Emma wanted to scream and even if she did no one would care. The man she was currently dancing with was the son of a noble who hoped to win her favor and be the one to convince her parents into marrying off their only child. However, since they were approaching year ten of the war a nobleman’s son wouldn’t be an ideal match for them. A prince of a neighboring kingdom, or one of the White kingdom’s allies, but not a nobleman’s son. There was no benefit to marrying him. And yet, as Emma danced with the young man all wanted to do was scream. She hated that her parents had forced her to come to another ball. Hated the fact that she was shoved into a dress that she wanted to burn. But she played the part even as a major part of her died. If anyone knew, or cared to know, how she really felt they would tell her that it was all in her head and that she would eventually grow out of it. She wasn’t going to grow out of it. At nineteen she was certain of what she was feeling, but in the end, no one would care.
The dance with the nobleman’s son lasted until the song came to an end. Emma went through the motions of being gracious and thanking him for the dance. The man had just left when Emma saw her mother approaching her. Behind her was the prince of one of the kingdoms that the White kingdom was allies with. Her mother’s display of exuberant enthusiasm as she introduced the man to Emma only made her desire to scream at the top of her lungs worse. The man laughed appropriately at her mother’s desperate attempts at humor while Emma only forced a smile on her face. Her mother departed and the next thing Emma knew the two of them were dancing. Emma’s night continued in the same manner, sometimes the men would approach her without her mother, until she excused herself from the ball feigning too much excitement.
Emma made a hasty exit from the ballroom and rushed down the corridor of the main floor of the castle. She sent curt nods to those that bowed and curtsied as she passed by them on her way to the stairs. Emma quickly went up the stairs and when she reached the wing that held her chambers she all but ran to them. As she approached the doors she dismissed the guards that stood outside them. Telling them that her mother had requested their presence at the ball. The two men acknowledged the order, which was a lie, and left their post outside of her chambers. Emma pushed the heavy wooden doors open then slammed them closed once she was inside her personal sanctuary. She started to rip off the dress that suffocated her and as she did tears of frustration started to fall from her eyes.
Emma had torn the dress to shreds and when there was nothing left of it she headed for her wardrobe. She ripped the dresses out of it and focused all her anger and frustration on the beautiful gowns until there was nothing left of them. She cried, screamed, and swore as she tore through the delicate fabrics that made up the dresses. She couldn’t live this life. It was a life that had brought her nothing but hell and torment. Emma had gone on anger and self-hatred rampage that destroyed not only the elegant dresses that had filled her wardrobe, but also her room. Emma was sitting on the floor wearing nothing but her under dress surrounded by broken fragrance bottles, shattered mirrors, torn books, and everything else that she had taken her anger out on.
She couldn’t do this anymore. It was taking everything out of her and she didn’t want to live a life where she was shell of herself. Emma glanced at the broken mirror and stared at it for a moment before picking up a shard of glass. Emma held it up and examined it. If she wasn’t going to be able to live life as the person she truly was then there was no point in her being alive. Emma brought the glass to her wrist and pressed it down hard as she dragged it down her forearm. The sight of blood mesmerized her as she pressed it down deeper. The elation she felt outweighed the pain. For once she was in control of how her life went. The blood started to flow quickly from the open wound and Emma felt herself growing faint. She fell to the floor and Emma watched as the blood ran from her arm and down to the ornate rug that covered the floor. Her eyes drifted closed and a faint smile appeared on her face. She was going to be free from a life that she didn’t want and that brought with it a sense a peace that she hadn’t felt since she was younger. The world faded to black but faintly Emma heard the sound of her mother’s voice before losing all consciousness.
Emma ran her finger over the raised, angry, red scar that was on her forearm. It had been a month since she had almost escaped this wretched life, but the fairies had saved her. She hated them for it. “Oh, honey, I know that ugly scar upsets you. The fairies are working on a way to conceal it,” her mother said as she walked into the sitting room of Emma’s chambers carrying a tray of tea and cookies. Emma had been hiding in them since the day she had tried to kill herself. She thought if she stayed hidden the she wouldn’t have to face a life that she wanted no part of.
Emma glared at her mother. “I don’t want them to conceal it,” she spat. “I don’t want the fairies anywhere near me.”
