Chapter Four

Ashrynn stared at Jack's back as he marched away from her. What kind of departure was that? Was that really the great trainer that Bianca always went on and on about? He was one of the oddest people she had ever met.

Was everyone in the palace that way? Good lord, she hoped not. She probably wouldn't survive if that was all she had to look forward to. Oh well, at least she was out of that wretched Lady Trem's house. A few oddities here and there certainly wasn't anything she couldn't handle, she supposed, if the other option was living back there.

She spun around on her heel and began stalking back toward the palace in the opposite direction that Jack had gone. She hoped that he didn't have the same idea as her, and went off to find Bianca as well, because she would probably kill herself if she had to deal with him again so soon.

Once again, she was forced back by the sheer amazement of the castle. For almost two hours, she wandered, searching out her best friend and simultaneously wondering why Bianca wasn't looking for her, as well. Maybe that was the problem though. Maybe they kept passing by each other without realizing it because she was too stupid to just stay in one place.

She came to a stop and rested her hands on her hips, tapping her foot as she prepared herself to wait for another hour or so. However, just a few minutes later, she caught movement coming from outside the window she stood by. She turned and watched as Bianca went running by. Her crazy hair was tied up into a long ponytail that fell down her back and in her hands, she grasped that sword she always had on her, held out as if prepared to fight. For a second, Ashrynn felt fear course through her-after all, it would be just her luck for the palace to be under attack her first day there-but then she noticed the giant smile that her friend had plastered on her face.

Ashrynn ran down the stairs and located the first door, before running out. Luckily, she managed to enter the scene just as the two flew by her. It was Bianca with one boy, about their age, maybe a year or two older with long orangish-red hair and a face full of freckles, wielding a sword of his own. Bianca's brown eyes met Ashrynn's blue ones for a brief moment, before she effectively blocked a swing that the boy had taken at her.

Her arms bent backwards toward her head as the boy attempted to push on her sword, only to retaliate and shove him back. His weapon went flying as he landed on his butt. Before he even got the chance to catch his bearings, it seemed, Bianca was back, the tip of her sword positioned just inches away from his adam's apple.

"Yield or die."

The boy rolled his eyes before raising his hands in the air in mock surrender. Ashrynn tensed, waiting for him to lash out a surprise attack, but it never came. He merely lowered them to his sides as Bianca pulled her sword away and smirked.

"I don't know why you even try." she laughed, putting the sword back in its sheath. "You'll never be able to beat me. I'm Jack's star pupil."

"But you've never been able to defeat him, yet." the boy chuckled back, grasping her outheld hand and allowing her to help him up.

"Key word; yet. Someday, it'll come." she turned to Ashrynn and smiled widely. "Sorry for abandoning you, but I figured you would find me soon enough." she pretended to grimace as yelling came from around the corner of the palace. "Anyways, you'd have to meet the gang eventually."

Ashrynn frowned before turning to see six more boys, all with reddish-brown hair rounding the corner. They all looked to be about the same age as the first, save a few years or so and had the same armor on.

"Aw man!" one of them whined once they caught sight of the three of them. "Did we miss it all?!"

"I told you trying to cut them off was a bad idea!" another scolded, slapping the first in the shoulder.

"Guys, guys!" Bianca laughed, "Shut up! There's someone I want you all to meet!"

The boys did as they were told, stiffening slightly, much to Ashrynn's surprise. She hadn't thought that anyone could find her best friend could be so terrifying. Especially with that wide grin on her face.

"This is Ashrynn, the girl I told you about." Bianca gestured back to her, "And this is Lust, Greed, Sloth, Gluttony, Pride, Wrath, and Envy."

Ashrynn blinked. "Are those your real names?"

Bianca laughed before the boys got a chance to answer. "Of course not! They would be so lucky! It's just easier to remember who's who with these names."

One of the boys who had just appeared-Ashrynn believed he was Gluttony-shrugged. "It's true. Besides, it gives us an air of mystery;nobody knowing our real names." he wraggled his fingers and gave out a low, menacing growl.

Ashrynn laughed, resting a hand lightly on my stomach. "Oh yeah, real scary." she cleared her throat. "So, what was that you were just doing, now?"

