By  Hannah Currie

Brought to the palace as a newborn, the royal life bestowed upon Mackenna Sparrow was never meant to last forever. With Princess Alina engaged to be married, Mackenna’s presence as companion is no longer required and, like it or not, she must return to the birthright which should have been hers – that of a commoner. But not everyone at the palace wants her gone. When the truths she’s based her life on start crumbling as fast as her future, will she find the courage to trust, both herself and the prince she’s fallen in love with?

Chapter 1

If mortification could kill, I’d be six feet under. And Nurse Kristiann over in the corner would probably still be trying to hide her laughter at the funeral. Some help she was. A word, a jerk of the head, even a cough would have been enough to warn me the three of us were no longer alone.

“Well? What happened next? Did Prince Thoraben find another pair of pants or did he have to stay sitting there until the princess left? What did the king say? Was he mad?”

I did my best to ignore Kristiann’s muffled laughter and the bemused prince standing in the doorway and focused instead on the wide gray eyes of the little girl in the hospital bed. The one intent on getting me into trouble. Even if she had no idea she was doing it. Not that I could really blame her. I had been the one to tell the story.

“He, uh…”

Seventeen years and nine months of living in the palace should have taught me better than to share personal information about the royal family. I’d never betrayed their confidence before, steering well-clear of anything which would put the family I all but called my own in a bad light, but Roni had looked so worried this morning, staring out the window, the bright shirts she favored swapped for a colorless gown as she counted down the hours till her heart surgery. Even her curls were drooping. I would have done anything to make her smile, so when she asked if Thoraben, who she idolized along with the rest of Peverell, was as perfect as he seemed, I’d told her the first story that came to mind.

“Well?”

“Uh…” My gaze drifted beyond Roni to Ben, still standing in the doorway, all six foot of him. He’d crossed his arms now, a half smile quirking the side of his mouth as he leant against the door, no doubt waiting to see what I’d do next. As if I had any idea.  What had I been thinking? And how had I not noticed him standing there? King Everson aside, Prince Thoraben was the most powerful man in Peverell, drawing the public eye wherever he went. Once upon a time, him catching me sharing one of his most embarrassing moments would have only made me embellish it more, teasing out each moment until we laughed so hard we couldn’t talk.

Once upon a time, we’d been children. “He…um…”

A hand rubbed its way across his smile, doing nothing to wipe it away. I don’t know what manner of pleading or apology he saw in my expression, nor how much he’d make me pay for it, but with a shake of his head and a few strides forward, he finally spoke.  

“He made up a story about needing to leave, borrowed his little sister’s pink jacket under the very gallant guise of carrying it for her, tied it around his waist—desperately hoping it was long enough to cover the split in the back of his pants that lengthened as he stood—and walked back to the car. Where he proceeded to sit for the next forty minutes, waiting for his father to finish his meeting, not sure whether he regretted more the fact that he’d tried to impress Princess Taryn with a cartwheel or that his little sister and her best friend, Lady Kenna, had witnessed it and were still giggling. Thankfully, his father, the king, never found out.”

“Prince Thoraben!” Roni straightened in her bed, a thin, almost translucent hand fiddling with the gown she wore, tucking it tighter round her shoulders. “You’re in my room!”

He grinned as he pulled a chair over to her bed and sat. “I heard you were having an operation this afternoon and thought I’d come and see if you were okay.”

I hadn’t thought her eyes could have widened any more, nor my respect for this man grow any higher than it already was. Somehow, they did. “You heard about me?”

“Sure. Lady Mackenna here talks about you a lot.” He winked. She blushed. “And me, it seems.” Heat rushed across my cheeks again as he turned to me, eyebrow raised. I should have been thankful he found the situation so amusing. Perhaps I might have if I hadn’t been so busy berating myself over the fact that, once again, I’d let my heart get in the way of my better sense.

A princess always considers her words carefully before speaking.

A princess must be respectful at all times.

