Authors: Jack Heckel
Happily Never After
VOLUME II OF THE CHARMING TALES
For Isaac and Carleigh
AS ALWAYS, WE
would like to acknowledge everyone who has helped us on this long journey to making this book a reality. Inevitably, someone will be forgotten in this list, but as we mentioned in
Once Upon a Rhyme,
this won't be the last book. We'll fix it.
First, to Taba and Heather who always had faith and love to spare even when we faltered. You gave this book life as much as anyone. Happily ever after.
To the members of the Paragon City Writers: Dara, Wayland, Brad, Anna and Jon. Keep writing.
All of our beta readers: Anthony, Bill, Cathy, Chris, Dorothy, Kayla, Kim and Oliver. This doesn't happen without you. Thank you so very much.
To our families, including parents, in-Âlaws, uncles, cousins, grandparents, brothers, sisters and fairy godmothers. We love you all and appreciate the inspiration, support and understanding.
To everyone at Estes Express, thank you for believing.
A special mention to Rasheen for the music and the breakfast walks. Thank you.
To our fellow Harper Voyager authors, thanks for the friendship, community, and support.
From Harry to Dad, you have always believed in me. Thanks for the bedtime stories.
From John to DadâÂ
Tout passÃ©, tout cassÃ©, tout lassÃ©
Finally, again a big thanks to Kelly and Jessie and everyone else at Harper Voyager.
A winged shadow of starkest black,
A darkened glade where the weak and wishful tarry.
A curse screamed from dream's dark depths,
A thousand guises and a single name.
BY PRINCESS GWENDOLY
MIDNIGHT'S QUIET HAD
wrapped itself about Castle White as a twelve-Âyear-Âold Charming padded down the long hall in his slippered feet. He was on his way back from the kitchens, having liberated another of the lovely apricot tarts the baker so jealously guarded. He savored his victory with a bite, reveling in the perfection of the pastry.
Such raids were strictly forbidden, of course, and indeed all of the servants were abuzz with the question of who could be stealing the King's favorite desserts, but Charming was no novice at such intrigues. He knew the castle well enough to evade the traps the head cook had set, to slip past the alcoves in the hall where the night footmen stood guard, and to avoid the curtains in the music salon where a maid sat waiting. He even knew about the broom closet where, tonight, the baker himself had tried to keep vigil.
What a laugh
, thought Charming.
All my father's horses and all of his men couldn'
t keep me from those tarts. They are like blind cats sitting before a blank wall thinking it's a mouse hole.
They would never catch him. The castle with its twisting halls and endless rooms was his domain. He took another bite and chuckled.
He was just passing the Royal Library when he heard the voice of his father from within. It was not unusual for him to be up this late, consulting with this lord or that, on that problem or this, but whomever his father was talking with, and whatever the topic, it was serious. Charming knew his father's moods well, and, though muffled, Charming could tell from the tone of his voice that his father was being even grimmer than usual.
Charming was about to continue on, feeling lucky that it was not he who was on the other side of whatever lecture was being given, when a single word, rising above the general murmur, stopped him dead in his tracks.
“ .Â .Â . dragon!”
Holding the tart away from his body, he pressed his ear against the keyhole. At once, he recognized that there were three Âpeople in the room besides his father, and not just any three Âpeople but the three most highly ranked members of the court: Duke Northingham of North Northingham, the richest noble in the kingdom; Lord Jocksley, his father's closest friend and hunting companion; and Lady Greenleaf, without a doubt the sharpest mind and tongue of the court.
“But, Your Majesty,” Northingham was saying, “the monster is destroying trade in the kingdom, and killing Âpeople beside.”
“Some are beginning to grumble a bit, Rupert,” Jocksley added in his customary drawl.
“Grumble?” Lady Greenleaf said acidly. “I see that your powers of understatement remain without peer, Jocksley. The fact is, Your Majesty, the dragon has terrorized Royaume for years, and the Âpeople are fed up. What's more, the creature is growing bolder, each year going further and further afield.”
“Lady Greenleaf is right,” Northingham verbally pounced. “The beasty used to be satisfied with attacking towns of no consequence, like Prosper and Two Trees, but now it dares go after places that actually matter!”
“I think you are taking gross liberties with
argument, Northingham,” said Lady Greenleaf archly. “However, Your Majesty, he is correct that if something is not done soon, the Âpeople will demand
There was a pause, and Charming could picture his father puckering his brow and fixing the three nobles with the commanding gaze he gave when he was challenged.
“What would you have me do? Would you have me send more knights, more troops after it? We've lost nearly four-Âscore men trying to hunt the creature down. How many more would you have me sacrifice? And why? The prophecy is quite clear that it is my son who will defeat the dragon.”
“Frankly,” Northingham said, “it's the Prince we are interested in talking to you about.”
“Is there a problem with the Prince?”
“Look, Rupert,” Jocksley said with forced cheerfulness, “it isn't that anyone questions the Prince, or youâÂ”
“As well they shouldn't.”
“ButâÂ” Jocksley tried to continue.
“Let us cut to the chase,” Lady Greenleaf interceded. “The Prince is twelve, soon to be thirteen. I don't think I need to tell Your Majesty that, for many peasants, thirteen marks the age of majority. Farmer's sons on my estate are getting married at thirteen, and many more are beginning to keep their own fields at that age.”
“And what exactly is your point?”
“The point, Your Majesty,” she said, “is that the Âpeople are beginning to question when the Prince will be ready for his quest, or, indeed, if he will ever be ready.”
From behind the door, Charming felt blood rush to his face and an emptiness fill his chest.
Are the Âpeople really beginning to question me?
