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Friday, April 1, 2016

Chapter 7 - A True Prince (A Serialized YA Historical Fantasy)

The sailor waited uncomfortably in the small pub within the castle walls, desperately wishing Captain Rastafel had sent someone else on this errand. He didn’t really expect to be recognized or found out, but just being so close to the castle guard made him nervous.
His seat in the corner booth farthest away from the door afforded him a view of the patrons coming in, yet he knew he could not easily be seen himself.
He didn’t know whom he was meeting—which wasn’t unusual—but he also didn’t know why, exactly. One of two reasons, he was sure.
This pub was much nicer than most the sailor visited, the patrons of a much higher social class. He was sure he stood out like a starfish in a mussel bed. Again, he wished he could leave. The ale in his mug was nearly gone. He lifted and drained it, wondering if he should order more.
Just then, someone settled into the booth across from him. Someone he hadn’t seen enter the pub, which meant they’d come in through the back.
The candle in the booth went out in the same moment, leaving the sailor looking at an indistinct shadow. He hadn’t seen anything more than a dark cape with a hood and a flash of pale skin.
“Good e’en, mate,” he said, leaving no doubt he was a sailor. Not that he thought this one doubted they were at the right table. Something about this one smacked of witchcraft. The sailor suppressed a shiver, and crossed his fingers under the table.
The figure across the table held out a sketch and the sailor took it. It was a boy, young, about fifteen or sixteen, he guessed. A boy the sailor recognized. “I seen him at port just today.”
The figure did not acknowledge his comment or move in any way. “Make him disappear.” The voice was disguised, but the sailor could tell it was a woman, one who had a far better education than he. “Soon. Make certain he is never seen in the Bonnie Isles again.”
Then, the figure vanished and the candle came to life, revealing a bag on the table in front of him. He folded the sketch away quickly and lifted the bag to find it heavier than he expected. Whoever the boy was, this woman wanted him gone. Captain Rastafel would make a killing on this job.
Aslynn could not sleep.
The combination of no exercise—at least, nothing physically demanding—and the presence of a stranger in her bedchamber made it impossible to keep her eyes closed.
Every time Claudia shifted on her pallet or sighed in her sleep, Aslynn heard it. If the maid had snored or thrashed around like Sebastian, it would have been easier to accept. But Claudia wasn’t her friend, they weren’t in Sebastian’s loft, and sleep would not come.
If Claudia were not there, she could have gone to visit Sebastian, bypassing the guard at her door by using the secret passageway behind the tapestry.
But Aslynn did not dare reveal her knowledge of the passages. She would be throwing away a perfectly good secret if she were caught outside her room.
Instead, she rubbed at her sore shins and tried to believe that if she behaved, the whole ordeal would be over sooner.
Patience, she thought, is going to be a most difficult lesson to learn. Dealing with the discomfort she could handle.
The hoop skirt was proving to be the hardest trial. It appeared her posture was not the problem; it was her stride. Her back did not bother her even after having the board tied to it all afternoon. And she could keep from swinging her arms if she held her hands clasped in front of her. It was an acceptable concession to Tawnia, and it saved her upper arms from being pinched by the metal bands strapped tightly around them.
But the hoop skirt she could not seem to get around. Essentially a petticoat made of metal bands, it was meant to only accommodate tiny steps, but she always forgot. In taking a normal step, she would kick the hoop with her shin, stumble, and have to flail wildly to keep from falling. It would be comical if it didn’t hurt so much.
At least Tawnia didn’t have a problem with the way she spoke; Aslynn had emulated her father’s speech from an early age. However, subject matter would be another matter altogether. Ladies, she was certain, did not comment on horse races and the finer points of sticking a wild pig with a spear. To avoid a lecture on that, she vowed to speak only of the weather. Or perhaps the music when she began her dancing lessons.
For some reason, the thought of dancing with Adam sent a thrill down her spine. It had been happening every time she thought of him since their interrupted conversation the night before.
Not for the first time, she wondered what he had been about to say. She had wanted him to tell her she was special, that he cared what happened to her.
Maybe, she admitted, she had wanted him to tell her he was in love with her. She wanted that to be true. Childishly, she wanted him to spirit her away to Castle Greyloch to live happily ever after, but she knew running away from here would mean leaving her father in Tawnia’s clutches. That was a fate she could not bear to think about.
And how would she keep her promise to Sebastian if she left? Unless he left with her.... But any clues to his identity were here, somewhere, near Castle Fair Haven.
She thought again of the stranger, Meedo, and wondered if he was still alive, and if so, could he really solve Sebastian’s mystery?
