The High Kingdom

My father opts for a ‘quiet family dinner’ to mark my last night. ‘Family’ includes half the High Council, with wives and offspring but excludes my maternal relations. Such a pity.

The guards at the entrance to my rooms report several visitors across the evening, none of whom are admitted. As I dress and breakfast the next morning, voices are raised several times in the corridor outside, but the door remains closed.

We assemble at the main entrance to the palace for the grand farewell. I look around but don’t see Uncle, or Johanna, strange. The guard captain from the previous day, who is also in charge of our safety for the journey clears his throat and says quietly. “I hear, Your Highness, that there seems to be an issue with the locks on the doors to your uncle’s apartments. Palace staff are doing what they can, but I’m afraid it could be several hours before the residents are freed.”

I choke down my giggle and curtsey as the king approaches. He takes both my hands, looks at my ruler-mark one more time, then kisses me on the cheek. “You’re a good girl and I hope you’re happier in the High Kingdom than you were in this one.”

I squeeze his hands. “I was happy in the palace, but I am looking forward to the adventure.”

I’m not looking forward to the adventure. To the journey, yes, I’ve always wanted to see more of the world, but a new court? One where I have the temerity to be baseborn and yet staking a claim on their High Prince? I need to ensure my social armour is polished and impenetrable, and that my attendants are prepared as well.

He smiles approvingly, he wouldn’t be nearly as fond of me if I was staying, I’m sure, and then I’m swept up in emotional goodbyes from his betrothed, Lady Genevieve, and Rosa, who cries.

Finally, I’m released to enter the coach, where my three attendants are already waiting. I settle back, wave once more, and we roll down the driveway in a satisfying crunch of gravel.

The city-folk beyond the palace gates take little enough notice of our entourage, I’m not in some gilded monstrosity of a state carriage or anything. This one is of dark wood with the royal emblem stamped on the side. There are many similar, although possibly not so comfortable, travelling the high roads and back ways of the kingdom on all manner of Crown business. As far as these onlookers are concerned, we’re just another group of bureaucrats.

After the first day, I change into more sedate clothing, that has the advantage of also being long-sleeved. I have no wish to be gaped at and muttered over for the mark on my arm the whole way to the High Kingdom court.

It’s an uneventful journey. The only development of interest, to me at least, is the growing friendship between our esteemed guard captain and my redoubtable Lady Sara. It’s probably not a suitable match, pity.

It takes us a little over a week to reach the foothills of the High Kingdom mountains, and a full two weeks after that to get through them and reach the outskirts of their capital city.

It’s evening when we finally sight the city walls and I’m relieved beyond measure when our captain suggests we stop at an inn for the night rather than attempting the gates after dark.

He’s sent someone ahead to find a suitable place, and the one they lead us to is delightful. Set a short way back from the road, it’s clearly popular but not crowded. They have rooms for the entire party and the beds are not only comfortable but free from the little biteys that had plagued us in half the inns on the way.

The four of us are sharing two adjoining rooms with windows facing a lovely back garden, with an orchard. I have to stop myself from running out of the building and down to the end of it. Zarn isn’t here, and I’ve not heard a thing from him since I left Uncle’s estate.

If only that stupid apple blossom necklace hadn’t got me thinking about him again. I realise I’m toying with his key, the one I used on the night I got my ruler-mark. I’d started wearing it again once we left the palace, although I couldn’t say why.

We enjoy a good dinner and a good night’s rest. The latter surprises me, it feels impossible I could sleep at all given what lies before me on the following day but the comfortable mattress and the soft quiet of the countryside lulls me and the next thing I know, our maids are pulling open the curtains and boasting of proper hot water for washing this time.

We’re back on the road in good time and reach the city by late morning. The place is busy and our party not impressive enough to be given right of way, so we make slow progress. Sara and Penelope, the fourth in our group, chafe at the delay. I revel in it and use the time to examine the city I’m to call home from now on.

Penelope had the good sense to ask for a basket of food before we left, and we munch on bread and cheese as we plod through the streets, the soldiers have their own basket, sitting beside the coachman and they take it in turns to perch there and eat. It would not do to present ourselves at the High Kingdom’s court with growling stomachs.

We roll through the gates of the castle, as tall and looming as my father’s palace is broad and sprawling and pull up at the base of an impressive flight of stone stairs, a pair of guards at the bottom and the top.

Our guard captain helps us out of the carriage as I watch the door at the top of the stairs, open, slam shut, and then inch open once more, just enough to let a tall, slim, male figure through before it snaps closed again.

The young man stalks down the stairs. He’s well-dressed and carries himself as if he’s important. I don’t like his self-satisfied smirk.

He stops a few steps from the bottom and I notice the guards on the steps eyeing each other, they’re tense, my own guards step a little closer to us.

