I hope you enjoy this oneshot as much as I enjoyed writing it:) It takes place some time after everyone's arrived at Athanarel, near the beginning of Court Duel.

NOTE: I've made some changes to the end of this chapter since I posted it. All credit for these changes go to Rayless Night, who pointed out several things that I brushed over. Thank you!

Disclaimer: Sherwood Smith: genius who owns Crown Duel. Me: not.

Russav's words wouldn't let me be. I'll make your Countess popular as you ask, Danric; you know I'd do anything for you. But I won't see you sit and leave her be. Something'd changed in you when you came home from that final battle against Galdran, Danric, and I'm no fool. You've fallen, Marquis, and fallen hard.

I knew he was right. I am not one to deny personal truths to preserve my comfort. But the idea of me, in…

I closed my eyes.

…In love, yes, love, with the only woman who had ever looked as if she wanted to hit me across the face; it was an idea so ridiculous and impossible, it took my breath away. She hated me. Even after the confusions of loyalty were passed, after she realized I had worked my people –and myself–raw to keep her alive…she hated me.

In my mind's eye I saw her at her table in Tlanth, surrounded by her beautiful handiwork, her delicate face alive with ideas and boldness so sweet I could only marvel; remembered how our conversation had flowed, how she had accepted my thoughts and shared her own as if we were perfectly equal.

And then, when I had presented her with the wager on the journey to Athanarel! How shocked she had looked, until her spirit had risen through the surprise to meet my challenge. I could see her face, alluring in its determination, plain as day even now.

This truth remained: I had a wager to collect from a woman as prickly as a pine. I assumed that she assumed that I had forgotten it, but I would never forget the insanity that had struck me and driven me to… flirt.

What was I becoming? I had always preferred scheming to coquetry.

My chest twisted painfully. What a morbid tangle. I'd be lucky to get out of this with all my spiritual limbs intact.

There was one thing that never changed as I wrestled with my thoughts: I wanted the prize I had won by beating her to the inn through rain and mud. I wanted her kiss, wanted her to turn her face up to mine with welcome in her blue, blue eyes. But this kiss could not be something I took.

I wanted it to be a gift.

I'd aspired to so much. I'd succeeded, too. Aspired to convince one and all of my airy foppishness. Conspired to bring down a tyrant. To maintain the peace in the wake of de-throning...

Life, I was aspiring to a crown!

I thought of the years of mind-wrenching planning, sacrifice, and risk I had borne with my family. How much work it had taken to bring Galdran down! But we had, and Meliara and her brave-hearted backwoodsmen had been the catalyst.

I had brought down a king. I should have been able to win a woman. Any woman. Confidently.

I sighed. She'd sooner punch me than smile at me!

She…so spirited, so bold, so charming. So alive. My entire being was suffused with longing for the life she held in her small hands and bright eyes. I dared to think, dared to hope … that if she knew me, she would love me.

The thought was slippery as a wet stone and risky as a cliff. And it felt arrogant. But there it was.

It was clear she could never set eyes on me without an untoward reaction. But what if she didn't know it was me? If undisturbed by the wretched image she held of me, could she fall in love with who I was? I blinked, straightened. She was a wall, but she had to have cracks. Perhaps a peace offering...but if she knew it was from me, she'd infer a dozen things I didn't mean. No. I would have to remain unknown.

Suddenly, pieces began to click into place. I knew that her Name Day was coming up soon. Bran had mentioned it a while ago and I had never forgotten the date he had named. What better time to give a gift than on a Name Day?

But what to give? I knew she appreciated beauty. So I would give her something beautiful. I would be an anonymous hand extending a flower past a prickly barrier to the lovely woman within. If I knew her well enough, she would be intrigued. Perhaps I could lure her out. Perhaps she would feel safe enough to be wooed by a faceless admirer, perhaps she would be content to hand gifts back and forth through her massive facade.

Perhaps she'd bite my hand off.

I almost laughed, but the irony made me sigh instead. When I had impulsively drawn Meliara into that wager, I don't think I quite comprehended what I was aspiring to. This quest, this bid for love in an apparent vacuum, was nothing compared to bringing down a king. It was the campaign of a lifetime. It would take more cunning than anything I'd ever done before, more thought, more time...possibly forever.

But to be able to call her Mel, to hear her say Vidanric with, perhaps, the smile she saved for those she loved…a groan escaped me.

For I knew with unfathomable, terrible certainty, that to win her, I, the rational, impeccably controlled Marquis, would do absolutely anything.

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