The Merchant’s Love
Antonia Aquilante © 2018
All Rights Reserved
In the last decade since his father was appointed ambassador to the kingdom of Teilo, Faelen had been on the grounds of Tournai’s royal palace three times, if he included today. The relief, happiness, and utter sense of home flooding through him as soon as he stepped off the boat had been shocking in its intensity, but not surprising otherwise. Sometime in the middle of the journey, he’d been hit with the bone-deep certainty that he needed to be back in Tournai. He’d mentioned it to Alexander, who admitted feeling the same—which Faelen was happy to hear from his twin, even if it did make the whole thing stranger.
He tried not to dwell on it, which was made a bit easier because of his discomfort that they were arriving unannounced and uninvited.
Well, not entirely uninvited. Faelen’s cousin Etan was getting married in a couple of weeks, and the entire family had been invited to the wedding, but Faelen couldn’t imagine Philip, the crown prince, and Amory, his husband, expected them to descend on the palace for it. Faelen certainly hadn’t expected them to make the long trip to Tournai, but Mother had other reasons for bringing him, Alexander, and Thibault back home.
He and Alexander would be staying in Jumelle longer than that if they had their way.
They alighted from the hired carriage at the palace, a servant handing Mother down and the rest of them following. If the servant was surprised to see Princess Edine and her three sons (and quite a few trunks), he didn’t show it, even if their arrival would cause a scramble to ready rooms for their party.
Faelen stopped as soon as his feet touched the stones of the courtyard and looked up. The palace towers soared above him, white stone glowing in the afternoon sunlight. Like something out of a tale. He’d always thought so, and no amount of visits could end that fancy.
Alexander leaned into his shoulder, just enough to divert Faelen’s attention. He looked into his twin’s face, nearly identical to his own. Alexander’s eyes were without their usual gleam of mischief. “Come on. No time to daydream.”
“I’m just looking.” Still, he set off walking quickly at Alexander’s side, but not so quickly that they’d catch up to Mother and the others who’d gotten well ahead of them. “I always think I’m exaggerating how beautiful it is in my thoughts, but I’m not.”
“No.” Alexander smiled slightly as he trotted up the stairs to the open doors. “We’ll get to see more of it now. Unless we get shipped off to Grandfather with Thibault.”
Faelen went cold all over. No. He loved Grandfather, but he didn’t want to be stuck so far from Jumelle and the university. He and Alexander had been pursuing their studies at the university in Teilo before Mother insisted they return to Tournai. Thibault would be going to Grandfather to help him with running his modest estate, which would one day be his. Faelen and Alexander had no part in that, and Faelen refused to give up all he’d accomplished so far and all he hoped to because of the move.
Alexander clasped his hand. “Don’t worry. We’ll stay in the city.”
The “somehow” was unspoken. Their parents didn’t keep a house in the city. Before the marriage, Father’s family wouldn’t have been able to afford it. With what Mother brought to it, they could have, but it would’ve been pointless with Father’s diplomatic ambitions. Faelen and Alexander couldn’t afford a house on their own at this point, and Mother had made no mention of providing lodgings in her hasty, yet vehement, instructions that they pack everything. Faelen and Alexander had discussed it in whispers on the boat, wondering whether they could take rooms together in the university quarter. They’d talked before about returning to Tournai on their own, but Mother had surprised them before they’d made any plans.
“Of course, we will,” Faelen responded.
“Faelen, Alexander. Don’t dawdle.” Mother’s voice floated back to them, not loud but still echoing in the enormous entry hall.
Alexander rolled his eyes eloquently, and Faelen forced back a smile and nodded. Nevertheless, they obediently quickened their pace to catch up. Mother sailed through the palace corridors, her heels tapping on the marble floors with authority, as if she wasn’t following behind a servant leading them somewhere.
Which turned out to be a small parlor in the guest wing of the palace. Mother’s lips turned down in a slight frown, but Faelen wasn’t sure what she’d anticipated. No one expected them. It was unrealistic to think rooms would be waiting for them at all times.
