Chapter One

Of all the interesting mysteries of Nadlar and its surrounding countries, a particular favorite and most recent is the case of Princess Araine. Daughter of King Edward II and Queen Natalie, Araine was the first born of two. A bright and cunning child, Araine was a favorite among the palace for her kind heart as well as beauty. Despite unconfirmed rumors that Edward favored her most, Araine and her sister Paige were very close. Being a year the senior, Araine taught Paige everything.

Araine and Paige lived happy childhoods, unaware of the growing tensions between Nadlar and its neighbor Fantez. To try and ensure peace, King Edward and King Mortag zeLetcod of Fantez agreed on a marriage between Mortag's youngest son, Fredrick, and Edward's oldest daughter, Araine. This marriage was planned to take place shortly after Araine's 13th birthday. Araine, shocked and angered by her father's decision, openly objected this. Many close to her found a change in her personality. She became harsh to everyone except Paige. People feared Mortag would call off the arrangement, but to their peace and Araine's disdain, he did not. The wedding proceeded as planned three days after her birthday. Araine Albertec, an energetic youth of thirteen, was wed to Fredrick zeLetcod, a strong willed young man of eighteen. For two happy weeks everything was normal, then things changed for the worse.

First, there was the sudden death of Queen Natalie. No evident signs of murder were present, and the court physicians were unable to diagnose an internal problem. The whole royal family and castle staff were shocked, but none more than the two little princesses. Then, an even more tragic event took place. King Edward II was found dead in his quarters two days after the Queen's death. He was pronounced poisoned, and as eldest, Araine was crowned Queen Araine of Nadlar, the youngest ruler since King Joseph, who inherited the throne at 10.

Araine's dynasty as queen however was indeed a short one. Only weeks after the late King Edward's death, Araine's husband, King Fredrick, was found murdered in his quarters. One of the royal daggers was found in his chest, with a note tied to it. That same night the princess Paige received a nightly visitor, and awoke to find a silver envelope addressed to her, written in Araine's own handwriting.

The contents of this letter and the note on the dagger are classified and were not made known to the public. Queen Araine was never seen again, and Paige took the throne. Many speculations were made about Araine's disappearance and the many deaths. Some people believe Araine was killed as well, and her body was deposited somewhere. Other's believed she merely was a victim of despair and fled, unable to face the pity from others. Still, a portion of the people felt that Araine herself killed her mother, father and husband. They used the evidence that she indeed changed and did not like her marriage to back their theory.

Whatever the case, the fact remains that Araine has not been seen since, and now would have been 17. Her sister, at the young age of 16, has jumped right into her duties as Queen with her Aunt watching over her back, and has done many thing she finds fit. Many young detectives find this case enticing, but have all failed to uncover its many answers.

Jazmine looked up from the page and gazed over the still water of the pond. A fat bullfrog jumped into the clear water, sending ripples across the glass. She stuck her bare feet into the water, swirling around a cloud of dirt.

Of all the mysteries of Nadlar, Princess Araine was Jazmine's favorite. She felt she could relate to Araine, especially as she had lived during Araine's reign and disappearance. She often wondered where Araine was now. In fact, Jazmine had developed a theory of what had happened to the Princess. Jazmine felt that Araine's mother and father were killed, and in her anger, Araine must have killed her husband Fredrick, suspecting him of killing her parents to make himself king. Not wanting to get caught up in all the confusion and controversy, she fled the country all together, leaving the only person she trusted, Paige, in charge. Jazmine thought it was a good theory, but when she told people, they dismissed it saying it was stupid and that young girls shouldn't waste their time thinking.

Jazmine closed the book, disgusted at that memory. Young girls shouldn't think. She glanced down at the cover to see a portrait of Araine staring at her. Araine was indeed a beautiful girl, with gleaming golden hair that swept around her, the ends reaching her mid-back. Her skin was not pale like her sister, but lightly tanned, illuminating her hair even more. The most breath taking feature on her though were her eyes. A beautiful and exotic color of violet, they always shone like the stars above. When she was angry, which was hardly ever, they glowed a brighter shade, intimating anyone who looked at her. Indeed, Araine was a very beautiful girl, even at 13. Very much unlike Jazmine.

