“PRINCESS!” The frantic call echoed around the tower as the overweight, balding man ran through the halls as fast as his legs could carry him. “PRINCESS! Where are you?!”
A full circuit of the apparently empty royal quarters, including a rapid ascent up to the Princess’ bed chambers, left the elderly man leaning against a door frame wheezing loudly as he struggled to catch his breath. It’s not yet dawn, where could that girl be? Sweat stained the man’s sleeve as he wiped it furiously across his brow. Come on, Stenton, no time for standing about, you have to find that girl before it’s too late!
The Kingdom of Cheles was a small, but wealthy land. The birthplace of the steam drive, Clockwerk servants and soldiers, and dozens of other mechanical achievements. It was a country always poised on the brink of war with its neighbors to both North and South, as well as usually teetering on the edge of civil war within its borders. In spite of the constant threat of conflict, the reigning monarch had kept his country in a state of relative peace for the forty years he had sat upon the throne.
King Devon Malaire, known to his subjects most commonly as the Eccentric King (a huge step up from his father, the Blood-Drenched Tyrant), was perhaps the most popular ruler his country had seen since his line had taken the throne eight generations ago. The people found it refreshing to finally have a king that didn’t insist they raid across the borders every year to demand tribute from the Imperials to the north, or ‘tithes’ from the Theocracy to the south. Why, it was actually possible for the average person to keep track of the number of executions the crown had ordered, without needing to keep a special ledger! The king had also broken a long tradition of his line by siring five children (proper children that is, the bastards of the current or previous generations could hardly be counted) instead of a single heir.
The two elder Princes had been granted rule over the two large northern cities that protected the border with the empire. The eldest, Milo, was known for his careful planning and ruthless execution that had seen the city under his watch prosper at the expense of a few liberties that the people could hardly complain about missing (more than once at least). The second eldest, Olver, focused his attentions exclusively on making sure his city was the strongest military bastion in the land, and had his people constantly preparing for his future plans of ‘expansion.’
The younger Princes were given dominion by their father over the southern border (to the youngest, Tyler) and the eastern skyport (to the second youngest, Gregor). Constant exposure to travelers from the deeply religious Theocracy to the south left their mark on the youngest Prince, and while he offered no fealty to the priests that ruled that land, he did recognize the many holidays of the southerner’s faith and offered his own prayers with devout regularity. Gregor ruled his city with the lightest touch of the four princes, the skyport being a difficult city to rule too harshly as it relied the most on foreigners and the trade they brought with them. Instead the third Prince built the most elaborate of networks, making sure he knew all that he needed to and had the resources to remove the most disruptive elements from his sphere unobtrusively.
The middle child of the Kingdom of Cheles was tasked with overseeing the day to day running of the castle and capitol, the King’s only daughter; Lena. The Princess, however, preferred to spend most of her time in the castle’s libraries learning about the wondrous devices that had originated in her homeland, along with every other scrap of knowledge collected there. She was known as the Kind Princess, being the only member of her family (for as far back as anyone could recall) that had not ordered even a single execution by her eighteenth birthday. She had also learned, quite soon after her father had delegated the ‘boring’ tasks to his daughter, that the best way to insure that these tasks were not thrust upon her to interrupt her studies was to delegate those duties still further to those that would be best suited to carry them out.
The raven-haired young woman muttered angrily under her breath as she yanked her skirt free from where it had snagged on the ladder, accompanied with a loud tearing sound. Treacherous clothing temporarily freed, she resumed her climb along the extremely high bookcase.
“It’s red with brass on the spine. How could ANYONE have thought it belonged in the blue and steel section.” The mumbled complaints echoed loudly in the empty room. “Never mind the right shelf, how am I supposed to find anything when no one can be bothered to even put things back in the right SECTION. I am going to have the assistant librarian FLOGGED.”
A poetic description of the young woman, currently dragging a book the size of her torso up to the top of a thirty foot bookshelf, would call her ‘statuesque,’ likely focusing on her ‘silken midnight hair’ or ‘radiant blue eyes.’ A more realistic person would probably describe her as a ‘too tall girl with short black hair.’ Her eyes would be unlikely mentioned as most people never saw them through the thick lenses held in front of them by thin gold frames.
Reaching the top of the ladder, the woman showed remarkable dexterity as she swung the large, heavy tome free of its strap and slid it cleanly into the gap waiting for it amongst other similarly colored books. Except the black one with the gold banding that definitely didn’t fit with its neighbors.
The exasperated scream rattled the shelves, and the young woman shifted her position so that she could slide the ladder the few feet she needed to reach yet ANOTHER misplaced volume. “The black tomes aren’t even supposed to leave the private libraries. FLOGGED TWICE!”
The ladder slid unevenly to its new position as the grumbling continued, swaying and almost pulling away from the shelves. The irate woman showed no reaction to the instability of her perch, instead sliding the even heavier book off the shelf and trapping it in the heavy leather book strap before it could fall.
As she began her descent, she paused to listen as it sounded like someone was calling for her in the distance. A moment of focus and she was certain of it, and identified the troubled voice as the assistant librarian.
