Road trip. Renna had once seen an old photograph in the artifact room back at the Government Center. The picture was a pre-Desolation advertisement for the Tetons, some mountain range that was probably destroyed two hundred years ago in an earthquake or by an atomic bomb. In the photo, a group of girls stood with arms around each other in front of the mountain, smiling like they were having the time of their lives. The blonde in the middle wore a shirt that said, This is my road trip shirt. Renna wished she could wear a comfortable road trip shirt instead of the tight-fitting travel dress that currently rode up on her waist. She tugged at the dress—again—and stared out the window as the transporter drove along. Over the past few days, she had watched the coastal land of New Hope melt away into a sunbaked desert as they traveled southeast across the kingdom. Now, the arid landscape brightened to green plains, letting Renna know they were almost to their kingdom’s border. And closer to Wellenbreck Farm. A knot pulled tightly in her stomach. She couldn’t travel this far and not stop at Wellenbreck. But the last time Renna had suggested they visit their old home, her mother had refused. “We’re not staying at Wellenbreck,” her mother had said. “Can you imagine a princess sleeping there?” Her mother had wrung her hands as she shook her head.
“No. No, we don’t want to give Seran any reason to think I wasn’t worthy of marrying her father.” Renna knew better than to challenge her mother when she was nervous—queen or not. She’d relented, even while determining to pick up the fight later. Renna’s eyes darted to her mother in the seat across from her. This would be her last chance to convince her. The queen’s head leaned against the transporter’s door, smashing her brown hair and the regal twist it was tied in. Even while sleeping, her mother looked elegant. Next to Renna’s mother was her dark-haired stepsister, Seran. She read a book, clearly unphased by their travels.
Renna sighed loudly, hoping the sound would wake her mother. It didn’t. She tried shuffling her legs, knocking her mother’s feet slightly as she stretched and yawned in a high shrill. Nothing. The woman was out. Frustrated, Renna leaned back into the seat, not missing Seran’s smirk from behind her book. I’m going to miss my chance, Renna thought, shaking her head. Suddenly, as if from heaven above, the transporter hit an unexpected bump. Probably the cement corner of a pre-Desolation house or part of a steel beam from a bridge or something. Whatever it was, it was too much for the transporter’s thick tires and built-in suspension.
It threw Renna’s mother into the air, jolting her out of her coma; she gripped the door handle, glaring over her shoulder at the closed panel that hid the transporter’s driver from her wrath. Her free hand covered her heart. “I swear, King Bryant will hear about how bumpy this ride to Albion has been. It’s time the Council of Essentials starts paving roads. Then travel between kingdoms would be easier and more comfortable.” She looked to Seran for support. “Don’t you agree?” Seran paused her reading, giving her stepmother a sweet smile. “I agree that paved roads would make for a more comfortable ride.” Queen Mariele seemed satisfied with the response, easing her hands to her lap. Seran had a diplomatic answer for everything.
Maybe that’s why Renna’s mother preferred Seran over her. But Renna couldn’t worry about that now. A stop to Wellenbreck Farm was a much more critical issue. It was now or never. Renna straightened as she spoke. “Mom, I know you said the caravan was going to stay the night in the city of Vassel, but I think Seran would get more rest at Wellenbreck Farm.” Seran eyed her curiously over the edge of her book. “Oh, Renna. Not this again.” Her mother’s shoulders sank with an exasperated breath.
“I already made my decision. We are not stopping at Wellenbreck. Seran isn’t interested in staying at our old home. Besides, it’s completely unsuitable for a princess.” Renna was desperate to visit her old home; she hated to resort to manipulation, but desperate people did desperate things. “You’re probably right. The inn at Vassel, while old, would be better. And I’m sure it’s much cleaner than when we stayed there with Dad. When was that? Five? Six years ago?” She could almost see the memory play back in her mother’s mind. Renna turned to Seran who had put her book down, no doubt interested in Renna’s performance.
“We only stayed there one night, so how could we really judge the cleanliness of the entire inn? I’m sure we just got a bad room.” Renna shrugged. “Or they just forgot to wash the sheets.” Across the transporter, her mother’s body tensed with concern. So close. What else could she say to tip the decision in her favor? “I don’t mind staying at Wellenbreck Farm,” Seran cut in. “It was your home before you married my father. It might be nice to see where you both come from.” Renna shot a grateful look to her stepsister. How could her mother refuse Seran? She would never.
