After the death of her father, the king, Deanna finds herself in a dangerous situation. She is a bastard princess, and her stepmother, Queen Rosaline, and her stepbrother, Prince Lamont, will stop at nothing to see that she is removed from the court. Alone and without anyone to protect her, Deanna begins to fear for her life. But when suitors begin arriving to court Queen Rosaline, Deanna meets a handsome stranger from a faraway land who may offer the salvation she seeks…
Age Rating: 18+
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Deanna winced as a thorn from a rose stem pierced her delicate skin.
A metallic taste graced her tongue as she brought her finger to her lips for comfort.
It was unlike her to make such a mistake, but swirling clouds and the sound of soft rolling thunder had diverted her attention.
There was no place in the world, she believed, more peaceful than the gardens of her dear castle grounds, but the darkening skies above told a different story.
She turned in alarm when she heard the clanging of a bell.
Deanna saw her faithful servant, Mary, running toward her, frantically waving.
She was out of breath when she caught up with the princess, but she managed to speak.
“The king! Your father, the king!”
The blood drained from Deanna’s face.
Not waiting for another word, Deanna dropped her shears and hurried toward the castle.
She arrived at her father’s chambers.
She knocked softly, afraid of what she’d find inside.
“Enter,” came a stern voice.
Deanna stepped inside and curtsied twice in the direction of the large bed.
The room’s only light came from the dying fire.
Deanna shivered. Even the flames looked cold.
“My lovely Deanna,” her father whispered through the bed’s drapery. He looked so small in his grand bed.
“How fare thee, Father?” Deanna asked.
“How does it look like he fares, you stupid girl,” the voice that had bid her enter snapped. “He’s dying.”
Deanna turned to the woman sitting at his bedside. She wore a lavish red gown and jewels that glittered in the firelight around her neck.
“Hello, Queen Mother,” Deanna responded. The queen turned back toward her husband.
“Father, I brought you fresh flowers,” Deanna said, moving toward a vase.
She removed an old, wilted arrangement, replacing it with the freshly cut roses.
The queen let out a dainty sneeze and covered her nose with a handkerchief.
Deanna suppressed a smile.
“Thank you, my heart.” The king smiled.
He held out his hand to her, and Deanna abandoned the flowers to approach him.
Her father’s fingers moved in hers, his grip barely a shadow of the strong hands that used to hold her above his head when Deanna was a child.
“You’ve always been more the flowers’ child than mine,” the king chuckled.
Deanna had to lean close to hear him speak. She’d never seen him so weak.
I feel alone already.
“I’m blessed to be a child of such a king as you, Father.” Deanna smiled, attempting to mask her concern.
The queen flashed her a disgusted look.
“My queen.” The king turned to her. “Could you give us a moment? I’d like to speak with Deanna alone.”
“I must see to the servants,” she responded, rising. “Someone must run this household.”
Deanna was grateful for the privacy.
The door closed a little harder than necessary. Deanna stared at it for a moment.
Will she always hate me so?
“I’m sorry you’ve grown up so harshly,” the king said, calling back his daughter’s attention.
“No, Father,” Deanna answered, squeezing his hand. “I’ve had more than any bastard princess could hope to deserve.”
Her father frowned at the word bastard.
“You’re my daughter and heir as much as any of your sisters,” the king assured her.
He was indeed a generous king and father.
Deanna was, however, not the queen’s child, and she could therefore never be regarded as King Harold Harrell of Albarel’s legitimate daughter.
“I worry about you the most,” the king continued.
“I will not be around much longer—”
Even now, he had to stop speaking to take a breath of air, and Deanna took this opportunity to interrupt him.
“Father, you mustn’t say such things.” Even as she spoke, Deanna’s heart felt tight in her chest.
He’d been ill for weeks, and in the past few days, he’d taken a turn for the worse.
The castle doctors were at a loss to help their king.
“Hush, Deanna, and let me finish,” the king answered.
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
The king reached a hand up to cup her cheek. “I will not be around much longer.”
Looking into her father’s eyes, Deanna knew he was right. It felt like watching the wavering flame of a beeswax candle burning down to the end of its wick.
I’ve never seen him so weak before.
It breaks my heart for him to be in such a state.
But, by God, I fear what comes when it ends.
The king continued, “As you know, the queen will rule until your brother Lamont’s coronation.”
Prince Lamont detested her as much as the queen did, though Deanna never understood why. The rest of her half-siblings treated her like family.
Deanna had long ago given up on developing a warm relationship with the Queen Mother, but she still held out hope that Lamont would become more open-hearted as he matured.
The prince was next in line for the throne, but he couldn’t rule until he turned twenty-five, meaning the queen would be the sole ruler for five years if King Harrell were to die.
Deanna held back tears as her father spoke.
