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The rain was cold.
Just like the air. And the mood.
It was depressing.
Although almost the entire family had been looking forward to this evening, the atmosphere was nerve-wrackingly tense. Throughout the trip, the ladies stared out the windows, biting their fingernails or their lips, chasing one thought after another. Sometimes a furtive glance flitted through the carriage.
Who were the others hoping for? Did they have the same concerns? Was there anyone, or did they have to hope for the best? Would the men actually go through with it and take the chosen one as their wife?

It was a quandary. But the black-haired woman had entirely different problems. The man she wanted wasn't even on the list. He would not attend this ball. His status was too low for that.
She didn't even know when she would see him again. When she could bury her hands in his soft blond hair and feel his lips on hers again.
The last time they had seen each other was two weeks ago. He had stood in front of her window and smiled at her so charmingly that she hadn't been able to resist. She had climbed out to him and he had pulled her around the next corner. The cold night wind had increased her goosebumps once more, but she hadn't had time to shiver or shake at all, her back had already hit the wall of the house and 2 strong arms had embraced her, warming her and making her forget everything that was going on around it. His lips found hers as if by themselves and she also wrapped her hands around his neck, pressing him closer to her as if she had wanted to melt into him. He tasted of coffee and smelled a little of horse and leather. His rough uniform rubbed a little uncomfortably against her thighs, so she pulled herself up against him and wrapped her legs around his hips. He briefly disengaged his hands from her back, pulled his gloves from his fingers, and tossed them carelessly to the floor. When his warm hands met her thighs to hold her down, she couldn't help but moan briefly. As she laid her head on her neck in pleasure, his lips found her neck as if automatically. He wandered over her collarbone, up her neck along her artery and finally found her jaw, kissing it along to her ear. "Shhh, dear. We don't want the neighbors to wake up." His voice was rough, yet gentle enough that she had to suppress a whimper. She pressed closer to him and buried her nose in his velvety hair. "I miss you!" The words were whispered so softly, he wouldn't have heard them if he hadn't been holding his breath at that moment. He expelled the air again, a sigh escaping him, and his fingers dug a little deeper into her thighs. He smelled her flowery scent, lavender and maybe roses, as he inhaled again to answer. "I miss you, too! Horribly. Not long now and we'll ..."

The carriage came to a stop with a jolt. All heads wheeled around and 4 pairs of eyes stared at each other in near panic. They were there. You could hear the coachman jumping off the trestle and not 10 seconds later the carriage door opened.
To the left and to the right about 100 soldiers lined up, marking the way to the castle and watching the countless women following the road up the hill. They were all beauties and you could tell the men envied the gentlemen who would choose and marry these ladies.
The fact that the women had no say in the matter seemed to interest no one. Everyone complied. That's how it had been for centuries and that's how it would remain for hundreds of years to come. Only the richest men from the country were allowed to attend the annual ball and choose one of the women. The only freedom of choice the ladies had was to say yes or no at the altar. This was entirely up to them. Didn't seem like a bad option, you just kept saying no until someone came along that fit. The catch was that if a woman still didn't have anyone at the 3rd ball in a row, she was never allowed to marry.

So there seemed to be only these 2 options and the black haired woman didn't fit any of them. And yet, here she was. Walking up the hill with the hundreds of women, joining the queue in front of the entrance area and let herself be gawked at unintentionally. She looked pretty, she knew that. The dark eyes had been specially highlighted, the light blue eye shadow matched with the dress. The thin layers of fabric fell over the corset in gentle waves down her hips to her knees. The V-neckline showed a lot of skin, too much for her liking, so she wrapped the silk scarf around her shoulders and threw one end back around her neck. Better.
Her feet were in light blue high heels as well, decorated with small silver glitter stones, which conjured tiny points of light on the walls and dresses as soon as a little light fell on them.
Only and alone her hair she had left exactly as usual. The strands were too short to braid and when they were simply tied together, she felt too uncomfortable. Therefore, she had been able to convince her mother to just leave them exactly as they were: A little tangled, but curly, and they framed her face so perfectly that if she bent her head forward a little, she could easily hide behind the strands. She had gotten used to that, a woman had to be invisible next to a man, after all. Only for her lover, she stroked it back. He always wanted to look her in the eyes, told her how perfect she was and that he would kidnap her. Somewhere where there were no such stupid rules and he could kiss her in public without being pilloried for it right away.
But that was impossible. In the whole country, there were the same laws and over the borders, one came only with a permission signed by the king.

