Most of his ride to the castle was fast and uneventful.
Too bad he had to face a reminder of what he had lost – of all the times he had been there with his father, discussing about the bright future he had in mind for Martino; scenarios that always included a pretty and loving woman by his side - every step of the way.
And that no matter how hard he tried to push Chicco, the poor horse still couldn’t make it to the capital in one day. Martino had to stop for a few hours to let him some rest, and regain the use of his own legs.
The inn was small and quiet, attended only by some late night travelers – who were in such a rush that they simply couldn’t afford to lay down and sleep, and yet had some time to spare for a beer and a chat – and a beautiful bartender.
She had to be the woman Eva and Fede often talked about, in hushed voices full of reverence and awe. The one who fought the big bad wolf and tamed it, and now ran a wild beasts sanctuary next to her Grandma’s house. The one they nicknamed ‘Red Riding Hood’, due to her red headscarf.
Every now and then, a man would approach her and try to take it off. Asking to check if she really had snakes under that thick fabric.
This went on for what felt like hours, while he sipped the strongest drink she had. He thought that maybe it would make him sleepy, but of course it only got him a headache and lowered his tolerance for bullshit.
“Leave her alone, would ya?” Martino mumbled, seizing the jerk’s wrist. Although she looked relatively unbothered by those assaults, he had to intervene. “If the lady wants to keep her head warm with that scarf, that’s really none of your business. You should be thankful she can’t turn you to stone with a glance and walk away…”
“Or what?” He hissed, trying to hit him with his elbow but missing. He didn’t know whom he was dealing with, evidently: a master of dodging who would never tire out. The man was distracted enough that he didn’t notice the lady grabbing his pint until it was too late and she was already pouring the beer on his greasy hair.
“I expect you to pay for that and leave, now. Or you can forget about your audience with the Prince.” Did she really have such a powerful ally, or was it just an empty threat?
“You… You can’t… Why would he even listen to you?” The brute stuttered, obviously regretting his despicable behavior.
“Uhhh… But I can. And he would listen to me because he owes me. You must have heard about that rumor too, I guess. How a certain friend persuaded Eleonora to see reason, to admit that our roads are safer because of him…” She barely had time to finish her sentence before the guy ran off, with his tail tucked between his legs. Amazing.
Good news: he wouldn’t be mugged anywhere in the realm, thanks to Edoardo’s iron fist on criminality. Bad news: he had no idea how to get an audience with either him or the princess.
Asking the bartender was an option, but she had been glaring at him ever since her assailant had left the inn, muttering under her breath “I didn’t ask for your help” and “It’s a ‘hijab’, not a ‘scarf’”.
“Look, I am sorry I mentioned the rumors about you turning people to stone. And that I tried to pick a fight with that dude… I was raised to intervene whenever I saw someone in need, which you clearly weren’t, since you’ve been working here long enough to known better than me how to handle those assholes.” He said, hoping that his apology would be accepted.
“Wow, someone sure is begging for my forgiveness…” She huffed, seeing right through him. “But that was good to hear and who cares if it didn’t really come from the bottom of your heart. It’s still more than most people, especially men, would do… They would try to bribe me, offer a little fortune for a few good words, rather than admit that they were wrong. So tell me, what do you need from Edo and Ele?”
Sana was blunt, but not unkind. Upon hearing of his predicament, she immediately drafted a letter that would grant him entrance to the castle gardens, where he would find the fair princess.
She had also saved him from asking if Eleonora could bear to part from her whitest rose, as the gentleman who came to her rescue would not accept anything else as a reward.
His quest didn’t sound too hopeless to her ears. Prince Edoardo was a fine connoisseur of music, and a decent singer himself. His soul had certainly been wounded by his treacherous brother, so… As for the giraffes, well, a friend of hers who now lived in the Forsaken Forest – out of the borders of Incanti’s realm, where bandits still roamed free, of course – might be able to lead Martino to them.
Granted that those weird animals truly existed and the amazing drawings she received weren’t merely the product of a delusional – yet very talented, indeed – mind.
“He’s a bit weird…” One had to be, to leave the comfort of their home to go and live on trees, there was no denying it. “… but he’s not crazy. Or delusional.” Sana insisted, sure that if he said that he had seen them, then it must be true. “Trust me.”
And so he did. It wasn’t like he had much of a choice, right?
Unfortunately, she couldn’t pinpoint where exactly he could find him.
“I suppose I could go around the woods calling his name. He’s gonna answer, eventually.” He told her, as he got ready to leave.
“You do that. Take care, alright?” They parted shaking hands, swearing they would never cross paths again if they could help it.
It truly was a small world, wasn't it?
When Martino had been asked to empty his satchel and show its contents to the guards, something inside Elia’s sketchbook had caught their attention. That, coupled with the letter Sana had sent him, had lured the princess out of the most secluded corner of the garden.
