Chapter 1: Graceless Ambush
Arika stared into the flowing river as she walked along the stone bridge with a pestering prince. His hair was the same shade of rotting bananas and was heavily styled and had hazel eyes. She was half-listening to his words as she pondered the idea of shoving him into the water below to give herself a moment of peace. The idea of him getting swept away down below made her crack a smile.
She wasn’t sure how long he had been pestering her, but likely it was around the time the king made it known to the public that she was searching for a prince to marry. It wasn’t her idea at all, but was an order by the king. After that, kingdoms of all gardens began pushing their sons to meet her and most were as arrogant and snooty. Beka was the only one who perused even after he was rejected multiple times.
“Um… Lady Sibylla? Are you still listening?” he asked.
Arika cringed slightly at the name. Every time she was addressed as ‘Sibylla’ it was a reminder of her true existence. She still perked her head up with a soft hum as she looked over the prince.
“My apologizes– my mind must have wandered!” She lied with a giggle. “What were you saying, Prince Beka?”
The prince smiled brightly at the acknowledgment. “Well, I was wondering if you have been enjoying the time we spent together? You’re always on my mind, so I was hoping I was the same for...” his voice faded as she knelt and picked up a smooth stone off the ground. Pretending to admire it.
“Stones like this always make me happy! Nature is so beautiful! Isn’t it, Prince Beka?” Arika spoke as she showed it off to him. It was a plain grey stone that lacked any interest in it.
“R-right! It is most certainly a beautiful… stone…” Beka averted his eyes to his feet before exhaling. “It was once again a wonderful evening I was blessed to spend with you, Lady Sibylla. I must depart for the long trip back home. I wish you safe return home and lovely dreams.” His half-hearted romantic words faltered as he pivoted his heels to walk back from where they came.
Arika waited until he disappeared over the bridge and continued walking at a hurried pace. Her heels clicked loudly with each step.
“To think the fool still won’t give up after all this time.” She shook her head before walking along the dirt path leading into the forest. “I’m bored, half my day was wasted, and by the time I get home, the king will scold me for something I have no control over! Gods, why do all the men in my life have to make me so miserable?” She whined dramatically as she kept the stone in her hand.
This was the umpteenth attempt from Prince Beka of the Hyacinth kingdom trying to win Arika over. After multiple rejections of a proposal, evading topics like marriage, and expressing disinterest in entertaining the idea of spending time together. She started faking air-headedness and found it was the most effective method to shorten their scheduled meetings by a bit.
As her annoyance faded away, her focus became on how dark the forest had become. Since the trees were old and twisted, walking through them at night made it creepier. She kept a steady pace with her steps never faltering. Arika had walked through it many times whenever she wanted to break from her duties as a princess.
Her walk was pleasant until she heard a loud snap echo through the dim forest. Large animals were uncommon in this part and she knew better than to ignore such a noise.
Arika kept the stone to her chest and clenched it tightly. Her eyes glanced around frequently while her walking pace became faster.
As the path leading out of the forest came into view, the town’s lanterns made the end of the path glow. Her grip on the rock loosened as her fear began to dissipate.
That was until she suddenly stumbled and nearly fell from tripping. When she looked behind her, there were no roots, stones, or holes in the ground that would’ve caused her to trip. Though with closer examination, there was a tight string that was tied tightly. A tripwire.
Arika looked up and saw a male dressed in light-weight black clothing that covered everything but his bright green eyes that illuminated in the darkness. He had a small knife raised above her and had sharp eyes glaring at her.
However, he hesitated when they made eye contact. Arika utilized the chance and threw the stone instinctively in front of her and closed her eyes shut. The man let out a cry of agony followed by a loud thud. The princess slowly opened her eyes and looked cautiously, she approached the still man and figured he was knocked unconscious.
Taking a short moment to ponder her options, she undid the ribbons that held her wavy-lime hair up. She tied it to bound the man’s ankles together before tying his hands behind his back. While she made a lucky hit on him, it wasn’t worth the risk of leaving him alone where he could try it again.
It wasn’t until nightfall when the now unmasked man started regaining consciousness. A small fire crackled before him as the princess was already falling asleep herself with all of his weapons and tools beside her.
The ebony man had a bright red line going down beneath each eye and stopped at his cheeks. He also had dragon-like eyes and pointed ears. When she was tying him up, she noticed he even had black claws. These were all unusual features that she couldn’t pinpoint.
“What is your place of origin?” She asked.
