Wide New World
Elizabeth traced the number against the wooden arm of her seat. The chair had seen finer days when it was freshly carved and stained for her in Haleglar's capital. Sun and sea had left their mark, but Elizabeth didn't mind. In fact, she thought it added a more rugged look to her place of solace, from which she watched the undulating movement of the ocean.
She had first come here on the third day of the voyage, desperate to catch a reprieve from the stifling presence of her royal entourage, and had returned nearly every day after. Here she could bask in the fresh sea air in peace and quiet while the ship's crew performed its daily routine around her. She was never completely alone, of course, as a pair of guards accompanied her at all times, but they stood silently nearby, never bothering her with this petty matter or that one.
It was a solitude that always ended too soon, as it did now with the soft footsteps approaching and the slight creaking of floorboards in their wake. Elizabeth knew who it was before the soft, girlish voice spoke behind her.
"Your Grace," Gaera said, "dinner is ready below decks. They await only your arrival to begin."
"Already?" The word came as more of a groan than Elizabeth had intended. Even with Gaera, she had to be careful what tone she used or else be chastised for speaking in a manner unbefitting of her station.
"I'm sure they could wait a little longer, if you'd like," Gaera offered, though Elizabeth doubted that was true. Her governess, Lady Mima, would not appreciate being made to wait just so Elizabeth could delay a few minutes before facing another dinner of forced conversation while serving staff stood silently by.
Gaera moved closer so she now stood at the arm of Elizabeth's chair. "I do wish you wouldn't spend so much time out here all alone." So quickly she had gone from a baseless offer to expressing a sentiment Elizabeth had heard plenty enough times already from Mima.
"I'm never truly alone," Elizabeth replied, smiling back toward her pair of guards. They responded only with a respectful nod.
"They don't exactly make for good company," Gaera whispered.
Elizabeth laughed at that, though in truth she tended to prefer their stoic presence or even the vulgar banter of the sailors to spending her time in the royal apartments where she was rarely spoken to except with polite acknowledgements of 'Your Grace' or by Mima, with whom she had to be so careful. At least in the loneliness of her chair on the deck, she could think freely and imagine that she were someone else. A merchant captain, perhaps, or a scientist out to make new discoveries about ocean life. Still Elizabeth, but without the fetters of royalty.
She blinked once to see Gaera peering over at her. "Yes, dinner. We'll be returning inside now," she told the guards as she stood.
"Your Grace," was the only response as one of the armored soldiers took the lead and the other fell into place behind them. Elizabeth had tried to make friends with the contingent of guards that she had been assigned. She had learned each of their names, but never made much headway beyond that. They were always polite, but, as Mima was quick to remind her, they had a level of professionalism to maintain. The princess getting chummy with her guards would not be a good look for anyone, or so she was told.
Gaera told Elizabeth about the dinner of salted pork that awaited them as the pair of guards—Garvin and Beldarion—led them through the maze of storage sheds and cabins where the collection of paying passengers resided. Occasionally a sailor would run by carrying a crate of tools or a bundle of rope but his only acknowledgement of them would be to keep his distance and not look at them directly. Outside one of the warehouses, they passed a group of workers who were on break for lunch and one of the men, a notably tall and burly one with thick black hair, watched them curiously before being nudged by his comrades and averting his gaze. Apparently the princess was so easily offended that so much as looking at her the wrong way could get a sailor in trouble.
Then a woman rounded a corner in front of them. Her hair was matted, her eyes wide, and her clothes, what little of them there were, were torn and dirty. She appeared for only an instant before a hand grasped her arm and pulled her back, followed by the sounds of a scuffle and a man cursing.
"Perhaps we should take a different route," Garvin said.
Beldarion hesitated. Then, from around the corner of the richly adorned cabin, they heard a cry from the woman. That was all Elizabeth needed to make up her mind. Before the guards could lead her away, she scooted past them to see what was going on, ignoring the protest of "Your Grace," from Beldarion.
She rounded the corner just in time to see the woman get struck in the face and topple to the floor. Standing over her was a middle-aged man dressed in fine satin, who she recognized as Pentamar Daskar, cousin of Prince Dorian of Adarr and a first-class passenger. He was someone Elizabeth had spent the voyage trying to avoid, for his eyes would linger far too long on her whenever she had the misfortune of passing near him.
