"Do not be afraid," King Alexander Azarov V murmured merrily to his son as the two seated themselves with Queen Matilda Azarova I. "Because our family has always married within our city in the past, your marriage will strengthen the unity of the country."

Prince Richard could not conceal the alarm in his widened brown eyes when he peered at his father.

"Papa, I have idea who she is."

"Any two people can treat each other well and have a decent relationship," King Alexander promised. "I will indulge you, however: she is beautiful and already a success as an entrepreneurial jeweler," he added with pride. "She is esteemed by her sisters, whom she cares for well. Her strength and intelligence are admired among the aristocrats in La Tierra de los Tesoros."

The three rose when their lead Footman appeared in the doorway. "Presenting Lord Dario Esparza Romero, Lady Dita Aznar Rodriguez de Esparza, and their daughter Lady Maria Olivia Esparza Aznar."

The Lord entered first and bowed, his keen eyes examining the room as he did so. Lady Dita then entered with a sophisticated curtsey and moved beside her husband so the lovely Lady Maria could approach and curtsey as well. She was dressed in a garnet gown with a similar shade on her lips. After her curtsey, the three positioned themselves opposite of the other family, and all were seated.

"We are grateful to be invited to such a lovely place," Lady Dita smiled warmly as her eyes explored the dining hall reserved for smaller dinner parties. The room was striking to anyone seeing it the first time. Crimson baroque paper lined the walls, and a chandelier with the lights centered in painted scarlet lilies dangled above a hexagon table made of mahogany obsidian. The cream marble floors were designed with small scarlet lilies swirled in an emerald vine, and they made the shoes of anyone entering clack as they approached.

"We are more than pleased that you came to dine," Queen Matilda answered. Prince Richard stared over the vase of wildflowers at the daughter across him. A daisy was pinned in the silver coronet that crowned the head of chocolate curls that passed her shoulders. She returned his stare.

"Your Majesty," Lord Dario said. "Pardon me. I speak as a father instead of your subject when I say that while I recognize the honor and the privilege that would accompany this marriage, I am concerned also about the characters and accomplishments of your prince."

The Lord set his eyes on the small prince with the thatch of fiery hair beneath his silver crown. King Alexander gave a pointed look to his son that caused the boy to straighten and clear his throat.

"My priorities are family and education. I am driven to learn and excel in mathematics, science, five languages, world history, psychology, sociology, economics, philosophy, art appreciation, horsemanship, firearms, and martial arts. I am also skilled in cartography and calligraphy. I am disciplined, energetic, and I value achievement. Papa also suspects I will be taller than I look."

With that, he caught his breath and sneaked a glance at his father, who nodded his approval.

"May I ask him some questions?" Lord Dario asked.

"You may," King Alexander nodded with a smile.

"What would you do for a living," Lord Dario asked, "if you weren't in line for the crown?"

"Well," Prince Richard straightened and stared at the chandelier as he pondered his answer. "I would draw a detailed map of all the areas of the world I would explore. And then I would go explore them. But I can't make a living that way, so I would go to all the places with gold mines and gem mines and see if I could do that. I always thought the moment one finds a gem or something valuable must be amazing, and I would make a living experiencing that moment over and over again."

"As we mentioned, Maria has an affinity toward making jewelry," Lady Dita smiled down at her daughter. "Isn't that so, Mary?"

"Yes," the child answered.

"It is no wonder, with the mines where you live," Prince Richard answered ardently. "Your province is really beautiful." Then to the young Lady, "What else are you interested in?"

"Music, I suppose," she answered contemplatively. "Especially the violin."

Prince Richard could scarcely contain his smile. "The violin is the most lovely instrument!"

King Alexander laughed jovially. "I daresay this dinner is even a greater success that I anticipated!"

The Lord and Lady exchanged a glance before the latter said, "We agree to proceed with this match."

"Splendid," King Alexander grinned robustly. "Shall we consider perhaps fifteen years? Twenty-five seems to be an age where one is amply developed and settled."

"That will make Mary twenty-four," Lady Dita exchanged another look with her husband. "Perhaps we can plan it to be then, with the potential to be adaptable, should either not be ready."

"That seems decent," Queen Matilda agreed. The children darted their eyes between the adults, suddenly swept up in the whirlwind of matrimony after having made each other's acquaintance.

"Let us say grace with celebration and gratitude," King Alexander announced. "And then we dine."

An exorbitant amount of gratitude was expressed in his prayer. By the time he reached his conclusion, the children were sure their stomachs could be heard by the rest. And when they raised their eyes, to their delight, six footmen approached and placed before each person an impressive mean on a platter: steak with a vegetable kebab and a cup of dried mushroom soup, as well as a chocolate bini to be enjoyed at dessert with raspberry tea for the children and champagne for their parents.

After the meal, the monarchs escorted the Esparzas to the parlor. The men clasped hands, the women embraced, and Prince Richard sneaked a glimpse of Lady Maria out of the corner of his eye. She stared down at her shoes.

"Maybe you could come over," Prince Richard proposed shyly, "and we could get to know each other more. You could bring your violin and we could create our own orchestra. Maybe you could show me some of the gems mined in your province and I can show you the maps I've sketched out."

She raised her eyes to his ever so slightly.

"Maybe," she answered. Then she disappeared out of the palace with her parents. Prince Richard stared after him, startled when King Alexander clamped a palm down on his shoulder and gave him a squeeze and a gentle shake.

"Lovely girl," he remarked. "I believe this will play out well."

Perhaps. She was pretty, but she was reserved. He wasn't sure what that meant, but he contemplated it as he prepared to sleep.

He stared at the canopy of his bed that night and analyzed the morsels of information he knew about Lady Maria, her mannerisms when she was at the palace, the plan their parents agreed upon, and what their marriage could mean. Their marriage could strengthen the amalgamation between the provinces and the people and the monarchs. But would there be amalgamation between him and Lady Maria?