In the guest chamber, Karina sat at the vanity, brushing her hair. A glow near the window, as bright as the afternoon sun, illuminated her blond strands, making them shine as though they were threads spun of gold. Pavel lounged on the richly embroidered divan. He reached for the glass of vodka on the ornate table beside him and downed the liquid in the crystal tumbler. Karina smiled, watching in the mirror as he finished the drink with the elixir she’d slipped in it. Pavel’s fondness for spirits and his penchant for a lover’s touch made it simple for her to maintain his enchantment.
“All is going as we planned,” he said as he walked to her side and leaned down to kiss her neck. “Vladimir has always loved Roksana. Convincing him to propose marriage wasn’t challenging at all.”
“I’ve collected everything required for the spell,” she replied. “A lock of his hair, a lock of yours, and the vodka with the interchange potion. The switch will leave you both weakened. But I’ll brew a rejuvenating tea for you.”
“It’ll be glorious.” Pavel nuzzled her neck. “Vladimir will be gone, and I’ll be king of Lenskaya. And once you switch with Roksana, you’ll be queen. Then we’ll marry and have it all, my love. The riches and power of both kingdoms.”
“Paying your men to ambush the merchants on the trade route was brilliant,” Karina murmured. “Vladimir never suspected.” She played to Pavel’s ego, although the entire plan—staging the robberies and switching identities with the royal couple—was her idea.
Karina stood and led Pavel back to the divan. “You’ll switch with Vladimir first,” she whispered as she nibbled on his earlobe. “While I dispose of the king, you’ll distract Roksana.” Karina pressed her lips against Pavel’s. “Once I’ve switched with Roksana, we’ll kill her and get rid of her body.” Then she laid Pavel back against the embroidered cushions and kissed him deeply. Neither one of them noticed that the glow in the window darted away.
In the palace garden, Tatiana mulled over the scene in Pavel’s chambers. Their wretched plot and the note of triumph in their voices clawed at her mind and caused her to seethe with anger. King Vladimir must be warned, but would he believe his brother capable of such betrayal? Tatiana could barely accept it herself.
As Roksana’s fairy guardian, Tatiana had accompanied her on many outings with Vladimir and Pavel, so she’d known the brothers for most of their lives. Both were men of principle and integrity, although she’d sensed that Pavel was envious of his brother. The only explanation Tatiana could accept was that Karina detected Pavel’s weakness and put a spell on him. If the witch had the power to transfer the souls of Pavel and Vladimir into each other’s bodies, it was conceivable that she could maintain a bewitching spell over Pavel.
Tatiana needed a countermeasure. The sun was getting lower in the sky, and Roksana would soon meet Vladimir in the garden. As the queen’s advisor, Tatiana usually knew exactly what to do, but this circumstance filled her heart with terror. She had to stop Karina and Pavel before they murdered Vladimir and Roksana.
It was time to join her queen. With her eyes closed, Tatiana inhaled deeply and focused on the warmth and light of the afternoon sun. Her temperature rose within her chest; heat radiated throughout her entire body, igniting her fingers and toes. She imagined pulling all portions of her body inward, as though she were collapsing onto herself, condensing her human form until she existed only as the energy generated from her life force—a glowing orb.
Tatiana found Roksana resting in her suite. She alighted near the couch where Roksana reclined and shifted back into human form.
“Tatiana. What have you learned?”
Sitting on the floor, the fairy stroked Roksana’s smooth brow with her fingertip and vowed to protect her queen against Karina and Pavel, regardless of the price.
“Karina and Pavel have devised a vile scheme against you and Vladimir,” the fairy replied, then described their plan to Roksana. “But I promise I will not let them harm you or the king.”
In a far corner of the palace garden, Vladimir spied the cozy gazebo surrounded by azaleas laden with pink blooms. He spread the thick quilt, arranged the cushions, then unfolded the cloth covering the contents of the picnic basket—a bottle of wine and an assortment of meats and cheeses.
