‘So what actually happened to you?’ Rowena asked that evening when they were finally alone together. ‘How did you escape Eric and his men?’
‘It was simple,’ Artem said, picking at the loaf of bread they had managed to take with them when they had escaped the feast. ‘Hans is a strong man and I can be very skilled with a sword.’
‘So they’re dead?’
‘Yes, they’re all dead. They won’t be coming after us for revenge any time soon, unless you believe in ghosts.’
‘Stop it Artem,’ Rowena said, shoving him. ‘You’ll jinx it and we’ll be haunted by their ghosts for the rest of our lives.’
‘Fine,’ he said, laughing, ‘I’ll stop talking about ghosts if it’ll keep you happy. But I do believe in ghosts, you know that?’
‘I know and it doesn’t bother me, as long as we don’t have to talk about it. And why should we? It’s not exactly something that will crop up in you usual conversation.’
‘But I don’t want us to have things that we just don’t talk about. That is a recipe for disaster in any marriage. We need to be able to talk about anything without getting at each other’s throats.’
‘Then I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that one. But you haven’t finished your story. What happened after you escaped Erik?’
‘We wandered aimlessly for a while. I was desperate to find you but we had no direction so had no idea where to start. In the end we got hopelessly lost and without Lukas to direct us we had no idea how to get back on track. But by a stroke of pure luck we hit the main road to Peria, probably only a few days after you met that woman, Fialka?’ Rowena nodded but didn’t want to interrupt Artem’s flow. ‘So we walked along the road, begging food from whoever we could and eventually reached the city five days after market day. Of course I wanted to find out if you were still alive and I thought the obvious place to go would be Fersere because that was where you were trying to reach.
‘But unfortunately I needed to collect supplies and fresh clothes and so on, so I had to return to my rooms to collect whatever I needed. But my rooms are above the bar where my court is held, so as soon as I walked in the door Bledri was on me. He’s a very trustworthy guy but he is far too practical. He looked shocked to see me and told me he thought I was dead. Of course I had no idea what he was talking about so he explained that a young girl had come to see him a few days earlier to tell him that his king was dead and all his companions were murdered by Erik.
‘He also said he’d learnt of Karthik’s plot to use Erik to kill me, then win the election and take the throne. Naturally this shocked me. Karthik was like a brother to me and I still can’t believe he would order the killing of his own father.’ Artem fell silent and Rowena leant over and kissed him gently on the lips.
‘We won’t forget Ishak. He was a great friend to both of us, even in the end he fought to save me. Karthik was a fool to be blinded by his jealousy of you to not realise how wonderful his father was.’
‘After that Bledri insisted I stayed in Peria for a while to sort things out. Without a king on the throne and the confusion after Karthik was revealed as a traitor, no one quite knew what to do. The election wasn’t meant to be for another year at least but without someone to enforce law and order the system was already crumbling. So my return was announced and I returned to my duties. Everything seemed to settle down pretty quickly once people knew that I was still alive.’
‘I’m sure it was your awe-inspiring presence that made your subjects realise they had done wrong,’ Rowena said, joking but trying not to laugh.
‘Either that or the terror I instill in them.’
‘I think it’s more likely to be the awe-inspiring presence. You don’t seem like the terrifying type.’
‘I’ll have you know I can be very scary when I want to be.’
‘Of course you can dear,’ Rowena said, kissing Artem to show that she loved him no matter what he was.
‘Anyway,’ he said, looking pointedly at her. ‘I still wanted to find you. I knew you had made it to Peria alive because of the description of the mysterious girl Ani had brought to tell Bledri what had happened in the forest. But it took two days to convince Bledri that it was a good idea, and in the end it took a visit from Ani to convince him that I should go.’
‘What did she say?’
‘She hadn’t been to see me since I had returned, she had been ill and unable to visit the tavern to get all the latest news. But when someone called on her to make sure she was alright, they told her I had returned, alive and well. She came into the tavern in such a state I thought she was going to collapse. When I finally got her to calm down she told me you had taken a horse the day after market day and rode to Fersere to marry your prince. I thought I’d lost you at this point but Ani convinced me I should go after you, it wasn’t too late for me to stop you marrying Felipe.’
‘Good old Ani,’ Rowena said, smiling. ‘Always the voice of reason.’
‘Indeed. So I set off, Hans insisting he come with me as protection. There was no way I was going to be able to stop him so I let him travel with me. We arrived in Genata yesterday and had to fight our way through the crowds to find the cathedral, that’s how my shirt got torn, and when we got there the soldiers wouldn’t let me past. That’s when Vincent turned up.’
‘I still don’t understand how he knew who you were. You hadn’t met him before?’
‘No, but I was shouting all sorts of things like, I need to see the Princess, tell her I’m here, my name is Artem Novak, she’ll know who I am. I suppose Vincent recognised the name and that’s what made him convince the guards to let me through. But they weren’t too happy when we tried to get into the cathedral,’ he chuckled. ‘The rest of the story you know.’
‘Well I’m so glad you managed to find me,’ Rowena said, cupping Artem’s face in her hands and kissing him again. This time the kiss was longer, lingering until their lips finally parted.
‘Do we have to go back in?’ Artem asked as Rowena stood, holding out her hand to help him to his feet.
‘Unfortunately I have a duty to perform. It is my wedding and engagement party.’
‘You would have thought you could have the night off now you’ve found the love of your life.’
‘Unfortunately that isn’t a valid reason for taking some time off. But I do get to go away for as long as I choose for my honeymoon.’
‘Then we’ll have to make it a long one,’ Artem said, linking his arm with Rowena’s and turning to walk back into the great hall.
‘Don’t get ahead of yourself, we have to get married first. In the mean time, dance with me.’
‘You know I can’t dance Ena,’ Artem moaned, dragging his heels.
‘I don’t care, tonight is my night so you are going to dance with me, and you are going to enjoy it.’
‘Yes my lady,’ Artem said sarcastically, making them both laugh as they entered the great hall where music was already playing and the sounds of laughter, chinking of glasses and chatter oozed through the air.