First off, Sylvia was obviously drunk.
She hid it well, though. While the last time we teleported was so smooth I barely felt bothered, but this time it was very different. I dropped down to one knee the moment we landed, the jarring difference in time and space Sylvia's wild magic could not cover setting off all kinds of alarms in my body, making the world tilt and giving me an uncontrollable urge to hurl. However, the little rascal did not seem to be bothered; she simply swiped my cloak, flicked a hand at me, and all the nausea vanished. I got up, flushed with embarrassment at my weakness, and looked around. Sylvia had teleported us to an amphibious zone; a large platform anchored to the sea, submerged just far enough from the surface of the water to accommodate people twice my height. There were even stairways which led to a floating crystal capsule, created for the rich to come and look at the endless sky in relative safety. Places like this platform were built for a variety of uses. The most ancient of them was constructed for militaristic purposes, way back when Oceanides was still locked in a war with the land-dwellers. This one was probably private property of the palace, so it was being used as a temporary launching pad for the chariots. Speaking of the chariots, which were docked behind a storage shack, they were being boarded by the last of the 'hostages'. I darted across the platform, pushing aside the stable boys and the flagmen, towards a small chariot decorated with nori streamers and algae blooms. Sylvia's pattering footsteps trailed after me, though they were uneven and heavier than usual. It was occupied by a capricorn girl, who I recognised as one of the assassins in my guild: Viveka, or the Pale Death, as she was often dubbed. Classified as anthromorphs, creatures which had a humane upper body and animalistic lower portion, capricorns in particular had a human torso joined to a horse's body, with a fish's tail instead of back legs. In place of hooves, they had large, membranous fins, which they used to paw through the water, the way a land mammal might swim. True to her moniker, my companion had albinism, so she looked extra graceful and ethereal. Her long, silver-white hair floated in the light current, and was cut in the old Oriental style. Large, ridged horns spiralled from her brows, gleaming silver in the sunlight. The crimsom makeup she wore contrasted with her delicate features, and she exuded an air of class. Most of us assassins were mongrels, picked for the talent in dirty work they got from a life on the streets. It was an unsavoury profession, just as bad as a courtesan, yet Viveka had come to Messala personally, leaving behind her noble status for what reason I could not fathom. She took a sidelong glance at me in my ragged attire, her wine-stained lips twisting into a mocking smirk, and beckoned me to come aboard with her long, claw tipped fingers. Unlike me, whose specialty was "come-and-kill", Viveka specialised in the art of seduction and infiltration, so it was not surprising to see her here. I leapt aboard, the chariot bobbing under mine and Sylvia's weight. We were going to be driven by a pair of trained manta rays, one black, one white, to represent the colors of Keros. And... to represent us, too. Viveka was fair, oh so blindingly fair, and I, with my blackened hands, so rough in comparison to her serene self. A crude Necromica to be the shadow of a shining noblesse. Oh, how the crowd would love this. How the King would notice. Clever Messala. I chuckled as our chariot raced through the runway, the manta rays gaining momentum, readying themselves for takeoff. Sylvia was silent, but she was close enough that her warm breath fanned across my back.
Suddenly we were in the open ocean, and freedom coursed through my veins. Below us was the palace, the jewel in a treasure chest. My heart wanted to leap out in joy, but I kept my posture, trying best to look like the painting of Aphrodite on a seashell; not queenly like Viveka, her stony lilac eyes filled with contempt. We were flying in formation, towards the Phoenix garden, the manta rays keeping a slow, almost ceremonial pace . I breathed out a sigh of relief, for all was going well.
That was when Sylvia decided to act up.
Naturally, any rowdy drunk would've expended all his energy before falling into stupor, but not Sylvia. Oh no, she was the reverse. The halfling had followed me in a docile manner, too docile, in fact. Now she let out a giggle, a bubbly laugh which rose to a crazed cackle. It sent chills down my spine, and even the statuesque Viveka had to turn around, trying to smooth down the goosebumps which had crept up her pale arms. Her now-wide lavender eyes looked at me in fear. "What was that?" Viveka asked, looking around for the source of the laugh. To my astonishment she had completely transformed, from the proud noblesse to an insecure girl in an instant. Well, fear did that to people. It broke down their walls and snaked into their hearts. Surprisingly, someone who should be a master of concealing these things was revealing her emotions. My best guess would be that she was not being watched by her enemies, so she let herself be real, if just for a moment. I bit my lip, trying to come up with something to console her and not make myself the bad guy in her eyes. You did not want to look bad in Pale Death's eyes. She had a photographic memory, acted fast and killed slow. Though she looked cultured, inside Viveka was a beast. I had seen with my own eyes the way she ripped out throats with her teeth and chowed on the innards of her kills. They were never neat, and though Messala often punished her for this, it only made Viveka enjoy killing more. Maybe that was why she left her family. Her true nature was too violent to contain, so she must've needed an outlet, then. However, it was none of my concerns. Right now my attention was focused slowly on Sylvia, who, judging from the way the chariot was slightly tilted, had leapt to the front of the boat. She flung my cloak off, and it billowed in the air, visible once more. Viveka caught it at my insistence, and I turned to face the halfling, who gave me a mad grin. "Ah, it's been a while since I've been this free!" Despite her wild expression, Sylvia's voice was slurred from the alcohol in that drink. "You see, I can't leave the castle without the royal family's consent. But you have royal blood, little assassin. It's just dormant, but it is what it is, girl. Your will is my will now. Want to be noticed, huh? Well, I tell you, they'll notice this!" I moved to stop her, but it was too late. I heard a boom, and whipped my head around. Radiant fireworks bloomed in our wake, massive spirals and clouds of glittering residue blotting out the sun. The prismatic colors were reflected on the metallic city, so one could not tell where Amphirite ended and the psychedelic sea began. The world was awash in hues so vivid it felt as if they'd be burned onto our eyelids forever. We were close enough so that I could almost see the expressions of the spectators. And not just the ones from the garden. The whole city was looking. Good lord, I thought. Would anyone be able to forget this? The manta rays, impervious to the spectacle, circled down to the landing strip made by the parted nobles. We landed smoothly in front of the raised dais where the family was seated, and they acknowledged us with round eyes and raised brows. I had to admit, their attempt at stoicism was impressive. There was the little princess Laurel, her small face slack with awe, copper hair falling out of it's net. Crown Prince Evander, cheeks flushed and eyes livid. Queen Islani, her berry lips a thin line but her eyes, black like a depths from which she originated, glittered with curiosity. And there was the King. Apparently all the hostages had been presented, and we were the last to land. As I stepped out of the chariot and helped Viveka, for no steward was brave enough to go near us, I could feel the weight of his gaze. Side by side Viveka and I stepped forward and curtsied. We emerged, and I had a good look at his face. Though he had been ruling for a good while, the King still looked ageless. Worry lines criss-crossed his face and grey hair streaked his temples, but the clear sapphire eyes told another story, and he carried himself with authority worthy of the tittle. No puppet head, then. While Viveka, clearly feeling the need to submit to that piercing gaze, kept a demure front, she still carried around her a sultry air, clearly the seductress. I didn't let myself bow; instead, I looked straight at him. A moment of silence, which dragged on. And on. And on. Neither of us twitched. It was turing into a staring contest. One which felt instrumental, but was just as ridiculous as the ones I'd had as a kid. Seconds turned into minutes.
Eyes flashing, he broke it.
The King clapped, the sound echoing through the hush that had fallen. The nobles joined in, some of them even cheering, while others looked confused. I didn't let myself relax. This was far from over.
I was to be a plaything for these people. Very well. I will play. But by my own rules.