Disclaimer: I do not own the characters nor the novel Crown Duel. Those belong exclusively to the amazing Ms. Sherwood Smith

"Debegri has her. He's on his way to Chovilun.," and equerry in Renselaeus livery reported breathlessly, having just leaped off of an exhausted mount after riding hard to reach the Marquis.

I nodded, outwardly, the picture of the calm, uncaring aristocrat faced the runner, but inwardly my mind was in shambles. I felt sick. Sick knowing Meliara was a prisoner, sick knowing what was going to happen to her, and anger at Debegri for capturing her in the first place. Taking her to Chovilun would further Debegri's standing with the king, but unless the Marquis could intercept her, this put a rather large dent in his family's plans to dethrone Galdran.

"Orders, my lord?" the equerry asked.

"We ride for Chovilun," I responded.

I mounted my gray, half turning to see if the wing accompanying me was ready to ride. As soon as they were all mounted up, I turned my mount and signaled to ride. I rode long and hard for Chovilun, taking paths little known to the kingdom's riders, but used by my Blues for years. As a result, we arrived near the back of Chovilun, taking an unknown passageway into the fortress. It led straight to the dungeon where I knew the Baron would have thrown her. I had hoped to surprise them, get Meliara out before they noticed I had gotten in. I took only five of my trusted blues and crept down the corridor. Unfortunately there were guards. Alert ones. There was fighting of course. I had hoped to avoid that, but it was inevitable. My Blues against Galdran's soldiers. While the Blues were keeping the guards occupied, I slipped into Chovilun's torture chamber.

Meliara was strapped into the chair, the torturer standing in front of her holding a hot iron. Without thinking, I pulled my throwing knife from my belt, aimed, and threw all in one smooth circular motion. The knife embedded in the torturer's chest. I looked up quickly at Meliara, who was half standing in the chair. She appeared dazed and confused, staring at the knife as if it had just sprouted there, before turning her face to me. She didn't seem angry for once, just relieved and...grateful? As I strolled toward her I spoke, "I trust the timing was more or less advantageous?"

"More or less," she responded before keeling over in a dead faint.

I picked her up off of the torturer's body and laid her down on her back. Gently I unbound her hands and feet and scooped her up, throwing her over my shoulder, so I would have an arm free to defend her and myself. She was so small and thin from being on the run with, I suspected, little or no food, that she seemed to weigh nothing. It tugged at my heart, and I felt the bubbling hatred for Galdran well up in my soul. He was the reason she had suffered so much. Yes, I had caused some of it, but only to keep my cover, I would never intentionally caused her pain. I had done what I could for her and Tlanth, and I hoped that one day she would see and understand that.

I carried her out of the dungeon, her body flopping sadly over my shoulder, my Blues all around me as I had only my one arm available to use. It didn't take long to get out, and no one stopped us. I didn't stop to think why but in hindsight it was probably because Meliara was as much of a heroine to the people who grudgingly served Galdran as she was to her own people. Even I was impressed by her stubborn strength and ability to stick to the values she so stoically backed. She would be a value to our cause, but I knew that she probably would decline, simply because I was the one who was offering. I gave her up to Yora Nessaren, thinking that if she woke up in my arms again, she might throw herself off of the horse without a thought to her own safety. I informed Nessaren to bring Meliara to Renselaeus and handed her up to the soldier. I told her to move at a comfortable pace so that their new companion would not be jolted or hurt. Nessaren nodded, knowing without me having to tell her that I had other people, namely Meliara's brother Branaric, to attend to. After Meliara was taken care of, I took off for Tlanth.

The ride was miserable. I was miserable. I had Meliara safe for now, but I knew that the safety wouldn't last long if she refused the offer I would make to her and her brother. I knew that Branaric would agree to it, but Meliara wouldn't. And Branaric would follow what his headstrong sister said, because it was obvious that she, as ignorant as she thought she was, really had a head for the political side of running a kingdom. And Meliara had ideas. She may not have voiced them in her letter to Galdran, but she had them. And I knew that, despite the doubt she had, she could be an excellent queen. I was slated to be the next king. My parents had made sure that I was groomed for it since birth, and I wanted it. If I could win over Meliara Astiar, a descendant of the Calahanras line, I would gain supporters who still knew that her mother's family were the best of the royalty that Remalna had ever had. It was a chance I needed to take. I needed her friendship at the least and I knew she would make an excellent adviser if all else failed… But burn it! I couldn't help thinking of her. She filled my thoughts the entire ride to Tlanth, switching between my own visions of Meliara falling in love with me as, I now realized, I was falling in love with her, and the memories of her injured and sick. I had originally admired her, but as my encounters with her continued, as horrible as they were, I was feeling deeper emotions that I had denied myself since Colend. And it wasn't intentional. And the other thoughts were of Meliara as queen, Meliara as his adviser, Meliara as his friend, Meliara as his wife. I determined that I would use the opportunity of having Meliara in my own home to make things right between her and I. If it were even possible.

I arrived in Tlanth, the location of the Tlanthi's camp relayed to me by some of my own people who were spying on their movements. It was a safety precaution meant to protect them because I knew that Galdran could have wiped them out, if only he could find them. Their knowledge of the territory was what kept them safe. I spoke with her brother, events blurring together from my own exhaustion and the speed with which the meeting was conducted. I managed to tell Branaric that Meliara was safely on her way to Renselaeus, and if he would come with me, I would ask them together if they would join my father and I in our plans. If they refused, I would send them both home safely. If they agreed, I would ensure a place for them when my family took over Remalna. If we were successful. Branaric seemed to like my plan, and in what seemed like no time at all, we were racing toward Renselaeus. During the ride we spoke mostly of Meliara. I didn't want to intimidate her and I wanted her to be comfortable. Branaric, I discovered, above all wanted comfort and a life in which he didn't have to worry about taxes and wars and politics. Meliara was the one that enjoyed talking about and managing the financial and political matters of Tlanth. She was the one that wanted to be queen. Like his sister, Bran, as he insisted I call him, was blatantly honest and cheerful even in the middle of a war. He offered his friendship in such a way, not with words but with trust, and I knew that I could value his friendship as much as I could value his sister's. Bran's restful, stress-free nature could be something of value to me, as my own life seemed to be destined to be stressful. I knew I would be able to count on him, even if his sister was as changeable as the weather.

When we arrived, Nessaren had not yet returned with Meliara. They were not expected until the next day, which gave me a chance to take a much needed bath and sleep. Blessed sleep. Branaric settled in immediately, and my parents accepted him instantly as well. Now all that was left was to win over Meliara. I sincerely hoped she would be as open as her brother.

Somehow I didn't think it would be that easy.