A/N: My humblest apologies for taking so long with this chapter…I was combating writer's block and by the time I FINALLY had an idea of where I was heading towards, exams came up….
For those who hate Alex because of the way he treats Caireatha…well…Alex hasn't exactly hurt her in any way…and his stony attitude will be explained as the story goes on. Prince Alex, you see, has a very dark past….
Every man has his secret sorrows, which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The echoing of a soft drumbeat washed across the palace grounds as Prince Alexander paced down a lifted walkway. He had changed from the merchant's garb he had worn earlier into his royal robes. The pale moonlight reflected off his loose golden cloak, making it look as if he was surrounded in a halo of gold, while by contrast, an old, worn leather scabbard hung at his belt.
Sighing in frustration, the prince stopped in the middle of the walkway and tossed a loose stone into the pond in the centre of the landscaped courtyard. Why can't I put this feeling of mistrust out of my mind?
"Your highness, you do realise that if the Queen Mother saw you doing that, she would have a fit."
Alexander whirled around, his sword drawn so quick it seemed to have appeared in his hand.
"Woah! Alex! It's only me!" The sapphire-eyed lord behind him put his hands up in surprise.
Alexander relaxed, sheathing his sword with a quick flick. Raising an eyebrow, he turned away to observed the still reflection of the moon on the goldfish pond. "Ben, since when did you start caring about what grandmother thinks?"
Lord Benjamin shrugged, chestnut hair flopping boyishly as he spoke. "Since you became so damn annoying. I mean, Alex, you go out and buy a slave girl for no less than nine thousand silver pieces without even consulting me first." Ben sighed as Alex continued to stare intensely at the pond, and clasped a hand on his friend's shoulder. "She's pretty at least…isn't she?"
"I wouldn't know. I'm not planning to use her like that. Why don't you go check?"
Ben made a sound of exasperation. "Alex, I wasn't suggesting anything." Moving next to the prince he added in a softer tone, "Besides, no matter how pretty your new toy is, I doubt she can compare to the Lady Vera."
"So this week's love is the Lady Vera?"
"What do you mean by 'this week's love?'" Benjamin glared at his friend, before sighing. "Aye. She's so beautiful…with hair like gold a-washed in honey and skin so…" the younger lord trailed off wistfully before turning back to his friend, "I must go, but if you do see Lady Vera, put in a good word for me…and…" he lowered his voice, "Duke William's been looking into the Kestarian rebel thing…I wonder why. It certainly isn't his job. And Duke Whistbay, the one whom your father had posted to oversee the dealings with the rebels has suddenly died of 'natural' causes. It is no secret that if anything happened to our old Whistbay, your cousin would be given his duties, nor is it any secret that Duke William would do anything to become involved with 'stopping' the rebels…" With a quick nod, Lord Benjamin walked off leaving a very thoughtful Alexander behind.
In a room lighted brightly by a dozen red candles, Lady Vera Oberlin watched her reflection lazily as a maidservant ran a dark comb through her honey-gold hair. A creak of panelled doors made her look up in expectation.
An acorn-headed lady's maid stepped lightly through the entrance, dipping a low curtsey.
Raising an eyebrow, the lady waved a creamy hand in a sign of dismissal. Silently all the other maids left the room, closing the panelled doors as they stepped out. Vera turned her crystalline blue eyes back to her reflection as the lady's maid took up the duty of combing.
"Any news, Marcia?"
"Very little, my lady. His highness has not yet shown any intention of courting…but there does seem to be an interesting addition to the slaves of the palace."
"Oh? And pray, Marcia, why would someone of my stature be interested in the addition of a mere slave?"
Marcia smiled and bobbed a tiny curtsey. "I mean no offence, my lady, but this new slave isn't just owned by anyone. It is said that she was personally bought by his highness, Prince Alexander, for no less than nine thousand silvers. It is also said that he is planning to use her for his 'personal' service."
