By Valari Westeren
Corinna paced back and forth across the marble floor of her bedroom, fiddling with a fold of her satin skirt. Where was Markus? He always showed up before ten. What if the heralds’ announcement had stopped him from coming?
A familiar voice interrupted her thoughts. “Would the princess prefer red or green apples?”
Marcus peeked through the silk curtains framing her open window and flashed a crooked grin as he hoisted a basket of apples onto the sill. She ran to him and grabbed his arm, helping him climb inside.
“What took so long?” she demanded.
He held up his hands. “Easy, Princess. Harvest season’s just begun, and one of my coworkers is home with a broken leg. I’ve had to work double for the past three days.” He cupped her face with one hand, his sunburnt skin contrasting with her fair complexion. Leaning closer, he softly added, “But we can definitely make up for lost time.”
As he kissed her, Corinna closed her eyes, all worries forgotten for a moment. When he broke off contact, he offered her an apple from the basket. “For you—the first fruits of my labor.”
Corinna smirked. “The kingdom is experiencing a drought, and you think I’m the one who needs extra food?”
Playfully, Markus dropped to one knee and held the apple out to her. “You are the princess and my one true love, which means you deserve it all. Besides, we can spare one basket.”
“Well,” she teased as she accepted the apple, “I suppose I can’t convince you otherwise.”
He bounced back to his feet. “So you forgive me for being late?”
“Always. I just wondered . . . You heard the news, didn’t you?”
Markus’s smile ebbed away. “The engagement.”
Trying to blink away tears, Corinna exclaimed, “Markus, it wasn’t my idea! I didn’t even know about it until yesterday. And then the proposal came with all those gifts, and everyone was applauding and congratulating me. It happened so fast that I don’t think I even had a chance to respond.”
Markus scowled. “How dare she.”
“I don’t care that she’s the queen!” he burst out. “She has no right to trade you like a piece of property. Did she ask you how you feel about it? Do you even know the man you’re supposed to marry?”
Corinna sniffled. “She never considers how I feel. And I’ve only met the Prince of Maldor once, briefly. All I remember is him showing off his jeweled coat.”
Markus clenched his hands into fists. “I’d like to see that pompous brat try to take you away from me.”
“You shouldn’t talk like that.”
“But Corinna, the prince—”
Markus sighed. “All right. But you know I’m only angry because I love you.” He wrapped his arms around her and protectively pressed her against him.
Corinna rested her head against his shoulder. “I love you too. That’s what makes this ten times more awful. What do we do?”
“That accounts for my other gift to you.” Markus released her and removed a small object from his shirt pocket, placing it into her palm. “I figure it’s about time.”
Corinna gasped. She held a slightly rusted copper ring. “Does this mean what I think?”
Markus’s piercing green eyes were firm and serious. “Don’t marry the Prince of Maldor, Corinna. Run away and marry me.” He reached out and brushed aside some loose strands of her tawny hair. “I can’t imagine ever being separated from you. I know you feel the same way.”
Corinna opened her mouth, but couldn’t form words. She studied his face, memorizing every detail—his unkempt auburn hair, the smattering of freckles across his cheeks, his chapped yet inviting lips. He gazed into her eyes with a passion that wouldn’t take no for an answer. This was the portrait of a man who adored her. Finally, she stuttered his name and threw her arms around his neck as she kissed him fiercely.
“I told you she’d be here, Mother.”
Corinna jumped and turned around. Her younger brother, James, peered over the stall door. Their mother followed him in a purposeful stride.
“Are you planning to go riding?” Queen Rhoda gestured toward Corinna’s tall, black steed.
Corinna shook her head. “I only wanted to check on him.” Thankfully, her horse seemed healthy enough for a long journey with Markus.
“I’ve had servants check on him already,” her mother said. “He’ll need to be transported to Maldor immediately, you know.”
Corinna’s heartbeat accelerated. “You’re taking him away?”
“Of course. I assumed you would wish to take him with you to Maldor.”
“But isn’t the wedding still far off?” Corinna couldn’t remember any specific date.
The queen cocked an eyebrow. “It’s next month, Corinna.”
Corinna gulped. “Next month! But isn’t that . . . sudden?”
“Perhaps, but I felt the need to hasten the schedule. The trade agreement accompanying your marriage must be enacted as soon as possible.”
