Iris looked at her husband and wondered, not for the very first time that day, how come she was so lucky to marry him. She inspected his elegant face, with eyes like two emeralds and his light golden hair long enough to reach his shoulders. She remembered the first time she saw him at her best friends coming of age party, less than a year ago.

Elisabeth Larossi had become 18 only three months after her, and the viscount, her father, planned the most superb party in the whole kingdom of Thrakia. They really wanted to show the wealth of the most fertile land, Razan, and, to make sure everybody knew it, they invited every important lord and their families. And it didn stop at Thrakia, as even some foreigners could be seen. People from the Azure Islands from across the Euxine sea in the west, with their dark skin and traditional feather clothes seemed very odd in the middle of the mass of shiny party gowns. But the meriasi from the northern kingdom, Meria, were almost at home, the only difference being their height, towering over everyone else in the ballroom. Even the beast people from the east, the daoi who became part of Thrakia by alliance only five decades ago, came, looking rather normal despite all the strange rumors about them.

But nobody shone more than Benjamin Walter who just last year became the hero of Buri, the region east of Argidava, her fathers dukedom. Iris was only 16 when the hero from Atulus castle went up the river to wipe out all the monsters from the Dark Wood which was later blessed by the high priest of the new faith so that no devil would make the forest its home again. The task was considered madness. Bloody monsters of all types were said to have made their lair in the Dark Wood long before the forming of Thrakia, in the time of the old wizard kings who ruled only half of todays territory. In the other half, the monsters, the spawns of the devil made it impossible for any human to pass through and only those brave enough, or stupid enough as Elisabeth often said, would venture into it. That was a time from before, a time only from the stories of nannies and old people. But some such places remained and Black Wood was one of them.

Nobody thought the forest could be purified, especially not by the new lord of only 22 of Buri region who was still mourning the loss of his father. But the young lord was determined to rid his land of every beastly being and even asked for help from the Beast Lord, ruler of the wolf people, the daoi of Walchia in the north-east. It was only sensible for Lord Kian to participate in the cleaning as the forest laid at their lands borders, but the Beast Lord is said to have had his eyes in the mountains in the east and had to deal with his own infestation there. When no help came, he took his whole army and marched into the forest. No sooner than a year later did they return, with less than a quarter of their army, but with victory on their side. Songs about Benjamin the Bold, the fearless lord from Atulus castle, could be heard across the continent and even to the far away islands in the Euxine sea. The warrior who was protected by the gods as he came back from the was without a single injury and the people began to think he might be the Holy One.

But to the girls and women of the country he was also known as Benjamin the Handsome and many fathers reached out with marriage proposals to him, but he showed little to no interest in the matter, and turned them all down in the most polite manner possible. And he remained unmarried for the past two years. And the rumors regarding him only grew bigger and bigger.

”I heard that he has a lover of lowly birth, with hair that burns beautifully as the setting sun ”, said Evie the daughter of Lord Mainly, a subject of Viscount Larossis, and childhood friend of Elisabeth.

They were discussing at Elisabeths coming of age party and Iris was just as impressed as anyone in their group.

”She is a witch, I heard ”, added Evies partner and fiancé, Christer Downey, future lord of the two towers in the north of Razan, ”she put a spell on him and everyone should be careful of her yellow dragon-like eyes! ” He paused to see the effect of his words before adding with a laugh. ”Stories for children of course! He probably has some lover who gave him a bastard like every other lord in this land. ”

”The dishonor of others is not what I would like to hear at my party ”, scrutinized Elisabeth and Christer gave a nod of apology before she continued. ”The lord presents a marriage opportunity for every young girl present here, regardless of such words. ”

”Did he not just receive the title of Viscount from the Crown Prince? ” inquired Iris.

”He did ”, said Evie, ”and a fortune with it as well. ”

”A handsome and rich lord, with the status of a hero ”, murmured Elisabeth, examining him while he made his way to congratulate the host of the party.

”A most wonderful day to celebrate you, My Lady! May every day of your life be just as blessed as this one. ”

Elisabeth gave him her gloved hand and Lord Walter brushed his lips on its back.

”My friends, Evie Mainly and her fiancé Christer Downey ”, Elisabeth introduced them.

”It is only in order to congratulate you on your betrothal then! I hope your union will only be full of wonders! ”

”And Iris Martel, the daughter of duke Martel ”, she added.

”Rumors of your beauty precedes you, My Lady, ” Lord Walter said while he kissed the back of her hand. ”But they do not do you justice. ”

Iris blushed before being able to say anything, but finally responded.

”I am honored to make acquaintance with the hero of Dark Wood. ”

”The honor is all mine, My Lady. ”

He looked for a moment longer into her eyes, searching for something, before continuing his way through the mass, only to return later to ask her for a dance. It was their first one, followed by many others. They danced at every party they both attended after that and, for Iris, Lord Walter was much more than the rumors. He was courtesy embodied, showering her with compliments and telling her about his travels to the capital, making her laugh and enjoy herself all night. It went on for months and from holding their hands while dancing to small touches between them to finally being alone in the garden that night, the night the duke found them on that moonless night. And only a month after, they were married.

Elisabeth came before her wedding, worried she was hurrying into this it, but Iris felt blissful and couldn wait for it to come. And for their wedding night. She assured her she was happy and that this is what she wanted, despite her father pleas to think more about her situation.

”In the end, what did he expect? ” Iris furiously asked her friend, ”he made Durian, my younger brother, his heir although I am his firstborn. I wasn even considered a woman when he announced it, much less was my brother a man. ” She had tears in her eyes when Elisabeth hugged her in consolation. ”It is only expected of me to marry, and marry into a good family. No one can complain that my future husband is not a perfect match for any young lady. Is it not so? ”

”It is ”, Elisabeth agreed, ”it is. It was not my intention to make you sad before your wedding. If you are happy, then who can tell you to do otherwise ”

”But I am happy, Ella, I am most happy! ”

They hugged and Elisabeth was a little sad that her best friend is going to become a bride and a Lady of another land, further away from her. But she could also see the pure happiness in Iris eyes.

”I promise to write to you as often as I can. Not a week will go by without a letter from me and I expect the same from you, although I understand that your new position will make you busy. ”

”You will receive so many letters you will be sorry you asked. ” They both laughed.

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