But one was allowed to dream. Every night she dreamed about it and with every day the longing for him grew stronger. He was a soldier in the royal guard and mostly stationed outside the capital, which is why they saw each other so rarely. The only consolation was, at least 1x a month she could see him, when he collected his pay from the palace. This day was the only one when she felt really happy. Most of the time they didn't see each other until the evening or even the night, like some days before, but she liked the anticipation throughout the day just as much. The thoughts of his smile, the soft gaze every time he looked at her or sometimes just his rough hands that seemed to fit her body perfectly. Never hard, but never restraining either.
She noticed how, as she stared at her shoes, she sank back into daydreaming and it went in a direction she didn't need right now. The line in front of her had shortened quite a bit and it wouldn't be long before she would be standing in the big hall, along with the other women, waiting for the arrival of the men who had the "pleasure" of selecting their trophies. Of course, they would gather the ladies much earlier so that they could then get right down to business as soon as the honored gentlemen arrived. Another point that drove the young woman to fury.

She had now reached the gate, where the queue split up so that it would at least move a little faster. She decided to go to the left side, this soldier looked friendlier and she handed him her "invitation". Or in other words, the order to be present.
He checked the paper, checked the name and crossed out a short line on his own list. Her presence was registered. When he looked up at her again, she was amazed to see a small grin on his face and his eyes seemed to sparkle a little, as if he had an interesting secret he was not allowed to reveal. He handed it back to her and muttered just loud enough for her to barely understand, "Have fun!" With a wink, he pushed the confused young lady through the door and turned to the next girl.
She was confused. Why would he wish her fun? He didn't seem to mean the ball, that was for sure, but then what? She was running to her doom here, what could be so fun about that?
Slowly she plodded along the aisle, letting herself be pulled along with the crowd more than consciously walking, thinking about the weird interaction she had just had. She had also been the only one to whom he had said something, that she had already noticed. Among other things, because he was not allowed to talk to the women who passed through these gates. His position was too low for that. So for what reason would he endanger his life or at least his position, just to wish her of all people "Have fun"? It was a mystery to her.

Her musings were abruptly interrupted when she stumbled forward a step and suddenly found herself standing not in the throng but in an oversized room that probably had room for half the country's population. It was elongated, reminiscent of a church, and was lined with floor-to-ceiling windows that provided a breathtaking view of a small rose garden and a large portion of the city beyond. The black-haired woman's mouth dropped open as she gazed at the view, but then tore her gaze away from it and stared up at the ceiling. There hung 10 huge chandeliers, bulging with candles, and the only thought that ran through her mind was, "The poor person who had to light all those candles!"
At the end of the hall, the throne stood on a high pedestal, surrounded by several circular steps, which she knew served to give the men a view over the selection. There were always fewer men than women, and every year at least 50 ladies came out of the castle crying into their families' arms. There was no more chance for them. All the rest came back with a worried look, either because no one had chosen them or because someone had chosen them. Only very rarely did a few beaming women come out and announce that they had hit the jackpot.
That would not happen to the black-haired woman, she was sure of that. There was only one man she would accept and he was miles away, probably guarding some unnecessary tower or the like. Her nose wrinkled a little and her mouth puckered barely noticeably as she thought about it.

Slowly, the crowd pushed her further into the room and near the buffet that offered small snacks, like strawberries or caviar. Both hard to come by in these seasons and areas.
But most importantly, a glass was given to her. Champagne, as a sniff of it revealed. She did not drink alcohol, especially that of the king. Who knew what was in it and what it would bring her to. In the end, she ran out of here with a 60-year-old who had once been able to make her laugh briefly. Very tempting.
She took a step to the side and unnoticed tipped half into the pot of a large plant. Deliberately only half, then no one would offer her more.
Still admiring, she slowly meandered through the crowd, contemplating the garden, trying to fight the panic she felt bubbling inside her since she had taken a step out of the carriage and trying to find a familiar face in the crowd. She had lost her 3 companions in line, she hadn't really known them anyway. 3 girls from the city who had been picked up before her. She lived closest to the castle of the 4, which was why she had been the last to join them.

She was looking at a yellow ribbon on a young woman's back, thinking about how tight the corset had to be to have that much fabric left, when someone carefully put their hands over her eyes from behind. The scent of mint hit her and right next to her ear some bracelets rang softly. Finally, someone she knew. She turned to look into the face of her best friend. The blonde also looked like an angel. A dark red tight dress adorned her body, matching a pair of strappy heeled sandals. The long gold earrings matched the bracelets and clips that held her hair in place. A wide grin further adorned her face and for some reason the twinkle in her eyes reminded the black haired girl of the soldier at the entrance. It was the same mischievous look, like the two of them were cooking something up. But the two didn't even know each other, she reminded herself. Coincidence.

