ander claimed I cleaned up nicely, but when he elected to put on formal clothes he looked ten times as good as I ever would. He might not like the position or the title that went with it, but Zander was the Crown Prince of Anthame and it oozed from his pores. Even when he tried not to be princely he was. Though he never came across as a pompous royal whose loftiness made him too good for everyone else who was beneath him. Zander was the living embodiment of the noble and devastatingly handsome Prince Charming figure from every fantasy every girl had ever had after reading fairy tales and falling asleep dreaming about the Princes from their stories.
I looked down at my dress. The steward Zander spoke with on the deck of the ship had come through and delivered an array of beautiful gowns in all different cuts and colors to our room. I wore a strapless blush colored number. It semi-scandalously stopped just above my knee and featured a glittering bodice that hugged me from the waist up and a rosette patterned skirt that flared out from the waist down. It was a dress befitting of a queen. Standing next to Zander in it I felt too much like the commoner that I was. In the mortal realm and the realm of Faerie he was above my station and squarely out of my league.
The common person roots I claimed to have were not far off from the Unseelie caste I belonged to in Faerie. My mother possessed an earth magic and could make even the most barren soil teem with life while my father possessed a curative magic that allowed him to heal injured fae.
We were near immortal and died in none of the natural ways humans did but we could die. Particularly when one of us lethally wounded another, which happened more often than not. In Faerie might equaled right. My kind constantly vied for power and status. If someone coveted something they could legally take it by force. Those who chose to do so were not the ones among us that also chose to play nice. When they took what they wanted they did it by deadly and lethal force.
My father healed people. He did not kill them. Thus my family remained within the Unseelie caste, the faction of fae that lacked substantial power and wealth and lived as commoners in the human realm did. My family was content to do so. We did not live in extravagance and luxury but between my mother’s earth magic and my father’s curative magic they collected enough money for the services they rendered that we did not go without. We had one another and love and that was enough. Gods I missed them. I hated Belial for taking them and my older brother from me. Zander was right. If I allowed my fears to persuade me to turn my back on Faerie and the ignoble tyrant that ruled it, I would be riddled with guilt for the rest of my existence. My family deserved better than that. The Order’s leaders and their families and all the other families Belial had broken deserved better than that. I would not let love turn me into a coward.
I watched Zander curiously as he opened the small trunk containing the few necessary belongings we brought with us. He pulled a u-shaped box with a flat edge along one of its sides out of it. When he walked over to me I saw that it bore the intricate pattern of archaic swirls around a stag that indicated the House of Roth’s royal crest. My curiosity at the contents of the box increased. He opened it to reveal a sparkling tiara even more extravagant than the one I wore to our betrothal announcement. Flawlessly clear white diamonds framed by precious stones from the gamut of rubies to emeralds to sapphires sat inlaid in gold.
“This heirloom has been in my family since the beginning of Anthame’s founding. It is the tiara that the chosen bride of the heir to the House of Roth and Anthame’s future Queen wears. Not that it helps my case,” he nervously laughed, “but my mother wore it when she became betrothed to my father and my grandfather’s betrothed before her. I would like for you to wear it tonight at dinner Skyler.”
He didn’t wait for me to accept it. He tucked an unruly curl that would have been tamed and neatly pinned had Abda been with me behind my ear and placed the tiara atop my head as if there was no other choice in the matter.
He was right. I was as irrevocably Zander’s as he apparently was mine.
“I’m not so good with words during moments like these,” I managed to choke out beneath the well of emotion swelling inside me.
“It’s okay,” he encouragingly smiled at me. “Me neither.”
He held his hand arm out to me and I took it.
“You did a pretty good job just now.”
“Yeah?” He asked looking unsure of himself for the first time since I’d met him.
I smiled back encouragingly at him. “Yeah.”
We exited our room and headed toward the dining hall with our arms linked through one another’s.
I always dreamed of falling in love with a fairy tale prince. I never imagined I would be lucky enough to have one love me back. I would not run from Faerie and what needed to be done there, but I would not offer Zander‘s life up to the cause either. Which meant I needed to figure out how to achieve two possibly opposing things—use Zander to save Faerie and make sure he wasn’t killed while doing it.
ll activity halted at the precise moment we entered the dining room. Every soul within ceased what they were doing and trained their eyes on Zander and I.
“They are all staring at us,” I whispered to Zander under my breath.
“Actually, they are all staring at
” he whispered back to me.
I self-consciously looked down at myself then gazed around with no luck for a nearby mirror or metallic surface that I could see my reflection in.
“Is something wrong with me?” I asked in alarm.
Maybe a hair stuck ridiculously out of place. My wild curls were a pain-in-the-butt type of unruly. Usually I didn’t even bother to try to tame them. It only ended in a failed effort, which is the reason I generally wore them up in a messy ponytail. If Abda had been with me she would have been able to force them into an elegantly styled up-do of compliance. Left to my own devices, I settled for detangling them and leaving them out in a flowing cascade of bronze. When I checked my reflection in the room I looked presentable, but my hair tended to take on a life of its own. Who knew what it might have done in the time it took us to walk from our room across the deck of the ship to the dining area.
