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Cinder & the Prince of Midnight

Susan Ee

  Cinder & the Prince of Midnight

  Susan EE

  Feral Dream LLC

  No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

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  This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

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  Copyright © 2019 by Feral Dream LLC

  All rights reserved. For information, contact the publisher at:

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  ISBN-13: 978-0-9835970-3-2

  ISBN-10: 0-9835970-3-0

  Books by Susan EE

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  Midnight Tales novels - fairy tales, Susan EE style:

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  Cinder & the Prince of Midnight

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  Penryn & the End of Days series - world-wide bestselling series. Post-apocalyptic adventure with angels and fallen:

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  Angelfall (book 1)

  World After (book 2)

  End of Days (book 3)

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  Don’t miss a new story from Susan EE!

  Sign up to hear about her stories at:

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  www. S u s a n E E .com

  Chapter 1

  Cinder ran for her life under the full moon.

  She sped through the trees, jumped over streams and climbed over rocks, all the while panting so loudly that she was afraid the entire forest would betray her. Barely out of girlhood, she had had plenty of practice running and jumping, but nothing had prepared her for this.

  Behind her, she could hear the hounds baying and barking. The hooves of horses clattered behind her. The men were in no hurry, other than for the sport of it. She had seen some of their warhorses decked out in bells and gold trimming with heavily embroidered bridles. It was as if the lords were about to go on a parade through the town.

  Under the moonlight, they had looked as handsome as heroes of old riding in to save the damsel in distress. When she’d first seen them gathering outside the castle walls, she’d thought they were here to stop the hunt. For a moment, she thought she and the others had been saved.

  But as soon as one of them leered at her, she knew she was mistaken. These noble-looking men were the hunters.

  She thought she could hear the screaming of a wraith horse so close that her heart skipped a few beats. She imagined a wraith horse rearing up in the air with its flaming mane and tail. But she knew the hunters only rode ordinary horses. Wraith horses were rare and not likely to be wasted on such easy prey as chasing down girls like her.

  Cinder ran up a hill and took the risk of turning to see how close they were. Below her, the dogs were crossing the stream. Only a few steps behind them, the first hunters rode out of the trees on their warhorses. They were laughing, these men of the dark realm.

  She spun to run but stopped short, startled. A pair of huge eyes flashed in the moonlight ahead of her.

  She jumped in fright and almost screamed before she realized that the eyes belonged to a girl. The girl looked as startled and terrified as Cinder. There was a moment of relief when each realized that the other wasn’t a hunter but a hunted like herself.

  They both silently looked away and ran in different directions. This was Cinder’s first hunt, but she shared the sense of desperation with the other people who’d already been through this before.

  The ground on the hillside was slippery with dead leaves, and Cinder kept slipping. She tripped on her dress and fell, painfully landing on her knees against a fallen tree. She wanted to rip the cloth and shove it away, but it was the only protection she had against the world. She grabbed it in both hands and ran.

  The hounds must have caught the other girl’s scent, because their barking veered off in the direction of the other girl. Cinder couldn’t help but glance back.

  All she saw was a forest of shadows. The full moon streamed down in broken beams through the trees.

  A horse crashed through the underbrush behind her. Cinder spun to see a horse rearing up near her.

  She took two steps back and tripped. The scream of the horse was defending, but it wasn’t a wraith horse, just an ordinary horse. She took courage from that.

  She scrambled onto her knees and was running before she was properly on her feet.

  “There you are.” The rider sounded drunk. And far too close behind her.

  A huge weight thunked onto her back as he landed on her. She crashed down hard on her chin and arms.

  Pinned under the weight of a fully grown man, her skinny muscles were no match for him.

  But she wouldn’t give up. Couldn’t.

  He put his thick, slimy lips to her face. She turned her head enough so that he ended up licking her cheek. She turned her face and bit into his jowl.

  Somewhere in the nearby trees, a girl’s scream echoed through the night. Men laughed in the shadows somewhere in the distance.

  Her attacker turned angry. He slapped her. Then he made a fist and pounded it down toward her face.

  She jerked her head out of the way. His fist landed hard against the rock that was beneath her head. He howled in his pain and fury.

  She twisted, kicked and squirmed with as much force as she could. Just as she was about to slip out from under him, he grabbed the neckline of her dress and ripped it down.

  Until then, she had been terrified. But now, anger boiled up, mixing with the fear.

  She groped in the dirt and grabbed the first thing she could hold. A rock, solid and round. She pounded it with all her might against the attacker’s head.

  He gave a surprised grunt and rolled partway off her.

  On pure instinct, she hit him again with the rock.

  He grunted again, and this time, he lay still. It was as if he was asleep except for the trickle of wetness from his head.

  Had she killed him?

