Archive for serial


Serial Story Epilogue

We come to the end, at last, with the epilogue. If you want to start from the beginning, you can find it here. The previous chapter is here. Or you can buy the whole thing as an e-book (it’s not that expensive. You can think of it as leaving a tip and getting something in return). If you’ve enjoyed this, please consider leaving a review at the usual places (Amazon, Goodreads, etc.). The last time I checked, there was one review at Amazon, and it wasn’t very good, so that’s sad. If you know someone else who might enjoy this story, share the link to the first chapter.


Lucy stood behind the soda fountain counter, her history book open beside her. Knowing that there was a remote possibility that she might be a queen someday made her focus more on her studies. She might need to know stuff about history, government, and economics. But as weeks had gone by without a word from the other world, she started to wonder if she’d imagined it all. Only the fact that she could talk to Dawn and Jeremy about it convinced her that it had really happened.

It was hard to feel like a princess, though, when she was making ice cream sodas for bratty kids after school, especially while wearing a hairnet, an apron, and a paper hat.

The bells on the door jingled, and a group of people came into the drugstore. She didn’t look up from her book until she realized they’d taken seats at the counter. Dawn and Jeremy were there, along with a guy who looked familiar but totally out of context. He was tall, with broad shoulders, and he looked about their age. He had chestnut-brown hair, cut short on the sides and back, but a little longish and wavy on top, and he was wearing new-looking jeans and a polo shirt.

It was only when he smiled at Lucy that she recognized him. “Lucy, you remember my cousin Sebastian, don’t you?” Dawn said with a grin. “He’s spending the summer with us.”

“What are you doing here?” Lucy blurted. Why did he have to show up while she was wearing a paper hat, when he’d last seen her as a princess? But the smile he gave her made it clear he didn’t mind.

“The enchantresses believe they know where the king and queen are,” he said. “One of them gave the royal family a talisman to transport them away in an emergency, and the talisman was to take them to this general area, near where the guardians of the princess were.”

“So they’re around here, in East Texas? Gee, normally the most royalty we have in this part of the world is beauty queens.”

“They want us to help with the search, and they sent Sebastian,” Dawn said.

“They thought that from my time with you, I might know more about the local language and customs,” Sebastian added. “I also brought some friends, but they’re waiting outside.”

Lucy came out from behind the counter to look out the window, where she saw Leila and Larkin waiting patiently on the sidewalk outside, wearing collars and tags. She turned back to the others. “First, ice cream sundaes all around. Then, it looks like we need to come up with a search plan.”

Actually, first came a big hug and a kiss from Sebastian, but even a princess had to have her priorities.


Serial Chapter 20

Here’s chapter 20 of the serial story. There’s just the epilogue to go. If you want to start from the beginning, you can find it here. The previous chapter is here. Or you can easily read it straight through by buying the e-book.

Chapter Twenty

Dawn watched a surprisingly regal-looking Lucy be escorted to the front of the throne room by the tall young man who was apparently the Sinclair boy the city guards had been looking for and tried to catch up mentally with everything that had happened to her. The last thing she remembered was being in the tower with the witch and Spink and touching the spinning wheel. Then she woke up to find Jeremy, Lucy, and the Sinclair boy there. And now Lucy was a princess?

Dawn grabbed Jeremy’s arm to steady herself as the realization hit her. If they thought Lucy was a princess, and Lucy had been taken because they thought Lucy was Dawn, that meant that Dawn was a princess, didn’t it? She turned to Mariel. “Who am I?” she demanded. “Am I really the princess from this place? Is that the secret you’ve been keeping from me my whole life?”

“Not now, Dawn,” Mariel said.

“Why not now? Tell me, and I want the truth, not more lies.”

“It’s probably best for now if Lucy continues in the role,” Matilda said gently with a hand on Dawn’s shoulder that Dawn shrugged off.

“I don’t care who gets to play princess. I don’t even want to be a princess. I want to know who I am. I want to know what you’ve been hiding from me.” Tears stung her eyes, and she blinked them away. This wasn’t the time to cry, not when she wanted to be strong and defiant. And angry, oh so angry. None of this would have happened if her aunts had been honest with her from the start, or at least from the time Lucy had been taken. “You were protecting me from the witch, weren’t you? That’s what it was all about, us living in that other world?”

“Yes, dear,” Matilda said, moving as though to touch Dawn again, but thinking better of it and pulling her hand back. “But this is truly not the time or the place to talk about it.”

Dawn looked up and saw that Huw and the troupe had seen her. His face lit up with relief, and she grinned and waved in response. At least he’d been honest with her. In just a few days he’d become like a father–at least, what she assumed a father must be like, since she’d never known her own. That was one more thing she needed to ask the aunts about. Make that the enchantresses, since she had a strong feeling they weren’t really her aunts. She released her clutch on Jeremy’s arm and moved through the crowd toward Huw. Jeremy, Matilda, and Mariel followed her.

She lost sight of Huw when she turned to look for Lucy. The throne room was too chaotic to get a good sense of what was going on, but Dawn thought she saw the top of the Sinclair boy’s head. The witch must have noticed them, though, because a terrible sneer came over her face as she raised her arms over her head. Fire shot from her fingertips with a loud crackling sound.

The crowd quit fighting for the exits and turned in near silence to see what was happening. In that silence, the witch said, “So, you have a princess to present?”

“Yes, we do! We have the rightful princess!” a voice called out, but it wasn’t the duke who’d been confronting the witch earlier. It was Huw. He reached Dawn in the crowd, caught her hand and raised their joined hands over his head. “The rightful princess is here! She has returned to us, and she is just as the legends said, gifted with beauty and song!”

Behind Dawn, Mariel groaned. Dawn shook her head. Every eye in the throne room was now turned toward her. “No, there’s been a mistake,” she said. Feeling terrible for lying to Huw, she said, “I’m not who you think I am.” When his forehead creased in disbelief, she whispered, “Please.”

The witch started momentarily, as if she was surprised to see Dawn up and around. But then she laughed, long and hard. “How many princesses are there? There’s the one his grace the Duke of Grantley is putting forth, and now there’s another one just appearing here. Are there any more princesses with us today?”

Dawn knew the witch was being sarcastic, but part of her hoped that hands would go up all over the throne room. She’d be happy to let any of them take over for her. She’d never get to star on Broadway if she had to be a princess in another world, and she doubted they’d let her perform with Huw’s troupe if she had to stay here.

Unfortunately, no one raised a hand. “Just the two, then?” the witch said with a smirk. “The question is, which is the princess and which is the pretender?”

“There would be one way to tell,” Mariel said. “You created it yourself.”

Melantha arched one thin eyebrow, and her mouth went crooked as she thought. Dawn was sure Mariel was up to something, and the witch likely suspected that, as well, and was trying to figure out the angle. Then she smiled. “Why don’t we? Come up here, your highness.”

Mariel took Dawn’s arm, whispering as she did so, “Trust me, you will be fine.” The crowd parted as Mariel led Dawn up to the dais. There, the witch gestured toward a spinning wheel, very much like the one that had been in the tower.

Melantha gestured toward the windows. “You see that the sun has not set on the day of the princess’s sixteenth birthday. And you know what will happen to the princess if she pricks her finger on a spindle.”

“The fact that I am willing to allow this girl to touch the spindle should tell you that I don’t believe her to be the princess,” Mariel said. “You know that I, unlike you, would not allow harm to come to an innocent.”

“As you said, that is unlike me,” Melantha agreed as she whipped her arm over to Dawn, grabbed her wrist, and brought her finger down onto the spindle.

“Ouch!” Dawn cried out, jerking her wrist out of the witch’s grasp.

“Is that good enough for you?” Mariel asked. Without waiting for Melantha’s answer, she led Dawn off the dais and over to join Huw, Jeremy, and Matilda, who had come forward.

The witch didn’t seem too terribly upset. She turned toward the duke and said, “Your grace, perhaps you would like to put your candidate to the same test.”

The duke stood in front of Lucy and said, “You won’t touch her!”

Lucy exchanged glances with Mariel, then stepped around the duke. “I’m willing to take the test,” she said. The duke moved to stop her, but his brother and Miriam held him back. Miriam took Lucy by the hand, led her onto the dais and over to the spinning wheel, and forced her to touch her finger to the spindle. Lucy slumped silently to the floor.

The crowd gasped out loud, and Dawn buried her face against Jeremy’s shoulder. She didn’t think Miriam would have allowed Lucy to do anything dangerous, but then it wasn’t too long ago that she’d feared her aunts had willingly sent Lucy into danger. Dawn didn’t know what to believe anymore.


Lucy had to work very hard to keep her breathing shallow and not show any expression. She thought she knew where Miriam was going with her proposed test, and since she was apparently the only one around who’d read “Sleeping Beauty,” she’d known just what to do. Now she hoped Miriam had planned a way out of this.

From somewhere just above Lucy, Miriam’s voice said, “Was that what you expected to happen, Melantha?” There was no answer. Miriam spoke again. “But never fear, my good people. The princess is unharmed. My sisters and I found a way to counter that fateful curse. Instead of dying, the princess sleeps, and it is simple enough to revive her. All it requires is the kiss of her true love.”

“Very well,” Harald said, and Lucy felt the dais shake as he stepped onto it and walked over to her. She had to fight not to groan, grimace, or otherwise show a reaction. If he kissed her, she’d pretend to stay unconscious, just to prove he wasn’t her true love.

“No! I don’t think that will work,” Matilda’s voice said, moving closer toward the dais. “Betrothal is not a condition, and I sense no love in you.” Yay, Matilda! Lucy thought as she forced herself not to react. There was a long silence before Matilda said, “You, young man. You were with her earlier, and I saw the way you looked at her. I also saw the way you fought for her. It must be you.”

There were more footsteps, then Lucy felt someone leaning over her. She had to fight really, really hard not to grin in anticipation as she waited for a pair of familiar lips to touch hers. It wasn’t a first kiss, but since she wasn’t a princess and she wasn’t in a magical coma, she didn’t think that mattered all that much. She let him kiss her pretty thoroughly before she opened her eyes. “Hi!” she whispered to Sebastian.

“Hello, my Lucy,” he whispered with a smile. No one but Lucy could have possibly heard it, as everyone in the room—except maybe the witch—cheered, screamed, clapped, and whistled.

Sebastian helped Lucy sit up, then helped her to her feet. He kept his hand clasped around hers as they smiled down at the crowd.

“Oh, dear me,” Matilda said with a mischievous smile. “We must rethink that betrothal. It tempts the fates to interfere with the course of true love.”

The witch let out a scream of pure rage and raised her arms. Jagged lightning bolts flew from her hands—not toward Lucy but toward Dawn. Lucy realized that Dawn was unprotected, since she was still wearing Dawn’s necklace that seemed to protect against magic. Lucy dropped Sebastian’s hand and moved to stand between Melantha and Dawn, blocking the bolts with her body. The necklace grew hot, hotter than it had ever felt before, but she stood her ground. Melantha tried shooting the bolts over Lucy’s shoulders, but Lucy raised her hands to block each one. It was like playing a game with Jeremy’s Wii, but with much more at stake.

While the witch attacked her, the aunts and the other enchantresses made their move. They came at the witch with their own arms raised. A circle of light surrounded her, stopping the flow of lightning. Lucy staggered, and Sebastian steadied her with an arm around her waist. She suspected she’d have at least second-degree burns from the necklace getting so hot against her skin, but it was probably better than what would have happened to her without the necklace—or what would have happened to Dawn.

Melantha fought to escape, but the globe of light around her was like a cage. Geoffrey came to Lucy’s side and said, “Your highness, would you like the witch taken into custody by the enchantresses? They will be better equipped to deal with her.”

“Yes, please,” Lucy said. “And if they need to torture her or punish her a little, that’s okay with me, too.”

He bellowed, “My ladies, the witch is yours to do with as you will.”

Their leader bowed to him, then turned back to the others. “Sisters!” she called out. “Onward!” They all turned to walk out, still surrounding the witch, who was forced to walk along with them, the globe of light moving with her. The aunts stayed behind on the dais, and Lucy was glad because she had a feeling she’d need their help later to sort out the issue of who really was the princess. Plus, she hoped they’d be able to send all of them home.

The crowd in the throne room watched Melantha’s exit in silence, as though they couldn’t believe it was really happening. Into that silence, Geoffrey cried out, “My lords and ladies of the court, and citizens of all the land, I present to you, her royal highness, Princess Aurora!”

The crowd went wild in a big way, and Lucy started to see what Dawn liked about performing if this was the way it felt to get applause like that. She caught Dawn’s eye and winked. Dawn beamed at her as she cheered. Poor Jeremy just looked horribly confused. Lucy had a feeling they were all going to have to have a long talk when this was over.

“And now,” Geoffrey continued when the cheers had died down somewhat, “we came here today for a coronation, and that we will have, now that our princess—our rightful queen—is returned to us.”

Lucy whirled to him in shock. This was moving way too fast. She was just supposed to give the people a sense that their real rulers were still around while they got rid of the witch. She wasn’t supposed to be crowned. She couldn’t be crowned. She wasn’t the rightful princess, and she had to go home.

“No!” she said, surprising even herself with how forcefully she said it. “There won’t be a coronation today. We don’t know where the king and queen are, and I won’t take the crown until we know for certain they are dead.” A glance at Mariel told her this was the right thing to say. The enchantress nodded, with a slight smile on her usually stern lips. “And we will find the king and queen,” Lucy continued. “That will be our first priority.”

The crowd cheered again, and the soldiers all shouted, “Go! Fight! Win!” Jeremy did a double take at that, and Lucy just shrugged and grinned.

Mariel joined them on the dais and said, “I believe the Duke of Grantley is the designated regent. Your grace, you will manage the kingdom until the king and queen have been found.”

He bowed deeply to her. “It is my honor.”

Lucy faced the crowd again. “I’m sorry you all came here for a coronation and didn’t get to see one, but thank you for coming.” She hoped they took that as the dismissal it was, and she figured they shouldn’t be too disappointed about missing the coronation, since they got to see two potential princesses and a magical battle. The spell Melantha put on the doors had broken when she was taken away, so the people were able to leave, without a riot this time.

“Now, get me out of here,” Lucy muttered.

Misunderstanding her, Geoffrey escorted her off the dais and to a room behind it. Sebastian, Harald, and the aunts joined them. Lucy turned to Sebastian and said, “Could you please go find my friends?” He nodded and took off, returning with Dawn, Jeremy, and the dogs. Geoffrey and Harald looked confused, so Lucy explained, “They’re my friends from my world.”

Lucy glanced over at Sebastian, hoping he could read the question in her eyes, and he nodded. “Geoffrey, there’s something we need to tell you,” he began.

Geoffrey groaned. “I’m not blind. I could see it for myself. I’m certainly not opposed to the match, but we will have to examine the treaties.”

“Whoa!” Lucy said. “That’s not what we needed to tell you, though do feel free to check those treaties. The thing is, I’m not really the princess. There was a big case of mistaken identity when the witch sent her people to my world looking for the princess. I felt like I needed to play the role because, until a little while ago, I didn’t know where the real princess was and I wanted to keep her safe, and it would have ruined all your plans if you’d had to admit you had no idea where the princess was.”

“But where is the real princess?”

She pointed to Dawn. “There she is.”

“But she failed the test.”

“She’d already succumbed to the curse,” Mariel explained. “It was broken entirely by then.”

“And I knew what to do to sell it when it was my turn,” Lucy added.

“So, she’s the real Princess Aurora?” Harald asked. He didn’t look like he believed it. It must have been the Emperor’s New Clothes effect. Lucy was dressed in a fancy gown and had a tiara on, so she was a princess. Dawn was dressed in something from Stevie Nicks’s garage sale, so she couldn’t possibly be a princess.

“Well, let’s see,” Lucy said. “Aurora means Dawn. Do I need to draw you a picture?”

Dawn smiled. “But you make a better princess than I would.”

All three aunts turned to look at Lucy, and their stares made her uncomfortable. “You’re right, she does,” Mariel said after a while.

Dawn’s eyes lit up. Lucy had seen that look before, and it usually meant they got in trouble. “I don’t like being in charge or making decisions,” she said, pressing the point. “I don’t even want to be a princess. I want to be an actress. Since everyone already thinks Lucy is the princess, why do we have to tell anyone? Why can’t she just keep being the princess while you’re looking for my parents?”

“Maybe because I’m not really from here?” Lucy said. “I can’t stay here. What would my mom do?”

“We would only need the princess for ceremonial occasions while the duke manages the work of state,” Mariel mused out loud. “Unless the king and queen aren’t found, of course.”

Lucy shook her head. “You really want me to keep playing princess? Is it even possible to go back and forth between worlds like that?”

“We could have done it at any time,” Mariel said. “We only didn’t because we didn’t want to draw attention to where we were hiding. Now, your grace, do you think this arrangement would work?”

“It would certainly help stabilize the situation. Without the king and queen, I’m afraid that presenting an entirely different princess at this point would create an opportunity for another usurper to step in. If Miss . . .”

“Lucy. Lucy Jordan.”

“If Miss Lucy Jordan is willing.”

“Okay, I guess.” Lucy felt more like she’d fallen through a rabbit hole than at any other time in this whole adventure, but she told herself that it wouldn’t be a full-time gig. “But I don’t even know what this place is. I feel like I fell into a storybook.”

“You did, in a sense,” Miriam explained. “You don’t think people just made up all those tales, did you? There are many connections between our world and yours, and through those, the stories came. They’re history to us—or will be—but to you they’re stories.”

“So now ‘Sleeping Beauty’ will have a different ending?”

“I suppose it depends on which book you read and how the person who hears the story tells it. There are always multiple versions of each tale.”

“You can get us home, can’t you?” Jeremy said to the aunts. “I mean, if you’re talking about Lucy going back and forth, then that would imply you can send us home. I’m sure by now my mom will have completely freaked about me being missing.”

Lucy felt a pang for her own mom and what she must be going through. “Yes, we do need to get home, as soon as possible,” she said.

Miriam looked rather pleased with herself. “We can not only take you back, but we can return to not long after you left. It will still have to be after Lucy went missing, because it’s essential to the timeline for Jeremy and Dawn to have a reason to come here looking for Lucy, but we can eliminate the worry to Jeremy’s parents.”

“And I won’t have missed any play rehearsals!” Dawn said excitedly. “I’ll still get to be Guinevere. That is, if I got the part.”

