Hey! It's been a while but I finally started something new! A few disclaimers: this story doesn't actually have any fantastical features (please don't click away) but fantasy was the best fit category with the best fit audience so here we are! It still is set in a common fantasy time period and the plot follows some similar aspects. Just... give it a try, okay? I think you'll like it. :)


Chapter 1

Ella

The duchess's terribly high voice echoes against the walls and clearly through the house. It makes me shudder. "She's a child."

"She's a queen," Alice carefully reminds her, likely the most intelligent thing she'll say today.

I wait around the corner with an obnoxiously heavy tray, unwilling to leave the conversation unheard.

"She's not nearly intelligent enough to rule a country," Renee pitches in with a voice terribly familiar to her mother's. "She couldn't have possibly developed the capacity to rule at her age." I refrain from laughing, Renee only a year older than the queen. Her comment is easily an insult to her own incapacity for intelligence yet the girl still sees herself as the wisest in all of France.

"And a good thing," the duchess says, quieter now. "That country will remain no threat to France so long as that child leads them. Besides, King Adam believes she'll have an accident any time now that could take that brat out for good."

I risk leaning in closer, their voices mere whispers now. The tray shakes in my hand and I rest it against my gut in failed attempt to steady it.

Renee's voice lowers so I can barely hear a word she says. "Well whatever accident he's planning for better come fast because the German forces are nearly stronger than ours."

"Oh that's just a rumor," Duchess Diane snaps back. "It's impossible."

Renee clicks her teeth. "I wouldn't be so sure…"

I hate to admit Renee is right. I should know because I gave them intelligence that encouraged the action. How my stepsister found this out, I don't know. I do know that isn't good. Not good at all, in fact. I lean closer and hold my leg up to rest the impossibly heavier tray.

"I just don't think the king plans on killing the girl, that's all. If he exposed of the child a fitting ruler might replace her and Germany would be right back where it started, wouldn't it?"

"And where's that?" I don't have to look to know poor Alice's curiosity isn't welcomed by the company.

"Over France," Renee growls at her sister.

"What's for dinner?" Alice pipes innocently, excitement drained. "And where's our tea?"

There's a slight silence before Diane's thundering voice pierces my ears. "Ella!"

The shaky tray falls. I watch in horror as the china splashes against the floor like the tea inside it, completely shattered. The whole mess takes too long to quiet down and by the time it does the duchess is by my side. Her narrow brown eyes stare down at me through her permanent scowl. "What is wrong with you?"

"A lot of things," I mutter.

"Oh, Ella," Renee joins teasingly. She steps around the corner to witness the event. I hate everything about her, from her perfect dark curls to her naturally rosy cheeks. My stepsister is a natural beauty most women only dream of having though her thin lips and bright green eyes twist the look into something evil. If she weren't so good at everything I could loathe only her beauty though my hatred of the girl goes far more than jealousy. Sure, her musical talent is one men swoon over and her intelligence in unmatched, but I would never hate somebody for their strengths. It's how she views her gifts that makes Renee the most egotistical, narcissistic beast that walked this earth. (Over all except King Adam, of course, whose beast-like personality is unmatchable.) "Tripping over your own feet again, are you?"

I glare at her though Diane's palm slams the side of my face before it can last long. My head snaps harshly to the side. The smack of flesh against face echoes through my ears several times before I finally suffer the pain of the blow. My whole cheek stings so strongly I refuse to open that eye. Renee laughs with her mother.

"Clean it up," my stepmother barks. She sticks out her pointy chin and walks briskly out of the door, followed happily by the still giggling Renee.

Alice steps slowly around the corner. Her blonde hair springs slightly with her cautious steps as she studies the mess. Her permanent smile remains plastered on her face, large eyes curious as always. "Did she hurt you?" Her small voice never fails to ring with sweetness.

I take a heavy breath and straighten to face her. "Not more than usual." She smiles broader, as if reassured. She's too utterly stupid to know how much that actually is. "Go on, Alice."

The pretty girl doesn't say more before she follows her mother and sister. I watch her go, slightly saddened by the loss of company. More maids glide into the room to help me and I slowly back away to slip out of the house. I have much more pressing matters to attend to. My shaking hand secures around the empty milk bottle in the kitchen as I leave.

I yank up my skirts and run outside to the skinny trail. My feet smack against the ground with everything but grace and by the time I see Eric I'm crashing into him.

