My father used to tell me stories when I was a child of magic and dragons, of brave warriors who stayed true to their king and never let temptation sway their loyalty, and always of great adventure. From what I can remember from those stories are just bits and pieces, but I remember the hope my father put into the story, the emphasis of family and friends, of doing the right thing and never allowing your mind to drift into the darkness that held so much temptation. When father left that night, I had no story that night, recall the complex silence that filled the hotel room that night as my mother stood outside the room, her sobs echoing as I tried to convince myself that father was not gone like what people were saying, but he was just away on a trip and would return home on Saturday with a present of sweet chocolate and a new bedtime story to tell me. Mother tried to tell me stories after that, to fill in for father, but nothing was the same, not just because she was the one telling the stories, but because of the darkness she implemented into those tales of adventure and fantasy.
As my eyes gaze out to Avyn, those stories come back to me, ones that kept me up hours as a child past my bedtime, worried if those stories were true. With the lights of the town outlining the town for me as I have made my camp upon a small hill overlooking the town, I take in a deep breath to steady my nerves, wondering about what tomorrow holds for me as I am to find this piece Dregh has for me to collect. Mother once told me a story of a thief who was tasked with taking from a widowed Queen the fang of a dragon that the late King had vanquished and returned to his love with the fang as a gift. The thief had gone in the night to take the fang, not willingly, but because the thief was a slave to a dark sorcerer and if he was to bring back the fang, the fang would free him of his chains. The thief was successful, taking the fang in the night; however, he had awoken the Queen just as he was to leave, and in fright that the Queen could make his dreams of becoming a freed man vanish, he stabbed the Queen in the heart and ran for it. When he returned to the sorcerer, the sorcerer held true to his promise and released the slave of his chains, but because of the blood on the fang, the sorcerer knew letting his slave go would allow the soldiers to trace the slave’s steps back to him. In fear, the sorcerer killed the slave, allowing him to avoid the consequences of his sins.
I did not think much of that story as a child, thinking it held no themes of repentance or realizing one’s dark ways, but now, as I recognize the parallels, the story means much more to me now. Am I to become of what became of the slave? No, for I know how to play my cards, it is just that Dregh holds a better hand than me as we play this game of chance. I took the potion from her without even thinking of it, she said it would help me live long, and I believe her, not because I am blind to her tricks, but because I know she needs to keep me alive as long as possible. She needs me to do her tasks, I am an investment she is not willing to let rust before I am put on display as her main trophy for all to see. We both have drawbacks for us, how Dregh needs me alive longer than she would like, for she knows the longer I live, the more powerful I can become and the more I can control that power. Now, for me? I only know Dregh in this realm besides the man I somehow must call father, Duke Gravon who I have not seen since that night where I left with my father, and King Kyril of Iduna, a man whose heart I hold in my hand and does not trust me.
Laying back down on the rock, a clear view of the stars is on display for me tonight, every constellation in the sky shinning just as bright from the night before. Duke Gravon once told me that the stars were ancient kings, queens, and warriors who had done good in their life and were allowed to shine forever with the stars. His belief in what the stars are makes me wish that the science I knew behind them did not exist, so I could dream about joining those in the sky.
As the sun rises and I find myself loading up my horse once more, my clothes have been changed into the simple black dress I packed for the event tonight, my hair pulled back into an elegant braid, and the scales upon my wrists extending further up my arms. Pulling my sleeves down, I bunch them up at my wrists, trying best to hide the scales as I know I can not take any chances of them on display tonight. It would draw attention to myself and I do not need attention at all. My mother knew the tricks of drawing attention from anyone, all eyes on her as she knew the exact placement of one’s feet when they walked, the sway of their arms, how their chin should be tilted to a certain angle, and how to practically be paid to do so. Thankfully, I did not gain much of my mother’s talent in that respect and know to do opposite of what she did, how to blend in and make myself the background to anyone.
“Let’s ride,” I tell myself with a confident voice, mounting my horse as I hold the reins, telling the horse to go as we have a small passage before us. By the end of the day this Zweihänder should be in my hand and I should be hoping Dregh will take it gladly with no strings attached and send me on my way. But I know Dregh, I know that she will always have a trick up her sleeve, I just need to be ready for it.
The curtain of fog draped around the town reminds me of the passage to the Temple I took months ago, to where King Kyril destroyed the mirror that held my passage back home. With my mind taken off the road and placed on the King who stole not just my happiness from, but the innocent belief of this world, events replay in my mind, ones of the King. How his hand collided with the glass, striking it with such a force that cause the glass shards to explode across the Temple floor, his eyes locked with mine as I could only feel a darkness brewing within me. When I first arrived to Iduna, I was frightened, unfamiliar with the land, but I was more amazed in the beginning with the surroundings of the land and the people than I am now. The longer I stayed in Iduna, the darker it has begun to feel, as if beyond the appearance of a beautiful and magical realm, there hid a darkness, tinkering with the world. Here I am now, looking beyond the veil, submerged in a darkness I only recently came upon, the dragon’s soul a catalyst to this new appearance of the world.
