A fire crackled delightedly in the corner, spitting sparks that twisted and burnt in the night air, a lantern casting a bright light and shadow across the cramped room.
Amarisa sat in silence, hands clutched around the mug of steaming soup, allowing herself to breath in and out and in and out for the first time in days. Maye was in the kitchen getting something for herself and Amarisa was glad for the moment alone in the scantily lit room, wrapped in a blanket and sipping something warm.
After the execution and the siege, she'd been left alone in a country that had been her home once but was now foreign to her, the only possible friend left to her was a maid who had served when she'd been Princess. She was a far cry from a princess now, she decided, she'd hastily cut her hair to her shoulder blades and dyed it dark brown so she could flee the castle, and she wore the clothes of a beggar under the soft, fur blanket.
"Here you go love," Maye said, her accent thick and charming as she handed Amarisa a hunk of bread. She smiled and dipped it into the soup, allowing a soft moan to leave her lips as she bit into it. "Knew you'd like it."
"Thank you," Amarisa said quietly and Maye smiled. While Amarisa knew she had aged considerably since she was eight, Maye looked exactly the same, save for the obvious changed, her figure was different and her face more defined, voice slightly less giggly and her hair styled very differently, but she was still Maye, still sweet, sweet Maye.
"Tell me what happened," Maye smiled and for once in her life, Amarisa was happy to tell the story, happy to share the pain of nine years with someone. Maye's face was half hidden in the lighting, her naturally red hair pulled up in a twist and her tanned skin looking even darker in the night.
"I never left the castle because I was attacked," She admitted. "My parents realised the people loved me, and they were scared that when I reached seventeen, they would lose their titles. However, nobody particularly cared for Kal, my sister, so it would be much easier to keep her from the throne. So, they took me into the woods one night, smashed me over the head with a rock and tried to bury me."
Mayes eyes were wide and her mouth hung slightly open, her cup frozen half way to her lips.
At the time, Amarisa had thought it was the worst moment of her life, when she woke without air, with earth slowly crushing her, filling her mouth and throat and lungs, the smell of dirt and death and life surrounding her as she tried to thrash out but found it useless.
"Zan found me and pulled me out," He'd dug through with his bare hands after following her into the forest. They had been friends then, and he'd cried heavy tears as he pulled her out and then attempted to pull the dirt from her hair.
She remembered how he'd looked then, the moon lighting him as they sat together in the forest and cried as they'd said goodbye for what they'd thought would be the last time they'd see each other. His dark skin and black clothes had meant she'd stopped seeing him through her waterlogged eyes as he'd walked away but much before he was gone.
"I found a boat that would take me to Darana and found a small town near the sea," Every door she had knocked on had rejected her. She was a young girl with no real skills, no money and no story she could tell them. Eventually, one had taken her in after she'd sold herself as an orphan. It was a tailor and his wife, who'd said she could stay with them and they would train her up, to take over their business once they died, seeing as they had no living children.
"I stayed there for about two years, before my parents heard the rumours that the Shinning Princess of Jayni was still alive in a small fishing town in Darana," She paused for a moment before she was able to deal with what came next, "Their army burnt down eight villages before it came to ours. Everyone died."
"Except the Tailors Daughter," Maye finished what she knew her friend could not. "Who fought against the army, who screamed and wailed as they drove out of her burned home."
"So, you've heard the story? The ultimate symbol of grief, seems fitting." Amarisa meant to make it as a joke, but it had come out monotone and flat.
Maye looked at her confused, her face slightly scrunched up, head tilted. "The Tailor's Daughter is a story of hope. Of how even if the armies try to kill us, they'll always leave someone, and that someone will seek vengeance, will help stop injustice."
As someone who'd lived the story, she knew that was wrong, but some people were comforted by that hope, so she let Maye believe it. "I went to the capital."
Everything had been beautiful to start with. The artists quarter was filled with fabrics of every colour Amarisa could imagine and some she hadn't, there were theatres decorated with roses and gold and carriages carrying ladies in dresses that weren't necessarily fashionable but were what they wanted to wear, skimpy dresses in outlandish colours and full bodied gowns with laces trailing from the sleeves. Woman and men alike wore makeup and many seemed to thread shimmer into their hair. It was a city of life and laughter and Amarisa was happy to sleep in boxes and beg for each meal as long as it meant she got to stay.
Then Mistress had found her.
"She was cold," Amarisa said for lack of a better word. "But she took me in, along with two boys she'd found. Someone was hired to train us and we ended every day bruised and sore and hurt, but at least we were doing something."
"Why did she train you?" Maye asked and Amarisa jumped out of her head and back into the present.
