The Mystery Prince
Of all the times for the prince to become ill.
Tristan pulled at the silk cloth looped around his neck, loosening the tightly wrapped cravat, and gulped a breath of air. With a curse, he tore the neck cloth off and retied it, yet the sense of choking still plagued him as he paced the unfamiliar guest room in Astrella.
“This isn't going to work, Nor.”
“Now, Tristan, everything will be fine,” the old man said, his silver eyes twinkling under gray brows.
“Fine? How can impersonating the prince be fine? What if I'm discovered?”
This masquerade was a fool's errand. Though his sandy-blond hair, sea-green eyes, and lanky body vaguely resembled Prince Rand's, Tristan refused to believe he could pass for the royal heir.
Rand possessed dance expertise and etiquette techniques Tristan could never hope to mimic. Not that he didn't know the skills. As the prince's bodyguard, the king demanded Tristan possess these abilities. In fact, he had studied with the prince as a child. And since being appointed to his post last year, he'd spent months observing Rand in a variety of social settings in an effort to hone his decorum further. Even so, no one would mistake him for Rand.
“You worry too much. Besides, the king has given his blessing.”
Nor looked up from the contraption he tinkered with and rubbed a hand over his neatly trimmed beard. Short and stocky, with pin-straight gray hair that fell to his shoulders, Nor brought to mind a dwarf. Not that Tristan would ever tell him so.
An inventor, Nor always toyed with strange items that did fantastical things. He'd tried to pass his love for these oddities on to both Rand and Tristan as they spent time with him in lieu of punishment, but neither boy showed interest in creating new gadgets and proved more a hindrance than a help.
Tristan's lips twisted into a smirk. “When I was younger you said I didn't worry enough.”
The old man laughed, the sound rumbling around the room like rocks tumbling down the mountainside. “True. From one extreme to the other. You need to find the happy medium.”
Sighing, Tristan stared at the king's adviser, waiting for him to come up with a plan to extricate them from this mess like he had all the other times Rand put Tristan into a questionable predicament.
The first day they met, Nor saved Tristan from a certain beating. Rand had wanted to hunt in the woods and had ordered Tristan to take his place in his afternoon studies. Tristan balked at the idea, worried for the prince's safety, but Rand just laughed his concern away. Begrudgingly, Tristan agreed to switch places and headed off to the workroom. He thought the guards would realize he impersonated Rand, but they just walked beside him without saying a word.
Tristan had stepped through the door and stopped, giving his eyes a moment to adjust to the dimness of the room. In that moment, Nor looked up, and instantly knew he wasn't the prince.
Guards searched the woods for Prince Rand. After his safe return, both boys were brought before King Rolf. Rather than the twenty lashes of the whip Tristan expected, the king ordered them to assist Nor with his contraptions as penance for their deed.
Ever since that escapade, Tristan never traded places with the prince again without talking to Nor first. And Rand wanted to trade places often, to head in the opposite direction from where his father wanted him. But Tristan always refused. Just as Nor said.
Not that he had much choice given the king's order, but he questioned Nor's ready acceptance of it. Tristan wondered if the old man had a trinket or device to get him through the evening with his true identity concealed. One tiny slip up could land him in the dungeons. King Rolf's orders may be acceptable in Merlette, but in Astrella, the dungeon would be the least of his worries if caught impersonating a royal.
“How am I going to keep from being discovered? If they look too closely it will be evident I am not Rand.”
“You'll be wearing a mask, and the fact that your mannerisms are slightly off from Prince Rand's will only work to our advantage. The purpose of the masquerade is to make people wonder who's behind the mask.” Nor chuckled. “It's no fun when they guess correctly the first time.”
Tristan clenched and unclenched his hand, his thoughts churning. If only Prince Rand hadn't come down with a fever, Tristan would be worrying about familiar matters like keeping the prince safe. Instead, King Rolf insisted he stand in for Rand, knowing this subterfuge was the only chance to form an alliance between the kingdoms of Astrella and Merlette.
Having no choice but to accept the order phrased as a request, Tristan acquiesced. He couldn't say no, not if he wanted to live in the manner to which he'd become accustomed. No, he had to stand in for Rand, to ensure the princess considered Merlette in her choices.
Praying his ruse wouldn't be discovered, Tristan tied his mask in place. His stomach roiled more than last summer when his and Rand’s sailing vessel became caught in a fierce storm. Yet another time Rand's wild ideas led to danger, followed by weeks spent being Nor's lackey. Hopefully things would turn out different this time, as the king ordered the deception and not Rand.
“Perfect. Just one more thing.” Nor pulled something out of his pocket and held it out to Tristan. “Take this with you.”
Tristan took hold of the strange gold object. At first glance it reminded him of a compass with an intricate yet beautiful windrose drawn inside. Letters drawn in calligraphy marked the four points of the earth, their curlicues twisting into delicate flowers and hearts. A gold filigree sundial flowed upward from the center of the compass rose, more hearts and flowers twisting their way through the delicate metal lace. Two heart shaped knobs jutted from the sides. It was quite lovely and not likely one of Nor's creations. The craftsmanship seemed too complicated and feminine for one of the old man's devices.
