Poppy exited the bathroom wearing her clean clothes. They were still damp, but she had nothing else to wear. Everything else she owned was still in that guestroom, if it hadn’t been cleaned out yet.
At least she didn’t have much to lose. Poppy liked to collect things, yes, but it wasn’t like her things weren’t replaceable. Right now she just wished she had something dry to change into. Thankfully the bandages were fairly new so she was able to rewrap her ankle with the same wrappings.
Her hair was still damp and dripping despite wringing it out over the tub. Poppy had thick hair, so it took its time to dry. The lack of a towel hadn’t helped, although she couldn’t blame the prince for forgetting to give her one. Not that he had any in her size anyway.
Speaking of which, the sitting room was oddly quiet. His chambers had two bathrooms, one adjacent to the bedroom and the other off the sitting room. Poppy had emerged from the latter one to find the place quite empty. Perhaps he was in his bedchamber?
No, not there, Poppy found when she peered into the room. The large bed sat unoccupied and the desk unused. She frowned. Where did he go?
Poppy sat on the rug in the sitting room. She needed a rest after that short walk. Her ankle slightly throbbed, but the pain was nothing compared to earlier. The warm bath seemed to have helped, but more ice would make it better. It’s best to switch out heat and cold with injuries such as this.
If he left during her time in the bath then perhaps something urgent came up. Or maybe she’d just lost his interest, she had no idea. Either way, he was bound to come back at some point. Perhaps it’d be best for Poppy to use this time alone for something useful.
Her first idea was to escape, but she doubted this would be possible until her injury healed. After all, it seemed the only way out were the vents in the ceiling, which was a location she could only dream of reaching even while in the utmost health.
Then there was her other idea. Spying.
If Poppy was stuck here then she’d at least like to know who this crown prince was exactly. He seemed to have multiple personalities so far, including the one which was polite and caring, and then there was the sadistic one. To be frank, Poppy couldn’t keep up with his mood swings, so she figured going through his stuff would help her understand him.
She was also a curious, shrewd little thing.
The first location that came to mind was his desk; there had been plenty of papers she could rustle through. A small part of her warned that looking through the prince’s official documents was a felony, but the rest of her was bored enough to go through with it.
Climbing up the desk wasn’t too difficult; she used the knobs of the drawers with plenty of breaks in between. Once she got to the top, however, she realized just how many papers were piled up. An entire tree must have been chopped down for all this tinder.
There was a particularly large stack, a medium-sized stack, and then a small packet-full strewn across the writing area. Several fountain pens were set in their tray, each costing more than an average person’s monthly salary. Poppy smirked. She’d used one to pry at the baseboards. The prince hadn’t said anything, but rather watched her with an amused expression so it must not mean a lot to him. The loaded bastard.
The packet of papers included detailed paragraphs and illustrations about some project. It looked to be an add-on to the barracks, where the guards slept, but Poppy couldn’t be entirely sure. She was fluent in the language of fae, but she wasn’t familiar with some of the modernized words used by the giants today. She could certainly get by, but any words developed in the past twenty years were gibberish to her. Poppy’s family hadn’t exactly kept up with the times, so how was she supposed to learn?
She understood most of what she skimmed through. The illustrations were particularly beautiful and drawn with a steady hand. Everything from the square footage to the furniture were included, leaving no lack of detail. Whoever’s proposal this was, they had been thorough.
Poppy wondered if it being here meant the prince’s opinion would be taken into account. It wasn’t uncommon for the crown prince to join in official meetings that would impact the castle, and even the country. It was good practice for when they’d be king, in which their opinion would carry much more weight.
She continued flipping through the pages, her eyes darting from one illustration to the next. Her gaze was no longer attracted to the words, but the drawings themselves. Poppy had always admired people who could draw. She’d never had a knack for it, especially since all the writing utensils in this damn place were far too large for her to easily use.
