Anya poked Maisha in the arm with her pencil. "You lied to me. What did you do with the Prince that night?"
She grabbed her pencil and snapped it in half with one hand. Anya gasped and stared at her as though she were a monster. Maisha shrugged it off, "I told you everything about that night."
"When I asked the Prince about it he knew nothing!"
A strained smile, "Perhaps he didn't wish to speak of the matter with you?"
"Is there something that spellbinds your mind? You are not acting as you usually do."
Maisha sighed. It is not right to release aggression upon Anya. "I offer my apologies. I took out my frustrations upon you."
Anya frowned, "I will say that I forgive, but not that I do not mind. And do you have a pencil for me?"
Maisha handed her pencil over. She would have a nice time explaining to the Ice Queen why her pencil was snapped in two.
"Does Arelle speak truth? Did you sleep with the Prince?"
"No, I did not. It has only been six days," she exasperated, "Though I come from the backlands, I am not a barbarian!"
Anya sank back into her chair. "I see."
Maisha ground the broken half of Anya's pencil into her desk in frustration. Six days have passed, and last night did not end well for her. She needed to speak with Reina. Any advice would ease her mind.
The chair squealed as she rose. Anya arched an eyebrow. "Where are you going?"
Maisha held her hand to her forehead, "I do not feel well. Tell the Queen I apologize. I am going to rest." She left the room quickly and sped to her chambers.
Fortunately Reina tidied up her quarters. She jumped as Maisha entered, holding her hand to her chest, "You startled me!"
"Forgive me Reina."
"Why did you leave your lessons?"
Maisha sat on the bed. "I need advice."
Reina gave a sympathetic smile and sat beside her. "Did something happen with the Prince?"
Maisha explained everything from the night before, excluding her secret meeting with Vincent. She doubted she would approve a transgression into the barracks. Reina listened with a blank face, nodding and prodding for clarification at times. When Maisha finished her story, she said nothing and thoughtfully ran her thumb over her knuckles. Finally, she chuckled softly and patted her on the head like a child.
"Men are fragile creatures. They must continually exert their dominance. All desire to be the alpha male of the pack, and none like that potential challenged. You mustn't challenge him, Maisha. Even if you know a concept or have advice, it is always best to keep it to yourself unless asked directly. Let him feel like a man, the alpha male that leads weaker men. To be a woman and challenge that directly must weigh upon his conscious as well. I would not be surprised to think that he thinks himself not worthy of you."
Maisha burrowed her brow, "I do not understand. Why would he feel inferior around me?"
Reina smiled, "I am not with the Prince. Why would he feel inferior around you? Or provoke feelings of jealousy of Lionel?"
Maisha bit her lip. "I did offer him advice unneeded, and relating to strength. And Lio is the strongest knight in the land."
Reina nodded. "Yes, that is correct. He feels that you desire a man like Lionel."
Maisha sighed. There lay a truth behind her words. "I see," she mumbled.
"Worry not about changing yourself for him. It is your personality that charmed him in the first meeting. It is you that made him decide to keep the charade for many days. He wanted to spend more time with you of now, Maisha."
She gave a halfhearted smile. "I suppose I'll take pride in that."
Reina laughed, "You should. The Prince is quite smitten with you, everyone in the palace can see that. So long as you listen to him in earnest, he will not mind that your wits are not equal." She paused and grasped Maisha's hands, squeezing them tightly. Confusion clouded her face. "They also say the false prince is smitten with you as well. I can see in your eyes that you admire a man like him, being so similar to your father. Though the charade is soon at its end, do not meet with him anymore. You must meet Aurelius with an unclouded mind and clear intentions. He is a man who can see through your masks into your deepest mind. He will notice your indecision."
Maisha smiled, "I am thankful to you, Reina. You have helped set me on the correct path."
"It is my honor. But let me tell you one other thing," she squeezed her hands with a great deal of force, "It is accepted that men will hit women. I know you are stronger than him. Should he truly exert force enough to hurt you, fight back. He believes his title will provide enough shield and you should ensure that hurting you will have its own punishment." Her nod of acknowledgment held a hesitation, but Reina did not expect her to mind the words until it came time to enforce them. She clapped her hands together and stood. "Shall we redo your attire to better attract the Prince?"
"Nothing potent," she cringed, "He seems to take to your designs rather well."
Reina laughed, "I'll see what I can do."
The cool breeze whipped through her legs. The latest dress left her shoulders bare. It felt light upon her skin, and Reina applied the technique from the sleeves of another dress to the back of this to create the effect of a corset without wearing one. The clean white made her feel refreshed. Lio called her name. Her heart jumped, but she banished the feeling and greeted him with a smile. "Good afternoon!"
