Streamers hung from the castle walls, painting the city in red for the Arrival. Chlaerys, cloaked in a matching red hood that hid the long brown hair she kept tied at the nape of her neck, pushed through the crowd of commoners meandering about the tight Faronia streets. They gave her dirty looks as she passed, but she paid them no mind. She had places to be, and though the crowd itself served to disguise her from the tracker she was trying to lose, she had half a mind to slit the throats of those who stood in her way.
She’d heard word of the walls being torn down as an offer of alliance to Groemea and their devil of a queen, and, convincing herself not to slaughter the messenger, she grabbed her cloak and made her way to the Grave. Faronia’s notorious hub for criminals and lowlifes, the Grave was the only place she knew she would find Teolon, probably on his fifth beer and down 100 crowns that she would no doubt have to help him win back. But only after he told her that the rumors had to be a lie.
Because they couldn’t tear down the walls.
Not unless they were looking for certain death.
As she approached the alleyway that led to the Grave, she glanced over her shoulder, making sure that the tracker wasn’t still following her. The good thing about today’s celebration meant that the black cloaks of the castle guards were easy to discern amongst the red sea of commoners. Not spotting any ominous black cloaked guards, she turned into the alleyway and knocked on the iron door of the Grave. It opened to a burly man with a scar down the length of his exposed chest. Stepping inside, she pulled back the hood of her cloak to reveal her golden tan face. With her upturned nose, green eyes, small plump lips, and delicate cheekbones, she looked more like an upperclass lady than the kingdom’s most notorious hunter.
“Venota,” she said to the guard who was looking her over with a judging, cocked eyebrow. She didn’t recognize him. She tended to avoid the Grave. The last time she’d been there, the guard, Voltum, had been taken out by one of the assassins-for-hire that frequently visited the bar, after one of his patrons had been kicked out for brawling.
At the sound of her name, the guard’s expression shifted, his eyes went wide as he took her in. He stepped aside, adjusting his body so it was as far from her as possible - ah, how she loved that fear - and opened the second door to the bar for her. “Welcome, Miss Venota.”
She acknowledged him with a mere nod before stepping into the cigar and gin stench of the Grave. Taking in the sights, the brawling pit in the corner, the tables of cards by the bar, and the well-built, gruff men that loitered about and gave her a curious, predatory glance as she passed, Chlaerys grunted and maneuvered about the tavern, looking for the insolent dwarf. As expected, Teolon stood near the cards table, his chest barely reaching above it, slamming crown after crown onto the table. There was a gap around him, as if all the other players knew that the dwarf was not to be mettled with. And given his reputation, one she would wager was worse than even hers, she didn't doubt it.
She was halfway to him, dagger poised to pin around his neck as their tradition dictated, when she was stopped by a well-built, long haired man covered in ink. Otharis.
“Chlaerys, darling, what a surprise,” the tavern owner drawled in his falsely saccharine voice. “I wasn’t expecting you back so soon after the other day.”
“That was months ago, Otharis. Get it out of your damn mind and move on. I have.” She tried to push past him, but he stepped in front of her, licking his lips as he looked pointedly, slowly, over her body.
“Have you now?” He smirked.
She sighed. “I’m sure you’ve been looking forward to this moment for weeks now, but I am in no mood to play your little mind games. I’ve come urgently for Teolon, and if I do not have the dwarf in front of me in ten seconds, I will snap the neck of whichever unlucky bastard happens to be in my way.” She glared at him, implying exactly who she hoped that unlucky bastard would be.
“Now, now, no need for violence, my dear.” He tsked, shaking his head. “Your Teolon has been waiting on you all day. I ask you be quick about it, though. He’s got his luck on the cards today, and we have a wager on who’s going to best him first. Better to keep him going. Good for business.” He winked.
She rolled her eyes, fighting the urge to vomit the remains of her breakfast into his face. He’d said that the last time she'd seen him, on the stage of this very bar. His face had been pressed up against her neck, his hands wandering against the sides of her leather-cloaked waist, as he whispered that a partnership between them - one he was content on delivering that very same night - would be very, very good for business. She wasn’t sure why she had let him get so close, because, looking at him now, she didn’t know what she had seen behind those hungry blue eyes. He was beautiful, yes, and notoriously wicked, just how she liked them, but he was so… revolting.
