Seventeen-year-old Violet is amazed when a storm brings the dashing Prince Richard to her impoverished family’s farm. The two fall in love at first sight, but although Richard has given his heart to Violet, his parents will only let him marry a princess of their choosing, a lady of the highest nobility and sensitivity. Now on a quest to be reunited with her true love, Violet must rely on her wits—and a little help from an unexpected source—to compete with princesses, pass the king and queen’s tests, and prove herself worthy of being Richard’s bride.
A storm was coming. The air seemed heavy and charged, and the wind had begun blowing from the east with a singular intensity of purpose. It brought with it the smell of distant rain. Violet stood in the middle of her father’s wheat field, closed her eyes, and threw out her arms as if to embrace the storm.
Every great or terrible moment of her life had been presaged by a storm, and Violet had learned to accept and embrace change as part of life. To meet it, not fear it. It had stormed the night before her brother was born, and four years later it stormed the night before he died. It had stormed the day before her cousin Tara’s wedding, where Violet had kissed a boy for the first time. It had stormed just before the beginning of the two-year drought that had nearly destroyed her family’s farm. And when a storm had come to save them from starvation, she had danced in it.
She took a deep breath, feeling the storm as it moved in. It was as though the tempest called to something deep and wild within her. She opened her eyes, and she could see the rain approaching. Violet watched as it hit the tops of the trees in the forest and came on with a steady sweep.
“Child, come inside before the storm arrives,” her father, William, said, approaching from the barn, where he had just put away Bessie and the wagon. It was the first Monday of the month, and he had just returned from his monthly trip into the village. Violet was bursting to ask him what news he had heard, but she knew better. Her father always saved news for telling at the supper table. She gave him a little wave, wanting to linger a few more moments and knowing that she would hear the news soon enough.
She turned aside reluctantly as her father came to stand beside her. He looked out at the rain sweeping in, and a worried look crossed his weather-beaten face. “I hope that storm doesn’t damage the crops,” he said.
Violet smiled. He was always so practical.
“But isn’t there something beautiful about it, Father?”
“Yes, so long as it doesn’t destroy anything.” He turned and headed for the house, clearly expecting her to follow.
Violet lingered another moment and cast one last look at the storm front. “But it always does,” she muttered under her breath before turning and heading after her father.
Just outside of the barn they were met by Thomas, the butcher’s son. Thomas was thirteen and fast growing into a man. He was the youngest of six children, all boys. For the last four years Thomas had worked for Violet’s father. As the farm prospered and William grew older, he had needed more help. With no son and only one daughter William had had to look elsewhere. Thomas was a good lad and worked hard for the few coins William could pay him and the chance to learn a trade other than his father’s. The village was small and would never have need of so many butchers.
William tousled the boy’s hair fondly. “You did well today, lad. You staying for supper?”
Thomas shook his head. “I’d like to get home before the storm hits.”
“There’s a wise lad. Off with you, then, and we’ll see you in the morning less’n the storm hasn’t let up. If it’s still raining, don’t bother coming until the day after.”
Thomas nodded his understanding before taking off toward home at a long, loping run.
“He should just make it before the rain starts,” her father said, as much to himself as to Violet.
Inside the house the smell of stew filled the air. Violet’s mother, Sarah, was already ladling the broth and bits of vegetables out into bowls on the table. Finished, she put down the pot and coughed hard into her apron.
“Storm’s coming,” her father said. “If there’s anything you need from outside, Mother, one of us’ll fetch it. We wouldn’t want you to catch cold. You’ll want to bundle up warm tonight.”
“I’m fine, really,” her mother answered with a weak smile.
Violet wasn’t so sure that was true. For the last three months her mother had been coughing, not hard, but persistently. She knew Father was worried, even though he didn’t say much. No one wanted to talk about the fact that Mother was getting weaker.