Zander watched my moment of mini-panic unfold with an expression that was equal parts awed and amused.
“It still amazes me that you do not see what everyone else around you does. Nothing could ever be wrong with you Skyler, you’re perfect. Their eyes are all on you because, like me, they are enamored by you.”
I inwardly swooned at his words. I nearly sighed out loud but caught myself before noise escape my lips.
“Thank you,” I said just as quietly as before. I stared intently at the gleaming silver shoes I’d paired with my dress. Complements always left me feeling uncomfortable.
Zander gently gripped my chin between his thumb and index finger and tipped it upwards so that I looked at him.
“You’re welcome,” he said into my eyes.
His gaze, focused and vehement, reflected the intensity of what he felt for me in its depths. I forgot we were on a ship in the middle of a dining room full of people. All I knew in the moment was bright amber that warmed my heart down to my core. It made me feel more whole and complete and less alone than I had felt in a very long time. A nearly too powerful to ignore urge to throw my arms around him and never let go pulled at me.
The steward that addressed us previously on the ship’s deck interrupted the private moment. He folded his body into a deeply exaggerated bow as he addressed Zander. Then he angled his body toward me and duplicated the action. When the words “Your Highness,” were said in my direction I looked back over my shoulder to see who had walked in behind us.
The corners of Zander’s mouth twitched in merriment.
“He is talking to you.” His words came out choppy from fighting against outright laughter.
“Oh,” I said embarrassed by my reaction then after a beat added, “Are you laughing at me?” My tone transformed from sheepish to accusing.
“Not at all my betrothed.” His words came out perfectly sober this time. His voice resonated formality as he spoke with the polished tone befitting of a Crown Prince.
The facetious glint in his eyes along with the ghost of a smile lingering on his lips gave him away. Before I could consider how improper the action would look I nudged him in the side with my elbow. It wasn’t gentle.
To his credit, he held back the grunt I aimed to elicit.
As soon as I realized the error of my undignified behavior I expected the facetiousness to change to censure. Instead, it grew in its intensity.
“Gods I love you Skyler,” he chuckled out loud. “You are a rare, exhilarating breath of fresh air in my otherwise suffocating world.”
Zander discreetly rolled his eyes toward the room full of nobles that continued to watch us, though not as overtly anymore.
“Eh hem,” the steward politely cleared his throat to reclaim our attention. “Your table is waiting for you, Your Highnesses.”
He gestured with his hand to an elaborately decorated oval table that sat raised onto a makeshift dais across the room.
“That will not be necessary,” Zander told him. “We would prefer that table there instead.” He pointed to one that placed us level with the rest of the diners. It sat nestled in a less inhabited corner of the room, allowing us to be a part of and yet separate from the majority of the room’s inhabitants.
The steward looked as if he wanted to object to Zander’s choice, but did not. No matter how improper it might seem, as the Crown Prince Zander could technically do as he pleased. It would be considered even more improper for the steward to question him. A High Noble could get away with it as long as he did it with a modicum of deference. If a Lesser Noble did it he would be censured. The steward, a common person, doing it was unconscionable.
“Right this way, Your Highnesses,” he stiffly bowed and turned to lead us to the requested table.
I bit into the first course of our meal-- a small square of tender venison decorated in garnish. I barely managed to stifle the groan it elicited. Frilly, glittering gowns with sweeping layers and corseted bodices were my first weakness. It was fitting since Zander’s was apparently seeing me in them. Hence, why we were attending the sophomorically, ostentatious dinner in the first place instead of having food sent to our room for us to eat in non-pretentious peace. Delicious, mouth-watering, I-am-salivating-simply-at-the-sight-and-smell-of-it food was my second weakness.
Zander learned of it shortly after I arrived at the High Palace as a supposed assassin sent to kill him posing as a Lesser Noble. My cover was an archaic and offensive competition that was as old as the kingdom itself. Since the founding of Anthame it was traditionally held each time the heir to the House of Roth came of age. It was how the girl that would wed the Crown Prince and become Anthame’s future Queen was selected. I accidentally bumped into Zander and his then best friend, Jacob, sparring in a hallway. Zander wore the same red uniform as the rest of the palace guards, causing me to mistake him for a guard too. He didn’t bother to correct my misassumption. He facetiously flirted with me and though I did not outwardly respond to it, his dimpled smile made my hormones do a little jig in sync with the butterflies that came to life in my stomach. I then denounced the royal family, his royal family, for their wasteful extravagances to his face.
I was made to eat my words during the first of Zander’s mother’s trials to select the girl who would wed her son and the heir to the House of Roth. I sat in the High Palace’s grand dining room for dinner alongside the ninety-nine other girls who were competing for Zander. When I focused my attention on the dais where the Queen and her entourage lorded over us my eyes nearly popped out of my head. Zander sat next to her with his eyes pinned on me. I knew when he walked down from the dais toward the table I sat at, it was to publicly censure me for having the audacity to speak ill of the royal family and to dismiss me from the competition. Instead, he stopped at my table to flirt with me in front of a room full of onlookers.
