READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: Disenchanted (Disenchanted, #1), by Brianna Sugalski
Once upon a time, centuries ago, the flames of a decades-long war engulfed the wildwood throughout the Kingdom of Brittany, displacing the beasts who lurked within. With no other choice, those fanged and clawed creatures fled to the scant remaining patches of forest. The largest was known as Brocéliande, already home to the elusive Fair Folk and within unsettling proximity to the human populace.
Seething, the faeries retreated into the eastern half of Brocéliande—La Basse Forêt. Slaves to the arcane law of Karma, they wait in the dark for any chance at retribution, ready to strike down any mortal or abomination in their path.
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Disenchanted (Disenchanted, #1), by Brianna Sugalski
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
FORÊT DE BROCÉLIANDE, 1532
Laurent Beaulieu knew the trees here were accustomed to keeping secrets. He was well aware that even if the rendezvous did not go unnoticed, he had little to fret about. Had a human or creature seen, he’d easily finish them off; lately he preferred to keep violence at a minimum, but he’d do anything necessary to keep others from knowing he had agreed to a conference on human terms. Fortunately, even the most dauntless mortals typically avoided the woods after dusk.
Still, he couldn’t quite shake the apprehension presaging him.
The fog of early twilight had rolled in, nestling among the dense foliage. Laurent pivoted, easily spotting the thin figure slinking toward him. He’d heard and smelled her first—the confidence of a tromping footfall, the dancing aromas of chamomile and roses. It was at her written request that he’d agreed to converge under the cover of dusk, unbeknownst to the sleepy kingdom beyond.
The unlikely pair met at the edge of a hillside glade overlooking a coniferous expanse of green—the sprawling High Forest, the western half of Brocéliande. Behind them, beyond the moors, a blood-red sun spilled duly into the Celtic Sea.
Laurent ran his tongue smoothly over his teeth, careful to keep his distance as the woman began to speak. She’d made no waste of time; his face fell as he listened to her ludicrous proposal, shifting in the shadows to avoid even the faintest rays of dwindling sunset. When she was finished, he could only stare.
“Well?” The woman glowered at him with tight-lipped fury.
“What are you asking me to do?” Thick vulcan brows knitted together above his deep-set eyes. His attempted whisper did little to mute the disbelief fraying his voice. He’d simply misheard her the first time.
He had to have.
“Don’t play stupid with me, Darkling,” she said, eyeing him in disdain. “You heard me.”
A twig crunched suddenly beneath Laurent’s footfall, and he startled.
“My goodness, relax,” she chuckled. “As promised, I’ve come alone.”
Her reassurance only hastened the painful adrenaline pulsing through his dead veins, like carp swimming upstream. As the crisp forest air exited and refilled his lungs in rising panic, he knew she was telling the truth. There was no one around for leagues, no guards concealed in the brush—nobody to come to her rescue, had things gone awry.
To what avail?
In the letter requesting Laurent’s company, Vivien Le Tallec had never revealed what it was she needed to discuss—only that their meeting was urgent. Laurent didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t this, and it certainly wasn’t her. It was a stout, angry human woman he’d had in mind; the one standing before him was statuesque and terrifyingly unafraid. Her too-prominent nose made her resemble an irate swan.
Still, he wasn’t accustomed to feeling so ill-at-ease around humans, and this bothered him deeply. She was duchess after all—privilege-toting wife of the esteemed duke. Her prominence was probably why she dared come alone, the result of typical mortal foolishness Laurent knew well and plain. Social status accounted for nothing in the woods; he was still twice as strong as ten of her husband’s soldiers, and thrice as quick as their steeds. Still, Laurent couldn’t shake the vague feeling that something was… off.
And beneath platinum blonde locks, her neck—her neck, he couldn’t help but notice upon further inspection—was slender and elegant as the rest of her. Laurent absently licked his lips and ignored his growling belly.
Vivien sauntered towards him, daintily lifting the hem of her scarlet lace gown and shrinking the space between them to an arm’s length. Her teardrop earrings glimmered in the evening haze, their crystals casting rainbow freckles onto her plunging neckline.
Laurent forced himself to blink twice. “Madame Le Tallec,” he replied warily.
