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       Reign, p.19

           Chanda Hahn
 
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  “Well, if you become queen, I will volunteer to go to this far off land just to get away from you,” Ever responded.

  “Pixies are the bane of society,” Annalora snarled. “Everyone knows they are the weakest in Fae magic. Truthfully, I’m surprised you made it this far without cheating.”

  “I didn’t cheat.”

  The gnome rolled her eyes and answered, “Quit lying to yourself.”

  “I. Didn’t. Cheat!” Ever yelled, her wings fluttering furiously. The wind picked up, tossing things about. A ceramic vase flew across the room and crashed into the wall inches from where Annalora’s head had been just moments before.

  The smug smile fell from her face at the same time the vase crashed to the ground. Ever realized her mistake and quickly calmed herself, but not before Annalora got in one last jab. “You are one messed up pixie.”

  “Enough!” Dinah spoke out. There’s no use fighting amongst each other. This is not a battle that will be won by tearing each other down. Focus on the next test. Only one will be crowned Princess to rule beside Teague as a Fate. Only one will someday have all the power that is bestowed upon the queen. And that girl will be one of the four of us. Who among you is confident enough in your position to be making enemies with one of the future Fates? I, for one, am not willing to take that chance.”

  When Dinah’s insight settled upon the room, a heavy silence followed. Mina looked at the nymph in admiration. She would make a wonderful princess. She was patient, kind, and intelligent. The Fae needed someone like her. If Teague chose her, there’s no way he would be disappointed, and she would never betray him.

  Mina paused to study the three remaining girls. Ever was already in love with Teague, and she loved him enough to follow a part of him to the human plane—which meant either she didn’t pass the next test or she wasn’t chosen in the end. Ever had never once let on about participating in a princess test. Surely she would have told Mina she was once betrothed to Jared or Teague. That wasn’t something she thought Ever could have kept secret. There would be a very real possibility—if Teague chose Ever—that they could live a happily ever after. He wouldn’t turn evil. He wouldn’t seek out Mina’s family and continually curse them.

  But if he didn’t choose Dinah or Ever that left—Annalora. The vibes Mina got from her were enough to make a polar bear shudder. It was quite probable that Annalora would be the winner. She was the only one selfish and heartless enough to send Teague to the dark side.

  The proverbial light bulb switched on in Mina’s mind. What if she was here to sway Teague’s decision from Annalora to Ever or Dinah? Mina gently slid off a glass slipper and saw that the diamonds had started to fall again. That had to be it! Her quest wasn’t to save her family but to save the prince before her time ran out.

  ***

  Mina paced her room like a grounded teenager. She would try and rest in a chair for a few minutes, but then she’d have the urge to move. The slippers sat on the edge of her bed, taunting her. She was afraid to put them on. What if they sent her spiraling back to the future before she was ready?

  But at the same time she was ready. She couldn’t help but think of home and Brody. Her heart ached. Prince Charming was probably worried sick and she hadn’t even dropped a slipper for him to find her. Inwardly, she cringed at the thought of him alone with the Lara and Daphne at the ball. Mina should be there with him, not here.

  “You seem upset.” His voice came from the shadows of her room. She almost cringed at how much he sounded like Jared. Teague moved from the darkness and sat on the one cushioned chair in her room, flinging his long legs over the arm and clasping his hands over his stomach. He looked completely at ease, and it didn’t seem to bother him that he was once again intruding on her privacy.

  “I am upset. Really. Locks on the door would be great.”

  “There are locks.” He pointed to the door and the large iron keyhole.

  Mina frowned at him. “I mean locks to keep you out.”

  He laughed. “There is no such thing.”

  “I gathered as much. Since you are once again in my room.”

  “This is my room.” He gestured to the whole castle. “All of this belongs to me. I can go where I please. And right now, I feel like being right here.”

  There was no use arguing. She moved across the room and sat down on the bed, tucking her feet up under her. Closer to her shoes.

