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"You are a guest in my court, and you dare preach me how to rule?" The moment King Marcellus said this, he knew he had crossed the line.

King Cassius, with whom negotiations were taking place, did not let the anger raging in his bones come to light. He had half a squad of the fae army and its invincible commander with him, but even without them, destroying the human king was just a nefarious formality. He tilted his head, lifting the golden cup to his lips and taking a sip of the revolting human wine. He did not take his gaze off his interlocutor.

Marcellus decided to defuse the situation, seeing that Cassius had no intention of speaking up. "We made a truce three years ago that held that your son would marry one of my daughters. I fear that his marriage to a commoner woman of the people will not have such an impact. We need to raise people's spirits. Cities may not have been destroyed, but men's souls have. People are afraid, uncertain about the future. We must provide them with a purpose, a source of inspiration, to show them that the hope for peace has not been extinguished."

When the fae had fraternized with the humans five years ago and stopped the hostile Fillyrian nation from entering the continent, a truce had been made, the terms of which, however, were interpreted differently by everyone. King Cassius knew how much advantage he had over the mortals, and he was going to get his way, so he said, "My dear Marcellus." He rested his hand on the human monarch's shoulder. A hand as heavy as the atmosphere in the room. "Would you be so gracious as to stop pretending that peace is not solely beneficial to you? My people derive nothing from it, yet we have chosen to preserve it. My son has felt no connection to any of your triplets. Therefore I will not compel him to marry one of them."

"Truly, this is not about connections, but about politics. The son of the fae king marries the daughter of the human king, and thus they make a peace that will reconcile our kingdoms forever." Marcellus tried unsuccessfully to play the daredevil. The trembling in his voice was concealed not as well as he thought, and shifting against the back of the chair to escape Cassius' touch was not at all as discreet as he wanted it to be.

"Permit me to phrase it this way." The fae king leaned over the table, closing in on King Marcellus. His magic struck the elderly man like a punch in the face. Cassius did not have to force himself to speak calmly. He was composed, for he was well aware that the humans had no advantage. "How much longer you will be king depends on the answer to the statement I am about to say. Consider your options carefully, for I don't know about you, but I certainly have no desire for another war, this time between our kingdoms." He looked at Marcellus carefully, speaking each word slowly and clearly. Like a sentence. "My son will marry Lune Averell."

There were tiny droplets of sweat on King Marcellus' forehead, and a thousand tangled thoughts raced through his head that he had no time to unravel. He had absolutely no idea how to resolve the situation. The moment Cassius demanded to speak with him alone, without wives or advisors, he knew he wouldn't like it. He had no choice but to agree. Now, however, all that was left was to delay agreeing to the fae king's demands.

"Imagine it," Cassius continued, not moved by the expression on human's king face. "Poor, condemned to live in misery girl gets to marry fae prince and spend the rest of her days in royal castles. Your daughters have a wonderful life anyway, as far as it can be in this kingdom of yours. A mere girl will raise morale more."

"I don't know how it works with you, fae," he almost spat out the last word. The fae may have helped him maintain his kingdom and stop the Fillyrians, but that didn't mean his animosity had diminished. "We, humans, marry in alliance to show power. Power is prince and princess. You, king Cassius, have one son, who can choose from our three daughters. And you still ask for more?"

"Do I have to remind you whose idea was it to marry in the first place? My armies could destroy you in seconds, but here we are, letting you breed, cultivate and build your cities on our land. Three hundred years ago, when your kingdom led by the magnificent King Keenen Aphelion, I remember him as if it were yesterday, entered a phase of intense expansion, I allowed you to settle on territories belonging to my kingdom where my people did not settle due to the barren soil." He mentioned the name of the king from several centuries ago not without reason. He emphasised how long he had walked the earth and how inexperienced Marcellus was in comparison with him. "I gave you my lands so that you could live, raise your children and die here. I have never received anything in return, I demand nothing from you except to live in peace. You want marriage, let it be, but my son will follow his heart, not your irrational desires."