Vaguely Corinna recalled this trade agreement being mentioned, though at the time she’d been too overwhelmed to process the information. “Oh.”
“Can I brush him?” James stared longingly at Corinna’s horse.
She forced a smile. “Sure, why not?”
As Corinna lifted the latch on the gate to let her brother into the stall with her, the queen continued, “This drought has made quick action necessary to save Valence. The reports of our economic situation are dismal—even heartbreaking.”
Corinna nodded mechanically. “I’m sure you will soon have everything under your control.” As always.
“It hasn’t been easy. I’ve been searching for a solution like this for months, and I could not help feeling blessed that this opportunity should happen now, when my eldest daughter has reached a marriageable age.”
Corinna stiffened. Was that all her mother viewed her as—a commodity to be married off? She bit her lip. How convenient that the queen did not have to sacrifice her own comfort to solve this problem.
Corinna stroked her horse’s mane and moderated her tone carefully. “Perhaps I won’t bring my steed to Maldor after all.”
Queen Rhoda raised her eyebrows. “Why not?”
“The prince has offered me a new steed as a wedding gift. Maldor breeds some fine horses, so I’m told. Besides, I’m concerned he might not adjust well to a new country. He’s a Valencian horse; perhaps here is his true home.”
She held her breath as Queen Rhoda studied her for an agonizing moment. But before her mother could reply, James spoke up. “May I have him then?”
Corinna hesitated, observing the eagerness in her brother’s eyes. She didn’t want to give him false hope. But how else could she ensure that her horse stayed?
She smiled. “That’s all right by me.” She glanced at the queen. “If Mother approves.”
Queen Rhoda waved her hand dismissively. “Very well. Come along, James.”
When she could no longer hear the bounce of James’s footsteps, Corinna slumped against the stable wall. At best, she had three weeks to plot her escape, and two would be safer.
Resolutely she stood straight again and opened the stable door. She needed to apprise Markus of the change in plans.
“Ow!” Corinna flinched as a sewing needle pricked her back.
“Oh, my apologies, Your Highness.” The small woman adjusting the waistline of Corinna’s wedding dress ducked her head.
“Not to worry, Myla.” Corinna squirmed as the ribbon around her waist squeezed tighter and she directed her thoughts back to Markus, envisioning him winking at her before gazing yearningly at her lips. She smiled, fingering the copper ring in her pocket. Only nine days left to wait.
Myla bent to examine the skirt’s hem. “By the way, Highness, I found some of your dresses piled in a chest under your bed. Did you stash them there?”
Corinna drew in a sharp breath. Her elopement necessities! “I—yes. I was packing . . . for the journey to Maldor.”
Myla eyed her curiously. “You realize you have servants to do that for you, right?”
Corinna swallowed. “Well, yes. I guess I’m a little nervous about this engagement, and the wedding and everything, so I needed to occupy my hands and mind. To pass the time.”
Myla nodded, though her brow furrowed skeptically. Mentally Corinna berated herself. She needed to be more prepared for awkward questions.
Corinna cleared her throat. “Is the dress almost finished?”
“Oh yes, nearly.” Myla returned her attention to her work. “How do you like it so far?”
Corinna placed a hand on her hip and struck a pose in front of the large mirror. The snowy white dress felt as soft as it looked. She admired the flowery lace on the long sleeves and noted that the skirt’s hidden hoop provided plenty of room for her legs to move without being obnoxiously large. For a brief moment, she entertained the notion of taking the dress with her on her elopement.
“It’s lovely, Myla. You’ve outdone yourself.”
“Thank you, Your Highness. It’s the least I can do to express my gratitude.”
“What do you mean?”
Myla blushed. “I’m thankful for your sacrifice, Your Highness. By marrying the prince, I mean.”
Corinna blinked. Sacrifice? “Most people tell me it’s a great privilege.”
With a half smile, Myla replied, “From one perspective, yes. Do you see it that way?”
Corinna dropped her gaze to the floor. The dress seemed to tighten restrictively around her torso, and a chill wafted in from the open window. “I . . .”
