The castle, situated on an imposing rise of land, loomed large in the distance with a backdrop of shimmering white-capped blue mountains. Ismene had never been here. She’d heard all the stories of its long history and varied inhabitants but hadn’t beheld the ancient place with her own eyes.
Leaning near to whisper to her steed, she said, “My prison awaits.”
Rising Wind’s ear twitched, and he huffed indignantly in response.
“‘Undignified,’ you say?” Ismene stroked his neck. “I have been reminded enough by my parents, thank you very much.”
Rising Wind had been a gift on her sixteenth birthday, just two short years ago. Most people suggested he was too much horse for a woman, let alone a young girl on the edge of womanhood. She’d heard the gossiping among guests but chose to ignore the shocked mumblings of strangers. Rising Wind looked intimidating enough, to be sure, but his spirit was gentle. She’d known as soon as she’d seen him that he was the horse meant for her.
He and the family’s chamber maid, Helein, would be her only familiar companions in her new home. Admitting this small detail terrified her, and the chill of it lingered in her bones. Her parents had not prepared her for this complete separation from all she’d ever known, and she couldn’t resist comparing the situation to being thrown to a pack of ravening wolves.
Her sister, Ketra, one year her junior, trotted up next to her. “What do you think of the castle, Issa? Isn’t it grand?” The awe in her voice lingered in the short silence between them. “Papa said we are only here for the wedding. I begged him to let me stay with you for a fortnight, but he said no.”
Ismene looked over at Ketra whose face mirrored her sorrow but for entirely different reasons. Still, it felt like a reflection of their sisterly affection. It also hinted at Ketra’s immaturity in the pouty way her lower lip stuck out at being told ‘no’ in no uncertain terms.
“Don’t fret. Father is right. This will be my home . . . or at least I must make it so. And you must prepare for your own future.” She reached out for her sister’s hand for a brief second. “I’ll miss you terribly. Please make sure Blayn stays out of trouble. You know how he loves to steal Cook’s goodies, and make dangerous contraptions, and play hide-and-seek in all the dustiest cupboards.”
Ismene glanced over to see Ketra roll her eyes.
“Blayn reminded me only yesterday that now he’s thirteen he is practically a man. I doubt he’ll be playing such games much longer. And I heard Papa speak of sending him to the school at Conleth on his next birthday. Either that or a tutor.”
Ismene sighed, her mind more focused on her own future than her brother’s. “Father will send him, I have no doubt. It was Mother who suggested the tutor. Father thinks Blayn needs to meet other future lords of the Realms in order to establish connections and friendships across the land. As heir, it only makes sense.”
“I don’t know how you can say it in such an insipid tone, Iss. You’ve been crying for months over this marriage and leaving home, yet you act as though it’s a good thing for our baby brother to travel even farther away. Far from the love of his mother and protection of his home.”
“I have not been crying . . . not all that time.” Ismene stared at Ketra whose piercing, expressive dark eyes served to heighten the intensity of her glower.
She was right in some respects. Seconds of them staring at each other past before shame washed over Ismene, and her cheeks heated. Would she ever stop being so wrapped up in her own cares? She did resent her sister and brother, because it was on their behalf that she would succumb to her fate of marrying the prince. But it wasn’t fair to either of them, and this was the one way she could be worth something to her family.
“I’m sorry, Kay. You’re right. I will ask Father to at least delay such a move until Blayn is older. I don’t know if he’ll listen to me, but . . ..” She gestured to the castle.
Ketra laughed, brightening her whole face. “Maybe he’ll listen to you because he feels guilty. Good point.”
Ismene and Ketra shared another brief laugh. Close in age, they’d been the best of friends for as long as Ismene could remember. She had no idea what she’d do without her sister to help her. Ketra was the outgoing one, the beautiful, accomplished one. Ismene couldn’t help but think it was Ketra who should be marrying a prince.
A horn blasted from the castle wall, announcing their arrival, and Ismene stiffened. This was all for her, and the very thought of it made her tremble. The people of the castle and surrounding countryside lined the path. Young children ran alongside the horses and threw flower petals at their feet.
Their innocent laughter and the gaiety floating on the currents of air did some to sooth Ismene’s discomfort. Everyone seemed happy. Not a face she looked upon held anything but kind regards. Many of the locals waved to her, and one young woman jogged next to her horse and extended a long-stem red rose. Ismene took it from her with a kind smile and a word of thanks.
