Shadows

By Jennifer N. Bogle All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Romance

Ch. 1

Terra crept forward slowly; watching carefully for the rafters she knew would creek under her weight. When she found the vantage point she was looking for she lowered her slim fifteen year old body down and watched in wonder at what was going on in the room below her.

Diana stood, crouched and ready. Her arms were up and the defensive spell her teacher wanted her to use was on her lips and could be unleashed at a moment’s notice. Her blue eyes scanned the room, waiting to see where the shadow would appear. Carefully she scanned each corner, trying to memorize where the sunlight streamed through the door ways and windows, and where the shadows in the corners stretched out to the middle of the room. There was no furniture to worry about, so the only shadows came from the walls themselves. She would get it this time, she knew she would.

Terra watched her sister slowly spin in a circle. She could tell by her posture what spell she would use. It was a new spell Master Bell had taught her yesterday. Diana had bragged to her all last night after dinner. Terra, not being allowed to study magic, didn’t understand all of the logistics of the spell, but she could tell from up here that Diana wasn’t doing right. Something in the way she had her hands raised didn’t feel right. Often when Diana was showing her a new spell she learned, Terra would get a feeling when it was right and when it wasn’t.

She had one of those feelings now.

Diana, sensing something in the corner behind her spun around lightning fast and tried to fire the spell off her fingers. It sputtered for a moment, like blue and gold fire on her hands, and then fizzled out into nothing. A small amount of the spell had managed to leave her hands but all it succeeded in doing was blackening a small section of the wall in front of her.

There was no shadow there.

“Ugh!” Diana exclaimed when she saw the burnt wall. “Why must they hide like children? Shadows in the real world don’t hide. They spring out of nowhere and try to trap you in their darkness. They don’t play children’s games!” Diana was screaming and had stopped paying attention the room around her.

A shadow, smaller than Terra had seen before, silently crept up behind her. Knowing better than to look it in the eyes, she kept her gaze focused on the misty semi-solid base of the creature. She knew that if called out to warn Diana she would get a lashing from her mother for sneaking into another one of sister’s classes. So she sat silently on the rafter willing Diana to turn around.

Diana did turn around, but much too late. She spun, sensing something behind her to find the shadow less than two feet away. Even knowing what she knew, Diana still looked up straight into the creatures eyes.

She froze, unable to move or speak. Slowly those silvery eyes came down and locked onto the princess. It raised itself up suddenly, six or seven feet tall to tower over Diana, who at sixteen years old only stood five feet four inches tall. Just as quickly as it had grown taller the shadow suddenly grew wider and wider, more than wide enough to swallow up Diana where she stood.

Just before the shadow could make its next and final move, a blast of deep green and silver magic tore through the creature. It screeched a sorrowful and unearthly sound before it dissipated into nothingness leaving a small wisp of black smoke in its wake.

Once the creature was gone Diana came out of her trance and looked around baffled. “What happened?” She demanded.

Master Bell stepped forward, hands folded behind his back and a look of impatience on his handsome well cut face. His deep blue eyes took in Diana’s recovered state and her sudden explosion of anger. He reached one hand up and swept a lock of his jet black hair off his face and sighed.

“Diana, what have I told you about the eyes?” He asked. His face was impassive now but his voice showed just a hint of his true impatience.

“I know about the eyes!” She exploded, frustrated.

“One look into the silver eyes of a shadow and you’re doomed. Shadows don’t exist fully in any one plane of existence, and since they float in and out of different places, they can’t lock onto any one person or place. That’s why shadow attacks are always so random and impossible to predict.

“However, once you look into a shadow’s eyes, they can suddenly sense that you’re there. Some people believe they can feel your soul through your gaze. They lock onto you and never stop chasing until they get you. They somehow anchor themselves to your soul. No matter where you go or what you do they can find you. The only way to be safe is to find a city or a hold that’s been protected against them and pray they let you in.”

“We’ve been through this over and over again Diana,” Master Bell said with a sigh.

“I know about the shadows,” Diana complained, “You’ve told me about it more times than I can count. I was just surprised is all.”

“In the real world princess you won’t have any warning of danger. When you fight the evil the stalks this land, you’ll be on your own. There will be no help for you then.”

“Do you think I don’t know that?” Diana exploded, “I am only sixteen years old. Sixteen! And every day since before I can remember people have been telling me about my destiny! I know I have to save everyone, I know I’m the only one who can defeat the Shadow King and his army of shadows!”

Diana was really angry now. Her face had gone all red and her eyes were kind of bulging from her face. Terra shrank back on the rafter, hidden but still afraid of her sister’s wrath. Knowing how angry her sister was now gave her the advantage of being able to hide later to avoid having that anger directed at her.

“Diana,” Master Bell said a warning in his voice.

“It’s Your Highness and I’ll remind you to not forget that again,” Diana said acidly. She gathered her silken skirts in her hand, turned on her heel and marched out of the class room. Terra watched her go with a kind of distant admiration. She could just march out of the room and everyone around let her. No one stopped her or told her where to go. If she showed up to class it was because she decided she wanted to, not because she had to.

People didn’t tell Terra what to do unless they saw her. People didn’t much think of her. They certainly didn’t respect her enough to let her walk out of room, head held high. Terra doubted she would ever command such respect from anyone.

“You can come down now,” Master Bell said, not turning to face the young princess, but clearly addressing her.

Smiling at Bell’s ability to always know when she was around, Terra lowered herself down by her hands and then dropped silently to the floor.

“How do you always know?” she asked.

Bell smiled and turned to face the second princess. “As I’ve told you before highness, you have a very particular energy. One that is, in fact, quite easy to feel.”

“Please Master Bell, Terra. I feel strange when people call me highness.”

“Why do you suppose that is?” Master Bell asked a smile on his face.

“Well, I suppose because I don’t feel very high.”

Bell let out a boisterous laugh at the thought of a princess not feeling very high. “You truly are a unique person highn . . . I mean princess. Now may I ask you a question?”

“Of course Master Bell,” Terra said, excited at the prospect of being taught a little something.

“Why do you hide in the rafters during your sisters lessons? You know if you’re caught again the Queen will be most displeased with you. I seem to recall a very sound lashing after the last time.”

Afraid that Master Bell might suddenly change his mind and tell the Queen, Terra stepped back just a fraction, making herself ready to run if it came to that.

“Well,” she stammered, “Ever since Diana started taking lessons all those years ago, I’ve wanted to learn what she was learning. Not for fighting or anything like that.”

“Then why?”

“It’s hard to explain,” she said feeling around for the right words. “I get this feeling when I see her doing magic.”

“A good feeling or a bad feeling,” Bell asked. He was still smiling politely but there was less friendly curiosity behind his words and more of a hard edge.

“It’s a good feeling when she’s doing it right, and a bad feeling when she’s doing it wrong.”

Now his smile was completely gone, “you can tell when your sister is doing the spell wrong?”

“Usually,” she replied offhandedly, checking the door again.

“Terra can you do the spell your sister was trying to do?”

“I’m not sure,” she said, biting her lip, “she only showed me once. But I could try.”

“Please, do.” Bell stepped back a few paces and watched the young princess with growing sense of curiosity. He had heard of people with this particular kind of gift before. A kind of understanding and familiarity with magic that couldn’t be taught. In his many years of training he had only known two people to possess such a gift before. One was the Master Wizard of the Moon Kingdom to the north, and the other was the man who trained him, the former Mater Wizard of the Sol Kingdom. If what the princess said was true than she might well be the princess worth teaching.

Terra took a deep breath and calmed herself down. She raised her hands and assumed the position Diana had showed her last night. With her mind she reached down inside herself to where her power lived. Eleven years ago, when Diana had first started her lessons, Terra had watched from the rafters as time after time her sister failed to grasp what her teacher was telling her.

He had said that all our power lives in the very center of our being. If ever we have a need of that power we have to reach into ourselves and open the “door”. Not a real door of course but a door within ourselves that held back our magic until we needed it.

Terra opened that door now and felt as the magic spread from her center and covered her until it had become like a shall she had wrapped herself in. Not sure of the words to the spell, Terra focused instead on what she wanted the magic to do. She moved, her hands open, and directed the magic at the wall in front of her. It burst from her fingertips in a wave of purple laced with silver.

The master wizard reached out ran his fingers through the purple and silver magic as it sped past him. Terra was spot on. Every element of the spell was perfect. It should have taken several one on one lessons for her to even get close to that level of perfection. Not to mention the silver threads in her magic.

Everyone’s magic manifested in different colors. A primary color and an accent color. Each color spoke to the nature of the person. Anytime the color silver manifested in a person’s magic it always meant a true mastery of magic. The silver in his magic he had only recently obtained. Originally the deep green of his magic was accompanied by a dark purple accent. For Terra to have silver in her magic already was something Bell had never seen before.

“Terra,” he asked, “how did you do that?”

She took a deep breath and pulled her hands back in, stopping the flow of magic. She exhaled and turned to Master Bell. “I don’t know,” she said thinking, “I listened to what Diana said you told her and then I watched her try and then I watched you do it and I knew how.”

“Princess, that’s incredible.”

“Not really,” she said with a shrug, “I forgot the words.” She smiled sheepishly; checking the door again to make sure her sister wasn’t going to barge back in for the last word.

Master Bell’s mouth hung open. He had gotten so caught up in Terra’s effortless mastery of the spell that he hadn’t even noticed her silence. Diana had been learning from him for over ten years and fire was the only spell she could do without using the words.