I wasn’t a princess. Not in blood nor in title, but while I lived at the palace and acted in their name, the same rules applied.

“She thinks you’re handsome,” Roni piped up, drawing his attention back to her.

“She does, does she?”

And there went the tips of my ears. Burnt to a crisp. Any second now my hair would start smoking and set off every alarm in the place. Roni’s heart might not have worked properly, but her matchmaking mind certainly did. Last time I visited, she’d tried to set me up with Blake, one of her nurses. The time before it had been her uncle. Apparently, she’d now decided to skip those options and go for the most eligible man in Peverell. As if he even had the option of marrying me.

I sent a desperate glare in Kristiann’s direction, begging for intervention. Surely, she could come up with something. Nurses always had something they could do. Take a temperature, check a dressing, chart the level of pain…

“Yep. And the nicest man she’s ever known. I said she should marry you because she’s a princess and you’re a prince but she said she’s not really a princess so she couldn’t but my mom said she might as well be because she acts like one but when I told Lady Kenna that, she said—”

“You know, maybe you should marry him,” I interrupted, not sure where she was going with this conversation but certain Ben didn’t need to hear it. Amused as he currently seemed.

Roni sighed. “I can’t. I’m too young. Mom said so. But you’re not, Lady Kenna. You’re exactly the right age, and you did say he was—”

“Okay, Roni,” I interrupted, again. Yep, definitely going to get me in trouble. “I think we’ve told Prince Thoraben enough of our secrets for today. Look, Nurse Kristiann is going to check your blood pressure now—” whether she needed to or not—“And then as soon as your mom arrives, you’ll be ready to go.”

The loss of her beautiful smile was instant and like a hammer to my chest. If mortification wouldn’t kill me, perhaps regret would finish the job. Why couldn’t I keep my mouth shut?

“Oh, sweetie, I’m sorry…” I reached out to take her hand, tucking it between mine. “I know this is scary, but you’ve done it before and Nurse Kristiann and her friends will look after you and Doctor Jasen is so good at what he does that you won’t even know—”

“What if the Rebels come while I’m asleep?”

I started at the change of subject, coldness blanching the heat from my face like an avalanche. Even Kristiann seemed taken back, pausing halfway between her cart and the bed, cuff dangling forgotten in her hand. “Is that what you’re worried about?” I asked, careful to keep the trembling from my voice. Not the seriousness of the operation, not the pain or the recovery, but terrorists attacking while she was under? What had brought this on? I looked at Kristiann, questions in my eyes. All she had to offer was a shrug.

“Did someone say something to you about the Rebels?” I asked Roni. She nodded, the action tipping tears from her eyes.

“The nurses were talking yesterday when they thought I was asleep. They said a Rebel group was suspected of being near the hospital.”

“Oh, honey, that hasn’t been proven. It’s just people talking. You don’t need to worry about that.”

“But if they attack while I’m in surgery, I won’t be able to hide.”

This time, the hammer to my chest took my breath away. I wanted to wrap my arms around the precious little girl and assure her I’d always be there to protect her—but I couldn’t. Even within the walls of the palace, we lived in fear. Especially at the palace, because we were the ones the Rebel group were after.

A glance at the man beside me showed Ben’s smile, also, had given way to stoic sadness. Was he thinking about the last time the Rebels had attacked? The day he’d lost his mother and the kingdom of Peverell their beloved queen? There had been minor skirmishes and attempts since, but nothing to rival that one. That day had changed us all.

 I squeezed Roni’s hand, refusing to let my fear grow hers. The poor girl had enough to worry about, and surely even the worst of criminals had enough decency not to attack a hospital full of chronically-ill children. I hoped. My smile was genuine, if a little shaky.

“You’ll be safe here. I promise.”

“How do you know?”

How? I didn’t. Not at all. But I couldn’t tell her that. My mind sped through a thousand answers, trying to find one that would satisfy Roni, never quite landing until Ben’s hand reached out to cover both of ours. Whether he did it to comfort Roni or simply to offer strength, I didn’t know. But in that moment, the words came.

