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The Poisoned Princess: Chapter 6


DIMITRI

“You’re not honestly thinking—” I begin the moment we move away from the cottage. Igor lifts a hand, stopping me mid sentence.

“I’d like to hear from someone else first, because we all already know where you stand.”

Okay, so maybe I wasn’t that careful covering up my feelings on the matter. Not that anyone can blame me. There is a stranger in our house.

“I like her,” Maxim pipes up. I groan.

“Well, of course, you do,” I grumble, which earns me another hard look from Igor. “What? She fed him and smiled. Even one of those is enough for him.”

“And what? There’s nothing wrong with that.” Maxim replies, grinning at me.

“I have to agree with the kid,” Pavel says and I nearly throw my hands up in the air in frustration, but I refrain.

“Not you too.” I was hoping Pavel, as the second oldest, would have a little more logic in his head than the youngsters.

“Dimitri, what is the problem here?” Kostya asks, his eyes full of hard-earned wisdom. He’s watching me in his usually calm manner, and my irritation goes down a notch.

“We just returned from a village where we learned that the queen is planning something, and the men we were supposed to meet never showed up. Now we come back to our safe haven to find a stranger in our bed.”

“She was on the couch,” Igor points out.

“Regardless of where”—I round my eyes at him before I continue—“she is in our house, and it is too much of a coincidence. I do not trust her.”

“Did you see her feet?” Yasha asks, completely ignoring me, his ever-present balalaika against his chest as he plays a soft melody. “Those cuts look painful.”

“Like she’s been walking barefoot over piles of twigs and rocks,” Kostya says, nodding.

“And her hair is a mess,” Arseniy says. “She looks like she’s been through something difficult.”

“What is happening right now?” I ask, looking around the group. They completely ignore me.

“I think she’s telling the truth about a tragedy,” Maxim says, completely serious for the first time since we found the girl. “Her eyes are sad.”

“She’s been smiling this whole time,” I try again, but once more, no one budges.

“Her family could’ve been killed, or she could’ve escaped from a cruel master. As we all know, there’s a lot of that going around right now,” Pavel comments, and this time, I do throw up my hands, before running one through my hair.

“And she didn’t just sleep and eat our food. She cleaned and cooked for us. That has to count for something,” Maxim says, shrugging his shoulders a little.

“She appears to be a damsel. We help those,” Kostya says. I twist around to stare at the man.

“I expected it from him,” I point to Maxim, “but not you.”

“Hey!” Maxim exclaims, but Kostya is holding my gaze, as if he’s trying to see inside of me now. He’s good at this logic thing, and I have a feeling he’s about to use it on me.

“If you don’t trust her and think she’s a spy, then that’s all the more reason to keep her close,” he says. I don’t like where this is going. “We can’t let her go if we don’t trust her. She knows where we live.”

“So we hold her prisoner?” Pavel asks.

Nyet,” Kostya replies. “She wants to stay. I propose we give her the refuge she’s seeking and try to figure out who she is and why she’s here in the process.”

“So you don’t trust her either,” I say.

Kostya gives me a tense smile. “Dimitri, you don’t actually expect any of us to trust her, do you? We’re just trying to figure out the best solution for all of us.”

When he puts it like that, it makes sense. I still stand by the fact that I don’t have to like it. Even if it is a smarter move than simply taking her to the nearest village and dropping her off.

“It’s decided then?” Igor asks, looking around the group. No one speaks up. Maxim looks way too eager.

“We should probably set some ground rules,” I say, looking at the younger man. He glances at me, his expression pure innocence, but I can already tell he’s adopting her into his inner circle.

“Let’s not bombard her with questions or ask her for things,” Kostya says, also turning to look at Maxim.

“This feels like a personal attack against me, and I don’t appreciate it,” Maxim says.

“That’s fine. Don’t appreciate it, but still stay away from her,” Pavel replies.

“Someone should stay at the cottage with her when we’re out,” Igor says, quickly raising his hand before anyone can protest. “I know you don’t like to separate, but it’s the best option.”

He’s right, of course. But I really hate it when we’re not all together. There’s a special kind of a power between us when we are, a bond that makes us stronger. I feel much safer when we don’t leave anyone by themselves.