"Playing," Bianca shrugged. "Jack doesn't like it when we do so without his supervision but things would get pretty boring if we had to wait for daddy before we can do anything. Besides, Pride needs all the help he can get if he's ever going to beat me."

The freckled boy from before snorted and rolled back his shoulders. "If I had been training as long as you, I'd definitely be able to destroy you in seconds, easily."

"Uh-huh," Bianca chuckled and waved her hand. "You go ahead and keep telling yourself that." she moved over and latched onto Ashrynn's arm. "Don't let them intimidate you. They're really just huge teddy bears in men's skin."

Greed smirked over at them. "Only to you. We're dangerous to most people."

"And by 'most' I'm assuming you mean everyone but my best friend?" Bianca shot them a dangerous smile.

"Among a few others."

Bianca snorted and rolled her eyes, her grip tightening ever so slightly on Ashrynn's elbow, causing her to tense slightly. She may have acted like she wasn't worried about the seven boys, but it was obvious-at least to her-that there was some distrust running through her. Although whether it was because of something she knew that Ashrynn didn't or just paranoia, she wasn't too sure.

"Well then," she sighed after a second, "Why don't we finish getting you settled and you can tell me what the king said?" she was dragging Ashrynn back into the castle before she even got a chance to answer, waving older their shoulders and calling out a "Later, guys!" behind her as if she couldn't get away from the boys fast enough.

!A&C!

The door shut behind Autumn with a resounding bang. She didn't wince however, merely stepped further into the room that was stacked to the brim with straw and looked around. Her stomach dropped as she realized that the little man wasn't there and the slight paranoia fear that he wouldn't show that night. He would though, he had to. Without him she would lose her job and quite possibly her life. The king wasn't exactly known for taking broken promises lightly.

She walked over to the lone spinning wheel and ran her hand along the wheel slightly. It was the only one in the entire kingdom, only allowed because it was needed for her to spin the straw into gold. It also happened to be the very same one that Princess Briar pricked her finger on three years ago. The king had given it to her as punishment for not protecting his daughter-and her supposed best friend. She supposed it could've been worse, though. She was almost put to death for her failure, but had managed to talk him into allowing her to live if she promised to spin a room of straw into gold every night for the rest of her life or until the curse was broken. Whichever one came first.

Of course, this had been a bad promise, only made out of a will to live so desperate she was willing to say just about anything, as only trolls or descendants of which could do such a thing and she didn't have a single magic bone in her body. So all she could really do was sit in there and hope that the little man who had appeared that first day wouldn't decide to abandon her that specific night.

She yanked her hand away from the spinning wheel and bit back a gasp. Her knees gave out beneath her, causing her to sink onto a bale of hay that would more than likely now serve as her seat for the rest of the night until the little man finally needed it. Hopefully tomorrow the prince would bring her down to see her again. It had felt like an eternity since she was able to lay eyes on her childhood friend.

The cellar door was thrown open and a man came strolling in. He was short, barely coming up to her knees with arms so long that his knuckles dragged on the ground when he walked. His eyes were the ugliest shade of black that she had ever seen and when he opened his mouth to sneer, it revealed two rows of knarled and yellow teeth.

"Hello there, my pretty," he laughed in a horrible voice that made Autumn feel sick to her stomach. "Bemoaning over your prince again?"

Autumn glared harshly at him. "What do you want to know?"

The troll shrugged, before jumping up on a bale of hay that sat next to the spinning wheel and beginning without even being told. "It's just such a shame to see such a young girl in love with a boy she can't have."

"I'm not in love with Prince Chad." Autumn bit the inside of her cheek and worked to keep from snapping at him. If he went back on his word, she would be the one to die.

"Sure you're not."

She opened her mouth to say something, but then shut it as she thought better. At this point, she knew better than to egg him on about these kinds of things. He seemed to love the argument and it always ended up leaving her exhausted.

"I was worried you weren't going to come." she finally settled on saying.

Instead of saying comforting words like most would in his position, he merely shrugged and answered with a, "Don't get your hopes up, though. My whims change rather frequently. You've just gotten off lucky these past three years."

!L&J!

Prince Lennox's room was almost as big as his little sister's final resting place. That was one of the first things Ashrynn noticed when she entered. More than likely due to the fact that he seemed to be covered head to toe in his blankets.

