Lavish tapestries lined every single hallway of the castle. Not a single passerby could ignore scenes depicting random points in the Infant Queen’s life. Even the rugs on the floor had been switched out for new scenes about the queen. Any newcomer would guess that there had never been a ruler of the kingdom before the Infant Queen. All trace of former rulers, even the Queen’s late family members, were covered by the beauty and grace of the queen. But nobody complained. The kingdom would finally be handed over to the Infant Queen after twenty-five years of waiting.
Hordes of workers streamed through the halls as well. Maids, guards, writers, musicians, cooks, chefs, tailors, artists, and anyone else ever employed by the royal castle were there, preparing for the week-long celebration of the Infant Queen’s twenty-fifth birthday. Her day was in a week, and that meant non-stop work until then and through the next week.
Massive barrels of wine had been shipped in from all around the country. Even bigger barrels of ale. Crates upon crates of the finest smoking weed from overseas. The procession of livestock being ushered into the farmland surrounding the capital would rival any country. Chefs from the farthest reaches of the land were brought in just to create an endless supply of pastries and cakes. A team of thirty cooks were brought in to handle the kitchens, which needed a never-ending stream of meals and snacks during the weeks of festivities. The queen’s chamberlain even had twenty butlers from different noble households throughout the kingdom transported to the castle to manage all of the happenings.
Mahtah walked the halls casually. Every employee of the castle paid her the utmost respect, nodding at her, tipping caps, curtsying. She wore her dark hair down, very long. It flowed around her shoulders as her robe flowed around her toned, poised body.
But she wore no weapons. She never looked behind her. She never checked around corners or under beds. There was no place in world safer for her than the castle.
She turned into the small kitchen used to feed all inhabitants of the Queen’s Wing. It was smaller than the main kitchen, having only three stoves, three ovens, two large sinks, and barely enough room to cook a banquet meal. This kitchen was there to feed the Infant Queen personally and any of her personal guests. The kitchen still bustled with activity. For the next two weeks, the chamberlain insisted on having a small personal guard to protect the queen minute by minute. As a matter of course, since Mahtah was the Infant Queen’s personal protector, she demanded a meeting with the head of that personal guard.
The overwhelming sounds of the castle dimmed as Mahtah found the small breakfast nook at the back of the kitchen, but still the noise filtered in through the three large archways to kitchen. She noticed then that her senses had been bombarded since she left the Infant Queen’s chambers that morning. She requested and received a coffee from one of the cooks before she sat down at the table.
The head of the personal guard waited for her. He finished off a plate of eggs and bacon before giving Mahtah his attention.
She looked at him with clear disdain. It didn’t need to be this way. She considered herself ultimately accepting and understanding of all people. But if this man wanted to prejudge her, then she would put him in his place immediately. Unless, of course, he simply wanted to finish his food before it got cold.
“Please, forgive me, mistress,” he said in a deep voice. “I waited an hour for this breakfast and wanted to finish it before it got cold.”
Mahtah smiled with her entire face. “I’m glad you weren’t simply ignoring me.”
“Please, mistress,” he said, taken aback. “I would never. I’ve heard of your deadly strike and have less ego in my head than desire to meet my end.”
“Well said, captain.”
“Call me Red. I am a captain, but I prefer to be called Red.”
“Okay, then, Red. I’d like to hear your plan for protecting the queen during these two weeks. I don’t believe she is in any danger, but the chamberlain has been adamant for the increased guard.”
“As he should be, mistress.”
“My name is Mahtah.”
“That is beautiful.” The man spoke straight and honest, and Mahtah appreciated it. “Were you borne of the northern desert?”
“I was born in a desert. However, not on this continent.”
Red nodded as he sipped his own coffee.
Mahtah held her coffee cup close to her face, warming her nose, breathing in the heavy aroma. “So, you’re plan? Has the chamberlain briefed you on the queen? Her mannerisms, routines, et cetera.”
“Not yet. We have a meeting this afternoon to go over everything with my men.”
“Fifteen, including me.”
“Eight swordsmen, seven brutes.”
“I’m guessing you have no plan yet, then, since your meeting is this afternoon.”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“I will tell you some things then. Give you some insight.”
“I appreciate that, Mahtah.”
