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The Poisoned Princess: Chapter 15


DIMITRI

The moment I pull her to me, she surrenders completely. There’s no hesitation on her part, and none on mine either. She winds her arms around my torso, as I cradle her to me. Her face is buried beneath my neck, and almost automatically, I place a soft kiss on the top of her head. Just like that, everything between us shifts. She clings to me with her whole being, her nails digging into my back as I hug her back just as fiercely.

I was barely asleep when she started making little whimpering noises. Whatever she was dreaming of, it wasn’t pleasant. At first, I didn’t know what to do, but when I turned around, Kroshka was sitting on the small table, right by my face, staring at me like she was daring me to respond. Before I realized what I was doing, I had moved to sit beside Ivanka while the bunny had hopped over to my bed, as if watching over both of us.

Ivanka made a strangled noise then, pulling my attention to her, and when I saw the tears slipping through her shut eyes, something in me broke. She looked so fragile, so alone in this vast world. But she doesn’t feel quite as fragile now. Delicate, yes. But there’s strength in the way that she holds me. It makes me want to protect her that much more.

I have no idea when this started, if I was falling even before I realized my feet were no longer planted firmly on the ground. But she’s wormed her way into my heart, and that’s dangerous for all of us. Which is why I can’t spend the rest of the night holding her and chasing away her fears. No matter how much I would like nothing more. We’re much better—and safer—when we’re fighting.

“Hey.” I lean back a little so I can look down into her face, as she ducks her head back into my chest. My heart is beating so fast I can barely hear myself think. I have to get us back to our respective corners before it’s too late. Even as something tells me it already might be.

“Come on, Highness,” my voice comes out half-teasing, half-grumpy. “I know I make an amazing pillow, but you’re getting snot all over me.”

“I am not!” she exclaims, a little too loud. And then she leans back, clasping her hands over her mouth. I knew that would work, even though I already miss her clinging to me.

I lean down, picking up my discarded shirt, which I hand to her. She stares at me like I’ve lost my mind, and I push the shirt onto her lap.

“You can use it to wipe your face. It’s laundry day tomorrow.”

Then, reluctantly, I stand and move back to my bed. Kroshka looks at me with a hint of disapproval. I raise my eyebrows at the bunny.

“Well, go on and comfort her,” I whisper to the creature. The bunny huffs a little, then hops down and up into Ivanka’s bed. I swear it can understand me, which unnerves me in all kinds of ways. But as I watch, she cuddles in Ivanka’s arms, and I can tell Ivanka feels better instantly.

I extinguish the candle and lie back down, staring at the ceiling. Ivanka doesn’t say anything, but I can hear her moving around, trying to get comfortable. I want to ask her what she dreamed about. I want to get back up and pull her into my arms again. But I do neither of those things, because it’s not my place.

She has a fiancé. And I have a duty to fulfill. I made her promises that I cannot keep. Even though, for the time being, I’m going to try. But from the sidelines. I’ll have to make sure not to cross the line again. I’m starting to like her a little too much.

“Dimitri.”

The soft whisper reaches out to me through the dark, and I nearly jump from the sensations that fill my body at the sound of my name spoken by her with such gentleness.

“Hmm,” is all I manage, but it’s enough. I can hear her turn toward me. Then she speaks again.

“Thank you for not asking questions,” she says, her voice a gentle caress in the dark. I try to keep my body very still, lest I spook her. This feels important, somehow, so I wait. “I know…I know I’ve been keeping things from you…and the rest of them. It’s not that I don’t want to tell you. It’s that everything will change if I do and I’m not sure that’s a good thing right now. I want to—I want to protect you from my past and from whatever is still waiting for me. Just for a little while longer, while I figure this out. I know you don’t like me very much, but thank you for being patient with me nonetheless.”

I hear her move again, and when I glance over, all I see is the outline of her back. The words are nearly at the tip of my tongue. I can tell her right here that I don’t dislike her. In fact, it’s the opposite, which could cause all kinds of new problems for us. Her with her fiancé, and me with mine. I have no idea what her relationship with him may be—she hasn’t mentioned him except for that one time, which makes me think it might not be love. But it doesn’t change the fact that I’m still bound by duty, even though my walls are slowly beginning to crack.

