If Dominic had not already known, from the way they had seen right through the glamour Nikki had cast over him, that there was something decidedly peculiar about their two new companions, then the scene that greeted him when he returned to camp would have erased all doubt.

He found Saya standing beside their shelter, wrestling with a large sheet of oilcloth. Tossing strands of her still-unbound hair out of her face, she glanced with helpless resignation at the sisters who were crouching in front of the katmon sapling, oblivious to the ongoing struggle behind them. The reason for their fascination became clear when Dominic heard Nikki's familiar voice bragging to her audience that yes, she was indeed a fairy unlike any they had ever met, with powers far superior to others of her own kind—a declaration that had Pamela clapping her hands with amazement and Kath murmuring something in reply.

"What's going on?" Dominic asked Saya as he set his sword down and hung the fish he'd caught in the stream upon a nearby branch. Then he took the other end of the oilcloth and together they spread it above the roof of the shelter he had built, securing it to surrounding tree branches with cords. The sisters were too engrossed with their conversation with Nikki to even notice his arrival.

Saya told him that when they had arrived at the camp and had seen the shelters he had built in anticipation of the rainstorm that had been building up all day, the sisters had produced the oilcloth, which had once served as a covering for a cart they owned and which they now used as a tent, and suggested that they add it to the shelter to make it large enough to fit two more people. Pamela and Kath had started out working on the oilcloth themselves, but Nikki had chosen that moment to materialize and wonder out loud about the strange humans blundering about the camp and where Saya had misplaced Dominic prince, causing the sisters to abandon the task in favor of marveling at the rare, miraculous sapling and its haughty little guardian-spirit.

"And thus you found us." Saya's voice was full of wry humor as she gathered her hair up and began braiding it.

Without thinking, Dominic stepped behind her, brushed her hands gently aside, and began braiding her hair himself. "They saw through Nikki's glamour, and they can obviously see Nikki herself. Since they don't appear to be close to death as Lady Melinda was, there are only two other possible explanations," he said as he wove the chestnut plaits over and under, enjoying the silken feel of her hair and the graceful sight of her nape as she bent her neck forward to give him space to work. "Either these two have been touched by magic as we are, or they have innate magical abilities themselves. It is not unheard of for people to be born with magical talents, although it doesn't happen as often as it did before."

Before his grandfather set about systematically eradicating all known magic-users from the kingdom, that is, he thought with a wince. In that case, the sisters would have even less reason to feel charitable toward him. After all, it was highly likely that his ancestors had had a direct hand in having their ancestors banished or executed simply for the crime of having a talent for magic, and were even now the reason the sisters and their relations had to keep their abilities hidden from the rest of the world.

"We'll find out soon enough, I suppose," he finished with a sigh as he secured the braid with the thin leather cord she used, then let it swing down her back. Coming to stand before her again, he drew up short when he saw her flinch slightly, one arm sliding over her middle in an almost protective gesture. "What's the matter?" He stepped closer, and was deeply relieved that she didn't move away from him, although she still kept her gaze lowered. "Saya? Look at me," he coaxed.

When she finally lifted her head, her cheeks were flushed and her beautiful dark eyes were strangely bright. "Where did you learn to braid hair?"

He blinked at the unexpected question, then shrugged. "Mother's ladies of the bedchamber taught me, I suppose. They are all rather fond of me and, at least until I turned seven, never minded having me underfoot." He gave her an engaging smile, trying to lighten her mood. "Does it matter where I learned to braid hair? I promise you it doesn't look quite as bad as you think," he added with a teasing solemnity.

It was evidently not the response she wanted to hear, because her eyes dimmed and her shoulders drooped before she caught herself and schooled her features. "No, you're right. It doesn't matter. It's just that it is not a skill I would have expected a prince to know. Then again, for a prince who can build shelters like these out of twigs and nothing—" she cast an impressed look at the shelters he had built, with Brundy flicking his ears forward amiably as her gaze fell upon him "—I'm sure dressing ladies' hair poses no challenge at all," she said, turning back toward him. "Thank you. For both the shelters and my braid."

