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Chapter One: Where the fuck am I?

Where the fuck am I?

Glancing dejectedly at the unfamiliar land, he felt utterly lost.

Which was impossible.

Born and raised in the Silcamore District, he knew Black Rose had to be just around the corner, had probably been circling it for the past hour or so. Yet the fact remained. The more he raced his horse, the less he recognized the territory.

Damn! The whole day spent riding home only to be in the middle of nowhere!

Annoyed for the waste of time, his knees tightened around Fuzeon’s belly, vowing he would reach home if it were the last thing he would do. And he might just have gotten his wish had a fat drop not hit his nose first, then his forehead.

Rain, great! That’s all I need!

Night had just fallen, with Stella setting at the twenty-fifth hour, an hour ahead of time given the whole day long of cloudy overcast sky. Now it looked anything but friendly, and the big black clouds that had steadily gathered over the horizon promised nothing good, as did the ominous thunderbolts that pierced the velvety darkness with distant flashes.

Goddamn it! He needed cover and fast, but none seemed available in the flat emptiness he was crossing. Just my luck! Where’s a shelter when you need one?

To think his father had taken such pride in running the Shelter System, making sure that all travelers on Silcamore’s roads had adequate hospitality to see them through their journey. Too bad he hasn’t placed one here, wherever here was, or wherever he would be going as he hurried away from the wet drops.

The downpour suddenly increased as though to spite him. Irritating him mostly, since the watery droplets had the most unfortunate habit of infiltrating through his long hair and clothes to run down bare skin.

Snorting, the horse reminded the rider he might not be the only one feeling uncomfortable. “Hey, Fuzeon.” Bending toward the black head, he spurred him, “Let’s get a roof over our heads before we both drown.”

Fuzeon nickered softly in agreement and accelerated as if he had just such a place in mind. So the man raised his gaze and noticed a distant light on the left. Faint and unstable to be sure, still the first sign of life in what seemed to be an eternity.

Quickly steering Fuzeon, he rushed in that direction, only to realize he was at the village’s outskirts, just a stone throw away from Black Rose. Too tired, or rather too wet, to care, he reached the pale glimmer, amazed it came from such poorly kept and neglected shack, with an annexed stable that looked like a palace.

Must be Fuzeon’s lucky day. Getting the horse, he tied him up next to an empty trough. At least he’ll be sure to spend a better night than his master will.

Then speeding to the front door, he knocked loudly, trying to ignore how run down the rest of the place was.

“Yes, just a minute.”

He heard a female voice answer. After a few moments, she appeared on the threshold.

“Good evening, sir.” Lit from behind, a complete stranger stared back at him with huge green mesmerizing eyes.

And what he read in them was something so unusual he could not help sinking in it. A mix of relief, happiness, anticipation and so much more jumbled together, so strong, he feared he would drown in it. Literally.

“May I help you?”

“Yes, I…” If he hesitated, it was because he was pulling himself together and trying to recover a semblance of control. Too many emotions were surging to the fore all at once that he simply had to stop to analyze the person in front of him.

At first glance, he could have sworn he had never seen her before in his life. But the second glance told a totally different story, until awareness hit him like something long repressed or unjustly forgotten.

By the gods, I know her!

Which seemed as impossible as his getting lost in a territory he knew like the back of his hand.

Breath caught in his throat, he checked her over one more time. Young, tall, very slim with well-shaped muscles that testified to a life on horseback,
dark hair and extremely beautiful—he could not shake the weird sensation of looking in a mirror, as if she were his reflection or a twin he had somehow lost without remembering where or how. Because something about her colors and general build was impressively similar to him.

Eighteen or nineteen at the most, her thick silky hair had the same raven black hue and texture as his, even if hers was longer also compared to his below-the-shoulder cut. Her perfect oval face had stolen some definite features from him, like the straight nose, exquisitely designed soft lips and the clear-cut almond shape of the dazzling green eyes. If this was the only discordant note, for his eyes were as black as cinders, it only strengthened the feeling he knew her at some intimate level he could not quite define at the moment. No, not a casual acquaintance at all—the more he examined her, the more she felt over and beyond familiar as if she belonged to him, which again was definitely impossible because no member of his family lived in the village.

Maybe she has worked at Black Rose. But hard as he thought of the many women employed at his home over the course of his twenty-one years of age, he found no trace of a name to associate to this startling creature.

