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The Poisoned Princess: Chapter 2


For the rest of the day, I can’t stop thinking about that mirror. Something about it seemed otherworldly. Of course, I know magic is real, even though I haven’t seen much of it myself. No one in the castle possesses any, and I haven’t left the grounds in ten years.

But the mirror definitely held…something…within it. I just don’t know what. And I don’t even want to think about the weird feeling that came over me when I heard the voice speaking. The two must be connected somehow—I don’t know how. If I wasn’t being watched so closely by my tutors, I would’ve done some research. Our library is pretty well stocked, and I’m great at research.

Speaking of being watched, it’s about time for the guard change, which means I have a ten-minute window to sneak down to the kitchens to see if a letter came for me. Queen Pelageya would never allow me this correspondence, but it is the one aspect in my life that I have gone against her on. I always thought I’d have the kind of love my parents had, but an arranged marriage doesn’t leave much room for that. Still, I decided to make the best of my situation, just like I always do. My father said that he wrote letters to my mother even after they were married. I didn’t have any expectations when I wrote to Prince Yevgenich that first time, but he surprised me by replying. Tetia Alla has been the keeper of my letters since then.

Tiptoeing toward the door, I crack it open just in time to see the guards move down the hall. All I need to do is make it to the room opposite the study, where one of the secret passages will take me to the kitchens, but I have to be fast about it.

When the guards round the corner, I run out, my silky ballet flats barely making any sound across the floor. I’m inside the other room and in the passage in the next minute.

I don’t have to think about where I’m going, the path is memorized. When I reach the door to the storage room, I push through, a little out of breath. The door to the kitchen opens as I reach for it, and Tetia Alla gasps.

“There you are!” she exclaims, thrusting an envelope at me. “Hurry, child. You’ll be late.”

I flash her a huge grin right before she shuts the storage room. I’m already moving toward the secret passage. It’s annoying that this dress doesn’t have pockets, but my underskirt does. I sewed a pocket into it recently, and now, I’m grateful. I pull my skirt up, placing the envelope in the pocket, and then I’m back in the passageway.

My heart is threatening to beat out of my chest when I finally reach the door and check if the guards have returned. Technically, I’m not supposed to know I’m unguarded for those ten minutes, but it’s my secret to keep.

I’m back inside the study with a minute to spare. Sitting down at the desk, I use the inside of my skirt to dab on my brow, making sure I don’t look like I’ve been running around in secret passages. My hands itch to tear open the letter and read it, but I know I’ll need to wait until I am completely alone in my bedroom.

Moya dorogaya.” The queen’s voice reaches me before she steps into the study, and I immediately stand, a smile on my face.

“Your Highness, it is so good to see you.” I greet her as she comes toward me, the same red dress I saw earlier glittering in the low light. “A beautiful dress, as always.”

“Oh, this old thing. It’s been ages since I’ve worn it, but somehow, it still fits.” She does a little spin to show it off, and I step around the table to come closer. I’m about to reach for her hand like I always do, but she pivots, heading for one of the loveseats, and motions for me to follow. I try to curb my disappointment. I’m not sure why I still try. She’s never been a fan of physical touch.

“How are you, dorogaya? It’s been a while since we talked.” She pats the seat beside her, and I take it eagerly.

“You have been busy keeping us safe. I heard the rumors floating around the castle.”

“Ah, yes, the mercenaries. They’ve been causing quite the trouble.”

“Are they really…are they dangerous?”

Da,” she replies immediately, her sharp look turned on me. “Men like them are the reason your father was in the woods all those years ago. We lost him so tragically because of it. You remember the sacrifice I made for you.”

“Of course, Your Highness,” I reply, giving her a tiny bow. I can never forget her kindness to me that day.

After my mother died in childbirth, it was always only my father and me. That is, until he met the most beautiful woman I had ever seen—even in pictures—and brought her to the castle. I had barely turned nine and had no idea what it meant to have a mother. But before I had a chance to find out, my father was gone, and Pelageya had become queen by default.

My memories of that day are hazy; only the heavy emotions remain. She saved me in those woods, or I would’ve met the same fate as my father. And afterward, she didn’t coddle me. She treated me like an adult and told me that I would also have to make difficult choices. I couldn’t leave the castle, and I had to be careful with my emotions and who I shared them with. Friends were a liability when one was to become a ruler. Emotional attachments only led to problems down the line.

