Summary: Princess Irina who lives in fear of drowning is kidnapped by a powerful river nymph, Oberon, who is under a terrible curse. Having opposite personalities, they clash fiercely, but slowly having something to teach other. Unfortunately, by the time they learn the real lesson in all this their time may end...

Chapter One


From beneath the river's surface, Oberon, King of the Deep, observed the maiden as she rode on a white mare amid a long procession of soldiers.

Thump, thump, came the cacophony of booted feet and horse hooves, an incessant pounding in the water.

None of the humans could see Oberon unless he allowed it.

Such a tragic creature, he thought, studying her slender figure with his eyes that shimmered like liquid mercury.

Like a vase perched precariously on the edge of a table, she looked ready to fall and shatter.

Such lovely fragility.

Her destruction would be mesmerizing.

Subtle shifts in her delicate features revealed the tempest hidden behind her stoic face. She has a celestial nose, slightly upturned at the tip, and pouty, pink lips.

A net of silver beads imprisoned her hair that was the color of dead wood blended in rusted iron. He imagined those thick strands set free in the water, free to float about her egg-shaped face like cloud of autumn leaves sucked up in a whirlwind.

Life down here would suit her well.

A frown cracked her stony mask. Her knuckles whitened to bleached bone as her hands clenched the reins tighter. She stiffened, round shoulders pulling her arms tightly to her sides.

One of her hands drifted up to rest between the gentle swells of her breasts and clutch a teardrop-shaped blue pendant hanging from a silver chain on her neck.

Her gaze began to search.

There were perspiration stains under the armpits of her cream-colored dress, an outfit with a high-cut bosom and flared sleeves.

Life looked miserably hot up there.

She would be better off down here, he decided.

Agitation grew in her round eyes that suddenly stared into the river and straight at Oberon, locking with his own.

For a heartbeat he watched in disbelief. It could not be true. A mere mortal could not have pierced his illusion. What was she?

Shock parted her lips, lifted her slender eyebrows, and widened her amber eyes.

Such a curious reaction, in his opinion.

Humans usually fell in love at first sight of a nymph, yet she was about to scream.

Perhaps the centuries of imprisonment had rotted his mind, or he had gone mad, but he found this human fascinating.

His pale lips spread in a smile.

Surely, this one would not bore him.

The river disturbed Princess Irina Balacova, and had since following along the road. It was dangerous in her opinion.

If Irina voiced such a notion, her younger brother, Prince Grogan, who rode beside her on a black warhorse, would only laugh and say, 'Rina, it's only due to your fear of drowning. You despise every large body of water, remember?'.

Unease knotted and squeezed her insides, constricting her throat to a pinhole. Irina struggled to draw air.

If Grogan noticed Irina's discomfort, he showed no sign of it. In fact, despite awareness of her phobia, he hogged the forest-side of the dirt trail.

Little remained of the considerate boy who used to follow her around the halls of Dartaburg Castle and sleep in her bed at night out of fear of ghosts.

Encased in a steel and gold suit of armor too large for his lean, still-somewhat boyish frame, he had to be miserable in this heat. Only the sheen of sweat on his angular face and in the roots of his curly, auburn hair betrayed the truth.

He wore a stern expression. Cold and expressionless. Not yet the cruel mask of their father.

She squeezed the reins, hands trembling. Her skin crawled. This feeling would not vanish.

Not since her elder brothers, Prince Sarmur and Prince Adran, had dared her to enter the family crypts alone on her tenth birthday to retrieve a handful of soil had Irina felt such disquiet.

That day she descended down narrow, worn steps, a hand gliding along the crudely-hewn granite walls, the air growing colder and clammier, and felt as though she had entered the gullet of an ice demon, the kind the mountain folks believed devoured younglings.

Halfway down, amid their mocking laughter, her brothers shut the door and her sole light became the flickering candlelight encased in her glass lantern.

Silence embraced her.

Quiet as the grave, her mind whispered.

Nightmares sprung from the deepest corners of her vivid imagination, let loose by the suffocating darkness. Irina saw shapes, monsters and the rotting corpses of her risen ancestors, standing just outside the edge of her light. Or so she thought.

Fear halted Irina three feet steps from the bottom.

Her heart hammered as if pounding to break through her chest and flee for the surface.

I can't breathe! I can't breathe! Increasing panic moaned in her head.

All she needed was to reach for a bit of soil and she would be triumphant, yet all she could see were bony hands reaching to tear her apart, furious as this living interloper intruding upon their eternal rest.

