I grumbled under my breath as the carriage bumped over a particularly large hole in the road. Prince Oliver’s chestnut stallion flashed past the window, and I directed my ire toward him, although I lowered my voice even further so as not to be overheard by the other passengers.
I would have been riding too, if I was anywhere but Eldon. I hated being cooped up in the carriage, especially with no one but Emmeline and Giselle for company. They weren’t exactly scintillating conversationalists.
“We will reach the capital by sundown, Celine,” said Giselle, as if in answer to my inaudible grumbles. Her tone suggested she had no complaints to make about several more hours trapped on the uncomfortable seats. I waited for her to go on, but she directed her gaze out the other window, returning to silence.
I sighed and looked out my own window. Perhaps I should have ridden, after all. But a moment’s glance at the landscape reinforced my original decision.
Despite asking everyone I could find, I hadn’t been able to garner much information on Eldon before my departure. The one thing everyone had agreed on, though, was that it was cold. Really cold. And if there was one thing I hated, it was being cold. Not a problem I usually had in my tropical kingdom of Lanover.
So far in these new lands I had visited Marin, Palinar, and now Eldon, and none possessed the clinging warmth of my home. But Eldon still stood out from the others. Here we were only an hour’s drive from the port, and already patches of snow covered the ground. We’d hardly even begun to ascend yet. I hated to think what it would be like once we hit the capital.
Eldon was so mountainous that it had apparently always been on the colder side. Or so the inhabitants of Palinar informed me. Like their own barely inhabited eastern region. But the Eldonian capital, located in the foothills rather than the true mountain ranges, had once been pleasant for a good portion of the year.
And then things had started to change across the kingdoms. I shivered and rubbed my hands together, although the fur rug across my lap was actually keeping them rather toasty so far. On reflection, I thought I would have preferred dealing with wolves and bears and invisible people—as Sophie had done in Palinar—over this icy cold. Why couldn’t I have been sensible and gone to visit Gabe in Talinos—or even better, Millie on the warm southern isle of Trione?
“We seem to be making good time,” said Emmeline, out of nowhere. Like her sister, the princess’s tone suggested she didn’t much care one way or the other.
I resisted the urge to glare at her. After all, this was exactly why I had come to this awful place. Something was decidedly not right about Princesses Emmeline and Giselle. The same something that wasn’t right about their older brother, Prince Oliver. And something wasn’t right about their kingdom either. That was the one thing everyone I asked could agree on. Ever since the darkness had spread its way across these lands, Eldon had grown more and more icy. And from what I could see, it wasn’t just the weather.
The young Eldonian royals were as cold as their kingdom. I had never seen either girl display anything I would consider an emotion. With my own eyes, I had witnessed Giselle fall, apparently to her death, in the Princess Tourney the year before. And yet neither her inseparable older sister, nor even Giselle herself, seemed in the least perturbed by the terrifying accident. Decidedly not normal. And I intended to find out why.
When I was drafted into the Princess Tourney, along with my friends Lily and Sophie and all of the local princesses, I had been newly arrived from the Four Kingdoms. I had known no one from these lands, but I had made plenty of friends during the months of the Tourney. Emmeline and Giselle had not been among them.
So it had shocked me when the sisters invited me to visit them after the Tourney ended. What could possibly have motivated them to do so? The whole thing smelled of adventure—and if there was one thing I couldn’t resist, it was the prospect of an adventure.
Idiotic. That’s what I was, I reflected sadly as I watched the snow build up beside the road. Why couldn’t I have found an adventure somewhere with a warm climate?
I had already put off the invitation until after Lily and Sophie’s joint wedding, remaining behind in Marin when Emmeline and Giselle returned home after the Tourney. And then my mother, along with one of my brothers and his wife, had sailed over from the Four Kingdoms for the twins’ wedding. They couldn’t sail home in winter, and my mother insisted I remain in Palinar with them for the duration of their visit.
I think my mother was surprised at my acquiescence. My brother less so. At least once he heard the stories about the climate in Eldon.
But, come spring, I had grown altogether tired of being back under my family’s wing and decided it was time to follow through on my promise to visit Eldon. It was spring, after all. How cold could it be?
I shivered again, this time directing the grumbles at myself. I glanced at the girls across from me. How would they react if I made my complaints aloud? So far common courtesy had been holding me back, but my curiosity to see their reaction was growing by the minute. It was horribly tempting to see how far I would have to push to get a response from the detached princesses.
I had actually been a little touched when all three of the younger Eldonian royals had traveled down from the capital to meet my ship at the port. Touched enough that I had even insisted on taking the front seat so that I faced backward, and they were both able to travel forward. But we had now been stuck in the carriage together for some time, and I could no more see a reason for their coming to meet me than for their making the invitation in the first place. They certainly weren’t expending any further effort to make me feel welcome. And Prince Oliver had managed no more greeting than a murmured “Princess Celine” and a head nod.
My mother had wondered if the icy kingdom was hoping for a marriage alliance with my distant kingdom of Lanover. But after meeting the Eldonians at the wedding in Palinar, she had been forced to admit that neither the Eldonian delegation, nor Prince Oliver himself, seemed in the least interested in either the Lanoverians or me, their youngest princess.
A pang in my right ankle made me scowl. The broken bone had healed months ago, but it still sometimes ached in the cold. An unpleasant reminder of the ordeal of the Tourney. My mother seemed to think the Tourney should have been adventure enough for her seventh child and couldn’t understand what pulled me to visit Eldon. But the Tourney hadn’t been my adventure. Not really. At least not after I had broken my ankle in the first trial. The Tourney had been the twins’ adventure, and I had been nothing but a burden on the eleven other princesses.
