“It’s about time you two got here,” Kase said impatiently when Marlee and I got to the bottom of the hill.
“Well, sorry,” Marlee replied, not sounding sorry in the slightest.
Kase rolled his eyes, turning to me. “You guys will keep up, right?” A small part of me understood his trepidation.
“Yeah,” I told him confidently, nodding slightly.
Kase turned back to the river and began picking his way across, pausing to look up at the castle despite there not being a sentry there anymore.
I think Marlee and I were trying not to think about that too much.
I took a breath and began the story, just as I’d told Marlee I would.
“So, when I got here, I didn’t know who was who. I didn’t know who I was supposed to trust and who I wasn’t supposed to trust, so in the end, I didn’t trust anyone.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Marlee raise her eyebrow in what looked to be amused agreement, but I chose to ignore it.
“I didn’t realize that I had snuck onto a prince’s boat until I got here, but I followed him all the way up to the castle and managed to get inside before he caught me.”
“What?” Marlee cut in, not even noticing how rude it was. “You got into the castle? Like, the castle? No way.” She seemed to realize the end of my statement as she talked. “Wait, if he caught you, how come you’re still here?”
I sighed. “Please don’t think I’m a bad person. I already know I am, but can you at least give me the benefit of the doubt? Devin already acted like a complete jerk while I was trying to tell him.”
Marlee smiled at me, seemingly trying to comfort me. “I’m not judging, just curious.” Her face darkened slightly. “And you should know that there’s no love lost between Devin and I.”
I smirked. “Yeah, I saw that.” I began following Kase across the river, casting my voice over my shoulder. I was talking louder so that she could hear me over the water. “I ended up joining him, in a way, which sounds crazy, but it’s not. At this point, just because I’ve joined a group doesn’t mean I’m on their side. It also doesn’t mean I’m not, though. Somehow, just being myself seems to add a grey area to the concept.”
“If this wasn’t you we were talking about, I’d think you were insane,” Marlee said dryly.
“We aren’t supposed to be talking, I’m supposed to be telling you a story,” I replied, shaking my head.
“Oh. Right. Sorry, continue.”
“What no one seems to know—and I’m glad that if you told someone they wouldn’t believe you because you could get someone in a lot of trouble if this got out—is that the royal children have begun banding together to try to overthrow their parents.”
“What?” Marlee exclaimed incredulously.
I shot an exasperated look over my shoulder, stepping onto the next rock. “Do you want me to explain or not?”
“Sorry,” she apologized again. “I’ll shut up.”
I rolled my eyes and didn’t continue for a moment. Instead, I looked up towards Kase and called towards him. “Did you hear that, Kase?”
“Hear what? Marlee’s promise to shut up? Yeah. She’s not going to keep it, though.” Kase was still hopping across stones and kicking aside the unsafe ones so that we wouldn’t step on them.
I snickered as Marlee scowled, not even being able to protest without proving him right.
“Anyway,” I continued, “they know that their parents are selfish and they aren’t paying attention to the wellness of their people. They also know that they can’t let their work be known to them because they’ll lose their position as crown prince or princess and then we commoners will be even worse off.” I paused, half waiting for Marlee’s comment. It never came.
“Although,” I added, “I suppose the royals would be worse off, too. They are still slightly selfish, but in all truth, it’s hard to never seem selfish. It’s a matter of who is looking at it.”
I kept pausing as I hopped from rock to rock, almost hoping that Marlee would interrupt me just so that I could have a good laugh. Unfortunately, she seemed to be better at keeping her mouth shut than I’d given her credit for.
“They recruited me because I look almost identical to one of the white princesses who disappeared years ago. Her name was—”
“Ellia,” Marlee breathed, forgetting that she wasn’t supposed to speak.
Ahead of us, Kase snickered briefly, but then he was silent.
“Yes,” I nodded, not even teasing her simply because she knew the name. “Or Emma. I’ve been told I look a little like both, frankly, by both Prince Cole himself and Ellia’s best friend Alexia.”
Marlee’s nose wrinkled. “She’s still alive?”
I cast her an alarmed look.
“Oh, Alexia is a loner,” Marlee explained. “She submits to no kingdom, which makes her something of a danger to the royals. I’m surprised they haven’t had someone go and… well…” Marlee made a cutting motion across her throat.
I shook my head. “She’s alive and kicking. She’s a nuisance, that’s for sure.” I thought for a moment. “Cole seems to be slightly attached to her.”
Marlee smirked. “That would make sense, I suppose. She’s his cousin of sorts.” Marlee rolled her eyes. “Then again, most of the kingdoms are interrelated if you look hard enough.”
I wrinkled my nose. “I’ll seriously never get used to that.”
Marlee laughed. “Don’t worry. I’ve lived here for my whole life and I still think it’s gross, too. At least as commoners we get to choose who we marry.”
I nodded. “That’s an upside.”
“Cole is getting close to his parents forcing him to marry, though,” Marlee continued, not even paying attention to me at this point. She seemed to be thinking aloud. “I think he’s holding off because he keeps hoping that Ellia will come back.”
“Why would he do that?” I asked in confusion, even stopping on my rock to look back at her.
“I don’t remember just how old Ellia was when she disappeared—I didn’t really care about her age—but I do know that Cole was rather smitten with her. If Ellia went somewhere and did something, Cole would probably be there. Or, at the very least, Alexia would. This was also before the kingdoms started having glaring contests with each other.”
I snorted at the thought.
“I’ll be honest, I half thought that Alexia was lesbian, too.” Marlee shot me a devilish look. “I was particularly interested in that thought because duh.”
I laughed, continuing across the rocks. “Of course, you would.”
“Anything else I need to know about the royals?”
I nodded to myself, not daring to look at her as I dropped this bomb.
“They think I have royal blood in me.”