Fly - Goose Girl Retold - Demelza Carlton - ebook
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Two princesses. One prince. And the war has just begun. Once upon a time... Princess Ava was sent to a neighbouring kingdom as a lady-in-waiting to her sister, their future queen. Until a runaway horse, a case of amnesia and a cold-hearted king conspire to bring her to the prince's attention. Now the prince believes Ava is his bride, and her sister is just a serving maid. One thing is certain: the prince must marry one of the princesses, or there will be war. But when all's fair in love and war...who will win the battle for the prince's heart?

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Contents

Title Page

Dedication

Free books

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

Part 10

Part 11

Part 12

Part 13

Part 14

Part 15

Part 16

Part 17

Part 18

Part 19

Part 20

Part 21

Part 22

Part 23

Part 24

Part 25

Part 26

Part 27

Part 28

Part 29

Part 30

Part 31

Part 32

Part 33

Part 34

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About the Author

Fly:

Goose Girl Retold

Demelza Carlton

A tale from the Romance a Medieval Fairy Tale series

Two princesses. One prince. And the war has just begun.

Once upon a time...

Princess Ava was sent to a neighbouring kingdom as a lady-in-waiting to her sister, their future queen. Until a runaway horse, a case of amnesia and a cold-hearted king conspire to bring her to the prince's attention.

Now the prince believes Ava is his bride, and her sister is just a serving maid. One thing is certain: the prince must marry one of the princesses, or there will be war.

But when all's fair in love and war...who will win the battle for the prince's heart?

DEDICATION

This one's for May, too...because her suggestion that I write this book opened the gate so Ava could fly.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2017 Demelza Carlton

Lost Plot Press

All rights reserved.

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ONE

"Hurry up, you goose! If the guard returns, you'll get us all into trouble!" Lagle hissed.

Ava bent to retrieve the towel she'd dropped, then, obedient to her sister's order, broke into a run as she fancied she heard footsteps. If the guards caught the princesses out of the harem, they'd only lock the girls back in, but then they wouldn't get to swim.

And Lagle would definitely blame her. The guards might not punish princesses, but Lagle was the Queen's daughter, making her the highest ranking princess among the myriad daughters of minor wives and concubines, and she would be certain to make Ava's life hell.

So Bianca led the way to the pool, swearing she'd gotten directions from one of the young princes who'd watched soldiers learning to swim there. Lagle strode behind her with her proud head held high, and Ava brought up the rear with a bundle of towels that was too heavy for her to carry without dropping them along the way. When yet another towel slipped from her grasp, earning her a glare from Lagle, Ava was almost ready to give up and head back to the harem. The only thing that kept her putting one foot in front of the other was the thought of the tantalising coolness of immersing her whole body in water, while the rest of the palace sweltered in the unseasonable spring heat. To stop being sweaty and sticky for just a few hours would be bliss, and well worth the walk even with a load of towels.

And Bianca would be there, Ava consoled herself. The expedition might be Lagle's idea, but without Bianca, it could not have happened. Bianca was the only one of her sisters who seemed to see Ava at all. To the rest, she was invisible, a princess so low in the pecking order that they rarely remembered her name. Most of them didn't remember her mother's name, either, for Sumi had died giving birth to Ava, a scant seven months after entering the harem. A captured prize from one of the King's many battles, Ava had heard, who the King had favoured for a few short weeks until some other jewel of his harem caught his eye. A harem Ava had left only a handful of times, because the King protected his daughters fiercely, whether they were as highborn as Lagle or as insignificant as Ava.

If he knew three of them had sneaked out of the harem, heading for the soldiers' barracks...Ava shivered.

Moonlight sparkled on the pool surface, making it look almost magical. Two towels escaped from her arms, which made her deliberately drop the rest in a pile on the tiles. Bianca and Lagle had already started to shed their robes, so Ava shyly followed suit.

Bianca entered the water silently, slipping under the surface before swimming away from the edge. Ava was impressed, and she began to wonder how often Bianca had visited this pool before. She couldn't have learned such swimming skills in the harem.

Lagle jumped into the water with a splash and a squeal. Ava opened her mouth to beg her to be quieter, but she knew it was no use. When had Lagle ever listened to anyone, let alone Ava?

Ava crept across the tiles to the pool edge. The stone was surprisingly warm underfoot, perhaps from lying in the sun all day, and it was with considerable relief that she dipped her toes into the water. "It's cold!" she exclaimed.

"It's best to get in all at once. You'll soon grow used to it," Bianca advised.

Ava pulled her foot out of the water, and a breezy gust chilled her wet skin. If one foot could be this cold, what would it be like when she hoisted her whole body out of the water, soaking wet? Why, she would freeze.

"I've changed my mind," she murmured, backing away from the water.

Lagle sent a wave of water in her direction. "Coward! Swelter, then. See if I care."

Ava reached her clothes and struggled back into them. She couldn't be sure if she'd tied everything correctly, in the dark without a mirror and all, but she did the best she could.