“Because Prince Thoraben will protect us.” I leaned in closer, gesturing with my free hand for her to do the same, a thrill of success jolting through me when she did. I would fix this. She might still have a hundred things playing on her mind today, but Rebels wouldn’t be one of them—even if the thought of them attacking had me jumping at shadows for the rest of the day. My voice dropped to just above a whisper. “I don’t know if you’ve seen, but he looks pretty impressive dressed in his uniform. He even has a sword! The Rebels would take one look at him standing there in all that majesty and run for cover as quickly as their weak little legs could carry them.”

Her giggle was worth every bit of embarrassment saying such a thing in front of Ben cost me. I hoped he would believe it to be a silly bit of prattle meant to calm the nerves of an anxious child and not the truth…but the ears once again singeing my hair had me doubting it. I tilted my head forward just enough to let my long hair cover them, ignoring Ben’s knowing smile as I did. The man saw far too much.

Roni’s mother’s arrival was just the distraction I needed.

“Oh look, your mom is here. We’ll go now, but I’ll be back to see you tomorrow. You be the brave girl I know you are, okay?” I gave her thin hand another squeeze before standing to greet the woman who’d entered. I couldn’t hear what Ben whispered as he bent down to Roni’s ear, but whatever it was, it brought a smile to her face bigger than any I’d seen today. It was all that stopped me crying as I blew her a kiss and walked out, Ben closing the door behind us. Seeing these kids in pain was always difficult. Seeing them scared wrenched my heart. But seeing them smile?

“Thanks.”

I didn’t qualify what it was I was thanking Ben for as we walked down the hospital hall together, but the word alone seemed enough.

“Kenna?”

“Hm?” Stop thinking about the Rebels, Kenna. You’re safe. Truly. They won’t come here. They wouldn’t. Roni is fine. The breath I filled my lungs with smelled of disinfectant laced with some type of flowery air-freshener, but it was enough to ground me. I glanced at my watch. Who next? Martin in bed eleven would be getting back from his appointment soon. I’d missed him last week. And I’d promised Jordana a visit, although with grandparents, two aunts, and several cousins currently in with her, that could probably wait till later. There was only so much room in there. Perhaps Millie? Chatting with that precocious two-year-old always brought a smile to my face. She’d have woken up from her morning nap by now.

“About the Rebels…”

“Don’t worry, I’m not really counting on you to protect us. I just said that to keep her happy. I know, I should have kept my mouth shut.”  Regarding more than just the Rebels. King Everson would be furious if word ever got back to him about the story I told. But I couldn’t change that now, so there was no point in ruing it. Bed five for Millie. I turned to head back to the other end of the ward.

“No, wait, that’s not what I—” Ben stopped, frowned, that action in itself enough to give me pause. I hugged my purse against my chest and waited, hoping whatever he had to say wouldn’t take too long. “They’re not—” He pursed his lips. Another sentence broken off. Another frown.

He looked down the hall, smiled at a passing doctor, looked back at me, considering for a long moment before he quirked his head. Grinned. “You think I’m handsome?” I stopped just short of whacking his arm. One did not hit a prince. Even if the prince was practically one’s brother and well-deserving of it. Especially since, as Mother reminded me almost daily, he wasn’t my brother.

“What are you doing here anyway?”

“Looking for a wife. Though apparently, neither you nor Roni are takers.”

“Very funny. What are you really doing here?”

“King Dorien and Prince Marcos are on their way from Hodenia. They’ll be at the palace in—” He checked his watch. “—approximately forty-seven minutes.”

My purse dropped several inches before I caught it. “And you’re only just now telling me? It takes twenty minutes to get back to the palace! And I’m not dressed or—”

“You look great.”

I was wearing jeans and tennis shoes. Designer, of course, stylish, perfect for an afternoon tromping around the hospital, sitting cross-legged on beds while chatting with kids. Not so much for greeting visiting royalty. And if I was this nervous…

“Alina’s going to be a wreck.”

