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The Poisoned Princess: Chapter 24


I watch as Ivanka takes her first bite of the sandwiches Pavel packed for us. I’ve never seen him so happy as when I asked him if he could do it in secret. Maxim and Yasha made sure to distract Ivanka as I snuck out with a blanket and the basket and went on a hike to find the perfect place. Finding this little clearing was a miracle, but I think maybe Skazka likes me a little bit now.

“Tell me something about yourself,” Ivanka says. She takes a sip of her water.

“Like what?” I’m lying on my side, propped up on one arm, so I can watch her freely. I’m not sure how we ever even entertained the idea that she was a commoner. Even wearing trousers, she sits like she’s hosting a tea party at the palace.

“I don’t know. But I heard dates are for this kind of thing, getting to know each other.” She blushes, and I swear she gets cuter by the minute. I’m so thankful no one can actually hear my thoughts, because I might actually be embarrassed by how smitten I am.

Wait, no, I take it back. I’m proud of how smitten I am.

“Well, there isn’t much too tell. I was born, I grew up, I trained to fight, and I wasn’t that great at it, so I’m not a soldier. I did get better with time, but I didn’t feel a calling to it. Instead, here I am, living in the middle of nowhere, following Igor’s leadership to earn a living.”

It’s mostly truth, but it’s the best I can do right now. Maybe that makes me a coward, but I can’t tell her more than that. I want to though, very badly. But for this moment in time, I don’t want anything ruining the atmosphere or taking that smile off her face. I’ll find the perfect time, I’ve promised myself as much already. Just not right now.

“That’s all superficial stuff I already know. Tell me why you didn’t like me when I first got here.”

I’m completely taken back by her direct inquiry. I think I’ve gotten so used to her being this ray of sunshine that I forget how every now and again she shows some spunk hidden underneath it all.

“It’s not that I didn’t like you.”

“You didn’t. You didn’t trust me, and you didn’t like me.” She puts her food down and folds her hands on her lap, as she stares me down. “It wasn’t as simple as the fact that I was a stranger. There was something else. What was it?”

At first, I just want to laugh it off, but I can’t do that. If I can’t offer her the truth of who I am, I can at least give her this. She deserves all parts of me, even though I can’t quite offer them up right now.

I hold her gaze for a moment, and then I slowly turn, lying down on the blanket and looking up at the sky. There isn’t even a moment’s hesitation before Ivanka lies down as well, her feet facing the opposite direction, so our heads are near each other. But I don’t turn toward her. Instead, I talk to the sky.

“It’s because I found you breathtakingly beautiful, and I was taught not to trust people who have that kind of a power over someone.”

She doesn’t speak, but I can feel the way her breath hitches for a second at my words. Maybe her silent encouragement is what gives me the strength to keep talking. This isn’t something I’ve shared with many people. Just Igor and Kostya. And I never really thought I’d be telling anyone else.

“My mother was so beautiful, it almost hurt to look at her. People would stop on the street just to stare at her. But in all her outward beauty, she was not kind. She used her beauty as a weapon, constantly manipulating and controlling situations for her own benefit.

“When I was seven years old, I had this friend. He was probably my first true friend, since my mother rarely allowed me to hang out with anyone. She wanted me to grow up above everyone else, but Vanya wasn’t afraid of her the way so many others were. He was two years older than me and decided I was going to be the little brother he never had.

“We would sneak over to the forest and play as much as we could. We’d make up stories and go on adventures. One day, as we were running around and I was too preoccupied with being a pirate to watch where I was going, I tripped over a fallen log and fell straight into a tree.

“I was bleeding pretty bad from the cut, and when my mother saw me, she nearly fainted. Not because I was bleeding, but because my perfect face was ruined. The doctor said the gash would leave a mark.”

I turn my head to the left, just as Ivanka turns hers to the right and our eyes meet. Lifting my hand, I point to the tiny scar at the edge of my right eyebrow, near my temple.

