With her head down, trying hard not to draw attention to herself, she picked her way through the busy streets of Nasura headed for the River Gate. It didn’t take long for her to notice that the townspeople too were doing their best to avoid the king’s guards. They bustled about in preparation of their day giving the grizzly Northmen a wide berth. The damp morning air giving them every excuse to hide under their hoods. The silent tension quickly reminded her of why she avoided the city. Algerron’s Northmen were just as cruel and vicious as the man himself and they were everywhere today—their presence bearing down on the city like an impending storm.
Guilt gnawed at her, for she knew full well the majority of the king’s guards were out here looking for her—the Raven. The brutes, however, didn’t even spare her a second look. And why would they? She was just a plainly dressed teenage girl whose tiny frame made her appear even younger. In their minds there was no way she could be the elusive Raven. She probably hadn’t even needed to borrow Jay’s shirt but she was glad she did. With her cloak wrapped around her waist, Jay’s thin shirt not only helped hide her bruises but it helped keep the chill from reaching her skin.
Using the flow of people to mask her escape also made it hard to tell if she was being followed. She passed through the River Gates and crossed over the Foxtail River without incident. Still she took the long way through the valley and into the forest before she looped back around and headed back towards the mountain. All the while keeping a cautious eye over her shoulder.
‘Only brainless fools proceed without caution.’
The sun boldly warmed the winter air in promise of a glorious day. However, she wanted none of it, only her bed. Her ribs hurt with every breath, her legs felt like lead and her head was pounding by the time she reached the forest bridge and crossed back over the river. It would have been much faster had she taken the road that ran along the Foxtail, as it hugged the side of the mountain but going the long way around had been necessary. Surely the General would punish her for her tardiness, however, she knew it would be nothing compared to what would happen if she allowed herself to be followed.
Once across, she walked along the river back towards the base of the mountain. There were three hidden passages that led up to the secret fort called the Nest. Unless you had wings the passages were the only way to reach it. Her passage of choice was almost always the one by the river. It made for a long walk inside the mountain but to get to the next closest one she had to pass through a small village. And, well with all her secrets, it was easier to just avoid people when she could.
“So the Raven finally returns to the Nest,” a voice called down to her.
Ignoring it, she kept walking. She knew it was Benson. He seemed to always “run into” her when she came back from missions and he almost always said that very line. Honestly, she wouldn’t be surprised if he had been in that tree all night watching for her. Why he did it she didn’t know. On the General’s orders most likely.
The leaves rustled and the branches sagged. He landed with a thud behind her but still she kept walking. At 17, Benson was the only one in the fort anywhere near her age and the closest thing she had ever had to a friend. But he was the General’s son, a solider born and raised. And that always had a way of wedging between them and lately she found it hard to even look at him. Every time she did she was reminded of the way he’d looked at her that night a few weeks ago, when she’d come back covered in blood. Ever since then there seemed to be a new sort of fear in his eyes. One she didn’t want to explore.
“What are you wearing?” he asked catching up to her in just a few long strides. “Whose shirt is that?”
“I don’t know. I swiped it off a clothesline,” she lied as she pulled off Jay’s shirt. Even without looking at him she could feel the extra space between them and the way he hovered back. Just in case. But in case of what?
“What happened last night? You look like hell.” His pale green eyes slid from the side of her head to her bare shoulder, lingering on the blue-black bruise that had come up.
“I fell off a roof,” she said flatly as she unpinned her cloak from around her waist and wrapped it back around her shoulders. She was tempted to pull her hood up to block out his scrutinizing gaze. The sharp eyes of a solider, born and raised.
“Is that why you’re so late?” he asked. The caution in his voice making her want to scream.
“Yeah well, after I fell there was no way I was going to outrun the guards so I hid in a woodshed till morning,” she explained, suddenly thankful she’d run into Ben, as it gave her a chance to run through her story. “So I changed, snagged the first shirt I could find and…”
“And you walked right out the River Gate, didn’t you?” She nodded and his head fell back as he laughed. He composed himself enough to drop his voice to a whisper before he continued, “You’re the most wanted thief in Nasura, hell in all of Nastralya. You broke into the palace, stole from Algerron and then just walked right out the main gate in broad daylight.” He erupted into laughter again. This time so hard and loud it echoed through the trees. “I would love to tell Algerron just to see the look on his face. It would almost be worth losing my head,” he said and despite it all, she found herself smirking.
They fell silent as they approached the hidden entrance. Automatically they both slowed their pace, listening carefully for any indication that they were not alone. When they were sure the only eyes around belonged to birds and squirrels, they slipped into a gap in the side of the mountain. Once inside her moonstone lit up, casting the black tunnel in shimmering blues, purples and pinks. They quietly followed the passage that would take them through the mountain and up to the Nest.
