Thursday, January 26, 2017

Homeschooling Mom and Author Katy Huth Jones

Today's Homeschooling-Mom-Author is Katy Huth Jones.

How long have you been homeschooling? 

I taught our two sons (who are eight years apart) for 20 years and kept teaching other people's children for four more years. Since we basically had two "only" children, I always taught classes in our co-op and in our home so the boys didn't feel like they were alone, including creative writing, Shakespeare, Latin, and science (biology, chemistry, and *gasp* physics). I even directed a homeschool band for 16 years.

How long have you been writing? 

Since second grade, but writing for publication since 1987, when our oldest son turned five. Both our sons thought writing was a normal part of life because they always saw Mom doing it. As a bonus, they're both excellent writers, and our oldest son just got his first check for a writing project (a contribution to San Antonio Spur Tim Duncan's biography).

What gave you the writing bug?

I loved reading good stories and wanted to make my own magic.

Do you remember the first story you wrote? 

I remember one of the first. A 37 page epic science fiction story (illustrated even) that my third grade teacher had me read to the class, though I whispered to her that I needed to "go" first. She didn't believe me, and I wet my pants in front of the whole class....that didn't discourage me from writing long stories, however!

What type of books do your write? 

Mostly fantasy, but also historical fiction. I have also published a nonfiction book on the Navajo Code Talkers and two early readers.

How do you find time to write? 

While homeschooling I scheduled writing time just like everything else. I still write best first thing in the morning.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing? 

When the boys were young, I wrote mostly for magazines, which meant I had deadlines. Sometimes it was a challenge to submit the piece on time if an emergency came up. Many times I ended up taking one or both of the boys with me when I did interviews. My oldest got to hang out with an autistic boy and his horses while I interviewed his mother (SF writer Elizabeth Moon), and my youngest got to shoot arrows when I interviewed a bow maker.

Do your kids help with your creative process or give you ideas? 

Being surrounded by children and teenagers during those years was a constant source of ideas! I really miss it! Thankfully they gave me fodder enough to write for the rest of my life.

What is the single most significant thing you can tell us about your writing career? 

When I first began, I hoped to eventually make enough money writing so my husband could retire early. A cancer diagnosis at age 46 derailed that dream. After chemo I never could get back in the "groove" of writing for magazines. Now I just write the stories dear to my heart, hoping to encourage or inspire a few readers before I can no longer write. I had my "15 minutes of fame" with my nonfiction book and no longer feel the need to be successful, as the world defines success.

Can you tell us about a character in your current work in progress? 

One of my favorite characters ever is Kieran MacLachlan in the He Who Finds Mercy series. I'm currently writing the fifth and last book. It has been quite a journey for Kieran as he's matured through his experiences, good and bad. He is loyal to a fault but also a talented musician and dancer. I wish I had a fraction of his energy!

Read an excerpt from Mercy's Prince.

A heart of peace in a time of war

Click cover to go to Amazon
As second son of the King of Levathia, seventeen-year-old Valerian desires the quiet life of a scholarly monk. But when he fails to save his older brother in battle, Valerian must instead become crown prince.

While a traitorous knight schemes against him, Valerian meets Mercy, a pacifist Healer with whom he can speak mind-to-mind like the great dragons. Their bond emboldens Valerian to seek out the legendary dragons and ask for their help against the monsters who killed his brother.

Can Valerian survive the traitor's assassins long enough to find the dragons? And if he does, can he convince them to lay aside their hatred of humans and help him save the land from destruction?
Chapter 1        

He shall descend into battle, and perish.