She shook her head slightly and looked skeptically at her friend. "What are you grinning at?"
The blonde pressed her lips together briefly and her eyes widened as she inhaled sharply. "I can't wait!..." she finally groaned out. She took one deep breath, looked left and right to see if anyone was watching her, and then pulled a small piece of paper from the pocket in her dress. "I have something for you!" The document was rolled up and a small seal ensured that the message remained unread for as long as possible. "I didn't read it, I swear! I don't know what it says."
The scroll was handed over and the black-haired woman continued to stare at the paper in disbelief. The intact seal meant nothing to her, the crest was unfamiliar.
"Girl, where did you get this?" she asked, stunned, wrapping her fingers around it so no one would notice. An anxious look was cast left and right again.
"It doesn't matter! You'd better look at what it says. I want to know!" The blonde was really whining, she was that curious. She even pranced a little on the spot.
Shortly the black-haired hesitated, however, finally the curiosity won and she turned a little away from the crowd. With trembling hands she broke the seal. She didn't know what to expect, who it came from or what it said, but when she finally rolled up the paper, she was almost amazed by the single line that was written there. "9:00 pm, come right next to the first window".
Silence reigned between the two of them for a moment. They stared at the words, trying to connect what was written with anything.
"Huh, what does that mean?" The blonde contorted her face and looked questioningly at her best friend. The latter just shrugged her shoulders and frowned as well.
"I don't know... But it's better than having disgusting men stare at me and treat me like a doll." She shrugged her shoulders and raised her head to take a look out the large windows. A sigh escaped her when she saw the hands on the nearby church clock. These showed only 7:48 p.m. Still more than an hour until something exciting would finally happen.
Disappointed, she turned back to her friend and crumpled the note in her hands. For a moment she just looked around, trying to calculate how she could make the time go by the fastest. Finally, she grabbed her comrade's hand and pulled her further into the room, pushing further into the crowd. "Come on, we're evaluating clothes. I have time to kill."

And indeed they did. At first, the black-haired girl had a hard time not looking at the clock every 2 minutes and waiting for the big hand to make a jump forward, but after about 20 minutes, the two of them became so engrossed in their observations that they didn't even really notice the time anymore.
The blonde could also use the distraction. Just like her friend, she too had a little secret, which involved a man who would not be in the room, standing on the pedestal in front. The only difference: she had already seen him today. The soldier on the left had checked both of their invitations and looked at her as if he would pounce at any moment. His gaze had moved from her long upswept hair over her pretty face, down her neck over her cleavage where his eyes had lingered a tad too long and darkened. Then he had wandered over her hips and caught at the long slit in her floor-length dress. Her slender legs looked even longer because of the shoes and fabric, she was aware of that, and it almost seemed to cause him counterpart pain when he tore his eyes away from her and crossed her name on the list. "I'm going to take this dress off you so slowly you're going to wish I'd ripped it off." he murmured onto the sheet as he dragged the pen extra slowly across the paper. A smile had spread across her face and she had leaned forward a little extra as she accepted her invitation again. "I'm looking forward to it!" she whispered, and also her eyes darkened a bit as they looked at each other. Then he had had to extend his arm again and reach for the next letter that was handed to him. She had followed the crowd, clutching the small scroll in her pocket that she had been carrying for 2 days. He had given it to her for her friend, but wouldn't say anything about it and simply asked her to hand over the paper. She would then find out soon enough what it was all about.
That pained her. What should her lover have to do with her best friend? She thought about it all the time, but she couldn't think of a solution. She was convinced that they didn't know each other, so why would he send secret messages to her?
The thoughts were spinning in her head and couldn't really be dispelled until her friend pulled her into the middle of the room and began to occupy her and herself.

Time went by faster than expected. They were assessing a very short purple dress that was so tight on the young woman that she could barely move without something falling out when the black haired woman suddenly startled. "Do you hear that?" Eyes wide, she listened to the crowd and indeed: if you listened carefully, the sound of the bell rang out in the church.
Like the wind, the smaller of the two darted between the people, straight to the window, where she almost stuck to the glass, so close she stood to it. The church steeple showed 9:00 pm. It was time.
Her breath quickened a little and with a jerk she turned to her friend, who had now made it to the window as well.
For 2 chimes the two looked at each other, then a grin flitted across the black haired girl's face. "I have to go!" she yipped, stroking her sky blue dress once. Before the blonde could even hold her back, her friend had already taken 5 steps towards the entrance. She could only call after her, "Have fun..." and contort her face a little. She was not comfortable with this.
But the smaller one didn't hear her anymore. She weaved her way between the people again and headed for the first window. Exactly at the last chime, she reached the pane. Her heart was racing with adrenaline and she had her hands clasped tightly so no one would notice how tightly they were shaking. The window was open a crack and the cool breeze sent goosebumps up her arms.
She turned her back to the view and examined the crowd. Tried to spot anyone or see if any person was acting suspiciously. But nothing was happening. About 10 minutes passed and when no one caught her eye or started talking to her, she was already starting to turn away again. Maybe her friend was joking, she thought, and with her head down she turned back to the direction she had come from. Then a noise sounded and immediately it became dead silent in the room. You couldn't even hear anyone breathing, everyone was just staring at the entrance where the doors had opened again and the king was standing in the archway. Behind him, men lined up. More than any woman in the room had expected and one could almost grasp the relief that flowed through almost everyone when they saw the crowd. Maybe no one had to go home empty-handed today after all.

