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Glass Slipper Scandal

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Glass Slipper Scandal

Castle Charming #1

Tansy Rayner Roberts

Contents

Copyright

1. CASTLE CHARMING AFLUTTER FOR AUTUMNAL FLING! (WHO WILL MARRY OUR PRINCES GONE WILD?)

2. ENTER THE DOGHOUSE

3. SMASHING PRINCESSES PARADE IN PUMPKINS! THE INSIDE STORY

4. REPORTING LIVE FROM CASTLE CHARMING

5. THE CARE AND MAINTENANCE OF PRINCESS HAIR

6. DRUNK PRINCE IN GAZEBO SHOCK!

7. BREAKFAST OF QUILLS

8. LIVING THE FAIRY TALE

9. WHO IS THE MIDNIGHT PRINCESS? YOUR MOST POPULAR GUESSES, INSIDE

10. THE FIRST RULE OF GLASS SLIPPERS IS YOU DON’T TALK ABOUT GLASS SLIPPERS

11. PROWLING WITH HOUNDS

12. SPITTING WITH PRINCESSES

13. HUNTING WITH QUILLS

14. MIDNIGHT PRINCESS EXPOSED!

15. FAIRY GODMOTHERS FIGHT DIRTY

16. A RIGHT ROYAL TEA PARTY

17. LET SLEEPING QUEENS LIE

18. TOMORROW’S HEADLINES

19. WAR AVERTED: CRUMPETS IMPLICATED

20. MIDNIGHT PRINCESS REVEALS ALL

Coming soon: Dance, Princes, Dance

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Fake Geek Girl

Also by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Copyright © 2016 by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Cover art © 2017 by Katy Shuttleworth

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Originally published as a serial on the Sheep Might Fly podcast.

ISBN: 978-0-9953651-1-7

Created with Vellum

One

CASTLE CHARMING AFLUTTER FOR AUTUMNAL FLING! (WHO WILL MARRY OUR PRINCES GONE WILD?)

“The best thing about magical ink,” said Amira, “is that it smells different to everyone. They say that if you ever find a person who smells the same thing that you do in the ink, that person is your soulmate.”

Kai craned his neck around the Charming Herald printer room, taking in the swoops of paper overhead, the scratching of quills, the splashes of black ink in courier font, all crashing together in mid-air to make the news and gossip of the day into a tangible, readable object.

He had always had an affinity to ink, something deep and primal that bubbled under his skin, but he had never given any thought to what it smelled like. He inhaled, and caught a scent of wet feathers with a touch of vanilla, along with the raw weave of the paper itself. “That’s not actually true, is it?” he asked.

Amira laughed at him. “Sure it’s true. Also, if you sleep with a violet under your bed, you’ll dream of your best love, and if you find a stray glass slipper on a staircase, you should either marry or murder its owner within 24 hours.”

Kai blinked up at the grand floating wheels of paper, and the day’s headline – CASTLE CHARMING AFLUTTER FOR AUTUMNAL FLING! It made a change, at least, from the variations on PRINCES BEHAVING BADLY that had dominated the Herald’s front page over the summer. “You don’t actually believe all of that gossip bullshit the paper publishes about the royal family?”

“Hey,” said Amira. “I write the horoscopes. You’d be amazed the level of bullshit I can stomach on a daily basis.”

“So what does magical ink smell like to you?” he ventured. He had been here a few hours, and she was the only one who thought he was worth talking to. It was a good idea to get a measure of what kind of person she was.

Amira turned her pretty, round face up to his. Possibly she was flirting. It was hard to tell, with girls. “Vanilla and wet feathers,” she breathed.

Kai hesitated, not sure whether to be horrified or suspicious. As ever, his default was awkward.

Amira fell apart in a heap of giggles. “Oh, Kai. The look on your face!”

“I can’t help my face.”

“You totally fell for it.”

“I didn’t fall for anything, you were super obvious.” He couldn’t help grinning, though. A prankster. He’d much rather work alongside a prankster than a flirt. “Everyone smells vanilla and wet feathers, then?”

“Everyone who hasn’t been snorting pixie dust, yeah.” She looked terribly pleased with herself.

“You almost had me,” Kai said generously. It wasn’t true but hey, he was on the verge of making a friend here, and it was his first day. You took what you could get.

“You’re a good sport,” Amira decided. “You can eat lunch with me, and I’ll only prank you once or twice a week.”

“Thank you?” he ventured.

She patted him on the shoulder. “Believe me, pet, you’re getting off lightly. Now, let’s get you a desk before they send you out on the rookie run.”

That sounded like something to be alarmed about. “What does a rookie run involve?”

“Throwing you into the lion’s den, dressed as a lamb chop.” Amira smiled at him from under her very dark eyelashes. “Oh, and I wouldn’t talk too loudly about the bullshit nature of gossip around here, if I were you. This is a kingdom built on a fairytale. Stories are important to us, even the silly stories about who’s snogging whom, and whether an engagement is forthcoming. Spoiler: an engagement is always forthcoming.”

Two

ENTER THE DOGHOUSE

“Welcome to the Doghouse,” said Corporal Jack, leading the way. She was tall, a solidly built wall of muscle and judgment with amazing hair. It was a rare thing for Dennis to look at a woman not much older than him and think ‘yep, she could totally crack my skull with her thighs.’

“I hope you don’t mean that literally,” Dennis joked as he followed her into the stone building — a former stable, by the look of it, still pungent with old straw.

Jack gave him a sideways look. “How else do you think I mean it?”

That was the other thing. Corporal Jack had no sense of humour. Dennis had been trying to get a laugh out of her for the last half hour, and nothing. Maybe she was made out of the same granite they’d used to build the castle. It would explain a lot.

Sure, he wasn’t here to joke around. He took himself and this job very seriously. Getting a promotion out of the general guards to the royal family’s personal service was an amazing opportunity. But… was it too much to ask for a partner who didn’t get a pained crease between her eyes when he said something funny?

“What’s the boss like?” he asked, since they were there before everyone else. There was little contact between the castle guards and the Royal Hounds, so he had nothing but rumour to go on (and the rumours were… kind of terrifying).

“Sarge?” Jack shrugged. “He’s a broken down hack with a drinking problem, but he knows his shit, and he’s not an arsehole most of the time.”

Wow. She didn’t mess around. Dennis had barely managed to close his mouth after this revelation of brutal honesty before a voice like a rusty nail broke into his silence.

“He’s also standing right behind you, Corporal.”

Corporal Jack didn’t twitch, but Dennis was about ready to crawl under the floor from embarrassment. Seriously. Time to revisit the theory that she was entirely made out of granite.

“I knew you were there, Sarge,” Jack said calmly.

The Sarge circled them both. He was about an inch shorter than Jack: sandy hair and wiry muscle, and while his uniform was crisp and pressed almost as sharply as theirs, he clearly hadn’t shaved that morning. He was somewhere between 30 and 40 if Dennis had to guess, but his eyes were cynical enough for a man twice that.

“That,” said the Sarge in a low growl. “That is why you’re my favourite, kid.”

Jack smiled — a businesslike, brief flash of a smile. “I know.”

“You must be one of the new pups. I’ve seen you around the castle. You do good work.” Dennis had been expecting military formality, but the Sarge shook his hand with a boyish enthusiasm. “Welcome to the Doghouse.”

“I already said that,” Jack added. “I did the slow walk and the dramatic flourish and everything.”

Sarge pointed a finger at her. “You don’t get to say that part. I get to say that part. Because I am the boss. You have at least another five years before you get to challenge me for the top spot, kid.”

“Give me four,” she replied, cool as you like.

Dennis was busy having a heart attack. So it wasn’t that Corporal Made-of-Stone didn’t have a sense of humour. It was that he hadn’t been plumbing a deep and dark enough well.

“Right,” said Sarge, with a cheerful smack to Dennis’ shoulder. “You’re in good hands with our Jack. The newbies who make it through as her partner have a higher survival rate than the others. Come to me if she makes you cry. I’ve got a handkerchief somewhere.”

Other Hounds were beginning to mill into the Doghouse now, and Dennis hoped that meant that they were done with this strange initiation rite.

Like him, the Hounds wore the formal dress tabard of Castle Charming — red hearts and black spades against blinding white cotton, with red linens underneath. Dennis spotted several other new recruits in the crowd, in tabards so new they squeaked.

It was a far cry from the plain grey uniform he had worn as a castle guard. He was a Royal Hound now.

“All right, sweethearts,” barked Sarge, standing on an upturned apple crate. “Let’s leave the gossip for the bastards in the press gallery. It’s the start of the Season and you know what that means — tonight’s Autumnal Fling is the first in a parade of butt-scratching, dull as dog-shit fancy events bringing hundreds of well-dressed strangers into the castle and making trouble for us. Unlike the rest of the year, our Princes Gone Wild are expected to behave themselves in public, and we all know what that means.”

There was some muttering in the crowd. Dennis could take a guess — he read the Herald as much as any other kid his age, and the outrageous antics of the royal twins were a matter of public record, not to mention castle gossip. The platinum-haired, silver-eyed Princes Chase and Cyrus Charming were in some kind of screwy contest over which of them could fuck themselves up worse before their twentieth birthday.

Everyone knew that the royal family was a goddamned tragedy — what with the king in a haze of endless melancholy, the queen still buried in an enchanted sleep, and the princess hidden from public view since childhood with some mystery illness. It was down to those two beautiful, broken princes to stand as the public face of Castle Charming.

Dennis had guessed when he signed up for this that keeping those reckless boys alive and in one piece was one hell of a job. It was only just starting to sink in that it was up to the Royal Hounds to keep the boys from drunkenness and debauchery as well as protecting them from gold-diggers and assassination attempts.

Huh. And here he had been thinking the worst shit he’d have to deal with was a crossbow bolt to the back.

Sarge was finishing up his speech. “As ever, we have some new muscle joining us the Season — six shiny recruits, hand-picked from the trough to join the family’s personal service. There are only two permanent positions available in the Hounds once the Season closes but let’s face it, most of these newbies will fall by the wayside when they realise how bloody thankless this job is.”

Sarge’s second in command, a senior Corporal called Marie, took his place on the crate and started yelling out duty rosters. It was gobbledegook to Dennis, but he took it from the groans and cheerful fist-pumps that corridor and roof duty were far more prized than positions inside the ballroom.

