It started the night I left.
Dean, my bodyguard, was off-duty for once, helping my father with last minute arrangements for the wedding the next day. I was to stay in my bedchamber and prepare. Like always. Because like always, I made the wrong decision and there was no way my father would let me fuck this one up too. It was too important to him. He’d planned entirely too long that I, Rozmarie of house Reynolsh, would be wed to Isaac of house Thornbolsh, son of the high general, and the event would be cast across the six districts for the entire Quantara realm to witness. So I needed to stay in my bedchamber and get my lines right. My father, the king, insisted on it.
He’d announced the engagement two weeks beforehand and after a meeting with the counsel, I was called into his office for the news.
“When?” It was all I could say.
“Fourteen days. It will be done publically and the audio will be played throughout Quantara,” he narrowed his dark eyes at me. “This will be the next great step for my kingdom and I will not have you shitting anything up.”
It’d come. The news I’d been dreading for years: more power for Isaac and permission for him to do whatever he wanted. Which meant bad things for me. Very bad things. At least I’d had Dean before. My bodyguard would intervene when Isaac lost control and got too hotheaded. But now nothing and no one would be able to do a damn thing to stop him.
“Am I to call him my King?”
“Not until I am dead. You will, however, be obedient to him,” my father tucked his arms behind his back as he began pacing the blue and brown study, “as he will be the heir to the Quantara throne… until you produce a son.”
I’d closed my eyes and did my best to suppress a shudder. Like usual, my father had given me no choice in the matter. That baby had been as anticipated as our engagement because the realm had been eagerly awaiting the next male heir since my mother made the attempt and failed miserably with me. “When are you hoping?”
“As soon as possible. Your son will need to be groomed as Isaac was, so the earlier the better. I’d prefer a pregnancy by the end of this year. Latest.”
I bit my lip, but let it go again. “I will do my best, father.”
“Your best is not good enough. You will lay with him every night until he puts a baby in your belly. And not a daughter, either. I need the future ruler of this realm.”
I inhaled. “Anything to serve Quantara.”
My comment would either be ignored or I was in for a slap. It all depended on his mood and how much sarcasm I’d allowed into the sentiment.
“You will do to remember that in the next few months,” he’d moved for his desk. “You will be watched intently and often and will need to decorate Isaac nicely,” he’d looked over at me, considering with a warning scowl. “You’re dismissed.”
I had two weeks to do the thing I’d been planning my entire life.
Past the outer Wall and into the White Wastelands. I looked at it often from my bedchamber window. The solid barrier between us, the Quantara realm, and everything beyond it, everything waiting in the misted desert-like plains of the White Wastelands. No one knew what was out there other than the monsters—great horned beasts that ate anything daring to survive the deadly terrain. So no one had. For years. For centuries even and the horrors of what laid beyond the outer Wall trickled down with time, cementing our fear and keeping anyone from ever wanting to leave again.
I would do it. I’d been dreaming of going beyond the outer Wall since Dean told me what lay past it after I asked him one starry night.
“Nothing, sweet child,” he’d said. “And no one.”
“But what about the monsters in the mist?”
“A story told to children. No one knows what’s outside the outer Wall and no one ever will, my dear. We’re home. Quantara is your home, so no need to think about the nothing outside of it.”
The nothing outside of it. I could never shake his words because so much possibility lay in them. The nothing outside of it. That was where I needed to go. That was the only place I could feel safe, the only place I could escape my lot in life and try again. The nothingness. Outside the outer Wall, outside Quantara—it was the only way I could start again. It was the only chance I had at being someone besides Princess Rozmarie of house Reynolsh. But someone else. Someone new.
I was ten years old the first time I decided to escape.
I’d asked Dean if he thought it might take an entire day to walk to the outer Wall, but really, I needed to know if I could make the journey without being missed. If I could do it in a day, I’d leave before sunrise and keep to the back alleys. Everyone always talked about the secrecy of the back alleys. If I could find them, I’d use them and finally find my way out. And no one would notice me gone for hours.
