Here’s the next chapter in the ongoing serial story. If you missed the beginning, you can find it here. The previous chapter is here. Or if you’re impatient and want to just read the whole thing, the e-book is now available.
With Mariel gone, Dawn figured she was safe on the showboat, so she left the cabin. As soon as she came on deck, Spink flew over to her. “Why did the show end so soon?” the bird chirped.
She didn’t have time to explain, with Jeremy on the verge of being caught. “I need you to fly over to Jeremy on the boat two berths upstream and warn him that the enchantresses are coming,” she said.
The bird cocked its head at her, and she worried it would ask why, but it just said, “A mission! I’m good at those!” before flying away.
“Hurry!” Dawn called after it, adding, “And try not to be noticed.” Now all she needed was a good diversion to give Jeremy the chance to get away. She spotted her duet partner and whispered, “Psst! Will!” He looked around and came over once he saw her. “Can you do me a favor?”
“Of course! Anything! I’ve never had so much applause as when you sang with me, and imagine if we weren’t interrupted.”
“I need a big, loud noise, maybe some flashing light. Anything that will attract attention.”
He gave her a grin that made her nervous. “I know just the thing.” He grabbed a couple of torches, ran to the front of the now-empty stage, and started juggling. That certainly got the attention of the crowd still milling on the docks. Even the enchantresses turned around to look. He grabbed a third and a fourth torch for more juggling.
Dawn ran up to the aft deck to look for Jeremy. He’d apparently got the warning in time because he slipped over the side of the boat and disappeared under the water. She held her breath until his head appeared a good distance away. Then he dove under again. Down on the stage, Will had started an act with fire, lighting various things and doing dangerous-looking stunts with them. What he didn’t know was that behind him, Rhian and a strange man she must have found on the dock had been all tangled up in each other in a corner of the deck, and with all the fire, they were now thoroughly illuminated.
The dress Rhian had taken from Dawn hung halfway off her shoulder, and the skirt was practically around her waist as she wrapped her legs around the man, whose hands were tangled in her hair. Will remained oblivious as he concentrated on his flaming torches, but he was the only one who hadn’t noticed. The rest of the crew gathered around the edges of the stage, pointing and snickering. Dawn felt like she ought to warn Rhian, but she wasn’t sure how.
The crowd oohed and aahed at each of Will’s stunts, then they noticed the couple in the background. First one or two people laughed and pointed it out to their neighbors, then word spread throughout the crowd until the entire audience roared with laughter. Will turned around in confusion, saw them, and blurted, “Rhian? What are you doing here?” That was when the couple realized they were being watched.
The man shoved Rhian off his lap, adjusted his clothes, and ran for the gangplank. Rhian picked herself up from the deck and headed for the cabin, not even bothering to straighten her dress. Huw went after Rhian, shouting about her lack of modesty, and while the rest of the crew laughed, Will finished his act. As soon as he doused his torches, a group from the troupe came on stage to act out a comic version of what had just happened, with the oblivious couple getting into more and more outrageous positions, which made the crowd roar even louder. In all that commotion, a soaking wet Jeremy crawled up from the river onto the dock and ran up the gangplank.
Without thinking about it, Dawn ran to hug him and got Rhian’s borrowed dress drenched in the process. “Are you okay?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” he said, moving her away. “I’m also soaking, and I don’t think you want that river water on you.”
She hugged him again. “I was so worried when I saw those enchantresses heading for the boat.”
“I got your warning, and then something seemed to distract them. I take it you arranged that?”
“It turns out that Will is not only a talented baritone, he’s also quite the pyromaniac.”
He hugged her so tightly he lifted her off her feet. “You were brilliant. I would have been so busted if you hadn’t done that.”
“What did you find?”
He shook his head. “Nothing. Do you think I’d have left Lucy there if I’d found her? And I searched the boat pretty well.”
The sound of Lucy’s name reminded her that Jeremy was spoken for, so she wormed her way out of his arms and stepped away. “You’d better get on some dry clothes.”