“Terra, how did you get the magic to do what you wanted without the words?” Bell asked.

“What do you mean?” Terra could tell by Master Bell’s face that the question he was asking was important, but she didn’t understand why.

“Ok, let me explain it to you this way. In the very center of our being is where our power sits, waiting and dormant. When we need to use that power, to defend, to heal, or even to attack, we reach down inside ourselves and open the “door””.

“The door to our power!” Terra shouted excitedly. She knew the answer from the earliest lessons with Diana.

“That’s right,” Bell said, pleased that Terra was following along. “With some people they can bypass the door. These gifted individuals wear their magic around themselves as an aura. Their magic lives around them and can’t be contained like normal magic. Now, when you first lean how to use magic it is very hard to control. That’s why beginners need to use the words to help them mold the magic and help it better understand what they want.”

Terra nodded. “Ok, so me not using words was a good thing?”

“A very good thing,” Bell said smiling. “Now run along before your mother or sister finds you down here.”

“Ok! Thank you Master Bell,” Terra called as she slipped out the door and down the hallway, as quick and as quiet as a shadow. Even the way she walked seemed to echo some kind of grace or power. Bell was unsure why he hadn’t noticed it before. Although the Queen was very good at keeping her in the shadow of her sister, a role she played into as well.

With a quick check of the room Bell decided to head to his room and meditate on the issue of Terra. Had he known all those years ago how gifted she was, he would have made quite a push to have her trained.

Terra ran from the room more than pleased that Bell had praised her. She was so happy about the kind words he had spoken to her that she didn’t notice her sister hiding in the shadows of the hall until it was too late.

Diana reached out and grabbed Terra by the arm.

“Hello little sister,” she said grinning at the look of shock on her sisters face. “What took you so long?”

“I’m sorry Diana,” her sister said looking like a mouse that’d been caught by a cat. “Master Bell knew I was watching and he was asking me questions.”

“What kind of questions,” Diana asked. She narrowed her eyes at Terra and began dragging her down the nearby hallway.

“Well,” she started, “he asked what I was doing there.”

“And you said?”

“That I was just curious. I didn’t say anything about you sister I swear.”

“You had better not.”

Six years ago Diana had caught her sister sneaking into her magic lessons for the first time. She had been about to run to her mother with the information when a thought had struck her. If Terra snuck into her lessons and watched what Bell taught her, then maybe she could be used to better Diana’s own mastery of magic.

Besides, practicing on something live would be far more entertaining.

“I wouldn’t Diana,” Terra said earnestly. “You know I value our practice time too highly to risk it.”

“Very well then,” Diana said pushing her sister off. “Be sure to come tonight. I have to perfect my energy spells for tomorrow.”

“I will Diana, thank you.” Terra took off, running like some common girl through the hall, long hair braided and flapping behind her. Diana scoffed at her foolishness and headed to her next lesson.

It was a very late that night as Terra stood in her sisters’ room breathing hard. She and Diana were going over the lesson she had learned a few days ago from Master Bell. He was teaching her about pulling energy from an enemy. It was a difficult spell and Diana was not grasping it well.

Bell had taught her to take only what energy was necessary to survive and no more. But Diana couldn’t regulate how much she was taking, not to mention she still had to be in contact with her sister to take anything at all. Terra was exhausted, it was late and her energy was being sapped by Diana at an alarming rate.

“Alright I think I have this now Terra, just once more should do it,” Diana said. She was smiling from ear to ear and almost bouncing where she stood. She had absorbed so much energy from her sister that she felt she could go on for days without sleep.

“I don’t know if I can handle much more Diana,” she replied breathlessly. “I feel like I might pass out at this rate.”

Diana scowled down at her sister. Why did she have to be so selfish right now? Diana needed help to learn this spell before Bell came back tomorrow and quizzed her on it. The last thing she needed was for that sad excuse of a master wizard to come back to the castle and humiliate her again. She was learning as fast as she could, but she had other problems to deal with.

“Terra you know I can’t go to lessons tomorrow without being able to do this from a distance. Bell will scold me and tell mother that I’m not learning at the right pace. Do you really want to go through that again?”

Terra thought for a moment. The last time Diana had gotten scolded by their mother about not applying herself enough to her studies she had taken it out on Terra quite mercilessly. It had been one of the worst weeks of her life.

“Alright Diana, you’re right of course. Let me show you one more time how to spread the aura from your fingers and out past your body.”

Diana eyed her sister suspiciously but decided that she needed to see how it was done at least one more time. “Alright fine,” she said. “But don’t take too much. I can’t be exhausted tomorrow for my exam.”

“Of course sister,” Terra said smiling, “now the key is to concentrate. Feel the door to your power, nestled deep down inside. Open it and let the magic flow free until it wraps itself around you. Picture your colors form the aura around you.

“Now in your mind see those colors swirl into one concentrated place, your hand is the best place but do whatever works. Then send that aura out from you. See the colors flow from your body toward your target.” As she spoke Terra pictured the purple and silver of her magic swirl away from her and toward her sister.

When it reached her, Terra used her mind to tell her magic to pull energy from her sister. At once the energy came flowing back to her in waves. She went from being completely exhausted to feeling only a little tired. She stopped the magic before it could take too much from her sister.

“Now you try,” she said smiling confidently.

Diana opened her mouth to say something but a commotion outside drew their attention. Without a word both girls ran to the large window across the room and pushed it open wide so they could stick their heads out.

“What’s going on out there?” Terra asked.

“I don’t know,” Diana replied, “It’s too hard to see with all the light in here.”

“You’re right.” Without turning from the window Terra sent out her magic and in a matter of seconds only one fire remained burning in the room and it had died down to almost embers. Diana took notice of her sister’s power but chose to say nothing. There was something going on outside that was much more interesting.

With the lights all the way dimmed the princesses could see down to the courtyard with ease. There was a large wagon pulled all the way up to the gates of the castle. People were rushing around trying to get the gate open as fast as they could. Terra recognized the man leading the others by the gate; it was her father the King.

King Sol stood shouting orders to the men around him to get the gate open as quickly as they could. He knew that there was no time to waste. With a bang the double doors came crashing open. Glancing around quickly the King ascertained that no one was around to see what was going on.

As the doors flew open the men on the wagon rushed forward stopping just short of the King. Each man placed his fist over his heart before bowing to the King. The Captain of the Guard jumped down from the driver’s bench.

“Majesty,” he said with a nod. “We’ve done it. We have captured the monster as you ordered!”

“Captain Reynolds,” the King said, taken back, “could you truly have done such a thing?”

“We have majesty. Behold!” Captain Reynolds moved to the back of the wagon where something large and square sat covered under a huge patchwork of blankets. Lifting one corner the Captain ushered the King to see.

“By the creator you’ve done it.” The King stared at the creature trapped behind the enchanted glass of its prison. “I had almost begun to believe it couldn’t be done.”

“We have done it King Sol. It was a long and arduous battle. Many men were lost to the cause, but in the end we emerged triumphant.” Captain Reynolds looked grim at the mentioning of his lost men but he eyes still held the sparkle of victory when he looked to his King.

Slowly the few remaining men from the Captains party shambled in, bleeding, broken and near dead, they still saluted their King. Each man knowing that their lives would have been a small price to pay for such a victory.

King Sol stepped back from the wagon and Captain Reynolds lowered the patchwork cloth down again. He silently sent up a prayer for the men who had died to provide the kingdom with this most deadly prisoner. “See these men are properly attended too,” the King called to a man guarding the gate.

“Where shall we put him Majesty?” Captain Reynolds asked. “The hour is late and I don’t relish being stuck in the dark with cargo such as this.”

“We’ve had a room established for some time now,” King Sol said. “We must take the wagon around the castle to the kitchens.”

“To the kitchens, Majesty?” Captain Reynolds asked.

“Yes,” the King replied, “the kitchens have the largest doors aside from the main entrance. And this is not something we want to take through the main door. The fewer people who know about this the better.” He gave the Captain a very meaningful look.

“Of course you’re Highness,” Captain Reynolds said, “I’ll see to it that no one outside this party knows of the cargo we’ve brought this night.”

“See that you do,” King Sol said. “Now let’s get this wagon moved before anyone has the good sense to question us.”

Captain Reynolds and his men nodded and thumped their fists over their hearts again before climbing back onto the wagon. King Sol, knowing that his wife was waiting for news jumped onto his horse again and rode like the wind toward the main doors of the castle.

Seeing the King approaching the guards threw the door open as he rode up the steps and through the front door. He jumped off his horse and threw the reigns to one of the guards standing nearby. “Take my horse to the stables and see to it that he’s fed and watered. Then go to the kitchens and help Captain Reynolds and his men,” King Sol ordered running for the stairs.

Both guards thumped their fists to their hearts and bowed to the King before running off to do as he had commanded.

“What do you think is in the box?” Terra asked, as their father disappeared through the front door of the castle.

“I don’t know,” Diana said thinking. “But I intend to find out.”

Without another word Diana ran to her large wardrobe and pulled out a dark blue cloak and threw it around her shoulders. She glanced back at her sister and then rummaged around in the back before producing a dark green cloak from last winter. “Put this on and follow me. Your dress is so bright a blind man could see it. Do as I say and whatever you do don’t make a sound.”

Terra nodded and threw the cloak on. It was still lovely and soft. It warmed her the second she tied it on. Following her sisters lead she pulled the generous hood up over her head and slipped out the door.

Together, quick and quiet as the shadows themselves, the princesses slipped down the servants stairs. They went down three levels before the sounds of voices halted them in their tracks. Diana put a hand on Terra’s shoulders to stop her. Quietly they listened to the voices and the footsteps get closer.