“Of course you got the part,” Lucy said. “You’re a real princess. They have to cast you as a princess who marries a king.”

“We’ll need to go back to the boat to get our things and tell them we’re leaving,” Jeremy said.

“And say good-bye,” Dawn added, looking a little sad. “I think I also owe Huw an explanation.”

“Then you two go, as quickly as possible,” Mariel said, “and we will prepare the portal. Oh, and tell your friend Rhian that she has a place waiting for her at the abbey, if she wants it. She was most helpful, even though you managed to circumvent our best efforts at keeping you safe.”


The atmosphere outside the castle was very different when Dawn and Jeremy made their way to the river than it had been on the journey to the castle. People danced and sang in the streets, and it was a sign of just how overwhelmed Dawn was that she had no urge to join them. Instead, she held tightly to Jeremy’s arm to steady herself as he led the way.

Usually, when her emotions were too strong or tumultuous to express in words, she wanted to sing, but she couldn’t think of a song suitable for the occasion. As far as she knew, there wasn’t a Broadway number about finding out you were a long-lost princess kept safe in another world. There certainly wasn’t a song about being put into a coma by touching a spindle.

Thinking about the spindle made her dizzy again. Based on what Lucy and the aunts had faked in the great hall to discredit the witch, the way to wake the princess from the magical coma was a kiss from her true love. But who’d awakened Dawn? Surely not Sebastian, since he was clearly crazy about Lucy. That left . . .

She suddenly became intensely conscious of how tightly she was holding on to Jeremy. She eased her grip and moved a few inches away from him. He hadn’t said anything about it, but it had been pretty chaotic. She made the mistake of glancing at him and immediately felt her face grow warm. Had he kissed her? And did the fact that it worked to wake her up mean anything? She wasn’t sure what she thought about that, but she did know it was unfair that she’d been unconscious during her first kiss.

They reached the boat, where they were greeted with cheers and a few good-natured jeers. “Why, if it isn’t her royal highness!” Will called out with a grin. “Just think, I was so close to having performed with royalty!”

Nearby, Huw chuckled and winked. “I believe you have a story to tell us.”

“Yes, and it’s one I don’t have time to tell, not now,” Dawn said.

“I wasn’t wrong, was I?” Huw asked.

She could give him that much. “Not entirely,” she whispered in his ear before kissing him on the cheek.

“You’re leaving us, then?”

Dawn had to blink away tears. “I’m afraid we are. We need to get back home, and I have a show to do there. But maybe I can come back from time to time.” If Lucy could, then certainly she could.

Spink flew over and perched on Dawn’s shoulder. “I want to stay!” the bird chirped.

“And you’re welcome to,” Huw said. “We may be losing one performer, but we’ll still be the only troupe with a performing bird.”

Dawn and Jeremy exchanged a look. Should they let Huw know the bird had betrayed them? Jeremy surprised Dawn by shaking his head ever so slightly and saying, “Best of luck to you, Spink.”

“Thank you,” the bird said, more to Jeremy than to Huw, then it tugged at Dawn’s hair a few times before flying off, singing the soprano descant to one of the troupe’s folk songs.

“Thank you for helping us,” Dawn said to Huw. “I’m sure the princess will honor your troupe with royal patronage in thanks.”

“And tell Rhian thanks for trying to get the enchantresses to help. They said there’s a place for her at the abbey,” Jeremy added. “She’ll know what I mean.”

It was with decidedly mixed feelings that Dawn left the show boat. That had been her first real taste of the professional performing life, and she hated to leave it behind, but she reminded herself that Broadway was in the other world.


A servant brought Lucy’s backpack from the stables, where it had been in her horse’s saddlebag, and she went to a side room to change back into her old clothes. It felt strange to wear jeans again, and she even felt a bit of a pang when she took the tiara off. She pulled her hair back into a ponytail, then picked up her backpack and headed out to the main room.

Sebastian grinned when he saw her. “That’s the way you looked when we met,” he said.

“And now we’re saying good-bye.”

“For now.”

“Yes, for now.” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “I can’t believe I agreed to this crazy scheme. But I think I’m glad I did. It means we don’t have to say good-bye forever.”

“And I am very glad that Melantha’s minions got the wrong girl.”

“You know, so am I.” A flare of light on the other end of the room told her the portal was ready, so she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. When Dawn and Jeremy returned, she had to tell herself she’d see him again, soon enough, before she could tear herself away. This was even worse than having a boyfriend who went to another school. She couldn’t look at him as she went through the portal that led back to her world.

It was still fairly early in the morning when Lucy, Dawn, Jeremy, and the aunts stepped into the garden shed in Dawn’s back yard. “Now I need a really good excuse for being out all night,” Lucy said before heading home. “It’s too bad they checked with you, so I can’t claim I spent the night and forgot to tell Mom I was going to. Or did the shop guys report my kidnapping?”

“Shop guys?” Jeremy asked.

“I was kidnapped right in front of the metal shop, and at least one of those guys watched. You mean they didn’t tell anyone?”

“Those guys probably thought they hallucinated the whole thing. Or else they forgot five minutes later.”

Jeremy hurried off to school, so Lucy had to face going home alone. She wasn’t sure what her mother would think about her rumpled clothes and her carefully curled hair. As she walked, she ran her fingers through her ponytail to frizz it up a little.

As soon as she came through the door, her mother screamed, ran to hug her, then said, “Where have you been?”

Lucy hugged her mother back, more glad to see her than she’d expected. “I guess I got lost,” she said, and it wasn’t a total lie. “I thought I saw something in the woods, went to check it out, and got totally turned around, and then it got dark and I was really lost, then I found my way back this morning. I’m so sorry if you were worried, but hey, if I’d had new cell phone with a battery that lasts more than five minutes it might have been different.”

She got grounded for wandering off, but she didn’t really want to do much other than be indoors, warm, safe, and comfortable for a while, so it wasn’t much of a punishment. It gave her plenty of time to read fairy tales so she’d be ready for any other crises to strike her new kingdom.

Concluded in the epilogue.


Serial Chapter 19

We’re getting close to the end! Here’s the latest installment. If you want to start at the beginning, you can find it here. You can find the previous installment here. For information on getting the whole thing as an e-book, go here.

Chapter Nineteen

Sebastian and Fulk drew their swords almost simultaneously, and the rest of their men followed their lead. “Lucy,” Sebastian said very softly, “The stairs to the tower are behind the door at the end of the corridor. When you get the opportunity, go. We will hold them here as long as we can.”

“Gotcha,” she said, then added, “Thanks.” There was so much more she wanted to say to him, but there wasn’t time, and she refused to let herself believe she wouldn’t have another chance.

She, Jeremy, the dogs, and the aunts moved aside, leaving the way clear for the battle that was bound to start as soon as everyone quit staring at each other. “So, you’re challenging me, are you, boy?” Argus asked Sebastian with a sneer.

“Um, hello?” Sebastian replied. He’d apparently picked up a thing or two from Lucy over the past few days. “You’re working for the witch and you’ve betrayed your kingdom. And you were using me to threaten my brother while keeping me away from my family. Of course I’m challenging you.”

Lucy held her breath as Sebastian lunged at Lord Argus, kicking off the battle. In the previous fights, Lucy hadn’t had a chance to really watch Sebastian in action, since she was preoccupied with saving herself. He was good. Not that she knew much about swordfighting, beyond having seen The Princess Bride a few times, but he moved quickly and gracefully, and he swung his sword in slight, controlled movements.

“Who’s Sir Galahad?” Jeremy asked.

“His name’s Sebastian, and he’s the reason I’m still alive,” Lucy replied.

The sound of steel hitting steel was awfully loud in that hallway. It rang and echoed, which made it hard to think. Sebastian managed to push Lord Argus back a few steps. Some of the castle guards noticed their leader in trouble and went to help him. That left a gap down one side of the hallway. “There’s our chance, let’s go!” Lucy said and took off past the fighting, forcing herself not to look to see how Sebastian was doing against all those men.

Jeremy, Leila, and the aunts came with her. The door stood open, and beyond it was a spiraling staircase. “Oh, joy, more stairs,” Lucy said, panting. Leila ran past her and started up the stairs. The aunts gently moved Lucy out of the way before heading upward. Jeremy and Lucy brought up the rear.

The door at the top of the stairs was already open, and the group cautiously eased their way into the chamber. The first thing Lucy saw was Dawn lying on a four-poster bed. She looked like she’d been laid out for a funeral. Lucy desperately hoped the part about the curse being changed from death to sleep was true. A small reddish bird with a blue-gray head sat on the pillow by Dawn’s head, whistling mournfully. Lucy wasn’t surprised that Dawn had already made animal friends in this world. The witch, again in that fabulous red dress, stood over Dawn, her back to the door.

Jeremy froze, staring at Dawn’s lifeless body. The color drained from his face until he was as pale as she was. He snarled, “Spink?” and the bird buried its head under a wing.

Before Lucy could ask what that was about, the witch turned and saw them. “Oh, there you are. I’m sorry, but all your efforts to protect her came to nothing in the end. And to think, you even exiled yourselves. But I have won! The king and queen are missing, and the princess is dead, so the throne is mine!” She gestured triumphantly at Dawn.

“That doesn’t make you queen,” Lucy said. “I mean, just because you think you’ve got squatter’s rights, it doesn’t mean that the princess being out of the way means you rule.”

“But I am the one sitting on the throne.”

“Not at the moment,” Lucy pointed out. “And all your people have been defeated. Give it up, sister. It’s over.”

“Who will you put on the throne, though? You don’t have a king, queen, or princess.”

“Yes, we have,” a voice said from the doorway. Lucy turned around to see a sweaty and exhausted Sebastian standing there. He gestured toward Lucy. “We have a princess the people have already accepted, thanks to your capture and pursuit of her. You’ve vouched for her, yourself.”

“But she isn’t the real princess!”

“The only people who know that are here in this room,” Mariel said.

“And do you think anyone’s going to believe you if you claim otherwise?” Lucy added.

Lucy expected a witty response, but the witch instead raised her arms over her head and started to shimmer. Leila leapt at her, and both of them disappeared. While they were all still staring at the place where the witch had been, the door to the chamber slammed shut. Sebastian immediately went to open it, but he couldn’t. “It’s sealed,” he said.

Mariel went over there and waved her hands around the door. “It’s enchanted,” she reported, “and I can’t break it.”

“Wow, that was like she had a trap door,” Jeremy said.

Miriam was busy studying the spot where the witch had disappeared. “She did. A magical one. I think I can make it work for us.”

“Good, then get us out of here,” Lucy said. “We’ve got to stop her before she crowns herself, and with both the real princess and the one everyone thinks is the princess locked up here, she can do that.”

Miriam shook her head. “I’m afraid we can only get ourselves through magically. We wouldn’t be able to take you.”

“Leila went through with Melantha,” Lucy pointed out.

“But it’s Melantha’s escape hatch. It opens readily for her. We’d have to force it to work, and it wouldn’t be safe to try to take anyone else.”

“Then go. Make sure you stop her.”

Matilda wrapped her hands around Lucy’s. “We will send help.”

“Talk to my brother, the Duke of Grantley,” Sebastian said. “He should be in charge.”

One by one, the aunts each went over to the magical trapdoor, then disappeared, leaving Lucy, Sebastian, Jeremy, and the unconscious Dawn alone in the tower chamber. Jeremy, still horribly pale, went to Dawn’s side. “I take it you beat Lord Argus,” Lucy said to Sebastian.

He looked extremely satisfied as he said, “Yes, I did. My men and Fulk are guarding the tower entrance.”

“You didn’t . . .”

“No, he’s still alive, a prisoner. I want him to face justice for his treachery.”

“There’s nothing I need to sew up, is there?”

“Not that I can tell at the moment. The pains usually strike later.” He glanced over at the unconscious princess, and his face took on a more somber expression as he took Lucy’s hand and said, “I know you didn’t want to do this, but you may have to play the princess for us a while longer, until we can find the king and queen or otherwise secure the succession.”

“What? You mean you think she’s really dead?”

“She’s not?”

“I swear, fairy tales should be required reading, even for boys.”

“I know fairy tales. Just not the princess ones.”

She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “According to all the tales, the good enchantresses modified the curse so that she’s only in a death-like sleep.” Of course, Disney movies weren’t necessarily documentaries, so she could have been wrong. Dawn did look like she was carved out of wax.

“How do we wake her up?” Jeremy asked.

“That’s where it gets tricky. Some of the stories said she slept for a hundred years, but I don’t think that’s the case here. I mean, that would be a really silly curse modification, don’t you think? Sleeping for a hundred years wouldn’t be much better than dying. Generally, though, waking requires the first kiss of true love. And, wow, that explains why the aunts wouldn’t let her date and got very jumpy about her being around boys. If you need a first kiss to save your life, then you’d best not throw it away on some high school jerk. The trick is defining ‘true love.’ Dawn doesn’t have a boyfriend.”

“We could find Prince Harald once we get out of here,” Sebastian suggested. “He is her betrothed.”

“Her WHAT?” Jeremy asked, looking suspiciously red in the face.

“He’s from the neighboring kingdom. The parents made a marriage arrangement when the kids were babies to create an alliance,” Lucy explained to Jeremy, then turned to Sebastian. “But I refuse to consider that he might meet any definition of true love. That guy’s more likely to put you in a coma than get you out of one.” She turned back to Jeremy. “Trust me, he’s a real jerk. And I don’t think the alliance is such a great idea, not done that way, so I bet the betrothal can be broken somehow.”

Jeremy was getting redder and redder, which was weird because he’d never been someone who embarrassed easily. “While you’re taking traitors prisoner, here’s one you might want to consider,” he said. “The bird who sold us out.”

The bird flew to a windowsill on the other side of the room, well out of Jeremy’s reach, which Lucy thought was wise. From the look in Jeremy’s eyes, she got the feeling he’d have been perfectly willing to snap the bird’s neck. “I didn’t know she would be hurt!” the bird whimpered. “I just did what my mother told me to do. She never said Melantha was bad or that she’d hurt the girl from far away. I was only supposed to tell Melantha she was here. She was supposed to stay at the garden, only I got confused and brought her here.”

Lucy went over to a window and looked out. The ground was very, very far below, far enough to make her dizzy. “It looks like the Rapunzel solution won’t work. I don’t have enough hair to get out the window.” She ignored the boys’ blank looks. If they didn’t know their fairy tales, that was their problem.

“Do you smell smoke?” Sebastian asked after a while.

Lucy tested the air and said, “Yeah, maybe.”

“I smell it,” Jeremy said.

Sebastian went over to the door and sniffed around the edges, then pressed his hands against the wood. “The smoke does seem to be in the stairs, but the door isn’t warm, so the fire isn’t too close.”

Lucy gestured toward the windows. “At least we won’t die of smoke inhalation.”

“But it won’t be good for us when the tower burns through and collapses under us,” Jeremy said. He turned to the bird. “Here’s a chance for you to redeem yourself, Spink. I need you to go find Huw in the throne room and tell him we need help. Tell him the tower’s on fire and we’re at the top.” The bird immediately perked up and took off through a window. “The aunts wouldn’t know about the fire,” Jeremy explained. “The people we’ve been traveling with have some magic of their own. Of course, that depends on whether that stupid bird will remember what he’s doing by the time he gets to the throne room. If he can find the throne room.”

Sebastian paced the middle of the room, frowning in thought. “There are rumors about this tower,” he said. “Some think Melantha lived here secretly for years, or else came here often after cursing the princess and before she got rid of the king and queen and took over the castle herself. The stairs were guarded, so she couldn’t have made it up here that way.”

Lucy gestured to where Melantha and the aunts had vanished. “Um, remember the magical trap door?”

“That wouldn’t have worked then. There were protections in place that kept magic from being used in the castle without anyone knowing about it. A spell like that would have brought the court enchantresses here in a heartbeat.”

“So what you’re saying is you think there’s a secret passage?”


“There’s a fire below us,” Jeremy reminded them.

“The fire is in the stairwell. If the passage runs elsewhere, we might still be able to get past it, but we’d have to find the passage quickly,” Jeremy said.

“What are we waiting for?” Lucy asked. “Let’s get to it.”

The three of them took the room apart, pulling aside the wall hangings between windows and prying at floorboards. Finally, there was just one place in the room they hadn’t searched: the floor under the bed where Dawn lay. The two boys shoved the bed aside to reveal a square of carpet under where the bed had been. Lucy considered that as good as a sign saying, “Secret passage here!” and she ran over to pull the carpet back. Sure enough, there was a section of floorboards that didn’t quite match the rest of the floor.

Sebastian pried up the trap door with his sword. Beneath the door was a narrow tunnel with a ladder running down one wall. It reminded Lucy of a manhole. “We have to go all the way down the tower on that ladder?” Lucy asked, trying not to whine.

“The passage should have access to other rooms on the way down,” Sebastian said. “We only need to get past the fire, and then we can use the stairs. My main concern is how we will carry the princess out. The tunnel is too narrow to carry her over anyone’s shoulders. Perhaps we could find a way to strap her to my back.”

Jeremy cleared his throat, and the other two turned to look at him. Turning redder than ever, he said, “Don’t you think it would be easier if she could move herself?” He went to the bed, leaned over Dawn and kissed her lightly on the lips.

The color gradually returned to Dawn’s face and her eyes opened. Lucy thought she might faint, or maybe throw up. Jeremy was Dawn’s true love? Really? But she always thought he was meant to be with her. The thought sent a stab through her heart. For a split second, she hated Dawn. She hated her for being beautiful and talented and most especially for being the one Jeremy noticed when he didn’t seem to realize Lucy was a girl, even though he’d known her all his life. Had this been going on behind her back the whole time? Had her two best friends been conspiring against her?

But when she looked at Sebastian, her sanity returned. She knew she didn’t feel for Jeremy what she felt for Sebastian, and she wouldn’t feel that way, even if she and Jeremy went back to their own world and she had to leave Sebastian behind forever.

Dawn sat up slowly, rubbing her forehead. “What happened?” she asked, looking and sounding a little shaky. She blinked, focused her eyes, and saw Lucy. “Lucy! You’re okay! But what are you doing here?”

“It’s a very long story,” the three of them said all at once.

“We’ll explain once we get you out of here,” Lucy added.

“Can you walk?” Jeremy asked.