She smiled at him before turning aside to tie her head scarf on. He frowned as he watched her, feeling a tightening in his chest that had nothing to do with the cursed vines. Despite her warm words, he could sense her distancing herself from him again. Did she not like him touching her hair? Did he upset her with his unthinking actions? Confusion put him on edge, and when she began to move away, he stopped her with a hand on her arm. "There's more to this, isn't there?" he said in a low voice. "You're bothered about something. I apologize if I have been too forward—"

He trailed off when she shook her head. "No need to apologize. You haven't been too forward. I was just…remembering something."

"What is it?" he asked, moving closer to her again as if unable to resist, his other hand sliding up her other arm in a comforting gesture.

"Not what. Who. A person who used to braid my hair before." She laughed softly, her gaze turning inward. "He wasn't any good at it in the beginning, but he was determined to learn, and he insisted on being the one to braid my hair every morning and evening. For a moment, you reminded me of him, that's all," she admitted, her cheeks coloring.

He? Dark, burning emotion tore through him at the thought of another man running his fingers through her hair, another man being that close to her and that often. Another man who could cause that look of bittersweet longing to cloud her face at the mere thought of him. The image of that blathering idiot Nathan flashed through his mind, followed by that of her snarling friend Jen. Who is he? he seethed, his fingers unconsciously digging into her arms until she winced and he abruptly released her.

He did not realize he'd spoken loud until she answered quietly: "He is no one, Dominic. Merely a memory."

With that, she stepped around him to move toward Kath, who was standing nearby with her arms crossed and Nikki perched upon her shoulder. Both were watching him and Saya with interest, although the little fairy's face was pinched with disapproval. There was no sign of Pamela anywhere.

"Well now. For a while there, I wondered if you two were about to forget yourselves and indulge in a lovers' kiss," Kath remarked, looking amused.

"Saya!" With a flutter of her gossamer wings, Nikki launched herself from Kath's shoulder toward the other girl, then hovered expectantly until Saya held her hand out, palm up, for the fairy to land on. "Stop blushing, you unseemly woman," she snapped, planting her tiny hands on her hips and glaring up at Saya.

"As if I have any control over that," Saya retorted, her other hand covering her cheek.

"Where is your sister?" Dominic turned aside on the pretext of searching the camp for Pamela to keep Nikki from noticing the blush scorching his own face after Kath's flippant words had jolted his entire being. A lovers' kiss. The idea was ludicrous, of course. The two of them were only pretending to be lovers, and besides, there was the fact that he was practically engaged to Ash to consider. Yet, as with everything else about Saya, it was also undeniably irresistible. An image of him taking her in his arms and capturing her lips in a kiss filled his mind, and for a moment, the fantasy seemed so vivid that he felt himself go lightheaded.

"She went for a walk. Knowing her, she'll probably return with some game for dinner," Kath replied, bringing him back to the present conversation.

His eyebrows lifted. "A walk in this wilderness? Alone? Why? There is no need for her to go hunting. I've caught enough fish for all of us," he said, pointing at the fish he'd strung up on a branch.

Kath shook her head, making her ponytail sway behind her. "It's not about the need for food. You two were so lost in your own world that you did not notice…ah, how do I explain it?" The humor fled her face, leaving her looking sad and grim. "Pamela is a sweet girl—most of the time, anyway," she muttered before continuing: "Ever since her Aldrin disappeared, she has been unable to bear the sight of lovers without being overcome with sorrow and worry for him. Hunting is merely an excuse for her to go and be alone for a while until her heart settles."

"Oh. I see," Dominic said lamely. He and Saya exchanged glances before they realized what they were doing and looked away again.

"We're so sorry," she said. "We didn't mean to cause your sister pain."

Kath dismissed their apologies with a wave of her hand. "It's fine, it's fine. She'll recover soon enough, and we'll have enough food to last us for days."

"But what exactly happened to Aldrin?" Dominic asked. "How did he manage to fall into the hands of someone who is called…the Black Widow, was it?"

"Yes. Lady Tara." Something in Saya's voice made him glance at her again. There was an odd, faraway look in her eye that disturbed him at some level.

