Once upon a time, there lived a strong and intelligent princess named Myra Wellington. For many years, she searched for a prince because she wanted one. Not because the law forced her to marry, nor because she was too weak to rule on her own. Not to save herself or her loved ones from a curse or other danger. And not because her parents were forcing her to form an advantageous political alliance, either. She wanted to marry because she knew that finding a life partner would give her a different kind of strength, for she had seen the beauty of true partnership from her parents. However, Myra knew he had to be a true prince.
But what made a real prince? Certainly not his title. She’d met many “princes” in her search. They all ended up being false. Not his outward beauty, either. Looks would change or decline with age. Though, she would readily admit that personal attraction was necessary. No, a true prince had something else. Something indefinable and elusive. In all the would-be princes she’d met, something always seemed not quite right. In the end, she decided it must be her that wasn’t quite right and gave up.
Until the year of her twenty-third birthday, when her parents started acting suspicious.
After trying to catch her parents for months during the summit preparations, Myra finally cornered her mother early in the morning of arrival day.
“What are you and Father up to? You usually include me in all the planning. Why did you leave me out of this?” Angry tears threatened to spill down her cheeks. “And why did you choose a date so near my birthday?”
Her mother set a large, bow-wrapped dress box down on Myra’s dressing table. She took ahold of her daughter’s hands and gave them a gentle pat.
“Don’t worry, darling. You’ll find out soon enough. In the meantime, here’s an early birthday gift. Be sure to hurry to the receiving room.” The queen kissed her daughter’s cheek and left.
Myra sat at her dressing table with a huff. She glared at the dress box and tugged on the bow. After a moment, she removed the lid and pulled the dress out, holding it up. She smiled at the floral pattern, the short sleeves, and the mid-calf length. It was unusual and unrestrictive. Her mother knew her well. Her eye caught on something remaining in the box. She took that out, too and laughed at the matching shorts. It’s not that she hated dresses, but everyone in the castle knew how much she preferred the movement of trousers and split skirts.
A knock on her door brought a light breakfast and a string of ladies’ maids to dress and prepare her for the long day ahead.
Myra stepped through the doorway into the near-empty receiving
room. A chamberlain on the inside cleared his throat.
“Presenting Her Highness, Myra Astrid Wellington, Crown Princess of Wellington,” he boomed.
Noting his partner stationed at the doorway across the room, she stepped close to him and whispered, “Please tell me that’s not going to happen every time I re-enter the room today?”
She clenched and unclenched her fists. “Isn’t that a bit extreme?”
He ducked his head and mumbled, “I’m sorry, milady. It’s our duty.”
“I see.” She nodded. Sighed. “Carry on.”
She joined her parents at the row of picture windows, linking arms with her mother. The windows supplied a view of the front approach to the castle, making it an excellent place to watch for arriving guests. They didn’t have to wait long for the first, and as they were greeting one another, the next guest arrived and so on, until there was a small gathering mingling happily throughout the receiving room.
At a lull in the arrivals, Myra slipped back over to the windows. She wanted to look at the larger picture to see if she was imagining the trend in the composition of the attendees. It was still early, but she may have figured out why her parents had been acting like giddy schoolchildren during the summit preparations. Most, if not all, of the rulers that would usually attend a summit personally had sent a representative instead —a young male representative, to be precise. She sighed, massaging her forehead, and turned to stare out the window.
Another young man arrived, riding a large brown pony, the first to travel without an entourage. Myra smirked. He sprang off his pony, laughing as he handed the reins to the waiting footman. He removed a bandolier of throwing knives and passed them to the footman as well, talking and laughing all the while. A bundle of dark grey clouds emerged overhead, blocking the sun. The young man grabbed an umbrella from behind his saddle, opened it, and gave it to the footman. He then skipped up the stairs. A sound of amusement escaped her lips. She whipped around, checking if anyone caught her. Safely alone —and seeing her parents occupied with other guests— she moved to the entrance.
The newest arrival stopped to confer with the entrance chamberlain, giving Myra the chance for a closer look. His long hair —captured at the nape of his neck— was the same color as his pony. Surprisingly, the newcomer was of a height with her and slim in a way that suggested he was built for speed. She was dying to know if he really knew how to use those knives, or if they were only for show.
The chamberlain cleared his throat. “Presenting my Lord, Noah Fawx, Cousin of Her Excellency, the Empress of Wriddannia.”