“Rosaline has never forgiven me for falling in love with your mother…”
Deanna remained silent. Her father rarely mentioned her mother, and when he did, she held onto every syllable.
“I fear she’ll take her grudge out on you when I’m gone,” he finished, his eyes closing as he took a break from the effort of speaking.
Deanna knew the story from the servants, the villagers, everyone.
Deanna’s mother had been one of Queen Rosaline’s ladies-in-waiting.
She and the king had fallen in love and started an affair.
The queen hadn’t cared about the infidelity, but their love for one another had been unacceptable.
Love was far more powerful than a mere affair.
The queen was intelligent, and she knew that with love a woman held great influence.
She’d tried to banish Deanna’s mother from court, but the king wouldn’t allow it.
It was too late.
She was with child.
When Deanna’s mother had died during childbirth, instead of sending the infant to her relatives as was customary, the king had claimed the child and named her Deanna.
In order to protect the line of succession, the queen wanted to ensure her stepdaughter be sent to a nunnery when she was old enough.
But Deanna’s father disagreed, instead naming his daughter an heir like her siblings.
Deanna found herself in an unusual position, for, although an heir to the king and an equal to her siblings in his eyes, she was still an illegitimate child according to traditional law.
The kingdom knew Deanna as the “bastard princess,” a title she came to know early in life.
Growing up, Deanna had been an unusual child.
She often accompanied the king to the village surrounding the castle.
The villagers fell in love with her beauty and generosity. Or so they told her at every chance they had.
Deanna spent as much time as she was allowed learning from the healers about the remedies they used to help patients.
She wanted to know the ingredients of each salve and where she could find the plants from which they were made.
She persuaded the gardeners to plant these useful herbs on the castle grounds, where she tended and harvested them to help the sick.
Now, she still stole away to the village sometimes to assist at the hospital.
Deanna focused her attention back on her father, who had opened his eyes once more and was attempting to continue their conversation.
She again leaned closer.
“I’ve sent out letters to neighboring kingdoms in search of a husband for you,” the king told her, “to take you away from here, so that you may live your life safely and happily.”
“But, Father, you know no noble person will marry me,” Deanna replied.
He never understands that the world doesn’t see me the way he does.
I’m not a desirable match for anyone.
“You mustn’t stay here, Deanna,” her father insisted.
“But Albarel is my home,” she answered.
Tears started to slide down her cheeks as Deanna contemplated the kingdom without her father.
“Your home may soon be a dangerous place for you. You’re a product of love, not duty. As such, you’re a threat to the queen, whether you understand it or not…
“And though she’s my wife,” he continued, “she will not take pity on a child from another’s womb. Lamont, I have reason to believe, will be worse.
“He’s young and reckless, and he doesn’t show the same restraint as his mother. Heed my warning, child. You must be careful.”
“I will, Father,” Deanna promised. She hugged him tightly, feeling his bones through his nightshirt.
“I love you,” she whispered, attempting to steady her emotions.
“I know, my heart,” her father answered.
They sat in silence as the king’s breathing became more labored with every breath.
Deanna feared this would be the last conversation she’d have with her father.
She knew she’d communicated everything she wanted him to know, and yet she wished she had more to say.
As if the urgency of one last message might delay his passing another day.
Not long after, the king’s doctors shooed the princess away from the room.
The queen had been waiting outside, along with Lamont. They were lurking in the hallway just outside the door to the king’s bedchamber.
The queen pretended to be inspecting damage to one of the tapestries that hung there, but Lamont made direct eye contact with Deanna as she exited the room.
Why does his presence always give me the chills?
As Deanna brushed past her stepmother, wiping tears from her eyes, the queen spoke softly.
“Things are going to change, Deanna. I hope you’re ready.”
Far to the north, in the Kingdom of Summoner, a messenger bowed before handing a rolled parchment to a thin, elderly woman with snowy-white hair.
“Thank you, Peadar,” Lady Bianca said, taking the scroll and breaking the wax seal of Albarel that held it closed.
It was known far and wide that King Harold Harrel was in ill health, and Bianca sighed at the thought of the death of the kind and gentle ruler.
She unfurled the letter. Her eyes skimmed the page.
…so you must understand the predicament in which I find myself. I call on you in my time of need. Your son could find himself no sweeter wife if he were to search amongst the angels in the heavens themselves…
The door to the throne room opened, and the woman stopped reading.
“Hello, Aunt. How fare thee?” her nephew greeted her casually, running a hand through his blond hair.
“I’m well today.”
“What’s that letter?”
“Nothing that concerns you.”
He laughed, but his brow furrowed slightly at her evasiveness.
She called back her servant, who entered promptly and approached the throne.
“Burn this,” Lady Bianca said to him, handing back the message.
She pitied the young woman’s plight, but the well-being of her family came first and foremost.
The bastard princess would have to face her situation alone.
