Edalene is a reluctant princess with a heavy burden upon her shoulders. Her future son is destined to become the next King. But when the King chooses a husband for her, she plans to run away rather than be forced into a loveless marriage. Trapped inside the palace for her entire life, Edalene has no idea what waits for her outside. Her attempt at escape is foiled by a would be assassin and she learns she is not the only one who opposes her marriage. Many in the kingdom do not want to see Edalene’s family regain the throne and they are willing to kill her to prevent it. Now Edalene is faced with a choice: marry a man she has just met or risk her life in search of freedom.
Celia knocked on my door for what felt like an eternity.
“Edalene, what’s wrong? Talk to me,” she said in a coaxing tone.
In that moment, I hated her too. She’s just like the rest of them. She only pretends to care because she’s supposed to, because that is her job. They chose Celia because like me, she was half-Neaux. I knew that from the moment she arrived, but it was easy to forget that she was appointed to be my companion. In that moment I felt the separation like a canyon gaping between us. Celia would agree to an arranged marriage if it advanced her station. Her father was some well-to-do spice merchant. Her mother was a daughter of a lesser branch of House Sixton. She was considered a lady but only just barely. Her family had money but no station. That was why they had agreed to let her be my lady-in-waiting in the hopes she would find a good match. Most girls dream of a wealthy suitor. Goddess knows I’ve heard them babble on about it enough times through the walls.
After a while, Celia gave up on her knocking and went away. I rolled over, feeling miserable. She probably went to tell Aunt Idella. If she has not heard about the council meeting already, she’ll bring her here, and Aunt Idella will scold me. I sighed and rolled back onto my back. I stared at the canopy over my head. The plush velvet curtains met in the center of the canopy where a button tied them together. I could hear the crash of waves muted and distant just outside my window. There was no secret passageway from my room, unfortunately, but I desperately wanted to get out of the palace. I would escape and never look back if it were my choice. I balled the fabric of my coverlet in my hand hard enough to rip. I don’t get a choice. Princesses don’t have that luxury.
I got up, padded over to the door, and pressed my ear up against it, listening. There was no sound on the other side. Celia was indeed gone. That was her mistake. I slid out of my chamber and down the hall to the sitting room. I glanced over my shoulder a few times, checking for Celia, but she was nowhere to be seen. She had gone to get Aunt Idella as I suspected. I squeezed through the crawl space for the second time that day. My gown ripped in my haste, but I did not stop to examine it. I did not care if I tore a hundred gowns if I could snatch one moment of freedom. This time instead of turning right, I went left. This was a longer stretch of tunnel with much less of interest in it. It sloped upward for a while, and the ceiling was so low I had to crouch down to get through. It was brighter here as well, stones had fallen away from the outer wall, and I could hear the ocean thundering. A gull cried, singing a sad lament as it reeled through the sky. At the end of the tunnel there was a gap where the stone had tumbled away.
It opened up on a ledge that overlooked the sea. When I crawled out and onto it, the wind tore at my dress and tangled in my hair. The scent of the sea and the feel of the wind helped to cool my temper. Up above I heard guards walking along the walls, calling out to one another as they passed by on their rounds. I scooted along, careful not to look down. A pebble broke free and clattered downward, the sound swallowed up by the roar of the ocean below.
It ended at a narrow stretch of sandstone. From there was a sloping hill that led up to the palace gardens. I climbed up the hill, clinging to scraggly grass, the ground shifting beneath my feet. I slipped and skidded backwards. My heart leapt into my throat. I clutched at the roots of a large tuft of grass, one foot wedged into a boulder. I knew it was not wise to do so, but I looked over my shoulder. The ocean swirled beneath me, and my head spun for a moment looking down at the drop. One wrong move and I would fall to my death, a sad crumpled doll smashed among the rocks. I looked away and resumed my climb. The hill crested at the edge of the forest. I slipped through a hedge and out into the maze. I could hear a fountain burbling nearby. Dusk had begun to fall; the garden was washed in pinkish light. Except for the sound of the ocean, everything was hushed. I navigated the maze quickly. I had learned it by heart at a young age; my brother taught me the trick to it. There was a pattern to the turns: two lefts, one right, one left and three rights. Coming through here always made me think of him. He would never have forced me to marry, I know it.
At the end of the maze, I shed my slippers and wriggled my feet in the grass. And oh, it felt so good to feel the earth beneath my feet and the sky gray above, streaked with pink and purple as the sun set. I took off at a run. They were bound to discover me missing at any moment, and I wanted to indulge in every moment of my freedom. The grass ended, and my feet slapped against the sandstone that skirted the overlook facing the ocean. I came to an abrupt stop at the cliff edge. The wind howled, pulling at my gown and drawing me closer.
I let the wind breathe through me. I held up my arms as if I could take flight like a gull. I am going to tell King Layton I refuse to marry anyone he chooses for me. I will remain an old maid if that’s what it takes. There has to be someone else who can give birth to his heir. I will not let them dictate how my life is to be lived.
“I am not anyone’s tool!” I shouted to the wind.
The crash of the waves and the hollowing of the wind swallowed up my words. It felt good to speak my mind, to have my voice heard even if it was only by the wind. Night had fallen at last, and the wind brushed against my skin like icy daggers and my feet were starting to turn numb. I should head back. I turned to leave when I spotted someone standing at the edge of the clearing. I froze, realizing I had been caught. They stood in the shadows near the entrance to the maze entrance. They were petite and thin.
“My little bird in a little cage sings, sings, sings.”
I knew that voice. Just the sound of it brought me crashing back to earth.
“Momma, what are you doing out here?” I hated how small and vulnerable I sounded.