“I, I think so.”

“I will go first,” Sebastian said, stepping through the opening and starting down the ladder. “Leave the entrance open. That will ensure we get some fresh air.” Lucy wrapped her train around her arm before following him. Dawn came after her, and Jeremy brought up the rear.

The witch must have been really desperate to have a hideaway in the castle if she’d been willing to go up and down this ladder, Lucy thought as she felt for each step with her toes. She tried not to think about how far down the passage went. When they’d been on the ladder for several minutes, it grew uncomfortably warm in the passage. Lucy held her breath until the air cooled, hoping the fire hadn’t yet burned through the wall between the stairs and the passage.

She wasn’t sure her arms would hold her on the ladder much longer when Sebastian called out from below, “Stop there. I’ll see if we can get through this doorway.” Lucy heard the sound of a door opening, and soon the air smelled a little fresher. Sebastian’s voice called again. “It appears to be safe. Lucy, come down to where I am.”

She reached the level of the door and discovered that there was a three-foot gap between the ladder and the doorway that led into a room. That was a gap over what seemed to be a bottomless drop. Sebastian stood in the doorway and held his hand out to Lucy. “I’ve got you. You’ll be safe,” he assured her. She took a deep breath and jumped for it. He caught her and pulled her into the room. He then brought in Dawn and Jeremy.

There was the slightest smell of smoke coming from the door on the other side of the room. “Will it be safe to use the stairs?” Jeremy asked. “It seems pretty smoky out there.”

“Smoke rises,” Lucy said. “Remember, stop, drop, and roll!”

The stairwell was a little smoky, but it beat going down a ladder, so Lucy wasn’t complaining, and it got better the closer they got to the bottom. Still with her skirt wrapped around her arm, she followed Sebastian in running down the stairs. Jeremy came behind, guiding a still shaky Dawn. Lucy tried not to think too much about that. She loved her friends and wanted them to be happy, of course, but she couldn’t help but wonder what had gone on since she’d disappeared—that was, if it hadn’t been going on all along. Was that why Jeremy had never made a move on her?

Sebastian reached the tower entrance and held up a hand to tell them to stay back and be quiet. He peered outside, then signaled for them to join him. In the corridor, Fulk, Larkin, and several soldiers stood guard. “The tower’s on fire,” Sebastian reported. “We need to get a firefighting crew up there before it burns through and collapses on top of the castle.”

“I’ll see to it, my lord,” Fulk said with a bow.

“Have one of your men do it. I need you with me.” He took off down the corridor, toward the stairs, and the others followed. On the main staircase that led to the throne room entrance, they ran into a group of Geoffrey’s soldiers. “What’s the situation?” Sebastian asked their leader.

“My lord, the throne room was shut off not long ago. We can’t get in, and we presume no one in there can get out.”

“Who is in there?”

“His grace the duke, many of his men, and I believe Prince Harald, as well.”

“Yeah, he’ll be real useful in a crisis,” Lucy muttered under her breath. “He might be the one we have to stop from crowning himself.”

“There are musicians in there, too,” Dawn said. “All the performers brought here for the coronation celebration.”

“We believe the witch is in there,” Sebastian said. “She must have sealed the throne room until she can crown herself. But I wonder . . .” his voice trailed off as he frowned in thought. “There’s one doorway she might not have sealed. This way!” He turned and ran back up the stairs, then ran his hands over a section of paneling. “There’s a minstrel’s gallery here somewhere, and it hasn’t been used in years, so she might not know about it.”

He must have hit the right spot because the door slid open, revealing a dark, dusty velvet curtain. Sebastian pushed the curtain aside to reveal a balcony overlooking the throne room. He gestured for the soldiers to stay outside, and he, Lucy, Dawn, and Jeremy crawled onto the balcony, staying below the railing and peering between the slats.

The witch stood in front of her throne, in mid argument with Geoffrey and the aunts. Lucy noticed that there was a distinctly bite-shaped hole in the fabulous red dress, courtesy of Leila, who sat on alert at Geoffrey’s feet. “If you do not wish me to be queen, whom do you support as ruler?” Melantha said. “Why, if I am not mistaken, if the king, queen, and princess are all gone, then aren’t you, as the kingdom’s ranking duke, one of the candidates for the throne? Your grace, you aren’t staging a coup to seize power for yourself, are you?”

“I am restoring the throne to its rightful holder and removing the usurper,” he said tightly.

“And which rightful holder would that be?” She gave a giggly little laugh, which sounded odd in her deep voice. “You haven’t found the king and queen, have you?”

“But I have found the princess.”

Melantha looked around, her expression all wide-eyed innocence. “Then where is she? Are you sure she’s even alive? And are you sure you have the right princess?” A rumble in the crowd followed her statement.

“We’d better give him a princess,” Lucy whispered to Sebastian, “or this could get ugly.”

In the heavy silence that came as the crowd waited for Geoffrey’s response, a high-pitched voice trilled, “The tower’s on fire! We have to rescue them!”

The little bird who’d been in the tower had finally found the throne room and flown through a window. The mention of fire set off a panic in the crowd as all the performers and other coronation attendees ran for the sealed doors. “That stupid bird,” Jeremy muttered.

“But he created a diversion,” Dawn said.

Sebastian apparently agreed, for he signaled the troops outside to come in and head down the spiral staircase from the gallery to the throne room. In all the commotion, no one noticed a squad of soldiers joining the crowd. Sebastian, Lucy, Jeremy, Dawn, and Larkin followed them and kept to the shadows under the minstrels’ gallery.

In spite of their stealth, the aunts noticed them. Miriam remained with Geoffrey and the other enchantresses, but the other two wove their way through the panicking crowd to reach Dawn. “There you are!” Matilda said, grabbing her into a hug. “You’re safe!”

Dawn tried to pull away, but Jeremy stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay, they aren’t out to get you. We had them all wrong.”

“But what—” Dawn started to ask.

Miriam interrupted her, “She’s awake. How did that—”

“We’ll talk later,” Lucy said, cutting in. “For now, what do we do?”

Mariel glanced between Lucy and Dawn. “We need to give the duke his princess and get this situation under control.” She frowned at Sebastian. “You’re the younger Sinclair boy, aren’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Lucy noticed Dawn and Jeremy exchanging a surprised look and wondered what that was about.

Mariel nodded, still frowning. “Take our princess to your brother.” She gestured with her head toward Lucy.

Sebastian took Lucy’s arm and led her toward the front of the throne room. Their soldiers cleared a path for them through the crowd. “But I’m not the real princess,” Lucy protested as they walked. She glanced back over her shoulder at Dawn. “And we have the real princess now.”

“You’re the one the troops have seen, and you’re the one Geoffrey has seen. That’s important. Now is not the time for a new princess to present herself.”

Lucy did not like this. How could she take Dawn’s position when Dawn was right there? And how could she hope to pull this off if the witch already knew she wasn’t the real princess? But there was no escape, with the throne ahead of her, soldiers on either side of her, and all the exits sealed. To get through this and save the kingdom, she’d have to play princess as though her life depended on it.

Continued in Chapter 20.


Serial Chapter 18

Here’s the next chapter (which might look familiar if you saw the last installment soon after I posted it since I skipped a chapter and then corrected it). If you’re just stumbling upon this serial story, the first chapter is here. If you got the wrong chapter the last time or missed the previous installment, you can find it here. Or if you just want to read the book, the e-book is available.

Chapter Eighteen

Lucy found herself re-thinking Sebastian’s idea about sticking to her role the next morning when she learned she was expected to give the army a pep talk. It would have been really nice if somebody had warned her so she could have written a good rah-rah speech. She wished she could remember any of those rousing Shakespearian speeches from English class. Unfortunately, all that came to mind were football cheers, and she wasn’t sure that telling the troops to Go! Fight! Win! and push onward to V-I-C-T-O-R-Y was going to cut it. Maybe a famous speech from history would work, like something Churchill said during World War II, but she couldn’t remember much beyond something about blood and tears. Maybe her history teacher was right about Lucy needing to pay more attention in class.

They put her on a big, white horse and arranged the skirts of her red dress carefully to drape around the horse. Harald was on a steel gray horse beside her, and Sebastian and his brother rode together at the head of the procession. They came to a hilltop overlooking the camp, and there were a lot of soldiers there, a whole ocean of men. When they saw Lucy, they all cheered. She must have made quite a sight, wearing that bright red dress and sitting on that white horse. That was about all they would have been able to see from that distance. Then the procession rode down into the valley toward the troops. Geoffrey stood in his stirrups and shouted, “We march today, and this is why you march!” He gestured toward Lucy, and the cheers started again.

He nodded at her, and she figured that was her cue. Too bad she still hadn’t thought of anything to say. “Um, well, hi,” she started, then winced at how lame it sounded. They couldn’t have known that she didn’t grow up as a princess, and they weren’t here to fight for an American teenager. So, she tried again. “Until a few days ago, I didn’t know who or what I was. I didn’t know about my home or my heritage. Now I know that my home is this wonderful kingdom, and I’m honored to have so many brave soldiers fighting for me.”

Now she was getting into it, so she raised her voice and went on. “But you’re not really fighting for me. You’re fighting for yourselves, and for the opportunity for your families to live in a happy, safe place. You’re fighting for your kingdom. You’re fighting for your homes. You’re fighting for each other. And because you’re fighting for these things you love so much, I know you’ll fight your hardest.” Then because she simply couldn’t resist, she added, “Go! Fight! Win! And on to victory!”

She almost fell off her horse when they shouted back, “Go! Fight! Win!”

“Yay, team,” she muttered under her breath. That wasn’t half bad for something she did on the fly, but she hoped nobody wrote it down and made kids memorize it in school. Maybe if the opportunity came up, she’d have to teach them the one about “push ’em back, push ’em back, waaaaay back.” It was kind of scary how well football cheers applied to war. She’d only have to change words when there was a specific mention of the ball or a touchdown.

After Lucy’s pep talk, Geoffrey led her up and down the ranks for a while so that more of the soldiers could get a good look at her. She did a royal wave, and she had to work hard not to burst into giggles when the soldiers shouted “Go! Fight! Win!” at her.

Then the army took off to march on the castle. Harald and Sebastian were in the group assigned to stay with Lucy. She got the impression Sebastian was supposedly the military leader, probably because of his position, but he had an older man beside him who seemed to be the one really giving the orders.

While they waited for their time to head out, Sebastian brought the older man over to Lucy. “Your highness,” he said with a twitch of his lips and a twinkle in his eyes, “may I present to you Sergeant Fulk? He was my mentor, who trained me for knighthood.”

Fulk bowed his head to Lucy. She couldn’t tell quite how old he was because the combination of scars and sun damage made him look ancient, while his body was as trim and toned as Sebastian’s. “Your highness. That was quite a speech you gave.”

“Thank you. And it seems I must thank you for my life. If you trained Sebastian, you made it possible for him to keep me safe.”

“He was a good student, your highness.”

“I didn’t expect you to be here,” Sebastian said to him. “I was worried that Lord Argus might have done something after you sent me away.”

Fulk spat on the ground, then quickly said, “Forgive me, your highness.” To Sebastian, he said, “I stayed as long as I did only because you needed me. Once I got you safely away, why would I continue serving a traitor?”

“When this is over, I’m sure my brother would welcome you to his service.”

Finally, it was time to head out, once the army was thoroughly on their way. They kept a slower pace, probably because Lucy was such a novice rider and riding sidesaddle. They reached the road down which the men who’d kidnapped her had brought her on that first day. Lucy could barely believe it had only been a few days ago, so much had changed. She had changed so much. She had to gulp back a sob when they reached that tiny village where the soldiers had attacked the people for trying to help her. The people lined the road once more, but there were far fewer of them, and some of those who were there carried signs of what the soldiers had done, with bandages and bruises. It broke Lucy’s heart that it had all been for nothing, since she wasn’t the true princess, and they hadn’t been able to stop the guards from taking her, but she forced herself to put on a brave face. They all looked so proud and happy to see her alive and free that she was sure they didn’t want to see their princess weeping. She put on a fake beauty-queen smile and waved at them as she and her escort rode through the town, while making a mental note to tell someone to send food and maybe some other goods to this village.

They finally came to a spot overlooking the river and bridge. From there, they could see the capital city and the castle, but there were no obvious signs of fighting, other than the lack of guards on the bridge.

Sebastian helped Lucy off her horse and led her to a sheltered spot. Before they could speak to each other, Harald cried out in a surprisingly girly scream. “Dogs! Wild dogs! Attacking us! The witch must have sent them!” he yelled, flailing wildly.

Lucy and Sebastian whirled to see what was happening, and Lucy immediately squealed for joy. “Leila! Larkin!” she called out, hitching up her skirts and running toward the dogs. “You’re back!”

“We heard from other animals that an army was gathering, so we were sure we’d find you coming this way,” Larkin said. His voice was gruff, but his tail wagged wildly.

“We really missed you both,” Lucy said.

Harald approached cautiously. “They . . . they talk!” he blurted.

“What, you don’t have talking animals in your kingdom?” Lucy asked.

“None that I would associate with.”

“Your loss,” she said with a shrug. “Leila and Larkin, this is Prince Harald of Ernstmead. Ignore him.”

They went back to their vantage point to watch the battle, and having Leila next to her made Lucy feel a lot better about waiting for her next big move as a princess.

It looked like the Loyalists were winning. At least, no one was retreating. The troops were supposed to signal when it was time for Lucy and her group to make a triumphant appearance. The idea was that the sight of the princess would rally the townspeople to the cause and make it easier to take the castle and capture or kill the witch.

Lucy hated the waiting, especially when she knew that people were out there being hurt and maybe even killed not too far away, and they were doing it in part because of her. That was the part of being a princess they didn’t put in the storybooks.


Dawn made it to the top of the main staircase, surprised that she’d yet to run into a guard. Apparently, they were all out defending the castle and weren’t so worried about what might happen inside. At the wide landing, there were two more staircases on either side. Dawn didn’t even have to pause to know which way she should go, the pull was so strong. She headed straight to the staircase on the left. That led to a corridor, which she followed to another staircase. The staircases gradually became narrower and narrower as she went higher. Eventually, she realized she must be in Spink’s tall, tall tower when she reached a spiral staircase that hugged the outer wall.

By this time, the pull was so strong she felt she could let it carry her up like an elevator but, unfortunately, she had to climb the stairs. She passed the occasional door along the way as the staircase flattened out to a narrow landing, but the pull continued to drag her up the stairs.

The stairs ended at a door that stood ever so slightly ajar, beckoning her to come inside. She gave it a gentle push, and it opened wide into a circular room. There were windows all around, letting a lot of light in. It was a pleasant room that would be ideal for reading on a lazy afternoon.

Then Dawn saw that the room was occupied. A richly dressed woman sat in a chair by one window. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude,” Dawn said, backing toward the door.

The woman gave her a smile. “You’re not intruding at all, my dear. Please come in.”

Dawn took a tentative step further into the room. She felt like this was the right place, but Lucy was nowhere in sight. This didn’t even look like a place where a prisoner might be kept. It looked more like a lady’s chamber.

“Were you looking for something?” the woman asked. Her voice was deep, the kind of woman’s voice that could sing tenor parts.

“I–I thought I was, but perhaps I was mistaken.”

The woman smiled again, but this time her smile wasn’t quite as warm. It had an icy edge to it. “And perhaps you weren’t.”

“You’re in the castle! In the tall, tall tower!” a familiar voice said from the other side of the room, and Dawn whirled to see Spink sitting in a window.

“Spink! What are you doing here?” she said.

“He’s doing his duty,” the woman said. “Fulfilling a family obligation. Not in quite the way I planned, but that has actually worked out for the best.”

The bird flew across the room to perch on the back of the woman’s chair. “I brought the girl from far, far away to the castle,” he chirped as he ruffled his feathers to puff up his chest.

Dawn shook her head in confusion. “I don’t understand.”

“That doesn’t matter,” the woman said. “Or it won’t, very soon, if you’re who I believe you are, and that would certainly explain why things didn’t work properly before. I should have known then.”

Dawn’s mouth went dry. Even though the woman hadn’t said or done anything threatening, she had the strangest feeling that she was in terrible danger. She’d walked into a trap, and the silly little bird had helped set it up. But the most important thing to Dawn at the moment was something the woman had said. “Who do you believe I am?” she asked.

The woman leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs. “Tell me, my dear, is there anything that compels you, anything you feel you absolutely must do?”

Dawn realized she’d been rubbing her finger against her skirt. She needed to touch something to make that pain go away. As if acting on its own, her hand rose and seemed to lead the way across the room. She followed helplessly behind it over to where a spinning wheel sat. A spinning wheel? All this time, she’d thought her necklace was calling to her, but it was a spinning wheel? That made no sense.

She’d never seen a real spinning wheel outside an illustration in a school book. She raised her hand to touch it but hesitated as a memory surfaced. When the bird had sung about the tall, tall tower, he’d sung about Melantha, the witch. She was with the witch in a tower room.

But while she’d been remembering, her hand was still moving. Before she realized what was happening, she’d touched the spinning wheel, and then everything went black.


After what felt to Lucy like hours of waiting, a horn blew and a flag waved from the city wall across the river. It was time to ride to the castle. A squad of Loyalist soldiers met them inside the city walls, along with a group of women wearing black dresses with white collars. They looked like Dawn’s aunts. A second glance told Lucy that three of them were Dawn’s aunts. She was glad she’d told Sebastian the truth about who she was. Otherwise, this could have been awkward if the aunts recognized her.

But they didn’t show any sign of recognizing her. They bowed to her, even as the men with her bowed to the women. “Your highness, we put ourselves and our talents at your disposal,” the lead woman—Dawn’s Aunt Mariel, if Lucy wasn’t mistaken—said. Lucy could have sworn that Mariel winked at her ever so slightly.

“Thank you,” Lucy said. She assumed the women with the aunts were the rest of the enchantresses Sebastian had mentioned.

“You are well, your highness?” Mariel asked, and now Lucy was sure there was a twinkle in her eye.

“It hasn’t been easy, but I’m okay.”

“Report!” Sebastian barked to the men who’d met them.

“Most of the city has been secured, my lord, and we’re battering the castle gates.”

“You may leave the gates to us,” Mariel said. Moving as precisely as a marching band, all the women in black turned and flowed up the street toward the castle. At Sebastian’s signal, Lucy and the troops followed them.