It was yet another safety measure that one of Nasura’s ancient kings had put into place. The theory was if the city was ever attacked the royal family could escape through the secret passages and retreat to the safety of the hidden fort. However, it was all for naught because when Algerron came down from the north and attacked Nasura no one from the royal family made it out of the palace alive. He killed the king and queen and took their infant daughter hostage. The hidden fort, however, didn’t go completely to waste. The General had known about it and used it to hide those who were loyal to the former king and queen and to house and train a group a rebels.
They had just reached the stone carved spiral steps that would take them up to the fort when Benson reached out and gently touched her arm. Without even thinking she jerked away from him. For some reason her heart had jumped up into her throat.
“Ari, what’s wrong?” he asked, his hand still hovering awkwardly in the air.
“Nothing. Sorry. You just… startled me.” she said moving to head up the steps but with one long step he was in front of her, blocking her path.
“Ari, something’s wrong. Just talk to me,” he pleaded, his eyes searching her face for the answers he knew she wouldn’t give.
“I am fine,” she insisted trying to push past him but he held his ground as unmovable as the mountain itself.
“No, you’re not. Ever since that night, you…” His words cut off, when she recoiled, as if he was about to hit her.
“Ben please. I’m exhausted. I can’t…” For a few moments there was nothing but silence as he waited for her to finish but she couldn’t. And she couldn’t even look at him. Finally, she heard him move aside.
“Fine,” was all he said and followed her silently up the stairs.
She’d wanted nothing more than to drop into her bed but knew she had to report to the General first. She was already late. The General’s office was a small simple room and other than the bookshelves that lined the bare stone walls, the only furniture was the General’s desk and chair. There was absolutely nothing ornate in the room and as always everything was in perfect order. To the point that she’d wondered once if the General had burned any books that didn’t fit uniformly on the shelves. Even now as the General sat pouring over reports, the desk was impeccable with perfectly arranged stacks of parchment.
So there she was exhausted, dirty, bruised and bloody standing at attention waiting quietly to be acknowledged. And feeling so completely out of place amongst the perfection.
“So the Raven strikes again,” the General stated, finally looking up when she finished the page in her hand. As always her silver blonde hair was pulled back and bound in a tight bun at the base of her neck. “Well…let’s see it,” the General said flicking her fingers impatiently.
Ari pulled the duke’s small leather notebook out of her pocket and handed it to the General, then promptly returned to her stiff position. The General opened the book and flipped through the pages. “Were there any issues?” she asked without looking up from the book.
The General’s eyebrows rose first, followed by her dark eyes. “Then why are you late?” the General asked with a tight grin. Ari knew her well enough to know the look certainly didn’t mean anything good.
“They had doubled the guards everywhere, in the palace, on the walls and…”
“You don’t consider that an issue?” the General cut in. Once the words were out of her mouth, she pressed her lips together as if forcibly holding back her next thought.
“No,” Ari replied, just a bit too cocky. “The only issue I could report is that there are a few rooftops in Nasura’s poorer district that are in dire need of repair. However, I don’t believe that particular issue would surprise you. Or interest you.”
“Indeed,” the General confirmed, looking her over carefully. “But the rest went according to plan? The Raven was seen setting the fire?”
“Yes.” Of course. Those were my orders. Ari knew better than to disobey or fail the General, who was the closest thing she had ever had to a parent. Though she’d never acted like one. It wasn’t that the General was incapable of it. Sometimes she was almost a mother to Benson. Almost. But to Ari she was her trainer and teacher but above all her General. And Ari was just an orphan that the General had been saddled with, while trying to pull what was left of her kingdom from the rubble. She was a burden and a gift in one ungrateful little package. Something the General would remind her of anytime she stepped out of line.
“Did anyone see your face?”
Her heart stumbled but her voice was steady when she replied, “No.” Just a kind boy who saved my life. And your mission. And you would have had me kill him for it.
“Good. As always I expect a full report on my desk first thing tomorrow,” the General said slowly. However, she didn’t dismiss her, just sat there calm and still, watching her like a predator watches prey. Needing to prove she had nothing to hide, Ari kept her gaze on the General’s dark eyes, even as panic was clawing its way up her spine. Finally, the General asked, “Do you need the physician?”
“No. Nothing’s broken. Just bruised and I have plenty of salve for that,” she answered keeping her voice even, despite the bitterness bubbling in her gut. You have seen me worse. You’ve done worse.