Queen Mariele scoffed. “There isn’t much to see. It’s just a simple house and farm. The Vassel inn will be much more comfortable for you, I’m sure.” “No, really. I want to see Renna’s beloved Wellenbreck.” Renna could see her mother weigh Seran’s words in her mind, but it wasn’t enough to make her shift her decision. “Besides,” Seran added, “if the inn at Vassel has a history of being dirty, I could never be comfortable there. Cleanliness is crucial.” Seran for the win! The queen was silent for a moment.
Finally, she let out a defeated huff. It was amazing the power Seran had over her. “Perhaps we should stay at Wellenbreck Farm. Nellie runs the house, and I know she keeps everything spotless.” She looked at Seran hesitantly. “It’s not a nice place, though. Nothing like what you’re used to.” “It sounds perfect.” Seran smiled then raised her book again. “But we’ll only stay at Wellenbreck Farm one night,” her mother stated, giving Renna a pointed look.
Her gaze shifted to Seran and she softened, placing a gentle hand on her knee. “You can rest before our final descent into Albion so you’ll look fresh when we arrive at the palace. You don’t want Prince Ezra thinking you don’t travel well.” Renna glanced around the vehicle to Seran and her mother, doubting that Seran’s mysterious fiancé would even think to notice whether she traveled well or not. Queen Mariele pushed a button, rolling down the panel between her and the driver. “Mangum, send a guard on a personal transporter ahead to Wellenbreck Farm to inform Nellie and Preetis they need to prep the house for guests tonight . ” As her mother continued to rattle off instructions, Renna glanced at Seran and silently mouthed, “Thank you.” She couldn’t have convinced her mother without Seran’s help. Seran dipped her chin in a nod then turned her attention back to her book. Sometimes the princess surprised Renna.
Seran was usually so proper and in control, but there were moments when her serenity slipped, and she seemed almost like a regular girl. Today was one of those days. Usually, Renna didn’t know what to say to Seran. They were so different. Renna was free-spirited and out of control—most of the time, anyway—while Seran was calm and composed. Compared to Seran, Renna often felt immature, even though Seran was only a year and a half older. Plus, Seran was a princess. A gorgeous princess. Not that I’m ugly. Renna caught a reflection of herself in the window, tucking a piece of her hair behind her ear.
She liked her blonde wavy hair that refused to lay straight, her sun-kissed complexion from hours spent at the beach, and her green eyes. Her father always said they were the greenest eyes he’d ever seen, but he’d also said she was the most beautiful girl in the world, so how could she really trust him? Especially when the most beautiful girl in the world currently sat across from Renna, wearing an expensive, purple pleated dress. Though, it wasn’t the elaborate dress that made Seran look exquisite. No, she would look equally beautiful in a neutral, working-class dress. Seran’s beauty was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of beauty. She was thin, with natural curves in all the right places. Her endless lashes complemented her dark eyes and flawlessly curved eyebrows; she wore her black tresses swept back in a classic, restrained up-do, accentuating her high cheekbones. She was exotic, sweet, and wise for her twenty years. Her fashion choices were bold in color, yet still tasteful. Seran was the ideal combination of everything proper, lovely, and royal.
The prince of Albion is going to love her. Seran was definitely worth the wait of a ten-year betrothal, and probably the best thing the prince, and Albion, would gain out of the marriage alliance. The surrounding small towns started to feel familiar as they neared Wellenbreck Farm. Renna soaked it all in, feeling as though the lost pieces of her heart were finally clicking back into place. Fourteen years of memories flooded her mind as she thought back to a life different than the one she lived now. The happy memories centered around her father —working the alfalfa fields, dancing in the kitchen, climbing the grassy hill behind the house, swimming at Wellenbreck Pond. The pond had been her favorite place of all. On weekend nights, her father would load Renna on his shoulders and trek up the hill, singing songs she was sure he had made up. They spent warm summer evenings swimming together in the pond, tucked into the lush meadow surrounded by thick trees, hidden from the world. They even devoted an entire summer to building a wooden dock to fish from.
Renna had been too young to help, but she’d tried to be his assistant anyway, bringing whatever tools and measuring boards he’d needed. Most days, she’d skipped rocks while her father hammered away, but he’d given her all the credit in the end. Back then, it had been just the two of them and their laughter. Renna’s heart raced when she saw the small stone cottage Nellie and Preetis lived in next to Wellenbreck Farm. They had been there since before Renna was born, keeping the farm running, helping with the house. When Renna and her mother moved to the Government Center, Nellie and Preetis stayed behind to take care of everything. The alfalfa fields stretched from the roadside to the tree-lined hill where Wellenbreck Pond waited. The crops were full and green, and Renna breathed a sigh of relief; Preetis had done an excellent job maintaining them. She strained her neck, trying to get a view of the farmhouse. The two-story home wasn’t large or elegantly adorned.
