She sat down on the steps outside the great cathedral where the ceremony was to take place the next day. She looked up at the building, the place where she was supposed to get married and felt a pang of regret. What if things had worked out differently and Damia had never betrayed her? If she had never met Artem and fallen in love? Would she still be getting married in this cathedral? All questions that would never be answered.
But for now Rowena had to focus on the present. She had no money, the few coins concealed in her saddlebag had only been able to buy her and her horse one night at the inn, and she had no other means of making any money. What do I do? The question echoed round and round her head, taunting her.
‘Rowena?’ A familiar voice made Rowena look away from the building and out onto the square in front of her, all decorated and ready for the celebrations the following day.
‘Hello? Is there someone out there?’ She saw a dark figure appearing from the shadows of a doorway, a skinny figure with sharp, rat-like features and a nervous posture.
‘Rowena it is you!’
‘You remembered me.’ He ran across the square towards her, and she ran to meet him, throwing her arms around him, crying with relief.
‘Of course I remembered you; you were so good to me for all those years. You have no idea how glad I am to see you. How did you get here? Where is your mother?’ She couldn’t shut up, the questions kept pouring out until Vincent suggested the relocate to a small coffee shop along the road. When they were both settled, Vincent began his story.
‘When I helped you escape, my mother was furious. She’d lost the money she was promised from our secret politician, and had lost her reputation as a good villain to boot. Of course she blamed me, but I decided I wasn’t going to stand for it. So one day I got up, went downstairs, told her exactly what I thought of her, that she’s a selfish old witch, and that I wasn’t going to put up with her any more.’
‘How did she react to that?’ Rowena asked, taking a slurp of coffee.
‘Not too well. There was a lot of screaming and breaking of various objects, she even threatened me with a spell or two, but in the end I left unharmed and headed for Geneta.’
‘Why here? You could have gone anywhere in the world and you came here?’
‘I hoped I would see you again,’ he admitted, blushing. ‘I really wanted you to succeed, but of course I had no idea where you were so I had no way of finding out how you were doing. So I got a job in the palace, waiting on tables at meal times, and waited for you. And here you are.’ He finished with a flourish of his arm, almost knocking the coffee pot off the table.
‘Well I’m glad you waited because I am in dire need of a friend right now.’
‘Anything for you my lady.’
‘Please don’t call me that Vincent. That’s not my name anymore.’
‘But you are still Crown Princess of Fersere and the rightful heir to the throne.’
‘But no one knows who I am. I mean look at me.’ She indicated her clothes. ‘I tried to get into the palace to see my father dressed like a male peasant, with dust all over my clothes. I hardly look the part. And the guards at the gates didn’t recognize me, they didn’t believe me and kicked me out.’
‘I’m so sorry my lady.’
‘Is there anything that can be done?’
‘I fear not. Unless I get to my father or my stepmother then I won’t be able to prove I am the heir to the throne. And even then, I have changed so much since I was first imprisoned I have no idea if they will still recognize me.’
‘I’m sure they would Rowena. They are your parents.’
‘But until I can work out a plan of action I need to ask a favour of you Vincent.’
‘You may ask anything of me my lady.’
‘Do you have any spare space at your place where I could stay for the night. I promise I will try and find something more permanent, but there is nothing I can do tonight, and I have no money to pay for a room at an inn.’
‘Of course I have space,’ Vincent said, smiling kindly on her. ‘My rooms are just down the road. You can stay with me for as long as you need.’
‘Thank you Vincent,’ Rowena said, clasping his hand across the table. ‘You are always so good to me.’
‘Just doing my duty,’ he said modestly, leaving some coins on the table to pay the bill before they left.
He led her down several main streets, then down some darker back alleys, where Rowena walked as close to Vincent as she could, before stopping outside a boarding house. He led her to the third floor and pulled a key out of his pocket to unlock the door.
‘Well this is me,’ he said, swinging the door open and letting Rowena step inside first. ‘It’s not much but it’s the first home I’ve had where I haven’t been constantly harassed by my mother so it’s better in that respect.’
‘I think it’s wonderful,’ Rowena said politely as she observed the room. It was very dark and dingy, with only one small window to let in any light from outside. But the room was immaculate. Everything had its place and the floor was swept clean.
‘You are very kind,’ Vincent said, hurrying her inside and locking the door behind him. ‘But I’m sure you’ve been in much grander places than this.’
‘That is true, but in the last few weeks I’ve been in places much worse.’
‘What happened to you my lady? Where did you go after you escaped the tower?’ Rowena settled down on the end of Vincent’s bed and began her story. This time as she told it, she realized how unbelievable it sounded.
‘I’m sorry to hear you have suffered so much,’ Vincent said when Rowena had finished.
‘It wasn’t all bad. Artem was very kind to me and I loved him. That wasn’t so bad.’
‘But his death?’
‘It’s better to have loved him and felt the pain of loss, than to have never met him at all.’ She sighed. ‘I’m just disappointed that after I’ve come this far I can’t get into the palace. I thought that would have been the easy bit.’ At that moment, Vincent jumped to his feet.
‘I have an idea how you can get into the palace.’
‘It would be dangerous, but it would be able to get you to the King before the wedding.’
‘I don’t care,’ Rowena said. ‘I have nothing left to lose.’