(unedited and may change)
The covered wagon jerked to a stop and my shoulder slammed into the person next to me. I mumbled an apology and then the back canvas flaps opened.
“Out!” The slave trader barked and we all stood. It took quite an effort considering our hands were tied behind our backs.
I followed the line of my fellow captives and when I got to the drop off at the edge of the wagon, I jumped, wincing at the sting in my heels. I peered around quickly to find that we were at the golden gates of Elf City, the capitol of Archmere. I’d never been outside of Nightfall and although my current predicament was dreary, I wanted to at least sight see before I was sold into a life of servitude. My father, a full blooded elf, spoke fondly of his motherland and I could see why. Tall trees with white blooms lined the outside castle gates and rolling hills and mountains surrounded us on all sides. It was breathtaking.
“Head down.” The trader snapped at me, bopping me in the back of the skull.
My feet suddenly caught on my long cloak and I yelped as I went down. With my hands tied behind me there wasn’t much I could do but brace for the hit. Turning my face to the side, I squared my shoulders hitting the ground hard and smashing my breasts against a rock. Pain splashed across the entire front side of my body but I’d mercifully kept my nose from breaking, so I was calling it a win. The other servants stopped and peered down at me as I rolled to my side and glared up at the slave trader. He was tall and thickly built, a human but still strong enough to cause some damage if I pissed him off.
I groaned and then seconds later the trader reached down and hauled me up by the arm pit.
“If you can’t even walk straight, I won’t get proper money for you.” The trader spat.
I wanted to throat punch the bastard, but with my hands behind my back that was impossible. I’d settle for a head butt, though it would probably get me killed. The best I could hope for now was for my new master to be a decent person, er elf.
The line of my fellow indentured servants started walking again and I was forced to follow, all thoughts of the glorious head butt behind me. This time I was more mindful of my footing.
I wondered what my aunt was doing right now. When they’d taken me she’d been screaming and crying and I knew she was probably worried sick. I’d lived in Nightfall all nineteen years of my life, and as an elf-human hybrid I was blessed with short-cropped ears. So the Queen, nor anyone else in Nightfall had any idea I wasn’t human.
“What’s your debt?” The girl beside me whispered.
Pulled from my thoughts I shook my head, not understanding what she meant.
“Gambling. I owe two gold coins to Bino.” She offered, looking sullen.
Bino ran the poker ring at the tavern and, now I understood her question. She wanted to know why I was being sold.
I should never have borrowed the money for my aunts medicine knowing I wasn’t going to be able to pay it back. But I’d been desperate to stop the seizures that plagued her, I never been taught to use my elvin healing so we were at the mercy of the human doctors and what they had available. My aunt was a human, same as my mother, and my father had been an elf. Mom died in labor with me and my dad was killed in the townsquare to make an example out of trespassers. He’d been coming to see me. Now my aunt was all I had, the only family I’d ever known.
“Five gold coins. To the chemist.” I told her.
She looked surprised by the amount, no doubt wondering if I had a pill problem. I wished it was that, it would make more sense than the Queen charging an arm and a leg for life saving medication. Sometimes I thought it was her way to weed out the sick. Make all of the weak, poor people dependent on medication die off and strengthen her perfect society. Most of us hated Queen Zaphira, her sick plan to humanize the entire realm meant that all of the magical races would need to be culled first. The Necros, Elves, Fae, Wolvens and even the Dragon Folk would eventually be wiped from the Avalier realm if the Queen had her way.
“My aunt is sick. She needs expensive medicine.” I told the girl.
My aunts seizures started when I was twelve, little fits here and there but this latest one had been so bad her leg hadn’t worked right afterward. She had to drag it now when she walked. She would need more medicine in a month’s time to keep them away.
“Quit yapping!” The trader yelled and I the girl and I parted, looking forward and taking in the city.
The Elvin city was beautiful. It was carved of Alderwood with gold inlay and semiprecious stones. The high pointed arches were breath taking. The sunlight hit the gold inlay and precious stones making it look like they glittered as we walked. We’d passed through the entire city and I’d barely noticed, lost in my thoughts and talking to the girl. Now we stood at a doorway on the side of the large white stone castle.