Their names hadn’t been called, and Corporal Jack’s impressive musculature was beginning to slump. “I can’t believe they’re doing this to me again,” she muttered.

Dennis nudged her hip with a question in his eye but she shrugged him off, not giving him a clue.

“And finally,” said Marie with a vengeful tilt of her head. “Personal prince detail, eight till two. Fergus and Dante are on Cyrus, Jack and Dennis on Chase.”

“Sonofabitch,” swore Corporal Fergus. His partner, another newbie, looked alarmed.

“Best of Kingdom luck to you,” said the Sarge cheerfully, blowing a kiss to the Hounds as a unit. “Two years since a ballroom fatality in this castle! Let’s try to make it three.”

Three

SMASHING PRINCESSES PARADE IN PUMPKINS! THE INSIDE STORY

“So they weren’t kidding about the pumpkins,” said Ziyi of Xix. She wasn’t sure what smelled worse, the princesses or the carriage they rode in on.

At the kingdom border, they had each alighted from their own intricate (and well-ventilated) carriages in the drizzling rain to be crammed four apiece into the official Charming Pumpkins.

So here they were, all damp antique lace and slow-drying wool capes, their hair brittle with unguents from four different kingdoms, their faces smeared with powder and polish that should have been washed off and reapplied three rest stops ago, trundling along inside a gilded, horse-drawn… well.

It was a bloody pumpkin, wasn’t it?

Everyone knew that the kingdom of Charming was proud of its fairy tale heritage – just like Ziyi’s own kingdom was unreasonably proud of the things its citizens could do with tea leaves – but this was ridiculous. Did the farmers grow the pumpkins this large deliberately? Was magic involved? Whose idea had it been to grow giant pumpkins to use as coaches, instead of sensibly building a simulacrum out of wood and steel?

In any case, Ziyi considered herself lucky that she had scored a place by the door, so she could inhale occasional mouthfuls of dusty air through the small latched gap instead of the heady cocktail of royal musk and dried squash.

The rain hadn’t helped matters. Princesses always smelled terrible in packs. On their own, they would not be too rank, their scent belonging to the whole package of clothes and hair and manners that were so carefully designed to attract a mate, and/or impress his elderly relatives.

But [_en masse, _]and damp? Ugh. Every perfume of the known world, jumbled together in a single carriage, warring for attention. It was like sitting a cosmetics factory that had been unexpectedly invaded by marigolds and pollen monsters.

Apart from herself, Ziyi’s coach contained one veteran princess – Laurana of Thalm, a long-necked blonde who had been hardened, like Ziyi herself, by multiple campaigns across multiple social seasons in multiple foreign kingdoms – and two newly ‘out’ young princesses whom Ziyi had mentally named Ninny 1 and Ninny 2.

Laurana and Ziyi had never met before, but they shared a curt nod of mutual understanding upon first introductions. Thalm was almost as far away as Xix. You didn’t hunt for a marriage over such a distance if you were considered a good prospect in your own territory.

Finally, the coach rattled to a stop. Ziyi and Laurana immediately acquired a lapful of Ninny each, as the younger girls clambered forth to peer through the window.

“Are they reporters?” Ninny #1 squealed. “Will there be monochromes?”

Ninny #2, not quite as aptly named as her companion, realised the ramifications of this and hurled herself back on to her own half of the bench, rummaging for what cosmetic charms she had left in her vanity pouch. “This is awful. They can’t monochrome us like this. I’m a wreck!”

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Laurana said dryly. “They’ll only use images from this scene if nothing of any import happens tonight at the ball… or if one of you manages to flash her knickerbockers while alighting from the pumpkin.”

Ziyi ignored them all. This was it. Had to be. She wasn’t going through it again. Charming would be her final kingdom, and her last season.

She had to catch a prince or die trying.

Even thinking that made part of her soul die a little inside. Her life was so embarrassing.

Four

REPORTING LIVE FROM CASTLE CHARMING

Kai felt like a seagull pecking at crumbs on the shore as he stood with the press gaggle on the steps of the Palace. “Will they even want to speak to us?” He couldn’t imagine wanting to talk to strange reporters after travelling for several hours — in some cases, several days — to reach Castle Charming.

“It doesn’t matter whether they do or not,” said Amira impatiently, rising and falling on her feet beside him. She was shorter than Kai, despite her alarmingly high heeled boots, and he could see her calculating whether it was better to stand up on the steps from the carriageway — thus being higher and having a better view — or to be down and close as the pumpkins approached. “The important thing is that we are here, witnessing their arrival, reporting live from Castle Charming. We catch the quotes, describe the frocks and styles and excitement, and we move on to the big event tonight.”

He nodded, quill pen hovering over his notebook. “Got it.”

“Stick to positive flattery for the most part,” she added. “Unless something hilarious happens, like a knickerbocker flash. Word is the princes aren’t going to be allowed to escape this season without mating, which means that one of these girls will be our future queen. No reason to put the poor peahens offside right from the start.”

Kai considered that in light of what he had read in the Herald over the last few years, the endless trash-talking of the boys in the palace. “So no one minds pissing off our future king?”

She glanced around to check no one was close enough to hear what she said. “You’ve obviously never tried to piss off one of those princes. It’s like water off the back of a duck wrapped in gold-plated, waterproof armour. Besides, every reporter at the Herald has been holding back for years, just in case King Iolchas comes out of his fog and starts reading newspapers again.”

Kai blinked. “The coverage over the last few years has been the Herald holding back?”

“Oh, honey. I don’t think the magical ink could actually handle some of the scandals we’ve discreetly reworded for public consumption.”

He wasn’t sure whether to be shocked or impressed. “So we go easy on the princesses. For now.”

“Exactly. Apart from the general ethics of not slamming them too early in the season — some of those wenches are crazycakes. They’re ruthless, ambitious, and unlike our local royals, perfectly capable of sneaking into the Herald offices in the dead of night and setting fire to your desk.”

Kai stared at her in horror.

Amira shrugged. “It only happened one time, but if we don’t learn from these experiences, we’re no better than animals.” She leaned into him, discreetly pointing at the cluster of their co-workers and competitors. “Keep an eye on Llew at the front there, the one in the green tunic. He has an eye on the Assistant Editor’s job when Maggie retires, so he’ll be going big or going home this season. Don’t let him near your quills and parchment, he’s been known to rewrite other people’s copy to leave out the juicy deets, and save them for his own stories.”

Kai took note of the heavy-set reporter in the front row. “Is everyone here from the Herald?” There were more than a dozen reporters, and at least eight monochromists setting up heavy equipment along the steps.

“And the Kingdom Weekly. They pretend they’re too highbrow for gossip, but when the season hits they’re not too proud to squash a few frocks on to their front cover. A few of the stragglers on the edge there are from the outer town gazettes, and there’s one or two representatives from the newspapers of border kingdoms -- Mountainside have two princesses joining us for the season this year, and the Riverlands are so bored of reporting flood damage that they usually send a few quills across to collect gossip. Their royal family is too young to play for the season, so they live vicariously through our national sport.”

“And the kids?” Okay, Kai was barely of age himself, but he was certain that the youngsters juggling some seriously vintage monochrome cameras down on the lowest step weren’t even old enough to read the Herald, let alone work for the paper.

“Oh, they’re from the Whistler,” Amira shrugged. “Up at the Academy. Didn’t you work for the school newspaper when you were there?”

“I didn’t go to the Academy,” Kai said, startled.

“Huh. You just have that look, you know.”

“What look?”

“Like you went to fancy private school. Something about the eyebrows. Also the accent. And the politeness. But mostly the accent.”

“My mother was a governess,” he growled, not liking her assumptions at all. “We travelled all over – pretty much everywhere but this kingdom.”

“There you go, then. Fancy.”

A hubbub sprang up from the crowd as the first of the Charming Pumpkins rattled precariously up the carriageway.

“Cheer up, Kai, you have the best job in the world,” Amira said breathlessly. “Get in there, my son.” She promptly elbowed him out of the way and darted at the coach. Llew in the green tunic gasped and swore as Amira’s high heel drove into his foot.

The foreign princesses emerged from the lopsided root vegetable on wheels, smiling and glowing. If their gowns were somewhat wilted (and honestly who decided they should travel in floor length dresses, that seemed unnaturally cruel?) then they hadn’t noticed — their chins stuck proudly upwards, with feathered headdresses swooping over their beautifully coiffed hair.

As if they were preparing for battle. Or some elaborate hazing ritual.

The air filled with the pop and crack of monochrome explosions, tearing up the space between the reporters and the princesses with flashes of ink and light, recording their calculated smiles on silver plates for printing.

Questions shot out from the cluster of reporters, even as more pumpkins rolled up and more noblewomen levered themselves out, blinking in the autumn sunshine. Only two of the pumpkins contained genuine princesses; the rest were a more general assortment of aristocratic debutantes. There were even a few young men here and there — it was the height of rudeness to send too many unmarried princes or lords to a season like this when it was known that the host wanted his sons married off, but no one wanted to be left without suitable dance partners in the mean time. Some wily kingdoms sent sons as chaperones to their sisters, well aware that the Charming princes could only take one wife apiece and there would be plenty of disappointed leftovers who might be bought for a bargain.

The male guests were ignored entirely by the assembly of reporters, who knew where the kingdom’s real interest lay. Half of their questions were about what the ladies were wearing right now, and the rest were about what they would be wearing for the ball that evening.

Frocks, frocks, frocks.

Kai’s eye was drawn to one of the princesses from the first coach. Her smile was every bit as practiced and pretty as the others, but there was a sharpness to her as she surveyed the crowd. He immediately dubbed her ‘Princess Most Likely To Be Smuggling a Shiv.’ She became aware of his gaze and met it with a challenging stare.

As the noblewomen made their way up the steps, the reporters and monochromists fell back to make an avenue for their procession.

Kai finally got up the stones to holler a question of his own, and blurted the words “Are you going to meet the prince of your dreams tonight?” to the Princess Most Likely To Stab Me In My Sleep.

She gave him a searingly sarcastic expression, then batted her eyelashes at him. “It’s what we were born for,” she drawled.

Oh, he liked her.