"Whoa there, Ella," he says in his thick German accent. "Calm down you're going to attract attention."

"Too late," I wheeze. My gut cramps and I hold it.

My words do little to concern the man. He smiles at me crookedly until I regain my breath, hazel eyes filled with kindness. He carefully takes the empty bottle from my grip and stashes it in his sack. His smile vanishes and he turns my head to study my likely flushed red cheek. "She hit you."

I shove his gentle hand off me and stand straighter to regain myself. "Nothing new. They know we're rebuilding up our military and the duchess said something about Aurora having an accident, but I don't know what that means."

Eric's eyes widen. "Accident as in death?"

I shake my head. "She said it should take her out for good but then refuted the idea of her dying." Eric waits for more. "That's it."

He rubs his hand through his nearly inexistent hair, cut so short it might as well not be there. "Well I'm not quite sure what to do with this information, Ella."

"I know," I quickly muster. "I'm sorry I couldn't get more the topic of conversation changed before—"

"It's not your fault," he reassures me. His eyes look away and I know he's thinking hard about the next move. I rarely get much information from my stepfamily about King Adam's activity but what I do get is almost always enough to start certain speculations and conclusions. Eric's already straight back straightens. "I assume the ball invitations were already sent out?"

I moan. The Victor's Ball is just about the most revolting, dehumanizing thing King Adam has put in place. Naturally, the duchess and her family attend every year. "Of course."

"I need you to get an imprint of the king's seal," he says quickly, knowledgeable I hate the idea already.

I shake my head. "I eaves drop, Eric. I get information as I stumble on it. You know I'm not a field agent. I'm just an informant from my own house."

"I know, I know, but I need you to do this one thing. It can't be that hard." I simply glare at him. "You're getting that imprint," he concludes.

I roll my eyes. "And how do you suppose I do that?"

Eric shrugs. "Clay. Wet wax. Get creative. I need it by tomorrow."

I look at the ground, unwilling to argue at this point. "Fine."

"I wasn't asking."

"You never do." I reach into his sack and retrieve the full glass milk bottle next to the empty one. "I'll see you tomorrow."

"You better." He grabs my arm before I can leave. "I'm sorry."

"You have nothing to be sorry for," I reassure him.

He smiles and turns to leave. I do the same.

Jack

"Hi, Jack," Elizabeth yells from across the bakery. "Care to come out from back there?"

I throw the flour sack into the pile and lean against it to hide myself further. "No, not really!"

The baker rolls his eyes at me, a kind smile plastered to his face. "She won't leave until you do," he warns me.

"I'm not leaving, Jack," she calls back teasingly.

My eyes widen and I look to my employer for help but he only shrugs. "Go shoo her away, would ya?"

I sigh and shove myself off the pile. She's beaming from across the counter when I arrive. Two of her friends stand behind her, giggling like idiots. I shove my hand through my hair to give myself something to do. "What can I do for you ladies?"

Elizabeth leans far too heavily on the counter. "I think it's a matter of what I can do for you." Her fingers walk across the counter and onto my arm. She pokes my shoulder when I yank my arm out from under her. I quickly turn to grab a loaf of bread to slam onto the counter between us.

"That's 2 pounds."

The entrance bell rings. To my horror, Courtney steps in. "Hi Jack." She smiles like an animal stalking prey, which is fascinating because the small girl is heads shorter than me.

I barely smile before my face falls flat again. Courtney steps up and I hand her the usual pastry. She takes it happily and drops a pound on the counter. "See you tomorrow." She whips around toward the door and her golden locks fly through the air.

Elizabeth watches the girl leave, a scowl now plastered on her face. She straightens when she faces me again and slides five coins slowly in my direction. "Keep the change."

I look to the money as she bites her lip and shove three back. "That's very kind of you but I couldn't—"

She pushes the five pounds closer and turns to go. "See you around," she says slowly as her and her posse begin their departure. Her two friends risk glances back at me before they go.

I finally let out my held breath. The Baker strolls to the counter beside me. "I swear half of our profit is from all your little girlfriends."

I roll my eyes and head back toward the heat of the ovens. "Is it my hair?"

He follows me to rough up the shaggy dark mess on top of my head with his thick fingers. "Must be."

I smile up at him, the man more of a father than mine will ever be. He rolls his eyes. "Get back to work," he says kindly. "And keep those three pounds would you?"

