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TARGET | Chapter One

1

LEX

His Royal Highness, Prince Alexander Galani of Regania, twisted the ring on the first finger of his left hand, trying to ignore the itching of his scars over his eye and shoulder. His anxiety was piqued, and he knew what was coming.

“Are you all right?” Enzi, his servant, asked beside him.

Lex sighed, keeping his gaze forward, ignoring the tapestries and guards and the view of the city through open windows. “No,” he said. “I mean yes, I’ll be fine.”

He could almost hear the raise of Enzi’s brow. As Lex’s personal servant, Enzi would never directly defy him, but that didn’t stop him from reacting.

“You know as well as I do what they’re going to say,” Lex said, keeping his voice low. “They’ve probably already chosen a wife for me.”

“Probably,” Enzi said.

“This is mucking stupid.” He reached up to rub at the skin beneath the eyepatch over his left eye.

“Want some balm?” Enzi said, pulling a tin from his pocket.

Lex sighed, pausing in the corridor, and took some, rubbing it onto the agitated skin. Flanked by two guards, the doors to his parents’ study stood twenty feet away now, and it was likely his entire future was already decided behind them.

He hated it.

“Prince Lex,” Enzi said. “Can I ask you something?”

Lex straightened his robes, taking a moment. “Sure, what is it?”

Enzi looked to the floor. “Do you even want to be married?”

“Of course,” Lex said, handing back the balm. “I’ve always wanted to, I knew I’d need to when the time came, but…it has to be the right person, doesn’t it?”

“Then…why don’t you like any of them?”

Lex blinked. “Them?”

“The ladies of court,” Enzi said.

Lex paused.

“I mean,” Enzi grinned. “I know you’re not attracted to men, otherwise you’d obviously be with me.”

“Obviously,” Lex said, returning the smile.

“So…what is it?”

Lex pulled Enzi away from the doors, out of earshot of the guards, then paused. “They look at me different, En. This,” he said, pointing to his face. “You, my parents, my close friends, none of you flinch when I take off the eyepatch. You know me, you don’t stare, you don’t think differently…”

“But,” Enzi said. “Isn’t that something that’ll come with time?”

“I’ve known most of these girls since I was ten,” Lex said. “I’ve been to balls, festivals, feasts with them. I’ve spoken to them, played games with them, written letters to them, and yet not a single one can look me in the face without a slight cringe in their expression.”

Enzi frowned.

“Maybe…” Lex sighed again. “Maybe I’m imagining it. Maybe it’s all in my head. But I can’t bring myself to marry a girl who I’m not absolutely sure has accepted me, scars and all.”

“But,” Enzi started. “But where will you—”

Lex gave a quick shake of his head, eyeing the guards nearby.

Enzi swallowed. “Do you have a plan?”

“The coast,” Lex said softly. “The midsummer festival is happening in a week, maybe I can meet people, make friends, and if I’m lucky…” he trailed off. “En, I have to do this. Especially if my parents are about to tell me what I think they are. And I can’t do it without your help. Can I count on you?”

Enzi sighed, and gave a short bow. “Yes, my lord prince.”

“Thank you.” Lex squared his shoulders, turning toward the study. As he approached, the guards reached out and opened the doors, revealing a simple room with a long rug down the middle, shelves lining the walls, and a fire in the far hearth. Lex stopped halfway across the room to avoid the heat, facing two soft chairs where his parents sat waiting, a third empty chair across from them.

The doors behind him closed, but he knew Enzi would be inside, watching. Three more servants stood at the far wall, awaiting their monarchs’ needs.

“Alexander,” Lex’s mother said, standing to take his hands in hers. “Thank you for coming. I know you’ve been busy lately overseeing the canal expansion.”

“It’s nothing that can’t wait,” Lex said, placing a kiss on her cheek.

Larissa Galani was tall, golden-haired, and lovely even in her fiftieth year. The model of a Reganian woman. The scent of flowery perfume wafted off of her, taking him back to when she’d placed her hands so carefully around him after his accident—when the Cures hadn’t worked fast enough and he was left with scars despite magic—avoiding the injuries, helping him fall asleep when the pain became too much.

She reached up and brushed his hair back. “I don’t know why all you boys insist on keeping your hair so long in the front. I want to see your handsome face.”

Lex laughed, then turned to his father, Stephan Galani. A tall, fit man who studied, who worshiped the God Sileo over the rest, favoring stability, keeping things running, steady and sure. The edges of the king’s hair were greying, but his smile was as young and bright as it had ever been.