Vladimir wanted this meeting with Roksana to be perfect. He’d never told her how he felt, and today he would bare his heart and profess his love. Vladimir smiled at the thought of a life together with her.
“I thought I’d find you here, brother.”
A scowl crossed Vladimir’s face as he watched Pavel and Karina approach the gazebo. Although he strived to be civil toward Pavel’s courtesan, he didn’t trust Karina. Despite her beauty and charm, Vladimir was certain something dark lurked beneath her carefully groomed façade. He worried about Pavel, who could be easily manipulated by a siren such as her.
“It’s beautiful here,” Vladimir replied. “I want my rendezvous with Roksana to be perfect. More than anything, I want her to accept my proposal.”
“She will, Vlad. And for luck, I’m here to offer a toast.” Pavel opened a bag with a decanter of vodka and two glasses. He poured a shot for himself and one for Vladimir.
Vladimir frowned. “Forgive my candor, Pavel, but I wish for Roksana’s company only.”
“One drink, and then you’ll have your privacy.” Pavel handed a glass to Vladimir and touched it with his own. “Let’s drink to love!”
Vladimir lifted his glass and drank, as did Pavel.
“Now, brother,” Pavel continued, “we’ll part ways. But not as you expected. It’s my time to wield power as king. And you, Vlad, will become the second son.”
“What are you talking about?”
As Vladimir stepped closer to his brother, Pavel nodded to Karina, and she rushed forward to grip the king’s shoulders, digging her fingers deep into his flesh. As Vladimir tried to push her arms away, searing pain stabbed at his gut and he doubled over in agony. His limbs felt heavy and his skin ached, as though it were being rearranged over his bones. The gazebo disappeared as blackness blanketed his eyesight. Minutes later, Vladimir’s cramp subsided. He stood upright, although steadiness eluded him. His vision cleared, and the figure standing in front of him came into focus.
Vladimir gasped as he stared into his own face.
“Who are you?” he shouted. “Why do you look like me?”
“Pavel, what’s wrong? I’m your brother, King Vladimir.”
“Pavel, you’re ill,” Karina cooed as she roughly seized the king’s arm. “Someone must have tainted the vodka. I’ll lead you back to your chamber.”
“Let go of me! You’re mistaken! I’m Vladimir!” He shook his arm, trying to extract himself from Karina’s grasp. But she was stronger. With unrestrained contempt, Karina punched the upper ridge of his cheekbone, causing him to stumble. Then she grabbed his arm and pulled him into the woods.
Vladimir peered at her, stunned. “What are you doing?”
“Shut up,” she snapped. “You may think you’re king, but your face says otherwise.”
Roksana strolled through the garden, making her way toward the gazebo tucked into the eastern corner. Growing up, it was their meeting spot—hers and Vladimir’s—and she was certain Vladimir would instinctively know she wanted to meet here. As she turned the corner, she saw him. He sat on a satin quilt strewn with large, thick cushions. A charcuterie board, laden with meats and cheese, lay on the quilt. He saw her approaching and stood to greet her.
“Roksana.” He bowed and kissed her hand. “I found this gazebo and thought it would be perfect to ensure our privacy.”
Surely Vladimir remembered our meeting place, she thought as she settled against a cushion. “I knew I’d find you here. It’s a special place, after all.”
“Yes, it’s absolutely beautiful. As are you.” He took her hand and smiled, but Roksana noticed the warmth and friendliness she’d always seen in his eyes were missing. Am I too late? Have Karina and Pavel initiated their plan?
She smiled at the man in front of her and focused on pretending nothing was amiss. Although Tatiana was nearby, she wished her fairy advisor was here, sitting next to her, helping her stay strong.
“What a magnificent spread,” she said as he poured her a glass of wine. Roksana took a sip, noting it was the same French wine she and Vladimir shared during their last meeting. “The wine is delicious. What’s it called?”
“My dearest, I wish I could answer. I asked your steward to select one of your favorites. This is what he brought.”
He isn’t Vladimir. I’m sure of it. It was obvious that Vladimir, not this imposter, selected the items for their picnic. The brothers must have just switched identities. Roksana breathed deeply, willing away the panic rising in her throat. She couldn’t let Pavel suspect she knew of his plan.