“Servant entrance.” A guard said and I looked up at the voice.
Don’t let anyone tell you that all Elves are all tall and skinny. The man guarding the servant entrance to the castle was the opposite of that. A short squatty man with a beaky nose and ice blue eyes glared at me. His golden white hair was tied into a pony tail and braided at the sides. I noticed the sword at his hip and wondered if he even know how to use it.
There was no way he was a part of the kings royal guard. The Bowmen were known for their silent and deadly treetop assaults. This man didn’t even look like he could climb a tree.
“I’ll pluck those pretty eyes out of your head if you can’t keep your face down.” The Trader came out of nowhere and grasped the back of my neck, forcing my head down so sharply that pain exploded in my neck.
I hissed, balling my hands into fists behind me. This rat bastard was really starting to piss me off. I’d been sold into servitude yes, but that didn’t mean I was a punching bag. I was about to give him a piece of my mind when he let go and then I stumbled forward.
My face felt hot I was so angry, but inhaled sharply, taking deep breaths to calm down.
We were funneled through a hall which was as ornate and decorated as the outside of the castle and then into a large open storeroom with high ceilings that spanned two stories hig. Bags of flour and rice sat in the corner and piles of pots and pans were stacked in another. We lined up against the far wall and I looked up at the windows atop the second floor to see some people looking down on us.
Our new masters?
I didn’t know the first thing about being a servant, I’d never had one. But I knew how to cook and clean so it couldn’t be much more different than that.
At Nightfall University I’d been studying biology so that I could find a cure for my aunt but that was all gone now. Almost two entire years of classes and homework and studies, all for nothing.
“You will be unbound so that the lead maid can check you for diseases and then you will be assigned into your new jobs here in the palace.” The Trader yelled, snapping me from my thoughts. “If you try to run, I will kill you and your debt will fall to your next remaining family member.”
We were going to work here in the palace? The was kind of exciting. I eyed the stack of flour and rice and hoped I wasn’t relegated to the kitchens. I didn’t mind cooking but doing dishes was hades. Soggy food creeped me out. I’d love to be assigned to at the library or even to work with the healers. As a half elf with no training I had no healing ability myself, but I’d love to learn and help in a small way.
My cuffs unclicked and I rolled my shoulders forward, groaning in the painful release that was felt in my chest from being tied like that for several hours of the journey. For a split second I did want to run, I wanted to bolt like a bunny rabbit across the room, outside and into the woods. I eyed the doors and there, on each side, were two Bowmen. They stood tall and silent, barely moving to breathe, with an arrow already knocked into their bow.
An old woman entered the room then, her white hair tied into a sleek bun atop her head. She wore a blue cotton maids uniform with white apron and held a small stick in her hand.
“My name is Mrs. Tera and I am the lead maid here at Archmere castle. I will be checking you for lice and making sure you don’t have any deformities that would keep you from doing your job here.”
Lice? Gross. I eyed the girl next to me who scratched her head.
There were nine of us in all, a mix of elf, fae and human, the castle must have purchased us in bulk for various jobs. I didn’t want to overstep but I really wanted to work with the healers or around books if possible.
Biting my tongue, I waited until Mrs. Tera used her stick to poke and prod everyone’s hair and check in their mouth and peer closely at their hands and feet until she got to me. When she did, I deeply curtsied. “Mrs. Tera would it be inappropriate to offer a list of strengths so that you might best fit us with our jobs?”
The old woman raised an eyebrow at me and then looked up into the viewing box where a few hooded figures looked down on us.
“Strengths?” She asked as she began to dig through my brown hair with the stick.
“Yes ma’am. I can read and write, I’m adept at calculus and organic chemistry and have a passion for reading and healing.”
The stick froze, tangled in my hair and the woman looked down at me. I braced myself for her reaction but she just burst out into laughter. The Trader laughed too as well as the other slaves and now everyone was laughing at me.
“Honey, I just need you to make bread or clean the toilets.” Mrs. Tera said and my stomach fell.
Well, it was a worth a shot.