Seconds before the owners of the voices appeared Diana pulled open the door directly to her right and threw Terra in. She followed quickly and pulled the door nearly closed just as three men came into view. She tiptoed over to her sister and put her finger to her lips.

Terra nodded, she would be quiet.

“Captain Reynolds ordered the room sealed. No one but himself or the King, the Queen, and the Master Wizard are to be permitted to enter,” one voice said.

“What about Princess Diana?” Another asked.

“If the princess wants in is it really alright for us to tell her no? She’s the princess in the prophecy. I wouldn’t want to upset her,” a third voice replied uneasily.

Diana smiled at the notes of fear in the man’s voice. It pleased her to be able to command that kind of a response from a stranger at only sixteen.

“I’m not sure,” the first voice answered clearly uneasy about the prospect of having to deny Diana something. “When I see Captain Reynolds again I’ll ask him. For now let’s just hope the princess doesn’t find out about the prisoner.”

All the voices agreed as they walked past the door the princesses were hiding behind. Terra held her breath, worried about being caught out of her room this late at night. Not just sneaking out but eavesdropping on the soldiers. Her mother would be furious if she knew.

Once the voices and footsteps had faded out of earshot Diana crept over to the door and pushed it open slightly. She stuck her head out and scanned the hallway. She could see the group of soldiers moving down at the far end of the hall getting ready to turn the corner, most likely headed toward the barracks for the King’s personal guard that sat directly to the right of the castles main door. Diana finished scanning the hallway. Once she was satisfied that no one was coming she motioned for her sister to follow her out into the hall.

Terra followed, somewhat nervously, behind her sister.

“Where are we going?” She asked as she and Diana crept down the hall in the opposite direction of the soldiers. She started to move them toward the main corridor on the floor.

“You saw the size of that box didn’t you?” Diana asked. When Terra nodded she said, “a box that size is going to take over a dozen men to move and there’s no way they’re going to be able to move that thing up a flight of stairs. So it has to be on the bottom floor somewhere.”

Terra understood what her sister was saying but still didn’t understand why they had left the relative safety of the servant’s stairs. In all her years she had never seen her mother use any other stairs than the main grand stairway that was at the front of the castle.

Fearing her sister wrath more than her mother’s anger Terra kept silent and followed Diana down the hall. They passed by a number of the servant’s quarters, and then passed the servants chapel and finally to the end of the hall that turned into a small wide staircase that leads down to the kitchens. Without hesitation Diana slid quietly down the stairs and into the dark empty kitchen.

Terra followed without a word. With the fires in the kitchen out, the stairway was completely dark. She put her hand on the smooth stone wall and carefully felt her way down. Each stone step she took had been worn smooth by the many shoes that traveled up and down them each day for the past several hundred years. It made traversing them in the dark very dangerous.

She reached the bottom and was pleased to see the kitchen windows were letting in at least a little moon light to see by. She stepped forward next to Diana and looked around. The large kitchen doors were closed and bolted as they were every night. None of the wall sconces had been lit and as far as Terra could tell, no one had been down here since the kitchen maids had closed it down after dinner had been cleaned up.

“Damn,” Diana cursed under her breath. “They’ve been through here already.”

“How can you tell?”

“Do you see the bolt on the door?” Diana asked. She nodded. “It’s not locked properly. The bolt is old and has to be handled in a certain way or it won’t close properly. That bolt is only halfway through the lock.”

“How do you know all that?” Terra asked disbelievingly.

“If you snuck out of the castle as much as I do, you’d know too.” Diana flashed Terra her wicked smile before she started moving off to the other side of the kitchen. Still mildly alarmed at the thought of Diana sneaking out unguarded, Terra followed.

A sudden sound from the stairs behind them froze both girls in their tracks. Diana shot a look to Terra who shook her head. Whoever it was, they were too far off for her to tell yet. Best case scenario it was just a maid coming down to fetch something, worst case scenario it was another guard on his way down to help with whatever was brought in. Either way the princesses could not be seen wandering the halls at night, alone.

Not wasting any time, Terra grabbed Diana by the hand and ran behind the table used for making bread. It was a very large table with curtains running along all four sides. The top was almost completely white after years of having flour ground into it. Seeing as how there was no one making bread at this hour, Terra lifted the curtain and motioned to Diana.

“We’ll hide down here until they pass,” she whispered to her sister. “Let’s just hope they aren’t in the mood for making bread at this hour.”

Diana did as her younger sister had bid her and ducked under the table. Terra was about to join her when a light at the bottom of the stairs stopped her cold. Standing at the bottom of the staircase holding a magelight torch over his head was Captain Reynolds.

“C . . . Captain,” Terra stammered, racking her brain for an excuse to be down in the kitchens at this hour. As far as she could tell, Diana had been hidden before the table had come into his view. Meaning that for the moment, her sister was safe.

“Princess,” he said, sounding as equally shocked. He placed his fist over his heart and bowed. “What are you doing down here?”

“I . . . um . . . I was just going out for some fresh air,” she lied badly.

Captain Reynolds smiled at her. He was nearing his twenty-fifth birthday if Terra remembered correctly. He had risen in the ranks rather quickly. Her father often spoke of his bravery and cunning. He would sometimes remark that the young man would make general before he was thirty. Even the Queen loved him. He was young and handsome, not to mention dedicated. He had sharp green eyes like hers but lighter and thick brown hair he kept tied back in a ponytail. The fact that he was nearly twenty-five and unmarried was the only thing people ever complained about when it came to him.

“Fresh air?” Captain Reynolds said smiling. “Does your window not provide you with that?”

“It does, normally,” Terra said, knowing the Captain didn’t believe her. “But I believe my fireplace is clogged. The smoke just billows around my room and doesn’t go up and out like it should. I put the fire out but the room is still quite smoky. So I opened my windows and came down here to slip out the back and get some fresh air while it clears.” Terra had said the last part in a rush as she ran out of air. She sucked in a deep breath and cursed herself mentally for not being a better liar.

“Well we’ll have to send someone up first thing in the morning to check on your fireplace then,” Capt. Reynolds said with a smile. “Until then would you allow me to escort you out to get your fresh air? The world’s not safe enough for a princess to go wandering around alone.”

Terra stared at the Captain dumfounded. She was a very bad liar, almost hilariously bad. She couldn’t believe he had believed her story. She certainly couldn’t go wandering around outside with the man. Captain or not there was something strange in the castle and Terra needed to know what.

“You are very kind of offer Captain,” Terra said, “But I couldn’t possibly accept.”

Diana reached out from under the table and pinched her sister hard on the leg. Terra had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from crying out in pain. She shot a look down to Diana who waved her off and silently mouthed ‘GO’ to her.

“I mean to say I couldn’t possible accept without knowing that I’m not taking you away from some other pressing matter,” she lied again.

Capt. Reynolds smiled at the princess again and said, “There are no matters more pressing than your safety princess.”

Terra quickly stepped around the table so the captain wouldn’t notice her sister tucked underneath. She met him on the other side of the kitchen, closer to the doors. “Eager to get outside are we?” He asked with a laugh.

“Can you blame a girl?” Terra asked, not sure how much longer she could keep the lie up.

“Not at all.” He offered Terra his arm. She accepted and together they walked to the kitchen doors and slipping the bolt, Capt. Reynolds held the door open as she walked through.

Once Diana heard the doors close she slid out from the bottom of the table. She stood and brushed the flour from her cloak. “Idiot,” she muttered under her breath about her sister. To get caught up in a weak lie like that, and by a Captain no less! Diana would never be caught consorting with someone so far below her station. It was ridiculous. Creator help her if their father finds her out there with a man. Her prospects would disappear and she would be ruined. He could be a general and it wouldn’t matter. No man should be alone with a princess without an escort or two.

For a moment Diana considered going to their father and telling him that she’d woken to find Terra gone. She could lie and say that she’d searcher for her and found her outside with the Captain. She would be ruined, completely and utterly ruined.

It would be delicious to see.

However, when it came to Terra and to the Captain, the King seemed to have a weak spot for them. If Terra buckled and told him the truth it could back fire on Diana. Then not only would she be exposed in the lie but people would get a good look at her real character. That was something the princess was unwilling to risk. All the dark thoughts in her heart and her mind were her biggest secret. No amount of her sisters suffering was worth the possibility of her being exposed.

With a sigh at the missed opportunity Diana turned back to the door that exited into the grand dining hall. At least she could find out what her father had been up to that night. Keeping close to the wall, she crept on.

The grand dining hall was dark and cold. In stark opposite of the way it normally was. Usually all the fires were lit and the large fireplace was roaring with life. It seemed that the room itself hummed with life during the day. People were always coming and going getting things ready for the next meal. Now it stood dark, quiet and lifeless.

Diana preferred it this way.

As she approached the end of the dining hall she had several options of how to go forward. There was a door that led to a rounded hallway that cut through the back of the castle and ended in the queen’s private garden. Then there was another door half hidden behind a tapestry by the large raised dais where Diana and her family ate dinner. That particular door led to the network of secret passages that snaked through the walls of the castle. Diana had managed to explore some of the passages and tunnels but had nearly gotten lost on more than one occasion.

Finally there were the large doors that lead to an ornately decorated hallway where guests can sit and wait for dinner to be ready. From there that hallway branched off into more than half a dozen places. Some lead to servant’s quarters, others to the armory, then others to the barracks, and then more lead to the main hall of the palace and at least one hallway took you to the throne room.

