The Ex-Princess

CHAPTER ONE

As Abelia stood on the platform, anticipating the vibration of the public light rail train’s arrival, she never imagined it would be the last time.

It was a Wednesday, so those without train allowances were walking to work, streaming swiftly by like the waters of a brook, most babbling into their phones. She gripped her travel mug of coffee with one hand and stuffed the other deep into her uniform overalls to avoid human contact as people jostled around her. It made no sense to change at work, especially when one might sit in something sticky on the train.

Abbie loved riding the train. She loved watching the spaces between suburbs fly by. She loved the retro look of the seats and the conductors in their little hats, scanning people’s phones for tickets. She didn’t have a smartphone, so she dug around for her paper pass in her oversized bag.

She loved riding in the opposite direction from most people. It took no time at all leaving the city in the morning compared to all those suckers riding into downtown, standing up like cattle. She rode from Tanner’s Point through Binderville past Cottage Grove and Blakewood. The woods were lovely this time of year; spring was just arriving and the trees were all buds and possibilities. It made her want to sit by a creek and watch the fish jump. The window she peered out of seemed to stand still as the trees and buildings scrambled by. The recorded voice announced Beaver Landing, the last stop, and she hopped off.

Work was another story. It was hot underground—less like being in the sun and more like being in a sauna. A smelly sauna. The overalls were stifling but mandatory, their color indicating rank and their fabric soaking up unwanted chemicals from the air. They’d been specially designed, but they didn’t work as well as their manufacturers claimed. And worst of all, being inside all day made her white, freckled skin even paler than it would naturally be. Then again, a waste reclamation plant was never going to be an attractive job.

“Start down on the end and work toward me,” Abbie called to her team over the hissing air coming out of the vents. “We should be able to finish this load before lunch. Watch out for the aluminum, you missed some yesterday.” As they dispersed, she went back to her clipboard and began looking over the day’s quotas.

“Abbie?”

            “Yo,” she answered without looking up. Someone cleared his throat.

            “Abelia Olivia Jayne Venenza Ribaldi Porchenzii?”

            At this, she looked up slowly, her pencil still poised over the paper. Two people who looked to be related were smiling excitedly at her, then at each other. Their pale skin looked almost green under the fluorescent lights.

            “Your Highness, thank the Woznick we found you! We need to speak with you.”

            Abbie set her mouth in a hard line. “I’m busy.” She turned and walked back toward her office without another word.

They followed.

            “Your Highness,” the woman began, but Abbie spun around, holding up a quelling hand.

            “I left that title behind a long time ago. Please don’t use it.”

            “What should we call you, then? Light of our hearts? Gracious one? Your worship?” The woman sounded completely serious. Abbie tried not to roll her eyes.

            “Just Abbie is fine,” she said, her gaze returning to her clipboard.

            “That won’t do,” whispered the woman to the man. She snapped her fingers. “We’ll call you sister, then?”

            “Are you in a cult? Because I have no interest in cults. Coffee is my religion.”

            The man removed his hat. “Perhaps Your Highness would like to discuss this somewhere more private?”

            Abbie forced herself to smile politely. Hanging up her clipboard on the wall, she badged them into the corridor of offices where things smelled a bit better and led them to hers, closing the door behind them.

            “Please allow me to introduce ourselves,” said the man. “I am Rubald Jerrinson, and this is my favorite wife, Rutha.” He pronounced it “Root-ah,” a name Abbie hadn’t heard before in her 23 years. He cleared his throat nervously as she paged through the stack of papers in her inbox. “We’re on a diplomatic mission from Orangiers,” he continued, “a mission of the gravest importance.”

            At this, Abbie’s eyebrows flew up. “You’ve come a long way, then.”

            “Yes, Highness.”

            “I thought we’d agreed on sister, Mr. Jerrinson,” Abbie said, though they’d agreed on no such thing.  She heaved a sigh. “I don’t want these people knowing who I…was.”

In truth, Gardenia’s capital city was a popular spot for erstwhile princes and princesses of all sorts, and she knew several, though none from countries as large and powerful as Brevspor. Most were perpetual philosophy majors at the university, living off trust funds. By working at the plant, she had been able to keep her identity under wraps. Until now.

            “Yes, apologies, erm, sister,” Rubald said with a nervous little cough. “We’ve been sent to bring you to fulfill your contractual obligation to marry His Royal Highness, Second Son of Orangiers, Prince Edward Kenneth Keith Francis Benson Broward. We must leave as soon as possible.”

