Hi all and welcome to my latest story. It's been a long time since I've posted anything new on FP. I'm finally working on a new book while I shop around my previous novels, the ReGeneration trilogy, for a literary agent and publication. It's been difficult to immerse myself into a brand new story, world, and characters, and I thought sharing here might help get me motivated to write again. So thanks in advance for reading and I'd very much appreciate any and all comments or critiques.

ROGUE

1

The declining sun painted the city below in orange light. The pristine white marble of the floor and the jagged unfinished palace walls shone golden in the failing light. Reluctant as she was to leave, Justine knew she should head back to the ground castle. Her mother, or Rorek, would come looking for her soon and she would rather return to them than to have them disturb the peacefulness of her hiding place up here.

She picked her way through the palace shell, sidestepping piles of marble and wood. The twin towers of what would be the Cloud Palace were still far from completion. The east tower already looked magnificent, fully shaped with its construction, though the rooms were mostly empty. But the west tower where she stood had little more than its foundation and floor finished. She liked this tower best because of the openness. She could see the entire city below, feel the crisp winds buffet her, hear the clank and sigh of steam engines, the bustle of the commoners. She could appreciate her solitude up here without confining walls. She was alone and free.

She paused only a moment when she reached the bridge that connected the west and east towers. This was the only part she hated. The bridge wasn't finished either. When complete, walls and a ceiling would enclose the bridge that loomed 500 feet above the ground. But at present, the bridge consisted only of a flat sheet of marble with thick crisscrossing supports beneath it. It was structurally sound, Justine was sure, because she had seen the construction crews wheeling and dragging mounds of heavy marble across it. What gave her pause was that the freedom of the open air was almost too much to bear on the bridge. There were no walls to shelter her, nothing to keep a strong wind from buffeting her over the edge, nothing to grasp if she tumbled towards the city. Justine inhaled a deep breath and forced her feet forward in a careful straight line, moving as quickly as she dared.

As she neared the platform at the east tower, a sudden gust rose, whistling through the open walls of the west tower. Her dark hair whipped into her face, momentarily shielding her vision, as the shove of the wind forced her a step closer to the bridge's edge. Her breath caught in her throat, her heart racing as she pictured herself plummeting off the precipice. She shook her hair away, narrowing her focus on the platform ahead, then dashed for the safety of the east tower walls.

The east tower was quieter than the west. The walls blocked out the wind and the sounds rising from the city. Justine's pulse was returning to normal and she hurried through rooms and down hallways towards the opposite end of the tower where the lifts were. She was almost there when a woman's giggle echoed through the empty building, giving her pause. There was no construction today. She had thought she was alone up here, and she wondered who else would have reason to visit the vacant towers.

The woman's voice rose again, from further down the hallway. The shadows inside the tower deepened as the sun sunk lower and less light spilled in from the numerous windows lining the outer walls. But Justine could see flickering candlelight spilling from a partially opened door. Another giggle, then, "Ow!"

"You like it, I know you do." This second voice was male and one Justine immediately recognized.

More giggling. "Yes, your highness. I'm at your service. I want only to please you."

"Of course you do. Why else do you think you're here? Certainly not for your cleaning skills. If I just wanted a maid, I would have fired you months ago."

Justine heard more giggling and muffled sighs and moans. She quietly approached the door and risked a peek inside. The space was small, like a closet. Tristane had a young woman pinned against the far wall, the lacings on the bodice of her dress were loose and the fabric at the neckline was torn and exposed her shoulder. A circular red mark was indented in her flesh. Justine recognized her now--one of the maids her mother had wanted to get rid of until Tristane vehemently disagreed. Justine smiled inwardly, now understanding what their mother had not.

Tristane continued to paw at the maid and Justine turned, backing away from the doorway. She should hurry to get to the lifts, and quietly before Tristane knew she was there. She moved further down the hallway and reached the heavy wooden door that lead outside to the protected platform housing the lifts.

But when Justine yanked the metal ring to open the door, the wood squealed in protest, a deafening sound in the silence of the empty tower. She held her breath and glanced over her shoulder towards the closet.

"Who's there?" Tristane suddenly yelled out. A shadow blocked the flickering light spilling from the open door.

Justine spun and pulled on the door again, not caring now about the noise she made. But before the door was open, hands grabbed her from behind, yanking her backwards.

"If it isn't my dear sister!" Tristane snarled, slamming Justine into the wall. Her forehead struck stone. He clenched his fist around her left wrist and pulled it behind her.