The king placed a hand on Lex’s shoulder. “I heard you’re doing well in your riding lessons.”

“So they tell me,” Lex said. “I’ve got a good mare, feels like we’ll get along.”

“I’m glad you’re taking up riding again. Maybe we can go together soon, down to Bellecia, or maybe the mountains.”

“I’d like that.”

“How’s sparring?” Father asked.

“Going well. Master Lyn says I’m improving each day.”

“Excellent, excellent,” Father said. “We’re very proud of you.”

“Lex,” Mother said. She took her seat once more and gestured for Lex to take the chair across from them. “What about that meeting with Lady Arena? Oliver’s cousin?” she asked. “Such a sweet girl, isn’t she?”

Now they were getting to it. “Of course. She’s very kind,” Lex said.

“But…”

Lex sighed. “It’s like I’ve told you before. I’ve spent time with every eligible young woman in the court, and it’s always the same.”

“Son,” Father started.

“You don’t know what it’s like,” Lex said, standing again and stepping away. “People look at you and they see perfection. A model marriage, the ideal king and queen. They look at me and—”

He ran a hand through his hair, tugging a bit, letting the pain there distract from the stretching of his scars.

“Surely if they were to spend more time with you,” Mother began.

“Maybe,” Lex said. “But, how long? I’ve spent at least a few hours with each one in the past six months, since you both have been pushing this so strongly. And more with many of them, especially those I’ve known since childhood. None of them can even look me in the eye.”

He turned to see the two of them exchanging a sad look. Not pity, his parents would never pity him. But something close to heartbreak. Should he tell them? Ask?

“Lex,” Mother said, standing. “What we want most is for you to be happy. But you are a prince, and with that comes responsibility.”

“I know. I know that, but…” He paused, took a breath. “Let me look outside the nobility.”

“What?” Father said.

“Just as an experiment,” Lex said. “I hardly spend time around the common folk, maybe I could find someone—”

“Son,” the king said, cutting him off. “You’ve been eligible to marry for nearly two years. There are many lovely young ladies—”

“No, you’re not listening to me. None of them—”

“We hoped things would happen naturally, of course,” Father said, turning toward the fireplace. “It was so simple for us, we didn’t worry for you. However. You turn eighteen in one month’s time, and you have not yet chosen a wife.”

Lex pressed his teeth together. Here it comes, he thought.

“We’ve been discussing the possible options,” Mother said. “And we truly believe Carina Valio is a wonderful choice.”

Father paused near the fire. “Unless you choose a different young lady yourself, you will meet with Lady Carina and accept the proposal she’s offered in two days.”

Lex’s jaw dropped. “Two days?”

“Yes,” Mother said. “Two days. You’ve known these ladies for a long time, and that is plenty of time to choose who will be best to have at your side.”

“Mother,” Lex said. “I don’t love any of them. There are only a handful who can barely tolerate me. Why would you force me in this choice?”

“You will choose a bride,” Father said firmly, “in two days, or you will agree to marry Carina Valio.”

“Why the deadline?” Lex asked. He’d argued this line before but they’d never answered the question to his satisfaction. “My birthday isn’t for another month, and for that matter why does it have to be by my birthday? And why can’t it be someone outside the nobility?”

Father turned, his eyes narrowed. “We have talked about this—”

“Not enough,” Lex snapped. “You’ve said it’s tradition to do things that way but the tradition obviously hasn’t worked for me.”

“Alexander,” Mother said. “Do not shout.”

“Why not?” Lex said. “You haven’t listened to anything I say on this matter. You trust me with renovations and overseeing the guards but on this one thing that will affect the rest of my life—”

“Enough.”

Lex clamped his mouth shut.

King Stephan stepped softly, but his shoulders were stiff. “You will do as we say.”

“Or what?” Lex said.

His mother gasped.

Lex found it difficult to care. He was beyond arguing with them. What they asked him to do was not worth the sacrifice of being with someone he didn’t love.

“To your rooms,” Mother finally said, breaking the silence. “Until you agree, or in two days’ time.”

“What?”

“We won’t accept the proposal for you, Alexander,” Mother said. “But you must understand this is important. We’re getting old. We want to see you situated for success with a good woman as your future queen and an heir of your own.”

Lex opened his mouth to argue, but his father cut him off.

“This is not up for debate, son. This is how things are done.”

Lex said nothing. Frustration building in his chest, he turned on his heel and left the room. It was time for drastic measures.


 

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