Poppy sucked in a breath as she realized her hair had dripped onto the paper. Dark droplets leached through the absorbent material, staining the white surface. She bit her lip as she pondered whether the prince would even notice. The spots were awfully small, after all.
“You’re the tiniest thief I think I’ve ever seen,” the prince mused. Poppy gasped and instinctively held up her fists and bent her knees slightly. A defensive position. The prince leaned against the doorway, his forearm pressed against it and his green eyes boring a hole into her. “Although, as it turns out, you’re a little spy as well. Will you ever cease to surprise me? Or perhaps I’m foolish for being surprised.”
Well, she wasn’t going to lie and say leaving her alone wasn’t foolish. Spying was second nature to someone like herself. Intel could mean the difference between life and death, after all.
“Sorry,” she said, quietly to even her own ears. The prince raised his brows, but the stern set of his jaw remained. He approached the desk and she took a step back, bumping against the large stack of papers. He reached into his pocket and she braced herself.
“Here,” he handed her a metallic square that she had to hold in both hands. The wrapping read, Gorgon Confectionary. Chocolate. “I remember telling you I’d give you chocolate if you spoke to me. Seeing as this is the first time you haven’t been swearing at me or making an awkward sound, I figure it counts."
Awkward sound? He made her sound like some kind of uncharismatic quack. Not that she’d given him much reason to assume otherwise.
“Thanks…” she said while studying the chocolate. For some reason her eyes wouldn’t quite rise high enough to look at him.
“Well, did you learn anything?” he gestured to the paperwork, his expression abundantly more cheerful. “How’d you like my illustrations?”
Her gaze snapped up to him. “You drew those?”
The corner of his mouth twitched. “Yes, I did. However, I don’t appreciate that shocked expression you have right now. Were they that bad?”
She shook her head. “They’re… really good,” she said carefully. “I just didn’t think you’d have time for such a thing.” She walked back over to the papers, this time careful to not let her hair drip. “Is this your proposal?”
“It is. Last month my father gave me the task of improving the castle in some way, and this is what caught my attention. As our empire grows, we’ll need more guards and soldiers. The best way to grow is from the inside out, so I figured if we increase the capacity of our manpower here, we can eventually improve upon the outposts and barracks in other cities besides the capital.
“After all, Gorryth has done nothing but grow these past several decades. It only makes sense to increase the protection of our cities as the population booms. Not to mention, if passed, this proposal will create tens of thousands of jobs. And perhaps with more guards located in the castle, my father will be more lenient with inviting outsiders into our walls.”
“Lenient?” she repeated, eyes catching on the way graphite was used to scratch shadows beneath beds and behind chests of drawers. So intricate for a quick sketch.
“I’m sure you’ve noticed how hardly any of the castle’s guestrooms are ever in use,” the prince explained. He leaned over to observe the papers as well, and his shadow darkened the packet. A strong scent of something spicy and fragrant came over Poppy. It surprised her, although it wasn’t unpleasant. Actually, it was the same smell that lightly coated the prince’s chambers. It was undoubtedly an expensive cologne.
“Ever since my father inherited the throne, he’s kept a strict prohibition of travelers. Only the most trusted traders and people he personally invites have been given the right to enter our borders, and even then there is a four-week limit to their stay.
“You see, my grandfather was murdered by the previous ambassador of the Azquet Kingdom, so my father naturally became the most suspicious emperor to ever sit on the throne. It’s not a bad trait, but having twelve poison-testers is something I’d call extreme.”
Poppy shook her head at the idea of it. Was there any food left by the time it reached the emperor’s lips?
“Plus,” the prince continued, “just because our relationship with Azquet has suffered, it doesn’t mean our other friendships must fray away as well. In the last ten years we’ve all but lost contact entirely with the southernmost kingdoms. Only Zordine remains on good terms with us, hence the warm-tempered fruits.”