            Abbie stood up and walked to the corner of her office where a mini-fridge and a coffeepot lived. She pulled out a pink toaster pastry, her go-to when-I’m-stressed-out food, and poured herself another cup of coffee. She sat back down at her desk without offering the two emissaries anything.

            “That contract became void when I renounced my title and position in line to the throne,” she said through her first enormous bite of pastry. Despite her best efforts, her heartrate was starting to climb.

            The couple smiled at each other knowingly, and Rutha pulled a thin stack of papers out of a satchel Abbie hadn’t noticed she was carrying. “This copy of the contract says otherwise,” the woman said. “You can read it yourself if you’d like, Your Ma—ah, sister. We’ve just highlighted the salient conditions there, under ‘bridal conditions’…your royal status isn’t one of them. Please remember that international marriage contracts are enforceable in any country on the continent or across the Sparkling Sea, so your presence in a foreign country is no obstacle. We have spoken to the leaders of Gardenia privately, and they’ve agreed to extradite you to Orangiers if necessary.”

            A vise tightened in Abbie’s chest, her fear rising fast in a hot, panicky wave. “I need some time to look over this contract,” she said, her voice surprisingly even to her own ears. She stood up and walked to the door. “Would you both please come back tomorrow, say around ten, when we can discuss this further?” Her thoughts were already racing ahead of her to her best friend Lauren with her law degree, to a large glass of wine, and to the “go bag” with a stack of new identities in a train station locker she’d been renting for five years. Anything but the terrifying specter of a thousand-person church wedding and a gold circlet back on her head.

            “There’s something else, sister.” Rubald paused. His pale face was grave. “It’s your father.” At this, Abbie crossed to the desk and sat back down. Rutha rose and quietly shut the door she’d left open.

            “He’s written you a letter. I have it here.” She reached out and took the large manila envelope Rubald offered. Her father’s wax seal straddled the flap. She broke it quickly and removed the fine linen sheet. It was shorter than she’d expected.

Dearest Abbie,

You are missed more than you can imagine. Things are not going well here, and your help is needed. I am ill. The people do not wish your brother to ascend to the throne. Brevspor has been a matriarchy for sixteen generations, and the people do not accept the way things are now. They tolerated my leadership after your mother passed away, knowing that you were too young to shoulder such responsibility, but no more.

They have petitioned me to enforce your marriage contract. Under your joint leadership with Edward, they believe Brevspor would flourish, and of course, I agree. Brevspor would come under control of Orangiers as a territory with you as its steward, and they would have a Porchenzii queen they trust once more.

There is more. Other ruling powers know what a powerful alliance this would be, and are working swiftly to prevent it. You are in danger where you are. I’m sorry for this, but thought it better that you know.

Come say goodbye to me, my darling daughter, and take your rightful place…for all our sakes.

                    Love,

                              Paul Daniel Trevor Washington Frakes Porchenzii…aka Dad

All the royal training in the world wasn’t enough to keep her emotions under control. Five years of silence, broken with such news. She couldn’t stop the tears that blurred her vision, and she wiped at them with angry swipes. She reread the first line over and over: You are missed more than you can imagine.

            “What kind of illness is it?” she asked quietly.

            Mr. Jerrinson shrugged, his expression helpless. “I’m sorry, Highness, I don’t know.” She didn’t bother correcting him. Suddenly, another line caught her eye. She wiped the snot escaping her nose on her sleeve and asked, “What does this mean, ‘your joint leadership’? Is Edward now first in line for the throne as Second Son?”

            Rubald nodded. “The First Son, Lincoln Atticus Jonathan Norris Bryant Broward, tried to seize power before his father announced his intention to step down. He’s been deemed unfit to rule and currently sits in exile in Op’ho’lonia[SC3] . He mounts an army there even now to attempt another coup—that is, until his brother marries you and gains the advantage of your territory’s forces, at which point he’ll be…”

            “Irrelevant,” she finished.

            There was a knock at her door, and without thinking, she called, “Come in!”

            Two low-level employees stood in the doorway, eyes wide. “Um, we had a question about the sewage temperature as regards to the feasibility of reclaiming mercury…” one started, but trailed off when he took in Abbie’s tear-stained cheeks.

            “We’ll come back,” the other said, and the door shut once more.

            Abbie wiped her face again, the tears still refusing to stop. Rutha offered her a handkerchief, which she gratefully took.

            “Damn it,” she whispered. “Damn it all to Jersey.”

            “Majesty,” Rutha said quietly, “regarding the danger your father spoke of, we believe you should plan to leave here as soon as possible.”

            “No,” she replied, blowing her nose. She stared them down through reddened eyes that matched her hair. “You may leave now.”