Maybe it was a draft, maybe it was a demon's breath, but something touched her cheeks and broke the spell.

Screaming, Irina bolted up the stairs, two at a time, nearly tripping and dropping the lantern, as she clawed her way up to pound on the door and beg to be freed.

Afterwards, her elder brothers nicknamed her "Wimpy Rina". Unbeknownst to both of them that they would be entombed there five years later.

A place Irina's body would never be put to rest. Back then she had not yet realized that daughters gained more than just a name when they married into another House.

The Oberon River exuded the same air as the crypts — back when she believed them her destiny — that promise of "Soon you'll be down here for good".

Reaching up with one hand, she clutched her mother's keepsake, a lapis pendant that rested above her bosom. A source of comfort whenever the breathing attacks occurred, ones that had plagued her since childhood.

A glance toward Grogan showed he was still ignoring her. His dark green eyes, tinged by the amber that dominated her iris, stared ahead.

The tension between them hurt.

Had war entirely consumed the once sweet child?

Against Grogan's wishes, General Beldspar, the real leader of this army, had granted Irina permission to travel outside her carriage.

And Grogan had not forgiven her.

A thousand soldiers escorted them to the Kingdom of Tatiana. Irina was to marry its king, the butcher responsible for the deaths of Sarmur and Adran.

A death sentence in its own right.

When the path entered thick shade, the grassy bank narrowed until, if she leaned out, Irina could have seen her flat hairline reflected in the dark green water.

The flesh pricked on the left side of her face, the side that faced the river. Goosebumps broke out across her skin and chill crept up her spine.

Her heartbeat picked up.

As if drawn by a strange force, her head felt turned and her gaze sank down into the murky depths, past the carp and minnows teeming among stalks of kelp, to a distortion. One that bent plant and fish around its large, human shape.

A lump of terror rose in her throat. A bottled scream.

A shadow darkened and grew defined before her eyes, one in the likeness of a man floating on his back beneath the water.

Her mouth went dry.

What was it? A demon? A hallucination?

Two silver eyes glowed in the blackness of its squarish face. Perhaps it was the distortion of the water, but they appeared to have no pupils and shine like mirrors.

The twitter of birds, chatter and footfalls of the soldiers, and wind tussling the branches above all faded away, drowned out by the mellow rush of river.

The phantom reached up a hand.

Suddenly, she roasted in her dress. She grabbed her collar, wanting to rip off her clothes. Irina needed out.

Now! Now! A part of her mind wailed.

Her forefinger tugged until her sense of decency caught up.

This isn't real! It reminded her.

The water looked so cool and inviting. 'Hop in, love' it seemed to say. 'Nothing to fear here'.

How had she ever feared swimming before? The river seemed harmless.

Yes, a swim, a part of her urged, one that felt alien to her will.

No, no, no, she thought, crushing that temptation.

Just as she fought off that desire, a new need hit: thirst.

Her lips cracked and bled from how parched they felt. Irina could taste the iron of her blood. Sand felt lodged in her throat.

Irina knew she would die without a sip of that delicious, briny-flavored water. 'One drop will quench you' it seemed to call.

Both the creature's arms were held up in an offered embrace. His — some part of her already knew this — face cleared, elegant features becoming less blurred.

Those eyes dragged her down.

Surrender, they commanded.

Only when a strong hand grabbed her collar and yanked her back into her saddle did Irina realize her efforts to dismount.

"No!" she yelled, flailing and struggling to throw herself into the water. "I must! I must!"

"Rina!" Grogan's stern voice snapped her trance and she stilled. "Have you gone mad?"

Sounds rushed backs so fast Irina's ears rang from them. Heart pounding, she glanced into the water, but saw nothing now.

Twisting around in her seat, Grogan let go, hand hovering behind her, ready to grab her again. He was leaned out of his saddle; concern etched across his chiseled features.

A blush spread over her. She could feel dozens of soldiers staring at them.

She had made an utter fool of herself and had no way to save face.

"Rina," he said. "Return to the carriage."

Sunlight glinted in the gold griffin of his breastplate, symbol of House Balacova.

"I…" Irina trailed off, and, in defeat, nodded in agreement.

By the time Irina had eased herself back into the cramped confinement with her Lady-In-Waiting, Amina, she had convinced herself that what she saw had been nothing but the work of too much sun and too little water.

A bit of heat stroke. That was all.

However, her heart believed otherwise.

Despite the heat, she shivered and for the first time in her journey, missed her former home.