The frosted glass allowed the morning’s luminescence to bleed into the castle, filling the hallway with bright white light that flowed gracefully across the white marble flooring, the brownish-gray walls, and the ivory doors of the servants’ quarters. The scent of bacon and potatoes filled the wide corridor, signaling breakfast, but the silence that permeated the thick tile and even thicker walls gave the illusion it was still night when everyone slumbered and hid from the darkness within the darkness.
Irasta walked barefoot across the tiles, the undersides of her feet chilled by the lingering cold that seized the fortress each night. She momentarily missed the comfort of her own bed, but it was an ache that quickly dissolved with the thoughts of Renold and their twilight encounter.
Startled, Irasta broke from her musings and turned to the young servant girl. Trana’s dirtied apron and tussled brown hair told Irasta the young girl had been cooking, as she was one of the ten chefs who inhabited the Fortress of Para. Trana was always recognizable by her tussled hair, as the other nine chefs had cut their hair short to avoid dropping hair follicles in the castle’s food.
Trana dropped to her knees and touched her forehead to the floor. Her long hair spread across the tile like a puddle of brown liquid. “Your highness.”
“Get up, Trana. I thought I made it clear I don’t want the staff bowing like that.”
Trana scrambled to her feet. Her wide blue eyes sparkled in the morning light, and it gave her a youth that Irasta missed about herself. “Sorry, your highness. Sorry. I just wanted to tell you that we’re out of veil beets.”
Irasta nodded. “Very well. Have Goron pull more from storehouse number three.” The food shortage would claim the kingdom soon enough. Just another crisis Irasta was struggling to salve.
Trana nodded, curtseyed – even though she wore white pants marred by orange and yellow stains, and started toward the stairwell.
The girl turned. “Yes?”
“How did you know to find me here, in the servants’ quarters?”
The girl’s slight hesitation betrayed her deception. “I saw you come up the stairwell when I was searching the pantries.”
Irasta took a few steps toward the girl. She wondered if Trana would notice that she was barefoot, although the long white gown she wore more than covered up her legs and feet. When she was within a few feet from Trana, Irasta stared into the girl’s eyes with a blazing glare that could have melted iron. “Where are the other cooks?”
Trana’s confused expression – the way she knitted her eyebrows together as if they were meant to be one, long row of hair – did nothing to trick Irasta. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, your highness.”
Irasta, her chest beating out of mere frustration with the girl’s lies, took hold of Trana’s arm. The girl’s flesh was tender, delicate. Easily destroyed if it came to it. “Tell me where the other chefs are.”
Trana’s eyes widened, and her lips pressed together, attempting to restrain a secret that did not want to be restrained, as if her very voice was Pandora’s Box attempting to wreak havoc upon mortals.
“If you don’t,” Irasta said, “I’ll have you tried for treason.”
“It wasn’t my idea. I didn’t want anything to do with it.”
Irasta grit her teeth. “With what?”
Irasta released the girl’s arm and then turned toward the window, crossing her arms. The sun hid behind a cluster of clouds, leaving a dreary darkness in its absence. “Where are they now?”
Silence fell between them like a thick cloud of dust, permeating each crack and crevice in the castle. Irasta thought to have the girl arrested, but she was uncertain how many were involved in this coup. Of course, she knew a coup had been forming – for months, since the start of the pestilence. A vile disease had taken over the land beyond the castle walls, pinning the citizens of Para.
Finding information on the disease had been incredibly difficult, as every scout that was sent to investigate the land and vegetation succumbed to a horrifying and very painful death that involved spitting out one’s insides.
The storehouses, of course, had been full when the pestilence began, but they were nearly 3/4 empty now. And the denizens of Para were very aware of their impending doom.
“They don’t trust you, your highness.”
Irasta let out a long breath and nodded. “I know.” She watched the forest of trees to the west dance in unison with the strong winds moving through the land.
“Ever since King Victor’s death…They blame you, you know?”
Irasta turned to the girl and nodded. “I know.”
“They’re in the fourth storehouse. They have weapons. I don’t know how many of them there are, but-“
The Princess raised her hand. “Enough. Enough. The plague is bad enough. The peoples’ hatred for me for a death I did not cause only makes things impossible.”
“What about the queen?”
Irasta shook her head. “Near death. I doubt she has more than a few days. But if the people attack-“
Trana stepped toward Irasta, her eyes shifting from blue to gray in the cloudy haze. “Do you think Queen Para could speak to the people? Do you think she could convince them to drop their grievances and assumptions, and work at finding a solution to the plague?”
Irasta narrowed her eyes on the girl. “No. She is in hiding. And that is where she will stay until this is all over, or until she has breathed her last breath.”
“I see.” Trana stood, staring at Irasta for minutes, wringing her hands, shuffling her feet, before speaking again. “What about you? Do you think it might be wise – even of the royal duty – to speak to the coup?”
“I think not.”
“They would listen to you, your highness. Your words have stopped wars before. They have set men free. Your speech is probably your greatest asset, second – of course – to your unmatched beauty. If they heard you speak, their hearts might quiet. They might be unified in thought and deed. We could find a way through the plague.”
Irasta heard a door open down the hall. She knew who it was, of course, but Trana did not, and the sound startled her and caused her to step back from the Princess and look around anxiously.
Renold, dressed in his white button-down shirt and white pants – the same uniform warn by all servants of the Kingdom of Para – moved down the hallway toward the two females.
Trana’s eyes arched, and she looked cautiously at Irasta. “Shouldn’t he be with the other servants, in the east wing of the study? They’re supposed to be preparing for the morning worship.”
Renold slipped quickly behind Trana and slid the ancient dagger into her back, quietly, succinctly. Trana’s eyes widened as Renold helped her to her knees.
Irasta knelt before the young woman, lifting her white gown to give her the slack needed to bend down into such a position. “You put on quite a ruse, Trana. But I’m no fool.”
Trana’s breath sputtered as she leaned sideways against the cold tile. “I-”
“Don’t speak,” Irasta said as Renold retracted his blade. He wiped it down with a muddled cloth retrieved from his pants pocket, and then he slid the weapon into the inconspicuous sheath on the back of his belt. “I’ve known about your deception for some time. I know you were sent here to lure me back to the storehouse, where you would kill me. Kill the queen. Take over Para.”
Trana’s eyes flickered, and her breath caught in her throat as her spirit left her.
Irasta stood and sighed. “Put her body in one of the servant rooms. We’ll bury her properly once this is all over.”
Renold nodded and lifted the girl in both arms. Blood dripped from the wound in her back, creating a puddle on the otherwise immaculate white tile. It disgusted Irasta that such a mar would stain the kingdom, but blood would have to be spilt if this revolt – and this plague – were to be undone.
“What of the messenger?” Irasta asked.
Renold stopped along his way to the nearest room and turned toward the princess. His rugged, bearded face did well to hide any emotions his expressions would give away had he been clean-shaven as was usually required of the servants. “He returned early this morning with news.”
“The plague was caused by the Machines, to the east.”
“We can leave within the hour.”
“The filters are done, then?”
Renold nodded. “Yes. They will keep the plague from us for a bit, at least long enough to cross out of the kingdom.”
Irasta nodded. “Get the others. We leave within the hour, due east. Before we leave, I want everyone in the fourth storehouse killed. Without prejudice.”