I feel as though I am walking through a dream. With each step, waves of nervous excitement roll over me. Soon, we shall arrive at our destination: the glorious Castle Veradel. My new home. And I shall be a princess; I shall be his at last.
My love takes me to his horse and together we ride through the dark Alathean Forest. I have heard tales of robbers and fierce animals that roam these woods, but as I hold tightly to Lothar's waist, my body leaning against his back, I am not afraid. My prince will protect me no matter the cost.
At dawn, we arrive at the castle. It is larger than any dwelling I have ever seen and more beautiful than I ever imagined. I feel small, so very small before its massiveness.
Awestruck, I gaze upon the fortress as a man comes toward us.
"Good morrow, my lord," he says to Lothar.
"Hello, Renfred," Lothar answers. "Please take Argo to the stables and give him water to drink."
"Very well, my lord."
Before Renfred takes the horse, he turns and bows to me. "Good day, fair lady."
"Good day," I say, blushing. I shall have to get used to this kind of treatment.
Lothar walks me to the castle's entrance, where a guard stands to meet us.
"Greetings, my prince. Who have we here?"
Many beautiful things fill the chamber, including an easel, a writing desk, and a case full of books. Not many of the witches can read, but my mother taught me when I was young. Such a thing was necessary for learning her trade.
"You are welcome to everything you see in here," Lothar says. "This is your home now."
Lothar lights a fire and soon we are not alone. A boy in a fancy red and gold tunic joins us. He looks to be around Lothar's age, or prehaps a bit younger. One of his brothers, I presume.
"Lathian," Lothar greets him warmly.
"Brother," Lathian says. "There is much I need to tell you." He glances in my direction and lowers his voice so that I can no longer hear him.
"Of course," Lothar says. "Let us continue this conversation elsewhere."
Lothar then comes to me and strokes my face with his hand. "Darling."
"You have to go?" I ask.
"I will not be gone for too long. You should rest."
"I thought there were no secrets between us," I say. "What are the two of you talking about?"
"I'm afraid I can't tell you that, now," Lothar says. "But in time you will know. I promise."
Lothar leaves with his brother and I lie down upon the softest bed I have ever been in. Within moments, I fall asleep.
I am not sure how much time has passed when I hear a sound. I sit up groggily, expecting to see Lothar. Instead it is a woman with bright pink hair.
"Hello, my dear," she says cheerily.
"I am Falada. Lothar sent me for you. My, you are lovely, just as he said you would be. Yes, yes, I have just the thing in mind for you."
"For me?" I ask. "Um, exactly what do you have in mind?"
She laughs. "A dress, of course. You must have one for dinner."
"You have a dress for me?" I have never felt this giddy about clothing before. In the Sisterhood, we kept our dress simple and ordinary, to not draw attention to ourselves.
"I am going to make you one," she says. "The king has appointed me to make all of the clothes for the royal family. This is my magic. Watch."
Falada extends her finger toward me, releasing a soft purple light.
My skin tingles with a strange, warm sensation. Her magic envelopes me and transforms the fabric on my body to something truly exquisite.
When she is finished, I marvel at her creation.
"I can turn any cloth into velvet or the finest silk," she says. "What do you think?"
"It's..." I search for a word but cannot find one that is good enough.
"My," I hear Lothar's voice. "You look pretty."
Falada throws up her arms and declares with much bravado, "She looks glorious!"
"You are so beautiful," Lothar says. "I am the luckiest man I have ever met."
But I am truly the lucky one. I cannot believe how much my life has already changed in only a day.
"You will make a perfect bride," he says and kisses my hand. My heart is so filled with joy in this moment I do not think my body can contain it.
"My father knows you are here and he has requested your presence at dinner," Lothar says. "It will begin soon, but first I would like to take a walk to better acquaint you with the castle."
"Of course, my love."
Lothar leads me to a beautiful garden where many people are hard at work.
"I cannot imagine having so many servants," I tell him. "It's so strange to me."
"They're actually slaves," he says.
"Slaves?" I feel the blood drain from my face. "You... own these people?"
"They belong to my father," Lothar says.
"Debtors, most of them," he explains. "To escape imprisonment, they swear the oath of servitude to the king. We treat them well and in return they take care of the castle and do whatever else we require of them until they have worked away their debt. It is a much better life than wasting away in chains."