“If it please your ladyship, think of me in the future. My name is Bimala. I am your humble servant.”
With that, the girl who appeared close to Ismene’s age halted but continued to smile and wave as the traveling party passed through the gate. Ismene thought she’d not forget Bimala. It might be she’d already made a new friend at Castle Taisce.
Facing forward, the sight of a rather tall young man arrested her attention. Ismene shifted, uncomfortable under his scrutiny, but she dared to stare back. There was something about him—something familiar. The face of a childhood friend flashed before her eyes, but she didn’t dare believe it was him. As she drew near, his face transformed with a smile, but he quickly raised the hood of his cloak and melted into the crowd, disappearing. A blush tinged her cheeks, and she looked around to see if anyone had noticed the exchange.
The dowager queen Auriette, Prince Othniel’s grandmother, met them at the entrance to the keep. The king and prince had been called away three days prior to help with issues of raiders near one of the ranking lords’ diamond mines to the north. Queen Auriette assured the Tenbows that the royals would return before the wedding . . . on the morrow. After this brief exchange, Ismene had been shown straight to her temporary room.
A mixture of relief and dread filled her when she found she would not meet the prince until the wedding. It had been her own fault that they’d not come a week before the wedding, as was custom. She’d convinced her father to let her stay at home as long as possible before her world was turned upside down.
Still, it piqued Ismene’s curiosity over her betrothed when in the incredibly short time they’d spent within the castle, Helein had learned and relayed that Othniel was said to be handsome, both tall and athletic. Whatever that meant, she didn’t quite know. An avid hunter, he preferred falconry over the bow. Ismene should not have been surprised or disappointed, since the mews at Taisce were renowned across Twelve Realms and beyond. Her favored sport was considered a lower-class pursuit, but she loved archery no matter what anyone said concerning its merits. It was one thing she refused to give up. Even the prince could not make her.
Others spoke of him with a sense of awe and respect.
All Ismene could muster was dread.
She would be tied to this complete stranger for the rest of her life, and it did no good to remind herself he’d not always be a stranger. The very thought of him left her feeling helpless, and that tempted the caged beast of fear in her chest to press against its restraints.
She couldn’t sleep, picturing her loveless future, but the morrow would come far too soon no matter how long she stared at the bed canopy above.
Before she knew it, the time had come. The day dawned bright in defiance of her wish for thunderous clouds to match her troubled mind. Ismene looked around the room, avoiding her reflection in the mirror. She didn’t care how beautiful her red and gold wedding dress looked in the reflected sunlight. If she saw herself again, the tears threatening to spill would do just that, and today she refused to cry.
In the days leading up to her wedding, Ismene struggled with the lingering desire to run away. To her utter disappointment, she realized her pampered life had actually turned her into a sort of prisoner of wealth. She could saddle a horse, had a small savings of coins, could hunt with a bow, and knew how to prepare savory meals, but she had no knowledge of survival in the wilderness or how to make a living. Besides, where could she have gone? Her uncle would only send her home if she went there.
“My Lady, they’re ready.”
“Thank you, Helein. Is my father outside?”
“No, My Lady. He is waiting for you in the antechamber.”
Ismene could hear a hint of sorrow in her voice. She loved Helein like a devoted friend and recognized her compassionate soul.
“Will you . . .?” Ismene held out her hands. Helein stepped close and gripped them. “We’ve practically grown up together, and I’m terribly relieved you agreed to come with me to Castle Taisce. I would be lost without you. Life will be so different, but let’s try to see it as an adventure.”
She watched surprise flicker across Helein’s face instead of the comfort she thought to imbue. Had she misinterpreted the sadness she saw?
“Of course. Thank you.”
Ismene’s smile faltered, but there could be no avoiding the inevitable. “Come. Take me to my father.”
The door opened to reveal Lady Victara standing in a resplendent silver and blue gown. “Ah, you’re ready, Ismene. Thank you, Helein. You may go watch from the balcony,” Victara said, dismissing the maid with a wave.
Helein glanced at Ismene but after seeing her smile, the maid curtsied low. “Yes, Lady Tenbow.”
Ismene watched Helein retreat before facing her mother.
“Oh, my dear girl!” Victara exclaimed. “Time has flown by with far too much haste. What am I to do without you and your level head?” She took Ismene’s hands in her own and squeezed. “You look magnificent. I know you’ll make us proud, and Prince Othniel would be a fool not to fall in love with you at first sight.”