“Have the princes been notified of our arrival?” Mother asked the servant.
“Their Highnesses are being notified now, Princess Edine. I’ll bring refreshments for you.” He bowed and left at her dismissal.
“I’ll suppose we’ll have to wait, then. I’d prefer to have been settled in our rooms first, but we’ll have to make do.” Mother seated herself in a velvet-cushioned chair near the fireplace where a small fire crackled. Thibault took a chair near her, but Alexander wandered to the windows. Faelen paused for a moment, indecisive, and then drifted over to where Alexander stood.
The windows looked out over the garden, their position one floor up giving them a decent vantage point. In the falling dusk, lanterns had been lit along the paths closer to the palace, and Faelen caught sight of a couple strolling along one of them, the men holding hands and seemingly in no hurry. He squinted, trying to see who they were in the shadows, but the door opened before he could.
He turned to find not a maid with the expected refreshments but Philip and Amory. Philip was Faelen’s cousin—his father had been Mother’s oldest brother—and he’d come to the throne only about five years ago after the sudden, untimely death of his parents. Faelen and his family had returned to Tournai for the funerals and the coronation, the first time he’d been back since they’d left for Teilo when he was all of ten years old. They returned again when Philip shocked everyone by marrying Amory, a man and a commoner. Faelen liked what little he’d found out of Amory then, and Amory had certainly won over Tournai in the meantime. Faelen was hoping to get to know him better—and Philip too, as the last he’d spent time with Philip he’d been a child and Philip just into his teenage years. He looked forward to meeting their son, Julien, as well.
Philip had the look of Tournai’s royal family—something Faelen and Alexander strayed from slightly—with his dark hair and classically handsome features. He carried himself as the ruler he was, and his hazel eyes were sharp as they took in the room. Amory was a match for him in looks with his dark eyes and shining auburn curls. He seemed to have grown into his role, carrying himself with more confidence than Faelen remembered at their wedding.
“Aunt Edine,” Philip said as he came into the room, and they all bowed or curtsied. “And Thibault, Alexander, and Faelen. What a surprise. We didn’t expect you.”
Mother didn’t move to embrace Philip. She wasn’t the type for demonstrations of affection, especially to the crown prince, even if he was her nephew. “We left Teilo quite suddenly. A boat was about to depart that would get us here in time for Etan’s wedding.”
“Etan will be happy you’re all able to attend.” Philip didn’t mention that no one had dreamed they would. “And, of course, Amory and I would be delighted if you would stay here at the palace while you remain in Jumelle.”
“Thank you, Philip. We’d be honored to accept your hospitality.” She left it unsaid that she’d certainly anticipated the invitation. Faelen doubted there had been a thought otherwise in her mind.
The promised refreshments arrived, and they occupied themselves with food and drink and polite inquiries about their journey and the happenings at court. Nothing serious, nothing about why they’d arrived unannounced. Faelen never would have, but Mother did as she pleased, covering it in a veneer of politeness and manners but running right over anyone who stood in her way. Her children had certainly learned that early.
“How long do you plan to stay in Tournai, Aunt Edine?” Philip asked after a while.
“Only through the wedding.” She waved a hand at Faelen, Alexander, and Thibault. “My sons won’t be accompanying me on return to Teilo, however.”
“Oh?” Amory turned an interested gaze on the three of them. “Have you decided to return permanently or just for an extended visit?”
“Thibault will be going to his grandfather to help him run the estate,” Mother said. Faelen hadn’t been sure whose plan that was—hers, Father’s, Grandfather’s, or all three. He doubted it was Thibault’s; he’d been enjoying himself in Teilo.
“I’m sure the baron will be happy to have you with him,” Philip said. “What are your plans, Faelen, Alexander?”
