“Thank you, Daddy,” said the Princess. “You’ve brought him to me to be punished.”
“Now, now, We’ve spoken to you about this before,” said the King. “You can’t go around putting a price on the head of everyone who annoys you. We wouldn’t have anyone left in the kingdom to rule over.”
She came stomping across the room. “This isn’t like the other times. Injuring a member of the royal family is a capital offence. Isn’t that right, Semion?”
Semion nodded. “Yes, Your Highness, it is. Have you been injured by this young man?”
“Yes!” proclaimed the Princess. “He hurt my feelings.”
“Ah,” said Semion, “I’m afraid that doesn’t—”
“And, he threatened me.”
“Oh,” said Semion, looking at me. I tried to claim my innocence by rapidly shaking my head at him. “That is quite a serious charge. What did he threaten you with?”
“He said he would ask Daddy for my hand in marriage.”
The King spread his arms wide. “Laney, please, that’s hardly a crime. Most girls would be flattered.”
“Well, I’m not. Once he makes me his wife, he plans to do unspeakable things to me.”
“Unspeakable things?” said the King. “What do you mean?”
“I can’t tell you, otherwise they wouldn’t be unspeakable, would they?”
I breathed a sigh of relief. I really didn’t want her reeling off a list of sordid acts she’d pulled from her deranged fantasies.
“That’s why I’ve written them all down.” She pulled out a scroll and unfurled it. The parchment reached down to her knees and was covered in scratchy writing. How long had she taken to come up with all that? She handed it to Semion.
He took it from her and read the first few lines, and then recoiled in horror. “Your Highness, where did you even learn these words? This is disgusting.”
“I know, right?” She seemed pleased he agreed with her. “That’s why he has to be locked up.”
“However,” continued Semion, “if he were to perform these acts with you after you were married, they wouldn’t be illegal.”
“What? Are you saying married people actually do those things?”
“Well, only if they’re very flexible, but the point is we can’t arrest a man based on what he might do in the future, especially if it isn’t actually a crime.”
“Could I say something?” I felt it was time to put an end to this discussion. “I didn’t actually say I was going to ask for the Princess’s hand in marriage. I asked Commander Ducane if it was possible to ask the King for such a reward, but I said to marry a princess, I didn’t mention anyone by name.”
“Yes, but we all know you meant me. I am the best-looking princess in the kingdom.” She pointed at herself. “Obviously you would want to get your depraved hands on some of this. You pervert!”
“We don’t think that is the case,” said the King. “Colin here has just asked for Our favour, and he did not ask for your hand.”
This caught the Princess by surprise. “He didn’t? What did he ask for?”
“Some land,” said the King, “so he could build a cabin and do an extraordinary amount of fishing.”
The Princess turned her face towards me and glared. “Why? Why wouldn’t you ask for my hand if you could? What’s wrong with me?” Her voice was much quieter than before, and much more unnerving in its intensity.
“Nothing,” I said. “You’re just not my type.” I thought this would be a fairly acceptable answer. It’s not like people expect you to explain your tastes. Not sane people, anyway.
“Do you think I’m stupid?” screamed the Princess. “Tell me exactly what you find unattractive about me. Now!”
Both the King and Semion were vigorously shaking their heads at me.
“It’s not that you aren’t attractive,” I said, “it’s just that you’re too young for me. That’s all.”
She narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips. “Are you some kind of idiot? We’re not savages who marry off children. Obviously we’d have to wait for my fourteenth birthday. That’s what engagements are for. But you clearly have other issues with me and I want to know what they are.” And then, in the blink of an eye, the craziness disappeared and she seemed a serious, concerned young woman. “Look, I know what people think of me. The wild child who creates chaos wherever she goes. I don’t have any friends, no one to turn to or tell my troubles. You think I want to be like this? But how am I supposed to improve as a person if no one ever tells me what I’m doing wrong? My position makes it impossible for them, but you’re different. You like insulting people. So tell me.”
She spoke with sincerity and heartfelt emotion. I didn’t buy it for a second.
“You’re right, I do have a problem with you. Many problems. Your faults are endless. But I know if I tell you, you’ll just get mad and probably have me assassinated. There’s no upside for me, so you’ll have to find another way towards self-improvement.”
“That’s fair. I can see why you would doubt me. But I give you my word, if you honestly and openly speak the truth to me, that I, Princess Laney of the House of Randall, will not harm you in any way. And if I break my word, I will give you ownership of my horse, Durbin, who I treasure above all other things. You have the King and his Chancellor as witnesses to this promise.”
“It is true,” said the King, “that her horse means more to her than anything.” He leaned towards me and whispered out of the side of his mouth. “Don’t do it, it’s a trap.”
“I can also attest that the Princess would never doing anything to risk losing her precious steed,” said Semion. He leaned closer on my other side. “It’s definitely a trap, back out now.”
I had no doubt she wasn’t to be trusted. Just because she didn’t intend to harm me herself didn’t mean she couldn’t get someone else to do it. Or she could just be lying. It’s not like she’d be able to give me her horse if I was dead.
“You’re not a very nice person, Laney. You’re mean and you’re cruel and you treat people badly. And your sense of fashion makes me jealous of blind people.”
The King placed a hand over his eyes and shook his head. Semion took a step away from me.
