Princess between Worlds (9 page)

BOOK: Princess between Worlds
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“I'd sleep too soundly if I did. I can doze if I'm sitting up, but I'll still hear if anyone or anything comes close.” He patted the sword he'd placed across his lap. Annie recognized it as the sword he'd taken from one of the men who'd jumped him in East Aridia. At least now they weren't completely defenseless.

“Have you noticed that every place we've visited through the postcards has turned out to be dangerous one way or another?” said Annie.

“I've noticed,” Liam replied. “The trolls attacked at Delaroo Pass, then the yetis kidnapped you in Westerling, although I think that the people at Westerling were more dangerous than the beasts.”

“I think so, too,” Annie said, and yawned.

“The dragons and the rebellion in East Aridia made that the worst place to visit.”

Annie shuddered. “I don't ever want to go back there again. But do you think Holly, the woods witch, gave us cards for dangerous places on purpose, or is every interesting place dangerous?”

“Good question,” said Liam. “Then again, Delaroo Pass wasn't really dangerous until after your presence made the magic of the wall stop working.”

“I might have thought that was an accident if my effect on magic weren't common knowledge now. Holly could have known about the layout at Delaroo Pass and what I do to magic, which means she did it on purpose. But if Holly rarely talked to people, like she said, it's possible that she didn't know about me.”

“Maybe,” said Liam. “There's another possibility and it might explain how Rotan knew where we were headed. Do you think he could have disguised himself as Holly and given us those cards?”

“That's a scary thought! But I don't think so. I think he would have given himself away with the details. I was watching her because I thought she was delightfully
odd, and I would have noticed if something didn't make sense. Holly was too real to be a man in disguise.”

“Unless Rotan was the best actor in all the kingdoms, which I doubt very much. I don't think he's smart enough!” said Liam. “I have to say, however, that a lot of things have been odd ever since Holly showed up. You seeing your uncle for the first time. The yetis showing their true selves to you when the people who live near them don't know the real yetis at all. And what about East Aridia? It must be really far from Treecrest if there are dragons there.”

“One of the men in East Aridia mentioned Greater Greensward,” said Annie. “I've never heard of that kingdom, either. And remember how he said his brother was turned into a mouse? It sounds like a dreadful place. That poor man! I know I would hate it! I hope we don't go there, but if we don't know what the places on the postcards are called, it's hard to avoid the ones we don't want to see. Some of the kingdoms the postcards take us to aren't at all nice.”

“I wish I knew where we are now,” said Liam.

“Have you looked at all the postcards?” asked Annie. “Is there one that could take us home?”

Liam shook his head. “No, there isn't, at least not that I can tell. I'm sorry, Annie. I should have looked at them more closely before we started this whole thing. I'm sorry I got us into this mess!”

“It's not a mess, Liam,” Annie said. “It's an adventure! We'll look at the cards together in the morning. I'm sure we'll find our way home somehow.”

“Annie,” Liam whispered just loud enough for her to hear. “We have company.”

Annie opened her eyes. The sun was up, although it had yet to rise very high in the sky. A brightly colored bird with a long, streaming tail flew over them. Annie glanced at Liam, but he wasn't looking at her or the bird. He was looking past her and he didn't seem happy.

Annie turned her head and saw a pair of feet wearing simple leather shoes peeking out from under a dusty robe. She looked again and realized that there were two pairs of feet, and they were attached to two men with scowling faces and long, curved swords. She sat up abruptly and inched closer to Liam.

One of the men said something in a language Annie didn't understand and pointed at Liam's sword with his own. “I think he wants you to put your sword aside,” Annie whispered.

“I got that,” said Liam. Moving slowly, he set the sword on the ground and stood up. Annie reached for his hand and he pulled her up beside him.

While one of the men held his sword in a threatening way, the other picked up Liam's sword and the two
coats. When he gestured for Annie and Liam to start walking, they turned and set out along the edge of the lake.

“Should we use the postcard now?” whispered Annie.

“Not until we're alone,” Liam said under his breath. “I have a feeling they could cut us in two with those swords before I got my hand out of my pocket.”

Liam stumbled and Annie looked behind them. One of the men was prodding him between the shoulder blades with his curved sword. Annie closed her mouth, certain that Liam was right.

The shore line angled back, revealing that the lake was much bigger than Annie had first thought. She almost said something to Liam, but after a quick glance behind her, she held her tongue again. The man was still holding his sword inches from Liam's back and she didn't want to give him any excuse to use it.

They followed the curve of the lake, and it wasn't long before she spotted a large group of tents set up at the water's edge. The biggest, most elaborate tent faced a shallow beach, while smaller tents surrounded it on the other three sides. Skirting the first of the tents, the men made Annie and Liam walk to a smaller one set well away from the water. After lifting the tent flap and looking inside, they gestured for Annie and Liam to enter.

As soon as they were inside, one of the men pantomimed emptying out their pockets. Annie didn't like handing over the gifts from the yetis, but she was far more upset that Liam had to give them the postcards. After a cursory glance at the cards, the men became excited when they saw the blue stone that Mara's friend had given to Annie and talked to each other in excited voices. Although Annie still couldn't understand them, she did hear one word that she recognized and it made her heart sink. Shooting odd looks at Annie, the men left the tent and closed the flap behind them.

Annie and Liam were in the near dark with just a small amount of light filtering through gaps in the tent seams. The quick glimpse Annie had gotten before the men left had shown her that it was empty, without a single piece of furniture or rug or cushion to sit on. “Now what?” she said, turning to Liam. “Without the postcards, we have no way to leave, and possibly no way to get home.”

