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Twelve princesses. One wounded soldier. A mystery that must be solved. Once upon a time... Princess Bianca is sent with her sisters to the summer palace, a place no maiden has ever returned from. While her sisters seem perfectly happy, she has only one desire: escape. Vasco, a wounded soldier on his way home from war, stumbles across the summer palace and sets out to solve the mystery no man has managed to yet. If only they let him live long enough... Can the fair maiden and the wounded soldier uncover the sinister secret before it's too late?
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About the Author
Twelve Dancing Princesses Retold
A tale from the Romance a Medieval Fairy Tale series
Twelve princesses. One wounded soldier. A mystery that must be solved.
Once upon a time...
Princess Bianca is sent with her sisters to the Summer Palace, a place no maiden has ever returned from. While her sisters seem perfectly happy, she has only one desire: escape.
Vasco, a wounded soldier on his way home from war, stumbles across the Summer Palace and sets out to solve the mystery no man has managed to yet. If only they let him live long enough...
Can the fair maiden and the wounded soldier uncover the sinister secret before it's too late?
For all those who have given their lives fighting for what they believed in.
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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"We should have made the wedding this week," Dokia said, lacing her fingers through Vasco's. "Waiting eight more days is torture."
"I call it delicious anticipation," Vasco replied. "Besides, if we got married this week, we wouldn't have a house to live in. Tomorrow I'll make a start on the roof, so that when you become my bride, we'll be able to spend our wedding night under a roof."
She lifted her gaze to the sky and sighed. "Right now, I would be perfectly happy with the stars as my roof, the night I become yours. If I have you, I will have everything I ever wanted."
"Right up until it rains," Vasco said.
Dokia laughed. "And that is why you're my lord and provider, or you will be, after next week. I cannot think of rain while the sun still shines."
"Ah, but the sun is setting now. And once the sun is gone, I'll make sure that all you can think about is you and me." Vasco raced into the trees, pulling her along until they reached the clearing they had claimed as their own.
Kissing Dokia was like air – he couldn't get enough of her. Their kisses grew more heated, and their clothes began to loosen before they started removing them entirely.
Vasco laid her on the soft grass by the stream, where she gazed up at him with eyes full of love.
"With all the practice we're getting, you will be perfect at this when our wedding night comes," she teased.
"Only because you are already perfect, my Eudocia," Vasco said, kicking off his boots.
"Flatterer," she replied, undoing the lacing of her gown to expose most of her chest. "What about these? Perfect enough for you?"
"Too perfect for me," Vasco replied. "Much like the rest of you. I don't know what madness made you accept me, but before you recover your senses, I will accept anything you offer me."
She parted her gown completely, laying herself bare. "I offer you everything I am, and everything I have. Take me, Vasco."
Vasco opened his mouth to respond, but another voice cut in, "That's a mighty pretty morsel. Too pretty for some peasant boy."
Something crashed into the side of Vasco's head and he fell lifeless to the grass. He never heard Dokia's screams pierce the air, or those from the village as it burned. When he awoke, there was nothing but silence and death to greet him.
For hours he walked the ruins of his home, looking for hope where there was none. So he did what any young man would after everything he had known was dead and buried: he joined the army, figuring that death would find him soon enough.
But fate had a different plan for Vasco.
Wishing to be the fairest of them all was the worst kind of curse to visit on a princess, Bianca mused. She alone among her sisters had fair hair, so pale that in today's bright sunlight it almost seemed white. It made her stand out, drawing unwanted attention from men and women alike. The men she did not mind so much, for she knew that as a princess she was near untouchable to most of them, but when the queen's gaze landed on her one too many times, nothing good could come of it. That Bianca was the daughter of a minor concubine, a princess in name, but not much more, who outshone the queen's own daughter, only made it worse.
So that was why the fairest of all the king's daughters now rode through the unseasonable heat into exile at the Summer Palace. A place where the king's virgin daughters would be safe, the queen had said with a vicious smile, until they were married.
Bianca knew better. The Summer Palace was where girls were sent to become old maids. No girl who had ever been sent there had returned, nor had they received word of any fortuitous marriage alliances the girls had made. That in itself was suspicious, Bianca mused. For the proposed marriage between the queen's daughter, Lagle, and the neighbouring king had been trumpeted far and wide. For one horrible moment, Bianca had worried that she would be sent as Lagle's companion to the foreign court, but the queen had taken a dislike to another minor princess instead. So poor Ava could look forward to a lifetime of servitude, while Bianca was granted the relative freedom of exile.