We sit together on a stone bench and Lothar pulls me toward him. "We will marry in this garden," he says.
"I can't wait," I tell him. "I wish it were today."
"Soon, Darling," he says.
A bell rings in the distance. "Dinner," Lothar says. "Come. It's time for you to meet my family."
He takes me to a large hall decorated in white marble. Lothar puts his arm around me and everyone in the room stares at us. "Mother, Father," Lothar says, "may I present to you the Lady Corynne. She is to be my bride."
The queen, Larana, gapes at me in disbelief. Even with her mouth hanging open, she is stunning. "Bride? My son, isn't this a bit sudden? How long have you known this girl?"
"Long enough," Lothar says. "I love her and I have never been this sure about anything."
"My mother is the potion-maker, Amea," I inform her.
The queen is quiet for a moment. Then in a low voice, she says, "Amea, yes, I have heard of her. Her potions are quite popular."
"I'm sorry," he says quietly.
Her words are still stinging my heart. I try to push down the lump in my throat and keep my eyes from watering. She will love me, indeed.
The friendly, eager looks from the court ladies have turned to suspicious stares. For the second time today I feel small. Small and dirty.
Renfred, the servant I met this morning, brings out the wine.
In the Sisterhood, my mother taught me that wine is a great evil, leading women into folly and wickedness. Only harlots and classless wenches consumed it.
"I can't," I tell him. "I'm sorry."
"Whatever is the matter, Witch?" the queen calls to me. "Is our wine not good enough for you?"
"Take it," Lothar urges me. "You will insult them if you do not."
"But I was taught..."
"Forget everything you were taught," he says. "You said yourself, you're not one of them anymore. This is how you can prove it."
I am taken aback by his words, but I know that he is right.
"Very well," I say. "Thank you, Renfred. I will drink after all."
"My mother sees evil in everything. But what's the worst thing that could happen?"
Renfred gives me my wine and takes the last glass for himself. "To your health, my king," he says and takes a drink.
Immediately after he swallows, he drops his cup and brings his hands to his throat.
It is a terrible thing to see. His face is pallid. He reaches out for someone to help him, but no one can. Choking and gasping, he falls to his knees.
"What witchcraft is this?" the queen seethes.
Mere moments have passed and poor Renfred lies motionless on the floor, his eyes open and glassy. I know that he is dead.
Panic spreads throughout the dining hall. The members of court cry out in horror at the grim sight.
Queen Larana is pitiless. "I will have lost my mind indeed the day I believe the words of a witch."
The king, however, looks thoughtful. "I wish to speak to the girl in my throne room. I will get to the bottom of this one way or another."
In terrified silence, I follow King Lothe into the cavernous marble throne room. Lothar and the queen run in shouting after us.
A man dressed in black with a scar across his left eye joins us. "The whole court is in an uproar," he says silkily. "It seems someone let a witch into the castle. How interesting that murder should follow her arrival."
"And I find it interesting that you didn't bother to show up for dinner at all," Lothar shouts. "You could have poisoned the wine."
"How could you say such a thing?" Larana cries.
"That is quite an accusation, Brother," the man, whom I now assume is Litham, responds with a smile on his face. There is something completely disconcerting to me about this man.
"Mother," Lothar pleads, "you must believe that Corynne is innocent. She could never do such a thing."
The queen sighs and speaks slowly, as though to a child. "Darling, she is a witch. You could not imagine the cunning and craft of which they are capable. My poor, deceived son. You think you love this creature."
"Of course I love her!"
"Do you think she loves you? Witches are incapable of love. They despise it. She has pretended to love you to get closer to us. Had she succeeded tonight, she would have killed us all."
"That's not true!" Lothar shouts. "Corynne's not like that. You don't even know her."
"My king, you must look at me and know that my words are true."
"Arise, my child."
"It is my gift to see one's true intentions and my business to know when I am being lied to," he says. "You did not lie. You were just as shocked and frightened as everyone else in that hall."
"Yes, my king," I say in utter relief.
"My what a pretty thing you are," he says as his eyes travel below my face.
"You are free to go anywhere in the castle," he says. "And do not worry about the queen. She may seem cold, but she will come around. I have had the suspicion for quite some time that someone was trying to kill me. That is why I ordered my slave to test the wine before I drank. I think we all should consider ourselves very lucky that no one important was killed."