Diana cursed under her breath at having been held up by Terra’s incompetence for so long. Her father and his mysterious box could be anywhere in the castle by now. For a moment she contemplated searching everywhere possible for the box. Terra had, however, taken a good deal of her energy with that last spell and the princess was starting to feel the hour.

With a defeated sigh she turned around and headed back across the empty dining hall. When she reached the kitchen she pulled the doors closed and made sure no one would be suspicious if they woke up to find things amiss.

Diana walked slowly over to the stairs and then stopped. She couldn’t tell her father what Terra was up too, but she could certainly make things more difficult for her sister. Walking back to the kitchen doors Diana pressed her shoulder against the left door and slid the bolt all the way home. With this door locked she would have no choice but to go around and use the main entrance to get back in.

Scoffing one more time at her sister’s idiocy, Diana turned and disappeared up the stairs. She tiptoed down the hall and then slipped into the servant’s stairs again. She was back in the safety of her room in less than two minutes. She changed out of her dress into her dressing gown and settled in for bed, still smiling at the thought of Terra returning to find a locked door.

Terra stepped outside ahead of Capt. Reynolds and waited as he closed the door behind them. It was a beautiful summer evening. It was cool without being cold and there were more stars in the sky than Terra thought she could count in a lifetime. The forest that surrounded the back part of the grounds was alight with fireflies and the sounds of crickets. Through the trees the sound of the nearby river could be heard flowing over rocks and tree roots.

All in all it was an absolutely beautiful night.

“Beautiful isn’t in?” Capt. Reynolds asked stepping up beside Terra.

She nodded, still taking in their surroundings. “Look!” she said suddenly grabbing the captain’s arm, “Look at all the fireflies! Their beautiful don’t you think?”

Capt. Reynolds smiled, “You know I’ve always had penchant for fireflies.”

“Really?” She asked, pleased that this adult didn’t find her love of these simple beauties silly or childish.

“Really,” he said. “When I was younger I used to want to fly one.”

“Fly one?” She asked.

“Yup. I would be wondering through the forest and find the biggest firefly ever. It would recognize me as a friend and let me ride it.”

“Wow,” Terra said smiling at the thought of flying a firefly. “That’s . . .”

“Foolish?” Capt. Reynolds asked, cutting her off.

“I was going to say adorable,” she said pulling a face.

“Well that’s better than foolish,” he said with a smile. “Shall we?”

Terra nodded, accepting the captain’s arm again. Together they walked across the grass toward the edge of the forest and the castle grounds. The night was peaceful and yet simultaneously full of life. Terra tried to nonchalantly scan for the wagon she and Diana had seen from the window, but there was no sign of it now aside from the fresh ruts the wagon had cut in the dirt near the door.

“So do you want to tell me why you were really down in the kitchen this late?” Capt. Reynolds asked after a few moments of silence had passed.

Terra froze. She knew she wasn’t a great liar but she thought she’d fooled the Captain with the story about her fireplace. Still, she should have known better. You don’t get promoted to captain of the Guard if you’re foolish enough to fall for the lies of a fifteen year old.

Capt. Reynolds stopped when Terra did. He kept his gaze up at the stars and was still smiling when she looked up at him. Literally up, the captain stood nearly a head taller than herself.

When Terra could think of nothing to say the captain started walking again. “Had your room, in fact, been filled with smoke I would have been called immediately. So while I commend your efforts and your attempt to hide your sister, I was fooled by neither.”

“I’m sorry,” Terra said hanging her head. She let her arm fall from the captains as she stopped walking and stood feeling more than ashamed. She had lied to the captain of the guard and had been foolish enough to think that he had actually fallen for it. She was sure he would report to her father as soon as he ascertained why she had been in the kitchen with her sister so late. Not only would she be severely scolded for being out so late but Diana would be nothing short of murderous when she found out that it was Terra’s shortcomings that had landed her in trouble with the King and Queen.

Just the thought of Diana’s rage made Terra quiver in her shoes. Before she could stop them, tears began to flow down her cheeks.

“Princess?” Capt. Reynolds asked, turning to see why she’d stopped walking. He nearly fell over when he caught sight of Princess Terra. Her head was down and she was shaking. Despite the lack of light the captain could see the tears streaking down her cheeks. They seemed to almost light up in the moonlight, looking more like silver streams running from her eyes instead of tears.

“I’m so sorry Captain!” Terra exclaimed jerking her head up suddenly. “I didn’t want to deceive you but I didn’t know what else to do. I know it was wrong but please, I beg you, don’t tell my father. I wouldn’t be able to stand it if Diana got in trouble because of me!”

Capt. Reynolds stumbled back a step. While the princess had stood there pleading her case so passionately, the moon had come out from behind a rouge cloud and lit Terra’s face like a pale torch. In that moment, eyes full of tears, hand clenched in fists at her side, pleading not for her sake but her sisters, she no longer looked like the little dark haired princess who ran amuck around the castle with her fair haired sister.

She looked like a woman; a young woman but a woman none the less. She was beautiful, so much so that the captain was taken aback. Everyone knew that the princesses were lovely like their mother. It was Diana, however, whom people raved about. They spoke of her golden hair and how her beauty at sixteen was a good indicator of the fact that she would be beautiful all her life.

People didn’t talk about Terra like that.

Looking at her now, Capt. Reynolds wondered how he had never noticed.

Recovering from the shock of seeing her in this new light, the captain stepped up and put both his hands on the princess’s shoulders. “You need not fear for your sister. I will not tell the King what I have seen this night. So long as you promise to never lie to me again. Can you do that Princess?”

Terra heard what Capt. Reynolds had said and it took her a moment to process her sheer amount of luck. She hated to lie, it made her feel sick to her stomach, promising to never lie to the Captain again was an easy request to fulfill, especially if it meant being spared her sisters rage.

“I promise,” Terra said, her voice wavering slightly. “Thank you Captain Reynolds. I truly can’t thank you enough.”

Pleased to see her smiling again, Capt. Reynolds pulled his handkerchief from his breast pocket and, more than over stepping his place, he reached out and dried the tears on one side of her face. Realizing just how far he had over reached he offered Terra the handkerchief so she could dry her other eye.

“Thank you,” she said sweetly. She dried her eye and offered the handkerchief back to the Captain.

“You keep it,” he said, “A memento from tonight.” Capt. Reynolds knew he would need no help remembering this night. He felt as though the image of the princess in tears lit up by the moon and so passionate about her apology was burned into his mind. It was not something he felt he would ever forget.

Assuming the captain wanted her to keep it as a reminder to never lie to him again; Terra smiled and tucked the handkerchief into her pocket. “I can’t thank you enough Captain.”

“Of course you can,” he said with a laugh.

“How?” She asked, genuinely wanting to repay the Captain for his kindness.

“Well, you can start by keeping that promise you made me.”

“Done.”

“And you can repay me by finishing our walk.”

“Of . . . of course,” she stammered, relieved at how simple his requests were. Capt. Reynolds offered Terra his arm again and she gladly accepted it this time. Together the two walked the edge of the forest talking over the prophecy about Diana, the increase in shadow activity which inadvertently lead to Capt. Reynolds telling her about all of the castles defenses. Not just the hundreds of guards under his command, but also the spell and warding that kept the castle and the surrounding city safe from shadow attacks.

“I would never let anything happen to you or your family,” Capt. Reynolds explained as they slowly made their way back to the kitchen doors. “You believe that don’t you princess?”

“I do Captain,” Terra said smiling up at a man she now viewed as a friend.

“Well I must say I’ve rather enjoyed our walk,” he said as he stepped away from the princess and moved to open the door.

“I’ve enjoyed most of it,” Terra said honestly. Seeing a concerned look on the Captain’s face she added hastily, “it was much more enjoyable once the lie was out of the way.”

“Ah, well I think we can both agree that . . .” the Captain trailed off as the door stuck when he pulled it. “That’s odd,” he said grabbing the handle again. He pulled at the door a second and third time before he realized the door was locked.

“What’s wrong?” Terra asked concerned.

“The door’s locked.”

“Locked? How is that possible?”

“Someone must have walked past and seen it was unbolted and locked it.”

“What do we do now?” She asked fear creeping up in her mind. If this door was locked then the only other option they had was to use the front door or break a window and climb in. Neither was good option and both would raise questions that Terra couldn’t answer.

A thought struck both Terra and Capt. Reynolds at the same time. While both of them had viewed their walk as innocent, there would be those who see the captain taking the young princess out in the middle of the night, with no chaperone as something other than what it was. The princess would be ruined and her family shamed.

Terra met Capt. Reynolds stare straight on. She could tell by his grim expression that he had come to the same conclusion she had. That meant that there was only one other option. Sighing, she stepped forward and took both the Captains hands.

Even in the faint light of the moon she could see the captain blush at her sudden contact. “Captain.”

“Princess,” he replied slightly confused.

“You and I both know we cannot go through the front door. If I’m seen out this late questions will be raised and my promise to you will mean nothing when my family hears about this. Not to mention the consequences if the two of us are discovered out here together and alone.”

Capt. Reynolds nodded, taken slightly aback once again by the way her maturity shone like a light through what was left of her child like features. “I understand what happens if we’re discovered princess. I know what it would mean for both of us.”

“Then I need your word Captain.”

“My word?”

“Yes. What I’m about to do you can tell no one about. Ever.”

Confused about what would have the princess so rattled, all he could do was nod.

“All right, stand aside. I’ll get the door open.”