Father was usually cheerful and talked a lot during supper. Usually, on the days he went to the village, he was bursting with news, but this time he sat silently. It soon became obvious as they ate, though, that there was something on his mind. He ate in a distracted manner, casting occasional glances outside that grew more frequent once the rain began to fall.
“What’s wrong, William?” Sarah asked at last.
Violet’s father looked up and gave his wife a weak smile. “I’m just hoping the crops weather the storm.”
Sarah looked puzzled. “Why is this storm more troubling to you than others?” she asked.
He sighed and put down the piece of bread he had been eating. “The steward sent word from the castle that they’re going to need twice as much wheat and vegetables for this year’s Feasting than last.”
Violet stared at her father, wide-eyed, as her mother gasped. “Twice! Are they planning to feed the whole kingdom?”
The Feasting was four weeks away. It was an annual event which commemorated the victory of the people of Cambria over the king of Lore in their last great war. The Feasting would last for four days, the height of which was the High Feast on the third day, when no one in Cambria did any work. Rumor had it that during the High Feast the servants in the castle even ate with the lords. For the common people High Feast Day was a day of revelry and a festival. Everyone would sample strange foreign foods, dance, and make music while engaging in contests of skill and strength. Next to Christmas it was Violet’s favorite day of the year.
“More like they’ll be feeding royalty from other kingdoms,” her father answered her mother. “They say it’ll be a very special celebration this year. They say the Prince will marry.”
Violet sat up straighter, eager to hear. Any wedding was special, but a royal wedding! There had not been one in her lifetime. “Who is he to marry?” she asked.
William shook his head. “No one knows. It seems it’s something of a mystery. But they say royal carriages have been arriving at the castle for the last fortnight.”
“But they don’t know who the bride will be?” Sarah asked.
William shook his head. “Some say she was in one of those carriages; others say she hasn’t arrived yet. One thing that is certain is that no one really knows. I did talk to one of the kitchen boys who works in the castle. He told me that the reason nobody knows who the prince will marry is that the prince doesn’t know himself.”
“How can the prince not know?” Violet asked, bewildered.
“The lad said that princesses had been arriving from all over and that there was some sort of contest to be held.”
A contest! The thought seemed outrageous, and yet at the same time it appealed to Violet. Cambria was one of the strongest kingdoms, and it made sense that all of the other kingdoms would prize an alliance such as marriage could bring.
“Well, I never,” Sarah said, shaking her head. “That reminds me, though. Violet, are you still planning to enter one of the contests at the festival this year?”
“I was planning to,” Violet said, turning toward her mother. “I was thinking maybe the maze.”
“You’ve a good sense of direction; you’d stand a fair chance,” her mother said.
“You could try and ride Bessie in the girls’ riding contest,” her father added. “You’re a fair hand with her.”
“You could bake one of your berry pies,” her mother suggested.
“I’ve been thinking of those three,” Violet admitted. “I’m just not sure which to enter.”
“There’s nothing to stop you from entering all three of them,” William said. “And wouldn’t that be a sight if you won them all?” He leaned back in his chair with a grin.
“You’re putting an awful lot of store in my skills,” Violet said, laughing.
They laughed some more about the festival, but they were all tired, so after cleaning up the dinner dishes they headed to bed. Violet drew the curtain she and her mother had hung so she could have some privacy and curled up on her bed to listen to the storm outside. The wind was howling fiercely, as if looking for a way inside the house. She pulled her blanket up under her chin and listened to the sound of the rain as it hit the roof. Violet thought about the conversation at dinner. She couldn’t help but wonder about the prince and the woman he was to marry.
Prince Richard could see the storm clouds gathering and debated what to do. He was less than a day’s journey from home, but it seemed prudent to stop for the night and wait out the storm. If his memory served him, there was a small farming village about an hour’s ride away. They might have an inn. If not, Richard was sure any of his subjects would volunteer their homes for him.
“What do you say, Baron? Rest tonight and ride home after the storm?” Prince Richard asked, stroking his stallion’s gray neck. The horse nickered as if in agreement. “You’re right. We’ve been gone nearly a year; another day more or less won’t matter.”
