• – Chapter One –
    Knighthood

    Walton became a knight when his sword pierced the dragon’s skull. His defeat of the Anzerik Empire’s deadliest weapon meant the insurrection he led would conclude in victory. Days after the dragon’s death, the emperor conceded and declared that the Broke Kingdom was free to govern itself.

    The son of Brandish von Boshire received his knighthood, was hailed a hero, and granted the honor as personal bodyguard to The Queen. Walton took pride in his accomplishment, continued to improve his fighting skills, and, free from regular field service, practiced being a gentleman. At the age of fifteen, Walton was the youngest knight in the history of the kingdom, and, at three-foot-six, the shortest.

    Not long after the end of the violent uprising against the empire’s oppression, The Queen had birthed a daughter, to which The King said, “We shall name her Princess Emmillia the Fourteenth, because fourteen sounds important! We shall have a grand party and present her to the people in a months’ time.”

    The day arrived when the heir to the throne was presented to her liberated people. The King and The Queen were delighted their daughter was well received and loved, reinvigorating the kingdom’s hope for a prosperous future. The festivities lasted through the day, and at night, the celebration continued in the castle’s grand ballroom. Through the dancing, singing, and cheering, the hope of a bountiful future was ripped to shreds when The Queen suddenly fell back into her chair. Blood spilled from her throat as it had been sliced by an assassin’s blade. The soldiers surrounded The King. Walton, fearing the same fate for the newborn princess, quickly hid her in a chest, and then chased the murderer.

    The knight’s pursuit and capture would be swift. The assassin, who appeared to be a common criminal, a member of a resistance group that favored the empire’s rule, was caught by the castle’s guards. With the blood of The Queen on the rebel’s shirt and blade, Walton felt no hesitation, and executed justice.

    Walton believed he dishonored his knighthood for failing to protect The Queen. When The King forgave him, Walton swore it was his duty to serve with his life for failing to save the one that was taken from them.

    The Queen’s murder was nearly nineteen years ago, and though that was a dark time, this morning was a bright, sun shining day at Castle Graystone. Still the only knight of the kingdom, Walton was busy with his patrols, and running errands, most specifically for the princess. He hurried to the library on the second floor, a vast room that housed thousands of books, thousands of books that few in the castle bothered to read. It was believed that the only residents of this monument of masonry who read were the princess, The King, the wizard, and the priest.

    The resident librarian was a lanky, gray haired man, named Manchu. A wizard by his own declaration, if one could consider card and parlor tricks magic, this lanky figure spent his days reading and writing in rather thick tomes, leaving notes, scribbles, diagrams, and whatever, of the knowledge he discovered amongst these books and his travels. His long grey robe ended just above his boots, and his pointed, floppy hat, had not been washed in decades, for he considered it bad luck for a wizard to clean his clothes.

    On a couch beside the tall trickster lay another man, the castle priest, known as Lionel. This man, born of the cloth, had cut his hair in a flat top, a bit slicked back, and his white goatee was trimmed quite well. He was tall, compared to Walton, but was nowhere near the height of his wizard friend, who was often not too far away. Lionel, a member of the abbey, was the council to The King, trusted advisor and accountant, and remained ever protective of the castle’s treasures and secrets.

    The scuff and scratch of Walton’s rusted armor alerted to the two men that the short knight had entered the library. When Walton approached the wizard’s writing station, Manchu asked, “Still haven’t found that missing glove of yours?”

    “No, Master Manchu,” replied Walton. He glanced at his right hand and remembered that a week ago he misplaced his gauntlet, and had no clue where it could have gone.

    Lionel closed a book he was reading, and asked the knight, “What brings a squirt like you up here?”

    The knight looked upward at the wizard in an attempt to ignore the priest. Manchu, who stopped writing, muttered something profane under his breath, as he attempted to organize the books on a nearby shelf. Each book resisted and popped out, teasing the wizard to solve a rather irritating puzzle.

    “Master Manchu, the princess has requested the book, ‘The Snobbish Brat.’ Might you know its whereabouts?”

    “Sounds like the story of her life,” said Lionel, returning to his book.

    Walton placed his finger upon his chin and said, “I do not understand.”

    Of course you don’t.

    “Never mind, and stop the formalities. You sound like a claustrophobic stuck in his head.”

    Manchu settled the books into place and solved the puzzle. “We’ll check the shelf marked ‘S’, this way,” he said. Walton followed the wise man through the pillars and tunnels of bound paper that were once a forest. Upon each shelf a symbol shined that the knight could not decipher: an arch; two arches; six arches that twisted in all directions. The wizard brought Walton behind a shelf with a squiggly sign.

    The magician trickled his prickles along the spines as he searched, and searched, and searched. “Oh, bother,” he said, “I forgot to put my glasses on. No wonder I can’t read!” He felt around his neck, his chest, and then found his spectacles on the brim of his hat. “Of course.”

    Manchu resumed his search, and each book his fingers grazed reacted in a different way. One tickled and giggled. Another swatted the codger’s fingers with a gasp and a shriek. “Heh, romance novel.” The last book the wizard touched flashed gold, and chimed the sound of a service bell. “Ah, yes, ‘The Snobbish Brat’, by Poshen Stukup.”

    An indigo block of processed wood squeezed off the shelf with the pop of a cork, and floated before the wizard. Glitter, glitz, and glam, rainbows, flowers, and butterflies, cascaded from the seams. Manchu snagged the levitating leftovers of a tree trunk. “Yes, this is the one.” He kneeled down to the knight and held the book out before him.

    The Snobbish Brat felt large as Walton secured the book in his arms. “Thank you, Master Manchu. I’ll take this to her highness at once.” The soldier’s greaves scraped against his rusted boots, shooting a trail of sparks behind him as he walked toward the exit.

