Hoof beats thundered from behind. Imminent. Aurelia flung herself farther forward, low against the neck of her mare. Go, Bianca! she urged. The muscles beneath her shifted into a smooth firing of movement, and the gray horse burst into a more rapid pace, soaring over the stones and sand. The spring air turned cold as it sheeted across the exposed section of Aurelia’s face, and the thinning fir trees along the road blurred into solid walls of forest green as the sounds of Bianca’s hooves blended to a single continuous roar.
But the other hoofbeats did not stop. Nor did they fade or mingle with Bianca’s. Instead, they pounded the road’s surface at an even faster rate, closer and closer. Aurelia knew she could not outrun them. They would reel her in, pull her down, overtake her. There was nothing she could do to stop the inevitable, only close her eyes, hang on, and refuse to give her pursuer the chance to breathe. Her heart pounded at the same pace as the hooves of her mount, and for one long spectacular moment she saw nothing.
Then the hand touched her shoulder.
She forced down the scream conjured by memory and reached for the reins.
Bianca resisted, pulling for release, then obeyed, and the roar of hoofbeats splintered to individual steps. Aurelia sucked in the fresh air and let her chest rise off the horse’s neck. Her eyes blinked away the tears formed by speed, and she smiled at the thrill of the ride.
Then she turned to her pursuer.
Robert did not smile. His hand held tight to the reins of his mount as Horizon reared, the muscles of the bay’s powerful chest rising. The stallion kicked out impatiently with deadly hooves, and Robert clung to Horizon’s back, legs gripping tight, torso tilted forward to maintain balance. He did nothing to battle the horse’s unbreakable will, just waited out the stubborn display until the stallion dropped once again to the ground. Not one bead of sweat shimmered on the magnificent red-brown coat.
“Satisfied?” Robert said, running a hand through the waves of his dark brown hair.
Aurelia raised her face to the sun and let herself glory in the moment: sunlight, horses, adventure. Yes, for this one moment, she could describe herself as satisfied. Almost.
Her gaze returned to the young man before her. Robert’s face was drawn, and its typically animated lines had gone sharp. His hand slid to his recently wounded shoulder, and she felt a twinge of guilt for forgetting he might not yet be up to a full-blown race. She considered an apology, but his deep blue eyes ignored her, instead scanning the haphazard firs and barren patches of the dwindling Kryshan Forest, where there was positively nothing, Aurelia thought, worthy of appreciating those eyes.
“You realize we might have more than an hour’s ride back to the expedition party,” he continued.
“And wouldn't that be tragic?” she teased, sweeping the loose strands of her brown hair out of her face. “A whole hour without the company of six guards.” Not to mention a horseman and two wagon drivers. The pride of her escape filled her chest. Not that she did not appreciate the expedition. It was her dream—had been her dream since she was a small girl: to travel and see all the people and places she had heard about from the poets, playwrights, and talespinners who came to court. And at last she had the freedom to make that dream a reality.
But freedom was relative. A week the expedition party had been on the road, and not once had she and Robert been alone together. Until now.
Horizon jerked his head, and Robert tugged on the stallion’s reins. “I have responsibilities, and so do you.”
Responsibilities? Now that was humorous. “For what?” she replied, unable to suppress the self-satisfied tone in her voice. “I don’t have to marry an old vulture stuffed in his Anthonian wedding garb. I don’t have to swelter in silence through another state speech. And I don’t have to attend a single royal function. What possible responsibilities could I have in exile?”
“Staying alive,” he said.