Chapter One: Once Upon A Time

Her aunt was looking for her.

Ashrynn ducked down into the long grass as she heard her name being called. Clutching her pad to her chest she began a rather awkward one-handed crawl toward the woods, praying that Lady Trem wouldn't think to look out the window until she had reached the safety of the trees. The grass wasn't that tall, and her aunt would be able to see it moving where she was, but if she made it to the woods then she would be safe. None of her family was "daring enough" to follow her there.

It was completely unfair! She had already finished all her chores! She should have just a few minutes to herself! Couldn't they live without her bowed on her knees in front of them for two seconds?!

She reached the woods, and darted into them, running skillfully through the warn down foliage that created a slightly hidden, man made path. Her hair, so covered in dust and grime that you couldn't even tell what color it was anymore, flew out behind her as she sprinted, with only one thing in mind. Make it to the clearing without breaking something.

Dead leaves crunched under her feet, and large bugs smacked against her face. She wasn't worried about that, however. Instead, she whistled out a small tune and a second later, two bright white doves flew next to her head.

"Call me whenever they send someone outside to look for me." she softly commanded the two birds, "I'll be with Bianca."

The birds flew away without giving any indication that they had understood her but she knew better. They would do what she said. They always did. She just had a way with animals.

A few minutes later, the trees thinned out and she broke through to a clearing, crowded with just a single oak tree with a lone grave hidden under it. Ashrynn slowed down to a walk and made a b-line for just that.

There was already a girl sitting next to the grave with her head bowed to respect in it. She had long dark hair, tanned skin, and was wearing the royal crest on her outfit. She looked nothing like Ashrynn and for good reasons, all though that would probably bring up the question as to why she was praying to Ashrynn's mother.

"Is that your way of 'going undercover?'" Ashrynn smirked, walking up behind the girl.

Bianca didn't jump, although that was to be expected from one of the King's closest guards, she merely turned around and offered a giant smile. "It's my day off. So long as I don't commit treason, nobody really cares what I do. Besides," she stood up and wiped a finger roughly against Ashrynn's cheek. There was a thick layer of cinder on it when she pulled it away. "It seems you disguised yourself more than enough for the both of us."

Ashrynn rolled her eyes. "Yeah, the family was kind enough to throw ashes on the floor I was cleaning. They figured that I could be too easily spotted in the forest, otherwise."

At those words, Bianca's hand and jaw clenched tightly. For as long as the two of them had known each other, she had been way over protective of Ashrynn, and she knew that it killed her on the inside that she couldn't do anything to help with her current situation.

"Look, Ash, I've been thinking," she latched onto Ashrynn's hands and gave her a hard stare. "You're nineteen now, so you don't have to stay with them anymore. You can live on your own."

Ashrynn smiled sadly and raised her shoulders in a shrug. "Where would I go? You live in the palace, so I can't stay with you. And they're the only family I have."

Bianca sighed, dropping her hand. "I'll talk to Jack. Maybe he can explain your situation to the king and-"

"Bianca," Ashrynn cut her off, putting a hand on her shoulder. "I'm fine. Really. I don't need you protecting me all the time."

"I know, I know," Bianca laughed. "Old habits die hard, I guess." she backed away from her best friend and began to dig through the basket she had brought with her. "I'm guessing you want a pear as usual?"

Ashrynn nodded, and eagerly took the green fruit from the black haired girl and plopping down next to her and the grave. She bit into the pear and groaned in contentment as the sweet juice drowned her tongue. It had been so long since she'd had anything to eat that actually had some sort of taste. Usually all she got were pieces of stale old bread, which made the already enjoyable visits with her best friend all the better.

She chewed softly for a moment, staring at her mother's grave, as Bianca began peeling an orange. "So, do you have any new stories to tell?" she finally asked, once the pear was halfway gone.

"Mm... not really." Bianca shook her head. "Mostly just training at this point. We've started preparing for the ball for the prince's coming-of-age."

Ashrynn's eyebrows drew together. "Isn't that not for another two months?"

"Everything is bigger in the palace, therefor, we have to have longer to make sure everything is ready."

Ashrynn sighed and shook her head. "What I wouldn't give to live there for just a night or two."

"To live there or just to get away from your wonderful family?"

"Either or."