“Princess . . .” he started.

“Terra,” she said, turning to face him again.

“What?”

“We’re cohorts now Captain. Neither of us can ever mention to another person what went on tonight. I figure if the two of us are going to share a secret like that the least you can do is call me by my name and not my title. So, Terra please, not princess.”

Smiling Capt. Reynolds said, “Terra it is. But then you must call me Eric.”

“Eric,” she agreed with a smile. She turned back to the door in front of them. Taking a measured step back she silently focused. She felt the aura of her magic swirling around her. Her magic was there even before she had opened the “door”. Assuming her magic was out because of her training with her sister she refocused. Raising her left arm she opened her palm and asked the magical aura around her to flow through the door and pull the bolt out so she could enter.

“T . . . Terra,” Eric stammered, seeing the purple and sliver threads of her magic flow from her left hand to the door.

Ignoring him, she kept her focus on the door and after a second the sound of the bolt being thrown violently could be heard. Before she could stop them the doors flew open. Eric barely had time to jump out of the way before they came flying in his direction. Thankfully the old doors didn’t make much noise as they swung round on their hinges into the wall.

Terra felt her aura return to her and dropped her hand.

“Pr . . . princess,” Eric stammered.

“Terra, remember?”

He nodded, looking shaken. “Terra, how did you do that? I thought you didn’t possess magic?” Eric looked more than a little dumbfounded.

“I’m not officially being taught magic,” Terra said, trying to skirt the truth. She started forward through the door. Without looking she could tell that he was right behind her, not willing to let her scrape by with so little an explanation.

“Then how?”

“I have your word, right Eric? Nothing about tonight ever gets told to another soul?” She asked dropping her voice so it wouldn’t bound off the walls of the empty kitchen and wake someone else.

“Terra you have my word as a gentleman and as the Captain of the Guard. No soul will ever hear about what transpired here tonight.”

“All right then.” She took a deep breath as she moved to start closing the old wooden doors. “About six years ago my sister caught me sneaking into another one of her magic lessons with Master Bell. I had snuck into two or three before that and gotten caught once in the act. This time when Diana confronted me she told me she wanted my help.”

“Your help? With what?” Eric asked helping her close the doors.

“She felt that Master Bell was being too hard on her, demanding more than she could possibly do on top of all of her other duties as a princess.”

“What kind of duties does a princess have?” He asked more to himself than to Terra.

“Well for one we’ve been schooled on how a princess acts from the time we could walk. How to talk, when to talk, what to say, how to walk, what to wear and how to wear it and how to handle just about any formal situation we might ever find ourselves in. Then we’re taught about our land, how the country is run, the old laws and the ones my father has written and changed. We’re taught how the hierarchy works in the kingdom. Then we learn about our kingdoms agriculture. What grows where and how well, who grows what the best and how to handle a dispute about land between farmers.

“Then we’re taught about trade, who we trade with, what we trade with them, what’s fair and what’s not. Then they teach us how to handle any dispute that might arise between ourselves and our neighboring kingdoms. They teach us when and on what we should stick it to the other guy and when we should take the hit. Next they’ll be teaching us about the army and how it works. Who’s in charge where and who should be put in charge if something happens to them.”

Together Eric and Terra pulled the door closed and locked the bolt. Eric mulled over what the princess had just told him. He never realized that the princesses had to be so well schooled. He assumed being royal was one big party, all the time, at least for the princesses.

“I didn’t realize you had so much to do,” he admitted sheepishly.

“Not many people do,” Terra said with a smile. “Anyway, Diana asked if I could start regularly sneaking into her magic lessons so at night we could practice together. She said it helped her to have someone live to practice on. I, of course, was just thrilled at the prospect of learning magic.”

“So you’ve been secretly learning magic for the last six years?”

“Pretty much. Nobody knows, except Master Bell. He knew I was there that day six years ago. Thought he’s never acknowledged me during lessons, I know he knows.”

“What’ll happen if you’re caught?” Eric asked concerned.

She grimaced, “I don’t want to think of what my mother would do if she found out.”

“You’ll be careful won’t you?” he asked the concern still plain on his face.

“Of course,” she said with a smile. “You know it stands to reason that she might not be mad about it. Mother might actually be proud of me.”

He looked at her in a way that told her neither of them thought the Queen would be happy about Terra sneaking around learning things she shouldn’t be.

“May I escort you to your room?” He asked, offering her his arm again.

“That would be lovely, but we should take the servant’s stairs to avoid people seeing us and jumping to conclusions.”

“Won’t the servants see us?”

“Only if you don’t know your way around,” she said with a smile.

“In that case lead on Majesty,” he said with a mock bow.

Laughing quietly she led him to the same stairs they had both taken to get to the kitchen. Quietly they slipped into the servant’s stairs, once there Eric said, “So why do you think your Mother might be happy about you secretly learning magic?”

“Because I’m doing it to help Diana,” she replied simply. “And it’s not like I asked her to teach me. She came to me and asked for help. I’m doing all I can to ensure that she fulfills the prophecy.”

“You know word around the castle is that your sister isn’t exactly the most deserving of help,” he said, choosing his words very carefully. Everyone in the kingdom loved and praised Diana’s name. She was the princess the prophecy spoke of who was going to save the world. But in the castle, where people interacted with her on a daily bases, the opinion was very different.

“I know she’s hard to deal with sometimes. And there are times where she comes across kind of cold. But can you really blame her?” Terra asked. She was more than aware of the fact that her sister wasn’t the most popular person in the castle. She stopped at the landing for the fifth floor. Her bedroom was all the way across the long hall. They would have to walk passed her Parents room, her sisters room and the room that housed her mother’s ladies in waiting, the room that housed her sisters ladies, and Mammy’s room. It was too many opportunities to be seen. Terra thought about parting company here, but she wanted Eric to understand why Diana was the way she was.

So she turned to the wall opposite of the door and felt for the small round stone that acted as a handle.

“What do you mean?” Eric asked, wondering what the princess was up to.

“Diana has an enormous weight on her shoulders. She’s expected to save the entire world. Most people would buckle under that kind of pressure. And when you consider how much is expected of her, and how much has been expected of her since before she was born, it’s more than most people can even fathom.”

Finding the stone she was looking for, Terra turned the stone a quarter to the right and pushed. With a faint click the secret door swung open into one of many secret passageways in the castle. Without turning to see if he was following, she stepped over the small threshold and continued talking.

“It’s a lot of pressure for a sixteen year old.”

Eric stared blankly at the secret passageway he had never known was there. It was his responsibility to keep everyone in the castle safe and he had no idea there were passageways up this high. Carefully he stepped over the threshold and pushed the small door closed. On this side he could hardly tell there was a door there at all.

“How many tunnels are there like this up here?” He asked, ignoring the last thing Terra had said.

She stopped and thought for a moment. “I’m not sure. More than I’ve ever stopped to count.”

“Do you know your way around up here?”

“Of course,” she replied, “How do you think I manage to sneak around and watch my sister’s lessons? I could find my way around here in complete darkness.”

Eric stepped up so he was standing next to the princess. “One day you’ll have to teach me about all these passageways.”

“That can probably be arranged,” she said smiling.

“Alright then, lead on. And I understand how much pressure your sister is under. I can’t say as I know how it feels, but I do understand it’s an enormous weight to bear. But how do you explain how cold she can be?”

Slowly they made their way forward across a flat and narrow passage. Terra walked on confidently and Eric fell into step behind her.

“That’s easy,” Terra said, following the passage to the left at a fork. “My sister will one day face the greatest evil this world has ever known. The battle itself will be like nothing we’ve ever seen before. There stands a good chance that even if Diana wins, the fight will claim her life. If you knew your destiny was to save the world and you knew that the odds of you walking away were slim, would you really take time to make a lot of close relationships?”

“I would,” Eric said without hesitation. “You need your friends and family to remind you what you’re fighting for. They make you strong and keep you going when things get rough. Even if I knew I was going to die tomorrow in combat I wouldn’t have changed a thing about tonight.”

Terra felt her face color as she blushed at the Captain’s words. Suddenly, she was immensely grateful for the dark of the passage.

“I don’t know that I would,” she admitted.

“Oh?” He asked, his voice sounding slightly deflated.

“Not because I didn’t enjoy our walk or our newfound friendship. But to think that I might go off and die in battle tomorrow leaving all my friends and family to mourn the loss of me would break my heart. I would hate to think of people hurting because of me.”

“Perhaps you’re just too selfless,” he suggested.

“I don’t think it’s that,” Terra said, “I just don’t like to hurt people. Here we are.” She came to a stop in the middle of the passage.

“Where is here?” Eric asked looking around.

“Let me see your hand,” she said holding her own out. Slightly unsure of what the princess was up to, he placed his hand in hers.

Without a word Terra turned to the wall on the right. She placed the back of her right hand in Eric’s and laced her fingers through his. Together she trailed their fingers over the smooth stone of the wall. She seemed to be looking for something, but in the faint light of the passage it was hard to see anything.

Eric felt his heart rate spike as princess continued her search. Their hands were laced together and the way she had pulled him left him standing directly behind her. If he leaned forward a fraction of an inch he would be pressed against her. For a second, caught up in the heat of the moment, the Captain of the Guard gave serious consideration to closing the gap between them.

Then, just as swiftly as the thought had come, it disappeared. He was ten years her senior, not to mention that fact that she was only fifteen. Oh and then there was the fact that she was the princess. If he did anything, or even just thought about doing something he would be thrown out if not beheaded by the King.