Right now, though, Bianca almost envied Ava. Ava would ride through shady forest all the way to her new home, while Bianca's road was just that...a road. A road tramped by thousands of marching feet, when her father's armies had been fighting to claim this place, and it was kept clear to facilitate troop movements, should they be needed in future. So the sun beat down mercilessly, with no shelter in sight.
Which brought her back to the curse of being the fairest of all the king's daughters. Her cheeks burned, though she had no reason to blush. Bianca had never experienced a sunburn before, but if this was one, she had no desire to experience one again. By the time they reached the edge of a wood and a cottage where she might take shelter, Bianca's face felt like it was on fire. She signalled for her guards to halt, and she dismounted. Praying that the owner of the cottage was home and willing to offer temporary shelter to a traveller, Bianca knocked tentatively at the door.
The door creaked open, as though she was expected. "Princess!" an elderly voice croaked. "Please, come inside." A wrinkled hand beckoned her in.
Bianca glanced at her guards, who didn't look concerned, so she accepted the old woman's invitation and followed her into the blessed cool of the cottage.
The old woman shuffled to the table where she poured two cups of liquid from a stoppered jug. Then she waved her hand and the door slammed shut. That got Bianca's attention. "I am Kun, the witch who guards these lands. Welcome, princess. I take it you're not accustomed to travel?"
Bianca shook her head, wincing as this only seemed to make her face hurt more.
"I can give you a salve to soothe that burn, if you wish. If you're anything like your sisters, you wish to stay pretty for as long as possible." She gave a gummy grin.
"I would prefer not to be pretty," Bianca said with regret. "Pretty princesses attract unwanted attention. Much better to be unseen."
The woman cackled again. "An invisible princess, eh? That's quite a trick. Even more impressive than the day when the queen's new gown..."
"Please don't mention that," Bianca groaned. "I only wished to see how the queen's new gown was made. I had no idea what was invisible to me became invisible to everyone else, too. My mother banned me from using magic every day after that, so that the queen would not know that it was I who made her gown invisible so that she appeared naked at court. I think she suspect something, though. She has never liked me."
Kun patted Bianca's hand. "It matters not. You're far from court and the queen now, and your mother, too, I think. Mayhap you should practice your magic a little more. You never know when it might be useful to become invisible."
If Bianca didn't know better, she would think Kun knew of her desire to escape. Or perhaps Kun knew the truth about life in the Summer Palace. Surely the politics could not be worse than those in the king's harem. But where there were a lot of women... "Are there many ladies residing at the Summer Palace?" she ventured.
"Not so many. With you, there shall be twelve princesses. All about your age, and ripe for marriage. All they need are suitable husbands."
Bianca tried to hide her surprise. What, no old maids? Were the stories wrong, and the girls really would be married off? Or were the old maids taken somewhere else?
"Here's your salve," Kun said. The jar clattered to the table from her shaking hands. "You be sure to put some on now, then another coat morning and night. It should heal without a blemish."
Bianca obeyed. The salve seemed to extinguish the flames, though some of the heat remained. "Thank you," she said with feeling.
"You can come visit, any time you wish to practice your magic," Kun said.
"I... I can leave the palace? To come and visit you?" Bianca asked in surprise.
Kun snorted. "It is a palace, child, not a prison. Within the borders you will be safe. My cottage marks the edge of palace lands, so take care you do not go beyond it. The Summer Palace has its pleasures, as I'm sure you will find out, once you begin to explore. No doubt your sisters will enlighten you."
Her sisters. Bianca swallowed. Half sisters, more like. And her rivals, should her father choose to marry one of them off for an alliance. Marriage would be her only means of escape, and if the opportunity arose, Bianca intended to take it. Perhaps being the fairest of them all might not be a curse, in this case.
When Bianca left Kun's cottage, she found her guards had gone. Her mare stood outside where she'd left her, along with the packhorses carrying her belongings, but no one else. When Bianca looked askance at Kun, the old woman just grinned.
"Like I said, princess, you are safe here. There is no need for guards, while you are on the grounds of the Summer Palace."
Bianca looked around nervously. "But I do not yet know where the Summer Palace is," she said.
The old woman cackled. "Neither did your guards, for none of them have been allowed to go further up the road than my cottage." She eyed Bianca. "Simply follow the road. It will lead you to your destination."
"Is it far?" Bianca asked, hating the tremor in her voice. Her instincts told her to turn her horse in the opposite direction and urge it to a gallop until she was as far away from this place as possible.
"Less than an hour's ride, I am told. But that depends on just how eager you are to reach the palace."
Bianca swallowed. Perhaps Kun truly could read her mind.