I felt the trader move behind me, “Want me to check her for pubic lice?” He huffed and then his hand landed on my ass and squeezed.
Mrs. Tera looked affronted at the traders comment towards me but I knew she’d do nothing about it.
Every angry repressed feeling that I’d been holding in since the bankers had come and taken me away from my aunt, exploded out of me then. A vengeful rage washed over me and I snapped. Spinning, I faced the ugly trader. He looked down at me with lusty eyes and I snapped my palm upward into his nose just like my auntie taught me and was rewarded with the crunch of bone. He bent forward to grab his face and I reached up with my knee, smashing it as hard as I could into his man parts.
A wail cut through the room and he fell to the side, red faced.
“Oh dear.” Mrs. Tera said behind me.
I spun to face the head servant. “He touched my backside without permission. Is that encouraged here?” I asked her, hoping to talk myself out of whatever punishment was about to come my way for retaliating on the trader.
Her face flushed and I noticed movement above in the window. One of the hood figures was leaving the room. I knew I’d gone too far but dammit what the trader did wasn’t okay and I was hoping Mrs. Tera would agree. Woman to woman.
She swallowed hard. “It is not.” She finally said.
The two bowman were suddenly behind me, hooking me under the armpits and dragging me towards the doors.
Crap, where did they come from?
I tried to struggle in their grasp but it was no use, they lifted me into the air, pinched something in my armpit to cause a whimper from my throat and carried me as if I was made of parchment.
My heart pounded in my chest and I turned to one of them. “He grabbed me, you must have seen. I didn’t kill him or anything.” I pleaded.
The double doors opened and then I was being walked down the ornately decorated hallway and into another room. This one smaller and with a man sitting behind a desk, a grey cloak pulled up to obscure his identity.
“Okay, I’m obviously new here so now that I know the rules maybe we can give me a free pass.” I begged. I didn’t want to be hung for kneeing the trader in the balls but I couldn’t let that fly. The bowmen dropped me before the desk and then left the room.
I stood there, frozen as I stared at the person in the cloak.
“You talk too much. We will need to work on that.” His voice was gruff, powerful and I immediately knew I was in the presence of someone in charge.
“Yes… sir. I can do that. Assuming you let me live?” I wasn’t sure what was going on here.
The man reached up with long slender fingers and pulled back the cloak, revealing the strong jaw and handsome face of the freaking King of the Elves.
“Raife Lightstone.” I breathed, curtsying deeply.
His blue eyes ran over my body as if assessing my curtsy and my cheeks reddened.
“Your curtsy indicates you come from a highborn family.” He observed.
We didn’t really have highborns in Nightfall. Educated and uneducated is what we called it and ninety percent of the people were educated in Nightfall because the Queen mandated it and made it free. I was considered poor, but highly educated, so for all intents and purposes, a highborn in his mind.
“Yes my lord.” I said, trying to keep my answers short since he’d said I spoke too much.
He stood and I froze, taken aback by how tall he was. At least a head and a half taller than me and that was saying something as I was tall for a woman. He stepped out from behind the desk and faced me. “Are you aware of the one gift that all the Kings of Avalier share?” He asked suddenly and I knew where this was going.
I swallowed hard. King Valdren of the Dragon Folk, King Lucien Thorne of the Fae, King Axil Moon of the Wolven, and King Raife Lightstone of the Elves all had the gift of smelling a lie.
“You can smell a lie.” I said.
He looked surprised. “You are well educated.”
The Nightfall library had books on every magical race. It was all to aid in the Queen’s plot to wipe them out. The more we knew about them, the more we could hurt them and eventually wipe them out.
“I’m going to ask you a series of questions and based on your answers it will determine your fate.” He said, walking in a slow circle around me.
Dizziness washed over me at his words but I nodded.
He inhaled through his nose. “Half Elf?” He asked, sounding pleased.
“Yes Lord. My father.” Was all I said, trying to be brief as possible.
I swallowed hard. “Rufus Dicot. He lived in the fishing village of Kings Landing.”
He nodded, seemingly pleased with that answer.
“Why were you sold into servitude?” He asked.
