Oriana's ankle twisted sharply, and she fell.
She scrabbled across the ground on her hands and knees, the sound of a horse thudding along behind her forcing her to keep moving. The hard earth tore through the skin of her hands and the sound of the man on horseback chasing her got louder. She wasn't going fast enough.
Terror and pain and dread raced through her like a thunderstorm.
She fumbled to get back to her feet, determined to get away, but her ankle wouldn't hold her. Oriana crashed back to the ground, the grazes on her hands graduating to gashes. Tears began to chase each other down her cheeks as the horse drew closer still. Her arms shook unsteadily as she tried to go on, and after only a few moments they gave way and she slumped forward.
She was tired of running, tired of being chased, tired of being caught. She wouldn't be a pawn in somebody else's game; not anymore. Oriana groped for the knife in her boot, aware that she barely knew how to use it and hardly caring. She would not be this man's prisoner. Not now, not ever. Either she would die here, or he would.
As the sound of the horse's hooves on the dirt drew level with her, she rolled onto her back and brandished her knife just in time to meet the man's sword.
The silver of their blades flashed in the sun, blinding her for just a moment and -
It wasn't possible to be this happy. The ballroom was a twinkling mass of rainbow dresses and half burned candlesticks as Oriana was whirled around the dancefloor by her partner.
"Look how they crowd envies you, Princess." The boy she was dancing with drew her closer to brush his lips against her ear. "Not a single one of them is half as beautiful as you." Oriana shivered with pride and pulled away to gaze adoringly at the boy. He was perfect, she thought: blonde, muscular, beautiful. His eyes were so blue she thought she might blink and find herself looking at the summer sky. He was everything she had ever wanted, and his lips were so close. Just a tiny stretch upwards...
Oriana jolted upright at the heavy sound of a fist colliding with her bedroom door. She blinked blearily up at the canopy of her bed, not sure if she was really awake or if she'd simply drifted from one dream to another. It had been so real. She could picture the boy as vividly as if he had lain beside her, and the warmth of his arms still tingled her skin. Perhaps she was still asleep after all and could drift back to her blonde prince.
Her bedroom door rattled in its frame, "Why is your door locked? Imagine if there was an assassin in your room! How would we help you?"
Oriana flopped back onto her pillows and scowled up at the canopy of her bed. Since she couldn't imagine ever having a dream of her mother scolding her, that must mean she was awake. She cursed her mother under her breath; it had been such a good dream; Oriana hated to leave it behind. A slight shadow brushed the edge of her thoughts, and for a moment she remembered the ghost of another dream, but it crumbled to nothingness as she grasped for it.
"You better not be ignoring me, Oriana! Don't think you can laze about all day just because it's your birthday!"
She rolled her eyes, "I'm not ignoring you mother." Oriana replied, but she didn't move from her bed yet. Her birthday. The ball. And not just any ball, a ball for her birthday! It had been the only thing she could think of for months, and at last it was here. Finally, her chance to show herself off and perhaps... She was of age now, seventeen, she could marry at last. Her dream flashed in front of her eyes and she almost squealed. It must be a sign that she would meet her prince charming today! She'd been waiting so long...
"Oriana Cagiano!" Oriana's cheek twitched towards a wince that she didn't quite care to complete. Her mother was approaching the end of her temper, but hadn't reached it yet. She could push her a little further.
Oriana tuned out her mother as she began to lecture her on a princess' manners. She casually slipped out of bed and drifted over to her washstand, untying the twisted rags from her hair to let perfectly formed, burnished copper ringlets bounce off her shoulders and down her back. Oriana spent a great deal of time gently combing the strands and admiring the way light from the window made them shine.
"Oriana!" Her mother's shrieking rose a few octaves, and Oriana knew she'd be in real trouble if she didn't open the door soon. She delicately placed her comb back on the washstand and meandered over to the door. She lazily flicked the catch on the lock and pulled the door open.
Her mother, always impeccably presented down to the very last freckle on her nose, had started to go a little pink and a few hairs had sprung free from the tight knot at the back of her head. She was just on the precipice of losing control. Perfectly timed this morning, then.
Her mother's eyes travelled over Oriana's appearance and her lips pressed into a very, very, thin line.