Five

THE CARE AND MAINTENANCE OF PRINCESS HAIR

Ziyi was the only princess who had not brought a retinue of relatives, maids or ladies-in-waiting with her to the castle. Her reasoning was simple: everyone she brought from her own kingdom was likely to be a spy for her family, and might put a spoke in the wheel of her plans.

So she was given the impoverished step-cousin of suites, in a crumbling corner of the castle. She was provided with the service of Abigale, who was called in to “do” for visiting ladies at Castle Charming during the season, and spent the rest of the year as a shepherdess. Or possibly a milkmaid. Some sort of healthy outdoor job involving dairy product or lanolin, anyway. Her hands were terribly soft.

Abigale had two hairstyles she could master: three-strand braids and four-strand braids. She faltered at the array of pearl pins and jade clasps that Ziyi usually required for formal hair attire.

“I thought we could tie fresh jasmine into your hair,” said the maid, biting her plump lower lip. “Tuck it into a braid, like.”

“Goodness, why?” said Ziyi in alarm. She hated the cloying smell of jasmine. It reminded her of her mother’s funeral.

“To let them know where you’re from,” said the maid. “You’re of the Jasmine Kingdom, ain’t you?”

Ziyi flinched. “Is that what you call us?” It could be worse. The first time she travelled abroad, she discovered that her home was often referred to as ‘Gunpowder Isle’ by outsiders. Still, she would rather be the gunpowder princess than be named after a sickly sweet flower.

“Why?” said Abigale in surprise. “Ain’t that what you call yourselves?”

“We call ourselves Xix,” said Ziyi.

“That’s not nearly as pretty as the Jasmine Kingdom,” Abigale decided, brushing Ziyi’s hair so hard that static electricity flew around them. “What’s your name mean, then, in your tongue?”

“It means ziyi,” said the princess, and refused to translate. “Put my hair in the jasmine,” she decided. If Castle Charming expected an exotic cliche of a Xixese noblewoman, then she would meet their expectations. The best thing about a disguise was that, once you removed it, you could disappear entirely.

Six

DRUNK PRINCE IN GAZEBO SHOCK!

“How could you lose him?” Corporal Jack demanded. She had two inches on Dennis in height and used both of them to great effect as she loomed over him. “Chase Charming is a drunken sot of a prince wearing fuschia satin. He’s not exactly camouflaged!”

“I swear,” said Dennis desperately. “He was right here!”

His first night as a Royal Hound was not going well. Prince Chase had seemed amiable enough when he joined his entourage for the evening, making a point of remembering Dennis’ name and sharing a joke or two with Jack before they joined “the fray” which was the two hour receiving line before the Autumnal Fling began.

Then there was the dancing, during which Jack and Dennis stood by the sidelines and watched as Chase and his brother Cyrus — who was similar in aspect but wore less glitter powder in his hair and had restrained himself to a jacket of emerald satin instead of the fuschia — paraded an endless swirl of marriageable damsels around the ballroom decorated with thousands of gilded autumn leaves.

An easy night in theory, if you didn’t mind standing to attention for hours on end, but now he had stuffed up good and proper. It was Dennis’ job to supervise Prince Chase while Corporal Jack made the eleven o’clock check-in with Sarge, and in that tiny window of time he had somehow been talked into a ‘breath of fresh air’ on the balcony that led them – well, here. Wandering around the well-lit palace gardens, searching for an errant fuschia prince.

“Sarge is going to have our ears for this,” groaned Jack.

“Excuse me,” said a polite voice. “Are you — uh, looking for a fellow in satin?”

Dennis whirled around to see an awkward looking boy with dark hair and very bright blue eyes. “Have you seen him?”

The stranger gestured with a thumb. “He’s throwing up in the gazebo.”

“Oh, brilliant,” said Jack, and took off at a run.

Chase was in a sorry state when they found him on the floor of the ornamental gazebo. He had indeed been emptying his stomach into one of the large antique urns.

“I swear I found him like that,” said Mr Helpful.

“No one thought otherwise,” snapped Jack.

Dennis stared down at Chase’s glazed eyes. It was impressive, how dedicated the prince was to getting off his face. “He was out of sight for fifteen minutes. How did he drink so much?”

“He was already far gone when the evening started,” said Jack through gritted teeth.

Dennis had enjoyed his share of wild nights with friends, but he was starting to think he was a doe-eyed innocent compared to everyone else in this palace. “He looked fine,” he ventured.

“He always does,” said Jack with pained cynicism. “Here, you two, help me get him to the fountain for some clean up.”

Dennis came forward to catch one of Prince Chase’s flailing arms, and their new friend helped to lever the nearly dead-weight of the prince upwards. As the three (four) of them manoeuvred themselves awkwardly out of the darkened gazebo and out into a pool of light from the paper lanterns along the avenue, Jack sucked in a breath.

“Oh hell,” she growled. “I thought you were one of the foreign princes.”

“No,” said Mr Helpful. “I just sound like I went to one of those fancy schools. I’m quite ordinary really.”

“You’re a quill,” said Jack, like it was a dirty word.

Quill meant reporter, and that was bad, right? We have to protect them from more than assassins.

“Do people actually call us that?” asked the stranger archly. “It’s my first day.”

“It’s my first day too,” Dennis broke in. “But I can already tell when Jack is about to punch someone, so maybe it’s time to make yourself scarce, mate?”

It was a shame, really. Their helpful stranger was about Dennis’ age, and very nice to look at. (He had promised himself he wasn’t looking, not this year. He had enough to manage without bringing down that kind of trouble on his head.)

“Sorry,” said the quill, letting go of his half of the prince. “Look, I can push off if you like, but I promise I won’t write about this.”

“Is anyone interested that I’m about to throw up again?” demanded the prince, opening his eyes long enough to collapse into the nearest hydrangea bush.

“I didn’t push him,” said Jack calmly.

“No one thought otherwise,” said the quill, and smiled a beautiful smile.

Trouble, Dennis told himself sternly. Don’t.

“Jack,” said his corporal gruffly, holding out a hand. “This is Dennis. Thanks for your help. And your silence.”

“Kai,” said the quill, gripping her hand with his own. “Don’t mention it. Only an idiot would try to start out with a Drunk Prince in Gazebo Shock byline his first day.”

“They generally prefer you to work up to those,” Jack agreed.

“Besides,” said Kai, growing bold. “We all know it wouldn’t be a shock.”

“Still lying in a bush!” announced the prince.

“Exactly what you deserve,” said Jack, yanking him to his feet again, and draping him decoratively over one of Dennis’ shoulders.

“I miss when you used to be fun, Jax,” sighed Chase with a pout.

Huh. That was interesting. Exactly how well did they know each other? Dennis pretended not to notice the weird intimacy between the Prince and his Hound, and he spotted that Kai was pretending not to notice the same thing. Their eyes met for a moment, and they exchanged awkward smiles.

Seven

BREAKFAST OF QUILLS

“…And then we took turns scooping water over the prince’s head until he sobered up, and the Hounds dragged him off to bed.” Kai finished describing his evening to Amira over breakfast rolls. She had dragged him out of his digs first thing to steer him into the Queen’s Bishop, a small and only slightly seedy coffee house near the Herald offices. He was pretty sure this meant that they were not merely two people whose desks were parked next to each other, but officially friends.

She had also managed to worm out of him that both of the Hounds were all muscles and hotness.

“Aww, most of us have to be with the Herald at least a month before we get our very own drunken prince encounter,” Amira said, refilling their tiny glasses from the communal coffee pot. “Let alone a tasty Hound to flirt with.”

“There was no flirting!” Kai protested. He would, he suspected, always regret letting her know that he now had a thing for men in uniform.

“She was right, though,” Amira went on. “You can’t write it. Prince Gets Trashed in Gazebo is barely even Page 6 material — and besides, while you were hanging out with Hounds and Royals, you missed the biggest story of the week. Maybe the season. The story that’s going to swallow us whole and spit us out after.”

“What?” said Kai. “Did someone break a punchbowl in the ballroom?”

“Better than that,” said Amira with glee. “We’re talking a glass slipper situation, accept no substitutions.”

Eight

LIVING THE FAIRY TALE

Everyone knows the story of the Rags to Riches Queen – the glass slippers and the fairy godmother, the ball and the mice and the Happy Ever After.

No one ever talks about how long Happy Ever After lasted.

Magical happy endings come at a cost, and this was hers: cursed that if her heart ever broke, she would fall into a terrible sleep until it could be mended again.

It seemed no risk at all, at the time of their marriage. Their future was golden. As the new King and Queen of Castle Charming they had wealth and power, the boundless love of their people. They had silver-eyed twins, as happy and joyous as any children could be. Then the second pair of twins, the dark-haired babies that the kingdom took to its heart…

The King and Queen thought themselves immune from heartbreak. But one of their babies was stolen, and nothing that they had — the magic, the wealth, the Hounds, nothing could help them find that child.

The Queen’s heart broke, and she was lost forever to the enchanted sleep.

Those left behind — her King, their sons and their daughter, remained awake and breathing, but equally broken.

They’re still breaking. Every day. Before the eyes of the kingdom.

No one ever tells that part of the story. No one can bear to say the words aloud.

Nine

WHO IS THE MIDNIGHT PRINCESS? YOUR MOST POPULAR GUESSES, INSIDE

“A glass slipper situation,” Kai repeated.

“Pure and beautiful,” confirmed Amira. “The full bit. A mysterious, masked princess arrived in the ballroom shortly before midnight. She danced with Prince Cyrus three times, and then — this is where things get weird. She legged it out of the ballroom the second that the clock struck midnight.”

“And she left a shoe behind.”

“I see you’re familiar with the trope.”

Kai shook his head, breathing disbelief into his coffee glass. “But who would —”

“I know.”

“Seriously, who —”

“I know.”

“Who would have the balls to do the glass slipper thing in Castle Charming?”

“The Midnight Princess, that’s who,” said Amira. “The name was my idea,” she added modestly. “Front page headline, thank you very much.”

“It’s so tacky,” Kai said, turning it over in his head.

“Fuck off.”

“No — not the Midnight Princess, that’s a genius name, obviously.”

“That’s better,” she said, blowing him a kiss. “Drink up, pet, we have to get into the office. Time to run through mugshots of the candidates.”

