BHM Sickle and Heart [BHM, Fantasy, Romance]

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Chapter Ten

On the morning of the next competition, Odine still felt like she was floating on air. Sure, the lack of required magic didn’t necessarily mean she’d have the skills to pass whatever it was today, but nothing could bring her down now. The rest of the most recent night with the prince played over and over again in her head. The quiet reading with only occasional noises for snacking, how he had handily finished off the entirety of the food on the board mostly on his own, and the adorable blush that had returned when he reached for more and realized it was all gone.

“I’ll have more sent tomorrow,” he assured Odine, and she had assured right back that it was no trouble. It was served to be eaten.

“I’m glad you think so,” Amory said as he settled back with a sigh. “Not everyone does.”

“Who puts out food with the intention that it won’t all be eaten?”

“An excellent question, Odine, and the answer is many of the gentry. But why? I haven’t the slightest idea.”

“Truly?”

“Oh, yes. If I get even close to the end of a dish at any dinner also attended by my family, I am chastised to no end.”

Odine wrinkled her nose.

“You would think the hosts would see it as a compliment. I certainly do.”

“Thank you! That is what I think too. But no - an unabashed love for good food is not, apparently, befitting a crown prince.”

“Absurd,” was all Odine could think to say, shaking her head. By this time, she had made them both strong cups of yellow tea and poured glasses of honey wine. She was embarrassingly overjoyed to see Amory appearing to enjoy them both.

“In any case,” the prince continued, “I shall see to it your larder does not go empty for long. I may be greedy, but I’m not inconsiderate.”

And he was true to his word - the next morning, a full wheel of cheese, several loaves of fresh baked bread, a multitude of fruits, and even a few bars of rich chocolate were delivered to her room. Odine felt warmth travel from the base of her throat all the way down her body as she put them away, promising herself she’d save the best of it for the next time the prince came to see her.

Since that night, Straggler’s Peak had also taken some interesting turns. There was still quite a bit of battling, but more focus was given to the hero’s indecision between his childhood love, Marian, and his passionate first mate, Edward. Odine adored both of the characters, finding each to have a fascinating and unique connection to Lowan, the captain and protagonist of the book. It wasn’t clear at all at this point who he would end up with, and her nerves at the idea of seeing one of them hurt and alone caused her to start and abruptly stop Straggler’s Peak multiple times a day.

She was running low on dress options, but Odine selected a new one for the task that day. It was a few shades of cream darker than her skin and hair, sewn with a short cap sleeve and several layers of tulle in the skirt. On the top layer, Odine had used up the last of her colored thread to stitch berries. The deep purples, reds, and even blacks of the fruit done in patterns across her dress drew the eye, but didn’t wash her out.

Odine all but skipped out of her room and towards the ballroom, Kelvi, without a pocket to hide in, circled around her wrist like a bracelet. Outside the ballroom, the competitors were gathering, the doorway to their lower entrance currently shut. But low voices from inside trailed out occasionally, as whatever the day’s competition consisted of was set up.

Odine wasn’t too late that day, but Gertie was still there before her, and the pair exchanged smiles and quick waves as Odine slipped next to the taller girl. Gertie was in a green dress so beautiful that Odine couldn’t help a flash of jealousy that ran from an ache in her heart into her toes. It was a deep jewel tone a couple shades darker than Gertie’s hair, and the low cut and slits in the sleeves and legs that revealed soft brown flesh were surprisingly sensual for the shy girl.

“You look amazing,” Odine told her honestly. Gertie, as expected, blushed at the compliment.

“Thank you. I was…” Gertie lowered her voice to a whisper. “…I was told something a bit more…appealing…may help today.”

“Ohhhh,” Odine breathed, nervous and intrigued.

“You look lovely too, Odine!” Gertie continued, looking her much smaller friend up and down with a genuine smile. “Oh, I love these.” She poked the sewn berries on Odine’s sleeve, and Odine smiled back.

“Thanks, Gertie.”

Before Gertie could reply, a royal servant appeared at the head of the ladies. As Odine had talked with her friend, the rest of the competitors had piled in behind them, waiting eagerly. The servant held several braided wreaths of rowan berries in their hands and up their arms - which, when worn, would prevent any magic from being used by their bearer. Each contestant was required to take one and don it on their wrist before entering the ballroom. Odine put hers on the opposite wrist from Kelvi, smiling down at her snake as she did so. If anything, this filled her with relief - there was no question of magic being required or even allowed this week, now.

In the ballroom, the upper landing looked much as it did the last week. A head table for the royal family, with Balthazar Graves at the very top of the stairs. But rather than several miniature tables to work at, there was seating in the back of the ballroom for the girls to wait at - while at the area closer to the stairs was a long covered table full of musical instruments.

“Your task today is to entertain Their Royal Highnesses with a song,” Graves announced. “You may select from any of the instruments available, and choose any song from your repertoire. You will be judged on musical aptitude, and performance appearance.”

Finally, nerves began to roil in Odine’s gut. Of course she recognized most of the instruments offered - but she hadn’t played any for over ten years.

“You each have five minutes to look over the instruments, and then the competitors shall go alphabetically to showcase their skill for Their Highnesses. Good luck.”

At this, all the girls rushed forward to inspect the options. Odine allowed herself to be pushed forward, then drifted to the back of the throng. She saw a lute and a lyre on opposite ends of the table, a shawm, a viol, a crumhorn, a lira, a dulcian, and even deflated bagpipes. Nothing rang out to her with inspiration, and cold dread swept more deeply into her veins.

She looked up from the table in front of them to the upper landing, and made eye contact with Dominic. His look was hard, and unflinching - even in response to the worry in Odine’s. The meaning was clear - if you can’t get past this on your own, I can’t help you. The soldier may not have his own strand of rowan berries, but any magic cast would give out energy, and the cheating would be obvious to anyone paying attention in the room. But before Odine looked away, the prince caught her eye as well, and offered an encouraging smile. Feeling some of the lightness from earlier return, Odine went back to her seat with a ghost of a smile on her face.

Gertie was one of the first to perform, being Lady Abbas. She selected a beautiful silver harp, made her way up the staircase, curtsied, and took a seat in a high-backed green velvet chair opposite the royals with all the manners of a lady. She played a gentle melody that perfectly reminded Odine of her friend. It was a soft and calming tune, and Odine allowed the feelings it elicited to wash over her and cover some of her nerves.

The royal family was in quick agreement, and Gertie made her way to the opposite wall, to sit with those moving forward in the competition. Most ladies did - though favoritism was obvious, if not remarked upon. One highborn redhead missed several notes on the flute, but was permitted to pass - while a slightly less attractive and wealthy competitor was dismissed for approximately the same amount of off-key missteps on a hurdy-gurdy.

It may have been what she wanted to see, but Odine could have sworn that Amory looked sorry after each dismissal by the Queen Mary. Still, he didn’t argue when it happened, and the first half of the alphabet went by in what felt like seconds. Soon, Odine was called.

Getting to her feet as steadily as she could muster, Odine approached the instrument table for one last look - then passed by it without selecting anything. A few murmurs broke out from the competitors behind her, and the ones along the wall, but the royals simply stayed silent, watching. The king and queen’s brows furrowed, though both the prince and his captain behind him watched Odine with open curiosity.