“I’ll be quick,” she said, and finally managed to sidestep him, letting out a breath of relief as she passed. If she never saw him again, it would be too soon.
Teolon’s neck bobbed as she placed the blade of the dagger against it. “Hello, old friend,” she crooned. There was no pause of hesitation as he flicked a hidden blade from the cuff around his wrist and placed it strategically against the crevices of her rib cage.
“Chlaerys, my wild beast,” he drawled in his deep, malicious voice that made all wary of the dwarf that was lethal and unforgiving. She smirked, dropping her dagger. He sheathed his blade and turned to her. “What took you so long?”
“Royal complications,” she said, not needing to elaborate. They both knew that the king had increased the number of trackers perusing the streets for criminals. The only reason she had yet to be caught was because nobody but the worst of Faronia knew what she looked like, who she really was. Venota was not a burly man with a collection of scars across his face and a list of random kills to his name. Faronia’s most lethal criminal was a stealthy young woman with a moral code and a hell of a right hook.
“I still hold that we kill them all.” A bloodthirsty grin.
“I only kill those who pose threats, Teolon. A couple of pathetic trackers will do nothing but irk me.” She glanced over the table of cards, and noticed that, though the others seemed invested in the game, they were no doubt clinging on to every word. “Come. I have questions.”
She began walking away, and he was wise enough not to question why as he followed her out to the smoking den. It was the only place in all the Grave that nobody lingered. Mostly because the rule to smoke only within the den was blatantly ignored by all patrons.
“Tell me about the wall.”
“They're tearing it down.” Simple. To the point. And not at all what she wanted to hear.
“What do you mean they're tearing it down?” she seethed. “Are they insane? What of the Varengard?”
“They have faith it might be dead. The wall is over two thousand years old.”
She scoffed. “The Varengard cannot die. If they tear down that wall, they might as well sign their own death sentences. And all of ours along with it.”
Teolon sighed as he leaned against a stool and crossed his arms over his chest. “There's nothing that can be done, Chlaerys. Groemea threatened war if the wall is not torn down. I believe the king feels he stands a better chance against one monster than an entire army of them.”
“The king is a goddamn fool.”
“And what would you do, my beastie?”
“I would rather take on that army singlehandedly than face the Varengard. They built that wall for a reason. It can kill with a single look, Teolon, a look. At least against the army, we could live long enough to fight.”
“The king thinks differently. An order is being sent out by the Queen of Groemea in a month, and he’ll have two more to decide whether to sign it or declare war. Enjoy these next three months, my dear beastie, you might not live much longer.”
She clenched her jaw and began pacing. “What can be done?”
He shrugged. “Kill the king.”
Chlaerys narrowed her eyes at him. “The entire nature of this conversation revolves around me not having a death wish.”
“Well, aren’t we stuck between a rock and a hard place?” He smirked at her.
“Do you wish to die, dwarf?”
“I am a dwarf,” he said, simply. “I do not fight wars. And neither should you, girl.” Ironic that the two most trained killers in the kingdom were legally barred from war.
She was about to tell him how there was no way in hell that she would fight in the king’s army, when the door to the Grave shot open and Ryvlan - one of the nastiest brutes in Faronia - strutted through with a gagged girl.
Chlaerys straightened immediately, forgetting Teolon and the wall, and strode into the bar towards him. He had the girl, about Chlaerys’s age, tied at the wrists, and was forcing her forward with the tip of a small knife. Everyone in the bar stared as he pushed her towards the middle, a predatory grin on his face, and announced his conquest.
“Found us one of them future Queenies,” he said, the gaps of his missing teeth, one of which Chlaerys had happily claimed, on full display. “What do y'all say we show her what real men can do?” The bar cheered for him. He purred into the girl’s ear, but, to her credit, she remained tall, not cowering at the nasty things he was probably saying. In fact, she seemed to be baiting him to come closer. And then, faster than anyone could catch it, the innocent girl in the long, blue dress had kneed Ryvlan in the groin and tried to run. For a moment, he staggered, his face a mask of pain and surprise, and then he reached out his arm and caught her, pulling her back and towards the floor. She fell, her delicate face thudding against the hard wooden floor of the tavern.
