She looked at Artem, his face looking relatively calm so she proceeded until she had told him the whole story, from being kept locked up in a tower to being caught lying by Ishak. When she had finished she waited nervously, willing him to say something. He blinked and some emotion came back into his face.
‘I’m not sure if you’re joking or if all that is true.’
‘I promise that everything I just told you happened, I was just too scared to tell you before. Do you hate me?’
‘I just don’t understand why you continued to lie to me for all this time. Was what you told me about your father true? Or was all that a lie too?’ His voice was full of hurt and Rowena thought she saw tears in his eyes.
'That was mostly true, the only thing I lied about was his job.’
‘In these circumstances, that was a very big lie.’ Rowena shrank back, being made to feel like a naughty child who had just broken something by Artem’s tone. She looked desperately up at Artem, who continued to stand in stunned silence.
‘Please say something,’ she begged.
‘I can’t think of anything I can say to you at the moment.’ Rowena’s stomach clenched. Surely not being able to say anything was a bad sign.
‘You have to understand that I only did it because I was scared,’ Rowena said, grasping Artem’s hand and trying to get him to look at her. ‘And when I realized you weren’t going to take me back to the tower and Narcissa and everything I endured there, I thought it was too late and if I told you then you’d… I don’t know. I guess I was scared that this would happen.’
‘Then why did you tell me? I was happy to go on believing that you were the daughter of some rich noble, way above my league, but not as completely unobtainable as a princess, and a crown princess at that. You are going to be queen one day; you’ll have to rule a country. At least before there was some hope that you would realize that you wanted me more than your family and your title. But now there is no way we can be together.’ He took his hand out of Rowena’s grip, taking a large step back.
‘Please don’t say anything.’ He rubbed his forehead with his fingertips, sighing. Then he raised his eyes to Rowena’s face, but they didn’t have the loving gaze Rowena had hoped for. They were hard, cold and desperately sad. ‘This is how it’s going to be. I’m going to complete my job, as I said I would. I will take you home and return you safely to your family, and then I will disappear from your life forever. You will never see me again.’ The thought of never seeing him again sent ripples of pain down Rowena’s body, tearing at her heart and leaving her stomach feeling like an empty cavern.
‘Don’t say that-‘
‘Please. If you interrupt me then I’ll never be able to finish.’ She could see that this was as hard for him as it was for her as his voice faltered and his eyes began to glaze over with tears. ‘You are not to come and find me. You will never speak of the time we have spent together with anyone else. If they found out about our… relationship,’ the word was painful to say and he had to force it out, ‘then there will be a revolution in Fersere before you know it and I don’t want that.’ A tear rolled down his face as he looked at her, looking more beautiful than he had ever seen her. ‘You’re going to be a great Queen.’
‘But I don’t want to do it alone,’ she said, ‘I need someone to be with me, to help me and support me. Someone like you.’
‘Ena please don’t. You know that would be impossible.’
‘No it wouldn’t because my father is dying and when he is gone I will be in charge. I can make this work, but please don’t leave me.’ She wrapped her arms around his waist, burying her head in his chest and holding on as tightly as she could.
‘You’re making this harder for both of us,’ he said through gritted teeth, holding back the emotion that was threatening to spill over. He tried to push her away from him, but he didn’t have the will to do it. Instead he looked down into her bright blue eyes, which were looking up at him with such love. How can I leave her?
‘I love you Artem,’ she whispered, almost afraid to say it.
‘And like the fool I am, I love you too.’ He shook his head. ‘How did I get into this?’
‘I don’t know,’ Rowena whispered back. ‘I should be at my father’s bedside now, holding his hand. I should be married.’ She remembered how excited she’d been about her prince coming to rescue her, how it had sustained her through her months of imprisonment, but now the thought of marrying someone who wasn’t Artem physically repulsed her.
‘How could I have ever thought that marrying a prince would make me happy?’ She reached up and touched Artem’s cheek, rough from the stubble that was beginning to form a light brown beard across his jaw. ‘How could I have thought I could love anyone but you?’ Slipping her hand around the back of his head she pulled his face closer to hers. He didn’t resist as their lips met. Sparks shot through Rowena’s body and her grip tightened around Artem’s neck. All the pain disappeared and Rowena felt the broken pieces of her heart slot back together.
The kiss only lasted a moment as a yell from the direction of the camp made Artem pull away.
‘What was that?’ He turned around and walked carefully towards camp, Rowena following closely behind him. ‘No you stay here,’ he said, putting a hand out to stop her. ‘You’re far too valuable for me to be careless with.’
‘I’m not staying back there on my own.’