But I don’t say that. In fact, I don’t reply at all. Instead, I listen to her breathing even out, and eventually, I know she is asleep.

I don’t follow right away. First, I let my mind wander, wondering what exactly I am going to do come morning after the darkness has given me the safety I needed to figure out my own feelings and see things in a different light. Second, I find myself hoping that this is all a dream and I’ll wake up with my head screwed on straight and none of these protective instincts raging in my body.

But I know well enough that’s not how this is going to go. And when I finally do sleep, dread of the morning hangs over me.


IVANKA

By the time I wake up, the men have already had their breakfast. With Kroshka safely in her basket, I descend the ladder, an apology ready on my lips.

“I’m so sorry I slept in, Pavel. I—” But the man is already waving off my apologies, as he hands me a bowl of grechka with milk, pointing to the jar of sugar.

“Dimitri told us you needed the rest. Please add however much sugar you want to your porridge, and eat up.”

I nearly start crying right then and there as I take the bowl from his hands. These men are so kind, and I don’t deserve it.

My mind keeps going over the strange dream. Or memory. Or vision? I don’t understand it at all. But I can’t escape the feeling that it must be real. Somehow, I saw something I had no way of seeing, but one thing is now clear: I can’t keep hiding in this cottage. The kingdom needs a good and fair queen, and Queen Pelageya definitely isn’t it. I just don’t know what to do with any of this information.

Before I sit down at the table, I feed Kroshka and then add two tablespoons of sugar to my milk and grechka. I’m going to need all the energy to deal with today.

When it’s time to do my laundry, I take off my blouse, sarafan, and underskirt, making sure to take out the letter. Then I tug on Yasha’s big robe as I’ve done before. My poor clothes look ready to fall apart at any moment, and maybe this is another reason for me to make my next move…before I have nothing to wear.

Some of the men have gone hunting while the others went foraging. I think it’s about time for their weekly trip into the nearby village for trade. I have very little information on what their actual jobs entail, but they’ve talked about being merchants and traders in passing. I still don’t think that’s the whole truth. Not when I’ve been observing them this whole time. I just can’t quite pinpoint what it is about them that I find a little off. Not in a bad way, just contradictory.

But now is not the time to solve that puzzle. I place the letter into my pocket and set off to do laundry. I finish washing everything and hang it to dry near the others, adding another log to the firepit. This fire is nearly always burning during the day. I’m grateful I don’t have to be the one to light it, because I’m not sure I’d be able to.

My survival skills are definitely lacking. The idea that I could be a good queen is becoming even more farfetched the more I think about it. What can I bring to the kingdom? How can I make the right decisions concerning so many people when I clearly didn’t even notice how cruel the queen has been.

On so many occasions, I should’ve questioned the gossip, instead of defending the queen. The more I dwell on this, the more instances come to mind. Right before Anya became the queen’s maiden, the queen had another. I remember rumors circulating about the girl. One talked about her running off with her beloved, and the other talked about the queen sending her to the dungeons because she wanted to keep her silent. At the time, I chose to believe the romantic story. But now, I realize the other was more believable. And that wasn’t the only rumor.

The more I think about the last ten years, the more evidence I find in my own memories. How naive could I have been? Logically, I understand that my broken heart needed to believe the queen was good and loved me in her own strange way. But I can’t make those mistakes again.

And I can’t be complacent. I think—I think I found peace in this little cottage, a safe haven away from the cares of the world. But the dream from last night? It’s as if it woke me up.

I’m more determined now than ever to make the queen answer for her deeds. Trying to kill me. Killing my father. The clues are slowly pilling up, but I need more information. The men don’t talk about her often, but I’ve picked up enough to know they don’t like her at all. Maybe I can ask them without actually asking them. I have to do something. I just don’t know what.