Myra stepped up, extending her hand in greeting. He took her hand and bowed over it.
“I’m Myra Wellington. Welcome to the summit.”
As he straightened, he kissed her hand and winked. “It’s my pleasure to attend.” He winked again. “Everyone calls me Fawx.”
She felt the callouses on the hand he still held and stared into his laughing golden brown eyes. She quirked an eyebrow. “I’m sure they do.” She glanced towards their still-clasped hands. “Are you going to hold that all day?”
He grinned, highlighting his freckles, and turned his hand, holding hers tighter. He gave a gentle tug and pulled her towards the buffet tables, laughing —and talking— the entire way.
“When was the last time you ate, Myra? My cousin woke me before dawn, then shoved me out the door before I had the chance to even smell breakfast. She was so sure I would be late, but look,” he gestured at the windows, “it’s not even midday!”
Myra laughed as she let herself be pulled along. “Wait. Did you say you left this morning?”
He nodded, mouth full.
“How in the world did you arrive so quickly?”
Fawx chuckled and winked. “I took the shortest, most direct route. Naturally.”
Myra’s face scrunched as she thought over all the maps. “I give up. Which route is that?”
He sipped his chilled cider and answered with a sly grin. “Across the river and through the forest.”
She gasped. “Isn’t the forest deadly?”
In two blinks of an eye, he slipped a hidden knife out, twirled it, and returned it. “Only for the unprepared.”
He returned his attention to the food and she mumbled, “Guess that solves that question.”
Fawx tilted his head back towards her, one corner of his mouth lifted, eyes sparkling. “What was that, Myyy-RA?”
One hand covered her mouth as she giggled. “You really are a fox, aren’t you?”
He grinned and bowed. “At your service.”
The entrance chamberlain again cleared his throat. “Presenting my Lord, Soren Andersen, Nephew of Grand Archon Marius.”
Myra’s gaze drifted toward the door, inspecting the latest arrival. Her eyes locked with his and her body froze. Her heart thudded in her chest. Detached, she catalogued him from head to toe. Tall and thin. Dark hair, dark eyes, dark clothes. Devilishly handsome. He blinked, Fawx nudged her shoulder, and the spell was —gratefully— broken. No one approached him. With one long blink, she shook herself and rallied.
Within two steps, Fawx caught up to her. “Going to greet the magician’s nephew?”
She merely nodded.
“Beware the Fruitless Frost,” he whispered in her ear. He kissed her cheek, winked, and dashed off.
Stunned, she watched Fawx for a moment, bounding and twisting, laughing and talking through the crowd. She huffed through her nose. She’d have to keep an eye on that one.
The princess smiled at Soren Andersen and held out her hand. “Hello. I’m Myra Wellington. Welcome to the summit.”
He shook her hand. “Soren. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Your Highness.”
The velvety softness of his voice nearly caused her to miss the catlike qualities in his smile. Her heart thumped on alert.
“Call me Myra.”
She motioned for him to join her in the room. He bowed his head in acceptance.
“As you wish, my lady.”
She arched an eyebrow.
“. . . Myra.”
Fawx darted across her line of sight and a surge of curiosity washed over her. “Soren, do you know why the Grand Archon wasn’t able to attend?”
He grinned his cat-smile. “Apologies, my. . . Myra. As to matters pertaining to my uncle, I don’t question. I humbly obey.” A muscle in his jaw twitched.
Her stomach quivered and the hair on the back of her neck stood on end.
“Presenting,” —the chamberlain’s loud voice startled her— “His Highness, Owain Price, Prince of Glasmor.”
Once again, Myra was captivated, although for an entirely different reason. Whereas Soren’s dark beauty whispered of possible danger, this prince shone with the light of an angel. The door behind him shut, cutting off the midday sun, and he returned to the realm of mortals. She laughed at herself. His “halo” had been a trick of the light shining through his blonde hair.
Fawx dashed up, grabbing and tugging her hand. “Oh, goody, goody. His Gracelessness has arrived. Let’s go greet him.” He pulled her away from Soren, and muttered to himself, “I want to know if he’s still cursed.”
She glanced back towards Soren with an apologetic shrug, then turned to Fawx. “Do you know everybody?”
