Tirnan, the Fae realm, New Kingdom castle
“You will marry him.”
Theodora Joelle Rainer stared blandly in the mirror of her vanity, her long blond hair hanging down her back in a smooth drape, her expression unruffled in the face of her father’s bold statement. Her father, Sihtric Rainer, leader of New Kingdom, believed fear a sign of weakness. “Don’t make me.” Her voice didn’t hitch or modulate, though her heart raced.
“There is nothing to be done,” her father said, speaking to her from the doorway of her chamber. He knew her feelings on the subject. He wasn’t immune to her wishes, simply undeterred. “Adelmar Lucent is the head of my guard and has two brothers, Theodora. Two. Nearly twins at only fifty-eight years apart. Your mother and I were fortunate to have sired two children over five hundred years. How many Fae can lay claim to such a blessing as two children within a single century? It is unheard of. His parents are still young and may have even more children. And Adelmar’s close ancestry to noble Fae makes him the best match.”
“I do not wish to marry him, or anyone. At least not yet. I’m still young. Most girls my age have not married.” Theodora was chronologically just over a hundred years old—roughly twenty years by human standards—and barely into adulthood among her people.
The king took in a steadying breath, though his eyes pierced her with frustration. “Did you not hear of the beheading of the Oldlander king’s child-bride?”
Yes, she’d heard.
The Oldlander king to the north was unpredictable, barbaric—a killer. When his young bride hadn’t produced an heir the first annum of their union, he had her decapitated.
To expect conception that quickly among their kind was ridiculous, yet it was said the Oldlander king would choose a different female every annum until a child was born. He believed the lore of a son who would bring justice to his land. They said he would stop at nothing until it came true. For now, his land of Old Kingdom was second in power to theirs in New Kingdom. Theodora’s father had no wish to overthrow their neighbor, but the same could not be said for the Oldlander king. He wished to rule both lands.
“The only way to protect New Kingdom from this madman is to strengthen it with more Rainer blood, which means grandchildren. As many as possible. Only through our descendants will we grow more powerful.”
All Fae possessed powers, but children with the richest angelic lineages possessed the strongest abilities, and her father’s blood, the Rainers’, had some of the strongest angelic blood in the realm. She understood his wish for the match with Adelmar; she just didn’t like it. And she didn’t want to sacrifice herself for an eventuality that might never occur. She might never conceive children. Many Fae did not.
Theodora’s brother, who’d been married these last three hundred years, was still childless. She could end up childless too, and her sacrifice would be for nothing. And if it wasn’t—if she bore a son or daughter to Adelmar—she had no wish for her child to be used as a weapon for her father’s control.
The Oldlander king’s erratic behavior made her father and his advisors nervous. When her father was nervous, he made rash decisions. Theodora was presently on the receiving end of one such rash decision. Her father knew as well as she that Adelmar would not make a good husband.
Panic rose inside her chest and she clenched her hands atop the vanity. She peered at her father in the looking glass.
Despite her every attempt to remain unmoved, he must have caught something in her expression. His shoulders squared and his face grew taut, but she thought she detected uncertainty in his eyes. “I must leave for my meeting. Prepare yourself for the wedding tomorrow.”
He spun and stormed past the door and down the hallway, the sound of his boots barely audible on the stone floors. Light, efficient—Fae clothing was prepared for battle or whatever sacrifice was necessary for the betterment of the kingdom. Much like a noble Fae daughter.
Adelmar. The man was certainly addled. Her father wouldn’t be pleased if she accidentally-on-purpose strangled her new husband in his sleep. No, she must do something to stop the marriage.
As long as she remained in Tirnan, she had no choice whom she married. It wasn’t safe for her to venture to another land within their realm. The ruler of Old Kingdom would just as soon have her imprisoned as provide her shelter. Or worse, marry her in order to gain power over Theodora’s father. She didn’t wish to lose her head if she failed to immediately produce a child for the Oldlander king.
