A DISTURBING CHARACTER APPEARS
King Dude struggled lazily off of his throne to return to his chambers. After John’s swift departure he’d had to endure a litany of complaints, most of them concerning the approaching opossum army.
He was startled by a servant’s timid voice. “My King, there is someone here who has requested an audience with you, alone.”
“Inform him that the King has important business to attend to,” he growled, watching gleefully as the servant groveled before him in fear. “Tell him to go crawl back into the hole he came out of. I don’t have the time or energy to see anyone.”
The servant nodded but struggled for words as he hesitated. “I informed him that you were busy, but he insisted.” He cringed in anticipation of the King’s wrath.
King Dude’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Did you not hear me? I’m the King, and right now I don’t want to see a living soul.” He flicked his wing at the horrified servant’s face. “Be gone before I have you beheaded.”
A voice suddenly sounded from the shadows. “It is such a pleasure to be in the Feathered Kingdom again.” The voice was high with a slightly nasal quality. “Your generous reception is always delightful.”
The King’s face blanched. “Leave us,” he commanded the servant. The immediacy of the command made the servant rush from the room in surprise rather than fright.
King Dude regarded the shadows with caution. “Oscar.”
There was movement as a shape formed. A sleek mallard duck stepped out of the shadows, a smirk on his flat bill. “Hmm… yes, very welcoming.” He leaned casually against a stone pillar, his eyes playfully dangerous.
“What do you want?” King Dude demanded. “I thought we agreed that you weren’t to return for another week.”
Oscar’s eyes became dark. “You have been dishonest with us.”
King Dude sat down uncomfortably on his throne. Fear turned his stomach. “I have been nothing of the sort.”
Oscar’s voice was fierce as he stepped away from the pillar. “You swore to us that you could control your people—that you could control your wife.”
“I am controlling my wife,” King Dude sputtered indignantly.
“Really?” Oscar laughed. “My sources tell me that she schemes behind your back, she and your adviser.” He paused in enjoyment, watching the King’s face turn an amusing green. He knew that the King hated being belittled. “You must keep a closer watch on her, and you mustn’t form an alliance with the cats. That would ruin all of our carefully laid plans, and also endanger your citizens, for we both know they are not to be trusted. The Land of Flight is counting on your continued cooperation.”
“Of course,” the King agreed, the skin on his face slowly regaining its normal color. “I will be more careful, but what shall I do about the cat situation?” He scowled. “Disgusting animals.”
Oscar’s voice was deliciously evil. “I will take care of that.” His eyes sparkled with anticipation. “By the time we’re done, those filths will never be trusted, and the very name will be spoken of once again with fear and hate.”
* * *
Faith was reaching to grasp the door handle when she heard the voices.
“Disgusting animals.” She recognized her brother-in-law’s voice.
The disturbing quality of the voice she heard next sent a shiver down her back.
“We will take care of that. By the time we’re done those filths will never be trusted, and the very name will be spoken of once again with fear and hate.”
“What ever could he be talking about?” Faith murmured to herself.
The voices continued.
“Unfortunately I must go and make arrangements, but we shall return soon as per our plan.”
Faith gasped and jumped around the corner, listening as the door opened and shut very quietly—almost too quietly. When she was convinced that she was alone she stepped out, only to find herself faced with a caped mallard duck. Her heart leapt into her throat for an instant before she could speak.
“Good morning, sir,” she said, fighting to keep her voice light.
The duck bowed elegantly. “Princess, how very good it is to finally meet you.” His eyes slyly appraised Faith’s flustered appearance. “It seems you are every bit as enchanting in person as I have heard.”
Faith laughed delicately, careful to hide her trembling wings. “You are too kind, sir; but please, it is not fair that you know me when I am kept in the dark regarding your name.”
“Quite right, Princess,” the duck agreed. “I am Sir Oscar, a visitor to your fair Kingdom.”
“Well, Sir Oscar,” Faith said, giving him her most winning smile, “it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, but I must go or miss an engagement with my sister.” She bowed gracefully. “Good day, sir.”
“Good day, Princess,” he answered pleasantly.
Faith turned to leave but was stopped by his menacing voice. “In the future you should be more cautious about where you choose to spend your time. It wouldn’t do for you to hear something you shouldn’t.” His flat black eyes suddenly glared at her. “I wouldn’t want any harm to come to such beauty.”
Faith couldn’t breathe as she watched him disappear. She knew exactly what he was implying with his words, and wasn’t sure if she should feel fear or resentment at the thinly veiled threat.
One thing she was sure of. If he felt the need to threaten her into silence, not knowing exactly what she had heard, then there was something sinister going on between the King and this strange mallard called Oscar.
She needed to find her sister or John immediately.
* * *
Mercy’s existence, as far back as she could remember, had been full of hard decisions and sacrifices, and it had not grown easier as she grew older. Being the eldest daughter of a King who had no sons was a constant trial.
And now she feared for her life.
“What kind of schemes have you been conjuring, my dear wife?”
She laid her fork down and smiled at her husband sitting beside her. “You have caught me.” Calmly she took a sip of her water. Deciding that her safest route was playing innocent, she put a coy smile on her face. “I’ve been scheming all week long, in an attempt to get you to have a meal with me.”
King Dude’s face was skeptical. “Why?” he asked.
Mercy thought quickly. “I would like to speak with you concerning my sister, Faith,” she said, allowing her face to pucker in concern. She watched the King’s face turn instantly bored as he returned to his food. Relief swelled in her chest, but it was short lived.