Suddenly there was movement in the crowd. Everyone pushed backwards and an alley formed in the middle, which the king immediately claimed. With his head held high, he strutted along the women, eyeing those closest to him with a scrutinizing gaze.
With the space gained in the middle, there had been less room in the back and the black-haired woman was really pressed up against the window. With the high heels she could see the king's crown bobbing by, but that was all she needed. She would have preferred to disappear on the spot anyway.
After the ruler, the men also strode through the hall and tried to imitate the gait of their predecessor, which led to many grins.
When the last one finally arrived on the podium in front, the crowd in the middle closed again and a loud applause rang out.
A strong gust of wind ran through the black-haired girl's fabric and just as she was about to join in the applause, someone grabbed her by the upper arm and yanked her backwards out the window. She stumbled over the frame, but instead of falling straight to the floor, the person put her back on her feet, took both her wrists in one hand and put the other over her mouth, stifling the scream she was about to let out. Her feet buckled under her several times as she was pulled backwards out of the light, and a jolt went through her as the person behind her slammed their back against the nearest wall. To her surprise, they stopped right there and she had a moment to get her legs back in order and stand up firmly. Only then did she become aware of the hot breath on the back of her neck and how tightly the person was holding her. They were standing in the shadows and it was so dark outside, even if someone had turned around and looked outside, no one would have seen them.

She cautiously tried to take a small step forward. "Ah!" and was pulled back with a reproving expression. The voice was low when they finally began to speak. She could feel the vibrations against her back. "How dare you! Do you know how dangerously you live, young lady?"
To her, it felt like someone had cut the strings above her. The complete tension that had been building over the last few seconds fell away from her with a wipe and she felt a small moan come from her. It was barely audible through the hand on her mouth, but the man behind her had felt it, she was sure of it.
"Alice, Alice, Alice. How unreasonable. You don't accept such whimsical invitations, especially on such an important evening and when you don't know who it's from." She felt him shake his head, then click his tongue. "Imagine what could have happened."
At last he released his hand from her mouth and she immediately exhaled deeply once. When she caught her breath again, his hand jumped to her neck and pushed her head slightly back against his shoulder, so that she was looking up at the spires. He didn't squeeze, but the rough fingertips tingled so extremely against her sensitive skin that she had to bite her lip to keep from making a sound. Carefully he pushed her head a little to the side and started kissing her shoulder. He wandered along the hem of the dress, finally meeting her skin and lightly biting her neck. Her breathing quickened again and she leaned toward him. "Jasper..." It was more of a gasp than actual speaking, but she felt his grin against her neck as he heard his name come out. "Please..."
His 2nd hand also came off her wrists and almost instantly Alice whirled around and wrapped her arms around his neck. He also hugged her and squeezed her so tightly that she once again found it hard to breathe. But that didn't bother her. She felt only him, felt his hands on her sides and the warmth of his body. Tears gathered in her eyes and she squeezed them tightly so that he wouldn't notice.
For minutes they stood there embraced like that, while the people inside talked and no one thought to look outside a little closer.

After a while Jasper detached himself from her a little, put a hand to her cheek and leaned forward. Alice automatically came towards him and when they kissed again now, after 2 long weeks, they both felt whole. As if a piece of them had been missing and through the other person they were whole again.
A sigh escaped Alice and Jasper automatically pressed her a little closer. "I missed you." he murmured against her lips and kissed her again, nipping anything she was about to say in the bud.
She clawed at his shoulders and pulled herself up against him a little. Minutes passed again and neither of them thought about the fact that a few feet away couples were forming, planning marriage proposals and being set up.
Only when a laugh startled them apart did they realize what a mess they were in.
Leaning against her lover, Alice looked at the brightly lit hall and sighed deeply once. "Oh Jasper. What are we going to do?"
She didn't see a smile spread across his face and his eyes begin to light up. "Run away." he said confidently, giving the black-haired girl a quick once-over.
Alice clicked her tongue and shook her head briefly. "You say that every time. Like it's so easy. We'll never get over the borders and even if we do. What are we going to do then? You're a soldier, you'll be recognized everywhere, and I can sew and muck out a barn. With those prospects, we'll get right to the next farm and not a step further." Her voice had taken on an angry tone and she had turned to Jasper. When she saw his grin, she paused. "What is it?"
Again he took her head in his hands and leaned closer to her. "Yes, Alice, you can sew. You know how to cook and kids love you. I can shoe a horse and know how to defend myself." His eyes sparkled with hope as he spoke the words. "We won't have much to begin with. I know that, and you'll deserve more than that. But I have a plan." He spoke with such conviction that Alice couldn't help but give way to the hope in her heart.
"I know it will be hard for you." The smile disappeared from his face for a moment. "You'll have to leave your family, but you won't be alone. It won't just be me there."
Tears had formed in Alice's eyes and her brow furrowed a little. She couldn't quite follow him.