Half way through tearing himself down for having such thoughts about a girl her age, Eric’s fingers brushed over something round on the flat stone wall.

Before he could say anything Terra’s finger found it too. “Every door in these passageways has a small round release that when pressed,” She grabbed his finger and pressed it against the release button, “it opens the door.”

With a small familiar sounding click the door in front of them popped open. She released his hand and stepped to the side. Determined to not look disappointed because she had let go, he followed her off to the side.

Together they pushed the door open to reveal the back of an older tapestry. Terra stepped forward and pulled it to the side. Eric poked his head around the door way to see the princess room laid out before him.

“Tada,” she giggled, fanning her arms out to either side.

“That’s amazing,” he said, sounding more like Capt. Reynolds and less like Eric as he contemplated the ramifications of secret doors like this. “How many rooms do these tunnels lead to?”

“As far as I’ve found every room in the castle is somehow connected to these secret passages,” Terra said, not understanding the sudden switch.

“You might have to teach me about these tunnels sooner rather than later,” Capt. Reynolds remarked looking down to the end of the tunnel he was standing in. “Much sooner.”

“What will you do with that information?” She asked suddenly weary. If the Captain made the existence of the tunnels common knowledge then Terra would have no way to sneak off to watch her sister learn magic.

“I’m not sure yet,” he answered honestly. “But I know that as Captain of the Guard I, at least, should know the ins and outs of these secret passages.”

“Only you?”

“For now at least.”

Terra eyed Capt. Reynolds in a new and unfriendly light.

Sensing a change in the princess Capt. Reynolds turned to her and asked, “Is everything ok?”

“I’m not sure,” she replied using his words.

“Why not?” He asked sounding more like Eric.

“I understand that to you these tunnels and passageways pose some kind of threat, but to me these passages are like my second home. They’re how I get most places. When I go to watch Diana at her lessons, I use these passageways. To avoid my mother and sister when they get in foul moods, I use these passageways. If you map them out and tell everyone about them those days are over. My mother will have them monitored every minute of every day.”

Capt. Reynolds sighed. “I understand your hesitation at having other people know about these tunnels, but you have to see it from my perspective. There is a hidden passageway in this castle that leads to the bedroom of every member of the royal family. It’s a huge safety issue, glaring really. I would be remiss in my duties as Captain of the Guard if I let this be.”

Terra could feel her anger flare up slightly. She had shared a secret with this man who had promised to keep her secrets and now was telling her that he wanted to tell everyone about her main avenue of travel. Taking a deep breath to calm herself she met his gaze.

“Captain,” she said, ignoring when he tried to correct her to Eric, “you told me that you would not share with another soul what you saw this night. If you would like me to show you and only you the way around these tunnels, I would be happy to do so. But if you’re asking me to show you so you can show others and break your word, I simply cannot do that.”

Again the princess appeared to Eric older than her fifteen years. As much as he would have loved to argue with her, she was correct. He had given her his word that nothing he saw this night would ever be shared with another living soul. As much as it pained him to give into a child, he was nothing if not a man of his word.

“Very well Majesty,” Capt. Reynolds said. She didn’t bother to try and correct him. She knew he wasn’t happy with her and there was very little she could do about that now. “I will keep my word and tell no one of these tunnels. So long as you promise to show me all you know of them.”

“I can most certainly do that Captain. Thank you for being a man of your word, even when you don’t want to be.” She said the last part quietly, starting to feel guilty about the Captains obvious displeasure.

Capt. Reynolds placed his fist over his heart and bowed to the princess. “I would bid you goodnight princess, if I knew how to get out of here. Seeing as I can’t be seen leaving your chambers at this hour.”

“Oh! Of . . . of course, Captain,” she stammered. “Keep following this passage. It doesn’t fork anymore. When you get to the end look for the release like I showed you with this door.”

Capt. Reynolds face colored slightly as he remembered the thoughts that had been going through his mind while she’d been searching for that release.

“I’ll keep this door open until I see that you’ve made it safely through the other,” Terra said dropping the tapestry and stepping back over the threshold. Eric had to once again make a hasty retreat to avoid having the princess run head first into him. Taking an extra step back, Capt. Reynolds placed his hand over his heart again and sank into a deep bow before the princess.

“Princess, I bid you goodnight and I thank you for one of the most interesting nights of my life.” He reached out and took Terra’s hand in his. Bowing over it, he lightly pressed his lips to the back of her hand before stepping back through the hidden door and walking down the rest of the tunnel to the wall Terra had told him about.

Knowing what he was looking for, Capt. Reynolds found the release and pressed it. With the same small click the door popped open. He pushed it aside and found himself standing in the middle of the eastern servant’s staircase. Turning around one last time he waved to Terra before she disappeared into her room and he stepped out onto the staircase. He pushed the door closed and headed for the barracks. If he was lucky he might get a few hours of sleep before he had to be up in the morning.

Terra pushed the door closed and laid the tapestry back down. She looked down at her hand where Capt. Reynolds had kissed it. She had never taken much notice of boys before. In truth there weren’t a lot of boys around to take notice of. Diana always seemed to have a small flock of men and boys alike following her around and fawning over her. Terra typically didn’t care enough about the prospect of men to get involved.

But tonight, when Eric had kissed her hand, she had felt something in her stir. It was like he had awoken some part of her that had been sleeping. He had awoken the woman in her.

And it was terrifying.

Diana woke and dressed early the next morning. She sat at her large ornate writing desk and waited. She had lain in bed most of the night musing over how her sister would get back in, or if she would get in at all. That’s what she would have done. She would have spent the night with the captain and slipped back in during the morning rush. All the deliveries for the kitchen were made in the early hours just after dawn. There are so many people coming and going that if kept your head down no one could say for sure who was there.

It certainly wouldn’t have been the first time.

Sitting at her writing table Diana picked up some random book an instructor had given her and leafed through the pages. It was a book about economic trends in the kingdom over the past ten years. Diana stopped on a page and stared blankly at the words printed there. She was more than capable of reading, but the words on the page made no sense to her.

She would be queen one day and when she was she could hire people to know this stuff for her. She had other things to worry about. She had to fight some great mythic battle and save the world. Then rule a whole kingdom. But if she was being honest, and she rarely was, she didn’t really think that fighting this Shadow King sounded like a good idea.

The way the legend is told, once he’s been destroyed all the shadow monsters will disappear from the earth and all the kingdoms will be at peace.

But Diana was starting to wonder if peace was really what she wanted. If all of her teachings were to be believed, then the long waging war between these shadows and the kingdom was a good thing. People were more willing to donate money to the treasury if they knew it was going to defense, there were fewer babies being born since parents were too concerned about the future to want to risk bringing children into this world. There were always enough young men willing to fight and die for the kingdom so long as the war was on and if they wanted they could charge almost anything for food and water saying that they needed more rations for the solders on the front line.

As far as Diana could tell, war was not a bad thing. To think that all of that might change once she fulfills her destiny was a thought that she was beginning to dread more and more. There were times, late at night, when Diana would lay in bed and wonder if maybe there was another way. Maybe she could find some way to fulfill her destiny without having to give so much up. More and more dark thoughts began to dance in her mind.

Shaking her head to clear away such contemplations, Diana turned her attention back to the door. Any moment now her mother would burst in with news about Terra’s torrid affair with the Captain of the Guard. It would be delicious to watch her suffer. She would try to lie to protect Diana, but her mother would know almost instantly if she tried. She would wriggle and writhe under her mother’s terrifying gaze.

Then Diana would step in at the last moment and save poor little sister. She would tell her mother some farce about what was really going on last night and her mother, with her complete blindness to Diana’s true character, would lap up any half-baked lie she came up with. She would save Terra from total ruin and save herself in the process.

She just had to wait.

Terra rolled over and opened her eyes. The sun was streaming gently through her window. She sat up slowly and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. She wasn’t sure what time it was but it must have still been early since Mammy hadn’t come in to wake her for breakfast. Seizing a rare moment alone, Terra slipped off her bed and headed to her writing desk. Making sure no one was around she reached underneath and pulled out a small brown leather book.

Her secret journal.

No one in her family really ever listened to what she had to say. Not her thoughts or hopes or dreams. They didn’t listen to her at all. So she started keeping a journal. It was where she kept all her most secret thoughts. She had always been careful to avoid putting it somewhere it might be found. She didn’t want to think what would happen if her mother or sister happened upon it.

Waving such thoughts away Terra turned back to the book.

She took a quill from the small cup she kept them in and pulled an ink well out of her desk. Being careful not to smudge her words Terra wrote about last night. She wrote about the box her father brought in and then about her and Diana sneaking out. When it came to the part about Capt. Reynolds, she hesitated. She wasn’t really sure what to say. She wrote about him coming down the stairs and offering to walk with her outside. Then she wrote about how he hadn’t been fooled at all by her lie but was understanding and promised to keep her secret. She wrote about using magic at the door and showing the Captain the tunnels. But when it came to their parting, she wasn’t sure how to put in words what it felt like to have a man treat her like a woman.

Blushing at the thought of it Terra closed her journal and slipped it back under the desk. She felt foolish getting so worked up over nothing. To be fair, she was becoming a young woman now. It was only natural for her to have feelings like this right?

Deciding such thoughts were best left for later, she turned to her wardrobe. Not sure why, she wanted to look more like a woman today and less like a little girl. Going through all the dresses she had, she knew nothing would suite her. Sighing she decide it was a foolish thought anyway and pulled out a pale pink dress her sister had given her a few years ago. Terra hated the way the color looked on her. It washed her face out and made her look sickly. Sometimes Diana would insist that she wore it.

