Thanks to the interruption of old Lady Finley, the King seemed to have momentarily forgotten about the 'choice' he wanted to give Katherine. The dinner started, but the seat between Katherine and the King remained empty. The Princess didn't come back.
Though she should be an enemy, Katherine felt quite insecure without her by her side. The Princess was the only one who defended her previously, and now she practically sat beside the King instead, who deliberated about killing her earlier.
She told herself that she would be fine, that this was not as hard as facing off against Nathaniel the first time they met. But it was impossible to believe that. Though Nathaniel was more intimidating, at least she knew what he wanted from her. It would be so much easier when she knew what the purpose of this was!
Everyone talked about things she didn't understand; only the veiled woman besides Katherine remained silent. Nobody bothered to explain to her who this 'grandson' who wasn't a grandson was, what happened with the Dragsa kingdom recently, why exactly she was here, or any other of the pressing questions she had in mind.
Annoyed, Katherine massacred her potatoes while hissing to herself: "Why am I even here?"
Surprisingly, someone answered.
"Because the King wants to see how you react."
The voice of the veiled woman was soft and placid, as if the tension around didn't concern her. "He and everyone else here want to know what kind of person you are."
Katherine furrowed her brows. "What does it matter to them? I hold no power here."
"Now, yes. But they are thinking about the future."
While chewing the potatoes Katherine thought about what that might mean. Were all of them sure that she would gain power? And what kind of power? Maybe it was because she was betrothed to Nathaniel, an Earl with a powerful mage by his side. Was that why they were curious about her?
On second thought, why did they invite her and not Nathaniel then? It made no sense to let the real connection to the mage slip through their fingers. She herself had never seen or talked to him.
She swallowed, and asked: "What is your purpose then? Why are you telling me all of this?"
'Who are you', was what she really wanted to know, but refrained from asking. Wearing a veil was a definite sign that the woman wanted to hide her identity at least from a few people here. Katherine didn't think anymore that this woman was just a toy of Prince Aston. She knew too much about the events here. No, for some reason, she was posing in the identity of a toy of Prince Aston. She even let him kiss her hair and hold her hand when everyone glanced at them curiously before.
A soft laugh followed her question. "I am the same as them. I also want to know more about you."
Suddenly, Katherine felt a penetrating gaze at them and looked up. The King was staring at the blonde woman with a deep emotion that was gone before Katherine could decipher it. Then he turned to Katherine and she felt uneasiness rise in her. Gaining the attention of the King was what she had wanted to avoid since the uncomfortable greeting.
Unfortunately, he still remembered her presence. "You will get another invitation soon", he said. "This invitation will be your test. Remember, I want the peace to last. Think of something. To cheer you on, I will allow you to marry one of my sons!"
Automatically, Katherine bowed her head, but then the last sentence caught her by surprise. Slowly, she blinked her wide eyes. "Excuse me, your Majesty. I already have a betrothed."
There was a short silence on the table. Then the King raised a thick brow. "Does that mean you don't want my sons?"
It sounded like a threat. But when Katherine looked at Aston and Emilian out of the corner of her eye, she really couldn't find a reason to prefer them over Nathaniel.
The playboy Aston was out of the question. Emilian seemed to be steadier, but she found him suspiciously normal. If his twin worked together with that evil organization, wouldn't he know about it? Was he also involved in the kidnapping of civilians? Her wish to take revenge would be easier to fulfill if she would be Queen in the future. However, she wouldn't want it on the cost of human lives.
When Aston noticed her gaze, he winked back suggestively. Her hair stood up in disgust. With a deep breath, she turned to the King again. He was waiting. His presence was pressing, silently urging her to decide for one of them. How to reject his proposal without offending him? Maybe she would really lose her head today.
"Say whatever you think, girl", old Lady Finley suddenly advised. "Don't let this rhino trample over your will."
Despite her joking tone, nobody laughed. The whole table had their eyes fixed on Katherine. Pressing, neutral, gloomy, confused, stern, amused, and finally, a gentle nod. The blonde woman seemed to be smiling under her veil.
Taking courage from the support of a stranger, Katherine straightened her back. "I'm sorry. I'm betrothed to Nathaniel. I... don't want anyone else."
It was the truth. In the whole world, there was only one person she could imagine being married to: this headstrong, irritable, and cold Earl who could throw her into an abyss of anger and pain by simply looking at her with distanced eyes.
Katherine expected the King to be furious. She expected him to rebuke her, maybe even call for her head to fall. The Princes were from his own blood, his sons - if he loved them or not, didn't matter. Every regent would take pride in his offspring, and a strike to the Princes' pride would hit the King's as well.
What she didn't expect was that he would throw his head back, and laugh out loud. It was a roaring laugher, like a lion was calling out from inside his chest. For the first time since long, the throne hall didn't feel too big. It was as if the lion that once housed in this dark cave had come back to fill it with his warm, strong, and furry presence.
Then the laugher stopped, and Katherine stayed motionless, her hand flat on the table cloth. They were sweating from insecure. What did this laugher stand for? How should she react? There were no guards coming in yet to take her away. Even the servants followed their duty to fill up glasses just like normal. Prince Aston caught her eyes, he was grinning widely at her. He didn't seem the type to grin when she was about to die. On the other hand, she had seen him smiling innocently after killing a man. This Prince was also abnormal.
Before she could decide what to do, the King suddenly took her hand into his. His hands were warm and big, with a strong grip. Fl.u.s.tered, Katherine tried to pull back, but he was holding her tightly. With a penetrating and solemn voice, he asked: "If in the future, you could never touch him, never bear his child, only be by his side... would you still be willing to marry him?"
Katherine was so stunned that she forgot struggling.
"Father this is -", Aston tried to speak up.
"Don't!", the King silenced him overbearingly. Right after, he narrowed his eyes on Katherine, as if trying to figure her out. "This is between me and her. I want to know if she is worthy of him. He needs someone who will support him wholeheartedly, without doubt or regret. Someone, who will put him even above her own kingdom. I wonder if she is able to forego her former home for him. Of course, this is only because he is one of my most excellent vassals."
His hands gripped her like an iron claw. He was not exactly hostile anymore, but Katherine couldn't decide what else this solemnity was that he emitted. Something she didn't know about seemed to be going on as she heard the other people in the room shift uncomfortably. A woman's voice whispered: "Who is this person? What's she even doing here?"
Katherine didn't have the mind to care. The King had caught her gaze and held it. It was an unwritten rule to avoid the eyes of those with higher standing than oneself, especially those of a King. Yet at this moment, Katherine had forgotten this rule. A nearly corporal tension was in the air.
"Lady Balder", the King repeated slowly, "will you be that someone? Will you swear to hold him above everything else in your heart and support him regardless?"