The Tiger-man’s cheeks would have turned red in anger if his dark complexion would have allowed it. “Oh, I could ring that dragon eaten cat’s neck!” He made a twisting motion with his heavily ringed fingers for emphasis. Chu Mana’s snake body curled around the branch if the accommodating tree they lounged in. As they traveled the Between, the Lord and Lady’s paths crossed on their way home from the realm of Arpiar where they had attended the Queen Varvare’s coronation.
With a hissing laugh, she rested her chin on the tip of her tail as one might rest their chin in the palm of one’s hand. “Did I ever tell you he dropped by not too long ago?” The Faerie Lord paused in the midst of curling his mustache with the tips of his fingers, intrigued. “Oh?” He hated the sound of his own voice, rewarding her with curiosity. He should have disinterestedly let her ramble on. “Yes,” She continued. “He paid me a visit a few hundred years ago-or perhaps it was a few thousand? Well, it doesn’t matter. As I was saying. He arrived with a mortal slung seemingly dead over his shoulder, requesting one of my princes to wake her-for she was a princess you see and a filthy one at that! One of my own princes. Luckily, my least favorite of all of them was the nearest one, but now I am quite tempted to swallow him up myself! Ever since that day, he has not drawn breath from croaking.” At this point, Rignaprava had mastered the disinterested air, and continued to curl. “At least you didn’t get your eye cut out of your head.” His passion began to simmer. “I only have one more life to live in my full array of glory! Someday, I will set the Black Dogs on that dratted poet’s back side and have him retrieved for my collection. He is not a prince, but I would be glad to see him stiff and stone, forever to suffer my revenge!” He was standing now, expertly balancing on the thick branch. “If his eyes weren’t already gone, I’d wrench them out myself!” Just the thought of such delicious revenge made him sit down to polish his emerald hilted dagger with his handkerchief. Then he realized it was the same handkerchief Chu Mana had dropped when she was caught secretly inspecting his prince collection for dust during last year’s competition. Quickly stuffing it violently back where it came from, he looked at his reflection in the blade. Chu Mana decided not to chide him about it. After all, he was still suffering great humiliation from losing his eye to a ‘house cat’. Suddenly, he jumped to his feet once again. “And to think he had the nerve to ignore my presence at the coronation! I at least expected him to show some sort of acknowledgement in terror as I walked passed. But no! He simply acted as if I wasn’t there, singing and dancing and conversing without a care!” Chu Mana tsked. “He caused you to lose an eye and a prince. You must not sleep well at night.” There was a hint of condescension that Rignaprava tried not to huff at. “I never sleep!” He said. She did nothing to break the silence, but masterfully maintained a superior aloofness. Even though he lived in constant solitude, the silence that presently flooded the air was unbearable. He changed the subject. “Well, I will be ready for the Goldstone Wood Prince Collecting Competition. Don’t you worry. Oh, no. I’ve got a list of princes I plan on getting and no, there’s no way for you to trick me into hinting to you again. I learned that long ago.” If Chu Man had had a foot, she would have stomped it. “I plan on winning this year’s competition,” he said.
“Alright, but I do claim rights to Prince Gervais of Beauclair. I recently heard he was a charming mortal.”
“Rights!” The Faerie Lord choked out. He mentally kicked himself for not even thinking of Prince Gervais. “Whoever gets him first has rights, I say. And I believe I am to be the more likely of the two of us to acquire him, being fully man you see. No lack of limbs.” Chu Mana scowled viciously at him, and when your bite is poison, it is quite unsettling. It was true. It would be very difficult to catch a prince when you had a body of a snake and no arm or legs. But, she reminded herself, this was all part of the game.
“Well,” said Rignaprava, transforming into a tiger as he leapt from the tree. “I must away. The competition is tomorrow, so there is no time to waste.” His whiskers quivered in their follicles and one thing that he knew was that you must always heed your whiskers. Chu Mana’s glowering stare made him uncomfortable. “Happy prince hunting, Chu Mana.” he swept a huge paw as he bowed.