Something scaly crawled across Valerian’s cheek. He startled awake, shivering in his cloak where he lay curled up on the bare ground. Late summer predawn in the foothills of the Dragon’s Backbone was cold, especially since Valerian wasn’t accustomed to sleeping out of doors.
A small warm body slid inside his cloak. Valerian flinched and managed to catch the creature, careful not to squeeze too tightly. As he suspected, it was a young burrowing dragon. Its heart fluttered against Valerian’s hand.
“You must burrow elsewhere,” he whispered to the dragon. “And don’t let my brother or Sir Caelis find you.” Valerian slipped the creature into a fissure of the smooth rock that was his pillow. Its long tail grazed his hand as it disappeared.
“Get up, you wretch.” A boot nudged his back, hard.
Valerian sat up and pushed his long dark hair from his face. Crown Prince Waryn towered over him. The dim light of a gray dawn silhouetted his brother’s form.
“A squire anticipates the needs of his knight. He does not oversleep.” Waryn pointed to the faint orange glow in the nearby fire pit. “Kindle the fire. Now.”
Valerian scrambled to his feet, avoiding another of Waryn’s kicks. Blinded by tears of disappointment, he stumbled to the stack of wood he had collected the previous night, envying the men-at-arms still asleep in their tents.
With a grunt, Valerian lifted a heavy armful of wood and carried it to the fire pit. He arranged the firewood over the glowing coals and then used a stick to stir the embers to life. While he fed bits of dried grass and twigs until the logs caught fire, acrid smoke assaulted his nose. The warmth dried the dew from his face. He stared into the flames, grimacing. No matter how hard I try, I will never prove my worth to Waryn, not as long as he remains under the influence of Sir Caelis.
When he stood, Valerian turned and gasped. Sir Caelis stood uncomfortably close, staring at him. The knight’s eyes glittered in the firelight, cold as his chain mail, and an unpleasant grin distorted his handsome features.
“Was there something you needed, sir?” Valerian forced calm into his voice. He knew not to complain, though it went against his sense of fairness that a royal squire should be required to assist any knight, especially when Caelis took advantage of the situation.
“Yes, boy, I am hungry.”
Valerian bit back a retort. It was too early in the day to run afoul of Caelis. Besides, hadn’t Valerian painfully learned how useless it was to fight back?
Waryn returned to stand beside Caelis. They formed a solid wall of contempt, as if daring Valerian to report their treatment of him to the king. They knew, of course, that he never would.
“I am also hungry, squire.” Waryn’s malicious smile mirrored Caelis’ own. “But I tire of camp food. I wish fresh meat on this evening’s table.”
Caelis folded his arms across his chest.
“Fetch your bow, whelp, and find meat while your betters break their fast.”
“Yes, sir.” Valerian sighed and went to collect his bow and quiver.
The rest of the camp stirred to wakefulness while Valerian left with his bow. The glow of the rising sun barely penetrated the morning mist, making the world appear contained in this one valley. He climbed the hill. Perhaps, from its height, he could emerge from the damp fog and spot a deer or other animal grazing nearby.
Upon reaching the summit, the sun’s harsh light temporarily blinded him. When his eyes adjusted, Valerian first glanced back down toward the camp. The fog was beginning to dissipate. He could make out the shapes of Waryn’s men waking and milling around. Drew, Waryn’s junior squire, darted toward the stream to refill water skins.
Shading his eyes from the rising sun, Valerian turned his gaze to the east. Just beyond the blood red hills lay the desert land of Mohorovia and the mysterious Horde. The king’s scouts had found evidence of raids on outlying farms, and the garrisons had sent reports of Horde activity, but no one Valerian knew had actually seen a Mohorovian.
Movement caught his eye. Valerian whirled to face a copse of trees, and the bark of the nearest one shimmered. With a rustling sound, a scaly tree dragon unfurled its wings and took flight in a westerly direction. Several more flew from the other trees while Valerian watched, enthralled. He never tired of seeing these tiny cousins of the great dragons. Hoping there might be a few more, Valerian scanned the trees.
There, in the distant shadows of the wood, another movement, a blur. Had he imagined it? No, there it was again. Sunlight flashed on large burnished scales, and Valerian glimpsed multiple battle-axes.
Ambush! Valerian shouted the word inside his head, but his mouth would not open, his throat ceased to function. He managed to unlock his legs, and they propelled him down the hill at breakneck speed. He nearly knocked over Drew in his haste to reach Prince Waryn.
“There are, there are—” he said, gasping for breath.
Waryn grabbed Valerian’s arms and scowled. “Spit it out, squire.”
“Ambush!” Valerian pointed to the trees.
Waryn’s eyes scanned the hills and widened.
“To arms,” he bellowed. “Enemy sighted! Positions, all!”
They had no time to pull on surcoats or fasten greaves. Valerian gathered Waryn’s helmet and shield, then his own. A bone-chilling howl filled the air. The sound vibrated down Valerian’s spine, and he cringed. Clutching his spear, he heard the first clash of weapons and turned to face the enemy.
