My life has comprised of hiding while simultaneously being thrust into the spotlight at every turn. I live in a world where everyone has a soulmate. Everyone has someone who is supposed to be their other half. Usually someone would find this person when they were 18 years old. They wouldn’t know where they were going to meet them, but they’d see their mark, plainly on someone else’s arm, and they’d know. Most people wore their marks with pride. They kept their arms uncovered as often as they could. There were so many marks wandering around the City on arms that sometimes I was surprised that people ever managed to find each other. I was surprised people always managed to find me.
I am the princess. My family has reigned for hundreds of years and finding the hero’s soulmate has always been cause for celebration. There have been occasions of people faking their mark, having seen the royal’s mark on the television, and trying to marry into the family. Each one has been thwarted. But there has never been an heir like me.
I. Have. No. Mark.
I am abnormal. I know this. I’ve known it since I was born. There was such a fuss over the lac of mark on my arm that it was hard to miss it. It ran my whole life. Every public outing, every press conference, party, and diplomatic mission, i always had yo be acutely aware of who or what was near my arm. Always aware of where my sleeve was sitting.
Someone almost got me once. A young diplomat, curious about the mark that had never been on show, got a little too close to seeing the empty space.
The press are bloodhounds. They caught wind of the royal reaction to the incident. My reaction. I had pulled away and run to the other side of the ballroom. I had stayed there for the rest of the night. Maybe i shouldn’t have reacted so violently, but I panicked. No heir has ever ruled without their soulmate by their side. It was a centuries old law, written by the founders of the land. They thought that a person was not whole until they had a soulmate and someone who was not whole was not fit to rule. If I didn’t have a soulmate, I couldn’t rule. And if I couldn’t rule, there was no other heir. Complications meant that my mother could never have another child. I was The Heir.
The official line became that the mark was hidden to prevent people coming forward and claiming to be my soulmate. To stop people changing their mark to try to marry into the royal family. I went to bed every night dreading my 18th birthday.
My parents never wanted to worry me with the details of how we were going to solve this issue. But when they hadn’t told me anything by the time I turned 17, I couldn't help but worry.
They made an announcement three weeks before I turned 18. They wanted to invite the most eligible citizens to the castle, the ones that hadn’t found they soulmates yet, to stay for the three weeks before my birthday ball. They said they were testing the soulmate tradition, a game for their curious young daughter to see if she could find her soulmate without seeing a mark. So everyone had to have their arms covered. The fact that they, of course, already knew who my soulmate was had been implied. It was also to help my reign, to help me forge diplomatic relationships with people who I would need in the future.
We were going to falsify my mark.
That, obviously, was left unsaid.
I don’t know how I felt about it all, wandering the castle in those last few days. There was an emptiness inside of me. A hollow feeling, like I wouldn’t be complete. I don’t know if it was how I really felt, or how I felt I ought to feel. I spent a lot of time wondering if maybe the founders were right, if a person wasn’t whole until they found their soulmate, if that would affect my ability to rule.
I found myself on the front lawn of the castle, one morning before my 18th birthday, to greet the ‘guests’. The gardens were vast, they spread out almost beyond what the eye can see. The tropical plants of the west fields melded seamlessly into the rose gardens in the east. There were traveled paths that almost cut the garden into quarters but did not jar the eye. It had been faultlessly designed and maintained, a gift to my mother upon my father discovering she was his soulmate and going to be queen. They had discussed her love of botany, the beauty she saw in everything from a blade of grass to the grandest palm tree. It was one of the things I admired most about her, she never lost her optimism. A plant always grows, she said to me once, and things always turn good.
I tugged my sleeve down, a nervous habit, and made sure it was held in place by the ribbon around my finger. It was made to look elegant, like it was supposed to be there. It was made to keep my sleeve down and curious eyes away. My left arm was bare, the summer heat being too much for me to have both arms swaddled in cloth, and rested against the side of my skirt. The dress reached mid calf in a floating coral gauze. My mother loved the colour, the way it set off my eyes.
The castle stood tall behind me, an intimidating mix of spires and turrets, secret passageways leading to even more secret rooms. Some of which I was sure only I still knew of. To my right were my parents and to my left were my lady’s maids. When the guests began arriving I moved forward. I was to personally greet every single one of them, I was expected to recognise all of their faces. Between my wonderings I had been studying their photos, only thirty of them had stuck in my mind.
