The city was dark. Stars twinkled innocently in the infinite black sky, and the moon soaked the spires of the castle in deathly white light.
 Around the girl the city was sleeping. She stood on her balcony and looked over the silent buildings, thinking deeply and quickly. Despite her luxuriously furnished rooms and her easy lifestyle, she had never been happy in the castle. Some underlying, feverish desire had frustrated her – the desire for adventure. She despised being kept indoors, hated the relaxed atmosphere and the dreary complacency of her surroundings. She loathed being curtailed, kept in the castle, brought up as a ‘woman of great standing’.
 And what was more, she was now being forced to accept a decision that would change her life forever, for the worst. Every time she tried to convince herself that it would be the adventure of her dreams, she realised that the position it left her in meant it would be nigh on impossible for her to return to her own country. She was not going to be pushed around any longer, and certainly not by a father that was merely using her as a pawn in his own game.
 She made no impulsive decision, but slowly came round to the idea instead. She considered it for hours as she looked over the city; then, she stood up slowly and decisively and made her way to her door. Cautiously she opened it, stuck her head out into the corridor to check that no-one was around. Then, quiet as a ghost, she stepped into the corridor.
 Her father’s rooms were on the other side of the keep, on the bottom floor – she could see candlelight in them from the windows she was walking past. She laughed quietly. He would not know a thing.
 Then she hastily ducked out of the way as she heard the chink of mail. An approaching guard strode past her, hidden in an alcove, without noticing her. Breathing a sigh of relief, she headed for the doors at the end of the corridor, and stepped out into the night air.
 She was on a sturdy stone balcony, directly above the door ten feet down. Below her she saw the courtyard and the fountain where she had spent so many hours being taught decorum and tedious politics, and felt a savage rush of satisfaction that her father could no longer foist such tedious lessons on her. After checking that no guards were on patrol duty, she ran through the door on the other side, down the steps and along the corridor to the secret side door.
 She had emerged from the keep, into the courtyard threaded with secretive shadows, and the stern, silent fountain standing admonitory at the centre. There was no-one about, and her bare feet made no noise on the flagstones.
 Luckily, she could see a group of men waiting to enter the castle through the gatehouse on the other side of the courtyard.. They were waiting under the portcullis as the gatekeeper lowered the drawbridge with much creaking and clanking. This was her chance.
 She ran out across the empty courtyard, past the well-built houses of the nobles; past the barns of grain and hay; past the proud wooden stables that housed the magnificent horses that she saw her father’s retainers riding impressively and (in her opinion) arrogantly around the city. Up a tightly spiralling staircase to the parapet in the centre of the gatehouse, and ducking hastily out of sight of the wizened gatekeeper winding the chains, she watched the drawbridge lowering below her. On either side were the strong iron chains that supported it. In one bound she jumped – from the parapet onto one of the chains – and slid down to land on the tilting wood. Silent as a hunting cat, she ran the remaining length of the drawbridge, jumping out of sight of the soldiers waiting on the opposite bank. She was then enveloped by the sleeping city.
 Before long she had reached the main gate. This gate was much larger and grander than the gate of the castle, as it had to protect the whole city. It was actually two gates with a chamber in between. Yet her friend had told her a shortcut for bypassing the gate altogether.
 After finding the secret entrance in a flange of the gatehouse, she hurried down the stony stairs three at a time and along a tunnel, her bag of supplies bouncing on her back. Her exhilaration increased as she realised she was leaving the city for the first time in her life – and leaving behind the boring sameness of her old life. Smiling, she started up the steps on the other side of the gate, and turned north towards the mountains.
* * *
Dressed in magnificent gold livery, the advisor walked up the long stone passage towards the Throne Room. His eyes were obscured by the brim of his smart feather hat, yet his confidence and awareness were apparent from the way he marched purposefully past the flaming torches on the walls, and the attention he gave the two armoured guards standing at the door. In one, rehearsed, synchronised movement, the guards removed the spears that they had been holding in front of the door, and promptly leapt to attention. Ignoring them superciliously, the man strode forward and pulled open the ten foot high door with a shuddering creak.
 Though the Throne Room was an incredible room to stand in, the advisor had seen it so much that he did not even bat an eyelid. Without breaking step, he strode towards the King of Chalea, to where he sat upon his gilded, elaborate throne.
 ‘Your Majesty,’ said the advisor, bending to one knee and doffing his plumed hat.
 ‘At ease, Palidor,’ said the king, and the man did as he was bid. ‘What news?’
 ‘Not good, I’m afraid,’ said Palidor acidly.
 ‘Well, take a seat, and tell me what your scouts have discovered.’
 ‘I have sent men out to the border of Ildar, sir,’ began Palidor. ‘They have been living in the mountains for some time now, a camp near Thorsbridge, unless I am much mistaken. It has taken a long time, sir, because we have had to send in small groups to Eldroth to prevent suspicion from arousing.’