  “Why are you here?” Teague’s words lacked their usual spite. “I’ve been pondering the question since I met you, and I can’t come up with a reason. It’s obvious that you aren’t here for the same reason as the others. You had no clue as to the goings on of the test. And why were you wandering around in the royal woods the other night?”

  Mina felt her insides clench with nerves. “I’m here to try and save my family.”

  “And your family is living in the woods?”

  “No.” She measured her words carefully. “Someone cursed my family, and now they’re in danger. I’m here to find a way to save them.”

  “So you’re here hoping that if you become my betrothed, I’ll somehow end the curse and save your family?”

  “I, uh…uh…no.” The words stuttered out. “That is not my intention. I’m not a fool, and I don’t have false aspirations. I doubt I’ll pass the next test. Everything I’ve done so far has been a complete fluke. But I am hoping that you will find true love and happiness.”

  His leg stopped swinging over the arm rest, and he leaned up to look at her. Surprise was all over Teague’s face as he pondered her words. Finally, he said, “Thank you. But I can’t help but wonder why.”

  “Why does there need to be a why? You can’t just accept my well wishes?”

  “Not without wondering what’s your motive? All females cover their motives behind sweet words and false intentions.”

  “No, I’m really hoping that if you find your Happily Ever After, your reign will be a peaceful and prosperous one for all races.” Mina truly believed in every single word she said. “And I think that Ever Farindale is perfect for you. She’s sweet, kind, and would follow you to the ends of the earth.”

  A dark shadow hovered over Teague. Was he angry at her suggestion? “Why would you say such things?”

  Mina wasn’t sure how she’d upset him, but she sure had.

  “Are you trying to influence my decision toward another competitor? Unheard of. You really are surprising.”

  “Is it that surprising that I tell you the truth? She loves you, you know.”

  “Love? Love has nothing to do with this.”

  “Don’t you want to love the person that you will eventually marry?”

  “Love, no. Tolerate, yes. The throne demands someone strong. That’s all that matters. Strong bloodlines.”

  “That’s horrible.”

  “That’s the way it is.”

  She didn’t speak. She simply waited and watched Teague. He seemed content to just sit next to her without talking. For a moment, he looked like he had fallen asleep. His eyes had closed and he looked relaxed. Again, he resembled Jared.

  “What do you think of Dinah?” Mina asked softly.

  Teague’s face scrunched into a frown. “Really? This again.” He opened one eye at her. “Fine. Bestow upon me all of her fine qualities, if you think to persuade me.” He waved his hand in her direction.

  Mina pursed her lips. “She’s patient, wise, powerful, and can make a delicious dessert.”

  “You lie. I bet she makes horrible dessert.”

  She laughed. “Well, maybe for you, because of your sour attitude.”

  He waited a few more minutes and then opened both eyes again, watching her expectantly. “You’ve failed to speak up for Annalora or yourself.”

  “Annalora doesn’t need someone to speak for her. She can tout her qualities—what few there are—loud enough to be heard in the next kingdom.”

  Teague smiled wryly. “True. But you? You don’t want to speak up and convince me that you
d make a perfect choice?”

  “No, I don’t.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because I don’t belong here. And as soon as you’re engaged, it will be time for me to leave.” She didn’t really know how else to explain it. The Fae plane could never be home to her. She couldn’t abandon her family, her friends.

  “It’s because of him isn’t it?” he asked, surprising her.

  She wondered if he knew about Brody, but then he continued. “It’s the one named Jared. You love him?” He sat up and studied his clasped hands.

  “I-I do. I mean I did. But there’s no chance for us anymore.”

  “You, who champion love, would give it up so easily?” He looked at her, seeming disappointed.

  She sucked in her breath and her thoughts spun wildly in her head. She had to push back her feelings about Jared. “As you said before, you’re not marrying for love. Please, think about what I said about the other girls. Don’t waste any more time with me. Spend the rest of the night getting to know Ever or Dinah. Give them hints on the third test.”

  “How do you know there will be a third? What if I’ve already made my decision?”