“And the same to you, Lord Bright as Fire.” She hissed as she turned to snake form. They parted ways, Tiger anxious to capture the prince that would make him win, and Snake who laughed on the inside. Lord Bright as Fire had taken the bait.
The vines whispered greeting to Rignaprava as he strode toward his overrun palace, not bothering to retract his claws from making cruel slices in the ground. His throat continuously rumbled, a singular thought consuming him. Prince Gervais. A Highly valued commodity for prince collectors in the Far World. Who were his other competitors? Well, no one in the history of prince collecting had ever come near to bask in the shadow of his (and maybe Chu Mana’s) achievement. “No one, NO ONE is going to have Prince Gervais but ME!” he roared at the waterfall triplets who laughed at his fury, as they always did. “I must start now if I am to catch him first!”
Then a thought struck him. It made his whiskers curl. Every whisper died at the sight of the tiger smiling, exposing two rows of razor sharp, gleaming teeth. “yesssss,” he said, unaware how like Chu Mana he hissed. Any intention of going after Gervais was suddenly forgotten as Lord Bright as Fire soundlessly stalked out of his realm and into the Between. The tiger devoured the path he was set on with only one thought consuming him: find Leonard the Lightening Tongue.
Chu Mana chuckled to herself in devious pleasure as she was hullooed by her croaking princes. Her undulating body wove between pillars jutting from the swampy mud. Her chuckle grew to a satisfying laugh that out did the frogish choir. Coiling around her favorite pillar, the tallest one overlooking her slimy realm, she hissed through smiling venomous teeth. “Tomorrow I will once again claim victory when the judges see my far outstanding collection. Rignaprava will be so entirely occupied with getting Prince Gervais that he will not think of anything else!” She chuckled again at her own cleverness. “Only I wish those sylphs would make haste and retrieve Prince Lionheart before he reaches the Near world.” Her smiles suddenly turned to frowns and growls that made the nearest frogs squeak in a humiliating pitch that they would later blush over that shamed the name of frog.
Little did Chu Mana know the Tiger Lord was already on his way to find Prince Lionheart.
Rignaprava used his highly sensitive nose to track down the Fool who he knew to be on his way home from the coronation. Leo’s trail was fresher than he’d originally thought. But, he thought, he is mortal. And mortals are always slow.
The tiger chuckled to himself at his own cleverness. Whispers quickly silenced his laughter and caused him to groan instead at the unfortunate fate that he knew was about to befall him.
“Who is that?” “Tiger?” “Let’s pull his whiskers!”
Sylphs suddenly burst from the bushes and created a miniature hurricane, circling around him. Rignaprava made no effort to conceal his deep hatred for the sylphs. Baring his teeth, he snapped at the wind-like limbs and roared ferociously. Like the irritating waterfall sisters in his realm, they only laughed at him and yanked on his sensitive whiskers. “Be gone! Go away!” he growled. They mimicked him in small, giggling voices that infuriated him even more. “Dragon kissed nuisances, GET OUT OF MY WAY!”
“He’s too loud.” “Maybe we should pull his tail to shut him up?”
He broke into a run, not waiting to see if they would follow through with that proposition. The sylphs would have followed, but a familiar voice called to them. Rignaprava stopped short and looked behind him to see Chu Mana emerging from the trees with an angry expression directed toward the sylphs. “What are you doing? I told you to go directly to--” the tiger moved, and she saw him.
“Ah, Lord Bright as Fire. I did not expect to see you in this part of the Wood.”
“I could say the same for you,” he said, noting how her composure slipped for a moment. “What are you doing in this part of the Wood, might I ask?”
She wildly waved the sylphs away with her tail. “Gathering information in my search, as you might expect. What are you doing here?”
“My sources tell me the prince has been traveling on the road to—“a paw flew to his mouth, feigning an accidental slip of secret information. Chu Mana chuckled.
“You know, you never were one to keep secrets.”
“You know, you never were one to keep secrets.”
“I speak my mind. I do hate beating about the bush,” he countered. She nodded slowly.