“And you, too,” he said, looking like he was fighting back a grin. She glanced down at her dress and saw that it became rather transparent when it was wet.
She was about to go change when she saw Huw pull Rhian into their cabin for what Dawn suspected was a good scolding, judging by the roar of his voice. On the deck, the other performers went back to playing out the scene for each other in pantomime, dance, and song, to much laughter.
Jeremy watched it all, his brow creased in confusion. “I take it I missed something good while I was out swimming,” he said after a while.
“Will’s diversion revealed Rhian being naughty—and her dad saw it,” Dawn explained.
“Oh, that is good. Too bad I missed it.”
“I kind of feel sorry for her.”
“Sorry for her?”
“That had to be embarrassing, and now everyone’s making fun of her.”
“Have you considered that she might deserve it? If she’d been nicer to people, they’d have warned her or helped her.”
“Still, I can’t help but feel responsible. If I hadn’t asked Will to create a diversion, she wouldn’t be in this fix.”
He caught her by the shoulders and turned her to face him. “If you hadn’t asked Will to create a diversion, the enchantresses might have caught me on their boat, and there’s no telling what might have happened. You might have even saved my life. I’m okay with trading that for a few moments of embarrassment for Rhian.” He paused, tilted his head to one side and raised an eyebrow. “When you say ‘naughty,’ what, exactly, do you mean?”
Dawn felt her face growing uncomfortably warm, and she was glad it was dark enough that he couldn’t see her blushing. “She was kissing a man from the docks. And maybe a little more than kissing. I couldn’t tell. I was more worried about looking out for you.”
“So, she kisses on the first date?”
“Jeremy! You wouldn’t!”
He waggled his eyebrows. “No, but apparently she would.”
“You need to change clothes,” she said, hurrying to change the subject. She had the distressing sense that she hadn’t protested on Lucy’s behalf, and she didn’t want to think about that. She also didn’t want to think about how warm his hands were. The dress she’d borrowed from Rhian hung off one shoulder, so he was touching her bare skin there, and it felt so good it was almost uncomfortable.
“So do you.”
“Mine are almost dry. You’re still dripping. And I can’t change clothes until you let go of my shoulders.”
“Oh, right.” He immediately removed his hands and stepped away. “I guess I’ll go change clothes.”
In spite of her claim that her clothes were nearly dry, Dawn went to the crew cabin and changed into her own clothes. Rhian’s dress had made her self-conscious, and she felt better covered up. She came back out on deck to find that Jeremy was already out there, demonstrating the art of making s’mores with the supplies he had in his pack for the hike he’d missed. He sounded like a showman, himself, and the troupe watched him with hushed anticipation. “First, you take a simple stick,” he said, holding one up with a flourish. “Whittle a sharp end.” With his pocketknife, he shaved one end to a point. “Thread on a marshmallow, and hold it over the fire, like so, rotating it carefully so it toasts evenly.”
Dawn had seen him make s’mores plenty of times, but she found herself caught up in his demonstration. She knew he wasn’t doing it entirely seriously, and that was what made it so enchanting. Whenever he caught her eye, he winked, making her have to fight a fit of giggles.
His marshmallow started burning, and he pulled it quickly away from the fire, whirling it expertly to put the flames out. “Don’t worry, folks,” he said. “That’s part of the process. Happens all the time. In fact, I like mine with a bit of a char on it. But now that we have a nice, toasty marshmallow, we can really make some magic.” He set the toasted marshmallow on top of a graham cracker square with a piece of chocolate on it, took another graham cracker square, placed it on top of the marshmallow, and deftly slid the stick out of the marshmallow. “A moment or two to let the marshmallow melt the chocolate, and then we’ve got a treat,” Jeremy said, presenting the s’more to one of the women in the troupe.
She took a bite, and melted chocolate dribbled on her chin, but she didn’t seem to mind. “Oh, this is good!” she said around a mouthful of graham cracker and marshmallow. “I’ve never had anything like it.” The group burst into applause, and Spink, perching on Dawn’s shoulder, gave a high-pitched trill of a whistle.
