Prologue

November 16, 2019

Light trickled into the room from the gaps in the hand-embroidered curtains. It reflected off the marble floors and sleek walls, and sank inside the fur rugs and satin bed coverings. The man in the grand canopied bed sat upright, his muscles aching. Joints clicked and popped as he rubbed his silver-bearded face to better wake himself. Another day awakened with him, and as he moved out of the bed to don his robe, he wondered how many more he would meet. A light knock surfaced from the door across the large room, followed by the soft clack of the door opening.

            “Are you awake, My Lord?” Zain, his personal steward and the head of the staff, stepped lightly into the room, carrying a tea tray. The old man, Nobel, descended the shallow three-step landing to sit in the lounging chair while Zain set the tray down on the coffee table.

            “You are awake earlier than usual this morning, Your Grace. Is everything all right?” Zain asked as he handed him his teacup. Nobel chuckled airily.

            “No, no, Zain, my boy. Everything is quite splendid. I was just thinking of going out today.”

            “Out, My Lord?” Zain’s head tilted ever-so-slightly.

            “Yes, I’m thinking of picking some things up in Charles.”

            “I can always send one of the other servants to—”

            “Now, there’s no need for that. I may be old, but I can go pick up some sweets on my own.”

            “Sweets, sir? You know how strict your doctor is about your diet.”

            “Zain, I’m going to die anyway, why shouldn’t I eat what I want?”

            “My Lord, there’s no need to talk that way.”

Nobel looked up into the jade eyes too tired to be on the face of a twenty-six-year-old. He laughed to ease Zain’s worry.

            “Don’t take it so hard, lad. I mean eventually. We all have our time. All the same, I intend to go into Charles Kingdom today and wander around the shops.”

            “Yes, My Lord,” Zain said with a bow.

            “It’s far too stuffy in here, anyway,” Nobel added for good measure.

            “Yes, sir, I agree.” Zain turned his gaze to the rounded, ten-foot high, hand-painted ceiling. “The air couldn’t possibly be more thick.” A smile pulled at the corner of his lips as he picked up the tray and left the room.

* * *

            An hour later, Nobel walked alone through the historic streets of Chevis, the capitol of Charles Kingdom. The air was light, the breeze was cool, and the sun radiated down on the cobblestone. People passed him leisurely, having amicable discussions in their native language. He strolled on his own with a smile. Charles was one place he could always go to remind himself of the good of people. Happy faces greeted him at every shop, and the people passed with a wave and “bonjour.”

            He’d convinced Zain to let him walk alone for a while, though it hadn’t been easy. The longer he lived, the more his health faltered, and—as his steward had put it—a man of his stature should always have a protection detail nearby. But Nobel didn’t expect any problems, especially not in Charles. After all, who would expect him, the master of Nobel Michel Castle, to be walking alone on their streets, completely defenseless? He probably wouldn’t even be recognized.

            He wandered to the grassy median at a fork in the road and settled on a bench. He leaned back under the shade of the cherry blossom tree behind it and closed his eyes. After a deep inhale, he smiled. Getting out of the castle had been a good idea, but if he didn’t get back soon, Zain would likely give him a lecture.  He straightened his back and stood. As he did, his head swam and his stomach clenched. Immediately, his arm flew to his abdomen, clutching hopelessly in an effort to lessen the pain, to no avail as his knees contacted the pavement.  He placed his other hand on the sidewalk as he waited for the attack to subside.

            “Oh my God, are you alright?” He heard a woman’s voice call to him from several feet away. He tried to look up at her as the pounding of her footsteps grew nearer, but he couldn’t lift his head. Only when she arrived at his side and tilted his head up toward her did he get the chance to look at her. Holes had been worn into the knees of her jeans, and she wore a thinning black tank top with no coat to protect her from the winter chill. Bruises and cuts wrapped around her arms and crossed her chest, dancing up her neck to her face. An upturned, pointed nose sat between two strong, high cheekbones, and her full, hard-lined lips parted ever so slightly in worry as her eyes scanned his face.

            “Can you hear me?” She placed her hand on his chin and gently moved his face side-to-side. Finally, the pain in his core vanished, and he was able to answer her.

            “Y-yes. Yes, I’m fine now.” He pulled away from her as he attempted to push himself back up to his feet. Her hands found his side and stomach as she helped him ease back to a standing position.

            “Are you sure?”

            He leveled an easy-going smile at her. “Yes, absolutely. I just had a sudden dizzy spell, that’s all.”

            “That was more than a dizzy spell.”

            Taken aback, he gazed into her unflinching eyes.

            “You know,” he told her, “you have the bluest eyes. They’re like—”

            “The middle of the ocean on a sunny day,” she finished for him, her voice glazing over. “That’s what my mother always said.”

            “She’s right. They are lovely.” He smiled at her again. Slowly, she placed her hands in her back pockets and inhaled deeply.

            “Well, if you’re sure you’re fine, then I guess I should go.” She turned to walk away, but he called out to stop her.

            “Wait, Miss.”

Right as she stopped and turned back around to face him, Zain’s car pulled up. They both turned their attention to the sleek, black vehicle as Nobel’s steward stepped out.

            “The time for your outing has expired, My Lord.”

            “My Lord?” The girl sent a questioning glance to Nobel.

            “Ah, yes,” he stroked a hand over his beard. “I forgot to introduce myself properly. I am Nobel Michel XIII, current Lord of Nobel Michel Castle.”

            “Uh huh…”

            “And who is your acquaintance, My Lord?” Zain sent a fleeting, dignified glance in the girl’s direction.

            “Not an acquaintance,” she said, holding up a hand between them, as if to stop his gaze from reaching her. “Just a concerned citizen making sure no one was dying.”

            “I beg your pardon?” Zain turned back to Nobel. “Did something happen, sir?”

            “No, no, Zain, stop fussing. I’m completely fine. But anyway, Miss,” he said, turning away from his steward’s suspicious glare, “would you allow me to repay your kindness?”

            “It was a rather weak act of kindness to be repaying, don’t you think?” she asked him.

            “Hardly so. Let me help you as you have helped me.”

            “Help me? Do I look like a girl who needs help?”

            “You look like a girl on the run.” He raked his gaze once more over her attire to demonstrate his point. The girl’s weight shifted and she crossed her arms over her chest. “I can help you start a new life, if you’ll let me. You’ll be able to settle somewhere safe.”

She looked at him in interest. Zain opened the back door to the car.

            “Why should I trust you?” she asked, her eyes shaking.

            “You don’t have to, my girl, but has anyone else offered to help?” She glanced from Nobel to the car and back again. “Get in. You have my word that you may leave whenever you want to.”

            “Why are you so insistent? You don’t know me.”

            “You’re right,” he smiled at her again. “I’m just a concerned citizen making sure no one is dying.”

Her mouth curled as she tried to hide a smile from him. “Fine,” she said, taking a step toward Zain’s waiting car.

            “Just one last thing, Miss.”

            “What is it?”

            “What is your name?”

            She held his gaze for a long moment. “It’s Isla. Isla MacIver.”

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