    “Where is the royal princess this morning?” asked Manchu.

    “She didn’t tell me.”

    Lionel tucked a flask into his robe, a flask he too often sipped from throughout the day, and answered, “Check the roof. It’s best not to keep the little gem waiting.”

    Castles were, in their time, monuments to the architectural genius of their creators. Bastions of honor, glory, and strength, they stood as defense in times of war, and home in times of peace. Kings and Lords lived in the constructs of human ingenuity, protecting their people and treasures. Castle Graystone had no such distinctions.

    When the princess was young, she detested anything that she believed was ugly. When playing in a field one day, she found a creature so disgusting, she threw rocks at it, and taunted it for its hideousness. She was shocked, for the creature spoke and cast a curse upon her that would not be lifted until she discovered true beauty. To this day, anything nearby the princess, that was not alive, such as tables, chairs, paintings, clothes, and even the structure of buildings, would appear to all around her what she considered to be ugly. For this reason, she had few possessions, and even fewer suitors.

    When the most loyal knight rounded the corners on the east end of the castle, he made one right, a second right, a third right, and then ran right into a wall. Walton pushed open a creaking door to his left and exited to the castle’s rooftop. This morning, it was difficult to tell where the princess was located within the castle. Usually, Walton and the others could track her down by visiting the side that was in the most deteriorated state, with crumbled walls, torn flags, and dirty windows. As the sun shined bright, making the roof appear as a white blanket of light, it was difficult to tell what part of the castle was in its worst shape. When Walton did not see the princess in her usual spot, the balcony she fed the birds from in the morning, he hiked up a staircase to the roof above the library. He peered across the monument that tossed its chivalry years ago, but still, the brunette was nowhere to be found.

    The knight breathed in the fresh air, and bathed in the sun’s grace across the land. Forests surrounded the castle on the north, south, and east. To the west was the Crosshatch, a series of hills that rolled into another forest that led to the beach. The beauty of nature this morning told Walton that today was a day where nothing could go wrong.

    That feeling faded away when Walton spotted his underlings, the inseparable and insufferable few known as ‘The Four.’ They were Mabel, Mitch, Hansel, and Perra, guards that, to Walton, were less responsible than a child on X-Mess Eve. This morning, these miscreants enjoyed themselves at the center of the castle, on a balcony of cobblestone and marble that overlooked the marketplace. Though he didn’t want to deal with their shenanigans, as captain of the guard, Walton knew he must remain a leader, and fulfill the request from the princess. The knight strolled from the library’s rooftop to the bottom of the steps before the balcony.

    “That moat’s been dry for months,” said Perra. “Her highness sure picked a heck of a spot to park the castle.”

    “If she parked the castle far to the south, it would be flooded by the lake. If she parked the castle far to the north, those pesky crows from the woods would be all over the darn place,” said Mitch. “Maybe we can get her highness to park the castle a little closer to the ocean, that is, if we can convince her to do anything she didn’t think of first.”

    Hansel took a drag from a pipe in his mouth, and then said, “You three ought to learn how to properly speak with the lady. You need to be respectful, genteel, and debonair!”

    “Hansel, your time in the hot tub has gone to your head. All that soaking has made your brain and skin wrinkle.”

    Walton cleared his throat to get the attention of his company. The men glanced over their shoulders in unison, murmured some comment, and returned to their conversation of where to park the castle next. Walton stomped his boot and commanded, “Attention!” The soldiers groaned and turned to face their captain. “That’s better. Now, can any of you tell me where the princess is?”

    “Where the princess is?” asked Perra. “Why don’t you ask, ‘where the princes could be?’“

    “No, where she is.”

    “Well, when you say where she is, you expect us to know for sure,” said Mitch. “How can we know for sure when we’re not with her?”

    “And if we were with her, and you found us, you would find the princess,” said Mabel. “Then what point would there be in the question at all?”

    “I don’t want a philosophical lecture. I’m looking for the princess to give her this book.” Walton held The Snobbish Brat in one hand and tapped the cover with the finger of his other. Rainbows and sparkles sprinkled down with each tap.

    Hansel laid his pipe on the wall, and said, “Let me see that book.” He swiped it from Walton’s grasp and held it out of reach. “The Snobbish Brat? You have the princess right here!”

    “Give it to me, that’s an order!”

    Hansel handed the book to Perra, who said, “Doesn’t look like an order; looks like a book.”

    “Give it to me!”

    “Here, Mitch, what do you make of this?” Perra tossed the book to Mitch, who caught it, and then opened it. Butterflies, sparkles, stars and fireflies floated out of its pages.

    “This book’s been in Manchu’s library, has it?”

    “Oh, really?” asked Mabel. He swiped it. “If that’s the case, it can fly.”

    “No it can’t! Give it back!”

    Mabel flicked his wrist and chucked the princess’s order off the castle. Walton ran to the edge and watched in horror as the book spiraled down, smacked the archway before the marketplace, and then plunged into the dirt. A rather splendid display of lack of concern for her highness’s wishes, ending on a beaten path amongst horse droppings.

    “I guess it can’t fly.”

    “Of course not. Books can’t fly outside of libraries,” said Hansel, picking up his pipe. “What use would a library be if books could just fly out of them?”

    Walton glared at Mabel and pointed at the book. “Go get the book!”

    “Who, me? If you didn’t bring it up here, it wouldn’t be down there. Besides, if you’re looking for the brat, you should get it.”

    “But you—forget it. Forget it!”

    Walton gave up on his men and jogged into the castle. He passed the library, hustled down a spiraled staircase, and hurried too fast that he fell face-forward after the last step. The wired knight hopped to his feet, ran to his left, then his right, and then left once more, and halted in the lobby before the throne room. A guard stepped out of the entrance hall, his face buried within the pages of the book. “That explains a lot,” said the guard.

