Ira bit her lip as her wrinkled fingers skimmed the edge of the grease sodden gold edged cutlery. She had taken on the dreaded hot water duty once again despite her own misgivings and was bearing the brunt of her money minded decision.

The bubbling water hissed as Ira dipped a plate to rid of all the oil. Try as she must her vulnerable fingers could not escape from the heat. Each extra coin promised to her felt like it was lash of a whip on her sensitive skin. The matron had tutted each time Ira had displayed her discolouring fingers but had doubled down that soon enough her skin would be too tough to break anymore.

The braided girl scrubbed the plate dry with a clean cloth strapped to her waist and placed the gold rimmed plate in the appropriate pile carefully. Even a minute chip on the delicate porcelain would ensure she lost her daily wages.

The servant girl's brows furrowed as she felt the hair at the back of her neck stand on end. She swivelled around expecting no one but her assertions were proven incorrect. Leiv was standing silently in the empty green tiled kitchen.

"What are you staring at?" Ira asked, tempering her soaring heart. Even the merest glimpse of him made her heart dance. The girl did everything in her power to halt any hint of a smile. Her foolishness had gone on long enough.

"You," Leiv answered, softly. The gravity in his voice made Ira shiver. She put the dirty plate down, knowing her nerves would make her hands shake.

"Don't you have anything else to do? The palace is abuzz with the visiting Royals," Ira said careful to keep her voice even.

"I don't give a fig about the visiting Royals. If you thought our King was wretched you should see their attitude. Disturbing," The boy answered. His lip curled with disgust and Ira turned towards the boy leaving any pretence that she was still busy.

"Then I shall feel very sorry for the Princess. She deserves a better husband. The maids attending to the visiting Prince tell me he is very uncouth."

"You don't have to be sorry for her. I believe the Princess shan't be shackled for long. The world isn't going to be the same," Leiv replied, his voice cloudy and fraught with emotion. Ira bit her lip again as she noticed the new emotions swirling in his pretty green eyes.

"What's wrong? You look different," Ira realised the reason was because her friend wasn't smiling. His face altered considerably without his trademark smile and the mischief in his eyes.

"Everything, nothing," Leiv's soft words made no sense. He crossed the distance between them until he came to a halt in front of Ira. The girl's back hit the marble counter, leaving no room for escape.

"You're beginning to worry me," The braided girl replied. She wished she was bold enough to place a hand on his stiff shoulder and ask him what troubled him but her hands remained strained at her side.

"Would you think of me if it all goes awry?" Leiv asked with a sort of madness she'd never seen before. He leaned in closer until Ira could see the depth of his troubled, green eyes. Flecks of gold swirled in the rich colours of his gaze and Ira lost all track of the conversation.

"I cannot make head or tails of your incomprehensible speech," Ira said, finally. She tried to tear her gaze away but found her eyes trapped in his. She swallowed, finding her lips very very dry.

"Would you close your eyes and see me when I'm gone," The boy whispered in a breathless way making Ira shudder. His hair danced softly with the slight tilt of his angular face.

"Incredibly impertinent of you to believe you're important to me," Ira tried to bring levity but her efforts were for naught. Leiv's haunting stare continued unabashed. He was searching for something in her eyes.

"Promise me you won't forget my name," The boy asked and his hands caught Ira's reverently. His thumb rubbed at the callouses on the girl's fingers.

Ira's breath was stolen from her but she replied all the same, "I- I promise. Why would I ever forget you?"

The boy dropped the injured hands and took a step away as if realising how inappropriate his behaviour was. Ira longed for the soothing caress of his fingers but she tightened her trembling fists behind her. He was not hers to have.

"Do you have any more extra shifts in the next week?" Leiv asked. His voice was still low but the madness in his eyes had passed. He now looked like his former self with a hint of a smile twitching on his pale face.

"No, I have none But I refuse to devote anymore time traipsing throughout this infernal building. You cannot be this enamoured with the Palace no matter how unique this layout," Ira glared down at her feet trying to regain her balance. It was as if Leiv had stolen all her bearings in few seconds of conversation.

