In one swift movement, it happened—as magical yet natural as it was.
His gloved outstretched hand.
His dancing, sea-blue eyes.
"If you would honor me a dance, Your Royal Highness."
He uttered the words so smoothly, yet she saw through his veiled bashfulness, the slight flushing of his cheeks. She pursed her lips to suppress a grin, her narrowed eyes glinting.
She responded in kind by placing one hand in his, the other on his shoulder. She pulled him near and whispered in his ear, "That sounded silly."
"Certainly," he replied as he whisked her away, towards the dance floor. She bowed her head softly and laughed in spite of herself. Her mind was swimming in a strange ocean of emotions. She had longed for and dreaded this night—a defining moment of danger and excitement. The risks were there; the visitors were numerous; she knew well where she stood in this kingdom. But a coming-of-age ceremony was something she would inevitably go through, and it mattered to her.
He held her close as they danced, more intimately than any pair of dancers in the room. Nobody really minded. The beat of her heart continued in its quick pace; whether it was from anxiousness or from being held she was not sure.
His voice only she could hear. "You deserve to laugh the most today, Margaret."
She looked up at the prince's tender eyes. "You are doing more than enough," she assured him with a conciliatory smile. But it could not assuage his worry. Wishing to ease his heart, she glanced sideways to the back entrance. "I am growing tired of the crowd, though."
An impish grin instantly spread across his face. "Shall we get out of here and run away?" She lightly slapped his arm.
"Indecent fellow," she scolded, but she could not keep herself from giggling. "Very well; we shall run to the ends of the world."
"Until we reach the castle walls," he concluded. The two of them laughed at the irony.
As soon as the orchestra started on another waltz and the dancers had gone off in search of new partners, the two moved away towards the doors leading to the gardens. Before leaving, Margaret caught sight of the king watching over them. She gave a smile, and the king smiled back with a subtle nod.
"Papa saw us going," Margaret said as she relaxed her shoulders and clasped her hands behind her.
"I ought to prepare my best excuses," her companion remarked, scratching the back of his head.
"Oh, he does not mind," she said with a smug grin, her feet springing with each step. They reached the archway to the rose garden. The prince went ahead of the princess to face her, blocking the path as he did so.
"Now aren't you cheerful, after getting away from everyone," he teased.
"Hm, you noticed," she replied, looking up at him and gently stroking his arm. "Who would not be, after finally being alone with the person she loves?" She could see the same affection in his eyes.
He leaned in close and kissed her cheek.
"I love you," he whispered, his breath close to her hair.
She turned away to hide her embarrassment. "That's not fair—doing such a thing." He let out a chuckle, and she walked away.
"Where are you going?" he called out.
"I have something to show you; stay there and wait!" she called back before bunching her dress in her fists and sprinting towards the servants' quarters.
Watching the princess as she ran, the prince could not help but grin foolishly. 'That Margaret, without a doubt, is the loveliest of them all,' was all he could think about.
Only upon reaching her secret room and shutting the door behind her did Margaret let out the breath she had been holding in. She could not keep herself from smiling. She recalled what happened over and over, and her heart beat loudly in her chest. Things are going fast, and they are still young, but everything seemed wonderful and right. Love is not guaranteed in arranged marriages, but they had been granted a miracle.
She went towards her mahogany desk, reached for a small wooden chest and a locked leather-bound notebook and put the two objects inside a simple drawstring bag. She felt her neck to check if she was wearing her pendant. Her fingers grasped the jeweled flower. There was a flicker of sadness in her eyes for a moment.
"I am moving forward now. Please watch over me," she said softly as if she were praying.
She slung the little bag across her shoulders, opened the door to the hallway, and stepped out.
Outside, everyone was in a panic.
Servants recognized her immediately, and with horrified looks on their faces, told her that she must not stay, that a carriage was waiting, and her life was in danger—
"What happened?" she asked, agitation in her voice.
"Rebels have come—you must run, Your Highness!"
She bolted to the exit, and after a frantic search of the grounds, she finally chanced upon the rows of carriages bearing the royal crest. She saw her parents ride the stagecoaches. She then proceeded to jump into one.
Her vehicle traveled fast, the trees becoming dark, zooming blurs outside the window. It was hard to see where the carriage was going, but here and there she could make out some landmarks and major forks in the road. She knew the way to the other castles by heart, and she thought that the carriage was heading to their villa in the north.
Then, it veered off-path.