CHAPTER ONE

"Bella!" she heard her sister's voice call out from her home. "Mother wants you to go home now! Said she had something important to discuss!"

She sighed from the horse she was currently perched on, annoyed at being interrupted, even by her oldest sibling. "Alright!" She shouted back, so she was sure to hear over the ruckus of her children in her home.

As she brought the horse into the pasture, she removed the bridle.

She ran through the yards and into her own, pulling to a stop in front of the kitchen door and adjusting her dress before stepping inside.

Her mother was slipping a baking pan into their large cast-iron oven. "Charlotte, you have leaves in your hair," her voice tinkled like bells as she corrected her youngest child.

Her cheeks turned a pale pink as she threaded her fingers through her hair and removed the leaves. Her blonde tresses reached passed her waist and she spun it into a loose braid and pulled a pin through it to hold it in place. "Alyson said you needed me?" she questioned and her mother nodded.

"Bella, love," she said, calling her by the nickname that had been placed upon her since she had turned three, "your father just came home. He said he wants you to dress for dinner because we are to have Skylar Scots over for dinner."

She grimaced reflexively. "Mama," she began.

"Charlotte, I won't go against your father's wishes and you're just turned 16," she added, reproachfully. "Your sister was wed by the time she was 15."

She sighed at the reminder. "I don't need a husband."

Alice looked at her daughter's lovely face. "You are the first lady I've ever met who didn't wish for a husband," she stated. "How can you have the face of an angel, Bella, and the actions of a man?"

Bella-Charlotte-curled her nose. "Mama, just because I'm not willing to be passed off to the first man who comes a-calling does not mean I have the actions of a man. I have standards, that's all."

"Bella Grace!" in spite of her annoyance with her father, her face lit when she heard his booming voice enter the home.

"In the kitchen with Mama!" she called back.

After a brief second, in which he was likely removing his coat and boots, she heard his footsteps through the hall. He grinned when he entered the kitchen and kissed her mother's cheek and ruffled her hair lightly. "Make sure you're dressed in thirty minutes, Bella," he said. "Brookes is coming to dinner and he is very interested in you specifically."

"Daddy, the day you find a man who isn't interested in me specifically, you let me know," she replied, kissing his cheek gently before walking towards the door way out of the kitchen and into the hallway. Her father chuckled at her response and she sighed.

She knew full well the only reason most men in Mirum were interested in her was because of the fact that she was abnormally pretty, and she knew it. It was rather an inconvenience to her, however, simply because she much preferred to be respected for her thoughts and athleticism and not her pretty face.

She opened her bedroom door, wincing when she heard a loud thump come from her three brothers' room. She closed the door behind her and walked to her closet and opened the doors, pulling out a pale blue silk dress.

She picked up her silver hair brush and ran it through her hair, twisting it into a bun. She pulled on her dress and a pair of white slippers, smoothing the small waist to her dress, making sure she looked suitable.

As she looked in the mirror, she nearly cringed at how fragile she appeared in her mirror. "Charlotte!" she heard her brother, Zachariah call from down stairs.

There was a knock on the door and the sound of her parents and brothers greeting the man who was undoubtedly Brookes. Her nose curled automatically in distaste at the man who owned the tailor shop in the town and who was close friends with her older brother, Nikolai.

Charlotte walked to the stairs and floated down them, noting the way her mother's eyes shined with pride. Her beauty was the source of her mother's joy, simply because it meant that other mothers were jealous, whether she was wealthy or not. And indeed, Charlotte was the beauty of Miram, if not Terra, as others were wont to say. But then, she would just as soon be unattractive and able to own the world than have all the beauty in the world and be trapped into marriage when she's not in love with the man.

And then there was the fact that she loved someone already.

Brookes' admiring gaze did little to turn her sour mood, if it did anything. He greeted Charlotte with, "Bella," and a bow and a kiss pressed to her wrist.

She nodded her head instead of curtsying. She saw her father's sigh but didn't hear it. His brow twitched when he saw that she was looking. The look in his eye berated her.

