Chapter 22

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Maelyn remembered the first time she ever saw the castle. She was sitting on Father’s horse, riding up the hill with him. “There it is, little pet.” He pointed over her head. “Your new home.”

To Maelyn’s young mind it was a giant cottage made of rocks. So gray. So hard. So many windows. Her gaze climbed a tower to a red flag that flapped against the sky. The image seared on her memory, and she never thought of her first day home without remembering that flapping flag, red against blue.

Today the flag hung limp on its pole, as if it, too, mourned her departure. Maelyn watched it from the carriage until the soaring trees of Lumen Forest wrapped their shadows around them. Uncle Jarrod chuckled. “It really is a tiny castle.”

Maelyn shut her eyes. She was facing a three-day journey spent solely in her uncle’s company. A ride in the Carnivorous Carriage sounded more inviting.

They sat in opposite corners on blue velvet seats. The sallow servant perched outside, commanding a team of black horses. Maelyn couldn’t visualize the new life waiting to meet her at the end of the road. She hadn’t asked Uncle Jarrod when she would meet Prince Murdel because none of this felt real. It was a journey to nowhere with nothing at the end.

At least Uncle Jarrod was enjoying the Lumen wine. He was into his third goblet before they even reached Merridell, the first town below the castle. “Marvelous wine!” Uncle Jarrod cried. “Can’t believe I never tried it.”

“It’s extremely rare,” said Maelyn, disgusted at how her uncle could absorb enough wine to flood a river without becoming unsteady or thick-tongued. The ride would be much more bearable if he drank himself into a stupor.

The carriage crawled through streets hugged by merchant’s shops and peppered with men and women in vibrant cloaks. Most of the nobility lived in Merridell. Maelyn watched them absently, a light breeze tossing the loose wisps around her hairline.

Uncle Jarrod filled his goblet from a small barrel on the floor and held it toward her. “Have some.”

Maelyn took a small sip and understood why the wine cost so much. Rich flavor, subtly sweet, with a gentle tingling that felt pleasant on her tongue. “It’s lovely,” she said, handing back the goblet.

“Holy Noses, it’s hot in here,” said Uncle Jarrod, unhooking his cloak. Maelyn didn’t feel so, but then she wasn’t three feet wide.

They reached the open fields and farmland that lay between Merridell and the next town of Creaklee. Maelyn pulled The Devious Damsel from a satchel at her side, bent on finishing the last few pages. She ignored the familiar landscape until a strange flashing pulled her eyes to the window.

“Lumen Lake?” Maelyn stared at the glittering water on her left, hemmed by ancient willows that hunched over the bank like gossiping hags. “Your servant is going the wrong way! We’re supposed to turn right at the fork after Merridell and take the road toward the mountains.”

“Don’t worry,” Uncle Jarrod said calmly.

“Don’t worry? We’ll never reach Grunwold going this way!”

Uncle Jarrod sipped his Lumen wine. “Perhaps we’re not going to Grunwold.”

Maelyn frowned. “Well, Dorf then. We still need the mountain road.”

Uncle Jarrod leaned forward, a smile deepening the creases around his eyes. “Prince Murdel… is married.”

Maelyn sat rigid as a cavalry of emotions charged through her. Shock, intense relief, momentary euphoria, utter bewilderment, and then finally, fear. “M-married?”

“Almost a year now,” said Uncle Jarrod.

The carriage lurched at a dip in the road and Maelyn caught the wall to steady herself. Uncle Jarrod watched with obvious enjoyment of her confusion. After a minute, she folded her hands in her lap and spoke calmly. “Where are you taking me, Uncle?”

Uncle Jarrod’s smile hardened. “Home.”


“Yes,” said Uncle Jarrod. “Home.”

Now she understood. But she didn’t believe him. Could he actually mean…?

“My - my village,” said Maelyn. “Where I was born.”

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