Kyril once told his men and me the story of Lucretia, the elf that I slayed, and how she came to be a feared soul all because of the dark magic she allowed to consume her. She had not just trapped the soul of a dragon within her, but she also destroyed the soul of a god. Duke Gravon and King Kyril, how they told the story, it allowed me to understand that the act of destroying the soul of a god or goddess, that is something that proves a power unmatched by many. Perhaps this path is what Dregh has in mind for me.
Passing through the gates of the town, I am met with the vibrant colors of a market, rich shades of purple, red, pink, yellow, and orange are scattered everywhere, the market loud with different voices that create one voice. Everything from your local produce to riches are sold here, my horse slow as I take my time to look at different tents and what they hold on display. Remaining just a face in the crowd, I find it easier to jump off my horse and lead him by the reins rather than be the individual mounted on their horse and eyes drawn towards. People brush by, small electric sparks exploding across my skin as they pass through the fabric of my cloak. I have felt these sparks before, when passing by the people of the town Heka and I isolated ourselves in. My ears can pick up not just each unique voice, but the whispers as well, the simple sounds from someone clasping their hands together to even their individual heart beats. This is something I have yet to get used to.
I slowly make my way up the narrow streets of the town, headed to a palace that truly tries to create a resemblance to something a god or goddess would call their home. The palace where the feast is to take place, it is located at the hill at the end of the town, at least four stories high, and the walls made out of crema marble, old vines spreading far and wide across the walls as the windows are just as tall and wide, stained glass with pastel shades that remind me of something from a spring catalog back home.
A separate wall surrounds the palace, guards dressed in a tasteful shade of yellow for the uniforms as they wear swords strapped close to their sides and bows around their shoulders. They are on watch as I expected, awaiting a threat or perhaps a thief like the role I shall play tonight. I know nothing of this town, the security, or if I will even make it out of the palace walls tonight, but if Dregh believes I can do this, then I can. Dregh does not underestimate me for she has no reason to. She knows I am her best bet at the work she is too lazy to do and would not place her trust in someone she did not find fit for the job.
The closer I get to the palace, the less vibrant colors I spot and the more of an isolated palace I uncover. It seems like the governor here planned for hardly anything to be present outside the walls of his palace. This poses a complication to me because if the town was busier closer to the governor’s palace, it would be easier to blend in. Rather than enter in through the front gate, I walk at the side of the wall, knowing that someone like a maid or server would not enter through the front gate, but rather the back.
Taking my time, I inspect the organization of the guards, how they patrol the walls in sets of two, always following the buddy system and armed. This item that Dregh wishes to have, how big could it possibly be? Flipping through the journal she gave me, I try and find anything about the size of even a description of the Zweihänder. There is nothing, not one word to help me figure out what I could be trying to find. But the name itself helps me a bit. When I was with the King and helping him translate, I could translate any language from Iduna like it was English, I could interpret my father’s entries in the Temple because I know Arabic, and I can read any English. What gives me a small hint is that I cannot translate this word, meaning that it comes from my home realm outside of Iduna. What I am looking for is something I could find back home, not some peculiar object from Iduna I have never seen before. Knowing that this object must hold some significant value, this governor would have it among other prized possessions, meaning that I can minimize my search by excluding things only Iduna would have. However, it is not locating this object that worries me the most, but getting away with it without an arrow piercing through my chest or guards following me as they want me dead.
As I near the back gate, I see others dressed like me, in black and looking simple as they are also hear for serving the feast. With my head held high and making sure my hair is pinned back with simplicity, I make my way to the gate, blending in with the other common folk. Two guards are placed at the entrance, checking each server up and down, looking for anyone suspicious. I stand beside a male my age, untamed silver hair as he waves his fingers through the loose strands of his old sweater. He stinks of a stable, his violet eyes scanning over the guards as his satchel is stuffed full of a change of clothes, bread, and a small bottle labeled Saffron as it is in some oil solution. I recall from school how we learned that in the Medieval ages that common perfumes had an oil base mixed with spices as a perfume. As to what he is, he reminds me of Soka, how her lavender eyes always stuck out to me.