“Do you think it’s some kind of protest?” Kai considered, following her dutifully, though it pained him to leave the last few inches of coffee in his glass. He swallowed it down hard, scalding his throat. “Or satire?”

“Live action theatre, you mean? Graffiti of the ballroom variety. A one person flash mob.”

“She can’t be seriously intending to marry a prince with this technique. Not in this kingdom. What was the King’s reaction?”

“He wasn’t there. Had already retired due to boredom, or ennui, or whatever it is that makes him ghost through the castle, ignoring his sons,” said Amira. “Sorry, did I say that out loud? Sometimes I have to get these things out before I step into the office.”

“I heard nothing,” said Kai, grinning at her. “So. Midnight Princess.”

“If we can find her,” said Amira. “Then we can ask all these questions and more. Story of the century. Want to team up?”

“Why would you pick me?” Kai asked, and then thought about it for two seconds. “Oh. I’m new and no real threat to you.”

“Good boy. Also, your arms are longer than mine and believe me, we’ll be logging a few hours hauling boxes in the archives. We need to know everything about the girls of the season if we’re going to blow this story wide open.”

Ten

THE FIRST RULE OF GLASS SLIPPERS IS YOU DON’T TALK ABOUT GLASS SLIPPERS

Dennis had worked at the Palace for a year before he was tapped to join the Hounds, and he had never seen the King so angry.

To be honest, he had never seen the King express any feelings at all. The man had a fog about him — he was broken-hearted due to grief, so everyone said, but he seemed to function well enough when there were practical decisions to be made, or conversation to be had about the weather.

He was present in most conversations, but never seemed to care about anything.

Today, the King cared. He had been shut up in the Doghouse with Sarge for more than twenty minutes, shouting and blustering, while the Hounds gathered outside the stable, finding minor tasks to busy their hands with, so as to pretend they were not eavesdropping.

Finally, the door opened, and the King stormed out, his seneschals clinging to the hem of his fur-trimmed velvet coat. “You will find and arrest this disrespectful wench before the next ball, or I will send everyone of those grasping, diamond-studded hussies back to their kingdoms and cancel the Season!”

“Your Majesty,” said Sarge with a calculated, neutral sort of deference.

“Do your fucking job, or I’ll find someone else to do it for you!”

“Glad you’re not overreacting at all, Papa,” broke in a drawling voice. The Hounds parted to let through a blond, gorgeously jacketed prince — not Chase, Dennis realised. The other one. They were technically identical, but the elder prince, Cyrus, was a dedicated athlete as well as a party boy, and he had more muscle about his shoulders and legs, which he showed off with sharply cut clothing.

They looked nothing like their father -- his hair was dark and neat, his eyes a sharp blaze of sapphire blue instead of their otherworldly silver. They must take after their cursed mother, the one that no one ever talked about.

“Don’t start on me, boy,” growled the King. “This is all your fault, as usual.”

“Don’t let me interrupt your ranting,” said Cyrus, his eyes glittering. “It’s so fascinating to see you up and about, expressing opinions to the staff. The same staff who will have to clean up the mess when your egocentric bullshit pushes us to the brink of war.”

The King lurched angrily towards his son — they were the same height, and Dennis spotted the exact moment that this fact came as a surprise to His Majesty. “Don’t lecture me on what you don’t understand, you little degenerate.”

“I know that arresting a princess for dancing without tact is not the best move for a kingdom as small as ours,” said Cyrus, smiling with all his teeth.

“Don’t think I haven’t considered the possibility that this is one of your childish, attention-grabbing pranks,” the King snarled, close enough now to embrace his son, though it was clear that wouldn’t be happening.

“Ah,” said Cyrus, mocking. “Because I live to hurt you, apparently. Funny. I thought it was the other way around.”

The King stood frozen for a moment, hand raised at waist-height, as if to cuff a child. Without saying anything more, he thundered away.

Cyrus squared his shoulders, disregarding that the Hounds around him had witnessed such an intensely personal exchange between he and his father. He nodded to Sarge. “Permission to attend your briefing, Sergeant Clay? I feel that it’s pertinent to my interests.”

Sarge surveyed him critically. “Can you sit still in the corner and keep your yap shut?”

“Stranger things have happened,” the Prince declared.

“Go on, then. Let’s give it a go.”

The Hounds filed into the Doghouse, more subdued than usual. Dennis stood close to Corporal Jack, who was visibly seething. Did she resent the Prince’s presence that much?

“Right,” said Sarge, stepping up on his crate. “I’ll keep this brief. There will be no arrests. If any of you come across evidence of the identity of the — person that the Herald has dubbed the Midnight Princess, you will bring that evidence directly to me.” He gave Prince Cyrus a hard look. “That includes you, Your Highness.”

Cyrus reached into his jacket, and pulled out a glass slipper. An actual — it gleamed like a diamond. Dennis couldn’t stop staring at it. “It stinks of magic,” Prince Cyrus said, holding it by the heel. “Do you mean to say we won’t be going door to door, trying it on the feet of ladies? I was so looking forward to that part.”

“We’ll hold off on that for now,” said Sarge, holding out a small burlap evidence sack for the Prince to drop the shoe into. “No arrests. No confrontations. His Majesty might not be concerned with the diplomatic fallout from treating visiting princesses like criminals, but our primary job is security of the royal family, and that goes further than dragging them out of gazebos in the middle of the night.” His eye fell briefly on Dennis, and gave him a smirk.

One of the new recruits — Dante — raised a hand. “Sarge, do you think the Midnight Princess poses a significant threat to the royal family?”

Sarge huffed at that. “Depends on what you mean by threat. She was close enough to assassinate Prince Cyrus last night, and she didn’t try it.”

“My heart is also thoroughly protected, if that’s what you mean, kid,” put in the Prince. “I know better than to pledge marriage and eternal love to a girl just because she’s excellent at waltzing and has decided to enact the courtship of my parents.”

“Whatever this girl’s game is,” Sarge went on. “I don’t think she represents a physical threat.”

“But how can you be sure?” Corporal Jack demanded.

Sarge gave her a weary look. “Because I’m an old, old man, and I’ve seen everything,” he told her. “Glass slippers mean that this Midnight Princess has got herself tangled up with fairies, and that means she’s got bigger problems than you or I can handle with a crossbow and a short sword.”

“What should I do?” spoke up Prince Cyrus. “If I should happen to see her again.”

There was something haunted in Sarge’s face. “Try not to kiss her,” he said finally. “In fact, try not to kiss anyone for the next 48 hours. If you think you can manage that.”

Eleven

PROWLING WITH HOUNDS

“It’s my second night,” Dennis said aloud because really, it had to be said. “My second night as a Hound, Jack. I haven’t even drawn my first pay yet.”

“Well aware,” she said evenly.

“We’re stalking our boss through the seediest bars of the city. On my second night.”

“Shhh now.”

They were not stalking so much as waiting. Both of them had signed off from their day’s shift and were supposed to be resting up before the next Grand Event of the Season, tomorrow night.

“You’re going to get me fired,” Dennis complained.

“Sarge respects initiative,” said Jack.

“More than he respects his own privacy?”

Corporal Jack blew out a breath of annoyance. She had terrified the rest of the Hounds into constant compliance, but Dennis was not yet trained into blindly following her orders, especially orders that were not entirely work-related.

Which begged the question: why had she chosen him for this particular expedition?

“I’m worried,” Jack admitted.

“About Sarge?”

“It’s fairies. He has a thing about fairies. Last time we had a case that maybe — only maybe — involved a fairy godmother, he went on a bender for two days. So yeah. I want to keep an eye on him.” She gave Dennis a sly look over her shoulder. “Also I have a pathological need to know what the hell is going on at all times, especially where it relates to the smooth running of Castle Charming and its security. Are we on the same page?”

“Fine, yes. I’m curious too.”

“Good lad.”

They leaned against a wall outside a bar charmingly titled The Lunatic Arms until Sarge rolled out, several sheets to the wind. He did not see either of them, but headed off down the street at an unsteady angle.

“He never drinks on duty,” Jack said in a low voice, and Dennis realised to his surprise that she was embarrassed on behalf of their boss.

“I’m not judging,” he said softly.

She punched his arm, which he guessed was a sign that he’d said the right thing?

They didn’t talk as they trailed Sarge back to the castle. He didn’t look terribly drunk, though he listed to one side and walked with a slower rolling of the hips than usual. He did not head for the Doghouse or the guard quarters, but made directly for the ornamental gardens.

“We can make fun of him if he ends up in the gazebo, right?” Dennis whispered.

Jack choked on something that might have been a laugh. “Only behind his back and forever.”

Ahead of them, Sarge broke into a run. “I knew you were around here!” he hollered through a flowering archway. “I could smell your bluebell bullshit a mile off. Come out here and face me, you bastards!”

Twelve

SPITTING WITH PRINCESSES

Ziyi was so angry she could spit — if a princess was allowed to spit — if there was anywhere in any royal castle that allowed for the possibility of discreet princess spittage.

Ziyi was so angry, she wanted to set the world on fire.

She sat through a day of gossip and finger sandwiches, and tamped down the fury inside her with many tiny cups of tea. She allowed Abigale to lever her into a fluffy nightgown that belonged in a dusty attic (or possibly a museum of antiquities) and even stayed docile while her long black hair was twisted into hundreds of tiny ‘pin curls’ that she would surely regret in the morning.

As soon as Abigale moved on to the next foreign princess on her schedule, Ziyi hauled the midnight gown out from under her bed and stuffed it — trailing lace fronds, sequined buttons and all — into a large handkerchief bag.

Oh, and the glass slipper. Mustn’t forget the fucking glass slipper.

She slithered out of the window and down the ivy trellis until her feet hit grass, and then she was off and running, past the fancy hedge maze and the brick wall of alcoves containing statues of every King and Queen of Charming, rendered perfectly in white marble and smug.

Finally, she found a secluded grotto beyond a series of flowered archways, a cozy nook of a meditation pool decorated with crystal flowers, far from the lanterns and public paths. Here, she could light the blue candle without fearing that she might be seen from the many, many windows of Castle Charming. It smelled of bluebells and sugar and broken promises.

“Godmother, godmother, I have a bone to pick with you,” she said aloud.

“And here I am, reporting for duty.” The voice was warm and sensual and unquestionably male. It was not the voice of her fairy godmother.