Everyone else then wanted to try one. Jeremy got them carving their own sticks, and Dawn hoped he had enough ingredients to feed them all. “I should find a place for him in the show,” Huw murmured into Dawn’s ear. She hadn’t heard him approach her. “Or he could be an excellent barker. Even so, he doesn’t have your talent. Have you always sung?”
“Oh, yes. My whole life, even before I knew any songs. I just made them up and sang to myself. Later I started learning music and taking music classes in school.”
“It’s a natural talent that comes easily to you?”
“I guess so. I’ve never really thought about where it came from.”
“And tell me, Mistress Nightingale, how long is all your life? That is, how old are you?”
“I just turned sixteen, the day before I came here. Why?”
“You have talent beyond your years, yet you also have the innocence of a child. That made it difficult to guess your age.”
“My friend Lucy says I lead a very sheltered life.”
“You came from very far away, didn’t you? From so far away that it’s practically another world.”
She couldn’t stop herself from gasping in shock as she whirled to face him directly. From her shoulder, Spink sang, “She’s the girl from far, far away!”
“What makes you think that?” Dawn asked Huw.
He patted her on the arm. “Relax, child. Where you come from means nothing to me. But you are a mystery, and I never could resist a mystery. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to try one of your friend’s treats.” As he walked away, Rhian joined him. Dawn hadn’t realized she was standing nearby. The look Rhian shot her made it clear she’d heard the whole conversation, and it seemed she did care where Dawn came from.
Dawn would have worried about what Huw meant about her being a mystery, but she didn’t have time to fret. Will came over to her, grinning. “Have you tried one of these s’mores? They’re wonderful!”
“We have them all the time back home.” She thought of the few times she’d been allowed to spend the night with Lucy and camp out in her back yard. Jeremy always came over to build a campfire for them. “Jeremy’s a good cook as long as a fire is involved,” she added, repeating a joke Lucy often made.
“How would one cook without a fire?”
She hadn’t thought of it that way, but she just shook her head and laughed instead of trying to explain stoves and electric ovens. Some of the musicians began playing a merry jig, and Will held out a hand to her. She took it, and he put an arm around her waist to spin her across the deck. Spink flew off as soon as they started moving. At the beginning of the next song, Jeremy appeared next to them, and Will gallantly let him cut in. Jeremy wasn’t as good a dancer as Will was, but he did seem to be trying to put actual dance steps to the music, even if his sense of rhythm was somewhat lacking. Once he relaxed and got the feel of it, though, he did far better.
“I didn’t know you could dance,” she said.
“It’s a closely guarded secret, and it’s all Lucy’s fault. I don’t remember what movie it was that got her into it, but she was determined to act out some scene where people danced, and I was the only convenient boy, so she made me be her partner. I guess it was only fair, since I made her learn to climb trees when I was obsessed with Tarzan, and there were far fewer injuries from the dancing.”
Dawn laughed at the mental image of a very young Jeremy being bossed into dancing by Lucy, even as that image also gave her a twinge of something that might have been jealousy. “She can get you to do just about anything, can’t she?”
“It did work both ways, and we got into a lot less trouble when she was in charge. But if you tell anyone at school about the dancing, you’ll pay for it.”
“Oh? What will you do to me?”
“I’ll think of something, and I’m very creative.” He dropped her into a dip, then pulled her upright again. “That, I learned from a spy movie. Apparently, the tango is important for international super spies.”
She would have laughed at that, since he’d clearly said it as a joke, but she couldn’t catch her breath. She became uncomfortably aware of the feel of his hand on her back and her hand in his other one. When the music changed to a slower song, she thought she ought to move away, but she didn’t really want to, so she let him pull her closer. “Lucy taught you well,” she said, hoping she didn’t sound as breathless as she felt. “Or was this in the spy movies, too?”
