By R. F. Gammon
When the island princes crossed the Amber Sea for a visit, the day always became brighter for the mainland peoples. But this visit was even more important than usual—the princes were of age now. All of the girls whispered in the streets, planning how to snare them.
Nyla, ignoring the whispers, sat alone in the shadows of a fish stand, her eyes fixed on the red tones of the water from which her father scratched out their living. Her father was an outsider, having come from far beyond the mountain kingdom in which they lived, and everyone was suspicious of him. Things had grown worse since her mother’s death, without her protection and voice. But they made do, despite the townspeople’s thinly veiled prejudice.
Nyla had never been much for romance. It shouldn’t matter that the princes were coming. But, somehow, it did.
“I heard the eldest is already engaged to a girl from the island,” whispered the hatter’s daughter as she and her cousin passed the stand.
“Who wants the burden of being queen?” The cousin snickered. “Better to take the younger prince and get the money and title with none of the responsibility.”
The day wore on, and Nyla wrapped fish when people purchased them, but she couldn’t keep her eyes from sliding back to the bay and the red water. Surely they would arrive soon, she thought, and then scolded herself for wanting excitement. As the sun slipped below the horizon, its glow setting both the sky and water ablaze.
A girl’s voice rang out. “They’re coming! The princes!”
Against her will, Nyla leapt up, abandoned the fish, and raced to the shore. Sure enough, a ship sped toward them, its sails glowing. As it made anchor, people crowded onto the beach and the docks to welcome the princes, who leapt from the ship’s deck with massive smiles.
The elder prince had chestnut brown hair and a broad smile, which he flashed at the girl accompanying him. He turned to the village men, engaging them in eager conversation about fishing. Meanwhile, the younger prince, his red hair glowing brightly, turned to the village girls. His smile made Nyla’s stomach dip.
“Do any of you girls fish?” he asked, with nothing by way of introduction. “I have a new fishing boat, and I’d like to take it for a spin.”
The girls crowded closer in in a burst of excitement, and Nyla pulled back, away from the hustle. Of course they could all fish—this was a coastal village—and they shouted to him of their exploits, their voices a cacophony of boasts and pleadings. He shook his head, his eyes growing wide, and he glanced past them.
Nyla’s palms went slick as his gaze found her.
He approached, slowly, and slowly stretched out a hand to her. “Will you go with me?”
She nodded, slowly, hardly trusting her own voice to speak. Somehow, she didn’t mind being asked.
“I’m Casper.” He took her hand.
She smiled and felt her cheeks grow warm. “I’m Nyla.”
It was a soft wind that blew from the land and sent the prince’s small fishing boat speeding into the midst of the bay.
Nyla leaned forward on the bow of the boat, and the familiar, salt-scented breeze whisked her tension away. A laugh bubbled out of her mouth. Anxiety had curled in her chest for so long that she’d hardly remembered how to let it go, but now she did, trailing her fingers through the water.
“Do you sail often?” Casper asked, his voice, too, full of barely restrained laughter.
Nyla turned back. The setting sun reflected off his blue eyes.
“Not as often as I might wish.” The truth slipped from her before she could stop it. Honesty was dangerous for an outcast here. The last thing she wanted was to add more worries for her father.
But before she could find restraint, she was telling the prince everything. The boat bobbed in the bay and the stars began to slide out overhead, turning the amber glow into a darker one, and still she talked. He knew how to listen, and so she told him about her mother’s death, the pain of being alone in this society, the fear that she’d never be more than a fish seller. She told him about all her father had sacrificed for the sake of her mother, how her grandparents had disinherited Mother anyway for daring to marry an outsider, how difficult it had been to try to find a livelihood.
“We sell fish now,” she murmured softly, uncertain how to finish.
He was silent as the darkness encroached. The moon and the stars reflected on the dusk-reddened water. Red like her pain. Red like an angry grief, unable to find anywhere to release.
And then the island prince murmured, “I, too, lost my mother, Nyla.”
She met his gaze, startled. His mouth quirked to a tiny half-smile.
“I have no need,” he murmured, “for a wife, regardless of what the rumors say. At least not now. I did not come here in search of a life partner. I came here… in search of a friend.”
Nyla blinked at him, uncertain what he wanted, where he was going.
“So I offer you this. Would you and your father return with my brother and me, and take up residence in the palace? There is an open position in the kitchen for a cook, and it sounds as though your father would do nicely.” The prince gave her a soft smile.
Something released in Nyla’s chest. A new life. An opportunity. Somewhere far from here.
“Take all the time you need to consider,” Casper added.
She shook her head. She needed no time at all.
“Take us with you.”