At least my mother knew me well enough not to argue. With six older siblings, I had long ago determined to find my own path. I had always longed to get out of the shadow of a family full of far too many outstanding royals. My one fear had been that my mother would insist the Duchess of Sessily accompany me to Eldon. The older noble was far too canny for my taste, one of the few who could see through whatever scheme I currently had underway.
But it seemed the duchess was needed back in the Four Kingdoms, so I had received a reprieve. I had been saddled with the usual collection of guards and maids and such, of course, but I didn’t mind them—none of them would attempt to manage me.
For the first time ever, I was truly on my own. And I relished every moment of it. At least until a fresh blast of freezing air somehow swept its way through the carriage. Hopeless dreams of Lanover’s bright, sandy beaches filled my mind until a sudden lurch sent me tumbling off the seat and on to the two other princesses.
The tangle of girls and rugs took some moments to straighten out, our efforts impeded by the strange new tilt of the now-stationary carriage. Emmeline was the first to free herself, moving over toward the door. But instead of opening it, she shifted back toward us.
“Perhaps it would be best if we stayed in the carriage for now.” Her calm voice didn’t fool me.
“What’s going on?” I finally kicked free of my rug and half crawled over to have a look myself.
“It also might be wiser to keep away from the windows.”
I ignored Emmeline, and she made no further move to stop me. The scene that greeted my gaze would have been accompanied by a great deal of noise in any other kingdom. But the coachmen, grooms, and guards all filed along in near silence, dropping their weapons in a pile in front of a masked figure. I pressed myself against the window to get a better view.
We appeared to be surrounded by mounted, armed men. Only my own two Lanoverian guards looked appropriately horrified, but I could hardly blame them for falling into line. Our party was vastly outnumbered. For a moment I wished I hadn’t left the rest of my guards to follow with the baggage, but even their number wouldn’t have been enough to tip the balance.
I scooted to the other side of the carriage, hoping to spot an opening in the circle of assailants. But, if anything, there were even more of them on this side, stretching out into some sort of field on the side of the road. Prince Oliver’s stallion danced uneasily, and the prince seemed wholly occupied in keeping the animal calm.
I sighed. Clearly I could not expect any heroics from him. For the first time, real fear gripped me. Who would dare attack a royal carriage traveling the well-used road between the port and the capital? And what did they intend to do with us?
I glanced back at Emmeline and Giselle sitting calmly on the carriage seat, despite the awkward new angle. A warmth ignited inside my chest, the pity that surged through me taking me by surprise. What could possibly have made them this way? They seemed more like empty shells than people.
I looked back outside and met Prince Oliver’s eyes. He watched me without any sign of fear or perturbation. My pity transformed into something more closely resembling anger, and the spark grew into a burning sensation. If they had no care for themselves, they should at least have some concern for their guest, surely?
If it was up to me to save myself, I didn’t know what hope I had against a large company of armed guards. Especially when they were mounted, and I was not. I had a small dagger hidden in each boot, but I couldn’t see what good they would do me. Reluctantly, I decided my best hope was to wait and watch for a better opportunity of escape.
But, as I thought it, one of the attackers moved forward to attach a lead rope to Oliver’s mount. The prince’s calm acquiescence caused the fire inside me to leap into an inferno and, without thought, I thrust out my hands as if I could push the attackers aside from inside the carriage.
A rush of hot air shook the vehicle, nearly toppling us all again. Outside, it looked more like a gale. Those on the ground stumbled, some falling, and the horses screamed and snorted as their riders desperately tried to control them. Some failed, and their mounts took off, scattering in all directions.
A half-second before the unexpected gust, Oliver had looked up, his gaze meeting mine. And I could have sworn that as I thrust out my hands, something sparked between my eyes and his. For the first time, a glimmer of warmth filled his blue eyes, lending animation to his pale face. But a moment later his horse reared, and I lost sight of his expression.
The man holding the chestnut’s lead rope lost it as he attempted to control his own mount. When the prince’s stallion found his feet again, he charged forward. Again I couldn’t be sure in all the commotion, but it looked as if more than random chance directed the horse toward the newly opened gap in the circle surrounding us. The prince appeared to be actively guiding him as he leaped through and disappeared from sight. So there was some life in the prince, after all.
For a wild moment I considered flinging myself out of the carriage and scrambling after him. But on foot I wouldn’t make it far, and already the gaps were closing as riders returned with their now calm mounts. One of the returning men focused his gaze on my face as I peered out of the window, and I drew back hurriedly.
Retaking my seat as best I could since it still sat at an angle, I hid my trembling hands in my lap. The idea of escape had momentarily distracted me, but now my thoughts whirled back to the source of the sudden and violent wind. It had not been natural, that much was obvious. The temperature, even in the carriage, still lingered several degrees warmer than it had before.
But that wasn’t what scared me. The timing on its own would have been uncanny. But it had been more than that. The moment I had thrust out my hands, I had felt the fire raging inside me rush down my arms and out of my hands to heat the air around me. And now, although the air felt warmed, my insides had returned to their usual cool state.
My stomach roiled, to be sure, but it carried no unusual heat. It made no sense, and I couldn’t explain it, but I couldn’t help thinking that somehow that hot wind had come from me. When I thrust out my arms to push away our attackers, the air itself had moved to obey me.