Shanae very nearly ran through the halls as she tried to get to her rooms to escape for at least an hour or two. The party would run until the first hour of the morning, and she would have to return for that, but she could at least have a breather now that she had obliged protocol by dancing with all her suitors.
The hallways leading to her rooms had been kept mostly dark, which came as no surprise even though maids would have surely guessed she might escape. Shanae, being Apex of Dark and fully a Dark element, could see in absolute dark let alone minimal light; she actually saw better in it. Sayena could do the same to absolute brightness.
She did not notice anything at all unusual until she started to reach for her door handle. No light could be seen under the bottom edge. That was not normal; she had left a lamp on personally. She listened at the door, and heard nothing except silence. Rather deliberate silence, as if someone had tried to muffle every noise. Her mood improved significantly as she realized what might be happening, and she opened her door to step inside.
The lights promptly came on, and there was a resounding cheer of ‘surprise!’ as all of her closest female friends came out of hiding. Only Claret was not present, but Shanae did not at all feel abandoned. Claret had already taken an entire day off from the Hall of Records to spend it with Shanae. She had begun to emerge more now that she and Sabin had married, but she still felt duty-bound to remain within the Hall of Records to maintain events and only emerged as needed by her queens, princesses, and planet. Sabin could now travel to the Hall of Records himself at will thanks to his own Time magic being enhanced by her Memory one, and he ensured she did not wholly shut herself away as she had for so many millions of years.
Shanae smiled at all of her friends and then held her hands out to Sayena as she walked forward. Their fingers meshed easily, making sparks fly as their opposing powers teased each other, and then Sayena leaned up to kiss her cheek. "Happy birthday," she said. Her golden eyes twinkling, she added, "Arista and I put our heads together over this one."
Arista grinned. "I still have a bump where the connection was made."
"With your hard head?" Shanae retorted. "I'm impressed you felt anything." A bit belatedly, she looked around her room and realized that they had been hard at work. Ribbons, streamers, bubbles, and all manner of things decorated her sitting room to make it sparkle and glitter cheerfully.
A laugh caught in her throat as she walked over to the punch bowl; it had a little fountain turning in the middle. She tasted the punch and immediately grinned. It was spiked with fermented juice. Lucky for her that she didn't get drunk easily. Unlucky for her friends who kept trying. It had happened only once, but since she and Julianna had shared the hangover, neither had minded.
"Bring out the presents!" Sayena called into the bedroom where several of the other Cultivators had disappeared.
Shanae lifted her brows and watched as Julianna carefully pushed out a cart with a large and beautiful cake on it. The confection was elaborately decorated with fudge and strawberries, and the cake itself had been made of more chocolate. Shanae's mouth watered just looking at it. "I'm going to go into a sugar induced coma."
"And you'll go happily," Julianna countered teasingly as she began to cut slices. "Next!"
Next proved to be Veronica, and she handed Shanae a brightly wrapped gold box. The birthday girl shook it suspiciously, and Veronica grinned. "Your brother was fair game. You are not. You would hit me for it!"
Evan's twenty-fifth birthday had been celebrated by a cheerfully wrapped present loaded with a devious contraption that had fired a cream pie into his face. Even Maxim hadn't been able to stop laughing at the sight. It was one of Shanae's fondest memories, too. "Alright, I trust you." She opened the top and found an adorable toy ferret wearing a fancy ascot and hat. "Ee!" She clutched it close, entirely uncaring how childish she had sounded. "I love him!"
The next couple of gifts came from the other Light Defenders: Asheria gave her a leather-bound diary with high quality pages, Yvette gave her a crystal clock that actually worked and had an alarm, and Sayena gave her bottle of perfume that had been specially made just for her. It consisted of proteas and sunflowers.
Delilah went next and offered a box that Shanae tore into with a glee that made everyone laugh. Inside was a handmade set of brush and mirror, the former of which had specially crafted spines that could get through Shanae's fine hair without damage. Shanae had expected it—Sayena had gotten one for her very fluffy and curly hair—but she still loved the beautiful design Delilah had picked.
Kacey produced two silken lace ribbons that she tied around separate locks of Shanae's hair. It would make her feel as if she were held, and not bound, to wear something made by one of her Defenders. "Also handmade," she promised. "Talon grumbled at me working so hard on weaving, but he didn't complain much when I made him get me the silk I needed. I think he dotes on you as much as he does me."
