I dropped a curtsy right away, "Honoured to be made your acquaintance, Highness."
"See, this is what I hate," Tobias turned to Sybil, smiling good-naturedly, "Tobias would sound so much nicer than 'Highness' from such a lovely face. Being addressed as 'Highness' makes me look around for Leon. Annelise, please, I would much prefer being addressed as Tobias, at the very least in private meetings such as these."
"If that is what you wish," I responded, surprised by his nature and forwardness.
"And how is Leon doing?" Sybil enquired.
"Better not let him hear you refer to him as such," Tobias chuckled, "He insists on being addressed as 'Your Highness' by everyone who is not Father or I."
"Our Crown Prince has always been a conceited one," Sybil told me, "But Leon will make an excellent king."
"That he will," Tobias agreed with pride, "Whose brother is he after all?"
"Shall we proceed then?" Sybil asked, and I was suddenly on guard. Why had not Sybil mentioned that the prince was expected to visit? For what purpose was he here?
"I heard that you had procured a companion for yourself, and that you were dragging the poor thing around everywhere," Tobias said in a mock serious tone, disregarding her question, "I merely wanted to see who it was; and it is pleasing to the eyes to behold such a beauty. It is a great pity you are married, Annelise. We would have had a fine time together."
I blushed scarlet at his inappropriate comment, forgetting my anxiety. Who knew that the prince would turn out to be quite the rake? Although, I mused silently, such behaviour was to be expected from a prince. Certainly, he had been spoiled since birth.
"Hush," Sybil admonished, "Annelise is not used to your obnoxious personality."
"You have done well, Sybil," all the playfulness in Tobias vanished, belying a well-hidden facet of his personality, "And, Annelise, you are aristocracy. You knew the reputation Damien carries. Why marry him?"
I shot a nervous glance at Sybil but she was looking intently at me as well.
"I-I am not comfortable answering," I managed to stutter out at length.
"How come?" Sybil asked sharply, her eyes taking on a dangerous glint.
My heart was hammering in my chest. Tobias was royalty and Sybil was a Court Official. Doubtless, a wrong answer by me would endanger everything. I shuddered, suddenly comprehending the reason why Tobias had come, and why Sybil had kept me company. I had been cornered unsuspectingly.
"I am sorry you are uncomfortable, Annelise," Tobias spoke, "But you will have to answer us. Why did you marry Damien?"
"Because, I-" I stopped short. Because I had no other choice. Because if I had not, Troy and I would have been fed to the assassins and we would be long since dead. Because Damien had extended his protection to the von Falkmor estates. Bless the stars, what and how could I answer?
"Annelise, I was sent to help you," Sybil said gently, "And it is very important you answer truthfully. I will rephrase: Did you marry Damien under duress?"
I stared numbly at them, my lips not parting.
"You are a very important key, here, Annelise," Tobias continued, "We need to hear what sort of a person Damien is from you."
"Tobias," Sybil warned.
Tobias raised a hand to stop her and carried on speaking, "The lands Damien has taken under him are being administered very well. He is also paying the fief which is due to the king. The people, though fearful of his reputation, are content. Soron is a very key trading area and has flourished tremendously under Damien, all this I cannot deny. But there are principles and principles cannot be ignored. Disowning your family is despicable and unacceptable."
"Are you saying that the king considering granting Damien a title?" I read between the lines.
"Annelise, we are asking all the questions here," Sybil chided.
"Besides, there is also the question of you," Tobias stated.
"Me?" I shook my head disbelievingly.
"Yes," Sybil confirmed, "Yours was a physical marriage. Did Damien force himself on you and then compel you to marry him?"
"Bless the stars, of course not," I cried out indignantly.
"Uh-" Sybil was thrown off a little, "Or were you threatened in any way?"
I was breathing deeply to clear my mind.
"At the manor in Soron," Sybil went on, seeing that I would not say anything, "You were injured, and looked terribly indisposed. I knew right away you could not have slept for days. Come, Annelise, let us help you."
I held my tongue. Damien had said that I would get better offers here in the capital, had he meant this? I bit my lip, wanting to speak out, and yet, at the same time, not wanting to betray Damien.
"Annelise," Tobias coaxed, "We only want to help you. Regardless of how tactically skilled Damien is; he will not be given a title if he does not render Lord von Heart a public apology. Also if he has threatened, used, or manipulated you in any way, he will be duly dealt with. If you are trapped in a golden cage, then we will free you. Please, have no fear, just tell us the truth."
I hesitated. This was my only chance at freedom.
Damien inspected his blade one last time. Satisfied, he sheathed it and walked out to face his opponent. He frowned as he regarded the unusual number of soldiers lining the arena. He pushed it to the back of his mind and very nearly balked as his opponent walked in.
"Why are you here?" he questioned harshly.
"I suppose it was too much to expect a more polite greeting, was it not?" Seth threw back.
"Why are you here?" Damien repeated tersely, he disliked repeating himself, and the sight of his fool of a half-brother irked him no end.
"What do men enter a tournament for?" Seth countered, "To fight, of course."
Damien smirked, although his eyes flickered with the irritation of not receiving an adequate response, and drew his sword, "Then let us begin. Although, why are the likes of you even competing?"
Their blades clashed, Seth on the defensive at once.
"I just thought we could have a conversation," Seth answered finally.
Damien was surprised. He had never thought that Abner von Heart would let someone as incompetent as Seth participate in the Winter Tournament. Then again, the man would want information and Seth would only be happy to comply with his wishes.
