Everyday I see her.
A woman who is thin and wry, with disheveled medium brown-black hair around her face, never taking the time to groom it for it wouldn't make a difference anyway. Her skin a dull-brown, marred with burns and scars across her cheeks and forehead, others elsewhere but hidden under a dull black cloak and tunic. A slightly crooked from a beating that never healed and her mouth a tight, sardonic smirk that seemed to never leave her lips, laughing at a joke only she knew. One of her eyes was a bright amber color, while the other had lost its vision, now only a milky white. A woman who by all rights of age should have been in her prime, beautiful and proud.
Now nothing more than a disgusting mess.
Leaving the seat of the mirror I waved annoyingly at a nearby maid who offered up her arm for assistance. I grabbed a simple black cane with crystal top instead shifting the weight to my good leg leaving my room and beginning the worst part of the day, climbing the stairs.
As I started I thought back to the first time my father had hit me. I was young then, I had come to ask him a question and for some reason his fat frame had shook with fury when he heard it. A backhand that had sent me flying, weeping and confused.
I climbed the stairs painfully and with each step I could feel my crippled leg spasm in pain, but I grit my teeth and continued ignoring a group of merchants who passed by purposefully failing to hide their mocking laughs.
After the first hit it was as if nothing was holding him back, I had tried my best to be nothing, say nothing, to not raise his ire, but it wasn't enough, the leg he broke never set right.
At the top of the stairs, I could glimpse a bustling hall filled with people, their laughter and chatter echoing down the long corridor, an odd atmosphere considering it was a funeral. I took a deep breath and steadied myself, feeling the tightness of my jaw from clenching my teeth.
Somewhere along the way he had realized the limp made it difficult for me to attend to my duties, so he turned to less debilitating methods, fire that hurt like nothing else. Over and over for a decade and he never told me why, oh I kept screaming every time, the pain never really dulled, but in the last few years I no longer screamed for him to stop.
I had cursed his name with every ragged breath. Cursed him to the nine hells and back and learned every curse a proper woman shouldn’t know and a proper man shouldn’t use. They usually earned me another burn or another strike but seeing him fume became my greatest revenge. I even had a few foreign books to learn some curses he wouldn’t even understand. I smiled at the memory of seeing his confused face being compared to a wongersnac. An animal from the far East in the Empire, they cover themselves in their own shit to deter predators.
Shaking my head I stepped into the hall, and immediately heads turned at the sound of my cane. I could feel the stares like knives in my back, some mocking, some curious, all greedy. People whispered as I made my way through the throng, muttering about my condition and what a shame it was. I sneered at them, turning away heads and causing smiles to go still.
Did they think I did not remember? That I had forgotten who I had turned to for help in this forsaken palace? When the beatings didn’t stop I had turned to their friendly smiles and warm words, I had made the mistake of asking them for help. They had sold me out without second thought back to him, all for the slightest shred of favor.
What was the torture of a little girl to them for a bit more power?
I stepped up to the large upraised platform on which a fat man was adorned in gaudy silky merchant attire, fabric inlaid with gold fiber, his eyes covered with two gold coins, an expensive large gold crown on his bald head.
My eyes narrowed as I tried hard not to spit on my fathers corpse, Merchant King Ulgar who ruled the City of Sand and Stone while it crumbled was dead, murdered. The mortician had done well at hiding the sickly purple veins and bloodshot eyes, poison. Not uncommon amongst merchants but considering the amount of cleansing artifacts and slave testers food for the King went through it was nearly impossible to poison the King, but it had been done.
God it felt good, but alas it wasn’t all good, It wasn’t me who had killed him.
I closed my eyes listening and feeling the hundred or so merchants conversing and moving about the space. They spoke words of grief but underneath it all I could already sense it, the moving plots and growing ambitions.
Someone here had murdered my father, but that wasn’t what concerned me. It was that as his only heir I inherited his wealth and stood next in line, the date of my coronation to become Merchant Queen already set.
And that meant I stood in the way of their ambition.