"Lord Daskar," Elizabeth said, and the man's attention jolted to her.
"My apologies for the disturbance, Your Grace." The words tumbled from his mouth. "I was simply going about my afternoon when this serving girl attacked me unprovoked." He pointed to his cheek, which was lined with bloody scratches. "As you can see."
Elizabeth looked between him and the terrified woman on the ground, her mind racing. How likely was it that Lord Daskar was being truthful? If he wasn't, what would be the right response? How much authority could she, as princess, assert?
"Why don't you leave this to us?" Elizabeth said. She caught sight of her guards, who were now flanking her again, subtly shaking their heads, but kept on going. "Since this woman attacked you, surely she isn't fit to be serving you anymore. You can hand her over to us and relieve yourself of the responsibility of . . ."
She trailed off. Lord Daskar was paying no attention to her and instead had seized the serving woman roughly by the arm. The woman struggled feebly, then turned her head around to make pleading eye contact with Elizabeth. For a second longer, Elizabeth's gaze lingered on her emaciated frame and the splotchy bruises she now saw on her wrists.
"Lord Daskar," she repeated, raising her voice and drawing herself up to her full height. "I command that you release this woman and give her over to royal custody."
This he heard. He took a step forward, his visage maddened. "It is not your place to command me, girl," he spat. "You may be a princess, but you have no authority to seize a member of my household and absolve her from rightful punishment. This matter is none of your concern."
Elizabeth's hands shook as Lord Daskar towered over her, but she held her ground and refused to drop her gaze. There were people watching now, drawn to the sound of the struggle and resulting argument. Elizabeth felt Gaera pulling on her arm and was sure Beldarion and Garvin were trying to get her attention as well, but she didn't budge.
Then a man—a tall, hulking ship-hand with a mane of matted black hair—shrugged past his comrades and stumped toward Lord Daskar.
"How 'bout you let her go, mister."
"I will not. And you will be reported to the ship's captain for this insolence."
Lord Daskar might have said more, but was silenced as the big man's fist collided with his face and sent him sprawling to the deck. The woman slipped free from his grip while other sailors made to subdue the rogue ship-hand, who shoved them aside and fled the scene.
Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief only to turn at the sound of a sharp, pained cry and see the serving woman held tight by the shoulders by Beldarion.
"It's all right," Elizabeth said as softly as she could, considering all the adrenaline pumping through her. "We'll take you back to my apartments and get you cleaned up and taken care of."
"You can't do that!" a voice spluttered. Lord Daskar was unsteadily rising to his feet while wiping blood away from his mouth. "This woman is mine to do with as I please. And the captain will side with me!"
"Ignore him," Elizabeth said, but she could see the indecision written all over Beldarion's face as he looked to Garvin for guidance. She turned to the other guard, but it was too late.
"It's not our place to interfere with this," Beldarion said, releasing his grip on the woman. She collapsed on the deck and Lord Daskar made a grab for her, but she stumbled out of his reach. A moment later and she had regained her footing and escaped from sight.
"You fool!" Lord Daskar crowed at Beldarion. "You let her get away. You should have delivered her to me, her master."
"My job is to protect the royal entourage, not capture rogue servants," Beldarion said coldly. "I'm sure the captain will see to your needs."
He then turned on his heel and, with Garvin, began to shepherd Elizabeth and Gaera away while Lord Daskar continued to shout about how the captain would be most displeased with how the royals had conducted themselves. Elizabeth wished she could shout too. Even now the ship's crew would be chasing after that poor serving woman and would surely catch her before long and she would suffer all manner of horrid punishments. Moreover, she was furious at Beldarion for disobeying her and allowing this to happen. But, like a good princess, she held her tongue, through the journey back to her apartments and through the lengthy reprimand Mima inflicted on her after hearing she had argued with a nobleman. Only when night fell and she was alone in her bedroom with Gaera did she voice her frustration.
"Well I think you were very brave," Gaera said. "Standing up to that nobleman and all. His Majesty would be proud."