Lady Vera turned in surprise. "Are you quite sure, Marcia? What does this new slave look like? Is she more beautiful than me?" Two creamy hands lazily played with a honey-gold strand as she spoke.
"Of course not, my lady. There is no other born that can measure to your beauty. But, I must admit, she is a pretty little thing…perhaps enough to be a risk..."
Lady Vera angrily grabbed a crystal necklace off her dresser and flung it across the room, watching it shatter into a thousand pieces. "You lie, Marcia. A mere slave cannot be a risk to my chances of becoming Queen of Artesia."
Marcia hastily backed away, dipping another low curtsey. "I do not dare lie to you, lady. This new one…she seems very different from all other slaves. She may be more of a risk than you may think."
"Then it is your duty to get rid of the risk is it not? Mutilate her, humiliate her, even kill her if you must. There must be none who stand in my path of becoming queen. Understand?"
Trembling, Marcia nodded. "Yes my lady, I understand perfectly."
Caireatha stumbled over a loose stone and cursed. The Artesian palace was nothing like her Kestarian home. Unlike the tall fortress-castle that was the Kestarian palace, the Artesian palace was more of a city built within a wall. Each of the quarters was a single building, surrounded by its very own courtyard and gardens. A maze of roads and lifted walkways led to each of the quarters…which was why Caireatha was so lost.
As Prince Alexander's slave, she was expected to return to his quarters after being given the livery and collar of a palace slave. Unfortunately, she had no idea where it was. Making a face, she walked on rather blindly taking a turn every now and again, hoping against hope that she would finally reach her destination. The new weight of the iron collar around her neck pulled her head down, making her gasp for breath.
"What are you doing?"
Caireatha spun around, cursing her stupidity, almost certain she was to be punished for dawdling. Instead, a pair of dancing dove-grey eyes met hers.
"Oh hello! Are you new? I haven't seen you before, and I know just about everyone in this palace, so I guess you're new. Are you new?" A mass of auburn hair barely contained in a kerchief bobbed a greeting.
"What do you think?"
"Yes, of course you're new. I am sorry, I'm Hazel and I must say I am a bit chattery at times – Miriam always tells me that. Have you met Miriam? Oh, you must have, or at least seen her. She's Zadyakan you know, flawless brown skin, earthen eyes? I wish I were as pretty as her. Maybe then I'd have more luck in attracting looks from the nobles." Hazel shrugged and grinned, "I'm having worse than no luck as it is."
Caireatha raised an eyebrow, her first annoyance turning to curiosity. "Why do you want to attract their attention? Artesian nobles are no more than a bunch of dung ridden-" The rest of her words were muffled as a freckled hand clamped her mouth tight.
"Watch what you're saying!" Hazel removed her hand and glanced around furtively. "Are you half-mad?" She touched her own collar and then Caireatha's. "If an Artesian lord, or even a servant had heard that you'd be beaten so much that you would wish Unthea grave-digger had taken your soul when…well when however you were taken...you know what I mean…"
"I already do so."
"Oh Gilèd! You certainly don't mean that. Look, whatever master you've got…" Dove-grey eyes scanned her collar, and Hazel bit back a gasp. "Your master's the prince? His royal highness bought you?"
"Yes, so what?"
"Oh I wish he was my master…he's so handsome! Those beautiful blue eyes…have you seen him with his shirt off? You haven't? Oh, I wish I had…they say he grew up training at the Mingjin temple in Qinguo. You know, the one where all those warrior-monks come from? He must have the most fantastic muscles…he is such a gorgeous, hunky…"
"I think that your new friend is far more afraid of you talking her ears off, rather than of what his Royal Highness looks like." A dry voice pierced the still night air. Smiling, Miriam emerged from the shadows.
"Oh hi Miri…" Hazel trailed off, giving her friend a guilty grin.
"Hazel? Where were you? I waited at the kitchens for over a candlemark!"
"Uh…I guess I got a bit carried away with talking to my new friend here."