The chamber was filled with the rumble of his voice and magic long after he left, deeming the conversation over.

/

Lune Averell came to the ball, with the intention to dance all night. Her daily chores didn't leave much time to relax, so now, when she wasted definitely too much time dressing and doing her hair, and spent unquestionably too much money on jewellery, and was in the most magnificent ballroom she had ever seen, and was dancing with her beloved, she wasn't going to sit at the table or back the walls. Now and then Kieran would place short kisses on her lips because, as Lune's mother had tried to get into their heads before they went to the palace, longer weren't proper. He stared at her like he was enchanted. A velour box with a ring weighed in his pocket of adorned with emerald green patterns trousers. His outfit perfectly synced with her golden dress. He planned to kneel in front of her at the end of the evening and he was already stressed.

They had been seeing each other for a bit more than a year now, but both felt that there are destined to be together. A feeling so powerful to make each other delighted with a single glance. That's why now their beams were enlightening the room. And that's why when Kieran lowered his head, and Lune raised her, and their eyes met in a gaze that blasted their heated bodies with affection, and their lips met, and their hearts leapt in unison, Lune clasped her hands in his soft hair, his touch burned the skin on her neck, and they lost themselves in the moment. In the castle filled with two reconciled nations, amidst a crowd of amused people, there was only them, and the whole universe existed only for their joy. And there were no rules as everything lost its significance when love fueled sheer desire.

They were in the perfect place, and nothing could ruin it. Or could it?

"I'm sorry to interrupt." A sentinel approached them. Fae, given the characteristic navy blue uniform.

Lune squeezed Kieran's hand, grabbing it as her life depended on it. Little did she know, it did. Ich oddechy wciąż przyspieszone od pocałunku, serca wciąż intensywnie bijące, zagłuszające pozostałe zmysły.

"His Illustrious Highness Cassius of Asquith Emperor of The Arch of Neera and His Majesty Marcellus Septimus King of Mortreign would like to see you, my lady."

Kieran twisted at ridiculously long titles of both of the kings. He wondered how the guard remained so serious while reciting all of it.

"To see me?" Lune was gulping down breaths not to show how hard it was for her to breathe.

"Yes, my lady. Right in this moment."

"You– you had to mistake me with someone. I'm of no interest to any of the kings.

"There hasn't been any mistake. His Illustrious Highness and His Majesty would like to speak with you, Lune Averell."

Lune and Kieran exchanged looks full of misunderstanding. How did the guard know who she was?

"What have you done?" Kieran laughed. She always envied him his peace and ability not to take anything seriously. It was helpful in so many situations. Especially, when the two most powerful people in the world wanted to talk to her. To her.

She was terrified. She scanned her memories looking for anything that she could have done wrong, but nothing came to her mind. When it came to following the rules, she knew which stretches she could afford to take and which violations lead to immediate life imprisonment. She could think of nothing for which the king himself might want to speak to her.

"Immediately, my lady."

"You'll crush my hand," Kieran teased her while walking down the halls. The sentinel was leading them into an endless labyrinth of corridors. On their way out of the ballroom, the two other guards joined and didn't take vigilant eyes off their backs since.

Lune opened her mouth, but no words came out. The only thing she was able to do was to squeeze Kieran's hand and walk. Walk, walk, walk. She repeated it all over. She feared that the other way she would have stopped and never start moving again.

"Only you, my lady," the sentinel remarked as they finally stopped in front of a massive door adorned with gold spikes.

Kieran shook his head. "She's not going anywhere without me."

Lune thanked him in her head. That was all her paralyzed body allowed her to do.

"My orders are clear."

"You'll let us both in there, or you'll have to drag us, and I'm not sure any of the kings will be pleased to see three armed guards struggle with two innocent people."

Guard measured him with an unsavoury glance before he opened the door.

"His Illustrious Highness Cassius of Asquith Emperor of The Arch of Neera and His Majesty Marcellus Septimus King of Mortreign." The voice of another guard sounded as soon as they entered the huge room. It didn't match the size of the throne room they had left a few minutes ago, but it was still overwhelmingly immense.

