Chapter One – The Suitor

Ani brushed out her horse's mane. She looked at him, longing to take him out for a long ride over the hills. Unfortunately for her, her father had decided she had lived in his house too long and wished to sell her off to the first suitable suitor to ask for her hand.

"Zeph, why can't he see I'm not like my sisters? I just want to be free," she whispered to her mare, burying her face in its mane.

The mare nuzzled her compassionately. Ani smiled at her, she saw the mare's ears flick forwards then back again. Ani turned around to see one of her brothers watching her.

"Neal, what are you doing here, I thought father sent you to settle business for him?"

Neal snorted, walking up to his youngest sister, "He decided Kellan was more suited for the job than I was, since I am too immature and irresponsible to do my duty."

Ani laughed, her father was getting on and he mistrusted his youngest son dearly. "Well I can't argue with him there, too bad he doesn't think I'm too immature to carry out my duty."

Neal shrugged and offered an apple to Zephyr who took it greedily. He slung an arm around Ani and led her out of the stable.

"But at least he didn't marry you off sooner, I mean mother was fourteen when she mar–"

"Don't!" Ani yelled at Neal, "I've only heard that about a million times! You forget that they married twenty-five years ago; many things have changed since then! And let Dewei witness, I may want to choose my own husband when I am ready for one! For heaven's sake, I am only sixteen!"

Neal rolled his eyes as he listened to his sister rant as they entered their father's house. He was one of the wealthiest merchants on Kalla Isle, his home one of the largest. He was becoming decrepit and only trusted his eldest son, Kellan his heir. His wife, Lilka, once a warrior had been beaten into remission by the man, the only joy she had was Ani, her youngest and most lively daughter.

"Ani, look at you! Father's is going to be disgraced with the way you carry yourself! Go change into more suitable attire," shrieked the shrill voice of Callia, Ani's eldest sister.

Ani ignored her completely and advance to the parlor where her father was lounging with a man.

"Is she it then?" the man asked, looking her over with appraising eyes.

"She is, Ani come here." Atticus leered at his daughter as he beckoned her forwards. "She is young, but will bend to your will I'm quite sure."

That's right speak to him as if I can't hear you, you asshole, Ani thought annoyed.

Atticus noticed that Neal was lounging against the doorframe, one eyebrow raised in skepticism.

"What are you doing here boy, didn't I send you to sort some of my business affairs?"

"No, that was Kellan, remember, you distrust me." Neal replied loftily taking a seat in a squishy armchair.

Atticus scowled and turned his attention back to the matter at hand. He looked at Ani, "Ani, this is Gideon Des Carviere."

"And this should concern me because?" Ani asked inquisitively, giving Gideon her own appraising look.

"Dear girl, it concerns you because your father and I were just about to finish signing the marriage contract."

Ani snapped her head back to her overweight father, "What?"

Neal now sat erect in the armchair and stared at his father as well. Then he looked to Ani, he saw an explosion, and a big one at that.

"What do you mean signing my marriage contract! I am not going to marry him, he's older than Kellan!"

Neal watched disgruntled as his father back-handed Ani. He couldn't do anything, even though he knew he ought to. It pained him to watch his father treat his mother and sisters this way, but there was nothing in the law against it.

"You will do as I say, and in a fortnight you will marry Gideon!" Atticus yelled at his youngest child.

Ani's big azure eyes filled with tears. A huge angry welt was growing on her face. She ran from the room sobs erupting from her. Neal ran after her, anger growing inside him.

"I do hope she will not behave in this fashion once the vows have been made," Gideon told Atticus jokingly.

Atticus grunted and motioned for Gideon to join him at the table with the parchment scrolls on it.

1

Ani pulled the eagle candelabra on the wall in her room. The bookshelf slid away and left a tiny opening. She slipped through it into a small chamber behind it. She climbed the stairs at the far corner as the she heard the bookshelf slide back into place.

She felt the cool breeze on her face as she ascended to the roof top. The stars were out tonight, not a cloud in sky to stop their flickering glow. The moon was full tonight. She could see the ocean from her perch. The waves rolled gently onto the shore, their lull bringing peace to Ani's mind.

"Where is my knight in shining armor? Am I truly meant to be a broodmare for any man who asks for my hand? I don't want to be trapped on this godforsaken island all my life."

The wind rustled Ani's almond curls. Her pale purple skirt danced around her legs, and she hugged herself, the flimsy grey blouse not much protection against the chill.

The scent of pineapple drifted to Ani's nose. It wasn't that she didn't love the island, she just hated the laws that she was forced to abide when she was on it.

"I wish someone would come and take me away from here."

She pulled a pendant out of her blouse and traced the strange symbols on it. "I'm meant for better things than this."