She had been tending to her plants, refusing to meet anyone, ever since her brother had ran off with a boy he once saved from drowning. Skinny-dipping while being completely wasted did sound like something Elia would do, so Marti wasn’t really shocked to hear that Filippo had to jump in and save him.
Finding out that the knight with the pink hair and pierced lip, the very same who had flirted with him and then claimed he didn’t fancy gingers when Martino had turned him down, was a prince… That was surprising.
“So he didn’t find just one, but two boys who wouldn’t throw themselves at him… It must have been such a massive blow to his ego.” Eleonora remarked, with a small smile on her lips. They had been walking through the gardens for quite a while, in silence, before he told himself that if this breathtakingly gorgeous woman was a friend of Sana then she surely valued people with a blatant disregard of the etiquette.
He hadn’t been wrong. He could understand, now, why so many missed having an opportunity to talk to her. She wasn’t just a good listener, but she weighted her words and always knew what to say. Or when it was better not to say anything. A bit like Giovanni, in a sense.
“And I guess Edoardo was right to blame that beer… All it took was one sip, and then my brother was like ‘I have to find that loud and inappropriate dickhead, and tell him he belongs with me’.” A lot like Giovanni, down to his foul mouth when the situation required it.
Wait, wait, wait. Rewind, please. Did she just mention Peccio’s beer?
How did Filippo even end up with a bottle of that shit? A present from Luchino, before he left for his honeymoon?
‘You need something to remember me by, while I am gone.’ He had said, handing a penguin feather to Martino.
Which turned out to be the only thing he could use to cross out ingredients from the magic parchment, after Eleonora had cut the whitest rose in her garden and carefully placed it in Marti’s bag.
The more they talked about those two, the more they missed them and it wasn’t long before she ordered one of her soldiers to take him to her betrothed’s quarters.
“I would ask him for that curl myself, but then he’d start thinking that I’m either planning something to get rid of that hideous hair or that I changed my mind and fallen in love with it… No way I’m risking that for a virtual stranger...” She excused herself, retreating to her safe place.
“Not even if one of my best friends could turn out to be your future brother-in-law or something? We are nearly family, your Majesty! ” He teased, wishing to lighten up the atmosphere.
“Not even then.” She yelled back, sounding quite amused by his absurd remark.
“I heard you managed to make her smile, if only for a little while.”
No time for pleasantries, Edoardo went straight to the point as he let in the inconspicuous traveler who had performed such a miracle.
How did he do it? How did he manage to approach her, in the first place?
Did his hair remind Ele of the handmaid she had a fling with, before said servant went back to her wizard and Eleonora got engaged to the realm’s most wanted bachelor?
Could this be enough? No, of course not.
Being almost a brother to that woman, and an ‘almost friend’ of Filippo, on the other hand…
What were the odds of meeting someone like this tramp?
It had to be fate who had led him right where he was so deeply needed, and Edoardo wouldn’t waste his chance to make his fiancée happy at last.
If only he could get some advice on the matter…
“It’s the magic of Luchino, I guess… Nobody can listen to his endeavors and keep a straight face. Or it might have been hearing about how stupidly in love Elia and Filo were right from the moment they met, though they would refuse to admit it.” Martino replied, instinctively.
Realizing that answer would not get him neither the curl nor the song, he thought back to what Giovanni would usually do to cheer Eva up. To ask for forgiveness. One thing immediately popped up in his mind, but he supposed talking to the prince about going down on her soon-to-be-wife was a one-way ticket to the gallows.
Anything but that should be fine, however.
“But if one doesn’t have a Luchino, and find themselves out of Elias and Filos as well... He needs to find something else. I cannot tell you what, exactly, because you know her better than I do… But it won’t be roses. Or emeralds and pearls.” Items that been carefully chosen as presents because of her red lips, her green eyes and porcelain skin. Not necessarily a bad idea; some girls liked a man paid who knew how to properly pay homage to their beauty. The Princess didn’t seem to be one of them, not to Martino.
On the other hand, if he could persuade Edoardo to sing his heart out... They would kill three birds with one stone, wouldn’t they?
It was worth a try.
“… I mean, I might be sorely mistaken but she doesn’t strike me as someone who finds comfort in those kind of gifts. Perhaps your Highness could show her that he is now family too, somehow? Through a play, a poem, a…”
“What about a song, instead?”
It worked. In spite of some questionable lines, in which Edoardo admitted that he was a creep and a weirdo, Eleonora loved the tune and agreed to spend the evening with him at the ball. Usually, she would show up merely for the first dance – skipping the dinner, which made the prince worry about her precarious health – and then disappear. And now… Now she was sitting on a sofa, laughing and enjoying a massive bowl of pistachio gelato.