The Mohorovians were man-sized lizards striding upright on muscular back legs. Each carried a battle-ax with a razor-sharp flint blade. The spear Prince Waryn hurled at the advancing creatures bounced off their thick scales. Valerian gripped his spear more tightly, but he couldn’t stop the trembling of his hands.
Every scream, every thud of battle-ax into unprotected flesh magnified itself inside Valerian’s head. An arrow grazed his helmet. Blood spurted from the severed arm of the knight in front of him. In three years as Waryn’s squire, the ordered drills in the castle yard had not prepared him for this melee of screaming, howling butchery.
“Caelis,” Waryn shouted. “Take care of those archers before they wipe us out!”
As the best bowman among them, Caelis hurried to obey. Poison. The Horde used poison on their arrows. What little courage Valerian possessed shriveled.
Grunting, Waryn deflected one of the Horde’s axes. He dropped his shield, gripped his spear with both hands and yelled as he shoved it between the scales on the creature’s chest. The Mohorovian roared as it fell back, lashing out with its tail, but Waryn leaped aside. The creature thrashed on the ground, pulling at the spear. Green stained its fangs and it lay still.
Snatching up his shield, Waryn deflected another battle-ax, grabbed the weapon from the surprised Mohorovian and swung it around in a crushing blow. The creature’s green blood spattered the air.
Waryn had been born for this moment, had dreamed of war all his life. Valerian stood on quaking legs, paralyzed. Bile rose in his throat. He wanted to throw down his spear and shield and run from the battlefield. Ashamed, he looked away from his brother, but his gaze drifted to the first Mohorovian felled by Waryn. The monster opened its eyes.
To Valerian’s traumatized senses the surrounding sights and sounds moved more and more slowly, as if time prepared to stop. The Mohorovian shoved itself off the ground and snapped the shaft of the spear imbedded in its chest, then picked up a fallen ax and swung it toward Waryn’s exposed side.
Valerian opened his mouth to shout at Waryn, but nothing came out. Why couldn’t Valerian make his feet move? Why, oh why wouldn’t his sweaty fingers tighten around the spear? If he could just lift his arm, he could strike down this threat to his brother’s life.
The Mohorovian’s muscles tensed. The flint blade glinted in the sunlight. Finally the horror of it loosened Valerian’s tongue.
His brother would not be able to turn quickly enough. The ax blade swung down, down toward his blood-spattered chain mail. Waryn began to lift his shield, but the blade pierced the coat of mail and tore into his chest.
“No!” Valerian’s scream released him from his paralysis. He let his shield fall and grasped the spear with both hands. He stabbed the point into one of the reptilian eyes, ramming it to the bone. The force of the blow jarred down his arms to his shoulders. The creature’s hot blood spurted over him as it fell.
Valerian backed away, searching for another spear, desperate now to protect his injured brother. But the battle had moved away from them.
“Waryn!” Valerian knelt beside his brother. Waryn lay gasping. Blood seeped from the terrible chest wound, his life kept from gushing out only by the imbedded chain mail.
Valerian pulled off his gloves and pressed on the wound. He had to stop the flow of blood, or Waryn would die. In moments Valerian’s hands turned red. His brother’s face went white, and his skin grew cold.
“Waryn, please don’t leave me.” Even if Waryn heard him, he could no longer answer.
Valerian lay beside his brother, to keep him warm, to take hold of his fading life. One last breath gurgled through the ruin of Waryn’s chest, and his heart stopped beating. A wail escaped Valerian’s throat. How could someone who seemed invincible be so easily cut down?
“What have you done?”
Valerian sat up. Sir Caelis ran toward him and dropped to his knees.
“You could have saved him, craven whelp.” Caelis clenched his fists. “You were beside him, close enough to help him. Why didn’t you cut down that Mohorovian?” His eyes glared through the slit in his helmet.
Before Valerian could think of a reply, he met Caelis’ stare, and a veil parted between them. Without knowing how, he could See the knight’s desire to destroy him as if Caelis’ mind was laid open, exposing his secrets. Caelis’ thoughts and emotions bludgeoned him, making his head spin and his empty stomach heave.
“He died because of you.” Caelis picked up Waryn’s body and struggled to stand. “You are no warrior. You belong in a monastery. I will not be ruled by such a weakling.”
“I wish someone else could take his crown.” Valerian choked on a sob. “I never wanted it.”
“Be careful what you wish for, boy.” With one last glare at Valerian, Caelis strode away, carrying Waryn in his arms.
When Valerian turned away, the body of the Mohorovian with the spear protruding from its bloody head was a stark reminder of his costly timidity. Death lay all around the quiet valley. The stench of it hung in the air. Where was the glory of war celebrated in the bards’ songs?
Valerian pushed himself to his feet. Were there any Mohorovians left to strike him down? He had no right to live now that Waryn had died. How could he be crown prince? No one could take Waryn’s place, Valerian, least of all.
“Please, take me now.” He flung his arms wide to welcome one of the Horde’s poisoned arrows.
No arrows came. Valerian could not escape by his own death.
One moment of Valerian’s cowardice had changed everything: Waryn the Invincible was dead. That left him, Valerian the Unready, heir to the crown of Levathia.
How could he rule a warrior kingdom when he hated war and killing?

