20. One Feather Short of a Wing

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Ashley's stomach whirred like a spinning wheel. Bile shot up, searing her throat. Marveloni? Of all people to overhear her dastardly plan.

How much had he heard?

She had no chance against him and his dark magic. The man, (if he even was a man), had a vast array of tricks he could pull from his ruffled sleeves.

Even worse than the fact that Marveloni could turn her into a teapot or a candlestick, the magician might decide Gerald would make an attractive lawn ornament or funerary urn.

Gerald—who had followed her here with the ridiculous idea that he ought to save her life. Gerald—who could speak to animals. Gerald—who at this moment stood between her and the magician's hiding place, spreading his long arms like a guardian albatross. He hunched forward, one knee bent, like a sprinter at the Interkingdom Games waiting for the cannon. Only a twitch of his left hand indicated that her favorite groom hadn't already been turned to stone by her least favorite magician.

All this boiled down to one fact—the magician had to go. But how?

Think, think, think. There had to be a way to neutralize the all-powerful Marvy and save Gerald. Wait, that was it! Save Gerald. She bent toward him and whispered in his ear, "go back to Louis, get out of here, and I'll deal with ... this," she gestured toward the tree.

Gerald cocked his head like a bird, looking at her side-eyed like she was one feather short of a wing. He shook his head vigorously, the devilish curl bouncing on his forehead. He jabbed his thumb behind him, indicating she should be the one to go.

She shook her head back.

The silent argument continued for another 30 seconds to the point where Ashley's brains felt like overcooked noodles from all the head-shaking. She should've known Gerald wouldn't let her save him. Stupid chivalrous man.

"He's still there," the sorrel neighed a reminder. "Just in case you'd forgotten."

"I haven't!" Ashley neighed back, clutching her fists. Why hadn't Marveloni shown himself yet? Probably trying to get more information before he came in for the kill.

Since Gerald was stubborn, she had to concoct another way to save him.

Information! That was the key. Take what Marveloni had already heard about the potion and turn it into something innocent. "Well, sir, I am happy to report you passed," Ashley said with as much authority as she could muster.

Gerald gave her another of his prized, "how did you escape the asylum?" stares. "I passed?"

"You did. With flying colors, I may add."

His eyes flicked toward the tree, then back at her. "Can you please tell me what exactly I passed? If it was gas, I apologize. Had a lot of fried parsnips for dinner."

"No. You passed the loyalty test. Our glorious prince was concerned that some members of his administration might be disloyal and hired me to find out who. All that stuff about poisoning the prince was part of the test." Ashley thought adding the word "glorious" was a nice touch.

The dragon-skin cloak whipped in a sudden gust of wind. "Enough," Gerald said, lunging at the tree, grabbing the hem of the cloak, and flinging the man as if he weighed no more than a bedsheet. He landed with a thud to the forest floor, branches (and hopefully bones) crunching. Shards of blackened leaves flew into the air. Gerald threw himself on top of the magician.

Squeals and grunts emanated from beneath the groom's brawny form. "Stop, stop. I'm sorry! I didn't mean to take it."

Ashley had imagined Marveloni would say something more like, "Unhand me, you swine, or I'll turn you into a swine." Or dispense with the preliminary threats and just turn him into a pig.

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