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The Poisoned Princess: Chapter 16


DIMITRI

“No, not like that,” I say, sweat trickling down my neck as I step back from Ivanka. Last night, I had trouble falling asleep once again, a little too focused on the girl sleeping a few feet away from me. This morning, we have our first training session. It’s going about as well as I’d expected.

I’m still mad at Igor for assigning me this duty. But also, I swear, if anyone volunteers to take over for me, I will fight them. Things are going well for me, clearly. And Ivanka is more frustrated than I am.

It’s unusually hot for autumn, as if the land is testing us as well. I’m trying to get Ivanka used to a heel-palm strike, but she keeps curling her hand into a fist.

“Why does it matter if it’s a fist or an open palm? Either way, I’m going to hit you.”

“You can try to hit me, Highness, but you and I both know you won’t land a blow.” I smirk as she glares. “An open hand reduces the chance of you injuring your hand. It also gives you the element of surprise, because you don’t broadcast your next move by preparing a fist.”

“Ah, okay. So when I meet a magical creature in the forest, I’ll make sure take it by surprise with my openhanded slap.”

“Strike, not slap,” I reply, exasperated.

“Maybe I’ll just smile them into submission,” she continues, throwing an incredibly bright smile my way. It succeeds in blinding me for a moment. I’m not sure she knows just how effective that is on me, but she knows it irritates me enough for her to keep doing it.

“And how are you going to smile at them if they come at you from behind?”

Then, before she knows what I’m doing, I’m wrapping my arms around her, pinning her to my chest. She inhales sharply as her back hits my front. Maybe I didn’t think this through, because she’s in my arms again, and I definitely don’t want to let her go.

“Try to get out,” I say, my voice coming out rough. She wiggles a little, causing me to inhale sharply. This was a terrible idea.

“Ivanka, try to get out,” I say again, because this needs to be over.

“Maybe I don’t want to,” she replies. The way my heart just thudded in my chest could probably be heard kilometers away.

“What?” I ask, letting my arms slacken. She pushes away from me, jumping back and twisting around to point at my face.

“Ha! I got out!”

I stare at her as she continues to grin. I’m trying to get my brain to catch up with what just happened.

“Pretty sure that’s cheating,” I finally say.

“I call it survival,” she replies. I feel my lips tugging at the corners, but before I can fully smile, Igor’s voice comes from the sidelines. I’m actually surprised everyone wasn’t out here watching, since we didn’t go that far from the cottage, but he’s the first to come out.

“We should get going,” he says, looking at me pointedly. I glance at Ivanka who looks confused.

“Going?” she asks.

“Yes, we have some business to take care of at the trading passage. We won’t be gone long,” Igor replies. He turns and heads back to the cottage. Ivanka stands still for a moment, and I wonder what’s going through her mind.

“Ivanka—”

My voice seems to startle her out of her thoughts, and she turns to me with a smile.

“Have a safe trip. I’ll go see if Pavel needs any help.”

And she’s gone before I can say anything else. By the time Igor and I are ready to leave, she is once again keeping her distance.

“Try not to be too much trouble,” Kostya says. I roll my eyes. I look around for Ivanka, but she must be inside. “I’ll watch over her for you,” Kostya says, and I jerk my attention back to him.

“I don’t know what you mean,” I say. Thankfully, Igor is here, and we can leave.

Traveling with him isn’t like traveling with anyone else. He’s very determined to stop as infrequently as possible, so we move in silence until we reach the trading passage. It’s only half a day’s journey from where we are, and the one place we don’t visit often because of its proximity. I’m thankful Igor chooses not to talk, because I have no idea what I’d say to him.

Out of everyone in our group, he’s the one I’ve been with the longest. He watched me grow up, taking over my training when his father took on a different position for the king. Igor was the first to volunteer to come with me on this mission, and probably the only one who knows how scared I am of the arranged marriage and the possibility of the princess being a terrible person. So it’s better we don’t talk right now, because I’m not sure what I’d say to him.

When we reach the trading passage outpost, I’m surprised at the number of people mulling around. The small village that’s been built around the open portal is newer, only a few years old. But the last time we were here, there weren’t as many people. This area is an in-between stop, not a place someone would choose for a permanent residence.

But there is a pub, and that’s where we head first.

“You go inside,” Igor says. “I’ll check out the wall.”

I nod at Igor and watch him head toward the wall. It’s exactly what it sounds like, a brick build approximately four and a half meters in length and in height. Translated, that puts it about fifteen feet by fifteen feet with an opening in the middle that is about ten feet by ten feet, which allows for people and small items to be carried through. Anything bigger than that becomes more difficult to control according to the high queen. Queen Calista should know; she was given direct permission by the land of Skazka to keep the portal operational.

