The Golden Apple

By: Michelle Diener

Chapter 1

The laughter rising from the festivities below was not at her, although it felt like it was.

Kayla threaded her fingers together on her knees and closed her eyes anyway, trying to block out the sounds of merriment.

She was part of the entertainment, and her father’s subjects were throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the spirit of the occasion.

Whereas she . . . if she had been clamped naked into the stocks, she could not have felt more exposed, more vulnerable. More disrespected.

Even knowing today was coming had not prepared her for sitting high above a shouting, laughing crowd—merry with holiday fever—in a gilded chair on top of a glass mountain.

She opened her eyes again and watched the fair-goers move below her, skirting the mountain as they talked, ate and drank. More a mystery than how a glass mountain came to be in the jousting field was their acceptance of the mountain at all. It had appeared in the night a few days ago, and now it glittered and flashed in the early morning sun, blinding the unwary.

Was she the only one who wondered at the power it would take to create something like this?

It stood perhaps three stories high, almost as high as the castle itself, but although its peak did not reach the height of the castle towers, it squatted malevolently beside her family home, dominating it.

But if the mountain made no sense, what made the least sense of all was that her father would do this to her.

Auction her off to the boldest adventurer to try his luck here today.

And yet he had.

He’d stuck her up on this crystal monstrosity like the cherry on top of a cake. Her dress wasn’t red, though. It was virginal white.

And that color was no longer appropriate for her. Not after last night.

The breeze blowing the sounds of the fair and the aroma of cooking pies up to her suddenly felt cool against her heated cheeks.

As if it could sense her thoughts, the golden apple in her lap throbbed, heating the skin of her thighs through her thin skirts.

She looked down at it with loathing. A distorted image of her face looked back at her through the shine. As distorted as her world had become since her father embarked on this mad course.

She lifted her hand, hovered it over the apple. Her father had worn gloves when he placed it in her lap, just before she was lifted up the glass hill.

“Don’t touch it,” he’d said. Then he’d walked away, her obedience a foregone conclusion.

She wanted—wanted so badly—to toss it. To throw it, as far and as hard as she could, away from her.

She hesitated, just a moment, then closed her hand over it. And cried out. A light leapt from the apple to her palm, the pain hot, intense. She let go, and immediately the light disappeared. The pain lingered, a throbbing reminder, and then faded away.

She stiffened her spine against the tears clogging her throat and pricking her eyes. She had given away her innocence last night, so pride was the only thing she had left.

No, that was wrong.

Her mouth lifted in the corners. She’d given nothing away, only gained something. Some power. Some control. She had exercised a deeply personal right. To choose her first lover. Before one was chosen for her.

Did she regret it?

She pressed her thighs together, the movement causing the apple to wobble, and thought of the gentle caresses, the soft sighs, as natural and calming as the falling night rain.

The sight of her lover, tall, broad-shouldered, filling her vision as he held himself levered above her. The hot, heady smell of his skin. The contrast of her pale hand against the bronze of his hard-muscled arm.

She shivered.

No. She did not regret it.

She looked out over the arena, at the crowds filing into the stalls for a good seat to the spectacle. Above her, a bird cried, the sound haunting, and she shaded her eyes and searched the skies for it. Yearned to leap from the glass peak and fly to join it, leave the crowds and her fate behind her.

As if on cue with her thoughts of fate, one by one the knights arrived. They were a rainbow swirl of blue, green, yellow and red plumes and banners, polished metal shining almost as much at the glass mountain.

They paraded, playing the crowd, racing in a loop down the length of the course and around the mountain. Getting the measure of what they were up against.

She recognized a few of them. Some were her father’s own men—men she’d known since they were boys come as knights-in-training—some were in service to other kings, princes and lords. All were here for one thing.

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