Authors: Kate Avery Ellison
Kate Avery Ellison
© 2011 Kate Avery Ellison
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. No part of this book may be copied, reproduced, or distributed, either electronically or otherwise, without written permission from the author.
Rumpelstiltskin hadn’t spun gold in years, not since he quit baby-stealing and went legit, but right now the decorators were running late—some nonsense about billy goats blocking the bridge to the wedding venue—and Rumpel’s people had to have
to use for decorations around the reception site. So here he was, the straw beneath this fingertips turning into sparkling garlands. He’d never dreamed he’d be spinning gold again, but … sometimes you just had to do strange things when you were in the wedding business.
The straw erupted into sparkling, spun gold beneath his fingertips, and hired elves scooped it up and dragged it away to string along the pews in the church and around the tables in the reception hall. The gold sparkled in their hands like captured sunlight, and Rumpel sighed a little with nostalgia as he watched them. Nothing looked as pretty as fresh-spun gold.
His headset crackled to life. It was his wife, Red. “Rumpel, you there? We have a situation.”
He leaned against the spinning wheel. “What is it?”
“It’s gonna be weird,” Red warned.
He was used to weird. In this kind of business, you just had to be. One time, they’d had to wheel the bride down the aisle in a gurney. The lucky lady was asleep until the officiator declared the happy couple man and wife and her new husband laid a big wet one on her. Rumpel had never seen anyone look more bewildered than that poor girl, waking up to an auditorium full of people and a red-faced, beaming prince. She’d smiled for the pictures and danced beautifully at the reception, though, which was more than he could say for the late King Charming’s second wife at
wedding. But then, she’d turned out to be a witch in the end.
“Spill,” he said, bracing himself for the worst.
“The bride saw that we were going to be serving apple turnovers at the reception, and she threw a fit. No apples, she says. Apparently they ‘leave a bad taste in her mouth,’ and I don’t think she was making a pun.”
“No apples,” he repeated. That wasn’t so bad. It was best just to go along with these things. “Are peaches okay? Do we have peaches?”
“I’ll find out. Oh, and the one of the groomsman is missing. He didn’t show up for the pre-wedding pictures. Nobody can find him.”
“Missing groomsman. Got it.”
“He’s really short, white beard, pointy hat. I’ll send over the assistant to help you look.”
Once upon a time, as they say, Rumpel used to be a criminal. Used to run a racket spinning gold from straw and tricking people out of their firstborn children. But crime didn’t pay—literally, since the king had caught on and installed those fairy-gold-detectors in all the kingdom shops—and now he could barely believe how far he’d come. He’d gotten married and started his own business and everything. The work was hard, but he had to admit, he kind of liked it. R & R Wedding Planning and Comprehensive Services —
We’ll Put the Happily in Your Ever After!
Had a nice ring to it.
And the pay was fantastic, because he was the best in the business. Red made all the cakes and contracted all the caterers and the photographers and the tux rentals. She had a good, sensible head on her shoulders, she was steady in a crisis, and she was darn good at making cakes. Together they ran a slick—but totally legal—operation.
The new assistant was waiting in the hallway, breathless and flustered. “Did Red tell you? One of the groomsmen is missing. Nobody can find him anywhere, and the ceremony is close to starting!”
“Did you check the men’s room?” He remained calm. Something always went wrong with a wedding. With any luck the guy was just getting a little stage fright and hadn’t run off with a bridesmaid. Or worse, with the bride. That’d happened a few times, and it made things very awkward for everyone, especially when the groom was a tyrant king with a tendency to sentence people to death.
The assistant nodded vigorously at his question, dragging his attention back to the present. “Checked every stall. Nobody in there but a frog.”
Rumpel frowned. Frogs could be trouble. Witches were always turning their enemies (usually smug princes, it seemed) into amphibians of some kind or another, so you had to be careful you didn’t accidentally step on the next heir to the kingdom while you were taking a leak.
But then again, sometimes a frog was just a frog.
Red’s voice crackled over his headset again, and he cupped one hand over his ear to hear her better. “Ten minutes to prelude, everybody. Rumpel, have we found that groomsman yet?”
“Working on it.” Rumpel turned back to the assistant. “Check the foyer. Maybe he’s just mingling with the guests. Maybe he thought he’d get a drink and then he got lost.”
Her expression said she found those things unlikely, but his assistants weren’t paid to argue. She tucked her clipboard under her arm and disappeared down the hall. Rumpel started in the opposite direction.
Weddings were all the same. Just about everything that could go wrong did. The cake, the DJ, the caterers, the bridal party. Once all the bridesmaids turned back into mice halfway through the ceremony—apparently it had something to do with an overactive fairy godmother and the bride’s lack of any real friends. Stepsisters were trouble too, as were stepmothers. At least this wedding had no stepsisters. There had been a stepmother, but she was long gone. He vaguely remembered the bride mentioning it —
were the words that sprang to mind, but you never knew how much was just family drama and how much was genuine cause for concern.
He turned a corner and ran into Wolf, his assistant.
Wolf growled something unintelligible.
Rumpel wasn’t fluent in Canine like Red, but he had a pretty good idea something was wrong. He touched his headset. “Red? I’ve got Wolf here. He’s trying to tell me something.”
The headset fizzed. Red wasn’t answering.
Wolf snarled again, and Rumpel hesitated. He and Wolf respected each other, but they weren’t exactly the best of friends. Then again, it was hard to be friends with the wolf that had tried to eat your grandma-in-law, even if that same wolf was now indentured to the family for life in reparation.
