The dishes were stacked in regimented rows along the sideboard, not a soup spoon crooked in the silver drawer. The only thing missing in the fire-lit silence of the kitchen was that wench.
He marched toward the garden door, pounded mud into the wood floor crevices with every step.
Served her right.
He hurried through the darkness of the kitchen yard. A stable boy ran hard into his chest, one saddle on each shoulder.
“Watch it,” Colin said.
The boy looked up at him and stumbled back. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“Don’t mind it. Keep your feet. Where is that kitchen wench Elena? Have you seen her?”
“No, sir.” He took a shaky breath. “But…”
“But Andrew said he saw her wander towards the wood. Saw some strange blue light from that direction, too.”
“Yes, sir. May I go?”
“Yes, thank you. Get those saddles shining before bed, mind.”
Colin walked the cobbled path through Elena’s lettuce patch, through the gate, across the old hay field into the wood.
She always came this way when that old woman gave her hell, or when one of those pig mistresses had teased a bit too far.
Always running off to faerie land. Even though he’d told her not to mind them.
His boots crushed leaves and twigs, and moonlight disappeared beyond the treetops, reappeared again above the empty clearing, a magic meadow.
So her father told her. Too bad her father couldn’t stick around to tell her otherwise, when she outgrew the age of princess dreams and little spells. Too bad he left her penniless to face that noble bitch he went and married.
Now Colin had to be the one to drag her back to work when she went dreaming.
“Elena!” he shouted. “Come out here!”
He listened hard to leaves, wind, a screech-owl, nothing more.
“Elena!” he tried again. “I admit you did the kitchen as I specified, for once. But there are two fireplaces on the east wing you somehow skipped. Again. So hurry up!”
He waited. For nothing.
“Elena Delacuor, since I felt like walking anyway, I’m going to give you five more seconds to come out from that tree. One, two, three, four, five.”
Trees and wind and silence. No Elena.
Could she have headed home already? How could he have missed her on the path?
He moved forward through the clearing, searching harder for a sign of recent footsteps, hers or others’.
No one would take her, right? No one would dare. And who would want a shoddy kitchen maid?
No one decent.
Colin ran a little faster toward the far end of the clearing. And there he found the tracks. Two horses, a heavy coach. Four men. And one Elena, whose footprints vanished in the muddy wheel ruts of the carriage.
It all came out of nowhere, in the middle of the woods. Made no sense.
So he ran on, hard as he could, through the moonless wood, along the tracks. And it occurred to him that maybe he should run back to the house to muster rifles and the hounds and a dozen stable hands, at least, but at the thought of that Elena being driven from her meadow and eight unfamiliar hands and arms around her, he ran on and couldn’t heed his own good sense.
The tracks led right up to the road. They joined a hundred other carriages that passed hours before. All coming or going from that castle.
Colin walked and disbelieved at every step.
She wouldn’t. How could she even if she would? No way she somehow snuck into that king’s bordello.
Ball, my ass.
What that pug-nosed prince wanted was a harem.
But not unwilling, right? He wouldn’t stoop so low as snatching wayward kitchen wenches yet. Surely not.
Colin stared up torch-lined turrets at the banners, red and gold, that waved in celebration of the royal ass’s birthday.
If Elena went to meet that perverted prince…
But there she was. Hunched over in a pile of pumpkin rinds, dirt-smeared and limp beside the ditch.
“Elena?” He stood over her and waited for a sign she might still be his starry fool, but she just sat in the mess of orange, and sniffed.
Colin sat in the squash beside her, drew her head down to his shoulder, held it there. “Care to explain?”
She sniffed again.
“Don’t tell me you got hired to make pie for the ball? I do love your pumpkin pie.”
She sniffed again. Her head gave a tiny shake. “I wasn’t a cook. I was a princess.”
“Ahhh… I see. And did the princess go dancing at the castle ball?”
“Yes. And I was beautiful. You wouldn’t understand.”
“I bet I would.”
“You never thought I was beautiful. But the prince did. He liked me the most. But the magic wore off and it all fell apart, and I still can’t have him.”
“So it’s a prince you want?”
“I should have had it!”
“Maybe, yes. But I would rather you had a prince who followed you out into the roadside when you fell crying in a mess of pumpkin. Did he take one little step off castle grounds, when you left him?”
“He couldn’t leave his guests for me. He’s the prince.”
“Well, I may not have a ballroom full of guests, but I have forty household staff and twenty paid men who I left unattended without a thought, when a certain troublemaker ran away. I think that counts for something. Right?”
A sigh. “Maybe.”
“The correct answer would be, ‘Yes, Colin. Of course, Colin.”
She wiped her nose on a patch of sleeve.
“Well, let’s go home. I’ll even help you sweep the last two fireplaces.”
“No! Not back to that. I wasn’t born to be that woman’s scullery maid!”
He shouldn’t. But he did. He raked his hands into her sticky hair and kissed her lips, and then backed off.
She gave a little huff.
He kissed again.
She stared at him, stunned silent.
“Behave yourself, and someday you can be my scullery maid.”
Elena frowned. She turned away.
And just when he began to think he might have wrecked it all, she drew herself up from the heap and offered her hand and smiled, a little. She said, “Not likely. But I might let you be my steward.”