It was time to go.
With so many more servants tending to flowers and food and decorations for the upcoming nuptials, there was an unusual amount of movement in the halls. No one would notice an extra body on the floor, especially not one dressed in the typical servant uniform. I’d hidden my hair under a large brown cap and brushed a bit of dirt on my cheeks and forehead. Grimy. I had to look grimy, like I’d been working all day, like I couldn’t wait to finally head home for the night. My heart thumped hard and rhythmically as I moved down the hall, my face low and my focus on the royal red carpet I detested. The bag of provisions was shoved in my pocket and I kept a firm grip on it. Squeezed it until the water canteen proved unyielding. It helped ease the nerves because getting caught would mean three lashings at the least. And I hadn’t even made it off my floor yet.
“You there! Girl!” a portly man with reddish features called out. He came from one of the servant entrances and extended his hand to the opposite wall, effectively blocking me. “Where are you going?”
I stopped and kept my face down. “Kitchen, sir.”
“Maggie called you, huh? You tell her the lads up here are getting thirsty. Have her send up some white wine and ale first moment she gets.”
“Hold,” he blocked me again as I tried to pass him. Then gripped my chin and pulled it up with a frown. “You know the rules—you must be clean and presentable at all times in the palace,” he spat on his fingers and then used them to wipe my cheeks clean. “It is a proper place and requires proper cleanliness. There you go. Off with you now,” he stepped aside and turned back for the door where he’d come.
I moved past him and used the side stairwell to head for the kitchens. It would mean rerouting, but I could use the discreet tunnel on the bottom floor instead. It wasn’t frequented much and would be perfect for a seamless slip to the rear garden courtyards outside.
The kitchens were packed and bustling with extra servants who swapped cooking utensils and wiped aprons on foreheads and called to one another “don’t let it burn!” and “place it here! Quick!” It was a madhouse. An utterly chaotic madhouse. Perfect. Because that meant I could easily blend in and use the others as my camouflage. I kept my head down and my eyes on the crumb-filled stone floor as I meandered through the hive of swearing and sweaty bodies. Once I made it to the rear courtyard, I’d make my way into the city, finally leave Lunda and enter the other districts. Then—somehow—I’d find my way to the outer Wall. I’d sneak past it—also had to figure that part out—and after that, I’d be faced with miles and miles of the White Wastelands.
And then I would run.
I ducked out of the kitchens and into the long, stone corridor that led straight to the outside gardens. People rarely used this route because it was part of the original structure built, and my father hadn’t bothered updating it with the necessary light fixtures yet. So people tended to avoid it.
“Here’s a pretty girl,” I heard Isaac laugh and then a shrill scream followed.
I paused and my heart hammered hard in my chest. Shit. What were they doing down here? This was not supposed to happen. No one was supposed to be here, especially not my intended and especially not alone. I sucked in a deep breath and glanced behind me. Dark. Just like the rest of the tunnel. I could go back, but that’d only risk more exposure. I closed my eyes and focused on what I wanted.
You have to keep going.
Keep going, Rozmarie.
My heart pounded —Thump! Thump! Thump! Thump! — begging me to turn around and flee from him, but I fought the instinct and inched forward instead. It was the way out. I had to either go forward or backward. And I couldn’t risk the latter. Since it was too dark to see much, I moved slowly and quietly, praying I might be able to just sneak past. But then four distinct shapes came into focus and I paused again.
Isaac and his two favorite guards—Fredrick and Lucas—cornered one of the young kitchen servants to the wall. My intended, who stood proud in his purple princely attire with his bright yellow hair and cocksure grin, moved in for the girl.
“I do like the sound of that,” Isaac smirked, “has a certain… ring to it.”
“And they’ll be calling you that the rest of your life,” Fredrick reminded him. Taller and leaner of the two guards, Fredrick stood with his arms crossed and his eyes averted, uninterested in the wicked game. He’d tied his brown hair into a pony tail, but kept his red uniform pressed and perfect with his black waist coat and matching boots.