Poppy hadn’t even thought about where the fruit she’d eaten had come from. She didn’t know a lot about this empire’s politics at all, actually. She just knew that when the people left, her family did too. Fairies who lived with giants rather than in the forests needed humans around to survive, after all. It was cohabitation, even if most giants weren’t even aware of the existence of fairies.
It was the exchange of cleaning shoes for a handful of cheese, or dusting off bookcases in return for a length of cloth. House-fairies, so they’re called, take care of household tasks in exchange for food and other supplies. The chores would be finished when the giants weren’t around, and then the giants would leave behind gifts to say their thanks.
However, once people stopped frequenting the castle and the halls grew empty, the fairies became hungry. No one who believed the Old Stories were around anymore, and not all fairies were thieves like the kleptomaniac Poppy was forced to become.
Fairies were fair, after all, and there was nothing worse to them than taking something which didn’t belong to them. Basically, Poppy was a disgrace who spat on her people’s ways. But she was a pixie, too, and she used this as her scapegoat. It wasn’t her fault she’d been left behind to scrounge around for food like an insect.
“To make matters worse, the outside countries are intimidated by Gorryth’s size.” The prince scratched behind his shorn neck. His hair grew longer at the top and was styled out of his face, so the sides and back were neat and clean. “Ever since we conquered Tibeh and Urukash, and became an empire, they’ve felt unsettled. Especially the kingdoms on our borders; they fear we’ll try to take them as well.”
Poppy gnawed at her lip. They were looking at each other now, and Poppy’s mind was swirling with all the information she was gaining. “Won’t increasing the capacity for soldiers make the border countries fear you even more?” she asked.
The prince rubbed at his chin. “I’ve considered that, which is another reason why I’m beginning the expansion within the castle. Once we do that, I’m hoping my father will open our borders again. Then, with our borders open and official diplomats from other countries visiting, they will preferably not feel too intimidated by our increase in defenses. That’s what I’m hoping for, at least.”
He paused. “When I propose this plan at the meeting next week, there will hopefully be enough constructive criticism for all its rough patches to be hammered out. As is, this is certainly not a perfect, or even good plan. But with some pushing from that crotchety old bunch who just love to point out the flaws in everything, it may become perfect.”
Poppy raised her brows in admiration. He’d really thought this out in excess, even accepting it as imperfect. That took both courage and humility.
“The crotchety old group is the board of advisors, by the way,” he detailed. “Not the friendliest, some of them, but they’re undeniably cunning. They’re also trustworthy, what with my father hand-picking each and every one of them.” He sighed, as if actually tired from the idea of it. “That process took years. He didn’t have a stablemaster for nearly half a decade.”
“You’re very trusting compared to your father,” Poppy softly observed.
The prince raised his brows. “How so?”
She shrugged. “You left me alone in your chambers, for one. I could have poisoned your food or something.”
A surprised chuckle escaped him. “Imagine that! Someone as inconspicuous as you could have poisoned me? I think not.” He chuckled again, but his face turned a shade more serious. “I would know if you did anyway.”
Her brows furrowed, but she didn’t comment. Poppy felt like she was floating on dangerous waters.
An uncomfortable moment passed and the prince abruptly said, “Oh! I forgot.” He patted his jacket pockets and removed a handkerchief. He set it on the desk before Poppy and unwrapped it.
A confused expression settled on her face. “What’s this?”
“My sister has a rather large doll collection,” he explained happily. “I was able to sneak into her chambers and borrow a few things I thought would fit you. Could you try them on now?”
Poppy blanched. A few things actually meant a lot of things. Dresses, shirts, pants, skirts, and even accessories lay on the handkerchief. The quality was amazing, too. Poppy fingered the material of the closest dress and found it to be far finer than anything she’d ever worn. Even the doll clothes of royals were on a completely different level.
Her first reaction was to refuse, but the prince’s expectant stare was burning a hole into the side of her face, and she felt as if declining was not an option. There was also the fact that her clothes were still damp and it made the air quite chilly. Not to mention the cut in her pant-leg.
Poppy groaned and scrubbed at her face.