“We thought we’d stay here in Jumelle,” Alexander said before Mother could come out with whatever plans she’d made for them. Her lips flattened briefly into a thin line, but Alexander paid her no mind. “Faelen and I thought we’d finish our studies at the university here and spend some time at court.”
“I’m sure both can be arranged.” Philip settled more comfortably onto the couch beside Amory, resting a hand on his husband’s leg. “Etan would know who best to speak to at the university. And we’d be happy to have you make your home here with us.”
“Thank you, Your Highness,” Faelen said.
“Philip, please, Faelen. We’re family.”
“Thank you, Philip,” he repeated obediently. Alexander echoed his words, but he had a gleam of satisfaction in his eyes that Faelen, at least, could read easily.
“I was thinking of sending the twins out to their grandfather as well.” Mother spoke to Philip, but her gaze was on Faelen and Alexander.
“If they’re to continue their studies, they really should be in Jumelle,” Amory said before either Faelen or Alexander could speak. Faelen felt a flush of goodwill toward his cousin by marriage.
“I hate for them to impose upon your hospitality, though.”
Alexander frowned, irritation sparking in his eyes. Faelen couldn’t blame him—Mother’s words made it sound as if they were children in need of minding instead of grown men—but he wouldn’t allow his feelings to show, and he hoped Alexander stayed calm too.
“It’s no imposition.” Philip’s words had a ring of finality to them that had Faelen relaxing minutely. Some of the tension drained from Alexander at his side.
Mother nodded. “Perhaps it’s best they’re here anyway. With someone to keep watch on them.”
Alexander was sitting rigidly straight in an instant. “Mother?”
“I’m not sure you can be entirely trusted with what’s best after keeping such a secret from me for so long.” She gave Faelen and Alexander a hard stare, but Alexander wasn’t backing down even as heat and cold alternately flashed through Faelen. He hated confrontation, never knew what to do with it, and Mother seemed to want to force them into one with Philip present. He needed to think clearly about what her motivation was—what her aim was—but his thoughts skittered around too fast for him to hang on to. He’d have to rely on Alexander.
Why did it matter so much to Mother that they hadn’t told her? They hadn’t told anyone at all.
“Is something amiss?” Amory asked.
“I would really prefer to speak of it with Philip and the twins alone,” Mother said.
Philip’s expression went hard and cold. “Anything you say to me can be said to Amory. There are no secrets between us.”
Mother considered them for a long moment. “Thibault, if you would leave us?”
It was phrased as a question, but Thibault took it as the order it was. He rose and bowed slightly to Philip and Amory. “Thank you again for your hospitality.”
“You’re welcome. I’ll call for someone to show you up.” They waited while Amory did so, and a servant arrived to conduct Thibault to his rooms. No one spoke again until the door had closed behind him.
“Aunt Edine, what’s this about?” Philip asked—more demanded, really. He didn’t seem happy, and Faelen wouldn’t have liked to be in Mother’s place.
“I found out quite suddenly and accidentally that the twins had inherited the family Talent.” She turned her stare on them. “It seems they didn’t intend to tell me.”
Faelen didn’t cringe under her stare—though it was difficult not to, the reaction was so ingrained after a childhood with such a formidable mother—and neither did Alexander. Besides, Mother had been angry with them for weeks; he was beginning to expect her lectures on the subject.
“You’ve inherited our Talent?”
Philip’s voice drew Faelen’s attention to him. “We did, Philip.”
“Not long after we began living in Teilo.” Faelen glanced at Alexander briefly. “It came on us at the same time.”
“So long ago? And you chose not to tell your mother?” Philip’s expression was utterly unreadable. Perhaps if Faelen knew his cousin better, he’d be able to guess at his reactions.
Faelen looked at Alexander out of the corner of his eye, sharing a brief wordless exchange to confirm that they were in agreement. “We chose to keep it to ourselves.”
“Entirely,” Alexander said. “We thought it best not to tell anyone.”