I opened my eyes as I heard footsteps approaching me, a stately man with trim goatee and tight high-quality but simple olive green tunic bowed deeply before me. My eyes grew soft as I gazed upon one of the few men I could trust.
My chief advisor Chunnley, a scholarly man who was learned in many things. I smiled less sharply at him.
“Chunnley, have you finished what I asked of you?”
He straightened and nodded eagerly, his voice was calm but with hints of personal interest peaked through, like a researcher talking about their favorite topic.
“Yes Princess, I have changed the lock codes for the vault as you instructed, oh and that other little matter is completed, the funds transferred and graciously accepted.”
I bumped his shoulder with a fist “Excellent work, we must keep moving quickly in these coming days to secure my Fathers fortune and support for the crown.” I gestured out to the merchants milling about “which of them do you think did it?”. Chunnley pondered the question seriously, eventually pointing to a section of merchants dressed in particularly blood red silk. All centered around a tall woman in a tight red dress that stood out from the common merchant tunic the rest wore.
“The Ruzeal family has much to gain from King Ulgar’s death, he had placed many taxes and duties onto ruby mining and sales that their family focuses on. Mistress Angela Ruzeal had on many occasions stormed out of palace meetings furious and threatened revolt.”
Staring at Mistress Angela it seemed she felt something and her gaze turned to mine, she paused before smiling brightly giving a small nod of the head and gesture of the arm, I only stared back until she was distracted by some talking. I shook my head “It’s unlikely it was her, Father only pushed her because he knew he could get away with it, she's all bark and no bite, her profits from ruby farming are absurdly high even with the tax no other merchants come close to her wealth and they despise her for it. She cares about face and not ruining what her family has going. I knew her and Father to have lemon-jack juice together often only minutes after she supposedly stormed out of palace meetings.”
Chunnley grunted in response, I expected he would still look into it, he was a man that liked to come to his own conclusions.
“Another top contender would be-”
“Pardon the intrusion, I would like to offer my condolences to Princess Azeal.” I turned my gaze to a merchant who approached wearing a simple brown turban, tunic and cloak, underneath it I peered chainmail.
Common attire from the mercenary wars if I recall. He bowed slightly, more than most gave but not enough befit of the next Merchant Queen.
“I am Reji of the Ourlous family. My condolences for the loss of your Father, he was a wise merchant.”
I laughed sharply causing Reiji of Ourlous to pause with confusion “My Father was a greedy pig who never created much of anything, I do not weep at his loss.”
Reiji scratched the back of his head, it seemed he had expected the orphaned daughter to be forlorn with grief. “I see, well you knew him best after all.”
I nodded slowly “Aye, that I did. Now if you will excuse us my advisor and I have matters of great importance to discuss.” I turned to walk away but I felt a hand grab my arm. Reji spoke out with an urgency that was well hidden before.
“Actually Princess, I would like to discuss the Mines of Tandoor-”
Before he could finish Chunnley swatted the man's arm off me “Your behavior is unfit for a merchant of the City sir.” Rejis eyes widened as he looked to Chunnley for what appeared the first time, eyes narrowed at the brand on the back of his hand.
“A mere slave swatting a merchant, who is your master I will-”
“I am his master and his actions are warranted.” I winced ever so slightly.
As if any human being was any less shit than the rest. Reji’s mouth closed as he waited for me to continue. I flipped through my memory and all the books my father had forced upon me coming upon the section of relevance. I looked at him coldly “The Mines of Tandoor, yes we should discuss them. Recently quotas have been consistently unmet, what have you to say about this, mine overseer Reji?”
I smiled internally as his eyes opened wide and he began to stutter “P-princess the fault is not my own, the mines are empty.”
Smiling sharply as he fell into my trap I pounced “Ah, but just last week the inspectors brought me a fresh artifact found in the mine purchased for a pretty sum.” I motioned to my chest where a simple necklace rested atop my black cloak. “Do you not recognize the artifact you sold? And the inquisitor told me of another artifact found on the same day as well that you insisted on keeping. It seems to me the mine is not so empty.”
