Past

The blood red sun was setting in the distance. It's rays glimmered through the rising ash of the dark mountain. All was still for now.

Ira smoothed the wrinkles down her plain, olive green skirt. She had never met Leiv without her uniform and had no wish to look lacking. She had no ornamentation to adorn herself but felt satisfied by her tidy appearance.

Through the hustle and bustle of the seventy sixth floor Ira moved at a fast pace. She had given Leiv a time and place to meet but she wondered whether he could even find it. He always asked so many questions about the various hallways and still managed to get lost.

Her feet skidded to a halt as she found the boy but it was his companion that gave her pause. Lucita giggled at Leiv's clever words and Ira pursed her lips. The other girl's unexpected presence was vexing.

Ira could march away, head held high and enjoy the market place all on her own or she could walk up to the pair and claim Leiv's strong hand. Thankfully the servant boy caught her gaze and no decision making was necessary.

The ash haired boy gave Lucita a quick farewell which she punctuated with a lingering kiss on the cheek. Leiv just laughed at the bold move and ambled forward to where Ira stood frozen.

Ira nodded at him in welcome, a stark contrast from Lucita's behaviour, but she had no wish to make a fool out of herself. She had no airs and allurements to make any such act look natural.

"Thank you for giving me your precious time," Ira gave Leiv a stiff smile.

The boy seemed to find her manner amusing and took her arm in his, unprompted. He used his tall body to protect them from the rush of evening shoppers. All the individuals of the towers found this particular market place worth their while. The population could find both exotic meats from other kingdoms and mundane candles to light up their homes in the same venue.

"I'm rather surprised you asked me out. I suspect you do not like me at all," Leiv teased. His tone was loud enough to be heard over the din.

"Its too early for such assumptions. I barely know you," Ira explained, loftily. She had no wish to throw herself at the boy unlike her peers. Her dignity would not allow it.

"Do you even wish to know me?" The ash haired boy cocked his head with his trademark smile gracing his pleasant features.

"Perhaps," Ira replied, looking away abruptly.

"Well, you must like me enough if you invited me," The servant boy continued to be inquisitive.

"I thought it would be polite to give you a treat. I'm sure your friends have already given to tokens of appreciation," The braided girl said. She could only look at her feet in embarrassment.

"You are my first friend who even thought of doing so..." Leiv smiled, shyly warming Ira's heart.

Ira found herself smiling back and cleared her throat to conceal it beneath her hand. With a sudden jitter of nerves she ran a hand down her braids.

"Well, I've been taking a few extra chores here and there. I'm getting my due for the effort and I thought it would be kind to share. It's not like I have great big plans for my future with my coin," The girl tried to downplay her invitation.

"Well, I do. I've made a ridiculous amount of plans," Leiv replied with a strange tone of voice.

"On our paltry salaries?" Ira coughed. The ash was swirling in the air making it difficult to breath.

"Haven't you ever gotten tired of being a lowly servant. There's so much more... You haven't seen the world," Leiv's green eyes brightened with a consuming thirst for something else his friend could not fathom. Ira could see the wild abandon racing through his mind.

"What is it like, I mean, the world?" Ira asked, gravely.

"It's peaceful. People live in harmony. There is no class, no creed, no differences between anyone. This Kingdom could be so much more if we brought about change," The boy's voice lowered but even in the noise Ira could hear the determination, "You should be part of the change."

"How? I could grab a bit of education and become a healer or an advocate but any hope of more is just..." Ira's voice dwindled into nothingness.

"No, think higher, aim higher," Leiv argued.

"Sorry to disappoint but I do have the education. The Queen, bless her departed soul, allowed all us servant children an education but I am not allowed to use it. A servant's daughter is going to be a servant. I'm not allowed to go beyond my status," The dark eyed girl explained the palace rules as the pair walked together, still arm in arm.

"Who says?" The boy challenged. He stopped mid stride lurching Ira closer.

"The King!" Ira exclaimed as she steadied herself.

"The vultures are going to find his bones picked clean once it's time," Leiv gritted out with alarming intensity, altering Ira's path. She leaned away with alarm.

"Ssh! What if you're overhead. His Royal Highness is quick with the whip," Ira hissed.

"I don't fear him or his whip. I've eavesdropped on his royal court. It's pure filth. There's no fairness for the accused. Nothing is acceptable," Leiv answered. His fists were clenched at his sides.

"You're going to get your head lobbed off one day," The servant girl murmured the warning.

The earth gave a furtive wobble before shaking in earnest. The shopkeepers and shoppers alike called out to the almighty and held onto any surface that could stabilise them. Ira choose the most solid being around which was Leiv.

"Isn't the shaking getting too frequent. It used to be once every few weeks but now it's at least once a week," Ira grumbled as Leiv held on tighter. His twinkling eyes no longer contained remnants of the previous burst of passion and rebellion. He now gazed down at her fondly.