Her eyes narrowed into slits as she leaned in, voice barely above a whisper. “All I am asking, is that you do what you do best. It shouldn’t be difficult, given the likes of you.”
Laurent shut his eyes to focus on the trickle of the nearby stream as he processed the sheer absurdity of her request. First of all, her sudden proximity was dangerously overwhelming. And second, it was true what everyone said—like her bellicose husband, the woman was mad.
“Don’t be daft! If I have to spell it out for you, by all means.” Her shrill cry shattered his thoughts, and a moment later she lunged forward to grip his cowhide vest. She jostled him, ice-blue eyes bulging.
“Kill the princess. Drown her in the river, make it look like an accident. Lord knows you’re good at covering your tracks, and I will make sure you’re never caught. You have my word, Darkling. I don’t care how you make it happen, but make. Her. Disappear.”
Gently as possible, Laurent pried the woman’s fingers from his clothing. It was obvious she was unaware just with whom she was dealing. Fists clenched, he took a long step back. “I can’t do that.”
Vivien’s cold glare broke—but not for long. “Then get one of your kind who can,” she offered, smoothing her expression.
His jaw tightened. It was one thing for a Breton noble to ask a Darkling to kill a low-class harlot; though rare, it did happen from time to time, usually after a wayside mistress was discovered. He had many associates willing to do so for whatever meager fee was thrown their way—money meant sustenance for the starving ones, after all. Not to mention the others in his coven who would immediately jump at the opportunity. But it was ludicrous for anyone, even the duchess, to expect him to execute the future monarch. The coronation ceremony was less than a week away, for God’s sake.
“The royal family holds the duke and yourself in the absolute highest regard.” He shook his head slowly. “Also, isn’t your son quite friendly with the girl?” Laurent never cared to keep up with affairs of the mortal kingdom, but his own position within the forest hierarchy required some general awareness. He at least knew that if the Le Tallec boy married into the royal family, the Darklings would have problems much bigger than starvation.
“That is none of your business,” Vivien said curtly.
“We’ve finally managed to decrease our attacks on the surrounding towns, almost halt them altogether…” He trailed off. “Why would you want us to regress? Why could you possibly want—”
Vivien sighed, her breath billowing into the cold like smoke from a disheartened dragon.
“Just so we’re clear here, I don’t owe you any explanation. But if it helps… it’s this simple. Her ascension to the throne would prove disastrous for our kingdom, and especially damaging to her parents’ reputation.”
“Fine. You think she’s unfit to rule. So, execution is the solution?” Laurent scoffed. “That’s a bit excessive, don’t you think? And quite frankly, I don’t see how any of this is my problem.”
Ignoring him, Vivien continued. “I am a patriot as much as anyone else. We can’t have a successor with her… abnormality taking the throne. We won’t.”
Laurent blinked. There it was.
Of course. How could he have missed it?
It was no secret; a decade ago, word had spread fast as fire among the trees, quicker still. The Trécesson girl was the first known person within the entire kingdom, able to communicate with the Darklings of Brocéliande. The kingdom of Brittany considered his kind—and anyone else who wasn’t human—more revolting than infectious plague victims. Of course, this had caused an uproar, but the kingdom’s dissatisfaction was something he’d assumed everyone had grown used to. He never expected anyone—certainly not the duchess—to wish death upon the poor girl.
He shivered and refocused on Vivien whose impatience faded into something like nostalgia. She too seemed lost in thought as she stared distantly at the dimming horizon. The orb continued its final descent below the stratocumulus plane, projecting rosy pinks that melted into violet twilight.
His vision had sharpened considerably with dark encroaching. A distance off to their right he could now make out the brick towers barely peeking out from the canopy. A sprawling fortress built for keeping monsters out, the Château de Trécesson sat at the southwestern corner of the High Forest.
“Vivien.” Laurent placed his next words decidedly. “Another ruler isn’t in my interest at this time.”
She spun away from the sunset, face twisted. “Excuse me?”
He ran his palms down the front of his vest, smoothing out the places where it had bunched under her grip. “The Brocéliande communities continue to struggle. When desperate creatures dare venture to the castle to cordially appeal to the king, their guards either lock them up in the dungeon or shoot them full of arrows. I know, because many of my own have taken an arrow to the knee.”