I don't hesitate to pocket the money. He smiles as I walk back to do my job, a new spring in my step. The day goes by quickly and I close up when it's time. I yell goodbye before bursting out the door the second I can.

"Jack, wait," the baker calls after me.

I turn to face the plump man. He stands in the doorway with a small, perfect cake. "If I understand correctly it's your sister's birthday today."

I shake my head. "I couldn't possibly—"

"Take it Jack." I reach into my pocket to pay him but he quickly shakes his head. "Don't insult me like that."

I finally reach out and take the gift. "Thank you."

"It's nothing."

I hug the man before I can stop myself and he readily accepts the gesture. "See you tomorrow."

"Where else would I be?"

Snow

Konrad pulls me forward. "Come on."

I yank my arm back. "Why the sudden rush?"

He points to the road and I quickly see the problem. The transfer wasn't going as planned. Konrad makes the bird call to the others.

There are only three possible roads for the money to go through. We already blocked one to highjack the previous transfer two weeks ago which leaves two more possible routes for the king to use. Albert was almost positive he would pick the other. Konrad and I were put here in case he was wrong, though I never suspected he really would be.

Konrad scales the tree beside us. "This way."

I follow the kid, a year younger yet several years ahead in experience. He pulls his short self across the thickest branch and hugs it tightly, just over the narrow road.

The coach nears.

I climb the branch above him and brace myself for whatever my friend thinks up. The plan at this point was very loose at best. The carriage horses trot toward our position and Konrad readies himself. He waits until the coach is directly beneath us and falls. I can't help but do the same.

The driver turns back to address the massive thud. "Hey!"

Konrad quickly stands. He turns to face the guards that hang on the sides and two of them hit the ground within seconds. I examine the encasement beneath us for a way in though nothing hints to an entrance. I shove an oncoming guard away with my boot and he slides dangerously close to the now fast-moving ground below us. My heart pumps. "Where are the others?"

"No idea." Konrad shoves a guard away but he manages to find footing on the roof with us. He readies to fight him off. "Get inside."

"I'm trying!"

The driver pushes the horses to move faster. The rocky surface beneath us jerks horribly and the guard on Konrad falls off the side just before I do. "Konrad," I screech as my feet completely leave the surface. Nothing but open air falls around me.

"Snow!" His firm hand secures around my ankle. I slam into the side of the coach and my head hits hard against the metal. I cry out and try to regain my breath but find it easily impossible. Another guard inches toward me and I barely jerk away to avoid his fist. He reaches for me again and I turn up to my friend. His normally dark face turns a very deep purple and his eyes bulge. I rise only slightly.

My head fills with blood. My eyesight blurs and I can no longer focus on the guard beside me. The mechanisms within the coach click beneath me with irritable randomness. My short dark hair grazes the speeding ground to make its threat even more relevant.

The guard grabs my arm and I whimper. My other hand blindly reaches for my reliable knife and I yank it out of my belt to blindly swing at the man. My blade connects with his arm and he releases me. "Konrad," I yell, desperate.

"Give me your hand," he yells back, obviously frustrated.

I clear my head and shove the guard beside me onto the ground before stowing my weapon away. My hand reaches up and Konrad's secures around it. He grunts as he pulls me up and I fall onto the roof, breathless. My friend looks around us. "The guards are gone."

I look back to see the still able ones running after us. Somehow, the speeding coach doesn't seem less threatening. The driver looks back to us, eyes wide.

I force myself to stand. The coach seems impenetrable. I circle for any clue in. "Where's Albert when you need him?"

Konrad nods in agreement. "Where's anybody?"

"Must be held up," I conclude. "Come on."

He leans over the side with me to observe the back. Three locks dangle off the side. The king has obviously enforced new precautions since our last heist. I smile and pull out two pins and a rope from my sack. I secure the rope under my butt and hand Konrad the ends. "Don't let go."

Konrad's eyes widen. "Snow, what—"

"Be right back." I fall off the side with the new support. The short boy is stalky enough for the weight, I know that. Now I just need the sick sinking feeling in my stomach to have as much faith as I do. I brace my feet on the side and refrain from looking at the ground. My arms wrap around the rope for more support and I finally muster up the courage to examine the fist lock. My fingers fiddle with it for too many seconds before it finally clicks open. I look to the second one and do the same, easier after practice. It's the third lock that stumps me. There's no key hole.

