With dry eyes and heavy lids, Princess Aela Kormeloth tries not to slouch as she sits upon her throne. Music and chatter flit through the air, enticing her to sleep. Why must her mother insist on her attending court? Even the weekly afternoon visit was too much.

She didn't expect her mother to be as devious as planning two events that primarily involved setting her daughter up with a suitor.

Her mistake. She really undermined her mother and her drive to get Aela married off.

Aela glances at her mother, seated on a throne beside her own. Her mother is still beautiful, though her face is a bit wrinkled and caked with powder, and her chocolate brown hair has a few silver streaks.

Today she is swathed in yards of azure-blue silk and a periwinkle shawls lined with silver lies relaxed around her elbows. Half of her hair is weaved up and around the ends of her crown, leaving the rest to cascade in a waterfall of curls over her shoulder.

Before them, the nobility strut across the floor of the court, gossiping, scheming, seducing. An orchestra plays minuets in a corner, and servants slip through the gathered nobles in a dance of their own as they refill and clear plates and cups and silverware.

Aela feels like an ornament. Of course, she is wearing a gown of her mother's choosing, sent to her this morning: a gown of dark bluish-green velvet, with almost ridiculously billowy sleeves bursting from the shoulders before sharply slimming down to fitted points on the back of her hand. The slippers, mercifully, are light gray, the shortened heel being a relief for her toes and ankles.

She had to give the servants credit too – they've managed to encase her usual wild and curly hair into two detailed braids that wrap from both sides of her head to meet at the crown, falling into a ponytail down her neck. They've interwoven strings of pearl and a glittering comb shaped like butterfly wings sits at the base of the tail. Small wisps of her curly hair have loosened, but her tailor insisted it helps to frame her face.

"Aela, sweetheart. You're sulking." She gives Queen Eleanor an apologetic grin. "Sit up straight; remember your posture."

The princess resists the urge to roll her eyes. "I received a letter from Skylar today. She sends her love."

"Did she say anything of interest?"

"Only that she loathes the cold and wishes to come home."

The Queen of Valerie gives a honeyed giggle, ending with a sigh. "That woman sure does travel a lot. I'm almost surprised she never takes you with her."

"Well, if my royal parents didn't prevent me, perhaps I would have." Her tone comes out sharper than intended.

Eleanor surveys her daughter. "You're better off here. You're the princess; you're the example."

"Yes. I have duties, responsibilities, expectations. My whole life is already planned out preparing for the day I become —"

"Oh please, sweetheart. It's marriage, it's not the end of the world."

"I was going to say queen, but alright."

The queen waves a ring-encrusted hand. "You need to start looking. You need to marry. And soon."

"What?" Aela grinds her teeth. "Marry whom?"

"Aela, you are the Crown Princess. And already seventeen, at that. Do you wish to become queen and die without an heir?" She doesn't answer. Only because her answer would undoubtedly knock her mother off her throne. "I thought so." After a moment, she says, "There are plenty of young men who might make a good husband. Though a prince would be preferred."

"There are no princes left," she says a bit sharply.

"Except for the Prince of Orvryn." Aela freezes as her mother laughs and puts a hand on her. "Oh, don't worry. I wouldn't force you to marry him. Especially when he nor his parents have ever deigned to visit us. I heard he's quite the impetuous, haughty boy—he probably goes through women like fine wine."

"Mother, you of all people shouldn't believe rumors spread about the court," Aela says warily, disgusted by her mother's unspoken prejudice. "Skylar has spoken nothing but good things about him."

"Then perhaps you shall marry him." Her mother laughs again before she can respond.

Aela smiles weakly. Sazami would tell her stories about the Crown Prince of Orvryn, primarily through her uncle with his connections back to her homeland. Allegedly, he's involved in a lot of community work: building homes for the poor, ensuring that every person of every class has the opportunity to get an education. He's also as strong a fighter as he is compassionate. There wasn't much said, but Aela imagined him walking off a killing field, doused in blood. All of it almost sounds too good to be true, which is why Aela was surprised that Sazami – of all people – drank down the rumors so willingly, like an oasis in a vast desert.