The very next morning he showed up at the door of the room I occupied in the High Palace imploring me to have breakfast with him in the royal gardens reserved exclusively for the use of his family. I declined and he insisted. I gave in. For the remainder of my stay at the High Palace he’d implored me to have breakfast with him in the royal gardens every morning, using his newfound weapon of my love of food against me.
He was courting me and I allowed it. It was the most direct path to get close to him and gain his trust. At first I thought his interest in me was limited to the passing casual fancy of a Crown Prince used to getting his way. The more time I spent with him, the better I came to know him. I realized that though he held the title of a royal, he acted and thought nothing like what I expected.
Zander was born with a kingdom laid at his feet but he was far from spoiled. He recognized the luxuries he was born into as a comfort most of the people he would one day rule did not enjoy. Only a small portion of Anthame’s population consisted of the wealthy High Nobles that made up its high society. The rest of the kingdom’s people, including the lesser nobles and common people alike, lived in poverty. Like Emilia’s family and Emilia herself, whose identity I’d assumed upon entering the mortal realm, most of the people of Anthame struggled to afford or in too many cases went without basic necessities like food, clean water, and adequate shelter. The wealth of the kingdom was concentrated among the High Nobles who controlled the shipping yards, ports, imports, exports and mining.
The state of Anthame and potential actions that could be taken to improve life for its common people and the lesser nobles was a topic that Zander and I often discussed during the many mornings we ate breakfast together. Once he ascended the throne, he intended to reform some of Anthame’s centuries old and out-dated policies so that the wealth of the kingdom would be more evenly distributed and the plight of those living within Anthame’s low society was assuaged.
In Zander I saw the qualities that made not a good ruler but a great one. He was compassionate without being weak, forgiving without being naïve, just without being pitiless and confidant without being arrogant. He cared about all of Anthame’s people, not just its high society.
The more I learned of the real Zander present behind the cool and aloofly formal mask of Prince Edwin Alexander the Fifth of the House of Roth, the more getting close to him no longer became a means to an end. I fell in love with the charmingly noble boy behind the façade of the Crown Prince.
“You’ve barely touched your food.” Zander curiously observed me from his position across the table.
It was a testament to the deeper connection that developing between us that he picked up on how odd the behavior was. I never passed up good food and it never lasted around me for longer than a few seconds.
I smiled across the table at him. He truly was Prince Charming straight out of a fairy tale.
“I got sidetracked.”
“Without the shadows appearing this time. It appears I’m being successful. It must be my irresistible charm.” He grinned at me in false haughtiness.
“Nah,” I shook my head denying his completely accurate claim. “It’s your irresistible hotness. I only want you for your body.”
My uncharacteristic frankness momentarily stunned him, but he quickly recovered. His eyes lit up with the mischievous spark that indicated he was up to no good.
“Thanks for the clarification. I suspected as much when you—“
My foot shot out in surprise kicking him just forcefully enough under the table to shut him up. My cheeks burned and I knew they were aflame as if I’d applied a bright rouge color to them. It was the first Zander had brought up what I now referred to in my head as the
Calling it anything else would force me to relive the moment and the embarrassment that flooded me whenever I thought about it.
Right before I was about to come clean to Zander about someone hiring me as an assassin to kill him, he and his little sister had been kidnapped. Zander fought his way free during the commotion of an accident with the wagon they traveled in that left one of his three kidnappers dead. He killed a second one, but the third ran off with the Princess. He was near fatally wounded during the struggle and couldn’t follow after her.
When I learned of their kidnapping I went after the both of them. I found Zander lying in a pool of his own blood in the woods beyond the High Palace’s grounds. I hid out with his unconscious body in a hidden cave not too far away from where I found him. I cleaned and stitched up the wound he’d suffered to his neck from the blade piercing it the best that I could and prayed for him to survive the night. He regained consciousness by the next morning. I confessed to being an assassin. He felt betrayed and hurt by my admission, and would have walked away from me then if he had not needed me to help find Kiera.
While tracking down her kidnappers his wound became infected. An old man found him unconscious and near death in the woods and me beside him passed out from a panic attack brought on by our desperate circumstance. He took us back to his home and his wife. Fortunately, she was a stubborn old woman with a talent for making tonics and nursing the sick and dying back to health. Zander’s near miss with death put things in perspective for him and he forgave me, though he made it clear he was not yet ready for things to pick up where they left off nor was he sure that he would ever be.
Despite his attempts to keep distance between us the night before we arrived in Garreth where Kiera was being held, we found ourselves wrapped up in a passionate kiss. In a moment of impulsivity in which I decided to throw caution to the wind, I tried to take things much farther than a kiss. Zander was the one whose common sense prevailed. It was not an act we should have done with things as uncertain as they were between us. I had made it a point not to mention the night since it happened and Zander had mercifully done the same until now.
Zander’s amusement only increased at my reaction. He threw his hands in the air in mock surrender.
“Nevermind, my lips are sealed. I would promise to take it to my grave, but that’s not the best choice of words to use around an assassin. You might hold me to them,” he further teased me.