“Hem…” The woman cleared her throat. “May I help you?”

“I’m sorry, Milady.” Snapping out of his odd musings, he shifted on his feet. “But with the storm and all, I seem to have lost my way to—”

“Black Rose?” There was a note of incredulity in her voice he found a bit mocking.

“Well, I guess you know where I live.” Then again, everyone in the village knew of Black Rose.

“Also who you are, for that matter.” The hint of a smile curved her lips before she made a show of bowing. “Welcome to my humble home, Prince Duncan Caldwell.”

“All right.” No surprise here, either. He was the local celebrity after all. “Since you seem to know all about me, may I enquire on your name, Miss…”

“Ylianor.” And angling her head, she leveled her gaze with his. “Just Ylianor.”

“Who’s there?”

The angry man’s voice broke the strange magic that had trapped Duncan, rooted him to the ground it seemed, to the point he had also ignored the rain beating down on his back.

“I’m sorry.” With a start, Ylianor jumped away from the door looking every bit as bewitched as he was. “It’s raining harder, and I’ve kept you outside.” She gestured behind her. “Please, come in.” Then turning around, she raised her voice, “Coming, Father.” Focusing back on him, an apologetic smile split her lovely face. “If you’ll excuse me…” Without waiting for a reply, she went to a nearby table, picked up a small candle and disappeared up a flight of stairs.

Hailed by loud thunder, Duncan Caldwell entered the house, as poor and desolate on the inside as it was on the outside. Sparse candles lit the table and the few chairs scattered around a cold fireplace next to an empty kitchen. Nothing more to see, he waited patiently for her to return, which she did shortly after.

“Here.” She handed him a towel. “At least you can get dry.”

“Thanks.” He smiled gratefully, shifting the long hair to rub the back of his neck.

“Would you like to stay the night?” Slightly embarrassed, her cheeks colored of an adorable red shade. “I mean, with the rain and all, maybe it would be better.” She seemed to make an effort to pull herself together. “There’s a free bed upstairs, and I could fix you something to eat.”

Judging from the little furniture he had seen, he guessed the small shack would be unable to provide for too many sleeping arrangements. “Where will you sleep?”

“Oh, I won’t be doing much sleeping tonight.” Retrieving the towel he had finished using, she folded it on the back of a chair. “My father is dying, so I’ll keep to his bedside.”

“I’m sorry.” He really was, even if nothing she had said so far had shed any light on who she really was, or on what her connection to him might be. “Can I be of assistance?”

“No, thank you.” She did not sound sad, just exhausted. “He’s been ill for a long time, but tonight I feel it’s his last one in this dimension.”

“I see.” Not sure he did, Duncan tried to be convincing.

“Now, if you want, I’ll take care of Fuzeon.” She glanced outside the window. “I’m sure this thunderstorm has frightened him enough already. My father always keeps a few bales of hay stashed away for just such occasions.”

“You seem to know an awful lot about me.” Surprised, he cocked his head. “And about my horse.”

“Not to worry, Prince.” She patted his shoulder gently, as though he were a child in need of reassurance. “I’m the stable keeper’s daughter, so not only do I know your family quite well, but also your horses.”

“You are John Meyer’s daughter?” That explains the familiar air!

But not why he did not remember her.

At her nod, he knew things were not adding up. “Until he became ill, John stayed in Black Rose.” That had happened a year or so ago. “He had a place above the stables that was for him and his family—”

“I didn’t live there,” she was quick to grasp where he was going.

Too quick.

“I lived here, in the village.” Then she pursed her lips, evidently unwilling to keep talking about it.

Which only perked up his curiosity. “Never even came to visit him while he was working?”

John Meyer had been Black Rose’s stable-keeper forever, the man both he and his father had blindly entrusted with the precious charge of their four-legged friends. Like Prince Charles loved to tell his son, John had no equals, and it had become more evident since the man had fallen ill and left his service without Duncan being able to find an adequate replacement anywhere.

“No, I never did.” Averting her gaze, she fixed the window. “About Fuzeon, would you like me to—”

“Yes, please, if you could look after him, I’d be most grateful.” Following her gaze, he noticed that the window next to the door gave a clear view inside the stable and of Fuzeon in particular. “We come from a long journey, and maybe I taxed him more than I should have.”