As Odine reached the top of the stairs, she approached the royal table and curtsied long and low. As she stood up straight, she swallowed, breathed in deeply, and began to sing.

It wasn’t a long song. She chose a ballad of less than a minute, one about leaving home and the paths ahead. Ones of darkness and shadow, but also light. The ending was ambiguous, fading out on lines that could indicate the narrator’s death, or finding true happiness. It was one written by and for men, but Odine’s voice was much lower than most highborn ladies that turned to singing - who were often only encouraged when they could reach the highest possible notes. Odine couldn’t even get close. So she’d learned to adapt, and found it brought her comfort even after the collapse of her homeland.

Amory, who was clad in a golden and blue doublet which spilled out over the sides of his high red chair, was gazing at her in open admiration. Even Dominic’s cool expression revealed some degree of surprise behind his grey eyes. The king and queen, meanwhile, had furrowed their brows further - the king fingering the familiar amulet that rested against his chest.

“You did not select an instrument,” Queen Mary said moments after the last notes had faded away, and Odine felt her heart drop.

“No, your highness. But the task was to entertain you with a song, and I hope I have achieved that still.”

“One moment,” King Bertram said to Odine as Amory turned to speak to his mother. Odine couldn’t pick up any individual words in the murmuring, but the royal family spoke for what felt like much longer than they had for any of the others.

“All right,” Queen Mary finally said, turning out to face Odine again. “It was technically proficient. You may go.” And she gestured towards the back wall with Gertie and the other competitors who had passed. Heart hammering in overwhelming relief, Odine curtsied again and made her way back.

The rest of the competition passed in a blur. Though one other girl, from a lesser house of the outer kingdom with a squat canine familiar, also took the risk and sang. After only a momentary discussion by the royal family, she was sent home, though Odine would have sworn on her life that the girl wasn’t actually any worse than Odine herself had been. Gertie placed a hand on Odine’s shoulder and squeezed gently, which reminded the northern girl to carefully rearrange her face into its normal calm nonchalance.
 
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Somehow, deliriously, Odine made it back to her room after the competition. For the next few nights, she found sleep next to impossible, despite her exhaustion. Her fears about the next week’s trial compounded by the minute, as the longer she went without hearing from Dominic about their training the more anxious she got. At one point she overheard other guards discussing Dominic being out on patrols, and she nearly blanched. Had he forgotten her?

She was looking forward to at least getting to discuss it all (or nearly all) with Gertie, but during the next group banquet, Gertie was invited to sit at the head table. Odine knew she shouldn’t be surprised - Gertie’s performance was easily one of the best - but Odine still felt a twisting ache in her stomach as she watched her friend sit at the prince’s side, smiling shyly as he spoke. They looked lovely together, soft and strong, and Odine knew she ought to be able to accept that as a possibility - and one of the objectively best ones! - but she wasn’t strong enough. Not yet. Kelvi hissed a gentle, comforting noise in her ear, and Odine tore her eyes away from the head table to force herself to eat something.

That night, she didn’t dare hope for a knock on the door - but she still sat unnaturally straight in her chair as she tried to focus on Straggler’s Peak.

It wasn’t coming easily.

As the darkness crept into the stillness of late evening, Odine heard someone lightly rapping on the wooden door. She shot up, smoothed down her dress, and went to answer it.

Amory stood behind the frame, causing an enthusiastic swoop of Odine’s heart and stomach. She smiled back at him, trying not to let so much relief shine through as she motioned him to come in. He did, squeezing his broad frame through the narrow door, and held out a folded piece of paper to Odine. She accepted it once he was through, curious.

“From Dom,” Amory explained, casually ambling towards what Odine now thought of as his chair.

“Did he…tell you what it was?” Odine asked hesitantly as she unfolded it. Instructions for a time (in two days) and directions to a place (a room in the lower levels of the castle) were printed on it.

“It expect it isn't really my business,” Amory replied with a shrug, heaving himself down into the chair with a sigh. “How is Straggler’s Peak going?”

“Well, but…” Odine crossed to her own chair, thinking how she wanted to phrase her question. “May I ask, Amory…who do you prefer? Marian or Edward?”

“Ah,” Amory said, leaning forward slightly with a gleam in his dark eyes. Folding over his round middle, he set his elbows on his knees and made eye contact with Odine. “Who do you like, Odine?”

“I don’t know! That’s the trouble! I adore them both, and I worry for the moment where Lowan must make his choice. I don’t wish for it to end!”

Amory grinned and leaned back slowly, allowing his belly to unroll and take up its usual impressive amount of space in front of him.

“You’re just going to have to keep reading.”

“No! So you won’t even tell me your favorite?” Odine pleaded, and the prince’s grin just grew. “Or anything? Amory!”

“Sorry, Odine. That’s just the way it is,” Amory said with cheerful finality, gesturing at Straggler’s Peak. Odine sighed, loudly, before picking it up and burying her nose in it. “Dramatics will never convince me,” the prince reminded as he picked up his own book.

“We’ll see about that.”

“You’re very beautiful, you know,” Amory said conversationally, and Odine’s head shot up in shock. He winked, adding, “and extremely unnerving. Don’t forget that.”

With finality, he lifted his own book closer to his face, setting it near where his belly met his chest. Blushing fervently, Odine stared down at Straggler’s Peak, trying to calm herself with breath.

After awhile, it almost worked.
 
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This is incredible world building. I don’t think that it’s at all crazy to say that this could become a hit YA fantasy novel if that’s where you wanted to take it. Some aspects might have to be toned down, have to see where it goes. Or maybe not! Body positivity in YA fiction is a great thing imo. The recipe is right there, though. Really nice.
 
Joined
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Messages
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This is incredible world building. I don’t think that it’s at all crazy to say that this could become a hit YA fantasy novel if that’s where you wanted to take it. Some aspects might have to be toned down, have to see where it goes. Or maybe not! Body positivity in YA fiction is a great thing imo. The recipe is right there, though. Really nice.
That's so kind to say! If it was for a more general audience I suppose I'd cut the belly descriptions & tight spaces about in half. They won't haven't earned the REALLY good stuff yet like you guys. :p
 
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Chapter Eleven

Two days later, Odine followed the instructions on the sheet from Dominic as best she could. This involved burying her face in the paper, as one wrong move could send her for who knows how long in the other direction. She was garbed in her plain brown dress, Kelvi lounging in her front pocket, and her study brown boots carried her lower and lower into the belly of the castle.

Unsurprisingly, Dominic was waiting for her when she finally arrived at the destination. It was another dead-end corridor, this one much wider than the last, with an imposing stone door that Dominic stood in front of. Next to the door was a low, narrow grate, a rectangular shape with bars through it, that allowed drainage from the room and hall, as it connected the two of them. Dominic wasn’t dressed in his higher standard uniform today - just basic browns, loose enough to allow movement, but snug enough to prevent much excess fabric that could be grabbed. It highlighted the width of his shoulders, and the roundness of his belly, and Odine’s breath caught at his impressively sturdy form.

