Arianna's world tilted.
All the arrogance drained out of her and she suddenly wanted nothing more than to curl up in bed with Mag's warmth and comforting smell surrounding her.
This was not good news. It was in the faces of all the men around her that wouldn't meet her eyes. They knew she was in trouble. How much trouble, only time would tell. And whilst it had been easy enough to escape from the clutches of that ugly bear of a guard, her chances of escape from the King - with all the guards likely protecting him - were non-existent.
If he ordered her death, had been offended by her maKing his guards look like fools, then her life was over. No coming back from that.
She gulped nervously.
The guard, who she heard being called a captain, nodded at the soldier who had delivered the King's message.
"I will present her," the captain said.
He dismissed all the other guards, made sure the brutish guard who had tried to strangle her was escorted away by a good number of guards, which left only himself and the prince.
Arianna could still feel the thick, digging in fingers of the brutish guard, and how he squeezed every single wisp of air out of her throat. The desire for revenge burned but it would have to wait. She had more pressing problems.
"Looks like you'll get your wish," Arianna said snidely.
The captain regarded her like she was a piece of shit beneath his boots. "We'll know what the King wants with you soon enough."
He forced her to walk ahead whilst the two men stayed back together. They spoke in low voices so she couldn't hear what they were saying. The echoic stone didn't help. The cavernous spaces meant their sounds were lost before they reached her eyes. Arianna wondered whether that had been taken into account when designing this dark, dreary castle.
Which of course left her with alone with her fears.
The King’s chambers were located up several floors. By the time they had walked up at least fifteen winding staircases, she was heaving. So that sweat as well as blood was running down her back. The salt of her sweat stinging the fresh open whip wounds. MaKing every movement of hers one of pure fire. To her annoyance, when she glanced back the captain and the prince didn't look like the lengthy ascent had bothered them at all.
It was easy to spot where the King’s chambers were.
At the top of the stairs, to their left, there was a golden arch. Three flickering torches on each side of the arch made the gold appear more like moving molten lava.
Arianna tried her best to stop her shaking.
The Tiger Lord had talked at length about the King of the Southern continent. He was not a fan. The Tiger Lord believed that rulers had a responsibility to care for their people, ensure that they had enough to at least survive, but also to thrive where they could. The King was, in his opinion, a man more like a locust than a leader. His campaigns were all about gaining more and more power and eating up people's freedom as he went. The control he created was his true reward. And once he'd become untouchable, having conquered the entire Southern half of the continent, he used that control to please himself only.
It's why the Tiger Lord had founded The Ship in the first place. For people who shared his disgust of dictatorships.
So Arianna entered the King’s elaborately bejewelled chambers with the taste of fear and the Tiger Lord’s disdain in her mouth.
The King continued the gold theme into his personal quarters. It was a room that pulsed with a bright yellow and had the effect of maKing Arianna feel sick. Around the square room were tapestries depicting bloody battles - which seemed to be his own. There was a whole wall stuffed full of scrolls and books. Untouched. Dust lining the bookcase that contained them.
In the centre of the room was a circular mahogany table that had the whole of Saulhava carved into the surface, complete with both the Southern and Northern territories of the continent. If she had been here under other pretences she would have studied the table. There wasn't much that people knew about the Northern Kingdoms, not since the King and queen shut their doors and constructed their magical wall. But Arianna had always been fascinated by any rumour or scraps of stories people had about the North.
TaKing centre stage, however, was the large black iron chair that the King lounged on. It was shaped like a standing dragon, tail curling round the King’s feet, wings extended outwards and it's ferocious fire breathing face above his head.
It cast a dark shadow over the King, despite all the light in the room.
The King himself was a large man, verging on fat. His hair was so blonde it was almost white. It had a greasy sheen to it. All of his features were angular, sharp. There were no soft edges to him. He was not a handsome man, nor could Arianna imagine him being much better looKing in his youth.
When he turned his black, onyx eyes on her, her heart almost stopped beating.
The captain shoved her side which reminded her she was expected to bow. Which was why the King hadn't addressed her yet. She swept down into her most polished curtsey. It was awkward because of how out of practice she was. By out of practice, of course, she meant she’d never used it in a formal situation. There wasn't much use for royal court formalities in the Ship. Arianna just hoped it pleased the King rather than angered him.
"Is this her?" he said, sounding, rather bored and not bothered enough to talk to her directly.
The soldier who had summoned her nodded. "Yes, your majesty."
The hard King narrowed his eyes at her. "You're a little too scrawny to be running rings around my men."
"My lord, if I may interject-" The captain started.
"No, you may not captain," the King glared at him.
He stepped back into line with her and bowed his head. But by his sides, the captain’s fists were clenched. So much for the cocky captain now.