He turned back to Kath, frustration sharpening his voice. "And pardon my rudeness, Miss Kath, but who exactly are you? How did you meet this seer who seems to know who we are and anticipate every move we make? And how are you able to see not only through Nikki's glamour but Nikki herself?"

"She's better now, Dominic. Look."

Again, Saya's voice cut through his barrage of questions. She was staring in wonder at Nikki, who obliged by tossing her hair back, fluttering her wings, and doing a little pirouette so that her magenta skirt flared outward. Only then did Dominic notice that the fairy was looking more solid and substantial than when he had last seen her, the white glow around her brighter. Moreover, she was actually able to travel farther away from her sapling now without being pulled back in an instant.

"Nikki, you are looking better, thank the gods," he marveled, unable to keep the relieved grin off his face. He had grown fond of the little fairy, who was as prickly on the outside as she was tenderhearted and courageous on the inside. And for all that Nikki still continued to take verbal jabs at her, he knew that the fairy cared as much for Saya as she did for him.

Then he frowned. "Wait, hold on, how did this happen?"

Nikki beamed at him, flitting upward to perch on Saya's shoulder. "I am feeling better and so is my tree, thanks to this ponytailed human's little trick." She gestured toward the katmon sapling, which to Dominic's surprise was looking noticeably healthier, and certainly less thin and scraggly than when he'd last seen it a short while ago. And if his eyes did not deceive him, there was even fresh, green growth budding at the top of the sapling, from which sprouted two tiny leaves.

Kath laughed as Dominic and Saya stared at the revived sapling. "'Little trick?' I'm hurt that you're not more impressed with my ability, given that I've just saved you and your tree from a withering death."

"Fine. More than just a trick," Nikki conceded with a sniff even as her face turned the same color as her frock.

Saya turned toward Kath, her eyes wide. "You have the green touch," she breathed. "More powerful than any I've seen before. How strange that I couldn't sense it before." Kath hesitated, looking unsure, then nodded.

Dominic scowled. "So you do have magical abilities. I repeat: Who the hell are you?"

"Later, Prince Dominic. When my sister returns," Kath told him. "Right now, I suggest we start preparing supper. There's going to be a storm—"

"Hello, everyone. Look what I have!"

Pamela bounded back into camp with her bow and quiver slung on her shoulders, a freshly killed pheasant dangling from her hand, and a big smile on her face. She stopped beside her sister and giggled when she saw the identical looks of astonishment on Saya's and Dominic's faces. "I'm sorry I left so suddenly. I'll be the one to clean this," she announced.

"So fast," Saya said faintly.

Dominic was less circumspect. "How are you so back so soon? Nobody can hunt that quickly," he demanded despite evidence to the contrary, eyeing the pheasant as if it had just personally insulted him. He'd always prided himself on being extremely proficient with the spear, dagger and bow, but Pamela had just proven herself a far better hunter than even Eleandro, the Royal Game Warden himself.

There was a small sound beside him, and when he looked at Saya, he found her staring at him and biting her lips together to keep from grinning. Pamela giggled again, and Kath shook her head, her amused expression indicating that she'd heard such protestations of wounded male pride before. He looked at Saya again, and the way her eyes sparkled with suppressed laughter, even if it was at his expense, dissolved any injured feelings he might have had.

"Fine," he gave in with only slightly more grace than Nikki. "Supper first, then we talk."

By nightfall, the thunderstorm had burst upon them, stabbing through the forest canopy and pounding relentlessly upon the makeshift shelters, driving the humans to huddle inside around a small fire pit. They shared a surprisingly lavish meal of roasted fish and pheasant, boiled sweet yams, and some wild star apples Saya had picked from a tree. As they ate, Kath and Pamela took turns telling the story of how they came to find themselves wandering around in the eastern region of the kingdom, in the middle of the immense expanse of dense woodlands interspersed by swathes of rocky, bramble-strewn hills known to the kingdom's mapmakers as Maranat Forest and to everyone else as the Forbidden Forest—searching for, of all things, a pair of lovers on a mysterious quest of their own, one of whom turned out to be none other than Coronadal's runaway prince.

