Castaspella rolled over in bed and arched her back in a long, intense stretch. "Mmmm," she said, apropos of nothing in particular save a general contentment with the world. The previous night hadn't gone quite as she might have wished, thanks to Adam's sudden attack of nerves, but it was still a more than reasonable start. He was certainly a quick study where kissing and cuddling were concerned. For a supposed innocent, the prince of Eternia had a fiery flare for love making. Just thinking about the feel of his hands on her skin make the Etherian queen's spine tingle in a thoroughly decadent way.
With those happy thoughts driving her, the queen of Mystacore found it not at all difficult to rouse herself from her bed. In a the span of an hour she was bathed, groomed, coifed and dressed in a manner that would catch any gentleman's eye. All that remained was to track down her darling prince and make sure that he was settling in all right.
She found Adam eating breakfast on a terrace that overlooked Mystican Forest. A rolled jelly pastry in hand, he stood at the edge of patio, leaning on a stone balustrade and gazing out over the abyss that surrounded the castle and at the woods beyond. At the sound of her footsteps, the prince turned and graced her with a becomingly shy smile.
"Fair morning, my love," she called. Hurrying to his side, Castaspella placed her hands lightly on his waist, closed her eyes, and tilted her head up to give him a proper greeting. When her good morning kiss landed on Adam's cheek instead of his lips, the wizardess opened her eyes and pulled back in surprise. The prince had turned his head, dodging her kiss, and he remained that way, utterly motionless, save for the flush that crept up his neck, until she pulled an arm's length away.
Feeling both hurt by his rebuff and appalled by her own brazenness, Castaspella put a sharp reign on her own more amorous inclinations and strolled over to the breakfast table where several covered dishes still bore more than enough food to supply her morning needs. When she began to make a plate, Adam followed after her and resumed his seat at the table. For several long seconds neither of them spoke a word. Then, clearing his throat noisily, the prince ventured to make some reasonably neutral small talk.
"Did you sleep well?" he asked, reaching out to pour her a glass of citrus juice.
"Yes, very. Not that I didn't enjoy seeing Eternia, but it's always nice to be in one's own bed."
Adam grinned. "Believe me, I understand completely. Not that my rooms here aren't wonderful!" he added hastily when she gave him a wide-eyed look of alarm.
Calm yourself girl! she admonished herself. He's a mature, grown man. He's not going to run off home because he's been struck by a bout of home sickness. It was chatter… nothing more.
"And, ummm, is Cringer settling in all right?"
For some mysterious reason, this innocent question caused the prince's flush to spread all the way to his hairline. Castaspella blinked in surprise as he dropped his eyes to the table and began spooning food onto a plate in a jerky manner.
"Fine. He's fine," Adam assured her as he poured syrup over another jam pastry. "He's a little homesick, I think. Though I can't imagine why. He's been to Etheria any number of times."
"But never to Mystacore," the wizardess noted, silently chastising herself for not taking more account of the Eternian tiger in her campaign to win her love's heart. Adam was utterly devoted to Cringer, very conscientious in regard to his pet's well being and happiness. It would not do to leave the tiger out of her plans, for the prince would never bear separation from his life-long friend. "Do you think he'd like to come sightseeing with us?"
Adam shrugged, still staring down at his plate, and Castaspella's nerves jangled with every movement of his fork across his plate. Then, just when she thought he'd relapsed into complete silence, he looked up, met her eyes and said, "I'm sorry."
"What for?" she gulped, swallowing against the panic that clenched at her stomach.
"For what happened earlier, when you tried to… you know."
"When I kissed you?" she blurted, stunned and a bit stung that he wouldn't even say the word.
"I was rude," he said softy.
"No, Adam, no, don't be ridiculous. I was being – well, I was – I was pushing you too quickly. That's all. You're under no obligation to kiss me, after all. Though I'll hardly complain if you do."
Eyes a little too wide to seem quite calm, Adam favored her with a tremulous smile. "I know I'm acting like some kind of prude – "
"No!" the wizardess announced, anxiously gripped the edge of the table. "You are no such thing! You're just… cautious. I understand completely. This is such a great deal of change to go through so suddenly. It's a wonder you haven't lost your temper with me entirely."
"I could never do that, Casta," the prince replied, a more natural grin gracing his lips and the twinkle reappearing in his beautiful eyes. "I'm just a little out of sorts. I'm sure it's just travel fatigue, a reaction to suddenly finding myself on a world where the sun is rising when my body thinks it should be setting. It'll pass."
