6. Surprise! Surprise!

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On her quest to track down her husband and lady-in-waiting and prove to herself that nothing untoward was going on, Ashley spent fifteen freezing minutes lost in the stone maze, otherwise known as Cornell Castle. For some reason, she got many strange looks and head shakes from the staff as she passed, including a judgy raised eyebrow from the court jester—a man wearing argyle tights with little bells jingling on his cap, dragging a stick puppet of his head along the stone floor.

At least thirty maids, four footmen, a red-faced chaplain, and a drunken knight gave her inaccurate directions. Ashley resorted to asking the rats, scritching, and scratching behind the walls, but they were no help. She was rather like a ball being ricocheted from one dimly-lit, damp, spiderwebbed corridor to another.

Her thoughts also ricocheted.

From:

There is nothing to worry about; my husband is my one true love, which means Scarletta isn't his love.

To:

Scarletta is pretty and cultured and probably doesn't talk to mosquitoes. Maybe Charming regrets marrying me.

Back and forth until her brain was as scrambled as eggs in a skillet.

Speaking of eggs, as she turned the corner into the east wing, Ashley picked up a whiff of bacon, sausage, maple syrup, and yeasty bread, which she followed, stomach growling like a mad dog.

"I found it," Ashley rejoiced, executing the first recorded fist pump in history. Locating breakfast may seem minor to most of us, but to Ashley, it was like completing a marathon, only with less sweat and blisters.

"Who goes there?" came a gruff voice from beyond a curved wall.

She rounded the bend to discover Terrowin, one of the castle's terrifying guards. In addition to having roughly the size, shape, and hairiness of a bear, he carried a six-foot iron battle-ax as if it weighed no more than a jester's puppet.

Upon seeing Ashley, rather than bowing and myprincessing, Terrowin adopted a battle stance and readied his weapon, as if she were a dragon or troll who had penetrated the castle.* She gulped. The blades looked very, very sharp.

Ashley backed away, holding up her hand in an I'm-not-a-dragon-or-troll-so-please-lower-your-weapon gesture. "It's me," she warbled. Perhaps she should've taken a moment to tame her hair before departing the bedchamber. Ashley smoothed her curls.

Terrowin's eyes widened. "Princess Ashley?"

He dropped the ax with a heavy thud on the stone floor and bowed deeply. "So sorry, me highness. Didn't mean to raise a weapon to ya. Thought you was a ... never mind." He whimpered. "Please don't kill me."

Ashley sighed. Why did people always think she was going to have them executed? If they wanted a despot, they ought to move to Wonderland, where that psychotic queen lived. "Terrowin, please get up. I don't even know where to find an executioner if we even have one. I hope we don't. But regardless, I'd never hurt you."

"Thank you, Highness. Thank you," he cried softly, not moving from his bow.

"Is the prince in there?" she pointed to an arched stone entryway.

"Aye. Should I announce ya?"

"No, thanks; I'd like to surprise him." She winked.

His cheeks reddened. "That explains a lot."

Rather than pressing the guard to explain this odd statement, she decided to continue on her original quest. Since Terrowin hadn't budged, she was forced to step over him and the battle-ax to gain entry. She blinked as her eyes adjusted to the light streaming in from a wall of stained-glass windows on the east-facing side. The design in the glass depicted a gruesome scene of a handsome prince with a killer smile, stabbing a dragon, blood gushing from a mortal wound.

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