They stared at each other as if time had ceased to exist. A water droplet running down the side of Tarquin's pale face was the only indication the sands of time were still cascading down the hourglass. After an obvious intake of breath Jza dropped her gaze to her sodden boots. She could not win against the power of the man's eyes.

There was a sudden tremor of fear that agitated her heart. It was perhaps her own bold behaviour just moments ago but, no, it was another entity completely. She did not regret the decision but instead felt herself lacking the virtues he insisted he could see in her. What if she stumbled over an important matter in the future and the statue of perfection broke to tiny unmendable pieces.

"Am I dreaming? Is it you that stands before me or will you melt into the atmosphere like a figment of my imagination," Tarquin's voice of hushed awe brought her back to the present.

"You just touched me. Is that not proof enough?" Jza asked quietly. She paused the gnawing of her own lip when she found the taste of his mouth still lingered.

"Maybe my mind is addled beyond repair. Maybe I died at the castle and mother is right, that we are on the blessed plane. But I doubt the deity would give me everything I ever wanted in the afterlife."

Jza took his damp hand in hers and brought Tarquin closer with a light tug. He complied without any resistance, letting her lead him towards her.

"Does this feel real?" She asked bringing their joined hands upwards. His fingers skimmed over her hand before delicately touching it to his slightly rough cheek. He then pressed her smaller hand against his lips and gave it a sweet kiss. Jza could feel his smile against the back of her hand. She couldn't help but smile in return.

"You often dreamt about me? Is this the cause for confusion?" The Princess blurted out before she could stop herself.

"Perhaps. Although it was more nightmare than a pleasant dream," The Lord answered with unexpected gravitas. He did not let go of her hand.

"My dream self was judgemental, wasn't she?" Jza quipped half-heartedly.

"Quite. Although the dreams ceased in frequency when I slept in the same room as you. I had expected the opposite."

"Do tell me you never watched me sleep. I would rescind my offer right here if you even hint of such tomfoolery," Jza asked a presiding question in her mind. After knowing the depth of his emotions she had begun to recall many of their interactions differently.

"Never. I could not inflict myself such torture. Why would one stare at something one could never have. I had thought you would be easy to seduce early on but I was wrong. Nothing I did made you remove the distance," Tarquin replied truthfully.

"And here you have me," The Princess gave an awkward sort of body gesture that seemed to give Tarquin much amusement.

"You changed your mind faster than I thought you would. I thought you have pity on me when I had one foot in the grave."

"I fought with myself for far longer than you think. If you've set me as some paragon virtue than cease that at once. I deserve no such platitudes. I never thought you were ugly," Jza explained hoping he understood she was just human.

"Yes, that explains all the staring," Tarquin teased.

"I am not the pervert you are so intent on making me," Jza blurted and removed her hand from his swiftly.

"You did proposition me while I am undressed," The Lord unconsciously took a stance that flattered his physique. The corded band of muscle was highlighted by the faint light coming from the windows.

"Get dressed then," Jza ordered redundently since he already had his attention on a rucksack hidden beneath a haystack. The man rummaged through it's sparse contents for dry clothing.

She turned away in a hurry. Knowing him he would start stripping while in her presence, not caring for her sensibilities, although now she wondered if this was one way he tried to seduce her. And besides who was she to censure him when she had all but attacked him with her lips moments ago. Maybe he thought she wanted to watch she thought with her face heating up.

"Why is Hyacinth such a dragon?" Tarquin's voice was muffled as he pulled his shirt over his head or so she imagined. The implications of the further slaps of wet material against flesh made her nervous. The infuriating man was taking off his trousers while she was in the room.

"She's always been like that. She never cared for having responsibility of a bastard child thrust upon her and made sure the entire world knew it," Jza fidgeted, trying to sound uncaring.

"They did not know of your father? They would not have dared to mistreat you if they were aware."

"My uncle never believed my mother. She told him about the young prince she met while he was hunting but they never knew if she was being truthful or not," Jza sat down next to the troughs and after carefully pulling off her boots started wetting the ruined ends of her dress, "He married her in a temple right at end of the town. I shall have to check the papers once I get a hand on them if it belongs to me or the neighbors."