He stared at the blurry figure before him as he struggled to understand her words. His eyes squinting as he tried focusing on her.
“...Princess… Sibylla…?” he mumbled
Arika hardened her gaze before standing and approached the tied-up man. His mentioning of that name only made her more annoyed.
“Where did you come from and what were your intentions?” She demanded.
The man groaned as he slowly regained focus. The moment he saw her face, he began struggling and glared at her. Baring his sharp teeth at her.
“You!” he glared at her. “It’s because of your father that my people are suffering! Why the hell would I answer to you!?”
“Hm... I think I’m understanding a bit more.” Arika smiled sweetly as she stood above him. “I suppose this means you planned to kidnap or kill me?” She suggested with amusement. “I admit, your tripwire was an impressive move. However you–”
“Shut it Why don’t you off me rather than subjecting me to your useless criticism!” He snapped at her. Compared to the fire, his rage burned brighter. His curled, burgundy hair was in his eyes and clearly getting in the way.
“You expect me to off you? This is the most botched ambush I’ve seen in a while! First time?” She roughly pushed his hair out of his face with a glare. “I want to know who you are and your intentions. Now.”
The bound man kicked his legs and struggled for some time. Like a fish out of water, his efforts were fruitless and amusing to watch. Arika waited patiently as the man slowly wore himself out.
Soon, the man settled down with a sigh of defeat and rest his head against the tree.
“My name is Sin-Vira, prince of the Snapdragon kingdom. My people and I grew weary of your father exploiting us! The workers in those mines have lost all hope and dying needlessly!” He heaved his chest as his anger only rose. “The plan was to kidnap you and hold you hostage until your father agreed to release the miners and dismiss his soldiers. We want peace, but we’re barely holding ourselves together!”
He stared up at Arika’s face. Her skin was as pale as the moon and her rosy eyes appearing glossy. She seemed to enjoy watching him struggle, but she wasn’t entirely heartless… probably.
Instead, Arika placed her hands on her hips. He adverted his eyes to the ground, visibly trembling as his breathing became shallow. Arika tilted her head to the side before she took a few steps away from him.
His name and face seemed vaguely familiar to her. But it wasn’t the time or place to lose focus. “If your plan was to kidnap me, it would only be a short-term solution. The king would temporarily back off before reinforcing his efforts to regain control over your kingdom. Killing me would only cause retaliation from the kingdom, making it worst for you.”
“Thanks for evaluating my plans. But why are you doing this?” Sin-Vira scowled at her.
Arika hesitated slightly.
If she wanted, she could tell Sin-Vira to leave and simply inform the king about what happened. She would likely be heavily guarded and no one could get close to her, including Beka. But as she stared at the man before her, she felt a sense of malice in her smile.
“Because I have a long-term solution that would force his hand to relent for good.” She knelt beside him. “Currently, I am in search of a prince to marry. If we were to marry, you would have grounds to refuse his demands to exploit the mines if you see the work isn’t justified to benefit both kingdoms.”
Sin-Vira stared at her dumbfounded. “I just attempted to kidnap you and your response is marriage?” he questioned.
“Strange I know! But think about it! No one has to die, get kidnapped, and only I can lose in this situation. This is a golden opportunity, Sin.”
“Don’t call me that! Why would I ever trust the enemy?!”
Arika stifled a laugh at how annoyed that easily made him. “Vira then. I understand not willing to trust me. This mine issue is new to me, but I already don’t agree with it. Father and I aren’t the best terms so it’s just a petty way at getting back at him!”
Sin-Vira tilted his head to the side with confusion. “My mother and your father both need to agree to the marriage. How do you expect both to agree when they want to go in opposite directions?”
“Simple actually! Tell your dear mother that marrying me will give you grounds to refuse our control over your mines. All I have to tell my father is that marrying you will reinforce our control and justify it. Go with that and we’ll convince them we’ll use the other. But you need at least some trust in me as I’ll trust in you.”
The prince seemed quiet as he was thinking. “This plan isn’t something I’ll have an answer to.”
“Well I hate to put a time limit on you, but you have until tomorrow night in this exact spot to give your answer. If you agree, I’ll further elaborate on the plan so it goes as smoothly as possible. If you deny it, I hope you know how to fight better than you ambush.” She untied the ribbon that bound the prince’s feet before untying his hands. “Go on now. The mountains are quite the distance from here! Get your beauty sleep, Vira! I’ll be looking forward to your answer!”
