Chapter One

The Kingdon of Lyrsea

Adelais was running away from home.

Unfortunately, she'd been waylaid by her mother, Dinah, before she could take action. Dinah plopped Adelais onto the stool and attacked her daughter's dark, wild hair. "Did I not warn you it needed to be combed and braided by noon time, Adee?"

"I was just about to do so." Adelais reached for the comb.

"No." Dinah yanked on a knot, nearly toppling Adelais from her seat.

Adelais gritted her teeth. "You know I could not care less how I appear for this man—this stranger."

Dinah's voice was taut. "You had every chance not to marry a stranger, Adee. Plenty of nice men in the village. You forced your father to look elsewhere. This is your doing."

Georges had chosen husbands for her two older sisters by the time each was only a year beyond child-bearing age. As the youngest, she was quite spoiled and coddled by him. Adelais was nearing seventeen years. Many girls by this time had already borne one child if not two.

He was due to arrive home today with a suitor from Calistoga, the capital city of Isleton where he did much of his business as a merchant. Georges had developed a fondness for the son of a wealthy innkeeper over there. "Maman, why do I have to marry at all? I could remain here and care for you and Papa as you age?"

Dinah picked up the ends of her hair, furiously raking the comb. "I am not having this discussion again. We should die sooner from having to put up with you rather than old age. And then what purpose would you serve?"

Adelais burst to her feet. She'd had enough. She snatched the comb from her mother's hand. "I shall finish this myself."

She rushed up the stairs to the secluded alcove that served as her room. From her chest, she grabbed two comfortable dresses, a brush, her flux rags, a water skin, and several gifts from her father worth bartering for money. Dropping to her knees, she then scrambled under the bed where she kept her hidden stash of trinkets and collectibles, but most important, her satchel and rope ladder—this was not her first attempt to run away.

As a girl, Dinah once forbid her from playing with the children in the village for three days after misbehaving. Adelais stole away with her best friend, Henrietta. Their excursion only lasted till nightfall. The second attempt wasn't exactly running away. She'd wanted to accompany Georges on one of his trips and went after him. Adelais made it halfway in the wrong direction before growing thirsty. After that, it seemed to be whenever she and Dinah had an argument—Adelais lost count by then. She typically turned back home within several hours, never able to go beyond the surrounding forests thanks to Lucas' ghost stories.

Lucas.

She and her parents knew the true reason Adelais refused to marry.

Adelais paused and glanced at a small wooden chest gathering dust in the corner. It contained her wedding attire and the special hand-stitched kercheif she was to give her husband on their wedding night. She went over and opened it.

Pressed on top of the bridal gown was the silk white kerchief embroidered in pink petals. She shoved her hand farther down to the bottom of the chest feeling underneath the garments. They had to still be there! Dinah better not have thrown them away.

Adelais sighed in relief when her fingers skimmed the scratchy material. She pulled out the cloth and slowly opened it.

Nestled safe and secure lay the dried pink wildflowers. Their very likeness woven with adoration into the kerchief.

How quickly the years had passed since he'd given them to her.

Adelais pressed them to her heart and willed the aching to cease. Where would she even flee to?

Selah. She could go to Selah and become a servant for a wealthy family, experience life in the Kingdom's capital city and beyond. Just as she'd always wanted. She would be near him—

No, that would only make her yearn for the intangible. Better to annihilate any possibility of crossing his path. Better to flee to the Ports of Parlier and sail across the Sea of Soledad.

She folded the parchment back over the flowers and tucked it inside her bag along with the precious keepsake. Adelais dragged the rope ladder to the window and paused.

She wasn't a petulant child anymore. Her parents deserved respect, but not at the cost of her freedom. Dinah would have to accept this—Georges too, even though she regretted not affording her father a proper farewell.

At the foot of the stairs, Adelais paused and cleared her throat. "I'm leaving, Maman. I really am."

Her mother didn't even glance up from her sewing. "Fine, Adee. I suppose we shall see you by dinnertime then."

Adelais slammed the door shut behind her.

xxx

The Mountains of Janiah loomed in the near distance as she hurried. The sun had already crested over their peaks. They served as a divider between the kingdom's capital city of Selah and their quaint village. It was out of the way to take this route, but she'd encounter less people and their curious stares along this path.

A large clearing of wild grass was almost within reach amidst the mountain's forest when Adelais heard grunts and blows. Slowing her pace and darting in between trees, she peered out from behind one of them. Several posts had been pounded into the ground as sparring objects. Her eyes widened. She pressed a hand to her chest to keep her heart from jumping right out of it. Adelais then crouched down and watched in fascination. His breeches were rolled up to his knees to reveal sharp, defined calves. And with each blow to the post, she grew more engrossed in his rapid execution. The way his muscles flexed. The exact movements of his limbs down to the fingers curling and straightening with precision.

When had he gotten so tall…so…? She wasn't quite sure there was a word to describe him. Had she ever been able to describe Lucas? To put into words what he meant to her?

