Ysabelle watched from her balcony as the caravan marched itself up the main thoroughfare toward the castle’s courtyard; an invisible, creeping dread preceded them. It slithered up her spine and wound around her stomach, squeezing it into an uncomfortable ball, dense with nerves.

“Your Highness,” Odo motioned to her from the door. “You’ll be wanted in the great hall to meet Holden.”

She turned and feigned a smile. “Yes, of course.” She joined him and as they walked she took up his arm, laying her head gently on his shoulder.

“Oh, and what did I do to deserve this honor?”

“What do you think of all of this?” Ysabelle asked quietly. “Everything is going to change…”

The old mage ran his free hand through his beard, nodding thoughtfully. “I see–nerves. That’s all. It’s to be expected, Your Highness. Many demands are placed on you as a member of a royal family. Your subjects and your court expect composure, confidence. Self-possession. But you’re allowed doubts like anybody else.”

“Am I allowed to show them?” she wondered. She lifted her head from his shoulder and nudged him with her hip. “And you didn’t answer my question.”

“If it is the King’s will, then it shall be done. I trust your father’s wisdom.”

Settling her head again on the perch of his shoulder–“But…what if I don’t like him?”

He patted the back of her hand and rested his on top of hers. His knuckles were knobby and arthritic and his skin was thin and translucent, revealing every tributary of his purple-blue veins. But there was such warmth that emanated from his rough fingertips. “I have the utmost faith that the Five shall guard your heart and guide it wisely.

A sudden impulse washed over her. It felt like this was the last moment she had before her secret became fossilized–permanent, unchanging, and buried deep, deep below the surface. She wanted desperately to vocalize it, to ease the pressure she felt by letting out one breathless, liberating confession. If she said it–I’m already in love–that would give it consequence. Secrets were vast reservoirs of potential energy–they became truly powerful when they were secrets no more, when that potential erupted as pure kinetic force. And Ysabelle was ready to light the fuse, to scuttle the dam. She was ready to litter their lives with debris if it might halt this strange inertia that now barreled toward her.

But Darwyn would suffer most of all, and so she said nothing. It would have to stay a little, white-hot pain buried deep below the surface and lacquered over with her smiles and politeness.

In the great hall, the Edmund and some of the other members of the court had already gathered. Ysabelle caught her father’s eyes and he nodded at her, but she said nothing, moved not a muscle in her face.

The doors were opened and a few knights in ceremonial armor stepped in. They flanked the door and faced inward. The small corridor they made framed a handsome man with a braided beard, covered in armor made of a strange, glistening blue-green metal Ysabelle had never seen before, and embellished with voluminous furs, including a cape that danced in the gentle breeze. A robed chamberlain shuffled in and announced Holden: “His Royal Highness, of the mighty House Baneblade, Prince Holden of Talvivald.”

Holden moved with a casual, confident stride, leading with his chest–like a preening bird but without its delicacy. He was muscled and robust, a stout bear of a man.

Alfraed stepped forward and bowed, then swept his hand toward Edmund. “And may I present, His Majesty, of the noble House Draclaudus, King of the Draclaudian Empire, Edmund.”

“It is our great honor to welcome you to our kingdom,” Edmund said. “And to our home–Highspire Hold.”

Alfraed turned and motioned for Ysabelle to step forward. She hesitated. He motioned again more emphatically, and she timidly complied. “King Edmund’s daughter, heir apparent, Her Resplendence, Ysabelle.”

Holden stepped forward and smiled broadly. “Your advisor speaks the truth.” He bowed and with lowered head said, “Your beauty casts a humbling light on us all. It is my great honor to make your acquaintance.”

Ysabelle moved to say something, but she suddenly had a strange out-of-body experience. As her sense of self seemed to wisp into the air and dissipate like so much mist, so too did her voice. She could think of nothing to say. She had nothing to say to this man. He was a stranger. And so they stood in silence, and Holden remained bowed, waiting for her to release him.

Odo stepped forward and patted her gently on the shoulder.

Still, no words came. Instead, the nerves that were nudged into motion caused her to turn abruptly and start walking away. Everything was remote.

Several of the others called after her, but she continued her retreat.

Holden finally righted himself, and to the others’ relief, his face held no anger or disappointment. He seemed to take no umbrage. Instead, his brow was creased with bemusement, and the very corner of his mouth held a slight upturn. It wasn’t the kind of greeting he was used to, but he savored that. With lives dictated by ritual and protocol, even unpleasant surprises could elicit a certain frisson.

Ysabelle continued her retreat, not even thinking where her feet were taking her. She soon found herself near the library. It would be quiet and still–and one of the last places they would look. She cracked the door open and slipped in.

She was surprised to hear voices echoing and flitting about in the eaves like bats. Usually the scholars and scribes were dead silent as they worked. But as she listened a moment longer, she realized these were women’s voices. She quietly shuffled past the rows of bookcases, looking down each aisle. It was hard to trace the voices in the cavernous space. Finally, near the back, she found the source–three young women all huddled around a large tome laid open on an oaken table.

The one with fiery red hair looked up and blinked quizzically at her. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Were we being too loud?”

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