We make our way towards the gate together, strangers in the crowd as something tells me to strike up conversation like most of the people around us. I need to blend in with those around me and this is one of the ways. “Rosemary,” I introduce, picking a random name as I think of how herbs were also used for these perfumes. Sticking out my gloved hand for a firm handshake, the male simple nods his head, ignoring my hand as I wonder if his people use handshakes to greet one another.
“Belen,” he responds, keeping his eyes straight ahead as I can see he is not one for a conversation.
“Do you come from Avyn?” I ask, deciding to keep up the conversation as he seems nervous, but not because I am trying to talk to him, but because of the situation with the guards ahead. He does not strike me as shy as much as he strikes me as someone who perhaps does not like the idea of being going into the palace.
Silence between the pair of us as I try and workout why he is here. I know this is a paid job, barely worth anything, but still money. Unlike everyone else here who is ready for the feast, to get to work, and say they put their name down to work this night because it commemorates the governor’s birthday, Belen seems to have different motives. Somehow, I see myself in him, the unsteady feeling, the fear, the nervous, and what gives him away the most if how he looks at the palace like me. He too watches the guards, taking note of their organization and perhaps is calculating how long he has to flee without them seeing him. Looking to his satchel, he has papers crumbled beneath his black clothes for the night, black ink with scribbles and an outline of the palace like the one Dregh gave me.
As we reach the town guards at the gate, they barely pay the two of us any attention as a small cluster of females behind us are rather outgoing and strike up small chat with the guards. One inside the walls, the palace now lays before us, a woman dressed in a humble black gown greets the small crowd now forming, gray hair pinned back in a modest style, and her long fingers curled around a sheet of browning paper. I separate myself from the crowd, placing my horse among others in a small stable as I know I cannot keep him by my side much longer tonight. “Welcome, servants, for your willingness to serve the governor tonight when our staff has been running low these past months.” Whispers around me begin, speaking of some battle having taken place. Weaving my way through the crowd, I keep my eyes focused on the silver-haired boy. “I have made a list of the positions which are needed tonight for you all to take.” The lady goes on for another ten minutes, discussing the values that those from Avyn are to uphold to guests and especially to their superiors. Before she can give her conclusion, a woman behind me speaks out, the topic of a war brought forth.
“Will those off at war return home soon or shall we expect to help stay on as staff for other events?” I have not heard a single thing about war, not from Heka, Dregh, or any of the elders. However, I have been isolated at the rim of Iduna these past four months.
The woman in charge disregards the question, moving on to how she will split up everyone into their roles for the night. Something tells me to stay in the same role that Belen will be placed in.
My mother was a woman of many skills, from her ability to dance for crowds, to help preform small tricks with my father, and most of all, place attention on her and reel anyone in with a simple glance. She knew exactly how to walk, how her legs would allow her a strut that reeled all eyes in, her shoulders would be held back, allowing for her head to be tilted at a specific angle, and the sway of her arms to perhaps even hypnotize the audience. The plus of having a mother being a pro at that, she allowed me to learn how to draw no attention to yourself and for no one to offer you a second glance.
I take a step closer to Belen, blending in with him as she begins to separate the crowd based on appearance and who she thinks will be fit for each role. I know that I will not be server of the guests tonight for that would mean I would have no way to find the Zweihänder. When the servers are picked, it is time for kitchen staff. Belen and I are in one of the last groups to be selected, the role that involved us in the background. We are to simply clean up unused or dirty dishes and glasses. This means we have minimal appearances to make and can use the back passageways of the palace to help to minimize run-ins with guests. A soft smile tugs at my lips, but I hold it from spreading wider as I listen to the woman give instructions for each role.
As she allows the crowd to disperse, I turn to Belen, offering him a friendly smile. “Minimal confrontation with people sounds like a solid role to me,” I say, breaking the silence between the two of us as he just nods his head and heads towards the palace. “Wait up.” I know I am annoying him, it is obvious as to how he wants to avoid me. “We can be buddies in this, maybe work out a system-
He cuts me off with raising his hand to my mouth, telling me to shut up. “We are not going to be buddies, Rosemary, because that is a waste of my time.”
I raise an eyebrow, a soft spark discharging across my lips as his hand is still placed there, keeping me shut up. His violet eyes stare into mine, into the darkness that is held within them as he cocks his head to an angle, intrigued by the patterns my eyes create on their own. Pulling his hand away, I can hear the racing of his heart, beating faster than before when he was nervous when entering the palace walls. He is not affected by the sparks I felt, for only I feel them, no, for I have seen his reaction before in the eyes of Duke Gravon. Duke Gravon once looked at me with fear, amazement, and uncertainty all at once when I absorbed the soul of the dragon. Belen looks at me the same way now as he sees he storms stirring within my eyes. He does not look at me the way Kyril has ever looked at me, but he can sense something as he watches me, something I felt too when I looked to him. Allies.
