Thanks to Lisa for the concept, betaing, and the solarium!


It had been a long autumn.

Gareth closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall of the solarium, having sought respite in the one place he reasoned people wouldn't think to look for him. He was tired, right the way through his bones, and still had a thousand petty squabbles to settle as Champion. On top of this, Roald had requested his presence at tonight's ball, and Gareth had had time only to bathe and change clothes before it began.

It had taken him less than half an hour to tire, and not much longer to seek refuge.

"Your Grace, I appreciate that you have been gone for a number of months, but surely you can't have forgotten that solariums are intended for the sunshine."

He looked up, finding - as he knew he would - the sister of his first squire.

"Lady Roanna," he greeted, not quite able to summon the energy to stand for her, though he did make the effort to straighten in his seat. She wouldn't care for the breach in propriety, not when they knew each other of old. "You grow more perceptive every time I see you."

She laughed, and slipped inside the room. "Sir, that is what every lady longs to hear."

He watched her as she chose the seat next to him, carefully arranging her skirts. It suddenly occurred to him that he had never seen her in such opulent clothes. Irimor was a rich house, to be sure, but Roanna rarely opted to display it so openly.

Roanna had sought him out...

Gareth cleared his throat, feeling a blush heat his cheeks. She was so young - not much older than his sister - and it had prevented him from speaking up more times than he could count. Time was going to run out for him if he didn't speak up, though. He didn't think he'd be able to bear her on the arm of somebody who didn't deserve her. Better the awkwardness of a refusal than that.

"How is the ball, in my absence?" he asked.

She threw him a side glance, adjusting her bracelets. They caught the light of the few candles he had found in the room, scattering little beams across the floor. "It is a ball," she answered, with the air of one who attended all the balls and found them wanting. "People are dancing, the musicians are playing, and the Duke of Naxen is notable by his absence."

He couldn't quite disguise his pleasure at his absence being referred to as notable. "Are people speculating on the king's betrothal?"

"I believe some people may be," Roanna said, her eyes fixing on his. Gareth had always found her gaze challenging, in a way quite unlike most ladies, who seemed to feel he would prefer them to stare at the ground. "Are you one of these people, sir?"

"If you are looking for information, I'm afraid I have none to give you. Roald wrote me a letter telling me he was engaged, but not the identity of the lady. My sister will be upset once she knows - she was so fond of him, but she has been convalescing at Naxen this past year, and I hear the Dowager Queen has impressed upon Roald the need for heirs."

Roanna nodded, and shivered - she was hardly dressed to pass the evening in a glass room, after all. "Perhaps we ought to join the rest of the ball," she suggested, rising.

"In a moment," he said, rubbing the back of his neck. If he didn't say it now, he never would. Courage, Gareth. He found it on the battlefield; it did not stand to reason that his nerve should desert him now. "Lady Roanna, you have always been-"

"Don't say it," she entreated brokenly, turning away from him. "I cannot bear it if you say it."

Feeling as though he had just been blindsided, Gareth swallowed hard. "My apologies, my lady. I had not thought my offer would be so unwelcome to you."

Roanna looked back at him, her face pinched. "I did not think you would be making an offer at all," she said, voice low. "I thought - I thought you would surely have spoken before now, and perhaps you weren't the marrying kind, at least not where I was concerned." Every word was like a needle, but he could tell the final blow was coming as she drew in a deep breath, and settled her eyes on the floor. "I took another offer."

And then it clicked. Her fine clothes. Roald's sudden interest in a woman who wasn't Lianne. The reason Roald hadn't needed to secure Gareth's approval, because he had already known Gareth approved of this woman. He just hadn't thought Gareth wanted to marry her. Roald had asked about it, and oh, Gareth had brushed her aside, assuming she wouldn't want him.

"I'm a fool," Gareth murmured bitterly.

"You are. I - Gareth, I can't get out of it. I've given him my word. If you'd seen him when he proposed - he called me pulchritudinous, and then I had to have him, for I had no idea what it meant." She smiled wryly, but it didn't look right on her, not with those overbright eyes. "I thought it was an insult, but he said it was - oh, what does it matter?"

It didn't matter. Gareth knew what Roald had said. It had been Gareth's favourite line, declaring that it was the woman who made the word beautiful. Roald had been impressed, had even - Mithros - used it on Lianne. He had sworn to Gareth that it had meant something, that Lianne was the one for him.

"Congratulations."

She nodded, making the effort to compose herself. "Will Your Grace kindly escort me back to the ballroom?"

"It would be my pleasure, my lady," he said wearily - how had he thought himself tired before? - getting to his feet, and holding out his arm. Roanna took it, glancing up into his eyes, and, Mithros's shield, this was going to be the hardest thing he had done in his life.