Guards led Lune and Kieran closer to the end of the table where human and fae royalties were sitting. There was power in the air, the aroma of magic teased human nostrils and throats. The human monarch Marcellus wielded great power, but it paled compared to the might of Cassius. Sitting at the head of the table, the fae king exuded magic. Nobody knew how old he really was, but legends circulated that he lived long before humans arrived on the continent. Dark long hair with little grey cubes woven into it that were allegedly crafted from the bones of one of the troops he defeated. His face was marked with centuries of battle scars. One in particular attracted specific attention. A pale mark stretched from his nose, over his mouth to his chin and neck. Lune didn't even want to think about how the scar got there.

Kieran immediately knelt on one knee, lowering his head. He spent few long years in the army, he was the first to storm out to the front line five years ago, when the first tidings of the Fillyrian attacks arrived. He had respect for his king inbred in every ounce of his blood.

Lune was too preoccupied with the whole situation to bow her head, yet no one seemed to mind her disrespect.

"Stand up," the human king said. "I instructed you to bring one specific person." He pointed to the guard standing by the door. He couldn't spare the remark, but he quickly turned his attention back to the two guests. "In any case, dear Lune Averell, His Illustrious Highness has an offer you can't refuse." His dejected gaze indicated that whatever the king had prepared for her, the decision was already made. She literally would not be able to refuse.

Cassius cleared his throat. His deep voice thundered in a room too small for such power. "As you know, to seal the truce, there will be a marriage between fae and humans." He let the words sin in the air. "However, the conditions have changed."

"I don't understand, Your Highness." Lune couldn't control the shaking in her voice or her limbs.

"Are you two married?" Aedriel inquired. Fae prince. A younger copy of Cassius. The same dark hair, eyes immersed in darkness, a sharply defined jaw. He didn't seem much engaged in the conversation. Only now did he stopped admiring his nails and looked at Lune. His eyes drilled a hole in her soul.

Yes, Kieran wanted to say, but Lune answered first, "We're just... partners."

The ring in Kieran's pocket was heavier than ever. He covered the pocket with his hand as if fae could see through the material of his pants. "May we know why you wanted to talk to us?" he interrupted.

"Not to you, to be clear, but to your... partner." A smile has crawled on Cassius' face when he said the last word. Like he knew something that would doom them. "My son, Aedriel, finds your person fascinating."

"Oh," that was all Lune managed to whisper. Now she wasn't the only one squeezing strongly her partner's hand.

Aedriel lazily stood up. He moved with a fluidity that only an immortal could achieve. He walked around the table and stopped in front of two horrified humans. Their vulnerability made the fae prince amused. With one move, he could snap their throats wide open, and no one could stop him.

Lune started breathing heavily, while Aedriel didn't take his dark gaze away from her. He looked mesmerizing. He seemed to shine with golden dust. His moves, even minimal were screaming nobility. The grace he stood with, the finesse he combed his inky hair with, seemed to fill the whole room.

"Your name," he didn't ask. He ordered.

"Lune– Lune Averell," she managed between broken bites of oxygen.

"You will marry me, Lune Averell." Not a question again.

"What?" Kieran stepped in front of Lune, not letting go of her hand. "With all due respect, prince, you were supposed to marry one of the king's daughters, you can't ask a complete stranger to do it."

Something flashed across the prince's face. Something lethally hazardous, but it vanished as quickly as it had appeared. He raised a dark eyebrow, allowing amusement to dawn on his countenance. "My apologies," he stated, his voice sharp on human skin. "I wasn't clear enough. The only thing I can't do is kill you right here, right now only because it would result in quite a big scandal. Nevertheless, what I can and will do is marry this woman right here. You can allow it or spend the rest of your days in dungeons. In Fai'talm." His last word was like the final nail in the coffin. As little as humans knew about the fae lands, the stories about petrifying creatures that the fae prisoners were condemned to were widely spread all around even the most uncivilized corners of Mortreign.