“Yes, yes.” Laney folded her arms and nodded. “Carry on.”
“But your main problem is that you have no sense of humour.” I raised a hand to stop the objection forming on her lips. “No, wait, just because you laugh at others doesn’t mean you have a sense of humour. You also have to be able to laugh at yourself. And you take yourself way too seriously.”
“I see. Thank y—”
“In fact, I’d say the reason for your deeply unpleasant behaviour is not because you’re a bad person, it’s probably more likely that you’re just scared. Scared of what people think of you. Scared of not being good enough. So scared, you scream and shout and wear ridiculous outfits to try and distract everyone from seeing the real you.”
“Well, okay, I think you’ve made your—”
“Your behaviour is childish and you need to grow up, but you refuse. That’s why it doesn’t matter how long an engagement we might have, I doubt you’ll ever be anything other than a big baby.”
I had tried my best to goad her into hitting me—a bloody nose would be worth it to make her break her promise and give me the upper hand—but Princess Laney didn’t look upset. Her face was serene, her eyes were thoughtful and her mouth was relaxed. “Thank you for being honest and telling me these things to my face. I am very grateful to you.” She turned to her father and said very calmly, “I’d like you to execute him.”
“Hey, hey,” I said. “I thought you weren’t going to harm me.”
“I said I wouldn’t and I won’t. My father made no such promise.”
“No, not allowed,” I said. “Referee! Foul play! That’s not how it works. If you get someone else to do your dirty work for you, you’re still responsible. Right?” I looked at the King. The King looked at Semion.
“Ah, yes,” said Semion. “Technically speaking, any attempt to coerce others to cause harm to Colin constitutes the breaking of your promise.”
She turned to the King. “Daddy, you’re supposed to be on my side.” She pointed at me. “Order him to be taken to the dungeons.”
“Now, Laney, you know we don’t have any dungeons. And the City Jail is quite full enough as it is. This isn’t one of your storybooks, this is the real world, and here you have to keep your word or people will lose faith in you.”
“I’ll take the horse to go, thanks,” I said.
“What? Why? I didn’t do anything to you.”
“No, but you tried. Just because you didn’t succeed doesn’t mean you did nothing wrong. I have witnesses, remember? The horse is mine.”
The Princess looked from the King to Semion and then back to me. Her eyes were widening into their manic phase. I took a step back in anticipation of the imminent explosion. She grabbed her hair on either side of her head and screamed. And then charged at me. Just as she was about to grab me by the neck, I said, “Touch me and you’ll only confirm your broken promise.”
She stopped with her fingers millimeters from my throat. She bared her teeth and hissed at me, but came no closer. Then she collapsed to the ground and started beating the floor with her fists.
The sound of her wailing echoed around the vast room. I didn’t really know how to handle a teenager having a tantrum. I looked at Semion for assistance, but he’d suddenly become interested in something on the far wall. The King wasn’t much help ether, he just gave me an embarrassed smile and put his hands behind his back as if to say, you first. Even the demon-masked soldier closest to us seemed to give me a shrug.
“You know,” I said, “I don’t really want your horse.”
She stopped pounding and looked up at me, her face streaked with tears.
“The truth is, I don’t even know how to ride. So, I’ll let you have the horse back in exchange for three requests.”
“What kind of requests?” she asked suspiciously. Her eyes drifted over to the scroll she had given Semion, which he still held in his hand.
I followed her gaze and when I realised where it had landed, I threw up my hands. “No...Don’t even… It won’t be anything on your list, I can promise you that. In fact, Semion, please destroy that piece of paper.”
“Gladly,” said Semion.
“The first thing I want you to do is have all the posters of me taken down, immediately.”
She nodded. She seemed somewhat placated, but I still felt like she was thinking of ways to have me dealt with. “All right. What’s the second thing?”
“I haven’t decided yet. But as an insurance measure, if I do happen to meet an untimely death, the horse is to be killed.”
Her mouth fell open. “How is that fair? You could die any time with me having nothing to do with it.”
“True, but those are my conditions. Lose the horse or tie its fate to mine. Your choice.”
“Fine," she said bitterly. “Anything else?”
“No, that’s it for now. Although I was wondering…” I turned to the King. “Do you have a library here?”
“Certainly,” said the King. “One of the finest.”
“Do you think I could have a look?”
“Yes, We think that would be no problem. Laney, why don’t you show your friend the library.”
“He isn’t my friend,” she said, practically spitting the words. She looked at me. “Is this one of your requests?”
“No,” said the King, “this is a request from your king. It’s the least you can do after what you put this young man through. Now, Semion, are we done for the day.”
“Actually, there is one more group waiting to see you,” said Semion.
“Really? We were starting to get a little peckish. Have they been waiting long?”
“Since this morning, my liege.”
“Well, I’m sure they won’t mind waiting till after lunch.” He set off towards a side door, which one of the giant guards suddenly ran to—odd seeing such a big hulk skipping along like that—and opened. “Laney, do your duty,” he called out over his shoulder before exiting.
“Yes Daddy,” said the sullen Princess. She stood up and sneered at me. “Follow me.” She marched out of the door at the back of the room with me trotting to catch up
“This library, does it have any books about magic?”
She stopped and looked at me like I was the biggest idiot in the world. “Well, obviously. What else would books be about?”
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