"Your father never came back?" Tarquin asked, disapproval faintly lacing his voice.

"My uncle sent my mother away out of shame after she started showing signs of my existence. My father was trapped in the castle once his mother found out about his indiscretion. He was not let out until he became King. He sent servants to ask about her but no one but my uncle knew where he sent her. Father never could say my mother's name right. Perhaps that was his biggest impediment," Jza gave a bitter smile.

"Royal romances are often unnecessarily tragic. He should have tried harder. Fate is what you choose it to be not what drags you in like water," The amber eyed man was quietly furious at her father's weaknesses. Jza too had thought what would have happened had her father more of a backbone as a young man. Perhaps he would have fought harder if he had known he was going to be a father.

"Is that what you thought your fate would be? A Royal romance gone sour," Jza turned around and found Tarquin decent. He was looking into a piece of gagged edged mirror combing down his wet hair with his fingers. How the mighty had fallen just for love.

"Perhaps. I did not have hope you would relent..even now..." Tarquin placed the mirror away with an uncharacteristic fumble.

"Like I said I have thought about you for more days then I can count. My reasons for saying yes or no changed every day. Believe me when I say it was not as flippant as you imagine although today I did act most brazenly," Jza confided in him.

"I like it when you act impulsively," Tarquin gave her the most wretched grin she had ever seen although it dampened with his next words, "I can guess your father's acceptance was the biggest factor."

"No, not at all. It's the fact that you're willing to sit with me and help a heifer give birth. You could have captured me again and stole me back to your land but here you sit in my humble little farm waiting for me to say yes. I understand the honour bestowed upon me," The Princess finished her ablutions and put her boots back in place.

"I do not want to talk about honour. I wish to know what is in your heart," Tarquin aborted a step towards his goal.

"My heart is an open book but I do not let anyone in freely," Jza answered as truthfully as she could for she was still sorting through the thoughts in her head. She paused before asking a question that had been needling her, "I may be a Princess but at heart just a farm girl. Is that the life you want? Do you not want to be the master of your palace back home. Will you resent me for trapping you here?"

The brown haired girl implored more with her eyes than her words.

"I do want to see you covered in gold and silver but if you wish it I shall follow you to the ends of the earth. As a matter of fact let's find that farm boy and send him to Hyacinth. Then you show me your little kingdom. I will be honoured," Tarquin gave her his hand which she took without reservation. The days when she feared his touch were long gone.

"It is not sun up," Jza answered, "Not much to show in the dark."

"So transfixed by the sight of my unclothed body you've lost track of time?" Tarquin only half joked as he gestured to the rays of light entering the barn's window.

"I may be more like my sisters than I thought. Perhaps I lost my mind over your countenance," Jza replied feeling bold all over again, "Come on. Let us head out."

The couple opened the rusty barn door together and stumbled out into the courtyard. Outside slept the stable boy leaning against the well's stone wall. Jza felt pity but decided it would not do to leave the cow and Hyacinth without support. The girl tried to tap him awake but when that proved ineffective Tarquin gave the boy a short slap behind his head. The stable boy gasped awake.

"The deed is done. Hyacinth's waiting inside. Make yourself useful," Jza ordered and watched the boy stumble into the barn from the other entrance where the cow lay.

"What do you want to see?" She asked turning to her companion.

"Everything," Tarquin said with a brief look around the courtyard.

"You've seen the forest behind the barn and the orchards in the front. There is some land beyond the dry river that you might be interested in. The temple my parents got married in is situated there," Jza explained gesturing at all ends of her domain. She began to walk towards the left rambling about the history of the place while Tarquin followed behind silently.

Jza pulled up her skirts just enough to soak up her aching feet. They sat on the stream that meandered into the dry river from the opposite end of the bank. If they looked closely they could see the smoke puffing upwards from the farm's workings.

Tarquin suddenly burst out laughing from beside her. Jza was mesmerized by the rare sight.

"What?" She asked in a huff wondering if she had done something to entertain him.