The pair lowered their heads briefly, respectfully, in greeting. Dominic released a tense hand that had been squeezing the handle of his impressive sword, one that would have easily been too much for a vast majority of the kingdom to carry at all, much less yield. The curved handle pressed into the side of Dominic’s wide middle, softly sinking in just a little to his love handle that rolled over his pants.

“Odine.”

“Dominic,” Odine replied, matching his low, even tone. After only a moment’s hesitation, she added, “thank you.”

Dominic waved the sentiment away.

“No thanks are needed. Just show me that it’s worth it.”

The words may have sounded hard to some, but Odine merely nodded. She understood. If Dominic went out of his way to help her, and she fawned and failed in the next task or in the weeks to come, that was wasting his time. Ensuring it didn’t happen was more important than any words.

“We’ll be training in here,” Dominic continued, gesturing to the large door behind him. It was so tall it raised nearly all the way to the ceiling, and was, impressively, almost double Dominic’s width. “No one will disturb us.” He hesitated, and Odine cocked her head, sensing a but. “I don’t have a key, however, so I will need your help.”

“What do you need me to do?” Odine asked, her eyebrow twinging upwards in interested curiosity.

Dominic gestured to the grate. “I need you to slip through and unlock the door from the inside.”

Odine blinked at the narrow opening, then back up at Dominic. “Why me?”

To her surprise, Dominic’s tanned skin above her auburn beard lit in a low blush.

“I can no longer fit through to open it. But you certainly can.”

“No longer? But you used to?”

“Certainly. How else would I know about it?” Dominic replied, his irritation at the questions clear. Bending down, he tugged out the frame that held the metal bars with a grunt, putting it off to the side. Comparing the opening left behind with Dominic’s broad frame, Odine saw the truth of it - there wasn’t the slightest chance Dominic’s belly would pass through, even if he had been able to contort his shoulders enough to fit - which was also questionable. Still, she couldn’t resist continuing to poke at him.

“Are you quite sure, though, Dominic?”

“Obviously I am, Odine. It’s been many years since I could fit. But nobody else has a key - it will be the perfect place to train, if you could just - ”

“But I’m here now. Perhaps you want to try again? I could help, after all. Offer a push. A little pre-training warmup? What do you say?”

Dominic stared at her in disbelief, and Odine kept her expression as innocent as she possibly could - but even her years of work keeping her feelings hidden couldn’t disguise the sparkling mischief in her green eyes.

“I cannot believe that you have everyone up there fooled that you are just some…quiet, demure girl from the north. You’re a damn redbyrne,” Dominic groused, referring to a small monster known for playing tricks on its victims rather than going right for the kill. They were more irritating than anything else.

“Pardon me, sir,” Odine replied, inflecting it with an exaggeratedly wounded tone. “But there isn’t anyone who would refer to me as demure.” They held each other’s gaze for a moment, and Odine couldn’t help herself but grin back at Dominic’s glare. “Now, if you’re sure…?” Odine gestured at the grate again, raising an eyebrow in invitation. Dominic merely rolled his eyes and half-turned away. “Fine, fine. The things I do for you…”

“For me?” Dominic replied in disbelief as Odine carefully got on the ground and crawled her way forward.

“Yes,” she called back, her nose wrinkling imperceptibly at the slight damp she got on the front of her dress, and the cobweb that touched her arm as she reached through the opening. “Killing a fangslug, allowing myself to be escorted about the castle, passing the first two challenges so you have someone to talk to…” Odine was through, and she hopped up, brushing the dust off her dress. The room was a little smaller than her bedchamber, but still a decent size - clearly long abandoned. Other than a couple old racks of rusted weapons, a decrepit mop and bucket, and a few boxes in the corner, it was empty. “…and now, getting us into this room,” she concluded, opening the door to Dominic’s thundering grey eyes.

“I suppose a lesser man may argue that those were all for you, not I.”

“A lesser man might,” Odine agreed, sweeping to the side to let Dominic in.

“I won’t insult you by asking you to try,” Dominic said after a moment of casting his eye around the room and finally picking up the mop and bucket. “I trust that you’ve been honest with me about your abilities. What we need to work on is the best way to communicate and work in sync if the need arises in a competition.”

Odine looked down at the bucket, her jaw tightening imperceptibly. A child could cast a charm that would remove the dust from the old mop, but the only way Odine could was by finely tuning a curse related to eviscerating. Shortening it enough to keep it from spreading to the living or the other objects in the room, and specific enough that it blasted only the dust, not every piece of the object. It was exhausting, and hardly doable when perfectly relaxed, much less in a high-stakes competition. Odine allowed herself a moment of despair over it before nodding and looking up at Dominic.

“Understood. What do you suggest?”

For the rest of the afternoon, the pair worked to sync up their ruse. Their first attempts, where Odine and Dominic would make deliberate eye contact before he cast the charm, technically worked - but it was incredibly obvious that the pair were communicating.

Eventually, neither of them had the idea that worked - Kelvi gave Odine’s wrist an exasperated squeeze while staring at Dominic with his glittering black eyes. They quickly caught on, and soon, they were drilling cleaning magic in perfect rhythm as Kelvi caught Dominic’s gaze and alerted Odine to the moment to move along in time with his charms.

As the afternoon waned into early evening, Odine slumped down on the now-spotless floor, utterly exhausted. Dominic, who was just as impressive as she at keeping his feelings to himself, sighed and did the same - his normally steady expression finally betraying weariness.

“I ought to know more about what sorts of things you would choose in the moment, should the task be more open to interpretation than a straightforward cleaning,” Dominic said finally, and Odine rolled her head to the shoulder that Dominic was next to. Looking up, she caught his grey eyes with her green ones.

“Then ask away.”

“All right. Favorite…color.”

Odine couldn’t help it, she cracked a smile. Dominic gave her a defensive look, but bit back from elaborating.

“Pink.”

Pink?”

“Not, well…” ironically, Odine felt her cheeks flushing lightly at the surprised reaction. “…not bright or deep pink. Soft. Like…a shell.”

“Mmm,” Dominic said in assent, thinking to himself for the next question.

“And yours?”

“Oh…it’s…red.”

Red?” Odine mimicked the soldier’s previous tone almost exactly, and Dominic rewarded her with an exasperated stare.

“Not red like that blasted uniform. Perhaps closer to an…early sunset,” he concluded, almost hesitantly. Odine nodded.

“So, one might argue, a bit like pink.”

“Gods, you redbyrne. Favorite flower.”

“Parraya,” Odine replied softly, thinking back to the small lavender flowers that would dot the mountainsides of her homeland. “Yours?”

“Gardenia,” Dominic said, after a moment of silence. Odine was surprised that he didn’t protest, or at least, decline to answer. She lolled her head back in his direction, taking in the way his broad form relaxed more than she had ever seen it. His belly spilled out halfway down his thighs, his handsome face still sporting a double chin even as he partially inclined it back. Still, there was no doubt that he was strong and capable, moments away from being able to defend or take a life, even from that position. “Favorite season?”

