A Queen's Bargain

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Summary

In the shadows of Welairn, the most wanted criminal waits. For five years, she has taken a life each night, evading arrest and taunting those who wish to see her hang. In hunting her latest victim, she is caught by the last person she expected and offered a choice she can’t refuse. Going up against unknown assailants, she is forced to work with an old acquaintance. Together, they fight to track down a mysterious item. If they are the ones to get to it first, it earns her her freedom. Unfortunately, without much to go on, they are left to rely on vague clues, a half burned map, and a demon who comes and goes as he pleases. Then the body of a young woman turns up. A young woman she had known in Welairn. And a warning. Racing against an impossible deadline, she has to choose between something she has desperately wanted for the last five years or the lives of her friends and those she cares about.

Genre:
Fantasy / Adventure
Author:
D.M. Riddle
Status:
Ongoing
Chapters:
7
Rating:
5.0 1 review
Age Rating:
16+

Chapter 1

Night had fallen.

Sitting on top of the rooftop, she idly itched a spot on the outside of her right knee. The inside of it pressed against the ridge of the roof with the rest of her leg melding with the downwards angle. Her black boot was planted firmly on the shingles twisting her ankle in an almost uncomfortable position, but it kept her steady. With her other knee pulled to her chest, her left arm rested on top, the bone on the side of her elbow pressing into the center point of her kneecap almost uncomfortably. The center of her foot aligned with the ridge of the roof and behind her heel, her bottom awkwardly balanced. It wasn’t the most comfortable position, but it gave her the best vantage point. Sighing, she pulled her left knee closer to rest her chin on top of her clothed arm.

Below, the street was quieter than she had expected it would be at this time of night. Unlike the center of Yiol, the street was home to houses of a grander nature with less of a market type feel. For someone to live here, they either had to inherit the money or kill someone to get it. Consistently, the city guard would assign at least two to three men to patrol these streets at night. Their diligence could use some work, but compared to other parts of Welairn, the people who lived on these streets were lucky.

The last occupant of the dimly lit road had retired home some hours ago leaving her with the company of stray animals and a filtered silence. On occasion, a few stragglers would saunter into view, passing through this neighborhood as if they belonged, but it wasn’t long before they would hurry away down a stray alley or side street leading to heady bars or dingy inns. With the latest group, they took with them a slurred, drunken lullaby she couldn’t help humming under her breath long after they had turned the corner. However, the interest she held for them was nothing compared to what she watched not more than one hundred feet in front of her.

Of all the houses in the neighborhood, the one she watched was a drop of starlight amidst a patch of darkness. Tall windows etched into stone acted as doorways to a world where few were allowed. A blaze of light cascaded onto a well kept front lawn in a wash of brilliance illuminating the carefully carved stone pathway leading away from the duel door entryway to the curved drive below. The crescent shaped drive was wide enough for three carriages to rest side by side comfortably with enough room for the drivers and stable boys to maneuver between them without concern. It curved around a circular piece of ground used for display with a stone fountain firmly planted amidst a soft violet coloring of mixed flower breeds. Currently, the drive was packed with a various array of carriages to wait while their masters wined and dined within. Drivers had abandoned their posts, finding one another in a shady alcove to share a smoke or a drink freely passed around. Horses were handed over to the care of a handful of stableboys who scurried about with a familiar air despite the creatures they handled being more than twice their size. They were young and quick on their feet, moving with youthful, efficient energy.

If one were to stop and take a moment anywhere within Welairn, it could be surprising how much information someone could learn. Over the course of the past month, she had heard rumors about the master of the house she watched employing servants unwillingly, but the way the boys acted around one another and with the horses, it didn’t appear as if they were a part of that rumor. If they had been taken from their lives and forced to work here, they didn’t look unhappy about it. Mentally, she made a note to dig a little further into their lives.

They unhitched the horses, easily guiding them away from their carriages to a stableyard set in the front right corner of the property. As wide as it was long, the stable was empty. From the distance she perched at, it was difficult to get an accurate count as for how many stalls were available, but when all of the horses went in and none came back out, she calculated at least sixteen. The boys provided hay and water with the occasional treat for their charges. The manes were brushed and equipment removed. Soothingly, the boys whispered reassurances to the large creatures, but as she watched, she realized something more was happening. She couldn’t hear what was said, but the reaction the horses had beneath the hands of the stable boys spoke of comfort and understanding. And with it, came her own understanding.

The boys were L’ors. And likely, all of them had been sought out purposely for their gift. It wasn’t easy to find someone gifted with the specific capability of speaking to animals, let alone having a gift for sharing an understanding with the animal. Yet, somehow, the owner of the house had found eight. It is a possibility they could have been taken from a home long ago, but what was more likely was their own parents sold them into servitude. They would’ve earned a hefty purse. As for their life here on out, it was a hit or miss type of situation.

