A few nights later, after taking care of Prince Julius's suites and assigning the pampered prince someone to help him dress, Haven found herself wandering the halls, aimlessly. If she was completely honest with herself, she knew she was hoping for another glimpse of Lucas. She hadn't seen one glimpse of him since that first night and it seemed that no one in the palace knew him.
Not that she had been asking questions.
So, lazily, tiredly, she paced the halls, before finding the hidden room once again. Pushing the secret knob in with a sigh, she entered the room, eager, once, to see the painting that had caused her so much anxiety. She'd thought of little else. Did she really bear a resemblance to Queen Lillian? She shook her head. There was no way Lucas had been right. She was a commoner, an orphan. Bearing resemblance to a royal?
She scoffed, pushing the thoughts away. Slowly, she began to walk the length of the hall, staring back at the prim, unsmiling faces of the kings and queens of the past.
King Stephan, the founder of Tlaia stared back at her through beady little eye, his pug nose errantly scrunched in a scowl. He hadn't been more than thirty when he'd defeated the King of Sirua, claiming the lands of Tlaia for what would become one of the greatest super powers in the known world. But in the picture he was much older than seventy, consumed with wrinkles and age spots.
I bet he was ecstatic when he saw this, Haven thought with a chuckle, running her fingers along his frame.
"Sneaking around again?"
Haven whirled to find Lucas standing behind her, his arms crossed over his chest. "Lucas!" she cried. "Don't sneak up on my like that. You scared the life out of me."
"So you weren't waiting for me then?" he grinned impishly.
Her mouth dropped at his arrogance. "How dare you?" She waved a finger in his face. "Do not think that for one moment, Lucas, that I am just another girl wandering around with her tongue wagging waiting for an attractive man to come about." Realizing what she said, she blushed crimson and turned away, heading for the door.
Julius grabbed her arm, chuckling. "Don't go, Haven. I was only having fun."
She shrugged off his hand. "Well, go have fun somewhere else."
"Haven! I didn't mean it." He took her arm again and turned her around. "I'm sorry if I've embarrassed you."
Haven bit her tongue, holding back a biting retort. Glancing up at him, she caught his sincere expression and her anger cooled. Shrugging off his hand once again, she sighed. "What are you doing out here this late at night anyway?"
Julius let of her arm, confused. How could someone be so on fire one moment then be placidly cool the very next? "I wanted to talk to you again."
Haven blushed, her heart skipping a beat. Growing angry with herself over her reaction to him, she said, "Why? I'm sure there are plenty of other young women who would love to drool over you."
Julius sighed, smiling. "So, we're back to that are we?"
Haven didn't answer.
"All right, fine," Julius said softly. "But that's just it though, Haven. Every one I've met can hardly even remember their name or mine, or where they're from. I've never had a real friend before. Well, except my sister. Even her husband could barely look me in the eye."
His voice was terribly sad. Haven looked at him, puzzled. "Why? I mean, no offense, but you're a kitchen boy. Why would they treat you like that?"
Julius shrugged. "They just do." He took a shuddering breath, realizing how close he had come to revealing his secret. "I had fun the other night for probably the first time in my life. I wanted to have fun again." He leaned against the wall, looking her straight in the eye. He held out a hand. "Truce?"
Haven tried concealing a smile, holding out her hand. "Truce."
"All right, but not tonight."
Haven frowned. "What?"
Julius put his hands on her shoulders and steered her down the hall. "Tonight you are going to get a good night's rest. I will not have you slacking off your duties because you stayed up all night talking with me."
Haven stifled a yawn, continuing to walk to the direction he had pointed her. "Indeed, Master Lucas, I believe you might be correct. For once," she added under her breath.
Julius laughed and pulled away, watching her disappear around the corner. It is going to be a fine friendship between you and I, he thought to himself, grinning. He chuckled softly to himself as he returned to his rooms.
As Julius pulled the silk sheets and swan feather coverlet over him that night, his heart pounded with excitement over his newfound friendship. For all he was twenty-five, his first real friendship had begun this night.
Jonathan had no idea where his son was. These were negotiations to benefit Julius and he was nowhere to be found. He drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair as he watched with growing boredom at the scene before him.
Twelve men, six from Tlaia, six representing Ethane, sat around an oval table just below the balcony on which he sat. The men below him were speaking in hushed tones, but the shape of the circular room made everything all the more clearer in its echoes for the monarch observing the exchange. King Marcus and his queen sat to Anthony's right. The princess and an empty seat where his son should have been sitting were to his life. He sighed audibly, instantly regretting it as it reverberated around the room.
Five hours and they were still going strong. A week into negotiations and they were still no closer to approving Crystalline's dowry than they were when they first arrived. Jonathan had a strong suspicion that a Tlaian old man, the Master of Ceremonies, was purposefully twisting statements around, digging them deeper into a hold Jonathan knew would be very hard to climb out of.
