The future of an entire country hinged on whether the traveler completed his mission. Or so the
man told himself as muddy water splashed his boots, soaking through the foreign-made leather. He had no time to purchase the footwear of the Outer Realms. Nor to detect the driest path through this drizzly capital city with its vaguely familiar rim of inns and taverns. He knew the familiarity was just an empty silhouette of a past he could no longer make solid. The people in these lodgings he did not know.
A trio of dockworkers splashed by, heedless of the water. And of the stranger in their midst. His seven-foot height failed to surpass their own; his charcoal skin was just one of a thousand shades. And his journey by ship had ruined his once-vibrant clothing. The salty sea air had destroyed the eagle feather in his hat and dulled the crimson of his vest. His only noteworthy quality now, in this damp, fog-ridden realm he had once called home, was his magnetism to the mud.
He wanted a bath. And a real mattress. And a place to roll the dice, preferably one that involved a track and the pounding hooves of superior horseflesh.
But there was no time.
If he had planned to secure a day of rest, he would have delayed his recent interrogation of the “lad” in the dockside stables. A chuckle drifted out of the traveler’s throat at the memory of the young man’s shocked response when confronted, less than an hour ago, with the old moniker. Though, truth be told, the stable hand was just a lad, having barely reached the age of twenty.
The traveler halted in the midst of a puddle and stared up a rickety staircase toward the address the young man had given him. The stairs were warped and the railing splintered. Paint that had once sealed the wood against the weather had faded to a dull murky gray, and the crammed doors on the upper level promised nothing in the way of improvement.
She couldn’t be living here. Could she?
The traveler stepped onto the bottom stair, then slowly scaled the crooked steps.
Might the stable hand have lied? In truth the man didn’t know him well. Their acquaintance had extended little over six months’ time, all told. Before the lad had fled here—with her—into exile.
But the lad had an aura of being trustworthy.
Though come to think of it, he had lied on her behalf on more than one occasion.
Nonetheless, the traveler counted his way down the sunken doors and knocked on the fourth. He had no alternative—had broken the law, booking passage on a smuggler and risked the hazardous early spring crossing to find her. Too many lives were at stake not to try.
His doubt increased as he waited at the door. Exiled royalty, even those living in countries their own nations refused to have dealings with, didn’t live in poverty; did they?
He pictured the former crown princess of Tyralt as she had looked two years ago in her last royal portrait at the age of seventeen: her chin raised, her brown skin draped in jewels and silk, her dark hair piled on top of her head.
He knocked again.
No response came from within, but from below a child’s voice drifted upward, pleading for a spare copper. The voice jostled the traveler’s mind.
The man tossed a coin over the rickety stair and discarded the formal image of the princess, remembering instead the first time he had met her—a twelve-year-old girl dressed as a boy in the depths of Tyralt City, trying to barter a lesson in lock-picking off a street rat. She had been less than perfect then at imitating the bayside slang. Though he might never have learned her real identity if he had not seen her the next day at the palace stables. Even there, he would not have known her as the
crown princess if the head groom had failed to pronounce her as such. She had never quite fit amidst the vaunted aristocracy.
Though she could wind a common Tyralian crowd around her palm with only a few words.
That was the type of young leader he had come to see.
Another knock. The man recalled his last image of her from a year and a half ago: weary, travel worn, her skin burned even darker than normal by the desert sun. Emotion full on her face. Grief from the news of her father’s death, fury at her younger sister’s usurpation of his throne, horror at the slander claiming she, herself, had killed him. And determination, as she had prepared to steal across a dock swarming with soldiers intent upon hunting her down. Could that person live here? If she had to?
The door opened.
To reveal a scullery maid. In a straight black skirt, white apron, brown shoes. Red, sand-roughened hands. Brown eyes. Hair pulled back so tight that he knew the loss of a copper had to be retribution for a single loose strand.
Behind her he took in the simple, almost unfurnished lodging. A lone room with a barren hearth. A cast-iron pot. A single bed.
A pair of men’s riding boots.
What exactly was the relationship between her and the young man back at the stables?
The traveler’s gaze flew again to the maid.
“Your Highness.” The tall man quirked an eyebrow at her.
Those dark eyes began to boil. The young woman’s face went sharp, and the hand gripping the door tightened. For a second the opening widened, then slammed shut with ferocity.
Right in his face.
He chuckled, taking a step back but allowing himself a wide grin.
She had not really changed at all.