"Ankles! I cannot believe I'm affected by a pair of ankles!" The man answered giving her an affectionate look which pleased Jza to no end. That feeling of being admired made her heart soar above the clouds dotting the sky.

"What do you mean? You must have viewed them so many times," The Princess answered while shoving her skirts down letting them soak up in the fresh water.

"Do you want me to tell you about how everything affects me? The way you laugh, the way you speak, the way you're pouting utterly offended by my words right now?"

"I am not pouting!" Was the girl's agitated reply.

"Very well, my bright sun," Tarquin uttered, mischief dripping from his expression. He let his hands into the cool water and took a sip.

"Is that what you used to say in your own language. Even then?" Jza asked shly.

"Of course. It was not as if I could express my true intentions without you scratching my face," The man answered with a shrug.

"You said I wasn't your type. I was relieved you could never want anything of that sort..." The brown eyed girl trailed off hoping he was not offended by her revelation.

"I distinctly remember telling you bruises weren't my preference. I relived that conversation often enough to remember it. I swallowed my instinct to rectify the situation afterwards. I just did not wish to frighten you," Tarquin explained showing how much thought he had given to their conversations.

"What would you have said instead?"

"It matters not. You would not have had me. You were afraid. Everyday when it was time to sleep I could see that fear in your eyes. I had no wish to be Ivan's image who enjoyed a woman's fright. His example should be shunned not followed," The Lord replied resolutely. Jza understood that his behaviour had less to do with his feelings for her and more to do with what he believed was right. Once again she was assured her decision was the correct one. He was not as morally deficient as her initial impression. She saw signs of his goodness everyday.

"I was cautious, yes, but I knew soon enough you were not going to force yourself upon me," Jza said, reassuring him she had deciphered his behaviour much earlier than he thought.

"And now? Are you still cautious? I understand it will take time to find a place in your heart," The man asked the pertinent question. She had accepted him mentally and acknowledged she was attracted to him. Would he have a chance to go further and be as important to her as she was to him.

"I could have left you here and gone back with my father but I couldn't," Jza answered with shake of her shoulders. She was frustrated how difficult it was to find words that conveyed what she felt.

"You told us your reasons. Your sisters, the court-"

"Of course, but I couldn't leave you here. It just didn't feel like the correct route to take. And I heard your words; your declaration. I wanted to give it a chance." Jza uttered with utmost conviction.

He took her fingers in his own in a delicate fashion. His thumb rubbed over the wrist. Showing ankles may be the fashion nowadays but having bony wrists was not which suddenly Jza rued. Tarquin's hands skimmed over a recent injury and he paused his ministrations.

"Stop hurting your self. It pains me," He ordered with a sigh. His wet hands were cool to the touch.

"Is that how the bond works?" Jza asked, curiously. He smirked at her assumption and shook his head in negation.

"Not at all."

Jza blushed prettily but was too stubborn to look away. They stared at each other before the girl announced her intention to take him to the temple close by.

The forest was denser around the temple although the path was clearly defined. Someone had at least taken the time to cut through any random shrubbery that blocked the path. They soon stood outside the temple which was circular stone building that came out of the woods without preamble.

"It's smaller than I remember," Jza uttered with a bitter smile. Everything was back at the farm. The courtyard that had seemed vast when she had first arrived after her mother's passing was insignificant in size now. She could cross it in s couple of footsteps when back then she had raced across it.

Inside there was no one to welcome them. The golden altar was empty and no flowers were laid out as was the norm. Only a dozen pews were laid out for the worshipers. The rest of the potential occupants either sat in the corners or stood on the rough stone floor.

The pair walked in together in hushed silence as if the deity was in the room judging their deeds as it would after they passed.

Jza watched Tarquin's pale features wash over with the light trickling through the large, glass windows. She pulled him close, her fingers clutching his threadbare clothes and raised her face expectantly. In the broad day light she had lost that fearless edge that had brought her lips to his at her own instigaton but she was still temped by his clever lips.

"The deity watches us. Hush!" Tarquin instead shook his head with a smile. Up close the girl could see his face was now dotted with a mild semblance of a beard. She had never seen him anything but bare faced and she could not decide what she preferred.