"The only person I'm enamoured with is you," The boy replied with a familiar mirth lingering in his speech.

Ira's face grew red and she looked up much to her dismay, "Do not jest or I shall find a way to punish you. The Matron does think very highly of me."

"When everything is over can you I take you out for dinner?" The servant boy gave the dark eyed girl his usual fetching smile.

"What everything? What trouble are you planning," Ira turned away and busied herself with the keys on her belt, "Also I told you I need no reciprocation. My treat was a gift and you have already burdened me with your necklace."

"The dinner would not be a friendly one..." Leiv murmured in her ear nearly making the girl jump from the proximity.

"Are we to duel with swords?" Ira scoffed and tolerated the Leiv's fresh breath near the side of the face as he leaned in closer from behind. His unbound hair tickled the side of her cheeks.

"If you wish," The boy laughed with wild abandon, "Just don't take up any more extra shifts. Not at least until the foreign Royals have departed from the Palace."

With these words the presence behind Ira was gone. A quick glance confirmed her suspicion. The girl gave a shuddering breath and immersed herself in the task at hand.

Ira could not make any promises. She could not predict what the future held for her. If the matron offered her an extra shift then how could she refuse. She could not afford lose out on the extra shifts the presence of all Royal guests gave her. If she needed to retire from this gruelling job and build a home for herself she needed all the shifts she could get.



Ira lowered the last platform with straining limbs. The food platform was not made for human travel but she had played on it as a youth and knew its strength. It could take her dwindling, starved self down easily.

Ira mentally mapped the secret tunnels and knew she could access the water platform from the laundry room. The underground water pool was the sole source of water in the palace and while the pipes brought the water to the higher floors maintenance workers still needed to access it from the Palace. The underwater pool conveniently connected to a tunnel that ended up at the coal mine. It used to be underwater until the glacier water had been diverted to the coal mine instead.

Ira quickly hurried through the unmanned corridors and found the water platform ready for use. She switched down the levers and watched the light stone of the platform walls turn damp and mossy.

The runaway avoided the pool chambers completely and turned towards the tunnel that would lead her to her coal mountain. This was the only place she could escape to. Surely the King would assume she had fled the vicinity completely.

Ira gathered her fortitude to face the guards she would soon encounter. To her surprise the heavily guarded tunnel was bereft of any people. She could see no one for miles ahead.

The girl spent the best part of the hour walking towards the coal mine. The only sound was of her shuffling feet in her torn shoes. The world rumbled every so often but Ira was used to the movement. In the belly of the coal mine the tremors had only grown more and more vicious with each passing day.

The gaping maw of the coal tunnel stretched out, opening up to the ceiling. There was no one there. Not even a solitary soldier was snoozing against the walls.

"Hello? Anyone home?" Ira asked. Her echoing voice was the only reply. Ira was all alone.

The girl trod her way into the mine easily. She continued to find the tunnels completely empty. Each tunnel entrance was abandoned in a hurry for tools and baskets were littered everywhere. The world grumbled continuously as if an empty belly yearned for nourishment.

The girl continued her solitary walk until she reached her hovel. Leaving all unnerving thoughts behind Ira entered her home. Her fingers carefully wandered over all her meagre belongings and nothing seemed to have been upturned.

In her absence ash began to lightly dust the singular shelf but she easily wiped it away with a rag. She was checking her water clay pot when she felt the hair at the back of her neck stand on end. Ira swirled around and nearly lost a year of her lifespan.

Leiv stood at the entrance of her hovel. His bright green eyes were like reflective pools of algae glistening in the torch light as he watched Ira in her home.

"No," Ira gasped. She fumbled with her emotions until despair won the fight and her heart plummeted.

"How are you, Ira?" The man asked. His tall form blocked all the light from the torch hanging in the tunnel as he took a step forward.

"I am as well as can be," The girl replied stiffly, regaining her composure. She hid her shaking hands behind her threadbare frock. She could barely hear anything beyond her racing heartbeat.