There was a spluttering noise that Charming took to be his father trying to compose himself, and then Jocksley stepped into the fray. “Look, Rupert, all we are asking is how realistic is it to imagine that a boy of thirteen, or fifteen, or even seventeen, is going to be able to slay a dragon. Take my son, Daniel. I love the boy to death, but he's sixteen now and has taken to running about in the woods with a bunch of his friends, doing who knows what. Boys like Daniel and Charming are just .Â .Â .”
“There is no âboy' like Charming,” his father said. “Look, Jocksley, Lady Greenleaf, Duke Northingham, I know that this delegation represents the leading nobility of the kingdom, and you have been charged to deliver this message to me. I appreciate your candor, but you can send this response to the nobles, and be at peace in your own hearts: All is in hand. The Prince will be readyâÂand soon. I have spared no expense or effort in his education. He trains daily at combat and arms, and at building his body to the peak of physical readiness. He studies under the finest tutors to sharpen his mind and to develop his strategies and tactics. In short, he is growing into the very model of honor and chivalry, an example to hold up to the rest of the kingdom.”
Charming's heart swelled as he listened to his father defend him. He felt, almost, that he could ride out tonight to fight the dragon. Nothing could stop him.
Suddenly, a sharp pain raced through his left ear.
“I caught you, you little thiefâÂand red-Âhanded, no less!”
The baker had his ear. The beefy man pulled him away from the door and ripped the tart out of his hand. Charming had no time to plead as the baker knocked loudly at the door.
“Come!” said the King.
As the door was thrown open, Charming saw his father standing behind his enormous gold-Âgilt desk. He was holding a scroll in one of his many-Âringed hands, and gesturing broadly about the room. On the opposite side of the desk, the three nobles turned to look.
“What is the meaning of this?” his father asked. “Charming, what are you doing up at this time? And, Baker Crumplet, what gives you the right to handle my son, the Prince, in this unseemly manner?”
The baker released Charming and then bowed low. Charming rubbed his stinging ear.
“You may rise. Now, Crumplet, I expect an answer to my question.”
“Y-ÂYour Royal Majesty,” the baker said with a slight stutter of nerves, “I beg your forgiveness for this intrusion, but I have caught the tart thief.” The odious man held the apricot tart high in the air, beaming.
The King's gaze settled on the apricot tart and his face clouded with anger. There was a stifled chuckle from Jocksley, and Duke Northingham cleared his throat uncomfortably. Lady Greenleaf was disdainfully silent.
“Edward?” his father said coldly.
Charming felt his heart thump violently in his chest, and a sudden queasiness rose in his throat. His father may never have been warm to him, but Charming had also never been the target of his father's full wrath.
“IâÂI cannot,” Charming said, his voice catching.
“I see. So this is how you choose to repay me for all your years of privilege, education, and training? To steal the bread from my own table, LIKE A COMMON THIEF?” his father roared. “Shall I deal with you as I would deal with any other thief? Shall I put you in irons, or perhaps parade you through the village for the Âpeople to throw rocks at and to spit on? Is this what you want?”
Charming could not speak.
“N-ÂN-ÂNo, Father,” Charming finally choked out.
“What punishment would you have me mete out, if I am denied my customary due?”
Charming had no answer, and so remained silent, and the silence stretched on and became oppressive.
Jocksley's voice cut through the tension. “Come now, Rupert. What boy doesn't sneak a treat from the kitchens now and then? We never caught whoever was stealing from our kitchens. All we ever found were arrows. Strange, but as in this case, no harm done.”
“Jocksley, did I not just assure youâÂno, did I not just
âÂthat you deliver a message to the entire court that, upon
honor the Prince was like âno other boy,' and that they could place their faith in his character? Does my honor and name mean that little that my words should be thus proved false before they have even left the ears of those that hear them?”
Jocksley said nothing at this and the King addressed Charming again. “I am waiting for an answer, Edward. By what means can this wrong be righted?”
Charming had never felt so empty and low. Death would be preferable to this. And then, with the clarity of youth, he knew what he had to do. Taking a few deep breaths, he raised his blurry eyes. “You must send me against the dragon, Father. It is the only way that I can redeem myselfâÂand if I fail, then it will be of no great loss if I am gone.”
There was a long silence at this pronouncement, during which the nobles and his father, whose face had grown suddenly white, did not move or speak. Beside him the baker stared, dumbfounded.
Finally, his father cleared his throat. “Well, we have said enough on the subject for now. I have important matters to discuss with the, um, delegation from the court. Return to your chambers and we will talk tomorrow.”
“Please, Father,” Charming pleaded. “I can go tonight. I have dishonored you, and I do not feel right staying here in the castle.
“You are a child, Edward! You do not know what you are saying! You are not ready! I forbid you to speak of this again! Now leave us.”
Anger burned through Charming's breast. He was not a child, and he was prophesied to be the dragon slayer. His hands clenched into fists. “What about the Âpeople who died, who are dying? Shouldn't I go help them? Isn't it my duty? The Âpeople think I should go.” He stabbed a finger at the three nobles. “Father, even they say so.”
A gasp escaped from Lady Greenleaf, and Charming thought that the baker swayed on his feet. His father's face flushed red with fury. “Edward Michael Charming! You will always remember that I am not only your father but also your King. You are not just my son, but also my subject, and you will follow my commands without dissent! I will tell you when it is time for you to ride against the dragon, and this is not that time. Now, go!”
Charming dropped to a knee and, struggling to keep his voice from cracking, said, “Yes, FathâÂ” His father, the King, looked at him sharply and Charming quickly amended with, “Your Majesty.”
His body shook as he rose. He bowed stiffly to his father, the King, and marched from the room. Once out of sight, he took to his heels, running as tears splashed across his face in confusion, shame, and anguish.