“Let me out,” she pounded the wooden door. “Please, somebody!”
It was not long before her strength failed, her knees collapsing beneath her. She had lost track of how long she had been trapped in that cell, withering while the traitors prospered. Her name was Valonia, youngest of her family. The empire had fallen, become little more than smoking ruins littered with corpses. Only the young had been spared, made slaves, forced to live in the squalid dungeons beneath the castle. At first, their cries had echoed from the cracking stone walls, though the sounds had soon faded with their hope.
“Please,” she whispered. “Someone...help us…”
Her stomach burned from days without food, her body little more than blood and bones. Her pale flesh was more scars than skin, reminders of how many times she had tried to escape. Her long red hair fell in ragged layers, her lips cracked and dry. She swallowed, her throat rough as the bone-dry stones she rested on. Eventually, she was able to stand, walking slowly to the moldy straw that served as her bed. She fell upon it, shivering in the frigid air.
This cannot go on forever, she thought. Exhaustion tugged at the corners of her mind. It just cannot…
It felt like only minutes had passed when she awoke, forced from sleep by a rough pounding. A dark face surrounded by a wild mane of hair glared at her through the narrow space high in the oaken door. Hallos, the new King’s most ruthless soldier.
“On your feet,” the guard demanded. He was a burly man with narrow eyes, his jagged grin one of rotten teeth. He watched as she struggled to stand, laughing as she stumbled. The sky was still dark, moonlight spilling through the tiny barred window. She shuddered, watching the door swing open, hesitating when the guard stepped aside.
“Time to earn your keep,” he said gruffly. “Follow me.”
She obeyed, biting her tongue as he led her through the passages. She knew every inch of the castle, from the tallest tower to the smallest stone in the moat. Still, she wondered why he was leading her this way, who would have asked for her this late at night.
“Is this the girl?” the voice was old, void of patience. The guard shoved her forward, bringing her face to face with Yamin, the head servant. “Very skinny, but I suppose she will do.”
The guard nodded, turning on his heel and marching away. Valonia stared ahead, refusing to gaze at one who had betrayed. Yamin grabbed her wrist, dragging her down the hall. In a short while they passed the training room, the song of clashing blades audible from within. Valonia felt heat rise to her cheeks, her eyes having fallen across a fine specimen of manhood. She was yanked ahead before she could spare another glance, deposited roughly in the massive kitchen. Was she to scour the filthy pots left over from the monthly feast again? No, she was led past the pile of dishes and crockery, her legs nearly collapsing once more when she saw the foods set upon the simple servants’ table. Yamin shoved her on the bare bench, slamming a plain wooden plate in front of her.
“Eat your fill,” the old woman ordered. “His Highness has requested your presence.”
She left, leaving Valonia with a mouthful of questions. What could the new King want of her? She had heard of criminals receiving a final meal before their deaths. Was she to be executed? She gulped, turning to the table. Various cheeses, meats, even fruit, a rare treat indeed. Her normal sustenance was little more than the thinnest stew, with nary a speck of discarded beef or half a leaf of rotting cabbage to soothe her aching stomach.
She searched for the bread, which in itself had been a luxury since her imprisonment. There was none, no crockery, either. Was she to eat with her hands then? Not that it would matter much; her sparse meals were normally dumped on her before she had a chance to catch the cup. She tore a small piece off the nearest dish; roasted pheasant, a known favorite of the royal family. Why, then, was such a thing being offered to her? The question faded as she nibbled at it, her hunger taking over. Once she had eaten her fill, she turned to three clay jars set at the far end of the small feast.
The pale yellow milk smelled bitter, as always, but she knew it tasted wonderful. The dark blue wine from the south had never agreed with her, though she loved the smooth blend of rich, foreign flavors. Last was plain water, as was customary. She had heard rumors of a spring hidden in the King’s Forest, where the common folk were forbidden to tread. Had the water come from there? The threadbare excuse of a dress she wore now bit at the seams, her hunger sated for the first time in what felt an eternity. Yamin pushed her way past the servant taking away the uneaten portions, no doubt destined for the royal dogs.