Reji’s face scrunched up as he realized he had been had “While that may be true there had been no other artifacts found for months beforehand and the artifact I kept was-”
“Enough.” I cut him off calmly, the sound of chatter in the hall had long faded as other merchants listened in, like bloodhounds sniffing out bleeding prey.
“It seems your methods as mine overseer are unfit, some changes are indeed required.”
I stroked my chin with my free hand, the other leaning on my cane. Perhaps this was the best time to start changes, to fix what had brought the City of Sand and Stone to its knees, and what had made it whore itself out.
“Starting next month everyone employed in the mines must be a free and paid man, it seems slave labor is proving ineffective.”
Reji’s face went taut as he winced out a response after some time “And who would pay for these new miners?” I smiled sweetly at him “Why, who else but the mine overseer.” Visible anger flamed up on his face.
“This is nonsense! This will ruin me, the council will not accept this.”
I let out a heavy sigh, "It pains me to think of how the mines have become so inefficient. Slaves may be cheaper on labor costs, but they bring no brains or motivation with them. This city needs more than just free labor, it needs free minds as well."
I shook my head sadly, "You call this nonsense? I call it an opportunity. An opportunity for you and all the citizens of the City. And besides, the council is all before you-" I gestured widely to the listening spectators.
“-do any of them come to your defense?”
Reji’s face went pale as he looked from face to face in the crowd, some looked away abash while most openly sneered at him. They were enjoying this, it made me sick, I wonder if any of them had looked at me like that when I came to them for help.
I waved my hand “The City is not unreasonable, we will provide you a lump sum to help convert your operations but after that you're on your own. This matter is concluded.”
Walking away I left Reji standing stunned as Chunnley and I moved to a balcony, he closed it behind us just as the chatter was beginning again. Leaning my cane against the balcony I pulled out an ivory pipe stuffed with desert sage striking a match deftly with my other hand against the railing lighting it. Taking a deep pull the acrid smoke filled my lungs, once upon a time it had made me cough out heavily but now I only breathed it out in a smooth relaxed sigh.
At my side I saw Chunnley glancing at the pipe with poorly concealed concern, I rolled my eyes “It’s just a bit Chunnley.”
“With all due respect Princess desert sage is extremely addictive and the long-term side effects are… not pleasant.”
“Correct, it’s also extremely expensive.” I smiled as he sighed, taking another puff. Already I could feel the pain numbing, desert sage was a red leafed flower found in rare and elusive oases. Hard to find and harder to cultivate, it was a plant few could afford, but its effects were wonderful, immediate and long lasting relief from pain and enlightened senses. It had another name known by locals.
So expensive only merchants could buy it and its effects from repeated addictive overuse had left many merchants devoid of their wealth and a few in the grave. It was so bad it had been banned by Father early in his reign.
Not that such a ban could stop me.
I shrugged letting the smoke swirl around me, addiction I could master and what did future side effects matter when death was only ever a day away. “Don’t worry Chunnley I can handle myself. That merchant from before, Reji of Ourlous, what do you know of him?”
Chunnley let out a long breath, “Reji of Ourlous is the only of his family, he wasn’t particularly successful as a merchant, he had little family wealth to use when his late parents passed. He came into a great measure of success and fame upon the onset of the mercenary war, overshadowing all other families. He and his lieutenant never failed a contract. But as the mercenary wars raged on, the contracts began to dwindle. Without any enterprises to fall back upon, Reji took on more and more… questionable contracts, his companies renown turned infamous and soon none would take him on. When returned without wealth or ally he was soon shunned into the position of mine overseer by the council.”
I nodded, without a doubt Reji had been hoping to escape his position at the mine, and with good reason, but alas such a weak merchant was the perfect testing grounds for my designs. “Should he follow through with my commands he could be turned into a powerful ally.” I said before taking another puff of my pipe.
“You think so?” Chunnley said skeptically, “Reji had been forced into that mine for almost three years now, whatever wealth he had gained from the wars has since then been drained and he doesn’t seem the type to give up. I don’t know if he’ll be amenable to your plans.”
I shrugged, “Maybe, maybe not. But I’m confident in my abilities to deal with him. After all, what other options does he have? He could perish down in that mine or come out under my banner.”