It only served to irritate her more that she had no choice in who she wanted to marry. She chose to overlook the fact that the boy she had taken a fancy to was quite unaware of her feelings. It wasn't that she could say he thought her invisible, for she wasn't invisible to anyone, and this she knew.

Her brothers led the way towards the dining room, Brookes hanging back to walk with her. It was all she could do to not be entirely irritated with him, but she forced herself to remember that it wasn't his fault that her father allowed him to call on her.

Brookes pulled her chair out for her and took the liberty of taking the seat beside her.

Her brothers and parents kept a steady stream of conversation and she remained quietly, speaking only when asked direct questions. She sought only to make herself seem completely dull and only a pretty face. Of course, Brookes had spent enough time in her home that he knew otherwise, but if he presumed that she was this way with men in general, maybe it would act as a repellent.

Charlotte listened to the conversation take a turn, discussing the war with Daemonium. Her ears pricked when she heard that her brothers planned on enlisting within the next few days.

"Oh, Brookes, did you hear about the girl who attempted to disguise herself as a man?" Zachariah asked. She leaned forward ever so slightly in interest. The idea of pretending to be a man had never occurred to her.

Charlotte glanced over at Brookes, her interest barely contained enough that she looks politely disinterested.

Brookes nodded to Zac. "She's to be executed in three weeks," he responded.

"Poor girl wasn't bright enough to not get caught," Nikolai said and shook his head slightly.

Charlotte's mother listened with a polite interest. "She's not poor if she very obviously chose to attempt to disguise herself as a man for a man's job," she said, her voice dismissive.

Charlotte felt a surge of annoyance towards her mother and fought to keep her face smooth.

Blakeley looked at her, his brow twitching slightly so that the others didn't take notice to it. He was closest in age to her, and he could read her like a book. His green eyes held a question in them and she shook her head ever so slightly.

His eyes narrowed slightly and she looked away quickly, not needing him to guess the plan that was beginning to form in her head.

"Charlotte, dear," her father interrupted her thoughts and she felt everyone's eyes on her.

"Yes, Papa," she responded, looking at him.

"What's the news of your sister?" he asked, wondering how Alyson was.

Charlotte's cheeks colored slightly when she realized she didn't have an answer.

"Weren't you over at her home all afternoon, Bella?" her mother, Alice, asked.

"Well, yes," she responded, sheepish. "But I rode Magnum," she added.

Zachariah pursed his lips slightly in disapproval when Brookes furrowed his brow slightly.

"Oh," Blakeley said, his eyes lighting slightly. "Did he ride well today?"

She nodded, her interests finally pricked into something she was able to show excitement over. "He didn't buck at all,"

"We need to k-"

"Blakeley," their mother cut in sharply, noticing Brookes' slight frown. "Not at the dinner table."

The light left his eyes and he looked down at him plate, quiet once more.

Charlotte sighed, her own animation dimming greatly.

Her brothers and parents relaxed visibly when Charlotte dropped the subject because Brookes appeared much more comfortable. It was of his opinion that unmarried ladies should be seen, not heard, and certainly shouldn't be riding on a horse without a sidesaddle and certainly not a horse that bucked. A lady, to him, shouldn't ruin her complexion with the sunshine. She should remain in doors to be looked over by her mother and married sisters.

Charlotte felt the relaxed air and felt she herself grow annoyed. She disliked the usual assumptions for the way men viewed the way ladies should act. Just once, she wanted one male-besides Blakeley-to prove to her that not everyone is the same.

Charlotte smoothed her brush through her golden hair, closing her eyes as she did so. She wondered idly if she would ever be able to bring herself to cut off her crowning glory. Her hair, at this point, was like her right arm. She had a connection to it that she didn't know is she would be comfortable losing.

She sighed and stood up, moving to put her dress away when there was a tap at the door.

"Come in," she responded quietly, not wanting to wake those of her family who were asleep.

Blakeley's head poked in when he opened the door a crack before he stepped inside her room. Her brothers had always been reluctant to enter, as they made a point to give her her privacy.

He sat, a little uncomfortably, on the small trunk at the base of her bed. "You're not... I mean... You're not going... You're not considering the whole, disguising yourself as a man thing, right Bella?"

