Authors: Erin Bedford
By Erin Bedford
Copyright ©2015 by Erin Bedford
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This work is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, business establishments, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Printed in the United States of America
First Edition, 2015
To my husband, James.
If I had to do it all over again I’d still pick you.
Table of Contents
It was May. Almost summer, but in the mountains of Aurelius it felt more like a mild winter. Built into one of the high mountains at the center of Aurelius was Castle Seraph. The surrounding mounts served as shield and sword with their harsh winds and treacherous slopes. Only those who had traveled the path before would ever be able to find the heart of the kingdom. Yet, the coolness of her homeland did nothing to calm the raging fire that dwelled in its princess.
Lying on the floor of the armory, she inhaled the scent of battle and let a warm serenity weigh her down. Her hair spread out around her like a halo of fire as she tried to forget what the month of May meant. Slow, deep, calming breaths.
Nothing beat the smell of worn leather. The musk of each wearer blended with the oils, which made each piece its own unique smell. The scent alone could calm a raging warrior from the clash of metal. The princess of Aurelius needed that calm now. If she was lucky she could hide out there all summer. If not – well – she did not want to think about the alternative.
Of course fighting not to think about it made her think about it even more. She remembered when it all started. She was seven years old and was on her way to meet her father’s friend, the Queen of Aldabel. That had been the year her father had forced her to wear a frilly dress for the first time. Breeches and tunics had been her clothing of choice then. She still hated wearing a dress, even though she now had more say in the amount of lace that was on her dresses.
“Do you see Greenwich Castle, little one? Isn’t it the most magnificent sight?” Her father, King Brom of Aurelius, pointed out as they came upon the stone castle beyond the wooden city’s gates. It really was a wonderful sight. She had never seen so many trees, and the crops there were almost as tall as the houses. It was a big change from the cold mountains of home.
“Why did I have to wear a dress? It’s so hot!” She tugged at the confines of her new gown her father had insisted she wear.
Her father’s chuckle caused her whole body to shake as she rode in front of him on his horse. “If you think this is hot, Zoella, you wouldn’t last one day in the Camelian desert.”
Zoe glared back at her father, her voice a whine. “Zoe! Father, call me Zoe!”
Named after her mother, Zoe’s enflamed hair and amber eyes made her the spitting image of the queen. It had been three years since the late queen had passed, taking Zoe’s stillborn brother with her. For seven-year-old Zoe it had felt like it was yesterday. Everywhere the young princess went she was reminded of how much she looked like her mother, and then one day she started telling the servants to call her Zoe. To this day it still hurt to think of the mother that was taken from her too soon.
She crossed her arms over her chest and pouted. “Uncle Armanel wouldn’t have made me wear one.”
“Your uncle has been stuck in the desert far longer than is good for him. He wouldn’t know what is proper or not.” Her father scowled at the mention of his younger brother.
Ever since Armanel was little he had a knack for getting into trouble. He was always causing some mishap or another and almost caused a war with their eastern neighbor, Josfie, for telling their queen she sang like a frog. Zoe still laughed at the memory of it, but her father had had enough and decided it was high time his little brother got some field action.
Armanel had been assigned to scouting the desert tribes in the south for the last few years and seemed to have been meant for it. Her father had been happy that her uncle was causing chaos for the Camelians rather than in his own kingdom. She knew he was still worried that his brother liked being in the desert a lot more than home.
“Now tell me, Zoe, what are you going to do when we get to the palace?”
Zoe rolled her eyes as she replied, “I’m to greet the queen and be on my best behavior.”
“And I will curtsy like a proper lady.” Zoe huffed at his prompting. She still was not very good at curtsying, though she had gotten a lot better at it over the years.
“Very good.” Her father nodded his approval. “If you behave yourself, I will tell Sir Walter to go ahead with your lessons.”
“Really?” A hopeful gleam filled her young eyes. “With swords and everything?”
She still got the same look when there was a chance of getting to hold a sword in her hands. She always tried to be a lady to uphold her mother’s memory, but she could not help the burning need she had to wield a sword. The feel of a hilt heavy in her hand, the sound of metal clashing against one another, and the rush, oh the rush she felt when standing victorious over her enemies. It was almost better than raspberry cream pie!
“Yes, yes. He will teach you everything, but remember that means you have to listen to your new nurse, Alice, as well.” Her father smiled down at her.
Zoe’s elation was short lived at the sound of her new nurse’s name. Alice was the reason she was forced to wear a dress today. She demanded Zoe start acting like a proper princess and not a little street urchin.
Her mouth formed a pout, “Alright.” But her distaste for her nurse maid was soon forgotten when they came into view of the awaiting party at the gates of the palace. Zoe’s eyes narrowed at the sight of the dark-haired boy that waited by the queen’s side.
She felt him shift behind her, “That’s the prince. You’ll be spending your summers with him.”
“What! But what about my lessons?”
“It’s only for three months. You have nine others to practice.”
Her father stopped in front of the queen and her son, dismounted and turned to her with open arms. She dillydallied at first and wondered if he would let her get away with a temper tantrum in front of his friend. At her hesitance he narrowed his eyes and dared her to make a scene. She gave a reluctant sigh and let herself be set on the ground before the waiting couple.
“My dear Marie! How good it is to see you after all this time.”
The queen chuckled and extended a hand out to him, “Brom, as charming as ever, I see.” She then turned her gaze to Zoe, “And who might this young lady be?”
“Go ahead, dear.” Her father gave her a little push forward, “This is my daughter, Zoella.”
Zoe curtsied to the queen, but kept her eyes on the boy next to her the entire time. From the haughty look in his grey eyes, she could already tell she was not going to like him one bit. The boy was slouched down and the queen had to give him a little shove forward as well. At least she had not been the only one that did not want to be there.