“The royal family’s Talent has always been a secret,” Faelen continued. They were taught that one rule practically from birth. No one was to be told of the family’s unique Talent. No one who had it was to reveal their Talent, except perhaps to a spouse. It seemed Philip had told Amory, but Mother had never told Father about its existence. “We didn’t want to risk it potentially getting out.”
“And what if you hadn’t been able to control yourselves? You were children,” Mother snapped, not for the first time. “You should have told me so I could have taught you to control your Talents.”
“You don’t have the Talent yourself, Mother,” Alexander said firmly. “We were told what our Talent would be if we ended up inheriting it. We were told what it would feel like. You couldn’t have taught us any more.”
Mother’s face went tight, but Philip shook his head sharply before she could speak. “They were told,” he said. “We’re all told, and that’s all that could have been done at the time. Like you, my father didn’t have the Talent. You couldn’t have taught them any more than he could me.”
“I could have sent them back immediately so they would have been under the eye of others who have it.” Mother’s voice was low and intense. “Those with the Talent belong in Tournai. They shouldn’t have spent the last near decade away. But they’re back now.”
She said it with finality, as if she were delivering them to prison, as if Philip would keep them in Tournai for the rest of their days no matter what. Perhaps she assumed he would. Perhaps he would.
“No harm was done, Aunt Edine. Our secret is still safe?” Philip addressed the last question to Faelen and Alexander.
Faelen answered, addressing the prince much more than his cousin in that moment. “Yes, it is.”
“Good, that’s all I need to know.” Philip smiled slightly. “We all muddled through learning to use our Talents with nothing more than the stories passed down to us. I wish you’d been here so one of us could have made it easier for you.”
“Thank you,” Faelen murmured, wondering for the first time if they’d done the right thing. But they’d been fine, and it didn’t matter now.
“We can speak more about it now that you’re here.” Philip’s tone seemed to imply that they would be speaking about it. “Especially since you’ll be staying on with us.”
“You must be tired from your journey,” Amory said, perhaps picking up some cue from Philip. “If you’d like to settle in, I can have someone show you to your rooms. You’ve been put in the guest wing. But Faelen, Alexander, since you’ll be staying with us, we should move you to somewhere more permanent before you settle in completely.”
“Thank you, Prince Amory.” Alexander favored Amory with a bright smile.
“It’s Amory.” Amory’s smile was quieter. “Shall we do that today before you get too comfortable? I’ll give the instructions.”
“And you’re all welcome to dine with us tonight,” Philip said. “There are no events for the court this evening, so it will be a quiet family meal. Of course, there’s no obligation if you’d prefer to rest after your journey.”
Mother, who still looked less than pleased beneath her usual polite expression, stood. “I would like to settle in and rest for a while. Thank you for your hospitality.”
“You’re always welcome, Aunt Edine,” Philip said. “All of you.”
“I also have a communication from the ambassador for you.” Mother pulled a sealed packet from the pocket of her skirt. “He apologizes for missing the wedding but asked that I deliver this into your hands.”
“We’ll miss him and the girls, though I’m sure Etan and Tristan will understand,” Philip said as he took the packet and slipped it into his pocket. It was the polite thing to say, and true that Father probably couldn’t take the time away for the long journey. Faelen’s sisters could have, but they’d been enjoying court life in Teilo and could help Father with the social aspect of his duties in Mother’s absence.
They took their leave after Amory instructed one of the servants to show Faelen and Alexander to a different suite and have their things moved. The maid led them away in the opposite direction from Mother.
“Well, that didn’t go badly at all,” Alexander said.
Faelen nodded. “Mother doesn’t seem pleased.”
“She wouldn’t have been pleased unless Philip tossed us in the dungeon. Do you think he has one?”
Faelen pressed his lips together to stifle a laugh and shook his head.
Philip stood in the dressing room he shared with Amory and stared at the clothes in the wardrobe, somewhat at a loss. Which wasn’t his usual feeling when choosing something to wear at dinner. His day had been quite normal until his aunt and cousins had arrived at the palace out of the blue.