Ziyi leaped back, staring at the shelf of stone that ran around the top of the grotto, and the man who was suddenly draped across the stone shelf like a cat. “Who are you? You’re not Miss Clover.”

“Why, thank you for noticing. My name is Master Foxglove.” His eyes gleamed purple in the darkness. “She’s otherwise engaged tonight. You don’t think you’re the only princess who has demands on her time?”

“I might have known,” Ziyi retorted. “First I have to share a maid, and now a godmother. Welcome to the end of the century.”

“Never mind, sweetling, I may not be your godmother, but I am a godmother, and I am well acquainted with Miss Clover’s open cases.” Master Foxglove leaped suddenly, landing on his feet with a terrifying grace. “You’re the midnight princess, aren’t you? Frock and glass slippers and magical perfect timing — I can’t believe you have any grounds to complain.”

“No grounds?” Ziyi was furious, and if Miss Clover wouldn’t show her face, then she would happily take it out on the nearest godmother available. “I went along with this appalling charade because I needed to secure a fast marriage. Miss Clover convinced me it would be cute, recreating the glass slipper story of Castle Charming.”

Master Foxglove considered the matter. “Sounds pretty damned cute. Sweeping one of the princes off his heels with the same storyline that worked for his Mum and Dad? Epic.”

“It wasn’t cute,” Ziyi hissed between her teeth. “His family didn’t think it was adorable and romantic. Turns out the entire kingdom is highly traumatised by how that happy love story ended, and I’m the airhead who mocked their misery for all the world to see. The King has put out an arrest warrant, and is one diplomatic cough away from having the guest rooms searched. Will you stop laughing at me?”

Master Foxglove was snickering wildly, hanging on to the wall of the grotto to support him. “You don’t think it’s hilarious?”

“Was this deliberate?” Ziyi snarled, close to belting him with her bag. “Is this one of those ‘careful what you wish for’ stings that the fairy tales warn against? Because I thought Miss Clover was sincere in wanting to help me, and instead I’m screwed six ways to Sunday.”

The fairy godmother peered at her from between his fingers, like a child playing games. His voice was deadly serious. “How important is it that you marry this prince?”

“I don’t care about the prince,” Ziyi said impatiently. “It’s really important that I not go home, and I thought marrying a prince was the best way to assure that.”

“Interesting.” He tilted his head, his purple eyes glowing even more intensely than before. “I suggest you take that incriminating bag of yours, and make a run for it.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m about to get punched in the face by a man with the power to arrest you.” Master Foxglove looked oddly satisfied at the very idea, even as the shouting started, from some distance away.

“I could smell your bluebell bullshit a mile off. Come out here and face me, you bastards!”

Thirteen

HUNTING WITH QUILLS

Kai could not believe the luck of it. The story of the century had fallen into his lap, and this time he wasn’t going to let it go.

He had tried pitching several original pieces to the editor, who turned all of them down flat. Amira shook her head at him afterwards. “If you’re not writing about the midnight princess right now, pet, you’re invisible.”

“But everyone’s writing about the midnight princess,” Kai said in frustration.

“Sure, but there’s always a new angle.”

A new angle on the story that had already been done to death in less than 24 hours? Sure.

So Kai returned to the castle, walking the path that the fleeing princess must have taken after the ball, and trying to get his head around a ‘new angle’. He didn’t question why he needed to be here, why the castle was tugging at him, until he noticed that his ink was itchy.

Kai had a magical tattoo on the small of his back: his mother had always told him that in the kingdom they came from, it was traditional to have a fortune tattoo bespelled to each child, marking out their destined path in life.

His had never made a lot of sense: it was a literal blot of ink, most of the time, shimmering and occasionally splashing, as if a new drop had been added. Sometimes it resolved itself into words, though they were hard for him to read and he had rarely been in a position to ask others to translate for him.

On the few occasions he had been drawn to the changing images by the itch of the ink, and held a mirror up in time, he had caught what looked like newspaper headlines: Castle Charming Princes Go Wild and the like.

It had been enough to convince his mother that his path lay here, that being a quill was a profession she could be proud of, though she had been hoping for something more highbrow: a writer of ballads, perhaps, or a scholar of journals.

Kai had never in his life regretted following where the ink urged him, and tonight it clearly wanted him here, in this garden behind the castle, for whatever reason.

It certainly wasn’t for inspiration, as he had been walking around in circles to no avail for hours.

Just as he was about to give up, he spied a girl in a nightgown climbing down the trellis and running off into the garden. He wasn’t sure if it was her — the actual midnight princess herself — until he crept closer and heard something of her conversation with the sinister, beautiful fairy gentleman.

This was pure gold. Story of the century. But it was all too fanciful to write up for the Herald without something solid to tether it.

An interview. He would have to interview the midnight princess.

“I could smell your bluebell bullshit a mile off. Come out here and face me, you bastards!”

The princess fled the scene, and Kai went after her, scrambling around urns and hedges until he got in front of her. She was hurrying too fast to stop, smacked directly into him and fell into a silver pear tree.

“Oof!” The princess stared up at him in horror. “I know you — are you one of those quills who were sniffing around the staircase my first day?”

“Yes,” Kai said breathlessly, to the Princess Most Likely To Poison his Coffee. “And I can find a hiding spot where the Hounds won’t find you. Interested?”

Why had he even said that? He barely knew this castle at all. And yet… and yet, the ink was tugging him, and he always followed where the ink led him. It had brought him to this kingdom, this job, this castle.

The princess glared at him for a moment, then lifted one hand imperiously so he could help her out of the bushy tree. “What do you want in exchange?”

“Your story,” Kai blurted. “I want to tell your story to the world.”

Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Can you make the king hate me less?”

“If I can’t,” he promised in a moment of valiant exaggeration. “No one can.”

Fourteen

MIDNIGHT PRINCESS EXPOSED!

Ziyi must be crazy to trust this stranger — a reporter, no less — but she didn’t want to stick around while the Hounds and her feckless substitute fairy godmother went at it tooth and claw in the gardens.

So, she followed the quill.

“Kai,” he told her, as he led the way through a copse of trees to a tower she had never noticed before, well away from the castle. “My name is Kai. I’m new around here, like you.”

“Not a lot like me,” she observed.

He gave her a lopsided grin. “No, not a lot like you. Um. Your highness.”

“Goodness, don’t,” she sighed. “If you can’t be on first name terms with a scandalous young man who rescued you in a garden, then what’s the point of being a princess?”

“If you say so.” Kai seemed bemused at being labelled a scandalous young man.

“Ziyi,” she told him, because in for a pearl, in for a diamond. “I’m not much of a princess.”

“That’s all right,” he told her. “I’m not much of a quill. I’m working on it, though.”

As she watched, he found a key under a loose paving stone and opened up the tower.

“Have you been here before?” she asked.

There was a pause that went on a little too long before he said “No,” in a voice that sounded almost as confused as he was.

“Then how did you know —”

“Look, a kitchen,” he announced, pushing through the door to a small, shabby room with the basic requirements of a kitchen, including a wood stove that burned low, as if it had been abandoned for the night.

“If that’s your way of saying you can make me a cup of tea,” said Ziyi. “You can have my firstborn child, if you like.”

So the Chipped Sapphire of the Gunpowder Kingdom sat at a clean but small kitchen table and rested her chin on her hands while the young reporter lit a cozy fire in the grate, and heated up a kettle of water. “How did you even know about this place?” she asked.

“I don’t know, exactly,” said Kai, frustrated. He plucked aside a makeshift curtain and gaped for a moment into the next room. “Oh. That explains a lot.”

Ziyi followed him, peering around his shoulder. She had been expecting this to be some kind of servant’s quarters, or a space for the gardeners to take their tea during the day, not… well. An artist’s retreat?

The studio was the canvas. Every inch of wall, ceiling and floor was covered with strange, arcane drawings in vivid black ink. Ziyi saw dragons and fairies, historical battles, flowers and knights. The ceiling blazed with what might have been a royal family portrait from the old days — when the princes were toddlers, and their siblings babes in arms — but a large smear of ink had ruined the image.

There was a chill to this room, despite the warmth from the stove in the kitchen behind them. They had both made footprints in the dust.

“Ink,” Kai said, sounding subdued. “That’s why I became a quill, you know. I’ve always had an affinity with ink. It speaks to me — like, literally, I could hear these walls halfway across the garden, pulling me in.”

“A useful talent,” Ziyi observed.

“You don’t think it’s strange?”

“I’m not sure if I can judge what’s strange any more. Not since I put my life in the hands of a fairy godmother.”

“I used to make art like this,” Kai said dreamily, his eyes on the ink-daubed walls. “My mother disapproves of art almost as much as she does of magic — she thinks that sort of thing is all aristo indulgence. Not for ordinary folks like us.”

“So,” said Ziyi thoughtfully. “You came to write for a newspaper, where you would be surrounded by magic and ink all the time. To torture yourself, I presume?”

“Mama hates that I spend my days hunting royal gossip and scandal,” Kai said. “She was furious I wanted to move here for this job. Once I turned eighteen she couldn’t stop me.”

“It’s a shame, that families can have such an effect on your future prospects,” Ziyi mused, as they returned to the kitchen. “I don’t know if princessing counts as a trade or a profession, but I’m not cut out for it. Meanwhile I’ve had maids who would do better at being a princess.”

“The midnight princess scandal wasn’t your best work,” Kai said awkwardly, pulling his eyes away from the studio to return to his tea-making duties over the stove.

She sighed, leaning on the doorframe. “It’s a disaster, that’s what it is. Can I have tea yet?”

“Water’s boiled, I’m just brewing,” he said, adding tea to a pot and topping it with the hot water.

“Your newspaper thinks I’m a nutcase,” Ziyi accused him. “Or a gold digger, I suppose?”

“Isn’t that what you all are?” Kai said absently, busy about his task.

She sucked in a breath.

“Oh, I didn’t mean to insult you or anything. But you came here to marry a prince, didn’t you? That’s pretty much a definition of — well. Um.”

She glared at him. “All this friendliness will be wasted if I have to slap you before I’ve had my tea. Tell me more about how the ink invited us in.”

