Gwyn landed with a bone rattling thump next to a manicured rose tree cut into the shape of a heart.
She only had enough time to get her bearings—and slip her gloves back on—before something small, reddish-brown, and spiky zoomed past her, missing her nose by the narrowest of margins.
Though it was foolish, she lay in place for a moment to catch her breath and reorient herself to a world dulled by gloves until it had gone barren of all magic.
All magic, of course, but the—
“What are you doing?” the Ruby Queen shrilled, mincing toward her with the grace of a poppy and the teeth of a venus fly trap. She had one of the servants propped up against her shoulder like a parasol and her crown pushed slightly back from her forehead.
Gwyn gulped, remembering the smallish projectile that had whizzed past her only moments before. The queen ruled everything with an iron fist, but most especially her games of croquet.
“Stand up when you are being addressed by your betters, lazy child,” the queen admonished. “What do you mean by interrupting my game? The Duke of Dandelions’s head is on the line. His people have invaded my flower beds!”
The duke in question followed a little ways back from the queen. A number of courtiers followed at a safe distance behind him—as safe as anyone could be in the garden, of course.
Glad she’d had the presence of mind to put on her gloves, Gwyn hastened to her feet. “I—that is, you see—“
“Quiet!” The queen had her hand over her eyes, searching. “How can you expect me to find my ball with all your prattle?”
Still a little rattled from both her fall and the way her gloves dampened everything about her, Gwyn forgot the most important rule of the garden: never speak or draw unnecessary attention to yourself unless you have to.
“I think it went over there. Under the bush.”
The Ruby Queen pressed her lips together so hard that they nearly disappeared. Two bright spots of red appeared on her cheeks, and she narrowed her eyes until they were little more than slits. But when she spoke, her voice was sweet as nectar. “How convenient that you should know the location of my ball, especially as it cannot be seen from here.”
Gwyn swallowed hard and took a step back. The Duke of Dandelions, sensing reprieve, edged quietly away. The courtiers parted to let him through, but they kept their eyes on the queen and Gwyn, knowing a trial when they saw one.
“And how convenient that you should be here, of all places.” She smiled a smile that reeked of honey-infused poison while she gently scratched the underside of her mallet’s beak.
Gwyn frowned and snapped her mouth shut. She couldn’t explain that she’d happened there due to magic. And she most certainly couldn’t tell the queen she’d managed to escape from the garden for a little while.
“Tell me, child, do you admit to consorting with the Duke of Dandelions and unlawfully misplacing my croquet ball? I am a master of the sport, and no ball of mine would ever dare to lodge itself beneath a bush.”
Gwyn couldn’t argue with the queen’s logic—doing so, even when in the right, had been the downfall of more than one of the Ruby Queen’s subjects—but neither could she take back what she’d seen. If only she could slip her gloves off long enough to clear her head.
Except doing so would more likely lead to her losing her head.
Instead, Gwyn curtseyed as well as she knew how. “What is the score? I’m sure you must be winning.”
The queen gave her a look of disapproval before nodding. “Of course it would be beneath my station to keep score, but yes, I do assure you I’m winning.” She grinned then, all teeth and sharp angles. The courtiers swept into bows and curtseys, ostensibly as a way of acknowledging the queen’s superiority, while managing to back away from the queen just a little bit more.
Not that it mattered, Gwyn thought sourly. She’d managed to escape into a completely different world, and the queen had still managed to pull her back. She gave an apologetic look to the servant the queen was using as a mallet. The poor creature had been turned into some sort of bird that looked miserably stretched-out and had a ridiculously long neck.
Gwyn pressed her lips together and balled her hands into fists behind her back. Perhaps the only thing worse than the sugared pears was the feeling of helplessness the queen gave you. You couldn’t run far or fast enough. You couldn’t hide. And it didn’t matter if you were right or not, not if the queen had determined that you weren’t.
Mollified, the Ruby Queen gave her subjects a gracious smile. When she turned back to Gwyn, all the temper had gone from her face. “We’ll discuss your punishment for flouting the rules after the game. But for now, onward!” She held up her mallet like a saber and led the way forward. The courtiers all followed reluctantly, and Gwyn hoped the hedgehog had had time to roll itself into a more acceptable location.
Gwyn didn’t breathe again until the queen and her retinue had passed into the distance. It was only when she could no longer see them that the lump in her stomach turned all airy and light.
She had done it! Not only had she used her magic, but the queen hadn’t caught her!
Such a thing was rare enough that she carefully tucked away the memory to pull out and savor later. Maybe magic beyond the queen’s happened here too.
Surprised by the thought, but pleased beyond measure if it turned out to be true, Gwyn followed the path back toward the castle. Now that she’d had a true taste of freedom, she wanted another bite, but somewhere where there weren’t spies lying in wait for her.
Speaking of the daisies, they grinned at her as she walked past their bed.
“Someone’s been a busy creature,” the queen’s pet daisy—or Q.P.D. As Gwyn had taken to think of her—said, her petals glowing with smug satisfaction.
. . . TO BE CONTINUED . . .
© 2016 by Danyelle Leafty. All rights reserved.
If this is your first time visiting, check out the first installment of this episode. Feel free to gather round the hearth and read the other stories that are going on too. The more the merrier! ?
If you like, feel free to join me tomorrow as we follow the adventures of a certain Queen of the Nearly Dead Fae in training. 🙂