Nearly two years her senior, he was the son of Hugues Mathias the Carmite, former general of the king's Élite professional army. Upon his retirement, Hugues returned to his birthplace in their village of Carmel and married. Lucas' mother died in childbirth and it was expected Hugues would raise his son to follow in his path.

But until Lucas left to train in the capital at the age of twelve, it seemed his only purpose in life was to torment her. It had always been his devious pleasure to yank her braids or stuff various reptiles down her smock. Trainees were allowed home for respite only during springtime until their eighteenth year. They would then audition for the king's Élite. Everyone knew Lucas would be counted among them. Which meant he would devote himself wholly to the king. And no other.

As time passed, instead of loathing his banter, Adelais craved it; she ached for spring to come.

She tried to squash these confusing emotions, but another part of her overrode the rationality.

The part that found some way to sit next to him at gatherings, to be his dance partner; that she may feel his hand surrounding hers. The part held captive from his tales of life in the capital, his quest to become a great general like his father.

This was his final spring. He had returned early. And though he'd come back different every year, he had still been Lucas with the familiar curve of his cheekbone when he grinned, his unruly black waves. But now, with the sun reflecting off his chest, now he really was a man.

She'd only ever seen this intensity on one occasion when catching sight of him practicing sword play with his father in their field. Who he was—what he'd devoted his life to becoming—now faced her again in all its harsh reality.

It was just her luck to have him spoil the plan to avoid him.

After a series of more punches and kicks, he finally rested and picked up a skin filled with water. He drank hungrily. Adelais watched the apple of his throat bob up and down with each swig.

She turned away quickly and slumped behind the tree. Could he hear her shallow breaths, her heart thudding? Could she make her escape without him catching her?

And then he spoke, "Adee, you may come out from behind the tree now."

Her eyes bulged. She pressed her cheeks to make sure they were not burning with a heated flush. Then her eyes narrowed. How dare he carry on knowing the whole time she'd been spying on him! If her cheeks were red, he would see it was from anger and not from…whatever this was called—insanity?

Adelais jumped to her feet and threw her shoulders back. "I was only passing though. I didn't want to—disturb this," she flitted her hand at the posts, "silly exercise that seems to have you so involved. What do you expect to gain? It cannot even fight back!" She adjusted her satchel and lifted her head, making sure to keep her eyes averted. "I shall be on my way now."

"You know …" He quickened his stride and fell in step next to her. She took a few steps away, but he invaded her space right back. "Never were very skilled at sneaking around. A snorting beast is quieter than you.

She made a sound of disgust while shoving him away.

It only encouraged him more. "Something wrong? You always have a nasty retort. Don't tell me your wit is gone."

When he reached out to tug a strand of her hair, she hit his hand away. "Leave me be!"

His eyes traveled to her satchel. "Running away again?"

She gave him an odious look before huffing away.

"Where to?" he asked, jogging up to keep pace with her.

"That is none of your concern."

"On your way to Selah?"

"Perhaps."

"What if you fall down another abandoned fortress as you did all those years ago? Who would be there to rescue you?"

She focused ahead and continued her swift movements. "It was your fault I fell down that hole. I broke my ankle because of you!"

He chuckled. "Still holding a grudge? I could have left you there. Did I not give you my word never to allow harm to come to you again?"

Adelais kept her lips pursed. Even though Lucas remained true to his word, she tried staying angry. For it had been his fault—he'd snatched her handmade crown of dandelions right from her head making her chase him. But it was a losing battle. Adelais found herself daydreaming of him to be her savior in her fantasies, not some dashing foreign prince. She rattled her mind free of the memory.

"You do realize," he said, "if not for me, you might have made it another half kilometer before turning back. We all know how predictable you are. And it's such a big city for such a little girl."

She cared not if he was over a foot taller and twice her weight. Adelais nailed him squarely in the chest with her satchel. "I am not some little girl!"

Dazed for a moment, Lucas then laughed. He deserved another blow for that smug grin on his face. "In fact," she continued, "I'm long overdue to be married, which is precisely why I'm leaving!" Adelais whirled back around, but Lucas grabbed her by the shoulders and forced her to face him. He wasn't laughing anymore. "What are you saying?"

Was that panic in his voice?

"Well, what did you expect, Lucas? It was going to happen someday. I cannot be as fortunate as you. You don't have to marry. You're not even allowed to be married. Perhaps I should audition for the king's Élite army! Will that spare me the misery?"

His grip was tight as his eyes searched hers for several moments.

"Why are you regarding me so strangely?" she asked.

Lucas opened his mouth and closed it.

She felt a bit naked when he suddenly released her, missing the warmth of his firm touch. He took several steps back, hands on hips, eyes cast down. He seemed to be groping for words. "What—what if I want to marry?"

She crossed her arms and snorted.

"All of our friends are married. Perrin and Henrietta's wedding is next week—"

"Hen—?" She couldn't even utter the name. "And how is it you know this already and not I?"

