Rose sat as close to the fire as she could tolerate, trying to drive out the chill that had seized her. Prince Raven loved her, but only because of her curse. Still, love is love. And yet, she was she was a prisoner here, caged by his order and the nature of the place itself.
Had he actually lied to her? She had to admit that as far as she knew, he had not. He was making preparations for her journey. The map and rooms of supplies proved that. The mirror magic was definitely real. She saw evidence of that everywhere she turned. And she could not deny that malevolent presence she felt in the Crossroads Room or Mouse's reaction to that strange flower. The whole kingdom acted as if it were under a curse of some kind.
Yet he wasn't honest with her either. He only ever told her as much as she forced out of him. Perhaps that was why he almost never left her alone with anyone else. He was afraid they would tell her things he didn't want her to know. The more she thought about it, the more certain she became that Prince Raven was hiding something from her, something important or perhaps even something dangerous. But what was it?
The wind died during the night and when Rose went down to breakfast in the morning, Prince Raven was waiting for her. When he saw her, his face broke into a huge grin. He swept up her hands in his and kissed them.
"How are you, Princess Rose?" He seemed so earnest that she paused and thought a moment before answering.
"I am fine, thank you."
"I am glad. I was growing concerned, but you look well."
"Concerned about me? Why?" She almost said something more. After all, he was the one off in some unknown land renewing the magical bond on his mad father while she waited here in the castle. But then, perhaps the castle was more dangerous than she knew.
"I was gone a long time. Forgive me. It took much longer than I expected." He smiled brightly, banishing the strange mood that had been settling on them. "I thought we would go for a ride after breakfast. And tomorrow I need to visit one of the other villages. It's a bit farther away, so we will have to leave early, but I think you will enjoy it."
Prince Raven seemed intent on continuing his habit of filling her days with as many new and exciting activities as possible. They visited several other villages, always returning to the castle each night. Each town held some sort of festival or celebration for them and Rose met the important people.
After a few visits she began to notice something strange in the way they treated her. Everyone acted as if she were fragile, and she overheard them speak about her in awed, hushed tones. Whenever they spoke to her they seemed somehow sad.
In one village the headman wiped away tears after he met her. His wife patted her hand and called her a "poor, brave dear." Rose pretended not to have noticed their odd behavior or the brooding frown that crossed Prince Raven's face. Instead she smiled at the gathering as he helped her out of the sleigh. As they hurried into the warmth of the longhouse, a small child squirmed through the crowd and kissed Rose on her gloved hand.
She knelt down to the child's level and smiled. "Hello. What's your name?"
The child's eyes flew as wide as saucers. It screamed and fled back through the forest of legs. Near the back, an adult snatched it up and carried it away. The villagers waited, tense and quiet, for her reaction.
Rose stood and held her hands out apologetically. "Please forgive me. I never meant to frighten the child."
Prince Raven smiled and took her hand, leading her inside. "The little imp stole a kiss." He gave a forced laugh. "It is considered good luck to kiss the princess."
Rose frowned at the inadequate answer but the crowd relaxed, several people laughing along with Prince Raven, so she kept her questions to herself. But as they were being seated, the headman's wife leaned over and whispered, "Don't you worry about him, Princess. You just startled him is all. He didn't expect you to talk." She gave Rose the sort of look you give a sick child who is being patient and good instead of cranky and irritable, as they have every right to be. But before Rose could ask more she moved away to her own seat, dabbing at her eyes.
Once the hubbub settled and everyone was seated, Prince Raven stood and pulled Rose to her feet. "Friends, I would like you to meet Princess Rose."
The crowd clapped and cheered but Rose watched with resignation as the curse did its work. Young people looked at her with something akin to worship shining in their eyes while older faces showed a kind of determined pride or brave regret. Watching the change bothered her. Before the princes had come, all of the people she saw each day had known and loved her for as long as she could remember. Occasionally she met someone new, an ambassador or visiting dignitary, but until Prince Raven brought her to Eldrnaor Fell, she had never seen the curse sweep a crowd at the sound of her name. It bothered her not only because it felt like taking advantage-- that part of the curse had always troubled her-- but because loving her brought these people no joy.