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Deanna was sitting at her window seat.
Not long after the king had passed, the queen had claimed that a bastard princess didn’t deserve such a fine room as hers.
Deanna and her belongings were moved into a small room in the Western Tower, usually reserved for when there was an abundance of guests.
The room was simple, drab even. But what Deanna minded most was its solitude.
The last time the tower had been used was during the king’s funeral.
Since then, Deanna had lived a much quieter life.
No suitors had come for her. It seemed her father’s plan had failed.
Deanna had known, of course, that it would.
Who could the king have written to? Who would possibly want a bastard wife for their son?
It was her fate always to be an outcast, but she needn’t disgrace others too.
Although the queen couldn’t deny the princess her birthright, she could banish Deanna to her room to keep from having to see her face.
There was a knock on the door and Deanna’s chambermaid entered to build her a fire.
Deanna had always felt there was a bond between them.
Having a tragic past, Mary had been orphaned at a young age and sent to work in the royal household.
Deanna had grown up under her care, and she had always believed Mary’s particular affection for her grew from their mutual experience of being left motherless.
The servant had even confided in the princess once that she’d known her mother when she was a lady-in-waiting.
It was so rare for Deanna to hear of her maternal parent that she had taken to following Mary around when she was a child.
Now, of course, they saw each other less often, but they still enjoyed each other’s company.
Mary was a chatty woman, often updating Deanna on the antics of her young son or passing on castle gossip.
Such friendliness was invaluable.
But today her chambermaid, Mary, was in a hurry and couldn’t stay to chat.
Just as Mary was leaving, however, Deanna was once again interrupted.
“Deanna!” a youthful voice called.
She turned away from the window at the sound of her name.
“Lilia! Trina! What are you doing up here? You know the Queen Mother doesn’t allow it,” Deanna scolded.
Her younger sisters resembled their mother.
They were lovely, with sweet smiles and flaxen hair.
The princesses were beloved by the kingdom, with personalities to rival their faces.
The queen, however, was not as esteemed as her daughters. The people of Albarel had never trusted her.
Queen Rosaline didn’t socialize with her subjects as the king used to do, as she considered them a rabble to be ruled rather than a community to be cultivated.
Lamont, heir to the throne, took after his mother. He always seemed to be lurking, haunting the castle like an evil spirit.
“Deanna”—Trina hugged her—“why weren’t you at dinner or supper last night? Or the night before? Or the night before or the night before or—”
“Trina!” Lilia glared at her younger sister. “I told you, she’s not allowed to eat with the royal family.”
“But she is the royal family!”
“You two really should return before someone catches you here,” Deanna warned.
“We just wanted to give you this,” Lilia said, handing over a sealed letter.
Deanna’s brows furrowed in confusion.
“It’s from Helena,” Lilia explained.
If Lilia and Trina were caught in the Western Tower, they would receive a disciplinary lecture, maybe a slap with a switch each.
But if Helena were caught, her punishment would be much more severe.
“How is she?” Deanna asked.
Helena was only four years Deanna’s senior, but they all looked to her for guidance. She was Deanna’s closest friend.
“We met her fiancé yesterday,” Trina blurted out, attempting to be the first to impart news as always.
“Did you like Francis?” Deanna asked.
“He’s handsome enough.” Lilia shrugged, not an easy girl to impress.
“Very nice, too,” Trina added. “Have you met him?”
“When they were first engaged,” Deanna answered. “Helena seemed so smitten with him. I wonder what’s taking them so long in getting married.”
“She said she didn’t want to leave us behind,” Lilia replied.
“I don’t want Helena to leave anyway,” Trina said.
“But Helena deserves to be happy,” Deanna lectured. “She will eventually have to leave us. When you’re older, you’ll marry too.”
“You think so?” Trina asked.
“I know so,” Deanna replied.
“What about Lilia?”
“I will die an old maid,” Lilia laughed.
My sisters are beautiful daughters of the king and queen.
The only spinster in this family will be me.
The door opened again, and a head popped in.
“Dillon!” Deanna said, surprised. “I didn’t know you were out there.”
“He’s our lookout,” Lilia explained.
“Are you girls done talking?” Dillon demanded.
Deanna smiled. Dillon looked like their father must have when he was fourteen.
His hair was golden like that of his sisters, but his face was shaped like the late king’s. He had the same pointed chin and lopsided grin.
“How’s your training with the knights coming along?” Deanna asked.
Her younger brother frowned.
“The captain says I’m fast and good at sword fighting, but I always fail in hand-to-hand combat,” Dillon admitted.
“It’s because he’s so small,” Lilia teased.
Her brother shot Lilia a look that told Deanna he was masking his hurt with hot anger.
“You just need to be patient, like you tell me when we train together. If you’re half as good a knight as you are a teacher, then you have nothing to worry about,” began Deanna, ignoring Lilia’s remark.
