p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif; text-align: center;" align="center"span style="font-size: 18pt; font-family: 'Bodoni 72 Smallcaps Book';"A/spanspan style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;"lthera leaned out the window, breathing in the air which smelled faintly of pine and smoke. She tipped her head back, squinting against the rays of the sunlight drifting in from the cloudless sky. It was warm for fall - warmer than she had expected./span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;" Her ears picked up the sound of approaching hoofbeats, and she strained her neck. Surrounded by a layer of dense shrubs and other plants she didn't know the name of was a small trail - and speeding down that trail was a carriage./span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;" The first few times she'd heard carriages arriving at the palace was only a month ago, and she had hated it. But then she began to grow restless and lonely in the next few weeks, so hoofs against stone outside her window was the only possible way she could tell she was not alone in this world./span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;" She didn't know how she had wound up in this building, which turned out to be a castle, and the servants who tended to her during the day never said anything to her that might answer her queries, even when she did ask. Every day was the same for her, and it was extremely uninteresting on her part. /span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif; text-indent: 0.5in;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;"She sighed deeply, perching her chin on the heels of her palms./span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;" "Lady Althera?" A muffled voice called. She turned, and her door swung open. /span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;" Kartella, the head maid, strode into the room with a tray of desserts and the bitter tea Althera was already beginning to dislike. She was a round, middle-aged woman with bright hair and even brighter eyes which seemed to contain endless archives of knowledge and experience. She set the tray down on the same table she always left it on. Like countless times before, she bowed her head and retreated back through the doorway, disappearing down the hall as quickly as she had come./span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;" Althera eyed the cakes, debating whether she should fill her stomach with some food before resuming her daily task of gazing out the window, knowing she was forbidden to leave her room unless told otherwise by her servants who frequently reminded her of this. She had no appetite, she realized after a short while of staring. With a shrug, she twisted back around, eyes flickering to the carriage which had stopped below her window. /span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;" It was rare for any carriage to halt before the main doors, like it was unusual for her to be using the largest room located at the front of the castle which had the best views, according to the young maids who spoke only a couple of times during their daily visits to her rooms to aid her in taking a bath in the evening./span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;" But whoever arrived at this castle today was inarguably rich and arrogant to an extent that made Althera want to snort out a laugh. A month of spending her free time looking out the window in boredom had taught her to be very observant - it took up a great deal of the twenty-four hours she had./span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;" The man who exited the carriage was tall, thought he didn't exceed six feet and several inches, and looked to be in his early twenties, if not younger. His face was tanned like the rest of his smooth skin, and the curve of his cheekbones arched perfectly beneath the hollow of his eyes. They were a shade of dark ocher, Althera saw as she watched him step out in a sparkling tunic and black boots that reflected the light of the sun. He was unquestionably handsome, she had to admit, and that made her detest herself. A servant carried the man's case for him, which was fairly large in size, and that caused her to wonder how long he would be staying. Visitors who came to the palace normally went away after a week or so./span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;" She peered out over the edge with her fingers grasping the sides to balance herself and caught one last glimpse of him before he entered through the main castle doors. The driver guided the horses across the cobblestone a few moments later, their trotting becoming distant with each step. An unsatisfied frown stretched across Althera's lips as she pulled away from the windowsill. /span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;" Not being part of the ridiculously intriguing affairs of the palace was tortuous, and Althera was secretly aware whoever owned this castle knew it too. She had of course tried to come up with explanations for how and why she ended up in this seemingly empty room on the top floor of the building, but every reasonable solution she came upon led to more questions she couldn't find answers to./span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;" Althera never bothered to ask anyone anymore, for after spying all the grim expressions plastered on every face of every person who came to serve her, she realized she wasn't going to receive the reply she wanted. The majority of them always just came and left with formal greetings and farewells that would soon drive her to insanity./span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;" The maids coming for her next wouldn't arrive until a few hours, so Althera propped herself atop one of the pillows on her bed, kicked off her slippers, and finished her