The sun broke over the horizon in a beautiful sunrise. Pearly pinks and brilliant golds played across the pale blue morning sky. Maria, however, did not appreciate its beauty. It had wakened her from her slumber, something no one did. She was rather grumpy in the mornings. With much regret, she rubbed the sleep from her eyes and stretched her muscles.

Since when has my bed been so invitingly soft and warm? Maria thought to herself. "That's right, this isn't mine," she grumbled with a sigh and threw herself back against her plump pillow.

The small blonde had decided to spend the night watching over her best friend; to make sure Liz didn't try to find her prince in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, after about fifteen minutes she lost her battle against the sandman. Not willing to open her blue eyes to the morn's early rays of light, she yelled across the wide bed to Liz.

"Wake up Princess!!!" Liz did not answer. Maria sighed again, "Probably doesn't even know I'm here."

Liz had been in a trance since they had left Max and Alex. She had not said one word as they walked to her room. Not even when Maria pushed her onto the bed. The princess simply smiled insanely with a far-off look in her eyes. Maria was afraid the prince had slipped her something. But just as Liz nodded off to sleep, she eagerly whispered, "Wasn't he just marvelous Maria?" Maria grinned; she was not forgotten after all. "Yes Liz, utterly spectacular." "I thought so," Liz murmured and fell asleep.

"How can she still be asleep with the stupid sun shining in her face?" Maria wondered. A quiet scratching sound outside the chamber door interrupted Maria's pondering. "Hmmm.the servants are up already. I should get going." Maria opened her eyes a crack. If I'm getting up, she thought, so is she. Slowly she rolled over to face her friend and to wake her.

Much to her surprise, Liz was not there. Maria sat up quickly. "Liz?" she said rapidly, worries etched on her face. There must be more sleep in my eyes, she thought and rubbed them again. Opening her now bright blue eyes wide, Maria searched again, the other side of the bed for the princess. Her eyes had not tricked her. Princess Elizabeth was gone!

"Where the DEVIL is she?!" Maria shrieked. She leaped off the bed, throwing the thick velvet covers aside. Calm down, she told herself, Liz is around here somewhere.probably grinning like the Cheshire cat and mumbling to herself. Quickly, Maria searched again the room top to bottom. She knew it well. Every corner was familiar, every hiding place, and not one held her friend.

She began to panic. "It's only dawn! She NEVER gets up this early, only when I throw water on her face!!" Maria covered her face with her two small hands. "Where could she have gone?! Why didn't she wake me?" Suddenly an idea popped into her head. No, she thought, no, Liz would not do that.Maybe.

Without even bothering to grab a robe, Maria ran towards the secret door hidden by the large tapestry of a unicorn. She pressed the hidden latch, it opened the door and she walked in. She breathlessly followed the dark corridor until she reached a fork. Without hesitation she went right, then right again at the next, and finally left. Then she slowed, counting the indentations on the walls of the hidden passageway. She counted to thirteen, the lucky number, and stepped up to it carefully. She pushed two stones and a small round peg protruded from the indentation. She grabbed it firmly.

Oh please don't let him wake if I am wrong, she thought desperately, especially if he sleeps nude. She shuddered.

She turned and pulled the knob. The indentation, which was in truth a door, opened slowly. Maria peeked her head through and saw only darkness. Ever more slowly she crept in, till her whole body was through. Everything was still masked by darkness, but her eyes soon adjusted.

They must have put heavy drapes in here, I can't see a thing! Maria thought. "Ouch," she cursed softly after she stubbed her toe on something lying on the floor. She maneuvered her way around the blockade and moved towards the bed. Please don't let him be naked, she thought again.

The draperies had been pulled open, she could see as she reached the bed. She sighed in relief. "He's not there," she said gratefully. Then remembered what that might mean. "They better not have run off for some romantic interlude. I will K."

A large, strong hand covering her mouth cut off Maria. "Shh," the owner of the hand whispered, while pressing the other arm around her neck.

Automatically, the blonde slammed her petite foot into her restrainer's instep. He swore a curse she had only heard near the workers' camp. Not wasting another moment, she jabbed her elbow into his side. He released her hastily and bent over in pain. She swiftly moved her fist up, punching him directly in the nose.

"You little devil!!!" the man cried sharply.

Maria pushed him away and ran to the concealed window. She threw open the drapes covering it and turned to face the man who had tried to silence her. When she was able to get a good look at him she gasped. He was the handsomest man she had seen in a good long while. That is, except for his bleeding nose.

She was still irritated by him. "How dare you grab me like that, you ruffian!" she told him indignantly.

The man looked up, covering his bleeding nose somewhat self-consciously. "You hit me," he said. "You.hit.me." he repeated.

"You have a nice grip on the obvious I see," Maria replied smugly. "I did hit you, AFTER you grabbed me!"

"I woke up to find you sneaking around Max's bed. What were you doing?" He glanced towards the bed. "Where is Max? What did you do?" he asked questioningly.