"The mountain's going to blow up. Everything's going to blow up soon," Leiv remarked, lightly as if his words were not troubling.

"If you say so," The girl declared before finding a stall that could cater to her grumbling stomach. She could never stay away from a meal for too long.

"Come, we must try the curd dips," Ira pulled Leiv to their destination.

The pair received their paper plates after Ira handed the shopkeeper her coin. They ate the meal as they wandered around in companionable silence. They examined the new produce and the trinkets for sale. Ira found her eyes marvelling at jewellery she had never paid attention to.

"It's... breath-taking," Ira's fingers glided over a fish necklace. The iridescent shimmer of the fish eyes was particularly attractive.

"Take it, I shall buy it for you. You shall look charming in it," Leiv announced while the shopkeeper shook his head in agreement.

"Today is my treat. I shan't accept anything from you," Ira responded with pursed lips.

"Consider it a loan. You can give it back once you're done with it," The boy smiled, winningly but the girl was unmoved by his charms.

"What if I get attached? What if I don't want to give it back," Ira laughed as Leiv handed the coin to the shopkeeper and plucked the necklace from the man's hairy hand.

"We'll make another bargain when the time comes," The servant boy was self assured.

"I don't do bargains and I certainly don't take loans. I only take what I can afford," The servant girl crossed her arms.

"Wear it for now," Leiv said, from behind her as he quickly tangled the knot at the back of her neck.

"Presumptuous," Ira huffed, "I have a shift when I get back. What if I can't take it off by myself."

"Then don't. Just tuck it away into your uniform," Leiv had an answer to all her complaints.

Ira dragged the boy back to her room citing her upcoming shift. They had to change three different platforms to get to the servant's area. The boy watched Ira open the rusty lock to her rooms with a great big wrench.

"Is it not what you were expecting?" Ira asked with a nervous smile as Leiv leaned in to have a look. His booted feet remained on the patched welcome mat.

"It's..." The boy trailed off as his brow frowned.

"Dreary, boring, lifeless" Ira prompted.

"Homely," Leiv answered with a wide, cheery smile.

"Not particularly," Ira sighed, "I haven't gotten around to making it my home as yet."

"That curtain is a statement," The tall boy agreed.

"It's my mother's choosing. Everything is. She would be horrified to know I have a strange man set foot in my dwelling," Ira shuddered in remembrance.

"Have I?" Leiv asked, "I'm still standing at the threshold. I'm glad you've acknowledged my manliness though strange you may find me."

"I never mistook you for a girl despite the hair," Ira smiled at his wayward locks, "My only ambition in life is to have a little home of my own. That's where I'll funnel all my pay until I'm grey and old."

"Am I not going to be invited in till I'm grey and old?" Leiv asked. His eyes beckoned Ira forward, his smile a bold challenge.

"Certainly not. I have no interest in inviting you in at all. I live here alone and I'd rather not incite scandal," Ira closed closed the door in his face.

"You're a hard egg to crack, Ira. Just take care as you wash the dishes. Wouldn't want you to injure your pretty hands," Leiv called out, his voice becoming distant as he walked away.

...

Present

Ira jumped at every turn of the long winding corridors. Each slam of the door and each dwindling footstep a corner away pressed her nerves alight.

The feeling of dread and foreboding grew with each trepid step as she was raised higher and higher. They were now reaching the heights where the Royal family used to reside.

It was custom to have air burials in the castle. Once the flesh was picked apart by the vultures the body was thrown off the tower, never to be seen again.

Ira couldn't help but wonder whether Leiv would throw her off the tower before her body was cold or whether he would just toss her down still alive. They were certainly growing closer to the execution level on the platform but they passed through it uneventfully.

Ira pinched her arm flesh to convince herself she was still alive. She could not foresee any reason for him to spare her. Perhaps he wished to assure himself of her identity but what would happen afterwards she could not discern. The man would certainly not want someone who knew him prior to his crowning to spread the word. He must want to silence her.

Leiv had forgotten all about Ira once he had no use for her. To have her close to him now made as much sense as keeping a gangrened limb intact but Ira was now certain she was being taken to the Royal chambers. This particular wooden platform was only for Royal use.

Ira followed the servant girl into the Royal chambers. As a Royal servant herself she had been given many opportunities to dust and clean up the chambers and was acquainted with the layout.

The labyrinth of rooms surrounded the peaceful gardens, she had once shown Leiv. Each Royal's chambers could open into the garden if they choose to. There were wide windows all around them but mercifully the blinds were closed shut. Ira's eyes could not tolerate the light.

The former servant girl could see many differences in the way the King's rooms were laid out. The tapestry colours were now the victor's. There was also a change in furniture. Leiv seemed to prefer wood over gold through it was no less ornate. Ira bitterly remembered all the pretty words about equality and fairness.