Ismene tried to smile, but her mouth remained frozen like stone. Her eyes shimmered, but her cheeks stayed dry. Love was certainly out of the question. There would be time for crying later, and Ismene didn’t want to upset her mother.
“Thank you, Mother. You look beautiful as well.”
“Yes, well,” Victara said, admiring her dress for a brief second, “this day is about you, not me. Come, my sweet.”
They walked arm in arm down the hall. Ismene had never before been in attendance at the castle of Taisce. It was old but well-kept and much larger than she imagined. Portraits, spanning hundreds of years and chronicling the lives of Ovlander Greatshield’s descendants lined the walls. Someday, my own portrait may hang among these. What an odd thought. She shook off the chilly feeling of losing herself here—of not being who she wanted to be—and glided down the hall with her eyes trained forward.
Outside the great hall, her father stood waiting, regally handsome with hands tucked behind his back. While he appeared serious, Ismene could also see the pride in the august angle of his shoulders and slight upward curve of his lip.
“Drake, look at this little mouse I found hiding in her rooms.”
“Little mouse? Oh no, you have found an angel in disguise.”
Drake leaned over and kissed his wife’s cheek before motioning the guard to open the door for her to be escorted to the front of the great hall which had been decorated in a resplendent display of royal matrimonial celebration. Once alone with Ismene, he turned to her and pulled her close. He leaned forward and placed a soft kiss upon her brow.
“My little dove, you make me proud.”
“Please Father, I can’t speak now.”
He held her at arm’s length and looked into her brimming eyes. “Ah, I see. Then we shall not speak, except this one last thing: you are a glorious bride, and someday you will be the most beautiful queen Taisce has ever known. Make me proud, my dove.”
On that last sentence, the doors opened. Two manservants dressed in royal finery held them in place, allowing Lord Tenbow and Ismene to slip through. Anything Ismene might have said to her father was stolen away in a rush of overwhelming panic.
She held her breath while her father tucked her arm into the crook of his own. The hall burst with people, all with their eyes on Ismene. The muscles in her throat constricted. She could feel their stares boring into her. Sweat beaded between her shoulder blades.
The walk down the aisle stretched too short and too long. When they arrived at the end she refused to look up. She hadn’t let her vision roam to their destination the entire time—a long and agonizing trek—not wanting to come face to face with her future. She’d been holding her breath too much and felt light-headed, but there would be no turning back now, even though her mind screamed for her to run the other way, to plot her own course no matter the cost.
Her father placed her hand on top of the groom’s. She stared at hers on his and imagined she was watching someone else’s wedding. She knew it was her hand, but how odd to see it pressed into that of a stranger. His was larger than her feminine hand; it looked strong. Was it also tender? The question plagued her mind.
Blood rushed through her veins and made her heart thunder in her ears. Little sparkles of light and dots of dark danced before her eyes, but somehow, she’d moved up the steps to stand before the priest. Odd. She didn’t remember moving.
She jumped with a start when a soft, baritone voice whispered to her.
“A pleasure to finally meet you, My Lady Ismene.”
She gasped ever so softly and inhaled the fresh scent of pine and lye soap. In an unwelcome lapse of curiosity and confusion, her head snapped around to stare at Prince Othniel. He’d leaned the slightest bit toward her without turning his head away from the priest. His smiling profile and tawny locks revealed his youth and masculinity, and her first invading thought was he’s handsome, but he looked at her out of the corner of his eye and winked.
Flustered, Ismene jolted from her stunned state. She turned back to the priest who asked her to repeat after him with a look that implied he’d been forced to repeat himself. In less than ten minutes she stood speechless yet again when the priest uttered the words, “I now pronounce you man and wife.”
Still in a strange dream state and full of trepidation, she faced the prince. Her body seemed to sway of its own accord, but Othniel’s strong hands gripped her elbows. He stared at her a second, no longer smiling, and Ismene wondered if her expression mirrored his, or if he could see the daunting fear in her eyes. He hesitated until the priest cleared his throat. Othniel lowered his head. Frozen, not able to look away from the intensity of his startling blue-gray eyes, she almost melted in a puddle there in front of everyone when his soft lips touched hers in a fleeting kiss.
“Salut, Ismene. I’m Othniel,” he said before moving his face away from hers, his low words almost lost in the cacophony of celebratory clapping. Everything after that was a blur.