The two women chatted on throughout the evening. Adrianna was very aware that she was making Rowena ignore all the other dignitaries that were seated at the high table but the Queen didn’t seem to mind this so Adrianna chose to say nothing. Adrianna discovered that Queen Rowena was a much better person than she could have imagined and, most surprisingly of all, she was human. Adrianna had expected a great female leader to be cold and fearless but Rowena was nothing like that. She was friendly and warm and openly shared her feelings with Adrianna.
She spoke a lot about her family. Adrianna could tell that Rowena doted on her daughter, Anya, and would do absolutely anything for Artem. She wished that she felt the same way about her family, but when she thought of her father, all Adrianna felt was a mixture of fear and derision.
The pair didn’t notice how time flew as they talked, learning more about each other’s cultures and discussing political ideas in hushed tones. Adrianna knew she was breaking every rule her father had set her but she no longer cared. Had Rowena been a stuffy, older woman with little conversation, Adrianna might very well have stuck to the orders she had been given. But the Queen was kind and genuinely interested in what Adrianna had to say, which made it very hard for her to keep her word.
As the dessert was brought out, great baskets of fruit and intricately shaped, brightly coloured jellies, Adrianna felt a hand on her shoulder and she turned to look at the person behind her.
“My Lady Adrianna,” Count Alberto said, inclining his head, “your Majesty.”
“Your Highness,” Adrianna said, lowering her head in respect.
“I trust you are having a pleasant evening,’ he said, addressing both women. “It has been a pleasure to have you both here this evening.”
“Everything was splendid, your Highness,” Rowena said cordially. “The food was delicious and the company some of the best I have had in a long time.”
“Well I must ask to borrow your companion for a moment if I may be so bold.”
“Of course,” Rowena said. “If Adrianna wishes it.”
“I shall return shortly,” Adrianna said, rising from her seat and curtsying to the Queen before she left with Count Alberto.
“I heard about what happened the other night after I left you,” were the first words he said once they were alone and outside the dining hall. “My father says you provoked him into acting in the way he did. Is that true?”
“Not at all, your Highness,” Adrianna insisted. “I would never act in a way to mislead anyone, least of all your father.”
“I didn’t think you would act like that either,” the Count said.
Then why did you feel the need to ask me to confirm what you already knew? Adrianna thought to herself. She knew she probably wasn’t being very fair to Alberto but she had had it with people blaming her for things she hadn’t done, or assuming it was her fault before they had been told what had happened.
“Over these last few days,” the Count continued, “I’ve been thinking. About you mostly and how I feel about you.”
“You don’t need to say anything,” Adrianna pleaded.
“But I feel that I should,” the Count insisted. “My father doesn’t think it is a good idea for me to ask you to become my wife, but I don’t see why I shouldn’t.” Those words sent a dagger straight through Adrianna’s heart, knowing exactly what would come next. “But for now, I won’t say anything,” the Count said, much to Adrianna’s surprise.
“I don’t understand,” she mumbled.
“My father’s pride was probably hurt when you rejected him the other night. If I ask his permission to wed you now then he will most definitely say no. If Queen Rowena’s royal visit goes well, then I will ask my father for the right to ask for your hand in marriage.”
“Oh,” was the only word that Adrianna could think of to say. She couldn’t pretend to be overjoyed because she felt the exact opposite. The thought of spending the rest of her life with Count Alberto sent terror into her heart.
“Are you pleased?” He asked hopefully.
“Of course I am,” Adrianna lied. “I just cannot believe that you would bestow an honour such as this on someone like me.”
“But you are perfect, Adrianna. I couldn’t ask for anyone more suited to becoming my wife.”
“I should probably go back to the Queen,” Adrianna said nervously. “Your father charged me with keeping her entertained this evening and he will think even less of me if he sees I am neglecting my duty.”
“Very well,” Alberto said, smiling like an idiot. He took Adrianna’s hand and kissed it enthusiastically, lingering for longer than she would have liked.
Adrianna was very grateful when she took her seat next to Rowena once more, the Count continuing along the table to his seat on the other side of Prince Niccolo, next to Duke Giordano and Prince Artem.
“He asked you to marry him, didn’t he?” Rowena asked as soon as Adrianna had pulled her chair up to the table. Adrianna nodded stiffly, not trusting herself to speak. “And how do you feel?”
“What answer did you give him?”
“I didn’t have to give him an answer,” Adrianna replied and, seeing the confusion on Rowena’s face, she continued. “He didn’t propose to me exactly, but he told be that if your visit to Verenia was a success then he would ask Prince Niccolo for the ability to ask me to be his wife.”
“So you still have some more time.”
“Only as long as you’re here. If the Prince gives his son the right to ask for my hand then I’m as good as married to him.”
“You can’t refuse?”
“My father would not allow it.”
“Oh my dear,” Rowena exclaimed, clutching Adrianna’s hands comfortingly in her lap and looking at her with a concerned face. “I wish there was something I could do to help.”
“There is no need, you’ve done enough for me already. Just being able to talk to another woman who understands how I feel and won’t reprimand me for acting irresponsibly or against the wishes of my father is enough.”
“Then I will do everything I can to keep you happy for the length of my visit. I will request that you become my personal companion for the duration of my visit. We will visit Matteo and your other radical friends for the weekly meeting and just generally have fun.”
“But don’t you have important political meetings to attend to discuss the future of our two countries?”
“Your Prince has kindly arranged a schedule for me where I spend most of my time viewing what Verenia has to offer instead of discussing politics. He clearly still holds the view that women shouldn’t be involved in politics, even those from other countries. And besides, I would have much more fun with you by my side.”
“Then I gladly accept,” Adrianna said, a smile forming naturally on her lips.