Placing the book next to her, Jazmine leaned forward and looked into the water. An ordinary face looked back at her. Jazmine carefully hooked her hair behind an ear. Her hair was a light red color and reached just below her shoulder blades. Her face was dotted with freckles and her eyes were the ordinary color of brown. They never twinkled or even had a cold look to them. They were just brown. Looking at herself harder, Jazmine decided that she could possible be called pretty, but never beautiful. She was fine with pretty though. Beauty always came with a price.

Looking back at the cover, Jazmine wondered what Araine looked like now. This book she had was 8 years outdated, so she knew Araine to be about 25. Jazmine wished for a new copy of the book to learn more of these mysteries, but she knew that would never happen. Queen Paige had outlawed any books containing information about her sister. She had to confirm any of the information in history books, and specialized books such as Jazmine's Mysteries of Nadlar were almost never printed. Jazmine's mother Heidi had risked everything to save all their books for Jazmine.

Grabbing the book, Jazmine stood up and stretched. She observed the forest around her and smiled. This was her favorite spot to be. The world just seemed to melt away. This realization made her frown. That was another quality in her people disliked; they said she didn't act her age and was too mature. Girls her age were supposed to be dreaming about men in shinning armor, not lost princesses or maple trees.

Jazmine sighed and slipped her feet into the soft slippers she had tossed aside earlier. Her mother never thought that. Her mother always told her to be herself, to ignore what others say. They didn't know her. Her mother always told Jazmine that she was destined for greatness, though what the greatness was, Jazmine couldn't guess.

Somewhat cheered, Jazmine took one last look at the pond. She picked up a smooth stone and skipped it across the water. Smiling, she turned and started on the long journey home.

Crystal pulled up the reins slightly, halting her faithful horse. She slid off the mare's back and looked carefully around. The town she stopped in was a small town. It generally had no part in politics, but had some generous residents. Taking in every sight, Crystal led the horse forward. Her eyes shifted from side to side as she looked for a place to stay. She noticed a few villagers staring curiously at her, and she raised her hood. The last thing she needed now was to draw too much attention.

Crystal and the horse turned a corner and paused. In front of them was a small side street, and to the left was an inn, a few men sitting on the porch talking.

"What do you think, ol' girl?" Crystal asked the horse, a smirk on her face. The mare snorted in reply. Crystal chuckled.

"My thoughts exactly. Happy people cannot be trusted. It looks like this is the only place though, so we're stuck. Try not to let any happiness rub off on you, Lucia." Crystal walked on, leading Lucia to the stables next to the inn. When she walked in, she noticed a stable boy and whistled him over. The boy, who looked to be about 12 with curly, red hair, set down his bucket and soap and walked over to Crystal.

"Hey little guy. What's your name?" Crystal asked.

"Kyle." The boy answered, looking in awe at Lucia. Crystal smiled.

"Well Kyle, this is Lucia. Do me a favor and find her a nice stall to sleep in, but don't lock it. She doesn't like that. Oh, and be sure to give her a sugar cube or two" She said and flicked a gold coin into the air. The boy caught it eagerly, his eyes shinning with excitement.

"Yes ma'am!" He said, taking the reins from Crystal's hands. Crystal patted Lucia's midnight black coat affectionately.

"Sleep well girl. We've got a big ride ahead." She said, then left the stables. She walked to the front of the inn, nodding to the people on the porch as she opened the door. She stepped into a crowded tavern, almost all tables filled. Crystal noticed an empty table for two over in a corner and headed towards it. She sat down and rested her tired legs on the other seat. After a few minutes, one of the kitchen maids came over to her.

"Can I help you sir?" The girl asked. Crystal looked up and met the girl's eyes, which filled with embarrassment as she learned her mistake.

