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Five days left of the twelve days of giving. Say that five times fast. LOL

It's crazy that I've been able to stick with this given how tired the holidays makes me. It could be all the extra carbs and candy. What goes up (my blood sugar) must come down. The cold weather is not helping, either. I want to live in my furry jammies 24/7. Yes, I said cold even though this is Florida. Next week it will be in the thirties at night. What? That's cray! Cray!

Anyway. (Not trying to rhyme) Here is the next chapter. It is long so I cut it in half, a little more than half. If it is a little less than clean, I apologize. It was either proof it, again, even though my eyes water everytime I focus on my laptop's glowing screen, or post it. The alternative--miss a day. Would you forgive me?


"Hope?" I ask and twist on the floor until my body faces the sound of his voice.

"Let's take a walk," he says.

"Where? The cottage isn't that big."


"Outside of the cottage?"


"Outside in the woods?" I ask in disbelief.

He laughs softly. "Yes, Praya, in the woods."

"Can we do that? I thought it was against the rules."

"I told you, there are some things I can control. Now remember, no peeking." Long fingers curl around my hands and pull me to my feet. "Get dressed. I'll meet you by the front door."

The new lightness to his tone fills me with warmth.

I suspect I'm the reason for his happiness, but I don't know if the pride running through me is warranted. For all I know, this new emotion of his could work against me and go against his mother's rules. The curse’s rules. I don't want to take it away from him, though. To have never laughed is such a sad thing. I want to hear him do it again, harder and louder, so he can experience one of the best feelings in the world.

The bedroom door closes with a soft thud. I open my eyes. As soon as my vision clears, I spy my white dress on the hook. It's freshly laundered, the butterfly brooch clean and safe in the pocket. The cottage is clean, too, the ragged condition it changed to now gone.

The wonders of the place. "Thank you," I murmur to the cottage.

I slip into my dress, put on my beaded slippers, also clean, and hurry to the bedroom door. Before opening it, I bow my head, staring only at the wood floors.

Dacian's boots are visible when I approach the front door. "You look lovely," he says.

I touch my hair, aware of how messy it is and wonder if he's teasing me. But Dacian doesn’t tease.

"I forgot to pull it back." The strands hang loosely around my face, the curls at my waist, frizzing at the ends.

"I like it," he says, a soft smile in his voice.

"Is this allowed, us leaving?" My muscles twitch.

"We won't be long." Now his tone is deep and direct, so different from a moment ago. He takes my hand and opens the door.

"We don't have to go for a walk," I say. "I'm fine with staying here."

"I wasn’t talking to you. I was telling Amus, so he doesn't worry or act out while we're gone. He can be quite loud."

"Who?" Is there another person with us? Should I be concerned?

"The plant." Dacian says.

We step outside. Soft grass cushions my feet and a cool breeze caresses my skin. The day is picnic-perfect. I want to take in the surrounding woods. Instead, I keep my head down and focus on my slippers as he leads me to a narrow trail on our right.

"The plant has a name?" This is bizarre, but then so is everything about this situation.

"I gave it to him. He's the closest thing to a pet I've ever had, no matter how annoying he can be."

I can't help but laugh. "He annoys you, too?"

"Only when he lets out that obnoxious squawk. Since it's his job, it might be unfair of me to hold it against him."

"What do you mean, his job?"

Fallen leaves and twigs crunch beneath our steps.

"Rousing my mother's attention. It's why I first made friends with him. I trained him to report only to me. It's worked for years, though I still get nervous, knowing he can alert her."

I stop. "We should go back. I don't want you to get in trouble—or me."

He gives my hand a gentle squeeze. "We won't. There are things I want to say that should not be spoken in his presence. It's why I suggested the walk. That and I wanted to show you something, which reminds me you don't have to avert your eyes. We're outside. You may look where you please." The smile returns to his voice.

I lift my head. His misty hand clutches mine, the outline of his dark form cloaked in fog like a cloud. I wish I could see his face, to know the curve of his lips and the glint in his eyes. I suspect he has both features, though I also suspect they are not normal, hence his need to keep them hidden.

"You choose to look at me when there is a beautiful forest around you," he says. "It is quite lovely in the daytime. I would think you'd want to see it with all the darkness around you lately."

An unfamiliar and incredibly delightful feeling stirs inside me. I smile at his hazy face and then glance around. Sunlight filters through the tall trees, glinting off the different shades of green like gold. The breeze sets everything a flutter, like the wings of a butterfly. Birds chirp from somewhere to my left, and twigs snap to my right. Is it a bunny, a squirrel?

The forest is most lovely during the day. I feel I've been away from it for too long. Was it just the other day I had been taken? It seems much longer.

"Thank you." I sigh, so grateful for this.

"Don't thank me yet. You haven't seen the best part."

Dacian and I walk farther down the trail. At some point, he got ahead of me by a few steps. I use the opportunity to study him.

Sunlight filters through the trees and shines directly on him. It makes the mist hugging his body near transparent. His shoulders aren't too wide, just enough so that his torso tapers into a trim waist, creating a nice "V" shape. His legs seem strong and in proportion with his body. Nothing appears deformed or unusual. Perhaps, his skin is disfigured. The back of his head is dark with about half of his neck visible. Either he's wearing a bulky hat or his hair is black and grown out.

