"HALT, evil one!" Rudolpho yelled, jumping back.
Kay would have given his not-so-charming rescuer at least marginal points for bravery, if the other man hadn't manage to jump back directly into the door they had just come out of. At least the prince restrained the yelps of pain that were probably trying to emanate from his admittedly beautifully shaped mouth. Actually, if you managed to ignore the fact that Prince Useless had been captured by an (admittedly psychotic) princess and the fact that he had about the same muscle mass as Anabel, Rudolpho wasn't incredibly bad looking.
He had the requisite flowing blonde hair that stopped at a decently manly length – his chin – and eyes that were a little bit too foggy grey and spaced out for Kay's liking. His nose was straight, indicating that he was either careful or didn't manage to get himself into fights, and jutted out in a very classical manner. Altogether Kay supposed that he wouldn't mind a night in with the prince. Maybe if they all got out of this in a timely manner, Aggie could be persuaded to loan him the guest and the guest suite for a night or two.
After all, the princess most certainly wouldn't be having anything to do with either one of them after she had been sent packing.
"She's not evil," Kay managed in the meantime, tone painfully patient as though he were speaking to a slow child or challenged hunting dog. "Agatha, this is Prince I-Can't-Be-Arsed-To-Properly-Rescue-A-Princess. I've come to rescue him. And the princess."
"Princess Mathilda is to be my bride!" Prince Useless responded heatedly. "And I was taken unawares, that's all. By this evil creature!"
Since Kay was pretty sure the other man would have haphazardly drawn his sword by this point if he'd had one, it was definitely for the better that Mathilda had thought to confiscate that. Strictly speaking, Kayver couldn't predict how this situation would play out if she hadn't, but he got the distinctly nasty feeling it involved a sword being waved about in such a manner as to cause a great deal of ducking. Some people just shouldn't be given weapons.
Given the wild gesticulations accompanying the insistences that there was true evil present in the corridor, Kay had the very distinct feeling that Rudolpho was one of those people.
"You have a kelpie's chance in hell – " Kay began, before Aggie cut him off.
"Mm, and you're the young'n planning to wed the princess?" She shook her head.
The Snow Witch hadn't risen since the pair of princes had entered the passageway, and Kay was suddenly worried that she had been injured in some way by the rogue princess. On the other hand, he also felt compelled to stay between her and Rudolpho, just in case the man turned out to be actually crazy and not just extremely dense. On the other, other hand, the conversation was going to rapidly get awkward if the princes kept standing.
"Sit," Kay gestured to the ground, seating himself once Rudolpho had. In the process, he decided that on the off chance he needed a third hand before this quest was over, he would take one of Rudolpho's. He made it a point to note the other man's dominant hand so he could make the right decision just in case it came up; the prince of Glenandale was disinclined to be around Prince Useless once he got his sword back.
"Aggie, what happened?" Kay asked, a rarely-seen concern showing in his voice.
Without bothering to look to his right, he smacked Rudolpho upside the head to prevent the man from contributing anything that involved 'evil' as a key phrase. There was a certain degree of spluttering that followed and what Kay could only assume was a truly intense, one-sided glaring session, but since he was focused on the sentient life in the room, he missed the finer points of Rudolpho's reaction to his offhanded dissuasion techniques.
"She was asleep when the League brought her," the grey-haired Witch began.
Kay rolled his eyes. This whole outsourcing thing was becoming a real pain in the ass. Not only did the Faerie Godmothers Association, Inc™ not bother their twinkly tails over wishes, empowerment, and personalized rescues anymore, but now the other side wasn't even doing their own kidnappings? Things really had gone downhill in the decade since he'd begun his rescuing career.
"We have to have insurance against you lot burning our castles and hovels, you know," Aggie responded sharply to Kay's eye-rolling before continuing her tale. "Anymatter, I set her up in the princess's bedroom, all nice and turned down like since that last one, and set Old Hairy to keep watch," Old Hairy being one of the elder gremlins who had come with the castle when Aggie had moved in a near-century ago, or so she claimed. He was one of Kay's favourites and a real killer at backgammon. "Once Old Hairy let me know she'd awoke, I asked Tuesday and Obgroffin to set the feast and changed into my feasting clothes and went down to meet and greet."
