The only thing Esme loves more about her city than its two levels and abundant vegetation is the diversity of its inhabitants. Just two weeks earlier, she had found herself in the nest of a female harpy and had left with talon scratches on her legs. Tonight, she finds herself in bed with a muscular, purple-skinned demon, who has proved that he was definitely worth her time.
His fingers caress her hair as he marvels at her curls, and Esme examines his large, curved horns. In a demon community, horns like that put him near the top. In a city like this, he’s just another alpha male living on the second level.
“I think that the darker a human’s skin, the better curled their hair is,” the demon—she honestly can’t remember his name—says. “Those lighter ones always have wavy hair.”
Esme lets the demon touch her curls and make idle conclusions about humans. She doesn’t often let people touch her hair, but she’s making an exception for this man. He’s so interested in her that he wants to talk, and she appreciates it more than he knows.
“I’ve never met a human woman who wanted to bed me without an ulterior motive,” he had said. So here she is, still with him.
His touch is calming, and it allows her to forget who she is and makes her feel whole—but only for a moment. Trying to savor the feeling, she avoids looking at the wooden, owl-shaped clock on the wall across from the bed. The clock that is likely made of mahogany, and has a blue minute hand and a green hour hand, and a red second hand. The clock that is hung a little too high and is a little lopsided.
Okay, she’s looked at the clock, but not at the time. She can still say she didn’t realize she was running late.
Then she looks at it again. An honest mistake, but now she can’t delay her responsibilities any longer. She groans and pushes herself off the demon’s chest, letting her bare feet touch the floor. He watches her as she bends over to pick up her underwear.
“Leaving so soon?” he asks as she finds her clothes and gets dressed.
“It’s not late enough for me to stay the night,” Esme says, putting on her loose skirt. “I have other responsibilities, too, unfortunately. And I don’t think I would survive another round.”
His laughter fills the room. She faces him as she slips her arms into her blouse and buttons it up. She knows he’s not looking at her face, but it doesn’t bother her too much. When she’s covered up and straightens out her clothes, she meets his hard gaze.
“You’re beautiful,” he says. “You know that, right?”
He shakes his head and clicks his tongue.
Esme takes her shoulder bag and looks at her hair in the mirror. She needs to make sure she doesn’t look like she just spent the past few hours with an alpha demon when she sees her father again. The demon takes his cue and gets up to let her out of the house. He’s wearing nothing but a pair of shorts he had put on after they’d finished. Before he opens the door, he leans over and kisses her one last time.
“I’m not going to be able to do that again, am I?”
Esme gives him a solemn smile. “No, I don’t think so.”
The demon mirrors her expression and opens the door. It’s a one night thing. He knows that. They all do.
“Take care, princess,” he says, and the door closes behind her.
The night is crisp, but that’s only to be expected from a coastal city. She checks the hidden pocket in her skirt to make sure she has all her shells. She hasn’t been robbed by a one night stand yet, but it’s always a possibility. Some people respect their princess, and others see her as a target. Esme has learned to accept it.
All her shells are there. She takes a deep breath and the wind blows away the afterglow of her encounter, leaving her feeling empty again. She rubs her arms and shivers. Maybe she should have spent the night.
No, she tells herself, if I chose to spend the night I would be choosing to not be there when our guests arrive. Father would kill me.
She walks over a narrow bridge with grass growing in the cracks between the stones and vines hanging off the edge. The second level of the city is high above ground level, so it’s more broken up than the bottom level to keep it from blocking off sunlight to the ground. As she walks along the bridge, she looks over the edge, slightly disappointed that she isn’t above the wide river that runs through the city. Esme loves watching the night sky reflected in the water from the top level.
She takes a few turns and crosses a few more bridges as she gets closer to the palace. As the only building that fully occupies both the first and second level of the city, the palace is impossible to miss. On the first level, it’s massive and is surrounded by gardens filled with trees, bushes, and hanging vines. On the second level, its towers and spires rise higher than most of the buildings. During the daytime, the white marble reflects sunlight like a beacon and shines brilliantly.
A feather falls on her shoulder. She looks up to see two harpies on a tree branch having an argument. The larger of the two has short hair and eagle feathers, while the smaller female looks more like a starling and has her hair in a ponytail. They must have been at a party, because the eagle is wearing baggy pants with gold thread and has ornate feathers in his hair, while the starling is wearing a dress with hues of blues and glitter. Their crazed squawking and shouting blends into an incomprehensible cacophony. With a final retort, the starling jumps off and flies away, leaving the eagle behind.
Esme can’t help the smile that makes her way onto her face and the eagle stares at the branch where the starling was. His talons tap against the wood and he crosses his arms. With a huff, he spreads his arms and flies away as well, chattering to himself. She knows that if she could understand what they were arguing about, it would be twice as amusing.