“Stay out of my way, if you don’t mind.” He added hastily as he turned and trotted out of sight. Chu Mana made sure he was out of ear shot before she turned vehemently to the sylphs. With a savage hiss, she said, “Do you think you have all the Time in the world?” with an undaunted laugh, they said,
“If you don’t retrieve him within the next 12 hours, I will set the Black Dogs on you!” Because the threat of being tracked by the Black Dogs was such an overused expression among the fey folk, the sylphs weren’t much frightened. “No worries!” They said. She was not reassured, but angrily hissed at them again. “Remember your reward!” And she turned back into the wood.
Rignaprava growled a hum to occupy him as he walked. Tracking this mortal was simple and not as tedious as he had anticipated. He noted with a hint of anxiety that, even if Time had no effect in the Wood, the sun would surely be going down in his own demesne. The Competition was tomorrow evening. Not much time to capture a prince who could be possibly guided by the Thrush. The tiger picked up his pace at the thought and tried to decide whether or not he should stop for a few hours to rest. He’d been traveling for at least half the day, and his paws, he was ashamed to admit, were getting a little sore. He sat every few hours, thinking he would rest for a while, but a breeze would drift toward him with Chu Mana’s scent on it, and just the thought of her would urge him on. He would not, could not lose to her again. It would be too much to bear. The humiliation! He stood once more and set his deadly jaw in determination. He had to win! His competitive thoughts were interrupted by a rustling and Chu Mana’s scent was very near. As he suspected, her head appeared in the branches above.
“Lumѐ love me, what is it this time?” He shouted, quite irritated at her persistence to intercept him. He thought he’d sent her on her way after Gervais with that ‘accidental slip’. For a moment, panic seized him and he asked more vehemently, “I say, Lumѐ love me, what is it this time?!” Chu Mana seemed puzzled as well, annoyance written loudly across her pointy features. “Lord Bright as Fire! Imagine seeing you out and about again! Still chasing that prince are you, even in these late hours?”
Rignaprava perceived the roundabout way she answered his question with another question. “Yes I am, as I told you not 3 hours ago. Why don’t you stay out of my way! I am determined to get to him first, and neither you, nor the Wood, nor fatigue will stop me!” He didn’t wait for a response, but turned and bounded away, a race to get the prince, though they did not know they were both not after prince Gervais.
Chu Mana felt a little panicky herself. Prince Lionheart was very much on the way to the Southlands where Prince Gervais was visiting. How on earth was she to secret Lionheart away without Rignaprava’s notice? Especially when the sylphs were determined to not understand the word ‘stealth.’ The tiger would most surely hear them and find out her plan if he hadn’t already.
“I can’t rely on those dragon eaten sylphs if I want to get the prince before Rignaprava sees me. I’ll have to take my chances and nab him myself!” And so she set out, weaving between trees and slithering rapidly along the ground, heart racing.
The Faerie Lord calculated that it must be near midnight in his realm. He groaned. His paws ached and his muscles twitched for lack of water. He consoled himself as he stretched on the ground that Leonard was only a few miles off. He could catch him before Chu Mana saw him and be back just after dawn. He stood once more, his limbs grudgingly obeying his command to walk. With a grunt, he heaved himself into a run again, trying not to think of how tired he was.
Chu Mana’s snake receptors estimated that prince Lionheart was close. Very close. But with horror she realized that so was Rignaprava. Lionheart was still in the Wood, she could capture him before he stepped foot in the Southlands. If she let Rignaprava get ahead, he would leave the Wood long enough for her to get Lionheart before he returned with Prince Gervais. With a sigh of relief, she slowed, rationalizing that she did not need to race to get Lionheart. Rignaprava was after Gervais in the Near World, while she was tracking Prince Lionheart in the Far World. Two completely different locations that would safely separate them. Once she kidnapped the prince, Rignaprava could do nothing as the rule book stated: “Once the prince has been officially kidnapped by his captor, he/she retains all rights of the prince from that point forward.” Chu Mana allowed a smile to spread across her face as she leisurely made her way toward her prince. He would be helpless in her power before dawn!
