Gia and Shay's escape attempt had failed, so they were forced to watch their capturers eat breakfast with only a few mouthfuls of water for themselves.
"Next time, I won't trip on the lantern," Gia whispered, sending them both into fits of repressed giggles. Their capturers eyed them warily, they hadn't quite realized that the two carried bronze knuckles and a crossbow for a reason.
They'd tried escaping from their tent last night, but Gia accidentally kicked over a lantern and set a tent on fire, waking up the whole camp.
However, they did manage to raise hell and cause injury to several men, so it wasn't a total loss. The ends of Gia's hair did catch on fire, and by the time Shay put them out, Gia's hair barely brushed her shoulders. One of their captors offered to even it out and chop off the rest of the burnt ends so the length crept all the way up to her chin.
"I say we should bust ourselves out before Lace and the others get here," Shay suggested in a quiet but impish tone.
Gia nodded, and the two began to whisper plans of the utmost importance all while Gia braided Shay's hair. Their captors felt unnerved by their innocence now, since they'd discovered that they had captured no ordinary princesses.
"Those two will be the death of us," the leader of the party muttered quietly. "Tag team fighting isn't something they teach most women." Gia and Shay had proven to be a fearsome duo that went down swinging.
"Something about them gives me the shivers," another one added, eyeing them nervously.
Things were looking up.
Things are not looking up.
"Ambrose if you don't stop whining, you'll never see the flask again," I snarl in a voice loaded with venom. Ever since I went to bed last night, and since I've woken up, Ambrose has been begging for his flask back.
The flask is still stuffed down my shirt because if I put it anywhere else, he'll grab me and get it back. One would hope it being down my shirt would deter him from grabbing it.
"You have no right to take my things," he howls back as we mount our horses. Cerise has thoroughly enjoyed this spat of ours. She even offered to hide it in her boot to throw Ambrose off the scent, or destroy it all together.
"For the love of the gods, Lace, just give it back," Irei snaps, utterly exhausted by our incessant arguing. To be fair, Ambrose keeps bringing it up, and I'm obviously going to defend myself.
"If I don't have it back in an hour, I'll take it," Ambrose warns in a threatening tone.
"You're bluffing," I smirk, truly hoping and praying he's bluffing. He shakes his head, and start coming up with wild plans to stop him. All involve killing Ambrose, which probably isn't a very good idea, to say the least.
The morning is an especially frosty one. The sky is so clear and blue, and the air turns my lungs to ice. Even though I'm bundled up, the chill still manages to creep into my bones.
"Out of my head!" Irei swats Cerise on the back of the head, she glares at him for a few moments, then the silence returns. I don't get why Cerise is so obsessed with reading Irei's thoughts.
Now that I think about it, I'd give anything to be able to read his thoughts. It'd definitely be useful.
"How else am I supposed to practice?" Cerise retorts, a bitter expression written across her face.
"Practice on someone else," Irei howls, in a rare display of temper. Ambrose quietly warns Irei not to yell
at his sister in a voice that makes no effort to disguise his growing rage, and an ugly argument is avoided. For now, at least.
No one feels like talking quite yet. It is considered "too early", and yet all I want to do is babble just to fill the silence. Of course, there's no guarantee that I won't be shouted into silence.
"Do you think Gia and Shay will attempt escape?" Fiona asks, finally giving voice to a question that's been in the back of my mind for a while now.
"I'd like to think they've already busted out," I offer, sifting through my prior knowledge of Gia and Shay.
"I mean, Shay's been a daredevil since forever, and Gia would wanna go with her…so maybe?" Shay was always hanging upside down from things or walking on her hands when we would visit. She's unpredictable, since she's very sweet and good-natured but also courageous and occasionally throws caution to the wind.
"They'll never see it coming," Everett snickers. Gia's unpredictable, but in a different way than Shay. Gia has a thousand thoughts running through her head, and often follows the wildest ones. Escape would be a daring adventure to her.
"Lace you have 30 seconds to give me my flask, or I'll knock you off your horse," Ambrose threatens. But since I have what he wants, I am more than prepared to make demands.
"On one condition," I declare, pulling out the flask with a touch of dramatic flair. "You tell me what happened on that perfect day in June later tonight, and I'll give it back." Ambrose is about to refuse, when I unscrew the cap and start tipping the contents onto the road below me. As the amber liquid starts to drain out, so does the color in his face.
"All right, all right," he howls, and I stop pouring to study him carefully. Dark circles line his bloodshot, watery blue eyes that never lose sight of the flask.
"You swear it?" I question, ready to pour at the slightest misstep.
"You have my word," he promises with poorly disguised desperation. "Are you gonna hand it over?"