Bianca found that for a less than eager princess, on a tired mount she had no desire to kick into a faster pace than a walk, it was indeed less than an hour before the palace loomed into view. Much smaller than the women's palace in the capital, she would not have called it a palace at all, if not for the decorative stonework that marked it as a noble's residence. Her father's seal on the gate left no question as to her destination. Small though it was, this was the Summer Palace, and her home for the foreseeable future. But not, she vowed, the rest of her life.
Servants ran out to greet her, to take care of her horses and see to her things. None of them dared raise their gaze to meet the eyes of a princess. That was as it should be, Bianca supposed. Then why did she feel such a strong burst of fear from them all? Perhaps she only imagined it.
"Princess Bianca, I presume?" a booming male voice rang out, preceding a richly dressed man who bowed low before her. "I am Efe, cousin to the queen, and the steward of the Summer Palace. The king wouldn't trust anyone less with such treasured jewels from his harem such as yourself and your sisters."
A crow cawed loudly with what sounded like laughter as it took flight from the roof above.
Bianca drew herself up to her haughtiest height, which sadly fell short of this odious man's shoulder. Nevertheless, she was a princess and the king's daughter, not merely some distant relation of the queen's. "No, he would not trust a lesser noble then yourself," she said sweetly. "After all, guard duty for a group of women who are used to living a protected life in the palace is hardly a job for someone the king values highly."
The steward's nostrils flared. Her barb had indeed landed. "I would not expect such a sheltered princess as yourself to know anything of the dangers outside your father's palace in the capital." His vulpine grin said what his words did not: that he hoped Bianca would fall afoul of some of these dangers, for he would enjoy her misfortune.
Bianca suppressed a snort, for such things were unladylike. She was no ordinary princess, but let the man believe what he liked. She had learned politics from her very infancy, for no girl survived long in a harem otherwise. Let him do his worst. She would be prepared. Bianca bowed her head to hide her smile.
The steward seemed to take this as submission. More fool him. "I shall take you to your quarters, and to see your sisters." He waved her inside.
For a moment, Bianca hesitated on the threshold. Even in the evening light, it seemed much brighter outside the confines of the Summer Palace. But such fears were silly, she told herself. Taking a deep breath, she strode forward with her head held high.
Bianca heard her sisters before she saw them. The sounds of women at dinner when there were no men to command restraint was a familiar song of home. Lesser wives, concubines and their daughters who didn't have the status to be entitled to a private apartment had shared a common table in the harem. Several tables, as her father prided himself on the sheer number of women under his authority.
So it was with a smile on her lips that she entered the dining hall, taking a deep breath to greet her sisters.
Bianca's gaze swept across their faces and stopped dead.
She knew every face but one.
The ruddy face of a man beamed at her from under a hat so fluffy and floppy it looked like he wore a dead puppy on his head. If this was to be a new court fashion, Bianca was glad to be well away from it. "And who might you be?" the strange man slurred, raising a cup of wine to her.
Bianca lowered her eyes, but had to force herself not to incline her head. There could only be two men superior to a princess – her husband, and the king. As this man was neither, he must be beneath her notice. Her sisters didn't deem his question important enough to answer, either.
"This is Princess Bianca," Efe said. "Only just arrived from the palace." He made her sound like some sort of delectable dish, fresh from the kitchen.
Bianca suppressed a shiver. She'd heard children's tales of men who ate human flesh, but surely they were nothing but stories. Yet the way Efe spoke...
"You must sit beside me, princess, and tell me about your father's court," the man said.
As if by magic, her sisters slid up the bench to make space for her. For a moment, she hesitated, wondering what they knew about the stranger that she did not, but she could hardly ask them in front of the man. Better to ask him to talk about himself. Her mother and the other concubines had often said it was a man's favourite conversation topic, for the more he talked about himself, the more he liked the lady who pretended to listen.
But Bianca did not need to pretend. "I would much rather hear about you, sir. We hear little of the adventures to be had in the world outside my father's harem. The women's palace shelters us from such things. But you, I am sure, have travelled very far. How did you come here?"
He laughed so hard he spat out his wine. "By horse, of course! It isn't how I came here that matters, but why. Do you know why I am here, pretty princess?"
Bianca recognised the lust in his eyes. She lowered her gaze and shook her head. "I am just arrived, so I have not yet heard, sir."
"I am here to get myself a wife, and a palace!" he announced, grinning. The grin vanished when he reached for his wine, only to find Brenna's little dog lapping at the cup. "Wretched creature!" he shouted. The dog took fright and galloped across the table to seek refuge under Brenna's chair.
What appetite Bianca had possessed now vanished at the sight of dog footprints in every remaining platter of food. She waited for a maidservant to remove the tainted dishes, as would happen in the women's palace in the capital, but no one moved except the man beside her, who seized another chicken leg.