But Dean frowned at my question. “The outer Wall is in the Prava District. It is far too dangerous to walk.”
“Then how would you get there?”
“I wouldn’t. Rozmarie,” he’d bent down and brought his gray eyes level with mine, “the outer Wall runs through the Prava distract for a reason. Death and disease and the worst kind of people live in Prava. People,” he’d inched closer, “so undisturbed by fatalities and evil, that they live against a Wall closed off from all life. You never want to find yourself in Prava. Never. Now promise me, Rozmarie, promise me that you will never venture past your own district. Promise me you will never leave Lunda.”
He must’ve sensed the plan because after I’d agreed I wouldn’t, I’d been routinely watched for the next few months and into the following year, until Dean felt I’d changed my mind. I hadn’t. I’d only postponed it. Until I knew for sure how I’d do it, until I knew I could no longer survive if I didn’t. I waited until I was desperate, until the moment came when my father would demand something from me worse than anything he had before.
And that moment had come.
The night before the wedding was my last chance. I’d spent every moment since the engagement planning my escape. It was the same version I’d been working through for years, but desperation pushed me into fine-tuning it. Fast. When would I go? And how would I get through the city? I never did leave Lunda after Dean’s warning all those years ago. He’d kept to my side and if he wasn’t nearby, some form of security was always present, always limiting me to the royal district. And it’d been that way ever since. So getting to the outer Wall wouldn’t be tricky; it’d be downright impossible for Rozmarie of house Reynolsh. Not someone else. Which is who I’d have to become.
Once I got off of the palace grounds, I’d figure out the rest.
The first part was even getting out.
And I only had once chance.
“I apologize, Rozmarie,” Dean moved for the door of my bedchamber, “but your father insists you be left alone for the rest of—”
“Dean, it’s alright. You may go.”
He nodded and reached for the handle. Then slowly turned about, his fingers lightly tapping his grey waist coat. “This day arrived… rather quickly didn’t it?”
We hadn’t talked about it. I assumed we never would. Especially not then, not the night before the wedding, not when every second counted. There was no reason to watch Dean’s grey eyes fill with guilt as he apologized for letting this happen. He’d done his best, but I would still have to marry Isaac in the morning. Nothing could be done about that.
“I’d hoped… I’d hoped we’d have a chance to—”
“It’s alright, Dean, the words aren’t necessary,” I faced my vanity and reached for my brush, glancing quickly at him in the reflection. His grey hair glistened under the gold chandelier and it matched the silver whiskers that had long since grown in. I’m not sure when I got used to seeing the grey instead of the brown. Probably around the time I’d given up believing Dean was capable of anything, when I realized he was fallible.
I slid the bristles through my thick magenta hair and it bounced back into curls down my bare shoulders. I think they’d planned on braiding it all tomorrow. Braids meant order and discipline and tradition. I usually wore my hair in duel buns at the base of my neck. Because it was sloppy and messy and kept the hair off my face. And because my father hated it. “But I appreciate it.”
“Indeed,” he nodded and then twisted the handle. But before leaving, he turned once more, his eyes softening. “It will be over quick, I think.”
“Your union. Your…” he cleared his throat, “…pregnancy. The monarchy merely desires an easier succession this time around. Better to get it out of the way sooner, I think. Appease your father. Make the family happy.”
I set my brush down. “Are those my only requirements as Queen?”
He opened his mouth, words on his lips. But he hesitated. What was my bodyguard going to say? What piece of advice or warning was he about to disperse? The corner of his mouth lifted, dragging his lips into his sad smile. “I’m afraid I won’t see you again until the ceremony. Good night, Rozmarie.”
The moment the door closed I fell to my knees and snatched what I’d stowed under my bed: a servant’s cap and uniform and the small bag of provisions and personal care I’d prepared. There was enough food for a few days and I had my smell-good cream and some water. It was all I needed, and all I could bring. Once I left, there was no turning back. I wouldn’t be Rozmarie of house Reynolsh, Princess of the Quantara realm any more. I’d just be me, Rozmarie, a fugitive on the run.
I pulled off the green gown and started getting changed.