A twig snapped. A small sound, but it pierced the dark forest like a canon blast.
Carina froze. She could just see her feet, and they rested on solid ground. Whatever cracked the twig, it wasn’t her.
And it had been close.
She leaned against a tree and checked her cloak to make sure no golden hair or pink silk had escaped. The black fabric hid her as long as it covered everything. Without it, she would glow in the moonlight.
Another twig snapped. Farther away this time. Whoever else was in the forest, they were walking away from her.
Carina took a deep breath to steady her nerves. It could be anyone. A merchant traveling to morning market. A farmer taking a shortcut to the next town. A sailor enjoying his shore leave.
If they hadn’t noticed her, they weren’t her concern. She patted the pouch that held her communication charm. It was still there, nestled against her hip.
She glided through the woods like a ghost, careful not to step on twigs or rustle branches. Carina had a lot of practice moving silently, and it showed. Her heartbeat quickened when she saw the castle’s lights in the distance.
Guards paced the massive wall around the castle. They carried loaded crossbows and scanned the open field between them and the forest. The field Carina would have to cross.
This was the trickiest part of her journey, and timing was key. She had to start running across the field before the guards were out of sight. If she waited until they were around the corner, they’d finish their round before she made it to the wall.
And they’d shoot her.
Carina crouched and waited. Almost time. Just a few more steps.
A twig cracked behind her.
Carina’s stomach dropped. It couldn’t be. She couldn’t have been followed. No one had ever caught her.
She stayed still and waited. Maybe it was an animal.
Another twig cracked. And another. Someone heavy was walking through the woods and moving towards her. Carina fought the urge to look back. There was still a chance she hadn’t been seen.
The footsteps got closer, and Carina’s heartbeat quickened. The steps were definitely human. The figure cast a long shadow in the moonlight as he moved.
Carina glanced at the castle. She’d waited too long. The guard would round the corner before she crossed the field.
She gathered her nerves and turned. A man stood behind her, his body silhouetted against the moon. He wore a dark cloak that covered his face, but his eyes gleamed yellow.
Carina’s breath caught. There was something unnatural about those eyes. Something feral. She met his gaze and waited for him to speak, but he didn’t. He just walked towards her like he had all the time in the world.
She’d rather risk archers than whatever this man had planned.
Carina dashed towards the field, but the man caught the edge of her cloak. He pulled her back and grabbed her shoulder. She glimpsed his face as he spun her into his arms. The hood obscured most of his features, but his mouth curled up in a reassuring smile. As if he was telling her not to be afraid.
Afraid? Ha. Carina threw herself backwards. She smashed the back of her head into what she hoped was his nose.
No, she hit his chin. He was taller than she’d expected.
He grunted and loosened his grip just enough for Carina to escape.
She sprinted into the moonlit field. He had pulled her cloak loose, and her pink skirt glistened in the darkness. So much for hiding.
Her head start wouldn’t last long. Carina was fast, but the man was much taller. Not to mention her clothes slowed her down. She pulled her bulky skirt and cloak up as far as she could and ran towards the castle.
The guards would come around the corner any second. She needed to make it to cover before-
An arrow zipped past her. Carina gave up trying to escape the man and ran in a crooked line to confuse the archers. Another arrow stuck in the ground by her feet. Warning shots. They wouldn’t give many more.
Carina looked back. Arrows flew past the man, but he still pursued her. He either hadn’t noticed them or didn’t care.
Time to switch tactics.
She dove and punched him in the gut. He stumbled back and wrapped his arm around her waist. She twisted until he stood nearest the wall and she had her back towards the forest.
His glowing eyes narrowed in frustration, and his breath came in uneven gasps as he pulled a rope from his cloak.
Carina almost laughed. He’d have to knock her unconscious before she let him tie her up. And he didn’t have that much time.
“That rope won’t do you any good.”
He raised an eyebrow and reached to wrap the rope around her waist.
An arrow hit the man’s leg, and his eyes widened with pain. He let go of Carina to grab his bleeding calf. She jumped back.
