She couldn’t believe her sore luck. She should have jumped off the ship when she had the chance. How was she supposed to escape a palace dungeon? If only she could just blow it open.
“That conniving, lying miscreant. When I get my hands on him I am going to...”
“Careful princess, the next words you speak could get you executed.” said a voice coming from outside her cell.
“Who is that? Who is there?” The dungeon was dark and it smelled of wood rot and mold. She felt around the room until she felt the wooden door under her fingers.
“You ask the wrong questions princess. Who I am is of little importance. What I can do for you is a whole other issue.”
“And just what can you do for me?” she asked placing her face against the door.
“Quiet or they might hear you.” the voice whispered.
“That is an odd request since you are probably standing beside a guard, maybe you are a guard.”
“No love, the guards can’t see nor hear me only you can.”
“You lie. To do this you would need magic and magic hasn’t been used on this continent for years.”
“Oh yea of little knowledge, there is so much that you don’t know.”
“Enlighten me then.” she growled.
“There will be enough time for that later. I was sent to give a message.”
“Well do that then.”
“Not so, first we have to make a deal.”
“I don’t have much to offer.”
“But you do Princess, so much.”
“What is the message?”
“Just sleep tight tonight as you will be out of this hole by morning.”
“That is it? That’s all? I have no desire to enter into a bargain with you.”
“You already did, you didn’t refuse and you asked a question. I gave you an answer. I just need some blood and the deal is done, but that can be collected at another time. Until then Princess, take care.”
“Wait! I didn’t make a deal.” she shouted but she heard no response. She fumbled over to the cot and waiting for the stranger to speak once more. But all she heard was the sound of herself breathing.
At some point during the night, exhaustion took over and she drifted off sitting upright on the bed. That was the way Milos found her when he ordered the guard to open the door.
She opened her eyes but had to squint at the sudden intrusion of light. “Time to get up Aliana, breakfast is in an hour and we don’t want to keep my parents waiting.”
Aliana followed him out into the corridor. “Well don’t you look awful? Feather bed and silk sheets and yet it seemed you got no sleep Your Highness.” she said as she noticed the dark circles and puffiness under his eyes. She squinted and looked at him again. He had shaved and his hair freshly cut. Even the slight cut over his upper lip didn’t distort the perfect symmetry of his mouth. For the first time meeting him, he actually looked the part of a prince. She shook her head twice to rid herself of the errant thoughts.
“Don’t you have servants here to do the fetching or are you just the hands-on type of prince?” she asked as she ambled along.
“A bit of both I suppose. No one is supposed to know that you are here.” he said. His face was serious, not even the usual smirk.
“Too late for that. I have been getting crazy night time visitors. Either that or the dungeon has made me crazy.” she said as she pondered over the event of the past night, which had acquired a dream like quality in the warmth of the sun.
“What visitor?” he stopped.
“He really didn’t say. Apparently I made a deal. I asked a question and it was answered. But what it wants from me in return, apart from my blood, he didn’t say. You should be careful Milos, maybe it is your head they want me to take.” she teased.
Lines appeared around his mouth and his eyes darkened, but it wasn’t with fear or apprehension as she thought. He seemed somehow contemplative. “Maybe,” he said and then continued walking.
They had entered the main palace. It was quite beautiful Aliana had to admit, the recurrent themes of blue and coral made her think of the ocean and of her own home by the sea. They were met with maids at the door.
“Your Highness.” they bowed.
“Get her cleaned up and presentable for breakfast. I will come by your room and collect you in an hour, being the hands-on person I am.” he then walked up the stairs and away from them.
“This way miss,” said a short plump one, who she suspected to be more senior than the other two who looked just past sixteen. They led her up the stairs and down the hall of the third floor.
A fine lady immerged from one of the doors. She was beautiful with black hair piled on top of a heart shaped face. Her kohl rimmed brown eyes narrowed on Aliana. Her pretty mouth formed a pout as she paused taking in Aliana.
“I don’t think stable boys were allowed in this part of the palace.” she said haughtily. Immediately Aliana knew that she was going to dislike her.