            Twin expressions of shock appeared on the couple’s faces, but Rubald found his voice first. “Majesty, we both feel—”

            Abbie rose to her feet and slammed her palms down on the desk, scattering papers and the pastry wrapper to the floor. “I do not care what you feel, what you think, or what you want,” she enunciated slowly and clearly. “I have left that life behind permanently. I will never return to a royal life. You are welcome to try to extradite me if you dare.”

            “Oh my,” Rutha muttered, and Rubald just shook his head. They stared at her, Rubald’s face turning a mottled red, but didn’t move until she cleared her throat.

            “Let me be more clear. Get. out.”

CHAPTER TWO

Abbie told her supervisor she was ill and fled. She was sure she looked as sick as she felt, so it wasn’t a lie—not that lying bothered her one iota right now. She headed for the train station, checking over her shoulder to see if Rubald and Rutha had hung around; they hadn’t.

Her fingers itched for something to do, and she clung to the straps of her bag with both hands. The other pedestrians largely ignored her, their eyes trained on their phones—a piece of Veil Technology allowed by the magic curtain that encased this part of the country. What it didn’t allow was motorized vehicles; the pollution collected inside the Veil and made its inhabitants sick. She’d thought about going into Veil Tech instead of waste management, but ultimately her love of nature had won out over VT’s better pay.

She passed Damsey Park, tall oak trees towering over her with butterfly milkweed, asters, and wild bergamot planted neatly around their bases. Gardenia was known for its natural splendor—it was what she’d enjoyed most about the last five years she’d spent in the country. As she walked, she found herself tumbling into the memory of when she’d first arrived, desperate and alone.

            Hungry. She’d never been so hungry; it had felt like she was turning inside out. It kept her awake at night, curled inward on herself on rough concrete in that very park until a policeman told her to move along. A young man in a heavy plaid jacket had been watching her since what should’ve been dinnertime. He leaned against a tree and bobbed his head at the policeman, who bobbed back and said nothing to him. Abbie’d scowled. What made that guy special? She still wasn’t used to being treated like a second-class citizen because of her gender; in Brevspor, women were more important in the social hierarchy than men. There was no other way to say it. That clearly wasn’t the case here, and she’d already encountered that fact in numerous ways: being shoved aside at customs and immigration, called “girlie” by police officers, getting her backside pinched on the train…it galled.

            The young man had approached slowly, and she’d wondered in passing if he worked for her mother, if he’d been sent here to look for her. Her hands had curled into fists as she got to her feet. No way. She’d fight him with her bare fists before she allowed herself to be hauled back home. Seeing her posture, he’d slowed and put his hands up.

            “Just wanted to talk.” His clothes were ratty, dirty, but his face and hands were clean, and he kept his eyes on her face. She kept her spine straight, her feet braced to fight or run.

            “So talk.”

            “I’m Ward. What’s your name?”

            “None of your business.”

            He chuckled. “Right. Not from around here, eh?”

            “What makes you say that?”

            He’d taken in her auburn hair and light skin. “Your coloring. Your accent.”

            “So?”

            “Could use someone who looks like they’re not from around here. Got food to trade.”

             “I don’t spread my legs for food.”

            The man had taken a step closer, smirking, and cold sweat broke out along her spine. “Not what I wanted, but good to know.” He’d looked around then, like he was sharing a secret. “Find a nice guy to protect you, or you may not get that choice.” Backing away, the man gave her a meaningful look, then turned to leave. Abbie trembled.

            “Wait…”

            Stirred from her reminiscing by the crackle and buzz of the electronic announcer calling out arrival times, Abbie looked around in a daze. She’d arrived at the train station. She sat on a wooden bench, watching the doors to see if anyone had followed her in. She recognized no one, either by their face or their body language. After a few steadying moments, Abbie rose and went to her locker, the one that had been her fallback all this time. She rifled through it until she found the cash, the pepper spray, and the jerky and trail mix that were probably still at least borderline edible, then tucked it all into her bag. But when she got to the passports, the tears came back.

            I’m choosing to lose all contact with Lauren, with Melinda, with Davis, with Ward, Patty, Jenny. I’m choosing to live paycheck to paycheck again…find a new job, and ugh, Jersey—new doctors, too. Change my name. I’m choosing to let my father die without saying goodbye. That’s what I’m choosing right now.

            She felt for the same steel resolve she’d grasped when Ward had first approached her in the park that night, the same inner voice that promised she could control her own life, that she could fight for what she wanted—and came up empty. This wasn’t right. She put the passport back and slammed the locker. There would have to be another way.