“Emma, if it weren’t for the fairies then you’d…” her mother trailed off and tears glistened in her eyes as the thought of losing her only child hit her. Emma – on some level – wanted to care, but she didn’t. Her mother didn’t care about the person she truly was, and in return, Emma felt no sympathy or guilt over what she did. She was completely unaffected by what effect her attempted suicide might have had on her parents. Emma watched as her mother set the tray down on the low table that was in front of the couch then she sat down next to Emma, taking her hand. “I think you’ve taken enough time to work through everything.” She paused then continued with some hesitation. “Your father and I are holding a ball tonight, and if you’re not up to it you don’t have to come, but you should start getting out again.”
Emma scoffed and remarked, “I’m not getting out again. I’m not going to another ball.”
Her mother sighed. “Emma…”
“Don’t speak to me like I’m a child,” Emma countered when she heard her mother’s exasperated tone.
Emma got up from the couch. She needed to get away from the woman. She could tolerate her mother most of the time, but now – after everything – she wasn’t going to be able to do so. The woman only added to her self-hatred and the loathing that she had for her life. “I wouldn’t treat you like a child if you would only talk to someone. You haven’t spoken to anyone. Not me, not your father, and not even the castle priest.” She got up and took a step towards Emma, and when Emma took a step back she didn’t try to get any closer to her. “No one understands why you did what you did.”
Emma turned away from her and went to the doors that led to the balcony off the sitting room. “Leave me alone, mother. I don’t want to talk to you.”
She walked out onto the balcony and closed the door behind her. Emma leaned back against them and let out a slow breath as tears blurred her vision. She couldn’t stay here anymore. Emma no longer had the desire to kill herself, but she knew that living in this castle with her parents, would only result in her trying again. Emma drew in another breath and walked over to the stone wall that enclosed the balcony. She leaned on it as she looked at the vast forest that went beyond the castle grounds. It was while she was in her wistful thoughts did she formulate a plan. It was one that she was going to execute tonight while her parents were at their ball.
Emma had cut her hair and bound her breasts. She was wearing pants that were a size too big and a loose linen shirt. The boots on her feet were ones that Emma had worn when she and her father used to go hunting. Emma had a black cloak around her and the hood of it was up to hide her face. She had cleared the castle and now she was making her way to the stables to get a horse. Emma was opening the door when someone shouted behind her, “Hey, what are you doing in the royal stables?”
Emma turned and there was a guard behind her. She cleared her throat then lowered her voice as she replied, “The princess said that she was going for a ride and ordered me to get her horse ready.”
“At this hour?” The guard questioned.
“Yes, go ask your majesty herself,” Emma stated hoping that would get the man from asking her more questions.
The man walked closer holding his torch higher. “What’s your name boy?”
It didn’t take long for Emma to come up with something because this was something she had been thinking about since she was younger. “Emery.”
“Emery,” the guard repeated. “And who do you report to?”
Emma pressed her lips together then said, “Nicolette.”
The man pointed at Emma and said, “Don’t go into that stable until I speak with her. Do you understand, boy?”
Emma nodded. The man walked away and once he was out of sight Emma ran into the stable to get a horse. Emma had chosen a horse that wasn’t the one that she had gotten for her twelfth name day. As she put a saddle on the animal there was a grin on her face and an excited glint in her eyes. This was how she was going to start her new life. Once she was out of the White kingdom, she would no longer be Emma White, princess of the White kingdom. She would be Emery and was going live her life as the man she always knew herself to be. Emma mounted the horse squeezed the stallion’s sides with her knees, making it take off. When they were out of the stable Emma urged the horse to go faster taking her closer to the freedom that she had always desired.
Emery veered off the main road that he was on and took his time as he navigated his horse through the dark forest. He had been riding for awhile and Emery knew that he wasn’t in the White kingdom anymore. He was deep in the heart of King Stefan’s kingdom. He wouldn’t be able to stay there for long, but his horse needed a rest and his ass was getting sore. Emery came upon a lake and decided to stop there for a break. He dismounted the horse then rubbed his sore ass cheek and grimaced. This would be the last time that he would ride a horse for two hours straight. Then again if he hadn’t been pampered all his life his ass wouldn’t be this sore. Emery took the saddle off the horse along with his packs. He patted the horse’s neck and said, “All right boy, go get some water and we’ll catch some sleep then we’ll decide what to do next.”