"Probably because I'm Sayena's future sister-in-law," Shanae countered dryly, "and she is to Robert's Commanders what I am to Evan's set."
Sayena pounced on that as the perfect segue. "Speaking of marriages, I suppose we may as well get the terrible part over. Can you make a short list of your top ten suitors?"
Her friends struggled to hide smiles. "Can't you even name a few?" Asheria pressed. "You danced with sixty-three different people, Shanae."
"Sixty-four," Yvette corrected on a little smile. "She danced with Robert, too."
A hint of pink began to climb Shanae's face. "He doesn't count. He's not one of my suitors."
It was not their place to correct her, but the blush seemed very telling that perhaps their Dark princess was beginning to, literally, see the Light. "Mm-hmm." It was all that Kacey said. "What did Arista give you? You always get her gift early, along with Evan's. What did he get you as well?"
Shanae's eyes softened as she looked at her twin soul. "She gave me a protea blossom. One of the ones growing on the plant in the shade of her favorite tree on her kingdom. She had tended it all these years just to return to me as an adult." She snuggled closer when Arista hugged her tight. "As for Evan, he gave me a locket that has a small painting of our family within. He had it replicated from the one in the grand hall. Now I can know I always carry the love of my family wherever I go."
"So that's all the gifts then!" Yvette decided, and then paused. "Wait. Robert. Didn't he give you a gift?"
Shanae paused as she dipped up punch. "How odd. No, he hasn't. He's normally first in line to try to outdo Evan or Arista." She scowled. "Not that I'm happy with him right now. He asked me something far too personal during that dance."
There was motion out of the corner of her eye, and she turned her head to see Julianna and Arista shaking hands solemnly while Asheria watched on. It looked like some sort of deal had been made. "What are you doing?" she asked suspiciously.
"Nothing." Arista winked at her. "Now let's have some cake and see who goes into a coma first."
"Can we get Sayena drunk while we're at it?"
"Oh, very funny," her sister-in-law grumbled. It wasn't her fault that she couldn't handle fermented beverages very well.
By the second hour of the morning, all guests had been sent home and the disaster of the grand dining hall and ballroom would be cleaned up the next day. Shanae could finally relax alone in her room. She had made the obligatory additional appearance, but to her sheer delight and disbelief, none of her suitors had gone near her again. She should have started the night with the nine-note!
She hummed anew Liena's song under her breath as she wandered through her sitting room and into her bedroom. Her handmaidens had come and gone, and her formal under clothes now hung up once more. She'd had her bath, and she had wrapped herself in her favorite silk nightgown and robe. She just couldn't wind down for sleep, though. It was terribly unfair.
Someone knocked softly on her door, and she arched a brow. "It's very late—or early, as the case may be. Who is it?"
"I bring a belated gift, princess," an elderly man’s voice called back.
The voice wasn't entirely familiar, but it wasn't entirely unfamiliar either. Staff from the Delphinium and Hyacinth Kingdoms alike were in residence to help with cleanup, so it wasn't impossible that he belonged with them. She opened the door only slightly and looked into the hall. An old man stood hunched over a cane, and a cloak covered most of his figure. She hesitated before opening the door further. There was just something about this person that threw her off, and she didn't know what. It didn't feel dangerous though. "Who sends the gift?"
"High Prince Robert Delphinium."
"Ha!" She snorted rudely. "Late as ever. It isn't even my birthday anymore! I hope it includes an apology."
He said nothing and offered a single black protea. Her heart fluttered as she reached out to touch the petals and discovered it had not come from the kingdom's gardens, or even from Hyacinth. Robert had taken seeds from her palace's garden and very carefully cultivated this blossom on his own world, and for at least a decade at that, so he could give her a blossom she did not know. He and Arista. They were no good for her heart, really.
She reached out to take the flower, and her eyes focused on the hand holding it. Belatedly, she realized the hand was far too young and strong to belong to an old man. In fact, it was a familiar hand that spent more time in her dreams than she cared to admit. "Damn you!" She snatched her hand back and whirled to dash into her room.
Robert had always been just as fast. The cloak fluttered to the floor as he snagged her around the waist and carried her into the bedroom. He kicked the door shut behind them without concern. If someone came knocking and caught him with her in her room, even while she was in her nightclothes, it wouldn't immediately be held against them. Frankly, they would have to be caught in the act of something before someone couldn't simply dismiss it as part of their friendship, and while he very much intended to marry her, he would play that particular card as only a last resort.