Maria's eyes fluttered wide. "What did I do?! I did nothing. What are YOU doing here, is the better question."

He lowered his hand for a moment, then wiped some of the blood away. "I, Miss, happen to be Michael di Guerin, protector of the prince." He smirked at her.

I bet that smirk is cuter without the blood dripping all over the place, though Maria quickly. Then she shook herself back into reality. "How can I be sure you are who you say you are? No protector came with Prince Max, I would have seen him." She motioned to the bed, "He's gone, and you could have kidnapped him for all I know."

Michael raised an eyebrow. "And stayed behind?"

"You could have tied him up and stashed him somewhere and came back for some jewelry," she accused.

"Riiiight." Michael said slowly. He reached up and wiped some more blood away, then reached into his tunic. Maria stiffened. "Don't worry, I'm not pulling out a weapon or anything. You can relax," he reassured her. She huffed in reply. He chuckled to himself as he pulled out a necklace with a heavy silver pendant hanging from it.

"What is that?" Maria asked, interested.

Michael smiled. "The pendant Max gave me for my birthday a couple years back. Here," he pulled the chain over his head and held it out to her. "Read the engraving on the back." She looked interested but hesitant. "Go ahead," he urged.

Maria reached out and snatched it. "To Michael, the most meat-headed guy I know. I love you buddy, happy birthday. Max," she read aloud. She glanced up at Michael, "How do I know you just didn't steal this from his friend's dead body, the one you killed before you got here and KIDNAPPED HIM! Hmmm?" She glared at him. "Tell me the truth, or I will bloody you up some more," she warned. He giggled. "I'm serious," she warned again and held up her fists.

"Oh I believe you Lady. By the way, you didn't tell me your name. . ."

"I will tell you when I need to. Don't change the subject."

Michael shrugged. "I guess you'll just have to trust me." A serious look crossed his eyes; he looked at the blonde earnestly.

Maria snorted. "I think not."

"What? I don't look trustworthy?" Maria stared at him blandly. "Okay, did you talk to Max?"

"Yes," she replied simply. Give him short answers and a harsh look, she thought, harsh look. . . harsh look. . . this is getting hard. . .

"Was he overly smooth when he talked to you?" he asked, knowing the answer already. "Was he acting much more dignified than we both know he is?"

Maria's harsh look softened. "Yeah. . ."

"Did he try to flatter you? Use his," Michael winked, "so called 'charm'?"

For some unknown reason, that knowing wink irritated the hell out of her. "Yeah so?" Maria replied. "Couldn't he have just wanted to impress me?" She glared at him, daring him to say otherwise.

With the most serious look he could muster, Michael said "No." Maria looked furious. "Don't get me wrong, you're one to be impressed, but he puts that act on for every woman he meets-to make him seem like the perfect prince. That is, he is charming until he gets to know them. Usually they are brats. You?" Michael smiled coyly.

"I'm not a brat! You.thumb sucking.no good." Maria sputtered angrily.

"Slow down! I didn't mean to insult you. I was just trying to show you that I am whom I say. I know the prince. He wants everyone to like him. Do you believe me now?"

Maria huffed again. "Yeah.I guess." She let her hands drop to her side. "So you don't know where he"-she nodded at the empty bed-"is?"

Michael shook his head; soft unshorn hair the color of walnuts flopped to frame his face Maria noticed. "Nope. Thought you were an assassin. Sorry, it was automatic defense."

It was Maria's turn to smirk. "Mine was too. Got you good, didn't I?" She walked closer to Michael to inspect his nose more closely. "hmmm.I should take you to the nurse," she murmured.

The man looked down on the petite young woman. The top of her blonde head reached his shoulder, barely He smiled vaguely, noticing she was only wearing a nightgown. "Did you come in to give the prince a treat?" he asked roguishly.

She looked into his eyes and then at herself. Oh my goodness, she thought, I'm still in my nightgown! She looked sharply at him. "How rude!" she replied and promptly punched him in the shoulder. She swiveled on her heel and walked to the door. She suddenly stopped halfway to the door. I can't go walking through the halls like this, she thought. She glared at Michael. "Jerk." She walked back up to him. "You have to go. Now."

"Where?" he asked innocently.

"Somewhere. Just not here. I have to look for the princess, the prince too now I guess. And I can't have you see where I'm going!"

"I can't see you? Why can't I go?" Michael asked. "Max is my best friend.wait-the princess is missing too?"

Maria nodded.

Michael squinted his eyes as he thought. "Maybe.Maybe they met somewhere without telling us. Max was pretty.well goofy last night. Was the princess the same way?"

Maria continued to stare at him. "Yes, Liz was 'goofy' too. I thought she might have come here, that's why I came."

"Oh," Michael replied simply. His eyes gleamed, but he didn't say anything else.

"What?" Maria questioned.

"Nothing." Michael looked away; he had to escape from her beautiful blue eyes, they seemed to penetrate all his walls. His eyes wandered over to the empty bed. Something pale lay on it. "Look, there's a note."