“Good. I need you ready for your next mission.”
Next mission? I just got back, she thought, almost sagging.
“Do you know why Algerron took the princess hostage all those years ago?” the General asked, setting the journal on the desk and folding her hands in front of her.
“The princess?” Ari asked unable to hide her surprise. “Umm… so the people wouldn’t revolt,” she answered but all the confidence had dropped out of her voice.
“Well that and she adds strength to his claim to the throne. He holds her, the rightful heir, and the capital. Do you know why we have never tried to rescue her?” the General asked.
“No.” Truthfully, she’d never really given the princess any thought. People always spoke fondly of the former king and queen, even if it was only in whispers. But no one ever spoke of the princess. What was there to say? She had only been a toddler when Algerron attacked and locked her away. And no one had seen her since.
“By our own laws the princess cannot rule the country until she turns eighteen. Until then someone would have to rule on her behalf. So for the past eleven years our hands have essentially been tied. The people can’t openly revolt. A rescue attempt would be very dangerous and if successful, the princess would need to be hidden away and protected until she came of age. In the meantime Algerron and his army would rip this country apart in order to get her back. So it was decided, to save the land years of war and for the safety of the princess, it would be better to leave her where she is. Until she comes of age,” the General explained.
So you’re saying, she would have been more trouble than she’s worth, Ari thought, suddenly feeling very sorry for this girl, who despite being the sole heir of a once powerful kingdom, was basically nothing more than a pawn. Ari often felt like a pawn herself but at least she was not locked in a tower. As if they could keep me locked in a tower, she thought fighting a smirk.
“Once she does come of age,” the General continued, “We will rescue her. But I need to know which of the nobility remain loyal, and which ones can be trusted to come to her aid. For your next mission you will need to discern who can be trusted and who will fight on the princess’s behalf in the upcoming war.”
“But the princess does not come of age for what…two more years?”
“Yes,” the General replied. Her voice was frosted with warning but she did not reprimand Ari for her outburst. “This part of the preparation is critical. You can be sure Algerron is already preparing. I am not sure yet what he is planning but you can be sure he is,” she said tapping the notebook. “You will travel the country and call upon each of the lords. It should be easy to find the information you need as I have made arrangements for you to stay in each of their households. You will…”
“Me? Why in the world would they allow me to…” But her words lodged in her throat when she realized she had interrupted the General.
“You will,” the General begin but paused as if daring her to interrupt again, “be posing as Duke Del Marchi’s daughter so you’ll need proper attire. Get yourself cleaned up. I will send for Yuri. He will need to see you right away, as you leave in two days.”
“Two days?” she balked, then braced herself for the overdue reprimand but none came, just a dismissal.
After washing up Ari pinned her wet hair in a bun on top of her head and dressed in slacks and a simple corset. As she expected she found Yuri waiting in her bedroom. He’d been the royal tailor before the invasion and would most likely have lost his head had the General not given him a place to hide. Nearly everyone in the fort knew she went on missions for the General, but Yuri was one of the few people who knew she was actually the Raven. He was also aware she had other secrets, but he never pushed or questioned her. He had a way of making her feel completely at ease. Tonight, however, he was not alone. Ari bristled at the sight of the woman with Yuri. She was exhausted and ached from her head to her toes; the last thing she wanted to do was dance around this woman. The only thing Ari knew about her was her name was Mia, she worked in the kitchen and she liked to talk. Ari did not like the idea of Mia knowing anything about her.
“Ahh, there’s my little dove,” Yuri greeted her with a reassuring smile. Tall and lean, his every feature refined and elegant except for the thick scar across his neck. ‘Proof that the Northmen are just as stupid as they are ugly. They don’t even know how to kill a man properly,’ he had told her once when he caught her eyes on it.
“Fairies bless! Look at you. Oh poor child. Yuri look at her,” Mia fussed. She was short and plump and far from refined. Everything about her seemed to bubble up and spill out. From her golden hair tumbling from its clips, to her bosom threatening to overtake her neck line.
“I see her and she is lovely as always,” Yuri said with a casual wink. Sweeping over, he took Ari’s non-bruised arm and led her into the center of the room.
“I can’t believe the General sends the poor girl out into the city at night alone… it’s… it’s madness,” Mia grumbled to no one in particular as she rummaged in her basket. “Madness I tell you,” she shot at Yuri when she turned back around.
“Mia my dear, there is a lot of madness in this world but I assure you our little dove is quite skilled at what she does,” he said before turning back to Ari. “The General has commissioned us to make a few things for your… upcoming trip,” he said carefully. “We’re on a bit of a time crunch so I asked Mia to help,” he explained with an apology in his eyes.
