The King’s castle stands alone atop Grand Ur Mountain, but even that does not match the solitude surrounding Princess Ali. With a carrot-shaped nose, she trudges through her princess duties with the most unfortunate face. With her pet greybar (a creature with the head of a greyhound, body of a polar bear, and wings of an eagle) as her only friend, Ali dreams of becoming a beautiful princess.
When Cory, a ninja-in-training, drops through the royal chimney, he does not intend to enlist the help of anyone, much less a girl, but she holds the key to the Creator’s map. The ancient map marks the secret hiding place of the magic Wishing Ring, a ring grants the wearer one wish.
Cory’s mysterious need for the ring and Ali’s dream of a beauty send the pair to a forgotten land. Only the war ravaged clan of Odana can translate the map’s key. But even if they manage to find a translator, the question remains—can they beat the Ogre who guards the ring?
Did she dare? No, she didn’t. But she really wanted to.
Princess Ally tugged a small wooden box beneath the castle’s window. They might see her. Oooh. With a stomp of her slippered foot, she spun around and sat on the crate. Her chin sunk into her palms as a whiff of something delicious flitted through the window. Cooked pork, yeasty breads, and baked pies—pumpkin if she wasn’t mistaken. She had to peek. It was Market Day, after all.
She climbed upon the crate and lifted her eyes above the sill.
The noise alone made her curious. Shouts and squeals, from human and animal alike, filtered through the iron bars of the open window. But the sights beat it all. Chicken feathers flew among the scampering children. Women in torn sackcloth sold wares to ladies in silk and satin dresses. Men, with long swords at their hips, strode down the alleyway snapping a wayward child with the flick of their hilts. Tables and clothes lined the cobblestone where merchants of all ages shouted the glory of their wares. Oh, what she wouldn’t give to be able to move freely among the stalls.
“Gold. Gold and silver. Gold and silver jewelry for the fine ladies,” one hawker called from behind his table. Though his voice rang clear, no one stopped at his station.
“Fresh chicken. Slaughtered and feathered while you wait,” shouted another.
This time two women in fine dresses stopped at the butcher’s table. One lady wore a dress of yellow silk with a high waist and billowing sleeves, while the other wore a dress made from pink taffeta with a slim-fitting bodice and yards of lacing around each wrist. Their voices didn’t carry to where Ally stood watch, but she imagined them bickering over the price. Back and forth, it would go until the oldest woman would win her chicken, slaughtered, feathered, and dressed. That was the way with women of stature. They got what they wanted.
Except for her. Ally doubted she’d ever get what she wanted. She never left the castle unless her parents, King Admis and Queen Elaina, forced her. Even then, she hung back, preferring to hide behind her mother. Not because she was a coward. No, she loved adventure, or at least she thought she did. Mythical creatures and magical lands that thrived beyond the castle walls fueled the dreams that woke her each night. But being a princess, especially one with such a notable nose, didn’t come without a price. Adventures were the things ordinary people did. Her life revolved around royal matters, like choosing the right linen for Izzy to make into a glorious gown or sitting for hours like a candlestick while dignitaries visited Mother and Father—both of which bored her to pieces.
Three boys walked beneath her window. Princess Ally drew back so they wouldn’t see her. They were joking about the events of the day until one of them spoke her name.
“Can you believe the size of the princess’ honker? Bigger than any fish in the market place.”
“Shhh,” a second boy hissed. “Do you want someone to hear you? The king’ll have your head for that.”
“But it’s true. Bigger than a broomstick. I tell you. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The boys below broke into fits of laughter.
Ally flinched with each name she heard. Though it hurt, she had vowed long ago not to take revenge. She could tell her father about the boys—and they were not the first she’d overheard—but what good would that do? Not only would the boys’ lives be in danger, but it would only embarrass her family and remind them of her unfortunate face.
Hopping down from the crate, she shoved it toward the wall where it broke into bits against a jutted corner. Then she ran her finger down the center of her nose. Her father said it matched that of her great, great-grandfather, but somehow it fit his large face much better than hers. At least that’s how his portrait looked. On Ally’s face, her nose was too long. Not just an everyday long nose, hers was the size of a full-grown carrot, sprouting from the middle of her face. She hated the thing. Scratch that, she despised the blasted thing. How could anyone love a girl with a vegetable growing on her face?
She pulled a daisy from a nearby vase, leaving the container to wobble and totter. Steadying it, Ally plucked a petal from the flower in her hand and ground it between her fingertips.