“Winter,” they both said in unison, Odine quick and certain, and Dominic realizing mere moments after he asked that the answer was obvious. Odine half-smiled, and Dominic made up the other half - before he looked away, back across the room. Odine followed suit, but her smile didn’t fade.

“Yours?” She asked.

“Autumn.”

And so on, until the gong for dinner roused them up and out of the training room.
 
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Chapter Twelve

The next day was the competition. Odine pinched some color into her pale expression, ignored her particularly inflated halo of silver-blonde hair, and dressed in a loose, pale blue. There was nothing else she could do to prepare, she knew that, but the lump in her throat still wouldn’t budge. She trusted Dominic to do what he could, and she trusted their work to pull it off, but she hadn’t put her life in anyone’s hands since she’d had to leave home. It was an unfamiliar discomfort that she shoved down as she made her way to the ballroom.

This time, they didn’t have to wait in the hall. Odine entered and made her way to the seat next to Gertie, in the back right of the room. Gertie smiled at her as she did, the much larger girl clad in a soft pink gown of silk that gently brushed past soft curves. After their hellos, the pair cast curious gazes towards the front. There was a long table covered in a white cloth in front of the contestants, but there was nothing on it - that they could see, at least. As usual, the royal family sat at the top of the stairs, and the box seats surrounding the room were full of high born spectators.

Odine watched Dominic exchange words with the prince, then move to the lower floor and begin a slow pace around the room. This was part of what they’d discussed - it would be more difficult to mask where the magic came from if Dominic cast it from right next to the royal family. Wherever he was in the room, though, Kelvi would have to find him. Two other soldiers, who were about the size of Dominic if combined, took up posts behind the prince’s chair.

As they did, Odine noticed that the prince’s throne was actually slightly larger than the queen and king’s, despite his lower status. It wasn’t taller, but certainly broader. They clearly tried to keep the difference minimal, leading to Amory’s soft sides, currently clad in a purple and brown doublet, still spilling over the arms of the chair. Which were, Odine realized, also set lower than the arms on the other thrones where the king and queen sat (with room to spare). It took her a moment to realize why - that having the typical higher seat arms meant the prince, with his impressive love handles, wouldn’t actually be able to fully sit unless he somehow squeezed them through. And even if he did, there was a minimal chance he’d be able to even get back out of the seat again.

Odine squirmed.

“Are you all right, Odine?” Gertie asked quietly, the competitors around them conversing much more freely as the last made their way into the ballroom.

“Yes,” Odine breathed. At Gertie’s concerned face, she added, mostly truthfully: “just nervous.”

Gertie nodded and didn’t insult Odine’s intelligence by giving any false platitudes. She just patted her friend’s hand comfortingly, and they both sat up in unison as Balthazar made his way to the top of the stairs.

“You are still here because you have shown Their Majesties your abilities are, so far, up to their standards. But we don’t simply live in a world of beauty and taste - we live in a world of magic to help us achieve it.”

Slowly, shimmering shapes began to appear on the white table. Odine leaned forward slowly, trying to puzzle them out.

“Today, using magic to the very best of your capabilities, you will create a wreath worthy of display in the palace.”

Odine realized the large round shape on the table was, in fact, an expertly wrapped circle of green leaves and twigs. On its own, it was nothing special, but she imagined the jars that appeared around it would be full of items to be enchanted or transformed into a more appealing image.

“If you fail to create art worthy of the House of Coates, you will be sent home. You have three minutes each to complete your wreath, though our first competitor will have five. Please join me, Lady Diade.”

The girl seated on the far left in the first row stood, her upbringing keeping her composed aside from a flash of nerves in her brown eyes. She was even shorter than Odine, and fashionably thin, with waves of caramel brown hair that elegantly brushed her olive shoulders. The Diades were a house just outside the south of the central kingdom, and though their daughter Emelia was not in the innermost circle of the wealthiest and most powerful competitors, she held her own.

It was difficult for Odine to see as Lady Diade worked, though at the end of the five minutes, she could see most of the finished product as Emelia walked it up the stairs. The leaves of the wreath shone in a nearly unnatural green, and several glittering songbirds flew to and from the wreaths. They didn’t sing, as adding that level of complexity to a spell would undoubtedly have taken much longer than five minutes, but it was visually lovely.

After a moment’s deliberation, the royals determined that Emelia Diade would stay. She curtsied to their table, Odine unable to hear her response, before making her way to the area for the week’s successful competitors. Chairs set in a circle around the lower area of the ballroom allowed those who had already competed a better view of the ones currently working on their wreath.

The open-ended nature of the task lent itself to the preferences of the royal family, Odine realized as the time ticked by. She and Gertie were to be second to last and last, respectively, and they had a lot of time to watch the others. Unless the wreath turned out so stunning that no one could argue a single flaw, the ones created by the lower houses with less money and less regal daughters were dismissed. Some took it with grace, others did not, and Odine didn’t miss how the prince’s gaze would stare hard at his soft belly in his lap while the queen delivered the verdict.

Despite the rather arguably ordinary nature of most of the wreaths handed in by Meera Strickland and her similarly wealthy and attractive friends, they were all considered passable.

Finally, it was Odine’s turn. She got to her feet, steading herself briefly on the chair in front of her to ensure there was no visible shakiness, then moved towards the center table. She spied Dominic immediately, moving at a careful pace behind the chairs of the competitors who had passed on the right side of the room. He was every inch a responsible soldier, keeping an eye out for trouble, but Odine saw him slow his movements before stopping behind and between two chairs as she made her way into position. The two girls in the chairs blocked the widest parts of Dominic’s belly, but his chest and shoulders and gaze were visible even in the darker area of the room, and Odine felt herself relax.

“Begin,” Balthazar declared, and Odine took in the wreath in front of her. It was a thick, if plain, wrapping of leaves and twigs, surrounded by opened jars. Odine saw clay in one, sand in another, pebbles next to it, and finally, a container of water.

She hesitated, not certain what Dominic would feel most comfortable working with, but Kelvi tugged at her arm impatiently, moving her forward towards the pebbles. She took a small handful and held them up, gazing at them with an intensity that made clear her intention to use magic. Though, of course, it wasn’t her own that transformed the pebbles into parraya flowers - it was Dominic’s.

Odine felt an emotion she couldn’t quite put a name to as she slowly lowered the beautiful buds towards the wreath. The twigs reached up and bound themselves to the parrayas, turning them as one. The formerly plain wreath was now covered in the small, but beautiful, pink-purple flowers from Odine’s homeland.

Next, Odine had an idea. She wasn’t sure if it would be clear to Dominic, but she still took a handful of sand, deciding to risk it. Holding it high, she slowly began to allow the sand to trickle out of her hands and down into the center of the wreath. It took a moment, but eventually the magic did its work - a mirror began to form in the empty space. By the time the sand was gone from her hand, a fully formed reflective surface filled the center of her wreath, held by the branches. She caught the triumphant glint of her green eyes in it as she looked down.

Odine released a sigh of relief she didn’t know she had been holding, and briefly lost her footing as something hit her.

