Rayen pulled her apron off and dusted flour from her leggings. The letter in her boot poked at her leg – a constant reminder that she had a purpose awaiting her. “I’ll be back by dawn,” she said to the baker as she folded her apron and laid it over the counter.
He nodded without a word.
The rattle of the carriage caught up with her on the way home. Was this the summons that she was waiting for? Rayen paused as it stopped beside her. It was the same royal carriage that had first discovered her nearly six months before. Then, it carried the prince. Today, it carried only his manservant, Callun.
Callun swung down as soon as the carriage stopped.
Rayen surveyed the carriage in scorn. “Rather late in the evening, isn’t it? Has the prince no concept of beauty sleep?”
“As fiery as ever, I see.” Callun bowed. “But the prince wishes to see you at once, regardless of the hour.”
Rayen curled her lip and crossed her arms. “Tell him no thanks. I have an early day tomorrow.”
“With all due respect, I fear you have no choice in the matter. The prince is in a foul mood, and only you can cheer him up. Consider it your duty to your entire country.”
Indeed. This game she played was for the entire country. But not in the way Callun believed. Rayun pursed her lips disdainfully and allowed herself to be escorted onto the carriage.
As the carriage rattled over the roads, Rayen felt her heart pounding. It was not the prince she needed to see but his second-in-command, Targallin. It was for him that Danwell wrote the letter in her boot. But getting a letter to Targallin would not be easy.
The carriage took Rayen out of the city into the surrounding countryside. It was too dark to see the rolling hills and peaceful trees. But as they drove through the palace gates, torches lit the front of the restored mansion, making a pretty sight. Rayen could almost picture herself in a shimmering gown instead of the short brown dress and leggings as she trotted up the steps to the front door.
Once inside, she was escorted down the finest halls to the great room where the prince spent most of his time. He was there now, playing pool with his councilman. Rayen glanced around. Targallin was not in sight.
The prince looked up as she entered. “Rayen de Crune! Did you miss me?”
“Not in the slightest.” Rayen raised her eyebrows at him before she crossed the floor and flopped into one of his giant couches.
The prince laughed. “The one person in the entire kingdom with the nerve to talk back to me! But I shall tame you yet. Do you remember when we first met?”
Rayen yawned. “I think I have forgotten.”
“I leaned from the window of my carriage and asked you for a kiss.” He leaned forward, crossing his arms on the pool table. “Do you know what you said to me?”
“I told you I didn’t kiss toads.”
The prince laughed. “And I told you that if you did, you would find me a prince after all. Which…” he turned to his councilmen “…was a clever comeback, was it not?”
They all agreed – the prince’s wit was astounding.
The prince threw his arms out to the side and laughed heartily. Then he crossed his arms again, surveying Rayen’s disdain with interest. “But you are not as easily impressed. What must I do to make those brown eyes open wide with wonder?”
Rayen leaned forward and threw her eyes as wide open as possible, hoping it had a rather creepy-looking effect. “Like this?”
But the prince didn’t laugh. Instead he tapped his fingers on the pool table and his eyes took on a strange appearance. “You must cheer me up, Rayen de Crune. I am angry tonight. Do you know why I am angry?”
The door opened and Targallin entered the room. Rayen felt her pulse quicken and she tried to hide it.
But the prince was too absorbed in his own emotions to notice hers. “The king of the East sent me a letter. He wishes to form an alliance.” Anger exploded across his face and he slammed his fist on the pool table. “And my own council thought I should agree to this!”
Targallin took a seat across the room, next to the bookshelves, and leaned forward to rest his forehead on his hands.
One of the councilmen held his hands palms up in a pleading motion. “We meant no disrespect to your illustrious reign! We only thought the people would benefit from…”
“Silence!” the prince screamed. He shoved away from the table to pace around the room. “I know what they really think! They think the country is perishing under my hand. They think that we should give ourselves to the king of the East!” Grasping the nearest object to him – a blue glass vase – he flung it at the pool table and watched as it shattered.
“Great!” Rayen’s voice was bright and mildly sarcastic. “And I’m supposed to cheer you up from this?” Her eyes twinkled saucily. “Tell me what you want to hear…and I’ll say something opposite.”
His eyes focused once more on her face. The anger faded and the joy of scheming returned. “In that case, I wish to hear that you hate me.”
Rayen tapped her fingers on her lips thoughtfully. “Then I think…that I should read you a story.” She rose to her feet and headed for the bookcase, glancing back playfully. “Have any good books over here?”
“You can’t evade me forever, vixen,” the prince laughed. “I shall trap you yet.”
“Not if I can help it,” Rayen muttered through gritted teeth. She turned her gaze to Targallin. She needed to find some way to pass the letter to him. Perhaps she could ask him to help her choose a book.
But, no, Targallin was standing to his feet. He was leaving. Rayen quickened her steps. He was passing the end of the couch. If she could get her timing right…
She brushed past him, intentionally catching her foot on his boots and crashing ungracefully to the floor behind the couch. “Gah! Help me up, you clumsy oaf!” she shouted, her voice full of irritation. She couldn’t see the prince from her spot on the floor. Looking up at Targallin’s surprised face, she pulled the letter from her boot and shoved it into his. He bent down then and grasped her arm, pulling her to her feet.
Her hair was in her face, rumpled by her fall. She brushed it back, hoping her tumble explained the flush of excitement on her cheeks. The prince stood in the middle of the room, his head thrown back as he grasped his stomach and laughed hysterically. “Serves you right, you little viper,” he gasped. “I wish you had broken your arm.”
Rayen glared at him. “Aren’t you sweet?”
His laugh died down to a chuckle. “Almost as sweet as you, cupcake.” He gazed at her wryly.
Rayen shuddered. “Shall I read you a book or no?”
“If you think you can make it all the way to the bookcase without breaking your neck…”