    “Oh, good, you picked up the book.”

    The guard held it out of reach and asked, “Is this your book?”

    “Yes! Give it to me!”

    “Liar, this book isn’t yours. It fell from the sky. It’s a gift from the Deities. Whoever finds it keeps it, and that’s me.” He tilted the book back and forth. “By the looks of it, they want me to learn about her highness.”

    “Mabel chucked it from the roof. I’m supposed to give it to the princess.” Walton jumped up and down to grab the book as the guard ignored him and examined the covers.

    “I don’t think the snob would want a book covered in dirt. Come on, let’s take this to the kitchen and wash it.”

    “You can’t wash a book, you’ll ruin the pages!”

    “Nonsense,” said the guard, ignoring Walton’s plea. He walked past him and pushed open a swinging door to the kitchen.

    The scent of fresh baked bread filled the air, calming Walton’s nerves. The thickness of the clouds created from the cooking and baking hid the busiest kitchen in the kingdom. Many cooks were under pressure to prepare the day’s meals, chopping, cutting, shredding, and breading, clanging, banging their pots, and slicing and dicing with their blades.

    The guard pondered with a hand upon his chin, and lowered his arm that held the book. “Now, where’s that sink they use for washing dishes?”

    “I don’t have time for this,” said Walton. He swiped the book from the guard.

    The head chef, a man of towering proportions, appeared through the steam and smoke that came from the stove. The ginormous bulb of blubber’s frame was wide, his floppy hat bouncing as he walked toward the door. “Walton!” said the chef. “Good timing. Ask The King what he wants for his daughter’s birthday: venison, pork, beef, or chicken. I have to prepare for it soon. Send those slackers of yours to slaughter. Better yet, just kill them all!”

    “Kill each kind of animal?”

    “Yeah, those too.”

    “Venison, pork, beef, or chicken,” whispered Walton. “Yes, sir.” He saluted the chef, but the big buffoon had already turned away and could not be seen through the cloud.

    “Now that I’m here, I think I’ll get a little pre-breakfast snack,” said the guard. He rubbed his hands and licked his lips.

    Walton, choosing duty over food, returned to the main lobby and dusted off the book the best he could. “I must find her highness.”

    “The princess, you say?” asked the guard of the throne room. “If you seek the holy terror, she’s speaking to The King.”

    “Oh, good, I need to see The King.” Walton stepped up the stairs and reached out to the door.

    “The King?”

    Walton lowered his hand from the door. “The King.”

    “What’s his name?”

    “The King?” Walton turned to the guard.

    “I know he’s The King, but what’s his name?”

    “The King,” answered Walton, growing irritated by the moment with the day’s never ending riddles.

    “The King?”

    “Why are you asking me if I know The King’s name?” Walton shook the book back and forth. “You know his name, and so do I!”

    “Okay, calm down. It’s all just a matter of passing time.”

    “What is?”

    “This.”

    “What’s this?”

    “All of this. Everything around you. Everything you do. Everything I do. It’s all to pass time. Use it wisely!”

    Walton grumbled. “May I use it wisely and enter to see The King?”

    “No. Not right now.”

    “But I am his humble knight.”

    “Humble, huh? Way to judge yourself. Sorry, rules are rules. None shall enter when the princess is ranting to The King.”

    “Fine, I’ll just wait out here until they’re finished.”

    The guard wasn’t done with his tricks. “Finished? Well, I know I wouldn’t want to wait around for that funeral. That’s a sad thing for a knight to wait for, and as the knight, shouldn’t you protect them from such a fate?”

    Walton grumbled, sat on the steps, with his fist under his chin, and the book dangling by his hand. He began to think about how infuriating it was to get anyone to listen around this castle anymore, how they ignored not only his words but his presence. Many of the residents stepped on him in passing, stubbing their toes. His thoughts were interrupted when the guard coughed and broke the silence.

    “What is the matter you need to speak of to The King?” asked the guard.

    “Never mind.”

    The guard cleared his throat and stared straight down the hall at the castle entrance. “Okay. I’ve never had a mind for it.”

    “Never had a mind for it?”

    “That’s what you want, isn’t it?” asked the guard, clearly not giving up on teasing the knight.

    “I only want to see The King.”

    “Would you like to see The King?”

    “That’s why I’m here!” Walton shouted, raised his hands, and failed to notice he dropped the book.

    The guard scooted to the side and revealed a tiny hole in the door behind him. “If you can reach it, you can see The King,” said the guard, who clearly knew that Walton was not tall enough to see through the hole in the door.

    “I need to speak with him.”

    The guard snickered and said, “The King is not a puppet, sir.”

    “I know that!”

    “Well then why ask to speak with him? Why not say, ‘I need to speak to him?’“

    “Stop being impossible!”

    “I’m not impossible. I’m here, aren’t I?” The guard stood with a dignity and honor that he was proud of his philosophy. “Therefore, I’m not only possible, I am.”

    “Enough of your blabbering!”

    The princess gently opened the door, and as soon as she saw Walton, she asked, “Ugh, did you find my book yet?” Walton investigated his surroundings for the book, but as soon as he spotted it, the princess picked it up off the floor. “Real nice of you to take care of it,” said the lady, as she dusted it off. “Next time, just leave it with that wizard. At least he knows how to care for his books.” Walton hung his head in shame as the princess left the throne room, and went up the stairs to her tower.

    “You are permitted to speak to The King,” said the guard, holding the door open.

    “It’s about time.”

    “So that’s why you need to speak with him.”

    “No!” Walton slammed the door behind him, and quickly turned to The King, realizing his rude entrance before the ruler of the Broke Kingdom.

