The Artist’s Masquerade
Antonia Aquilante © 2020
All Rights Reserved
“It’s time you took a wife.”
Cathal managed to keep his surprise hidden with some difficulty. That blunt statement was not what he’d expected when he received the summons to his father’s office. A discussion of family business, perhaps, or questions about happenings at the palace, even a diatribe about one of his cousin’s choices—since Father seemed to hate every one of them since the prince’s marriage to Amory—was what usually precipitated a call to Father’s presence.
He’d never imagined Father would bring up marriage. Cathal had seen no indication Father was even thinking in such a direction. Father had said plenty as he’d pushed the prince to marry, and plenty more when Philip had married a man of his choosing instead of the woman Father would have chosen, but he’d never said a word about his own sons’ need to marry.
Cathal probably shouldn’t have been so surprised. He was twenty-five years old and his father’s heir, and Father was a royal duke and dynastically minded. Producing an heir for the dukedom was Cathal’s duty, despite the existence of his younger brothers. He’d always known it, and he would never think of shirking that duty.
“Yes, Father.” He wasn’t interested in anyone in particular, but there were plenty of women who would make him a suitable wife in Father’s eyes. He was certain he could find someone who wouldn’t make the duty a chore. “I will begin looking for a wife immediately.”
“No need. It’s all arranged.” Father returned his attention to the papers on his desk, as if what he’d just said was of no particular consequence. As if he hadn’t just told Cathal his entire life was about to change and taken Cathal’s last bit of choice away at the same time.
Cathal snapped his mouth shut when he realized it was hanging open. “It is?”
Of course it was. Cathal should have expected that as well. Father would never leave such an important choice—a family alliance, a mother for future dukes—up to Cathal. He should have done so, or at least he should have asked for Cathal’s opinion. Cathal was of age and had proven himself trustworthy time and again, or he thought he had. It left a sour taste in his mouth to think Father respected him so little.
“May I ask whom I will be marrying?” He immediately regretted his tone as Father arched a single brow.
When Cathal didn’t jump to apologize quickly enough, Father let out a huff that expressed his disappointment more eloquently than a hundred words would have, but he answered anyway. “She’s a cousin of the emperor of Ardunn. Velia is her name. Beautiful, by all accounts, and accomplished, but the connections are the important part.”
Cathal hardly heard anything after Ardunn. Cousin to the emperor of Ardunn? What was Father thinking? And how had he even managed it?
Father looked up again, and this time his huff held more than a little annoyance. “Why are you staring at me that way?”
Cathal didn’t know how he was looking at his father. Usually he had more control, but incredulity seemed to have obliterated it. “Ardunn, Father? I don’t understand. Why—?”
“Don’t be stupid. If your cousin isn’t going to do his duty and marry for the good of this country, then it falls to you to take up where Prince Philip failed.”
And that statement made even less sense. “But, Father, you negotiated a marriage contract with the emperor of Ardunn. Does Philip know?”
His cousin couldn’t know. Cathal had damaged their relationship and weakened the trust Philip had in him—he knew and regretted it—but Philip wasn’t vindictive enough to keep something so big from Cathal, especially considering the prince’s hatred of arranged marriages. Though how a prince came by such a view, Cathal would never know. Nevertheless, Philip would have said something, which meant Father had been negotiating with someone in Ardunn without Philip’s knowledge or consent.
Father scoffed. “He’ll know soon enough.”
“But, Father, negotiating with Ardunn…what did you—?”
“Are you questioning my ability to negotiate a marriage for my son?” Father snapped.
“No, sir.” Just the prudence of doing so with a powerful foreign emperor without the knowledge of their own ruler. “But—”
“This is the marriage your cousin should have negotiated for himself, but since he wouldn’t do his duty, we have to do it for him. For the good of Tournai and this family.”
“No more.” Father slapped a hand down on the wooden surface of the desk. “It’s done, and when she arrives next month, you will marry this woman. We’re finished discussing it.”
