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By Rachel Van Dyken
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If they take you, you don't come back. You either die...or wish you had. The Western Empire was ruthless. The only reason I survived was because he gave his life for me--a life that might as well have been mine, for when they stole his last heartbeats, they silenced my own. They call me princess, an answer to the prophecy, but I’m nothing more than a prisoner...awaiting my lifelong punishment. Marriage. To the Prince of the East. But it’s the Royal Protector who reminds me of what I lost. He threatens something I never thought I'd have again...my heart.
“Kyle , run! You have to run!” Kaden screamed in my face, trying to raise his voice above the windstorm ripping through the trees. The Empircal Enforcement Squad was fast approaching. I couldn’t hear them, but the black uniforms were spotted through the thick forest like a warning beacon.
“Kyle! Didn’t you hear me?” Kaden took me by the shoulders and gave me a large shove towards the north forest. “If they catch you, you’re as good as dead.” A tear ran down his cheek and rolled across his quivering lip.
With a cry, I flung my arms around his shoulders and let out a sob before turning on my heel and running.
I had to go. I had to escape the Enforcers. Most of the little girls they caught died in their hands, ravaged and then killed. The ones who lived ended up taking their own lives. It was not an option for me, nor for my best friend, who was doing his utmost to push me into the shadow of the trees.
I knew what he was doing.
Sacrificing his life, so I could have mine.
For the fate of little boys was worse than girls.
And I knew Kaden would rather die than be a slave. Naturally, they would oblige him. And it would be my fault. All because I was out picking berries and shooting squirrels past curfew. But all of that didn’t matter, not now, when I was literally watching my life play out in front of my very eyes.
I let out a pitiful scream as I reached the edge of the woods. There was a clearing directly in front of me, and the forest continued to the right. I quickly calculated my chances in the forest and then in the clearing.
The clearing had a large lake I could run around and possibly hide in, that was if they didn’t stop and search for me. Once in the clearing it would be possible to outrun the Enforcers and their ships, for they moved slower over water. None of us really knew why. It was just a fact.
My lungs burned in protest as my tired legs urged me forward. My feet caught a branch, surging me forward towards the sharply-wooded forest floor.
I screamed from the impact and warm blood trickle down both of my legs. I paused to take a look at the large wounds on my shins and frantically brushed away the dirt near the cuts.
I had no time left. I could hear the shouting. With a whimper, I scrambled underneath a rock ledge and peered over. The ledge shielded me from being seen but smelled musty and old. Thoughts of snakes and rats flooded my brain, but I had to stay safe. My gaze locked on movement from where I had just run.
Kaden was leaning against one of the trees. I could make out his devastating features. With brown hair and warm eyes, he was so handsome it was hard not to tremble in his presence. His strong arms braced across his chest, and a mocking smile firmly in place.
I watched in horror as two of the Enforcers approached the trees next to Kaden. His expression was strong, unwavering. I would always remember him that way—courageous.
He looked like a warrior. A feeling of self sufficiency washed over me. It was the first time in my short life that I felt grown up, even if it hadn’t been of my own choosing. At only thirteen and fifteen, we had been forced to grow up before our time. To provide for our mothers who, when they gave birth, often faced the perils of death from lack of medical supplies.. And to give food to our brothers and sisters, all in hope that one day we would be free from the tyrannical government of the West Republic.
Kaden didn’t even scream as the Enforcer slapped him across the face. Nor did he flinch when the man spit on him, the saliva mingling with the blood tricking down his chiseled jaw.
At fifteen, Kaden was the eldest of my friends. I had always been half in love with him. But what girl wouldn’t be? He had helped feed my family for the past five years when my father was unable to work. He was so protective, so gallant. If only it wouldn’t have cost him his life.
I crouched closer to the ground. Pine needles brushed against my legs, burning my flesh. I had always been allergic, and now it seemed to flare to life at the worst of times.
I reached down and rubbed the exposed part of my legs to relieve some of the pain, cursing my stupidity at wearing such tattered pants out in the woods.
Kaden swore as the Enforcer grabbed him by the collar of his shirt. The black of his uniform burned my eyes in all of its symbolism, like death had descended upon us. The Enforcer’s gloved hands clenched around Kadens’ face as he asked about me. My gaze darted to the horrific scene, watching my world crumble. Each piece hit the floor until finally there was nothing left.
Kaden lunged for the man but was subdued by another hit to the head.
Kaden looked the man in the eye and smiled. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Perhaps you’re mistaken?”
The Enforcer swore and punched Kaden in the stomach. I had to fight the bile building in my throat. Extreme nausea overcame me. How could a person be so cruel? I was one girl. What worth was I to the Republic? One girl couldn’t cause so much harm as they thought. After all, girls were worth nothing to the government, merely slaves or a means to providing more heirs to the empire. I knew it was just the fact that they lost me, and knew they would suffer the consequences. Nothing more, nothing less.
It had to be.
“I’ll ask you one more time—where is the girl?” The Enforcer seemed to enjoy inflicting pain on Kaden . His smile wide as he continued to deliver blows to Kaden’s body.
Kaden grinned. “I’ll tell you one more time. I have no idea what girl you’re talking about.”
“So you’ll die,” the man said plainly.
“So I will,” Kaden answered.
A scream erupted from my throat before I could stop it. Without warning, Enforcers came crushing around me, dragging me to my feet, and pulling me towards the ship. “No! No! Kaden!” I yelled and begged, but Kaden was nowhere to be found. I gave myself up in vain with the small hope that at least my sacrifice would save his life.
Finally as Enforcers began to circle me, knives raised, I caught a glimpse of his white shirt amongst all the darkness of the Empires death squad.
I pushed at the Enforcer. If only I could keep my gaze on Kaden, then he would be safe. The forest buzzed to life with the Enforcer ship whipping the trees. My eyes stung from swirling debris, trying to stay open. Kaden disappeared behind the black uniforms, then appeared again as the Enforcer lifted me into the ship.
Two men approached Kaden. The first struck him across the face causing him to stumble to the ground. The second man pulled out a red dagger.
The last thing I saw was Kaden being stabbed in the back. A dark Enforcer knife lodged in his flesh. I couldn’t tell where the knife began and Kaden ended.
My world went black.
Six years later
I yawned as the scent of water lilies and lilacs wafted into my room. It was more of a prison, but I never said the word aloud lest I upset my adopted family and cause my own death.
I was already in trouble for trying to leave the castle grounds without Lex’s commanding presence. He was my own private security detail and an all around easy guy to get along with—at least when he was in a good mood, which, lucky for me, was often. I read to him, and he took me wherever I wanted to go.
Those in the service of the West Republic were never allowed an education. It was the one way the Republic was able to keep order within the realm. If servants were not educated, then they lacked the knowledge to rise up against authority.
I, of course, was an exception, considering I was captured at such a young age. The Emperor never told me why he spared my life, or why I was to be untouched by any of the Enforcers. Only that I had a specific destiny, one that even he could not reveal to me until the time came.
He’s old. That’s why I often credited his odd ramblings to his senile mind. After all, what could one girl possibly do that would affect the world in such a any way?
Besides, that life was gone. It was taken from me the day they killed my best friend. Tears burned my eyes at the sudden memory. Six years was a long time to mourn the loss of a friend, but at night the tears still rolled down my cheeks, the smell of pine needles wafted into my consciousness, and the absolute terror that gripped my chest the moment Kaden was ripped from this world all came back.
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