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A Touch of Poison

Dedicated to
Danaxlouise
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Even from way up in her tower bedchamber, Gwen couldn't help but hear the young maid's shrieks of pain.

Retreating to her room hadn't helped. The hundreds of thick grey slabs of rough-cut stone, the well smoothed mortar that held them all together, the massive oak door with heavy iron hinges that barred the entrance to the room – none of it seemed able to prevent the girl's tortured screams from reaching Gwen's ears. It was everywhere at once, and seemed the only thing she could hear.

Gwen sat on her bed quietly, hands clasped in her lap, her dress smoothed out over her legs. Her calm, placid expression belied the feeling of guilt-ridden dread that sat like a handful of cold gravel in her stomach.

The agonized screams ended briefly and then began anew, practically doubling in volume, causing the muscles around Gwen's shoulders to tighten even more. In fact, it felt as if her entire spine had been stolen and replaced with screeching violin strings. She brushed a stray lock of long, straight, coffee-colored hair out of her face while sighing a bitter, anxious sigh.

She hadn't meant to touch that poor girl's arm. It had been an accident.

And besides, what was a castle maid doing wearing a sleeveless blouse in the first place? Sure, the day was hot enough for most everyone to eschew their heavier clothing – Gwen herself was wearing a sleeveless gown today – but sleeves were part of the regulation uniform that applied to anybody who worked in the castle! How could Gwen have known she'd be sleeveless?

And it had happened in the library, of all places! So, in addition to having to explain about that poor maid's arm, Gwen would also have to try to explain what she was doing there to begin with.

It wasn't her fault!

No, even if that unfortunate maid was one of the new girls, this wasn't Gwen's fault. There were rules. If you didn't follow the rules and you ended up getting hurt, that was your own fault, wasn't it? She had to follow rules she didn't understand, and she was a princess! Did other people think the rules didn't apply to them?

Gwenwyn!” a voice bellowed from somewhere beyond her heavy oak door.

Great. Now he was coming.

A moment later she could hear the clomping of angry boots climbing the stone stairs leading to her tower bedchamber, and her stomach tightened further.

“I won't apologize. I won't!” she said softly, her words sounding frightened even to her own ears. “This wasn't my fault! If she'd been wearing sleeves like she was supposed to . . .”

Gwen took a deep breath and lifted her chin, focusing her gaze on the door and preparing herself. It was always necessary to put up a token front - Gwen had learned early on that apologizing immediately was never a good idea.

She wondered what she should call him this time.

There was always 'father', spoken with heavy irony and disdain - that one always got his goat. It was over six weeks since her last incident though, and with all the changes he'd made around the castle she was more than a little afraid. Honestly, she had no idea how angry he was going to be this time.

Maybe it was best if she didn't use 'father' on this particular occasion.

'Highness' might work. It really bugged him . . . but very rarely did he ever slap her for calling him that, even when she was all ironic about it.

Without even a knock of warning, her massive bedchamber door burst open with a speed that should have been impossible. A moment later her father was standing there in her room, the dark nothingness of the stairwell looming behind his round face like a black halo, his thin curls of brown hair arranging themselves like a briar patch on either side of the simple gold crown he wore. His eyes were burning holes into her, and his massive chest was heaving from the effort of climbing up the stairs.

Gwen stood up from her bed as gracefully as she could and bowed from the neck, hoping that the rest of her wasn't trembling as badly as her tummy muscles.

“Highness,” she said. “This is a delightful surprise. I hadn't expected to see-”

“Do you want to tell me what the seven hells that is all about?” Bryn bellowed, jerking an angry thumb over his shoulder.

As if on cue, another agonized scream pierced the air. It was louder to Gwen's ears, now that her bedroom door had been opened.

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