But Zahra hadn't counted on the guards seeing her.
"Who goes there?" came a voice out of nowhere.
Whirling around, Zahra tried to locate the source of the sound, but it was no use. Within moments, two guards had come to her side, shining their torches in her face.
"Your Prince gave me permission to leave!" Zahra exclaimed, desperate to get out of those castle gates.
"Are you Zahra?" the first guard asked, turning Zahra so that he could examine her face. Nodding in answer to his own question, he turned to the second guard. "She's right. His Majesty informed us that the prisoner would be leaving sometime soon."
"He knew?" Zahra asked, then regretted voicing her thoughts.
"He also said to give you this, but only to read it once you leave," the first guard continued, holding a small leather bag out to Zahra. "He said that once the gates close behind you, you can't come back."
The words caught Zahra by surprise. Taking a step back, Zahra raised her eyebrows. "I can't come back?" she repeated the guard's information. "Well, that's new. He didn't tell me that before." Slightly infuriated, Zahra held her chin up high and shrugged. "Ah, it doesn't matter. I'm still leaving. I won't be missing anyone here."
"Have safe travels," the second guard said as the gates were opened for Zahra to slip through. "Be careful in Cor. It's awfully dangerous, I hear."
Annoyed at the guards' protectiveness, Zahra waved the words away.
But just before stepping outside the castle grounds, Zahra stopped and turned around. Ignoring the guards' curious stares, she allowed her eyes to scan the place that had, albeit very temporarily, become her home. Was it truly worth it to leave behind Adrian and Alexander without so much as a goodbye?
Sighing, Zahra allowed one more emotional moment to pass before stepping outside the gates. She took several more steps and refused to turn and look when the gates closed firmly behind her, their thud making an imprint on her heart.
Kneeling in the dirt, Zahra opened the leather bag that Alexander had sent to her. She saw only two things.
The first item was a letter, a brief scrawling of words onto a piece of royal stationery. Reading the letter aloud, Zahra felt her heart sink with an emotion she was unwilling to name.
I wish you safe travels to Cor. I've placed several guards along the route, as I knew your free spirit and determination wouldn't allow an escort to come with you.
I can only pray that one day, you will look back and find forgiveness in your heart for all the ways in which I have wronged you. I truly am sorry for what I have done.
There was no signature, no explanation. Simply a letter of both protection and apology.
Strangely enough, the other item in the leather back was the crown Alexander had once shown Zahra.