 ‘Why should Ildar be suspicious?’
 ‘We are apprehensive, sir,’ said Palidor. ‘Despite the good links we appeared to have maintained with Ildar, we were hardly welcomed into Eldroth.’
 ‘How so?’
 ‘Merchants were refusing to sell to us; inns would not let us stay the night, and many other things besides.’
 ‘Humph,’ said the king. ‘I am surprised indeed.’
 There was a short silence.
  ‘We cannot afford to be at war with Ildar. We have only just recovered from that terrible war with the centaurs.’
 ‘I appreciate your concern, sir,’ said Palidor. ‘What is it you plan to do?’
 ‘I don’t quite know yet. I can only hope that when my daughter marries into the Emperor’s family that it brings our nations together.’
 ‘I am sorry sir,’ said Palidor quietly, ‘but I do not believe that it will make any difference. It may even put her in incredible danger.’
 The king ignored him, and picked up a golden bell sitting on the curlicued arm of his throne and rang it three times. At once, a discreet door in the corner of the room opened, and a smartly dressed servant came sauntering towards the king and his advisor.
 ‘What is your bidding, sire?’ said the servant.
 ‘I would like you to go to Amaria’s room, and summon her to me, here. Tell her it is about her betrothal.’
 ‘Very well,’ said the servant. He turned around promptly and ran to the main entrance doors. In a few seconds, he had gone.
 Palidor was obviously not pleased that the king had not followed his advice.
 ‘I think, sir,’ said Palidor, after a long silence, ‘that we must begin to organise an army. In the case of an invasion, we are poorly under-def–’
 ‘What nonsense is this?’ exclaimed the king mirthfully. ‘A little unrest does not spark a war, Palidor! Our people, regretfully, do not seem welcome in Ildar … admittedly I had not realised how bad the situation was. We do not know what might have offended them, but your men would have been slain if Ildar disliked us enough to cause a war.’
 ‘With all respect, sir, I believe you are terribly mistaken,’ said Palidor. ‘Wars occur when there is a lack of communication between the people that count. It has been ten long years since you met with the Emperor, and since then, our people have been visiting Ildar freely. Although both nations are known for filching and looting, the Ildarines are blaming us for most of the crimes in their country. Ten long years of bitterness does not go ignored, and just because we have not been aware of it happening does not mean that it does not exist. Also,’ he added, ‘my scouts have had reason to believe that the Emperor is jealous of our wealth, and would like to loot it for his own.’
 ‘But surely Ildar will not declare war on us,’ said the king scornfully, looking outraged. ‘Though Ildar has much more land than us, they do not have the power, or the resources.’
 ‘It is rash to underestimate anyone,’ said Palidor. ‘Always, you must accept the possibility that your opponent is stronger than you. Remember what happened when we underestimated the centaurs’ intelligence? We have now lost all trade with them, and suffered a long and pointless war. We must not make the same mistake with Ildar.’
 The king was about to reprimand Palidor for calling him rash, but then he realised how right his advisor was.
 ‘What do you suggest is the next course of action?’
 ‘I think you must communicate with the Emperor,’ said Palidor. ‘I believe that I should journey out again, to Eldroth. Not on my own,’ he added quickly, at the sight of the king’s raised eyebrows. ‘I think it best if we organise an ambassadorial party. Hopefully a peaceful approach will gain a slight trust from the Emperor.’
 ‘It sounds a good idea,’ said the king. ‘I did not know how bad things were in Ildar, and I have left it long enough to make amends. When do you plan to leave?’
 ‘As soon as possible,’ said Palidor quickly. ‘Before I came here I organised my fastest scouts to sort supplies for a month’s journey to and from Eldroth. We should be leaving at dawn tomorrow.’
 ‘Good,’ said the king. ‘Very presumptuous of you, Palidor, but no matter – Amaria can go with you. She will need to take part in her betrothal. I hope this goes well, for all our sakes …’
 ‘I do not believe it is wise to take your daughter with us, sir,’ said Palidor. ‘I would not want to be responsible for her death, and it may come to the fact that we will die in Eldroth, I cannot tell.’
 ‘It is my wish for Amaria to go with you,’ said the king sharply. ‘You have given me good counsel on this matter, and I have made my decision. She goes with you.’
 Palidor opened his mouth to speak, but then –
 ‘Your Majesty!’
 The great Throne Room doors had just crashed open, and the servant, panting profusely, was haring up towards the throne.
 ‘What is it?’ said the king.
 ‘It is the Princess Amaria, sir,’ gasped the servant. ‘She is not anywhere in her rooms, and nowhere in the castle. There wasn’t any sign of a struggle, but she has gone!’
 The king was suddenly on his feet, and his stature was such that the servant cowered in his shadow. For a moment, the king was speechless, but then, he swung into action, striding towards the doors that the servant had left open. Palidor stood up and followed him meekly, considering the nature of this latest turn of events, and the repercussions it might have on the kingdom.

The End

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