"Well, won't you introduce us?"
"Um…well…" Hazel glanced at Miriam nervously. "Hello, this is Miriam, I mentioned her earlier…? Miriam…this is…" She trailed off again, turning to Caireatha sheepishly. "I guess I forgot to ask your name."
"Amazing, dear Hazel. You call her your friend and yet you do not even know who she is." Miriam smiled and sighed. Turning to Caireatha she added, "I do apologise for the rudeness of my friend here. She is often like this, forgetful and extremely clumsy in her ways." At this, she received an evil eye from Hazel, but grinned and continued, "However, seeing that she adopted you as her newest friend, may I inquire of your name?"
"It is…" Caireatha stopped for a second. Could she trust…? She sighed. If the Artesian Palace social system was anything like the Kestarian's, soon everyone would know about her…and this pair seemed friendly enough, crazy though they may be. She smiled. "I'm Caireatha."
"Woah…what a wonderful, wonderful name!" Hazel gave a dreamy smile. "If only I had a name like that. But alas! To be born a slave denies me of any right…not that my mother could have chosen anything more imaginative like that…I mean, no offence to her, seeing she is my own mother, but she was a bit…messed up in the head from – "
"Ahem!" Miriam gave Hazel a pointed look, "Princess Cassandra's expecting her rose-petal bath any minute now dearie…" She trailed off as Hazel suddenly yelped and ran in the direction of the royal quarters, before grinning and turning back to Caireatha.
"If Cassandra is expecting her bath soon, shouldn't you…?"
Miriam gave Caireatha a questioning glance. "First of all, it is Princess Cassandra. If anyone hears you dropping the 'princess' bit, it'll be off to the whipping rack with you." She sighed and shook her head, "If you didn't know that, you must be new, not just to the palace, to the entire Artesian Empire. Anyway, as for your question…" She tapped her bare neck. "I'm not a palace slave, just a servant…although we are all treated the same way, our duties are different. It is a slave's duty to give his or her master or mistress their baths."
Caireatha paled. "Then do I…?"
Miriam shook her head. "Prince Alexander is a strange one. He prefers to 'serve himself'. The most you'll do as his slave is a bit of cleaning…he hates being waited on and he doesn't like to talk…much." She gave an exasperated sigh, "I am sorry. Hazel is starting to rub off on me." Miriam started to walk off, then noticing Caireatha wasn't following stopped. "Come on, you're obviously lost; I'll show you 'round!"
Nodding absent-mindedly, Caireatha followed. The more she knew the palace, the easier it would be for her to avenge her family…
"So…it has been successful?" Duke William swirled a goblet of blood-red wine in one hand and the other rested on a carved writing table, as he looked down upon the black robed assassin kneeling before him.
"Yes, your grace. The Kestarians have fully agreed to all terms of our plan."
"Good…good…" A lazy smile resting upon his lips, Duke William's amber-flecked eyes gazed upon a hunched figure in the corner of the room. "Regan…" Setting down the goblet of wine, he picked up a quill and scribbled a short note, before handing it to the figure that had shuffled before him. "Give this note to his majesty. It is to inform him that the problem with the Kestarian rebels is…under my control. Remember Regan, king-give-message."
Nodding with only the slightest hint of hesitation, Regan shuffled out, under the suspicious stare of the assassin. "Are we right to allow him to listen to our plans, your grace?"
The duke raised an eyebrow. "Really, Markus, I did not think it would be you, of all my associates to question my judgement. Regan is both mute and a half-wit; it is of the utmost unlikeliness that he will understand anything that goes on during our 'meetings'. Even if he did, to whom would he be able to tell? He is both mute and illiterate. I, his master, can barely understand him. Besides…" the duke picked up his goblet and took a tiny sip of wine. "Having him as my servant reduces the chances of our little plans being found out. After all, how can a kind, beneficial duke who even saves poor, mute peasants from certain death by themselves by taking them under his wing, possibly be an usurper?"