“Show me,” Rumpel said. If Red was busy, he’d have to deal with this himself.
Wolf led him to the utility closet where they’d set up security cameras—another requisite for a royal wedding. The soon-to-be Mr. and Mrs. Charming weren’t taking any chances.
Together they crouched in front of the security monitors, and Rumpel looked closer. The image was flicking between five security camera feeds—the front gate, the main foyer, the sanctuary, the gardens, the reception hall—
He did a double take. “What was that in the gardens?”
With a few clicks, Wolf switched the feed to the single image. Rumpel could see a row of hedges and a statue surrounded by rosebushes. Maybe he’d just imagined it...
But no. He saw a flicker of movement at the right-hand corner of the screen. A face, ravaged by age and youth potions gone bad. A cruel smile.
This definitely meant trouble.
Rumpel was already fumbling for his headset. “Red, forget the apple turnovers. We’ve got a code three in the garden. Are you listening to me, Red?”
She still didn’t answer. With another glance at the screen, Rumpel took off running for the back door—
—And ran straight into the bride herself.
At first Rumpel thought he was seeing a ghost. Her ice-white skin blended seamlessly with the satin of her wedding dress. Her long black hair was covered with her veil. The only color on her face came from her bright, blood-red lips.
“Miss Snow,” he said hastily, glancing over her shoulder at the door to the gardens. “H-how are you?”
“Ah, Mr. Rumpelstiltskin.” The bride looked surprised and then relieved. “I was just looking for you. You need to let the DJ know—my friend Beauty is here with her husband, so all songs with the word “beast” in them need to be on the Do Not Play List, and yes, that includes anything by the Beastie Boys.”
“I am so sorry, Miss Snow,” he said, edging around her. “My wife Red is around here somewhere, and she’s the one who usually speaks with the DJ, because she has a knack for troll languages, and our DJ, well ... And I have a very,
important thing I have to see to right now. But you look lovely. Congratulations to you and Mr. Charming both.”
He ran for the door before she could say anything else.
Outside, members of his staff were setting up folding chairs for the reception. Rumpel ran past the drinks station and rounded the hedge that fenced off the reception area from the rest of the gardens. He could hear the music of the prelude in the distance.
A rustle in the bushes startled him. But it was just Wolf.
“According to the security cameras, she was in the hedge maze a minute ago,” Rumpel told him in a low voice. “So she can’t be far. Hurry—we have to get to her before she tries to attack the bride!”
He plunged into the hedge headfirst, with Wolf following on his heels. Brambles and tangles snatched at his clothes and tugged at his cap and headset. He kept pushing. Behind him, Wolf was grunting and snarling as thorns ripped at his fur.
“Red,” Rumpel whispered into his headset. “We’ve got a code three in the gardens. Evil stepmother alert. I need backup.”
He saw movement up ahead. Dropping to his hands and knees, he crept forward.
Through the bushes, he could see the garden. While he watched, a woman stepped onto the lawn. The stepmother. She was tall and dressed in a black pantsuit, with a purse on one arm and a veiled hat obscuring half her face.
She paused on the lawn and scanned the bushes, a smirk twisting her lips.
“Hold it,” Rumpel muttered to Wolf. “Did she hear us?”
Before Wolf could answer, another figure came into view, this one dressed in white. Her gauzy veil drifted around her face and dragged on the lawn. The stepmother halted and stared, and then an insidious smile crept across her features.
“You,” the stepmother said, her voice bitter as a poisoned apple. “I’ve been looking for you, Snow White. You thought I was dead and gone, did you? Thought you could waltz off and marry your Prince Charming, did you?”
Snow White was silent, which seemed to infuriate the stepmother. “Well, think again!” She screeched. “When I’m finished with you, I’m going to turn your precious prince into a toad!”
The bride covered her face with her hands.
“I almost succeeded already while they were having their pictures taken, but I missed that insufferably cheerful prince of yours and hit one of those ridiculous little men you have for groomsmen.”
“That’s what happened to the missing groomsman,” Rumpel muttered. “Okay, time to make our move. Carefully, though. She’s dangerous.”
Wolf growled softly. Rumpel looked back at the scene on the lawn, his heart thudding. He fumbled at his belt for the taser he carried for emergencies. This was definitely turning into an emergency.
Snow White, still speechless, took a step backwards. Seeing this, the stepmother darted forward and grabbed her arm.
“You’re supposed to be dead,” she shrieked. “You were supposed to die from that apple! I was supposed to be the most beautiful!” Grabbing the nearest marble bust from its pedestal, she smashed the poor girl over the head with a single, vicious swipe.
Snow White crumpled to the ground in a billow of white. Triumphant, the stepmother queen threw back her head and laughed.
Rumpel yanked fout his taser and pushed through the bushes, Wolf at his heels, while the evil stepmother fumbled in her purse and whipped out a makeup compact. Flipping the lid open, she tugged off her hat and squinted at her reflection in the mirror inside.
Rumpel and Wolf hesitated at the perimeter of the hedge. He glanced quickly at the fallen bride, who hadn’t moved.
“Well? Who’s the fairest one of all now, Mirror?”
Rumpel saw a tiny, disembodied face floating inside the mirror. As he watched, the mouth on the face grimaced at the queen’s question. He didn’t blame the guy—who wouldn’t want to be diplomatic, after that display of unbridled fury?
“Hmmm,” the mirror began, after an impatient cough from the queen, “When you say
fairest of them all
, do you mean in your native country, or do you mean all the neighboring countries too, or are you talking just this general vicinity?”