Jza slept through the entire carriage ride and only awoke when she was gently tapped on the nose. The Princess blinked awake to the sight of the castle looming above the large carriage. She rubbed her face and gave Tarquin an exasperated look as if preparing herself for the nonsensical behaviour they were bound to encounter.
The girl gingerly stepped out of the golden carriage with her husband's support. She walked into the castle entrance remembering the last they had both been there. Her brown, intelligent eyes lingered over the changes made over the years.
"Y-your Highness," The young man assigned to them stammered. His gaze flipped back and forth over the pair who wore humble clothing but looked like they were merely play acting the part, "The King's private counsel has already started!"
"We were unfortunately diverted on the way here," Jza spoke with a reassuring smile. The younger man's eyes were fixed on her husband now. She hoped Tarquin was not glowering at him into submission. He had a tendency to be insufferable to anyone he deemed incompetent.
The younger man bowed again, nearly tripping over his feet, and frantically led them through the long corridors until they reached the King's study. Jza smiled at her husband recalling the time she had nearly killed a man within those walls.
They were announced into the room which was filled to the brim with people. Her father sat on his desk surrounded by papers and advisors while her stepmothers, sisters and their respective families sat on various chairs placed at the ends of the room. No one acknowledged their entering bow except the King who nodded with a pleased smile.
"My husband is brave and fair. His serfs all adore his presence. He deserves the throne!" Jza's third eldest sister, Jemima, proclaimed, heatedly, not pausing for the new arrivals.
"My husband will bring important connections. He is a northern noble. The most powerful of them all," Was Jasmine's stance. She had been the first out of her sisters to find herself a husband. Apparently this noble husband had many virtues including a stash of gold coins.
"What say you, Jza. What merits does your husband bring?" King Samuel asked indulgently. Suddenly all eyes were upon the couple who were dressed in modest outfits. Jza's own hands had sown the beloved pieces they wore but she knew in the smattering of gold, jewels and feathers they were not better dressed then any servant of the palace.
"Is that wise father? To have us in the running?" The girl asked with an unflinching stare. She had gained a certain confidence over the scant amount of years no one had thought possible.
"Why not?" Her father asked with a small smile gracing his features.
"Father," Jza returned his amused look, "You know of me quite well. I feel like I need not elaborate any further. I trust you will judge us fairly."
"Why won't you tell us what your husband has to offer," Rosalinda peered up from her perch on the sofa on their left. Her blue feather adorned dress matched her vibrant eyes. Beside her sat her mother who had same pinched look she always had when Jza was in the room.
"Our father knows I chose my husband with the deepest of affection. My recommendation should be enough," The thirteenth Princess answered with mirth dripping in her speech.
"You will not introduce him?" Gabrielle asked cautiously. She was young yet and unmarried. She wore a white lace cap to match her dress.
"Not in the slightest."
"Scared he might be wooed by the twelve famous beauties?" Jacqueline her most ardent foe said most acerbically. She clung to her husband like a vice. Her long fingers dug deep into the man's arm who looked uncomfortable as perspiration ran down his forehead.
"Twelve? I see only nine of your sisters," Tarquin addressed Jza completely ignoring his company. Besides the King, who was now engrossed in a discussion with his advisors, he had acknowledged no one. It was at times like this that she noticed his accent again. She realised her sisters had paused their chattering to gape at her husband.
"Father must have been busy narrowing down his choices," Jza tried to keep their conversation private but knew the silence in their corner was not his aim.
"I thought he must have excluded the ones entrapped in that scandal..." Tarquin paused faux apologetically, his voice loud and clear, "Oh, I apologize. I forget we must not speak of it."
Jza's older stepmother waved her fan with unbridled embarrassment while Rosalinda blanched at the mention. The rest of the room too shuddered at his words.
"Tar," Jza gave her husband an amused look. She knew the man had been itching to throw their reputations back at her sisters whom he disliked immensely. In her earlier days she had wondered whether her husband would be wooed by her sisters' beauty but now she was certain it would never happened.
"So, I forget which ones of your sisters participated in the tomfoolery?" Tarquin asked far too unsubtly.
"They are not here," Jza answered with a brief look around.
"Then my presumptions are correct. He has eliminated the treacherous ones from the running."
"Behave," She hissed in his ear, "You have your full form on advantage today."
"I wonder why their husbands are important?" The Lord turned farmer asked, as his eyes peered at the occupants of the room. Only five of the Princesses were married but the King had invited all nine. Cassandra had married an elderly viscount but her scheming before the war had rendered her ineligible so she was not present.
"They are to rule, are they not," Jza answered with a frown although she had reached the same conclusion. Her father was playing a game the rules they were not privy to.
"Are you certain? If that were the case then why are we here? Time may have passed but your father is never going to hand me his throne," Tarquin murmured barely moving his lips, showing how perfectly capable he was of a private conversation in a room full of people.
"Is he Somerlian?" Lucita's timid voice asked no one in particular.
"No, you little fool. Does he look so? They have round eyes and fair colouring," Her stern looking husband sneered at his wife contemptuously.