When I first learned about the trading passage, it sounded like one of the childhood stories that were only true in books, like the horrible woman who is known to eat children and lives in a house on chicken legs. But now I know that Baba Yaga is real. When Queen Calista fought her and saved Skazka, the land rewarded the young woman by choosing her directly as high queen. She’s the only queen I know of who actually possesses magic.

Igor and I have had multiple conversations about whether or not we should petition her for help. But I have stood firm, insisting that she cannot be the one to fix all of our problems. The monarchs of each individual kingdom should be able to take care of the people living under their care, instead of always relying on someone else to solve their problems. And since I will soon carry the responsibility for this kingdom, it’s important to me to do everything in my power to make sure that the marriage isn’t simply a show. Especially the part where Queen Pelageya will step down as the interim monarch.

When word first arrived that she had been making allies under the radar, King Yevgeni was very concerned. Now, after everything I’ve seen—the abuse of the lower class and the dwindling resources are just the beginning—it’s even worse than we could’ve imagined.

I nod in the direction of the wall. Igor is a good person to speak to the guards at the wall. He always meets them on their level, since he was a guard at the castle in the beginning as well, before he took his father’s position as my personal bodyguard. They tend to relate to him immediately and tell him more than they would tell me.

I turn toward the pub and am about to enter when one of the nearby stalls catches my eye. My feet seem to move on their own, and I look over the items, purchasing a few. When I finally do step inside the pub, it’s full of people.

“What’s the occasion?” I ask the bartender, as I take the only available barstool. I’ve met him a few of the times I’ve come to this village, and he clearly remembers. He places a glass of water in front of me, and I take it, offering my thanks and a few coins as is my custom.

“Haven’t you heard? Everyone is abuzz about the princess.”

“The princess?”

“She’s been taken ill, according to the queen who personally made the announcement. The collectors have been by for more taxes, nearly draining us dry.”

I swallow a swig of water, as my mind tries to process the information. The princess was our big hope on getting the queen off the throne. She was my big hope. I wanted her to be an ally, and she’s always seemed like she could be. But if she’s ill—no matter what our plan is, I don’t want any bodily harm to come to her. I was betting on her being the kind person she always seemed in her letters. The backup plan involving her was always just that—a backup plan.

“So everyone here?”

“They’re trying to make their last score happen. Selling what they can and trying to find a way out. Either to another kingdom, or to the human realm.” The bartender leans closer, lowering his voice. “And I would suggest you do the same. Without anyone to succeed the queen, I’m afraid things are about to take a turn for the worse.”

Someone calls for the bartender, and I wave him off, satisfied with my water. It makes sense. The princess was always a source of hope for the people of Korolevstvo Tsvetov. They remembered her father as a just ruler. But if the queen is about to be given permanent residence on that throne, there’s no telling what she will do with her power. She has brought this kingdom to poverty already. What’s next? War with other kingdoms? Marching on Queen Calista herself? Although, I wouldn’t mind seeing that simply because there is no way Queen Calista would lose.

I stay at the pub a little longer, eavesdropping on various conversations. The people really are panicking. We’re running out of time to make things right. There has to be a way to see the princess, to get her away from the queen and her influence. Maybe even save her.

But how? The men and I have been in Korolevstvo Tsvetov for ten months already and we haven’t found a way into the castle. We haven’t found a way to get close to the princess or the queen. All we’ve accomplished is stirring up gossip about the seven bogatyrs traveling the land. Part of me hoped that the more people who knew about us, the more would be willing to side with us, but there seems to be a lot more negative gossip about us than good, which I’m sure is the queen’s doing.

“It’s not looking good, is it?” Igor appears beside me, and I immediately stand to follow him out of the pub.

“What did you find out?” I ask when we’re out of the others’ earshot.

“The trading passage is under strict regulations regarding who is allowed in and out of the kingdom. A document sealed by the queen’s own hand is required if someone wants to leave.”

“What? She can’t do that. I thought the order had to come from Queen Calista.”

“She’s found a way around that. I think it has a lot to do with just how scared the people are of Queen Pelageya.”

“The princess is sick,” I say, running a hand through my hair. “We’re running out of time, Igor. We’ve come here to help, and all we’ve done is feed some of the villagers and bring medicine to the sick.”

“That’s not nothing, Dimitri.”

“But it’s not enough.”

Before I can say anything else, several people head down the alley in our direction.

“One of the palace cleaners said they haven’t seen the princess in a month.” The voice reaches us, and we move into the shadows to listen.

“She’s always been locked inside that castle, but she would sneak to the kitchens to spend time with the servants,” an elderly women says, a hand over her heart. “My niece has been working there for a year now. They’re sworn to secrecy about everything, but you know how these things are.”

