Tea service was cleared quickly from Prince Tinari's table in the east courtyard. He pretended not to notice the servants bustling around him, instead focusing on a climbing rose along the far wall. Maids scattered as he stood and absently strode across the wide flagstones to the trellis. His long, thin fingers snapped a blossom from its vine harshly, and his ears pricked at the sound of footsteps receding into the halls of the castle. Alone at last, the Prince sighed noisily. He stretched and flexed his arms, free of the bonds of civility amongst a people unlike his own. "Godless Northerners," he muttered, sneering. Though dwindling in power, the mighty nation of Avinash bore more pride in its people's hearts than this kingdom could conceive. Tinari closed his eyes and tilted his head back, offering up a silent prayer to Rrikri, the god of his family's bloodline. His heart pleaded with Him for sympathy, and for the silent obedience of the women around him. Many things would change within the Drylands once he was King. No more would the useless chatter of female voices clutter the stately halls and courts of the castle, nor would their owners feel so free to speak their minds amidst royalty and common men alike. Women, he thought angrily, will know their place when I am crowned in this court. And this nation will flourish under my guidance. The tiny bud in his grasp sank a thorn into his thumb as he crushed it, drawing blood from his hand and a curse from his lips. Returning from his reverie to his present place in the garden, Prince Tinari looked up to find himself staring into the green eyes of the most beautiful woman he had ever beheld. She stood opposite him in the courtyard, an elegant cream dress of silk and lace cascading over her lithe body. It was simple, but its lines fell along with her form, drawing the Prince's eye along every subtle curve and dip, until he once again returned his gaze to her face. Scarlet lips and pale skin beckoned him nearer, but her emerald eyes were thick with a wildness that held him firmly in his place.
She raised a hand and brushed her neatly curled red hair from her face, nervously looking for an exit under the gesture. Willow had stumbled from the wrong corridor into a further mistaken path, resulting in a bewildered state that threatened to consume her. Six hours of primping and preening by Mistress Kousa's personal attendant had left her exhausted, despite the rejuvenating sensation of being thoroughly clean. Her heart longed for solitude and rest, but her ignorance had instead led her directly into the path of yet another unrecognizable member of royalty. Willow braced herself for the reprimand she would surely receive.
Prince Tinari approached her, awe struck by the gracious gift from the god he held most dear in his heart. Before him stood a woman both silent and demure, the perfect example of a female fit for royalty. He wished to possess her so intensely that he nearly forgot his manners. "My lady," he bowed, stepping nearer. Willow, taken aback by his gesture, maintained her reticence. Tinari lifted his head and gazed at her once more, and Willow was confronted with the blackest eyes she had ever seen. The harder she sought to find color in them, the blacker they became, until she feared she might never escape their awful depths. Her gloved hands went cold with fear. "I do not believe I have had the pleasure," the Prince spoke, extending a hand. Her response was automatic, prompted by the lectures of the last few hours of training. She placed her hand neatly in his, though her body screamed at her to run. "I am Prince Tinari of Avinash."
Avinash. Her mind raced to place the name. Somewhere in the depths of her memory a story nagged, but fear pushed the details from her grasp. "Willow," her voice answered before her brain recognized what she was saying.
He stared at her, refusing to release her hand. "Willow," he repeated, a smile curling his pale lips. The young woman trembled, her hand beginning to shake violently in his. He let her fingers slip through his own. "Lady Willow, you seem quite unnerved. Shall I call for a maid to attend to you?"
"No," she nearly shouted, stepping back from the Prince, "I-" her voice faltered. "I am simply lost, your Highness."
He raised a black eyebrow. "Lost?" This woman was certainly a curiosity. "Then I will help you find your way."
Panic rose in her chest, thickening her breath and dizzying her head. Avinash, her mind raced. Avinash. The warning was muddled, but its intent was clear. This Prince, though seemingly polite, was not as he appeared. Alarm bells sounded in her ears in time with her quickening pulse. Get out, a voice in her head sounded clearly. Get out now. Willow backed away from the Prince, lowering her head, "Thank you, your Highness, but I have disturbed you long enough." Without pause, she bolted for the far door on the courtyard's south wall. It jerked open before she reached it, providing her safe haven from the blackness behind her. Willow silently cursed herself for such blatant use of magic, but her control over her abilities always wore thin in times of fear.
Alone at last in the hall, she rested her head against the cool stone wall and breathed deeply. "How can all of this have happened so quickly?" she whispered to herself. I am so far from home, her heart cried out, which only made her realize more deeply the gravity of her situation. Willow had run for so long that she had forgotten why the journey began. Running became a life of its own, one which demanded her time and energy so fully that all other concerns fell by the wayside. Fear, flame, death and loss nipped at her heels, driving her past the point of exhaustion and depriving her of the momentary joys that even a hard life benefits from. Sometime in the last eight years, in the countless miles walked, in days and nights of running and hiding, she had grown up and become a woman she did not recognize.
The corridor pressed in on her, forcing the young woman to drop to her knees. She screwed her eyes shut, praying that the tears behind her eyelids would vanish. How do people live their whole lives indoors? she wondered, her breath coming fast and hard. The darkness, her mind raced in circles. "Stale air," she muttered. "I must get out." She stood, but the floor rushed at her again as she lost her balance. Anger surged in her. "Let me out," she spoke as the walls spun and danced. "Let me out!" Laughter boiled beneath the layers of flagstone, mocking her plaintive cries. Willow made a fist with her right hand, intent on focusing her rage into the stone that surrounded her.
