She stepped lightly over the cobblestones, simultaneously drawing and evading attention from the people around her. These people – the peddlers and the mothers, the laborers and the destitute – they all moved with an innate heaviness in their step, a weight that spoke of the trials they had overcome to merely get to this square.
Her face was swathed in cloth, leaving only her eyes uncovered, but that was not uncommon. Most women wore similar, even some of the men, guarding themselves against the brutality of the winter winds. Even the king himself would be unrecognisable in these clothes. It was comforting, if nothing else.
She looked over the array of fruit on a peddler’s wagon, unable to stop herself from glancing about to make sure nobody was watching her. She couldn’t afford any attention that might draw undesirables, knowing how perilous her actions were. It wasn’t safe, and she knew it, but she couldn’t help it. She had to know how they lived, and what they thought of her.
She nervously twisted the sapphire ring that adorned the little finger on her right hand. She was glad for the heavy coverings that kept the jewel hidden from view, knowing the price it would put on her head with would-be thieves. A gem so small but that could bring about the end of a life – it was ludicrous.
Pointing out several of the apples, she dug into the small cloth purse that was strung about her waist and fished out a silver piece. The peddler cocked his head, looking pointedly between her and the coin. She brought out a bronze piece instead and passed it to him, to which he smiled and nodded.
“My apologies, kind sir. There is a far different cost for produce where I am from.” She regretted her explanation immediately.
“Oh? Where do you hail from, young lady?” His hair was akin to the colour of sand, with weathered lines stretching across his face, but his eyes were different to any she had seen before. A deep purple, almost the colour of wine, almond in shape, but without the same creases that the rest of his face held. It was strange, almost seeming false. Not the eyes, but the lack of wrinkles surrounding them. And how the lack of them didn’t suit the rest of his face.
She fumbled for words, searching the depths of her mind for information she had learned from books and tutors. “Further inland,” she murmured before clearing her throat, speaking louder. “In the north, but far from the sea, far from here. A small village, surrounded by barren lands. No one ever knows of it, though.”
‘Try me,” the peddler said, a soft smile on his lips that spoke only of encouragement, not a hint of doubt in her words.
“Uh… uh…Tiran!” She exclaimed, ducking her head in embarrassment but passing it off as rearranging her coverings.
The man didn’t seem to notice. “What’s your name, young one?”
“Ry…ven. Ryven.” She nodded, as if that would help to validate her words, but again the peddler either didn’t notice or chose to ignore her hesitation.
“Well, little Ryven of Tiran, you take care of yourself around these parts, you hear? You can’t trust nobody, right? Just remember that, and you’ll be alright.”
She nodded, taking the fruit and waving goodbye to the strange man. His eyes seemed to follow her as she drifted away from the man and towards a woman shouting her wares to the crowd, the depth of their colour seeming to pierce through her skin, and into her soul. There was almost a familiarity to him, one unlike any she had felt before. It was strange, but comforting in a way.
She moved further away, wandering through the market square, nodding and smiling at the different vendors as she passed them. She rounded a corner, the fine hairs on the back of her neck standing on end as she ducked into the doorway of a rundown house. She waited a moment, then struck a hand out into the lane. Flesh collided with bone, and she heard a man groan.
“What are you doing out here, Merek?” Her voice was edged with ice, her closed fist still against his chin.
Merek pushed her hand away and rubbed his jaw, smirking. “I’m sorry, dear Ryven,” his emphasis on the name made her twitch, but he continued before she could comment. “But when the princess vanishes from her quarters without warning, and is then spotted in the market square dressed as a commoner, using a fake name to boot, word quickly gets back to the captain of the guard. What on earth are you thinking, being out among them without a guard, Ryia?”
“Oh, why would you care, Merek?” She pushed down the urge to spit on his stupid shiny captain’s boots. Princess or not, the act was insubordinate and disrespectful enough to have her thrown in jail.
“It’s my duty to care.” And there it was. No feeling, no sentiment involved, never with him. Just duty.
“Glad to know,” she said, and moved to walk away, back into the crowd but he gripped her arm tightly.
“Don’t even think about it,” he snarled. “Like hell would I let you back into the crowd, with the peasants.” He spat the word, as if he were not once one of them. As if I did not know the truth. “Come on, we need to get back to your rooms before your father finds out and sends us both to the gallows.”
Unfortunately he spoke the truth, and she allowed him to guide her across the market square and into the keep. She traipsed up the stairs behind him, winding up the tower until they reached her bedchamber. She started to excuse herself, to let herself into the room and bid him farewell, but a voice sounded across the landing.
“And exactly where have you been, young lady?” The sharp tone cut through the echoing silence and she cringed, then groaned. She looked at the approaching woman and curled her hands into fists behind her back.
“It’s of no concern to you, Duchess,” Ryia spat.
“Of course it is my concern, and you would do well to call me Queen, princess.”
Ryia bristled. “You are not the queen though, are you Isolde? That title belonged to my mother, and it always will, no matter whose bed you warm.” She turned on her heels and slammed the door to her chamber shut behind her. She leaned against the door, panting. Vines had appeared out of nowhere, through the cracks in the mottled walls, and were now intertwining her fingers.
She was listening to the landing, on high alert for any motion that might indicate Isolde was coming for her, but could not hear anything. She wiped at her brow, at the beads of sweat that had gathered there. She could not stay here.
She cracked open the door, and noticed that the one on the other side of the landing was shut. Taking care to make as little noise as possible, she grabbed the small woven bag that hung from a hook and slipped out the door. She saw no one as she wound her way back down the stairs, and back into the market square.
She fell into line with the other commoners, with the merchants and the customers, as they weaved around each other, many of them making their way towards the portcullis that led to the world beyond. She joined them, blending with the crowd in the coverings she still wore. She was nearly at the portcullis when she heard a shout behind her.
“Ryven, Ryven, over here!” Ryia turned to see the peddler from before, the one with the strange purple eyes, waving to her, his arm barely visible above the crowd. She pushed back through the throng of people, finding herself buffeted a little between them. She reached him, then paused. Why did she feel so comfortable with him? Why did the trust come easily with him, when she tended not to trust anyone?
“I didn’t get a chance to introduce myself before; you can call me Amaruq.” She sized him up, but could see no deceit in his eyes. “You look as if you’re heading out of here too. No point in going on foot if you can help it. Want a lift?”
As he spoke, he was finishing up hitching the wagon to the horse that grazed on hay nearby. It was a dappled mare, older but sturdy. He gave her an affectionate pat along her mane, then turned back to Ryia. He gestured to the front of the wagon, a wooden paling across the top of it forming a makeshift bench.
She glanced up at the tower that loomed over the square, knowing the fear and entrapment that she felt there. It was no life, and certainly not one that she wanted. There was nothing for her here, nothing beyond a father that did not care for her, and a queen that wanted her dead. It was time for her to leave.
Ryia turned back to Amaruq, and took the offered hand. She climbed on to the wagon, then shuffled over to make space for him as well. He grabbed the reins and gave a soft shake; the mare trotted towards the portcullis. She looked back as they passed under it, not bothering to even think a goodbye as she departed Paruva and set out into her new life.
"You're safe now, Ryia."