Sir James Richards was the first man I greeted. He was tall, two years my senior, and embarrassingly arrogant.
“Sir James.” I greeted with a smile as he strode up the me. I offered out my hand and he took it, giving it a brief kiss before swiftly moving his eyes up, and not to my face. I pulled my hand away from his, not rudely, but sharply enough for Sir James to clear his throat and look up at me.
“My lady.” He nodded. “A pleasure.”
“A pleasure to meet you also, Sir James. I hope you enjoy your stay. A servant will escort you to your rooms. I hope I will see you tonight at the dinner.”
“Of course, your highness, thank you for your hospitality.” I smiled again at him, both of us knowing his words were nothing more than mere manners, and watched him move along.
The rest of the men passed in a blur. No encounter was any more, or any less, awful than the first. They all seemed stuffy, uptight. But not on them tried to peek at my mark, and I was surprised. I thought maybe one of them would have had a go at it.
I met him near the end. I was tired, I was overheating, and I wanted nothing more than to go inside and change. I wouldn’t want to say he glided, but he did something a lot more elegant than a strive along the garden paths. He reached me and dropped to one knee, his head was bowed and his hands placed on his knees. I used the time to study him, thought i couldn’t see much. He was something different, he was using the old customs, most of which people today don’t even realise ever existed.
He had dark hair, short, that fell around his head messily but undeniably attractively. His shoulders were wide and barely contained within his suit jacket and hiding more muscle than I think I had ever seen before but did not make him intimidating. I had faith that his strength would protect, if I ever needed it, and be a silent threat to others should reasoning not work.
I shook myself. I wondered why I was thinking about a future with him so soon, I hadn’t even spoken to him. I was being ridiculous.
“My Lord.” He lifted his head. His eyes were a piercing emerald and I couldn’t breathe. I just stared into them. I don’t know how long for, until he broke the connection, I suppose, when he spoke.
“A pleasure to meet you, your highness.” He rose from his kneeling position.
“Please, you are my guest, call me Amalie.” I couldn’t stop myself. I scream at myself internally. that was not protocol. That was NOT protocol.
“My lady.” He nodded. I cleared my throat, there was no backing out now. “Amalie.” He corrected. i smiled at him.
“You are my last guest, allow me to escort you to your rooms.” The words slipped out of my mouth before I had a chance to really think about them.
“It would be an honour.” I took note of his voice for the first time. It was deep but not rough, I felt like I could melt into it. I had to shake myself again. This would not bode well for the next three weeks. I would need to do more to stay at arms length. i couldn’t let someone too close, I couldn’t let someone find out.
Time had been progressing slowly. The day was not passing as quickly as I would have liked it to. After escorting Jayden to his rooms I had spent the rest of the time getting ready for the welcome ball. Until my mother came in.
“Amalie, darling, I need you to do your best to get alone with Sir James.” Was her form of greeting.
“Why?” I questioned as I felt Sara, the youngest of my ladies, twist my hair into position. My mother seemed to hesitate. I sighed and turned in my chair to face her. “You can speak freely, mother, Sara knows and is sworn to secrecy.”
“Amalie, I can’t-“ My mother began to scold me.
“She dresses me, mother, it would be hard for her not to know.”
“Of course, of course,” she shook her head, “So many years of being so paranoid, it’s left a bitter taste in my mouth.” I smiled sympathetically at her.
“It will all be over soon, mother.”
“Indeed.” She stood and placed a hand on my shoulder.
“Why must I be nice to Sir James? He was perfectly horrid when I met him. His eyes were pinned much lower than my face.”
“His parents know of your… situation.”
“Oh hush, dear, they’re old friends of mine. They are worried that Sir James does not have a soulmate, although he has a mark. He is two years over the age and he is not, well…”
“Likable?” I supplied.
“Polite.” My mother corrected.
“Oh, he is perfectly polite.”
“Just be nice, dear. We know his mark and we can easily duplicate it.”
“Ok.” I could see the hope in her eyes. It was killing her that I didn’t have a mark, just as it was killing me. My future was uncertain. My reign was at stake. There was a lot more riding on this for me than for most people. “I’ll be nice.”
Sir James was waiting at the door to my room when I walked out to go to the welcome ball. He did not say a word to me as he fell into step. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do in this situation so I stayed silent. The ballroom was accessible by two grand, oak doors which lead to a marble staircase. It made for quite the entrance. It was not one that I wanted to make with Sir James.