Seeing the questioning expression on her face, Jasper took one deep breath and exhaled. He had been planning this action for so long, but never the right time had come. There had always been something important. First his transfer, then Alice's new home, then her big sister's ball, and, and... But now it was time. Finally, the moment was here.
His breathing was a little shaky, but finally he mustered up the courage. "Before I tell you the complete plan, there's something I have to do." He let go of his lover and put a hand in in the pocket of his jacket. "Alice... Ever since I first met you, I can't get you out of my mind. The first time I saw you, in the square and you were holding the flowers, with that sour look on your face, I'll never forget it." He couldn't help but smile when he saw her red cheeks. "Or when you ran towards me, across the meadow, looking like an angel. I fall asleep every night with that image in front of me." He had pulled his hand out again by now, but kept it hidden behind his back.
The tears in Alice's eyes had returned by now and she remembered the moments all too well. The place had been her cousin's wedding and she had been bored and annoyed at not being allowed to move for half an eternity. Some new soldiers had been hired as guards, including Jasper, and had had to stand guard to make sure no one disturbed the celebration. That had been about five years ago. Just before they had officially met.

The meadow had been a little less long. Maybe 1 year and she hadn't been able to wait to see her boyfriend again. He had been waiting for her at the edge of the woods and under the pretense that she was going for a walk, she had snuck away from home. She had already seen him when she had stepped out of town. A path would have been available, of course, but impatience had driven her cross-country across the meadow and it was a mystery to her to this day how she had gotten to him unharmed and without stumbling. She had not slowed down when she got to him and had run into him with such force that he had stumbled backwards and they had both fallen to the ground. They had lain there for quite a while, happy to be able to spend some time together again.
Knowing that he remembered those moments as well made her so incredibly happy. She had known he was an empathetic person, he had proven that time and time again, but the fact that he was now recounting these memories like this showed her once again why she loved him so much.

He had paused for a moment, his face contorted as if he were in pain, and he stared at his shoes as he continued to speak. "I can't give you what you deserve, Alice. If I could, I'd give you the entire kingdom and everything around it and it still wouldn't be enough." He raised his head before speaking further and looked her straight in the eyes again. "The most I can do is lay my little world at your feet. I promise you I will share everything with you, every thought, every feeling, anything you want. Alice Brandon, I want to spend the rest of my life with you, and if I can, all the rest of the time after that." The hand behind his back now came out and between his fingers he held a small purple bag.
The tears now flowed freely down Alice's face and when Jasper actually got down on one knee in front of her, she could no longer hold back the sobs.
The plain silver ring fell into his hand and there was nothing but love in his eyes as he looked up at her again. "Please... Marry me, Alice... Come with me and start a new life wherever it takes us. I promise you, I will do everything in my power to make you happy." Hopefully, he looked up at her and more tears streamed down her face, both hands resting over her mouth so as not to make too loud a noise.
She looked at the simple ring and it seemed to her that it was the most beautiful piece of jewelry she had ever seen in her life. No jewel could compare to it.
Slowly, she removed both hands from her face, wiped her eyes once firmly, and then took one deep breath to restore a more or less firm tone to her voice. "Yes... Yes, Jasper, I would love to be your wife!"
Again she began to cry as his face lit up with a radiance, but this time there was also a laugh mixed in and she fell forward, right around his neck. He immediately wrapped both arms around her, hugging her as tightly as if she might disappear at any moment. Slowly he stood up, pulling the petite woman with him, and set her back on her feet. Carefully, he leaned back a little, reached for her right arm and put the ring on her finger. Tenderly he looked at the delicate hand and finally lifted it to his lips. As he gave her a feather-light kiss on the hand, he looked into her eyes again and a grin appeared on his face when he saw the red color on Alice's cheeks. Gently, he leaned forward again and when his lips met hers, it felt like he was going to explode inside. Joy, happiness, hope, he felt it all at once.
He pressed towards her, the kiss became more passionate and she wrapped her arms around his neck again. With a jerk, Jasper turned them both around again, Alice once more with her back pressed against the wall.