She sat beside the towels, drowsing in the heat while her sisters splashed. None of them had slept well with the heat these last few nights, but her airless cubicle was flush against the western wall of the women's palace, turning it into a veritable oven. Perhaps if she lay here for a few moments until the other girls were finished in the water...

Ava stretched out on the towels and slipped into a dream.

TWO

Not for the first time, Yun wondered when this nightmare would end. Certainly not today, or tomorrow, for there were too many corpses to bury after this latest battle. Not that he'd be doing it – burying the dead was work for common soldiers, not princes.

Princes were supposed to take pleasure in sights like this, or so his older brothers told him. Then again, his brothers took pleasure in a great many things that turned Yun's stomach.

Take Gang, the heir to the throne and their illustrious general, and Chao, second in line on both counts. They had set up camp just outside of town, and the pen where their horses should have been was now filled with sobbing women. The wives and daughters of the men who had died on the battlefield, defending the village, Yun assumed from their clothing.

He didn't need to follow the grunts, whimpers and screams to know his brothers had already started celebrating their victory. He wished he didn't have to witness it, but their father would not wait.

Shoving his way into Gang's tent, he averted his eyes from his rutting brother and the girl who squirmed and sobbed beneath him.

"What word shall I send to Father about the battle?" Yun asked.

"Can't it wait?" Gang grunted. He backhanded the girl across the face. "Silence! I can't hear a thing over your whining!"

"I wish it could, but Father must know our losses, and how many – "

"Enough!" Gang roared, drawing his dagger. He plunged the blade into the girl's throat, then yanked it out again. While the girl choked on her own blood, he rose to his feet and tugged down his robe. "What did you say? I couldn't hear you over that bitch's complaints. I told her to shut her mouth, but like all women, she wouldn't listen. She would have made a terrible wife. I did the world a favour." He grinned, wiping his dagger on the dead girl's ripped garments before sheathing it at his waist.

Yun fought down the bile rising up in his throat. How he'd grown up in the same household with Gang, he did not know. "I said, Father will want to know how many of our men died, and how many of the enemy. We must send a rider today."

Gang shrugged. "I don't know. Ask Chao. He keeps track of such things. Can't you see I'm busy?" He ambled out to the pen and seized the nearest girl by her hair. When she screamed in pain, Gang drew his dagger and sliced off her tongue. Then he dragged the gurgling girl to his tent.

Judging by the screams coming from Chao's tent, Yun wouldn't like what he found there, either. But, unlike his brothers, he was an obedient son.

Yun was gratified to find Chao still had his clothes on, though he had a girl in his tent, too. He'd tied her to the tent pole in the centre and chosen to amuse himself with one of the whips the enemy troops used on their horses. He must have been at it for some time, because the short lash had already turned the girl's clothes to ribbons and her exposed skin was a mess of bloody stripes.

"What do you want?" Chao snapped.

To stop this, Yun thought but didn't say. "Numbers for Father. How many dead?"

Chao tucked the whip under his arm and headed for the tiny table in the corner that was already covered in scrolls. He unrolled three before he found the one he wanted, and thrust it at Yun. "Here. Go. If you come back quickly, there might be some girls left for you, too, if we're not through with them yet."

Struggling to keep his expression blank instead of revealing his horror, Yun thanked his brother and hurried out.

For a moment, he stopped beside the pen. The women shrank away from him, as though they'd heard Chao's offer. Perhaps they had.

He glanced around. No one was in view, and his brothers were busy. Yun approached the gate. Any of them could have opened it, for it was latched to keep horses from escaping, not humans. Yet none had.

"Run," he told them, flinging open the gate. "If they catch you, they will kill you."

One woman lifted her head. "We have nowhere to go. They killed everyone else, rounded up us women and...some of us were sent here, while the rest are in the main camp. Entertaining the army." Her accusing eyes told him she knew exactly what that entailed.

"Then die here, or fly and hope to live. The choice is yours, but you are fools if you stay here," Yun said. He turned on his heel and headed deeper into the camp in search of a messenger to carry word home of their victory.

Behind him, a dozen frightened birds flew from their coop. Yun hoped that the ancestors would watch over the escaped girls, even if they weren't his people. They deserved to fly free and not die slaves.

The sounds of revelry drifted through the camp. It seems that the soldiers had discovered the other girls, the ones his brothers had rejected. No doubt all the messengers were taking their turns along with the other men.

Was there something wrong with Yun that he liked his women willing, he wondered. For if the rest of the army derived so much pleasure from striking fear into feminine hearts, surely the fault lay with him.

He did not belong here.

Yun himself would carry word to his father. Leave this stinking battlefield and its sickening pleasures to those who enjoyed such things. Yun would ride for home, and do everything in his power to persuade his father to call off this war.

And as Yun rode off, startling clouds of crows which had already begun to feast on the bloated corpses, he swore that he would rather be among them than become like his brothers.

THREE

Bright light beat at Ava's eyelids. She groaned softly. She must have overslept, and now someone had come to fetch her to breakfast.