“I got a lot of practice with Lucy. I only put up with it because I thought it would be useful for my career as the next James Bond.” As close as they were, he spoke directly into her ear, and his breath on her neck made her shiver.
He spun her around, and she noticed Huw standing off to the side, watching them. She was so distracted wondering what he was thinking that she missed her footing, and Jeremy had to catch her with an arm around her waist to keep her from falling. “You okay?” he asked.
“Sorry. I let my mind wander. Do you think Huw is acting odd?”
“I don’t know him well enough to know what counts as odd for him.”
“He was asking me questions earlier, about where I came from and how I learned to sing, and now he seems to be watching everything I do.”
“Well, odd things do keep happening to you. If I were him, I’d be wondering about you, too.”
When the song ended, one of the men called Jeremy over to help with the s’mores, and Huw approached him. Huw put one hand on Jeremy’s shoulder and said something, his face very solemn. Jeremy glanced over at Dawn, then turned back to Huw and nodded. Dawn was dying of curiosity, so she went up to Jeremy as soon as Huw moved away and asked, “What did he say to you?”
“He told me to keep an eye on you and not to let you out of my sight once we’re in the capital.”
“I don’t know. But it’s not bad advice.” He put his arm around her shoulders and said, “I wasn’t planning on letting you out of my sight, anyway. You’re stuck with me, lady.” She knew he was joking yet again, but that didn’t stop her from wanting to stay in the circle of his arm, where she felt safe and warm.
As exhausted as she was, Lucy had a terrible time sleeping that night, she was so worried about Sebastian. Surely they wouldn’t just execute him as a spy without at least a pretend trial, and surely they wouldn’t hold a mock trial until the next day. She had a plan, but it had to wait until morning, which meant the best thing she could do for Sebastian was get some rest while she had the chance.
Early the next morning, while the other camp servants were still asleep, she got up to wash her face and dampen her hair so it wouldn’t be quite so frizzy. She unclasped Dawn’s necklace from around her bra strap and refastened it around her neck. Then she lurked near the duke’s tent and waited for the servants to bring breakfast. One of the servants was a young girl even smaller than Lucy, and she struggled with a heavy tray. Lucy stepped up to her, took the tray, and said, “Here, let me help you with that. Run along and get some breakfast.”
The girl hesitated, but Lucy already had her tray, so she shrugged and took off, and Lucy entered the duke’s tent. It took a moment or two for her eyes to adjust to the dimmer light, but she instantly recognized Geoffrey. He looked like a slightly older version of Sebastian. His hair was a little curlier and had the first signs of silver showing at the temples, but they both had the same eyes. Either the guards were utterly stupid or they’d never actually seen the duke up close, or else they’d have believed Sebastian was who he said he was. Unless, of course, they were so convinced of his death that they couldn’t even consider that possibility.
Geoffrey sat with some other men at a folding table covered with maps. Lucy stood by with her tray until they moved the maps aside. As she bent to set down the tray, she whispered, “Nice sword, your grace, but it’s not quite Fireblade, is it?” She held her breath as she turned and made as to go about her duties. Would he take the bait? She moved as slowly as she could toward the tent’s doorway, her heart sinking with each step when the duke didn’t say anything.
She was almost to the exit when a voice behind her called out, “You there! Stop!”
She turned to see the duke glaring at her. “Yes, your grace?” she asked, trying to sound innocent.
“Come here, girl.” She came closer, stopping right in front of him with a curtsy. “How did you hear about Fireblade?”
“From your brother, Sebastian.”
“When and where did you hear it?” he asked in a voice colder than the ice cream freezer at the drugstore.
“Last night, in this camp, after he was arrested as a spy by your idiot guards who refused to believe he was who he said he was, even though he looks just like you.”
Geoffrey turned an ashy gray color. “But my brother is dead. Lord Argus said he would kill Sebastian if I moved against the witch, but I couldn’t put my own wishes ahead of the good of the kingdom.”