She was about to pull herself up against him when a soft throat clearing sounded behind them. Startled, Jasper whirled around, body tense, ready to lunge should someone have the nerve to attack them. But the person stepped calmly out of the shadows, and Alice's eyes nearly fell out of her head when she recognized the broad shoulders and short black hair, and the mysterious grin she had wondered about earlier that evening. She was even more surprised when Jasper immediately relaxed and took a few steps toward the young man with a smile as well. "Emmett!" he addressed him delightedly, and they hugged each other tightly, as if they had not seen each other in a while as well.
They exchanged a few words quietly, Alice couldn't understand them, and finally both came back to her. "Alice, let me introduce you: This is Emmett McCarty. He's my best friend, and he'll be joining us on the trip." Then he turned to him, "Emmett, this is Mary Alice Brandon, my..." He paused for a moment and looked at her fondly. "Fiancée. You've already seen her briefly today."
With the grin he had been wearing on his lips all along, Emmett held out a hand to her. "Pleased to finally meet you in person, Alice. Jasper's told me a lot about you already."
Again the blush rose to her face and she felt very small as she grasped his hand and hers almost disappeared into his. "Oh... I do hope so, only good things." Her voice was not quite as firm as she had hoped and a shy smile appeared on her lips.
He laughed out loud and slapped Jasper once hard on the back. "You can say that again. That boy couldn't tell of anything else. I don't think I've ever seen anyone so infatuated with his girlfriend."
The blond rolled his eyes, but the smile he tried to suppress gave him away. Finally, he took another step toward Alice and took her hand. "Honey, could you do me a favor? Will you get Rosalie over here?"
The young woman just stared at him for a moment. What did her best friend have to do with this now? "Why?" she finally said.
Jasper smiled apologetically. "I'll explain as soon as you get back, I promise! Please just go find her for a minute, okay? She's also a part of our plan."
Now Alice was completely confused. But she nodded and slowly turned around, trying once more that evening to find some connections between all the things that were happening and had already happened.

Briefly, she turned back to her fiancé and gave him a quick kiss. "See you soon." he whispered and pushed her a little towards the castle.
With careful steps she approached the window again and for a moment she was really relieved when she saw that it was still open. She didn't know what she would have done if someone had had the idea of closing it.
As quietly as possible, she climbed over the frame and stopped right at the edge of the hall, letting her eyes wander over the crowd. A sigh escaped her when she saw how many blonde women were in the room. Well, this is going to be fun.
She decided to make the rounds around the outside first. Maybe she was lucky and Rosalie had found a place by the window or near the buffet. Step by step she worked her way along the panes, looking for a bright red dress and the golden hair. She dreaded passing the podium in front. She didn't want to see the king, her revulsion was too great for that, so she turned off just before the end of the room and made her way through the people. She noticed the looks she was getting. Men who suddenly lost interest in the conversations they were having and women who looked at her either angrily or gratefully. She tried to look as purposeful as possible, lest anyone approach her. They were getting the idea, she could tell by the looks on their faces, but by then she was making a break for it, combing through the next line of people and keeping an eye out for her best friend.
It took a while, and Alice felt like she was just going in circles, but when she finally passed the front gate for the second time, she saw her. Rosalie was talking to a young man, handsome and obviously of very high status. It had been clear that the young lady would have no trouble picking out the right one and choosing the best one. Rosalie would have been one of those women who would have walked out of the castle with a smile and a proud look. Her 1st ball and hit the bull's eye. That's how she was, the perfect Rosalie.
But Alice had long since gotten over hating her for it. She had realized at some point that most of it was just a mask. Her best friend had the exact same fears as everyone else, and her character was just as beautiful as her appearance. Alice had learned to love that, and she knew that nothing in the world could make her give up her friendship with her.

She was all the more relieved when she saw the blonde angel standing there. She slowed her steps a bit and finally emerged next to the two of them with a steady breath and as relaxed a facial expression as possible. "Rosalie, there you are. I've been looking for you." she said, glad that it wasn't even a lie.
Astonished, the taller one turned around and immediately embraced the black-haired one. "Don't ever do anything like that to me again." she whispered in Alice's ear and immediately detached herself from her afterwards.
"Alice, let me introduce you. This is Tyler Crowley. He's currently the supreme commander of the army, and next year he'll be promoted to one of the king's advisors." She said it with such pride, as if she were already married to him.
Alice forced a smile and gave a little curtsy. "Good afternoon, Tyler. Pleased to meet you. I'm Alice, Rosalie's best friend."
The young man nodded once to her and returned the greeting.
Not a second after he finished speaking, the shorter girl turned back to her companion. "Rose, may I steal you away for a moment. I want you to meet someone."
A disappointed look appeared on her face. "Can this wait a minute? We were just having such a nice conversation." She smiled at Tyler in a way that brought a blush to his face.
But Alice had no patience. "No, I'm sorry. I won't be staying much longer and I'd like to introduce you." Demonstrating that she meant business, she raised her hand and held the ring in front of Rosalie's nose.