"A princess keeps her promises," I sigh, screwing the cap back on and tossing it to him. Even though I'd rather force him to kick the habit, I realize it's really not my choice to make. Ambrose immediately tosses back a shot and gives a contented sigh.
"Swinton be praised," he mutters, and stuffs the flask down his left boot. Swinton is the god of drinking. Not really one that I pray to all that frequently, but Ambrose seems to love him.
Now that Ambrose is back to his usual drunken self, the status quo is restored amongst the group. The boys tell bawdy jokes and stories, while we girls talk about everything and nothing.
I miss having Gia. She was my right-hand woman, and my best friend to boot. Always there for all of us, always fussing over us and making sure we drank enough water to stay healthy. Every impulsive leader should have a Gia to keep morale and order amongst the ranks.
I regale everyone with tales of parties gone wrong, and my famous tricks to get out of them. Between the three princesses in this party, we've seen enough party mishaps to write a book.
I'll never forget the time Shay and I climbed on top of the gazebo to avoid two very…persistent suitors.
"I likes to faint if she doesn't wanna dance with someone," I add mischievously. Everyone looks at me like I'm crazy. But it's true. I've slumped over backwards to get out of dancing many times. In fact, I'm an expert at not hitting my head on the floor if the gentleman is too stupid to catch me.
"I'm not allowed to tell them no," I protest loudly. "Besides, most of them are horrible dancers." Some guys step on my toes then blame it on me. Others simply cannot dance to save their lives.
"It must be tough," Irei smirks, voice dripping with sarcasm. I narrow my eyes at him. When your whole life revolves around who dances with whom, it is tough.
"You can't even say no politely?" Fiona gasps, shocked by the rule my mother laid down when I was 14. Even Pearl was forced to abide by this rule, since she started gaining a reputation as a difficult girl to woo.
"My mother's no fool," I laugh bitterly. "She knew that I was saying no to everybody, so she made me say yes." Most of the girls look at me with sympathy. Dancing with a total stranger who's got his eyes firmly fixed on your crown and cleavage, instead of your heart and personality, gets depressing after a while.
"You act like being a princess is a chore," Everett snorts, sending my temper rising. "How hard can it be?"
"Have you ever planned seating arrangements for 300 guests?" I snap, feeling rather insulted. "Or been forced to wear a gown so tight you can't even breathe, and yet you're supposed to be flitting around with final arrangements and instructions? How about having your left foot stepped on so hard that you have to limp through an entire ball with a smile? Entertaining people you hate? Having to break off plans with people you love? How about it, Everett?"
Everett, to his credit, seems shocked into silence. Everyone is quiet as we continue heading west. People who think being royalty is easy are nothing more than empty-headed fools. I've been training since I was seven years old. Hours of dance lessons, etiquette training, mock parties, and walking for hours in spindly heels so that I'd be able to glide at parties.
"And let's not forget all those times I've had to fend off knaves with wandering hands," I remark quietly. Getting a pair of rough hands all over you is an occupational hazard for a princess. It's only happened to me twice, and my only escape was giving them a kick in the pants.
"But you're the princess," Ambrose interjects, as if that means something. Being the princess means almost nothing.
"I get to marry someone who will take charge of the throne, fortune, and glory," I point out in a voice that betrays how resigned I am to my fate.
Wisely, Ambrose and Everett stop trying to tell me how easy it is to be a princess. It just so happens to be one of those subjects that I can argue ceaselessly.
"Lace, you got a plan to get us in that stronghold?" Irei queries from the back of the group. I roll my eyes, not feeling particularly interested in discussing my plans.
"I dunno Irei," I mutter, realizing that he most likely already has a plan. "If you're so smart, why don't you figure one out?"
"Well me and the guys have been talking," he admits, to literally no one's surprise as I groan and roll my eyes again. "We think that we'll just jump some guards, take their uniforms, and bust them out." I turn my head and the boys are looking pretty pleased with themselves.
"What about us?" I snap, gesturing to the other girls in the group. "What are we supposed to be doing, huh?" Their pride deflates, but only for a moment.
"Wait outside, obviously," he smirks. "We'll take care of it!" Fiona narrows her eyes in a deadly and disapproving manner.
"You can be lookouts," Ambrose reassures us in patronizing tone that has arrogance dripping down the sides. I am about to tell him to look out for my fist heading for his face when Cerise pipes up.
"You won't be able to find them without attracting attention." Clearly neither of them thought of that, and they look rather caught off guard.
"Take two of us in," Fiona suggests. "Two of you can masquerade as guards, and two of us can pretend to be prisoners."
Then of course we have to argue about who gets to be the guards, and who gets to be taken in.
Ambrose and Everett are quickly selected as guards (much to Irei's chagrin), due to their military background.
