The sights and sounds of Farrador were more interesting than I expected. I wished I could have leisurely explored the countryside, though the unrest along the fae-human border didn’t allow it. Bethonia needed an alliance quickly. Too many lives were at risk, and my father was counting on me.
However, my guardsman and I had traveled fast with barely a rest over the past two weeks. And, since the castle was in sight, and it was such a beautiful day, there wouldn’t be any harm in strolling through the market for a while before we announced ourselves. It would give me a break to relax and clear my thoughts before I began negotiations. All business and no play or some such saying came to mind.
“The castle is right there, Leo. Let’s go, get this meeting over with, and then you can come back and explore on our way home. It’s why we’ve come so far, isn’t it? The faster we prove that the fae king won’t allow his daughter to marry a human prince, the faster we can be on our way.” Brom’s complaints were abundant, but I’d learned to ignore them throughout the years of our friendship.
“The sun is shining, there’s beauty everywhere. Enjoy a few minutes of this with me. There’s no harm in taking in the sights. Smell that fresh bread!” I draped my arm over his shoulder, which was easy since he was a good four inches shorter than my six-foot frame. “I’d rather have gone to the border and earned our glory in the battles, too. But, if duty is about to string me up onto the gallows of marriage, I will enjoy a bit of the journey before I hang.”
Brom sighed with a shake of his head. “Just try to behave yourself. We don’t know the customs of this fief. The king may not take kindly to you flirting with all the maidens.”
I’d already stopped listening. His argument was always the same. “Hello, there.” I greeted a youthful woman with a basket over her arm. She had beautiful lilac-colored skin and opalescent wings rested down the back of her dress. Let Brom say what he wanted, but every lass enjoyed a compliment.
I lingered at a table filled with intricately carved jewelry. Several pieces had dazzling stones that in my homeland only nobility could afford, yet there they sat, as trinkets. I examined a brooch perfect for my mother. My usual charming smile in place, I asked for the price.
An older gentleman in the booth, whose horns curled around the sides of his head like obsidian glass, answered me. “It’s fifteen jarmas, my kind sir.”
“A fine price. Would you be willing to accept Bethonian coin? I’m traveling and have not exchanged my funds into fae currency as yet.”
“Few humans enter our realm for commerce. Unfortunately, that means their coin doesn’t have much value here. If you see the numalari who presides over the market, he may help you.”
“Thank you, that’s most helpful. Would you mind pointing me toward this individual?” I found the fae to be fascinating and polite. Though I often saw a gleam in their countenance which I suspected was excitement from seeing a human, since relations between our realms had become rare.
“You see? We can’t even buy lunch. Let’s head straight to the castle,” Brom whispered as I moved to the next stall. I saw no reason to alter my plans.
“I’ve never seen you two here before, are you new to town?” A voice rang into my ears as if an angel had spoken from heaven.
Turning, I met the smiling face of a fae maiden who appeared near my age. Sparkling sapphire eyes mesmerized me so much I couldn’t find my voice. It took a sharp jab to my ribs from Brom before I shook myself out of the daze.
“We are indeed. My friend and I are on a journey through Farrador. It’s most fortunate we stopped by this market today.”
“Oh? Why’s that? Is it so different from the markets of Bethonia?”
There was an air about her unlike other maidens I’d met. She held her shoulders back with confidence and met my gaze as strong as any man.
“It’s the most impressive I’ve seen. Full of wonder and beauty that’s unparalleled in my travels so far.” She didn’t shy away at my obvious attempt at flattery, but arched a brow and smiled wider.
“Is that so? I don’t see that you’ve made any purchases yet for being so impressed. You should try Miriam’s cava rolls, they’re delightful.” She pointed to a steaming tray of rolled pastries sitting on a table in front of a rotund woman with a goatee. A grin, missing several teeth, greeted me with what I assumed counted as a curtsy, when I glanced at her.
Quickly greeting the merchant, I returned my gaze to the fair-haired maiden. “It seems I need to meet someone called the numalari to have the proper payment first.”
“Hmm.” The woman twisted her lips and shrugged at the merchant. “Handsome, but penurious—how sad. Allow me to purchase one for you, they’re my favorite snack, and it would be a shame for you to miss out on them.” She handed the woman three coins from the pocket of her skirt before I could stop her.
“I assure you miss, I’m fully funded. It’s just that my coin is from the human realm.” I took the warm offering she handed me while I made my protest. She leaned around and handed one to Brom as well, though only gave him a quick nod before returning her attention to me.