"I was in the middle of a war council when it was brought to my attention that a prisoner, a girl no less, had escaped from my dungeons. The dungeons that my captain of the guard has assured me are so well manned, that no man could possibly escape.”
Arianna almost felt sorry for the captain, receiving such a look from the King. If it were possible, the look would have burned him to ash.
When the King finally looked at her, he smiled. The vile smile revealed two rows of sharpened iron teeth. Arianna felt instantly sick at the sight.
Who would do that voluntarily?
Someone not all there in the head.
She wished he'd go back to ignoring her.
"So what do you have to say on the matter, girl?"
Everyone was focused on her now. There was the captain whose glares she could feel boring into her skin, warning her not to say anything stupid. As well as the King’s council men. All of whom were well aged, their eyes roaming over her body, some even winking at her. She was extremely uncomfortable but she'd been in the presence of condescending men all her life and knew how to handle them.
"Your majesty. Of course a castle’s defences can seem impenetrable when they are not tested. I tested your defences and found them wanting."
The captain sighed at her answer. All the courtiers waited on the King’s reaction. The King’s face was blank for a long time before he answered.
"And what makes you skilled enough to judge my security?"
"Nothing," she smiled sweetly. "Only that I did test it and I would have escaped."
“Exactly. You almost escaped. Your majesty, we had her surrounded,” the captain chimed in.
The King ignored him.
"You are my prisoner, incarcerated for attacking my men, and even my own blood. It is an act of treason to do so. Treason carries with it the death penalty. By hanging."
Arianna hung her head.
"However, your ability to take apart my defences intrigues me. For I do believe that my captain, however incompetent he comes across, is for the most part effective at his job."
"Therefore," the King continued. "I should like to see what else you can do."
"I assure his majesty I am capable of much more than escape,” Arianna said.
She had to play this carefully. Making herself valuable to the King might extend her life. It was a much better alternative than the gallows. Arianna was not suited to hanging. Nor did she have any desire to die in this castle. So she went against her head, telling her to get on her knees and beg to be spared, and met the King's interest with her brash personality. It was a risk. But sometimes a risk was the only viable option available.
"Then I put it to you, girl, if you believe your talents to be worth what you say they are; Swear fealty to your King. Train as one of my Elite Warriors."
There were a few gasps around the room. The captain stepped forward. "Your majesty, she is a common criminal, not a seasoned warrior like those already under your service. I urge you to reconsider and let me deal with her in the appropriate manner befitting her crimes."
The King simply waved him away. "I've made my decision already captain." He turned to her, his claw-like hands opening up like the offer were there for her to physically take. Those void-like eyes gleamed. He regarded her like a trophy, one more to add to his collection. The King's warriors were known all over the Southern Continent for their abilities. They were all personally selected by the King and supposedly it took a lot to impress this King. Not that Arianna was surprised by her ability to impress the King. It was her position in front of the King now, which she would have said was impossible before this moment.
"Serve me. Or, my captain will be pleased to know, you can return to your cell and live out your remaining days in darkness, before you meet your deserved end at my noose."
She would be making a deal with the Underrealm Lord himself if she agreed. For though the Southern Continent now belonged to him and bowed to his will, many of his own people could be heard whispering the word tyrant, monster, demon, if you listened out for it.x
What would the Tiger Lord say if he were hearing this?
No. He'd never let her accept the offer.
But for the sake of her life? A life she could still use to find his killers...for though she believed the Captain that he and his men had not encountered the Tiger Lord on the road that fateful day, she knew the real killers must be in this castle. Somewhere. She could take his offer, train with the warriors, pretend to improve herself, all whilst digging around for information.
Yes, it was a much better plan than taking a chance on whatever was waiting for her after death.
"I will serve his majesty however he sees fit," she bowed low, opening her arms in supplement.
The King's face lit up. The happiness there was unpleasant to say the least. Tainted by his iron fangs, shadowed eyes and his salivating mouth at the success of gaining more power for himself.
"A wise decision. Captain, see to it that she is given a room. I would imagine your training will start tomorrow, first thing.”
The captain nodded, albeit reluctantly.
“Oh,” the King continued. “And this isn't an unconditional offer. You will train. And if at the end of your training you are deemed unworthy by my captain, then your life will be forfeited anyway."
Arianna stood there shocked. So the terms of his offer were more than she'd originally agreed to. She should have known he would double cross her in such a way. The Tiger Lord had warned them all about the King's cut throat ways. No honour in a single strand of that mans hair, the Tiger Lord would say. And now she was to train with the elite and not only would she have to pass the training course itself but also impress the captain. Or else fail and be killed anyway.
The odds were atrocious.
No betting man with sense would go for that. But what other choice did she have?
"Is that fair captain?" The King asked.
The captain agreed, smugly.
And just like that, they were dismissed.