THE heavy footsteps of servants faded down the corridor as they moved the last of my elegant chests from the room. I was left alone in the hollow shell of what I had once considered my home. I had prepared myself for this, but I couldn’t fight the panic rising within me now that it was actually happening. The fear had washed over me the moment the last of my possessions were taken to be loaded onto my carriage, and each heartbeat seemed only to make the panic’s presence stronger in my veins. Still, every fragment of fear that pulsed through me was entwined with a thread of excitement.
“Aleana?” The warm voice from beyond the door surprised me, sending another jolt through my already weary body. “Milady, we must get you ready. Captain Dalric is eager to see you off before the sun rises much higher.”
“You may come in.” The elderly maid appeared from the hall before I had even finished speaking.
“Don’t look so nervous, dearie.” Surea smiled kindly as her frail fingers began fidgeting with my clothes.
“It’s hard not to be, Surea.”
I cringed at the tone of my voice, even if the maid didn’t. The apology that started to build was drowned by Surea’s unworried reply.
“Your mother was just as nervous as you when she prepared to leave for your father’s castle.” The last adjustments were made to my dress as Surea’s calm voice filled the room.
I often forgot just how old Surea really was. She was my mother’s maid before she was mine, and I doubted even Surea was able to count the number of years that had passed since she first started working for my family. When my mother died giving birth to who would have been my brother, Surea was the one who stayed by my side every night, comforting me while my father mourned over the loss of his wife and son. She was more family than servant, and I took comfort in knowing she was making this journey with me.
“No, milady.” Her knotted fingers draped a fine necklace with a single emerald around my neck. “Your mother had only heard war stories from your father’s early years. Your father was said to be ruthless, the kind of man who would send great kings to their knees with only a stare. The night I dressed her in her wedding gown, she asked me if kindness could be found in a man said to be so merciless in battle. I believe that you are well aware he was much more than just a great soldier. Your mother eventually saw that side of him as well, and found he was just as great as a husband.”
As Surea intended, even if all I had of them were memories, mentioning my parents finally forced a smile to spread across my lips.
“Your mother was afraid of your father at first, but they grew to love each other. What reason is there to fear your future husband? My dear, you have even met the man. That is a blessing not often given to those of your station in life.”
It was true, I had met Tallak, and my father had tried to initiate a relationship from the moment I did. He was among many of the noble’s sons who came to our castle to congratulate my father on the battles he won in Halvaria’s honor against the Dakmoran kingdom, but neither he nor the others piqued my interest. Even when Tallak had stolen a kiss, it was my father who wanted the marriage, not me. Only when I finally understood why I would never truly want such a pairing did I begin to focus on the social implications of marrying Tallak. With those in mind, I had grown more excited over the years since the arrangement was made.
Two years prior, shortly before my father rode out to stop Dakmor’s final attempt to regain control of the war, it was officially decided I would marry Prince Tallak. Of course, such a great match would not have been possible without my father’s reputation. He had been an incredible man, loved by the people of our lands as well as the other nobles within the kingdom. A fierce warrior, but a man known equally for his devotion to his wife. Ivarin Melora, Duke of Eniva, was the kind of man who seemed to exist only in the legends flowing from a bard’s lips. Now that he was gone, it was up to me as the next Halvarian queen to make sure our family’s name did not fall into obscurity.
Surea must have noticed a change in the emotions spreading across my face—excitement again being overshadowed by worry—for she silently led me toward the large open window and a chair sitting in the morning sun’s rays. Like she had so many times over the years, she began to wind her hands through my hair, pulling the tension from my body with each pass over my scalp. Soon, I felt her working my hair into an intricate braid I knew I would never be able to recreate on my own.
“Duchess, you will do well.”
Like always, Surea was able to discern what was gnawing at my thoughts. Was I ready to be the queen? I had some practice running Eniva’s castle since my father died in the final battle against Dakmor, but I knew things would be different. Here, I had Dalric’s help. My father’s Captain of the Guard had stepped in to act as steward and assist me with running the castle as soon as I was left as the last member of my family. At Seyna, I would have to find new members of the court to trust. Still, the idea of being in such a grand castle as Tallak’s was too exciting to be caught up on what stress it might bring. I would be queen, and I would make my family proud.
When I was little, I would listen to traveling bards sing of history’s great queens who resided in palaces as grand as Seyna. Their elegance, the beautiful gowns, the great jewels, the parties full of people in their finery—the thought of it was thrilling. Never would I have believed I would find myself in a position where I could be the subject of such tales, and yet, here I stood, ready to take my family’s reputation, the Meloran name, to even greater heights. But what would the people sing of me?
Through the ages, there were many queens who found their names immortalized in song. Among them were queens of great beauty and queens who built great academies. But as exciting as those stories were, even if they did sometimes dip into the darker side of what it could mean to be queen, they were not my favorite. No, I was much more interested in listening to the rare stories of queens who picked up swords and led great armies into battle. I could never see myself as one of them, though. I did not believe I carried a penchant for violence, despite my father’s heroic but bloody deeds. Instead, I longed only to be loved by my people, to give those in the north of Halvaria a queen they could call their own. My father showed them the strength of my family, so now it was my turn to show them the grace.
