Authors: E. D. Baker
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #Young Adult, #Adventure, #Humour
This book is dedicated to Ellie, my sounding board;
to Kim, my research assistant; to Kevin, who is
smarter than the average bear; to my fans for
their support and enthusiasm; and to Victoria
for her guidance and insight.
“Is there anyone else?” Annie asked Horace, the gray-haired guard who was admitting petitioners to the room.
“Just one more, Your Highness,” he replied. “A merchant named Bartley from Cobble on the Green.”
Annie nodded. Most of the people who had come to see her that day had been merchants wanting to know if their gold was real. “How many visitors have I had altogether?”
“Two the first day, five yesterday, and twelve today. That would be nineteen, Your Highness. Word is spreading, so I imagine there will be even more tomorrow.”
“I still can't believe this is happening,” Annie said. “After all those years when most people didn't want me near them, they're coming from across the kingdom to ask for my touch. Who would have thought so many
people would want magic removed so they could see what was really there?”
Annie glanced toward the window. All she wanted to do was go horseback riding along the river with Liam, but she'd told her parents she would meet with her petitioners before doing anything else. Of course, she had said that on the first day when only two had shown up. If she'd known there would be so many, she would have been tempted to refuse to see them at allâexcept she knew that she would have seen them no matter what. After all, Annie couldn't blame them for wanting to see the truth behind magic.
Shortly after Annie's birth, a fairy godmother had given her a special magic giftâno other magic could ever touch her. It wasn't long before her parents realized that with the gift came a special curseâanyone who touched her, or was near her for long, lost whatever magic they might have. It would come back once they were apart, of course, but in the meantime, those made beautiful and talented through magic became plain and ordinary. It was a truth not many wanted to face.
Annie turned toward the door when Horace opened it, admitting a short man with a rounded figure and a full head of graying hair. A pretty young woman with light brown ringlets and soft curves stood beside the middle-aged man. When the man bent low in a well-practiced bow, the young woman curtsied.
“Yes, Master Bartley?” Annie said with a sigh.
“Your Highness!” said the man, straightening up. “I know you're busy, but I won't impose on you for too much of your time. I just want to know one small thing. This is my betrothed, Ardith. We're getting married in a fortnight and I need to see if she's naturally this pretty or if magic made her this way.”
“Bartley!” said the young woman. “You said she'd invited us here to give you a medal.”
“Hush, Ardith!” Bartley told her, darting her an angry glance. “Not in front of the princess!” Turning back to Annie, he shrugged, saying, “She would have refused to come if I'd told her the truth. You see, I wouldn't have thought to bring her to see you if I hadn't seen a portrait of her grandmother. She was an ugly old hag, and I want to know if Ardith is going to give me ugly children.”
“What an awful thing to say!” his betrothed said, her voice rising.
“Hold out your hand, Ardith,” said Bartley, reaching for her.
Ardith snatched her hand away and stuck it behind her back. “I will not!”
As the couple engaged in a silent struggle, Annie glanced toward the window again when someone in the courtyard dropped a crate. Men shouted, and Annie wished she could peek out the window at the workers unloading newly arrived spinning wheels. But the way
things were going, she could be stuck in that chair until nightfall, unlessâ¦
Annie slipped from her chair and approached the arguing couple. When she placed her hand on Ardith's shoulder, the young woman stopped fending off her future husband and stared at Annie in dismay. Bartley studied Ardith, his mouth set in a grim line, and didn't notice when Annie placed her other hand on
It took only a few moments for the changes to begin. Although Ardith's face stayed as pretty as when she'd first walked in, her body lost its curves and became bony and angular. At the same time, the hair on Master Bartley's head disappeared, leaving his scalp pink and shiny, while tufts of hair sprouted from his ears and his eyebrows grew straggly on either side of his suddenly large, hooked nose. When he opened his mouth, his teeth were as uneven as a willow-wand fence after a big storm.
“Huh!” Bartley said, looking Ardith up and down. “Well, at least you didn't turn ugly. You'll do, I suppose.”
Ardith gasped and her eyes grew wide. “But you won't do at all! You accused me of improving my appearance through magic when you did the same thing yourself. And then to put me through thisâ¦” Her breath caught with a hitch as she turned and ran from the room.