Cathal gritted his teeth against further protests and gave a sharp nod.
A few moments later, dismissed by his father, Cathal dragged in a lungful of crisp air. Spring was taking hold, but the mornings were still cool. At the moment, he was thankful for the gulp of bracing air.
That had been unexpected.
He shook his head and strode down the steps into the garden. The home where Cathal had grown up was probably the largest in the city. Constructed generations ago of pale-gray stone, the house had three stories surrounding the inner courtyard and the garden it contained. He’d played in the garden as a child with his brothers and cousin, chasing each other, hiding among the statuary and bushes. As he grew older, he’d come here when he needed a moment of peace. These days, he spent most of his time at the palace, and the garden was the domain of his mother and younger sisters, who often sat on the benches near the central fountain to do their needlework.
He didn’t linger, couldn’t have if he wanted to. Cathal couldn’t even go up to the palace and inform Philip of the betrothal, because he was due at the port to inspect improvements to the harbor defenses. Taking the most direct route from Father’s office to the front of the house, he strode through the garden and ducked inside again and then made for the entrance hall without slowing.
His sister’s melodic laugh and the quiet murmur of his mother’s voice floated back to him. Smiling, he stepped from the corridor into the grand room. His mother and sister stood at the polished table in the center of the large room. At his first step onto the red marble floor, both women looked up from where they were arranging early spring flowers in a large vase. Identical smiles of welcome lit their faces. His youngest sister looked remarkably like Mother, though Meriall was just fourteen. She was the only one of them to inherit Mother’s golden-brown hair and not Father’s much darker locks.
Each time he saw Meriall, he was surprised at how grown up she was becoming. It seemed just yesterday she was trailing after their brother Etan and getting into scrapes and jumping on her brothers whenever she saw them. Now she was a young lady. The oldest of his three younger sisters was married, and his second sister was nearly seventeen. Cathal might have expected, if he’d thought of the subject at all, Father to be negotiating a marriage for Ottilie, not for himself.
Meriall and Mother were still smiling at him, and they left off fussing with the flowers and greenery as he approached. When she was younger, Meriall would have flung herself at him. She’d learned more appropriate behavior since then, but a part of him missed her enthusiasm. Then again, she would probably still throw herself at Etan. They’d always been closer.
“Cathal.” Mother held out her hands to him and tilted her head for his kiss to her cheek. “I didn’t know you were here.”
He brushed a kiss over Meriall’s cheek as well. “Father wanted to meet with me.”
Because he was watching, he saw the flash of concern in Mother’s warm-brown eyes. Did she know her husband’s plans for Cathal? “Is everything all right?”
No, he didn’t think she knew. He doubted Father would have consulted her anyway. He flicked his glance at his sister, wondering if he should speak in front of her, but everyone would know soon enough. “Father wants me to marry.”
Mother blinked, once, twice, the only sign of surprise in a serene face. “I didn’t realize, but you are getting to be of an age to. There are many lovely girls you could meet and consider. Perhaps we can have a party and invite some of them.”
“Actually, Father has it all arranged already.”
“Oh. Well.” Mother fussed with the flowers before dropping her hands to smooth her skirt. “I didn’t realize you and your father had chosen someone. I wish you’d told me.” The statement wasn’t much of a rebuke, not the way she said it, but from his gentle mother, it was still censure.
“I wish he’d told me.” He bit back impatience. His ignorance of Father’s actions wasn’t Mother’s doing. “I only just found out myself, Mother. She arrives in a month. I assume we’ll all meet her then.”
“Arrives? From where? Who is she?”
He didn’t blame Mother for her bewilderment. “Father says her name is Velia. I only know she’s a cousin to the emperor of Ardunn.”
“The emperor? Does His Highness know?” Mother had been the wife of a royal duke for nearly thirty years. She could see the implications as well as he could.
