Ellie and the Prince (Faraway Castle #1)

Ellie and the Prince (Faraway Castle #1)

J.M. Stengl

Ellie had just entered the castle lobby when her wristband pager sent a tingle of magic up her arm. She checked it then hurried over to Faraway Castle Resort’s front desk. “I’m here, Sten. What’s going on?”

The dwarf perched atop a stool behind the desk looked up from his own wristband in surprise and beamed his friendly smile. “Good morning! Glad I caught you before you left the building. A hobgoblin just tried to steal a cake from the kitchen. The brownies snagged him.”

A minor event. Ellie relaxed. “Geraldo, no doubt. Did the cake survive?”

Sten’s eyes twinkled. “Sounds like it escaped injury, but a few of the brownies got scratched.” Sten, like all dwarfs working at the castle, wore a glamour that made him appear human to unmagical guests. Ellie barely noticed the glamour. Her friend was middle-aged with gray in his beard, but his dark eyes were bright and young.

“This shouldn’t take long. See you later!” She pushed away from the desk, took a service elevator down to the basement, and entered the huge kitchen, where brownies swarmed in a flurry of breakfast clean-up and lunch preparation. Despite their frenzied labor, not a speck of dirt marred the flagstone floor, and delicious scents wafted to Ellie’s nose. Dark wooden beams supported the kitchen’s low ceiling, and half a pig roasted over the huge open fireplace. It might have been a scene from centuries past but for the gleaming cookstoves, stainless-steel sinks, granite countertops, and a restaurant-quality dishwasher. Here the brownies produced fine cuisine for large crowds of discriminating resort guests three times a day. Magic was decidedly involved. The room fairly buzzed with it.

“Is Geraldo here?” Ellie asked a passing chef.

The brownie looked way up at her, his dark eyes huge in his small face. “They chased him up to the dining hall, ma’am. Our cake survived the attack.”

Ellie nodded, trying not to smile. “I’m glad to hear it.” To a brownie, the loss of a cake to a hobgoblin would be akin to murder. No matter if the sweet was created only to be eaten; hobgoblins had no right to any dessert intended for castle guests.

She hurried up the back service stairs and entered the formal dining hall directly. Sunlight angled through a bank of windows facing the lake, glinting off the polished silver coffee set on a side table. No guests were present, but brownies scurried about, already laying fresh tablecloths and setting tables for the noon meal. Near the dumbwaiter she spotted Geraldo, his spindly arms held fast by a brownie on each side.

“Thanks for waiting patiently,” Ellie addressed the brownies. “I’ll take care of him now.”

They released Geraldo, bowed respectfully, and returned to their regular duties. Brownies seldom smiled, yet they were cheery creatures who delighted in housework of all kinds. Ellie couldn’t comprehend the appeal of menial labor, but she was grateful. Who wouldn’t appreciate such diligent, flawless service?

Geraldo hunched, arms crossed over his chest.

Ellie sat cross-legged on the parquet floor and focused on the scowling hobgoblin, ignoring the quiet bustle around them. “I’m disappointed, Geraldo. You know very well that guests will drop plenty of cake crumbs on the floor after dinner this evening,” she said. “The children never fail you.”

His scowl deepened. “Crumbs, pah!”

“You are ten inches tall. You don’t need an entire cake.”

“I want it anyway,” he mumbled. Although wizened, toothless, and unimaginably old, Geraldo thought and behaved like a child. When Ellie first arrived at the castle six years ago, the scowling, grouchy hobgoblins had frightened her, but before long she’d realized their dramatics were only for show. The silly creatures insisted on wearing colorless rags no matter how many new garments they were offered, all for the sake of claiming ill-treatment.

She focused on producing a calm, soothing tone. “I don’t want to call for the Gamekeeper, but I shall have to if you start stealing entire cakes. The director will insist on it, and what a shame that would be!” She didn’t have to fake sincerity, for she was fond of the grouchy hobgoblin despite his sulks and threats. “Please try to be content with the crumbs that fall tonight. We have many active and messy children with us this month, you know.”

He nodded grudgingly. “Very well. I’ll wait for my cake. But if no crumbs fall tonight, I make no promises about tomorrow.” He glared up at her over his long, hooked nose. “You can stop bewitching me with that voice of yours, missy.”

“Speaking of children,” a shrill voice interrupted, “I must tell you something important, Miss Ellie.”

She turned to see a slim brownie in a maid uniform gazing up at her. Even seated on the floor, Ellie loomed over the brownies and hobgoblins. “What is it, Sira?”

Sira twisted her apron between long-fingered hands and bobbed a curtsy before speaking. “Just now, some of us saw the Zeidan children sneak cinder sprites into the castle and head upstairs. Their nanny was nowhere in sight, and the royal parents are at a lecture today. I would have tried to stop them, but you know how angry Madame Director is if we brownies show ourselves to guests, even children!”

“How many sprites?” Ellie asked, already rising and prepared to run.

Sira shrugged her tiny shoulders. “Four or five? It was a whole litter, and the mother too.”

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