I sighed. “I took a loan I could not repay.”
“Obviously.” He sounded annoyed with my shallow answer. “What for?”
I didn’t like the intrusiveness of the question but knew I must answer and truthfully. My life was in his hands. “For life saving medication for my aunt.”
His brow knotted in confusion. He would be perplexed at that. People in Archmere didn’t need medication, if they got sick they were healed. For free. It was as easy as breathing for them.
“Did you know you would not be able to repay the loan when you took it?” He asked.
I growled slightly then, my gaze flicking to his and holding it. “Yes.” I said with annoyance. “To save my aunt.”
He seemed to consider my thoughts.
“What are your thoughts on the elf race?”
I frowned. “That’s a broad question I—”
“I need to know if I will be hiring someone who hates me and my people.” He clarified. “You grew up in Nightfall under the queens rule.”
So he was thinking of hiring me? Not killing me? That excited me. Maybe this wouldn’t end in my hanging.
I nodded. “I think they are lucky. They have no sickness and can easily heal. I am jealous of the healing ability but wish them no harm.”
He frowned. “Jealous of an ability you have?”
I felt my cheeks redden. “I never bloomed. My father died before he could train me and… my magic never came.”
Blooming was what the elves called it when your magic surfaced, usually around age five when you started your training.
He stepped before me then, squaring his shoulders and looking me right in the eyes. “Alright, And what are your thoughts on the Nightfall Queen.”
I stiffened, holding my breath. It was no secret that the Queen had murdered his entire family when he was fourteen. Seven sibling’s and only he survived. He hated her, that much I knew, and so did I, but to say that out loud was treason.
I looked over my shoulder, checking if the door was closed. Speaking out against the Queen was met with a swift response and I’d never done it, not even to my aunt. We grumbled about the lack of accommodations, or treatment, we spoke ill of some of the army’s deeds but never of her. His eyes narrowed to slits.
“What do you think about the Nightfall Queen?” He pressed again.
I took in a deep breath. “I hate her. I wish she’d just die so we all could live in peace.” I said in a rush and then clamped my hands over my mouth.
A halfcocked grin spread over his face for a second and then it was gone. “Very well, I’d like to hire you on as my new personal assistant. My last one got married and left.” He declared and went back behind his desk and began to scribble on a piece of parchment.
I sagged in relief. Personal assistant to the king? That sounded like a big deal. Not like cleaning toilets or making bread. “I… I’d be honored.”
“I need someone well educated.” He stated, still looking down at his parchment. “Fast at taking notes, able to read books and learn about new things and inform me.”
I nearly jumped out of my skin with joy. “I love reading. I read a book a day, all kinds of subjects and even fiction for fun.”
He looked up then and pushed the piece of parchment he’d been writing on across the desk, handing me a quill and ink. “Do it quickly.”
I had no idea what it was, a test of some sort? I worked well under pressure and so I sat at the chair across his desk and grabbed his ink quill and the piece of parchment.
It was a test. And it was in three different languages!
Thank the Maker I spoke them all.
“I haven’t seen written Old Elvish in years.” I admitted. I dipped the quill in the ink, grateful I’d had such a curiosity for languages across the realm and studied them all.
His first question was written in Old Elvish and was simple, it gave a problem of a fishing vessel sinking out in Fallenmoore territory. The question asked whether the elf king had the right to retrieve the boat or would need King Moon’s permission before doing so. It seemed mostly like a question to make sure I understood the language.
I answered and then moved on to the next. This one was written in New Elvish. Another simple question which I answered. The last one was a detailed arithmetic problem written in Avalerian which was the language shared among all peoples of Avalier.
I finished it easily and handed back the parchment.
He raised his eyebrows. “That was fast.”
He glanced at the parchment, took the quill and made a few notes next to my arithmetic problem as if checking my work. “Well done.”
He folded his hands before him. “My council is insisting I get married, the courting process starts soon and so I will need you to keep detailed notes on each woman I meet with and help me decide which one to choose.”
My eyes nearly fell out of my head.
“You… you want me to help you pick a wife?”