Over their heads, a multitude of small orbs of light bobbed. On cue, the lights brightened whenever one of the boys whistled or dimmed when they snapped their fingers. Similar orbs of light floated above the carriage drivers in a small cluster while another grouping hovered in a scattered line above clean cut, rectangular bushes planted beneath the tall windows in the front of the house. The light they provided was non-existent and the orbs easily missed after one cursory glance. However, their subtle floating movements were capable of drawing the eye during her second overview of the front. It wasn’t until the first young couple slipped out of the party did she understand their purpose. Two of the orbs lit up at their approach, following after the young couple as they slipped into the secluded garden around the left side of the house.

’Considerate.

Pressed against the stone wall, the short, squat bushes overlooked the stone path the young couple had taken to the side garden. The stones had been purposely spaced out in an almost even manner. On either side of the broad entry way they lead away into two separate side gardens. The entrance of the side garden on the left was guarded by two large, broad bushes with wide, slender leaves that needed to be pressed to the side to find there was just enough space for one or two to slip through. Were it not for the stone path, it was an entrance that could be easily overlooked. Opposite, the garden on the right had been given an entrance of a more elegant nature. A wide curtain of flowered vines separated prying eyes from a place where she assumed fairies lived. They were gardens with entrances made to lure lovers away into the shadows where they would whisper sweet nothings to one another and make empty promises.

Below the stone path, the front lawn sloped downwards at a soft angle, ending where the staircase leading up from the curved drive began. Starting at the point where the ground sloped, the grass blended into a manicured garden where small clusters of flowers were planted at varying distances. Whoever had been in charge of the gardening hadn’t wanted to stray too far from using more than a few different colors. Beyond the purple featured around the fountain in the forefront of the yard, the rest of the flowers altered between a soft cornflower blue and a muted orange.

The front door to the house opened, allowing for another young couple to slip outside. Behind them, the butler gently closed the door, but they barely noticed. With their fingers already entwined, they whispered their way through the curtain of vines and flowers. Where the first couple hadn’t surprised her, this one deemed a slight eyebrow raise. Neither had arrived together nor had they arrived alone. Silently, she placed a bet with herself on who they would leave the party with at the end of the night, if only to create some sort of entertainment. It had taken time, but she quickly learned their world was one of constant deceit and manipulation. Few weren’t involved and for them, she found herself feeling nothing less than pity. Pity for what they couldn’t see was happening around them or perhaps, what they could.

Women were clad in gowns of the finest material having deigned to adorn their throats, earlobes, and wrists with jewelry made to shine. Their shoes were contraptions of torture purposely endured. Their faces were painted in an attempt to give them the beauty they desired or for the few, to accent the natural beauty already given to them. They whispered and they gossiped, waging a silent war behind opulent fans and jeweled smiles. Behind them, their men dutifully followed wearing suits as lovely as the ladies, if not a little bland in comparison. For those who came with a date, their somber coloring of rich ink paired well with the bright hue which arrived on his arm. There were moments where the gentleman took a moment to themselves to separate from the women to merge into a dark cloud of steady conversation and choked guffaws. Cigars were produced and the squeals and complaints of the women nearest them drove them into another room, laughing and carrying on with one another. It wasn’t long before they dispersed, those who remained faithful finding their dates for another time while the rest silently took part in something she had come to label as, “the hunt”.

It wasn’t surprising there were a few women who arrived alone and those that did, possessing a likeable charm or desired feminine quality soon found themselves a part of a game they never had a choice in playing. Governesses could only do so much and for the clever and naive, they were easily swayed to look the other way. The men uninterested in a female companion played by different rules and for different stakes. In her opinion, all of it was worthy of her disgust.

Her lip curled. She allowed her head to slump further down until the top of her arm pressed her nose upwards. Lifting her head, she dropped it again; the tip of her nose flicking up and down with the movement. This wasn’t her first night on top of this rooftop. For the last week and a half, she had spent her evenings on this roof in a similar position to how she sat now. There had been a party in the house across the street every night. And thus far, she had yet to see anything of interest.

Loosing a long breath through her nose, her focus shifted from the house to the wave like crease moving along the dark navy fabric on her forearm. Just as quickly, her eyes were once more tracking the movements of the guests. Somewhere in the back of her head, there was a wiggle of doubt. Two weeks ago, she had been so certain this was the lead she had been looking for… yet... Over the course of the last two nights, she was starting to wonder.

“Have you found him yet?”

She almost fell from the roof.

