Fantastical Page 45

“Oh!” I cried and her head shot up, she spied me and her mouth formed a tentative (what I was sure was forced) smile.

“Your grace,” she said through her smile.

“I’m sorry, you’re cleaning. We’ll use the backstairs,” I told her, lifted my skirts and started backing up.

“No!” she cried, straightening and lifting up a hand to forestall me. “It’s just fine, I’ll scrub up after you. No problem at all. Use these.”

See. There it was. The smile was totally fake. Like always. She was scared she’d do something to upset me, which would make me complain to Tor, which would mean he’d unleash black prince fury. And she was willing to do anything to stop that. Including letting me trod on her hard work. Cleaning stairs on your hands and knees with a scrub brush had to suck. She didn’t even have a pad for her knees!

“No, that’s all right,” I assured her, continuing to move back as well as starting to turn. “It’s perfectly fine. Enjoy the celebrations this afternoon,” I finished then I fully turned and jogged up the stairs, hurried down the hall and took the backstairs.

I made it without encountering anyone, moving quickly through the halls to the mammoth entry in order not to run into anyone else and then I went out the enormous double front doors that had to be at least two stories tall and were open to the sunshiny day.

“It’s a beautiful day,” I told Aggie, my only friend in this world, as I strolled through.

“Chirp, chirp, chirp,” Aggie replied which meant, “That it is, Cora.”

I made it down the wide steps leading up to the castle, my eyes on the sun glinting diamonds off the big, beautiful, circular, gushing fountain in the middle of the courtyard in front of the castle and as I hit the bottom, a vivid flock of small birds swooped low, flying around me so close, they blew the flimsy pale pink skirts of my gown forward, my hair flew too as the wind from their wings caused a light breeze to surround me.

I giggled as they flew (this wasn’t the first time this happened, the first time I freaked way the hell out, now I was a dab hand) and they chirped, most of their chirps being, “Morning, Cora!”

“Morning, birds!” I called after them as their brightness faded into the sun.

Then I looked across the courtyard, not noticing (because I’d learned to keep myself to myself) that all the men and women in the courtyard were gazing at me with indulgent smiles and I spied Salem across the expanse.

“Salem!” I cried with delight, snatched Aggie off my shoulder so he wouldn’t go flying (figuratively) and skipped excitedly across the space while holding Aggie carefully in my hand.

Salem watched me and when I got close, I threw my arms around his glossy neck, deftly letting Aggie out of my hand so he could hop up on Salem’s back.

Salem whinnied and when I stepped back and grinned at him, he stuffed his nose in my neck and blew.

I laughed out loud because it tickled.

“Look at you, you beautiful beast. I’ve missed you. I haven’t seen you for a whole week!” I cried.

Salem snorted.

“How do you like that, Algernon?” A deep, handsome voice came from Salem’s other side and I ducked under the beast’s neck to see Tor standing there, arms crossed on his chest, powerful legs planted wide, eyes on me, his sergeant at arms, Algernon, at his side. “My wife flies across the courtyard to hug my horse and she doesn’t even look at me.”

Salem whinnied in a way that I could swear was laughter, I grinned at Tor, moved under Salem stroking him as I went then, when I cleared him, I flew the four feet to Tor and threw myself in his arms.

I had my face in his neck so I didn’t see the indulgent smiles all around widen or the knowing, happy looks that were exchanged as Tor whirled me in a circle, setting my legs and skirts to flying, then he set me down on my feet in front of him.

I leaned close, resting into my arms with my hands flat on his chest and my head tipped way back to look in his light blue eyes.

“How are you this morning, my husband?” I asked on a smile.

His arms around me gave me a tight squeeze. “Very well, my wife. How are you?”

I leaned closer and whispered, “Very well.”

His eyes warmed then scanned my face.

Then one of his hands slid from my back, around my waist, to come to rest, weirdly, palm flat, on my belly.

Then his neck bent deep and his face was all I could see when he murmured, “How well, my love?”

“Very, very well,” I replied on a grin, leaned up the inch he left and touched my mouth to his.

Then I forced myself to look at the strapping, blond Algernon who would, in return, pretend to like me.

Tor had not been wrong about his men so the folks of the city and castle loathed me but his men despised me. This I found out in an unpleasant way when some words were uttered in my direction (if not to my face), words, or, in particular, a word (starting with a “c”) that I didn’t know they even had in fairytale lands.

This incident I had been smart enough not to share with Tor.

“Heya, Algernon.”

He grinned at me and it was a good one. It looked nearly genuine. But it did not meet his eyes.

Then he bowed at the same time he touched his fingers to his forehead and said, “Good morning, Princess Cora.”

I smiled at him and looked back at Tor.

Then I asked the question I’d asked every day as each of them slid by with two things not happening: me going home (and it seemed pretty clear I was stuck here, it felt like I’d been there forever); and Rosa being rescued.

“Any news of –?”

Tor’s eyes went guarded and he gave me another squeeze.

“No, love.”

I pulled in both my lips and bit them.

Tor, as he always did, swiftly changed the subject, likely, I guessed, because he knew it upset me.

“What are you up to today?” he asked and I shook my head.

“You can’t ask me that question,” I informed him.

“I can’t?”

“Nope.”

His brows drew together. “And why not, wife? I ask it of you every day.”

“Yes, well,” I smiled up at him and pushed closer, “every day is not my husband’s birthday.”

His eyes scanned my face again as his body went still but his arms got tight.

And today was his birthday. I learned he was thirty-eight that day. And it was going to be a day of fun and festivities. There were going to be games and dancing and parties and street vendors and, that night, fireworks set off on the ships in the sea.

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