Unsure of exactly how to proceed with waking him up, Ashrynn decided to go for the safe route and picked out his clothes first. Maybe if she made enough noise it would rouse him so that she wouldn't have to worry about it.

She laid out a bright purple shirt with black leggings and matching boots. The outfit was much more colorful than anything she'd ever seen in her entire life, causing her to frown not so much at how amazing it was, but how horrible her old clothes had been. Even the plain brown dresses she had to wear now were much better than that. At least they weren't torn in so many places that it was questionable whether they could be considered clothes or rags.

After the clothes had been lain out on a giant chair next to the bed, it was finally time to wake him up. Ashrynn chanced a glance behind her to see that if her plan had worked, only to see that the Prince still seemed to be sleeping. She sighed and ran a hand through her hair as best she could while it was pulled back before heading over to him.

She leaned over the bed for a second, debating what she should do. Would a light prodding be necessary? Or was she not allowed to touch him? That would make sense.

Finally, she decided that to start things off she would have to at least draw the covers back. She hesitantly rested her hands on the edge of the sheets near where she assumed his head was and began tugging on it. Due to the fact that she was trying to be gentle as she wasn't sure what would happen if she was caught, it took her a couple of minutes but finally she was able to pull them back.

And almost immediately froze.

The boy was easily one of the most beautiful people she had ever seen in her entire life. Paintings and drawings had failed to do him justice. His long hair, the same color as hay, splayed out on either side of his head. His eyes were closed, causing his long dark eyelashes to spread out across his cheeks, pale probably from never seeing the sun.

Ashrynn didn't realize that she was reaching out to touch him until her hand was only inches away from his nose. She yanked it back before turning on her heel and working to catch her breath. Now she understood why no painter ever felt satisfied when they tried to capture him. There simply was no way such a shining beauty could ever be put down on paper.

After a minute she turned back around-this time more prepared for the mini-heart attack she would get at seeing him-and gently began murmuring to him.

"Your Highness," she whispered in as soft and caring a voice as she could muster. "Your Highness, it's time to get up."

The prince groaned and lashed out with his hand before allowing it to come back to a rest over his still-shut eyes. Ashrynn bit back a smirk at his childishness before trying again. "Please, Your Highness. It's time to wake up."

When it became clear that something so light and airy wasn't going to work, Ashrynn drew up a bit of courage and reached out to tap his forehead. That got a bit more of a reaction out of him, but still not much. She sighed before moving her hand down to his shoulder and shaking it lightly. Finally his eyelids fluttered briefly before opening to reveal the most beautiful hazel orbs she had ever seen in her entire life.

"Mn, who are you?" the Prince groaned, reaching up his hand to rub one of those gorgeous eyes. Ashrynn opened her mouth to answer but he shook his head and held out his hand. "Forget that. I remember now."

Ashrynn took a step back as he sat up, "My name is Lennox, Prince Lennox. But most people just call me Knox. And you are?"

"A-Ashrynn…" her voice came out a small squeak. She couldn't help it. The situation they were in was just too odd. Of all the places for them to have this introduction, why did it have to be in his room, while he was still in bed and in his pajamas? "I'm Bianca's friend…." it didn't occur to her that he might not know who Bianca was.

If he didn't though, he didn't mention it. He merely smiled over at her. "Ah, right. You're the one Jack came to me about the other day."

"Ah, yes." Ashrynn ducked her head, slightly ashamed. She had forgotten that he was the one to give her permission to stay at the palace. More than anything she wanted to ask why. Surely he had more than enough things on his mind already without having to worry about her as well.

"It's horrible what your family forced you through." his voice came out harsh all of a sudden. Ashrynn felt her blood run cold at how angry he sounded, even though it didn't seem to be directed at her. "I wish I had known sooner. I would've gotten you out of there the second I-" his hands clenched into fists and he dropped his head low so that his hair hung in front of his eyes. "If I could get my hands on them-" suddenly he stopped talking and after a second relaxed his hands before shooting her an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry. I just get really angry when I hear about someone treating another human being like that."

Ashrynn laughed in an attempt to hide just how much he had rattled her. "Oh, no problem. I imagine most people would feel that way."

At that, he smiled at her again, causing her heart to jump a second time.

This was bad.