Elysandra didn’t want to be sent away from home for three years, but apparently the threat that she’ll be kidnapped isn’t enough to break tradition.
As the princess of Elaru, Elyse had been hidden away her whole life, so no one would recognize her when she went out to anonymously tour her country on her 15th birthday. The beginning of her rencari is going better than she thought it would, until they find out that the neighboring country of Delthu wasn’t just threatening – they’re actively searching Elaru for her. With her life on the line, everyone becomes a suspect – including the Delthunian apprentice her fake father just hired to help in their tanning business.
Nikan Thare doesn’t know who she is, but as he travels around Elaru with them, she finds it harder and harder to keep the truth from him. His Delthunian heritage makes him a risk, but as she learns more about his rocky past, she starts to trust him almost as much as she trusts her best friend and fake brother. And when the Delthunians find them, they take both of them – Nik, so they can kill him, and Elyse, so they can force her to marry the man who killed Nik’s father. Stranded in Delthu with only Nik’s cousin to back her up, Elyse has to avoid getting married, save Nik’s life, and find a way to get back to Elaru. If only the magic would just let her say who she really is.
The (Un-edited) First Chapter:
Being forced from your home for three years is terrifying. Why couldn’t we just forget tradition? I could learn about my country just as easily from home, where I didn’t have to pretend to be a commoner, and I’d learn so much more about ruling from home.
“I know you don’t agree with this, Elyse,” Father said as we stood near the secret exit I would use to leave the castle. “But the things you learn while you’re on your rencari will be invaluable when it is your time to rule Elaru.”
My father, the King of Elaru, usually knew what he was talking about, but I was convinced that this time, he didn’t.
“I love you, Elysandra,” Mother said, kissing my forehead. “Be careful.”
Mother was worried about me and wanted me to stay home, but Father remained firm. “Elyse will be perfectly fine, Nysandra,” he said. “Markus, Danyelle, Tiyna, and Gerik will take good care of her.”
“Of course we will,” Markus said, stepping out of the shadows. “I would defend Elyse to my last breath.”
“And so would I,” Gerik said. At least I would have him, my best friend, on this trip with me. He grinned impishly at me and I flashed a smile back before schooling my features into the indifference I showed in front of my parents. I did not agree with this trip at all – but maybe three years with Gerik wouldn’t be too bad.
“Danyelle and Tiyna are already waiting for us outside the gates,” Markus said, addressing my father. “With your permission, sire, I will take my family and leave.”
“Permission granted, Markus. Keep my daughter safe,” Father said, emotion finally showing in his voice with the last two words.
Oh no. If Father cracked, I was going to.
“Goodbye,” I muttered, looking down at the ground. Anything to avoid seeing the looks on their faces. Anything to avoid seeing the tears that would be running down Mother’s face, and Father’s clenched jaw as he tried to stay strong.
“Let’s go, Elyse,” Gerik said, grabbing my arm gently and pulling me towards the exit.
“I love you, Elyse,” Father called after me, and that was it.
The first tear fell.
I refused to turn around, though every muscle in my body was screaming to run back to Father. To hug him and refuse to be pulled away from him. To say to hell with this trip and every expectation.
But I wouldn’t let myself.
I followed Gerik down the dark tunnel, his hand reassuring on my shoulder. ”You’ll be okay,” he said. He knew what I was feeling, sometimes before I knew it myself. “It’s only three years, and I’ll be there for you the whole time.”
“And so will Tiyna,” Markus said, and Gerik and I rolled our eyes at each other. Tiyna knew how to pretend she was perfect around the adults – but when it was just the three of us, her fangs came out. I was not looking forward to living with my “sister” for the next three years.
“Markus, where are Danyelle and Tiyna waiting?” Gerik asked.
“First of all, it’s time for you to start calling me Father,” Markus said, disapproval coloring his voice.
We’d practiced it before, but calling Markus “Father” was never going to come naturally.
“And as far as I know, they are waiting with the wagon, just outside the tunnel,” Markus added.
“Thank you… Father,” Gerik said, hesitating before saying the word. For the first time, I wondered what Gerik’s parents thought of him being my chosen companion. They had known from the moment I was born that he would be my companion – he was the son of a trusted advisor, born a few months before I was. But I didn’t know how they felt about him leaving for three years with me.
Knowing his father, an ambitious, ladder-climbing man who had started as a city mayor and climbed to advisor, they were probably hoping that Gerik and I would make a match of it. But the last time a prince or princess had married one of their “siblings” from their rencari had been over fifteen generations ago, and I wasn’t planning on breaking that streak.
Gerik was my best friend – nothing more.
Besides, I was only fifteen. And I had no intention of finding anyone on this trip, no matter what anyone else said.
A small ray of light in the distance pierced the darkness we were surrounded by. When I climbed out of this tunnel, I would no longer be inside the castle grounds. I would be officially on my rencari.
My father said to never look back, so I didn’t.
Markus climbed out first, presumably to make sure everything was safe, and then it was my turn.
“Careful,” Gerik said, offering me a hand as I climbed the earthen steps leading out of the tunnel.
I stepped out into the forest. The moon cast a pale light on the trees around me, creating a glow that surrounded me. The leaves on the ground rustled as Markus reappeared, leading a horse pulling a wagon, with two women in it. Danyelle, my governess and “mother”, and Tiyna, my “sister”.
I could hear the music and smell the smoke of the bonfires from the full moon festival. The theory was that the full moon festival would distract everyone so much that no one would notice a wagon appearing from behind the castle in the middle of the night – and if anyone did notice, they would probably be too drunk to think anything about it.
“In you get,” Markus said, gesturing with his head towards the back of the wagon. Gerik popped out of the ground behind me, closing the hatch to the tunnel and scraping some dead leaves over it, before bounding over to help me into the wagon.
He was being awfully energetic for someone who loved their sleep as much as he did, and had to get up at some godforsaken hour in the middle of the night.
I hated this trip already.
“We should do the spell now,” Markus said, walking over to where Gerik and I sat on the edge of the wagon.
My stomach dropped at the mention of the spell that would steal days of my life to keep me safe while I was gone.
Markus rested his hands on our foreheads. “Close your eyes,” he said. Warmth trickled down from the top of my head, all the way down to my toes, before centering in my chest. I could hear Markus mumbling something that didn’t make any sense, and I knew he was saying the spell.
The warmth turned into a burning fire and I gasped in pain. The heat flew up my throat and out my mouth, and everything returned to normal.
Not that it would ever be entirely back to normal, since I would lose an hour of my life for every day the spell was enacted. Markus wouldn’t have to place it on us every day, but when he renewed the spell each morning, it would steal another hour from me.
Gerik settled down next to me on the floor of the wagon, staring up at the sky. It looked much more comfortable lying on the straw than sitting on the hard bench, so I laid next to him, closing my eyes. We had several hours to get to what would be our home for at least the next few months, and I wasn’t going to waste any of it trying to stay awake. “Wake me up when we get there,” I mumbled.
“We will,” Gerik said, laying a cloak over me.
It smelled like him and home. I snuggled into its warmth, both the cloak and the smell wrapping around me and comforting me. At least I would have Gerik with me during my rencari.