"Please don't call me that," she responded. The less people reminded her about her beauty, the happier she would be.

"Alright, Char," he said, a little impatient. "But would you please answer the question?"

She sighed. "Blakeley, you can't stop me," she reminded him.

He looked down at his hands, biting at his bottom lip. "I was worried about that."

"How'd you know, though, if I may ask?" Charlotte asked quietly.

"I saw the look in your eyes with they started to discuss the lady's execution."

She nodded slightly. "Ah."

"Would you tell Mother about it? And Papa?"

She shook her head. "Are you kidding?" she responded. "They'd lock me up in my room for a century, save for the day Brookes comes a-calling again." Her nose curled at the inevitability of the thought.

Blakeley didn't laugh at that, much as he didn't like his sister's suitor anymore than she did. "Charlotte, you will take care of yourself, won't you?" he asked, his voice tinged with palpable concern.

She nodded and met her brother's gray eyes, steadily holding his gaze with her dark blue ones. "I promise."

He relaxed ever so slightly. "When are you planning on leaving?" he asked her, not wanting to release her so easily.

"I'd like to escape mother and go to town tomorrow to enlist," she replied.

"Let me do that for you," he said, his brow furrowing and his eyes clouding when he realized that she was actually going to do this. He felt it was suicide, but there was no stopping Charlotte and he was one of the few who knew such.

Her eyes opened wide in surprise, giving her an almost child like appearance that hurt her brother more that she was leaving to do a man's job.

Blakeley stood when he understood that she would say no more about it, for fear of their parents waking. "We'll leave after breakfast," he determined before walking out of her room and leaving his stunned sister behind.

Charlotte watched her brother close her bedroom door before she turned down the lantern and slipped into bed.

The girl and her brother walked side by side through the town, heading towards one of the more crowded areas in the town's circle.

She waved demurely to men who greeted her and enthusiastically responded to the women who were her friends.

Blakeley excused himself and headed towards the enlisting line as Charlotte's dearest friend, Lillian, made her appearance.

Lillian took her arm and they strolled around the circle as Charlotte waited for her brother, a little nervously.

Tomorrow, she would be with a group of militia men.

Lillian's dark brow curls fairly danced as they walked and she received many gay smiles and cheery waves as the two girls walked. Not many were able to acknowledge Charlotte, however, simply because her beauty made her unapproachable to many. Women were envious and men were intimidated.

Lillian was far from plain though, and perhaps that was the reason that she had such an affection for Charlotte, almost in spite of the girl's excessive loveliness. Where Charlotte was tall and willowy, though, Lillian was small and curvy. Where Charlotte had golden soft curls that reached passed her waist, Lillian's dark springs barely touched her shoulders. Where Charlotte had the bluest eyes of anyone and that displayed a certain defiance to anyone who dared tell her 'no', Lillian's were a dark brown that shown with friendliness.

Indeed, perhaps it was their differences that made them so very well suited for one another.

"Bella, dearest, I saw the most dashing young man while I was walking with my cousin this morning," Lillian trilled and Charlotte gave a smile.

"You always see the most 'dashing' young men, Lil," her bell like voice chimed, making people around them do a double take. Rarely did she speak around others that she had not the patience for.

"Yes, Bella, but this truly was the most handsome," Lillian insisted earnestly.

"Did you ever stop to think, Lillian, that perhaps these young men were purposely seeking you out?"

Her friend blinked, looking endearingly confused. Charlotte's laugh rang out.

Lillian's cheeks turned a shade of pink and she lightly nudged Charlotte's arm. "Don't tease."

Charlotte smiled still, causing her face to light prettily. Her smile was so rare (to those who didn't fully know her) that the people surrounding them blinked and pausing in surprise.

"Lillian, my dear, I'm simply telling you the truth," Charlotte replied innocently, her lashes batting toward her friend.

Lillian's own eyes rolled Heavenward at Charlotte's antics.

Charlotte felt Blakeley catch her arm and swallowed thickly, nervous for the first time as she watched him state:

"Charles St. James is officially a member of Miram's 46th regiment."