I assume other people might’ve protested when Queen Pelageya came to me about an arranged marriage to Prince Yevgenich of Tsarstvo Vesniy. My father may have made the deal, but she was the one choosing to honor it. Making that decision—I have never doubted that she has the wellbeing of our people in mind. I have grown to accept the proposed marriage and see it for what it is—a political move. Of course, it helps that the prince seems nice in his letters.

“Good,” the queen says. Something in her voice makes me sit up a little taller. She’s not looking at me—her gaze is on the desk covered with open books—and suddenly, that chill I felt in the passageway creeps over me once more. Not as intensely as before, but enough that I’m concerned.

“The next thing I must say to you is difficult for me, but we do not have much time.” She takes a shuddering breath, then turns her full attention back to me. “Since you are aware of the dangers of the mercenaries and what the kingdom has been going through, this should not come as much of a surprise. You are in danger, Ivanna. And this danger is nearly within our walls. They are coming to take you, or—worse—to kill you. To make sure this kingdom has no future. Therefore, we must take drastic action.”

At first, I’m sure I misheard. There have never been issues inside the castle. But now—

“What do you mean drastic?”

“I have already ordered Anya to prepare a way. You must leave at once.”

“Leave? What do you mean leave?”

I don’t understand any of this. One moment we are talking like nothing is the matter, and then suddenly, it’s as if my whole world is upending. She’s not making any sense.

“I thought that we could find another way, but there is no time, Ivanna. Anya will be here any minute to take you to a safe place.”

“But I—”

“This is a serious situation. There will be no argument,” Queen Pelageya turns her full attention to me, and for the first time in a long time, I see the harshness in her eyes that is typically reserved for misbehaving nobles—it’s not usually aimed at me. “You have to leave. Do you trust me?”

Da,” I reply immediately, because I always have. Even when I didn’t understand what was happening. Which means I need to trust her now. “Okay, what do I—”

Just then, the door opens, and a guard steps in followed by Anya. I saw the girl this morning, but she looks exhausted and won’t meet our eyes.

“Ivanna, go with Anya.”

The queen stands and moves toward the door, but this feels like too much and I’m drowning in the sudden uncertainty.

“But the forest—I can’t—I’ll have to go through it.”

Fear grips my heart, and my body breaks out in sweat at the memory of trees dragging my father away. I reach for the queen, but she takes another step, putting more distance between us.

“You will be okay. Anya will lead you. All you have to do is follow.”

Then she’s moving away without another word, and the door opens again as Anya moves to the side. I stand frozen in place, feeling completely helpless. For a second, I think she’ll leave without looking at me, but then she turns, her expression colder than I’ve ever seen it.

“May your feet be swift, Princessa Ivanna. Now go!”

That last command makes Anya jump. The servant girl races toward me and wraps her hand around my wrist. I’m too numb to fight against her as she pulls me out the door behind the queen, and then turns in the opposite direction.

As I’m dragged down the corridor, I manage one final glance at the queen, but she’s already disappeared into the shadows.


We don’t pause for even a moment as Anya pulls me down the servant’s hallways. There aren’t many people around, and I realize it’s right around dinnertime, so everyone is busy making preparations. She pulls me into a room and thrusts a wad of clothes at me.

“You need to change. Quickly. Please.” Anya is already moving to help me unbutton the back of my dress, and I don’t argue. I’m still numb from the idea that I have to leave, that something is happening. Going through the motions, I remove my light blue gown before pulling on one of the servant blouses, followed by a sarafan. Anya stares at my shoes, and I glance down at the thin ballet flats I always wear with my dresses. They’re not exactly practical for going outside. The sole is thin and the sides are made of silky fabric.

I open my mouth to say we can stop by my room, but the maiden is already shaking her head.

“Please, Princessa. We have to move.” Anya’s voice is strained, and she seems out of breath. She takes my arm again, wrapping her fingers around my wrist. I don’t tug my hand back, only because it seems she needs the reassurance that I’m right behind her. I hurry my steps to keep up with her.

We’re in a part of the castle I don’t frequent much. Here the typically bright design of the hallways seems more muted, which means fewer paintings and plainer walls. Anya leads me to a door at the end of the dark hallway before heading down a set of stairs I’ve never used before. While I’ve explored the castle numerous times, I always feel like parts of it stay hidden, as if it intentionally is keeping secrets from me. Rationally, I know it’s only because I haven’t been able to find every passage myself. But when I was a child, making up stories in my head was the safest way to deal with loneliness. And thinking that the castle kept itself mysterious on purpose fueled my curiosity. But this isn’t one of my make believe adventures. This is reality and it’s taking me to places I haven’t been to before. We’re in a new part of the castle where the stairs are narrow and wind down past the first floor.

