Nadea wasn't sure how long she had been screaming. All she knew was that she was staring down at the body of the woman who had imprisoned her for the past thirteen years, and she was responsible for the carnage. Wrenching her eyes away from the scene, she pressed a hand over her mouth and turned her back, holding onto the kitchen counter with all her might so she wouldn't collapse. She had done it. She had killed a woman. It had all happened so fast. One minute she had been scrubbing the counter, and the next Mistress Clopper had stormed into the kitchen, screaming about a loaf of burned bread that had been in one of the baskets. A customer had complained, and she'd been forced to give him the loaf, and another good one, for free. And of course, it was Nadea's fault, because she was the one in the kitchen all day long, even though she wasn't even allowed to touch the massive oven because Clopper was petrified she would break it. Nadea had stuttered apologies, trying to explain that it couldn't have possibly been her fault, but to no avail. Before she could get out more than half a sentence, Clopper had fallen on her with fists and feet in a beating that had become almost routine.
Nadea had learned not to scream long ago. Still, every slap, every scratch, every kick challenged her vow to never give Mistress Clopper the satisfaction of hearing her howl for mercy. Soft gushes of breath rushed from between her lips as kick after kick pummeled her ribs. She fell to the floor and curled in on herself, her hands shielding her head and her knees drawn up to her chest to offer the smallest possible target, but the blows didn't cease. Mistress Clopper's hand swung down, and her talon-like nails raked ragged paths across Nadea's cheek. She couldn't hold back a gasp of pain, though as soon as it had escaped she clamped her lips shut, biting until she tasted blood to keep herself silent. She would endure the beating, and tomorrow she would go to see the prince or one of his ministers and request her freedom. She just had to survive until tomorrow.
"You worthless, good-for-nothing, filthy, slimy, stupid little slut!" Mistress Clopper roared. Her fist crashed into Nadea's cheekbone, and she saw stars. She was knocked senseless enough that her body relaxed, opening itself to more abuse. "You've crossed me for the last time! I paid good money for you, and what have you done for me in the past thirteen years? Nothing! You've only cost me time and money! Your mother was right to sell you off! Who could want a worthless piece of shit like you?" Another kick, another punch, and then a pause. Nadea opened her eyes briefly, wondering if that was the end. The beatings often ended abruptly; it could be that she was free. No sooner had she glanced up, though, than Mistress Clopper grabbed the front of her dress and hauled her upright. "You know what I'm going to do to you now, little miss Nadea?" she hissed, her face so close to Nadea's own that the young woman could feel spittle land on her cheeks. "I'm going to kill you."
She wouldn't. She couldn't. Not now, not tonight, not when everything rested on tomorrow. This couldn't happen now. But when Mistress Clopper reached for the knife block on the counter, Nadea couldn't deny it any longer. Mistress Clopper was going to kill her. For years, Nadea had been resigned to her lot, biding her time until the opportunity to escape had come her way, and now that it had, she wouldn't live to see it.
She would just have to make a new opportunity.
Inspired by her tormentor, Nadea raised a hand, fingers curled into claws, and raked her nails down Mistress Clopper's face. The woman shrieked and stumbled backward, and Nadea took advantage of it. She raised her knee and kicked out, her bare foot sinking into Mistress Clopper's pudgy stomach. Mistress Clopper bent double, wheezing, but her hand was still on the counter, and her scrabbling fingertips found a knife. Nadea reached for the closest thing she could think of to use in defense: the heavy oaken cutting board. She shoved it in front of her as Clopper lashed out with the knife, and when she was still recovering, Nadea lifted the board and swung it as hard as she could at the woman's head.
There was a sickening crunch, a spray of blood, and Mistress Clopper collapsed to the floor, her eyes wide and staring, blood trickling from her head where the skin had broken over a massive dent in her skull. Nadea stared in horror for a long moment, and then the board fell from her fingers and, after ten years of almost-silence, started screaming.
When she finally managed to control her trembling limbs again, she ran for the back door and didn't look back. She couldn't afford a second of lost time. Someone would have heard the commotion, would have heard her hysteric screams, and alerted an authority. She couldn't even stay long enough to hide the body for fear of discovery. The bakery had been closed for the day, so no customers would stumble into the back room imminently, but Master Clopper would be home any moment, and when he found his wife dead on the floor, every guard in the city would be looking for her. She had to get out of Delore, and fast—but how? She would need identification papers, with an exit visa to go somewhere else in the Empire, and she had no such documents. Mistress Clopper kept her identification hidden somewhere in the house, and as for a visa…well, she didn't have one, and she certainly wouldn't be able to get one now. She chose an alley at random and darted into it, pressing herself against the wall and gasping for breath. What was she going to do?