“Oh, I am going to have my fun with you, Queenie,” Ryvlan said, as he brandished his knife and sliced through the back of her dress. Chlaerys stiffened. The girl might be one of the Arrived, if Ryvlan was to be believed, and one of this year’s prospect for the Prince’s true mate - a tradition Chlaerys found absurd and abhorred - but she was still just a girl.
“Let her go, Ryvlan,” she said. The crowd turned to her, and as they saw who had spoken, they went silent and parted for her to reach the girl, who was now looking at her, not with fear or relief, but curiosity.
“Venota,” he said, his words tinged with bitterness. “What are you doing here?”
“Am I not allowed to visit the Grave?” She cocked her head at him and smirked. “Or are you afraid of me? Because, correct me if I’m wrong, but last I remember, that was me holding the knife over you. And I would be more than happy to do it again if you don’t let her go.”
“Are you threatening me, Venota?” A toothless snarl.
“That is up to you, Ryvlan.”
They stared each other down in the silence of the tavern. Even the brawling pit had paused to watch. As Ryvlan’s eyes narrowed, the corner of Chlaerys’s lips turned up. She knew exactly what he was about to do.
“Fine. If you want her so badly, come and get her.” He kicked the girl on the side and sent her sprawling, and she bit back her scream of pain. Chlaerys clenched her jaw, but ignored the girl. She would deal with her later.
She had a bastard to pummel.
Stepping toward the middle of the tavern, she felt the tip of her hidden dagger against her fingertips. “Gladly.”
And then she attacked.
She was a whirlwind of steel and leather as she cut and sliced towards him. She swept her feet beneath him and had him pinned to the ground with a dagger to his throat in one minute flat. He never stood a chance.
Beneath her, Ryvlan coughed, blood spurting out of his mouth from a jab she had thrown to his stomach. She took out two more daggers and pinned his hands to the wooden floor. Holding his throat down with her hand, she carved the symbol of the Hunter’s Guild onto his forehead. A curved V with a line through the middle, surrounded by a circle. Marked for death.
“You bitch,” he muttered, writhing beneath her.
“You do not touch another woman, understand? Or the next time, you will lose more than just your privacy.”
Standing up, she wiped her hands clean of his blood. She picked up her daggers, wiping the blades on his tunic, and sheathed them into her belt. Leaving him behind, she turned to the girl, and offered a hand.
“Let’s go.” The girl stared at her hand, refusing to take it. Chlaerys narrowed her eyes at her and crouched down.
“I said, let’s go.”
The girl shook her head and muttered against the gag in her mouth, which Chlaerys promptly removed. “I am indecent,” she said once it was out.
Chlaerys raised an eyebrow. “You were almost mauled by an entire tavern, and your concern is a torn dress?”
The girl’s face was set in stone, no warmth for her savior, as she said, “If any of the royal guards see me like this, I will be kicked out of the palace before I even get to meet the prince.”
“And it is that important to you to be his mate?”
“More than you can imagine,” the girl said, a hint of a blush sweeping across her cheek.
Chlaerys sighed. “Fine.” She removed her cloak and placed it around the girl as she helped her up. “But you get one stain on this cloak and I will make sure you and your dearest princeling pay heavily for it.”
The girl said nothing as she followed Chlaerys out of the Grave, bundling herself up in the red cloak to hide the tear in the back of her dress. “I’m assuming you were headed to the castle before the brute found you.” The girl nodded. “I can only take you as far as the keep around the corner.”
“Thank you,” the girl managed to spit out, though not entirely convincingly.
Chlaerys looked her over. The girl was pretty, probably more so when her long golden tresses weren’t tanged with blood. Her skin was fair, and her warm brown eyes, flecked with green, bristled with intelligence. She wasn't tall, like Chlaerys, but she wasn’t too short either. A formidable mate for the future king, Chlaerys thought, if she could make it past the eliminations. “What is your name?”
“Lady Annlyn of Reid?”
The girl paused, looking at her. No curiosity in that glare. She seemed to be sizing her up, as if wondering whether she could take on Chlaerys if she posed her a threat. “You know of me?”
Chlaerys shrugged nonchalantly. “You’re one of the favored prospects.” It was true, but it wasn’t why Chlaerys knew who she was.