He pointed Baron’s nose toward the village before giving the horse his head. They trotted along at a slow, comfortable pace for both animal and rider. The truth was, as much as he missed home, Prince Richard was not eager to return.
For as long as he could remember, his parents had been taken with the idea of him marrying a “true” princess. In their minds this was a princess of refinement and breeding and the utmost sensitivity. When Prince Richard had turned seventeen, they had sent him out into the world to meet as many princesses as he could. Despite the king and queen’s years of lecturing, they still didn’t seem to trust Richard to find his own bride. So Prince Richard had had to invite each of the princesses to visit his home in the weeks before the annual Feasting, where his parents would meet her and judge her worth.
The entire thing was appalling to him. Prince Richard had felt overwhelmed with embarrassment at the first castle, wondering how he could tell the king and queen that their daughter would be evaluated by his parents before she could be eligible to marry him. What Richard had discovered, though, had upset and embarrassed him even more. Prince Richard had found that the women he met practically fell over themselves at the opportunity to prove their worth to his parents. Their parents had also seemed to approve of the whole process. Prince Richard didn’t know if the excitement had been generated by a deep sense of respect for his parents or because the lives of these people were so structured and confining that they found the challenge appealing.
“How many princesses have we met, Baron, eh?” Richard asked the stallion, who shook his head as if to say the number was too high to count.
“At least forty. I wonder how many of them are already waiting for us at the castle.” He sighed. The prospect was disturbing. Richard believed with all his heart that the man should prove himself worthy, not the woman.
The first raindrops began to fall, sooner than he had anticipated. After a moment’s hesitation Richard turned Baron from the road and into a field. He could see smoke rising in the distance and reasoned that cross-country would be the fastest way to the village. He touched his heels to Baron’s flanks, and the great horse sprang forward into a gallop. Richard leaned forward, enjoying the feel of the wind on his face.
They had been galloping for no more than a minute when the skies opened up and the rain began to lash them. The cold of it seeped into Prince Richard’s bones, and he found himself shivering and urging Baron on faster. The horse plunged down into a small ravine, splashed across a swiftly rising river, and then charged up the other side.
They had just made it back to level land when something went wrong. Richard felt an unsettling sensation of sliding sideways as Baron slipped in the mud. The horse staggered, regained his footing, but then two strides later fell without warning. Richard, still unseated, flew over his horse’s head and landed on the ground. His head struck something hard, and he felt a flash of stabbing pain before everything went black.
The storm subsided some time after midnight. Lying awake, Violet listened to the rain as it gradually passed, and she couldn’t help but wonder what change it would bring to her life. She thought about the upcoming royal wedding, drifting to dreams of her own wedding.
At seventeen Violet was old enough to marry, and many of her friends and neighbors already had. Still, her parents hadn’t spoken of choosing a husband for her. Violet herself had brought up the subject a year earlier, only to be told by her father that she was too young to think of such things and not to worry. She had tried to do as he said, but Violet found she couldn’t put the thought completely from her mind. Every time she was in the village and her eyes would meet those of a young man, she would wonder to herself if he was the one.
It wasn’t that Violet was eager to marry, but neither was she afraid of it, as many girls of her acquaintance were. Rather, Violet had been increasingly aware of a kind of restlessness, a sense of not belonging as she had gotten older. The only way she could explain it was as having made the transformation from child to woman and feeling the pressing awareness that someday soon she must be the mistress of her own household and not the child in her parents’.
And so, as the last of the rain ceased, Violet fell asleep with an eager sense of anticipation for the change that she felt sure was coming.
Debbie Viguié’s Simon Pulse books include the New York Times bestselling Wicked series and the Once upon a Time novels Violet Eyes, Scarlet Moon, and Midnight Pearls. She lives in Florida with her husband, Scott. Visit her at DebbieViguie.com.