Note: This chapter ended up being quite a bit longer than I expected, so I’ll be breaking it up into 3-4 parts. The whole chapter will not finish posting this week.
My sister stayed in the Frozen Lands long enough to see the miller’s daughter and the prince wed. Of course, the Queen assumed her to be the girl’s handmaiden, so it was nearly impossible for my sister to slip away. But she did, under the guise of being dismissed by the princess, who was really so thankful to my sister she would have granted her anything in her royal powers. My sister, free of the royal family, headed off for more adventure.
The skies were dark, just as they had been for the past week, an otherworldly cold shifting through the city. Outside the castle gates, the war on the seas raged, the mer and humans dying and drowning. Slowly, the city was being evacuated as the water level rose inch by inch. The docks had been emptied two days before and, just yesterday, merchants had started driving carts and wagons out into the countryside and other towns and cities. Perhaps even other kingdoms that weren’t at war.
Abigail couldn’t blame them, but she did wonder what it meant for her beloved city and the kingdom she would one day rule with Adrian.
It was still a foreign thing to think: ruling over the Glass Kingdom. In the past week, she’d seen Adrian only twice, both times in his office while his eyes could barely keep open, to plead with him to sleep or eat something. The King had been keeping him busy. It was Adrian’s job to keep the city safe while the King oversaw the war. With panic and flooding, the city was in pandemonium and Adrian was doing his best to evacuate the city as orderly as possible, and to protect as many structures as possible.
The castle had similarly emptied out. The court had scattered a week ago, the day after the castle had flooded. Families pulled out their children, the young lords and ladies trying to find a toe into court. The courtiers had simply fled. Silence echoed now throughout the halls, though the lower floors were teeming with activity as injured men and women were brought in. The fae had arrived, and some boys and girls from the city had chosen to help tend to the wounded, to either nurse them back to health or see them off into as painless a death as possible.
Abigail pulled the loosely tied shawl around her shoulders tighter as she walked the quiet upper halls. Her footsteps echoed as the morning sun rose behind the dense cloud cover and her feet led her back to the kitchens. There, at least, activity was loud and constant. Cooking and baking for all the soldiers, both out at sea and in the castle, as well as anyone else left in the castle and city, kept them busy.
Alone, she descended the stairs, lifting the gray skirts of her gown so she wouldn’t trip. Rain rattled the windows as she passed, or was it more waves thrown by the sea witch? Biting her lip, she hoped James and Poppy were happy in the linked world, and safe.
Controlled chaotic noises met her ears as she descended to the bottom levels. Here, she skirted around impromptu beds and weary but uninjured soldiers sitting with their backs against the walls. She offered soft words and the occasional hand grasp as she passed, whispering words of encouragement and promises of warm food to come soon. Grateful eyes met hers, few of them knowing they spoke to the woman who was likely to be their Queen one day. Unlike a woman like Madeline, she didn’t care. All that mattered was keeping their morale up, keeping them fed, keeping them going for as long as the kingdom needed them.
As she finally pushed into the kitchens, her lips twisted. Camille had been keeping her updated. Their father was usually cloistered with the King, fitting as he knew the mer better than any other human. Muriel and Madeline had been keeping to themselves, locking themselves up in a room for quiet mutterings Camille could only catch snatches of.
Camille had told her about the fae tower. Just thinking about it made shivers run down her spine. There was no telling what either woman wanted the tower for, but Camille had quietly and secretly placed a rotation of guards near the tower to inform her if either woman appeared. So far, both had kept themselves locked up in the manor. Which was almost a shame as some of the waves the sea witch sent now and then were powerful enough to sweep someone away.
“Here, my Lady,” a kitchen servant said, bobbing a curtsy as she handed off a large bowl of bread dough before Abigail could chastise herself for such thoughts.
Abigail smiled her thanks and headed off for a work space, happy to get her hands into kneading the dough and her mind on something else. Before she knew it, her hands were working at the dough, stretching and folding in a rhythm she felt in her bones. Around her, pots clattered, the staff shouted, and two little girls went rushing around with brooms. If she didn’t think too hard, it felt almost normal.
Almost like clockwork, the dough in her hands was switched out as she finished and started. A little boy was in charge of making sure she always had something to do. Well, her and the three other women working at the same table. They didn’t speak to each other, the three of them too frightened to speak to their future Queen, because Adrian had appeared once on orders of the Queen to eat something and had given Abigail a kiss on her cheek, and Abigail had to admit she didn’t mind since small talk was not something she excelled at, though it did gnaw away at her mind, wondering how to put these three women at ease.
A light touch to her elbow had her gasping in surprise and her hands spraying flour all over and around her.
Her startled eyes met a bemused Adrian’s, flour sprinkled on his hair, though he still smiled at her as though he weren’t Crown Prince. He stood there, at ease, looking every bit like the earnest man from the markets.
“Adrian, you startled me,” was all her mouth could say.
He held out a hand to her. “I’m sorry, Abigail. I was just standing here, watching you knead and knead and knead.” He gave her a lopsided smile and shrugged a shoulder as she placed a floured hand in his. “I didn’t quite know how else to get your attention.”
She was certain her cheeks were flushed as her eyes swept back over the work table, catching the three women backing away and bobbing curtsies out of the corner of her eye . “I, ah, lose myself in the work.”
“I see that,” he said, his solemn voice drawing her attention back to him. “I know it happens to me.”
She pressed her lips together. “You have a war on your hands.”
“And I’m grateful I have you to remind me to eat and sleep.”
“You don’t sleep,” she said, perhaps a little too shortly than she should have. But what was she to say when he’d almost bitten her head off two nights in a row when she just suggested closing his eyes for a few minutes?
He sighed and tugged on her hand. “I know. I’m sorry, Abigail. Come. I have something for you.”
She eyed him suspiciously for a moment before allowing him to gently lead her from the kitchens. All around them, the staff were studiously ignoring them, but she knew them well enough that every ear was tuned to them and every eye was covertly watching their Crown Prince and the woman he was courting. Her cheeks were hot as he led her out of the kitchens.
“Where are we going?” she asked. “Should I wash off the flour?”
“No,” he said before falling silent and turning to look over his shoulder to grin at her.
Her eyes narrowed slightly. “You haven’t grown up much, have you?”
“Enough,” he answered evasively, somehow seamlessly shifting back into being Crown Prince.
“Adrian,” she said pulling back and slowing her steps.
“Please come, Abigail,” he begged, turning to face her. “Kyanan is busy taking over for me just so I can spend the next hour or so with you.”
“We have a war going on around us.”
“Yes,” he said emphatically, “I know. But,” he said, turning away, “I have to look to after the war.”
He sighed. “I’ll explain when we get there.”
“Get where?” she asked as they resumed walking.
“Did you know there’s a garden at the top of the castle?”
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