Until two moon cycles ago, the sisters had been living in their family's farm in a village in Orani, a district along Coronadal's western coast on the other side of the kingdom. For decades, their family had been content to live in quiet obscurity, but in the past years or so, they had begun producing high-quality produce and cut flowers, and the farm had begun to slowly prosper, with demand for their farm products and flowers growing among wealthy merchants, inns and even local aristocratic families in the coastal town.

"This was your doing?" Saya asked Kath.

Kath hesitated again, seemingly out of habit, then sighed. "Yes. My talent for making plants grow manifested at an early age. Fortunately, from the moment we were born, our parents and grandparents have drilled into us that it was essential we keep our magical abilities a secret and strictly restrain the use of our gifts. If it weren't for those lessons and Grandmother's training in suppressing our magical aura, we would surely have attracted the attentions of the anti-magic enforcers a long time ago."

"Magical abilities run in our family," Pamela chimed in. "Our father can sense streams of water running underground, our mother can find lost objects just by picturing them in her mind, and our grandmother is known to speak to people without ever using her voice, which makes her twice as scary." She paused to shudder at the thought of said grandmother before continuing: "And our older brother Simon can summon or drive away rain clouds at will. Between him and Kath, they are the main reason our farm has been thriving so much."

"And you? What about your gift?" Dominic asked her.

"Mine? Mine is the most useless of all," Pamela replied, hanging her head.

"Not so, little sister," Kath countered. "Your gift has saved us many times during our journey. And if it weren't for you, we wouldn't nearly be as well-fed."

"So what is it?" Dominic asked again.

The younger girl looked at him and shrugged. "I never miss," she said.

Her sister nodded. "It's true. A bow, a knife, a slingshot, a dart, a stone, a piece of rotten fruit—no matter what she uses, Pamela never misses her target."

"She managed to miss my eye earlier," Dominic pointed out, before adding hastily, "for which I am truly grateful, and just to be clear, this is not an invitation for you to try again."

Pamela giggled. "I wasn't aiming for your eye, Prince Dominic, but for the knothole in the tree trunk two inches above your head. If you check, you'll see that I hit my mark."

"But that's amazing! That's hardly useless at all!" Saya exclaimed. Dominic glanced at her, noting how there was no trace of fear or disgust in her face when she spoke to someone with magical abilities. So unlike most of the citizens of the kingdom, who over the past generations have learned to be afraid of any kind of magic and to be at worst openly hostile toward people who had the gift. Maybe it was because she herself had not been born and raised in Coronadal, or maybe because she spent so much of her time around her friends in the capital, some of whom who had magical abilities of their own. Or maybe it was because she bore magic within her as well, by virtue of the spell that bound their souls together. Whatever the reason, there was only warm acceptance in her face, and Dominic could see that even their two new friends were taken somewhat aback by it.

"For hunting, yes, and maybe a parlor trick or two," Pamela said glumly, recovering from her surprise. "But females cannot join the military or the royal game wardens. Nor can I show off at any town fair or let anyone other than my family know what I can do. How would it look for an untrained farm girl like me to suddenly win contests or prove herself better than a trained archer? It would only make people ask uncomfortable questions about me and our family."

And so the sisters would have still been living peacefully at home, Kath continued, if not for their farm's changing fortunes. As the farm began to prosper, their father had been compelled to hire farmhands to help till the land, harvest the produce and tend the flowers, even though for years the family had preferred to do all the work themselves rather than risk having outsiders learn their secret. Nevertheless, their parents had warned their children not to get close to the farmhands, and especially to never do magic where they could be seen. One of these newly hired hands was a poor but earnest orphaned young man named Aldrin, and from the moment the two of them had met, Aldrin and Pamela had fallen in love.

"He is wonderful," Pamela recalled with a sigh. "Clever and caring and honest and such a hard worker that even Father was impressed at first. We taught him to read and write, and he learned so quickly that he was soon entrusted with keeping the breeding and crop rotation schedules. And when Aldrin discovered my ability, he wasn't afraid of me or disgusted with me at all. Nor did he run to the anti-magic enforcers to report us like Father said he would. He loves me just as I am, and—and I miss him so much. Why oh why did he have to leave?"

She put her hands on her face and began to cry. "But if you love each other that much, why did he leave? Surely he had greater reason to stay," Saya asked gently.