“It doesn’t appear so.” He glanced from Mother, who was admirably controlling her surprise and concern, to Meriall and her avid, undisguised curiosity. Well, he shouldn’t be talking about Philip’s lack of knowledge of Father’s actions anyway. “You’ll have to ask Father for more information. I don’t know anything else.”
Mother frowned. “Will you tell your cousin?”
“I can’t now. I’m due at the port, and I may be tied up there for most of the day.” And he didn’t want to put this information in a note. Still, someone needed to tell Philip, and Cathal wasn’t sure when Father would. “I’ll tell him when I return to the palace later.”
She nodded. “I’ll speak with your father. We’ll see you soon?”
“Of course.” He took his leave of his mother and sister and strode out through the large front doors into the morning sunlight again. A servant appeared immediately with his horse. He mounted up and guided the horse out through the imposing gate, open in anticipation of his departure. He needed to hurry if he was going to be on time for his appointment, and he refused to be late. He would sort out the rest afterward, including informing the prince.
Philip was not going to be pleased.
“You’ll never guess what Uncle Umber has done now.”
Amory turned at the sound of Philip’s voice. Philip walked into the nursery, still dressed for the court function they’d attended earlier, and looking every inch the prince. But he was always Philip—his Pip—to Amory. Philip’s voice was pitched low, in deference to Amory’s efforts to coax their six-month-old son to sleep, but incredulity and frustration came through despite the pitch. A sinking sensation went through Amory’s midsection. “What now?”
Despite whatever had happened, Philip smiled when he looked at Amory and the child in his arms. Philip came closer and kissed Amory softly, resting one hand on Amory’s shoulder and the other gently on their son’s back. Amory leaned up into the kiss, lingering, savoring. Nearly two years together and he still couldn’t get enough of kissing Philip.
When Philip finally drew back, he was still smiling. The baby blinked up at Philip owlishly from where his head rested on Amory’s shoulder. Amory never stopped being awed every time he looked at their son. Even when Julien didn’t want to sleep.
“He giving you trouble?”
Amory smiled, fond despite a slight frustration. “Stubborn baby is tired but won’t sleep.”
“Let me try.” With the ease of long practice, they transferred the baby from Amory’s arms to Philip’s, though Amory hated to relinquish Julien’s warm weight. Silly, he knew.
Philip settled the baby against his own shoulder and began rocking smoothly side to side. He often had better luck getting their stubborn son to sleep than Amory did. Amory liked to think it was because the stubbornness came from Philip.
“So what has Umber done now?” Knowing Umber, it could be anything.
“He’s arranged a marriage for Cathal,” Philip answered in the same near whisper Amory used.
He didn’t bother to hide his surprise, but he wondered why he was so surprised in the first place. Umber’s concern was always for Tournai and its royal dynasty. “We should’ve expected it. He’s never going to let his children make their own choices about whom to marry.”
Philip sighed. “I know you’re right. Love and happiness aren’t relevant concerns to my uncle.”
Amory knew that well. “And Cathal? He’s well past the age of majority. He could refuse.”
“He’ll go along with it.”
Of course Cathal would. Duty was Cathal’s watchword. “Have you spoken with him?”
“Not yet. He was delayed at the port—he’s been there all day. But I will talk to him.”
Amory was not at all surprised by Philip’s wanting to help Cathal. Philip hated the idea of arranged marriages, and he loved Cathal, despite their recent difficulties. He would want Cathal to have the best chance at happiness.
“Cathal, of everyone, needs to find someone to love, someone to balance him,” Philip added.
Amory nodded. “Do you know who Umber is considering for a bride?”
And it would be a bride. Umber was conservative and traditional in addition to dynamically minded.
“Forget considering. He’s decided and arranged the thing. Contracts have already been signed.”
“What?” He barely managed to keep his voice down. Cathal was first cousin to the crown prince. By all rights, Umber should have consulted Philip first, and with how important Umber held tradition to be, it was shocking and insulting—and frankly, suspicious—he hadn’t. “Why?”