The prisoner watched the accompanying servant with cautious eyes. The servant girl opened the food hatch and began laying out food on the King's private coffee table. The seating was low lying along with the table and Ira loathed to sully the beautiful fabric with her grimy outfit.

"What is this?" Ira croaked as more and more dishes appeared. Her stomach hurt as the smell wafted through the room.

"A meal for the King's guest," The stout servant girl replied, lacking any sort of kindness. She clearly did not understand nor did she approve.

Ira's hand darted out like a hungry snake at a dumpling but recoiled as soon as the next thought rammed through her head. Had he poisoned the bounty in front of her?

Tears welled up in her eyes as she gazed at the meal. It was pure agony and her resolve to stay away died out into nothingness. She dropped to her knees, picked up a strawberry pastry and took a wolfish bite. If she was meant to die with a full belly so be it.

Ira slowed her pace down after her third item for she knew she would have the contents of her stomach all over the silk carpets. She had learnt her lesson after months of constant starvation.

The servant girl watched the sight before her with barely concealed disgust. She instead busied herself in opening the silk blinds. The floor length windows showed the dulling colours in the sky and the scene out into the garden.

Ira froze at the sight before her. There sat the beautiful Princess with a book in her hand. She was wearing a pristine white gown that only illuminated how ashy her white hair was.

I shall make you a Princess instead

And what of the Princess we already have

I shall banish her to the coal mines

Ira looked down at her trembling hands unable to keep her eyes from growing wet. She idly noticed she had lost the nail in her ring finger in the past week.

Ira gave a short laugh at the memory. All his words were idle talk. He had become King and banished her to coal mines instead. He had called her a friend but only used her for the knowledge of the tower's layout.

The war had been won purely because the new King had known the tower's layout like the back of his glove. Now that she knew the King's identify she understood why Leiv had been so persistent for her help. He had been using her knowledge to make plans for the coup and like a fool in love she had shown him every nook and cranny, every hidden tunnel she could remember.

The servant girl made an appearance after making rounds of the rest of the rooms. Her stiff skirt sweeping the marble floors was the only sound between them. Ira put down a chicken leg feeling her stomach revolt from the sudden outpour of food.

The servant girl, seeing the fading light of the day pulled out the matches from her skirt pocket but Ira held up her hand in firm negation.

"Please, I do not wish to have any light!" Ira uttered and wondered if she would be obeyed.

"As you wish," The servant girl answered with narrowed eyes. The sentence ended without a honorific. It seemed the girl was clueless as what to call her.

"How is it working for the King?" Ira asked in a soft whisper.

"He's a good master," The servant girl replied with a stony expression.

"And what do you make of the Princess?" Ira asked, tentatively.

"She is a very kind soul," The other girl showed signs of affection and admiration, "I wonder what she'd make of your existence. There has always been talk..."

"Talk?"

"I said too much," The servant girl's face was touched with a hint of fear.

"What you say to me remains between the two of us," Ira tried to smile but she could not contort her face to her liking, "He is no friend of mine."

"It's just idle whisperings on when he means to marry the Princess. I doubt the King would enjoy such gossip about him," The maid gave a severe nod as if the matter was closed. The woman, with deft fingers began gathering the empty plates.

Ira felt the sudden urge to escape bubble within her. She had no wish to disrupt his domestic bliss. He had chosen to keep the Princess by his side and she could not fault him for that.

Leiv hadn't owed her loyalty, he hadn't owed her protection and most importantly hadn't loved her. Ira had no right to demand anything of him. She had no right to sob into his shirt and ask why he had condemned her to a life of misery.

Ira unconsciously stood and pondered once again why he even brought her up here. She could see the Princess was where she belonged. As a poor servant girl Ira had been where she belonged. To have expectations of anything else was ridiculous.

The coal and ash clinging to her body would ruin the expensive furnishings and her manners would disgust even the commonest servants. She hadn't seen her face in a long while but she knew she was far from comely before her imprisonment so she must look ghastly now.

Her eyes landed on the clock. He would come up soon. The court timings had been announced as soon as they had entered and the ticking clock indicated it would soon be time for the King to retire for the night.

Ira had nothing to say to Leiv and she could not fathom what he wanted to say to her. She wanted no apologies and she had no desire for him to threaten her into silence.

Ira peeked out from behind the drapes and saw the Princess having her evening tea and Ira's stomach rumbled.

She wished to get away from the scene before her. She wished to run away from the conversation that would only bring her pain.

The world rumbled beneath her feet and Ira's mind was made up. Leiv had used her superior knowledge of the palace to gain hold of the building. Now it was her turn to use her knowledge to get away.

Ira wanted to go home but she no longer had any place to call home. The only abode she could call her own was one which she carved with her own two hands. She was now determined to run to it even if it meant a lifetime of misery.

The former servant girl opened the tea hatch and lowered herself onto the platform. The cogs began whizzing under the new weight and slowly the platform descended.