There didn’t seem to be much bloodshed in the streets. The only bodies wore the witch’s livery. Lucy wasn’t sure how many of them had been killed by the Loyalist army. The people of the city looked like they’d done their fair share of the fighting. Some of them were still out in the streets, carrying whatever they could use as a weapon. At least a couple of enemy soldiers had been brought down by housewives swinging heavy iron skillets.

The people lining the streets cheered when Lucy’s procession passed. Some of them had tears running down their faces, but they were grinning, so Lucy assumed they were tears of joy. People began throwing things, and at first she ducked, but then she realized they were throwing flowers. Now she knew how the homecoming queen must feel, except, to be honest, she didn’t think people were really all that excited to see the homecoming queen pass by in the parade. Lucy hadn’t ever seen anyone cry about that.

With all the flags and banners for the coronation, the whole thing had a festive atmosphere. It was easy to forget that not too long ago there had been fighting in these streets, and there was still fighting going on ahead. But Lucy didn’t want to ruin the day for these people by looking grim, so she put on her biggest smile and busted out the royal wave again. She felt a little like a cheat, taking their cheers when she wasn’t really the princess, but then again, she was the one with the soldiers in the battle zone, which meant she’d earned some of those cheers.

They reached the castle gates, where the rest of the army had the castle surrounded. Geoffrey supervised troops hammering at the gates with a battering ram. Sebastian called out to his brother to stop, then gestured toward the enchantresses. Geoffrey nodded and ordered his men to stand back. The women lined up in front of the gates, joined hands, and soon the gates swung open on their own. “Levitation isn’t that complicated,” Dawn’s Aunt Miriam explained. “All we had to do was levitate the bar on the other side.”

“Melantha must be sidetracked,” Mariel said. “She should have had a protective spell on that.”

Geoffrey led the army into the castle courtyard while Sebastian, Lucy, Harald, and the enchantresses stayed behind. Lucy winced at the sound of clanging swords and the occasional cry of pain or anger. She didn’t know how well-defended the castle grounds would be, so she had no idea how long to expect the battle to last. “How do you think it’s going?” she asked Sebastian.

“They’ll tell us when it’s safe for you to enter,” he replied.

“I will find out, highness,” Larkin said. He ran through the gate, then returned moments later. “There is still resistance, but the Loyalist forces are prevailing. The area will be secured soon enough.”

Lucy was just about to send the dogs in again when Fulk came out and bowed to Sebastian. “The castle courtyard is secured, my lord.” At Sebastian’s signal, they rode through the castle gates. The doors of the castle itself stood open.

Just then, though, there was a crackling noise, followed by a rumbling sound as snaky tendrils rose up the castle walls. Sebastian jumped off his horse and called to his soldiers, but the vines had already covered the castle doors before they reached them. As the flowering vines grew up the castle walls, the lower portions matured into thick ropes of thorns. Soon, the entire castle was encased in thorny vines.

“She seems to have that much of a protective spell,” Sebastian muttered.

Lucy shook her head. This was very, very familiar, and she wasn’t sure it had anything to do with defending the castle. When she realized where she’d heard of this sort of thing, her heart rose into her throat, then sank into her stomach, where it settled like a rock. She turned to the aunts. “Dawn isn’t here, is she?” The looks on their faces told her she wasn’t wrong about what the thorns meant. They were part of the curse. Dawn was inside that castle, and she’d touched the spindle, so now she was out cold until they found a true love to kiss her. The problem was, as far as Lucy knew, there wasn’t even a boy Dawn liked. Unless Dawn had managed to meet and fall for someone between the time Lucy had last seen her and now, they’d have to find a guy who was turned on by unconscious chicks.

Of course, whether that would work depended on how, exactly, “true love” was defined. Was it someone Dawn loved, or someone who loved Dawn? And did it have to be mutual? Or was it about potential or destiny, so that it was the first kiss from the person Dawn was meant to be with, even if they hadn’t met before? Something told Lucy that nobody had thought through either the curse or the counter curse. Not much about it made sense.

Then she realized they had a bigger problem than that. Right now, the witch must know who the real princess was, and she had the real princess, helpless and unconscious, in her clutches. “We need to get in there, now!” she said.

Sebastian, Fulk, and several of the soldiers were already at work, hacking at the vines over the doors with swords and knives. Lucy signaled for one of the other soldiers to help her off her horse, and she went over to the aunts. “What is Dawn doing here? I thought she’d be safe as long as the witch didn’t know she had the wrong girl.”

Matilda put a calming hand on Lucy’s arm. “She seems to have come looking for you. We built a portal in the garden shed to bring her home after her birthday safely passed, and she found it. She’s with that boy.” In aunt speak, “that boy” was Jeremy. At least Dawn wasn’t here in this crazy world alone. “It does seem that you know, though.”

“Yeah, because I know my fairy tales. This is “Sleeping Beauty.” But she has no idea who or what she is, does she?” Lucy asked.

“We were going to tell her.”

“It’s a little late for that, huh? If she’d known, she wouldn’t have walked into this.” Without waiting for an answer, she turned, gathered her trailing skirts, and headed toward where the men were still trying to get through the doors. They’d managed to create a gap wide enough for the dogs to slip through. Then they cut through the rest of the vines.

“Your highness,” Sebastian called out, and Lucy joined them, along with the aunts.

Harald hung back. “I will wait until the castle is secured,” he said. “Better to make a grand entrance at just the right moment, don’t you think?”

Lucy rolled her eyes before running into the castle. “You seem to know what the vines signify,” Sebastian said to her.

“They mean my friend Dawn is here, and she’s touched the spindle. We have to get to her.”

“Where would she be?”

Everything else about the fairy tale had been true, more or less, so Lucy hoped one more crucial detail would also track. “The tallest tower,” she said. “That’s the most likely place. Do you know how to get up there?”

He nodded and led the charge up the grand staircase. When they reached the landing, a voice called out, “Lucy?” and someone caught her in a big hug. “You’re here! You’re safe!” Only when he released her and backed away did she see that it was Jeremy, and then she grabbed him and hugged him.

“Wow, that’s a new look on you,” he said when she let him go.

“Yeah, well, it’s a long story and we don’t have time to get into it now. We need to find Dawn.”

He noticed the aunts and jolted. “Get away from them, Luce,” he said. “They’ve been chasing us the whole way. They aren’t who they said they were, and they’ve been holding Dawn prisoner all this time.”

“We have not!” Matilda said indignantly.

“We were protecting her,” Mariel added. “And we wouldn’t have this trouble now if you hadn’t been so busy running from us. We even tried to keep you from being asked to perform at the coronation.”

“I knew that was you!” Jeremy cried out.

“And there we go with another long story or two,” Lucy said to Jeremy. “Bottom line: Dawn’s in trouble, it’s not from the aunts, and we have to get to her, fast.”

“Come on, this way,” Sebastian called out from the top of the stairs to their left. Jeremy followed the group making their way toward the tower.

He tried to catch up as they ran. “Could you give me at least a hint about what’s going on here?”

“It’s ‘Sleeping Beauty.’”


“Come on, I’m sure I made you watch that one with me when we were little. Evil witch/fairy/whatever curses infant princess to prick her finger on a spinning wheel spindle and die before sunset on her sixteenth birthday. Good fairies/enchantresses/whatever alter the curse to sleep, then take princess off to safety where no one will know she’s a princess. Except, apparently, they went as far as another world.” He still looked blank, so she added, “The princess’s name is Aurora, which means dawn.”

“Oh,” he said, finally getting it. “So the aunts are . . .”

“Yeah, the good enchantresses.”

“And Dawn is . . .”

“A fairy-tale princess.”

“But Dawn already had her sixteenth birthday.”

“In our world. But apparently there’s a time lag, or else the calendars are off. Today’s our birthday here.”

“And so she’s going to prick her finger and sleep?”

“She already has. We had to hack our way through thorny vines to get in here, and that’s a sign that the curse has kicked in.”

“So, where do you fit in?”

“Everyone thinks I’m the princess, since I’m the one they took because I was wearing Dawn’s necklace. Dawn would have been perfectly safe if you’d stayed home.”

“We were trying to help you! And Dawn was very, very determined.”

At the top of the next flight of stairs, they met the last of the resistance. The corridor was heavily guarded, which was a pretty good sign that something important was somewhere down that hallway. Leading the guard was Lord Argus, himself.

Continued in Chapter 19.


Serial Chapter Seventeen

Here’s the next chapter! The first part is here. The previous part is here. Or you can get the e-book.

Chapter Seventeen

Dawn couldn’t help but feel cheerful as she and Jeremy made their way back to the boat. She was fairly certain she knew where Lucy was and she had a show to perform that evening. If Lucy hadn’t been in possible danger all this time, Dawn would have considered these days to be the best of her life. She was getting to do what she wanted instead of living under the aunts’ rules.

As so often happened when she felt particularly good, she found herself singing, softly at first, then louder as she got into it and forgot where she was. She walked through the streets of town singing “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, which the school choir was doing in the spring concert. She was vaguely aware of people stopping to stare at her, and soon a small crowd followed her.

When she finished the song, there was a round of applause, and Jeremy quickly said, “And that’s just a sample of what you’ll hear tonight in our concert. You’ll find our show at slip nineteen. Come one, come all, and hear more of what this little lady can do.”

“That was slip nineteen, was it?” someone asked, and Jeremy verified it.

When they were able to get away from the crowd, Jeremy gave her an amused grin. “Do you have to burst into song in public?”

She shrugged sheepishly. “I’m sorry. Most of the time, I don’t even know I’m doing it. It’s like the song is in my head, and by the time I realize I’m singing it out loud, it’s too late to stop myself.”

“Well, you know, in the musicals, people may sing their way around town, but in real life when people do that, they tend to get psychiatric treatment. On the upside, I think it worked out to be great advertisement for the show, and one of the people asking me the details seemed to be in an official uniform, so maybe it was a royal talent scout.”

She danced a few steps and said with a smile, “See? Bursting into song in public isn’t so bad. But I am sorry if I embarrassed you. I know it sometimes upsets Lucy when I do that.”

They made it back to the boat just before Huw’s deadline. Huw met them at the gangplank. “Have you seen Rhian?” he asked.

“We didn’t see her in town,” Jeremy replied.

Huw snorted. “Well, she’s late now.”

“Only by a little, though,” Dawn said. “She must have lost track of time.”

Rhian didn’t show up until the troupe was already preparing for the performance. She greeted Dawn with a huge smile as she passed by where Dawn and the musicians were practicing. “Good luck with the show tonight,” she called out.

“Oh, thank you!” Dawn said, reminding herself that the superstition about not wishing luck before a show didn’t exist here. “She must have had a good day,” she remarked to the musicians after Rhian had gone to find her father. “I thought she didn’t like me much. Maybe she’s just getting to know me better.”

Rhian wasn’t the only one who was late. Spink arrived after the first group number, barely in time to sing with Dawn. Huw glared at the bird but didn’t say anything. It was unrealistic to expect a bird to tell time. They were lucky Spink had remembered to come back at all. After their number, Dawn asked, “Where were you? I thought you weren’t coming back.”

“Of course I came back,” the bird chirped. “I love to sing. But I saw the castle!”

“Yes, it does loom over the town, doesn’t it? Are you happy now that you’ve seen this castle?”

“It has a tall, tall tower, like my mother said! And you have to go to the castle!”

“That’s what we’re trying to do here, perform well enough to get invited. So do your best.”

“We’ll go to the castle!” Spink insisted, and she hoped he was right. Otherwise, she wasn’t sure what she’d do.

During her next song, things went wrong in a very strange way. The musicians accompanying her suddenly went silent. She turned to see if they’d forgotten the songs they’d only just learned, and saw they were still playing all-out, but making no sound. They looked as confused as she felt. She wasn’t afraid of singing a capella, so she raised her voice and continued. Spink did his part to help make up for the lack of music. The applause when she finished was just as loud as ever.

The instruments still weren’t working when the next performers took the stage. Huw himself sat in with his violin and couldn’t make a sound. The singers were pros, though, and were as comfortable performing without accompaniment as Dawn had been. After that number, Huw waved the musicians off the stage. “We’ll skip the dances,” he said. “Rhian!”

“Yes, Da?”

“Go out there and do your magic. Buy us time to regroup.”

“Gladly, Da.” She crooked her finger at Jeremy. “I’ll need some assistance setting up.” She alone, of all the performers, wasn’t at all flustered by what was going on. Dawn couldn’t help but wonder if her magic—real or the trick kind—would still work, but she stopped herself before she wished it wouldn’t. It might be up to Rhian to win their way to the coronation.

Huw addressed the others. “I don’t know what’s happening or why, though I suspect a rival might have a hand in it. We’ll simply have to do everything else even better.”

“We could take advantage of performing without instruments,” Dawn suggested. “We’ve practiced harmonies, and that can sound very impressive.” The others looked doubtful. “Oh, come on! We’re not going to give up, are we?” she asked. “We can do this. We deserve to be part of the coronation. We won’t let them get us down!”

Will raised a fist in the air. “The show must go on!”

The others joined in the chant—softly, so it didn’t interfere with Rhian’s act onstage. Dawn put her hand into the middle of the circle the way they always did before going onstage in drama club, but no one else joined her and she realized it wasn’t a universal tradition. She pulled her hand back and said, “Let’s show them what we can do.”

Rhian’s act had gone without a hitch, so the crowd hadn’t moved on. The whole troupe went onstage and Huw called for a song, then nodded to Dawn to sing the first note. The multi-part harmony was spine-tingling, and the fairly rowdy crowd on the docks grew silent. Just as the song reached its climax, a loud hum filled the air, drowning out the voices. They finished the song and received some applause, but the audience was already drifting away, clutching their ears.

Dawn leaned over the railing, resisting the urge to beg the audience to come back. Jeremy joined her, putting his arm around her and pulling her against him in a half hug. “Maybe the royal talent scouts saw the first number, before things went haywire,” he said.

“I hope so. What do we do if we don’t get invited to the coronation? We won’t be able to get into the castle to find Lucy.”


Lucy had to do a lot of smiling and nodding throughout the evening as everyone came before the head table to greet her. The fact that she was an imposter weighed more and more heavily on her, and not just because her betrothed was a jerk. These people were rallying around the wrong person, and she couldn’t let them crown her, but then if they didn’t actually have the princess, they’d have wasted their efforts.

She glanced over at Sebastian and caught his eye. He rose from his seat and walked behind the head table, pausing as he passed her chair. “I need to talk to you,” she said without turning her head. “Privately.”

“Excuse yourself from the table. I will meet you at the bottom of the main stairs.”

“Okay. Got it.” She went back to smiling and nodding at everyone who approached her. If there had been babies to kiss, she’d have felt like a political candidate at a rally. In a sense, she was. They were just having a war instead of an election to put her in office.

Eventually, the flow of people stopped and she was able to slip away from the table and run down the stairs. Sebastian met her a few minutes later, and they retreated to a hidden area under the stairs. He still had that stoic look on his face, and he avoided touching her entirely. Now that they were both there, she had second thoughts about telling him. But she had to tell somebody, or she could very well end up getting crowned under false pretenses and being forced to marry a first-class creep.

“There’s something you need to know,” she began, then took a deep breath, bracing herself for whatever might happen next. “I’m not really the princess.” He opened his mouth to speak, but she held up a hand. “I know who the princess is. She’s my best friend, Dawn—you know, as in Aurora. I guess that was her cover identity.” She touched the necklace. “This is hers. It was my birthday, too, the other day, back in our world, and she didn’t have money for a gift for me, so she gave me this. Not to keep—I wouldn’t let her, since I knew she got it from her mom—but just to wear for the day. Those men saw it and took me by mistake.”

He moved as if to speak again, but she kept going because she needed to get all of this out before he said anything. “I probably should have told you from the start, but I didn’t know what to do, and I was scared. I was worried that you and your people wouldn’t be as willing to help some nobody. Plus, as long as the witch thought I was the princess, Dawn would be safe. So, there you have it. I’m not a princess, and they can’t go to war to put me on the throne. Or marry me to that idiot.”

“You’re not the princess?”

“That’s what I’ve been telling you. My name is Lucy Jordan, and I’m nothing special, just a victim of mistaken identity.”

His face broke out in a spectacular grin, and he picked her up and spun her around before kissing her. “Lucy Jordan,” he said, as if getting used to the sound of her name.

“Yeah, that’s me,” she replied, dizzy from the spinning and kissing. In all her worries about how he’d react when he found out who she really was, that response wasn’t one she’d anticipated. Lucy turning out to not be engaged to someone else was a bigger deal to him than the fact that he’d fought and even shed blood for an imposter. And that must have meant that he really liked her, Lucy, as a person, not just as a princess. That thought made her dizzy all over again. “Now, what do we do? We have to tell someone.”

He shook his head. “No, we can’t tell anyone.”

“But they’re about to go to war for an imposter!”

“They’re going to war to remove a pretender. She has to be stopped now, before she crowns herself. Without you—as the princess—that will be more difficult. We have to march tomorrow, and you have to be there since we can’t get to the real princess now. We still don’t know who the spy is, and it would devastate our cause if word got out that we didn’t really have the princess, so we don’t dare tell anyone. Once we’ve defeated Melantha, we can worry about the succession.”

“Are you sure? People are gonna notice that the real princess looks nothing like the one they fought for.”

“The situation isn’t entirely without precedent. Royalty uses decoys all the time to avoid assassination. The enchantresses guarding the real princess could have used a decoy, one who would be up to the rigors the princess might face, while the real princess was brought in quietly to a safe place.” He grinned again, “And you were certainly up to the rigors. I should have known you weren’t a princess. I can’t imagine a real princess would have been so hardy or spirited.”

“Okay, so the plan is we kick out this witch, and then we worry about finding Dawn or the king and queen in some big surprise move?” She still wasn’t sure about this, and she didn’t know if it was because she thought it was a bad plan or because she was afraid of having to play princess for a bigger audience.

“The enchantresses will be at the castle, and they will know how to proceed.” He hesitated, frowning, then added, “And they will know how to get you home. That is, if you want to go home.”

Her heart broke a little right then. This was a no-win situation. She did want to go home, where she had her mom and her friends and all the comforts of twenty-first century life. But she didn’t want to be away from Sebastian, and she couldn’t have both. “My mom will be worried sick about me,” she said. “My dad died when I was a kid, so it’s just the two of us, and I can’t leave her alone like that.”

