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[19] Herb Hunting

Elaine doesn't have to wait for long. She's there for only a handful of anxious minutes before a second, much nicer carriage pulls up. The driver goes to the side of it, opens the door, and takes the hand of the woman stepping out.


Just seeing her makes Elaine feel chilled. After what happened last time, she's terrified of what kind of mood Regina could be in.

But Regina, clothed in a rich, dark dress made of thicker fabric more appropriate for traversing the woods, merely takes a deep breath and smiles.

"Don't the woods smell lovely, Elaine?" she asks.

Elaine can only nod.

On Regina's order, the driver of her carriage removes a couple of baskets. Regina takes the smaller one, while the larger one is passed to Elaine. They're relatively shallow and made of a tight weave that wouldn't allow even a leaf to slip through.

"Come on." Regina beckons to her. "Let's get moving. It'll be just the two of us, so follow me closely."

As always, her very presence is intimidating. Elaine, not liking the idea of being alone with Regina one bit, almost hesitates. But it's not like she has a choice, and once she's on her feet, she trails after Regina even though it feels like the wrong choice in every way possible.

The ground under her shoes is uneven and vaguely soft. Elaine is used to the harder, packed dirt of the castle's courtyards or the solid, cold, unyielding surface of stone floors. Leaves crunching beneath her feet and the light give of fresh earth is just plain strange. And on top of that, she has to watch her step. Roots and fallen branches are scattered here and there, making it necessary to focus on where she steps.

Somehow, though, Regina doesn't seem bothered. She steps over the bumpy parts and dodges dips in the ground like she's perfectly used to it. She probably is. Considering her work with potions, Elaine can imagine that this is something she does often.

"Look for a plant with long, dark green leaves, six of them to a root," Regina explains without looking in Elaine's direction. "I need more of that one. The texture of it is vaguely fuzzy, and you'll notice that it smells like mint." She's definitely dumbing it down for Elaine's sake.

Regina's expertise is apparent. Elaine tries not to wander too far from her. As terrified as she is of the woman, getting lost in the woods sounds much worse.

And that's how it stays, for a while. Elaine has a couple of false tries with finding the plant, then a correct guess or two. She talks to Regina as little as possible and tries not to even look at her if she can avoid it. Under the dappled light of the trees, they spend what feels like at least an hour digging for the plant.

While Elaine is left looking for just the one, Regina seems to be picking various things that Elaine can hardly tell apart from anything else in the dirt.

And Elaine keeps her mouth shut.

The last thing she wants is to be forced into a conversation with Regina. And aside from polite responses to any direction she receives and getting Regina's attention to check the plants she's found, it seems to work.

At least, for a while. All too soon, Regina wipes her dirt-covered hands on the soft, new grass beside her and turns to Elaine.

"I think we need to talk."

Elaine mentally curses. And externally, she's pretty sure she flinches. And here she thought she was actually going to get out of this without having to discuss anything. No such luck.

"Y-Yes, my lady?" she asks nervously. "What about?"

"I think you're aware. I'm not angry, so don't worry." Even though she's still smiling calmly, Elaine isn't so sure. "I simply want to know your side of what happened with Nikola. That's all."

That's all, huh? As if something like that isn't a death trap if she answers wrong. Internally, Elaine feels like she could scream. How is she supposed to answer? What can she say? If she lies, her story could conflict with Nikola's and get her in more trouble, but telling the truth feels just as unwise. Regina could very easily find a way to hold the reality of the situation against her.

So Elaine hesitates. She tries to find the words for what feels like far too long, and even when they finally come out, her voice is so weak it almost makes her cringe.

"He invited me, my lady. We'd met a couple of times, and I think... I-I had assumed he thought of me as a friend." Don't even hint at the crush she knows she has. "And since he's the prince, I d-didn't want to refuse him. I know it was unwise, and I-I'm sorry. I'll take any blame you see fit."

Elaine prays it sounds humble enough. And innocent enough. She definitely has a lot to apologize for here, but here's hoping she at least comes off as properly apologetic.

For a moment, it's Regina's turn to be quiet. Her sharp, hazel eyes are fixed on Elaine with an expression that she can't quite read. As she stands there, unable to so much as look away, Elaine is terrified. Regina could have her kicked out, her mind unhelpfully reminds her. Where she grasps the basket, Elaine's hands start to shake even worse than before.

"Nikola will never be within your reach."

Regina's tone, when she speaks, is frigid.

"Be wise, Elaine. You know you can't get close to him," she continues. "You know better. Give up on this before anyone but myself is aware of it. And... I'm quite fond of you. I'd hate to see you get hurt."

The last part is voiced with that cold, certain assurance that Elaine will get hurt if she doesn't obey.

Elaine can all but feel her blood go cold. This is the first time someone of such high status has been upset with her. She's always been the type to go unnoticed, and facing up to someone's anger for the first time... it's terrifying.

Her stomach twists. Her palms are sweating. It's impossible for her not to avert her eyes. Elaine knows it just makes her appear more guilty, but she can't look at Regina, not like this.

"Let's return to searching, shall we?"

At Regina's sudden return to friendly, even temperament, Elaine can only nod. They're far enough away from the carriages that the drivers couldn't have heard them, and that's probably the only relief there is. Elaine returns to searching for the plants without complaint; which is to say that she gets herself as far away from Regina as she can be without fear of getting lost. And from there, she only begins to spiral.

What was she thinking? Getting close to Nikola couldn't have been more of a mistake. Did she really expect to get away with it? Even if Nikola himself is fond of her, Elaine is and always will be beneath him, and there are people who will make sure she keeps her distance as she should.

Regina is one of them. She should consider herself lucky that the woman isn't going out of her way to report Elaine and get her punished— even with something as simple as being beaten.

But Elaine has realized her mistake, and she's not going to make it again.

Even though it fills her chest with an awful, hollow feeling to think of never speaking to Nikola again, it's for her own safety, and likely, Nikola's good. Even if the same consequences would never apply to a prince as to her, Elaine can at least tell herself that she'd be doing him good by staying away. If she has to do this, she can at least think of it as helping him as well.

Nikola was the closest thing to a friend she'd ever had. When that thought hits Elaine, it hurts even more. She's never been close to anyone like she had to him. She'd never been able to talk to anyone the same way. Nikola made her feel safe, and thinking of losing that is unbearable.

It's over. As she tears another thin, dark-green plant from the strong-smelling soil, Elaine bites back a sob. There's nothing else to do. It's over.

The rest of the hunt is spent in silence.

When Regina deems that they have enough plants, they walk back to the carriages. Regina takes Elaine's basket, gives her one more calm, distant, somehow threatening smile, and steps into her own carriage without a word.

And Elaine, like the coward she is, slinks back to the carriage where she belongs, ready to be hauled back to the castle and return to her life the way it was. She watches the scenery pass this time, on the way back. The sight of leaving the woods behind leaves a strange, painful feeling in her chest. Her adventure is over, and everything will go back to normal.

The tears start falling a second later, and they don't stop. Elaine cries the rest of the way back to the castle.

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