CHAPTER THREE

Before she left the train station, Abbie used a public phone to call Lauren.

“Hey. I’m in big, big trouble. I need your help. Can you leave work now and meet me at my place?”

“Um, okay?” Lauren replied slowly, voice full of concern.

“Great, see you soon,” Abbie said, hanging up before Lauren could start cross-examining her.

Walking was too slow; she took a carriage rather than risk public transit. Lauren was already waiting outside her building when she got there. Abbie unlocked the outside door to her dingy building, glancing over her shoulder for what felt like the hundredth time. Any one of the five stationary men hanging out on the street could be watching her. She pushed Lauren inside. “Jeez, watch the suit, Abs, I’ve gotta go back to work without people thinking this was a booty call.”

            “Stop joking around for once. I’m in real trouble here,” Abbie hissed, then softened her tone, her shoulders slumping. “My old life caught up with me.”

            Lauren’s eyebrows shot up. “What? Then why aren’t you on your way to the train station? I thought you had a plan.”

            “There are…complications.” Abbie unlocked her apartment. She brought Lauren up to speed as she warmed coffee in the microwave, Lauren reading over the contract silently. Eventually, she put down the thin stack of papers and sighed.

“This thing’s a piece of work, Abbie. It’s entirely based on something called the Hapsburg Test, which traces your lineage and compares it to your proposed husband’s. The lines can’t run too close together or the test fails. Finding royalty who aren’t already related is getting tougher and tougher.”

            “So, what does that mean for me?”

            “It means—or at least I think it means—that the only way to get out of this contract is to get new parents. Can’t be done. It’s predicated entirely on your genetics; your role as potential queen of Brevspor was incidental, really.”

            “There’s no purity clause?”

            Lauren’s mouth dropped open, and she shot Abbie a lascivious look. “Girl, did you finally get laid?”

            Abbie shook her head. “That’s fixable, though.”

            Lauren took off her glasses and stared at her. She leaned forward across the table. “Are you serious?” Abbie looked out the window and said nothing. “We’ve never really talked about this part of your life before. What was so bad? Why’d you leave?”

            Abbie was quiet for a long time. When she spoke again, the words felt like they were being pulled out of her by some unseen force. “When I was thirteen, things changed suddenly. I wasn’t supposed to succeed my mother, but my sisters…” Abbie took a sip of her coffee. She cleared her throat. “My sister Allegra was supposed to ascend.”

            “Allegra? Have you told me about her?”

            Abbie circled the rim of her mug absently with one finger and shook her head.

            “Why not?”

            Abbie shrugged, staring into her cup. Good thing she was all cried out from earlier. “She’s gone, Laur. There was an accident, and they…they died.”

            Abbie didn’t look up at her friend, not wanting to see the expression of shock and pity that would surely greet her if she did. A moment later, she felt the weight of another hand on her own.

“I’m sorry, hon,” Lauren said softly. “I shouldn’t have pried. But it makes the contract’s conditions make more sense. Even if you ascended in your kingdom, Edward wasn’t being considered for ascension in his kingdom, so there’d be no conflict.”

            “Queendom,” Abbie corrected. “In a matriarchy, it’s called a queendom, beginning with Patrice Evelyn Georgina Deering Fletcher Compagnia in 37 A.B.” She couldn’t believe how easily that ridiculous information, which had been dutifully drilled into her head since childhood, came back to her after all this time.

            Lauren squeezed her hand. “Girl, are you okay? What can I do? Wine? Toaster popper? Chocolate?” Abbie shook her head. They sat in silence as the elevated train went by, rocking a lamp atop a bookshelf and setting the curtains swinging.

            A thought zinged into Abbie’s head as the train’s rumbling faded. “Wait, you said something about…you said my only way out was new genetics.”

            Lauren put her glasses back on. “Right. This contract is predicated on your genes. But I don’t think that’s scientifically possible just yet—”

            “Who needs that when I can do it the old-fashioned way?”

            Lauren furrowed her brows. “I’m not following you, hon.”

            “If I got my father to deny his parentage, would that work?”

            Lauren made a skeptical face. “Well, I think so, but isn’t that going to really hurt your father? I mean, you’re basically asking him to lie for you.”

            Abbie shook her head. “It’s very possible that my mother was unfaithful to him. I may not be his daughter at all. He could say they lied, which means they’d have to figure out who my real father is in order to run the test again. That delay buys me time to convince Edward Kenneth Keith Francis Benson Broward that he doesn’t want this marriage anyway and to find someone else to take my place.”

