Chapter 1: In Which There Is A Princess And A Stranger
Kya stood perfectly still in the middle of the spacious, wooden dance floor in the ballroom, all of her attention focused on her head. Light filtered in through the wide, arched windows and filled the room with the bright, noon sunlight. She knew that above her the crystal chandelier sparkled brilliantly in the light and that beyond the windows the beautiful gardens of the palace were in full bloom. But Kya was not allowed to look at either of these things. She was forced to stare straight ahead at a decorative tapestry hung on an otherwise blank stone wall because of an unfortunate stack of books that had ended up on her head in a final, desperate attempt from the royal etiquette instructor to make a proper lady out of a wayward princess. This respectable, decorous teacher of the art of manners happened to be the Kya's fifth in two months, all the others having been driven off, most screaming that Kya was a ‘hopeless case.'
"Alright, Miss Kya," the teacher whose name Kya had forgotten said in an exasperated voice, "You will curtsey like a lady yet. Now this time don't bend at your waist or move your head. And if you let those books fall one more time you will stay here practicing until midnight."
Through the corner of her eye, Kya watched the instructor circle her like a predator moving in for the kill. The effect was intensified by the mirrors that bounced back the light of the gardens and the reflections of the ballroom's occupants. Though she couldn't see anything very clearly in the mirrors, she did glimpse her own short, slender figure looking too poised and upright to be natural.
Taking a deep breath to steady herself, Kya clenched her fists at around some of the fabric of her pale yellow day dress at her sides and began to curtsey. It seemed that the very thought of the act radiated out of her head and into the books for she had hardly started to move before they clattered to the floor in avalanche form, the biggest, heaviest one managing to land right on her foot.
"Ouch!" Kya shouted, cursing the book at full volume in the foulest language she knew as she jumped backwards on her other, luckier foot.
The instructor gasped audibly, appalled by the language she was hearing. "Miss Kya! Never in all my years have I met a princess who used such vulgar and unladylike language. Go to your room this instant and if you so much as stick your nose out of that door before supper there will be consequences. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, I understand," Kya answered glumly, shuttering at the prospect of spending yet another day locked in her room with nothing to do. Even the infernal etiquette class was a better fate than retiring to her dungeon. Sometimes being a princess felt a lot like being a prisoner.
"And take those books with you," continued the etiquette teacher, "Maybe, while you are mediating on your erroneous use of language, you will practice that atrocious curtsey in private so as to impress your parents and myself later."
"I'll take it under consideration," Kya grumbled to herself as she gathered the books off the floor and trudged out of the ballroom. Walking slowly up two flights of stairs and down the grand stone corridor that lead to her bedroom, she wondered idly if all her teachers considered books good for nothing but to be balanced on a princess's head, since that seemed to be the only thing they used them for.
Kya ambled up to the thick, dark, wooden door to her bedroom, a.k.a. ‘the cell.' This particular instructor was not the first to banish the young princess to this dark and gloomy place but she did seem to do it quite a bit more than her predecessors. The room was actually meant to be one of the luxury rooms of the palace because of its prime location on the third floor and its beautiful view from the window. It was true that candles were usually unnecessary during the day, despite the best efforts of dark stone that surrounded the room, because of a large window the looked down upon the courtyard. Despite its great size, the room was sparsely furnished with an armoire for dresses, a huge four-poster bed and a small table. The table was originally used for the ladies of the house to have tea on Fridays but the castle's servants were yet to catch Kya doing such a thing. Instead, she used the small furnishing as the house for what little enrichment she could give to her unusual gift.
Ever since she was a little girl, it had always been abundantly clear that Kya was not the average princess. She possessed a rare clairvoyance and cleverness that seldom touched the royal family. She was a genius of sorts to the people of the island of Zander, though Kya never saw herself that way. She spent hours at her table laboring over word and number puzzles from all over the island, not to mention the thousands of complex riddles she had solved. Unfortunately, a small island can only contain so much mystery and so her curiosity had eventually turned to other things. She started by reading every book in the enormous royal library and then moved on to trying to learn the art of swordsmanship from the knights of the court and some magic from the royal magicians The king and queen, however, strongly discouraged this natural aptitude in their daughter, fearing that it would prevent her for an advantageous marriage (a thought Kya cringed at) because the men of the royal court tended to be intimidated by her intelligence. They forbid her from her impromptu lessons and sealed off the library to her; not that she needed to read the books again, she already knew every word by heart.