Myla grasped Corinna’s hand, stroking it gently. Her touch warmed her. For a moment neither of them spoke. Then Myla ventured, “I have a little girl, Highness. She’s been sick for a long time, but my husband and I must buy food with any money we earn, so we have nothing to spare for medicine. After you acquire Maldor’s resources and the food prices decrease, we will finally be able to save enough funds to get our daughter the care she needs. Who knows? Maybe the food prices will lower so much that we can enroll our two boys in school again too!”
Corinna lifted her head and stared at Myla. “I . . . I didn’t realize my marriage would have such an impact.”
“It will, Highness.” Myla’s eyes shone with admiration. “It will.”
Corinna cringed. Again she glanced at her reflection in the mirror. Never mind about the dress. It would remain at the palace, never to be worn again.
“You are too kind, Myla,” she choked, desperately hoping that Myla would mistake the glistening fog in her eyes for tears of happiness.
“You’re not taking all that, are you?”
James had entered Corinna’s room without knocking again and was frowning at her jewelry boxes.
“No, no, of course not.” She hurriedly stuffed one last gold necklace into a pouch. Although Markus would provide most of the essentials for their journey, she had to compensate for his lack of money with some of her valuable belongings. Her heart smarted at the thought of parting with her accessories, but Markus was worth it. Maybe they could trade some of the jewels for less than they were worth, thus helping to alleviate a little of the famine’s effects.
James sauntered over to her. “How much jewelry do you need anyway?”
“I guess not this much,” Corinna admitted, shoving the pouch into one of her vanity’s drawers. Trying to regain her composure, she joked, “You’re welcome to keep any of the pieces for yourself.”
He grimaced in a non-princely fashion. Corinna snorted and resumed sorting through her jewelry. Only three days left to prepare.
“Corinna?” James asked. “Will you miss home?”
Still focused on the elopement, Corinna replied, “Yes. Yes, I will. But it’s for the best.”
“Because of the drought,” James added. “You’re doing it to aid our people.”
“Yes, I am.”
“That’s courageous of you.”
Corinna tensed. She didn’t want to hear yet another speech praising her for a commitment she would never fulfill. “Right.”
She refused to look at James, but then he slid his arms around her waist and squeezed. “I’ll miss you.”
Every muscle in Corinna’s body froze. The room was silent except for the loud ticking of the ornate wall clock. Each second pounded into her head like a sledgehammer, making her dizzy. She wondered how James could suffocate her, until she realized she was holding her own breath. She exhaled a strangled wheeze and pulled away. “I have to go.”
Corinna ran out of the room and into the hallway. Tears blurred her vision as she searched for a secluded corner to hide in. A few passing servants called to her in concern, but she ignored them and stumbled down a stairway that led to the gardens outside.
Corinna shielded her eyes from the sun’s glare and ducked behind a topiary, plopping into the dirt. As she hugged her knees, she let the tears flow freely down her cheeks. She buried her head in the folds of her skirt and inched further into the shade, away from the blinding light.
As her sobs gradually subsided, she heard the clicking of heeled slippers on the stone pathway.
“Corinna?” Her heart sank at the sound of her mother’s voice. “Is that you? I’ve been looking for you.”
Corinna only curled into a tighter ball.
Queen Rhoda strode closer. “The prince has sent a few of his delegates to settle some final matters, and I need you to—” Her footsteps stopped nearby. “What’s wrong?”
Without looking up, Corinna whimpered and shook her head.
“Oh, my dear.” Kneeling in the dirt, Queen Rhoda placed a hand on Corinna’s shoulder. Corinna turned to face the queen, who pulled her into a hug. Corinna buried her face in her mother’s shoulder, her body heaving with a fresh onslaught of tears.
“This is about the engagement, isn’t it?”
Corinna nodded as she cried even harder. Her mother rubbed her back. “Oh, darling. You were acting so brave. I’m sorry I didn’t realize how difficult this is for you.” She sighed. “Believe me, if there was any other way . . . ” Her voice faltered, and she squeezed Corinna tighter.
Corinna pulled back to study her mother’s face, and she blinked in surprise when a single tear trailed down the queen’s cheek.
Queen Rhoda broke their embrace to cup Corinna’s face in both her hands. “I am so, so proud of you, dear,” she whispered.
