Chapter One: A Love Interest??

Rat and two other girls shuffled down the long corridors. Oligaden had summoned them to his office. Rat was feeling afraid, because she was worried the servant master had seen her dirty knees, or worse, the strange fuzzy thing she'd found in the water bucket and left by the rosebush.

The two girls alongside Rat wore similar faces. Rat wondered if there would be a whipping. She'd never been whipped before.

When they arrived at the carved oak door, all three of the servants hesitated. Rat took a timid step forward, since the two girls, despite being nearly her age, were both much bigger than she was, and they had glared at her.

Oligaden's doorway was carved with flying serpents and fire-breathing cats. It had a brass knocker, some eagle-like head with a ring in its beak, and Rat stood on tiiptoe to tap the ring against the door.

"Enter."

The door swung open. Rat and her co-servants were quick to enter before either the door slammed or Oligaden's temper fired up.

Rat looked around fearfully, her eyes adjusting to gloom. She practically felt cobwebs at her heels. All three of the girls jumped when the door banged shut. Oligaden's laugh could be heard, soft and dangerous.

"Why, hello girls. There's no need to be frightened. As you know, we have three very important guests arriving tonight, and to put on our best face, you are to escort these guests to dinner..."

Rat gradually felt a weight lowering in her stomach as Oligaden went on and on about formality and 'coming-of-age' and lofty things like that. When the servant master sent the three of them away, Rat's face was absolutely pale.

She went to the kitchens, as instructed, where she was given further instructions on the escort business by one of the chefs. There Rat learned she was to fetch the beautiful and revered Prince Roc. People noticed Rat's discomfort; she went white and had to put a hand on a trolley to keep herself on her feet.

All too soon Rat found herself in fine linens and amethysts, all designed to bring out the color of her blonde-black hair and teal eyes. As the evening light swept over the castle, she hesitated at the second carved door of the day.

This one had a friendlier design, a sleeping moon and a sleeping sun, the sun embracing the moon in its flares.

Rat felt like cement, and it seemed to take great effort to tap this door, even more so than before. For one thing, the other two girls weren't there to pressure Rat into knocking, and for another, while a meeting with Oligaden was to be rightly feared, this was a danger unknown, and that makes things ten times worse.

'I must look like a good candidate for marriage,' Rat thought wryly, 'Shriveled up and shivering...'

As she waited for the Crown Prince of Whatever (Prince -Roc-, Rat reminded herself, the infamously beautiful invalid from an unknown country), she felt something light touch her shoulder.

"Max!"

"Hi," said Max, making himself comfortable. "Whatcha up to?"

"I have to--"

At that moment the door swung open and Rat stepped back, keeping her eyes to the ground. She saw gold-trimmed boots.

"S-sir, I was instructed to take you to dinner," she mumbled rapidly.

"I see. Who is that on your shoulder?"

Rat fidgeted, her mind whirling. "I don't know, Sir."

"Hiya, Roc!" Maxwell fluttered up, "How long have you been here?"

"Maxwell! What a pleasant surprise. We only arrived today, and I have been treated most hospitably. Who is this, and why won't she look at me?"

Rat bit her lip, fighting shame and a fierce blush as she heard the Mote whisper energetically into the Prince's ear:

"Um, round here, a servant can't look a noble in the eye, or she'll suffer thirty lashes."

"I was hoping that wasn't the case..."

"If we are late they will be angry, your Highness," Rat stated in monotone.

"Oh, forgive me. What is your name?"

"Rat."

An awkward silence descended as she motioned for the Prince to follow her. They wandered through the stony courtyard, past the rosebushes where she had hidden Max in the morning, to a large door that was easily swung, to a flight of stairs. Rat kept to the servants-only carpeted part of the stairs, because only royalty could touch the polished marble steps.

Max started jabbering again. Rat was too numb with fear to understand what he was saying at first. They neared the royal dining hall.

Prince Roc lay a hand on her shoulder.

"Wait," he said into her ear. "Wait for a moment."

Rat shivered. In all honesty, the Prince's voice was DEAD SEXY. Smooth and low, with a touch of a foreign accent, and just enough roughness to stir chills along rat's spine. That coupled with his warm hand near her neck...The girl had to summon up all her strength not to faint into his arms on the spot!

Curiously instinctive, she looked to the side. The man was tall, she could tell, fairly well-dressed and muscled...

"Something terrible is about to happen," Roc said. Rat was mesmerized by his lips but she dared not look him in the eye. "But whatever happens after tonight, you will never need to fear again, because you have friends who are going to protect you."

Rat felt a tear slide down her cheek. It bothered her, because she didn't know where it came from, or why she should be crying.

"Step inside, Sir, and be served."

Rat opened the door for him, and watched gapingly as he walked past. He had sounded so pretty, walked so nicely, and was dressed to charm. What she hadn't expected was the bent-over back. He was...he wasn't...could he be? A hunchback? Whoever heard of the most beautiful prince in the land being a hunchback!

"Stop gawking, it's rude," Max whispered into Rat's other ear, "I'm gonna stick around, cause I love this wine they're serving, but you're not gonna see me cause I'm invisibleeee! Whooo!"