    A red carpet stretched from the entrance of the room and ended below a tall throne, a short throne, and a wide throne, the last having not been occupied for many years. The west side was cobblestone, the east side a fine, sparkling marble. Along the length of the carpet, the left was frayed and ripped, while the right was well sewn with thousands of threads. The King, known simply as ‘The King’, or to some, ‘TK’, sat upon his throne in his usual laid back state. When he noticed his knight waltz in he shifted and leaned to his left. As he positioned his body, the rusted crown on his head transformed to a shimmering gold.

    Miniscule in the magnificent hall, of an insignificant kingdom, Walton marched with respect to the lord of the castle. Down the center of the path he strode, the armor on his left squeaked, the armor on his right shined. As he kneeled and bowed before His Majesty, he removed his helm, and placed it to his right. Sparkles and shines covered his helm and transformed it from gaudy scrap metal, into a marvelous piece of the finest crafted armor, and a velvet mohawk. “Your Majesty,” said Walton, without lifting his head.

    “That’s what they call me. What can his majesty do for you?”

    “The chef wishes to procure the required—”

    “C’mon, you don’t really have to talk like that.”

    “I uh—sorry.” Walton stood and continued in speech like the rest of the castle, “The chef wants to know if you would like venison, pork, beef, or chicken, for the princess’s birthday.”

    The King, a man who was not indecisive, carefully chose his words, and placed his hand under his chin. He dragged out the first word as he said, “Welllllll…”

    Walton waited for The King to continue, but not long until he thought, perhaps, he did not hear him. “The chef, he uh—”

    “Hey, what’s a party without a little variety?”

    Walton bowed, and said, “Of course. If there is nothing else His Majesty requests, I shall take my leave.”

    “Take it where?” asked The King, at this point, so eloquently put, that Walton was clearly not getting the joke.

    Walton pointed over his shoulder to the door. “That—that way.” The King nodded. Walton secured his helmet, bowed once more, and left the throne room, the door closing firmly behind him.

    You fool. She’ll never love you.

    Walton turned to the guard and asked, “Did you say something?”

    “Nope. I said nothing. One cannot have said nothing, they simply nothinged.”

    “Nothinged? Nothinged isn’t a word!”

    “Is so,” said the guard, sure of himself. “Look it up.”

    – Chapter One –
    The Baron Sisters

    Desi Baron was happy to be sent home from school, even if it was for punching a kid in the face. She opened the front door of the little building she called home, strolled past her mother, and dropped her books onto her bed.

    Raine, who stood at the stove stirring the stew for tonight’s dinner, glanced over her shoulder. Just as Desi reached the front door, her mother said, “What did you do this time?”

    “Why bother?” said Desi.

    Just as Desi opened the front door, her mother stopped her. “Where do you think you’re going?” asked Raine.

    Desi knew she shouldn’t have come home early. It wasn’t like the twelve year old hadn’t wandered around the city after school before; she had been doing so for years. Reluctantly, she let the door close before her, then leaned her back against it. “This punk deserved it,” she said, with a smirk she tried to hide from her mother.

    Raine shook her head and rolled her eyes. “You’re not supposed to fight in school.”

    “Tell that to the jackass that nearly ripped my hair out,” muttered Desi.

    “Your teacher won’t give you many more chances.”

    “Big deal. I wouldn’t care if I got kicked out of school. They’re still calling me ash baby.”

    Raine put her wooden spoon down on top of the stove and turned to give her daughter her full attention.

    “At first he said, ‘Hey, I like your hair.’ I didn’t say anything, because I knew he was just messing with me. Then he said, ‘Are you related to those circus freaks? I thought only they had hair that color.’

    “Then he said, ‘I knew you were a freak, but are you one of those freaks?’

    “I told him to bugger off. Then, just as I went outside for lunch, the jerk grabs my hair, pulls my head back and says, ‘I bet this is just a wig!’

    “He started yanking my hair, it felt like he was going to rip it out from the roots. ‘Show everyone what your real hair looks like! Are you bald? Did all your hair fall out from living under those factories?’

    “I shoved him right off the porch, into the dirt,” said Desi, proudly. “I jumped over the rail and tackled him. Socked him right in the eye!”

    Raine, who over the years had felt powerless to stop her daughter’s outrages, simply stared back at her daughter. After a few seconds of silence to express she was disappointed, Raine said, “You’ll be fine when your sister gets home. But as punishment, you can’t go wandering around the city today.”

    Merin, Desi’s older sister of two years, left for school the next morning, while Desi refused to return to the place she hated the most.

    “This is so stupid. Why do I have to go to school? The other kids just treat me like crap,” argued Desi.

    “It’s just the way things are, Desi,” said Raine.

    Desi slid her snow boots on. She tugged hard at the shoestrings. “The teachers don’t care,” she muttered. Her mother ignored her complaint. The young lady shoved each book into her pack, one at a time, to demonstrate her frustration.

    Desi stepped toward the front door. “Brush your hair,” her mother said.

    With contempt, Desi snagged her brush from the tiny table in the center of the one-room house. She quickly brushed the comb through her tangled mess. “There? Brushed,” she said, and tossed the brush on the table.

    Desi opened the front door and breathed in the industrial smog. The taunts of ash baby ran through her mind. She wanted more than anything to not return to school, and would rather be off on an adventure around the world.

     “That way,” said her mother, pointing northward. “Your school is that way, Desi Baron. Don’t let me catch you at the market causing problems for the merchants.”

    The end of the alley gave way to a crossroad of four directions. School was further north, past the church. The marketplace was around the bend to the west, and the east road would lead right out of the capitol city.

    Desi inched along the cobblestone paths of Shota’s main roads. When she arrived near the church she felt she could hide inside and ditch class. She had done it several times before, so they may not notice if she laid down on the benches and drifted off.

    Then the pastor opened the front door and breathed in the morning air. Desi knew he’d send her straight to school, even if he had to drag the child there himself, which he had done more than once.

