Miranda’s dark blue skirts fluttered with the soft breeze that blew across the pier. Her head lifted back so she could take in the massive ship. Dark wood with carvings made to look like waves encompassed the hull. Large, white sails were being untied by a dozen or so of the crew while others ran about the deck under the sharp orders of the ship’s captain. A beautiful carving of a mermaid stood at the bow, looking as if she was about to dive away from the ship. The mermaid’s hair flowed seamlessly backwards to meld with the deck.
To her left, the sun had barely peeked over the horizon and was rising so slow she began to wonder if it too hated mornings. It had only been two hours ago that one of the queen’s aides had come to her chamber for her morning cleansing. She shivered as another breeze passed by, forgetting how cold mornings could be by the sea. Looking back on the water, Miranda couldn’t help but smile. The ocean was particularly beautiful whenever the sun could find the time to bend down and kiss the waves.
“Princess, it is time to go,” called one of her guards. Miranda almost groaned. Ever since her introduction to the council, Miranda hadn’t had one moment to herself. Even in her new rooms, no less than three guards kept watch over her at any given moment. It made sleeping nearly unbearable. She’d rather carry a couple blankets down to the gardens to sleep beneath the stars, but she feared those days were long behind her. Instead all she had to look forward to were long meetings with people she didn’t care about to rule a nation as foreign to her as air to a fish. To top it all off, she hadn’t seen Adina or Garreth in weeks. Her mother promised one would be coming with them at her request. Miranda hoped it was Adina. Garreth had been acting strange towards her ever since the Zukalan High Senator started paying attention to her. Miranda sighed. Just her luck to find the one person who treated her with a few kind words only to be sailing miles away with no idea of when she would return. A small pain coursed through her chest as her heart felt the longing for her village. She wondered what it looked like now and if those creatures had returned to finish their destruction.
“Yes, I’ll be along in a second.” She tried to keep the sadness from her voice.
“Now how is it one so beautiful as yourself can be so sad?”
Miranda jumped at the voice and was surprised to see its owner, but she smiled nonetheless. Brennus, or at least she thought that was his name, was dressed in ornate emerald and gold cotton robes. His dark brown eyes and white smile caught her breath and pulled it right out of her chest.
She realized she had not yet responded and shook herself from her stupor. “Forgive me High Senator. I hadn’t… didn’t think you would be here.”
He turned and pointed to four men behind him carrying various pieces of bags and trunks. “I have business to attend to in the Kaitu Isles. I was going to leave within the next few weeks, but when I heard you were leaving so soon I decided to move things up a bit. I hope you do not mind the company.” He gave a slight bow and kissed her cheek.
Miranda tried to keep her smile modest but flattered. “Of course not! It will be good to talk to someone who knows my homeland.”
“Excellent.” Miranda melted against his voice. “Perhaps I may escort you on board? It looks like we are drawing quite a bit of attention.” His hand brushed the side of her face. “Might as well give them a show.”
Miranda snapped her gaze up and sure enough more than a few of the people milling about the docks kept stealing glances at the two of them. When she turned back she noticed her and Brennus were standing quite close to each other. She stepped back, feeling heat rush into her cheeks.
“Miranda,” called a voice from the deck. “If we must send one more guard to come fetch you, I swear on all three goddesses that you will never leave the classroom when we return home to the palace.”
Miranda looked up to see a rather cross looking queen staring down at her. The man at her right, the king, tried to look angry but Miranda felt his gaze go through her rather than focus on her.
Miranda smiled at Brennus. “Find me sometime. I’d like to see you if they ever let me out of my cage.”
Brennus took her hand and kissed the back gently. “For you, I’d wait until the end of the world.”
Miranda couldn’t stop the smile from spreading on her face as she laced her arm through Brennus’ and walked up to the ship’s deck. She stopped next to her parents and bid farewell to Brennus who retired to his rooms below.
“He seems to have taken to you.”
Miranda smiled and turned to her mother. “It’s nice to talk to someone about where I grew up. He actually lived not too far from me for a while, though I’ve never met him. He’s nice, mother.” The endearment still felt odd in her mouth.
The king huffed. “From a good family too. It’s lucky you two get along.”
Cassandra patted Miranda’s arm as she led her towards the cabins below deck. “Convenience my dear. Let’s get you down to your room. We’ll be shoving off soon.”
Miranda caught a glimpse of Garreth across the deck and the look on his face was a caged anger. Their gazes locked for a moment before her mother began quizzing her on her lessons and giving Miranda her itinerary once they reached the islands. When she looked back up, Garreth was gone from the deck.