"She needed people to help her run her empire," She focussed her eyes back on the fire. "She ran the city's underworld, anything that happened away from the watchful eye of the police or under the influence of alcohol was hers, and she managed it all beautifully."
When they were fourteen she'd first instructed them to kill someone and they had, becoming more like her partners than her employees as time went on and she trusted them with more and more. Her, Ace and Kenzel had become best friends, best friends who never backed down from a fight and who had each others backs at all times. They were a family in their own right and as time went on Amarisa forgot about the past, about her kingdom and the fishing village and her country across the sea, and she lived at peace.
"And then one of the boys, Kenzel, messed up. He refused to kill someone, the woman was pregnant and he wouldn't do it. She got angry, beat me and him half to death and made the other boy, Ace, watch." Amarisa didn't look at Maye for fear of her reaction. "And then she locked me in a tower."
There was no way she could forget and no way she could escape that night in the apartment, even know she heard the whimper from Kenzel as he hit the ground and didn't move again, Ace screaming himself hoarse, screaming hurt him instead leave them alone and the sound of a heel crunching all the bones in her hand as it went through. Absentmindedly, she rubbed the circular scar on the back of her hand, the edges still raised.
"Darana's prince came looking for me as a solution to the war. I hadn't known that the Cotain's had taken my throne, burned my castle and killed my family. They'd managed to keep it a secret from the world." Amarisa tried not to think of the grief that had struck her like a blade between her ribs at the thought of her sister dead and at the shackles that now binded her to the throne. "He took me to his castle and I fell in love."
Maye smiled at that, she always had been one for a good love story. "With the prince that rescued you?"
"Not quite," Laughing. "With his younger brother. But of course word spread that I'd been found and I was there, we were attacked and the prince that had saved me was killed along with the king and their sister kidnapped, leaving me and Javin."
"The prince you were in love with?" She pushed.
"Yes, the prince I was in love with."
That night had been hot and the castle had been in chaos, with strangles wails of the king is dead filling the halls. Javin had grabbed her hand and they'd run, not saying a word as they launched themselves out of a window and into the moat. It wasn't until they'd gotten far enough away that they could no longer see the gathering of people who had come to pay tribute that he'd broken down, fallen to his knees and screamed at the night sky, at the stars who'd screamed back and the moon that had stayed staring as around it, it's lights had fallen towards the earth in sorrow for the prince left with nothing; for the prince who was now king.
"We travelled, securing deals with other countries to give us aid, to help us fight against the family that had taken both of our thrones, and once we had that we begun looking." The fire crackled. "For everyone we'd lost."
"Did you find them all?" Maye was leaning forward now, her eyes wide like a child who wanted to hear the end of their bedtime story. But in those stories, the princesses came out on top and married the princes and castles didn't burn and people didn't die.
"Slowly, but yeah we found them all. His sister was with pirates, who she had managed to turn from captors to friends, my sister had fled and was alive with Zan in the countryside and even Ace and Kenzel were still just hiding." They'd travelled across countries and seas, scaled mountains, trusted witches, rode dragons and threw themselves into the fire for each other, but they had found their people. They had been ready, with armies and troops and weapons and ideas.
"And then they captured Javin," Her voice almost broke at the memory. Ace had held her back as they'd taken him, knocked him unconscious and strapped him onto a horse, riding away where she couldn't follow. "So I gave myself in."
"You really loved him," Maye sighed and sat back, as though the statement was massive and life changing.
"They were going to execute us together, it was all meant to be very symbolic, but I had a plan, I always have a plan." She smiled at where the fire was burning, but dying, it sparks turning to embers it's flames struggling to rise as they had been, dying as the night did, as humans did. The escape had been the hardest thing she'd ever pulled off, the timing of everything had to be perfect, every piece of her game had to be positioned just right.
"We got out, against all odds we got out, took back his throne and there was meant to be a ship ready to take me and my sister home."
"What happened?" Maye asked after a silence that could of been a minute, that could of been more.
"She was dead." Silence.
Your sister came looking for you, Ace told her, but they caught her. They were going to torture her for information, or use her against you. She managed to get poison smuggled into her and she killed herself in her cell before you could ever find out.
"I came back anyway, alone, and nobody stopped me as I marched into that castle and took what was mine." They had all kneeled before her, placed a crown on her head and pronounced her Queen, sworn allegiance, and then the festivities had begun, for a nation glad to be out of slavery. "But we hadn't killed the entire Cotain family, we had missed the sister, and she brought her army with her."
"What happened?" Maye was staring at the fire now, as the last few embers struggled to burn and then, as they waited in silence, died.
"I ran." She turned to Maye now. Sweet, sweet Maye. "So, how long until they receive your alarm that I'm here?"