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The Poisoned Princess: Chapter 8


“Are you ready?” Kostya asks as I enter the room.

It’s been almost two weeks since Ivanka showed up, and I am most definitely not ready for anything because I slept terribly. Again. I sure hope my bed is being appreciated. Everyone else seems much more chipper than me. And I realize this is my day to head to the nearby village for supplies.

Typically, it’s one of my favorite things to do, especially when Kostya and I travel together. He doesn’t feel the need to fill silence with unnecessary chatter. It’s my time to be in nature and give my mind a quiet place to think without worrying about a thing. Aside from sleeping, it’s the only time I have any peace and quiet.

“I’m ready.” Ivanka’s voice shatters any illusion of peace before it can take shape. She turns and seems to realize the question wasn’t directed at her.

Our eyes clash like they have a tendency to do, and I have no idea what to think about that. It’s doesn’t matter how many days have gone by, the effect she has on me hasn’t diminished. In fact, it’s gotten worse every day, which is now making me concerned about my state of mind.

“You’re not coming with us,” I say, stepping past her into the kitchen and grabbing a mug for some tea. One of our necessities for the cottage was a samovar. This one is crafted out of iron, with a large body that holds water, a steam vent on top where a teapot sits, and a tap at the bottom to dispense water.

Pouring some brewed tea from the teapot on top into the mug, I use the tap to dispense the hot water before adding two spoons of sugar. The men sit around the table, munching on the egg and cucumber breakfast sandwiches. I lean over Kostya to grab one and don’t miss his smirk.

“What do you mean? Of course, I’m coming. This is part of the deal. I pull my weight.”

“Well, you can do that by staying here.”

“Excuse me, but you are not the boss of me.”

I turn just in time to watch her place her hands on her hips. Her hair is wild from sleep, and the clothes she’s had on for the past thirteen days have seen better times, but she still carries herself with an air of authority. There’s that contradiction again. I notice the way her cheeks heat up at my inspection, but she’s not backing down. It’s an interesting combination. And by interesting I, of course, mean annoying.

“Tough break, Highness. But this is a big boy’s job.”

I don’t miss the way the men snicker, and granted, I didn’t like that description either, but I see her eyes narrow, so clearly, I used the right one to irritate her. She’s so…peppy about everything. It’s irritating me, so I’ll irritate her right back.

“What a strange way to assert dominance.” She narrows her eyes, before grinning up at me. “Are you trying to overcompensate for something?”

I cock my head to one side, my eyes sliding into slits as I glare at her smiling face. We’re facing each other now. She barely comes up to my nose, but she’s not backing down. Smiling at me with that wild hair and bare feet—that have at least stopped bleeding, although the cuts have reopened a few times—there’s something about her. Even looking like a tiny fairy princess, she still carries herself…taller somehow.

Fairy princess? I’m clearly out of my mind.

“Be careful, Highness. One of these days, that mouth of yours is going to get you into a situation you can’t get out of.”

“Oh, don’t you worry about me and my mouth, Grumpy. We’re very capable.”

My eyes drop to those lips, and I feel something hitch inside of my chest. The room is suddenly hotter than it was before. I glance up to meet her gaze and instead of the sparkle I’ve come to expect, it’s turned almost curious. I clear my throat, determined to keep my eyes on her face, when someone slaps me on my back.

“I’m going to stop you here before you get yourself into any trouble,” Yasha says to me, wrapping his arm around my shoulders. “Ivanka is coming to the forest with us to pick blueberries.”

“Oh.” I glance between Yasha’s grin and Ivanka’s look of confusion.

“Isn’t that where you’re going?” she asks. I must be imagining the slight hitch in her breath…or transferring my own response onto her.

“Dimitri and Kostya are traveling to the nearby village for some supplies. We didn’t stop on the way back from—”

“Better get moving,” I interrupt, before Yasha spills any of our secrets. He nods quickly, then lifts his balalaika into his arms and begins playing a melody. He’s always good for a send-off song. I have no idea how he keeps all these songs in his head.

I don’t look at Ivanka again. Which is a very smart move on my part because I have no idea what my brain is doing. Sleeping on the floor when I’m used to my comfortable bed probably messed with my mental capacity. I’ll have to work on that when I return.

After nearly swallowing my tea and breakfast sandwich, I head outside to pack a satchel. We’ll be returning with grain, so we’re not carrying much to the village.

This cottage really is in the perfect location. There are three villages within a day’s journey, which means we can rotate between them without arousing suspicion. Especially since we keep changing up who goes where. It’s less conspicuous than all of us showing up at once. Everything about this trip and our being here has been meticulously planned out. Well, except for the girl showing up on our doorstep—there’s no way I could’ve planned for that.

“Are you all set?” Igor comes out of the house, as I’m checking over my boots. I probably should get another pair soon. This one has seen some wear and tear.

Da, we’ll head out as soon as—”

“I’m here,” Kostya announces, pulling his own bag over one shoulder. We’re both dressed in blue button-up shirts and dark trousers. We look more like travelers from the human realm than from another kingdom. That’s how I like it.

“Make sure not to overstay your welcome,” Igor cautions, looking directly at me, “and don’t ask too many questions.”

“I’m not the problem child here,” I say, appalled. Which only earns me a very Igor roll of the eyes. “Make sure to watch her,” I say, nodding toward the house. “I’m still not sure about her.”