    Desi had grown accustomed to the dilapidated state of the industrial district of Shota. Why it was the entrance to the imperial capitol, Desi did not know.

    Most buildings across Shota were made of polished stone, marble, or granite. They were painted sky blue, pale pink, or tints of lime green. These colors were, according to the people who lived in them, supposed to make the city appear cheerful.

    Desi felt sickened at such colors, the same sickness she felt from eating too many sweets. She felt comfortable around the other buildings; the ones the city didn’t care to upkeep. The ones made of wood. The ones slowly being replaced with more expensive buildings.

    Her school was one such construct of dilapidation, pieced together with dark greys into two classrooms: one for the students fourteen and older, where Merin was sent just this year, and the other for the younger students.

    The School of Life Principles, Behavior, and Beliefs, stood on a raised platform, with a door on each end, and a porch, eight steps high, that split off to the classes.

    The red-haired numbskull who pulled Desi’s hair stood at the top of the steps with his friends, awaiting Desi’s arrival. With a big black circle around his left eye he said, “I can’t believe they’re letting this freak back into class. Ought to lock her up with all the other nutcases.”

    Desi slouched as she stepped onto the porch to avoid this kid. “Can’t say that in front of the teacher?” she muttered.

    The zit infested child stuck his foot out and tripped Desi, prompting his friends to point and laugh as she fell onto her face.

    Desi turned over to assault the instigator, but noticed the older students’ teacher step out onto the porch. Even as the bullies kicked her books down the steps, and continued to call her names, the teacher minded his own business as if nothing was happening.

    “Speak up if you got something to say! Where’s your sister, huh? Huh, blue haired freak? No sister here to protect you?”

    The miscreant turned his hands into fists and gestured with a threat that he was going to punch Desi. Without standing upright, Desi crawled down the steps to retrieve her books.

    “That’s right, back away. You’re just a coward!”

    Desi ignored the bully, gathered her books, and then entered the classroom, keeping an eye on that teacher who remained absentminded.

    Desi sat at her assigned desk, the one in the back of the class and closest to the door. The rest of the students could sit wherever they wanted, but the teacher directed Desi to the chair that was easiest to send her home. It had the added bonus of the students getting free range to pluck Desi’s hair, kick the back of her chair, and whisper rude remarks, all without the teacher believing any of it happened.

    Mrs. Everberry, Desi’s teacher, a thin, graying, shrewd woman, started the class with math lessons, a subject Desi wasn’t interested in.

    Without provocation, a girl with perfect, silky, long black hair, who sat in front of Desi, turned to her and whispered, “Word is your hair is falling out. Must be all that soot from the factories. Why don’t you just get out of the city and live in the swamps with the rest of the crazy people?”

    Desi sneered at this girl and wanted to punch her in the face.

    The girl turned with a smile at her insult. She thought of some other clever quip and whispered, “You should get a wig. No man wants to love a bald woman. Personally, I’d choose gray, to match that dirt rag you call a coat.”

    Desi had her fist ready to pound into the back of this girl’s skull, and was stopped only when her sister whispered to her.

    Desi looked over her shoulder and saw that Merin peeked through the door. “What?” asked Desi. “Now isn’t a good time.”

    “We’re going to get back at zittacular for ripping your hair.”

    “Now? It’s the middle of class,” said Desi.

    Merin, as usual, gave no answer and put her plan into action, fully aware that Desi’s thirst for revenge boiled over this morning and had to be satisfied.

    Desi followed her sister as they crept behind the rows of desks, their footsteps so light that none of the students noticed.

    “And A plus B equals C,” said Mrs. Everberry, drawing letters above the numbers, further confusing the students. She had her back turned to the class as she continued the lesson.

    The sisters crawled to the far side of the room, and their bodies were caught in the sunlight through the windows. Some of the kids turned their heads and snickered as Desi and Merin inched along and reached the teacher’s desk.

    “Top drawer, get the scissors,” whispered Merin.

    The teacher’s desk was situated so that she could keep an eye on the entire class, especially the front door.

    Desi slid the drawer open. Mrs. Everberry hadn’t noticed her. She pulled the scissors out and closed the drawer. The sisters crawled to the back of the classroom, and then down the row where the bully sat.

    Desi needed no further instructions, and at this point she didn’t care if she got caught, for the teacher was too far away to stop her now.

    Desi snatched the bully’s hair, pulled his head back, and laughed as she snipped his hair once, twice, and then a third time.

    “Mrs. Everberry!” cried the student behind the bully. “Desi’s cutting Chris’s hair!”

    Chris pulled himself from Desi’s grasp and shoved her into the desks, causing her to fall to the floor. The students stood from the wreck and backed away to the walls. The bully readied his foot to stomp Desi’s stomach when Mrs. Everberry yanked him away.

    “Ms. Baron!” cried the teacher. She snagged Desi’s wrist, swiped the scissors, and dragged Desi to the front of the classroom. “I’ll teach you to cut off another student’s hair!”

    Mrs. Everberry gripped a ruler from the chalkboard and held Desi’s hand on her desk, the teacher’s other arm acting as a vice grip.

    Slap!

    The teacher smacked the ruler against the backs of Desi’s hands. Slap! Slap! And then eight more times for each inch. “You’re lucky I don’t use a yard stick!”

    Mrs. Everberry shoved Desi’s face onto the table, picked up the scissors, and proceeded to cut off locks of her hair.

    “What are you doing!?” screamed Desi.

    Mrs. Everberry didn’t answer. With each cut – there must have been a dozen – Desi’s hair fell onto her tattered boots.

    “Stop that!” cried Desi.

    The teacher didn’t stop. Desi’s cheek was soaked in a pool of tears as the class laughed at her humiliation. Her hand and eyes were red, and a pile of her rough hair sat on the floor, which was the only place she dared look.