“You’ll catch up with the others and be just like Father one day. You’re the spitting image of him already,” she finished.
Dillon, who was close to Deanna, always seemed to be trying to catch up with his eighteen-year-old sister. He wanted so much to be a man already.
“You think so?” Dillon asked.
“As long as he’s not just like Lamont,” Lilia interjected. Trina giggled.
Deanna rolled her eyes. Lamont was a failure in his training.
He was an excellent—some would say ruthless—strategist, but he was soft when it came to physical combat.
“Let’s hope you’re nothing like Lamont,” Deanna murmured.
Her sisters nodded in agreement, though Dillon didn’t respond.
“Now go, before someone comes looking for you,” Deanna said, shooing her siblings out the door.
“Bye, Deanna,” they called, as they ran down the hall.
“Love you!” Trina added. Deanna smiled, closed the door, and returned to her seat by the window.
She looked at the letter in her hand and broke the seal. The setting sun provided just enough light to read.
My dearest Deanna,
It saddens me we’re no longer able to speak in private. I’m sorry for the way Mother treats you. I miss you, I miss Father, and I yearn for the way things used to be.
Mother has informed me that she has sent out a notice that she is looking for a consort!
The castle will be busy in the coming weeks, due to guests arriving and men intending to court her.
While her guests are here, you had better stay out of sight. You, with your beauty, could easily steal away every man’s affection.
Finally, sister, I must warn you. I believe Mother is plotting to have you removed from court. You mustn’t give her any reason to do so.
Be wary of the servants. They’re under orders to watch you at all times. Fear of the queen’s wrath is stronger even than their fondness of you.
I’m sorry I had to send Lilia and Trina to give you this message instead of coming to see you myself, but a visit couldn’t be risked.
If Mother knew I was feeding you information, she might lock you up somewhere none of us could reach.
I’ll write again soon.
P.S. Burn this!
All week, Deanna had heard the servants bustling about, readying the rooms in the Western Tower for guests.
At least they weren’t watching her too much.
Deanna was able to sneak into the gardens several times to retrieve flowers for her bedchamber, descending the treacherously steep spiral staircase leading from the Western Tower to the back of the castle.
She always took the stairs reserved for servants because it was better to be caught by one of them than by the queen.
Dillon, Lilia, and Trina even managed to meet her at least once a day. Helena was too busy helping the queen.
Deanna was alone now. She could see from her tower that Dillon was training with the knights.
Lilia and Trina’s tutor, she assumed, was punishing the girls for skipping their studies again.
Deanna leaned out of her window and watched as guests arrived in waves.
Seeing the endless procession of horses and carriages made her wish she could escape to a land far away from her tower.
She could tell they were wealthy, but since they were potential consorts for the queen, they couldn’t be high in status.
They were probably dukes or, at best, princes with older siblings. They would never be kings.
However, the queen’s choice in marriage could bring a grand alliance between kingdoms.
One guest caught Deanna’s eye immediately.
He had pale, smooth skin and soft blond hair. Even from the distance of her tower, Deanna could tell this man was uncomfortable, shifting in his flamboyant clothes as if they belonged to someone else.
By his complexion, he must have been from one of the mountain kingdoms—Vallery or Summoner, perhaps.
Deanna could tell even from her tower that he was young, around the same age as Helena.
He was much too young to be courting the queen, who could easily have been his mother.
Deanna looked at the men with whom he’d arrived, but none of them were dressed as richly as him.
Her eyes paused on the man with whom he was talking.
This man had a muscular build and was almost a foot taller than the first—impressive, as the guest himself was not a short man.
He, too, had pale skin and blond hair, but his was a dirty blond, with more of an ash tone and pulled back into a knot.
He looked in need of a shave, his beard obscuring his age as Deanna tried to make out his features.
The hair on the back of her neck rose.
She hadn’t noticed the stranger look up until their eyes met for a long moment.
He looks at me as though he knows me.
Deanna yelped and pulled herself away from the window, stumbling out of view.
He’d seen her.
He’s only a man accompanying one of the Queen Mother’s suitors. Why am I so startled?
I must get a hold of myself.
Something drew her back to the window. She peeked out once more, curious for another glimpse of the stranger.
The two men were walking into the castle side by side.
Deanna sighed and silently scolded herself again, but she couldn’t help but wonder who they were.
Where were they from—and why did she feel as though the tall man had a searching look in his eyes?
Being noticed had made Deanna feel more exposed than she had in a long time. She thought of Helena’s letter, its remains in her fireplace.
It seemed true that the queen would take any excuse to remove her from court.
Now that she was replacing King Harold, any connection Deanna had to the family was disappearing.
Father’s plan didn’t work.
I must find an opportunity for myself to escape.
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