She walked into the room and made sure to slam the door behind her in case the instructor was within earshot. Chucking the books on the bed, Kya immediately headed for her table when a flutter of motion caught her eye. Jumping, she turned to find herself face to face with her own reflection in a full length mirror. Kya stared for a moment at the image of herself. She was a little over five feet tall and slender, without any noticeable fat or muscle anywhere on her body. Her dress, like all her dresses, covered every inch of her skin save for her hands and face and she was sure that the royal tailors were coming up with something at this very moment that would cover those too. Her face could be pretty; high cheek bones, elegant nose, brilliant, emerald green eyes and pale, clear skin framed by long, thick, brown hair; but her beauty had always paled in comparison with that of her drop-dead gorgeous sister. Kya scowled at the reflection, more to express her indignation at being sent to her room at the age of seventeen than to protest her appearance. She never minded being ignored by noblemen in favor of her sister. They were all empty headed anyway.
Without farther ado, Kya ran to her table and pulled out her map of the world. This was her latest occupation, a gorgeous set of maps that she had filched off of a rich merchant during his stay at the royal palace. The beautiful scroll instantly evaporated any feelings of anger over her punishment. It was worth it to be able to spend the day in the fine company of a new challenge. The rich blues of the oceans and deep green of the land greeted her as the fine gold print neatly labeled every country, major city and body of water. Kya quickly and skillfully located her home country, Zander, one of three small islands off the coast of a large continent known as the Federation. This Federation as basically a dictatorship but, despite its control of the three islands, its main influence was on the mainland where citizens were forced to live in tenements and endure horrendous living conditions. The islands had some freedom but still had to pay gratuitous amounts of taxes to the mainland three times a year.
To the southeast was the continent of Melawja which housed four countries that worked together to benefit from the trade (or lack thereof) between the Federation and Calaso, a large, unified country to the northeast of Melawja. Calaso looked like a hand with thousands of fingers and each crevasse in between is a port, thus making it a major hub for trade. An unfortunate disagreement between the Federation and Calaso resulted in a ban on trade with one another directly so now both countries traded through Melawja, to its benefit.
Continuing east across the map, and slightly to the south, there was the part of the map that bothered her the most (in fact, it was the only part that bothered her at all). The Archipelago. This ill-fated set of islands was never identical on any two consecutive maps of the world because their positions and shapes were ever changing due to the immense amount of magic at work in that part of the planet. It was said that anything could, and did, happen on those seas, the precise reason they were avoided like the plague by merchant vessels.
East of the dreaded Archipelago was the Territory of Salwago, a largely uncharted and unpopulated spot of land in the ocean. To its north was the continent called Iskaslie, made up of a bunch of independent countries that fought constantly for control of land and wealth. To the extreme south was, of course, the South Pole, which Kya considered to be nothing more than a giant glacier where very little could live. The North Pole, on the other hand was so fiery and volcanic that its only inhabitants were dragons.
Kya was not allowed to have, see or, God forbid, learn to operate any navigational instrument. All books on the topic of ships and sailing had been removed from the royal library before she had gotten the chance to read them, hampering her ability to learn more on the subject of navigation and inflaming her desire to know all the mysteries of the seas. All the information she could gather came from novels and stories about pirates and brave sea captains, few of which ever mentioned the technical tools and terms used aboard a ship.
It seemed like a damn shame to let all her talent go to waste when it could be helping the people of Zander in a multitude of ways but Kya could not convince the king and queen of that. The maps, the few books she was allowed, and the riddles and puzzles she so adored were the only indulgence her parents permitted and soon she would not have even that. They were ‘a child's things' her parents told her and when they finally married her off to some idiotic nobleman sometime in the all too near future, they would burn it all because she would not need them anymore. She would be too busy raising children. Another thought that made her shutter. It wasn't that she hated children, it was just that she had very little patience.
A sudden knock on the door broke her absorption, making her jump. The door was opened by a servant dressed in a fine, light blue suit with an elegant white shirt underneath, the finery for servants, reminding Kya of the ball tonight. She stifled a sigh at the thought of living through yet another long and boring social event where crowds of men waited to dance with her sister and hordes of royals surrounded the king and queen and flocks of girls giggled at every word from her brother's mouth. Oh, the joy of a royal dance.
"It is time for your history lesson, princess Kya," the servant informed her.
