Ariel stared at him. The training kit chafed under her arms and weighed on her shoulders. It was a men's small, the smallest the program had to offer, but it was still two sizes too large on her petite frame. It had been too long since a female knight had walked these halls.
“I thought you had time to finish the program," Anthony said. "And a year to tour before the wedding.”
Ariel shrugged, adjusting the shoulder pads again. “That was before the war broke out,” she said. “With my family's holdings, and your family's land right on the border...” she trailed off. She knew she didn't need to finish the thought--Anthony had heard the rest, more than once. “They need the allegiance to be formalized now.” She ran her finger along a crack in the leather of the wrist guard. The jagged edge reminded her of the scar she knew ran down the side of Anthony's face, drawing a bending red river that clipped the lobe of his left ear before burrowing under his hair line. It reminded her of how she'd almost died that day, eight months ago. How he'd saved her, and how things had been so different between them afterwards.
“Why did it have to be Marc?” Ariel heard the real question in his voice: Why wasn't it me? But she'd known, as had he, that he was his father's mistake with another woman, and a poor choice to secure a political ally.
“Your brother is a fine enough man,” Ariel said, though she knew the question hadn't been meant for her.
Anthony scoffed. “Man. Barely a man. He's just 18. The paint on his shield isn't even dry yet.”
“And I'm only 16,” she pointed out. “And I won't ever have a shield. Not now,” she said softly.
“Just a dress.”
She looked up at him. How similar he looked to his younger brother--same strong jaw line, same tight curls hugging his head. But his eyes held a depth his brother's lacked--a wisdom, a compassion. A deep-seated pain she wished she could pull from him. “It's not a wedding dress I want,” she whispered.
“It's not Marc I want you to marry.” The pain expanded, swallowing the color in his eyes. She turned away before it took her as well.
“Ariel,' he reached for her hand. She pulled away but he caught the wrist guard. Only his little finger rested on her skin, curling around the edge of her arm. She yearned to feel the heat of his whole hand on her skin. He tugged her towards him and she let her body flow forward until her training pads pressed against his chest.
“How silly you look in this kit,” he said, a gentle smile playing on his lips.
She glanced down. “Marc says I look like a child playing dress up.” She swallowed the sting of the words.
“My brother is a fool,” he said. “But this thing is rather absurd.” In a single motion, he'd undone the ties along the back and Ariel felt the heavy padding fall from her body. Now there was nothing between them but inches. Anthony let his hand linger at the small of her back.
“Choose me instead,” he whispered, pressing his mouth next to her ear. “We would make the greatest knight team.”
Ariel drew in a sharp breath. “I can't.” She fought the urge to cry. “It's not my choice.”
He pulled away to look at her. His face hovered inches from hers. She could see the shadow of stubble along his chin. She ran her thumb along it, shivering as the rough texture pulled at her skin.
“Run away with me. Tonight. I have friends in the southern border towns. We could be out of the country in less than a week's time.” His hands cupped the sides of her face, tangling in her hair.
Ariel could the plan forming in his mind. They'd share a horse, two packs strapped to the back. He'd give her the reins. They would ride hard through the night, his hands wandering from her waist to stroke her hair back from her face. His mouth would leave constellations of kisses on her neck.
His mouth. It was a dangerous thing. His lips were fuller than his brother's. She knew his kiss would be softer too, more practiced than Marc's frantic pecking. She drew her body tight against his, allowing him to tilt her face upwards. The soft puffs of air from his nose tickled her face.
“Anthony,” she breathed. She closed her eyes, almost feeling the shadow of his mouth on hers.
The door reverberated with three loud knocks. A voice called her name from the other side--it was Marc, and she could tell he was angry about something.
She took a step back. “I can't.” She turned towards the door. She couldn't keep her future husband waiting.