“The artwork in there,” said Kai. “It’s ink, the same kind of enchanted ink we use to make the newspapers. I felt it scratching away at me, like a cat wanting to be let in the door. When I stepped inside, I felt safe.”

“Good to know someone does,” said a third voice, filling the kitchen. “Hello, strangers. Is there tea? I’ll forgive your trespassing if you’ve made tea.”

Ziyi froze in the act of accepting a cup from Kai. He looked horrified.

“Oh,” said Ziyi. “Have mine.” She immediately regretted the sacrifice.

“No, I’ll pour another,” said Kai desperately, to cover his embarrassment. “My lady, I’m — I wouldn’t have set foot in here if I thought it was someone’s home. I’m so sorry. It looked abandoned.”

“Indeed,” said their unexpected hostess, stepping down from the shadowy stairwell in the corner, to join them. “That was deliberate, to keep people away.”

She was a young lady of quality from the look of her, old enough to have been presented at court, though her dark hair spilled down her back like she had never been out in public. She wore a bohemian smock and a beaded belt, but her accent was pure cut glass. The kind of voice that elocution instructors insisted upon, once the foreign languages had been mastered.

Ink patterns spiralled up and down the lady’s arms, tattoos that danced and moved as if alive. She was quality, and she was magic. A rare combination.

Ziyi might be a failure of a princess, but she knew how to act royal in a jam. She sipped her tea as if nothing in the world could bother her. “Ziyi of Xix,” she introduced herself. “One of the visiting princesses, here for the season.”

“But of course you are,” said their hostess, accepting a cup from Kai as her due, and taking a seat of her own at the kitchen table. “Camilla of Charming,” she added. “I’m what they call the home team.”

Kai dropped the teapot.

“Damn,” said Camilla, the hidden princess, the younger sister of Chase and Cyrus, the one never seen in public. “I liked that teapot. Never mind, there’s another above the cheese barrel, if we require more tea. We will require more tea,” she added to Ziyi, with an air of exchanging confidences. “I never feel right until I have at least two cups. Didn’t your people invent it? They must all be terribly clever.”

Fifteen

FAIRY GODMOTHERS FIGHT DIRTY

“I could smell your bluebell bullshit a mile off. Come out here and face me, you bastards!”

There was a splash of water, and a thud, and a grunt.

Dennis and Jack ran after the Sarge, to find him in a grotto, rolling around in the contemplation pool with a yet another beautiful boy — seriously, why were all the men in this Palace so attractive, it was like the universe was trying to tell Dennis something.

They fought like equals, no holding back, all elbows and teeth and fury, though the fury was mostly on Sarge’s side. His opponent with his wild dark hair and clothes made of – oh, flower petals – was enjoying himself far too much, with a bloodstained grin and fiercely bright eyes.

“Where — is — Illyria?” Sarge growled into his opponent’s neck as he pinned him in the water, about to shove his face under.

“That’s not her name any more,” laughed the fairy. Because of course it was a fairy. “You know how to find her, sweetling. Light a candle in her new name, and make a wish.”

Sarge snarled at him. The fairy kissed him on the jaw, laughed again, and vanished, leaving the angry human alone in the shallow pool of water.

Dennis and Jack exchanged silent looks, then came forward to help him out.

Sarge pushed them away once his feet were on dry land, then shook himself like a dog to get the water out of his sodden clothes and hair. “Not a word of this to anyone,” he growled.

“If it helps,” said Dennis. “I saw which way the midnight princess went.”

Jack gave him a sharp look. “Oh really?”

He nodded, and managed not to confess that he had taken particular note of the direction when he saw her collide with that boy he liked, the quill from the night before.

There was something about Jack that made Dennis want to confess all his sins, but not today.

“Right then,” said Sarge. “Let’s catch ourselves a princess.”

Sixteen

A RIGHT ROYAL TEA PARTY

Kai tried not to panic. He was surrounded by ink — the paintings in the studio, the tattoos on the arms of this unexpected princess. The smell of vanilla and wet feathers was a comfort, and more than that.

The ink was inside his head in a way he hadn’t allowed it to be for a very long time. And it was telling him that he belonged here.

Here, in a kitchen, taking tea with two princesses. This was not what he had expected when he decided: newspapers, as the compromise he and Mama would both have to live with.

“It’s a stepmother thing,” said Ziyi of Xix, the dishevelled foreign princess who had finally stopped looking like she was about to pull out a hidden weapon.

“Oh, stepmothers,” sighed Camilla. “I was spared that at least.”

“My father’s new wife has a son of her own, the kind of horrid creature who likes to pull wings off beetles for the fun of it, and I’m very much the third spare daughter unmarried in the palace. One more failed Season is all it’s going to take for my father to be convinced that marrying that awful boy is a safe, sensible choice for me.”

“Kings never listen,” Camilla said grimly. “Not to daughters. They have dozens voices commanding their attention, and ours are so far down the list of priorities that they don’t feel the need to even tune in to the words. Never mind that royal women are trained from an early age to spot social dangers and subtle problems long before they become diplomatic disasters.”

“That’s my story,” said Ziyi, spreading her fingers wide. “The one you can never write about,” she added with a stern look at Kai.

This evening was so surreal already, it didn’t even hurt to give her that promise. “We can find a better story,” Kai said. “If you really want to — if you need to find a better alternative. It’s going to have to be romance, not practicality.”

Camilla and Ziyi gave him equal expressions of disdain, as if it should have been obvious to him that romance and practicality went hand in hand, with princesses.

“I’ll shut up now,” he volunteered.

“I have an idea,” said Camilla brightly. “I shall introduce you both to my mother.”

Seventeen

LET SLEEPING QUEENS LIE

This was.

This was without a doubt.

This was without a doubt the most difficult social situation that Ziyi had ever navigated, in her entire world-weary history as a princess on the marriage market.

Queen Ella of Charming lay on a bed made of glass, in the room at the very top of the tower.

It was an exquisite piece of artwork, that glass bed. It had pillars and platforms and blown roses. But to Ziyi, who had seen her own mother buried before she was ten years old, it looked like a coffin.

In every way, except that the glass panel nearest the Queen’s pale lips occasionally clouded over from her sleeping breath.

“So,” said Camilla, who sounded bright and cheerful and not at all as if she were about to cry. “This is the curse that broke our kingdom.”

Kai stood by the doorway, not wanting to even step inside the room. Ziyi did not blame him. This was the woman she had wronged, without realising it — the woman whose epic love story she had copied for her own selfish needs.

If her mother was like this, trapped in an endless state between life and death, she would break. It was amazing that Camilla’s eyes remained dry. Ziyi wanted to cry for her.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, not exactly to Camilla.

“Never mind that now,” said Camilla. “We need to resolve this midnight princess business. The question is, how are we going to do that without marrying you off to one of my silly brothers? Unless you really do want to marry one of them. I suppose someone has to.”

“No,” said Ziyi, mortified. “I mean — I couldn’t now.”

There was a thud at the door, and then again, a massive boom of a sound, and the breaking of wood.

“Oh, hell,” said Camilla of Charming. “More visitors.”

Kai moved closer to Ziyi. She would have him as her witness, at least, someone who could swear blind she hadn’t tried to hurt the Queen, or the Princess.

“Royal Hounds!” shouted a voice from below.

“You’d better come up!” Camilla called into the stairwell. “Take your shoes off, this carpet can’t hold out against mud.”

They burst through the door a moment later, without their boots — the Sergeant with the bluebell fixation, his two junior Hounds in casual clothes that didn’t fool anyone, and a platinum sylph of a young man in an embroidered silk dressing gown and a smirk that wouldn’t quit.

One of the princes, Ziyi realised with a flame of embarrassment. She couldn’t even tell if it was the twin she had danced with.

If only she had developed the art of the fake swoon, instead of spending all her training hours on useless crafts like the sword, and hand to hand combat. Now would be an excellent time to have some damsel skills to fall back on.

Eighteen

TOMORROW’S HEADLINES

This was the greatest story that Kai would never be able to write. First, the two princesses, sharing confidences over tea. Then, the glass coffin of the cursed queen. He could not imagine that many quills had been allowed into this sanctum.

Now there was the sight of three tough-nut Hounds in their socked feet, pretending they had the situation under control.

Kai didn’t even have time to indulge in his awkward crush on Dennis, the wide-shouldered blond Hound, not now, not with so much going on.

Not with a Prince of Charming in the room, smirking like he planned to write the headlines himself.

FOREIGN PRINCESS CAUGHT IN CURSED QUEEN’S BEDCHAMBER came to mind, and Kai was instantly ashamed of himself.

“Cyrus,” said Camilla, and kissed her brother’s cheek. “I haven’t seen you for an age. Why did they dig you out of bed?”

“Sergeant Clay didn’t dare break into your private quarters without a royal permission slip,” said Prince Cyrus, looking triumphant. “We know how you value your privacy, darling.”

The Sergeant, who was dripping wet for some reason, looked annoyed at this summation of events.

Kai fell into a new wave of panic, because he had strolled in here as if he owned the place, just because he smelled some interesting ink, and the princess surely had every right to…

He was so caught up in his thoughts that he missed the most obvious and newsworthy event of the evening, when Prince Cyrus was formally introduced to Princess Ziyi of Xix.

“Awk-ward,” Dennis said in an undertone. Kai had been creeping close and closer to the Hounds, possibly because they stood between him and the door.

“More tea!” announced Camilla, clapping her hands as her brother and the midnight princess stared at each other with a mixture of hesitation and suspicion. “So much tea. Kai, will you be godmother? Sorry, Sergeant,” she added, patting him lightly on the shoulder. “Didn’t mean to raise old ghosts. Let’s trot down, shall we?”

Tea. Because of course that made sense.

Nineteen

WAR AVERTED: CRUMPETS IMPLICATED

This was how war ended and marriages were made, Dennis decided — over tea and crumpets and sardine sandwiches at midnight with the representatives of royal families and their advisors, chewing over a problem until it quietly went away.

Prince Chase had turned up, grumbling, after his brother Cyrus insisted that he join the makeshift party. He was sober, and mocked the situation between his brother and the midnight princess so expertly that there would be no puns left for the newspaper to use in its headlines for a week.

Princess Ziyi lost her own embarrassment sometime around Prince Chase’s third inappropriate joke, when she threw a sardine at him, and his brother and sister laughed so hard that they almost choked on their own cups of tea.