"Thank you," she said as sweetly as she could manage, which was not very, "I'll be out in a minute." After I prepare myself for yet another torturous session of the most unbearably dull, dreary, uninteresting, mind-numbing class on the face of this planet, she added mentally.
The servant looked confused by this order, as if it were conflicting with another, which it was. "I'm supposed to escort you princess," he stated, working to sound matter-of-fact but coming off as just plain dumbfounded.
This sigh Kya couldn't stifle. "Alright," she agreed grudgingly, "give me a minute."
She put her maps away with more force than necessary, all her previous anger returning supplemented by a new rage. This escort service was a new institution implemented by her parents to . . . prevent her from running off with a strange man? Protect her from the bad people of the world, should they ever get into the palace? The only thing Kya knew for sure was that it got on her nerves to be shadowed every time she went from one room to another, like she was so mentally incompetent that she would get lost or hurt in the same palace she had lived in all her life.
Still fuming, she followed the servant out into the hall, once again slamming the heavy door behind her. The servant eyed her nervously but said nothing about her behavior, something that should have made Kya feel like a chagrinned little princess but instead gave her a slight feeling of satisfaction that she had made her feelings on the subject of history class known.
Unfortunately for the teacher of this subject, whose name Kya did remember to be Mr. Sloane, there was very little that constituted ‘interesting information' in the history of Zander. The hour and a half classes seemed to drag on and on for Kya in that second floor tutoring room. History was the only class she was allowed to take that was considered a ‘man's class' and that was only because of fierce temper she had kicked up for a whole week after she was told that she would begin to attend etiquette lessons when she was nine. It was this temper that had rid the palace of her first tutor in record time after Kya, in the first session, threw a book across the room and stormed, quite rudely, out of the ballroom without being excused. She had been punished with classes in needlework, music, painting and fine art; all of which she was terrible at and despised with a passion, not to mention the fact that they worsen her temper until she was promised a history class to compensate. If she had known what an ordeal it would be, Kya wouldn't have been so easily appeased.
The exasperated princess sat in her usual seat, by the window where she could at least stare out into the courtyard and let her mind wander. Her brother came in a few minutes later but Kya didn't even bother to look up at him. Prince Molo Kvoz VI was everything a prince should be: tall, dark, handsome, charming and ridiculously stupid. He swooped into the chair next to her and, foolishly, decided to try to speak with her before Mr. Sloane arrived.
"So, little sis," he started in his usual cocky tone, "How's it going?"
"If you really must know," she replied frostily, "terrible."
"Why?" Molo asked, aghast. He could not, of course, imagine how anything could be terrible in the life of a prince or princess.
"Look where we are," Kya stated as if he must have been stupid not to see what she was seeing, "The fact that we're in the tutoring room at all should signify the necessity of a bad mood."
"Oh," he responded as his dark brow crumpled in confusion. Then his usual absent-minded smile returned as he said, "But look on the bright side, there's a ball tonight. All the nobles will be there, not to mention their pretty daughters."
Kya groaned. "Molo, please just shut up."
She was saved the pain of farther conversation by the arrival of Mr. Sloane which, for the first in long time, made Kya actually glad to see him. He was a short, scholarly man who wore spectacles and whose brown hair was almost gone. Unfortunately, Mr. Sloane seemed to have a thing for brown suits because that was all he ever wore and Kya secretly wondered if he knew he looked like a mouse when he got dressed in the morning. The timid, mousy appearance belied his personality, however, for he was an efficient man who tended to be short tempered when things didn't run smoothly.
"Alright," he began the second he walked in the door, "Today, we will begin talking about the pirate wars of 1850's." (The current year was 1876. They had somehow gone from the stone ages to recent history although Kya couldn't remember a word of it).
"Pirate wars?" Kya interrupted suddenly, without meaning to. The interesting topic had caught her off guard, it being so different from the usual ranting about agriculture and economics of the island.
"Yes Miss Kya, the pirate wars," Mr. Sloane answered curtly before going on, "They started in 1851 when a pirate by the name of Yawser Yasulf created the first flying pirate ship with the assistance of a magician. The idea of a flying ship baffled the military, thus delaying their response. This led to six years of the pirates' rule; pillaging, killing and burning cities and towns. By that time, the Federation's navy was the first to deduce how to create flying ships of their own and did so in mass quantities. Other navies followed suit and soon all the pirates were wiped out, hanged for treason and their ships destroyed. By 1857, there were no pirates left. However, the flying ships made by the navy became the Royal Air Marshal which, as you both know, still patrol the skies today. Now . . ."