Ari nodded her understanding and saw the opportunity to ask for a favor. Not that she thought Yuri would deny her. “I have a small favor to ask of you,” she said quietly to Yuri.
“Anything my dear.”
“Could you see that this is washed and mended?” she asked pulling out Jay’s shirt.
“Mended it? That old thing?” Mia jumped in before Yuri could reply. “It’s hardly suitable as a rag. You would be better off burning it and making a new one.”
“You will not burn it. I want it mended,” she snapped pulling the shirt back protectively. “It’s not mine to burn. I took it off a line and I will return it clean and mended.”
“Well if you ask me whoever you stole this from, you did them a favor. They shouldn’t…”
“I don’t know what you think I do. But I do not steal from the people. Just from Algerron.”
Ari was fuming but Mia didn’t look phased. Still Yuri stepped between them, his voice cool and smooth. “I’ll see to the shirt. Is there anything else I can do for you Miss?” he asked. Her temper flared at the undeserved title but fizzled as Yuri gave her one of his calming smiles.
“Yes, I wanted to tell you it would be very helpful, if it’s possible, to make the corsets I wear somehow reversible and a different color on the inside. I know you are busy,” she rushed to add. “But in the future, I believe it would come in handy.”
He nodded his understanding. “Is there anything else I can do for you?” he asked as he collected her gear from the floor where she’d tossed it. When she shook her head he added, “You’re in good hands here.” With a promise to return soon and a look that said ‘be nice’ he left her alone with Mia.
Once Yuri was gone Ari turned back to Mia, who was looking down at the fabric in her hands. Almost sheepishly. Maybe Yuri’s look wasn’t just for me.
“I’m sorry if I offended you Miss. That was not my intention,” Mia apologized, though somewhat begrudgingly. “Sometimes my mouth out runs my brain. I know how much you have helped the people, with the supply raids and all. King Algerron deserves whatever you can do to him and more. Sending our food north while our people starve,” Mia grumbled. Not waiting for permission or acceptance of her apology she draped Ari in fabric.
Ari watched Mia work and it wasn’t hard to see she clearly knew what she was doing. She used string to measure and mark and then measure again. Her hands moved swiftly and surely, pinning and cutting. Ari did her best not to fidget but being still had her falling asleep on her feet.
“I didn’t know you could sew. I have only ever seen you in the kitchen,” Ari remarked, mostly just to stay awake.
Mia laughed lightly. “Sweetie, Yuri may have been the official tailor for the royal court but I made the finest gowns in all of Nastralya. Court ladies used to fight over who got to commission me next. Twice I made a gown for Queen Briana herself,” she said lifting her chin a little higher. She was a little wisp of a thing. Hardly took any fabric at all. The stresses of running a country I guess. But, oh honey, they were the most gorgeous of gowns I have ever made.” Her hands stilled for a moment as her mind summoned the dresses from her memory. With a sigh she continued, “That of course was back when I had my magic. Embroidery like that…”
“Magic?” Ari asked surprised.
“Yes dear. I was Marked,” Mia said pulling up her sleeve and showing Ari the faint white scar on the inside of her forearm. “I forget, you’re too young to remember magic.”
“Would you please tell me about it?” she asked politely. Ari knew her history. She knew all the facts but she’d never met someone who’d actually had magic.
“Well… it used to be that every year on the first day of spring, the fairies would visit Nasura. Now they didn’t visit many kingdoms but they favored our royal family. The fairies would come and inspect every child who came of age that year to determine if they were Blessed or Common. It didn’t matter if they were highborn or not. If they were rich or poor. They saw every child,” Mia said gesturing wildly with her hands as she talked, yet somehow still managing to keep working at the same time. “And they would check them all for magic. If a child was found to have magic in their blood, then they were brought back next day to be Marked by one of the fairies. You see the Marks… unlocked, so to speak, the child’s natural magic and helped them focus it. There were different Marks for different kinds of magic and the fairies determined which Mark would be the best fit. Mine was a Talent Mark and my talent was for sewing.” Mia smiled. “Oh sweetie, it was a wonderful time to be alive. The kingdom was at peace, the city was prosperous, the people were happy and magic was alive everywhere.”
Ari waited quietly as Mia was lost somewhere in the past. When she finally came back to the present her smile was gone, along with the joy from her eyes. “The rest you know. Algerron invaded. The Del Lamont family fell. The fairies disappeared and along with them Marks and magic. Though I guess it’s for the best. Magic in the wrong hands… like Algerron’s would be a very bad thing. Very bad indeed.”