Those flea-bitten mongrels, she thought bitterly. Why should an animal receive better treatment than one’s fellow humans, be they free men or prisoners? She stood, brushing crumbs from the remains of her apron. She did not try to smuggle an apple or orange in her dress, knowing such actions would only result in more beatings. Yamin dragged her through more torch-lit halls, passing the library and entrance to the inner courtyard. A cold wind leaked through the spaces in the massive stone walls, making her feel frost clung to her very skin.
“Where are you taking me?” she demanded. Yamin ignored her, opening a carved door at the end of the hall and shoving her through.
“I have done my part,” the old woman quipped. “The girl is your problem now.”
Valonia winced at the extra scorn placed on the word ‘girl’. Even before her imprisonment and starvation, her body had been almost straight as an arrow, leading many to believe she was not the gender she claimed. She turned to the room, seeing a large tub. The air was thick with steam and the mingling scents of heady oils. A pair of girls no older than herself came upon her, ripping off her ragged dress and leading her toward the tub. She did not fight, having longed to cleanse herself since being thrown into the dungeon.
“What is this about?” she asked, sinking into the hot, soothing water. She leaned back, running a hand along a small cart that held an array of luxuries; enchanted tablets, carved colored soaps, small, sculpted glass bottles of more jewel-toned oils. She chose one of the tablets, setting it on the water’s surface. Wisps of pale pink and orange smoke danced as it dissolved, filling the water with bubbles. It had been one of her favorites as a child and she giggled quietly as one settled on the tip of her finger. One of the girls cleared their throat.
“They have not told you?” she asked softly. Valonia shook her head.
“I know only that His Highness has requested me,” she answered. “Does the King wish me to serve him?”
The two girls, whom she now noticed were twins, smiled, tittering like school children.
“It is not the King,” the second one offered. “But the eldest Prince who has called for you.”
There were fifteen royal children, borne to the King by three different wives. Seven were girls, five still waiting for the bloom of womanhood. Only half the princes were of marrying age, one having been wedded already to the new Queen of a neighboring land. The eldest was the only one never presented to the people, causing gossip and rumor to fill the village streets. The most believable was, while he had been blessed with exceptional strength, he was mute and dim-witted, trapped in the form of a monster. She gulped.
“Has he told what he wants of me?”
“No,” the first servant broke a small piece off one of the soaps, molded like a chest of jewels, lathering her hands in the silver bowl beside the tub. “He only insisted we bring you, well-fed and cleansed.”
“Am I to receive a new gown as well?”
The minute hers had been torn away, it had been thrown into the stove that heated the chamber.
“Indeed,” the second servant went to fetch it, returning shortly thereafter. It was wrapped in white, making her think again she was to be executed. Death was the only reason for any kind of white adornment. Valonia stayed silent while she was washed, moving only when told to. At last, the now-torturous bath was brought to an end, and she was dressed in a gown finer than she had ever seen.
She stood before the looking glass, marvelling at how her thin figure appeared fuller, the deep greens and purples bringing out the startling shade of her eyes. After, she was made to sit at an elegant vanity, watching silently as strings of small, clear gems were twisted and strung into her hair, reflecting the natural fire in the locks. Finally, an ornate pair of letters circled by waves was painted upon her cheek, the only adornment her face received.
“Am I to become servant to the Prince?” she questioned. The twins glanced at one another.
“He did not say,” repeated one, taking her arm. “But he must not be kept waiting.”
The other servants paid them no mind in the halls, each interested in completing only their given tasks. A sole songbird roosted on a bust of the King, flitting away when the trio passed. Before long, they stood at a modest door, Valonia once again thinking of the stories told about the Prince. What could such a creature wish of her? Was she to entertain him? Serve him? Or worse, be forced to warm his bed?
“Your Highness?” the other twin tapped timidly on the wood. “We have brought her.”
She took hold of the handle, turning it slowly until the latch gave way, then motioning to her sister.
“Our job is done here,” she said softly. “Let us go.”
They fled, leaving Valonia alone. She swallowed, gathering the courage that had served her so many times in the past, pushing the door open. A man stood by the window, pinning back the crimson drapes. The sky was beginning to change, dark blue giving way to light. The only other illumination came from sconces on the walls, the small flames starting to flicker as their oil ran out. The room was not much bigger than a servant’s, the furniture that of a craftsman. The only touch of wealth was the bedspread, richly embroidered in silver and gold to show the heavens.