Bianca laughed and opened her mouth so say something else, but was cut off as two hawks came shooting through the opposite end of the clearing from where Bianca had emerged. They weren't half as small and fragile as her doves, but that was to be expected. After all, they belonged to her friend, who was just as good with animals as she was.

Bianca flashed to her feet and held out an arm, her brown eyes wide and panicked as one of them landed just below her elbow. The bird cawed at her and she nodded in understanding, before shooing it ack off into the wild.

"I'm sorry, Ash," she said, turning back around. "But I have to go. Something's come up that I have to take care of."

Ashrynn nodded and flitted her hand. "Go."

Bianca flashed her an apologetic smile before nodding at the basket. "There's some apple pie in there. You can eat it before heading back. Just leave the basket. I'll come back to get it as soon as I can."

As she ran out, Ashrynn raised a hand and waved slightly as dread settled in her stomach as it always did once the two of them seperated. Lady Trem wouldn't create a scene with a member of the royal guard around, which always made her feel irritantingly safe.

She cut out a fair slice of the pie and ate it as she made her way back through the woods. The doves didn't meet her as she emerged back out at the other end, which proved that obviously whatever Lady Trem had wanted, it couldn't have been very important.

Her cousins were seated at the table that sat in the middle of the decent sized dining room. Ana was rubbing a good amount of blush onto her cheeks, even though Ashrynn had already put on more than enough not an hour earlier (because God forbid either one of them left their rooms without a pound of powder on). They were pretty enough, she supposed, but years of sneering and spitting made it hard for her to find any real beauty in them.

"Mother is looking for you." Selda said in her horribly nasly voice as she scrunched up her nose with a smirk. "She doesn't sound happy."

Right. Because when did Lady Trem ever sound happy when she wasn't torturing her niece? Instead of dignifiying her cousin's retort with a response, Ashrynn merely eited the room and headed toward her aunt's study.

"Who is it?" a woman's voice came floating out after sh'ed knocked on the door.

"It's me, ma'am!" Ashrynn called back in. "Selda said you wished to see me?"

"Well, it's about time, Ashrynn! Come in, quickly!"

Ashrynn pushed open the door and entered the room. Lady Trem called it a study, but it was really more like an extension to her room. All there was was a giant window and a large chair that she currently sat in, petting a bright orange cat.

"How may I help you, ma'am?" Ashrynn forced the words from her mouth even though they were some of the last things she wanted to say.

Her aunt nodded at the floor in front of her. "Now, Ashrynn," she said as soon as Ashrynn stood in front of her. "I trust you know that in just a short two month's time, the prince will be holding a ball where he shall find a bride."

Ashrynn nodded. "Yes, ma'am."

"And although I have no doubt in my mind that one of my daughters will catch his eye," yeah if he liked girls who cared about nothing but themselves. Although Ashrynn supposed she could see that. "I need something from you."

"What is it ma'am?"

"I need you to spend the next to months at the castle."

Ashrynn blinked. "Excuse me?"

"I need you to get close to the prince. To find out what he likes, so that I can mold my daughters into the perfect women for him."

"And how might I go about doing that, ma'am?"

Lady Trem waved a hand. "That is for you to find out. I really couldn't care less. But I want you out of here by the day after tomorrow."

Ashrynn sucked in her lips. "If I may, ma'am, once one of them marries him, what will your intentions be after that?"

Lady Trem smirkedevilly. "Well, I'll have a palace full of servants so I really won't need you, anymore. I suppose I can set you free to do whatever it is you seem to think you wish to do." Ashrynn's heart jumped for joy. This was it! Although he despised the thought of any of them being happy, being free would certainly be worth it. Besides, it wasn't like they would actually be running the country! "Oh, but I would need one more thing from you, though."

Anything! "What is it, ma'am?"

"Two years after the wedding, you will have to come back and kill the prince and the king."

Ashrynn froze at that. "Why?"

Lady Trem smirked. "With his younger sister missing, my daughter would take over the kingdom. We would have all the power in the world."

Oh, Ashrynn really didn't like the thought of that. Was it really worth it? Being free for a short two years only to be back under their watch again along with the rest of the kingdom? She didn't even want to think about what would happen then.

But that was still two years away. Surely she could think of some way to avoid that ending in that amount of time.

So she smiled an nodded. "Of course, ma'am. Anything you say."