“Poor thing. I heard the princess is the kindest creature. A little naive, but who wouldn’t be locked away like that. Beautiful too. Gorgeous long black hair, like you’ve never seen. The queen probably hates her for that as well. From what I’ve heard, the queen is quite vain.”

“Or maybe she actually loves the girl?” someone says.

“There is no way that queen is capable of loving anyone but herself. That’s how I hear it, anyway. But she needs the girl, so she keeps her around.”

“Needs her for what?”

“Oh, who knows. Either way, if the princess is truly sick, we’d best get out of the kingdom before it’s too late.”

They move farther away, walking into the pub, and I can’t get their words out of my mind. Something falls into place, and I glance at Igor to find him watching me. I think we’re on the same page about this. The timing, the way they talk about the princess…it’s been staring us right in the face. I can’t believe I didn’t see it. Tomorrow can’t come soon enough, because we need to get back to the cottage immediately.


IVANKA

The next evening, I feel far more restless than usual. I’ve been thinking over what to do, how to find a way back to the castle and confront the queen. A part of me wishes I could have another one of these dreams, but the last two nights have brought me nothing. And last night felt particularly difficult—sleeping in the loft by myself. But I’m trying not to dwell on that.

“If you fancy a game of chess, I wouldn’t say no.” Kostya’s voice breaks through my thoughts, just as Maxim jumps up and waves his hands in the air. I put down the needle and thread that I was using to mend the hem of my dress and glance up at Kostya placing a chessboard in front of me on the table.

“Don’t do it, Ivanka. It’s a trap.”

“A trap?” I look between the two, trying to keep the smile off my face.

“Absolutely. He’ll lead you into a false sense of security and then crush you like a bug.”

“What if I’m the one who crushes him?” I ask. Four pairs of eyes snap in my direction. Pavel stops whatever he’s doing in the kitchen to stare at me, while Arseniy, Maxim, and Kostya gape at my question.

“No one has ever beaten Kostya before,” Maxim whispers, like he’s sharing a secret.

Now I definitely am intrigued. I have never lost a game of chess either, and I played with my father since I was old enough to understand the rules. The small pang of sadness is quick and powerful and nearly makes me gasp. I’m so good at keeping that part of myself protected that it’s always a surprise when the pain seeps through. But Father was notorious for never letting me win. Even when I was young, he pushed me by always doing his best. I’ve kept up with the skill since then by practice and study. Kostya seems like a worthy opponent, if the men aren’t exaggerating…although, they might be. In the days I’ve spent with them, I’ve learned that they love their dramatics. With a smile, I offer Kostya a seat across from me at the table.

“It will be my pleasure to give it a try,” I say, not giving anything away. Just then, Yasha walks out of the bathroom, strumming his balalaika, and singing a little chorus as he heads for the front door.

“Oh, the games have begun.

The table is set, the chess pieces lined up.

I sing of the one who will fail to rise,

A knight who’s about to lose like a chu—”

Kostya glares at Yasha, but the man is unfazed. He gives me a broad smile and a firm nod, before taking himself and his song outside. I turn my attention to Kostya. I can already tell it’s going to be a good game. He has that same gleam in his eyes that my father used to get. He didn’t come to lose. But then, neither did I.

For the next thirty minutes, we battle back and forth, attracting an audience. Pavel abandons the kitchen to come sit at the table and watch. Even Yasha wanders back in, curious. The other two are already present, and I can tell they’re enjoying the fact that I didn’t lose in my first three moves…which is what happened the last time someone played Kostya, apparently.

“What do we have here?” Igor’s firm voice announces his presence before he’s fully in the cottage. I don’t take my eyes off the board, but I don’t need to look to know that Dimitri is right behind him and that Dimitri’s eyes are already on me. I can always feel them, like they carry their own physical weight.

“Ivanka is kicking Kostya’s butt in chess,” Maxim announces with quite a lot of glee. Kostya grunts, the most unsophisticated sound I’ve ever heard from him, and the others chuckle.

“He’s taking it well, I see,” Igor comments. I can hear the smile in his voice. No matter how intimidating the man looks, there’s always a note of warmth in his voice. That’s something else that stirs a memory of my father. But I push it down immediately. Right now, I have a chess game to win, and I cannot be distracted.

Even though I am. Mostly by the presence to my right, moving around the kitchen for who knows what. Arseniy stands and heads to the kitchen as well.

“Well, what of the news? The villagers?” he asks. I know he’s talking to Dimitri. This complete awareness of the man is getting to be very annoying. It’s gotten so much worse since whatever it was that happened in the forest, and then him holding me while I cried. The memory of his arms around me brings a flush to my cheeks, and I duck my head, hoping I just look like I’m concentrating on the board.

