With a fresh kill in tow, the hunter made his way back to camp through the snow-covered forest. The weight of the stag labored his every step. A cold snap hit. Sharp, biting winds whipped icy... [+]
Lux jolts to a stop. “We’ve known each other since we were born. How do you not know?”
“You don’t really talk about it. I know it has something to do with the way people see you. You used to have a scar down your cheek and I don’t see it anymore.” I squint at him. The sun blazes in my face.
Lux closes his eyes while breathing in a lung full of sea air. In a blink, a scar stretches from his eye, down his cheek to his jaw bone and disappears again. “You’re right about my gift. I thought I had mentioned it before.” He bends over to a hydrangea bush and plucks a cluster of white flowers. “I know you’ve only had a night to think about it, but who is the lucky lad you're going to marry?”
I take his flower and tuck it behind my ear. My mother and father prodded too. They all have opinions. My father thought Duke Marden served our purposes well. My mother thought I should spend this week getting to know each of the suitors. My brother laughed about all of this and said he was going away on a voyage. Here I am walking with an already betrothed friend. After some time, I respond, “I don’t want to marry any of them.”
Lux laughs. “You can’t remain unbetrothed forever.”
“That’s easy for you to say when Princess Alexa of Aldrin waits for you to set a date.” I roll my eyes.
“Touchy, touchy. Why don’t you like Princess Alexa?”
“Pshh. What’s not to like about a snotty green-eyed goddess? I love it when she flaunts her gift; like when she made it rain at my beach party. What a perfect present. All was forgiven, of course. She's got that thing that makes every man’s head turn on her worse days.”
“I sense jealousy.” The way Lux wags his brows makes me want to slap him.
I start walking back toward the terrace, vexed by his teasing.
Lux catches my wrist. “Don’t be like that. You are the Princess of Giddel. The most esteemed kingdom around Agatha Sea. Every other girl, including Princess Alexa would love to be in your position.”
“No, they wouldn’t.”
“Yes, they would." He lifts his chin examining me. "You have your mind set on needing this gift.”
“You would too if everyone constantly reminded you of how useless you are.” Hot tears begin to form behind my eyes. I blink them back.
Lux pulls me in for a hug. His warm embrace makes me melt into his arms. He smells of hydrangeas, sea water and sun. Lux pulls back a bit. “Why don’t you go to Phantom Valley?”
“Is this another one of your jokes?”
“I’m serious.” Lux looks down at me, with a gleam of something mischievous. “Didn’t your Wizer tell you to go to the valley when the time was right?”
“At the appointed time,” I correct. “But Lux, no one who goes in comes out. Many have washed up dead on the shores of the river.” I swipe his hands off my shoulders.
“You, Beatriz, are stubborn. The Wizer gave you directions on how to get your gift. You mope and groan about how you need it to be happy. Stop your whining and go get it.”
I swallow hard, considering his words. He’s insane. But he’s right about me always complaining. I don’t want to choose a suitor from a line of men who hope to raise their position by marrying me. There's another more pressing problem. “My parents would never approve of such an excursion.”
Lux snorts. “When did you start asking permission? As I recall, your parents told you after our boating incident, to make your fanciful ideas less noticeable.”
A smile spreads across my face. “If you hadn’t been so keen on swimming, we wouldn’t have gotten caught.”
“Exactly! Take a few of your servants with you, and tell your parents you’re heading over to picnic in the mountains. They wouldn’t know your true motives.” Lux smashes his lips together anticipating my answer.
“Only if you break your betrothal with Alexa.”
He considers for a moment, observing me. “I’d do it for you.”
That sends my spirit soaring. “I need to go.” I whip my trailing skirt around, and head for the door.
Lux calls out, “Think about it, Bea. You deserve more.”
Duke Marden, my father’s preference in suitors, twists the edge of his dark mustache, while contemplating his next move. I don't know why I agreed to play this board game. Father sits on his arm chair by the window, pretending to be interested in his conversation with Marden's father. Every so often he looks toward us, and I flash a contorted facial expression. This time, I flop my mouth open feigning shock.
Marden catches me. “What's wrong?” His deep voice carries across the room.
All my father’s advisors sit at other game tables, gambling their trifles; pearl earrings here and a spirited stallion there. My mother sits near fireplace talking with various other women in their best dresses, drinking fruit tea.
I fan my face to hide my blush. "This game is riveting. You must excuse me before I..." faint from boredom... "my nerves cause me to faint."
“Oh dear.” Marden stands and holds out a hand to help me out of the chair.
My ankle twists which makes my excuse seem legit. We get to the doors, and I call, “Dear Laud, would you help me get to my room?”
Laud scampers from across the hall. She is always nearby any time I’m attending to guests. I sigh in relief.
“Are you sure you won’t need more assistance?” Marden holds onto my arm. A wrinkle of concern pinches between his dark brows. If he weren’t one of the expected suitors, I might think he were cute. He supposedly can change the currents in the waters which would profit Giddel. But I’m not sure I could marry someone, just so my kingdom could catch more fish.
“No worries. I’m feeling steadier on my feet now, due to your quick assistance.” I pull my arm from around his and flutter my lashes with my most innocent smile.
As I loop my arm through Laud’s, she breathes out, “Is he the one you plan to marry?”
I dart a glance back to see Marden reenter the day room. “Why must you be so imprudent? He could have heard you.” I race up the stairs.
Laud rushes behind me. “I’m sorry your Highness. I meant no harm.”
Flying up the next flight of stairs, I think about how humiliating this whole thing is. Most princesses around Agatha Sea are betrothed before their fifth birthday. I burst into my bedroom and fall onto my bed.
“Princess Beatriz, do you need anything?” Laud shuts my door. She huffs and puffs from chasing me.
I think for a minute about her question. There is so much I want, but I’m not sure she could help me with any of it. Staring off, the bed posts and ripples along my canopy, remind me of the many mountains around Giddel. Maybe, I should listen to Lux. Laud could come with me, along with my other maids. Mother would not oppose a picnic. She of all people understands the stress of choosing a suitor. “Yes, I do need something. Could you prepare for a picnic in the mountains tomorrow?” I sit up to see Laud’s reaction.
Laud’s blue eyes widen. “Should we wait for your brother to come back from his voyage?”
“My brother won’t be back for another week or so. Get the drivers, food and other details arranged. I need a change in scenery.”
“Of course.” Laud turns.
“And Laud,” I call before she opens the door. “Please make sure this is kept a private matter. I wouldn’t want any suitors following us on our trip.” I wink.
Laud smiles. “Of course, your Highness. One could never be too careful with so many handsome lads about.” She exits with an extra spring in her step.
I plop back down on plush white covers, wondering if I can pull this off and if I have enough courage to follow through with this plan. Would I announce to all the servants, mid trip, that we really are going to Phantom Valley? Will they leave me? My heart pounds in my chest. I could be dead this time tomorrow. I push out the air in my lungs to try to calm the knocking against my ribs. Lux is right. I complain about my predicament. If I want a life worth living; I’m going to have to pursue my dreams, no matter the risk.