The horse trotted off to the lake and Emery moved to go sit under a tree that was by it. He had to figure out what to do next and where he was going. Being who he was caused some complication and would only allow him to do so much, and that’s if he didn’t get killed first. Emery then had a thought come to him. The best place for him to hide was in the Evil Queen’s kingdom. The White kingdom had been at war with the Mills kingdom for almost a decade and there were no signs of it stopping anytime soon.
Emery didn’t know the full extent of how the war had started, but the most he knew was that the Evil Queen had done something to his mother’s father. He scoffed. The Evil Queen probably had her reasons. The White kingdom wasn’t as upstanding as others assumed it to be. It was going bankrupt because of the war and his mother’s stupid indulgence to keep up pretenses. Emery snorted and chuckled to himself. From where he sat the Evil Queen in this narrative was his mother. Then again he had heard tales about the queen of the Mills kingdom chopping off heads and torturing soldiers and civilians that were from the White kingdom.
Emery fished an apple out of one of his packs and began to eat it as he looked out at the lake. Getting to the Mills kingdom would mean he would have to ride for a few more hours, but once he was in the kingdom he was going to find some village to hide away in. Possibly become a farm hand or an apprentice for one of the shops. Emery sighed. He would figure everything out once he found somewhere to spend the rest of his life.
Emery smiled at the thought. He was going to be able to live out his life as the man he was and not have to deal with judgments from his mother. The only issue he faced was that if anyone found out the truth it could lead to a number of problems. Ones that ranged from him being sent back to the White Kingdom to his death, but it was a risk Emery was willing to take. He was now living his life.
Emery finished off his apple then watched the lake. It was going to be hard for him for awhile. He grew up in a castle, never having to do anything on his own, but now he was going to have to do everything. Luckily he was resourceful and a quick learner. Emery would manage to get through this somehow. Emery dozed off underneath the tree with thoughts of how he was going to spend his new life running through his head. He was excited, but also cautious about what was going to happen to him.
Emery woke up to the sun shining brightly on his face. He opened his eyes then closed them instantly and covering his face with his hand. He groaned then let out a tired breath. He dropped his hand then got off the ground and headed over to his horse. Emery saddled him up and put his packs on the horse then they were on their way. He was upset that he had slept through the rest of night, and it was obvious that he was going to have work on his stamina. Traveling during the day put him at risk for someone recognizing him, so Emery took less traveled trails and kept the hood of his cloak up. He managed to get through most of Stefan’s kingdom when he had to stop again to give the horse another break.
Emery was leaning on a tree munching on a hunk of bread as he waited for the horse drink some water and graze when he heard voices. Emery shook his head and muttered, “Damn it.” He put the hunk of bread into his pack then walked over to get his horse. He led the horse into the forest and waited for whoever was headed his way to pass by. A few minutes later an older couple showed up on the trail. Emery rolled his eyes in annoyance. It was going take them forever to go by. He sat on the ground and waited, pulling out his knife so he could sharpen a stick for entertainment. When the couple was close enough Emery heard the man say, “Ingrid, we have to hurry or it’s going to be dark when we get home. We still have to prepare for tomorrow.”
The woman waved her hand at the man. “You’re always such a worrywart when we’re traveling back from Stefan’s kingdom and we always do fine.
The man scoffed. “You always say that, then you complain when we have to get up early cause we didn’t make dough the night before.”
Ingrid shook her head. “Joe, we’ll get home early enough to make the dough.”
Emery snickered at the old couple then he had an idea. He took hold of his horse’s reins and came out of hiding. He approached them and said, his voice lower than what he normally spoke, “Excuse me, sir, ma’am,”
The woman started and shouted, “Joe, get your sword we’re being robbed.”
Emery held up his hands and said, “Ma’am, no. I’m not trying to rob you. I want to help. I uh….I’ve recently had to leave home due to a bad living situation and I have no job or anything. I was hoping to assist you in getting to your destination.”
The woman looked at Emery then at her husband before looking back at Emery. “Where’s your family?”