“The ocean calls to me, come, come, darling. It’s time to dance down below,” my mother said in a singsong voice.
For a moment when she said her little bird, I thought she was talking about me. But she never knew I existed other than as a nightmare creature to remind her of what had been done to her. You don’t know me, I am not your daughter, and I should stop considering you as my mother. You only gave birth to me. I was a parasite that grew in your womb and slithered out, leaving you an empty shell.
“How did you get out?” I asked instead. It was dangerous for her out here. She could easily slip and fall over the cliff. Who let her out? Her garden should have been locked, and someone should have been watching her. Even when I tried to distance myself from her, I could not stop caring.
“The starfish king wanted me to dance with him, but I told him no, no, no, but then…” Her eyes were wide and fearful. “I told him no, I screamed and he said, ‘Hush, hush, this will only hurt a bit.’”
I swallowed hard. She was having one of her fits again. “Momma, come to me. We need to go back inside.” I held out my hand to coax her to me. It never worked, but I kept on trying no matter how many times she spit in my face, clawed at me or called me a demon.
“No, no, they broke me. I am a hundred different pieces as sharp as daggers. Do not touch!” She rocked back and forth for a moment.
I took a hesitant step towards her, and her head shot up. Her gaze fixed on me. “You!” She pointed at me.
I expected her to attack me as she had done in the past. I braced for it and closed my eyes.
“The dark one has chosen you, but you will be the mother of kings!” she said.
My eyes flew open as I looked at her. Her expression was one I had never seen before. It was focused. Her eyes were boring into me.
“Momma?” I asked.
“You are the one who binds nations yet to be born, but without sacrifice there is no future.”
She looked away from me and to the cliff. I saw her line of sight, and though I stood between her and the cliff, I hesitated, not certain she would do what I thought she meant to do. She ran past me towards the edge. I lunged forward to grab her hand. I brushed against her skin as she slid past me, slippery as an eel.
I ran after her. Despite her haggard appearance, she was quick. My feet slammed on the ground in my haste to try to capture her. My hands reached for her. The cliff loomed large before her, the sky an endless black tunnel behind her. The first few stars twinkled in the twilight like distant candles. My mother had always seemed small and fragile. She had tiny bird bones and dark hair in a wild tangle that was turning grayer all the time. Her cheeks were sunken in and her arms frail. She stopped at the edge, her heels pressed against the precipice. “I have to fly, child of mine, or you will never be free.”
I hesitated. She had never called me that, never acknowledged the fact that she was my mother. As she looked at me, for a moment I saw past her madness. I saw the hints of the beautiful woman she had been, the curve of her lips and the high regal cheekbones. I saw the woman who would have been a mother to me had life been different, if the goddess had been fair. The moment was over in a blink. She smiled a wild crazed smile from behind cracked lips. I took a few steps forward, hand outstretched. If I could only move my legs faster, I could grab onto her wrist. She opened her arms wide, a cruel parody of what I had done before, as if she could take flight. And then she fell over the edge, her hair flying around her like black and gray wings in the wind.
I screamed some inarticulate sound as if my words could reach out and cradle her, hold her back and keep her from going over. I reached the edge seconds too late, my hand closing in on emptiness. Nothing I could do could save her. She fell out of sight. I looked over the edge of the cliff and saw her body tumbled on the ground at the base of the cliff. Her salt-and-pepper hair splayed out on the ground, her body bent at odd angles and blood, blood, blood.
My mother is dead.
For a moment shock was greater than reason. I stared at her body broken on the ground at the base of the cliff, the water lapping over her body, making pink rivulets of the dark blood.
My mother is dead.
I turned and walked back to the palace. My mother is dead. It had turned into a sick chant inside my head. I placed one foot in front of the other. The world had lost color. I couldn’t smell the jasmine bushes. I couldn’t feel the bite of the wind or the tingling of my feet on the grass.
I found a palace guard who was making his rounds about the palace. He stopped me and said something I could not process.
“My mother jumped over the cliff,” I said. My own voice sounded empty and hollow. Shouldn’t I be crying? Shouldn’t I be screaming? The woman who brought me into this world is dead.
“Where? How did this happen?” he asked.
I pointed in the direction I had come. “By the exit to the garden maze,” I said.
The palace guard shouted to another guard, and he ran to find help. Someone grabbed me by the shoulders, shaking me and asking questions. I was too numb to respond. I remember shouting, a blur of movement and nothing else. I came back to myself outside my chamber door. I had wandered away without realizing it. I knocked on the chamber door, and Celia answered with a frown. I never came through the front door when I snuck out. I just didn’t have the forethought to go back through the tunnel.
“Edalene, where have you…?” Celia’s frown transformed into a look of concern. She knew me well enough not to ask any questions. “You’re not wearing any shoes. Get inside. I’ll bring you a blanket and something warm to drink.” She put her arm around my shoulder and brought me into the apartment. She led me into my chamber and sat me down on the edge of my bed.
She scurried off to tend to her tasks. I stared at the wall opposite my bed. I watched my mother fall over and over in an endless loop. I should have stopped her. Why did I not move faster? Celia returned with a cup of spice wine. She handed it to me, and I held it without drinking. She hovered over me, biting her lip. She wanted to ask me what happened, I knew, but I was not ready to talk.
After a few moments she cracked. “Edalene, you’re scaring me. What is wrong?” Celia was peering at me, her dark brows pulled together.
“I killed my mother,” I said. It was not today, but the moment she became pregnant with me, she had been marked for death. My mother was raped by a Neaux man and conceived me. The rape and my birth broke her. I had not pushed her off that cliff, but I might as well have.