The Lady Diamanta threw a gold-and-ruby pomegranate at Maxime's head. He ducked, but it still clipped the top edge of his ducal coronet and spun into the wall of the receiving room before hitting the floor and spinning to a stop.
"My lady," Maxime said, "I understand you're disappointed--"
A handblown goblet whizzed by his ear; he flung up his hand and caught it before it could shatter against the ducal throne behind him. "Now, wait," he said. "That was a particular token of my esteem--look, it has all these beautiful cloudfish etched into the bowl--"
"Fuck you!" the Lady Diamanta screamed.
"I'm afraid not," Maxime said. "I did not agree to this marriage. Therefore I will not marry you."
Diamanta vibrated with rage, her slender fingers clenched upon the next gift, a handful of ebony hairsticks topped with gold knobs, the rich coppery-red gold of the far south, seldom seen in the duchies. She snarled, "You have no choice in the matter."
"On the contrary," Maxime said. "I am a Duke of the Realm. I may marry whom I please. My charter clearly states--"
"You will marry at the king's command," Diamanta said, her voice going cold. She set the hairsticks back on the table, but continued to fondle them, as an archer might fondle arrows. "If you refuse me, my life will be ruined."
"No, it won't," Maxime said. "You hate me. You've hated me since we were both fourteen." He set the goblet on another table, out of her reach.
Diamanta licked her lips. They were plump and pink and inviting. She said, "My feelings don't enter into it, nor do yours. I am wealthy."
"So am I."
"That's why we belong together. That's why I am to be a duchess. My father's wealth will provide a substantial dowry for the crown, and for your duchy as well. I've been trained for this role from birth."
"You won't be my duchess," Maxime said. He clasped his hands behind his back. The elaborate rings he'd worn, hoping she'd see them as the respect he intended for her, dug painfully into his fingers. "I am despondent you travelled all this way. I informed the king weeks ago I would not marry you, or anyone of his choosing. Perhaps you could convey this to him directly."
He held her gaze. She held his. Slowly, she released her grip on the hairsticks and trailed her fingers up her ribcage and over her bosom. It was one of the finest bosoms in all the duchies. She lifted a brow. Maxime shook his head.
Diamanta took one of the hairsticks and briskly used it to tidy dislodged strands of her platinum-pale hair. She remarked, "You would have been lucky to have me. You're not such a prize, you know. No matter what the women of the court say of your...endowments."
"I'd rather not be a prize in a contest," Maxime said. "You will of course accept my gifts, which express my regret in refusing our betrothal?"
Diamanta cast a glance over the tables spanning the room, each one laden with silks, jewels, and exquisite handicrafts. Thirty matched tourmalines were arrayed on black velvet. A tiny yellow bird with an orange beak warbled sweetly in its bamboo cage, and an albino monkey sat on a realistic carving of a tree, eating a grape.
Feigning reluctance, Diamanta said, "I suppose they will have to do." She gestured to her silently waiting maid, whirled in a swirl of silks, and exited.
When the door closed, Maxime sank into a chair and scrubbed his hands over his cropped dark beard. He'd barely escaped a fate that made him shudder inside, that being a lifetime of brittle politeness and sex with someone to whom he didn't want to even converse.
He was lucky the king hadn't had him drugged and forced to speak vows. He cast a glance at his wineglass, remembered Diamanta had passed near it, and poured the remainder of the wine into a potted tree.
He'd thought he had more time.