The tolling of the bell tower in the distance reminds her that she needs to hurry back to the palace. Her father wouldn’t be happy if she wasn’t there to greet the guests, and the guests most likely wouldn’t be too pleased either. She breaks into a sprint, running over the final few bridges to the second level platform surrounding the palace.
The palace gates are guarded, but the guards only nod at her and open the doors. “They’re on the first level,” one of the guards tells her.
She runs inside the palace, hearing her shells bouncing against each other in their pocket. The second level is where she, her father, and any special guests reside. When she enters, though, she finds herself in a large hall with stairs going up and down and doors on every side. Esme runs to the stairs and slips a leg over the railing. She slides down the banister and ends at the central area of the palace on the first level. A smaller body of water flows from the first level of the palace into the river, and here is the large fountain it comes from. Though it’s pretty, the fountain isn’t what Esme is looking for. She heads through an archway behind the stairs and runs down the hallway to the dining room. The guests will be there, along with her father and anyone else who wants a late dinner.
When she enters the room, all eyes sitting at the long table are on her. Because there are so few people compared to the usual amount, her father and the guests are centered around the middle of the table. Her father turns around and meets her gaze with a look that says, ‘finally, you’re here’.
He clears his throat and stands. “If I may introduce my daughter, Princess Esme Wells.”
“Pleasure to meet you all,” Esme says with a curtsy before taking her seat next to her father.
They are eight in total—nine, now that Esme has joined. The two people sitting on either side of her and her father are two of their guards. Esme has managed over the years to convince her guards that she should be allowed to roam the city alone. A princess with her guards looks more like a princess and less like one of the people, and Esme wants the people to see her as one of their own, and if the past few years of encounters are anything to go by, they already do. She shivers involuntarily at the thought, remembering the demon and how warm she had felt when she was with him. Had it been any other night, she would have stayed with him.
The other five people are unfamiliar to her, but she can tell that they come from the same place and that at least two of them are related. There is a boy with hazel eyes and tousled brown hair sitting across from her who looks to be about her age. The man sitting next to him looks older than her father, but there is an obvious resemblance. They’re father and son. The other three are probably their guards.
There isn’t a lot of food on the table, but Esme doesn’t mind. The dishes placed out are leftovers, and they’re there for their foreign guests. They must have been traveling for a very long time, because they’re eating more than they’re talking. Her father has taken a bit of meat and is eating so the guests don’t feel bad. Esme takes a bit for herself, but she’s not too hungry. She ate before she let the demon take her home.
The other father stops eating and wipes his mouth with a napkin. “We apologize for keeping you up for a meal this late,” he says, his voice deep and filled with authority. Like her father’s. “We would have arrived sooner, but we encountered some difficulties on the road.”
Her father waves his hand in dismissal. “No worries. We wouldn’t want our guests to be left hungry. When you’ve had your fill, the maids will show you to your rooms. Would you like your guards to join you, or should I find room for them amongst my people?”
“Amongst your people?”
“I’m sure you’ve noticed that our city has two levels. The palace is on two levels as well. My daughter and I reside on the second level, along with any important guests such as yourself. Our maids, servants, and guards reside here, on the first level, with the exception of these two,” her father says, gesturing towards the guards sitting on their side of the table. “We can house your guards on the second level, if you wish, but if not there’s plenty of room on the first.”
“Ah,” the man says, deep in thought. He looks to his son and says, “What do you say, Menias?”
Weird names for weird people, Esme thinks.
“Perhaps we should let them stay on the first level,” Menias says. His voice is like honey, whatever that means. She just feels it’s accurate. “They’ve spent our entire travels looking after us. They deserve a rest. I think we’ll be safe here for now.”
In the corner of her eye, Esme catches all three guards slumping their shoulders a little and giving an inaudible sigh of relief. She smirks at the boy named Menias’s kindly smile. He knows what his guards are feeling. He knows what they want. He’s letting them off the hook because he knows, not because he’s taking a wild guess. She decides in that moment that she likes him.
“Well, then, I assume we’re decided,” the man says. “Is this alright with you?”
The guards nod without a word, and the man smiles. “We are decided and fed,” he tells her father. “Thank you for the late meal, Emyr. We’ll go to our rooms now.”
Esme’s father nods. “Don’t mention it, Hayden. We’ll speak in the morning. Get some rest, all of you. You’ve been traveling a long while.”
Everyone stands up, Esme included, and her father claps his hands. A few men come into the dining room to guide the guards and the guests to their rooms. The guards go one way, following the men to the first level rooms for the workers. The man and his son, however, follow the other men to the center of the palace and then up the stairs to the second level and their room. Esme doesn’t need to see them to know where they’re going.
Once everyone has left the dining room, Emyr takes a deep breath and sighs. He turns to Esme and motions for her to follow him. They walk slowly down the hallway to the fountain.
