Tasia: the queen of a small country called Atherdale
Saskia: the younger sister of the queen’s brother’s personal guard
Sergei: the queen’s brother’s personal guard
Fastud: the previous employer of Saskia, Sergei, and their brothers (e.g. Ilya/Mikhail)
The palace was a monster of an edifice, looming over Atherdale’s township like Goliath upon David. Saskia could never quite shake off the feeling that there were constant, unblinking eyes trained on her back, narrowed and judgmental, keeping track of every single one of her breaths and every single one of her steps. She wove through pillared corners and ducked past walls fixed with lanterns that cast long, heavy blankets of light interspersed by thin, bluish-black shadows. Every room seemed to be filled with people garbed in silks and jewels, or the scarlet uniforms of busy servants, and the cathedral ceilings sent their voices ricocheting like bullets back into the milling crowd. It was impossible to find a moment of quiet unless you happened to have years of experience of sneaking around gildings and ducking into the dusty, dusky corners of the palace that these aristocrats seemed to revile.
Today, though, Saskia did not want to hide. She was tired. She wanted to let the musky air, scented with a combination of perfume, cologne, and the fragrance of old brick, fill her lungs like they would a balloon. She wanted to dissolve into a thousand tiny fragments that would be carried off by the wind, spreading to each and every corner of each and every room. It was in this haze of thoughts and silence that she found herself nearly colliding with someone tall and dressed in what felt like daggers, someone who grabbed her shoulders and stood her upright.
Someone who looked unfortunately like the Queen herself.
Saski’s eyes grew round and her heart dropped to her stomach; even her breath stilled. She suddenly realized with a terrible urgency, that she should drop into—what was it, a curtsy? A bow? And then, as she struggled into the position, found that the Queen was still holding her rather tightly, and with an expression torn between confusion and concern.
In the end, all she managed was a strangled attempt at, “Your majesty,” as the manicured nails keeping her up gingerly let go, dropping back to rest against the lap of a long, white gown, glinting with embedded strands of crystal.
Her cheeks burned as the Queen’s gaze sharpened, skimming over her with all the ease of someone used to being in awkward situations, always the center of them but never the victim herself. Finally, her berry-red lips parted and in a voice that was both soft and self-assured, much too spry to belong to a person of her position and yet, laced with all the imperiousness of a ruler, she said: “You shouldn’t be walking around here with your head in the clouds.”
The silence between them was long and pregnant; Saskia couldn’t think of anything to say back but finally settled on scuffing her toe against the polished tile, and then immediately felt like a fool for intentionally dirtying such a clean floor. “I’m sorry, your Highness.”
There was no reply. Her eyes drifted up to meet her Majesty’s scarlet gaze, distant and calculating all at the same time, before quickly looking back down. Still, there was a familiarity there that she couldn’t place. Her thoughts were interrupted by the Queen’s musical voice, this time staging an inquiry. “You’re Sergei’s sister, aren’t you?”
“The one and only,” she replied lamely, her hands clasped behind her back. She wondered what he would say, if he found out that she’d nearly walked into the lady that owned this palace, this town, this country. She didn’t think he’d be too happy.
“Saskia.” Her Royal Highness clarified, lashes fluttering as though it had taken her deep concentration to summon her name. Saskia’s look of surprise must have been enough of an answer, for Queen Tasia’s lips tugged to one corner of her mouth in a smirk of mild, but tangible self-satisfaction.
“That’s right, your Highness.”
“I know,” she replied, her right palm splaying flat against the gown to smooth out some nonexistent wrinkles. “He talks about you sometimes.”
“He does?” Saskia tugged at her sleeves, altogether unsure of what to do with her hands, which had at first been crossed (but that had been too defensive) and then lay straight at her sides (soon discovering how uncomfortable a position it was.) “Good things, I hope.”
“Good things,” the Queen said, and for a moment it wasn’t clear if she was just repeating Saskia’s words or confirming Saskia’s hopes, but as she agonized over this new predicament, the Queen was already moving past her and towards hallway behind them. She debated turning her head to watch the royal glide away but then decided it would look too much like she was keeping her eyes on a dangerous animal, though she wasn’t entirely sure that Queen Tasia Tyrneamitore was anything else.
“Yes, your highness!” Saskia jumped to attention, whirling around on the ball of her foot and then slouching in embarrassment. She’d probably looked pathetically eager, like Mikhail when he was about to play a prank on Ilya (though it was bound to backfire.)
“Walk with me.” The Queen lifted her chin, meeting Saskia’s jade gaze with her own, the color of roses blooming in the springtime. Saskia opened her mouth to protest and then realized—this was the empress. If she wanted a companion to walk with her… she would have a companion. And it wasn’t like Saskia could come up with a good excuse, not when she’d so obviously had her “head in the clouds” only moments before. It was at that moment that it dawned on her, where she’d seen eyes like those of Tasia Tyrneamitore; that same hardness, the same icy, aloof cold flourished in the blank gaze of Wyur Fastud. Their first employer. The man who had nearly sent them to their deaths, then saved their skins and Vali’s.
“Yes, your Majesty.” She said finally, jogging forward to catch up to the Queen.