"I'm dreadfully sorry miss. It's just that-" Crystal cut her off with a wave of her hand.

"Forget it. I'll have something warm, a glass of water and bread, and a room to stay in." The maid nodded, apologized once again, then scurried off to the kitchen. Crystal shook her head smiling, and looked around. She suddenly learned why the maid assumed her a man. Every other table in the tavern was occupied by all men. A few glanced at her from their tables. Crystal looked back to the top of her table. 'Now I remember why I hate coming here. Women are still treated as nothing but manure.'

The maid came back out soon with a bowl of steaming beef stew, a glass of water, loaf of bread, and a room key. Crystal thanked her, then noticed the girls nervous glance around.

"What's wrong?" Crystal asked. The maid muttered something about carrots, which seemed odd, then hurried away. Crystal, confused, began to eat her stew. She tore off a piece of bread, feeling more eyes staring at her. She also noticed that the loud drunk chatter from before had died away, and only soft whispers could be heard. Just for fun, Crystal withdrew her hood. She grinned to herself at the tense feeling forming in the air. Looking around again, her eyes met with those of a man who was sitting in the center of a group of fat, grungy looking men. Crystal smiled a daring smiled and waved at them, laughing inwardly as they turned to whisper again. She looked back at her food and continued eating.

She soon sensed someone walking over to her. She remained eating and looking at her food while the heavy footsteps drew nearer, and kept perfectly calm as the person, most likely a man, stopped at her table.

"Have you no respect for men? Don't you know how unlady like it is to sit like that? I suggest you move your feet now." A gruff, deep voice commanded, referring to her feet propped up on the chair.

"And if I don't?" Crystal asked, finally looking up. Just as she expected, it was the man from the center table. She assumed he was some kind of leader.

"Well, then I shall have to sit on them." He told her. Crystal smirked and started eating again, keeping her feet up. The man did sit down, but he pushed her feet aside roughly first. Crystal looked up, clearly annoyed. No one touched her without her permission.

"Do you mind? I am trying to eat my dinner in peace." She sneered, glaring at the man with cold eyes. The man grinned a hideous grin, snapped his fingers and along came a maid. She quickly removed Crystal's meal, leaving the key. Crystal snatched it away before the man could glance at it.

"Where are you from, beautiful stranger? I do not recall seeing you here in Genral before." He asked, still grinning. Crystal picked her words carefully, avoiding any trap.

"I'm from East Nadlar."

"What business brings you here?"

"My own." Crystal answered calmly. The man's grin broadened.

"Well, welcome to Genral. My name is Eugrath, miss…?"

"My name is of no concern to you, Eugrath. Now, if you excuse me, I will be going." She replied, standing up to leave. Eugrath stepped in front of her, his grin gone, much to her relief.

"You aren't going any where, little miss." He growled. Every other man in the room was now watching them, a few standing to intimidate her. Crystal smirked, placed a bronze coin on the table for the maid, then walked past Eugrath. She raised her hood over her blue mop of hair as she walked out of the tavern, feeling Eugrath's rage sizzle in the air.

Eugrath. She knew that name. From what she remembered he had appeared in the royal court a few times. If she remembered correctly, the last time he had been in court he had voted in favor of making women slaves. Crystal laughed bitterly as she strode down the dirt street. 'Oh, he's a smart one. Proposing to give women the status of slaves to a female ruler.' As she continued to walk down the street, something caught her eye in one of the alleyways. She slowed down and noticed the unmistakable silhouette of a cloaked woman. As her eyes adjusted, she noticed the woman was beckoning her over. Crystal grinned.

Maybe this stop would turn out interesting after all.

Crystal took off her cloak as she stepped into her room. She sighed as she sat down on the hard bed, looking out her window. The two moons were bright in the sky, illuminating the rooftops. Her eyelids were heavy, and she wished for sleep, but she had a job to do. Remembering the hooded woman's wishes, Crystal shook the heavy bag of coins. Sighing again, she changed into her outfit. Swinging a bag over her shoulder, she jumped out of the window onto the nearest roof, her feet silent.

