Lucia flinched as Fabio burst through the door, causing the quill to lurch across the page. Yet the reprimand died on her lips as she saw the distress etched on his face.
“What is it?”
“It’s Gregory. The fool is fighting a duel.”
“A duel? Against who?” She was up instantly, as her brother rummaged urgently through a drawer.
“Lord Edward, who else?”
“To what purpose?”
“To win the Princess’ favour, of course.”
“Heavens, he is going to kill himself.” Grabbing her cloak, she ran towards the door, looking back at Fabio who was now emptying the contents of a chest on the floor.
“Fabio! Do you want your best friend to die alone? What are you looking for?”
“Bandages.” He sombrely grabbed an old bed shirt and rushed past her.
As they pushed through the onlookers towards the sound of clashing swords, Lucia saw that blood had already been drawn. Gregory’s sleeve hung in tatters, and a wound just below his right shoulder was gushing blood.
“I thought he was right-handed.” Lucia watched Gregory’s unsteady left-handed lunge.
“He is,” her brother answered grimly.
Lucia’s stomach reeled with each new parry and thrust. It was only at the taste of blood that she realised she had bitten into her lip. Even to her untrained eye, it was obvious that Gregory, Duke of Orlonso, was tiring, while his opponent seemed even stronger than before.
“Why don’t they stop this?” she hissed.
“It’s a duel to the death, unless the Princess lifts her white handkerchief to indicate her favour to the victor.”
Finally Gregory stumbled backwards, his sword clattering from his hand. As Lord Edward raised his weapon for the finishing blow, he looked at the smiling Princess. Please lift it, Lucia silently begged.
Slowly, the Princess lifted the handkerchief.
“What sort of woman enjoys seeing men shed blood on her behalf?” she muttered for the umpteenth time.
“How else is a man to declare his undying love?” Gregory winced as she dabbed a gash with wine.
“How about a letter? Or a poem?”
“Lest we forget that the pen is mightier than the sword,” Fabio said. Gregory laughed.
“Mock if you will. One may conquer nations with the sword, but the heart is only conquered with words.” Lucia tightened the bandage.
Gregory’s dark eyes met her own with an intensity that spread a warm tingle through her chest. If she was the Princess, instead of a mere lady-in-waiting, he would not have to fight a duel to win her heart.
“I do not have your gift of words, Lucia. Mine could not conquer a heart.”
Lucia stood behind the banquet table where the guests reclined. She watched the Princess anxiously. Was it Lucia’s imagination or was she paying more attention to Gregory, seated on her left, than Edward, on her right? Rosa, the Princess’ chambermaid had promised to surreptitiously place the letter on her pillow. Had she read it by now?
The King cleared his throat for silence. “My daughter has an announcement to make.”
The Princess rose, holding a familiar cream paper with the now broken wax seal, in her hand. Lucia felt the blood rush to her cheeks.
“Yesterday I received a poem of such rare beauty that my heart melted within me.”
The Princess started to read. At the final line “…a love so great, would bear no weight, if unreturned,” the entire banquet hall broke into applause.
“These words were penned by the Duke of Orlonso and, with such a powerful declaration of love, I have found the man I wish to share my life with.” The Princess pulled out a white handkerchief and passed it to the bewildered Gregory.
“M’lady.” He was on his feet, bowing deeply. “I fear there has been a mistake. I did not pen these heart-felt words.”
Lucia’s heart sank. Why did Gregory have to be so honest? Wasn’t she giving him exactly what he wanted?
“You had somebody else write it?” The Princess sounded hurt.
Gregory’s eyes found Lucia, as she tried to press herself deeper into the shadows.
“Yes, Princess. It appears another wrote these words. For me.”
“It matters little who wrote the poem,” she said dismissively, “if you truly feel as deeply as these words reveal.”
Gregory smiled, still looking at Lucia.
“M’lady, I believe this belongs to Lord Edward.” He dropped the handkerchief into the hands of the incredulous princess. “For my own heart has been conquered by a gifted quill.”
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