Dominic and Saya exchanged dismayed looks when Pamela sobbed harder. "The reason he left is Father. He was against their relationship from the start," Kath answered as she patted her sister's back comfortingly. "In the beginning, we thought it was because of our magic and Father's inability to trust an outsider to keep our secret. But one night, we overheard him quarreling with Aldrin, and Father kept bringing up the strange notion that Aldrin wasn't worthy of Pamela's bloodline. Two days later, Aldrin was gone." Pamela sobbed again, and Kath had to pause for a moment until her sister had regained some of her composure before continuing: "The point of their quarrel confused us. Surely, the blood of peasant farmers was no better than that of a poor orphan's. But several days later, Mother, who sometimes gets visions, dreamed that Aldrin was in great danger, and when we pressed both Mother and Grandmother, we finally learned the truth about our family."

"That you were once nobility, one of the five magic-wielding noble Houses that were stripped of their titles and properties and banished by my grandfather after the mage wars." All eyes turned to Dominic, with Kath and Pamela falling silent as their faces drained of all color. "I understand now," he went on. "You mentioned your family visiting court before, and your skill with the staff is similar to the fighting style Lord Hontiverde developed a hundred years ago, which he taught only to members of the nobility. Add to that your manner of speech and the fact that magic runs strong in your bloodline, manifesting consistently in every generation instead of appearing only now and then."

Pamela cast her gaze downward and shrank closer to her sister, but Kath's shoulders stiffened as she looked him in the eye. "You are correct, Prince Dominic. We are—were of the once-great House Madrigal. Our grandfather was heir to the earldom before our family's banishment, but while most of our clan chose exile to the western territories across the sea, our grandparents could not bear to leave their homeland and chose instead to erase our heritage and forget our past, and to live and raise their children as humble farmers."

"I'm surprised your family accepted the banishment without resistance," he remarked. "The other magic-wielding Houses fought against my grandfather's edict, and two of the families were executed for the crime of treason by magic."

"All of them? Even the children?" Saya asked, aghast.

He sighed as he stirred the fire with a stick. "It was a dark time. The kingdom was only beginning to pick itself up from the rubble of the mage wars. Thousands of people had died, and the rest of the population lived in terror of the mages. Villages and an entire town were decimated, arable land rendered barren, an entire lake and a valuable water reservoir poisoned—all because of the power struggle the high-born mages from these five Houses waged with one another. Grandfather himself had just lost his own father in that last battle, and he couldn't risk the survivors of these Houses launching another war if they were given a chance to recoup their strength. I too hate the injustice in executing innocent children for the crimes of their parents, but I would not be so quick to condemn my grandfather's decisions without seeing it from his perspective first. Right or wrong, he did what he believed he had to do at the time."

He looked at Saya, trying to divine her thoughts from her expression, but she merely turned aside, choosing to remain dishearteningly silent. Instead, it was Kath who spoke. "To be honest, most of our family did not resist the king's sentence because we understood the justice behind it," she admitted. "The last Earl of Madrigal, our great-grandfather, and all of his brothers were mages, and each had taken part in the factions' battle for power. We can try to deny it, but the truth is that our ancestors had helped cause so much death and destruction. And for the Houses that chose to accept banishment instead of resisting the king's command, the families were allowed to live. But according to my grandmother, not every member of House Madrigal willingly accepted exile and a life of poverty. And that brings us to our present search for Aldrin."

"All he said when he left was that he was going away to seek his fortune," Pamela said in a small voice. "He would go out into the world and become rich, then he would come back for me and we would be married. Even Father would have to accept him then, he said. There was nothing I could say or do to stop him. He didn't even know where he was going, just that the capital city would be a good place to start looking for work."

"It is a common enough story," Saya murmured absently.

"Yes, but in his last letter to me, he told me he had heard about an ancient castle called Hollow End in the heart of the Forbidden Forest. According to legend, that castle is full of treasure. It is also supposed to be full of monsters and ruled by a demoness, and anybody who ventured into that castle was never seen again. He said he was going to try his luck at being an adventurer and get his hands on that treasure. Then his letters…stopped. I heard nothing more from him until Mother told us about her vision."