“I have watched the Infant Queen for nearly two years at this point. She is very adaptable. But she also enjoys privacy. If you crowd her, she will find a way to avoid you. My suggestion is you guard the Queen’s Wing, the swordsmen at all entrances; there are four into the wing proper, however all four funnel into the common areas and there is a single entrance to the queen’s suite. Keep the brutes closer to the queen herself. Guard her suite, the common rooms, the kitchen, dining room.”
“Thank you for your advice. I will take it as best practice then.”
“Good. In general, I will always be nearby. She is asleep at the moment, so I have a bit of free time. It is still early.”
“Indeed, Mahtah. But protection is a day and night business.”
“That is true.” Mahtah paused for a pensive moment. “I would appreciate a list of your men and their names. Can you provide that?”
“Absolutely.” Without hesitation, Red drew a folded parchment from his shirt. He handed it to Mahtah.
“Thank you,” she said, slipping the paper into her robes. Mahtah contently sipped on her coffee, eyeing the man in front of her up and down somewhat blatantly.
“Yes? What are you looking for, Mahtah?” Red asked with a smirk.
“I like to know who is going to be interacting with my queen. I like to figure them out.”
“You take your job very seriously, then. I admire that. In my business, it is very easy, in fact common to find skilled fighters who are lazy and only after the money.”
“I hope none of your men are lazy money-grubbers.”
“No, no. The queen’s chamberlain brought me this contract a year ago. I’ve been recruiting and training these men since then. They are of the highest quality.”
“That is good to hear.” Mahtah steeled herself. She closed her eyes a moment and took a breath. She spoke with absolute calm. “Listen to me for a moment, Red. I did not come from some noble offering before my time here. I left many dead bodies in my wake. I didn’t play games or get involved in other’s lives. I was cold, calculated.” Her eyes opened onto the man in front of her, flashing dangerously. “My point is, sir, that if I find you or any of your men out of line in the slightest, he will be brought to his knees to beg for forgiveness. And then he will be snuffed out. By me. I only tell you this so you understand the severity of my charge. I’m not your friend. I’m nobody’s friend. I’m not even the queen’s friend. I exist here only to protect her from harm unconditionally. Please do not take this personally.”
Red took her words in stride and polished off his coffee. “I take nothing personally, Mahtah. I assure you, I am a businessman through and through.” He glanced sideways and brought his eyes back to lie on the queen’s protector. “But I do wonder.”
“What do you wonder?” Mahtah’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.
“I wonder who you are.”
“I am personal protector of the Infant Queen.”
“Yes, I know what your position is. Mahtah is quite a different name from the people around here.”
“I told you I was born on a different continent.”
Mahtah’s stoic look revealed everything to him. She knew it. But sometimes it was better for them to know. Generally, knowledge of her past increased the danger she posed at any time.
“About five years ago, I was hired for a job that would ultimately bring me here, had the job been completed. I was charged with guarding a young noble on his journey from the rebel capital to the castle here. It was an offering. That young noble was the Rebel Prince’s cousin. The caravan was ambushed by a trio. The deaths came swiftly. I’ve survived as long as I have by knowing when I’m beaten. I left the job, having only been half paid. Losing that money was worth it considering, I saved my own life.”
“I heard rumors that it was a trio headed by a killer known as the Raven. You know what people were saying about the Raven?”
Mahtah raised her eyebrows in answer, her expression still stone.
“Hair as dark as a starless night of the new moon. And eyes as blue as the clearest, purest sapphire. She’s somewhat of a legend up around the desert line.”
Red let the thought linger in the air between them. Mahtah held his gaze. The sounds of the kitchen gradually increased as the day began. Pots and pans clanged, cooks yelled to each other, food sizzled on stoves. Mahtah chewed on the inside of her cheek and she thought of what to say.
“Tell me if you see me as an enemy or not, Red. I don’t like games.”
“No. I told you I am purely a business man. I understand that you were doing a job just as I was. And now we’re working together. I hold no grudges, believe me. In fact, you are probably the most impressive person I’ve ever met. I’m in awe of you.”
“Why?” Mahtah asked, nearly incredulous. “I was a killer. I left only corpses in wake to my goal.”