Chunnley sighed, knowing I was right. He had no other choice but to agree to my plan. We continued to sit in comfortable silence until he stood up glancing at the moon. “It’s time.”
I raised an eye at him “Where?”
“According to the information they will come to you, here is as good as anywhere, but you must be alone.”
I waved my hand at him “Run along then.”
He nodded “I will be close.” and walked away briskly closing the balcony door behind him. Taking another puff I enjoyed the acquired taste and sensation, looking at the pipe in my hand I still remember when my Father had given it to me and the words he spoke.
Everyone has a vice Azeal, let this be your only one and no other. Rely not on the sweet words of friends or foes but only the measured trade you make every time you puff.
My eyes wandered to the desert night sky, full of stars, so bright and clear you could make out the shapes of familiar constellations, a bedazzling blanket of jewels, a fitting crown atop the City. The air was abuzz with the sound of lively music, laughter, and song as street performers, vendors, and markets all competed to be heard. So close to the palace this was only to be expected, but it was the edges, the rim of the city that made me concerned.
It was so far I could barely see but there I saw the shape of smaller sandstone homes, not luxury mansions. The homes of the lower class citizens, the slaves and the workers, and out there I saw no lights or festivals, no celebration and no hope. Everynight it seemed like more and more of it grew darker, ever encroaching on the inner city light.
Inside I could feel it, the constant worry, an ever increasing dread. Quiet, but when I listened closely I grew fearful at what I heard. My Father had tortured me for years and everyone in this palace had let it happen, this place should have been nothing to me.
So why? Why do I yearn to fix it?
My thoughts were broken by the sound of the balcony door opening.
A servant woman, dressed in a palace uniform with a tray of chilled mint wines. The servant bowed in respect and addressed me, "Good evening Princess Azeal. I have come with refreshments at the request of Advisor Chunnley."
I placed my pipe on the railing still smoldering and leaned my back against the railing motioning her closer. “Well come here then, I shouldn’t have to hobble over to you now should I?”
She bowed and brought the wine closer. I picked up one of the thin tall glasses and sniffed it. It smelt of mint and fruit, I put it to my lips but paused. “It’s not poisoned is it?” The servant looked like she couldn’t decide whether to be frightened or amused and I only laughed, throwing my head back downing the smooth beverage.
The servant sensing my enjoyment offered up the platter but I shook my head “Do you know how I know it wasn’t poisoned?” she only chucked slightly, humoring me “No my Lady.” I admired the glass handiwork as I responded “It’s because the Red Knives always make the kill with their signature dagger.”
The servant's face went pale but she quickly acted by dropping the platter reaching behind her back for something but I wouldn’t be having any of that. I smashed the crystal glass against her head, shattering it and knocking the woman to the ground with a grunt.
As if a cripple would fight fair.
She was evidently well trained because she recovered quickly jumping up alert but it was too late. Already I had retrieved one of the four simple daggers I kept hidden on me at all times and plunged it into her chest.
I flashed her a savage grin as blood gurgled out of her mouth “This was one contract you shouldn’t have taken.” I let her slip to the floor, my knife still in her chest, she gurgled some more but life had already left her eyes.
The Red Knives were notorious bounty hunters and assassins of the City who specialized in infiltration and assassinations. I had heard stories of their signature blades being left in the body of many unfortunate merchants, but I had never had the displeasure of witnessing it firsthand.
I remained unimpressed but assassins were always easy to deal with assuming you knew they were coming. Reaching down I picked up the iconic red handled weapon she had dropped. It had a large shiny blade, the moonlight reflected off its polished surface revealing a ragged woman in all black speckled with blood staring back through one eye.
I twitched at the ugly reflection stashing the dagger, it was still needed.
It wasn’t a moment longer until I heard the door open again, this time it was Chunnley who entered. He looked at the body like a man reviewing the results of an interesting experiment. “It seems our friends in the undercity provide what they are paid for.” I scoffed at him “They’d better consider how much it cost, and I’m fine thanks for asking.”
