The sun glared down at us unforgivingly as we trudged across the infertile desert, jolts of pain shooting up my backside with every bounce. Adjusting my position for the hundredth time that day, I concentrated my glares into the man riding in front of me.
Since the embarrassing incident in the wagon that morning General Kai had,thankfully, left me alone. I had rushed out so blindly that I had barreled straight into the tiny old healer. The poor man had been so startled he had almost started crying. No wonder. Ancient Law dictated that physically touching or talking to a member of the Imperial Household without spoken permission was an offence punishable with exile.
I shushed him quietly as he stood shaking with fear, taking care not to step any closer. How had this man even treated me last night? A totally unsuitable image of the little man fearfully poking at me with bandages and prongs came to my head, making me snort unattractively and the poor healer quake like a leaf.
I smiled to myself. That had been my only human interaction the entire day, as the jerk that I was currently glaring at and was meant to spend the next year with had taken it upon himself to ignore me religiously.
Finally drawing my eyes away from him, I glanced around at the lifeless surroundings.. Something uneasy stirred in my gut as last night's happenings rushed back into my memory, invading my thoughts with the stifling blackness I remembered. It was unnervingly familiar. I squeezed my eyes shut in a futile attempt to clear my head.
Lord, was I going crazy from lack of human interaction? It had barely been a day! I had always needed the company of people to thrive, loving nothing more than I did an engaging conversation. Arguments, even.
Mother had always said I had so much intelligence but I used it in twisted ways. Like that one time I had convinced Princess Katya we had actually found her abandoned in the palace grounds, using her blonde hair in contrast to the dark locks of the rest of the family as proof. It had taken the joint force of my mother and father, plus the Old Records to halt her wailing. Or when we were having our annual portraits painted when I was six years old, and I had planted three pins on the poor artist's chair. They had embedded so deep in his backside that he actually had to have his arse examined by the Imperial Physician. Ironically, the fool had managed to capture the look of knowing mischief in my eyes so well that the picture still haunted my family as it hung in one of the many hallways.
I burst into laughter at the memory, only realising it was out loud when Kai whipped around in his saddle.
Right, I must look like a madwoman. I needed conversation and I needed it now.
With a spurt of confidence that surprised even myself, I spurred my horse forwards till I was parallel with him.
I cleared my throat loudly, wanting to gain his attention,
"When do we get there?", I winced at the sound of my voice. My tone was much closer to Mother's Imperial tone than I was comfortable with.
He jerked at his reins deftly, his mount speeding up almost immediately. Momentarily taken aback by the ease which they understood each other, It took a couple of seconds for me to catch on, tugging at my reins to speed up the sluggish pace of Nala, my mare.
"Are you ignoring me?" I stared at him. The sun hit him at such an angle that his black hair appeared golden, his dark eyes staring straight ahead unblinkingly. I frowned.
He was ignoring me.
I gaped at him in disbelief: No one had ever ignored me before. Except maybe Queen Amelia when she was in one of her moods.
That was it. I was going to do something wild, and he was going to talk to me.
I drew back slightly, feigning withdrawal, my annoyance spiking as his shoulders sagged slightly in relief. Did he really dislike me that much?
The rocky desert stretched on for miles in all directions, mostly flat with the occasional growth of rather exciting shrubbery. We had been riding at a sedated pace for the most part of our journey, so our horses were still energetic. I stroked Nala's mane, checking for any signs of sweat or fatigue. She snorted loudly in response, making me crack a smile.The stallion that had sired her was a thoroughbred, stamina was in her blood.
Drawing back into my saddle, I steered her slightly to Kai's side, my mare and I's shadows appearing alongside his on the yellow cracked floor. His head turned a little to the side as he eyed the shadows with an expressionless face, and I rode on at his pace for a couple of minutes, just to placate him.
His first mistake was to turn away, for in that split second, I tugged sharply on the reins, making my mare past him in a blur.
His second was to pursue me.
As we galloped in the scorching desert heat, our speed conjured up a previously non-existing wind,my ponytail dancing behind me. I twisted in my saddle, catching a blurred glimpse of Kai pursuing me, his black stallion charging at us. Pulling my weight forward into a jockey's position, I urged my mount on, laughing with a wild abandon as the desert flew behind us, dust flying from Nala's hooves.
I could feel the giant warhorse and his rider in a futile attempt to gain speed, the notion making another laugh bubble up in my chest.
In a final gesture of defiance, I lifted one hand from the reins, shaking my hair free from it's grips.
Nala raced even faster, her racing instincts awakened and spurred on by our pursuers.
She was light and born to run, Kai and his heavy warhorse coupled with the desert heat, had no chance of catching us.
Wrapped up in my moment of euphoria, I failed to notice Kai slow down behind me, or hear his warning. I failed to notice the horsemen on the horizon.
Until I rode right into their midst.