The Princess Lottery by Stacey Lehane

fiction

A bad thief


When Clea can’t sleep she finds her way to her garden. The smell of the earth and the humming of the wolf flowers is the perfect combination to calm whatever thoughts have kept her up. It’s such a good remedy that Ava regularly finds her curled up against the garden shed, sleep finally caught and wrestled quite literally to the ground.

Which makes Clea being the one to discover Ava in her garden a change of pace – a rather jarring one, actually.

“What are you doing?!” Clea signs, rushing for her workbench and the pepper powder.

Ava doesn’t reply straight away but Clea can’t exactly blame her. She has a wolf flower attached to her arm just below the shoulder and looks like she’s trying very hard not to cry.

Clea retrieves the powder and advances on the tableau, waving Ava into a chair so she can better reach the seedling currently trying its best to take a chunk out of Ava’s arm.

It takes two pinches of pepper dropped carefully over its petals before it hisses and lets go. Ava squeaks as it does, her formidable pain tolerance obviously given a run for its money.

Clea snatches up some gloves and transplants the sneezing wolf flower into a bucket before turning back to Ava, inspecting the bite for signs of poisoning.

“I think you’re okay,” she says. “But we should see Advisor Gerard just in case.”

Ava groans like Clea’s just proposed cleaning the privy. “I’ve had quite enough of Advisors today, thank you.”

“Did I miss something?” Clea asks, removing her shoes so she can retrieve some gel plant. Ava is notoriously stubborn so she’s better off soothing the hurt as best she can rather than try and force her to the infirmary when she doesn’t want to go.

Clea carefully picks her way across the garden, giving Ava the time she needs to stew on her answer.

“I went to see Advisor Heran,” Ava says finally. “About going back to Coomera.”

Clea turns back at that. “Going back? We barely escaped the first time!”

Ava throws her hands in the air, a move she clearly regrets if her wince is anything to go by. “That’s just it,” she says. “They didn’t attack us.”

Clea reaches down to break a leaf carefully from a healthy gel plant before responding. “But Gus said-“

“I know what he said!” Ava says, cutting her off. “He lied.”

The words land like a sack of soil, stilling Clea’s hands. When she finally speaks, she picks her way as carefully across the subject as her garden. “I don’t think I understand.”

It doesn’t seem to be the answer Ava is expecting but she rallies as Clea returns to her side.

“The people, I could understand what they were saying,” Ava explains, wincing slightly as Clea applies the gel to her bite. “They weren’t trying to kidnap us, they were asking for help. They need medicine – something about jewels.”

“Jewel of strait” Clea supplies automatically. Of course. “They’re flaxon deficient.”

It stood to reason. If their crop was failing, so too would any other plantings in the soil. Jewel of strait is the best source of quick flaxon but it requires very specific growing conditions. Conditions Coomera no longer suited.

“And you spoke to Advisor Heran?”

“Yes,” Ava says, voice gone rough. “He’s standing by this bogus kidnapping story.”

Clea shakes her head as she moves for some clean cloth to dress Ava’s wound. “I don’t understand, why would Gus lie?”

“I don’t know,” Ava says angrily. “Why have they kept a universal translator in the Dragon-damned kitchens for ten years?”

“Ava-“

“No!” Ava says, yanking her arm out of Clea’s hands in a move that twists something in Clea’s gut. “You didn’t hear them. They’re desperate, Clea. There are sick children.”

Clea doesn’t know what to do with her hands. Ava’s frustration with the Advisor’s decisions is no new thing, but Clea never realised just how deep it ran. Worse, there’s now the very real possibility that she was right to question.

“Why-“ Clea falters before reaching out, thankful beyond reason that Ava at least lets Clea guide her back to the seat. Clea waits until she’s finished tending the bite before she asks the question that shouldn’t be the most important one given the circumstances but somehow is anyway. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Ava looks down. “You have such faith in the Advisors,” she says. “I- I don’t think I could have borne it if you didn’t believe me.”

Clea feels the words like something sharp in her chest so she does the only rational thing: pulls Ava into her arms. Ava clings back, burying her face in Clea’s neck.

It’s a long moment before Clea pulls back to say, “I will always believe you. It’s you.”

Ava’s smile is watery but very real.

“So,” Clea says. “I assume you have a plan?”

Ava nods resolutely. “I’m getting them the crop they need.”

Clea considers the implication of that sentence. It would mean going against the Advisors, sneaking out of the castle, smuggling contraband across burrough borders… and dragon help her, she knows Ava. This is happening whether Clea helps or not.

Clea looks over her garden and remembers Alma, the head gardener of Coomera, herself suffering the effects of their crop shortage. She remembers the warmth of the people at her back.

And she makes a decision.

“Well,” Clea says. “For starters, you were harvesting the wrong plant.”

“You also haven’t got a way out there,” a new voice interrupts.

Clea’s not the only one that jumps at the intrusion, face going hot with the implications of their being overheard. At the entrance to the garden stand Lydia, Gabrielle, and Fionn.

“We do,” Lydia says.

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The Princess Lottery by Stacey Lehane

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