FIFTEEN

"Why don't we play a little game?" Lady Olivia's bright voice had everyone's eyes focusing on them. She ignored the stares and made her way towards the Consort. The woman had been escaping her clutches, always hiding in the corners of the palace. With the current impasse, she could feel the time trickling from her hands and she was getting impatient. Somehow she had to flush this woman out, bleed her dry and take back what was rightfully hers, the Consort's position.

Drawing on the little information she had on the woman, archery seemed the best way to bring the woman's face down since this is regarded more as a masculine rather than a feminine pursuit. She had been familiar with the rules and had always exploited these to shoot down some aspiring debutante as the court leader whose accomplishments are rooted in delicacy rather than combat. Training with the best knights in their dukedom had been worth it as she washed with tears of the women she had crushed under her dainty heel. The Consort is timid anyway as well as incompetent. Before the first arrow could be drawn, the Consort would be begging her to stop.

When she reached the woman, she kept her mask in place, "We can play archery, my lady. It's a small bit of fun."

A frown marred the other woman's features. "But my lady . . . Are you sure that it is even a match?"

She ignored the rising murmurs from the court as she focused on riling the woman. "The Consort is too humble. Having accomplished charming the king, I'm sure you can accomplish more."

The silence was absolute.

Artemis was caught between irritation and amusement. This woman had the gall to call her out this publicly. Though she had anticipated this, her temper still flared. Before she could lose this round, she gripped her temper and crushed it inside a box. She pasted a smile on her face. Since they wanted to beat around the bush, why don't we just burn it? If they wanted her position, why don't they ask Gideon in the first place?

"Lady Olivia flatters this Consort. But this Consort has been chosen by His Majesty. If you have any issues, you should seek His Majesty. I was merely chosen because I had qualifications that you don't seem to possess." Satisfaction flooded her seeing the woman's mask crack in some places. Good. If that woman wanted to dip her hands where it does not belong, she should expect herself to be burned.


"You are having too much fun." The falsely cheerful voice quickly doused the heated atmosphere. King Gideon had returned, earlier than expected.

Heads turned to the source, their eyes widening upon seeing the imposing figure in black. How long was he standing there? He much had he heard? How much had he seen? But fear had overtaken them as he swept them a dark look. His handsome features and his unruffled hair made him more menacing. He strode towards them, his men following him. Queen Laura stood and offered a curtsy while the rest of the court bowed. Nobody dared raise their gaze without a word from the king. Artemis was going to bow but he stopped her by grabbing her waist and giving her a cold grin.

Artemis smiled at him as she sensed danger from him as she discreetly pinched his hands off her waist. She murmured under her breath, "If you have the time to enjoy yourself, you should have helped me!" He merely grinned at her briefly before turning to Queen Laura. What is this unsettling feeling?

"Why is the field so busy today?"

"It was just a bit of fun, Your Majesty. The ladies had been cooped for so long they needed some sunshine to put color back into their cheeks."

He raised a supercilious brow.

"We are merely accommodating the Consort." Artemis had to applaud the woman. If it had been other people, they would have been reduced to shreds. "She had been elusive these few days and we fear for her constitution."

"Is that so?" The soft tones raised the hairs on Artemis' nape. It was never a good sign. "Is Catalania sorely lacking in talent that even the Consort is needed to perform before the Court?" Artemis averted her gaze when he turned to her. His words were sharper. Why did it feel like he wanted to skin her alive? "Even offering the Consort's position to other unqualified individuals. You don't see this King in your eyes."

"Your Majesty, you are mistaken. This is simply a sport between Lady Olivia and the Consort."

He turned to Artemis and shot her a sly look. She had a very bad feeling about this. Instead of backing down gracefully, why was it he was fanning the flames? "Since everything is in Lady Olivia's favor, maybe we can raise the stakes?"

"What would Your Majesty suggest?"

Gideon's cold gaze settled on Lady Olivia. The woman straightened and gracefully met his gaze.

"What would you like then?" The words were soft but lethal.

