The Arrival of Princess Lydia

On Thursday, August 13th, I came home from work and told my husband, “I have a good feeling about this weekend. This is the weekend baby Lydia will be born.”

I went to sleep Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night with anticipation. I just knew my water was going to break some time in the night, like it did with my first born. I had my overnight bag ready and Lydia’s bag was packed. The only thing we needed to do was install the car seat (which my husband neglected to do, saying that we still had “plenty of time”). As Sunday came to a close and I was still very pregnant, I was overcome with melancholy.

“What’s wrong?” my husband asked as I heaved a big sigh.

“I just really thought she was going to come this weekend,” I replied.

“The weekend’s not over yet,” he said.

At 11PM that night, I was awakened by a slow trickle that I knew wasn’t pee. Despite my excitement, I managed to sound sort of composed as I woke my husband. He leapt out of bed to get me a towel. I proceeded to waddle onto the bathroom tile and make my phone calls while he gathered his things. My grandparents came over to watch our son. My parents in California were alerted; my mom promised to head over first thing in the morning. Then it was off to the hospital.

My experience was much like the first one except that I had to wear a mask the whole time and I felt a lot more pain. The gal who put my IV in dug around for a while, looking for my vein, before she pulled the needle out and tried again. Try as they might (and, boy, did they!) the nurses couldn’t find my cervix or determine which position the baby was in. Thankfully, they were able to find an ultrasound tech who answered that question for us without shoving her whole arm up my woo-ha. Lydia was head down and ready to go but I wasn’t dilated in the slightest. So they put me on that wonderful pitocin to get things started.

The anesthesiologist, as professional and courteous as he was, stabbed the epidural needle into my spine before I was numb. I couldn’t eat anything because the epidural made me nauseous (I had a headache so I washed down some tylenol with a bit of apple juice I couldn’t even keep that down!). After twelve hours of laboring, my epidural seemed to lose its potency. I was given a control that would blink at me when it was okay for me to administer more of the epidural to myself and I was smashing the button at every opportunity. And I still felt every contraction, especially in my lower back. It was pretty miserable. Thank God, it only lasted thirty minutes or so.

Then my OB came in and pronounced me ready to push. That was the best part. All I had to do was give three good pushes and it was over. Kicking and wailing, Lydia Grace Fox made her entrance into the world.

My husband raced out of the hospital to get us some Chipotle as soon as we were left alone. We took turns holding our baby girl while feasting on our long awaited burritos. Eventually, we were moved out of the birthing suite and into a recovery room which was where we stayed for the next three days and two nights.

Feeding was rough. Like her brother before her, Lydia didn’t take to the breast very well. We had to supplement with formula until my milk came in and I could pump enough to satisfy her. (Unlike her brother, Lydia has a healthy appetite.) After countless tests, many doctor and nurse visits, a breast feeding consultation, and a discharge class, we were finally allowed to go home.

My mom stayed for the first week, cooking, cleaning, and helping care for the children so that I or my husband could sleep/eat/shower. My mother-in-law came next, racing to get here from her home in Wisconsin. She’s taken over my mom’s duties these past two weeks. She leaves tomorrow morning. Then the real work will begin. Bennett could always count on one of his grandmas to play with him when Mommy or Daddy were otherwise occupied. I could always count on one of them to run to the grocery store for me or throw in a load of laundry. My husband can help when he’s not working but for those hours when I’m alone…it’s going to be rough.

Thankfully, I do have family and friends in the city who can step in if I need a break. And I know everything will be okay once we develop a routine and once Bennett has gotten more acclimated to having a baby sister. Lydia won’t be up every three hours forever. Life will go back to normal. Until then, we’ll endure. In the midst of the sleep deprivation and constant activity, there are sweet moments. There are times when it still doesn’t feel real. I’m still just a kid myself; how can I be raising kids? It’s scary and wonderful all at the same time.