Kay wrinkled his nose at the idea of Obgroffin setting a feast. The gremlin had lived in the wilds until somewhat recently, and he still tended to smell a bit funny. The first time Aggie had let Kay stay over after a long week's questing, Ob had left a small bird's skeleton, thoroughly picked clean and in the correct order, atop his nightstand. Despite his friend's claims that it was a traditional gremlin greeting, the prince hadn't quite managed to get over the experience of waking up and gazing into a recently-dead bird's empty eye socket.
"She was already seated at the table when I arrived, and Tuesday had already poured the wine of course, and I tried to make conversation, like," a cloud of anger began to form on Aggie's brow and Kay heard a hiss of escaping air come from behind him and to his right.
Apparently, the other prince was easily intimidated. Good to know.
"But one sip of the snowberry wine and I was waking up with a spinning 'eadache in the princess quarters!" Now Agatha's voice was rising and it was clear how utterly upset she had been by the entire situation. In response, Kay felt his hand drift automatically to where his sword would have been if it hadn't been kidnapped by a very ill-mannered girl with an unhealthy fascination for drugging people. But no, slaying was apparently out of the question at the moment.
Kay set his jaw. This was such a shit quest.
"Once I'd had a good meditate and purged that girl's poison right out of my system, I set about sending out a message to you, but it wasn't too long before I'd heard tell of that boy being captured too, and I knew that they'd not let his little twitterbug disappear for long without sending a helper or two," she beamed at Kay. "And now 'ere you are!"
Aggie often dropped her 'h's when she talked to or about him. She said it made her sound like an endearing old granny. Kay usually just snorted in response.
"It's a plot!" Rudolpho said, his tone indicating that he'd struck true gold. "It must be! It's a plot! A test, a challenge – a thing to be overcome! It is a challenge to overcome our differences, to band together in the face of the unexpected!"
Kay had changed his mind. The only way he would end up in bed with the other prince was if there was some sort of gag mechanism involved to keep the man from talking. Ever.
However, as irritating as Prince Useless was, he actually had a point. Aggie had been the Snow Witch for almost a hundred years, and it was incredibly unlikely she could have been randomly overthrown by a League-delivered royal princess. The League of Evil® was very picky about their kidnappings, tending to offer the morally-ambiguous, but spirited ones jobs instead of a dungeon cell or room in a sky tower.
The less morally ambiguous, but still spirited types tended to get sent off to the Wastes to be guarded by dragons. When they were rescued, they often gave their rescuing prince a run and a half for his money. Kay's seventeenth princess had been one of those, and they hadn't even made it back to the greenlands before he realized that he was so not interested enough in princesses to deal with that one.
In retrospect, it had been a terrible thing to point out to her. Relations with her native land would never be the same again, and it was quite the tragedy – Kay's favourite spiced vegetables had to be imported from there. Since then, he hadn't been able to get nearly enough of them.
Meanwhile, Aggie was shaking her head. "Couldn't be," she said. "My gremlins are real loyal, like, and nobody else comes to visit me save Kay."
"Perhaps Kay is the villain!" Rudolpho seized upon this opportunity to send more exclamation points ringing around the passageway. Kayver shut his eyes and wished for either patience or a good stabbing implement, with the latter being preferred. "Nobody would suspect him! Loyal servant of the Godmothers by day, but truly evil when his cloak has turned!"
Apparently Kay wasn't going to get his wish for a stabbing implement. He made up for it by turning around and smacking Rudolpho upside the head.
"Shut it, jacka –" this time, the other prince had been ready for him and Kay wasn't more than halfway through his insult before a blow came hard and fast to his ribs and Rudolpho was on top of him, threatening to break his nose for the umpteenth time.
Apparently the reason why the other prince's nose was unbroken was because he actually had half-decent reflexes. Surprise, surprise.
All things considered, though, Kay was much too busy struggling with the other man and trying to get his blows in where he could to bother dwelling on the surprise. And he did manage to get a few good ones in on the ribs, and once that had distracted Rudolpho, Kayver managed to reverse their positions and secure the prince's arms behind his back in a position Kay knew from experience was exceptionally painful to try to wriggle free from.
He was even chivalrous enough to refrain from a good jab to the kidneys while he was ahead.
