“Your Royal Highnesses? Prince Cai? Princess Axellia? Now where have you two gone?” Bebin calls as she checks under my bed, her cap tumbling from her head.
“Oh, for the love of-” she mutters as she squishes it back in place onto her grey hair. Axellia giggles next to me in the pile of dirty laundry.
“Sh!” I whisper.
She slaps her hand over her mouth to keep herself from laughing.
“Come on out you two,” Bebin calls as she stands slowly and looks around, scratching at the back of her head. “I know you two are in this nursery somewhere!”
Axellia and I stay as quiet as we can, shushing each other's giggles.
Bebin slowly kneels back down to peek under Axellia’s bed.
“As if usual four-year-olds aren’t bad enough. Twins! Hmph!” she grumbles as she sits up, accidentally bumping her head on the table in between mine and Axellia’s bed. The set of glass sheep and shepherds clinking together as Bebin rubs her head and uses the bedpost to pull herself onto her feet.
“Because the Creator decided that’s what I needed at my age. Twins! And the queen’s expecting another. Ugh!”
She opens up a toy chest and looks inside. “So long as it’s only one this time,” she slams the toy chest closed and moves to the wardrobe, sticking her head inside.
“Where are you two?”
I turn to Axellia, grinning. She nods, and together we jump out of the laundry pile.
“Oh! Oh! Oh, no, no, no!” Bebin screams as she falls into the wardrobe, pulling some of Axellia’s dresses down with her. Axellia and I laugh, hard.
“Are you two determined to send me to an early grave?” Bebin loudly huffs as she uses the wardrobe to push herself back onto her feet.
“We got you!” I cheer.
“Hmph, you certainly did. Now shoo-shoo!” Bebin waves us towards the door. “Outside, now! Both of you. It’s too bright a day for you to be cooped up in here, anyways!”
I beat Axellia to the door and begin to open it when Bebin stops us.
“Wait, wait,” she pulls two white cloaks and scarves out of the wardrobe and waddles to us. “Just because there’s a break in the rain doesn’t mean it still isn’t cool enough for you to catch your death. Axellia, hold still.”
“You’re messing up my hair,” Axellia whines. “You’ll make it poofy again!”
“Nonsense. I’ve been wrestling the Hawley curls since your mother was a babe. Your hair is not going anywhere,” she finishes tying our scarves around our heads and opens the door for us. “Now, outside. I think your brother is training with Fredricks at the training field.”
“Let’s go scare him!” I suggest to Axellia, who nods enthusiastically.
“Scare Nicholai, scare Mother, scare Father, scare me!” Bebin wags her finger in our faces. “If you two spent as much time on your lessons as you did on your pranks you’d be headed to Cristabel Academy by now. Well, what are you two still gawking about for? Outside, shoo!”
We take off, racing down the stairs, passing two or three servants who say “Your highnesses” and bow their heads as we pass by. We manage to catch the washer-lady waving to one of the cattlemen out a window, not watching us.
I glance at Axellia. She grins and nods. We tiptoe up behind her as she blows kisses and shout, “boo!”
She screams, dropping her basket as we race outside, giggling all the way.
“Did you see her drop all those frilly things?” I shout as we step into the courtyard. Several knights and squires bow their heads to us as they and we stop at the gate that keeps bad people from coming in.
“They’re not frilly things, they’re petticoats!” Axellia hisses.
“Whatever,” I shrug as the guards open the gate and let us out into the fields. People from the villages are picking potatoes, cabbages, carrots, onions, peas, and radishes. All the nasty things that I don’t like, but Mother makes me eat anyways. They all stop their picking to bow as we wave back. I lead Axellia by the hand and dive into an empty field full of tall grass between the farm fields and the training fields. We race through our own little path we’ve made from the number of times we’ve gone to sneak up on Nicholai. I have to keep wiping my face to get the water off it. Even though it isn’t raining today the grass is still wet, probably because it's early in the morning.