“What are you proposing then?”
Laurent paced, ancient gravel crunching under his feet. He pulled a wooden flask from his pant pocket and took a quick swig, wiping his ruddy mouth with his sleeve before continuing.
“Ogre plundering and korrigan infestations in Paimpont have been down to nearly nothing lately. I’ve taught the coven to remain inconspicuous while feeding in the boroughs. The last town raid I authorized was half a century ago, and while that was a terrible mistake on my part, we’ve learned from it. I take complete responsibility, Vivien. We don’t kill anymore, and any life lost at the hands of a vampire is against our order,” he said through clenched teeth. “Shapeshifters have been advised to stop their thievery, and the Fair Folk—well, they’ll do what they please, but at least they keep to themselves. That’s been a substantial improvement for all of us.”
He attempted to keep the animosity from his voice, but couldn’t quite manage. “Darklings don’t deserve to be punished any more than they’ve already been. If it’s up to me, we’ll refrain from doing anything that would further ruin our standing. The princess can speak to those of our kind who cannot communicate with humans. One day, she may decide to lift her father’s law. So, I’m not proposing anything, Vivien, because I refuse to harm her.”
It seemed the duchess hadn’t expected that response from him, either. Vivien’s brief scowl morphed into a grin before fading into nonchalance. Her eyes gleamed bright. “You know, for a vampire, you’re very level-headed.”
“I’ve been around a long time.”
A moment of silence passed before she spoke again. “You are right.”
Her blonde hair swung mesmerizingly as she paced away. She glanced back at him, the shoulder of her dress slipping slightly to expose the smoothest porcelain skin. “But think. How will she fare when the entire kingdom fears her? You’ve heard of the recent town riots, I’m sure. Paimpont is a mess. They’re protesting her reign.”
Laurent shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He’d heard indeed. The other day, townsfolk had apparently pelted the town crier with rotten apricots. “Yes, but what does that matter? That throne is rightfully hers. She’ll become queen, whether they like it or not.”
“You forget the things that humans are capable of, when fear is a strong factor. But, what if the princess is assisted with her situation? She hasn’t faced her people in years, and they say such horrible things of her. Her little… gift of tongues is the bane of her parents’ existence. Think of how grateful they would be, if someone helped rid their daughter of her problem.”
Laurent could barely follow the twists and turns of their conversation. First, Vivien wanted him to kill the princess. Now, the plan was to help her? “How could we possibly do that?”
“Not we, my dear, but she,” she replied, spinning to face him head on. “There is a witch who resides at the far end of Paimpont, just south of the pond. Her name is Ophelia; I’m sure you’ve heard of her—the only one willing to do both human and Darkling bidding so she can afford her drinking habit. She’s quite powerful and, to my knowledge, is one of the only witches accustomed to interacting with the townsfolk on a regular basis. She should be more than capable of crafting some spell or elixir to cure the princess.”
Laurent could only stare. If he wasn’t mistaken, Ophelia was a transplant. She certainly wasn’t descended from any of the original witches who’d settled alongside humans in Paimpont. Still, word of her arrival years ago had spread like wildfire; Ophelia quickly made a name for herself as the town enchantress, unique in the fact that she made a living by bartering simple spells and charms in exchange for goods.
In that way, magic was useful in a pinch, good for removing coffee—or blood—from garments, or keeping insects off one’s crops. But Laurent had never heard of the kind of magic capable of purging an entire language from a person’s linguistic arsenal. Such a spell or potion would surely require the very type of dark ingredients and magic prohibited by kingdom law. Ophelia could be executed on the spot, were she discovered practicing it.
The irony of it all promptly shattered his disbelief. Laurent covered a dubious smirk with his palm. “You humans only allow witches to reside among you because their powers are beneficial from time to time. Either that, or you’re afraid of what mischief they might get into if you didn’t keep an eye on them.”
“Irrelevant.” Vivien waved dismissively. “Drastic situations call for drastic measures. I have no real qualms with the magicfolk. They don’t have fur, or oozing warts, or fangs…” She suppressed a grimace before continuing. “The princess turns twenty years old in five days’ time, on the day of her ceremony. She has everything in the world she could want, except her public's affection. Ridding her of that useless ability would only be a boon to her.”