My heels clicked against the stone floors. My pace changed rapidly, always trying to throw Sir James off but he followed me seamlessly. I even tried to take some wrong turns but he politely showed me where I was going wrong. It took all my will power not to kill the arrogant arse where he stood.
When we reached the doors I nodded Sir James through first. He looked like he wanted to protest, I wouldn’t let him. So he went.
I took five minutes to myself before I went in. My dress skimmed the ground. It was a pale turquoise colour, with a ruffled skirt and skintight bodice. The neckline was square and lined with embroidery and beads with long sleeves.
I paused at the top of the staircase to look down. The ballroom was full. I had never seen so many people in the place. But there as only one man who caught my eye. He was bent over slightly, in the corner of the room, talking to someone smaller than him, younger I would assume, with a glass in his hand, though it didn’t look like he had drunk any of it.
I took my right hand and placed it elegantly on the banister, just as my mother had taught me, and descended the stairs. I was so busy staring at Jayden that I failed to notice Sir James waiting for me at the bottom of them.
“Princess.” He greeted me immediately.
“Sir James.” I smiled.
“May I have this dance.” I looked around, everyone was staring at me. I knew I would be wrong to refuse.
“Of course.” As soon as I took his proffered hand the band started playing. We moved together in a waltz. I had to admit, begrudgingly, that he was a good dancer, excellent even. It made me hate him more.
“You look dazzling, Princess.”
“Thank you, Sir James. You look handsome yourself.”
The dancing and small talk went on. He took me waltzing through three songs, anyone who dared try to come take me away from him received a glare at which they quickly retreated. I tried, several times, to send a pleading look to Jayden, but he always seemed to be busy charming someone else. A number of other girls had been invited for the ball, specifically, and they all seemed to flock to Jayden’s feet. It made me undeniably jealous, though I had no right to be.
He came to save me two songs later. Sir James’s glare didn’t deter him as he smoothly cut between us.
“May I?” He asked Sir James, out of formality, I’m sure, because he was only looking at me. Sir James hesitated before grudgingly walking away. Jayden smiled at me.
“You looked like you could use the help.”
We danced together in silence but it wasn’t awkward. It was possibly the most comfortable I’ve ever felt. We didn’t need words, we just moved, faultlessly, to the beat of the music. But he left when the song ended. His parting words merely reminding me that there were people other than him in the room. I sighed, I had to admit that was true and it was my duty to dance with them as well, and left him.
The end of the night came around a lot sooner than I thought it would. Many of the guests retired, they had travelled a long way to get to us and needed their rest. There was not going to be any faux pas caused by that.
Over the course of the evening I had moved out to the balcony. It overlooked the rose garden which was hazily lit by the lights of the ballroom. I had run outside to escape Sir James. He had an annoying habit of following me around like a lost puppy the whole night. I only managed to escape when I ducked behind a group of the lords of government.
“So, this party.” The voice startled me. I jumped and spun around. I was tense and ready to attack, but the frame leaning against the balcony door was not a threat. “Seems like it’s overcompensating.” Jayden pushed off the doorframe and walked towards me. He lent on the railing looking out over the gardens. The moon lit his smile.
“I can’t say I know what you mean.” I replied.
“It feels like the kind of party my parents would throw for me.”
“Why is that?”
“They’re overcompensating for something that I am lacking.” He stated. It was only then that I took in his appearance. Of course, fleetingly, the thought that he too had ono mark crossed my mind but I passed it off as ridiculous in the same instant. His shirt was untucked, his hair a mess, and his tie loose around his neck. I smiled because he looked comfortable.
“Oh.” I said. “That can’t be a nice feeling.”
“It’s not. They’re protective, to say the least. Worried and paranoid at worst.”
“I understand that.” I nodded. “It feels like they’re suffocating you, because you’re missing something society thinks you should have, but you know they’re doing it for the best.” I gasped and jumped back a little. I had all but told him I had no mark. “I- I- I have to go.” I turned and ran. I started to run, at least, but he grabbed my arm and pulled me back.
“I know exactly what you mean.”
“You do?” My breath caught in my throat. The idea flew threw my mind again, this time a little less fleeting.
“Maybe having no mark is a mark in itself.” I didn’t have time to say anything before Jayden leant down to close the gap between us. My heart thumped in my chest as our lips met. I closed my eyes and the sound of the ball melted away. In that moment, I was content. I was complete and I was ready to rule.