“We were able to come and go without any issues. There are a lot of people trying to get out of the kingdom and into the human realm, a lot of people panicking about what the future might hold,” Dimitri answers. I feel every syllable of his words over my skin like a caress. Suddenly, it feels like the room’s temperature has gone up by twenty degrees. I take a deep breath, trying to keep myself focused.

“We did hear news of the princess,” Igor says, and I nearly drop the bishop I’m holding. My hand freezes, my whole body tense in awareness.

“What news?” Maxim pipes up from his position at the table, bringing the other men closer. I am determined not to take my eyes off the chessboard, but every part of me is straining to hear what they’ll say next.

“According to a public announcement, the princess has fallen ill. The people have been instructed to send in as much of their wages as possible to help the queen find the best healers. The rumors we heard several months back of the treasury struggling are clearly not exaggerated.”

The casual way Dimitri offers this information, as if he’s not talking about someone’s well-being makes my spine rigid. I want to tell him that it’s not about the money, but the health of a person—and then I mentally stop my automatic learned behavior to protect the queen. Because that’s me they’re talking about, and I’m clearly not ill. And as far as the queen knows, I’m dead, so what is she playing at? Also, the treasury is struggling? That’s the first I’m hearing of it. I’ve been kept in the dark about a lot of things.

“Are you going?” Kostya’s question brings me back to reality, and I realize that I’m still holding the bishop suspended. Quickly, I place it where it’s meant to go, then I focus back on the queen problem—the one on the board and the one in real life.

Is she going to use me as a tool to squeeze more money out of the people? The way they’re talking about it, that seems to be the plan. But then what? Will she tell everyone I died? She’ll have to eventually, but then there’ll be no one to take the throne, so she will reign until her passing. And the people will continue to struggle.

Everything I’ve learned about my kingdom since finding this cottage has broken my heart over and over again. How could I have been so blind? How could I—but no. I can’t focus on what I didn’t know in the past. I know now, so now, I will do something about it. As soon as I figure out what to do.

“Was it fair to let Kostya talk her into a game?” Dimitri asks suddenly, and I sense, rather than see, him lean forward on his hands to look over the chessboard. If I turn my head even slightly to the right, I’ll get a nice view of his forearms. Which honestly, are kind of my weakness, and therefore, no turning of the head for me!

I am strong. I am a force. I am—turning my head to the right just a bit.

He’s got his sleeves rolled up to his elbows again, his skin nice and tan from being outside. He’s leaning on the table, palms down, and I can see veins running up his arm and disappearing into the sleeve of his shirt.

If it was hot before, I’m now a living breathing furnace. I curl my right hand over the skirt on my lap, just to keep myself from reaching out and following the direction of those veins with my finger.

Having absolutely no brain power left, I look up and meet his gaze. He’s watching me as if he knows exactly what I’m thinking. I’m sure my face is bright red against my fair complexion. Stupid expressive cheeks!

His eyes hold mine captive—as they usually do—and there’s a flicker of amusement and something else, before Kostya’s soft “aha!” breaks the moment. I jump, glancing back down at the board as Kostya moves his knight into position.

His face is a mask, but I see the way his body has relaxed just a little at that move. Even if his exclamation hadn’t given him away, his body language does. I’ve always thought reading body language was an interesting tool to teach me. As a kid, I didn’t really understand it. But father was good at reading people, and he tried to teach me to be just as good. Clearly, I was too blinded by my trust in the queen to ever notice anything suspicious about her, but I am actually not bad at it when I put my mind to it.

I turn my attention back to the board and study the spread of the pieces. I can see exactly why Kostya moved the knight where he did. He put me in a very tight spot. His next move can put me into checkmate. But there’s one thing that I can do, and I don’t think he’s expecting it. I kept my king and my rook unmovable for this exact reason the whole game.

I can castle.

Making sure I won’t be putting the king into check if I make the move, I pick the king up and then proceed to switch its position with the rook. Which puts the rook where the king was, and that’s—

“Checkmate,” I say.

There’s a moment of complete silence before all chaos breaks loose. The men start hollering and clapping. Yasha plays his balalaika at full volume. I watch Kostya calculating and understanding my move in silence, before he finally looks up at me, his eyes big.

“That was—”

“Incredible!” Maxim is there, pushing past Dimitri and picking me right off the chair and into his arms, as he spins me around. “You are my favorite person in the whole world!”

I can’t help laughing along with him as the others continue to cheer. My head spins, and my body feels light, and when Maxim finally places me back on solid ground, I’m wobbly.

But as I teeter in place, strong arms catch my elbows—righting me and igniting the furnace all over again. I glance up to find Dimitri’s gaze on me, his hands firm on my arms, and a small smile on his face.

“That was worth the price of the admission,” he says. It’s the closest thing to an olive branch that he’s offered me since I cried all over him. I can do nothing but grin up at him like a complete idiot.


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