The marketplace is bustling when I enter, leaving the damp alley behind. It is my central source of transportation; though grimy, the alley provides solitude found nowhere else in Dystran. As advertised by any bard or traveler, Dystran is our kingdom's "shining jewel." Whoever came up with the slogan must not have spent much time in the city. Dystran is as shining as a pig pen is fragrant.
It's harvesting season, and the market shows it. Around me, farmers lug in their haul. Colorful booths are arranged, splotches of color amongst the otherwise brown streets. The central square now resembles a festival, with flags and banners stretched high above.
Merchants wait all year for the spectacle, as do thieves. No doubt they're already present on the rooftops, scouting out their prey. I glance upward, glimpsing the faintest flash of grimy cheeks. Biting back a curse, my hand curls protectively around my satchel.
The varments get younger every year. From what my brother, Fletcher, tells me, Piran's been raiding the orphanages. Stealing recruits who are too hungry, too starved for attention, to refuse his "partnership."
I'd once considered working for Piran, the year mother died. She left Fletcher and me alone with Otto. Though it took our drunk uncle a week to notice her absence. When he became sober enough to learn where she was, he'd flown into a rage. Fletcher and I had no choice but to spend the next few days in the abandoned warehouse with the other runaways.
I still remember Fletcher's words, whispered harshly as he bandaged the single scrape Otto had managed to give me before we escaped.
"Stella, why would you tell him? Mam was his sister; he loved her."
I'd scowled. "Mam was his source of income. You can't honestly expect me to believe he loved her. Besides, he'll forget about the whole incident by tomorrow."
Fletcher had sucked in a tight breath. "You're young, Stella. Naive. As drunk as Otto is, at least he owns a house. At least there's a roof over our heads until I can save enough money to get us a place of our own."
But Fletcher was wrong. His job as an apprentice for the shipwright would never pay enough to get us out. Not when we were covering Otto's rent, too.
Which was why I was in the market. Not for the pleasure of harvesting season. The holiday had lost its charm years ago. No, I was there for what accompanied it. For what the notices plastered on every wall advertised. And, most importantly, the money that came with it.
Shoving my ratty brown hair from my eyes, I spot my destination ahead. It's the largest canopy, erected in the center of the square. Dancing banners ripple in the wind; another rainstorm will be here tonight. It doesn't matter. People will show up anyway.
The tent is alive with the colors of our kingdom, red and purple. Almost despite myself, I allow the child's nursery rhyme to bounce around inside my mind as I approach.
The colors of our land are this
Ruled by a King and a Queen we would miss
Purple for them that our greatness does stem
Those that argue, they get the red, because red is the color of dead!
As children, we'd scream the last word, collapsing onto the cobblestones and gripping our chests dramatically. Until the song was banned, and the little girl who wrote it dragged away. The song was never sung again, but it still fills my head whenever I glimpse the colors.
Red for those that tried to stand up for their beliefs, instead of running as my father did. Purple for the King, his wife, and their daughter. I've never met the Princess, but I suppose I should thank her. She's the reason I'm in the market.
The line in front of the showy tent is short. Only one girl separates me from the tightly sealed flaps. I don't recognize her, and she doesn't so much as look in my direction, so I face forward.
Two guards wait on either side of the entrance, their armor glinting in the afternoon light. Their helmets are pulled low over their faces, leaving nothing but their pressed lips visible.
The tent flaps open. Another girl steps out, younger than me. Younger than even the thieving children I saw on the rooftops. She's gripping a bag of meal in one hand and a paper in the other. Try as she might disguise it, a smile hints at her mouth.
My teeth grind, the ferocity surprising me. She made it in. Eleven spots left.
I shouldn't feel as competitive as I do, but, at the moment, I want nothing more than to yank the meal and the paper from her grasp.
Sensing a hawk-like gaze, my eyes flit to the roofs. Piran, leader of the thieves, watches. He's Fletcher's age, with buzzed hair and piercing green eyes. Right now, those eyes are locked on the girl. Apparently, I wasn't the only one aching for the food. The paper will be useless to him- only females are allowed for the position I'm applying for- but he could give it to one of his accomplices.
Ahead of me, the only other person in line has been called inside. It leaves me standing alone. It's an odd feeling, but I was expecting it. Each year, fewer and fewer girls apply for the job of the Princess' ladies-in-waiting. Each year, the guards from the palace keep coming back. Because by the end of each year, all twelve positions are open once more. The ladies-in-waiting don't come back.
Only the most desperate apply for the job, now. If anything, the palace provides food and shelter.
"If only the most desperate apply-" I can almost hear Fletcher now. "-what does that make you, Stella?"
