Felipe was true to his word, and only a few minutes later, the door opened and Vincent walked in.
‘Rowena!’ He ran across the room, almost throwing himself at her as he went to hug her. Rowena was shocked by such a violent display of emotion, and after a few moments, Vincent realised he was behaving inappropriately and drew back. ‘Sorry my lady. I’m not sure what came over me.’
‘Don’t worry Vincent, I liked it. Please sit down.’
‘I’ll leave you two alone,’ Felipe said backing out of the room. When the door was shut Vincent and Rowena looked at each other.
‘We did it!’
Rowena spent the next few days in bed on the insistence of both her father and the court physician, both saying she needed rest after her stressful ordeal. Although Rowena felt fine and would have preferred to be up and doing something after being constantly on the move, she caved in to her father, not wanting to upset him. What hardship would it be to spend a few more days in bed?
She had many visitors, some old friends coming to see if it was true that their Crown Princess had returned, others members of the court coming to pledge their unfaltering allegiance to her, but they came only once, their duty done. Her most frequent visitors were her father, who could only stay for a little while before returning to political matters, Felipe, who read to her, and Vincent, who came up from the kitchens and told Rowena all about what was going on outside the palace.
She really wished she could go out and see for herself what was happening, but she knew that it would now be impossible. Everyone knew of her return, and people would be eager to catch a glimpse of their Princess who had been gone for two years. She brought the subject up with her father on one of his visits, but the idea was quickly shot down.
‘It’s far too risky,’ the King said. ‘We have no idea if Narcissa is still out there, waiting for the perfect opportunity to snatch you again.’
‘That’s hardly likely Father,’ Rowena responded. ‘And if I take some guards I will be perfectly safe.’
‘I cannot take the risk Rowena. That is final. I don’t want to hear another word spoken on the subject.’ And that was the end of that.
In between visits Rowena slept, letting her mind wander and her eyes fall shut so she could drift off into the realm of sleep. She didn’t dream about anything in particular, and when she did dream she only remembered images, a glimpse of Artem’s face or the sun setting over the trees.
On the morning of her third day back, she was hovering between the real world and sleep when she heard hushed voices outside her door. Her ears pricked up at the sound, straining to hear what was being said, but she only caught the occasional word so nothing they said made sense. Then she heard someone whisper her name and she decided she should hear what was going on. Carefully climbing out of bed, she put her feet on the soft carpet without making a sound. Her long white nightgown fell down around her ankles as she walked cautiously over to the bedroom door. The voices were clearer now and she could hear them clearly if she pressed her ear up against the door.
‘You don’t have much choice in the matter Felipe.’ Rowena recognised the voice of her father’s first minister, Phedio. ‘Your position here is very unstable.’
‘My aunt is not going to let me come to any harm,’ Felipe’s voice insisted. ‘She is the wife of the King.’
‘Yes but as we both know, the King has very little influence any more. I am the person running this country and I do not want that compromised by having that girl take over when her father dies.’ Rowena clamped her hand over her mouth, trying very hard not to gasp. Was Phedio the man who had visited Narcissa when Vincent had been eavesdropping?
‘I still don’t understand why you don’t want Rowena to take the throne. She is a strong young woman who is perfectly capable of taking over as ruler.’ Rowena felt a rush of warmth as those words of praise came through the door.
‘But we don’t want someone capable,’ Phedio retorted. ‘If she takes over the throne then people like me will disappear. I will lose my job and fade away into the mists of time. That is not what I want, I want to be remembered as an influential leader who led this country to prosperity. And for that to happen, her royal highness needs to be contained, to be controlled.’
‘And that is my job?’ Rowena could practically hear Felipe’s eyebrows rising higher and higher up his forehead as the conversation progressed.
‘In a way yes. If you marry the Crown Princess, then I will convince her father to name you as the heir to the throne as his oldest male relative.
‘I’m not a blood relative, I would only be related to him through marriage.’
‘It doesn’t matter it’s only through marriage, it’s enough.’
‘I still don’t think it’s right,’ Felipe said skeptically. ‘It’s not just politics you’re playing with here, it’s Rowena’s feelings.’ The Princess hadn’t realised quite how much Felipe had come to like her in the past few days, even after their early differences.
‘Do I need to remind you that without the protection of the royal family you position here could become decidedly dangerous. I am going to bring up the planned war against Madrimar in our council meeting tomorrow, and if the rest of the council agrees with me, then it will be public knowledge within the week. We wouldn’t be able to guarantee your safety here.’
‘My aunt is from Madrimar, how do I know I can trust what you say.’
‘But her majesty is married to the King, so therefore, is an adopted Ferserian. You, however, have no allegiance to this country. People wouldn’t be so eager to protect you as one of their own.’
‘But if I marry the Princess…’
‘Your future here will be secure.’ The silence that followed was so tense Rowena didn’t dare breathe in case she was heard by the men on the other side of the door.
‘I still don’t think this is right. Rowena is a lovely girl, she deserves better than this. She deserves someone who will love her.’
‘This is not a matter of love,’ Phedio replied sharply. ‘I am doing this as a favour to you because you can help me to keep the Princess in line. You have been exiled from your own country and there is nowhere else that will take you in and risk the wrath of one of the strongest countries in the Known World. This is the best offer you are going to get.’
‘I am fully aware of what my situation is Phedio, so you need not remind me of how precarious it is.’
‘But I feel I do. I don’t trust you to act on your promises, so I am having to put some pressure on you. I open up the negotiations regarding the Madrimian war tomorrow. You have until then to convince the Princess to marry you.’