“I assume he didn’t want me to interfere while he negotiated a marriage between Cathal and a noblewoman from Ardunn. A cousin to the emperor.”
Amory opened his mouth, but no words came out. A woman from Ardunn? A cousin to the emperor?
Philip must have seen enough in his expression. “Exactly.”
Amory found his voice. “What is he doing?”
“That’s the question.” Philip craned his neck to look down at their son’s face. “He’s asleep.”
Amory shook his head, exasperated but unable to be truly annoyed at Philip. “I don’t know how you do it.”
Philip flashed him a grin. “It’s a gift.”
He shook his head again as Philip carefully laid the baby in his cradle. But he smiled when Philip took his hand. “You’re ridiculous.”
“You love me anyway.” Philip walked with him from the room and closed the nursery door quietly.
“I do.” He tried to make his voice sound long-suffering, but the laughter he couldn’t quite suppress rippled through his words. If anything, Philip’s grin widened. They walked hand in hand to their own bedchamber.
As Philip shut the door behind them, Amory returned the conversation to a more serious topic. “What do you think your uncle is up to?” He hated to bring it up, but the question needed to be asked. While Umber had been less vocal in his displeasure at Philip’s choices since Julien’s birth, he certainly hadn’t changed.
“Who knows?” Philip looked beyond weary saying it, and Amory stepped forward, wanting to soothe his weariness away. He brushed Philip’s hands aside and took over unbuttoning Philip’s shirt. “It’s obvious he wants to show his power. You know I would never interfere if he was just choosing a bride for Cathal from here.”
“Well, you would talk to Cathal.”
“Yes.” Philip sighed. “I know most marriages are arranged, but I’m never going to like it. However, if Cathal told me he agreed, if he at least liked the woman, I wouldn’t have said anything more, and I wouldn’t have disputed the choice. But Uncle Umber negotiated a marriage with an Ardunnian imperial cousin. And I can’t undo it without provoking serious consequences.”
And the consequences really were the issue. Amory helped Philip out of his shirt and tossed it over a chair. Before he could start on Philip’s breeches, Philip reached for the fastenings to Amory’s upper garments. “Why do you think he did it?”
“Other than power? I don’t know. And I don’t understand why the emperor agreed. Uncle Umber has no authority to guarantee anything, to even negotiate anything, on behalf of Tournai. What could he have promised?”
“I don’t understand either.” The brush of Philip’s fingers over Amory’s skin as he pulled off Amory’s shirt made him shiver. Amory forced himself to focus. “What will you do?”
“Talk to Cathal. Find out as much as we can about this betrothal.” Philip trailed his fingertips down Amory’s chest. “Tomorrow.”
Amory let out a long sigh. “Yes, tomorrow. For now, come to bed.”
“This is a bad idea.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“It’s never going to work.”
“Yes, it will.” Velia stepped back and glared at him, her green eyes narrowed to slits. “When did you turn so pessimistic?”
Flavian stared at her, incredulous she even asked the question. Considering the circumstances of his life over the last several years, it was a wonder that occasionally pessimistic was all he was. But he only mentioned the current situation he found himself in. “Well, I’m trussed up in a gown—”
“And you look lovely in it.”
It was his turn to give her a vicious glare. She didn’t even flinch. “And heeled shoes, which are ridiculous torture contraptions on a normal day and even worse aboard a ship.”
“You’re very graceful on them though. More so than I expected.”
He didn’t think he could glare any harder, but he did try. “And all for a plan that will never work.”
“But it is working. We left Ardunn with no one the wiser, and no one on this ship knows you’re a man. Now sit still.” She returned to the task he had interrupted—applying cosmetics to his flinching face. She had already fussed with his hair, pinning up his own chin-length locks around the hairpiece that matched the red-gold color almost perfectly. It hadn’t been easy to find, nor had it been cheap. Neither had the gown Velia laced him into.
“There. Look,” Velia said, turning him toward the gilt-framed mirror in the corner of her cabin—and only Velia would have such a thing on a ship. “No one will be able to tell you aren’t a woman.”