"Yes, of course," she hastily agreed, thoroughly reassured by the return of Adam's good humor. She couldn't help wondering why he'd never mentioned suffering from travel sickness of any kind before, but if he said it was only fatigue, it would be churlish of her to pursue the matter. "Do you want to rest today? I have many duties that need performing, so if you wished to be left alone… "
Adam rose to his feet and came around the side of the table to face her. Taking her hands in his, he lifted Castaspella to her own feet and placed a tender and tantalizingly brief kiss upon her lips. "I think that's a wonderful idea," he whispered. "I do feel wrung out, and Cringer is being awfully cranky. I think we both need time to adjust to the local schedule."
The wizardess nodded, not daring to speak for fear the pounding her heart might be heard in her stuttering words.
"Will you join me for dinner later?" he said, smiling mischievously. "I wouldn't want to go to the whole day without seeing you again." Castaspella nodded. "Good," he said, but he left the breakfast table without kissing her a second time.
Teela was lying on a hard, smooth, slightly sloped surface that shook every time someone walked by. There was also an omnipresent whining vibration that quickly had her clenching her teeth in annoyance. But that wasn't the worst of it. Her arms were folded under her in a decidedly uncomfortable position, and the sun that beat down on her face left her with no real desire to open her eyes. There was a throbbing pain in her right leg, and whoever was pounding on her head with the club was a dead man just as soon as she could get her hands on him. Teela reached up to rub her aching temples and discovered to her chagrin that her arms would no longer move easily. Something bound them tightly together at the wrist. Whatever form they took, the manacles were a heavy and bulky weight pressing into the small of her back. Stifling a groan, the captain cracked her eyes opened and squinted up at hot, blue-white sky.
The light stung her eyes and she blinked against the bright rays. Turning her head to the side, she saw that she was lying on a white, plastic bench of some kind. It was too short for her to stretch out completely and her legs were bent at the knees. The scent of salt air was still strong in her nostrils, and Teela realized abruptly that the surface on which she lay was the molded, built-in rear seat of a small boat. A moving boat. She was also still wet, water trickling from her damp hair and across her forehead to land on the seat beneath her. Turning her head in the other direction she saw something that made her abruptly and furiously nostalgic for home and the simple pleasures of fighting Skeletor and his odious minions.
She was prisoner of the Evil Horde.
Why me? Why now? Why didn't I just tell him that I loved him years ago! I am such an idiot!
There were two troopers standing at what appeared to be the steering controls, and another trooper farther up the boat manning some kind of weapon that looked like a high-tech harpoon launcher. While she watched, a light began to flash on the control panel, and the shorter of the two Horde soldiers stationed there reached down and detached what looked like comlink from the board.
The sound coming through the controls was surprisingly distorted by static. Teela's brows knit in disgust. Considering the size and supposed power of the "Great Horde" she would have expected them to possess better technology. Of course this was Etheria, and the Horde had left Hordak in charge of this world. Considering that, it wouldn't surprise her at all if all the technology they sent to Etheria was as substandard as the man they'd left in charge.
"Squadron eight, report," the voice on the comlink said, barely intelligible through the distortion. "What is your status?"
"Squadron eight reporting, sir. We have finished our patrol of the southern sector and are beginning – "
With a disgusted snort, the taller of the two troopers grabbed the comlink out of Shortie's hand. "Tell General Reaver, we've captured a rebel spy! We caught her in the act of attempting to sabotage our survey mission!"
Sabotage! Teela ground her teeth in exasperation. I don't even know how I wound up on this ship!
For several seconds there was no sound from the comlink but the crackling static of the open channel, then a new, deeper voice spoke in elegant tones. "Excellent work, trooper. Forget the rest of your patrol, and bring her to the cruiser right now. I'd like to speak with this rebel."
"Yes, General! Right away, sir!"
Bossy deactivated the comlink and returned it to the control panel. Horde armor was all encompassing and Teela couldn't see his face, but his entire manner was overbearing and smug. Wonderful, I'm a trophy. And I'm not even a rebel spy! Not that the Horde will care one way or the other as long as they can claim they captured someone. I don't have time for this! I have to find Adam before he marries Castaspella! I swear, the second I get my hands out of these cuffs those troopers are TOAST!
Though she was unaware of doing so, she must have made some noise, because one of the troopers at the controls turned and looked back at her over his shoulder. Caught by surprise, all Teela could do was stare at him, wide eyed, while wishing that she'd been able to play dead just a bit longer. Being stared at by an expressionless, metal mask was disconcerting, and Teela found her supply of witty comebacks unexpectedly dry.