“In and outside of the sheets,” Lucas, the shorter one, laughed. He’d chopped his blonde hair close to his head and kept himself extraordinarily round, the material in his red uniform stretching at the buttons. Lucas looked over the girl and licked his lips. “This one’s got a nice ass and young tits. She’ll do fine.”
“Let’s find out,” Isaac spun her to the wall and lifted her skirts. She screamed and he palmed her mouth, drawing her head back. “Wouldn’t you like to please your future king? You can tell your grandchildren about this one day,” he leaned into her ear. “You need not mention when the guards took their turn.”
The girl squirmed and tried to scream again, but he pushed her against the wall, effectively cutting off her protest.
“Hold her,” Isaac ordered and moved for his trouser latches. He had them undone in seconds and was reaching for her bare bottom. “It will be over quick, darling, so you better enjoy it while you can.”
The word came from me before I realized I uttered it, before I realized I was giving up everything by saying it. Like my escape. Like my freedom. Like all my years planning this moment because Isaac had to fuck it up by forcing himself on some poor girl.
All three turned and took in my form.
“Another mouse wants to play?” my future husband smiled as he wrapped an arm around the girl’s waist. She sniffled against the wall, the familiar whimpering I’d heard wherever the trio traveled. “You’ll have your turn, darling.”
“You stop it right now, Isaac!”
All three paused and then enlightenment flared. Lucas snatched my wrist and pulled me closer, knocking the cap off my head. “It’s your intended!” He laughed with an astonished look over me, like it was too good to be true. “The princess wants to play too!”
Isaac glared and then focused on the young girl. “I told her she’d have her turn.”
“You leave her alone. You piece of—”
A hand gripped my throat and sent me flying into the wall. Pain. Lots of pain. I should’ve anticipated it. Dean taught me to always be on guard, to always sense your attacker’s intention and avoid it before they could strike. But I didn’t think Fredrick would actually touch me, let alone throw me into the wall. I’d been focused on the girl. She was so young—almost a child. How could I believe I’d be safe if she wasn’t?
“Do not talk to your future king that way.”
“Yeah,” Lucas laughed. “When Prince Isaac is ready for you, he will drop your trousers and fuck you right. Until then, you may have the privilege of watching.”
“What is all this?” Dean roared.
The servant girl sobbed louder and then an angry curse left Isaac’s lips. I knew that if I never escaped the palace, he’d come after me with a vengeance. A deadly vengeance. Because this was one of my intended’s favorite pastimes. I’d often heard the terrifying stories and listened to the whispers as the servants warned one another. I’d even comforted a few of the crying victims, but I’d never witnessed the actual act. It was sickening. And costing him this would mean punishment for me. The worst kind.
“Which one?” Fredrick asked.
“Both,” Dean growled. He glanced at me and then turned his attention to the servant girl. She was pushing down her skirts and wiping her eyes with her forearm. “Go on now, girl. Maggie needs help in the kitchen.”
The girl ran down the hall, her soft cries following as Dean scanned my appearance. It was obvious what I’d intended. There was no reason for me to be dressed like this, but he didn’t say a word. He simply turned his attention on Isaac, Fredrick and Lucas. “Obviously there is much to be done for this wedding. Surely you three have enough to keep you busy so the servants can do what they need.”
“This is your future king—”
“And I,” Dean gripped Lucas’s round cheeks, “still serve the present king. This wedding is more than a chance for you to put your pricks up new skirts. You will behave as respectable guards of the Quantara throne for once,” he turned to Isaac but words hesitated on his lips as he looked over his future employer and ruler. A lump rolled down Dean’s throat. “I’ll escort Rozmarie to her room as she seems to be confused.”
“Doesn’t her father, the king, need to be made aware of this?”
“I’m sorry?”“The king,” Isaac emphasized it. “Surely he needs to be alerted that his daughter is out of her bedchamber on the eve of our very wedding, parading around as a visiting servant wench,” he scanned me with disgust and then looked back at Dean. “As you are escorting my intended to her chambers, I will pay a visit to the king. It is teamwork, Dean,” he gripped my bodyguard’s shoulder as the trio passed us. “And it’s never too early to begin our partnership.”