Alina wasn’t a wreck. Livid, but not a wreck. It was almost dizzying watching her stalk her way from one end of the suite to the other, her irate chatter stopping only long enough to take the required breath every minute or so.

“He sent me away. How could Father send me away from his office? Prince Marcos is in there.”

“They’re having a meeting.”

“Yes, regarding me.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Don’t be dense, Kenna. Why else would King Dorien and Prince Marcos come all this way—in person—to meet with Father if it wasn’t to discuss my engagement?”

There was little point in attempting to reason with her. I’d already tried, pointing out numerous explanations for the unexpected visit which had nothing to do with her. Alina waved them all aside with a swish of her manicured hand, certain of her conviction. I gave up trying after the fifth attempt and made myself comfortable in her sitting area, content to sit and wait.

It wasn’t as if this was the first time Alina had swooned over a man. Every couple of months it was someone different, although she always came back to Prince Marcos. Personally, I didn’t know what she saw in him. He was handsome, certainly, but in a swarthy way. Like a sea captain of old. Tall, dark wind-swept hair, deeply tanned skin, clothing pressed and pristine. Too perfect almost. Although, perhaps that was part of what attracted Alina. She’d always hated mess or anything out of place.

Alina walked to the mirror again, checking her appearance even though all she’d done since the last time she’d checked it was a lap of the room. Admittedly, the suite was large, but she hadn’t been walking fast. Berating her father’s high-handedness with the occasional gush over Prince Marcos and the fact that he was the only man in the whole world she could ever marry but hardly breaking a sweat.

“Alina, you look beautiful. Truly. Come and sit. There’s nothing you can do but wait.”

“I will not sit and wait, Mackenna Sparrow. This is my future. The rest of my life.”

Mine too, though apparently she’d forgotten that. “Alina—”

“We’ll break in. One of the maids will have keys. They have to clean his office. I’ll tell them it’s an emergency. Who do you think would be most likely to believe me? Perry? Emilia? Risine?”

I was saved from having to come up with a reply to that ridiculous train of thought by a knock at the door. Alina ran to open it so fast she almost tripped over her feet. Almost. Princess Alina of Peverell was far too particular to ever actually fall. Even in the three-inch heels she favored.

“Yes?” she asked of the maid standing there.

“The king requests your—”

Alina was gone before the girl could finish, her white, summery dress flying out like a cape behind her as she ran down the marble staircase. Though I followed, my steps were much slower. Partly to give Alina time but, though I hated to admit it even to myself, as much to prolong the inevitable. Whether it happened today or in a few months’ time, Alina would get engaged. And then?

You can’t hold on to what should never have been.

No, I argued with the voice in my head, but maybe, just for today…

Alina’s squeal of delight brought a smile to my face and an ache to my heart. I walked around the last corner and into view of King Everson’s office in time to see her turn from her father to throw both arms around Prince Marcos’s shoulders. The indulgent smiles of both kings behind them was proof enough that she’d been right. Alina, princess of Peverell, my closest friend and the sister of my heart, was engaged to Prince Marcos.

As the four of them walked back inside the room, Alina’s hand clinging to Marcos’s arm like she had no plans of ever letting go, I turned and walked away. King Everson would call for me soon enough but, for now, this was Alina’s moment. And for the first time in seventeen years and nine months, I wasn’t a part of it.

Chapter 2

Coming Soon!

The weather-smoothed stones making up the tower’s half wall were warm as I rubbed my hands across them, relishing their familiar feel, committing each curve to memory. The palace might have been an imposing structure to the rest of Peverell but for me, it was home and this tower, my hideaway. Something I desperately needed today. Open to the elements, closed to criticism and the continual need to please. High above life’s challenges, with only the weather to contend with, I could almost let myself believe I was at peace.

There were no clouds in the sky above me today, no wind whipping my hair across my face in stinging streaks of auburn. I wished there had been. It would have given me something to think about other than the fact that the only life I’d known was about to be torn out from underneath me. The life of a princess. Elaborate gowns, priceless jewels, the best education Peverell had to offer—everything Princess Alina herself had, everything a girl could ever dream of.