“Probably realized how sloppy he’s been and wants to beg forgiveness. Maybe only a single round of flogging if he’s suitably sincere.” The young woman reached the bottom of the ladder at the same time that the heavy wooden door was flung open, revealing an extremely disheveled older man with a receding hairline and advancing waistline.
“Princess! Thank God you’re here. We ha-…”
“Of COURSE I’m here, Stenton. Someone has to fix all the careless mistakes you’ve been making in my libraries. What d-…” The Princess’s angry tirade trailed off as the man she was yelling at collapsed to the floor.
For a moment, the young royal worried that her shouting might have aggravated some distress the old man was suffering from, but that hesitation flew away as she saw the stain of expensive crimson ink spreading from the downed librarian.
“YOU IDIOT! Do you have any idea how hard it is to get good crim-…” The renewed shouting and abrupt approach was perfectly, if accidentally timed.
A small dart ripped through the air where the young Princess’s throat had been a moment before, catching the fabric above her shoulder instead. Rather than looking for the source of the metallic projectile, her eyes tracked its path to where the dull steel object had imbedded itself into the spine of one of the green and copper bound tomes. As she stared, she noted some sort of liquid from the metal object staining its way through the priceless collection of knowledge.
“Drat. I was not expecting to miss, your Highness.” The familiar voice brought the young woman’s attention back to the library door. A large man wearing a neatly pressed suit in the colors of a Royal Servant stepped into the room, and carefully over the still prone form of the assistant librarian. “It appears that I will have to fin-…”
The condescending speech was cut short, as the black haired girl launched herself across the room at the man who had dared to damage one of her books. She didn’t consciously snatch up the long pole used for lighting the high lamps in the library. It never really occurred to the Princess that her opponent was larger, heavier, and carrying a real weapon at his hip. Not that even the finest of blades was much use, when the man carrying it hadn’t thought enough ahead to have it drawn before being attacked by a berserk woman with surprisingly powerful arms.
It was more than a full minute of furious blows and incoherent shouts before the Princess returned to her senses to note that her hands were sticky, her arms were tired, and she was quite winded. Looking down she noted the softly sobbing form of her valet, and the events of the last few minutes re-crystallized in her mind. “Dammit Samson, WHY would you do something so stupid? And to ruin one of the books…”
“…princess…” The hoarse whisper drew the young woman’s attention to the struggling form of her assistant librarian, as he attempted to roll up and into a sitting position.
“Oh, Stenton, now don’t think that I’m going to be letting YOU get off for your derelictions just because one of my other servants was even MORE fooli-…”
“Your highness, SHUT UP AND LISTEN.” The unexpected interruption’s forcefulness startled the Princess into silence, lasting even through the fit of coughing brought on by the injured man’s exertion.
“Princess Lena, you have to get out of the palace immediately. You aren’t safe, Samson will not be the only one.” A trail of blood and spittle dripped from the old man’s mouth as he forced the words out.
“What are you talking about, Stenton? The Lightning Guard keep the royal family safe…” The Princess found her own voice trailing off as she turned to look at the massive metal ‘statue’ that stood impassively next to the library’s entrance. It should have moved as soon as her valet brought a weapon into her presence and annihilated the man where he stood. “Why didn’t the Guard attack? What’s going on?”
“Your father, highness…” Wracking coughs interrupted the old librarian for a moment. “Your father has grown bored, and he in-…” Further coughing rendered the rest of the statement incomprehensible.
“Father is what? Suicidal? Why would he turn off the Guard?”
“They aren’t off, highness.” Lena found herself having to move much closer to the old man as his voice could barely maintain above a whisper. “They simply won’t defend any of the five heirs. The king means to abdicate by the end of next year.”
“But that makes no sense? How can he abdicate if all his heirs are murdered in their beds?”
“He is bored, your highness, and has always been a little less than sane. He issued a proclamation last night.” Stenton slumped as he spoke, his eyes fluttering closed, only to be shaken abruptly by the slowly panicking Princess.
“Don’t pass out on me now, Stenton. What was the proclamation?”
A shaking hand managed to reach inside the vest worn by the old librarian, retrieving a miraculously unstained envelope. With the last of his energy, the dying man pushed it into the young royal’s hands before falling back to the floor.
The Princess, with shaking hands of her own, managed to open the unsealed envelope and dig out the paper within. She read the short message there, then reread it again in disbelief. It took many more readings before the young woman could accept what was written in front of her, in a hand she recognized as the Royal Scribe’s.
‘Let it be known, to all of the Royal Children and their retainers. The King wishes to finally select his true heir and pass on rule of the Kingdom of Cheles to that most worthy of his children. As such, each of the Princes and the Princess will no longer be defended by the Royal Clockwerk soldiers, the Lightning Guard, and the last royal standing who can present the King with the seals of their four siblings will be crowned King of Cheles.’