Since he knew she was awake anyway, Teela decided she might as well sit up and make herself more comfortable, but she quickly discovered that he ankles had also been shackled together. "Oh for – " She ground her teeth together while she fought to control her anger. The Ancients only knew how often her temper and sharp tongue had gotten her into trouble. How many countless diplomatic missions had nearly been scotched by her volatility and only saved by a judicious application of Prince Adam's smile at its charming best? Even her current predicament, Horde troopers and all, could be attributed to her temper. After all, if she'd been kinder to Adam, he would never have run off with Castaspella.
"We should question her," Bossy said, derailing her train of thought.
"But the general wants us to bring her straight to the cruiser," Shortie noted anxiously.
Bossy was silent for a moment, still staring fixedly at Teela, then he said, "Yeah, but there's no rule that says we can't interrogate her on the way there."
"I don't know. General Reaver might not like it," Shortie said, clearly nervous. Teela fixed her gaze on him, wondering if his reluctance stemmed from fear of his superior's disapproval or some more noble reluctance to interrogate a woman by the accepted Horde protocols.
"But if we get useful information out of her, it could mean a promotion," Bossy argued, sounding more eager than ever. "Let's give it a shot."
"Now, boys, can't we talk about this reasonably?" Teela stammered as the troopers loomed over her, Shortie hanging back behind Bossy and fidgeting with one of the joins of his uniform. He looked decided uncomfortable as he shrugged his shoulders and the great metal breastplate shifted from side to side like, slapping awkwardly into his neck.
If I can just get undone, I can take that one out in five seconds or less. As for Bossy… Adam is always sweet talking his way out of problems. It's worth a shot.
"Listen, fella, you're going to be in big trouble as soon as I get these cuffs off! Now untie me or you'll be breathing out your toes!" Teela flinched. What is wrong with me? I open my mouth, flummery on my tongue and insults come out! Too damn late now, though.
Bossy leaned over her, blocking out the sun, and Teela glared up at him, doing her best to look unworried and completely confident. Her nonchalance slipped a bit when he latched a hand onto the collar of her uniform and yanked her painfully upward, her legs dangling uselessly beneath her.
Got to work on my fawning skills!
"Where are the other rebels?" he demanded, giving her a shake. "You can't have come here alone. Where are they?"
I'm not a rebel! Teela shrieked internally, though no sound would pass through her clenched teeth and her skull rattled painfully from side to side. I just want to find Adam!
"Well?" he shouted.
When she still didn't speak, he backhanded her, snapping her head to the side and splitting open her lip. Teela grunted, but kept her jaw tightly clenched, refusing to give Bossy the satisfaction of hearing her cry out in pain. In retaliation, the trooper placed his free hand on her throat, partially cutting off her ability to breathe. Her vision spiraled in and out of focus, and she was only dimly aware of Shortie moving around behind his more aggressive comrade, thumping his thigh repeatedly with his fist as he watched the show.
Oxygen deprivation… twice. In an… hour… or less. Father… is going to… kill me.
Bossy released her throat and hauled his arm back to hit her again, but Shortie grabbed his arm before the blow could connect.
"Look!" the small trooper yelled, pointing at something in the air behind Teela. Bossy glanced up, a snarl still on his lips, than dropped her with a curse.
As she hit the floor, her legs complaining that they really weren't supposed to bend that way, Bossy was already running for the patrol boat's controls. Then, somehow, he and Shortie became intertwined in a clumsy tangle of limbs, and before Bossy could correct for the change in his momentum, he was plunging overboard. Water splashed up onto the deck as he broke the surface of the ocean, dripping into Teela's eyes and making them sting.
"Help!" Shortie yelled, flapping his arms wildly. "Man overboard! Hurry!"
The trooper manning the forward guns came running back to see what had happened.
Her sense of self-preservation kicking back in, Teela began to slither across the floor of the boat and as far away from the remaining troopers as possible. It was awkward and painful with her limbs bound as they were, but it was definitely preferable to being trampled. She heard loud another splash accompanied by a yowl of indignation, but without stopping to look back she couldn't see what was happening. When she'd at least put the molded bench on which she'd so recently been lying between her and the troopers, Teela twisted onto her back and sat up.
I must be hallucinating.
Hanging in the air above the patrol boat was a ship, a large sailing ship, but with sails like none that the Eternian had ever seen before. Strangely, they appeared to be made of some sort of metal rather than cloth. Aside from that, there was nothing to indicate what was holding the vessel aloft. No propeller, no anti-grav unit, no balloons – nothing!