Regaining her balance, her fingers tightened along the slim edge of a shingle. She turned to find a slender figure draped in black lounging a little more than three feet away from her on the roof. Somehow he was firmly planted on the shingles, rather than on the ridge. His languid form was sprawled out, arms firmly crossed over his chest. A pair of black leather boots held his position steady allowing for him to lay back against the rough backdrop while his dark eyes scanned the starless sky. The hood he wore was pulled forward over his face, careful to keep his facial features in shadow. Still, his chin managed to peak out and for her, it was a drop of snow, glistening as brightly as the house she watched.

“I thought you were watching the other side of the house.”

The dark figure shrugged. “I got bored.”

She frowned, finding an emotion within connecting to the statement. “Bored or not, your job is to watch the back of the house. I can’t be in two places at once.”

“If you could, this whole thing would be easier.” Stretching, the figure turned his dark eyes in her direction. Eyes, that if he were human, would have contained an iris and a pupil. Instead, two pools of shimmering darkness peered out from beneath unusually human like features. “Whether I was back there or here with you, we both know he isn’t going to leave this party without you knowing about it.”

She couldn’t tell him he was wrong.

“He’s on the first floor. The ball room.” She nodded in the direction of the tall windows on the right side of the building. “He’s dancing with Lady Wasille.”

His eyes followed her line of sight, narrowing when a muscular gentleman spun an elder woman, whose frame looked as if it might break were he to squeeze too hard, past the middle window. Just as quickly, they disappeared further into the room on another turn around the floor. “And the other one?”

Shaking her head, she said, “No sign of him. The stable boys are too young. Did you know all of them were L’ors?”

“L’or or not, you could grab one of them and pass him off as the one you’re trying to find.”

“Harut.”

He shrugged, looking away from the party. “All of you humans look the same to me.”

“Which is why I am in charge,” she muttered.

“If we had done things my way-”

“If we had done things your way, everyone would be dead.” She tilted her head, peering at Harut around the lip of the hood of her own cloak. One of her eyebrows raised in obvious skepticism. “I’d prefer to keep the majority of everyone I need to talk to, alive. It tends to make things easier.”

“I return to the previous statement.”

She frowned. “The parents will notice.”

He took a deep breath, but didn’t continue the argument. Taking that to mean she had made her point clear, her eyes moved past him to observe the empty alleyways on either side of them. In one of them, a stray cat pressed against the stone wall, its eyes following something she couldn’t see. There was something near it, but from here, it looked like a lump of dirty laundry. She was almost certain it wasn’t a person and she was almost certain it had been there longer than she had been where she was. Blinking, she moved her head to look away, but movement caught her attention out of the corner of her eye.

“Well, hello there,” she whispered.

A bundle of flowers in hand, a young woman turned into the alley at the opposite end of the pile of dirty laundry. Barely a footstep in and the hair on the back of the cat raised up in alarm. He disappeared around the closest corner, but the woman didn’t seem to notice. Dressed for the evening, a sage cloak encased her slender frame, wavy strands of honey framing a heart shaped face. Beneath the cloak, a long dress swished with each footstep, inches from a ground threatening to dirty the white hem. The hood of the cloak rested on her dainty shoulder giving any who wanted a good look at her porcelain skin. Considering the daily heat and long hours of sunlight common to Welairn, her skin wasn’t something easily obtained and likely she came by it naturally. Soft freckles crowned a flat, pointed nose and rested beneath fierce forest green eyes. Her face wasn’t one someone would soon forget and as she watched her approach the gated drive in front of the boisterous party across the street, she realized she recognized her.

“A little late for a flower delivery, don’t you think?”

She nodded at Harut’s words, her senses perking up to attention. At the gate, the young woman paused, leaning against the pillared edge of the right side of the entrance as if she had all the time to spare. The drivers saw her and she saw them, but other than a few curious glances, neither acknowledged the other any further. In her arms, she fiddled with the soft bouquet of white lilies as if any adjustments she made now could make them any more beautiful than they already were. Another minute or so passed before someone or something attracted her attention. Her hand stopped, fingertips pressed against a pale petal. Her eyes slid sideways and her lips curled. Her mouth opened to speak, but for her, watching from the rooftop, no sound came out.

“Harut?”

He shook his head and realizing she couldn’t see his answer, he said, “I can’t hear. There’s a block.”

She pursed her lips together. Opposite the flower girl, behind the pillar mirroring the one she leaned upon, an arm made a gesture from behind the gate. The gate creaked open and gingerly, the girl slipped through, disappearing behind the stone wall encapsulating the entire estate. There wasn’t a chance to see who her benefactor had been or to hear if their conversation had been anything of importance. Yet, someone hadn’t wanted anyone to hear what they said, not even a prying demon.

“If you were here to sell flowers, would you place a barrier on your conversation?”

“Sounds suspicious to me,” Harut agreed softly.

The gate slid shut and even though she couldn’t hear it, she imagined a resounding click. No one else showed up to the barred entryway and during the entire exchange between the young woman and her benefactor, the carriage drivers made a point to look the other way. Her eyes surveyed the stable area and somehow, the stable boys had made themselves scarce. A few minutes passed and the woman didn’t return.

