The sound of hooves thundering down the main road rang in Elise’s ears.
She jumped up from her spot on the ground. A summer breeze wafted through, sweeping ebony hair around her face as she peered downward.
Sure enough, it was an armored messenger, astride a horse, with a red banner in his hand.
Elise raced through the garden to the road at the end of the grounds of Devynshire Castle.
Bright sunlight cascaded through the trees, highlighting every ebony wave as she bounded down the grassy, poppy-littered hill.
“Elise,” Lady Devyn, shouted after her, shielding her eyes from her spot on the blanket sprawled across the grass. “Where are you going?”
“The messenger!” Elise shouted to her mother. “He’s here.”
As she glanced over her shoulder, she caught a glimpse of her mother’s smirk, as she waved her on.
At eighteen, this would be her last year of seclusion from the world.
Today, she just wanted to be a young lady, fuss over what elaborate gown she would wear, and try her charms on handsome suitors from all over the realm.
Despite the fact that several eligible young men would be in attendance, her sights were set on only one—one very special prince.
Practically giddy, she grinned to herself. To think, she might have her choice of husband in just a few short days.
A giggle escaped her lips as she skidded to a stop, right before the messenger who leaped from his horse and gave her a bow with his head.
“Good day, Flint,” Elise said with a slight curtsy.
Flint cleared his throat. “Good day to you, my lady.”
“Do you have something for me?” Elise’s eyes peered at his brown satchel, hoping to catch a letter or parcel with the crest of the kingdom of Arundell on it.
“Hmmm,” Mr. Fulton said, rummaging through his bag. “I don’t believe I saw anything for you today.”
Shoulders slumping, Elise sucked her teeth. “Nonsense. You wouldn’t be here without a message,” she said, leaving the plush grass, to stand on the hard-packed dirt road that led through the forest and to town.
“Aye, I have a message for your mother,” he said.
“It can’t be!” Forgetting decorum, she stood right before Flint and dug her hands into the bag.
Instead of scolding her, he chuckled. “All right! All right,” he said and pulled a cream-colored envelope with the Arundell seal of a golden lion.
Elise took the envelope, a smile spreading from ear-to-ear. He handed her another letter, and with a giggle, she ran back toward the castle.
“You’re welcome,” Flint shouted after her with a laugh.
Looking over her shoulder, Elise shouted back. “Thank you!” She gathered her skirts in her hand and quickened her speed. She made her way to the front entrance, her heart racing with anticipation.
Her mother sat on her knees and ushered her back to their picnic.
“What is it, dear?”
Elise grinned, plopping back down onto their blanket and handing her mother the letters. One from Arundell, and another from the palace in Perth.
She picked up Princess Polly, her pet pig, and held her in her arms as she watcher her mother open the letters.
Her grandmother, Inora emerged from the castle to join their picnic.
“Morning, Grandmama,” Elise said, and she nodded to her.
“Good morning,” she said. “What is all of the fuss about?”
Inora stood, towering over them, her hands clasped before her gray gown.
Her auburn hair was worn in a bun with a black veil secured to it.
“Just the best news ever,” Elise said as her mother held the seal up for Inora to see.
“Prince Tolwin will be in attendance,” she said, and gave Elise a wink.
Inora eyed the letter and nodded, though her mouth remained in a single line. “Is this what you truly want? A match with Prince Tolwin?”
“What kind of question is that?” Elise asked. “Of course, I do. He’d be a perfect match.”
“She is the king’s only daughter,” Mother said, lowering the letter. “It could unite the kingdoms.”
Inora snorted, and lowered herself to sit with them. “That would be true if King Caden was a rational man, Seyena. Alas, he is not, and chances are that he will keep Elise imprisoned in this place until her death.”
Shoulders slumping, Elise and her mother shared a look of worry.
“Let’s pray that isn’t true,” Seyena said.
“Didn’t Prince Tolwin just run off to fight in the Tide Lands?” Inora asked.
“What does that matter? It is the duty of a prince to act in service for his kingdom,” Elise pointed out as she kissed Princess Polly’s snout. She fed the pig a strawberry, and then popped one into her own mouth.
“It is also the duty of a prince to marry whomever his father chooses. Do you think he would choose a bastard for his son?”
That stung. All traces of a smile faded from Elise’s face. She stood, and frowned down at her grandmother.
“Thank you,” she said, taking the letter, as tears stung the backs of her eyes. “For reminding me what I am; a bastard—someone not worth loving.”
She turned to head toward the forest where her favorite place of solitude awaited. The Crystal River ran through the Hampshire countryside and all the way to Perth. It was the only place she felt safe, or at home, despite the stone walls that made up the castle she’d been forced to live in since she was born.
“Elise,” Inora called after her. “That is not what I am reminding you of, dear. It couldn’t be further from the truth. You are loved, and you are more than a bastard. More than anything you have ever dreamed. When you see that, you will know the truth of your fate.”
Ignoring her, Elise trudged away from the castle and to the grove where the falls frothed and pooled and glistened beneath what trails of sunlight shone through the ancient trees.
Didn’t Inora understand that marriage was the only way she’d be free to truly live? She had to know that Elise craved a life of her own.
Her father would never let her leave Devynshire Castle, unless it was by being bound to a man of great standing—one he could use as an ally. Of course, that wasn’t all she wanted out of life. But, Tolwin was the best option. He hadn’t been promised to any of the other eligible princesses in the realm, or anyone of great standing. She was the natural choice.
She sat on the cool rocks. She brushed her hair back over her shoulder, and opened the letter.
Just the fact that the prince agreed to come to her coming-out ball was a sign that things might be changing.
Princess Polly snorted and Elise smiled down at her despite the tears on her cheeks.
She brought the letter to her nose and sniffed the parchment, hoping for a brief whiff of his scent. There wasn’t any. His father had probably signed the letter.
Once she read it through, she placed it onto the water and watched it float down the river.
She rested her cheek on her bare knees and followed it as it curved and vanished around the bend.
The sound of the forest sang to her, and as she hugged Princess Polly close to her chest, she prayed for an escape from her life in exile.