Dominic frowned. "An ancient holding at the edge of the old Maranat Forest in the southeastern side? If I remember my history right…"

"Right again, Prince. Completely by accident, Aldrin had stumbled upon our family's ancestral domain," Kath said with a heavy sigh. "Hollow End is not what it used to be a hundred years ago. It has become a place steeped in corrupted magic, which none have been able to cleanse. There used to be a village within the territory as well, but no one knows what became of it or of the villagers who lived in it, except that the Forbidden Forest has grown much bigger than it used to be a hundred years ago. The story we heard during our journey here is that the monsters spawned within the castle devoured the village, and the forest grew from the bones of its inhabitants."

"And this—this monsters' lair is where Aldrin has gone! Even though he knows nothing about being an adventurer! That blazing idiot!"

Dominic and Saya stared in surprise as Pamela, in a sudden burst of rage, picked up a nearby rock and threw it blindly out into the darkness. There was a faint thump, followed by a squawk and the frantic beating of wings, the sounds nearly muffled by the rain, and Pamela winced and mumbled an apology almost reflexively while her older sister laid her palm against her forehead.

"In any case, that is how we came to be here, after I caught this one attempting to run away in the middle of the night to rescue her foolish knight errant," Kath finally said, gesturing toward Pamela. "I knew I stood a better chance of convincing our pigs to fly than getting my sister to stay put and not rush to Aldrin's side after learning the news. So I decided to go with her instead, because the gods know these two children need somebody sensible to look after them," she added, causing Pamela to elbow her in the side none too gently, although the twinkle in Kath's eyes belied her long-suffering words.

"There's more, isn't there?" Saya asked in a voice barely audible over the rain. Frowning, Dominic inched closer to her so he could hear her, but she didn't even spare him a glance, and instead kept her gaze trained upon the bright, dancing heart of their campfire.

The lighthearted moment faded as the older woman's face became deeply troubled. "Yes. It's about the ancient castle and the demoness who rules it. As I said before, not everyone in our family accepted the king's sentence of banishment. One of our ancestors remained behind—the last Earl of Madrigal's sister, who was also a sorceress. In fact, according to family history, our ancestress was far more powerful than any of her brothers, and far less willing to submit to the banishment than the rest of the clan."

"Lady Tara," Saya whispered.

"Yes, that was her name. Our great-grandaunt," Pamela replied, looking shamefaced. "Mother and Grandmother told us first, and later we heard the stories during our journey here. It was said that instead of peacefully leaving the castle, the sorceress now known as the Black Widow enfolded the entire domain in barrier magic, and summoned demons to fight off any attempts by the king to drive her away. Eventually, the king decided to leave her in the magical prison she created, and a hundred years later, only the Forbidden Forest and the legends remain."

"I remember," Dominic said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "There used to be plenty of dark rumors about this forest and its surroundings—stories about mysterious disappearances and people being lured into the forest and never being seen again. Eventually, people from the surrounding villages started calling it the Forbidden Forest as a warning to anyone to stay away."

"Except for stupid adventurers and their stupid quests to prove themselves to their sweethearts' stupid fathers," Pamela growled, fury once again blazing in her eyes.

Dominic cleared his throat awkwardly. "Yes, well, I always thought at least half of the stories were just made up to scare little children into behaving."

Kath shook her head. "The stories about the disappearances are true enough, at least from what we've heard from the people in the surrounding villages. But there is one story that was different from the others."

The sisters had been staying at an inn at one of the villages and asking about the Forbidden Forest, hoping to find a clue on how to enter the cursed domain within the forest and rescue Aldrin. They had gotten a slew of the usual warnings— that nobody had ever come back from that forest alive and it would be best if the girls just gave up this harebrained notion of storming the cursed castle and went back home—until the barmaid announced unexpectedly that the stories were not completely true, and that there had been one who did make it out of the Forbidden Forest alive. It happened several years ago and in another village, and she had only heard the story from relations so she was not clear who that one exceedingly lucky adventurer was. But she was still fairly sure that there had been at least one person who survived the cursed domain, because it was none other than her mother's cousin's wife who had spoken to the old woman who tended to that adventurer's injuries after he appeared at their house looking half-dead, and her mother's cousin's wife lacked the imagination to lie about something like that.

