The last rays of sunlight lit the bouquet of alder flowers in the canister on my desk. Their dark orange colour bled slowly into yellow at the tips, while the aubergine leaves hugged the buds that had yet to open. They were a perfect gift for Wystan. His favourite flowers. Or, rather, they’d been his mother’s favourites. Wystan always said they reminded him of one of her jokes and made him smile.
A perfect gift to soften him, before springing Mum’s invitation to dine with her on him. She’d wanted to meet “the boy who put a spring in my step” ever since I first mentioned him. Her words, not mine, for Wystan wasn’t a boy. He was about a decade my senior, but with eyes that twinkled like those of a stripling up to no good. Hazel eyes I could stare into for hours, ash-blond curly hair that showed no sign of going grey, and a smile that hit my groin every single time.
A knock on my door startled me, and I stumbled over my chair. My knees hit the floor hard, but I bit my lip to keep from crying out. I scrambled to my feet, wiped my knees, and checked my uniform and boots before standing to attention.
A young cadet opened my door and saluted. “The general requests your presence, Your Highness.”
I nodded and followed him into the corridor. I couldn’t remember his name, but he lit up when I asked him how his brother was enjoying his promotion to lieutenant, and replied enthusiastically.
It was a habit of mine Mum wanted me to lose. “It distracts them from their duty,” she’d say—which sounded scarily like what her father had taught her—before proceeding to ask the kitchen maid all about her sister’s newborn.
As the young cadet knocked on General West’s door, I stood at attention. What could he want from me this late on a Friday night? My shift had ended hours ago, and per regulations, I was off all weekend to attend a royal function with Mum.
The door opened and a sour-looking young cadet—punishment detail—waved me in before closing the door, shutting himself out of the room. General West’s office, done in dark mahogany with midnight blue drapes, reflected his personality, at least the part he showed to his army: severe and uncompromising.
“Prompt as always, Your Highness.” General West rose from his chair. His expression seemed too friendly for this to be a business meeting. Behind him stood a slight young man with red hair hanging down in waves across his shoulders, eyes cast to the floor.
“You have never met my youngest, have you, Your Highness?” He motioned his son to come closer. He shuffled forward a hesitant step or two and performed an awkward bow.
I bowed my head. “Never had the pleasure.”
“Munkin came of age last week,” General West continued. “He is now old enough to be wed, and I’d like to offer him to you as your consort.”
Shaking my head, I took a step back. I should have seen this coming, I really should have. He’d offered me his eldest daughter when I was barely twenty-one, not realising I wasn’t into women. He hadn’t liked me refusing him then, and he wouldn’t now, judging from the way he narrowed his eyes at me. Of course, he found excellent matches for his three daughters among members of council and their families. And now he wanted a perfect match for his son. In some ways, I could understand. As revered as his title was, it didn’t garner him a place on the council. No soldiers were allowed on the council. A conflict of interest, Mum called it. Our neighbouring country in the east had declined quickly once their military grabbed the leadership.
I was sure Munkin was a lovely young man—and a gorgeous one—but I had my heart set on Wystan. I turned to Munkin, opening my mouth to utter an apology, but then he gazed up at me, and I caught a hint of relief in his eyes. I closed my mouth, gave him a quick nod, and turned back to General West. “I have no doubt you’ll find him a good match, General, but it won’t be me.”
“You dare refuse your general?”
Munkin flinched and took a step back, and another one.
I took a step forward, straightened my pose and squared my shoulders. What I lacked in width, I had in length, bringing me in a position to look down on my general—inadvisable under different circumstances. “Our ranks have no place in this conversation, General. Not our military ranks, at least. My birthright, on the other hand, seems the very reason you requested my presence, and in that light, I’ll remind you my proper title is still Your Highness.”
A flick of a wrist, a “No, Father!” followed by a loud snap, and everything around me turned dark.