This isn’t what I hoped for, but it’ll have to do.

“Where is she going to sleep?” Arseniy asks, and that’s when I realize that she is going to continuously inconvenience me. Because the place that will suit her the best just happens to be my bed. A bed that I won fair and square and will now have to give up.


IVANKA

They’ve been out there for what seems like days. I stay in the chair, even though I’d like to sneak over to the door and try to eavesdrop on the conversation. But if they return suddenly and catch me, I think that would lower my chances of staying here.

I’d say right now it’s about half and half. Some of them seemed to like me, but Dimitri might be my swing vote, and I have no idea if he can be persuaded by the rest of them.

As I wait for them to deliver my verdict, I glance around the cottage with the fresh eyes of someone who might be living here, even if it is only for a few days. There isn’t much room for the seven of them, and I will be underfoot. I’ll have to find a way to work around them, maybe get up earlier and go to bed later? It’ll be something to figure out. If they decide to let me stay.

My mind keeps jumping between the hope of staying and the fear that I’ll have to return to the woods and face whatever monsters lurk there. I’m so deep in my thoughts I don’t even hear them return.

Suddenly, they’re standing around the table again, and I jump at the sight.

“Are you okay?” Igor asks, and I nod quickly.

“Just tired.”

He gives me a kind smile, and once again, I wonder how such a big man can look so approachable.

“Then it’s a good thing you have a place to sleep.”

At first his words don’t register, and then they do. I jump to my feet, wincing immediately at the careless way I forget about the cuts. But I somehow manage to maintain my composure.

“Oh spasiboSpasibo! You won’t regret this. I’ll be the best houseguest.”

Igor chuckles as I grin.

“I believe you, Ivanka. We have some unpacking and cleaning up to do. Arseniy will show you around the place.”

“Thank you,” I say again, because I truly have no other words left in me. Igor nods again and motions for the men to follow, and some of them do. Pavel leans over to start collecting the dishes, as Yasha—I think—helps. I start to help them, but Pavel waves me away.

“You cooked, so I’ll clean.”

“But—”

“No buts. When I cook, you can help clean.”

I accept his words and turn to Arseniy.

“I guess that means I’m with you.” I give him one of my smiles, and he returns it almost reluctantly. He’s watching me the way everyone else is, but I stand by my initial assessment that I might have found an alliance in him, something I don’t have with most of the others. Well, maybe with Maxim, but that’s it. Arseniy’s steady gaze definitely looks different than Dimitri’s.

I don’t turn to watch the rest of them leave the room, but I know Dimitri is watching me. Just like I know the sun comes up in the morning. That man’s dislike of me is beyond evident.

It doesn’t matter though. He was clearly outvoted. So as long as I stay on everyone else’s good side, I’ll be fine.

“Follow me, please,” Arseniy’s voice breaks through my thoughts. He leads me away from the table and toward the side of the house with the fireplace and the bunk bed.

“As I’m sure you already saw, we sleep out here and in the other room.” Arseniy steps up to the fireplace, crouching down to the left of it and pulls on a handle I hadn’t noticed. A door opens, and I see a ladder leading down. “We have a large storage area down here, with canned vegetables and jams, as well as grains. If you ever run out of anything in the kitchen, this is where you’ll come. Make sure to bring a lantern—there’s no light down there.”

I nod as he shuts the door and stands back up, walking over to the bunk beds.

“Igor and Yasha sleep here.” He points to the huge trunk at the foot of the bed. “This is for clothes.” He opens it, and I see that it’s divided into sections. I’m assuming for a single person. “Each of us has one.”

“Pavel takes the couch, since he’s up first to make breakfast.” Arseniy leads me to the entrance and points to the door on the left. “This is another storage area.”

He opens it, and I find a small room with shelves for shoes. Coats hang on one side and weapons on the other. The shelves are mostly empty, because the shoes clutter the floor. I nod to myself. I’ll have to make this one of my projects.

“The loft upstairs holds just two beds—Kostya and Maxim sleep up there. It’s a coveted space during winter, since it’s the warmest, so we play for it when the weather starts to turn.”

“Play for it?”