Shanae glared down at his arm as she seethed in silence for a moment. No wonder she had sensed something off! She had been subconsciously sensing his magic. His Light called to her Dark in a way that she had never encountered with anyone else, even others with Light cores. "I hate you."
"If you did," he murmured in her ear, "you wouldn’t be so pissed." He put her down and turned her around gently. Much to his amusement, but not his surprise, she immediately took a swing at him. He blocked the first punch, dodged the second, and ended the half-hearted tussle by catching her wrists and pinning her against the wall.
Her heart began to beat overtime. She hated being so aware of him. She hated more that his body perfectly molded to hers as if they were two halves to a whole. His lips skimmed her ear, and she couldn't fight a shiver of delight. His soft laugh just sent more heat rioting through her body with gleeful desire. It had gone into absolute overtime ever since she had seen him in the ballroom, as if her age had literally unlocked the floodgates.
"Ah ha." His lips curved triumphantly. "You little liar. Pretending all this time that you're not as attracted to me as I am to you."
She shot a glare at him. "Since when have you been attracted to me?"
"Since shortly after you turned eighteen, given you're an early bloomer," he admitted candidly. And it had leapt into a full-fledged inferno when he had looked at her across a dance floor and seen her in the glory of fully blossomed maturity.
He caught her chin and lifted it until their eyes met. Her height was only one of the many things he loved about her. "Do I look like I'm joking, Shanae?"
"No." Her eyes measured his, but she could not read what lurked behind the gold. "What brought this on so suddenly?"
He had planned out a big and romantic confession of love, but could see now that she would not accept such a thing—yet. He would have to fall back to Plan C instead. "Well, I've been suspecting a mutual attraction for a while now. And I certainly care about you more than I care for nearly anyone else. When you said you had never been kissed, it worried me. I don't want you to risk what happened to me; my first kiss was not the right kind of memorable."
Her brow slowly lifted. "You’re offering to be my first kiss out of the goodness of your heart?"
"You missed the part about the mutual attraction." He smiled. "What have you got to lose? We're sure to feel at least a little thrill."
"Fair enough. And nearly all Cultivators get to feel little thrills before finding a soul mate, even if the thrills don't go anywhere. Go ahead and thrill me." He already owned her heart and soul, and she had just made her body's interest patently clear. She literally had nothing to lose except a chance at something spectacularly wonderful.
He slowly slid one hand up to cover her still hidden Defender Flower Mark, and her eyes widened at realizing how . . . intimate it suddenly seemed. Cultivators touched each other's Marks with common frequency as casually as they may hug one another, but just like a hug, it could change greatly depending on who did the touching. This time, for the first time, Robert touching her Mark felt incredibly intimate. And welcoming. His magic seared through her Mark into her body and sank like a wave of heat into where she had always felt so . . . cold inside. His gesture, too, carried unspoken respect for her strength and role as a Defender, and a feeling of utter safety swept over her. Security. Only he could protect her heart and soul and give her a place to rest. Her Caretaker who tended to her when she could not tend to herself.
His head lowered and his lips lightly brushed over hers. She stopped breathing. His lips brushed a second time, then a third. Each made her lips tingle more with need for the pressure of his. The fourth time his lips came back to hers, he lingered and let the kiss deepen one breath at a time.
She had no idea how long they stood there. Had no idea that his control was threadbare and only her unconscious trust held him in line. That one kiss was devastating in a way she had never dared imagine could be possible. When he finally lifted his head, she very nearly dragged him back in for another. She didn't want him to stop. In fact, she was half-tempted to ask him to marry her just so she had a legitimate excuse to seduce him.
The thought felt not unlike a slap of cold water. "Oh hell." The door was unlocked. Anyone could have walked in right in the middle of that. How long had he kissed her? She barely remembered her own name, let alone noticed the passage of time.
"No one knows I'm here." He could only be grateful for the distraction. It kept him from kissing her again, and again, and perhaps not stopping. Imagination and frustrated fantasies had been burned away by that single embrace. The matching, aching, desire in her eyes did not help his self-control any, either. He could feel her magic pulsing into his blood from where he touched her Mark, and it seemed wickedly erotic somehow.