“No, of course not. You shouldn’t have to leave your family.” He was back to that stoic Gregory Peck expression that made her want to kiss him all over again.

“Should we at least tell your brother who I really am? It seems like someone other than the two of us should know.”

He considered that for a moment, then shook his head. “I don’t think so. And I doubt we’d get the chance. We’ll tell him when the time is right. And now we should get back to the hall before we’re missed.” He smiled again. “It is very nice to meet you, Lucy Jordan.”

That went better than she thought it might, though, really, did she expect him to be a jerk about it? She just wasn’t sure she agreed with him about not telling anyone else. That wasn’t the sort of thing to spring on someone in a crucial situation. She knew she wouldn’t want to say, “Surprise! I’m not the princess!” just before they put a crown on her head.

But she would definitely do that before she married Harald.


The troupe had gone to bed relatively early, as none of them felt much like celebrating after the disastrous performance, and that meant they were all up early the next morning. They were supposed to learn before noon if they would be invited to the coronation. None of them held out much hope, but Huw insisted that they all be ready to go, just in case. While she put on her lacy dress, Dawn tried to come up with a secondary plan for getting into the castle. As much as she hated to be disloyal to Huw, she considered finding a troupe that did get an invitation and talking her way into the group. Surely one of Huw’s rivals would be willing to steal her. Or perhaps she could try out on the spot as a solo performer.

The troupe milled about on deck in their performing clothes. A few halfheartedly went through the motions of rehearsing. The musicians polished their instruments, and Rhian supervised Jeremy’s packing of her magical supplies. She looked more smug than usual, and Dawn wondered if she thought she might have received a solo invitation. Dawn went over to stand near Jeremy. “Have you seen Spink yet this morning?” she asked.

“No, I haven’t, come to think of it,” he said with a frown. “But you know how he is. He comes and goes at random.”

“I hope he remembers that we might have to perform today.”

“You think we’ll be performing, after what happened last night?” Rhian asked.

Dawn shrugged. “You never know. It was obvious that the problems weren’t our fault, and the acts we did were really good. You didn’t have any problems.”

Rhian suddenly flushed dark red and grabbed her case away from Jeremy. “Perhaps whoever was interfering was afraid to bother someone with magical abilities,” she said before stomping away.

“I thought I was complimenting her,” Dawn said. “She was the only truly successful performer last night.”

“Unless maybe she has a reason to feel guilty about that.”

“Do you think she’d sabotage her father’s troupe? Surely not.”

Every head on deck turned to watch the docks as a pair of black-clad men bearing sealed packets walked past. Those had to be the coronation invitations. Dawn crossed her fingers. At the sight of the invitations, even the pretense of work stopped while everyone waited to see if one of those men would come to their boat. It reminded Dawn of waiting to see audition results posted. Nearly half an hour went by before the men returned, coming the other direction, and they still carried packets. Dawn unconsciously took Jeremy’s hand and squeezed it in a nervous reflex.

The men reached the gangplank of the troupe’s boat, paused, and checked through the remaining packets. There was a collective gasp on deck as everyone held their breath. One of the men came up the gangplank and handed a packet to Huw. Huw waited until the man was back on the dock before he broke the seal and unfolded the parchment. The troupe clustered around him as he read. Dawn had to remind herself to breathe before she passed out. This was worse than waiting for audition results because far more was on the line.

At last, Huw looked up. “Well, what are you lot waiting for?” he asked gruffly. “We have an important performance ahead of us, and we need to leave in half an hour. Get yourselves ready.” Only as the troupe burst into cheers did he allow himself a grin.

Dawn turned to Jeremy, released his hand, and fell into his open arms. “We did it!” she said.

“That’s step one. Now we need to figure out what to do once we get inside.”

“I think this pull I’m feeling from my necklace should guide me. I’ll be able to follow it to where Lucy is.”

“Which will likely be guarded.”

“We’ll worry about that when we get there.”

Within half an hour, a procession of performers came down the riverside docks, and Huw’s troupe joined it. Huw walked next to Dawn, and Jeremy held her hand. If Huw was going to stay with her like that, it could be a problem once they got into the castle. She wasn’t sure he’d like the idea of her heading off on her own.

The city was full of soldiers, even more than the day before, and they were more heavily armed. Dawn noticed a few archers on rooftops. It looked like the witch wasn’t taking any chances. Crowds lined the streets, and the guards didn’t seem to be holding back the people so much as they were forcing them all to be there. This was apparently a mandatory parade. There were strange, loud noises in the distance, from back at the river, and the guards’ attention strayed from the crowd, like they were concerned about something. Dawn wondered what was going on, but the press of the procession didn’t allow for any dallying or turning back.

Huw fell a few paces behind Dawn as he looked back. A cry went up from behind, and some of the guards left their posts to fight their way against the flow of the parade, back toward the river. “What’s happening?” Dawn asked Huw when he rejoined her.

“I didn’t think they’d let her crown herself,” he said. “They’ll put up a fight.”

“Who will?”

He ignored her question, instead putting a hand on her shoulder and saying, “If something happens, you take cover and stay out of the way. Hide if you need to, but you must remain safe.” Turning to Jeremy, he added, “Boy, that is your job, to keep her safe. Don’t worry about anything else, do you understand me?”

Jeremy nodded. “Yes, sir. That was my plan all along.”


The noise from the river grew louder, even though they were moving away from it, but Dawn’s attention was focused ahead, on the castle. The pull she’d been feeling was stronger than ever, creating a roaring in her ears. She wasn’t sure she’d even be able to sing while it was doing that, and she’d never yet found a situation in which she couldn’t sing.

They reached the castle gates and were herded inside. The guards were in a hurry to get the entire procession in the castle, but when a distant trumpet call sounded, they shut the gates, right behind Huw’s troupe. Dawn shivered as she realized how close they’d come to being shut out. Once they were in the castle courtyard, guards directed them toward the throne room. Dawn wanted to turn aside at the main stairs because that was the direction she knew she should go, but Jeremy steered her along with the rest of the group.

The throne room was a mass of confusion. All the performers were there, along with a gallery of nobles, but the throne was empty. The witch herself wasn’t present, and no one was to perform until she arrived, according to the official who spoke to Huw. The performers were directed to wait for further instructions. Huw guided his people to a corner at the back of the throne room and told them to get ready to perform. The musicians got out their instruments and started tuning up, adding to the cacophony from every other troupe doing the same thing. The singers went up and down their scales.

Dawn knew she ought to do the same and warm up her voice, but all she could think about was that tug from her necklace. Lucy was here, nearby, and she couldn’t stand just waiting around in the throne room. She felt like someone had tied a rope around her waist and was giving it a good tug. She kept shifting her weight from foot to foot as she’d find herself lifting a foot to walk away and had to force herself to put it down again. Next thing she knew, she’d moved several feet away from the group.

They did have some down time, and the witch was nowhere in sight. Wouldn’t this be the perfect time to investigate? She’d be back before anyone knew she was gone. She slipped through the crowd to the throne room door and headed straight for the staircase.

Continued in Chapter 18.


Serial Chapter 16

Here’s chapter 16 of the serial. If you missed the beginning, you can find it here. The previous chapter is here. If you’re impatient to read the whole thing or would rather read it as an e-book, you can find info about it here.

Chapter Sixteen

When the troupe arrived at the kingdom’s capital city the next morning, Jeremy saw that Huw was right about everyone being there. The river was thick with boats, and they were only able to get a decent berth because they arrived fairly early in the day. Any later, and they’d have been docked on the outskirts of town, where they’d have had almost no audience. Dawn stood on the foredeck as the boat pulled into its berth, gazing up at the castle that towered over the town. “There’s the castle, Spink,” she said to the bird sitting on her shoulder, her voice trembling with excitement. “There it is.”

“The castle!” the bird whistled. “And the tall, tall tower! You have to go there!”

“That we hope to do, my little friend,” Huw said from where he watched the mooring operation nearby. “But first, we have to earn our way in. And to do that, we’ll need the show of a lifetime tonight.” He raised his voice and called out to the crew, “Let’s get set up, and if you finish on time, I’ll give you leave to explore the city.”

Spink didn’t wait for the leave. He took off, flying toward the castle, still singing about the tall, tall tower. “Gee, thanks for the help,” Jeremy muttered.

Dawn laughed. “All he does is get in the way, so it’s probably best if he goes to see that tower.”

The crew was highly motivated to get their work done, so they finished setting up the boat for the evening’s show in time to get the whole afternoon off. Jeremy was resigned to spending the day on the boat, since he was sure Huw wouldn’t let Dawn out of his sight before the big show, but Huw surprised them by giving them leave to go, as well as a handful of coins. “Even with the show interrupted last night, we earned far more than we usually do, and I’m sure it was partly due to you,” he told Dawn.

Dawn pulled Jeremy down the gangplank and shoved her way through the crowds on the dock. “Whoa, there,” he said to her. “I don’t think that castle’s going anywhere.” She eased up, but he kept his arm linked through hers, and she frequently strained against it.

When they reached the gates to the city proper, a black-armored guard stopped them. Guards hadn’t stopped anyone else as they passed, so Jeremy couldn’t help but be concerned. “Who are you, and what is your business here?” the guard asked.

Dawn gave him a sunny smile, and Jeremy wasn’t sure how the guard could resist her. “We’re performers, here for the coronation. We’re with the North Country Minstrels.”

“You should come see the show tonight,” Jeremy added.

Another guard came over to join the first one. “What do you think?” the first guard asked his colleague. “They’re about the age of the ones we’re looking for.”

“No, that’s not the Sinclair boy,” the second guard said.

The first guard frowned and hesitated, but he waved them through. “I wonder what that was about?” Jeremy asked when they were well away from the guards.

“We got through, so there’s nothing to worry about,” Dawn said. “Now, let’s get to the castle.” The city was crowded, with people jostling their way through the narrow streets. Jeremy started to believe what Dawn said about being drawn toward the castle because it would have been easy to get lost as the crowds pushed and pulled them in every direction, but she led them unerringly there, like she had a compass planted in her head. More black-clad soldiers were all over the place, standing where they could watch the crowds. The people gave them plenty of space.

“If I’m really linked to my necklace, then Lucy is definitely in that castle,” Dawn said after a while as she tugged harder on Jeremy’s arm. Then she rubbed her right index finger against her pants leg.

“Is something wrong?” he asked. “You’ve been scratching at that finger all day.”

“I don’t know. Something must have stung it the night I stayed outside. I thought it was getting better, but it’s worse now than ever.” He took her hand to inspect it, but it wasn’t even red. “Maybe I’m just anxious,” she said with a shrug.

They reached the castle gate, which was guarded by more black-clad men. The guards weren’t letting anyone near the castle. Even people who strayed too close to the gates as they passed were shoved aside. “We’ll never get in there,” Jeremy said. “I guess they don’t sell tickets for public tours.”

“But we have to get inside. We’ll just have to get in as part of the coronation program tomorrow.”

“We ought to check out the marketplace,” he suggested.

She didn’t take her eyes off the castle. “Why?”

“Well, for one thing, the guards are giving us funny looks, and I’m not sure we’d be let go on the basis of me not looking like some Sinclair boy if we’re arrested for suspicious loitering. And for another, as we learned before, markets are very good places to get info.” She nodded in agreement, but he had to drag her away.

The marketplace was even more busy and bustling than the streets had been. It looked like a festival day, although most of the people appeared more strained and sad than festive. The ones who looked happy didn’t look like very nice people. Dawn and Jeremy browsed the booths for a while, then Jeremy went over to a booth selling woven scarves and shawls and started looking through the merchandise.

“Are you local, or did you come in for the coronation?” he asked the shopkeeper as he examined a pink shawl.

“Oh, I’m local,” the woman in the booth said. “Been here all my life.”

“Good. We’re here for the coronation, and we wanted to buy local wares. I’m sure the things brought in just for the coronation aren’t nearly as good.”

“You’re right about that, young master, and a very discerning customer you are. Some of these outsiders will buy anything. You’d think they’d never seen a market before. But you’ll not find finer weaving anywhere.”

“Are you here most days?”

“Most market days. I need some time to weave.”

“Then maybe you could help us. We were supposed to meet a friend here. She would have come to town a few days ago, but we haven’t found her yet.” Dawn stepped forward and gave a description of Lucy.

The woman’s eyes narrowed, and she went ever so slightly paler. “I’ll have to think about that. So many people come through the market, it’s hard to remember. But while I’m thinking, is there anything among my wares that you find particularly interesting? Take a look, and let me know if something catches your eye.”

Dawn joined Jeremy in looking through the scarves. Most of them were brightly colored, and some were embroidered. One was solid white with a blue border embroidered around it, and another was dark green, embroidered with black. “I like this one,” Dawn said, holding up a rose-colored shawl.

“I’m sorry, I don’t recall seeing your friend,” the woman said crisply. “Now, would you like to make a purchase?”

“We may come back later,” Jeremy said. “Thank you for your time.” As he guided Dawn away, he muttered in her ear, “Is it just me, or was that kind of weird?”

“She must not have liked my choice.”

“Pink is a very sinister color.”

She elbowed him in the ribs. “She’s probably afraid to talk. Just about everyone here looks frightened.”

“Yeah, something tells me that witch isn’t big on free speech.”

The next couple of merchants they tried had just come to town. The one after that claimed not to have seen anything. Then they found a merchant selling souvenir jewels and trinkets. “Do you see anything you like?” Jeremy asked Dawn.

“Some of these charms might fit on my bracelet.”

“Pick something out. You might as well have a souvenir.”

“You don’t have to buy me a present.”

“You’re the one who earned the money. I just have the pockets to hold it. You’re buying yourself a present. If you like, you could buy me one.”

She browsed the offerings and picked out a charm that looked a lot like that necklace she’d given Lucy and held it up to the merchant. “How much for this one?”

“Ah, an interesting choice, miss, very appropriate to the occasion. You’re here for the coronation, I take it?”

“Yes, we’re performers,” Dawn replied.

“We were supposed to meet a friend here,” Jeremy said. “She would have arrived a few days ago.” He described Lucy, then asked, “Have you seen her?”

The merchant looked at Dawn’s charm, then at the two of them, winked, leaned closer and whispered, “Long live the king.”

Jeremy and Dawn looked at each other, not sure what to say to that. Obviously, the king wasn’t around anymore, and it was likely that talking about him was considered treason. This merchant was taking a huge risk, but he seemed to have identified them as people he could trust. They’d have to take a similar risk to show him they agreed. Jeremy leaned closer and whispered, “Yes, long live the king. And the queen, I guess.”

The merchant grinned and tapped the end of his nose. “I’ll put the charm on your bracelet for you, if you’ll give me your wrist, Miss,” he said out loud, then when Dawn held her wrist to him, he added in a whisper as he bent his head over his work, “Your friend did come through a few days ago, and she didn’t come on her own, if you know what I mean. They took her straight to the castle.”

“So, she’s there now?”

He shrugged. “I’m not sure. There’s been some commotion, and the guards have been looking for someone, but as far as I know, no one saw her leave the castle, and no one has seen her since. But don’t worry, I do hear that plans are afoot.” He finished with the charm, then said loudly, “And how do you like it, Miss? It looks good on you.”

Jeremy paid him, then guided Dawn away from the booth. He would have liked to ask more questions, but there were guards watching the marketplace, and spending too much time talking after making a purchase might look suspicious. “So, she really is here,” he murmured into Dawn’s ear as they moved through the crowd. “And it sounds like she’s in danger.”

“We should have asked why she was taken to the castle.”

“I’m not sure we’d have had an answer. So far, people have been reluctant to even say they’ve seen her.”

“She was taken because they thought she was me. Why would this witch want me?”

“Maybe to sing at her coronation? Boy, is she going to be disappointed when she hears Lucy.”

“Lucy has a very pretty voice.”

“But not like yours. You have a voice worth kidnapping someone from another world to hear.”

Her face went a delightful shade of pink, and she looked away from him. “Do we have enough money to buy some food? I’m starving,” she said, clearly changing the subject.

He jingled his hand in his pocket and said, “I think so. And we might as well spend it all, since we won’t be able to exchange it for dollars before we go home.” He bought a couple of fruit-filled pastries, and they sat on a low wall to eat them while they watched the crowds.

“You know, we are in the capital city, which was where we wanted to go,” Jeremy said after a while. “We don’t have to go back to the boat. We could just go about finding Lucy.”

“You mean, go against our word? Huw trusted us enough to let us go out today. How can we betray that?”

“I don’t know about you, but I’m not planning on staying with a traveling musical troupe in another world until we’ve paid off whatever debt we owe them—which shouldn’t be that much. We’ll leave when we find Lucy, anyway.”

“But the troupe may be our only way to get into the coronation, and it’s not as though they treat us badly.”

“And you want the chance to perform.”

She blushed again, looking down at her feet. “Yes, and I want the chance to perform.” She looked up at him, her eyes shining. “And I think it really is the right thing to do.”

“Okay, then. If that’s what you want.” He’d have dared anyone to resist her when she looked at him like that.


The entire tent remained absolutely silent for a long moment after Lucy finished her song. She was preparing herself to confess all and beg for help when Geoffrey sank to his knees in front of her and took her hand. “Forgive me, your highness,” he said. “I had to be certain.” Around the tent, everyone else knelt, including Sebastian, who gave her an awestruck grin as he stiffly bent his knees.

“Please, that’s really not necessary,” Lucy said. She didn’t think she was that good, but it seemed to have done the trick. She was just lucky they’d never heard Dawn sing, or they’d have never accepted her. They’d have known what magically gifted really sounded like.

Geoffrey stood and ushered her to his own chair. “Your highness, you must be hungry. Eat something. You, too, Sebastian. I will send word to Mother. We will have a feast tonight.”

Sebastian took a seat at the table, but he didn’t seem to have much of an appetite. “You’ve gathered an army,” Sebastian remarked as Lucy ate.

“Yes. If we must remove the witch by force, then so be it. And now that we have the princess with us, we have a legitimate claimant to the throne. All of the loyal nobles have contributed men to the cause, as has the kingdom of Ernstmead.”

“Ernstmead? Why would they fight on our behalf?”

“They worry the witch won’t be satisfied with one kingdom. The situation will be more stable with the rightful ruler on the throne, and there is the possibility of alliance then.”

