27. Of Pancakes and Peaks

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Things in Ever After were looking a tiny bit brighter. Not like "blazing noontime sun" bright. More the level of brightness that happens when you're scrubbing a chimney, and a slit of light manages to sneak its through the creosote.

For one thing, Borin had been quickly apprehended and returned to his subterranean quarters. The royals were so thrilled that Derek, Sadira, Layyin, and Ashley had arrived back safely that they planned a Jacuzzi-room meetup after dinner to celebrate and plan the next steps on how to ruin Charming's life after what was clearly the potion's failure. Together they would see the prince pay for his crimes!

But more importantly, Ashley found her way to the bathroom without any embarrassing encounters with court jesters, maids, footmen, or chaplains. Once she arrived, Ashley happened upon Valeria, plucking petals from a bouquet of crimson roses and arranging them atop a steaming bath. The petals floating on the surface reminded Ashley of blood splatter, but she kindly did not say so. In the fireplace, a fire the orange of a summer sunset, cracked and popped. The flames of a hundred beeswax candles danced in the wake of invisible currents.

"It's beautiful, Valeria, thank you," Ashley said, her muscles relaxing more and more with each inhale of the warm, rose-scented air.

Valeria deposited the half-plucked bouquet on a wooden table beside a jug, stood, and curtsied. "I heard you mentioned you'd like a bath. Let me help you with that." She lifted the torn-tattered chemise over Ashley's head and tossed it in the fireplace. "I assumed you wouldn't want to keep that."

Ashley smiled. "You assumed right." She climbed into the golden claw-footed tub, sending the petals bobbing toward the edges, the water an enveloping caress on her skin. Exhaling, she closed her eyes and floated, but thoughts of Charming, the missing children, and the taxes threatened to ruin what she'd hoped would be a few moments of peace. She had to quiet her thoughts enough to think clearly.

"May I wash your hair, Your Highness?"

"That would be lovely, Valeria." Ashley generally preferred to do these small tasks for herself, lest she forget how and become a spoiled, incompetent royal. But her arms ached from upending cauldrons and hours of clutching the reins of an obstinate unicorn.

Warm water cascaded over her head. Valeria applied shampoo and scrubbed Ashley's hair and massaged her scalp. Bliss.

"I am grateful to you, My Princess."

"Mmmmm," Ashley said from the edge of sleep. The massage ceased. "Sorry, I almost fell asleep. What did I do?"

"My little sister, Victoria, is one of the abducted children. When you told us you would bring them all back, a great weight lifted from my soul. Victoria is the only family I have left since my parents died in last year's plague."

Upon hearing this, the great weight switched over and bore down on Ashley. What had she done? She hadn't said she would do her best to find the children. She guaranteed she would find and return them safely. How could she be so stupid?

For one thing, she didn't even know where they were. And for another, who knew what might have befallen them? Usually, people didn't kidnap children so they could give them a better education and health care.

"I am very sorry to hear about your sister and your parents. I will do all I can to return Victoria to you."

"You will succeed," Valeria said, eyes filled with tears.

"Yes," Ashley said over the lump in her throat. "I will."

Valeria rinsed Ashley's hair and handed her a loofah. Ashley scrubbed and scrubbed, and though she could not rid her skin of all the dirt, nevertheless, it turned the water the oily brown of a stagnant moat.

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