A knock on the door drew her attention from her pressing wardrobe options.

“Coming,” she called as she picked her dressing robe up off the chair and threw it around her shoulders.

Before she could get to the door it cracked open slightly and Mammy’s face popped in. “Up already?” She asked sweetly.

“Yes,” she said returning the smile. “Just looking for something to wear today.”

‘You don’t look too happy about that,” Mammy observed, her keen eyes taking everything in.

“I suppose not,” Terra answered glumly. Not wanting to complain she turned back to the pink dress.

“Well what are you looking for?” Mammy asked as she wondered around the room making sure everything was clean and put away.

“Something more . . . womanly I guess?” She said, a little uncomfortable.

“Womanly?” Mammy quietly thought for a moment. It was still several weeks from Terra’s birthday, but she was looking down and it always pained Mammy to see her that way.

“Hold on a moment child,” she said. She walked out of the room and down the hall to her own chambers. The room was small and humble but she preferred things that way. Reaching under her bed she pulled out a large white box. There was a small card attached to the front with the words ‘Happy Birthday Princess’. It was meant to be a gift for her sixteenth birthday, but at least this way Mammy could find out if it fit well or not.

She smiled at the thought of how grown her little princess would look and gathering the box, headed back to her room.

“What’s that Mammy?” Terra asked, watching her walk through the door with the large box. “Do you need any help?”

“No I’m alright. Come here, I want you to open this.”

Laying the box carefully on the bed Mammy stepped back and let Terra get a good look at it. With nervous fingers the princess carefully pulled the card off first. She read slowly, smiling at the time and love that had obviously been put into the card.

“Thank you Mammy,” she said smiling.

“Don’t thank me yet child!” She exclaimed with a laugh, “open the box and then thank me.”

“Right!” Terra said with a nod. Grabbing the box by both ends she carefully lifted the lid away. Inside nestled on top of beautiful purple paper was the most amazing dress Terra had ever seen. It was deep green with velvet and fine silks. Across the bust line and down the sleeves there were accents of purple. It was cut in the latest fashions and it was cut for a woman, not a girl.

With overly cautions hands Terra pulled the dress out of the box. It had a dark green corset, accented in a lovely deep purple. The sleeves were fitted at the top but flared out with beautiful green silk toward the bottom. It had a square neck line that would make even her small growing breasts look fuller. The skirt itself was a long full silk skirt that looked like it would be light as air to wear.

“Mammy . . .” she gasped breathless. “Mammy this can’t be for me?”

“Of course it is. You deserve a dress that will show the world how beautiful you are on your birthday. You’re going to be a young lady now.”

“Mammy my birthday isn’t for weeks still.”

“Well an early birthday present never hurt anyone. Come now; let’s try it on before the bells sound for breakfast.”

Less than ten minutes later the bells sounded as a call for breakfast. Terra stood in front of her large looking glass, hardly able to recognize herself. Mammy had put her in the dress and laced the corset tight, making her waist look slim her hips look wide. Then she had taken all her hair and pilled on her head in a loose plait. Then with careful dexterous fingers Mammy had pulled out several small ringlets to frame her face. She looked beautiful. She looked like a woman.

“You look so much like your mother,” Mammy said, a tear welling up in her eyes.

“Mammy don’t cry!” Terra exclaimed, turning away from the looking glass. “I’m sorry I can take the dress off.”

“It’s not that dear,” she explained, “it’s just that you’re all grown up now.”

Before Terra could respond the sound of her door being opened pulled her attention. Standing, open mouthed in the door way was Diana.

For a moment the sight of her sister looking like an actual adult was more than Diana could process. Terra was supposed to be in a slump on the floor crying because she’d been caught going in through the front door last night.

Instead Diana finds her standing in a new dress looking like a . . . like a woman and not at all like her little sister. That’s not even mentioning the dress! It was beautiful; it was almost as beautiful as her dresses. Terra had never been allowed to have anything remotely as nice as Diana’s. The princess was unsure what to be the most angry about.

“Diana!” Terra exclaimed happy to see her older sister. “Can you believe this dress?! Mammy got it for me for my birthday!” She ran over to her sister, pleased at how lightweight the dress was. She spun around once, letting the skirt lift and flow before she got to her sister.

“It’s nice,” Diana said offhandedly. Not willing to give her sister the satisfaction of knowing how envious she was. “Hey we need to talk about last night,” she added under her breath as her sister approached.

“Oh . . . of course,” Terra asked, “When . . . ?”

“I’ll walk with you to breakfast. Why don’t you get going now, I’ll catch up in just a minute.”

“Are you sure?” She asked, not sure if she was done with Mammy or not.

“You go dear,” Mammy said waving her on, “I have a few more things to take care of here.”

“R . . . Right,” she said. She hesitated for a moment more, knowing there was some kind of tension between Mammy and Diana. But not wanting to step out of line she slipped passed her sister and down the hall.

Once Terra was gone Diana stepped inside and kicked the door closed behind her. Mammy regarded the eldest princess under half closed lids. She and Diana had never seen eye to eye. Ever since she was three and demanded she call her ‘Your Royal Highness’ as opposed to ‘baby’ or ‘child’. Mammy wasn’t blessed with any kind of magical abilities or psychic powers, but even she could sense that there was something wrong with the child.

There was darkness in her. It was small at first, but it’s grown as she has. Mammy had grown steadily more uneasy about the Princess as time has gone by. But not wanting to stick her neck out and risk leaving Terra alone, she’s kept quiet. Soon things would change. She was sure of that.

“So old woman,” Diana said disrespect plain on her face. “Where did you get the money for such a fine dress? I would hate to think that you’ve stolen from my family and from your kingdom.” Diana strolled past Mammy and leaned against Terra’s smaller, plainer writing desk. She picked up a quill that was lying on its side and noted that the ink on the bottom was still wet. Terra had been writing this morning. But writing what?

“I bought that dress with the gold I’ve been saving for a while now. I wanted to get your sister something nice for her birthday.” Mammy continued to circle Terra’s room, gathering up her clothes to be sent to the laundress and checking the fireplace to make sure the young princess had enough wood for the night.

“Well,” Diana said, tossing the quill back on the desk, “it appears we’ve been paying you too much old hag, if you can afford something as nice as that. Perhaps I should speak with my mother about a cut in your pay.”

“Well you do what you have to do Highness, I’m sure I’ll get along just fine either way.” Mammy put the last of the clothes into the basket for the laundress and then started for the door. She didn’t look at or acknowledge in any way the princess as she passed.

“I’ll be sure to talk with my mother about your pay,” Diana called after her, starting to feel her temper rise as the old woman walked passed her without so much as a bow or nod. “I’m sure she’ll be happy to have the extra money in the treasury!”

Mammy had reached the door and walked out without as much as a backward glance at Diana. “I’m sure your mother knows best,” she called as she pulled the door closed behind her. Diana screamed in rage at the disrespect she was being shown. She grabbed the inkwell of the table and threw it as hard as she could at the closed door.

The glass well hit the metal of the door and shattered, raining ink down on the dark wooden floor below. She screamed again and this time threw the quill, which floated through the air and stuck her in the breast, staining her lovely white dress with black ink.

Diana screamed again and stormed from the room. Knowing she would have to change again before breakfast.

Terra stood patiently waiting at the top of the stairs for her sister. This was where she and Diana always met before breakfast. She couldn’t wait to walk into the grand dining hall and show everyone her new dress. She knew she would feel better with her sister at her side but she wasn’t sure how much longer she could wait. Mother always got so angry when she was late. After another moment, she decided she couldn’t delay any longer and started down the stairs.

“Princess?”

Terra looked up to see Capt. Reynolds standing at the bottom of the stairs. His hand was resting on the same banister she was planning to use to help her down the stairs. Her new dress was light but it was also a lot more fabric than she was used to wearing.

Capt. Reynolds had just finished checking on the new prisoner and was on his way up the main staircase to report to the King when he came around the corner and saw the princess standing on the second floor landing.

The sight of her was breathtaking.

It might have been the dress she was wearing, or the fact that she was now wearing her hair up like all the young women do. But looking at her now Capt. Reynolds had to once again remind himself that she was only fifteen.

“Captain,” she said genuinely surprised to see him so soon after their parting. “It’s so good to see you again. How are you this morning?” She was coming down the stairs carefully and closing the gap between them.

“I’m doing well Majesty. Yourself? Did you sleep well?” He asked once Terra stood before him.

“I did,” she replied with a smile at their secret meaning. “What about you? I know the duties of a Captain of the Guard start early do they not?”

“They do,” he said, his smile widening. “Sadly I found when I was returned to my chambers that sleep was harder to find than I thought.”

“Oh,” she blushed, elated and concerned. “However will you mange?”

“I think I’ll find some way to get through.”

Terra could sense a deeper meaning to what the Captain was saying, but being so inexperienced she had no idea what that deeper meaning was. Still, she couldn’t help the smile that spread across her face as she stood close to Capt. Reynolds, openly talking about their secret.

“Do you like my dress?” She asked, unsure of what to say next. She picked up a handful of material in each hand and spun slowly so he could see the whole dress.

“Is it new?” he asked, trying desperately to keep his eyes on her face.

“I got it just today,” she answered, pleased he’d noticed that it was new.

“It’s lovely, and you are quite beautiful in it.”

Terra colored from the base of her neck to the roots of her dark hair. “T . . . Thank you,” she stammered.

