Sword fighting is my favorite part of the week. I wish I got to do it more often, but mother barely lets me get away with what I’m already doing. She says an elven princess doesn’t have the need for sword fighting. Despite not having the need, it’s a passion of mine.
The room is full of guards watching me fight my sword master. The highlight of the month. It’s been a tough fight, but so far, I’m winning.
I thrust my sword upward to block my opponent, but fail when a loud crash comes behind me.
“You have to learn to stay focused on the fight, no matter what,” my sword master says, always teaching, even though I best him more often than not these days.
With a glare at my almost-nicked arm, I start to turn, to see what the commotion from that crash was about. Before I can, someone dives at me from the side and knocks me to the ground. I squirm under the bulk.
“Stay here, my lady,” a guard says, before pushing his weight off of me.
I grab my fallen sword and jump to my feet. The room has shifted from the guards watching me practice to chaos. My guards and sword master have surrounded a wild-eyed elf who brandishes two swords. I itch to join them, but hold back as I was instructed.
“Put it down,” my sword master says. “We will spare your life if you turn yourself in.”
“Never,” the elf screams. He spins until we make eye contact, sending a jolt of fear tumbling through me. “She must die.”
Something twists inside me as my sword master replies, “You know we won’t let anything happen to Princess Arabella. Put down your sword.”
“No. We will never allow the joining of humans and elves. We won’t have that human scum become our king.” The elf attempts to spring for me, but a guard blocks him.
“She must die!” He lunges for me again and is stopped once more, but this time my sword master butts him on the back of his head with the hilt of his sword. The crazed man collapses in a heap.
The guardsmen tie him up and haul him out of the room, still unconscious.
I can’t believe what I just saw. Mother and Father warned me I was in danger, but I never accepted it. Never thought someone would try to take my life in earnest. It’s hard to do anything but stare at where the crazed man fell.
While the three remaining guards secure the area, my sword master sheaths his sword and walks over to me. “Are you all right, my lady?”
“A trifle startled is all.”
“Good. If I may make a suggestion, why don’t we escort you to your quarters, where your servants will attend you?”
I nod. He holds out his hand for my sword. “I can take that for you.”
I forgot I was still holding onto it. After reluctantly handing it over, I follow my guard to my quarters. The closer we get, the more my guards multiply. Word of the assassin must have spread. Once we get to my rooms, two of the guards enter first and check to make sure they are clear. Then I’m allowed to follow. My head servant, Constance, is waiting for me, as always.
“I heard what happened. Shall I have a bath drawn?” Her voice soothes me. She’s taken care of me ever since I can remember.
“That would be fine.” More than fine. Exactly what I need, to ease the tension from my muscles.
I breeze through the receiving room to my bedroom. A few steps in, I realize two of the guards have followed me. They’ve never before entered my room while I’m in it.
“Are you afraid someone got here before us?” I ask.
“We’ve been told to stand guard at your windows, my lady,” the taller one replies. “Seems the attempted assassin scaled the wall and was able to enter the training room that way.”
“I see.” Grateful there are no windows in my bathroom, I change my path that way.
I enter, loving the smell of roses—my favorite scent. Constance directs the elf maid and the plump human one to fill the tub. Good. They always do a fine job.
I focus on my human servant. I haven’t known many humans. There are always so many different things being said about them, but I don’t know if they are true. I hope they aren’t. This servant, at least, has never shown any indication of being cruel. She doesn’t have the pale, fair skin of the elves, nor the ears pointed so fine they become almost like a strand of hair. Our ears are shapely and pert; hers are round and—I hate to say it, but—boring. Human ears.
It’s because of her kind my life is threatened. Or rather, my soon-to-be joining of her kind. My upcoming marriage to a human.
Constance helps me out of my things. She puts a steadying hand on my trembling arm. When did I start shaking?
“I’ve had the girls throw some calming herbs in your bath.”
“Thank you, Constance. I suppose I’m still surprised. I never thought anyone would want to hurt me.”
