Elaborate breathing, steps as swift as a cheetah, and a heart thudding right in my throat, I ran through the thickness of the forest.
There were tears in my eyes, the tears of a heartbroken young woman, they began to flow freely down my cheeks but I angrily dabbed them away. Not now, I reminded myself as I must save my handmaid from these monsters.
A wolf howled from a close distance, at exactly where I last saw Zia. “Zia, where are you?” My voice echoed through the forest but there was no response.
And then I saw the men, dragging Zia with them down the thick forest, I ran after them.
“Hey, you!” I yelled. The men stopped, while laughing, they turned around and faced me. I halted in my tracks, breathing heavily. “Let go of my handmaid at once,” I commanded.
I hated how there were traces of fear in my voice.
“There you are Daddy's little Princess!” one of them booed. He had one eye; seemed to have lost the other in a fight or accident.
“I said let go of my handmaid, this instant,” I repeated.
“What will you do if we don't?” One eye snapped.
I breathed. “You don't want to get into trouble with my father!"
Silence fell in the space and the men looked at each other. And they burst into laughter, laughing at me. “Do you think we're afraid of your father, he should have warned you to stay away from the forest of Lavender,” that was One eye again.
They all laughed except one of them, he was quiet and watched less amused by the show. And One eye made the mistake of approaching me thinking I was going to cower.
“Don't you dare touch me,” I warned. He wouldn't listen and went ahead to grab my hand. Slap!
I landed a devastating blow across his face, letting go of my arms, the man growled.
That wasn't enough, he twisted, and right before my eyes, he shifted into a large grey wolf.
“Run!!” Zia cried. “Run, Larissa, run!!!”
★Three Days Earlier★
The first rays of the midday sun scorched the earth and left me restless with fresh plans to escape the four walls of my father's palace.
Sixteen years of my life, yet I have never experienced what it felt like beyond those tall walls of the castle.
I paced the dining room while the royal servants cleared the table. I'd just finished eating my breakfast. I had dined alone because my father was still busy in the throne room, at an official meeting with his councilmen.
My problem isn't the fact I have no brother or sister, I also had no mother.
It still felt like it was just yesterday my mother had that accident at the bridge of Lavendar. I was just six and was waiting for her return from her maternal village. A few days before that dreadful day, mother had gone to visit them.
I was playing in the garden with my puppy Molly when my father came to me and broke the news about her death. I was beyond broken. I cried all night and even in the next days following.
I lost my appetite, grew lean, and became sombre day in and day out. Molly became my comfort, often she'd drag me by my dress to come play with her and that was how I began to regain from the grievances.
I was alright, I was fine until the cold hands of death decided to strike again, this time claiming Molly's life. Molly fought a good fight against cancer but she just couldn't overcome it. Her death almost crippled me– I was ten years old then.
I refused to eat, I refused to talk to anyone. I remained behind the four walls of my chamber not until she walked into the room carrying a tray of tea and bread.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Hello, my name is Zia,” the girl introduced.
“You're ten years old?” I kind of guessed.
The girl nodded. “I came to help my mother, Mrs. Muffins, she works here.”
The name sounded familiar, that was my nanny. “Your mother is a good woman," I mumbled.
For the first time, Zia and I exchanged smiles.
“I'm sorry that you lost your mother to the cold hands of death- and your dog too,” Zia said, the smile freezing from her lips.
For the first time, someone was talking about my late mother and Molly, and yet I wasn't feeling hurt. I smiled even more.
“I'm Larissa,” I said, stretching a hand forward for a handshake.
“My name is Zia.” She took my hand and we shook hands. This marked the beginning of a new friendship.
Jolting from the past to the present, I exhaled, letting my gaze scan the dining room...at the servants still clearing the table.
Turning, I proceeded to my chamber but left the door open.
A soft rapping sounded on the door and I tilted to find Zia lurking in the doorway. She lowered herself in a humble curtsey. “Your Highness,” she curtsied.
A warm smile spilled on my lips, lighting my expression.
Zia straightened, smiling.
“You have a visitor,” the girl announced.
Already, I knew who it was–that one person in the world who thinks he owns me.“Prince Lucas, isn't it?”
