The Prince marched forward, took ahold of Jade by her greatcoat's collar and wrenched her towards him. The girl teetered on her feet as his actions forced her to stand on the tip of her toes. Their faces were so close their noses nearly met and Jade's fear stricken eyes crossed, trying to read the Prince's face.
The man abruptly let her go and she gracelessly landed on her feet with a thud. The sinewy muscles on the Prince's bare back were tense while his water slick head downturned as he spun towards the exit, breathing heavily as if he'd fought the mountain lion again.
"Wait! Sire!" Jade called out. She clambered after him and stopped in her tracks as the man's glare refocused on her.
"Save your words. She's telling the truth. I don't need any evidence when your face is right in front me. You are lying about who you are," Luke bit out the words as if they pained him.
"I can explain everything!"
"How can I trust anything that comes out of your mouth. You have decieved me. You invaded my life on a falsehood and I am not prepared to listen to your lies," The man announced with a stiff tone of voice. He turned back to the ancient staircase with an anguished exhale that scorched Jade's nerve endings.
"Would you have allowed me on this trip if you knew the truth?" Jade blocked his path. She reverted to her real voice knowing she had no more secrets to hide.
"Of course not. You're barely holding up. The rigours of the trip are too much for you. I should have known. How could I have not known? Your smooth face, your hands, your build, it's so obvious now," The Prince pushed back his damp hair as he murmured to himself.
"I haven't been drowsy because of the trip. I've already gotten used to the fast pace of travel," Jade restrained herself from tutting. His assumptions about her physical strength were all wrong, "The witch was sending me nightmares about my father. I could barely close my eyes without seeing his face before me. I'm sure you're familiar with her tricks."
"It's not the same," The taller man sneered.
"We were both afflicted with the same malady. You want the girl and I want my father alive and well. That witch preyed on our weakness," The secretary explained her recent realisation. The vision of her father's body floating in the lake gave her a bout of nausea. She no longer needed the witch's help to have nightmares.
"Does Dimitri know?" Luke asked, his dark hair shielded his face and consequently his expressions.
Jade swallowed and nodded. She did not wish to bring trouble to her friend's doorstep but he was the only person who could verify her origins on this trip.
"What an imbecilic thing to do. This is dangerous territory. A lone woman is a liability!"
"Just moments ago you were grateful I was on the trip, Your Highness!" Jade could not restrain her mouth. Her position would no longer be hers when she got back and she no longer felt the need to bite her tongue.
"Why have you gotten yourself in an employment such as this? Are there no other hobbies for a woman of leisure to attend to?" The Prince scoffed sending a blaze of anger rushing through her body. How dare he mock her circumstances!
"Forgive me for wanting to earn a respectable living," Jade's tone was acerbic, "As a high born woman I could neither mop floors, nor seek employment that required my brain."
"And dressing up as a man was the only way out? Deceiving me was the only source of your sustenance?" Luke was incredulous. He crossed his arms as if he couldn't believe the tale she was weaving.
"I did not mean to betray you," Jade lost all the fight in her body and voice lowered almost to her former masculine voice "Forgive me. I was desperate to get away from my stepmother. She meant to sell me off to the highest bidder to get rid of me. My maids urged I get out of my father's house immediately and I had no time to formulate a plan."
"I wish you hadn't decided to trifle with my feelings. Was our friendship a lie?" The man whispered. Jade's heart soared at the thought that he did consider her a friend but with a painful sort of fluttering it landed, knowing that they would never enjoy each others company again.
"No, never. Nothing about me is a falsehood," Jade exclaimed.
"Except your gender. I would not have confided in you if I knew who you were. I am a private person," The Prince muttered. The energy had left his body as well. He looked wane and sullen.
"My being female changes nothing," The brown haired girl was adamant.
"You don't even sound like yourself," Luke's whole demeanor was pitiful, "Excuse me, I must prepare myself for your continued absence. I am not fond of sudden changes."
"You talk of me as if I'm dead," Jade felt her temper rousing once again.
"I cannot on my conscience let you stay on this trip. You must remain behind," The Prince declared with an unyielding tone of voice.
"I must protect you. You're too vulnerable," The secretary too had a declaration of her own.
The man gave a bitter sort of laugh. His upper lip curled at the sight of her, as if she disgusted him, "I could say the same thing about you."
They clambered down the stairs with the Prince leading the path of the narrow, stone staircase with his tall form. Any other time Jade would have enjoyed the view of his bare shoulders but today she could only contain the urge to be sick all over him.
"Please, wait. I know you're upset," Jade said and felt her chin wobble dangerously.
"I have nothing to say to you," The man could not even look back at her.
Once they reached the jetty Jade realised there was something wrong. None of the chatter, the sound of splashes or whoops or joy reached their ears. The soldiers, still in the water, were utterly silent. They all stood motionless facing towards the castle.
"What is it? What do you stare at?" The Prince growled. He was now even more intolerant of delays. The men did not move out of position. Their backs remained towards the pair.
