"I am sure that your royal highness has many admirers," Nieneve Dracarys told him. She wore a flirtatious smile, yet her voice was not nearly as confident as she had tried to make it sound; and though she allowed him clear view of the dress's plunging neckline, there was a tenseness in her body that reveal her discomfort of having him stare.
Oh, Leopold would stare all right. Partly out of indecency, but mostly because he was aware that she was treading onto unknown territory, and that made him feel more than a little triumphant. Nevertheless, he made sure that most of the time he maintained eye contact because that too had an air of intimacy. Perhaps even more so than when he allowed his eyes to roam over the curves of the body which the dress had emphasised.
Her hand tightened around the rose's stem and the corners of her mouth twitched.
"Be careful, my lady," he said, making no attempt to hide his amusement. "We wouldn't want you to befall another." He paused for a second before finally saying, "prick."
Sadly, she didn't give him the satisfaction of indulging in his wordplay as he had done with her. She just smiled, sweetly and innocently, as if she believed for a second that his motives were only of pure concern.
They had been walking down one of the palace ground's paved path, with the Shadow stalking silently behind him, when the prince stopped suddenly. Nieneve continued on for three steps before she had realised and then turned around to see why he had paused.
Leopold had done this on purpose, and had moved slightly so that they were directly facing each other. Unfortunately there was quite a large gap between them, too wide for him to be able to reach out and touch her. He did not dare take a step forward, knowing that she would deliberately mistake it for him wanting to carry on.
His eyes gazed deep into hers. She did the same, far too stubborn to admit such easy defeat. She was dressed seductively and had responded to his charm more positively than on previous occasions, but her eyes remained frosty and erected an invisible barrier between them.
Leopold would do his best to destroy the barrier. If it did not happen that night, he would try again the next time, and the time after that, constantly changing his game until his key could fit her lock. He assured himself that he had plenty of time to spare before their wedding - the day had not yet been set, but it was planned to happen in about a month's time.
He had even debated sleeping with her on the night before, just so he could see the look on Pharneus Dracarys' face. Yes, he was sure that his princess-to-be's brother had ulterior motives. Only a fool would not suspect it, and if Leopold failed to escape marriage - which he would not - he was sure that his uncle would show Pharneus his place.
"I hope you do not find my words impertinent, my lady," he said to Nieneve. "But I had not expected you to be quite so near as beautiful as that of your portrait. You could only imagine my surprise when I discovered that your beauty excelled even the painter's skilled hand."
She smiled graciously and thanked him for the compliment, as was expected of her.
"Nevertheless, I still think that the painter did excellent work. Far better quality and accuracy than even that of the royally anointed painter."
"Oh really? When I next write to Xander I shall tell him that you said so." For once that night she seemed to forget about her games with the prince and she could not keep the pride she felt from her voice, nor the beam that lit up her face.
Leopold was taken slightly aback. He had not seen her this happy before, even when he won the tournament for her. Perhaps, could it be that she was in love? He thought.
She shifted uncomfortably. "Is there something wrong, your highness?"
It was then he realised that he had been staring at her with an odd expression on her face. She tried to read it, but it was gone before she could work out what it had meant.
"No, no. Shall we continue on, my lady?" He gestured forwards, and so they continued their walk in silence.
This gave him time to recall where he had heard the name Xander before. It took him only a few moments. It was short for Alexander, the peasant boy who was rumoured to have threatened Pharneus Dracarys' strive for the throne.
Yet if it was true that she loved him, what did it mean for Leopold's plan? It probably meant that it would be much more difficult than he had previously anticipated. There was, though he hated to admit it, a chance that he would fail and they would end up married. That was bad enough, but did he really want to be trapped in a loveless marriage where the his wife had affections for another?
There was also the possibility that she would eventually run off with this painter peasant. Leopold could not imagine Nieneve putting up with her brother forever. Not that the prince was a jealous man, just one of high pride and double standards that he would not be able to deal with the shame or more so that his own secret pleasures would be blamed for his wife's infidelity. And the g-ds forbid that the heir to the throne be the seed of a pauper!
He would not give up on his quest to deflower her, however he must make sure first that if she plans to marry him, that her heart belongs to him and only him. He would bring this Xander in, and see for himself how deep her affections lie. If they are beyond a depth that he can reach, then his only option was to lose this wager and settle for the temptation and blackmail of the star-crossed lovers. If he could get out of this marriage, there would be plenty more wagers to come.
"You are much like your uncle." His head snapped in Nieneve's direction. He was too busy with his thoughts that he had been completely oblivious to his surroundings. He would not make that mistake again.
Nieneve blushed. She had not meant to startle him. She straightened, almost defiantly and continued. "Not just in appearance, but your mannerisms too. Like the way your brow furrows when you are concentrating on something. Pray, give words to your thoughts, my prince?"
"Perhaps you could ask Xander to paint you? In your wedding dress?"
"I'm sure that he would be honoured, but what we have the time?"
"Of course! If you would wear your dress the day before. It would please me so to look upon a portrait which reminds me of such an important day."
"And it would please me to please you, my lord."
They exchanged smiles, both of them fake.
Soon after they re-entered the castle it was Nieneve turned to stop.
"Something wrong, my lady?" Asked Leopold. He saw that they had reached her bedchamber. "Oh."
"Thank you, your highness. For the walk and this rose. I had a lovely time." He heard the sarcasm in her voice, yet he took the opportunity to have one last glance as she dipped into a curtsey, the neckline of her dress dropping ever so slightly.
Nieneve entered her room and he followed her inside, shutting the door behind him. She swung around, shocked and angry and about to give him a piece of her mind. He covered her mouth with his hand and placed a finger of his other hand onto his lips.
Before she could protest or struggle, they heard a man's voice on the other side of the door. His words were muffled, but it was clearly a guard on nightwatch come to investigate the noise. Another voice, Leopold identified as belonging the Shadow, assured the guard that there was nothing to fear, that the Lady Nieneve often spoke in her sleep and that he had been posted there for her protection by the Hand himself. The guard moved on at the mention of Apophis' name.
When it was safe, Leopold removed his hand and swiftly kiss her cheek. It was light and quick, barely a peck, but caused Nieneve's white rose to slip from her hand. He bowed.
"My lady," he said stiffly, before leaving. When he was away from her sight, he grinned wickedly, savouring her shocked expression.