If he could, the only thing left to do would be to stop Tawnia by somehow exposing how she was controlling the king without giving away the truth to the whole kingdom. If knowledge of the king being under a spell for at least the last fourteen years became known, it would not only undermine the people’s faith in their king, it would also be a tacit invitation for her father’s enemies to attack.
The more Aslynn thought about it, the more determined she became to expose Tawnia...somehow. Maybe she could benefit from her lessons in more ways than just becoming a lady. Maybe Tawnia would let slip something she could use against her.
At last, sleep overcame her as she plotted how she would expose the queen.
Katrona snuggled deep under her covers and tried to pretend she’d been there for hours instead of mere moments.
Just as she stilled herself, the bedchamber door opened and a figure appeared, silhouetted in the torchlight from the hallway. Her mother entered and shut the door, leaving the room lit in flickering firelight once more.
Katrona considered herself lucky to have gotten back in time. She had left the nursery earlier to escape Edward’s game of make believe, which always involved the same scenario. He was the king, dressed in a scrap of purple curtain, wearing a crown of painted wood, and Katrona was either his personal witch—a role she detested—or some other servile knave.
Tonight, instead of waiting for his pronouncement of her role, she vanished into the passageways, knowing he wouldn’t have the nerve to follow her alone—especially after getting lost for nearly an hour earlier that day.
Katrona had fled to the lower levels, where all but a few servants enjoyed an evening away from the ever-present call of duty.
Edward would have wanted to spy on the bedchambers, to see if he could witness any intimate goings on, but Katrona was far more interested in talk.
She spied on the kitchens, where they gathered to gossip. Aslynn’s lessons were on many lips today. Then she moved on to the common room, where servants gathered to do personal tasks like mending stockings or belts, sewing clothes for their children, or carving pipes.
This was the room where serious matters were discussed. This was where Katrona learned many things no one would even suspect a ten-year-old to have interest in, much less know.
Things like politics: who was plotting what against whom, who had half a chance of succeeding, and speculation on what the results of success would be.
This room was also where she heard the rumors about her mother’s "witchcraft", and her own—rumors that proved just how ignorant people could be.
They thought her mother sacrificed lambs to keep her youth. Anyone who had seen the queen performing her morning "ritual" could tell artfully applied cosmetics kept her mother looking young.
They thought her mother had the king under a spell kept fresh with the blood of virgins. Katrona could not swear against the spell, but she was sure there were no sacrificed virgins. Katrona had seen something once, in a secret chamber, that made her think the spell was real, but there had been no sign of blood sacrifice, only curious objects gathered in a pattern. The objects combined with a prickling sense of some energy, spoke of arcane activity. A lack of dust meant her mother—whom she had followed—went there often.
People thought her mother spoke to Satan for advice. Well, yes, her mother had a habit of talking to herself when she thought no one was around, but Katrona did not think she was addressing Satan.
They thought Katrona herself danced in the Sabbat to honor Satan, who some thought was her father. Katrona knew she had never danced naked in the forest clearing under the light of a full moon.
Her mother had never mentioned the devil in all her lessons. When Katrona came to her, frightened by the realization she could tell when people were lying, Tawnia had given her a cursory explanation of Ley, the ethereal power that stretched in bands around the world and could be tapped by those who could sense and manipulate it.
 A simple trick of summoning flame to a candlewick was the extent of physical magic she had been taught, only shown to her when Katrona had expressed doubt about the practicality of her so-called gift. Further lessons mainly promised revelations of some greater secret she would be taught "when she was old enough".
No devil worship, no subservience to a power other than that of her own mind tapping into the Ley and drawing forth the results she desired.
But after recent events, Katrona was tempted to wonder about her mother's activities.
Tonight, as Katrona made her way back through the secret passageways to the family wing, she had been startled to hear footsteps and see a light approaching.
Knowing if she panicked she could forget where she was and end up lost, Katrona turned and counted back until she found a small nook in which she could hide. Tucking herself into the tight spot, she stilled herself and carefully thought of nothing—a trick she had learned would help her keep still, preventing the passerby from noticing her.
It wasn’t until the figure passed and the light receded that Katrona processed what she had seen: her mother, dressed for outdoors, giving off an aura of recently activated Ley.
That her mother had been outside was enough of a wonder. That she was casting spells....
Now, in the fire lit chamber, Katrona feigned sleep as her mother crossed the room to stand at her bedside. She could feel her looking down, and wondered if she knew of her recent wandering.
But the queen only tucked the covers up under her chin and bent to place a doting kiss on her forehead. “Katrona,” she whispered. “My daughter, my heiress.”
And then she moved on to the little partitioned alcove where Edward slept, leaving Katrona to wonder what that meant.
Edward was to inherit the kingdom, so what was left for the king’s youngest daughter? Her mother’s gift for spell casting? A gift of sensitivity to the presence of Ley? To a ten-year-old, this felt like a curse more often than not. The gift was something her mother prized greatly, Katrona knew, though she wasn’t certain why.