She looked down at herself, taking stock. While she was bruised and her face was bloody from the scratches, her clothes weren't covered in blood, and that was something, at least. If she kept her head down, she would be able to slip into the masses and hide until she figured out what to do. When that would be, she had no idea. She was completely penniless, without even a pair of shoes to her name because Mistress Clopper didn't believe Nadea was capable of leaving without shoes. She'd been right, until now. Desperate times, desperate measures. She slowly sank to the ground, shudders wracking her body and her eyes glazed over from shock, and completely lost herself in the immensity of what she had done.
When she came to her senses, it was only because of the rush of humanity streaming by just yards away from her in the main street. She slowly turned to look at them, her foggy mind scrambling to find an explanation for what she was seeing. When she realized it, she bolted to her feet and stumbled out of the alley to join them. They were going to the gates of Delorn Manor. Everyone in the city knew that Prince Adair and a retinue of ministers were visiting the city as part of a grand tour as part of the celebration of his engagement, and as a sign of goodwill they were granting pardons and petitions to some of those who came to speak with them. She knew she wouldn't be able to get a pardon; murder was surely one offense that would not be forgiven. But if she could explain her situation without revealing her crime, she might be able to obtain new papers and permission to leave the city. Papers in a new name. No one would stop her upon her departure, because no one would know who she was. It was her best chance.
One look at the crowd gathered outside the manor, however, and her heart sank. There had to be thousands upon thousands of people packed into the square, and all of them were between her and the gates. She would never get in to obtain an audience. It was impossible.
Unless there was another way.
"Excuse me," she began shouting over the din of thousands of voices. She used her elbows to knock people out of her way, stamping on feet where she could, though her bare soles didn't do much damage. But she was still close to the edge of the crowd, and managed to slip away without too much effort. She skirted her way around the fringe of the square and fought the tide of people still streaming in to follow the wall of the manor away from the gates. Certainly there was another way in. A delivery entrance, a wall she could climb—anything. She would do absolutely anything to get into the manor and beg her case before a minister. It was that or starve on the streets until she was eventually caught and executed for murder.
But there was no delivery gate, and the high walls surrounding the manor and its grounds were covered with formidable thorns that would rip right through flesh. She glared at those thorns, cursing their existence and weighing her options. She didn't have any way in other than climbing. She had no magic to help her, and if she did climb, it would be completely without protection, without even cloths to wrap her hands and feet. She was practically naked, and completely defenseless.
"It's now or never," she whispered. "Now or never." Master Clopper would have found his wife by now, and would be trying to get someone to catch Nadea for punishment—though perhaps the mob in front of Delorn Manor had actually bought her time. Many of the city's guards would be busy trying to control it when they opened the manor gates, which would be in—she glanced at the sky to check the morning light—about half an hour. She had until then to get in and find a way to beg for an audience, and if that meant she had to climb this wall, then by the Ladies she was going to do it.
Gritting her teeth, she kilted up her ragged dress to allow her legs more mobility and then reached for the wall. She reached as high as she could, weaving her hand between the vines in the hope that she would find a grip that wasn't covered in thorns. Only smooth stone met her fingertips. If she was going to climb, she would have to grip the vines themselves. She drew a deep breath and grabbed one, biting back a cry of pain as one of the barbs sank deep into her palm. Blood welled to the surface of the skin, but she forced herself to ignore it and climb.
The thorns shredded her flesh. Every time she had to move, their barbs ripped through her skin. By the time she was ten feet off the ground, she was silently sobbing as the new pain washed over her already-abused body. Again, she bit her lip to keep the sounds inside. She couldn't risk alerting anyone to her presence.
Finally, her fingers gripped the top of the wall, and she pulled herself up. Her every muscle quivered with exhaustion, and she could hardly bring herself to peer over for fear of what she might find. What if there was someone waiting for her, to arrest her and throw her in a prison where she would never again see the light of day? But she forced herself to look, and immediately found herself staring at a shocked man perched in a tree scarcely three yards away.
Both Nadea and the man remained perfectly still for long moments, but Nadea finally groaned and pulled herself all the way onto the top of the wall, and then dropped down onto the land within the manor's bounds. Exhausted, bleeding, and disheartened by her early discovery, she missed her landing, turned her ankle and collapsed. She didn't even bother rolling over to put her face toward the air instead of the earth; if she was going to be arrested, she wasn't going to put any more effort into moving.