“Well, we’ve all dabbled in the business of being a hired criminal. But to me, the true greatness of you is that you were never caught. You were never even captured by any law enforcement, by any bounty hunter, anyone at all. And on top of it, look at you. Please forgive me if I offend with my words, but you, Mahtah, are unforgettable. And yet here you are, working for the Infant Queen, not a single crime to your name. You are impressive.”
Mahtah took another deep breath while continuing to hold Red’s stare. “I appreciate the compliments. But please do not talk to me about my former life again. It is a time that I wish to forget. And I have forgotten it. Until this very moment.”
“I’m so sorry, Mahtah. I did not mean to upset you.”
“I’m not upset.”
“Okay then. I will leave you. Again, please accept my apology for speaking out of turn. Just know, I truly look up to you, and admire you. If you need anything at all, please, beautiful Mahtah, just ask me.”
Mahtah could feel her cheek flaring red like radishes. “Thank you, Red.”
Red left the kitchen swiftly, leaving Mahtah sitting in the breakfast nook, taken fully aback. She quickly recovered, however, and flagged down a cook to get her another cup of coffee. She stared into the dark brown liquid until she finally took a sip. Alone now, Mahtah took a moment to fidget, rub her hands about her body in a ritual performed multiple times a day. She ran her fingers over scars: her right thigh from knee to buttock, her right side torso between the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth ribs, just above her left breast from sternum to collarbone, and over her belly, just under her belly button. She constantly reminded herself how close she had come to death in her life so many times. She needed that reminder. The pull of the free life out there in the wild was stronger in her than most other pulls.
“Mahtah!” squealed the chamberlain from the other side of the kitchen.
The disheveled man ran across the room, narrowly missing cooks at every step. He all but fell into the breakfast nook to sit across from Mahtah. Every morning, the man dressed to impress. Mahtah had seen him in action. He would step out of his chambers fully ready for the day. Tucked and tidy, pressed, put together by a master tailor. His hair would be combed, slicked, styled. He shaved every morning. And as always, by the time breakfast finished, he looked like this. Untucked, hair a mess, stains on his clothing, somehow with a five o’clock shadow.
Mahtah smiled. She loved him. He was the sweetest, most diligent person she’d ever met. He truly dedicated himself to making the queen’s life a perfect as possible.
“Good morning, Arno,” she said. “Coffee?”
“I did attempt to have a cup a bit ago. As you can see…” He pointed down at the stain on his recently pressed shirt.
“You work so hard for that girl, Arno,” Mahtah laughed.
“It is my burden, Mahtah.”
“Were you running in here to let me know that her grace has awoken for the day?”
“Yes, but I had something else to talk to you about.”
“Okay, Arno, what is it?”
“As you know, the queen has been reading all of the books that the former steward left in his chambers.”
“The three lucky readers that have been doing so since his death six months ago, have discovered something. I don’t know what it is yet. Her grace hasn’t told me. However, it is clear that the queen is wildly excited over something to do with all those writings. She is already running away with it, as we speak, and I wanted to prepare you for when you see her. Please try to stay calm, because she is far from calm.”
“Damn it,” Mahtah grumped. “If I had been up there, I could have headed this off. All because I wanted to get a little business out of the way early.”
“Yes, she did take advantage of your absence.”
Mahtah stood up from the table, nearly knocking her coffee over. “I need to go deal with this now.”
“See you later, Arno.”
With that, Mahtah rushed out of the kitchen. She swept through the halls of the castle toward the Infant Queen’s chambers. She stepped through the large archway that indicated the start of the Queen’s Wing. The noise quieted in the here, though the work did not. It was a simple fact that less people in the castle had permission to enter the Queen’s Wing, and so more work was put on the shoulders of less people. They didn’t seem to mind, however, since this was the best duty in the castle. And less people made for quieter corridors.
Mahtah turned right once inside the archway, aiming to find the queen in her suite, however, a commotion drew her attention from the opposite direction. The other end of the hall led to the queen’s private garden, an elevated paradise made of flowers, trees, fountains, and a small gazebo big enough for two. It was the perfect place for her to look out across the town, to view her town square and all of her citizens. The garden was high up on a rampart, inaccessible unless you were willing to climb the sheer walls.
Someone had climbed, apparently, because he was being dragged down the hallway by a royal guard. But this was not a grown man or woman. Mahtah returned to the archway and awaited the culprit.