            Lauren scrunched up her face again. “I know your freedom is important to you, but this isn’t going to get you there. It’s flimsy at best, and there’s very little legal precedent for it. Can’t you just, I don’t know, tell them the truth?”

“The truth about why I can’t do this?”

“Yes. Is that so unreasonable?”

“Do you know the shitstorm that would bring down on my head? On my family’s heads?”

Lauren tipped her head to one side, casting her gaze over the second-hand living room furniture. “I get that, but this is…this is just…”

            “Callous? Coldhearted? Unethical? Abso-freakin-lutely. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.” She stood up, shoulders square and a grimace on her face. “I’m going to Brevspor to break my dying father’s heart.”

            There was a forceful knock at her door, and the two women looked at each other with wide eyes. “Did you lock the door?” Lauren whispered, scrambling for her phone. Abbie shook her head.

            “Your Highness, we know you’re in there!”

            Abbie’s shoulders relaxed, and she let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding in. “It’s just those envoys from Orangiers, it’s all right,” she whispered.

            “No highnesses here,” she called across the room, feigning confidence, “just a mid-level sanitation worker and her lawyer. Go away.”

            There was muffled conferring outside the door. “Majesty, please. We were given a mission and we intend to fulfill it. It’s a matter of honor. Don’t make us bring the authorities into this. That’d be a rocky way to start off your reign.”

            Abbie stormed to the door and threw it open, startling the couple, who stepped quickly away from the door. “I do not intend to reign. And you can tell the Second Son that—”

            “Actually, His Highness wishes to speak to you himself,” Rubald said, holding up a smartphone, and Abbie saw that it was already connected.

            “Call declined. You can tell him that—”

            “He can hear you. You can tell him yourself.”

            Her voice hardened. “Do not interrupt me. You can tell him that I will be flying to Brevspor tonight to sort this mess out once and for all.”

            “No!” Abbie startled as three voices, including the one through the phone, all shouted at her at once, especially when she’d expected them to be delighted by this news.

            “Your Grace, you cannot fly. Shooters on the border of Gratha are gunning down all dirigibles that attempt to cross their borders, and the Trellavik government is already combing the countryside for you. They are determined to prevent this union at any cost. Don’t you see?” Rubald’s voice had taken on a pleading tone. “It is not safe for you here, nor any place between Brevspor and Orangiers.”

            “But it would take weeks to go overland!”

            “We have horses,” Rutha piped up, as if this made the situation any more appealing.

            “Yes, thank you, Rutha,” said Rubald, nodding. “We have horses, and can most likely cover at least thirty miles a day. We estimate that it would only be three weeks at most.”

            Abbie massaged her temples. “I’m going to lose my job,” she muttered.

            “Be realistic, dear! You don’t need a job when you’re a queen,” Rutha said cheerfully, then sobered after seeing Abbie’s answering glare. Abbie half-closed the door and said quietly to Lauren, “So, about that purity clause…”

            Lauren paged through the document quickly, eyes flicking back and forth, then shook her head.

            Abbie opened the door and grimaced. “I’d like to leave as soon as possible.”

            “Wonderful. Did you hear that, Your Highness?” he asked, putting the phone to his ear and turning away from the doorway. Rutha stood there, her hands clasped in front of her chest, grinning. “May I come in and assist you in packing?”

            Abbie half-closed the door again and gave Lauren a pleading look.

            “Don’t look at me,” she said, her eyes still on the contract. “I don’t believe in lawyer-assisted suicide.”

            “Please come in,” Abbie replied to Rutha as she opened the door.

CHAPTER FOUR

Abbie lay in bed that night, wide awake. The moonlight poured in through her window onto the quilt on her bed, one of the few vestiges of her old life. Her grandmother had made it for her—not her royal grandmother, but her father’s mother. She’d made it from dresses and t-shirts Abbie had worn as a child. Camp Soggyboggy t-shirts…she’d given her palatial guard more than they’d bargained for the year she disappeared from her bunk to watch shooting stars with Penelope Cunningham. Brevspor Nationwide Music Festival Best Bassoon Solo. Highlands Junior Equestrian Competition participant t-shirt. Porchenzii Family Rendezvous ‘07. The pastel pink satin dress she’d worn when she was first presented at court. A little magenta corduroy jumper with monkeys on it. The prom dress she was wearing when she’d gotten her first kiss (not from Edward Kenneth Keith Francis Benson Broward)…she smiled ruefully at the memory of her father punching her date in the nose. Arthur should’ve known better; she’d already signed her marriage contract, and he was just supposed to be standing in as a friend. Her dad had always come to her defense.

