Adelaide awoke with a start. Shivering, coughing, bleeding, and dripping wet, she found herself lying on the damp ground, a hard rock poking into her back. She bolted upright and shrieked, forgetting where she was and why she was not in her comfortable carriage bed.
“There was a storm,” came the reply to her silent question. Adelaide turned to see the Prince holding a heavy blanket and walking toward her. As he wrapped it around her shoulders and wiped the blood from her chin and cheek with a damp cloth, he continued, “You remember the storm.”
It wasn’t so much a question as it was a statement. Adelaide nodded. Yes. Yes, she remembered the storm, and she would always remember the storm— the storm that was far worse than her worst day digging ditches at the slave yard. Why hadn’t he rescued her? Hadn’t she apologized for doubting the Prince’s good intentions and for wandering away from him? Hadn’t she forsaken all and agreed to follow him to his mysterious future home? Why hadn’t he protected her from this devastation? The questions in her mind formed wells of water in her eyes. Could the Prince be trusted if he failed to complete the simple task of protecting her from the horrid terrors of the night before?
The only word Adelaide could form with her dry, cracked lips was, “Why?” She cast her dark brown eyes on the Prince she used to love and studied his face as if supposing some reason for her agony would be written there.
Instead, compassion and strength met her gaze. She raised her eyebrows impatiently and waited for what she doubted was a good explanation.
“It is not for you to know, my dear princess. I simply ask that you trust me, even when the storms come.”
Adelaide couldn’t help but roll her eyes in frustration. That wasn’t exactly the apology she had anticipated. And what did he mean when he said “storms”? What if there were more storms ahead? Worse storms? She’d be dead before she reached the palace if she had to go through something like that again.
“You abandoned me,” Adelaide spat cruelly in the Prince’s direction. “I called for you, and you didn’t answer. I was alone for a long time. How dare you break your promise, you liar!” She grew more and more livid as she stared at him and shook her head in a scolding manner.
When the Prince reached for her hand, she pulled it away, folded her arms and huffed, hoping to convey her dissatisfaction with him as clearly as she could.
The Prince looked hurt and disappointed, but not surprised. He let Adelaide‘s poison-filled words hang darkly in the air for a moment. Then he spoke gently, “I promised to never leave you, Adelaide, and I never have and never will. I was with you in the storm, and I answered every time you called for me. You must trust me, even when your senses deceive you.”
Adelaide blushed and thought about last night. Every time she had called for Justinius, she had been answered by thunderclaps. Could it be that they had stifled his replies? It was possible. She remembered hearing a muffled voice just before she blacked out, and she recalled a pair of strong arms embracing her when she could stand the storm no longer.
“You did rescue me from the fire.” Adelaide looked up again as she brushed the backs of her fingers over the long, tender wound on her cheekbone. Then with ice in her voice, “Eventually.”
She sat for a while, allowing the dry blanket to soak the chill from her wet skin. Scorched leaves and tree limbs peppered the dirt road nearby. The deep mud at her feet reminded her of all the ditches she had dug on rainy days.
Adelaide sighed and continued her complaint. “But you were too late. Could you have prevented this?” She pointed to her wound and her temper flared again. “Tell me!” Even if he had been as close to her as he claimed, what good was he if he couldn’t protect her?
“I could have, dear princess.”
Adelaide shook her head again and threw her arms up toward the sky in frustration. “Then why didn’t you?” Rage throbbed once more. This was the first time she had allowed herself to harbor any anger toward the Prince since she had been rescued from the slave yard, and the fierce emotion she was feeling toward him now made her restless.
Instead of answering her searing question, the Prince turned away and walked back to the burnt carriage to start removing the charred, waterlogged material. Adelaide watched incredulously as he ignored the pressing question and turned toward other matters.
How can he treat me like this? Don’t I deserve to know why this happened to me? If he refuses to let me know why I had to suffer like this, maybe he doesn’t love me as much has he claims.
As the Prince worked, restoring each piece of burnt wood and fabric, Adelaide noticed his jacket and shirt had a few large holes in the back, torn open from being outside in the unforgiving elements. When she caught a glimpse of the skin on the Prince’s bare back, her hands flew to her open mouth and she gasped in horror.
Hundreds of thousands of red, swollen welts lay crisscross on his damaged skin. His back had been completely destroyed. The bare flesh had clearly been ripped to pieces many, many times, over and over again.
Adelaide instantly realized that the Prince hadn’t simply negotiated for the slaves’ freedom with his father, or paid some sort of petty monetary fine for each of them. No, he had actually been beaten with seventy lashes for every slave. And, by the looks of his shredded back, his father had extinguished all of his wrath for the slaves’ rebellious behavior on his willing son.
Adelaide forced herself to look at the Prince’s scars again. It almost made her physically ill to see the welts and contemplate how excruciating each red-hot crack of the whip would have been on his already-torn-open flesh. How painful still it must have been to be rejected by each ungrateful slave for whom he had suffered so much. Could they have possibly realized what he had gone through on their behalf? How could they have refused his selfless sacrificial generosity?
Adelaide slowly lifted her hand to her throbbing cheekbone once again. She contemplated her current dilemma and shrugged to herself. If the Prince never told her why she’d had to go through the pain she’d had to endure, it was fine with her. He had done enough for her already, and she was sure that she could trust him with anything.