A ghost ship? "It can't be!"
As Teela watched with all the fascination of a rabbit trapped in place by a snake's shifty gaze, the ship slowly lowered itself to the ocean below, the keel slipping gently beneath the surface while waves lapped at the wooden hull. As it descended, men – real live men – came into view. They seemed to be deckhands, and not a few of them were staring back at her with equal interest.
"Are you all right, miss?"
Teela jumped, barely suppressing a scream as a metal-plated hand landed on her shoulder. Whipping her head around, she saw one of the troopers kneeling beside her. She wasn't certain, but she thought it was Shortie. "W-What?" she stuttered.
Releasing her shoulder, the trooper reached up and pulled at his helmet. For a moment it wouldn't budge and he wrestled with it in growing irritation. Then, with a tremendous grunt, he yanked it free and threw it to deck beside him. "How does anyone breathe in these things?" he demanded, drawing in great gulps of air. He had reddish-brown hair and a large nose, and he wasn't at all what Teela had expected a Horde Trooper to look like underneath the metal mask.
"Oh, beg your pardon, miss!" the trooper exclaimed, seeming to remember that he wasn't alone. "I should be helping you out of those awful cuffs instead of thinking about myself. Here, just let me find that key." That said, he began to rummage in the compartments of his uniform.
Did I hit my head? Teela wondered, as she gaped at the little man. "What kind of trooper are you?"
"Who? Me?" he asked, eyes wide as he produced the key. "Oh, I'm just sailor, miss. I'm not really a member of the Horde. Why, I hate the Horde!"
"Okay." There didn't seem to be anything else to say.
Leaning around her, the sailor fit the key into the cuffs behind her back and freed her wrists. Teela immediately pulled them forward, trying to rub feeling back into her abused arms and hands. "Thanks," she muttered, but the sailor just smiled and nodded and reached for her ankles.
There was a loud thump beside them, and the patrol boat rocked for a moment under the impact of a heavy weight. Looking up and squinting into the sun, Teela raised a hand to shade her eyes. A tall man with hair as red as her own and a beard that was equally fiery was staring down at her, his hands placed firmly on his hips.
"Well, Swen," he boomed scowling down at her. "Will she live?"
"Yes, Captain!" the sailor said, rising hastily to his feet and saluting before he'd finished freeing her ankles. "But she's had a horrible time, sir. I hate to think what might have happened if you hadn't been nearby. Just let me finish untying her ankles and – "
"No time, Swen," the man declared. Then he bent down, scooped Teela up before she could even think of a protest and tossed her over his shoulder. "The Horde could be on its way at this very moment. We set sail, now!"
Adam set a leisurely pace as they strolled through the Mystican Forest, leisurely even by Cringer's unusually rigid standards in this area. Unlike most of the forests that the prince had seen on Etheria, this one featured tall, thin trees of a bark so dark as to be almost black. A few lighter gray trees grew beneath the over-shadowing canopy high above, but even they were the color of slate and festooned with leaves of a deep burgundy that shone black in the shadows. Shafts of sunlight broke through, jumping about the bracken floor as the wind moved through the branches. It was nothing at all like the Whispering Woods… or even the Evergreen Forest on Eternia. Still, it was a pleasant place now that Casta had finished banishing all the monsters that had infested it during her exile from the throne. True to her soft heart, she hadn't actually killed any but the most violent of them, merely sending the rest to the Forbidden Zone where they could live in relative peace untroubling to - and untroubled by - man. A few natural predators remained in the forest, but none that were likely to want to take on Cringer.
"Are you sure there aren't any wolves here, Adam?" the tiger asked tremulously as he slunk from his hiding place behind a tree that was wholly inadequate to conceal him.
At least, the predators were unlikely to attack provided that they didn't actually know Cringer.
"There aren't any wolves in Mystacore, Cringe," the prince smiled in bemusement as the great cat rose up beneath his hand, encouraging him to scratch. Clearly, either ear would do.
"Oh, that's good," he purred, though Adam wasn't certain whether he was referring to the scratching or the lack of wolves. "I sure wouldn't want to meet any without Teela here to protect us."
Adam stopped scratching and abruptly started walking again. "We don't need her," he snapped. "We can take care of ourselves. I've got the sword, after all. We can always transform."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Cringer muttered, as he crept along behind the prince, flinching at every bird's twitter. "I'd feel better if Teela was here. Then you wouldn't need He-Man to protect us from the – WHAT WAS THAT?" The cat leapt forward, wrapping himself around Adam's calves and nearly making him fall.
