A/N: No one writes much about Arden and Leesa, so I thought I'd take a shot at it.
"So, any word from the Council?" asked Darina as she spread out the large blanket for the picnic she had prepared. Autumn held Valdemar in her grip, but today proved to be as warm as summer, prompting this spontaneous out-of-doors meal after the equally-spontaneous arrival of the man she planned to marry.
Herald Arden flopped onto the blanket with a snort of disgust. "No, and I am heartily sick of the whole mess."
With a smile, Darina joined him on the blanket and placed a kiss on his lips. "Not that I mind your surprise visit, but shouldn't you have stayed in Haven until it was decided?"
Arden rolled his eyes. "It will never be decided, and there's really no reason for me to stay there. I've been pulled off Circuit until a decision is made, and there are no teaching positions open right now, so all I'm doing is drumming my fingers on the table in my quarters. It's not like I have a say in the matter—and neither does Leesa. We both tried to decline in favor of the other, only to throw our respective families into an uproar. Leesa actually left Haven secretly several days ago. I still don't think the Council realizes she's gone."
Darina sighed, glancing down the hill at the spotless white form that dozed in the sun. "I wish the Companions would just Choose Lara and solve the problem for us."
"So do I," replied Arden, "but they know what we all know—what Lara knows herself—she's not Queen material. In fact, she's already taken the veil in one of the Lady's temples. She and Haydren married because they deeply loved each other. He didn't care that she was never Chosen, and neither did she. The tragedy is that he died in that stupid accident before she was able to give Valdemar an heir."
With another sigh, Darina lifted the cloth from the picnic basket and took out the contents. That King Haydren should have been struck with a stray arrow was tragic, but Arden was right—it was more tragic that he had died without an heir, for it now set off a firestorm of wrangling among the collateral lines of Valdemar's nobility. The only two Heralds of the noble class—Arden and Leesa—had equal claim to the throne by virtue of being second cousins to Haydren, and their families had pulled the Council into a seemingly-never ending debate over who to choose.
"Do you think they'll choose you?" asked Darina, handing him a plate piled high with delicious tidbits.
"Thank you," he said, taking it from her hand. "At this point, I don't care who they pick. But I hope it's Leesa. It should be—as I understand it, she did far better in her law and diplomatic classes than I did. She'd make a much better Queen than I would a King."
"How well do you know her?" asked Darina, biting into an apple.
"Not well," said Arden. "She was two year-groups behind me. I think we only had one or two classes together, and since Haydren died, both our families have descended upon Haven and have been doing their best to keep us apart, as though we're mortal enemies."
"And if they pick you?"
Arden smiled and put his plate on the blanket. "If they pick me, I guess we'll just have to marry sooner than we planned so we can give Valdemar the heir it so desperately needs." And leaning forward, he drew Darina into a deep kiss that ended far too soon for her liking.
She brushed a stray, golden lock of hair from his face. "If they force you into a state marriage, I don't know what I'll do."
Arden's hazel eyes grew dark. "They wouldn't dare. There's no one to make an alliance with anyway—that's why Haydren was able to marry Lara. Nothing has changed outKingdom in the past five years to make it any different for me if I become King."
Darina kissed him again. "Good. I don't intend to give you up to some foreign princess."
Arden smiled. "I promise, my love. That will never happen."
They finished their picnic and returned to the manor house. "How long can you stay?" asked Darina as she handed off her things to a maid in the foyer, and brushed a stray twig from her dark hair. "Father and Mother and making their customary weekly rounds to all the families of the Hold, and won't return before dinner tonight."
"I'm hoping your father will let me stay for a few days," Arden replied, pulling Darina into his arms.
"Father would let you stay forever," she said, wrapping her arms around his neck.
"Maybe I'll do that." He captured her in another kiss, and it was only a squeal from the other end of the corridor that broke them apart.
With a smile, Arden stepped away from Darina and caught the cloud of satin and lace that was Darina's younger sister, Karan, as she threw herself at him.
"Have you finally come to take my sister away and make her Queen, brother-mine?" Karan asked, her blue eyes sparkling. With hair as blonde as Arden's, she looked more like his sister than Darina's, and they had referred to each other as siblings even before Arden and Darina had decided to marry.
"Alas, no, dear sister," he replied. "The Council still hasn't decided."
"Well, I hope they choose you," she said. "Lara knew nothing about throwing parties."
Arden glanced sideways at Darina with a smile before fixing his gaze on Karan once more. "Neither does your sister."
"But I do," said Karan impishly. "Hence, the brilliance of my plan. You become King, you marry my sister, I come to Court and take over the social functions."
"I thought you wanted to be a Healer," he countered.
Karan stepped away from him. "I can do both, you know. Besides, at eighteen, it isn't likely that I have the Gift, so I need something else to fall back upon. And taking charge of the Court's social functions would be a fine way for me to meet a husband."
"You have this all worked out, don't you?" Arden asked.
"To the last detail," she replied with a grin.
"That's my sister," said Darina to Arden, and then looked at Karan. "Where have you been all morning?"
"I rose at sunrise to collect the last of the autumnal herbs on the southern hills," replied Karan. "Healer Janasa will be here in a fortnight, and I promised her I'd collect as many herbs as I could before she came. Since then, I've been in my solar working on my tapestries." She folded her arms across her chest. "You, on the other hand, slept until mid-morning, and then whiled away the rest of the day flirting with Heralds."
"Only one Herald," Darina corrected, though she could feel a warmth spread across her cheeks at the first accusation.
Arden wrapped his arms around her. "And what a wonderful Heral—" He abruptly stopped talking, his eyes taking on that faraway look Darina knew all Heralds had when conversing with their Companions.
"What is it?" she asked.
Arden frowned, glancing out the window. "Malen tells me that a Companion and Herald are approaching at a rapid pace. She says it's Herald Rowan."
"Rowan?" echoed Darina.
Arden nodded. "He's one of the Special Messengers."
Darina held his eyes for a moment. "They've decided."
"Or they've found out that I sneaked out of Haven, and sent Rowan to bring me back."
Darina felt a chill steal over her, and she couldn't suppress a shiver. "Did Malen say how long?"
Before Arden could answer, the echo of a knock on the main door sounded throughout the hall, making Darina start. One of the servants opened the door, and a man in Herald's Whites stepped inside. He opened his mouth to speak, but Arden stepped forward.
"Herald Rowan. My Malen said you were approaching."
"Yes," replied Rowan. He extended a folded, sealed parchment to Arden. "For you, Herald. From the Council." With a nod, he turned and left as quickly as he had come.
"Well!" said Karan. "Open it!"
Darina gave Arden an encouraging smile as he broke the seal and unrolled the parchment. She watched as his eyes quickly scanned its contents—and watched as the blood drained from his face. Stepping forward, she placed a hand on his arm. "What is it?"
"I don't believe this," he murmured, still reading.
"What?" asked Karan.
"They've made us co-consorts. Leesa and I. They say they the families have made it so difficult, that to choose between us would threaten the internal peace and security of Valdemar."
Darina exchanged a glance with Karan, and then looked at Arden. "What does this mean?"
Arden's face suddenly darkened, and his voice dropped to a whisper. "They expect me to marry Leesa."
Darina's breath caught in her throat, and she felt her knees weaken. "What?" She felt Karan wrap an arm around her shoulders.
"That's impossible," Karan stated.
Arden crumpled the parchment in his hands, a living anger burning in his eyes. "I'll see them burn in the lowest hell before I agree to this!"
He spun on his heel and stalked out the door.