"Forgive my son." Cassius' gladden facial expression contradicted his words. He didn't do so much as try to hide it. "He gives it easily to emotion. Obviously, you have a choice." He measured Lune with his critical glance. She was hiding behind a human who thought he stands a chance against fae. So pathetic. "You can live a long, untroubled life in the magnificence of Fai'talm or stay here. But personally, I wouldn't choose the second option."

Lune couldn't miss the threat in his words. "Please, let us go back," she murmured. It if wasn't for fae enhanced senses, they wouldn't hear her.

"As you wish," Cassius snarled, but his look said, You'll regret your every word. I'll make sure of it.

"Escort our dear guests back to the ballroom," Marcellus said. Deep down, he hoped that the girl would comply and not cause any complications. He himself did not like the idea, but he knew the fae would not be denied. Not when they had already made up their minds. The strength of the fae royal family would overwhelm the whole Mortreign army.

All the negotiations and irenic discourses were a facade behind which the will of King Cassius was hidden.

Lune started breathing heavily the moment guards lead them back to the hallway. She fell onto the floor as her legs were shaking too much to keep the weight of her body. Magic worked on people in strange ways. Everyone felt it in different forms, but in no way was it pleasant. The presence of such powerful beings as Cassius and his son took the breath away and dulled the senses.

Kieran in one second was next to Lune, holding her head in his hands. "It's over. Hey, look at me. I don't know whose brilliant idea was to joke like that, but it's over."

Lune nodded without a bit of conviction, a blank expression covered her face.

"Let's get out of here."

The second he helped her get back on her feet, the door leading to their doom opened again. More navy-blue-clad sentinels got out and after them a woman. Her Majesty Leocadia. Human Queen.

She stood in front of them. Guards kept a careful look on her and an even more vigilant glance on Lune and Kieran.

"I'll give you one piece of advice. As much as I would love one of my daughters to marry prince Aedriel, it's not wise refusing their requests. Fae will take what they want with your consent or without it. And believe me, the second path is full of suffering and agony of a broken heart." The horror in her gaze made it clear that she shouldn't be talking with them. Contradicting the fae, as she assured herself, was not wise. She disappeared in the hallways without even waiting for a response. Half of the guards followed her.

Lune and Kieran wanted to leave the castle but sentinels ordered them to stay in the assembly hall. They blended in as soon as they walked into the ballroom, which wasn't difficult among hundreds of fae and human dancing.

The conversation they just had was disrupting. The situation appeared to be resolved, but they couldn't get rid of the feeling that something much worse than an unpleasant encounter was about to happen. They remained in the middle of the room, where guards couldn't see them clearly and feigned to dance.

"What– Why– I don't understand." Lune still wasn't able to think clearly. Why did king Cassius wanted her to marry his son? Why all these threats? She began to wish that they were interested in speaking with her because of some theft or murder. Marriage, for some reason, seemed a lot worse.

"Me neither." Kieran was scanning the surroundings above her head. Years in the army had done their job. "But now we have to get out of here. Then we'll wonder."

"Why don't they allow us to leave?"

He didn't answer. He learned military strategies and the devious moves of the enemy. He had been in more than one such situation. Now, however, sound reasoning was overshadowed by Lune, whose protection was the priority. He predicted what was going to happen with them. With him. And he wouldn't resist if it meant Lune's freedom. Or at least not killing her.

"I love you. More than anything in the world," he said, looking straight into her eyes. There was no point in keeping an eye on guards. Half of them didn't stop watching him and Lune since they came back to the hall. There was no escape from fae. "Whatever happens, remember that I love you more than I've ever found a way to say it."

Her heart skipped a bit both from desire and trepidation. Her head tilting from side to side, seeking to make sense of what was going on. "I love you but you're scaring me. You know something. Tell me."

He smiled faintly. "Let's just enjoy the moment. Please." Something in his voice made her knees bend. She gave up to his warm hands on her back. She was afraid to ask anything more.