"Who is she?" a male voice asked.

Ava jerked awake. Men didn't belong in the harem. She sat up, pulling her robes tight around her, and found she was the focus of a dozen pairs of staring eyes.

"Ava," she managed to say, in a voice so small a mouse would be ashamed to own it.

"Look at the cloth. That's silk. She must be a maid to some great lady, if she gets to wear silk." The speaker thrust his face close to Ava's. "What are you doing here, serving maid? Don't you know a soldiers' camp is dangerous? Or did you meet your sweetheart here last night?"

Loud laughter rang out.

Ava tucked herself up smaller. If she could have magicked herself invisible, she would have.

"Who were you meeting, girl?" an authoritative voice demanded, and the laughter died. A soldier more richly dressed than the others stepped forward. "Tell me his name!"

"I wasn't meeting anyone," she whispered, feeling tears form. She wasn't used to being shouted at.

"Then tell me the name of your mistress. She will get his name out of you, I have no doubt."

Ava shook her head. "I am no one's mistress. I am a maiden, sir." Her cheeks grew hot. A maiden among so many men – this was why she should have stayed in the harem. "My sisters..." She stopped, not willing to draw Lagle and Bianca into her predicament. Perhaps they had made it back to the harem already, missing her in the dark, thinking she had already left.

"What about your sisters?" the man in charge asked.

"They will miss me at breakfast," she admitted. "They will search the harem for me. Perhaps they are already. It is past breakfast, I think."

The man muttered a curse, then pointed at two men. "Batu, Esen. Take her to the harem, and find out who her mistress is. When she is safely inside, return with names."

Both men bowed. "Yes, General."

Batu offered his arm to help Ava to her feet. At first, she hesitated, then realised if she didn't accept his assistance, these men might take hold of her and carry her back. She rested her fingers lightly on his arm and leaped to her feet, breaking the contact before she was burned by it. For she would be, she was certain of it – to touch a man or be touched by him was to be changed forever.

She rubbed her tainted fingertips against her skirt, hoping that such a tiny, brief contact wouldn't be enough to change her. She scarcely had any place in the harem as it was. Where would she go if they threw her out?

The doors to the women's palace loomed like they never had before. Two guards stood sentinel, relaxing in relief when they spotted Ava.

"You found her!" the guard on the left said.

The soldiers exchanged glances. "We did."

"Where?" Right asked eagerly.

Batu said, "By the barracks pool."

The guards bowed low. "Princess, how did you get to the barracks?"

She could not betray her sisters. Ava shook her head. "I do not know. I woke up and there were men..." She shuddered and her voice died.

"Tell the Queen she is found. Summon servants to help the Princess. Quickly!" Left said to someone inside the palace.

"Princess." The soldiers seemed to realise it at the same moment, sinking to their knees and touching their foreheads to the tiles.

Ava wanted to sink through the floor. "I'm tired. I want to sleep," she lied. Anything to get her out of their sight.

"Come, Princess," said a female voice. Two wide-eyed maids took her arms and led her into the palace.

Ava was too weak to protest as she was taken to her chamber, undressed, and put into bed.

She wasn't changed, she told herself. She wasn't.

But she couldn't help thinking of the soldier she'd touched, however briefly. Batu, that was his name. He'd rubbed his arm as he walked away, with a stunned look of something like awe on his face. She might not be changed, but Batu would not forget this day. She lay back and wished she could forget.

FOUR

Dirty from long days of travel, Yun knew he could not bathe until he had delivered his report. So he made his weary way to the throne room and prostrated himself at his father's feet.

The petitioner who Yun had interrupted nudged Yun's leg with his foot. "What is the meaning of this? Who is this ruffian?" he demanded.

A country baron who had never been to court before, Yun guessed.

"I am Prince Yun Bataar, your youngest son, Divine Emperor," Yun said. "Please forgive my dishevelled state. I bring news of the battle on our southern borders. Our armies were victorious once more, with numerous enemy slain." He proffered the scroll Chao had given him. "A report from Prince Chao."

"Get up and give it to me," Father said wearily, holding out his hand.

Yun jumped to his feet and ascended the dais to his father's side. "It was a slaughter," Yun said. "I'd be surprised if Chinggis can field a proper army after that, we've killed so many of them. If it were up to me, we'd call off the war here and now. No more fighting."

"And what about their attacks in the south-eastern villages? Baron Dong tells me he has no one left to plant next season's crops, for they are all dead. Chinggis has an army, and they outnumber us. If we stop fighting, their victory is assured, which is why this war will continue as long as I or Chinggis lives. Only a fool would think of stopping." Father eyed Yun darkly. "But you have always been a fool, writing songs and poems when your brothers were learning to rule. Good thing you are the youngest son and you will never be Emperor. If you were to rule in my place, the empire would fall." He laughed, and was echoed a moment later by the rest of the court.

When the empire's army was too busy raping the women of one village to save their own people, perhaps it deserved to fall.