Surprised, the blonde took one sharp breath, but got herself under control right away. "Of course!" With a jerk, she turned to face her beau. "Tyler, I hope you understand. I would love to meet Alice's fiancé. She was so worried she wouldn't find anyone this evening."
Immediately, understanding entered the young man's face and he nodded in agreement. "Of course. Please, don't let me stop you. However, I hope we can continue our conversation afterwards!" His voice was dripping with hope and it was hard not to notice that he was on fire with Rosalie. Well, you couldn't blame him.
A smile came to Rosalie's face and because they had known each other for years, Alice saw how sour it was. "Of course. I'll try to be back as soon as I can. Stay right here."
Impatiently, the black-haired girl tugged on her friend's arm, but when they were finally out of Tyler's line of sight, she was literally overtaken by the taller one.
"Oh my God, that was exhausting!" The blonde began. "I don't think I've ever seen a guy so pompous and boastful. Yes, he has a lot of money, but do you have to flaunt it like that? Can you do anything other than suck up to everyone?" With an annoyed groan, she clapped her hands in front of her face and took one deep breath in and out. Then, as if struck by lightning, she turned around again. "Alice! Oh my God, what happened?" There was a slight panic in her voice and the smaller girl couldn't even blame her. She had resisted this evening so much and now suddenly she was engaged. To an outsider, this had to seem very confusing.

But Alice tried to reassure her. "Don't worry, Rose, everything is fine. I'll explain in a minute. But first we have to get out of here. I wasn't lying when I said I wanted to introduce you to someone." A soft smile appeared on her face as she thought of Jasper again. "Come on."
They had gotten very close to the window and Alice was about to climb through when a large hand grabbed hold of her and pulled her back with a jerk. "Where are you going?" the soldier asked, looking at her angrily.
"Ehm... my friend got sick and we wanted to get some fresh air so as not to disturb the guests." Alice lied, casting a nervous sideways glance at Rosalie, who was fortunately actually a bit pale around the nose. Immediately, she jumped into the act and grabbed her stomach. She forced out a cough and pretended to gag. In an instant, the soldier let go of Alice and took a step to the side, out of reach of the blonde. With a disgusted look, he waved them both through and then, when Rosalie had stepped through the frame, said, "Don't stay out too long, though."
"Don't worry. We have no reason to run." the black-haired woman replied, once again playing the trump card with her right ring finger. Satisfied, the man nodded and demonstratively turned away again, so as not to have to watch.

Alice's heart raced as she grabbed Rosalie's hand and pulled her along the wall into the shadows. Jasper and Emmett were nowhere to be seen, but that was no surprise since the other had apparently made a patrol.
The two kept walking and as they turned the next corner, they nearly banged into the 2 boys who were nervously pacing up and down the wall. When Alice and Jasper recognized each other, all tension immediately drained from their bodies and the two immediately fell into each other's arms. "What took you so long? I was beginning to think they'd taken you away or that the king had caught you!" Jasper wailed and hugged his beloved.
The smaller one hugged him as well and replied, slightly irritated, "I can't help it. The stupid nut holed up in some corner and got herself a rich schnoz. And then the guy on the window thought he still had to get in our way. But Rose almost threw up on his shoes, so he let us go." She grinned at Jasper and he couldn't help but return the expression.
Finally, Alice turned and faced her friend again. "Rose, let me introduce you. This is Jasper Whitlock...my fiancé." Now it was her turn to look at him in love. "I'm going to tell you everything, the whole story. But not now. We have a plan to look at." She was about to turn to Jasper to introduce him to Rosalie when she interrupted her in mid-breath.
"You too?!" she exclaimed, staring first at the orange and brown uniform, then at Jasper's face, and finally back at Alice.
Confused, the latter frowned. "What do you mean, you too?"
There was silence for a moment, then the blonde pointed to the man behind Jasper. "That one's with me."
With a broad grin, Emmett stepped to Rosalie's side and grasped her hand. With a gentleness Alice would not have thought him capable of, he leaned over and gave his girlfriend a kiss. His eyes, too, spoke of a love that hadn't existed since yesterday, and the black-haired woman wondered once again if she had missed anything.

Awkwardly the two couples stood facing each other, the two men didn't know what to say and the two women, couldn't believe what they had just learned. Alice and Rosalie looked at each other and with a single glance it was agreed that they would spill the full stories once they were between them. A secret they both couldn't wait to learn.
But they were not here for that, this now occurred to Alice again and she put her fists on her hips. "So, now both of you come clean about what this secrecy is all about."
The 2 men looked at each other and finally Jasper took a deep breath. "We want to run away... for real this time." Briefly, he laughed mirthlessly. "And we have a plan too." He gave Emmett a look, which the latter took as an invitation.
"I know someone from across the border to the north... A farmer who regularly smuggles some of his crops to people on our side. I have been placed at this border post a few times and everyone who has ever been there or is sent there knows about it. They are grateful to him because without him, there would be no people left there. The king has raised taxes so much in that part of the country that they hardly have anything left for themselves. The boy brings a little bit over every few days so that it won't be noticed when a controller comes from the capital. They watch this area very closely." The grin appeared briefly on Emmett's face again. "However, they have it in the wrong eye. What the soldiers do among themselves is of no interest to anyone. That's why I got a little closer with the boy and he talked to his father.
We will cross the border at night when a colleague of mine is on guard duty and the boy, his name is Edward, will take us to his farm. He lives there with his parents and his wife and they regularly have people escaping.
I know what you're thinking: what if he was lying? But it is true. I was able to talk to a former soldier who also lives near the border and knows the family. They also helped him.
They are correct people and they will help us. In return, we will support them on the farm, the fields or with the animals. What will be in line then." He paused for a while, letting the women process what had been said for a moment. Alice was the first to say something again.