tea and dessert with much reluctance./span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: -webkit-standard, serif;" /span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif; text-align: center;" align="center" /p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-size: 18pt; font-family: 'Bodoni 72 Smallcaps Book';"V/spanspan style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;"alentine Arcostine, Crown Prince and now king and ruler of all of Daevoren, struggled to stifle a yawn. His eyes grew heavier with each word he read and filed into memory. He still had piles to get through before his cousin arrived for his stay at the castle, which he prayed wouldn't be too long. Flipping the page, he flinched as a knock sounded at the door./span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;" "Come in," he ordered, blowing out a breath. He was going to have to pause his deskwork for the moment./span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;" /spanspan style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;"The double doors creaked open and Kartella slipped in, her kind blue eyes taking in Valentine's pale and tired form. She held a cup of steaming tea and a slice of his favorite kind of cake in her hands. /span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif; text-indent: 0.5in;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;""Your Majesty," she greeted with a curtsey before placing the contents onto the table in front of him. He thanked her quietly, rubbing his sore neck. Kartella always knew what he needed at the exact time. She had stayed in the household since he was just a boy growing up, though she never looked to have aged in those long years - not even a little. /span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif; text-indent: 0.5in;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;"He picked the cup up between his fingers and sipped, wincing as the hot liquid burned the tip of his tongue, jolting him in his seat./span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;" "Has she spoken?" He asked, pushing the tea away and digging into the cake on the china plate. He bit into it and lifted his head to watch Kartella's reaction./span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;" "No, Your Majesty." She shook her head./span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;" Valentine recalled her name being Althera, though she didn't possess a last name - his subjects looked into the matter, but they found nothing. He fought back a shiver. The very thought of her sent a chill running through him. Ever since he'd spotted her lying abandoned on the sandy beach he had brought his hunting company to, he had an uneasy feeling about her. He only made the choice of keeping her in the palace for further interrogation, although so far she hadn't even given the reason for why she had washed up on the shore to begin with./span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;" "Very well," he exhaled, waving a hand to dismiss her. /span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;"She hesitated, raising her head a fraction. Valentine could tell without looking that she was wondering if the news she had in store for him should be delivered./span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif; text-indent: 0.5in;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;""Speak," he beckoned./span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;" "She emhas /embeen asking questions, Your Majesty," she replied finally. The hand Valentine used to reach down for another bite of the cake stopped mid-air./span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;" "What about?" He stiffened. It was no surprise she would ask about where she was, but Valentine refused to give in and let her know, afraid she might be an assassin or spy in disguise sent here to disrupt his rule over the Daevoren. That was another reason why he kept her locked up in the most heavily guarded room in the castle./span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;" "About how she entered the palace." Kartella looked up at him. "She seems to have forgotten quite a few things, Your Majesty."/span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;" Valentine knew deep down that the girl was very well lying - she remembered every single detail of her capture up until the very events of today. But the sincere concern and worry in Kartella's eyes threw him off for a second. His throat suddenly went dry under the head maid's probing eyes./span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif; text-indent: 0.5in;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;"Fortunately for him, he was saved by the loud footfalls echoing down the hall. He tore his gaze away from Kartella and jerked out of his chair, readying himself for another scolding he was to deliver to whoever was on the other side of the door. He had not forgotten informing the servants early this morning about not disturbing him while he finished his work in time to greet his cousin - save for Kartella, of course./span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif; text-indent: 0.5in;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;"But as the hurried footsteps grew louder still, and muted shouting came from the other end, Valentine's confidence faltered somewhat. He recognized the voices speaking./span/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: medium; font-family: 'Times New Roman', serif; text-indent: 0.5in;"span style="font-size: 13pt; font-family: 'Baskerville Old Face', serif;"It seemed to take eternity for the doors to finally open, and when they did, his face drained completely of their color. For the first time in all of his wretched eighteen years, Valentine was unprepared to meet the familiar amber eyes he knew too well./span/p