"Your sword is a fine piece of work. Your land had a master smith to their name."
She blushed and nodded, "Father was rather specific about swords."
He chuckled, "I imagine. I look forward to seeing your craft."
The feelings she tried to hold back tempted to flow over. It would be best to leave as soon as possible, just as Reina advised. "Where is Aurelius today?"
"Oh," he paused, "He said he would be late today. I'm to send you after an hour."
She pursed her lips, "Is that so?" Perhaps yesterday left him in a sour mood after all? In any case, one hour could not harm much in the end.
He nodded. "I have something to show you; follow me."
His hand felt familiar on the small of her back. She shouldn't allow it, but a part of her told her to use today as closure for her short romance. Lio smelled of sweat and dirt. He must come here after training the men in the mornings. "Has it been hard living a double life?"
He chuckled, "It upset Vincent far more than it upset me. My captains are capable men. It is difficult keeping up the appearance of a prince. The girls of the noble families are appalled at the things I say and do at times."
"You are not alone," she replied with a small laugh. "Sometimes I feel like I don't belong in this world, but I have no escape and must make the most of it."
Lio gave her a pensive gaze, but said nothing in reply. As they approached the edge, Maisha noticed a vivid ring of red and orange hued flowers. "Has that always been there?"
"It was commissioned by Aurelius. He knows how much you love the garden and wanted a unique piece to devote to you."
She gasped and dashed ahead to the circle. From afar it seemed aflame, but as she neared it the scent of citrus filled her nose. The foliage grew to her shoulders. Aside from a small opening, it was entirely sealed. The sunlight peeking through the leaves made the flowers glow. She sighed and spun around in delight. "It's beautiful," she gushed.
As he approached her, the symbolism of entering a ring of fire did not escape his mind. This must be the image Aurelius imagined as he designed it. What exactly did he think of her? She dropped out of view and he entered to find her at the far end, seated, smiling sheepishly. "It's rather large inside," he noted in surprise.
"It's peaceful inside. It's almost like a private sanctuary," she replied with a smile. "One could sit and think without bother in here."
He sat beside her and stared up at the sky. "Sanctuary, eh," he thought, glancing down at her. He placed his hand upon hers and returned his attentions to cloud gazing.
Maisha gasped, but did not remove her hand. If this is the closest to intimacy she would receive from Lio, she would treasure it. Everything ended here, inside this circle. "Lio, what is expected of a woman of the palace?"
His eyebrows arched. Not a question he expected from her. "Ladies are expected to always look a certain way, depending on the fashion, but always with a grace and fragile demeanor. They do not speak unless spoken to, and any opinions are to be kept to themselves or those of their husband." As he continued, her face became distraught. He cringed. He might as well be saying she needed to change every aspect of her mind and body.
The calloused fingers of a true soldier squeezed her hands. She looked up at him, smiling weakly. "Forgive me," she mumbled, "It was a matter weighing upon my mind."
"It is not much like you, to be certain," he laughed, "But your differences are a breath of fresh air. You're strong, beautiful, earnest," she looked up at him, "Intriguing, sweet-natured," he stopped as their eyes met. He swallowed and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear as he rested his hand upon her cheek. "And those qualities are what enamor me."
The colors of the flowers reflected her cheeks. Her heartbeat thundered in her ears. A crack of lightening sizzled her body as their lips met. Waves of electricity coursed through her body. Each kiss built up an intense foreboding in her heart, yet it was accented with a cloyingly sweet ache that sparked her to continue.
As their lips parted, Lio wrapped his arms around her. "Forgive me," he whispered into her hair. "We should not have done this."
"I know." Her heart beat as though she literally fought her feelings.
"You should leave," he said, though he had no intention of releasing her.
His hold tightened, as though she would fade away. Maisha grimaced. Aurelius, who made this especially for her, Aurelius, who lengthened his charade for her, Aurelius, who was more sensitive than he appeared, waited for her as she embraced his only friend. Guilt ebbed over the serene calm of Lio's arms.
Both pulled away from each other spontaneously. Their expressions spoke for them; the conflicting feelings between duty and desire and the guilt of betraying someone close.
"Aurelius is waiting in his chambers," he said, voice robbed of vitality.
Maisha stood and walked to the exit. She stopped at the edge, gently cupping a flower, "I wish you were the prince." She crushed the flower and tossed it aside, as though it personified her feelings.
As she walked away, Lio picked up the crumpled blossom. He smiled as he restored the crumpled petals to their original state.