It's true none of the Orvryn royals have visited them much, but at the same time, their countries have been at peace with one another for so long, perhaps they just deem it unnecessary. To which Aela agrees – if there's no tension and no ill will, why bother coming to visit a place. If anything, the princess respects the prince's parents for it. He'd likely be nothing more than another ornament like Aela, bored and smiling through all the court peacocks and pricks who only act kind to win the appeal of their parents.

Although, it would be nice to meet him at least once, at an age where she can remember his face.

She can't really blame her friend for believing such things. Whenever it came to Sazami's homeland, her eyes always light up with a childlike innocence even the princess rarely sees. Knowing what happened to her when she was younger, Aela is surprised she even wants to go back at all. Go back to the place where all her pain started; her heartbreak . . . her life as a slave. But perhaps she sees something Aela cannot. Sazami did take care of her slave traders long ago, and the way she always seems to feel so out of place here . . .

Though she wants nothing more than for her friend to be happy, and find peace, she can't imagine living in this place without her.

"It's a pity that Lord McClain has an agreement with Duchess Carolyn," her mother goes on. "He's such a handsome man — and so polite. Perhaps he has a brother."

Aela crosses her arms, swallowing her repulsion. Lord McClain stood at the far end of the court, and she is all too aware of his eyes creeping over every inch of her. She shifts in her seat, her tailbone aching from sitting for so long.

"What about Ellis?" the queen says, indicating a blond young man clad in dark red. "He's very handsome. And can be quite playful."

As I've already learned. They met at a prior gathering where Aela was forced to dance with the suitors while Sazami was cloaked in darkness, watching from the shadows of the ballroom. Ellis, being the entitled prick that he is, slipped his hands where they shouldn't have, pressing her close to him; domineering and forceful. The disgust had seized her fear long enough to find Sazami in the shadows, giving a nod. That ignited Aela's anger enough that she drove the heel of her slipper into the soft part of his foot. Before he could yowl, she rammed the heel of her palm up into his jaw, and just for good measure, she swiftly kicked her foot up and into his groin.

It was a technique Sazami had been drilling into her with their self-defense lessons. Aela reveled in the pain that zipped through her arm. She grinned when she heard some teeth crack, and when the attention of the entire ballroom was on the two of them, she spat at his feet and walked off.

The fact that her mother still wants her to consider him makes her want to scream. The fact that he's even still allowed in the castle –!

Her father had some nice words for the prince and his father that night, and of course her mother had to soothe both sides as not to lose an ally. She never knew if Sazami did anything to him, even so, neither she nor the prince would say, and he certainly hasn't even looked her way since that night.

"Ellis irritates me," she says. "They all do. They're nothing but entitled pricks."

"Aela," her mother snaps, her voice near growling. "Mind your voice, and your language. A princess does –"

"– does not raise her voice. A princess does not use such vulgar language. I know." She sighs with aggravation. "I know. A princess only does what she's told."

"Oh, Aela." She put a hand over her heart. "You're not about to inform me that you wish to marry for love, are you? Love does not guarantee a successful marriage."

"And you believe that just like you believe the rumors of a prince you never met?" Aela finally snaps. Her mother has no response other than an expression that guarantees a stern talking to, perhaps even a slap to the face.

Whatever. She's bored. Bored of these men, bored of these cavaliers who masqueraded as companions, bored of everything.

Her only source of companionship and excitement has left for work for her father, and she won't be back for months – at best! Sazami had said she'll be back once she helps figure out the problems regarding these mystical killings. When asked how long it would take, Sazami only repeated what Aela's father had said: "As long as it takes for you to figure out what's going on."