She closed her eyes and lay down, listening to the calls of the wild birds. She felt so relaxed up here, as if nothing could harm her. A plan began to form in her head. If she ran away, no one could force her to marry anyone. She could choose her own life. She had Zephyr, tomorrow afternoon she would steal away and travel to a distant land. Maybe she would go to the mainland and go to see the great court of King Paden the twelfth of Kallevira.

"I'd like to see him try and stop me then, he'd have a hell of a time finding me if I get that far."

A nagging voice spoke in the back of her mind, what about Neal, would you leave him here all by himself?

"No, Neal would have Rena; the three of us have always gotten along fine."

But Rena is married, she has a toddler son and another on the way, would she really have time for Neal too?

"She would make time for Neal!" Ani argued with herself, "They're almost as close as Neal and I are!"

Exactly - almost.

"Then I guess Neal will have to come with me," Ani sighed.

"Come with you where?"

Ani sat up and stared at her brother. "How did you get up here?"

"I should ask you the same question," Neal laughed, and then obliged her question, "I climbed the trellis when I heard someone talking to herself."

Ani scowled at him. For one he had snuck up on her, again. And secondly he was now mocking her for something he did more often than she.

"I don't think your husband will find it very becoming for you to be talking to yourself."

Neal caught the shoe that had been aimed at his head. "So where are we going?"

Ani glared at him and replied, "I'm running away to Kallevira and you're going to come with me."

"And how are we going to manage that when you are to be wed in two weeks?"

"Tomorrow afternoon when father takes his nap, mother and Callia will be planning my 'wedding' you and I will slip away on horseback to the harbor and catch a ferry to the mainland."

"Won't mother want you to be included in the planning?"

Ani smiled, "She will, but Callia will talk her out of it, saying I'm too immature to understand how such matters work. Eleni is hardly ever even here, and Rena would think of it as romantically adventurous, Kellan and Luke hardly even notice me and I know that their wives absolutely loathe me anyways."

Neal smirked, he knew perfectly well how his sisters-in-law felt about Ani, they thought her beauty was wasted on someone who was too mule headed to make a good match. And it was partly true; Ani had persuaded many suitors away because of her behavior when they came to look her over.

"Alright, but if we get caught, I am going to fend it all off on you."

"Of course you would," Ani laughed, she was now incredibly glad that Neal was agreeing to come with her.

Neal sat down beside her. He pointed out the constellations to her as if she was five and he was nine again. Ani begged him for a story, even though she was considered a grown woman, she still felt like a child.

"Tell me the one about Neith, please Neal!"

Neal moved and wrapped his arms around Ani, he started the tale about the Divine Mother, and how she and Dewei created the heavens and the earth and how their children were the gods and goddesses of the world they had created.

Ani fell asleep on the roof. Neal smiled softly as he watched his youngest sister sleep. It was almost as if they were children again, watching their older siblings growing up but not affecting them. Ani had always been his favourite. Rena was a close second, but she was incredibly close with the twins, Luke and Eleni.

Neal stood up slowly, not waking Ani. He picked her up; she was near feather-light in his strong arms. He carried her to the opening and the room hidden behind the bookcase. He placed her down on the pile of pillows and pulled a blanket around her.

"Sweet dreams, Ani, for when tomorrow comes, there will be hell to pay." Neal kissed her on the forehead and climbed back up the stairs.

1

Ani woke up on the soft pillows in her reading room. The sun was beginning to rise by the look of the pinkish sky in the opening above her. She stretched out her arms and pulled herself up. She climbed up the stairs to watch the sun rise over the harbor. Today she was going to make a break for her freedom.

"I'm going to be free, no more hassles about marriage," Ani sighed contently.

She climbed back down the stairs and looked through the peephole into the next room. Everything looked clear. She nudged the tile by the hole and the bookcase slid away. She sighed in relief when the bookcase slid shut again; hiding away her best kept secret.

Ani pulled a cloth bag from the wardrobe and began to pile necessary items into it. She placed the little money she had into it, as well as a few skirts and blouses. She dumped the contents of jewelry box into a smaller bag, and then stuffed that into the large bag as well. She had finished her packing and shoved the bag into her secret room when she heard a knock on the door.

Ani muttered under her breath and went to the door. Her oldest sister stood there.

"Yes?"

"I just came to let you know that mother and I are going to be planning your little wedding, and your input is not required. You would probably make a botch of it anyways. So stay out of the way until I come to find you for your gown fitting. I'll probably get you in two or three days."

Before Ani even had the chance to respond, Callia had turned on her heel and stalked down the hall. Ani shut the door; her mood was beginning to blacken.

"Plan all you want oh sister dearest, but I will not be taking part in any upcoming nuptials." Ani murmured darkly.