III

“Jacey?”

Jacey turned from the mirror and pinning her hair. Behind her, Heddwyn stood tugging absently on a sleeve, like it was uncomfortable and unfamiliar. No wonder he felt awkward at these events. Between his hair having just been trimmed and warring sleeves, he looked completely different. But remarkably handsome at the same time.

“Yes?”

“I think that it might be better if you don’t reveal that you can speak Targo yet.”

Jacey blinked. “Why ever not?”

“Well, to Eva you can. But….” He sighed and sat on the bed. “I heard rumors today of building tension between Aldroa and Targo.”

“That’s nonsense.”

“Indeed. But nonetheless, they still exist. I know for a fact that there will be some Aldroian ambassador there today. But I think–and I may be wrong with this–that if we show you, being an Aldroian living in Targo, perhaps that may calm some of the lords enough to prevent another breakout of war.”

Jacey nodded slowly.

“There are enough there who can speak Aldroa. You will not be lacking company. But I do not wish to have another war already.”

“That is fine. I understand.”

“Good.” He stood and tugged on his sleeves a little again. Jacey just smiled and finished with her hair.

***

Heddwyn hated the banquet.

He could not think of a single part he liked about it. When he first went, he had been amazed by the splendor and surrounded by his comrades. But now, there was nothing enjoyable. He hated the heat. He hated talking with the lords and trying to be tactful when they had such snobbish attitudes. That was if he could find something they had in common. He hated how long it took. He hated everything.

It did not help that he was one of the highest ranking officers not to be the son of a lord. Some of the them made him sorely aware of the fact, both on and off the field. He cared nothing to be like them though. Nothing that they had to offer would make him trade his small house for all their finery.

Jacey looked stunning. She somehow knew how to pull up her long hair onto her head, showing off her long but graceful neck. The green dress matched her eyes beautifully. Somehow, the dress managed to fit her perfectly, in spite of the short time they had to prepare. In fact, this dress was the first one that truly showed her figure to her advantage. With her at his arm, he was nearly certain that several people watched her a little longer than acceptable.

After exchanging the customary greetings and introduction with both the king and council, he brought Jacey into the dining hall and helped her sit. At any other time, they would have to sit towards the other end of the room, with the elected lords and commoners. However, since tonight they honored the soldiers, Heddwyn, as the commanding officer of his squad, sat with the upper lords and king. Although many people considered this one of the greatest honors, Heddwyn thought now that sitting with the commoners would be more beneficial. At least there, he could hear the rumors of the town all at one time.

With taking their seats, Heddwyn  began the long, arduous process of making polite conversation between himself and the other lords. Jacey, her bright, curious eyes, danced around the table, almost certainly noticing everything. It reminded him of what a new spy would look like, never wanting to miss a thing. And he was certain she did not miss one part of the conversation, although she never showed signs that she understood any of it. A few of the lords attempted to engage her in conversation, although their Aldroian sounded rough and unfinished to even him. Jacey answered politely and always in  such a way that whoever asked could understand.

Finally, the meal had finished and Heddwyn escorted Jacey into the ballroom along with everyone else. Here, at least, with the aid of good food and some drink, conversation could flow a little more freely between everyone. Jacey kept a hand lightly on his arm and through it he could feel her nervousness at being left alone. As such, he never proposed that he leave her alone.

It was now that he could sense out most people’s reactions to his marriage. Heddwyn did not need to be skillful in politics to know that many Targoian lords did not like the idea of their star commander marrying a foreigner. In fact, Eva’s husband had warned him bluntly last night that he had practically insulted Lord Conward for marrying Jacey over his daughter, if Lord Conward ever found out the true order of the marriage. As a result, he introduced Jacey to many of those reserved about his marriage, while others, mostly lesser lords  or commoners, requested to be introduced.

Although he knew Lord Conward would dislike his marriage, Heddwyn  doubted if he could get through the whole evening without Lord Conward speaking with him. In truth, Heddwyn had nothing to say to him. But just as he walked Jacey off of the dance floor, her eyes sparkling with excitement and her cheeks flushed, Lord Conward approached him.

“Commander, good evening.” Lord Conward smiled a patronizing smile.

Heddwyn bowed ever so slightly. As one of the leaders in the war councils, Lord Conward technically outranked him. Technically in the sense that he had not held a military command position for the last fifteen years and proved himself completely out-of-date with the current strategist. Moreover, though he tried to claim that Heddwyn stole his idea, he seemed unable to understand the basic structure of the plan, even after Heddwyn explained it. No one really believed Lord Conward anyway, especially since Heddwyn had explained on multiple occasions that his theory came from his childhood experience at how much someone short could be more deadly than someone larger. Still, there was always tension between the two of them.

“Good evening,” Heddwyn said. “I do not think you have met my wife yet, Jacey.”

“No indeed.” He bowed to her slightly, though obviously only as a formality. Heddwyn wouldn’t have been surprised if he would have snubbed her even that much, had they been in private. “It is much too much of a pity that my letter for you came too late.”

