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It’s another illusion, she told herself and kept repeating it in her mind as the water rose above her waist to her chest, then above her head, all the way to the ceiling. Breathing was an awkward exercise when each inhale felt as if she was about to drown, but Sanja persisted until her mind adjusted to the strangeness of it.

“I fear I come to you on grave business today,” Prince Fal said in his own voice.

Tearing her gaze away from a massive eel twining around her legs, she found the crown prince standing a mere handful of paces away, the hood of his cloak pulled back to reveal his true face. With Master Falwyck’s good humor stripped away, he looked a little sad. Tired, too. He was a mere two years older than Sanja, but as the future king, the weight of Wilderheim sat heavy upon his shoulders, causing him to hunch a little.

His dark hair was neatly trimmed just below his shoulders, with warrior braids framing his face on either side. His true clothes, unlike Master Falwyck’s, befitted his royal lineage, sewn from rich fabrics and embroidered by a hand far more talented than hers. He wore a silver chain about his neck, and one more at his waist, partly obscured by his cloak. Sanja suspected the adornments served a magical purpose of some sort. He didn’t seem the type to wear his wealth on his sleeve—he wasn’t even wearing his crown.

“Don’t be afraid.” His mouth twisted into a bitter smile. “This is merely the truth of what I am—illusions upon illusions, and no way out. I can contain them for a little while, but they always pull me back under in the end, along with everyone around me. This is the only way I can be myself—by flooding everything and everyone around me in illusion. And if I give it free rein, it will only keep growing larger and more convincing.”

Fal could feel the water begin to push past the boundaries of this little room already. The walls would appear to be leaking from the outside, water pouring down to pool around the cottage. It would draw notice before long; he didn’t have much time. “Take my hand.”

Sanja clasped her hands behind her back, shifted farther away. She looked frightened yet unharmed.

“Look around you, Sanja. Do you see the water? The fish? The mud beneath your feet?”

“It’s only an illusion,” she replied. “It’s not real.”

“Yet others would already have drowned in your place.” He chanced a step closer, relieved when she stood her ground. “Please, take my hand. Let me show you what you do to me.”

“Am I meant to swoon at such pretty turns of phrase?”

“What? No. Gods, girl, you must stop wasting your mind on those bloody maudlin poems. Nobody speaks that way.”

“You just did.”

Fal bit back a frustrated growl. “You have my word as the crown prince of Wilderheim—”

“The Prince of Deceit!”

Fal glared at her until she flushed and drew back. “As charming as I find that name, I would have expected better from you by now.”

Head bowed in meek submission, she worried the frayed edges of her hair shirt. “What do you want from me?” Any more of her tugging and the cheap garment would unravel altogether.

This had been a terrible idea. He should never have come here.

But even as he thought it, he took a seat, hoping it would put her at ease and restore her temper. He didn’t like seeing her so subdued. “Will you sit with me a moment?” Otherlands were falling ever faster. Time was running out; he needed Sanja’s help, and he could not wait any longer.

With the gravity of obeying a distasteful order, she took a chair, then furtively moved it farther away from his.

Fal was at a loss as to how to begin. He’d rehearsed the speech several times in his chambers, and again on the way here, and now that the moment had come for him to speak, he couldn’t think of a single word.

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