[3.2] - The Makings of a Spy
Aryial awoke, her body aching with bruises and sore muscles from her sparring session.
It was still dark out, and Aryial blamed that fact when she swung her legs out of bed, only to whack them against the bedside table.
She hissed as her body and the new addition to her array of bruises all gave a collective burst of pain.
At least she has one bruise that wasn’t from the beating she got from Evhanna.
Just because Aryial technically came out the victor, didn’t mean she walked out of the sparring ring without a full painting of bruises.
Aryial had dragged herself to draw up a bath, rubbing her eyes tiredly as she dunked a generous dollop of jasmine bath salts into the water.
The shelves were well stocked with jasmine scented products, she had made sure of it as soon as she had ‘officially’ moved into what used to be Ivan’s old room.
He had found another one with ease, he was nobility after all. Aryial supposed he did count as royalty as well since his father ruled the kingdom for a quarter of the year.
Already, Aryial’s mind was thinking about food as she went through the familiar motions of donning her uniform and tying her hair back.
Soft pale light from the white flame lanterns seemed to almost bid Aryial good morning as she stepped out of her room, the hallway dimly lit in the evasive moments before dawn.
Yawning, and trying to politely cover it with her hand, Aryial made her way down to the kitchens to grab a quick bite before starting her work.
Chefs and cooks milled around the pristine, white kitchen. The smell of breakfast tempted Aryial, beckoning her to dip her finger into the soup she spied on the table-top.
She made her way to the basket of fresh produce, swiping an apple and a slice of bread.
Her proper meal would come later during her break when one of the chefs was free enough that Aryial could sweet-talk them into making her something nice.
Holding the apple in her mouth, Aryial helped another servant carry a basket of cabbages, earning a thankful smile from one of the chefs who then hobbled over, tucking a small muffin into the pocket of Aryial’s apron as she headed out.
The sun had started to rise, the light peeking over the horizon like a cheeky child, gently brushing its gold over the walls.
The roster had been written and pinned up on the wall in the servant’s common room.
Aryial’s eyes scanned for the East Wing maid list of chores, picking out a select few that required the less work.
First in, first serve.
The black ink felt cold as Aryial grazed the top of her thumb over it, careful not to get too much.
She smeared her the pad of her thumb, now covered in ink, over the tasks she was going to do, effectively marking them off.
Just as she finished wiping the ink off her thumb using the scrap of cloth pinned next to the list, another servant rushed towards her, holding a folded piece of parchment.
He held the note out to her.
Moving the apple to her slightly-inked hand, Aryial took the note with the clean fingers.
She didn’t want to take any risks since there was still a bit of ink left on her right thumb.
“So, who do I send the note to?” Aryial asked, tucking the note into her pocket.
The boy pointed to her.
“From the Eighth son, Lord Ivan,” he said.
Aryial let out a quiet oh, fishing the note out of her pocket.
Her eyes scanned the words.
A walk in the northern gardens at eight tolls past?
She bit back a retort. You shouldn’t shoot the messenger. The paper crinkled as she tucked it into her pocket again, toning down her annoyance that Ivan hadn’t asked to see her almost a week.
He had made an effort to see Aryial the first few days after that night in the tavern, though it died out after a while. At least she thought it had, maybe he was just busy.
She turned down the corridor, checking for onlookers before she started practising her wraithwalking, the art of blending into your surroundings and being so light on your feet that you resemble a wraith.
Most of the time, Aryial tried to keep her deadly skillset secret, though sometimes she didn’t see the point of keeping her potential hidden if Ivan would never even entertain the idea of using her as an asset.
She could be extraordinarily useful as a spy, especially since she could avoid the Truthteller law. She could be helpful, if only Ivan let her. He had entertained her idea at first but had later made it clear that he cared too much to risk her.
Wraithwalking was one of the first skills that Evhanna taught her as a child, one that she refined at every opportunity.
The rough fabric of her shoes made the slightest of sounds, so quiet that Aryial couldn’t hear it, but she wasn’t sure if faerie ears could. Though she knew she wasn’t faerie, Aryial didn’t know exactly what she was.
The sun was still steadily rising, the light reaching further and the light shimmering brighter every count.
Aryial rubbed her sore shoulders. “I guess it’s time to work,” she muttered.
Shielding her eyes from the bright sun, Aryial admired the northern gardens and the snow roses, a type of flora whose pale petals had such intricate embellishing that the flower looked like it was made up of delicate, frozen lace.
She loved snow roses, they flourished all throughout the year, blooming unwaveringly throughout the summer and staying splendid even as the leaves of the other bushes changed their colours in preparation for autumn.
Aryial didn’t have much to say, letting her gaze wander over the garden instead, taking in all the beauty that she had yet to tire of.