Verbally, Elizabeth agreed, but she wondered whether that were true. After all, Mima served as the king's mouthpiece in her life and she certainly hadn't approved. As she readied herself for bed, Elizabeth wondered what good it was being a princess if she couldn't even exercise her authority to help the people who needed her most.
Adrinna didn't know how long she had been delirious with fever dreams when at last she regained some level of consciousness. Where was she? How had she gotten here? She had been jolted awake a hundred times by imagined footsteps racing toward her, ready to take her back to her master, but now all was quiet. She was sat —arms wrapped around her shaking knees—in some sort of storage shed with the shadowy shapes of crates and boxes all around. Her body was weak with hunger and her mouth drier than the boards at her back, but that was nothing new.
She fought back the call of more hazy, restless sleep and tried to piece together a clear idea of the day's events. There were a collection of stark images and sensations that had replayed over and over in her head, but they were all jumbled and confusing, The clearest one of all was the princess's face, determined yet concerned, as she advocated for Adrinna in a way no one else had before.
Boards creaked outside and Adrinna tensed, pressing herself against the wall behind her and holding her breath. Another slow but heavy step. A shadow moved in front of the dim light outside. Surely it was a sailor come to fetch her and bring her back there. Maybe he wouldn't see her. She closed her eyes, furiously willing her knees to stop knocking together.
"Hello?" The voice was low and surprisingly timid. "Is someone in here?"
For a moment, Adrinna felt compelled to answer, then cursed herself for being so idiotic. No one could be trusted.
"If you are in here, uh, I'm not going to hurt you." He moved, looking over his shoulder. He was so large, with thick hair that gave his silhouette a wild look. "I'm just looking for a place to hide too."
Adrinna swallowed. This man seemed somehow familiar and sounded nearly as scared as she was. But no, he couldn't be. It must be some sort of trap. And yet, as she recalled now, the princess has not been the only person to try and help her.
"Who are you?" she croaked, then immediately flinched at the sound of her own voice. Speaking had been a mistake. She had to go. Had to run. Now.
"I'm Jorum. If you are who I think you are, we met earlier today. Sort of."
"Oh." Exhaustion and malnourishment forced her to slump back against the wall, but she kept her eyes fixed on him, ready to run if he made a move at her. "Yeah, that's me. I guess you're here to try and get something from me in return for your help."
Bile rose to her throat at the thought of what he was sure to want from her as she miserably wondered whether she had any power to refuse.
"No I wasn't. It's like I told you, I'm just here looking for a place to hide seeing as I punched an important person. Now I'm on the run unless I want to get put up in irons again."
Adrinna was doubtful about that and remained on high alert as Jorum sat down by an empty crate, making lots of noise in the process. She thought about running again, then put a hand to her jaw and thought better of it. One punch from him would knock all the teeth out of her mouth and she needed those.
"Thirsty?" Jorum asked, holding a canteen out in her general direction.
Adrinna eyed him suspiciously, but in the end, thirst beat caution and she took it and gulped down the contents.
"If you really helped me without anything in it for you, that was a stupid thing to do."
"As soon as we're found, it's over for the both of us."
"They might not find us. As long as we keep hidden for a day or two, they'll stop caring and move on to something else. That's how it always is."
Adrinna rolled her eyes. This Jorum guy clearly had no idea what criminal life was really like. "We're stuck on this ship with nowhere to run. It's only a matter of time."
"You think the ship's crew really cares so much about dealing with some rich prick's problem? I bet half of them were happy to see him get what was coming to him."
"Maybe you're right, but even if we aren't caught, we'll wither up in here without food or water."
"It might not be so bad." Jorum started looking inside crates and nudging barrels, leaving Adrinna to cringe at every noise he made. "There used to be food stored here. This shed's run out, which is why I thought it'd be good for hiding in, but there may be some scraps left behind. And if not, the sailors leave canteens and lunch bags lying around all the time."
"You're quite the optimist."
Jorum shrugged. "It's easier to keep on chasing survival if you think there's a chance of holding onto it."
"Hm." Adrinna had to admit, Jorum's ideas sounded a whole lot better than withering away like she had been doing. It was hard to put too much faith in it, but maybe there was a chance they could work together and somehow survive.
"Well . . ." She took a breath, hardly believing what she was about to say. "I guess there's enough room for us to hide here together."