"Good." She took a swift breath and opened the door as he stepped away. She peeked in the hall and saw it was clear. Relieved, she smiled and stepped into the doorway to let him out as if he had just stopped by to talk. A need for revenge for the trickery had her saying innocently, "Thanks for being my first kiss. That was a nice little thrill."
Much to her delight, a flicker of temper flashed in his eyes. "Little?"
"Naturally. It gives me a benchmark for evaluating any future suitors. Wasn't that your intent?" she asked politely. "You wanted to make sure I had a good first kiss and allow us to indulge our mutual attraction. Indulgence achieved, and that was a nice first kiss." Her eyes widened when he yanked her off her feet and into his arms. "H-hey!"
That was as far as she got before his mouth claimed hers with none of the tenderness he had shown before. Raw hunger poured out of him as he devoured her, and she lost all will for resistance. A whimper seared her throat as she met his passion headlong. He had her arms trapped. She couldn't even hold him. The sensation of being helpless was oddly thrilling. Someone who was big enough to hold her. Someone who could keep her safe. The thoughts tumbled again and again through what was left of her brain. Cold? There was no such thing.
He released her just as abruptly, and she staggered a step as if drunk. She grabbed the door to maintain her balance and stared at him. "Uhm." For the life of her, she could find nothing else short of 'take me, I'm yours!' and even half-drunk on desire, she refused to let those words past her lips.
His fingers caught her chin. "Little thrill? Nice?" His voice came as little more than a soft growl, and his eyes burned brilliantly with a complex tangle of lust and temper and something even hotter that she felt terrified to name. "You know that what exists between us is neither little nor nice. We will never burn for anyone else the way we burn for one another! Deep down, even your stubborn Dark soul knows that!"
As he stalked down the hall, she didn't have to look deep down to know he was right. He was her soul mate. The hunger produced between two souls meant to interlock was a more wonderful and powerful desire than any that a body alone could produce. It was the place where Love, Life, and Destiny met, mingled, had a party, and got everyone drunk. She had no idea how Liena and her soul mate had resisted. "I'm in such trouble," she muttered as she went back into her room.
Despite evidence to the contrary, there were observers to the scene, and they would hold what they had seen as blackmail to help Robert. Julianna sighed and slapped a gold coin into Arista's hand, and Sabin grinned. "You know him almost as well as I do. Good call, Arista."
"It was a good hunch." Arista held up a finger in the air. "I understand him. And I understand Shanae. It was easy to assume that he would bulldoze past her Dark blindness and erase any chance of a miscommunication. You can't be subtle with the Protea Kingdom. You really can't. Really, if Evan hadn't been more easy-going about things, we would have absolutely seen Sayena pull this on him as well. And it's almost a shame that didn't happen, because it would have been hilarious."
Vermillion and Talon were also present, and the former muttered, "I don't like this."
"Well, Robert does, and all that matters is his happiness." Talon elbowed Julianna lightly. "I can’t believe you accepted that bet."
"I didn’t think he’d have the nerve to do it, or the skill to get her to open the door," she admitted.
"He has the nerve of a thief," Sabin said dryly. "Why do you think we love him?" His smile faded into a frown as he watched Vermillion stalk off down the hall. Vermillion had . . . changed. He had grown to hate Proteans with a fiery passion, though none of them really knew why. He had more than once shown a hate for Diego as well. He did love Robert, though, and the other Commanders could only pray that that would continue to override everything else. If it didn't, then things could get ugly.
* * * * *
Shortly into the next month, the first of the new year, Sayena and Evan's engagement party would be held. The two weeks leading up to the event were filled with all manner of things, and both Shanae and Robert remained busy as they helped their siblings with logistics and organization. Engagement parties were always planned by the according couple, held on the kingdom of the one holding highest rank. That meant the party would be on Delphinium, but it did not mean Protea didn't have work to do!
Most suspected that Shanae had thrown herself whole-heartedly into helping her brother in an effort to avoid scrutiny about her own lack of a suitor. Her list had cleared itself dramatically; only a few names remained, though she did not know whose since she still refused to look at it. Genevieve and Matthew, at their wits' end over their youngest, finally decided it was time to play dirty. Unfortunately for Evan, he drew the short stick to be the one to tell Shanae.
He found his sister in the library, and she was going over the historical tomes about previous engagement parties to see if they had missed any traditions. He winced a bit and then squared his shoulders. "Shanae?"