“That’s good to hear. I’d hate for you to get into any trouble. The fae lands are not safe for the unprepared. How long will you be our guest?”
“We haven’t decided yet,” Brom mumbled with his mouth full.
“Our itinerary is open. I like to make sure I have time for whatever may arise. Do you have any suggestions for what entertainment we should take in while visiting?” Truthfully, we had to get to the castle, but I could spare some time for the woman in front of me.
The maiden strolled toward the next booth, and I followed.
“You seem like a man who can find his way into many entertaining situations.” She nodded a greeting to the next merchant and held up a hand, seemingly to prevent the woman from speaking.
The gesture was one of authority and piqued my curiosity. “I’ve been remiss and haven’t introduced myself. My name is Leo, and this is Brom.” I swept my hand toward him without looking.
“I’m his—” Brom stumbled to finish his sentence after I threw him a quick glare, “Friend.”
I preferred to speak with the lass as an equal. Dressed in our riding clothes, there was nothing to identify my royal status, and I wanted to keep it that way.
“It’s nice to meet you both.” She flashed another grin. “I’m curious what brings a human on such a lengthy journey? It can’t be just to sample the street food.”
My pulse raced while I studied her elegant neck and pertly pointed ears. The question she asked nearly escaped me, and I stuffed my mouth with pastry until I remembered what she’d said. “I’m hoping for an audience with the king.” Brom grumbled, but I saw no harm in giving my intentions to an innocent young woman.
“How do you propose that will happen? There’s so much unrest along the borders of our lands lately, he might find it suspicious that a random Bethonian appears on his doorstep.”
She surprised me. I found it refreshing that she had such an intellectual observation. Most maidens I’d spoken with didn’t have the least concern about politics. I hesitated with my answer because suddenly the truth of my mission became an anvil on my chest.
Before I said anything, though, the merchant scurried out from behind her table and took hold of the maiden’s arm. “You must go now, miss.” The woman’s eyes were wide and insistent.
The maiden scanned the area and gasped, then hurried away without a word. I swiveled my neck each way, searching for what startled her.
“Wait! I don’t know your name!” I tried to follow her, but every towns person seemed to have an instant need to step into my way. She ducked around a booth, and I lost her in the crowd.
“That was interesting,” Brom said next to me. “I wonder what made her run off so fast?”
On my right, the crowd thinned, and two soldiers appeared. They seemed as frustrated as I was by the peasantry’s movements.
“That’s enough excitement for today, don’t you agree? We should speak with them about an escort into the castle for your meeting with the king.” Brom sighed, sounding relieved.
It was impressive that my friend was an excellent swordsman because he wasn’t much of an adventurer. Though I didn’t argue about leaving. My desire to speak with any other female had dissolved into nothing.
I’d speak with the king, but what I needed to know was the name of the beguiling maiden.
It was a familiar drill and all the townsfolk knew it. Whenever father discovered I wasn’t in my rooms, he sent guards to search for me.
The villagers helped hide me so often they had it timed like a dance. Sweeping me into their fold each time, and helping me disappear back to the castle as if I never left.
Leo shouted as I slipped out of sight. Enjoyable as the conversation with the handsome traveler had been, it was best that I didn’t dwell on his lovely cornflower-blue eyes any longer.
It was necessary to hurry back faster than usual. Father was more insistent that I stayed hidden away since he had arranged my betrothal.
I didn’t agree to the wretched marriage, nor would I.
Father wasn’t acting like himself lately, and this commitment was the biggest clue something was wrong. We’d had many discussions over the last few years regarding letting me choose a husband for myself, if I married at all. Then suddenly, after one meeting with his former advisor, I was engaged against my will.
It fueled my desire to exert my independence. In the village, everyone treated me as an equal, and understood that I deserved to experience the world around me.
I wished I had time to stop and speak with Amara at The Wooden Bridge. The owner of the tavern had been like a mother to me since I’d never known my own. We could discuss the reasons a charming human had shown up in our realm.
When I spoke to Leo of the border disputes, I divulged nothing about the attacks happening on the Western seas. Threats were coming from too many directions lately. Anyone who arrived uninvited to the castle would not be welcomed by my father.
I hesitated at the next corner and waited for an all-clear signal from Tamar, who watched my escape route from her window above the livery stables. After she waved me on, I rushed down the alley on my way to the inner keep wall.
I hurried between cottages to stay out of the open until I was at the wall’s ivy-covered break. Moving the leaves carefully aside, I slipped through, making sure nothing looked disturbed.