But, like any dream, waking up was inevitable. Even knowing change was coming hadn’t lessened the shock. In a single moment, Alina’s engagement had brought it all crashing down—the uneasiness, the feeling of not knowing where I belonged, the wondering what my future held. If I even had one.

“I knew I’d find you here.”

I swallowed back a shriek loud enough to startle every bird in the tree below me before breaking into a sheepish smile.

Ben. Of course, it was. For the second time today, he’d snuck up on me. This time, however, I didn’t mind that he had.

“Prince Thoraben. Welcome to the East Tower.”

“Come on, Kenna. Must you call me that? I’ve told you—it’s just Ben.”

His tone was wry, his reprimand expected. It was an old argument. One we pulled out and rehashed every few months, despite the futility of it.

I used to call him Ben. Growing up, side by side, it made sense. I’d called him Ben since the day I’d learnt to speak, Thoraben being far too much of a mouthful for a toddler. I’d called him that right up until his eighteenth birthday when Mother had pulled me aside and reminded me that though they treated me like part of the family, I wasn’t truly one of them. Like I needed reminding. The man standing beside me would always be Ben in my mind but to speak it aloud?

“It’s not appropriate, you know that.”

“Not in front of dignitaries or the public, certainly, but there’s no one here but us.” He shrugged one shoulder, his wistful half-smile tugging at my heart. “I miss being Ben.”

And I missed him simply being Ben, but we were royalty, with a long list of rules, regulations, and social expectations alongside the privileges. At least, he was royalty. Once Alina married, I didn’t know what I would be.

I turned back to the view, leaning my elbows on the warm bricks. It took only a few seconds for Ben to follow suit, his stance mirroring mine as we let the wall bear the weight of duty we’d grown so accustomed to carrying. I could have continued our old argument but what was the point? Neither of us would ever concede.

“What are you doing up here, anyway?” I asked instead. “Shouldn’t you be entertaining Prince Marcos or something?”

“I wanted to check you were okay. Are you?”

“Of course.”

“Really? Because you missed afternoon tea.”

“What?” I looked at my watch. Groaned. Over two hours I’d been up here, staring at the city below, lost in a maze of contemplation. The sun would be setting soon, and I hadn’t even realized. “Your father’s going to kill me.”

“I told him you weren’t feeling well.”

“And he believed it?”

“He has other things on his mind. Much like you, apparently. Is it Roni?”

I sighed. It should have been. The poor girl was having her heart operated on, yet all I could think about was myself. “No. It’s just—I can’t believe Alina’s getting married.”

“It’s really such a shock?”

“Yes. No. Maybe.” I shook my head, trying to make sense of my thoughts. “She seems so young.”

“No younger than our parents were.”

Not in years, perhaps, but certainly in maturity. Alina was much like the dresses she favored—beautiful, striking, timeless, but little prepared for the harsher side of life. She was excited about the match. After all, she’d admired Prince Marcos for years, droning on and on about his good looks. But good looks weren’t everything. And marriage was so…final. What if he hurt her?

“He’s a good man, Kenna.”

Tears sprang to my eyes at Ben’s gentle commendation. I blinked the wetness away before they could fall. I couldn’t let Ben see me cry. I would never live it down.

“She has to marry. You had to have known it was only a matter of when.”

“No, I know.” Neither was it a surprise to hear it was Prince Marcos who she would marry. When one government then another the world over had fallen to the demands of equality, the nation of Hodenia had been the first to reinstate its long-forgotten monarchy as a single voice of reason. Earning, surprisingly, the respect not only of its people but of much of the western world. Peverell had followed suit not long after, though with far greater resistance. Even sixty years later, there were still Rebel groups who opposed the decision and made it their goal to wipe out the royal family. Though I hated Roni’s fear regarding the Rebels, it wasn’t unfounded. A marriage to Hodenia would strengthen Peverell’s monarchy like little else could, offering not only the endorsement of their name but their protection.