After finishing my hair, Surea squeezed my shoulder, a look of motherly affection spread across her face. Knowing I would not damage the twists of my hair, I leaned back into the old maid, an intimate acknowledgment not usually allowed for people in such different stations in life. We sat like that for a brief moment before Surea pulled away to tend to her other duties. She shuffled out of the room before I could even ask where she was going.
I listened as Surea’s footsteps faded away down the corridor. When the quiet thumping of her heels ceased, silence enveloped my room. I knew it could only mean the servants were performing the last preparations to the convoy before we set out. Suddenly, it struck me that this would be the last time I saw my home until my future husband felt the desire to visit his northernmost lands. The urge to study every crack in the wall, every minute detail, overwhelmed me. Looking around, I realized the room barely felt like mine at all—at least not anymore. Sheets draped over every remaining piece of furniture. Meant to be shields against the oncoming layers of dust, they now only served as an eerie audience for my last moments alone.
I walked to the windows to close the thick wooden shutters. As always, I was distracted by the expansive view from my castle nestled in the mountains. Continuing for miles was a sea of leafy green forest, spotted with the rusty-orange patches of trees marking the start of autumn. My father used to sit with me at the window and explain the militaristic advantage of Eniva, but much to his chagrin, I always seemed more interested in the legends Surea would tell me of the forest. Her stories of fanciful creatures and fearsome bandits infiltrated my imagination as a child. There were many nights when the thought of criminals sneaking into the castle kept me from sleep. However, my father was quick to point out that few would be brave enough in the dark of the night to face the narrow road winding through steep cliffs that led to our home.
“Your Grace?” A younger maid’s timid voice pierced through the silence and disturbed my memories.
“Is my carriage ready?” I continued to stare at the kaleidoscopic array of leaves, my eyes focusing on the rare patches of vibrant red.
“Yes, milady, everything has been loaded, and we can leave as soon as you are ready.”
“Inform Surea I will be in the main yard shortly.”
I glanced over to see the woman curtsy slightly before exiting the doorway, failing to even look in my general direction. I had never seen her before, probably a replacement for the last maid that had to return to her family. I briefly hoped I hadn’t given her too bad a first impression, but I knew my voice was far too stiff to avoid that. I turned back to the window once I could no longer hear the woman’s footsteps. Moving through the room, I sealed every window, carefully closing the weathered shutters until the room was plunged into darkness. Using the slivers of light squeezing through the wooden shutters’ cracks, I found the hallway and turned my back to the room I had lived in my whole life.
Reaching the main courtyard, I witnessed the convoy making the last of its preparations. My family’s personal guardsmen were evenly placed along the sides of the train of carts, there to protect me along with the sizable dowry that had been the final piece in my father’s plan to marry me to the prince. As I passed each armored man, he would turn to bow, slowly rising to risk a glance toward my expression before staring into the distance. I would often offer a smile to the men whose eyes shone with particular anxiety, or even reverence. However, several of the men seemed to be guarding something behind their weathered countenances. The look they held in their gazes was something I could not name, but for some reason, it sent a chill to my core.
Dalric’s booming voice suddenly filled the courtyard, causing several of the younger guardsmen to jump. Amused, I smiled to myself. Dalric had been a constant presence in my life, and although it often caused many of the guards to shake in their boots, his voice no longer had an effect on the servants who had spent most of their lives working in the castle, or on me. As if it were a peacefully quiet morning and Dalric’s voice was only the chirping of birds, my own grin was matched by my footman’s as I walked toward my carriage. He was just as used to the Captain as I, and even more accustomed to Dalric’s direct anger.
“I wish you well, Duchess Aleana.” Dalric’s sudden appearance surprised me, displaying an inordinate amount of stealth for someone his size. “We will miss you.”
There was an inflection to his parting I had not heard before. And although I could not explain why, the same feeling washed over me as I had experienced when looking at the guardsmen.
Ignoring the rising unease, I offered him my hand. “Thank you, Dalric. I am more than confident that you can manage things here for now.”
He dipped his head toward my extended hand before helping me into my seat and closing the door. To my surprise, I found the young maid from earlier seated beside a smiling Surea. Telling myself the young woman would finally look at me if I assured her of my intended kindness, I offered a friendly greeting as I situated myself for such a long journey. Despite my efforts, she kept her eyes trained on the floorboards of the carriage, giving only a nod to let me know she had heard me.
Rather than attempt to strike up conversation, I turned my attention toward the castle keep as we slowly started moving. The handful of servants who stayed to tend to the basic needs of an empty castle were gathered to the side of Dalric and the remaining guards. Once again trying to ignore the feeling gnawing at my stomach, I extended my arm out the window, a quiet good-bye to those who had watched me grow from a small child. Families, friends, and lovers of the guards accompanying me all waved in return.
I took in every sight I could, trying to soak in each extra second before I would have to close the window’s curtain and resign myself to the monotonous jerks of the moving carriage. The yellow flowers I picked for my mother as a child, the smoke from kitchen fires billowing from small homes, the way the moss grew on the stones of the castle walls—I tried to memorize all of it. Such insubstantial details suddenly held great importance. A while later, when we had made our way to the edge of the forest, I turned one last time to watch my home fade into the face of the cliffs. Closing the window curtain, I tried my best to quell the voice telling me I would not see Eniva again.