However, which girls get to go in is a hotbed of resentment and debate.
"Cerise has got to go in," I shout over the rising tide of voices. "Her venefica is a huge asset!" At this, everyone nods and agrees, so half of our problem is solved right away.
Fiona would be a good second choice because she's fairly disarming, and not one you'd expect to fight like a wildcat.
Irei insists that he should be the second choice because he's "the best fighter left over". He earns several nasty glares for that.
I attempt to plead my case, but everyone knows that I'd be worthless in a fight.
"You've gotta have at least one high-value prisoner," I protest. "Otherwise they may not give you the time of day!"
Finally, it's settled. Cerise and I will be going in. My job is to stay out of the way and run like hell, according to Ambrose.
I'm not very good at either of those things.
"Ambrose, you promised," I howl, causing nearly everyone to jump. Camp's been set up and now Ambrose is trying to back out of his promise to tell me about the perfect day in June.
"Aw c'mon Lace, don't make me do this," he whines pitifully. Most everyone is on my side, so if it comes down to a brawl, I'll come out on top.
"If you don't, I will," Cerise warns smugly, casually making flowers grow. Ambrose turns white, and settles himself on a log, plucking his lute with shaky fingers.
"Last June, Everett and I joined up with Captain Ravensflight's unit," he begins, keeping his eyes fixed on his lute. "We'd both done really well in training, and we rose up through the ranks to become Junior Lieutenants." He stops to let out a shaky breath and run a few fingers through his unkempt hair. Everett is wound up tighter than a spring, and is also quite jittery.
"We were told to stake out in western Beryl Woods, and wait for the enemy. It was a low-key mission, just hold the position for about a week until reinforcements arrived. We dug trenches, got scouts up in the trees, and then we started the waiting game."
Ambrose looks like he's gonna be sick and even Everett is turning pale. I'm waiting for both of them to laugh it off with sarcasm, but they're dead serious.
"It's pretty basic stuff, you just sit around in the trenches and trees without making too much noise and everything was going okay but…" Overcome by some unknown emotion, Ambrose sits perfectly still, white as sheet and stares at something none of us can see. Everyone has stopped what they're doing to watch this little moment play out. A log from the fire pops and everyone jumps nearly two feet in the air.
"I can't do it," he whispers in a terrified voice, still staring straight ahead. "I'm sorry Lace, I just…can't." Mechanically, he chugs his entire flask, and continues staring at nothing.
For some odd reason, I really feel like crying. Other people's problems usually have that effect on me. I turn and look at Everett, who's fists are clenched with white knuckles.
"Don't look at me," he mutters with a stony glare. "I'm not telling you." Both of them are shadows of their loud, boisterous selves.
For the next thirty minutes no one talks. Irei distributes rations, we munch on them without speaking. Ambrose for some reason does not eat, and gives his rations to Everett.
"Not hungry," he rasps when I give him a questioning glance. He starts finger picking a jerky, nervous melody on his lute that is ripping my nerves to shreds.
"Ambrose, please stop," I burst out in frustration, feeling tense and emotionally exhausted without the jarring, melancholy tune settling deep in my bones.
"Sorry Lace," he croaks, and for approximately two minutes, the lute remains quiet.
Then of course he starts his nervous plucking again and I don't have the energy to scream at him.
"I did kill that girl," Cerise blurts out in a hollow voice. "And I remember it all." By now, everyone is staring at her, utterly dumbfounded by this revelation.
"She tied my hands up, and tied me to her horse in the night, and we walked for a while" she continues, looking as shattered as her brother. "Took me into the woods, told me to tell her where you guys were going so she could send a team to find you. She built a fire just so she could burn me with the tip of her sword." She yanks up one of her sleeves to reveal five perfectly straight and even burns.
I really feel like crying now.
"And then, I snapped," she sighs wearily. "Turned a burning log into a spear, and stabbed her with it. They say that trauma is the key to harnessing your venefica…that's why I can make flowers grow."
Apparently, it's therapy night for the Darrowby siblings. Nobody really knows how to respond to that, and I honestly can't blame them. I'm at an utter loss for words.
"Let's go to bed," Fiona suggests gently. Her suggestion is accepted. No one feels like talking anyways.
Gia and Shay had never stayed at a prison with real beds and blankets.
Then again, they'd never really been in prison.
They'd arrived at the stronghold late at night, and were bustled through winding corridors only to be dropped off in a small but cozy room.
Prison life wasn't too bad.
"They're coming for us," Gia mumbled, her voice muffled by the pillow they'd given her.
"Betcha 5 aurums they'll be here in two days," Shay mumbled back.
"You know I'll lose, ya cheater."