"You can arrest me now," she mumbled into the dirt. Everything she had done…it was all for nothing. Fighting, escaping, running, hiding, climbing—all for nothing, because she was already caught.
There was a soft thump, and then a male voice said, "You're bleeding."
"I'm aware." Nadea turned her head ever so slightly to look at the man. He didn't appear to be a guard, and he certainly hadn't yelled for one yet. She couldn't tell much about him other than that he was somewhat older than her, though certainly not old—perhaps in his late twenties or early thirties. It was hard to tell in the dim, pre-dawn light, which washed all details away in shades of monochrome. But he wasn't wearing armor or carrying a weapon, that much was certain, and so he wasn't a guard. Suddenly, she realized her dress was still kilted up, revealing an indecent amount of skin, all of it bruised, scratched, punctured, and bleeding. She reached to let it down, and then stopped when she realized the garment was so shredded from her climb that pulling it down wouldn't make much of a difference.
"And you don't have any shoes."
"Where did you come from?"
"Ah…" She couldn't say Baker's Row, just in case someone had already reported the murder. Delore was a quiet city; a violent crime like her own would be a sensation. "The fish market." It was only a few streets away from Baker's Row, far enough away to explain her drab appearance—no one who lived in that area was wealthy—but different enough to escape immediate questioning regarding her crime, if he knew of it.
"You came all the way from the fish market without shoes?"
She nodded, the manicured grass tickling her cheek, and hoped he would move on to a different topic. She didn't even want to think of the filth she had walked through to get here.
That wasn't what she had been hoping for. She settled on an abbreviated version of events. "I wanted an audience with the prince, or a minister…someone. It didn't matter. I just wanted a chance."
"But people seeking audiences aren't even here yet. Why did you climb over the wall instead of just coming in the front gate?"
"There's a mob of people out there waiting to get in. I thought my chances were better this way. Apparently, I was wrong. I was hoping no one would catch me sneaking in."
The man was silent, and just when Nadea had given up hearing him speak again, he bent and scooped her up in his arms. "I'll get you an audience, but first let me find someone to stop all that bleeding. It can't possibly be good for you."
Moments later, she found herself deposited on a stool in a kitchen far larger than that of the Cloppers'. "Wait here," her rescuer said, and vanished through a door. Every worker in the kitchen studiously ignored Nadea's gaze, except for one woman who pushed a frothy cup of milk at her without making eye contact. "It's fresh," she muttered, and then went back to slicing bread.
Nadea stared at the cup, completely uncomprehending. Was it being given to her? Why? Why would someone give a girl covered in blood and bruises and dressed in rags a cup of milk? What purpose was it supposed to serve?
She was still frowning at the cup when a different man entered the room. This one was so brightly-clothed she couldn't help but look at him instead of the milk. He wore a vibrant red robe embroidered with a riot of swirling colors, so bright she couldn't even look at his other clothing, though the robe was open to reveal it. He strode directly to Nadea, looked her up and down, and briskly took her hand in his own. "You climbed the wall?" he asked. He ran his fingers over her shredded skin. Pale light followed his hand, and the bleeding stopped. Itches like fire ran through her as the flesh began to knit back together, though the bruises from her earlier beating remained.
Nadea could only gape at the process. She had never seen a healer work before.
"Well?" he demanded, jerking her from her reverie.
"Yes," she said, and it was only when the word left her mouth that she realized he had spoken, and she had answered, in Islandic. Her wounds temporarily forgotten, she chattered on, though the words were halting. She hadn't spoken her native tongue in thirteen years, and had ceased even thinking in it. While she retained a faint accent, her actual memory had faded, and the language was slow to come back. "You speak Islandic? But you're Arylian! Did you live in the Isles? How long ago were you there? Which island did you visit?"
"I am Arylian, but I studied alternative methods of healing in the Isles for a number of years, and also accompanied Prince Adair's party to negotiate his marriage contract with Princess Kaelani. We returned just a few weeks ago." He moved on to her other arm, leaving only faint scratches, and the bruises, on her left limb. "I stayed mainly on Earth Isle and Water Isle, though I visited several other islands, both Element Isles and more minor ones, briefly." Done with her second arm, he moved on to her body, his fingers light over the ripped fabric of her dress to avoid further exposing her.
"How did you know I spoke Islandic?" She knew she looked Islandic, with her skin and hair both darker than those of Arylians and her features differently shaped, but her eyes were light like Arylians' tended to be, and plenty of Islanders had lived in the Empire for generations. There had been no reason to think she was purely Islandic or that she had come from the Isles—no reason to believe she spoke the language.