"I did not take you attached to a religion, particularly a foreign one," Jza tilted her head with curiosity.

"This is my religion too. The barbarians left it behind for the Goridians to appropriate."

"The badosh," Jza corrected, "Why don't we use the correct name of the Barbarians. I'm sure you know it as well as I. I did find the right book containing their true name before the ball occurred."

Tarquin nodded and walked towards the altar as if reliving terrible moments of his life. He placed his hand on the empty altar and let it slide over the marble.

"My mother was a religious woman. The only reason she tolerated her suffering was because she was waiting for the deity to save her. I grew weary of her waiting and decided to do something. The deity was too slow," The man explained with a bowed head hiding his features from her, "I have killed my own father in front of the deity. I cannot afford to make any more mistakes in a temple if for no other reason than my mother's beliefs. My weight of bad deeds overtakes the good which was not the man she raised me to be."

"The deity will understand, I vow it. You were saving your mother when you slayed your father," Jza tried to comfort him although she was not as well versed with their common religion as he was. Her uncle and Hyacinth had never saw fit to teach her anything beyond the basics. By the time she had gone to the castle her guardians had assumed she had been taught everything there was to learn.

"It does not excuse the blood I let after Ivan's demise. My- The Somerlian palace is made of pure white marble. The taint of red took so long to be scrubbed out. I could say I was a child but it excuses nothing especially not my overzealous takeover," The Lord said softly still not facing away from the empty altar.

"But you've repented. You can fill up your good deeds up to the brim and the deity will embrace you in his fold when it's your time," The girl was certain she was correct.

"At least there's a chance I will have a companion when I am judged," Tarquin turned around and gave her a thoughtful expression.

Jza suddenly remembered a key component of the vow and sat in the dusty pew with shock etched over her face. She had known the terms but she was hit by how real their predicament was. She had accepted her own existence was on borrowed time but she had still not accepted the truth was the other way around. The temple circled in her vision for a fleeting minute.

"If I die then you will be forced to follow me," The grief of the unfairness towards the man hit her profoundly. She did not wish for him to die just because her time was up.

"I shall never die abandoned and alone if you are by my side," Tarquin gave her his arm which she took, forgetting they were not back the castle with their contrived mannerisms but at the farm where no such formality was necessary. He held her as if he could bear her weight if she was to collapse which she did not mind at all.

They were back at the farm by noon, famished and exhausted. Jza and Tarquin had collected fruits from the orchard as they had meandered back in a leisurely pace. Jza had explained what she planned to do with the farm in the future while Tarquin had added his own suggestions.

They had walked into the courtyard surrounded by half the farm men loitering about almost as if waiting for them to make an appearance. Jza mentally sighed wondering what new problem she had to correct today. She approached Oliver who watching them nervously.

"Alright, what's the ruckus?" The Princess asked the man with an impatient look around. She was also desperate for a nap and did not care for the delay in her plans.

"Who is this Lord, your highness? The men are dreadfully concerned the identity of this man is being hidden from us," Oliver confided with a frantic expression.

"Lord?" Jza's eyebrows raised at the unexpected question. She knew a time would come where the truth would appear but she had hoped it was much further away.

"My Lady, it was James that revealed the strange Somerlian was a Lord."

Jza took a deep breath and decided it would be better to be truthful, "He is my betrothed. Father gave us his blessings."

"Of course, it makes sense the exalted King would never tie his daughter to a nobody," The bearded man persisted and the girl knew there was no way out.

"He looks it like he drinks very expensive wine," Someone called out from the crowd surrounding them which gave Jza much needed relief. The crowd was in a jovial mood. Their urgency was due to their overprotectiveness surrounding the Princess and less to do with hunting the man down.

"But a Somerlian Lord?" Oliver asked. He knew there was something not adding up. There was only one Lord they were aware off and surely the King hadn't embraced the enemy.

"He is exactly who you think he is. This is Lord Tarquin son of Altani the Bodosh Princess and the Somerlian Lord Ivan," Jza kept her voice strong and steady as she announced the man's identity to her small world. She expected more response than the defening silence. Tarquin walked up besides her gave the men his most placid look.