Not that he'd said that. Not that he knows I'm here. And he won't find out. If everything goes according to plan, I'll get the job and be in the palace the next morning. He'll be at work when I awake, but I'll leave the meal behind with a note. Explaining what I did. Why I had to do it.
The tent flaps whip open, shaking me from my thoughts. I freeze, heart hammering before I can tell it to slow. The girl from before is back, but unlike the first one, she holds no meal or paper. In fact, she's blinking away tears from her starved, blue eyes.
A rejection. I hate how optimistic that makes me.
She passes the guards, but as she walks past me, she trips. Years of living with a tipsy Otto make me instinctively steady her. She grips my shoulder, mouth brushing my ear for a split second.
"You don't have a family," she murmurs. "Lie."
The next instant, she's gone. She only makes it a few paces before sobs begin to wrack her skeletal form. Before I can process her words, before I can tear my gaze away from her, the guards grab my arms and shove me inside.
They let go of me just as fast, and I stumble to regain my balance. The tent is dim in comparison to outside, and I squint.
A table has been placed in the tent's center. At it sits two burly women, clad in armor equivalent to the guards'. Their meaty hands are folded, resting beside the eleven remaining papers. I spy the kingdom's seal on the top one; my way inside the palace. In the corner of the tent, eleven bags of meal are stacked. My fingers twitch just looking at them.
The woman on the left rakes her cold eyes over me. "Name?"
"Stella." The word surfaces as a cough. Suddenly, I'm intimidated. Not by them, but by the realization I might fail. We can't survive without the meal. Not this winter, with the already constant rain that will no doubt turn to snow.
The women watch me carefully. Evaluate me. I'm skinny, but so are most others who apply for this job. I can see the women noting my unimpressive features. Brown hair, brown eyes, undefined jaw. A nod at my taller-than-average height. A quick look at my bony, thin fingers. A frown at my lack of curves.
I suck in a tight breath, standing up straighter. I need this. Fletcher needs this.
A minute spans until they finally speak again.
I open my mouth, Fletcher's name on my tongue until I remember the girl's warning. I hesitate.
"None," I lie. "I live in the warehouse, with the others too old for the orphanage. My parents died when I was small."
The two women share a look I can't decipher.
"Anyone close to you?" one asks.
I shake my head.
"Who will you give the meal to, then?"
This question throws me off, and I scramble for an answer. "The warehouse isn't free. You pay for your space. This will cover mine for all these years."
It's blatantly false, of course. The warehouse is one of the few locations in Dystran free of charge for anyone. The only requirement is that you have to stake out your space before someone else. But I'm betting these palace guards don't know that. I'm betting they don't even know what warehouse I'm talking about.
I venture further, willing my eyes to fill with tears. "I have no one left. I have no purpose. I just want to serve our kingdom, no matter the cost, because they've given me so much. Our princess... I wish to help her as her parents have helped me."
Now, I choke on a sob, barely concealing my amazement at my own performance. Fletcher used to tease that I was a good actor, that if the royal performers hadn't been executed I'd fit right in, but I'd never believed him until now.
The two women raise their brows, almost in perfect unison. Silently, the right one stands. She hands me the paper and then passes me a bag of meal. I grip both tightly, so filled with elation I barely hear the left one when she says, "Report to the palace tomorrow. The royal household thanks you."
The heavy, iron gates click into place behind me, and I swallow the lump forming in my throat. As predicted, Fletcher was gone when I awoke. Otto was, too, allowing me to place the bag of meal in the center of the house. Otto wouldn't be back until after Fletcher, and Fletcher had to see it first. Had to see my note, hurriedly scrawled out.
An explanation of what I was doing, and a promise I would return.
The words had been planned out even before I'd been given the job. The tears that filled my eyes as I'd written them hadn't.
A guard wordlessly directs me to a side door after a quick, unimpressed glance at my paper. He leaves me to enter alone. Inside, eleven other girls await. I recognize a handful of past classmates and friends. If they recognize me, they don't say anything.
The room is no doubt small for palace standards, yet it's close in size to Otto's house. It's better furnished, as well, though none of the other girls dare soil the furniture with their grimy clothes.
As the last to arrive, it isn't long before the door on the opposite side of the room opens. A governess steps in, gray hair braided against her head. Her face is placid, but something is lurking in her eyes that makes me almost regret stepping inside. Something dangerous fills the room.
Two maids accompany her, shuffling in her wake, their hands folded neatly in front of them. A low murmur ripples through the eleven girls around me, but it is silenced the moment the governess shakes her head.
She stares at us, and it takes us a minute to realize she's waiting to be bowed to. Clumsily, we comply. Her lips curl in disgust, and she steps closer, scrutinizing us.