A bargaining chip—that was all she was to her father and the Oldlander king; even to Adelmar, who wanted more power within her father’s land.
Sunland, the third kingdom in Tirnan, was an option for escape—they were pacifists by nature. But she wouldn’t be able to hide there forever. Her father would find her, and she’d be back where she started, committed for eternity to a man she didn’t respect or love.
A light scraping came at the door.
“Enter,” Theodora called.
Her companion Portia swept into the room carrying fresh nightclothes. “Are you ready to change, my lady? You have a big day tomorrow.”
Theodora angled away to hide her nervousness. “Not now, but thank you. Please leave them on the chair and close the door behind you.” She hated to send Portia away so abruptly, but she needed to act while she still could.
Portia’s eyelids fluttered in confusion, but the older woman bowed and left the room, closing the wooden door behind her with a sound thunk. Theodora rushed to the door, engaging the latch to seal herself inside. She had one option left, and it was dangerous.
If she didn’t want to marry Adelmar, she must leave the Fae realm.
She ran for the tall wardrobe, tearing off her court clothes along the way, and grabbed the farmer’s garb secretly tucked at the back inside an ancient filigree box. She had purposely stashed the clothes in the fancy box that would normally hold jewelry, knowing her companions and servants would never touch palace jewels and treasures without permission.
Dressing quickly, she grabbed the dagger her father had given her when she’d first learned to fight and then slipped on the gold bracelet from her brother. Theodora hunched before her vanity and stared at her reflection. Her white-gold hair glowed in the dim candlelight…as it likely would in the dark.
This would not do.
She removed the gold circlet atop her head, setting it gently on the vanity, and plaited her hair in a simple braid down her back. Her mother would find the circlet and know what had happened. That she’d run.
Theodora pressed her hand to her stomach, stifling the pain that rose from her belly and made her heart ache. She didn’t want to leave her family—her mother, brother, or even her father, who had stubbornly ignored all her wishes these last several months. Perhaps she would return one day. Perhaps her father would realize how poor a match Adelmar would have made and see that she had been right to leave. It was her only hope.
She tucked her braid up into the warm cap that covered her ears, but a sparkle at the corner of her vanity caught her eye.
Theodora reached out and ran her index finger down the deep amethyst pendant dangling there, the facets of the diamonds that framed the stone catching the light. Though less valuable than her most simple court ensemble, the necklace was her prized possession. Her mother had given it to her on the eighteenth anniversary of her birth. It had been her grandmother’s before that—passed down from one daughter to the next.
There was no place for such extravagance where she was headed.
She reached for the necklace anyway and fastened it around her neck, tucking it beneath the woolen tunic and fitted cape she could use as a blanket if needed.
Bringing the necklace was a sentimental gesture, but one she clung to. Until her father saw reason, or Adelmar took his great virility elsewhere and married another, she had no choice but to leave the people she loved. With her sturdy clothes and small leather satchel of ground allon leaves, she could get by in nearly any land. The Earth realm, with its common people and lack of magic, was no exception.
Avoiding the guards that stood just outside the door, Theodora crept through two connected rooms into an antechamber with an exit that was rarely used. Taking a small pinch of powder from the magical allon leaves, she brought it near her mouth, spoke a message to the birds that pecked the castle grounds for food, and blew the powder into the air. She could speak to animals up close, but to send messages from afar, she needed the powder of the allon leaves to boost her ability.
She waited for thirty seconds, then peeked out the door of the antechamber.
The guards stared at a window at the end of the hallway, discussing the curious birds that fluttered and danced in sweeping dips in front of the window—a window located in the opposite direction from where Theodora stood.
She quietly entered the hall and hurried down the back stairwell used by servants. With the hood of her cape pulled low over her eyes and her head tucked down, she was unrecognizable but very circumspect. Only guards, servants, or high-ranking officials wandered inside the palace. The farmer’s attire she wore would be useful on Earth and far more discreet than her court clothes, but it set her apart in the palace, and she needed to make it to the nearest portal without being recognized.