"Prince Useless may have a point," Kay commented, slightly sticky with sweat from his sudden exertion. "Either way, we probably ought to talk to the gremlins to make sure."
His personal money was on Ob being the traitor. Creepy little critter. It wouldn't have surprised him if Ob was actually some Dark Sorcerer's minion sent to undermine the Sorcerer's nearest rival or something like that. Admittedly, Kay hadn't had to rescue any princesses from any such evil in this particular area, but he could have been expanding his power or something similar. You could never tell with evil.
Plus, Ob was just creepy as hell.
Rudolpho made a noise as though he was trying to speak, and Kay leaned forward to plant the other man's face firmly in the dirt of the passage floor. The noises continued with a more offended tone to them, but Kay elected to ignore them in order to pay attention to Aggie.
"I suppose," she said, dubiously, "although they're serving her now, like, as they've got to go with the castle and all." Aggie shrugged shoulders covered with a formerly white shawl. "Suppose it couldn't hurt, not with Dirty Hairy anyway. Just not one of the youngers, like."
Kay shrugged back at her. "Fair's fair. Care to lead, m'lady?"
Aggie laughed at him. He despised being courtly when there wasn't sarcasm involved, but he knew that his friend enjoyed it. She had been a princess once, after all, and used to knights courting her. That had been before she was kidnapped by the League, of course, and recruited as a Snow Witch following the instatement of the Lingering Princess Provision in the business deal signed by both them and the Association. She had grown into her job much as Kay had grown into his, but much like Kay, she had never wanted the position.
It was why they got along so well.
And speaking of getting along well, Kay was becoming uncomfortably aware that he might have been taking a little too much enjoyment out of restraining Rudolpho, and he quickly stood up. He also avoided Agatha's raised eyebrows as he set off along the passageway.
"Don't pull that again," he called over one shoulder.
"Don't hit me and I won't," came the sullen reply.
"And whatever happened to me leading, lad?" Aggie called from ten paces behind him.
Kay slowed to let her catch up and took a deep, calming breath, which he proceeded to exhale as a string of very creative curses involving Prince Rudolpho, Princess Mathilda, and the Association doing somewhat impossible and slightly unspeakable activities. As an afterthought, he added the League into the mix. Why couldn't these people just let him and Aggie live their lives in peace? All he wanted was to have a nice horse, an attractive riding companion, and a small estate. That was all.
But no, he couldn't have that. He had to have a little pink glitter-magnet, or a human exclamation point, or a sadistic poisoner to deal with. How had his life choices led him to this point? It just wasn't fair.
The self-pity was enough to occupy him for the duration of their fairly silent, fairly short trek to the attic where the gremlins lived. The attic itself was a somewhat new addition to the castle; as a rule, old buildings tended not to have them. Shortly after moving in to the castle though, as legend had it, Aggie had ordered one installed so as to prevent her gremlins from having to live in hovels in the bitter cold outside. Considering that rescuing princes tended to enjoy burning down gremlin hovels on their way to a noble rescue of their beautiful princess, it had been a decision applauded almost unilaterally. There were the few holdouts among the gremlins and a few League scoffers, but Aggie hadn't paid them much mind.
Maybe she should have.
Either way, they'd stopped now and the Witch was prodding around the wall of the passageway. Rudolpho very much looked as though he were biting his tongue, and Kay couldn't say that he wasn't thankful. Despite the prince's penchant to use way too many exclamation points when he spoke, at least the man knew when 'shut the hell up' was a valid course of action. It was more than could be said for any Faerie Godmother he knew.
"And here it is!" Aggie exclaimed triumphantly, pulling on a spiral of a wall-sconce as she leaned her left shoulder into a lighter section of the wall. The characteristic rumbling and creaking that accompanied any entrance revealing itself in the castle echoed around the passageway, and Kay took a deep breath, preparing himself for gremlin stench.
The wall opened, and the trio walked forward.
Hey guys! Thanks to Dear Imagination, eatmyawesome, MacBear, MertleYuts, and the wild abyss for adding this to their story alerts, and thanks to many of those same people for all the fantastic feedback on earlier chapters. I've tried to incorporate a more consistent tone and more things actually happening in this one per their suggestion. Please let me know if it worked! This is certainly the longest chapter I've written, so thanks for hanging on this far ^^