"Will you not invite me in?" The King asked, the tilt of his head achingly familiar. His eyes still locked onto Ira's trembling form.

"You need not ask my permission to enter. You own this coal mine after all," Ira replied. She blinked back tears as she looked down at her black, tarnished dress. Her toe was clearly visible from the broken down shoe that had taken a beating walking so far that day.

"Yes, I should have known you were here," Leiv murmured, remained fixed on his spot. Perhaps he had realised there was barely any space for his tall form. Ira had carved the hole taking her own dimensions in account.

"Didn't you?" Ira asked sharply. Her dark eyes stabbed her former friend's like a dagger.

"Of course not," Leiv growled daring to sound wounded.

"I suppose that's neither here nor there. Why are you here?" Ira asked with a heaving sigh.

"I was searching for you," Leiv spoke calmly although his eyes remained agitated, "Why did you leave? You could have waited for my return."

"I have been enjoying your hospitality in this cave this entire time, your highness. I did not need your help any further," Ira's pride could not allow her to fall apart.

"I didn't think you would come back here but I had to try. This awful, wretched place..."

"This is my home, your Highness. I always wanted a home and this is what I have," Ira's voiced wobbled with emotion which she snuffed like a wayward flame. She could not decide who was trembling more, her or the earth beneath her feet.

"You should have stayed You have to come with me," Leiv declared.

"I have work and many other things to do. I have also made friends. It is not as dreary as it looks," The girl bared her teeth in a harsh fashion. None of her usual warmth reached her dark eyes.

"It's not... safe," The man uttered. He held the carved wall as bits of ash fell around them. He stared at his former friend beseechingly.

"Of course, it isn't but I have survived. I can continue to survive further no matter how many difficulties I must overcome," Ira announced with a raised chin, "Have a seat please, your Highness. I have no food but I can offer you some water. It might be a tad too sulphurous to your taste but I've heard it has healing properties."

"Don't call me that," Leiv whispered as if her words lashed his soul.

"Then what am I to call you? Should I call you my friend? Preposterous. A King cannot be friends with a slave girl," Ira retorted, harshly. She wiped a traitorous tear from her soot covered face.

"You promised you would remember my name. I have not changed," The King took a lurching step forward, his head nearly meeting the low ceiling.

"You may not have but I have," She firmly snapped the box shut, "Forget you saw me in chains in your court. I will not breath a word about your past. Is that not why you seek me?"

"I don't care about that. I want you to come back with me," The man now pleaded, "I have prepared warm water and you can cleanse yourself."

"Nothing can cleanse me," Ira's breath hitched, "I don't see any reason why I should come. Just because I knew you once upon a time."

"We have been trying to harness the sun and eliminate the need for coal. I am guilty indeed of using these mine workers to keep the tower running but I was going to put a stop to it. I am going to put a stop to it," Leiv answered decisively.

"Where is everyone?" Ira asked suddenly remembering the odd absence.

"I have evacuated everyone," The ash haired man said, his green eyes flaring with determination, "I no longer deem the mines fit for human habitation."

"They were never fit for human habitation," Ira scoffed. She threw her rag on her shelf.

"I know, of course, I know. I made a mistake. It took too long to gain the technology and it never occurred to me to look for you here. I- I thought you were..." Leiv looked enraged at his failing. He dared not take his eyes off her for the fear that she might disappear into nothingness.

"This isn't about me. I am nothing but a blot in history. The families here have been here for generations. When the power came in your hands all talk of equality and freedom dissipated into lies," The braided girl hissed letting another tear escape her prison. She could no longer contain her trapped emotions.

"I am their culprit," Leiv admitted. His steady gaze never wavered from Ira's eyes.

"In your grand attire contriteness doesn't suit you," Ira waved her hand at the King, noting all the differences now that she could see beyond the similarities. The girl swayed with the world almost becoming one with the earth's fury.

"We cannot delay our departure any longer," Leiv snatched Ira's hand no longer hesitant to make a move. His hand tightened as Ira struggled with the sudden movement, "I believe the mountain is going to burst taking everything with it. We must leave now."