"Of…of course, your grace. Your judgement is far better than my humble one…"
"Of course it is, Markus. Now, is there any other news you wish to inform me of?"
"Yes. Prince Alexander has acquired a new slave, your grace – a Kestarian."
"Really? But my cousin despises the trade…why in the name of Gilèd would he…" The duke paused. "Of what class was this Kestarian from previously?"
"Either a rich merchant or a noble. No common peasant would be able to speak Artesian so fluently."
"She can speak…our language in a fluent tongue?" The duke frowned. There were only two Kestarians he knew who were fluent in Artesian – Princess Jaequelinne and Princess Caireatha. Princess Jaequellinne, formally betrothed to Prince Alexander through an arranged marriage, – that is before the duke convinced their majesties that invasion would be a more appropriate approach to the Kestarian friction – had hung herself. Her body had been discovered, swollen, purple and dead, hanging by knotted sheets off a beam upon her chamber's ceiling. Princess Caireatha, on the other hand…her body had never been found…
"Jared, the leader of the rebels…he was courting the Princess Caireatha of Kestara…before our little invasion, was he not?"
"Yes, your grace. Why…?"
The duke frowned thoughtfully. "That is not your place to question. Arrange a meeting between Jared and myself. There is a small request I wish to ask of him." He gave a slight nod in dismissal. With a bow, the assassin rose and with a tiny burst of breeze was gone from the room.
The duke stared silently at his wine. If his guesses were correct…if the new 'slave' was Princess Caireatha…then perhaps the Artesian throne was nearer to his grasp than he thought…
Outside the door to the duke's room, a silent shadow gave a quiet nod before slipping into down the corridor.
Alexander sighed, nursing his temples with one hand. It was late, nearing the twelfth candlemark, and yet he still could not push away the feeling of approaching dangers. Leaning back in an oaken chair, he sighed again. "It is no secret that if anything happened to our old Whistbay, your cousin would be given his duties, nor is it any secret that Duke William would do anything to become involved with 'stopping' the rebels…" Benjamin, his childhood friend, was the best source for court knowledge…but in saying that William killed Duke Whistbay…Alex shook his head. For the five years he had know his cousin, he had concluded one sure thing. Duke William, though dangerous and ambitious, was both too honourable and too much of a coward to murder for his ambitions. And yet…he had only known Duke William for five short years. What if his judgements were wrong? The threat of having Duke William as a usurper to the throne…it was too dangerous to put away. If Duke William was planning a rebellion…the consequence could be as dire as civil war…Alex groaned and buried his head in his hand, wishing for the umpteenth time that he was not a prince.
As he leant forwards, he felt a hard object slide out of his pocket. Reaching down to pick it up, his eyes once more caught upon the symbol of the double phoenix. Caireatha…Alex paused, examining the pendant in the flickering half-light of the candles that lit his quarters. Who was this new slave? The defiant way she had acted, the way she spoke Artesian: with only a touch of an accent…they all pointed to one fact: Caireatha was not some poor commoner who had been captured because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time…
Alexander closed his eyes in despair as the mysteries of the palace wrapped themselves around him. The apple-green eyes of his new slave seemed to burn upon his unseeing eyes…green eyes that were embedded in a very different face. Russet locks framed the two dancing orbs…a gumdrop nose…and…two pouted rosebud lips…
"Silvia?" Alex opened his eyes, startled. Silvia…he took in a deep breath. 'She is dead Alex…dead…' Unable to suppress his overflowing emotions, Alex felt one memory over another roll through him…
Fiery autumn leaves crunched with a expectant air as three small children crept across the monastery square, stopping at the monks' sleeping quarters.
"Alex? Ben? Are you sure we won't get in trouble?" The six-year-old's large green orbs looked upon her idols in an expression of mild worry.