"Cringer!" the prince cried in exasperation. "That's a moose, or something like one."
"Do they have fangs?" the cat asked, trembling so hard that Adam felt his own teeth shake in response.
"No," the prince assured him. Then compelled by he knew not what irksome mood, he added, "but the cougars do."
"That's it!" Cringer cried, unwrapping himself and starting to nudge Adam in the direction of the castle. "We're going back for Teela!"
Dropping to his knees, Adam grabbed the tiger's ruff with both hands and looked him squarely in the eyes. "She's on another planet, Cringe! And we're already more than five miles from Castle Mystacore."
Cringer just sniffed, wrapping his tail around him with the remains of his dignity. "Then we better hurry if we want to get her here in time for lunch." He sniffed again, attempting to look regal, but the effect was ruined when another moose call sent him bounding away into the underbrush, tail between his legs.
"Come on!" he howled, and with a sigh, Adam turned to follow after him. His trail wasn't exactly difficult to track. And what was this sudden obsession with Teela? You'd think Cringer was the one in – don't think about it, boy! Just don't think about it!
He was a grown man. He didn't need a bodyguard to hold his hand. He didn't need anyone to hold his hand, blast it! Besides, by now, Teela might not even be at the palace anymore. She was moving away. She wasn't going to be his bodyguard anymore. She didn't really seem to want to be his friend anymore either. He could certainly go for a walk without her… without thinking about her.
She'd looked so amazing in that dress, though. So like herself and yet unlike herself at the same time. The golden gown had suited her, clinging to curves that looked remarkably touchable when she wasn't in uniform, enhancing her fiery beauty in a way that –
Adam stopped dead in his tracks as a warm flush spread through his body, heating his skin and starting a small tense knot of fire in the region of his groin. A low groan escaped his lips as he shifted uncomfortably in the unfamiliar trousers. His old leggings had more stretch than the leather of his new pants, soft as it was. Of all the times… five miles… five long miles. Well this is going to be a fun walk…
By the time he reached the castle, Adam was hot, sweaty and thoroughly disgusted with himself. One bloody day. He'd been on Etheria for one day, and he was already mooning over Teela. It was ridiculous, not to mention uncomfortable. After that amazing night he'd spent with Casta, shouldn't he be fantasizing about her? Of course he should. He could picture it so clearly. The way the moonlight had looked on her skin. The flowery scent of her hair. The starlight reflected in her eyes as his hands –
Sudden, unbidden images of what that encounter might have been like with a slight change in cast had Adam groaning with renewed discomfort. Flushing, the prince hurried to his rooms. He was shedding clothing before the door had completely closed behind him.
"What's wrong, Adam?" Cringer asked through a yawn, and the prince looked up to the see the tiger lying stretched out in the center of the suite's enormous bed.
"Nothing," he said as he yanked his shirt off over his head. Tossing it aside, he turned toward the bathing room. "I'm going to soak for a while. Why don't you take a nap?"
"That's a – " Cringer yawned again " – good idea."
The tiger rested his head on his paws and closed his eyes. Satisfied that he wouldn't be observed, Adam removed the last of his clothing and perched on the edge of the tub while it filled. Cold water would probably fix his problem more effectively, but he just couldn't face it. Besides, there were other ways to handle it. When the water was lapping a few inches below the rim, the prince turned it off and then eased himself in. He leaned back until only his head and the tips of his knees broke the surface. Steam billowed up around him as his mind wandered, his muscles slowly relaxed and his problems slowly wilted away.
When he emerged from the bath wrinkled and dripping, it was to find Cringer sound asleep on the bed and a gilded note propped against a vase of roses on the bedside table. Clutching the towel that hung around his hips in one fist, Adam picked up the note with the other hand and read it with raised eyebrows. He wasn't certain what he was expecting, but it wasn't the rather prosaic little missive that the note turned out to be. Apparently, Queen Castaspella was swamped with matters of state and wouldn't be able to meet him for dinner until much later than originally planned. It wasn't even in her hand, or at least he didn't think it was her writing. No doubt a scribe or secretary had actually penned it.
Relief warred with annoyance, and Adam shook his head, fed up with both emotions. Just because he was an emotional wreck was no reason to think poorly of Casta for dictating her message. She was a ruling queen for pity's sake. "And I am a royal twit."
"If you say so," Cringer mumbled, slitting one eye open. "Could you talk to yourself more quietly, Adam. I need my beauty sleep."