Aela grinds her teeth at her father's inconsideration. If only he knew Skylar and Sazami were the same person. He'd change his tune then; probably have both Aela and Sazami locked away, far, far from each other.

Her rival yet somehow most trusted companion, Fabian Peters, has done a decent job of checking in on her. Nightly visits when Aela is just about ready for bed. She had offered he come inside, but Fabian insisted he's only there for her well-being. Sometimes she would vent to him her frustration with her mother and the court, and he – being the ever-gallant gentlemen – would listen, and even offer his opinion. Sometimes they could talk for hours, other times his occupation only granted a few minutes to ensure Aela is safe, search her room for anything suspicious, then would be on his way in a flash of a black cloak.

There are times when Aela had considered telling her father he needs to strengthen his security with two assassins able make their way into her chambers. But that would only lead to questions she can't answer, and just more of an annoyance for Sazami and Fabian.

Other than that, her daily life has become nothing but a cog in the massive machine that is her court and politics. The same gentlemen still look at her with predatory eyes, the same guards and knights still wink at her, the same councilmen still slip pieces of love letters under her door with hopeful notes and empty promises.

"You're sulking again. Are you upset over something, my pet? Have you heard from Raymond? My poor child—how he broke your heart!" The queen shakes her head. "Though it was over a year ago . . ." Aela doesn't reply. She doesn't want to think about Raymond — or about the haughty wife he left her for.

Some nobles start dancing, weaving in and out among each other. Many are her age, but she somehow feels as if there exists a vast distance between them. She doesn't feel older, nor does she feel any wiser, but rather she feels . . . She feels . . .

She feels as if there's something inside her that doesn't fit in with their merriment, with their willing ignorance of the world outside the castle. She doesn't fit with the typical template of royalty. It goes beyond her title. She had enjoyed their company early in her adolescence, but it had become apparent that she's always be a step away. She would rather ride horses then practice music. She would rather wear boots like Sazami under her frilly gowns. She would rather shoot a bow and arrow than enjoy tea with any court lady. There's so much exploration outside the confining stones of the castle, how is it that she can its potential compared to her courtly companions?

The worst of it was that they didn't seem to notice she was different—or that she felt different. Were it not for Sazami, she would have felt immensely lonely.

"Well," her mother says, snapping her ivory fingers at one of her ladies-in-waiting, "when you bother to think of me, and the fate of your kingdom, look through this." Her mother's lady curtsies as she extends to Aela a folded piece of paper, stamped with her mother's bloodred seal. Aela rips it open, and her stomach twists at the long line of names. All men of noble blood, all of marriageable age.

"What is this?" she demands, fighting the urge to rip up the paper.

Her mother gives her a winning smile. "A list of potential grooms. Any one of them would be suitable to take the crown. And all, I've been told, are quite capable of producing heirs."

Aela's nostrils flare, her hand starting to shake ever so slightly. She curls her fingers in, crumpling a section of paper. She can see her mother turn her head slightly towards her, but just as Aela is about to rip the paper to shreds right in front of her mother, a charming voice suddenly cuts through the storm in her mind.

"Pardon my intrusion, Your Highness." It's a voice made for the bedroom. The words and tone flowing like liquid midnight with a gentle gruff.

Aela, her mother, and all the ladies-in-waiting turn their heads to find a stunningly handsome young man standing before the throne. His jacket of thundercloud grey is fitted to his muscular form. The thick, braided gold threads loop around matching gold-colored buttons, and trail along the cuffs and collar in detailed embroidery. The grey stems through to his pants, tucked into polished black boots.

But while the clothes were of fine make, it wasn't what captured the attention of the three woman and the ball attendants. No, it's the sculpted features of his face: the distinct cheekbones, the sharp jawline, and the azure blue of his eyes that rival the ocean.

The broad, muscled shoulders and powerful frame; the knowing smile; even his beautiful face radiated a sense of maleness that had her struggling to remember that he'd spoken to her directly.