Maria's attention on the puzzling Michael evaporated when he said 'note'. She leaped to the bed and snatched the slightly crumpled piece of parchment lying on Max's bed. How could I have not seen that? She asked herself. Michael sauntered up to join her by the bed. Oh yeah, she thought sarcastically, HIM.

"What does it say?" Michael asked gently. He could tell Maria cared for Liz as much as he did Max. She seemed just as protective too. Wouldn't do to get her aggravated again, he thought, Well then again.it's kind of fun. He turned his attention back on the note.

Maria vainly tried to smooth out the creases in the paper. She glanced up at Michael then pointed her index finger at the scrawled words. "Is that Max's handwriting? It's not Liz's. I can't read it."

"Let me see," Michael requested. Maria handed the note over. He eyed the writing carefully and nodded. "Yes, 'tis his. But he wrote this in hurry, that is certain." He smiled slightly at Maria, who was looking at him relieved. "When he is writing to a courtier or someone important, he takes FOREVER to get it perfect."

Maria giggled. "Seems like him. What does it say then?"

"Umm.Michael-don't worry about me. I've gone off to be with my dream. We are safe-and happy. Don't know when we'll be back, but do not follow us. We wish to be alone," he glanced knowingly at Maria. She raised an eyebrow and crossed her arms in front of her chest. He continued: "Oh you don't understand our need Michael, pray, tell no one-oh, my love is telling me she should have left a note for Maria-Maria deLuca." Michael looked at Maria again.

"What?" she asked. "That's my name.Go on now!"

"Inform only her of our departure, she should be somewhere about the castle. You can tell whom she is, blonde, petite, most likely fuming," Michael chuckled, "'Tis all I dare write, not much time.Farewell good friend-Max."

"That's it?"

Michael turned the paper over and discovered it was empty. "Yes."

Maria rolled her eyes furiously and stomped around the room. "How could they have just gone off in a rush like that?! Couldn't even write me a note! 'Sorry Maria, but we're idiots and are running away to stare moon eyed at each other for hours, which we could have done in the garden anyway.'" She mocked. A laugh escaped from Michael. She looked at him, "Seriously, they have become IDIOTS!"

His bright grin remained on his lips; "Well maybe love does that to people." A thick silence grew between the two concerned friends-the air seemingly sparkled with the electricity of attraction.

A quiet knock disrupted the magical moment. It came from the chamber door. "Is there a problem Prince Maxwell? Can we be of assistance?" Maria paled and nearly yelled for the servant to go away.

Michael put a finger to his lips to silence her. He cleared his throat and imitated the prince's voice, "Nothing is the matter sir. I apologize for the noise. I was merely." he looked at Maria for an alibi. She pretended to be singing opera. "I was merely practicing my acting. I'm working on a new play."

"Oh.right then your Highness." The servant shuffled away.

Michael looked at the false opera singer. "That was great Maria." The bright smile that left his lips at the knock returned.

"You were great," she replied. Her face became rosy. "No, I meant.you can lie very well."

His smile grew even wider. "I will take that as a complement. But back to business, what are we going to do about our two idiots? And I do agree with you, Max has become more day-dreamy than I've ever seen him."

"You should have seen them together last night." Maria drifted off, remembering how it seemed magic surrounded the couple. Then how it became annoying VERY quickly. "Well, I'm glad they weren't kidnapped." She beamed up at Michael.

"Yes, let us be glad of that," he reached for his nose and sighed.

"Well, they can't have gotten too far. They are too ditzy to ride very fast. But they do have somewhat of a lead on us." She looked at his nose; it had stopped bleeding. "Let's get you cleaned up really quick-you don't want that to start bleeding again. Then we can go down to the stables, get some horses, ask some questions, and ride after them."

Michael looked at her appreciatively. "Good plan."

"Thank you. Let's get going, they won't be happy to see us.when I get my hands on them." Maria wrung her hands together.

Michael laughed. "Yes, they will be sorry. Now," he tilted his head slightly, "Are you going to ride as you are or actually put some warmer clothes on?" Maria cursed softly. "Not that I have a problem with your riding gear." He eyed her once again, appreciating the way the fabric hung on her frame. "But you might be a little cold."

Maria stared up at the man who had entered her life so mysteriously and so suddenly. He had a roguish smile on his face and looked like he generally enjoyed poking fun at her. I was wrong, she thought, he was better looking with his nose bleeding. She punched him in the shoulder again. "Oh stop it. I'll go change, and then we will go. Follow me." She walked to the obscured door she had entered from. It was still open slightly. She opened it more to allow Michael in and walked down the passageway. "Close the door tightly!" she reminded him.

Michael's telltale smirk appeared on his young face again. He shook his head. This is getting more interesting by the minute, he thought, Maybe this won't be so boring after all. He checked to make sure the door was closed and could not find it at all. He sighed and carefully followed the feisty young blonde through the darkness.