“Forgive me for being so forthright,” the man in the emerald cloak began as he swept a low hanging branch out his path, “But you do not appear to be from our kingdom. Nobody outside of our palace walls dresses in such an inextricably exquisite manner.” He paused for a brief moment to offer Ruby an admiring smile.

 In spite of her lingering bewilderment, Ruby blushed at the man’s underlying compliment. She glanced down at her own wardrobe choice. She wasn’t wearing anything too exquisite for her time and place; a simple boyfriend jean paired with copper colored knee high boots, and a short sleeved sweater over a white camisole. Briefly, she wondered how this man was perceiving her image; was she revealing too much skin? The mosquitos and gnats that she kept batting away didn’t seem to mind. Uncertain, she returned the man’s smile. A half second later, Cole’s laughter came like a sharp knife cutting through the tension, reminding the other two of his presence. “Why thank you, I’ll pass on your compliments to my seamstress.” His voice was dry and sardonic.

The cloaked man glance up at Cole in all seriousness. “Ah, yes. Well then. We are coming upon the village now. I must warn you sir, there are many who eagerly await your presence and for every one of those people there is one more thwarting your arrival. We are a kingdom divided in our morals so please, be prudent.” Before Cole could get a word in edgewise their cloaked guide pushed past another leafy covering to reveal a small clearing.

The scene unfolding before their eyes made both Ruby and Cole immobile; winged and frivolously dressed people danced around merrily as they held hands in a circle. They were so entranced in their own song and dance, which they demonstrated with so few reservations, that one might believe they were intoxicated. The dirt road, in which they stamped with their vibrancy, led to many more bizarre occurrences.

Translucent people passed through solid buildings and fixtures, in a bustling market place. As the cloaked man urged them forward they observed what exactly it was that these vendors were offering; shrunken heads, potions intended for various purposes, talking mirrors, and grimoires; that slightly resembled the one in Ruby’s clutch. Subconsciously, Ruby’s nails dug into the warped leather binding of her tome.

Without warning, their guide whipped around so quickly that it made both Cole and Ruby jump. He bowed respectfully as he extended his arm towards the chaos. “Allow me to introduce myself and my wondrous home. My name is Malachai. I am a bounty hunter in the kingdom of Avelen. Please follow me, and keep your heads low.”

Not a moment after Malachai gave out the order did Cole’s eyes meet with that of a winged pedestrian. The creature let out an unearthly shriek as he pointed at Cole. The other winged creatures halted in their joyous dancing and dropped arms. Their eyes widened, and their expressions were unreadable.

 Malachai shot Cole an annoyed look over his shoulder. "I said ‘heads lows’, mortal!” The bounty hunter picked up his pace, forcing Cole and Ruby to do the same. A moment later the flock of winged creatures were flying towards them. Cole got the distinct feeling they weren’t rushing over to welcome them.  Soon enough the trio was gaining up on a draw bridge in front of the most awe inspiring structure Cole had ever laid eyes upon.

Ruby’s own astonishment mirrored that of her best friend’s. With haste, they crossed the draw bridge, leaving it to ascend and raise itself level with a solid brick wall that closed the fairy people out. Ruby craned her neck to get a better view of the towering castle that Malachai had brought them to.

Every stone in this castle was placed with such precise care, that it was a wonder they didn’t have power tools here. The castle had several large towers, one even twisted in a complete spiral. The windows were tall, and narrow, and adorned with stained glass inserts. Masterfully carved gargoyles of lions and vengeful looking angels stood protectively on every tower. At the highest point of the castle flew eight bright and symbolic flags that gave the structure its own personal stamp.  The moat of which they had just passed over proudly reflected Avelen’s masterpiece in a clear pristine stream.

“Right this way mortals.” Ruby detected amusement in Malachai’s voice , that was probably inspired by their slack- jawed expressions.

Ruby and Cole had little time to admire the grandeur of the castle’s interior as they were rushed up a stone staircase and led directly to their room. Malachai gave them specific instructions to wait and stay put. “I will be back soon to help you settle in,” he said as he turned to leave.

“Wait!” They both cried out at once.

“We have no desire to settle in. In fact we would much rather settle out,” Ruby spoke through clenched teeth.

Malachai shook his head. “My Lady, my kingdom has waited decades for the prophesized king. If I should let you leave I will be prosecuted accordingly.” With that Malachai left them alone.

The heavy wooden door closed and they heard the lock click, securing them in the room until someone else could come for them. Ruby spun slowly in a circle to survey the room for another exit. There was only one window in the room, and heavy iron bars laid vertically over it. She set the tome down on the wide window sill and settled herself upon a large canopy bed in the center of the room. The room itself was sparse, lacking in personality. The only other furniture it contained was a large chest and a tiny wooden stand that held a pitcher of water. Ruby settled back against the surprisingly comfortable bed. She pressed her palms over her eyes as she contemplated their next movement. She felt the weight of the bed shift as Cole settled next to her. Gently, he took hold of her wrists and pulled her hands away from her face. “I’ll find a way home.”

A heavy sadness settled in Ruby’s chest, all she could do was nod. Cole’s eyes were large and hopeful. She allowed him to pull her into a protective embrace. Before another word could be shared between the two of them, the door to their room was thrown open. The abruptness of the action made them pull apart as if they were doing something shameful.

In the doorway, stood an extremely lovely woman. She wore a light pink dress with short cupped sleeves that fell below her shoulders. The plunging neckline accentuated her bust in the most deliberate fashion. Upon seeing Cole, the woman’s eyes lit up with a vast interest. Her pretty little mouth twisted into a catlike smile. “My King,” she cried as she fell into a low curtsy. She uprighted herself and noticed Ruby, and the corners of her mouth fell.

“What did you call me?” Cole asked trivially.

The woman gasped as if remembering something. “How silly of me, I didn’t even introduce myself. My name is Princess Aira,” She extended her hand, presenting the back of it to Cole with her fingers pointed downwards. Awkwardly, Cole lowered his head and kissed her hand as was expected. The Princess giggled slightly. Ruby resisted the urge to roll her eyes. As if sensing her unease, the Princess glanced back at Ruby, then back toward Cole. “My King… is this your mistress?”

The End

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