Unless the gossip about her spell over the king was true, which would mean without magic, the king wouldn’t have taken her as his wife, and Tawnia would not be queen. Nor would she be the queen mother, who had produced the heir.
Except, Edward was not the true heir.
It was enough to make a girl’s head spin, but a thought struck her as she heard her mother whisper over Edward’s bed.
If she had used magic, what wouldn’t she do to stay queen?
Katrona shook her head, not believing her mother could actually do any harm. It was one thing to cast love spells, quite another to cause a hurt, or...make someone disappear.
The queen must have heard her movement, for she reappeared at Katrona’s side. “Is something wrong, my dove?” she asked, reaching out to stroke Katrona’s hair. “Can you not sleep?”
“I sense Ley magic, Momma,” she said, making her voice sound sleepy and confused. “Why?”
“Strange happenings are afoot, my darling,” the queen said. “I have cast spells to help protect you and Edward.”
Katrona sensed Truth in her mother’s words, though she also sensed a holding back—doubtless a desire to protect from whatever strange happenings she perceived. It only served to remind her the queen had a mother’s instinct to protect her own. And surely that instinct could not be a bad thing.
“I love you, Momma,” Katrona said.
“I love you too, darling. Off to sleep, now. Daylight will be here sooner than you think.”
The day dawned gray with fog, slicking the deck of the little boat with moisture and painting everything behind a curtain of white too thick to see more than a boat-length away.
Meedo stretched after climbing out of the cabin. Today was the day to send for Sebastian. He had the distinct feeling something crucial would happen before the sun went down.
He folded the summons he’d written, hopped down from Remini’s foredeck, and went in search of a messenger.
At the foot of the dock, a gaggle of boys waited for the chance to earn a copper or two.
Meedo called out to one and pressed two small coins in the boy’s hand, along with the note.
“Take this up to the castle and deliver it to Sebastian, the swordmaster’s boy. Can you do that for me?”
The boy fingered the coins and grinned. “Oh, aye!”
“Off with you, then.” Meedo turned to go back to his Remini. He did not see the figure of a man turn away hastily, melting back into the mist.
Aslynn and Adam approached each other: she curtsied, he bowed, and when the music began, he held out his hands for hers.
She took his left hand lightly and settled her left onto his shoulder, thrilling at the feel of his right hand on her hip. They stepped together into the opening movements of the dance.
The string quartet played a song Aslynn had been taught to recognize as a minuet, and Adam guided her expertly through the motions. She liked the feeling of his confidence flowing through his hands to her, making her forget the queen’s critical gaze on them both.
“You dance well, Lord Wingfield,” she told him. “The queen said she heard you were in need of polish.”
Adam only smiled. “I’d say anything to give you respite from your torture.”
She smiled in return. “My hero.”
They had been at dancing lessons for over an hour since lunch, and it was indeed a respite from the morning’s posture and walking torture. Adam had managed to pass along Sebastian’s message about Meedo, but they mostly held only idle chitchat, as the queen seemed very interested in everything they had to say to each other.
Aslynn was beginning to think that this part of being a lady, at least, would not be so bad. As long as she always had a partner like Adam: handsome, charming....
Aslynn gasped and stopped in her tracks, causing Adam to pull awkwardly to a stop to avoid treading on her toes.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Sebastian,” she whispered, feeling blind panic rising in her. “He’s in danger!”
“What? How?”
“I don’t know. I just know!”
“What’s wrong?” Queen Tawnia demanded, gliding toward them. “Why have you stopped?”
Adam’s grip shifted to her shoulders as they stared at each other, his gaze not questioning, only waiting.
“Aslynn!” Tawnia said sharply. “What under heaven is wrong with you? You weren’t doing that poorly. Continue.”
But Aslynn did not move, and the quartet faltered to a stop.
“I have to go to him,” she whispered, desperately wishing the queen would just dismiss them.
“Him who?” Tawnia tapped her foot impatiently. “What ails you, milkmaid?”
Aslynn couldn’t look away from Adam, couldn’t decide what to do. Sebastian needed her—this she knew. The longer she stood there, the higher her level of panic rose.
Adam’s eyebrow twitched and he rolled his eyes toward the door, a not-so-subtle motion suggesting they make a run for the door.
She nodded and reached down, scandalously grabbing the hem of her skirts and petticoats, lifting the metal hoops above her knees. Adam grabbed her free hand and they turned, making a run for the door.
“Aslynn!” Tawnia shrieked. “Get back here!”

In the hall, they only hesitated long enough for Aslynn to shimmy out of the hoop skirt before racing toward the stables to find Sebastian.

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