  “Isn’t that how it always is in the stories? There are always three tasks. So I just assumed…am I wrong?”

  He paused in thought. “There don’t have to be three. I can end this anytime I want. The Fates will be happy if I just choose someone. The first test was to narrow down the selection down based on qualities. The other tests are only to make the final decision easier.” He leaned back in the chair again. “Now you’ve got me interested in your stories. One day you’ll have to tell me some of them. But really, you don’t even want to know what the next task is?”

  Mina walked to her door and motioned for Teague to leave.

  Teague stood up and stared at her, his face filled with disbelief. “You’re dismissing me. Me?” His pointed to his chest.

  She shook her head. “I’ve told you. I’m not here to marry you. I’m here to save my family, and I believe that I can do that by making sure you marry the right person.

  So don’t waste any more time here.”

  His eyes went dark, and his mouth pressed into an irritated line. “As you wish.” He gave her a mock bow, opened her door with a wave of his hand, and slammed it behind him.

  She listened carefully and didn’t hear the lock click into place. To be safe, she waited another a half hour before opening the door and sneaking into the dark palace corridor. It was empty. Her stomach was growling, and she knew that the guards would probably be back shortly to escort them to dinner.

  Which would be an awkward affair. She didn’t think she could sit and pretend to be cordial with Annalora any longer. Mina headed down the hallway and tried her best to backtrack to the library, hoping beyond hope that Teague had put the Grimoire back there.

  Footsteps and a feminine giggle approached. Mina ducked into an alcove and found herself, once again, in the bathing chamber with the mermaid fountain and the waterfall. If only Nix could see her now. There wasn’t much time, so she just hid behind a column as the voices grew louder. And then they were recognizable. She cringed.

  “I feel so special that you’re sneaking off to be alone with me, my prince.” Annalora’s voice resounded like nails on chalkboard in Mina’s ears. Or it might have been her teeth grinding in anger. This was not what she meant for Teague to do. Annalora? Come on, Teague.

  “Think nothing of it, my dear. I’ve been wanting to be alone with you for a while.” His voice sounded husky. Why was he trying to get close to Annalora? Was it just that he was a boy, and they tended to do the opposite of what they were told?

  Mina wanted to take off her shoe and throw it at him, until she realized she wasn’t wearing them.

  Annalora giggled again, making Mina’s skin crawl. It was a fake, look-at-me kind of laugh. They walked past the bathing pools, and Mina did her best to stay hidden behind a pillar, but she kept one eagle eye on the couple. Annalora walked arm-in-arm with Teague up to the fountain. She oohed and aahed over the large waterfall and the mermaid statue.

  “It’s beautiful,” she exclaimed.

  “Not as beautiful as you.” Teague teased, making Annalora let loose her annoying giggle.

  “Of course not. There’s nothing as beautiful as me.” She turned, grabbing his hands, and pulled him toward the water. The closer they came to the pools, the closer they came to large potted ferns surrounding the pools. Then they were out of earshot and covered by the greenery.

  Part of Mina wanted seize the moment and escape, but the other part wanted to sneak closer and spy on them.

  Teague had never taken her out of her room. He just visited her behind a closed door. Was that because he didn’t want the girls to see him wooing her? She’d thought he was showing her favor. But instead, he was just being a guy. Her jealousy won out, and her bare feet made no sound as she tiptoed to the closest ferns to watch the proceedings.

  Annalora pretended to slip, throwing herself into Teague’s arms. He caught her and held her closely.

  “Oh my, I almost landed in the fountain,” she breathed out softly, using the moment to wrap her hands around his neck and pull him closer to her. Mina rolled her eyes in disgust. There was no way she would fall into the fountain. The floor wasn’t even wet. But Annalora didn’t care, and it seemed that Teague didn’t mind her forwardness. Annalora came to the same conclusion, because she softly pressed her lips to his.

  Teague was only momentarily caught off guard, but he returned the kiss. Or that’s how it looked from Mina’s angle.