She wiped a tear away and sighed deeply. He would understand what she needed him to do. He had to. She pulled the quilt up under her chin and rolled onto her side. She’d miss sleeping under its calming weight, her fingers entwined in the simple satin ribbon ties her grandmother had used to finish it. She’d leave the quilt here tomorrow, along with the rest of her belongings, with the exception of a few essentials for the road. She’d be back soon enough.

From the next room, Abbie heard Mr. and Mrs. Jerrinson talking in low voices. They’d refused to leave once they’d finished helping her pack. Rutha had even made them lasagna for dinner, the leftovers of which Lauren had quickly claimed as she exited. Abbie peeked through her cracked bedroom door. Rubald sat dozing in an overstuffed chair he’d moved against the front door. His phone chimed, and he adjusted to read the message. Abbie could just barely see Rutha’s graying head resting on the arm of the couch. If she held her breath, she could just barely hear them.

            “He says Lincoln prepares to invade Orangiers at the southern border, near the Tupelo Crossing,” said Rubald.

            “He intends to go out to meet him?”

            “Yes.”

            “It’s the right thing to do, but not the easy thing, especially for him. He deserves to succeed his father,” Rutha said.

            “Yes. But all we can do is get her there. The rest is up to him.”

            Rutha shook her head slowly, sadly. “Woz help him.”

            “Yes, he’ll need that kind of help, I think.” Rubald was quiet after that, and Abbie thought he had drifted off. Then, his voice thick with sleep, she heard him murmur, “You’re my favorite wife, Rutha.”

            “I love you, too.”

            Abbie crept back to her bed to stare at the moon and force sleep to come.

#

Abbie drifted off just before dawn and woke to the smell of bacon, eggs, and her best friend, coffee. She stumbled out of her room in a white camisole and boy shorts and Rutha quickly averted her eyes. Abbie saw Rutha pass the spatula to Rubald, who didn’t seem to know why until he looked around and saw Abbie. He quickly averted his eyes, as well.

“Sister, why don’t I help you dress?” Rutha offered, attempting to lead her back into the bedroom. Abbie shook her head and shuffled to the coffee pot. There was a stale silence in the room, broken only by the train rumbling by…the one Abbie should’ve been on going to work.

Rutha coughed. “Highness, it isn’t proper for us to see you like this. Let’s get you presentable.”

            Abbie took her first swallow of coffee with closed eyes. “Propriety is not a priority for me. I am not majestic, and you’re gonna see me in worse shape than this before we arrive in Brevspor, I promise you. This is my house. This is how I dress in my house.” Then she smiled sleepily at Rubald, who was staring very intently at the kitchen table.

            “What about a robe? A good compromise? Hmm?” Rutha asked.

            “Sure. But I don’t own one. I don’t have many guests sleep over. Also, your eggs are burning.”

            Rutha snatched the spatula back from Rubald, who was still frozen in place like some embarrassed statue, and hurried into the kitchen. Abbie hadn’t noticed how round she was until she saw how she jiggled when she ran. It was endearing, she thought as she watched Rutha take bacon out of the oven.

            “Where’d you get this food?”

            “Rubald purchased it at a local supermarket last night.” Rutha smiled at her, making real eye contact for the first time that morning. She handed Abbie a plate, then a second one for Rubald. “Your stores were insufficient for the journey,” she continued. “As it was, we could only pack enough for a week.”

Abbie set the plate down. “Did you pack coffee?”

            “No. Essentials only,” Rubald said between bites of bacon. “Simple food that’s easy to cook. Coffee requires special equipment.”

            “Mr. Jerrinson, look at me.”

            Rubald forced his gaze from his plate and to her face, turning an even deeper shade of red than his previous tomato hue.

            “Coffee is essential equipment. I will carry the press. I’ll forego the cream.”

            “It’ll break.”

            “No, it won’t.”

            Rubald gave a resigned shake of his head. “I also bought Your Highness a cell phone,” he said, “at the Second Son’s request.”

            “That doesn’t sound like an essential. Better leave it here. It might break.”

            “He desires to speak with you. I have not given out the number to anyone else.”

            “A cell phone’s magical properties make you easy to track. We’re trying to be untraceable, right? Leave it here. I haven’t needed one for five years, so I don’t think I need one now.”

            Rubald shook his head again, looking back at his plate, then his expression turned thoughtful. “Wife, how long has it been since we were outside the Veil?” Rutha pursed her lips and touched the spatula to her mouth, making Abbie glad she’d already been served.

