A Fair Trade

“Please don’t leave me.” I looked between her and the bickering guards working around the garden, giving each other a shove in between insults.

Alexandra chuckled. “I’m sure you’ll be fine. Besides, they know you’re in charge here.” She gripped my shoulders. “If they give you any trouble, you can always tell me, and I’ll see it taken care of.”

“Can’t I come with you? You know, for moral support?”

She led me toward the doorway. “I wish you could, darling, but it would only add fuel to the fire, especially with Damien there.”

I shook my head. “All the more reason to go. Maybe it’ll light a fire under his behind.”

“Zinnia!”

“What? He deserves it!”

She hugged me, turning her head to my ear. “I shouldn’t be too long, worse case, I’ll be here for dinner. Just you and me, promise.”

I kissed her cheek. “It’s a deal.”

She backed away, crossing the threshold into the castle. “Don’t work too hard, please.”

“Me working too hard? Oh, please!” I stuck my tongue out as rolled her eyes.

“I’m serious. Before I head off to speak with the advisors, I’ll tell Helena to check up on you.”

“You’re too protective, Lexa.”

“I have to protect a certain stubborn hummingbird.” She grinned, walking away as I pouted.

A hand clamped down on my shoulder. “Gettin’ real cozy with the queen, are you?”

“What’s it to you?” I shrugged him off.

Duncan smiled. “Nothin’, just an observation. You don’t exactly hide it well.”

“Why should I have to?”

Andrew met Duncan at his side, offering the full pine box. “Because that arse thinks he’s entitled to her.”

I scoffed, leading them into the workroom. “Then let his mind implode when he finds out otherwise.” I dumped the weeds into the grinder, gesturing for one of them to take the handle.

Duncan stepped up, starting to turn it. “I dunno, the boss don’t like to hear ‘no’ for an answer.”

Andrew saw him struggle and stepped in to help. “‘Bout time he got used to it.”

“Why do you hate him so much? You know, besides the water to the face.”

I nodded to them once the compost filled the layered bin, and they stopped, heading out with the emptied pine box.

“He likes discipline.”

“Aren’t military men supposed to be disciplined?” I followed them around as they continued to pick weeds from the garden herbs.

Andrew dropped the box, ripping the armor on his left shoulder off to expose a burn that’d blistered over. “I get takin’ a bit of heat, but I didn’t think he meant this!”

I covered my mouth, bowing my head before looking him straight in the eye. “Damien did that too you?” At his nod I shook my head, kneeling down to him. “Can’t you report him?”

“Oh yeah, like anyone would believe a couple of slack-offs like us.” He hissed as he replaced his armor and turned back to the work in front of him.

“Has he done it to anyone else?” I looked at Duncan who pointed to his forearm. “Both of you? Does anyone know about this?”

Duncan’s head drooped. “Well, yeah, he made an example outta us. That’s why no will tell. They don’t wanna be next.”

“I can tell Alexandra-”

Andrew gripped my shoulders .”You better not. Listen, I’ve seen the way you look at her, and if you don’t want to cause her trouble, don’t say a word.”

“But she needs to know what’s happening to her soldiers.”

He shook his head. “We’re not soldiers, we’re the grunts.”

“And that’s what you’ll always be, running away from your real jobs.”

The men scrambled up, dropping the tools as they stiffened in salute. Damien approached with a smirk, and I turned to meet his gaze.

Andrew stepped in front of me. “We were just-”

“Shut your mouth! You don’t speak without my permission. Or do you need a reminder?”

He gritted his teeth, shaking his head. Before I could speak out, Duncan placed his hand on my shoulder, shaking his head as he stepped out in front of me as well, forming a body wall with Andrew.

“You know what? You two are more trouble than you’re worth, even as little more than practise dummies.” He turned his back on them. “I don’t want to see your pathetic faces in my barracks again.”

The light lightened as soon as he left, and the men sighed, slumping to the ground.

“This is my fault…” I knelt down to pick up the tools, piling them in the pine box.

Duncan stopped me, sliding the box over to Andrew who couldn’t stop a grin from crawling across his face.

“Are you kidding? You saved our behinds!” Duncan started removing his armor. “And we can finally get out of this heat trap!”

I stared at them? “But don’t you need your job?”

Andrew couldn’t stop the laughter from bubbling over, and he shook as it took him. “We’ve saved up plenty between us. Besides, I’m sure we can find a new job… elsewhere.”

“What, here? Listen, you two are just helping cause I’m recovering, but I prefer to work by myself.”

Duncan wielded the shovel like a weapon. “Aww, come on! We can help with the grunt work, you know, the low-action stuff.” He grinned. “Besides, I’ve always wanted to learn more, maybe grow some flowers-”

“Or food!”

“Right, right, or food of my own.”

I laughed. “So, let me get this straight. You two would be willing to do this stuff full time in exchange for… gardening lessons?”

Andrew grinned. “Hey, as long as you throw in a tree or two for choppin’, I’m good without the lessons. Just something to relieve stress.”

“So you’d be fine with weeding all the time just to learn how to grow flowers? Right, and food.”

Duncan nodded, flipping the shovel in the air. “Oh yeah, always wanted to be more… More, what’s the phrase?”

“Self-sufficient?” Andrew took the shovel from him, digging for the next weed.

“Yeah, yeah, that’s it! It’d save me a ton, not havin’ to go to the market.”

I chuckled as I watched them work. “Well, I suppose it’d make the queen happy.”

“Whatcha say, hummingbird?” Andrew peered up, blocking the sun from his eyes as he looked at me.

I rolled my eyes. “Throw in combat lessons, and you got a deal.”

He laughed, shaking my hand before he went back to work. Duncan grinned as he shook mine, hurrying to gather the weeds in the pine box.

“What, you’re not even gonna ask why?”

“We know why, and believe me, I’m all for Damien getting a swift kick in the arse, especially from you, hummingbird.” Andrew cackled. “I’d pay to see him get beat.”

I grinned, kneeling down to help them. “So you think I could take him?”

“I’m sure you could, but I wouldn’t pick a fight, not unless you have to.”

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