“Where are we going?” I ask, keeping my voice low, so I don’t spook Anya. She seems truly on edge, and that makes me even more worried. After all this time, if Queen Pelageya is ordering me to leave, something must be terribly wrong.

My mind races with possibilities. Flashes of memory of another time and place so many years ago assault my senses, and I nearly stumble over my feet. The kingdom can’t survive losing another monarch. What if, whatever this danger is, it comes for the queen too?

“Will the queen be okay? Are the dangerous mercenaries close? What about everyone else inside these walls?”

This time I tug on Anya’s hand when she doesn’t respond right away. She turns to give me a look that makes my breath hiccup. She’s terrified—truly terrified. Her eyes carry unshed tears, her skin clammy and pale. I turn to head back, but Anya grabs me with her other hand.

Nyet, Princessa. You can’t go back. Please, if you…I…the queen…” The distress in her face is evident, and I can’t help placing my free hand on her shoulder.

“It’s okay, Anya. Breathe. It will be okay. I’m just worried for the rest of the castle.”

“They will be fine, Princessa. Please, I have to get you out of here.”

She doesn’t say anything else but pulls me behind her. This time I follow without more questions. I have never seen Anya this distressed before. I don’t want to put more stress on her, and of course, the queen knows best. Everything will work out.

The stairs end in a small space with a wooden door. Anya pushes, and it opens without a sound. Following closely behind her, I realize we’re outside. Night has fallen. When I glance back, I realize not only are we outside the castle, we’re outside the castle walls. The door is in the wall that borders the grounds.

“What is this?” I never knew there was such a way to get in and out of the castle.

“It’s an old guard tower. It’s been boarded up for years.”

I want to ask more questions, like why it’s not boarded up at the moment, and how did Anya know about it when she’s only been at the castle for a few years, but she’s already heading toward the forest.

The moment my eyes register the darkness of trees in front of me, a cold shiver runs over my body. I’m not wearing enough layers to be out in the autumn cold. My blouse and dress are summer attire. I should have grabbed one of the heavy coats we start to wear around this time of year. But none of that matters right now because I’m fleeing for my life. Yet, even so, the fear I have of the woods nearly makes me turn back. Flashes of my father disappearing into the dark abyss, the sound of the forest and the screams and the howling rising out of my memories as I gulp down some air.

I glance at the castle rising above me. Dark windows stare down at me like eyes watching my every move. Multiple towers of varying heights all seem to get lost in the black sky, like the castle itself is disappearing. I realize that no matter how much I want to go back to the safety within those walls, if I’m to survive, I have to go into these woods. Because there’s no other place for me to go. The mercenaries would search the nearby villages before they would search the woods. I’m not the only one who fears these woods, if the stories I’ve heard around the castle are any indication. They are no place for a princess.

But I have no choice. Even if they do follow me into the forest, it is still the best place for me to lose them. Especially since Anya seems to know where she’s going, as she marches straight for the trees as if she’s not afraid of them.

And I can’t be either. I may have been sheltered, but I refuse to believe I’m not strong. For my kingdom, for my parents’ legacy. I have to be strong.

Looking at Anya, I see the girl watching me anxiously, her hand wrapped around my wrist, the forest rising at her back. I give her what I hope is a reassuring smile. She doesn’t return it. She just keeps pulling me into the woods with her.

The trees seem to close around me instantly. I tell myself to keep breathing, to keep placing one foot in front of the other, but the fear reaches out to me like claws hoping to snag on my skin and pull me in. My heart speeds up, and it’s not just because we’re moving quickly. There’s something in these woods. I feel eyes on me, but no matter where I look, I don’t see anything but empty spaces between the trunks.

“Do you know where you’re going?” I whisper, afraid the woods might overhear and give away our position.

Da.”

One single word carries so much heaviness behind it. It makes me wonder just how much Anya knows. Is there something I’m missing here? But I don’t ask, and we move farther and farther into the forest, until I’ve lost all sense of direction or time. It feels like we’ve been walking for hours. My body shivers from the cold and when the first howl reaches me, I jump.

“Anya. Are those—”

“Wolves,” the maiden replies. Her grip tightens on my wrist as she pulls me behind her.

