I’d known that guard was trouble the moment I’d laid eyes on him. I’d intended to find Ayla in her room, to try to explain Eoghan’s thinking and perhaps bring her a slice of cake to make her feel better. But when she wasn’t there, I had a hunch she’d absconded with that damn scoundrel. I was just grateful I’d gotten there when I did.
Ayla, however, didn’t seem to share my sentiment. “I can’t believe you just did that, Cade. I’m fine.”
“Oh, yeah?” I scowled. “What were you doing with him?”
She gave me a very stern look. “That is none of your business.”
It was, because that damn knight had been making eyes at her the entire night. I’d thought my princess smarter than that. He wasn’t even of noble birth, having fought and wooed his way into the elite guard by brute strength and intellect. But his ambition was concerning. I wouldn’t put it past him to be clamoring for the throne—using any means necessary.
“Stop looking at me like that,” Ayla said. “Ward is… Well, he’s sweet. And he’s fun to talk to.”
“You can talk to me,” I snapped.
“I did,” she said, turning on me. “And you dismissed me.”
I furrowed my brow, my mouth dropping open. “I did not.”
She shook her head, exasperated, and kept walking.
“I merely suggested that you might be better with a cooling off period,” I said. “Eoghan knows what he’s doing. That merchant wasn’t going to listen to you.”
“He would if Eoghan would get out of the way and let me handle things, for once.”
I bit my tongue instead of reminding her that calling a dignitary from a neighboring kingdom a boor wasn’t exactly “handling” things. “Ayla.” I jogged forward to take her arm gently. “I’m sorry you felt like I was ignoring you. But that doesn’t mean you should go around making out with random guards.”
“I didn’t make out with anyone.”
“Yeah, because I got there in time.”
She yanked her arm from my grip and kept walking.
“Do you like him or something?” I asked.
Her face turned the color of a tomato, clashing with her auburn hair. “I told you, that’s none of your business.”
She let out a hiss and stomped away, slamming her bedroom door behind her. She wasn’t usually so childish. Obviously, a princess and a knight were incompatible, and I was glad she at least knew that a relationship between them wouldn’t be allowed to continue. No matter what that ambitious knight thought.
I couldn’t wipe the image of Ayla and that damn knight from my mind, no matter how much I tried. Although we’d been friends for years, she’d never looked at me like that, never seemed so ready to be kissed. It burned at me to know someone could just swoop in and confound her.
Eoghan was waiting for me in the vault, standing over the table in the center of the dungeon with my scrolls and notebooks still scattered about. “How familiar are you with the Pennlan stone?”
“As familiar as anyone, I suppose,” I replied, knowing my master’s penchant for mind games. “The fae call it the seod croí. It was gifted to the Pennlan king by a wizard then stolen by the fae queen after King Bresel died.”
“And you know it’s very powerful.”
I nodded. “Not that anyone’s used it in a few hundred years, but they say it’s something to behold.” I paused, furrowing my brow. “Does this have to do with my trial?”
Eoghan smiled. “Cade, you’ve been ready to leave us here for months now, but something has been holding me back. The fae have been becoming more brazen, and I felt more comfortable with two wizards protecting our princess.”
I was somewhat flattered by his confidence in me, though I didn’t think I was more of a deterrent than he was. “So my trial has to do with the fae.”
He put his hand on the table, releasing a weary sigh. “I will let you in on a little secret, my dear apprentice. I’d never planned to stay long in this castle.”
“When I arrived here, there was a young king with a princess on the way, and he took me in and gave me a place to stay,” Eoghan continued. “Up until then, I’d been traveling the lands in search of a place for my talents. Wizards are not known for staying long in one place, historically. But I was so taken by the generosity, I changed my mind.
“And when the king was dead, his young daughter without counsel, my desire to stay increased. It has been my absolute pleasure watching Ayla flourish from a precocious girl to a wise and steady ruler. But the itch to leave has grabbed me once more.” He looked at me, his eyes full of mirth. “You see, it’s not you I’m planning to send to another kingdom. It’s me. I would like to venture to the other kingdoms, find their problems and solve them, the way I’ve done for Ayla.”
I swallowed, my hopes lifting to the sky. “And me?”
“You could stay, if that’s what your heart desires,” Eoghan said.
Did it ever. Perhaps I could even convince the princess I was worthy of being more than her friend. Unlike that knight, I had something to offer my queen. Protection, magic. And most importantly, loving her not for what she was but for who she was in her heart.
“I could be convinced,” I said, after a long pause.