He nodded nonchalantly. “It’s the only way to get the council off my back.”
Wow, lucky lady. He seemed really into marriage.
“Well sure I can do that.” If it kept my head attached to my neck I’d do just about anything.
“What are my other job duties I’d like to write them down.” I told him.
He looked impressed at that. Hanging me a clean parchment and quill.
I jotted down what he’d already told me.
“You’ll accompany me to meetings, remind me of people’s names and jobs. I like to know my staffs birthdays but I can’t be bothered to remember them.” He said.
He leaned back in his chair. “Oh my old taste tester died so I’ll need you to fill in until I can hire a new one.”
I froze. A taste tester to royalty was one of the most dangerous jobs in the realm. They were constantly poisoned.
“You… couldn’t heal them?”
He frowned. “Not in time. It’s a common misunderstanding that elves can heal anything and never get sick.”
“What about one of the other slaves you just bought?” He had eight of them.
He shook his head. “I don’t trust any of them.”
Did that mean he trusted me? If so, why?
Okay, it was only part time until he could find a more permanent one.
Remember names, birthdays.
“Anything else my lord?”
He nodded. “If I am to trust you and you are to work closely with me I will need you to take Vow of No Harm.”
My eyebrow raised. I didn’t know what that was but I knew the Elves and Fae took vows seriously.
“Okay.” I said timidly. Ten minutes ago I’d kneed my captor in the balls and now I was in a job interview with the king of the elves.
What a day.
He cleared his throat. “One more thing…”
I braced myself, he looked slightly uncomfortable.
“Are you unmarried?”
Oh easy question. “Yes. Unmarried. Never met a man I could tolerate long enough to marry.”
The halfcocked smirk was back and he nodded. “No children?”
I shook my head. “Nope.”
He looked relieved. “This is a demanding job, round the clock. I fear that having a family would impede your ability to serve me properly.”
I nodded. “Fully able to serve sir.”
I was an indentured servant working off a five gold coin debt, it wasn’t like my family could move here with me anyway.
I cleared my throat. “How does the pay work?”
He nodded, looking more comfortable, as if talking of money didn’t bother him. “I pay your debt today to the Trader. Then you work off a gold coin a year.”
Five years. It would take me five years to work off three month’s worth of medicine for my aunt. Anger roiled through me. Not at him but at the chemist that charged so much for the lifesaving medication.
“How much is your debt?” He asked.
I sighed. “Five gold coins.”
He didn’t look shocked, maybe people came here with higher debts and worked their whole lives for him but I wanted my own life. I was grateful for the position, but working five years here tasting food for poison and helping him court a wife wasn’t exactly my passion. I’d be twenty four years old when I left here. Too old to try and become a doctor?
“You’re disappointed with the five year assignment?” His eyes narrowed and there was a distrust there. I couldn’t fathom why, it’s not like I could lie to the guy.
“A little surprised at the length of time to pay my debt.” I said honestly. “I had hoped to become a doctor… I left university for this and I’m excited to go back to school.” I rubbed the back of my neck and winced, forgetting the pain the trader had caused earlier.
Dawning shown in his eyes and then a little pity. “We don’t study medicine here like they do in Nightfall but you can shadow me on my healing rounds and ask a few questions so long as they aren’t too intrusive and distracting.”
Hope bubbled up inside of me. “My Lord that would be wonderful.”
All Elves had some sort of healing ability, no matter how small but it had to be taught and practiced in order to bloom. Because I’d never bloomed my magic was all but dead but working in an infirmary in any capacity would be amazing.
“One more thing.” He stood, stepped around the desk and reached out, brushing his hand across the back of my neck. A shiver ran down my spine and the pain that the trader had caused vanished. Raife winced for a second and then sat back down, picking up the quill and began to scribble a note.
Did he just heal me? With a single touch?
“Uh thanks.” I said.
“You may retire to your rooms.” He said, not looking up from his parchment. “Get settled and then I will call on you first thing in the morning. Give this to Mrs. Tera.” He handed me the letter he’d scribbled.
I stood, understanding I’d just been dismissed and took my piece of parchment with me.
Personal assistant to the king?