Sebastian looked surprisingly unhappy about that. There was probably some history between the countries that Lucy didn’t know about. Actually, there was a lot she didn’t know about, like, for instance, the name of her own kingdom, now that she thought about it. Well, Dawn’s kingdom.

When they finished eating, Geoffrey escorted them out of the tent, where a big horse stood waiting. “I would love to talk more, but Mother would never forgive me if I kept you out here.”

“Do you mind riding double?” Sebastian asked Lucy, a wry smile on his lips. This was how they met, what seemed like ages ago, but which really was only a few days.

“I’m not much of a rider, so that’s probably the best idea,” she said, hoping her cheeks didn’t look as red as they felt. She wasn’t the only one blushing. Geoffrey would have had to be blind not to see that there was something going on. Unless maybe it was so unthinkable that he couldn’t see it.

Just as he’d done that first day, Sebastian mounted the horse, then held down a hand to Lucy. Geoffrey helped boost her up so that she was settled in front of Sebastian. He circled his arm around her, this time squeezing her for more than just holding her on the horse, and she leaned back against him, resting her head on his shoulder.

“You did it,” he said into her ear. “You surely saved me from the gallows. I owe you my life.”

“Yeah, and I owe you mine many times over, so we’re still not close to even. But I don’t think they’d have hanged you. You look just like your brother, so surely someone would have noticed before it was too late.”

They entered in the castle courtyard, where chaos ensued. Stablehands helped Lucy out of the saddle, and Sebastian was barely on the ground before a woman ran to hug him and weep all over him. Finally, she let go and stood back to get a good look at him. “You’re so much like your father,” she whispered.

Then she noticed Lucy. “Oh, your highness,” she said, dropping to a deep curtsy. “Welcome to our home. We are honored. I am the dowager duchess. The duchess sends her apologies. She was unable to greet you herself.”

“Duchess?” Sebastian blurted.

His mother took his arm. “Ten years have passed for us, as well. Your brother is now a grown man, and that means he is also a husband—and a father.”

Sebastian looked shellshocked at finding out he now had a sister-in-law as well as nephews or nieces.

“I suppose you didn’t know,” his mother said sadly.

He shook his head. “If you sent word to me, I never received it.” His lips went thin and his jaw took on the look that usually meant he was about to start swinging a sword.

His mother looked horrified for a moment, then she recovered and said, “We can talk later. For now, you two need baths and clean clothing. Your highness, you and the duchess appear to be about the same size, and she has plenty of clothing she isn’t using at the moment, so I will have some things sent to you. As for you, young man,” she turned to her son. “You are almost your brother’s size. I can’t believe how you’ve grown.”

Sebastian’s mother, along with a few servants, escorted Lucy to a bedroom while Sebastian went off with a group of other servants. The room was like something in a museum, with tapestries on the walls and massive, ornately carved furniture. A big copper tub sat on the floor, steam rising from it. It took all Lucy’s self control not to tear off her clothes then and there and dive right into it, but she had a feeling that would shock her hostess.

“The servants will attend you,” the duchess said.

“Oh, no need, I can bathe myself.”

“Then I will send my lady’s maid to dress you after you’ve bathed.”

Lucy was still drying off after her bath when a maid showed up, her arms full of dresses. The maid curtseyed before laying the gowns out across the huge four-poster bed, then approached Lucy with a silk dressing gown. She timidly touched Lucy’s hair. “Oh, your highness, you have such lovely curls,” she said shyly.

“Um, thanks . . . uh, I don’t think I caught your name.”

“I’m Gillian, your highness. And now if you allow, I will dress your hair.”

“Okay, Gillian, knock yourself out.” Lucy figured there wasn’t much the maid could do to make her hair worse, so she might as well see what a proper lady’s maid could do to make it better.

After rubbing a nice-smelling oil through Lucy’s hair, Gillian wrapped her head in a small sheet of cloth. “Now we must wait for it to dry. And you must choose a gown.” Lucy didn’t need any more invitation than that. She scampered eagerly over to the bed to look at the gowns. One was white with a lot of gold stitching on it. It was lovely, but it made her think of wedding dresses. There was a red one with gold embroidery. The third gown was a rich royal blue, also with gold embroidery.

“The white one may be too formal,” Lucy said.

“I agree, your highness. It is more of a coronation gown.”

Wow, coronation. Lucy hadn’t thought in those terms, but she supposed that if they won and didn’t get the king and queen back, it stood to reason that she—well, Dawn—would eventually be crowned queen.

“Every eye would be on you in the red dress,” Gillian said. “Perhaps it would be better for when you need to be seen in a crowd.”

“Let’s go with the blue one,” Lucy said.

Gillian helped Lucy take off her robe and put on a simple white underdress that was a lot softer than what she’d been wearing the past few days. She helped Lucy put on the gown and did up a bunch of laces. Lucy could see why it took a maid to help a woman get dressed. “Ah, yes, that one suits your coloring very well. It brings out your eyes,” Gillian said. “Now, let me finish your hair.”

She sat Lucy down again, removed the cloth from around her head, and fiddled with her hair before opening a wooden box and bringing out a jeweled tiara, which she placed on Lucy’s head. After some more fiddling with her hair and arranging it around the tiara, she took Lucy’s hand and led her to a looking glass in the corner.

A princess looked back at Lucy. If she’d caught a glimpse in a reflective window or if she’d seen a photo of herself like this, she wouldn’t have recognized herself. Her hair hung in soft ringlets past her shoulders. The gown fit snugly through the bodice before flaring around her legs to drag in a train on the floor. Topping it all off was that tiara, which sat nestled in her curls. For the finishing touch, she put Dawn’s necklace around her neck. She couldn’t wait to see Sebastian’s face when he got a look at her like that. For once, she really felt like the princess he thought she was.

The door opened and the dowager duchess came in. After making a graceful curtsy, she said, “Your highness, you look lovely. Your betrothed will be most pleased with you.”

“My what?” Lucy blurted.

“Oh, did you not know? Of course you didn’t. I’m sorry, I should have realized. Sebastian told me you grew up with no knowledge of who you are. When you were born, your parents made an agreement with the rulers of our neighboring kingdom to betroth you to their young son and create an alliance.”

“Wait, so you mean I’ve been engaged since I was born?” It was odd to imagine that she was engaged before she ever even had a date. Well, Dawn was, and she was in the same dating boat as Lucy.

“It is the way things are so often done,” the duchess said with a sad shrug. “We are fortunate if we can find love with the men we marry.” She smiled and reached to take Lucy’s hands. “But Prince Harald is a handsome young man, and I’m sure you’ll like him.”

She brought Lucy to the castle’s great hall, where Geoffrey, now in full-on Duke mode, was holding court. When he saw Lucy in the doorway, he said, “It is my pleasure to present to you, after her long absence, Her Royal Highness, the Princess Aurora.” Every head in the room turned to look at Lucy, and then everyone bowed. Geoffrey held his hand out to her, beckoning her toward him, and they all cleared a path for her so she could join Geoffrey on the dais.

The crowd rose, and her heart caught in her throat when she saw all those faces looking at her with joy. The princess meant a lot to these people, Lucy realized. The very idea of her seemed to give them hope. One man in the back of the room shouted, “Huzzah!” and then the room roared with cheers and applause. It was all a little overwhelming. Normally, Lucy was the girl who made the costumes, not the one who stood on the stage and got the applause.

She looked around for something familiar and finally found Sebastian in the crowd, not far from the dais. He was dressed in clothes worthy of a nobleman, and they were only a little too big for him. The expression on his face when he looked up at her was exactly what she’d hoped it would be, and she was sure her expression looking at him was similar because he was really impressive when he looked like the young lord and future knight he was, in spite of all those bruises.

Geoffrey gestured to quiet the crowd and said, “It is also a great honor to have with us our closest ally, His Royal Highness, Prince Harald of Ernstmead.” Lucy’s stomach wrenched when he said the name as a man came toward the dais.

He looked pretty much like a storybook prince—the kind who was bland and interchangeable, since the princess was the focus of the story, and he was more the dance-at-the-ball kind of prince than the slay-the-dragon kind. He was good-looking in a plastic way, with perfect blond hair, a perfect face, and eyes that were a little vacant. In Lucy’s world, he probably would have modeled underwear for department store ads. This was the guy she—or the princess—was supposed to marry?

He reached the dais, bent his knee, took her hand, and brushed his lips in the general direction of her knuckles without actually touching them. She bobbed a quick curtsy, since she wasn’t sure how royalty was supposed to greet their peers. “Not bad,” he said as he took his position at her side. “I’d heard they cast a beauty spell on you, but I must say I’m disappointed in the results. Still, at least you’re not fat and hairy.”

Lucy wished she had on shoes heavier or spikier than soft leather slippers so she could have caused more pain when she “accidentally” stepped on his foot. There were benefits to full, long skirts. A woman could do a lot with her feet under there without anyone noticing.

She glanced again over at Sebastian and saw that his jaw was firmly set, his mouth pressed into a tight line. The situation reminded her of the end of Roman Holiday, when Gregory Peck went to the palace one last time and saw Audrey Hepburn as the princess after they had all those adventures together. Except, for maybe the only time in Lucy’s life, she had on a more fabulous outfit than Audrey did.

The applause for Prince Harald wasn’t nearly as loud as Lucy’s applause had been. When it faded to nothing, Geoffrey said, “And, finally, it gives me great joy to welcome home my younger brother, Lord Sebastian, safely returned to us at last.”

There were more cheers as Sebastian made his way forward. Geoffrey embraced him in a huge hug when he reached the dais. Sebastian stood next to Lucy, and she edged away from Harald toward him. It wasn’t just because she liked Sebastian more (though she did). Harald was wearing a seriously noxious cologne, and he must have marinated in it. Her eyes watered from being near him.

After the cheers for Sebastian faded, Geoffrey said, “And now that the princess has returned to us, our moment of destiny approaches. Tomorrow, we march on the castle. The witch has planned this as her coronation day, now that she believes she’s fulfilled her curse and eliminated the last claimant to her throne. But we will win the throne back for our king and queen, wherever they may be, and for our princess who is with us now!”

There was more cheering. Lots of cheering. Life under this witch must have really sucked, Lucy figured. They all looked at her with such hope in their eyes. It made her feel bad about not really being the princess. “Once you’re crowned queen,” Harald said out of the side of his mouth, “we can have the wedding and then I’ll get my kingdom.” She suddenly felt quite good about not really being the princess. Not that she’d wish this guy on Dawn, but she was most definitely not going to marry him when she wasn’t the one who was betrothed to him.

“Cool your jets, hot shot,” she said to him under her breath. “I’m just sixteen, and I am sooooo not ready to get married. I’ve got to finish high school first, and I’d really like to get my degree. And, oh yeah, I’m totally jailbait.”

Of course, half the words or phrases she’d used were probably foreign to him, so he just stared at her. It might possibly have been the first time someone had talked back to him. On her other side, Sebastian’s shoulders shook. She hadn’t meant him to hear it, but it looked like he had and was enjoying it. She had to suppress a squeak when a hand grabbed her bottom. Harald might not have thought she was beautiful, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t willing to grope her. She shifted her stance, not-so-accidentally stepping on his foot again.

Geoffrey said, “And now, let us feast. The next time we celebrate, it shall be in the royal palace with our rightful queen.” The crowd went crazy again, Harald took Lucy’s hand and raised it in a victory salute, and Lucy felt like she’d trapped herself in something too big to talk her way out of.

Continued in Chapter 17.


Serial Chapter Fifteen

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.

Chapter Fifteen

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.”

“Not yet.”

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.

“That happens.”

“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.


Serial Chapter 14

Here’s the next chapter of the ongoing serial. The formatting may look a little different because of what I had to do to the file in order to turn it into an e-book. The book will be coming very soon. I’m formatting it now. If you missed the beginning, you can find it here. The previous chapter is here.

Chapter Fourteen

The boat pulled up at a village just before dusk and the crew set up the stage. The area around the docks was crowded with people by the time the sun had set completely. Dawn felt the rush of adrenaline she got before every show, flooding her body with a wave of energy that would make her explode if she didn’t sing, dance, or find some other way to let it out. Performing wasn’t just fun for her. It was vital to her life.

She and the troupe gathered on stage behind the curtain, and at a signal from Huw, Jeremy and one of the other men pulled the rope to draw the curtain aside. The lanterns around the stage were so bright that Dawn couldn’t see much of the audience other than a general blob of people, but their applause was loud and enthusiastic. She put on her biggest smile as they began the initial group number.

After a few songs as a group, they rotated among soloists and smaller ensembles. Soon, it was time for Dawn and Will to perform. She’d never sung with another person with so little rehearsal—he’d heard the songs for the first time only hours ago—but that only made the performance more exciting for her. His voice had a maturity that fit better with her voice than anyone else she’d ever sung with. It wasn’t too hard to get into character and imagine herself singing to her beloved. She was just feeling truly romantic at a quiet moment in a song when a voice from the crowd shouted, “Dawn!”

She froze. The first thought to cross her mind was that whoever it was had totally broken the mood and ruined the song. But then she realized that she hadn’t been introduced by name. No one outside the crew should know who she was. At that moment, the curtain swished rapidly across the stage, and she hurriedly stepped back as it closed in front of her. She turned to see Jeremy still holding on to the curtain pull and staring at her, his face white.

She ran over to him. “Why did you do that?” she asked. “We were in the middle of a song.”

“Look,” he said, pointing to the shore. From his vantage point at the side of the stage, there was less light on the boat, and that made it easier to see the audience. There was a commotion on the dock, where someone seemed to be trying to shove through the crowd—someone wearing a big white collar.

Then the sky lit up. It was as though someone had pulled the moon a lot closer to the ground. A cool light flooded everything. Jeremy pulled Dawn back against the aft cabin, where there was still some shadow. “Dawn!” the voice cried again, and this time Dawn was sure it was Mariel. They’d found her, and they were coming after her.

A shadow loomed over them, and Dawn jumped before she realized it was Huw. “It sounds like someone is looking for you,” he said mildly, as though people interrupted his performances with magical light every day.

“Yes, and I don’t want to be found,” Dawn replied, surprised by how steady her voice sounded. “I escaped from those people, and I won’t go back.” She added, still not sure whether or not it was true, “They kidnapped me and took me away from my family. I finally figured out the truth and got away.”

He nodded and grinned. “Very well, then. I enjoy any opportunity to thwart those old crows.” He reached up and waved a hand, and the eerie light faded. He waved his hand again, and the dock became blurry, as though they were looking at it through thick glass. “Now, take her to my cabin.”

Jeremy and Dawn ran into Huw’s cabin, bolting the door behind them. “You don’t have to hold your breath,” Jeremy said after a while, a fond smile in his voice. He put his arm around her shoulders, and she let herself lean against him as she let out the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. “I don’t think they’ll hear you breathing.”

“With them? You never know.”

“Do you think it’s true, what you said to Huw about them?”

“I don’t know. They’re certainly coming after me.”

“Want me to go check?”

She didn’t want to be alone, and his arm around her was so very comforting, but she did want to know what was happening. “Won’t they recognize you?”

“Please! After all this time, they still call me ‘that boy.’” He took one of Huw’s hats and a cape from a hook on the wall. “And I’ll be in disguise. I’ll be right back.”

As she paced nervously while she waited for him, another thought occurred to her: What if the enchantresses had Lucy? The aunts had known something about Lucy’s disappearance, so maybe the other enchantresses’ men had brought the wrong girl back to this world. And that might mean that she, Dawn, was the one who was supposed to be with them.

There was a knock on the cabin door and Jeremy’s voice said, “It’s me.” She rushed to open the door. “They have a boat nearby, and the enchantresses are all over the docks,” he reported. “I couldn’t tell if the aunts were with them or on their own. Huw’s out there arguing with one of the aunts, trying to convince them it’s a case of mistaken identity and you’re his sister’s youngest daughter, just joining the troupe.”

“I thought of something while you were gone. What if it was the enchantresses who took Lucy?”

“Then she might be on their boat. Let’s find out.”

She reached out to stop him, but her fingers only brushed his sleeve as he left. Soon, there was a sharp rap on the door, and Dawn opened it to see Rhian. “Take off your dress,” Rhian said.


“Come on, we don’t have much time. Da’s out there trying to convince one of those enchantresses that she has you mistaken for somebody else. I get to play you.” She looked happy to be helping Dawn, which was a welcome change. Dawn hurried to pull off her dress.

Rhian stripped off her clothing and pulled Dawn’s dress on before leaving the cabin. Dawn reluctantly put on Rhian’s discarded dress so she wouldn’t be stuck sitting around in her underwear. The bodice was loose on her, and the skirt barely came to her ankles.

Waiting was incredibly frustrating. It seemed like everyone but her was involved in this scheme to protect her. Jeremy was out investigating, Huw was lying and doing magic, and Rhian was pretending to be the girl who’d performed. It didn’t help matters that her finger itched again, making her even more irritable. Dawn went to one of the portholes to try to look out. The glass was thick and wavy, which made it hard to see through, but the window did open. She nudged it open just enough to get a sliver of view, then ducked quickly when she noticed Mariel on the dock, talking with two other enchantresses. She cautiously peered out the window to watch what they did next. They met up with a larger group of enchantresses, and they all headed toward a boat. She ran to the aft porthole just in time to see Jeremy appear on the deck of a boat docked upstream. They were heading right toward him, and he’d be caught.


Sebastian couldn’t believe what he’d heard. “But–but I’m not dead,” he stammered. “I’m here, with the princess. Sergeant Fulk sent me to get her out of the dungeon. I’ve left the service of Lord Argus and returned home.”

“Lord Argus is a traitor,” the guard spat.

“I know. But being in his service allowed me to rescue the princess.”

“I take it this is the princess?”

The guard went over to the princess, eyeing her up and down. She stared at him defiantly and said, “What if we are who we say we are? How will it go for you if the duke finds out you kept us from him and tied us up? I know how it’ll go for you when I’m in my proper position. Speaking of which, what’s your name? I want to be sure to remember it.”

For a brief moment, it almost seemed like the guard would buckle under her threat, but then he stepped back with a laugh. “You, a princess?”

Her cheeks flushed bright red as she said, “I’ve got the royal insignia.”