"No," a calm voice said, fingers lightly wrapping around her wrist. Willow's arm went slack, and she noticed that the hall was again simply a passage built of stone and mortar. "You don't want to do that," the girl standing beside her warned.
Willow stared up at her with a bewildered look on her face. "But the walls... the floor..." her voice trailed off in confusion.
Still holding Willow's arm, the girl knelt and brushed her own dark hair aside. Long, straight strands, black as raven wings, sighed and drifted over her shoulder, falling back to where they had been displaced from a moment before. "You mustn't," she warned again, her blue eyes serious. "Please trust me." Her voice hovered softly like summer wind in tall grass which pauses to take in the sun. Willow was mesmerized by her. "Tea will help," the hand around Willow's wrist guided her to her feet.
Together they walked through the many passageways of the castle's interior. I will never learn to find my way, Willow sighed. They soon came to a quiet wing on the keep's south side, its fine rugs so thick that they grabbed at Willow's shoes and slowed her feet. She was led into an open room with tall windows that looked out over the orchards below the city gates. A pot of tea was already steaming on a low table between two comfortable couches in the center of the room. Willow looked around for the maid who must have delivered it, but they appeared to be alone. Her companion offered her a seat and began to pour tea into two delicate porcelain cups without a word spoken. Willow took the fragile teacup in her hand, terrified it would break in her untrained grasp. She watched the other girl stir cream and honey into her own drink, the ritual slow and methodical. Such lavish goods were a rarity in life outside the castle. Willow had never tasted tea with additives. Clumsily, she repeated the dark-haired girl's actions, stirring and then tasting. The buttery softness of fresh cream mixed with the clover sweet honey and stayed on her tongue long after she swallowed. She kept her eyes closed as she relished the new taste.
"It's a cameronian blend," the other girl finally said, smiling at Willow's affection for proper tea. "I have it sent up from the far South regularly."
Willow nearly dropped her cup at the mention of her origins. Her mind drifted to the last image she had seen of Tara standing in the meadow, snow falling lightly around them. The burning pyres stung her eyes and nose with smoke. Screams of her kin shot through her, an ever-present reminder of the delicate dance which love and death share. Her past plagued her with an incessant rhythm, its noise thrumming in her mind and shutting out her ability to see and hear clearly.
Willow shook her head and sipped the tea again. "It's very nice."
"I hoped you'd like it," the girl replied. "I have many more you're welcome to try. I did so hope you'd be friendlier than Mara." She wrinkled her nose. "Lady Mara despised tea, and she never spoke of romance or adventure. Do you know any stories?"
"Lady Mara," Willow whispered. Who was this girl? "Do you know me?" Willow asked.
"Know you?" the girl giggled. "I have only just met you, but I knew you were coming." Her smile was innocent, but her words hinted at a sharp mind. "Mistress Kousa is not the only one within these walls with spies and informants." She refilled her cup and offered Willow more.
Realizing that little must occur in the Drylands Castle without someone watching and reporting it, Willow nervously scanned the sitting room once more. Living between confining walls and overbearing ceilings was difficult enough to adjust to, but the proximity of spies after a recent amount of time spent imprisoned in the dungeons was more than she could take. The tiny white cup of tea fell from her hand onto the cream colored rug beneath their feet.
The alarm went up first. That was how they knew something was wrong. Linn's voice soared through the camp, hastening the beat of every heart within. Smoke and flame followed, bringing Willow's nightmares into sharp relief. "No, not here," she whispered, her voice thinner than parchment. Penna dropped her bowl of stew as she broke into a run from where she had sat by the fire. Phidi was in the woods. Willow watched her go after the boy, her own legs frozen with fear. A cold, heavy weight plunged through her stomach, anchoring her trembling body to the make-shift furniture as thick smoke filled her lungs and obscured her sight.
"Scatter! Scatter!" Trace's voice boomed as the haze thickened. Willow thought she saw the dark woman race past, but the sun was quickly being choked out by the fumes of a hot summer's dry tinder on the forest floor.
The rest was sheer confusion and hysterics. The soldiers chained her and dragged her brutally through the camp, throwing her into the back of an open wagon, along with thirteen of her comrades. Unpolished steel bit and chewed at her tender wrists, and her old shoulder wound ached from the bound position of her arms. Amidst the heat and smoke, she counted ten bodies lying lifeless within the borders of a home she thought was safe. Screams faded as the horses pulled the open cart out into the open meadows surrounding the forest. Her eyes strained to see the face of the man who had welcomed her into the Cirque first, his arms always held impossibly wide for her. They have ruined his paint, Willow thought stupidly, her brain abandoning all ability to reason as she watched a thick redness spread over his forehead which should have been blue. Linn had held his position as guard with his life, and with his last breath, he held Willow's eyes with his own.
Unbroken, the teacup held the eyes of both Willow and the raven-haired girl amidst their silence. "I'm sorry," Willow finally whispered, snapping out of her trance. Still, she could not move to retrieve the lost cup.
"Willow," the girl said softly. The red-haired gypsy stared up at her. "Of all the places you could have landed within these walls, my chambers are the safest." Her blue eyes were calm.
"You're the Princess."
"I am." Willow continued to stare as the tea soaked into the pristine carpet. "But please, call me River."