  She shoved his legs off her and scrambled away on her hands and knees. She looked at the rock still in her hand. She hadn’t noticed before how sharp it was. She had blindly grabbed a rock by the rounded side and hit him with the sharp edge.

  There was blood on that edge.

  She dropped the rock and stood on her feet. He could get up any moment and attack her again.

  The hounds were barking, closer now. Had they found the other girl?

  She turned and ran, leaving the man bleeding on the forest floor.

  Chapter 2

  Cinder wandered for hours, trying to find her way out of the forest of shadows. She’d sometimes hear the hounds barking or men shouting excitedly. Sometimes, she heard screams. Horrible, wretched screams.

  But she stayed hidden and kept moving, knowing that eventually, she’d find the edge of the forest. When the tree shadows finally thinned and she began to hear the lowing of livestock, she almost cried in relief.

  She stumbled out of the forest, feeling like she’d just clawed her way back from the dead.

  By the time Cinder limped back to her house, the sky was beginning to glow red from the sunrise. Her knees were skinned and bleeding. Her dress was in tattered ruins. Her hair was so tangled that she thought she might have to cut it off.

  Cinder cried when she saw her house. Big, heaving sobs as she watched the sun rise over her once-happy home.

  She stood by the haystacks, a field away from the edge of the woods. That forest used to be an enchanted place of make-be
lieve in her earlier years. The years when her papa had kept the darkness of the rest of the kingdom away from her life.

  But things had changed. The forest was now a terrifying place full of nightmares and monsters. The home she had dearly loved was dominated by a woman who sold her to the hunt for shopping money.

  Cinder wanted to run away and never come back. She wanted her father back. And she wanted to be the girl she once was before she left an unconscious man bleeding in the dark forest.

  Cinder sat and cried for a long time, wishing for a different life. But eventually, she came to the conclusion she always did. There was nowhere else to go. The only way out of the Kingdom of Midnight was through the forest. Only a few knew the way out, and they weren’t allowed to talk about it without permission of the Dark King himself.

  Even if she knew how to leave the kingdom, she had no one else to go to other than her stepmother.

  When Cinder limped into the house through the kitchen door, there was fresh bread and milk on the table. That was unusual.

  The scent of freshly baked bread wafted to her nose. On any other day, she would have gobbled up the treat. But today, she didn’t think she could stomach it. All she wanted was to sleep for a week.

  She walked like an old woman up the stairs to her tiny attic room. It was too early for anyone to be up, so she wasn’t surprised that she didn’t see anybody.

  When she got to her room, she stopped. There was a dress on the bed. It was mended and colorless, but it would replace the one she was holding together against her chest.

  Helene had known what would happen.

  She knew that if Cinder survived the night, her dress would be ruined. Helene knew all the horrible things that could happen to Cinder in the forest at night with those horrible men who were supposed to be heroes on their steeds.

  She would have wept some more if she hadn’t been so drained. Instead, she shoved the dress to the floor and slept like the dead.

  The next day was an unexpectedly easy day for Cinder. She couldn’t remember Helene leaving her alone for a full day before. She saw her, of course, and she still had her usual chores to do, but her stepmother didn’t speak to her and wouldn’t meet her eyes.

  Helene had also refused to look at Cinder yesterday when she had dropped her off at the hunt and taken a bag of coins in exchange. The woman had simply turned her back and walked away while Cinder begged her not to leave her there.

  Cinder didn’t know exactly what would happen, but she had heard whispers of the hunt. Everyone knew about it, even if no one talked about it in polite society. But today was different. Today, everywhere she turned, someone was talking about the hunt.

  Cinder walked through the open stalls of the market, trying not to look at anyone. It was a shameful thing to be one of the people in the hunt. Even the little ones sometimes threw rocks at those survivors. And now, Cinder was one of them.

  “Did you hear? A girl killed a hunter last night.”

  She looked up. Two merchants spoke in a normal tone of voice, which was unusual when it came to the hunt.

  “I did hear. But I heard it was a wild fairy who mauled him.”

  The first merchant lowered his voice. “That was just a story the man’s family put out to try to stem the embarrassment.”

  “But the body was mauled, wasn’t it? I heard his arm was chewed off.”

  The first merchant raised his eyebrows. “Some say it was the girl.” He nodded knowingly.

  “The girl?” The second merchant’s eyes were huge. There was a spark of excitement. He swept his eyes through the crowd in the market as if he was imagining meeting that very girl right here.

  Cinder turned away before he could see the guilt in her face.

  She walked over to the flower stall. Her stepmother liked fresh flowers in the house whenever she had guests over. The stall was full of bright colors that smelled of honey and summer.

  Her stepsisters, who unfortunately had come with her today, were whispering about the man who had been murdered. Tammy said he had been ambushed by a gang of girls in the woods. But Darlene said it was a pack of wolfkin led by a girl. The story seemed to get bigger by the minute.

