The evening was full with noises. Birds chirping, field mice rushing about, the sound of a branch breaking under the weight of its own leaves. The slow rustling of the trees. The sound of his hooves moving through the dirt.
She never came back. Flin had no idea how long he had waited for her, but it had to have been hours; it was evening when he finally stepped outside. He’d heard her talk through the walls at first, but then the sounds had faded and he guessed they’d gone somewhere else. Kena would come back for him. She always did.
But she hadn’t. When the skies had already started to change color, a servant came out politely asking him to leave. He’d asked where Kena was, and the servant said she’d had a long talk with her mother and that she was so tired that she’d gone to bed. So please go home, the princess was fine, and thanks for your concern.
Which was bloody brilliant. She had promised to come back to him, hadn’t she? And then she didn’t. Of course he understood that talking to her mother would take time and with everything that had happened they probably had a whole lot to talk about. But couldn’t she have spared him a moment to tell him that all was fine and that they would talk later? Then at least he wouldn’t have spent his entire day waiting!
“Flin.” He startled. He hadn’t noticed his father approaching him on the forest road. He was pulling the cart with bags of flour and fresh fruit on it. His father’s white mane were cut neatly, and he still looked clean from his visit. But his eyes were dark and his expression grim.
“Oh no. The delivery.” He forgot. He had completely forgotten about the delivery to the Anas manor, a little further away.
“Indeed, Flin. The delivery. Their servant actually showed up this afternoon asking why they hadn’t gotten their order yesterday.”
“Oh, dad, I’m so sorry, it’s just, something happened and…”
His father shook his head. “Flin. I don’t want to hear it. It’s probably to do with the princess again, right?”
Flin looked down. He didn’t have to answer. His father knew already, anyway. Kena was the only reason he ever forgot anything.
“Look Flin,” he said as he walked closer to his son, “I know you’re friends with the princess. And for a long time, I figured it was fine. You were kids. But you’re of an age now where you’re no longer just friends with a girl, and especially not the third daughter of the High Queen. I know the girl keeps seeking you out, but you have to start keeping your distance. Because sooner or later she’ll realize who she is and who you are and you will both end up getting hurt.”
“But dad, I-”
“Son. You don’t have to tell me what happened. And we’ll talk about how you dropped your chores later. But promise me you’ll think on this.”
Flin sighed, thinking back on the hours he had spent alone in the waiting room. Every sound had made him jump up, thinking it was Kena coming back for him. But it never was her. She hadn’t come back for him. She had come running when she needed him, but then she’d gone and abandoned him when she had found her own courage. Which he’d helped her find.
A sour taste filled his mouth. He knew his father was right. She was a princess. He kept telling himself that, but Flin wondered if he’d ever realized what that meant. And that business with the cats… He was way better off not knowing.
“I will, dad. I will. And I’m sorry. It shouldn’t have slipped my mind. I shouldn’t have dropped it all when Kena came running. Can I help you now? It’ll go faster with the two of us.”
His father smiled as his muscles relaxed. “Thanks, son. I’m afraid I’m not as strong as I used to be.”
Flin took over the cart and started pulling it up the hill. The mansion was the house closest to the castle and inhabited by cousins of the queen. It was a little further than the castle, and he knew it’d be almost midnight before they’d be back home. He shouldn’t have forgotten.
“Were they mad?”
“They were not pleased. Obviously. But we’ve always brought their goods on time and I’ve never had a single complaint. I’m sure we can work this out.”
Flin smiled, promising himself then and there that he’d apologize profoundly. That he had messed up was bad enough, but he didn’t want his father to lose clients over it.
During their trip to the mansion his father told him all about his visit to the village, and his new client. Apparently somepony wanted to open a classy restaurant in the village, because a lot of wealthy ponies lived close by and he thought it’d be good business. To have his produce come from the same place as the castle would of course make the restaurant even more attractive to rich folk. Not for the first time, his father said they’d have to hire somepony to help them next year.
When they finally arrived at the mansion, it was already quite dark. The lights in the mansion were on and his father knocked uncomfortably, not at all used to having to knock. Usually there was a pony or two outside. To their surprise, it was the lord of the mansion himself who opened the door, son of the High Queen’s aunt. He was the steward of this region.
“Oh. It’s just you,” he said, “I’m sorry. I was expecting company.”
“My lord. My apologies for not delivering your goods yesterday. Something important came up and it completely slipped my mind. It should have never have happened. Please accept these goods for free as our apology. It will not happen again.”
“Oh, pishposh, young man. Your family have always served us well and you’ve never been late. I insist on paying you. You need it more than we do. I will send a servant to help you unload your cart. I am sure your goods are as delicious as ever.”
Flin bowed slightly for the man. “Thank you, my lord. Your words mean a lot to me.” The man nodded at him and walked back inside. A few moments later a servant boy showed up, still wearing his apron, who guided them to the kitchen door.
“I am glad you are here. We managed to make a proper dinner, but we would be in trouble tomorrow without the goods,” the servant said as he pulled a bag of apples from the cart.
“We’re very sorry, young man. My son had some important matters to attend to and I’m afraid it slipped his mind, even though he had the cart loaded already,” Flin’s father apologized.
“It happens,” the servant opened the door to the storage room, which was indeed all but empty except for the wine racks. Flin felt himself flush. This was all his fault. If Kena hadn’t… No. He wouldn’t think of her again. His father had been right. He had some thinking to do.
“We only noticed this morning as well. We’ve had some strange things happening here, and we’ve all been too occupied to notice you’d missed a day, or we would have sent someone sooner.”
“Strange things?” Flin asked, his curiosity sparked. There’d been entirely too many strange things lately.
“Yes. A week ago someone stumbled upon some round burned patches in the forest close by the mansion, and they came to our lord, worried of course. What if the entire forest had caught fire? It’s a very dangerous thing. But we haven’t found any clues so far yet as to who did this, or why,” the servant said as he put the bag of apples on a shelf.
“That does sound weird. Why would anyone do that? A camp fire?” Flin’s father said.
“No, it can’t have been. It was perfectly round. A campfire would have been much messier. This looked like it had been done with magic. But that’s not even the weirdest thing,” the servant added.
“A few days ago our lady’s pet disappeared without a trace. It’s very strange; it always lived in her personal quarters and had its own pillow where it always slept. It was just gone one morning. Our lady is very upset.”
“Pet? What kind of pet?” Flin asked, his heart slamming in his throat. It simply couldn’t be true.
“A cat. Have you seen a white fluffy cat, by any chance?”