"More wine!" he called, raising his cup. "And a fresh cup to drink it from."
To Bianca's surprise, Hazel rose from her seat. "I will fetch it," she said, and headed out of the hall.
"You make my decision a difficult one," the man said. "Which of you will be my wife? If I can only have one of you, should I choose the prettiest, or the most obedient?"
Silence reigned at the table, broken only by the sound of mastication. No one laughed at his attempted jest, and none of them deigned to reply. Was that because they'd given up on the chance of escape from this life?
Bianca refused to give up, so she seized her chance. "You should choose the fairest, sir, the one who will best please you." She lowered her gaze and batted her eyelashes, as she'd seen the maids do to the handsome guards, when they thought no one else was looking. She felt like a complete fool, until she realised it had worked.
"You're as wise as you are beautiful, Princess Bianca," the man said. "I think you will please me very well."
Triumph welled up in her breast, but she did her best to hide it. "I hope so, sir."
Hazel returned with a goblet of wine, which she presented to the man. He drank it off in three huge gulps, then flashed a red-lipped smile at Hazel. "Thank you, my dear."
Bianca held her breath, but she caught the sneer that curled Hazel's lips. Hazel didn't want him for a husband.
He'd evidently caught her look of distaste, too. "But I think Princess Bianca is prettier than you. If she were to fetch me more wine, I think she will capture my heart completely."
"I will show her where to find it, then. Bianca?" Hazel jerked her head imperiously toward the door.
From princess to serving wench? Bianca balked at the thought, but she could do worse things to catch a husband and secure her escape from exile. Resignedly, she rose from the bench and followed Hazel out.
"Good girl," the man slurred behind her.
Bianca gritted her teeth. She would pay a high price for her escape if she were to marry that fool, whoever he was. But weren't all men fools?
Bianca followed Hazel through the house to the wine cellar, which she was surprised to find appeared bigger than the house above.
It wasn't until they were deep between the dusty barrels that Hazel spoke. "You're wasting your time with that one," she said. "Like all the others, he'll be gone in three days."
"Others?" Bianca asked, her mind whirling. The thought of better men to choose from was certainly appealing.
Hazel grinned. "Oh, so many others. The promise of a palace and a princess's hand in marriage is quite the prize to a penniless adventurer, which most of them are. Dear Cousin Efe dresses them up in fancy clothes, but if you look closely, you can see how poorly they fit. Borrowed finery instead of the patched rags they arrive in, so that we allow them to sit at our table, but they will learn no secrets from us." She pointed at a barrel. "This is the one. This wine is stronger than anything you have ever tasted, which is why we don't. It's for men only, Cousin Efe says, which is fine by us. Here, look at the mark." She rapped her knuckle against the barrel, below a blackened smudge.
Bianca squinted at it. Now she looked more closely, she realised it was a brand, applied several times to the same barrel or just once by a particularly unsteady hand belonging to a man who'd perhaps drunk too much of his own wine. "Is it a bird of some kind?"
Hazel nodded. "This comes specially from somewhere far to the west. It's Efe's private supply, which is why we give it to his guests." She took a jug and proceeded to fill it from the barrel.
"Why didn't he dine with us tonight?" Bianca asked. Surely the queen's cousin would take every opportunity to dine with princesses, if only to make himself feel important.
Hazel laughed. "Oh, he wouldn't stoop to eat with us. We're the queen's hostages to our mothers' good behaviour. Anyone too pretty or too clever or even anyone who catches our father's eye for too long winds up here. For if another wife's daughters marry better than hers, she might lose her place as principal wife and queen. Perhaps that's why he forces us to share meals with beggars and soldiers of fortune, in the hope that we're silly enough to marry them. Disgraced daughters, disgraced mothers...that would only serve to cement her power in the capital."
Considering the idea, Bianca shook her head. "More likely she intends to leave us here to rot in spinsterhood, for any children we might have would still possess royal blood, no matter who their father was. But why would that man tonight think he had a chance to marry one of us, if he is a beggar?"
Hazel winked. "Delusions of grandeur, I'm sure. He believes he is better than any man before him, so he will be the one to solve the mystery, winning a bride and lands that he does not deserve."
"I have not heard of any mystery here."
"That's because it's no mystery to us."
Bianca opened her mouth to insist that it most definitely was a mystery to her, then closed it again as Hazel leaned in closer.
"Wait and see. Brenna has a plan that will confound even the queen. We are the king's daughters and we will not be held prisoner against our will. Not even Efe and a whole army of beggars will stop us." With another wink, Hazel led the way up the steps to the palace proper, carrying the jug of wine.
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