“Tilia,” Esmeralda called, pulling me out of my daydreaming about how I first came here six years ago. She was wearing a beautiful emerald ball gown and was by far the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. Even as similar as we looked I wasn’t as beautiful as her. My nose was too short, my eyes shaped more like my father’s than hers, and as much as I wanted to believe I was beautiful, I could see the flaws in myself more often than my beauty. “What are you thinking about?” she asked as she stood beside me on the edge of the ballroom. People swirled around us in a vortex of rainbow colored silk and jewels.
“Just remembering the day I came here,” I explained.
“I know life is so boring here,” she said with a dramatic sigh.
I laughed and hugged her. “I love it here. I just miss my dad.”
“So I really came over here to see if you wanted to sneak off with me and spar? This ball is really boring,” she whispered in my ear.
I looked at the Queen, a fierce woman who was one of the best mages in all of the kingdoms, one of the only two Arch Mages, an exceptional sword fighter, and married to a man who won every tournament he entered. This country was unlike any I could have imagined. Instead of the Queen sitting in the castle and the King letting his military fight his battles from the safety of his castle, both of them set off into battle at the head of their military and bled right along with them. Women were allowed to join the military and it was even encouraged! I thought I would be stuck in a dusty castle, but instead I had been instructed in magic, reading, politics, and every fighting style available. I was already a Journeyman, but my hope was to become an Arch Mage, like my aunt, although I wasn’t sure it would happen since I seemed to have very little magic. It seemed more likely that I would progress in the King’s Steel, the men and women who preferred hand to hand combat to magic, instead of the Queen’s Fire, the men and women who possessed magic.
“Let’s go,” I said to her with a wide smile. I looped my arm through hers and we walked through the ballroom as though strolling through it and then ran to our rooms to change. I walked out of my room, closed my door, and found that she was already waiting for me. “Did anyone see you?” I asked her.
She shook her head. “We better hurry before Jared…”
“Before Jared what?” asked King Jared from the main floor below us. He had dark brown hair, piercing blue eyes, and a chiseled jaw. Everywhere he went women stopped breathing for a moment as they took in his appearance. His good looks paired with his fighting honed physique made him a heart stopper. He also stopped the hearts of men when he approached because he was the most feared fighter in all of the kingdoms. He had obtained the highest rank in the King’s Steel before becoming King and was the one and only Dragon of Crilan.
“We’ve been found!” Esmeralda hissed. “Retreat!” She grabbed my hand and we both ran down the stairs and towards the door that led to the training grounds at the back of the castle.
“Halt!” Jared yelled.
I stopped, but Esmeralda pulled on my arm, “Your Queen commands you to ignore the King!”
I giggled and kept running with her. She reached for the doorknob and opened it to find Jared on the other side.
“Curse your swiftness!” she yelled with mock anger.
He smirked at us, blocked the doorway with his wide shoulders, and asked, “Aren’t you supposed to be at a ball? A ball that I am forced to attend as well?”
“It’s so boring!” Esmeralda whined, transforming into a spoiled child as she pouted at her husband.
“So you and Tilia were sneaking off to go have fun while your poor husband and King was left to endure the boringness alone?” he asked as though we had betrayed him.
“You could come with us?” I suggested with a smile and bounced on the balls of my feet.
He looked at me a moment and said, “She is definitely from your bloodline, Esmeralda.”
She beamed proudly and said, “I know. It’s glorious, isn’t it?”
“People will notice that you are gone,” he scolded Esmeralda.
She stuck out her bottom lip in a pout and said, “Please.”
He sighed and placed his hand on her face. “Alright. Go have fun. I will be the responsible adult for tonight.”
She kissed his cheek and said, “Next boring event I will let you sneak out.”
“Ready?” Jared asked me with a wide smile.
“Ready for what?” I asked.
Esmeralda and Jared clucked their tongues and their horses shot off ahead, racing together. “Cheaters!” I yelled, clucking to Duke and squeezing my legs to urge him forward. He reluctantly took off at a canter and then lengthened his stride into a gallop. We caught up and then pulled ahead of them both by a neck.
“Your horse’s size is not fair,” Esmeralda called.
“Your small horse should be faster than this lazy giant,” I called back.
We continued galloping for a little ways farther and then slowed the horses to a walk. I pet his neck and praised him. “What a good boy,” I crooned, “I’ll make sure you get spoiled in Markleville.”
“That horse can really move when he needs to,” Jared said.
