
Mikal was speechless, again, for a few seconds.
"What?" he said, at last.
"Arcane is the third 'contestant'." Kriana said.
"The guy you were flirting with? And let you get kidnapped?" Mikal demanded.
"My getting kidnapped was not his fault. I wanted to sleep outside."
Mikal glared at her.
"What? Everything there is made of stone! There's not a single tree! I had to be outside, it was the only way I could even catch the scent of the woods. I've lived my entire life in these woods. So have you. Wouldn't you miss the trees?"
Mikal glared at her for another few seconds, and then nodded.
"Ok." Kriana said; glad that the discussion was closing. Mikal started to pick up the pace.
"Come on, the whole town's waiting for you. Everyone can't wait to hear about the Ruby city."
Kriana laughed. "I didn't see that much of it."
At the village, Kriana was swamped with questions exactly five seconds after entering. The clamor of questions was starting to bring on a headache when Mikal held up his hands. The crowd quieted.
Kriana felt more than a little foolish, looking out at the crowd. She felt as if she were a kind of reporter. Resigned, Kriana pointed to one of the elders, thinking that they might have simple questions to answer. She was proved dead wrong when the Old One asked:
"Is it true that the Frayens are godless heathens?"
"From what I saw, the only difference between our culture and theirs is geological. They adjusted to their climate, as we adjusted to ours. They have no more or fewer problems than we do."
She saw a look of disappointment cross the Old One's face. Deciding to deal with that later she continued to answer questions for the impromptu press council for almost an hour and a half. After that, Mikal played the "She's tired and needs to rest card", slung her over his shoulder and stalked off towards Kriana's very comfortable tree. Kriana, like most of the villagers, had adopted the idea of carving their homes into semi-dead trees. The trees would still stand for years to come and provided an excellent place for home and hearth. Mikal plopped Kriana down on her bed and threw a pillow at her.
"Sleep." He ordered, and left the room. Half heartedly muttering about a princess being ordered about, Kriana fell asleep, surrounded by the familiar scents and sounds of home. The only problem with being a Princess and a warrior was having two rooms, both of which are guarded and both expect a status report. Kriana was rudely awakened by a sharp rap at her door. Grumbling an incoherent "Come in", Kriana shifted so that her head was facing away from the door. The first whiff of Hay and cheap wine assaulted her sinuses. She had a brief moment to think; "Dear God, not now" Before the tidal wave of sneezing overtook her. Cramer, the famous fool of the village, stood in her doorway, oblivious to the effect of his cologne had on everyone around him. The oldest question in the village is "How does he stand it?"
Cramer was moving closer to Kriana, who was now gagging on the overpowering scent, out of concern. Kriana held a hand in his general direction to keep him from getting any closer. She was still sneezing too frequently to catch more than a glimpse of the room.
"Are you alright, Princess?" He asked, the slightly nasal voice known through the entire village.
Kriana managed what passed as a nod somewhere between sneezes. When Cramer only stood there expectantly, she somehow waved at him to say what he was going to say.
He fidgeted, though Kriana could not see it.
"Well, I've heard through the grape vine that you're getting married to a Dessert Duke." He said, his voice flowing between agitated and timid with every other word. Finally, Kriana pinched her nose to keep from sneezing and said, in her own now nasal voice.
"That's right. Both King Kreath and Queen Andrealia have agreed to it. The only question now is which duke, and when."
Cramer's eyes widened in shock, looking, now, almost normal.
"You mean there's more than one?"
Kriana raised an eyebrow at him, the ice in her voice slightly ruined by the nasal quality.
"Is that so surprising?"
Cramer blushed; his skin was a normal pasty white, with only a small hint of a sliver pattern throughout. The blush was an interesting contrast to the silver.
"No, princess, it's just that I thought you'd marry me."
This puzzled Kriana, causing a faint worry line to crease between her eyes.
"What do you mean?" She said carefully, considering every word.
"The note I left you."
Now she remembered it. She had gotten a small proposal note under her door one evening. It hadn't been hard to guess who had sent it; everything Cramer touched seemed to carry a bit of his cologne with it. Not knowing what else to do with it, Kriana had set it aside, unanswered, in hopes that he would think she had not noticed it.
Trying to say this gently, Kriana said, "Cramer, I never said 'yes'."
"But you never said 'no'." Cramer pointed out. Kriana had to resist rubbing the spot between her eyes. She had not had her morning coffee, yet, and all of this was too much without it.
"Cramer, I never said I'd marry you. So that leaves other options. I'm sorry if there was an misunderstanding, but before I think another thought, I need coffee."
Cramer nodded sadly, bowed and left her hut. Kriana sighed and rubbed between her eyes. Way too much stress without coffee.