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By Hannah Sullivant All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Fantasy

Chapter 1

"Sire, a formal ceremony will bring joy and morale to the people. To just have your coronation without any sort of gathering isn't proper. I beg you to reconsider."Prince Dala'kar looked back up at the bookshelf in front of him, closing the dusty dull blue book he was reading, and glanced over his shoulder at his adviser, the High Scholar Du'lan.

"The ceremony will also serve as an unnecessary distraction," he replied, his silky deep voice calm as he spoke. "The Emeresians have mobilized troops all on our eastern border. If they act during the ceremony, we will be at a disadvantage."

"And by not having the ceremony, you will already have warned the enemy that you suspect their plan," Du'lan countered, his eyebrows furrowed together and his jaw set hard. He leaned towards the prince so that his white and red embroidered mitre slid down into the middle of his forehead, his eyes staring at the prince's, almost unblinking.

Dala'kar studied the older man for a moment, trying to understand him. It was difficult for him to read people; that was his only true fault, the only real weakness he admitted. He turned back to the bookshelf, reaching up to place the book back on the higher shelves he took it from, and turned back to face his old friend.

"Then what is your plan, High Scholar," the prince replied dully, "if Emeresian troops march into the capital in disguise as normal citizens, right under our very nose?"

The older man relaxed. His blue eyes turned towards the castle library's far left window-lined wall, his thumb grazing over his freshly shaved, wrinkled chin.

"Perhaps we could station troops around the perimeter of the city and at certain points throughout the city, looking for anyone who seems out of the ordinary?" he tried, peering over at the prince.

"That would leave the castle undefended, would it not?"

"I suppose you are correct. That is not an option," the old man sighed.

"Perhaps we could have the coronation elsewhere," the prince suggested without thinking. As soon as the last word left his lips, the prince inwardly scolded himself for his stupidity, and his body tensed.

The old man smiled. "Of course, that would be the best course of action. We could have the coronation around the Vernanala. The cliffs make it geographically safer, of course, but it would be symbolic as well! Many of the kings of old were crowned upon those cliffs, long before the Sesea Palace was built -"

"It is a fortress. It will suffice for what we need," Dala'kar interrupted, knowing he had been talked out of having the private ceremony he desired. He pushed his dark black locks behind his ears, sighing inwardly.

The High Scholar nodded. "The Vernanala is 130 miles south, along the southern coastline. We will need to leave very soon if we intend to have the ceremony there before your thirtieth birthday."

Dala'kar motioned for a servant standing in the room to approach them. "Make arrangements for my party to leave for the Vernanala by morning. Make an announcement to the people that the coronation will be there instead. Also, make sure Captain Ustan knows to keep his men here. Only my personal guard will travel with me."

The servant nodded, immediately leaving the room.

"Do not worry too much about this issue, my prince. Focus only on the coronation for the moment," Du'lan said softly.

"Is that your intention? To distract me?" Dala'kar turned back to face him. "The Emeresians are up to something. So soon to mobilize after the death of my father..." 

Dala'kar narrowed his eyes. "It is too suspicious for them to not be involved at all." Du'lan quietly watched him for a moment, analyzing him in a way that always bothered Dala'kar. "My Prince, please do not be too quick to act on assumptions. They have not attacked us yet."

"Or they may have already," Dala'kar snarled. He glanced behind the old man, catching a glimpse of the gardens through the window. He found himself calmed by the scenery.  He took a deep breath, forcing himself to relax before he grew too angry.

"I will take my leave now," he said aloud, not looking his old friend in the eyes. He turned on his heels, walking out the double doors to his left before Du'lan could say a word.

Alara kicked her horse, urging it forward. She had been riding all day, silently trailing behind her fellow travelers, and now she had finally reached her limit. She had to talk to someone, anyone. The silence that had built up around them was thick, and it was suffocating her.