Once back inside, I hustled to the kitchens where the maids had created a hidden area in the dry goods pantry for me to change. That’s where I had left my gown.
“Princess, there you are!” Maude fanned herself with a shaky hand.
“I was in the village as usual, what’s the fuss? I expected to stay later than this. Why did father send the guards?” Maude hastened me to the secret room and helped me untie my apron. She then held my gown in the air, ready to slide it over my head after I slipped out of my simple frock.
“There’s a visitor expected who the king doesn’t trust. He became very upset when he found your room empty. He even started ranting that someone might have kidnapped you.”
“That’s absurd. Why is he acting so strangely?” I decided not to tell Maude about meeting Leo.
“Your father has been ill-tempered since his meeting with Rothbart.”
She’d seen it too, then.
I wiggled the gown into proper position, and Maude laced up the back. My hair was still in its braid, and I worked on letting it loose. As soon as Maude finished with the laces, she took over for me. Her expert fingers had my hair unbound in no time, then reformed into the proper style with only the front pulled away from my face. Just enough to allow the points of my ears to show.
“Thank you.” I spun and raced to my room, but Maude called me back.
She cradled my silver tiara in both hands like a fragile baby bird. “Don’t forget this!”
“Oh, right.” I grabbed it from her and squished it over my head to rest above my brows.
When I made it into the passage that led from the library, I slowed to a calm, collected walk. Anyone who happened upon me would have to believe my story—I’d been reading all afternoon.
At the end of the corridor, the grand staircase leading to my rooms was on the right, but voices came from father’s meeting chamber to the left. The place where he did business when he didn’t want the court’s audience.
For a second, I considered rushing to my bedroom, and waiting for a guard to find me. Then I’d listen to him harp on how he’d searched everywhere and couldn’t have missed me. Sometimes I enjoyed watching the pompous aristocrats, who clamored to join father’s guard, bluster and turn crimson.
But I enjoyed knowing the workings of my kingdom more. Father may have seen me as nothing more than a negotiation tool, but I intended to prove I was as capable as any male heir would have been. For that, I needed information.
I rushed left on my tiptoes to avoid noise on the shiny tile floors. In the hallway, I pulled on a gilded frame surrounding a life-sized portrait, exposing a secret door. I slipped into the hidden walkway and pulled the door closed behind me. Passageways built into the castle walls for the royal family to escape during troubled times, also led to superb listening locations for any who wished to stay informed.
I found the small hole, just big enough to see through with one eye, that hid within a swirl of the ornate wallpaper in father’s chamber. The view made it easy to see the massive chair, raised on a dais where father sat higher than anyone else. It wasn’t his throne, that was far grander, it was just a symbol that he was the ruler and anyone speaking to him wasn’t.
“It’s a shame you came all this way. If you’d sent word earlier, I’d have had time to reply and saved you the trip. My daughter has already been betrothed to a fine gentleman from Aclanor. His alliance will ensure the seas are free from pirates and our borders will settle into a peaceful coexistence once more,” father said.
I twisted my face and had to squish my cheek into the wall to get a view of who he spoke with. If the visitor would just step closer by two feet, I could see him. It was so frustrating. I should have been inside the room, not peering through the wall like a snoop.
“That’s certainly a beneficial arrangement, sire. One can hardly argue with it.”
I knew that voice. Though I needed the man to speak a few more words to figure out where I’d heard him before.
“It will please my father to know you’ve made a good union that will protect you against all enemies. We had a terrible experience once when a trusted advisor negotiated a deal on our behalf, yet turned around and sold his loyalty to pirates for a prize he deemed more worthy. It’s comforting to know this won’t happen in your lands. We make alliances now where each side has the same benefits and risks.”
I gasped, then threw my hands over my mouth as I rolled and pressed my back against the wall. The chamber became quiet while I held my breath.
Father sighed. “I’m sorry you had such troubles, but I’m positive we will not experience such an ordeal.” He paused, then continued in a louder, more scolding, authoritative tone thrown my way far too many times. “Princess Odette’s arrangement is sealed. She’ll be married by week’s end.”
Oh, no, I would not! It was bad enough for my father to speak of me like produce being sold at market, but the conversation was with the enchanting rapscallion knave I’d wasted a cava roll on. He was the prince?
All the men who thought they had a right to plan my life were about to find out how wrong they were.
About the Author:
S. K. Gregory is an author, editor and blogger. She currently resides in Northern Ireland.
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”