She was partially right, and he hated admitting it. But deep down, Laurent didn’t consider the princess’s unusual power useless at all. In the years following the discovery of her Darkling Tongue, Laurent secretly relished the idea of a monarch who would possibly be open to forging a mutually beneficial relationship with Brocéliande.
But instead, perhaps the girl’s ability would alienate her enough from her own people so that she would be unable to win their loyalty in the end. Such an outcome would not be beneficial to his cause, either.
Any other vampire would have jumped at the chance to kill a human noble. Regardless, assisting a Le Tallec felt wrong in his gut.
His warring thoughts were interrupted suddenly by a blinding flash. Laurent rubbed his eyes and blinked the remnants of light away. An ethereal blue orb the size of an apple floated inches from Vivien’s face. By light of the Will-O-Wisp, she was already scribbling hastily onto a piece of parchment. When she finished, she pocketed her quill—what else did the woman have in those dress pockets?—and slipped the folded parchment into an envelope. She mouthed something to the wisp, shot it a sharp look, then nodded. The lone forest spirit bobbed coherently, then soared away through the treetops. Though the glowing anomalies were commonly used to relay messages to nearby witches, Laurent was shocked Vivien would even bother summoning one.
“I’m alerting Ophelia of the unfortunate circumstance Miss Trécesson finds herself in, and that she should be expecting a visit from the princess within the next few days. I’ll have a sparrow deliver this to the castle courier before dawn.” She twirled the envelope between her fingers.
“And what is that?”
“A forged note to the princess,” she replied, trailing a corner of the parcel along the pout of her bottom lip. “An invitation from Ophelia, offering to rid her of her Darkling Tongue. I’m only expediting the process here. Poor girl is wasting away in that tower room of hers. I’m sure she’ll be more than willing to embark on this quest for that reason alone.”
“This is mad,” Laurent breathed. “The coronation is only days away, and you expect her to make this journey alone, with no magic to aid her?”
“She’s resourceful. If she wants to make it to her own ceremony, she’ll have to be.” Vivien waved her fingers playfully toward Laurent’s grimace. “Not to worry, Darkling. You’ll get your queen. Feisty little thing, she is.” She rolled her shoulders back and sighed. “This will be beneficial for us all. We both get our ideal ruler—free of her curse, and presumably compassionate towards you monsters.”
Laurent’s garnet eyes zeroed in on her exposed neck, on the throbbing vein running alongside it. He ran a hand over his face to gather his racing thoughts. It was a daunting journey; he knew as well as Vivien that it would be impossible to see through. No Darkling would dare attack the princess in the castle, but anyone—royal-blooded or not—who entered Brocéliande of their own will instantly became free game.
Best to deal with that when the time came.
Laurent swallowed, hesitantly fingering his silver bow tie. “You do know how extraordinarily dangerous this will be for her?”
“Without a doubt.” Vivien approached the Darkling until she was just within reach, then ran her nails along the leather trim on his vest. “But you know as well as I, nothing extraordinary comes free of sacrifice. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Her glacial eyes challenged the embers in his. Without hesitation or any trace of fear, she reached up to tenderly brush her thumb across his cheek.
He kept his mouth shut, in case his fangs dared sprout.
“One more thing,” she whispered, gripping his lapel with one hand.
Laurent gulped. “Sure.”
“You’re brave to defend one of our kind like that, especially the heiress apparent. However, I fear her god-forsaken talent will only lead to her own downfall. Nonetheless, we can only hope,” she added, tightening her grip on him and brushing her warm lips against his jaw. “Long live the Queen.”
And just like that, she drove the stake in and upward, lodging it deep into his heart.
Stepping back, the duchess watched as he slumped into the grass. In a poor last attempt, the vampire grasped helplessly at the stake in the center of his chest, desperation mangling his vulcan features. But it was too late.
Not even the head of the Brocéliande vampire coven was resistant to blessed Hawthorne bark.