Emery pressed his lips together as he thought of an answer. He replied with the most obvious answer, “I’m an orphan. I’ve been on my own since I was thirteen.”
“Oh you poor dear,” Ingrid said with a small gasp. “Wait, thirteen? How old are you?”
Emery bit his lip then replied, “I turned nineteen six months ago.”
Ingrid grunted then said, “We need to put some meat on those bones of yours.” She pointed to the front of the cart. “Hitch up your horse and get in the back of the cart.”
Emery grinned at the woman. “Thank you ma’am, sir.”
Joe chuckled and remarked, “No need to thank us. It’s just like Ingrid to take in a stray.” He climbed down the bench of the cart and helped Emery hitch up his horse. “Did you steal this horse, son? Because he is a mighty fine stallion.”
Emery grimaced and told another white lie. “Possibly. I found him roaming around.”
The man nodded. “What’s your name?”
“Emery,” then man repeated as he studied him. After another moment he smiled. “Sounds honest enough. I’m Joseph, Joe, Swan, and that’s my wife Ingrid.” He said as they hitched Emery’s horse to the cart.
Emery smiled and said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you both. Do you both live in Stefan’s kingdom or –“
“We live in the Mills kingdom. We have a bakery. One the queen herself likes to order from frequently,” Ingrid said from her perch on the cart.
Emery was surprised that the woman was spoke positively of the queen since the woman was supposedly cruel and unjust to her subjects. Joe put his hand on Emery’s shoulder and commented, “You sure are a scrawny fellow. Well, no worry. After a few of Ingrid’s home-cooked meals, and working at the bakery, you’ll be fit for hard labor.”
Emery chuckled and smiled at the man. “Thank you, Joe.”
“All right you two get on up here. We got to make it back to the village before dark falls,” Ingrid ordered with a small chuckle.
Emery climbed onto the back of the cart while Joe got up on the bench. Luck had dealt him an amazing hand and now he was going to help the Swans until they were done with him. It was the perfect thing for him to do until he figured out what he was going to do with the rest of his life. Emery grinned to himself. He could be a baker. He did like to eat.
Emery grunted as he lifted the heavy tray that was full of fresh baked bread. He rested the edge of it on his shoulder and walked over to a large cooling rack then slid the tray into it. He blew out a deep breath then went back over to the oven. He opened it and the scorching heat of it hit him in the face. It was a feeling he had gotten used to over the last six months and he was starting to enjoy it. He actually enjoyed being a baker’s apprentice in general. The first couple of months had been grueling because he wasn’t used to lifting bags of grain and flour or heavy trays of bread, but as his body got used to the heavy lifting, and mixing dough, the work became easier. Emery had even managed to put on some weight and most of it was turning into muscle. It was changing the way he viewed his body and he actually liked how his body was developing because of the strenuous work. It was surprising because he had hated his body since it had gone through its natural development.
Emery got the wooden, flat shovel and slid it into the over to get the two loaves that were baking. He placed them on the cooling rack then closed the oven. Emery pulled a cloth out of his pocket and wiped at his forehead. Other than him gaining weight and improving his upper body strength, he was fitting into the small village that was on the edge of the Evil Queen’s kingdom quite well. Thanks to the proper haircut that Joe had given him, and getting clothes that he had Ingrid alter to fit him right, no one was able to tell who he was. He was just the scrawny boy that helped the Swans.
“Emery, if that bread is out of the oven I want you start mixing up a batch of cookies. We’ve got that village celebration coming up,” Ingrid shouted from the front of the bakery. “Oh, and I need you to go to Leonard’s farm and pick up those eggs I ordered.”
Emery groaned. He didn’t like going to the old man’s farm. Leonard had lost his wife about three years ago and he was lonely. He was willing to have a conversation with anyone and would talk until you had to come up with a good enough lie that the man couldn’t con you out of. Emery always got suckered into an hour long conversation with him which always had him behind on his chores, and as a baker that wasn’t pleasant. Because depending on how much he got done the night before, the later he could sleep in. “Ingrid, do I have to? You know he’ll talk my ear off.”
He heard the woman laugh. “He talks everyone’s ear off, dear.” Emery heard her laughter die down then she said, “Fine. I’ll send Joe, but I want you to start the dough for tomorrow.”