Jza gave Lucita's odious husband such a pointed glare the man had to look away in defeat. Her jaw clenched as if swallowing back her anger. Her toleration for ninnies had grown considerably smaller as the years had passed.
"What is it that you do? We have not heard of you for so long?" Jza's other stepmother asked with overpowering curiosity. It must have been a devastating blow to her gossip vine to have no information about Jza who never visited the castle after the war ended.
"I was tending to my uncle's farm. He was unable to return to it," Jza replied curtly.
The women in the room tittered at the explanation behind their fans, which was a new fashion in Goridon. At least the other princesses had been exiled in relative luxury. The holdings may have been smaller then anything they had lived in before but as the only Princess in the vicinity they had enjoyed the attention on them. None had fallen so far to have been forced into working on a farm.
"You have missed much, especially the fashions," Jacqueline gave her sister's unadorned green outfit a disgusted look. Her own was sparkling like sun had fallen down to earth.
"I believe I have not missed anything at all," The thirteenth Princess replied with a mirtless show of teeth.
"No, my millay moy you have not. The Gordians have never been particularly fashion forward and I can see the evidence in this very room," Tarquin's censure was palpable despite the smirk.
"See! I told you. I am not completely lacking in sense. He is Somerlian," Lucita exclaimed. Her voice caught the attention of most of the occupants in the room.
"You married a Somerlian?" Ruth gasped clutching her fan to her chest dramatically. Three of the Princesses scooted their chairs closer to give Jza's husband a rigorous look. They were disheartened to see that beyond his plain clothing they could not find fault.
"Yes," Jza shrugged, not caring what they thought of this pertinent bit of information.
"Father would not let your husband on the throne," Jacqueline unknowingly repeated Tarquin's assertion, "I wonder why he even bothered calling you here. Is that what you did to be banished to a disgusting farm. Run away with some Somerlian soldier?"
"Look closely," Jza sheer amusement dripping over her brittle smile. When she had accepted her father's invitation she had informed him she had no intention of hiding her husband's identity. There were people who knew what he looked like and it was just foolish to not expect them to talk, "I know you've seen him before. There was once a painting being bandied about of a certain Somerlian King that caused Cassandra and our other sisters to lose their heads. Is he as handsome as the image you saw of him?"
"You did not!" Rosalinda shrieked alarmingly loud. Even her father and his advisors who were quite removed from the conversation looked up in alarm.
"They're not very bright are they," Tarquin completely ignored the women craning their necks to get a good look.
"Ah, yes," Jza's father interjected, cutting off whatever his daughters had to say, "Lord Tarquin joined our family as did all of your husband's."
"Father, he is the enemy!" Rosalinda protested, "How could you allow her to be so odious."
"He was but he laid down his arms and signed a treaty indicating so. It was signed and approved by me not long after the war ended," The King explained and pointed at the framed treaty on the wall none of the occupants had noticed besides those that had signed it. The sisters closest to the wall peered at the treaty, hoping to get a closer look.
"And you would have him in running for the throne. Just because he is royalty unlike my husband," Jasmine was most put out by the fact that her husband was no longer the highest ranking in the competition.
"He is not under running and neither were your husbands," King Samuel placed his hands on the desk in a commanding fashion, "But all of my daughters were, especially Jza. I have reversed the law of Primogeniture. A male heir is no longer required to be sat on the throne. We voted in the law last month. I have chosen my heir."
"You would have a farm runner sit on the throne," Rosalinda was scandalised to have Jza's name be placed in the forefront not knowing they were not even in the competition despite her father's claims. He only spoke as such to soothe their fragile egos.
"You do not know how she led us to victory during the war. Jza broke out of the castle and rescued the captured Goridian men. She also took Lord Tarquin prisoner. I assure you the fall of the Somerlians had nothing to do with me," King Samuel explained with a grave expression. His temper was starting to flare at their insolence.
"If she took him prisoner then how come they are married?" Jacqueline was the only one who dared to inflame her father's ire. She could not believe the improbable tale her father was uttering.
"A strong women can fell any man's heart. Jza's mother nearly gave me a black eye when we met and yet I married her," The King uttered with bark of a laugh at the end.
"Father you must reconsider," Jza walked to the her father's side barging through the army of advisors that were on all sides. She knew very well what her father had planned for her.
"Why? The throne must go to one of my heirs. Why not you?" The King shrugged as if the matter was out of his hands which was not even remotely the truth. He was the only one with the power to choose.
"The people will revolt if they knew who my husband is!" The girl tried to reason with her stubborn father.
"They will accept you when they find out you are the sole reason the war ended. Everyone will know of your bravery. And people love a good romance, do they not? A war that began with hate ended for love. What a tale for the generations!" The older man laughed as he imagined the glory that was to follow. He was already planning to find the best poets to create pretty poems for the bards to spread. If his daughters' beauty could have a multitude of famous poetry then why not his daughter's bravery.
"I must think. Father, I have my farm, my cows, my family," Jza said. She inadvertently looked down at her belly that had yet to show any sign of the impending good news.