Weeks passed since she returned to the isles. The sun would rise and priests would fill her mind with prayers in the old Kaitu tongue. Afterwards she would eat a small breakfast of fish and grain with some sort of fruit juice. The rest of the morning was filled with lessons on the history and function of each island. These were held in a room barely big enough warrant that name. It was barely twice her height in either direction and filled with two desks and piles of books with but one window that overlooked one of the kingdom’s major shipping ports. Between lessons and meals she used one of her guards, which her parents insisted remain by her side, to carry all her books. It was a comical sight to see a full armored guard carrying half a dozen heavy leather-bound tomes.
One day the sky was filled with dark grey clouds. The torrent of rain pounded the glass windows of her classroom. The steady line of thumps against the glass made her head pound harder and harder until she pulled at her hair, hoping to stop the storm raging inside her head.
“Princess?” Her instructor, a quaint man older than many of the palace buildings, brought up his glasses to the end of his nose. “Should I send for a healer?”
Miranda held up a hand. “No, but perhaps we should take a break?” She looked outside. “I could use a little fresh air.”
The old man harrumphed. “Your parents insist your lessons not be interrupted. With the kingdom’s anniversary coming up, you must be knowledgeable in your kingdom enough to entertain diplomats while your parents arrange your suitor.”
Miranda sat up straight. “My what now?”
The old man smiled. “It is custom that the heir be married for at least a year before ascending the throne. With the king and queen’s failing health, they are quite eager to see you wed and produce your own heir.”
Miranda felt sick to her stomach. One hand rubbed her trembling belly while the other cradled her head. “Please just ten minutes. I’ll stay after for as long as you deem necessary. I just need to open the window for a bit and be alone with my thoughts. Now wait, before you argue, I will have the guards outside to make sure I’m safe. I could always order you if necessary.”
The old man was at a loss but eventually bowed. “As you wish, I will be back in ten minutes and then you will work very hard.”
She kept her smile until he shut the door behind him at which point she released the breath she had been holding and scrunched her eyes. Her nails dug into her skull as her fingers massaged her scalp. She rushed over to the window and unscrewed the bolt holding it shut, cracking open the glass. Her lungs greedily drank in the moist air. The smell of rain melted the stress from her neck and shoulders. The pounding in her head began to lessen until it was a background throbbing that she could ignore or at least tolerate.
There came a knock at the door. “Princess? High Senator Brennus is here to see you.”
Miranda jumped from the window and straightened her dress. The silk gown hugged her waist tightly before flaring out to a series of skirts that ranged from a pale sky blue to a deep bluish grey. The combination of colors imitated the sea just after a storm.
Brennus walked in, smiled and for a moment appeared speechless. “The Kaitu colors fit you well. You look beautiful.” He kissed both of her cheeks and when kissing the second he whispered, “I have something for you.” He reached into his robes and pulled out a gold necklace. The pendant was also made of gold with a fire topaz set in the center. The jewel gleamed brilliantly under the fire light.
Miranda touched it gently. “It’s beautiful.”
Brennus unhooked the clasp and held it up to her. “May I?”
“Of course.” Miranda swept aside the braid that ran down the center of her neck and shivered when Brennus reached behind to clasp the necklace together. Miranda touched the jewel where it hung just above the swell of her breasts. Miranda looked up to see Brennus frown for just a moment.
Before she could ask what was wrong, he smiled and said, “I have another surprise for you.”
“I thought you might want to escape the lessons for a while. I remember going through schooling and I always wished I could have just spent some time with someone from my village. The funny thing about leading people is you don’t often spend time with anyone. It’s very lonely. While I’m not from your village, I figured you’d like to have someone somewhat familiar to talk to.” His smile faltered just a tiny bit. “That is if you’ll have me?”
Miranda checked to see that the guards outside the room were out of earshot. “No, no, I would love that more than you could ever know.” She drew closer to the window and gestured to the small room. “However, unless you can fly, there aren’t many options of getting out of here. We wouldn’t make it ten feet out that door.”
Brennus chuckled. “You must have a bit more faith. Not all doors can be seen.” He walked to the end of the room were the fireplace was quietly blazing. He pushed gently on a brick next to its mantle and reached inside the hole. A soft click later and a secret door opened up. He turned to her with his hand outstretched. “How about we play a bit of hooky?”
Miranda hesitated. Her mother certainly wouldn’t approve of this, but Brennus was a senator and therefore a man of honor.
“Where are we going?”
“I thought I’d take you to the gardens. There is a spot that’s very isolated, particularly when it rains. It’ll be the most beautiful place you’ll ever see.”
Miranda stole another glance at the door, biting her lip. Oh what the hell. I doubt they’d miss me that much. How could ten minutes really hurt?
With her hand in his, they disappeared into the stairway. As he closed to the door shut behind them, they were left in nothing but pitch black darkness.