  Mina was so furious at the betrayal. She honestly wished the girl would fall into the fountain. A second later, she saw a vine sneak out from the closest potted plant and reach up the girl’s leg.

  Annalora broke the kiss only long enough to say, “That tickles.” She greedily pulled him in for a deeper kiss. Ha! She thought Teague was the one tickling her. A split second later, the vine wrapped around Annalora’s legs and pulled her sideways. She plunked into the fountain with a splash.

  The girl came up sputtering and crying. Her beautifully coifed hair was a tangled, watery mess. Teague put one boot up on the ledge of the fountain and laughed.

  “It’s not funny,” she yelled.

  “Oh, yes it is,” he taunted back.

  How dare he? Mina thought. To tease a girl. Yes, Annalora got what she deserved, but Teague had no right to laugh at her misfortune. Mina made a shooing motion toward the vine, and it rose up behind Teague. With one hard push, the dark prince followed her into the water.

  Mina watched the vine go back into the closest pot and quietly congratulated herself on her advancement in Fae magic. She quietly made her exit amid the echoes of screaming and laughing.

  She hurried back toward her room but took a wrong turn. She had no idea where she was. Passing a partially opened door, she felt compelled to investigate. The room was empty. Going on gut alone, she slipped inside. It was a sitting room. The furniture was masculine—a large desk and mahogany chair. Expansive gold decorations lined the wall. Mina noticed a silver leaf emblem carved into the bed. This was Teague’s suite.

  She didn’t have much time, so she began to search for the Grimoire. She headed for the bookshelf and gave it a cursory glance, but didn’t see anything.

  Stressed, she rushed over to the desk and began to open drawers, looking for the book. Then she spotted it—right on the desk. In her panic, she’d missed it. She grabbed the journal and took off running for the door.

  A soldier approached, so she paused and ducked back in quickly. She recognized Captain Plaith in his white armor. When he passed, she quietly left and headed back the way she came. Eventually she found her room and closed the door behind her. Mina felt whole with the Grimoire in her hands once again. She crawled into bed and opened it up. Teague had added a new entry.

  It’s a test. I know I’m being tested. But how can I prove myself?

  The next entry was written wit
h a heavier hand—hurriedly.

  I will show her. I will make her wish she’d never crossed me. She doesn’t tell me what to do.

  There was nothing else on the page. Mina ran her fingers along the edges and waited for the familiar hum. It soon came. The Grimoire answered her touch, and it felt so good to have the book in her hands again. As soon as Teague had taken it away, she knew she needed to have it back. It was like a drug, its nearness. She just needed to touch it. She had no idea what would happen if Teague caught her with it, but she would take that chance. Slipping the Grimoire under her pillow, she lay down and rested her hand against the leather cover.

  She fell asleep that way, and woke to the young brownie knocking on her door.

  “Miss, it’s time for dinner.”

  Mina got ready quickly. So far, she had been very careful to not eat too much of the Fae food, because she wasn’t sure what was safe for a human. Tonight that wouldn’t be a problem, for her appetite had disappeared...along with her shoes.

  The brownie was able to find her a pair of slippers that fit, but Mina felt naked—and terrified—without her shoes. They were her one lifeline home. What was worse was that she wasn’t sure when they disappeared. She couldn’t remember if they were on her bed when she’d left the room, or if they were there when she returned. Had someone slipped in and stolen them while she slept?

  The brownie braided her hair and applied just the lightest touch of blush to her face, probably because Mina looked so pale. Mina picked up the Grimoire and turned her back to the servant, trying to find a place to tuck it without being obvious about it.

  “Here. Put it here,” the girl piped up. Apparently, Mina hadn’t done such a good job being stealthy. The brownie pointed to a hidden slit in Mina’s dress, a pocket big enough for a small mirror, handkerchief, or small book. Mina slipped the Grimoire inside and turned to her, trying to gauge her reaction. Maybe she simply assumed it was Mina’s and didn’t realize it had been stolen from the prince.

  The brownie just smiled widely at her, pleased that she was able to help.

 
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