“What's this?” Tristan asked, spinning one of the knobs.
A smile curved the old man's lips, creating creases in his cheeks. “A navigation device.”
Brows drawn together, Tristan looked from the golden object to the old man. “I'm going to be dancing in a ballroom, not traversing the seas or the plains. Why would I need this?” He spun the knob again. His lips twitched, and his eyes glittered with mirth as an idea formed. “I know. It will navigate me through the dance without injuring the princess.”
The old man shook his head, a chuckle rumbling out. “No, it won't help your dancing, but you will need it.” He grew serious, his tone low and gruff. “Listen to your heart. You'll know when to use the device.”
Tristan tucked the warm golden gadget into his pocket.
“Good luck, Your Highness.” Nor's eyes sparkled with merriment, and a wide smile curved his lips. “Our people are counting on you.”
With a regal nod worthy of Rand, Tristan left the room and headed down the sweeping staircase to the overcrowded ballroom. He wondered how anyone could move in the crush of people spanning from wall to wall. Men, in formal black, twirled women in brightly colored gowns, the patterns shifting across the room like bits of worn glass turning in a kaleidoscope. Clearly King Aleksander hadn't just invited princes to the ball, but their parents and siblings and other nobles as well.
A queue of almost twenty eligible bachelors twisted and turned around the edges of the dance floor where the rest of their entourages danced. Tristan scanned the crowd as he took up his place at the end of the line. After spending hours studying the princes of the neighboring realms, and their guards, he could easily identify each person waiting with him. He could also name every dignitary standing, sitting, and dancing in the main ballroom. After all, his job required him to know everyone Prince Rand would come in contact with.
Of the nine kingdoms, Astrella had no prince, and Merlette had only Rand. The remaining kingdoms had at minimum two princes and at maximum four. More than enough for Princess Zoe to choose from.
Tristan's gaze drifted up the line to where a herald stood waiting to escort each suitor over for his dance with the princess. A familiar black-haired man waited at the front. From the stiff, ramrod like stance and the occasional twitch of his left shoulder, he easily recognized Prince Tynen of Durna.
Following the servant to the private dance floor, Tynen bowed to the princess before sweeping her into his arms and spinning her around in a complicated dance that fit the lively tune.
Princess Zoe easily kept pace with the quick steps of the dance. Blonde hair, so pale it looked almost white, flared as she spun round and round, guided by Tynen's hand. She appeared fragile and delicate, bringing Tristan's protective instincts to life.
Unlike the other revelers, she wore no mask. A simple disguise could never hide the princess' identity, not with hair like hers. No one in the nine kingdoms had locks as fair. Nor did any have eyes like hers—aquamarines bathed in sunlight.
The tune ended and Prince Tynen bowed before walking over to the main ballroom where his entourage awaited him. Tristan trudged forward with the rest of the princes and sighed, wishing Rand were here, preferring to observe from the outskirts. Instead, he found himself being drawn in to small talk with men he really didn't care for as they watched and waited for their turn with the princess.
The line couldn't move fast enough for him.
When the music ended, the herald escorted the next prince over, and the cycle began again. Each dance with the princess lasted no more than fifteen minutes, hardly enough time to learn about anyone. Yet, it appeared the princess didn't need more time to make her choice. Tristan could tell by her stance she'd dismissed each partner before the dance ended. Somehow, the scant minutes she'd spent dancing revealed enough for her to check something off her list, making the man ineligible.
He shook his head, wondering what her reasons could be. Too short? Too tall? Too young? Too old? Too poor?
Tristan knew enough about each prince to dismiss them all as suitors for reasons having nothing to do with looks, age, or wealth. Tynen gambled too much and would be a weak ruler. Brandon had two mistresses, and rumors abounded that he sought a third. Jarod drank too much. Even Rand had faults, foremost his recklessness. Tristan wondered how King Aleksander could consider any of these men worthy of his daughter's hand.
Princess Zoe exchanged partners again, and Tristan shuffled forward once more. To him, this entire process seemed an odd way to select a husband. Rand had tried to explain it, but Tristan still didn't understand. How could it only take a few moments of a dance to find true love?
Tired of thinking of the men surrounding him, Tristan let his knowledge of the princess tumble through his mind. An only child, Princess Zoe lived a pampered life. Anything she wanted, her father supplied. In the last month alone, she'd ordered enough clothing to outfit an entire kingdom several times over.
His gaze drifted to her, watching as she danced, studying her for subtle things his reports couldn't reveal. The way her skin glowed in the candlelight. How her mouth curved so easily into a smile. The delicate chime of her laugh as she twirled across the floor.
With each dance, her smile dimmed a little more, and her steps slowed. It amazed him that none of the other men noticed she needed a break. Even the herald seemed ignorant of her growing distress.
The longer he watched, the more she tugged at his heart. He couldn't explain the urge to protect her at all costs, to have her smile only for him. The mere presence of Princess Zoe clouded his judgment, making him long for impossibilities. But his duty to the king did not make him a prince—something he needed to remember.