“Lady Sonetta,” said the maids bowing. “Miss...” the maid paused as Milos had not given anyone her name. “Miss is a guest of Prince Milos. We are taking her to her room.”
“It was said that Milos had brought a guest with him when he returned. What is your name Miss?” Aliana felt like she was a canary being cornered by a cat.
“If Milos didn’t think it important to tell you my name, then I suppose he has his reasons. Besides Lady Sonetta, what good is the name of a stable hand to you? I believe I am to bathe and get ready to have breakfast with the king and we don’t want to be late.” she said to the maids who nodded earnestly.
“Yes Miss,” said the plump woman who had difficulty hiding her smile.
“Lady Sonetta, it has been an absolute pleasure.” said Aliana as she brushed past Sonetta, who from the look on her face has never been spoken to like that before.
“This is your room Miss.” said the maid who opened the door allowing her to walk in. “The bathroom is to the left. A bath is already waiting. Do you want any special oils added?”
“No thank you,” said Aliana absently as she was distracted by the view of the sunrise over the lake. Breath-taking she thought as clouds of light pink and turquoise were scattered like jewels across the rippling lake. The room itself was half white with gold finished furniture. It was understated enough so that it wouldn’t distract from the view in front of her.
So this was how Milos treated his prisoners she thought wryly and then snorted. The maids looked over at her strangely. She offered them a smile and then walked into the bathroom.
It was just as fine as the bedroom, half-white, gold accents and breath-taking view. She stripped off her clothes and sank into the warm water savouring it as it melted the tightness in her limbs. The maids popped in and out leaving towels, a variety of soaps and shampoos. They offered to wash her hair, but she dismissed them. After a night of being confined to dark spaces, she just wanted to bask in the sunlight alone for a little time. Then again it was when she was alone that the voice spoke to her.
She washed quickly and then walked back into the room. Clothes were laid out for her. A dress. She pouted. It was silver with gold threading. It was pretty, but not exactly her style.
She stared at it a bit longer until one of the maids said, ” His Highness said that you had a preference for pants, but those won’t be ready until later Miss, but requests that you wear this until then.”
“That is very considerate of him.” she said as she was consoled that she didn’t have to spend the entire time here in dresses and very it was considerate of Milos that he considered her preferences. She put on her under garments and then the maids helped her to get ready.
They dried and brushed her hair and pulled it up into a loose bun. They rubbed all kinds of sweet-smelling oils on her which she tolerated. She however drew the line when they came with kohl, lip stain and powders to put on her face.
There was a knock on the door and the maid opened it revealing Milos on the other side. He stared at her for a minute before a slight one-sided smile touched his lips. “Shall we?” he said offering her his arm.
She took it and then joined him on the outside. “You seem to find the fact that I am wearing a dress funny.” she said self-consciously rubbing her free hand absently over the satiny material.
“Not funny, it is different.”
“Grand rooms, pretty dresses and dining with royalty is hardly punishment.” she said as he had gone quiet.
“For you, isn’t it?” he was right. It was. These were the things she avoided when home.
He entered the dining room. She was expecting other diners maybe like Lady Sonetta to be present but was surprised when she saw only a middle aged couple seated at one end of a very large table. Both had stopped eating and watched them carefully as they approached.
“I wasn’t aware that you were bringing a guest Milos.” said the man who looked a lot like Milos. So this was the king then.
“I am sure like everyone else you heard that I brought a guest with me yesterday.” he said.
“There were rumours.” he said grudgingly. He said further scrutinising Aliana in a way that made her want to hide.
“Mother, father let me present to you Aliana Aristagona, Princess of Arnay.”
“So this was what you were up to during your absence! How dare you bring her here after what she has done to Genos!” roared the king as he shot out of his chair. Aliana felt anger rolling off of him in waves.
The queen to her credit dismissed all the servants in the room. She then stood beside the king. “Milos what is the meaning of this?” she asked.
“She hasn’t done anything to Genos. Her stepmother maybe.”
“What stepmother?” barked the king?