Rignaprava could feel victory just a mile away. He could also see Chu Mana’s mortified expression when he would win the contest. He forgot his aching legs and spent muscles as his thoughts were delightedly absorbed by his coming triumph. While Chu Mana was stuck with Prince Gervais, that puny, good for nothing mortal, he would bask in adulation, his Winner of the 306th Annual Prince Collecting Competition trophy gleaming in the light. The Fool was only a half mile away now, and the tiger took special care to not crash explosively through the brush. He knew how to be stealthy, and his senses honed into focus. Like an arrow closing in on its target, so Lord Bright as Fire was closing in on his prey.
Chu Mana’s smile twisted into a grimace as the scent of the prince and the tiger were overpowered by the awful scent of…Oh what was that cursed fellow’s name? He wasn’t a gypsy…She tried to remember. A peddler? That was a little closer. And wasn’t he a goblin of some sort? He was a sorcerer or something close to that as she remembered. For at times he wasn’t horribly ugly as all goblins were, which was an accomplishment. But no matter how much enchantment was used, no one could ever disguise that smell.
Rignaprava could see the prince now, stumbling every so often from exhaustion. “He’s probably not as worn out as me!” he huffed, not knowing how the prince had been pierced through by the horn of the Fallen Unicorn, then restored to life again by the Prince of Farthestshore. Dying was not a light thing. And coming back from death was not like coming awake. Dying really takes it out of you, and all the more for a mortal. If Rignaprava had known, he might have found sympathy for him. He knew what it was like to lose one of your lives.
Rignaprava had circled the Fool now and waited for him to walk straight into his clutches. Crouching low to the ground, ready to spring out, he hesitated. Realizing that pouncing on the prince might make him scream and run, he thought it best to address him man to man. “Man to man, ha!” he thought. “More like Immortal Faerie Lord to filthy mortal princeling.” He transformed into his human form, turban and all, and peaked from behind a tree. He suddenly drew back again when he realized Lionheart might recognize him from the coronation. He took his turban off and with great reluctance, he took out his dagger and painfully shaved the mustache from his upper lip. Taking a deep breath and hoping Lionheart had a bad memory, he drew the prince’s attention. “Psst!” He said. The mortal paused mid stride and looked around. Rignaprava quietly and slowly stepped out of the brush, careful not to surprise the Fool. “Hello, mortal,” he addressed him in the friendliest tone he could muster. Lionheart took a few steps back upon the tall man’s appearance. “Have no fear, good sir,” The tiger-man said casually.
Lionheart’s head pounded. Where have I heard that voice? He thought. The man’s dark skin and green accented attire made the prince sure he’d seen the man before. It was on the tip of his lightening tongue.
“I have been sent by the new queen of Arpiar to escort you back to her realm.”
His heart skipped a beat, just before alarm bells went off in his head. Rose Red? She’s asked for him? “Does she wish to speak to me?”
There was something savage in the man’s eye as he said, “Yes, and her Majesty wishes for you to accompany her for dinner this evening.” Doubt crept into Lionheart’s mind. Rosie was still shocked from the last few days’ events and it was not like her to seek anyone’s company during a time of recovery. Well, she would perhaps seek Beana’s company, but that was a big improvement from himself, he thought…And that voice was so familiar.
“Well?” Rignapava tried to maintain his syrupy tones to disguise his usually thundering voice, but his patience was wearing thin.
“Um, do you have any official, say, papers or a ring perhaps?” In the prince’s experience, his men always wore some sort of badge to signify their official authority.
The man’s voice snapped. “Because the Queen has only been Queen for a few hours, she has not had the time to devote herself to such frivolous matters!”
“I see…what was your name again?”
Rignaprava brushed the matter aside. “Names are not important. Now come with me.” He made a move to grab Lionheart’s arm, but the prince took a step back.
“Names are very important, especially when dealing with royal business. Just give me a name and I will be satisfied.”
