Chapter 15

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The following evening, Uncle Jarrod joined them for the Royal Reading Hour. He chose The Tyrannical Troll, a chair by the hearth, and a deep goblet of wine. For half an hour he scowled at the book in his velvet lap, but his gaze often drifted to the heavy rain pelting the windowpanes.

Maelyn thought he seemed frustrated. Perhaps he’d expected them to be languishing without their servants and the castle to be chaotic as a smashed beehive. Perhaps he’d come to rescue them and was annoyed at finding nothing to rescue.

Maelyn looked around her library, at her sisters tucked into scattered chairs. Only a few seemed engrossed in their books, the rest fidgeted or drooped with sleepiness. Maelyn held The Curvaceous Countess but hadn’t opened it. She’d read it so many times. Arialain slouched behind her book to hide her tears. And Coralina had gone to bed, exhausted by another day of revelry in the throne room.

Uncle Jarrod plopped his book on the closest table. “One of you – fill this for me.” He shook his empty goblet. Heidel, the Kitchen Princess, grabbed it and flounced from the room. Maelyn knew she resented the depletion of her wine stores.

Why wasn’t the sallow servant fetching the wine? Maelyn rarely saw him as he seldom left her uncle’s bedchamber. Uncle Jarrod claimed his servant was occupied with mending clothes and copying royal documents. But whenever Maelyn passed the door she heard only sounds of snoring. She suspected her uncle simply enjoyed having his nieces wait upon him.

Heidel returned with a smaller goblet, which Uncle Jarrod seized without remark. She plunked into a chair, flipped her red braid over her shoulder, and opened her book again.

“Ahhh. Splendid wine,” said Uncle Jarrod. “Must take a barrel home with me. This realm has always produced the best mulberries.”

“Hmm,” said Heidel. Maelyn could almost see the silent storm of curses rolling across her mind.

“Now,” said Uncle Jarrod. “I have some news for all of you.”

The princesses looked up from their books. Most of them appeared more wary than eager to hear the king’s words.

“I return to Grunwold in three days,” said Uncle Jarrod. “After some consideration, I have decided one of you will return there with me.”

Silence reigned.

Maelyn found her voice first. “For a visit?”

Uncle Jarrod sipped casually from his goblet. “No.”

Silence reigned again.

“You’ve heard of Dorf, haven’t you? One of my smaller kingdoms.” Uncle Jarrod collected kingdoms the way a child collects pretty stones. “Apparently, the prince – Murdel by name - does not fancy the ladies of his realm. Dorf is known for unpleasantly wide women. And so the prince has asked me to find him an attractive bride.”

Maelyn guessed hers was not the only jumping heart in the room. “Well? Which of us will it be?”

Uncle Jarrod chuckled. “I haven’t decided. Doesn’t matter really, you’re all somewhat pretty. And slender - at least most of you….” He glanced at Heidel who carried more padding in her curves than the others.

Heidel’s eyes flared. “And what if we don’t like Prince Murdel of Dorf? If the women are ‘unpleasantly wide’, won’t the men be?”

Uncle Jarrod shrugged. “Preference is irrelevant. Without your parents to arrange marriages for you, the task falls to me. Don’t worry, I’ll find suitable men, men of good rank. If not kings and princes, at least dukes.”

Every princess lost color from her face, even Shulay who had the darkest complexion.

“How soon do you want us married?” Maelyn asked softly.

“Not all at once.” Uncle Jarrod waved the hand that didn’t clutch his wine goblet. “Too much work. By your twentieth year, for each of you.”

The youngest princesses gushed sighs of relief. They needn’t worry for another four or five years. But Maelyn was nearly nineteen, and eldest. Uncle Jarrod’s pretence of indecision didn’t fool her. She knew who would marry Prince Murdel.

Health and wealth to Maelyn, the next queen of Dorf. Mother would have been so pleased.

Boom! Boom! Boom!

The castle’s main door rumbled with a sound like far-off thunder. A visitor. Maelyn closed her eyes and blessed whoever had brought the interruption.

“Very late for someone to come. In the rain.”  Uncle Jarrod smirked. “Doesn’t one of you act as the ‘Door Princess’?”

Arialain sighed and slid out of her chair.

Maelyn didn’t care who’d come. She’d be taken from her sisters, married to a stranger, and live in a land of unpleasantly wide people. Shouldn’t she feel privileged? She who came from a ramshackle village slaughtered by the Red Fever. But she felt nothing. Nothing.

Arialain returned. “It was the new messenger.”

Maelyn didn’t look up. Willow must have come to return the last book she’d given him to trade. Well, she wouldn’t send another. What she should do was summon a pack of soldiers, raid the miser’s home, and seize every book the wretched man owned. Though Father wouldn’t have done that….

“He told me to give you this.” Arialain dropped a book in Maelyn’s lap. Small, with a plain brown cover, titled The Heartsick Hero. Maelyn snatched it up. “A new book!”

Everyone looked at her. Uncle Jarrod laughed. “What?”

“Nothing. Please excuse me.” Maelyn hurried out of the library. Within moments she conquered the corridors and staircases dividing her from her bedchamber. A new book! Willow had done it!

She lit multiple candles, yanked on her nightdress, and let her hair tumble free of its combs. She crawled under the coverlet and sat against the pillows. Outside the chamber, her life was cracking like ice on a pond. But here, now, she could find escape.

She turned the cover to the first page. Smooth white parchment. Unfaded black letters, carefully etched. This book was recently made. How surprising the miser would part with it!

The coverlet warmed her legs. The firelight wobbled over the pages. Maelyn sank into the world the words wrapped around her, hushing everything that hurt, and seeping tranquility right down to her toes.

She was home.

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