Were it not for the scar borne on his upper lip, Aela would not have recognized Fabian Peters in such formal attire.

She has to fight the conspirator's smile creeping across her lips. Unlike some of the flashier and softer male court men, Fabian's appeal had always been more ruggedly masculine.

"But I'd hate to see a beautiful woman such as yourself be stuck sitting around during this occasion." His posture his perfect: one hand behind his back, the other flourishing before him. "If I may, it would give me the greatest pleasure if you would do me the honor of letting me lead you through just one dance."

She can see her mother ready to pounce, but Aela beats her to it. "Yes. Please."

Aela has to restrain herself from leaping from her seat. She does, however, toss the paper onto the seat of the throne. She delicately lifts the skirt of her gown, but not above the ankle, and slowly descends the five steps of the dais to Fabian's outstretched hand. He bows to her upon taking it, Aela offering a polite curtsey. His fingers are warm, making her cringe at her cold ones.

He guides her towards the center of the dance floor, all eyes upon them. She doesn't fake, nor does she hide her smile now, no matter how devious it looks. She can feel her mother's gaze burning a hole in the back of her skull.

The musicians begin a new number, the rhythm they keep is a steady one-two-three, one-two-three. Dancers turn like dervishes, bead-and-gemstone-encrusted skirts flaring out.

Fabian slides his other hand around her waist as she braces one of hers on his arm. She looks up at him when he begins to move—a slow step, then another, and another, easing into the steady rhythm of the waltz.

"You have no idea how much I owe you." Aela says quietly.

"I can never resist helping a poor damsel in distress." Fabian says with equal quiet, flashing that charming smile for good measure.

She pinches the skin of his wrist and he retaliates by squeezing his finger around hers a little too tight. He spins her before she can utter another word, and they coil in a tight circle. The world blends into a mesh of chaos, color, and noise.

"Of course, you do know the trouble you've now caused as well." Aela says. At Fabian's puzzled expression, she emphasizes, "Now my mother isn't going to stop asking about you. She'll want to know all the details."

"What can I say? I wanted to see that creative mind of yours at work." His grin never falters. "Do let me know what magnificent story you come up with, and the next time we meet, I'll let you know where you went wrong."

Aela can't stop the chuckle that breaks past her lips. He spins her out and in, never missing a step, as graceful as any swordplay she's seen between him and Sazami. She crashes flat against him and he spins her again. As they rotate about the floor, she can see more and more couples leaving the floor, giving them space.

"You look beautiful tonight, by the way, have I told you yet?" He smiles. His mouth is a work of art, too, all sensual lines and softness that begged to be explored. The scar that Sazami gave him only seems to accentuate these features.

"Now you're just being nice. But likewise." The princess grins. She allows herself a moment of peace as she leans her head to the side, guiding Fabian as he moves to spin her again, throwing her into revolution after revolution.

Sazami already told Aela about Fabian's past, probably more than she'd like him to know. But Sazami only told her out of fear and caution that he might try to swoon her. The idea made Aela laugh, but when she saw his face, and his interaction – both with Sazami and with royals and nobility – she felt both astonishment, and pity. She doesn't even know if charm and appeal can be inherited, but Fabian sure seems to have it down to mathematical perfection.

"Have you heard anything from Sazami?"

"Nothing that Dahnor is willing to share." When she begins to pout, he adds, "It's only been a week since she docked in Orabelle. Traveling takes time. Also, she is working, in case you forgot about that."

"Can you blame me? I'm bored to tears with these gatherings. And especially now that my mother has taken it upon herself to write me her personal list of potential suitors."

He chuckles, a low, delightful sound. "All the reason I should come around more often."

Everyone is watching them now. Staring. Glaring. Both at Fabian, and at her for having the other's attention. The dancing couples have since fled the dance floor, the two of them having carved their own little circle in the throng of revelers.