“My father recently married a muddy witch named Moriah. This isn’t general knowledge to anyone outside the palace.” she looked over at Milos.
“If we sat I could explain further.” he said calmly.
His father clenched his jaws but said nothing else. He then motioned for them to sit. He pulled out a chair for Aliana and then sat between her and his father.
“Despite what you think father, I too have the best interest of Garion at heart. The last two years weren’t spent getting drunk or gambling from tavern to tavern. I was actually in Arnay working as a magistrate in Evan. That was just a cover for my real work as a ferret in the palace.”
“You were a spy in the Evan court, you could have been executed.” said his mother.
“If I was caught yes, but that came later.” he said as he patted his mother’s hand. “The queen had just died, the king had begun isolating himself from his court. The princess however at that time was still too young to rule. The noble houses in turn smelled opportunity to forward their own agendas.
“The house Gohara is still powerful, so no one dared to challenge the king directly, but all were in different stages of preparation.”
“Chrisoncor started making more weapons and logging parts of the Arborlands. Lurion increased their hematite mining quotas and were building more cannons and steel-enforced armour in their forges. We thought that they were preparing for war with us.” said the king.
“That was what they wanted us to think, especially since the dispute over Block Island had escalated with us claiming the western end of the island. Whitby was playing the safest. The heir had befriended the princess and they were willing to wait until the princess was at a marriageable age to stake their claim on the throne. It nearly worked too.” he said looking at Aliana, who blushed slightly.
“What the earls didn’t count on however was the witching court of Nur taking an interest. The king had visited a necromancer there once I suppose to speak to his dead wife. That was where I suspected he met Moriah. They fell in love.”
“Love,” said Aliana aghast at the thought.
“Yes, love probably under magical influence though. She eventually convinced the king to marry her. Which he did, after a year of courtship.”
“A year!” whispered Aliana.
“For others it would have been quicker, but the king must have loved your mother very much which was why it took that long.” he whispered in her ear. She was still mortified that her father was seeing a witch for an entire year, but she was somewhat mollified by his explanation.
He turned back to his father and continued, “I was getting in and out of the palace without detection for two years, but she’d moved into the palace for a week and somehow she sensed that I was there. Twice she nearly caught me. The last time I had taken refuge in the princess’s room. She wasn’t aware of my presence of course. It was there I heard her plan to run off with the Whitby heir to find the Red Sapphire.”
“There is a new one now?” asked the king who couldn’t hide his interest now.
A new one? Puzzled Aliana. She thought that there was only one.
Milos nodded and continued. “I knew that I couldn’t allow her to leave with Whitby as they would end up getting married and that house wouldn’t be strong enough to withstand the witch once she really took hold of the throne. So I sent a letter to Earl Whitby, supposedly form his son which announced his marriage to the princess and that he was to come to meet them at the Arbor crossing to escort them to Whitby.”
“What was the purpose of that?” asked the king.
“He hoped that Doranand’s true intention towards me would be revealed and that I would refuse him, which worked.” said Aliana as she glared at Milos. He simply pretended to not see it.
He continued. “Yes, well it was a risk I don’t regret now. I was however hoping that the princess would then return to Evan, but that plan took an odd turn when we were constantly being attacked by grim which forced us across the border. I was going to return to Arnay and hide in the Ashlands as I needed to find out more about the new queen’s plans. That wasn’t to be as she found a poster of me offering an earldom for my return and so ended up blackmailing me into coming here as she believes that we have the Red Sapphire hidden.” he snorted.
“Which is preposterous.” erupted the king.
“Not really. The Red Sapphire is here. The muddy witch knows this. That is why she had the ambassador come to claim the princess. As she was the only one who could disrupt whatever plans she has in store for both Arnay and Garion. When we didn’t acquiesce she had Genos killed. Which makes me suspect that she has an accomplice within this palace.”
“You know where the red sapphire is, you must tell me where it is.” said Aliana as she turned Milos to face her.
“He did tell you my dear.” said the queen. Aliana frowned not understanding. “The queen sent the ambassador for you. You are the Red Sapphire.”