Beside her, Ivan lounged in a chair, reading a scroll.
To prompt him to speak, Aryial tapped her fingers against the table as if her thoughts were far away from this quaint garden, knowing he disliked the repetitive sound.
He lifted his gaze to glance at her, but she didn’t stop.
“I’m reading about court politics,” he said. “It’s very interesting.”
Aryial just nodded sweetly, and turned her attention back to the garden, making herself wait for him to go on.
Perhaps she was a bit too good at tuning him out since she didn’t realise that he had put down his scroll and had asked her a question.
Ivan leaned back, a hand moving to adjust his collar. He moved with the confidence of a man who people listened to, but Aryial knew it was a façade.
With seven older brothers, Ivan had the least amount of authority and respect, especially since he was the only one sent off to a hidden estate as a baby.
Many thought the High Lord of Winter simply didn’t want to be bothered by yet another child.
Aryial knew how much it pained Ivan, how angry he felt at being discarded.
But he never let it show. Each of his movements, every action, every step, trick or gambit that he made was cool, calculated, and confident.
His deliberate and strategic scheming often made Aryial very uneasy at how effortlessly he manipulated people and events.
“You seem distracted, or perhaps you really have lost interest in me,” he said. It didn’t seem harsh, but Aryial felt a pang of hurt.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” she said carefully. “How can I lose interest in you?”
Ivan stared at her, his lips curving into a smile that Aryial would’ve described as slightly predatory if she didn’t know better.
“Perhaps you’re jealous that I spend more time on my ambition than I do with you,” he mused.
She started. “What on the Mother are you talking about?” Her eyebrows furrowed as she looked incredulously at Ivan, taking in anybody cues to better grasp the situation.
When he gave no answer, Aryial came to her own conclusions, understanding dawning on her.
“I know you want to prove yourself, and I support you. Your brothers can turn into selkies for all I care,” she said.
A flash of amusement passed into Ivan’s eyes. He reached out an arm, stirring his tea before taking a sip.
When he returned his gaze to Aryial, that cold, sinister look seemed to have left.
“Sorry,” he murmured. “I’m just a bit high-strung at the moment.”
Aryial reached over to hold his hand. “Ah, high-strung to be High Lord?” she joked.
Ivan tensed almost imperceptibly, a crack in his wall that he only ever let Aryial see.
“Do you think I could be?” he breathed. Aryial stilled, she understood the weight of his words.
Does she think he could be High Lord? Does she think he has what it takes to fight all seven of his brothers for that throne?
Aryial met his gaze. She had told him the truth, as well as what he wanted to hear. But Ivan saw the other question in her eyes.
Should you? Why would you want to?
Ivan withdrew his hand from under Aryial’s, going back to stirring his tea.
“I’m just tired of being overlooked. I have no power here, no influence,” his voice was soft, but there was no denying the undertone of soft rage, the murmur from years of feeling abandoned.
Aryial’s hands suddenly became incredibly interesting to her as Ivan continued talking.
“Why…” her voice came out too soft, she cleared her throat. “Why do you… do you want power?” The words were seemingly casual, but she fooled no one.
“Power means I can live how I want. Power means I can do good things,” his eyes flitted to Aryial, who’s eyes were trained on her lap. “Power means I can protect that which I love.”
Aryial stayed quiet, letting Ivan speak the words that he needed someone to hear, the words and vulnerabilities that he wouldn’t trust anyone else to know.
“I want to prove myself,” Ivan said, his voice dropping as he leaned closer to Aryial. “I want to show them all how powerful and dangerous I can be, that they can’t mess with me or anything of mine.”
The intensity of his words grew as his voice dropped lower. Everything coming out in a harsh whisper.
“I’m afraid, Aryial.”
The words barely came out, but it was the desperation and fear in his voice that made Aryial to finally look up, taking in Ivan’s pale blue eyes as he continued. “I’m so afraid and I can’t tell you why.”
Aryial lifted her hands and held Ivan’s face. Firmly holding his gaze, she poured all the confidence she could find into her next words. “It’s okay.”
He let out a half-hearted laugh, offering her a familiar, crooked smile. “Since you can lie, your word isn’t very reassuring, I’m sad to inform you.”
Aryial gave him a smile of her own, stealing his cup of tea and sipping daintily from it.
“You would never know if that was a lie.” She faced him. “But, I will always support you. I will always be on your side, whatever you choose to do. Now, that is not a lie.”
Ivan threw back his head and laughed, actually laughed. Some of the guards in the garden didn’t seem to know what to do with such a strange sight.
When Ivan faced Aryial again, his eyes were filled with such happiness that she knew that what she said was indeed true.
Ivan smiled. “I believe you, Aryial.”