“I thought as much,” Eoghan said. “But there remain dangers at our borders. I firmly believe that if I left, the fae would take the opportunity to encroach onto our lands. You, alone, as powerful and skilled as you are, would not be enough. We need to arm our soon-to-be queen with the powers that are her birthright.”
“The stone,” I said softly.
“Your task is to find it and bring it back for Ayla. Once you’ve done that, I will officially give this role to you and move on to another adventure.”
His words rang in my ears and it was hard to keep myself from jumping for joy. Everything, everything would be resolved if I just…ventured into a dangerous enemy land full of magical creatures hell-bent on killing me and retrieved a stone that no one had seen in sixteen years.
“Where do I begin?” I asked.
He smiled and straightened. “There are three fae our soldiers recently arrested in Críoch. I gave them orders to hold them until you arrive and can interrogate them.” His face grew serious. “To use the spell I taught you on a real fae, not just a theoretical one.”
I swallowed. “I will do my best.”
“You’ll need to leave tonight. We can’t be sure there aren’t fae spies in the castle, or even some from our allies. If anyone asks where you are going, you are venturing to complete your trial.”
“Very well,” I said.
“There is one more thing.”
He swung his staff and the door opened, revealing the damn knight who’d almost kissed my princess. “I’ve asked Ward to accompany you.”
I couldn’t help scowling. “Why?”
“He’s from Críoch,” Eoghan said. “And can lead you there quickly. Besides that, he’s the best swordsman in our guard and will ensure you reach the border swiftly.”
I exhaled loudly, swallowing whatever arguments I had at the ready. Eoghan perhaps hadn’t fully disclosed our mission, so after we reached Críoch, and I managed to extract the information from the fae, we would part ways and I could continue by myself.
“I have the utmost faith in you both,” Eoghan said. “But good luck.”
I returned to my room, packing a small bag with just the essentials. Críoch was at least a week’s ride from here, and after that, I might venture into fae territory and have to carry what I’d brought on foot. I’d have to leave my personal library of well-worn books behind, unfortunately.
But before I continued, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to Ayla. She was probably asleep already, and I could already hear what she’d say when she found out I’d left without seeing her one last time. I walked over to my bedside table and picked up the book that was sitting on top. I’d finished it the night before, and had been hoping to share it with Ayla so we could talk about it. But perhaps our conversation would have to wait until my return.
I scribbled a note on the first page, along with an apology for not delivering it in person. Using my staff, I transported the book from my desk in the vault to Ayla’s in her room, several floors above. I wished I could transport myself there to tell her goodbye in person, but this would have to do. Such things were beyond wizard magic.
With a heavy heart, I tossed my bag over my shoulder and headed up toward the stables. But I hadn’t gotten to the first landing before there was a very unwelcome sight waiting for me.
“Ready to go?” the knight asked.
I took a moment to scrutinize him. Up close, my initial suspicions were confirmed—he really wasn’t anything special. Why Ayla thought he was worth spending a few moments with in the garden, I had no idea.
As I passed him, he turned militarily and began to climb after me. “Clearly, you don’t like me.”
“What gave you that impression?” I snapped, keeping my pace quick. “Why are you really coming? Is this some kind of punishment for you for almost kissing the princess?”
“I didn’t almost kiss her.”
I whirled around, my staff glowing gold as I prepared to blast him into next year. “You kissed her?”
“No.” He smirked. “Have you?”
Instead of answering, I turned around and kept walking, forcing the magic back into my body so I wasn’t tempted to use it on him.
“Eoghan gave me the job of protecting you until we get to Críoch,” Ward replied. “And that’s what I’m going to do. You don’t have to like me. But you should know that I will be upholding my duty.”
“I don’t need protection,” I snapped.
“Then are you familiar with the roads and cities we’ll be encountering along our way?” he asked.
I slowed my gait. I…actually wasn’t. I’d spent my entire life in the confines of this castle, barely even venturing into the rolling meadows outside the castle walls.
“And what’s in it for you?”
“It’s a direct order.”
But he could pretend all he wanted—I saw right through him.
The stables were quiet at this hour, and it irked me how very comfortably the soldier walked into a stall and prepared a horse for himself. I wasn’t a novice by any means, but horseback wasn’t my favorite mode of transportation, and I had to use a little magic to lighten the saddle as I put it on the steed I chose. I worked as fast as I could, but the knight was still ready before me.
He kept looking around, as if waiting for someone. When I guided my horse up to meet his, he said nothing as he kicked the barrel of his horse and took off toward the front gates of the castle. I exhaled softly, hoping that the weeklong trek to Críoch would take half that, and followed.