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[17] Found Out

They wind up walking around for a while longer. Elaine doesn't think that too much time passes, but a good few minutes are spent just talking and enjoying the flowers.

Of course, Elaine has her worries. She doesn't want to be away from her job for too long— for fear of getting caught.

But being with Nikola is so nice...

Nikola talks about the hunting trip. He explains how they went out to track deer, how the process of finding the animals goes, and how his magic is impossibly convenient for hitting targets. When he shoots an arrow, he can control its path to some degree... and that makes him a near-perfect shot. Elaine is, of course, amazed. Nikola is good at everything, it seems.

That fact makes her proud for reasons that she can't quite place.

And Nikola coaxes her into talking about her own life, as well. Elaine is nervous about saying anything. It might get her in trouble to whine about her life, and anyway, why would Nikola care about an endless string of exhausting chores? The prince is persistent, though, and before long, Elaine is slipping into a bit of rambling about her frustrations. With Nikola, it's way too easy to talk about things that would normally never leave her mouth.

About the other serving girls, about work, about how tired she is— all of it comes to Elaine's lips easier than she ever thought it could. It's the first time she's voiced most of it, and with Nikola there by her side, it doesn't feel weird at all.

"Wow, I didn't know you had so much to do," Nikola says with a mixture of wonder and worry when Elaine describes what a typical day for her is like.

"It's constant," she sighs. "The work never ends."

"Would you like to do something else if you could?"

That question gives her pause. Elaine has never thought about being anything but a servant. It's practically a foreign concept, and at any other time, she would have felt ungrateful or about to be punished for even thinking it. Can she even answer something like that?

Elaine goes quiet for a moment before finally finding the words. It takes a lot to get it out, but...

"...yeah, I might. It's hard to say. It's not like I could think about that kind of thing. People like me... don't really get a choice," she explains, closing her eyes for a moment as she does.

Nikola goes quiet too. Elaine can feel his eyes on her. She's just about to take the words back and apologize, but—

"Nikola, what are you doing out here?"

A voice that Elaine never wanted to hear comes from behind them.


While Nikola turns around to face her, Elaine's hands fist in her skirt from pure terror. They've been caught. She's been caught. The prince likely won't be in trouble for doing as he pleases, but her, a mere servant? Not only did she sneak away from work, just being in his presence could easily end badly for her. Elaine swallows heavily. A cold sweat runs down her back. She can't bring herself to look at the woman who found them.

"Oh... Regina. I'm just having a walk," Nikola says, sounding impossibly casual for the severity of the situation. Elaine prays that he can make an excuse and brush this off.

"With who? Is that...?"

"Yes, I've heard you know her. Elaine's attended you a couple of times during your stay, hasn't she?"

"She has. However, this raises the question of why she's here with you, doesn't it? I would have assumed her to be busy at this time of day." Although Regina's tone is perfectly neutral and not angry in the slightest, Elaine is nothing short of terrified. She feels close to throwing up. She's doomed.

"I invited here," Nikola says simply. "That's all there is to it. We're friends, so I wanted to speak with her for a bit."

Elaine can practically feel the tension in the air.

"I see. And how, may I ask, did you come to be friends with Miss Elaine?" Regina's questions just keep getting worse. Elaine wishes that Nikola would just make something up. He could say that she's simply assisting him with something, couldn't he?

"We ran into each other a couple of times and hit it off. Since she hasn't been out of her part of the castle often, I thought I'd show her the gardens. They're lovely this time of year, as you know."

"...Elaine, please face me," Regina orders.

All but trembling, Elaine obeys.

When she looks at Regina, a wave of nausea runs through her. While there's still no anger in either her voice or her expression, the cold, questioning way in which Regina is looking at her makes Elaine want to hide. It's terrifying. She feels the same as a pinned insect, caught under the gaze of a woman with a tack. If Regina is upset, she'll be punished for sure.

"You need to get back to work, don't you? I'm sure you've been here with Nikola for long enough," Regina says in a soft, almost caring tone. "I'd hate for you to get in trouble for being here. I need to speak with the prince for a moment, so please run along."

Elaine nods shakily. With one last glance at Nikola, seeing how he somehow still seems perfectly at ease, she scurries away, her heart in her throat. She gets back inside the castle quickly. The only thing keeping her from running is the fear of being questioned, but she keeps a fast pace.

Getting away from the two is the best thing she can do. And all she can hope for is that Regina won't tell anyone what she's done.

It's up to Nikola to protect her now.

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