“The queen and king have been warning you for months now. Though I hate to see you come to the truth of it this way.” Constance clucks as she starts on the laces on the back of my dress. “There’s a council meeting planned for this afternoon. I’m guessing they’ll want to talk to you.”
I sigh. Whenever they talk to me, it’s to tell me what to do. Last time was what started this mess. My betrothal.
After my servants are finished, I slip into the tub. Constance washes my hair, and I can’t tell whether she’s using magic to soothe my nervousness or if it’s the herbs. Maybe a bit of both. Either way, my muscles relax.
Constance was right. After my bath and a light lunch, I’m summoned to the throne room. I leave my servants to clean up, wishing Constance could come with me.
As if she knows what I’m thinking, she gives me a tight-lipped smile. “We’ll be here when you get back.”
I nod. She’s always near.
My usual guard has doubled. I know I should feel protected, but all I feel is claustrophobic. The tight press of elves in full battle armor, clanging down the hall, makes me want to scream for space. Instead, I hold myself proper as a good princess should, just as my mother taught.
We approach the throne room, and I run my hands down my dress to smooth it. After what’s happened, I don’t feel at all presentable, but nothing is amiss. I nod to the guard who opens the door for me.
The council room is quieter than usual. There are no assistants or note takers hustling about, just a handful of my parents’ most-trusted advisers. They’re chiefly older male elves who have been in my parents’ service since before I was born.
The door closes behind me without any of my escorts following. This surprises me. Then I spot Stewart, the head of the guard, in a corner. He’s older, almost a father figure to me, his dark hair silvering around his thinly pointed ears. He bows to me, as does everyone else in the room except my parents.
Mother’s sapphire eyes shine with unshed tears, and mine prickle in response. I wave at the others to be seated, then take my place on the right side of my father, opposite my mother. My trembling legs getting a break make me grateful I don’t have to continue to stand. I look down and blink rapidly to dry my eyes. Drawing from years of lessons, I steady myself and wait.
“Thank you for joining us,” Father says, his hands latched together. “We have been discussing the attempt on your life earlier today. You are this kingdom’s most prized possession.”
“I’m not sure I qualify as the most prized. There are other—”
“Enough, child.” At his stern rebuke, my cheeks flame. I keep my head up but don’t meet the gazes of any of the council as my father continues. “You are our most prized possession, and as such, your safety requires everything must and will be done to guarantee it.”
“I still say this isn’t the right answer,” says Reginald, Octavian’s assistant, in his nasal tone.
An elf slams his fist on the table closest to me. “What would you have us do?”
I glance at him.
Octavian’s massive girth occupies the chair. His jowls shake as he continues. “It’s either this answer, or one of the assassins will be able to carry through with their plot.”
“Agreed,” a skinny elf named Oscar replies.
“Silence.” Father’s voice is quiet but still heard above the din. “We’ve already agreed to act. There will be no more squabbling in front of my daughter.” He turns to me, face set but eyes betraying a hint of sadness. “Arabella, we have decided it would be best for your safety if we sent you into hiding. A few servants and Stewart will go with you. A decoy will be left here at the castle, and several more will be sent into hiding at other locations. Our hope is this will keep you safe until the wedding.”
Hiding? My heart pounds. Is it really so serious? Forcing a mask of calm on my face, I ask, “When am I leaving?”
“Straight from here. Stewart has already made arrangements.”
I’m not sure what this means for me. Whatever it is, it’s not good. Surely there is a better way. But I nod my acquiesce.
“Good.” Father turns back to the council. “You are dismissed.”
The council members stand, bow, and chatter with one another as they leave the room.
On his way out, Reginald skirts the room to talk to me. “I will be wishing for your safety, my lady.”
What a thing to need good wishes for. “Thank you.”
He bows and trails the others out of the room. Once they are all gone, Mother waves me over. I kneel in front of her, and she folds one of my hands between hers.