She was correct.
The reflection in the extravagant mirror was his and yet undeniably that of a woman. Not a raving beauty but not unattractive either. Velia had used her cosmetics to enhance the delicacy of his features, something smudged on his eyelids, something sooty on his lashes that made his blue-green eyes look huge. Something else gave his cheeks the look of having a delicate flush and his lips a rosy cast. The green silk gown was an excellent shade for him, complementing his eyes, highlighting the pale-gold of his skin, which he was certain Velia had considered when she ordered it. She had also contrived a way to fill out the bodice of the gown with padding, giving his slender frame the necessary curves to appear female.
He knew he wasn’t the most masculine of men, but he never thought he could look so much like a woman. It was disconcerting to say the least, but he supposed it was good for their plan. Still. He didn’t have to like it.
“See?” Velia’s face peeked over his shoulder in the mirror’s reflection. “You look like a woman, a lovely woman at that.”
His expression immediately fell into something between a scowl and a pout. Not an attractive expression for a grown man. He made a lovely woman? It already made him cringe any time someone said he was pretty as a man.
“Hey. This is a good thing, remember?” Velia poked him in the shoulder.
“Ow.” He rubbed the area where her long fingernail had dug in. “But it doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
“You’re ridiculous.” She turned away and began sorting through her jewelry. “You wanted to leave Ardunn.”
He had. He did. “But I didn’t want to do it in a dress.”
“A dress is the only way you managed to escape the empire, in case you didn’t realize.”
“I would have figured something out.” He had been making plans already when Velia presented him with the idea.
“If you say so.” She fixed him with an arch look, and he gritted his teeth. “It won’t be for much longer. Another week until we arrive in Tournai. I’ll meet my intended, and you’ll disappear, leaving your disguise behind.”
“It can’t come soon enough.”
Velia laughed. “Here, help me with this necklace.”
He nodded and stepped behind her to fasten the sapphire and gold necklace around her neck. “You’ll have to find a maid to do this for you after I’m gone.”
He had been helping Velia dress when she needed it since they boarded the ship, just as she helped him. Though she needed far less help than he did getting all trussed up—mostly fastenings she couldn’t reach on her own. Many men would probably consider it a gift to spend so much time with a beautiful woman in various states of undress. If they were interested in women. Which he was not.
“I’m certain that won’t be any trouble. I’ll finally have someone to help me with my hair again.” Velia grinned at him over her shoulder. “What will you do? I don’t think I ever asked. Will you stay in Tournai?”
“I might.” Tournai appeared to be a more hospitable place than Ardunn for someone like him, what with Tournai’s ruler having married a man the year before. In fact, his plan had been to go to Tournai all along. It was coincidence and serendipity that Velia’s arranged marriage provided him with a means of getting there directly. Still, he wasn’t sure he should tell Velia his plans were set. Not because he didn’t trust her if someone came looking for him, but because he didn’t want to cause trouble for her. “Probably not in Jumelle if I do. Maybe somewhere smaller, on the coast. I think I like the sea. I’d like to paint it.”
Velia stared at him for a moment and then laughed. “I think I would go mad staring at the sea all day.”
She probably would, but the prospect didn’t seem bad to him. Peace, painting, maybe someone to share it with someday. That might be nice.
A sharp knock on the door jolted him out of the pretty picture his mind was painting. Probably for the best—he shouldn’t get ahead of himself.
“Yes?” Velia called out toward the closed door.
“My lady, dinner is about to be served in the captain’s quarters.” Flavian recognized the voice of one of the sailors who often attended Velia’s party.
Well, there they went again. His hopes of eating alone in a cabin and hiding as much as possible during the voyage had been dashed the first night. He didn’t even bother arguing anymore.
“Ready to go, Lady Flavia?” Velia asked, putting emphasis on his assumed name. As if he could ever forget it.
Another week of this ruse and he was free.
“As I’ll ever be.”