47. Bippity Boppity, Who are You? And You? And You Too?

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The crowd stood in silence, mouths agape, pushing back so hard against the tent's canvas sides that the tentpoles began to buckle and groan. The mud in the center bubbled and burbled, gradually filling in the sinkhole. Ashley thought she heard the strains of One Hundred Bottles of Mead on the Wall from deep beneath the hole. With one last blurp, the hole closed up, blocking out the stench and the ghostly echoes of arguably the most aggravating song in the English language.

The question now was the safety of her friends. How would the crowd react to the demise of their "beloved" prince? Did vestiges of Prince Charming's love potion run through their veins? Ashley held her breath and tried to read the faces in the crowd. What did she see? Anger? Betrayal? Bewilderment? Happiness? Relief? Or all of the above?

Although the royals could make a reasonably swift departure with Ruth's help, it would take a few minutes to board her. In Ashley's mind's eye, she pictured the prince's followers clambering onto the stage in droves, tossing the loyal guards aside, and tearing her and her friends limb from limb. "Ruth, maybe you should prepare to fly us out of here. The crowd doesn't look happy, do they?"

"Don't worry, Ashley. I'll take care of 'em," Ruth said, skidding to the platform's edge, flapping her enormous wings, and letting out a fiery warning.

"Please don't incinerate the people, Ruth," Ashley said.

"You sure? Some of them look like they deserve at least a good toasting. Look at that one over there with the parchment and pen."

"I'm sure. The spectators are innocents. Charming and Marveloni put them under a spell. Not to mention, they've suffered enough under Charming's rule."

Ruth hung her head. "I guess, but I haven't had a good flaming lately."

Ashley patted her friend's scaly haunch. "You will soon. I promise."

"You're the best, Ashley," Ruth said. Poised on the stage, like a lion ready to pounce, she held her mouth open, exposing glittering teeth and the furnace within her belly. Her deep green eyes scanned the crowd, unblinking. All this, combined with her regal ruby crown, conveyed the message: Do not piss me off. Or else. And there was no doubt Ruth could come up with a very effective and painful 'or else.'

"Ruumsph," came a cry from behind Ashley.

She spun. "Oh, no! Gerald!"

"Go get him," Ruth said. "I'll keep the peace over here."

Ashley dashed toward her dear knight, who was still gagged, blindfolded, and with his hands tied behind his back. "I'm so sorry!" Throwing an annoyed glance at her friends, none of whom had thought to untie Gerald, she began untying the blindfold.

"Don't look at us. It's not our fault," Derek said. Paris had joined Derek on stage and played 'fetch the executioner's basket' with Derek Junior while Hilda Mae and Mercer cheered them on. "He's your boyfriend," but Derek was smiling at Paris as he said it.

"He's not my boyfriend," Ashley said through clenched teeth.

"Uh, huh," Derek said. "Sure."

Once she'd unknotted the blindfold, Gerald narrowed those big dark soulful eyes. "What did I do now?" Ashley said.

"Mntyurbfrnd," he replied.

"Oh, hold on. I'll get rid of the gag."

Once his luscious mouth was once again free to complain, banter, rant, heckle, and maybe, hopefully, a few more pleasant things, he said, "I'm not your boyfriend?" and then wasted those sexy lips on a pout.

"You're my knight," Ashley teased. "Now hold still while I finish untying your hands."

"Some knight I am," he grumbled. "Why are you the one rescuing me?"

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