The man turned, revealing a face hardly fit for a monster. His pale eyes locked on her, his thin lips parting the slightest bit.
“You are Valonia?” he questioned. She curtsied.
“I am, Your Highness,” she straightened, keeping her head bowed respectfully. “I was told you called for me.”
“Indeed,” he turned briefly back to the window, as though admiring the sunrise. “I am sure you wonder why such a task has been asked of you.”
She curtsied again, knowing not what else she should do.
“Forgive me, my Prince,” she said softly. “But I was not given an explanation of my task. May I ask why you have called for me?”
She regretted the question as soon as she had asked it, for he gazed at her as though he had just smelled something revolting.
“Those twittering songbirds,” he uttered scornfully. He breathed deep through his nose, then sighed. “Very well, I shall explain it myself.”
He looked back to the window, tracing the jagged line of the distant Black Mountains with his finger. They were as slim as his shoulders were broad, his snow-white hair falling to his strong jaw line. Valonia found herself entranced by the sight, even more when the rising sun lent his form its golden hues. She was brought back from her dreaming when he cleared his throat, his lips now curved in the faintest sign of merriment.
“I understand you have heard the stories concerning my existence,” he went on. She nodded, a pale blush painting her cheeks. “I can assure you, only half are to be believed, though it is up to you to decide which ones.”
She tilted her head.
“I am afraid I do not understand, Your Highness,” she began. “Please, forgive my disrespect, but why have you summoned me?”
In response, he turned on her, striding closer until her nose was mere inches from his chest. Instead of the ringing slap she had come to expect, however, she felt a gentle touch to her hair, the feather-light feeling trailing to her chin. He brought her face back, his eyes shining in a way she would have never thought possible.
“I am to inherit the throne after my father,” he explained. “And to do so, I must wed. My only term was it must be to a woman I care for, and no one else.”
He leaned closer still, placing a soft kiss on her lips.
“Become my Princess, Valonia, and together, we can reverse the evils my father has brought upon your land.”
Valonia felt as though her heart would leap from her chest. She, once a low-ranking noble, now nothing but a slave, take on the role of Princess? Then later that of Queen? And what did he mean, only half the stories concerning him were to be believed? That it was up to her to decide which ones those were? It was all so unforeseen!
“F-Forgive me, Your Highness,” she pulled back from him, knowing that action alone could be enough to get her beaten, if not executed. “I am not worthy of such a task, even the palace dogs know of this fact!”
He stared at her, bringing his hand slowly back to his side.
“I have seen you in the halls these many months,” he said. “You complete whatever task you are given with no grievance. You go so far to protect your fellow servants, even at the risk of running afoul of the whip. I can think of no other better suited to be my bride, to aide me in relieving your people of their hardship.”
He stepped forward again, caressing her cheek, gazing at the letters that had been painted upon it. When he spoke, there was anger in his voice, his eyes growing jaded.
“Bodies and blood fill the rivers like rain,” he continued. “I grow sick of such sights, and I know you do as well. Join me, Valonia, and we can finally rid your land of its tempest.”
He paused once more, his expression softening as quickly as it had hardened.
“I also hope you grow to love me as I have you, but for now, all I ask is you think of your people. Only we are capable of removing their shackles, but we must do so as one.”
She turned away from his hopeful gaze, aware his handsome countenance would cloud her judgement. Her father had attempted tirelessly to wed her into the old royal family, in hopes of further bettering the lives of his own, and now his dream was being gifted to her upon a golden platter. Only now, there was so much more at stake than a few extra coins in their coffers, the fate of her whole people depended on her choice. And the Prince appeared genuine in the admittal of his feelings for her, maybe she could indeed learn to return them one sunrise. Even if she did not, she would be able to free all those dear to her, to bring her land back to the shining jewel it had once been. She held her callused hands out to him, showing her palms.
“I will become your bride,” she spoke softly, her eyes still averted. “Your Highness.”
“There is no need of that anymore,” he took her hands between his, offering a soft smile. “I am Solan, nothing more.”
“If you so wish,” she felt roses bloom on her cheeks again. “Solan.”