That explained a lot. So, Lord Argus had used Sebastian as a hostage to keep his brother in line. “Well, it looks like he got away just in time, then. He said a Sergeant Fulk told him to rescue the princess from the dungeon.”
“He was with the princess? Where is she?”
Lucy took a deep breath. She’d never actually claimed to be the princess before, just let people assume. This would be the first time she actually came out and said she was the princess, but she told herself she was only doing it to save Sebastian’s life. “She’s right here. I’m the princess. The guards didn’t believe me, either. And before you say anything, I know I don’t look or sound like a princess, but I spent my whole life in hiding in another world, and I’ve spent the past few days running around in the forest with your brother. I don’t think anyone would look like royalty after what we’ve been through.” Well, Dawn might, but she was a real princess magically gifted with beauty and grace.
She waited for Geoffrey to respond, but he just stared at her, frowning, like he was assessing her claims. “I’m wearing the royal insignia,” she added, pointing to Dawn’s necklace.
“You claim to be the Princess Aurora, rescued from the castle dungeons by my brother Sebastian and brought here to me?”
She resisted the urge to cross her fingers behind her back when she said, “Yes, that’s what I claim. Only the plan was originally to take me to some other safe house where the Loyalists were going to take care of me. But you’ve got either a traitor or a spy because the witch was there waiting for us. We got away, but since all your passwords and signals had been compromised, Sebastian thought the only thing to do was bring me to you.”
“That does add up,” Geoffrey said with a slow nod. “I’d heard about the safe house being compromised and our people there slaughtered. But no one mentioned that Sebastian was the one given charge of the princess.” His eyes narrowed, and he leaned forward. “How do I know you’re not an imposter sent by the witch while she has the true princess in custody? Anyone could wear that insignia.”
It was Lucy’s turn to go pale. At least, she felt like all the blood had rushed out of her face and was weighing down her stomach. It would be impossible to prove she wasn’t an imposter when she really was one. “Why don’t you talk to your brother about it? He’s convinced I’m for real, and I’m sure you’ll believe who he is when you see him.”
She held her breath, waiting to see how he took her challenge. After a long pause, he waved over one of his men and ordered him to bring the prisoner. Lucy relaxed ever so slightly at that. She had no doubt whatsoever that Sebastian would be in the clear as soon as Geoffrey saw him. That mission, at least, was accomplished. Now all she had to do was keep from being proved a fraud long enough for Sebastian to be freed. After that, did it matter if they all knew who she really was?
Geoffrey poured himself a drink from the pitcher on the tray Lucy had brought and ate a roll. He seemed remarkably composed for someone who might soon be reunited with his long-lost brother and who might be facing his princess. That made Lucy nervous. If he believed she was who she claimed to be, would he be eating in front of her while making her stand?
Soon, the men returned with Sebastian. He still had his hands bound behind his back, and even in the dim light of the tent he looked even worse than he had by flashlight the night before. He now obviously needed a shave, he had the beginnings of a spectacular black eye, in addition to a number of other bruises, and he had dark circles under his eyes. If Lucy hadn’t washed his face the night before, he’d have really looked like a hobo.
But he still looked like himself, and that meant he looked enough like his brother for the resemblance to be obvious to anyone with eyes. Geoffrey glanced up as his men brought Sebastian in, and the mug he held slipped out of his hand and crashed onto the ground. Lucy had only thought he’d gone pale before. Now there was absolutely no color left in his face, not even in his lips. “Sebastian?” he croaked.
Sebastian held his head defiantly high, but he’d also gone a little pale. “Yes.”
“You’re not dead.”
That snapped Geoffrey out of it. “Untie him,” he barked. When the guards cut through the ropes, Sebastian rubbed his wrists. They were red and chafed, but not raw and bloody, so he must have listened to Lucy about staying still. Geoffrey stood and approached his brother. “Who did this to you?” he asked, gesturing at the bruises.
“Your men,” Sebastian replied coolly.
Geoffrey turned to his aide. “Bring me the men who arrested him.”