With a handful of the guilty party’s shirt, the guard stopped in front of Mahtah.
Mahtah took pause. She stared, mouth slightly agape. She swallowed hard as she looked around the vicinity. Why didn’t anyone see this? The guard appeared clueless.
The boy was small, with light brown hair and a pudgy frame. He looked like a normal vagabond aside from one obviously aspect.
He had the same dusty gray skin as her.
He struggled in the guard’s grip, his thick arms flapping around wildly. He looked up at Mahtah and she regarded him still in shock. The boy’s face had a scar on it, from his hairline down to his neck, running directly over his eye. The other eye was a warm brown, however, the scarred eye he kept tightly closed.
“What were you doing?” she asked the little intruder.
“I saw the Infant Queen once,” the boy grumped. “I wanted to see her again because she’s the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen lots of people!”
“What is this magic?” Mahtah whispered to herself. The boys skin chilled her.
“Tell him to give me my patch back!” the boy cried. “I can’t see anything without it!”
“Did you take his eye patch?” she asked the guard.
The guard nodded and opened his other hand to reveal the black patch. Mahtah took it and examined it before handing it back to the boy.
The boy stopped struggling to tie the thing onto his face, covering the closed eye. “Thanks,” he said calmly.
“May I ask you how your eye came to be like that?” Mahtah asked.
The boy looked up at her with a grimace. He stared hard for a long moment. Mahtah did not break from his gaze. But then he lashed out. “No!” he cried and he threw his hand like he’d be holding a ball. Multicolored lights splashed on Mahtah and the guard, distracting them and giving the boy an opening to pull from the guard’s grip.
Mahtah managed to clear her eyes enough to see the boy run away, down the hall, and vanish mid-stride. “Did you…” she mumbled.
“Some kind of prank,” the guard complained. “Horrible little boy.” Still rubbing his eyes, the guard returned to his post out in the garden.
“That was odd,” Mahtah said to herself.
One of the Vice-chamberlains approached to check on her. “Are you okay, Mahtah?” he asked.
“Uh… indeed. Please have a guard sweep the garden just in case the boy dropped anything in there. I don’t want him coming back looking for it, especially if it was a weapon of some kind.”
“I doubt a boy that young was an assassin.”
“Yes, well, I will not be lackadaisical with our queen’s life, will you?” She didn’t mean it to sound disciplinary, however, the Vice-chamberlain definitely took it that way.
“Of course not, Mahtah! I would never!”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry. That came out wrong. I just want to be thorough.”
“Understood. I will have that sweep done at once.” He bowed and hurried away.
Mahtah stood in the archway for a minute, taking in all of the activity. She wondered about that child. She felt the distraction washing over her like a deluge. She needed to find that boy again and learn about his skin.
As part of her dedication to protecting the queen, she made it a point to know all people on the castle grounds at all times. She knew the guard that had caught the boy. She knew that he had a wife and two children. She knew he tended goats on his off days and his wife liked to make hats. She also knew that there would be thirty-five new people on the grounds today. One hundred and fifty people would be staying on the grounds through the week, night and day. And seventy-seven other people would be staying off the grounds at night.
So when someone unexpected came onto the grounds, it made her quite uneasy.
The sound of padded feet rose up from outside the Queen’s Wing, down the corridor. Mahtah looked for the sounds, knowing the origin already. A group of five girls in tight robes, hoods, and slippers ran right up to her, their faces flushed with joy.
“Master Mahtah!” they squealed.
“Good morning, girls,” she replied. “How is everyone today?”
“So wonderful, Master,” Veda said. She was the leader of the group, the star pupil. Despite being shorter than the rest, she was strong and determined, learned all her disciplines very quickly, and demonstrated more will power than most adults that Mahtah had ever trained. From the looks of her dark brown cheeks and forehead, the group had just gotten back from a morning run, for the girl glistened in the sunlight.
“What are your lessons today?” Mahtah asked austerely.
“We already completed the castle run three times this morning,” Veda replied.
“Next is bow staff training,” said a tall, blonde haired, blue eyed girl named Sophie.
“Where will you be training?” Mahtah asked.
“Excellent! I will make sure I stop by later today to check on all of you, as long as I can get away from the queen for a few minutes.” Mahtah laughed with the girls. She often joked about her constant queen-related responsibilities.