"Did you know you're supposed to put a black protea blossom in her shoe, and a white delphinium in yours?" she asked without looking up. "It's good luck for the betrothed of a Ruler Cultivator to have a blossom of said Cultivator's patron flower in their shoe. Why the shoe? Seems silly, but we could all use luck!"
Well, there would be no better segue. "So then you can plan on putting a black protea blossom in someone's shoe very soon."
Her head jerked up. "What?!" It dawned, and she dropped her face into her hands. "Damn it, Mother! Now how did I know she was going to force my hand when I couldn't give her and Father a short list?"
One of the other laws in place to protect an heir stipulated that a queen could force her daughter's hand by personally narrowing the suitor list down to two candidates, and the princess had to choose one of them to marry. It only came up when a queen feared outside forces influencing events . . . or she worried her daughter might not have noticed her soul mate. In Shanae's case, both applied.
"I told you that you should have just lied and kept them happy." Evan grinned as his sister sighed heavily. "Well, on one hand, it’s not as bad as you think. On the other hand, it might be worse."
She closed her eyes. "Alright. Let me have it. Who’s the first choice?"
She gagged. "I know our parents do not hate me, and they are also not stupid. They have decided they know exactly who they think is my soul mate and they want me to marry, and they are bound and determined I fall in line. They ensure me choosing the other candidate by giving me an absolute ass for a second option."
"That about sums it up."
"So? Just who is it that I'm to be the blushing bride for?"
He watched her intently. "Robert." And with over two decades of knowing his sister inside him, he lifted his fingers and plugged his ears.
She didn’t notice. "WHAT?!" The shriek echoed off the walls and was audible even on the other side of the castle. She grabbed her shorter yet elder brother's shirt and gave him a shake. "Robert isn’t one of my suitors! How can he be one of my choices?!"
He coughed. "Technically, he was your first suitor. He sort of put his name on your list even before you were nineteen. We always assumed you would eventually look at your list and see him there, but you never did. You really have only yourself to blame for being surprised, honey. Literally everyone knew but you."
"I don't want to marry him!"
A black brow slowly lifted. "Yet you let him kiss you."
She had been wondering if word had gotten to him. Sayena had accidentally dropped the news that she knew, and Shanae had expected her to tell Evan eventually. "I did," she sighed. "And very deeply enjoyed it, as I'm sure you may guess. I love him so stupidly, Evan. He's my soul mate."
"Then why are you resisting?" he asked in frustration. "I hate seeing you so miserable!"
"Because I will not let him die for me!" she shouted at him. Her hands curled into fists. "He sees his life as less important than Sayena's, just as you see yours as less than mine. You two . . . you would act as Caretakers first and Cultivators second. You would protect us at the cost of your lives, the same way the other princesses act as Defenders first and Rulers second." She shook her head hard. "I won't let him die for me, Evan!" No sacrifices would be made in vain; she would not be able to bear it.
"You honestly think that being betrothed will make a difference?" he asked her with all seriousness. "Do you honestly think that Robert would not, right here and now, sacrifice himself to save you? Whether you two wear rings on your thumbs or not, he would not hesitate. He loves you, Shanae. He knows he is your soul mate. He knew long before you did. And can you honestly tell me you're at all surprised by this turn of events?"
She sighed deeply as she sat down on a chair. "I admit that he said some things that made me suspect he knew even before I did. I just didn't realize he had been on my list even before it officially started, though I do suppose that explains the dance he coerced on my birthday. Why maintain a farce of having his own list?"
"To keep you from taking his head off." He smiled when she snorted. "Don't worry about it too much. You have two weeks until you have to decide. Your decision is to be announced at the engagement party."
She groaned. "Don’t worry he says!"
Two weeks later, at the height of the party, Robert walked into the ballroom after giving Evan an obligatory yet unnecessary tour of the castle and found his eyes immediately finding Shanae. She stood talking to a visiting delegate from Ranunculus, and she clearly had the older woman charmed. Because it was not her party, she had not worn her Ruler gown; instead, she wore a slim dress of black and pink that flattered her coloring. Her hair had stayed down, and crystal-lined lace ribbons wove within the locks. Only the coronet on her head and the Flower Mark visible over the low edge of her bodice were markers of her royal blood, but she looked every inch the princess regardless.
He wandered over to where she stood and gave her a mock scowl. "Are you flirting with Yura again?"