Emery rolled his eyes. He was already a step ahead on that because he made the water and yeast concoction already. “Okay.”
He went back to finish baking the bread that they gave to the local orphanage when he heard Ingrid swear then she called out, “Emery, can you come mind the store? I need to go upstairs and change my apron. I got milk over this one.”
Emery scowled at the pile of dough in front of him. He hated running the store. Even though he was fitting in with the village well enough he still had a deep fear of someone from the White kingdom potentially recognizing him which he knew was absurd because not only did he look nothing like his former self, but he was in the Mills kingdom. No one from the White kingdom would travel there. Another reason he didn’t like working the front was because everyone called him boy or son. He was a grown man and he wasn’t as scrawny as he had been when he got to the village. He sighed and made his way to the front. Ingrid smiled at him. “I know you don’t like being up here, but it should only be for a couple of minutes.”
She walked by and gave his cheek an affectionate, but gentle pinch, then headed for the stairs that went up to their house. Emery snagged one of the cupcakes off the tray that was sitting on the counter and ate half of it in one bite. Living with Joe and Ingrid wasn’t as complicated as he thought it would be since he was trying to hide the truth about his body. But he had his own private room and they respected that he was a private person who avoided talking about his past. There had been times where he caught Ingrid looking at his scar but she never asked him about it. Emery ate the rest of his cupcake. He didn’t know if he would tell them the truth one day, but he felt safe with Joe and Ingrid. They were the best adoptive parents he could have.
The door to the shop opened and in walked two of the queen’s guards. One man walked over to the counter and said, “We’re here to collect tax for her majesty. The queen has also requested that the Swans make the bread and sweets for her next engagement.”
Emery wiped his mouth with back of his hand and chewed up the rest of the cupcake that was in his mouth. “I-uh-“
“How old are you, boy?”
Emery didn’t know how to answer the question. The guard was wearing all black armor and had a sword. He figured the only answer he could give him was the truth. “I’m nineteen.”
“You’re new around here aren’t you?” Emery nodded. “There is a law that all men over the age of sixteen are to serve a mandatory two years in the queen’s army. Did you know that?”
Emery shook his head no. Ingrid walked through the opening that led to the back of the bakery and when she saw the two guards she started a little. “Oh, my. We have guests I see.” She moved to the drawer where the money was kept and asked, “How much is it this month?”
“Two hundred,” the guard that had been questioning Emery replied. “How long has this boy been working at your shop?”
Ingrid glanced at Emery and remarked, “Oh, I don’t know. About six months I guess.”
“Six months and you haven’t had him enlist?” The guard exclaimed as his eyes narrowed that the older woman. Emery suddenly felt protective of Ingrid and he moved closer to the broom that was leaning on the counter. He didn’t know what he was going to do with it, but he was going to protect Ingrid if the man got violent.
Ingrid got the money and slammed the drawer closed. “That law is absurd. And I figured he didn’t have to enlist since he wasn’t from this kingdom.”
The guard held out his hand and stated, “All men, no matter where they’re from, enlist in the queen’s army if they are living in her kingdom.”
Ingrid scoffed and dropped the money in his hand. “If she would stop this foolish war then there wouldn’t be such an asinine law in place.”
The man let out an exasperated breath. “Mrs. Swan, please don’t challenge me on this. If the captain finds out he is here he will be forced to enlist and you and Mr. Swan will be fined.” He gave her a small, crooked smile. “You know the queen favors your bakery over all others in the kingdom.”
Ingrid rolled her eyes and remarked, “Of course she does. I’ve been her choice of baker since she was a young queen.” She glanced at Emery then asked, “What if I tell the captain that, because of Joe and I’s old age, we need him around?”
The guard let his head drop back and groaned. “Ingrid, I have known you since I was still suckling on my mother’s bosom, but I cannot relent on this. The boy needs to enlist or you and Joe will get a fine, or – even worse - you will all be thrown into the queen’s dungeon.”
Ingrid then pointed out, “Liam, do you believe Emery would survive the Queen’s army? Look at him. He’s a runt.” Emery scowled at the comment. “He would get eaten alive by the other men.”