“How long will you give it?” Out of one of her pockets, she withdrew a small purse of silver coins, giving them a tempting shake. “I’d say seventy three minutes.”

Harut scoffed. “Less. Forty eight.”

She smiled, sliding a side eye in Harut’s direction. “She could be a lady of the night. She might take her time.” Her eyebrows lifted suggestively when Harut looked her way.

His expression remained expressionless when he met her gaze. “Forty eight minutes.”

The edge of her lips quirked upwards. “Deal.” She returned the purse of coins to a pocket sewn on the inside edge of her cloak and checked the time on the circular clock tower halfway across town. Despite its distance, the face of the clock was large enough to be seen from any point throughout Welairn. Softly, the hands ticked away, driven by a gentle magic provided by the first King’s head advisor when the city had initially been established. A fluorescent light glowed through the large face illuminating how close it was to midnight. “If it’s past forty eight minutes from now, I win.”

Harut shrugged, but didn’t say anything, turning his attention towards the house.

“It’s called playful banter,” she said.

“It’s called pointless.”

Her nose wrinkled. “You’re no fun.” When he didn’t respond, she sighed through her nose. “If Barclay were here, he would banter with me.”

“If Barclay were here, he’d be drunk in that alley below us, chasing after that cat that ran around the corner about ten minutes ago.”

She made a small humming noise contemplating the situation. “It would be entertaining.”

“And a liability,” Harut said, turning his head enough to give her a pointed stare. “Can we return to discussing the latest development?”

She shrugged. “Alright. How far would you say we are from the house?”

Leaning forward enough to look around her, Harut eyed the street below, giving the estimation some thought. “About fifty feet.”

“How much energy would you say it would take to push out a sound barrier that far? And include demons within the realm of what you would want to keep out?”

“It wouldn’t be within the capability of a novice,” Harut confirmed.

She nodded, adjusting her position on the roof. Pulling her other leg up, she pushed herself forward to a half kneeling position. “I didn’t think so.” While this new piece of knowledge changed a few things, it didn’t change everything. “We’ll proceed as planned with one minor adjustment.” She turned to look at Harut. “The girl.”

He raised a pale eyebrow. “Leave the party?”

Steadily, she nibbled on her lower lip, thinking out what she was about to say as she said it. “We have a location. I want to know who she is and where she goes after she leaves here.” She paused, then added. “I’ll stay behind to see if I can find out anything else.”

Based on previous nights, the party was estimated to go well into dawn. The security was better than she liked to admit and getting into the estate was going to be harder than her initial assessment. A sorcerer in the employ of the estate she was trying to break into never made anything easy. If she were being honest, she wouldn’t have been surprised if he or she knew they were out here right now and had been for the past couple of nights. The last thought gave her pause.

“Harut?”

“Hm?”

“Do you smell anything different on the air tonight?”

Having already stood on the angled roof, Harut paused. He lifted his nose to the air testing the quality. Watching him, she saw his expression alter from one of curiosity to one of confusion. “There is something different, isn’t there?”

He nodded. “I can’t quite place it.”

She held up her hand, interrupting him before he could continue. “We can discuss it later. I want you to proceed as planned.”

He didn’t need to be told twice. In the blink of an eye, he was gone and she hoped he understood what she was trying to tell him in not telling him what she suspected. Turning back to the street, she pulled herself forward until she was practically balanced on her toes and her fingertips. She forced herself to maintain this position until the gate slid open with another ominous creak, allowing for their newfound interest to depart from the party. Out of the corner of her eye, she took a moment to note the time and cursed under her breath.

’Every time.

Looking back down at the street, she surveyed the entrance noting there wasn’t any sign of who let her in. When the woman left, she didn’t take the path she had when she arrived. Instead, she turned left, her arms empty of white lilies and humming a soft melody under her breath. Out of the corner of her eye, she tracked a moving shadow, knowing Harut was proceeding as planned.

Tense, she waited.

There.

It took little effort to avoid the stray knife thrown at her from her left. Contorting her body out of the way, she arched her back just enough to pluck the blade from the air and swing herself around until she was sitting on the ridge of the rooftop. On the rooftop of the house next to the one she had been using as her spying perch, three men watched her. Compared to her vantage point, their rooftop was flat, square, and vast. They stood along the edge without bothering to conceal their intent, two bows knocked with arrows aimed in her direction. In the center, the tall brunette drew another slender knife out of his belt.

She smiled and leaned forward until her elbows were propped on her knees. Holding the small knife up for them to see, she flipped it idly before catching it again and repeating the motion. She paused, shifting her gaze from the small weapon to the three men watching her.

“Work for any sorceresses lately?”

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