Chapter Twelve

"Magnus?" the princess whispered.

But it wasn't the princess. It was Ceri, his friend, his forest companion. He could only stare at her in wonder. All this time. She never told him. He should have known her from all the royal dinners and dances he had been dragged to before his mother died. He should have seen. He felt a wave of shame and embarrassment drowning him. She knew. Was she having a laugh? Had she been looking for a momentary tryst with a servant boy before she was married off to a prince? He couldn't face her.

He took a step back, then two steps, then he ran out of the churchyard into the flower-strewn streets. He didn't run for long, his wounds wouldn't allow it. He turned into the woods past the edges of the town where it suddenly changed from tightly clustered houses and buildings into noble land with manors and mansions spaced acres apart. He smashed through the woods, making as much noise as he could, scattering wildlife around him. He screamed as loudly as his lungs would let him. But soon he felt his back complaining too intensely to carry on. He leaned his head against a tree and growled at it. He could feel some stitches in his back had popped. His good black shirt would be ruined with blood. Otto would have to patch him up again.

Otto. Was he in on this? Just another cruel son of the Duke playing the long game? Reeling him in for years, waiting for the opportune moment to break him down? He didn't care. He was going to leave, that night, take back his father's horse and go further inland, as Insulae was no longer an option. He knew couldn't bear being in the same kingdom as her, this one or the island one.

He painfully climbed his way back out of the woods to the street to find Otto waiting for him.

"Don't," he said, turning past his evil stepbrother towards the Duke's manor.

"Please listen to me," he said. He was following behind but giving Magnus room. "It's not what you think."

Magnus sharply spun around and regretted it for the pain. He kept his expression angry. "What do I think?" he shouted. "Tell me, if you're so sure you know what I think."

Otto flinched at his anger. "You're right, I don't know, but I can guess and I'm guessing you feel betrayed."

Magnus lost a bit of the momentum of his anger. Otto really did know him. He turned to continue walking to the manor. "Yes."

Otto took this as a sign to follow and said, "I promise you I did not betray you, she came to me. She asked me about you." He was keeping up with Magnus more successfully than usual with his painfully slow gait. "She thinks so highly of you," he said. "She's not like Archie and Wagner."

Again Magnus felt a little more of his anger seeping out of him. He scoffed out loud. Otto knew him so very well, it was almost frightening. His pace slowed, his breath was ragged and deep. "Help," he murmured.

Otto rushed to pull his brother's arm over his shoulders. "You overreacted," he said with a mildly scolding tone.

Magnus grunted and leaned against his brother.

He looked at Magnus poignantly. "She needs someone right now."

"She doesn't need me, she doesn't want me," Magnus said.

Otto said frustratedly, "How would you know? You ran."

Magnus hissed as a rock tripped up his steps and pulled at his stitches again. Otto tugged his arm further over his shoulder but the damage was already done.

Exasperated, Magnus stopped walking. "How am I meant to see her? Walk up to the castle door and tell the guard I'm a friend of the princess?"

Otto shrugged under Magnus's arm. "Well, yeah. That's what I did."

"When you told her I couldn't come."

He nodded.

Magnus pulled his arm from Otto's shoulders and turned around. "Fine."

"Really? You're going to do this now? While you're bleeding out from your back?" he said incredulously. "Truly?" He stood there for a moment watching his brother limp along back towards the church. He sighed and jogged to catch up. "Alright, you stubborn ass, don't hurt yourself more."