She had come with a plan and left with a better one. The princess would fall waste to the trappings of the forest, while the throne fell under more suitable management—and really, who would miss her? Still, if all else failed, nobody in their right mind would permit her reign or resume aide to Brocéliande especially after the retribution that would ensue once Laurent Beaulieu was found dead in the middle of the woods.
Retreating into the shadows, Vivien silently thanked the crumpled corpse and the rest of his precious creatures. With far less self-control than even Laurent had wielded, they were sure to rip the princess limb from limb.
At the stroke of midnight, Lilac paced restlessly, puffing loose strands of hazelnut hair out of her eyes while knotting the last piece of torn bedsheet onto the end of a long rope of tied fabrics. It would have been an easier task, had she done so sitting upon her duvet, but her nerves simply wouldn’t allow it. She hadn’t left the palace grounds in nearly a decade. Tonight, that was about to change.
Keeping on her toes, she was careful to tread only on the animal pelts strewn across her bedroom floor. Vair, foynes, vulpes—all the decadent furs that one could acquire through the fur trade. A couple times of sneaking late night food and drink from the kitchen had taught her that keeping on the lavish rugs muffled any creak of the floorboards. The rugs had been a birthday gift from a once-visiting sultan in the East, which had seemed strange at first—until she found out the rugs had been sent as a token of affection for her mother, Marguerite. The queen had discreetly passed them on to her daughter so the king wouldn’t notice; Lilac would have informed her father had he not been dealing with his own mistress habit himself.
Fair’s fair, she supposed.
Finally finished with her escape line, she tucked the annoying wisps of hair into her bun and began tossing clothes into a burlap potato sack she'd found after supper. She was unsure what was travel-appropriate, as she’d been forbidden from nearing the Brocéliande tree line before she was old enough to walk. Sighing, she settled for the pieces that fit comfortably: plain undergarments, a pair of old brocades she prayed still fit, a half loaf of bread, and an armful of cold pastries and dumplings acquired from breakfast.
As an afterthought, she nestled in a box of matches also nicked from the kitchen; for the last hour, she had mulled over bringing a torch or lantern to light her way, but there was no need to turn herself into such an obvious beacon to hungry Darklings. The moonlight would have to suffice, but matches could still come in handy for warmth.
The princess glanced around her room, knowing she was forgetting something crucial.
Preventatives. Standing on the edge of her bed, she reached up to untie the twine holding the bundle that hung on the bedpost: a misshapen garland containing a tiny bottle of witch's salt and beads of iron and silver, and three bulbs of garlic. The bushels, netted in cordage crafted from blessed Hawthorne bark, were found in almost every room of the castle; surely, they wouldn’t miss hers. She dropped the bushel into her potato sack with a satisfying plop.
Last, she produced a sleek silver dagger from her bedside table drawer. It was an ornate weapon, but otherwise simple; the pommel end of its jeweled, cross guard hilt boasted an etching of the kingdom’s signature animal, a lone ermine.
The weapon had been passed down, an inherited gift from an ancestor somewhere down her father’s lineage. He never seemed sure of the blade’s actual origin, though he did enjoy telling her bits of what he believed he knew here and there, usually after supper as he slumped over a glass of mead. The story constantly changed. Some nights, it was a former monarch who had owned it, perhaps her fourth or fifth great-grandfather, the king would say. Other times, it was a vagabond who’d stolen it from a foreign ruler and traded it to her family for a substantial sum of money. The only thing her father had seemed sure of was that not one person alive actually knew where it came from, nor the identity of the original owner.
It was perfect for fending off monsters., crafted with an enchanted alloy containing a mixture of soft and hardy metals the creatures were horribly allergic to. Consequences of a Darkling’s contact with the weapon included anything ranging from an unpleasant cluster of boils, to sudden combustion—according to Henri.
Personally, Lilac didn’t care. Impaling anyone through the heart seemed like it would do the trick just fine.
Biting her lip—a nervous tic her mother always hated—she shook out her bun, tied her hair back into a low ponytail, and inhaled deeply as she raised the dagger. She reached back and, on the exhale, she chopped her hair a few centimeters past the knot. With a solid thud, her discarded hair hit the floor.