"Street rats. Orphans. Thieves. This is what society sees you as. This is what you are."
One of the girl whimpers and the governess's eyes pierce into her like a knife. Her cry cuts off abruptly.
"But our Princess sees more than that. She sees those that are invisible. She sees those the world has forgotten exists. And she wishes to use those skills. This palace is a dark place, much like our kingdom. It is on the brink of overthrowal, yet while our King sees brute force as the answer, his heir has outsmarted him once again."
I don't understand what she's getting at, and by the looks on the other girls' faces, they don't either.
The governess smirks. "I am Arcane, a loyal follower of Her Majesty, and a crucial piece in her plan."
"Plan?" a red-haired girl questions.
Arcane nods. "No one can be trusted, within or outside these walls. There are threats even the King himself cannot comprehend. Your Princess seeks to find these threats and eliminate them. She seeks to end those who fight for her throne. But, at her mother's command, she cannot leave these walls. The bounty on her head is too great. The watchful eyes of her guards too present. No one is allowed inside her room save her ladies-in-waiting. They are the closest to her, closer than even me. And they pass through the palace how you have existed your entire lives. Unseen. Unheard. Invisible." Arcane's eyes flash. "Just how a loyal spy, a loyal assassin, should be."
I realize now why we could have no family. Why we had to be alone in the world. Why the ladies-in-waiting never come back.
Arcane takes scum off the streets, scum like me, and turns them into spies. Into killers, for the Princess. Her ladies-in-waiting are a cover for something more. Ploys. Secrets. Darkness. Paths to the throne. Danger I can't begin to comprehend.
"I will train you," Arcane continues. "And when you are ready, you will serve your Princess. You will serve your kingdom."
The girl from before, the one who had cried, bolts for the door. She's quick, but Arcane is quicker. Before I can blink, a dagger slips into her palm from her sleeve. The blade spirals end over end, lodging itself in the back of the runner. The girl yelps, tumbling over as her blood begins to seep into the plush carpet.
Arcane waves a hand toward the maids. "Dispose of her. Leave no evidence of our doings." The maids bow, bustling toward the dead girl. My eyes can't leave her eerily still form, even as Arcane says, "This is a royal secret, and should it be shared, you shall pay with your life. Your one-year term of servitude starts now. Should you survive, you will be gifted your weight in gold and an estate in the country to peacefully live out your days. Long live the Princess."
The quiet sobs of the remaining ten girls have long since faded, replaced by their snores. Arcane led us to our quarters, generous enough to allow us the rest of our day to grow accustomed to our new lives. Our new prison.
While there had been talk of escaping, nothing had ever been followed through with. The others seemed to realize what I already had. We couldn't escape. We could only hope to survive through the year.
My bed is closest to the window, and while it's the most comfortable thing I've ever laid on, I can't sleep. My thoughts are turned to Fletcher as I stare at the moon through the open window. He'd have found my note by now, though he wouldn't know the entirety of the situation I'd gotten myself into.
I stare at the moon, feeling the gentle breeze rustle my hair. I don't know how long I lay there, drifting in and out of consciousness and reality until a familiar voice jolts me.
I spring upward, my heart thundering. Fletcher's head pokes upward, peering at me from the other side of the window. I can barely believe it.
Cautiously drawing myself out of bed, I pad to the windowsill. He's gripping the vines that adhere to the stone palace. I have no idea how he got inside the walls surrounding the castle, but he's here now, urgency scrawled across his features.
When I motion for him to sit beside me, he shakes his head. "I don't have much time before someone sees me. Stella, what were you thinking?"
I try for a smile, but a frown takes its place. Before I'm conscious of it, I'm crying, every word Arcane spoke spilling out of my mouth. "I don't know what I'm doing," I admit. "I didn't want you to starve, but Fletcher... Fletcher, I've got to get out of here."
He shakes his head. Sometime during the duration of my rushed story, he's grown somber. Serious. So much like our mother, my throat threatens to close.
"They've made the punishment for escaping clear. You're stuck."
"Fletcher- I can't-" I gape at him, and he lets go of the vines with one hand to grip my arm.
"You have to. Stella, listen to me. You have no choice. But I'll tell you what we're going to do, alright?"
I nod. "Alright."
His gray eyes bore into my brown ones, more certain, more confident than I've ever seen him. "You make it through this year, and you get that gold. I'll meet you in the country; we'll never go hungry again." He glances down at the vines holding him upright. "I'll visit you every night, Stella, I swear. Just last the year."
My fingers curl around his. "What do I do until then?"
Fletcher's face falls, his words barely uttered, but I hear them regardless. "You be what they want you to be. Become the Princess' lady-in-waiting."