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Many people said many things about her.

Cursed, they said.

Carissa slid a palm down her flawlessly smooth arm, feathered by the stale city air.

She saw no curse.

Betrothed, they said.

She swept her gaze over the flow of people. A tiny child, more ghost than girl, wisped through the streets, her clothes dangling rags, a satin bag of clinking coins hugged to her chest. A skeletal man hunched in an alley, eyes blank, spidery fingers tapping out a silent tune on his patched trousers. Knights' armor clanked as they walked through the crowd, their breastplates like silver coins flecked amongst the muted fabric of peasants.

She saw no betrothed.

Carissa wormed to the sidelines of the cobblestone street. Five days since she'd left her parents' tiny cottage in the Village of Hasita and made her journey to the bustling City of Zonah, so far on the cusp of the Nysian Kingdom that in still air a dog's bark could be heard from the Esmerian Realm. By this time everyone in her village would know she was neither cursed nor betrothed.

She was free.

Carissa gulped a mouthful of the warm, smoke-tinted air. It wasn't fresh or earthy like her village air, but it was the taste of freedom nonetheless. After eighteen years of waiting for a betrothed who'd never come, Prince Elon himself, she had taken her life into her own hands. Ever since she could remember, the murmurs of her curse had frightened away all the other girls and the Prince's claim on her drove away the affections of all the men.

And to what end? Did the Prince really expect her to wait until he came at his leisure? Had he ever intended to come? Or would he have let her age into an old maid due to his sick whims?

But the Prince had served one purpose: he'd aided her escape. Albeit, unknowingly.

Her gaze darted to the crowd. A man had stopped walking, and his stare burned her skin from beneath the hood of his cloak. She shook her head. He was probably just curious. Her raven black hair was considered exotic, after all.

She ran her thumb beneath the satchel's mercilessly heavy strap on her shoulder before dragging the satchel forward and flipping its flap open. The Prince's letters were nestled at the top, unharmed from her journey.

Ever since she was twelve, the Prince had sent her letters once a year on her birthday. The villagers who'd visited Oran city, the capitol where the Prince resided, had warned her that the prince was an arrogant man and that no doubt he'd written her to tell her how high and mighty was he and how low and pitiful was she.

But at the romantically-inclined age of twelve, she hadn't believed them. In the privacy of her room, she opened the letter and skimmed the middle. Her gaze caught on the words: But don't be afraid; I will help you.

Her nose crinkled, but she kept reading, until her gaze hit the sentence: You need me. Without me, you are lost.

She'd never read his letters since. Her stomach twisted at the mere thought. She'd only managed to throw a page into the hearth's fire, until her parents had caught her in the act and forbidden her from ever doing so again. So she'd kept them.

She brushed the paper with her knuckles. The parchment was creamier than her skin, and its gold-rimmed edges and colors were more vivid than any sunset. It would fetch a high price at a shop.

Carissa smoothed the satchel's flap over its contents. She glanced to the side. The man who had stared at her so intently was gone. He'd probably had his fill of her and rejoined the current of the crowd.

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