“Where were you?” he asks her sternly. He’s no longer a king—now he’s just a father.
“With my friends,” she says. Emyr shakes his head.
“They’re not your friends if you only see them once and never again.”
“Yeah, whatever.” Esme rolls her eyes. “Who are they?”
“A king and his son.” So little Menias is a prince, she thinks. I sure hope his people don’t think his name is as weird as I do.
“How long are they staying?”
“We don’t know.”
Esme bites the inside of her cheek. “We don’t know as in ‘we don’t know if it’ll be a day or two’, or we don’t know as in ‘we don’t know if it’ll be a day or a week’?”
“Could be a year.”
Esme stops and stares at her father. “A year?” she asks incredulously. “Who’s ruling the kingdom? What on earth would bring them to stay here for a year?”
Emyr turns to his daughter with a tired look on his face. Now that they’re alone—not counting their guards following them—she can see that there are bags under his eyes. “They come from a queendom, Esme. His wife is the one ruling the kingdom.”
“That doesn’t mean he’s unneeded,” she retorts, crossing her arms over her chest. “When I’m queen I’m still going to want my spouse’s opinion on important matters. You can’t make all the decisions by yourself. You used to consult mom.”
At the mention of her mother, though, Emyr’s face hardens and his jaw clenches. Esme flattens her lips and looks away from him, hoping he hasn’t completely shut off for the night. Her mother isn’t too sore of a subject for her since she doesn’t remember her that well, but she often forgets that her father does.
Just when she thinks that he’s going to walk away and end the conversation, he says, “It’s not your culture and it’s not hurting anyone. Don’t be rude.”
She sighs in relief, but something else is bothering her. “Wait, why are they here?”
“Some kingdoms offer a princess’s hand to the prince of another kingdom to create a powerful alliance.” He holds his breath when he meets her eyes. “They offer their sons.”
They continue walking down the hall and stop in front of the fountain. “Is this a roundabout way of saying I’m engaged to him?” To her surprise, he laughs.
“Of course not. Even if I tried to arrange your marriage, you’d worm your way out of it.”
“Damn right I would. If not for me, why are they here?”
“For a wife.”
Emyr gives her a look. “A beneficial alliance.”
“Same thing. So, I’m an option?”
“Our kingdom is an option.”
“Okay, so who picks?”
“Esme, I don’t know. If you’re so curious, why don’t you ask them yourself?”
She thinks about the boy and his hazel eyes. She remembers the way his guards looked at their prince with relief when he told his father to place them away from him. In the corner of her eye, she had seen something on his hip as he walked past her. Esme tells herself that she could probably get along with a boy like him, and they would need to be acquainted with the city. He would need to get some more local clothes, though. The last thing they need is for him to stand out. If he stands out, then she’ll stand out, and everyone will be greeting the princess and the foreigner. Not the kind of hassle she wants. It’ll take time, but it’ll be fun.
“You know what?” she says. “I think I will.”
Emyr watches her warily. “Don’t do anything stupid, Esme.”
“When have I ever?”
She knows that she doesn’t want to hear the answer to that question, so she rushes up the stairs to the second level. She doesn’t hear footsteps behind her and stops to see Emyr standing in front of the fountain with his guard. Her own guard, Uma, has long mastered the art of keeping up with her fleetfooted charge, and stands beside her on the marble stairs. With an exchanged look, Uma tells Esme to keep going and not to worry about Emyr.
When Esme reaches the top of the stairs, she’s surprised to see an unfamiliar boy standing in the center of the second level. She almost can’t place him, but then she remembers that he’s Menias, the foreign prince she was just talking about. Uma follows silently, almost as quiet on her feet as Esme herself is. Menias turns and jumps in alarm when he sees the two women standing behind him. He holds a hand over his heart and closes his eyes.
“Gods, you scared me,” he breathes out.
“Wish I could say the same,” Esme teases as she approaches him. It’s not like she’s interested in him. He’s just new, and new men are always fun.
“You’re Esme, right?” he asks, holding a hand out. “I’m Menias.”
She shakes his hand with a smile. “You got the short end of the naming stick, didn’t you?”
“Don’t remind me. All my brothers have normal names.”
“Four of them, and they’re all younger than me. I kind of wish I wasn’t the oldest so I could stay home with them.”
Esme tilts her head. Menias is the eldest son, so Esme assumes only the eldest son gets paraded around until some rich enough princess tells her daddy that she wants to keep him. “What do they do while you’re out here?”
He shrugs. “They’re being taught all the important things about ruling your land that I was taught while they were younger.”
“It is. What do you do around here?”
“Whatever the hell I want to.” She grins at his dumbfounded expression and starts walking away. “It’s late and you guys looked exhausted. Go get some sleep, little prince.”
She doesn’t look back until she’s in her room and dismisses Uma. With hope for an exciting tomorrow, Esme gets undressed and gets under the covers.