“This is that scar.”

“It’s barely noticeable,” Ivanka whispers, her own hand reaching out to trace it. I hold absolutely still as she touches me, afraid she’ll stop. Her gaze shifts from the scar to meet my eyes, and I know I have to finish the story.

“It didn’t matter to her. She blamed Vanya for ruining my perfect face. You see, I have an older brother, but according to her, he’s never been handsome. I, on the other hand, was her pride and joy. A child as beautiful as her. I think at one time she was even jealous of me.

“But after that day, she seemed to hate me. She exiled Vanya and his family, but not until he got a good thrashing for his role in my disfigurement. Her words, of course. Then she locked me away and wouldn’t let me have friends for years. Punishing me for nothing, but the fact that she couldn’t stand to look at my face.”

I take a breath, calming myself with the long inhale and exhale. I feel raw and open in front of Ivanka. It’s a new experience for me, but I can’t stop now.

“The worst was when she left me in the forest as punishment. No food. In the middle of one of the coldest nights. I thought—I thought I wouldn’t survive. But I did.”

“Oh, Dimitri,” Ivanka pushes herself to her knees and then scoots toward me. I sit up as well, just as her hands frame my face, holding it still as she looks directly at me.

“She is a horrible woman, and I am so sorry that you had to experience that and carry this trauma. You didn’t deserve that. No one does.”

“You didn’t either.”

“What do you mean?”

“I placed my trauma on you and couldn’t see past your face to really get to know you. I’m sorry for that.”

“You don’t have to be,” Ivanka says, still holding my face in her hands. “You had every right to be suspicious. I was a stranger sleeping in your house.”

“And cleaning it. And cooking us breakfast. You were quite strange.”

“I stand by my actions.” She grins, making my heart feel lighter again. “If I’d done nothing, or if I ran after I rested like I originally planned, we wouldn’t be here right now.”

“And what a shame that would be.”

When I lean forward, she doesn’t move away. In fact, she uses her hands on my face to guide me to her. When our lips touch, there’s none of that frenzy we felt yesterday, but something so sweet, it makes my head spin.

It’s just a taste, a gentle reminder that I’m not alone and neither is she. I feel her thumb rub at my cheek, and I smile against her lips before I pull away, placing a quick kiss to her nose.

“What was that for?”

“For being adorable,” I say, before I reach for her again, this time pulling her body against mine. She wraps her arms around my neck, and I use the opportunity to bury my face in the side of her neck. My arms pull her to me as tightly as I can, and we both breathe out a sigh of relief at the same time.

“She’s gone, by the way,” I say into her neck, and Ivanka leans back a little to try and look at me. But I don’t meet her eye. “She died when I was sixteen. An illness came out of nowhere and made her shrivel up in months.” For a moment, I feel anxious that I’ve said too much, that she’ll know who I am and pull back. But she doesn’t.

“I guess we both lack in the motherly love department,” Ivanka says and the laugh that bursts out of me is surprising to both of us.

“Look at how much we have in common,” I say. She smiles. I see something else come into her eyes, but she doesn’t give me a moment to decipher it before pulling me back to her.

I want to press for answers, but I don’t. For now, I let it go, and I simply hold onto her.


We spend hours in the meadow and only pack up to head back when the sun begins to set. I thought I would feel bad about leaving all the work to Pavel, but I don’t. I hold Dimitri’s hand in mine as we walk back, my heart and mind filled with thoughts of him. And how what’s happening between us is doomed.

I know I decided to break my arranged marriage agreement, but hearing Dimitri talk about his mother and what she’s done to him made me think of the queen. If a mother can do so many terrible things to her child, how much worse is someone who doesn’t have that blood connection? I can’t be hasty in my decisions, simply because I’m happy in the circle of Dimitri’s arms. I don’t want to be a selfish queen.