“If we are not to be buddies, may we be co-workers willing to aid the other?” I question, knowing he cannot say no to my words after what he has sensed.
Belen nods his head, pulling away from me as he motions me to follow him. “Just try not to pester me too much,” he mumbles, his lips pursing together as I can sense his frustration. His frustration not with me, but perhaps what he has planned.
We walk together into the back entrance of the palace, the stone walls covered with tapestries of gold and silver thread, doorways lined with white wood, and the hallway stretching long down to a room flooded with light. Taking a sharp left, surrounding us is a simple room filled with pots and pans that line the walls, a small window placed at the left side of the room, and a table in the middle piled high with bottles of spices and a few wheels of cheese. Pantry of the palace then, the noise from the kitchen right down the hall as I can hear a man shouting, various ingredients the topic as he adds his own vulgar touch. “Chef not too happy with his kitchen staff?” I ask, knowing Belen will ignore my questions as he begins grabbing some spices. “How do you know what we must do already?”
“Were you not listening to the instructions a few moments ago? We were each assigned our roles as well as our tasks.”
The echo of footsteps down the hall causes me to look over my shoulder, heartbeats drawing closer as I can hear the blood pumping fast through their fragile bodies. Three females enter the room, dressed for simplicity like Belen and me, beginning to grab certain spices as well as they leave no time for introductions. One of the girls has a list in her hand, various spices written down with sloppy penmanship as I glance over her shoulder to read what I must collect. Doing the job, we finish quickly, heading down the hall and into the chaotic kitchen which hits me with a powerful scent of sugar and smoked meat. There is a man with a green apron rushing around as he decorates the trays pastries with flowers, his mouth running a hundred words per minute as he yells at the kitchen aid to tend to the lamb. About seven lambs are held over a huge fire in a stone oven, turning slowly as a short man sweats as he stands close to the rising flames. He is a dwarf, his height around three feet, a bit of weight put on, his beard just brushing his chest as the ginger color stands out, and his ears are not at all proportional to his face.
Looking around the kitchen, at least half of the staff are dwarves, their height causing most of the objects in the kitchen to be located on the lower shelves. The head chef is regular sized, but those eyes…those eyes warn me he is far from ordinary as the bright yellow colors gives me an uneasy feeling.
“Well, what are all of you looking at, get that soup cooking!” The chef snaps at the five of us who stand in the doorway of the hectic room. Right away we get started, following a detailed recipe as I learn, through conversation, that the three females with the same role as Belen and I are nymphs. They look the part, their golden locks braided with daisies placed in a crown pattern, their bodies slender and tall, and their faces oval. Very pretty, just like what I would expect after reading about them in mythology, but they are not as friendly as I would have thought.
As the day drags on and the guests slowly begin to enter the palace, I can get a glimpse of their carriages from the kitchen window. The night sky filled with thousands of stars, the lights outside the palace take away from the beauty of the sky. Music can be heard down the hall, chatter filling the once hollow palace, and my heart beats fast as I try and think of where I may be able to escape this palace. Belen has tried to distance himself from me as the night continues, and overtime, I have let him, knowing that if he is a possibility for how I will find this Zweihänder, then I will need him to venture off while thinking he has lost me for good.
My dress just barely brushes the marble hall as I find myself collecting empty glasses, the crowd of men and women dressed in riches ignoring me as I do my job. Belen works next to me, collecting some plates from the dinner, his fingers a tad shaky as I wonder what he could be here to steal if he is a thief like I expect. For sure he is here for something more valuable than just money, for he could steal that from anyone without putting himself in a riskier situation. He is not a pro for sure, how he is nervous, so at least we have something in common rather than having something to steal from this governor. For another two hours we keep our job up, taking dirty plates and glasses back to the kitchen as the dwarves wash the pates.
There is suddenly a silence that fills the halls, the music coming to a halt as the voices follow. My senses are on full alert as I find myself leaving the kitchen and watching from the hallway the main hall of the palace as a man stands high above all, greeting everyone to his palace.
I must get out of here and make sure I get what I came here for. Even if I am chased by the guards, I must make my escape quickly.
A crown upon his head, eyes scanning the crowd as he offers them a warm smile, and my body frozen in fear, he gives his speech as he welcomes his guests to celebrate his birthday. “For we do not just celebrate one man’s accomplishments in life, but also the lives that have touched his and allowed him to feel welcomed in his home.”
I spot Belen from the corner of my eyes, sneaking past a set of guards as he makes his way to where I must too go. “To my guests and dearest friends,” the governor cheers, raising his glass as his guests do as well.
They cheer with him. “To Duke Gravon.”