“Captain,” a voice called from the stairs above them. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

Terra turned to see her father standing on the landing of the fifth floor. He was eying Terra suspiciously until she turned to face him.

“Father,” she said, sinking into a curtsy.

“Majesty,” Capt. Reynolds said placing his fist over his heart and bowing deeply.

“You may rise,” King Sol said as he came to stand next to his daughter. “Tell me Terra, where ever did you get this dress? You look all grown up.”

“Thank you father,” she said smiling. “Mammy got it for me for my birthday and was kind enough to let me have it early. Do you like it?”

“I do,” the King said, feeling a lump in his throat at the thought of his baby all grown up. It seemed not that long ago that she was toddling after him in her mother’s garden, still in swaddling clothes. To see her now so grown and mature, it warmed his heart. He knew his oldest daughter Diana was the princess of the prophecy and for that she took precedence in all things. But his youngest, his little Terra, always held a special place in his heart.

“Thank you Father,” she said throwing her arms around him. She knew he wasn’t prone to public displays of affection, but it was just the three of them there.

King Sol gave his daughter a quick hug and then turned to address the Captain. “Reynolds,” he said dropping his title as a show of familiarity. “It seems I must escort this lovely young lady to breakfast. Will you meet me in the war room in an hour?”

“Yes of course Your Majesty. I’ll wait for you there. Princess,” he said bowing to Terra before making his way up the stairs.

“Captain,” she replied as he rushed passed.

“Shall we go dine together my daughter?” King Sol asked, offering his daughter his arm.

“We shall,” she said with mock snobbery.

By the time Diana managed to get down to breakfast her family was already dining. Her mother shot her a displeased look under her lashes but didn’t say anything. Diana took her seat next to the Queen and looked around for Terra. She wondered for a moment if perhaps the fool was dumb enough to actually wait for her this long. Diana has slipped down the servants stairs in order to save time. It wouldn’t surprise her at all to find that simpleton still waiting for her.

“Good morning mother,” she said, bowing her head slightly to the Queen. “How does this fine morning find you?”

“On time,” her mother said coldly. “Unlike some other members of this family.”

“I’m sorry mother,” Diana said, mock sorrow in her voice, “I’d gone off to find Terra. The silly girl has disappeared and I didn’t want her to be late for breakfast. Sadly I couldn’t find her. I think she simply doesn’t care enough about this family to make an appearance in the morning.” She turned her face away so her mother would think she was feeling actual regret at not being able to find her sister. Secretly Diana smiled. Saying this would take all the heat off her and shift it to Terra.

“Your sister is seated next to your father today,” Queen Elise said without looking up from her plate. “She arrived with your father looking quite lovely in a new dress. Apparently it was a birthday gift from Mammy. All the excitement of a new dress and she still managed to get here on time. Imagine that.”

Diana sat forward suddenly and looked to the center table where her father sat. She had been so concerned with her mother when she first came in that she didn’t even notice Terra sitting at their fathers right side eating. That seat was reserved for visiting dignitaries and other high ranking members of the kingdom. To see her sister sitting there was nothing less than a slap in the face.

“Mother you can’t be serious?!” She all but shouted. “This is outrageous!”

“Lower your voice,” her mother said under her breath. “People are beginning to stare.”

“But mother! Terra sitting in such a place of honor! It’s an insult.”

“It would appear your father feels differently,” The Queen said, “and he is the King so we will obey his rule.”

Diana was about to say more but the look from her mother silenced her. She threw herself down into her chair and folded her arms. She refused to eat while her younger sister sat in higher honor than herself. She was the oldest! She was the princess the prophecy had foretold would come and save the world! How dare Terra try to place herself above her sister!

Terra looked up from the conversation she was having with her Father about the newest lessons she’d learned about the kingdoms economic boom to see her sister sitting with her arms crossed next to their mother. Smiling, she waved at Diana, thrilled to be sitting on her father’s right hand side. She was sure Diana would also be thrilled at her sister’s luck.

When Diana looked up it wasn’t joy that was on her face. In fact the look on her sister’s face chilled her to the bone. There was rage and maybe even hate in her eyes. More than that, there might have been actual loathing in those sky blue eyes of hers.

Terra dropped her hand and sat back against the high backed ornate chair. Her appetite gone, she contented herself with having a nice conversation with her father and a few of the other nobles at her father’s right side. She talked and laughed like a good princess should. However, unlike a good princess, she shared her opinions on the economic boom and how she thought it could be extended even after Diana completed her destiny.

Most of the nobles laughed off her suggestions, but a few seemed genuinely interested in what she had to say. When they expressed this interest to the King he beamed with pride. He had never had a son, but he had known that his daughter would be the one the prophecy spoke of. It warmed his heart to know that his youngest child was making such an effort to learn how the Kingdom was run.

As soon as Terra could sense that breakfast was winding to a close she thanked her father for the honor of sitting next to him and then excused herself. She could tell that Diana was still seething with rage and the last thing she wanted was to get caught by her after breakfast. She curtsied to her father and mother and then slipped out the doors leading to the main hall.

She wandered down the hall, unsure of where to go. If she went to any of her usual hiding places Diana would find her in less than a second. She needed to go somewhere her sister wouldn’t think to look for her. Somewhere she never went.

As she continued on her way down the hall Terra was struck by a thought. She could go with her father to the war room. She didn’t have much of a stomach for war or killing or blood, so she avoided the room where her father and his captains and generals met to discuss such things. She could go and tell her father that she wanted to learn more about that particular aspect of the kingdom.

That could work.

Diana would never think to look for her in a place she had, up until then, actively avoided.

She just had to find where the new war room was.

Her father had renovated the west wing just over a year ago and had moved his war room to the first floor. Terra had never concerned herself with seeing the new location since it didn’t matter much to her. But if she stayed to the west wing she would find it.

She tried several doors in the west wing before she found one that lead to a hallway she’d never seen before. Figuring this had to be the part of the castle that was renovated, Terra stepped through the large ornate door and pulled it closed tightly behind her.

Inside the corridor was lined with a thick blood red rug that ran the distance of the hall. Along the walls intermittently placed were suits of armor. Some were polished and new, sporting the latest styles. Others were older and battle worn. Some were dented in places and a few had large long scratches running the length of them.

Between the armor and the doors were paintings and tapestries. Most depicted famous scenes from battles long ago. A few of them Terra recognized from the stories and songs she had heard since childhood. Others were unfamiliar to her. All were bloody and terrible, showing huge losses of life on either side. It made her stomach turn just look at some.

There were only a handful of doors on either side of the hall and one large set of metal doors at the end. Unsure what door would lead to the war room, Terra decided to try them all.

As she approached the first door on the right she froze.

There was something very strange going on, something that felt like a second heartbeat in her chest. Before she knew what she was doing, the unfamiliar beating her chest had pulled her to the large metal doors. There was a strange kind of keyhole in the door. It didn’t look like anything she had ever seen before. Fearing that it may be locked, she reached up pulled the large handle.

For a moment the door stuck, unmoving. Then, slowly and with great effort on Terra’s part, the door started to push open. It was heavy but also quite new, the hinges opened up with very little sound. She pushed against the door opening it just enough to squeeze through. Once on the other side she pushed the door closed again.

She found herself standing at the top of a flight of stone stairs. They were wide cut and new enough to still look rough. They spiraled down to an unknown location below the first floor. As far as she knew the castle didn’t have a basement, at least not one this far to the west. Without much other thought, she began to descend the stairs.

“Ok Terra,” she said to herself as she started down. “There’s nothing creepy about this. Just a long dark stairway leading to a basement I didn’t think we had.” She tried to laugh at how crazy she sounded walking down stairs talking to herself. But that did little to ease the growing fear in the pit of her stomach.

As she wound round the spiral stairs she began to wonder more and more what was pulling her down. It felt like she had a second heart beating in time with her own. The further down she went the stronger she felt it. Like a rope tied to her heart, it pulled her on.

Just before she reached the bottom the stairway opened up to a large room filled with over a hundred magelight torches. Most were dark, but enough were lit that the light in the room resembled the light midday. Across the room of torches was another set of double doors. These were wooden and completely plain. The only thing that stood out about this set was the large beams being used to reinforce them.

As Terra walked closer she noticed two chairs and a small round table sitting by one of the walls. There was a rack of swords next to table with two missing from it. She glanced around but didn’t see anyone. Unless there was a way out through the doors ahead of her, she didn’t see another way in or out of this room beside the stairs she’d just come down.

Aside from the alarming amount of magelight torches on the wall, there was something about this room that was very unsettling. It was like the room was created for something sinister. It was as if the room itself knew that it was created for evil so that’s what it emanated.

Terra stopped walking and looked back at the stairs longingly. She was standing in the middle of the room now and was starting to seriously reconsider her decision to come down here. She had wanted to get away from Diana but this might have been a bit extreme.

Still . . . there was something beyond those wooden doors that was calling to her. Not just to her, but it was calling to her heart. She had to go on, if nothing else than to satisfy her curiosity. She’d never felt anything like this before and she didn’t know if she could go on not knowing what it was.

“I can do this,” she said to herself. “I can do this.” Mustering up all the courage she had, Terra continued on.

She reached the door and found the large bar lifted out of its cradle already. All she had to do was push the door open.

So she did.

What happened then changed her life forever.


Continue Reading Next Chapter

About Us:

Inkitt is the world’s first reader-powered book publisher, offering an online community for talented authors and book lovers. Write captivating stories, read enchanting novels, and we’ll publish the books you love the most based on crowd wisdom.