17. The Game is a Foot

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When you're a (mostly) good, (generally) kind-hearted, small-footed princess with a clear idea of how a group of royals can make their cheating prince's life a living hell, you want to find them immediately so you can get on with it. You don't want to have to referee squabbling amongst your ladies-in-waiting; you don't even want to bother changing out of your men's clothing disguise into something more princessy, even if you are suffering from considerable chafing; and you don't want to bother choosing a menu for Christmas dinner, which was months away.

But the very last thing you'd want would be to return to the castle to discover that somehow, Princess Blanche of Gravenstein had been misplaced by the kitchen staff.

Sadly, all of this was precisely what happened.

Let's start at the beginning ...

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Ashley skipped back to the castle, feet barely touching the ground as if the magical contents in her pocket enabling her to defy of gravity. Back at her rooms, the happiness quickly faded when she had to break up a fight between her ladies-in-waiting, who were jealous about Valeria's promotion, and calm them enough to help her into a gown and remove Gerald's mattress straw from her hair. She didn't want to explain to her new friends how mattress straw got into her hair.

Before she could go in search of her guests, she was urgently summoned down to the kitchens—a series of large square rooms with arched fireplaces on the walls, large enough for a ring of druids to dance inside. Spit boys rotated haunches of lamb in crackling fires, and despite the chimneys, layers of soot clung to the walls and ceilings like a mourner's veil. Chopping knives bit into vegetables. Cauldrons bubbled, and coils of steam scented the air with the smell of cooked meats and spices and yeast. The kitchen staff bowed when she entered, then returned to their labors.

The head chef asked her to make the earth-shattering decision of whether to serve goose or ham for Christmas supper or even ... both? Being a princess was way different than she'd dreamed about when she mooned over Charming as a lonely teen, posting drawings of him in her attic room the way all the village girls did.

She thought marrying the prince would be about true love. Instead, it was about expectations and protocol. Appearances versus reality. She'd learned a lot from the other royals, just not what she hoped. A royal spouse was meant to perform a part in the prince's play. To enhance his standing and power. The appearance of true love trumped real emotion. Her loveless, solitary life hadn't changed, except the cage was prettier and the food more plentiful.

She patted her bodice, where she'd secreted the potion, and smiled. If she couldn't have love, at least she could have freedom. And revenge.

"How about both?" Ashley said.

The chef nodded somberly, setting his three chins aquiver. "Excellent, your highness."

Having made the crucial Christmas decision, Ashley scrubbed her hands together in anticipation. Finally, she'd dealt with the last distraction and could gather the royals and tell them of her Wane & Tail discovery.

Ashley nearly escaped the kitchens when a panicked voice shouted her name from the wine cellar.

Taking a calming breath, Ashley prepared for the next crisis.

Marmotte, the bone-thin Sommelier, scuttled up the stairs from the cellar. The man had cheekbones so hollow; you could insert a hummingbird nest neatly inside each one. Please don't ask me whether we should have red or white wine for Christmas dinner.

"Princess Ashley," Marmotte stammered. "It wasn't my fault."

"What wasn't your fault?" Ashley said.

"It's about Princess Blanche. She ... uh ..."

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