    “Stand up,” said Mrs. Everberry. When Desi refused, she pulled Desi’s head back. “I said stand up!” The teacher shoved a broom against Desi. “Sweep it up, and then sweep up the rest of the mess you made while I write a letter to your mother.”

    Mrs. Everberry opened her drawer and pulled out a quill, ink bottle, and a piece of parchment, slamming each onto her desk. “This is the last time for this! I am through with your antics, young lady. You and that sister of yours,” she said, eyeing Desi above her glasses.

    Desi cried as she slowly swept her hair into a pile. She glanced around for Merin, but her sister had left the classroom as soon as Desi was caught. Some of the kids had returned to their desks, while a few stood snickering and whispering insults about Desi. When the teacher handed Desi the letter, she knew it was time to leave. She grabbed her shoulder pack from her desk, realizing that her revenge changed nothing.

    Though Desi would love to have gone off anywhere but school or home, she felt embarrassed at the state of her hair and the dirt running down her tear covered face.

    When she gently opened the front door to her home she walked slowly past her mother, and tossed the parchment onto the table near the fireplace, hoping it would fly into the flames. She threw herself onto her bed.

    Raine picked up the letter, and read it to herself:

    Ms. Desi Baron’s complete disregard for the safety of her fellow students has gone too far! This time, she convinced herself to retrieve a pair of scissors from my desk, and mutilate a boy’s hair! I‘m aware that doctors have attempted to correct Ms. Baron’s insane outrages, but I am now forced to request the assistance of Dr. Sal, the foremost expert on Extreme Childhood Misbehavior! He shall visit on the day before the next school week begins. Ms. Baron is not to return to class until these outbursts are eliminated, she is deemed no longer a danger to others, and has proven she can be a normal person!

    Raine folded the letter. She opened a cupboard near the stove, and placed the parchment on a stack of other papers. She turned to her daughter and said, “Now you’ve done it. The school doesn’t want you returning—”

    “Good, I don’t want to go back to that cesspool of morons.”

    “You have to go to school.”

    “Says who!?” cried Desi, her face buried in her pillow.

    “It’s just the way things are,” sighed Raine.

    “Isn’t that typical,” muttered Desi.

    Raine sat next to her daughter and removed her shoulder pack for her. “I know why you did what you did, but you still shouldn’t have done it,” she said. Desi shrugged, curled up, and turned further away from her mother. “Getting revenge just hurts more people than have already been hurt.”

    Desi muffled a response that sounded like, “What about when I’m hurt? Why don’t people think about that?”

    “I’m sure they do,” said Raine, comforting her daughter. Desi didn’t buy it. Her mother’s consoling didn’t compensate for the pain and humiliation she felt today.

    Raine wanted to mention the doctor, but thought it would be best to let her daughter rest before bringing that up.

    Desi refused to acknowledge when Merin returned from school, and Raine decided not to start a conversation. Their mother began to prepare dinner.

    Merin tossed her shoulder pack onto her bed, and then sat with her legs crossed, looking at her sister. “Yer still crying about this?”

    Desi turned her head away from Merin.

    “I’m not bothered by it,” said Merin.

    Desi turned to her sister. “It was your idea,” she muttered. “We didn’t have to do that. We could have waited to get back at the little jerkface.”

    Merin shrugged. “I wanted to make an example of him.”

    “The teacher made an example out of me!” cried Desi. Raine dropped a pot in the kitchen. “You just ran off. Where were you?”

    “I’m sorry?” said Merin, sure that she couldn’t have done anything after that.

    Desi rubbed her face on her blanket to wipe the tears away. “It’s not your fault the teacher didn’t punish him for what he did yesterday.”

    “I saw that shiner you gave him. That was one hell of a punch.”

    Desi cracked a smile and giggled. Her thoughts brought her back to reality, and she asked, “Why do the kids have to be such jerks,” though it wasn’t the first time she had asked that question.

    Merin just shrugged. “I just ignore them,” she said.

    “It’s easy for you. You’re taller than most of them, and you have dad’s hair. I’m just too different.”

    “And you’re complaining about that?” asked Merin.

    Desi paused to ask herself if that was how she really felt. “Nope. No I’m not.”

    Raine dried her hands on a towel and said, “Why don’t you two go out and play for a bit? Supper will be ready in a couple hours.”

    Desi and Merin sprang from their beds, and just as they ran out the door, their mother called out, “Don’t leave the city! Be back before dark! And stay away from the market!”

    – Chapter One –
    Operation Steal a Map

    Captain Whiteboot was a seasoned master of the seas, trickster in trade, and a cunning swordsman. His reputation to escape precarious situations preceded him, even though it was often his fault for putting his crew into those predicaments. Today, this pirate would discover a path to treasure more valuable than gold, and start a new adventure for his crew.

    The commander of a galleon ship stomped the paved road through the Shota Bazaar, the busiest marketplace in the empire. “Why can’t we find a big score of treasure?”

    Sandoval, the captain’s third in command, at half his height, tugged on Whiteboot’s coat to get his attention. “Captain, captain,” he said.

    “Aye, what do you want now?”

    “What about that stall over there?” asked the man who mopped the decks. He pointed to his master’s right and continued, “Maybe he has something rare, or maps at the back of his shop.”

    The sea master gazed upon a stall with tattered rugs, cracked vases, ladders with missing rungs, and too many trinkets he did not feel interested in. “I don’t see any treasure,” Whiteboot said.

    Sandoval sighed. “You’re not looking hard enough. There,” he said, stretching out his arm to point behind the merchant. The captain hunched down and planted his cheek on the side of the swabbie’s arm, and saw the box of scrolls.

