1. Kidnap and Rescue (Page 2)

“No, I'm fine,” but the princess poured the dark, oily liquid into her favorite teacup, anyway. She breathed in the citrus-scented steam; Earl Grey had always made her feel better.

“I've noticed that about you, Princess. You overwhelm and exhaust yourself so much that your body can barely take it. You really should be more careful with your anemia. When are you due for your next injection?”

“I'll need one when we arrive at our next destination.”

“Where’s that?”

Cupping her tea in both hands, she took a long soothing sip and breathed euphorically, “Marcelia. I hope we can stop in Habar while we’re there.”

“Hmm... Didn’t you say that was your favorite place to visit when you were younger or something? Do you have many good memories of your time there?”

Images flashed through the princess’ mind ─ a dainty woman dancing in the sun then falling to the ground in a coughing fit; a burly man playing cards in a dark alley, his eyes sagging with dread; and the sharp blade of a silver knife flying towards her in the middle of a crowded street. Hataru gingerly drew a crooked line across her left cheek. “Yes,” she said, “very many”

"So, who's the prospective suitor this time?”

Reaching into a hidden pocket in her skirts, Hataru retrieved a piece of parchment folded into a tiny, perfect square, its corners worn from use and age, "Let's see… according to the itinerary… Crown Prince Tarin Vallor. I’ve met him once before, actually."

What? Do tell!” The princess had the woman’s full attention.

“Oh, it was very brief. Just a simple ‘Good evening,’ at one of the balls I had been asked to perform at. I doubt he even remembers it.”

Of course, he remembers it.”

“Honestly, Gilda, I really don’t think he does. It was two years ago, and he seemed a bit preoccupied.

“Oh, but who could forget a beauty such as you? I’ll bet he fell the minute he saw you dance that fated eve, and now he’s anxiously awaiting for you to return to his palace where you’ll stay by his side and rule his country hand in hand!” She coddled her embroidery, raptly smashing it against her full bosom. “So romantic!

Setting her cup back on the table, the princess rolled her eyes, “I think you’re forgetting one minor detail, Gilda. I have to fall in love with him, too. And if he only cares about my beauty, I fear he will impress me as much as the others. I’m looking for a real connection ─ someone with the similar interests who I can first be friends with.  I want a man whom I can love because of his heart, not because of his appearance or status, and he for me. And besides,” Hataru straightened her skirts forlornly, “as you mentioned, he's going to be king someday. I’m not exactly queen material.”

The lady in waiting’s puffy lower-lip protruded once again. “You old kill-joy, always being so… so realistic! Do you ever let yourself dream?”

“Of course, I do. I─” Gunshots echoed through the walls, causing the women's bones to hum. “Please tell me you heard that.

Gilda looked like a statue in a gorgon’s cave, alarm plastered across her face, “Yes…

A guard called from behind an ornate wooden door ─ the room’s only entrance, “Princess? Are you alright?"”

“Yes, we're alright. What was that?”

         “Hostiles aboard! Stay in your room.”

The End

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