"Who would be selling a brand new wedding dress?"

I peered up from my desk to find Duchess Nikita avidly scrolling through her phone. Her freshly threaded eyebrows shot up the further she went. Shaking my head, I returned to sorting through the vast amount of emails in her inbox.

"Another girl has petitioned you for sponsoring her." I wrote down the name: 'Aashi Bea Delacroix,' in the ever-growing list which now took up four pages of my notebook, front and back.

"Unless she's distinguishable from the others, you ca n refrain from contacting her." Duchess Nikita placed her phone face down and began rubbing her temples. "I swear, Aveya, these girls reek of desperation. All they care about is the glory and they're not even thinking about the inevitable outcome for the winner."

I shrugged and checked the time: almost noon. Peeking at my phone, I grinned upon seeing a message from my friend Rainor:

Elsa's café. 12:30. Your ass better be there.

Bet, I typed before placing my phone away.

"I mean," Duchess Nikita huffed, "do they not realize what it means to win the Praelium? Empress Yara will name them her heir. They will inherit the entirety of the Southern Isles and that is no easy task, especially for women who don't have the guts to do what is necessary."

I paused in my work and leaned back in my chair. "Most of these girls probably come from lower class homes. All they care about is leaving whatever standing they are in."

"But that defeats the whole purpose! You can't just decide you want to become the ruler of an Empire; you have to actually care about the position."

"No one really cares about the position though." I folded my hands together and sighed. "The position is one of power and that is what's going to attract candidates. That's all you're going to attract."

Duchess Nikita stared me down for a moment, her dark eyes brewing with a whirlwind of emotion. She didn't need to say anything. We both knew she was the favored niece of Empress Yara. Whoever she sponsored would automatically be in the Final Three.

She cleared her throat and blinked, her eyes becoming glossy. "You can leave for the day, Aveya."

"Are you sure?"

She sighed. "Please. I must think over some things."

I nodded and gathered my things.

I paused when I got to the door. "Have a good weekend, miss."

"You too."

"Caramel Frappuccino, with a shot of… um, focus, please. And, err… a chocolate croissant if you could."[AW1]

The barista, Ara, smiled at me. "Coming right up," she said, as she flittered away.

The bell above the door jingled and I glanced back to see Rainor standing behind me, his blond curls dotted with droplets of rain.

He grinned. "You're here early for once."

I shrugged. "The Duchess let me off early today."

"Isn't this her busiest time of the year though? Hundreds of women should be petitioning her to sponsor them."

Ara flitted over, her wings beating wildly as she struggled to hold the cup and the croissant. I took them from her and handed her two coins of ten. Her large eyes somehow grew and she smiled at me.

"Thanks, Veya!" She squealed before flying back to the register.

"You getting anything?" I asked.

Rainor shook his head, some of the droplets in his hair hitting me in the face. "Sorry," he chuckled, "but no, they fed us this morning at the office."

I motioned for him to follow me and we found a booth conveniently located facing one of the many television screens in the café.

"Have you heard about this yet?" Rainor nodded to the screen hosting the news station.

A news anchor stood outside of the Grand Palace. While the monitor was muted, the subtitles were on:

-visiting the Grand Palace for the Month of Songs. The Jacuran Royal Family, sources say, are interested in watching the annual Challenge Days, where various criminals throughout our Southern Isles compete for their freedom. King Osi has said—

"Well, that certainly explains why Duchess Nikita has been so bent up on who she nominates," I said.

Rainor quirked an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

I shook my head and sipped some of my drink. "Can't tell you."

He scoffed. "Why not?"

"Because you, sir, are involved with the Knights. And I know they'd want as much dirt on this whole situation as possible."

He rolled his eyes. "Fine, then let's talk about the other problem at hand."

"Which is?"

"The sexual tension between you and Gideon."

I stood up from the table. "You know what? I'm gonna go to work at the pub early."

"Aveya, come on!"

I ignored my friend as I walked out of the café.

"Thank you for helping me clean up, Veya."

I grinned up at my manager, Axel. "You know it's no problem. But I get the weekend off now, right?"

He chuckled and nodded his head. "Yeah, go enjoy yourself kid."

I gave him a hug before leaving the pub, walking through the streets of the Market District. The townhouse was only four blocks away. I would be fine.

As I walked through the streets, I ignored my surroundings. Or, at least, I tried to. Some days are easier than others. Some days there aren't any homeless men in sight. Some days the children from the orphanage are too tired to go out on the streets begging. But tonight… it was a rough night.

"Spare change, ma'am?" One of the girls held up an almost empty coin purse. Five other children stood around her, their scrawny forms huddling together to keep warm at this time of night.

I reached into my purse and took out ten coins of five—my tips for the night. "Here," I said, extending my hand out to them. "And if you ever get hungry, please come to the Dragon's Mouth pub. I can probably sneak you some sweets too." I added the last part with a wink.

The children stared up at me with wide eyes. "Thank you so much, miss," one of the boys said.

I smiled at them. "Now go on then. The Valkyries will be patrolling soon."

They nodded their heads and scurried off.

Sighing, I shook my head as my smile fell.

"This world has really gone to hell," I couldn't help but whisper to myself.