Nodding in understanding, she grabbed a candle and went outside. He spied her from the window as she entered the stable to reach Fuzeon, his dark frame already moving to welcome her. Then resting his muzzle on her shoulders, he allowed her to caress his back. So Duncan grew more perplexed.

Fuzeon was a very special horse that did not trust people, often including Duncan’s own friends. Fuzeon privileged Prince Caldwell alone after he had managed to overcome the horse’s diffident nature. And considering the fact he had accepted neither his mother nor his sister, the animal’s behavior seemed even more puzzling.

On returning, Ylianor placed the candle near the table and pulled out a chair. “You can sit if you’d like.” Her voice trailed to the kitchen, “While I fix dinner.”

Accepting her offer, he plopped down, feeling every tired bone in his body. On the opposite side, she gathered a few plates then retraced her steps, bringing a vegetable soup, some bread and a small piece of cheese.

“Here you go.” She set everything in front of him. “I know it’s not much.” A trace of regret veiling her face, she went round the table to sit in front of him. “But with Father’s illness, I haven’t had much time to look after much else.”

“Aren’t you going to eat?” Not that it was enough for two, practically not for one either.

She glanced at the little food as though it were her dinner and breakfast. “I ate already.”

To Duncan, it sounded like a lie, pure and simple. And judging from her extremely thin frame, he was about to decline her offer when a noise distracted him.

“Hey, slut, where’s my food?” The voice upstairs shouted, “Are you going to let me starve, you bitch?”

No, Duncan could not believe his ears, nor could he recognize his friend since childhood in the spiteful vulgarity of this enraged tone. His John Meyer had been a quiet and patient man, not very talkative, much preferring the company of his beloved animals, always hard at work with a passion few others possessed.

“Please forgive my father.” As though reading his mind, Ylianor leaned forward. “He’s very sick. The disease has consumed his mind as well as his body. Now he doesn’t know what he’s saying half the times.” She got up from her chair. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll bring him dinner.”

“Is there anything I can do?” Rising himself, Duncan felt embarrassed and concerned for her.

“No, thank you.” But Ylianor seemed to have things under control. “No one can do anything for him anymore.” In the kitchen, she grabbed a tray and headed upstairs.

Falling back down, he tasted the first spoonful of soup, wondering where Ylianor found the strength to put up with this difficult situation. True, she seemed resourceful and organized. Yet also alone, as alone as if she did not have a living relative besides the one who was dying now. Not one person in the whole world who gave a damn about her—

“Are you done, stupid cow?” John’s overbearing voice crashed in his thoughts. “Get out of here! I don’t want to see your ugly face again. Fuck off and leave me alone.” There was a slight pause, as though perhaps Ylianor was trying to make him see reason.

Only Duncan could not catch her soft voice.

“I said get out! Get out of my house and stay out!” John’s breath appeared to be unusually strong for a dying man. “Leave filthy slut. Do you hear me?”

Next thing, Ylianor came down two steps at a time, face pale and drawn.

“Are you all right?” Duncan immediately got out of the chair and strode to meet her halfway.

“Yes, I’m fine.” Another lie, though he lacked the heart to challenge it. “Don’t worry. I know it’s hard to believe he’s dying, but it will happen tonight, so…” She shrugged as if to indicate she would tolerate the nasty behavior to make his passing easier.

“Maybe I could talk to him.” He tried to ignore the fact she had read his mind again, for the second time. “We used to be friends when he worked at Black Rose, and he’s taught me all I know and appreciate about horses—”

“No, please.” She raised a hand in frustration. “His mind is so far gone, he hardly recognizes anyone anymore. Or if he did, he’d just treat you as badly as he’s been treating me lately.” She peeked at the stairs behind her shoulder, her long hair falling on her breasts. “It’s best if you remember him in his better days, handling his adored horses, rather than this bitter shell that has nothing left of the man he used to be. Besides, his energy’s slipping away fast, and it might be too much of a strain for him.”

“Maybe you’re right.” Understanding her point, he let it go. “But what will happen to you when he does pass away? Will you stay here?”

“I…” At the hesitation, her brilliant green eyes clouded. “I might.”

“Is something wrong?” Not fooled, he breached the distance between them. “Whatever it is, I might be able to help you.”