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Homeschooling Mom and Author Mom Lea Doue...

The first homeschooling-parent-author I want to introduce you to this year is Lea Doue. Let's get to know her a little better...

1    How long have you been homeschooling?

I’ve been homeschooling since my youngest son (I have two) started Kindergarten, and he’s in Grade 6 now. So seven years.

2       How long have you been writing?

I’ve been telling stories (to myself, mostly) since I was a child. In university, I majored in English with a minor in journalism, because minoring in creative writing didn’t seem practical. I did NOT want to be a teacher. Now I’m teaching my own kids and writing creatively. I’ve been working on my current series for almost three years.

3       What gave you the writing bug?

I have no idea. I’ve always loved to read, and later write, but I rarely showed anyone my stories. Approaching  a “significant” birthday milestone a few years ago spurred me to finally get serious and put something out there. I was no longer (quite as) scared of what people might think.

4       Do you remember the first story you wrote?

The first I remember as a “proper” story was about a girl who discovered pink-and-red animals who lived under a rainbow. A ladybug and a jaguar, in particular.

5       What type of books do you write?

I’m writing a fairytale-inspired fantasy series . The first book is loosely based on The Twelve Dancing Princesses, and the plan is for all of the sisters to get their own story.

6       How do you find time to write?

My boys occupy themselves in the afternoons for a couple of hours, and I also write after they’re in bed and some on weekends.

7       Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

I love the whole process of writing and editing. Blurbs and marketing are not my favorites, though. Oh, and titles. Titles are ha-a-a-ard.

8      Do your kids help with your creative process or give you ideas?

Both my boys have amazing imaginations. I’d love for them to write down their own stories someday.

     What is the single most significant thing you can tell us about your writing career?

That probably changes from week to week. I think finding people who enjoy my stories as much as I do is amazing. I’m no longer writing in a bubble

      Can you tell us about a character in your current work in progress?

I’m currently working on book three in The Firethorn Chronicles series. This will be Melantha’s story. She’s the fourth princess, the oldest of a set of twins, and she’s been longing all her life to strike out on her own and cross the boundary lines she sees on all the maps in the palace. She wears boots underneath her dresses, likes to practice sword fighting (but stinks at it), and is an expert dagger thrower.


Click cover to go to Amazon
The crown is her strength. The crown is her weakness.