Another excerpt from “The Andromeda’s Ghost”

Pain came first, bursting into being and spreading across his body like fire. Taren gritted his teeth and opened his eyes. His surroundings were veiled and distorted. Even after blinking multiple times, it was hard to see. The pulse of his brain beating against the inner lining of his cranium might have had something to do with that. Messages from his rattled mind were sent to the rest of his body and his limbs sluggishly began to move. He unclipped his seatbelt and fell against the control panel of his ship with a grunt. The monitors were off, but the lights under several buttons were flickering. There was still some power. Large metal slabs were embedded into the dash. Taren turned away, looking for Kylee.

His copilot was still strapped to her seat, head sagged against her chest, long hair covering her face. She didn’t appear to be breathing. Fear gave him the strength to push off the control panel and get to her.

“Kylee?” He lifted her face and brushed the strands of dark hair away from her eyes. Those glassy, almond-shaped orbs stared back at him. He freed her from the restraints and she fell heavily against him. The back of her white dress was sticky with blood. A sharp piece of metal protruded from the back of her seat, the end of which was stained red. Taren’s breath hissed in through his teeth as he fought to control his panic. He slipped a hand under her bent knees and hoisted her up. Her cold body leaned into him as he began the angled climb out of the cockpit.

 

“If I’d known you’d be this much trouble, I never would’ve gotten involved,” he said as he braced himself against the control panel.

The monitors flashed the “Eminent Collision” message and that danger siren screeched across the cockpit as the planet’s gravitational pull yanked their burning ship out of the sky. And Taren was making jokes.

Kylee just laughed. “Yeah, you would’ve.”

He grinned.

 

Taren blinked rapidly to get rid of the stinging. It didn’t help. His grip around Kylee tightened. He ambled through the metallic hallway, hoping there would be something to help her in sick bay. There was a giant hole at the end of the hall, where the ship’s infirmary should have been. Taren looked over his shoulder. Through the archway, he could see clear into the cockpit. The placement of the metal pieces in the control panel and copilot’s seat suddenly made sense. There was one more piece stuck in the controls above the pilot’s chair. It must’ve missed Taren’s head by inches.

Rage built up around his throat and made his scalp tingle. Why couldn’t I have died with her?

The distant sound of a landing ship caught Taren’s ear. It had to be the men that had chased them to this unknown planet. Taren took a moment to think, drumming his fingers against Kylee’s leg. He made a snap decision and set her down over the inclined floor of the hallway before clamoring up the stairs. The lights flickered in the kitchen but it was enough for Taren to see by. He loped around the table, past the supplies littered across the floor, and to the cabinets aligning the west wall. After punching the code into the screen, the cabinet door slid open. There was an emergency backpack waiting for him. Once the pack was slung over his shoulder, Taren took one more moment to grab an extra canteen of water before he made his way back to Kylee.

His journey down the stairs became much harder with the added weight of his survival pack. He hobbled through the dark lower level of the ship with Kylee in his arms, to the ramp that would lead him outside. He jammed his thumb into the button several times before the airlock opened. The ramp lowered to reveal a flat landscape. Two moons hung in the sky, casting their ghostly glow over the earth. A dry wind swept over Taren as he walked out.

He collapsed against the side of his smoking ship, taking deep breaths, arms and shoulders burning. Exhausted as he was, he had to keep moving. He had to get away. He cast his eyes across the horizon, ignoring the pain in his head and looking for any sign of life. The red and yellow landing lights of an unfamiliar ship flashed over the hill to the west. If he strained his ears, he could hear the hiss of the cooling systems. There was a river-like coil of lights in the east. There was no way Taren could make it there on foot. There was nothing but darkness to the north, and yet he could pick out darker shadows against the sky that blotted out the stars. Trees perhaps? He pushed off the ship and started walking.

           

Thrusters coughing across the sky sent Taren running for the giant burrow in the ground. From the size of its entryway, it would be big enough to offer him some shelter. It didn’t matter if it was the home of some monstrous creature. He had to hide. Now.