Even buried in the tall green we can hear the “mooing” and “baaing” from cows, sheep, and goats being brought out of the castle to eat and stretch. As we grow closer, the animal noises are covered up by the “clink, clink” of swords. I peek my head over the top of the grass and see my big brother sword training, his dark skin covered in sweat. They’re both really busy, which is good, because they’ll never see me or Axellia coming.
“Let’s go,” I whisper. Axellia and I get on our hands and knees and crawl closer towards them. Axellia giggles.
“Shh!” I whisper. Axellia covers her mouth and we keep crawling.
“There, now again,” Fredricks says as we get closer. “And again. Now, up, and to the chest. Perfect! One more time.”
Now I begin giggling and Axellia tells me to be quiet.
“Very good,” Fredricks says again. “Take a break, Crown Prince Nicholai.”
I can now see my big brother, Nicholai, through the grass as he takes off his helmet and drops it to the ground. He runs a hand through his hair, which is like mine. Not really curly like mother’s and Axellia’s, but not straight like Father’s. It’s somewhere in between, but black like all of ours. Fredricks’ big manticore walks over, carrying a bucket and dipping-spoon in his mouth to Nicholai.
Nicholai gazes suspiciously into the bucket, then glances up at the manticore. “Should I be scared?”
The manticore huffs angrily at Nicholai. He laughs and pets his ear, making him purr.
“It was a joke, Stapo, you know that I’d trust you with my life,” he takes the dipping spoon and drinks a big gulp out of it.
“I wouldn’t,” Fredricks snorts as he takes a quick gulp of something in a little bottle he always has strapped to his leg. Stapo growls at him.
“What do you have there?” Nicholai asks Fredricks, pointing at the small bottle.
“You can’t have any. You’re too young,” Fredricks says quickly.
“I’m sixteen, Fredricks. Practically grown,” Nicholai whines.
“And I’m a kitsune princess,” Fredricks says, making Nicholai laugh.
Axellia and I are really close now. We both try really hard not to laugh, but some giggles slip out. Nicholai raises his head, glancing about. We both squeeze our mouths shut, our tummies tingling with excitement.
“Did you hear that, Fredricks?” he asks. Axellia and I grow as quiet as we can.
“Yes, sir, a most mysterious sound indeed,” Fredricks answers as he strokes his beard, the only bit of hair he’s got left, his eyes looking smaller than usual as he squints. “What do you think it is?”
“It sounded like…” Nicholai slowly begins to turn around to where Axellia and I are hiding. We both creep down deeper into the grass.
“…it sounded like a pair of four-year-old, twin terrors!” the grass above us splits open as Nicholai catches us, a wide grin on his face. “Aha!”
We both squeal and take off running.
“Don’t let them escape, Fredricks!” Nicholai calls as he takes after us. I pump my legs faster, trying to take deeper breaths, but that’s hard to do when you’re laughing.
“Split up!” I yell. Axellia runs off to one side, and I go the other.
“After her, Fredricks,” Nicholai calls. “I’ll get this one!”
I run as fast as I can, so fast my side hurts, but I don’t stop. “You can’t catch me, Nicholai!” I yell.
“Oh, really?” Nicholai asks. He grabs me and throws me in the air. I laugh as I come falling back down into Nicholai’s arms. “Then what do you make of this, Cai?” he blows against my cheek.
“Let me go! Let me go!” I yell as I try to get away from his tickling fingers.
“No, time for you to face your punishment!” Nicholai yells, tickling my sides and arms.
“Stop it! Stop it!” I squeal as I try to fight. I hate tickling, but I always laugh when Nicholai tickles me, so I guess I don’t hate it that much.
“Think you can sneak up on me, huh?” Nicholai asks as we both tumble to the ground, and Nicholai pins me down in another tickling attack. “Think you can sneak up on me, eh?”
“Stop, stop! My tummy hurts!” I beg.
“Alright, alright,” Nicholai sighs as he lets me up. I crawl into his lap and trace the orange symbol on his chest armor. He picks grass out of my hair and clothes.
“Nicholai, why is there a six-headed dragon on your armor?”
“It’s a hydra, Cai,” Nicholai corrects.
“Hydra,” I repeat.