Theodora exited the stairwell to a wing rarely used except by soldiers, then jogged toward a secret egress known by few. Only guards used this access point, and if she ran into one of them, she would most certainly be questioned. But it was her best chance of escape.
She was nearly to the exit when male voices floated her way.
Her father’s visit had ended at the perfect time. Between the changing of the guards and the servants busily preparing for the evening meal, she had hoped to avoid most, if not all, in this section of the palace. In the late afternoon, most officials were meeting with her father. Yet the distinct sound of male voices grew louder.
Theodora opened the closest door and slipped inside—and found herself in what could only be a guardroom. Bollocks.
She knew the grounds better than most of the palace’s inhabitants, but even she didn’t know what hid behind every door. Particularly the ones that weren’t used by the royal family.
Fortunately, no one was inside, though that could change if her suspicions about who approached were correct. She hadn’t time to find another space in which to hide. Simple cots, a desk reserved for the highest-ranking guard, and a long table filled the room. And, of course, there were dozens of weapons secured behind metal bars.
She ran for the nearest cot and tucked beneath it, seconds before voices burst inside.
“Cannot believe you agreed to get leg-shackled,” said one man.
“A small price to pay,” came another voice, this time from someone Theodora recognized.
If this was her luck today, she was doomed.
“I’ve secured my future. And have you not feasted your eyes upon the princess? What man would not want a beautiful virgin whose sole purpose is to provide him with children?”
The men chuckled, and Theodora rolled her eyes.
This was exactly why she despised Adelmar. Not only did he disparage her in front of his friends, but he cared only for himself. Worse, the man kissed like a water serpent. The one time he’d cornered her and snuck one in, she thought she might be sick.
Blasted man. Not all Fae treated their women this way, but too often they did.
“She is said to be headstrong, Adelmar,” the first guard said. “I’m going to enjoy watching her leash you.”
Chuckles erupted around the room.
“There will be no leashing, you idiot.” Adelmar’s nasal voice rang out. “As you can imagine, I’ve made arrangements with my various friends. I will have ample female companionship while the princess is in our chambers tending to my every domestic need. The pleasures I’ve enjoyed won’t cease just because I marry.”
“And you think the princess will agree to this?” The bold guard let out a yelp, and the scent of burnt flesh filled the room. He must be a friend of Adelmar’s, but not such a good friend that Theodora’s intended wouldn’t teach him a lesson.
Adelmar controlled fire and could scorch a man with precision, or engulf him in flames.
“She will say nothing once we are married. She may be a princess, but she will know her place—as do you.”
Theodora clutched the small blade she’d brought with her and stifled the urge to poke him in the arse. Not even the brave guard commented this time, because Adelmar was vicious and, unfortunately, correct. Once married, she had no legal recourse. Her husband would have the backing of the kingdom where she and their future children were concerned. She could leave him after they married, but it would be infinitely more difficult, and she would lose whatever rights she had to any children they produced.
The men proceeded to discuss their female conquests over the last few days—Adelmar’s list being the longest—while Theodora ground her molars and waited. Finally, they left the room to return to their posts.
Theodora wasted no time. She slipped into the hallway and ran out through the secret palace exit, calling to more animal friends for a distraction.
Adlets were always up for a good herding or attack—they were partial to both. Though they looked something like a pig, adlets were much like an Earth sheepdog by nature, drawing their prey through tactical distraction. In this case, the adlets herded the numerous guards who circled the palace grounds away from the west gate, where the portal to Earth lay. They tripped the soldiers and caused a general ruckus without harming anyone.
With the guards distracted, Theodora could see the portal. It looked like nothing extraordinary—a wavering space in the air that, if you weren’t looking, you could miss.
She glanced back at the palace, her heart racing. This was the right thing to do; she felt it in her bones. Breathing in the scent of her homeland one last time, she ran forward and leapt through the portal.
To a new life.