Every muscle quivered in exhaustion. His feet seemed to be palpitating within his boots, screaming for release. Still, he pushed himself to run across the salt flat of a dead lake between decaying vegetation to get to the burrow. He tripped and fell inside with a surprised grunt. He curved his body over Kylee’s as the momentum of his fall rolled him down into the cave. His body fell against the rocks toward the bottom of the decline, cutting off his cry of pain and surprise. The sound echoed off the dew-covered walls. He rose with a groan and shuffled further into the cave, where darkness was beginning to gather. He carefully lowered Kylee onto the ground, shrugged out of his pack, and began to dig through it. His fingers found something that crinkled. He pulled out the thermal blanket and unrolled it quickly. Using it and some of the rocks that had broken his fall, Taren constructed a crude tent. He grabbed Kylee by the armpits and dragged her into the tent. Then he crouched beside her and waited, hoping beyond hope that the dark blanket would blend into the semi darkness around him.

At first, all he could hear was the howl of the dry wind ripping across the land. He strained his ears for further sounds of the enemy ship or a landing crew. There was nothing. Taren relaxed but only just. He retrieved a pack of dehydrated fruit and broke it open. He almost choked on his food when he heard footsteps approaching the entrance of the burrow.

“I’m telling you something popped up on the radar,” a voice said.

“And I’m telling you it was nothing,” a second voice growled. “The wind and the heat are screwing up the readings.”

The beeping of some hand-held machinery traveled down to meet Taren.

“There, see? It’s picking up some form of heat signature,” the first voice said.

“Is it ninety-eight degrees?”

“No, but…”

“Then it’s not human. It’s probably some desert beast. We’re wasting time here.”

“There wasn’t anyone on the ship,” the first voice snapped. “They must be in the desert somewhere. If we don’t check every heat signature thoroughly, they’re going to slip past us and Churab is going to kill us.”

Taren’s brow furrowed. Churab?

“I can understand scouring through a monster-infested burrow for a heat signature that’s close to a human’s average body temperature but…Let me see that,” the second voice grumbled, no doubt swiping the hand-held heat seeker from his partner. “This is a single signature in the eighties. It’s not them.” He threw the machine back at his partner with a thump. “Come on. Let’s get out of here before we wake whatever creepy-crawly lives here.”

They argued for a few minutes more before the first was finally convinced. Then they left. Taren exhaled and leaned back against the rocks. So these mercenaries were being led by someone named Churab, someone who wouldn’t take kindly to failure.

Good for Maju; sucks for me.

Taren yanked his pack open wider and began to look through his supplies. He had enough dried food, canned goods, and food supplement bars to keep him alive for about a week, and that was if he had a source of water nearby to refill his canteens. While walking, he’d kept an eye out for a well or a lake, and had found neither. It seemed everything around these parts had dried up. If he rationed the water he had, he could survive in that burrow for approximately three days, but then he wouldn’t have any water left for the return journey to the crash site.

The mercs should have finished scouring through the marsh in a day or two. It’ll be safe to walk back to the ship then.

Taren’s eyes flickered to the dead bride lying beside him. The gown wasn’t something Kylee would have chosen. It was gaudy and extravagant, with glittery patches of silver, a ridiculously poofy skirt, and a plunging neckline. No doubt it had been selected for her by Queen Miyako.

God, I hate that woman. She never cared about what Kylee wanted.

The grief, fear, and despair washed over the walls of numbness that had constructed themselves around his mind. Suddenly, he was sobbing. He couldn’t control the sounds of agony forcing their way up his throat or the tears pouring from his eyes. So he hugged his knees to his chest and let it come. Then the numbness returned. With shaking hands, Taren pulled his lover into his arms and pressed his face into her soft hair.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “I failed you.”

Using the knife in his pack and his bare hands, he dug a shallow grave deeper in the cave and buried her. Then he curled up in his thermal tent and tried to sleep.

 

“Hey.”

Taren woke with a start to find that he was lying on his side. The shoulder pressed up against the earth was numb and his neck prickled uncomfortably. He slowly sat up and rubbed his shoulder. He locked eyes with Kylee, who sat across the cave, munching on some dried fruit. He skittered back against the rocks with a curse.

Kylee’s eyes widened. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“How are you here? You were dead!”

Kylee cocked her head to the side. “Really.”

