During the long horse ride, Adalberht managed to place himself next to Herta, who seemed to be trying to avoid him.
‘You're very quiet.’
‘Yes. Are you angry with me?’
‘Angry? Of course not. Not at all. Why would I be?’
‘I don't know. But you seem to be.’
She kept on riding in silence.
‘Aren't you going to tell me what's bothering you?’
‘Adalberht,’ she finally said, looking at him in the eye, ‘you can't just... What do you want from me?’
‘Want from you?’ He thought for a moment. ‘It's hard to say if you put it that way.’
‘Well, just don't expect anything, then.’ Now, her bad mood was more than evident. And it was also evident that, whatever she was upset about had to do with him.
‘As you wish. But it won't be a very merry cohabitation if you don't intend to talk to me or to let me talk to you.’
There was enough distance from the other two riders for them not to be heard.
‘Is that the plan? For the four of us to live together?’
He was surprised, but, most of all, hurt.
‘I'm guessing it's not.’
Their horses went on trotting while Adalberht could almost touch the thin ice wall that was growing between them.
Herta didn't say another word. However, he could not bear an instant of feeling that he was not invited to be in her company.
‘If you want me to, I'll leave,’ he stated, with all the bitterness a voice could transmit in just seven words.
She still remained silent, but he, for so many reasons, could not just turn around and go away.
‘Do you want me to?’ he insisted.
Herta knew she was not acting right. And she was also gradually realizing that her foolishness was based on the feelings which, whether she liked it or not, were growing inside her for him.
‘Do you?’ was the only thing she could answer, although it was not really an answer. But it was enough for Adalberht to understand everything there was to understand.
‘Certainly not,’ he told her, completely ruling out the idea of leaving. ‘Are you worried? Is that why you look so upset?’
‘Yes, Adalberht. I'm very worried. We may... we do care for each other, but we are strangers! Four strangers with very different origins. You are the heir to the throne.’
‘Please, let me finish. You are! You're a prince who renounces his past and his destiny, but you've been raised with values and expectations that are so different from those Detlef or I may have. Flora is practically a member of nobility, with a sorceress mother and a childhood I still have no idea about. Detlef is a servant who didn't want any problems but now finds himself in so much trouble by chance... and also for love.’
‘Oh, I'll explain that to you later. And I... I just wanted to lose sight of the three vipers I was living with.’
Adalberht burst out laughing and the other two turned around to look.
‘Yes. I think you've painted quite an accurate picture of our situation. Except about Detlef. You'll have to tell me more about that. But you have not taken into account that people can actually change and adapt to new circumstances. Especially if the new circumstances are truly worth it.’
‘And you are already sure of that? You already know that this is the best option, as Detlef said yesterday? That everything will be all right?’
‘None of us is as naive as to expect that, I think. Despite our youth, life has already shown us how cruel and merciless it can be. And that is something the four of us have in common. Don't forget that when you rack your brain, trying to find differences. Nevertheless, that must not stop us. This path is uncertain, I agree, but it gives us the chance to find something good; something we would not have if each one of us stayed were we were. Which —staying where we were, I mean— is not an option as available to us as Flora seems to think. We were all in danger. All of us! The duchess will not want any loose ends, and she will soon find powerful allies in the court, who will make her even more dangerous. Kasimir will be easy prey, I'm sure. And he isn't aware of the kind of people he will be surrounded by yet.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I'm talking about the great lords of the kingdom, the most influential members of nobility, who collaborated with my father in his conquests and in his not-too-benevolent administration. My father was an authoritarian king who certainly did not think of the well-being of his people (that's what started to create a distance between us a long time ago); but he wasn't governing on his own. There were many hands stirring the broth. Things are not going to change just because he has been replaced. Many players would have to be removed for the game to be really different.’