Lucy couldn’t help but grin at the thought of the comeuppance they’d get. She’d warned them. Grinning probably wasn’t appropriate at a time like this, but nobody was looking at her. Geoffrey seemed to have forgotten she was even there, and Sebastian was too focused on his brother to have noticed her presence.
“You’ve grown,” Geoffrey said after a while.
“You must be, what, seventeen now?”
“Eighteen this winter. I was to have been knighted.”
“Ah, yes, I recall that. Lord Argus kept me apprised of that much, at least.” Abruptly, Geoffrey let out something between a sob and a groan and grabbed his startled brother in a big, bone-crushing hug. Lucy’s eyes stung with tears even as she winced at the way that hug must have hurt all of Sebastian’s bruises. “I thought I’d lost you for good,” Geoffrey eventually choked out. “He kept you away from us all that time. I never should have sent you to him.”
Eventually Sebastian got over his shock well enough to awkwardly pat his brother on the back. He looked a little lost, like he wasn’t sure what to make of this situation. All those years of thinking he’d been abandoned, and now he was greeted with hugs and tears.
Geoffrey got himself back under control and stepped away from Sebastian. “Mother will be overjoyed to see you,” he said, his voice still rough. Sounding more businesslike, he added, “I understand you were the one sent to rescue the princess.”
With a glance at Lucy, Sebastian said warily, “Yes. Sergeant Fulk sent me to get her out of the dungeon and to the Loyalists.”
“And you believe that this girl is the Princess Aurora?”
Sebastian gave Lucy another glance. “Yes, of course. She wears the royal insignia, and she’s clearly been living far away, the way the princess was said to be. Don’t you hear how strangely she speaks? And she’s just the way the princess was said to be in all the tales.”
As far as Lucy could remember the Sleeping Beauty story, the princess was magically gifted with beauty, grace, charm, and song. She would have thought brains or wisdom might have been a good idea for someone who would one day rule a kingdom, but that never seemed to show up on the list. Maybe that was what got left out when the last Enchantress used her magical gift to change the curse from dying to sleeping.
The thing was, Lucy didn’t actually have any of those gifts. Bless his heart, but Sebastian must have had it really bad if that was the way he saw her. Unfortunately, she doubted Geoffrey saw her in quite the same way.
He turned to Lucy and bent to study the insignia she wore. “That is the royal necklace, and I’ll wager it has the magical properties, as well.”
“It did repel Melantha’s magic when she caught us in her trap,” Sebastian said.
“I don’t suppose you’d care to favor us with a song, your highness?” Geoffrey asked pleasantly enough, but with a crafty gleam in his eyes.
“Excuse me?” Lucy asked.
“The stories say the Princess Aurora was magically gifted with song. I’d feel better about putting you forward as the princess if you could demonstrate that gift.”
Unfortunately, Lucy wasn’t magically gifted. She could sing. She’d always been in children’s and youth choirs at church, and she could carry a tune pretty well. She just wasn’t in Dawn’s magically gifted league, and if she tried to sing, surely Geoffrey would be convinced she was an imposter.
Then again, the princess had also supposedly been gifted with great beauty, and no one had yet challenged Lucy on the fact that she wasn’t exactly Miss America. Maybe their standards for music were equally low.
“Okay, I guess,” she finally said. “But I’m warning you, I’m out of practice. And I’ve been running around in the woods for days, which is horrible for the voice.”
Of course, the moment someone asked her to just sing something, it became impossible to think of anything to sing. Her mind had gone totally blank. Lucy wasn’t even sure she could have managed “Happy Birthday to You” without forgetting half the words. She finally settled on “Amazing Grace,” since she was sure she knew the words—to the first verse, at least—and with a little sincerity she thought she could make it sound good in its pure simplicity even without Dawn’s unnatural talent. Her voice only shook a little when she started, and she managed to get through it all without making a complete fool of herself. She could hardly bear to look at Geoffrey when she finished. Would she be exposed as a fraud or accepted as a princess?
Continued in Chapter Sixteen.