The curse that had been cast from the left side of the room was absorbed by Odine, filling her to the brim with dark magic as she steadied herself. She couldn’t look where it had come from, couldn’t do anything except focus on ensuring the power didn’t escape from her into something much, much worse than whatever the caster had originally intended. She focused on her breath, blocking out everything but the wreath right in front of her as she shortened and adjusted a curse that, in its entirety, would call down a dark forest to engulf whatever land it was focused on. A palace, a town, maybe even an entire country would be lost to its reaching vines and poisonous nettles.

But the way Odine managed to utilize the energy she had been unwillingly filled with just focused on the growth, as gently as possible. The wreath in front of her rapidly expanded, swelling to nearly twice its size as the magic took hold and the branches desperately twisted out further as the leaves grew and grew. For a moment, Odine’s heart nearly stopped as she worried it would just keep going, but soon it settled with a nearly audible sigh. Feeling shaky with the rush of power and control she’d needed to exert just to keep everyone in the room alive, Odine subtly tilted her head over to the left side of the room.

Meera was glaring at her, shock and fury apparent even beneath the smooth veneer of her expression. It might not have been at all obvious to anyone else, but Odine had worked with the girl long enough to see the signs. Her hands, which had previously been in her lap in a calm and regal pose, were clenched into small fists at her chair’s sides. Odine doubted Meera had cast much more than a clumsiness curse, or perhaps a forgetfulness anathema, but either way, Odine should have been showing some sign of it beyond a brief stumble.

“Time, Miss Neemay,” Balthazar chimed in, and Odine tore her gaze away to pick up her now large, now flush with vegetation wreath. She very briefly caught Dominic’s eye, who was maintaining a calm expression despite the bafflement in his stormy eyes. Odine blinked, then turned forward and made her way up the stairs, slow and steady.

In front of the royal family, Odine held her wreath awkwardly off to her side, so large it partially had to balance on her hip. Amory gave her an encouraging smile, but as Odine looked over at her creation with fresh eyes, she had to be honest with herself - it was far from ugly, but it was inarguably sinister.

The queen wasted no time.

“That is quite the wreath to present to your royal family.”

“I quite like it,” Amory chimed in as Odine’s mouth ran dry. “It feels close to home.” At this, he patted his broad side with a wink. The king and queen’s glares at their son could have lit a lesser man aflame, Odine thought, but Amory diligently ignored them.

“I realize the importance of beauty, your majesties,” Odine finally replied. “But I also see decorations worthy of rulers of your caliber as strong, unafraid and undiminished.”

The queen’s expression betrayed nothing but a blink at the words as both her husband and her son leaned in, one on each side of her, to converse. The king’s purple amulet gave a small bounce against his chest, and Odine had to tear her eyes from it as her mind continued to come up blank for its familiar origins. As with all the past competitions, the talks over Odine’s presentation went on for what felt like significantly longer than for any of the other girl’s entries. Finally, the queen spoke out of a set jaw and gritted teeth.

“You may sit.”

Overwhelmingly relieved, Odine dropped into a hurried curtsy before making her way back down the steps as Gertie approached the table. The pair exchanged a small smile before her friend began to enchant the wreath in front of her at Balthazar’s command. As Odine took her seat, she caught Meera’s gaze one final time across the room. The highborn girl’s eyes glittered in rage that Odine knew well, and she held the gaze in steady defiance until a slight rattle behind her alerted her to Dominic’s presence. She straightened, turning her attention back to Gertie’s work, as Kelvi twisted on her wrist to softly flicker his tongue gratefully in the soldier’s direction.

The deliberation over Gertie’s lovely seashell-decorated wreath was brief, and Odine noticed that even the prince turned to weigh in again before Queen Mary declared her safe. Amory had nodded his approval as Odine was flooded with relief. Balthazar’s parting words blurred together until the others began to get up to depart, and Odine followed.

Halfway to her room, lured by the siren’s call of sleep, Odine was stopped by a familiar voice firmly reaching out with her name.

“Odine, wait.”

She turned and faced Dominic, who closed the gap between them with just a couple long strides. His large, tanned hand released his sword’s handle, and rested briefly on the other side of his rounded stomach.

“What happened?”

“I had to cast something,” Odine replied after a moment, uncertain what she would say if he pressed her on it. Did she share her suspicions about Meera? Could he even do anything? Would he? Odine set her jaw to try and bite back the cruel thoughts as Dominic slowly nodded, the curiosity in his face not vanishing, but at least partially morphing into acceptance.

“You saved me today,” Odine added, honestly. “I couldn’t have simply presented an enormous wreath to their majesties and hoped to continue on.” She stopped before the thank you, recalling Dominic’s previous words on the matter. Dominic simply bowed his head in response, which she answered with a quick curtsy before turning and fleeing the rest of the way back to her room.

Much longer in the presence of the captain of the guard, and she wasn’t sure what else she might say.
 
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Chapter Thirteen

That night, Odine dreamed.

She was back in the old receiving hall in her home in the north, where her parents and their council would hear petitions from their citizens. But instead of the long table at the head of the room, there were two slightly elevated thrones. One was empty, and one, altered just slightly to accommodate the bulk of its owner, was occupied by Prince Amory.

He was in the same thin linen nightshirt that he’d worn the first night Odine met him in the library, and the soft tan rolls of his torso were clear through it. Half-resting on his impressively broad belly was a cake, swirled with browns and pinks and reds and fruits and chocolates, that he slowly ate with his hands. But it wasn’t messy, and in the way of dreams, it also somehow didn’t appear casual or lowbrow. Amory was eating cake by hand as regally as any other princely duty.

“Odine! Join me,” Amory told her, waving and gesturing to the throne next to him. Odine approached with excitement, which melted into dread the closer she got to the second throne. Something wasn’t right.

“I don’t think that’s mine,” she said uncertainly, realizing the gold accents and more delicate features of the throne belonged to Queen Mary.

“Well, it has to be!” Amory said, sounding befuddled, bordering on impatient. Not wanting to upset the prince, Odine climbed into the chair, taking her place beside him.

“Mmm,” Amory said, closing his mouth around a morsel of cake. Dominic was feeding it to him. Maybe he always had been, and Odine just hadn’t noticed. “Yes, that’s good. Odine, would you like a bite?”

Odine tried to answer, opening her mouth, but nothing came out. She strained to form the words, and none came. Frustrated, she tried to lean forward, and realized that she couldn’t get out of the chair. She was suctioned to it, every part of her body that touched it sticky.

Dominic, who Odine could see now was also in a linen nightshirt but still with his sword on his hip, turned to leave, vanishing into the dark beyond the side of the thrones. Odine struggled harder against the throne. There wasn’t anything there that she could see, but she knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the darkness nearby was not safe. Which meant Dominic was not safe. She strained forward, trying to scream, but only silence came out of her mouth.

“It will be okay,” Amory said calmly, licking frosting off his plump fingers. “This is yours now.”

Before she could break free, before she could finally make a sound, Odine woke up with a start. She was covered in a cold sweat, and Kelvi was looking at her from his downy nest on the bedside table with concern and mild annoyance.

Lighting candles for vision and warmth, Odine brought Kelvi with her to the reading nook and settled in to finally finish Straggler’s Peak.