The prince rolled his eyes and plopped down beside the tiger. "Sorry, Cringe," he said, stroking between the cat's ears. "Go back to sleep. I'm going to go exploring a bit more."
Cringer yawned, nuzzled his hand. "Better put some clothes on first," he drawled.
An hour later, Adam was touring one the castle's numerous portrait galleries. The paintings in this display were all twice life-size or even larger, dwarfing ordinary humans. They loomed up the walls of the hallway in which they were hung, though they still fell far short of the ceiling that seemed to float high overhead. He could only assume that the gargantuan size of the portraits was meant to be symbolic since each picture depicted one of Mystacore's late rulers.
Each painting had a plaque beneath it giving the name of the subject, their dates of birth and death as well as the date upon which they ascended the throne. The earliest portraits were more than seven hundred years old and quite different in style from the later depictions. While the older paintings had an almost light-hearted charm to them, the later ones were serious to the point to being gloomy. Even the pictures that depicted whole families were horribly somber. Adam knew which end of the family he preferred.
One fellow who particularly caught Adam's eye had been painted sitting on horseback… sitting backwards on horseback. He looked no more than 30, and he wore a jauntily plumed hat and a bright orange tunic that completely failed to conceal his knobby knees and skinny legs. Bemused, Adam leaned closer and read the nameplate aloud. "Prince Consort Noitat Nacni, husband of Queen Chantra the Just." Curious what relationship existed between Casta and the knobbly-kneed prince, Adam decided he ask to see a family tree later. Looking at the portraits would be much more interesting if he could put the people in them into some kind of historical and familial context aside from names and dates.
And he definitely wanted to know more about Noitat. The guy had guts, no style, but plenty of guts and a good sense of humor to judge by the twinkle the artist had painted in his eyes. As he wandered, pausing now and again when something caught his eye, Adam noticed that the women in the gallery outnumbered by the men by a good two to one. Clearly, Mystacore had a long history of ruling queens and Castaspella had a great deal to live up to.
"Good day, Your Highness."
Adam turned. A young woman wearing the castle livery and carrying a large stack of what looked liked bed linens was regarding him with a warm and friendly smile. He returned it. "Hello, Mistress…" He trailed off, uncertain what to call her.
"Serena, m'lord," she said, her smile revealing dimples in her freckled cheeks.
Her manner was so calm and open, her smile so engaging that Adam found himself immediately at his ease. "That's a lovely name," he said, not in the least worried that she'd think him bold or improper for speaking so familiarly to someone who was clearly a servant.
"Thank you, m'lord. I've always liked it." She bounced slightly on her heels, and shifted the bundle in her arms. Adam firmly resisted the urge to take it from her. He was a guest here, and that might be taken amiss. "Sorry for interrupting your musings, but it's getting on toward dinner, and I thought you might be wanting a drink or something. Can I get you anything?"
"No, thank you, I'm fine," he assured her.
"All right then," she said, bobbed a somewhat awkward curtsy and turned toward one of the corridor's massive doors. Looking back over her shoulder at him, she said, "Would you mind opening this for me, Your Highness?"
Adam hurried to help her, relieved that not everyone in Mystacore was quite so formal as he'd feared.
"Thanks," she said and disappeared into the suite.
Closing the door, the prince returned to his contemplation of the more recent paintings. Near the end of the gallery, Adam stopped before the portrait of a young man with solemn gray eyes and a quiet smile. His back was straight, his shoulders square and his entire bearing bespoke trustworthiness and reliability – if the artist's conception could be depended upon, that was. The prince looked to see who the fellow was and was startled to find no identification attached to the base of the frame. Judging by a faded oval patch on the wood, there had once been a plaque, but it was gone now. When compared to the other portraits of similar artistic style whose names and dates were still attached, it was clear that the picture was a very recent one, perhaps no more than a hundred years old. But none of the nearby portraits provided any further clues to the young man's identity, and Adam found his curiosity growing.
Who was the ashen haired young man?
A door opened behind him, and Adam turned to see Serena exiting the suite, minus the bundle of linens. "Mistress, may I ask you something?"
Eyes widening, Serena walked over to stand beside him. "Yes, m'lord?"
"Do you know who this is?" Adam asked, gesturing at the portrait.
Serena tilted her head and regarded the portrait for a moment. She squinted, as if trying to remember something, then her eyes opened wide again. "Oh, of course," she said. "That's Prince Consort Valoreur. I've heard my gran speak of him. Very well loved, he was. A good and kind man, and very brave, or so the older folk say. He's been greatly missed, I know that much."