"I would like to represent Catalania to handle the envoys." A furious murmur rose among the nobles. Though Artemis had anticipated this, she was still surprised at such boldness. She turned to look at Gideon. Her eyes widened seeing his blue eyes brighten. That look reminded her of a cat playing with a mouse. A dead mouse.

Then he briefly caught her gaze that confirmed her worse suspicions. "What would you request, Artemis?" Apparently, she was not even spared.

He knew that she hated being put on the spot and it dawned on her that he did not like her earlier reply to Lady Olivia. She sighed inwardly. So petty for a grown man.

Before she could reply, he beat her to it. "Since the Consort is too lazy to ask, a favor from the East Family should suffice." Artemis glared at Gideon as she furiously thought of a way to get out of this sticky predicament. He merely smiled at her as he put his hands on her shoulders.

"Artemis," his breath warmed her skin, "Don't worry about failing."

She raised her expectant gaze.

"I am confident in your skills."

Why did that not sound right?

"You are very brave, going alone in St. Giles." She froze as he tucked a few stray strands behind her ear. He tipped face up. "I'm sure handling someone like Lady Olivia is easier than explaining you playing unescorted around the city."


Five arrows will be given to them and an apple will serve as the target. The target will be put on the head on the head of the opponent. The archer will be blindfolded and a soldier will beat the drum if a hit had been made. The number of beats will indicate the distance of the arrow from the target. More than ten paces meant silence. Hitting the target also meant silence. Removing the blindfold meant the task was finished.

The two women positioned themselves in the field. Lady Olivia wanted to demand King Gideon to put the blindfold on her but her maid was already there, putting it for her. She vowed to force retribution after she won. A strong slap on the cheek of the servant will be a good reminder not to commit further offenses. The last thing she saw was King Gideon placing the apple on the woman's head and King Gideon's lips moving.

Can you even compete?

Burning the picture behind her lids, she focused her resentment on the woman before her. She will prove to them that she was the best person to stand beside King Gideon. Once the cloth was snug, the soldier beat the drum once, signaling that the contest had officially started. Olivia took an arrow placed near her and directed it at Artemis' general direction. Her lips curved involuntarily. Maybe, she could scare her? Tease her with a few near shots before aiming for the target? She licked her lips and released the arrow. She waited for the drums.

One. Two.

Then silence.

Good.

Was the woman rattled? She could not wait.

She took another arrow and released it.

Drumbeats filled the air. One. Two.

That's fine, alright. That was close. The woman must be in near tears. She smiled.

Then, Artemis spoke up. "What are you waiting for, Lady Olivia?" There was no trace of fear, only words filled with ridicule. The smile on her face faded and anger blazed. How dare this woman makes fun of her?! She took the third and aimed at the general direction of the other woman's voice.

One.

Olivia smiled and felt the tension inside her loosened for a bit. It calmed her down. It was not good to be rattled by this woman. She could feel the tension mounting in the field. She took another arrow and released it.

One drumbeat.

She inwardly cursed. So close. She quickly collected herself. She took the last arrow and aimed it at the target.

Silence filled the field.

Then there was no drum beat.

Delight filled her. The cheers would follow once reality sank in. She hastily removed the blindfold, wanting to see Artemis at her lowest. Wanting to see . . . in an instant, euphoria evaporated. Artemis was standing there in the field perfectly poised amidst the arrows at her feet. Not one actually made it to the target. The last one had been the farthest. She raised her gaze to her and saw unfazed brown eyes directed at her.

S-She had never missed a target!

"Y-You, you moved didn't you?!" She found the words escaping her mouth. The crowd was too stupefied to respond.

"I did not, Lady Olivia." The words were delivered with a pitying stare that further fanned her anger.

She looked beseechingly to Queen Laura sitting from her perch.

"Are you accusing the whole court of lying to you, Lady Olivia?" King Gideon's words cracked like a whip, sending cheeks red, humiliated.

Queen Laura said nothing. Her eyes glinted coldly.

