"If we're ready," I whisper, "then we may as well begin." So, without a sound, we slip out of the castle on horseback. The guards at the gate have been compensated, and we fly through the streets of Adamantium as the sun begins to rise. Hooves pound against the dirt road as we head for the main path out of the city.
To my left is Princess Shay, and on my right is Princess Gia. They're visiting my kingdom while our families discuss war.
We are going to stop this war.
"We just follow this road for about 10 miles," Shay calls, slowing our pace as we reach the city outskirts. She pats her mare, Primrose on the neck, and takes a small sip from the canteen she brought. We're all dressed in a strange mix of stolen armor and modified riding clothes. Shay had the good fortune to find a pair of leather pants that fit her, and a leather breastplate. Other than that, she wears no armor, just a green dress with the skirt cut to her thigh.
"Seems easy enough," Gia smiles, carefully tying back her caramel curls into a ponytail. Her riding clothes are navy blue, interwoven with a chainmail shirt she found. The skirt extends to her knees, with slits cut on the sides for freedom of movement. She also chose to accessorize with metal shoulder pads and bracers.
"The town we're headed for is Cameowood, right?" I ask, since I am rather directionally challenged. Shay nods. She was the best at reading the library maps. Cameowood is one of the smaller cities in Davenport, but one where many noble families have hunting houses.
"I have a few friends there that might help us," I say, stretching my arms towards the early morning sky and yawning. I refused to cut up my favorite red skirt, so it trails my ankles, with a hidden slit down the middle so I can actually ride my horse. Atop the bodice of the dress I wear leather armor, with long chainmail sleeves. This is the craziest thing I've ever done, I think. Well not the craziest thing ever.
Now as I plod down the road, I wonder if our efforts will even make a bit of difference. Maybe not. But maybe they will.
"Our parents will be furious," Shay frets. She's absolutely right. We may've all composed a joint letter that we left in the great hall, but it won't help our cause. Shay is due to get married in less than two months, and has to be back in time for her wedding. Gia is supposed to be looking for a husband.
"They'll thank us later," Gia jokes, but her laughter is tinged with worry. After all, Gia and I are the firstborns of our respective royal families. If we don't come back…the future of our kingdoms will be in jeopardy. Shay is the second child of her family, but she is just as important as a bargaining chip. Her marriage to Culver of Fullerbee is rare, in that the alliance will help both kingdoms, and that she's actually quite comfortable with her fiancé.
"Culver won't," Shay sighs. "I wrote him a letter…but I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't want to marry me." Shay is sacrificing her whole marriage on one ill-planned gamble. If this goes wrong…Shay and Gia will never speak to me again.
"Culver loves you," Gia reassures. "He'll hold out for you!" Gia always sees the best in people, while I mostly see the worst. But even I know that Culver and Shay are meant to be.
"Love isn't the right word," Shay says thoughtfully. "It's really more of a partnership or a friendship." Foolish girls would demand a romance. But Shay is much too smart. A mutual partnership is the best thing she could've hoped for from an arranged marriage.
Our ride continues in silence as we plod through the countryside. It's beautiful, but the morning air is so cold I fear my lungs will freeze. Winter time in Davenport means that the clouds come and go. Today is a day when they're gone, but the morning air is sharp and freezing as a consequence. Rain would've been worse, however, so I'd count ourselves lucky.
"My hands are freezing," I shiver, despite my gloves being lined with rabbit fur. Shay and Gia nod, and the silence falls again.
Your idea, your fault, I think to myself. My mother will wring my neck for this. I offer up a prayer to Nestor, for safe travels and that any tricks I pull will work. Then I offer up another prayer to Chalondra, basically begging for wisdom and any clever ideas she can offer.
Athena has been my country's patron goddess since we started the war. Before…no one is really sure which deity it was. It's been so long since the beginning.
"Seek Vitalia and Fyren of Serpentine Creek for the answers," the old woman rasped, shelving a heavy leather-bound volume. "Only they have the information I cannot give you. They are my siblings, and will aid you." These were the last words I heard from the palace librarian before I left. Lucrezia is her name, and she's been serving my family since before I was born.
We are traveling to Serpentine Creek in the dead of winter, to seek information about magical relics that may or may not be mythical.
That's why I didn't ask my mother.
"Good morning ladies." The driver of a carriage passes us by without a fuss. The carriage occupant, however, looks scandalized by the sight of Gia and Shay in men's garments.
"She looked like a surprised codfish," Gia snickers, sending us into gales of merry laughter as we plod down the road. We spend the next few hours alternating between silence and laughter until we come to Cameowood. It's one of the larger cities in Davenport. Along the hillsides are houses of the nobles, with huge tracts of land for peasants to work.
"I thought it would be larger," Shay remarks. By now it's normal waking hours for most people. The streets are full of merchants hawking their wares and peasants doing their shopping. From our position just on the edge of town, we can almost see the governor's building at the center of town.