When I return, there will be a prince waiting for me, someone who’s promised to stand by my side as I rule. I owe him a conversation, at least. Before I make forever promises to the man beside me.

“Dimitri,” I begin, because it’s way past due that I ask, “The queen, she’s beautiful and cruel. I know those two things to be true.” He glances down at me, waiting for me to go on. I come to a stop, and he turns to face me fully.

“How bad is it?” I ask, “You’ve traveled enough that you’ve seen the effects of her rule. Please don’t protect me from the truth. Just facts. Please.”

He looks at me for a long tense moment, before he sighs.

“The people are taxed to the point of poverty. There are food shortages where some portions of the land have entirely died off and crops can no longer be grown there. People are overworked and sick. The passage to the human realm is restricted, and people are unhappy.”

“That’s not all, is it?” I ask when Dimitri pauses. He holds my gaze as he shakes his head. I take in a shuddering breath, my heart hurting for the land and its people.

I glance around the forest, in awe of its beauty as usual, and wonder what will happen to it if the queen continues to stay on the throne. It’s becoming more and more evident that I will need to do whatever it takes for the sake of the people. Which almost certainly means that I will have to give up Dimitri.

“Thank you for being honest with me,” I say, offering Dimitri a smile. He studies me for a moment longer, before giving my hand a small squeeze.

“It’ll be okay,” he says. I want to believe him, but reality is settling in slowly, and I’m not sure I’m ready for what the future holds.

For now, I’m holding onto this moment and all the moments before I have to tell him my final decision. It’s not fair to either of us, but when I’m with Dimitri, I forget everything else. I forget my duty to this kingdom. Still, I have to tell him, and I have to tell him soon. And maybe he’ll be able to salvage his heart after I leave. It’s already too late for me.

“There they are. We were about to send a search party,” Yasha singsongs that last part, playing a little tune on his balalaika. The men are gathered around the table, dinner spread out in front of them.

“Stop glaring at Yasha and sit. We’re hungry,” Igor says. I chuckle as Dimitri growls beside me. I move to my spot on the other side at the head of the table, and Dimitri makes a noise of protest.


“Too far,” he adds with a little whine in his voice. I try not to show just how adorable I find him.

“Dimitri, get a hold of yourself for five minutes,” Igor’s voice booms across the table. I drop Dimitri’s hand immediately and take my seat. Dimitri sends one long glare at Igor, as he walks around and takes the seat next to him—on the opposite side of the table from me.

“Who would’ve ever thought, our little Dimitri.” Pavel shakes his head.

“It’s truly a sight to see. Miracles do happen,” Kostya comments with a completely straight face. My eyes dart between the men. They are having way too much fun with this. I can’t even blame them, because it’s entertaining to watch Dimitri squirm. He really did give me the perfect day today.

Not only had he taken me on the sweetest date, but he shared something with me that I know wasn’t easy for him. Dimitri might be a softy, but he is not one to share pieces of himself easily. And today, he gave me that gift. I have to make sure that he doesn’t regret it. When it’s time for me to say goodbye to him—because that time will come—I have to do my part to make sure that he doesn’t close himself off. I don’t have to know much to know that’s how he operates. I’ve watched him long enough to figure it out.

“Shall we have another game of chess?” Maxim asks, his eyes darting between Kostya and me.

“I don’t think Kostya has recovered from the last one.” I grin, then take a bite of my stew. The hollering starts at my words, and even Kostya smiles.

“That’s fine,” Arseniy says, “he doesn’t need to recover. Please crush him again.”

That brings more laughter as the men talk over each other. Their chaos never fails to warm my heart. There’s something uniquely precious in the way they are with each other. I hope they never lose that.

After I’m gone, I hope they continue to sit around this table and scream random pieces of conversations over each other, while Igor sits back and enjoys his food. And Yasha plays his balalaika as the background music.

And Dimitri. I hope he continues to smile, even when I’m not around to see it.


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