Royals, Dennis thought, had a different code of what was appropriate and what was not, and they were bloody well making it up as they went along.

Sarge, despite his soaked clothes, was obviously a trusted voice among the Charming siblings. He won several brownie points with Princess Ziyi when he agreed without question that her family emergency was just as important as their homegrown King Iolchus Is About To Screw Up Years of Diplomacy With His Hissy Fit situation.

Corporal Jack stood near the fireplace, wearing her generic facial expression of ‘I’m not even listening to any of you’ which Dennis longed to master for himself. He and Kai stood near each other, almost certainly because it put them in the best position for the plate of sandwiches, and not for any other reason.

“On a scale of one to ten, how much are you longing to take notes right now?” he whispered.

Kai gave him a sardonic look. “I’m just waiting for them to remember what I do for a living and chuck me out,” he replied, just as quietly. “I’m pretty sure they shoot quills for sport around here.”

“Assuming the two of you don’t actually want to get married,” Camilla was saying thoughtfully.

“NO,” said Ziyi and Cyrus in unison, and then looked apologetically at each other.

“No point to it,” drawled Chase. “It would solve our gunpowder princess’s problem, but not our own diplomatic crisis. What we need — what both parties need — is for the midnight princess to disappear without trace.”

Sarge gave the prince a dirty look. “We don’t do that in this kingdom, your highness.”

“Certainly not!” snapped Camilla.

“Um,” said Ziyi, looking alarmed.

“Oh, how adorable, you thought I meant to assassinate her,” said Chase. “No, we don’t have the skill-set to clean blood out of furnishings, and besides, too many witnesses.” He gave Dennis an arch look over his shoulder.

“Good,” growled Sarge. “I’ve hidden enough bodies for this family.”

All of the Royals looked startled at that, and only Camilla laughed.

“He was joking,” noted Corporal Jack, making Dennis jump. For a woman made out of stone, she was pretty sneaky.

“I got that,” he replied.

“Making sure that your friend did,” said Jack, giving Kai a dirty look.

“I’m surrounded by aristos and their guard dogs,” Kai sighed. “I’m just going to assume that 90% of what everyone says tonight is sarcasm, metaphor, or a personal threat.”

“Chase has a plan,” announced Camilla. “I knew it was a good idea to bring him in on this. Cyrus, pass Chase a cake.”

“Whose idea was it to bring him?” teased her brother. “Chase doesn’t need more cake, he won’t fit into his favourite waistcoat.”

“The midnight princess needs to disappear,” Chase said loudly. He gave Ziyi a very undiplomatic once-over. “How attached are you to the label of princess?”

“I’d have ripped it off at birth if I could,” she said instantly.

“Have you any useful skills, as an ordinary citizen? We all know you can run fast.”

She frowned. “The usual princess things. Porcelain painting. Religious dance. Poetry recital. Twelve different forms of martial art. Tinkling conversation…”

“Oh,” said Sarge softly, and shook his head. “Got it. You’ll have to marry me,” he added to Ziyi.

She took that in stride, smiling. “I think that will do nicely.”

“What?” Jack demanded. “I mean, what?”

“Calm your knees, corporal, I’m not actually going to marry her.”

“Good, because she’s half your age, Sarge, I was either going to have to punch you or arrest you…”

“The good Sergeant is suggesting that I should write home and let them know I have eloped with someone most unsuitable to my station in life,” said Ziyi softly. “He is offering his name, which means his protection, which is kind but unnecessary. It would be better, I think, if they believed I had left the kingdom of Charming altogether before my unfortunate marriage.”

“But where will you go?” Dennis blurted. He had sisters, and the thought of one of them disappearing into another kingdom with nothing but a letter full of falsehoods made him sick to his stomach.

“One of our newbies quit after the Autumnal Fling,” said Sarge. “No stomach for it. There’s always one. Slip this lass into a tabard and a helm, cut her hair, no one will spot her as a princess in hiding. Not if she can throw an opponent as well as the Xixese warriors I’ve met before.”

“I believe I can be adequate to the task,” said Ziyi. She was glowing all over, as if the very thought of freedom had set her on fire.

Corporal Jack looked angrier at this idea than she had been about the fake marriage, but she said nothing.

Dennis felt Kai shift beside him. “It’s not enough,” said the serious young quill, finally calling attention to his presence. “I’m sorry, but it’s not. The Midnight Princess is the story of the season. The Herald is never going to stop hunting for her, and as long as their – our headlines are screaming that story, I don’t imagine the King will calm down, either.”

Chase and Cyrus turned their faces towards him, so similar that it made Dennis shiver.

“So we need a better story,” said one of the princes as if it was obvious.

“A bigger story,” agreed his brother, “To swallow the midnight princess whole, and push her back to page 6, then page 12, then page 24.”

They stared expectantly at Kai.

Kai gulped.

“That’s easy,” said Camilla, and she might be darker than her brothers in hair and skin tone, but she looked like their reflection as she leaned in to share her idea. “I think it’s time, don’t you?”

Everyone in the room went very still. Chase and Cyrus both got an odd look on their identical faces, a softness despite their sharp features.

“Really, darling?” said Cyrus.

Camilla smiled brilliantly, and motioned Kai to come and sit beside her. “I’ve left all this wretched palace work to the two of you for years. Time I shared the load. The hidden princess is coming out into the sunshine. How does that sound?”

“Story of the century,” Kai breathed.

Dennis stood there with Jack, two watchful Hounds, as tomorrow’s history was planned out with meticulous precision. Sarge drew Ziyi aside, almost looking cheerful as he dared her to show him a few of her defensive moves.

Kai sat with Princess Camilla and both of the Princes, talking animatedly -- and finally allowed to take notes! The four of them plotted out what should be said, and written, practically finishing each other’s sentences as they worked. Dennis could not take his eyes off Kai, how alive he seemed in this moment, crafting the story that would surely make his career.

For a moment, a brief moment, he allowed himself to want, fiercely.

Beside him, Jack drew in a breath. “Do you see that?” she whispered. “Am I imagining that?”

Dennis could not see anything but Kai in his element. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, I -” she shrugged, and rolled back against the wall, her defenses drawn up like a drawbridge. “Nothing. It doesn’t matter.”

Dennis didn’t realise what she had seen until later, much later.

Sarge dragged Ziyi off to reinvent her as a new recruit for the Hounds. He insisted Jack join them ‘for a girl’s opinion,’ a sentence for which Sarge would pay dearly, for the rest of his life.

Camilla and her brothers disappeared back up into the tower, planning her grand coming out at the next ball two days hence — she would wear the midnight princess gown and mask, dance with both of her brothers, and finally her father, if he hadn’t called the Hounds to arrest her already.

She would allow herself to be revealed, the hidden princess coming home to her family and her kingdom and her castle.

Kai’s story, Dennis imagined, would be written and filed already, guaranteeing he would be the first quill to capture the story of the century.

The Midnight Princess Revealed.

Now it was just the two of them left, sitting on the steps outside the tower as dawn came, sending fingers of light across the beautiful gardens of Castle Charming.

“I just,” said Kai, and laughed with a hint of hysteria in his voice. “I’m coming to terms with it, I suppose. These are just the sorts of things that happen when you move to a fairy tale kingdom.”

“You’ll get used to it,” said Dennis, leaning back on his elbows.

“Pumpkins and godmothers and princesses and — really? Those are things you just get used to?”

Dennis had lived in Charming his whole life. “Talking cats, too,” he remarked.

“I almost believe you.”

The early morning sunlight hit the tower, and when Dennis next looked across at Kai, the other boy was lit up all over, haloed in sunlight. For one giddy moment, he thought about breaking his promise to himself and kissing, touching, letting this unspoken thing between them unravel.

Except.

There, in a halo of sunlight, sprawled comfortably on the steps of a tower that contained a cursed queen and two fairy tale princes and their beautiful, strange, inked-up sister of a princess, Dennis realised how very familiar Kai looked.

He swallowed. Jack must have seen this in the kitchen, the odd similarity. In the sunlight, his dark hair all glossy and reflective, Kai looked for the first time like the Princes Charming. He had the cheekbones, the nose — the colouring was wrong, but not when you had spent the evening around Princess Camilla, with her spill of black hair, her olive skin tone closer to that of their father than the pale silver-blonde cursed queen…

The age was right. Kai had spent his childhood travelling, away from Charming… he couldn’t have guessed who he was. If Dennis’ horrible guess was correct.

Because yes. This was the kind of shit that happened to you all the time when you lived in a fairy tale kingdom: the boy you wanted desperately to kiss started to look a lot like a long-lost prince.

Dennis had no words for this. He didn’t know what to say.

Perhaps, he thought desperately, he didn’t have to say anything at all. It wasn’t his place. Let someone else break the next story of the century, the one that left the midnight princess forgotten in the dust.

He wasn’t a quill. This wasn’t his job.

Kai winced into the brightness of the sun, and looked like himself again, beautiful and serious and ordinary. Not the least bit royal. “Hey,” he said, letting his hand brush against Dennis’ knee. “Do you want to grab breakfast?”

“Sure,” said Dennis, when breathing became possible again. “I could eat.”

He was a Royal Hound, charged with protecting and serving the royal family. Keeping them safe. And keeping his mouth shut.

For now.

Twenty

MIDNIGHT PRINCESS REVEALS ALL

Camilla of Charming’s Years of Silence, Her Family Tragedy, And The Glass Slipper That Ended Her Exile

&EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW&

&Byline: Kai Foster and Amira Chaudry&

&Only in the Charming Herald&

&6 Copper toads Supplement on Saturdays&

&Bringing The News&

&To Every Doorstep in the Kingdom and Beyond&

Coming soon: Dance, Princes, Dance

Castle Charming #2 on sale in April 2017

Welcome back to Castle Charming. Winter is here, the annual tournament of Rookery is underway, and the royal household has a mysterious bill for far too many dancing shoes. When you live in a fairy tale kingdom, rescuing princes comes with the territory, but Castle Charming’s party-loving Princes Gone Wild may have fallen too far to be saved.

Turn the page for a sneak peek at Chapter 1!

Chapter 1 – Armour Up

They called her Ziggy or Zig, close enough to her original name in their flat accents that it didn’t even feel like she had become a different person… though of course, she had. The sharp, sarcastic princess from the exotic island of Xix had disappeared, to be replaced by a quiet, diligent Royal Hound cadet.