"Was he Castaspella's father or grandfather?" Adam asked, intrigued.
Serena blinked at him in astonishment, looking thoroughly nonplussed by the question. "Why, no, Your Highness. He was Queen Castaspella's husband."
Teela paced the confines of the room in which she'd been dumped. Three paces. Stop in front of the bed. Turn. Three paces. Stop in front of the door. Turn ninety degrees. Four paces. Stop in front of the window. Glare at the completely blameless sea. Turn. Four paces. Kick the wall next to the wardrobe. Turn. On and on and on. It was the captain's cabin. Despite its miniscule size, she just knew that it was the captain's cabin.
Well, Captain Tight-Britches was in for a doozy of a shock if he thought that she was going to play mermaid to his fisherman. "Hah!" She kicked the wall with a bit too much force. The loud ka-thunk was quite satisfying, but it left her trying to keep the toes of her left foot from touching the floor for the rest of her brood. She was tired. It had been a very long, very much no fun day, and she was way beyond tired. But there was absolutely no way she was lying down on that bed. Oh no. Uh uh. She might not be able to escape very easily – the porthole, as she'd discovered early on, was too small to climb out of – but she was not going to make things easy for them.
Of course, "them" would have to make an appearance for Teela's show of determination to have an impact. At the moment, she was alone. Tired and alone. Her eyes and her chest burned equally. She ran her hands through her tangle of loose and still damp hair. It hung down her back, a heavy weight adding to her fatigue. Maybe she'd be able to think better if she rested for just a few minutes.
As she stretched out on the bed, Teela's senses were assaulted by the overwhelming fragrance of salt and sand that arose from the covers. Cologne. Like a tidepool gone stagnant. The owner of the cabin must bathe in the stuff. What sort of man would believe that scent to be appealing? Adam smelled so much nicer. Her nose wrinkled as her eyes closed. So much nicer. Like cinnamon cookies on a warm, sunny day…
Teela jerked awake at the sound of a key turning in a lock. Muzzier than she'd prefer, she scrambled awkwardly to her feet. She would not face her captor sitting down. Blood pounded behind her temples as door inched open the merest crack. She still couldn't see anyone when a tentative voice called out to her in a sotto voce whisper.
"M'lady, are you awake?"
Well that didn't sound like a hardened pirate. Teela squinted and tilted her head to the side, trying to see through the dark crack into the hallway beyond. She didn't move a jot closer. She wanted as much room about her as she could get if it came to a fight.
"M'lady?" The door creaked open a bit wider, and Teela blinked as her visitor's face came into view. She had to drop her gaze about a foot and a half to meet his eyes. "Oh, good, you're awake," the fellow said with a shy smile when he saw her standing there. "You'd slept so long; I was getting worried. Is it alright if turn on the lights and come in?"
Teela's mouth dropped open. "Uh…"
Shortie's eyebrows rose as he waited for a more intelligent reply, but he never got one. He was unceremoniously shoved aside as the red-haired pirate strode into the room.
"You hardly need ask her permission, Swen, he boomed as he glared at her. "It's my cabin, and she is a prisoner, after all," Then, taking his chin in his hand and tilting his head to one side, the pirate let his gaze travel from the tips of Teela's boots to the top of her head and back again. It lingered in unsurprising places, and Teela rolled her eyes. She was far from intimidated. Now that she wasn't sprawled on her back or dangling from his shoulder, the pirate seemed shorter. A great deal shorter. She smiled.
"If you're quite done ogling, I'd like to know what ship this is and who you think you are? Or would you prefer that I turn so you can get the rear view as well?"
The pirate's eyes widened. "Well, now that you mention it." He took a step closer, smirking. "You are a lovely sight m'dear, even if you can't be trusted."
Bristling, Teela shifted into a more balanced stance, ready to spring at the man.
"I can't be trusted? That funny, coming from a pirate!"
"Captain?" Swen began, but the man cut him off.
"A pirate who rescued you from the Horde, may I remind you. Quite a dashing rescue too, if I do say so myself." He took another step, bringing himself almost into range of a spin kick.
"But captain –" the little man pleaded, glancing back and forth between them.
Teela scowled, "Do you hold all the women you rescue prisoner?"
"Only the beautiful ones, my lassie. Now why don't you be a good little girl and –"
"But Captain Seahawk, sir! She fell out of the sky!"
"Seahawk!" Teela exclaimed.
"The sky?" the pirate demanded at the same moment.