None of them heard two royal families being announced. Lune didn't even notice them coming back to the long table set at the front of the room, on a dais to which led stars carved in shining marble. Kieran did, and at this moment, placed a long kiss on her lips to steal that last moment of freedom to themselves. The kiss was gentle, not as fierce as the last one but even purer with love. They pulled apart from each other when the music stopped. The room became unnaturally quiet. Everyone, humans and fae alike, bowed their heads right on cue. But humans only to Marcellus and fae only to Cassius. Some of them sank to their knees and did not rise until the kings waved their hands lazily.

King Marcellus' entourage and most of fae took place at the table as he took a few steps forward. "While our celebration today is for a joyful reason, first less pleasant matters. We all remember how six months ago the sentry discovered that our kingdom had been breached by Fillyrian spies. We thought that we caught and properly punished all of them, but as it turns out, one of them managed to escape and had the audacity to show up here today."

The hall resounded with whispers. Lune squeezed Kieran's hand tighter, turning her head to face him. He already knew what was about to happen. She refused to allow the thought to enter her mind. "They can't," she whispered.

Kieran responded with a disturbing smile. Years he spent in the army had taught him to accept his fate quickly, especially if it would protect others. He wasn't worried about himself, he could handle it. Lune's fate was what troubled him. When he is taken away he will have no means of protecting her, no one will even know what really occurred.

"Quiet. There's no reason to be concerned. Our guards have compromised the spy, and we're about to resume our peaceful celebration in our once more safe kingdom. So I'm calling you out! You dared to show up here, have the courage to step forward, Kieran Montail."

The gathered crowd erupted in whispers. People from Tryon, the capital of Mortreign had frequented the Kieran family workshop more than once with tools for repair and to purchase new ones. His father was considered the best craftsman in town.

The last few years had taught them that anyone could be an enemy, so without hesitation, they turned on Kieran. The unfortunate reality was that war should also teach you to put your faith in your loved ones, which everyone had suddenly forgotten.

Kieran leaned over Lune and whispered to her ear, "You will be the love of my life as long as I breathe and eternity more." His warm breath swept over her skin, sending shivers through her spine.

Before she knew it, he started walking forward. The crowd was moving aside in front of him. It wasn't without venomous stares and shrill remarks directed at him. That didn't appear to bother him. He strolled with his head held high and a triumphant look on his face. Never let your enemy know that he has won.

Lune only came to her senses when Kieran was almost at the dais. She began to push forward as people fenced off her path. A tall man impeded her way. His pointy ears indicated fae sentry but he replaced navy blue uniform with black armour, thus making him appear ten times more intimidating.

"Noone cares as much as I don't about appearances but it wouldn't be appropriate if the future wife of the fae prince defended a traitor, would it?" He bared his teeth in a hellish grin.

Lune ignored his odd remark and jumped aside, without thinking about the fact that with fae swiftness he should have grasped her. Several people were blocking her view. Between their bodies, she saw Kieran's profile. He wasn't afraid. He stood proudly in front of the two most powerful people who could wipe him away with one breath. The fact that he showed no fear somewhat cheered her up. Perhaps all was not lost yet.

"Kieran Montail, you are accused of espionage and countless murders do you have something in your defence?"

Kieran smiled at king Marcellus, not bothering to open his mouth. He won't give them a show.

"Then your life will be as short as your words. Kneel."

He didn't flinch until two human guards pressed him to the floor. He still kept his chin up high. The third guard approached and pulled out a long blade. An ear-splitting sound. The sound of death.

Lune stepped up but people were too eager to watch decapitation from the front row. Everyone was ushing forward. She didn't have a chance to get through to Kieran. She glanced at the table, behind which the royal families were sitting with satisfied faces. Aedriel stood off to the side. Staring off into the distance, hands in pockets of white pants. As if the whole situation did not concern him. As if the life of an innocent man meant nothing to him (maybe because that was the case). Lune grabbed her long dress with shaking hands as stumbling was the last thing she needed right now. She wanted to approach the royal fae from the side, but the same sentinel who had stopped her in the crowd a few seconds earlier appeared in front of her out of nowhere.