“Hidden, of course, you moron. The witch and all her people are looking for me. Do you think I’d be wearing it openly? It’s called a disguise. Hello!”

Sebastian had to admit that she didn’t look much like a princess at the moment, in spite of her regal bearing and fierce words. She was filthy, her clothes were torn, and her hair was a rat’s nest. He imagined he looked no better after all their adventures. Even if he looked like his usual self, he doubted anyone would recognize him. When he’d left Grantley, he’d been a scrawny, freckle-faced child. He wasn’t even sure he’d recognize his own brother if he were brought to the duke’s tent. The one time he’d seen Geoffrey at court, he’d only known him by his ducal regalia.

The guard leaned closer to the princess and pawed at her clothing, searching for the insignia while taking full advantage of the opportunity to grope her. Sebastian strained against his captors. “Hands off her, you oaf!” he shouted, but the princess didn’t need his help. The man made the mistake of standing too close to her, and she suddenly raised her knee to strike him directly between the legs. He staggered away as one of the other men raised a hand to strike her. The thought of his princess being struck like some common scullery maid gave Sebastian the strength to break away from his captors and clout the knave with his bound hands.

The others came after him, and he fought wildly, striking out with his hands and feet. He heard the princess scream, “Sebastian!” and then his head exploded.

When he woke, he was in a tent, his back against the center pole, and his arms bound behind him, around the pole. His head throbbed and he could feel where every punch and kick had landed on his battered body. Worst of all, he was desperately thirsty.

“It’s about time,” a voice whispered nearby. “I was beginning to think you’d be out all night. Are you okay?” Only one person in all the land spoke like that, and his heart sang with joy that his princess was still with him.

“Okay?” he asked, not sure what that meant, but his throat was so dry that he barely made a sound.

“Oh, you poor thing, you must be really thirsty. Here.” A bowl was placed against his lips, and he drank greedily, emptying the bowl.

“What happened?” he asked once he felt able to speak.

“Well, you were arrested as a spy. Apparently they don’t think a girl could do anything like that—never mind the fact that public enemy number one is a woman—so they’re just making me work as a servant in the camp.” He bristled at the thought of her being enslaved, but she put a calming hand on his shoulder. “Easy there, tiger. You’re not gonna break yourself out that way, and I don’t need to you defend my honor. I’ve got things under control. Besides, this may be the safest place for me. If no one here thinks I’m the princess, no spy can rat me out, and I don’t think any of the witch’s people are going to get past the guards into the camp.”

Her hand left his shoulder, then a faint glow appeared in the tent as she lit her strange torch. “Now, let me take a look at you. I should probably check you for concussion, but there’s not much I could do about it here other than make you rest, and those ropes are doing a good job of that. You do have a nasty cut on your head, though.” She dabbed at his forehead with something cool and wet that stung when it touched the cut. He braced himself so he wouldn’t flinch at the pain.

While she worked, she talked. “I still have my knife, as they didn’t think to search me for weapons, and I bet I could get through these ropes, eventually. The problem is, if I get you loose, where would we go? You’d get re-captured right away, and they might just kill you on the spot instead of waiting for a trial and formal execution. We need to think of something else.”

“If only I had some way to prove who I am.”

She smoothed a bandage onto his head. “The photo I.D. is a marvelous invention. It would make things so much easier. But is there something only you and your brother would know?”

“Like what?”

“Was there something you called your brother when you were little and couldn’t say his real name? Or a favorite toy? You said he played with you. Was there some game you played? Did something happen while you were still at home that he might remember?”

“Give me a moment to think.” He’d spent most of the past ten years trying not to think about home. It didn’t help matters that she began washing his face with a damp cloth. Her touch was rather distracting.

“At least now we know why you haven’t heard from your family in all that time,” she said. “They think you’re dead. I bet that’s what Lord Argus told them.”

“Surely they’d have expected him to send the body home for a proper burial if I’d died under his care.”

“Good point. Still, I bet there was something like that going on.”

“Or maybe they don’t think I’m literally dead, but they’ve disowned me, so I’d be dead to them.”

She swatted him lightly on the shoulder, narrowly missing a bruise. “Don’t talk like that! And, anyway, would the guards assume you couldn’t possibly be who you said you were because you’d been disowned? That doesn’t make sense. No, this is probably your former master’s doing. He may even have told your brother you were dead after you rescued me to keep you from being able to go home for safety.”

What she didn’t say—and what he hoped she wouldn’t say—was that this wouldn’t explain why they’d had no contact with him over the years, why they’d never answered any letter he’d written.

He deliberately shifted his thoughts back to his early childhood, then blurted, “Fireblade!”


“It was Geoffrey’s toy sword, something an armsman made for him. When he got a real sword of his own, he gave Fireblade to me, with much ceremony.” Even in his current dire circumstances, he smiled at the memory. “To me, it was as good as being knighted. I’m sure he’d remember that.”

“Okay, Fireblade. Got it. Now I’d better get out of here and back to work before anyone notices I’m missing.” She rested her palm against his cheek and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of everything. I won’t let them do anything to you, I promise.” Her face was very close to his, and for a moment he both hoped and feared she’d kiss him. He’d said his farewells and closed that part of his heart. If she kissed him, he’d have to go through the pain of losing her as anything but the princess he was sworn to serve all over again.

She kissed his forehead, the way she might recognize any loyal servant, and the fact that she seemed to sense his inner struggle made him love her all the more.

Then she was gone, moving toward the tent flap. Before she disappeared into the night, she whispered, “Don’t struggle against those ropes, or your wrists are going to look like raw hamburger, and I’m running out of disinfectant.”

He wasn’t sure what hamburger was, but he thought he understood what she meant. She had enough to manage without having to worry about tending his wounds, so he forced himself to relax, as much as he could do so while knowing he faced a death sentence for merely doing his duty.

Continued in Chapter Fifteen. Or you can read the whole thing at once in the e-book.


Serial Chapter 13

Here’s the next chapter of the ongoing serial novel. You can find chapter one here and the previous installment here.

Chapter Thirteen

      Dawn could hardly wait to rehearse with the troupe. They were far better than the group that had kidnapped her, and it didn’t take her long to learn their songs. Spink joined in, as well. The only downside was Rhian, who seemed determined not to like her. Her glare from across the boat grew even fiercer when Huw pulled Dawn aside after the rehearsal to suggest that she prepare a few solo numbers.

When life on the boat turned to chores, Dawn got laundry duty, and Rhian’s smirk as she dumped a pile of clothes and linens at Dawn’s feet told her this wasn’t a plum assignment. The aunts had never bought an automatic washer and dryer, so Dawn knew how to do laundry by hand. She was sorting through the pile of clothes to put together the next load when a voice roused her from her thoughts. It was a rich baritone that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Broadway stage. She looked up to see a young man pouring a bucket of river water into the laundry tub. He even looked the part of a leading man, with dark hair and broad shoulders. Some of the boys in the school choir were good, but she’d never sung with anyone like this. “You have a really nice voice,” she said.

“You’re one to talk, Miss Dawn,” he replied with a grin. “And it’s flattering that one who sings like you do might think so.” He took her hand and brought it to his lips. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Will.”

“Hello, Will. I know some songs from my home that I think you could sing very well—some duets—if you’d like me to teach you, and if you’d like to sing with me. Are you interested?”


The next time Will brought a bucket to the laundry tub, she started teaching him by singing a song for him. She was sure this would be easier if she had a mobile phone so she could just play the songs for him. But she didn’t, not even back home. She didn’t have any of the electronics other kids used to listen to music. Her entire music collection consisted of the box of records and the old turntable that had been in the house when she and the aunts moved in. She’d always felt it was a stroke of fate or luck that the previous residents had apparently been musical theater fans. Would she have discovered her talents and her life’s ambition if they’d had a fondness for instrumental jazz, instead?

Will proved to be a quick study, and by the time Dawn was through with the laundry, she’d already taught him the main verses of four songs. They spent the time after chores were done practicing together. “What’s this, then?” Rhian asked as she passed them on the deck. “I thought you sang with the bird.”

“Excellent work, young Will,” Huw remarked from his seat nearby. That shut Rhian up immediately, and she sauntered away with one last glare tossed over her shoulder.

“Do you think it will help us be invited to perform at the coronation?” Dawn asked Huw.

“Could be, could be. What makes you so eager to sing at the coronation?”

Dawn felt her face growing warmer. She hated to lie, but she was afraid to tell Huw the truth about looking for Lucy and being directed by Spink to go to the castle. “Well, it’s a coronation. It’s a historic occasion,” she said.

“Oh, that it is,” he muttered.

“You don’t sound very happy about it.”

He raised a bushy eyebrow at her. “It’s not as though we have much choice in the matter. It’s a command performance by her wicked ladyship.” He grinned. “But the coin should be good, as everyone’s too scared to stay away from her big moment.” He rubbed his first two fingers against his thumb. “The audiences should be enormous—and looking to have their hearts lifted.”

“Who’s her wicked ladyship?” Dawn asked.

“What? You don’t know?”

“We’re not from around here.”

“Her ladyship is the witch Melantha,” Huw said. “She’s been scheming after that throne for years, and now she’s finally got it, what with the king and queen being out of the way and now the princess’s curse deadline nearing. She’s planning to crown herself, and of course it must be a coronation grander than the king himself had.”

“Oh,” Dawn breathed as she tried to figure out where this fit into the rest of the story. Had the witch been the one to kidnap Lucy? And were her aunts for or against the witch? Rhian had said something about the enchantresses not opposing the witch. Dawn couldn’t hold back a shudder as she realized that running from her aunts must have been the right instinct.

All this time, Spink had been sitting on a nearby railing, singing to himself and occasionally picking up words from their conversation. Suddenly, he burst out, “Melantha! I know that name! I’ve heard it before!”

“Yes, of course you have, little friend,” Huw said gently. “She rules the kingdom, for now. People talk of her all the time.”

“Is she at the castle?”

“She is now.”

“In a tall, tall tower?”

“Honestly, I have no idea.”

“Melantha in the tall, tall tower of the castle,” the bird sang cheerfully, as though it was an old, familiar song he had just remembered from childhood.

“I don’t suggest you add that song to your act,” Huw remarked with a twitch of his mustache. “I don’t think it would be very popular.”


      “I–I   don’t have any money,” Lucy squeaked to the troll looming over her.

“Then you will pay the toll with your flesh,” the troll replied. A green, damp, mossy-looking thing came out of its mouth and ran across its lips, and Lucy sincerely hoped it meant eating and not other ways it might mean “flesh.”

“I wouldn’t make much of a meal,” she replied, trying to bring her voice down an octave. “I wouldn’t even make a good appetizer. But there’s a really big guy coming not far behind me. You wouldn’t want to ruin your appetite with me. And, as a bonus, he looks like he might put up a fight, which could be good for some fun.”

“How big?” the troll asked, its eyes going glazed as its pitiful little brain tried to process the thought.

“Lots bigger than me. But he’ll be here any second now, so if you don’t let me go, he might be able to sneak by while you’re distracted with me.”

On cue, Sebastian stepped out of his hiding place and approached the bridge. The troll looked from Lucy to Sebastian, then took a step forward. That left just enough room for Lucy to slip past while the troll’s attention was focused on Sebastian. She paused to give Sebastian a quick thumbs up from behind the troll’s back before she headed across the bridge.

The bridge itself was almost scarier than the troll. It swayed with every step she took, and she could see water rushing over the rocks below from between the bridge’s boards. The advice not to look down did no good here. If she didn’t look down, she might miss a board and step right into a gap.

Behind her, she heard the troll boom, “I don’t take tolls.”

“I wasn’t planning to pay one,” Sebastian replied, sounding perfectly calm. The bridge shook violently, and Lucy had to get both hands around the rope handrail to keep from being tossed off. While she held on to the wildly swaying bridge, she turned to see what had happened. Sebastian was moving steadily toward the bridge, his sword held in front of him, and the troll had backed onto the bridge.

The troll stood, blocking the way, and Sebastian hit it in the middle with the hilt of his sword, then hit it on the head when it doubled over in response. The troll reached out and knocked Sebastian’s feet from under him. Lucy fought not to scream out loud when Sebastian came dangerously close to the edge of the gorge. She knew it wouldn’t be a good idea to remind the troll of her presence. Although it was difficult to tear her attention away from the fight, she forced herself to take advantage of the troll’s distraction and resume making her way across the bridge.

The bridge kept swaying and bucking, and she knew that meant the fight was still going on and had moved onto the bridge itself. “Oh God, oh God, oh God,” she muttered with each step she took, and she was definitely praying, not swearing. If she just made it across this bridge and if Sebastian made it past the troll, she promised not to whine about going to Sunday school. That was, if she ever got home so she could go to Sunday school.

At a particularly wild shake of the bridge, she turned around while clinging desperately to the rope and saw that Sebastian had made it around the troll and was on the bridge, between the troll and Lucy. The troll was still coming after him, but it was no longer in Sebastian’s way. Sebastian kicked at the troll, sending it reeling backward, which made the bridge shake again. It didn’t help matters when Sebastian started running across while the troll recovered. “Your highness, run! Hurry!” he called while he ran, the troll coming after him with a ferocious snarl.

Lucy had been picking her way carefully across, but then she noticed that Sebastian was putting away his sword and getting out his knife, and she suspected she knew what he had planned. Her ongoing prayer turned into a whimper as she forced herself to run. She wanted to kiss the ground when she reached the other side, but Sebastian shouted, “Start cutting!”

She got out her Swiss Army knife and began sawing away at one of the ropes, attacking a frayed spot. The dogs noticed what she was doing and gnawed on another rope. Sebastian was still a few feet away when she cut all the way through one rope, and he leapt for safety before immediately turning to help cut the other ropes. The ease with which they cut through the bridge’s supporting ropes made Lucy even more queasy about having just crossed that bridge.

The troll was almost upon them when the last rope broke, sending the bridge and the troll crashing down to bounce off the gorge wall into the river. Once the troll hit the river, it was hard to spot it among all the mossy rocks. Lucy wondered if any of those rocks were ex-trolls who’d suffered a similar fate. It was kind of a shame about the bridge, since she was sure losing it would be a major inconvenience to the people in the area, but if it went down that easily, it was probably for the best. Now maybe they could get a decent bridge without a troll.

“It worked,” she said, gasping for air as she leaned against Sebastian, still too shaky to be elated. “It really worked.” They’d just acted out a fairy tale. That could mean her story would have a happy ending, too. Or would it, given that she didn’t actually belong in that story?

“Excellent plan, your highness,” Sebastian said with a grin and a clap on her back before he settled his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. She couldn’t help but smile when she remembered that only the day before she’d had to order him to put his arm around her.

They stayed like that for a long time, catching their breath. Lucy would have been happy to stay like that for hours. With the troll gone and the bridge destroyed, she felt like they were safe, at least for a while, and she was really enjoying being that close to Sebastian. But they had a destination, and by the position of the sun she knew it was already well past noon. “We’d better get going,” she said. “Beating a troll doesn’t mean we get to take the rest of the day off.”

He chuckled, and leaning against him the way she was, she could feel his laughter rumbling in his chest. “Are you always this resilient?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I’ve never been tested before. Not like this.”

“When I was sent to rescue the princess, I expected a great lady or a delicate beauty who would need careful handling.”

“And you got me, instead.”

“Yes, I was very fortunate.” A tickling feeling on her head told her he was playing with her hair. Oh, boy.

“You’re the princess this kingdom needs,” he continued, still twining her curls around his fingers. “You’re brave and resourceful, kind and good. People will rally around you. They’ll fight for you. And we will win back the kingdom.”

This would have been a good time to let him know she wasn’t really the princess. She didn’t think he’d dump her right there in the middle of nowhere. It even sounded like he liked her as herself and not just because he thought she was a princess.

On the other hand, how would he feel if he learned he’d given up his position, shed blood, and fought a troll for plain old Lucy Jordan?

Reluctantly, she pulled away from him and stood up before he had a chance to get to his feet and help her up. She pulled the straps of her backpack over her shoulders and said, “Well, which way?”

He shouldered his own pack and said, “Come on, it isn’t far now. Just over that next hill.” He pointed ahead, and the next hill didn’t quite fit her definition of “not far,” but she didn’t want him changing his mind about her being resilient, so she started walking.

Although she was exhausted and starving, her blisters had spawned blisters, her backpack seemed to gain five pounds every few minutes, and every single muscle in her body screamed in agony with every step, it was one of the best afternoons Lucy had ever spent. They must have fallen off the witch’s radar, since no one was actively chasing them, and that meant they could relax and just walk. Well, not relax entirely, as she was well aware that Sebastian and the dogs were keeping their eyes open, but at least they didn’t have to run.

And that meant they could talk. It was like spending an afternoon with Jeremy, except Sebastian occasionally took her hand or put his hand on her back, and he kept giving her those looks that made it clear that he was thinking about kissing her. He had finally dropped his guard with her, let himself forget about her being a princess. They were just two kids hanging out, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that she was trapped in a strange world where a wicked witch wanted her dead, it would have been fun.

Before she realized it, they’d reached the top of that hill Sebastian had pointed to. “We’re almost there,” he said, his voice rough enough that she wondered if she had some vitamin C cough drops in her backpack. With all the running around and sleeping outdoors and bad food, she wouldn’t be surprised if he was getting sick. She couldn’t have her protector slowed down by a cold. “My home is in this valley.”

“Thank God,” she said, meaning it intensely.

“We will make sure it is safe,” Larkin said, and he and Leila trotted off.

Once they were gone, Sebastian said, “I imagine that things will change once you’re in a place more worthy of your status. I don’t know what will happen then. You may no longer need me to guard you.”

“I’m sure I’ll still need a guard. That witch probably hasn’t given up.”

“But I may no longer be that guard. There are men far more experienced than I am who would be given that duty.”

Only then did she realize that he was trying to say good-bye, now while they were still alone together and before the fuss that was likely to come with showing up at his brother’s place. She gave him a hopeful smile. “Don’t I as a princess have some say about who my bodyguard is?”

He looked strangely sad as he said, “While a princess has a great deal of power, there is also a great deal of her life that is beyond her control. In a sense, you belong to your kingdom and the needs of the kingdom must come before personal desires.”

“That sucks!”