The reading didn’t afford her any time to decompress. As the book climaxed and concluded, Odine found herself sitting up further and further in her chair, staring at the pages in shock. Dawn was breaking when she finally closed Straggler’s Peak, staring ahead sightlessly into the depths of the room.

Odine was ready when Amory next knocked on her door, two nights later. She didn’t start in as soon as she opened the door, as much as she wanted to, instead ushering in her hefty guest and making sure he was comfortable first. She served them a large platter of cold meats, fresh bread and butter, several jams and jellies, and glasses of plum wine. As Amory settled into his seat, eyes alight at the sight of food and drink, Odine finally spoke.

“He didn’t choose.”

“Ah,” Amory said, sitting back from his first tentative go at selecting a snack. Instead, he settled with his hands linked together over his belly button, into what he must know was an impressive picture by emphasizing the sheer size of him. “You finished it.”

“I did,” Odine confirmed. “And I cannot believe Lowan ended up with Edward and Marian.” The former his undying sailing companion, and the latter keeping his hearth whenever they were on shore leave. Edward had companions at port as well, and all was well that ended well. It’s incredible, Odine thought, but didn’t vocalize.

“How did you feel about it?” Amory asked, his steady brown eyes on Odine. She searched his gaze for an answer, if there was a right one - she wouldn’t lie, but she would perhaps pull the strength of her response, if needed. But she saw nothing besides Amory’s genuinely curious good nature.

“I thought…it was lovely,” Odine said quietly. “I know things are rarely as good and simple as they seem written in books, but it was such an obvious answer I’ve yet to see. To not have to sit through another heart wrenching goodbye after the author inevitably throws in a horrendous action by one of the members of the triangle, so the choice in the end becomes obvious? It was…such a relief.”

“Truly?” Amory said, and to Odine’s utter relief, she saw he felt a similar emotion in that moment.

“Truly,” she affirmed. “I know it’s another non-traditional arrangement, but who’s to say what is right if it makes one happy? One size never fits all, and as the heart isn’t some container that will cease to feel once it’s filled to an arbitrary capacity, why pretend it is?”

“Why indeed,” Amory said, grinning as he finally unclasped his hands from around his belly and began to help himself to the spread in front of him. Bread, butter, gooseberry jam, and venison piled high on top of one another. “And I certainly know what you mean about needing more than one size.” With this, he winked at Odine and took a huge bite of his spread, a low pleased moan escaping as his eyes closed against the flavor. Perfectly timed, as Odine’s flush at the prince’s wink and reference to his expansive build wasn’t something she could easily hide.

Amory chewed and swallowed, sitting back with his open-faced sandwich in one hand and his goblet of plum wine in the other. He allowed the latter to rest on his broad shelf of a belly, the base of the mug sinking into his softness. He watched Odine for a moment, seeming to work up to saying something, and she waited patiently. But as he took a deep breath, she watched him tense and then release whatever the thought had been - apparently, now wasn’t the time.

“I have another letter from Dom,” he said instead, pulling a folded paper out of his pocket and handing it to Odine. On it was another date and time for training - and Odine ensured the excitement she felt didn’t betray on her face as she set the letter aside. “So what will you read now?” Amory continued, taking another enormous bite of his food. Odine half-smiled behind her own plum wine.

“The Rose in the Dark,” she replied. It was a fairly basic fairytale, one they all knew growing up. A studious young girl is trapped in a castle with its owner, who appears to be a monster - but is, in the end, just a handsome prince under a curse. Odine wasn’t sure she could go right from two emotionally heavy books to another - and this seemed a good enough palate cleanser.

Amory nodded.

“Perhaps I’ll re-read Straggler’s Peak,” he mused cheerfully. “Nothing quite like immersing yourself in the world of swashbuckling adventures and two adoring companions, is there?”

“No,” Odine agreed, shaking her head as she chased away the what if thoughts that teased at the edge of her mind.

After all, it was just a story.
 
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CW for claustrophobia! Join us in Chapter 15 if that isn't your bag.

Chapter 14

Six months later, nearly three quarters of the competitors had been eliminated, snow was falling in the central kingdom, and Odine realized that she had fallen in love with Dominic.

It wasn’t an instantaneous thunderclap like it had been with Prince Amory - who, truthfully, Odine still somehow only grew more deliriously infatuated with at every moment. But Odine had begun to look forward to training more and more every week - despite the fact that they had more or less nailed down their white magic cast ruse to an exact science, neither of them suggested they stop meeting. Soon, Odine realized what was happening as she eagerly tried to provoke the captain of the guard into as many scowls as she could during their sessions. It was love.

Damn.

Amory continued to visit Odine’s room at least one evening per week. It didn’t take Odine long to realize these visits coincided with the group meals in the banquet hall, and the evenings when Dominic was out on patrol. His dining habits next to the king, queen, and that week’s winners continued to be noticeably restrained, and so Odine made certain to have food available for when Amory stopped by. At first, it was just the one snacking board and single bottle of honey wine, but she quickly realized that would finish up early in the night and soon after the prince would leave. So she began to ensure that there was seconds, thirds, and eventually, fourths for them to enjoy - though most of it, she had to admit, would disappear down the thick, pleased throat of Prince Amory. Still, he always replenished that and more the next morning.

During those visits early on in the competition, Amory turning his bulky form sideways afforded him about an inch on each side to slip through the door to join Odine. As time went on, however, Odine began to notice the way the prince began to have his back pressed into the door as he moved through it. She didn’t notice at first, since there was still approximately the same sized gap between the doorway and the front of his round belly, but the slight whoosh of his clothing rubbing against the frame eventually gave it away.

Not long after that, another sound began to accompany Amory’s entry - a soft intake of breath, followed by a nearly imperceptible tightening of the thickest part of his waist, around his bellybutton. Odine only noticed when the prince would wear his snugger clothing - though, she began to realize, that was nearly all of them now - since they afforded a better view of the precise thickness of his torso. The one or two looser tops left would disguise the movement of sucking his belly in, and just how much of a squeeze the entrance was for him. Though the rest revealed a scant gap of a centimeter or two, likely available only through his diligent breath-holding.

Much more recently, the roundest and softest area of Amory’s belly had begun to press into the doorframe. A brief sucking noise and sideways shuffle later, the prince was still quickly through, but Odine couldn’t help noticing the soft jiggle of his waistline once it was freed from the doorframe.

She didn’t stare as it happened, but it would have taken a much stronger woman than she to resist even a glance.

On this particular evening, curled up in their respective chairs, Amory and Odine were engrossed in their books as they picked at the evening’s fifth refill of the snack board. In their defense, it had been several hours, but by Odine’s count, the heel that was disappearing between the prince’s plump lips was the end of the sixth loaf of bread just served that evening.

“Oh,” Amory said after a moment, after reaching out and discovering the wooden board empty - again. There were light shaved crumbs from the chocolate bar, stems from the grapes, three apple cores, shells from the seafood that Odine had cleaned herself, and bones from several drumsticks of roast bird - but nothing else that could be eaten, and the prince frowned slightly at the sight.

“I’m sorry, Amory,” Odine said, somewhat embarrassed, “but that’s all I had tonight.”