For the first time in her life, the ends of her tresses fell just past her shoulders, instantly bringing out her natural waves now that there was less weight to them. Feeling like a brand-new woman, she grinned nervously and slid the glinting dagger into the scabbard on the cowhide belt at her waist. The cut locks were promptly thrown into the fireplace crackling at the foot of her bed.
One last time, she tiptoed out to her marble balcony to glance down at the trees. The forest, Brocéliande, stretched on for miles, a juniper sea of shadow and lore. Frightening and full of tall, dark beings who would eagerly mangle and devour her. At least, that’s what she'd always been told.
Still, her stomach knotted in excitement. It would be a harrowing journey, but enticingly so. Especially for someone who hadn’t experienced a moment of adventure in her life for many years. She’d spent many an evening admiring the view. On clear nights, if she squinted hard enough, she’d spot the speck of vibrant color—the kingdom’s charming market town nestled at the very center of the woods, in between the High Forest and Low Forest.
She'd only been there once with her mother, years ago. They’d stopped in the square on their way to a soirée at the duke’s sprawling estate, which sat on the far edge of town.
From what she could remember, Paimpont was not large at all. It was a cramped village, sandwiched between the local marsh to the north, moorlands to the south, the castle and High Forest to the west, and the forbidden Low Forest to the east. Lilac remembered the awe she’d felt as their carriage passed the ancient abbey and entered the heart of the town; a decent amount of pubs, shops, and framework homes lined cobblestone streets, each structure uneven and more dilapidated than the last.
They’d gone on a market day, when groups of villagers scattered the road; there were elderly women angrily chasing after giggling toddlers with their wooden walking sticks while the parents tended to the market.
To her pleasant surprise, the town had been run amuck with enormous, chestnut-coated horses that day. With their aproned handlers, the magnificent brown beasts stomped through the market selling a wide variety of goods, while static carts lined the walkways with meats and cheeses from the fromagerie.
The short visit was more than enough time for her to realize that visiting the town wasn’t as bootless an errand as her parents had led on. Leading the kingdom one day sounded tedious, but if it meant interacting with the friendly townsfolk and spending time there occasionally, it didn’t seem so dreadful after all. Paimpont was not stifled with the same grandiose appurtenances of the castle, and the young princess admired everything about that.
Years later she felt the same way, even if the townsfolk had grown to fear her.
But a cure was out there. She'd always felt it, deep in her bones. A cure that would destroy the darkness inside her forever, making her the perfect heiress to the throne once again.
She’d quickly grown tired of the riots protesting her upcoming coronation; tired of her humiliating reputation of being wicked and wrong for the position, and the pressure it had put on her parents to surrender the throne to one of the other prominent families vying for power—waiting for the Trécessons to slip up just enough; tAnd some days, it felt like her parents were dangerously close to giving in.
She was tired of repeatedly walking in on hushed conversation, of which she unfailingly was the topic; tired of the alchemists her father hired on a sort of turn-by-turn basis in attempts to fix her. And some days, she felt like her parents were dangerously close to giving in. Some days, so did she.
That is, until that morning after breakfast. On her way back up to her tower, she’d received an unmarked gold-leaf envelope from the castle courier.
Dearest Lilac, the note read in scrawling, looping cursive.
I hope this letter finds you well.
My name is Ophelia, and I hold the key to what your heart desires most. I am not only able, but willing to conjure the remedy you require to return to normalcy. I offer this to you at no price but one: courage, for there is no timely way to reach my cottage in Paimpont except the direct path through Brocéliande.
Find any brook through the High Forest and follow it; this will lead to the main river. The only inn sits along the water, closer to your castle. There, you can take refuge early on in your quest if need be. Follow the river downstream, for it leads east to the village farmland. Paimpont is but a short walk south of the marsh. Your coronation draws nigh. Godspeed.
The Witch of Lupine Grotto
She snatched the crinkled parchment off her vanity and smoothed it out before stuffing it into her bag. Now, she thought smugly, I have proof of that cure.
She took one last look at herself in the mirror. A maroon tunic over an eggshell shift were the plainest clothes she owned, and it hopefully wouldn’t draw much attention, especially with her new hair.