“He selected well,” she said, praying Vladimir was still alive.
“And what better way to celebrate what I hope will be a joyous occasion for us.” The man took her hand and grasped it. Not Vladimir’s firm, confident grip, but the hold of someone who was malleable and compliant; someone who was the victim of bewitchment.
“Roksana, will you be my wife and make me the happiest man in the world?” As he spoke, the fake Vladimir moved his lips to form a fraudulent smile. Roksana suppressed a shudder.
“Yes, I will,” she said. “It makes sense to align ourselves against King Yuri. Our countries will be stronger and safer if we govern them together.”
The imposter kissed her hand again and jumped to his feet. “Wonderful! I’m forever indebted to you.” Beaming, he started toward the palace. “Roksana, this alliance will benefit us all. I’ll go now and talk to my council so we can start drawing up the terms of our agreement.”
Roksana remained in the gazebo, willing herself to stay calm. Soon the familiar, glowing sphere appeared and touched down on the quilt next to Roksana. Moments later, Tatiana emerged from a dazzling burst of light.
“Tatiana, how do I proceed?” Roksana wept as she grieved for her king. “Can we save Vladimir?”
The fairy hugged the queen and wiped away her tears. “Karina took Vladimir into the forest. I’m sure he’s still alive, but severely weakened by the spell. I may be able to rescue him, but I must hurry.”
Tatiana knew Roksana would be devastated if Vladimir succumbed to Karina’s villainy. The tears streaming down the queen’s cheeks revealed the depth of her love for him.
“I have an old friend to call on,” Tatiana said. “We’ll need her help.” The fairy paused and pulled Roksana into an embrace. “Can you still love Vladimir if he wears Pavel’s face for the rest of his days?” she asked.
Roksana pulled back from Tatiana’s arms and gazed earnestly at her. “I love Vladimir’s soul, even if it lies within the body of his brother. It matters not whether he is king.”
“Very well. I shall return as soon as I can.” The fairy closed her eyes and once more transformed into a luminous orb.
Darkness was fast approaching. Tatiana raced southward, passed the foothills of the mountains, and flew up to the caves carved into the cliffs. There, she listened for the soft, melodic voice of the creature who lived there.
“Are you looking for me?” The sweet sound wrapped Tatiana in comfort and guided her to a specific cavern. Upon arrival, Tatiana assumed her human form, then sat near the mouth of the cave. From the shadows, a mighty creature emerged. It blinked several times at the waning sunlight, then perched near the fairy.
“It’s been a long time, Tatiana.” The beast spoke softly. “Why have you come?”
“Zmeya, I have an offering.”
Tatiana recounted Karina’s scheme to take over Slavansk and Lenskaya. The great beast nodded its large, horned head as the fairy shared her plan to safeguard Roksana and Vladimir.
“She is evil, this witch.” Zmeya laughed, and the fire in her breath heated the air. “I expect she’ll be an entertaining addition to my collection. Before I accept your offering, you must tell me your wish.”
“That Karina cannot practice magic. Or leave your lair. Until the end of her days.”
The creature unfolded her mighty wings. “I accept… with pleasure.”
Tatiana stood and bowed to Zmeya. “Karina has snatched Vladimir and plans to end his life. She’s taken him to the forest east of Khovansky Palace. We must find her before it’s too late to save him.”
“Go,” Zmeya said. “I will follow.”
With a flash of light, Tatiana shifted into a glowing sphere. She led the winged beast down the mountains and over the forest canopy, then darted just below the leafy cover to appeal to the forest sprites for help.
“My fairy brethren,” she whispered into the breeze, “King Vladimir may die at the hand of a witch. She abducted him and plans to use the forest to cloak his murder. Please help me find them.”