Even if it did mean Alina would move to another country.

 “To be honest, I’m surprised you’ve gotten this old without being married yourself,” I told Ben. “Spending too much time in the stables and not enough on the dance floor?”

I shouldn’t have teased him, especially since I knew avoiding his abundance of female suitors was exactly the reason he went there, but it was too easy.

“You won’t call me Ben but you’ll call me old.”

“I wasn’t—” But he was grinning again. Stopping short of elbowing him in the ribs, I looked down on the city below us.

It calmed me, the view from this tower. The marketplace stretched out before me, a river of people winding its way through the center of town. Cobblestone streets and tall wood houses, little changed since they’d been built four hundred years ago. A landscape frozen in time.

The houses weren’t uniform, though that added to their charm rather than taking away from it. They looked almost like a pebbled pathway from this height—their roofs varying shades of brown, the shapes they made melding together despite their odd angles. And in the distance, surrounding the town, the hills. Green, undulating, capturing the sun as it set each night only to release it to the far horizon the next morning.

“Actually, I’ve already chosen my bride.”

My gaze flew to Ben’s, my breath caught somewhere between my lungs and the air around me. I forced myself to look away before he read too much into the shock on my face. Breathe, Mackenna. Breathe.

He’d chosen his bride. Of course he had. It was wise. Good. Kingly. He would be king one day. He would need a queen to rule alongside him. Someone beautiful, someone he could confide in, who would stand with him and be his strength as he ruled and love the people as much as he did. It was the shock of his declaration that stole my breath, not envy for his unknown bride.

Definitely not envy.

“Does your father know?”

“He knows.”

Something in Ben’s tone made me wonder how happy King Everson was with his son’s decision. Perhaps that was why the marriage hadn’t yet gone ahead—the king didn’t approve of Ben’s choice.

If that were the case, there was still hope for me. I inwardly sighed, ruing the emotions railing inside. I was not in love with the Crown Prince of Peverell. I couldn’t be. And even if I was—which I wasn’t—I wasn’t allowed to be. He was my friend, that was all. My best friend and the brother I’d never had.

I’d counted Ben my friend since the day he didn’t give away my hiding place when Alina and I were playing hide-and-seek as six-year-olds. He could have easily, especially since Alina asked him outright if he’d seen me. He’d told her it wasn’t his game to give away. Even as a nine-year-old he’d been diplomatic.

It was the fact that a wife would come between the two of us which bothered me, not the woman herself. The day he married, our close friendship this past decade would become, by necessity, a treasured but distant memory. Something to be savored on lonely days.

“Someone I know?”

“Yes.” He didn’t even consider my question before answering. Though, I supposed, that was not so strange given we’d moved in almost the same circles our whole lives. While I looked at the view, Ben was looking at me. I could feel his stare even without turning. His laughter, too. “You won’t ask me who she is.”

And put myself through that pain? Not likely. While I didn’t know, I could still fool myself into thinking our friendship would never change. “I don’t believe it’s any of my business.”

“But you want to know.”

Of course I wanted to know. “Absolutely not.”

“You do. I can see it. You hate surprises, and the very fact that I’ve chosen someone at all has you surprised as it is. You can’t bear not to know her name.”

He was right, of course. There were times I wished Ben didn’t know me quite so well. This was one of them. And just for that, I wasn’t going to ask. Not even for a hint. I would not give him the satisfaction of proving him right. Even if the curiosity killed me, which it very well might.

“When will you make the announcement? At the Midsummer’s Ball?” No doubt that was when they’d announce Alina’s engagement. If there was one thing King Everson liked, it was the attention of a crowd, and the ball tomorrow night would provide him ample. He’d want to proclaim the news himself before anyone else beat him to it.

“You’re really not going to ask.”