“That was a warning shot. I’d run before they shoot to kill.”
Carina wrapped her cloak over her skirt and sprinted to the woods. The man pursued her, but he couldn’t match her pace. Judging by his limp, the arrow had done some damage.
She didn’t wait to see if he escaped the archers. She just wanted to get home. Carina slowed and studied the castle wall. Flickering torches lit the perimeter. The guards were on high alert now. Searching for intruders.
She’d have to take the long way around.
“Stefan, you’ve got to help me!”
Stefan ignored his brother and kept his attention focused on the mirror in front of him. His tailor, Heinrich, continued to trim Stefan’s short brown hair as he had before Alaric’s interruption.
The prince motioned for Heinrich to stop and turned around.
“You shouldn’t barge in without knocking, Alaric. It is very unbecoming for a future king of Aeonia to-”
A burst of laughter swallowed the rest of Stefan’s sentence. Alaric’s tailor had a tendency to design outrageous outfits, but his brother looked even more ridiculous than usual. Embroidered flowers covered his tunic, and his long blond hair was decorated with a multitude of pale purple ribbons.
Stefan had a million insults, but he was laughing too hard to get any of them out.
“It is very fashionable, Your Highness,” Heinrich said.
But even his voice quivered with amusement. Heinrich was usually unshakable. A talent the diminutive man had developed after years of working with Stefan.
“Fashionable for a five-year-old girl, maybe!” Alaric said. “Bastien wants me to wear my hair like this for the wedding! Stefan, what do I do?”
“Have Lina carry your dolls for you instead of flowers?”
“Stefan, this is serious! Heinrich, can you talk some sense into him? You’re a tailor.”
“Bastien is several years my senior and the head tailor. I don’t dare contradict him.”
“What if I made you head tailor instead?”
Stefan stepped in front of Heinrich.
“Don’t you dare! Really, Alaric. Stealing my tailor from me is not behavior that befits a future king!”
“Not to mention Bastien saved father’s life when we fought Cassandra. Father would never let me demote him.”
“Trying to demote a war hero. Shameful.”
Alaric glared at his brother.
“Bastien deserves our respect and gratitude. I know that. I just- This isn’t what I pictured wearing on my wedding day.”
He gestured to the outfit. To the purple lace trim that matched his hair ribbons. The tunic wasn’t the worst thing Bastien had ever designed, but Stefan could see his brother’s point.
And his hair really did look ridiculous.
Heinrich peered from behind Stefan. His head just reached the prince’s shoulder.
“Prince Alaric, you will never change Bastien’s mind by telling him you don’t like the design.”
Alaric looked at his reflection in the mirror and groaned. Heinrich continued.
“Instead of complaining, give him new inspiration. You fell in love with Princess Lina while surrounded by snowbells. Doubtless, that is what the purple ribbons represent.”
“Actual snowbells in my hair would look less ridiculous,” Alaric said. “Besides, I didn’t fall in love with Lina in a field. We were in a cave being attacked by a goblin.”
“My point exactly. Tell Bastien that snowbells don’t properly capture your love. Suggest the cave instead.”
Alaric raised an eyebrow.
“What good will that do?”
“At the least, the ribbons will be black. But a cave suggests a more somber tone than Bastien usually designs. He may rethink your entire outfit.”
Alaric shook his head. The purple ribbons fluttered.
“Do it,” Stefan said. “Heinrich is clever, and he knows Bastien well.”
“This is a trap isn’t it? You’re working together to trick me into an outfit that’s much worse.”
Stefan widened his eyes.
“Brother, would I trick you about something as important as your wedding?”
Heinrich and Alaric said it together.
“Just wait until you see your wedding present.”
Pure horror filled Alaric’s eyes.
“Stefan, please tell me you haven’t found another play.”
A few weeks ago, Stefan had produced a play that Alaric wrote when he was young. The entertainment for the Princess Test had been a success in its way, but the performance had horrified his serious older brother.