I study the doors and the holes in which the lock threaded through. The whole thing is completely impenetrable. I pull on the stubborn thing just to be sure. There has to be a way to open it or the king himself wouldn't have access to his own money. I turn it over again and again though the eerily smooth lock reveals nothing that could resemble a keyhole.

Did they simply plan on breaking it?

I'm nearly sure that's what I'll have to do.

I turn to the speeding ground below me and watch all the rocks blow by. My head spins as I lean close enough to touch it. My breaths grow impossibly faster though I don't attempt to slow them, aware of how useless such an activity would be. I ready my hand and grab for a stone that passes. It takes four tries for me to finally grab one. My hand now sports two bruises and a broken finger nail but I'll let it hurt later.

I throw my new weapon at the lock. It makes no more than a thud and I try again. After more than a dozen hits Konrad yells down at me. "What are you doing?" At only 20 years old his voice resembles that of a grown man.

I don't stop despite my horribly sore arm. "Just shut up and hold me!"

I hear it crack after what feels like eternity. A smile splits my lips and my arm surges with newfound energy. Another blow forces another crack out of the tool. One more and it breaks off. I struggle to unlatch the door in my haste but it eventually opens enough for me to see inside. The second I absorb it all, one of the several men pulls me in. I scream as I leave Konrad and my support rope behind. The guards slam the door shut and throw me against the wall.

A box sits in the middle of the room, and I know exactly what's in it. The idea gives me enough energy to stand and face my captors. The door opens and Konrad joins the party. He leaves the door wide open and throws two guards out before they can react. Two more pin him to the wall. Two pin me.

I kick at the box that remains in the center though my boots never reach it. I yank my arm away from one of the men and pull out my knife. It cuts his shoulder before he can react and he stumbles back. His blade grazes my arm and I cry out as fresh blood rolls down it. I stab the other in the gut and shove him off me. My whole body dives for the box and it slides out of the coach with me. We slam hard against the ground and I knocks all the breath from my lungs. I lay on it, motionless, sore, bleeding, and now completely deprived of air.

Konrad eventually jumps off as well. He runs to me and shoves my limp body off the crate. I groan and look to the broken box. Gold coins leak out of a hole in its side. Konrad grabs a handful and shoves them into his pockets and sack. "Grab some."

Air finally fills my empty lungs and I gasp for it. "Grab the box," I argue, voice hoarse.

Guards from the coach run toward us. Konrad glances at their progress. "There's no time." He shoves handfuls of the riches into my hands and stuffs my sack with them. I try to reach for the crate. "Snow, there's no time." He pulls me to my feet.

I can't argue as we run off with the gold. The progress is far slower, our pockets now weighed down by the heavy metal. Konrad drags me into the trees away from the guards. They run after us. I slowly gain composure and speed as I move. Konrad turns back to pull me closer every few steps, the stalky boy naturally faster. He shoves trees aside as we move wildly, closely followed. Everything in me threatens to give out but I force my whole body to keep moving.

Somebody runs into the guards behind us. Several noises follow, including grunts and stabs but more prominently cries. Konrad and I stop running. "Go," Peter yells after us. I can't find him in the mess.

We don't move, held in place by the unforeseeable arrival of the older man. Chris breaks out of the mess and appears through the trees. He nearly slams into us. "He said go," he growls. His scar covered arms shove us forward. Konrad grabs my arm and the two force me to move. We run slower now until the chaos behind us is inexistent.

I collapse against a tree and look to Chris's stubborn brown eyes. "What happened?"

"They sent a decoy in our direction." He looks back as if another attack is on its way. "You kids could have been killed."

"We were doing the job," Konrad argues. "And we're fine, anyway."

"You didn't even get the whole lot," Chris argues.

"Well then we would be dead," Konrad interjects. He joins me on the tree. "At least we know for next time."

"Hopefully there isn't one," Chris quickly says. He smiles at Konrad, far warmer toward the boy. Most of us have earned Chris's approval by now though Konrad somehow achieved his respect as well. It makes sense though, considering Peter and Chris practically raised the boy. I'm lucky they found me only two years after Konrad. The newer members have to fight for approval—or at least Chris's. Peter approves of everybody.

"Come on," Chris finally says after we regain ourselves.