"Let me go. Prince Aedriel would want to see me." Her voice trembled just a little bit. She clutched the fabric of the dress tighter, hoping that the pain in her sore hands would facilitate rational thinking.

The guard turned towards Aedriel, who unhurriedly ran a lascivious glance over Lune. After a moment that lasted endlessly, he merely nodded. His loose posture, hands clasped behind his back, and lewd smile were at odds with the power the gesture contained. The sentry took a step to the side after carefully inspecting Lune from head to toe.

"Thank you." Lune took a deep breath, quickly climbed the stairs, and stood in front of Aedriel. In front of the fae prince who could paralyze her with one look. She lifted her head, and her heart leaped to impossible speed as she met his eyes. Unbearably black, empty from years of causing heartless actions. "I–" She gulped, forcing her body to obey for a few more moments. "I will do it. Just, please, let him go. Don't do this, please." She threw a glance at Kieran and immediately regretted it. Her legs began to tremble as she saw the human guard raising blade high in the air exactly above Kieran's head. "Please, I will do everything. Don't let him be killed."

Aedriel squinted his shinney eyes. He had power and no intention of making anything facile for her. "You will do what?"

"I will marry you. Just don't hurt him. I'm begging you"

The prince extended his arm toward Lune, an amused smirk still dancing on his lips. She hesitated but gave him her hand and he positioned her next to him. Their shoulders touched. His cool hand split boiling water over her body in some ridiculous parody of what should happen that night.

King Marcellus with relief was watching Lune from the moment she approached the prince. He gave a barely perceptible sign to the guard who was just correcting his grip on the raised murderous blade.

"But that wouldn't be fun, would it?" the human monarch laughed, but something posing as a sense of solace in his voice. "Take this rascal out of my sight. His blood splattered all over the floor won't ruin our lovely celebration."

Lune's eyes glowed with tears. She tried to take a step forward but Aedriel held her in place. "One move, and we'll be going back to the sword," he whispered to her ear. Just like Kieran a few minutes ago. But that with Kieran she enjoyed, this heralded her misery.

Kieran's lips formed in a silent I love you as the guards pulled him out of the side door. A single tear streamed down the tunnel of anguish on Lune's cheek as she answered him in the same way. She clenched her teeth to keep the sob from escaping her mouth.

"And now play along." Aedriel's voice resonated with cold royal indifference.

Cassius and Philomena stood next to the human king and queen and looked at Aedriel and Lune. The prince pulled her to the front. She didn't wipe a tear from her cheek. It was the last bit of freedom she had left.

"Now, let's focus on the reason we had all gathered here." King Marcellus looked relieved. Almost like he didn't want execution to happen as a lunatic idea of fae king.

Marcellus understood that a truce would only benefit the mortals. He was painfully aware that Cassius' heavy hand was still on him. Fae could wipe him off the face of the earth in one move. However, despite all the inconveniences, the truce protected the humans from being possibly attacked by the fae, which was more important than the life of any of his men or the marriage of any of his daughters.

Funny, how quickly people can forget about a man nearly being decapitated in front of them and cheer a forced marriage. Lune observed the crowd. That grin on fae faces didn't surprise her, but the delighted expression of the people did. How could they be so cruel to their own kind? She wondered if anyone had seen her conversation with the prince.

King Cassius stepped forward. Marcellus next to him looked like nothing more than a common subject. "My son, prince Aedriel has decided. In our covenant of peace, he will marry a mortal woman chosen from the ordinary people." The crowd whispered again. Everyone expected to hear one of the princesses' names. Not some meaningless woman. "Lune Averell."

Aedriel knelt in front of her, lifting a grey box with a shiny ring. The stone on it could feed a sizable village for several years but that didn't bother her. Not now. She had the fae prince kneeling in front of her. Kneeling. One of the most powerful being alive was on his knees in front of her. It was no less surreal than the whole situation.

Lune put out a trembling hand, on which the ring immediately appeared. It was heavier than it should be. The weight of Kieran's life.

Little did she know, another ring was supposed to be put on her finger tonight. A much more joyful one.