Chapter 5

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It was the messenger’s fault.

If he hadn’t revealed he was an orphan, she might be sleeping now. Not watching the shadowy folds of her bed curtains while her mind simmered with memories.

Maelyn pushed back the curtains and lit a candle on her bedside table. From a small drawer she removed a worn and tattered journal, lifting it with reverent fingers. She settled back in her pillows and opened to the first page. Her smile softened at the firm handwriting, comforting as the face of a friend.

Once there was a king so enchanted by his beautiful bride that he named his realm anew, calling it Runa in her honor.

The king gave his precious queen all her heart could ask, but one. She longed for a daughter. Nightly the couple prayed, but for nine years the nursery sat as empty as the queen’s arms.

In their tenth year, a terrible fever struck the realm, bringing death to nearly every household. In desperation, the king journeyed to nine distant kingdoms in hopes of finding a cure. But like a filthy cloak, the fever covered them all.

Before turning back, the king chanced upon a small child, the sole survivor of her village. An idea sprouted in his mind. He could not cure the fever, but perhaps the hole in the queen’s heart.

Months later the king returned home and presented his astonished queen with not one, but nine baby girls. “One from each kingdom I visited,” said the king. “They are orphans.”

The queen wept joyously at the row of cradles, each bearing a sleeping infant. After bestowing a kiss on each child’s forehead she said, “Now they are princesses.”

Maelyn returned her father’s journal to the drawer. She’d been the oldest baby in that row of cradles – about three years of age when Father found her by the road. Arialain had been less than a week, frail and born too early. Nine girls from nine kingdoms, orphaned by nameless strangers. Suddenly they became sisters, bound not by blood, but by their parents’ love.

Maelyn slid out of bed, shivering as her feet touched the floorboards. She wrapped a heavy shawl over her nightdress and padded to the window. The kingdom nestled in darkness thick as a wool blanket but the first smudges of sunlight colored the horizon.

She remembered only fragments of that distant day. Mama’s dead face. The long road that blistered her feet. Her terror when Dorian, the king’s manservant, lifted her off the ground. How good the bread tasted….

“You never saw us as orphans,” she said, addressing her unseen father. “You called us ‘hidden princesses’. Born in other lands, waiting for you to find us.” Maelyn smiled weakly. “But Father, many do not see us this way. I never knew how many… until you were gone.”

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