The diners at the inn had pooh-poohed the barmaid's story, but the sisters pounced on it hungrily, representing as it did their first ray of hope in what had thus far been a thoroughly discouraging rescue mission. Someone had managed to escape from the cursed castle in the Forbidden Forest, someone who might yet be living and who could tell the sisters everything he knew about the magical castle and its workings. But when they tracked down the barmaid's mother's cousin's wife, it was to learn that the old woman who had tended the adventurer had died over a year ago, and nobody else knew what had become of the adventurer himself.

At that, Dominic felt a tremor go through Saya, but just as he was about to turn to her to ask if she was all right, Pamela said brightly: "Lucky for us, that was when we met the seer."

His attention snap into focus at that. "The seer. We get to that mysterious figure who has been bedeviling us at last." When the sisters looked puzzled, he gave them a brief recounting of their own adventures with the Earl of Guillen's nephew and the dying countess. "So what did the old hag say this time?" he demanded.

Kath shrugged. "Not much. She appeared at our campsite in the dead of night, and told us that we would soon meet the two who would help us destroy the Black Widow once and for all and take back what is rightfully ours. She said we would find you here in the outer boundary of the Forbidden Forest on your way to the Black Widow's cursed castle, and that we would know you as a pair of lovers whose souls are bound together. She vanished before we could ask any more questions."

"I've been sensing a strange aura from the both of you for a while now, but what exactly does that mean, your souls are bound together?" Pamela asked curiously.

Dominic glanced down at Saya again, but his companion was still huddled beside him with her knees to her chest, still staring intently at the fire as if lost in thought. "It means we're under a spell," he said shortly, then proceeded to give an abbreviated explanation about sacred oaths that invoke one of the three primal forces.

"I still don't understand," Pamela said, scrunching her face up.

Kath shook her head. "No, I've heard about this from Grandmother. You were only an infant when she told Simon and me about the three primal forces, Pamela. Grandmother said that any magic that invokes any of the three must never be used lightly, because it will exact a price very few humans are able to pay." She cast Dominic and Saya a look of renewed respect. "Magic that invokes the three primal forces is the most powerful kind of magic. However, its effects are unpredictable. Truthfully, I've never met anyone who has the courage and fortitude and sheer recklessness to actually cast such a spell upon themselves before."

"Believe me, if we'd known what exactly we were getting ourselves into, we would have given it a great deal more thought ourselves," he muttered underneath his breath, one hand going to his chest where the cursed vines sprouted from his heart.

"You mean your magic is that powerful?" Pamela exclaimed, and he found himself leaning away from her feverishly eager expression. "Then the seer was right! You can help us defeat the Black Widow and rescue Aldrin. Your magic can break through Lady Tara's barrier magic. Somebody had done it before, and we can do it again. Oh, I'm so glad!"

"Wait, hold on," he said, raising his hands as if to ward her off. "I'm sorry to disappoint you, Miss Pamela, but despite whatever you might be sensing from us, we are not mages ourselves, just ordinary human beings. The most magical one among us is Nikki, and as strong as she is, I have never heard of a fairy overpowering the kind of dark sorcery the Black Widow is supposed to have, at least not without a lot of help."

Pamela's face fell. "Oh, but surely—"

"Besides, the seer was wrong about us this time. We are not heading toward the cursed castle. We are traveling toward the gate-city of Can-avid in the eastern border, and cutting through Maranat Forest is just the quickest way to get there."

"To Can-avid? Don't you mean to Vintar so you two can be wed?" At the mocking amusement he heard in her voice, he turned toward Kath and met her challenging gaze. "It's your turn to shed some light upon a mystery, Prince Dominic," she told him. "I for one would like to know why our crown prince is disguising himself with fairy glamour and traipsing about in this wilderness with a commoner to whom he is bound by the most powerful of binding spells, when he is supposed to be back at the capital preparing for his coronation and the official presentation of his chosen queen-to-be."