“Oh, yes,” Arseniy grins, nearly blinding me as his whole face lights up. “We come up with a game for basically anything, so there’s never any preferential treatment. For the loft, we held a dance competition. Who can do the most squats while squat dancing. Igor almost had them too.”

I chuckle right along with Arseniy because I can’t even picture the giant man trying, let alone nearly beating Kostya and Maxim, who seem much lighter on their feet. But I file away that bit of information, just like everything else I’m learning.

Arseniy leads me to the other room next, pointing to the small bed to the left first. “I sleep here, and Dimitri sleeps there.” He turns and points to the large bed against the opposite wall with the drapes pushed back.

“One man sleeps in that huge bed?” I ask. Arseniy chuckles.

“I know, must be nice. But Dimitri won it.” Of course, he did. I almost succeed in not rolling my eyes, but I think Arseniy can tell if his chuckle is any indication. Even in the small amount of time we’ve spent together, I think he’s warming up to me. I’m trying not to celebrate out loud.

“This is the bathroom, as you may have seen.” Arseniy opens the last remaining door in the cottage. “We have running water, but no hot water. So if you want to take a bath, you’ll need to boil some water first. There’s a barrel outside that collects rainwater, or you can fill a bucket and take it out to the front, where we have the large firepit with the grate over it. That’s more convenient than trying to figure out how to boil a bunch of small pots on the stove.” Arseniy describes it all matter-of-factly, but I’m still focused on the no hot water bit.

“What do you mean ‘no hot water’?”

Everyone has hot water. Isn’t that the standard in the kingdom? I thought when the human realm became known to Skazka, that was one of the first accommodations made, right along the indoor plumbing. Since it’s a standard in the human realm.

“It is very inconvenient, but not bad,” Arseniy says, completely oblivious to my inner turmoil.

“I suppose it makes sense, considering how remote we are,” I mumble, even though it’s clearly not too remote to have an indoor bathroom.

“Most of the kingdom doesn’t have hot water.” Arseniy’s words shatter that illusion quickly. Now, I’m confused all over again.

“But hasn’t the kingdom adapted this convenience?”

“What he means is that the evil witch sitting on the throne is keeping the best conveniences for herself. And for those she likes, I suppose. She can’t have the bottom of the barrel commoners live in such luxury, can she now?” Maxim walks into the bathroom, munching on a piece of bread. Arseniy turns immediately, smacking his brother on the back of the head.

“What did Igor tell you about talking like that?”

“What, with my mouth full? I’ll swallow first next time.” Maxim grins and then ducks when Arseniy reaches for him. Turning to me, he gives me one of his Maxim grins—as I’m officially deeming them, because they’re bright and carefree and a little mischievous all at once—and says, “What my brother here means is that I’m not supposed to be spreading rumors about the queen. Even though it’s the truth.”

I look between the two men, still not sure what’s going on. Arseniy seems to understand and gives me a kind smile.

“You must’ve been working for a rich family who had hot water in the house. But most places around here barely have indoor plumbing.”

“But I thought the kingdom adapted—”

“It tried. But when Queen Pelageya took the throne, things changed. You see—”

“Arseniy.”

Dimitri’s voice cuts off whatever Arseniy was about to say as the fourth person steps into the bathroom. This room is not meant for so many people, but it’s worse because it’s Dimitri. He seems to steal all the oxygen out of the room.

“We apologize that our accommodations are not up to your standards, Highness, but it is what it is. Now, if you’re done with your show-and-tell, Igor needs you.” He doesn’t wait for a response, but motions for Arseniy to go ahead.

“Highness?” I find myself asking, the word barely passing my lips. Dimitri glances over his shoulder, that ever-present suspicion in his eyes as he looks at me.

“We’re simple folk here. Hope you don’t expect royal treatment.”

And then he’s gone, as if he hasn’t just delivered the biggest shock to my system.

Does he actually know who I am or was he just making fun of me? Either way, I need to be more careful around him. There’s no way of knowing what he’d do with that piece of information. But there are two pieces of information I take away from all this. One, the men obviously dislike the queen, which makes me think they’re not going to turn me over to her, even if they find out who I am. And two, I really don’t like this grumpy man.


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