He looks down his nose at us, inspecting our group with a sneer before saying. “The trollop with the tattoo can come with me, the rest of you can leave.”

I can’t breathe, I focus on bringing the fury to the fore, I’ll deal with the hurt later. I turn on my heel and walk back to the carriage. One of my guards scrambles to open the door for me. I murmur to him. “Take us back to last night’s inn.”

He nods, helps my companions into the coach and my party mounts up and leaves. I have a moment’s smug satisfaction when I catch a glimpse of the sneering man, now gape-mouthed and worried, standing at the base of the stairs as the doorway at the top slams open and people pour out.

People in this city must take proper time for lunch as our return journey is far less crowded and we make good time, reaching the inn just after mid-afternoon.

This time, my party opts to stay for three nights and hires a private back parlour in addition to the bedrooms. We gather in the parlour, my wonderful, indignant, supportive attendants, my furious guards, and our maids, administering tea and soothing words, even though they’re puffed up like affronted hens. It’s funny, I’ve just been dealt an unforgivable insult and potentially ruined my future. and yet I’ve never felt so cared-for in my life.

Jane is at the desk in one corner, writing a list of the people she’s going to write letters to. She’s muttering words like ‘disgraceful’, ‘disgusting’, and ‘appalling’. Sara is conferring with the guards on our possible next steps and calls on one of them to repeat himself for the whole room to hear.

He says. “I was behind the coach as we left and while we were turning through the gates, someone raced down the stairs and punched the,” he paused and coloured, “the, um, person, who insulted you, hard enough to knock him over. There looked to be a lot of shouting going on as well.”

It seems our greeters’ attitude is perhaps not shared by others in the court, I agree with Sara’s suggestion that we dally here for long enough to let interested parties find us, and then make a decision.

A debate on how long that might be is interrupted by the innkeeper. “If it please you, Crown Prince Alexander is here to see you.”

And before any of us can respond, Zarn is in the doorway, dressed like a prince and looking grim. He scans the room and the next I know, he’s on one knee before me, my hand in his. “Arianna, I’m so sorry. What you just went through was unpardonable and I don’t know where to begin to try and make it up to you.”

It’s too much. He’s here, it seems he’s the Crown Prince, and yet he let me be jeered at in public. My lower lip wobbles and I can’t stop the sob. His expression changes again, and then I can’t see it because he’s sitting beside me, pulling me into his arms and my head to his shoulder. I give up, and burst into tears, clinging to him as I cry.

He rocks me, pressing soft kisses to my temple and alternating apologies with suggestions for punishments for the culprit that get steadily more ridiculous, until he finally makes me snort into a horribly inelegant giggle.

I push away from him and mop my eyes, then realise we’re at the centre of a stunned, silent group of people.

Sara speaks first. “It seems you two are acquainted?”

Zarn, or should I be calling him Alexander now, replies. “Our Seer advised me to seek my bride early and gave me the clues to do so.”

He wraps an arm around my shoulders, his next words more for me. “She said an incident would occur on the way to our official introduction, and only a trust and familiarity already built between us would allow our relationship to survive it.”

Jane looks sceptical. “The High Kingdom Seer foresaw that repulsive little brat’s behaviour and chose not to stop it?”

Zarn smiles evilly. “The repulsive brat is my second-youngest brother, Xavier. His fractionally younger twin, Taren, was barricading the door so our steward couldn’t get through. Thanks to your calm, decisive, and potentially peace-threatening reaction, the two of them are having to address the consequences of their ‘little jokes’ for the first time in their lives.”

I frown. “Peace-threatening?”

He looks slightly surprised. “My love, you are the treasured daughter of a very powerful king. How do you think he’ll react when he finds out about this? Especially if we do nothing to atone for your treatment?”

My eyes widen, I’m not used to being someone who matters. At least, not to anyone other than Zarn. I lean into him. “And what are your plans for atonement?”

He returns to addressing the room. “If I can persuade you to return to the castle tomorrow, an official presentation to the King, Queen, and my second brother, Bernard, followed by a grovelling apology from the two brats. As we speak, Bernard is stripping the twins’ rooms of everything but the basics, my mother is wailing at them and blaming everyone but herself for their appalling manners, and my father is debating sending them to the Ice Temple for a little discipline and education or keeping them to serve as your page boys until you can’t stand them any more. And then he’ll send them to the Ice Temple.”

The guard captain crosses his arms. “And if you can’t persuade us?”

And here was I, about to acquiesce without a whimper, it’s a good thing someone’s mind is clear and cynical.

Zarn eyes him levelly. “Then I leave with you.”

That makes them blink, and me smile. Zarn looks down at me again, then touches the ornate chain around my neck. “We could go back to your father, or disappear for a year or two, so I can show you every door your key unlocks.”

I gaze up at him. “Could we meet your family, and then disappear?”

He grins.

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