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I woke up at 4:59am, reeling from the same nightmare that haunted me whenever it felt like it. Bob continued to groan in my head as I turned off the alarm and counted the seconds to 5:00am.

Charlie stirred from where he slept at my feet and shuffled off to the kitchen, tail wagging. I ran through my morning routine. Got dressed, fed and walked the dog, packed last night's bottled beer, threw on my trusty hiking boots and drove to 158 Pickett. The best place for coffee in town also had freshly baked scones every morning.

My friendly gang of fearless OSHA inspectors was already assembled before work. I plopped a six pack of my home-brewed beer in front of Frank. “Just the way you like it. Plus a little on the stiff side.” I winked.

He smiled from ear to ear. “Ahh, the good stuff. How much do I owe you?”

“It’s on the house.” I pointed my finger at him. “But I better not catch you drinking at work.”

“No sir. I save these for a special occasion." He smiled.

"Hey Kevin ... Kevin." Bill waved to get my attention. "Are you helping with this year's 4th of July fireworks?”

“Oh, you’ll love this year. I been plotting something special. It’ll be larger than the last,” I said.

“I still can’t believe one can rig up fireworks like that at home. That’s just crazy.”

“No, no, don’t even think about it.” I gave him a serious look. “They don’t just let any ole schmuck do it.”

He laughed. “Please don’t blow us up.”

“No promises.” I chuckled. “Besides, didn't you say you wanted to go out with a bang?”

He flopped his hand toward me in retort. “Not that kind of a bang. I was thinking more like identical twins sort of a bang.”

I snorted. “You didn’t sign up for paint-ball this weekend ... Scared?” I winked my eyebrows.

“Only if I’m on your team team. While the rest of us may be playing Paint-ball.” He pointed around the table. “This guy here, he plays Pain-ball, and I still got the welts from a month ago. No thanks.”

“You gotta watch your back and flanks, buddy,” I said.

"Yeah, except his flanks are the size of Normandy." Frank quipped, snickering.

"You're funny Frank. I don't see how it's fair to let the only guy here with military experience to play with us. Only way I’d play against him again if he lowered the pressure in his gun down to half.”

“Oh come on Bill, where’s the fun in that?”

“What do you have lined up for today?” Alex asked, with a serious tone, getting us to business.

“McPherson’s,” I said.

“Is it that crane again?”

I nodded. “Yeah ... He tried to bribe me, can you believe that guy?”

“Seriously?”

“Oh yeah, he was all subtle about it too. I have a feeling he done it a few times before and got away with it.”

“Oooof, and now he has you. I feel sorry for him already.” He laughed.

***

Meanwhile, in a kingdom far, far away.

"Princess Estra, how good of you to visit us," the new lord of Fort Sumner said to me. But I heard a subtle undertone of snideness.

Instead of a cold look, I let my natural facade of pleasantries to automatically take over, including a subtle narrowing of the eyes to mimic a genuine smile. While in my head I was thwacking him with my heavy prosthetic.

How did I ever find myself in such company? Lord Rewt, banished from the capital to this far corner of the kingdom for experimenting on loyal subjects. God how I loathed this wretched man, almost as much as I hated myself.

"Right this way, your highness." He continued. "We have set aside suitable quarters on the ground level expressly for your visit." His servants bowed and approached to unload the carriage.

I waved my sleeved hand to Stendor. "There's no need. My servant will take care of my luggage." I didn't want to have a repeat of the last time my luggage was 'misplaced,' only to find it 'slightly' ransacked.

"Of course, your highness," he said, and tried to grab my arm, as if I was some peasant girl that needs to be corralled. Although he probably meant well, I moved my arm away, sparing him the embarrassment. He would have recoiled at the solid wood underneath the long sleeve, as many others did.

I waited for Stendor to secure everything before I moved ahead. At least the carriage was parked close this time.

"What happened to the noble quarters, are they under repair?"

Lord Rewt fell in step to the side, no doubt stealing glances at my awkward movement. "No, your highness. It's just that ... they are on the second floor."

"I'm well aware of that, Lord Rewt. I have been here before." I had spent many years of my childhood in this place after all. Must everyone who meets me for the first time think I'm weak? I may be of a frail body, but my mind is still sharp. Sharper than this lout - only a fool gets caught.

"My apologies." He waved a hand and his servants dashed ahead of us.

They could have easily walked without running at the pace I set. My leg braces clanked ever so slightly with every step, but they didn't squeak, I made sure of that - I didn't want to introduce 'Squeaky Princess' to already prevalent 'Stumpy Royal' and 'Dwarf Princess.' The two were bad enough already.

He started talking and out flowed the lies. Lies, lies and more lies. I smiled, put on my facade, and fed lies right back to him. He feigned interest about me and my journey, yet he was only interested in himself. He wanted something from me, they all did. A good word with my younger brother? As if I'm dead and don't count, like some empty title? Yet, I'm the crown princess to King Auster the third.

A good word with my father? No doubt hoping for leniency to return back to the capital. I pretended to care and sympathize. I told him I'll speak on his behalf. But this fool has made his bed, and he’ll die in it too. Here, miles away in this wretched hole, for everything that he wrought. I envied all the people who never met him.

“There is nobody injured at all?” I asked for the second time. I hated repeating myself.

“Well. There’s a couple that got mauled by the rats in the sewers, your highness. But you shouldn’t concern on their account. They’re just a couple of adventurers.”

“Bring them outside my quarters, and I will heal them.”

“I’m afraid they can’t be moved right now - it may kill them.”

"Are they at the infirmary?"

"Yes, your highness."

We finally arrived just outside the door to my quarters, and I recalled every step down to the infirmary. Fourteen to the stairwell, twenty steps, turn left, twenty-five steps, then three steps to the left.

"Thank you Lord Rewt," I said. He bowed and left.

Stendor opened the door to a familiar room and I lumbered in. The bronze tub was already filled with steaming water by the time I arrived. He closed the door, and I nearly collapsed. He held me up and helped me sit. I closed my eyes and steadied my breathing. My feeble legs spasmed rebelliously. I massaged the cramps the best I could - I hadn't 'walked' this far in years.

"Magus Artoreus is waiting," Stendor said.

"Tell him I'll be down in an hour."

He nodded, then set the luggage down closer to me and moved a chair up against the tub. He paused, giving me a knowing look, and I almost agreed.

I waved him away. "You already know the answer."

His disapproval was clear on his face, and he left silently, closing the door behind. Sweat streamed down my back as I wiggled out of my dress, like a butterfly out of a cocoon. I smiled bitterly at the thought - no, not a butterfly. I unclasped the leg braces using my teeth - it was faster than using my prosthetic right hand.

I lumbered up the chair back and slithered into the tub like a slug. The water stung my ragged skin where the leg braces straps used to be. I exhaled slowly, calming my nerves. I chuckled at how I must have looked, careful not to get them wet I floated with my arms raised up to the heavens above, as if imploring gods for mercy.

A storm raged inside, but excitement too. And hope I dare say? How many years have I labored? How many methods have I tried? But maybe today, maybe finally I'll be rid of this curse. I flexed my metal hand and heard a squeak.

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Lord Zaika

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