Dominic opened his mouth to answer, but the words promptly got entangled with his breath so that nothing emerged. Why am I hesitating? he wondered, perplexed. All my instincts are telling me that these two have told the truth about themselves and can be trusted with the knowledge of our quest. Besides, by now the entire continent knows that I have already chosen the princess who will be my bride, so why—?

Why can't I tell them the truth? That Saya and I are not—

"Dominic—His Highness is here because of a curse, one I have unknowingly inflicted upon him. And we are here because we are searching for a way to break that curse and set him free. To set us both free."

All eyes turned toward Saya, and Dominic felt as if an icy needle had slid right between his ribs and lodged in his heart. Saya's expression was that of resigned acceptance as she gazed back at Kath and Pamela. "The truth is, the spell binding our souls was a mistake," she went on in her quiet, steady voice. "We met as children many years ago, and we didn't know what we were doing when we performed the sacred oath that bound us. Now Dominic's life is being threatened by a curse resulting from that spell, and the only way to break it is to undo the original spell. Otherwise, both our lives are forfeit. So you see, we are not really lovers," she added in an even softer voice, dropping her gaze again. "We only pretended because we needed to keep his identity a secret. I am sorry that we deceived you."

How can it hurt this much? he thought as he stared at her, the pain in his chest momentarily robbing him of the ability to speak. He knew what the objective of their quest was. He knew that after they succeeded—if they succeeded—they would part from each other forever and walk their separate paths, his as Coronadal's future king, and hers as an ordinary peasant girl. By the gods, of course he knew. Had he not been battering her with these very same words since the moment he met her? And he knew as well that she herself longed to be free of him, to go back to the life she had before he had had her dragged in chains before him. Indeed, nothing she said was anything other than the plain, unvarnished truth.

And yet…

A mistake? Do you really believe that, Saya? Is that really all I am to you? He felt the words rise up and choke him, and he turned away and swallowed against the lump in his throat, furious at himself for being caught so off-guard by his reaction to her words. He felt the weight of the sisters' gazes upon him—Kath's thoughtful and Pamela's puzzled but sympathetic—and the thought that they pitied him because of his curse angered him even more.

Then he stiffened with surprise when Saya touched his hand, which he hadn't even been aware he'd curled into a fist. Her skin felt cool and clammy and her own fingers were trembling, and when he turned to her, she flinched and drew her hand away. "What? You have more to say?" he asked, unable to completely keep the sharpness from his tone.

"We have to go, Dominic. To the cursed castle. We have to help Miss Kath and Miss Pamela save Aldrin," she said in a rush, as if she wanted to get all the words out before she lost her nerve altogether.

His brows snapped together. Leaning close, he hissed into her ear so that only she could hear: "We don't have time. The fortnight till full moon is already half-over." And I don't know how much longer I have before the curse finally kills me, he added to himself, recalling the attack just this morning that he had barely managed to fight off.

Saya shook her head, once again laying her hand upon his, and this time he could actually feel the shivers racking her body. Focusing on her pale, drawn face, he realized what it was he was seeing: For the first time since they had started on their quest, Saya was truly frightened.

Even as he was thinking this, she licked her lips and said more clearly: "We must go. To break the curse, we need to retrace my journey to your kingdom, yes? This means the place we need to go next is Hollow End."

Everything within him went still. "Saya, what—?" he managed before disbelief rendered him speechless once again.

Pamela gasped, her hands flying to her mouth, while Kath leaned forward with a fierce expression. "Are you actually saying that you are—?"

Saya took a deep, bracing breath then straightened her shoulders, although when she tried to pull away again Dominic grabbed her hand and refused to let her go. "I do not know how to go about defeating the Black Widow and restoring what is rightfully yours, Miss Kath, but I do know that the barmaid's story about the only person to escape from Lady Tara's cursed castle is true. I know because that lone survivor—" she glanced up at Dominic, her eyes both pleading and afraid "—is me."




Author's Note:

I am so sorry. Am currently dealing with the devil's own bout of writer's block, not to mention a metric shit-ton of work. Here's hoping I can finally get my act together and start writing again.

To chocme: I'm okay. I'm so, so, so sorry I haven't been around much. Life and crap kind of got to me. Will tell you in my message.