“Yes,” Chlaerys said, waving it off. “Now, enlighten me. What was a favored prospect of Prince Kallian doing wandering around town with criminals on the day of the Arrival? Shouldn't you be drinking tea with the king?”
Annlyn’s face bloomed scarlet. “That is none of your business.”
Chlaerys stopped walking, grabbing her arm. She snarled at her. “Given that I am wasting my time saving your dainty little behind, I’d like to know who exactly it is I am bothering to help.”
“I didn’t ask for your help,” she said, trying to wriggle her arm out of her grasp.
“Fine, Princess. Good luck getting back on your own.”
Annlyn pouted and turned to go. “Fine.”
Chlaerys moved to grab her cloak, and Annlyn, wide eyed, shifted to avoid her grasp. Chlaerys raised an amused brow. “You didn’t think I’d let you go without taking back what's mine, did you?”
“I -” she paused, debating whether her secret was worth her honor. Quietly, she said, “I was trying to find a scouter.”
“You were looking for Ryvlan? Are you mad? Why would you do that?”
“I am not as… advantageous as other prospects,” she said. “If I want to stand out to the Prince, I need the upper hand.”
“Do you know what scouters do, girl?”
She rolled her eyes. “If I didn’t, I wouldn't be looking for one would I?”
“Who were you scouting?”
“I think I’ve told you enough.” She crossed her arms.
“You’ve told me nothing. You are Annlyn of Reid, one of the most prosperous territories in Arlen. Your family has long standing ties with the king, and despite the attack on your family last month, you got out unscathed and bathing in inheritance. You are favored to win not only for your connection and loyalty to the kingdom, but for your beauty and wits. So why, Annlyn of Reid, do you need scouting?” She looked her over. “Unless…” The girl before her was beautiful indeed. Not witty, as the rumors proclaimed, for having gone after Ryvlan, but beautiful. Except… her hair wasn’t the pale blonde of her mother, and her eyes weren’t the dark green Chlaerys swore she had seen that day in the dark. She was taller than she remembered too, and Chlaerys had attributed it to a growth spurt, but how likely was it that she had grown three inches in a year? “Who are you really?”
The girl paled. “Annlyn,” she said, but her voice was hesitant, not as confident as before.
“Do not lie to me, imposter. I admit, you make a convincing substitute, but Lady Annlyn of Reid would never refer to herself as Annlyn. Are you a rebel? A Groemean spy?”
“No! God, no,” she said, shaking her head.
“Then who are you?”
The girl looked around, noting the crowd of red-cloaked spectators, and pulled Chlaerys towards an empty alley. She took a long, heavy sigh and said, “My name is Elienne. I was Lady Annlyn’s handmaiden before she perished in the rebel attack. Her last wish was for me to honor her name, and win her glory by becoming the Prince’s mate. So I am here, posing as her, to fulfill her last request,” she admitted. “I was not brought up as a Lady or taught what one is supposed to do when they are chosen, so I hired Ryvlan to scout the others - nothing else, I swear it - and report back to me. As you can tell,” she gestured towards her tarnished attire, “it did not go as planned.”
“You are not a chosen Lady and they let you into the castle?” The gears in Chlaerys’ head were turning.
Elienne shrugged. “As long as I had the proper paperwork, they believed everything.”
“What kind of paperwork?”
“The Arrival letter, birth certificate, certification that you are in control or heir of a territory of Arlen-”
“And with all of this, you are allowed into the castle, the competition, to meet the King?”
“The competition is for the Prince,” Elienne said.
Chlaerys clenched her jaw, impatient. “But you meet the King?”
“I would assume so.”
If she could get into the castle, fake being a Lady like Elienne, then she might be able to get close enough to the King without arousing suspicion. Teolon said she had three months. Three months to keep the wall from being torn down and the lethal monstrosity that was the Varengard from wrecking havoc on Arlen. She could convince the King in three months.
Or kill him, a part of her thought, if it came down to it.
“Well, Elienne,” she said, sliding her secret dagger into her grasp and placing its tip against the girl’s back. She heard her terrified gasp, before she gagged her once again and pushed her in the opposite direction from the castle. “It seems you’re going to be of use to me after all.”