“Don’t dawdle, Fiora.”
The King of Kell pushed past his daughter and strode up the gangplank to his ship. Fiora glared at him. She hated the way his bright red beard flowed in the wind. It matched her own red hair perfectly, and that had ruined everything.
In spite of her father’s warning, she stopped walking and turned for one last look at Aeonia. The royal castle glistened in the sunlight, showing no trace of the conflict that had just passed. No trace of goblins and shadows and rumors of war.
Fiora gritted her teeth. Blast them all, she had been so close! If they had followed the rules instead of letting an impostor waltz in and take the throne, she would be engaged to Prince Alaric right now.
She would be free.
“Get on the ship, Fiora! I won’t ask again.”
Something warm rolled down Fiora’s cheek, and she hastily brushed it away. She wasn’t the sort to cry. Blasted tear. Even her own eyes were turning against her.
She glanced around the dock to make sure no one had seen the treacherous tear and scowled when she realized someone had.
King Gustave of Montaigne watched her with concern in his gray eyes. Fiora glared to warn him away, but he approached her with a cautious smile.
“Are you well, Princess?”
Her accent was always stronger when she was upset, and it was positively lilting now. The strain of keeping her magic contained made the words shrill even to her own ears.
Fiora turned to walk away and tripped on a loose board. She stumbled, and King Gustave caught her arm with a steady hand. She looked up at him as he helped her regain her balance.
“Princess Fiora, I would be honored to assist you however I can.”
His gentle eyes showed none of the contempt the other royals gave her. It was probably his youth. He was about her own age, although his neatly trimmed beard made it difficult to tell. Fiora suspected he had grown it for that very reason. He was young to be king, and the beard made him look more distinguished.
She met his compassionate gaze, and another tear rolled down her cheek. She jerked her arm away from him.
“I said I’m fine.”
She couldn’t afford to show weakness now. Fiora walked up the gangplank without looking back and went straight to her father’s cabin. There was no point delaying the inevitable. He’d summon her there soon enough.
She paused outside the door to remove her shoe and pull a pearl ring off her toe. She could wear it normally again now that she didn’t have to match all the other girls in the Princess Test. Fiora quickly shoved the ring onto her finger. She wiggled her toes, stretching them out and enjoying the freedom before she put her shoe back on. At least it fit properly now that she wasn’t squeezing her pearl ring into it. At least she wouldn’t have to fight every moment to keep from wincing or scowling from the pain.
Fiora had delayed long enough. She pushed open the door and entered her father’s study. King Fergal sat at his desk writing a letter. He didn’t look up, so Fiora sank into a chair in the corner. She studied her ring while she waited. The pearl had lost some of its luster. Most of it, in fact. The luminous surface had gone dull.
This was bad.
The ship cast off, and the hateful land of Aeonia faded into the horizon. Fiora watched through a porthole, glad to be rid of the place that had so thoroughly rejected her.
When the mountains were nothing more than a thin line on the edge of the ocean, her father crumpled his letter around a rock, tied a piece of twine around it, and threw it out the porthole. Then he turned to her.
“That was badly done, Fiora. You mangled things from start to finish.”
“I would have won if they followed the rules of the Princess Test. I won the contests. Prince Alaric should have chosen me.”
“A lot of good that does us now.”
Her father’s voice was calm, and that worried Fiora more than anything else that had happened so far. He should be yelling. He should be furious.
“There will be other Princess Tests, Father. I’ve mastered all the traditional skills. I’ll win next time.”
“We had a deal, Fiora. There won’t be a next time.”
Fiora fought the urge to shrink back and kept her head high.
“I was closer this time than ever. Give me one more chance.”
“No more chances, Fiora. You agreed to the deal, and you’ll keep your end of the bargain.”
Blast. She had only made that bargain because she was certain she could win Prince Alaric’s hand. Because she had devoted her every waking moment to practicing skills for the competition and was confident she would be the best.
“Look on the bright side. At least you won’t have to embroider any more cushions.”
“I like embroidery.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
His tone said she was being unreasonable. Fiora bristled.
“I was the best, wasn’t I? It’s not fair! I won!”
“Fiora, it’s time to face the fact that no one wants you. You’ve lost several Princess Tests in spite of your superior skills. Elspeth is of age now. Perhaps she’ll have better luck wooing a king. Kell needs an ally, and our options are limited.”
“How limited? Father what do you have planned?”
Instead of answering, King Fergal stood and gestured for Fiora to follow. She sulked a few steps behind him, delaying as much as she dared. Small acts of disobedience were all you could get away with around her father. She’d learned that the hard way.
The King of Kell stood on the deck of the ship, looking out at the open sea. In spite of herself, Fiora smiled a little as the sea breeze sweep over her face. She always felt free when sailing.
“An arranged match it is then,” she said. “I agreed to let you choose for me if I couldn’t secure a husband on my own, and I’ll honor my word.”
Her father glanced at her, and something gleamed in his eyes. Was that compassion? Fiora’s heart beat faster. This was worse than she expected.
“Is he noble?” she asked. “You could at least tell me a little about him.”
He stayed silent. The King of Kell never stayed silent. Fiora fought back the panic building in her chest and tried to sound calm.
“Is he old, then? I expect he’s ancient, rich, and common. A wealthy ally would do as much good as a noble one.”
Her father still wouldn’t meet her gaze. Fiora swallowed and stared at the waves.
“What’s wrong with him, Father? What’s so wrong with him that he is willing to accept me?”
“I haven’t chosen someone for you to marry, Fiora. No one would have you. I said I would choose your next placement, not your next husband, and I’ve done that.”
Something broke the surface of the water. Something sharp and black. King Fergal hummed a soft tune, and Fiora gasped.
“Elspeth doesn’t stand a chance with you around reminding everyone how very undesirable the royal family of Kell is considered. It’s time for you to go home and get out of her way.”
Fiora glanced down at her ring. The pearl was a blank white orb. All the luster had gone. Her breath caught in her throat as a sharp pain pierced her feet and traveled up her legs.
“Father, please don’t send me away. I’ll work harder. I’ll do anything.”
The King of Kell watched the boiling water with a stern expression. The hint of compassion in his eyes had disappeared.
“How could you? I’m your daughter as much as Elspeth is!”
A song echoed through the wind, and more fins pierced the waves. Fiora shoved her father aside and sprinted across the ship.
She wasn’t fast enough. An enormous tentacle shot out from the water and wrapped around her waist.
Fiora screamed as it lifted her off the ship and pulled her beneath the waves.
A. G. Marshall
Bonus scenes, glimpses into my writing process, and more!