“At least two years, I’d say. It’ll be interesting to see how things have changed. Or rather, haven’t.” Rutha turned to Abbie. “And you, sister? When did you last pass through?”

            “Never.”

            Both her guests dropped what they were holding, and Rubald began to choke on his food. Rutha whacked him on the back with the spatula.

            “Never, sister?” she asked, growing pale. “How can that be?”

            Abbie shrugged, bringing her mug to her lips again. “Never bothered. I’ve always lived in Veiled countries. But I’ve camped before in the Thundercreek Highlands, so I think I know what I’m in for.”

            Rubald muttered something to Rutha in Orangiersian, and Rutha replied softly. Abbie’s temper began to rise. “Don’t talk about me like I’m not here. Translation?”

            Rubald turned to look at her. “You have no idea what you’re in for. With all due respect, Majesty, Unveiled countries aren’t like camping. I thought you’d been through before, I thought…I didn’t realize this was your first time across. We should’ve prepared differently.” He wiped his mouth and rose from the table, crossing to the door.

            “Where are you going?” Abbie asked his back.

            “To buy coffee and a robe,” he replied. The door slammed behind him. Abbie smiled and picked up her plate.

#

Both women were fed, dressed, and packed by the time Rubald got back from the store.

“We have some decisions to make,” he said, cracking open a new map and flattening it on the kitchen table. “I just received a call. His Highness the Second Son says that there’s a military transport going to Orangiers from Gardenia leaving in two days.”

“Where in Gardenia?”

“Fairisle.”

Abbie ran her fingers through her hair. “But that’s southwest of here. That’s in the wrong direction.”

“Correct.”

“Will they wait for us if we’re delayed?” Rutha asked.

Rubald shook his head. “The Second Son fears that will arouse suspicion and make the vessel a target. Its forces are also needed for the coming armed conflict against the Exiled Son. It cannot delay.”

“How fast could it get us there?”

“Three days.” Abbie sighed and sat back, arms crossed. She stared at Rubald, who stared at the map.

“You know the terrain better than I do. Six days is a lot better than three weeks. What do you think we should do?”

Rubald seemed taken aback. “I—I don’t know, Majesty. The Second Son wanted to make you aware of the opportunity, but gave no recommendation himself. He’s still asking to speak with you, by the way.”

Abbie ignored this and turned to address Mrs. Jerrinson. “Rutha, what do you think?” The older woman had left the table and was washing the breakfast dishes, humming quietly to herself. She wiped her sudsy hands on her dress and shrugged.

“It seems worth trying to me, Majesty. Especially with your father’s health being fragile.”

Abbie hadn’t thought about that. It was no use getting to Brevspor and finding him dead. She’d never get out of her contract that way. She hated the way her own voice sounded in her head, cold and calculating. She had missed him all these years, and losing him without getting to say goodbye would be…the voice in her head trailed off. She couldn’t say it, even when she wasn’t saying it.

Abbie shook her head to clear it of that line of thinking. “We’ll go to Fairisle. It’s bound to be more secure, both on the road and on the ship, and it’ll save time. The sooner we get this mess cleared up, the better.” She pushed away from the table and began to lace up her boots.

“Majesty…” Rutha began gently.

“This is the last time you get to call me that,” Abbie growled, her knee to her chest. “Once we’re outside this apartment, you’ll endanger my life if you do. So knock it off.”

Rutha sighed. “Majesty, no one has ever gotten out of an international marriage contract. Perhaps you should consider—”

“No thanks. Ready to go?” They both nodded, and with a brief, final glance around her home, Abbie swept through the door and locked it behind them.

CHAPTER FIVE

It should’ve been easy: Fairisle was at the southern border of the continent, on the coast. Go west until you hit the ocean, then go south. But here they were, idling between two corn fields, trying to figure out which way the sun was moving like a bunch of bumbling bumpkins.

Abbie wore a wide-brimmed cowboy hat and a long-sleeved plaid shirt with jeans. Boiling didn’t begin to describe it. She tugged at her sleeves and tried to shift in the saddle to relieve the pressure on her tailbone. “Doesn’t your phone have GPS?”

Rubald squinted against the sun, trying to shade the screen of his phone. “There’s no internet here, and apparently, this part of the map didn’t download before we left the house…I’m sorry, sister.” They were all sweating profusely. The horses were happy, munching the scrub grass at the edge of the gravel road. Abbie stared up into the cerulean sky, soothing herself by murmuring “cerulean” over and over as a mantra against yelling. Her caffeine headache was growing. She scratched a persistent itch on her arm absentmindedly.