“You and John have been seen together very often of late.”
Her heart stopped at that accusation, but her face remained a calm, still mask. “He has been discovering the safest passage for my sister’s journey through the Kingdom to our country estate, where she will be protected if this war goes ill for us.”
King Dude glared at her, not fully convinced, but unable to prove that she was lying. One of the first things he had admired about her was her inner strength—her ability to remain calm under the most dire circumstances. Now it troubled him deeply, for her face was completely unreadable at the moment.
They were interrupted by Faith bursting breathlessly into the room.
“Mercy, I have been looking for you. I—” She stopped abruptly when she saw the King. “Oh, your majesty, I didn’t realize you were there.” She gave a hurried bob. “I apologize.”
He frowned distastefully at her. What can she possibly desire now? he thought. Long ago he had stopped hiding his dislike for the pretty princess, and the aversion had only grown with every suitor that she refused.
Mercy spoke quickly, before he could react. “Faith, dear, we were just discussing your journey. Why don’t you join us?”
At the prospect of Faith’s departure the King gave her a rare smile. “This shall be a great adventure for you, sister.” Throwing a pleased glance at Mercy, their fight all but forgotten, he didn’t notice the swift flash of anger that crossed Faith’s face. He gave a regretful sigh. “We shall miss you dearly.”
Faith bowed with subdued annoyance in her eyes. “As I shall grieve over the loss of your magnanimous presence.”
Mercy shot her a quick warning glance, but the King was oblivious to the sarcasm in Faith’s words. He smiled, his mind filled with his own self-importance and brilliance.
“My dear, I’m so very sorry for your loss,” he said, and added generously, “If there were but one thing I could do for you to make the departure more bearable, I would.”
“Well, I’ve got a splendid idea then!” Faith said excitedly, with a mischievous gleam in her too innocent eyes. “Why don’t I just stay and dismiss the trip entirely?” She took an eager step forward, delighting in the sudden dread that covered the King’s face. “Then I could spend all of my time basking in your glorious presence.”
“That is out of the question!” the King huffed, all self-importance gone as he scrambled to his feet in disturbed anger.
He looked so alarmed that both Faith and Mercy fought desperately to hold back laughter.
“Regrettably, I have important business to attend to,” he said, attempting to regain his composure and dignity. He straightened with an offended pout on his face. “I will go and leave you to your conversation.”
Only when the door was safely shut behind him did Faith turn to Mercy anxiously. “Something very strange is going on with the King.”
“I’ve always suspected him of being more than a little strange,” Mercy said with a smile.
Faith’s eyes narrowed, not in the least amused. “Do you know of a mallard called Oscar?”
Mercy’s attention was caught at once. “Tell me.”
Faith recited her encounter with Oscar, leaving out no details.
Mercy’s face grew gradually more and more apprehensive with each word spoken, and when Faith reached Oscar’s death threat her breath caught fearfully. There was not a doubt in her mind that the unexpected dinner she had just been forced to endure with her husband had something to do with this visitor to the courts. But what, she could not begin to guess. “I think my husband may not be as innocently ignorant as I have previously believed. There is something sinister going on and he apparently has a hand in it.” Faith nodded. “We must walk more carefully and make sure he has no excuse to be rid of us.” She briefly wondered just how far she could carry the treachery—it being not only against her husband, but her King—that she hid so carefully deep within her mind. “If it takes my last breath I will not let him destroy our Kingdom.”
Faith blinked in surprise, feeling her stomach instantly clench, as she thought of the ramifications of such a direction. “But sister, what do you mean to do? We are helpless. The people have gone unprotected for so long that they would not blink if Dude killed either one of us.”
Mercy stood to her feet. “We must show them that we can still protect them.”
“But how?” Faith cried in despair. “We don’t control the fleet, or the palace guard.”
How indeed, Mercy thought with a scowl. “I do not know yet, sister, but there is one thing that I am quite certain of: our next step must be considered very carefully. We do not control the fleet, but I believe that most of the officers would be loyal to us if we play this game correctly.” She briefly weighed their options and grimly decided that what she was to do next would be very hard, but necessary. “My dear sister, there is something that you can do for the people.”
Faith’s eyes glowed with hope as she nodded eagerly. “Of course, you know I’ll do anything!”
“I need you to disappear.” At those unexpected words Faith’s enthusiasm was dashed. Mercy continued grimly. “I cannot do what needs to be done with you here. I will not have you harmed.”
Faith’s eyes now sparked fire as she said with strong conviction. “And I cannot abandon my sister to a fate worse than death and my kingdom to the tyrant they call Rip Van Winkel.” She reached out and caught hold of Mercy’s wings, holding them lovingly in her own. “I will do anything you ask, but please, please, do not ask this thing. I would rather die than be torn from you and our home.”
Mercy felt herself weaken at Faith’s anguished plea, but fought it violently, knowing that above all else her sister must be kept safe. “We will let the King believe that you have gone to our summer home, but I have a secret place chosen for you where you will be safe.”
Faith’s head bowed as she succumbed to the pain those few words inflicted upon her. She felt tears instantly fill her eyes and could not stop them from falling as she answered. “As you wish, dear one.”
While Mercy quickly explained the details of Faith’s disappearance from the capital, she couldn’t ignore the foreboding that hovered in her mind. Surely this is the right thing to do, she berated herself.
The time would come when she would wish with all her might that she had heeded the silent warning that beckoned to her that day.