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For a number of reasons, Guelida found it difficult to concentrate on the role she was supposed to play in front of Prince Bastyen.

First of all, it was hot. The dress uniforms were flashy, but not at all suited to summer weather. Especially now she was moving again, with the black fabric soaking up sunlight to create her own private oven.

Second there was the gestalt. It was a necessary evil of military marches, but Guelida never enjoyed it. It was intrusive, wrapping through her body, pressing against her mind. Bad enough when just a fixer was running it. But with Jonnah…

In a different political reality, no one with Jonnah’s gifts would ever be out in the field. In a different political reality, Jonnah would have a position and status that meant he never had to leave the palace unless he wanted to. Certainly it would mean he’d never be stuck with uncomfortable field-work and the mindless maintenance of a gestalt.

But Jonnah was here and Jonnah was boosted, which meant he alone was doing the work of a dozen, with his power holding everything together. His power resonating against Guelida’s shields, shaking them hard enough to shatter.

If she’d been the blank she claimed, the flood of energy, the constant pressure of his awareness wouldn’t have mattered. If she’d been the blank she’d claimed, then problems one and two wouldn’t have been stirring up problem number three.

Too close. Far too close. Dangerous.

The dead woman’s voice. More agitated than usual. Go back to sleep, Guelida thought back. I’m in no danger.

Guelida pushed away the whispers as she strengthened her shields against Jonnah. Only then could she focus back in on what Bastyen was saying.

“…Not what people think. My father and I,” Bastyen’s pretty face became serious, “we are one hundred percent behind this treaty. I want to make that very clear. This war has gone on far too long, and without any benefit to anyone.”

Guelida knew better. Someone benefitted from the war, or it would have ended years ago. But she nodded. “I assure you, the Aravene crown is every bit as enthusiastic. My mother wants peace.”

“The Queen—your mother—she was a soldier, yes?”

He had to know the answer to that, just as Guelida knew that no member of the Kardenel royal family had ever served in uniform. Even if their intelligence network had been crap—which it was not—they had Teyn Miyelle ian Jenshen to whisper poison about the Aravene court into the heads of anyone who would listen. “My mother served for many years before she met the King and they became vaiken.”

Bastyen sighed, a far-away look coming to his eyes. “It’s a romantic story, don’t you think? I mean, what little boy or girl doesn’t grow up dreaming of that?”

Guelida had a hard time imagining her mother dreaming anything of the sort. But she wasn’t sure how to answer the question without insulting either Bastyen or Yinicof.

Jonnah came to the rescue, laughing as he asked, “Was that his highness’s dream?”

Bastyen sighed again and Guelida couldn’t stop herself from glancing at Jonnah. She suspected the amused exasperation in his eyes was mirrored in her own.

Bastyen didn’t seem to notice. “I’ve never had any illusions about my place in life and the duty I owe my father and my nation. But it is a nice thought, don’t you agree, that love isn’t an impossibility, even for kings and princes.”

Guelida recognized the look on Jonnah’s face. The situation forced him to be polite to Bastyen, but Jonnah had already written the prince off. In just the few minutes she’d spent with Bastyen, she could understand why. Poor Bastyen, a naive romantic, about to be completely over his head.

Except Bastyen’s foppish pose was a little too perfect. Too convenient. Pretty, ornamental Bastyen and his pretty, ornamental guard. Bastyen the blank—so easy for people to assume it meant Bastyen the mindless. The backwards prince from his backwards nation, dazzled and overwhelmed by the grandeur of Aravene.

It fed so perfectly in to the expectations of everyone from Queen Yinicof on down. It played to Aravene pride and stroked Aravene arrogance.

Dangerous to forget the rest of the facts. Kardenel politics were every bit as cutthroat as Aravene. Bastyen was the youngest of King Darius’s eight children, but he was the chosen crown prince. He was the representative Darius—no fool, himself—had sent to finalize negotiations of the most important political document Kacia had seen for thousands of years.

Bastyen was a blank, so he couldn’t send, couldn’t read minds, but that also meant no one could read his. The question was, what could he—and Darius—want so much to hide?

She’d hesitated too long, lost in her thoughts and suspicions. Still distracted. Bastyen waited for an answer. Fortunately, Jonnah had Guelida’s back. “Looking around at all the pretty faces that surround his highness—I can’t imagine you’ve suffered any lack of romance.”

“Not the same, though, is it?” Bastyen’s smile was wistful.

The poor, lonely, prince. Except the more Guelida heard, the less she believed it. “Love is overrated,” she said. “Especially for kings and princes.”

“Her highness is not a romantic,” Jonnah added, deadpan.

Bastyen smiled, untroubled by her answer. “So tell me then, of my fiancé—your twin. I already know she’s beautiful,” he added with a tilt of his head towards Guelida.

So clumsy it was laughable. And with every passing moment, Guelida felt less and less like laughing. Either this man was exactly what he appeared to be, a spoiled, shallow, lightweight, which meant Alydia was going to hate him. Or this was all an act, which meant Darius had sent Bastyen here with the intention of deception—that there was something Kardenel was trying to hide.

Neither option boded well for the future. “I wouldn’t want to rob my sister of the opportunity to make her own first impression.” Because no question, their first meeting was going to be a sight to see.

“As you like.” Was there a spark of challenge in Bastyen’s eyes? Or did Guelida imagine it? “Then what can you tell me?”

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Barbara J Webb

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