Their gazes snapped to the little man as he nodded so vigorously that his cap almost fell off. "Yes, sir. Yes M'lady."
Teela looked back to the pirate only to find that he was studying her as well. He started to speak, but this was one opportunity that Teela was not about to let pass her by.
"So, you're Adora's boyfriend," she smirked as he stared at her in shock. "Somehow, I expected her to have better taste."
The pirate's jaw dropped as he gaped at her in evident astonishment. "What? How?" he stuttered, but then he took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders, resuming his previous arrogant expression. "Well, m'lady, you have proved my caution just. Only two sets of people know that Adora and I are – "
" – close!" he bellowed, looking so far beyond outraged that for a moment Teela feared he might have an apoplexy on the spot. "Two groups,' he continued. "The Rebellion and the Horde. If you were a rebel, I'd know it, so you must be Horde."
"Which is, naturally, why they were holding me prisoner."
"You might have gotten in trouble with – "
"But she fell out of the sky, Captain," the little man insisted. Then, ducking back into the hall beyond the door for a moment, he reemerged with a tray laden with food and drink. "I thought you must be hungry by now," he offered with a shy smile.
Teela couldn't help smiling back. "As a matter of fact, I am. Thank you…"
"Thank you, Swen." Teela sat down at the room's one small table as the smaller pirate set the tray down before her. She was starving, and she wasted no time before starting to eat. The red-haired pirate glared, but did nothing to try and stop either her or his miniscule henchman. After a few minutes of watching her eat, clearly pleased that the fare had been so well received, Swen scurried out mumbling something about duties to perform. That left Teela alone with the captain. She looked up at him through her lashes, contemplating the quirk of fate that had dropped her, of all places, into his lap. Then, between bites, she said – unable to keep the smug tone out of her voice, and not particularly trying to – "You missed one."
"Missed one what?" the pirate replied.
"One group of people who know that you're Adora's boyfriend."
"And who might that be?" he demanded, curling his lip in disbelief.
"Her… Great Sea Serpents and Horny Toads! You must be Teela!"
Teela's head snapped up from her contemplation of her food, and it was all she could do not to choke as food fought to go down the wrong pipe. "How do you know my name?"
"Why, Adora's spoken of you, of course," Seahawk said, dropping onto the bed and reclining with his arms behind his head and his feat crossed. "She's told me more than a few stories of the fiery warrior who has her darling brother so entranced. You're just as beautiful as she described," he announced with a smirk. "Though perhaps not as clean."
"Well if someone hadn't just dumped me in here for hours after fishing me out of the – " Teela shook her head. "I don't have time for this. I have to find Adam and fast. You have to help me," she added desperately.
"Adam? Is the soft little prince here on Etheria?"
"He's not soft," Teela snapped. "At least, not the way you mean it, and yes, he is here, and we have to stop him."
"Stop him from what?" Seahawk asked, puzzled.
"Stop him from marrying Castaspella and ruining everything for both of us!"
"What? That's impossible, my dear. You must be mistaken. Adora says he's in love with you. He would never marry another woman."
Teela flushed, warmth and a certain hollowness spreading from her stomach outward to the rest of her body. "She did?" she asked breathlessly.
"Well, of course. Surely you know he loves you."
That did it. She gulped in a deep breath struggling to maintain her composure, but it was a losing battle. Tears began to course down her cheeks, and Teela buried her face in her arms on the table. She could no longer see, but she could hear Seahawk jump up from the bed and scramble to her side. "Galloping seahorses! You're not… you are… oh for… stop crying, will you? I don't have the foggiest clue how to stop a woman from crying without kissing her, and if I kiss you, Adora will eviscerate me after her brother finishes having his go. Please stop," he said again, patting her awkwardly on the back.
"I can't," Teela sobbed. "I've ruined everything. Everything! Adam has given up on me. He's going to marry Castaspella and become Prince Consort and I'll lose him, and you'll lose Adora because she'll have to stay on Eternia to rule in Adam's place. I've ruined absolutely everything!"
Seahawk's hands withdrew from her as if scorched. For a moment the room was utterly still and silent except for the sound of her crying. Then –
"Swen!" Seahawk bellowed. Teela looked up and watched in startlement as the captain yanked open the door and raced for the deck, still yelling. "Swen! Drop everything and set sail for Mystacore!"
Teela grabbed onto the edge of the table and held on tightly as the ship banked sharply. Then, before she could even dry her tears, the large pirate was back. "All right," he demanded. "Tell me everything and don't spare the gory details."