"What was it you wanted to tell me?" I ask, assuming we're far enough away from the cottage for anyone, even a plant, to hear us. Maybe he's going to tell me why he hides himself from me.

"Have you read more of the book?" He brushes a low branch out of the way.

"Not since the other day. Why?"

He glances back at me. The fog shifts with his head, leaving a trail. "The book has answers to questions you've yet to ask."

"What kind of questions?"

"I am not permitted to say. When you learn information from the book, you can ask me about it. I can't open the dialogue to you."

So he follows rules, too. Interesting. "How would that have worked if I were still bound to the rule of not speaking unless directly spoken to?"

"It wouldn't have. It's taken me decades to learn what I can and can't get away with, even longer to try them for fear of retribution."

I'm about to say from your mother but change it to, "From the curse?"

He stops and looks at me. "You're finally understanding."

"Not as much as I'd like to." I catch up to him, hoping to glimpse his features through the mist. Other than a blurry outline of his head, I can't see much.

He doesn't turn away. Is he studying me the same way I’m examining him? Heat crawls across my cheeks.

A bird swoops low, close enough to touch my hair. I flinch and watch as it soars toward the sky. It's small with bright yellow feathers, Mother’s favorite color. Most of her dresses and skirts were of that shade, bright and cheery like her personality.

A deep ache fills my chest, as if a dark cloud were swallowing my heart. How are Calyssa, Carys, and Father handling things? Are they angry with me? Does Father hate me? When we lost Mother, Father drowned his sorrows in jugs of ale. It took the staff and me weeks to sober him up. Is he back to drinking, and if so, how are the twins holding up? Surely, they blame me. I didn't get to explain what happened. I didn't even say goodbye.

"What's the matter?" Dacian asks.

"Nothing." I lower my head. This is why I don't think about them. It's too painful.

He places a misty hand under my chin and lifts my face. "You don't need to keep your feelings from showing."

"That's not what I'm doing." I turn away.

"It wouldn’t be the first time I've seen a girl cry. I have experience in comforting maidens."

My head swings back to him. "You comforted them?" A dark feeling stirs in my stomach, angry and deep. I don't like it.

A tiny chuckle escapes him.

"Are you laughing at me?"

"I’m surprised." A smile is evident in his voice. "I’m always surprised by you, Praya, who is stronger than anyone I've ever met and doesn't need comforting when she's sad."

He means it as a compliment, but instead of lifting my spirits, it has the opposite effect. For the first time, I feel wrong for the way I protect my emotions.

"You are like your mother in that way," he says, tone soft and reassuring.

My breath freezes. "How would you know?"

"I was there when she was chosen. I always accompany the Messenger."

It's as if the world disappears. My heart pounds in my ears, and a few moments pass before I find my voice.

"You saw her?" I glare in shock. "All this time I could have asked you what happened, if she was scared, if she felt pain, why she was chosen?" I step back. "You should have told me when we first met."

"That would not have been a good first day for you. The first day is hard, the second day even harder. I wasn’t sure what to make of you, either." He lifts his face to the sky and murmurs, "The girl with eyes of the grass and sky will end the curse before she dies."

"That's an odd saying." I tense a teeny bit. "What does it mean?"

"It's a rhyme I learned long ago." He picks up a fat leaf, green with yellow veins, and twirls it in his fingers. "I thought it was about your mother, and I thought it died with her. I'd only glimpsed her eyes a moment before she touched her clothing. I would have saved her if I could have, despite the consequences, whatever they would have been. I would have done it to be free. So we could all be free." He pauses. "I thought it was over. But then you were chosen as Messenger, and I realized you could be the girl in the rhyme."

Ending the curse, now that I hear it might be possible, must be my focus on so I can get back to my family.

But for me to do that, I need to know one thing about the death of my mother. Hopefully, it will pacify my aching heart. For now, anyway.

"Is she at peace? My mother. After they go, are they all at peace?"

He's quiet for a moment, as if he's searching for the right answer, or perhaps, he doesn't know. Please let him know.

Finally, with a confident nod, he says, "I believe they are at peace."

I smile, and my eyes fill with tears. Even though his answer isn't the yes, they're in a better place I hoped for, it's enough. Dacian may be many things, but a liar isn't one of them. If he believes those who have been Fated to Die are at peace, then I will, too.

"Thank you." I let out a shaky breath, the pain in my heart easing a tiny bit. Then I do what I do best, tuck the emotions away and focus on what is important. "Tell me about the rhyme. Is there more to it?"

He shakes his head. "Not that I'm aware of."

"What about the book in the cottage? Could it have information?"

"I don't know. I'm forbidden to read it. I leave it for the maidens, hoping they'll come across something of importance, but I've never been able to talk to one of them like I do you. They feared me, blamed me, or wanted nothing to do with me."

"Sounds familiar," I murmur, reminded of how the kids in the village always treated me. I give his hand with the leaf a squeeze. "Now you have me. We'll figure this out. Together. All right?"

He sighs with a hint of awe. "You really are something."

I can't stop my lips from turning up. "We should head back and get started."

"But we're here." He uses the leaf to point out white bushels of wisteria, cascading toward the ground. One of the full branches curves, creating a shadowed archway.

"It won't take long," he adds. Quiet excitement hums in his words. "I really want you to see it. I've never been able to share it with anyone."

It'd be cruel to deny him this, and I suppose I am a little curious. "Show me then," I say.

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