“She seems just as unsure about you,” Igor says, and I have no idea what he means by that. But I do know that I were rather be here watching over them than leaving them for two days with a stranger. Granted, she looks like she couldn’t hurt a fly. But looks can be deceiving. I know that better than anyone.


I try not to watch them leave. The fact that I even want to makes me pause. I’ve surprised myself so many times in the last two weeks, I’m not sure I can take any more. Talking back like I did to Dimitri isn’t something I’m used to doing, but it felt right to say what I wanted to say. I didn’t even realize until this moment how many things I’ve kept quiet about over the last ten years.

“We should head out as well,” Arseniy says, just as I pick up the discarded dishes from breakfast. “It’s best to be back before dinner.”

Pavel appears then, taking the dishes out of my hands.


“No buts. You have a job to do,” he says, moving toward the kitchen. He really is incredibly protective of that space, although, he does allow me to help some.

He reminds of Tetia Alla in that way.

My heart thuds as I think about what she must be going through right now. I have no idea what the queen has told the staff, but I know that if I was still there, Tetia Alla would have expected me to come visit before breakfast. But I haven’t been there and Tetia Alla would be the one to notice my absence. I just hope that since Anya was supposed to get rid of me, the queen is satisfied and doesn’t bother any of the staff. I don’t want anyone to get in trouble on my behalf.

Spasibo, Pavel,” I say and the other man nods his head in response. He and Yasha are the two who speak the least out of the group, although Yasha does sing everywhere he goes.

Case in point as he walks back into the cottage, strumming his balalaika and humming. He doesn’t even pause but walks through the room to the bathroom, taking the music with him.

“Is it far?” I ask Arseniy.

He shakes his head. “Not very. There’s a clearing about a ten-minute walk from here that’s ripe for harvest. Is there a problem?” He picks up on my hesitation immediately, and I wonder just how expressive my face is. I give him a smile and glance down at my feet.

“Just concerned these flimsy shoes won’t hold up much longer,” I reply. The sides of the ballet flats are ripped from my rush through the forest. These are definitely not outside shoes. I haven’t left the cottage since I’ve arrived, so I haven’t worried about it until now.

“What exactly were you doing in the forest with such poor footwear?” Arseniy asks.

I can’t help but chuckle. “It wasn’t exactly a planned outing,” I reply.

The man looks up at me, giving me a scrutinizing look—something I’ve become accustomed to from Dimitri, although Arseniy’s gaze doesn’t elicit the same type of response.

“We should see about finding you some boots.” Arseniy turns toward the closet near the entrance, but I already know it’s useless. They have much bigger feet than I do.

“I’ll be okay. I’m just going to have to be extra careful about where I step.” I hope my facial expression is reassuring, and after a moment, he relents.

The others have things to do, but Yasha joins us outside the cottage, two buckets in one hand, a balalaika in the other.

“You take it with you everywhere?” I ask.

The man hooks the buckets over his arm automatically, pulling the balalaika to his chest and strumming a few cords. “You could say this is my emotional support balalaika and I need emotional support dealing with these knuckleheads,” Yasha says.

I chuckle. They all seem so particular, and yet they fit together somehow. It’s an interesting puzzle.

We say goodbye to the others and head for the woods, with Arseniy leading the way. I’ve never picked blueberries before. Of course, I know they grow on small bushes all over the Skazka forest. But for the longest time, I thought we had an unlimited supply at the castle and didn’t realize someone had to go out and collect them. Yasha continues to strum his balalaika gently, giving the slightest illusion of sound that blends with the forest song.

Now in the light of day—and when I’m not running for my life—I can appreciate just how beautiful Skazka is. The trees here are so tall, they disappear into the sky. It looks like they go on forever. They create a cocoon of sorts, enveloping us in greenery from top to bottom and along every side. Birds sing and insects buzz, as the gentle breeze rustles the leaves. There’s magic here that has nothing to do with ancient powers, just the simple comfort of nature. I smile to myself as I carefully make my way through patches of bluebells and daisies.

“Through here,” Arseniy’s voice pulls me from my thoughts. I glance up to find him motioning past a row of trees. I step up to him and nearly gasp. There is a small cleaning, surrounded by trees. It’s filled with short bushes, and even from here, I can see the clusters of blue under the green leaves.

“Wow, that’s beautiful.”

The light shines through the tops of the trees, making shadows dance. The image fills my heart with wonder, I’ve never seen anything like it. I think I could spend hours here.

“It is,” Arseniy agrees, motioning me to follow. We stop right in the middle of the bushes and Arseniy gestures for me to put the bucket down. He crouches down and proceeds to take the ripe berries between his fingers, gently rolling them back and forth until they snap off the branch.

“Just like this.” The man looks up, and I grin, thankful he offers me information so freely.

I plop myself down as gracefully as possible and follow suit. The forest continues its song around me, and I feel soothed somehow. My fingers move almost automatically, as if I’ve been doing this my whole life. There’s peace here among the wild blueberries and the sun sneaking though the trees. It brings with it a sense of possibility—of hope. With the craziness that my life has become, it would be easy to fall into despair. But if there’s still beauty in the world, that means that there’s still hope. For a moment, it almost feels like everything might just turn out okay.

I hold onto that feeling with everything I’ve got.


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