Princess Lily, the eldest of twelve sisters and heir to a mighty kingdom, desperately seeks a break from her mother's matchmaking. Tradition forbids marriage with the man Lily loves, so she would rather rule alone than marry someone who only wants the crown.

Fleeing an overzealous suitor, Lily stumbles into a secret underground kingdom where she and her sisters encounter a mysterious sorcerer-prince and become entangled in a curse that threatens the safety of her family and her people. Lily can free them, but the price for freedom may be more than she's willing to pay.

The Firethorn Crown, a re-imagining of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, is the first novel in The Firethorn Chronicles, a series inspired by fairy tales and other classic stories. Follow the sisters on their adventures in a land where sorcery is feared, women can rule, and dragons fly.


Chapter One

            Ballgowns and mazes don't mix.
            Lily tiptoed down the center of the gravel path, pinching overgrown branches out of her way, listening for footsteps, broken twigs, whispering leaves; anything to warn of pursuit. She winced at every rock and root under her silk slippers. Her boots would have been noisier, but more practical. Too bad she hadn't had time to change.
            The junction ahead led to the exit. It wasn't the shortest path, but it had the most escape routes. Bunching layers of peach taffeta in her hands, she stepped over a large root and edged past an alcove cut into the firethorn hedge, home to a life-sized weeping lady draped in blackberry brambles heavy with fruit.
            At the midway point in the passageway, a glint caught her eye from among the leaves ahead. She crept a few more yards and saw the source, nestled deep among the branches: a mirror.
            The gilt-framed intruder would have looked at home on top of her dressing table. Frowning, she glanced at the sky. Afternoon sun scrabbled through the overgrown canopy, falling at the wrong angle to hit the object. She stepped closer. Untrimmed branches surrounded the mirror, as if it had rested there for some time, but her reflection stared back, unmarred by dust or grime. She tucked a strand of shadow-dark hair behind her ear, and then gasped, holding her breath.
            Leaning in close enough to feel the prickle of leaves on her cheek, she exhaled through pursed lips and stared over her reflection's shoulder. The mirror was strange enough, but the image reflected behind her chilled her inside. A passageway, dark as midnight, stretched into the shadows, a misty circle of light shining from its depths.
            She spun around, her heart pounding, to find the unkempt firethorn wall staring back at her. She looked in the mirror again. There. A dark path led to a part of the maze she had never seen. She turned again, but still saw no opening in the hedge. There was no explanation and no time for guesses. Neylan might know something, spending as much time as she did in the gardens. Right now, Lily needed to get out.
            Before she'd taken a half-dozen steps, a scream, short and high-pitched, burst through the calm. Coral, or maybe Gwen. She stilled, trying to pinpoint the location. Sounds carried strangely among the leaves, but it had come from the direction of the exit. A flurry of honeysucklers erupted from that corner, confirming her guess. The walnut-sized dragons swooped low and disappeared deeper into the maze, their dark-green hides blending with the foliage. Her sisters knew the passageways as well as she did, and one of them had almost escaped. Eben knew the passageways, too. And today, he was the one to elude.
            He had the advantage. What chance did twelve princesses in rustling ballgowns have against a dragon-soldier-turned-royal-guard?
            She nudged a large rock out of her way and inched towards the junction. The wind was on Eben's side, still and listening. Junia and Ivy had kept away from the murky interior, stationing themselves at the entrance and exit, but two less skirts didn't make for much less noise.
            As the eldest, Lily should have set a better example and stayed with them, but she couldn't say no to the littles on their birthday. Eben liked to point out that Ruby and Wren were hardly little anymore—next year their age would be equal to the number of princesses in the family—but he hadn't said no, either. He could have spent his day off fishing or reading.
            She gripped her skirts tighter. She had little hope of reaching the exit before he found her, but she could at least keep her gown clean. Mother hadn't finished their portrait, yet.
            A blue blur sped by the opening ahead.
            Her sister Azure.
