By Sabina Malik
The king’s court buzzed at midnight. Sultry people, modeling en vogue fashions from the Continent, dotted the palace’s wildflower garden. Gold-dipped cigarettes hung from gossiping lips. High society had traveled from afar by sea to attend the princess’s engagement party.
Princess Alyria sat next to her betrothed at the regal table. His Royal Dullness twisted his wiry black mustache as he leered at the bosom of Dani, her attendant.
“Hello, wife.” The prince placed a rough hand on Alyria’s thigh, surprising her with a slobbering kiss. His breath reeked of whiskey.
Alyria pulled away and tugged at her corset strings. If she loosened the knots, sometimes she could gain an extra inch of oxygen.
The engagement had been her father’s idea. A Continental prince marrying his daughter, an island kingdom princess. Reunifying the two estranged lands once again.
Alyria fantasized about her fiancé’s death daily: a freak croquet accident, choking by carrot cake, the prince taking a nasty spill down the palace stairs. Anything to prevent their upcoming nuptials.
The sky lit up with crackling fireworks, marking the end of the evening’s festivities. Champagne corks popped, and Continental women in translucent caftans toasted to the princess’s good fortune.
Alyria caught the eye of one of her father’s guards, an Adonis in his red regalia uniform.
He brushed a dark curl out of his green eyes and winked.
Dani smirked. “Does it please her lady, to retire to her bedchambers?”
Alyria unclipped her ebony tresses, and they fell to her waist. “Why, yes. It does.”
An hour later, Alyria sank into her silk pillows with pleasure. Her father’s head guard, Artem, was her favorite lover. He was an expert at pleasing women, and she liked to be pleased.
Afterwards, she lay ensconced in his arms, staring at the frescos on her bedroom ceiling. The flickering candlelight dancing on the painting made it appear otherworldly.
The ceiling portrayed a scene set in the palace peony garden. Women of all ages sat amidst the pink round-faced flowers, playing flutes, singing, and drawing landscapes.
“Your eyes sparkle whenever you look at that painting,” Artem said.
“I’ve just seen nothing like it,” she replied. “Women playing instruments? Imagine!”
He laughed. “It would scandalize a woman to perform in your father’s court.”
Alyria stayed silent. The mural was painted during Continental times. Her father forbade women’s artistic liberties in his new kingdom. He’d even thrown her mother in prison for challenging his laws.
When she and Dani were girls, they’d act out scenes from the mural in the garden. Dani transformed leaves into flutes, and Alyria scribbled drawings with pilfered pencils on the palace’s stone walls. Even at the ripe age of ten, they could have jailed them for their girlish theatrics.
Artem pulled her tighter. “Do you still want to run away together?”
“Yes, of course, my love.” She brushed his lips with hers. “Tomorrow at midnight, when the palace is asleep. I’ll meet you at the edge of the mango forest.”
His eyes softened. “And then we’ll build our life together on the Continent?”
“If my father doesn’t catch us. He’d throw us both into the tiger pit. He’s a very vindictive man.”
“I won’t let that happen.” Artem touched his forehead to hers. He left her bed and faded into the night.
The candle burned down to a whisper. Continental dreams filled Alyria’s head. She could soon learn how to paint, play guitar…be free of her father’s watchful eye. Tomorrow couldn’t come soon enough.
Alyria woke to the sensation of Dani’s cold feet touching hers under the covers. Sunlight filtered in through the stained glass. It was escape day!
“You’ll need this on the Continent.” Dani sprinkled the feather quilt with Continental gold coins.
Alyria ran her fingers over the treasure. “Where did you get these?”
“In your fiancé’s room. I rummaged through his things after he took me to bed last night.”
“Dani!” Alyria’s lip quivered, and the two women burst out laughing.
“And how is my beloved in the sack?”
“Very resourceful.” Dani gave her a coquettish grin. “You should give him a go. Might change your mind about running away.”
Alyria snorted. “I’m going to miss you.” She choked back tears. Leaving Dani behind broke her heart, but she had to be selfish.
Dani took Alyria’s hands in her own. “I know, sister.”
Promptly before midnight, Alyria shimmied down the rope ladder she’d divined from her bedsheets. She’d been measuring the distance from her window to the ground since she was a teenager.
She raced through the mango forest, with the crescent moon lighting her path. The ripe mango smell was invigorating. The night had an odd stillness. It held its breath for her.
As promised, Artem was waiting in the woods with a horse. His eyes lit up as though she were an angel appearing out of darkness.
“The ship sails at dawn to take us to the Continent.” He folded Alyria into his arms. “And then you’ll be mine.”
She stepped back and pulled a rifle from her cloak. “Get on your knees.”
“Alyria, darling,” Artem gasped. “What’s the meaning of this?”
“Sorry, my love, but I don’t want to be…yours.” She cocked the gun. “Get on your knees!”
Artem dropped to the ground.
It hadn’t been easy seducing the head of her father’s security, but Alyria had little choice. Artem had the resources to get her off the island. He was kind, but she was tired of being some man’s property.
Dani descended from the woods.
Artem’s jaw dropped.
Without a word, Dani bound Artem’s hands and feet and gagged him.
Alyria hugged Dani tightly. “Come with me?”
“No.” Dani shook her head. “Somebody needs to help the others who want to leave the island.”
Alyria nodded and jumped on the horse. She turned and stared wide-eyed into the dimly lit expanse. This was the first landscape she would draw once she reached the Continent.