Taren looked down at himself. “I know I’m not dead. My heart’s still beating and I still feel like crap. I must’ve hit my head or knocked something loose when we crashed.” He glanced back at Kylee, disappointed. “You’re just a hallucination.”

Kylee shrugged and peered into the bag of dried fruit she was snacking from. “Well, imagine some better-tasting food. This stuff is gross.” She shoved the bag aside before standing. She wore black leather pants, combat boots that ended mid-calf, and a speeder jacket with gold stripes down the arms. Her hair was in a loose ponytail with a few free strands hanging by her ears. This was the girl he’d fallen in love with, the racer born a princess. He had been trained to protect her and had despised her right up until the day he caught her sneaking out of the palace to race speeders with low-life thugs. It was hard to believe she was nothing but a memory now.

Taren swallowed past the dry spot in his throat. “I’m sorry.”

Kylee blew a raspberry and rolled her eyes. “People die all the time, Terry.”

“I should’ve—”

Kylee held up a hand to stop him. “This was their fault, not yours. Let the matter be.”

Taren nodded and cleared his throat. “Yeah. Okay.”

Kylee shoved her hands in her pockets before glancing about the cave. “Maju is going to be pissed when he finds out the mercs killed me. Maybe he’ll have them executed.”

“Nah,” Taren muttered, crawling out from his tent. “Your prince charming will wait until they find me and bring me to him. Then he’ll have the mercs executed.”

Kylee wrinkled her slightly upturned nose at me. “He was never my prince and you know it. What are you going to do now?”

Taren sighed. “I have to get back to the ship. If it’s fixable, it can get me off this miserable rock. If not, I’ll have to get out of here by other means.”

“You never did name the ship,” Kylee said.

Taren gave her an exasperated look. “It already has a name and a captain. I stole it, remember?”

“Yeah, but you’re not giving it back so that makes it yours.” Kylee adopted a thoughtful look as she rocked on the balls of her feet. “How about…The Andromeda?”

Taren wrinkled his nose at her. “The what?”

“Andromeda was one of Earth’s mythological princesses who was put in a life-threatening situation because of her mother’s pride. She ended up being rescued by Perseus, a young Pegasus-riding warrior who swooped in just in time.” She shrugged. “I thought it was fitting.”

Taren grew somber. “You’re right. It’s perfect.” He reached out to touch her face, amazed at his mind’s ability to create such a real apparition.

Kylee smiled, just a slight curling of the lips. “You should get yourself checked. You might have brain damage.”

“Maybe later,” Taren said, letting his hand drop.

A hiss came from the back of the cave, where the darkness was deepest. He dove into his tent and wrenched the knife away from his pack before turning to face whatever creature awaited him. He was about to tell Kylee to find some cover when he realized he was alone. He did a double take, staring at the spot she’d been standing just moments earlier. Then the creature emerged.

It had the same build of a dog but was the size of a bear. Instead of skin or fur, it was covered in silver reptilian scales. Its snout was long; its forked tongue flicked from its open mouth. Its milky white eyes had no pupils. Oh, and it could breathe fire. When it barked, a gust of flames burst from its lips. Taren swore and dove out of the way before he could be incinerated. He rolled onto his feet and brandished his pitiful weapon. The beast charged, whipping out a spiked tail to bash Taren in the face. He leapt back with a curse and swiped his knife across the beast’s tail. The alien monster snarled, but its scaly skin remained unharmed.

“Great,” Taren muttered.

He dodged another jet of fire, feeling the heat kiss his side. He continued to dance just out of the creature’s range until it became angry enough to charge a second time. Taren skidded to the side and jabbed at the monster’s eyes, but it cost him. The creature racked its claws across Taren’s abdomen. He let out a scream of rage and pain before he tackled the beast. They rolled over the damp earth, kicking up clumps of mud and wrestling for the upper hand. Spurts of fire flew past Taren’s face, singeing his ears and his hair. Somehow when they stopped, Taren was on top and his knife was embedded in the creature’s soft underbelly. The dog-bear-reptile thing let out a whine and a puff of smoke before going limp.