            Lily dropped her skirts and backtracked quickly. Azure moved fast by definition, so that didn't mean anything, but she was going the wrong way. Eben was close. Lily jumped over the root and ran, her gown sighing against branches, a quivering beacon. Hopefully, Eben wouldn't notice.
            She'd almost reached the junction when she heard a voice up ahead. She stopped, her skirts swirling around her legs. A man's voice muttered curses against the spiderwebs and shadows.
            Drat! The girls had let Lord Runson into the maze. And he was close. Not the-other-side-of-the-hedge close, but around-the-corner close. She had nowhere to go. The nearest alcove held the Weeping Lady. Not even Melantha could have squeezed behind it, especially in a ballgown. Okay. Turn around and run? Or pretend she was out for a stroll, and meet him head on?
            Runson cursed again, something about velvet and thorns.
            Right. Run.
            If Runson didn't speed up, she would make it to the junction she'd first been aiming for with seconds to spare. She'd rather let Eben catch her and lose the game. Except, in her haste, she misjudged the height of the root in the path and landed flat on her elbows, the rest of her body grinding dirt into the peach gown. Mother would have to paint it clean.
At least her hair stayed up. Resting her forehead on her palms, she took a deep breath and exhaled forcefully. No point in being quiet now. Her toe throbbed, and her elbows burned. She had hoped to avoid Runson for at least one day during the Dragon Festival. That was one reason she'd played the twins' game. No one came into the Weaver's Maze. Even the gardeners avoided it as much as possible. She should have been safe here.
            She hoped Eben was nearby.
            Recently-polished boots appeared, dusty toes pointed at her ear. Runson could move quietly when he wanted.
            She pushed up and sat back on her heels. “Lord Runson.” She spoke louder than usual, hoping the girls or Eben would hear. She couldn't suppress a shiver at the thought of being alone with Runson for longer than it took to exchange greetings.
            Before she regained her feet, he took her hands and pulled her up into his chest with a thump. Goosebumps raced up her arms. She tried to back away, but only managed a less-uncomfortable nearness by straightening her elbows.
            “Lily,” he said. “You've hurt yourself.” Runson had perfected the light, friendly tone years ago, when learning to deal with courtiers, merchants, and guild leaders. But she knew better. His narrowed eyes gave him away. He was put out after struggling through the maze. Why was he here?
            “It's just a little dirt.” Her elbows throbbed. They might be bleeding, but he couldn't see them, so she said nothing. She wiggled her fingers, indicating he could let them go now, but he ignored the unspoken request. Subtlety never had worked with him.
            “Running away?” His dark eyes wouldn't let her go, either. Her gaze moved up to the mass of blond waves atop his head, his pale eyebrows, his smiling mouth with the full bottom lip. How long had it been since she'd noticed his lips? He really was much too close. His lips curved more, but the smile didn't reach his eyes.
            “Just trying to find my sisters. They're all in here. In the maze.” Her thoughts stuttered at his nearness. He'd never dared touch her beyond offering his arm, placing a kiss on her fingertips, or a light hand on her waist at a ball.
            All these years, she'd thought his eyes black, but they were deeply blue.
            “You've hurt your hands.”
            “Just dirt.” How articulate. Hazel would roll her eyes. No, Hazel would want to roll her eyes. Where were the girls? Muffled voices and the hiss and scritch of skirts against leaves told her at least a couple of them still struggled through the hedges. Someone should have been here by now.
            She tugged against Runson's grip. He reached into his pocket, allowing one of her hands to slip free.
            “We can't let the heir to the throne go home dirty.” He brushed debris from her palms with a handkerchief, keeping one wrist or the other tightly caged in his fingers. She shivered, both from the relief of being free from his gaze and from the tickle of the silk against her skin. He pocketed the handkerchief, curved an arm around her waist, and pulled her close, laying their joined hands over his heart. Unsure what to do with her free hand, she rested her fist at her collarbone.
            “How long have we known each other, Lily?” His grasp was warm. Confident.
            He knew the answer, and she feared the ultimate question he had in mind. His family was powerful. Rich. Confident.
