One: Surprise

"Where do you think you're going, princess?"

I struggled to stop, skidding on the slick, marble floor of my home. I was supposed to be safe at home. I was supposed to be perfectly safe. Some guards I had protecting me, ready to turn at a pretty silver piece promised to them. The betrayal almost hurt more than the court gossip, and I had heard a lot of nasty gossip. The court gossip had always been horrible, but of course, I could survive that. This, I wasn't so sure I could survive.

I actually threw myself to the ground, knocking my knees hard on the floor in my attempt to turn away from them and run again. Unfortunately my thick skirts wrapped around my legs, preventing me from collecting myself before the hard hands grabbed my arms and hulled me to my feet in such a way that I had to cling to my captures to keep from falling anew. I hated myself at the moment for my horrible attempt to escape those men. Why wasn't I faster? Why couldn't I outrun them? I should have been working for such an occasion, not playing at frivolous games.

"Come, little princess, we have quite the place for you."

I screamed, I didn't want to scream, but I did. I don't know who I thought would come to my rescue, all my men having turned against me, but I screamed anyway. I hoped that some man would take pity on me; I was wrong. I threw my legs and tried to free my arms, which were beginning to bruise from the grips the men held them.

"Shut up, little princess."

I turned my gaze to the man who spoke so rudely to me. I wasn't accustomed to people treating me as anything other than royalty and the kingdom's only heir after my brother died last year. I didn't like the way he spoke to me and I spat into his face. He let go of me, raising his hand in a smack me so hard that I was sure my whole face would turn into a bruise later. Then the grips returned, harder this time. Obviously, they did not take to my attitude, which went both ways.

They dragged me through the halls I used to walk so merrily down and out the large door that my father loved so dearly for its artistry. I panicked. Once I would be out the door, my life would be forever in the hands of my captors, I was sure. Our summer palace home was in the country side, no aid would come to me until it was too late, especially at this time of night. I would be dragged from my safety without anyone to try and prevent it until the morning when the sun would come up and all the people my father ruled realized that I was gone, and so their hope for a just ruler with me. Not even my court could help. They were probably taken first, ahead of me.

The men who dragged me hardly cared that each step down to the ground hit my knees as I pulled my weight away from them. I would not go easy. By the last step, tears were running down my cheeks and my knees would no longer hold me. How was this happening?

The soldiers, father's supposed elite fleet, stood in the court yard as my captors dragged me away, screaming and crying. They had been paid off with the promise of promotion and wealth, I was sure. They were men eager to rise in power. "Cowards!" I screamed at them. "You let them kill your king for a chance at wealth! Cowards!" If anything, my words made many of them angrier at me and at my father. They had already hated my father for cutting their wages. But they would see how wrong they were under a days rule with Russel Jadeside, the man who killed my father, who had taken my court, who was kidnapping me.

The Jadesides had always hated my family. The feud was a little civil war in the Opal Empire that dated back to a time when the empire was barely in existence. The Jadesides had the throne after my family, the Zanders, passed it to them. Old king Willard Zander had stated in his will to leave it to his closest friend and general, Urich Jadeside. The Jadesides ruled for centuries after, but they had turned to corruption and a direct ancestor on my father's side, Nate IV had taken back the throne after a bloody war, we called the War of Power. The Jadesides moved on to the neighboring kingdom of Thea, which they ruled even now. I don't even remember why they hated us now, an old debt I suppose, but it didn't matter; our claim was as good as the first claim back in Old Willard's day. They should just accept that fact and keep poor Thea for themselves. We have never wanted their kingdom.

"Cowards!" I screamed pitifully back at them as I was dragged past the stone walls and the large wooden gates that had been built to keep these sort of men out. The same gates that the elite soldiers had opened warmly to them. The same wooden doors shut and I knew that any rescue was useless. I began to cry, not for myself, I knew I could find a way to escape, but for my father and how horribly he had paid for the betrayal of his men. I cried for the empire and the people I had meant to rule in a strong but loving hand. I cried for the helplessness I felt at this moment. I cried for the men who were cowards. Then I cried for myself.

Outside the gates, the men loosened their grip and threw me to the muddy ground. In my pride, I wished that it hadn't been mud, my dress would be ruined. I stayed were I laid, my knees protesting any other movement and my hands sinking into the horrible mud. They no longer feared that I would run away. Let them think that, see how wrong they would be when I would find the best escape from this nightmare.

"So, little Princess Lila Zander is finally bowed before me."

I looked up into the smug face of Russel Jadeside. He was an imposing man, taller than my father had been and had a head full of blonde hair and a scruffy beard that he must have thought made him rugged and handsome, but only made him seem less than noble like a pirate. His pirate, green eyes laughed at me and I hated them. He could have been one of the many handsome courtiers that frequented the palace halls if it were not for his name and his hatred toward the Zanders. It made him ugly to me.

I gritted my teeth and forced my feet underneath me and attempted to stand. I would not bow to this man. Unfortunately, that was not my decision. I fell back into the mud, splashing a bit onto his expensive leather riding boots. He stepped back with a laugh. I only felt miserable and I wished my father were here to help me, despite my confidence that I would escape.

"Princess, I am afraid that was a poor attempt." He laughed again before he turned deadly serious, so much so that I wanted to shrink back and had to force myself to stay put. A true born princess would never shrink. "Lift her up and bring her to the camp. Fire the town and get rid of this castle. It is a sore sight in the land."

"What?" I couldn't keep the question inside. "You can't! These peopleā€¦" I stopped when he glared at me. He had such an imposing glare.

"I believe I can. These people will learn the hard way for supporting a Zander on the throne." Russel Jadeside brought his face very close to mine. "Let's go."

He turned from me and the men lifted me roughly to my feet. I cried out in protest to the pain my body sent me. They didn't much care about that, nor did they care that they half dragged me through the mud. These men had no respect for royalty.

I couldn't see where we were walking as the clouds rolled over the full moon and shut out the only light I could see. My ankle rolled in a hole, twisting it horribly. I bit my tongue in an effort to keep my cry inside. I wouldn't give them the satisfaction of knowing how much pain I was in, not once more.

In the distance I could just make out the camp as darker shadows against the navy, midnight skies. It wasn't far from the castle, which made me wonder how my father could have over looked this and why he hadn't told me about it. Why had he left me so in the dark? I could have been more prepared for this moment, if that was ever possible.