"Nah, don't think about it Silvia." A seven-year-old Alex flashed a conspiratorial grin. Holding up his prize, a large brown toad, he turned to his other friend. "How loud d'you think the old badger'll scream this time Ben?"
"Probably enough to bring half the grown ups of Socranès City up, not to say most of your village, Silvia." At this Ben and Alex both chuckled quietly. Brother Ning was deathly afraid of frogs, toads and other amphibians, making it even more fun for the three children to play their little pranks upon him in revenge for his strict reading class.
As they crept up to the monk's quarters, they could hear the patient snores of Brother Ning, violently vibrating throughout the room. Grinning and about to step into the room, the three children suddenly felt a heavy hand upon their shoulders…
The creak of a panelled door opening jolted Alex back out of his reverie. He looked up just in time to see Caireatha slip in, moonlight glinting on her pale blue palace maid livery. She hadn't come back yet? Alexander started. He had thought that she had arrived here candlemarks ago…and had gone to sleep. Did she know that all personal slaves were to be at the master's quarters by the tenth candlemark of the night? Sighing, he crossed the room in two strides. "What are you doing back so late?"
"Miriam was showing me around." Caireatha crossed her arms. "If I am to 'serve' you properly, I may as well know my way around this place."
"You were taken on a tour of the palace this time of the night?" Alexander sighed and shook his head. "Miriam is a free servant. You are a slave. All personal slaves are not permitted to walk the palace grounds outside the courtyards of their master's quarters from the tenth candlemark in the eve to the fourth candlemark of the morn, unless they have a permit. If you were found, you would be severely punished."
"Like what? The worst you Artesians could do is kill me. Death is far preferable to a life without freedom." Although her voice was clear, it trembled slightly with suppressed fear. Caireatha knew there were far worse things than death that could be done to her.
Alexander narrowed his eyes. It was true that he didn't want her to become a whimpering mindless dolt…but if she was to conduct herself this way publicly…she could very well be asking for her own death. Sighing, he raised an eyebrow. "So, you do not fear death. That is all very well, but there are methods of punishment that are far worse than death."
She shrugged, seemingly nonchalantly. "That would depend if you if are able to keep me cooped up in this dung-ridden place."
Alex lashed out, pinning Caireatha against the wall in one swift movement. "Listen to me slave I may be able to tolerate your behaviour, but if you continue with that 'high and mighty' attitude someone will go out of their way to shut you up." He released her and fixed her with a stony glare. "I mean it. You are no longer free and this is not Kestara."
In the depths of midnight, light steps could be heard echoing off a stone-paved courtyard as two figures silhouetted by the crescent moon walked the palace grounds.
"Why did you not tell me there was a new addition to the palace?" the male whispered, anger vibrating through every word.
"I did not think you would wish to know." The female's hurried, almost panicky voice tried in vain to explain. "She is but a slave…"
"She may be a captured princess of the Kestarian kingdom! If you had told me sooner, I may have been able to recruit her to our needs…now we must wait until his grace has finished investigating her. I have told you time and time again to inform me of palace news…and time and time again you fail me!"
"Love…" the female sighed. "It is a beautiful night. Let us enjoy it and worry about this tomorrow…."
"Tomorrow? There is always another tomorrow! If we do not worry about this now, before we know it, we could be found out. Do you know what they do with suspected traitors of the empire? Have you seen the birds pecking the disfigured heads upon Treason Hill?"
"Love…" The female turned away, two hands playing nervously at a strand of acorn hair. "Perhaps it would be better of we didn't recruit her. She is such a new addition to the palace…is she trustworthy? She may betray us..." The female sighed and put two hands on the male's shoulders. "She may try to seduce you…"
"My love, this is not time for jealousy." The male turned irritably. "We – " He stopped. A pair of footsteps could be heard pattering along a walkway. "Someone is coming. We will talk of this later." With an almost silent swish of cloth, he was gone.
The female too faded back into the shadows as a pair of night guardsmen passed the courtyard where the two conspirators had been.