            “All our lives, Lord Runson.” She emphasized his title, disliking the familiarity he'd adopted lately, without her permission. Her neck ached from the uncomfortable angle needed to keep eye contact with him, but she refused to turn away. The heavy braids on top of her head pulled at their pins. “I really should find my sisters. They'll be worried.”
            “Isn't the whole point of the game to run away? Cat and Mouse?” He'd never needed to practice the petulant tone. “You've been toying with me all year, Lily, and I've finally gotten you alone for a few minutes. I'll have my say. You can't run from me forever.” His grip tightened, and she took a step back. He moved with her, as if in a dance. What was taking Eben and the girls so long?
            “I've watched you for years,” Runson said. “I've wanted you for years.” His gaze roamed over her face, down as far as it could, given how close he held her, and back up again.
            Her face warmed. Ridiculous ballgown.
            “I'm tired of waiting. Your twenty-first birthday has come and gone, and it's past time for you to follow tradition and name your future husband.” His little-boy-wants-a-new-pony voice was in full force. “You know we'll be a good match. You're just too proud to admit it. Stop waiting for a prince to come sweep you away, and see what's right in front of you.” He raised her fingers to his lips.
            She squeezed her eyes shut and turned her head away from his arrogance. He had no doubts about the outcome of this pursuit. None that he would admit to. She waited for the brush of his lips, sure that he would let her go after his speech and little show of affection. If not, her thick skirts would hinder her from aiming her knee with purpose, but she fully intended to kick his shins and run. She wasn't prepared for the wet tickle on the backs of her fingers. She gasped and opened her eyes wide to see Runson licking her. And smirking.
            “Stop that!” She wrinkled her nose and smacked her palm onto his cheek, pushing his face away, but she still couldn't free her trapped hand. She needed to wash both hands soon. There was too much Runson on them.
            He chuckled and said, “Answer me, Lily.”
            “You haven't asked a question.” She squirmed, pushing against his chest. For such a lanky fellow, he was surprisingly strong. She hadn't ruled out the shin kick, yet.
            “You know what I want.” Still grinning, he shook his head as if she was missing something obvious. “Your father gave me his blessing. Does that mean nothing to you?”
            She pulled her fist back to her collarbone, suddenly cold. She hadn't trusted him for years. His expression was earnest, but he had to be wrong. Father would never give his blessing for a union with Runson or his family. He'd never liked their tendency to play dirty. She covered her mouth with her hand and breathed in and out, a few short breaths. Either way, she had no intention of attaching herself to this . . . this . . . spoiled boy.
            Enough with diplomacy and being polite.
            She took a deep breath and screamed in his face, long and loud. “Snake!”
            The honeysucklers startled again, rising in a cloud and making a tight circle before settling.           Runson released her and backed up a step. Finally. She had hoped for more space than that and backed up a few steps herself, aware that the offensive root lay behind her somewhere. She could hear one of the girls thrashing through the maze now, calling her name.
            “I'm here!” she said. “By the Weeping Lady!” She crossed her arms, worried that he might grab them again.
            Runson's mouth now matched his eyes. “No one else will ever want you, Lily. Not you. I'm the only one who sees past the crown, past the title.”
            Not that old story again. She'd believed him, once upon a time, but she'd outgrown his lies. Mostly.
            Eben and Melantha ran around the corner behind him. Melantha's hair swung past her waist in a copper braid. She'd drawn one of her daggers—as useless against a real snake as it would be against Runson. She'd never get away with an “accidental” stabbing.
            Runson huffed and turned in their direction, forcing a smile.
            “Princess Melantha.” He greeted Lily's third sister with a slight dip of his chin and a tense jaw. He didn't acknowledge Eben.
            Melantha barely glanced at Runson. She walked right up to Lily, shaking her head and raising her eyebrows in question, lips pressed into a thin line. She wanted to know what her sister and Runson were doing in the maze together, but she would have to wait for the answer.
            “Are you okay, Li—Your Highness?” Eben's face was composed, his voice even, but she saw the tension in his mouth. His wide lips were nowhere near as shapely as Runson's, and she'd never been happier to see them.
            He placed himself between her and Runson and took in her appearance, pausing at her dusty skirts and bloody elbows.