He sighed and glanced to his lift. The princess glanced back and smiled slightly before turning her ice blue eyes elsewhere. Jonathan wondered what she was really like. To his face she was the picture-perfect princess – obedient, kind, and respectful. She was beautiful for sure. He shook his head. He wondered what Julius thought of her.
Of course, Jonathan would have been able to find out if Julius decided to come to any of the meetings. Jonathan turned his attention back to the negotiations. What could he possibly be doing to miss such an important conference?
"I don't get it," Haven muttered to herself as she helped clean Prince Julius's rooms.
Lucas glanced at her. "You don't get what?" He picked up a vase that stood on the mantle and polished it with a wax covered cloth until it shined.
Haven tossed him a clean rag. "I've hardly seen the prince and I have no idea where he is. I mean I'm head of the prince's staff. Don't you think I should know his whereabouts at al times?"
Julius frowned. Yes, she should, but it wasn't her fault the prince kept disappearing. He hid a smile. "Shouldn't that be the guard's job?"
Haven thought about it. "Yes and no. I mean, what if I had an urgent message for him and it needed to answered in the next few minutes? I couldn't very well send out a servant to look for him. It might take hours, considering how large this palace is." She drew her hand across her forehead. "I mean do you realize this palace has eight floors and ten separate wings above ground alone? Not to mention the four below ground, and the gardens, the practice fields, the stables, the archery fields…I could go on and on."
"Please don't," Julius laughed. "You're giving me a headache."
Haven smiled. She liked this kid. "I'm giving myself a headache." She dusted a window sill. "So, you never told me where you were from," she ventured after a while.
Julius froze for an instant, hundreds of possibilities running through his mind. Belatedly, he realized he should have thought of this earlier. He hurried to remember what he had learned about Tlaian landscape.
"I – uh – I'm from Crossend. It's a town south of the Haldir River."
If Haven noticed his stutter, she didn't let on. "Don't you have any family?"
Julius cleared his throat. "It's just me and my parents. You know about my sister."
Haven nodded, somber. "You know, you never told me how old you were," she said pointedly. Instead of tossing him another rag, she walked over to him. He handed her his dirty one and Haven glanced t his hands. They were smooth and unmarked, telltale signs of one who had never worked in his life. She frowned. Julius pulled his hand away quickly.
He cleared his throat. "I'm almost twenty-six."
Not so much of a kid now is he? Haven thought to herself. "Well, Lucas, we're about done with this room. Shall we move on?"
They moved to the windows of the Prince's bedroom. Julius worked slowly, watching her. She moved with practiced ease, opening up a seamless board in the wall, pulling out a stepladder. Julius gaped. He'd had no idea that was there.
"Are there many hidden areas like that?" Julius helped her set the stepladder up and held it as she stepped up. He handed her the water bucket and a gray sponge.
Haven scoffed. "All over the place." She raised an eyebrow at him. "You really haven't been here a long time have you?"
Julius shook his head. "Not nearly as long as I should have been."
Haven wondered at his choice of wording but shrugged it off. "So what did you and your sister like to do for fun?"
Julius didn't speak for a moment. The memories were still too fresh.
Haven put down her sponge. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have spoken of her."
Julius waved hand at her, swallowing hard. "No, no, it's fine. Um, we had a pond at the back of our property. There were never any fish in it, but Gabby and I would sit on the edge and 'fish' with branches and string." Haven went back to work. "Gabby loved to swim, even thought the society we grew up in scorned women who didn't stick to protocol." He walked across the room to tidy to the table where the prince kept his letters of correspondence.
"Wow," Haven muttered. "How strict was this village? Not allowing a girl to go swimming?" She stepped up onto a higher step. Too late Julius noted the large crack. "Well, I mean, I've never been…" The step cracked in half, sending Haven scrambling for a foothold. She overcorrected her balance and fell from the ladder.
She laughed as she landed heavily on the Prince's swan-down mattress and coverlet.
Julius gave a nervous laugh, shoving the ladder aside. His eyes wide he hurried to her side. "Are you all right?"
It took some minutes for Haven calmed down enough to talk. "Whew. I haven't had that much fun in a long time." She pushed herself from the bed, ignoring Lucas's hand. "I'm all right."
Bells suddenly peeled in the distance, signaling the turn of the hour. Haven's stomach rumbled. "I'll get someone else to finish cleaning. I'm starving. And speaking of food," She led the way out of the room, stashing her buckets and rags where a servant would be able to find them, "don't you have somewhere to be?"
Julius groaned. Negotiations! Jonathan was going to kill him. Haven glanced at him, eyebrows raised. "Er…yes, I should get going. You know, to …prepare food." He lurched out the door. "I'll see you later, Haven."
She laughed. "Bye, Lucas!" She couldn't get over that kid.