The guard’s dark brown eyes flitted between the formal invitation, its gold-trim sparkling in the mid-morning sunlight, and my cleavage, which had been powdered with flecks of gold. The dress I had picked out was long and eloquent, a mix of light pink silk and sheer lace. Pearl strands replaced fabric sleeves and matched the choker of pearls my brother had given me on my eighteenth birthday. The front bodice was tight and low cut, squeezing me in at the waist and pushing every asset I had up for the world to enjoy. Handing the invitation back to my attendant, the guard popped to attention and saluted me with a flourish.
“Welcome to Rajai, Princess Si’tarai. I pray you will enjoy the celebrations.”
He held his salute until my carriage rumbled through the white stone archways that served as an entrance to the palace grounds.
The path from the gate to the palace curled like a snake through a thick forest of Blackwood trees. It was quiet, save for the soft murmurs of yellow trill birds and the rumbling of creaky carriage wheels. I tried not to fidget but my stomach was in knots.
“Are you ready, Princess?” My attendant asked, her shrewd gaze boring through my mask of calm.
“Do I have a choice?” My throat constricted as I spoke and I looked away, fighting back tears.
“Of course you do, Princess… we all have the right to decide our fate.”
“Not anymore…” I murmured underneath my breath.
As we rounded a bend in the smooth stone road, the forest of black and green gave way to massive sunlit grounds. The fine white domes of the Rajai Palace, sitting like a glittering diamond amongst a field of green, lay before us. Hundreds of carriages lined the road along with well-dressed dignitaries and all manner of high-caste society happily strolling towards the elaborately adorned fortress.
The Rajaian royal family met me at the bottom of the steps where the Shah, an elder gentleman with a full white beard and sun-kissed skin, promptly took my hand and kissed it softly.
“Princess Si’tarai, welcome, welcome. I was so troubled by the news we received. I was worried you would not be able to attend.”
I curtseyed and lowered my eyes as I spoke. “I would not dishonor such a noble family, Great Shah. I left the kingdom in capable hands so that I might attend the festivities.” I rose from my bow to meet the approving eye of the Queen. She offered me a stiff bow of approval and pushed forward her son, my betrothed.
Prince Rahmi was dressed in the dark blue silks of the Rajai Empire, the emblem of a War Eagle carefully stitched into fabric over his heart. He was tall with hair black as midnight. His eyes were a dark brown and flecked with gold and they watched me with great interest as I turned to face him. The bright yellow of my hair glinted with reds and lighter browns in bright sun and my blue-green eyes returned his gaze with just as much scrutiny. We had never met before; our marriage arranged long before either of us had been born. I found him to be handsome with a strong, square jaw covered in dark stubble, well-angled cheekbones, and a broad but not overly large nose. Every feature was impeccable… a true, high-born prince of the realm.
My stomach twisted into knots at the thought of what I would have to do. I wished there was another way.
“Shall we enter?” The Shah asked me, offering me his arm. “Our guests are getting impatient I believe.”
I was whisked into the Palace before I had the chance to respond, my attendant trailing not far behind.
For what felt like an eternity, I was forced to greet hundreds of guests. Some offered me smiles and genuine advice, others glared with disdain at my pale hair and fair skin. In a sea of tan and dark-haired beauties, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was from Ileria, an isle far to the north in the Great Sea. Few of our kind traveled far from home, except to trade ports along the border cities. The Rajaian Palace was far inland and most that lived near the heart of the Rajaian Empire had never seen our kind.
I tried not to feel offended as I am sure they did not wish to feel saddened at the loss of such a treasured prince. If only they knew the real story… maybe they would feel pity for me. But, that was just wishful thinking. I knew after I had finished my mission, they would hate Ileria forever.
“Princess…” The voice of Prince Rahmi pulled me from my ghastly dreams.
“Yes, my Prince.” I turned to find the dark-haired prince holding his hand out to me.
“Shall we take a walk?”
I smiled and took his hand, leaving the stifling crowd behind.
We headed down several flights of stairs into a private garden. Even though the prince had dismissed his attendants, I knew mine had followed close behind in the shadows. She had come to see that I did not run from the task set before me.
“Princess?” Rahmi had led me to a chaise lounge in his private gardens and I had missed everything he said to me.
“I’m sorry, Prince. I …”
“I understand. You are thinking about tonight.”
I turned my hands over and examined my palms and the decorative henna pattern of betrothal that had been painted on before I arrived. “You could say that.”
“I wish we had been given the chance to meet before our marriage. I don’t want things to be awkward between us.”
I tried to smile, but my heart was ice cold. I couldn’t let myself like him. I couldn’t…. my brother’s life, my people’s lives, depended on it.
“I wish for this as well… but such is our life. But I am sure that whatever life we have together will be… beautiful.”
I saw my attendant’s cruel smile as I looked into the shadowy reaches of the unlit garden. She nodded her head at me and I turned to face Prince Rahmi.
“Shall we return?”
“Are you anxious to be wed?” He asked, squeezing my hand gently.
“I am anxious for tonight.”
My words made him blush.