"I have ended the war at Princess Jza's behest and there shall be no more enemity between the two nations from now on," The man declared to the sea of shocked men who had been expecting many things but not this.

"The treaty between my father and Lord Tarquin shall be signed two months from now at our wedding which will be held at our local temple," Jza added to the statement and placed a hand over the man's shoulders.

"That's news to me," Tarquin hissed in her ear.

"For me too. What one must do to avoid a murderous crowd!"

The farm boys were still silent and beyond the light whispering among them it could not be deciphered what the reaction to the news was. Were they so incensed they intented to rip the pair apart in a fury it could not be guessed.

"Do not worry, your highness. I will talk down all dissent. No one will harm your Somerlian King. They will know the war ended because of him," Oliver looked apologetic for putting them in the spot.

"Yes, if it were not for his decision we would not be free," Dermot one of the original men who had elected to stay at the farm also added his support.

"We have seen Somerlian hospitality. It has not been an unforgettable experience
Now it's turn for us to show our guest Goridian hospitality. I will be pleased if we outdo ourself in our show of kindness. After all he must contend with me," The Princess' order was masked as a sweet request. She looked confident no would dare refuse her command.

"He doesn't look as blood thirsty as they said he was," Some comedian cried out once again making the crowd titter one response.

"He's not even fully Somerlian. His barbarian blood must be the reason he ended the war. The Bodosh are a fair nation," Another older man stated.

Tarquin looked baffled by the reactions. He had not realised the Goridians thought positively of his mother's nation. He had assumed like the Somerlians they reviled their existence and treated them like muck but he was proven wrong.

"He'll make a very handsome King when you become the queen," Rose whispered in Jza's ear finding courage to run through the crowd to give her the support.

"Oh, no! The only land I shall be ruling over is this land but he's rather handsome is he not," The Princess was feeling elated by the reception their future marriage had received.

"Now, what?" She sighed as she watched Oliver speak with the crowd. There were a few sour expressions that spoiled the mood.

"Now, we must decide what colour you're wearing at the wedding," Tarquin teased.

"I have a partiality for yellow," The girl answered.

"Gold it is!"


Their compromise was a dress made of both gold and yellow her father had specially commissioned for his beloved daughter. The King had been liberal in dripping his wealth all over his daughter's outfits since he had not been allowed a free hand over anything else. Their temple had remained simply adorned and the farm decorated modestly leaving no room for her father to meddle. At least everyone at the farm ended up with new outfits

What had surprised them the most was that one of her sisters had also planned a wedding soon after. She had found the noble at the holding she had been exhiled to irresistible and had planned a wedding a month earlier. But Jza had not attended the Royal wedding at the castle and had no interest in inviting anyone over to her farm for her own. She was uncertain if her father had even informed her sisters of her good luck.

The weather was chilly but the weight of the dress gave Jza the necessary warmth to combat the elements. She had signed all the necessary documents related to the wedding and the treaty in the rickety rocking chair in her small parlour. Even the half a dozen men witnessing the historical moment had made the room crowded.

Jza and her father had taken a newly built bridge over the dry river and walked solemnly over to the temple. They talked about the weather, the rain and the journey but never about their tweleve famous beauties. It was unsaid how much Jza did not wish to acknowledge their existence.

Tarquin had stood at the alter waiting for his bride to make an appearance. He wore elegant navy finery that mimicked the outfits he used to wear when in power. Jza wondered if her father had returned all his belongings. Atop his head sat the crown he was wearing one last time. In the treaty he had signed away the right to wear it ever again.

The couple had beamed at each other brilliantly eclipsing all the others in the room. Jza had hurried over to her groom not caring what anyone thought because the only people in the room were her well-wishers although counting Hyacinth as one had been a stretch.

"Privet, moya lyubov," Jza whispered in his ear making Tarquin chortle had her sudden mastery of the Somerlian language. He had met his match and they would spent the rest of their lives vowed as one.

I hope no one's disappointed. The epilogue is a fun one. Features our favourite twelve beauties for all those curious to meet them.