Princess Istoria watched as her home disappeared and the Empty closed behind her. She squeezed her eyes closed to block out the nightmare, to awaken. She breathed in, out, and waited. The carriage jostled and her father’s voice carried on with the same conversation as before. Stori opened her eyes and forced a small smile as she pretended to listen.
King Tristram’s frown was unconvinced when he glanced at her.
“I know this is hard, darling,” he said as he wrapped his arm around her shoulder and gave her a reassuring squeeze.
Stori nodded but glanced away from the pinched expression on his face. She might give up and cry again if she had to witness how much this was hurting her father too.
“I would have wished for any other solution, any that didn’t require this sacrifice from you, if I believed one existed,” the king continued.
“Father, I know.” Stori turned to him and grabbed his free hand. “You wouldn’t wish this.” She relaxed her grip as she ducked her head again. “There are limited ways for us to resolve this conflict before it reaches all-out war.”
“I just wish there was a better solution than marrying you off to that bastard of a king.” King Tristram clenched his fists as his rage began to surface again. “Whatever kind of king that bastard Vlasis’s son turns out to be.”
Stori nodded again, but it didn’t stop a few built up tears from escaping down her face.
“I’m sorry, Stori darling, I didn’t mean for this…” He stroked her hair. “I didn’t mean for any of this responsibility to fall to you.”
“Father, it is my duty now.” She mumbled again, pulling out her handkerchief to clean her face of the tears. She stared at the piece of cloth with its embroidered N written in fanciful calligraphy.
Mother wouldn’t have cried for this. The thought made her stomach turn as another tear escaped. She would have been strong.
Silence filled the carriage again and settled across the caravan. Stori returned to staring out at the void space, lost in her own thoughts.
A scream echoed through the blackness from the front of the line. Glancing at her father, Stori saw he was already opening the door and calling to the driver for information. More screams rang out, louder and closer than the first.
Stori heard the king shouting orders but she couldn’t make out the words he was saying. His white-knuckled hand gripped the carriage door. Finally, one word reached her ears—Shades. That was enough to make her blood freeze as she moved closer to her father.
The carriage lurched with force enough to knock Stori against the seat. The king sat back down with the same ungraceful effect. He grabbed an AaD from its place under the seat and began smashing at the screen of the tablet, inputting commands.
A sharp turn threw Stori back again as the carriage adjusted course without slowing down. Stori pressed her face against the window and could barely make out the other carriages following behind.
“Father?” She pulled away from the glass and turned around.
King Tristram was still typing furiously and cursing in a quiet voice. Stori turned back to the window. A ball of fire lit up the distance from where they had come. Clapping a hand over her mouth, Stori tried counting the number of carriages behind them.
Six? I must have miscounted.
She hoped desperately and started counting again. The fire faded in the distance and darkness returned all around. She counted seven this time. Still less than half of their caravan.
She sat back in her seat and prayed more of the carriages made it. She prayed Leha’s carriage had made it. She couldn’t go through whatever misery awaited her in her new life without her faithful maidservant and friend.
A light spread in front of the carriage as Tristram used the AaD to open a doorway. The carriage raced through before the driver could even pull them into a slower pace. Stori had barely blinked and they’d already put distance between them and the doorway. She turned around and quickly counted again. Seven carriages followed them through before the doorway shut. Stori’s stomach knotted at the low number, but she breathed a sigh of relief that Leha’s carriage was one of the few which made it.
“Darling?” Stori jerked toward her father when she realized he was talking to her. The king rested a hand on her shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze as his eyes continued searching her face. She supposed he had asked her a question and was waiting for an answer.
“I’m fine.” She lied, hoping her stomach wouldn’t betray her. “What happened?”
The king took in a deep breath and released it with slow deliberation. “It was a Shade.” He paused and waited for her to nod before continuing. “It attacked the front scout and carriages first, which is the only reason we got away. If it had attacked anywhere else in our caravan, its damned powers would have affected us too.”
Stori nodded again with a frown that didn’t soften. “I thought…” She waited for her father’s attention to return to her. “I thought Shades didn’t travel often, especially not through the Empty.” She made a conscious effort not to bite her lip even as she was trembling. “What in all the seven sphaeres would it go in there?”
The king’s jaw tightened hard enough to crack a tooth. He stared out at the space in Medius they now found themselves sitting in. His expression darkened.
“You don’t think the Median king…” Stori trailed off as her throat tightened against the thought of the man she was to marry.
“Silence, Istoria.” Her father’s tone was enough to silence her. It was also enough to assume he agreed with her.
Stori nodded and cursed her fiancé in her head. There would be no proof the Shade was his doing, but it was something the former king of Medius, Vlasis, used to do. Stori cursed her poor luck to be marrying the Median.
King Tristram pulled up the tablet again and glared at the screen for a long moment. “We are still about 35 met-reaches from the capital. We should be there by midday.”
Closing her eyes, Stori attempted to steady her breath and, if possible, her mind and stomach as the uneven ground made for an uncomfortable ride.
“Darling.” King Tristram waited for Stori to open her eyes and look at him before continuing. “If you’d prefer, when we get to the castle, I will have you brought up to your private suite immediately. That way you won’t have to meet him right away.”
Stori sniffled in relief at not having to face the man she would marry just yet. “I would not want to cause you any trouble in explaining my absence,” she mumbled, hoping her father would disagree.
Tristram shook his head with a smile. “It has been a trying day. I will make the Median king understand you need your rest and that he should not even consider disturbing you.”
Stori nodded with her best excuse for a smile before closing her eyes again.