Fabian spins Aela, and she flows smoothly through the air before snapping back into his arms. "Have you had the chance to stop by the estate?"

"No. With Sazami gone, I don't have a good enough reason to go; even with Dahnor's special guards escorting me."

"Have you at least been keeping up with your training?"

"Do dogs like to chase cats?" Aela retorts, making sure the sarcasm is more than clear.

Another grin. "I had hoped so; if that dagger concealed beneath your skirt is any indication."

"My heart still hurts at ruining the tailor's work, but it's also encouraging when she doesn't notice any difference." Aela boasts with a flutter of her lashes.

"A woman of many talents." Fabian purrs.

And then the music explodes around them, and Fabian takes her with it, spinning her so that her skirts fan out around her. The green tint of the skirt reflecting blue in the light of the chandeliers. He pulls her in for another spin, and Aela giggles as he dips her down, his legs nearly swallowed by her skirts.

When he hoists her back up and releases her, she curtseys low as he holds his hand over his heart and bows at the waist. All around them the goers clap, but the air is still as there are no words of encouragement, no bravos or smiles of awe. Just stiff clapping, but the princess and the assassin keep smiling at one another.

As Aela rises, Fabian looks at her and gently twines her fingers with his before raising her hand to his lips. It was a soft, slow kiss that burns through her. He murmurs onto her skin. "I grow weary of all these wooden headed ninnies."

She would've smiled anyway, she tells herself. "That makes two of us."

He extends his arm, Aela looping hers through and he begins to escort her out of the ballroom. Immediately, five young men flock to her and begin asking her to dance, how she fares, if she would attend the Yuletide ball. Around and around their words circle, and Aela doesn't even look their way. She turns to Fabian batting her eyelashes just to seal their fate. Fabian's return smile was more than award-winning. No doubt it's one he's used on countless others – for information or to lower their guard.

Leaving the ballroom feels like a breath of fresh spring air, and Aela can't resist herself as she takes a step ahead of Fabian, turning to him and pulling him along like a lovesick, sex-starved princess.

The doors close behind them still with many stares burning after them, but Aela waits until they turn the corner and guides another fifteen feet before she sighs with relief. They stop by one of the bay windows and she notices a vicious rainstorm has overtaken the skies. She guides Fabian over and they sit down, both sighing with relief.

"Arguably that was the most fun I've had since Sazami left."

"I'll be glad to tell her she has competition."

Aela snorts. "In your dreams."

Once they were comfortable, Aela having kicked off the comfortable but still confounded slippers, she folds her legs in, throwing etiquette out the window, along with that list of names very soon. She still pulls her skirt over her knees as she finds herself staring into Fabian's exquisite face.

He's been looking out the window but turns when he senses her gaze. "Yes?"

"Have you ever thought about leaving the Guild?"

Fabian blinks, not expecting that question. Truthfully, Aela didn't think she'd ever ask it. But with their casual flirting and near intimate breaths shared tonight, somehow, she found herself more curious than she should be.

He gives a laugh like a tickle of breath. "I still have my debts to Dahnor," he says. "But . . . yes."

"What could you owe him that hasn't been paid off?"

He leans forward to rest his elbows on his knees, fingers locked together, pinning her to the spot with his stare. "What's brought on this sudden curiosity, Your Highness?"

She tries to keep her shrug casual. "Isn't it reasonable to try and get to know each other. We are going to be spending a lot of time together."

Fabian grins with a lift of a brow. An intimate invitation. Aela doesn't stop herself from smacking his bicep.

"Not like that!" Fabian laugh. "Gods your just like every other man in the world."

"I'd like to consider myself above average."

Aela sighs in aggravation, bringing a pillow forward into her lap. "It's going to take more than a few sultry glances to make me your willing slave, Fabian. You should know better than to try the tricks of your trade on me."