  “It’s about time,” said Silver the flower grower.

  The flower vendor had silver hair like her name, and her stall was the only one in the market that sold flowers, the rarest of commodities in the land. Some said it almost took magic to grow them in the kingdom since the Dark King took over.

  “What’s about time?” asked Tammy.

  “That one of those girls stood up to those horrible men.” Silver clipped hard with her grandmother hands. She arranged flowers beside her granddaughter, Ruby, who clipped the needle-sharp thorns off long-stemmed roses.

  Anyone could sign up for the hunt. The hunters paid for “volunteers” to be hunted. Desperately poor people sometimes signed up for the money, but more often, people signed up someone else they had control over. The hunters paid more for girls, so there tended to be more of them.

  “They’re just disreputable girls,” said Tammy. “It’s their lot in life to serve.”

  Cinder wondered if her stepsisters knew that their mother had sold Cinder into being one of those disreputable girls.

  “Yes,” said Darlene. “The lords get their natural aggression out of the way with them so they can be perfectly gentlemanly to us ladies.”

  “Ooh.” Tammy held up an orchid. “I should like this one. It matches my dress.”

  “That one’s not for sale,” said Silver.

  Tammy looked perplexed. “Why would a flower peddler not have one of her flowers for sale?”

  “This one’s for sale, though.” Silver picked up an especially thorny rose and thrust it at Tammy. “It’ll go lovely with your disposition.”

  Tammy raised herself to her full height and looked down her nose at Silver. “You are an obnoxious, offensive woman. I’m going to tell Mama to never give you another coin again.”

  She turned and huffed off. Darlene snickered as she followed her sister.

  Silver sighed as she put down the thorny rose. She gave Cinder a hard look. Ruby, who was a couple of winters younger than Cinder, looked up and gave Cinder a shy smile.

  “Here, child,” said Silver. “You look like you could use this to brighten your day.” She handed Cinder the orchid.

  Cinder shook her head. “I don’t have any money.”

  “I didn’t ask for money. I told your nasty stepsister that it wasn’t for sale, and it isn’t. It’s a gift.”

  Cinder took the orchid. “Thank you.” Her voice trembled. “It’s been a long time since someone has been kind to me.”

  “Quit feeling sorry for yourself. It does not become you. You are a strong girl, just as your father was a strong boy. He made something of himself from nothing. None of us had anything during the war or after. But your father, he was both clever and strong. You have his blood running through your veins. Be proud of it.”

  Cinder tried not to let her lips quiver over the kind words. “I miss him.”

  Silver sighed. “When I was your age, I was already fighting in the war with both knife and sword. You think you have it tough? I’ll tell you who has it tough. The girl who killed that lord during the hunt, that’s who. She was probably only a slip of a girl with no choice but to defend herself. You could learn a thing or two from her.”

  Silver turned and began clipping her flowers as if she was still fighting the war and the flowers were her enemy.

  Chapter 3

  The next day, her stepmother’s guilt had passed and Cinder’s life was full of urgent chores that garnered nothing but complaints. The days passed by as she scrubbed the stairs and beat the carpets while her stepsisters took piano and dance lessons.

  Cinder did her best to forget about that night of the hunt, but it was hard with everyone gossiping about it. She had nightmares of being caught. Sometimes, her nightmares included the Dark King’s men dragging her out of her house while sho
uting accusations of murder.

  A couple of days after the hunt, the kingdom was abuzz with the news of the Dark King laughing when he found out about the nobleman who was killed by a hunted girl. He found it so amusing that he declared that he would personally participate in the next hunt.

  Suddenly, the hunt that had been a sordid open secret in the land was becoming the height of fashion. The dead man’s family was so incensed with the embarrassment that they put a bounty on the girl’s head.

  “You’d better behave and be extra good, Cinder,” said Helene as she clasped her new pearl necklace around her neck. “That bounty is worth more than ten of you. I doubt anyone would believe that a ratty little thing like you could possibly accost a nobleman, but if you try me, I may lose my patience and try to sell you to them for half their bounty.”

  For a heart-pounding second, Cinder thought that Helene knew the truth. But if she had sniffed the possibility of money, then Helene would never have turned back to her mirror the way she did. Cinder put her head down and scrubbed the floor, hoping that her stepmother would move on to another topic.

  “Perhaps I’ll get lucky,” said Helene, “and you’ll be the one to injure a lord on the next hunt. One can only hope that you’ll earn your keep one of these days.”

  Cinder stopped scrubbing and looked up at Helene.

  “Next hunt?” Cinder felt haunted by the thought.

  “It does happen at every full moon, you know. Mouths must be fed. And young girls need to at least try to earn their keep in this household.”

  “Mama,” said Tammy as she flounced into the room. “My ribbons are so old and faded. Must I be embarrassed every day by the poor quality of our silks?”