The young girl continued her walk to her kingdom with a confident stride. The idea was spontaneous and one she had no real plans for. But she knew she couldn’t have someone like him against her. Dying at the hands of another kingdom was the last thing she wanted to deal with when she had a duty to fulfill.
~Sin-Vira’s POV~ Sin-Vira remained where he was as he stared into the fire, attempting to process the situation he found himself in. He even considered if he was seeing a lost spirit who was messing with him. Her appearance was hauntingly beautiful and seemed unreal. The male pushed himself up and stood over the fire that burned brightly.
“How am I supposed to explain any of this to my mother?” He questioned himself before kicking dirt onto the fire. It wasn’t long until he was alone in the darkness with the smell of burnt wood lingering and the cold breeze embraced him. He walked the long trip back to the mountains where his kingdom resided.
It was late into the night when he arrived at his kingdom. The magenta and cyan lanterns leading to the mines still shined on as carts filled with chucks of gems and rocks occasionally ran down the tracks to be processed in another section of the village. Men who were lucky enough to leave walked with heavy feet and blank expressions. They reeked of blood, sweat, tears mixed with despair. It was a sight that became usual for the residence to see.
For as long as he could remember, his kingdom was depressing and lifeless. Children stayed inside in the arms of their widowed mothers. Women and men worked hours on end in the mines high in the mountains. Sin-Vira knew attended one too many funerals to honor the workers who died in accidents related to the mines.
The Gardenia’s guards who were sent to monitor and enforce the mines were relentless. Tormenting those who could barely handle the pressure they were given. Unfortunate children who were younger than him had bruised hands that bleed as they assorted the ores. Those caught stealing were never heard from again.
Sin-Vira tore his eyes from the sight and trudged up the stairs to the still-lit castle. In the main room, his mother sat with arms crossed and brows furrowed. It was something he grew used to seeing every day.
“You’ve returned late and empty-handed. I do hope you have a good explanation for why I am awake at the dead of night to a son who had one task! Where. Is. She?” She glared at him as she rose from her throne.
The prince dropped to his knee and placed his hand on his chest. “I-…” he started before swallowing the lump of dread down his throat. “She was heavily guarded in her room. Some knights guard the only way into her room! There were too many to discreetly take out.” Sin-Vira blurted out. “But! I-I believe there is another solution that gives us the results we want as well as preventing the Gardenia Kingdom from retaliating!” His palms were damp, his heart thumped in his chest, and his eyes fixed onto the cracked floor.
“How unfortunate. What grand idea do you have that is more effective than mine?” She demanded in an ice-cold tone.
He bit down on his lower lip as he felt his mother’s dull green gaze cut through him relentlessly. Sin-Vira knew the words he spoke next could not be taken back. But he already accepted the choice by letting Sibylla leave.
“If I were to marry princess Sibylla, we could be given grounds to make demands as well. If I convince her, we might even eradicate the mines!” He explained, staring her in the eyes. “I can no longer stand to see what has happened to our kingdom! But kidnapping the princess will ruin the only chance we have to gain equal grounds with them!” Sin-Vira stood with his back straight while his hand gripped his chest.
The queen’s eyes widened as she considered his words. “You have never been the type to come up with such a plan.” Her eyes narrowed. “What inspired such an idea?”
“I overheard her speaking about her search for a prince while she was in the market. I am aware that marriage cannot be forced, but I will do everything I can to win her over! She seemed… kind-hearted enough. If she heard our story, it might be enough for her to listen…” There was subtle tension in the air as the spacious room became silent. Sin-Vira stared at his mother with pure determination. Through his words, he tried to convince himself that Sibylla’s words were sincere.
His mother slowly approached her son before placing her cold hands on his face. “Our kingdom cannot last so long as King Lambert is wringing us dry. Your plan is too vague. There are many factors your mind couldn’t process. So I will entertain your idea. However–” her long black nails pressed into his cheek, causing Sin-Vira to wince. “I don’t have the patience to let this plan of yours go on. You have until the winter to make her yours. If she bears no ring by then, you will not object to my orders again. Do I make myself clear?” He shuddered.
“Yes mother, I will not disappoint you.” Sin-Vira at least prayed he wouldn’t.
“You better prove yourself for once, son.” With the year nearing the halfway point, he was blindly trusting the words of the enemy. Sibylla’s words sounded sincere, but he knew only heard of how deceptive the Gardenia Kingdom was. All he could do now was pray that his only sliver of hope would open a path to a future of peace.