"You will be desserts. They will hang you when they find us. And us..." She looked at Rosalie. "I don't know what they'll do with us. Put us in a whorehouse or kill us too." Concern was written all over her face, but Emmett was prepared for the objections.
"We know that, but it won't come to that. We get to take their name and one of each of us will be a son or daughter, should anyone ask. And they will, but Edward knows all about that, as does his father and mother. As I said, it's not, the first time they've taken someone in." Hope resonated in his voice and Jasper also looked at Alice expectantly.
Again, no one said anything for a while, finally Rosalie raised her voice. "When do we leave?" She sounded as if she had already made up her mind.
Emmett smiled fondly at her. "In three days. Jasper is trying to find 2 more horses for you and you would need to prepare provisions. The trip to the border will take a few days, but we both know where to rest and who are allies or enemies." A short pause. "Nothing will happen to us, I promise you!"

Alice imagined life. A farm, along with Jasper and Rosalie and Emmett and this seemingly very nice family. The man she had chosen by her side and peace. No people forcing her to do anything or ordering her who she had to be. And that thought alone was enough to make her look her fiancé in the eye and say, "Where are we meeting in three days?"
Jasper started beaming and with one big step, he was with her, twirling her in the air. "Thank you, Alice!" he almost whooped, hugging her so tightly that she had to gasp with laughter as he set her back on the ground. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw that Rosalie and Emmett were also standing together, smiling and kissing.
"I will wait by the meadow at the edge of the forest, where we first met secretly. Emmett has a higher rank, he will come for you in a carriage, but I'm afraid you will have to figure out something on your own that you can run away. He will pick up Rosalie first, she lives closest to the castle and when he has picked you up he will come straight to the forest where we will leave the carriage and go on with the horses. That way we'll be faster and less reliant on main roads."
That made sense, and Alice was already convinced that she and Rose would come up with the perfect excuse. The two of them were experts at it, after all.

A crackling sound brought the 4 of them back to reality, however, and they all became repeatedly aware of where they actually were. Jasper was the first to react. He grabbed Alice's hand and pulled her along the wall in the opposite direction from which they had come. The blond guided the group through a garden and eventually they struggled through some bushes until they stumbled into a square near the main road. From there, it wasn't far to Rosalie's house and Jasper also accompanied Alice just about all the way home. Two corners from her front door, he held her back. He took her face in both hands and just looked at her for a moment. He rested his forehead against hers and closed his eyes, breathing in her scent and finally kissing her softly on the mouth.
"I'll see you in three days." he said, smiling lovingly at her. "Take good care of yourself until then, you hear? I still need you!"
Amused, Alice smiled back and said, "You too, promise? We need two soldiers, not just one!"
Jasper chuckled. "Promise!" Once again he kissed her, then tore himself away from her and gently pushed her toward her house. "If any detail changes, you'll know soon enough! We'll take care of you."
Alice nodded and slowly walked backwards step by step, moving away from her lover at a snail's pace. He was still looking at her lovingly. "You look beautiful, Alice. I love you!"
"I love you too, Jasper!" she retorted, returning his gaze and finally having to turn the corner of the house.

When she was out of sight, she listened for a moment and when she heard the muffled footsteps moving away, she leaned against the wall of the house and took another deep breath in and out. Happiness flooded through her and hope. Hope that she could finally have a free life, with the man she loved and a future she could create for herself. It was a dream.
And when she finally came home and showed her parents the ring, they were so excited that they didn't even ask who it was. They were already starting to plan the wedding and when she heard the ideas, as hard as it sounded, it already hurt her a little less to leave her family. The ideas were so far away from the ones she had and the ones Jasper had too, of that she was sure, she was almost relieved that her wedding wouldn't be planned by her parents.
Very quickly after she got home, she got ready for bed and when she finally fell asleep, with a smile on her lips, she was already seeing a dream.
The five of them walked towards three people and when they finally met, the oldest of the small group extended his hand and said, "Hello. My name is Carlisle. I am the father of Edward and this is my wife, Esme. The young lady next to my son is Bella, my daughter-in-law. Welcome to our home. I know you have had a long and dangerous journey. You must be hungry and exhausted. Please, come in and eat. I will show you to your rooms and where you can wash. Make yourselves at home. I understand you will be staying with us for a while."
His smile was warm and Alice knew that, at least for a moment, they had reached their final destination.
When she woke up the next morning, she didn't know yet that she had seen into the future for the first time...

THE END!