Discovered as a baby, Orchid has lived her entire life in the service of the royal family. She has risen to the controversial rank of Second Attendant for the Crown Prince—which is as high as a woman with no pedigree can expect to climb. Having grown up together, she is closer to the Prince than many consider appropriate, but Orchid is ever aware of the insurmountable distance between them. Though they were allowed a friendship in their childhood, the love she has developed for the Crown Prince of Seyraka must stay locked in her heart.
Crown Prince Keion has struggled with his love for Orchid for as long as he can remember. His father has always maintained he must marry a woman of nobility, if not a neighboring princess. So he’s kept what distance he could manage—a task made harder when Orchid became his personal attendant. Still, for her sake, he cannot cross the line propriety has put between them.
Then Orchid is selected to become a vessel for the Great Spirits, in hopes to bring relief from the kingdom’s long drought. It’s a death sentence, and one Keion cannot abide. No matter the cost.
But fleeing the palace is only a temporary solution, and a new problem arises when the spirits begin speaking to Orchid. They’re no longer simply on the run, and somehow, Seyraka’s fate hinges on Orchid and Keion’s blossoming romance.
“I need you to trust me,” he said, lifting her borrowed hood over her head. He then reached around her and grabbed something she hadn’t seen before. “And whatever you do, don’t scream.”
This was the moment Orchid remembered they were on the second floor. She’d been so distracted by Keion’s dramatic but admittedly romantic arrival, and everything he’d said after, that she’d forgotten her brief confusion as to how he could have made such an entry. “We’re going out the window?” It was a ridiculous question, but she didn’t know how else to articulate her concerns.
“Yep.” The thing she couldn’t quite identify was wound around her waist and cinched tight. With a bit more moonlight to help, it looked like a chorded rope.
She turned wide eyes up to him. “Keion, I don’t know how to—”
He laid a finger over her lips and lowered his mouth to her ear. “Don’t worry, I do. I won’t let you fall.”
She released a breath, choosing to trust him, and caught a faint smirk tipping his lips as he lifted his head.
“Took you long enough to drop the title, by the way.”
Heat rushed her face, and she was immensely glad for the darkness. How had she been so thoughtless, after she’d trained herself so well?
Keion didn’t give her a chance to apologize. He took hold of the rope, twisted it around himself some way, and scooped her up so that her head was tucked up next to his and her chest was mostly pressed into his. With one arm locked around her and one holding tight to the rope, he hauled them onto the window’s ledge.
Orchid wrapped her arms around his shoulders as her feet left the ground, simultaneously curling her toes at an angle to keep the sandals on her feet. She remembered his instruction not to scream, so she focused on keeping her breathing steady and trusted in him. He wouldn’t put her in harm’s way. He’d sworn to do exactly the opposite.
She felt a rush of air and her stomach dropped, strangely reminding her of a time when they’d all been little and Queen Miriam had taken her children, and their friends, to play in the snow. Orchid had allowed the boys to convince her to sit on the polished board and slide down the slope, and while it had been exhilarating, at some point her tummy had performed a dip of its own. She hadn’t thought of that memory in years, and it made her sad to now have to be fleeing the home that had gifted her so much.
That combination helped distract her from their descent to the ground, and before she knew it Keion was lowering her feet onto solid stone. The rope around her waist had already loosened.
She blinked up at him, able to see a bit better under the full light of the half moon. “I thought that would be scarier,” she said.
He smirked at her as he tugged the rope free and let it drop to the ground. She noticed a frayed edge in her peripheral vision, but Keion spoke before she could question it. “We have to move quickly now.” He wrapped his hand around hers. “Don’t let go of me, got it?”
Keion gave her hand a squeeze and tugged her away from the building, at a different angle than she would have expected. Or gone herself, if she’d just tried fleeing on her own. But she trusted his judgment and his skill, so she offered no resistance. They ducked under a covered walkway but ran through instead of staying on the provided path, and they’d managed to entirely round that side of the property before a patrolling guard up ahead forced them to drop out of sight. Keion glanced her way while they waited, one eyebrow partially raised.
Assuming he wanted to know how she had handled their small sprint so far, Orchid offered him a smile. She was finding it thrilling, actually. Scarcely an hour earlier she’d thought she’d seen her last sunset, and said farewell to at least almost everyone who mattered to her. Knowing she could so easily be plucked from her peaceful life and forsaken, with such little protest from her loved ones, was hard to take. But knowing Keion had chosen to fight for her, hearing him promise to protect her, was something else completely.
Keion risked a glance over the shelter of their perfectly trimmed shrub, grunted under his breath, and pulled Orchid to her feet. It was time to keep moving.
She soon figured out which gate they were angling for. It made more sense, she realized, than running straight into the very town that was probably already preparing to see her come parading through the following day. Not that they could avoid it completely, since the palace was entirely within its borders, but because the palace sat on the edge of town they did have the ability to limit their exposure.
The unavoidable problem, of course, were the guards stationed at every exterior gate. And if they had time to sound the alarm, as they were trained to do, that would quickly become an insurmountable problem. The thought of which again reminded Orchid of Keion’s lack of protective armor.
Keion tightened his grip of her hand, lacing his fingers with hers, and released a single sharp, distinctive whistle. A signal, surely. At the same time, he drew his sword and slowed their pace.
One of the guards spotted them and stiffened, his eyes going wide. “Y-Your Highness, what are you doing?”
The other guard straightened and turned to face their way.
“We’re coming through,” Keion said. “Let us pass. Quietly.”