Home > The Savage and the Swan(4)

The Savage and the Swan(4)
Author: Ella Fields

Groaning, I gathered the blankets higher over my body, certain the cuts and nicks I’d garnered overnight had healed but not wanting to risk her seeing in case they hadn’t. “I had trouble sleeping.”

Not a lie. When I’d gotten home after I’d hidden the crimson guard’s sword beneath an old carriage wheel in the fields beyond the castle grounds, I’d stared at the whorl bedecked ceiling in a trance, half wondering if I’d dreamed of meeting him.

Until I remembered what I’d overheard beforehand and the reason I’d fled to my rarely visited safe place of solitude. I wasn’t sure of much these days, but I was sure it was no longer safe, and that I would likely return regardless.

Mother pulled the thick lace drapes apart, the breeze sailing in to bid us hello. She smiled, always pleased by this, but that smile fell when she laid eyes on me. “You’re filthy.”

Shit. Perhaps that guard was right, and I was nothing but stupid. For I hadn’t even thought to check my reflection in the mirror above my dressing table before falling into bed. “I forgot to bathe yesterday,” I murmured.

After staring at me for moments I feared would unthread the truth, Sinshell’s queen tutted, muttering to herself as she sang out the door for Linka to come draw me a bath. Returning, her features, though only finely lined considering she was nearing two hundred years of age, creased deeply. “Hurry. Your father and I await you for lunch.”

My stomach hollowed. Both fear and hunger. “I need to tend to the south gardens.”

“You need to do no such thing,” she scolded with warmth. “Make haste, the food wastes.”

I refrained from rolling my eyes at her overused words and threw off the bedding when she’d left.

Linka arrived as I was undressing, a pixie who held mild elemental abilities, and got straight to work on filling the deep tub in the adjoining chamber. A gasp pulled my spine taut, and I turned before the dressing table to find her fingers, so pale they were a soft pink, flutter to her mouth. “Opal, what in the stars happened to you?”

Shifting slightly, I spied what she saw in the mirror above the perfume I’d crafted and bottled myself, various combs, my tiara, rouge, the half-read books, and inwardly cringed. “Oh.” I thought quickly, hoping it was enough. “I had a late training session yesterday.”

“Your father is not usually so…” Linka tried and failed to find the right words, and she was right.

“He was in a mood, I guess,” I mumbled, then sped past her into the bathing room.

Caramel and vanilla wafted from the warm depths of the tub, and I climbed in. Feeling stiffer than I’d thought I’d be, I was thankful for the salted ginger Linka had tossed in to aid in faster healing.

“I thought your father was busy meeting with his generals yesterday afternoon.”

Stars shun me. I knew that lilt to her deep voice, the spark in her vivid cerulean eyes. She’d sniffed out my lie, something I too often forgot pixies were adept at doing, and now she wouldn’t quit.

I could trust her. We’d known one another since I was a youngling of seven years and she was growing into her womanhood and entering service to the Gracewood castle. But if it came down to it, I was painfully aware that trust would only extend so far if she feared I was in danger.

“I ran into a soldier in the fields beyond the castle,” I murmured, tugging the washcloth from her outstretched hand and dunking it into the water.

“Your fallen tree, you mean. The remaining crossover.” Her brow was raised when I looked up, annoyed I’d told her of the crossover in my excitement after finding it some years ago in my youth. “Now is not the time for riddles, Opal. You’ve bruises on your hips and elbows, scratches that have yet to heal, too.”

I hadn’t realized the crimson male’s sword had hit me so hard and frowned into the cloth as I scrubbed my face. Not his sword, I remembered, but the times I’d fallen while dodging it.

“Fine,” I huffed, scrubbing my arms. “I expressed my concern over not having enough practice of late, and he decided to humor me.”

“Who is this soldier? Elhn?” She meant my father’s favored captain, who’d often trained me when he was unavailable while growing through my maturing years. It just so happened that Father was too often unavailable.

That was until I’d had a slight tantrum one afternoon and had almost done something unforgivable. Elhn had thought me unwell, but Father had known otherwise. And nowadays, he said my skills were enough that I could wait until he was free.

The crimson wolf would most certainly disagree.

I might not know as much as I wished I did, but I did know one thing. Father had agreed to train me himself because he’d do whatever it took to keep my secrets hidden. It would do no good for word of my gifts to spread, evoke fear, and place a target upon my back, nor would they help save this dying realm.

“No,” I said in a tone curt enough to suggest I would say no more.

Sighing, Linka mercifully let it go, her next words carrying a different type of wariness. “Look, I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but I don’t want you blindsided…”

“I know,” I said, dunking the cloth. “About Prince Bron.”

Linka quit fussing with the shelves behind me that housed oils, salts, combs, and cloths, coming away with a large one of the latter for me to dry myself with. “You know they wish to see you two marry.”

“I overheard them discussing it, yes,” I said and finished cleaning myself.

Silence trickled with the water as I wrung the cloth and hung it over the rim of the tub before stepping out. Linka wrapped me, tucking the edges of the cloth under my arm as she met my eyes, hers reaching my chin. “I think I now understand why you trained when you’ve no need to.”

Indeed, it had been some winters since I’d last taken up a sword with my father. He could say he had more pressing matters to tend to with Vordane’s forces stealing into our kingdom in small groups to assassinate nobility and high-ranking officials, and the continuous ambushes upon the Royal Cove. Though the latter dwelled in Errin, the human kingdom, we all needed use of it for trade due to the narrow entrances and cliffs surrounding the rest of the northeastern lands of Nodoya.

A weakness of which the blood king was aware.

“A game,” my father had concluded a few months ago in a meeting with his war council. “He plays with us. We are the mice, and he is the feral cat, weakening us while he readies himself for a killing blow.”

I’d listened outside the doors, my heart in my throat and the roses I’d plucked from the gardens to melt and bottle crushed in my trembling hand.

Helpless. As their sole heir, my brother dying before I was born alongside my grandparents in the battle of falling bridges, I wasn’t locked away, but I was given little freedom to help in this seemingly endless war.

And that guard last night, the enemy who could and perhaps should have slaughtered me, had given me a stale reminder of that.

I could be a weapon. I could help. Instead, they wished for me to be a tool.

“It’s for your own protection,” my father ground out from the head of the table as he chewed his venison, his fingers curling into a fist over the giant slab of wood. “Not only that but you will carry on our bloodline. With their protection, you can make haste in ensuring that happens. Send the babe across the seas to the other realms, I care not. But mark my words, Opal.” His voice lowered. “He will come for us, and it’s time we’re more proactive instead of denying this fact. It is clear now that we cannot defeat him. No one can. When he says it’s our time…” He spread his hands, not bothering to finish a sentence that didn’t need completing.

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