23. The Cloistered Witches of the Cloister

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Everyone is familiar with that weird sensation when you see someone you know in an unexpected place. Like you're dripping with sweat at hot yoga and in walks your middle-school algebra teacher—the one you had a massive crush on. Or you run into your ex on a good hair day, wearing a new amazing lipstick shade, with a hot guy on your arm.

There's that moment of non-recognition followed by that surreal feeling that maybe it's you who is out of place — followed by your acceptance of the situation. After all, people have lives outside of their interactions with you.

In Ashley's case, her mind went wild with questions swirling in a tornado of confusion. She used the sword as a makeshift cane, jabbing it in the snow with each step, trying not to fall over.

Upon arrival at the front of the line, out of breath from her exertions, Ashley blurted: "Why are you here handing out hot drinks and warm blankets to the prince's entourage?"

"Good to see you too," Prince Derek said. "If you must know, we're here to rescue you."


"Have your ears frozen over?" he said. "Don't blame you," he shivered. "It's colder than a spoiled prince's heart."

"My hearing is fine," Ashley said, gripping the sword's hilt so tightly, her hand cramped. She didn't know where to begin, whether she ought to scold them for being so stupid as to show up here or drop on her knees and thank them for coming.

She went for chiding, mostly because the ground was too cold to kneel upon. "Are you crazy. If the prince sees us here together, we're done for. We have to get you out of here." Derek plucked the sword from her grip as if it didn't weigh a million pounds, leaned it against the table, and offering her a hot cup of cocoa. "Few more marshmallows?" Ashley said.

Derek grabbed the marshmallows from Layyin and kept layering them in until he formed a perfect pyramid of marshmallows atop Ashley's mug. "Better?"

She sipped, nodding. The chocolatey goodness warmed her insides, but was this the time for relaxation? Sure her body ached from running through acres of blackberry brambles, spending years hunched over in a wooden torture device, being pelted with a mountain of rotten produce, fighting a thousand ice elves, and passing an eternity trapped in a carriage on a bumpy ride with her ex. But given that her friends and the entire plot to destroy Charming were about to be uncovered, the restoration period had to end. She set down the cup. "Now. Out of here." She surveyed their surroundings, looking for a haven.

White white white snow everywhere, except for the insipid-yellow fortress. "Where is your transportation? How did you get here so fast?"

"Calm down. You look terrible," Derek said. "Did someone drag you through a compost heap?" He sniffed her. I'd say a combination of rotted tomatoes and zucchini, which, by the way, was voted world's worst vegetable three years in a row by Vegetable Enquirer magazine."

"Quiet, Derek," Layyin said. "She's been through a lot. We'll get you a bath and clean clothes soon enough."

"She doesn't look terrible. I'd call it 'shabby chic,'" Sadira said. "Or ruggedly handsome."

Derek flung back his green curls. "I'll show you handsome."

"Don't worry, Derek. We all know you're gorgeous," Sadira said, tongue firmly placed in cheek.

"No need to appease me. I don't need your false flattery."

Sadira raised her eyebrows.

"All right. I do need your false flattery. What?" He held out his arms. "This Charming cheating ordeal has rocked me to my core. Can't blame me for a little insecurity."

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