Then he was on her, and all he wanted to do was pull her in his arms, stroke her head and reassure her everything would be all right. And the way she swayed, as though expecting him to do just that, made his need more pressing. But at the last moment, she drew back.

“You haven’t finished your dinner.” Averting her gaze, she gestured at the table. “Maybe you don’t like it…” Dejectedly, she looked to the kitchen, clearly thinking about what to give him in alternative when it seemed obvious none was available.

And he could not stand it.

“No, it’s fine.” So he returned to sit at the table and grabbed his spoon. “In fact, it’s delicious.” With a couple more spoonful, he finished the soup. “But you sit here and tell me what’s wrong.” After moving the empty dish aside, he took the bread and cheese. “And stop lying.” Raising his gaze, he made a point of narrowing it on her as she reluctantly settled on the chair opposite his. “Remember I’m in charge of this district, and the village council leader refers to me for any big decisions.” At her violent blush, he knew she would have tried to lie again like he had guessed. “Is that clear?”

“Aye, sir.” The flush deepened into a purplish hue. “If you really must know, this used to be my grandparents’ house. Now the village council needs to reassign it to a bigger family.” She wrung her hands nervously, clearly uneasy and unwilling to share her load. “Out of respect for Father, they won’t claim it until he’s alive, but then I’ll have to find other accommodations.”

“In the village?” Something told him she wanted to be as far away from the place as possible.

“I’m not sure I want to stay.” But the way she said it sounded more like it was not her choice, rather someone else’s.

“What about your job?” Braking the first piece of bread, he nibbled it together with the cheese.

“Nothing I can’t leave behind.” Ylianor shrugged indifferent. “I work part-time at the bakery, and that’s something I could do anywhere else.”

“Have you ever worked at Black Rose?” He searched her face, still working on why he could not remember her at all. Because something told him, it had to be more than the fact that she was the daughter of Black Rose’s stable keeper.

“Why do you ask?” A curious expression crossed her lovely eyes, an urgency he could not quite understand. “Do you remember that I did?”

“No.” Can’t remember you at all. And he was becoming truly sorry for it. “Just wondering.” With another bite, he finished the bread and cheese.

It was her turn to regard him coolly. “You have no memory of me, right?” And it was evident she expected he would not.

“To be honest, I don’t.” He sighed. “And even if you told me you’re John’s daughter, I can’t seem to place you anywhere in my life or remember the first thing about you.” Clearing the space on the table, he stretched an arm toward her. “I didn’t know your name. I still don’t know how we met or what we used to do together…” Which could not have been anything related to sex, given their age. “But you feel so awfully familiar, like I’ve known you all my life.” He clasped her hand. “Like I grew up with you or something equally close.”

“You…hem…” Taking a deep breath, she squeezed his hand. “You probably saw me around the stables.”

“Yeah…” No, it’s something more. Something you don’t want to tell me. “Probably.” Letting go of her hand, he reclined on his seat. “So what are you going to do? Where are you going to live?”

“I don’t know.” She folded her arms, a sign he interpreted as a refusal to talk about it. “I’ll worry about it tomorrow.”

“If it’s all right with you, I’ll take you to your room.” Rising, she picked up the empty dish and went to the kitchen. “So I can check on my father for the rest of the night.”

“Of course.” He rose, ready to go. “I’m so tired nothing could keep me awake tonight.”

“I hope so.” After leaving everything in the sink, she clutched a couple of candles and blew out a few others. “Here.” She handed him the lit candle then walked to the staircase, Duncan trailing at her heels.

“Your room is right over there.” She directed the candlelight toward a door at the far end of the landing. “I’ll be here if you need anything.” She pointed at the door behind her. “So good night—”

“No, wait.” Clutching her arm, he detained her. “Are you sure…” Then he dragged her forward, so close her warm body suddenly pressed against his. “Really sure you don’t need anything?” So close, he could have easily kissed her.

“I…” And it was having a definite effect on her, too, her body trembling in sheer hunger. And her empty stomach had nothing to do with it. “I…” A flash crossed her eyes, giving him hope that maybe she would allow him to help her, really help her. But then she pulled herself together. “Yes, I’m sure.” And from her inflexible tone, he understood there was nothing he could do.

“All right.” So he let her go. “Good night. I’ll see you in the morning.” Holding out his candle, he entered his bedroom and closed the door.