Eyes watched her. From behind pitchfork tines and around morning glory trellises, through the gnarled apple trees, and under the long, crisscrossed shadows of orchards that would soon bear the cherries, plums, peaches, and nectarines of the coming season. She tried smiling at the onlookers, but they ducked beneath their leafy screens and sank to darker slate-gray depths. She bit her lip, kicked her heels, and urged Bianca on down the road. Perhaps the imminent welcome would come as she neared the city.
But she could feel the anxiety heighten in the six guards around her. Their swords came out of their scabbards and turned upright in their hands, surrounding her like the points of a fence. Why was the feeling around her so hostile?
She longed to ask for an explanation, but Drew had ridden ahead to arrange lodging.
And Robert was riding just far enough away to avoid conversation. His sword remained in its scabbard, but the muscles in his left arm stood out in tense cords, and his hand clenched in a fist. His profile shifted as he swept his gaze along the periphery.
Taking in all those eyes.
They were growing in number.
As the deep reds and oranges faded in the eastern sky, the empty fruit stands lining the road were replaced by wooden shacks, then houses: first in twos and threes, now fours and fives. The powerful odor of horse manure emanated from a roadside livery, and the clang of a blacksmith’s forge announced the transition from farmland to city outskirts. Up ahead, a stone structure soared into the air and curved over the roadway. The Southern Arch. Aurelia felt her heart speed up. Sterling. The first test of her journey.
If she could not succeed here, only a week’s ride from the capital, perhaps her entire expedition would fail.
Around her the onlookers had grown more brazen, no longer hiding but staring openly. And when she looked back, they did not flinch.
They did not smile either.
At last she understood that her expectations had been flawed. There would be no cheers and shouts of excitement. In fairness, she could not blame these people for their lack of zeal. After all, she had never done anything for them. She had not transformed their modest village into a thriving trade center. They had done that themselves, without king or command. Sterling’s inns and taverns, now usurping the roadside houses, had sprinted past the Southern Arch that marked the site of the town’s ancient stone wall. The people had torn down their boundary, defying Tyralian tradition.
As did the barren flagpole on the closest establishment.
The royal standard was not flying, a detail that dug into her mind like a hook and began to work its way back and forth in her brain. The citizens of Sterling, now lining the highway in solid rows, had a right to be wary. She would not bet their future on the strength of her father’s decisions. And she, herself, had nothing to offer them. Nothing but questions and curiosity and the support of someone with no real power.
Was the purpose of her expedition really to earn accolades?
No. The real purpose was to know her country. And her people.
But then why was she riding above them? Coming into their city under the auspice of being crown princess? With a fence of armed guards around her? She was not here to represent the palace. She did not speak for the throne. She would not and could not make any promises to these people beyond her own desire to understand them: their hopes, their plans, their dreams.
The buildings blurred around her as she crossed through the shadows of the Southern Arch and entered the city’s heart. She could not see the streets, only the crowd: beneath her, behind her, stretching out away from the road, and up ahead, filling the central plaza in a shifting throng.
She could not stay as she was.
She had no right. She would not enter that plaza as the crown princess.
Her hands tightened on the reins, pulling slack. Fingers brushed her arm. Robert’s. When had he gotten so close? But she did not have time to explain to him. She had to do this now, while it was right, while she was still setting the stage for this expedition and who she would be during it. A citizen of Tyralt.
She wrapped the reins around her saddle horn.
Swung her leg over Bianca’s back.
And descended into the crowd.