Theodore’s eyes went wide. “The prince? Missing?!” He recalled the fine clothes of the youth in the cottage behind him.
“A fey creature captured him this afternoon. We’ve been tracking them in this direction, but lost sight of them. Have you seen anything?”
Questions burned in Theodore’s mind. Was that the prince? They thought Oboe was abducting him? There was no telling what would happen to Oboe if he played his hand.
“I’ve been asleep.” This was technically true.
Conrad peered back at the moonlit wilderness. “These woods are strange and we’re stumbling in the dark. I need you to help us search before something happens.”
If that was the prince, he need only throw open the door to end this crisis. It was his duty to comply with these men, yet there was more to this. He needed to stall for time.
“If you give me a moment to get dressed, I will help you search.”
Conrad tilted his head. “Be swift.”
Theodore retreated into the cottage, making a point to lock the door. He marched into the back room and yanked back the hood of his guest. The face was unmistakable.
“The royal guard is here to retrieve you, your grace,” Theodore said.
Prince Perceval Stonewall pulled the hood back over his eyes and slipped under the kitchen table to hide. “I’m not here! Tell them I died! I fell into a deep pit! No, eaten alive! They’ll never find the body! Gruesome! Terrible!”
Theodore exchanged a glance with Oboe before bending down to the floor. “I’m the Ranger Deputy of the valley. A servant of the crown. I have a responsibility to return you to them.”
“Well, I’m the prince! I command you to make them go away!”
Theodore shook his head. “You’re not the king yet. That’s not how this works.”
“Theo!! You can’t!” Oboe squeezed under the table and wrapped her arms around the prince. “He told me so many awful things about his father! We have to help him!”
Theodore buried his face in his palm. “His father is our king!”
“So??” She stopped the prince from wriggling free. “That doesn’t make him a good father! Percy just wants to live his own life and he needs our help!”
He paused. He thought of his own father, champion of the nation, and the many times he’d dreamed of running away from him. He thought about Oboe and how any time he disregarded her instincts he came to regret it. He studied her pleading face and then stood.
It took a hurried minute to put on his uniforms and boots. He stepped out into the night chill a second time. The royal knights were anxious to begin.
“I apologize for the wait.” Theodore locked the cottage with a brass key. “Let’s get started.”