            She dropped her arms to her sides and took a deep breath, lowering her shoulders. “I'm fine.” Her voice cracked, and she cleared her throat. Her gaze flitted to Runson. “And Lord Runson is leaving.”
            “There's dirt on your dress, and your elbows are bleeding.” Melantha had stowed her dagger wherever it was she kept it in a ballgown.
            “I said I'm fine.”
            Eben balled his fists and scowled. “Did he lay a hand on you? I can have him arrested.”   
            Eben was making threats? “We should get back.”    
            “As the princess said, I'm leaving.” Runson bowed low to Lily, ignoring Melantha. “Enjoy your . . . game.” He bumped into Eben's shoulder as he passed and strode down the path, stepping easily over the root. He didn't notice the mirror, and probably wouldn't have thought it odd if he had.
            Eben stepped aside for the girls, his gaze fixed on Runson until he disappeared around the corner that should have taken Lily safely to the exit. “He's going the wrong way.”
            “Let him.”
            “I can't believe you let Lord Runny find you.” Melantha set a fast pace towards the entrance, unbraiding her hair as she bounded ahead.
            Lily fell behind, watching for more roots.
            “Eben found everyone except me and Azure,” Melantha called over her shoulder. “I think she made it out. And Coral found a mirror. Never seen it before.”
            The mirror. Lily stumbled, and Eben reached out to steady her, letting go of her arm as soon as she regained her balance. “Thanks,” she mumbled, wondering if Coral had seen the misty pathway in the mirror.
            “She spooked when you yelled 'snake'.” Melantha walked backwards, shaking her hair out and grinning. “I'll have to remember that one. Meet you at the start!” She turned and disappeared around the corner.
            Lily sighed. Melantha already had at least a dozen names for Lord Runny. Runson. She had to be careful not to slip and call him one of them in public. She slowed, and Eben kept pace. “Did you let the twins win?”
             “No. They quit.” He moved a branch aside for her. “They're demanding a new game once the 'interference' is gone.”
            That wasn't likely to happen. Mother wanted to finish their portrait today.
            They reached a room in the maze, a place where the passageway opened to form a large, four-way junction. The gardeners had lingered here, trimming the firethorn hedge back, until the space almost resembled the square it should be, even pruning the crimson roses that cascaded down the dried-up fountain at the center. She settled on a cracked marble bench and shook pebbles out of her slippers.
            “This was a bad idea.” Eben stalked around, studying the area, on duty even when he wasn't. “He's been trying to get you alone for days. I shouldn't have let you come in here.”
            “Let me.” She squinted up at him. All the sunlight that had been missing in the narrow passageways poured into the clearing. She'd thought Eben understood her need to get away from the palace. “You're not on duty right now, and you couldn't stop me, anyway.”
            He clenched his jaw, but didn't respond.
            Of course. She was the crown princess, and he was a royal guard, and she'd just slapped him with it. And possibly implied that she'd wanted to have a private run-in with Runson. Sighing, she stood and entered the passageway nearest the bench.
            Why was everyone trying to tell her what to do lately? Even Father. She thought he was the exception, but after what Runson said, she wasn't so sure. Since her birthday almost three months ago, she suspected the entire kingdom of laying wagers on when she would announce her betrothed. Her future husband and co-heir to the crown. The man she would share the rest of her life with. The romantics were rooting for the third and final ball of the Dragon Festival, less than a week away. No wonder Runson followed her into the maze, despite his fear of spiders.
            She glanced over her shoulder at Eben, who followed three steps behind. She would have liked to walk side-by-side with him.
            She spotted movement behind him. He took in her expression and spun, hand on his dagger.         Melantha's jade dress blended so well with the leaves and shadows that she seemed to be all freckled arms and face and copper hair weaving down the passageway, somehow managing to evade most of the grasping branches.
            “I'm lost.”
            Lily's eyebrows shot up. Eben's drew down.
            “I'm not kidding.” Melantha paced in the narrow passageway, elbows cupped in her hands, staring at the ground as if trying to read the map she had drawn long ago.
            A map Lily hadn't needed in years.