“How about some lunch?” Rutha asked, dismounting clumsily. Abbie followed suit, but with more panache, and sat down in the meager shade of the corn by the razorwire fence, taking off her hat. Rutha began to rifle through her saddlebag, pulling out cola in glass bottles, peanut butter sandwiches, and apples. She walked bowlegged over to Abbie, holding the drink out first, which Abbie politely declined. Mr. Jerrinson was still looking around, scratching his head, muttering to himself as he reached for the map in his saddlebag.

“Chafing?” Abbie asked.

Rutha shook her head. “Arthritis. This is a bit more physical than my normal work.” She smiled brightly at Abbie. “You looked right at home up there, though.”

Abbie nodded, smiling a little at the memories that surfaced. “I had riding lessons for years as a kid. I had a horse named Elvis that I used to ride all through the lake country.”

“Yes, I’ve seen pictures.”

Abbie lifted an eyebrow. “You have?”

“Of course, dear! You’re going to be part of his family!” she said, setting Rubald’s lunch in the grass next to his hunched body. “You were such a cute little girl.”

“I know. What happened, right?”

Rutha’s eyes widened in embarrassment. “Oh no, sister, that’s not at all what I meant! His Royal Highness delights in you. You mustn’t think otherwise. Your beauty befits your station.”

“You have to say that,” Abbie said, snorting in a decidedly un-queenly manner.

“We wanted to know all we could about you, we were all so thrilled. And the internet is such an invention, isn’t it? Such a marvel—”

“Based on this map,” Rubald interrupted, ignoring Rutha’s good-natured eye roll, “our plan to head south first was ill-advised. At the southern end, this mountain range is going to be impossible to cross on horseback. I think if we head west now, we can cross the coastal range before it gets too high.”

“Great—however, this road seems to run north-south. Do you want to turn back or press on?”

Rubald sighed and squinted at the sun. “I think we have to turn back.” Dejected silence followed.

“Food, Rube. Eat.” Rutha pointed at his lunch, which he promptly dug into, still looking at the map. Rubald rummaged around in his front pocket and pulled something out, tossing it to Abbie. She caught it on reflex, then groaned.

“What’s this?”

“Your phone. I believe you may have mistakenly left it behind.”

“You know that’s not true. Diplomats are the worst.”

“Well, no one will accuse you of holding that honor, then.”

Rutha snickered, seeing Abbie’s mouth drop open in shock.

“Mr. Jerrinson, I believe my respect for you just went up,” she muttered when she’d recovered.

“Call him,” he barked.

“No, thank you.”

Rubald’s expression darkened. “Sister, when the future leader of the fourth-most powerful country in the world asks you to call him, it’s not really a request.”

Abbie sighed and shook her head. “Well, I see no way around it, then. Let’s get this over with.” She solemnly held her wrists out to him, pressed together. “Charge me with treason.”

“I’d certainly like to. Not to mention the disrespect you’re showing your future husband.”

“Says the guy who keeps interrupting his wife. Don’t lecture me about spousal respect, mister. And now, I need a nap.” Abbie stretched out in the grass, her hands behind her head, and stared up at that sapphire sky.

“Sister, if you’ve got something to say about my—”

“Rube, someone’s coming.” Rutha nodded toward the road where a horse-drawn cart was quickly approaching. Abbie could just make out a figure, black hair flying out behind her, a young woman snapping the reins to urge her team on. It was hard to see who was chasing her, if anyone.

Much to their surprise, the woman yanked back on the reins as soon as she saw them. In one smooth motion, she leaped to her feet and nocked an arrow on a large bow she’d slung down from her back. She aimed it at Abbie, who was now on her feet, and Rube immediately stepped between them.

“You don’t want to do that, sister,” he said, his voice dropping an octave lower than usual. The woman did not lower her weapon. She shifted to look into Abbie’s eyes.

“Are you her?”

“May I ask who you’re looking for, sister?” Rutha asked. “We’re passing through; perhaps we’ve seen—”

“Shut up!” the girl shouted and repositioned her weapon. “Are you her?” she repeated, and Abbie held up her hands, something she realized she should’ve done immediately. Damn, kidnapping training was a long time ago. “Don’t know until you tell me who she is, hon.”

“Stop with the honeys and the sisters. Are you Abelia?”

Abbie tried to see Rutha’s face over Rube’s shoulder, but her horse, Stargazer, was in the way. Was there any chance this black-haired woman was actually trying to help her, and she should tell the truth? But the woman’s face was all intensity and no concern.

She was on a hunt.


Link to read the rest of the book: https://books2read.com/b/mqVGk9

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