"Your rescuer mentioned your accent. It's faint, but distinctly one of a native speaker. Having recently returned from the Isles, he recognized it and came to me specifically because he knows I speak Islandic fluently. He thought it would comfort you." He moved on from her body to her left leg. "Was his assumption correct?"
"Well…" She chewed her lip, and winced as she tasted blood; she'd temporarily forgotten that she had already bitten it raw over the past hours. "I haven't spoken this way in years, over a decade," she finally confessed. "It's hard to remember."
"I can imagine. Your vocabulary and construction is quite admirable, however, despite you not having used them for such a long time. You must have been just a child when you began speaking Arylian."
"I was," she replied, her voice just above a whisper. Silence fell between them as the man moved to her right leg and finished his work. When he straightened, pale welts and scratches remained along with her bruises, though the punctures were gone and the bleeding had stopped. She ran her fingers over the remaining marks, resisting the urge to dig her ragged nails into the tender flesh to stop the incessant itching.
"Here," the man said, removing a small glass jar from a pocket of his robe—which, Nadea realized, looked so strange because while it was cut as an Arylian mage robe was, its length and decoration were distinctly Islandic. "I couldn't heal you all the way without leaving scars, and that would be a pity on such a pretty girl. This salve will help with the rest of the healing without leaving permanent marks."
Nadea stared at the jar without taking it. "I can't afford that," she said. "I can't afford any of this. I don't have a penny to my name! I can't—"
He reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. "Hush. You don't have to pay for it. It's free."
She shrank away from his touch, her eyes narrowing. "Nothing is free."
"Well, this is. And so, I believe, is that delicious-looking cup of milk you haven't touched." He placed the jar on the counter next to the cup and withdrew to another stool. "You should drink that," he said, nodding to the milk. "And maybe eat something. You lost a good bit of blood—nothing dangerous, but you might faint if you stand just now."
She had killed fought and killed a woman, run farther than she even knew, and climbed a thorn-covered wall in the past several hours, and he thought she was going to faint now? She straightened in indignation, only to find her vision swimming. With a groan, she dropped her head into her hands and drew deep, shuddering breaths to steady herself, only to find the cup of milk pressed to her lips.
"Drink, slowly," the healer ordered, and Nadea obeyed, taking long, slow sips until she felt steady enough to raise a hand and take the cup from him.
"Thank you," she whispered.
"It's my pleasure. After all, I can't have you fainting during your audience with the prince's minister. My skills would be brought into question."
She gaped. "I have an audience?"
"Of course. How could you be denied, when you exhibited such determination to obtain one?"
She scrambled off the stool. "Take me! Take me now! Let me talk to someone! I have to…" She blinked to steady to the spinning, swimming room and reached for the counter to steady herself. She didn't even realize she'd dropped the cup until she heard it shatter, though the sound reached her as if she was deep under water. "…have to…" Darkness at the edges of her vision. "…tell…someone…" She was dimly aware of the room's orientation changing, but she didn't even realize she was falling until she woke up.
When she opened her eyes, there was a circle of faces above her. One of them was significantly closer than the rest: the healer, so close she could feel the silk of his robe brush her fingertips. His hand rested on her forehead, cool against skin that seemed to be too hot. She resisted the urge to press against it just for some relief from the sudden heat.
"You fainted," he said before she could ask what would happen. "Just like I said you would. Here, let me help you." He wrapped an arm around her and assisted her into a sitting position, and one of the gaping kitchen maids collected herself enough to present a tray of pastries. The healer selected one and pressed it into Nadea's hand. "Here. Eat."
He continued to support her as she slowly chewed and swallowed the treat, far superior to anything she could remember eating—and she had spent her life in a bakery. When she popped the last bite into her mouth, he asked, "What's your name?"
"Nadea," she said automatically, and immediately began cursing herself for not remembering to give him a fake name. But no recognition registered on his face. He had no idea that she was a murderer. Word hadn't reached Delorn Manor yet.
"Nadea, I am Derion. Are you well enough to stand now?"
"I think so." She allowed him to help her to her feet, though the room still spun a bit and she had to lean on him for support.
"I think I'd best walk you to your audience."