“That’s all?” Amory said teasingly after a moment, followed by a chuckle. “Don’t worry, Odine. This was plenty. I think I’m actually full - what a sensation.”

Odine half-smiled and resisted spending too much time admiring the high curve of his stuffed belly. Admittedly, she would have been impressed if he could have kept going. Amory, meanwhile, pivoted to taking a large sip of honey wine - then yawning as he set the cup down.

The words on Odine’s page were blurring with more regularity, but she refused to succumb to the pull to go to bed. But sleep yields to no one, and within moments of each other, both Odine and Amory had drifted off in their chairs. Odine with her head nodded forward onto the pages, Amory with his hefty body sideways on the couch - thick calves dangling off one end, his head drooping over the other, and his belly rising towards the ceiling in the middle.

Neither stirred until the sun was just about fully risen. Odine blinked herself upright, while Amory groaned and stretched his arms and legs away from his center. Which caused the maroon shirt he was wearing to ride up, revealing a section of tanned, jiggling flesh up to Amory’s bellybutton.

Both flushed as Amory tugged it back down again.

“I ought to go, I didn’t mean to stay so late,” the prince said apologetically, slowly tilting himself so his feet landed on the floor. He heaved himself up to standing with a soft groan as Odine tried diligently to blink the exhaustion and desire out of her eyes. She was weighed down with sleep and food, and could only imagine how Amory, who had consumed at least three times what she did, was feeling. He moved towards the door, his footsteps heavy but still impressively regal in movement, as always.

“Don’t apologize,” Odine replied, rolling her neck back and forth to relieve the tension from her odd sleeping position. “I enjoy having you here.”

“I enjoy being here,” Amory said after a moment, his voice soft. Odine didn’t face him, instead smiling down at her hands with a soft blush. “Goodbye for now.”

Odine finally glanced behind her, and saw Amory begin to leave. He was facing away from her, his body turned towards the ice box. He took a shuffling step into the doorway, then paused. His back foot went to follow, set down near his front foot, then slowly pushed off the ground until it was back where it started. Odine heard two new sounds - a soft groan from Amory, and a loud creak from the doorway.

Curious, Odine leaned off the edge of her chair, peering around Amory’s thick side to get a more straight on look at the doorway. There, she saw his soft belly pressing into the stone wall - the wooden doorframe wasn’t even visible beyond the pooch of his stomach, except for above and below. And speaking of above, she saw Amory’s hands gripping onto the edge of the doorframe, his fingers on the outside, clearly trying to yank himself in and subsequently through.

“Oh, gods,” Amory uttered in a low, rueful tone. “Okay…this…umph…door curse has officially gotten ridiculous.”

The pair had danced around the tight fit of the entrance to Odine’s room since the first couple times Amory had arrived, only exchanging occasional glances as it got noticeably snugger. But Odine wasn’t going to say anything without Amory’s lead. So at this, she stood up with a half-smile and crossed to where he struggled.

“Perhaps we’ve discovered the upper limit for midnight snacks,” Odine suggested, thinking of the way her own dresses fit more snugly around a slightly rounder belly these days. She didn’t mind it, as back lacing allowed for some growth, and if anything, she thought the softness touching on her face, breasts, thighs, and more added a certain adorable factor she had always been lacking with her stark-white features. And of course, she dreamed about the prince at any size - though becoming too large to fit in and out of her door would certainly be a hinderance to the nights she had grown so fond of.

Amory, meanwhile, gasped loudly.

“What are you suggesting?” He retorted in an exaggeratedly wounded tone, exchanging a broad teasing grin with Odine before yanking even harder on the doorframe - as though hoping to catch it unawares might force it to allow him passage.

Unsurprisingly, all that did was elicit a much stronger creak from the wooden frame while Amory’s round middle briefly bunched like an accordian on the inside of the door.

Backing slightly away, Amory hesitated before trying a different angle. He approached the door more head-on, and his shoulders and soft chest passed through easily. Even his hips would likely have had little issue. But Odine let out an involuntary hiss as she saw what Amory was about to feel - a tightness gripping around the lower part of his belly, the doorway filling completely with his round middle until his love handles stopped him cold, much too wide to fit through the door.

“Okay, never mind that,” Amory narrated quickly, squirming his way back into the room. It took a second, and Odine’s heart nearly stopped, but soon he was free of the door’s grip and looking at it begrudgingly. “Well. As lovely as staying here forever would be…”

“The kingdom might go into just a touch of upheaval?”

“Perhaps just a bit.”

“And who would ensure my continued spot in the tournament?” Odine added, teasingly, but Amory looked back at her with an unreadable expression. She blushed, realizing that implying any unfair favoritism in the competition was very inappropriate - even if it was arguably just a balance for the way the others clearly wanted her out. “I apologize, I’m still half-asleep. That was a joke.”

“It’s all right, Odine,” Amory replied, his expression going back to an easy smile before transforming into a frown at the door.

“And…you…” Odine imperceptibly cringed, wanting to help while not wanting to overstep. “You haven’t had success with sucking it in?”

“I’m too full,” Amory said ruefully, pinching at a roll of fat right beneath his bellybutton to express his irritation. “I know - you were right before. I shall have to ensure I stop at the perfect amount from now on - three loaves of bread only.”

“Amory, we ate six.”

“We what?! Gods, nevermind, I can’t keep to half the amount. I’ll just have to send up extra butter.”

He patted his round front, and Odine blushed as she realized the implication and immediately was launched into a fantasy about adding the greasy lubrication onto the prince’s widest bite. Amory laughed when he saw her expression, seeming to misinterpret it as fear.

“I jest! I jest. I won’t ask you to do that. Probably. Um…but could you…push a bit?” His tone reduced in certainty as it went on, and Odine found herself nodding rapidly in a way meant to reassure (but likely gave away her excitement).

“Of course,” she replied, trying to balance her enthusiastic movement with a calm tone. Amory offered her a smile before moving back into position, gripping the door up near his chest as he shuffled slowly sideways and attempted to cram his overstuffed middle through the gap.

Odine observed that it wasn’t exactly working, and breathlessly reached to touch the prince in a much more intimate way than she ever would have dreamed. One hand rested lightly on his shoulder, the other on his softly firm love handle, and just as she began to shove -

“Dom! What excellent timing. Come give us a hand?”
 
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“What is this?” Came the familiar gruff tone from the other side of the door, and Odine’s heart both swelled and dropped - then looped itself back around and did it all again.

“This? Just an early teatime. Or late, depending on your view of things,” the prince replied cheerfully.

“Not…that. This.” At that point, Dominic’s tall dark head had appeared on the other side of the door above Amory’s, and the furrowed brow made brief eye contact with Odine before looking down at Amory’s swollen middle. She guessed he was gesturing with hands only Amory could see from this angle.

“Oh. Well. Still teatime, plus an irritatingly small door. Care to pull?” Amory released the door with the hand closest to Dominic, and reached out for his captain. Who took it, but still glared at Odine and then the prince.

“Your highness, you have to be more careful. How do you eat so much that you can’t get back out of a door? How do you not notice when it’s snug enough to be a close call, and adjust accordingly?”