Again Corinna whimpered, but she held her mother’s gaze. Slowly the corners of her lips twitched upwards. Her mother smiled back and started wiping away Corinna’s tears. Inhaling and exhaling deeply, Corinna let her shoulders relax as her mother continued to caress her cheeks.
After a moment, Queen Rhoda’s thumbs paused their motion. “Will you be all right?”
Corinna nodded. “I think so.”
Swiping one last tear from Corinna’s face, Queen Rhoda planted a kiss on her daughter’s forehead and stood. As she brushed loose dirt off her skirt and walked away, Corinna leaned back against the topiary with a long sigh. She owed James an apology. And then . . . her smile dissipated as she realized what she inevitably had to do.
Corinna shivered as she paced back and forth across the stone pathway in the garden. Her thin summery dress provided little protection against the chill of dusk, but she had determined not to bring a cloak. It would prevent her from staying out too late, no matter what happened.
The bushes rustled nearby, accompanied by heavy footsteps. She pressed her back against the palace wall, just in case the stranger turned out not to be her lover.
“Over here, Markus.”
Markus poked his head around a large topiary, a bulky burlap sack slung over his shoulder. He grinned. “I left my horse near the stables with the rest of the supplies; we’re all set to leave. Hey, where’s your cloak? You’ll freeze on a night like this.”
Corinna sucked in a deep breath. “I know, but I don’t plan on staying out long.”
Frowning, Markus cocked his head. “What are you talking about?”
“I can’t go with you.”
Markus blinked. Slowly he stepped toward her, reaching out his arms. “I know you’ll miss your life here. I’ll miss what I’m leaving behind too. But we both agreed that this was best for us.”
His arms circled her waist as he attempted to bring her in for a kiss, but Corinna pulled away.
“Let me rephrase,” she said sternly, clenching her hands into fists to keep them from trembling. “I won’t go with you, Markus.”
Markus flinched. “You—you won’t?”
“But . . . why not?”
“Because it’s wrong. Who are we doing this for? Ourselves.”
“We’re doing this for each other.”
“That’s not what I mean!” Corinna searched Markus’s eyes for some hint of understanding. Why couldn’t he comprehend what she now saw so clearly?
Markus furrowed his brow. “Look, the drought and famine aren’t your fault. The only reason everyone expects you to fix it is because you were born a princess.” He grasped her hand. “But to me, you’re much more than a princess. I see you as a person—the woman I love. Do you think the Prince of Maldor will love you like I do? Or that you could love him like you do me?” The creases in his forehead deepened as his voice lowered. “You do love me, don’t you?”
A lump formed in Corinna’s throat. Never before could she resist that tone. As Markus started stroking her hand, she let it linger there, wondering if any other man’s touch could excite her the way Markus’s did. But as Markus lifted her hand to his lips, she desperately yanked it away.
“No, we can’t do this. Don’t you see? My kingdom needs me.”
“I need you more!” he protested.
“No.” Corinna sniffed, a tear spilling onto her cheek. “No, you don’t. You want me more, and I want you more, but that’s not the same as a need. I’m sorry.”
Markus opened his mouth to reply, but Corinna raised her chin and mustered a cold expression, discouraging him from arguing further. She retrieved the copper ring from her pocket and held it out to him. Slowly he took it, turning it over in his hand.
“You’re sincere in this, aren’t you?”
Corinna nodded. “Yes. I am.”
Markus studied the ring for another moment before hurling it to the ground. “Suit yourself, Your Highness,” he spat and stalked off.
Corinna waited until his footsteps faded before allowing her sobs to escape. Sinking to her knees, she tried to muffle her cries with one hand as her entire body shook with anguish. Would this be her final memory of him—coldness from the man who used to only bring her warmth?
When her sobs eventually diminished into silence, her gaze fell upon Markus’s ring lying in the dirt. She reached for it, but then she retracted her hand. She’d prefer to forget this night. The cold night air persuaded her to stand again and return to her bedroom, where she would long for the day when she might find the strength to love again.
Valari Westeren is a nineteen-year-old aspiring writer who’s dreamed of being a published author ever since she was nine years old. She’s currently studying English/Creative Writing at her university, and she’d also like to minor in Theology. In her free time she enjoys reading, writing, music, Legos, movies, and spending time with her family. Her aim is to be a full-time writer one day and communicate important truths about life with help from her imagination and creativity.