It was shaped more like a rectangular box with a triangular, pitched roof. Three gabled windows jutted out from the roof, matching the windows below. In a few places, the cream plaster had peeled off from the house and the stone wall surrounding the front yard had crumbled away. She wished her father was alive to fix things. The years of absence and neglect had obviously taken their toll, despite Nellie and Preetis’s best efforts. Renna blinked back a tear, refusing to be sad. Her mother had gifted her a few short hours at Wellenbreck Farm, and she needed to use that time wisely. She wanted to explore everything, but she would need to escape the caravan first. Otherwise, her mother would rope her into some random assignment, like showing Seran’s friends around. Seran’s friends were the last people Renna wanted to spend time with while at Wellenbreck.
She scanned the area for the best escape route. The transporter’s rubber tires crunched over small pebbles as the vehicle rolled to a stop. A few moments later, the door flung open, and a guard’s outstretched arm helped her mother and Seran out of the vehicle. The arm reached for Renna as well, but she bounced past it, twirling around to get a better look at the place. Two other large transporters parked behind them, carrying Seran’s friends, a few royal advisors, and their three maids. A dozen guards on personal transporters dismounted and started unloading bags from the backs of the vehicles. Her mother’s maid, Cypress, shouted orders to the rest of the staff. It was time to get lost. Becoming invisible in the mayhem of guards and maids was easy. No one in the royal caravan was worried about the queen’s tag-along daughter.
Dodging several guards with luggage in their hands, Renna ran into the small, wood stable along the side of the main house. Her head popped into a few stalls, looking for her old horse, Canyon Ann, but none of the horses were there. The stable was empty. Preetis must have them in the fields; they would have to reunite later. Renna scanned the stable, finding what she was looking for on a rusted hook next to some rakes. Thank you, Preetis. Renna unfastened her pink travel dress and pulled the farmhand’s work pants on, throwing his gray shirt over her head. The best part of moving to the Government Center had been the upgrade to vibrantly colored clothing. One minute at Wellenbreck Farm, and she was already back to wearing muted colors. She turned her head as she ran out the stable’s back door, giving the bustling front yard one last look.
Nobody seemed to notice her sprinting for the hill. Renna smirked. Dressing as a man had likely helped her cause. The mile-long path to the water was overgrown with abandonment, but as Renna approached the pond, everything else around the water remained the same. In a way, it was comforting how time had left this place behind, yet it was still here when Renna needed it. She walked across the splintered dock, knowing from memory which boards to avoid stubbing her toes on. The smell of aspen trees filled her nose as she breathed in. She thought about testing the water’s temperature first, but her father’s voice sounded in her thoughts. “Don’t think. Just jump.
” So she did—letting out a scream as she plugged her nose. The chilly water covered her, reviving her senses. She let out another yelp when she came up for air—not because of the cold, but because she was elated to be home. She drifted on her back, letting the water lap around her. The cold pond tugged at her memories, bringing them to the front of her mind. She could picture her father with her, see flashes of his facial expressions, his silvery beard, his broad shoulders, his playful eyes. It felt so real. Vivid memories had been hard to come by as time passed, but memories were effortless at the pond. The buzz of a personal transporter scattered Renna’s thoughts away. She groaned, lifting her head.
It had to be Mangum, her mother’s guard, coming to take her back to Wellenbreck Farm. Was she missed already? She slapped the water in front of her. I just got here. Couldn’t her mother give her one afternoon? It had been four years since Renna had been there. Four years since she had left her comfortable home at Wellenbreck Farm for a fast-paced life at the New Hope Government Center. Four years since her mother had married the king of New Hope. The PT’s hum grew louder, echoing off the thick trees. Renna had seconds before Mangum would arrive. She couldn’t really blame him. He was following the queen’s orders.
She blew out a breath in frustration and began swimming toward the dock when a sudden idea made her stop. If she was going to be dragged back to her mother, she might as well do it in style. Renna grinned. She flipped onto her stomach, waiting until the PT’s sound was upon her, and then immersed her head underwater. She floated, careful not to move a muscle. She didn’t know how long it would take for Mangum to find her, but for the sake of a joke, she was willing to hold her breath as long as she could. After all, when faking her death by drowning, appearance was everything. Poor Mangum. He’ll probably have a heart attack when he finds me.