Amory merely rolled his eyes, and Odine felt herself speak up cheekily in his defense.

“The prince doesn’t mind living dangerously, unlike some overly cautious soldiers I could mention,” she said, and Dominic gritted his teeth as she teasingly harkened back to him refusing to try to squeeze through the grate to the practice room. She still asked him if he wanted to try, every time. Did Odine actually think Dominic would be able to fit? No. But it was so fun to see him incensed, and Amory seemed to agree.

“Danger may as well be my middle name,” he said.

“It appears that indulgence may be your middle name - let’s not get it confused,” the captain groused as he choked up on Amory’s arm with one hand, the other gripping the prince’s soft palm firmly.

Odine didn’t say it, but the truth was, the way Dominic’s belly now rounded out further from his middle and hung just the slightest bit lower on his belt with the weight of it made her doubt he’d have that easy of a time squirming through the narrow doorframe either. But they couldn’t know for certain, since he never tried.

“Ready?” She said instead, and both men confirmed. As she began to push, Amory pulled at the door with his one free hand, and Dominic gave a firm yank. Which caused the top half of the prince to be pulled nearly all of the way through, which would have been progress if the widest part of his stomach hadn’t still refused to enter the gap. Now leaning forward precariously, the prince was wedged in the doorway a few inches below his ribcage, practically horizontal as his back leg lifted off the ground.

“Dominic!” Odine laughed as the prince exhaled a surprised grunt. “Do you always approach things with this brutish level of finess?”

The prince and Dominic exchanged a glance that she couldn’t read, then averted their eyes elsewhere. In Dominic’s case, into Odine’s.

“What would you suggest?” He asked, his tone dry, but deep down - Odine knew - receptive.

“Keep pulling, just…with gradual, steady pressure. Don’t rip his arm off,” Odine replied.

“That sounds good, yes, let’s…mmph…avoid that,” the prince chimed in, a little breathlessly.

“I’ll keep pushing, too.”

Because Amory was still too stuffed to suck in, Odine took a risk. She continued to push on his love handle as best as the new awkward angle could allow, but with her other hand, she found the very front of his round middle and pushed in lightly, compressing. It yielded, easily at first, then with the stubborn roundness of a night of overingulence. But still, it worked, and with a now slightly flatter gut to manage, Odine pushed it forward as well, towards the door’s opening. The prince didn’t protest, but he did exhale a surprised oof.

With Dominic actually following her instructions, progress was made. The pushing and pulling combination got the prince moving forward, and while he did get wedged briefly once more right around the apex of his stomach - by his bellybutton - he was freed with just two more tugs from Dominic and a hearty shove by Odine, along with a wriggling of his own that made Odine stop breathing. Not for long, though. Just about the length of time the prince was stuck for the last bit.

Finally stumbling forward, Amory grinned at the pair, lifting his arms in a triumphant gesture. Dominic crossed his arms over his broad torso and raised his eyebrows, but Odine couldn’t help but grin and raise a fist back at the prince.

“You two are incorrigible,” Dominic said. “I’m supposed to keep you alive, you know, your highness. How am I going to do that if even doors are slowing you down?”

“Oh, Dom, it’s one door. In a castle with no monsters. But if we’re anywhere vulnerable I promise I will keep my wits and appetite about me. All right?”

Dominic just rolled his eyes.

“Unless you’d rather I submit to simply eating the skinless birds and steamed green vegetables of my mother’s preferred flavorless meals?” Amory continued, softening the look of his deep brown eyes into a purposefully sad pleading as he looked between Dominic and Odine. “Both of you?”

Gods no,” Odine said, at the same moment Dominic grudgingly admitted, “you know I wouldn’t.”

“Thought so,” Amory said, perking up with a grin. “Did you need me for anything, Dom?”

“Actually…I had just come to deliver training instructions to Odine, since I missed you yesterday,” Dominic admitted, pulling a folded paper out of his pocket after a brief hesitation and handing it to Odine.

“Oh, good. Well, I think it’s about time for breakfast,” Amory said, beaming as the pair looking at him with varying types of disbelief - Odine in delight, Dominic in bafflement. “Farewell!” And with that, the prince turned and strode away, his steps slow but confident.

“You shouldn’t encourage him, you know,” the captain grumbled as the prince rounded the corner.

“I hardly encourage,” Odine protested. “I just…offer. How would it be my place to tell the crown prince that he needs to stop eating before he’s had his fill?”

Dominic merely tightened his jaw, clearly seeing the logic in her answer even if he didn’t necessarily like it.

“Would you like to come in?” Odine asked, her tone innocent but her smile wicked as she stepped off to the side and gestured with her arm to allow Dominic passage. The captain, who was only visible from the lower forehead down in the cramped entryway, peered skeptically at the dimensions. Then down at his own, which included not just a broad belly, but shoulders and a chest that easily surpassed the width of the door.

“I’m fine for now, thank you,” Dominic replied stiffly.

“All right. The offer is always available,” Odine said. “If you ever feel like living a bit on the edge.”

She grinned at Dominic’s exasperated expression.

“I get enough of that in my work.”

“Well, perhaps help would take some of that weight off,” Odine said, her tone innocent.

“Again, Odine, I am not taking you out patrolling.”

Several months into the competition, Odine had been faced with an unusual feeling. It had taken her awhile to place, but the truth was, she felt antsy in the safety and therefore solitude of the castle. She loved being able to sleep in her bed without warding it. She loved eating without keeping an eye over her shoulder in perpetuity. She loved strolling around the gardens solely to enjoy them, not to hunt. But in perpetuity? It wasn’t what Odine was built for. So, a couple months prior, she had tried to ask Dominic about taking her out on his patrols between competitions. Just for some backup, and for her to get back into monster-killing shape. It was a win of an idea for them both.

Dominic had shut her down cold, which Odine found frustratingly insulting. He had seen how she handled the fangslug, why didn’t he trust her? But the deep concern at the thought that she saw in Dominic’s grey eyes would settle her enough that she’d stop the arguments before she got truly angry.

Still, she never stopped pushing. And Dominic, as he looked at her that morning after they’d freed the prince, was clearly sick of it.

“I’ll see you for training.”

And with that, the guard was off. His movements were solid and confident, like the prince, but with more determination and athleticism that lent itself to speed. Odine admired the departure for only a moment before finally shutting her door with an exhausted sigh.
 

DunnInnDusted

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Oct 26, 2022
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I checked this morning on the off chance there was another chapter and was so so glad to find there were two! I love the characters, the pacing, and the non-traditional take on a romance. You balance the telling of a good story with the addition of some wonderfully titillating details and it is such a pleasure to read. Thank you for sharing your talents with us! Looking forward to more 😊
 

fat hiker

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Joined
Oct 25, 2005
Messages
1,709
Location
Ottawa, ON
Fabulous new chapters!

Some speculation: Does Odine have a curse that would widen her doorway? Or Dominic some white magic to do the same? Or is the castle's fabric 'magic-proof'? Maybe Odine will have to be assigned a different room? With a wider door? Perhaps formerly belonging to one of the competitors who've now washed out of the competition?

I'm looking forward to the next installment!
 

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