To my surprise, color rose to Ethan’s cheeks, Finn’s rebuke taking root. He wasn’t usually one to take criticism gracefully.
“Sorry,” he mumbled. “You’re right. It won’t happen again. But you might want to give Keane the same reminder.”
Finn made a sound somewhere between a snort and a laugh. “Don’t worry, I will. Now why don’t you get yourself something to eat before we hit the road again?”
Ethan gave me a quick sidelong glance that said he’d rather stay here with me and pick up where we’d left off. But I was pretty annoyed at him and Keane both, so instead of speaking to him, I polished the apple Keane had given me and took a bite. Ethan took the hint and went off in search of food.
Getting back on Phaedra was even worse than I’d anticipated. I felt like an arthritic little old lady as I hauled myself into the saddle, my legs and butt screaming in protest. No one else seemed to be having as much trouble, not even Kimber, who I doubted had much more experience riding horses than I did. But then, she was a full-blooded Fae, and they had lots of physical advantages. I suppose being half Fae myself, I was better off than if I’d been a mere mortal, but that didn’t make the misery of the saddle any more fun.
As soon as we were all mounted up and on our way, magic prickled the air again, and the trees and bushes started moving back to their original positions. I bet by the time we’d been gone ten minutes, there would be no sign of the “clearing” we’d just spent the last hour in. Creepy!
We rode for the rest of the day, a steady, boring procession along the road. There was still nothing but forest, though when I asked, my dad assured me that there was more to Faerie than this. Occasionally, we’d run across some other Fae traveling the same road, but we saw only Sidhe—the most humanlike of the Fae.
We traveled for what felt like about twenty days, though my watch insisted it was about six more hours, before the caravan suddenly veered off the main road, following an even narrower dirt road that was so artfully camouflaged I probably wouldn’t have spotted it if the caravan hadn’t turned off. We followed the narrower road for maybe a mile or two until we came to a wall of greenery that was obviously man-made. Squinting at the wall, I could discern the trunks of individual trees, planted so closely together that their branches intertwined from ground level all the way to their flattened tops.
The road continued on through an arched opening in the wall. When Phaedra and I passed through the opening, I felt the distinctive prickle of magic against my skin. I suspected it was some kind of barrier spell that the prince had overridden. I hoped that meant we were nearing our stopping point for the night, and my hopes were confirmed when the forest widened into a massive clearing. In the middle of the clearing towered a building that at first glance looked like a humongous dirt hill, until I noticed the evenly spaced rectangular windows. I blinked, and then I made out a number of outbuildings dotting the edges of the clearing. Artfully placed greenery made the buildings practically disappear into the surrounding forest.
A handful of plainly dressed Fae hurried out of one of those outbuildings, one of them sprinting for the main house while the others converged on the pair of Knights at the front of our procession. I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying, but I could tell from the body language that (a) we weren’t expected, (b) Prince Henry didn’t care, and (c) saying no to royalty came under the heading of Things Not Done in Faerie.
People began dismounting, and Henry started barking orders as servants bustled around, hauling crates out of some of the baggage wagons and unharnessing horses.
The servant who’d run for the main house soon emerged, a harried-looking couple hard on his heels. They were both much better dressed than the servants, and they carried themselves with the self-important dignity of the wealthy and powerful despite their obvious dismay at finding the prince with several dozen of his closest friends parked in their front yard.
I hadn’t noticed my father dismounting, but he came up beside me and patted Phaedra’s neck.
“I know you’d rather spend the night on Phaedra’s back,” he said to me with a hint of a smile, “but you might as well get down. It appears Henry has other plans for us.”
I was more than happy to get down, though every movement of my body caused shooting pains in my legs and butt. I held on tightly to the saddle as I slid off and had to suppress a groan of mingled misery and relief.
“The people who live here don’t seem happy to see us,” I murmured as I swayed on my feet, tempted to just curl up on the ground and go to sleep because that would save me the trouble of having to walk. The couple who’d come out of the house to greet Henry were both smiling, but there was a hint of a manic gleam in their eyes that made the smiles false.
Dad made a sound that was half snort, half laugh. “They’ll be expected to feed and house everyone in our party, whether they’re prepared for us or not. It’s considered an honor to host the prince and his entourage, but it’s a damned expensive nuisance, too.”
“And they’re not allowed to say no, right?”
“Right,” Dad confirmed as servants came to commandeer our horses and lead them toward one of the outbuildings, which was apparently a stable.
The prince’s servants were all frantically busy, and the Knights were still visibly on duty, keeping a careful eye on their liege. A couple of the servants were directing the more aristocratic of Henry’s entourage toward the main house, where I gathered they would be given lodgings. By the time one of those servants reached us, Ethan, Keane, and Kimber had joined us. In the distance, I saw Finn leading his horse toward the barn, and it burned me that he was considered to be of lower class than people like my father. I know humans have a class system, too, but the Fae take it to a whole different level.