She had aching muscles from the hard work and training that was expected of a royal bodyguard. She had friends, she had work she enjoyed: the martial arts disciplines she had inhaled as a child were finally useful. No one was ever going to insist that she married a prince. Life was good.

Only.

No one had warned her about this.

“I don’t think there’s enough armour,” Ziyi gasped as Dennis and Corporal Jack rallied around, wrapping her in thick leather and shoving a helm with a mesh face-guard over her head.

“You’ll be fine, Zig,” said Dennis, smacking her helpfully between the shoulder blades. That boy kept forgetting how strong he was. Normally she liked it, that he never treated her like some hothouse flower, but right now she was panicking. “Just get out there, try not to get hit, and make us proud.”

“I’m not ready!” Ziyi insisted. “There must be someone else who can…”

“It’s tradition,” Jack and Dennis chorused, and what was with that, anyway? Dennis had been a Royal Hound for maybe a week before “Cadet Ziggy” joined up. How was he suddenly an expert on what was and was not castle tradition?

“Does this helm have horns on it?” Ziyi demanded.

“You can do it, kid,” Jack told her. She was also wearing the thick leather padding, the helm and the horns. “I’ll be with you every step of the way. Head up, eyes bright, grip your stick… and don’t drop the ball.”

“Why would I be anywhere near the ball?” Ziyi yelped, but it was too late. Dennis had one of her arms, Jack had the other, and the ground whooshed past her feet until they set her down on the grass, in the midst of the game.

Somewhere, a whistle blew. Ziyi failed to see how that was constructive.

Rookery was a sport invented by bored princes three generations ago, which should have been the first red flag. Castle Charming had a particular sympathy with bored princes, enabling their more destructive tendencies and protecting them from the worst consequences of their actions.

The relationship between castle and princes was less than healthy; this should be a surprise to no one.

Prince Cyrus spent more time on recreational athletics than he had ever spent on his studies, or royal duties. Prince Chase preferred to get his athletic training via sneaking out to clubs in the city or in neighbouring kingdoms, dancing for hours, and hooking up with strangers.

One prince rose early to train before breakfast; the other slept until noon or, on many occasions, nightfall. They lived hard, played harder, and defied their father at every turn. At nineteen, barely a couple of months away from coming of age as heirs to the kingdom, they were both set in their ways.

But every year, as autumn gave way to the chill winds of winter at Castle Charming, the two princes came together with their friends to play a weekly rookery championship against a team of their own bodyguards: Royals vs. Hounds. It was the social and sporting event of the winter, for those who played as well as those who watched.

The winter middle of “the Season” was more relaxed than the frantic autumn whirl of dances and receptions and matchmaking had been. Many attractive young people had already found their future spouses and settled back on their smug laurels to plan a wedding. Those who were still searching usually embraced the more intimate potential of house parties in the country until after New Year — Castle Charming was particularly chill in winter, and less than hospitable for guests. The only outsiders who remained were those hardy young women still set upon bagging a prince, who had managed to get their families to send them chests of furs and woollen layers so they could participate in the traditional winter sports of ice skating, flirting on frosted balconies, and cheering on their chosen rookery champions.

Kai Foster had learned all of this from Amira, his mentor and closest friend at the Charming Herald since he signed on as a junior reporter or “quill” a few months ago. She was also a useful source for explaining the rules of rookery, though he hadn’t absorbed much beyond ‘five player teams’ and ‘they wear a lot of leather’ and ‘chances are high you will see one of the princes thrown in a pit today.’

“So, audiences aren’t usually this big?” Kai asked Amira now, as a mob of teenagers shoved past them to get to the few remaining seats.

“Nope,” said Amira. “It’s usually just us, a few diehard statistics nuts, and the last handful of marriage hopefuls.” She indicated the row of beautiful debutantes shivering under thick blankets and furs on the front bench with homemade signs indicating their preference for Prince Cyrus or Prince Chase. “Everyone reads about the games and talks about the games without bothering to attend. But, you know. Everything about this year is different.”

This year, the Royals team wasn’t just made up of Cyrus, Chase and their closest friends and cousins: this year, they had a Princess on their side.

Seventeen-year-old Princess Camilla of Charming had recently returned to public life. Her dark hair had been styled into something trim and fashionable, but she still looked more bohemian artist than Royal daughter, with her tattooed arms and her mocking, sarcastic ways. Kai glanced across to her now, just as Camilla leaned over and shared a fist-bump with two of her teammates: Serena, Countess of Argyll, and Gawain of Gaheris. Both were distant Charming cousins, and favourites of the Princes.

Kai liked Princess Camilla a lot. Even though her life had become so busy and complicated since she embraced royal duty, she still made time to help him understand the magical affinity for ink that they both shared. He could not quite believe that she had let her brothers talk her into this activity — but Camilla was laughing as Cyrus shoved a spiky helmet over her fashionable hair.

“She’s pretty,” said Amira with an arch expression.

Kai rolled his eyes at her. “Please don’t.” There was nothing about Camilla of Charming that was remotely close to his type.

“Don’t worry,” smirked Amira. “No one will accuse you of treason or journalistic bias if you cheer for the Hounds instead.”

Because yes, there was Kai’s type, on the other side of the pitch. The blond, wide-shouldered Hound cadet Dennis was wrapped in leather and about to take to the field in a crazy game of spikes and kicking. Kai let his eye linger for a moment before he blushed and looked away. “That’s not happening either.”

He had thought it might, but they had settled comfortably into being friends, and that was fine. It was enough. He knew better than to expect more.

“Such a disappointment to me, Kai,” Amira said gravely, shaking her head. “If I can’t live vicariously through your romantic exploits, I’m going to have to get myself a girlfriend, and who has time for that nonsense?”

The whistle blew, and the game began. Kai tried to follow it, but there were three spiked leather balls in play, and he couldn’t remember how many points were scored if a ball hit a side post before being knocked into one of the wide pits in the grass, or when a ball was hurled into one of the three ‘nests’ that were suspended over the icy pitch. There was a whole lot of terrifying, well-padded violence. After Dennis got a bloody nose from catching a spike to the face, Kai decided he couldn’t even watch any more.

His eye was drawn to the side of the pitch, where the Sarge stood observing “his” team as if he wished he could be out there with the other Hounds. Sergeant Clay had broken his leg playing two years in a row, and both teams (including the King himself) ganged up on him, declaring he should stick to coaching from now on. Given that this was the one time in their lives that both princes had agreed with their father on anything, Sarge had graciously given in.

Kai frowned as a tall, brown stranger approached the Sarge. The man had a military look about him, all handsome competence and shoulders beneath a soft blue turban. Like Sarge, this man’s face was hard-worn for someone who couldn’t be near forty yet.

Sarge was startled to see the other man. They exchanged a professional handshake and an awkward half-hug, then promptly started arguing with each other. Eventually, the Sarge stormed off, dragging his acquaintance with him. Friend or enemy? It was hard to tell.

“Is that a story?” Amira asked, leaning against Kai’s shoulder without taking her own eyes off the game.

“You never know,” Kai muttered.

One thing he had learned since coming to work at Castle Charming: everything was a story, but the most interesting ones could never make it to the front page.

Acknowledgments

The writing of this story and production of this book was funded by the pledges of my wonderful Patreon supporters. You are all my favourites.

Thanks to:

Aifin

Alison Moore

Amy Hannam

Belle McQuattie

Bliss Ehrlich

Cary J Lenehan

Cat Sparks

Charlotte Ashley

Chris & Alisa

D Franklin

Damien Saunders

Deborah Layne

Elanor Matton-Johnson

Erin Kent

Faith Williams

Grant Watson

Heather Berberet

Heidi Stabb

Ian Mond

Jay Watson

Jenni Hughes

Karen Hall

Karen McKenna

Karin Landelius

Kate Gordon

Katharine

Kevin Lossner

Lara Hopkins

Laura

Mark Webb

Matthew

Megan Hungerford

Melina

Mick Green

Mieneke van der Salm

Mihaela Marija Perkovic

Mike Thompson

Mindy Johnson

Miriam Mulcahy

Narrelle Harris

Not_the_brain

Pamela Freeman

Paul Weimer

Rebecca

Rebecca harbison

Rivqa Rafael

Scott Leis

Scott Lynch

Tania Duffield

About the Author

Tansy Rayner Roberts is an award-winning author and critic who lives in Tasmania, Australia with her family. She has a PhD in Classics, which she misused scurrilously to create the short story collection: Love and Romanpunk. She writes about, though not exclusively, pirates, witches, superheroes, fairy tale newspapers and magical share houses. When not writing, she runs a literary gift shop: Alice & Austen.

You can listen to Tansy across three different podcasts: Galactic Suburbia, providing a feminist point-of-view of the SF publishing world; Verity! six smart women talking about Doctor Who; and Sheep Might Fly, where Tansy reads aloud her stories as audio serials.

Sign up to Tansy’s newsletter and collect a free copy of her magical university story Fake Geek Girl.

Follow TansyRR at:

  • @tansyrr
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Also by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Musketeer Space

Joyeux

Love and Romanpunk

Kid Dark Against The Machine

***

BELLADONNA UNIVERSITY:

Fake Geek Girl

Unmagical Boy Story

***

MOCKLORE:

Bounty

The Mocklore Omnibus

Ink Black Magic

***

THE CREATURE COURT:

Power and Majesty

The Shattered City

Reign of Beasts

***

NON-FICTION & ESSAYS

It’s Raining Musketeers

Pratchett’s Women

50 Roman Mistresses


Glass Slipper Scandal

Charming is a kingdom where fairy tales come true, which has been bad news for its troubled royal family, but good news for the gutter press that thrives on the scandals and gossip provided by their teenage Princes Gone Wild. Kai is a rookie reporter at the Charming Herald. Dennis is a new Royal Hound, charged with protecting the self-destructive princes from disaster. Disaster arrives in a pumpkin coach… The story of the century will be wearing glass slippers… and Castle Charming will never be the same again.

  • Author: Tansy Roberts
  • Published: 2017-03-11 09:05:28
  • Words: 16344
Glass Slipper Scandal Glass Slipper Scandal