    “Me thinks that man won’t have a map worth the coin we’d pay for it.” He wasn’t impressed by the merchant either, who was only three feet tall, sat on a five-foot stool, wore a rag over his body, and looked like he could use a bath. Whiteboot finished with, “Don’t look like he’s got much worth sellin’, either, but I suppose anything is worth one look, or two, or seven.” The head pirate and his swabbie strutted to the stall. When they arrived at the counter they heard the merchant hum a tune they had never heard before. “Arrgh, you awake?” Whiteboot asked.

    The merchant snapped out of his trance. He focused at the six-foot-five pirate, and said, “Ah, welcome, welcome to my shop. You are my first customer of the day.” The merchant hopped off the stool to approach Whiteboot. His head barely poked above the counter and he said, “You look like a man who lives for adventure.”

    Whiteboot was pleased to hear that someone in this mall of swindling knew what he stood for. “Aye, and a wee bit of treasure, too. What do you got that would interest a man of my, shall we say, nefarious status?”

    “Treasure you say?”

    “Only the fishiest, uh, finest, treasure shall do for this captain.”

    The merchant darted his eyes back and forth across the crowd. He curled his finger toward himself to motion for the captain to lean in, for he had a secret to tell him. Whiteboot obliged and leaned over the counter as the merchant whispered, “Have you heard of the fabled unicorns? They are alive, and I know where to find them.”

    “You mean the unicorns that were wiped out a hundred years ago?”

    “Yes, yes, the very ones. Please, please, keep it down, though,” the merchant said. Sandoval stood on the tips of his toes and lurched his ear toward the conversation. “I have a magical map here of the East Isles. It will let you through the storm that surrounds the islands, and guide you to the exact location where you can find the magnificent horses.”

    Whiteboot slammed his palm onto the counter, and without question, he said, “I’ll buy it!”

    “But, captain, you don’t know how much it costs.”

    Whiteboot pushed Sandoval’s face from the counter. “Don’t matter. Let me see it.” The greedy pirate held out his hand for the map.

    The merchant, who was no fool to common tricks, cleared his throat, held out his hand, and said, “One-hun-da-red gold.”

    A hundred!?” Whiteboot complained. He jerked his hand away from the counter. Though he was shocked by the price tag, he leaned down to Sandoval and whispered, “Do we have a hundred gold pieces?”

    Sandoval lifted a leather sack from his belt, opened it with two fingers, and then looked inside. He shook his head and said, “We don’t have enough.”

    “How much do we have?”

    Sandoval looked into the sack to recount the gold, and answered, “Thirty.”

    The once clever captain hung his head, turned from the merchant, and left the stall. “Not a man alive today has seen a unicorn,” he said. “Having just one, its blood, its horn, or its fur, would be a wondrous treasure that ought to fetch a high price.” The captain looked to the clouds for an answer and asked, “Thar must be a way, right?” The heavens gave no answer, but a glimmer and a glint sparkled in the sea captain’s eyes.

    “You’re not thinking of stealing the map, are you, captain?”

    Steal? Why would pirates — ahem — of course we would. Even in the empire, pirates must hold themselves to a lower standard! The question is, how would we do it with all these people around?”

    “We could return in the middle of the night and break into his stall.”

    “No, no. If that map is as valuable as he says, he’ll keep it on him. After meeting us, there’s no doubt in me mind he’ll protect it with his life.”

    Sandoval held up his finger, for he believed he had another brilliant plan, and suggested, “You can hold him at sword point and demand he give us the map.”

    “With all the guards on patrol? Use your head, Sandoval.” Whiteboot planted his palm on the top of the swabbie’s noggin, and used him as a crutch as he contemplated alternatives. “Now, if I were a pirate trying to steal a map…”

    “You are.”

    “Let me do the thinking, you do the agreeing.”

    The conspiring crusader spotted another merchant who was selling robes, tunics, dresses, and all manner of garments. There were wigs, makeup, and shoes, as well, in this man’s stall. “Me thinks me gots it.”

    “Gots whats?” Sandoval shook his head. “Got what?”

    Whiteboot began walking toward the merchant’s stall. “Follow me,” he said, and the obedient poop deck cleaner followed his captain’s orders.

    The clothing stall was filled with racks, shelves, and crates of linens and threads. The merchant was well dressed in a buttoned-down coat and a top hat, and his voice had a pleasant, excited tone. When he finished helping other customers, he turned to the captain and said, “Ahoy, matey.”

    Whiteboot planted his hands on the counter and said, “I’m here to purchase some of yer fine clothing. Something i-n-c-o-n-s-p-i-c-u-o-u-s, if you know what I mean.” The merchant didn’t have time to put those letters together for Whiteboot interrupted with, “Something for me, and something for a lady friend.”

    “What lady friend?” Sandoval asked. “Captain, we don’t have any lady friends. What about the code?” He held his finger up to recite, “Code number sixteen: ‘A lady has no place on a pirate ship.’”

    The merchant raised an eyebrow and asked “Pirates?”

    “Pay no attention to him.”

    “Well, uh, I can tell you are quite the tall man, but tell me, what is the height of this lady friend?” the merchant asked. Whiteboot held his hand above Sandoval’s head; the stumpy man didn’t notice. “I think I have just the thing,” the merchant said. He turned around to a rack of hanging dresses.

    “A blonde wig,” Whiteboot added.

    The merchant let go of a short blue dress. “Wig, sir?”

    “Yes, for the lady friend.” The conniving captain tapped his right index finger on the counter and looked at Sandoval from the corner of his eye. “She’s a bit insecure about her, shall we say, current presentation.”

    “Ha! Oh, yes, ahem, excuse me. I have just the one.” The merchant walked around the dress rack to look through a crate of wigs.

    “What’s the plan, captain?” Sandoval asked. Whiteboot leaned down and whispered the plan into his ear. “I’m going to what?”