“No one loves me,” she said as she dropped the petal remains to the stone floor. She plucked a second blade from the flower and wandered down the castle halls.
“Someone loves me. Even if it is the cook.” Mmm, roast chicken and turnips—her favorite. She raised a corner of her mouth, but the smile never reached her heart.
“Darling?” the king called.
Ally leaned through the great room’s archway and gazed at her father. Seated on his carved oak throne, King Admis drummed his fingers on the armrest. Pinkie, ring, middle, index, repeat. The royal signet ring cast sparks of golden light across the room while his fingers tap, tap, tapped away.
When she glanced up, his hair swayed, moving as if he had just pulled his hand through it. And a frown drew the corners of his mouth down, like the heavy tassels that adorned the wall’s tapestries. But when she looked into his eyes…
“He loves me,” she whispered as she pulled one more petal. His eyes, the color of storybook seas, smiled at her.
“Good Morning, Daddy.” She studied the lines that marked his forehead. They looked like the plow rows she remembered from an old agricultural text. “You look serious. Maybe this will make you smile.”
She handed him the injured daisy.
He smiled but did not laugh. Odd. He always laughed at her jokes, even the bad ones. The deep, throaty sound could shake the frames of his ancestors’ portraits hanging along the great room’s walls.
“You are too kind, my dear.” He dwarfed the daisy in his hand and brought it beneath his nose.
“Nah. If I were kind, I would have given you a whole flower. But I gave you half, so I'm only half kind.”
“Where, pray tell, is the other half?” he asked.
“In Isabelle’s dust pan, by now.” She giggled.
“Eh-hem.” Jasper, the king’s advisor, stood off to her father’s right. The sight of him startled Ally, since she could usually smell him a room away. Like the dusty tunnels beneath the castle, Jasper always stunk like a thief, but her father hung on his every word. Why, Ally could never tell, so she kept her distance and avoided the advisor whenever she could. Not today, though. He stood feet in front of her and smiled his gap-toothed grin, smelling ordinary, like damp stone with a hint of root vegetable.
“Sir, we should be preparing your things,” he said to the king even though he kept his eyes on Ally.
Squawk, cried the parrot that lived on Jasper’s shoulder. “Maw-waw. Maw-waw,” it called.
“What did he say?” Ally asked.
“Nothing, Your Highness. He’s just imitating some sounds he’s heard around the grounds.” Then Jasper placed his gnarled fingers on the king’s backrest. “Sir. Time is of the essence.”
The king rested a heavy hand on Ally’s head and stroked her curls before his face grew serious once more. “Darling, the queen and I must visit your uncle in Allenton.”
A chill settled in her bones, all the way to her core. “And I…”
“…will stay home with Wakoshoo and Isabelle,” he finished.
Relief filled her as she let her gaze roam to the far corner where her best friend in the entire world curled onto the floor rug. Wakoshoo was a greybar, the guardian creatures from a land to the north. He had the head of a greyhound, body of a polar bear, and wings of an eagle. When he stood, he towered over Ally by several inches, and when he shook his body, white tufts of thick fur would fly through the room like snowflakes. One growl could send a stranger running but to Ally, one nuzzle could right her world.
“You will need to greet the villagers at the annual Harvest Festival, two days after the morrow,” the king added, calling her attention back to his throne.
Ally’s heart stopped, and then it fluttered and flopped against her rib cage. Anything, but that.
“Wouldn’t Jasper be a better choice? I don’t think I could—”
“You must,” he said. “The villagers will be expecting a member of the royal family to open the event. Since neither your mother nor I can attend, you must do it in our stead.”
Fear rose like Cook’s tonic to the back of her throat. Could she do it? Face the entire kingdom? Alone?
No. No. This wasn’t supposed to happen until her Teenth Celebration, the festival that ushered in her thirteenth birthday as well as her royal duties. That was months from now.
“Please, Daddy, I haven’t reached my Teenth year. Maybe I should wait? Surely Jasper would accept the privilege.” Her voice squeaked against her throat as she gestured toward Jasper’s retreating shadow.
The odd sound drew Jasper’s attention, and he turned to stare at her while he seemed to listen for the king’s answer.
“Darling, I know this is hard for you, but it is your duty as the princess. Jasper will do all the speaking. You need only stand beside him on the balcony and wave at the people below.”