"Look at the state of you! You're not even dressed!" Her mother pushed past her into her bedroom. "And no ladies maids! We have a party of guests arriving in half an hour! Do you not care what they they think of our kingdom? Have you no pride at all?"
Oriana rolled her eyes and went back to the washstand, "Half of them are father's friends anyway: they won't want to see me. Just tell them I'm indisposed. What does it matter what a bunch of pompous old men think of me?" Oriana dipped a cloth in the bowl on her washstand and began cleaning her face. The guests of the ball had been the cause of a particularly vicious argument between her and her father. Oriana had wanted to invite all the eligible bachelors she could, but her father had taken control of the invitations and struck at least half of Oriana's choices off for 'Political stability'. Oriana didn't give a damn about political stability: it was only a birthday ball, nobody would go to war over an invite.
She caught sight of her mother's reflection in the mirror as she finished cleaning her face and realised she had, at last, pushed her too far.
"You better hope your father never finds out what you just said." Her mother's voice was as crisp as winter frost. Oriana rubbed the cloth over her face again so her mother wouldn't see how pale she had become. Her mother was easy to brush off, but her father... Her father would skin her alive. When Oriana chanced a glance back at her mother's face, she was smiling triumphantly, having finally hit on something Oriana would pay attention to.
"If you're not downstairs and presentable when the first envoy of guests arrives, not only will I tell you father what you said, but I will also forbid you from coming to the ball."
"You can't do that!" She gasped, whirling to face her mother.
"I am your mother and the Queen of Mithmorgo: if I want to forbid you from going to a ball I can and I will. You've done nothing this morning to convince me not to!"
Oriana's mouth dropped open. "But it's a ball for my birthday!" she protested.
"Don't think for a moment that will stop me, young lady! After all, half the guests are your father's friends. Your attendance isn't really necessary, is it?" Her lip curled unkindly as she threw Oriana's words back at her and Oriana had to bite down hard on her lip to restrain the acidic reply on the tip of her tongue. Instead, she folded her arms across her chest and glared icily across the room at her mother. Her mother glowered unflinchingly back and Oriana couldn't help but be struck by how similar the two of them were. They had the same sharp nose, pale skin and slim build. They both had fiery tempers to match their fiery hair and neither liked to lose an argument. They inevitably ended up at each others' throats when left alone for more than half an hour. The only difference was their eyes - Her mother's were perfect crystal blue, but Oriana's were the shade of a muddy puddle.
Oriana bitterly regretting waving off her ladies' maids this morning in favour of an extra hour of sleep. The dream of her prince might have been sweet, but it certainly wasn't worth being woken by her irritable mother and the threat of losing the real thing. Oriana only dared hold her mother's gaze for a scant moment before she lowered her eyes subserviently.
"I'm sorry, mother." Oriana murmured grudgingly. A show of apology was the only way she would possibly be allowed to the ball.
Her mother, however, knew exactly how hollow her apology was and continued to scowl at her daughter, waiting. Oriana sighed and closed her eyes, picturing the ball from her dream in all its wonder and then imagined it being torn apart. "I'm sorry, mother." She said again, and this time there was true remorse in her voice, though it was remorse that she might miss the ball rather than for how she had spoken to her mother.
"Hmm." Oriana opened her eyes to see her mother striding back to the bedroom door. "The first delegation is due in what must now be twenty minutes. If you're down there, presentable and polite to greet them, then we'll see about you coming to the ball." Then she was gone with a swish of silk skirts.
Oriana stamped her foot and squeaked in frustrated anger. For a moment, she considered turning up in her nightdress just to spite her, but quickly thought better of it. No, she would be in the entrance hall on time and presentable as her mother had requested. Not for the sake of the kingdom's reputation, but for the sake of the prince charming she knew was waiting for her.
Hey, guys! Hope you enjoyed the chapter! I promise Oriana's not this self-absorbed and rude forever - but it's heaps of fun writing a character like that. Lets hope she's not disappointed when she meets her prince charming in the flesh!
Any comments are greatly appreciated: good, bad, mixed. Throw the kitchen sink in if you like. I'm just eager to know what you readers think; whatever that might be! Catch you next chapter!