“I fear I cannot feel as much regret as you seem to. I thought informed you quite clearly that it is better for both of us if we were not married. I could not provide for your daughter as  well as she deserves, for I knew wold not handle the field life very well.”

“Ah, but it still would have been a wonderful match. And quite advantageous to you.”

“I did not want the advantageous position it would have placed me in. I care nothing for politics.”

“And what do you care for, Commander Borut? Constant war?”

Heddwyn clenched his jaw but could not answer right away. There were a few people who knew that Heddwyn wished to retire and finally leave all of this bloodshed behind, but none in this room right now.

“Of perhaps something else?”

Heddwyn shook his head. “If you can believe me, sir, I care for peace more than war.”

“And yet you have been awarded the ruby star.”

“Merely a form of acknowledgment for what they hope will happen.”

“And what do they hope will happen?”

Heddwyn had a peculiar sense he was being bated. “You tell me. You are on the war council.”

Lord Conward smiled broadly. “Indeed I am. Though I am sure that even you know everyone hopes that you will bring a victory for us at long last.”

“And I would think that after four years of fighting most people would realize that it is lack of freedom I have that forces the war on.”

“What lack of freedom do you speak of? You have the more freedom than anyone else your rank.”

“Perhaps going to the western border should be reconsidered. I saw the notice this morning. A foolish and poorly calculated move. There is nothing there and everyone knows that.”

“Perhaps we have information of our own.”

“Perhaps.” But chances were they did not. Heddwyn kept himself more informed than they would expect, just in case they gave him the freedom he so desired.

Lord Conward must have seen something. “Do not do anything foolish, Commander. The last thing we need is to lose one of our most intelligent military mind. There are just some times when you must trust that we know what is best.”

“And if I don’t believe it is?”

He smiled, a sly, smirking smile. “Do you want to make that beautiful bride of yours a widow in a country that she will never fit in?” He bowed. “If you please excuse me.”

Heddwyn felt only relief as he watched him  weave his way among the crowd of glitter.

“That man… he knows something,” he muttered.

Jacey looked up at him. “What do you mean?” she said in Aldroian.

He looked at her and shook his head. “I’m not sure yet. But I have made much of my career on hunches and this one should be on different.”

Jacey frowned, her dark blue eyes looking concerned. He squeezed her hand.

“You needn’t worry. He isn’t strong enough to do much damage to me.”

The stiffing heat of a hundred bodies crowded together got to Jacey after another dance, although  only her face told him, now a deathly pale, like she would faint soon. Without saying anything, he led her quietly out the side door and into the garden beyond.

The cool air almost immediately brought color back to her cheeks. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, a faint smile playing on her face. Gently, he wrapped an arm around her waist and drew her close. Something about the stillness and darkness of the gardens made him think it was appropriate. She seemed to agree, for she leaned against him and breathed deeply.

“I almost don’t know what to think of you now,” she whispered.

“Pardon?”

She smiled up at him. “Your smell. You smell different here.”

“Is it a good difference?”

“I don’t know. I’m so used to the smell of you at camp that I don’t expect you to smell like that.”

“So you’re saying that you rather me sweaty?”

Jacey grinned and blushed at the same time. “It was weird at first. But now… it’s just normal.”

He nodded. “I believe I understand.”

She grinned still and reached up an arm around his neck to pull him down. He obeyed. She kissed him, playing her fingers through the hair at the nap of his neck.

“Don’t you think,” he whispered, “that this is rather abnormal?”

Jacey shook her head. “We have a cool wind and a beautiful garden with the full moon shining in the pool. I think it is perfectly romantic and deserving a kiss.”

“I see. And if others see us?”

“They won’t. It’s too dark.”

“There are other people out here. It’s a normal place to get away from the heat.”

“And if they do? What are they going to complain about? We are married after all.”

“My little Jacey….” He rubbed her cheek gently with his thumb. So far this night she had not spoken much but now… now she seemed so happy that he almost wished some of it would rub off on him.

“Commander Borut?”

Heddwyn straightened quickly and turned. Behind him stood Lieutenant Karel Leon, Lord Leon’s third son, from his own squad along with Lord Conward’s daughter, Cynthia, on his arm. Cynthia curtsied, deeper than required by custom. Next to Jacey, she looked even plainer than he remembered, with plain brown hair and brown eyes. But she smiled at him a smile of true happiness.

“Commander Borut, Lady Cynthia was wishing to speak with you for a moment,” Lt. Karel said.

“Very well.”

“I–” She glanced down and blushed for a moment. “I just wanted to thank you, for thinking of me when you denied the offer of marriage.”

Heddwyn blinked. “Pardon?”

“My father showed me the letter that you sent as a reply. He was rather put out with the refusal, in spite of… “ she glanced at Jacey. “Your recent marriage. But see, Karel and I, we were wanting to get married. He was just waiting until he earned a little more money–”

“Not that I am asking for a promotion,” Lt. Karel quickly put in.

She glanced at him a moment. “Oh. No. Of course not. But we were wanting to get married and he doesn’t want to until later and I was so scared–I am sure that you are a respectable man but I love Karel. And so thank you.”