Konrad and I follow him farther into the woods. The other three wait there, Peter not yet with them. They frown when the box isn't with us. "Well, where's the rest," Michel starts, exactly my age yet years behind in maturity. "Don't tell me we went through that for nothing."

"Not nothing," Konrad corrects. "Be glad we got anything at all. If I heard correctly you all hit a coach filled with nothing."

"He knew where we'd be," Albert says quietly from where he stands against a tree. "I should have known he would have known that we knew."

"Don't beat yourself up," I quickly interject. "We still have the money from a few weeks ago. We only took on this transfer because we thought we could."

"But we couldn't," Chris says sternly. "Let's just forget it and move on." He pulls his hunched shoulders even farther forward and starts us toward the cabin. We all follow without words.

All except Bruno, who stands his ground shyly. "What about Peter?" None of us turn to answer, the kid less than welcome in the group. He's only here because his persistence is amazing and inducting him was less exhausting than not. "We can't just leave him to die."

"Nobody's dying," Lorenz impatiently calls back to the kid. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a flask. It's empty and he simply pulls out his other. He takes a swing from it and then another. The man insists he isn't reliant on the alcohol though we all know he couldn't go minutes without it.

My arm starts to hurt for the first time since the guard cut it. The walk back is torturous. I practically crash through the door and fall down to sit at the kitchen table. The group floods in after me and Albert closes the door. His eyes don't even look to my dripping arm before he says, "Snow, you're bleeding."

I roll my eyes. "Thanks, Al."

"Huh." Konrad stares, amazed. "I didn't even notice they cut you." He sits between Lorenz and me and grabs the man's flask. Lorenz simply holds his hand out and waits for the drink to return. Konrad grabs a rag off the table and pours the alcohol on my wound. I wince and he returns the drink to its rightful owner. "Sorry."

"No problem," Lorenz mutters.

"I was talking to Snow."

"Yeah whatever." He takes another swing.

"I need a bandage," Konrad says to nobody in particular, though we all know who it's directed to.

"I'll do it," Bruno offers, completely unaware the order was for him.

Konrad smiles thinly. "Thanks." He looks back to the cut. "It's not too bad." He leaves to wet the rag and returns quickly. He's finished cleaning it when Bruno returns with the bandage. Konrad slowly raps my arm, careful not to hurt me more. "You've gotten fast with those pins," he comments after moments of silence.

I nod. "Looks like I have."

We empty our pockets and sacks onto the table once my wound is over with. The group looks over what Konrad managed to stow away. "Not bad, kid," Chris says approvingly. "Not bad at all." He drags it all off the table into a waiting sack and walks out to where we stowed the money from the last heist.

Peter stumbles through the door and Albert's there to catch him. Konrad stands and shoves his seat across the kitchen. Peter gratefully sits down, energy nearly inexistent. "You kids all right?"

"Would you stop calling us that," Albert mutters. He slumps off to close the door.

Peter weakly smiles. "Not until it stops annoying you."

Chris returns to the kitchen and looks over his friend. "Any wounds?"

Peter shakes his head. "I'm fine. You should see them." He gladly takes the water Bruno offers excitedly. "Thanks."

Bruno smiles widely, the small gap between his teeth more prominent than ever. He barely ever hears that word from any of us.

Michel spins an empty chair to catch him the wrong way. He rests his arms on the back and smiles up at Chris. His blue eyes sparkle with excitement. "How much did we get?"

"Snow and Konrad got about a third of what the first heist amounted to but we already had plenty to last us the year before today."

Konrad shakes his head. "We're never taking on something that big again."

Peter nods in agreement. "I doubt the French will use the routes through here again," he acknowledges. The trails we've been highjacking are a faster route that splits through Germany for a few miles to save a day of travel. Albert learned of them before our heist weeks ago and I'm surprised the king would use them again after that at all. What happened today is a miracle at best, especially considering the fact that all eight of us got away with no more than a shallow cut. Peter's eyes settle on my arm as I mull through my thoughts, as if he can hear them. "Is it deep?"

"I'll survive." I watch the worn clock on the wall and absorb the time. My eyes widen and I start for the door. "I'll be back."

Konrad steps between me and the door. "Where do you thing you're going?"

I try to step past him. "On a walk." He blocks me again.

Lorenz looks past his alcohol to join the conversation. "Snow has a boyfriend," he sing-songs.