"Sir, Joseph, can you hear us," Jade called out to man closest to her but the older soldier was stiff in his countenance. It was as if they were mindless, stone statues.
"Are they still alive?" Luke whispered causing his secretary a wave of panic.
"Dimitri!" Jade's cry sounded so shrill it almost pained her.
The girl tired to enter the water to poke and prod at her friend but Luke's strong grip on her arm prevented her from moving forward. She aborted her attempt as she realised why he stopped her before he even started his explanation. The ran across the jetty and faced the men as best as they could. The soldiers' eyes were still open but glazed over.
"It's the witch. She's cursed them. The water provided no safety for them," The man growled. The haunting vision of all the men that stood in the water was hightening their emotions, "I must leave, right now!"
"Have you gone mad," Jade rounded up on her former employer. She shook her arm until he let it go from his iron grip.
"Perhaps I have. Perhaps the witch succeeded in driving me to madness. Perhaps you are involved with her. I cannot say," Luke's speech was so fast he tripped over his words. He looked back at his fallen soldiers with a look of madness in his face.
"How dare you! She has been using her magic against me too. You're not her only victim," The girl's emotions were raw and suffocating, giving her voice a ferocious quality.
"Perhaps you lie."
"I don't care what you think. I will not allow you to go," Jade words were spat out.
The Prince marched towards his horse brushing off Jade's attempt at dissuading him. The girl took the only option available to her and stood in front of his ride.
"I'll be a sodding bellend if I let you go on your own," Jade said with gritted teeth. Her jaw ached from how tense it was. The girl pulled out Dimitri's dagger from her belt. The man's grey eyes narrowed as the girl countinued speaking.
"You're leaving on your horse without supplies or stocks. It's safe to say you've lost your senses. I shan't forgive myself if you manage to elude me," The tall girl stood up to her full height, not slouching as she usually did out of habit.
"Out of my way, girl!" Luke roared. He clung onto his horse who seemed ready to begin his journey in spite of little rest. The horses around them stared with interest.
"Never, my Royal Highness," Jade taunted and did a mock curtsy as best as she could without voluminous gowns.
"It is imperative I leave now. The matter is no longer just about our quest. I must wrest the antidote away from the witch to save our men. I will not be able to live if something happens to them. It will all be my fault," Luke tried to explain himself. He was not as mad as she believed and neither was he under a spell. He believe the reasons for heading out immediately were valid.
"You aren't even wearing a shirt, you daft idiot! You'll freeze to death before you reach the castle!" Jade shouted, absolutely blowing apart any difference of class and their positions in life. He was her friend and she would treat him as such, "If you want to go ahead you must go over my lifeless body. I will not let you commit suicide while I am alive."
The Prince stared at her solemn face. She meant to be knocked down with his horse if it came to that. The man raised his eyes heavenwards and dismounted. He remained silent while his jaw remained tense with abject fury and disgust.
Jade beckoned him forward like one would do a skittish foal. She was careful not to take her eyes off him as he took Sir Joseph's former seat. She pulled out the magic beans and began planting around the camp as best as she could. Their numbers were dwindling fast.
"We must make a plan," Jade said as she came to a halt and sat down in front of the Prince with a solid thump. Her feet spread out in front of her ungainly, not caring to revert back to feminine postures, "I have come to the conclusion that going ahead without making plans is always a folly."
"We? You're not going with me," The man uttered loftily as if she was being simple.
"You can wish all you want but some dreams are unattainable," Jade countered. She had unfurled the map on the ground and did not take her eyes off it as she spoke.
"I don't want a liability tied to my neck," Luke replied stubbornly, repeating his earlier turn of phrase.
"Once this trip ends and we capture that miserable bint of yours you will rid of me forever. I promise," Jade took the oath with pat to her heart. She meant what she said.
"Charming," Luke judged her vocabulary when he had never done before although even dressed as a man she had never been so uncouth.
"Let me introduce you to Jade Durnn. She's a very brash, unpolished, young Lady with no manners and no charm. She shall no longer conceal anything from you. You must tolerate her until we complete our quest," The brown eyed girl introduced herself. She stretched her hand out but the dark haired man sullenly disregarded it. Jade ignored his rudeness and went back to gazing at the map.
"I have been examining the castle's layout as best as I can with this map. It is divided into two with a river running in between. The river cascades down from the highest peak of the region but I digress. The main entrance stems from a series of steps which are unfortunately too visible for the castle's occupants. The castle has no other hidden entrance from the front so that means-"
"We must enter from the back," The Prince completed her sentence. His finger traced on a narrow hillside path that was barely visible on the map. Jade nodded with approval.
"We should examine all the group's belongings and gather usable weapons and food. We ride at dawn," The secretary declared. She began rummaging through Sir Joseph's rucksack and found beef jerky which he was saving in case they found no game to hunt.