“I assure you I had nothing to do with the refusal. I was already married by the time I received your father’s letter,” Heddwyn said.

“I–er–accidentally told her when you were married,” Karel said. “I didn’t realize….”

Heddwyn nodded curtly. “Then know that it was for both of us, Lady Cynthia. I knew that neither of us would survive under that situation.”

She smiled. “It doesn’t not matter the reason. I am still thankful you refused.”

“I would advise however that you do not wait, Karel.”

He blinked at him dumbly. “Pardon?”

“You, of all people, should know that your life should not be put on hold for money. You know how delicate life is.”

Karel still stared at him, like, he could not believe he heard Heddwyn correctly.

“Sir, you yourself has said several times that it is not fair to women to leave them at home alone for months at a time.”

“Indeed. But there are some times when I think it will be too long of a way. Especially if Lord Conward plans to marry his daughter off soon.”

Cynthia tugged on Karel’s arm, her eyes glittering in the night almost like Jacey did when she planned something wonderful for him.

“I–perhaps.” He shifted. “We won’t say another word, but if it does leak out that you married Miss Jacey to put off a marriage for Lady Cynthia, Lord Conward will do everything he can to ruin you.”

“I have been warned of that. And I will watch out for it as well.”

Karel nodded saluted. “Have a good evening, sir.”

For a moment he watched the young couple walk away, their heads bent towards each other in quiet conversation. He had once been like that, with a young girl from his town. Although Karel was correct that Heddwyn had thought it was not good for a young soldier to marry, Heddwyn had changed his mind recently. Now, he understood why some people liked to have someone else waiting for them when they returned. It was for the sight of that expectant smile of Jacey’s, and fear of her losing it, that he made him long to return each time.

He won’t admit that to anyone though, because to admit that meant there had been a time when he had not cared if he returned alive or not. Although true, that information would force them to relocate him out of the hot war zone. They could not have someone possibly suicidal commanding the important missions. Even if he hated the misery that he constantly saw and wished to have a way out of it, he also hoped he could bring this war to an end quickly.

At least, he thought he could until they transferred him to the western border.

He felt Jacey lean her chin on his arm and looked at her. She smiled dreamily at him, her dark blue eyes catching the moonlight like a thousand sparkling jewels. She smiled more when he turned towards her.

“You’re smiling,” she whispered.

Heddwyn blinked. “Pardon?”

“You’re smiling.” Gently she ran her cool hand along his cheek.

“You should know by now that I do not smile.”

She smiled even more. “Not that most people can see. But it’s an–expression. Your face gets softer and younger and… you smile in your eyes. Though I almost can’t imagine why right now.”

“I have no idea what you are speaking about.”

“That’s okay. I’ll show you when you do it again. It happens often enough.”

“Does it now?”

Jacey nodded. “When we’re alone, yes. Or with Eva. You just looked happy then too.”

He gently brushed back some of her hair. “You look tired. Are you ready to leave?”

“We can leave whenever you wish.”

With her permission given, he began the long process towards the door. Customs dictated who he needed to bid farewell to, namely a few choice lords and the king. Then, he had to wait in the hall while a servant fetched Jacey her shawl. Jacey began wandering along the wall, looking at the sculptures and paintings that graced the room with obvious amazement.

“So now, Heddwyn, I see you have been married.”

Heddwyn turned to see Lord Reon standing behind him. Although only about Heddwyn’s own age, he had more responsibility than Heddwyn ever desired, thanks to an untimely death by his father. At least in the beginning, he attempted to provide for Heddwyn a sense of companionship amid the men two or three times their age, and still maintained a balance of relationship versus work.

Heddwyn nodded slightly.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been able to see you before now. I saw you attempting to escape quietly and knew that this would probably be one of the few chances we would have to speak.”

“I see.”

“Oh, come now, Heddwyn. Are we not still friends?”

Heddwyn looked at him and frowned for a moment. “Not close. Our stations prevent that I fear, as you are aware.”

Lord Reon frowned as well. “Well, I am still pleased to hear, and see, your prudi-ila I presume.”

“I see you don’t remember then what I said just last year.”

“About not ever marrying? I had hoped you would reconsider. The only issue is that your marriage won’t stop the questions about when you will have a child.”

Heddwyn looked Lord Reon in the eyes. “Bret, if I did not desire marriage, why would I desire to have a child?”

“Because you realize that your brilliance should not be wasted with no one to carry on your legacy or family name.”

“I prefer to keep myself than to continue my family.”

“Heddwyn, people expect a child. Many children. many sons. The only possible way you can get out of that expectation is by retiring sooner rather than later, or having a mental breakdown in the field. You’re too much of a legacy not to.”

“Know this then, Bret. I am doing everything possible not to have a child.”

“Well, obviously with Jacey.”

“No. Even if Jacey was Targoian, I would act the same.”

A servant approached him and held out Jacey’s shawl. “Commander?”

Heddwyn took the shawl and approached Jacey. “Jacey, it’s time to leave.”

Jacey turned. He opened the shawl for her and wrapped it around her. Then, quietly, he led her out.

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