Chapter 16

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Maelyn sat in the Old Ogre Inn, waiting for Willow. She sipped from a tankard of hot cider and set it down on the table, a crude square of tired gray wood. Roke the Innkeeper had offered her a private chamber but she insisted on the common room. She enjoyed the overfed hearth and the mounted antlers and the thick smell of rabbit stew simmering. Except for a frizzled hag dozing over ale in the corner, she was alone.

“It smells better than it tastes.”

Maelyn gasped. “Willow! I didn’t hear you come in!” She gestured to the opposite chair. “Do you mean the stew?”

“Like chewing on bark.” Willow flung off his cloak and plunked down on the chair. He wore a crimson tunic and knee-high brown boots. His blue eyes settled on Maelyn with strange intensity. “Pardon my boldness, my lady – you look beautiful.”

Maelyn stiffened. Father had once told her she looked best in firelight, the way it danced in her dark eyes and brushed shimmering touches of red into her brown hair. “Thank you,” she said without smiling. “And thank you for coming.”

Willow nodded, a large yawn snagging his words. Maelyn noticed a weary droop to his eyes though the hour wasn’t late.

“Sorry to be late.” Willow clasped his fingers loosely. “But it took some time for Princess Arialain to convince me. I couldn’t imagine why you wanted to meet here.”

The Old Ogre Inn belonged to Creaklee, a humble but thriving village of craftsmen. On occasion, Maelyn’s father had taken supper there when he needed respite from his royal duties. And Maelyn felt that if she didn’t escape for a few hours she would either execute Uncle Jarrod or run screaming into the Crescent Mountains behind the castle.

“Never mind why,” said Maelyn. She lifted The Heartsick Hero off her lap and smiled. “I finished it.”

Willow blinked. “In… in one day?”

“One night and most of the morning.” Maelyn laughed, more lighthearted than she’d felt in weeks. “I loved it! I don’t usually care for romantic stories but this was delightful.” She smiled again. “Thank you, Willow. You did well.”

Willow returned her smile though a tinge of redness crept over his cheeks. “I am glad Your Highness enjoyed it.”

Roke the Innkeeper pushed in from an outer room and offer Willow a drink. Willow accepted a tankard of cider though he kept his gaze downward until the innkeeper slunk away.

Maelyn folded her hands on the table. “Now! I want to hear about it. How you convinced the Book Miser to trade with you. It takes me a dozen visits to get a book out of him.”

“Why does he hate you, my lady?”

Maelyn sighed. “Our first meeting was… not pleasant. For either of us.” She shook her head. “But I want to hear how you persuaded him.”

Willow grinned. “I’m clever. Haven’t you heard?”

Maelyn raised an eyebrow. “But he rejected you twice. What did you say that made a difference this time?”

She noticed a struggle in Willow’s eyes. He scooped up his tankard and shrugged. “Nothing worth telling.”

Maelyn sat back, feeling a nip of anger. She listened to the fire chomping through a pile of logs. Between the hearth and the hot cider she was becoming overly warm.

“I - I’ve read The Heartsick Hero,” Willow said, as though offering conversation.

Maelyn’s heart leapt. “Have you?” She leaned forward. “Do you think the hero truly loved both ladies? Or do you think he only pretended with the second?”

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