“He’s a perfect horse,” I said with a genuine smile and heartfelt appreciation.
“I’m surprised you can even mount him,” Esmeralda teased.
“You should have seen her trying to climb up him the first day I gave him to her,” Jared said with a laugh.
“Well you wouldn’t pick me up and put me on him,” I complained.
“It was worth it to watch you scramble up his front leg and almost pull out the poor guy’s mane to get onto his back.”
“I apologized and gave him three apples that night,” I said as I pet his neck again. “He forgave me.”
“Most men forgive you if you give them something to eat,” Esmeralda teased.
“Don’t put ridiculous thoughts like that into her head,” Jared reprimanded her.
“It’s going to be interesting to see who you end up with,” Faxon said with a smirk at me.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked defensively.
“You are equal parts your uncle and aunt,” he said, “I always knew they were meant to be together because of how they interacted, but seeing you as both parts makes me wonder who could possibly counteract your attitude and personality.”
“Are you trying to imply that by being a little bit of both of us that she is unlovable?” Esmeralda asked with venom in her voice.
“Not unlovable, just…difficult,” he said with a wide smile.
“I’ll show you difficult,” she said, her hands moved and then a fire started on the top of Faxon’s saddle pad. His horse bolted ahead of us, bucking as he tried to dislodge the fire and Faxon.
Faxon somehow held his seat and used his magic to put the fire out. “See what I mean?” Faxon called back to us, “Difficult.”
“I’m not difficult,” I said.
Jared reached over and pet my hand. “You’re right; you’re only difficult eighty percent of the time.”
I let my mouth drop open and then glared at him. “You’re the most stubborn man in the Realm of Olanze and you’re telling me that I am difficult?”
“She has a point,” Esmeralda said.
“Don’t you team up with her against me. I’m your husband,” he growled.
“I’m only speaking the truth,” she said.
“You are rather difficult sometimes,” Griffin agreed with Esmeralda.
“Not you too!” Jared groaned. I stifled my laugh, but he saw me covering my mouth and glared at me.
“You aren’t going to force me into an arranged marriage, are you?” I asked them.
Esmeralda looked like I had smacked her. “Of course not!”
“We haven’t done arranged marriages in a century,” Jared said.
I exhaled. “Well, my dad wasn’t sure and told me to be prepared just in case.”
“Does your dad do arranged marriages?” Esmeralda asked.
I shook my head. “No.”
“Well you don’t have to worry about that,” Jared said, “We aren’t going to force you to do anything.”
“Except not be a pirate,” I fake pouted.
Esmeralda laughed. “Except that.”
“Well, I guess I’m okay with that. Most pirates don’t have very long careers anyways,” I said.
“Speaking of marriage,” Esmeralda said, moving her horse closer to mine. “Technically we are supposed to have a ball for your seventeenth birthday so that all of the available men can come so you can start looking for a suitor.”
“WHAT?” I asked in an almost scream.
“You don’t want a boyfriend?” Faxon asked.
I blushed and said, “I just didn’t know it was a formal thing and, uh, hadn’t really thought about it yet.” That was a lie. I thought about boys like every teenage girl did, but my options were slim at the Capitol.
“Well, it’s a tradition and I thought I would let you know now that we’ll be having it while we are in Markleville,” Esmeralda said.
“I don’t have a dress,” I said, hoping that would cancel the plans until we returned home, “I didn’t bring one.”
“That’s fine. I will have one made for you,” Jared offered.
How generous. Ugh. “But if I find a guy I like in Markleville, I won’t even be able to see him when we return to the Capitol,” I said.
“That is where the true romance is supposed to begin,” Esmeralda said with a smile. “They have to try to keep you interested with letters and poems and gifts.”
“It’s very tedious,” Jared said.
“Only because you had to find others to write poems for you,” Faxon said.
“I knew you didn’t write that poem!” Esmeralda said with a triumphant shout.
“I’m going to skin you, Faxon,” Jared growled.
“It’s time she learned the truth,” Faxon said.
“I already knew,” Esmeralda said, “I just never had confirmation.”
“How did you know?” Jared asked.
“You haven’t written me a poem once since then. Every other guy who wrote me a poem continued to write them, not just one,” she said honestly.
“Who else wrote you poems?” Jared asked with crossed arms jealously.
“Yes, I’m really looking forward to this,” I muttered.
“Not every man is like him,” Faxon said defensively.
“I can’t believe you helped him,” Esmeralda said.
“I’m a good friend,” he said with a shrug, “it’s a curse.”