Derion waved his hand at the gathered kitchen staff, and they quickly dispersed back to their duties. Keeping his arm around her shoulders, lightly enough that the touch wasn't familiar, assuming, or restrictive but tightly enough to support her still-wobbly frame, he guided her out of the kitchen and through the opulent hallways of Delorn Manor. Nadea's feet sank deep into the carpets, and the curtains covering the windows were made of finer material than any clothing she could remember wearing. "You'll just be talking to a minister, so don't worry too much," he said to her as she gaped at her surroundings. "Just tell him your request and any pertinent information, and he'll decide whether to grant your petition or not. Ah, here we are." Derion used his free hand to open a rather unassuming door into what seemed to be a parlor of some sort. He escorted Nadea in and seated her on a plush divan before retreating to a seat in the corner.
Nadea was left alone under the minister's eyes, and shrank in on herself in an attempt to hide. This man was much older than she, with gray hair lacing his formidable beard and a gaze that went right to her soul. He looked her up and down several times, and then looked at Derion.
"She still looks a mess. She was worse when you got your hands on her?"
"Much. I only repaired what I thought came from the wall. The bruises, as well as the scratches on her face, seem to be from a different source. I thought they might be pertinent to her story."
The minster looked back at Nadea and raised an eyebrow. "Well?"
"They are pertinent, sir," she squeaked, twisting her hands together in her lap.
"And what's your name?"
"Nadea." She couldn't give a different name, not now that she'd already told Derion.
"Well, go on and tell me what you want."
"I want to leave Delore," she said. With those few words, it seemed like her entire story—or almost her entire story—poured out of her in a rush. "See, I'm from the Element Isles, and my mother brought me here when I was just a child. But we didn't have much money and after a few years she sold herself and me into indentured servitude. I was supposed to work for a woman here in Delore for ten years, and then I would be given some clothes and some money and could be on my way. I was only six when this happened, sir. But it's been thirteen years, and I'm still there, because my mistress won't let me leave. She won't give me clothes, or money, or my identification papers, or even shoes, so I can't run away. I have absolutely nothing. I'd be willing to give up the settlement for my service if I could just have my papers and leave, but I can't even have that. I'd been there three years longer than I should have been, and these bruises, and the scratches, are from her. If I do even the slightest thing wrong, she beats me to within an inch of my life, and sir, I just want to leave. I don't want any trouble, I just want to start again somewhere else."
The minister sat back in his chair, stroking his beard with one hand. "You're from the Element Isles, you say?"
The minister looked at Derion again. "Can she speak the language?"
"Well enough. She's a bit rusty. She said she hasn't spoken Islandic in over a decade. But with more regular conversation and perhaps a lesson or two to refresh her memory, I'm sure she'd be fluent again within a few months."
The minister nodded and rose from his seat, coming to stand before Nadea. "Look me in the eyes, girl." She did so, gulping back fear. What was this about? Would he see her lies, her omissions, written on her face? "She looks well enough," he finally said, and returned to his seat. "Scrawny, though."
"I suspect she hasn't been fed much."
"You think she's suitable?"
Derion looked at her for a long moment. She could feel him measuring her, even though he hardly knew anything about her. But for some reason, she was sure her fate was in his hands, not those of the minister. Who is he?
"Very," Derion finally proclaimed.
The minister nodded and looked at a door built into the side wall. An attendant stood mutely next to it. "Bring him in," the minister ordered.
The attendant vanished through the door, returning just moments later with a man Nadea recognized. He was the one who had discovered her in the garden. Now that she could see him in the light, she realized his clothes were very fine, and if she looked at his face… She quickly looked at Derion, and then back again. There was a certain resemblance there.
"Girl, don't you show any respect when the heir of the Arylian Empire walks into the room?"
It still took her a moment to process what had just been said to her. But when the minister's words finally sank in, her face paled. She had fallen in front of, and bled all over, Prince Adair. And, she realized, shooting a glance at the slightly younger man in the corner, his brother Prince Derion. With a groan, Nadea slithered from the chair and threw herself onto the floor, pressing her forehead against the carpet in an Islandic show of respect.
"Oh, that is good," Derion said from the corner.
"Get up," said Prince Adair. His fingers wrapped around hers, and he pulled her to her feet. "You look slightly better."
"I…thank you, Your Highness, but I don't…?" She looked from him to Derion—Prince Derion, she corrected herself mentally—to the minister. "What's…going on?"
"Well, Miss Nadea," the minister announced, "you're now engaged to the Crown Prince of the Arylian Empire."
For the second time that day, the room swam and darkness ate at her vision. Her palms were suddenly clammy, and Prince Adair was frowning at her. "What's she doing?" he asked.
"Catch her!" Derion barked, and Nadea barely saw him lunge forward before, for the second time that day, she fainted.