"I thought I was the commanding officer for this particular journey," Luke's voice was almost teasing but Jade could not hope for anything more. His turbulent grey eyes were still cold and untrusting.
"Until this quest ends I am still your secretary and it's my job to make all your appointments even ones with a witch," The tall girl explained as she got up to investigate the meal cooking next to them.
Jade poked at Sir Joseph's meat concoction and found her knowledge lacking. She was uncertain if it was already done. It did smell nice but there no telling whether it was raw from the inside. The girl poured out the meat onto a metal plate and waved it under the Prince's nose.
"Is the meal done?" Jade asked as Luke just stared at her.
"You can't tell?" The man asked incredulously.
"Haven't stepped in a kicthen in my life other than to steal food. I couldn't tell you the difference between veal and venison either. There is a reason I'm not a lady's maid in some grand old house," The secretary explained with a shrug.
Luke gave the plate a speculative look and declared it was cooked. Jade took the initiative to pour the broth in their plates. She tried to give his portion to the Prince but he refused. The secretary still placed the meal at his feet.
"How can I eat when everyone around me is trapped," The man uttered with misery. Just yards away from their camp were the soldiers frozen in their places in the sulphurous water.
"You will eat and you will sleep. An unourished body will be of no use to me tomorrow," Jade ordered. She cleared her throat as the man continued to stare, "Dimitri is one of my dearest friends. I will not rest until he is freed from his prison. That witch must be punished even if the spell is not reversible. I am obviously not the best of fighters so we must do this this together."
"I agree with your sentiments about putting the witch to rest which is precisely why I was hurrying along but I don't want you to be harmed along the way," Luke whispered. He leaned closer to the fire and wrapped his arms around himself.
"I can handle myself as I have handled myself before. You needn't be concerned for my wellbeing," Jade tried to not gape at his bare chest but she waved her hand at it to indicate he needed new clothes, "Even though we're no longer atop a mountain it will still get cold..."
"If it makes you more comfortable," Luke complied with briefest of smiles and draped a blanket around his shoulder.
Jade snorted at his implication. She had grown used to half naked men especially after many days on this trek but the Prince was a fine specimen. She was still much too polite to stare but the Prince did not have the same reservations. He continued to look at her as if she'd grown another head.
"What are you staring at? Is there something on my face?" Jade asked, eating their last warm meal of the journey.
The Prince just shook his head, waving his drying hair across his cheeks although his eyes never left her face. It seemed he was still stunned by the change in reality.
"I am startled by how feminine you look now that I know. I should have known something was amiss the moment everyone talked about your beauty," The Prince answered as the piece of puzzle neatly settled in place.
"I assure you, dressed as a woman the same people will find me less than pleasing. Our standards of beauty change with our genders," Jade mused. She broke her bread eagerly while the Prince only picked at his.
"I cannot imagine you dressed as a woman," The man declared after a long moment of silence.
"Thank goodness for that," Was Jade's solemn reply.
The secretary took another bite of her meat with downturned eyes. She knew she would never allow him to see her as a woman. Her intention was to leave forever after they completed the trip. Perhaps she could fight for her inheritance with the help of Princess Delilah. She no longer had any intention of dressing up as a man again. The lies and deceit were too much for her nerves.
"Did we ever meet before? No, I would have remembered," Luke asked. He leaned closer as if memorising her features.
"Among all the lovely ladies? I think not. I have to remind you their names every time we meet the Langdon Ladies," Jade laughed at his assertions, "I never held my debut at court. I thought it was too fussy an affair."
"Did you not have any other family to go to?" The Prince interrogated intently.
"I am an old maid with dead parents, Sire. I have no one except a step mother who covets my dowry and my inheritance. My grandparents are long deceased," Jade answered. She dabbed her chin with a napkin and gave the Prince her full attention. He blinked under the weight of her gaze.
"A woman alone in the world..." The Prince whispered to himself as he struggled to conceive of her peculiar situation. It seemed he was just as sheltered as Jade had once been.
They gathered the belonging around her and entered the empty tent. She laid her bedroll on the tarp while the Prince continue to observe her.
"Will they be safe outside. If they are still alive, that is?" Jade asked, wishing she could do more. She did not know if entering the water was safe. She would have brought them out or at least covered their half naked bodies with clothing.
"I can't say. I wish I had answers," The Prince muttered and he turned to the tent coverings, "I will give you your privacy."
"Please, your Highness. This formality is ridiculous," Jade chuckled. Now was not the time to treat her like a Lady.
"You should rest," The man tried to beg off but Jade was up in a heartbeat.
"I know you mean to leave me behind the moment I fall asleep but I cannot allow you to do that. Sir Elliot will have my head," The secretary said with a raised brow.
"As if you'd care what that decrepit soul has to say," Luke snorted. He knew her well.
"I want my last paycheck fair and square. I will not allow you to take away my earnings. They're the only thing I have earned in my life."
The Prince studied her face for a weighted moment and then acquised. He opened his bedroll and prepared for bed on the opposite corner of the tent.