Her curiosity about their destination, however, bothered her more than her need for conversation. She rode past the small families that were in the caravan with them, not giving them a second glance, her destination beyond them. She scanned the crowd ahead, searching for the little bald man that held the answers she sought.

Behind her, she heard footsteps hurriedly rushing up to meet her. She didn't bother to look back; she already knew who it was. She sped up her horse.

At the very front, as expected, she found the man she was looking for. She slowed her horse and dismounted, approaching him on foot. He did not notice her at first, his face fraught. She cocked her head to one side, examining him. What worries him, I wonder.His wife noticed Alara first, turning from placing their young son on the back of an ox to sleep. She curtsied quickly, greeting Alara. "My Lady."

Alara smiled nervously, nodding in the woman's direction. The man bowed now, noticing her after his wife. His anxiety was no longer noticeable on his face. "Do you need something, my Lady?"

"I was curious as to where our current destination is," Alara asked him. The wind blew past for a moment; pieces of her ginger hair slipped out of her bun, draping itself over her face and shoulders. She pushed it behind her ear quickly. The footsteps behind her stopped slightly behind her, heavy breathing replacing the sound.

"Ah yes..." The man answered, thinking. "We have decided to travel south instead, along the ocean border. The original plan was to pass through the capital and possibly stay the night in town, blending in the coronation crowd, but it would put you in much unnecessary danger. Taking the southern route will be longer, but less dangerous. 

Perhaps we can make it to the town of Verna before the end of the week. There we can have true lodging and perhaps get you boarded on a ship. Kanasian ships dock there often."

"Will the people not turn us into the soldiers?" Alara questioned. The breathing behind her steadied.

"It is a trading city. People do anything for money there," the man said matter-of-factly. "There is a big fortress about five miles outside of town, however. We will need to take great caution to avoid there if at all possible."

Alara nodded, "Thank you."

The man bowed again, returning to his thoughts.

Alara mounted her horse again, ready to return back to her place behind the group.

"Wait a moment, please! Don't leave again!" a voice exclaimed from below.

Alara chuckled, "Whatever happened to your formality?" Two green eyes glared at her from below.

"Please do not leave me behind again, my Lady."

She grinned, "You did not have to follow me."

"If you make me run again, my Lady, I will not have the strength to continue with the caravan and instead accept my fate to be eaten by wild animals!"

Alara rolled her eyes, reaching a hand down to the small dark-skinned woman down below her. "Come on, Rasa. Before I change my mind and take you up on that offer."

The woman hesitantly took Alara's hand and pulled herself up on the horse. Rasa's arms hugged Alara's abdomen tightly from behind, her face buried in her back.

"Now, now, Rasa, don't tell me you're scared," Alara teased.
"I'm scared of nothing, my Lady," Rasa's muffled voice retorted back. Alara giggled."If you say so."

Alara directed the horse slowly to the edge of the group of people until she had a straight shot to the back of the caravan. After taking one glance back to make sure Rasa still wasn't looking, Alara jabbed the horse hard in its side, causing it to stand back on its hind legs. Rasa screamed, her fingernails digging into Alara's abdomen. Alara laughed, her hands tightening on the reins as the horse sped off at a full gallop.

"Stop! Stop!" Rasa screamed. "Get me off!"

As they neared the back, Alara pulled on the left rein, forcing the horse to turn and slow, and then eventually stop. She cackled as Rasa scrambled to get off the horse.

"You sadistic woman, you!" Rasa yelled, collapsing in the grass.
"You are lucky I love you," Alara grinned, "or that comment would sting."

"You mean I am unlucky to be loved by you," Rasa said, lifting her head off the ground, "because being loved results in such torture."

"Come along, Rasa," Alara smiled, "or you will be eaten the wild animals you feared only moments ago." She turned and directed the poor tired horse forward behind the crowd.

Men and women dared not stare at them, but the giggles of children gave away the thoughts of others.

Rasa forced herself to stand and catch up to them. "The only wild animal I fear is the one in front of me," she murmured silently.

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