He laughed, losing the sad look for a moment, but only a moment. Then he was back to looking like he’d lost his best friend. “I believe, from what I’ve learned of you, that you will carry your title and serve your kingdom well.” He lowered his eyes, breaking eye contact, and whispered, “Before you have to live as a princess, I wanted to say. . .” Words didn’t come to him, so instead he leaned over and kissed her.

She went still with shock at first. Then she kissed him back, putting her arms around his neck and standing on her tiptoes so he didn’t have to bend over so much. Once she did that, he put his arms around her and pulled her against him. She wasn’t sure how long they made out, but eventually they stopped kissing and just held each other in a tight hug.

Finally, he loosened his hold and stepped away from her. He knelt in front of her, took her hand, brought it to his lips, and whispered, “My princess.” By this time, she was practically sobbing, and his eyes were suspiciously bright. She wanted to grab him and hug him again, but she got the feeling that his courtly gesture had been his way of reminding himself who she was (well, who he thought she was) and what his duty was. They were back in princess-and-protector mode, and she knew she’d only make things worse for him—and probably herself, too—if she tried to cross that line again. He got back to his feet just as the dogs returned.

“The armies have gathered,” Larkin reported. “The Grantley banner is at the head, so they are a friendly army. It should be safe.”

“The Loyalists must mean to challenge the witch before she can crown herself,” Sebastian said.

“It looks like you brought me to the right place,” Lucy said, forcing her voice to sound bright so she wouldn’t start crying again as soon as she spoke. “Now they’ll have a princess to offer as an alternative.” It took her a second to remember that she was only a pretend princess. She’d really let the role go to her head. Or maybe her brain was addled by all those kisses.

“We will leave you now, Highness, Lord,” Larkin said, bowing his head. “Our mission is complete.”

“Oh, can’t you come with us?” Lucy said, trying not to whine.

“We are not comfortable in large gatherings of men,” Leila said. “If there is a battle, we may join, but we do not go into human camps.”

Lucy wondered if it would be poor etiquette with talking animals to pet them. She settled for returning their bows and thanking them for their help, all while trying not to cry.

When they’d gone, Sebastian held his arm out to her and said, “Your highness?” She took his arm and let him escort her down the hill. He was so reserved with her that if her lips weren’t still tingling, she’d have wondered if she’d imagined the way he’d kissed her.

The sun was setting, and the light of campfires and torches ahead made the camp look warm and welcoming. Lucy was already looking forward to sitting in something that resembled a chair and sleeping on something that resembled a bed, maybe after eating a meal that wasn’t bread and cheese.

Before they reached the camp, though, a voice called out, “Halt!”

Several guards appeared, seemingly out of thin air, and surrounded them. “What is your business in this camp?” their leader asked.

“I need to see the Duke of Grantley,” Sebastian said.

“And who might you be?”

“I’m his brother, Sebastian.”

“Seize them!” the guard called out. As guards grabbed them, disarmed Sebastian, and bound their wrists with rough ropes, the lead guard came very close to Sebastian, practically spitting in his face, as he sneered, “Nice try, spy. But Lord Sebastian is dead.”

Continued in Chapter Fourteen.


Serial Chapter 12

It looks like there’s interest in a full book. I’ve ordered a cover and I’m working on proofreading the whole thing. I hope to have it available by the end of next week. I won’t bother with doing a pre-order phase. I’ll just have it go live as soon as it gets through the system. In the meantime, here’s chapter 12. If you missed the beginning, you can find it here. The previous chapter is here.

Chapter Twelve

            “Wait a second,” Lucy sputtered at Sebastian. “You’re not sure your home is safe?

“I haven’t been there since I was a child. I was fostered out for training when I was seven, soon after my father died, and I haven’t seen or heard from my family since then. I’ve heard of my brother, especially lately. He was on the royal council under the king and queen. I even saw him once from a distance at court, but I haven’t spoken to him. His service to your parents makes me think you’ll be safe with him, but I don’t know how welcome I will be.” His last words had a snap of finality to them that made Lucy reluctant to ask further questions, even though she was dying of curiosity. Obviously, this was a sore point with him.

“Okay, we’ll go to your home,” she said softly. She squeezed his hand and added, “And if your brother is mean to you, he’ll have to answer to me.”

That earned her a half-hearted smile. “You are very good to me, your highness.”

“Hello! You’re the one saving my life left and right. You know, I think we make a pretty good team. We’re practically a TV show: He’s a brave squire, she’s a spunky princess. Together they fight crime!” He gave her a big “huh?” look, and she supposed he had no idea what she was talking about. “Never mind,” she said with a sigh. “There are just too many references there to explain. We’d be here all day, and we need to get a move on.”

She suppressed a whimper at the thought of walking again, but didn’t feel so bad when Sebastian groaned as he stood and shouldered his pack. After they emerged from their shelter, he went over to a thick tree trunk on the top of a nearby hill. “We need to head west, which would be, hmmm,” he studied the trunk, then turned to his left and pointed, “that way.”

As they walked in that direction, Lucy couldn’t resist throwing in a bit of knowledge she’d picked up from Jeremy’s Boy Scout handbooks. “Yeah, because the moss grows on the north side.”

He snapped his head around to look at her, a mixture of surprise and awe on his face. “You know that?”

“I’ve picked up a few things here and there. Remember, I didn’t grow up as a princess.”

“You are full of surprises,” he said, a goofy grin threatening to take over his face. He fought it back with what looked like a force of will. “You are a skilled healer, you can defend yourself with strange weapons, and you know something of woodcraft. What other skills have you learned during your exile?”

“Oh, I can do all sorts of useful and non-useful things.” She’d been fending for herself and even sometimes looking after her mom for most of her life, ever since her dad died. “I can cook—nothing gourmet, but I haven’t poisoned anyone yet. I make a killer ice cream sundae. I can sew. I even make most of my own clothes. I’m learning about historical and theatrical costuming, though I’m not sure how useful that is. I play the clarinet in the marching band. That’s also not very useful. Oh, and I’ve learned to fix a few things around the house.”

“Perhaps all princesses should grow up away from the castle. You’re better equipped to be queen than most rulers are.”

“I’m really not that unusual where I come from. Well, not everyone designs and makes their own clothes, and the historical and theatrical costuming obsession isn’t typical, but a lot of people where I grew up can do the kinds of things I do—or more. My friend Jeremy knows all sorts of wilderness survival stuff, and he can even replace buttons on his shirts, too.”

“Then we should make a policy of sending our future rulers to your world,” he said.

“I guess that means I’d have to send my kids away, then.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way. I’m sorry, your highness.” His voice was somber, with a contrite tone.

She looked up to tell him it was okay, since they were only joking, and found herself looking into his eyes. Again, she had that feeling of her breath catching in her throat. They both looked away at the same time. She felt she should say something, but what?

She liked him, she realized. Liked liked him. Before, she’d certainly known he was good-looking, brave, and had an amazing body, but she hadn’t considered him as a potential romance candidate. He was like a TV star, someone she could admire from afar without ever thinking that she might actually go out with him. But now that she was getting to know him—and adversity was great for figuring out the kind of person someone was—she thought he was someone she’d like to know better, no matter how well she already knew him. This was the way she felt about Jeremy, that no matter how much time she spent with him, no matter how close they got, it wasn’t enough.

The reminder of Jeremy jolted her. He’d been there her whole life. She’d never imagined being with anyone but him. But he’d never looked at her the way Sebastian did. She glanced up at Sebastian and found him looking at her again, then they both hurried to look away. No, she wasn’t imagining it. He looked at her like he’d started noticing her as a girl, not just as a princess he was supposed to protect.

But what should she do about it? It wasn’t like they had much of a future together, since she was from a different world she wanted to go back to. He might look at her in a way that sent chills down her spine, but he hadn’t made any more moves than Jeremy had.

Her natural response to any emotional turmoil was to jabber, so she made a stab at starting a conversation. “Is fostering like sending you off to school?” The way he’d described it, it didn’t sound like a foster home in Lucy’s world. Then again, if his family didn’t have any contact with him, maybe he’d been taken out of a bad home and had just been too young to realize it.

“It is a common practice among the nobility,” he said. “A father or an older brother isn’t considered the best person to train a boy to be a knight. The best training requires an impartial teacher who is able to see a boy’s faults clearly and correct them. I don’t think my brother had the time to teach me, as he inherited the title and the lands and had an estate to run. He wouldn’t have been able to bring up a younger brother and train me properly. Lord Argus had a reputation for the strictest and best training. The teaching is much like a school, with book instruction, but also training in running a noble house, combat, horsemanship, and everything else that goes into being a knight.”

“But I guess you usually don’t lose all contact with your family while you’re in training, huh?” Lucy asked. Then something he said caught up with her. “Wait, you said a title?”

“Yes, my brother is Duke of Grantley.”

“So that would make you Lord Sebastian.”

“I suppose it does. But no one ever uses my title. Lord Argus forbade it. All the squires were supposed to be equal.”

“But you’re not working for Lord Argus anymore, my lord.” She gave him a mock curtsy, and he grinned in response.

She was about to ask him more about his family, but he changed the subject. “I wonder if Lord Argus has been working with the witch all along. I can’t believe I’ve been in the service of a traitor.”

“That doesn’t reflect on you, since you didn’t know.”

“Did Fulk know, though? I can’t imagine he would willingly work for a traitor.”

“Maybe he was a double agent, spying for the good guys while pretending to be the loyal sergeant.”

He shot her a suspicious look. “You know a great deal about subterfuge and espionage, your highness.”

“Oh, that. Yeah, I guess. I’ve seen a lot of spy movies because my friend Jeremy wants to be James Bond when he grows up.” His expression went from suspicious to confused. “I’m not even going to try to explain movies. You do have plays, though, right? Where people act out stories?”

“Yes, we do have those. I even got to see one once.”

Just one, once? Between that, his out-of-touch family, and all those scars, she got the feeling he’d lived the kind of life that people wrote books about and then went on talk shows to discuss their inspiring triumphs over tragedy. “Well, these are a kind of play, and spy stories are very popular for these plays. I’m sure in the real world spying is mostly boring stuff, but in fiction it’s very glamorous and exciting, with secret agents who travel all over the world and use high-tech devices to stop the bad guys. And, yeah, there’s always one of the bad guys who turns out to be working for the good guys, and usually a good guy who turns out to be working for the bad guys.”

“You go to these plays with your friend?”

If she wasn’t mistaken, he was showing distinct signs of jealousy. Did he have anything to worry about? She wasn’t sure, but she did know that instead of enjoying the idea of boys competing for her, she didn’t want him to think she was involved with someone else. “Jeremy’s my neighbor. We grew up together. He’s practically a brother to me.” How sadly true that was.

There was a definite decrease of tension in his face and shoulders. “It is good that you had someone to act as brother for you. I often wondered what it might have been like to grow up with a brother. I remember Geoffrey playing with me when I was very young.”

Ah, another tantalizing tidbit. “How much older is he?”

“I’m not sure. More than ten years, as he’d reached his majority when he inherited the title.”

“Then that’s a pretty good brother if he still took the time to play with you.”

He changed the subject again. “If Fulk isn’t the traitor, then I wonder who did alert the witch to our rendezvous location. Surely not that many people knew where we planned to take you.”

“It could have been anyone. Heck, since a lot of the animals around here talk, it could even have been an innocent-looking little songbird sitting in the window when people were making plans. We could be surrounded by spies here in the forest.”

They both came to a halt and turned to look at each other as the sickening realization hit. Lucy had said it as a joke, but it was a real possibility. Just then, there was a rustle in the underbrush nearby. Sebastian took Lucy’s hand, and together they ran. Lucy looked back over her shoulder and saw a puzzled-looking rabbit watching them. She couldn’t help but giggle, and when Sebastian turned around, he laughed, too.

“We’re now officially paranoid,” she said as she leaned against him, still shaking with laughter.

“I believe that is quite understandable in our situation,” he replied with a grin.

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone the story of Sir Sebastian and the fluffy little bunny.”

“For all we know, the fluffy little bunny was an enemy spy who would have reported our location.”

“You know, I’m not sure I want to live in a world where fluffy little bunnies can be evil.” But there was no way to tell which forest creatures were on which side. They really could be surrounded by enemy spies.

“Humans would have to listen to animals for animals to be of much use as spies,” Leila muttered.

That brought up a whole new set of questions for Lucy, who’d wondered how talking animals fit into society, but she had a feeling that would be even touchier than asking Sebastian about his family. “We listen to you, Leila,” she said, resisting the urge to scratch the dog behind the ears. “Anyone who doesn’t is just stupid.”

She realized after they resumed walking that Sebastian hadn’t let go of her hand. Her heart pounded as she moved her hand in his so that their fingers laced. It was probably the closest she’d ever come to a bold, flirtatious move, and she wasn’t sure how he’d react. When he settled his hand into the new grasp and squeezed, she went momentarily dizzy.

It occurred to her as they walked that as the son and brother of a duke, he should be eligible husband material for a princess. But she wasn’t a princess, she reminded herself. She was a common girl from another world who couldn’t possibly snag the son of a duke. There was probably some daughter of a duke or earl who’d been set aside for him.

And it was all pointless, since she hoped to go return home. Back there, she had Jeremy, who had always been her best friend and who was bound to become something more, eventually. She tried to conjure up a picture of Jeremy in her head every time she looked over to see Sebastian. Especially when she saw Sebastian looking at her.

Larkin, who’d been scouting ahead, ran back to them, panting. “We are nearing the river,” he said.

“That means we’re getting closer,” Sebastian replied, then turned to Lucy. “Your highness, the way will become rougher and more difficult from here. My family’s estate is in the hills.” Returning his attention to Larkin, he asked, “Are we near enough to a crossing—one that will be safe?”

“There is a bridge ahead. While it does not appear that the witch’s men are watching the bridges here, I believe it may be a troll bridge.”

“Most of them are,” Sebastian said with a worried frown. “And it would be far too dangerous to try to ford the river. We’ll have to risk it.”

Lucy was about to ask just how expensive the toll could be when it occurred to her that Larkin had said troll bridge, not toll bridge. “Wait a second, you mean a troll under the bridge, like in the fairy tales?” Of course, neither of them knew what she meant because they weren’t fairy tales to them. They were current events. “Never mind. Just something I read.”

“I will look for the troll,” Larkin said, then disappeared into the trees.

The way had become rougher and rockier. Lucy felt like she was climbing instead of walking flat, and there were now more pine and fir trees than the hardwoods of the lower forest. Soon she could hear the distant rumble of water and realized what Sebastian meant about the river being too dangerous to wade across. It sounded like there was at least one waterfall.

Larkin came trotting back. “Troll,” he said.

Sebastian rested his hand on the hilt of his sword. “How big?” he asked.

“Big enough.”

Lucy could tell that Sebastian was weighing his options, from the way he frowned and kept glancing at her. Finally, she asked, “Okay, so what’s the deal here?”

“The trolls will sometimes allow people to pass with proper payment of a toll, but I know I don’t have the coin for that, and I have nothing of value that it would be safe to give up. Without payment, they take their toll in flesh.”

“You mean they eat people?”

“They’ll eat anything. I might be able to fight it if it came after me, but if it tried to get you, there wouldn’t be much I could do to stop it. I could hit it with my sword for hours, and it wouldn’t bother turning around until it finished with you.”

This really did sound like “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” and that gave Lucy an idea. “Are these trolls all that bright?”

“They’re incredibly stupid,” Larkin said.

“Then we could try to trick it. There’s a tale in my world about tricking a troll into always thinking something bigger and more delicious is coming along. That way the smaller and weaker ones get by safely, and only the last fights the troll and wins.”

“It could work,” Leila said, tilting her head to one side. “They are very stupid.”

“Very well, then. We will try the princess’s plan,” Sebastian said with a nod.

They got closer to the river and hid behind some trees. The river wasn’t visible from there, mostly because it ran through a deep gorge. Lucy could hear the rumble of rushing water, but all she could see was a sheer cliff on the other side. While wading across was likely to be impossible, the bridge didn’t look much safer, even without a troll. It was a wooden suspension bridge, just a few boards strung together by fraying rope. There was only the slightest breath of a breeze, but the bridge still swayed in it. Lucy wasn’t fond of bridges at the best of times. She squeezed her eyes shut on the highway bridge across the Sabine River. This looked like the kind of thing she had nightmares about. She had to close her eyes or go for snacks during movie scenes about crossing bridges like this one.

Now she had to cross it herself, after getting past a troll? Not likely. She scanned the trees on the opposite bank, looking for one tall and strong enough that they might be able to toss a rope to so they could swing across, like in that scene in Star Wars. That had to be safer than the bridge, with or without a troll.

Not that there’d been any sign of a troll. There was just a large, mossy rock sitting next to the bridge.

“Your highness, what is your plan?” Sebastian asked.

Clutching her skirt so her hands wouldn’t shake, she said, “Well, first the smallest has to go. I guess that would be the dogs. When the troll tries to stop you, you tell it that you’re not worth eating, but someone larger is coming along soon. Then I’ll go and do the same. Then Sebastian, you come along and fight it. I’d guess knocking it off the bridge would be the best bet, but I’ll leave the fighting strategy up to you. But remember, I’ve never seen a troll before, so I have no idea if this will really work.”

“It does sound like something a troll might fall for,” Larkin growled.

“Then let’s do it,” Sebastian said.

The dogs approached the bridge, and as soon as they’d taken about three stops onto the boards, the rock unfolded into a roughly human-shaped creature a head taller than Sebastian and twice as broad. “You must pay my toll,” it boomed.

Leila bowed in a submissive posture and said, “We are but animals and have no money.”

“Then your toll will be your flesh.”

“We are hardly worth the effort, sir troll. But coming behind us is a person with far sweeter flesh.”

“A human?” Lucy was glad she couldn’t see the troll’s face from her hiding place because it sounded like the troll had just licked its lips. Ick.

“Yes, a human, coming very soon. You might miss her if you’re too busy with us.”

The troll turned back to the bridgehead, and the dogs scampered safely to the other side. That meant it was Lucy’s turn. Taking a deep, gulping breath, she eased her way out of the hiding place and approached the bridge. She tried skipping a few steps, like she was a carefree girl out for a stroll, but her legs were shaking so badly she nearly tripped and fell, so she gave that up and just walked.

“You must pay my toll to cross,” the troll boomed at her.

Suddenly, Lucy couldn’t help thinking that risking her life on the basis of something that happened in a fairy tale may not have been the best idea she ever had.

Continued in chapter 13.