He let out a low, rumbling laugh that she feels in her core. "And I think you know well enough to realize when I'm not actually using them. If I were, then we would have been in your chambers long ago."

After a heartbeat, Fabian says, "To answer you question: working for Dahnor is like digging your own grave, and watching it fill with more dirt. Every piece of clothing, every comb for my hair or sheets for my bed, if I didn't buy it myself, it's just more digging. And with every mission that I pay off never feels like enough."

The sound of his voice is enough to make her skin heat, but the look in his eyes as he said it, the curve of that divine mouth . . . He is a weapon, too.

Just like Sazami.

A beautiful, deadly weapon.

Aela drops her gaze to the shine on her velvet skirts. "With something like that, you might never truly be free."

"Maybe." Fabian lifts his legs and rests them closest to the glass, just on the other side of her right knee.

Then she says the stupidest thing she's ever thought of. "What if I paid it off for you?"

Fabian jerks his head to her. "What?"

"What if I could pay it back for you?"

He chuckles, Aela trying not to take offense on how cold it sounds. "Number one: You don't owe me anything. Number two: You barely know me, and number three: Sazami would skin me alive and grind my bones if she ever found out I borrowed money from you."

Aela snarls and pouts. "I was only trying to help."

"I never said I didn't appreciate the offer." She looks to him and he smiles, really smiles. "That's one of the nicest things anyone's ever done for me. But even so, where would I go? What would I do with my life?"

"You never let yourself think that far ahead?"

He turns to look out the window, seeing past the torrential downpour. A flash of lightning illuminates his face, making seem almost ethereal "No. But I'd rather have my skills be better suited for killing than to love-making. Working for him and working for a Brothel Madame are nearly the same."

"Really?"

Fabian gives a slow, considering nod. "The professions have always been similar. I can't tell which is worse: training for the bedroom, or the battlefield."

"Killing." Aela suddenly blurts before even she realizes.

Their eyes meet and Fabian lifts his brows. "You think so?"

"You don't?" After what happened to your mother?

When Fabian remains quiet, Aela gives another shrug of her shoulders. "I know it has its downsides, but . . . you don't have to get to know these people. You don't need to put on a fake smile and pretend to enjoy their . . . company. With killing, you're in control, you have distance. It's easier since you don't have to go through court when a client gets too . . . possessive. With your profession, you just need to end lives – a majority of them corrupt. Call me what you may, think whatever you may about me, but I would rather have my hands bloodstained that to ever sully myself with someone I cannot stand."

Any amusement in his eyes faded like a plume of ash. She could've sworn she heard the arrow of her words hit their target.

Something must've shown on her face. Because whatever he was feeling before, it vanishes – no, it shifts. Into something else, something . . .

Rage. That is what stills Fabian's face. Pure, burning rage.

It robs her of breath, of any sort of sense.

"Aela, did someone hurt you?"

"No! Oh, gods no! I'm sorry if I gave the wrong impression, but . . ." she folds her lips in as she begins to wring her fingers. "Sometimes I see things that I shouldn't have, things that no one else is supposed to know."

"Who?" his voice is so guttural she can barely understand it.

"It's not that simple."

"It can be. A name. That's all it is."

What she saw – she hated that person more than anything, but even so, she wouldn't wish anyone the sort of death Fabian's eyes promised.

"It's already done."

A single blink. "By whom?"

Aela swallows. "Dahnor took it upon himself to take care of it."

"He knows?"

"I contacted him personally." She lifts her chin, steadying her voice. "They got what they deserved, for four months, three days, and five hours."

The cold fire in Fabian's eyes settle enough that he blinks again and looks out towards the window. "Good," is all he says.

Aela follows his gaze, but drifts off into her own thoughts while scrambling for something else to say. Something to take her mind off of this.

"Is that why you hate the idea of marriage?"

"That," she turns to him and gives a small smile. "And because it pisses off my mother."

Her heart lifts a little bit at Fabian's chuckle.