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.
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.