I know there are creatures in these woods. The land of Skazka is brimming with magical and non-magical residents. But I haven’t heard wolves…not since that day ten years ago. When my body begins to shake, I don’t even realize it at first. Only when Anya stops and turns to me do I process what’s happening.

“Princessa?”

“The wolves. Anya, I can’t be safe here. Whatever is in the castle…I…I have to go back. I can stay hidden there. I can fight if it comes to that. I just…I can’t be here.” The words rush out, tumbling over each other. Whatever burst of bravery and logic I may have had running in here is completely gone. The panic rises as another howl sounds, and I’m no longer cold. My body temperature has risen, as the terror holds me.

“I’m sorry, Princessa. I’m so sorry.”

I push the fog of fear out of my mind long enough to register Anya crying. Shaking my head, I turn my full attention on her, barely making out her face in the moonlight.

“It’s okay. Don’t worry. We’ll be okay.” The words are automatic, although I don’t think even I believe them. But I reach out to try and comfort her, because she seems to need it even more than I do.

“No, you don’t understand.” Anya hiccups over the words, her body shaking from the sobs as she steps out of reach. “I have no choice. She threatened my family. But I can’t do it. I can’t. You’re always so kind and I—I’m not this person. I just can’t…I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

My mind is still filled with confusion when my gaze drops to something in the girl’s hands. The moon peeks through the trees, casting enough light for me to see the rope she pulls out of the small satchel she carries.

Scenarios take shape in my head, as cold realization slaps me in the face. That feeling of unease I’ve carried with me since the moment the queen told me to leave intensifies.

“What is it that you can’t do, Anya?” I ask, thankful that my voice is unwavering and gentle. She looks like a caged animal now, ready to flee or pounce.

“Tie you to the tree and leave you to the wolves.” Her words are barely above a whisper, so full of her sobs, but they’re carried to me in the small breeze. I nearly gasp with the weight of them.

“Leave me to the wolves? You mean to tell me the queen…she sent me here to die?”

It doesn’t seem real. That’s not the woman I know. Not the one who’s protected me this whole time. She couldn’t do this to me.

“The queen is not who she says she is, Princessa.” Anya’s voice breaks. I watch as she drops the rope and takes another step back. “She is very good at playing a role, but there is darkness in her. I have seen—”

“What have you seen?” I ask immediately, because of course, Anya would see more than me. She is Queen Pelageya’s personal maid. She would be privy to secrets, if only by proximity. “You have to tell me.”

At first, I don’t think she’s going to. She’s crying so hard now, her body is shaking. But then she surprises me by taking one big gulp of air, before she says,

“She has hated you for years, Princessa. Her plan was always to get rid of you so she could keep the kingdom for herself. But the kingdom isn’t happy under her rule—there are people suffering everywhere. You might not believe me, but my family—they’re starving. I send whatever wages I earn to them, but even that isn’t enough when the queen taxes it all back.

“You were never supposed to know any of this. You were supposed to stay in the castle…until she was ready to use you for whatever game she’s prepared. She needed you for…a purpose. But something happened today, something that made her careful exterior crack, and she ordered me to take you here and leave you to die.”

The last word is nearly lost in another howl, making both of us jump. I stare at the girl, who’s only a few years older than me, her body shaking and tears running all the way down her neck. Despite her horrible task, I still want to offer her comfort. She is one of my subjects after all, and I have always promised myself I would protect my kingdom. I may not be a queen yet, but I can do this much for her. In this moment, I come to a decision.

“Tell the queen you did what you were sent to do,” I say, my voice stronger than before. Anya glances up at me in surprise, hiccupping as she tries to take a breath. “Tell her you did as she instructed. That I tried to fight, and you had to strike me on the head with a branch. Tell her I was knocked out when you tied my hands behind my back and around a tree trunk. Tell her that you were scared, but you were determined to obey your queen.”

“Princessa…”

“Tell her you ran as soon as you heard the wolves howling. She’ll believe you.”

“And you?”

I glance at the fallen rope between us, then at the broken expression on her face. It still doesn’t feel real, that Queen Pelageya would be anything but good to me. But maybe I only saw what I wanted to see when she was the only person left in my life. I can’t deny it now, the evidence is in front of me. And if I’m being honest with myself, I could see it in the way the queen looked at me. Cold and calculating, like she knew she had won.

I didn’t even know we were playing.

But I do now.

I never wanted to believe she was capable of such things, but I can’t lie to myself, which means whatever comes next will tell me exactly the kind of a person that I am.

“I…” I begin, looking back up at Anya, “I’m going to disappear.”


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