She'd left the tower before, if only to spend time in the garden hedge maze among her mother’s roses while remaining hidden from the outside world. But this was different. She was going out, venturing off castle grounds. The next time she stood in the same spot would likely be during a flogging from her mother—if not worse.
But at least… At least she'd be free of her curse. At least she’d be normal again. Normal enough to get by.
She fastened her makeshift rope around the leg of the enormous bed frame. At her balcony railing, Lilac carefully wrapped the fabric around her right leg, imitating the silk trapeze artists that graced the ceilings at her mother’s parties. She shut her eyes, faced the biting cold and readied herself—when a knock rapped upon her door, so muffled she barely heard it.
“A moment, please!”
The words had escaped her lips before she was able to stop herself. Lilac nearly fell over trying to free her limbs from the rope. Her fingers fumbled around the hardened knot of fabric wrapped around the balcony, but as she’d intended a second ago, it would not budge. Swearing under her breath, the princess shut the balcony doors and raced to answer her own. Just before gripping the doorknob, she remembered something—she quickly pulled what was left of her hair behind her, into a sleek, ribboned bun—then yanked the door in.
It was a guard—but not just any guard. Renald was head of the castle sentry, and one of her parent’s closest confidantes.
An unpleasant mixture of relief and adrenaline burned her stomach. “Hey, Ren,” she said, keeping the crack of her door tight. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Everything all right?”
Renald opened his mouth to speak, then paused, one corner of his lips drooping into a lopsided frown. “I could ask the same. What’s that ‘orrid stench?”
Lilac’s stomach flipped. Her chopped hair was still crackling in the fireplace, the smell growing more and more concentrated because she’d shut her balcony doors. “It’s—” she cleared her throat — “I’ve been wondering the same, I reckon they collected rotten firewood again.” She watched him fan the putrid air with his palm, praying she hadn’t just cost someone their job.
But Renald only ran his hand through his greying red beard. “Sorry to bother you, Your Highness—and yes. Or erm, no. Were you about to go to bed? I only knocked because I could see the fire was on.” Squinting past her, he raised his brows. “Is that a potato sack?”
“I couldn’t sleep,” she lied, giving him her best sheepish grin while shuffling her bag further over her shoulder. “And yes, I’ve just packed my leftovers.”
“As always. You children and your appetite.”
She nodded, quickly wracking her memory for any tidbit she could recall about him or his family. “How’s Emma doing? And the twins?”
“My wife’s great. Enjoying her time as a seamstress. The boys are a pain in my arse, as always.” Renald yawned widely. “Anyway, I’m here because your father had a bit to drink tonight.”
Her heart sank a little. “Ah. Again.”
“I’ve tried to bring him to bed, but he says won’t budge until he —”
Lilac nodded and squeezed herself through the door, shutting it tightly behind her. “I got it, Ren.” Then, she added, blinking as her vision adjusted to the dim hallway. “Are there a lot of you up there tonight?”
“Indeed, Your Highness. The battlement is secured.”
“Then head back up and get some sleep while your men do the work. I’ll take care of Henri the Terrible.”
“I’ll go and keep an eye out for Darklings, is what I’ll do,” he replied through another yawn. He winked at her. “Tomorrow, lass.”
“Tomorrow,” she lied through her teeth.
Down the stairs, Lilac found the king by almost tripping over him. Between the dimming hearth and baskets of fresh fruit, he leaned up against the wall with his legs sprawled. His prized horn tankard lay empty beside him.
Lilac stared at him for a second, then longingly back up the staircase. She was already tight on time as it was. Surely, she could call one of the servants to help him to his tower?
Then again, it might not be worth waking anyone else who might catch her in her escape.
She lightly covered his legs with the fur-lined ends of his cape. “Father?”
He gave a grunt and popped one eye open. “Hello, sweetheart.”
“Was it meade or wine this time?” She bent and sniffed at the tankard, but couldn’t tell. He’d emptied every last drop.
“Ale,” he burped, staring into the fire.
“Dad, you have to be careful. You’ll make yourself sick.”
“I don’t want to hear it, young lady.” The king opened the other eye and gave her a stern look before grinning. “We can both hold our liquor. Doesn’t mean we won’t get carried away on occasion.”