Stefan scratched his head.
“Well, I hate to repeat pranks, but this-”
The younger prince laughed.
“No, I haven’t found another play. I don’t remember you writing one. Did you write one?”
“No,” Alaric said a little too quickly. “Of course not.”
Stefan made a mental note to dig through Alaric’s things the next time his brother left the castle. If there was another play, it would make the perfect wedding prank.
Bastien burst into the room.
“Doesn’t anyone knock around here?” Stefan said.
“You have no room to talk about that,” Alaric said.
“I have been looking everywhere for you, Your Highness,” Bastien said. “We must complete the design of your wedding outfit. We are running out of time!”
Stefan’s eyes gleamed.
“Alaric was just telling me how much he loves what you’ve done with his hair. He couldn’t wait to show me.”
Alaric glared at his brother. Bastien beamed with pride.
“Ah, yes. The ribbons represent snowbells, you know. Since they fell in love on Mount Evangelina.”
Stefan nodded, looking overly impressed. Alaric took a deep breath.
“You know, Bastien, I’m not sure I ever told you the complete story of how I fell in love with Lina.”
“The whole kingdom knows the story! The whole world! The hero Evangelina Shadow-Storm awoke after a century of enchanted sleep. You two fell in love while fighting a goblin on the mountainside. Hence the snowbells, a mountain flower.”
“Yes, but I first realized I loved Lina when we were hiding in a cave.”
Alaric winced as he said the words. He watched Stefan and Heinrich for a reaction. For any kind of indication he was walking into a trap.
“A cave! Why did Your Highness not tell me? You can’t wear purple ribbons in your hair if you fell in love in a cave! Come with me right away. We must rethink your entire outfit!”
Alaric breathed a sigh of relief and gave Heinrich a small smile. The tailor winked at him and retrieved his scissors. Bastien pulled Alaric out of the room, and Stefan sat so Heinrich could resume the haircut.
“You should have let him suffer a bit longer,” Stefan said. “Those purple ribbons were genius. Do you know how long I worked to convince Bastien they were a good idea?”
“A week and a half. Bastien told me all about it.”
“Did you see the look in his eyes?”
Heinrich cleared his throat.
“Has it ever occurred to Your Highness that your brother is under a lot of stress right now? That these pranks may be making his life miserable?”
The prince frowned.
“Alaric knows I’m joking. He’s so serious all the time. It doesn’t hurt him to have some fun.”
“Fun. Indeed. And will your wedding present be fun?”
“How much fun?”
“And how much fun is enough fun at a royal wedding?”
Stefan’s eyes narrowed.
“Did Marta put you up to this? She’s more concerned with this wedding than she was about the Princess Test.”
Heinrich shrugged, which was proof enough. Queen Marta, Stefan’s stepmother, could be very stubborn. And she was determined that the wedding of her stepson to Aeonia’s greatest hero would be the grandest anyone had ever seen.
“The wedding present?” Heinrich asked again.
“Will be completely appropriate and not cause a disruption. Everyone will love it.”
“You don’t have a present yet, do you?”
“No, blast it all! Do you know how hard it is to shop for a crown prince and a crown princess? They both have an entire kingdom at their disposal! What could I possibly get them?”
“A little peace and quiet?”
“Ha! Who wants that? There’s been far too much of that since the Princess Test ended.”
“Some people enjoy tranquility.”
“Some people are boring.”
Stefan ignored Heinrich for the rest of the haircut. He’d had so much to do during the Princess Test. He had produced Alaric’s play, helped Marta organize each day’s events, and served as his brother’s spy to help him decide which girl to marry.
Life had become decidedly dull since all that had been resolved.
Heinrich met his eyes in the mirror.
“Your Highness, there are worse things than being bored.”
“Who said anything about being bored? I’m too busy finding the perfect wedding present.”
Heinrich’s raised eyebrow said he didn’t believe a word of it.
That was fair. Neither did Stefan.
A. G. Marshall
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