“Because that’s what familiar father had,” Nicholai answers.
“But it died,” I hang my head in sorrow.
“I’m afraid so.”
“When you get your own familiar, will it go on your armor?”
“Yes,” Nicholai smiles.
“I bet you’ll get a dragon!” I cheer.
“Oh, no, I’m no Osias,” Nicholai laughs. “Maybe a manticore, like Fredricks.”
“Or a sea dragon, like mother.”
“Sea serpent, Cai.”
A piece of strange music playing, a turn to notice a group of people walking towards the orchard behind the potato, cabbage, and pea fields. Some of the workers climb down from the trees and race over to them. These new people are all dressed in strange, bright clothes. They all have pictures painted on their skin. Most of them have wings. All kinds of wings too: white and brown ones with feathers, green ones with scales, black ones with fur.
Nicholai turns over his shoulder. “Oh, looks like the Roamers are in town.”
“Yes. They came last year around harvest time, I suppose you don’t remember.”
“Well, they're where we got your finger paints from.”
“Oh! Can I get some more?” I ask as I begin running towards them. “Roamers! Roamers! Can I get some fing-”
“Hold on, there, sir,” Nicholai grabs the edge of my cloak and pulls me back towards him. “I’m sure you can have more finger paints, but not now. You have to wait until they settle in and the workers get done with their purchases.”
“Are those the rules?”
“There’s not really any rules for these sort of things, Cai. Just common decency.”
“Yeah, what’s that mean.”
“Oh. Alright,” I look at the Roamers again. “They got wings. Are they fairies?”
“All of them?”
“No, but most of them are,” Nicholai answers.
“Why?” I ask.
“Well, I’ll tell you.”
“Story?” I squeak, excited. Nicholai always tells the best stories.
“Story,” Nicholai confirms with a nod. I climb out of his lap to settle in the grass in front of him, bouncing with excitement. Nicholai raises a hand to start, but something catches his eye. He stands up and cups his hand over his eyes. I stand up next to him and try to do the same thing. I stand on my toes to see if I’ll look as tall as Nicholai, but I can’t reach, or see anything above the grass.
“Let’s head back to the training grounds,” Nicholai says as he takes my hand and leads me away. Fredricks is coming towards us, his knees poking out above the tall grass. Axellia is riding on his shoulders, both laughing.
“Aw, but what about the story?” I huff as Nicholai drags me behind him.
“I’ll tell you later,” Nicholai promises as he glances over his shoulder. He looks scared, but I know that can’t be right because Nicholai is never scared. He turns his head back around and gives Fredricks some kind of hand motion, points to Axellia and the castle. Fredricks nods, frowning, and begins to walk towards the castle, whistling for Stapo who plods his way towards the two.
“Is something wrong?” I ask as I look behind me. All I see is the orchard. Then a group of people step out from behind the trees, almost out of nowhere. They all have familiars with them, all are tall, and all have long, pointy ears sticking out of the sides of their heads.
“Are those elves?” I ask.
“Don’t look at them!” Nicholai hisses, jerking on my arm.
I jump. Nicholai never yells at me. “Nicholai?”
“Let’s just get back to the castle,” Nicholai answers. Stapo has caught up to Fredricks who’s far ahead of us now. Fredricks sets Axellia on his back, then climbs up behind her. Stapo spreads out his wings and takes off towards the castle, his curled up tail bouncing in the wind.
Nicholai glances over his shoulder again. I do too, even though he told me not to look, though, I can’t help it. I want to see. The men are running toward us, and they look mad.
“Run!” Nicholai yells. He takes off, dragging me along behind him. I run as fast as I can, trying to keep up with Nicholai, trying not to fall over, which is hard, because Nicholai’s fast and I’m not.
“What’s wrong?” I ask, my lip trembling as I try to keep up with Nicholai. “Who are they?”
Nicholai doesn’t answer, but keeps pulling me towards the training grounds. He ducks behind a target and pulls me into his arms. I hear three “twangs,” and three arrowheads poke out of the back of the target. I shout and cling to Nicholai’s shirt. Why are they shooting at us?