Prince Darian leaned closer and took her hand. She almost jerked her hand away, but they turned a corner and suddenly were in view of the ballroom. Its orange light spilled out into the courtyard that was the entrance to the garden. She could see the people in the ballroom noting their return.
She put on smile number ten, the one that seemed to betray kind adoration, and went back to being Princess Anna of House Laurel. “I had a wonderful time with you tonight, Prince Darian.”
He recognized her return to the proper mannerisms and responded in kind. “As did I, Princess Anna.” They walked hand in hand to the entrance to the party, where he waved his hand to an attendant, who presented her with a small songbird in a cage, tweeting loudly.
“Thank you, Prince Darian. I bid you good night.” She descended down the stairs and quickly found her mother.
“Why are your shoes off, Anna?” the queen demanded. “And where did the two of you walk to? Honestly, are you trying to give them something to talk about? I am not going to be able to protect you from scrutiny for the rest of your life-” Anna nodded absently as she blindly followed her mother to the nearest crystal-powered car and slid into the backseat with the bird. As the car pulled away, she took it from its cage and held it carefully in her hands. The bird shook itself, then sat proudly preening, gazing at its reflection in the car window, chirping obnoxiously.
What just happened? How could she have been so wrong about him? Had he told his plan to anyone else? He wanted to create a civil war? How could he want such bloodshed when he himself had lost a brother? Did he know that his brother would be the only the first of many sacrifices? Did he know how weakened the entire empire would become? Did he know how many lives were lost on the border? Was he aware of what he would have to give in war? Was he aware of what a such a war would do to him? His house? The empire?
She felt a crack, and the car fell silent. The songbird hung limply, an unfortunate casualty to her anger. Another wasted life.
She blinked at the bird, at its still body lying in her hands. Perhaps the last.
Later that night, a silhouetted figure stepped with quiet confidence through the room and drew the curtains aside. Moonlight slanted in, illuminating the body on the bed. Though no one could see her, her face shaped into smile number seven. She whispered into the room, barely breaking the silence.
“Sometimes bloodshed is the only way.”
Guards burst into the bedroom, weapons at the ready. The curtains floated gently in the breeze. The room was empty except for the body on the bed, Prince Darian of House Yew, an ornate butter knife protruding from between his fourth and fifth ribs.
Prince Darian of House Yew was the first casualty of many. One by one, each of the houses was hit by the assassin. There was a pattern to the killings- always with a knife, and always a person who saw themselves as capable of leading without help. The houses, though suspicious of each other, feared for their safety and banded together. Eventually, only one house remained untouched: House Laurel. It provided support in the form of guards and laborers for the other houses to increase their security, but House Laurel still became the prime suspect for the hiring of this assassin.
“Anna, stop doing that.”
“You know what you are doing… lurking.”
“I’m not lurking. It’s just the hood.” But Anna pulled the hood down and moved from the shadowed corner of the room to sit down across the desk from mother.
They were in the queen’s office. Anna didn’t like how her voice echoed off the domed ceiling, or how the large windows left her feeling exposed. She didn’t like the bookshelves that lined the walls, either. They reminded her of her studies, which, due to certain distractions, she had been putting off.
The queen waved her hand towards the guards, dismissing them. As the heavy doors closed shut with an ominous boom, the queen noted Anna’s eyes flitting to the windows before coming to rest at the floor.
“Anna, I would like to talk to you about something. Seeing as your betrothal has been called off, I have another task for you.”
Anna’s voice was bitter. “Is that what that was to you? A task? A lifelong arrangement that practically handcuffed me to another human being was a task?”
“Calm yourself, Anna. I have a meeting with another house in ten minutes, there is no time for your childish whining. Something has come up on the border. We have found ourselves in urgent need of a queen, a diplomat on the front lines.”
Anna shook her head immediately. “Mother, I am neither of those things.”
“Oh, but you are. Just not in the traditional sense.” The Queen leaned forward. “I am under the impression that those who would have been able to tell us about your style of diplomacy are unfortunately no longer with us.”
Anna tried to hide her her agitation. “What do you mean?” she asked in a level tone. “I can’t deal with stuff like that, you know that.”
“You dealt with your betrothal well enough.” Anna couldn’t conceal the shock. Her wide eyes shot up to meet her mother’s. “What I mean, dear daughter, is that I am aware of your rather unusual nighttime activities.”
“How did you know?” she whispered.
“I am the Queen. It is my duty to know.” The queen’s voice softened. “I am also your mother. And we have more in common than you think.”
“What do you know?” demanded Anna.
“Oh, Anna. I know about the knives missing from the storage rooms. I know about your window latch being newly greased. I would like to clarify that I am not at all mad at you, Anna. I know also of how you hate being here, hate the role that is being pushed upon you, hate the unkind, judgemental, ridiculously fake society that we live in, and you possibly even hate me.”
The accuracy of the statements hit Anna hard. While she fidgeted nervously, the queen smiled a warm, genuine, smile that had no number assigned to it. “Anna, I have told you that life is rarely choice. But you have created for yourself the opportunity to choose. And I am so, so proud of you.”
“I… Thank you, mother.” Anna sat awkwardly as her mother stood and went to stand by the window.
“There happens to be a convenient position open for a person to lead at the border. I-”
“Mother, I cannot lead. You know this. I cannot bear the burden of soldier’s lives on my shoulders, nor the potential of their blood on my hands.”
The queen looked over at her daughter appraisingly. “Very well. Do you wish to stay here?”
“Well… not really.” was the guilty reply.
“Anna, if you want to leave, you may.” At at a lower volume, the queen muttered, “I know that when I was your age I wanted nothing more than to do so.”
“But… what will happen to the House?” asked Anna.
“I will manage. Do not fear. I …” Anna noted her mother tapping her fingers on the wall, the same thing that she herself did when she was deep in thought. “I have the strange feeling that an unfortunate event will soon befall this house, a murder of its beloved daughter, perhaps. If such a thing were to happen, House Laurel would be welcomed by its fellow houses, and would work to completely unify them. The daughter’s hypothetical body may never be found, and a mysterious mercenary hired by House Laurel could join the next ship outbound to the border.” she paused to let the information sink in. “Of course, such a thing would never happen.”
Anna nodded and grinned. “Of course not, mother. I should inform you that I certainly will not be dedicating the rest of my week preparing for this hypothetical eventful night.”
“An excellent use of your time. If you’ll excuse me, I need to hire a mercenary. Just remember, dear daughter, it is choices that lead you to others.” The queen sat back down in her chair and waved her hand, dismissing her.
Anna nodded, then stood. At the exit to the room, she took a deep breath, put on her hood, and slipped out the door.
Behind her, the queen went to work drawing up a contract that commissioned a mercenary assassin who went by the name of Anka.
Thanks for reading!