Of course, he remembered her love for wine as well as she. Some nights she would sneak bottles of their best reds upstairs after supper.
“Is that what’s in the bag?”
Lilac groaned inwardly. She’d forgotten she was still clutching it. “Not this time. Just pastries.” She stuck a hand in and rummaged through the fabric until she found the half loaf of bread and showed him.
“You and your scavenging. Just like that wolf.”
Lilac could only stare numbly into the hearth. Although she knew her father didn’t know what he was saying, she felt like she’d been punched in the gut. It was in this very kitchen that her Darkling tongue had been discovered, after all.
“Good night, father,” she muttered, heading toward the staircase.
“Wait. Lilac.” The king’s voice was suddenly pleading.
She spun to see him stumbling to his feet. “Is that why you drink?” Lilac blurted. A lump formed in her throat. “Am I why you drink?”
“No, I—your mother and I are proud of you, Lilac. And my, look how you’ve grown.” His cerulean eyes were suddenly glassy.
Tears formed behind her own lashes, but she harshly blinked them back. Regardless of how he felt now, she knew he’d always defer to the same awkwardness he and Marguerite had adopted after learning of her ability. It wasn’t as bad as the sideways glares and indiscreet whispers she got from the servants, but in a way, it was worse—they were her parents, after all. Not to mention the ten years they’d forbidden her from leaving castle grounds. It didn’t exactly express pride.
Her father cleared his throat to break the silence and keep himself awake. “Next week’s your ceremony,” he said gruffly. “It’s come ‘round much faster than I thought.”
Lilac could only nod stiffly. He might’ve felt that way, but he’d never tell her those things had he not drunk himself several tankards deep. She didn’t have time—time for him, for sentiment, or for a halfway apology.
Swallowing, Lilac lifted her chin cordially. “Thank you, father. Now, head to bed.”
“Are you ready?” He began shuffling to the outer corridor.
Not in the slightest. “Of course.”
Without checking to see if he actually made it up his own staircase, Lilac hiked the ends of her shift and sprinted up hers.
Once she was back in her room, Lilac hastily extinguished her fire and flung the makeshift rope over the edge. Holding her breath, she wrapped herself as she had before and leaned out into the biting cold, lowering herself three stories. Soundlessly, her flats hit the ground. The cool dew of the grass against her exposed skin was shocking. Her knees suddenly gave way under her weight, and she nearly stumbled back into one of her mother’s rose bushes.
Pressing her palm against her teeth, Lilac stifled an excited cry of relief. She did it. The conifer was heady, filling and opening her lungs as she took a few deep breaths to lessen the pounding adrenaline. The static air tasted evocatively sweet, hinting at impending rainfall.
Lilac straightened and glanced up at the massive expanse of green. The forest, even more enchanting up close, seemed to whisper. She imagined tendrils floating out of the fog and reaching for her, coiling around her limbs; claws scraping like ragged breath against her skin; sharp fangs, rows of them covered in saliva, waiting, daring her to come hither. Scowling at the exaggeration, she began to tremble—from the cold or fear, she was unsure.
Shivering, she pulled the cloak out of the sack and wrapped it around her body; it was scratchy, but at least it was warm. It shielded her enough from the cold, and masked the scent of her skin from the things waiting to eat her – or so she told herself.
The night was passing quickly. She had to get moving if she expected to find shelter for the night. As soon as she found a spring of some sort, she could follow it to the river, which would eventually lead to the town pond.
Fretting over Paimpont was for tomorrow, she decided. Clenching her teeth, she forced herself to stop shaking.
Lilac was a princess, not a flower. Just because she donned tiaras and gowns didn’t mean she was delicate, or incapable of slitting a Darkling’s throat. She had it in her to face and defend herself from the monstrous things lurking among the trees. Deep down, she would be just as capable a ruler as any king out there. Beneath the foreign silks and chiffon, she was like the jewels on the tiara she had left on her vanity. Lustrous, yet resilient all the same.
Hooking the burlap sack onto her shoulder, Lilac took one slow step away from the castle. Then another, and another, until the veil of trees swallowed her.
Pulse accelerating, the princess took off at a run—a willing pawn to the shadows of night.