With that, Jasper left the room, and Ally imagined a hundred faces leering at her from the village square. A hundred voices calling her names and risking their lives as they did so.
Her father pulled her into a bear hug and rested his chin on the top of her head. For a moment, the faces and taunts faded into the shadows of her memory, replaced by the smell of wool and lamb chops. When he raised her chin to look at him, his eyes did not shine. Instead, they dulled like an overused graphite stick.
“We must go, and you must stay. Your uncle is in trouble, and it is not safe for you to join us. Besides, you are the Princess of Ur. It is your duty.” The king stepped back and straightened his robes. “It will be one viewing, one simple hand-wave that is all.”
Ally's breath caught in her throat. She bit her lip to stem its trembling.
“You can do it,” he said.
“What if they make fun of me?”
His voice turned stern. “They wouldn’t dare.”
Yes, they will. They do, but I never told you. I couldn’t tell you. She wanted to scream or run or both.
He slid his finger along the sharp point of her nose and kissed the tip of it.
“I love your little carrot,” he said in the soft voice she’d heard him use only with her.
Even that didn’t make her insides unknot. Ally stepped beside him. With a click of her tongue, she called Wakoshoo from the corner. In two quick strides, the enormous beast stood shoulder to shoulder with her. She wove her hands through the softness of his fur, and he leaned against her gently as if he knew she needed him close.
She gave one quick nod to let her father know she would do it. Without looking back, she marched toward the archway, bringing Wakoshoo along beside her. She couldn’t bear to see the disappointment she imagined upon her father’s face in the wake of her less than excited answer. She stopped at the door, not because she had a change of heart, but because her mother, the queen, stood in her way.
Ally gazed into her mother’s eyes. “Must you both go?”
But her mother looked firm when she cupped Ally’s chin in her hand. “By the time I was twelve, I was queen. One week as a princess shall not be too difficult for you.” Then the queen released her grasp on Ally’s face and straightened the folds of her own gown. “Now, help me assemble my things, darling.”
There was no arguing with the queen. Ally hung her head and shuffled to her mother's chambers as Wakoshoo plodded down the hall behind them.
Her mother’s door stood ajar, opening into a room twice the size of Ally’s and painted the color of the July sky. Servants twirled around her mother's room like ballroom dancers, gathering clothes, shoes, hairbrushes, and jewelry. Woven tapestries thumped to the beat of the wind while gauzy drapes sashayed about her mother's poster bed. As Ally grabbed a crystal container off her mother's vanity, the silver stopper slipped free, releasing a lavender scent. It filled Ally’s senses and brought to mind a world where she could move about freely, unnoticed like the maids.
Her father's hand fell on her shoulder, startling her from her daydream. He bent low and whispered in her ear, “I know you will do just fine—no matter what.” Then he straightened to his full height, at least three times hers. His gaze roamed the room until it settled on her mother. “It is time to leave, my queen.”
When he turned back, Ally peeked at him through veiled eyelashes and pursed her lips. Chuckling, her father kissed her good-bye.
A flurry of servants worked around the king and the queen. They pulled trunks and crates from the hall to the doors. Caught in the rhythm, Ally moved from the bedchamber to the front room. She stopped just inside the grand entranceway and stared out at the lawn. What would it be like to be normal? To walk out those doors and not be watched like a princess—a princess with an overly long nose.
“Sweetheart, I will miss you,” her father said before he picked her up and set her atop a high pedestal. “Remember, you are stronger than a few words or stares.”
“Now, come walk us out,” the king said as he placed her back on the ground.
Ally shook her head, but his hands held her fast as he guided her toward the open doorway.
“Daddy!” she cried.
“Good-bye, my sweet. Time shall pass. You will see.” He smiled and disappeared into the sunshine.
If time were the only problem I faced…
The queen held Ally’s gaze. “I shall think of you often, my dear.” For a moment, it looked as if she might kiss Ally. Instead, Ally flung her arms around her mother and buried her nose deep in the fabric of her mother's gown, inhaling the scent of purple blooms that hid in the folds.
“My lady.” Her father's voice echoed through the foyer.
“I love you, Princess.” Her mother's breath ruffled through her hair.
Then the king and queen were tucked away in the gilded carriage that disappeared from sight as the servants pulled the great doors closed. They were gone.
Ally turned on her toes and sprinted to her bedroom. She slammed the door behind her, leapt onto her bed, and laid her watery face in her coverlet. I will not address the kingdom. Ever.