Taren released his hold on the knife and fell over onto his side. The front of his shirt and cargo pants was soaked in blood. The smell of burned flesh and hair made his nose twitch. His stomach…Taren groaned and began crawling to his tent. Somehow he made it to his pack and found the med kit. Somehow he found the sealing spray and coated his stomach with it. Somehow he managed to swallow the pain killers and apply the burn ointment to his face. Then he lay on his back in a pool of his own sweat and blood, and caught his breath. He stared up at the ceiling of his little tent, fighting back tears.

Kylee’s head appeared within his line of vision, dark hair swinging. She whistled. “You don’t look so good, Terry.”

“I can’t do this,” he said through his teeth. “I need more than what I’ve got to survive in this hell-hole.”

Her smile was soft. “You’re just saying that because you’re in pain. From where I’m standing, it looks like you’re doing pretty good.”

Taren slammed his fists into the ground beneath him. “How can you say that? Look at me! I’m a freakin’ mess.”

“But you’re alive.”

Guilt stole away his retort. He sat up and twisted around to face her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

Kylee nodded. “I know you didn’t.”

Taren sniffled and wiped his face with the back of his blood-stained hand. His eyes fell on the monster he’d just killed. “There might be more of them. I should look for another place to hide.”

“Or there might not be,” Kylee said. “You’re hurt. You need to rest.”

Taren leaned back against the rocks, too tired to argue with her. “Yes, ma’am.” As his eyelids drooped, he could almost feel her touch on his cheek.

“Don’t worry,” she whispered. “I’ll watch over you.”

An excerpt

Prologue (The Andromeda’s Ghost) :

 

Kylee stared at her reflection in the compact mirror, trying and failing to suppress her horror. Her dark hair had been braided and twisted into three buns along the back of her head (one behind each ear and one at the nape of her neck) with only one long curl trailing down her shoulder. Makeup had been caked onto her face to supposedly make her look older than her twenty-one years. She looked like an escort drowning in white lace and chiffon. She gave her mother a miserable look.

The queen snatched the compact from her daughter and tossed it at one of the ladies in waiting. “The doors will be opening any minute. Lower your veil now. No one needs to see you pouting like a child.” Her raven black hair was piled on the top of her head to make her look taller. Her makeup was even more exaggerated than Kylee’s, although, if makeup was meant to make one look older Kylee wasn’t sure why her mother had bothered wearing any. The dress the queen wore was made of red satin with pearl embellishments and sported a plunging neckline. If this had been the first time the queen had tried to prove she still looked thirty-years-old, Kylee might have been embarrassed. Sadly, it was not.

Kylee tugged the veil into place as one of the guards opened the door to the large hover craft. He extended a hand to help her climb out, for which she was grateful. Her wedding dress was ridiculously large and heavy.

The venue was just about the only thing Kylee’s mother had gotten right. An enormous cathedral sat on a slightly elevated plateau toward the outskirts of the jungle. It had tall towers, archways, and the traditional stain glass windows of a medieval cathedral from 20th century earth. It was one of the few of its kind in New Sol. Kylee gazed up at the artistically designed structure barely visible through the layers of tulle covering her face, and smiled for the first time in months. She’d wanted to get married here since she was nine years old.

Grief smothered her moment of joy. It’s the wrong man.

The queen fluttered about her daughter, fluffing the already too-fluffy skirt of her gown, swatting away the occasional insect, and muttering, “Stand up straight, my dear. That’s right. You’re so beautiful when you exercise good posture. Hands clasped before you…Perfect. Now, nod ever so graciously at the camera and proceed.”

Kylee found the camera hovering over the heads of the thousands of guests crowded around the cathedral’s entrance. She obeyed her mother and began the long walk across the lawn. She knew Taren wouldn’t be there but she still looked for him, desperate for a glimpse of black curls or oak brown eyes or a dimpled chin. Her mother and ladies in waiting trailed behind her, smiling and waving. An armored guard stood on either side of her.