"Darling, I am young still. I do not intend to pass on the throne so soon. You will have time to run your farm, to raise a brood, the cattles and your own," Her father reassured her knowingly. Tarquin had already written to him about the arrival of a new grandchild.
"I must think upon this matter," Jza announced and with her father's dismissal she left the study with her husband trailing behind. Before the door could close behind them they could hear the room errupt in a cacophony of sounds. Her attendant was alarmed to find them out of the room so soon but found his composure and started to lead them to their rooms.
"I do not believe I can do this," Jza exclaimed in the privacy of the corridor as her feet stilled of their own accord. Their accompanying attendant was keeping a safe distance from them as he led the way.
Tarquin laughed at her uncertainty and pulled her close to him. His nimble fingers tilted her face up.
"My brightly lit sun. If there is anyone who can do it, it is you. I will always remember the fire in your eyes when you told me you would not bow to a false king. That fire will make people follow you to the ends of the earth. You are more than capable I vow it," The man whispered so close his breath gently flowed over her face. It gave her much joy when he unconsciously exhibited Goridian mannerisms and speech because of her influence.
"You are not sad you gave up your throne but here I am gaining mine," She asked, as she started moving again.
"I am proud you gain it on your own merits then having to snatch it," Tarquin answered truthfully. His wife rested her head on his shoulder as a wave of nausea hit her.
"Their perfumes were obnoxious," The Princess said with a growl.
The rooms they were given made the pair laugh out loud alarming their attendant even further. The man gave them a tour which was far from necessary. They could navigate the room blindfolded.
"It's our room," Jza hissed with a wave of the hand.
"The room of the future heir," Tarquin remarked understanding the meaning behind the King's gesture.
"Father must have decided before we arrived if he had given us this room."
The room was remarkably different from the time they had spent on it. The wall coverings, the bed, the paintings were new. Even the extensive wardrobes from the previous time had been changed.
The King had left many gifts for them to explore at their leisure along with delicacies from all over the kingdom. Their outfits for the upcoming ball were laid out on the new seating area as a gift from the King. Tarquin's clothing gave them pause. His clothing was the exact replica of his Somerlian military outfit with sash and medals laid out in their boxes. The largest jewelry box contained his crown.
"Tarquin!" Jza shook the silent man. The sight of his outfit had rendered him speechless.
"He truly intends for me to retain my identity," The man answered with disbelief still lacing his tone of voice.
"I wouldn't let him hide you," The Princess was adamant.
"I know," The Lord answered with a saccharine sweet smile. He turned around and his easy grin turned wicked, "At least we can now share a bed."
"Hush! Or you shall have the floor for once."
Their entry in the ball caused a small commotion with all heads turned towards their arrival. Perhaps the attention was gained because of Jza's radiant silver dress that reflected in the mirrors all over the wall or perhaps it was Tarquin's foreign military attire. He certainly looked the part of a Royal if he had not before.
After being announced by the herald and bowing in front of the King they took to a sparsely crowded corner to avoid the stares being sent their way. Jza was looking at the young children also present as custom of the Goridians when she realised the nanny caring for a small child was familiar.
"That's Sofiya!" Jza nearly pointed but remembered to keep her voice discreet. Tarquin looked away instead of facing the direction Jza was gaping at.
"Do not bring attention to her," The man muttered before being handed his drink. He sipped slightly and with hooded eyes gave Sofiya a glance which the woman returned.
"I wondered where they went," Jza said, mimicking her husband in discreteness.
"The harem always land on their feet," The Lord answered with a smirk. His back was now towards his old friend. They would pretend they were strangers from now on.
"A nanny to a child is not a glamorous task," Jza said, although she wondered if Tarquin counted himself as one of the harem members.
"It is still close to as much luxury as possible in this political climate. I just worry the next time we meet she isn't the wife of the Lord's baby she is holding. At least she shall not have to kill the wife. Multiple wives are allowed here after all," The amber eyed man speculated leaving his wife speechless. She merely snorted into her glass of water.
"I would warn them but I do not wish to unseat Sofiya's position especially if she has no insidious plans," The Princess thought out aloud.
"Let them learn the harsh lessons. If the man is stupid enough to be seduced away from his wife and child by a governess then he deserves the loss of fortune he will soon have at her feet," Tarquin said with disgust. He could not abide by weak people who showed no loyalty to the ones they loved.
Their conversation was interrupted by the herald's announcement for silence. The King was about to make his speech.
"Tonight we are here for a momentous event. I wish to declare to the world my heir. She is beautiful because she looks like me but beyond that she has all the qualities that are required to rule the nation. She is quick thinking, smart, brave and determined. She is the reason we ended this war on a peace treaty instead of further bloodshed. She is my daughter Jza who carries a fragment of my heart!" The King announced at his throne and gestured towards his child. A servant revealed a gold crown far grander and intricate than her usual tiara.
"I suppose that's why I did not have my crown with my outfit," Jza's face was steely as if she had a battle to contend to. Tarquin gave her a lingering kiss on her cheek and his smiling face was the last thing she noticed before heading through a sea of faces to her father's side.