"G'morning m'lady!" On my right is a small boy of about 10 or 11 years. From his calloused hands and dirty face, anyone could say he's a stable boy. Without a word, I dismount my horse and toss him a few coins. This isn't my first trip into
"Take their horses as well," I instruct in a brisk tone. He stuffs the money in one of his greasy pockets, then takes our horses to a nearby stable.
"We'll need dried rations," Gia reminds as we stroll into the city. No one pays us any mind as we browse the various vendors scattered up and down the street. Someone bumps into me from behind.
"Scuse me miss." I turn to say thank you. The words die in my throat as my eyes meet a street waif, in a dress of gaudy blue and yellow. So much leg and bust is showing, her occupation is plain: my mother refers to her kind as "ladies of the night." Wordlessly she slips around me and enters a tavern across the street. If only my mother could see me now.
"Those guards are watching us," Shay hisses, gesturing at two knights across the street. Sure enough, their eyes follow our every move as we slowly jockey our way through the now-crowded street.
"My mother must've sent them a message," I whisper back, my heart beginning to quicken pace. For emergency communications, several members of the palace staff are able to send messages by magic, faster than Hermes himself. Cameowood is large enough to warrant a local garrison, filled with peace-keeping knights. We quickly turn down a side street and dart into a small shop. In our haste to get inside, we trip over each other and land in a heap inside the shop.
"That was quite an entrance," the red-headed shop keeper grins. I nod and try to step away from the door. She's clothed in a simple gray dress, which contrasts with her fire-red curls that seem to be scraped back into a ponytail.
"Can I help you ladies with anything?" She asks. We've wandered into a bookstore, shelves cover the walls from floor to ceiling. It's dimly lit by a fire in the corner and a few candles placed here and there. "I just received a wonderful book of spells from the country of Beauxbaton." She pulls a gorgeous book bound in purple leather and gold from under the counter.
"No thank you," Gia smiles politely. We stand in a very awkward silence, as I pretend to be interested in the books she's selling.
"Holy Athena," I gasp, grabbing a book off the shelf. "Is this The Travels of Sir Evander the Fierce?" I don't have to pretend to be interested anymore, it's one of my favorite books that my mother has forbidden me from reading.
"Yes," she grins. "I also have The Journey of Jaylor the Brave and The Quest of Lord Alto the Trickster. They're by the same author."
"How much?" She gives me a grin and starts tying the three books with rough twine.
"Yours for 20 gold!" Suddenly I hear someone talking outside her door. Gia and Shay dive behind bookshelves. I have no choice but to take refuge beneath her counter.
"What are you-?" But before she can finish, the owner of the voice enters the shop. Heavy footsteps grow louder as they reach the counter.
"Captain Bovrik," the shopkeeper says, her voice all smiles. "What brings you to darken my doorstep?" I hear something that sounds like a sigh and a grunt.
"The Princesses Gia of Everwinter, Shay of Marvelette, and Lace of Davenport have disappeared overnight," the captain booms, his voice seems to fill the whole room. Whoever Captain Bovrik is, he sounds like an ox of a man. I nervously cup my hand over my mouth to stifle my obnoxiously loud breathing. The sound of parchment unfurling reaches my ears.
"We have magical images of them for reference," he continues in his impossibly loud voice. "You haven't seen them, have you?" I hold my breath. I don't even know this girl's name, and now our success is riding on her. She glances down quickly. Our eyes meet. As quietly as possible, I shake my head no, giving her a pleading look all the while.
"I'm afraid not," she answers, only a slight shake in her voice. Relief shoots through me so fast I have to stuff my fist in my mouth to stifle a sigh. "They'd have no reason to visit my shop." Bovrik grunts in acknowledgement, the floor creaks as he thuds back to the door.
"So Fiona, about that party tonight…" he begins. My fists clench as I hear the sneer in his voice. I watch as Fiona's hands grip the table so tight her knuckles turn paper white.
"No thank you," she says brightly, but her voice has murder strewn along the edges. It's so polite it hurts my ears. Bovrik slams the door shut on his way out. Seconds later, Fiona is under the desk with me.
"You must be Lace," she smiles. "The disappearing princess." I'm so taken aback that no sound comes out of my mouth when I open it. She gives me another warm smile and sticks out her hand.
"Fiona Robin," she says, and I shake it. She helps me out from under the desk as Gia and Shay reemerge from their hiding places. Gia and Shay introduce themselves as well. Surprisingly, Shay gives her full name: Shayabella. She hates her full name.
"So you've disappeared from your castle," Fiona observes.
"We're sort of on a mission," Gia explains. "It's kinda important." Gia is putting it very lightly.
"That's a bit vague," Fiona remarks, raising a questioning eyebrow.
"We really should be going," I interject, starting to shove Gia and Shay towards the door. "It's been lovely meeting you." Before we're even a half step across the room, Fiona poses a question.
"Can I come with you?"
[To Gia, Shay, and Fiona: thanks for letting me do this again]