“You’re not getting any younger, Alex, and neither am I.
“You will be thirty-two in a few months, well past the age to marry.” King Rollo stated, looking up at his eldest over a steaming plate of roast beef.
Rollo patted his mouth clean with a white linen handkerchief before reaching for a crystal goblet of burgundy.
Alexander barely suppressed a groan. At least once a month since his twenty-eight birthday his father would harp about how he was still unwed.
What was galling was his father was right; it was past time he was wed.
It was just that all the women who had been trotted past him at balls, soirees, or garden parties had the intelligence or conversational skills of a sponge.
His mother had spoiled him for every other woman. His mother, while pretty, had been devastatingly intelligent.
She’d been a devoted gardener, herbalist, and botanist. She could not only name every plant in the vast royal garden and surrounding forest, but tell you how to grow them and what they were used for.
Alex had spent many happy hours as a child accompanying his mother as she worked in the gardens or wandered in the forest to draw and paint the plants there.
When he’d turned twelve, his mother had forbidden him from following her about until he’d spent time with both the royal tutors and his father, learning how to fight.
She had told him that a king needed to be wise in all things and as skilled with a sword as he was with his tongue, that a king needed to be smart and a good fighter to better understand his people.
King Rollo had been a bear of a man in his youth and at the age of sixty-two was still regarded as a worthy adversary in combat.
Alex, at first to please his mother, had spent time on both his studies and in sword practice. As the years had passed, he was glad he’d done as she’d asked.
He’d honed both his body and his mind into weapons, but his greatest joy was the study of plants.
It never ceased to amaze him how one could plant a tiny shriveled brown lump and after a period of time a beautiful flower or stalk of corn would grow.
He’d developed several new varieties of roses over the past five years, as well as two kinds of more hardy grain that produced a higher yield and required less water, all to the amusement of his bear of a father.
“Yes, I know. But my studies have kept me busy, and the women the royal advisers have paraded past me have the intelligence of limpets, and that is an insult to limpets.
“I would like to find a woman as intelligent and beautiful as my mother was. I still don’t know how you managed to win her hand,” Alex replied, poking at his massive slice of roast beef.
“I was more interested in your mother’s wealth than her mind when we first met, though I was favored by the gods to have married a woman who was both clever and pretty.”
King Rollo stabbed at his plate of roast beef. “In truth, when we first met, I was more interested in her older cousin.
"Her cousin was a stunningly beautiful woman with hair like sunshine and blue eyes.
“Your mother was a pretty, quiet little creature who would laugh at my attempts to curry her cousin’s favor. Your mother even gave me advice on how to win her cousin’s hand.”
Alex frowned. “You did not think mother was beautiful.” He’d always thought his mother a beauty, with her honey-brown hair and green eyes.
“No. Pretty, but not beautiful. That is not to say I did not love her. Over time we became best friends.
“I also admired her spirit of adventure. She was always willing to go traipsing through the forest with me, while her cousin Cecil wouldn’t even set a toe beyond the garden path.
“Your mother would follow me while I went hunting or hiking. Of course, she would stop from time to time to spout off something about this plant or that plant.
“I never paid much mind to what she said, till the day I was gored by a wild boar. You know she saved my life, don’t you.”
“Yes, she shot the boar in the eye, killing it, while your guards cowered.” Alex was never tired of hearing the tale. It always made him smile to think of his tiny mother staring down a charging boar.
“Hell of a shot she was.
“Then, while my servants had a fit over my injury, your mother calmly cared for my wound, stopped the bleeding with moss, then crumpled tree bark into it to take away the pain and stop infection.”
Rollo smiled and then took a long swig of wine. “She even instructed my servants on how to make a drag to return me to court. She then tended my wounds and stayed with me till I was well.
“When the time came for me to decide on who to wed, my father told me it was down to two choices: I could have her cousin or your mother. Your mother was very rich, as was her cousin.
“But I decided if I was to spend a lifetime with a woman, I should at least enjoy her company. I’d also fallen for her. She was tiny, but as fierce as a she-bear.
“She was also good company, and loyal. I never regretted the decision to marry her. She was a true friend and helpmate and gave me not only you but your brothers and sisters.”
“I see,” Alex replied, unsettled by his father’s words. He’d always thought his father had been as dazzled by his mother’s beauty as he had been. “You did not like her looks.”
“I did not say that. Merely that she was not a great beauty. I liked her looks very well. She had a most excellent figure, with the shapeliest little legs. And well, her bosom was compared to none.
“If I hadn’t liked her, do you think we would have had all ten of you?”
Rollo laughed at Alex’s uneasy look. “Come, you are a man now. I know you have a mistress. I am simply saying that your mother had other charms that I did not understand or enjoy till we wed.”
Rollo gave his son another grin. “In all the years we were wed, I never shared my bed with another woman. Your mother was my best friend as well as my wife.
“But enough about me. You must find your own woman.
“You need children. If you don’t get married and busy making babies soon, I’ll have to yield to the council’s wishes and name your brother Harold my successor.
“While I love Harold, he is thick as a post. But he is fertile. He and his plumb duchess have already given me four grandsons.
“However, I fear the country would fall to ruin or war or both in his hands.”
Alex poked at his meat, trying to buy time. “I would like to meet a woman and see if she likes me for who I am, and not my wealth, before I wed her.
“It is hard to believe any of those simpering birdbrains I have met like me for myself. They all like me because I am a prince.”