"You know I have nothing to do with you and neither do I wish to have anything to do with you," Damien brought down his sword ruthlessly, oblivious to the mounting excitement of the crowd as they watched the two half-brothers, "Why would I ever want a conversation with you, Seth?"
Seth blocked, and launched a skilled counter attack. Seth was a skilled fighter, despite his aversion to blood and contrary to public opinion. The spectators watched in anticipation. The von Heart family was a very famous one, no matter how that fame was acquired.
"Because we are a family," Seth threw in over the sound of their swords colliding head-on, ignoring the disgust filling in the face of Damien, "I care about you and I feel obligated to caution you. Father is a very cunning man. He is planning something to undermine you for he despises you for your slight and treachery."
"Treachery," Damien burst out laughing, easily swinging his sword into an offensive stance, "He is delirious. Turning senile, even."
Seth stared at him before a moment, before charging in, "Your temperament is highly unusual."
Damien was still grinning as he swung at Seth. "Do I amuse you?" he taunted lightly.
Seth was flung back a good distance. He steadied himself by thrusting his sword into the ground and went for Damien again. Damien parried with obvious ease.
"No, Father is anything but delirious and senile," Seth panted as he blocked again, "I assume you brought Annelise with you."
"She does not concern you," Damien pushed forward, "And using her to get away was truly despicable, coward."
Seth grimaced, fending Damien off, "I regret my actions."
Damien said nothing to that, but increased the force on the sword.
"Rosalinda wants to meet her," Seth got out as his own sword slipped a little.
"You bore me," Damien decided he had toyed enough with Seth. In the blink of an eye, Seth found himself on the ground. Damien was holding his sword to the neck of Seth, "You lose."
The audience was stunned, the end of the duel having come about unexpectedly. The announcer was watching them in a daze.
"What are you waiting for?" Damien snapped irritably at the gaping man.
The announcer announced his victory. Damien left the arena, without looking back even once.
"Just heed my words, Damien," Seth called out as he picked himself from the ground.
Lord Abner von Heart turned to the cloaked figure beside him, "Are you sure you can defeat Damien? Bast*rd he may be, but he could not have gotten to where he is now without skill. You just saw a small display of his potential."
"You overestimate Damien," the masked figure dismissed his concern, "Seth is a rather easy opponent."
"And you forget what I am putting at stake," Abner retorted, "Can and will you defeat Damien?"
"Absolutely," he answered, "No one can counter his moves better than I can."
Damien sauntered back to where the other participants were lounging after giving the soldiers a wary glance. The men in his way parted at once and Damien smirked. He claimed a corner for himself and took a long swig of water from an adjacent pitcher. He settled on the secluded bench, taking another long sip.
"Would it anger you if I likened you to a pleased cat?"
Damien blankly looked up at Fai, "I expected to see you much later."
"Things do not always go according to our expectations, Damien," Fai gave him a crooked smile, "You were not expecting Seth, were you?"
"No," Damien agreed.
"Do you trust Annelise?" Fai asked, taking Damien by surprise.
Damien narrowed his eyes, "I trust no one. What sort of game are you playing now, Fai?"
"Just answer me truthfully," Fai evaded, "Do you trust Annelise?"
Damien did not answer.
"Or more importantly," Fai continued, "Does Annelise trust you?"
"Stop the questions, Fai," Damien tensed, "Tell me what you know."
"Abner von Heart sent a very tempting offer to the king, Damien. His Royal Highness is at a loss on what to do next. He recognises your tactical acumen and talent but fears your bestial nature. The king will decide on your fate after questioning Annelise thoroughly," Fai answered.
Damien clenched his fists as his blood ran cold, "When?"
"You could me a little more eloquent," Fai shook his head, "But this time, it is too late."
Damien felt the first stirrings of panic, "Fai-"
"Why else to do you think Official von Monroe has latched on to Annelise so?" Fai informed, "And well, Prince Tobias and Official von Monroe have been with dear Annelise since well before lunch time, coercing her for answers, no doubt. Trust me when I say that Prince Tobias can get a mute to speak up, and you know rather well how persuasive Official von Monroe is."
"What offer did von Heart send the king, Fai?" Damien asked after several seconds of silence, possessing a control that even Fai envied.
"Well, I would not have thought that it would be your concern, but, Abner intends to have Rosalinda and the Crown Prince Leon marry," Fai responded quietly, "That is a good match, do you not think so?"
Damien resisted the urge to shove the pitcher of water into the face of Fai, knowing it would lead to a bloody battle. "Since when have you known all this?" he questioned instead.
The assassin smiled, "Three days. I have to say, Damien, Abner does not waste time. He approached the king right after the opening ceremony. He is cunning; I did not see this coming. I will be kept amused."
"And you tell me now?" Damien hissed, having tuned out nearly everything after 'three days'.
"Damien, Damien, do not be like that," Fai chuckled softly, "I need my own share of entertainment in this whole saga."
"EN'TER'TAIN'MENT?!" Damien was livid, stressing every syllable.
"I believe that is what I just said," Fai laughed heartily, and Damien was murderous. "You see Damien; you are a person who is rarely ruffled. Seeing you squirm is the biggest entertainment there can possibly be."
"I will remind you," Damien fought the urge he had of spilling the blood of the assassin before him; "Annelise was your idea entirely."
"I have not forgotten," Fai acknowledged, suddenly turning cold, "Should I do away with her?"
Damien spat out his reply and stalked away.