Rowena rode hard, and sure enough, by the end of the day she had crossed the border back into Fersere. Even though she didn’t recognize the road she was travelling down, she felt good to be home. The road was deserted as she galloped along, trying to clock up as many miles as she could, but when night fell she was forced to retire to a roadside inn, where she used some money, that Ani had put secretively in her saddlebag, to make sure her horse was properly fed and watered and to buy her a room for the night.
She could hardly sleep her emotions were so mixed; one minute excited, the next nervous about what she would find when she got there. But as soon as the sun was up the next morning, she was downstairs and ready to go.
‘Where are you off to then?’ The innkeeper asked politely.
‘I’m heading home, to Geneta,’ Rowena said excitedly.
‘Going for the wedding?’ When Rowena looked up with slight confusion on her face, he clarified. ‘The wedding of Prince Felipe to Damia Veridian?’
‘Yes, I suppose you could say that,’ Rowena said as she gathered the last of her things in preparation to leave, a gleeful smile pulling at her lips.
Her horse had been well rested and was ready for another day of riding. ‘Come on girl,’ Rowena whispered in her ear as she mounted. ‘Let’s go home.’ She rode as hard as she dared, desperate to get home, but wanting to arrive with the horse still alive.
The sun was beginning to set when suddenly, she rode over the crest of a hill and she saw the towering stone walls of Geneta ahead, stretching out for miles, encompassing the whole city. Rowena could have cried as she saw the familiar white stone, looking even brighter in the early evening sunlight. She hadn’t seen this place in over two years, but it was still as beautiful as she had remembered it. ‘We made it,’ she said to no one in particular. ‘We made it!’ She would have danced for joy, had she not been sitting astride a horse, but she still threw her hands up in the air in triumph, laughing as loudly as she could.
As she rode into the city, memories kept flooding back to her, of the rare occasions when she had been allowed out of the palace to see her city. But now, instead of people parting to let her through and dropping to their knees as a sign of reverence, no one even looked at her as she rode her horse up the cobbled streets towards the heart of the city where the royal palace stood.
There were no guards outside the shining white walls of the palace, so Rowena tied her horse to one of the iron railings of the palace gates and walked straight in. The gardens weren’t looking their best, the roses all dead, and the leaves falling from the trees, preparing for the winter months, but Rowena still felt a surge of love for it all. When she saw the big oak doors looming up ahead she broke into a run. My father is beyond those doors, she said to herself. I’m going to see him again.
She reached the doors, heart pounding, but to her dismay, when she opened the doors, two armed guards were standing on the other side of them.
‘What business do you have here?’ The first guard asked, eyeing up the strange woman dressed in men’s clothing in front of him.
‘I have come to see the King,’ Rowena said simply. ‘Can you take me to him?’
‘Regrettably the King is very ill and cannot receive visitors,’ the second guard said, a look of distain on his face. ‘But I am sure he will be able to make an appointment with you as soon as the wedding is over and he has returned to full health.’
‘But you don’t understand,’ Rowena insisted. ‘I have to see him. It’s very-‘
‘Yes we know it is very important that you see the King immediately, but unfortunately it is not within our power to let you into the palace at this time.’ They tried to push Rowena back, away from the entrance hall of the palace and back towards the gates, but she resisted. ‘Please miss, if you would leave the grounds now it would be greatly appreciated.’
‘But you don’t understand, my father is in there. My father is the King.’
‘Oh here we go,’ the second guard said to the first guard. ‘We’ve got another one.’
‘I would have thought you people would have had enough humility and respect to leave his majesty in peace while he mourns the loss of his daughter,’ the first guard said sternly to Rowena. ‘I thought you would understand what a trying time this is for his majesty.’
‘But I’m telling the truth,’ Rowena insisted as she was dragged away. ‘My name is Lady Rowena Octavia Sarema Oriata, Crown Princess of Fersere and the next in line to the throne. Let go of me! I have to see my father before he dies, I have to see him!’
‘Sorry miss,’ the guard said as he picked her up, ‘orders are orders, no one is allowed inside the palace except for the few people his majesty has put on his list, and unfortunately for you, Lady Rowena Octavia Sarema Oriata, is not on it.’
‘But I’m his daughter, you must recognize me.’
‘I’m sorry, but the Crown Princess has not lived here for many years so I would not recognize her, even if she was standing right in front of me.’
You’ll have to come back after the wedding,’ the other guard said, a little more kindly.
‘But I can’t wait until after the wedding. My father needs to know I’m alive now or he’ll sign away my inheritance to a complete stranger and a servant.’ She gasped as she was slapped hard across the face.
‘You should not talk of the Lady Damia like that. She may not be nobly born but she has the elegance and graces of a Queen, and if the King sees fit to appoint Prince Felipe as heir to the throne then that is his business. Now get out of here, and don’t let us see you hanging round here again.’
They threw her out onto the street and slammed the gates shut behind her, pulling a key out to lock them. They walked away, leaving Rowena lying where she had fallen on the cobblestones, hair spread around her head and her body contorted into a position that looked unnatural from every angle.
She finally managed to pull herself back up again, and dragged herself to her feet. She looked down at the clothes she was wearing, a scruffy shirt and trousers, both now covered in dust from the road. Who was I kidding she thought. I don’t look like a princess, so why would they trust me when I say I am one? All her excitement and confidence drained out of her as she walked over to untie her horse from the railings. I was a fool to think I would be able to do this.