Zia nodded. “Prince Lucas awaits you in the gardens as we speak!”
Stepping out of my room, I strode into the said garden, only to find Prince Lucas pacing the space, his hands buried in his pockets.
“Hello, Lucas,” I said dryly, glancing about the garden to find that we were alone, and I hated it.
I stopped and watched Lucas stride to meet me. “Didn't Zia tell you I was here?” he questioned authoritatively. I sighed.
“She did and that's why I am here.”
“You wasted time.”
“Sorry if I did. Now, why did you send for me?” I asked, my hands going akimbo.
Lucas smirked. “I must not have reasons for asking to see you, Larissa. You are my betrothed!” he declared. I couldn't help but smile.
“You amuse me, Lucas. Because I am forcefully engaged to you doesn't translate to the fact that I don't have a life of my own. Get it!” I was so pissed, not just at Lucas but at my father too, who'd agreed to give me out in an arranged marriage to this prince.
I turned to exit the garden only for his hands to grab my arm and he pinned me to a tree behind. Without warning, his lips claimed mine, moving in a most boring kiss ever.
“Enough, Lucas. You’re choking me!” I mumbled against his pressing lips.
But he wouldn’t listen. This was exactly what I hated about Prince Lucas. He doesn't listen to anyone but himself, he doesn't care about my feelings- all that mattered was just him and him alone– his happiness, his satisfaction, just him!
“I said stop!” I pushed him away with all my strength. He staggered backward and stared at me in total dismay.
“Larissa?” He demonstrated with his hands in the air in his frustration. “Why are you so cold?”
“I’ve told you seriously, Lucas. I don’t feel anything for you. Forcing a kiss on me wouldn’t change anything!” I blurted.
“But you're my betrothed. You had better see me as your husband already!”
He rattled through gritted teeth.
Lucas was the firstborn of the Belguiz family, about my age, just as he was two months older. His father, King Namirez, happens to be a very good friend of my father. Five years ago, both men decided to seal their long-time friendship with the marriage of their firstborns. Unlike Prince Lucas, I happen to not only be the firstborn of my father but his only surviving child and so my fate was well tied into the arranged marriage even if I'd protested severally against it.
Roughly a year ago, my father had invited me into his courtroom and had right there before his councilmen, a few knights, announced the marriage proposal from the Belguiz royal family. I will be wedding their firstborn son, Prince Lucas.
I had protested right there not hiding my despair, but later that evening, father had dropped by at my chamber. While Zia combed my hair before the dressing mirror, he explained the political reasons behind the marriage. Marrying Prince Lucas would mean fortifying our kingdoms.
Back to the present, Prince Lucas continued to glare at me. “You had better start seeing me as your husband!" he snapped.
“Until then, keep your fingers off me,” I calmly hinted and smiled. “If you'll excuse me, I have important things to do in the Castle. I must go now,” I said. Not waiting for his approval, I turned and proceeded out of the gardens.
My legs were swift as I hurried out of the gardens and headed for the castle. Sending another glance behind, I heaved a sigh seeing that Prince Lucas wasn't following me, but I bumped into my handmaid. “Oh, Zia!” I exhaled. She curtsied.
“Your father is done with the meeting, he waits for you in the throne room,” Zia whispered
A smile lit my expression. “Thank you very much," I said and proceeded to the aforementioned room.
Father was signing a scroll when I appeared at the door. I paused for a moment. “May I come in?”
He raised his head and saw me, the warmest of smiles filled his expression and he beckoned me to come in with his hand. “Come on in, my dear,” he said.
The knight holding the scroll bowed and continued out of the room. In a moment, I was alone with my father except for the guardsmen patrolling the entrance and hallway. “Father.” I curtsied first at the door and then I began the walk down the red rug leading up to the dais. “How was the meeting?” I asked.
I stopped before the dais and shrugged. “I like it when the meetings don't take the whole day, you know,” I mentioned.
Father offered his hand and I took it, climbing up the two stairs. And I came on top of the dais and quietly sat on my ceremonial chair. “Today's meeting had to be brief so that I can rest well for the ball tomorrow night.”
“What ball?” I asked, staring at my father. “What are we celebrating this time around, huh?” I chuckled.
“Your birthday ball.”