She jumped between rooftops as she moved along the small town, calculating her position. Finally, she stopped on top of a roof covering a flat house. Waiting a moment to make sure everything was still, she jumped down to the ground. Listening for any movement, she walked over to the door. Gripping the lock with her hands, she sent out waves of unseen energy, which cracked the lock. Putting the broken lock into her enchanted bag, Crystal carefully opened the door, grateful that it was well oiled. Closing the door softly behind her, she entered the house of her victim, Eugrath.

Her first mission was to rob everything of value. The woman only paid her to get rid of Eugrath, but being a thief at heart, Crystal had to rob him as well. However, she could never rob a dead man. It just felt wrong, so she did her work before hand. Looking around, Crystal only saw gold items. Cursing to herself, she put all of it into her bag. While other associates of her profession preferred gold, Crystal liked everything else. Gold gave people too much suspicion.

After confiscating everything, Crystal moved to the bedroom. She again took everything here, then carefully placed her bag on the floor. Taking out her infamous crystal dagger, she moved closer to the bed. While she walked, Crystal's eyes turned a milky white, as her hair did the same. Standing over Eugrath, Crystal used her power to awaken him. Eugrath opened his eyes to see her above him. Quick as lightening, she brought the dagger down into his chest.

"By the way. The name is Zafara." She whispered, using the alias given to her. The last thing Eugrath saw were her blazing white eyes staring at him before his own rolled into the back of his head, never to see again. Crystal pulled the dagger out swiftly, then picked up her bag as though nothing had happened. She left the house quickly, leaving Eugrath's bleeding corpse on the bed, a single white rose as her calling card across the wound, the petals shining like diamonds in the enchanting moonlight.

That same night, some hundred miles away, Queen Raina sat patiently on her throne. Her hands folded neatly across her lap, she looked like a statue in the dim candlelight. Her eyes were closed, her breaths long and calm. She was waiting for someone; someone of great importance to her, but of little respect. Her thoughts were turned to state affairs when a voice spoke, disrupting the silence.

"You wished to speak with me?" It asked. The voice was that of a young man, hidden in the shadows. The Queen continued to keep her eyes shut.

"This new thief. She has arisen fear in many court hearts." The Queen said calmly, her voice showing no emotion, the result of years of training.

"Ah yes. The infamous Zafara. She has stolen a bit of the fear that was once directed to me. But why do you talk of her now?" The man asked. The Queen sighed, her eyes still shut.

"Nadlar has posed more threats. She is resolute in her insults and comments. I fear war is unavoidable. She has once again joined forces with Fantez, and as turned her eyes to Fire's End.

"And what of King Draconous?"

"He is indifferent at the moment. I see no favor in him towards Nadlar, yet he acts the same to us. If he remains neutral or even sides with us, then it is possible victory will be ours, but if he sides with Nadlar, I fear for my people." The Queen replied, her voice showing a hint of sorrow. The man shifted in the shadows.

"Where does Zafara come into play?"

"She works for no one. My informants tell me she leads a band of rebels in each country, though she has not set location. She moves swiftly, tracked only by the mocking roses she leaves. I fear not what she does, but what she can do. One disruption can destroy this stalemate, throw everything into chaos. I will not allow her to be this disruption." The Queen replied.

"What job do you have for me then? Destroy the alliance between Nadlar and Fantez? Gain Fire's End's trust?" The man asked, not exactly pleased with the task he knew he would receive. The Queen shook her head.

"No. I will handle them. I want you to find her. Gain her trust, learn the way she works. She was last in West Nadlar, close to the castle, although her movements show that she is swiftly heading our way. Meet her before that. It will be difficult, for she is very secretive, but so are you. I trust you." She replied. The man nodded, the turned to leave.

"She is no doubt dangerous." The Queen called, opening her eyes. The man turned. "Be careful." He smiled.

"I will." Then he was gone, leaving the Queen to her thoughts.