Chunnley grinned and shook his head. "I was watching the entire time, did you really have to drink the wine though, what if it really was poisoned?". I shrugged, not wanting to admit that I hadn't really thought about it. Chunnley made his way over to the body and began inspecting it with a critical eye. He looked up at me “Do you wish to proceed with the plan Princess?”
I nodded and he slipped something into the servant's pocket. He got up brushing off his knees. “Now we need only call the guards and-”
I walked over to the guardrail grabbing my pipe stashing it, and my cane with the other. Turning back to Chunnley I smiled “We take the body with us back into the event space. Tonight we must speak loud and clear to the merchants.” I motioned to the body “If you would be so kind.”
Chunnley gave me a questioning look but obliged by grabbing the servants shirt, I hobbled past him and he began to drag the body behind me leaving a trail of smeared blood. A red path for the red knife assassin. I smirked as I opened the balcony door and began my way to the center.
Already the talk near me silenced, replaced by gasps and pale faces at the scene behind me. Feeling jovial I spoke to a nearby man on the way, his pale face turned to me “Rogier my good man I haven’t seen you since my tutoring days, what was it that you always said about me to Father again?” I put a pensive finger to my chin “Ah I believe it was ‘as dull as an Ogre’” he looked from the dead body being dragged and back to me and somehow his face went even paler as he tried to respond “I-I-” I slapped him on the shoulder and he yelped falling into a seat. I flashed him a grin “Funny times, I always remember them fondly.”
Laughing internally I continued on my way, by now I had the entire chamber's attention.
I made my way to the center of the event, Chunnley dragging the body of the assassin laying it against the pedestal that held Fathers body. Everyone's eyes were fixed on me, waiting to see what I would do next. I threw the red knife onto the marble floor where it clattered loudly.
Taking my cane, I pointed at the knife, my voice carrying well throughout the chamber.
"A Red Knife," I said, loud enough for everyone to hear. "A symbol of a group of assassins that attempted to take my life today. But I survived, no assassin will be able to take my life easily. Let this be a warning to all who would try."
I looked around the room and could see guards swarming in, scimitars and turbans on their heads, chainmail clanking. Captain Gezel who wore a blue tunic compared to the rest of the guards who wore brown came up to me bowing before staring at the body with narrowed eyes “Princess, is this true?” I wiped some blood from my chip, raising an eye at him “What do you think?”
He looked doubtful but with all eyes of the palace on him he couldn’t shirk his duty, he got down onto one knee “My deepest regrets Princess, your life was endangered and the palace guard has failed you, I will accept any punishment you see fit.” I nodded and struggled hard to conceal the smirk that so greatly wanted to peek through, I cleared my throat instead.
Straightening my posture and reign in my mirth I turned to Captain Gezel, giving him a firm nod. "You are right, Captain," I said. "Your men have failed me today and for that you will be held accountable. But what is more important right now is to find who is responsible for this attack. We must find out who it was, who hired these assassins and planned treason."
Captain Gezel nodded barking orders to his guards, they spread out within the room, some heading to the balcony to begin searching and I looked on pleased as two went to investigate the dead body.
I exchanged some words with the captain but in reality I was only biding my time until-
A guard ran up to Captain Gezel handing him a letter sealed with purple wax. “We found this in the assassin's pocket.” The Captain inspected it, his face still going, he tried to slip away under the guise of investigation but I stopped him loudly.
“Captain Gezel, what is it your man found?”
Captain Gezel spoke curtly “It is a letter containing the orders to assassinate Princess Azeal and how best to infiltrate the palace. Our team will be able to use this to investigate the matter well.”
“And what of the seal I see on it?”
His face went taut, wincing out the words he could no longer hide “It is the Merchant seal of the Rykard family.”
“Lies!” A hefty middle-aged man adorned in fine silks and surrounded by a flock of women cried out drawing all attention to him. The man continued, his face contorting in rage. "The Rykards would never betray the princess! You all know us, we are loyal to our ruler and the crown. It must be some kind of mistake!"