“This is my dear boy, Asher. Asher, say hello to the princess.”
Asher’s smoky eyes landed on her as she stood in front of him. He returned the fierce look that filled Zoe’s eyes with one of his own. She did not know why he was pissed at her already, but at least she was justified in her anger.
He gave her a forced smile as he bowed before her. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Princess Zoella.”
As soon as Zoe curtsied to the raven-haired prince in response, he marched back to his mother’s side.
His mother grabbed his shoulder turning him back around, “Asher, you can’t get to know your new summer playmate all the way over here.” The boy froze at the new information and glared at Zoe.
Zoe let her voice become a low tremor in an attempt to hide her anger. “Zoe.”
Marie angled an ear toward her, “What’s that my dear?”
Her father stepped forward and placed a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “She prefers to be called Zoe. Probably because of her mother–”
Zoe’s eyes snapped open, pulling her out of her memory at the sound of her nurse maid yelling her name close to the armory door. Would she move on if she did not say anything? Probably not. She held her breath as she waited to be discovered.
After a moment or so when no further calling was heard she released her breath. Fiery lashes fluttered closed as she tried to find her sense of inner peace once again. But it was not to be. The very moment she settled back down onto the floor the door banged open.
“There you are!” Her grey-haired nurse maid, Alice, wobbled in, her height not proportionate enough to hold all of her weight. “Didn’t you hear me calling for you?”
Zoe sighed, closing her eyes once more. “Can’t you see I’m trying to pray?”
The old woman huffed, “More like hiding out. Everyone is waiting for you and here you lay wasting the day away.” She glanced out the armory window. “It will be dark soon. I would think you were more generous to the needs of others than that.”
This got the princess’s attention. “Generous? How have I not been generous?” The redhead pushed herself up into a seated position. “No one has been more generous than me. I have uprooted myself year after year to visit that pompous buffoon without complaint.” She glared at the nurse maid when she scoffed. “When many a princess would cry foul at not being given the chance to find love, let alone choose their husband.” She held a hand up when Alice tried to protest. “I know my duty and the cost of this alliance more than anyone. So forgive me if I wish to delay my trip a little longer to say my prayers.”
“Prayers.” Alice laughed. “Prayers are for the temple not the armory floor. What do you think Auriel could do? He cannot change what has to be done any more than you or I.”
“Then what good is he?” Zoe crossed her arms over her tunic-covered chest and glared down at the boots that her breeches were tucked into.
“You know the angels are only meant to guide us to our destination not change them. Only God can do that and I doubt your distaste in husbands is high on his priority list.”
“It should be.” The princess pouted.
She knew she was being childish. She did not know what it was about this year that had her feeling more defiant toward her marriage. Maybe it was because she was of marrying age and was expected to announce their marriage soon or maybe it was the thought of being trapped with someone like Asher. His ideal princess was someone who wore the latest fashion and spent her time embroidering instead of fighting in the training yards with the guards. He was not going to find that kind of princess in Aurelius.
Aurelius was a kingdom known for their prowess in all things combative. They prided themselves on their fighters and armory. This meant the majority of their people were fighters, which even included their princess.
Alice sighed, placing a hand on her charge’s shoulder. “I know you are worried with this being your first time visiting without your father by your side, but the prince is a good man and will make a good husband. You’ll see.” She patted her shoulder and walked to the armory door. When Zoe made no move to follow she turned back. “You only delay the inevitable, Zoella.”
Zoe blew out a harsh breath and picked herself up off the ground. Brushing the dirt from her backside she turned to Alice’s waiting figure. She knew she was right. All her procrastinating did was make it closer to nighttime when they left and thus harder for her group to travel. She followed close behind Alice as they made their way out of the armory and across the training grounds.
The clashing of metal against metal filled the air. If leather was her favorite smell then the sound a sword made when it struck another was her favorite sound. She watched the guards train with longing as she walked by, but paused when she saw one of the squires running toward her.
“Your highness.” The dark-haired lad stopped in front of her. “I–” He bent at the knees, huffing as he tried to speak.
“Catch your breath, John.” Zoe smiled as the young boy fought to breathe in through his mouth.
“Thank you, your highness.” John coughed his shaggy hair falling down over his face.
“So what’s so important it has you skipping lessons to find me?” She gave him a chastising frown.
The boy had the good sense to blush, and then scratched the back of his head, “Well…”
“I’m already running late, John. Spit it out.”
“I wanted to wish you well on your journey and I was wondering…” He trailed off as he noticed we were drawing the gaze of the others on the training yard. “Uh…I was wondering if – I mean – when you marry Prince Asher. Um…if you’d let me come visit you? There. At Greenwich castle.”
Zoe smiled at John’s beet-red face. “I’d be honored to have you visit.” She leaned down to his level and whispered. “It’d be nice to have a friend among the soft-skinned courtiers. But we must not let the others know or we’ll have more Aurelian than Aldabelan citizens. Wouldn’t do to scare off the future in-laws would it?”
“Of course not, your highness.” He gave an impish grin.
“Now back to lessons with you. I have to go get all proper.” She pointed a thumb back to where her nurse maid had entered the castle.
“Auriel protect you, your highness.”
“And you, John.” Zoe watched as the boy ran off toward the castle.
The princess turned to catch up with Alice, who was waiting in her bedroom. She had meant it when she told John she would like for him to visit. She did not imagine Greenwich Court was any better than it had been in the last eleven years. It was full of conniving and overachieving ladies that had no problem pointing out Zoe’s shortcomings as their future queen.
It was because of their backhanded remarks Zoe began following the popular styles of their court. She still did not dress as extravagantly as many of them did, but it was a far cry from the simple dresses or tunics she used to come to court in. She was not the same gangly teenager that was all legs and arms and no curves.