I ground my teeth together in an effort to keep my mouth shut. Much more goading from him and I knew I’d give in. I was already listing in my mind all the women I could think of who he’d shown even the slightest bit of interest in over the past six months. If I had to guess, I’d choose Princess Celeste as his mystery bride. They’d become fast friends the week she came to visit, and he’d admitted to me himself that he thought she was beautiful.

“Stubborn as always, that’s my Kenna.”

I barely kept the grin off my face at my achievement. It would ruin the illusion of control entirely if I did. My jaw might ache for days from the pressure I’d put on it in the last thirty seconds, but I’d not given in.

“Very well then, no. There will be no announcement made regarding my engagement tomorrow or anytime soon, as the woman I’ve chosen is not yet of age.”

I raised my eyebrows, chancing another look in his direction. Was that a blush creeping up the back of his neck, pushing its way past his ears?

“I’m not that old, Kenna.”

 I tamped down a smile. No, twenty-one wasn’t as old as it had once seemed but using the excuse that she was not yet of age made the girl he’d chosen seem very young. Of course, that ruled out Celeste. She’d celebrated her twenty-second birthday last year.

“Does she know?” I asked.

“Know what?”

“That you—That she—”

“That she is the one I’ve chosen to be my bride and the future queen of Peverell?”

Something like that. “Yes.”

“No.”

“What?” What was wrong with him? “You haven’t told her? Not even hinted?”

“I’m waiting for the right time. There are a number of negotiations still to be made before such a thing could be announced, even if she were old enough to marry, which, like I said, she isn’t. Don’t worry. I’ll tell her. There’s plenty of time. Father has promised I may choose my own bride and isn’t rushing me to marry.”

No, he wouldn’t be. Not if he didn’t approve of the match. Until announcements were made, there was still a chance that Ben might change his mind to a more appropriate choice.

Prince or not, the man beside me deserved a whack to the head. At the very least a bucket of ice water dumped over him. Anything to wake him up to his foolishness. I settled for what I had on hand and threw a leaf at him. It fell short, not even catching his notice, which was probably for the best anyway.

I didn’t know who the girl was Ben had set his eye on, but I already felt sorry for her. He had no idea how difficult it would be for a girl to become his wife. Even if his bride was a princess already, the adjustment to life as the future queen of Peverell would be immense. It wasn’t something that happened overnight.

“Well, my congratulations to you both. Or, at the very least, to you, as clearly she has no idea of your affections.”

“My affections?”

Oh. He hadn’t said he loved her. I’d assumed. Wrongly, it appeared. Or not. I wasn’t going to ask. I’d made enough of a fool of myself already.

“How did you know I was up here, anyway?”

That earned me a laugh. “Changing the subject, Lady Mackenna?”

Absolutely. “You can’t grow up in the palace and not know a thing or two about diplomacy.” Or avoiding awkward topics. Smile, the tutor had told Alina and me over and over again. A well-aimed smile will diffuse many a fire. And while disarming the opponent with one’s smile, change the topic to a safer one.

Ben turned to face me, crossing his arms as he leaned a hip against the wall. “Smile and all that?”

“You were taught that too? Here I thought it was only in ‘How to be a Princess.’”

“No, first lesson of diplomacy in ‘How to be a King’ as well. Of course, the second was to pull out one’s sword and lop off the offender’s ear, but I’m assuming that wasn’t part of your lessons.”

A smile spread across my face as I fiddled with a dried leaf sitting on the tower’s ledge. “You’d have to actually hit their ear first.”

“You bested me once in a duel. That doesn’t mean I can’t aim.”

I looked his way, raising my eyebrows as I did my best to seem innocent. “And yet you never did give me a rematch.”

“Didn’t want you crying when I won. Father might have found out and then we all would have been in strife.”

I turned to face him. “You assume I would have been the one crying…”

Ben narrowed his eyes in warning, something that would have been far more effective had they not been sparkling with mischief. “I’ll have you know, Lady Mackenna Sparrow, that I am quite the swordsman. You might joke that enemies will run at the sight of me, but that sword I carry is very real. And I think my uniform quite suits me.”