They’d been invited to the wedding, of course, but no one had expected any of them to come so far. Had they written ahead to accept? He couldn’t remember if Etan had mentioned anything. They’d had plenty to occupy them these last few weeks, with Savarin planning and finally performing the spell to strengthen Tournai’s magical protections and those of the royal family who possessed the Talent having to participate—they could’ve used Faelen and Alexander then, though the spell seemed to have gone well. An acceptance to a wedding invitation might have been overlooked.
But it seemed Edine had more than one reason for journeying to Tournai. The wedding might have been the least of them.
“Your aunt sent word that she won’t be joining us for dinner. Thibault either.” Amory walked into the dressing room behind Philip, but he didn’t turn.
“That’s surprising.” Aunt Edine was scrupulously observant of proprieties. He’d expected the quiet meal he’d anticipated having with Amory, Cathal, and Flavian to turn into something more elaborate with his aunt’s presence.
“I thought so too. But it’s only going to be the twins.” Amory’s arms circled Philip’s waist from behind. His chin came to rest on Philip’s shoulder; the feel of his body, warm and comforting, loosened something within Philip instantly.
Philip leaned back into Amory’s embrace, knowing he could lean on Amory in every way. Amory was the only one he could always rely on to see him as more than the prince, while quietly shouldering the burdens with him. Philip let out a long breath and relaxed into his husband, letting the familiar and beloved soothe him.
“What’s troubling you?” Amory asked, his words a whisper of sound against Philip’s ear.
Philip sighed. “Am I so obvious?”
“Only to me. Is it that the twins hid their Talents? Are you worried the secret might have gotten out in Teilo?”
“Not really. If it was going to, I’d have expected it to happen when their Talents first manifested, and we’d have heard something of it.” Had anyone considered it when his uncle had been appointed ambassador? Had anyone discussed the possibility of the children developing the Talent so far from home? Perhaps it didn’t matter. Edine would have had to be just as careful for the possibility in Tournai. No one in or out of Tournai could find out about their Talent. It had always been so, and now, after learning that their Talents tied into the country’s protection spells, it was even more important.
“I do wonder why they didn’t tell their mother.”
“It is curious, but there’s no sense worrying about it now.” Philip shivered slightly when Amory nuzzled into his neck and left a soft kiss there. He hummed in pleasure. How likely were they to be interrupted if he persuaded Amory to continue what he was starting, perhaps in bed? Did they have enough time?
“If it isn’t that, then what?”
Philip tensed slightly, but Amory immediately moved to soothe, snuggling in closer. “While you were meeting with Elleri’s ambassador, we received a message from the army outpost at Marron. There were two more bandit attacks in the area.”
Amory went quiet for a moment. “Bad?”
“Bad enough.” Philip turned in Amory’s embrace and wrapped his arms around him, anchoring them tightly together again.
Amory rested his head on Philip’s shoulder. “I’d foolishly hoped we’d heard the last of them.”
Over the summer, there had been multiple reports of bandit attacks on the villages along the western border, but they hadn’t had any in a couple of months. Philip had hoped the bandits had moved on now that the armies on both sides of the border were actively searching for them. Of course, they hadn’t ruled out the possibility they weren’t bandits at all, but agents of an enemy of Tournai. The Ardunn Empire was the most likely, as they desperately wanted Tournai as a foothold on this side of the mountains, though they couldn’t rule out an unknown.
“We can delay dinner.”
“There’s nothing to be done now. We need to meet with Loriot tomorrow, though.”
As captain of the royal guard, Loriot had no authority when it came to the border situation, but he’d been keeping a close eye on it since he and Savarin had been attacked out there. Philip doubted Loriot knew he was aware of his actions, though he’d find out tomorrow.
“All right.” Amory lifted up on his toes to kiss Philip. “We’d best change for dinner, then. Why do I get the feeling the twins can get into mischief if left on their own?”
“I’m hoping they’ve grown out of that tendency.”