Not long ago, Taren stood dutifully at her side during grand, obnoxious events like these. He would murmur lame knock-knock jokes out of the corner of his mouth to keep her smile genuine for the crowds. Sometimes he would cup her elbow and stay a step ahead to shield her from the cameras when she was too upset to face them. The more she thought about him, the sadder she became, but she couldn’t help it. He should be here.

She stumbled. A collective gasp rang through the crowd.

One of her guards took her by the arm. “Are you well, Princess?”

She nodded, perhaps a little too hastily, and continued her walk. But yet again, maybe he shouldn’t be here. Going through with this was painful enough for her. If she had to see the look on Taren’s face when she said, “I do,” she might’ve broken down on national television.

The doors to the cathedral loomed before her, blocked the sun for a moment, and then she was inside. The walls had been modified to mirror the scenery outside. She could still see the tangles of green jungle stretching out below and the grassy floor of the plateau. The only differences between the exterior and the interior were the drop in temperature and the seemingly magical appearance of chairs. Yet more people stood here, smiling and ogling and whispering and sighing and throwing her envious looks. There were quite a few more Mer-people within the cathedral than there were outside. An archway heavy laden with pink hydrangeas and ivy waited for her at the end of the aisle, along with her groom.

Kylee swallowed hard and lifted her chin when she saw her father. He wore his traditional general’s uniform, medals, and ceremonial sword. Even with the inserts in his boots, he was barely taller than she was. He looked deathly pale; his almond-shaped eyes were sad. He mutely held his elbow out to her, still powerless to oppose his wife and the demands of their almost-enemies. Kylee felt the familiar rush of frustration before accepting his arm. What good was there in being the king if he could still be overruled?

A hush fell over the audience and then the music began to play. Ten, twenty, thirty steps later, she stood before her fiancé. He was built like a pampered prince with undeveloped muscle beneath his tuxedo and waxy, green skin. Gills cut across both sides of his neck and scaly frills grew behind each ear. His glassy black eyes stared at her, unblinking. He extended a hand with a slight bow of his head; his fingers were webbed. Kylee couldn’t help but stare. Could he speak English? Was he kind? Was he expecting her to carry his children?

Kylee’s grip on her father tightened as the floor tilted beneath her feet. She’d always wanted to be a mother, but the thought of giving birth to tadpoles made her stomach turn. But she could feel the focus of that flying camera like a light blazing through a magnifying glass and aimed at the back of her head. The whole world was watching, waiting for her to continue the ceremony. She took a deep breath and reached out to him with a trembling hand.

The sound of an explosion made her twist around in alarm. Through the open doors of the cathedral, she watched her mother’s hovercraft erupt in a ball of fire. The floor shook from the blast, causing the cathedral’s walls to flicker in and out of existence. Chaos followed. The guests jumped from their chairs and ran to where they assumed the nearest exits were. They encountered invisible walls instead. The guards masquerading as attendees tried to calm those nearest to them with little success. The armored guards rushed outside to investigate the cause of the explosion, only to be thrown off their feet by a second blast which destroyed yet another hovercraft. Kylee was torn away from her father by the desperate throng. The second earthquake from the blast sent her looking for shelter. She fell back against the wall. Her fiancé, mother, and personal guards wrestled through the people running in every direction, trying to get to their princess.

All she could hear was white static. She blinked at the fire consuming the two hovercrafts in the distance and gaped the herd of frantic people as if in a stupor. What in the world was going on? Someone touched her shoulder. She spun around to see Taren standing beside her. He was dressed in a tux for the occasion. He could have passed for a guest. Her former bodyguard lifted the veil away from her face, cupped her cheek, and pressed his lips against hers.

He flashed her a crazy grin once they parted. “I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

“You know you just started a war between my father’s kingdom and the Mer-people, right?” Kylee sputtered.

Taren squinted at the burning hunks of machinery in the distance. “I set the bombs under your mother’s hovercrafts. If anything, it appears the Mer-people are waging war against your father.”

Kylee let out a hysterical laugh before she threw her arms around him. “Thanks for waiting until my mother was out of the car.”

“Oh, it wasn’t easy. Believe me,” he said with a chuckle.