I swallowed, forcing the image of him dressed in full regalia from my head before I blushed or did something equally stupid. Thick brown hair so dark it was almost black, the tiniest bit of curl showing through despite regular cuts to keep it tamed, eyes that had girls the country over debating whether the color was chocolate, mahogany, or rich coffee brown, a grin which came as easily and frequently as his laugh… Add the sleek black pants, bold red coat and gold sash, belt and medallions of his military uniform and—He had no idea.

 “But, all teasing aside, you always come up here when you’re stressed. With the hospital this morning and the news of Alina’s engagement this afternoon, it wasn’t too difficult to figure out where you’d gone. You know, I’m almost jealous of you having this place. If ever I needed a good reminder of why I do all this, looking out over the city and my people would be it.”

The scoff was out of my mouth before I could pull it back. “Please. It’s your castle. You have every right to have this particular tower for yourself.”

“No, it’s your place. I know it’s important to you to have a place of your own.” He jiggled his eyebrows. “Though how you’ve kept it a secret from Alina baffles me.”

How he knew about it baffled me. He spoke as if he always had, though I’d never told him, nor seen him up here. How long had he known? And what other secrets of mine did he know?

“I love your sister and her endless chatter of gowns and tiaras, but sometimes I need to get away from it all and remind myself that I’m not a princess. That I’m only here because your mother…” I stopped, but I might as well have kept talking. Ben knew as well as I what I’d been about to say. “Forgive me.”

“Because my mother died the day Alina was born and your mother stepped in to help? Kenna, it’s okay to say it. You’re here because Mother isn’t, and while I miss her still, almost two decades on, I could never rue the pleasure of knowing you and your parents because of it. Neither would she want me to.”

Prince Thoraben was going to make a wonderful king someday. I’d always known it, but that moment proved it once again. He had the right amount of compassion to make his subjects feel like they mattered, while still being in control. Yes, he would make a good king. Even if I’d be watching from afar.

“I hereby decree it to be your tower once I’m gone, then.” Crouching down, I wrote his name in the dust near our feet as I’d once defiantly written my own. Prince Thoraben’s Tower. My throat thickened, tears once again threatening as I stared at the words. My scribbled name was long gone, and his would be soon, but the reality would remain. I was leaving the palace. King Everson’s summons would come any day now, and my life here would be over. I would never again feel the wind whip away my worries here in this tower nor feel the peace that came from knowing I was part of something so much bigger than myself.

“You don’t have to go, you know.”

I stood slowly, brushing the dirt off my finger as I considered his quiet words. He was kind, even if he was wrong. “Alina won’t need me once she is married, and without her here, there will be no reason for me to stay.”

“We could find a reason.”

An ant crawled through the dust in which I’d written Ben’s name, scuttling its way over two pebbles and half a brittle leaf before hurrying on. I envied its single-minded purpose. It knew where it belonged, where it was going. Short as it was, its life had meaning. Mine?

Forget it, Kenna. Just because your life is falling apart doesn’t mean it’s over. Or that you have no purpose.

I shook my head, attempting a smile. “Your father has been more than generous already. The agreement he made with my parents was only to last until arrangements could be made for Alina’s marriage. For almost eighteen years, I’ve lived the life of a princess. It’s time I stopped pretending to be someone I’m not.”

I couldn’t be sure, but he almost seemed sad at the prospect.

“Still, there’s no rush to leave.”

Not from his perspective, perhaps, but he wasn’t the one living someone else’s life. An upcoming wedding would mean Alina’s schedule would be filled with fittings, engagements, media appearances, lessons, and more decisions than anyone should ever have to make. Once she was married and settled in Hodenia, the kingdom’s focus would be solely on Prince Thoraben’s own nuptials—whether he liked it or not. I would simply be in the way.

I took one last look at the view, capturing it in my heart before forcing myself to turn away. No, it was time to leave. Time to go home.

Wherever that might be.

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