Kya tuned out now. Mr. Sloane never stayed on one subject for long and he was clearly done with this one. She sighed to herself as she wondered about the details of the pirate wars which, she was sure, Mr. Sloane had excluded purposefully in order to make the subject as boring as possible. He was possibly the only teacher in all of Zander that could have made that subject as dull as paint drying.
Completely dispassionate about the economic situation of the island a few years before she was born (Mr. Sloane's new topic), Kya began to wonder what life was like on a pirate ship, how it must have felt to be a pirate. Free, she would have to imagine, the total opposite of her life. Free on the high seas. The thought had a certain charm to it. She sighed and turned to look out the window, daydreaming to entertain herself. First about pirates, then, when that fantasy lost its appeal, she reverted to her typical daydreams: making puzzles for herself and solving them.
She was on the verge of cracking a particularly difficult word puzzle when she noticed some movement in the courtyard. A large carriage pulled by a single black horse came barreling down road. The horse was small, maybe a pony, and yet it pulled the massive, bright yellow carriage up to the palace at a brisk, untroubled pace, as if it pulled nothing at all. He came to a sudden stop in front of the door and that was when Kya noticed for the first time that the carriage had no driver. And yet, the horse came to a perfect stop in just the right place and stood patiently, waiting for those inside to let themselves out. How odd, she thought, looking closer now.
The side of the carriage was now in view and Kya could just make out the words painted in shocking red on its side:
Cinder's Cleaning Service
She had never heard of the business but she assumed that they were here to clean the palace before the ball. The crew began to pile out of the carriage, dressed in dirty jeans, coveralls and flannel shirts. Their figures were hard to discern from a distance but Kya could tell they weren't all elves, like everyone else on the island (including the royal family). She also saw, or thought she saw, one man go up to the driverless horse, whisper something in its ear, and walk away. They all went inside a moment later, leaving the horse to stand, unattended, in the middle of the road in front of the palace.
It took maybe all of two seconds for Kya to figure out that something was up. That horse couldn't be just any horse the way it acted. And the crew? She hadn't seen much of them but they were clearly not from the island and that meant that they weren't the usual cleaning crew. With a mystery staring her straight in the face, Kya could hardly be passive.
"Mr. Sloane?" she asked, doing her best to sound timid, "May I please go to the bathroom, sir?"
"It is rude to interrupt, princess," he said in a tone of combined disdain and annoyance. Although she hadn't realized it, Kya had cut him off in mid-sentence. "You had plenty of time to go before this class and you will have plenty of time afterwards. Now-"
"But Mr. Sloane," she persisted in her most pleading voice, "I really have to go."
Mr. Sloane, who had already turned to face the chalkboard in the front of the room, turned around again with a heavy, disappointed sigh. "You really have to go?"
"Really," she answered.
"Too bad," he said, "because you're not going to gain my permission by begging."
"Fine," she said in a more natural and determined voice, "Then I'll just leave."
Without waiting for a response, Kya got up and, much to the astonishment of everyone present, left the room. As soon as she was in the hallway and the door shut behind her, Kya kicked off the heeled shoes that hurt her feet and bolted down the corridor at top speed. She turned several corners and went down a few flights of stairs to an abandoned corridor where the servants who were inevitably looking for her already wouldn't be likely to check.
Glancing over her shoulder, she realized that the path behind her was empty. She smiled at her success and slowed to a walk to catch her breath.
"Congratulations, I think you just set a new land-speed record for princesses," said a voice from right across the hall from her. Kya jumped. She hadn't known there was anyone in this passage.
But sure enough there was a man leaning against a doorframe no more than five feet from her. He was a tall man, at least six feet tall. He had a messy stock of jet black hair whose fringes sometimes hung down into his intelligent, clear, ice blue eyes. The sharp, angular features of his cheeks, nose and chin should have given him a severe look but that was put off by a mischievous smirk on his lips and a twinkle of laughter in his eye. He had his arms folded over his chest and one foot crossed in front of the other. The plain, red, flannel shirt he wore stuck to his skin and showed off his muscular arms and chest. Next to that, his non-descript black pants and boots were hard to notice.