Good for her.
Not so great for him, since the music box Giovanni had bewitched to record the song did react to it but then a small message appeared on the chipped mirror.
‘This melody is nice, indeed, but the song of a wounded soul is what you need.’
Damn! What, exactly, was he supposed to do? Ask to Their Highnesses to look for the most wounded ‘soul’ in the realm and have them sing before the box until it would, eventually, pick up on a sorrowful piece that fit the spell requirements? Moreover, what good would it do to talk to useless piece of wood, in an empty bathroom?
‘That would take you too long, I am afraid. A different arrangement must be made.’ The mirror answered, unexpectedly. It didn’t offer any alternative to his plan, though.
Martino wanted to feel disappointed, really, but soon after the fiasco something else caught his attention.
An unexpected guest had entered the ballroom. As required by the dress code, he was wearing a red mask that covered his whole face. Only his curls – should he ask him for that lock of hair, instead of Edoardo? – and eyes were visible, and yet… He found himself intrigued by this visitor, with eyes of the most unusual color he had ever came across. Were they grey? Hazel? It was so hard to tell…
Was the music still playing? He couldn’t hear anything apart from his own heartbeat. He could hardly breathe, as if he had been running for miles.
Awesome. He had been staring at the newcomer for a while, and the man had noticed it.
Why was he staring back, and walking towards him? Didn't he notice already that he had two left feet, when it came to dancing?
Why was he trying so hard to be smooth and charming that he ended up tripping on a carpet and falling on his face?
Martino felt a pang of fondness for the stranger, as if his clumsiness played on the softest strings of his heart, and hurried to help him up… Only to be stopped by the royal medic.
She had heard of his sickness from both the prince and the princess, and refused to believe that magic was involved.
“I’m sure it can wait until tomorrow, Miss… ?” He couldn’t miss his chance, he couldn’t let him out of sight without even asking for a name.
“Maddalena. No, it cannot wait any longer. I will be departing in a couple of hours; I need to join the Queen on her travels across the sea… Before I leave, however, I demand to examine you. Making sure that your ailment is not in any way contagious is my main concern, I am sure you understand. You have ten minutes.” She looked over his shoulders, to the soldiers standing by the doors. “I am sure you don’t want to be the source of any unnecessary distress to our beloved princess, do you?”
“It’s nothing personal, man.” Someone stated, putting an arm around his shoulders. Martino hadn’t been introduced to him, but he had seen him in paintings around the castle and observed his training with the other knights. It was Federico, the prince’s bodyguard and best friend. “She has been throwing herself into work ever since her wedding has been called off… Can you believe that the groom ran away the night before? He climbed on the nearest tree and then he was gone. That’s why Eleonora thinks a chance of scenery might do her some good… And she was hired by her mother, anyway.”
“I.. I should go.” Martino frantically looked around, hoping he would spot the mysterious man once again.
He was gone.
Why… Why did fate found such pleasure in tormenting him?
Spending the night in Maddalena’s office had not been the colossal waste of time he had dreaded, as she provided him with a new plan.
After determining that his sleeping problems were not related to a physical illness, she apologized for ruining his night and mentioned that a music festival was soon to be held in her hometown.
The fastest way to reach it, however, was through the Forsaken Forest. A dark, dangerous and lawless place where he was likely to be robbed, beaten up and left for dead.
Still, he might die if he didn’t cross that forest so…
“If you’re lucky, you might find Colino to guide you through the woods. He lives there.”
“Niccolò. Nicolino… Colino, you know?” He didn’t know, and ‘colino’ sounded even worse that ‘my little koala’. Straight people were so weird. “Federico told you about him: he’s the guy who was so scared of marrying me that he literally ran for the hills. Or maybe ‘for the trees’ would be more fitting, in my situation…”
He really wished it wasn’t going to happen. This Niccolò sounded like a real douche.
Meeting Niccolò wouldn’t be so bad, after all.
He was alone, lost in the woods and his horse and just ran away.
It was freezing cold, he was bleeding and he didn’t even know if the thugs had indeed run away or they were still lurking in the shadows. He could have killed them, they hadn’t been highly skilled swordsmen like he was – the consequence of growing up with those three idiots, who wanted to be the Kingdom Next Musketeers – but he didn’t have it in him.
He wasn’t like them, and he was proud of it. He wasn’t a murderer.
Martino whistled, called for Chicco until his voice went hoarse. Nothing.
Frightened by the utter silence surrounding him, he started humming an old tune his dad sang to chase the monsters away, until a sudden unidentified creaking interrupted him.
“Why did you stop?” A voice asked, from above.
Among the branches, he spotted a man with a red bandanna.
Oh, well, if he was looking for a fight Martino would made him regret that.
“Why do you care?”