The unicorn's nostrils flared at the thief in warning. Her breath came out in puffs of outrage, a visible vapor in the crisp night air. The mare's deadly horn glinted in the light of the lantern, but the thief stayed calm. He held out his hand, palm down. Then he took the tiny instrument from his pocket, held it to his lips, and began to play.
The flattened ears perked up and turned toward the sound. He'd practiced this song, refined it even more, he believed, than the great Darian ever had. His fingers danced over the holes as he blew, making music to lull the powerful Night Spark. To bring her completely under his control.
Darian, the great herder, was a man of many secrets, and this was one of them. The thief's throat tightened around his song, his heart caught in the clench of regret. Would Westland ever see Darian again? Would he? It was too easy to succumb to such dark thoughts anywhere on castle grounds, but especially here, in the royal stables.
The thief fitted Night Spark with a halter and led her out of the stall. He could hear the boots of the guards on the cobblestone outside, pacing in a steady, serious rhythm. Alert, strong. Nothing but the queen's best to guard her best.
Those guards would have a hard time explaining this. It was too bad, but it had to be done. The thief guided Night Spark through the secret opening in the back wall of the stable and into the shaft of darkness-Darian's passageway. Night Spark shuffled, eyelids drooping, as though she were sleepwalking. The thief slid the hidden panel shut and disappeared with the unicorn into the underground maze.
Twig bent to put the last plate in the dishwasher, and Ben scooped a blob of frosting off it. He licked his finger. Twig made a face. She picked up the box of detergent and showed Ben how to open it.
Ben sniffed the citrusy detergent scent-too hard. He sneezed, and his shaggy brown hair flew into his eyes.
"I still don't understand," Ben said between sneezes. "How does this stuff get the dishes clean?"
Twig grinned. "Watch." She poured the detergent into the dishwasher, then shut the door and turned the dial. Ben's eyes widened. He knelt down, ear to the dishwasher door.
Ben had been raised in another world-Terracornus, land of the unicorns. He'd spent much of his life here on Lonehorn Island, in the Earth Land, as he called it, but he'd never seen modern technology. Until the Murleys had come to Lonehorn Island and built Island Ranch-a home, pony ranch, and informal school for six troubled girls-the island had been abandoned.
"It's a machine with a motor, like the truck, only it runs on electricity. The same stuff that powers the lights in here."
"It pumps water over the dishes?"
"I guess so. It sprays them."
Ben listened for a moment, then threw open the door to the cupboard under the sink, an eager, searching look in his brown eyes. "The water comes from under here."
Twig turned on the faucet. "It's all connected."
He pulled on the dishwasher door, trying to open it, but the handle wasn't visible under the matching panel across the top of the machine, and he kept missing the spot.
Twig bit her lip. Should she ask him now? If not now, when? She couldn't wait any longer. In just a couple months, her dad would come and take her home, away from the island. "Ben?"
Twig pressed in and pulled out, unlatching and opening the machine a crack for him.
He peeked inside. "It stopped," he muttered with a frown.
"I was thinking, since I explained something to you, maybe you could explain something to me."
"Sure." He closed the door and started turning the dial every which way. Heavy wash, light wash, super soak, dry. "It dries them too?"
Twig let out an exasperated breath and cranked the dial to the off position. She stood in front of the machine, blocking his view.
Ben rose, brow creased. "What?"
Twig took the note from her pocket. The one Ben had dropped back in Terracornus, before they'd killed Dagger, the bloodthirsty unicorn who'd led the island's herd to attack the ranch. Dagger had been determined to kill Twig's unicorn, Wonder, whom she'd raised from birth.
Ben had tried to hide the note from her, but in his haste, he'd dropped it, and she'd slipped it into her pocket. She hadn't had time to read it until they were safe back at the ranch. And then there'd been so much going on-finding out that Ben was a long-lost relative of the Murleys; Twig's thirteenth birthday, which she almost hadn't lived to see; Skyping her dad, who was in the army and deployed overseas, and talking to him for the first time in a year. It was hard to believe that was just yesterday. It was hard to believe that after all they'd done, their work wasn't over. It was only just beginning.
Twig pressed the note against her jeans, flattening the crumpled paper. She held it out. "What's going on, Ben?"
"How'd you get that?" Ben snatched it out of her hands and stuffed it in his own pocket.
"You dropped it. What does it mean?"
Ben crossed his arms over the too-big T-shirt he'd borrowed from Mr. Murley. "It's nothing. Nothing that I can do anything about."
"Fine. Merrill's wrong. You can still tell me what he meant. What's going on in Terracornus?"
"The same old problems."
Twig put on her best "Merrill" voice-gruff yet warm-and quoted his note. "‘It's worse than I feared here. As soon as we've dealt with Dagger, you must come to Westland. For the sake of all unicorns, all Terracornus, you must appeal to the queen.' That's what it says. Sounds like more than the same old problems to me." Twig had the cryptic phrase, written by their friend and old herder, Merrill, memorized. A friend of Ben's father, Darian, Merrill had come to the island to help Twig learn to ride Wonder and to teach her to wield a short sword and handle a bow.
"But it is the same. There's always the threat of war in Terracornus. Merrill wants me to appeal to the queen to step down and put a democratic process back in place, so that Westland can be an example to all the other lands, instead of becoming more and more like them. He thinks Westland can be a reminder to all Terracornus of how things were meant to be."
"It used to be." Abruptly, Ben's expression hardened. "But it doesn't matter. There's nothing I can do about it."
"Why does Merrill think you can then?"
"The queen knew my father well. He was the greatest herder in Westland, an important man. But she's changed. The herders have been disbanded. Everything's changed. I cannot influence the queen. Not now, not ever."