Michel's face falls. I shake my head, amazed. The kid brings girls in and out of this house daily and still manages to crush on me. I shove Konrad aside. "I'll be back."

Konrad grabs my arm and pulls me back. "They could still be out there."

"I can hold my own."

"Let her go," Albert joins.

"Stay, Snow," Peter decides. "Better for all of us to stay here for a while."

I roll my eyes and head back for my room. "Fine." I run up the old stairs and through the small, rotting door. I'm the only one with my own space which would be great if that didn't mean I got the windowless closet as a bedroom. I can't complain though. The whole house is a dump, abandoned decades before Peter and Chris took refuge in the broken mess. It's the only unregistered building they could find, which means we have to bare through it's horribleness to stay hidden.

I fall on my bed and stare up at the ceiling. Dust falls in my eyes and I quickly stand again. This isn't the first time I've missed a meeting with Red. Knowing her she'll wait there until after dinner when I can actually get out of this place. Of course, when I do see her I'll have to bear through her complaints about not meeting the guys and exposing both of us. I know how that introduction ends though, and I'm not ready to be kicked out of another house.

Sure, the guys love me. I'm confident in that though I was almost positive my previous family loved me as well.

I'm not ready to test their acceptance. I don't think I ever will be. I could never risk losing Red or the guys. Keeping them separate is the only way to do that.

Marian

Thomas tries to cram himself through the small window. I run to greet him. "What are you doing here," I snap, my father just in the other room.

Thomas falls onto the floor and a loud boom and I freeze. He moans and slowly turns to be on his back. "I really need a new way of getting in here."

It takes all my energy to not raise my voice. "Shut up, would you?" I watch the door, heart hammering.

"Relax," Thomas reassures me. His cute smile almost makes me do just that though footsteps come from the hallway and I quickly panic again. Thomas dives under my bed and the steps pass my door. I let out my breath. Thomas pokes his head back out. "Bummer. I really enjoy my run-ins with your father."

I roll my eyes and drag him out. "You're terrible."

"Terribly adorable," he corrects before his lips fall onto mine.

I mumble my disagreement but he holds me against him before I can pull away. I don't protest. My hand runs through his dark wavy hair. He grabs my waist and slowly pushes me away before I'm ready. "I got you something." He runs to the window and I miss his touch.

"Why?" I sit on my bed.

He braces himself on the wall. "Well, it's your birthday, isn't it?"

"Is it?"

He smiles and reaches out the window. His hands come back holding a small chain. A gold heart dangles from it and catches the sunlight from the window. I run up to touch it. "It's beautiful."

He beams. His deep blue eyes sparkle and his dimples sink into his face. "Happy Birthday."

I quickly hug him and pull the small heart into my palm to wonder where he got it. My smile quickly disappears. "You stole it."

"I wouldn't," he exaggerates, consumed with fake shock. "I bought it fairly."

I step away. "With what money?"

"Okay, the money I stole but—"

"I don't want it."

Thomas's face falls. He looks at his feet. "Okay."

I lift his head up and land a kiss on his cheek. "I still appreciate the thought. Sort of."

He smiles weakly but it quickly disappears. "I'll just keep it in my pocket," he mopes, "never to be warn by anybody ever again." I glare at him. He digs his foot into the ground. "Where it will rust and slowly lose value until—"

"Oh just give me the necklace."

Thomas drops the act as fast as it started and his dimples return. He struggles with the clasp and turns down three of my offers to help before finally securing it around my neck. I touch the small charm and smile. "Thanks."

He kisses me in response and runs to grab my lute. I roll my eyes. "Now?"

He shoves it into my lap and pushes me until I fall onto my bed. "Just for a little bit," he promises.

I smile and study my instrument. Jack got it for me when I turned 12 right before he told me he wouldn't let me work and kept me in this forsaken building. I didn't know what to do with it at the time but when one is trapped with a single instrument for four years it's amazing how much it can become a part of them. I slowly pluck out a tune and memorize it before elaborating. Thomas smiles at me while I pick at the strings, the task effortless. I close my eyes and lose myself in the music.

My door bursts open. My music stops abruptly and I look up to my father, the man horribly drunk. Thomas freezes beside me. My breaths quicken and I shove the lute off my lap.

Father's cruel eyes fall on the unwanted company. "You."

My whole body pushes Thomas off my bed and to the window. "Go." Thomas shakes his head but I only push harder. "Please leave." He doesn't hesitate the second time, the cruel man now on our tail.

