Chapter One

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Soft chords of the Elentain emanated from inside the small inn, filling the night with the lively sounds of the eastern watches. The inn was located near the middle of the small town, filled with patrons from all across the empire, and boasting the tenth time in as many days that the inn was completely occupied. Sodden travelers dined in woolen garbs and dirt stained boots, troupe members from Tristos—or the Trypt, because there was little that disentangled one from the other—celebrated the coming Tine, and even a few southern bred visitors from the Isles—or perhaps from the exiled land of Panthos, though they would never claim as such—sat with merry looks and the hopes of endless glasses of wine or ale. All of the patrons laughed and dined, danced and drank, together in the small countryside inn. The most notable of patrons were the knights, which claimed namesakes from many of the Vintish nobles; and many of the lesser houses that stood as mere vassals marching under the orders whatever lord they paid homage to, though in one way or another, they all owed allegiance to the king.

Serving girls and squires alike scurried about the small inn fetching bread, butter, barely, and wine for their masters. Whether they fancied themselves knights or merchants, farmers or smithies, if they possessed the coin, they were served all the same. The room was boisterous as a young musician began strumming his lute—an obvious change from the previous bard—singing the songs of old, the songs of love and passion, and the songs of war. Drunken men roared to the tunes, and laughter rang throughout the dining hall as the impoverish times and constant oppressions were forgotten once more, only to be relived come sunup.

A young serving girl moved with a tray full of mead and bread towards one of the larger, more unruly tables full of knights and fighting men that sat near the front of the room. She could not have been more than fourteen years old, with flowing brown hair that hung past her shoulders, and warm green eyes set in the middle of a beautiful oval face. Her hair, though frizzy and unkempt, had a shine to it that most did not notice, including her, but would remain a constant mantra to her ensconced splendor. The young girl’s beauty was nearly lost in the drab wool gown that draped loosely over her thin body, hiding the curves that accompanied her steps into womanhood—shielding her, at least slightly, from the gawking eyes of every privileged man in the realm.

She arrived at the table and started passing out mugs of a deep amber liquid when the knight at the head of the table caught sight of her. “Well, what do we have here, my most noble of fighting men? I seem to glimpse a girl who fancies herself a mule. Come here, girl. Tell me why you cover yourself in such garb; surely you would be more comfortable in an outfit of the serving girls of the Trypt, aye?” the stocky man barked, encouraging the men around him to erupt in accompanying laughter at his strained quip. He turned his mug upside down, emptying the rest of the contents into his gullet; pausing just long enough to finish his drink before spewing out another vicious laugh.

The girl dropped off the last mug and tried to scurry off, but the knight grabbed her hair and pulled her back onto his lap. “And just where do you think you are going, my little muse?” His breath smelled of blood and mead; of the constant and unwavering repugnance that was his every action, his every snort. The stench of it brought bile to her throat, and her every fiber tensed at the unwelcome touch of the drunken knight.

He leaned into her ear and whispered, his voice rasp and awful. “Have you been visited by the red queen yet, girl? For I will have you, whether it be now or later.” He sneered at her as he pushed her off of his lap and to the ground. Her serving tray clattered across the wooden floor as the gang of men fell into a fit of laughter once more.

With haste, she gathered herself up and ran back towards the kitchen. Once she was around the corner and into the hallway that led to the scullery, she pressed her back against the wall and closed her eyes. Fear shook her entire body, and her hands trembled as she attempted to regain her composure.

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