“Fine! All right! My name isss…Ragniflabbin. There. Happy now?” Again he reached out.
Rignnaprava then knew he’d made a mistake. The name he’d made up was far too close to his real name, dragon’s teeth.
“Ragniflabbin. Ragniflabbin…Where have I heard that? Ragni--” The tiger man seized Lionheart’s arm and began to drag him away from the path he was on.
“You let me go right now, or I will have your Queen banish you! Unemployed!” He added the unemployed part unnecessarily as his arm was verily wrenched from its socket. Just as Lionheart thought it would be twisted from his shoulder, his captor stopped suddenly, causing the prince to crash into him as one might crash into a brick wall. Chu Mana’s snake form slithered from the line of trees just behind them. For a moment, Rignaprava was too angry to speak, but he recovered quickly.
“Chu Mana!” He gasped.
“Rignaprava!” She hissed.
Rignaprava!” Leo squeaked.
“IT IS LORD BRIGHT AS FIRE TO YOU!” Why couldn’t people address him by his proper name? First the poet, then the snake, and now the boy. Was there no end to their disrespect?
“That’s where I’ve heard your voice…” Leo then realized how he first met Lord Bright as fire. How terrified he’d been of that monstrous tiger. Now he was too tired to be terrified. Getting stabbed by a unicorn never really made one want to leap about with bravado. He just hoped he wouldn’t get turned to stone again.
“I found him first, so I legally have all rights to him!” said the tiger man, cutting off the circulation from Leo’s arm.
“You have no idea how much effort I put into getting him! Sleepless nights, and, and, and SYLPHS!”
“Effort schmeffort, I say. I’ve got him, and you can’t stop me-”
A horrid scent filled the faerie’s olfactory sensors as Torkam emerged from the trees, whistling merrily as though he didn’t have a care in the world.
“Hello my lord, lady, and-” he paused at Lionheart. “sir.”
“Be gone, we don’t want any of your tricks.” Chu Mana spat. The goblin held up his palms to quell their suspicions that he was there to confuse everything with his illusions. “I am not here to sell you anything, although I do have some lovely ointment you might like to try, in trade for only-”
“Let me guess,” cut in Lionheart, “Some hair from our heads?”
“No need to be bitter, princeling. I have to make my way somehow.”
“GET ON WITH IT!” Boomed Rignaprava, on four legs now, in his tiger form. It took Lionheart a moment to realize his arm had been released.
“All right, all right. I am here simply to inform you that, after over hearing you for the past mile or two, the Prince Collecting Competition has been cancelled this year.”
“WHAT!!?” Thundered the tiger.
“What?” Seethed the snake.
“What?” Yelped the prince.
“It is true. Judge Denellio is getting married or something to that affect, and all his fellow judges have been invited.”
Lionheart thought it best to take advantage of his would-have-been-his-collector’s distraction. After the Prince of Farthestshore knighted him, his mind was rather dazed by the whole ordeal, and if it hadn’t been for the cloudiness of his mind, he might not have been so calm. Though tweaking the goblin’s nose might have made him feel better for all the trouble he had caused him, Lionheart thought it best to find an escape from this tangled mess. Creeping toward a pathway that had suddenly opened up before him, Lionheart heard a faint silver voice coming from above. Looking into the branches, he saw a wood thrush and knew he would be safe on his journey home.
“You mean to tell me that we travelled all this way, and went to all this trouble for nothing?” Chu Mana towered above Torkam, hopefully sending fear rattling through his bones. He remained undeterred, however. “That is what I am telling you. Everything has been cancelled. You would have seen the message left for you if you hadn’t been at the coronation.”
“And we’re supposed to just take your word for it?” Rignaprava scoffed at the notion. It was widely known that next to dragons, Torkam was least of all to be trusted. “Well, I don’t see what else you are supposed to do, seeing as your prized prince has disappeared.”
They looked around and, to their horror, saw no sign and smelled not a scent of the prince.
Chu Mana coiled and hissed with all her worth. “Dragon’s teeth, tongue, tail—“
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