I’m still thinking about it after dinner, as we all gather in the living room. Dimitri has steered clear of me all day, which I find very annoying. Now he’s sitting at the kitchen table, an array of knives spread out in front of him as he cleans them one at a time. He hasn’t looked my way all day. Is it because I cried in front of him? Or because I clung to him like an idiot?

My cheeks heat up at the memory, and I duck my head a little so that, hopefully, no one notices. Kostya is reading near the fireplace, while Arseniy and Maxim play checkers on the floor. Igor and Pavel are both mending their clothes, and Yasha is laying on the top bunk, playing a song.

This scene seems so normal by now that it makes me smile. They’re so comfortable with each other, anytime they are all in the same place, I feel good. Well, except when I look at Dimitri. He glances up at this exact moment to catch me looking. He raises an eyebrow at me, then returns to cleaning his knives. I make sure to throw a mental dagger at him, not that he’s paying attention. It’s so frustrating because I can’t seem to stop squirming, being this close to him. I’m aware of our proximity even though there’s a table and floor space between us.

Distance. I need distance. Without a word, I stand and head for the door. The outside air will do me good. Maybe an evening walk will clear my head.

“I wouldn’t if I were you.” Dimitri’s grumble reaches me as I stand at the door. Turning, I find his attention is still on his knives, but the other men have looked up as well.

“Oh, are you going somewhere?” Maxim is the first to ask, his face full of concern.

“Just outside. I need some fresh air, so I was going to take a little walk in the forest.” I offer him a kind smile, but his look of concern doesn’t leave.

“I would advise against that,” Igor says, putting aside his needle and thread and watching me. I study the others as well, and they all seem very uncomfortable with my announcement.

“I don’t understand. Why is everyone so concerned?”

My mind tries to decipher the sudden tension in the room. It’s as if they really don’t want me to go outside right now. I’ve been here for weeks now, and come to think of it, typically, we’re indoors the moment the sun sets. There have been a few times that the men were out after dark, but even then, it’s only when they’re traveling.

“What’s out there?” I ask before anyone can answer my first question. Of course I know of the dangers out there—I did run from wolves myself. But the woods right outside the cottage have never given me any concern. We’ve been there to pick blueberries and mushrooms.

Everyone, save Dimitri, glances at Igor, so I turn my full attention to him as well. The man sighs, coming to stand right in front of me. As usual, I’m overwhelmed by the sheer presence of him, but I realize I’ve never had any sense of ill intent from him. His calm and kindness are soothing. That’s probably why he’s the leader.

“The forest holds many secrets, Ivanka. Not all of them are ready to be shared.”

“With whom? You or me?”

Igor smiles like a proud father at my question. He always seems to be proud of me when I push instead of accepting what is offered to me. He reminds me of a court advisor my father had. I used to call him dyadya, even though he wasn’t my uncle by blood. Wow, I haven’t thought of him in ages. I don’t know what happened to him, but now my mind fears the worst.

Igor might look rough out here in the wilderness, but I can picture him in fine clothes, walking around the royal court. He seems to appreciate my inquisitive mind. He also seems to especially enjoy it when I push Dimitri’s buttons, but it’s not about him right now.

“For all of us. Skazka is a kind land to those who love her and unkind to those who try to cross her. You remember we were initially concerned about Kroshka.” Igor nods toward the basket on the couch where my bunny is currently napping.

“Yes, because of the forest spirits that have been known to entice men to their death.”

Da,” Igor smiles. “As travelers of the land, we take the stories told about her to heart. If you go out there, you should know how to protect yourself.”

“I know how to protect myself,” I reply. I don’t miss the tiny snort that comes from the kitchen table. Neither does Igor, apparently, because he glances down at me with a small smile.

“Since I don’t know how much training you’ve had, maybe it would be good if we taught you a few things.”

I perk up immediately. I’ve always wanted to be able to hold a sword or a dagger. I’d always believed a queen should know how to use them. But I was never allowed to.

“Really? You’d teach me?”

“Of course. We do have the best teacher in our midst.”

I grin, except it doesn’t last long as Igor turns and glances over his shoulder.

“Dimitri can teach you.”


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