I took a deep breath and stepped forward, my voice strong and clear. "Your claims of loyalty are admirable, sir Rykard." I said, glancing around the room. "But the evidence is clear. This letter was found on one of the assassins, with the Rykard family's seal on it. It speaks for itself."
The heavyset man spluttered indignantly but I silenced him with a sharp gesture. "Now that we know who is responsible for this attack, we must bring justice to bear. After all, what good is a ruler if justice is not seen to be done?" I paused and looked around the room before continuing.
"Therefore, I sentence Geoffry Rykard to death for treason and seize all of his family's assets under the crown for investigation to be returned unto his immediate heir when all cleared.” The sentence came without warning and immediately a hush fell over the room. There was an air of fear in the room, no one wanting to be the first to speak up and risk being associated with the Rykards.
Everyone seemed to be holding their breath until finally Geoffry Rykard stepped forward, his voice quivering with rage. “This is blatant tyranny, an idiot cripple plotting to steal wealth, a little girl with foolish ambitions. I simply will not take any further insults! I will be returning to my estate and demanding compensation from the palace.” he held up his hand and a slave ring on his finger flashed and the women surrounding him all froze before grabbing knives from under their dresses. He made for the ballroom door and I watched him with glee as he began to struggle to open the large door. I glanced at Chunnly who only winked at me.
Ah good old Chunnly, ever a prepared man.
I gave orders to Captain Gezel in a voice that rang with authority and brooked no question. “Kill him Captain, traitors against the crown are before you.”
Gezel gripped his sword with one hand and stared dubiously at the letter in his other. He wasn't a stupid man, he knew no merchant would be foolish enough to leave behind such an obvious link and most likely had wanted to investigate further so as to not incur the Merchants wrath. However, I also knew he wouldn't stand against the crown, oathbound with duty and service which he stuck to strongly. I knew because he had been one of the first I turned too after the beatings and he hadn't lifted a finger, all because Father told him not to.
I serve the crown little one, no matter how vile.
He would regret those words greatly, starting today. The old crown was dead, long live the new order. I grinned savagely at Gezel and he only flinched back, finally giving in and commanding his soldiers to move forward, blades drawn and ready. I had to give old Rykard credit, in the face of such force, Geoffry Rykard scowled, cursed and sent his slaves forward. Screams and the clash of mettle soon ensued, the ballroom merchants all taking cautious steps back, some of their personal guards pulling swords of their own. They would be safe for today, Rykard was the biggest thorn in my future plans, he was afterall the largest owner of slaves in all of the City.
The slaves did not last long against trained soldiers incurring no more than shallow cuts on the guards, I frowned as they fell one by one. There was a whimper, a scrambling of feet and deep thud as Rykard’s body fell to the ground a deep slash across his chest bleeding, one conflicted Captain Gezel holding the blade. Finally, the echoing silence that was left in the wake of battle, punctuated only by the distant sob of Rykards son and children who he had so bravely left behind.
As for myself, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction, not at the death but at the fact that my plans could move forward. Captain Gezel returned to me, uniform bloodied, I met his eyes and he bowed down on one knee “The deed is done Princess Azeal, the traitor killed.” I nodded and he returned to my left, the scholarly Chunnly at my right.
I tapped my cane twice on the floor, it echoed loudly. I had seen what power would do, I had seen the consequences of my orders and I knew with every ounce of my being that if I allowed it, more eyes could soon be dead. I had not killed anyone before today and yet it came so easily and without regret. I had survived my Father’s beatings but something inside me hadn’t. Everyone in the room was watching me, expectant and fearful of what would come next. If things were to change, If I really was to fix this crumbling City I needed to be bold and move fast, consequences be damned.
"Let this be a lesson to all those who stand against the crown. Punishment will be swift and harsh, and no one, slave or merchant, is safe from it."
I smirked widely at everyone. “ But I apologize for tonight's events, please continue to enjoy my late Fathers funeral, he too was a great man of the crown.”
The silence was suffocating, they knew events today happened too fast, the justification too convenient. They all looked at me, some scowling, some curious, all wary.
Let them understand exactly what kind of Queen I would be.