“Ardith!” Bartley called as he followed her out the door.
“He didn't even say thank you,” Annie said, and broke into a grin. “Horace,” she added, turning to the guard. “That's enough for today. If anyone else shows up, tell them to come back tomorrow.”
“Of course, Your Highness,” he said, and grinned back at her.
Annie was hurrying to the stable, hoping to meet Liam there, when she ran into a group of minor nobles come to pay their respects to the king of Treecrest. For years visitors had been turned away for fear that they might sneak spinning wheels into the castle in order to put everyone inside to sleep. Now that Annie's sister, Gwendolyn, had woken from the spell and spindles could no longer hurt her, King Halbert had lost no time importing the wheels by the hundreds. The kingdom was once again facing prosperity, and visitors from other kingdoms were flocking to the castle, hoping to earn favor with the king.
A man dressed in a fur-trimmed cloak despite the pleasant weather looked up as Annie tried to wend her way through the group blocking the stable door. “You, girl, fetch us drinks. Can't you see that we're parched from our travels?”
“Annie, there you are!” Gwendolyn's musical voice called from the center of the group. “I've been looking all over for you.”
Annie wasn't sure which was worseâhaving a stranger mistake her for a serving girl, or having her sister find her. She thought briefly about running away from both, but that would be cowardly. Even soâ¦ Annie groaned when she spotted Gwendolyn coming toward her and realized that she'd hesitated too long.
“Lord Abernathy, you must meet
my sister, Princess
Annabelle,” Gwendolyn said, directing the man in the fur trimmed cloak toward Annie.
“Your sisterâ¦,” he said, his Adam's apple bouncing in his throat when he swallowed hard. “I do apologize, Your Highness. The sun must have been in my eyes.”
“I understand,” said Annie, even as she tried to edge away from Gwendolyn.
Annie wasn't surprised that the man hadn't known she was a princess; unlike the princesses made beautiful through magic, she was as normal as the day she was born. Gwendolyn was the most beautiful princess in all the kingdoms with her buttercup-yellow hair and violet eyes, but Annie's hair was sun-bleached blond, her eyes were ordinary brown, and, after spending so much time in the sun while looking for a prince to kiss her sister, she now had more than her fair share of freckles.
As much as Annie found her sister's perfection
irritating, it was even more galling that Gwendolyn had suddenly become nicer and more caring than she ever used to be. Before she pricked her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fell asleep, Gwennie wouldn't have noticed the way the nobleman had slighted her sister. But after Annie worked so hard to break the curse, her family's attitude had changed as if they knew how much they owed her and how much she really loved them. They no longer treated her like a poor relative and actually acted as if they liked her, a development that never failed to surprise Annie. It also reminded her how badly they'd behaved toward her before.
For most of Annie's life, Gwendolyn had kept her distance from her sister, not wanting her fairy-given beauty to fade. But now that Gwennie was in love with an enchanted prince who'd been turned into a bear, she no longer seemed to care about her own appearance as much as she had before. She even sought Annie out at times, wanting her sister to touch the bear prince and lessen the magic of the enchantment so his human side could show through. Gwennie never seemed to notice that Prince Beldegard looked like a strange half-human monster when he was partway changed. His appearance didn't bother Annie, but she was so tired of sitting around with her hand on a not-quite-human-looking man who was kissing her sister that she'd begun to look back with a certain fondness on the days that she'd been shunned.
She was remembering how it used to be before so much had changed when Lord Abernathy cleared his throat and said, “If this is your sister, then she'sâ¦”
When he stepped back with a sudden look of panic in his eyes, Annie saw that he was aware of her reputation; this was the princess whose touch made magic fade. Not everyone had changed their minds about being around Annie.
“If you'll excuse us,” Gwendolyn told Lord Abernathy. Nodding to his traveling companions, she ushered Annie around the side of the stable to a place they could be alone. “I have to talk to you,” she said. “The woodsmen are back without seeing any sign of the awful dwarf who turned my Beldegard into a bear. Mother and Father promised that we would help him, but we can't do anything unless we find that dwarf.”