“Ah, I see your dilemma. You could simply marry one that you feel some desire for, and then once you have begotten an heir, take a girl you like for a mistress. ’Twas what my father did.”
Rollo stuffed a large slice of roast beef into his mouth and chewed noisily.
Alex scowled at his father. His father might be a king, but he still had the table manners of the warlord that he’d been. “I can’t think grandmother was too happy about that.”
Rollo shrugged. “No. Mother was rarely happy. But Father was.”
“I would rather marry a girl I find both desirable and intelligent, who also desires me for myself and not because I’m a prince,” Alex replied.
“If I might, Your Majesty,” Giles, Alexander’s cousin, said from the other end of the table.
“What is it, Giles?” Rollo asked, waving a hand at him.
“Alexander’s problem stems from the problem he is a prince. He simply has to go someplace where no one will know him as a prince.
“Then he will have nothing but his charm to attract a worthy wife,” Giles replied.
“Go someplace no one knows him? What are you suggesting?” Rollo drained his glass then motioned a footman over to fill it.
“Her late majesty left a large estate to Alex in her native city of Travanger, if I remember correctly. Your sister-in-law, Lady Valencia, lives there now.
“The estate possesses a large garden as well. His Majesty could go to Travanger and take on a disguise. There is a very large university in Travanger that only takes girls of noble birth.”
Giles shifted his gaze from Alexander to the king and then back.
“I’m not following you, boy. Just spit it out.” King Rollo fixed Giles with a scowl.
“The university has a very large market before it. The prince could pose as, say, a flower seller and study ladies as they come and go.
“Once he spots a few likely candidates, he could pose as a simple nobleman and arrange to meet them in a more sophisticated setting.
“He would then know which of the ladies was truly interested in him and not his title,” Giles replied.
“I like it. Sneaky. Very sneaky. But I can’t send my heir off to another country alone.
“Doesn’t matter if they are our ally or not. He could be kidnapped or killed,” King Rollo replied then scowled into his empty glass.
“Damn these tiny glasses. Bring me my flagon. How is a man to quench his thirst with but a mouthful of wine at a time?”
A footman bowed to Rollo then hurried to an ornate cabinet at the end of the dining hall. He returned a moment later with a pewter flagon large enough to hold half a bottle of wine.
The footman set it beside the king with a bow while another footman filled it with wine.
“He wouldn’t be alone. I would go with him, as would several trusted companions. He would be safe. And to ensure there was no danger, he would have to keep the prince’s journey a secret.”
Giles caught Alexander’s eyes, and Alexander knew his cousin was up to something.
Rollo nodded. “Out, all of you. I want to speak to my son and his friend alone. And leave the damn wine.” The servants hurried to comply, closing the dining room door after them.
“Now, Giles, tell me more of your plan.”
Over the next hour, Giles detailed his plan of passing off Alex and his two friends, Ahern and Bowden, as simple street merchants in the market of Travanger.
He even detailed a plan of making them traveling wagons to help with their disguises.
“I like it. It’s a good plan. But you must take more men, ten at least. Alex is my firstborn, and I’d not have him put in jeopardy,” Rollo said.
“You’d let me go too?” Alex demanded in surprise. He was more than a bit annoyed that his father had not only gone along with Giles’s plan, but had insisted he take guards with him.
He was a man of twenty-nine and had fought in battle twice, not a child that needed coddling.
“I do not need guards. I can handle myself.”
“You take the damn guards, or you stay home and marry a girl of my choosing. I’ve been too lenient on you, as you were my favorite, but it’s time you acted as a man.
“My father gave me little choice, but I promised your mother I’d let you have some freedom.
“Now, either you try Giles’s plan, or I summon every lord in the kingdom with a daughter of age and you pick one by the weekend,” Rollo thundered, pounding his tankard on the table and sending wine sloshing everywhere.
Alex forced himself not to jump at his father’s bellow.
Alex often forgot his father was a berserker and had become king by helping his grandfather murder the former king of Glomma and defeating over a hundred men in single combat by the age of twenty-five.
“Fine. I shall do as you demand. Perhaps Giles is right, and I shall find a girl who likes me for who I am.
“If nothing else, it shall be good to see mother’s homeland and visit aunt Valencia,” Alex replied. “How do you plan to build these wagons you spoke of, Giles?”
Giles smiled. “I’ve several ideas on that score. But don’t worry. I plan to make them both functional and comfortable.”
The king made a snort at Giles’s reply. The king thought Alex and all his sons had become soft.
“You have something against comfort, Father?” Alex asked.
“It’s fine for old women and the sick, but a warrior must be used to hardships. In my youth I was lucky to have a bedroll, much less a tent,” the king stated.
“I’m not going into battle, merely trying to find a wife. Therefore I should be at my best, if I’m to find a girl, not churlish because I had a poor night’s sleep,” Alex replied.
“Easy, Alex, Your Majesty. The wagon will be a combination of both comfort and practicality.
“It also can’t be too luxurious. After all, you will not be His Majesty Alexander Magnus Thorbrand, but simply Alex Magnusson,” Giles stated.
Alex nodded. He just hoped the bed was big enough. At six foot five it was a damn nuisance to find a bed big enough.
He looked across the table to see Giles give him a smile, and he knew his friend would see to his need. He wasn’t his father, and he never would be, thank the gods.
Alex watched his father finish another tankard of wine before falling asleep in his chair.
No, he’d never be his father. And if that meant enjoying a soft bed and using his brains to rule instead of brute strength, then all the better.
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