The guard, Liam, snagged a cupcake off the tray and said, “The captain will be here in a week. If he is still here you, him, and Joe will be imprisoned.” He took a bite out of the cupcake then stated, “The captain also received a letter from the queen. She would like you to make the bread and sweets for her next state dinner.”
Ingrid grunted and the guard shook his head before looking at Emery. “Report to the commandant at the beginning of the next week. Do not run because we will find you and the punishment for avoiding your service is death.”
Emery gave a slight nod then watched as the two guards left the bakery. “Damn it,” Ingrid muttered under her breath. “Well at least we were able to keep you off their radar for the last six months.” She looked at him and there was sadness in her eyes. “If you want to leave, I understand. Serving the queen during a time of war can be dangerous, especially for a boy like you.”
Emery didn’t know what she meant by that but he took a deep breath then said, “This is my home, and my queen has ordered me to serve her army.” He flashed Ingrid a charming smile. “So I’m going to do it and I’ll be out of the way for awhile.”
Ingrid chuckled but tears came to her eyes then she moved closer to him and gave Emery a tight hug which he returned. Serving in the Queen’s army was going to be interesting considering his secret, but he would risk it so that Ingrid and Joe wouldn’t face any harsh backlash from the queen and her guards.
Dinner that night was quite tense. Ingrid had told Joe about the queen’s guard coming into the bakery that afternoon when he got back from making deliveries. She then told him about Emery needing to enlist or they would all get in trouble and that’s when Joe went quiet and went to his workshop. He didn’t come out of it until Ingrid called him for dinner. Emery stabbed a potato with his fork and looked at Ingrid then at Joe. He ate the vegetable then took a drink of his water. As he sat his cup down Emery cleared his throat and said, “I know you don’t approve, Joe, but I don’t want you and Ingrid to get in trouble. The two of you have been done a lot for me.”
Joe glanced up at him then took a drink of his ale. He set his mug down and stated, “You’re not a boy meant for war.”
Emery sighed and shook his head. “What do you mean I’m not meant for war? And I’m not a boy. I’m nineteen and I can handle whatever they put me through.”
Joe frowned and stared him down. “I don’t think you are, Emery. When you got here you could barely lift a bound of grain.” He picked up his slice of bread and tore a hunk off it. Joe pointed it at Emery and said, “Sure you can lift bags of flour and grain with no problem now, but you’re not solider material.”
“Joe…” Ingrid said in a cautious tone, warning him to not to push Emery too much.
He shook his head. “Ingrid, I’m sorry but I’m not going to sit by while he does something foolish that’ll get him killed.”
The three of them fell quiet and Emery finished eating. It was nice to have someone care about him and his wellbeing, but he was still going to do it because it was better than the alternative. He got up from the table and got his plate and the bowl that the vegetables had been in. “I was thinking, if it was okay with the both of you, that I would serve under the last name Swan.” He put the bowl in the dish basin and looked back at the dining table. Ingrid looked at him with tears in her eyes, but there was smile on her face and there was a thoughtful expression on Joe’s. “I mean if you two don’t want me to then I won’t. I figured it was better than coming up with something because my actual last name isn’t worth serving under.” He bit his bottom lip then said, “It was just a thought.”
Joe sighed and leaned back in his chair. “You’re going to force me to accept this and you’re going to do it with my last name?”
Emery took a step closer to the table. “Only if you and Ingrid agree to it. Either way, Joe, I’m going to do it.”
Joe blew out an exasperated breath then got up from the table. He walked over to Emery and stood in front of him. “I’ve never been big on having kids of my own. It’s probably the reason why Ingrid and I never had any of our own, but you’re probably the closest we’ll get to having a son.” He chuckled. “You’re stubborn as mule, but a quick study, and nice kid.” Joe put his hand on Emery’s shoulder. “I would be honored if you served as a Swan.”
A huge grin came to Emery’s face and he gave Joe a big hug. It lasted for a moment then Ingrid said, “The two of you don’t get to have a moment without me.” She walked over to them and enveloped Emery in a tight hug. She kissed his cheek then whispered, “Don’t do anything that would get you killed.” Emery chuckled at the remark, but he also hoped that he wouldn’t do anything that would get him killed either.