CHAPTER ONE: THE ARRIVAL
A lone figure walked through the woods, leading a horse slowly through the thick thorn and brush that surrounded it.
Princess Brianna Lovely had never been so exhausted as she was at the moment. Her feet ached from walking, and her throat felt as though it were about to catch fire from lack of water. Her eyes, plagued by lack of sleep, kept sliding shut every few seconds so that she swayed, asleep if only for a moment, before forcing them to open and pushing forward again.
Her hand clutched the white horse's mane as though it were a lifeline. She supposed that, in a way, it was. Her grip was the only thing keeping her upright.
"We're almost there, Snow." She informed her horse in a half hearted attempt to convince herself that it was the truth. "At least… I hope we're almost there."
The horse neighed and, in a sign of affection, nudged her arm. Almost immediately, she lost her footing and stumbled for a few paces before gripping the white mane again.
"Steady girl." She eased. She looked longingly at her companion, but didn't hoist herself up onto the mare's back. She was determined that at least one of them would make it to the Jesian Golden City in a healthy state.
"How far do you think we are from the gates, Snow?" She wondered aloud. "We left Isricka six days ago, so it can't be too long. Right?"
She missed home. Missed her brother, Christian. She even missed her father. Although, she was relatively certain that he in particular hadn't even noticed her absence.
She wondered how Christian was. Good, she hoped. She sighed loudly, proclaiming, "Christian, in case I never reach my destination, I hope you know I'm doing this for you." Her voice fell, and broke. "And for James. And Gabriel. And even for mother, even though she left us so long ago."
She was so caught up in her thoughts of home that she didn't even realize that she had stumbled out of the forest until the sunlight hit her eyes. She winced, squinting and almost missing the shade of the dense trees.
After she'd run away, she had spent the majority of her time in the forest. It was the reason her journey, which typically was only one of three days, had doubled. She hadn't wanted someone to catch her and bring her back home, and the forest had seemed to provide the best shelter. Unfortunately, the doubling of her journey had also left her without food, water, or any other necessary provisions after the first few days.
Her hand came up to shade her brown eyes, and she forced her vision to focus on what was in front of her.
There was a sharp intake of breath, and she gripped tighter to her horse. "Oh, please. Please, don't let this be a dream. Tell me it really is there."
No one answered her, of course, but as she stepped closer excitedly, pinching her arm, she realized that no, it wasn't a dream. She'd heard of the Jesian Golden City; a city of great luxury, located just outside the forest. It was said that King David had had it built in that specific location – where it was surrounded on three sides by dense and nearly impenetrable forest – so that it would be a safe haven.
No label had ever seemed more appropriate to Brianna. A safe haven was exactly what she hoped to find inside those gates.
Brianna pulled Snow to a halt, reaching into her tiny bag and pulling out her tiara. She glanced down, taking in her appearance. Her dress was tattered and ripped along the bottom, courtesy of a variety of branches. The hem was covered in dirt and had pieces of leaves sticking to it, and she had no doubt in her mind that there were smudges on her face. Her curly brown hair had long ago fallen out of its elaborate style and was now only half-up, the rest of it falling in disarray around her shoulders.
She groaned in frustration. With her current luck, she half expected them to believe that she had stolen the tiara. Knowing that there was no turning back now, she straightened her dress and used the sack to wipe her face, hoping that she could undo some of the damage.
When at last she was convinced there was nothing more to be done, she straightened and put the tiara on. Then, with every last ounce of strength, she lifted herself onto Snow's back and nudged the horse on. The world spun as she sat on the saddle, and with a tiny gasp, she dug her fingers into the elegant mane.
On horseback, it didn't take nearly as long to reach the gates. They were open, welcoming to strangers, and Brianna felt her heart sink a little.
There had been a time when her own city had been similar. The people had always laughed, always worn bright colors. And the gate had always been open.
She could hear the murmurs of incredulity as people took in first her appearance, and then her tiara. They questioned who she was and what she was doing in their city. What had happened to her to grant her such a haggard appearance?
And mostly, it seemed, they questioned the possibility that she had arrived for the prince.
Brianna ignored the whispers and continued on her path down the paved roads to the palace. Some of the rumors nearly made her smile because they were so improbable, but she tried to keep her face masked to any emotion.
At seventeen, the only thing Brianna should have been worried about was marriage. Her father had been pressuring her before her departure to find a husband, but her brothers had always told her she could have a man of her choosing. After a few months of prodding, her father had simply given up on her, knowing that his daughter's will was impossible to break.
She had prided herself on her independence, on her ability to think for herself. She'd considered it her greatest asset in life. It was what had given her the courage to sneak out of the palace that morning, saddle up her horse and run away. Now she found herself questioning her sanity.
At last, she came to halt before the palace gates. The guards, who'd been engrossed in their conversation and hadn't registered her approach, straightened in wide-eyed surprise.
The guard on her right was the first to react, jamming his spear into the ground and asking in a deep voice, "May we be of service to you, my lady?"
She gave a nearly imperceptible nod, tilting her chin up and gazing down at them with an air of haughty indifference worthy of her status. "I come to speak to your king."
"I'm sorry, my lady. The king is unable to attend visitors at the moment."
She nearly burst into tears right then, but instead, she straightened her back and arched an eyebrow at them. "Is there no one to greet the Princess of Isricka?"