The sight of the Mer-prince sprinting toward them with murderous rage twisting his face made Kylee shove Taren out of the way. She received a punch to the face that was probably meant for the back of Taren’s head. Stumbling back, she slapped a hand over her aching mouth and blinked away tears.

The Mer-prince gaped at her in horror. “I’m sorry!”

Taren tackled him into the archway. “You bastard!” The wood collapsed, sending hydrangea petals and leaves of ivy everywhere. The men wrestled, but it was obvious who had been trained in hand-to-hand combat. Taren quickly gained the upper hand.

“Kylee Wen Dao!” her mother screeched from somewhere behind her.

The princess half turned, hand still over her mouth. Through a sliver of a gap between people, Kylee could see her furious mother marching toward her, hair undone, makeup ruined, dress torn. It was the angriest and most disheveled she’d ever seen her mother look. The rebellious child in her rejoiced. Kylee gripped Taren’s shoulder before he could continue to beat up the Mer-prince.

“If you have an escape plan, now would be the time to share it.”

He nodded somewhat grimly at the prince before rising. Then he took her hand and expertly zigzagged them through the crowd. She didn’t know when he’d taken the time to memorize the locations of the camouflaged exits and she didn’t ask. She knew they were outside when the temperature changed. A cargo cruiser waited in the shade of some trees toward the bottom of the plateau. She grinned at the man leading her by the hand, memory after memory flashing through her mind.

Taren sitting at his usual chair on the terrace, calmly cleaning his blaster gun while explaining his reasons for not telling the queen about her daughter’s alter ego, the Golden Mare, champion racer of the underground.

Taren laughing a full belly laugh when Kylee asked for his opinion on her god-awful painting.

Taren lying in a hospital bed, battered and bruised, after surviving a bomb blast that had been meant for the princess.

Taren wearing a white tux and holding out his hand during her birthday ball, asking for the first dance.

Taren pressing her up against the wall and kissing her with enough passion to make her head spin.

Taren bowing stiffly after the queen had fired him. “Good bye, Princess. It was an honor serving you.”

The dress tore while she ran down the steep decline. Kylee hefted up the heavy skirt with her free hand and picked up the pace. Then her veil ripped away from the clips keeping it attached to her head. Kylee couldn’t have cared less. Once at the bottom of the plateau, she let go of Taren’s hand so that he could press the button that would lower the cargo ramp.

“The Mer-king’s ships will be waiting for us as soon as we leave the atmosphere.” Taren winked over his shoulder at her. “Are you ready for one last race, Golden Mare?”

Kylee laughed and kicked off her shoes. “You better believe it.” She reached for her tiara as she followed him into the space ship, wanting nothing more than to chuck it into the jungle. But she paused when she caught her reflection in the diamonds.

“If you do this, you’ll never be able to come back,” her mother’s voice hissed at the back of her mind.

Kylee took a deep breath, suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. Racing in the underground and falling in love with the youngest bodyguard to graduate from the Guard Institute had been the only acts of rebellion she’d had the courage to do. And those had been committed after twenty years of trying to please her unappeasable mother. But there had been no leniency upon the discovery of these two secrets. The queen had put her daughter on an even shorter leash, organized this marriage, and banished Taren from the palace grounds within a week.

Tears made Kylee’s eyes burn. Was there ever a time when you loved me? You were so focused on turning me into what you believed would be the perfect daughter and princess. Did you ever wonder who I really was? Were you ever the least bit curious?

“Kylee.”

She turned to face him. Taren’s eyes flickered to the tiara in her hands before landing on her face. The wind tousled his hair as a sad smile made his lips curl.

“It’s a part of you whether you leave it behind or not.”

She glanced down at the symbol that had always set her apart from the rest of the world, the metallic piece of headwear her mother never let her leave the palace without. She knelt by the edge of the ramp and gingerly placed the tiara in the grass. Yes, she would always have royal blood running through her veins, but she was done playing the part of the perfect princess.

The diamonds reflected the sun as the cargo cruiser made its ascent. Kylee turned her head skyward and didn’t look back.