    The merchant reappeared from behind the dress rack and carried in both hands a blonde wig, complete with pigtails tied by purple bows. “This shall be an excellent wig for the lady,” he said, and handed the wig to Whiteboot. The merchant clasped his hands and asked, “How about a blue coat for you, sir? It’s the latest fashion, as you can see.” The merchant pointed out that most of the men in the bazaar were, indeed, sporting a coat of similar style and color. Whiteboot’s official pirate trench coat made him stand out like a bandit. The merchant handed him a blue coat, with gold buttons and trim, and it was just the right length to cover his current outfit.

    “I don’t like where this is going, captain.”

    The merchant returned with a purple dress patterned with yellow flowers, and Sandoval groaned at the thought of wearing this garden. The merchant put the clothes into a pile and said, “All together that’s thirty gold pieces.”

    “Captain, that’s all we got.”

    “Pay the good man,” Whiteboot said, with one arm already inside his new coat.

    Sandoval tossed the sack of gold into the merchant’s open hand, and then dragged his feminine costume off the counter. He struggled with the dress, barely able to slip it over his head, and then secured the wig around his bandana. “It’s a little tight around the neck.”

    “Quit yer aching.” Whiteboot turned to the merchant selling the map and noticed he was on the stool, and had returned to a deep trance. “You remember what to do? Don’t screw this up.” Sandoval nodded. “Good. Commence operation uh… uh…”

    “Steal a map?”

    “Gullible Sap!”

    Sandoval skipped along the road with a dainty grin, his pigtails flailing and flipping in the air. He tripped, fell forward onto the ground, and began to cry. The meditating merchant opened his eyes and found the hurt little girl just outside of his stall. He couldn’t help but run to console her and ask, “Are you hurt?”

    In the girliest voice Sandoval could imitate, he said, “I’ve lost my daddy. Do you know where he went?”

    “You poor girl. Maybe I can help. Where did you see him last?” Sandoval pointed northward, and the merchant saw his hairy arm. “Your arm seems a bit, uh, well, never mind. Have I seen you before?”

    The masquerading man lowered his chubby head to his chest and pulled the pigtails around his face. “No,” he said, his voice muffled. “This is my first time here!”

    “I could swear…” The seller of fine wares rubbed his fingers along the length of his chin. “What does your father look like?” he asked, walking to the center of the road.

    As Sandoval kept the merchant occupied with changing descriptions, Whiteboot tiptoed into the merchant’s booth. The swabbie glanced at the men in the bazaar and answered the merchant, “He uh, wore a long blue coat.”

    “I see lots of men wearing blue coats. What else can you tell me about your father?”

    “He has white—brown hair.”

    Whiteboot fumbled through the scrolls. “Not that one,” he muttered, and dropped it on the ground. “Not that one.” He chucked that scroll over his shoulder and it landed in the next stall.

    Sandoval bawled into his hands and cried, “I won’t ever find my daddy!” The merchant almost turned to his shop, but Sandoval snagged his attention by crying louder, “I’m lost! I’ll never see him again!”

    The merchant put his hand on Sandoval’s shoulder and patted it as he said, “There, there. Don’t cry. We’ll find him.”

    “I’m so lost! I’ve never been here before! It’s such a big city!”

    The thieving captain unfurled a map. “Thar it be. I’ve been by there before,” he said, recognizing the location. The map he unfurled had a red circle around a set of small islands. “The East Isles, huh? Just southeast of the continent.” The captain stuffed the map into his pocket, and then turned to leave. A loose thread on his coat snagged the head of a nail on the merchant’s stool, crashing the wood furniture into his wares, shattering vases and jars on the floor, and as Whiteboot fell forward, he took the tent down with him.

    “My stall!” The merchant cried as he ran to the mess. When the pirate captain emerged from the wreckage, the seller of not so fine wares shouted, “Stop! Thief! Thief!” This drew the attention of the guards.

    “You can’t stop me!” Whiteboot secured his hat on his balding head, and laughed as he and Sandoval ran to the port. “Whoooo! C’mon, Sandoval! To the ship! We got your map! We got your map! The treasure’s as good as ours!” The pirates shoved their way through the crowd, and the guards and the merchant lost sight of them.

    The merchant reached the port, and halted when he was shocked by the size of Whiteboot’s ship. The harbor could hardly accommodate the vessel, and the multitude of pirates aboard intimidated the merchant and the guards from boarding to arrest the thieves. Sandoval, who got lost in the crowd, sprinted past the merchant, and joined his crew.

    Whiteboot said, “Good job, Sandoval.”

    Sandoval panted as he caught his breath, and said, “I’m surprised it worked.”

    Of course it worked. Me plans always work!” Whiteboot turned to his helmsman, the man who steered the ship, and said, “Samson, we be headed to the East Isles, post-haste!”

    Samson said, “We have to stop by Mint Island and stock up before we even think of going anywhere else. Our delivery is due, and well, supplies and gold are running low.”

    “Aye, ye be correct.” Whiteboot looked at Sandoval and said, “Take that dress off. Thar be no ladies on this cruise.” Sandoval tossed the dress onto a chair. The captain stepped to the rail of the top deck, raised his saber to get the attention of his crew, and said, “Straight to the East Isles!”

    “Mint, the Broke Kingdom, then the isles,” Samson said.

    “Well who makes these plans?”

    “You do, captain. You do.” There was silence for a moment, and then Samson continued, “Give the order to set sail.”

    Whiteboot’s crew was half asleep, half busy, but all doing nothing much of importance. “Alright!” Whiteboot shouted, and raised his saber again. “Anchors aweigh!” Commanded by their captain, the crew ran back and forth across the deck. Three men lifted the anchors, and a handful of pirates pulled the ropes to unfurl the sails, filling them with the breeze from the port. Samson turned the vessel southward, and the pirates were off on another treasure hunt.