The thin boy slips through the window and collapses to the ground outside. My father braces himself on the cill and watches Thomas scramble away from his vulgar language. He looks back to me when the boy is out of earshot. His firm hand secures around my arm. "You never learn."

"Let go," I screech, though it's useless. My hands can't claw him off me. He throws me onto the bed and pulls my lute off it. My eyes widen. "Wait!"

His bloodshot eyes shoot me a cruel glare and it's enough to hold me in place. His fist tightens around the instrument and I hate how it looks in his grip. He raises it over his head and I spring up from my trance. "No!" It crashes against the cold floor. The wood spinners and the crackle fills my ears. Tears leak from my eyes and I claw at the man though it's too late. "No!" He brings it down again and the instrument snaps in half with only the strings to hold it together. A horrible scream leaves me and fills the room.

My weak fists fall from his broad back and I crumble to the floor. The man leaves the room, feet heavy. He braces on the hallway wall and stumbles off.

I slowly pull the demolished instrument into my lap. My weak fingers try to piece it back together though I know the effort is useless. My tears blur my sight. I drop the pieces back to the floor to catch my face in my newly emptied hands.

Philip

She's beautiful. At only 16 years of age her face resembles the maturity of one my age. Her large blue eyes stare at me with curiosity and I almost fall into her spell though not quite. Father didn't send me here to make friends. I'm here to make an ally. She steps up to greet me though I step up to establish authority, horrified to find she's taller than me.

I take her hand in mine and bow slowly. "Your majesty." My lips land on her warm hand.

She waits until my eyes meet hers again before speaking. "Please call me Aurora."

"I beg your pardon?"

She carefully takes her hand back and smiles. "I hate formalities." She looks up and down me. "Should I be calling you your highness then?"

The question baffles me and I start to question the direness of our alliance. Surely no ruler like this could be of any use to us. Father would be appalled. I already am. "Well, I assume you would prefer to call me Prince Philip given—"

"I would prefer to call you Philip, actually."

I stop breathing. Did she just interrupt me? I believe she did, yet refuse to believe it in the same breath. I force a smile onto my face. "Then Philip is how you must address me, isn't it?"

Her perfect teeth reveal a mischievous smile. "If you insist."

"Aurora," the nearest guard addresses. Did he just use her first name? Having me use it is one thing, but her staff? The smile on my face becomes suddenly harder to maintain. Aurora turns her back to me to address him and he continues. "Do you suppose we show the prince to his wing before introductions continue at dinner."

She smiles and turns back to me, eyes still tremendously wide. "That is an excellent idea." She walks down the stairs, right past me. "This way, Philip."

It takes me seconds to realize I should follow. By the time I do, several of the guards have started laughing. How humiliating.

How utterly humiliating.

Robin

I'm not fond of killing people. The fact is simple: nobody would pay anybody to steal precious things from those they hate. Humanity doesn't want to annoy their enemies. They want to hang their enemies, or in my case, plunge an arrow into their chest. I make a living off other people's blood lust, but that doesn't mean I have it myself.

I'm just a hitman.

And a thief, but like I already mentioned, I'm not paid to steal. It's sort of just my own little bonus.

In the case of the very rich man I just murdered, it's a very, very big bonus.

His house is littered with treasure. My heavy pockets are filled with gold and jewels, though I'm not interested in those. I'll give those to some poor kids I find on my way out of France. What really matters is the ring secured around the fat dead man's pinky finger.

His plump flesh swelled around the gold and I have to yank unnecessarily hard to free the weapon. It eventually flies off and I steady myself to study it. It's gold all around, thicker at the top with a nearly inexistent groove. I slide my nail into it and pop the lid off the hollow device.

Drugs fume out and I quickly poor it out, uninterested in the contents. The jewelry fits snuggly on my forth finger and I hold my arm out to admire it. Sure, it's unnecessary now, but once I fill the small space it will be lethal. Triumphant, I stroll back out into the fresh air.

A sign with my face plastered on it awaits yards away. I sacrifice a few seconds to tear down the dreadfully unattractive portrait, disappointed to see the reward for catching me in France is nearly half of that posted in Germany. Of course, here I'm wanted dead or alive, where in Germany the queen couldn't stand the thought of killing even a killer like me.

I appreciate her approach, though. I truly do.

Because even I know death is too good for me.


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