For the first time in her life, Princess Lena looked up at the looming form of the Clockwerk soldier in the room and felt afraid. Identical ones could be found in almost every room of the palace, six stood in the throne room, and her whole life they’d been the invincible guardians that made her feel safe. Now it was simply a cold metal figure, and the occasional dance of sparks behind the chest and head seemed sinister instead of comforting.
On the floor behind her, a loud groan drew the black-haired woman’s attention to the injured form of her valet. A servant, she now recalled, that had been sent to her service as a gift from her elder brother. A decision reached, the Princess stalked over to the disoriented man and began relieving him of the weapons he carried. Finishing her acquisitions with the finely crafted rapier the man wore at his side, she considered the sheathed blade carefully before casting an icy glare at the still prone man.
“Royal Valet Samson, you have attempted to murder a Princess of the realm. I find your guilt to be beyond doubt. I hereby sentence you to death.” The words barely penetrated the haze of pain the large man on the floor writhed in, until the final sentence.
Samson’s eyes opened wide and his lips parted in an attempt to phrase an objection, but his own blade was already sliding into his throat, and a choking gurgle would have to serve as his final words.
The Princess calmly wiped the blood from her new blade and awkwardly sheathed the unfamiliar weapon. Instead of fleeing the scene immediately, the young woman went further into the library and opened a small door concealed between the towering shelves. From the small closet, she dragged out a large trunk and some rags, the latter she used to scrub what blood she could off of her hands and dress. The trunk was rapidly filled about halfway with selected tomes, before the young woman began dragging it towards another, locked, section of the library.
I will not panic. I will not flee in the pre-dawn with only the clothes on my back. If father wishes to make this a game to see which of his children will survive, then I will surprise him and see to it that our Kingdom is ruled by its first Queen.
After three hours collecting all the things the young Princess thought she could bring with her, and dealing with two additional assassination attempts (the springbolt pistol retrieved from her valet had proven invaluable in that regard), Princess Lena rode out through the servant’s gate of the castle. The rough clothing and rickety wooden cart would likely have been enough to prevent casual identification of the somewhat reclusive royal daughter, but the fact that the creature pulling the cart was a filthy old nag instead of one of the widely available Clockwerk, or steam-driven, options would truly help to preserve her anonymity against those who knew anything about the young woman.
Even knowing it would likely be the only way to escape notice long enough to get a real head start, it had been a challenge for the young woman to convince herself to hitch the stinky beast to her transport. She reassured herself frequently that she would acquire a more proper means of travel once she’d vanished into the dense population of the capitol.
With a trunk loaded with priceless information and a small arsenal of easily concealable weapons stolen from those who had tried (and failed) to end her life, Lena was confident she had the means and the will to gather the support she’d need to return and claim the throne. A nervous hand clutched the small bag hidden within her cloak, taking reassurance in the continued presence of the most valuable items she’d taken from the castle. The small objects would insure that she had as much time as was needed to return to reclaim the castle that had always been her home.
“My daughter has… left the castle? Under her own power?” King Devon Malaire’s lips twisted into a wry smile as he put the inquiry to the man kneeling across from him.
“Yes, your Majesty. Three of her servants are slain and several tomes are missing from the library.”
The King chuckled softly. “You mean to say that my sons deeply underestimated their sister.” Though well past his sixtieth year, the monarch sat tall and straight in his throne and showed no real signs of aging beyond the white in his hair and beard. “Who slew their planted assassins for her?”
“Umm…” The Royal Steward found his tongue uncooperative as he bit back surprise over how casually his liege was handling the news. “So far as can be determined, the Princess executed them herself.”
A raised eyebrow. “Executed?”
“She… her highness left brief letters detailing the crime each servant was accused of and her sentence. She signed each of them.”
Devon’s chuckles exploded into belly-shaking laughter. “My little girl is all grown up, and ready to compete with her brothers it seems!”
The Royal Steward kept his head bowed so as not to reveal his expression, as he worried that the Eccentric King has finally slipped into the same sort of madness that had been the hallmark of his father’s reign.
“Is there anything else, Steward Tavis?”
“Er, yes, your Majesty… It seems… It would seem that all of the Clockwerk keys are missing, sire. We have no way to change the orders of the Clockwerk soldiers within the castle, save for the Royal Lightning Guard of course.”
For the first time since the Royal Steward had entered his chambers, the King adopted a serious expression. “Truly?”
“Yes, your Majesty.” The grey haired man tried not to cringe as he delivered what he expected to be poorly received news, though the King’s response shouldn’t have surprised him at this point.
More laughter rang through the Royal Chambers as Devon nearly lost his seat this time. “Oh my daughter Lena, BRILLIANTLY done girl. I hope for a bit of diversion and you offer me the show of a lifetime! I should have done this years ago!”
The Royal Steward remained in his kneeling position for quite some time as the King continued to laugh, finally receiving a wave of dismissal that allowed him to retreat from the room. The grey haired man fled as quickly as decorum would allow, trying to push down the terror he felt at the idea of another truly insane monarch and focus on simpler problems. Like an impending civil war. That should be plenty to focus on for the immediate future.