"Stop, Tristane! You're hurting me!"

"What are you doing here? Spying on me?" Tristane wrenched her arm further behind her.

Her wrist screamed with pain and she whimpered. "No! I didn't even know you were here! I was just..." She squeezed her eyes shut. Words wouldn't come. She had to get away from him. If he would only let go. Pain raced up and down her left arm. Her head was turned towards the closet and she could see the maid peeking out from the doorway. She was tugging at her dress to keep her breasts covered and she stared without speaking a word.

"What then?" Tristane said. "What were you doing up here? Did you follow me?" When Justine still didn't answer, he pressed harder against her, putting more weight on her injured arm. "I command you to answer! I am your king and you will answer me!"

Her tongue itched. Your aren't king! she almost screamed. She bit her lip and remained quiet. It would do her no good to anger him further. She needed him to release his grip. Tears formed in her eyes.

"I would never spy on you, dear brother," Justine whispered, her voice shaky and uneven. "I had no idea you were here. I'm very sorry to have disturbed you." With her head pressed against the marble, she thought she could hear the rumble of gears reverberating in the walls.

Pain stabbed again at her wrist and a tear slid down her cheek. "Don't lie to me," Tristane said. "Were you watching? Did you like what you saw?"

Before Justine could muster any response, the wooden door suddenly shuttered and swung open.

"Your highness!"

Both Justine and Tristane turned towards Rorek's surprised voice. Tristane loosened his grip on his sister, but didn't immediately let go.

"Your highnesses," Rorek amended. "My prince and princess. What has happened here?"

Tristane yanked one last time on Justine's wrist, causing her to cry out, then finally let go, stepping back. "Nothing, knight," the prince spat. "My dear sister and I were simply conversing, which is none of your concern. Why are you here? You were not summoned. Go back to the ground castle where you belong."

Rorek's face betrayed no emotion as he bowed his head in acquiescence. "Yes, your Royal Majesty. I will return to the ground castle as you command. I was sent by Her Royal Majesty, the queen, to find both you and the princess. Supper will be served soon and she was concerned that both of her children were missing."

Tristane snorted. "Supper will be served when I say it will be served. I'm the king and will not be ordered by a servant knight. My mother should know better. You may tell her I will join her shortly." He turned his back on Rorek. "You are dismissed."

Rorek turned towards the door.

As an afterthought, Tristane turned back to grab Justine's arm and shove her in Rorek's direction. "And please escort my dear sister back down to the ground castle as well. She is lost and doesn't belong up here."

Rorek nodded, but Tristane had already turned and walked away, back towards the closet where his maid hussy was hiding.

Rorek's armor clanked as he hefted the door open. He beckoned for Justine, offering a gentle smile which she returned. He was an older man, tough lines etched in his face, especially around his kind eyes. He was of an age with her father, though her father seemed considerably older now with his illness. "Princess, it is my pleasure to escort you back to the ground."

"Thank you, Sir Rorek." She walked ahead of him out onto the enclosed platform. He pulled the lever that summoned the lift and they heard the crank and hum of moving machinery as the lift slowly rose towards them.

"Are you hurt, Princess?"

Justine brought her wrist up, flexing it gingerly and cupping it in her right hand. "No. I'm alright." She eyed him. "I wasn't watching my footing and I tripped. Fell on my arm. I think it's only bruised a bit, though. I'll be alright."

Rorek frowned. "Hm. Yes. Your head as well? You must have hit your head in that same fall."

Justine frowned and pressed fingers against her forehead, wincing. The flesh was tender and swollen.

"I made an oath to your father that I would protect both his children with my life," Rorek said. "It's too bad that I can't protect the crown prince from himself."

Justine's eyes widened and she glanced behind her. The lift finally settled at the platform and Justine sighed with relief, ushering Rorek inside quickly and pulling the lever to bring them back down.

"You shouldn't say such things, Rorek. Not with Tristane so close. If he were to hear you..."

"As I said, I spoke no vow to your brother. The vow I made was to your father. Tristane is not king yet, though he likes to think so. I would never let harm come to Tristane as a service to your father. But I also would never let him harm you, my princess." Rorek bent to one knee, lowering his head. He took Justine's good hand with both of his, which were strong and calloused. "Now and forever, I am at your service, Princess Teeny. Never forget that."

Justine blushed and laughed despite herself. Rorek looked up and grinned. She pulled her hand away. "Stop that! Get up off your knees!"

"As you command, your highness."