The day sped by and I was done cleaning the pen with hours to spare.
“Thank you for your help, Orin,” I told the giant horse as I emptied the last bucketful of green goo into the barrel that would be wheeled away by one of the other staff later in the evening. “I’ve never been done with my task so quickly before.”
He nodded solemnly. There had been no more near-misses. He’d kept his word and kept the other Kelpies at bay and kept his distance, too. Sometime during the afternoon heat, I’d lost some of my distrust of the creature, though I was still wary.
“Will you come back tomorrow?” Water trickled from his mouth with his words.
“Of course. I clean the pens every day.” It was my curse.
“Would it be possible to bring a book with you? Could you read to me?”
My eyebrows raised.
“If I help clean again and keep the others away?”
“Do not trust the prince.”
I gave my head a little shake as I made my way back to the shed and then made a much-desired stop at the hot springs to soak off the stench. What bizarre game was the curse playing?
Though I had expected never to see Prince Lorenzo, he was at dinner, sitting on the dais at his father’s table. I was at the lowest table, furthest from them as the stink of Kelpie never quite left my skin, and we couldn’t have anything unpleasant upsetting the royals.
Orin’s words rumbled over in my brain as I slathered plum preserves onto a slice of bread. My eyes tracked to the high table. I was close enough that I could see the prince’s features clearly. He’d grown up to be a handsome man, but he looked astonishingly like Eric, my gardener friend.
I chewed my lip. Eric was near my age. So was Lorenzo. Was it possible King Hadrian had sired an illegitimate son? It wasn’t uncommon, though the thought cramped my belly.
I brought a book of fairy tales with me to the pen the next day. I’m not sure what possessed me to acquiesce to read to the Kelpie, but I loved a good fairy tale. Even in spite of my curse. Fairy tales had happily ever afters. And I was desperate for one that didn’t involve pails of poop.
I read to him that first day. At his insistence, I read while he brought masses of seaweed to the shoreline. After an hour, my voice was dry and there was a hefty pile of weeds. I fished them out with my rod, and we talked. The Kelpie was an excellent conversationalist. We talked of philosophy, we spoke of poetry, we discussed politics. Things I hadn’t realized I’d missed since the curse fell upon me.
“I’ll see you tomorrow?” There was a hint of desperation in Orin’s voice.
“Of course. Shall I bring the book, too?” The lightness in my heart confirmed that Orin had filled a craving I hadn’t realized I had.
“Please. Thank you, Rhiann.”
Eric met me on the way back to the shed.
“Lass, you are well?” His concern sent little flutters through my middle.
“I am.” I felt my eyes shining, content in a way I hadn’t been since the curse was laid on me.
“Where’s your face covering?” His eyes crinkled in worry.
“Oh. It fell into the Kelpie pond. The big on sprayed water on it. It just disintegrated. I’ve been meaning to ask, are Kelpies venomous?”
A troubled look flashed over Eric’s face. “I’ll see if I can get you another.”
His worry was touching. I nearly told him not to bother, that it interfered with my speaking to Orin, but that would bring more questions and only concern him further.
Dinner that night was baked chicken and roasted turnips. I had just finished wiping my mouth on my linen napkin when footsteps behind me set my back straight and brought a flush to my face. The footfalls were confident, but they faltered as they reached the ring of Kelpie stench that constantly engulfed me.
“I know you.” The deep timbre of the voice sent heat over my shoulders and my heart tripping to my throat. Slowly I turned. My eyes grew wide as I stared into the face of Prince Lorenzo.
“Princess Rhiann!” His shocked voice drew the stares of those around us.
“My lord,” I whispered. He knew me? The curse allowed it?
“What are you doing…here?” He gestured to the lowly station of my table. Knowing the curse would stop me, I tried to explain.
“I’m cursed,” I wanted to say, but instead, “I volunteered to keep the Kelpies. I want to learn about them. It is my greatest wish,” came out without my permission.
“Of course.” The words were supplied for me. “They are a most fascinating race.” If I could have bitten my own tongue off, I would have. I glanced back to his face, seeing again how much Eric resembled him though Lorenzo’s features were darker.
“Let us speak. It has been many years. Do you not have an escort?”
“Please, Your Highness, I do not wish to draw attention. No one here knows who I am.” The curse spoke for me.
“Of course. I’ll meet you in the gardens in one hour.” He winked conspiratorially.
Conclusion coming next week…