Lucas combed a hand through his hair. "She accepted his hand last night, Adee. How did you not know? She's your best friend. Have you been living under a rock while I was gone?"

It was none of his concern that she and Henrietta hadn't been exactly best of friends for awhile. Ever since Henrietta's mother died over a year ago, she'd been the sole caretaker for her younger siblings. "A lot of maturing you have done!" Adelais exclaimed. "Not that I'm surprised. With all the attention you mind to your—muscles, one should expect your mind to rot into mush." If she didn't continue, she'd be stuck in the forest at nightfall. She broke into a run.

"Adee, wait, I'm sorry!" he yelled after her. His long strides caught up and he tugged hard on her bag.

She tugged back before hearing the riiip of the fabric. The contents tumbled to the ground. "Look what you did!" she cried and fell to her knees trying to gather it all.

He quickly apologized and mirrored her actions. His hand closed around the parchment of dried flowers before she could grab them.

"Give those back." Adelais reached for them, but he stood abruptly, examining the delicate petals.

His expression made her still, his voice was soft. "These look very much like the ones I gave you for your thirteenth summer."

She rose and made another attempt to grab them, avoiding his penetrating gaze. His hand closed tight around hers. "Do you remember what I told you that day?"

The emotions balled inside her throat, preventing her from speaking. Of course she remembered what he told her. He'd arrived at her door early that morning; the morning that marked she was of proper age to be given away in marriage. Adelais assumed he was there to rub in her misfortune.

She slowly slid her hand from his. "If-if I recall correctly, you told me Old Man Gilbert was looking for a wife." Adelais then bent down and finished stuffing the remainder of her items into the torn bag.

Lucas knelt before her, raising her chin.

She took a deep breath and lifted her eyes to meet his.

"You came running after me, asked if I went around giving flowers to all the girls in the village on their thirteenth year."

She stood and hugged the satchel to her chest. "It matters not what you told me, Lucas."

He straightened as well. "Yes it does. Tell me you remember. Please." His deep set eyes were now wrought with an angered desperation; the same desperation she'd witness that morning. The expression she'd never erase from her memory yet would torture her nonetheless. Adelais looked away. "You warned that men would court me. Men I probably didn't care for, with generous offers fielded by my father."

"Is that all you remember?" She shifted uncomfortably when he tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. "I made you promise to marry a man who loves you," he said, "who knows he's not just marrying any girl. He's marrying one who is fit to be a queen."

Adelias smiled sadly. "What good is being a queen if I have no freedom?"

"Is that what marriage is to you? A prison?"

Confused over his saddened expression, Adelais lifted a shoulder. "I don't know, Lucas. What is it to you?"

He didn't respond for several moments. And then he handed the delicate, old petals back to her. "Not being able to share your life and your dreams with the one person you love more than anything…that's more of a prison than being with someone you don't love."

The pressure built behind her eyes. She backed away. "I must go."

Lucas set his mouth in a firm line. He then nodded in the direction behind him. "At least allow me and Felix to accompany you to your destination?" he offered. "The journey will be awfully lonely."

She shook her head. "You're simply going to deposit me back where I'm supposed to be."

"Oh, come on now." He began jogging backwards, his face brightening with each step. "Stay there."

She crossed her arms and conceded. It was better than travelling by foot. Though now she'd have to maintain the pretense her destination was Selah.

Lucas galloped over on the chestnut palfrey. He instructed Adelais to place her belongings in the saddlebag and reached down to help her mount. "Swing your other leg over. I can hold onto you easier."

Adelais lifted up her skirts and did as instructed. He circled an arm around her stomach, pulling her flush against him. His damp skin attracted her dress; his arm added more gentle pressure.

She mentally willed her body to stop betraying her aloofness. "Lucas, you smell awful. Are going to replace your tunic?"

Expecting an equal measured retort, he did the opposite. His lips brushed her ear when he replied, "I rather hoped you enjoyed me without one."

If he couldn't feel her trembling from his actions moments ago, surely he would now. "It's not proper for a half-naked barbarian to be escorting a lady."

"I suppose it's all right since I'm not escorting one."

Perhaps she deserved it for baiting him, but Adelais was not in the mood for playful banter. "Oh forget you. I'm better off on my own." Try as she might, she couldn't remove herself from the horse. Lucas had both arms locked tightly in place. His breath was on her cheek. "Do you not realize by now how much pleasure it brings me to tease you?"

"Do you not realize how much pleasure it brings me to do this?" She dug her fingernails into his thigh.

He yelped in response, but his strong grip remained fast. "Adee, please, I apologize. You are very much a lady."

Perhaps it was the sincerity in his voice, or the fear she'd only break her neck in trying to dismount. Either way, she surrendered for the time being as he prodded the horse into a gallop.

It was better for Lucas to tease her, stirring her emotions to anger and not the opposite. Letting him go would be easier this way.

But not any less painful.