Kya remembered him instantly. He was the same man who had spoken to the horse, she thought as she eyed his tell-tale, bright red shirt. No one else had been dressed like that. She was suddenly on-guard thinking about the horse and carriage. They reminded her that he was not what he seemed to be.
The cleaner who was not a cleaner chuckled at her when she didn't respond, pulling her out of her thoughts. Her eyes narrowed in suspicion as she asked, "Who are you?"
Smile still in place, he responded, "Just a humble cleaner."
"Surely you don't expect anyone here to believe that," she shot back.
"Actually," he said playfully, "I expect everyone here to believe that. And they do." He paused for a moment as he studied her and then continued, "Except for you. Princess Kya, I presume."
"How do you know who I am?" she asked guardedly.
"Same way you know who I'm not. Intuition, perhaps."
"So you admit it. You're not here to clean the palace."
"Of course not," he answered frankly. His smile lingering on his lips, his eyes still regarding her good-humoredly. "What I'm interested in, though, is how you figured it out."
"You provided an amble amount of clues, you know," Kya said as she crossed her arms and leaned against the wall opposite the strange man. She faced him with a certain confidence about her, with no fear. This, of course, made little sense as this man could be a thief or a murderer but Kya had a feeling that he wasn't here to hurt anyone and his devil-may-care attitude almost made him charming. Almost.
"Do explain," he pressed with a wicked smile.
"Your horse, for one," she replied like it was a challenge, "It's practically a pony and yet it pulled that huge carriage by itself, without a driver. And I do believe I saw you go over and talk to it before you left it standing, unattended, in the middle of the road. Now it's your turn, explain that one to me."
"Easy," he replied, "It's a darkling."
Kya was so shocked that for a moment, all she could do was stare. A darkling. A shape-shifter. That certainly did make everything she had observed make sense. They were strong no matter what shape they took but she thought they only lived in the South Pole . . . His laughter broke through her thoughts again as he said, "Come on, what else have you got?"
"No," the princess answered, defiance and anger showing, "You come in here and demand answers of me like you own the place. No. I won't say another word until you give me some answers. Who are you?"
"Who do you think I am?" he responded, seemingly more amused than upset about her out burst.
Kya narrowed her eyes in agitation. "One more riddle and I walk out of here. Now tell me-"
"What? That's all I get? Nero?"
She thought for a moment, mulling over the unusual name until the obvious conclusion hit her. "You're not an elf."
"Perceptive. What makes you say that?" he questioned seriously for the first time.
"Intuition, perhaps," she repeated his earlier words with a smile.
"You know, you're not making this easy for me," he said, "I'm supposed to be testing you."
"For what purpose? What do you want?"
"Nothing much," he said with a devilish grin.
"If you don't tell me, I'll call the guard on you. They-"
"And tell them what? That this poor, honest palace cleaner is not what he seems? You forget, my dear, that they already bought my act. If they hadn't, they wouldn't have let me in. I already have them on my side and you have no proof beyond a very well-trained horse. No one will believe you, even if there was some member of the guard here to call. And now, if I were you, I'd run." He indicated a flight of stairs a little ways down the hall from where they were standing from which the sound of footfalls echoed. The invasion of the servants was about to begin.
Kya didn't move, they would catch her eventually anyway. Instead, she asked another question. "How is it that you came to have a darkling working for you?"
"That is a long story, love. And I think-"
"Give me the abbreviated version," she demanded of him.
"Tsk, tsk princess," he said jokingly, "Demands are not very polite."
She waited. She wanted answers and she would have them.
"Tell you what," he said, "I'll answer as many questions as you like. Tonight."
"Tonight?" she asked, mystified.
"At the ball."
"At the ball? You're not invited to the ball."
"You just invited me."
"I did not," Kya exclaimed, sounding and feeling a bit like a petulant five year old.
"Listen," he sighed, sounding and feeling a bit exasperated by the stubborn princess, "Do you want answers to your questions or not?"
"Well," she faltered, "Yes, but-"
"Not buts," he interrupted, "If that's what you want, then I'm invited. Understand? Good." He answered for her, without ever really giving her a chance. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a palace to clean."
"But you can't get in unless you're on the list," she said, "The guard will stop you. There's no way-"
"You leave that to me."
And he disappeared through a nearby door with a wink and a smile. Seconds later, a platoon of servants rushed into the hall like a swat team about to capture a fugitive.