“How is the queen?” Jally asked with big green eyes looking up at her imploringly. She was a heftier girl, the strongest of the group, with quick reflexes and hard hits. Mahtah liked training her the most.
Mahtah smiled down at her lovingly. “She was fine when I left her last night. She was safe in her suite, undisturbed. I haven’t even seen her this morning. She slept in today. But that’s okay, right? It takes a lot out of her, being a new monarch and all.”
“She’s so beautiful. I wish she would be my friend.”
Mahtah crouched down to Jally’s eye level. “You’re very beautiful yourself, Jally. All of you are.”
The girls wrapped Mahtah in a big hug.
“Okay, girls,” she said, standing. “Time to get to work. Go practice those bow staff techniques.”
“Yes, Master Mahtah,” they said together before running off.
Mahtah watched them go, down the corridor and around the corner.
“Maybe I can finally check on my charge,” she mumbled.
Finally, the walk to the Infant Queen’s suite went unobstructed. Mahtah followed the southern hallway, around the back of the castle. The shady southwest courtyard seen through tall, arching windows, was being prepared for the first night of festivities. The queen’s guests would be coming in each day leading up to her birthday. The chamberlain had a warm reception and banquet prepared for each of those evenings out in that southwest courtyard.
Each member of the castle staff, permanent or temporary, politely bowed his or her head to Mahtah when passing. Everyone knew her, as they should. Any problems of security came to her. And all people on the castle grounds knew that any step out of line would end in a meeting with her. And Mahtah was not someone to be trifled with. Even the noble guests, when given permission to be on the castle grounds, were fully briefed on Mahtah’s role and authority.
Mahtah found the main doors to the Infant Queen’s suite closed. She pushed the tall portal open and slipped in. The suite contained three massive rooms, the first being a parlor. Mahtah took a steadying breath when she saw the stacks of books piled around. They hadn’t been there the previous night, so the queen must have requested the most pertinent tomes brought to her . Arno did not joke that the queen was excited about this.
Into the next room, the queen’s bedroom. The gigantic bed was a mess, sheets and blankets everywhere. But the rest of the room, the countless dressers, clothes racks, chairs, tables, lining the walls were neat and clean. The queen was truly the tidiest person in the castle, except when it came to keeping her bed made.
Beyond the bedroom was a cavernous bathroom with a massive marble tub, plenty of hot water, a vanity, more clothes racks, and anything else a girl could want in a bathroom. Steam billowed from the bathroom door. Mahtah could barely see inside.
The Infant Queen exited the bathroom then, her torso wrapped in a towel. Her short black hair was wrapped in another towel, piled high on her head. Her skin was the color of coffee with a dab of cream, her eyes even darker, nearly fully black. She was of average height, the same size as Mahtah but not slender. She walked with little grace, seeming constantly distracted.
When she noticed Mahtah standing there, she gasped and nearly fell over.
“Mahtah!” she cried. “Who do you think you are sneaking up on me like that?” Suddenly filled with anger, the queen stomped across the bedroom to stand a mere foot from Mahtah’s face. She forced her steely gaze on Mahtah for a long moment.
And then she slapped her across the face. Mahtah recoiled and then faced her again. The queen swung once more, but Mahtah caught her wrist. Mahtah’s own hand snapped up and grabbed the queen’s face, squeezing her cheeks and forcing her lips to purse painfully.
“Don’t do that, Amaris,” Mahtah said softly. She pushed the queen back a step.
The queen’s face flushed red with renewed anger.
And then suddenly, Amaris jumped into the air, wrapping her legs around Mahtah, who caught her legs and held her up. The queen kissed her passionately, gripping onto her like they were sinking into the void and had nothing else to hold. Mahtah kissed her with more love than she’d ever known before. The women, impossibly tangled now, stumbled across the room and fell onto the bed. Amaris rolled off of Mahtah and propped herself up on her elbow.
“I have so much to talk to you about, my love,” she said.
“I know you do, queen.”
“But I awoke without you, my heart. And I slept late, which means I’ve been without you for far too long today.”
“I agree, o ruler.”
“So I want you to have me now, love, before we start on all of the exciting activities for the day.”
“It will be my pleasure, angel.”
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