Chapter 27

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Maelyn climbed the four marble steps, hooked the ivory cape around her shoulders, and sat in her throne. It felt wonderful.

“Show him in, Ari.”

The Book Miser was not impressive to look at. Stooped, wrinkled, knobby. Wiry black hair over a face furrowed by sneer lines. His tunic and hose, though well made, hung loose and faded from too much wear. He clasped a heavy book in his gnarled fingers and offered no bow.

Maelyn lifted her chin. “Good day, Sir.”

“G’day,” said the miser. He had a voice like dead branches scraping together.

“You haven’t come to the castle in many years,” said Maelyn.

“Six,” said the miser, “since I left your father’s service.

Maelyn nodded. “What brings you, then? It must be urgent if you came all this way yourself.”

The miser scowled, shifting his weight from one twiggy leg to the other. “I want the book the fellow brought.”

“The fellow?” said Maelyn. “You mean Willow? My messenger?”

“I mean The Carnivorous Carriage.” The miser never wasted his words. “Didn’t want it before but I do now. Someone offered a good price for it.”

Maelyn knew what the miser called a ‘good price’. Even when he worked for the king he often asked to be paid with books rather than gold. But to trek up the hill on creaky ankles to ask her for only one…. He must’ve been offered at least a dozen in exchange.

“Who wants it?” Maelyn asked, genuinely curious.

The miser narrowed his ice blue eyes. “Someone,” he said, clearly suspecting Maelyn to try and trade the book herself, if she could.

Maelyn leaned back in her throne. “Then I’m sorry to disappoint you. I gave that book away.”

“Gave it away?” the miser looked at her as though she had given the nose off her face. “To who?"

Maelyn smiled. “Someone.”

Suddenly she felt guilty. By the looks of the thick, gem-studded book he carried, the miser had come to do a generous trade. And he had given her The Devious Damsel, which inspired her to use trickery with Uncle Jarrod. Though she hated to admit it, she owed the miser a debt of gratitude.

But when she tried to explain this, the miser’s forehead cluttered with wrinkles. “Never owned a book called The Devious Damsel. Never traded one either.”

“No?” said Maelyn. “What about The Heartsick Hero?”

“Never heard of it.” The miser’s eyes glinted. “Are they… are they good books?”

Maelyn’s mind churned with confusion.  But beneath the tumult, one simple fact took form. “You gave nothing to Willow. Not one book.” Her hands clenched the arms of her throne. “Because he was trading for me.”

The miser’s sneer lines deepened. “If you desire my books, then come to me yourself. Don’t send the golden swain.”

“Because you enjoy disappointing me. Making me return, again and again, to beg on your doorstep.” Maelyn’s face was hard as a diamond. “You had better go. Now.”

The miser’s gaze shifted back and forth. “So you won’t tell me-”

“I said go, Dorian!” Maelyn shot to her feet. “Let me never see your face here again!”

The miser took a step back but quickly recovered his sneer. “Or what? You’ll kick me in the chin again?”

He had never forgiven her for that. She was only a frightened child when he lifted her off the road all those years before. She had thrashed frantically as he carried her to the shiny man’s horse, and her small heel had crashed against his chin. Father always laughed at the story but Dorian hated her for it. It didn’t help that he had to respect and serve a princess he had once scraped off the dirt.

“I’m not asking you to like me,” said Maelyn. “But so long as I am ruler of Runa, you will respect my commands.”

The miser gave a mock bow and a crooked smile. “Yes, my lady. So long as you are the ruler.”

Maelyn stiffened. “What do you mean by that?” But the miser hobbled out of the throne room in hostile silence.

For several minutes, Maelyn sat quietly, her chin resting on interlaced fingers.

She had better send for Willow.

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