Lady Olivia could only glare and stand there in the field sullenly as she watched Artemis take the bow and arrow from her nervous-looking maid. There was something about Artemis that made Olivia narrow her eyes from her place. She was composed and deceptively serene. She saw the mocking glance sent her way before she saw Artemis's gaze was wrapped by the blindfold she had earlier requested.

When the soldier beat the drum, Olivia saw her smile. It was a faint twisting of her lips. She took the first arrow and released it. It was very far from the target.

She felt jubilant. She did not have to worry about her loss earlier.

The soldier drummed. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.

Everybody's eyes went round. Someone let out a titter.

She gazed directly at Artemis but she was unfazed. If anything, she looked happy. Olivia did not know what to make out of her. Another arrow flew.

It struck the ground an arm's length away from her.

One. Two. Three.

She heard a few of the women snickered. A smile tugged her lips. She kept it there when another arrow was released. She did not turn but the snickers slowly died down when the arrow landed nearer.

The wind whipped past her cheeks. Something stung her left cheek. She found her fingers painted in red.

Shaken, she looked at Artemis, wanting to taunt her but it got stuck in her throat when she saw the unwavering smile on the woman's face. Was that a coincidence or was the woman aiming at her? She remembered Artemis struggling with the bow and arrows being shot towards the bushes. Uncertainty ran through her as the scratch on her face started to sting. She did not check where the arrows had landed.

"W-What are you doing?" She asked as she saw Artemis aim another arrow at her.

She held her composure but nothing could stop the cold sweat that ran through her back.

"I'm practicing my targeting skills." She replied nonchalantly. Somebody snickered.

"Keep to yourself, Lady Olivia. I might end up shooting your mouth."

"Enough!" Queen Laura said but Artemis quickly released the poised arrow effectively silencing her words. It took a moment for her to realize that the way she drew her arrow and fired was far too adept than the ones earlier. Olivia could only helplessly stand there and watch as Artemis released an arrow aimed earnestly at her. She instinctively moved away from the first shot and did not register that Artemis also released another shot. The crowd was aghast. The soldier was not able to drum on time because the arrows fired were just too fast.

Her cold hands touched the apple on her head.

It was shot cleanly through.

It fell from her numb fingers and rolled on the ground.

She saw Artemis remove the blindfold and make her way towards her. She was far too shocked to move.

"Sorry," Artemis said in that perfectly innocuous tone that reeked of insincerity. "My aim was a bit . . . off." She made a great show of flexing her wounded hand. She gave her, Olivia, a pitying glance that had the latter's hackles rising. Did she mean that without the wound the arrows would be embedded on her rather than the ground? "You have to forgive this Consort, Lady Olivia, for not introducing myself properly."

The Consort's fingers touched her cheek in a mock caress. She saw the woman's hands dipped in red. Fingers also found themselves around her neck. From the observers, it looked like Artemis was merely checking the extent of her injuries but they both knew better. Just a subtle application of pressure from those fingers could kill her. Her pulse fluttered fiercely under the woman's fingertips.

As if sensing her anger and fear, Artemis gave her a beatific smile that chilled her bones.

The fingers unlocked her neck and she could do nothing but fall. Her knees were too weak and she was trembling all over. When she had finally regained herself, she looked to see the guards clean the mess.

Nobody met her eyes.


Lady Olivia was furious.

She had never been so thoroughly humiliated. Inside her quarters, shards of glass carpeted the floor. The servants stayed away, afraid to be the brunt of her wrath.

She had been close to grasping the situation. The rumors were thick with the Consort's incompetence. It was further fuelled by the latter's absence but that little trick managed to tear the fa├žade!

She should not have underestimated that country bumpkin! Not only had she lost favor! She was now indebted to that woman!

However, it could not be helped. King Gideon is backing the woman but she had the Queen as her supporter. However, with the current score, the Queen might not help her . . . What could she do?

Her gaze landed on the dripping ink.

Maybe she could ask her brother to return earlier?