The raven tilted an eye toward Theodore. “I see you have a visitor.”
“Yes.” Perceval stood straighter. “Whisper, this is Theo. He’s the Ranger Deputy. Theo, this is Whisper. She’s the friend I told you about. She helped me escape the castle.”
“We’ve met.” Theodore grit his teeth. “You need to stay away from her! Whisper is part of a conspiracy to seize control of the throne!”
“I know,” the prince said.
Theodore did a double take. “What?”
Whisper chuckled. “My friends are interested in the kingdom, and this young man is not. This arrangement is beneficial for everyone.”
“That’s not true!” Theodore said. “Percy, if you leave, there’s going be bloodshed! Just like the Redsea Revolt! People are going to get hurt, not just Oboe!”
“There will be no need of violence if things proceed as planned.” Whisper leaned closer to the prince. “Are you certain you trust this man? This morning I saw him at the palace. The king has told him to find you. I asked him to give up this quest, yet here he stands.”
Perceval fanned his tail feathers. “Is that true?”
“I…” Theodore felt the situation slipping away from him. “Yes. The king ordered me to find you, but that’s not why I’m here. Oboe is going to die unless you help her!”
“There it is,” Whisper said. “With that in mind, child, I have news. The knight Detective has gotten wind of your location. He is leading a team up the mountain as we speak.”
“What??” Perceval said, the tree branch bobbing under him. “How?! We’re in the middle of nowhere!”
“Were I to guess…” Whisper stared at Theodore. “I would say someone told them where to look.”
“Theo, did you do this?!” Perceval said.
“No!” Theodore wanted to strangle Whisper. “I came alone! I just want to talk!”
The prince’s gaze wavered. Theodore couldn’t tell whether Perceval believed him. He opened his wings. “We need to leave!”
“Wait!” Theodore said. “What about Oboe?! You can’t go! They’ll execute her!”
“What is it you are proposing this young man do?” Whisper said. “Return home to his father, penitent? Serve out his time as king, miserable for the rest of his days? For what? To save the life of a silly little faun? What nonsense.”
“But… She’s my friend,” Perceval said.
“Child, how long have you known this ‘Oboe’?” Whisper craned her neck. “A few days? Is her happiness worth trading for your own? Surely she knew the risks. It would be better not to squander her sacrifice.”
“You pushed her to enchant you!” Theodore said. “She was in tears! She didn’t want to, and you forced her!”
Whisper’s voice was acid. “If she didn’t want to, then she wouldn’t have. That is not his responsibility.”
“Stop!” The prince spread his wings wide. “Just stop! I need to think!”
“There isn’t time,” Whisper said. “With every word this man shames you. Manipulates you. His pet is in danger, so he’s turned against you. He admitted as much himself. He’s brought your father’s thugs to cage you.”
The lump of anger in Theodore’s throat turned to fear. “Percy.” He tried to look the prince in the eyes, but his were locked on the sky. Theodore needed the right words. “I get it. I know why you want to run. I’ve been there. I am there. I never wanted this job. I never wanted to be a knight. But it’s about more than just me. It’s hard, but what I do matters to the creatures. I have a responsibility to do right by them. Just like you. Doing that feels right. And…” The creatures of the Whirlwood filled his mind. He remembered their gratitude and his heart warmed in a way that surprised him. “That’s enough for me.”
The prince was still.
“So… what?” He said. “I go home? Work hard? Be a good king? Hope I start to care?”
Theodore hung his head. “If it’s not enough for you, then do it for Oboe. Please.” He tightened his fist. “I don’t want to lose her.”
“Enough!” Whisper said. “They’re here! Look!”
The prince’s head swiveled. In the distance, a team of hooded knights were scaling the mountain path. Perceval bristled.
“You must choose, child,” Whisper said, launching herself into the air. “They are here to take you. Come with me and live free, or be chained like this wretch. I will wait no longer!”
He looked at Theodore, the pain clear in his face. “I’m sorry,” he said, and followed the raven past the edge of the cliff.
“No!” Theodore said. “You can’t!” He wrenched the dials on the aura tracker, and sparked a new magical trail which ribboned through the air after the prince. He chased after them as close as the cliffs allowed.
The pursuit did not go unnoticed. Whisper dove into him, transforming in midair into a nanny goat. With one crushing headbutt to the chest, she knocked Theodore off his feet and sent aura tracker tumbling out of his hand.
“Y-you’re a fairy…!” Theodore said with a wheeze.
“Grab it!” Whisper yelled into the sky. The prince swooped down to snatch the machine, and dropped it past the edge of the cliff. It fell, spinning like a pinwheel until it smashed against rocks far below. Whisper leaned over Theodore, with the smuggest face a goat could manage.
“You made the wrong call, Grayweather.”
She snapped back into a raven’s form. Theodore stumbled, trying to get back on his feet, and watched, helpless, as Whisper and the prince flew beyond his reach. The prince looked back just once. Theodore collapsed onto his knees. A wail escaped his lips and ugly tears streamed down his face.