“I shall miss you, Arabella.” A few tears escape her eyes, wetting her smooth skin. Mother always looks perfect, and her tears somehow manage to make her more so. It is one skill she has not been able to teach to me, though people say I have inherited her beauty.
“I will miss you too,” I say.
“You may be going into hiding, but remember you are still royalty. I expect nothing less. Stay safe while I make your wedding plans. I will have to manage without you. I’ll make certain it is a grand event, worthy of my daughter.”
I hold back a smile. She always manages without me. There’s one thing I won’t miss—not having to listen to all the wedding plans. I really don’t care. I turn to Father, my hand still clasped between Mother’s.
“My child.” He smooths my hair as if I were still a girl. “I wish there was something else we could do. I hate to see you go. It is for the best, though. Keep that in mind while you’re gone. This is for the best.”
He pats my head again. I have an urge to hug him, like I did when I was little and could get away with such a show of affection. Instead, I stand, as do both of my parents. Stewart walks over, a cloak in his hand.
“Take care of her,” Father says.
“Yes, Sire.” Stewart hands the cloak to me. “After you put that on, we will be leaving through a hidden passage. A decoy will exit this room in your place, so no one will suspect.”
Wondering how they found enough girls to match my small stature, I drape the cloak around me, not used to doing so myself, and tie it. My mother gives my hand one last squeeze and my father nods, his sad gaze holding onto mine until Stewart turns and opens a secret panel.
I follow after him.
The panel slides shut behind me quietly and cuts out most of the light. Stewart leads me through several twists, turns, and stairways, sometimes turning down a new passage and sometimes skipping by a cross-section. Every once in a while, one of those new, fancy, electric lights shines in the hall, and I wonder who they got to hook it up if this way is so secret.
Stewart stops at each panel. He opens it, checks the passage it leads to and motions for me to enter.
I step in an unfamiliar room with another electric light and give a sigh of relief when Constance walks toward me with a dress in hand.
“We’ll have her ready in just a minute,” she says and hits something to close the panel. It’s then I notice the two servants from earlier today are here as well. “Let’s get you into something less noticeable.”
They change my fancy dress for one like theirs, clean but simple. They quickly place my cloak back on and wash my face clean before they start on my hair. They unpin it, brush the curls that reach down to my waist, and braid them. They twist the braid around the back of my head and pin it up, not in an elaborate way like I’m used to but in a functional way like the servants sometimes wear their hair. After raising the hood of my cloak, they do the same with theirs. I look a lot like them.
“Is this enough of a disguise?” I ask.
“It’s ample,” Constance replies. “Your decoy will be moving about, and no one will be looking for you dressed as a servant in a group of servants heading out in the cold for a break.”
Grateful I don’t have to give away the trick I discovered with my magic some weeks ago, I say, “Good. Let’s go.”
Constance opens the secret panel to reveal Stewart waiting for me. We follow him down a few more twists and out a door that leads to the castle grounds. The garden is empty this time of year, though it’s coming to life. Green is springing up everywhere.
While we head toward the servants’ gate, Constance comes up beside me and loops her arm through mine. I startle at the contact. If it was anyone but Constance, I would pull away. Rarely does anyone besides Mother touch me.
Constance pats my arm. “All part of the act.”
Stewart leads us through the gate, where no one gives us a second glance. Through the town we stroll, Stewart in front and two of my servants behind. It seems like a long time since I was in the council room with my parents, but I know it’s not. Not long since my life was threatened. And according to them, not for the first time. This was just the closest attempt.
We come to a small boat, compared to what I’m accustomed to. It doesn’t look like it will take more than Stewart and perhaps a few others to run it. There’s a cabin for me to share with the female servants. After we all climb aboard, Stewart helps the crew of five men set sail.
As we drift away, I turn back toward the castle. It stands out from the rest of the city, up on the hill. It glistens in the sun, its white walls brilliant with plenty greenery growing on them. It’s where I belonged until today. It’s home. But I doubt I will see it again before I am to wed the human prince.
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