“It's not all bad,” Liam said, taking her hand in his. “They didn't cut off our heads yet, which probably means they're waiting for someone in authority. We just need to talk to someone who speaks the same language, and we can explain our situation.”

“I have a feeling that I know who that someone might be, and it isn't good. When they were talking, one of them mentioned Nasheen. Unless that's a common name around here, we might just be in Viramoot
about to face its crown prince. The last time we saw Nasheen in Snow White's castle, he was furious. I don't think we'll get a very friendly reception if it is him.”

“Nasheen, huh?” said Liam. “He was a bad sport and not very friendly, and that was when he was trying to make a good impression. I can only imagine what he'd be like now. They don't seem to take too kindly to visitors here. Nasheen may not want to cut off our heads, but I don't think we should stick around to find out. Maybe we should see if there's a way out of this tent. It wouldn't be easy without a weapon or any supplies, but we could head east and make our way to Helmswood. I'm sure Snow White and her father would help us get home from there.”

Annie nodded, even though Liam couldn't see her. “The ground is sand, so we should be able to dig a hole under the tent big enough that we can squeeze through.”

“That's what I was thinking,” said Liam. “We'll start here, across from the opening.”

Although the ground was sand, it was compacted and as hard as rock. They were scraping at it as best they could without any tools when they heard the commotion of returning riders. Voices called out, horses whinnied, and hooves thundered past as the group of riders rode to the center of the encampment.

“Do you think that's Nasheen?” Annie asked.

“Probably, the way our luck has been running,” said Liam. “I wish I had my knife with me. It would have ruined the blade, but I could have used it to dig a hole by now.”

Although it seemed fruitless, Annie and Liam kept scraping at the ground, hoping that they might actually make a hole if they were given enough time. The tent was stuffy and unbearably hot when the two men threw open the flap and gestured for them to come out.

Annie was sweaty and had a pounding headache when she stepped into the sunlight. She shaded her eyes against the bright light, while Liam did the same. The sun beat down on them as the men took them between the tents, although the air grew cooler when they drew closer to the lake. They entered the big tent through an opening at the end and knew right away that the occupant was royalty. Everything inside was luxurious, from the thick, patterned rugs to the wall hangings depicting stylized hunting scenes. Passing between two curtains, they entered a larger room filled with low tables, gilded stools, and cushion-covered benches that were only inches above the floor. Lanterns made of pierced gold hung from the ceiling, along with golden cages where colorful birds hopped from perch to perch.

Two guards stood by the large opening in the tent wall facing the lake. Eyeing Annie and Liam with suspicion,
they turned to lead the way out of the tent to a table set up at the water's edge. Three other guards stood near the table, where a man in shimmering robes was sitting by himself. As they approached, Annie got a good look at the man's profile. It was Prince Nasheen, a man she'd hoped she'd never see again.

The prince didn't look up right away. While they waited in silence, Annie braced herself for his anger or at least his dislike. When he finally looked up, she was surprised that he actually seemed pleased to see them.

“Princess Annabelle! Prince Liam! What are you doing here?” asked Nasheen. “My men said they found two vagabonds asleep beside my lake.”

“We're on our grand tour, actually,” said Annie. “We got married a few days ago.”

“Good for you! I knew you would sooner or later. Has Snow White married that prince whose name I never can remember?”

“Prince Maitland?” said Annie. “No, they're still planning their wedding.”

Prince Nasheen sighed. “I wish them well. It seems everyone is getting married but me. I hope to remedy that soon, however. I'm glad you're here. Perhaps you can help me the way you helped Snow White, Annabelle. I know you were behind her contest.”

“You want to hold a contest?” asked Liam.

“No, no! Nothing like that! I already know whom I want to marry. Ah! Where are my manners? Please be seated and help yourself to my humble breakfast. There should be enough for three.” Platters of fresh fruit and bowls of nuts vied for space with pungent sausages, boiled eggs floating in butter, and tiny fish cooked in oil. The prince gestured to servants hidden out of sight behind curtains. They came running, bringing benches, plates, and cups for Annie and Liam.

With a nod and a wave of his hand, Nasheen dismissed the servants and the guards. “You have arrived at a most favorable time,” he told Annie and Liam. “I have fallen in love and wish to marry my angel as soon as it can be arranged. There is only one problem. It is a small detail, really, and something that I'm sure you can help me handle. Sarina, the love of my life, acts as if she doesn't know that I exist. She has many suitors, but only one is a handsome prince.”

“You?” said Annie.

“Yes, of course I speak of myself!” the prince said, looking indignant.

“And how can I help you with that?” asked Annie.

“That is for you to tell me!” replied Nasheen. “Sarina is the only daughter of a fabulously wealthy merchant. Her father dotes on her and sees that she wants for nothing. She is beautiful, charming, smart, funny, kind, generous, unselfish . . . all the things I want in my future wife. And
because her father came into his wealth only recently, she has all of these attributes naturally, not because fairies gave them to her. Rather like you, Annabelle, only much prettier, sweeter, and oh, so much better!”

“Gee, thanks!” said Annie.

“You helped the princess Snow White find her one true love,” said Nasheen. “Can you help Sarina see that I am hers? If you do, I will give you anything your heart desires! If you fail me, however, I might be so busy trying to woo her on my own that I could forget you are here and not notice that my men have shut you in that little tent, hot and thirsty, for a very long time.”

“I'd be happy to do whatever I can to help you, Nasheen! Tell me, what else do you know about her?”

BOOK: Princess between Worlds
7.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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