“Of course, Myra.” The way he lilted her name, accenting the last syllable while drawing out the first, was a bit endearing. “My cousin’s the Empress. It’s my job to know everyone.” He winked.
Myra chuckled and slipped her hand out of his grip. When he flashed her a pout, she threw him a wink of her own.
She stepped up beside her father, who was greeting Prince Owain. Her father made the proper introductions and she curtsied.
“When my brother informed me that he would be sending me here, I did not expect to meet such a lovely young lady as yourself, Your Highness,” Owain said.
“Nor did I expect to be surrounded by so many handsome young gentlemen.” The princess smiled. “And please, call me Myra.”
With raised eyebrows, Owain’s blue eyes cut to her father and back. “Oh, then were you not aware of the plan?”
She scowled. “What plan?”
Her father hemmed and hawed. He put his arm around her shoulder, pulling her off to one side. “Now, Myra, your mother and I . . .”
Fawx skipped up and bowed to the King. “Your Majesty, if I may. Fawx, at your service. May we borrow Myra to settle a dispute we’re having?”
As Fawx motioned between himself and another, Myra glanced behind her to find Soren, of all people. As curious as she was to find out what those two could be arguing about, she was infinitely more eager to learn her parents’ plans.
The corners of her father’s eyes crinkled with his smile and he patted her shoulder. “Go on then, dear. These lads need your company more than I do.”
“But Father, you were in the middle of explaining—”
“There will be plenty of time for explanations later,” he cut her off. Nodding behind her, he said, “Our guests are waiting for you.”
Then her father turned her around by the shoulders and gave her a little shove —straight into the trio of young men. Off-balance, she bumped into Owain, knocking him backwards. He backstepped, tripping on the edge of a rug. Pinwheeling his arms in a futile attempt to arrest his fall, his rump hit the ground with a soft thud. Above him, Myra looked on in dismay, saved from a similar fate by Fawx and Soren who had each grabbed one of her arms.
Fawx grinned at the fallen prince. “I’d say that’s a yes.”
Sufficiently steady, Myra shrugged out of Fawx and Soren’s hold. She bent down to check on Owain.
“I’m so sorry, Your Highness. Are you all right?” She reached toward him.
He scuttled away from her and into a pedestal holding a flower arrangement. The vase wobbled and toppled, spilling flowers and water on his head. She moved towards him again.
“Stop! Don’t come any closer, please.” His lips smiled, but his eyes begged, and his chest heaved. “There is no need to apologize. It happens all the time.” He finally regained his feet and placed the empty vase upright on the pedestal. “Also, if I am going to address you informally, you should do the same with me.”
He ran a hand back through his wet hair, giving her a smoldering look. Behind her, Fawx snickered. Myra held in her own snicker and waved over a couple servants: one to clean the mess, the other to take Owain to his room.
When Owain was out of earshot, Fawx rubbed his hands together. “Well, that was exciting. Don’t you think so, Myra?”
“I wouldn’t say that ‘exciting’ was the correct word,” Soren said.
Fawx huffed, fists on hips. “Well then, what word would you use, oh Great Frosty One?”
Soren’s jaw clenched so tight, Myra could hear his teeth grinding together. His tone remained as light and velvety as ever, though. “Amusing, diverting, or delightful, perhaps.”
Instead of admitting that he agreed with Soren, Fawx sneered and jerked his head away, pouting at the ground. Looking back and forth between the two of them, Myra laughed. She took ahold of each of them by an arm and started mingling with the other guests. She’d decided it was best not to leave the two of them alone with each other, but she didn’t want to play favorites, either. It didn’t take long for Owain to rejoin them, maintaining a noticeable distance from her. Every so often, she shot him a questioning glance, to which his only response was a shrug and a smile.
After a couple hours with her charming trio, Myra excused herself to the wash facilities. She stopped in the doorway on her return, silencing the chamberlain there for the moment. She looked over the room, trying to find her parents. It was way beyond time for them to explain themselves. She spotted her mother and inched forward. Two things happened simultaneously: the chamberlain announced her once again, and Fawx bounded up to collect her, the other two trailing close behind.
She eyed her mother in the distance and sighed internally. Outwardly, she smiled at her self-appointed trio of escorts. They were amusing enough company for the afternoon. Soren and Fawx argued over a thousand trivial nothings, while Owain constantly switched sides in a manner that only made sense to him. She stayed out of it as best she could.