For Evgenia Gurtsieva, my Russian princess ❤
Seventeen is the best age to get married.
At least that was what Princess Zenia was told. And she had been told, and told and told, a thousand times over. And now she had been told, with great authority and a stern face, that she was to be married whether she liked it or not.
Upon hearing the news, she had fled the palace for the consolation of the beautiful forest outside its wall, and the quiet solitude of the trees, the advice that only the wind in the leaves could offer her. Zenia perched on a flat rock, at the edge of cold, black water, and thought harder than she had thought in her whole, short life.
Examining her reflection in the cold mountain pool, watching it twist with the ripples of the breeze, she wished her face would tell her what to do, which road to take, which choice would be the right one. But the water said nothing, and Zenia knew in her heart the answers to all of those questions.
She gave the water a smack, hoping it would ease her aggravation. It did not. How to get out of this stupid marriage?
“I could always kill him,” she mused aloud. A little poison in the wine, no one would know.
“Raeder might,” she scolded herself. “Raeder knows everything.”
The thought brought her up short. Maybe Raeder would know of a way, a legal way for her to solve her problem. And if he didn’t know off the top of his head, he had his demons and other dark minions he could call upon for information of the less favored kind when he needed it.
“I should go see Raeder,” she told herself, rising to her knees.
“You called?” a voice said to her left and Zenia stifled a scream.
Standing in the shadows of the mountain pines that towered over her and littered the ground with a carpet of deep green needles was the court magician. Or the court idiot, Zenia thought as she surged to her feet, anger pulling her face into a scowl.
“What are you doing here?” she said. “You shouldn’t be following me.”
“Your father thinks otherwise,” Raeder said with an easy smile, setting his bow across his knee. “You needed to see me?”
“I was thinking out loud,” Zenia protested.
“Well, don’t let me stop you,” Raeder waved his hand. “Please, Princess, continue.”
Zenia pursed her lips, then sighed. “I don’t want to marry this prince my father has picked out for me. My father will send me away from my home and my friends to go to a strange land with people I don’t know. This prince is too old, and fat, and his breath smells like goat cheese and garlic.”
“Perhaps I can get you some peppermint mouthwash,” Raeder commented.
“That’s not funny,” Zenia said. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life being miserable in a marriage with no love just to strengthen political alliances for my father’s kingdom.”
“Such is the duty of a Princess,” Raeder said. “What do you want me to do about it?”
“I haven’t asked you to do anything about it,” Zenia grumbled. “Like I said, I was only thinking out loud.”
“You could always run away,” Raeder said. “It has been done before.”
“Where would I go?” Zenia mused. “I have learned of many lands, but never left my home. I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“I could take you to a place. It is beautiful, near the ocean, with golden sun and blue skies. No one would know you, much like this land your father would send you to, and you would no longer be Princess Zenia Annah Sieva, but a lowly peasant girl in need of work, but the people are friendly and you would be free to choose your own way, and be happy there.”
“How far away is this place?” Zenia wondered.
“It is far enough away that you will not smell the breath of your betrothed, my dear Princess,” Raeder said.
“This is not a time for joking,” Zenia said. “This is my life we’re talking about. For all you know, I could die!”
“You’re not going to die,” Raeder said. “I’m going with you.”
“No,” Zenia said immediately. “You cannot come with me.”
“I doubt you could stop me,” Raeder said. “I work for your father and your family. I must come with you, to watch you, and protect you.”
“You mean, to stop me from doing anything stupid,” Zenia said.
“Are you planning on doing anything stupid?” Raeder asked.
“I don’t know yet,” Zenia said, and a smile stole over her face. “I might, when I get there. You never know, perhaps I will meet a handsome stranger who will take one look at me, and fall deeply in love…”
Raeder shook his head, and his disapproval made Zenia smile. Even though she had not been serious, perhaps what she had joked would happen. And that would not be a terrible thing to have happen, she thought.
“Come,” Raeder stood, placing his bow on his back. “We must leave at once. Before anyone else comes looking for you.”
“I have to pack,” Zenia said.
“And what will you bring?” Raeder asked. “Your jewels? Your dresses? Of what use will they be to us?”
“We could sell them,” Zenia said. “We’ll need money.”
“I told you, you will have to find work. You can no longer be Princess Zenia.”
“Then who am I supposed to be?” she said.
“You will be called Jenny,” Raeder said. “You will be a poor girl, with no family.”
“That sounds horrible,” Zenia said.
“And marrying a man with garlic breath sounds pleasant?” Raeder said.
“What about this?” She gestured to the pale blue dress of silk and velvet covered in tiny pearls that she wore. “This does not look like something Jenny would wear.”
“You are right.” Raeder snapped his fingers.
Zenia blinked and looked down. She now wore simple clothes: pants and a shirt and leather boots. Her hair now hung down over her shoulders in curls, and the string of pearls and jewels that had tied it up in an elegant knot was gone. Over her shoulder was a plain sack of woven cloth. Upon inspection, she saw it contained a thin blanket, an iron knife, and a loaf of dense, black bread crusted with seeds.
“Beautiful,” Raeder said, looking her up and down, then he marched past her and into the trees. “Come Jenny. We have much ground to cover before the sun goes down.”
He turned back to look at her, and her look of hopeless disgust made him chuckle. “Don’t look so unhappy. I’ve heard the food there is the most delicious you will ever taste.”