The guards seemed to shrink under her stare, and the one on the left stammered out an apology. "I'm sorry, Princess. If I may, the Prince Daniel and Princess Katherine are both inside…"
"Well then, I shall have to speak to one of them. Now." Her tone left no room for argument.
Now what? Her mind cried out. The king was my only hope… if he isn't here… Oh God, please…
She nudged Snow forward, allowing one of the guards to take the reins from her and lead them inside while the other went on ahead, presumably to announce her presence.
When they came to a stop, she glanced down, feeling her head swim a little. How do I get myself down from up here? I barely made it up… Her contemplative gaze fell on the guard.
"You." She called to him, "Help me down."
He stammered out his acceptance of her order before offering her his hand. She took it gingerly, and slid down off the horse, forcing herself to show no reaction as the world once again spun before her eyes.
When she was certain she had regained control, she slid her hand from his and motioned to Snow. "See to it that my horse is tended to, please."
The other guard reappeared and motioned her inside. The relief was almost instantaneous as she was shaded once again from the sun. All the light had made her head pound horribly.
Her gaze scanned the room, and once again she felt a pang of homesickness. It had been a long time since she had been surrounded by such beauty, and she couldn't help but catch her breath. An assortment of decorative swords and shields decorated room, accompanied by portraits of what she assumed to be the royal family.
Brianna turned, a little too quickly, at the sound of a delicate, feminine voice. A girl had entered the room and, judging by appearances, she couldn't have been much younger than her own seventeen years. Her blond hair was pilled atop her head in an elegant and sophisticated arrangement that was emphasized all the more by the golden tiara that enveloped it. Her skin was pale, her eyes bright blue and her lips a pale pink. This had to be the Jesian princess.
"Yes," Brianna said in acknowledgement, not daring to dip into the customary curtsy lest she fall over from another spell of dizziness. "Are you Princess Katherine?"
The other girl smiled, holding out one hand delicately. "Yes. I'm Katherine Lindsay, King David's daughter."
"I'm sorry to just… arrive… like this, but it's absolutely necessary for me to speak with your father." Brianna said, fighting to keep her weakness out of her tone as she took the girl's hand.
Katherine smiled sympathetically. "He's out hunting. If I can help at all…"
Brianna shook her head, then instantly regretted doing so. "No, I don't think so. Do you have any idea when he might return?"
"He left only yesterday. Maybe in a fortnight or so, perhaps longer. You're welcome to stay here and wait for him."
A fortnight. My country is in the middle of a war, and I'm to wait a fortnight? Knowing she had no other option, she nodded slowly. "That would be—"
"No, you're not."
Frowning, and slightly confused by the interruption, Brianna turned around to face the person from who the deep voice had come. A young man was standing in the doorway; tall, proud, and wearing a uniform that Brianna suspected was that of the Jesian army. Judging by the boldness of his interruption, Brianna presumed that this young man was the prince.
"I beg your pardon?" She asked at the same time Princess Katherine questioned,
"I don't want an Isrickan under my roof." The boy bit out, striding out of the doorway and into the room.
Brianna's eyes narrowed. "Excuse me?" She was appalled that there even existed someone of royal blood with so few manners. What did he even know of her country or countrymen? She didn't remember a Jesian royal ever once gracing the palace with as much as a letter.
Katherine stepped in between the two of them, one hand outstretched in her brother's direction. "Daniel," she snapped, obviously attempting to keep her voice calm, "What's the matter? This is the Princess of Isricka and she came to speak to father. She'll be staying until he arrives."
"While my father is gone," the young man announced, arms crossing over his chest as he looked directly at Brianna, eyes daring her to challenge him, "I'm in charge. Which means that if I don't want her saying here, she won't be staying here. Say what you need to say and get out." He jerked his head in the direction of the door.
"Daniel!" Katherine grabbed his arm, pulling him back.
"Kat, she isn't staying here."
Their voices were rising, and Brianna's world was spinning. She inhaled deeply, bringing a hand to her forehead as she tried to focus on any one object. She couldn't.
Everything seemed to be melting together in one huge mess of color.
Not now. Please, not now.
"Yes, she is."
Oh God, oh please…
"We compromise then, she stays here tonight. Tomorrow, I'll have Maggie take her to an inn or perhaps she can stay with someone else. But at least tonight, Daniel. Look at her, she looks exhausted!"
"Father will murder you when he finds out you've run her out of the palace."
"I don't care, Katherine. Her father murdered our brother, or have you forgotten?"
"Not again, Daniel."
The colors were too bright, and everything was moving too fast. She swayed slightly on her feet, reaching out for something to hold onto.
"Yes, again. And then again, until someone finally starts to care!"
Her father murdered our brother. Even through her haze, the words triggered something in Brianna and she frowned, trying to discern just what it was.
"Oh!" She inhaled sharply, the pieces finally coming together after much effort. That her father was arrogant was undeniable but he wasn't a murderer… was he?
Oh no, that's not… it's not possible… it can't be…
"Princess?" Daniel's voice sounded distant, even though he had taken a step forward and was less than a foot away from Brianna's trembling form. She tried to focus on his blue-green eyes, tried to stop the world from spinning.
That's odd…he almost looks concerned…but I thought…
"I…" she tried to start, but couldn't seem to get her mouth to cooperate and form the words she wanted to say.
"Princess!" He exclaimed again, moving even closer.
Brianna's mouth fell open slightly, and in a second her body went slack and slumped forward. The world went black as she fainted.
Right into the arms of the Jesian prince.