A quiet hum answered Tatiana’s plea. The trees began to sway, gracefully shifting and turning their branches until a clearing formed to expose Karina and Vladimir. The king lay on the ground, and Karina stood over him with a dagger in her hand. As the witch raised her arm to plunge the knife into his heart, Tatiana—a radiant globe of burning fury—attacked her. The fairy’s bright burst of energy blinded Karina and swept the dagger out of her hand. Karina roared in anger, but her howls went unheard as the clearing resounded with the thunderous rumble of a hundred beating wings. Dozens of black-feathered birds rushed toward the witch. The creatures blindly ravaged Karina as they hurtled past her. Beaks pecked her face, and talons ripped at her hair. Karina cowered, screaming, as she crossed her arms in front of her head. Then, without warning, the forest fell into an eerie silence as a shadow darkened the entire clearing. With grace and agility that belied her immense size, Zmeya swooped down and skillfully grabbed Karina with her clawed feet. The beast then carried Karina up to the mountain lair where she would spend the rest of her days.
When Tatiana returned to the gazebo, Roksana lay asleep on the cushions. The fairy roused her queen with an embrace, knowing Karina’s spell would test Roksana’s love for Vladimir.
“He is safe?” Roksana asked upon opening her eyes and sitting.
“Yes, my queen, and Karina is no longer a threat to Slavansk or Lenskaya. But there is more.”
“With Karina gone, Pavel’s bewitchment will cease.” Tatiana took Roksana’s hand and frowned. “But her spell that switched the brothers’ physical bodies cannot be reversed. Even attempting it could bring great harm to them.”
“What are you saying?”
“The only way to unite the two kingdoms is for Queen Roksana to marry King Vladimir. To rule the two kingdoms as one, you must marry the imposter.”
Taking a breath, Roksana asked softly, “And what of Vladimir?”
“He’s free to make his own choices… but he will always wear Pavel’s face.”
“Is that my only option then?” Roksana voice broke into a sob. “I must marry Pavel as though he’s king?”
“Yes… unless,” the fairy paused, “you give up your identity as queen.”
Roksana stared at Tatiana, stunned. “How is that even possible?”
Citizens of Lenskaya and Slavansk crowded the streets to celebrate Queen Roksana’s and King Vladimir’s one-year wedding anniversary. Attacks along the mountain passage had ceased, trade flourished, and the two kingdoms integrated their armies to form one of the largest military forces east of the sea, which pressured King Yuri to look elsewhere for lands to conquer.
At an estate hidden deep within Slavansk’s eastern forest, a husband and wife sat in a gazebo nestled in the corner of their garden. Azalea bushes, brimming with pink and white blooms, encircled the structure’s perimeter. A luxurious satin quilt and soft cushions covered its wooden floorboards. The husband opened a bottle of French wine and poured a glass for his wife. Between them lay a charcuterie board topped with an assortment of meats and cheeses. He smiled at her and lifted his glass.
“Happy anniversary to the king and queen,” he said, and touched his glass to hers. “Do you miss her much?”
“Tatiana?” Roksana selected a piece of cheese and bit into it. “I think about her. And yes, I miss her. But more than anything I’m grateful to her for allowing me to have this life… with you.”
Vladimir leaned in to nuzzle Roksana’s neck. “I’m grateful, too. And I’m certain Pavel is happy. Even before Karina bewitched him, he longed to be the brother sitting on the throne. And now he is.”
Roksana laughed and kissed her husband. “I wonder if he realizes he married Tatiana instead of me. Tatiana told me he hasn’t breathed a word of the switch to her, but he still mourns Pavel’s disappearance and desperately misses his brother.” “He does, I’m sure,” Vladimir said. “I doubt Pavel had a true appreciation for the challenges he’d face as king. And without his trusted advisor, he carries that burden alone. Even so, I won’t expose the truth.” Vladimir pulled Roksana into his arms. He held her close as he brushed his lips against her cheek and whispered, “I’d never do anything to risk our happily ever after.”
Check out Part 2 of “The Kings’ Deception.” A Fairy Tale. Tatiana knew Roksana would be devastated if Vladimir succumbed to Karina’s villainy.Tweet
Written by Allorianna Matsourani